This is not a before-and-after weight loss story.

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My first EVER gym selfie. Ahh!

Just over a year ago, I had my first sit down with my trainer, Coretta. Through my tears, I told her that I had gained 40 pounds since my mother died, and could no longer recognize myself. Depression and a string of injuries had made it impossible for me to train like I always had; as an elite athlete. Not to mention, years of vacillating between extreme calorie restriction and binging had wreaked havoc on my metabolism. I was constantly in pain, and terrified of losing control of my health and dying far too young, like my mother. As much as it pained me to admit, I needed help.

I was nearing my 30th birthday, and was having so many joint problems that I honestly didn’t know what I could even do in the gym anymore. I knew my body needed activity. I knew that getting stronger would improve my mental and physical well-being. But all of my favorite workouts (basketball, soccer, rugby, spinning, and running) were off the table. I hated the gym and resented working out for any reason other than to improve my performance on the field. No longer being an athlete was (and remains) a sore subject for me, and I was resistant to accept that I would need to find a way to love fitness without playing sports.

As soon as Coretta said the words, “it sounds like it’s time to get back to you,” I knew I was in good hands. I had hope.

In the past, I would have jumped immediately into strict “clean eating,” and exercising 6 days a week. Most of my previous weight loss efforts have involved punishing my body by beating it into shape. Those efforts were driven by an external goal — a number on the scale that I randomly deemed my “ideal.”

This time, I started my training out slowly, doing two days per week: one day in the pool and one day on the floor. At first, I hated the pool. “That’s for old ladies!” I would exclaim, with an air of superiority. I wanted the floor. I wanted to lift heavy! I wanted to get immediately back to being the athlete I once was.

But wants and needs are two different things. “You need the water,” Coretta insisted. “You need to recover and build the foundation for bigger things. You need to walk before you run.”

I was a reluctant grasshopper, but I trusted in her deep knowledge and kind heart so much that I fought my (terrible) instincts and followed her instructions. My inner self-judging perfectionist was screaming at me to do more, to push harder, to kill myself to be thin if I had to. But in my heart, I knew that slow and steady would win.

Over the months, I began to shift my perspective and started viewing working out as self-care; one of the most loving things I could do for myself, rather than a punishment for being too large. I have learned to LOVE going to the gym, and the feeling of strength and balance that it affords me. I have learned that maintaining a love of fitness isn’t about before and afters — it’s about the journey, and celebrating every single little gain along the way. I stopped beating myself up with the “shoulds” and started listening to myself instead. My workouts with Coretta became non-negotiable me-time, rather than just another appointment to keep on my calendar. I’ve slowly added more days at the gym each week, and have even incorporated yoga (an exercise I previously deemed “not intense enough” for me), which has helped me tune in and listen to my body.

What a difference a year makes. Today, Coretta had me running sprints for the first time since I started this quest of getting back to me. I should be able to play sports again quite soon, which I’m really looking forward to. But even if I could never play sports again, I am amazed at how much I have learned and how far I have come. I am now the strongest I have ever been (yes, including when I was a college athlete) and I have never been healthier. My joints feel a thousand times better. My resting heart rate is down a whopping 20 BPM from this time last year. And most importantly: I have stopped trying to disappear.

The funny thing is that I haven’t lost a pound. I have lost inches and body fat percentages and a pants size, but not a single pound. The lack of movement on the scale has been very frustrating and discouraging at times, especially when I’m doing everything “right” and still don’t see the numbers drop. My exasperation is compounded when I see friends posting their incredible before-and-after transformations on social media. But one of the biggest lessons that this whole experience has taught me is to stop looking over my shoulder at everybody else and to look within me. Their success is not my failure. Everyone’s journey is different. Every body has different needs. I am only hurting ME by holding myself to ridiculous standards and comparing myself to others. That is what got me into this mess of abusing myself in the first place!

So today, I choose to compare myself to where I was a year ago, and more importantly, to celebrate how far I have come. As I was stretching after my workout, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and for the first time in years, I saw the “me” that I recognize: tall, broad-shouldered, beautiful and strong.

And I had nothing but love for her.

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Welcome to the freedom trap

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This is how it feels… kind of.

I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that my mother dying of a freak stroke was one of the most traumatic and world-shattering things to happen to me to date, there is another side to my grief. A side I don’t normally share with others, because it’s ugly and taboo.

Here it goes: My mother’s death gave me a freedom I have never known before.

Let me explain. It’s true that she was my closest confidant, my guiding light and my biggest fan. But it’s also true that she had expectations of me. Many, many expectations.

