Saying Goodbye, Part 11: Earthquakes and Landscapes

I awoke on Wednesday to my first day home without my father.

I had spent the greater part of February in his home 3-hours away, in an unexpected whirlwind of emotional chaos, intense vulnerability, and the eventual release of him as I watched him being taken away for cremation.

I know enough to not expect that I’d return home to life as I knew it. “Now back to your regularly scheduled program” does not apply here.

I know that my life is now altered. Yes, everyday, our lives change. Each day is unlike the next. But this is different. There are these life-altering events that completely changes the landscape. Subtle shifts become earthquakes and aftershocks.

Upon waking, I take it slow. “What’s next?” in every moment. I try some “old life” on by checking e-mail (that felt okay, let’s try…) listening to a recorded call from a training I’m in (yeah, not quite feeing it. Let’s try…) suddenly it’s too much. My heart aches and I feel my energy in my belly. I remember a song that feels the way I feel now.

I listen to “Winter” by Tori Amos on repeat and break down sobbing just as I need to. Every part of me vibrating in grief. Why does life seem so stupid. All the things that took up space in my life seem to riduclous. I should have spent more time with him. Should have, should have, should have….

Saying Goodbye, Part 4: Difference in Perspective

Rorschach_blot_01

Rorschach blot

Monday came with no improvement and my father was taken to the Emergency Room via ambulance. It was a rush of fear that went through me as I followed the ambulance to the hospital.

By this time my father’s condition was pretty bad. He was mostly unresponsive with eyes closed and mouth open. His cough was due to aspirating pneumonia, but after being suctioned at the E.R., the gurgling was mostly gone. The hours were long and cold as we waited, hoping to get some news on what was happening and what could be done.

This is when things really began to get surreal.

The doctors came to us with dire news. “Send him home for comfort care, so he can pass in peace” was the suggested action, although there was “no pressure” in making our decision to treat or not. This decision was not easy to make as the attending physician said that he couldn’t determine what was wrong based on my father’s symptoms, lab work, and scans. You read right, “We don’t know what’s gong on, so send him home to die” was what we heard.

We decided to treat as our belief was that my father was able to get stable with the right care. They gave him IV fluids and antibiotic. Slowly my father began to regain some responsiveness. He began to move a little, folding his hands across his sternum, and touching his mustache in his familiar way.

I stayed with him throughout the night, until he was admitted into a room the next morning.

For the next two days my father’s condition improved. He talked more, recognized people, made requests, and asked questions. His personality began to show again, and his vitals began to improve. He still wasn’t strong enough to get out of bed, or sit up for long on his own, but once again, we were hopeful that things would continue to improve for him.

The only thing that wasn’t improving was his inability to swallow. He didn’t pass a swallow test, but the speech therapist said she would try another test when his strength improved.

Up to this point, the attending physicians inquired on our decision to keep treating or begin comfort care. In the spirit of informed decisions, we decided to meet with the palliative doctor to better understand what this option meant.

The information she provided was grim. Worst case scenario seemed to be all she could give us. Which makes sense since that is her job. But we weren’t ready for death yet. Not with my father’s condition improving by the hour.

Options to treat were also reviewed with the palliative and attending physicians. The treatment options were more invasive, as they included feeding tubes and dialysis.  Then there was the issue of dementia.

Even with my father’s improvement, and even with invasive treatments, my father’s dementia would still be present and progressing. The degree to which he could improve with treatment was unknown, but what was known was that dementia wasn’t going anywhere and would only get worse.

Although there was no rush, we felt pressured. It was an implied pressure in the urgent tone used by nurses and doctor. “He is not going to improve, he will only get worse, let him go” was what I felt.

I became angry and frustrated at the lack of possibility in the hospital staff. They were treating my father as if he came in with a toe tag and death certificate and had no idea of what he was like weeks before being admitted. They met an 84 year old man with a dementia diagnosis, and saw a dead man. I saw my father who was strong and a fighter, and this discrepancy between myself and the doctors felt powerless and infuriating. The doctors would say I was in denial.

 

Growing Edges and Traps

Image Source: http://goo.gl/ZAX1Yi

Image Source: http://goo.gl/ZAX1Yi

Over the last few weeks, I have been sitting with and working through a growing edge about my subconscious set-up where, no mater what I do, I always end up wrong. At first, I knew it’s was a growing edge because I didn’t have the words to describe what I was facing. I get fleeting clarity, but as quick as it arrives, it dissipates. In short, I get confused about what I’m trying to process.

