Friday, June 29, 2012

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle"

I've noticed a deeply troubling trend the past few weeks: More than a handful of my friends are dealing with the sudden and unexpected suicide of a loved one.

The thing about suicide is, it's always sudden and unexpected to those of us left behind. But for the one who choses this desperate last resort, it's rarely sudden. It's the final act in a long and agonizing battle.

Why is that? How can we be so near others and seemingly never see it coming? The answers are as varied as the reasons behind the act, and unfortunately no one will ever truly understand why someone chooses to take his or her own life. Instead, the survivors are left to say, "If only she had reached out to me," or, "If only I had reached out to him."

If only... If only...

This is half the tragedy of suicide. It is not only bitter for the life lost, but for the sorrow of those wishing they would have done more.

I have not been affected by suicide in this way, but I have been on the other side of the coin. I feel I need to share my experience to hopefully shed light on the situation for those trying to understand it.

I have lived with depression for more than half of my life. In those 17 years, I have been suicidal many, many times, and each time I was surrounded by people who loved me. But I'm going to be completely honest: At my lowest points, there were so few people who, despite coming into contact with me every day, ever reached out to me. At my worst, just before falling into a nervous breakdown that took years to climb out of, I was considered very popular and in the middle of a very big social scene. I was in close-knit clubs and organizations and had two very close friends, and yet as I pulled away, the phone calls became infrequent. By the time I completely withdrew and spent my days staring at the walls, not eating, not sleeping, just crying, not one single friend checked after me. Not one.

I don't know why this is, exactly. I think for the most part it was because I focused so much of my energy pretending that I was OK, so that nobody had any idea this was going on. I also spent much of my time building walls around me, so that even though I was surrounded by friends I didn't let anyone get really close to me. I guess they thought that if I wasn't around, I didn't care about them, either.

I'm not sharing this to point any fingers. In fact, I don't blame anyone for what happened. It's hard to know what to do when the problem is kept such a secret. It was a big mess all around, but it's over now and it's time to learn from it.

Here's what I want us to learn:

If someone is truly struggling, chances are they're not going to show it. For some insane reason, we've gotten it into our heads that having these emotions is shameful, as though to feel pain is to be weak, pitiful, a disgrace. When someone is suffering a mental illness, these feelings of guilt and shame are magnified, compounding the grief and multiplying the agony. Putting up a wall and acting like things are fine is a defense mechanism.

If you are pushed away, don't go away. There are so many times where people did ask how I was, and even though in my head I was screaming, "I'm not OK! I'm not fine! I need help! Please save me!", I still put on a brave face and said everything was fine. Eventually they just stopped asking. I don't blame them; I basically pushed them right out of my life. But still, I really wish they'd have kept asking. Even though I didn't open up, it was so important to know that people cared. When they drifted out of my life, I took it as evidence that I didn't matter and that nobody would miss me when I was gone.

If you care about someone, let them know. You don't have to make grand gestures or have deep talks to let someone know they're important to you. Be kind, be friendly, be curious about their life. They may never let you know what they're going through, but they will feel your love. This is true for everyone, not just those who are struggling. We all need acceptance, friendship, kindness and forgiveness. You never know how even the smallest of actions, like giving a smile to a stranger or asking about a co-worker's weekend, can touch a person.

If you suspect someone is struggling, don't think it's someone else's problem. There seems to be the idea that if someone has a serious emotional battle, it's not just anyone's place to step in. If an acquaintance is struggling, don't assume that it's the job of someone closer to them, like family or close friends, to make it right. You are not responsible for changing their situation, but you don't have to wait to offer a kind word or hand of friendship. We are all connected in this big human family. Whether we're related by blood or joined by close friendship or none of the above, we all share in the responsibility to lift the human race. At the very least, think of it this way: Would you rather face the supposed awkwardness of approaching this person, or face the guilt after they are gone of doing nothing at all?

