Three years later

I’m sitting on my porch typing with a bum elbow. It’s been hurting more today because I’ve been busy. In the kitchen. Like a good little wifey. Like the wife/mom combo I thought I would be.

I came out here with a glass of cab and a head full of thoughts, hoping to get something, anything, down. It’s been hard lately. I keep having all these things I want to write about, that bubble up. Adult responsibilities are getting in the way of my writing and processing. Recently I’ve wished for when I was 12 or 13 again, no responsibilities except for school. (I didn’t start working until I was 14.) Just checking chores, taking care of my sisters, and practicing piano off my to-do list.

Grown-up me had a substantive New Year’s Resolution – Be honest with myself. I saw the fruit of this resolution as me getting some clarity about life. But turns out the clarity I saw was through rose-colored glasses.

Three years ago, my husband and I decided to be done, really done, with trying to make babies. Turns out we really really sucked at making babies. We still don’t know whose ‘problem’ it was (most likely mine as I had uterine polyps and endometriosis… though I hesitate to put past tense on endo as there is no cure..). But we decided that we’d be done.

And three years later, I am just as, if not more, confused than I was about what I want in life. About faith. About my purpose on this planet. About God’s will in this. About the long-term implications of not parenting.

Frankly, sometimes it sucks, the not knowing. But here I am, being honest with myself. It sucks. It’s hard. I spent a good portion of this weekend in an acute and deep depression. Overall I was down in that pit for about 18 hours, but that was long enough. Fortunately for me, depression never gets to be a comfy place to be. So eventually something happens or I have a flicker of hope and I’m able to crawl up and out. It really is a horrible affliction, depression, and it certainly made itself known to me on the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month.

When we first decided to live childfree (or childless not by choice, lest I offend those for whom children have never been a desire), I was actually comforted by the not-knowing and transience of life. It didn’t much matter to me if we up and moved like we’ve been prone to do. I didn’t care if I had to make new friends or get settled into a new place or pack up some boxes. The thing that felt like a warm blanket was the not-knowing.

Now that life overall feels a bit more stable what with jobs and a house and church family and all, any threat to that stability could tear me limb from existential limb. At least today it would feel like that. Maybe not tomorrow. Probably not in a week.

And that’s one of the hardest parts about all of this… the un-knowing causes me to not be able to trust myself. But the thing is, I have to. Being honest and going with my gut are two strategies I’m using (if you can call them that). I can’t look too far into the future and hope that three more years from now all is well. I just can’t bear the thought of being just as confused as I am now.

There is a bird in our tree, stuck up high in an outer branch, its leg entwined in something. We couldn’t tell: we couldn’t get up high enough to reach it. It’s the saddest thing, really, to watch this animal try and try and try to get free. I know it will die… at least I think it will. Logic tells me so. But it’s not thinking about that right now. It’s not thinking at all. It’s just going off of instinct and trying to get away.

Maybe to outsiders I look a bit like that bird. I’m trying and trying and trying to get free. I will keep trying, because no one knows the future. I will keep trying, even if it takes me three more years.

I think mini backpacks are cool and I don’t care who knows it.

I’m finally feeling like myself again. It’s taken a shit-ton of work. Physical work. Mental work. Emotional work. Hours of therapy. Hours of running. Of listening and meditating on music that feeds my soul. Of advocating for myself and my physical health.

Recently I’ve been reconnecting with the Elizabeth that’s down deep inside, the girl who’s now grown into a woman and hopefully likes what she’s become. As my grandma, Mimi, used to say, “You have to like what you see in the mirror.” Maybe she meant that you like your physical appearance. But I know that mostly she meant that you have to like the person reflected in that piece of glass.

A previous post I wrote about finding my 8th grade journal has taken me on a trip down memory lane. The commitment to writing on this blog with this name comes from a visit to the young Elizabeth who wrote late at night. Wrote poetry. Wrote songs. Some happy, some sad. The girl who in sixth grade went through a very interesting “Harriet the Spy” phase and sat on a stoop at recess with a composition notebook, writing about what she saw. The Elizabeth who wrote a collection of poetry for a project in advanced English in 8th grade entitled “Declaration of Independence”. (I know that period’s in the ‘wrong’ place, btw.)

My language arts teacher mentioned that my poetry was dark and depressing. Fuck yeah it was. I was encountering mental illness for the first time and trying to wrestle with it. Writing was my outlet. I didn’t feel taken seriously, I guess, and I tamped it down and convinced myself all through high school that I hated English class.

