Reflections

Today I decided to ride home in the train car where the seats face backward. When I stare out the window, all the world zips past me, racing from my peripheral into my primary field of vision. It’s like being sucked backward in time. I imagine that some invisible force has hooked me round the middle with a shepherd’s hook and is drawing me swiftly through time and space to review some moment of my past. Fields of snow race by. Sometimes I lock eyes with a pedestrian, or the driver of a car on the street which runs parallel to the tracks, impatiently stopped at a light. They are not used to making eye contact with train passengers, these drivers. We are supposed to be racing past the world, not reviewing it as it races past us.

It’s no surprise that I should be feeling reflective. Today, had she been born on her due date, my daughter would be three years old. I was thinking earlier today, about how different I am from who I was one year ago, two years ago… three. My mental health is better than it has ever been. Better than from before I became “mentally ill.” Does that mean I’m “recovered”? *shrug* I stopped caring about that label. I stopped caring about a lot of labels. Refusing to file myself away has been instrumental to my ability to thrive. More on that in the future.

I haven’t written much here because I’m writing a book. Not exactly a super exciting bombshell announcement, and yet – there it is. I’m writing a book. I’m not abandoning my blog, but I am being mindful of what I share here, and what I save for the book.

Anyways, back to Clara. It’s no revelation that grief evolves with time, though I would argue that it isn’t the grief that’s doing the evolving. It is us. It is the way we approach and process our grief. It is the way we push it away or welcome it in. It’s in how we honor our feelings and give up resisting because in resistance we only find struggle. It is in the way we allow our loss to define us, and then it’s in the way we stop doing that. This is where the shift happened for me. 2018 was all about dropping the things I clung to because they defined me. Loss, grief, OCD, mental illness, the need to be “recovered”, health I couldn’t control, anxiety, etc. The list goes on.

Let’s play a game. Find a sheet of paper and a pencil. Now, I want you to list out the personality traits or qualities that would describe the Best Version of You. Not a person you idolize. Not a made up person. If you could still be you, but like a totally evolved and ideal version of you – who is that person?

Okay, now look at your paper – is this how you currently identify and describe yourself?

Why not?

It’s you. That’s who you are. There is no this you and that you. They are all you. Drop the labels you’ve been using and pick up the ones you actually want. Pick up the labels that serve you. Not everyone will like this. I clung to my labels like life preservers in open water. Who would I be if I wasn’t a Mom with OCD? Who would I be if I wasn’t Someone With Mental Illness or A Mom Who Has Lost A Baby? Don’t get me wrong, those are still part of my story. I’m still that person. But I realized that those weren’t the stories I wanted to tell myself every day. I was ready for the next god damn chapter! I want to tell myself about a woman who nurtures positive mental health practices, who knits as a creative expression of love, who takes care of her body and then gets to go off adventuring in it. I want to hear about a mom who is present with her family, who feels tuned in to her children, who enjoys a deep and fulfilling connection with her husband, who spends time building friendships that are deep and lasting. I know that we all have shit days, but I want to be the ideal me who sometimes has a shit day and not the shit me who sometimes has an ideal day.

So, in the year that has passed between when Clara would have turned 2 and then 3, I have evolved around my grief. Some things will never change, of course. Today will always be a day that I feel longing for her. Today will always be a day that feels just a little too empty. There will never be a day that doesn’t hurt a little for her absence. But I have let go of the need for my grief. I welcome it when it needs to be seen, but I don’t seek it when I need something to blame.

Most of all, I know that Clara is watching, and I know that she is proud of her Mommy. I know she always saw past the story I told myself about who I was. I just needed to see it for myself.

Happy Day, my darling girl. Mommy loves you to the moon and back, and no matter what chapter I’m on, I will always be grateful for the parts of my story that include you.

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Admission

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my admission to an inpatient facility. Admission is a great word for what happened to me one year ago because I was not only technically registered into a behavioral health facility, but I was admitting that my mental health was at a point that I no longer knew how to deal with it.