If you don't know what to say, then listen. I'll let you in on a secret: People don't actually want you to solve their problems. In fact, not all problems are solvable, and it's rare that outsiders can actually change what's going on inside of us. It's up to us to change our own lives and pull ourselves up, and yet, having a shoulder to cry on can be invaluable in this process. When someone comes to us with a problem it's very tempting to want to provide a solution, to help fix it (I am so guilty of this myself). It's even more tempting to think, "I can't help them, I don't know what to say," so they just avoid the person altogether. Instead, the best course of action is just to listen, to ask questions, and offer encouragement. You will not only be giving much-needed moral support, but by letting them talk through their problems, they just may find ways to solve them.

If you want to help, then help. Sometimes people feel that they are powerless to turn a situation around. While it's true that you may not be able to change things completely, nobody is without the ability to impact another for the better. No gesture is too small. You don't have to get someone into therapy or host an intervention. Simply be a friend, offer kind words, smile, ask about their day, give them a compliment, invite them to lunch. You don't even have to get into the heavy stuff, ever. Just offer your happiness to another, and let that person know that they have value.

The plain truth is, everyone is struggling. No one is free from sorrow or strife; we are all fighting the same battles in different ways. And yet, in spite of this, we all carry on alone. We put on a brave face, tell others we are fine, turn down offers of friendship, and close ourselves off to those who love us or want to be closer.

Let's make a vow never to let our friends and loved ones — even our acquaintances — drift away because of our own indifference, or worse, our negativity. We may not be able to keep others from making drastic choices, but we can do our part to lift them up. Let's vow not to be ashamed of emotions and work at supporting those who are battling their own. Let's offer kindness all along the way, to friends and strangers alike. 

The world can be a dark and lonely place, but we don't have to let the darkness surround us. Let's band together and let no one feel unloved. Let's be kinder than necessary and work to magnify our love for others. Always remember:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

30 and proud!

Today marks a very momentous occasion: It is the 30th anniversary of my birth.

Yep, that's right—I am 30.

When my husband turned 30 a year and a half ago, I didn't think crossing this threshold was as big a deal as some make it out to be. I said to him, "You're only as old as you feel, and you, sir, are so not 30." I genuinely believed it. But then, a few months ago, I started to change my mind about getting older.

It's not that I felt old, exactly; it's that I didn't know how I was supposed to feel. Facing this milestone birthday actually made me quite confused. I thought a lot about it and realized that each decade in a person's life is pretty defined. The first is your childhood, followed by the adolescent and teen years. Then your 20's are where you become an adult and get the crazy stuff out of your system before you settle down and start to build your life. The older adult years are fairly straightforward as well: In your 40's your kids are starting to leave the nest (typically) and you are established in your career (hopefully), in your 50's you start to see your children marry and have their own families, and in your 60's you retire and take full advantage of the grandparent lifestyle, if you're so blessed. It's all pretty neat and tidy.

So what, then, defines the decade of your 30's?

The answer varies from person to person. Some are still single and hoping to settle down, some are headed back to school or finishing higher degrees, some are just starting families, some have older children and teenagers, some are respected in their careers, and some are still hopping from job to job. It's still a decade of personal evolution, but this is the point where your path and the paths of your peers can diverge quite drastically, if they haven't already. In some ways, it can be more tumultuous and full of change than your 20's, the decade that's supposed to be notorious for it.

And then there's the perception aspect. What does a 30-year-old look like? With such a prevalent youth culture in America, you can look and act as young as you want, it seems, without being called out on it. And yet, I sometimes wonder if I look more like the babysitter than my child's mother with my T-shirts and Converse sneakers and ponytails. While I certainly don't mind looking young (because I feel it), I don't ever want my authority to be in question—especially as a parent. As a female I feel you almost always have to prove your authority and worth, especially when you're under 35 (and short, have you noticed that?).

Then there's the other side of the looking young coin—the side where you look like you're trying too hard to be too young, so you just end up looking ridiculous and nobody takes you seriously. To me, this is far worse than getting old itself.

This is what brings me back to the no-man's-land decade of my 30's. I've thought a lot about this, as you can tell (probably more than is good for me). And then last night I was treated to a little birthday party and it all fell into place.

