Life at 49

RubesI am trying to stay positive. I am trying to remember everything that remains rather than dwelling on what I’ve lost.

But so much has been lost.

Much of that is my fault.

Much of it is not.

Much of it is simply life.

Choices. Consequences. Paths that twist and turn and diverge. The unexpected. The known. The glorious highs. The gut wrenching lows. This is life for all of us. This is what it means to be human.

But without a job, without money, without insurance, I am struggling to keep my head above water–emotionally and financially.

How does it come to this? Nearly 50 years of trying to live right, to raise good kids, to be a kind and loving mom, to be a supportive wife, to be a good friend, to build a business, to work hard, to write your heart out… and to feel so alone, broken, jobless, penniless, with medical issues, and threats of small claims court by one who used to love you.

Of course, I’ve made mistakes. Many, many mistakes. There are words I wish I could take back, hurts I wish I could heal. There are situations I wish I’d handled differently, pains I wish I hadn’t inflicted. But every day, I try to do better. To be better. And I feel like I’m getting worse–like I’m turning into someone I hardly recognize, someone I don’t want to know.

Someone no one wants to know.

There are days that I feel I can conquer the world. Like I am a phoenix about to rise from the ashes. Like these past three years of pain and sadness and reclamation will have a happy ending–the one that comes when you live your truth and share your story and claim your own path, the one you denied yourself for so very long.

And there are days like this. The drowning. The tears. The hopelessness. The overdue bills. The waning checking account. The shooting back pain that takes my breath away. The heaviness of friends who weren’t really friends. The Lonely. Lonely. Lonely.

“You’re so smart,” people say. “You’re so good at what you do. Something big is coming your way–I know it. The people who have left weren’t really your people. This is all temporary.”

But the temporary feels like forever when every day is a struggle.

This is my life at 49.

I thought, somehow, that it would be different.

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Meeting Indiana Bones

animal-beautiful-animal-black-dog-2742261

It’s no secret that the past couple of months have been challenging in every way–emotionally, financially, medically, professionally. And on the heels of a few extra challenging years, I wonder sometimes when I’ll get to take a breath again. One that feels more like a restorative exhale than a sharp, anxious intake.

Today wasn’t that day.

I left the house for a late lunch because I had to get out. When the darkness pulls on me, my bed is far too alluring. Productivity often has to happen outside my door, or I can easily sleep the hours–and the days–away.

Walking back home, Taylor Swift’s “This Love” was playing a private performance in my ears, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. As I waited for the light to change before crossing the road before me, I noticed a small black lab and his owner standing on the other side. The pup and I made eye contact, and he began to wag his tail wildly.

When the light changed, the owner and her dog waited for me. “I’ve never seen him so excited to see a human he doesn’t know!” she said.

“Maybe we knew each other in another life,” I said as the dog gently jumped up and wrapped his paws around me.

“He’s a hugger,” his owner said. “He’s a trained emotional support dog. He knows when someone’s having a bad day.”

My breath caught deep in my throat as I leaned over to hug my new friend, tears falling freely into his thick, black fur.

“He knew,” I agreed. “He definitely knew.”

I wiped my snot away with the back of my hand.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Indiana Bones,” she replied.

I leaned down to hug him again.

“You don’t know how much I needed to meet you today, Indy,” I said. “Thank you for noticing me.”

Sometimes being seen is all we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Thank goodness there are furry friends offering unconditional love to remind us.

We don’t deserve them, these magnificent, loyal, soulful creatures. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.

Good boy, Indiana Bones. Good boy.

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The Chapter Formerly Known as 35

Chapter 35I’ve been looking for silver linings lately. It’s a bit of a necessity when you’re unexpectedly unemployed and uninsured.

The biggest, most profound silver lining for me right now is the time I’ve had to work on completing my memoir.