Notice that I did not say that I couldn’t deal with it. Though I would have used that word one year ago, I know better now. I know that we are capable of handling everything in our lives, good and bad. I know that contrast (bad things) exist to teach us about what we desire and who we are, and to remind us to savor the good because no experience, either good or bad, is permanent. I walked into that facility thinking that I needed help because I “couldn’t” deal with my OCD, but a weekend in the hospital taught me that I could at least cope. Then, roughly eight weeks later when I graduated from the partial hospitalization program, I understood that I was not only capable of coping, but I was capable of dealing with OCD, I just needed the right tools. When I discharged from the program, I had those tools, but I was still very unpracticed at using them. One year later, I am hardly an expert, but I can tell you with certainty that my skills with my toolset are drastically improved. My mental health is a pendulum, I have good days and bad days. However, when the days are bad I no longer feel like OCD is a steamroller, slowly flattening my life. Instead, OCD is an unruly child, which requires some attention (“what is it that you need? why are you acting out?”) and occasionally, a good old fashioned time out.

There’s so much I want to relate to you guys about what I am learning, and I’m sorry that I haven’t been the best steward of this blog. The truth is that my life has been really busy, in mostly positive ways, and I’m still trying to fit writing back into my life. But I wanted to acknowledge the anniversary of my admission and share a little bit with you about what has made a difference in this past year.

You already know my love affair with value-driven behavior, and I can’t stress enough the impact that devoting myself to my values has had on my life in the last year. Mental illness creates footholds in your mind if you allow it to, and those footholds make it easier and easier for it to work its way into your life and climb to the highest peaks of you, to the parts that matter most. Value-driven behavior helped me to smash the footholds that my OCD was trying to create. Focusing on my values and behaving the way I would without OCD meant that OCD couldn’t find the footholds it needed. It isn’t easy at first. It requires constant vigilance and pushing through difficult emotions to stay focused on values while mental illness desperately tries to distract you and gain footing. But the more you practice it, the easier it gets. I promise you that. If you haven’t already, head over to my post on Value-Driven Behavior and spend some time with the worksheets there. If you get stuck, or if you just want to chat about this concept, feel free to drop me a line! I’d love to hear what your values are and the kinds of behaviors you’re choosing in order to live into them!

The second concept that I want to share with you is that emotions are just data. Our brains are continually funneling data our way. As you go about your day, your brain is processing everything that you come into contact with, and many of those things will elicit an emotion. If you wake up and the sun is shining, you might smile and feel hopeful about the day to come. If someone gives you a dirty look on the street, you might feel defensive or vulnerable. We don’t have much control over these types of involuntary emotions, but what we do have control over is how we react to them. For example, let’s say you woke up and it was rainy and gloomy outside, you might feel down or disappointed. You might not feel so excited about the day to come. As a result, you’d trudge through your day and you’d probably get the crummy, dismal day you were expecting. You’d be responding to your emotions as though they were directions that you had to follow, and that’s what a lot of us do. BUT, if you’ve practiced treating your emotions like data instead of directions, your process might look something like this: “Hm, the weather is gloomy today, and I’m feeling disappointed about that. But that’s okay. I know that I don’t need the sun to be out to have a great day.” You could choose instead to be grateful for what rainy days bring (a couple of days of not having to water my vegetable garden, if you’re me!), or if gratitude is too hard (because if you’re way low down, gratitude is just too far a reach sometimes, I get that), you can at least choose to recognize your bummed emotion as a gut check reaction to the weather, and not a firmly paved path that you must follow. I’ll expand more on this concept, as I did with Value-Driven Behavior, in a future post, but I wanted to introduce it to you now because I have found it to be helpful in the last year.

