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.

Moving has set my brain on fire (in a good way!)

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Moving got me like

I’m moving this week. So as you can imagine, I’ve been kind of freaking out. Ok, so I’m only moving about three blocks away from my current house. But still! Moving is a lot. Especially if you are a person with anxiety and being in a state of upheaval causes you to temporarily lose your damn mind. There is so much to keep track of; so much to remember. As a side note, I have no idea how military families do this like all the time (RESPECT!). But of course, I digress.

The reason we decided to move was to downsize significantly. Or current house, which I’ve written about before, is both huge and crazy. The rooms are gigantic and some of them have a single purpose (like the music room, or the bar room). When I left NYC to move to the Jersey Shore, I wanted ALL. OF. THE. SPACE. But once Dave and I had to actually clean all of the space, it didn’t seem so glamorous and attractive anymore. I do love having a place where I can entertain large groups of friends in the summer. Many of my people inevitably want to escape their insane city lives for a weekend of easy living at the beach come June. But for the other 42-ish weekends of the year, when it’s mostly only Dave and I, we’re usually just wandering around in these gigantic rooms, wondering how we’re going to get the house under control.

Yes, “under control” is the phrase we typically use. And that’s to say nothing of actually getting ahead. There is no getting ahead when you live in a giant, hundred-year-old house that has a mind of its own. You simply trail from behind and try to put out fires as you go (the metaphorical kind of fires, of course… we’re not pyromaniacs or anything). There are about a million projects I would very much like to do, but it’s impossible to find time for them when we spend so much time just catching up on the chores.

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Me on the morning of cleaning day.

When Dave first mentioned wanting to move because our current place was too much work, I scoffed: “You obviously have amnesia about how terrible moving is. Cleaning this house for the rest of our lives might actually be easier.” He dropped it, but the seed was planted.  Continue reading

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.

On surviving, and taking the long road to “success”

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While responding to a reader email this weekend regarding my latest essay “What are you willing to sacrifice?” I found myself grappling with the idea of finding happiness in success. Without thinking much about my words, I wrote the following:

“As for being happy, I don’t think that success with writing will necessarily make me happy. It would help, in terms of career and life goal fulfillment (like, not looking back on my life, and saying “you know, I should really have tried to make something of my writing. I was pretty good back there!”). But I really want to check that box and say, I tried. I’ve missed out on much of the opportunity for achievement in my life up until this point. I’ve never really lived up to my potential, and a huge part of that has been because so much of my energy has been tied up in healing from a laundry list of traumas: early sexual abuse, being raped in college, an emotionally abusive relationship, devastating injury, and losing my mother at 27. I’ve always felt a bit damaged, and I’ve learned to find happiness outside of the traditional ideas of success. But again… here comes the yearning!” 

This concept — of fulfilling my potential — has been exceedingly salient in my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve berated myself for not doing more. I’ve always thought myself to be a bit bored and lazy. I set myself lofty goals, and then when I (obviously) can’t fulfill them, I enter into the shame spiral. Whenever I read back on my old journals, I wince at how hard I am on myself. It’s always should, should, should. I’m never doing enough. I am always behind; always failing.  Continue reading

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.

A Tribute to My First Dog Oreo

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Oreo, October 1999 — July 2015. RIP.

Last night, my first dog Oreo died. He was a little black-and-white shih tzu who spent a wonderful fifteen and a half years as a constant companion to my family. I’m gutted, but I also know it was his time and that he lived a long, happy life. This week, I’d like to memorialize him by sharing a little bit about his life and our relationship:

Flashback to the Fall of 1999: I’d convinced my mother to maybe let me get a dog for my birthday (by the way, “maybe” totally meant, “yes, but only if you kiss my butt for a little while first” in Nance-language). Originally, I wanted a Yorkie, but as many puppies as I met while we surveyed breeders, I was having trouble finding one that called out to me. As my 14th birthday neared, I worried I’d never find a dog, and that my mother would lose interest in our search and change her mind. Then she suggest we meet a shih tzu puppy instead. “They’re small and personable,” she reasoned, “and wait ’til you see how cute they are!” This was, of course, before the days of obsessively researching breeds, breeders and rescues on the internet, so I pretty much had to take her word for it. I agreed to meet a puppy on my birthday, December 3rd, 1999.

I remember playing a basketball game in a puppy-fiending haze and then taking a long drive with my mother to the breeder’s house in Eastern Connecticut. When we walked in, the breeder kindly told me to sit on the couch while she went to get the puppy.

