Friday, September 8, 2017

The Wheel

In the gray land, where does loneliness end and depression begin? Can they be separated, or are they like two flavors of ice cream swirling out of the same dispenser, to melt in a sticky dark puddle at the bottom of the dish? And what about grief– is that a third flavor, or just the cherry on top?

I had an idea, after Livia and Lucy died, that the shape of grief might be linear, something in line with the "five stages", and we would move through them at our own pace. But now I find that grief is really a wheel, and in all the circumstances of the last five months that wheel has rolled round again and I am almost as crushed under its weight as I was in those first bloody months of mourning. I find myself suddenly back in that Wasteland of grief, the literal desert in which I now live mirrored by the spiritual desert of my soul, and the only rain is my tears.

I suspect this rolling round of the wheel, this fresh foray into the world of trauma, flashbacks, sudden meltdowns and long, numb afternoons, has much to do with this third pregnancy of mine. The presence of the little Ladybug growing inside me re-awakens all the memories carried in my deepest mind and most hidden parts of my body. Even as she stretches out my skin, I am stretched back, back to the freshness of the first grief, re-living the death and birth of her big sisters. I crouch down in the dark, trying to convince myself that Ladybug's story will be different, trying to beat back the familiar fear of making preparations too soon, trying to convince myself to buy the baby clothes, to take delight in preparing for a little girl.

In the aftermath of our girls' death, we had a community to come around us, friends and family to sit and cry with us. I had friends to listen as I poured out my heart over and over. We had people living in the same town who prayed for us and sheltered us with love through the eye of the storm. And even more than that, I had a sense, from within and from our community, that all the gritty work of grieving was what I was supposed to be doing. Grief was my job, and that was right and good.

But that was more than three years ago. Now we live in a place that seems utterly separate from Livia and Lucy and their story. We no longer live in the house in which they were conceived, and in which we mourned them. We are far away from our families, and from their grave in Colorado. We have no one here who walked with us through their story, and yet here I am again, feeling myself in the eye of the storm. The wheel has rolled round again, but everyone else has moved on, and I am left feeling impossibly lonely. I know that no one would ever in a million years say, "get over it", but the unspoken assumption is that I will carry on and outwardly function as if I have "gotten over it." Grief isn't my job any longer, or at least, it's expected to be something I can just cram in around the very edges, by myself, because the rest of the world has moved on.

I am having Skype sessions with a psychiatrist who specializes in pregnancy and post-partum. I had the first session with her because of the darkness of depression, but we've spent almost every session talking mostly about Livia and Lucy. And I can't help but wonder– is this what we do in first world countries? When the wheel turns again and we find ourselves crushed again, but it's been however many years since the tragedy and we feel that no one else wants to hear, we turn to the professionals and pay money for a safe place to cry once more.



I don't know where God is in all of this. My heart hurts too much for theological explanations, and my prayers are choked by tears and weariness. But I did have this bit of encouragement, last week, in a section of a book that I pick up every now and then, when I feel I can. It is a book written for the hearts and souls of moms, a Christian book that, unlike many many other Christian books, does not heap more burdens on the already bruised shoulders of a weary mama like myself. And in addressing pain, the author writes of three spiritual practices in the midst of painful seasons.*
"Be honest. Whether you're suffering from plugged nursing ducts or postpartum depression, the loneliness of an emptying nest or a child's destructive choices, there is no benefit in pretending pain isn't there when it is. Be honest with yourself about what is happening and how you feel about it. Be honest with trusted friends– even if this requires great courage. Seek compassionate, professional help when you need it. Anguish is terrible. When we deny that we're suffering, we let the pain control and destroy us. In naming our pain, we have the chance to survive and even grow in the process."

I write this post to name my pain, to be honest with those of you from whom I am far away, but who know my story.

"Seek God. Just as the hunger pains of fasting remind us to let go of self-reliance and throw ourselves on God, the ache of life reminds us to seek him. There are many ways to do this, so find one that fits your temperament and situation. Sing a worship song, proclaiming a beauty that flies in the face of despair. Pray over and over, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" as you go through your day. Light a candle to remember that there is a flicker of light the darkness has not overcome. Kneel on the ground and practice surrendering to him, waiting for his fulness. Physically, literally hold up your hands to him, through tears if need be, just as your children do when they need your comfort."