I spent my entire life with a critical eye watching carefully over my every move. I felt my failures keenly, as my mother tsk-tsked me over a B+ or shook her head at me from the stands of a basketball game where I only hit 40% of my shots. “USE YOUR LEGS!” she would mouth furiously at me from her seat, as I tried desperately to keep my cool. Despite every coach I ever had begging me to stop looking constantly at my mother, I never did learn.

Nothing ever seemed good enough for her. A 3.7 GPA was good, but probably could have been a 4.0 if I’d just put in a little more effort. Losing 15 pounds on a crash diet was great, but if only I could lose 10 more, I’d really be in good shape. Scoring 17 points was a solid way to finish a basketball game, but if only I’d hit one more three, I could finally be on college-recruitement lists.

Needless to say, I had (have? Ok, ok HAVE) a complex. My inability to rip my eyes away from the bleachers really did a number on me. My entire life, I have felt less than; inadequate and unable to reach my supposedly limitless potential. And while I’m sure my mother was pushing me for “the right reasons,” her actions still shook my confidence, and had me questioning whether I would ever be good enough.

Meanwhile, if you asked anyone else in town, I was her golden child who could do no wrong. She bragged about me constantly. This dichotomy never ceased to amaze (or confound!) me.

All of that is to say that I always felt her judgment, even when she didn’t say a word. Take my writing, for example. I knew that my mother thought I was a great writer. But for some reason, I always felt that she didn’t believe I could — or should — make a career out of it. She never said so explicitly, and she never even came close to telling me which career path I should choose. Her fallback mantra was always, “I just want you to be happy.” But I never believed her. I never felt free. I always felt like I needed to take a certain path — one that would lead me to traditional success; one she could brag about and hold up as her own parenting win.

It’s also quite possible that a lot of that perceived scorn and judgment from her was in my head. Maybe I just watched too many 80’s and 90’s teen movies where the characters rebelled against their parents’ school/career expectations for them, and went to art school to follow their passions instead.

I was always envious of those singularly driven passion-followers. I chose the other path, the “practical” path and lived to make someone else happy. I now have two marketable degrees, and an endless pile of student debt that keeps me up at night. And the person that I did it all to impress isn’t even here anymore.

So, I’m free now. I’m free to pursue my dreams, and to write about whatever I want. I no longer have to fear the judgment of the only person whom I ever really wanted to make proud. And that’s really incredible, in some ways!

Sometimes, my newfound freedom makes me soar. It makes me feel limitless. Like, there’s nobody I have to please but myself. I can do whatever I want in this world and I only have to answer to me.

But other times, it’s just exhausting. Some days, I just wish I had my mommy to call up. I miss her guidance and support. Her earthly presence made me feel like I didn’t have to have every single thing in my life figured out. No matter how old I got, I was free to be a child with her. Now, it’s all on me; no coach, no scapegoat. My driving force is gone, and that can be pretty terrifying. Hence, my inertia as of late.

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All the time!

Freedom is a bit tricky in that way. You are free to pursue your dreams, but you’re also free to do nothing at all — to never move forward; to never try.

I’m not sure how to overcome the paralyzing fear that seems built into my brain, or how to drown out my inner critic, which sounds suspiciously like my mother. But I do know that ultimately, this is all within my control. It is my choice: I’m free to fly, and risk falling, or stay on the ground where it’s safe.

How I choose to move forward is what matters. I hope I will choose to fly.

What I wish someone had told me about grieving

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Photo credit: Annemariebusschers

When my mother died unexpectedly of a stroke, there was no shortage of platitudes offered:

“It will get easier with time.”

“One day this will all make sense.”

“She’s in a better place now.”

As I’ve written before, I found these types of sentiments, at the time, to be rather empty and unhelpful. Nonetheless, I learned to appreciate the fact that the people who said them were just looking for something, anything to say to ease my pain. And I can’t fault anyone for trying to comfort me as I faced the unimaginable. Dealing with death is not easy. There’s no playbook. You simply offer your condolences and try to be there for the bereaved as much as you can.

But there are so many things I’ve learned through grieving; things the platitudes never mentioned and that no one ever warned me about. Things I wish somebody had told me before I started the process. Things I want to share with all of you so that you might be able to better understand a friend who is grieving, or your own feelings if you’re going through the process yourself, like:

The world won’t wait for you. 

You will stand still, very very still for a long time. I cannot say how long. Everyone’s journey is different. You may try to fight against this stillness by filling up your calendar, or going about life as normal, or ignoring your pain. The world will continue to move at a breakneck speed, but try as you might to keep up with it, inside the stillness will remain. You will not be ready to move on; to pretend as if it’s all ok. Not for a long while. I call this the zombie phase. As I wrote in the Long, Lonely, Road of Grief, it went a little something like this (for me): “I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.

