MuddyFingersMeg

Eat, drink, (garden, knit, quilt, think, fix, read) & be merry

A new year, new perspective, new goals, new word.

It wasn’t an easy decision, but perhaps it was an inevitable one.  Yesterday, I filled my prescription for anti-anxiety medication.I cried.

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At first I assumed I cried from sadness, or resignation, or my pervasive sense of brokeness.  But I then realized they were tears of relief.

When I met with the psychiatrist on Tuesday, she drew a diagram very similar to this:

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I don’t consider myself a fatalist.  I don’t express, or believe, sediments such as, “everything happens for a reason.”  I can’t accept that there was a “reason” or “plan” that subjected me to ten years of torturous abuse in the hands of a psychopath.  And yet I find myself struck at how much of what has happened over the past few years has been so instrumental in me finding and utilizing the help I need.  For instance, in order to teach, I took several additional biology courses that were not part of my major.  Two of those – evolution and physiology – have been essential in enabling me to understand what happened to me.  Being able to conceptualize the workings of my brain and body have given me a much deeper acceptance of anxiety as a natural outcome of my experiences instead of a personal failing.

But I digress.  The main peak in the diagram above shows the natural course of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic response is a purely biological response designed to keep us alive.  “Fight or flight”, as it is often called, is a lightening fast, unconscious response to (perceived) threats.  The parasympathetic response, or the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” branch of the nervous system, is a much more gradual process, that returns the body to homeostasis and maintains “non essential” processes such as digestion, reproduction, and relaxation.

These two systems work in tandem to respond to the myriad of situations that we encounter everyday.  Most people operate at the “normal” level where they experience a moderate degree of arousal everyday, punctuated by more pronounced periods of stress and relaxation.

Prior to therapy, I was operating at an frighteningly high level of sympathetic arousal.  Upon waking everyday, the anxiety kicked into high gear and kept me hyper-vigiliant to a whole slew of perceived threats.  I learned to do this because I grew up in an environment with very real, persistent threats.  This vigilance helped me to feel prepared for the dangerous, unpredictable world I was living within.

CBT has helped me bring that level of sympathetic response down, to a place that, to me, feels reasonably relaxed.  But the psychiatrist indicated that I was still living in a state of “high anxiety.”  Frankly, this was news to me.  I know I have periods of anxiety, but I’m learning to manage them and can often distract or calm myself down.  While therapy has been enormously helpful, it’s obviously not enough.  I’m feeling nearly ready stop my CBT, but it still appears that my anxiety is much, much higher than it needs to be.  So the medication is suppose to help bring me down closer to a normal baseline of sympathetic arousal.

As we’ve heard numerous times, long-term stress wears on the body and the brain.  The meds are suppose to help my brain calm down enough so it has more resources to repair some of the damage wrought from years of high stress.  Honestly, I’m so curious I can hardly stand it.  It takes 4-6 weeks for the drugs to take full effect (if these work for me).  What will it be like to live at the baseline?  Just writing that sentence makes the tears well up again.  Relief.

One of the most challenging parts about this whole process is figuring out “normal.”  When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, I kept reading statements like, “Therapy will help you return to normal.”  Or, “renew your interest in the good things of life.”  Or, “reestablish your sense of safety in the world.”  But in my case there is no “re.”  This sh*t started so early there is nothing healthy to return to.  My whole life has been calibrated to the initial, pervasive experiences of fear, abandonment, hatred and abuse.  Each time I find a new level of calm, I think, “Eureka. Journey over.  Healing, check.  I made it.”  Only to realize that I still have miles to go.  But when I turn around to see how far I’ve come, how I ache for that little girl who lived, so bravely and for so long, in such toxic circumstances.

The doctor also recommended finding ways to “exercise” the parasympathetic response.  She rattled off a list including yoga, meditation, tai chi, mindfulness, massage, acupuncture.  I immediately cringed.  I like yoga – the aerobic variety.  She meant the “slow, gentle” yoga, which I cannot imagine myself doing.  Meditation?  Ha.  I’ve tried it, can’t stand it.  Mindfulness?  I’ve actually worked on this over the past year.  It’s been a lot of work with no reward.  Massage?  I do it sometimes, but it’s hard for me, and it’s often not very relaxing.  I said as much to the doc and she laughed, kindly, knowingly.  “Of course you don’t like these,” and she smiled.  We became side-tracked, so I didn’t get to ask her why she said that.  But I realized later it’s because all of these activities are designed for deep relaxation, to a depth of which is currently not possible for me.  It makes me uncomfortable and anxious because it means putting my guard down, and that is so, so, so hard for me (damn PTSD).

