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PTSD

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.

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.

Finally.

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.

Photo: CureJoy.com

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.

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