“The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself.”
George Bernard Shaw
I have people in my life who do this for me now. Well, they hold up a mirror anyway, it doesn’t always show a noble image of myself, but it reflects back what I need to see at that moment that I am not capable of seeing without help.
Emotions are funny things. Webster’s defines emotion as: “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” www.merriam-webster.com
That’s pretty strong stuff. When emotions come up it is hard to be logical. For most people it isn’t easy to simply shut them down and I happen to be “blessed” with the capacity to get readily in touch with my emotions at any given time and can also experience a vast array of them on any given day. I am not saying that I am not capable of being logical. I am also not saying that I am not capable of controlling myself, I am but it has taken me a long time to get to a point where I can recognize that I am being influenced by emotion and that I need to take a step back.
Over the past few years in recovery I have done a lot of work on myself. A lot of self-reflection and self-evaluation. I have looked at myself very closely and I have come to accept myself completely. I still have bad days when I doubt myself and am not as self-confident as I would like, but I look back at how I used to view myself and know I see a different person now. The warts-and-all version of myself is not as warty as I once thought and I have a lot more to offer than I ever gave myself credit for before.
That being said, I am still much better at being logical about other people and their struggles should they ask my opinion. I can be logical with patients and sponsees and friends and see a clear path forward for them if they ask for my help. I can offer assistance or an ear or advice should the moment call for it without getting my feelings too entangled when it is someone else I am thinking about. I can hold up a mirror for them with love and tolerance and show them either their most noble selves or perhaps their not-so-noble selves if need be.
But, when it comes to myself and how I am interacting with others in my own personal life; well I don’t always have a clear picture. I have come to realize that I need people in my life who will dare to do the same for me. It is easier to hold up the mirror for a friend who is feeling down on themselves and remind them how great they are or can be. The hard work comes in holding up the mirror when you need to show a friend they are getting it wrong and perhaps aren’t being the best version of themselves. It is a fine line they walk because it has to come from a place of love, not a place a judgment.
These are the friends I cherish most. They are the brave ones. The friends that I sometimes hang up the phone frustrated with. The friends I know in my heart are right and come to thank the next day, are the ones I need in my life because they reflect back to me who I am at that moment. Find those people in your own life. Find the ones who will hold you accountable and are doing so only because they want to see you rise.
I have to keep in sight who I really am at all times or I risk going back to that dark place of lying to myself and everyone else. It is a place I never want to visit again, where I nearly lost who I am and everything I care most about.
Friday, October 13, 2017
“If They Only Knew”
I am exhausted by myself right now.
I am all over the place and I have been for a few weeks now. My mind is racing and I can’t get my emotions in check. All I know to do is keep moving. All I know to do is keep calling my sponsor, reaching out to people, talking, praying, doing service, asking if I can help others, throwing myself into school and trying the best I can not to sit still for too long. And no, I don’t want to drink, but I know that if I don’t keep doing what I am doing to keep my racing thoughts and feelings under control then I risk getting to the point where I might.
I was talking to Frank the other day about a compliment that one of my patients paid me after a session and he in turn paid me a compliment by essentially saying that people seem to want what I have. I laughed. I laughed because right now I am a mess and Frank knows it and the people I am really close to know it. My sentiment to Frank at that point of the phone call was a basic “if they only knew.” Frank asked me why I don’t write about that now, and let them know, while I’m in it rather than when I am on the other side of it and have some seemingly wise observation to make. I thought about that and I thought, why don’t I? Why don’t I share it now while it is raw and messy and while I don’t look like I have it all figured out and while I don’t have the answers…
I love the fall. It is my favorite season and always has been. But with the fall comes a great sadness. Liam was born in the fall. He was born October 20th, 2003 and he would have been 14 next Friday. Now normally October is hard, but this year I am not doing well. I am grieving him in a way I did much closer to his death. The reason for this is due to an article from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that I read recently.
