I know this will be very difficult to believe, but when I was a child, I was often grounded.
For the most part, these punishments were not warranted for anything I actually did. I was an honor roll earning, rule-following, teacher-pleasing, National Honor Society card carrying, Div I-bound swimming, “good girl”, who did not touch her first drop of alcohol until after high school graduation. I made good choices.
What came out of my mouth, however, was not always … agreeable. Cooperative. Pleasant. Again, I know this is difficult to believe.
And so, I often found myself stuck in my room, disallowed from television, then Atari and Nintendo and the phone, and later, Friday and Saturday social events, As this was before the advent of the internet and cell phones, it was very isolating. Not long into my childhood, my mother discovered a personality trait that enabled her to make my punishments that much more
She wouldn’t tell me how long I was grounded for.
You see, my mother realized that it wasn’t so much the actual punishment that could get under my skin (although I didn’t enjoy it), rather what made me absolutely lose my shit was the limbo of not knowing how long the winter of my discontent would last.
It was not only the loss of control and power in my life (the restricted activities and social life), but the ignorance of not knowing when it would end. I walked around daily in a heightened state of misery and anxiety, not only from the dearth of pleasurable pursuits, but without the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
It was equal parts brilliant and evil. Nicely played, mom. Well done.
I did not outgrow this mindset in adulthood, and it was one of many contributing factors to the onset of my PTSD. The combination of a (perceived) complete loss of control over nearly all facets of my life, with the uncertainty of when and how it would all be resolved, was crippling for me. I worked on this issue for a couple years in therapy: the roots of the tendencies, the manifestations of the emotions, and coping strategies for how to gracefully navigate future situations that might elicit or trigger these reactions.
I’m a lot better. I’m also still very much a work in progress.
Which brings me to this year. This year has been tough. I have told many people in my life over the past few months that, for the first time since the early days of 3 children under the age of 5, I feel like I just. can’t. do. it. I thought by year 18 as a working mom, I would be somewhat immune to the tidal waves of stress. Not that I thought I wouldn’t still be exhausted and busy and stressed out, but that I wouldn’t have those days upon days of feeling like, as my mom used to say, “I want to get in the car and drive down 95. And just keep going.”
I’m trying to reflect on why I’m feeling so strung out. Yes, I have 3 teenagers to parent on top of a very busy and demanding full time job. So I’m busy. But I also have a fantastic marriage, wonderful friends, a stable financial situation (I don’t worry about basic necessities, so #blessed), a job that I actually enjoy and find fulfilling 90% of the time, and last but not least, my physical health.
Life should be good. Life is good. Except…
What I have realized is that there is a cosmic convergence this year of several life situations that are both 1. completely outside my control and 2. I have no idea how and when they will be resolved. They are not insignificant issues, and some of the most important people in my life are grappling with them. In short, there is a huge amount of uncertainty and distress for several members of my most inner and cherished circle, and I have no idea where to go with all of that.
Loss of control. Lack of clarity as to what I’m dealing with. No idea as to when it will be resolved. My 4-decades-long potent cocktail for despair.
I’m working on it. I’m practicing my self-talk, and mantras, and gratitude. I’m running. I’m seeing my therapist. I’m reminding myself that I have been through far, far worse, and my batting average of survival is 100%, and so is that of everyone on my team, for that matter. I’m telling myself that in the grand scheme of the beautiful, miserable, heartbreaking, terrifying and ecstatic joy ride that is existence, my problems are not that big.
I’m trying not to complain. I don’t always succeed. But I’m trying.
I wrote earlier this year about my difficulty in finding a race that I wanted to run for my
only first marathon. It’s very important to me that my kids attend this endeavor, for a variety of reasons. For one, I think it’s important that they witness their mom complete a goal of this magnitude, with all the blood, sweat and tears that will undoubtedly come with it (that whole role modeling thing).
For another, especially as my eldest gets ready to head off to college next fall, I feel like this is the culmination of an identity shift over the past several years. I began running in 2013 to cope with the aftermath of my divorce, and the main reason I’ve persisted is to keep my sanity with the ongoing coparenting challenges, and exposure to my PTSD triggers.
It’s been a long, long winding road. Pounding out the miles helps.