“We only have one left,” she explained, “he’s the runt of the litter, but I think he’s got the best disposition of them all.” I held my breath as she walked into the other room. Nance gave me a reassuring smile and a thumbs up. The breeder returned with a ball of fluff no larger than the size of a grapefruit in her hand. She placed him on the floor to sniff me, and without hesitation, he ran as fast as he could up my legs and torso and went straight to licking my face like crazy. Never had I ever loved a creature so quickly and with such abandon. I caught my mother’s eye as a mischievous smile crept across her face.

We’d found him. He was coming home with us.

“I want to name him Oreo,” I said decisively. It wasn’t the most creative name, but it just seemed to fit. He was so cute, you could gobble him up, just like a cookie. He was so tiny that a puppy collar wouldn’t even fit on him. We had to buy him a kitten collar in the smallest size.

When we pulled into the driveway later that evening, my mother said, “just walk up to your father and show him the puppy. Say nothing.”

“Wait, you didn’t tell Dad?! I thought you were going to talk to him! He’s going to be so mad!”

“No he won’t. Not when he sees how cute the puppy is. Besides, it’s your birthday. He won’t yell at you on your birthday.” She had a knowing glint in her eye, and I sensed that she was right about how he would react. My father would never agree to bring another animal into the house (and for good reason, since he always got stuck taking care of them, even though he was never the person who wanted them in the first place), but he also wouldn’t kick a pet out. He was a softie at heart.

(Author’s Note: I reiterate that these were different times, and acknowledge that surprising someone in the household with a pet is a huge no-no. I would never do this again, and highly discourage anyone from doing so).

I brought Oreo into the house, shaking with nerves. My father was standing in the kitchen. I approached him as he caught a glimpse of the fur ball in my arms. “What’s that, a rabbit?!” He asked, confused. He was used to us just bringing home all kinds of animals and springing them on him. He didn’t seem at all surprised.

“No, a puppy.” I said, and put Oreo onto his outstretched hand. He was so small, he sat right in my father’s big palm with room to spare. He wagged his tail enthusiastically, putting on his best “look how adorable I am and please don’t send me back, mister!” show.

“He’s cute,” my father admitted, and handed him back to me.

And that was that. Oreo was cleared to move in and became a fixture in all of our lives. He wormed his way right into our hearts with his sweet demeanor and energetic puppy sociability.

I remember staying home from school “sick” for a few days in his first couple of weeks just to be with him all day. We’d lay together and nap and I’d try desperately to help house train him. He became my best pal, following me around the house, and never letting anyone else ever sit next to me. That was his spot — right by my side. He was a true companion, full of personality, affectionate, a bit protective. He was my guy.

I hated leaving him when I went away to college in New York City, and even tried to take him back to school to live with me one time. Although I learned quickly that he hated being an only dog (my parents were so smitten by then that they’d gotten another shih tzu as a companion for Oreo), so I dutifully took him back home to Connecticut.

Every time I’d go home to visit my parents, Oreo would put me through the same wringer: at first, he’d be ecstatic to see me. His whole body would shake with excitement and he’d shower me with love and affection. That is, until he remembered that I’d abandoned him for the city. Then he’d act really cold and throw me shade left and right. He’d look over his shoulder at me and roll his eyes, or walk away when I called him, as though to say, “you left me, lady! Get in line!” After a day or two, he’d stop trying to resist me and let me back in again. “You’re staying this time — I knew it! We’re back together, the old partners in crime! YES!”

And then I’d reluctantly him leave again. So was the pattern of our relationship and our love.

He grew a lot more comfortable with my abrupt entrances and exits later in his life. He understood that we didn’t live together, but that when we’d see each other, it was special Chelsea-Oreo times. I visited home to spend time with him as often as possible, and after I graduated Fordham, he started to visit me in the city once or twice a month along with my parents at the apartment we shared together. He still insisted on being right by my side, and would often sleep in my bed with me, while his two sisters slept with my parents in their room.

Some things I adored about him:

He loved Wheat Thins to an unhealthy degree: He pretended to be selectively deaf for the backend of his life, but always exposed himself whenever a box of Wheat Thins would be opened in the next room and he’d come running like a little bat out of hell.

He was a grumpy old man: A grumpy, slightly judgmental old gay man, if you ask me. He had no time for nonsense, and would complain to anyone who would listen if someone or something was annoying him. He did this with incredible vocal fluctuation. Sometimes, I really thought he was talking to me.

He hated to exercise: and on the off chance that you took him on a walk that was longer than a block or two, you would need to give him positive verbal encouragement the entire time. He was a major lap dog.

He was protective of me: Not in a I’ll-bite-you-if-you-come-near-her kind of way, but in a much more subtle, gentlemanly way. He’d show his quiet disapproval of my boyfriends by turning away from them and outright ignoring their existence. “Oh, you’ve brought HIM?!” He’d communicate with his eyes to me privately, “I had no idea you were still super into dating losers! Get it together, darling, you’re not getting any younger.”