Realizing that was like switching on a dizzyingly bright lightbulb.  It illuminated so much that I have struggled to understand about myself.  I don’t like slow music.  If it’s not upbeat, I tune it out or shut it off.  I always have at least two “projects” with me – reading, knitting, homework, etc so if I’m caught with any “downtime”I have something “productive” to do.  I start waking about 4:30 every morning.  I do not like long meals.  I often do not taste my food.  I always have to know what’s next.  I get explosively angry about “wasted time.”  I cannot really and truly relax. 

Yes, I do sometimes feel relaxed.  But the diagram above made me realize that there are degrees of relaxation.  You see, I have always dichotomized my experience.  If I didn’t feel “up tight” then I was relaxed.  There was very little in between.  But now I realize that my entire life experience exists on a continuum much broader than my daily experience.  My current experience exists in that narrow band between the peaks of my anxiety and the “valleys” of relaxation.  But that narrow band lives within a much broader range, and by working at it, I can move those valleys further down to more and more relaxed states.  But it’s scary, because I have memories – both conscious and unconscious – of very bad things happening when I was caught unawares.

It’s tempting to keep living in this narrow band (it feels safer) but continuing to live in a state of “high anxiety” is damaging to both my body and my brain.

“One Little Word”, if you haven’t heard of it, is choosing one word, in lieu or in addition to New Year’s resolutions, to help focus the upcoming year.  Two years ago I chose “Risk” and I really enjoyed the experience of molding my year around risks – big and small – and seeing what became of it.  It was a huge year of growth for me.

Last year, I couldn’t settle on a word, so I didn’t.  But I think I have a word this year.  Well, a phrase.  It’s “moving in.”  I’ve talked a bit about this before, this idea of “moving in” to my own body.  When reading up on “exercising” the parasympathetic nervous system, mindfulness of the body was a recurring theme.  Again, this makes me anxious just thinking about it.  Indeed, I’ve previously become aware that “I” lived in a small part of the back of my brain, but refused to really inhabit my own body.  It’s a scary thing, owning a body.  Bodies are vulnerable, to other people, to disease, to brokeness, to pain, to clumsiness, ugliness and humiliation.  I learned these lessons very, very early.  I retreated out of my body and carry it around as dead weight, refusing to invest much in it because it only leads to betrayal.

That worked, in its own way, for a long time.  But that strategy is no longer congruent with how I want to live my life.  It’s time to move in.  How?  Well, I have a few ideas.

– Pay attention, and then respond.  I often become aware that I’m sitting in such a way that causes me pain, but I don’t adjust.  I will sometimes get blisters or other injuries but don’t stop working.  Sometimes I know I’m in pain, sometimes I don’t.  I often don’t go to the bathroom when I need to, because I think I’m inconveniencing myself or someone else.   I rarely listen to myself.  This needs to stop.

– Count calories.  I know, this seems weird.  But I’ve increasingly become aware that I have no idea when I’m hungry or full.  I eat when it’s convenient or when I’m afraid I will be hungry. Hunger was a persistent part of my childhood.  I’m terrified of hunger.  So I subvert it by eating preemptively.  This needs to stop.  I have no gauge of a healthy amount of food.  I know I eat way more than I need (my clothes are getting increasingly less comfortable!) but when I try to “pay attention” to my body, I just feel “hungry” all the time.  I think that by counting calories for a while, I can calibrate my body to healthy amounts of food.  This would never have been possible for me before smartphones.  I downloaded an app that I think will help me do this for a while.  I’m not being down-to-the-single-calorie neurotic about it, but I need to get a handle on what is healthy.  I think this is a step in the right direction.

– I’m considering halting my alcohol consumption.  This is still an idea I’m just toying with, but I’d like to carve out room to think about it more throughly.  I don’t feel like discussing the reasons right now, but it might be a good idea.

– Exercise.  I’m actually pretty good about this, most of the time.  But when I start feeling down, I stop.  Considering that it helps me feel better I need to do it most when I’m having a hard time.

– Try acupuncture.  That is the one thing on the list from the doc that I can imagine myself doing at this point.  So I guess I’ll try it.

– Continue learning to take care of myself.  I’ve drastically improved my skills on this over the past year.  And I hope to keep getting better.

– Practice self-compassion.  This isn’t easy, either, but I think it’s helpful in body mindfulness, which is helpful in activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

– Give medication a good, solid go.  I don’t want to be on it permanently, but if it can calm my brain enough to allow for some healing and the experience of a “new normal”, hey, why not?

Well, that’s a pretty good start.  So much information buzzing in my brain.  Feels good to get it out on “paper.”  Thanks for reading.

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Processing – Medication.

It was just about two years ago that I, yet again, decided to try therapy.  My past experiences with therapists have been awful.  So as the date of my appointment drew near, it took an incredible hope to refrain from canceling it.

