Making My Own Magic: The Healing Power of Imaginative Play

Many who know me believe my life is magical, that the shadows of my childhood have been banished. And in some ways, they’re right. My adult life has been enchanted: a long marriage to my best companion, glasses of wine, beloved friends, grandbaby toes and giggles under my roof, puppy kisses, wonderful books, all that stuff. My life seems pretty charmed.

It’s got some darkness, too. There’s some Maleficent energy to counteract the Aurora sparkle. All authentically lived lives are that way; anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t living in truth. Sometimes, we’re floating above the trees, but other times we’re mired in the muck of life’s sorrow.

Maybe the most fantastically and imaginatively magical part of my span here on this beautiful orb called Earth has been the fairy element; yes, I have been a fairy, the professional kind who gets paid to don wings and glitter and charm the public. Bruises have been suffered from the weight of wings. Tears of “smile fatigue” have been shed. Knees have suffered from kneeling to the level of a four-year-old’s bright face to hear a sweet whisper.

In the early years of my fae life, I embodied the nymph Nimue in a silver dress that was a replica of Drew Barrymore’s in Ever After and a crown so tall it caught on the tree limbs from which I attempted to enter a fog-laced stage. The actor playing Merlin cackled under his breath as he surreptitiously disentangled me as I sang.

I walked the gravel paths of the Renaissance festival where I worked as two queens of literature and myth: Mab of Celtic lore, and Titania of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Every day, I donned wings and glitter, accessorized with a pouch full of glass stones to give as favors to the small children who timidly approached all day for a little dollop of fairy enchantment. Each morning, I danced with abandon, spinning and skipping to the most delicate and playful music played by flute, cello, and harp; as I twirled, the sun glinted off my shimmery wings, the iridescent cobalt blue silk I wore shifting and changing colors.  Those moments of abandon reminded me of being a little girl twirling in my front yard until I was so dizzy I lay down to watch the azure sky spinning above me. You only get those kinds of moments in your adulthood when you decide to stop worrying about being respectable and start allowing joy to inhabit you.

In the Quiet Time, that period when my throat was silenced by a vocal cord injury, I created a fairy persona, Hush, a playful sprite who collected found sparkly things, magpie-like, and spoke only with my hands and face or the musical toots from my little pottery ocarina. Being a fairy, as an adult, gave me a voice and the chance to revisit the little girl who had struggled and been so lonely. Hush, Mab, Titania, and Nimue blessed me with an opportunity, undergirded by the security of knowing I was surrounded by family and friends, to play. It’s like that scene in Stephen Spielberg’s movie Hook when the Lost Boys try to get the adult Peter Pan to cut loose with them: they play, and he just takes a ball to the gut. Once he has been in Neverland long enough, though, and remembers the love of his children back home, he can play. And fly.

Dragons and Time Clocks

About five years ago, I stopped playing. Packed away the costumes that represented characters I had inhabited, stopped auditioning for plays and musicals, just settled down. Settled into the organizational tasks of my job without the relieving balance of fun, whether at work or on my off time. Though these days, I play tag and peekaboo with my grandkids, those games, while special because of the giggles and memories of their baby laughter, don’t stimulate brain and activate my body in a challenging, restorative way.

I went looking for information about adult play, not expecting to find much there. Who, after all, believes that playing is an important part of adult life? It turns out: a lot of people, including mental health professionals.

“Play is being joyfully immersed in the moment, and as adults, we rarely do that.In a way, it is an active form of mindfulness, which is widely recommended and advocates being present and in the moment. Mindfulness has been proven to alleviate anxiety and depression. Studies also suggest that it can help you manage stress better and maintain a healthy weight,” says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, Professor of Developmental Psychology at New York University.

Not so very long ago, our office (which has undergone major turnover that has rendered the following scenario obsolete) staff kept Nerf guns and tiny catapults at our desks. It was not unusual for spontaneous battles to break out, and wild laughter would fill the empty spaces between desks and meetings as we bonded and decompressed. Our staff felt more like a team back then. Playing in our offices as well as in our personal time helps us to feel better. It keeps us sane and healthy and happy. It helps us to connect in an authentic way with others. Imagination and play defeat the dragons of boredom and isolation, at work and at home.

Once Upon A Time…

I was my own Tinkerbell. Nothing more magical than that. I learned to play, and to fly, and to trust my own inner voice; the restored voice that can sing or speak truth, even when intertwined with the snares and branches of the expectations or foibles of others. I developed the strength and power to face down dragons, the real ones: family trauma, addiction, loss. I’ve lost touch with that power, though.

So here’s my magic spell, distilled from all the little tokens ever given to me by children who believed: don the tulle. Swing the wooden sword. Wear the wings. Write the poem. Find friends who will play and make the magic happen with you. Speak the truth. It’s all love, and that’s what we need most to vanquish the sinister shadows.

What do you do to play?

https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/adults-need-recess-too-here-s-why-you-should-make-ncna887396

How Will They Remember You?

Sometimes, when you’re writing about your trauma, you discover that you’re not as alone as you might have thought. You are blessed to find others who have walked in pain and found ways out of it into the sun. Nancy is one of those women. A mental health professional with her own history of struggle, she shared this story of discovering how her relationship with her daughter and granddaughter could be healed by asking a simple, painful question.

I just turned 50 a few days ago. As I spent my last day being 49, I had thought to myself, “ I want to just enjoy my last day of officially being young.”  Each morning as I look into the mirror, I see more grey hairs lining my forehead, longer lines outlining the corners of my eyes, and dark circles underneath my once bright green irises. I notice more frequent trips to the hairdresser to brighten me up with sassy, energetic, red hues that polish up the emeralds underneath my eyelids. While I attempt to justify the more frequent visits, I also look at my hair, face, and skin, and see the tiredness. I feel my body ache and they are all reminders that I am no longer young. I have raised my daughter, have peaked in my career, and much rather enjoy a slow and quiet life.

I woke up on August 1, 2020, my fiftieth birthday,  imagining myself as a tall person, walking away from my life, with my head turned away as if something really great had just happened. And I really wanted to know, how will they remember me? 

I have spent a half a century trying to rush life, and thinking how nothing I have done seems to  ever be good enough. Things have never been good enough for me, and I think I often pushed my need for perfection on to my daughter Briana, and also on my little grandmonster, Trinity. 

I remember sitting at the dining room table one day when Briana was about 11, struggling with her math homework. I will never forget the sting of the only words I remember from that conversation. As I towered over her, she looked up at me with tears drowning her eyes  and said, “Mom, I don’t have to be perfect! Why do I always have to be perfect?” I am not sure if those were her exact words, but those are the only words I heard. 

I felt a heaviness in my chest that I had never felt before. I realized in that moment I was passing my inadequacies about myself on to my daughter. My need for perfection was being poured into her heart. And when I looked into her eyes, I knew I was hurting her. 

I still see her face looking at me today every time I ride her hard, or when she says to me, “Mom, nothing I say or do is ever good enough for you.” 

I don’t want to leave this world with her last thought of me being that she didn’t think I believed she was good enough. 

The truth is, she is beyond good enough. She has become who I never was. She is the opposite of me. I am emotional and sensitive. She is able to brush things off. She is patient and I am not. She cares little about what people think of her, yet I harshly struggle coping with rejection. 

One evening in 2018, I was meditating and reading my Bible and came across a scripture I had read a million times. But it never spoke to me the way it did that evening. 

I had prayed before opening my Bible, as I usually do, and asked God to show me whatever He wanted me to learn. 

“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4, NKJV

As I laid sprawled across my bed, staring at those words on the page, I heard this voice ask me, “What makes her angry?” I stopped for a moment. It was one of those moments where the air was thick yet light. It covered my body almost as if someone was breathing on me. 