Your friends may stop asking you how you are doing after a few months, assuming your loss is old news and that you must have compartmentalized it by now. They may talk to you like they always have, assuming if you wanted to talk about “it,” you would do so — they don’t want to upset you by bringing it up. You will learn to forgive them; for both assuming that you aren’t conscious of your loss every moment of every day, and for failing to address the elephant in the room, when you just don’t have the strength.

You will be angry at the world for spinning, and frustrated because all you want is to get back to moving with it. Eventually, you will get there. But this time, this space of stillness is sacred. It means you really lost something; that you’re learning to live with a massive hole in your life. It is normal, and it is ok.

Grief knows no timeline.

One day, you will start to walk amongst the living again and you will be thrilled at your re-acquired excitement for life. It is the surest sign that you are healing; that you will move on, even if you’re never quite the same again. You will start to feel excitement, rather than dread, at the big happenings coming up on your calendar. Your good days will outnumber your bad. You will breathe a sigh of relief — I am getting there, you’ll think, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Until, after many months of feeling great, the tunnel closes in on you and you are thrown back into despair. Just as you’ve gotten the hang of your new life; your new normal, you’re thrown for a loop. You might need advice on your taxes, or a new career path, but you find that nobody can guide you like your mother could. You feel the loss all over again as if it happened just yesterday, even though it’s been years. You are depressed. Nothing feels right. Your skin crawls with an unshakable wave of grief. I thought I was past this, you will chastise yourself, dammit, things were really looking up!

They’ll look up again, but give yourself time. The “active” grief comes and goes. Things get easier until they aren’t anymore. This is because grief knows no timeline. There are no definable stages to be found. Grief is fluid and, at times, unpredictable. You can only take your time, roll with the tide and accept that sometimes the waters will be calm, sometimes you’ll get smacked in the face with an unexpected wave, and sometimes you’ll be thrown violently by a tsunami of pain.

The ripples will affect every area of your life. 

Nothing in your life, or in your psyche is an island. Your loss will have a “ripple effect” and touch every aspect of your life. You might get easily knocked down by small setbacks (like an injury or your car breaking down), and start to feel like the world just isn’t fair. You could find yourself suffocating those you love; terrified to lose them — or pushing them away to avoid the inevitable pain that their loss would bring. You may become anxious at holidays, unable to explain why.

You might adopt a puppy and struggle to bond with him, because you are so afraid to love him, knowing that you will most likely outlive him. Yet, the hole inside you that your mother’s death left begs, screams to be filled and you let it, partly, by a sweet dog with a red beard and boundless joy. 10 months later, that puppy might get very sick and now that you love him unimaginably, the concept of losing him is already too horrible to bear. The anxiety grips you as you make your way through the snow to the emergency veterinary hospital at 2 AM on the first night of spring, tears streaming down your face, as you relive your middle-of-the-night drive to the hospital the night of your mother’s emergency surgery.

Some of the ripples you will see and understand, and others will elude you. You will learn to accept these ripples, even though they make your life more complicated. They are part of you now.

You will be changed, forever.

This one is hard to swallow. Nobody wants to be defined by their trauma, and we go to great lengths to remain “ourselves” in the face of earth-shaking sadness. But the truth is, it is nearly impossible to avoid these changes. Losing a close loved one will most likely irrevocably change who you are, for better or for worse. There is a growing body of evidence that trauma can actually change our neurobiology. You may find that your priorities suddenly shift, or that grudges you’ve long held against loved ones simply aren’t worth it anymore. You may decide to sell all of your stuff to move to an island somewhere, because the grind seems totally worthless to you.

You might grow up nearly overnight, finding yourself making decisions about end-of-life care and funeral prayer cards when just 6 months ago, you were seriously considering moving to Buenos Aires on a whim. You might lose your wanderlust, or your deep love of watching sports, and not understand why. You could suddenly hate crowds, when you used to thrive in them. You might move to the Jersey Shore (an idea that would previously have seemed absurd to you) to get away from a city that was once the only place you felt at home. You may find yourself holding onto ridiculous things, like a shirt your mother bought you that you always hated, for the simple fact that she’ll never buy you a shirt that you hate ever again.

The good news is, these changes aren’t all bad. You will likely grow in ways you never imagined, and find yourself more easily prioritizing what’s important to you. You can even come out better than before: more empathetic with your ear and far more careful with your time and limited resources.

Everyone grieves differently.