God, I’m so glad I didn’t.  M has been my champion, my coach, my adversary and challenger.  She has been one of life’s greatest gifts to me.  It’s hard for me to remember what kind of person I was two years ago.  Have I really made progress?  Sometimes it feels like my troubles are different, although still weight with same strength.  And maybe that’s true.  But I do feel that I am more confident, more capable of accepting the love that surrounds me.  I am more aware of myself and more trusting of my instincts.  I value myself, at least in some ways, some of the time.

I trust M unreservedly.  Unlike previous therapists she didn’t rush to diagnose me and shuttle me along to a prescription-writer.  She listened, long and thoughtfully, before coming to any conclusions.  In fact she listened for two full years before suggesting that I consider anxiety medications.

That is the only reason I’m even considering it.  I am throughly resistant to being on medications.  I have trouble articulating exactly why.  I don’t have a problem with the existence of medications, or with the idea of anyone else taking them.  I just don’t want to do it.  I think, in part, it’s because it feels like a bandaid when I need stitches.  I don’t want to just feel better, I want to be better.  I hold tightly to this idea that if I work hard enough, try hard enough, believe hard enough that I can heal all those old wounds and this little anxiety problem will go away permanently.

But maybe that’s not reasonable.  I know very little about brain science, but I do understand that what happens to us in early childhood seriously and permanently affects the way our brains work.  I grew up under constant fear, neglect, and psychological manipulation.  I think I became hardwired to respond to average simulations as if they’re a real and dangerous threat.  And maybe no amount of therapeutic effort can change that wiring.  That’s so depressing.

So now the question seems to be – do I want to continue to voluntarily, and perhaps hopelessly, struggle against the dark curtain of crushing doubt and fear that falls around me several times a day?  Or do I want swallow a little help so I can experience a some success?  Believe it or not, it’s a really tough choice.

Frankly, I’m curious.  I’ve never known life without deep and profound anxiety.  I muddle through it, and overall, I do ok.  But what would it feel like to lose the curtain that always looms in the back of my mind?  I can’t imagine it as much as it intrigues me.

In my childhood home, every good thing was followed by something bad, sometimes something awful.  J couldn’t stand to see us happy.  So I learned to associate happiness, connection, and gentleness with a deep dread of what is to follow.  I can have a perfectly wonderful coffee date with a friend where I feel accepted and connected but the moment I walk away, my chest constricts and an overwhelming sense of doom falls around me.  I’m convinced I did something unforgivable, said something terrible, or acted in a way that was totally unacceptable.  And it’s because I have this antique childhood connection between goodness and bad.

And I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to walk away from that coffee date, that party, that craft date, that bike ride and just feel good.  I can never feel good for more than a few moments before I’m battling the falling curtain and the associated demons.

Could a little pill really banish those demons?  Could it clear away the cobwebs and the curtain?  Could I really feel better and be able to enjoy life’s sweetest moments and let them linger on?

I seriously have my doubts.  But, I’m also profoundly curious.

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Processing… the past.

Are you familiar with the constructivist theory of learning?  Essentially it’s the idea that we actively “construct” and maintain networks of understanding in our minds.  New information is both viewed through and tacked onto existing concepts.  We’re never “blank slates.”  Each person comes into any given situation with pre-existing set of understandings and that profoundly shapes what they experience and learn.  Our constructs can be true or false and they filter what we do or don’t take away from any given experience.

love this idea.  I used to sit in classes and think about how we’re each having a unique experience even though we’re sitting through the exact same lecture.  Those sitting near an open window have an entirely different experience than those sitting near the open door.  Those at the back of the room don’t have the same class as those at the front.  Differences in interest, previous knowledge, misconceptions, biases, temperament and a whole host of other variables profoundly chances the experience of people sitting mere inches from one another.  Constructivism hints at parts of that idea.

In a book I read recently (sorry – I can’t remember which one!) the authors discuss first impressions and how we tend to generalize our earliest impressions of people as accurate indicators of their overall personality.  If a chipper, upbeat person is having an awful day the first time you meet them, you’re likely going to form an impression of them as negative or withdrawn.  This impression holds true even if you have many subsequent encounters which are unambiguously positive.  We tend to weight our first impressions much more heavily than later interactions.  Incidentally, if you really like someone when you meet them and they later prove to be annoying, self-absorbed, and negative, it’s going to take you a long time to shake that positive impression even if they drive you crazy for a really, really long time.

But I digress.  I’ve been thinking about the weighting of impressions lately as I continually work to contextualize and understand my history.  I often wonder why I feel so compelled to process, process, process my childhood.  It’s like a hard drive that won’t keep spinning.  My brain whirrs endlessly trying to make sense of what did (and didn’t) happen to me.  It’s exhausting, and I often want it to stop.  But it doesn’t.