It’s a glass of Cabernet in a local restaurant with Sam Cooke wafting through the speakers and smiling servers who compliment the haircut you’re seriously regretting while you work your way through editor’s notes–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It’s words that remain and words that must go.

This writing has been so good and so cathartic and so hard. Recording the story of sexual abuse, the demise of your marriage, the rearrangement of your family, and the reclamation of the true you is not a task for sissies.

But the radical truth-telling is, in itself, a silver lining as well.

It’s freedom and breath and an exhale that’s been held in for far too long.

And another silver lining? Pockets of prose that didn’t make the final cut.

I’d like to share one with you today… a chapter that met its fate on the editorial chopping block. It didn’t fit my narrative, but that doesn’t negate its importance.

The message: If you need a break, take it. If you need medication, take it.

The world needs you in all your messy, beautiful glory.

Just you. Only you.

The only you this world will ever know.

~ ~ ~

Chapter 35

It waxes and wanes, the sadness. I was on meds for twenty years to combat it, to keep the demons at bay, but those little green and white pills left me feeling dull, uninspired, dependent. I’ve been on again/off again for a good chunk of those double decades. I’m the worst kind of depressive patient—once I feel better, I take myself off the medication. Then I spiral into the abyss and put myself back on. It’s similar to the way I run my life in general—highest of highs, lowest of lows, a little bit reckless, more than unbalanced.

But for twenty plus years, I’ve also tuned in a little more closely to what my body and mind tell me, what they warn is inevitably coming. I can feel the dark, wet blanket of sadness itching around my neck, and if I catch it in time, I can sometimes—sometimes—eat the right foods and move my body in all the right ways and get more sleep and take a few things off my plate and keep that monster at bay. At least for a while.

I’ve been off my meds for a year now. Most days are great, and I’m able to feel whatever it is I’m feeling, fully, completely, without inhibition. When it’s happiness, I can be almost a bit manic. And when it’s sadness, I have learned to sit with it, to lean into it, to learn from it.

But today, I didn’t sit with it, I fell into it.

Head over heels, tumbling, tumbling, like Alice.

I know I’ve lost control when the tears come and the irrational thoughts make a home in my brain—the everyone-would-be-better-off-without-me thoughts, the tentative plans to make it happen, the pull of the lake bottom beckoning me, the pills in my medicine cabinet a well-stocked back-up plan.

I remember Katy pulling me aside at a weekend long party and saying, “We need to talk.” She led me to my bathroom, threw open the cabinet doors and said, “Fess up, sister. What’s going on? Are you dying of cancer? Are you a pill hoarder? An addict? Tell me now.”

And I laughed then because the sight of all my leftover pill bottles—and Chris’s and Sam’s and Gus’s and Mary Claire’s and George’s—was ridiculous in the light of the sunshine, friend-filled weekend.

But when the night crept in, the fear of throwing them away was real.

What if I someday needed them? What if the Sirens’ Song got too loud? Too insistent?

I could not let them go.

On days like today, though, when money—as always—is as tight as it can be, when deadlines loom and book reviews are scarce and the memoir is writing itself badly and you feel like a fraud and you’re tired of working three jobs to make ends meet and you just want a little breathing room and your life isn’t nearly as glamorous as you thought it would be by now and you’re worried about your marriage and your kids and your most beloved friendships and people you thought were forever have walked away and those who’ve stayed seem distant and cold and your geriatric dogs are sighing at your feet, giving into their final days—this is when the pills and the lake bottom are at their most dangerous. This is when an ending seems more logical—and much easier—than another beginning. This is when you know you’ve reached a critical juncture: ask for help or lose yourself to the dark.

This is when you call your therapist.

This is when you weep with wild abandon.

This is when you consciously make the next choice: to eat, to hydrate, to look into your children’s eyes, to really look.

This is when you say, this too shall pass.

This is when you breathe. And breathe again. And breathe again.

This is when you decide what’s more important: to be alive or to be drug-free.