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

All of these 90’s themes coming back have been a catalyst to coming back to young Elizabeth as well. I remember having high-waisted pants. Scrunchies (even ones my mom made to match some dresses/jumpers she made me). Those plastic rings you used to cinch a intentionally too-big t-shirt. Flannel shirts. God, so much flannel. Mini backpacks as a purse.

This one’s pretty cute.

I look at all these kids discovering these things for the first time and it makes me feel old. It also makes me sad that I ever let go of the things I liked. I’m trying to lean in to what I really like, and rediscover it. When you go through shit like infertility and crises of faith, you question your very being, your soul, your core.

So like I was saying in the beginning, I’ve been doing a lot of work to get back to myself. And dammit, I really like mini backpacks. I think they’re adorable. I really like taking running selfies with the self-timer on my camera and I just don’t care who sees me. I like wearing my hair down after a shower without drying and curling it. I generally am not into wearing a lot of makeup – mascara does it just fine for me. I like playing bluegrass really loudly when the windows are open.

Where did I get the idea that what I like to wear or do isn’t good enough? Where did I get the idea that I have to put on makeup and curl my hair in order to look “professional”? I got those ideas from society and culture, and they’ve been internalized. Somehow the cursory comparisons I made with other women got embedded in how I operate, and I’m sick of it.

I just wanna be me. I’m the same but different.

I turned 33 a few weeks ago, and I am so excited about it. 33 going into 34 is going to be such a great year. Maybe I’ll even buy myself a mini backpack.

Not this time

The “Write” button at the top right freaks me out every time. I don’t know how it’s different than picking up a pen and writing on paper. But let’s be honest: that freaks me out too.

For years and years before the advent of blogging (people know that this word originally came from web + log, right?) I used a pen, any color, though it drove me crazy to not have the same color, and a notebook to write my thoughts before bed. I had the same routine. I spent a lot of time writing. Now, since typing on a laptop is so much faster, I have eschewed analog writing.

I think for years I’ve actually been fighting the urge to write every night, or most nights. Things were simpler and less complicated when it was just me, Elizabeth, in my room with my music and my lamp and my stuffed animals. I didn’t answer to anyone (in those moments anyway). I wrote whatever I felt like writing, and often with damn good vocabulary.

Now as a thirty-something contributor to society I tamp down the urge to pour out my thoughts and feelings for eight hours a day. Then, when I come home from this thing that takes up eight hours of my day, I still have other adult-ish things to do and I further tamp down my thoughts. Then I spend time on this stupid thing called the Internet and I can just feel my subconscious screaming to be let up from the silence.

So then, my friends, after working out and making dinner and cleaning up and walking the dog my mind finally takes a huge breath and starts talking.

And here I am, on my bed (husband is downstairs, “Just 10 more minutes on ______”), window open, fan on, warm nonalcoholic drink on my bedside bookshelf, typing away while my brain works out the kinks not just from today but my whole damn life it seems.

A couple weeks ago I found my journal from literally 20 years ago. Ok, found isn’t true. That’s a lie. I knew where it was. I keep all my journals close. So I knew where it was, and I finally thought I’d had enough therapy to delve into my old journals to see what 13-year-old Elizabeth was up to.

Holy mother of everything, my friends, huge newsflash here: Elizabeth is still Elizabeth, and she always has been Elizabeth. She still is a hopeless romantic disguising herself as an apathetic wannabe emo. She still uses words like superfluous and reiterate in normal conversations. She still judges people for not using fancy words like the above in normal conversations. She still loves God and wants the approval of her friends and her mother. Elizabeth is still Elizabeth. Elizabeth is still me.

Upon encountering this 20-year-old discovery, I felt… comfort. I felt like myself. I felt like all the shit I’ve been through in the past few years might have done me in in some ways, but I’m still me. The skeleton and muscles are still intact. I am still myself after all these years.

I think we’re all under the illusion of two things: either that we can’t change at all, or that we could never go back to being the person we once were. I think both are true all the time.

As I embark on the next 20 years, I hearken back to these words, from myself, nearly 20 years ago:

Sunday, December 12, 1999

Dear Journal-

Okay. Brand-new journal. Crisp, fresh, “acid-free” paper. Bold black pen. This is how it starts. Excitement and anticipation build. Then long forgotten periods of neglect. But not this time…

Sitting in silence

I always wondered why when I went to my grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ houses, it was quiet. It was quiet except for the hourly tone of the clock. It was quiet except for the shuffle of a newspaper or drip-drip-drip of the coffee pot. It was unnerving, really, and kind of annoying.