I answered the voice back and said, “but, God, I don’t know.” As I answered God, burning tears began pouring down my face. My stomach ached. My feet ached. 

My entire body went  numb.

My daughter was in the living room and she and I had just had a conversation about Trinity. At the time, Trinny was in Ohio with her other grandmother. Briana was contemplating allowing Trinity to stay in Ohio for the school year. For some, this would be wonderful. But, at the age of 6, Trinny had already had such a hard life because her father had left, and she had watched her mom be abused for her entire life. 

I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to stay so far away. It was too far from Trinny’s familiar life. But, Briana is Trinny’s mom. And no matter what fight we were fighting, Briana is her mom and I had to accept that. 

She is so grown up now, struggling, but she is still the opposite of me. And Trinny. My sweet little Trinny is even more different than both of us. Such a sweet, special, unique personality. Trinny has a tender, sensitive heart, is smart, and is a bit too aware of things around her. 

The memories of the phone call I received one late evening when Trinny was about 3 will never leave me. Calvin, my ex husband called and told me I had to get over to Briana’s right away. Since this was not a regularly occurring phone call, especially from him, I grabbed my purse, hobbled to my car, and sped over to Briana’s house. Since I have osteoarthritis, pain in my right knee prevents me from walking up the stairs much. 

However, that evening, somehow some type of super powers flooded my body and when I arrived, I flew out of my car an ran upstairs to her apartment. 

In the middle of the living room, there was Trinny pedaling on her little stationary bike, oblivious to the shouting and arguing going on around her. In my experience as a mental health counselor, I knew immediately she was used to this. She had witnessed this a million times. 

Against Briana’s begging and pleading, I scooped up Trinny, and flew downstairs with her in my arms, terrified her father was going to follow me. My heart was racing so fast I could barely breathe. Hands shaking, my fingers fumbled finding the locks for the doors. I peeled away in my car and rushed home. 

Trinny didn’t saw a word. 

When we got to my house, we snuggled and went to sleep. However, my mind was racing a million miles an hour. It was difficult falling asleep, and I didn’t want Trinny to know how afraid I was, or how anxious I felt inside. 

When I closed my eyes,my thoughts turned to God. I hadn’t been to church in a million years. But I remembered Him at that moment. 

The last thought in my mind before I fell asleep was, “I cannot keep her safe. But I know someone who can.”

It was then that Trinny and I developed a very special bond. We began attending church faithfully every Sunday. Not only did we attend church, but we worshiped in the car together. She began staying at home with me in the evenings, and for the next 8 months while her father was incarcerated, I was her care taker. One Sunday at church, I’m not sure where it was coming from, but that voice spoke to me and asked for her to have her eyes and ears prayed for – that her eyes and ears be protected from the rest of the world. 

And they were. Still, she seems lost sometimes. Because I eventually left our church, I feel guilty and responsible, thinking that it is my fault she no longer has God in her life. Sometimes I feel I robbed her of that and that it was my responsibility to ensure that the seeds of beauty and love continued to be planted and watered inside of her. She no longer wants to snuggle with me and ask me in her sweet soft voice, “Nana, can I lay on you?” as she would lay next to me, with her thumb in her mouth, her Bottie (blanket) next to her, with her head on my shoulders, so peaceful. 

Those days are gone. 

As I enter a new era of my life, I cannot help but ask, “How will they remember me?”

Will they remember me by the light I carry inside of me? Or will they remember me because I never took the time to let them just … be? 

Will God remember me and the nights I prayed out and cried for them in private? Will He show them how much I loved them or share with them the conversations He and I had? 

They will remember me as always being there when they needed something. But I don’t think they will remember that I stopped what I was doing because work was more important. And I don’t think they will remember me asking, “Can you share with me why you are angry?” Or telling them, “I want to understand so that I can love you the way you need to be loved.” 

Yet they carried on in their lives being happy and being the mommy and daughter that I had only dreamed of. 

I don’t want to be remembered with regret. When I woke up on my 50th birthday, I realized that life is like writing a series of storybooks. When one is story is finished, another one begins. 

And while I have been seeking the answer to the question, “What is my purpose?” God put the answer in front of me 30 years ago when Briana was born. He already wrote that story. I just never took that book off of the shelf to read it to her.

Sometimes we focus so much on things we want that we don’t take the time to realize that everything we need is right in front of us. We don’t always take the time to ask our children, “What makes you angry?” They have bad days just like we do. And they have hurtful life experiences that are no less painful than our own. 

We don’t need to wait until we are 50 to ask ourselves, “How will they remember me?” And, if we are still alive to answer that question, then we have the opportunity to not only write that story, but to live it. 

When I see Trinny today being so patient, waiting for me to tear myself away from my work to spend time playing a game with her, it tears my heart up with guilt. She is 8 years old now. The things that are important in her life are the things that have always been important. “Don’t provoke her to be angry. Sit down and spend time with her. Read her the Bible, or play some worship music and sing together the way you used to.” 

And when I see my daughter being so thoughtful of me, I can’t stop wondering, “How will she remember me?” Will her memories be of me being the mom she always wanted for her life? 

They say that the last thing we say or do is what people remember most. Did I fuss because Trinny didn’t fold the blankets right, or did I take the time away from my computer to play a game with her when she asked? Did I tell Briana, “I am proud of you for who you are,” or did I take the time to ask either one of them, What makes you angry?” and do everything I could to make sure I didn’t? Did I take the time to teach them about God’s love and the importance of faith? 

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

The thought of leaving behind any memory or legacy other than, “She loved God and her light shined upon every life that crossed her path,” pains me. 

Life gets busy. Priorities get rearranged. Ultimately we take life for granted. Before we know it, we are reflecting upon the old cliche that “life goes too fast.”  

I am grateful God allowed me to see another day. I am even more grateful that He speaks to me. That I’ve told Briana and Trinny how I love them and am proud of them. 

And, I suppose, when I look in the mirror and see the gray and the lines of my aging life, I can embrace them rather than reflect on all of the things I should have done and didn’t.

Today, I got a phone call from Briana saying, “Trinny wants to know if she can come over,” and I wondered to myself, “What does she REALLY want?” I smiled. She just wanted me to do what I said I was going to do. She just wanted to know that something that was important to her was also important to someone else. 

I stopped what I was doing, We ordered her school supplies. And just like we did when she was 3, and 4, and 5, and  6, we got into the car, and I played a new worship song for her. She laid her head down, put her thumb in her mouth, and peacefully fell asleep. 

And if anything happened to me today, that is exactly how they would remember me. 

***

Nancy Richardson has her Master’s degree in Adult Education with Human Services Counseling from the University of Wisconsin- Platteville, and a BS in Psychology from Upper Iowa University.

She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor. She currently does intensive in-home therapy for children and their families.

She has been an addictions counselor since 2005, and a dual diagnosis therapist since 2015. During her career, she worked very closely with the opioid population.

Her work includes writing grants, increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, improving treatment protocols, and improving quality of care.

While working on these projects and while working with her clients, Nancy discovered her purpose in her life. She is often called “The Hope Dealer” and has made it her personal mission to never let anyone walk away from therapy without hope.

