Recovery.

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved…The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” –Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart


End of February 2015 I shot a commercial for Vonage telephone service, a service I used and loved for many years because it gave me precious time with my brother who lived in London. The photo on the left is a shot of me after the day wrapped. Little did I know that my life would fall apart only a week later and that I’d cancel my Vonage service and delete my relationship with my brother only months later, the day the photo on the right was taken (September 2015). 

Things fell apart. A week after my fun on set, at the top of my career, in love with my life as it was, I was diagnosed with cancer. This distanced me from my family, my friends, myself, my job, everything. I lost 40 pounds (photo on left: 143 pounds, right: 103) and my hair. I lost my job, my boyfriend, some friends, and my sense of stability. 

And during that time, people complimented my appearance. It devastated me, and I broke. I hurt everywhere, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. That photo on the right was an unhealthy version of me. I remember being cold all the time, walking through a cognitive fog, suffering from spontaneous incontinence, and really exploiting that small amount of hair that stayed attached to my scalp (the rest I had to shave because of the bald patches). I cried every single day. From pain, from loneliness, and mostly from fear. 


Photo on the left: 6/5/15. Two years ago. I’d completed a complete cycle of chemotherapy (7 doses over 7 weeks), 8.5 weeks of radiation, so many scans and biopsies and blood tests, 1 surgery, and all the misery I could have imagined. I had just been discharged from the hospital after my first surgery, the surgery that would remove the rest of my cancer. I couldn’t move from the pain, I had a catheter in still, and I was vomiting everywhere. My hair had just started to fall out, in chunks. I had an open wound where my labia used to be. And this was the day I wanted to die, when I couldn’t take anything any longer. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than that moment. 

But that wasn’t rock bottom. Over the next 6-8 months, the bottom fell out from under me and I experienced the depths. My body changed and healed, but I completely lost my footing emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially. I was broken. Literally everything in my life changed. I experienced so many endings that it shook my cobwebs loose. 

And that’s when the healing started. I met my therapist in the city where I moved, and she gave me the room, the capacity, to experience everything in a messy, ugly, angry, irrational, emotional way. I began to learn what self-love feels like–being ok with all the emotions I’d been bottling up for so long. 

Those cobwebs that shook loose allowed room for things I could not previously accept: joy, self-respect, humor, silliness, childlike behavior, spontaneity, forgiveness, and love. I discovered what God means to me, and where I can find, accept, and celebrate spirituality. I am continuing to discover these depths inside of me, knowing now what Pema has tried to teach me for years: the things that shake you to your core remind you what inside of us is indestructible. 

“To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

Today is my cancer survival day. Happy birthday, new body. Thank you for bringing me to my knees so that I could learn how to pray.

Welcoming

Disclaimer: if religion and God offend you, this post isn’t for you.

It’s day 4 of Lent, my first Lent, and I’ve asked the universe to guide me into places I have not been able to see. 

On Ash Wednesday, at 2 am, a woman from my cancer support community here died suddenly from toxicity from chemotherapy treatment. After 20+ years of suffering from metastatic breast cancer, she decided to try one round of palliative chemotherapy, against all her instincts. 22 days after that horrible infusion, she was admitted to the hospital for what seemed to be pneumonia, and she never left the ICU. It was a horrible, unexpected, horrific tragedy for which no one was prepared. 

This woman was beloved by my field because she was the shining example of the empowered patient–asking questions, educating herself on her diagnosis and prognosis, and making her own treatment decisions based on her care goals. She inspired me personally and professionally, and my heart is empty and broken. I’m beside myself with feelings of grief. 

So, on Wednesday, I attended Eucharist, received my ashes, and I devoted myself to not numbing my feelings so that I could be open to receiving answers through the spirit. I have been grappling with so many things about which I just cannot make sense. 

This morning, while in meditation, I remembered a dream I had two nights ago. The only religious image that I still love from childhood actually came to life. The image is called “Journey’s End” and depicts a weary traveler being warmly greeted by Jesus with an embrace. It has halted me many times, even when I no longer considered myself a Christian. It is the message I have always needed.

