Learning to Make the Best of the Life I've Been Given

What a Surviving Day Looks Like

My daughter’s death anniversary is quickly approaching, in less than a week. It will be six years this August 3 that she died. They say that time heals all wounds, but I wonder sometimes if the person who coined that phrase or the people who parrot it when confronted with the harsh reality of grief ever lost a child. I would bet money that they didn’t.

Six years on, things are not a lot easier. It’s true that that first anniversary was probably the hardest, mostly because I had nothing to prepare me for it. I had no idea what to expect. I do remember wanting to die that day, of wanting to rush into the nearest body of water and never come back. Luckily, my husband was more level-headed than I was and kept me on land. It wasn’t the first or last time I wanted to die since my daughter passed away, but on these anniversary days the feelings tend to intensify. The hardest part is not really knowing how I will feel day to day, as the anniversary date approaches. Some years, I keep myself relatively busy until just a day or two before, stifling my emotions (although not consciously so) with busy-work and tasks and errands and shopping and television and food and all the consumerist distractions of our modern way of life. It’s easy to do, on many levels.

But I’m more in touch with myself and my feelings than most people, I think, and sooner or later, the crash comes. Sometimes it happens right before the anniversary day itself, sometimes it’s on the actual day (though more often the actual day is not as bad as the days leading up to or right afterwards), sometimes it happens a day or two after, when I think I’ve been spared, this year, with having to deal with the tidal wave of grief. But alas, that has never happened to me yet. I don’t expect it ever will.

I always take time off from work and from ‘normal’ life around the anniversary days. Around her birthday, I’ve gotten to the point where just a few days off will suffice. It’s a happier anniversary to remember and celebrate, and I usually have some kind of party for my daughter, since that’s what we would do if she were still here. Every year, these parties get smaller and smaller, but they are still meaningful to me.

But around her death anniversary, the emotions are darker, sadder, more intense. So I take more time off, usually a week, and try to give myself lots of space, try not to schedule much, during this time, to allow whatever needs to come up to arise. I’m fortunate in this way because I’m self-employed and can pretty much set my own schedule, and tell my colleagues far in advance that this one week I am not going to be available. This is the time for me to take care of myself and my husband, to remember and honor my daughter, and to do what I need to do in the moment, without worrying whether I’m flaking on someone or making them worry or shirking a responsibility.

A surviving day is one of those really hard days, one of the ‘crash’ days. I call them blue days or depressed days. It often starts with a sad feeling as soon as I wake up in the morning. I don’t feel like getting out of bed. The dog is sniffing at me and wanting me to take him for a walk but I don’t care. I may look at pictures of my daughter, which can usually make me feel better, a reminder that she was here, that my longing for her is normal and real and to be expected, but on the surviving days, they just make me cry.

Why did she have to go? Why isn’t she here? Why did this have to happen to us?

Those are some of the questions that go through my mind. Sometimes I ask my lovely husband these questions, as if he has an answer, as if he’s not struggling with the same questions, perhaps in a different way. Fortunately, he doesn’t sugarcoat things or minimize them either, so he just looks at me with the sadness pulling down the corners of his brown eyes and his mouth, and says, I don’t know. 

On these surviving days, I often ask my husband to walk the dog for me, which he does with no questions asked. After six years, we know what we both need and how to take care of each other during these moments. It does get a little easier in that way. Although there are just as often the times when we are more snippy and short with each other, in the days leading up to her death anniversary, when we get on each other’s nerves more quickly, and we just can’t explain way. I’ve learned to give him more space around these times, more silence, to not demand that he verbally process everything with me—it’s not his way, though it is my way of making sense of things, to talk things through.

But sometimes despite our best efforts we lash out at each other, feel hurt by the other’s lack of attention or by each other’s grumpiness, and ultimately a meltdown occurs, a fight, shouting and tears and harsh words, until we somehow come back together as a team again. As the years go by, it does become a bit easier to come back together. Earlier on, there were times when I didn’t think we’d make it through, when I worried that I would lose my marriage on top of losing my child. But that hasn’t happened, thank goodness. I don’t know what I would do if it did.

Sigh. Oh, these surviving days. They are a pain in the f**king ass.

I call them surviving days because that’s all I can do on these days. I can’t work, or be expected to even cook or do something nice for myself. I cancel my appointments, order comfort food, sleep a lot, and maybe text some friends to let them know I could use some prayers and support. But mostly I just want to be alone. If I have any level of energy I try to go outside, to get out in nature. Sunshine and nature helps more than anything else. Humans, outside of my husband, sadly, often don’t help, are more often than not a drain on my already depleted energy. My dog helps. He sits next to me and licks my face and stares up at me with those innocent, purely present eyes. He can tell when I’m sad, always comes up to me and wants pets, and nudges my hand or arm or leg as if to say, Hey, it’s going to be okay.