This is when you know you’ll refill your prescription as soon as the pharmacy opens in the morning.

And so you sleep. Deep. Restless. Grateful for the reprieve.

 

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#WhyIDidntReport

TreeWhen I reported my rape at age 21, two weeks after–in a cold, sterile, eerily quiet room; with the smell of him still, forever, in my nose; after my concerned sorority sister called my mom to tell her; and after all the viable evidence had been scrubbed away repeatedly, obsessively in scalding showers–the male police officer required me to take a polygraph test to prove my story was true.

As if my nightmares weren’t enough. And the shaking that wouldn’t stop. And the tiny, little death behind my eyes. The one that has yet to be resurrected 28 years later. Nearly three decades since he held that knife to my throat in the elevator that took me home, to my college apartment.

When I disclosed my childhood sexual abuse in my 40s, I thought it was solely for me. For my healing. For my heart. I knew no one would ever be prosecuted for the things I was made to do at age 10, 11, 12. I also knew I could not go through the questions and the polygraphs and the vivid, detailed recalls again. The sketches. The eyes that suggested a hint of disbelief. The scribbled notes. The remembered smells and sounds that woke me in a breathless panic at night, year after year after year.

But this truth I could not hold any longer. Not in my hands, not in my heart, not in my words. It was toxic within, eating away at me bit by bit.

Silence so often is.

I had to let it go.

What I now know is that the telling wasn’t just for me. It was for all of us who have first been harmed, then silenced.

It was my cry of solidarity.

#metoo

At 48, I still sleep behind a locked bedroom door, and Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” makes my palms sweaty. The just-right blend of body odor and the perfect, thick heat of a summer night makes my stomach churn, the bile rise. If someone playfully pulls on my ponytail, I am paralyzed.

I am not “fight or flight.” I am “play dead.”

Play dead.

Play dead.

It’s easy because a tiny piece of me already is. I have been well-conditioned by men who greedily took what was never theirs to have. At age 10, 11, 12. At age 20.

One man, I trusted. One, a stranger.

There are reasons why we don’t come forward until we can no longer be held back.

Or be held down.

Literally, figuratively.

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Mauve Sheets and Almonds

GeorgesRoom_0445This weekend, George was invited to play in a Mendelssohn octet at the Toledo Museum of Art. I had just moved a state away for my brand new job, and I made the first of what will be many decisions to not drive back to Ohio. It was not an easy decision. It will never be an easy decision. But life requires making hard decisions sometimes. We are all learning that lesson.

I watched the recording and cried–my handsome, talented boy playing his violin with such grace and passion.

I unpacked boxes and made his bed in my new apartment. I stocked my pantry with almonds and quinoa. He’s a vegan now, my boy. Except when there’s ice cream. Then he’s “low key vegan.” But that’s okay. Life often comes in shades of gray. Black and white is hardly ever sustainable. And ice cream is good.

He had requested gray sheets for his new bedroom in Indiana, a gray quilt. Just gray. But for now, his sheets are mauve. They are the only twin-sized sheets I have, left behind by his big sister, his best friend, who will fly far, far away to college in less than 30 days.

Less than 30 days.

Within that time, my three oldest will be in three separate states, living three different lives. They need so little from me now, and my needs continue to expand: My need for them to be safe, to be smart, to be kind, to make good decisions, to eat some vegetables, to give to those who have less, to care for those in need, to hug, to love, to never leave a man or woman behind in a drunken stupor, to have a heart that breaks so they can learn it’s capable of mending, to be good humans… the best humans they can be. And to answer their mother’s texts. At least most of the time.

And my fourth. My baby. The last to form beneath my skin and under my heart. His mauve sheets are waiting. His almonds, too.

You expect the hard goodbyes when your babies pack up and move to college. You have time to prepare. Time to reminisce. Time to look through baby pictures and smile and remember. But this goodbye was unexpected, and I am missing that boy with every ounce of my being. He was always the one at my feet, talking incessantly, all up in my business. He was the caboose who clamored for attention, and he preferred his Mama’s attention over the rest.

