Remembering My Time in the Dark

Dear Reader,
 If you are a long-time reader of this blog, you may be aware that I am passionate about getting the support you need.  October is Stillbirth and Pregnancy Loss Awareness month, and in honor of that, I am re-sharing a blog post from 2012–a story of part of my life when I was most in need of mental health support.  I know that this is an unusual step for a psychologist to take.  However, I believe that each of us will face moments of absolute darkness and pain–and that we all deserve to have the support that we need to get through those times.  If sharing my story helps another person reach out for support, that is a wonderful outcome.  I apologize in advance for the longer-than-normal post.

The Background

I am from a large family.  Both of my parents are from large families.  I don’t think that I ever questioned my intention to have children–or my expectation that I would.  So, in 1999, when I was diagnosed with PCOS, a condition that creates multiple health complications–including possible infertility, I was stunned.  In addition to the challenges of managing a chronic health problem, I was face to face with the possibility of not having children.

In 2004, I had the joyful surprise of a positive pregnancy test.  I thought that I had dodged the odds and that maybe I could take away the power of that earlier diagnosis.  I got to hear a heartbeat and see a beautiful little person moving about on the sonogram.

The Crisis

And then.  Then there was the appointment when there was no heartbeat.  Then there was the sonogram where there was no movement.  Then there was a flurry medication and induced labor.  Then there was the recognition that I was spending Mother’s Day weekend delivering a baby who had died. Then something that had been a dream became a nightmare.

I don’t remember much–they told me later that I almost died too.  I have hazy memories of heat and pain and tears.  I know that I wanted to know when I could wake up and have my life back.  I remember holding my tiny, perfect little boy–whose fingers and toes were all there, but whose heart just quit working.

The Dark

It took over a month for my body to heal, for the doctors to release me from the activity restrictions and pronounce me ready to return to real life.  But the rest of the healing–that seemed like it was never going to happen.  Seeing pregnant women hurt me.  Seeing newborn babies hurt me.  Sunshine and laughter hurt me.

I think that, maybe, I didn’t want to heal.  It felt like healing meant letting go.  It felt like healing meant saying that it was okay that my son died while other babies were born into homes where they would be abused or neglected.

I stumbled through life.  My body went to work, my body did chores at home–sometimes.  I was moody and tearful–most of the time.  I’m pretty sure that I didn’t actually participate in most of my relationships.  I was too trapped in the darkness inside of my head and my heart.  The broken spaces that felt like they could never stop hurting.  The ugly spaces that resented everyone who had what I had lost.

Looking back now, I know that most of my family and friends were frightened for me.  They grieved the loss of my son, but they also worried that they were losing me.  I don’t think that their worries were exaggerated or off base.  I was feeling pretty lost myself. I know that, even if I wasn’t suicidal, I wasn’t very committed to my life at that time.

A Path to Light

Finally, in desperation, eight months after our son died, my partner suggested attending a perinatal bereavement support group.  And in that group, I (and we) found our path out of the dark.  Everyone sitting around that table, including the facilitating therapist, had lost children.  They understood my grief, my anger, my despair, my frustration.  They passed the Kleenex, and didn’t suggest that maybe I should just “be over it” by now.  They helped me feel found–and accepted.  They acknowledged my son as a real person and my grief as real grief.

Between the group and the individual support sessions, I found my way back to myself.  I allowed myself to think about a future, to plan for children, to redefine my world.  It wasn’t easy or fast.  I never approach Mother’s Day weekend without some sadness.  I am a different person than I was before the darkness.

My Hope

I didn’t choose to share this story so that you would be sad with me.  In fact, I have a loving partner, and beautiful children (there are lots of ways to make a family).  I would never have chosen my time in the darkness, and I know that because of it, I am kinder and more compassionate.  I value life more than I did before.

I chose to share this story because my darkness was changed by the presence of good mental health care.  Without that group, my outcome may have been different.  If you only take away one thing, I hope it is this: we will all face dark times, and we all deserve good support to find our way through them.  If you are in the dark, please don’t hesitate to reach out, to me or to other resources, for the help you deserve.

Reconnect With What You Love

I have had several conversations in the past few weeks with folks who were really struggling.  And when I asked them what they were doing to take care of themselves, the common theme in their answer was that they had gotten disconnected from something they love to do (exercise, paint, etc.).  As I listened to them, I realized that I was feeling their pain.  I’ve been disconnected from something I love too.

I began blogging over five years ago.  What started as an exercise in trying to provide good online content (and maybe build my business a bit in the process) rapidly turned into something that I loved doing.  I moved from monthly posts to weekly posts, to even more frequent posts.  I realized that writing is an important outlet for me.  I feel like I am providing a service to my clients and those folks who may not be able to be my clients because of distance or other constraints.  Sitting down to write focuses me on the work that I do, and helps me clarify my professional purpose.   And I just love to do it. During my busy years, I was writing 50-60 original posts a year.  This year, I have written less than 20 posts.

