Dear Twenty-Something Self: Your Dreams Aren’t Going to Come True and I’m Good With That

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Image by Yuri_B from Pixabay

I can’t go back to yesterday — because I was a different person then — Lewis Carroll

Look at you my lovely, once-upon-a-time self. 25. Newly married to your high school sweetheart, your story is just beginning. Everything is on schedule to begin your modern fairy tale. The outline has been predetermined — by you. Exhilarated, you await the fleshing out of the finer details, certain they will meet your expectations.

What you don’t realize, is the best-laid dreams of starry-eyed ingenues don’t always come true.

Life’s journey will take you through inconceivable storms. At times, you will feel stripped and shattered, certain you will never be whole again. But, I’m here to tell you — three decades later — you will weather the tempests. Your memoir will be illustrated with the colors of a sweeping saga. You will recover, replenish, and rebuild time and time again. You will forge a heart of restoration and hope.

You will be your own heroine.

Prologue

Our life’s quest was a typical middle-class narration: Vivacious college-educated woman marries a smart handsome man who adores her. They start out in a modest home, eventually settling down in an upscale neighborhood with their four children — two boys, two girls. Money never being a concern, it is her choice whether she spends her days at an office or volunteering, or perhaps, a little of both. Summers would be filled with pool parties and family vacations. All her children would be athletic, smart, and popular. Soon, they would meet their own mates, have successful careers, and provide grandchildren. The blissed-filled grandparents eventually ease into a comfortable retirement and enjoy the fruits of a fairy tale legacy.

If you haven’t guessed already, younger me, that is not how our story turns out. You might think I’m seeking to dampen your naïveté, but that is not the case. To do so would douse the sparks of our history. I’m here to highlight some of the events that will steer you to roads less traveled. Annotate some of your preconceptions. Not to have you switch course, for that would result in a different destination, but to provide you with the faith you’ll need to continue your path.

To become the woman of character you aspire to be.

Being a zebra will be limiting

In our twenties, everything was black and white — politics, faith, parenting. We were crafting our cornerstones and needed a firm foundation to build upon. They served us well — provided strong roots, made us feel secure — until they became confining. They distracted us from soothing shades of grey and the charms of nuance. I shudder when I realize how dogmatic we were, failing to recognize another’s sense of right and wrong could be just as valid.

There will come a time when society feeds like vultures on such assumptions. When those who may think differently from each other are regarded as enemies. It will grieve our soul, but we will be mindful to have practiced perspective — preserved our humanity.

We won’t be the perfect parent

Infertility issues will limit our offspring to two. Blessed with a couple of fine young lads, we will throw ourselves completely into their nurturing. Education, nutrition, sports, discipline, recreation, family time all mapped out to promote optimal growth. We oversaw with a loving, not overbearing, hand — providing just enough oversight to assist direction and encourage independence. It would be practically perfect — or so we thought.

It will take a while to acknowledge some mistakes — an unnecessarily heavy hand, a few minor (and major) misjudgments. But we will eventually comprehend we did the best we had with the resources available. It will bring us a sense of peace and a newfound insight into the caring nature of our own parents.

Our hero will die, but we will survive

The ultimate breach to the fairy tale contract, our hero dies midway through the story. The dissolving of the partnership is a long, drawn-out process. We were a team and when the hero began to falter, we picked up the slack. Our role expanded to include caretaker, nurse, and, finally, widowed head of household.

We will be proud of ourselves for enduring. For maintaining some moment of normalcy each day, even if only in a robotic function. It will take decades to fully process this forced single ownership of our sanity — cultivate our acceptance of personal sovereignty.

We will need to go to the well repeatedly

Fiercely independent, it will crush us to ask for help. After all, we are the primary caregiver, not the recipient. We will be prideful, convinced that no one else is equipped to provide quality assistance. Adding insult, this will not be a single occurrence. We will find ourselves in numerous states of injury, dipping in the well of kindness again and again until we are sure it will run dry.

Like the miracle at Cana, our community wine never depletes and we are inebriated with gratitude. We develop empathy — foster humility. We acquire debts we have no chance to repay and are awestruck by their joy in giving.

Villains will serve a purpose

We will encounter more than our expected share of villainy. After all, every fairy tale needs a counterbalance of dastardly deeds to keep us engaged. Some will be overt and others will be wolves in sheep’s clothing, but all will catch us off guard and cause us to briefly doubt our judgment.

Much to the scoundrels’ dismay, however, each conflict will bestow a gift. These endowments will cause us to develop skills or discover hidden kernels of truth within ourselves. We will garner discernment — be wiser when the next challenge arises.

Our children will write their own stories

Regrettably, we were somewhat judgmental of others’ styles of parenting. If they didn’t align with ours, we surmised these offspring would be spoiled or — gasp! — unproductive members of society. Gradually, we began to appreciate the true nature of a child — of a human — will come to be no matter the influence. They will bloom in their own time and be beautiful.

As much as we tried, we could not prevent our sons from suffering, enduring hardship, or making mistakes and living with the consequences. We could only strive to provide a safe haven and a strong moral compass to chart their own paths. Like us, they have prevailed and grown sturdy, strong. Watching them navigate their courses will be our greatest accomplishment.