I get these articles from CHOP from time-to-time about success stories and the like but I rarely read them. This one caught my eye because it mentioned both Liam’s heart defect and his subsequent lung condition in the title. I began to read the story that was eerily like Liam’s story. It was the story of a baby boy born with transposition of the greater arteries who successfully came through open-heart surgery at four days old only to have difficulty weaning off oxygen. It was then discovered that he had pulmonary hypertension and in order to treat it he had a broviac line inserted just under his chest so that a pump could administer life-saving drugs throughout his system constantly. His parents were trained by a pharmacist on how to operate the pump and administer the drugs. Up until this point the story of this baby and Liam’s story were basically identical. The baby boy went home but had to come back to CHOP regularly and when he was two they had to remove the broviac line because of complications and a newly developed oral medication was tried and it worked for several years until he started to have some difficulties at which point he was put on another new medication which has been working well for him. This boy is now 12-years-old. He is relatively healthy and apparently enjoys outdoor activities with his family, his favorite being fishing.
I have read and re-read this article. The first time I read it I could not breathe. Then I couldn’t see through a veil of tears. The tears are because the story is exactly the same up until the point where Liam died when he was 68 days old. He died before he reached an age when we might have tried one of those new oral medications. We didn’t know soon enough and we missed the window. We missed the window by what looks like 18 months to 2 years and we would have had a 14-year-old this year. There are other aspects to this story that I have to explore further with CHOP and with the help of Frank that my mind can’t even grasp.
I am a mess this October because I had previously been at a point in my grief where I had reached a level of quiet acceptance over the fact that there had bee no real hope and no real treatment for pulmonary hypertension. I had reached a point of dignified calm, a kind of peace where I knew that October brings on a mild pall but not so much that I could not still enjoy the mums and crisp air. But this October I am all over the place again. When I sit still, I am in tears. I am in tears because I, on the one hand I am thrilled that there is a 12-year-old boy who is living and enjoying life and fishing with his family, but reeling because our son can’t also be here doing whatever would have made him happy too, and the fact that I don’t know what would have made him happy sends me spinning off into the stratosphere of the “whys” and “what ifs” that I haven’t visited and tortured myself with for years.
I’m a mess and I keep moving at the moment because when I have quiet moments these days my arms ache. They ache because I should know what he feels like to hug. I should know what he looks like today. I should know how tall he is and what size pants I need to get for him because he has outgrown his clothes yet again. I should know his favorite meal and be able to enjoy making it for him. I should know his favorite color and be intervening when he fights with Dermot and Wren. I should know what worries him and know how to tease him and be frustrated with him when he rolls his eye at me. I should be listening to how his day went and taking him to the movies and holding him accountable for things. I should know if he is a jock, or an artist or a free-spirit. I should know the sound of his laugh… I should know my son and I don’t. I don’t know him and Frank doesn’t know him and Dermot doesn’t and Wren doesn’t and we never will and it is wholly unfair and the most unnatural thing I will ever experience.
Then there is that phrase… ‘there isn’t a day that goes by…’ I have come to realize that prior to reading this article, I had reached a point where there are days that go where I don’t think about my baby. The fact that he is no longer top-of-mind makes me hate myself on some level. It just feels like the ultimate maternal betrayal and I can’t reconcile myself with that. I also know that I am being awfully hard on myself and the psychologist in me has all kinds of logical retorts but none of that combats the roiling emotions I feel.
This October it feels a bit like I am breaking in half all over again. It isn’t as oceanic as the pain I felt when I held him in my arms at the end by any means, but it hurts a great deal and I can’t get it out of my mind.
So if I have in the past given the impression that I have this thing called life all figured out, I don’t. Life still happens and I still have problems. Things still come up that throw me off my game. I still struggle and I still stumble. I don’t have the perfect divorce either. I have a pretty good one, but Frank and I have been butting heads more recently than we have in the recent past and maybe that has something to do with me being such a pulsing nerve-ending at the moment, I don’t know. I don’t have perfect serenity in recovery. I still get angry, I still make mistakes, I still have no filter, I still blurt things out, I still make mistakes, I still question myself and have abhorrent negative self-talk. I can be spectacularly awkward and incredibly imperfect. The difference today is that I have tools and a support network and I am using them all. As long as I keep using them I will be alright.