This was the practice that I was scared to read, lest all I should hear was a long list of Law, of all the ways I was failing. I cried at the gentleness and compassion of what followed, the Grace that does not quench a flickering candle with expectations and lists. I've come back to this in the past days, whispering my plea for mercy again and again.
"Keep walking. Some days we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when we see no light ahead. Sometimes we have to just walk until one day we realize we're in a better place than where we started. Treat the pain of life as you did the contractions of labor. Can I do this forever? No. But can I do it for ten minutes? Yes. And then ten more. And then ten more."

One foot in front of the other. Ten minutes more. I don't know how to get through the next three months, the next six, the next year. But I think I can do ten minutes. Ten minutes of ordinariness, ten minutes of mothering my son, ten minutes of bruised, bloody aching in my heart. Ten minutes of lightness, ten minutes of darkness. Ten minutes of laughter, ten minutes of tears.
 

*Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline. By Catherine McNiel. The excerpts I've quoted are from the end of Chapter 7.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Celebrating ALL of Pregnancy

I was going to write another blog post about depression, but then yesterday I read this hilarious piece from The Ugly Volvo called "Being Pregnant Turns You Into an Ethereal Wood Nymph" and I snorted and snickered my way through it and posted it on my older sister's Facebook (she is a midwife so pregnancy is kind of her deal) and then today we talked about it some on the phone and I've decided to write this piece instead.

I want to begin with a disclaimer– that if you are or have been one of those pregnant ladies who have had the beautiful, artistic, glowing pregnancy photo shoot, I am not making fun of you. I think it's great that you did that. Pregnancy is beautiful, and it's absolutely a wonderful thing to celebrate that by dressing up and having gorgeous photos taken of you. I am all about celebrating pregnancy bumps. I was remarking to a friend just the other day how I much prefer wearing the more snug-fitting tops that show off my bump, and that I'm so glad that maternity fashions no longer require pregnant women to wear tents.

I even get, to a certain extent, the current fashion in some pregnancy photography circles to dress up pregnant women to look like ethereal wood nymphs. There is a sense in which those types of photo shoots are trying to reclaim the natural-ness of pregnancy– that it's not just waiting rooms and exam tables and bloodwork, that there is something earthy about pregnancy and birth that will always be present no matter how clinical the language and environment we try to box them into is. Even though I would never in a million years do an almost-naked except for strategically placed hands/hair/scarves pregnancy photo shoot, I can admire the women who do, and join in the celebration that the pregnant body is something really beautiful, something we can celebrate, not something indelicate or indecent that should be hidden behind tent-like clothing. The human form has been celebrated in art for centuries, and I see this as another medium for that.

All that being said, I told my sister that what I want is to find some photographer who wants to rebel against the wood nymph pregnancy photography and do a photo shoot of what pregnancy really looks like. Partly just because I'm snarky like that, but partly because I think if we only celebrate pregnancy with the beautiful, glowing, ethereal photos, we're really only celebrating a tiny part of pregnancy.

Because let's face it, those photo shoots are an hour out of 40ish long weeks, and I don't think anyone– I'm willing to bet you no one on God's green earth, even celebrities that have their own personal makeup artists and hair stylists– looks glowing and ethereal every hour of the 6,720ish hours that your average pregnancy lasts.

If we are really celebrating pregnancy, and not just the ideal image of pregnancy at its absolute most picturesque, then where is the photo of me with my head in the toilet dry-heaving before breakfast? Or how about a photo of that time where I only showered once in a week, and when I went to bed each night I changed into a fresh t-shirt of my husband's– not because I was big enough at that point to need that size, but simply because the neckline of his t-shirts was high enough and close-fitting enough that I couldn't smell the reek of my unwashed body coming up through the neckhole? This was the same stage where I didn't eat any fresh vegetables for six weeks, because I couldn't stand the idea of eating them. "Do you want a salad, dear?" asks my husband. "No– no thanks, just give me more meat," I say, feeling like a mountain man. Or like Ron Swanson.