Having gone through this before, I know enough to just be aware of it, be with it, and let it unfold in it’s own time. I also know that it is a rooted and core issue, so I have some ego resistance to seeing it. My ego survival depends on the construct I am trying to work with, so I have a very subconscious resistance that blows confusion into my brain when I try to look at it.

As the days passed, I sat with the slight understanding of my confusion. I kept my feelers out for experiences that might make things clearer. Last week, I was at work and sat on the arm of the couch looking at my books on the shelf. My eyes set on the book “There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate“, by Cheri Huber. Now, I bought this book in 2010 but never read it. For whatever reason, on this day in 2015, it just felt right to thumb through it. As I did, I stumbled on something that shook me and brought more clarity to this growing edge I’m on.

“We learned behaviors when we were very young in order to survive. We were taught to hate those behaviors and to see them as signs of our badness. Yet we must keep doing them because they still mean survival to us. And we hate ourselves for doing them.”
The Trap:
I believe I must be this way to survive.
I hate myself for being this way.
Result:
self hate = survival
survival = self-hate

I brought this reading to my counseling session today, and found myself in tears as I read it out loud. I began to feel more clarity in just how scared I was to step into this new awareness. The awareness that, when I want something more, something that matches my deepest needs, I feel like an ungrateful spoiled brat.

As a kid, all my material needs were met, but I recall having  a deep longing for emotional connection, being seen, accepted, and understood. I learned that what I wanted was too much, and I was ungrateful for all the things my parents worked and sacrificed for. Of course, as a child I did not have the words for this, so I learned to stuff these needs and feel bad that I even wanted them.

Now, as a grown woman, when I experience this need for emotional connection, being seen, accepted, and/or understood, I immediately make myself wrong, even though a part of me knows I deserve what I want. This fires up especially bright when what I have is good on the surface, but lacks a deeper need. Then I make myself wrong for not wanting to settle for the good that I do have.

This is my growing edge, and it feels like all the healing that has come before this has been leading me to this moment. At this moment, I want and need more, specifically emotional connection, emotional safety, and being understood. I also feel like a ungrateful spoiled brat for wanting this.

As I left my counseling session, feeling lighter having unpacked some deep family shit, I was reminded that I need not do anything right now. I simply need to be present with this duality of wanting more, then feeling like shit because i want more, and look it in the face. At least now, I can see it more clearly.

“Get Over it Already!”

In the first half of 2010, I was in the depths of my depression and anxiety. I was on a leave of absence from work, having consistent suicidal thoughts, inert, had no appetite, and prone to fits of spontaneous crying. I was receiving counseling, medication management, going for daily walks, receiving care from a naturopathic doctor, and attending my mediation sangha.

I was doing what I could, and yet, found myself unable to get out of bed or living room couch. Some days were slightly better than others, yet I couldn’t shake the persistent negative thoughts, suicidal callings, and paralyzing panic.

It was during this time that my father came to visit me for 2 weeks. He was worried about me and, I suppose, wanted to check-in and/or keep me company. I welcomed the visit, yet was not sure how it could bump me out of my depressive state.

He came with me as I drove to my counseling and psychiatrist appointments. We went out to lunch and went for daily walks. It was nice having company, but it didn’t shake my lack of energy or appetite. If anything, it make it worse.

For most of my father’s visit I was thrown across the bed unable to sleep, move, or talk. On one occasion he said “Talk to me!” and when I expressed the suicidal thoughts and feelings I was having, he yelled at me for having them. He made the critical remarks of “I have no idea why you are still fat if you don’t eat”, and “I came here to spend time with you, and all you do is sleep.”

After one particular argument, my father became frustrated and left a week early.

As you can see, my father does not have a bedside manner. He never has. He is revolted at the mere glimpse of weakness. So when he saw the reality of my depression, he had absolutely no idea how to handle it. In a moment of absolution, he sat in the car ready to leave, with eyes cast down he said, “I’m sorry I yelled. I just don’t know what to do. I love you.”

The memory of this came to me this morning, as a reminder that, trying to “get over” something with force is not always a good idea. My father is a “get over it” kind of person, and when he imposed this on  me, my condition worsened.