This one is very important. In your pain, you may have a hard time understanding the pain of others, especially those in your family dealing with the same loss you are. Remember, everyone handles grief differently. Others’ actions may be truly confounding to you. One person may experience PTSD or battle depression (or both). Another may try to go on as though everything is normal, but be haunted by nightmares and anxiety. Still another may compartmentalize their pain. None of these reactions is “right” or “wrong,” though, in your pain, you may be pulled to assume differently.

You may find yourself angry with your family as they ignore the empty chair at the holiday table, rather than bringing her memory into focus. It might be difficult to talk to them about your pain, because they process things differently than you do. You might judge them, and assume they’re doing it all wrong. You might find yourself at Hamilton: The Musical, a full two years after your mother has died, unabashedly weeping, realizing your resentment towards your family is wrongheaded, as the cast sings:

There are moments that the words don’t reach,
There’s a grace too powerful to name,
We push away what we can never understand,
We push away the unimaginable.

They are standing in the garden,
Alexander by Eliza’s side,
She takes his hand-
Forgiveness… can you imagine?

There is no wrong way to grieve. Some grievers may not be able to relate to a word of this, and that’s ok.  We are all different. It’s important to remember to give a grieving person the space to do it their own way, on their own timeline, even if it makes no sense to those of us on the outside.

With that said, I hope these words can be of some help or comfort to those struggling with grief, whether you’re just starting the journey or feeling stuck.

I can’t tell you that it will be ok, and I will not feed you a beautiful platitude. But I will offer you this: You are not alone. Please know that.

Perspective from a pink-haired angel lady

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For the last few weeks, I have been feeling uninspired and dragged down. A wave of grief has come over me like I lost my mother yesterday. Even as I remind myself that grief knows no logic, rhyme or reason, I find myself constantly surprised by how it catches me off guard and sweeps me into its tide. Despite my best efforts (and of course, constantly berating myself), I can’t focus on my goals. I can hardly even motivate myself to take on my to-do list. January felt like I was running a marathon without my feet even touching the ground. February feels like I’m walking through quicksand; going nowhere fast.

My long, careful progress at the gym has turned on me. My knee injury is flaring up for reasons I don’t understand. Despite going through a full stint of physical therapy last year and doing everything in my power to prevent re-injury, I’m back to experiencing pain, patella maltracking and limited mobility. Needless to say, I’m very frustrated. It’s been starting to feel like no matter what I do to care for my body (Healthy food! Frequent and safe exercise! Vitamins! Getting enough sleep! Stretching and yoga! Cutting out high-impact activities, despite loving them desperately!), it betrays me.

My researcher brain demands answers for my injury flare-up: Is it the weather? Did I go too hard with the squats? Am I being punished for wrecking my joints with youth sports? Am I doomed to stop-and-go activity for the rest of my life? How can I nurture my body when it screams out in pain every time I try to do right by it? Why does it insist upon rebelling against me, even as I pour love into it day-in and day-out?

My grief compounds the injury. Everything feels more difficult without my mother to lean on. She had a way of making everything feel manageable. Without her, I sometimes feel like I’m aimlessly paddling a canoe out in the middle of the ocean without knowing which way is land. It’s enough to drive me up the wall. Yesterday, while in the pool working out with my trainer/mentor/friend/cheerleader/counselor Coretta, I started to weep.

“This is good,” she assured me. “We need to talk about it. And I need you to understand that as you age, injuries are an inevitability. You don’t just go through rehab and bounce back like you did in your early twenties. Your body has to reckon with all you put it through when you were young and destroying it with sports. This is not going to go away. We’re going to have to find a way for you to manage it and not let it derail you.”

While technically (ok, fully) correct, this was obviously NOT what I wanted to hear. I stubbornly fought her, the woman who has saved my life on more than one occasion, by listing off my reasons why it isn’t fair; why this shouldn’t be happening to me.

“I know. It sucks. But you’ll get through it.”

“I feel like I’m back at square one.”

“You’re not. You can’t see it, but you’re not.”

I resisted her tough but empathetic love throughout the rest of my workout, stewing in my anger. I wrongly assumed that if I did all the “right” things, my body would fall in line; that by my sheer will and grit, I could put myself back together both physically and emotionally. It all felt so unfair. Have I not suffered enough? I’ve always known that life isn’t fair, but for some reason I thought that the universe would recognize how much I have been through, and cease my suffering accordingly. Why should I be hurt again? I played by the rules and it didn’t matter. I was despondent.

Coretta left me and proceeded to worry about me all day. I know I hurt her heart every time I hurt, but I can only be where I am, even if that place is Shit Palace. Thankfully, she always understands.