Epilogue

Picking up the pieces will be a never-ending process. Initially, our defenses will want to cover our wounds, camouflage our scars. But those shrouds are too difficult to maintain and we will never able to fully rest within our story if we continue to try.

And so, we will come to embrace our imperfections — honor our unique broken history. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, we will highlight our fractures with gold, delighting in our resilience. Our modern fairy tale may have an unforeseen conclusion, but it will end happily ever after all the same.

 

The Worst Gets Better: A 30th Anniversary Love Letter to My Dead Husband

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May 5, 1990

It’s Cinco de Mayo, 2020. Five years since I wrote my first letter to you. Thirty years since our wedding day. Eleven and a half years since I lost you.

 

So much has transpired since those monumental dates in 1990, 2008. I am no longer the girl you married, nor the same woman you left behind. I wonder if you would even recognize me. Half a generation has passed. Very little in the world appears the same.

 

Your parents have both made their pilgrimage back to you. I wish I could have witnessed those reunions. The void that shadowed them after you left spilling over with joy. The pride in seeing their only son bursting in celestial technicolor.

 

Our two teenage boys have become adults. Complete opposites in looks, personality, and temperament. Yet, each one is a perfect reflection of you. My DNA fills in gaps here and there. You coached them on how to be men. They are your living history.

 

No more talk of darkness
Forget these wide-eyed fears*

Although we knew your time with us would be abbreviated, we were still caught off guard. Ill-equipped for the abruptness and finality of it all. It took all three of us some time to regain our bearings, reset our compasses. Each of us veered off course, sometimes plunging to the depths of despair. Thankfully, our squalls and tempests didn’t occur simultaneously. The other two were able to shore up the one faltering   – holding the tethers tight until we could stand on our own feet again. Still, it took nearly a decade for our quartet minus one to complete the journey.

 

I’ve long since sold the house. Most people nodded in approval. “Too many memories,” is what I’m sure they supposed. But they would have been wrong in that assumption. It was our house, but our foundation was in us. You taught me that. Counseled me to view our abode as an asset, not a mausoleum. When it became too monumental to manage, we moved on  – the memoir of our life together tenderly stored in our hearts.

 

When seeking our next home, I set my heart on an area that common sense  –  and my realtor  –  told me was out of budget. I was determined not to compromise, somehow secure in the conviction that I had located my new neighborhood. Your years of faith in me had instilled a confidence just beginning to bloom. My perseverance was rewarded, the market took a dip, and I found a lovely townhome. I knew you would have commended my triumph.

 

You’d appreciate where we settled. Compact and cozy, yet not too confining. No cumbersome yard to tend to  –  that was always your domain, but a small patio shaded by magnolias and adorned by a few low-maintenance flowers. I do miss our rose garden  –  our quests to discover uncommon varietals that caught our fancy. “No humdrum track home shrubs for us,” was our landscaping motto.

 

It was more than a relocation. It was the beginning of a rebirth  –  a life conducted by a soloist, no longer a duet. Downsizing was cathartic. I took very few furnishings with me. Only those cherished deeply transplanted to the new home: The photo albums you meticulously curated. The bedroom furniture you said we couldn’t afford  –  until I negotiated a deal too good to let pass. (My refusal to pay retail for anything was one of the traits you found most endearing.) Almost everything else was sold to finance the move, except for a trio of toolboxes. Each filled with implements and gizmos carefully selected from your considerable collection – one crimson case for each of us  –  to help us tend to our domicile in your absence.

 

Promise me that all you say is true*

As much as I protested during our wee hour “what if” conversations, you were correct in asserting the benefits of companionship – of reopening my heart to love. I was in danger of becoming too comfortable in the inertia of loneliness. So, I started dating. My first few experiences were like the spits and spats of an old jalopy restarting after a decade in storage: cobwebs clogging the valves, a couple backfires, and the groanings of a “mature” engine resisting movement.

 

It took me more time than most to regain my momentum, but I did end up having my first real boyfriend since you at sixteen. He was a good man. He honored my parents, our boys, even you. He would light up at my smile, but it began to flicker. We were mismatched puzzle pieces trying desperately to force the connection – only able to bend so far before the relationship snapped apart.

 

All I want is freedom
A world with no more night*

Next year, the scales will tip. I will have more years of my life spent without you than with you by my side. I can feel them teetering. At times I feel quite precarious, unbalanced. More often, however, I feel the rush of anticipation. Looking ahead with hope instead of dread. I used to feel unprepared about what is to come. Perhaps, I am ready now.

 

Happy Anniversary!

Loving you always, 

Lisa

 


 

 

*All I Ask of You – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Sung at our wedding. May 5, 1990

Breaking up During a Pandemic

How wine, chocolate, Fritos and the tenacity of good friend can still comfort a broken heart.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash a caption

 

The text went out to the posse at 2:23 pm:

So…
Today sucks
We just broke up 😦

 

Responses from the rest of our sextet came almost immediately:

OMG Noooo!
Wait, what?
What happened?
I’m so sorry!

This was out the blue for them. Not entirely unexpected on my part.