But the discussion on the heavy weight we put on first impressions helped me make some sense of all this.  My earliest impressions of life do not mesh with my current experiences.  For example, the idea that people are caring, reliable, helpful, and genuine is not something I experienced in childhood.  So I am forever trying to learn to really trust people while also trying to protect myself from the excruciating vulnerability that was mercilessly exploited when I was a child.  Even though I don’t think the people in my life are “out to get me” I default to that mentality because the pain of betrayal is still sharp and poignant.

Our earliest experiences profoundly shape us.  When I talk with friends of every age inevitably there is always at least one story of something their mom or dad did that was influential.  Sometimes it’s a joke, a disciplinary action, or a moment of connection.  It’s a rare conversation where people don’t share something about their first caregivers.  Many, if not most, people I talk to have many good things to say about their parents.  They can share their stories because their stories don’t make other people uncomfortable.  They can talk about and thus process and fully integrate their experiences.  I sometimes tell stories that are dark, sad, and perhaps frightening.  My need to talk about, make sense of, and integrate my experiences is no less than others.  The social acceptability of my experience is, however, very different.

So with those ideas in mind, the drive to process, process, process, seems less pathological.  It’s the result of a natural need to understand and integrate.  As people we tend to place heavy emphasis on early experiences and use those as a benchmark for understanding new ones.  Because my earliest filters are poorly equipped for understanding my current experiences, I experience a lot of discord.  Additionally, because we construct meaning and understanding in from previous experience, it’s not surprising I have a lot of processing to do.  Then, to add fuel to the fire, I have less opportunity to do so because there exist few social contexts where that conversation is appropriate.

Although this presents no clear solutions, understanding is waaaay more than half the battle.  At least I can let go of the nagging guilt that my need to process is overblown and exaggerated.  I do think I need to choose to think about other things sometimes, but that’s a story for another day.

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Processing… fear.

At the close of nearly all of my education classes, we’re required to write an updated “teaching philosophy” incorporating theories, ideas, and strategies from the class we just finished.  Reflection, they tell us, is a scientifically sound strategy for making material meaningful and thus boosting retention.

In one of my favorite undergrad courses, we read a paper that peripherally discussed the importance of telling our stories (the paper was actually about something else entirely – although I don’t remember what).  The idea was that we make meaning from talking and reflecting, and that meaning is central to true understanding and change.

Lately I’ve been on the verge of making a lot of meaning in my life, but I can’t find the energy or time to write, talk, or reflect enough to make sense of it all.  It’s like my brain is both a bowl of squishy, tangled noodles and the constantly expanding universe.  I’m nearly bursting with granules of profound change and understanding, but I’m having trouble nurturing them to fruition.  It takes so much mental energy, and the outcome is uncertain.  Part of the problem is a deficit of time, the other (and bigger part) is a surplus of fear.

The other day my therapist mentioned, in passing, the extraordinary amount of fear in my life.  Fear.  This is part of what I love about therapy – the keen outside observations of myself that wouldn’t necessarily come to the forefront of my brain.  I haven’t, in recent times, thought of myself as someone who is driven by fear.  But, upon reflection, I think she’s right.  I’ve become so accustomed to its prodding and manipulations that it needn’t rear its’ head far before I change my course.  Fear is the lead dancer in my life and I’ve learned to respond to extremely subtle cues.  Worse, I respond before I recognize why and I think I often short-change myself in opportunities because fear has me assuming in my own failure before I even take a chance.  So, I don’t take chances.

Unfortunately, recognizing a falsehood doesn’t necessarily imply a counteracting truth.  Just because I can now (sort of) see the role fear plays in deterring me from seizing opportunity, doesn’t mean I can all the sudden see where the fear moves or how to combat it.  It’s unclear which people, situations, or opportunities I avoid because it’s wise to do so, and which ones I avoid because I’m simply afraid I’ll fail.  Worse yet, I often don’t even know what, exactly, I’m avoiding.

For example, I have never entered an alley cat (casual-ish bicycle race).  Although I’ve run in biking circles for years, and most of my friends are alley cat veterans, I have never entered.  Why?  I used to say, “I don’t race.”  Why?  I think I was afraid, although it’s impossible for me to pinpoint exactly why.  In part, I was afraid of being slow, of making a mistake, of coming in last, of making a fool of myself.  Perhaps I was afraid of seeing just how I stacked up against everyone else.  Mostly, though, I think it was a generalized fear of a generic form of “failure.”  If I didn’t race, I didn’t have to contend with that.