I knew Dave was different when Oreo met him for the first time, and sat right in between us, rather than on the other side of my lap. He even let Dave pet him, and looked into his eyes. Maybe he just had a thing for big muscles and blue eyes — who knows what that crazy little man was thinking. In my mind, I saw approval. Maybe I manufactured it, or maybe it was there. All I know is, Dave was the first guy I brought home that didn’t totally repel my favorite furry guy, and that was enough for me. Deal sealed.

I’m so incredibly thankful for the years I was able to spend with Oreo, and that he was in good health for the majority of his life. I’m going to miss him immensely and am having a hard time imagining life without him as a fixture. There’s also the fact that losing him feels a bit like a double blow: I’ve lost my first dog, along with another little piece of my mother — a symbol of the strong, beautiful connection we shared. But in the end, it comforts me knowing that I loved them both so fully.

I’d like to close by sharing a poem I wrote about Oreo in the Spring of 2000, when I was 14 years old. It’s a little silly, as most poems written by children are, but I think it’s the perfect memorial:

Knowing That You Were Mine

I remember

the first time I saw you —

your glowing eyes, 

filled with adventure, youth, curiosity

And how I held you —

your fragile, tiny body

so gently, as though holding an infant

I cradled you in my arms

knowing that you were mine.

You’d show your affection

with kisses; nuzzling me

And I would smile 

knowing that you were mine.

I brought you home

and put you down —

you were tentative at first

but your little legs could keep still no longer,

I played with you

knowing that you were mine.

The days passed,

and I grew fonder of you

Even though sometimes, 

it’s hard to clean up your messes

I love your warmth, 

to hug you, kiss you, love you

the perfect friend — my little dog,

It comforts me

knowing that you were mine.

Oreo as a wee puppy, 1999.

Oreo as a wee puppy, 1999.

I love you, old boy. You’ll be missed.

6 Amazing Things About Living in a Beach Town

Greetings, indeed!

Greetings, indeed!

Just over a year ago, I took a huge leap of faith and moved from New York City to the smallish beach community of Asbury Park, New Jersey. Never in all my life did I think I would move to New Jersey, let alone the Shore of all places. When I first told my city friends I’d be moving here, a lot of them were shocked and/or horrified. A few of them were willing to put money on the fact that I’d be moving back to the city within a year. I’m happy to report that not only did I make it through a full year of #JerseyShoreLife, but I also thoroughly enjoy the lifestyle. I intend to stay, at least for the next couple of years. Here are just a few great things about living at the Jersey Shore (or any beach town, really):

1. It’s so chill: After living in the city for eleven years, I must say the chill factor of living at the beach is a welcome change. That’s not to say I didn’t love the hustle and bustle of city life. At times, it filled me to my brim with inspiration and energy. But after my mother died, I really needed to slow down, and to take time to take care of myself. Amid the screaming, never-sleeping city and hectic schedules that make planning a coffee date with a friend a two-months-in-advance affair, I felt unbalanced and exhausted. The city was moving quickly around me, while I stood still. Many of my friends didn’t have time for my grief, and I couldn’t even blame them. I understood the fast-paced lifestyle well, and had been swept up in it many times before, neglecting friends who were going through something; too stuck in the busy trap to see my way out. I simply needed a change; to live a slower lifestyle. These days, when I feel out of sorts or anxious, I simply walk 4 blocks to the beach, and let the waves calm me. I take long strolls on the boardwalk, exploring my thoughts, and stopping to jot down ideas in my journal. I hike at least twice a week at nearby parks, relishing in the luxury of being alone in the woods. I ride my bike everywhere without worrying about getting mowed down by an overly enthusiastic cab driver. I’ve reached a new state of zen, and it’s helping bring clarity and quiet to my anxious, grieving mind.

2. The local culture: One of the nice things about moving to a vacation town is that there’s usually a defining local culture for you to immerse yourself in. The Jersey Shore is filled with tiny towns that each have their own unique culture. As a newcomer, I am still learning to understand these micro-cultures. But one thing I do know: this setup allows for endless exploration. There are religious towns, artistic towns, hippie towns, health-conscious towns, family-friendly dry towns, bumping hookup culture towns, MTV reality show-worthy towns, and pretty much everything in between.