My sweet husband has been working on this for some time, I believe. He began the evening by blindfolding me and taking the long way to one of my favorite restaurants, where a few close family and friends were waiting. We then went to my parents' house for a pool party, where my sister had done an awesome job decorating the place in full princess style—yep, with confetti and princess plates and everything, because I will never be too old to be silly and enjoy the fun, girly things in life. My sister-in-law even made a delicious cake (German chocolate, my favorite), complete with candles and princesses on top.

It was a lot of fun, and I definitely felt loved and appreciated. And that's when I realized, I am more than OK with turning 30. I am happy to be here.

I've had a lot of wonderful experiences in my life. I have accomplished many goals in a way I can be proud of, and I've made it to all the major milestones I had hoped to at this age: I graduated from college, I got started on a great career, I got married, I am a homeowner, and I became a mom. I have also had a lot of devastating experiences in my life and been through a lot of strife. But you know what, I am just as proud of how I made it through those times as I am of my other accomplishments—actually, even more so. I like myself, and I love who I am working hard to become. And although the next decade may not be as exciting as the last, I have no doubt that it will be infinitely more rewarding as I continue to focus on what matters most: my family and my spirit.

As for the rest of the confusion, that's all gone too. I may not have a good idea of what my 30's are supposed to look like compared with the rest of the world, but that's OK. Instead of looking for comparisons, I am going to just be me. I vow to be 30 and proud, maybe even becoming some kind of role model (if I may be so ambitious) to others trying to figure this whole thing out.

So here's to getting older, wiser, happier, and more confident. Here's to being both silly and respected, mature and beautiful, loving and playful. Here's to 30 and whatever else may come. I am ready!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

All is well

This post is a bit overdue, but I have to say a big thank you to everyone who reached out to me with support after my last post. I was so moved by your kindness and concern. Thank you for reminding me that I am not an island, and that what I write has the ability to touch others.

I have to say, however, that I actually felt kind of bad after posting. I was not only sorry to alarm and upset my friends and family, but I started to feel like others were more concerned than I was at that point—not because I was nihilistic or anything, but writing it all out must have been very therapeutic: After I got it all out, I no longer worried. I had a strong feeling of peace, and I knew that no matter what happened I would be all right. I must have been feeling your prayers, and again, for that I truly thank you.

Speaking of being all right, I have good news: After nearly a week on the antibiotic, the lump seems to be going down. This means that it was likely caused by an infection and, best of all, it's not cancerous. Huzzah!! All I need to do now is go back for a follow-up appointment so I can get official permission to breathe a sigh of relief.

Again, thank you all so much for your love and concern. It's wonderful to know that I am cared about and that if my world all goes upside down, I will not be without support.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Memories and realities

"How hard it is to escape from places! However carefully one goes they hold you—you leave bits of yourself fluttering on fences, little rags and shreds of your very life." 
-Katherine Mansfield

I've been feeling very contemplative this week, and not about motherhood. I've been wanting to sit and write it all out to help unravel the things swirling around in my head. These days when I can't seem to spit the words out right, it's only in the writing that they finally make sense.

My first childhood home is up for sale. I lived there from birth until about age 10, when we moved 4 blocks west and a half a block north. Because of this close proximity I've been past my old home countless times over the years. Sometimes I drive by with the tiniest bit of longing and nostalgia, but mostly I just hurry past on my way to somewhere else.

The house is on a little dead-end street. I have driven down it, too, a number of times, always shocked at all the changes. About half of the original homes remain, and I don't know how many more have been built where fields once stood—the fields where we built forts, and explored the Crane's old tool shed, and fed Whitney's horse, and got trapped in Grandpa Crane's chicken coop while a mad turkey shrieked and pecked at the door, and crossed the stream to sell soda on the 9th hole of the golf course.

It's easy to conjure up memories when you're staring at the place they used to be. When confronted with change, it's impossible not to see the way things were instead of the way things are or will forever be.

That's why, when I drove by my childhood home yesterday, I had to stop and get out of the car. Not only is the house for sale, but it has been completely remodeled, as the sign on the front lawn says. I wanted to see for myself instead of wonder about the way things will forever be.