Here’s the thing, though, I kind of wanted to race although it was nearly impossible for me to admit that to myself, never mind anyone else.  I have a competitive streak, and I love bikes, and I have many friends at the events.  It would be a blast.  

It has taken me years to realize all this, to put all the pieces together, and wrangle the fear long enough to figure out how to overcome it.   It took me ages to see I was shying away because of an unreasonable fear and not something more substantial or legitimate.

Amplify this several times over and spread it over my whole life and this is an unruly mess.  What was FDR’s famous quote?  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”?  That has been resonating through my body and mind lately as I try to seek and destroy the fear refuges in my life.  I’ve registered for an alley cat in September.  But where else does this fear live and how else does it dictate my decisions?  That is less clear, although I’m starting to parse it out.

– I know it plays a heavy-handed role in my decisions about my future in school and work.  I can see it retroactively, all the manageable challenges I avoided for no other reason than intimidation and fear of failure.  This is such a hard issue for me, I think I’ll need (many) more posts to work through it.

– In the past fear has made it impossible for me to think objectively about the issue of children.  I have worked through some of those issues and that is its’ own can of worms.

– Answering the phone.  I have terrible and overwhelming anxiety when it comes to talking on the phone.  It terrifies me and often I keep my ringer turned off because of it.  Many reasons exist for this, but suffice it to say I typically do not answer it.  Thank goodness for email, FB, and texting because I’d be a much, much more isolated person without alternative forms of communication.

Those are the ones I understand with the most clarity.  Others that I’m still sorting are fears surrounding: crowded places, self-disclosure, abrupt or excessive noise, food, asking for help, talking to people I don’t know, authority, and transitions.  Obviously, not all these are inherently problematic.  Finding the line between personality and pathology is an inordinately important task for me.

Right now, though, fear also is a heavyweight in my self-reflections. I’m often so afraid of where they’ll lead, I try to avoid it.  But I need to make meaning out of my story.  I need to internalize all the excellent ideas around me,  incorporate them, and allow them to change me.  Fear is an outstanding self-replicator if allowed to run rampant.  And that cycle needs to stop.

So I may spend some time here, in the near future, thinking through this stuff.  I can’t continue to allow fear to prevent me from racing alley cats, learning to fail, and dreaming about my future in real and honest ways (no guarantees about answering my phone, though).

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Thinking aloud

The grad program is off to a galloping start.  It’s a fascinating and frantic whirlwind of ideas, history, hope and tragedy.  It’s also an emotional roller-coaster.  For example, yesterday we discussed communication disorders and I learned that the vast majority of kids with speech disorders do not have them as adults because they are helped by therapists while in school.  However, I will struggle with stuttering to the day I die because I didn’t get that help.  In fact, that help was intentionally withheld from me by deliberately cruel parenting.  It’s small jabs like this, several times a day, that leave me exhausted and tearful.  As does the constant demand that we disclose our own scholastic histories, examine our own biases and backgrounds, and delve into the depths of our own assumptions about education.  Of course, this should all be a part of teacher training, but it’s painful when large swathes of my academic story are dark and unforgiving.

Next week I’m expected to write my story as a K-12 student and then critique it, all in 3 double-spaced pages.  This must be designed for students with cohesive histories.  How do I explain, in just a couple of pages, how I’ve attended a multitude of schools?  Some I attended for as little as two weeks, others I attended for several years.  I’ve been in the wealthiest suburban schools with wall-mounted TVs and multiple pools.  I’ve been rural schools where the grounds are being swallowed by forest.  I’ve been in urban schools with drug-sniffing dogs and new principals every year.  I’ve been “home-schooled” in ways that deserve their own paper explaining the cruelties and injustices.  I’ve been in schools where I look like the majority of students and I’ve been in schools where I’ve clearly been in the minority.  I’ve been at home in poverty-stricken schools and dwarfed by the the obvious wealth of schools where students drive Porches.  I’ve been welcomed and ridiculed, bullied and ignored.   I attended 9th grade geometry classes as an 11 year old with a second grade education.  I ended up in AP US history without knowing the story of the American Revolution.  And then, somehow, I went on to actually graduate with a 4.0 and a fistful of scholarships and awards.  I’m a freak, an anomaly and I resent that it’s being rubbed in my face as a way to get the rich, white kids from the suburbs to see their own “isms.” And I resent the implication that my story will somehow fit, with critique, on three measly pages.

It’s good for me to process all this.  I know it is and I know I need to do it before stepping into a classroom.  But that doesn’t mean I like it.  It also makes me mad that the curriculum is designed to support rich, white teacher-candidates see and wrestle with their biases and there isn’t much room to support people like me who have different stories to process.  I have to pay for therapy to wrestle with mine.  Their support is included in the tuition and classroom.