Now, knowing that I will never sit in their company like that, at their houses, in silence except for our conversation, again, I grieve the silence.

I find that now I do it myself. I get caught up in some mundane task at home like cutting vegetables or writing on this blog (less mundane than cutting vegetables) or folding laundry, and before I know it, it’s been hours since music or TV has permeated the air with sound waves.

It’s funny how all of a sudden you can look around and realize that you’re an adult. Maybe that’s why the silence of my forefathers’ (and mothers’) houses bothered me… because they were at a point in their lives I could not imagine. It felt so far away.

Now after years of input – welcome and not – it’s nice to just sit in silence. It helps me process life and all that comes with it. To think of new ideas. To recall memories. To grieve. I wonder what they thought about in their silence.

The Mean Girl in the Mirror

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You’re too tall. You’d better feign an interest in sports so people think you’re living up to your height.

You’re too skinny and too tall.

Your handwriting sucks. Erase and write your name again. And again.

Be careful about showing too much of the silhouette of your body. Men will make noises at you when you walk down the street. You’d better wear baggy clothes.

Glasses make people look smart, but they make you look too smart.

You messed up again when practicing that song on the piano. Better start over.

No one wants a smarty pants for a friend.

No one wants a smarty pants for a girlfriend.

You suck at playing piano. You didn’t practice enough and that’s why you messed up. You deserved it.

You don’t know how to do your makeup. You should learn because you can’t look as pretty as the girls who do.

Stop being so emotional. People don’t care if you feel sad about that. You’re too sensitive.

You don’t have a mental health problem. What could you ever be depressed about?

You need to get all A’s otherwise your parents won’t love you as much.

You need to pick a career that’s good for a family otherwise a man won’t want to marry you.

Stop caring so much. It’s exhausting. In the end it doesn’t matter anyway.

You’re dirty and slutty for thinking about sex.

Don’t wear that; it might tempt your boyfriend to have sex with you.

Why did you have sex again? I told you that if you did, you are weak and can’t control yourself.

I can’t believe you think you’re old enough to get married. Are you sure he even loves you?

Now you’re fat. See what happens when you don’t exercise and eat right? You have no control.

Stop eating that! Run more. It’s good if you let yourself be a little hungry. You’ll look better.

From the side you still look chubby. Suck it in.

Your thighs are too big. Why do they still touch? Haven’t you been working out?

Look at how ugly your veins are, I can see them under your skin.

Check over that email again and fix it. No one’s going to take you seriously if you write like an idiot.

Your body sucks. You can’t even grow another human. What’s wrong with you?

He’s going to leave you if you can’t get pregnant. Stop disappointing him. And stop crying about it.

Another glass of wine? I told you a long time ago you don’t have any self control. I told you so.

You need to make sure you look good. What if he dies and you need to find a new husband? No man is going to want a woman who looks like that.

He says he loves you but maybe being together now is just easier than not.

Why did you say that? Just stop talking. You’re so annoying.

Did you see the way she looked at you? No wonder you don’t have any friends. No one wants to be your friend.

You’re well into your thirties now. Why haven’t you figured this out yet? 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

A lighted match

Anytime I think I don’t need to go so frequently to the therapist, I’m proven wrong. Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes I internally measure my need for therapy by how long it takes me to start crying in a session. I get a cup of tea from the Keurig that’s provided in the practice I go to, get settled on the couch (yes just like the movies except I’m drinking tea so ya gurl is sitting, not laying down) and let out a big breath.

My therapist sometimes has knitting in her lap when I come in, or meditation beads, or just a pen and her leather bound journal. This time she had beads, and I envied the fact that she had, for all intents and purposes, a fidget. I want one.

Anyway, something had been bubbling up for a few days before that because when she asked me, “How are you? What’s been going on?” I felt a huge release. And that’s because she actually means, “How are you? How is your life? What do you want to explore today?”

And I broke down in tears, not quite to the ugly cry stage, but it was a cry from my soul that I didn’t realize was there until it happened. But I was glad she had the good Kleenex.

“I want my life to have meaning,” I said through tears and exaggerated gestures.

And that’s what we explored… for an hour.

