Letting Go

5 years ago today, my life changed in an instant. It started very similar to the way this morning did: I went to a yoga class prior to heading into work. I recall hurrying into the office, still with my yoga clothes on, as I was going to head out to a little coffee date with my co-worker–an intern with me at the county health department who shared my office with me. I’d gone for 2 years not having an office mate, and I was happily surprised that it was a lovely, thoughtful, kind, funny, brilliant woman I had made friends with in my graduate program. We spent a lot of time talking, sharing stories, getting to know one another, and learning. She was a devoted mother, loving wife, and someone who understood the place from where I come. We shared the same crippling pain. The same stories. We both bonded over Sleater-Kinney (my obsession with them, her having played in a band with them), over crazy and colorful socks and outfits, over experimental punk music, and so much more. She awoke the girl inside of me who loved wearing rainbows and bubbling fountains.

Deanne and I were friends through the public health program, as our passions for transforming the world and really giving back to the place we left coincided perfectly. There was an electricity to her, an infectious quality to her smile, that reminded me of my dear friend Ashley. When we started working in the same office following graduation, our friendship and connection quickly deepened, as she helped me understand the reason why my ex-husband was an addict…that it wasn’t me. She taught me something most people in the United States don’t know: that addiction is a great mask for deep pain. She taught me this repeatedly, even sharing with me her troubles with addiction and self-harm. She told me that her saving grace was her small son, whom she loved dearly and wanted to be a catalyst for change so that he didn’t have to grow up in the world with which she was familiar. Brave, vibrant, passionate, funny Deanne.

Upon returning to my office from yoga, I noticed that my recorder was on my desk. This is the recorder I use for key informant interviews and qualitative research, especially when working on mixed method evaluation. I had loaned it to Deedee for her key informant interviews and case studies for a project she was working on with the health equity council. There was a yellow sticky note on it, reading, “thank you for sharing. xo D”. I waited in the office, checking email and finalizing a grant report for her to come for coffee. For her to come to the office. She never came.

In a text message from our other friend, the third part of the triangle that was my friendship group from graduate school, I read the news that Deanne had taken her own life. She had left behind a wonderful, loving husband and the sweetest 2 year old you’ll ever meet. A 2 year old who will never remember for himself the woman I came to call friend, who I had as a confidant and companion as I embarked on my therapeutic journey. Her encouragement made more of a difference than anyone before, because I truly saw her as a person who had made it through the darkness and into a place where she could cultivate loving relationships and even dream of a world better than the one we had experienced. In such a dark time in my life, she was the light at the end of the tunnel. 5 years ago today, that light was suddenly snuffed.

Deanne’s funeral was the first place I had ever openly grieved. I remember the wave of emotion coming over me and, for the first time, not fighting it as it washed over my entire body. I only knew a couple of people there, and they tried to comfort me in all the ways they knew how. I was inconsolable. I realized early that I was not just grieving for the loss of her…I was simply beginning to grieve all the pain I understood that lived inside of her. I could understand so fundamentally why she did what she did that I lost it. How devastating must all that pain be for one little body…and yet, I have all of the same. One by one, as my dear friends and confidants disappear to the pain, I realize that my little body is simultaneously scared to share the pain with another and also has fewer others with whom to share the pain. The load grows heavier and yet I plod on. And yet I try to process through it so that it doesn’t take me too.

Deanne was a soul sister, and every time I look at her beautiful son, I feel her soul again. Every time he smiles, I feel her alive inside of him. And that wakes me up. I wish she could have held on, I wish she could have asked for help. But I understand where she was, and that place is a place I struggle to reach out from as well. That place where she was is the place that, when shared, I have terrified people to the point of them walking away for good. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel worth it. Too risky. 5 years ago, Deanne taught me I need to wake up and work my ass off to process this pain. 5 years ago, I started to make progress on my therapeutic journey. And 5 years from now, I will be in a place that makes the dark place feel less dim, less consuming, less powerful.

I miss you, DeeDee. I am so glad you are free from this pain, but I wish you knew the pain others have shared with one another over your loss. We miss you, but we are a community. A community who loves your son and husband fiercely. A community that celebrates life and asks for help. A community that no longer shies away from the difficult emotions. A community you created. A community that is better for your child than it was for us. I only wish you could be a part of it. For you, for my gratitude, for my connection to your soul, I light a candle. For you, for his love, for his connection to your soul, your son released balloons into the sky–to try to reach you. You’ve made a difference in our lives. In many ways, you’ve made THE difference in mine.

Love,

Blonde

xoxo

 

Ugly fruit

Yesterday, I received my first CSA box from a local group who go to small farm shares and resell those imperfect produce items that farms usually can’t sell to grocery stores or at the market. It’s a local operation, trying to reduce waste by helping people look beneath the surface.

What a metaphor for life. Here we all are, in this life, some of us with a set of experiences more attractive than others. Here we are, spiritual beings, in a bag of bones, just trying to navigate the human experience. 

