Another Kind of Family

For the past 13 years, I have spent a significant amount of time with a group of girls. The makeup of this group has changed over the years as has the number in the group. We started with 4, peaked at 22 and now have 5. More than 40 girls have come and gone. Some left when they graduated, others had scheduling conflicts or other activities took precedence, some simply lost interest.

I have managed to stay in touch with most of them, through Facebook, my daughters, or their moms whom I occasionally run into (according to my son, I spent 20 minutes catching up on a couple girls when I ran into their mom in the grocery store just last weekend). Some of the older ones have married, some have kids, and many have graduated college and went on to grad school or are out “in the real world.”

If our Girl Scout troop has had one constant over the years: it is that it has always been changing. Girls came into our family as they moved up from younger levels or joined as their existing troops disappeared. Each change brought challenges. The dynamics changed. When younger girls joined, the older ones were not always welcoming; the new girls were “immature.” After several months, things leveled out and they became “equals” in the eyes of the older girls. We experienced the occasional “clique-iness,” but overall, we have been mostly drama-free.

For the past few years, the membership has remained largely the same. We had a few girls graduate, but no one new join. This year, four graduate, leaving one to go on her own next year.

We just took what is likely our final trip together, into Philadelphia for dinner and a show. I noted at dinner how much of a family we have become. Here was a group of girls, with little in common, sharing (without asking first) each others’ dinners and desserts, laughing and teasing each other – like sisters. If it were not for the fact that they were thrown together in a troop, they possibly would not even be friends. Their interests are diverse. They are very strong young women, who generally like to voice their thoughts and opinions. They lead very active lives, which has made scheduling events difficult, (and infrequent) but they have managed to have bonding moments anyway.

We have laughed together and learned from each other. They have pushed me to try new things and we have encouraged each other to succeed. We have had adventures that have been a little frightening (we had a few people end up in the Lehigh River while rafting), challenging (climbing and zipping through trees, climbing ropes at circus school) and just plain fun (feeding giraffes at the zoo, going to the movies and theater). Countless memories were made and thankfully, I have many of them documented in photographs.

Now we all move on … to discover new things. And, of course, to make the world a better place.

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When the Journey Is the Goal

As life seems to spiral out of control, I am trying to slow down and enjoy the moments. Too often, we set our sights on a goal: achieving something, going somewhere, and neglect to appreciate what it takes to get there.

In recent months, I have taken a number of long trips visiting colleges. Being the passenger, I have had more opportunity to notice the surroundings and take note of whether there were any points along the way that would be worth stopping at should we have a future occasion to travel the same path again. In each case, I noticed some points of interest and hoped we would have a reason to be there again. In all likelihood, though, we will probably drive right on through each time.

Too often, the goal becomes so much the focus that nothing else is seen. In looking ahead to our destination, we put blinders on and miss out on what is in between. We are in a rush to get there. But what do we miss out on in the meantime? Each year, the world becomes a smaller place; the distance from New Jersey to California is now a small one. However, there is a lot of wonderful stuff between New Jersey and California. Should we miss out on all of it just because we can make the trip quickly?

In some cases, the rush is necessary. We have appointments or other timely commitments. But what about downtime? Do we even know what that is anymore? I have seen a commercial recently where children are berating adults for not taking vacation time. Though I cannot tell you what this is advertising, the sentiment is a powerful one. We need to take time, and more of it needs to be unplanned.

I have fond memories from my childhood of getting into the family car and driving, destination unknown. We would seek out the smallest roads, the small, squiggly lines on the road map, and got excited when we found one that was not on the map at all. We made it through most of a summer doing this almost weekly and discovered some wonderful restaurants, arcades, parks and even a small fair (which had added excitement when the power went out!). The journey WAS the destination. We had no plan, no agenda; we were just out for a ride. (Of course this was in the day of 88 cent a gallon gas.)

It was a simpler time. There were fewer distractions. Fewer billboards, fewer cars on the road, no technology in the car. On long rides, we amused ourselves playing word games, waving at truck drivers on the highway, or took a nap. We may have had a book, or paper and pencils (for playing hangman and building boxes), but for the most part, we saw the scenery and enjoyed time together.

We have become accustomed to life zooming past. Schedules are full. Having family members going in opposite directions and/or being double-booked is not an infrequent occurrence. We have gotten to the point that it is slowing down that takes effort, and planning.

