Some of you may have been wondering where I have been since my blog abruptly stopped back in August 2013. Let me assure you, I was not having a good time and this post is likely to be a rather harrowing read.
In order to explain where I’ve been, it’s necessary for me to provide a little background.
Almost 15 summers ago, I gave birth to a beautiful son. It was a traumatic delivery that culminated with my losing nearly 70% of my blood when my uterus didn’t contract. At that time, I was rushed into surgery for an emergency procedure. I should’ve know I was in trouble when I was still in the hospital after a week. I should have known I was in even bigger trouble when my insurance company agreed to reimburse for a personal care aide. My husband returned to work while I was still in the hospital, assuming I was perfectly fine with the assistance of the aide.
After 3 months, my blood was tested and it was determined that I was fine.
The reality was that I wasn’t fine at all.
My crippling insomnia was coupled with a horrible tightness in my throat that felt like I’d swallowed a pebble.
After years of struggling with little sleep and the feeling that my throat was going to close up, I finally went to see my primary care physician. We tried several antidepressants, each one revving me up more than the last. (I now know that some people have a paradoxical reaction to antidepressants; instead of calming me down, they made me even more anxious.) Eventually, my primary care doctor wrote me a prescription for a few little yellow pills.
All my symptoms magically disappeared with that first pill. Suddenly, I could sleep again. And I could breathe.
I was referred to a psychiatrist who asked me what hadn’t worked and what had.
“The last stuff I took was amazing,” I said. “I think it was called Klonopin.”
The psychiatrist opened the top drawer of his desk to retrieve his prescription pad. “Good choice,” he said.
Over the next seven years, no doctor ever suggested I should discontinue using clonazepam, that it is actually a medication recommended for short-term use only.
That the stuff does terrible things to one’s neurotransmitters.
Everyone was so casual about my clonazepam use, I never questioned its safety. I should have known not to trust anyone who promised Paradise in a pill, but I’d always trusted my doctors. There was no reason to think that he was prescribing something that could hurt me.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
(NOTE: I’m so glad to be writing again. More about where I’ve been for the last 7 months to come. I’m doing this very slowly. In installments. With a lot of time to breathe in between because it’s all still very fresh. Much gratitude to bloggers Misty’s Laws, Molly Field, Lisha Fink, Nina Badzin, Rivki Silver, David Walker, Kitt Crescendo, Ruchi Koval & Erin Margolin for their steadfast support over the last 7 months. Appreciation for my real life friends & family will be given in an ongoing way, for the rest of my days on this planet.)
As a child, I was supposed to keep my room neat. My bed needed to be made the moment I awoke each morning; hospital corners were not optional. My clothes were to be folded and put away while they were still warm. Fortunately for me, I excelled at neat.
I remember watching the 1976 Summer Olympics with my father. Sitting next to him on the couch, I wore a yellow leotard. He pointed to Nadia Comenici as she waved to the crowd after earning her first perfect 10.0 on the uneven bars.
“You see!” my father said. “Being perfect is possible.”
In my house, failing was not an option. No one told me it was okay to mess up. No one ever said people learn by failing, by falling, and getting up again, that it takes a different kind of strength to persevere despite sucking.
I learned that sucking brought misery. When I sucked at trigonometry, it meant I had to complete endless math problems written on the back of placemats at restaurants until the meal arrived. Feeling my father’s frustration comingled with his disappointment, by the time our food came, I often felt like vomiting.
“It’s not that hard,” my father would say.
But it was that hard, and I didn’t get it. And I hated feeling dumb.
I learned if I sucked at something, I needed to avoid that thing at all costs.
So I stuck to my strengths and only tried the things at which I could excel.
You want someone to sing or memorize lines? Awesome. Need a crafty-critter? No problemo. I can make pinch pots and macramé, turn beads and fishing lures into jewelry. Watch me sketch and draw and paint fearlessly in watercolors and acrylics and oils. Need a dancer?Check out my smooth moves. Seriously, I can hustle and shimmy and shake my groove thing. I can twirl and do pirouettes. I can do back-flips off the diving board and handsprings on the lawn.
In 2nd grade, Mrs. Church told I could write. She loved a story I’d written about a red-breasted robin, and she made me to read it to the “big kids,” in a different wing of the school. Later, Mrs. Oliver told me a poem I’d written moved her. It moved her. In middle school, Mr. Baron drew three big stars in my notebook next to the words “squishy red beanbag chair on the lime carpet.” Three stars.