I remember being a young girl, looking for the secret to have a quick fix from the grief I felt. It was crippling at the time. I stumbled upon a book by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a book that now I quote from like the bible, because it’s the backbone of my field:

Struggle leaves scars. But, in return for the the aching is  raw reality of life. Is an appreciation for… The light that streams in to wake one in the early morning, the hair on my clothes reminding me that my cat is waiting at home, the ability to lock my door behind me, the ability to pay a bill on time, the ability to sit, to hold hands, to feel real emotions. The cracks are where the light gets in. The small are mighty. 

Don’t underestimate the ugly fruit. It just might taste the sweetest. At least mine did.

Healing

This morning I had a follow up with my new gynecologic oncologist–he provided me a second opinion about 5 weeks ago when the oncologist I had been seeing called me at a wedding I was attending, just to let me know my pet CT came back positive for recurrence of cancer and I needed to start on immunotherapy. I was horrified, anxious, and angry, but I still didn’t feel quite right about this diagnosis. So I asked a palliative care friend of mine what he thought, and he encouraged me to see someone else.

Back to today: I’m following up with my oncologist who had stated not only am I cancer free but also hpv free, and perhaps I’m adding too much toxicity to my body. He encouraged me to continue my EMDR practice and to listen to my body. I have been off all medications for 5 weeks.

Labs: blood tests are great. No need to continue drawing blood. Urinalysis is great. And I’m feeling lovely. 

The doctor told me weeks ago that we’d check in on the anticonvulsants I’ve been on much of my life for seizures and debilitating migraines. Today was the day. He probed for a body check in. I told him I feel better than I ever have before. No seizures, no neuropathy, no migraines. I’m free. Gently, he asked me what I knew about psychogenic seizures. I said I’d read nothing, and began to Google. He quickly followed up with, “you may feel some anxiety about this, but I want you to know this is SO NORMAL.” I don’t have epilepsy very badly, it turns out, and what I thought were seizures were actually physical manifestations of trauma. 

Psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES) is a type of somatoform condition common among ptsd patients. Patient presents with a seizure but it is found to not be etiological in nature. When I first heard this, I immediately felt shame:

  • Have I been lying to people this entire time?
  • Why have I felt the need to fake a condition?
  • Do I not trust doctors?
  • How are others going to react?

But then, during our palliative care IDT, miraculously enough, the case brought forward was of a young woman with brain cancer who presented with psychogenic seizures. I was able to hear a different story, with providers who gave insight into loving kindness. My body was just protecting me all these years until I was strong enough to face the past, process, and move on. 

Now, life poses a different story, a different set of questions:

  • When can I schedule skydiving?
  • Who wants to go with me to six flags?
  • Does that mean I can drink beer again?
  • How many cupcakes can I devour before I’m sick?
  • Can I never have a seizure again?

It’s magical to me the process of both healing oneself and allowing a higher being to help heal. When we embrace and process through our weak points, our shame triggers, when we embrace and lean into our shadow selves, it’s amazing how transformative it is, that which can be done. 

No wonder my pills never worked…

All for now.