Intuitively I know I’m not the only one struggling with these issues.  But my realizations and stories are not as socially acceptable to talk about, so it’s harder to find support.  The girl that can just say, “I had NO IDEA that kids in inner cities schools had teachers that were being paid $3000 less, no pool, few college-prep classes, etc… No wonder some of those poor kids are stuck in poverty!” can find support and sympathy for her realizations.

I know this designed to tug on our heart strings and make us examine our motives and assumptions.  But it’s just hard.  And it sends me back into the mourning place.  At least The Sadness is friendly and familiar now.  But I still don’t like it.

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Spring.

Hi, friends!  I wish I had a compelling reason for my lengthy absence lately but I don’t.  BUT it is a whopping 21 days until I am in the first person in my family of origin to graduate from college!

It’s spring – which came ridiculously early – and spring brings loads of heavy emotions.  The lilacs are blooming (my dad’s favorite flower) and Mother’s Day is just around the bend.  I’m wrapping up a semester of 20 credits and preparing to enter a graduate program.  It’s no wonder I’ve been tired lately, no matter how much I sleep.  My brain is either learning or processing all the time!

The lilacs aren’t as sad as usual, though.  I miss my dad, surely, but it’s a dull ache now, and only when I press on it.  My mother’s absence isn’t as sharp, either.  I count her absence by holidays more than months, and it’s been nearly a dozen since she’s made any sort of effort.  It makes it easier to really close the door.  But, as “they” say, the closing of one door opens another and so it goes here.  I’ve decided since I did much of my own rearing, I’m going to celebrate myself on Mother’s Day.  It feels hokey and funny to me, but I, at a deeper level, like the idea.  I’ve finally given myself permission to give myself a little credit for who I am and how I got here.  In many ways I’ve been my own mother, and I was often a mother to my brother and other children that lived in our house.  I read bedtime stories, said prayers, and tucked in tiny children that lived in our house.  I woke them in the mornings and sent them off to school while I stay home, in a house by myself.  All day.  When I was seven or eight.

So I welcome the coming of May.  To me late spring feels like the beginning of a new year.  And this year I’ll be a college graduate, beginning a new career, free of my mother, with the world wide open before me.  It’s a transformative spring, and I welcome that with open arms.

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Bucketlist, revisited

I’ve been thinking about my bucketlist lately.  I went back and looked it over and I was (happily) shocked to realize it’s been almost three years since I wrote that post and in that intervening time, I’ve been steadily making progress on each of those items.   A few I can (nearly) check off completely.

I was especially delighted because  I’ve added two items to my list and there is now room to put them without feeling completely overwhelmed.

– Take a botanical illustration class.  I am beyond thrilled because a quick google search reveled a wonderful botanical art school mere miles from my house!  I don’t have much historical precedent as an artist.  In fact, I withdrew from Drawing I my first time through college because I arrived near the end of the semester and hadn’t done most of the work (so unlike me!).  But I find botanical illustrations so lovely and so I’m going to give it another try.  Besides, I think drawing plants is much less intimidating than human subjects.  Plants won’t be offended if their complexion looks drab or I’ve given then a ridiculous nose or an additional thirty pounds.

– Take a class on scientific writing for children.  I’ve long held a pipe dream of writing children’s books.  I recently had a conversation with a professor who writes scientific literature for children in her “spare time.”   Doesn’t that sound like fun?  I want to write accessible books on subjects like honeybees, basic guides to mechanical systems (like bicycles), and I’d love to attempt a series of Dr. Seu*ss style  books that make the terminology of chemistry and biology funny and memorable.  Although I recognize it’s a difficult profession to break into, I’d like to give it a whirl and see what happens.  You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

I can’t wait to try these new endevours!  But first I must work on what’s on my to-do list tonight which includes a paper and studying for a lab midterm.  Ciao!

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Learning to let go

It’s been four months now since I sent the last letter and my mother slipped, uncontested, out of my life.  Since that time I’ve started my final year of my undergraduate career, P and I celebrated our third anniversary, I turned 30 years old, and several major holidays have come and gone.  A new year is right around the corner – a year that will probably mark my first whole year without a mother.

It was as if she was waiting, waiting for permission to be done mothering.  Once it was granted she ran, ran far far away.  Last I heard she was in Mississippi.  Or was it Missouri?

A childhood narcissism wells up within me.  Doesn’t she miss me?  How can she live without me?  But, I forget.  I only lived with her for fourteen years, most of which she doesn’t seem to remember.  I haven’t lived with her for sixteen years now and her life has long since taken on its’ own rhythm.

At first she called once in a while, wanting to see me.  Then, over the years, that dwindled to a slow stream of cards punctuating some, but not all, major holidays.  It was probably no trouble at all to drop those, too.  Knowing her, she’s grateful to keep what she would have spent on cards and postage.