There’s only one thing to do on these surviving days. The obvious. Just survive. Just breathe, from one moment to the next. Drink water. Eat some food. Don’t harm yourself. Don’t drink alcohol or do any real drugs, they won’t help the pain, only give you the illusion of helping. Take care of your body and spirit. Let yourself cry. Just get through the f**king day and hope the next day is better. Hint: it usually is.

So as Naima’s angel day approaches this year, I find myself tearing up more often. It gets harder to look at her pictures, harder to talk about her without getting very sad. I just want her back, just want my old, happy life back. Just want what I can’t have. I sense a surviving day coming on and I no longer brace against it, I just wait for it, and take my vitamins, and do as much as I can while I still feel like doing it, until I can’t do it anymore.

There’s no way to make sense of losing a baby who seemed to be perfect, whose cheeks were flush with pink and liveliness, whose smile could make a whole room of grown-up light up with joy, whose simple being brought more delight to the world than I ever thought possible. And then, in an instant, she was gone. There is no answer to this, only grief and remembrance and heartache and the joy of knowing that we had the privilege of knowing and caring for her in the short time that she was here.

And knowing that on those hard days, those special days, that surviving all of this is all I can ask myself to do.

When Surviving’s All You Can Do

I’m still reeling, as I know many people are, from the horrific, heartbreaking massacare of 49 people in Orlando, Florida last weekend. Many others have written and spoken more eloquently and knowledgeably than I ever could about the tragedy and how it’s affecting and will continue to affect the people who directly involved, as well as their friends, family and community. My heart in particular goes out to LGBTQQI everywhere, though I can’t understand the heartache and fear and pain this brings to you, but know that I stand with you and will do all I can to end homophobia in all its forms.

The #OrlandoShooting has spawned a whole new set of bereaved parents, siblings, lovers, partners, friends, spouses, grandparents, cousins and other extended family of those killed. Losing a loved one to murderous violence brings a particularly intense and lasting kind of trauma and grief. And with this new reality, more people who will need to learn how to cope and (eventually) move forward with their lives now that their beloved ones are gone.

Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries—these special days and milestones can be particularly hard for bereaved people. In March of this year, my daughter Naima would have turned five years old, and in August we will honor her on the 5th anniversary of her death. Five years. I can still hardly believe it’s been that long since I held my child in my arms. Sometimes it feels like yesterday, others it feels like a lifetime away.

We have also just passed Mother’s Day and are about to celebrate Father’s Day in the US tomorrow. While my husband and I and many other bereaved parents and parents with no living children (like us) have our own special traditions and rituals for these holidays, they really just frickin’ suck. There’s really no other word for it. Over the last four years, I’ve learned how to survive all the different holidays and special days, but it’s not easy. This past year for the winter holidays, my husband and I faced another challenge on top of the usual holiday stuff, as we had to live in temporary housing while we waited to move into our new house, and the stress of the renovations and such around that time had gotten me very near my breaking point right around Christmas.

On days when things get really hard, when I have a bunch of house stuff to do and my Christmas shopping isn’t done and I haven’t been eating well because I’m too busy, it’s hard to get up out of bed and do everything, because all I want to do is lay in bed and cry.

Because if my daughter were still here—playing at my feet or nagging me for a snack or talking my ear off—I feel like all of this stress would be just a little more bearable, that all of this would feel like it had some kind of purpose.

Instead, it can feel like just a load of shit to have to get through because I have to, for some reason, even if I wish I could just hire someone else to do all my work for a week and go cry and remember my babies and take care of myself. Or better yet, I wish I could just have my babies back so that I could feel like my life had some real meaning again.

On days like that, I try to remind myself that it’s okay to ‘just’ survive sometimes, that I don’t have to be perfect, that I can’t be perfect, that if something falls off my plate because I just can’t do it, then so be it. My mental health is more important than my ego (though my ego often wins).

But what is surviving, really? It’s different for different people, and on different days. Surviving can be:

  • Just laying in bed and watching TV
  • Calling in sick to work and doing something that you find nurturing and healing
  • Cancelling all of your appointments and going to the movies instead
  • “Faking it” as much as you can at work, school, etc. until you get home and burst into tears
  • Calling a friend and asking for help with housework, or to bring you food or something else comforting (though the further we get from or losses the less I feel people are willing to do this)
  • Eating comfort food that you know is bad for you (in moderation if possible) just for a day or two
  • Taking a mental health day and going to the beach or somewhere else beautiful in nature

The common denominator is at the end of this, you are still alive, still here to fight another day, and that you did whatever you needed to do to get through this one. And sometimes, that’s all you can really do.