I have heard people say to other depressed people, that they need to “get out, go do something, stop thinking about it” and so on. Although this is somewhat true, forcing one to do so at a dramatically different pace can sometimes be a set up for depression to worsen.

Depression calls us to listen to ourselves. Depression will be call out to us by any means necessary. When we don’t listen by pushing it away or ignoring (denying) it, depression will raise it’s voice and demand our attention. Yes, we must challenge ourselves when depression is here, but the challenge looks far different from what a non-depressives is familiar with.

When depression arrives, we must ask what it’ is trying to tell us and listen with compassion. We challenge ourselves in a manner that is so slow and gradual and we accept when inert will not budge.

Imagine your depression as a fussy newborn cradled in your arms. Forcing the newborn to do something it doesn’t want will only make the them fussier. Yet, if you slow down internally, pay close attention to the newborn’s cues as you try different soothing actions (feeding, swaddling, etc.), you may find what the newborn needs in that moment. Sometimes everything we try doesn’t work, and we simply hold the newborn, and accept the moment as it is.

It’s the slowing down and listening to your depression that can help you to find what self-care you need to take action on. ACA talks about reparenting, and this is one way we can re-parenting ourselves.

Retracing Steps to Emotional Recovery

cowgirl

I saw this quote today and it stirred in me so much gratitude for my emotional recovery. Although there is more work ahead of me (it never really ends), I am so much healthier emotionally now than I was 4 years ago.

In 2010, I was deep in my depression, living alone, on a leave of absence from work, dropped out of my grad school program, and constantly fighting suicidal thoughts. I found it hard to get out of bed, much less go outside. I would get occasional anxiety attacks, which really paralyzed me, leaving me to lay on the couch for hours. It was painful to lay there, and painful to get up. My body felt like lead. Had I read this quote then, I probably would have responded with a giant “Fuck You! I CAN’T get up! I’m TRYING!”

When I read this quote today, I thought of that version of me 4 years ago. How did she grow to eventually live this message?

If I could re-trace my steps what I would find are the following.

  1. Compassion for the self. It’s okay to be where you are right now. You are not a failure for experiencing depression and anxiety. They are trying to teach you something and require your attention. Compassion is a great way to listen.
  2. Forgiveness of the self. Forgive yourself for pushing yourself so hard to be “normal”. Forgive yourself for past decisions. You were trying to go at life alone. Here’s your opportunity to do things differently with more consciousness and compassion.
  3. Start small. If “getting up” and going out in society is too hard, start small. If sitting up in bed is all you can do, then do that. You have permission to know that seemingly small actions are actually huge feats when it comes to depression.
  4. Challenge your comfort zone daily. Again, go small. Check-in with yourself and see how much more you can do from your comfort zone. Can you get out of bed? Can you walk into another room? Eat? Shower? Brush your teeth?  No matter how small the next step, acknowledge your accomplishment. The goal is to stretch out of your comfort zone little by little.
  5. Ask yourself “What do I need right now?” This is another way to do #4. Sometimes what we need is very small, like sitting up or a drink of water. Get still and check-in with yourself when asking this question, and make sure your answer is some thing you can do for you (not what others can do for you). However an exception is if what you need is to ask for something from a positive support person, AND you are certain that they will respond in a positive healthy manner. For example, “I need to ask my therapist if I can see her twice a week”.
  6. Acknowledge your actions, no matter how small, and see them for what they are; acts of love and hope for yourself. Acknowledge what you’ve done and do not compare yourself to others. You are doing your best in every moment on your healing journey.
  7. On days where it is just impossible to do any small act, be kind to yourself. Let yourself cry and trust you will make an effort later. Ride out the intensity and check-in on your ability to do a small action when things feel calmer. As long as you are alive there is opportunity to do a little more for yourself on your behalf.

Living in the world of depression and anxiety is unlike living in mainstream society. Actions are slowed down, and seemingly small actions are huge. For those who are not living in depression or anxiety, it is hard to comprehend why small tasks are so hard. However this is your emotional recovery, not theirs.

Those who do not speak the language of psychic pain cannot understand what you are saying. As painful as it feels, it’s okay. Others do speak this language and understand you. These small actions are your foundation in connecting to those who speak the language of psychic pain such as: counselors, therapists, spiritual communities, support groups, etc.