I dreamed of being a writer.
In college, I received attention and praise, earned awards and validation from my professors.
I felt like a magician, able to amaze people with my words.
In December 2012, I found a writing partner. We worked together for six months, sending each other pages of our fiction manuscripts to read. We provided feedback for each other. I poured myself into her project, believing that – eventually, she would give mine the same kind of love.
Last May, I took a hiatus to prepare for my son’s bar mitzvah. My writing partner knew this when we started working together. I reassured her I would be back in the saddle after the festivities ended.
“I’ll be here, pardner,” she promised.
When I called to let her know I was ready to start collaborating again, I caught the hesitation in her voice.
“I had so much momentum, I couldn’t stop! You know how that is, right?” she said. And then she told me she’d found a new person to work with.
My legs shook when I hung up the phone.
Besides feeling abandoned and betrayed, I felt like her actions said something bigger about my abilities as a writer.
The cosmos provided me with the words. I read between the lines.
My writing must have really sucked.
Because if it didn’t suck, she wouldn’t have been able to stop working with me. She wouldn’t have been able to put down my manuscript.
I didn’t have anything backed-up, and I lost everything: twenty years of teaching curriculum, twenty years of photographs, decades of poetry and short stories.
A non-fiction manuscript. And a fiction manuscript.
For most of my life, people have made me believe I could do magical things with words. But this past year, I’ve felt like someone took my black hat and my cape and my wand. Like someone stole my white rabbit.
Suddenly, what had always come naturally for me has became dreadfully difficult.
I’m not going to try to explain the theory behind this kind of therapy. Let’s just say EMDR is often used with individuals who have suffered major traumas, sexual or physical assault, combat experiences, accidents, the sudden death of a loved one: any kind of post-traumatic stress, really. But EMDR therapy has also been used to help athletes, performers and executives to achieve a state of “peak performance.”
If facilitated properly, EMDR helps people replace negative or stressful thoughts with positive ones.
Or something like that.
During my first session, VJ took a detailed history where we focused on what I perceived to be the major traumatic events in my life. I thought about the things I’ve been through in my 45 years on this planet and realized I had a lot from which to choose. She demonstrated a breathing exercise, which was familiar to me from my experience with yoga.
Then she had me hold these little buzzing paddles, which felt like cell phones set to vibrate.
Apparently, some therapists have clients track flashing lights but, over the course of her career, VJ said she’d found pairing the gentle, rhythmic buzzing from the paddles with conversation just as effective.
On my third session, Vickijo instructed me to put the buzzing paddles under my thighs, and she asked me to tell her about what I perceived to be my strengths as a writer.
I couldn’t think of one.
Unfazed, VJ asked me to close my eyes and describe a writer I admire. I thought about one particular blogger. “She can write about anything. She has amazing range: sometimes she’s funny; other times, she’s serious. She uses fresh images. She knows how to tell a story so it is unique and yet universally true. She responds to everyone. She’s generous, and her audience loves her.”
“You can open your eyes,” VJ said, so I did. “Do you think you possess any of the same qualities as this writer?”
I wasn’t sure.
Earlier in the session, I had talked about how much I sucked.
VJ asked me to think of an affirming sentence to replace my negative thoughts.
It was hard.
The voices were loud in my head.
“Let’s start with: ‘I suck,’” Vickijo suggested. “Can you turn that on its head?”
I closed my eyes and feeling the slow, rhythmic vibration of the paddles under my thighs, I saw myself sitting at a table, eating words. I literally ate the word ‘apricot’: chewed on it and swallowed, while my hand moved, scribbling letters inside a black and white composition notebook. I saw all the words I’d ever written in my life penned on a cozy fleece blanket and draped over my shoulders. I read the words I’d written on the lined paper.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
Except when I said it, there were eleventy-seven question marks at the end of the sentence.
“You’re a writer,” VJ said it as a statement. “And what does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “For me, writing is like eating or pooping. I can’t not do it. Whether or not I ever publish a book, I’m always going to write. It’s what I do.”
Vickijo laughed. “And that’s because?”
“I’m a writer.”
When I said it the second time, I believed it a little bit more. Weird, right? I have a hard time explaining how or why it’s working, but it is. EMDR combined with 5 minutes of daily meditation has been doing wonders for me.
And my writing.
I’m feeling less compelled to be perfect.
