Essays, grieving, parenting

Teeny tiny was he

I gave birth to a dead baby boy on October 12, 1996. He was 16 weeks old gestationally. I was 18 years old, a recent high school graduate who’d just lost access to free college tuition. My father didn’t want me attending the college where my stepmother worked for fear that I would embarrass her as an unwed knocked-up teen.

So he told me I couldn’t keep going to that college. I didn’t have money to go to any other college, so I moved back in with my mother while preparing to become a mother myself.

On October 10, 1996, I learned that my baby had acrania and anencephaly, which meant that there was no skull or brain, just a brain stem keeping my baby alive. As soon as my baby was delivered and not receiving nourishment from body, my baby would die.

The doctor was kind but very matter-of-fact. I was asking questions I could think of, like what had I done wrong?

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the specialist said. “This happens in about 3% of pregnancies, and so far, we don’t have any idea why.”

He went on to tell me that he and my OB/GYN, Dr. Desai, felt like it would be better for them to induce labor and let me deliver my baby at this stage of pregnancy rather than making me endure the entire pregnancy, only to lose my child in the end. And what was most important was that if there were already these types of complications, what if I developed some other type of complication that could risk my life, too? That was the deciding factor for my doctors to encourage me to say goodbye so early.

I asked if there was any chance of my baby developing a skull and brain later in the pregnancy. He sadly shook his head and said no. In a word, I was devastated. Utterly heartbroken that my tiny darling would not survive outside of my body. I had gotten so attached already. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the what ifs and the hopes and dreams I’d already built up for us in my head. I already knew for sure that we were going to dance in meadows to Van Morrison, hike every mountain in North Georgia, fill empty vintage glass bottles with wildflowers and read for hours under big oak trees.

An appointment was made for me the following morning at Athens Regional. My mother accompanied me. I was given a heavy dose of a variety of drugs, including something to make my body go into early labor. Very early labor. We started that process at 8 a.m. on a Friday. The more pain I felt, the more drugs went into my IV. They didn’t have to worry about harming my child. He wasn’t going to make it.

The next day around lunch I finally was dilated enough to start pushing. I have zero recollection if my water ever broke or if I was 10 cm dilated. Either they don’t tell you these things when your baby is going to die or I just can’t reach that corner of my memory. So I can’t share those details with you here and now. What I can tell you is that I pushed. I sweated. I gripped my mother’s hand so hard I thought I was going to break it. I was in full-on labor.

With one final push, Dr. Desai was able to pull my baby out, look at me with sweet big brown eyes and tell me that I had had a boy. My son was taken to a table in the room where he was cleaned up for me while I delivered the placenta.

Then the nurses brought me Benjamin Matthew, swaddled with care. So teeny tiny was he. My darling boy weighed in at 3.2 ounces, and he was 6-and-a-half inches long. He had a tiny button nose, and was, quite factually, light as air.

loss of a baby

Me and Benjamin Matthew, Oct. 12, 1996

I pulled him in tight and with tears in my eyes, I whispered into his ultra soft pink skin, “I love you, Benjamin.”

The hospital minister, a man I knew from my church with bright blue eyes and a kind smile, came by at my request, and prayed with me and Benjamin. Then he baptized my son, who was wearing a teeny tiny white baptismal gown made by ladies from the community. It was tied with a silky white ribbon on the back, and I still have it in Benjamin’s box. It’s lightly pink around the neck, where some of his blood had rubbed.

My father cradled my son and posed for photos. Neither of us realizing that he would not be alive the next time I gave birth. Two of my grandmothers, both my mother’s stepmother and my stepfather’s mother, were there to pay their respects. My father’s mother called me from New Jersey to tell me she loved me and to tell me a tragic story about a baby she’d lost in childbirth in the 1940s, who was thrown into a trashcan right in front of her. She was glad that my experience was so full of love, all things considered.

I have a lot of regrets in my life, and two of them occurred on that day. First, that when they asked me if I wanted time alone with Benjamin, I said no. I was 18, stupid, and I didn’t know what else to say. Oh, if I could have those moments back. I would have so much to share with my darling first born. My second regret is not having him buried or at least getting him cremated. I didn’t have a dime to my name, and it was free to have him cremated by the hospital, but I wouldn’t get the ashes back. I felt like I’d already put my parents through hell, and I didn’t want to ask for any more assistance. So I gave the hospital permission to cremate him.