It was a long shot, but I knocked on the door to ask for a tour. As I stood there waiting, the strangeness of it all started to hit me. It was the first time I had stood in the yard in 20 years. I had stepped over the driveway where I learned to ride a bike, my hot pink Huffy with the white seat. It's the same driveway where I taught myself to rollerblade, going in circles one foot at a time. It's where I pushed my little sister on the scooter and she screamed because I couldn't make it reverse. Right next to the carport where my brother and I hid from a lightning storm in a giant cardboard box, where my dad parked the boat before loading it up for a week at Lake Powell.

Nobody answered the door, but as I turned to go I noticed someone working in the yard. I walked, over the ground where an enormous blue spruce once stood, across the driveway and onto the grass where a small landscaping hill used to be. He was only a neighbor boy there to mow the lawn, and he told me the homeowners were gone and I should check back on Friday when there might be an Open House. I thanked him and told him I would.

As I turned to leave I realized for the first time that the yard wasn't huge; it was really quite average, maybe even on the small side. It's not that my memories deceived me—rather, they were just from the perspective of a small child. In that child's world, everything and everyone was big.

That's what got me thinking: Does it really matter that memories and perception are different than the cold facts of reality? Is it more important to remember every detail to perfection, or are the tone and feeling of a memory what matter most?

Late at night when I can't sleep, I close my eyes and take a mental tour through the places of my past. My childhood home is a location I frequent, and along the tour I stop at the two little stairs where we waited to see what Santa brought us, the unfinished basement with the blue-green carpet scraps where I used to play library with my toy kitchen as the check-out stall, the sewing room where my mom hung my drawing of a llama, the upstairs master bedroom with the small window where we stood on chairs to watch fireworks on the 4th of July. Taking a tour of the children's bedrooms depended on the year of my memory; was I visiting the room I shared with my brother and later my little sister, or when they shared it together and I moved to the room next door, the room I chose to paint pink with a wallpaper ballerina bear border?

All these memories and more flooded into me as I turned to get into my car, and to my great surprise I found myself becoming a bit emotional. (If you know me, you know why this is a surprise. I am not sentimental and I do not cry at things like this.) That's probably because of the reason I found myself at my house in the first place.

I was on my way back from the doctor's office, which was just a bit further east of the house. I was at the doctor's to see whether or not a lump I found in my armpit is cancerous.

Unfortunately, as of right now we just don't know what this lump is. It could be one of several things, either perfectly harmless or very dangerous. So, we have to go through the process of elimination until we know exactly what is going on. I'm taking an antibiotic to see if the lump is a reaction to an infection and we'll check again in 10 days.

At a time like this, it's easy to become wrapped up in emotion and sentiment and entangled in conflicting visions of the way things were vs. the way things will forever be. I am doing my best not to jump to the worst-case scenario, which is neither likely nor unlikely. I am stuck in the middle, in the land of the way things are.

Maybe that's why I dwelled so much that day on the memory of a place. Maybe it's because I was scared that I would soon become a memory rather than a living, changing person—that I would be someone my son would have to close his eyes at night to remember, to wonder about, to cherish and to miss.

I have to stop there, because I'm getting way ahead of myself. I don't want to wander too far down that morose path. The chances of this being cancer are not enormous; it's more likely that I have a clogged sweat gland or a cyst or a lingering infection. And anyway, it seldom does much good to dwell on what may or may not be. Worrying does nothing but ruin your chances of happiness.

All I can do is to keep living life one day at a time. And the way I feel, there is never any cause for fear when you live your life to the absolute best of your abilities. Whether I die in a year or 10 or 50, if I do my best to learn from my mistakes, to uplift others, to beautify my corner of the world, and to show love to others, my life will be worthwhile—every day of it.

If I'm doing my best to live up to my potential and help others reach theirs, I won't have to worry that my present doesn't live up to the past or the future, or vice versa. There will be no discord between the memories and realities of my life—I will be a person to be loved, remembered, and cherished, and when I do finally move on, I will still be looked to with fondness.

And just like my childhood home, what happens to me in the future is really irrelevant to the memories that others have of me. They can remodel every inch of that house, tear down walls and pull up carpet and leave nothing of what used to be, but it will still live in my mind just as clearly as it ever did in the past. It will be forever treasured, a part of me that is eternally protected from the way things will forever be.