 

My Anti-Depressant Toolbox, Part 1: To Medicate or Not?

antidepressantsDepression sucks. It’s not fun. There’s social stigma around it, even in this day and age, and lots of medications (prescription and over the counter) that you can take that claim to ease if not erase the often dull, persistent, lethargy-inducing life-killer that is depression.

I took medication (Setraline, the generic name for Zoloft) for depression for several months a couple years ago, about a year and a half after my daughter died. I had resisted taking it for a long time, which I’ll go into in another post—but one of the main reasons was that I felt like there must be a more ‘natural’ way to deal with something that was a completely normal reaction to suddenly and unexpectedly losing one’s beautiful, healthy baby. On a spiritual level, taking a Western drug that was made in some lab just didn’t seem like it could solve what was an intractable problem of grief and loss. Though anti-depressant pharmaceuticals are now very commonly prescribed, and many people had told me when I would tell them about my depression that they were currently or had been on anti-depressants and would suggest that I take them, I still felt like there had to be more than just popping a pill. I also felt like it was too much of a ‘quick fix’ and that these people were probably just tired of hearing me talk about my grief, which made me resent their good intentions of trying to get me to take anti-depressants. I was in a dark place in my life, probably the darkest place I’d ever been.

My depression at this time was deep and had lasted for more than a year, and was so frightening to my husband, friends and therapist, that I did open myself to at least considering medication. I also wanted to get better. So I did the research to find a psychiatrist who was open to trying alternative, non-pharmaceutical therapies if he felt like they would work just as well. Therapies like meditation, exercise, nature, etc. For me, if I was even going to think about taking drugs for depression, I wanted to make sure that I was going to get them from someone who didn’t seem them as the primary or only way for me to get better, who saw them as part of a toolbox rather than a panacea for my suffering. Of course, this being the Bay Area, I found someone who fit the bill (in Berkeley, of course. ;))

The result of these sessions with this highly gifted and kind psychiatrist (PM me if you’re in the Bay Area and would like a referral to him) is that I did end up agreeing to take Setraline after resisting the exact same suggestion from my primary care physician as well as my therapist. This psychiatrist explained  the pros and cons to me, was patient with my questions, explained that I could taper off of the drug eventually (I was very concerned about getting addicted, which also happens to some people) and was quite gentle and not pushy about the whole thing, which made me feel at ease. I walked out of his office with a prescription for setraline and a more positive feeling about taking medication to help me through this hard time.

Less than a week later, I was on the lowest dose of the drug and felt great. This was right around the winter holidays, an especially tough time for me and my husband since losing our daughter. I was able to host a Christmas party at our house for the first time since Naima’s death, and I had a good time, enjoyed my friends’ company and was not (ta-DAH!) depressed. I was so happy I had taken Setraline, and wondered why I’d waited so long to take it. I stayed on the drug for about five months, until I realized I felt well enough to try life without it (a story for another time).

But Setraline didn’t ‘cure’ my depression. I was still sad, I still grieved for my daughter, I still cried. The grief was dulled a bit, and I did not sink into the low depths of not-getting-out-of-bed-and-crying-all-day that I had before I had started taking it. Setraline gave me an energetic and emotional boost which helped me get up and out of the house everyday, and start doing  things that I loved again, the things that truly and  would (over the long term) help ‘cure’ my depression: dancing, getting out into nature, hiking, spending time with friends, cooking healthy food. I was fortunate, too, that although I did suffer some tough withdrawal symptoms when I tapered off the Setraline, I found a great naturopath who was able to help mitigate those symptoms and use more natural therapies to both stay off the drug and stave off depression. I’ll talk in my next post about my natural anti-depressant medicine chest, but suffice it to say that I do not regret taking Setraline for my depression when I did. It most likely saved my life.

In the end, the decision to take anti-depressants or not is a very personal one. Timing, the relationship you have with your doctor, your mentality going into it, what kind of support you have to be able to get off the medication eventually, etc. all factor in. Do your homework if you are thinking about taking anti-depressants, and don’t let your doctor rush or push you into taking them if you don’t feel like they’re right for you. At the same time, be open to what could be a life-saving gift of medicine.

The D-word

canstockphoto2563716Depression. Depressed. A word that seems to be bandied about a lot these days, both in serious and not-so-serious ways.