In fact, perfect hasn’t even been on my radar.
I know it sounds whack-a-doodle, but the science supports this stuff. It’s incredible to me to think we have the ability to reprogram the way our brains have been hardwired to think. If you have suffered a trauma — or any kind of anxiety — EMDR can really help.
A few months ago, I would have felt like a bad person because my bed isn’t made, I’ve got a sink filled with dishes, and very little food in the refrigerator.
But today? I’m soooo not.
Here’s a video I found on YouTube that does a good job explaining EMDR, if you are interested.
Have you ever heard of EMDR? If you’ve tried it, did it work for you? What do you think about the idea of reprogramming your brain to think happier thoughts?
I first “met” Amy Stevens 18 months ago at Life From The Trenches. Amy’s blog commonly features stories about her life with her husband and their children. Amy has lofty goals of growing a garden, frequently uses sarcasm as a coping mechanism, always wears socks in hotel rooms, sometimes says “Amen” at the end of The Pledge of Allegiance, and pretends to eat peas in front of her children.
Amy lives in Joplin, Missouri, and it is an understatement to say that her life was rocked in a major way when those tornadoes hit last May. Since then, Amy has been posting intermittently as she has worked tirelessly to rebuild her family home while assisting in rebuilding her community. She continues to provide her children with a sense of faith in a world where nothing is solid. Amy writes about beautiful, messy, and chaotic moments that make ordinary life magic. And she’s hoping to get back into her writing — starting now.
I urge you to follow Amy on Twitter @AmyStevens_ or, if you prefer via her Facebook page. I feel fortunate to have Amy here today to share this month’s #LessonLearned.
• • •
I don’t know what led me to become a hospice social worker, but it’s been an amazing journey.
I could write about the patients: how they teach me about grace, compassion, gratitude, and provide powerful doses of perspective.
But I’m not going to write about the patients.
I could write about my colleagues.
You want to see radical compassion? Watch a hospice nurse work furiously to ease the pain of a patient. You want to experience mercy? Watch an aide provide care with patience and gentleness. Want to soak in real faith? Watch a chaplain offer a prayer that helps our patients find solid ground to cling to in grief.
But I’m not going to write about my colleagues.
I am going to write about a spaghetti squash.
One of the nurses gave me the squash, a giant one. Leaving the squash on my desk, I went to a meeting debating if this squash called for marinara, sweet sugar and cinnamon, or maybe just some Parmesan. There are so many options when it comes to spaghetti squash.
Fast forward to an hour later. My meeting ended and I walked out to my desk to find that the squash was gone. In its place was this note:
“You’ll never see your gourd again.”
In addition to all the things I said above about my coworkers, they also have sticky fingers.
They also think they’re funny.
And so it began.
I threw out reasonable accusations.
Everyone was a suspect, and everyone looked a bit shady.
They are, in fact, a tad shady.
No one came forward.
Because they’re good. Really good.
I went home and, as any top-notch investigator would, I turned to Facebook.
I posted this completely authentic picture of my poor children with no supper. (Guilt can lead to confessions, and this was no time for mercy.)
My photo was posted along with the following Status Update:
Someone at work stole my spaghetti squash leaving behind the note: “You’ll never see your gourd again.” Tonight my children go hungry: victims of a cold, calculated crime.
Forty-three comments later, I learned my colleagues are not only shady but also willing to throw each other under the bus.
Still, no one came forward with a confession.
I was not surprised.
The following morning, I entered the office to this:
Apparently, my squash had been stolen and passed around the office like some kind of contraband sex toy. The main culprit was a nurse, but no one was innocent in this game — except for my poor, hungry children.
(I wouldn’t feed them dinner until they posed for the Facebook picture. I wanted authentic.)
From the moment I discovered the theft, to the discovery of wide-eyed squash, to my apology over the intercom for accusing innocent people of a heinous crime, there was laughter.
Life hasn’t always been easy in Joplin, Missouri. As a community, we’ve struggled to rebuild ourselves after last year’s tornadoes. And, of course, working in hospice is not easy.
My life has led me to a place where I’m surrounded by people who leave in their wake physical relief and soothed souls. There are no better people to teach how to comfort and how to be comforted through understanding words, soothing touch, and the simple presence of someone not scared away by suffering.
There are many lessons to be found in this tale. Obviously, the first lesson being that one should always secure her squash. But also that life is gritty – often devastating and heartbreaking – so it is important to find joy in the ridiculous, share comfort in a little squash vandalism, and heal through humor.