This morning, I woke up and could feel my will beginning its triumphant return. I arrived at the gym with a decent attitude. As Coretta and I worked out on the floor, I could not keep my eyes off of a woman working out nearby. She was super fit and trim — an obvious gym rat — with long blonde hair adorned with pink streaks. Not going to lie, I was pretty envious of her body, and feeling a little insecure working out next to her. Coretta complimented her hair, and we all got talking. The woman proceeded to tell us that that she had recently undergone neck and knee surgery to correct decades-old injuries from a car accident she was in over twenty years ago. Like, we’re talking screws in her neck and building a new ligament in her knee. These were serious surgeries! “My neck isn’t working so great,” she explained. “I have limited mobility, it cracks all the time and it hurts every time I turn my head.”

“How do you do it?” I asked, gesturing towards the weights she was lifting.

“Well, it’s going to hurt either way. I figure I may as well be here, doing something that makes me feel good.”

I was shocked. I mean, completely shocked. Suddenly, my gimpy (but fixable!) knee didn’t seem like such a big deal. And knowing that this woman has been through so many physical setbacks, but still rocks it at the gym and has maintained a body I can only dream of, really lit a fire in my belly. If this woman can drag her ass to the gym after neck and knee surgery, I can, at the very least, have a good attitude about the things I can still do. I am not back at square one. I am so much further along than I give myself credit for. I guess I just don’t let myself recognize my progress. Typical!

The woman finished up her workout, and left me with some words of encouragement: “you’re doing great. No matter what, just keep going.”

Talk about eating a piece of humble pie.

As I pushed through the rest of my workout, I could feel my perspective shifting. I could also see the elated (and maybe a little smug) sense of self-satisfaction Coretta was feeling from watching me have my a-ha moment. I’m not really one to see signs, but this happening felt so pointed; so necessary for me in this moment.

“Sometimes, a pink haired angel lady shows up just when you need her,” Coretta said.

Indeed. Thank you for the lesson, angel lady.

And now, I keep going.

The gut punch of grief; what it’s like to be triggered.

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The old soccer crew. I’m #20 and you can see my mom hiding in the back sporting her shades, probably wearing a tracksuit.

Let me set the scene: I am waiting to get on the field to compete in a soccer tournament. I stand in a solemn circle, surrounded by the girls I grew up playing with. Their faces are all the same, except we’ve all aged some since we last played together. Laugh lines mark our faces, and a few of us, myself included, are showing grey hairs.

I feel a misplaced anxiety, and I am sure everyone is picking up on it. My bad juju is palpable.

Our longtime coach calls me out: “Chelsea, what’s going on over there? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m hungry, and I have to go to the bathroom,” I announce. A few of my teammates avert their eyes. “What?! Do you all want me to go into hypoglycemic shock?!” I say dramatically, knowing that that’s not really a thing. My starting position has clearly gone to my head.

“Fine. You have 15 minutes,” Coach says, obviously annoyed with my antics.

I wander hurriedly and find myself walking into Grand Central Station. I enter the main concourse and marvel at how much is happening around me. I start to panic — I am really feeling the time crunch of getting back to my team. How many minutes has it been? Surely at least 12! I run towards Grand Central Market and when I enter its doors, I strangely find myself in a high school gymnasium. There across the basketball court is none other than my mother, coaching a game of teenaged boys.

She’s standing there like a beacon in her typical hunter green Coventry High School tracksuit and athletic t-shirt, calling out plays. She sees me across the gym and waves distractedly in her familiar I’m-busy-but-glad-you’re-here way. I am so incredibly relieved to see her. My anxiety falls away completely. I need her. I need her right now, I think. I break out into a full gallop towards her and she hurries towards me, too, looking confused.

As I reach her, I fling my arms around her, enveloping her much shorter frame. I am desperately sobbing and convulsing with gratitude that she’s here; that I’m feeling her body in my arms.

“Are you ok, hun?!” she asks, obviously concerned.

Hearing her voice sends a shockwave through my system and my conscious comes crashing in, reminding me; it’s not real, it’s a dream. She is dead.

—————

I wake up and come back to reality. There is no one to comfort me here.

I am not ok.

I am shaking and very real tears are streaming down my cheeks and onto my pillow. This is no way to start my day, much less a day I had high hopes for. My puppy looks curiously at me through his crate. He is ready for his morning walk, but in this moment, I am paralyzed with devastation.

I exhaustedly run through a list of today’s “musts” in my head: I must walk the dog, fix a healthy breakfast, hit my deadlines. Everything else is negotiable.

I bargain with myself: Chelsea, if you get out of bed and make it through this list of things, you don’t have to do anything else today. You can be off the hook. Emails can go unanswered; to-do lists and blog posts put on hold. 