I was leaning towards the Houston marathon, which occurs in January, but I realized that it would interfere with soccer and swim seasons for my boys. Ideally, I wanted a race I could drive to, because our budget is quite tight, and it needed to be 1. on one of my weekends and 2. not interfere with a sporting or performance event for any of my 3 children.
You can see my dilemma.
This is all to say that several weeks ago, I unofficially decided that the Oklahoma City Memorial marathon fit all my criteria. While it is during my busiest time of year (I run a senior year program that occurs during the last trimester of senior year, ie April 29th is smack in the middle of it), Oklahoma City is close enough that I can drive back on Sunday and be in my office on Monday morning (and my senior won’t miss any of his AP classes). I have heard and read that the OKC marathon is heartfelt and full of crowd support, and one of the more desirable marathons to run.
I made my peace with it. But I wasn’t overly excited about it. I mean, it seems like a cool marathon, but for my first, and quite possibly only 26.2? Meh.
But then, during last week’s long run, I listened to a recent Human Race podcast. If you’re not familiar with the show, it features stories of unusual or inspirational “every day” runners (meaning, usually not famous). This one featured a woman named Amy Downs, a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing.
I know. Weird, right?
She told her story of surviving the bombing in 1995. How she was diagnosed with PTSD after being buried alive in the rubble, waiting for rescue, for hours. How she began running, and then eventually, competing in triathlons, as a therapeutic approach to her PTSD. How the gun going off at the start of races triggers her, as does putting her face in the murky water for open water swims (reminding her of being buried alive), but she keeps doing it. How she believes in telling her story, because confronting the trauma, talking about it, pushing past it, is the only way to get through it.
She divorced her husband. She eventually remarried, to a man she met through one of her training groups.
I was transfixed as she described her PTSD; “I describe it as an app that’s always in the background, it’s just there. The only time it’s more of a struggle is in the spring. During spring it becomes difficult. It’s not like I’m sitting around thinking about the bombing, I’ll become anxious and on edge, and then I realize it’s March.”
I thought of how Septembers are for me.
She ran her first marathon at the Oklahoma City Memorial marathon. She trained to break 5 hours, and then just a couple weeks before the marathon, she got injured in a bike accident. She described her frustration, “This is my life, I planned it perfectly, I did the training program for the 5 hour marathon, and nothing ever works out. My plans never work out.”
She still went on to run it, finishing in a slow and frustrating (for her) 6 hours and 30 minutes.
Exactly the amount of time she was buried alive, waiting for rescue.
When the interviewer asked Amy how she remains so positive, and inspiring, and athletically accomplished (she’s training for an Ironman), she said, “Even in tragedy, it’s important to ask yourself what you can take that is positive out of it. You can’t control what happens to you, you can only control how you respond it. Yes, it’s not fair. It sucks. Life is not fair. But what are you gonna do?”
Life is not fair. Plans never work out. But what are you gonna do?
I’m going to run a marathon.
Empathy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.
“How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long! Gosh, I thought of you all day on Sunday. My dear friend <redacted>’s friend killed herself on Saturday night after learning that her husband had been having an affair with her best friend.”
She went on with some additional details, the two teenage sons left motherless, the years of marital counseling that were ultimately an exercise in futility, details I barely heard through the roaring train echoing through my head. Embarrassed, I hastily wiped away the tears that had immediately sprung into my eyes without warning before she even finished the first sentence. I took a few deep breaths, willing my pulse to slow and hands to steady while she murmured sadly, “I just kept thinking of your strength. I remember you all those years ago, how you put one foot in front of the other. Do you know what strength that takes?”
Yes. I know.
It’s been two weeks since that conversation, and I can’t get that nameless, faceless woman out of my head. I’ve thought of her, that woman I never met and did not know, as I’m running. Watching a television show. Playing with my dogs. Having dinner with my girlfriends. Doing the laundry. That woman who was so blindsided by despair and devastation that she couldn’t imagine spending one. more. minute. with the agonizing, searing hot pain inside her. Seeing the mind movies, concocted by her own insidious imagination, unbidden and certainly unwanted, but ceaseless in their loop. The replayed conversations, with their subtexts now uncovered, like subtitles in a foreign film, only you didn’t realize upon first viewing that you didn’t speak the language.