The hospital nurses heaped upon me literature to read that emphasized embracing your child as a real child, no matter how undeveloped or sick she was, to make sure to name him and to find comfort that God would hold him in His arms for you.

No matter where I float in my spiritual journey as a sometimes atheist and sometimes devout believer in something greater, I always find comfort in the idea that someone up above has my darling little son in their arms.

Every year on October 12, I light a candle for my son who I lost. No matter what circumstances he was created under, he was real and he was loved.

Essays, Meditation, Wellness

How yoga, meditation and sea lions nourished my soul in Mexico

Life can be an incredibly difficult and enlightening journey. I learned this at an early age. I’ve suffered through losses—my father, brother and my first baby have all died. My mother and I do not speak. At all. I’ve survived gang rape and molestation at the hands of many men and boys. For far too long, I have chosen to suffer mostly alone, not knowing how to share with others without burdening loved ones with my pain. I’ve found the ability to do transformative work in yoga sessions but it’s only 60 to 90 minutes. Then it’s gone. The benefits leak out slowly. As hard as I work to retain them, it’s like capturing air with a fishing net. I wanted more and I needed guidance to do it.

How women, meditation and seal lions nourished my soul in Mexico | Photo by 2TPHOTO

So when my yoga teacher Mandy Roberts told me that there were still spaces open on her and her business partner’s Soul Nourish retreat, which was heading to Todos Santos, Mexico, I gave it real consideration. I’d seen the posters for previous Soul Nourish Retreats when I’d gone to practice yoga in her studio in Decatur, Georgia. But when she personally reached out to say, “Hey, Kirsten, I really think you might enjoy this,” it gave me pause. It wasn’t just yoga, after all. Mandy Roberts, owner of Form Yoga, has teamed up with Shari L. Fox, owner of Soul Nourish Institute, who is an enneagram instructor as well as a certified yoga instructor. The six-day trip promised to be full of adventure, plus loads of mindful meditation, inner work—a soulful journey. A gift to oneself. And I said yes.

Soul Nourish retreat yoga class

How women, meditation and seal lions nourished my soul in Mexico | Photo by 2TPHOTO Soul Nourish Retreats yoga

Swimming in Pacific Ocean with sea lions on a Soul Nourish retreat | 2TPHOTO

My beach backbend on a Soul Nourish retreat in Mexico

I said yes to magic. To transformation. To nurturing myself and to nurture others. I said yes to feeling the quiet strength of 15 women in a room sitting silently, setting intentions for themselves and then going about the day mindfully intent on carrying out their intentions. I said yes to swimming in the Sea of Cortez, blue water deep, sea lion pups whirling around us, saying yes to the fun too. I said yes to learning to surf with Jan Federico William Bird, a Mexican-born holistic health mentor and regenerative ecological designer, consultant, and educator. I said yes to going on a Seva trip, which was an opportunity for the retreat attendees to serve selflessly by planting an organic vegetable garden and fruit-bearing trees at a local elementary school where families are often hungry during slow tourism months. I said yes to rising with the sun and meeting my new friends for guided meditation on the rooftop of our eco-luxury resort looking over the desert toward the Pacific Ocean.

It is incredibly hard to suffer, but it is brutal and unnecessary to suffer alone.

I said yes to practicing yoga in a room with women who all had different body shapes than me, some who had been doing yoga for far more time than me and some who’d only taken a class or two. I said yes to laughing during yoga and even a little dancing too. I said yes to holding a new friend’s hand. I said yes to a vision quest of which I was doubtful of at first but ultimately felt tremendous healing from while watching energy of spirits pass through me. I said yes to learning about enneagram, a typology that maps out your personality type, and I said yes to being open to what my type says about me, my vices and my virtues, and how I can better navigate the world knowing both my type and my instincts. I said yes in letting a room full of women come together and offer their love and healing blessings to me and to each other. I said yes to sharing my losses and listening to others share theirs. I said yes to feeling less alone. I said yes to making magic, to being magic. I said yes to myself and I said yes to others. I said yes to the lessons that came to me there: We are all emanating lights of energy with or without the vessel of a body. It is incredibly hard to suffer, but it is brutal and unnecessary to suffer alone.