In that meditation, I was struck by the thought of birth and death being exactly the same. Have you ever experienced a birth, where people are so anxious and excited and planning for the baby to come, trying to hurry the induction of the child so that the baby can be passed around lovingly in its first few hours of this life? 

Well, I wonder what it feels like for the family in heaven who must part with that beautiful soul in order to send it down to earth for the life it is about to live. Do they worry if the child will come back? Do they wonder if they’ll still have the same connection? Do they worry that the child will forget them? There must be such grief and loss in heaven when a baby is born, when they have to say goodbye to one of their own, someone they love so so much.
The first natural death I witnessed was my grandmother’s. She was 94, completely lucid, and allowed me into the room when she was dying, holding my hand. She was beautiful. Just before she took her last breath, she looked across the room, stretched out her hand and said, “Dad? Karl? It’s you.” And just like that, she was gone. She had a welcoming party to greet her and it was her time to transition. That memory has never left me, and I’ve heard so many similar ones to that. 

So, just as we welcome, with outstretched arms, the babies coming into the world, I am comforted by the notion that when we die, were being welcomed back. That while I may be weeping the loss of my friend, a woman of such beauty and substance, she has a group of friends and family awaiting her to say,

“Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 25:21

And just like a new baby, on the other side, we’re welcomed with anticipation and delight. Oh, what comfort is in this thought. 

Farewell, M. I will miss you until I see you in the welcoming party. 

Black Albatross

It was more than 18 years ago now,

The day I watched your face

Turn from violet to blue to an icy white.

I stood there, holding your hoodie.

Complete shock.

This accessory smelled more like you than you.

I remember my mouth going dry from surprise and terror and fear and panic.

My ears recall the utter silence. Pin drop.

Those fibers on the black lining, rubbing.

Your body, more limp, making you look like a hanger, no longer holding up your clothes.

You’d cleaned your room. Spotless. Pledge.

No feelings, just data. Vacuum.

You and me, alone, in a clean room.

You lifeless, me dead inside. Mirrors.

I didn’t do anything. I just stood and watched. I’ve regretted that.

It was our only time alone before all the tears. I’ve regretted that too.

I remember you like you left yesterday.

Wearing socks.

I’ve stayed quiet with regret for so long.

What would I say if no one would judge?

I’d talk about the sigh of relief my chest exhaled when I saw your lips turn blue.

Knowing I could get out and not worry about you.

Chasing my dreams without thinking of the mess you’d become.

I’d tell someone that the last words that left my lips in that room was, “i couldn’t save you. I never could.”

It wasn’t I’m sorry or I love you. You were my loss, but a loss.

I’d express my anger that you left me at the worst time, without a friend. A best friend. You rejected me.

How I gave up my bunk beds because you’d slept on them with me, because I couldn’t stop seeing you hanging.

How you made me more different than I already was. Now I was the girl with a dead friend. Now I’ve watched someone die. Now I have even more issues.

Unrelatable and alone.

How you knew. You knew I had no one to help me with this. No one to turn to.

I wanted to yell at you, to call you selfish. But that wasn’t correct.

I would say I have never quite gotten the hang of being around dead bodies because you were the first. And there was nothing comforting about it.

How every time I’m around one now, how every time I even see Jesus on a cross I see your face.

How I never understood. How I don’t understand. Did you not trust me?

How sometimes, in those first few days, I slept easier knowing you were safer.

How sometimes, in those first few years, I hated you. I hated me.

Guilt. Relief. Anger. Calm.

You changed my life for the worse.

A terrible scar across my heart.
All I could show was pain or nothing.

For so long, nothing.

In a child, out an adult?

Protecting you then honoring you?

Who does that for me?

And all I seem now is selfish.

If only I felt safe enough

To say it while still alone in your room.

Perhaps then, this pain could dissipate.

Over-staying Our Welcome

On the first day of 2017, I completed re-reading Joan Didion’s amazing work The Year of Magical Thinking. It got me wondering, might we mix up fate at times, causing us to extend our time on earth, past that which might be planned? Do we make choices that can alter our ending?

