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



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

Impermanence

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. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

World Suicide Prevention Week

This week is World Suicide Prevention Week. The theme for this year is Suicide Prevention: One World Connected. Being connected to others is important in so many aspects of life. It's especially important when it comes to suicide prevention, as many studies have shown that social isolation increases suicide risk. Having strong human bonds can help protect against it. As I reflect back on my journey through grief and healing the last 4+ years, I realize that my connections with others helped lift me out of my anger and despair. The connections I've made with so many of you through the blogosphere helped me on my journey and continue to be very important and treasured relationships to me. 

Much of what I've written on here has been about my personal experience as a survivor of suicide loss. I haven't used this as a platform for talking about suicide prevention education and awareness, which is a little odd since in the 'real' world that's a topic I'm very vocal about. One thing I've learned since I've started speaking out about suicide is that I never know who is listening--and my voice, my experiences--connect with more people than I realize. 

Last week the World Health Organization released the World Suicide Report. The statistics in it didn't surprise me, but are alarming nonetheless. Worldwide, over 800,000 people die by suicide each year. That's approximately one suicide death every 40 seconds. The number of deaths due to suicide each year is greater than the deaths caused by homicide and war combined. Suicide is a major public health problem. Recognizing this, the World Health Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020. All 194 member states who adopted the plan committed to reducing their suicide rates by 10% by the year 2020. Here in the U.S., the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a goal of reducing suicide in the U.S. by 20%  by the year 2025. I'm committed to doing my part to achieve these goals. I realize many others also share this desire but aren't sure where to start or how to help. One of the most important things we can all do to help prevent suicide is to stay  connected to others. Be aware of what's going on in the lives of your friends and family. If you think they may be struggling with depression or anxiety, talk to them. Below are some tips for how to start the conversation. I hope you'll read and share them. This week and beyond I challenge you to learn more about suicide and how to prevent it, start a conversation, and join the fight to end suicide.  

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Farewell to Phoenix



It seems to be a summer of goodbye's for me. Yesterday I received the news that my sister Julie's dog Phoenix was put down earlier this week. Julie got Phoenix around 14 years ago when he was a pup, and he was her constant, loyal companion until her death. Phoenix, or the The Fiend as he was also known, will always be remembered for his viciously wagging tail that could take down small children and bring grown men to their knees if he hit them in just the wrong spot! Like his owner, Phoenix was a little neurotic and high-strung, but also beautiful, strong, graceful and very lovable. He was an anxious car traveler and had to be sedated with Benadryl for long trips. He loved to hike, chase tennis balls and lick lotion off of just moisturized feet. More than anything, he loved Julie. He was her protector, friend, companion and security blanket all rolled into one, always by her side, including the moment she took her last breath.

I visited Phoenix in May while I was in Colorado. Seeing him was a priority for me that trip. I knew he was getting very old and I wanted a chance to say goodbye. I spent over an hour alone with him on May 29, the four year anniversary of Julie's death. That morning I laid on the couch in the house where my sister once lived, with my head on one of her old throw pillows and had a heartfelt, tear-filled talk with Phoenix. He came and sat next to me and put his head on the couch right next to mine. When it was time for me to leave he followed me to the door. I went back twice to kiss him and say goodbye. I knew it was our final farewell and I'm certain he knew it too. 

Phoenix was lovingly cared for after Julie's death by Jason, who made sure his final years were comfortable and full of TLC. In addition to Jason, he leaves behind a loving family who will always remember him and be grateful for the years we had him in our midst. I think my sister-in-law said it best. Phoenix had, and gave so much love in his life. Those of us who were lucky enough to be touched by that love will be forever grateful. 
Valentine's Day 2010
Hannah, Julie and Phoenix at Grandma Sally's
Jason and Phoenix 
Morning coffee at mom's house - Easter 2008
Julie and Phoenix - Easter 2010
Buster, Julie and Phoenix - Easter 2010
Walking with the kids - Easter 2010
Road Trip to Grandma Sally's
Saying Goodbye - May 29, 2014
Phoenix - May 2014