There are some valid reasons for that. I’m doing more at school with my kids.  My practice has been incredibly busy.  My work hours are limited during the summer.

But I think there are also some insidious self-sabatoging reasons.  Some reasons linked to my internal messaging about what I should be able to accomplish with my hours.  Some reasons that tie into the tendency to try to hide the shame that I feel when I don’t live up to my goals.  Or a struggle to admit that I still feel shame when I don’t live up to my goals.

Because I know better than that. Right?  I wrote two years ago that we deserve self-care no matter what.  I have written post after post about restarting something after we’ve been interrupted.  I know this stuff.  I teach this stuff.

And the truth is, we have days or weeks or months or years that getting reconnected is a struggle.  That we try to restart and can’t quite get there.  That we haven’t managed to reboot.  Or maybe we tell ourselves  that we’ve had enough chances to restart.  That we were supposed to have figured it out already.  I know that I have heard some of that messaging this year.

So here is another truth.  I love to write.  And I will continue to write.  I’d love to write at least one post a week.  But I’m going to continue to write even if I am barely scraping by at one post a month.  Because I love to do it.  And that is a good enough reason.  I don’t have to write often enough. I don’t have to be profound enough.  I don’t have to meet any predetermined rules about how I participate in something that I love.  I love to do it.  And that means that I am allowed to write whenever I can make the time to do so.  No matter what the little shame demon says.

Are you missing something that you love?  Has it been out of your life for a while? Is your shame demon keeping you from re-engaging with that love?  Whether it is writing or moving or art or performing–I hope that you do something this week that you love.  Want to share it in the comments?  That would be amazing.  Want some help getting reconnected?  Let me know–we can work on being human together.

Is it Time for a Break?

One of my best mental health breaks is getting outside.

Next Monday, August 24th, I’ll be joining the #BCSM (Breast Cancer and Social Media) community again for their Monday night tweet chat.  Our topic is going to be “mental health breaks.”  I’ve been kicking this idea around in my head for a while, and one of the things that has come up for me is that many of the clients I work with in the office, as well as people that I interact with in health communities really struggle with the idea of taking a break.

Living with cancer can be a consuming experience.  It can feel like a full-time job to manage early treatment, and a very different job to cope with ongoing fatigue, chemobrain, and other long-term treatment effects.  In addition to that, cancer and other illness can be like an earthquake in your relationships and work life.  It makes a lot of sense that trying to create mental health breaks can feel unattainable or like a chore.

And all of that is why making space for breaks matters.  When your body has taken huge hits, and so much of your experience has been wrenched out of your control, it becomes really important to focus on what you can control.  And investments (big and small) in your overall mental health are definitely under your control.

So let’s look at some of the reasons we aren’t getting these mental health breaks.

Reason 1: I don’t have time to do that stuff.

Baloney.  Mental health breaks don’t need to be a week-long vacation. or an hour of meditation.  Not that either of those are bad.  You can give yourself a mental break in under one minute.  Try focusing for 10-12 seconds on a sensation of comfort, connection, or pleasure–the taste of your coffee, the sound of kids laughing, the warmth of a favorite blanket.  For that 10-12 seconds, really immerse yourself in how good that moment feels. Try to identify how you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling that goodness. This is an exercise that neuroscientist Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good.”

Reason 2:  Treatment has taken up so much of my time, energy, money, etc that I don’t have any resources left over to take care of my mental health.

It can be easy to think of mental health & self-care as luxury items, but they aren’t.  Not only are they absolutely essential to our overall health, but you can take a break for your mental health in ways that don’t take up more of your resources.  You can change your scenery (get outside, get to a lovely indoor space, add a plant to your desk or bedroom).  You can move around–even some gentle stretches can begin to release endorphins & lift your mood.  You can breathe–3-5 deep breaths are enough to reset a stressed out-brain.

Reason 3:  It’s not fair to my spouse/kids/family/friends/employer if I focus on me. Isn’t that selfish?

Nope. No way. Not at all. Not even a little. Self-care is not selfish.  Focusing on mental health actually helps you be a better partner, parent, friend or co-worker.  Just think about how you act and feel when you are exhausted or upset.  Is it your best self? Can you make good judgments and extend compassion? I can’t.  I need to have a basic foundation of rest, self-care, and mental health time outs, so that I can be the best person possible in my relationships.  Taking mental health breaks helps me (and you) to be the person that others count on.  Without those breaks, we are all more brittle and likely to, well, break.

This is just a tiny sampling of how you can challenge the blocks to your own mental health breaks.  Want more? Join us on Monday night for the #BCSM Community tweet chat.