So it is, to be triggered.

The smallest thing — a memory, a dream, a smell, a song — can derail me and send me spiraling. Just last week, I went into a tailspin over the 11th anniversary of my rape. I thought I would be fine (some years, I am) but this year, my body decided otherwise. I spent the week emotionally eating (immediately followed by self-loathing for emotionally eating) and putting off anything I could possibly push back. I’m totally regressing, I vented grumpily, I thought I was over this. I thought I had more self-control.  

It doesn’t help that the one thing in the world that could instantly make me feel better is a hug from my mom and her steady assurance that I’ll be ok — even when I really, truly believe otherwise. She had a way of grounding me and easing my anxieties (like the time I was having a panic attack over my law school student loans, and she said, “relax, people take out loans this size all the time. Only they’re called mortgages. You invested in yourself instead!” and I instantly had a sense of perspective and calmed the hell down). She was my safety blanket. The world can feel like a cold, unforgiving place without her.

This is my life with depression/PTSD in a nutshell. Yesterday, I thought I was doing ok. But that was then and this is now. Today, my reality is different. Today, I must navigate this ever-lingering darkness whether I want to or not. I cannot cast this pain out of my life, though at times I’d like to. My mother’s ghost haunts me, touching everything I do.

Sometimes I feel like myself again for a spell, and I’m convinced I can take on the world. But it doesn’t take long before I’m swept back into my grieving state; hopeless and frantic — torn between waiting for the storm to pass and wanting to cease the day regardless of the state of my anxious mind. I have no idea how long this will go on for; maybe forever. I take great comfort in knowing that the “good spells” are becoming more prominent, and the bad are fewer and further in between.

I have no idea how to feel better. Right now, I’m just riding the wave and trying not to push myself too hard. Truth be told, if I was kinder to myself and paid more attention to my self-care needs, I probably wouldn’t be so easy to knock out in the first place. Besides, I spent the last year trying to control everything around me with an iron grip, and I was miserable. I cannot control my grief and it doesn’t have to control me. I must remind myself that the bad feelings will come and they will pass. I can only recognize them, let myself feel them, and move on from them when I’m ready to. Today will be tough. Tomorrow will hopefully be better. My to-do list will likely suffer yet another week in limbo. It will be ok, so long as I keep moving forward and checking off my “musts.”

Such is life, and perhaps this will always be my “normal,” finding balance between giving in to the darkness and pulling myself back towards the light.

Perhaps I will always teeter at the edge of the void, and it’s by sheer will and tenacity that I don’t fall in.

Perhaps I’m not doing nearly as badly as I think.

Perhaps my mother always WAS right, after all: I. Will. Be. Ok.

On Healing: It Gets Better

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“I always feel like I should be doing more but I am still struggling so hard. Every week feels like a different battle. Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m way, way down. I don’t know how to balance it all. I’ve been turning it over in my head and trying to process it, but I still feel so far from real progress. I know I have to give myself time and that it’s all fresh. I know perspective is on the way. I know there are lessons. I know all of this, but I want to fast forward. I don’t want to go through years of pain. Happiness doesn’t seem like a choice right now. It feels like hard work that I don’t have the energy for. It could be years before I am totally myself again. Besides, ‘myself’ won’t be the same person. I will be newly formed — rebuilt, and pieced back together. The girl who sat on top of the world last April is no more. She is gone.”

–Excerpt from my journal, January 22, 2014 

These are the words I wrote to myself 6 months after my mother’s tragic death. I was feeling extremely fatigued with my grief and isolated from my relationships. Nobody knew what to say and I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed.

I honestly didn’t know what I needed, besides time. I was beyond frustrated because I’d just started to feel like a whole human being again after a series of traumas in college — being raped in September 2004, and then finding myself in a three-year disaster of a relationship, where I was catfished and emotionally abused. After my mother’s death, I was bitter that I had to give so much more of my life — a time when I should have been in my prime — to my shattered heart. The idea of falling back into the black hole of depression, anxiety and PTSD; of having to claw my way back out again felt incredibly cumbersome — insurmountable, even.

I felt like I was just spinning my wheels; that unending pain was just the cycle of my life: First would come trauma, and then my prolonged healing cocoon. After several years, I would emerge as new, stronger person and finally start to get my life together and fulfill my untapped potential. Just as my unfettered optimism was taking flight, tragedy would come back around knocking . . .

It’s no wonder I was so desperate and fatigued. The truth is, I’ve never caught much of a break. For much of my life, I’ve been in the active process of healing. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I would say I have a decent amount of experience.