Consolation calls came next. My attorney friend had the swiftest speed dial. Swamped with work — her job might kill her before the viral load ever reaches her house — she made the time for a consoling chat. The first, “Take care. I love you, my friend,” of the day.

Then Karen called. “Screw the quarantine!” she proclaimed. “Meet me on your patio in 20 minutes. I’m bringing supplies.” I knew alcohol and junk food were en route.

Without delay, I prepared for our safely distanced playdate. Chairs were positioned six feet apart. (Yes, I measured — fearful that my tears would cause me to under calculate the state-mandated range.) Side tables stacked with paper plates, napkins, disinfectant wipes, and a vitally important wine glass were placed by each. I unlocked the gate and impatiently waited.

Karen is a former gymnast — current personal trainer to an elite LA clientele. She’s Mighty Mouse in both stature and personality. “Here she comes to save the day!” echoed in my head as I anticipated her arrival. A huge plant with lavender spires and bronzed, spring-loaded legs soon bounded around the corner. Karen placed the lumbering foliage on my garden table and her sunny face was revealed. “I’ve got no idea what the hell this is, but it looked cheery,” she explained. “Sit tight. I’ll be back with the rest.”

Bags and bags of provisions were carted in: Prosecco, Fritos, Cheetos, gummy bears, red wine, chocolates and a slab of cake slathered in fudge. A perfect smorgasbord for a dejected spirit. We started with the sparkling wine. I threw in some fresh orange juice to “keep things healthy.” The salty snacks were our main course. We determined the wine and chocolate should be reserved for dessert.

My sorrows spilled out as the libations and carbs flowed in. We went over the particulars of the breakup; surveyed the peaks and valleys of my year-long relationship. I catalogued his shortcomings and acknowledged mine. Karen listened as I reminisced over the days of splendor, contemplating if settling was better than life without a plus one. She commiserated over each detail, seasoning my emotional stew with alternating “That bastard!” and “He treated you well.”

I sniffled and cried. Got indignant and fumed. Laughed at both his expense and mine. The Prosecco was soon depleted. The vino was uncorked.

We dove into the final course of our therapeutic feast. Gooey frosting was the icing on the cake for our forlorn conclusion: Imperfect love can’t last forever.

As she began to leave, Karen lamented she couldn’t reach out and hug me. She didn’t comprehend the potency of her visit. Effervescent bubbles were the tender kisses of friendship. Decadent chocolate was the embrace that soothed my broken heart. She braved a pandemic to let me know I was going to be ok — to remind me I was still loved.

Stop Drinking the New Normal Kool-Aid

This sucks and we all know it

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Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

OK. I’ve had enough of the bullshit. Up to my salt-and-pepper roots with the candy-coated viewpoints. I’m removing my homemade sock mask and screaming:

NEW NORMAL SUCKS!!!

Damn thing stinks anyway.

If you follow me, you know I’ve gone through varied stages coping with pandemic pandemonium. I threw one killer of a pity party, tallied my blessings and cowered in fear. Yet, I seemed to have missed a stop on the Kübler-Ross grief train, so I’ve double-backed. The Metro has dumped me at the Anger Depot and is no longer in service. I’m off the rails and plopping my Jabba-the-Hut ass down for a sit in. If needed, I’ll beg for necessities, “Sister, can you spare a square?”

Staring directly into the bright side has scorched my retinas. All I see is red.

I’m spent — plain tuckered out. Too pooped to shovel this crap any longer. (Yes, I know, I’m referring to excrement quite often. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a shit.)

The spoonful of sugar technique has been attempted repeatedly. My gag reflex is too resistant for such deception. Taking a cue from my Maltipoo, I’ve tried covering the bitter pill in peanut butter. It regurgitated like cow cud.

Safer at home? Tell that to my psyche. I’ve been simmering in my juices for far too long: Marinating in my anxieties, both past and present. How much longer until my connective tissue is fully dissolved, severing my tethers to humanity?

Exactly what are the benefits of our so-called safe havens? Commercials are already referencing our “places of refuge” in their “We are all in this together!” campaigns. Life in our humble abodes tranquilly portrayed like a utopian Westworld scenario. Not in this habitat. The only area shielded from disarray is what can be viewed through my Zoom Happy Hour camera. Eau de nursing home toilette wafts throughout: Lysol mixed with flop sweat and not-so-quiet desperation.

My childhood dreams did not include me being unwashed, unshaven and unemployed, gleaning style tips from Tiger King. (They say animal prints are never passé.) My pits and pubes so overgrown, I am contemplating repurposing my barrettes and hair ties. Note to self: Watch YouTube video on French braiding.

Aren’t you tired of adulting? I’m fed up with rebooting, repeatedly switching to a new alternate reality. I need to vent before all hell breaks loose.

It’s time for a collective temper tantrum. Join me in my fury that is far from insignificant. Six feet provides plenty of room to pound and kick the pavement. I’m not stopping until life goes back to business as usual — or maybe until someone brings me a gallon of Rocky Road.

I’m done with playing Pollyanna. I’m taking my ball and going home. F@#$! I’m already here. :/

Skin Hunger is Real and it Scares me to Death

Will staying out of touch remain our reality?