I'm halfway into my second trimester now, but I have yet to wake on any day feeling ethereal or glowing. In fact, the mornings are a toss-up– will I wake up and not want to get out of bed because of depression, or will I not want to get out of bed because I feel tireder than when I went to sleep? Or am I depressed because I am so tired? Can we please get a photo of me sprawled on the couch half-asleep, still in my pajamas at 11:30am, while my toddler watches Wall-E for the thirty-millionth time? Because this is pregnancy, folks.

The settings of the photos, too– let's pay attention to those. Frankly, I would love to be in a beautiful forest– or any beautiful nature setting anywhere (as long as there are flushing toilets somewhere close by, because you can bet me 25 Kegel exercises I am not squatting in the woods, sister!) Actually, forget nature. I would just love to be in a completely clean, completely picked-up house. I confessed tremulously to my sister my dreadful realization that I am never going to have a tidy house ever again. Or at least, not until Sean and this new baby are both big enough to be ordered to pick up their toys and have them follow through. Last week I decided I was going to pick up the playroom– I just couldn't stand it any longer. Sean helped me a little bit, but as anyone with a toddler knows, it takes five times as much effort and energy to supervise them in picking up toys as it does to just pick them up yourself. (There are times when I am intentional about making him pick up something he was just playing with, and I fully intend someday to have children who know how to pick up their own crap.) Energy is something I am sorely lacking these days, so I decided to just get it all picked up myself. And I did! I even swept the floor with a broom (yay laminate flooring!) I was so proud of myself– until I walked back into the living room, and the dining room, and the kitchen. (I didn't even think about Nate's and my bedroom.) Not only was the rest of the house still a disaster, but I had expended all the little amount of energy I could spare in just dealing with the playroom. I had nothing left to do the rest of the house. It began to dawn on me that I will never catch up– that by the time I had enough energy to deal with the living room, the playroom would no longer be spic-and-span.

So please, can we have a photo of my house– the house where I am just thankful we don't have a problem with rats the way one of Nate's test pilot school classmates has because frankly, my kitchen and dining room floors would be an all-you-can-eat buffet for a rat? We're celebrating pregnancy– and this is the setting for my pregnancy.

Okay, I'm being kind of snarky. Here's what I'm trying to say– can we start to see beauty in all the grime and grunge and messiness of pregnancy, too? If the only part of pregnancy that is beautiful and worth celebrating is the part where we look put together and our hair is done and we're wearing beautiful clothes and we're just big enough to have cute bumps (but we haven't gotten so big we start feeling like beached whales dressed in muumuus), then really what we're saying is that only approximately two and a half hours of pregnancy is beautiful. What about the rest of the time when we haven't been to the hair salon in four months (yep, that's me) and the only reason we're wearing this cute ankle-length skirt is to hide the fact that we haven't shaved our legs in two weeks (me again) and frankly if we had to do a pose that represents our strongest emotion about pregnancy then we'd look something like a dead cockroach with its legs in the air (except my back hurts so I can't keep my legs in the air very long.)

What about the pregnant moms who are depressed, like me? What about the ones who are so sick the whole pregnancy that they can't even function? What about the high-risk pregnancies that are full of fear and uncertainty? What about the rainbow pregnancies that are the same– because we are mamas who have lost babies and have a hard time experiencing any joy because we are so afraid of losing this baby too? What about all the pregnancies that are just really really ordinary– where you have those glowing moments, sure, but you also have constipation and heartburn and you wonder how you'll deal with having a tiny human being utterly dependent on you (or another tiny human being utterly dependent on you to add to those ones you already have). Can we start to see that there is beauty in all of those emotions, all of those moments, too? That a pregnant woman is beautiful all the time, not just when she looks like a photo out of a Motherhood Maternity add, because what's going on inside her body and her heart and soul and mind is so miraculous.

