Browsing Tag


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.

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