In therapy last week, I hit on something which I think sums up very well the way that my mindset has changed over the past year. Lots of things are still happening in my life which are difficult or would typically be very triggering for OCD. At the end of 2017, we discovered that my oldest son had a rare, aggressive cyst in his jaw which required two surgeries to remove (he is now recovered, and there is only a 5% chance the cyst will return). We started 2018 with my youngest son having a bout of the stomach virus so bad that we ended up in the hospital for fluids, then that same child broke two bones in his right arm just a week later. I have had some chest pain and breathing trouble that has resulted in the discovery of nodules in my lungs (so far they aren’t worried about them though), a lesion on my spleen which is still unexplained, and a Holter monitor which revealed that my heart throws two different kinds of extra beats (I am having a stress test and an echo-cardiogram next week). I have been in near constant pain from this mystery auto-immune illness (I am due for another round of blood work in April which will hopefully bring some answers). We are renovating our house, which has been exciting but stressful.

It’s a lot, right?

A year ago, I would have been drowning. I would have been dreading the next thing. I would have been saying things like “Why does stuff like this always happen to me?” I would have been living under the weight of the “Other Shoe” sensation, believing that my life is a series of stressful, negative events. And since that’s what I would be believing, that’s exactly what I would get. Or at least, that’s what I would see.

Instead, my life is still a never boring series of adventure and experiences. Some of those experiences are good, and some of them are bad, but I see the negative stuff as contrast. I don’t enjoy it, but I know that contrast experiences are necessary to our lives. You can’t avoid the bad stuff, but you can avoid letting it control you. Contrast teaches me about who I am and what I want. My experiences with my health troubles have taught me that I want to feel vital again, and they’ve taught me that I haven’t been the best steward of my body. My experiences with my health have led me back to fitness, and in the last few months, I have made changes to my diet which have already shown positive results (my cholesterol is almost back in the normal range!). My experiences with my children lately have taught me that my instincts as a mother are pretty damn good. OCD tried to convince me that I couldn’t be trusted to react correctly in the face of health issues, but that’s not true. I’m in tune with my children, and I’m good at knowing how to care for them. My experience with my son breaking his arm showed me, yet again, that my husband is an amazingly empathetic and emotionally courageous person. We handled a situation, which was exceedingly hard and traumatic for our son, like a well-oiled machine. Our teamwork made the experience as easy as it could have been.

Do you see what I am doing? I am not saying the bad stuff was “good.” But I know that the bad stuff was just stuff, and I get to choose what I get out of it. When you start to practice seeing contrast (bad stuff) this way, you inadvertently train your brain to stop expecting bad stuff. I am dealing with things better because I don’t believe that “this sort of stuff always happens to me.” I am dealing with everything life throws at me because I am not waiting for the other shoe to drop. That would require me to live in dread of the future, and I’d much rather live in the joy of the present.

So, one year ago today, I was miserable in an inpatient ward. I was at one of the lowest points of my life. I was deep in the contrast. And yet, without that admission, I wouldn’t be where I am at today. So, I choose to be grateful for that low point. I am so grateful for that past version of me. Admission required bravery. Admission required vulnerability. Admission required me to own that what I was doing wasn’t working, so I needed someone to teach me something new. I hold that moment of contrast in high regard.

The band Birdtalker has a song about depression called Blue Healer which I love, and I want to leave you with some of the lyrics that I think sum up so perfectly everything I have learned in the last year:

And now I stand tall
Used to think my sorrow was a brick wall
Made me want to curl up in a tight ball
Self-pity dealer
But there’s a gate here
You can only find it if you wait here
Now I’m walkin’ through it with my gaze clear
Me and the Blue Healer

 

Sending love,

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December Reflections, Day 19 – Something I Love

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Shortly after we lost Clara, a dear friend gifted me with Affirmators! Cards. These positive cards are PERFECT for people like me, who enjoy prompt-driven self-reflection but whose anxiety disorders make the usual Tarot deck a little scarier than I feel the practice is worth.

On this past Saturday, I went for a CT scan, ordered by my ENT, so that he can look at my sinuses to determine what has been causing some intermittent ear pain for the last several months. He is suspecting Eustachian tube dysfunction or TMJ, but my symptoms make it difficult to tell which, so he hopes a CT scan will shed some light on things for us. I had been relatively calm about the whole thing, until I set foot into the imaging center on Saturday morning.