So– keep doing the ethereal and glowing maternity photo shoots. Absolutely. And if you want to strip mostly naked and wear a crown of flowers in your hair and sit in a field of wildflowers, you rock, sister.
Just remember– when you're wearing your husband's sweaty t-shirt and there's nothing in your hair but the oatmeal from your toddler's fingers while you try to wipe his face, and you feel like your back is breaking just lifting him down from his high-chair, and you try to remember how many days the laundry has been sitting in the dryer, and how many months it's been since you cleaned the bathroom, and you collapse at night in front of a mindless Netflix show wondering if you will ever be an interesting person and have interesting thoughts like you know you used to but it doesn't even matter because you are just. so. tired...
In those moments, you are beautiful. Your pregnancy is beautiful. The mothering work you are doing– whether this is your first or fifth baby– is beautiful. The beauty is not in spite of the grunge and grime and mess– the sweat and tears and blood. The beauty is because of those things– so let's celebrate them, too.

My wood-nymph pose in a realistic setting.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Depression

I've had a long internal debate over writing this post. Even now, beginning it, I'm not sure if it will be finished, or posted. But beginning is better than nothing.

There are a million blog posts and articles on the internet that you can read about depression. Why add to them?

But one thing struck me in all my Googlings of military wife depression and prenatal depression and that is that I didn't come up with many personal stories of depression from in the midst of being depressed. And I know that for many people, that's because depression is such a dark place that trying to form anything coherent about depression while they are depressed is impossible. I know. About two months ago I was in the same place.

But what about when depression isn't the black hole, but just the daily grey? When you feel like your life isn't terrible, and yet joy and happiness and hope seem like distant memories, or only come in occasional flashes, too soon gone? When people ask you how you are, and you say, "okay", not because you feel okay, but at least you're not suicidal, you're functioning at a basic level, and you're worried that if you talk about how you really are, people will just think you're whiny?

The impression I get is that it's become more socially acceptable to talk about experiencing depression– but only after the fact. We're still rather uncomfortable with depressed people– we'd rather they have recovered and can tell us where they were and how far they've come.

That's one reason I thought perhaps this would be a good post to write.

The other reason was because of something a friend of mine, who has also had depression, said. She asked if I'd written anything recently and I said I hadn't written in months, and she said that sounded like a depression. She said, writing is part of who you are, and depression can make you temporarily lose parts of yourself. And I thought, "Huh." It made sense, and it stuck with me. And so now I've thought maybe, just maybe if I can wrench back that part of myself out of the fog and the daily grey, then maybe it will be a step forward.

So yes– I'm depressed. It's not the first time I've had depression, but this definitely seems like the deepest and the longest it's ever lasted. It's had a few hours/days of downright hellishness, when the only thing that I could think of was going Home to Jesus and Livia and Lucy (and yet at the same time not being able to bear the idea of leaving Sean, or Nate, so I had several vague wishes of a nuclear holocaust so that we could all just be in Heaven together) but I think for the most part that may have been a combination of pregnancy nausea and nutritional deficiencies, since once my midwife ordered me to start taking extra Vitamin D, such morbid fantasies retreated. For the most part, it's not hell– it's just a daily sojourn through the gray, which sometimes is a light mist, and sometimes is a thick fog. Some days are better than others. Some days I feel able to engage with Sean in a way that is good for both of us, and I can stay on top of the household tasks, and I can at least imagine coming to feel at home here on this base in the middle of nowhere in this desert waste, or at least finding enough friends to make it a home. And I imagine things like baking and crafting again, and inviting other moms over to hang out and eat home baked scones while our kids play. And then other days I defeatedly turn on WALL-E to keep Sean occupied because I just cannot give him the attention he asks for, and just unloading the dishwasher feels like a monumental task, and I try numb the feeling of failing at life by playing a computer game or reading an article on a topic with next to no relevance to my life.