It is a foolish and useless desire, but I wish I had known her, or rather, she had known me. I wonder, pointlessly and perhaps, arrogantly, if the outcome would have been different if she knew of someone who had walked through the fire and come out the other side, charred and scarred but alive. I think that I would have gone to her house and held her hand, sat with her on the bathroom floor, and said “you want to die and you might feel this way every second of every minute of every hour for weeks or months but you will not feel this way forever.”
I could make her that promise with confidence, and maybe, just maybe, she would believe it. And if she didn’t, I would say it differently, emphatically, repeatedly, until she did.
I want to be like Holden Caulfield, catching women if they come too close to the brink of double betrayal insanity, keeping them safe from the rabbit holes of their own madness.
The sad truth, of course, is that just like no one can stop children from losing their innocence, no one can heal or fix anyone else. Ultimately, I had to do all the hard work, all by myself, stop my own self from going over the cliff.
But a little piece of me wants to believe that if that woman just knew of another mere mortal, an ordinary woman with no superpowers to speak of, who could draw on reservoirs of strength and courage and fortitude she never believed existed within, that maybe she could have held on until she discovered her own.
Even though this blog is mainly about running and triathlons and pretending to be an athlete in my middle age, I’ve found my most enthusiastic and loyal readers are women who connect with PTSD (or, as I like to reclaim on my good days, post traumatic growth). Seven years after my divorce, and five years after taking down my previous blog, I still regularly get emails and communication through social media from women about infidelity and divorce. Sometimes it is a mother, or sister, worried about a family member going through the discovery phase; sometimes it is a heartbroken or angry betrayed spouse herself, either struggling to get through the next hour, or battling to let go of the rage and fear and sadness after many years.
While the circumstances and backgrounds differ, the women have a strikingly similar plea: tell me it’s going to be okay. Remind me that it gets better. Reassure me that there is life after this. Tell me that I, too, can have that happily ever after.
Happily every after? Oh dear. What type of snow job have I been pulling in this corner of the internet?
I would love to tell you that, with enough time, all heartache and trauma ceases to exist. That falling in love with a new man, even several years into a very happy and healthy relationship, magically erases the scars left from profound deceit and betrayal. That children are so resilient that divorces don’t leave scars, no matter how much they are loved and protected. I would love to tell you that PTSD can be “cured” with therapy and medication, guaranteed never to rear its ugly head again.
I wish more than anything that was all true. But it’s not. Or at least, not in my case.
I’ve been in a hell of a storm since 2017 very nearly began. Well, more accurately, according to my therapist, I’ve either been in a storm or battening down the hatches since 2010, because the delightful thing about not being able to go cold turkey is that you never really get a chance to heal. You can smooth those rough edges over, strengthen those coping skills, and even fool yourself that the horizon is clear, but it’s not, not really.
And so, relapses happen. They happen to many. The alcoholic takes “just one” drink, the drug addict takes “just one” hit, the panic attacks and insomnia and intrusive thoughts say this is “just one” bad week. Only before you know it, weeks turn into months, and one day you get on the scale and realize you lost 5 pounds. You get on the treadmill and can’t run a mile when just two months ago you ran a half marathon. You get up in the morning and can’t remember the last time you slept for more than a few hours at night.
So you get yourself back on the therapist’s couch.
Thinking goddammit but I got over this. Thinking that you thought the worst was over, but you failed to take into account that it can always get worse. Rookie mistake, and god knows, you’re not a rookie, so now you’ve relapsed and feel like a fool.
But, here’s the thing. The women who are asking me to tell them it gets better? That it’s going to be okay? I can honestly say that while happily ever after is illusory, and there’s no such thing as unicorns and fairy tales, it absolutely and totally does get better and it will be okay.
How do I know? Because there’s only one real rock bottom. And once you’ve hit it, I mean really hit it, you never go there again. You might relapse, you might bungee jump down and spring back after your face hovers, inches, millimeters from that concrete floor that could shatter your bones, but you will never hit it again. Want to know why? Want to know how I know?
Because once you’ve clawed your way back from rock bottom, you know you can do it again.