You can find her work at https://trinityshopellc.com/

Starting at the End: Owning the Remnant of Our Trauma

I am really glad to share the words and work of mental health professional and fellow blogger, Hannah Siller. She and I share some common life experiences: traumatic childhoods, addicted parents, fractured sibling relationships. Coming from trauma doesn’t sentence us to sitting in pain, though. There is, in everyone’s story, an opportunity for redemption, for repair, for reclaiming who we are in our very deepest souls. I hope you’ll be encouraged by Hannah’s story:

To start at the beginning is too complex. This isn’t a bedtime story that can begin with a “Once upon a time” and end with an “And they lived happily ever after”. Trauma is messy, living in an abusive and toxic environment is messy. Those who have been allowed to glimpse these less pretty parts of my life often say it would make a great movie or book. I guess in some ways they would be right, but it’s not that simple. To know the past I endured doesn’t get anyone any closer in knowing the me that I am now. For a person that has experienced prolonged types of trauma such as childhood abuse, there is this permanent change that happens. We are our past, but at the same time, we are also our journey to heal. This is a process that is continuous and is lifelong. But if that is the case then where would one consider to be the end of their story? Where would I set the last chapter of a book or the final scene of a movie? Searching for this answer kept me from really telling my story. But then it found me. So instead I’m going to start at the end, or at least what I consider to be the end of my trauma story. 

The summer of 2018 was kind of a big-time in my life. I had just graduated with my master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis in trauma and crisis and was figuring out what my next steps would be. A lot of defining moments would come from this summer, but for this entry, we will focus on just one, Jess. Jess had been the daughter of my dad’s girlfriend for a good part of my younger years. The four of us lived together, Jess and I were raised as sisters. Our parents’ relationship was problematic, as they were both drug dealers and users. With a relationship like that comes many issues of violence and potential legal problems. It ended in epic fashion with her mother in jail and my father not. Emotions in both families were high, for obvious reasons, and Jess and I were separated and kept apart, forcibly at times.

Given that this was far before the internet was commonplace and social media was yet to exist, there was little I could do to connect. Once I reached adulthood, even with these means, so much time had passed it was near impossible to even know where to look. But it was Jess, and I had to try. Every few months I would spend a late-night scrolling through Facebook for a lead, occasionally messaging someone who looked similar to her mother or who had her name. For years I did this with no luck. Then on August 19th, 2018, I tried one last time. The next morning, I received a response. After almost 30 years I had found Jess and she was once again in my life.

Our relationship wouldn’t be the forever I had wanted, but that is a story for another time. At the moment I had found a missing piece of my life. It’s impossible to completely explain all of the emotions I experienced during this reunion, but what I can say with certainty is that the experience changed me. Suddenly I found a connection between my past and my present that I never had before. Growing up in an abusive environment like I had, there is this question you tend to ask yourself, who would I be if I had never had to endure such pain? Being around Jess answered that for me. There were these times she would comment “oh that’s my Hannah” as if she almost expected me to do or say exactly what I just did. It would take me by surprise that this person who had been so long removed from my life still knew me so well. Somehow through all of the bad stuff I still at my core retained who I really was. Maybe in a different environment, I would have had more opportunities or chosen a different career path, but as far as the root of my being I was always this person.

I gained closure from this relationship. Jess set straight things about myself and my life that no one else could. She had experienced so much of the same things I did in those early years. She could confirm the memories of events I had and allow me to discuss the pain of these events with complete understanding. But most importantly I found that the love I had carried for her was the same she had carried for me. Through everything, I went through there was one person out there that loved me and thought of me and to whom I was important. By finding Jess I was finally able to find an ending of my trauma story. My past will always have a degree of influence over me but the story and the pain from that part of my life is officially over.  

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*Names are modified to protect the identity of the individuals discussed. Please respect the privacy of these individuals and refrain from posting additional information.

* I have worked hard to heal from my past through professional therapy and personal growth. Over the years I have become comfortable enough to start using this story in public speaking events and as a major part of my writing. Writing about personal trauma can be very triggering and is not recommended for those still working through trauma unless instructed to do so by a mental health professional.

About the Author

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After pursuing a career as a clinical counselor for at-risk youth, I made the important decision to go back to school. I am currently working towards my Doctorate in psychology, which I hope to find better trauma preventions and PTSD treatments. My spare time is devoted to my business Serene Life Consulting, which provides life coaching, public speaking survives, and is home to home to my blog. Like in all areas of my life, the purpose of my writing is to bring mental health education and an inspirational message to others. My dream is to continue this message throughout my life in everything I do. From teaching to publishing a book to research, I just want to make everything I lived through count. 

To check out more of Hannah’s work including Life Coaching Services and her current blogging project “Diary of a Trauma Survivor” see her website:

https://sillercounseling.com/

serenelifeconsulting.com  

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Scaling the Rock of Disappointment: Tales of Coronavirus Setbacks

“What do you do when disappointment comes? When it weighs on you like a rock, you can either let it press you down until you become discouraged, even devastated, or you can use it as a stepping-stone to better things.”– Joyce Meyer

Yesterday, while on my walk, the word “Disappointment” was dropped into my head and heart as if by some Divine force. Sometimes, that’s how my life works, God lays a bread crumb trail to where I’m needed. I followed the crumbs to Facebook, where I asked people to share their experiences of disappointment. Nearly twenty hours later, I am still getting pings on Messenger, and the stories have brought me to tears.

I’ll start with mine.

I have, for two consecutive years, been interviewing to work with the Disney Corporation in a department so perfectly suited to my talents, training, and experience that it might have been created specifically for me: to host in the student field trip program at Disneyland in Anaheim. Last year, I got so close to a job offer that I put myself on a waiting list for a spot at a long-term camping resort just a couple of miles from the park, and, in an attempt to put manifestation to work for a dream, I wrote a blog post that I never got to publish to announce my new position:

“And so here I am. I am about to leave for Anaheim, where I will spend my days with student groups, taking everything I have learned about teaching and classroom management as well as all the skills I honed running the School Days program at Texas Renaissance  Festival to walk alongside them in the most magical place I know. I will get to share my love of theatre and my love of Mickey Mouse. I don’t know if this will be a forever career or a seasonal one, but I have spent enough time among seasonal festival business people to have no fear of the unknown.”

It is only slightly comforting to know that the coronavirus would have halted the dream. Had I gotten the job and toodled my tiny camper to Cali only to be sent home like all the frontline Disney employees were in April, the knowledge that I had gotten the offer, that I had done the work for a couple of months, that I would have a place waiting for me when the virus had run its course, does not dampen the tremendous sense of disappointment.

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It is likely that this year I would have gotten an offer in September. No more. The parks are barely functioning, schools are unlikely to open as normal this fall. Budgets on both ends of this equation are stripped to their bare minimums. I may be able to postpone this dream for one more year, perhaps September of 2021 will bring me an offer.  But damn, it has been excruciating to examine that dream, then stash it in the box on my highest closet shelf, a  clear plastic bin full of Mickey ears, souvenir pins, and my name tag from the Disney leadership summit I attended in 2018.

Disappointment.

A dear friend of our family, a young woman I held when she was just three days old, graduated from high school this June. We had watched all her posts of spinning flags in her school’s corps, her photos of banquets in pretty gowns, her braces on, then her gleaming, perfect smile when the braces came off. She didn’t get her prom, her graduation was weird. I had a hoodie custom made for her to wear at her university this fall, but her family is not even sure what university life will look like- will she get to move into the dorm, attend Fish Camp, pledge a club? Disappointment.

A friend miscarried at 7. 5 weeks, but because of Covid didn’t have access to in-person medical care until her 13th week, when an ultrasound revealed a gestational sac that had stopped growing. With only virtual visits and a revolving door of doctors, her diagnosis was missed, and what was meant to be a Father’s Day announcement of a new baby became instead a D-and-C. Profound, heart-wrenching disappointment.

My friends have lost dream careers, canceled long-awaited family reunions, foregone first-baby showers, and summer camps. They’re scared they’ll lose their aging parents during this awful time when they cannot say goodbye except through a video app on the phone or computer. One is, in fact, watching her mother die and she can’t say goodbye in person. A couple have lost close family members and could not seek the comfort of ritual and family to sustain them in their grief.