He reminded me recently that he loved sitting on my lap when he was little, but that he often remembered me saying, “Sit still, George, or you’re going to have to get up! Your bony elbows are stabbing me!” And he admitted that he would sit until his tiny feet and legs fell asleep, trying to soften the points of his elbows, afraid that if he moved, he’d lose my lap.

That lap is empty now, taken only occasionally by a small, skittish puppy who is still learning to trust me completely. She misses Lucy, her alpha, who stayed in Ohio with George because Lucy’s old canine hips can no longer handle the twelve stairs up to my second floor apartment. I miss Lucy, too. But they have each other–boy and dog.

And I have this ache in my heart to touch them, to hold them, to have a squirming, precocious, golden-haired boy on my lap just one more time, to have a brown-eyed Lucy pup panting at my feet. “I think she loves me,” George said when we first saw Lucy.

And she does.

As I recently heard Steve Almond (his name so… serendipitous) pointedly proclaim on a Dear Sugar podcast, “The price of an examined life is a certain amount of sorrow.”

I examined.

I examined hard.

And I feel it… this exquisite sorrow.

But there is, of course, the happiness, too.

Life often comes in shades of gray.

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Mama’s Day

MumsWhen we were little, my mom made all my cousins laugh. She created a game by dividing us up–April, Amy, Erin, Carrie, and I. The team that didn’t laugh at her antics won the prize. Of course, Mom always assigned Carrie and me to opposite teams. She knew. The second she opened her mouth or made a ridiculous face, my cousins were rolling on the floor in sidesplitting fits. Carrie and I sat–equally stoic–eyeing the $1 prize we both so desperately wanted to win.

Forty years later, she still does it. She still makes everyone laugh. The nurses, aides, cooks, and assistants at her health care center (because we’re not allowed to call it a nursing home) adore her. Even on the days her body betrays her the most, when you can see the pain in her chocolate eyes, she’s witty and wise and wonderful.

She is the same in so many ways, even though she’s also so different. It is surreal, to visit your mom in a home that is not her home, after so many years of living by her side, in her presence, with all the things she’s loved so well surrounding her… and you.

She’s always been my biggest cheerleader, my number one, my go-to. Whether it was a basketball championship or a softball double-header or a college vocal performance or a coming out, she’s never faltered. Not once.

Her love is unconditional. Her support, unmatched.

As my kids grow up, my mom grows older. It is the inevitable march of time.

And her wheelchair, her immobility, the handfuls of pills and shots she receives every day, the soft cotton of her hair… they are all reminders that I will not have her forever.

But what I will have forever is the imprint of her on my heart, the knowledge of who she’s helped me become with her famous tuna casserole and her unparalleled wisdom and her shared Keoke coffees. We don’t look alike, but we are alike in so many ways. I am a mirror of many parts of my mom… irreverent, sassy, fun, a little bit impatient, a lot of balls-to-the-wall love. The wrinkles of our hands are similar, the shapes of our fingers.

She taught me by beautiful example how to raise my own kids with love and compassion and understanding and high expectations and a cherry chip birthday cake and everything they need, but not necessarily everything they want, and always–always–a soft place to land in this sometimes harsh and jagged-edged world.

Living four hours away… with two kids still at home and two making their way through college… and freelance work to juggle… and a long-distance relationship to grow… and dogs to tend… and grass to mow… makes visiting a challenge. If George doesn’t have a recital, Mary Claire has a concert. If I don’t have a deadline, the dogs have vet appointments. There is always something that makes the 8-hour round trip an impossibility.

But there she is, waiting. Living. Growing older moment by moment.

Just as we all are.