In 2010, when my then-husband told me he was leaving, and the truth slowly came trickling out over the course of several months in Chinese water torture fashion, I completely lost my shit (I’m sure there’s a better, more clinical DSM-V term, but let’s go with that). I had never felt so unmoored, so alone, so without any hope or vision for my future. There was no manual for this insanity. I was trapped in a bad Jerry Springer episode, only there was no “off” button on the remote, no channel to change. My entire life, forwards and backwards, ceased to exist; my identity – that of a wife, a best friend, a partner – stripped from me; my most beloved and cherished role as a mother downgraded to a 70% position, without my input or consent.
It was gone, all gone. They talk about a light at the end of the tunnel? All I saw was a yawning black chasm.
That was my rock bottom. I will never hit that again. I know now that I can survive. Once you know that? Really know that? It’s etched in your soul.
Sure, relapses happen. I have returned to therapy after a 4 year hiatus, brushing up on those coping skills, reminding myself of how to deal with the PTSD triggers that will assuredly not abate for another 5 years. I’m circling my wagons, conserving my energy and finances, following professional advice, both therapeutic and legal.
Recovery does not mean that the struggle ceases to exist. Recovery is about knowing that you can fight the good fight, and that if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. That there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and taking comfort in the knowledge that the light is there, even if you can’t see it.
Ultimately, it’s about faith. Hope, instead of hopelessness.The belief, no matter how shaky it feels some days, that rock bottom only hits once.
*This post inspired by Glennon Doyle Melton’s article.
for better or for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish;
from this day forward until death do us part
Today is our 5 year anniversary. I think this is supposed to be a “bigger” anniversary, because it’s a half decade, or at least, my husband seems to think it is, since he has repeated several times over the past month, “It’s our five year anniversary. We have to celebrate! It’s a big one!”
But while the sentiment is sincere, the enthusiasm is strained.
2017 has not been good to us, on so many fronts. As I alluded to in my last post, we’ve been dealing with so much. We’re exhausted, and depressed, and overwhelmed.
Put simply, we’re dealing with the “worse”.
Last weekend, as he once again drummed up some forced enthusiasm for our impending anniversary, I realized that I needed to somehow, some way, carve out a little corner of gratitude for this day. Despite the, for lack of better word, clusterfuck that has been our lives for the past few months, we are good.
Really good. I mean, distracted and strung out and broke and sleepless, but good. I realize that sounds weird. But I know what it is to take stress and anxiety and depression out on your partner. Been there, done that, have the divorce decree. I know how easily the planets in the orbit can chip away at the sun.
Our life has been hard lately. And it would be so easy to take all that anger, and resentment, and anxiety, out on each other. But we’re not.
We’re in this together.
So, in an attempt to acknowledge gratitude for that not-so-small favor, I put one picture from each year of our marriage up on my Instagram this past week. I included the following description with each picture:
Q: What do 2010, 2012 and 2017 have in common?
A: Therapists, lawyers, children in crisis, PTSD, medical bills, and oceans of tears.
But you know what they also have? My silver lining, my fearless warrior and the love of my life. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light. Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love. This Friday will be our 5 year anniversary. I’m counting down the years.
Summer 2013 – married one full year. Our road trip to Florida with a 13, 11 and 8 yr old. I don’t have a blog post for our 1st anniversary – this blog didn’t exist yet.
January 2014 – our 2nd year of marriage. This was our trip to Cancun to see my dear friend Sarah get married. 2nd anniversary blog post here.
August 2015: 3rd year of marriage, and first day of school (ie work). No, we don’t plan to color coordinate. Yes, we often do. 3rd anniversary blog post here.
March 2016: 4th year of marriage, and my husband’s 40th birthday trip to Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. He likes “real” photos. Like us in an elevator heading to Stanley Park. This is typical of the photos he takes of us. 4th anniversary blog post here.
Traditionally, for our anniversary, I revisit some pictures from our wedding. I was lucky enough to have my very talented friend Wendy do our wedding photography, and I have countless gorgeous photographs from that day.
But this year? This is the picture that rings true for me.