Here in Asbury Park (home of the world’s largest Zombie Walk), we’ve got hipness with a great cultural mix: Music, nightlife, art, food, diversity. We have art galleries, an art house cinema, a paranormal bookshop, several psychic outposts, the historic Asbury Lanes (a bowling alley/punk music venue hybrid), a pinball museum/arcade, a gigantic rooftop beer garden, the famous Stone Pony, a music academy and recording studio, bars and restaurants for every taste and diet, and some really beautiful and iconic buildings from years passed. We also have Wonder Bar, which hosts a daily “Yappy Hour,” where dogs run around a sandy dog park as their pup-parents enjoy outdoor beverages. This place is essentially an adult theme park.

The iconic Convention Hall

The iconic Convention Hall

3. The Hustle is Real: In a town like Asbury Park, there are a good number of city refugees like me, who came here to calm the heck down and enjoy a slower lifestyle. But then there are the hustlers — the folks who are living off of the local tourist economy. Everyone here has a big idea or aspiration, and they’re working their butts off to bring their dreams to life. Businesses are constantly opening and closing around town, and there’s always someone in line who’s finally ready to open that yoga studio or brewery they’ve always talked about. Just in the past few weeks, we’ve had three local openings: a gourmet donut shop, a wellness studio, and a collaborative market for artists, independent shops and designers. Soon to come is a new food truck court next to the boardwalk. There are so many movers, shakers, creatives, entrepreneurs, hustlers, and jack-of-all-trades in a vacation town. These doers bring the energy — they are the pulsing heartbeat of the town. These people inspire me every day, keep me on my toes (lest I let the “chill” take over my brain and stop bothering to move forward!) and make this town an awesome, unique place to live.

4. The natural beauty does not suck. I mean. It’s the beach. It never gets old. Ever. If you think otherwise, you clearly have no soul. Do you hate puppies too?

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Fall 2014, Asbury Park. It’s just hideous, isn’t it?!

5. The off-season is so peaceful: When I decided to move to the Jersey Shore, my NYC friends had a lot of questions. “Won’t the winter be depressing?” “But like, is there anything to DO there once summer ends?” “Do we need to have an intervention with you?” I was a little concerned that the off-peak months would be weird or eerie, but I’m happy to report that the ocean does not, in fact, become hideously ugly or a terrible place to visit once beach badge season has passed. In fact, my favorite time here is what is called “locals’ summer.” After Labor Day, when all of the beach shops are packed up and the restaurants begin operating on off-season schedules, the locals all come out to play. Everyone in town is in a good mood, because 1), they’ve stacked some change for winter hibernation and 2), they’re finally able to enjoy the beach rather than working 24/7 to make sure the tourists are enjoying themselves all summer. Plus, the water’s still warm enough for swimming and you don’t need a beach badge to get on the sand (one thing that IS difficult to adjust to: one day in May, you’re able to go onto the public beach as you please and the next day, there’s suddenly a bouncer there asking for your rather expensive beach badge!). Last fall, I swam in the ocean almost daily until mid-October, because the water was over 70 degrees! All of my Facebook friends were posting pictures of their pumpkin spiced lattes and orchard-visiting adventures, and I was down here at the beach, catching waves on my boogie board, pretending summer would never end. Other great things about the off-season? You can ride your bike on the boardwalk. Dogs are allowed all over the boards and the beach (and trust me when I say, there are SO. MANY. CUTE. DOGS. EVERYWHERE). There are a surprising number of cultural events around town, plus live music always and forever (Asbury Park IS a music town after all). Also, the restaurants calm down a little bit and you no longer need reservations or to plan ahead. Bottom line: the town is your oyster in the off-season!

6. The energy of peak-season is palpable. Now that I’ve lived here through every season, I can officially say that summer is still my favorite. Throughout the Spring, I watched excitedly each week as businesses re-opened their doors, and put up signs reading “BACK FOR SUMMER!” Now that we’ve passed Memorial Day, everything is open (and those aforementioned hustlers are putting the final touches on their new projects/openings for summer 2015!) and the town is absolutely bustling. Sure, the boardwalk can be a little bit crowded, and you may not be able to get into your favorite restaurant at the last minute, but the energy is absolutely contagious. For a few glorious months, I get to live in what feels like a real (albeit tiny) city. The beach is amazingly full-of-life and inviting, and there are outdoor concerts, nighttime movies and bonfires on the beach, food festivals, nighttime bazaars, and so many other events. Besides, I have the entire off-season to have the place to myself; to do as I please, eat where I want, and ride my bike on the boards with impunity. But summer, sweet summer, is about enjoying this amazing gift that we have in our tiny town, and sharing it with everybody else who wants to enjoy it . . . in all its weirdness and beauty.

I can’t say that I’m going to stay here forever, or that it’s all sunshine and rainbows every minute. But I can say that this town has stolen my heart, and I’m not going anywhere any time soon. 🙂