So if it useful to hear that I am less than poised and don’t have it all together, know that I, like everyone else, am perfectly flawed and beautifully human and we are, none of us, alone in that.
Thursday, October 5, 2017
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
― Stephen R. Covey
― Stephen R. Covey
I’m learning a lot in my work at the counseling center and in grad school. One of the skills that is critical for therapists is the art of listening. I did not have this skill before counseling, but ironically I didn’t start to hone it at the center, I started to hone it in recovery.
There is something to be said for sitting in meetings and listening to others who have gone before you and not speaking for a while. In my home group we have a group conscience that states that if you haven’t done certain steps yet, then you can’t share at the meeting. It is a humbling and sometimes frustrating experience to sit and listen for months while you plod your way through intense self-reflective work before you can share with the group, but there is a reason for it and that is how I learned to listen.
I don’t often talk about politics. I don’t talk about politics because it has proven so weighted and triggering that nothing seems to get accomplished except heated arguments among my friends. Maybe that makes me too sensitive and some will say it makes me weak but I have mostly chosen to have conversations with my friends face-to-face and listen.
I know for my part in November I was naïve. I was shocked at the election and thought that more people would vote as I did and was dizzy at the result. I found, to my surprise, that I knew a lot of people who did not vote as I did and was close to many of them. There was a lot of angry rhetoric out there and still is and I have mostly stood back and surveyed the landscape wondering how I can help bridge the gap in some small way. I want to understand more than anything else because half the country felt disenfranchised before the election and now the other half does so at some point it seems we have to stop railing at each other and start trying to understand where we see eye-to-eye and start building from there.
A friend of mine was venting to me the other day that he was frustrated with two of his friends because they did not vote as he did and he was getting ready to shut them off altogether because of it. He said that when they spoke of politics it got very heated and he would bring up points he felt were un-refutable and they would always have a counter-argument which seemed to infuriate him. I asked him if he ever really listened to them. He somewhat angrily asked me what I meant by that. I said, “Well, when you are having these debates with them are you really listening to them or are you actually thinking in your head of what you want to say in response to prove your own point?” He proclaimed that of course he was listening but I had my doubts because he had cut me off twice in the course of my own sentence.
I have had some incredible conversations with friends over the past several months who I honestly thought I would not agree with on anything political, only to find we have more common ground than not. I made a decision going into those conversations that I was going to be open-minded and listen without judgement or pre-formulated responses and I was lucky enough that they have done the same. Respect-filled, perspective-shifting talks ensued and though we certainly haven’t solved the world’s problems, we have moved inches towards a greater understanding on some small level.
Imagine of Washington D.C. tried doing that today. Imagine if we all tried doing that today.
Friday, September 22, 2017
I was in session this week and it was being led by the lead counselor of the treatment facility where I work part-time. He comes from a psychodynamic background and his approach to speaking to patients is pretty existential.
He was trying to make them see that essentially feelings are not facts but they are stories we tell ourselves in our heads. For example he would say that if you are in a room by yourself it is a fact that you are alone but if in your head you say you are lonely then that is a feeling that you are simply subscribing to. It is a story you are telling yourself in that moment and that you can either subscribe to it or you can work to let it go. This is not an easy concept for most people and certainly not for people in early recovery. I practice as much as I can but it takes me a while even now and it can take hours and even days before I am successful depending on how deep-seated my subscription.
When I was at Caron Treatment Center and I had reached that stage of utter defeat and acceptance, I decided I would try anything that was suggested to me no matter how uncomfortable and no matter how counter-intuitive it seemed to me at the time. I’ve mentioned before that every counselor and therapist I have ever had has suggested that I try journaling and I had always politely nodded and then promptly ignored the suggestion. At Caron I nodded and plodded to their bookstore with my head hanging low and bought the only journal I could see, which was this hokey looking thing with a stick figure on the front that said “Me, A Personal Journal.”