She told me that when people have experienced mortality in some way — through suicide or loss of a family member, or through a different kind of loss like infertility — they begin to think about these things. And I’m two for two on that list.

What I pictured in that moment was that I had been in a dark room, completely dark, so that I couldn’t see even my hand in front of me. I wasn’t even fumbling around; I was just standing in the dark room.

Then, someone lit a match. It doesn’t matter who. But the weak glow from a singular match started to illuminate the dark room, and now I could see things.

And those things I can’t un-see. 

Even if I stand in the same room, pitch black where I can’t see anything in front of me, not even my hand, I will know what’s there.

And that for me is like seeing mortality.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can never go back to not knowing.

I can’t go back to living a life that’s not headed somewhere important. I may not know where that is, but what I’m learning is that the journey is the important part.

We’re all going to arrive at the end of earthly life. The destination is not a mystery. But what we’ll be wondering about is the journey that started with a single match.

Who Am I?

This question makes me think of the character Jean Valjean in my favorite musical of all time, Les Miserables. Prisoner 24601. That’s how he was known for years and years. And I think up until his dying day, it’s an identity forced on him that he carried to his grave.

We all have identities that are either chosen or forced upon us. Up until I was about 30, there was always an epithet after my name… Elizabeth the oldest daughter of Jon and Melissa. Elizabeth, Eileen’s granddaughter. Elizabeth the honors student (again and again and again). Elizabeth the piano teacher. Elizabeth the college student. Elizabeth the wife, and then Army wife.

Alternate identities can be a welcome invisible shield from who we really are, especially if the underlying being is of an unsure form. Like me. I grasped onto any positive or powerful or proud name I could through my childhood and early adulthood. I really wanted to please people, anyone: my parents, my grandparents, my sisters, my teachers, and then my boyfriend now-husband.

I wanted to look good on social media, on Christmas cards. I wanted to convey a sense that I had my life together because it was much easier than being honest with not only myself but everyone. It hurt to be honest, to myself especially because you have to live with yourself.

So for years I hid behind my shield, and I had an acute awareness that hiding was exactly what I was doing. But I didn’t know how to put that cloak on the floor. I’d be naked. I’d be seen for who I really am. (FWIW I know this all sounds cliche but guess what? I don’t care. It’s honest.)

I remember a distinct moment when all my alternate identities no longer were serving me. I was “home” in Illinois visiting for Christmas. Earlier that year I’d just graduated with a Master’s degree (a welcome accomplishment and identity to add to the list) and I’d landed a job as a professor.

I made sure that everyone knew I was a professor and not “just” a teacher, like I’d started my career years before that. I felt I had really made in the world. Even if during my ridiculously short tenure as a professor I felt like an imposter the whole time. I didn’t even had a PhD. I wasn’t “Doctor”. Hell, I’d barely even studied much of the subject of the department I was a part of. But I was all of a sudden an expert in my area. No pressure, right? But I clung to that identity as Professor as tightly as I could.

The tidy list of accomplishments that I thought made up who I was began to really unravel for me when we were trying to get pregnant and couldn’t. If I’m honest, my whole life all of my identities were just placeholders for when I’d be a wife. And then they still stayed tight in their places until I would become a mother. But in the same time of about six months, I lost my title of Professor due to moving and having to resign from the job, and then I really lost the possibility of being a Mother when we decided to not pursue treatment and live without children.

That moment during a winter break, I was just Elizabeth, Elizabeth who was loved and who loved her family. Elizabeth who barely wore makeup except mascara or changed her earrings or went on runs before Christmas dinner or watched silly movies with the kids while the adults played games. Elizabeth who likes to read and play music and drink wine and talk about deep things. Elizabeth who’s been in love with the same man for almost half her life. Elizabeth who loves deeply and a little recklessly and takes almost everything personally. Elizabeth who is generally anxious and has a penchant for situational depression. Elizabeth who has big opinions about a few things and doesn’t care much about the rest.

When I realized all the other identities, or rather, qualities that made me up as a whole person, it began a search for truth about who I am, what’s important, and why I’m on the earth. And the answers to any of those big questions really don’t have much to do with my alter egos, my other identities I hide behind in order to not face the fact that most days I am confused about my purpose on the earth. And least of all it doesn’t have much to do with whether my uterus will sustain a child or not.

At first taking off the cloak of epithets was difficult. Painful. Soul-wrenching. I grieved. And then after awhile it was freeing, and now I’d never dream of putting the cloak(s) back on.