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Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch*

There’s a premise that has been disturbing me of late, looming in my hopes for the future like a murky fog: After months in isolation, will we remember how to reconnect? Will we be wary, cowering from physical contact? Can we exist in a world where exchanging hugs or pats on the back become taboo? If so, what will be the repercussions on society’s soul?

Touch has a memory — John Keats

I began writing when I was a recent widow. In my first piece, I attempted to describe how “unprepared I was for the craving of non-sexual intimacy…” How the yearning for simple touch was a physical affliction akin to detox. Each time I witnessed a spontaneous caress between a couple, I withered a little bit more.

Touch is the first sense we experience, fostered from the moment we are born. It is conveyed via the organ that completely envelops us, yet often it is an afterthought — until it is absent. My nephew was born prematurely with numerous health issues. Laden with medical equipment, he looked more cyborg than human. My brother and sister-in-law remained affixed beside his sterile bassinet, pining to soothe him.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of skin-to-skin contact, particularly in preemies. Also known as kangaroo care, the baby is stripped of garments and cradled in their parent’s bare chest. Stabilizing breathing patterns, regulating sleep and increased cognitive development have been linked to this practice. Benefits to the parents include decreasing stress and increased breast milk production. And so, my brother and his wife anxiously awaited this treasured thirty minutes granted to them each day. This nugget of time more precious than gold.

If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others — Anne Morrow Lindberg

The deprivation of human touch has been termed “skin hunger.” Insomnia, anxiety and aggressive behavior have all been linked to the lack of physical contact. According to Psychology Today,

People who feel more affection-deprived: are less happy; more lonely; more likely to experience depression and stress; and, in general, in worse health.

So, what does this mean for those sheltering alone or front liners sequestering themselves from loved ones? Social distancing is now how we demonstrate affection for our fellow man. Stay six feet apart or you may end up six feet under.

When we finally emerge from our quarantine cocoons, will we recall how to interact? Will fear cultivate hesitation? Dr. Anthony Fauci has advised we never shake hands — ever again. Clothing categorized by PPE quotients are sure to appear across our Facebook feeds. Attire labeled with antimicrobial factors may soon be touted in Amazon Lightning Deals. The last episode of Saturday Night Live had a soap opera spoof parodying the perils of dating during an outbreak. Daniel Craig attempts to make out with Kate McKinnon through a large swath of plastic wrap. Are full-body condoms far behind?

The faintest glimmers of “flattening the curve” are on the distant horizon and some have started to contemplate what society will look like once the immediate COVID-19 threat is over. When queried about what our future holds during a recent White House briefing, Dr. Fauci replied:

When we get back to normal, we will go back to the point where we can function as a society. But you’re absolutely right. If you want to get back to pre-coronavirus, that might not ever happen in the sense that the threat is there.

It is said that every time we embrace someone warmly, we gain an extra day of life. So please embrace me now. — Paulo Coelho

I hail from a boisterous Italian family. No hello or goodbye is without an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Our personas burnished by such affections to glistening patinas. If that is taken away, we might as well be mute.

What will happen to the rush of holding someone’s hand for the first time? Or the intoxicating scent of a newborn nestled against your shoulder? How will our collective psyche be altered without such stimuli? How out of touch can we be and still maintain our sanity?

The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 will be recorded in the history books as the first panicked response to the pandemic. Will the next be a run on HAZMAT bunny suits, beekeeper apparel or even fencing uniforms? Always on guard, will each encounter be a duel? Five touches and you’re out.

This is my second bout with touch deprivation. My greatest fear for myself — for society — is that we become calloused. The wounds of confinement scab and scar, smothering our ability to register emotion.

You might need somethin’ to hold on to
When all the answers they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you can just talk to
And a little of that human touch*
*Bruce Springsteen

#COVID-19 #Relationships #HumanNature #MentalHealth #Touch #NewNormal

A Long Overdue Thank You for a Priceless Gift

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Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia smear

I’m ashamed.

As someone who prides herself on promptness, I am more than a little tardy. In fact, one might accuse me of being over a decade behind. But, better late than …  Really, there is no excuse.

When I began my Bucket List of Gratitude, I should have started out with the woman who gave a gift more precious than gold. Who performed an act of kindness and love more treasured than a cache of diamonds.

She saved my husband’s life.

That woman is my sister-in-law, my husband’s devoted sibling, Karen.

A little family history:

In 2001, my husband, Matt, was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). For a brief period, his disease was kept at bay with the latest miracle drug. This respite from the ravages of cancer lasted for about 18 months. Matt’s persistently stubborn immune system had become resistant to the medication and his condition had transitioned into the acute phase. His situation was critical. Just a couple months shy of his birthday, he needed a stem cell transplant immediately to garner any hope of making it to his 40s.

Karen was declared a match and the best hope for her brother’s survival. Without hesitation, she agreed to be his donor.

Collecting stem cells is much more complicated than giving a pint or two of blood. The contributor undergoes an arduous process of preparation before the process of “harvesting” can begin. For five days, the designated donor receives injections to increase stem cell production. These shots have their own set of significant side effects. Karen experienced them all including headache, bone and muscle aches, nausea, insomnia, and fatigue. 

