"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, May 21, 2015

School's Out for Summer!

Gillian's Mother's Day present to me.
Mother & infant by Gillian Chapman
Today was the last day of school for Gillian. When she started her sophomore year last fall I never imagined what a difficult, challenging, stressful school year it would be. We're both more than ready for a reprieve from the onslaught we've been under for the last several months. I don't think I've ever looked forward to the beginning of summer break more than I have this year. This morning I reveled in the pleasure of waking up on my own instead of to the loud, jarring sound of Gillian's alarm. Amazingly, she was almost always able to sleep through it for several seconds before I would finally yell at her to turn it off. And the snooze button...don't even get me started! I'm not a fan of the snooze button. Our mornings for the next three months are going to be much calmer and peaceful without the daily fight over alarms, snooze buttons and getting out of bed and out the door on time.

I would never want to repeat what we've dealt with these past several months, but if nothing else it's been a growing experience for both me and Gillian. I've had to come to terms with some things that were extremely painful and disappointing to me, and she's learned a lot about herself and is starting to learn new, better ways of coping. Somewhere several months back I read this great piece of advice, "Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had." Those words really struck me and I've come back to them over and over when I've been struggling with acceptance and coping. 

Gillian - May 20, 2015
I've also leaned heavily on my mom for advice, support, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes my mom can drive me a little crazy and make me frustrated, but there's nobody better when I'm at my wit's end and need some help gaining perspective. She's my safe place. She is the one person I could tell about my deepest fear as a mother.  She understood and validated the reasons for my fears, and reassured me that I should trust my mother's instinct about some of the symptoms I was seeing. But then she very clearly and firmly told me that I should never make parenting decisions from a place of fear. She agreed that I should do everything I could to advocate, fight for and get Gillian the help and resources she needed, but that I needed to do so in a rational, calm, deliberate and informed way. She also always reminds me what a smart, gifted, unique, creative, intelligent, talented, amazing person Gillian is, and she's right. 

One thing I've tried to continually remind myself of lately is that my function as a parent is to raise a happy, healthy, well-adjusted person who is able to lead a fulfilling life. What a fulfilling life looks for Gillian and the path she takes to get there is up to her. What I'm mostly struggling with right now is how to best help her find that path. Gillian is nearly an adult, and yet in many areas of her life she still needs considerable guidance. I want to give her freedom to make her own choices, even really bad ones, but I also want to help her see that some choices have far-reaching, unintended consequences that we can't always see at the time we make them. A good friend told me several months ago that parents should never deprive their children of the opportunity to pay the price for their own choices. The hard part is knowing if the price is affordable. At what point as parents do we step in and save them from themselves? 

Annoying alarms and not wanting to get out of bed were the least of the frustrations and problems we've faced over these last several months. But we did face them. It wasn't pretty and there was plenty of anger, resentment, sadness and misunderstanding. But for now it feels like we're in a pretty good place. Thankfully I have the resources to get Gillian the outside support and care she needs along with counseling for both of us. It seems like we made it through the eye of the storm and I'm cautiously optimistic about the next several months and next school year. Although, the chorus to the Taylor Swift song 'Out of the Woods' keeps playing repeatedly in my head like some kind of cautionary mantra. "Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out the woods? Are we out of the woods? Are we in the clear yet? Are we in the clear yet? Are we in the clear yet, good." Play. Repeat. Over and over. 

I'm not quite sure I trust this current calm state of affairs. But for now, I've decided to accept, embrace and enjoy this break. I hope this summer is a time that we can both take a much needed reprieve from the storms of the last year and spend a lot of time laughing, loving, enjoying each other and most of all, healing. 
Me and my girl - Mother's Day 2015

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Parenting Confessions

Parenting is the hardest job I've ever done. I started with such high hopes and optimistic ideals, as I suppose most parents do. Now, 16+ years in, I often wonder why on earth I ever thought I was capable of raising another human being. What was I thinking? Me? The person whose life is hardly an example of wisdom and good choices. Good intentions just don't cut it when it comes to parenting. Wisdom, patience, compassion, time, energy, selflessness, a supportive network--a good parent has all of these things in abundance, and I sometimes feel that I'm lacking almost all of them. 