 

Remember

The best way to crawl out of a pit of depression and doubt is to remember what God has done for you. Even if you’re not 100% sure he’s in the day-to-day goings on, there have to be clear marks that he’s done something good in your life. Not that he’s cause something to cause you good, but that he’s actually personally done the good thing.

You can’t always think on the things he might do in your life, because those things have yet to be and let’s be honest.. Most of the time hindsight shows us that they’re not the things we thought they’d be anyway.

Don’t strain to think of something.. Whatever comes first to your mind is the thing he’s done or the promise he’s kept. It’s salient for a reason.. It’s obvious exactly for when you need to remember in order to keep going.

Fulfilled

For the past couple years I’ve been on a quest to find out what on this earth makes me feel fulfilled. What can I do, where can I go, that makes me feel the best kind of emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I haven’t quite found the pot of gold yet but I know for certain one thing that fills the gap is long distance running.

I never wrote a Philly Marathon race report, partially because I was busy, partially because I was lazy, and lastly because the last three miles of 26 shifted my perspective in a big way and I didn’t quite want to share it yet.

It’s not a secret really: do what you do because you’re motivated to do it, and the only person stopping you is you. Thats it. But it’s something I’ve been battling within my soul.

Once I gave myself permission to break through the confines of pain, exhaustion, and basically any physical barrier, my mind was free to control my body instead of the other way around.

I no longer felt dread or like I was slogging my unwilling body through the mud step by step. Instead, I felt like I was truly free and fulfilled for the first time in probably 2 or 3 years.

The high lasted for little more than 12 hours. When I came down, I came down hard but I knew what to expect. My first question was how to feel like this not just again, but always. I think I might spend the rest of my life trying to figure that out.

A bigger promise

I have failed miserably at writing here every day. But I do that some thoughts that have emanated from my daily devotional on the YouVersion Bible App.

The current plan I’m going through now with a friend is all about devotions that speak to real-life. Really, that’s what I look for in any devotion. But one day so far struck me in particular.

Waiting is a tough thing. It can try the most patient person, and the type of waiting can really make that period of time hard to bear.  In the midst of it, we have to remember God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises.

This is a noble thing – and we should take hold of it, remembering God’s promises. But the way it was presented in the devotional text was not pleasant. It discusses different life events that can cause us to wait or question God’s promises, including infertility:  “When there’s no pitter-patter of little feet, remember Genesis 30:22: ‘Then God remembered Rachel; he listening to her and enabled her to conceive.'”

This sounds like a nice thought in theory, but I think it’s where much of the ‘Christian narrative’ says that if you just pray enough, or wait enough, or remember the promises enough, God will give you what you desire. That the happy ending is coming. And I’m sorry to say this in case someone hasn’t heard it yet, but sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

I can’t tell you how strong my desire was (is…?) to have our own biological children. It was (is…? still working this out) immense. Overwhelming, all-consuming. Even as recent as a few weeks ago, I would be bee-bopping along in my actually really great life, then all of a sudden see a little girl with dark brown curls marching down the hall with her adorably too-big backpack and BAM. I was hit with that desire and emptiness that is sometimes so strong it could knock me to my feet in tears. I wish I were being dramatic.

So, considering our infertility, according to this idea in the devotional, did we not pray enough? Wait long enough? We have to look at this promise of God in context, as it’s specific to one woman, one situation in all the history of infertility.

The attitudes and apparent words of reassurance around the subject of infertility need to change, not just in the world, but especially in the church. There are probably millions of hurting women that instead of finding understanding and solace in the church when they confide their fears or feelings about their infertility are met with these one-off quotations of Scripture that really do nothing but cause more pain, at least for me.

We need a bigger promise. More than just God will enable us to conceive, because as I’m a first-hand witness to, sometimes it doesn’t happen (and maybe there is not some mysterious reason.. it could just be), and I firmly believe that our failure to procreate has nothing to do with our level of faith.

My promises from God have to be bigger to encompass and devour my fears, my emptiness, my sorrow over children lost, however intangible those children may be. My promises from God have to ensure that He holds me, He knows me, He loves me and has important and impactful work for me to do that does not involve being a biological mother or spreading my ‘maternal instinct.’

I will quote another part of the devotional that I found to be the most comforting: “When hope is scarce, remember Luke 24:6-7: ‘He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you,… ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” That is the bigger promise. That is the promise.