What’s making you laugh these days? What’s your favorite fall vegetable? How do you like your spaghetti squash? Anyone else have a playful office climate & culture? What kind of fun little pranks have you played at work?
This personal narrative was written by Megan Killinger, a student in one of my Composition-101 classes during the Fall-Winter 2010 semester.
“No, no, no! Look at me, Megan!” my mother would say to me tapping the tip of her nose with her finger, repeatedly trying to get me to make eye contact. She did her nose-tapping routine in public — pretty much everywhere, anytime I’d forget to look at her or at someone else. I hated her for it. She never understood me, no matter how I tried. Whenever she did her nose tapping thing, I could feel a hot flush of anger rush through me, aching like the pulse of blood behind a bruise. Apparently, I needed to get it through my head that the person who I was “wasn’t cutting it,” and I needed to transform myself into someone else more acceptable: a hard lesson to learn — that “what you are” isn’t good enough.
As a child, I hated crowds — hated going to the mall — rarely made eye contact, and had a tendency to say whatever I wanted. I was constantly told my actions were “inappropriate,” and I learned to live in a world filled with criticism and boundaries.
I was always the odd one. School was a penitentiary for me, for it was difficult to make friends. I watched my peers react to each other, and that’s how I learned the basics on “How to Make Friends-101.” Personally, I would have preferred to have hit myself in the face with a shovel rather than associate with people, for kids always saw me as “weird.” I was too blunt or too curious; I learned that telling the truth was not always acceptable. For example, when someone asked me if the outfit she was wearing made her look fat, I learned that it isn’t always appropriate to tell the truth.
So I clammed up.
Growing up, my mother and my doctors were the worst. My mother constantly told me “We’ll find out what’s wrong and fix it.” But I didn’t think anything was wrong with me; nevertheless, I must have seen fourteen different psychologists. No one could figure it out, until one day, as I sat there, playing with some little wooden blocks (as per usual), I heard something I didn’t think I’d ever hear.
“I know what it is!” Quack Doc #14 said to my mother, oh so casually, after spending a lovely ten minutes with me. His stupid tone, just like all the others and their lame stereotypical Quack Doc questions; how I wished I could kick him his shin and see how breezy his tone would be then.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and no — it doesn’t mean I’m “retarded.” My life drastically changed that day — November 12, 1999. My mother was finally granted a reason for my so-called “abnormal” behavior. She cried, and her sobs sounded like a dying mouse; maybe someone told her that I was a retard.
Once I had a diagnosis, my mother enjoyed telling people “my secret” to anyone I brought home. This shattered the “normal” image I worked so hard to create. I watched and tried to make myself as much like the others as possible, so I’d have a chance at fitting in. Honestly, I’m still impressed at how well I did. I was (and still am) careful about how close I let people get to me at first, so when I drop “the Asperger bomb,” they know me and then they can decide whether it changes anything. But back then, with my mom beating me to the punch, it made maintaining friendships a lot more difficult. When people heard the word “autistic,” they automatically conjured up a drooling idiot or something along those lines.
After I was diagnosed at age 9, I felt like a drug-lord-zombie for a while. It seemed like Quack Doc had me trying out a new medicine every month. Concerta was a real winner. When I took Concerta, I felt like all my life’s blood had been drained, like I wasn’t present — almost. Once, while on that medication, I sat and counted the lines on a bug’s wings. It is amazing how a person can tell her doctor that what they’re giving her is making her ill and then have that doctor respond by prescribing a higher dose of the same medication. Things were eventually adjusted.
I used to get angry with myself, when someone could tell I was autistic. I kept telling myself I didn’t have Asperger’s, that I wouldn’t be that person, but I stopped fighting and learned to accept my diagnosis. I tried to make small changes, for I understand now in order to obtain what I want — a “normal life” — I have to play by everyone else’s rules: Monkey-see, monkey do.
These days I have some fancy coping mechanisms. One of my coping methods is to play a type of mind game, which involves me asking a ridiculous amount of questions without giving much information about myself. In other words, I get the person I’m talking to inform me about themselves without really having to say much at all. In addition, I always check myself to make sure I look everyone square in the eye and, I am happy to report, I have made some close friends. I even like going to the dreaded crowded, noisy mall.