Finally, it came time to gather what had been sown into Karen’s bloodstream. For a woman who is deathly needle-phobic and highly claustrophobic, it was the stuff of nightmares. She sat in her chair of torture, queasy and weak, for nearly 12 hours. A bed pan and a water-filled Dixie cup negated any need to leave (or run away). The I.V. drew her blood out of one arm and ran it through an apheresis machine — a medical apparatus calibrated to thresh and reap the healthy stem cells that would treat her brother. Remaining blood products were reintroduced into Karen via another I.V. in her opposite arm.

A petite woman, Karen looked frail as she shivered in a contorted fetal position under a pile of hospital blankets. Her parents were by her side. Worry for both of their children weighed heavily on their faces. Determined as a petulant sister, Karen persevered and the transplant commenced.

On February 18, 2003, Matt was given a second chance of life through the graciousness of his sister and his brilliant team of providers at the City of Hope. In August of 2008, we unexpectedly lost him due to complications that even his stubbornness couldn’t overcome. That span of time was a bonus we never would have had without Karen.

What can I say to a woman who performed such an unselfish act of lovingkindness? This deserves more than a mere drop of appreciation. It overflows any bucket of gratitude. It exceeds the capacity of all vats of gratefulness.

Thank you for giving our family 5 1/2 more years with Matt.

Thank you for granting me 66 additional months with my husband.

Thank you for bestowing 2012 extra days with their father upon my sons.

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Karen, me, Matt, and our two sons-Albert & Nicholas-at the 2004 City of Hope Celebration of Life Reunion

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To learn more on how you can bestow the gift of life to a patient in need, check out the National Marrow Donor Program at BeTheMatch.org.

The Seven-Year Itch

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It’s been seven years.

A week of revolutions around the sun.

Happy (?) deathiversary to me.


I’ve made (some) progress.

My days no longer commence with torrential tears.

I seldom sense the vacant weight of my wedding ring.

Still, my singularity seems abnormal.

A bunker of pillows occupies the empty promise that is his side of the bed.

The duo I once was has been replaced by a shadowed silhouette and what is left of me.


I obstinately strive to satisfy my sons’ paternal vacuum. The maternal exercise in futility I refuse to cease — the truth I’m reluctant to verify.

Even in the slightest dilemma, I wonder: What words of advice would he impart? Would this be happening if he was here?

The absence of a father’s wisdom torments a mother’s heart.


My widow’s shroud swaddles and suffocates. It’s my daily personal paradox: Do I let it lull me into a muffled serenity or should I cast off sorrow’s cocoon?

Grief is the wolf that threatens my sheep’s clothing.

When my children were in elementary school, they each witnessed the metamorphosis of larva to butterfly. As it neared the time for the insects to emerge from their chrysalis, the students were warned not to “assist.” Aiding or abetting in the butterflies’ escape could result in malformations. There would be no choice but to let flightless creatures succumb to their deformities. Successful transformation required solitary struggles.

I continue to curb such a transfiguration. I’m seeking adaptation, not evolution. Disowning all traces of my former self would be tantamount to annulling my marriage. I need to move forward, not break away.


My mourning attire is beginning to itch. At times it is sweltering. But will shedding it completely leave me basking in a cool breeze or shivering from my cold reality? Is such a prophecy feasible?

Do I really want to know?

The future whispers from just beyond the horizon. Uncertainty muffles the echo, but I must submit to its summons. Inertia will only spawn decomposition.

That’s not what he desired for me.

That is not what I aspire for myself.

Dazed and Confused: Enduring an Emotional Concussion

Grief by Sarah Gath

A little while back I was having a heart-to-heart with a close friend.  Within a period of six months, he had lost both his stepfather and his mother. Dealing with his grief was becoming increasingly difficult. “It’s like I’m in a constant haze,” he explained. “I can’t seem to comprehend or complete the most basic of tasks.” “Makes perfect sense to me,” I replied. “You’ve been emotionally concussed.”

As a dedicated football mom, I am quite familiar with the physical ramifications of a brain bouncing inside a skull like a pinball. For four years, I ran the high school sidelines. I knew the signs of a concussion and subsequent protocol. It was my task to make the calls to 911 and/or an unsuspecting parents more times than I would have preferred. There were the instances when the brightest kids on the team had no idea what day it was. Sometimes, the athlete would drift in and out of consciousness, complaining of an intense headache when he was briefly coherent. Then there was the kid who acting as if he was happy drunk. We needed to assign him a babysitter to keep him from frolicking back onto the field.

When my own son had his first concussion, I witnessed the day-in and day-outs of such an injury. A designated “math kid,” he couldn’t add 2+2 for nearly three weeks.

The NFL, FIFA, International Olympic Committee, and other sports organizations look for numerous symptoms when assessing a possible concussion. Besides a persistent headache, these include:

  • Feeling slowed down
  • Nausea / vomiting
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Sadness
  • Nervous or anxious
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling more emotional
  • Difficulty remembering and/or concentrating
  • Irritability

Due to the recent outcries (and lawsuits) over the long-term damage of repeated concussions, both the NCAA and NFL have revised their guidelines regarding possible brain injuries suffered either during practice or competition. With the general medical consensus being that the more severe damage occurs when an athlete returns to play too soon (before the brain has had adequate time to heal) many injured professional and collegiate athletes are now mandated to refrain from competition until he or she has demonstrated satisfactory cognitive function. A secondary concussion suffered by an athlete who resumed competition too early can result in catastrophic brain injury.