The last several months have been challenging for me and my daughter. Many in my life know the details of much of what I've been dealing with, details that I won't share here on such a public forum. I'll just say it's been an incredibly stressful, worrisome, frustrating, maddening, scary, and often tension-filled several months. Our house has not been a happy home for much of the time. I've wanted to run away from home. A lot. I fantasize about no longer being a responsible, concerned parent. I question every decision I make, wondering if the boundaries I'm setting are helping or hurting the situation. I wonder if complete indifference is the answer. Maybe if I stopped showing that I cared so much about things that alarm me, the behavior would stop. But, the thing is, I'm afraid to stop caring. It seems unnatural to ignore the red flags, step away and let the cards fall where they may, hoping for the best. And yet, everything I do is met with indifference at best, and harmful rebelliousness at worst. 

It's easy to get caught up in hopelessness, despair and blame. I know I've made many, many bad parenting decisions and my daughter has faced horrible things in her young life that have affected her deeply. Some days I want a do-over. I want to rewind the clock and have the life I planned on, the one where I have a happy, stable, successful marriage, sharing parenting duties with a loving, supportive partner. Together we raise a happy, well-adjusted, caring person. 

The reality is much messier and the issues we're facing didn't emerge overnight. There is no easy, quick solution. I recognize that I'm not well-equipped to deal with this challenge. I'm too emotional, high-strung, reactive, impatient, demanding...the list goes on. I'm worn out by 12 years of going it mostly alone as a parent, juggling the demands of motherhood, full-time work and life's many other challenges. The last five years have especially kicked my ass, and I know my daughter has paid a high price for my struggles these past several years. 

A mother's love is fierce. Is it enough? Can just loving her and ignoring everything else be enough to steer her from the rocky path she's on? Can I just love it all away--all her struggles and pain? Am I trying too hard to control the outcome? Should I stop trying so hard? Can I love my way to being a better, stronger, more patient and wise parent? I don't know the answers. I can only keep trying in my very imperfect way, seeking help and answers where I can, hoping that eventually the good I've done as her mom, and my fierce, endless love for her will outweigh my many mistakes. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Battle Scars

Original sketch by Gillian Chapman
My daughter, who is a talented artist, has been practicing drawing nudes. She showed me some of her drawings the other day and told me that when her teenage peers see them they have one of four reactions. The most common is shock that she drew pictures of naked people! The second is to ask if she's into girls, because why else would she draw naked women? The third (from high school boys of course) is to say the females she drew have hot bodies. The last, and least common, is to actually look at the pictures as art and mention the skill involved in drawing a human body. We laughed together at the small-mindedness of people and talked about the many famous pieces of art that are nudes. We also talked about how the human body really is a beautiful thing to behold. It's also not an easy thing to draw, sculpt or paint well, so it's fun to see Gillian taking her skill to a new level as she attempts to master the art of nudes. 

Last night as I got out of the tub and ready for bed I studied myself in the mirror, thinking about our conversation. Our bodies really are an amazing thing. Most of the time I only look at mine from a critical point of view, constantly monitoring the incremental signs of aging, wear and tear, and the results of exercise, or lately, my lack of exercise. Living with a 16-year old mini version of myself is a constant reminder of how much my body has changed over the years. My daughter is in her prime as I'm slipping into middle age. Our bodies change as we age. Like it or not, they're physical manifestations of our life experiences and choices.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding changed my body dramatically. Any woman who has nursed a baby knows what I'm talking about! Sure, I could have restored some parts to their former glory with plastic surgery, but I love my body. I'm comfortable in my own skin, even if it is saggy in some spots now. I literally sacrificed my body for my daughter, and I'd do it again. It was a small price to pay for the gift of carrying her, feeding her and being a mom. 

The small scar on my lower back is new. It's still red and very visible, a bright reminder of the pain I experienced last year and the surgery I had to fix my damaged disc and nerve. I'm still working on regaining the strength and flexibility in my back. It's a gradual process, just like the gradual way my scar is lessening and fading. 