There is a page of prompts on one side that starts with “what is the weather?” and “what are the headlines?” and that sort of thing and ends with “what are your goals for tomorrow?” The next page is blank and you can write what you like. I dutifully wrote every day and at first I felt like a robot but eventually it started to feel natural and then it felt good and finally it felt essential. I now have about 10 of these hokey looking journals in a box and I write in them almost every day. The periods of time when I don’t I feel it and always come back to implementing them in my life. I don’t go back and read them, but I can if I want. They help me get my thoughts in order and they help me see the day previous in perspective and set me up to see the day forward in good standing.
This morning the prompt “what did you do to brighten someone else’s day?” stopped me in my tracks. I sat for a full minute and tried to think what I had done for someone else yesterday to make their day better. I could not think of a single thing. That never happens any more. I had been in a foul mood all day yesterday. I had tried to shake myself out of it (or so I thought). I had called my sponsor and done what I thought was a thorough tenth step, I had prayed multiple times yesterday for multiple people but I was foul from morning til night.
I realized as I sat in front of my journal earlier this morning that I had been subscribing all day to the feelings of being mad, of being frustrated, of being lonely and of being resentful (red flag areas for any alcoholic and addict). I had not simply noticed them, used my tool kit, learned from them and let them go. If I had, then I would have been able to get out of my own head and do something to brighten someone else’s day like I normally try to do and have come to find almost comes naturally to me now.
So today I am unsubscribing. Today I will brighten someone else’s day. And for the record all those therapists were right, if I hadn’t started journaling I wouldn’t have started writing and I wouldn’t have started blogging and I would not have healed as well as I like to think I have been doing.
Friday, September 15, 2017
So again I was in group this week, are you sensing a theme? The topic was basically a tutorial on all the 12 steps and we were at a point where the lead counselor was talking about spirituality and a connection to a higher power and how important that is in recovery.
A few minutes later he started going around the room aand asking patients what the most important relationship in their life was, which relationship they would most be afraid to lose today. They answers ranged from, children, to spouses, to parents and other family members. Then he asked me and I said, “I would be terrified to lose my connection with my higher power, my spirituality, basically those things that keep me in recovery.”
There was some silence in the room and one of the patients (a father) looked at me with a face full of judgment and said, “I don’t believe that for a second. You have kids, I can’t believe that you wouldn’t say you wouldn’t be afraid to lose your kids above all else.”
I was able to turn and look him in the eye and explain that my connection to my spirituality and my higher power is the cornerstone that holds the whole house of cards together for me. If I don’t have that in place everything falls apart. EVERYTHING. If that isn’t strong then I will lose my kids in all sense of the word. I might not lose them in a physical sense immediately, but I would eventually. I would lose being present with them, I would lose their respect. I would lose my sense of self, I would lose my own sense of self-respect. I would likely lose friends and family. I would likely lose my job and my house and the list could go on until there was nothing left but utter destruction.
It may sound dramatic, but the possibility is all too real for me and other alcoholics and addicts. I have seen it happen and I have seen it end in death more often than I care to mention.
In terms of bottoms, you could argue that mine was not all that low. I have seen lower if I wanted to compare, but it was low enough thanks. I don’t need to do this again and I’m not sure I have it in me to do so. I tried to explain this to this man in group and I got choked up. I tried to explain that he would not have recognized me nearly four years ago and that now at 44 years old I am stronger and happier than I have ever been and I don’t ever want to lose that and all that I have built. I’m proud of who I have become and I think my kids are too and that is more than I could have imagined when I woke up in de-tox the last time. But it was hard and to start over at this point starting over is unfathomable.
The other night when I was speaking to a group of women at a rehab, a woman raised her hand at the end and said, “I’m leaving here in a few days and I am scared.” She asked me if I was ever scared. I told her it was good to be scared and that I had fears about losing recovery nearly every day but I know I will be ok as long as I do the things I know keep me sober. Those essential things are connecting with my higher power, keeping spirituality central to my life and reaching down and pulling other alcoholics and addicts up to join me on this journey.