What I have gathered from my 18 years of life experience is that people reject what they don’t know. If they don’t understand something, most people don’t even want to try. My first semester at college was exactly what I expected, for the most part. To be honest, I was just really excited to have a fresh start. At college, no one knows anything is “wrong” with me, which is a great feeling. I’m finding acceptance in college, and its a part of what I have always wanted: to be seen with unbiased eyes. Sometimes I still speak a little too quickly and I still have to watch what I say to people. I suppose I will always find it hard to blend in, but college is showing me that there can be more to life than just blending in.
I am a pretty organized person. In fact, there was an eight year stint where I worked as a professional organizer and was paid to go into people’s homes and help make systems to create order out of the chaos that surrounded them. And I was really good at it.
Truth be told, I am supremely organized. I used to lie about my house being as neat as it is. It doesn’t look quite as fabulous as the homes in Style Magazine or House Beautiful, you know, where everything has been staged to perfection – the beds heaped with fluffy, organic linens with a thread count of two million and smoothed so they 100% lump-free; every knick-knack is interesting and placed at the proper angle; the glass in the picture frames on the side tables sparkle, and the familes in the frames sparkle too.
It’s not like that here. Things here aren’t perfect; I just know where my stuff is.
Except when I don’t. Because that happens sometimes.
One night, around 10 pm, while I was folding laundry and my husband was out enjoying a Jeff Beck concert, my son apparently realized he had lost his book, Pendragon: The Quillan Games, (#7 in the series) somewhere at school. Pendragon is not a book he checked out at school; it is a library book. A thick, hardcover library book. Apparently, he laid there in the dark perseverating. You know, that thing we do that gets us absolutely nowhere except more freaked out? He was running “what if” scenarios over and over in his head, trying to figure out where he might have left his book, even though he thought it was probably in his desk. Alone in his bedroom he was thinking, What if I can’t find the book? What if it’s really gone? What if I left it on the playground? What if the library charges me three times as much as a new copy would cost. What if my parents get really mad at me for losing the book and don’t trust me and won’t let me take out any more library books? (For a voracious reader, that would be a major punishment.)
Apparently, he tortured himself like this for about thirty minutes before he finally exercised the good sense to come downstairs and explain his dilemma.
My child is the responsible type. He doesn’t like to lose things. He doesn’t like to miss deadlines or due dates. The thought is abhorrent to him. I understand this – apples don’t fall from pear trees, right? – so I was glad when I was able to share something with him that a friend of mine helped me with not too long ago with when I was freaking out about something insignificant, that seemed really big at the moment.
I asked my son to sit on the floor beside me, to close his eyes, and listen to my voice. I told him I was going to take him to the worst case scenario: His worst fear.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“The book is, in fact, lost. You will have to pay for the book, maybe even three times the price.” Then I added this part: “But you are okay. You aren’t sick. We are all healthy. You have dad and me. We have a home. We have food and clothes, and we love you like crazy.”
He was calmer. Quieter. It was working. (Plus, he was really tired.) And because he was being quiet, I added, “And just so you know, assuming you live a long time – and I hope you do – you are going to lose stuff. A lot. It happens. I lose things all the time. I write notes to myself on slips of paper and they disappear. I don’t know where they go. I lose bills and receipts. Bottom line is, you have to know that you are going to lose shit, and you have to know it’s not worth losing your mind when you lose something.”
“What?” I asked.
“You said the ‘s-word’.”
Drawing on sage advice from my friend Jennifer Hess and her children’s yoga practice, I asked my son to take a deep breath, take in as much air as he could, and then exhale as if he were blowing out a million candles. At first, he couldn’t do it. He felt stupid, he said. But I insisted that he keep trying. He got it right on the third try.
“That felt good,” he said, calmer now.
Walking upstairs together, he let me hold his hand – something he doesn’t always let me do these days.
I hope he gets it: That adults aren’t perfect. We can strive to be organized and have our perfectly-perfect systems, but nothing is fool-proof or fail-safe. The important thing is to have the perspective to understand that what feels so terribly, awfully, overwhelmingly, miserable at one moment can be dealt with and the awful feeling will pass. Even when it is a big something – the loss of a friendship, a major illness, even death – these things have to be dealt with calmly too. Freaking out doesn’t help.
That night was about a lost book.
That night I counted our blessings.
Afternote: Boy found the book at school the next day.It was rescued just as it was about to be sent back to the public library. All’s well that ends well. He is now well into Pendragon Book #8.
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