May 11, 2017

Well, it’s May 11. The second year anniversary since The Day.

And I have to say, I feel pretty great.

I have done it, friends. I have scratched and crawled and screamed and cried myself to the other side and it took me two years, but I did it.

That’s not to say that there won’t be moments of sadness. Sometimes, I miss the people I’ve had to excise from my life, but I know that my life is better without them in it. It’s a paradox, to be sure, but I know my decisions are the right ones.

There are moments when I still panic a little, like when I come home and the house is silent and I worry that something terrible has happened to the kids. (The reality is that Cooper is playing video games and Emma is watching TV on the iPad, just FYI.) But I still have those moments–echoes of my own childhood laced with fear of something terrible happening to me. Now I have moments where I fear it for my own children, but those moments are fleeting.

And the anxiety is different than it was before, because now I can own it. I can name it when it happens, briefly feel the feeling, acknowledge it, and then let it go. It is so freeing.

You guys, I FEEL JOY. I never thought it would be so exciting to be able to say that. I laugh for real. I recognize how good life is and how lucky I am to be living this life.

I am happy.

I am okay. I am fantastic, even.

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I have to compare what has happened to me over the last year as the feeling you get when you’ve been in extreme physical pain and then suddenly it is gone. Like the moment the epidural takes effect during labor.

Or, when you are having a gall bladder attack and it’s so bad you have to go to the emergency room and when they finally, finally push the morphine and your whole body relaxes and you can’t stop thanking the nurse for making your life so much better. (Why yes, that is a true story and I am thankful to say that the offending gall bladder with its godforsaken gallstones is getting removed next week.)

If you’ve had an experience like this, you know the sheer exhilaration that comes with NOT being in pain anymore. The joy that comes with just feeling normal again. That is how I’ve been feeling. Normal, like a real person living her life, not a sad zombie stumbling through her days listlessly. And it is amazing.

I am so very grateful to be back on the shore with the people I love instead of drowning in the murky depths, or trying to swim in against the current.

I am so very grateful to no longer be thinking about my past every waking moment. To have it haunting and torturing me. To feel like it was the only thing I could talk or write about. I have made peace with it, and it is no longer my present…it is only the past.

A year ago, I couldn’t wait to go into therapy and verbally vomit all the bitterness inside of me. I had so much to say and get out of my soul that I thought I would never be able to stop talking about it.

These days, I may spend a half hour trying to figure out what I am going to talk to my therapist about in my next appointment. My gall bladder? My annoyance that my son plays too many video games? My daughter’s seeming inability to clean up after herself? These things are so trivial, so I mostly talk about the kids and my husband and how proud I am that they are my family, my rocks, the loves of my life.

And I’m proud of what I’ve overcome. Dealing with these kinds of issues is not for the faint of heart, and it would have been so much easier for me to drown it all in alcohol, drugs, or whatever other unhealthy coping mechanism I could find. I could have kept using food as my comfort source, as I have done for most of my life.

But I just had a gut feeling that there was something better on the other side that would be worth the pain and the grueling work.

AND THERE IS.

There is love and happiness and laughter and joy and friendship, and I am so very grateful for all of it.

I am grateful for the people who have stood by me through this, who have helped pull me out, and who have loved me through it.

Life is good.

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Fine.

You ask how I am and you probably don’t know that this is a hard question. Possibly the hardest.

So I say I’m fine.

Fine I say, fine. I’m fine the kids are fine everything’s fine.

This is not the truth but how do I say the truth, which is that I am so acutely not fine? That the pain is back and it feels almost worse now because why is the pain back after all this time? The pain and the shame and the sadness and the grief, all of these things are supposed to be going away.

It’s been too long and I should be fine and who wants to even hear that I am not fine? I certainly don’t. I am so sick of not being fine.

Because I SHOULD be fine. I want to be done with this and I want to be fine.

I shouldn’t have hit another wall and I shouldn’t be having so much trouble getting out of bed every morning and I shouldn’t be preferring dark rooms to sun again and I shouldn’t have to take NyQuil to fall asleep every night and then struggle to wake up every morning while my husband gets the kids off to school and they come and kiss me goodbye in my bed like I’m some kind of invalid.

I shouldn’t be holding back tears for so many moments of the day.