Here’s what I know:

I’ve learned over the years that healing is a tricky thing and it takes time. As many times as I’ve found myself broken, I’ve never discovered a trick or a shortcut back to happiness or wholeness. There’s no life hack that’s going to make you heal overnight. Trust me, I’ve tried them all: disassociation, straight up pretending everything is fine, focusing on other things, faking a smile until it feels real (note: it doesn’t. It just gets exhausting holding your face like that, plus it makes people feel awkward) and about a billion other “how to be happy” tricks. As the brilliant Taylor Swift says, “bandaids don’t fix bullet holes.” Bandaids also don’t fix galaxy-sized gaping wounds in your heart. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it — sometimes you have to buckle in for a bit to get back to the good place.

What’s worked for me, personally: 1), lots of time and giving in to my emotions — letting them surge and swell as needed, and wallowing whenever I needed to give in to the tide 2), canceling plans to focus on self-care, even if to outsiders, that self-care looks strikingly like plain old laziness, 3) writing in my journal and allowing myself to indulge in my bleakest thoughts.

Healing also takes patience and self-kindness, both of which I’m still mastering. This morning, as I was leafing through my journals from the year after my mother’s death, I was struck by how absurdly hard on myself I was. Even in the weeks just after my mother’s death, I was constantly berating myself for not doing more, whether it be working out daily, tending to my neglected relationships or pursuing my writing. Truthfully, I just wasn’t in a place for any of that, but I couldn’t see it at the time, even as I self-awarely promised to give myself a break.

A dear friend of mine, Jordan, still routinely reminds me not to be too hard on myself; that I may always use up about half of my energy healing from the misfortunes that have befallen me; that I can’t compare myself to others who seem to be accomplishing more with their time. PTSD may keep me in a headlock for a while, and even long after I’ve surpassed the peak of “Pain Mountain,” traces of my trauma will live inside me and shape my experiences forever.

A lot of times, it’s difficult not to get ahead of myself, to stay on my path, and to be steadfast in my commitment to healing when so much else calls me — career, writing, relationships, being a good friend, travel, my puppy, never-ending house work and about a million other hobbies and interests that I’d love to focus my energies on. I constantly have remind myself,you can only be where you are. Don’t rush it and take the little victories as they come. You’ll need them to stay strong.”

Ultimately, I press on, because I know there is so much life and so much good waiting for me on the other side. And there is beauty in both the breakdown and the in-between, too, if I look hard enough for it. I’m already starting to experience it. The other day, I looked at all of the plans on my calendar and I felt excited and giddy for the first time in over two years. It’s finally happening — little by little, it’s getting better. I actually thought, “I CAN’T WAIT FOR IT TO ALL HAPPEN!” rather than “ok, I just have to get through these next two weeks of calendar events, and then I’ll be able to retreat. Phew!”

I’m not getting through my life anymore, I’m living it. It still takes me by surprise now and again how far I’ve come. What a gift it is, to be excited to live! If you are excited to live your life, count yourself among the lucky. So many people are silently living in pain, hoping for each day to end so they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that they got through another one. Take it from someone who’s been there many times before.

Of course, none of this is to say that it’s all sunshine and rainbows in Chelsealand. I still have bad days and I’m still struggling with the anxiety that trauma always seems to bring. But at the very least, I don’t feel continuously bogged down by sadness.

And right now, that’s good enough for me.

Leaning In… To The Suck

I’m going through a rough patch and it sucks. There, I said it. My life isn’t rainbows and sunshine. Not today, anyway. Right now, I’m not seeing the bright side, and frankly, I haven’t for weeks.

Last month, I hurt my knee under rather mysterious circumstances. “Mysterious,” meaning I have no memory of the injury, and my doctor is not quite sure what is wrong with me. My MRI didn’t reveal much, and the level of swelling I’m experiencing is a bit unusual. Like most of my injuries, this one’s a stumper. So, for the past several weeks, I’ve been in and out of appointments, imaging facilities and physical therapy, all while my condition worsens, rather than getting better. My movement is greatly restricted, and I’ve been advised against doing any of my activities. This is all coming on the tail end of a recovery from another very painful, chronic injury in my foot. The current tally for the past two years: I’ve been injured or otherwise incapacitated 19 months out of last 24. Needless to say, I’m beyond frustrated.

I’ve gone through every possible stage of injury emotion:

Monday: “MY LIFE IS OVER.”

Tuesday: “I will not be defeated. I’m going to beat this thing. Bring. It. ON!”

Wednesday: “Still, you stupid knee? STILL?! You’re still hurting? You’re just going to be the worst forever, aren’t you?”