My legs. My poor legs. I used to love looking at the muscles in my legs, reminders of the hard work I'd done, the result of hours and hours of running and working out. Those muscles aren't what they used to be, especially in my right leg. It too shows the evidence of the challenges I faced last year. My calf muscle is shrunken and small. I don't know if it will ever again be symmetrical with my other leg. The nerve damage in it may be permanent. 

My left knee has faint scars around the kneecap, the result of knee scope surgery years ago. They remind me of the pain that was once so bad I could hardly walk or sleep without discomfort. The pain still bothers me when I run, but I've learned to manage it over the years. I decided I wouldn't let it be an excuse to stop me from doing the things I want to, like running.

My belly button has two small scars, reminders of the brief period in my life when I had a belly piercing. Yes, I once thought that was cool! I was on vacation in Brazil and it seemed like the perfect souvenir from an amazing trip. The belly button ring is long gone, but the happy memories of the experience remain. 

On my front, left torso is my tattoo with the Latin saying Hinc Ilae Lacrimae surrounded by daffodils. The words mean Hence These Tears. They are a literal representation of the pain, loss and tears I suffered after Julie's death--with me always just like the pain of her loss will be. 

And then there's my face, especially my eyes. When I look at my eyes in the mirror I see how drastically the challenges I've faced the last five years have aged me. My eyes reflect it all, every last bit of pain and suffering. Some days it's more obvious than others. I'm always a little shocked at how old I look around my eyes now. 

As I scrutinized myself last night I realized that although my body will never again be what it was when I was 16, 25 or even 40, I'm completely okay with my body and what it represents. When I look in the mirror I'm reminded of the many very hard things I've endured in my life. The marks and changes some of them have left on my body are like battle scars, reminders of things that have challenged me, changed me, and in most cases made me stronger. 

"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real." 

~ Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Looking Back at 2014

As 2014 comes to an end I've been spending a lot of time reflecting on this past year--the good, the bad, the lessons learned, and the memories made. On Facebook my news feed is full of Year In Review slide shows. The slide shows have created some controversy since the one size fits all algorithm used by the programmers has dredged up painful memories for some. As for my year, summarizing the last 12 months in pictures only tells part of the story. If I had to use one word to describe this year, it would be painful. My year was full of pain, physically, emotionally and mentally, none of which is evident in the pictures I took to capture moments throughout the year. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but they rarely show the whole story or reveal the very human side of the person in the photo. It's like the popular photo series Humans of New York that I follow. The stories told by the people featured in the pictures are the most compelling part. While I won't be sharing my Facebook created Year in Review slide show and I don't have a super interesting story to go along with my photos, here is a glimpse of my year in pictures.

January - Mike and I celebrating my birthday at a Sundance party in Park City. We were smiling, but our year was already off to a rough start. 
Valentine's Day - Gillian and I with Grandma Christiansen. We didn't know it then, but this was the last time we would make our annual Valentine cookie delivery to her. Gillian was lucky to have her Great Grandma Chris in her life for 16 years.
May - Cousin time always makes me happy! With my cousin Michelle and my mom during my visit to Colorado.
June - Despite my best intentions, I didn't spend nearly enough time on my back patio this summer drinking Mojitos and laughing with friends. 
June - With my dad and siblings at grandma's funeral. This was the first time all four of us were together since Julie's funeral four years ago. 
Everyday things that make me laugh - Gillian's chore list. Despite my lack of instructions she figured out how to give the dog her medicine.
Oasis Summer Nights with Gillian - She didn't want to go, but humored me and spent an hour pretending to have fun. 
The canning bug hit me this summer. Homemade bread and butter pickles with cucumbers from my garden. 
August - Me with my Grandpa Christiansen on his 90th birthday
September - Canning salsa, my Labor Day weekend tradition
My two favorite volunteer partners - with Beesh and the adorable Miss Alice at the Suicide Survivors Walk in Ogden
The picture that pretty much sums up much of my year - me immobilized from back pain with my sweet Sophie by my side.
October - Gillian's 1st High School Dance, Ogden High School Homecoming 2014
Happy Day! Naked teeth after 15 months in braces. 
Thanksgiving - This year I missed being with family and was very sad and full of longing for the days of huge family Thanksgiving dinners. Luckily, I had good friends that welcomed Gillian and I into their home to share the day.
December - Gillian looking gorgeous alongside her date to the Winter Formal Dance
Me and My Girl
 As I look back at my year in pictures I'm struck by how much is missing. There are very few pictures of fun times, vacations, family get togethers and cherished moments with friends. This year has given me huge amounts of time when I could do very little but be still and think. I've realized that I didn't do enough living this year, I was simply surviving. With my back surgery complete and healing underway, soon I will be able to get back to my former levels of physical activity. I'm looking forward to 2015 which I'll welcome with a renewed focus on doing things that I know nurture my soul and bring me happiness. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Canine Connections