I know, I know, it’s not a “traditional” wedding moment. This was taken just after my best friends gave our wedding toast; if you look carefully, you can see the remnants of the verklempt on my husband’s face (I had just finished a full out cry). My friends spoke, in not-so-specific-terms, of my fight to get to this moment. Of how they were so worried about me. Of how so many people in that room weren’t sure I would make it. And of how my husband came along and helped me piece myself back together again.
At some point, as we stood there, holding hands, me crying, listening to women who knew me, and loved me, best in the world, my 2 younger children came up and clung to us (my oldest is just out of the shot, behind my daughter). There we were, hands clasped, standing firm, with the boy wrapped around my husband, and my daughter curling into me.
Five years later, in so many ways, we are still holding this pose.
Right now, at this moment in time, 5 years into our marriage, we’re not able to focus our attention on each other. We’re not romantically gazing into each other’s eyes. Right now, at this moment in time, our children need every ounce of strength, time, attention and resources that we have.
But we’re still clasping hands. United. Protecting our family.
Happy anniversary to my rock, my partner, my amazing role model and provider for our 3 children. Their eyes are always on us, and I am so grateful and proud to have someone like him holding my hand, and holding me up.
There are bumps in the road.
And then there are the brick walls. The ones that, quite literally, stop you in your tracks. Not slow life down. Not adjust the weekly schedule. But put everything else in your life on the shelf while you deal with what is in front of you, so impenetrable, that you must figure out an alternative route before you can go anywhere.
The brick wall that makes you fervently hope that you’ve earned enough of a solid reputation at work that you can, emotionally and physically, check out in order to manage it (I have). That your bosses are kind enough and supportive enough to green light it (they are).
The brick wall that necessitates immediate care and trained professionals and mountains of paperwork with legal mumbo jumbo and very, expensive. fixer uppers.
The brick wall that steals sleep and erases appetite and brings day to day functioning to its barest essentials. When breathing feels like a victory.
The brick wall that makes you feel so incredibly alone because it is so scary, and stressful, and overwhelming, but you are the one in charge of taking it down, piece by piece, brick by brick. Only not really, because it is someone else’s wall. So you feel completely, 100% responsible, and wholly, utterly helpless, simultaneously.
That kind of full stop.
That’s what it is going on in my neck of the woods.
If this seems vague, it is. Because it is both my story, and not my story at all, to tell. I want to write it out, because writing is my therapy, and not write a word, not utter a syllable to anyone about any of this, because speaking of it makes it real.
I have all, and none, of the words about this.
I am hurting, on the most profound, basic, instinctual level, but also surviving. Taking care of business and doing what needs to be done. Because that is what I do.
I can say that my muses, for whatever rhyme or reason, this week have been my badass writer friends. I am an English teacher, and a writer, and a lover of words, so when I need strength, it is words, and mantras, that come to me.
This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me.
I don’t know why this is the Dickinson phrase that tolls inside my brain. The poem it draws from does not particularly apply to my current situation. Certainly “hope is a thing with feathers” would be far more appropriate – but there it is.
Grace always bats last, and the lightness always overcomes the darkness.
I am not a Christian but Anne Lamott has gotten me through more dark times in the past 7 years than I care to admit. She has a way of making the dark and twisty and messy human crap seem beautiful and noble and essential. We need more of her in this life.
I can also say that, with all due respect to Gretchen Rubin, who seems like a perfectly lovely human being, that her Happiness Project book appears to be my own personal doomsday. Remember the first time I tried to blog the Happiness Project? Round two is NOT GOING SO WELL PEOPLE.
I’m not overly superstitious but I’m also not blind to signs from the universe. Consider this my official resignation from that writing project, round two.
I have a triathlon on the docket in 13 days. Suffice to say I’m not in training (and have not been for several days). Full stop, and all. Right now, it is very. very. very. far down the totem pole of priorities. Maybe I will show up, if I can manage to run for more than a couple miles without feeling lightheaded and nauseated (I attempted an easy run the other day in the interest of self-care, and discovered that running after not eating or sleeping for several days, even at an “easy” pace, is not so “easy”.)
In the meantime, I know grace bats last. And I know lightness always overcomes darkness. But if that “last’ could come sooner rather than later, that would be fantastic.