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gillian Goes to High School

Today was Gillian's first day of high school. That's right. My baby. My one and only child, is now a high school sophomore. It's the oldest cliche' in the the world, but I'm still going to say it. Where on earth did the time go? The other day after shopping for school supplies, she wondered aloud about being able to fit her new puppy in her book bag to take to school with her. I said it would be like the book she loved that I used to read to her, "If You Take a Mouse to School" except her puppy would be much harder to smuggle in. How many years has it been since I read her a bedtime story? Back then, it seemed like a part of life that would last indefinitely. 
I remember when she started Kindergarten, high school seemed forever away. Back then I couldn't even conjure a picture in my mind of what my cute little girl with glasses and hair barely long enough for pig tails then would look like in high school. That was probably a self-preservation thing on my mind's part. Can you imagine if I knew then what she would look like now at 15? Just to be clear. She's going to school now with 18-year old men! I'm trying to remain calm and not think too much about what I did in high school.

I've been telling Gills for the last year that I thought she'd finally really find her place in high school. She's old for her class, and has always been pretty mature for her age. I think the last year of Jr. High was especially boring for her in many ways. She was so ready for bigger and better things. Last night I could tell she was nervous. She even admitted to being a little apprehensive about things. The school she's going to is huge. I get lost every time I'm there. When I finally fell asleep around 11:30 last night she was still up primping and prepping. This morning she was up early getting ready. I warned her last night that I would be taking her picture so she could either pose and smile for me at home, or I would follow her to school and make her pose in the main rotunda. Either way, I was going to get my first day of school shot. She opted for the picture at home before leaving this morning option. 
1st Day of High School
Other than a little glitch over lunchtime planning, things went great today. So I paid for lunch three times before noon. Who's counting? She now has cash (or did, it seems to have been lost in the excitement this morning), money in her school lunch account, and money in her checking account for lunch. She better not come home in the next few weeks complaining of being hungry! Her first day report was glowing. It seems she already has high school totally under control. She loves the people. No more childish junior high kids in her midst! And, there's a gorgeous foreign exchange student from Finland in her Health class. We had an actual discussion about his long, flowing blond hair and amazing accent. Yep. My 15-year old daughter and I talked about a hot foreign exchange student together. I never saw that one coming. 

Last night I felt a little weepy at the thought of how quickly time was passing and Gillian was growing up and moving on. Tonight I'm no longer weepy. Hearing her happy and excited voice as she told me about her day made me happy. I really do think she's going to thrive in high school. She has a fairly challenging schedule full of honors and AP classes, but I know she's going to do well. She's going to experience so many new things over the next year. It's a great time of life. I still think back to my Sophomore year and remember it as my favorite year of high school. I hope it's the same for her. 

A friend of mine I've known since the 6th grade commented today on Facebook about our kids growing up and going off to school, saying we could get together and cry. She's sending her oldest off to college this week. Both of us worked very hard at having children. There were points when we both despaired that we may never have kids. We went through rounds of IVF around the same time, and back then shared our stories of the pain, heartache, hope and expense. I still remember a visit from her while I lay flat on my back for three days after an embryo transfer, fearful of moving or hardly breathing. Today, 16 1/2 years later, I watched my baby, the baby that I laid flat on my back for days for, immobile so I could give her a chance at life--nurtured, protected and loved from the very instant her life was inside mine--walk purposefully away from me and down the street to this new, exciting chapter in her life. It was a happy moment. No tears, only smiles. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Suicide, Celebrity and Stigma

I've debated adding my voice to the thousands who have already written about the tragic suicide of Robin Williams. What more can I say that hasn't been said? Plus, sometimes I feel like a broken record when it comes to the subject of suicide. I imagine people rolling their eyes when they see another blog post about it. But then I reminded myself that I write this blog for me. My readers and the friendships that have come from it are a bonus. Writing helps me process. It's my own private therapy, even if I do make it public for the world to read and judge. I've also learned that I should never silence or edit myself when it comes to the subject of suicide. It's too important and I never know who is listening, or in this case reading, and may be helped by hearing about my personal experiences.