Xox

Blonde

Sand artĀ 

When I was very, very young, just before I entered school, I was introduced to the concept of gluing different colored sand inside of an outline that had been drawn. Sometimes by me, mostly by others. I considered it akin to interactive coloring.
In kindergarten my family had moved into an actual home, a purchased one, and I remember feeling excited, even at 6, to have stability. We’d all be in a place where we’d fit, with all our things. And, at this point, we could stop being turtles or snails and remove our homes from our aching backs. Perhaps we could rest a while.
As I explored the cottony bark of the cottonwood in front of our home, I noticed a similarly sized child lying in the tall summer grass of the community’s shared greenspace. She was exotic-looking to me, with almond eyes and long, thick dark hair. I wandered over to her, wondering why she was so intrigued by the grass. There, I saw her gently pinching rollie pollies and making a runway for them with her skin. I joined her, then, and for every summer after, learning to look closer at my natural surroundings. When my world was filled with sadness, she navigated with empathy, with kindness. She was carefree, like the wind. Still, to this day, the wind reminds me of, no, it IS her. How beautiful she could become the wind!
Vanessa was my best friend, from kindergarten to 7th grade. She was in second grade at Buena Vista when I was in kindergarten, which is often a bit of a jump for friendship, but I remember loving the idea of skipping first grade because that meant I could transfer into the 2-3 combo class, led by Ms. McPherson. And there, we got to be classmates for the only time. With Vanessa, I had fun. I mean, what I can only imagine as a childhood. We played and played and played. We made art, we tanned, we had sleepovers where we played Oregon Trail and sometimes snuck out at night to walk the neighborhood. We experimented with cooking. I recall the night we attempted both Navajo fry bread and my grandmother’s sugar cookies, accidentally switching sugar and salt in both. It was terrible. And the best night I remember. Usually, my stepfather would get angry, but he melted at our laughter. He even made us eat what we’d tried… Joining in the fun of how terrible or concoctions tasted. And who couldn’t? It just was the single greatest reminder that we were children, that we were allowed to make mistakes, that those mistakes meant learning, and that what we did had no relevant consequences to the rest of the world.
Vanessa was quiet, small, gentle, thoughtful, and curious. She was trustworthy and fun. When tragedy struck, she carefully put on her oxygen mask before assisting others. She cares that much about her soul–deeply spiritual, deeply loved. She was an old soul.
While we were quite young still, two events shaped our neighborhood and another shifted energy between us. The smaller incident: I was playing a game of helicopter where you put your arms out as propellers and spin— faster and faster, until you got too dizzy and floated down to the ground. I was not the best pilot and often was overzealous when being allowed to be childlike in nature. I started spinning, filling the spring air with laughter, until I quickly plummeted to the concrete below my feet. This was my first concussion. She rushed to me, then rushed to my house, finding an adult who could assist. She believed adults took care of children. I suffered a concussion and many, many cosmetic injuries, but what made this experience different from the rest is that she reminded me how fun the pain was the entire time. “It was soooo worth it, right? Didn’t you feel like you were flying?!” What a great counter balance to my family, where I was grounded a month.
Vanessa and I lived in a poor neighborhood, though, and there were many moments that served as reminders. Michael, a Hispanic boy in our neighborhood, whom we absolutely loved going to the pool and playing soccer with at home and at school, had family staying from out of town for a time in Tanglewood. He couldn’t play as much, that summer we were nine, so we decided we’d move the playground a bit closer to his house so he could join. The communal areas had tall light posts most of us children liked to climb and slide back down like fire poles. In May, I’d work with with Vanessa to decorate the one we were playing near so we could have proper May day festivities. We strung flowers together for our hair and made bracelets. We took it all in. Two hippie, earth loving kids. While playing soccer in the grass one evening, Vanessa and I heard a shot, a big loud slap. And then the world went quiet. Michael and his cousin were playing inside the house, perhaps 500 yards away, with a bb gun. And it was loaded. We held hands as her dad and mom came running toward where we were playing to see if we were okay. We huddled together as they took Michael out of the house on a stretcher. That was the spring I first learned about death and the summer I learned about life–i was finally able to go home to the reservation with the family I loved. Love. The family I love.
Her grandfather, a shaman, lived east of the painted desert, in Northern Arizona, near the New Mexico border. Her grandmother was a fantastic cook, with a traditional kitchen, but also with a traditional fire hearth that we used to learn to bake. I can smell the fry bread in the wind. The only member outside the immediate family I’d met beforehand was Eric Runningpath, Vanessa’s cousin, our dance instructor, and one of my greatest heroes. Eric taught me to love traditional Navajo culture and prepared me to experience the stillness of the res. My second night there, we went to the grandparents home, a few miles from where we slept. I remember like yesterday, baking with grandmother, singing songs, hearing stories of childhood, when grandfather came in. He walked right toward me, his giant hand coming to rest on my shoulder. “We have much to do. Come.” This was a moment where I felt genuine fear, for I believed this man would hurt me. But in fact, this began my teachings from Hunter Bear, the man who has become my still small voice.
Being with Vanessa was always extraordinarily boring. It was one of those friendships that a person takes for granted, like the fit of a glove or a warm embrace. Most of my favorite memories with her were quite normal for children: playing on the swings at school, playing soccer and handball and four square at recess, not wanting to do our homework together, and having epic sleepovers. Vanessa was easy, and I enjoyed the moments where I could be a regular kid. I hated leaving my elementary school for a new one because I was always scared she’d find a new group of friends, which she did, but she never forgot me.
I remember the day Vanessa met Ashley, my new friend from my new school. I was in 4th grade and they were in 5th. Ashley came to my house to spend time at the pool, and Vanessa joined us. I was so nervous they’d hate one another, but they adapted. Mostly, Vanessa adapted and Ashley stayed Ashley–which worked for us. It worked well for me, as then I had someone to share Ashley’s sadness with. Vanessa became the backbone of my group of friends. And she was always there for me, to remind me that friends could be more inclusive than family.
And then that day occurred. September 1998. So vividly do I remember the paralysis I felt watching Ashley take her life, her body lifeless before my eyes. So vividly do I remember looking for Vanessa. Looking for the calm inside the storm. And when she was found (on the reservation), her family had no hesitation to pack up the car and head home to take care of a friend in need.
I wish I knew the last time we enjoyed one another’s company. I wish I could have thanked Vanessa. I wish she hadn’t been killed. I wish I could have told her all the things I adored about her and learned from her.
Oh, Vanessa, I’m so sorry I did not have the capacity to share with your dad and family my memories of the beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, and kind young lady I was fortunate enough to hold hands with. To play with. To adventure with.
Love,
Blonde