One of the strongest women I know wrote:

“This pandemic has caused great grief and managed to unbottle all previous grief. Nowhere to go, no outlet to channel it, it just keeps crashing over and over again.
The riptide has taken me and all I can do is keep calm, hold my breath, get my bearings, and try to swim even with the shore or the wave will win.”

Disappointment.

It starts early in our lives and comes in big packages and small. A birthday party rained out, a cancer surgery unsuccessful. A cake is dry, a parent abuses. Disappointment may be mild, it can be devastating. And we all know that the very worst critique we can receive from a parent, teacher, or boss is, “I’m disappointed in you.”

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Disappointment is something we humans must wrestle with, though thankfully, not constantly. Even in a challenging, dark life, there are glorious moments when we get the part we auditioned for, when healthy babies are born, when the movies we’ve anticipated are as good as we’d hoped. Medical tests come back with favorable results, apologies are offered and accepted, the sun shines on the wedding day; simple kindnesses like bread shared or a letter received bring just a glimmer of joy.

I have learned that the best way to overcome disappointment is first, acknowledge that it’s there. We can’t deal with what we’re too afraid or ashamed to name. Share the burden of it with a friend. Let them share with you as well.

Next, we look inward, which requires a commitment to gentle but honest self-examination. I used to believe in rigorous, unflinching self-examination, but that only led to being hypercritical of myself, unforgiving and unwilling to grant grace for my own failures. To grow in grace, to be honest about my own disappointments, to acknowledge when I have disappointed others, I listen. I seek wisdom from those who are living lives that shine, sometimes in the form of conversations with trusted mentors, frequently in podcasts, constantly in books.

Spend time in fresh air. For me, this is to walk or ride my bicycle or, when rheumatoid arthritis is wracking, to sit. To settle among birds, dragonflies, and breeze is healing. I do not know that there is a way to live in spiritual or mental health unless one gets outside. When I am among the trees and grass, I have my best ideas, I lay plans and untangle the knots in my thinking. And I am, thank all that is good and wholesome, not mindlessly scrolling the swamp that Facebook can become.

Express the disappointment, if it lives in the shadows and crevices of your heart, it will fester. I write. Every day, every morning. I write by hand, two to three pages. It is a practice that has become as necessary as air. I used to think it was my daily orange juice that got me going in the morning; I know for many folks, it’s their first cup of coffee. But for me, spending thirty minutes writing before I dive into my day has been life-changing. The words are uncensored and inelegant, a nearly-illegible scrawl. I ponder and process feminine spirituality, I list things I am grateful for, I articulate dreams, I unpack the worries that are plaguing me. I have been sleeping better since I began this writing practice, I think it’s vital.

To look outward, though, that is the final stepping stone to lay on our path to healing and mental health. We can’t look outward in a way that compares our own suffering or disappointments to others’, on that path exists only bitterness or pride; there will always be someone who has it better and someone who has it worse. Our disappointment is ours, and it is valid. No, what I mean by “looking outward” is simply this: look for ways to serve, to heal. Write letters. Call a lonely friend or elder person who lives alone. Sew masks and distribute them to the less fortunate. Listen to the stories of the unheard. Deliver meals. Discover your gift then ply it to plug joy back into the connected race that is all of us. Set your sights on the restoration of the soul of humanity.

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Photo by Nacho Juárez on Pexels.com

These actions serve to nourish and defend against the sharpest nettles of disappointment. They are stones that can be stacked, one beside and above the other, to forge a path that leads us out of today’s disappointment and ahead to tomorrow’s blessing. It’s hard to see sometimes. But stillness followed by service can be a gorgeous way forward. The inimitable Marilyn Monroe once said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” I love that. Our world is falling apart. Perhaps we will build something better, both in a global sense and a deeply personal one.

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How a Green Dress and Kindness from a Teacher Saved Me After Sex Abuse

“As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her.”

Trigger warning: there is a description of a child’s sexual encounter.

Hiding behind the house, between the brick wall and the wooden privacy fence…summer air… evening fresh…crickets chirping…and these words: “If you don’t let me, I won’t be your friend, and no one else will, either.” At the age of seven, my neighbor, Donny, who was my same age and size, convinced me to let him put his penis in me and stick his tongue in my mouth. With his little brother and all his friends watching. In fact, he liked it so much the first time that he came back for a couple of repeats; and I, who was so desperately lonely, was too afraid to lose one of my only friends to say no.

After the negotiations were concluded, Donny and his friends led me behind my house, and he made me pull my pants down. I couldn’t look up, I just stared at the feet of the boys. I had seen boy penises before, I had two little brothers after all, but theirs had never been erect, and they’d never been near my own skin. I let him put his penis into the space between my naked legs as he stuck his tongue in my mouth and enacted adult sex. He didn’t really understand where the penis went, so he slid it between the lips of my genitals, and it felt wrong somehow. Even with absolutely no knowledge of what sex is, no prior instruction or indoctrination, I believe human children instinctively sense a problem. I believe their spirits rebel against the aberration of sexual exposure. Mine did, and it felt shame.

If I close my eyes, I still see his face, with its button nose, freckles, and missing teeth. His hair was light brown. I can sense shadows of the boys who were encircling us, serving as witnesses and guards.

I can only assume he’d witnessed his own parents having sex. Or worse, saw porn in his house.

I remember when I found out that all the neighbors knew. Donny’s neighbor Karen was my age, and I knocked on her door, which her mom answered. “Can Karen play?” I asked. Karen’s mom simply glared and answered, “Karen is not allowed to play with girls like you.” She called me “nasty,” then she slammed the door in my face. Of course, I knew what she meant because I carried the shame in body, mind, and spirit.

Donny’s brother had tattled, so he told his parents that I was the one who forced him, not the other way around. As a result, I spent the next year in nearly complete isolation. I rode my purple bicycle with the banana seat around the block or down to the elementary school playground, but I never got off and dropped my bike in a friend’s driveway so we could play. I never rode bikes in a cluster of loud, boisterous, giggling girls.

I had always been quiet and preferred playing with just one or two friends, but this isolation was different. It was forced, it was ongoing, and it was complete. It’s when I started really knowing true loneliness and hushed days.

There was just one house where I was welcome. Our next-door neighbors were older folks, probably in their seventies. I remember white hair and a white mustache, and a kind spirit. His wife rarely came outside, but she did send out snacks. All the neighbors called the gentleman “Grandpa,” though he was none of our biological grandparent, for he filled the role for the neighborhood kids. He kept a pool table in his garage, which was a safe haven for me; I was never kicked out of that room. Occasionally, I asked Grandpa how to hold the cue stick, and he helped me hit the ball. I remember the click-click of the billiard balls striking each other. It’s a sound that, to this day, puts me right back in that garage, next door to my lonely house and my tainted back yard.

Grandpa had a tree in his front yard, a locust, which grew long brown bean pods. I used to climb into the tree and eat the hard little beans, observing the other kids as they played. I spent a lot of time in that tree. It was safe. The garage was safe. Grandpa was safe.

I began drawing with my pencil, little naked figures of anatomically correct boys and girls, with pointed penises and sharp clefts. I kicked the dog. I hid the drawings. These were the first inklings of my rage– not a cute, prissy, toddler-style anger expressed with pursed lips, but a violent and potent fury which was almost always turned back on my own self.

Incurlers: A Vintage Hair Rollers Buying Guide

I felt compelled to punish myself. I can’t explain it, really, it didn’t come out of clear and methodical planning, but out of gut-level, molecular shame: I began to insert hair curlers into my vagina. These were not smooth plastic ones, they were made of wire and had some sort of sharp plastic prickles around them. Wincing, with eyes teary, I would push them up inside me, which was not easy. My skin and muscles rejected the intrusion, and I forced myself to hold them there for about thirty minutes. When I drug them out of me, they were always covered with blood and mucus.

