Out of grief, thankfulness

As the plane circled Midway, I was fuming. Angry. Upset. And desperately wishing the pilot would turn us back to Baltimore.

I looked out the window and my body told me that it remembered the intense, confusing, and raw grief I experienced several years ago when my grandpa died and I flew ‘home’ for the funeral. I had to borrow money from my parents to afford the plane ticket. I was alone. I was utterly broken and anxious and exhausted.

The body remembers, and this past December, it was internally screaming, making sure I didn’t forget the grief.

It seems the number of times I’ve gone ‘home’ for funerals have equaled the number of times I’ve gone for things other than funerals. As I write that and count it in my head, the latter is more. But the sadness and grief seem to often outshine the happiness and delight on trips back to the Midwest.

As we deplaned, I thought about the long ride ahead after picking up luggage from baggage claim while also taking a breath and gearing myself up for an emotional few days.

We drove to central Illinois from Chicago, and my heart jumped as I looked out the window and found some comfort in the monotony of the flat, flat farmland dotted with groups of trees, shielding houses from wind and bad weather.

Over the holiday, I wrestled with the grief and the togetherness. I was angry, and also felt blessed (but not #blessed). Angry at my grandparents for all leaving me in the world to figure it out on my own without their physical presence and guidance only a phone call away. Feeling blessed that I was able to have them in my life for as long as I did.

Today is Mimi’s birthday. She would have been 86. And damn, don’t I know that she was born in 1934 because every. Single. Time we went to Steak ‘n Shake, she let me know that she was born in the same year the restaurant was founded.

Two years ago on this day, I don’t remember if I called her or not. After the dementia started progressing more rapidly, it became more difficult to call her, though our talks would last only about 5 minutes.

Two years ago on this day, I had no idea that only 7 months later, I’d be grieving her deeply, having spent some time at her side while she was dying. I wasn’t there for her last breath. But I think my soul felt at peace when she passed.

Now, as I’m in, and have been in, a phase of my life that has been difficult and confusing and sometimes frightening, I wish I had her here more than ever. Time and time again in my mind I imagine walking into her house, through the back door after climbing a few steps. Coming into the kitchen, TV turning on with a quick press on a button. All the scents of her wrapping me in a blanket of safety and acceptance. Downy and Dove and Glade Plug-Ins.

We’d sit in the living room and she’d tend to her nails while I tried to figure out how to get my toes unstuck from the stretchy afghan on the couch.

We watched a lot of reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers and Golden Girls and Designing Women and The Nanny. After I’d get ready for bed (showers because to her baths were just washing with dirty water), I’d put on one of her nightgowns or cinch up some of her PJ pants (she weighed more back then and shopped in the ‘big mama’ section). She would tell me that wearing a sports bra at night would keep my chest from growing (that’s not true, btw).

In the winter we’d watch figure skating. I was mesmerized by the grace and talent of the athletes. And after I’d become older and didn’t spend as much time over there, she’d call me on her way home from work and tell me to look outside because there’s a beautiful sunset or that figure skating was on tonight.

For some years after that, I wasn’t as kind or innocent towards her and I didn’t always keep my negative thoughts about her to myself. I’m sure I rolled my eyes when she called me some of those times. Now I’d kill to have that call, and have her remember where I live (not Texas anymore, Mimi) and that Aaron and I are married (When are you getting married?). I’d share my story of infertility because I know she’d give me a hug and love me just the same (When are you and Aaron going to have kids?)

As I let the emotions roll through my body, juxtaposed with grief is an equal or greater amount of thankfulness and security from my memories with her. Memory is beautiful. I can travel back anytime I want for a hug, a kiss, a call.

Happy Birthday, Mimi.

Self-actualization

I’ve learned a hell of a lot about myself in the past few months. Summer was a lovely time of watching sunrises, reading books (check out my Goodreads on the side bar), namely, getting back into fiction and even fantasy. I’ve been really connecting with who I am at my core. And also getting shit done. (That last one is vague but still hopefully conveys a strong message.)

Running has taken a back seat, though my most recent ink pays homage to my hobby-turned-natural-antidepressant. In fact, I’ve been pursuing this hobby, and PRs, for ten years now.

Ten years of running, of training, of actually only a couple of injuries. This past year held some roadblocks, like the month I had to wear a walking boot for plantar fasciitis, or the time I fell on concrete going downhill and gave myself a painful elbow sprain.

After the bout with PF, I achieve a couple PRs this year: the 10K and the half marathon. And I worked my ass off for those PRs.

Throughout this decade, running has been an outlet for all the self-guessing and -doubting from not being able to conceive. It was damn near necessary for my mental health while my husband was across the big blue ocean in the Army. It has helped me process a lot of life’s quandaries.

Now I’m no longer surviving, folks. Life is now not a struggle. That sounds quite melodramatic, right? But when you’re kind of wired to be a person who looks at the glass half empty (and at the same time don’t like what’s already in your glass), this is kind of huge.