Putting aside the debate on whether or not the sports community is doing too little too late to prevent brain injuries – what are the correlations between concussions and emotional trauma? Or overwhelming grief? In my own personal experience, and in the lives of those whom I’ve consulted on the matter – plenty.

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Photo by Kevin Dooley-Originally in Color

Some say I’ve had more to “deal with” in my life that most. I might take issue with that conclusion, but I can’t dispute the facts: My son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 2 and a half. He was in and out of the hospital for nearly a month. My father-in-law was stricken by colon cancer and was forced to go on dialysis due to a tainted batch of chemotherapy. My husband donated one of his kidneys to save his father’s life. Some years later, my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, underwent a stem cell transplant, almost lost his eyesight, and eventually went into cardiac arrest and died a few years later. Personally, I have been affected by debilitating endometriosis, infertility issues, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast cancer to name a few. I guess my plate has been full for quite a while.

In many of these instances and others, my emotional circuitry was fried. Most of the time, when I needed to function despite of my circumstances; any and all sentiment was suppressed. I went numb. Other times, I sparked like an overloaded transformer, singeing those closest to me with blistering words and scalding outbursts. With my sideline sports history, you think I would have recognized the signs of something a little more serious than “feeling down” or being “overly sensitive.”

It’s been said that emotional trauma is stress run amuck. According to the American Psychological Association and the National Center for P.T.S.D., the symptoms of emotional trauma include:

  • Detachment
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Fatigue / low energy
  • Extreme sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling “in a fog”
  • Feeling out of control
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of intimacy
  • Eating disturbances
  • Memory lapses
  • Irritability
  • Feeling distracted

When you compare the symptoms of emotional trauma to those of a brain injury, they are almost identical.
Hence – emotionally concussed.

While scientists continue to debate the sequence of physiological events that produce emotion, the central nervous system is still considered to be the mastermind behind whatever we are feeling on any given day. When your CPU (your brain) has been strained to the upper reaches of its capacity, there are bound to be ramifications; much like the recently-documented cases of broken-heart syndrome, where excess amounts of stress hormones damage the heart. If the traumatic events happen in succession, the damage can be devastating.

Severe emotional distress can make you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head with a 2×4. Stunned and dazed for a moment, it might take you a moment to regain your bearings. If you are stuck repeatedly, or if the blow hits you just right, that “moment” can take days, months, or years.

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Cool Texture by Ryan Houston

Sports enthusiasts and ER personnel are frequent users of instant ice packs. These portable plastic packets are filled with a powdered chemical. Inside that is another pouch filled with a liquid chemical or water. When you squeeze and/or shake the packet, the inside pouch pops and the two chemicals react. As you are holding it, you can feel the reaction progress through the packet as it slowly turns completely cold.

Your brain can act the same way under extreme stress. Too much and Kapow!, your inner composure is burst, oozing into your surrounding grey matter. Soon, your synapses are cooled and your temperament is frozen into a mechanical and barely functioning tranquility. Your cognizance is in “Safe” mode.

As with an athlete, those who grieve run the risk of returning to life’s playing field too soon. Jobs, family, and friends may expect you to bounce back faster than you are ready. You, yourself, might be overly ambitious and presume you are prepared to get back in the game when you are far from it. Resuming strenuous, or even normal, activity before you are recuperated can be highly detrimental.

There is no pharmaceutical quick fix for a concussion — or grief. In reality, giving a brain injury patient certain analgesics can cause more harm than good. Aspirin or ibuprofen can thin the blood and exacerbate a brain bleed.  The best prescription is physical rest, mental relaxation, and time. Unfortunately, in the era of instant gratification, we are loathe to allot ourselves suitable amounts of any of them.

When my husband passed away, I was offered numerous agents to help me “cope:” one pill to help me sleep, another to boost my spirits, still another to help me get through the day. I declined them all.  I was wary of becoming dependent on any type of mood enhancer. More importantly, I didn’t want any agent to either dilute or dull the experienced trauma. To me, doing so would only delay the inevitable. I needed to experience the rawness – the full brunt of anguish – in order to get through it.

This is not to say that I always followed my own “sage advice”—far from it. I suppressed a lot of the grieving process, telling myself there were things that needed to get done, kids to take care of, other family and friends who needed to witness my composure so they could get on with their own lives. In my warped opinion, time was too precious and not worth the expense.

It's time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

It’s time to relax and unwind: Vinoth Chandar

Recently, I have had to go on short-term disability due to a persistent illness. I have to wonder: Is my body finally saying enough is enough and forcing me to slow down? Have I ever taken the time or done the work to truly rehabilitate? In the past few months, I have been able to experience quiet and search my soul, expand my creative writing, and enjoy more time with immediate and extended family.

If I had continued to be deemed physically fit, would I ever be emotionally well?