There was another place where I sensed love: from my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover. She set up a classroom store where students used good behavior reward coupons to shop for treats, it opened for business once a week. Early in the year, my eyes fell upon a beautiful dress. It was a soft minty green with a fitted bodice and full tulle and organza skirt (I didn’t know any of that vocabulary as a seven-year-old, but I surely recognized beauty). The bodice had satin piping in three rows around the rib cage. It had been donated by someone’s mom, but as far as I was concerned it was delivered by an angel, sent as a gift from the Almighty God, just for me.

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I started saving my behavior coupons like they were the very link to life itself. I was always a well-behaved child, so it was no struggle at all to mind my manners, take out my Mysterious Wisteria reader when told, and tidy my messes. I was quiet, though, and my extra special efforts could easily have been overlooked. When you’re good and always quiet anyway, sometimes teachers forget to notice you when they are busy corralling the noisy troublemakers who shoot rubber bands across the room, make fart noises during phonics instruction, or don’t clean up after themselves at the art table. But Mrs. Hoover saw me and quietly set coupons on my desk for my goodness.

Each Friday when the class store opened, my classmates cashed in their coupons for pencils, Hot Wheels, or stickers. I held my breath and watched the green dress. My teacher watched me watch the green dress. After months of waiting and saving, I had enough coupons for it. 43 years later, I remember the moment it became mine. Mrs. Hoover beamed when I gave her my tickets, and I carried it home on a cloudy, gray winter day, holding it gingerly for all six blocks until I got to our little home.

This dress became the inspiration for years of imaginary play: princess, queen, debutante, wife, singing star, all enacted alone in my room wearing my heavenly mint green dress. It remains the most enchanted single item I remember from childhood, that gown scattered little bits of fairy dust over my wounded, solitary spirit until it eventually fell into tattered pieces.

I wish I was not so hurt by this story– I know there are so many women and girls who have endured violent rape. By comparison, my story seems tame, it was a kid my own size, for God’s sake. Indeed, in my telling of my experience with Donny as a middle-aged woman, there have been some who didn’t understand the trauma, who compared it to adult sexual molestation and thought that because the perpetrator was a child, rather than a trusted relative or adult, that it really should not count. They have said, “You were too young to even know what sex was, how could it have affected you so? It couldn’t possibly have.” Dismissed.change 2

Except that I suffered. I really did: isolation, fear, and an awareness of sexuality long before I was old enough. Blood and mucus. Shame. Sexual shame, yes, but just as debilitating and maybe more insidious is the shame of letting him. Many, many people who have been molested talk about this particular shame, and they were likely molested by a full-sized adult who had the physical strength to force them. I said yes to a boy my own size, not because he had strength on his side, but because I feared loneliness. Oh, and underpinning it all was the understanding that boys get to dictate what girls do with their bodies. I learned that if I said no, I would lose my few friends. I said yes, and I lost them anyway.

Though I didn’t realize the lessons I’d internalized, they informed most of the rest of my life, up until about my fortieth birthday. I didn’t ever think of myself as a virgin. I did think of myself as a slut. That’s a sad thing; I understood quite well about men and power; and I lived and worshiped in a church culture that placed such a high value on sexual purity that I was terrified I would be banished to hellfire should I perish in a car wreck. As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her nakedness. Even more, now I understand that the Divine One was with me, surrounding me, and in me: feeling the strange, hard little shape between my legs, trembling with fear and pain as I withdrew bloody curlers from inside myself, adoring a gentle and perceptive teacher, donning a discarded prom dress to escape my lonely world, and gently rocking my shameful spirit on its long, long journey to freedom.

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If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, there is help. Here’s a crisis text line, it’s discreet and could be the thing to save someone who’s hurting. https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/sexual-abuse/#understanding-sexual-abuse-1

 

A Life Gone Spectacularly Awry

Have you ever watched the Netflix show “Nailed It!”? It is a burst of silly joy! If you don’t know the show, average folks attempt to recreate beautiful desserts, the sort of unicorn cakes and emoji cupcakes seen on Pinterest; you want to take them to your office holiday party or serve them at your child’s birthday to impress the other moms. These poor intrepid souls are not successful, except in the sense of simply having fun. Their decorations go spectacularly awry, their frosting discolored and fondant misshapen, but it’s convivial fun. The stakes are not, after all, life-and-death.

But right about now, our very existence feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher. It truly is life-and-death.

My fingernails, which are certainly not life-and-death (bear with me), look like garbage: the polish, a pastel pink, is uneven and ridged, bright turquoise peeks through; the shellac I couldn’t soak off, so I tried to just polish over it. The cuticles are either torn or calloused, their edges jagged.

It’s metaphorical. On day 33 of quarantine, my nails are indicative of my life right now. Serrated. Spread too thin. Easily broken. Mottled and ugly.

Our lives have gone spectacularly awry, like recipes ruined by too much salt, budgets blown by loss of income, book drafts lost in an unexpected power outage. If we’re lucky, we are healthy, our loved ones are safe, and we are only contending with isolation and collective worry. If we’re not, we’re burying loved ones from afar or waiting for financial ramifications that may change the very course of our lives. Perhaps enforced enclosure has revealed fault lines in marriages; now it is known that divorce is imminent. Schoolwork that was always a struggle becomes a seemingly, or truly, insurmountable task. Hell, even the daily mundane is beginning to feel impossible. The relentless pile of dirty dishes and laundry to be folded has morphed from annoying to cataclysmic.

On day 25, I had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I stopped talking, curled in my bed whimpering, sleeping, or pretending to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I considered ways to end my life. My husband was, of course, worried. He’s seen this a couple of times before, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a real bitch. I felt guilty for struggling but compelled to stick it out: the crowded, noisy house and the nagging worry that’s resting deep in my soul like, well, like a virus that’s just waiting to be fully awakened.

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I believed I needed permission to leave because I know deep in my bones that my quarantine experience is a walk in the park compared to so many others. My husband gave me that permission I felt I needed to run away into isolation for a couple of days; I am fortunate to have a place where I can escape, a tiny Vintage Cruiser camper, it’s my nest; decorated completely in Mary Poppins themed art and bedding, parked in the woods at one of the festivals where I work, it’s as close as this middle-aged lady with blown knees is ever going to get to treehouse living.

When I left my house, I had only sparkling water. I had stopped eating the day before; A 2:00 sandwich had been my last sustenance before the meltdown. And when I lost it, I had decided I would simply stop eating. It was the only way I thought I could exert control over what was beginning to feel like an existence of lethargic chaos. My husband had fetched TexMex from a local restaurant and it smelled so, so good. But I stubbornly resisted, snug in my blankets, crying in the dark. The next morning I threw clean underwear, a toothbrush, and both laptops in a bag, grabbed all the LaCroix Pina Fraise from the pantry, and lit out.

After a two hour drive and a journaling session, I felt ready to eat, no longer compelled to starve myself as a method of control. But of course, I had packed no food;  a trek into the nearest town was required. I took my place in the line to enter the grocery store, observing that every single person around me, in line, in the store, everyone was wearing a mask. I screwed up the courage to ask if I had crossed into a county that required them, as my home county did not. A very kind lady walked me to her car and let me grab a mask out of a box she had from her job. I meticulously pinched my fingers together so that I wouldn’t touch anything but the mask I would wear, as careful as a game of Operation when I was a kid. The grocery store experience was hushed and surreal, my first time in a grocery store since lockdowns and quarantines and masks became de rigueur.

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Back in camp, I walked and picked wildflowers. I studied. I slept and ate Pepperidge Farm Verona cookies. And most importantly, the thing I needed: I settled down. I  returned home in better shape; hugged husband, daughters, grandbabies. Realigned my expectations.