And when my Navigator is parked outside the door of her health care center and I walk into her shared room, her eyes inevitably light up. “Trinks!” she says, her voice growing a tiny bit smaller and weaker with each passing day. She might be in her bed or in her chair or playing Bingo with her sisters, but she never fails to give me that radiant smile and welcome me home.

Because whether she’s in Weston Village or Bowman Acres or Springhurst, she is always home. My home.

I am so very grateful for all the love.

And the laughter.

 

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Clarity in the Silence

Ruby

In her “Misfit’s Manifesto,” the brilliant Lidia Yuknavitch states, “I am not the story you made of me.”

Narratives are interesting. A different lens, an alternative look, and the story goes in a totally different direction. New eyes, an added perspective, another firsthand account.

No story line is ever set in stone.

When I was young, I used to experience what I described to myself (because I never dared talk about it with anyone else) as the “out of place” feeling. I might be playing in the field with my friends or shooting hoops in my apartment complex’s back lot or riding my bike–the one I won in a Jim Dandy coloring contest–to Bowman Acres, and it would overcome me… this sense of not belonging, of being an outsider, of not fitting within my own skin. It was almost ethereal–nearly an “out of body” experience–but it always left me with a roller coaster rush in the pit of my belly.

The internalized message: You don’t fit in.

But I did with that message what I did best in my youth… I fought it. I argued with it, I stomped it with my fake Zips, and I rode my bike–the one I won in a Jim Dandy coloring contest–over it.

Because what I wanted most was to fit in.

I didn’t realize then what a glorious, beautiful mess my young life was. I didn’t know how much growth and understanding and strength would come from the struggles that most will never know… sexual abuse, poverty, paternal abandonment, questions of sexuality. What I understood then was that I wanted a white picket fence life. I wanted the marriage and the kids and the dogs in the right house in the right neighborhood in the right town.

And so, I made it happen.

Only, I discovered decades later that there wasn’t much truth in the story I’d created of myself.

My kids. Of course, my kids. They are my ultimate truth.

But me?

What of me?

I lived four decades of a mostly good life full of noise and distraction: Cheering sports fans, sorority parties, drunken friends, four kids in five years, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, and fish. Kids’ sports, kids’ theatre, kids’ music, elaborate kids’ birthday parties. Freelance jobs, full-time jobs. Long evenings and weekends of parenting solo while my husband got his master’s degree, then his doctorate.

The gift of solitude wasn’t mine to receive until recently.

In late 2016, I came out. In early 2017, I moved out. A month later, my full-time job was eliminated.

Enter silence.

For the past year, I’ve been searching… for a job, for myself, for peace and understanding.

And what did I do during that search? What I’ve always done best, of course: I fought. I fought with my ex and my friends and my family and my new partner. I fought with those I loved and those I’d let go of. I fought because facing the silence was too excruciating.

But then I stopped fighting.

And the silence read me a new story… my story.

I spend many hours in this house by myself. Having been used to a house filled with kids and the buzz of constant activity, a silent house was unsettling at best. But I kept the TV off, turned the music down, lit the candles, and listened.

It is no great surprise to me that the puppy I rescued during the holidays–the one who is rescuing me in return–is silent. She doesn’t bark, doesn’t cry, doesn’t whine. She’s never made a sound louder than the reluctant click of her nails on my hardwood floors… and she most commonly makes that sound after I’ve gone upstairs to bed.

She was abused and neglected for the first seven months of her life. She is learning to trust again–herself and others–one baby step at a time. She spends most of her time in her crate, popping her head up to look at me from time to time with those soulful brown eyes. She used to have to be carried out of the house to go to the bathroom, but now she walks out (albeit skittishly) on her own.

She’s finding her footing. Her place.

She’s teaching me that alone doesn’t mean lonely.

It simply means solitude.

It means space to think and listen and be.

It’s a blank page on which to write the rest of my story.

The story of who I am instead of the story of who I thought I was supposed to be.

The story with the heartache, the hope, and the happy ending.

 

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