I am unsure if Emotional Concussion is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Manual of Mental Disorders. I doubt if I am the first one to coin the term.  I only know it accurately encompasses the symptoms of grief my friends and I have confronted. It helps to realize that we are not alone in this condition. We are not suffering from a rare, orphan disease.

We are not losing our minds.

With over 2.5 million deaths occurring each year in the U.S. alone; there are tens of millions of left-behind loved ones who currently and will continue to grieve for years to come. Acknowledging that we have been battered and bruised – that we need a breather – is the first step. It is crucial to heal our minds and our hearts, create our new normal – restore our sense of self.

Rest is not a dirty word.

Epilogue to: What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ICYMI: Here is the link to my previous post.

Well the two-part season finale has come and gone. IMHO, Grey’s conclusion was honest, and perceptive throughout both episodes. Not only regarding Meredith, but those surrounding her, including friends; his sister, Amelia; and even April Kepner. In fact, the episodes could have accurately been entitled “Portraits of Grief.” How one handles the loss of a loved one is not an A-to-B-to-C progression. It is multifaceted. It has twists, turns, and double backs. It rarely stays the same.

Of course, we were riveted by the young couple and their unborn child involved in a horrific accident: Can they be rescued? Who will be the hero? Will they survive? Romance in all its complexities was portrayed by the Richard-Catherine story line: How do two, strong-willed individuals compromise enough to commit to one another? But the underlying current was grief — in all its guts and glory.

We soon learn the Meredith packed up the kids and slipped away in the middle of the night. Gone for a year, we are shown snippets of how her friends deal with her absence. At first they are worried, then frantic. A little pissed off; most of them resign themselves to Meredith being Meredith. What she, the new widow, failed to understand is a concept that took me a while to realize: you are not alone in your loss and are now a role model for how to grieve. Your closest companions, family, in-laws, and colleagues have lost someone as well and are unsure of how to handle it. They need to see that you are OK, that you are coping, moving on — surviving — before they can as well. In a twisted way, their lack of composure is comforting; at least it was for me.

It demonstrated that my husband’s life resonated with others, that he mattered, that he wouldn’t be forgotten.

This is not to say I don’t admire Meredith for her selfishness. I am actually jealous. Her kids aren’t of school age. She had the financial resources to disappear. It was a luxury that few widows have, but secretly crave. All in all, it was a perfect metaphor for the sense of suspended animation you are in for a least a year. The world continues to rotate; life goes on, no matter how enveloped in grief you are. She was able to get off the infamous carousel for a while and just breathe.

Amelia’s grief demonstrated how loss is dealt with when it is initially denied. As the damaged sister, she had her walls in place. She’s been through this before. (father, lover, baby) She didn’t need any help. She was just fine, thank you. Only when she teetered on the edge of losing sobriety, did she finally cry out for support. As I hoped Grey’s would do, she angrily confronts Meredith about not having the chance to say goodbye to her brother. My husband had three sisters, just like Derek Shepherd. Only one was able to speak her farewell to him at the hospital. This was a moment in time that was of utmost importance to her and would have devastated her if it was prevented.

Meredith’s reaction was equally revealing. She breaks down in tears after Amelia leaves. Why such a response? Did she feel guilty? Unjustly accused? Probably a little bit of both. But in that scene, the audience is shown a key component of grief. 365 days— whether they are in reality or the television universe — are but a moment in the life of a widow. Emotions can well up and over at any time. They may or may not make “sense.” Every so often, they are uncontrollable.

Even April and Jackson were caught up in the cavalcade of grief. After losing their child, April runs off to a combat zone to channel her anguish, leaving Jackson behind to grieve alone. She comes back recharged, but different. “I like the new April,” Bailey tells a skeptical Catherine. Jackson later tells April that while he is happy for her new sense of purpose, he did and continues to feel abandoned in their supposedly shared heartache. Dealing with the loss of a loved one, especially a child, is partially a cooperative experience. When someone in the grief collective opts out and decides to go it alone, the rest are left feeling forsaken. The processing of their sorrow may be incomplete. Will their marriage survive this trial? We are left to ponder for the duration of the summer.

These story lines aptly portrayed the ripple effect of death. Losing someone close to you, whether it be a treasured friend or cherished loved one, affects everyone differently — but continually. Grief is both private and public, intimate and communal. It is ugly in its brutality and beautiful in its poignancy. Bravo Grey’s Anatomy. Thank you for getting it right.

What About Meredith?

Once upon a time, she was me…

ellen-pompeo-meredith-grey

I’m not even going to bother with the spoiler alert. If you are interested in reading this, you know what happened. McDreamy was killed through a series of unfortunate events. 1. Foolishly stopped his car in the middle of road. 2. T-boned by a semi. 3. Transported to a level 2 hospital. 4. Suffered the ramifications of either the chauvinistic medical system or an egomaniac on-duty attending, depending on your viewpoint.

Many posts have been written about the way Derek’s departure was handled. Was the episode a 41-minute middle finger gesture by Shondra Rhimes to Patrick Dempsey? Was it a commentary on the unavailability of top-tier medical facilities? Or was it an accurate depiction that people can be careless, needless mistakes can happen, and people die for stupid reasons? I’ll leave that debate up to other blogs, the Twittersphere, and Change.org petitions.