I shouldn’t have to view getting dressed as a major life accomplishment for which I congratulate myself daily.

I should be fine. And I don’t know why I’m not.

But yes I’m fine, I say to you when you ask how I am, fine.

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But no I am not really fine.

Instead of fine I feel crazy, bipolar, one week feeling the joy of summer and light and laughter and the next week struggling to keep up with all the commitments a normal person might make and look like a normal person while doing them even though nearly every moment there is anxiety and dread and fear and I am struggling.

Struggling to be a functional mom, wife, employee, friend, human.

Every moment feels like a struggle and the work is so hard.

I work hard to use my regular voice, not the flat dead voice that I had for three months last summer. That voice, that voice of despair wants to come back and be heard again.

But it shouldn’t be around anymore, that voice. It’s been too long and I am sure everyone is just sick of hearing that voice and what it has to say and I shouldn’t feel this awful again so there must be something terribly wrong with me so I am fine, I tell you, fine.

I can fake my regular voice now and I couldn’t fake it this time last year so that’s good right?

See, I told you I am fine. I smiled at you too and that wasn’t so hard, now was it? You made a joke and I laughed and so that is good because it’s not too hard to behave like a normal person, right?

Yes, yes it is so hard and it takes so much energy. And now I have to sit down again, retreat to one of my safe places.

It shouldn’t be such hard work to smile at you.

It shouldn’t feel, every minute, that I am fighting to break the surface of the water while I have a cinder block chained to my ankle, and the struggle is mighty to just stay where I am and not be dragged down deeper. Even though I want, so very desperately, to come to shore.

There are people on shore, you know. Smiling, laughing people. They look a little distorted through the water but I think some of them are waving at me. One or two of them might have said something like, “Gosh, that looks hard. That cinder block seems heavy. I’m sorry it’s so hard for you.”

It shouldn’t be such hard work to just stay where I am and not be dragged down further toward the murky depths. I should actually be able to unchain the cinder block and come on shore and be smiling and laughing with the normal people while I dry off in the sun.

I must not be doing this right.

I must not be doing this right because when I look back to two or three years ago (thanks, Facebook Memories) I see that I wasn’t always drowning.

I was on the shore with the people then! I was laughing with friends and being fit and having fun with my family and I just felt like a normal person and I was happy, wasn’t I?

So why this, now, still?

I want to go back to being that person again because she really was fine and this new person, this not-fine-but-pretend-fine-me feels wrong.

Being pretend fine is not what I am supposed to be. I have been fighting against being pretend fine, because that’s what I was for so many years and I know it is wrong.

It is wrong to be drowning and at the same time waving back at people and smiling and say, I’m fine! Hope the party is fun! I’ll be there soon, just give me a hot minute!

But this is too hard and I don’t even really have a good reason to be not fine anymore because it’s been too long and I should be fine for real by now and pretend fine is something I’m good at and I definitely should be way beyond not fine by now, right?

I should have been able to unburden myself of this cinder block by now.

Isn’t there an expression that says fake it til you make it? I have the faking it part down. So why isn’t the make it part happening?

It’s me, it’s definitely me. I am doing something wrong.

So you ask how I am and I smile and say fine, I am fine.

Memory #377

Note: The Memory Series is made up of entries that are my attempt to puzzle together so many disjointed and out of context memories and pieces of memories that float around in my brain. Most of these are memories I’ve always had, but even though I remembered these events, I never really examined or understood them. They are now critical memories to revisit as I work through my healing process. The numbers attached to each memory aren’t that important; they’re mostly random except for their order in my life. This is the first I wrote in the series.

This day, she was 14 or 15. This day, she was tired of the front. Of the cheerful, sociable exterior. It was exhausting to keep up and she was sick of it all.

Bitterness blossomed within her, sharp like acid, hollowing her out. She looked around her room, which was a disaster, strewn with clothes and cassette tapes and paper and dishes and books and a million other things. She felt so much wrong inside of her.

She smashed a picture in its frame. The shards of broken glass mingled with the rest of the rubble on her bedroom floor.

That girl, she picked up the biggest shard and held it in her hand. She caressed the flat side. It was smooth and shiny. She tapped her finger against the cruel point at one end, wondering what it would feel like.