Most people just go from day to day protecting themselves and making sure nothing goes too wrong…they see life as a threat. A good day means you made it through without getting hurt.

The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a good chunk of my adult life. I moved in and out of this way of thinking, but now I’ve crossed “survive!” off my list.

When you’ve been doing this for so long, it’s hard to know where to go next. So I’ve been letting my heart lead me instead of my brain.

I’m reading, sitting in silence, going for a kayak, doing some yoga, exploring my faith and spirituality in a much deeper way, opening myself up to new relationships and opportunities.

And guess what? I’m thriving, yo.

Anyone who’s studied education or any related field knows about good ole Maslow. I’ve moved past the bottom two rungs and now I’m thriving in relationships. I’m doing a pretty good job in esteem, and mostly concerned about how I esteem myself. And I’ve been doing a lot of work in self-actualization.

I’ve been focusing a lot of energy here, and also in being mindful and aware. I’ve needed to slow down and take everything in. Instead of getting my views from the road, I’ve been getting them from the porch or the water.

And now that I’ve moved up to the upper echelons of this pyramid, my question is, how can I help others do the same? I have some ideas….

Writer’s block is a bully.

Maybe if I write about writer’s block, it’ll go away. You know, just like those bullies that called me “four eyes” and “nerd” and “goody two shoes” at school.

In a way, writer’s block bullies me too. There are many times throughout the day whether I’m in the car, in the shower, on a run, teaching a lesson, that I have this idea that is just bursting forth like a storm on a warm summer day.

And then by the time I have the time and space to write about it, it’s retreated. And it’s hella frustrating. And probably the #1 reason I haven’t been writing here regularly, as regularly as I’d like.

However, those moments of existential clarity as frustrating as they are serve a purpose. They remind me that I’m a whole person. A human being with a soul experiencing life and emotions to the fullest. Someone who is more than aware of her own struggles and attempts to overcome them.

Tangent: do we really overcome our struggles? Climb them like a hill and forget them when we get to the bottom? Because of my experience this week with a resurgence of depression, I don’t think we fully overcome them. I think they become a part of us, perhaps to the extent to which they’re a thorn in our side. Or they serve to make us stronger.

I’ve been living with dysthymic disorder since I was probably 13. Before that, I remember feeling an awareness of emotions. I don’t particularly remember if I was a “high-strung” child, but I know I screamed for basically the first six months of my life. I think they call those kids “high needs” now.

I don’t know when or how it kicked in, but I don’t remember a time without it.

Sarah Wilson

For twenty years, I’ve been trying to tamp it down, hide it, and bury it six feet under. I’ve been in therapy, taken medicine, prayed for healing, and created endorphins by running to overcome it. Recently I read this book called First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson, and it’s all about depression’s cousin Anxiety. And for the first time in my life, I came away with an understanding and hope that anxiety can actually be a good thing, and it doesn’t have to rule over me, and I can use it in a positive way.

And all the while you’re being told there’s something wrong with you that has to be fixed. All the while you’re dependent on others’ ideas about what’s wrong with you.

Sarah Wilson

I had a moment this weekend when I realized depression could be used in the same way, or at least the type of depression that afflicts me. (I still struggle with how to word this… I hate saying ‘I have depression’, like it’s a pet.) Depression has spurred me into so many things that are actually good for me… cue the list:

  • regular exercise for those sweet sweet endorphins
  • staying involved in a church for the positive environment
  • prayer
  • writing… this one is probably the most significant
  • openness and vulnerability about my struggle, which can contribute to a larger sense of community for myself and others
  • eating/drinking well – I had a philosophy professor that said if we all just eat lettuce we won’t be depressed. He was kind of right, kind of wrong, but I see his point.
  • Self-examination
  • Yoga/meditation (totally prefer the former and avoid the latter….)
  • Getting regular sleep

I believe with all my heart that just understanding the metapurpose of the anxious struggle helps to make it beautiful.

Sarah Wilson

And as it turns out, all the things listed above help with anxiety too. The truth is, these mental health issues are part of who I am. But they’re not the whole picture. I am lucky (blessed? happy?) that the type of depression and anxiety I have are not debilitating. I am very thankful. And as sad as it is to me that I won’t be having any of my own biological children, I am glad that I won’t be passing on whatever genetic makeup has been responsible for depression/anxiety in my family for generations.

What I’m understanding from this early-morning writing session (fueled by coffee, lolz) is that we need to talk about this more. We need to talk about how it is to live with these ailments and how to be a fully engaged human on earth. We need to talk about how they affect our lives but also make us who we are. It emboldens me to see the stigma and conversations surrounding depression/anxiety changing in my lifetime. People seem to be more open about it than ever, and I think that is the true balm… connection and community.

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.

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? 

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

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.