Life is Pain–Reboot

This post was originally published in August 2011.  It’s one that I still find myself revisiting with clients, so I brought it back to the surface for you. It was originally inspired by the response to the Joplin tornado and I was reminded of it again as I have been listening to the accounts of the Mother Emmanuel Congregation and other members of black churches in the U.S.

“Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”–William Goldman

As a child, I was captivated by the rapid word-play, stunning sword fights, and memorable characters in the movie adaptation of William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride.” As an adult, I read the novel, and I was struck by how much Goldman focuses on the existence of pain, and the inherent unfairness present in life. The seed of this post has been floating around in my head for a long time, but it crystallized with aid from this post from Jonathan Fields.

And for those of us with any functioning empathy, the recent episodes of ongoing violence have been filled with heartbreak by proxy–reminders of how vulnerable we all are to pain and loss.

Whenever we face an intensely painful situation–whether it’s a natural disaster or a broken relationship–we have a tendency to try to avoid the pain. This can be especially true when we face new possibilities or new situations. It is not unusual for me to sit with folks who have accepted many restrictions on their lives in an effort to avoid pain. I think all of us have been in this position. We stay in relationships that aren’t life-giving because we fear the pain of freeing ourselves for better things. We avoid getting into relationships because we fear the pain of relationships failing. We dodge the dentist because we might experience pain while in the office. Whether it’s physical pain or emotional pain, we convince ourselves that if we follow the rules (whatever those rules may be) well enough, we might just be able to avoid the pain.

Here’s the problem. When we allow ourselves to get tied up into rigid rules an roles in our attempts to avoid pain, we fall into a trap. There are two levels to this trap.

On the first level, there is often a fair amount of pain involved in our pain-avoidance strategies. If we are avoiding relationships to avoid the pain of hurt or betrayal, we are coping with the pain of loneliness. If we stay in an unhealthy relationship to avoid the pain of a break-up, we are coping with the pain of feeling unheard or not loved enough.

On the second level, (which grows from the first level), we are ignoring the reality that pain is inevitable. Whether we are dealing with the small pains of miscommunication in an important relationship, or the devastating pain of a loved one’s death, pain is a part of our experience of life. Our attempts to protect ourselves from pain generally lead to isolation. Attempts to avoid pain can also deprive us of the very experiences that make life worth living: connection, friendship, & love.

So, when I think about William Goldman’s quote, I realize that there are some deeper meanings here. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can stop tying ourselves into knots to try to avoid the pain. We can use our energy for more productive activities. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can more fully embrace those good and life-giving experiences that counterbalance the ain. We can truly show up in our relationships, instead of holding part of ourselves in reserve. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we become more resistant & more resilient. We are not willing to blindly follow anyone who promises to protect us from pain. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can exercise our compassion to support others through their own moments of pain. The counterbalance to the horror of the Joplin tornado is the incredible outpouring of support and caring that is continuing right this moment.

So how about you? Was there a moment that you realized you were trying to avoid the pain–but losing a lot of the good stuff in the process?

No Time Limit on Feelings

It’s not unusual for me to sit with a client, especially a new client, who has been told some variety of this message, “All right now. Your loss/challenge/tragedy happened at least two weeks (months, years, etc.) ago. It’s time to dust yourself off and get back to life.” Basically, the message is that your feelings have a time limit. Oh, and that time limit is determined by someone who isn’t living in your head or your heart.

I call BS on that message. I think it’s a load of horse hockey.

Our feelings, particularly the tough ones, play out in their own time. There’s no way to fast forward them. And pretending that we should just be able to “move on” is not particularly helpful. When the people around us share that message, we begin to feel shame and confusion in addition to our grief and loss.

This topic came up strongly for me earlier this year. The first part of May is a tough stretch for me. I usually have at least one day or so that I can tell my emotions are pretty fragile. And I’m not dealing with new grief. Mine is eleven years old–plenty long enough for me to have “gotten over it,” at least according to our cultural messages. And, while I am no longer in that grief space where you feel paralyzed by the strength and weight of your loss, I am also not “over it.” I probably never will be fully “over it.” And I am fine with that truth. I believe that there are some losses that touch us so deeply that we are permanently changed by them

That doesn’t mean I can’t function. It doesn’t mean that I’m broken. It means that I was broken once, and that the experience was an essential part of who I am today. And sometimes, that emotional scar tissue is tender. Fortunately, my training and the supportive relationships in my life (including therapy when I’ve needed it) have made it possible for me to have those “tender scar tissue” days without feeling as though that means I’m doing something wrong.

Feeling my feelings–or your feelings–is not wrong. Even if those feelings don’t quite match up with someone else’s definition of how and when you should feel.