Joan Didion is a master of vulnerability. Joan Didion is not the semblance of joy, but her deep feeling encourages the path to joy. Some of my favorite moments:

John Dunne, on Joan’s Birthday (a bittersweet memory):

“Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

I remember tears coming to my eyes.

I feel them now.

In retrospect this had been my omen, my message, the early snowfall, the birthday present no one else could give me. 

He had twenty-five nights left to live.

On self-awareness:

I think about people I know who have lost a husband or wife or child. I think particularly about how these people looked when I when I saw them unexpectedly–on the street, say, or entering a room–during the year or so after the death. What struck me in each instance was how exposed them seemed, how raw.

How fragile, I understand now.

How unstable.

On changing the timeline:

I realized that since the last morning of 2003, the morning after he died, I had been trying to reverse time, run the film backward.

It was now eight months later, August 30, 2004, and I still was.

The difference was that all through those eight months I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.

I firmly believe that we don’t need the physical death of a loved one to experience the grief about which Didion writes. It could be the death of an emotional connection, the death of hope, the death of our physical bodies as we know it. We all want to control the timeline, we all want to change things. We all seem unstable and fragile, for however long or short a time.

In 2014, I suffered the disconnection, the emotional death, of my relationship with someone with whom I held dear–closer to me than anyone I have ever experienced. The first quote, the memory Didion shares of her husband, is one I know well. This partner gave to me something no one else could ever give: encouragement. He was my tireless supporter. And he taught me every day, “You’re stronger than you think.” For over two years I have been trying to substitute an alternate reel, only yesterday to realize that, perhaps, the reel had already been altered.

Do I think that we change the course of our lives through our actions? Yes.

Do I think we overstay our welcome, that we wander onto paths that weren’t made for us? No.

No. For we will learn much on our journey, but we’ve got an ending coming that is set as our destiny. Whether this life or the next one, we will be at Journey’s End all the same.

“It’s great to have an ending to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.” –Ursula K. LeGuin

The Lady of Shallott

‘The web was woven curiously,

The charm is broken utterly,

Draw near and fear not,–this is I,

The Lady of Shallott.’

Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shallott, 1832

A year ago, I spent 10 days travelling Europe–London first to see my eldest brother, and then to Prague to see my youngest brother. From London, we toured the UK countryside. In Prague, I got some much-needed family time. I felt as though I belonged to something. You see, last year was a tough one for me, as I faced a serious illness that not only compromised my body but also my spirit. I was a broken woman, and I recall the feeling of believing I had hit rock bottom, only to become startled by the bottom still falling out from under me. It was regular devastation. My first full day, I arrived at my favorite place on earth, the bench in front of The Lady of Shallott at the Tate Gallery.

My travel journal entry:

Never has a piece of art moved me like The Lady–she halts my breath, stops time, makes me forget any other art exists. I am most in awe of her vulnerability–the raw emotion coming across her face. She is grieving. Not quite resolved, not quite tense. She is still suffering to breathe, close to weeping. It is the pillar of vulnerability for me. I strive to be The Lady, as I feel her pain but don’t have a boat upon which to push myself. My candle, too, is about to go out. Sitting in front of her, every inch of me aches.

I love watching people walking by her, passing her, only to turn around and stop. She is the most beautiful woman in the world, but only because of the fearless vulnerability she shows. I love seeing young women interacting with her, looking back at her as they walk away. She is tough to come to terms with. And yet, she is inside us all…that part of us that we hold onto too tightly. She lets go of it for us. She exhales the pain we seem to choose to keep.

I am still haunted by this passage. I’m haunted and liberated by the grief she displays so openly. It reminds me that grief is something natural, necessary, normal. 

On the 9/23/16 episode of This American Life, Ira Glass shared stories of people who had died and what they said just before they passed. What grief and death remind me to do is live. In the moment. Every day. Feeling it all. 

Feel it all. Grieve the endings, celebrate the beginnings, sit in the middles. Cry when they leave. Yell when they anger you. Fear for their safety. Delight in their pleasures. You never know when those moments are the last you’ll have.

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