I will not presume to make light of Covid isolation. I gratefully acknowledge that my situation is safe. The boat I find myself in amid this storm is sufficient to weather it, at least for now. Others are not so lucky. But I do believe that for each one of us, we must look inward to discover what is awry in our current situation, breathe deeply, speak our truth to those we’re sharing space with, and let them help us. Then we must, in turn, help each other. Those in our homes, our neighborhoods, our extended families and strangers alike.

It is our collective spiritual practice, really. Beyond the hymns, rituals, pews, and flurry of activity so prevalent in our churches, separate from twelve-step fellowships and large-scale charity galas, it will be quiet service and relentless attention to the needs of our own spirits and the souls of those around us that will sustain us. If you find yourself lonely today, find the courage to reach out. Send a text. Facetime a beloved friend. Call a trusted family member. If you find yourself at peace, content and hopeful, look for someone who needs you. I have faith that our lives can transform from spectacularly awry to profoundly beautiful, if only we seek connection. Blessings, fellow humans.

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Distillation: A Quarantine Meditation

Day 28.

When stay-at-home orders came down from local and state governments, when all three of my places of employment closed their doors for the time being, when I drove eerily deserted highways across the country to bring my 31-year-old daughter home from California, when I stood still while a nurse took my temperature before allowing me to climb the stairs to my orthopedist’s office, I clung to my hope for normalcy.

After that appointment, when my doctor and I finally began to discuss full knee replacement and I scheduled yet another MRI, I defied my damaged joint and ventured a Target run just a couple of blocks from the clinic to grab milk, bread, and additional outlet covers so the grandbaby wouldn’t electrocute herself in her home explorations. My usual joy found wandering the home department, perusing throw pillows and baskets and sniffing candles was absent, though. The store was populated by employees who seemed nervous, moms in scrubs shopping before/after a shift at the nearby medical center, and a couple of rambunctious teenaged girls whose loud giggles and rowdy running interrupted the subdued energy of the store. The empty aisles seemed as holy as the aisles of a quiet cathedral, as still as a church awaiting its Sunday congregation. I had a realization.

We are being purified. I am being purified.

When I returned home with my meager purchases, I carried supplies to my laundry room where I was assaulted by scent. My laundry room reeked of the vinegar-soaked rags my intrepid housekeeper had used to wash light switches and doorknobs. The bitter-sweet, pungent aroma knocked me off-kilter, I detest the smell of vinegar; I cleared the washing machine so that I could toss these rags in, eliminate the scent.

We are, like the vinegar, being distilled; our lives heated by pandemic-driven fear and isolation. The fluff of life is seemingly boiled away, evaporating all but the truth of our natures, the honest crux of our lives. My own nature is being revealed as a little sharp, all angles and abrupt retorts. Anxious.

I fell back on a coping mechanism that has almost always served: cleaning. I have pulled weeds and pared down closets, cabinets, garage, linens, even playlists on my iPhone. My Disney playlist is shorter by 33 songs today. And yet… reducing stuff wasn’t quite enough. A different tactic was required.

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In response to the storm around me, after months of neglect, I resumed my meditation practice; my spirit was crying out for grounding.  I turned on a meditation app and spent ten minutes breathing, mind wandering as I struggled to bring focus back to the breath. The practice broke me open, though not all at once, but within an hour, I found myself alone on my sofa, sobbing. Weeping for the shared grief of those who have lost loved ones, for the fear I saw on the faces of those who were required and needed to work, for the loneliness of those who may live alone or who do not find themselves surrounded by love in this time of social distancing. My tears were cleansing, washing my soul much like the vinegar had washed parts of my home. Since those tears were shed, I have been cultivating a sense that both less and more are the pure and healthy way forward. Less stuff. Fewer obligations. More time with the ones we love and feel safe with. More time for story, less time for arguing.

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I don’t have a handy list of activities to keep your kids busy during this weird time. I am not a counselor who can publish lists of coping techniques or a chef with 25 healthy recipes for feeding your family in a time of crisis. I have no interest in creating a quiz that tells you what sort of potato your personality matches, I don’t know how to craft toilet paper or make non-toxic fingerpaint for preschoolers. Thankfully, we have Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and Google for all of those, don’t we? That’s not how my mind works. Not how my spirit rolls. What I can do is offer a meditation, a benediction:

May we be purified.

May our lives be distilled, refined into what is most crucial: love. Love for those on the front lines of fighting this virus, love for those confined with us, love for ourselves.

May gratitude and generosity be the energies that ignite our souls. May we seek ways to support each other: tip delivery personnel generously, contribute where possible to organizations whose work mitigates the damage of a world-wide shutdown, purchase a piece of handwork from an artist who just lost their source of income.

May we grant grace to those who see the world differently from us, understanding that they too are nervous about the future, also understanding that their faith may not leave space for ambiguity or doubt.

May we also grant grace to ourselves, for none of us is going to navigate this situation perfectly. We will each, without a doubt, say something we don’t mean to. I already have.

May we learn to appreciate quiet: quiet streets, quiet parks, quiet homes, quiet spirits; for if we can hold to the beauty of hush when this time of enforced rest is over, we may discover that there is healing, peace, and immeasurable strength in stillness.

May we also remember the beauty of noise: laughter at family dinner tables, chatting in  restaurants, classrooms, or church fellowship halls, excited players, moms, and dads at little league games. School choirs. Outdoor concerts.

May we move forward in soul with a renewed love for our collective humanity.

Stay well, friends.

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Aching Feet, Empathy, and Mindfulness

God, my feet hurt, like millions of shards of glass inside when I step, their skin is red and angry. Just touching them, even to rub, hurts. The ache is not only in my feet, though. Ankles, knees, arches, heels, basically my legs, hurt. I would rather wear my New Balance sneakers, the ones with patented foam cushions, today. But I can’t. Because I am on the management staff at a Renaissance Festival.

Yes, a Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!

To be completely precise, it’s a Medieval Faire, and we staffers wear all sorts of fun costumes. Sometimes I’m a pirate, sometimes I’m a fairy, sometimes I’m just in a pretty velvet gown. Whatever the costume, I am never in sneakers. I wear boots. The ground is rocky and hilly, and I have recently had knee surgery. I ache as I work and walk, it’s as simple as that.

In the world of the Ren Faire, fashion choices are as closely and critically scrutinized as those at any runway at New York Fashion Week. The “insiders,” those who have been attending for years, whose closets are stocked with thousand-dollar hand-crafted leather breastplates or jewel-encrusted Elizabethan gowns, love to see and be seen. We may be guilty of preening a bit, like peacocks proud of their beautiful feathery tails. We may also be guilty of sneering at those whose costumes are less correct, less complete, and no single faux pas gathers more derision than the improperly clad foot. “Why bother to wear a costume at all,” we whisper to each other, “if you don’t get the right boots to go with it?”

I am discovering, friends, that it might be that the wearer quite simply doesn’t have the physical stamina or health to do it. And here is where I finally get to the thrust of it, the point, the moral: We cannot always know the burdens that are carried and endured, unseen and unspoken.

 

My grandmother was a survivor of polio, contracted when she was a girl. Her legs were withered, her feet gnarled, with toes literally curled underneath the balls of her feet. When she walked, she walked on nubs, her weight carried by lower legs as thin as the shinbones themselves. As a child, I did not know why she walked as she did, slightly wobbly and frequently touching bits of furniture or wall to steady herself, nor did I give it a thought. She walked how she walked and I loved her dearly, no matter. In retrospect, I marvel that she had the courage to bear and raise five babies. What determination and possessed, to lift children from cribs and carry them with her.