Soul Nourish retreat | 2TPHOTO fire meeting

seva trip with Soul Nourish retreat | Mexico | 2TPHOTO


happy me after Soul Nourish retreat | 2TPHOTOComing home from the trip, I was energized and felt awash in love and care. Nearly seven months later, I still am radiating the positive energy I garnered in Mexico. It’s pure magic what Shari and Mandy have created and I can’t wait to go back. Shari and Mandy have two international Soul Nourish Retreats planned this year, one in Sicily and one back in Todos Santos, Mexico, along with several in the North Georgia mountains. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Kirsten Palladino is the author of Equally Wed: The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your LGBTQ+ Wedding (May 2017, Seal Press), and the cofounder and editorial director of She’s currently working on a memoir about healing herself after trauma, a topic she infrequently blogs about on She lives with her spouse and their twin boys in Atlanta, Georgia.

Photos by 2TPHOTO


Books + Art

Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away will break your heart and put it back together again

Some Bright Morning, I'll Fly Away, memoir, Alice AndersonI’ve just read the last words in award-winning poet Alice Anderson’s new memoir, “Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away.” I wiped away tears underneath my fogged-up glasses. My chest is teeming with heartache for what she and her sweet three—that’s what Anderson calls her children—have endured over the last 15 years and beyond. Before she married and had children, Anderson was raised by a father who repeatedly raped her and a mother who ignored Anderson’s pleas to notice, to know, to make it stop.

Later, when Anderson married, the man she understandably thought would love and cherish her instead began abusing her with bullying taunts, gas lighting and the revolting emotional control only a person with psychopathic tendencies can perfectly master.

Eventually—as these things tend to go with abusers—the abuse escalated into the realm of physical, when Anderson’s body was brutally battered in front of her children. But Anderson defied the odds and escaped. She took her children and she fled for safety, away from her husband, a wealthy doctor in the small town of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. It wasn’t an easy journey, as the whips of abuse kept coming in multiple harrowing forms, including a traumatic brain injury for Anderson and countless and long-lasting emotional damage for her children, who both witnessed and experienced their father’s wrath.

Alice Anderson, author, Some Bright Morning I'll Fly AwayBut Anderson (pictured, left) and her children persisted, never giving up on their dream to be free from the man who hurt them all. In “Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away,” Anderson begins the prologue with the line, “We make chapels of our scars.” “Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away” is a story of “the chapel” that was built from Anderson and her sweet three’s “scars,” written with such evocative and poetic language that it made my heart swell and burst while lapping up every page of this searing story. Anderson’s powerful and breathtaking memoir broke my heart and put it back together again.

Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, St. Martin’s Press, is available Aug. 29, 2017. Buy it on Amazon or support a local bookstore with your purchase. 

Essays, grieving, recovery, trauma

Make room for joy

Sunflowers by Elijah Hail

Sunflowers by Elijah Hail

I used to be focused on choosing joy. I was laser focused on being the optimist I was born as. I have always been a half-full kind of gal, but the worse life became (or the memories of the pain), the more obsessive I became to always be joyful and disassociate from the pain. It was an extreme version of seeing the bright side in every situation. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows,” wrote Helen Keller.

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows. It’s what the sunflowers do.”

― Helen Keller

I used to doodle this quote all over my notebooks in high school. A big yellow squiggle outlined the sun. Back then I was having trouble at home with my parents and their disinterest in actually raising me and providing for me. Fast-food and $20s left on the counter were sufficient in their eyes as I swallowed more than my fair share of beer from a keg at frat parties I shouldn’t have been attending and lit up cigarette after cigarette, eventually swapping out nicotine for something stronger. And I was having trouble with boys—a lot of trouble. But I kept on blocking out the shadows, focusing on the sun and the joy. Finding that joy and clinging to it. Joy got me through tough times. I’m forever grateful. Joy allowed me to live it up as a youthful 21 year old. Joy, the hard core kind, kept those shadows at bay. Joy very likely kept me alive. Joy allowed me to meet my future wife, to fall in love, to get married.

But then my dad died. And my forced joy gave way to shadows. Shadows that were hard to move past. Like boulders the size of cars in a narrow road, I had a hard time seeing a way around them. But my old pal Helen Keller got me through once again. Face the sun! Do not look at the shadows! Do not examine the shadows! They’re there. We can acknowledge them. But don’t give them nary a glance.

I got married without my mother or my father present. My brother walked me down the aisle. I chose joy to accompany me on that day. And I was radiantly happy. I strained to move beyond the pain of my father’s absence.