So yes I would be devastated to lose my kids (I already know this on a cellular level from losing Liam) but in order to avoid that I know what relationship I have to keep in place first. If I do then I am there to catch Dermot when he faints at the doctor’s office and to practice field hockey with Wren in the front yard at Frank’s house. Without those things as the keystone, all else is lost.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
“Mom! I Conquered My Fear!”
Last week, Frank and I had to take Dermot to CHOP for an EKG. For those of you who know us and know about Liam, let that sink in.
About 18 months ago, Frank had taken the kids in for a check-up and Wren had needed to get shots. This had made Wren understandably unhappy and had made Dermot somewhat wobbly from watching it. Then another appointment later, Dermot had to have a blood test and made the mistake of looking down as they were drawing the blood. He had a vasovagal reaction and passed out.
Fear can bring on a vasovagal attack and the sight of needles and blood had done so for Dermot. The medical definition of a vasovagal reaction (taken from www.medincinenet.com) is “a reflex of the involuntary nervous system that causes the heart to slow down and that, at the same time, affects the nerves to the blood vessels in the legs permitting those vessels to dilate. As a result the heart puts out less blood, the blood pressure drops, and what blood is circulating tends to go to the legs rather than to the head. The brain is deprived of oxygen and the fainting episode occurs.”
Fast forward to a few weeks ago and just before summer ended I took both kids in for their annual physical. We were in the car on the way to the appointment and Dermot started getting nervous and asking a lot of questions. He wanted reassurance that this was just a check-up and nothing else. He asked me if they were getting any shots and I said I didn’t think so (I really didn’t think that they did have any they needed.). This was not the answer Dermot needed and he continued to get more and more nervous the closer we got to the doctor’s office. We parked the car and walked in. Dermot told me he would come in in just a minute as he needed some air and I turned to sign them both in. Then from behind the closed front door I heard him say, “Oh no! It’s happening!” I dropped everything I was holding and turned to grab the front door and haul him in and managed to grab him and mostly catch him So he didn't hit his head hard on the waiting room floor. He was out for about 15 seconds and convulsing slightly. I was talking to him quietly and telling him he was going to be fine and hugging Wren at the same time who had started to cry while the nurses were running around the front desk. We made quite the entrance all over the idea of the possibility of maybe getting a shot.
We got him on a couch and resting for a few minutes before they thought he was alright to come back to the exam room. Before seeing the doctor, they had to both be weighed and measured. So they weigh him and as they are getting his height, the nurse is telling him that he needs to put his feet together against the wall and he isn’t responding. She puts her arms out in front of her to pin him to the wall and I come in and catch him as he goes out again! I carried him to the exam room, which is no longer an easy feat as the kid is now almost my height at 12 years old and get him on the exam table. It turns out he was supposed to get a shot after all but they decide not to give it to him because they are worried about his blood pressure.
After speaking to me about the history with Liam and Frank and his sister possibly having issues with mitral valve prolapse, the doctor decides that in order for Dermot to be cleared to play sports in middle school we need to take him to CHOP and have him checked out by cardiology.
The night before the appointment, Frank said Dermot could not sleep because he was so nervous. We kept telling him that an EKG had nothing to do with needles and that it was going to be fine. Frank and told him that you are 20% more likely to be successful at something if you tell yourself that you will so he apparently spent time telling himself in front of the mirror, “I am not going to pass out, I am not going to pass out.”
The three of us drove to the appointment together and as we were walking in, Dermot wanted us both to hold his hands. As we were signing in he said, “Oh no mom!” and I hugged him to me hard. He was trembling but did not pass out, but we got him a wheelchair just in case because I didn’t want him hitting his head on the floor. The nurses and techs were great as they explained everything to him and the EKG was super easy. The doctor came in and said his EKG looked completely normal and asked us a number of questions, including ones about Liam. After that he examined Dermot and was telling us that he didn’t see anything wrong at all and that was when I quietly lost it. I had been 99.9% sure he would be fine but hadn’t realized until that moment just how worried I had been and just how much I had been affected by being in CHOP again.