One thing I've learned about depression is that it makes small things seem absolutely gigantic. I remember one particularly bad day when I ended up sobbing to Nate that I'd spent the entire day knowing that I needed to wash my hair– this was in the still-nauseated phase when my hair lived in the same uncombed ponytail for days and days– and yet it just seemed so impossible that I didn't do it. What is the matter with me? Why can't I wash my freaking hair? The trusted family and friends I've consulted with agree that counseling would probably be a really good idea for me right now, and I have it written down to call a counselor who comes highly recommended and who might be willing to do counseling over Skype (since she's in Colorado Springs and I'm here.) I've had her number for nearly a week now. I agree with everyone that counseling would be good. And yet here I am. Just the idea of calling up a stranger on the phone and saying, Hi, I'm depressed, can you help me? just seems crazy.

Another thing about depression is that it's really kind of awful to be depressed when you've moved to a new place and are in desperate need of community. Depression is isolating say all the articles and experts but it's crucial to have support. Of course I have my people to whom I've already reached out for help and support and virtual shoulders to cry on, but none of them are here at Edwards. And for someone like me– an introvert who doesn't find making new friends easy anyway– depression just ratchets that up to crazy difficult. In this social climate, friendships rarely begin with vulnerability. People have to know and trust each other before sharing their messiness becomes safe. But for me, at this point, I feel I have nothing to offer but messiness. And being lonely becomes preferable to the chance of being rejected because new acquaintances would rather not know about my messiness. Thus social situations become times when I don my "fine" mask and do my best to pretend, for an hour or two, that I'm normal. Pretending is exhausting, and so the temptation is to isolate myself even more.

I wish I could think of some clever or interesting way of ending this post, but I'm tired. And maybe it's just as well. Depression isn't clever or interesting, and life with depression doesn't tie up in neat little bows and uplifting endings. At least not when you're in the middle of it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Shoulder-to-Shoulder Time

One of the ways in which Nate and I mesh well is that we have very similar ideas of how to spend a vacation. I am a low-energy person and Nate tends towards that as well, especially when he's jet-lagged and coming off a crazy few weeks at the squadron in Korea. He travelled for 24 hours straight to arrive in Colorado Springs half an hour before he left (yay time zones that turn us into time travelers!) and we've had a wonderful time being lazy during his eleven-day stay. I love having very few fixed engagements, doing whatever we feel like doing (as long as that works with Sean's needs.)

Sean is delighted that Daddy is home– he couldn't wait to show Nate everything at Grammy and Grandpa's house, from all his toys, to the electronic piano, to the refrigerator, which is special because that's where the current love of his life– cheese– lives. The day after Nate returned we moved into an Airbnb in Colorado Springs so that we could have our own space for Nate's visit– and I have had a week and a half of living my fantasy of the three of us living in my hometown.

We're belatedly celebrating our fifth anniversary, and though I have lots of different marriage thoughts floating around in my head, the marriage practice upon which I wish to dwell for a moment is the comfortable companionableness that Nate and I have dubbed "shoulder-to-shoulder-time." I can't remember if we got the name from a book or made it up ourselves, but it is a practice which, though I remember resisting when we were first married, I've now grown to love very much.

Shoulder-to-shoulder time is simply being together without necessarily interacting– such as lying at opposite ends of the couch, each reading a book, or watching a movie together, or being in the same room while Nate plays guitar and I write. I initially disliked shoulder-to-shoulder time at the beginning of our marriage because I had the weird idea that if we weren't directly interacting in conversation or doing a specific activity together, then the time together wasn't really valuable. I have since changed my mind. Nate and I are both introverts, and conversation isn't always necessary for us to enjoy each other's presence.


That's really what shoulder-to-shoulder time is about– presence. It is a recognition of the mystery of us being separate people with our own identities, and yet simultaneously being made one by marriage. It is a kind of intimacy different from conversation, or making love, but in my mind the quality of intimacy is simply different, not lesser. I enjoy the quiet affection, the comfortable companionship that makes up so much of day-to-day life. I like having a love that is "broken-in," to quote John Mayer. In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis talks about how exhausting it would be if lovers were constantly in the throes of the kind of love we generally experience at the onset of a relationship– all fireworks and tension and a hurricane of up-and-down emotions. Perhaps it is shoulder-to-shoulder time that helps to mature married couples into being friends and companions, as well as lovers– the kind of partnership in which making love and making dinner are both held in high esteem, where you feel that no matter what may be happening, you belong together.