“I’m so depressed that there’s only one more season of Downton Abbey left!”

“The weather depresses me”

“The state of this country depresses me”

“I think that my friend/partner/sibling/child/coworker is depressed.”

But when was the last time that any of us publicly, or to our colleagues or even to our closest friends and family, said, “I’m depressed” because we were actually truly feeling depressed? As in, not wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to eat or bathe or do anything. At worst, wanting our lives to end. That’s depression.

Despite all the anti-depressant drugs that are now advertised on television and prescribed so frequently by doctors, talking IRL about depression is something that is still a bit frowned-upon. But global statistics about depression (one estimate is that 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide) show that many people suffer from it, so why is it so hard to talk about? I myself use the world self-referentially quite rarely, though I’ve suffered from mild to severe depression probably since I was a child.

Most people don’t like to talk about depression because it—like grief, sadness, serious illness or pain of any kind—makes people feel uncomfortable, out of control, and because in the US in particular, we are supposed to be ‘happy’ all the time, and if we aren’t happy then it’s somehow our fault. From new-agey quotes and memes along the lines of  you alone determine how happy you are and that attitude is everything when it comes to happiness or mood, to harsher and more primitive perspectives that depression is somehow a made-up ‘disease’ suffered only by weak-minded people, or that you should just pop a pill if you’re depressed so you don’t have to let it get in your way anymore—off with you, pesky Depression!—the public discourse about depression is generally far from healthy or even helpful to those of us who actually suffer from it. If anything, these types of messages can make those of us who get depressed feel worse about ourselves—which in turn can fuel depressed feelings.

Personally, I think depression is just as much about despairing about or feeling intense disconnection from each other and from nature, about feeling very deep pain but not having that pain acknowledged, as it is about any flaws in brain chemistry or attitude. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff talks a little bit about depression as a potential portal to spiritual awakening and the need to address spirituality when treating depressed individuals. And in our ultra-individualistic American society in particular, needing others or depending on others has generally been seen as some kind of character weakness, when in fact we all need others not only to survive physically, but to survive (and hopefully thrive) emotionally.

The first step is to break the silence about depression—easier said than done! A major reason it took me so long to start this blog was that I was afraid of what other people (especially colleagues, clients or other people who know me more on a professional level) would think of me if I ‘came out’ as a depressed person. Fortunately, as I’ve opened up more about my  struggles with depression with my colleagues and others, I’ve received supportive responses and encouragement. Not everyone, though, is so fortunate. Suicide is the ultimate expression of depression, and I can’t help but think that if we could talk about depression more openly, that less people would feel so desperately alone that they would actually go through with trying to kill themselves (and too often succeeding).

So I believe that it’s up to all of us, including non-depressed people, to help break the stigma that surrounds depression, so that more people can get the support and help that we need.

When I was a child, I was often called ‘moody’ and made fun of because sometimes I could be quiet and brooding and would go into my room and want to be alone. Now that I know better, I was probably depressed—perhaps because my father abandoned my mother and I and I never knew him when I was growing up, perhaps because I was not allowed to express any sadness or grief around that very primal loss, and later on, probably because I was sexually abused by my step-father. As a teenager, I felt suicidal off and on—no doubt my depression was exacerbated both by the intense hormonal changes of adolescence as well as the ongoing emotional and sexual abuse I was facing at home—and as a young adult I would go through periods of one or more days at a time when I would not want to do much more than lay in my bed and stare at the ceiling (and I did do that many times).

I was never ‘treated’ for depression until I was in therapy many, many years later, in my early 30s, when I saw a caring, competent therapist who named my ‘disorder’ and helped me work on myself and my brain in ways that helped me feel less out of control of my moods. In future posts, I’ll write more about how I dealt with my various levels of depression—especially the major depression I experienced frequently after my daughter died.

But for now, I want to just break the silence as person who has suffered and will likely once again suffer from depression:

I am a depressed person. It is not my fault that I get depressed. I didn’t ’cause’ or create my own depression but I can learn how to live with and change my depression and perhaps event appreciate it at times.

I welcome you to share your own experiences of depression here or with others around you to help break the silence.

 

Hello

No, I’m not talking about the Adele song that seems to have been popping up everywhere on the Internets lately (though I do like that song!). I’m just saying hello. This is the second public blog I’ve attempted to maintain since my baby daughter’s sudden death in August 2011, and I want to keep expectations of myself for this blog reasonable (notice I did not say ‘low’, I’m also trying to keep things more positive in my life). So this is just a short little introductory post, to get things going.