This article caught my eye when it showed up in my news feed today. After A Death, Should We Get a Dog: Brain Study Signals 'Yes'? I didn't have any scientific studies to back up my sudden decision to get not one, but two dogs in the year following my sister's death. I just uncharacteristically threw all caution to the wind and followed my gut when first Lucy, and then Sophie, presented themselves to me and almost immediately captured my heart. 

I'm sure most people who knew me thought I'd lost my mind when I brought two puppies home within seven months. I know I thought I had. Until then I most definitely wasn't a dog person. I liked dogs well enough, but I never seriously considered owning one. My daughter knew better than to even ask for a puppy, as the rule in our house had always been that she could have any pet she wanted as long as it was one that didn't poop. I'd only relaxed that rule once when I allowed her to have a pet gold fish. 
Me with baby Lucy - January 2011
There's no rational explanation as to why I felt compelled to bring two dogs into my life during a time when I was still reeling from the shock of Julie's suicide. Sure, there was some serious encouragement from Mike, but I'd always been able to resist the charms of puppies up until then. I guess my heart understood what my mind couldn't explain. Having a new life to love and nurture saved my life. It lifted my depression and gave me something to focus on other than my grief. Lucy, my Shih-Tzu/Schnauzer mix came first, an early birthday present to me in January of 2011. Her feisty, mischievous nature was obvious early on. She's a handful and sometimes very naughty, but also very smart. 

Gillian welcoming Lucy to our family 

Lucy brought me joy and reminded me that my heart really wasn't broken. She was an adorable ball of fur that brought much needed distraction and laughter into our lives. But Sophie, my Yellow Lab, saved my life. I believe it was both fate, and the wisdom of Mike (notice a pattern here?) that brought her to me. It was August of 2011, and I was still gaining my bearings after a brief hospitalization in June for severe depression and extremely complicated grief. A trip to Target for school supplies ended with me coming home sans school supplies but with a puppy. The instant I held that squishy, soft, warm, wiggly bundle of yellow fur it was over. I tried to resist, but it was useless. Sophie chose me. I knew then that part of my attraction to her was because she was a Yellow Lab, just like Julie's dog. I've always known that was an underlying, unexplainable part of my strong, instant connection to her. Whatever the reason, Sophie stole my heart that day. 
Who could resist that face?

Gillian likes to complain that Sophie is my favorite child. I always tell her that isn't true, but Sophie is my favorite fur child. Who knew that I would go so nuts for a dog? I seriously adore her. It's not something I can explain. I guess now I don't need to since it seems science is starting to come up with the research to explain it for me. I loved this quote about dogs in the article I linked to above. “They are work, expense and add to the list of beings in your home who have needs to be attended to. It is sort of like deciding to have a kid — no rational reason to do that either but big pay off on love, general hilarity and a constant reminder of the joy in everyday small things.” 

That's the truth. Dogs, like kids, are a lot of work. But the pay off is big and comes in unexpected ways. Four and a half years ago I never would have imagined having dogs in my life. Now I can't imagine life without them. 

Friday, October 17, 2014


The Chinese symbols for Impermanence
There are times lately that I hear a song that was on one of my running play lists and my urge to run is overwhelming. It's been a very long time since I've had that luxury. Sometimes I'm afraid I'll never be able to run again. 