Now, if your feelings are so big and so painful that they are interfering with your ability to participate in life, then it’s time to get some support for that. But that doesn’t mean that having your feelings is wrong. It just means that right now, they are big and painful.

It can be easy to buy into the messages that you hear about how you are supposed to do grief, or healing, or recovery from illness and loss. It can be easy to slip into that shamed space where you feel like your own coping is wrong. But I’m here to say to you: Feelings don’t have a time limit. You aren’t doing it wrong.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share, please do do in the comments. If you need some help with the big, painful feelings, that button to the right will get you directly to my schedule.

Step to the Side

So many of my clients are facing really big challenges. Physical challenges, relationship challenges, emotional challenges, challenges of anxiety and more. And it’s not unusual for me to hear them talk about about feeling overwhelmed. Trying to manage their challenges has got them worn out. They have more going on than they can juggle and they are not sure what to do next. And because their difficulties aren’t taking a break, they don’t feel as though they ever get a break. Even when there isn’t a current crisis, it feels like one is lurking just around they corner, and they feel like they need to remain constantly on guard.

Does that sound familiar?

If it does, maybe this tool will help you too.

When I am sitting with a client who is feeling completely bombarded by difficult situations, anxious thoughts, etc., I invite them to take a few moments to practice this visualization with me. So I’ll invite you to do the same thing.

Step To The Side:

First, take a few moments to sit as comfortably as you can. Try to be sure that your body is well supported by the chair or sofa you are on. Then, allow your breathing to become even and steady, bringing a consistent flow of oxygen into your body and brain.

When you are feeling comfortable and supported, when your breathing is calm and even, imagine a river. This is a pretty large river, large enough to gain some speed as it moves along. Now, imagine that, as you round a curve in the river you see a waterfall. The waterfall isn’t enormous, but it is large enough for a grown person to stand underneath it.

Now imagine that you are standing in the center of the waterfall. The full force of the river is crashing down on and around you. It is loud, and overwhelming. In fact, it feels as though it could knock you over and sweep you downstream. The middle of the waterfall represents today in your life. Staying there can be scary.

You can’t stop the river from flowing.

You can’t stop the water from crashing over the falls.

But you can step to the side of the river.

You can observe the falls without being in the center, at least right now. You can know that the difficulty you face is real, without sitting in the middle of it. You can step to the side and enjoy some room to breathe, to feel supported, to take a break.

This isn’t about denying the difficulties you face. Instead, stepping to the side allows you to gather your strength for re-entering whatever challenge your river of life brings you.

Try It On

I would guess that you, like my clients, have had moments where the realities of your life feel like that river trying to sweep you away. So, I’m inviting you to step to the side today. Have you had a moment when you were able to step to the side? Please feel free to share in the comments. Need some help getting there? Just click that button on the right hand side.


“The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty and compassion.”–Karim Wasfi

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a huge fan of public radio, partly because it connects me to stories that I might otherwise miss in my full life. I heard an NPR story last week that stopped me in my tracks. It was such a perfect illustration of the power and grace of the human spirit that I had to share it with you.

Here’s the short summary. Karim Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, and a cellist. After car bombs went off in his neighborhood, he took his cello to the bomb site and began to play. A friend video-taped his performance, and it has gone viral. In case you missed it, here’s the video:

Since then, the friend who created the video has been killed in a different bombing. Mr. Wasfi faces a daily level of danger that most Americans can’t quite imagine. I think that many of us would have stopped at that point. I know that I would be struggling with fear, anger, and a sense that this level of destruction and violence is profoundly unfair. The kinds of conditions that the citizens of Iraq and other countries living through war & terrorism are enough to bring many of us to a state of paralysis. But Karim Wasfi has continued to take his cello to sites of bombings. He has continued to bring “civility, beauty, and compassion” with him at each space.

While we might not be able to imagine being under threat of car bomb or IED on a daily basis, many people can identify with the sensation of being faced by a challenge or pain that they didn’t want or choose. That pain may be a betrayal, or an illness. It may be a loss. There are so many ways that we face unfair or undeserved pain.

What Karim Wasfi demonstrates is that, while we can’t choose the challenges or pain that enter our lives, we can choose our own response. We never lose the ability to choose how we interact in the world, and what we want to project out. So, if you are in pain today, I hope that you hear the beauty of Karim Wasfi’s cello, and that you are able to find something of yourself to choose to share.

Do you have a choice you’ve already made that you want to share in the comments? If so, I’d love to hear it. If you need help finding your way to the choices that best express you, I’m just a click or phone call away.

I’ll give the last words to Karim Wasfi:

“Unlike what people think, we have a choice of fighting back. We can’t just surrender to the impending doom of uncertainty by not functioning. But I think it’s an awakening for everybody to make a choice and to choose how they want to live, not how they want to die.”–Karim Wasfi

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