Hello. A little bit about myself: I was born and raised in the Bay Area, and live in Oakland. I love it here. Although I was born in Alameda, the next town over—a sleepy little island that is different from Oakland as night from day—and lived there for the first eight years of my life, Oakland is my adopted hometown. I am happily married to my husband, Henry, and after almost three years of wedded bliss we had a beautiful little baby girl in March 2011, who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in August of the same year (and yes SIDS is a real thing and if you don’t believe so you can leave now because you and I will *not* get along). Her name is Naima and she was our first and only child. She was happy and healthy, very calm and observant from the moment she was born. Of course she cried and had fussy moments like any baby, but many people remarked on how serene she seemed even as a newborn. She brought more joy to my life than I ever imagined possible. And much too soon, she was gone, with no medical reason and no warning. My perfect, beautiful baby girl, just gone.

Here is a picture of Naima, at about three months old. Her bib says ‘Drool is cool’.

IMG_1060

Naima Kali

Naima was and still is the light of my life, and losing her killed many parts of me—important, useful, joyful parts that I loved—forever. Like my motivation, my belief that everything in life would turn out okay as long as I was a good person and did what I was supposed to do, my faith that I would be able to overcome anything. Since her death, I have also struggled with infertility, suffering two early miscarriages since 2014. Those were not easy to deal with either, because they were the death knell of my biological motherhood, which I treasured and loved more than anything else. Now, I am mother to only babies who have died. There is no name for me in any language that I know of, nor for my husband who also suffers because of these losses even if he did not carry these babies in his body.

This blog is about surviving these losses, about continuing to live despite these losses, and yes, about trying to thrive—even if I know deep in my heart that that might not really be possible, at least according to my own standards. You see, before my daughter died, I had a rich, vibrant, full life, I was a Type-A do-it-all type of woman that wanted to (and already had) accomplished much in life. I was happy, I was content, I felt purposeful. I believed I had many decades of accomplishments to achieve and contributions to make to making the world a better place.

Now, I am different. I still live with purpose, but I am no longer so strident, so passionate in that sense of purpose. When you have lost a child, everything (for me anyway) gets put into that context. All happiness, colors, joys, sorrows, bitterness, blessings feel a little less vibrant, intense and clear. Plus, you just get really, *really* fucking tired. Grief is exhausting. Trying to not look and sound sad because you have to work or be around people who don’t care about your grief is exhausting. Having to explain to people around you how not to be so fucking annoying about grief is exhausting. Just *living* at times can feel exhausting.

And I honestly just don’t care as much about anything any more. I care, but it’s not the same anymore. Some people might call this depression, and perhaps they are right. But I get up every (or at least most) morning and do my work and am basically a healthy person who contributes to society. I have a good job, food on the table, a wonderful husband I love, friends I care for and who care for me. I am *very* blessed.

But it’s different now, after the losses of my children. Very different.

Hello. You still with me? Or have you left already, overwhelmed by all this sadness and grief? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. It’s not easy to hear about this stuff. Thing is, I can’t leave my life behind, as much as I might like to.

I’m a big fan of the recently released film, Creed. (Go see it if you haven’t already, and let me know what you think). In it, there’s a line that Rocky Balboa says (I won’t tell you why because that would be a spoiler) about his beloved late wife Adrian that resonated deeply with me. I can’t find the script online to get the exact quote so I’ll paraphrase:

“If I could take everything good, and put it in a big bowl, and give it back, and have one more day with my wife—I would do it.”

That’s how I feel about my life now—I would give it all for one more day with my daughter and husband together, our little family happy and content. It’s a simple dream, but I can’t have it. I can’t put everything in a big bowl and trade it for one more day. As a mother to my Naima, to my child, and a wife to my husband, I felt complete.

So what do I do now? Well, I do my best to survive, and to find things to live for. My husband, Henry, whom I love more than anything or anyone besides my babies, is the main person I live for, and I am eternally grateful to have him by my side as a companion and partner on this lonely, hard road. But what else do I live for? How do I move towards a life of not just surviving but thriving?

So, hello, and welcome to my new blog, where I hope to explore all the things that I do (or try to do) and that others do to both survive and hopefully, ultimately, someday—maybe tomorrow or maybe twenty years from now—learn how to thrive again after experiencing devastating loss. I don’t know if I’ll come up with any real answers, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up with this blog (surviving for me is hard, and takes a lot of energy, at times leaving little for blog-writing at times), but I am going to try. And that’s often what surviving is all about. Just getting up, and trying, and doing your best. And even if your ‘best’ at that moment is just the getting up, trying to be okay with that.

Hello. Hope you made it this far. I look forward to walking this path with you too.