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When her children celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, they threw a wedding. My grandmother, who had a JP wedding in her youth, made her own wedding dress, it was a beautiful ivory lace top and a moire taffeta skirt with a flounced knee-length hem. Ivory stockings. And she wore matching orthopedic SAS shoes. Her hand was firmly tucked in at my dad’s elbow as he walked her down the aisle until Daddy handed her to my grandfather, where her hand tucked lovingly into the elbow of the man who had been her firm foundation for half a century. Her shoes were not elegant, but her heart was.

Sometimes, we look at the outside appearance and make a judgment of worth, of intelligence, of taste. But we don’t know the battles the target of our judgment is facing: health, fear, pain, want.

The same is true for things less obvious, less visible than shoes. The student who is chronically tardy because she’s living with an alcoholic parent, the CEO whose money can’t save the mother disappearing in plain sight due to Alzheimer’s, the single father working three jobs to pay the light bill.

As I mulled over my grandmother’s cheerful tenacity and stretched in an attempt to minimize my own discomfort, I realized that the simple act of putting on my sneakers, of slipping on my grey no-show socks and tying that double knot, had become a spontaneous meditation. It had enabled presence. I was, for better and worse, fully present in the moment I set my sore feet on the floor. Mindfulness may be more than just walking amongst the bird and the trees. In fact, it must be; for how often do we actually find ourselves in a picture-perfect setting, like modern-day fairy-tale characters surrounded by chattering woodland creatures and babbling brooks? No, daily, modern mindfulness requires gentle rigor, a commitment to listening to both body and spirit. Presence needs an allowance of space and a measure of quiet for the mind to think thoughts and explore intentions. Dressing in solitude, without noise or conversation, this morning allowed me to be aware of my body and provided my mind a chance to make the sorts of connections that will allow me to do my work in the world, moving into and amid humanity from a place of compassion.

I am going to endeavor to seek mindfulness in this time of extreme stress and anxiety, to practice quietude, to intentionally turn off media and allow my spirit to rest. To breathe.

And then I will walk out of my home, sore feet and all, and chat with my neighbors. Conscious connection and gentle presence may be the way through this worldwide, yet crazily intimate, crisis. Peace, my friends. may you stay well.

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Have a Merry Nervous Breakdown.

Today, December 23, is the tenth anniversary of the day I cracked up. Ho, Ho, Ho!

I bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?

We don’t like to talk about depression, anxiety, or the many ways it can manifest. We prefer to laugh it off as “menopausal hormone fluctuation” or being “hangry”. And at the holidays, when cheerfulness is practically beaten into our collective psyche, to admit one is struggling can be interpreted as particularly “Grinchy.” Yet, there it is.

I once heard a wise woman say about her own journey of healing: “I had to go back for the pieces of myself.” That’s what I have doing since I endured those three most difficult days of my life.

The three days I spent locked up in a mental hospital. 

During the Christmas season of 2009, I was having a complete mental and emotional breakdown:

My father had died the year before after a week of particularly virulent reactions to Type II Diabetes complications, which I had not even know he had. I was still reeling.

My brother died of a drug overdose a year later and was found only because of the smell emanating from his run-down motel room. Our youngest brother, a cop, bore witness to the body. Again, still reeling.

I was losing a vital friendship that had sustained me and going through the heartrending separation from a group I had performed with for years over that hackneyed but accurate reason: creative differences. The band wanted to go one way, and I wanted to go another.

Travis and I were working on getting our marriage healthy.

I was in my first year of graduate school, while continuing to teach full time and attempting to be a model wife and mother.

It felt like I was drowning at work, running a large high school theatre program, where my colleague and I were absolutely unable to work peacefully together.

We had filed bankruptcy and were trying to climb out of that pit of deprivation and shame. We were barely paying bills.

And I just couldn’t let go of the grief and resentment left over from my own mom’s mental illness which led to profound neglect and abuse.

I thought I had outdone, or maybe undone, my mother. I thought because I had finished my degree, stayed married, managed to raise my kids and have a career, that I was better, but I wasn’t. Not really. Cutting myself open with scissors, either in my office at school or in my bedroom, became a coping technique. I sliced to bring focus, carving words like “fat” into my thighs. I was punishing myself with each cut: for breaking faith, for not being beautiful, for getting older, for missing my dad’s final week of life, for not saving my drug ridden brother, for an unresolved and bitter relationship with my mom, for not providing enough for my family, for leaving church and being glad about it, for not being able to mend my work relationship, for not having a perfect 4.0 gpa. Oh, and there was a bold and hungry squirrel lodged in my dining room wall, eating a big hole through it. It would poke its little nose out from the destroyed drywall and I was convinced it was blowing raspberries at us. We were scheduled to host a holiday party that had been an annual tradition among our friends, and I had no idea how we could get that squirrel out in time. Or how we could afford to host a party.

I was hiding all this agony from my husband. Well, not so much– I hid my scars and scabs, and there was no disguising the chattering and chewing of the squirrel– but I couldn’t mask the turmoil, the waking up from nightmares regularly, the shaking and trembling, the inability to make eye contact. Then one morning, he saw the scars and forced me to meet his gaze. Later, when I looked at the photo taken at my admission, I realized how truly sick I looked, haggard from lack of sleep, deep shadows under my eyes, cheeks sunken. He saw and he cried, imploring me to go to the doctor. I refused, he begged. I continued to refuse and so, growing desperate, he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. I screamed and kicked, grasping at the bedroom doorjamb to keep from being carried out, and my poor teen-aged kids watched as their dad forced their mom into a car to go to the doctor, where I was compelled to show my scabbed cuts, tell him what my days and nights had been like, and answer questions about suicidal ideation. Suicide had not been my intention, at least not overtly, but fantasies of it had certainly floated through my brain. Mostly, I just wanted to relieve and chastise my soul. The physician wanted me admitted to a psychiatric hospital, saying that if I didn’t capitulate and admit myself voluntarily, he would force the issue.

Trav was instructed to get a chaperone to sit with me in the back of the car so that I wouldn’t jump out while it was moving. By this time, I was so gone that I don’t remember who that was, though I remember with crystal clarity the moment when I was locked into an examining room. I banged on the door, howling and sobbing for freedom. It was not coming.

In Texas you are kept for three days if you’re on suicide watch. Once you’re in the mental hospital, you’re in. For three days. If you shower, you’re supervised, a nurse stands there watching you. You’re not allowed anything to write with or silverware or shoelaces. You attend mandatory group meetings. You can have approved visitors at appointed times. You queue up at a half door to get your meds in a little cup, just like on TV.

I shared a room with a stranger, and we didn’t speak to each other at all, and why would we? I didn’t talk much under normal circumstances to people I loved and trusted; I hushed. Most of the women on this ward moved and acted like ghosts, shuffling around from bed to chair to television with exhausted, haunted eyes. The walls were nondescript, the ward was locked. We lined up to go to meals. On my final full day, December 25th, I was permitted to walk to the gymnasium, where I walked laps and did sit ups, partly because I was restless, partly because I couldn’t bear to show weakness, and partly because I still thought I was fat, even though I was the smallest I had been since I had worn my size two wedding gown and had endured two plastic surgeries to perfect my body.

Phone use was freely permitted, and I called home in tears, pleading to be released. My husband, who hadn’t really known what we were in for but also had not known what else to do, fought like hell for three days to get me out. He called a family friend who was a lawyer, he got money from his parents. It was impossible.

That week, my first grad school portfolio was due, the university had deadlines for grade submissions and there was no way I was asking for an extension. To tell the director of the program, whom I admired and hoped to get job references from later, that I was in the nut house? Nope. I was given special dispensation to have a pencil and paper, as well as my textbooks. Travis brought them to me and I finished my first semester projects and papers in the waiting room of the ward, adjusting to the side effects my first doses of anti-depressants, sitting up the whole night through so that I could work on theatrical analysis, vocal technique, and acting methods in peace. The nurses and other patients looked at me like I was an alien; perhaps it’s unusual to keep being a driven perfectionist in the middle of a nervous breakdown? Anyway, I sent everything home to be submitted into the computer system for the deadline. Travis typed it all for me and I earned straight As.