Years later, I gave birth to our sons. I was so happy and stressed. Looking at their cherubic faces made my heart explode with happiness. But their innocence reminded me of my own, which was snuffed out too soon by abusive adults. And my sons’ fragility and dependence on me reminded me of my fragility and dependence on my own parents and how their abandonment of my care left me like a babe in the woods, setting me to the wolves. The harder it was, this mothering as an unmothered person, the more the shadows crept back in, begging to be seen.

Then my brother got sick and died, crushing my soul. I wandered around the world feeling broken and alone.

The clouds of darkness followed me everywhere but I chose to look at the sun as much as I could. Find the joy. Feel the joy. Don’t get lost in the shadows. But slowly the shadows came for me, their black and gray shapeless forms moved in and took over. I no longer had a choice to keep them out. They moved right on in without invitation. I felt them. But yet I could not feel. I could not feel much of anything. The only joy I had was with my children but even then I knew it was limited joy—that it wasn’t all the joy possible.

Finally, my wife—who had seen the joy escape me—called attention to my joylessness. She said I needed to deal with the shadows, not just ignore them.

I tried. I took medicine for my depression, anxiety and mood disorder. I re-entered therapy for my post-traumatic stress disorder and my mood disorder. I spoke of the shadows, of the missing joy. I learned how the two might be able to live in unison. Having pain and sorrow does not mean you cannot feel joy. And likewise having joy does not erase the shadows.  And the pain and the grief.

Together, they are part of me. And instead of giving my all to either, I’ve made room for both. I am making room for the shadows and the pain. To feel the loss and the grief. And I am making room for the sun and the joy.

I can miss my brother and my father fiercely, but I can also feel the warmth of the sun on my face on a spring day. Tears may prick my eyes when I talk to my brother’s children, thinking of all he is missing out on and how they’re growing up without their father, but I can also feel joy in my heart from their goodness and growth.

My past may be painful, but my present is full of goodness and my future has the potential to be glorious. I’m sure there’s more pain ahead. Life is not life without both shadows and sun, without pain and joy. It’s not either nor or. It’s both.

We must make room for joy.

Essays, recovery, trauma

How optimism saved my life (and sanity)

why I am an optimist

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children, and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.

Meditation, recovery, trauma, Wellness

The gift of breathing

yoga breathing PTSD

Rainy Sunday mornings are right for praising life with yoga. My first session of the season is going resplendently well. My body isn’t arguing with me as I thought it might—a dedicated yoga class hasn’t been on the calendar in 10 years. A twin pregnancy and decadent, indulgent food in a metropolitan city as a restaurant editor have enabled me to eat recklessly.

Through death and abandonment, my original family of four shrank to one in the course of just a few years. I have grief-gobbled myself into a puffy caterpillar form, minus the legs. Finally, I’ve earned the mockery of the high school girls calling me an elephant, a quarter-century too late.

But my body is strong and limber today, giving me what I need. Hips opened wide after delivering two darling boys in one night—finally, I birthed a living child; full healing lungs breathe in deeply instead of screaming and gasping after a 15-year childhood stint of sucking on the cancer sticks (family legacy).

As we move through our positions, I hear my therapist’s words in my head: “Inhale deeply through your nose as if you’re trying to smell freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Then breathe out of your mouth so strongly as if you’re trying to blow out birthday candles across the room.” In. Out. Mindful breathing. Here we go.

I glance around the room of my “Easy Like Sunday Morning” yoga class, and I’m as relaxed as a breeze. The relief draws tears to my eyes. My pink nose tingles as if I’ve just inhaled a solitary snowflake. I am determined to honor the flow of the class.

Yearning to belong, I train my eyes on the bodies of the yoga soldiers in our packed class. Their bodies sinewy and muscled underneath their supple skin, their techniques refined. I revel in their wisdom and lovingly bathe in their path, mimicking their movements like a chubby toddler parrots her mama.

As we commit to the downward dog, we push up from our mats with an exhalation of breath for power, and two strong arms. As we lift our hips back into the air and draw our ribs toward the spine, we inhale, and then exhale fully.

We sit upright comfortably, feet tucked ever so slightly under the opposite leg. Crisscross applesauce. I place my single right fingertip behind my tailbone to provide all the support my entire body needs. I do this. Like a giraffe reaching for a bite of leaves from the tallest tree, I turn my body to the warm gray light, dappling in from the rain-splashed windows.

Then the class moves into an intense hip-stretching exercise. I’m a contortionist, with my right foot pressing into my soft belly dough and my left leg drawn back taut, pretending to be a sleek arrow on the hunt, pulled taut on the crossbow.