Typically, I don't write posts about my health (actually ever), but here goes. 
In February I started having some lower back pain which I assumed was caused by a very minor slip on some ice while I was running. I figured I would take a few weeks, maybe even a month off, and I'd be back to normal. I took the month of March off and did some very short runs a few times in April without any pain. In early May I went for my traditional early spring hike up Waterfall Canyon. I was sore for several days after, which I chalked up to being out of shape. The soreness never went away and soon turned into severe Sciatic pain all the way down my right leg and into my foot. 

May was pretty much a blur of excruciating, debilitating pain for much of the time, but I still managed to keep up on most of my regular household and yard chores. Still in pain when June rolled around, I decided I might need more than the chiropractic and massage care I'd been getting. By that point part of my lower leg and foot had been numb for several weeks. I finally limped my way in to see a spine specialist who sent me for a MRI. The diagnosis? A bulging disc at the L5 S1 level. It also showed that I had a moderate case of Scoliosis. Who knows how long I've been walking around with a crooked spine? June was spent going to one doctor appointment after another and racking up huge bills. My pain had subsided a little, but the numbness continued. July brought a trip to the ER after stubbing my toe at home and barely tripping. The pain was excruciating! I'd trade childbirth without any painkillers 10 times over that kind of pain again. By that point I felt pretty hopeless, very fragile, discouraged, and vulnerable. I was ready for relief no matter the cost or method and decided I wanted surgery ASAP.

Picture of a traction table - my new best friend. 

Fortunately, before I took the drastic step of going under the knife I met with a doctor whom I'd made an appointment with weeks earlier. I left that first appointment with him feeling optimistic and hopeful for the first time in months. Finally I felt I'd found a knowledgeable doctor who really cared and wasn't just a health care provider, but a healer in the true sense of the word. Of course, he isn't covered by my insurance, but by that point I didn't care. I just wanted to be well again. Using a method called Positional Release Therapy, along with traction and some home exercises to strengthen my core, I'm happy to report that I'm finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I'm even starting to feel some sensation in my toes and leg again! 

The last 5 1/2 months haven't been an easy journey for me. I was under strict orders to not do any lifting, bending, or anything else that would put strain on my back. I couldn't carry the laundry basket upstairs, pull weeds, mow the lawn, trim shrubs, vacuum, walk the dog, make the bed, scrub the bathtub--the list was endless. My poor yard, housekeeping and my pride suffered. I fought the urge to put a sign in my yard saying "I have a doctor's note" to excuse the dismal condition it was in. I'm not someone that's used to being dependent on others for the most basic of life's tasks. I'm a horrible invalid. Not being able to do hardly anything physical has taken a definite mental toll. I drive by people running outside and am jealous of their ability to run. Do they appreciate what a gift they have? Do they know how quickly life can change? My days of running 1/2 marathons seem like a lifetime ago. It's funny how much of an identity I built around being a 'runner'. I never realized it until I wasn't able to run. There were times all I could do was cry and wonder if I would ever regain full function. 

I'm trying to make peace with my new normal, which really means I'm trying to make peace with change. A few weeks ago during one of my treatment sessions I finally dared ask the question I was afraid to hear the answer to. "What are the chances I'll be able to run again?" I surprised myself by nearly breaking into tears when I asked. My doctor was honest and straightforward, telling me that in my current condition the likelihood is about 50/50 that I'll be able to run again without pain or aggravating my condition. That wasn't the answer I wanted to hear, but it's better than a definite no. 

Later we talked about life and the many curve balls it throws at us. We have some pretty deep, philosophical talks during my treatment sessions. I've decided that finding a doctor that has Tibetan prayer flags hung in their treatment room is a very good indicator of the kind of care given there. He reminded me of one of the essential doctrines of Buddhism, that of impermanence. Everything in our existence is inconstant and in a never-ending state of flux. It reminded me of the common platitude 'This too shall pass' that people are so fond of using when times are tough. As much as I bristle against the dismissive nature of platitudes in general and that one in particular, it's true. Things change. Life moves on. We can either fight it or accept it. When I look back on the last several years I'm reminded of this truth. There was a time when I doubted that I would be able to live with the heartbreak and crushing grief I felt after Julie died. I couldn't imagine a future where things would be better and I would laugh and be happy again. Four months ago I couldn't remember a time when I wasn't in near-constant pain with numbness in my leg and foot. I imagined living the rest of my life that way and felt despair. Now, here I sit several months later and my pain is gone. I can even sometimes feel some sensation in my leg and foot again. I'm healing. Things change. Not always for the better, but just like the really good times, the really bad times don't last. 