In any case, Frank and I took Dermot out for breakfast before sending him back to school. Then we realized that we still had to schedule him for that last shot. Frank called and got an appointment for the next morning (a Saturday). I had the kids that night but had class that morning so would not be able to join them. We decided not to tell Dermot about the upcoming shot given that he had hardly slept the night before so that he could at least get some rest. I dropped the kids off and headed off to class feeling extremely guilty that I couldn’t be there to go with them for the appointment given the fact that the night before Dermot had told me he loved me and that it had made a big difference to have us both there at CHOP (insert knife in heart and twist). Frank promised to text after the shot.
At about 9:45 am my phone rang and I left my classroom for the hallway. I answered the call and got a triumphant, “Mom! I conquered my fear!” Dermot had gotten the shot without passing out. He was so excited and proud. Apparently, after telling him where they were going and having Dermot have a melt-down about it, Frank had the genius idea of looking up on the internet how to “hack” a vasovagal attack. They read up on it together and learned that people who have these attacks tense up and forget to breath so one way to avoid fainting is to wiggle your extremities and remember to breath. Dermot did this and managed to stop himself from passing out.
I can’t tell you how proud he sounded on the phone and how proud I was of him for dealing with it. It sounds like a small thing, but for him in that moment it was everything and I think the three of us worked pretty well together to get through it all on many levels.
Dermot approved this message by the way.
Saturday, August 26, 2017
I was once again in group this past week and got something from something a patient was saying. Don’t tell them, but I often feel I get just as much from the experience than I am giving!
We were talking about character defects and naming ones that stood in our way. Once patient brought up that he has expectations of others that are unrealistic. He was talking about how he harbors a resentment toward a family member because they don’t offer to help him in a way that he wants them to. The group countered and asked if he had ever nicely confronted this family member and asked them for the help that he felt he needed and or deserved. He stated that he had not and that he felt they should know to offer without him telling them.
This led me to think not only about expectations but also about communication. People don’t read minds, they never have and they never will. If you have a need, want or require help, then ask. You might be amazed at how people with respond in the positive. Relationships almost always run more smoothly when you are straight and frank with others about what you need and want. People want to know how to please others.
I think back to how I expected life to be and how I used to be disappointed when it didn’t magically settle into a Disney version of reality. I remember being frustrated with poor Frank when he did not intrinsically know what I wanted all the time, when I had in fact never told him. I think we do our partners a disservice when we fall back on some “Twilight” version of what relationships are supposed to look like, where partners inherently know us and cater to our whims without a thought.
The fact is that today, my life looks NOTHING like I thought it was going to. NOTHING. I was never going to lose a child. I was never going to have a husband suffer through cancer. I was never going to be divorced. I was never going to have bought a house alone. I was never going to go to grad school. I was never going to write. I was never going to write a book (its coming I promise). I was never going to go to grad school and change careers and I was never going to be in recovery. But here I am and I am happier than I would have imagined as well.
What changed? I let go of expectations. I started telling people what I needed when I needed it and stopped thinking they could read my distorted mind. I stopped thinking ahead and placing my life into boxes of fantasy. I stopped looking at my life through anyone else’s lens but my own. I started to embrace the here and now and accepting the perfectly flawed reality of my situation.
In recovery speak there are two quotes I love that I believe are anonymous (they are attributed to too many people to be anything but):
“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”
“Hanging onto resentment is like taking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.”
I think it is important to accept the divine reality of any given moment, not placing any undue weight on outcomes beyond our control. What is in our control is to tell people what we want and need and let them take it from there. If they respond in the positive, then great, if they don’t, they are a dry well. But to create expectations is to set ourselves up for future resentments which take us down a dangerous path in recovery.