Hearing the news of ANY suicide devastates me. They all feel personal. Every. Single. One. Yesterday was no different. I heard the news shortly before I left work and called my sister as soon as I got in the car. She was weepy and sad. We didn't need to explain to each other why. There was no talk of how silly it was to mourn the death of a stranger. We know. We know the horror of that moment when the bottom drops out of your world. We know the  mind-numbing grief, the shock, the despair, the anger, the sadness, the questions, the guilt, the confusion, and the horrible, long journey the survivors left behind are just now beginning. As my mom said today in a Facebook post, "It all hits just too heartbreakingly close to home." 

Here is what else I know. There is still enormous stigma, judgement and misinformation surrounding suicide and mental illness. Although most of the comments, stories, blogs and news reports I've seen have been good and filled with positive messages, education and expressions of deep love, sympathy and compassion, I've also read some very awful, judgmental comments. I've tried to avoid those as much as possible. A clip posted today caught my attention. It was about a Fox News reporter who called Robin Williams a coward for committing suicide. I didn't watch the link because I choose not fill my mind with hateful comments from uninformed people. However, I did post this comment about it. 

"A perfect example of the kind of remarks that continue to stigmatize suicide and contribute to the many myths surrounding it. The only way to counter such uninformed comments is to shout the truth from the roof tops and drown out the voices of those who judge and spread misinformation. 

Robin Williams and so many others fought valiantly for years to stay alive. My sister fought a battle for her life for almost twenty years--a very fierce battle. She was exhausted, right down to her very soul, and in a weak moment with an unclear mind clouded by mental illness took her own life. Nobody, not a single living person, knows the personal battles and the toll they take on those who die by suicide. Judgement of them for losing the fight is absolutely wrong and shows a lack of compassion, not to mention a lack of facts about suicide."

I guess this post is my way of shouting from the roof tops. There will always be those who judge, are misinformed, uneducated, or just plain lacking compassion, empathy and understanding. I want the voices of those of us who know better to be louder than those who continue to contribute to the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. We must speak up. It really is a matter of life and death. 

I'm no expert on suicide. I only have my personal experience of living through the aftermath of the suicide of someone I dearly loved and the knowledge I've gained since then. But there are experts, people who have devoted their lives to studying the causes of suicide, mental illness, and the many contributing factors that can lead a person to choose to take their own life. Please help me share their knowledge. 

Here is a link to some very common myths vs. facts about suicide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Suicide: Myths vs. Facts. The media can also play an important role in educating the public about suicide. Unfortunately, in cases such as Robin Williams' and other celebrity deaths by suicide, the story is often reported in very irresponsible, destructive ways. Words matter, and often the words the media choose to use in reporting on suicide are dangerous triggers to individuals who may already be having suicidal ideations. If you want to learn more about this, here is a link to a statement released today by AFSP's Executive Director, Robert Gebbia. Unsafe Reporting on Suicide Can Cost Lives. If you see instances of irresponsible reporting about suicide by your local or even national media, I encourage you to contact the source of the story, and ask them to please be part of the solution to preventing suicides and use safe reporting practices. 

My sister's death changed my life forever. I miss her every day. I mourn the loss of her life, and I mourn the loss of all the hundreds of thousands of other lives lost to suicide. I grieve for her, for me, and for every other person coping with either their own struggle to stay alive, and those who are now learning to survive after losing someone to suicide. My sister is gone from my life forever. Sometimes I wonder how she would feel about me talking about her so much. Should I be using her death to help deliver a message I feel is so important? I don't know how she would feel about that. But it's what I have, so I share it. Her story is now my story. I'm going to use it in whatever way I can to hopefully save lives.