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Christmas Day came and went while I was locked up, but my family faithfully waited until I was released on the 26th to celebrate. There aren’t many photos of that particular Christmas, but the one I remember most shows our family behind the dinner table, silly hats on (it’s a thing we do), arms around each others’ waists, and my eyes swollen and half shut from fatigue. I was never so grateful and relieved. We didn’t talk about it, though, and I have sometimes wondered what my children thought about their crazy mom. Back then, I was too scared and ashamed to ask. Still am.

Maybe there are people who manage to escape that kind of despair, whose lives are charmed. Their kids are compliant, their bosses appreciate them, their siblings love to hang out at barbecues, their faiths are intact. Their hair is always shiny.

Not me. And not my family. And not most of my friends.

What were all the broken pieces and bits and where were they? How could I even begin to find them?

The groundwork for my collapse had been laid piece by tiny piece over 42 years: a mentally ill, abusive and drug-addicted mom; faith and sexual trauma; isolation from extended family; marriage and motherhood at an ill-equipped young age; an exhausting job paired with a perfectionist drive … my own quiet and introverted nature had enabled a habit of keeping all my struggles to myself.  To move forward, I had to finally face all of it, unflinchingly, make peace with my own mistakes, forgive the mistakes of others, and lay it all to rest.

Therapy was not, surprisingly, part of my healing, mostly because I couldn’t afford it. So I relied on my new anti-depressant meds and did my own therapy.  I had done plenty of therapy while in my twenties, I understood where my pain came from and I figured out how to fix it. It was all inner work, and it was done imperfectly, but I began to take small steps– cracking open the chambers where I had stashed sorrows, letting the feelings fill me and then leave me, offering apologies where I knew I needed to, and setting boundaries around myself that would serve to protect me from those who hurt me.

That “letting feelings fill me” was the hardest part. A lifetime of closing myself off, of biting my tongue, of muffling my own truth so that I could keep walking had numbed me. What I discovered, though, was that the feelings didn’t kill me. Tears, anger, whatever, it all ebbed and flowed, leaking out my tear ducts and clenching my muscles. But then breath would come, my body would relax, and I’d still be here. Here and okay, with my beloveds standing near, whether in body or spirit, to lend strength.

Yoga helped a lot, too; so did writing. In the sharing of my story by way of my blog, I began to hear from people who loved me as well as strangers who identified with my journey. There were folk who connected, and it was as if my testimony was redeemed from my lurching, stumbling, imperfect faith.

Friends and strangers alike are bearing witness to my messy life, opening their eyes and hearts to witness what trying to be an authentic human really looks like. It is my deep hope that in sharing my own foibles and graces that others might recognize the beauty of their own lives; and that they might find hope and tools for healing. You are not alone. I was not either in that disastrous December, though my own pain made it impossible to believe otherwise.

We sometimes allow ourselves to believe profound lies, don’t we?

I have spent the last decade learning to be the authentic me. It has meant walking away from a career, speaking the truth of my faith journey, setting boundaries, loving the child I was, and accepting the love of those whom I trust.

If you’re struggling this Christmas, please don’t isolate or mask. Find one person you trust and let them see your genuine hurt. And if you know someone on the brink, find them. Look at them. Hear them. And take the necessary steps, even if they seem impossible.

Merry Christmas, my friends.

If you re struggling this Christmas but believe you have nowhere to turn, please use this resource. It will get better, take it from someone who’s been there:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

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What I Know for Sure

Sometimes life is funny
You think you’re in your darkest hour
When the lights are coming on in the house of love- Amy Grant*

Each morning as I drive to work, I try to get my brain and heart into a healthy setting, one that enables me to walk through my day in a way that’s uplifting. I am not the greatest at living with a happy face, my sunshine-spreader is faulty, I think. It needs a little nudge every day. So I listen to Oprah. I love Oprah deeply, though I have never met her. No matter, I love her. Sometimes I play a little movie in my mind in which my doorbell rings and when I open it, she’s standing there in all her Oprah-ness and I essentially collapse to the hardwood floor inside my entry, sobbing in joyous abandon. She picks me up, wraps me in her arms, fixes me tea, and we curl up on my sofa for an afternoon of chat.

Funny, right? Her podcast is as close as I may ever get (I refuse to phrase that as a definitive “will ever get” because I have listened to enough Oprah Super Soul to know about manifesting what I speak. But still.) to meeting her and basking in her sunny aura. So I listen every morning. I need fortification before entering my workplace.

Susan's Special Needs: Oprah Talks to Cheryl Strayed About ...

Today, she asked Cheryl Strayed (another hero) a question that I have heard her ask so many times: “What do you know for sure?” I don’t always have a response, usually, my brain is a little too foggy at 7:45 in the morning to snap to attention for the question. But not today. Today, my brain, no, my heart, had a ready answer. What do I know for sure?

I am loved.

Not by everyone I meet, no. I think one of the blessings of getting older is coming to the realization that it’s not necessary to be loved by everyone. It’s not necessary, nor is it possible. An authentic life is a little messy and an authentic person is too. The rougher, unpolished edges of authenticity will scrape upon some in my path. The vibration that I walk with won’t resonate with everyone I meet. In fact, it will create dissonance with people whose vibrations aren’t compatible.

That’s okay.

I am loved anyway, and by enough people that life is good.

Here’s my shortlist of people who love me. It’s not a definitive list, I will probably think of people to add and add and add.

My cousins Rebecca and Jen.

My friends Whitney, Angela, Eide, Jen, Becky, Sherry, and Rosella.

My colleagues Sylvia, Teresa, Darla, and Melody.

College pals Kayla, Cheryl, and Heidi.

The children I have heart-adopted: Jorge, Rileigh, Mandy, and Trevor. As well as other former students gathered in 22 years in the public school classroom.

My in-laws: Jackie, Tom, Trent, Holly, Mason, and Abi.

The mother of my heart, Dorothy.

My angel-in-heaven mentor, Ellen.

My children, Hilary, Travis Austin.

My husband, Travis.

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My heart is full as I type the list. There have been dark days in the 52 years I have walked this planet. Days when I was sure that if I disappeared, no one would notice or care. Do you remember planning to run away when you were a child? Throwing your essentials in a backpack while muttering to yourself, “I’ll show them. They won’t even know that I left. Mom and Dad can just sit around and watch TV and I will go do what I want!” Of course, that’s not likely what would happen, but I know I had a couple of days much like that when a kid. But also when an adult. Once, driving home from a session with my therapist, I contemplated committing suicide. I thought maybe I’d just drive my car at high speed into the cement barriers that separated the lanes of traffic on the busy Houston freeways. As I drove, I tried to imagine whether people would even bother to come to my funeral. I mean, I knew Travis and the kids would. But would anyone else? My brain began to populate the pews of a church sanctuary and before I’d passed too many more exits off the highway, and I realized that there were more people who’d miss me than I had thought. So instead of ramming my Ford Escort into the barriers, I drove on home and gave each of my family hugs. They didn’t know, though I did, how close I’d come that day to checking out.

I think it’s important to know for sure that we are loved. It’s the most important thing there is to know. It’s what enables resilience. Love gets under us and lifts us up when we’re low.

Look around today, let the Divine One remind you of the people who love you. Open your heart to that love. Let it flow through you, break you open, patch you up, strengthen your steps. Accept it. You are loved.

I know it. For sure.

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*”House of Love” written by Greg W. Barnhill, Kenny Greenberg, Wally Wilson