But it’s still hard and it still hurts.  Somedays I get a knot in stomach when I check the mail.  Other days I compulsively check an old email account that my mother may still know.  M tells me that hope is the last thing to die.  But letting go of the hope that she’ll “come around” will make accepting myself easier.  After a childhood spent subsisting on hope that someday it all might get better, it’s hard to kill what’s left.  Unfortunately, that hope is holding me in a pattern of childhood pining for a future that will never come

Here’s how I picture it: if my heart were a house, there’s a little girl, sitting on a window bench in a dark room upstairs.  On the sill is an oil lamp she’s been carefully tending the last 30 years, hoping the light will inspire her mother to come back to her.

Because doesn’t my mother miss me?  Afterall, P assures me I’m a pretty great person to have around.  Sure, sometimes I’m ornery and stubborn, but not always.  I can be fun, creative, interesting.  Why doesn’t she want me?

But then I wonder – do I actually miss her?  And the sobering, heartbreaking truth is that I don’t.  Holidays have felt lighter without the obligation to call her for an incredibly stressful conversation.  I don’t miss her haunting, shadowing presence – like an overgrown little kid that wants to crawl into my lap and suffocate me with her overgrown, untended needs.  All that I miss is an idealized version of what she represents: a mother.  And she’ll never be the mother than I need.  For reasons that extend far beyond me, she can’t.

My mother is not well.  My mother is not well.  My mother is not well.

I practice these words sometimes.  Mostly I speak them in my head but, once in a while, when I’m feeling strong and brave, I whisper them aloud.  Occasionally, I’ll say them in a normal voice to P or a good friend.  My mother is not mentally stable and we’ve stopped talking.

It’s like getting into a bath that’s too hot, too painful.  It’s a slow settling, a gradual acclimation and acceptance.  That’s how I feel about those words, about that reality.

M tells me that denial and rationalization can work together to build walls so strong nothing can break through – not the cries of a child or the threat of severed communication.  My mother is incapable of really listening to me and hearing my side of the story.  She can’t accept what I have to say.  She won’t accept responsibility for what she did to me and what she allowed to happen to me.  She’s not a safe person, and she brings nothing into my life besides stress and anxiety.  Believe me, I’ve tried mightily to find some good I can hold and focus on.  But there’s nothing.  Nothing.

And so that little girl tending that oil lamp is sitting on her hands so she doesn’t do what she’s been doing for thirty years – change the wick and refresh the oil.  She sits in the dimming light waiting for the hope to finally die.

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Risk, revisited

My one little word for 2011 was risk.  I’ve really enjoyed having a one little word focal point for the year and I’ll likely do it again next year.

Little did I know, way back in January, just how important this little word would be.  Just how many times I’d lean on and embrace it.  Just how comforting it would be to let go and plow ahead instead of hanging back and shying away.

Over the past few sessions, but especially this week, M (my therapist) has made it clear it’s time for us to start terminating therapy.  It’s been about a year since I started and that’s about what I was anticipating.  Six months ago I could hardly fathom coping without M, but now it seems possible.  My wings feel weak, unpracticed, but jumping from the nest does seem like a logical next step.  I suspect I have the strength to do it (and enough support if I need it).

I wish there were some numerical measure of progress, some scale, some way to compare the before and after.  I wish I could point to an assessment, an evaluation, an exam and say, “Look!  I made it!”  But alas, there’s not.  But while there are still some sad days, the sting of my past has faded.  I don’t feel so broken or angry.  I have tools to (sometimes) pull myself out of the anxiety spiral and I’m better at recognizing and accepting my own needs and then standing up for myself.  I have a much more accurate picture of who I am and where I’d like to go.  I can relax sometimes.

And I have outside validation in the ring of M’s words, “Meg, I don’t know why some people come out of these things better than others.  People try to measure it, to name it, but I’m not sure it can be measured.  I think of it as a strong spirit and you’ve got it.  You’ve done a lot of hard and important work.  You made a lot of great progress.  You’re a fighter and you’ll be okay.”

Last session we spent a lot of time talking about a recent, semi-catastrophic meltdown I had when I got a 70% on what I thought was a decent paper.  I knew it was completely irrational but I cried on about how my past “was coming for me” and how I was “doomed to live a crappy life” and how “I might as well give up now because it’s hopeless.”   I explained the background of the meltdown – the constant haunting feeling, the sense that if I don’t run hard and fast enough, if I don’t push myself far enough, if I don’t work frantically and always succeed, my past will catch up and drown me in everything I’ve worked so hard to overcome.