Like cracking open a coconut, I roll the outside of my right hip down by pushing into the outside edge of my foot and even out my seat. Somehow, as I am wincing to manage all of this, we lay forward and open ourselves fully to the ground, in a humbling, vulnerable open prayer to the fire in our loins.

During this time, the teacher tells us that we should never push ourselves to do anything that feels unsafe or painful. I’m immediately overwhelmed, and my eyes react by silently bawling. My cheeks are wet with the basic cooking ingredients of water, salt and necessity as I consider the basics that I didn’t receive growing up, the basic protections, the simplest of advice—the most primitive of worry.

After twinning the exercise on the opposite leg, we rustle up to stretch out into bent-over wide-legged triangles. It’s now that I take note of the male student behind me. Was he here all along? I’ve already tallied two in the classroom—one softer male three mats over to my right and another in the far right corner—but it’s alarming to think there’s a full-grown muscled man right behind me who I wasn’t aware of.

This heart quickens.

Suddenly, it’s time to relax and I’m supposed to trust this space. As the class draws toward the end, the instructor has us pull into our child’s pose. She tells us we are safe. We transition into rolling onto our backs, lifting up our hips and legs. “Stretch your legs out as you need,” she tells us.

Soothing music lulls around me as I roll my hips around, relieving them from the hard work I’ve done in the earlier exercise. The teacher says to make this practice our own. She’s turned the lights a little lower, to relax people, and she’s walking around waving aromatic scents of lavender salve under our noses.

My legs are tucked above me—I’m in a reverse child’s pose, except my arms are tightly wrapped around my legs and my eyes are closed to relish in the relaxation.

The instructor leans down and whispers to me, “Is your back hurting?”

I pop my eyes open and look around. Everyone has their legs flat on their mats, yet my arms are fiercely pulling my shins down to my belly. My legs are hugged in tightly; I’m giving myself the embrace I wish the people of my world could. Or would.

Cocooned, I am wrapped into myself: a tiny little package, impenetrable. I lock eyes with my teacher’s shiny blue eyes. She is here for me, with a gift of only love and assistance. I am broken down once more, and my shoulders quake.

I manage a smile and say, “No.” She gently takes my feet and pulls my legs out. Now I match my peers in position.

I know then what is wrong and I hiccup-cry as I try to mindfully smell cookies and blow out birthday candles but try try try as I might, I can’t close my eyes because I never know when another group of high school football players are going to force me in a closet again to take their turn at seven minutes in my hell or just one dark muscled man is going to lock the door, shove a dresser in front of it, and then heave himself on top of me with a hammer in his hand, reeking of a stench of old urine I’ll never unsmell, shoving his body parts inside of me, while I fight to breathe on a thin dark orange blanket in the middle of the darkest night, lost. My psyche caresses worse memories away before my mind is rendered powerless, a lost balloon floating above my body. Watching. Waiting. Breath withheld.

“Gratitude,” the instructor begins to read a poem out loud. Her gentle voice waxes and wanes in my ears as my heart thumps and burns in my chest. I have pulled in my lower lip with my two front teeth, and I’m chewing on it in rhythm to my heart.

I’m nauseatingly aware too that I’ve just whimpered like a newborn puppy. (Did anyone hear?) 

For the love, please no one look at me right now.

My right hand twists around my lime green mat, fingers writhing on the cool wooden floor below like the stripper I can’t believe I didn’t become, who I chose to not become.

This is no longer an exercise in relaxation. I’m fighting for air and my eyes are wide open in a full-blown panic attack.

I wonder if I should run out, but I’m frozen in fear (a familiar feeling).

Tears pool around my earlobes, and I pray they aren’t wetting my expensive hearing aids. The first of the calendar month zings our accounts to cover tuition and therapy for our autistic son. Goodness. A merry-go-round of indulgent self-pity that I haven’t yet succumbed to encircles my head like a revolving crown of shame. My entire body begins to shake, wishing for just one tiny break in the clouds.

I think to myself: I know where I am. I am in a safe place. I am in control.


I have placed myself here, and I am grateful for the journey I am on.

This moment is mine. I choose this moment. I choose this place.

I blow out the birthday candles, for I am reborn in my strength of choosing.

I am grateful to be breathing.

This essay was first published on The Manifest-Station.


Essays, recovery, trauma

Mothering as a survivor of abuse, sexism and racism

 survivor mother

I am a survivor of racism, among other things. It makes me a hypervigilant mother. You can find me on the lookout for teachable moments: cultural appropriation in music video costumes, generalized assumptions based on race, and every children’s show or movie from Disney.