Letting go of control and accepting life as it comes is probably the thing I struggle most with in life. I fear losing control. Even when life has shown me time and again that I really have very little control, I still struggle to just let things be. I'm learning and trying to be more open to accepting the uncertain, ever-changing nature of life. I never could have predicted the twists and turns my life has taken. For better or for worse, the challenges I've faced have made me the person I am today. The one thing I know for certain is that I am strong. I am capable, and I will survive and thrive no matter what. 

"By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning." ~ Lao Tzu

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Loving Life

This was the scene in my bathroom last night as Gillian and her friends primped for their first high school dance. The dress code for the occasion was neon. They couldn't find any super bright neon clothes so they made it work with brightly colored outfits. This first dance was a casual, no date needed gathering. Back in my day we called them stomps. Back in my parent's day I think they called them sock hops. 

The primping took a couple of hours. When I opened the bathroom door and peaked in the fumes from nail polish, hair spray and perfume nearly knocked me off my feet! They put a lot of thought into their hairstyles and 'look' for the night. Gillian was the designated make-up artist for everyone. She's an expert primper and really does have a knack for doing hair and make-up. She's my go-to person when I need my hair styled in an up-do these days. 

Listening to their excited talk and speculation about what the night would be like made me smile. They're in such a prime part of their youth right now. Nearly everyday is a new adventure or experience. Gillian hasn't been this talkative about school for years. She excitedly jabbers on for hours about her day, her friends and her newfound freedom. She's not quite a month into her sophomore year of high school and is completely, 100% enjoying everything about it. 

After all the primping and prep was done, it was time for a final photo and then off to the dance. Aren't they cute? 
I chauffeured the girls to the dance, stopping to pick up one more friend on the way. As they all exited the car and walked into the building I was struck by the significance of the moment. None of them realize it now, but these are most likely some of the happiest, simplest, most carefree days of their lives. For just a few more precious months I get to shuttle them around in the car, listening to their backseat chatter. Right now, most of them are in driver's education. Next week they start driving on the training range. In less than two months, some of them will have full-fledged driver's licenses. Official dating hasn't started yet. There have been some junior high, teenage heartbreaks, but right now all of them are still untouched by the complicated, sometimes heartbreaking complexities of dating and relationships. 

Driving home in my empty, quiet car I thought about my own high school days and friends. The bonds we form during junior high and high school can be some of the strongest of our lives. So much of our live's critical learning and growing up experiences happen with our friends by our sides. I have a very similar picture of me with three friends before we headed off to a 9th grade junior high dance. We were about a year and a half younger than Gillian and her friends are now (but much less stylish and sophisticated!). The four of us did so much growing up together. Although we aren't close friends who talk often, we have stayed connected over the last 25+ years. 
Roni, me, Stacy, Gina  - Spring 1984
There's something so comforting about having friends from your youth in your life. They know me in ways friends I've made as an adult never can. They understand my back story. It isn't just a story I've told them about my life. They were by my side as I lived it. We all knew each other as carefree, innocent children and teens. As adults, we've all suffered from heartaches and loss. None of us has been left untouched by death, divorce or disappointment. Even though our contact is infrequent, and mostly made through social media, there's a deep comfort in knowing that the friends from my youth understand my life better than most. I know when it matters most they're the first people who will reach out to me. 

I love watching Gillian enjoy life right now. I want her life and the lives of her friends to remain carefree and easy for as long as possible. I hope they soak it all in and enjoy living in the moment like only teenagers can. Adulthood and its many responsibilities will come soon enough. Right now they're learning about life, and if they're lucky, also forming friendships and connections that will remain far into the future.