No, my focus is going to be on Meredith, the unsuspecting wife, doctor, and ultimately, the woman who held Derek’s last breath in her hands. You see, years before, that character making that gut-wrenching decision to sign the ominous papers was me.

On August 23rd, 2008, my husband went into cardiac arrest while coaching our son’s football game. We waited over 18 minutes for emergency services to arrive, while two dear friends – an EMT and a paramedic, worked valiantly to keep him alive. A third, a NICU head nurse, dictated events to the 911 dispatcher. Terms like “agonal breathing” and “unresponsive” stabbed their way into my now muddled consciousness. We could hear the sirens circling, but they were having trouble locating an entrance. Each circumnavigation lulled me further into a hypnotic panic.

Finally, fresh, unexhausted paramedics arrived on the scene and joined in the resuscitation efforts. Our two sons (ages 13 and 15) and I watched hopelessly as he was hooked up to electrodes, shocked and jolted repeatedly. I lost count after three. At some point, he was deemed stable enough to transport and was loaded into the awaiting ambulance. I wasn’t allowed to accompany him. That was the first hint of permanent calamity.

I pride myself on being somewhat medically savvy. Back at home, I know that our local hospital is ill-equipped to handle major traumas and it’s best to travel to the one in the next valley. I knew the mega Children’s Hospital in the city had the elite doctors we desired to monitor our son’s diabetes. When my husband was first diagnosed with leukemia, we researched which cancer center had the finest treatment options. But we were out of town at the moment. I had no idea what hospital we were going to or its reputation. Just like the path of Derek, I simply had no choice in the matter.

As we arrived right behind the ambulance, I noticed my husband was having seizures. (The second clue) I was deftly whisked to an administration counter — not to the emergency room where he was being treated. (Third omen) Asked to fill out simple paperwork, I was dumbfounded by my inability to sign my own name. The signature I had practiced countless number of times across notebooks and napkins before legally scribing it for 18 years would not flow from my shaking fingers. My brain and my body were disengaged.

Soon, a priest emerged to speak with me. (Fourth indication) Our family and a few select friends were provided a small, private waiting room. (Fifth warning) Still, I held on tightly to hope. I need to be strong for our children, for my husband. There was not the time to break down. I do fairly well under pressure. Periods of extreme stress seem to short out my emotions. I’m left in what I have dubbed my robot mode: capable of handling traumatic situations without the encumbrance of sentiment. Much like the soon-to-be widowed Meredith who reaches her husband’s bedside and immediately demands his chart to assess the situation, I knew the moment I saw Matt what was to be the outcome. What the signs had be indicating. I understood I needed to stay in control.

As a devoted wife about to lose the love of my life, my personal sense of time seemed to slow down. Medical personnel frantically moved about, but I felt as if I was floating through a cloud of uncertainty and disconnection. I was informed there was very, very little chance of survival. Did I want to continue heroic efforts? “Yes,” I replied. I didn’t want our children to ever have any doubt that all chances were exhausted.

Soon, the discussion about the infamous papers transpired. Just like Mrs. McDreamy, I knew they were coming, I knew what they meant, and I realized they would take my (and my husband’s) breath away. This time, miraculously, I was able to script my autograph. Each of us was given the opportunity to say goodbye. When Meredith told Derek it was OK to leave, I heard my own voice emanating from the television.

Movies and TV never seem to depict what happens to family members after a loved one’s life support is discontinued. You’re at a loss as what to do next. What is expected? Another room is arranged for you to spend time with the deceased. To say I was uncomfortable with this was putting it mildly. It wasn’t him. It looked like a deflated and vacated body, not my Matt. He was gone. The next dilemma is when to leave. How long do you remain in the hospital where your spouse has just died? What is the proper waiting period before you have to leave him or her behind?

I was particularly struck by the scene where Meredith emphatically instructs the young ER doctor to make Derek’s death count. After which, she vomits in the bushes. I’ve displayed that facade of authority. Donned the same stoic pout. Being a new widow didn’t nullify her position as a doctor, a teacher. Much like losing my husband didn’t abolish my role as a mother or a wife for that matter. In fact, it increased its importance tenfold.

The next few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (conveniently shown during the sweeps period) promise to depict the aftermath of Dr. Derek Shepherd’s departure. I am curious to see how accurately Ms. Rhimes crafted the scenes. Will Derek’s sister be pissed she wasn’t given the opportunity to say goodbye? (A glaring misstep I noticed on Meredith’s part.) Will the loss of his presence resonate in episodes and seasons to come or will his memory fade from future mention? Previous episodes did justice when the news of a prior misfortune made its way to fresh ears. Case in point: When the current batch of residents learn about the plane crash that took the lives of many characters and cost Arizona her leg. Hopefully, this honest portrayal of tragedy – one of life’s everyday occurrences — will continue.

My sister and I were texting while the now famous episode was airing. Numerous “OMG”s and “Can you believe this?!” were traveling the messaging airwaves. Finally, I had to cease all communication. Whether it was helpful to me or not, my eyes were transfixed on the screen. My ears were honed to detect any subtle dialog. I had to see if they got things right. I still do.