I am a survivor of sexism, among other things. When I bring my car in for repair, I bring my son with me. He is 9. He watches the repairman talk over me repeatedly before stepping in. “I saw it happen,” he says, and the mechanic suddenly believes me and sees the problem too. We talk about gender privilege on the way home. My son says, “I will never be like that man,” and I know he won’t.

Some days I do not function. I sit on the couch and hold my head together with my hands. Repeat mantras to stay present because I have children I love and want to care for. I am told to shake it off. Just push through it. Take some medicine. Get some therapy. I am the survivor of ableism. I tell my kids Mommy is having a hard time today and I need extra help. We work together to make it to bedtime.

Those days I do not function are because I am the survivor of abuse and assault. Individuals in positions of privilege have controlled my body to get what they want. Their actions stay with me even with medication and therapy and shaking it off and pushing through it. And when my children throw tantrums, I am sick to my stomach. I scream at sudden motions or sounds. I cry when we’ve made it through to the end because a piece of me is still a terrified child, a terrified young woman, a terrified adult.

But the flip side of this is awareness; the ability to draw attention to social inequality and discuss the ways we make it better. First, we notice. Second, we speak up. Third, we do not repeat the transgression. Safe touch, safe speech, safe action. Solidarity.

Together, my children and I learn how to extend radical compassion without excusing violent behavior. We are allies to Others who, like me, have survived/are surviving. We acknowledge their realities and offer support because these actions are healing. This world needs healing.


My favorite moments are the quiet ones. When the toys are put away and we cuddle together, book in hand. We read of underdogs turned heroes. They defeat their evil, protracted metaphors for Othering and abuse. When we read, we all get to be the hero. Our voices are never silenced. There is no limit to what we can accomplish.

The couch transverses time, space and reality. We forget our world for awhile. Even the stunningly beautiful parts. Ice cream, birthday cake, a fire in the fireplace, parks, friends and animal companions. There is other beauty in other worlds to discover without the responsibility of now.

There is nothing quite so beautiful to me as my children in my arms. Those moments when we all rest and breathe together and do not think about learning or teachable moments or injustices. We simply are. We slip into another story even as we are writing our own.


Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is a writing coach and essayist who writes on issues of race, place and survivorship at The Honeyed Quill. Her work has recently appeared in The Huffington Post, The Manifest-Station, Medium, Art Saves Lives International and Role Reboot. She is the content editor for On the Verge, an online magazine for everyone, and is currently coordinating a series of writing competitions to raise money for her son’s service dog


Essays, grieving

Saying goodbye in hospice

It seems to be universally true what Lesléa Newman writes about her mother dying in hospice. They wait until you’re not there to go. I awoke to my brother’s labored breath around 3 a.m. I jumped up from the fold-out blue leather chair bed where I’d been dozing beside my sweet sibling, fading in and out of dreams of when we were young and climbing on trees in the woods. We were strong in muscle and in spirit.

Continue Reading

quotes, recovery, trauma

Frida Kahlo is part of my tribe. Maybe you are too.

I know I’m strange, but I’m not the only one. I take comfort in this. Though I’m not uncomfortable being strange. My wife gives me sideways glances a lot. “You’re weird,” she states, as if she’s just now noticed after 12 years. “Do you know that you’re weird?”

And I’m not doing anything all that odd when she declares my strangeness as if it’s something to be examined. I hold my coffee mug with two hands. She says I look like a turn-of-the-century poor child begging for soup in the cobbled streets of England. I say that’s a bit of a stretch.

Continue Reading

grieving, parenting, trauma

Remembering the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting

I remember the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting quite well. It was one of the worst news announcements I’ve heard in my life. Because of where I was when it happened, the hideous massacre is forever connected to my own family trauma that was happening during December 2012. My wife and I were on our way to have a meeting with my brother’s medical team about his condition: severe acute pancreatitis. At this time, he’d been in the hospital for only two weeks and was already in a medically induced coma.

The news of the shooting came over the radio. My wife and I were in a grief-filled fog of shock and horror. Tears bulged out of our eyes like marbles, not quite spilling on our cheeks. As new parents we were aghast at the thought of something like this happening to our little ones, and we each felt our heart being ripped in solidarity with the parents of the dead children of Sandy Hook Elementary.

Continue Reading