I owe a lot of my recovery to doing things I didn’t want to do or didn’t believe I could do. Yes, depression is disabling, and I had to force myself, step by step, to (literally) get up. I had to tap into that small place inside me that loved me enough to go against my comfort zone.

I also owe a lot to my counselors, support groups, and spiritual communities. Being consistent in connecting with them was not always easy, however acknowledging the small steps of my daily life helped build a muscle in me that would push me to connect with my support systems even when I felt tired, distraught, and fatigued. I eventually exercised again, went back to work, and back to grad school. It was hard work but I never would have imagined then, that I would eventually live this quote.

Grad School Freak Out

Warning: This is a negative ranty post.

I’m in my last quarter of graduate school for my Marriage and Family Therapy degree. One of my last classes is a psychopharmacology class. It’s kicking my ass. I almost failed exam 1, I was lost in my first written assignment, and I failed exam 2. There is one exam to go and one more assignment to go. I feel so completely triggered.

I love learning and the discussion of theories and techniques. I have done well in this program, and have had challenging quarters where I understood what was being taught, but had to manage a large course load with a large workload. I work full-time counseling youth and attend school full-time in the evening. I commute 80 minutes round-trip 1-2 nights per week. But this?

This is something else. This psychopharmacology class is so information dense. My brain can’t seem to retain any information. The language is a jarbled mess. Like bad reception on a cell phone. The grading is steep. Anything below 80% is failing. I feel inadequate and exhausted. This class taxes my nerves and I am in such an irritable fucked up mood after each exam and assignment. The lectures depress me as I can’t keep up with all the information. I can’t understand it or make sense of it. I may be able to if I had time, but I have no time. I could actually fail this class and not graduate.

In short I’m freaking out right now.

 

Normal Reactions to Abnormal Expereinces

When I began to learn about Attachment Theory in school, I felt a familiar language being spoken. Although I have been consciously growing and healing these last 4 years, I was unaware that the process that I was going through actually had a name. To learn that the process in which I have been understanding myself actually has a theory attached to it was quite comforting to me.

It’s easy to pathologist someone as depressed, anxious, co-dependent, etc. I think it’s important for many people to have an understanding that these behaviors, emotions, and reactions are normal given their early childhood experiences. Many circles call this “having a normal reaction to abnormal events”. When I first heard this, I remember feeling seen, heard, and as a result – validated. My reactions were debilitating me, but in hearing this I realized that I wasn’t inherently defected. Instead, I realized that I had lost my way because I was given a faulty road map.

This video for the Still Face Experiment is a snap shot of how our parents, caretakers, and guardians interactions with us shapes how we react to them, the world, and in turn ourselves. A mother staring blankly back at a child represents a mother not responding to the infants cues. In daily life, parents and caretakers easily miss infant cues when the adult is busy, stressed, traumatized, addicted, or in any other way distracted or unable to. Being fully present to an infant 100% of the time is impossible, however, the more an infant’s cues are misread or unread, the more the infant will adopt a stressful reaction. This can lead to a sense of worthlessness (“I don’t matter”) and/or helplessness (“I don’t like asking for what I need”) and a myriad of other issues as the child grows and seeks to be seen.

In my case, I grew up in a large family. My parents were raised in physically abusive homes and neither received much affection. Although I did not experience physical abuse from them, my family didn’t know how to connect on emotionally healthy levels. There was a lot of blame, teasing, and criticism; and if I was hurt, it was because I brought it upon myself. Because my parents worked long hours, I was handed off to whoever could take care of me at the moment. My older sister says that when my mother would return from work, she would hand me off to her and I would turn my back towards my mother in a subtle resistance of going to her. I can image that as an infant, I probably experienced a lot of guessing if my needs were going to be met, and how to go about signalling for it.

I think it’s important to add that I’m not seeking to blame parents or caretakers. In your healing journey, you may experience anger towards those who raised you. I think this is normal and healthy. However, being stuck in blame and resentment can be unhealthy and how long you need to feel this way is different for everyone. My hope is that at some point, you will grow a space in yourself that can make peace with the past, understand that you are not flawed, and learn to be kind, loving, and nurturing to yourself.

Death

This week I have been raw. Emotionally raw. Or is it numb? I can’t quite tell.

Monday night I was affected by three very different experiences. The first experience resulted in me feeling angry. For the second one I was frightened. The third one had me in tears. For each experience, I practiced breaking the pattern of leaving my body and consciously decided to stay in my body. I stayed mindful of the now, noticed when I was future tripping, and cried when I needed to.