And she said simply that feeling was fear and I had to face it.  I needed to acknowledge all the work I’ve done to ensure a better life for myself.  And then I had to refuse to let fear bully me into reactionary living.  The fear I was not rational, it was rooted in an unpredictable and scary childhood, which, thank god is over.

I wanted to run, run, run.  I was utterly terrified.  This has happened several times in therapy and after the initial visceral reaction I think about two things:

1.  This year I’m going to take risks so face it, Megs, and let’s see what happens.

2. If I don’t face this that SOB is going to continue impacting my life.  And I don’t want that.  I will not, come hell or high water, let that asshole win.

So, holding at bay every ion in my body, I let the fear in, let it pour through me, and then, miraculously, let it flow out of me.

I am always surprised that fear is so haunting when just out of sight.  But when it’s cornered, when it’s bought into focus, it has so little staying power.  And its’ evaporation can bring so much peace.

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Greatest Accomplishments

Over the past few days a f*cebook friend has been encouraging her readers to “like” her employer and post our greatest accomplishments on their “wall”.  In exchange for this modest act, the employer will donate a dollar to a wonderful charity.

I’d love to make a (free) donation to this particular charity but I can’t bring myself to swallow the bait.  Aside from feeling co-opted into boosting the FB credibility of business with whom I’ve had no particular experience, I don’t want to publicly post my greatest achievement.  It’s far too personal for the FB world.  And if I post something “lesser” and most socially acceptable, I feel like I’m denying my authentic self.  So, with that in mind, I’m going to post my greatest achievements here, and then make a donation to another very worthy charity – a scholarship fun for the kids I work with in the summer.  Having been in some of their shoes in the not-so-distant past, I know how much it means to have people believe in you.

1. Surviving years of trauma, abuse, and abandonment and coming out the other side as a compassionate human being.

2. Going to therapy and facing my demons.

3. Going back to school to finish a degree and find a better life for myself.  And succeeding more than I thought possible.

4. Choosing a spouse who is more than “not abusive and mean” but is kind, thoughtful, and endlessly supportive.  Not to mention funny and handy around the house.

5. Writing letters (and sending them) to my mom that hold her accountable for the sh*t she put me through.  Even if she never responds.

6. Learning to knit.  And getting pretty damn good.

7. Going to work on a farm, even though I was terrified and no idea what I was doing.  That job changed my life and helped me find loves that have sustained me.

8. Travelling around the world on a shoestring.  That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I never, ever regret doing it.

9. Not owning a car until I was nearly 30.  This one is just for fun.

10. Trusting myself enough to love others.  And letting myself love the kids in my life.  I don’t know how to say this without sounding weird, but here it goes: as a young child, the “love” I got from the most prominent adults in my life was perverse and harmful.  So learning how to be around kids has been hard for me.  How do I interact with them without being perverse and harmful?  I do not, in any way, consider myself a threat to children, but sometimes I worry too much about what to do, what to say, how to be appropriate.  Thankfully, this has lessened with time and exposure to other adults who are really good with kids.  I think I’ve learned a lot, and now I feel pretty comfortable with them, but it’s been a hard-won battle.

11.  Learning to cook.  And being a great bread baker.

12. Moving forward even when I want to stop.  Refusing to surrender to the anxiety and depression that haunt my mind.  Trusting myself and the future enough to keep moving ahead, even if it’s only a small shuffle.

13.  Learning how to garden and identify plants.  This gives me so much pleasure.

14. Allowing myself to dream.  Dreams are considered dangerous when you’re poor with no future, but I let myself dream anyway.  And many of them came true.

15.  Walking away from a faith that had, at one point sustained me, but wasn’t working anymore.  When it stopped being real and started being a facade, I swallowed my fear of hell and damnation and decide to try life as an agnostic.  I haven’t looked back.

This list, by no means exhaustive, is the current surface layer of which I am most proud.  To be sure, there are kinks and imperfections, and I haven’t achieved perfection in any one of these.  But they are the building blocks of the better life I live everyday.  Sometimes I weep, hard and long, when I contemplate my life had I succumbed to the statistics and uncertainties.  But for reasons I don’t completely understand, I didn’t.  In part it’s because I couldn’t, because a few people loved me and pulled me onward, because strangers whispered encouragement in my ear when I couldn’t stop crying.  In part it’s because teachers worked patiently to teach me, because pastors gently encouraged me, and because the when the sun shines it’s so very warm.  It’s because of nature and nurture, because of biology and mystery, because I had to keep moving for fear I’d freeze to death if I stopped.   But mostly it’s because a few people believed in me.  And for that I thank them daily, even if they can’t hear, even if sometimes the words get stuck in my throat and my breath is caught in my lungs.  But thankfulness, despite it all, is what feeds and sustains me.  So thank you, thank you, thank you.

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