This same imaging center is where we found out that Clara was a girl. This same imaging center is the one which alerted my doctor to the fact that something seemed amiss with my darling daughter. It occurred to me, as I lay back on the CT scan table, that the last time one of my doctors received results from this place, it was the beginning of a nightmare. Results from this particular imaging center heralded some of the hardest, most painful days of my life.

My scan was relatively uneventful. The tech was friendly, if reserved and as I was heading out she mentioned to me that the doctor would have my results on Monday. I told her that my follow up appointment would not be until Friday. She said that if something was found that needed to be seen more urgently than that, she had no doubt my doctor would call me. This is probably a very routine and reasonable comment to make, but it immediately set my anxiety tingling. That coupled with my personal history with this imaging center, and it did not take long for my OCD and anxiety to wrap their tentacles around what was turning out to be a very triggering morning. As I drove home from the imaging center, my arms began to tingle. As I entered my house, my chest began to feel tight. I indicated to my husband that, while the scan went without incident, I was beginning to spiral into that familiar territory of fear.

I spent the weekend wresting intrusive thoughts. Doing my best to not follow through the horror filled doors that they incessantly opened for me. I CBTed myself. I CBTed HARD. I weighed the rationality behind my fears, I considered the statistical likelihood of something being seriously wrong. I reminded myself that just because I have been through something rare and tragic, I am not a magnet for such things. In fact, subscribing to the lightening doesn’t strike twice theory, I’m LESS likely to experience something rare and tragic, now that I’ve already been through one such strike.

Finally, today, recognizing the heavy way in which my past experience was directing my current emotional state, I contacted my therapist, who blessedly squeezed me in. I have learned, through doing EMDR with my therapist, to identify when I am connecting my trauma to something generally unrelated or innocuous. I may not always identify it, but today, it was very clear that my fear about what will come from the sinus CT scan was being directly influenced by having received tragic news from a completely unrelated imaging test in the past.

My therapist fit me in and we went straight for EMDR.

During the session, in addition to processing my feelings about that I found myself feeling a lot of negative emotions about myself. At one point I referred to myself as a “stupid little girl” who should have known better than to expect for things to work out well with my pregnancy (yeah, grief does some pretty crazy things to you). I realized that I was holding a lot of anger towards myself that was completely unwarranted. I was, in some ways, blaming myself for having been through tragedy with Clara, and angry with myself for not being able to get control of my mental health now. In short, I was beating up on me.

I came home feeling tired and raw, which is normal for an EMDR session. And, determined to get through the next 3 days of waiting, I went to my Affirmator Cards to find something to focus on. I always shuffle and pull cards at random, and as I flipped over the Beauty card, I grinned. It’s the second time in only 3 weeks that I have pulled this card. Both times after shuffling thoroughly, and both times when going through periods of self doubt and/or melancholy. Clearly a lesson is being gently pushed my way.

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In my case, I don’t read this card as having anything to do with physical beauty. Instead, I’m focusing on the beauty of who I am. Mental illness included. I’m not perfect. I have good days and bad days. I have personality strengths, as well as weaknesses. I have flaws and faults. I have skills and merits. I have happy moments in my past, and sad ones, too. All of this adds up to a life that is rich in experience and beautiful for the variance it displays.

I’m going to do my best to focus on that for the next few days. Or maybe I’ll pull a new card each day this week, and dedicate each day to contemplating a new affirmation.

Needless to say, the Affirmators! cards are something I have very much loved this year, and definitely recommend to anyone some prompts for their self-care or self-reflection.

Not to mention that they’d make an AWESOME stocking stuffer!

Sending love to you all,

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**Full disclosure: I am an Amazon Associate and the links in this post are affiliate links. HOWEVER, I would never recommend a product to you that I have not used myself and which I do not totally love.