When I woke up the next day, I could feel the residual emotions from the night before. As I tried to make this morning like every other morning, I could feel that familiar lump in my throat. I stood frozen in font of the mirror, my eyes fixed somewhere in the distance. “You okay honey?” my boyfriend asked from the bed. “Yeah” I replied, but I knew it wasn’t true. The tears welled up and I knew what I needed. I sat in the living room and cried hard. Then things started to unravel.

Looking back I know that there were two parts of me sitting on that couch; new me and old me. The new me was practicing self-care by allowing myself to do what I needed. The old me was crying and waiting for my boyfriend to comfort me. When he didn’t, I was devastated, and added another layer of hurt to my already raw state. So I reached out. I called my ACA partner and therapist. This helped ground me enough to get back to my day.

Truth be told, my boyfriend has been really good at comforting me in the past. He holds me, asks me what I need, and has been beautifully present with me. This particular morning he was unable to support me as he’s going though his own hurt (I didn’t know this at the time). My mind knows this now, but my heart and little girl are so disappointed, angry, and hurt.

Later that night it was no better. Miscommunication between me and my boyfriend exacerbated my emotions and I went to bed in a mental tail spin.

The next day I made a second appointment with my therapist and processed some of my confusion, anger, disappointment and sadness. A lot of what I am feeling is so similar to when my brothers died last year, as if my world has been pulled out from inside of me and I’m filled with emptiness. I can’t seem to connect with others and feel a deep need for stillness and silence. All I can conceive of is that something inside me is dying, and it frightens me.

Connection

Last Sunday night I attended my sangha’s New Year’s Intention Setting. The facilitator talked about the three refuges (buddha, dharma, sangha), lead us in a short meditation, and ritual for intention setting.

In the ritual, a spool of yarn was passed around so that, in the end, we were all holding the extended thread. We chanting intentions and the three refuges as we all holding this thread as a visual representation of our connection. When the chanting was complete, the thread was cut so that we each had a piece long enough to tie on our wrists with four knots to represent the buddha, dharma, sangha, and intention.

It had been a while since I attended the sangha, and although I practice meditation on my own, I had forgotten about the insight that can occur when sitting with the group.

That night, it was during the ritual when a huge insight came over me. As we sat in our group, all holding the black thread, I realize that my sadness over losing people in my life stems from the suffering of the illusion of separation.

I immediately remembered my greatest heartache. I was dating someone with whom I experienced a profound connection with. This relationship felt so easy and safe to me. When he decided to end the relationship, I was confused and devastated. Although it took two years for me to finally accept the break-up (and that he was not coming back), there is still some residual grief over the loss of this relationship.

As I held this thread, and looked around the room, these words came to me.

“I never lost you because you were never mine to lose. We were connected before we met and we will continue to be connected even after we part ways. Separation is an illusion. Separation is a delusion.”

For a brief moment I felt the power of divine connection. It’s natural to want to stay in this state, but even this passes. What I was left with was a sense of ease in the knowing that the divine connection exists even though I cannot feel it fully at all times. Like the sun that is always present, even when the moon rises, divine connection is always present.

The Value of Support and Routine

Now that I’m closer to my routine of work, school, therapy, and ACA workbook group; I’m starting to feel a bit more grounded. The last week of December 2012 was spent on vacation from my four routines listen above. It wasn’t completely by choice, and mostly just worked out that way. When big breaks like that happen, I tend to get a bit anxious just before all that free time. This time, I was really looking forward to the break from everything.

The New Year holiday and resurfacing of an ex boyfriend was prime for feelings of deep loneliness to return. I was so glad to reconnect with my ACA workbook partner, and my therapist as the new year began. After meeting with both of them, I was reminded of the importance of healthy connection, support, and routine.

My therapist observed that when I have significant breaks from routine, I tend to fall into old thinking patterns. However, the difference now is that in addition to keeping contact with my support system, these systems and routines help reflect back to me the healthier me that is still evolving. I have not lived in this self long enough to maintain it without the help of my support system.

At first I was pretty frustrated. Will I ever be able to just live my life without being in perpetual counseling and attending support groups? Then I remembered that change happens no mater what, and that although I still need the consistent support of others, I am now able to rebound quicker when I do.

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