She dragged the point across the inside of her arm, watching a trail of red bubble up in its wake. Interesting. It hurt, but not really.

I was that girl. I was that girl who spent the next hour and a half carving up both of her legs and arms. My legs. My arms.

That girl, that me, was so desperate to be relieved of her anger and her sadness. I wanted to release it, to bleed it out, a painful but satisfying purge.

I felt better, for awhile. And then, as always, I felt worse.

I went to cheerleading practice the next day, not even considering what my body would look like to everyone else until my friend looked over at me during stretches, just two minutes into practice.

“Jesus, Stephanie! What the hell happened to you?”

She was staring with horror at my legs, splayed out in a straddle.

I looked down and saw myself through her eyes. My bare legs, riddled with angry red scratches in random patterns. My arms, covered in just as many cuts.

I hesitated, trying to process this. This was new to me, not being ready. Not having my story straight. Not even having thought through how I would explain this away, not even thinking I would HAVE to explain this away.

I ALWAYS thought ahead. I ALWAYS had my story straight. I was good at it. It was what I did. How could I have gone so wrong this time?

Because today, this moment, I was at a loss for the briefest of instances. How could I have let this happen? How could I have been so careless? I was going to be revealed. This was it. I had failed.

After two beats, I stuttered out, “Oh, uh, yeah. We were walking through pricker bushes. Pretty dumb, right?”

She knew I was lying. I could tell she knew I was lying. Everyone knew I was lying because by that time most of the team and the coach were all listening and looking at me with doubtful faces.

Then the moment passed and everyone let me carry on with my charade. Just like that, they all accepted my obvious lie without further question or discussion.

I was elated: Thank God they left me alone about it! That was a close call.

I was outraged: How the hell could they leave me alone about it?!? I need help! Can’t they see I need help?

Ebbs and Flows

I have started this blog like four times…deleted, restarted, deleted again.

I have so much to say and I just don’t know how to start. It keeps feeling like everything I’m writing is like the blah blah blah drone of the Peanuts teacher.

So I feel like the easiest thing to say is, I am sort of living my life again. I have a life to be lived, and it’s high time I started living it somehow.

This pain, this healing process is a part of my life. And I suspect that it will forever be a key turning point for me.

But it’s put me in a state of suspended animation for the last 10 months. That’s almost a full year! It’s almost been a year. Holy shit.

This trauma and healing has disconnected me from people and activities and laughter and love and joy. This is what pain, trauma, deep depression does.

It took me on a turbulence-filled ride of ups and downs and sometimes the bumps are endurable and other times I am frantically looking for the barf bag and not necessarily finding it in time.

The only feelings I could feel were the ones related to the healing. In almost all other ways I became robotic, shell-like, almost inhuman, because there was just no room or energy for anything but pain, anger, sadness, grief.

It has changed over the last couple of months, though.

You know what? In that last sentence, I started to write “Luckily, it has changed over the last couple of months…” But then I deleted it, because it is not changing by luck or happenstance, it is changing through hard work and effort on my part.

It is changing through my (metaphorical) sweat and (real) tears and earnest intention to get to the other side of this ocean of grief from my old life and move forward to be me, living my life. Whatever “me” looks like beyond this grief.

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In therapy a couple of weeks ago, I expressed serious frustration at this ebb and flow effect. Like, WHY DOES THE DEPRESSION/PAIN/ANGER KEEP COMING BACK JUST WHEN I START TO FEEL OKAY? I could not understand why I wasn’t making progress…but my therapist assured me I was. Recognizing that there was an ebb and flow, in fact just experiencing an ebb and flow instead of all pain/anger/sadness/depression all the time, showed my progress.