December Reflections Day 17 – Five Years Ago

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Silas,

Five years ago you were just where you are this morning, albeit a good deal smaller, and on the inside of me, instead of the outside.
As we approach your 5th birthday, only 4 months away, with your first year of school following quickly behind, I have been doing a lot of reflecting lately on just how much you’ve grown. I am proud of you every day. Proud of your inquisitive spirit and your kind and thoughtful heart. Proud of your impeccable sense of humor and your willingness to learn when you make a mistake.

I know that you won’t always want to snuggle in my lap, occupying that same space, relative to my body, that I will always identify as belonging to you. So, I do my best to soak in these moments, and mark them on my heart. I love you, my precious boy. ❤
Love,
Mommy

December Reflections, Day 5 – The Best Book of 2016

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To anyone who has been reading in this space for any length of time, it will come as no surprise for me to say that I am a voracious reader. I convinced my husband to turn an entire bedroom of our house into a library, for goodness sake! In books, I have made friends, I have fallen in love, I have slain beasts, solved mysteries, and saved kingdoms. I read a pretty wide variety of books, but I am a die-hard Janeite and have loved Jane Austen novels since I first picked up Pride and Prejudice as a teenage girl. I have, of course, read and re-read all of her works many times over. Late last year, I was reading  Jane Austen’s World (an excellent blog for Janeites and Regency era fans) when I came across mention of the works of Stephanie Barron.

Stephanie Barron is the author of the Jane Austen Mysteries, a series of Regency-era capers, presented as diary entries by Jane herself and starring Jane and her penetrating wit, as the super sleuth. Barron channels Jane’s voice so well that I often forget that I am not reading Jane herself.

Though I am late to the Stephanie Barron party (the first book in the series came out in 1996), I am making up for lost time, since the series comprises most of what I’ve read in all of 2016! I began reading the first book in the collection, Jane Austen and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, in January of this year, and am currently reading Jane Austen and His Lordship’s Legacy, the 8th book in the series (which is now comprised of 13 books).

I am naming Jane Austen and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor as the best book I read in 2016, not only because I enjoyed the book immensely, but also because Stephanie Barron has thrown open the gates to a new corner of Jane’s world. A world which I previously believed to have quite thoroughly explored.

What was the best book that you read in 2016, and why?

Happy reading, friends!

December Reflections, Day 2 – Lights

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No post today because I’m in Milwaukee seeing The Head and The Heart (and Jimmy Eat World and Fitz and the Tantrums, but mostly The Head and The Heart).  But here is a “Lights” picture for you from the show!

Love ya!

Kelly

December Reflections, Day One – On The Table

Good Evening Friends! I hope this 1st day of December has been a good one for you. Just like last year, I have decided to participate in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections. Each day (or at least the days I can make it happen), I will be posting a picture, some writing, or both, all centered around the prompt of the day (the full prompt list can be found on Susannah’s blog).

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Today’s prompt is On The Table, and I cheated a bit by instead posting a photo of the little altar I’ve made on a bookshelf in the library. This little collection of things is a positive reminder or boost for me whenever I see it. I keep some positive mantra cards nearby and will occasionally pull one out for contemplation. The last 3 days have been rough for me, as I’ve been going through a bit of a cyclical peak in anxiety. This peak has come after a relatively calm and well-managed time in my mental health. As such, I’ve been a little hard on myself and feeling pretty crummy about the whole thing.

In therapy tonight, my therapist honed in on a really great cognitive distortion that I have been repeatedly doing, in which I cast my own intelligence in a negative light, while ignoring my mental health issues as just “part of who I am”. She very wisely pointed out that intelligence is a good thing, and does not inherently cause anxiety. Additionally, anxiety is not “who I am”. It is a mental illness, and one that can be sent into remission.

When I got home from therapy tonight, I decided to head over to my altar for a bit, and I pulled a mantra card while I was there. I smiled when I turned the Beauty card over, because it felt like a very appropriate reminder to be gentle with myself as I navigate this latest upswing in anxiety. And so, that is just what I plan to do.

See you tomorrow, friends.

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