Thursday: “Not being able to move is ok, I guess. Less time for biking, hiking, running, cycling, swimming and playing sports means more time for writing and banjo… RIGHT?! I’ll just focus on those things. Yay, enlightenment!”

Friday: “OMG now my foot is hurting again too?! Fuck this, I give up! It’s too hard. No matter what I do to prevent it, I always end up injured. Everything is horrible.”

Saturday: “NO. I will not stop working towards my goals. I will not let this deter me, dammit!”

Sunday: “Wow, I feel pretty good today. Maybe I’ll beat this thing after all.”

Rinse. Repeat.

The motivation and inspiration I’ve been feeling so strongly lately have dwindled and I’m tired of playing by all the rules.

I know my knee injury is not the end of the world. Sure, injuries suck, and they happen to the best of us. I’m privy to the fact that it could be much worse and that self-pity is not a super attractive trait. I’ve maybe indulged in it a bit too much since my mother died. But I’ve also put an immense amount of pressure on myself to avoid letting the sadness take me into its tide. I WANT to push through and to stop being so… sad.

But, if I’m being honest, lately I’ve been feeling more emotionally rundown than normal. And to combine that with being essentially couch-ridden and in physical pain nearly 24/7, well, it’s really testing me. Plus, since losing Nance, every little or big thing that goes wrong seems to carry more weight. Or, rather, I’m less able to weather it. I’m drained. I feel like I’m constantly pushing back, trying to remain optimistic, willing the tide to turn; screaming at the top of my lungs to be heard, but only releasing breathy rasps.

Fighting.

The trajectory of my life sometimes feels like one giant fight just to be okay — to heal from one blow only to be hit by the next. All the while, I must constantly police myself; force myself not to go to close to the edge.

The energy it takes to stay in “the good place” is truly exhausting. I was reminded of this by a passage in Cade Leebron’s insanely amazing, well-written and moving essay about rape, Fuck Us Harder (seriously, please go read it).

“I want to ask them to come lie on the floor with me, to feel really low with me, to understand that because of the actions of one boy four years ago I still sometimes stay up until five in the morning doing absolutely nothing other than lying in bed hating myself. I want them to know that he didn’t go to therapy, I did. He didn’t think about dropping out, I did. He didn’t drink himself to sleep for months, I did. Even now I am constantly monitoring myself, interrogating myself, trying to make sure that I don’t fall into those bad habits again, I’m still reminding myself to practice whatever self-care I can manage.” (Bold added for emphasis.)

These crushing, beautiful words brought me right back to feeling like the depressed and frustrated college girl I once was — isolated, enduring the trauma of a rape and an emotionally abusive relationship alone; languishing in a messy, dark room where I never drew the blinds or made the bed, or studied, or cared much about anything but trying to make it through. In those days, I constantly coached myself, worrying if I didn’t stay on top of myself, I might give up or die of pure emotional exhaustion.

While feeling so much empathy for the girl I used to be, I realized that the pressure I am putting on myself now to do all the right things — to will the pain away — is really not much different than the way I constantly berated myself back then.

Today (really, every day for the past 11 years), I am constantly propelling myself to do everything in my power possible to not fall apart. To be strong. To fight for my health. To be the inspiration everybody wants me to be. To stop feeling bad for myself. To make Nance proud. To be more like those annoyingly incredible people who overcome truly astronomical difficulties and end up giving TED Talks about how obstacles are life’s way of seeing what we’ve got to give… or whatever.

But I can’t do it right now. I’m emotionally exhausted and I can’t put that immense strain on myself. I’ve got to slow down and take a minute; a breather. I’ve got to give in to the tide a little bit.

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Photo Credit: James Stencilowsky

So what am I going to do? I’m going to lean in to the suck. I’m going to be kind to myself. I’m going to forgive myself if I don’t make my bed, or get out of it until 10, or even if I spend a day binge watching feel-good comedies when I really, really need to be doing other things. You know what else I’m going to do? I’m going to give a mental middle finger to the next well-meaning person who gives me unwanted advice on how to fix myself, rather than beating myself up and feeling the need to explain where I’m coming from.

Call it self-care. Call it being a sad sack. Call it whatever you want. I’m doing it. It’s what I need right now, and I’m embracing it. I’m not making any apologies. This is where I’m at. Sometimes, things just suck. This roadblock just looks like a damn roadblock to me, not an opportunity. Sorry, positivity-pushers. The motivational speaker inside me is on vacation.

I’m sure I’ll be feeling more optimistic again soon. There’s only so long I can be down, really. I always tire of feeling bad for myself… eventually. And if my past is any indicator, I’ll be picking myself up and putting my head back on in no time.

But not today. Today sucks.