So I started to think about this last near-year, and how it has all played out for me. I wanted to see it all laid out so I could chart my progress and not feel all my work was in vain, and it has helped. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Everything is fine! Nothing to see here! (early to mid May, memories resurface)
    • I am in a place of shock, with no grasp of HOW BIG THIS WAS.
    • My motto: Let’s just tuck this in with all the other dark things of which we never, ever speak and carry on. (Because carrying on with a smile is always the most important thing.)
    • The armor is cracked, but I am determined to keep wearing it.
    • Seriously, you guys, I can totally walk this thing off! Just give me a hot second.
  • Wait. Something feels…off. (mid to late May)
    • I start to feel a seeping sense of HOW BIG THIS WAS.
    • I have a vague idea that this might not just go down with a hard swallow like a cut-slightly-too-big piece of steak.
    • A bit of a panic creeps in–like maybe I have an entire steak stuck in my throat and I am completely unable to breathe. I think I might not be able to simply carry on.
    • OH MY GOD I MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO CARRY ON! This is a worst case scenario for me, and the panic grows.
    • I become desperate to keep up appearances–it’s what I have spent my entire life doing and I am really, REALLY good at it–and fail.
    • HOLY SHIT I HAVE FAILED AT THIS THING THAT I AM SUPPOSED TO BE REALLY GOOD AT.
  • Implosion/All is Lost (Memorial Day-rest of summer)
  • Phew! Glad that’s over! (late August-September)
    • I decide that the advent of fall, a new season, is my motivation to move forward and leave this behind.
    • I enjoy some time off with my family, I start exercising again, I begin to feel like I am successfully working my way out of the hole.
    • Look at me go! I CAN overachieve at healing from my traumatic past.
  • NOPE, everything is still terrible. I fail again. (October-November)
    • Cue sound of universe laughing at my arrogance in thinking I was all set with this.
    • Cue ill-timed recurrence of toe problems, one of several catalysts sending me back into another version of the black hole.
    • Cue new hole that is not quite as black and all consuming as the original hole, but still…it’s more of like a shallow, gray hole from which I can see the rest of the world but, like, through a weird sheer curtain like the one Sirius Black falls through in Order of the Phoenix (moment of silence for Sirius Black).
    • Cue me returning to a blob-like state of inertia and deep sadness, certain I will never be able to overcome the trauma of my past.
  • EVERYONE MUST DIE. (late November, early to mid December)
    • So much rage. I hated everyone and everything, so I hope no one took it personally.
    • Anger is my best friend, a comforting companion that I indulge in many ways.
  • CHRISTMAS! NEW YEARS! SHINY OBJECTS! AND SADNESS… (December-Jan 1)
    • I refuse to deny my family a happy holiday because of my own misery.
    • We made a perfect plan to escape for the holidays, and we rented a beautiful cabin in the Smokies in North Carolina, just the four of us and our dog.
    • I poignantly realize that the reason we have to flee for the holidays is so that I won’t be faced with the reality that we have no family to spend the holidays with. Because of me and my terrible life choices.
    • I am obviously the worst at everything. Sadness and self-loathing return.
  • It is a new year and I commit to being awesome again! (first 2 weeks of January)
    • I meal plan! I cook! I make a schedule!
    • My family seems more like themselves because I am back into my old role of steering the ship.
    • YAY! I did it!
  • Shit. That didn’t last long. (late January-February)
    • Seasonal depression.
    • More toe problems (I just can’t even with this fucking toe) that leave me heavily reliant on painkillers and unable to walk like a normal person. For two weeks.
    • I am the worst kind of failure and will obviously never be successful at getting my life back together. If it was ever really “together” in the first place.

So….

If you stuck with me through all of that, you can see what I mean by ebb and flow.

Today, in March, on this day and in this moment, I am trying to realize the hard truth: this isn’t just going to “happen.” I have to decide. I have to make it happen. I have to consciously say, today I will move forward in any small way I can.

There won’t be a morning when I awake to hear the birds singing and say, “Today is the day I am normal again! All of the sad things are over!”

There won’t be a moment in the therapists’ office in which I shout, “Eureka! I am healed! Thank you, doctor!” and skip out into the sunlight, never to return.

There will only be more ebbing and flowing, and me, deciding every day to choose my life. To choose the people I love today over a past I can’t change. To choose to actively become the person I was meant to be, whoever that person is, despite the challenges I have faced. Despite the challenges I continue to face.

I have to do it. I have to keep doing it. Every day.

I have to keep looking in the mirror and telling myself I am good, kind, smart person who is worthy of love and respect.

I don’t get to take a break from the motion of life to heal. I have to keep choosing to heal and grow every day, keeping time as best I can with the rhythm of this life I love so dearly. This life I have created for myself and for which I am incredibly grateful. I have to keep living it as best I can amidst the ebb and flow of grief and healing.

It’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility.

Son of a bitch.