Many people focus on where they want to be, not where they are. Take hiking. Some people set a goal: “I am going to hike 10 miles today” and then do it: hike ten miles, often at a fast pace, then celebrate the accomplishment (perhaps through an exercise app on social media). When I go hiking, I prefer to set a goal to work toward. Whether I actually reach it is not relevant (unless of course it means I would be sleeping on the trail if I didn’t). I hike for the experience. I want to see, smell, hear and feel my surroundings. I want to experience all that nature is offering. Reaching the end is sometimes a disappointment, because it means the journey is over.

I want to extend that idea to the rest of my life. I want to slow down. See and smell the roses, and the mountain laurel. Check out the roadside attractions. Follow paths to see where they lead. Explore state parks. Someday maybe take a cross-country road trip. Meet people. Talk to them. Share experiences. Try new things. Slow down, and just be.

Surviving

I think it is time to address the other “elephant,” the one that has a hold of me that I cannot seem to shake – Guilt. Logic says that I shouldn’t be feeling this. I haven’t done anything to cause it, yet it is there, weighing on me, making me reconsider what is important. Since I did nothing to cause it, I am equally powerless to shake it.

I remember a similar feeling on September 11. So many lives were lost, none touched me directly, but I was overwhelmed by grief. How could I hope to have that feeling lessened when so many others would have to spend the rest of their lives coping with the changes that horrible act wrought on their lives. This is frequently referred to as “survivor’s guilt.” However, in this case, this name doesn’t quite seem to fit.

I seem to have been flooded lately with stories of mothers who have lost their children. It feels wrong that I go about my days, doing all the things that earn me the title “Mom” and feeling sad that they are moving away from me, on to college and their own lives. How dare I feel sad about something so trivial when there are those who will never have the chance to do the same, who have lost their children forever. How dare I complain about the carpools, the messy rooms, the teenage attitude.

A year ago, our family suffered a tragic loss. My beautiful niece, Marin Elizabeth, died, just 2 months before she was to be born. Her parents very generously allowed us to share their grief. Her mom was quick to acknowledge that we are grieving as well – for what was lost and for what could have been.

Demonstrating a strength perhaps even she had not known she had, her mom welcomed family and friends into her world, even offering all of us the opportunity to see and even hold her baby if we so desired. Many were surprised by this, as it is something so foreign and unimaginable. I was originally caught off guard, but quickly realized that it is really a perfectly natural thing to do. As a mother, I know that nothing could stop me from holding my child.

Prior to this, I had not really thought about the concept of sharing grief. Maybe she realized (as I now have) that grief, like love, expands, like ripples on a current, spreading and being enhanced as it grows. Thinking about it, isn’t grief really about love? Without love, would we care about loss at all?

Adults are not supposed to outlive their children. That is not the normal state of affairs. This death is difficult to comprehend, thus difficult to accept. It is painful to think about what could have been and more so to think about the reality. I know however that my pain pales next to that of her parents. I cannot begin to fathom the depth of their feelings. I am grateful that I was allowed into their lives and that they are letting us all take this difficult journey with them.

I think I may finally understand why some people memorialize deaths of loved ones. Personally, these are dates I don’t remember, preferring to think of deceased loved ones on their birthdays, which hold much happier memories for me. Some leave this earth too soon and do not have the opportunity to leave their mark – to make the world a better place. We need to make sure that there is some record for them, to mark their potential for greatness, that was stolen from them through no fault of their own. In a small way, this is what I hope to do here, to prove that Marin was here, that she was special, that she was loved.

Many good, kind souls have gone before her. Like her, they come, unbidden to my mind at random times (frequently in the middle of the night) and touch something deep inside me. Although I am struggling to comprehend what God’s plan could possibly be, I am confident that she is in good hands.

Depression, Loss, Grief

tree in winter, b&w

It is curious that these topics keep on showing up: on my Facebook newsfeed, on TV, in the news. I have started writing about this, then abandoned the idea several ideas in the past few months. Among other excuses was the thought that expressing my opinions here might be considered “irresponsible.” I have been pondering this and reminded myself of my purpose in writing this blog and decided to go for it. With my very limited audience, I don’t think I have to worry that anyone will take my opinions as medical advice. The current atmosphere suggests that things should be out in the open, that we need to acknowledge things in order to accept them. This is also a step well outside my comfort zone.

There are some things in life that you just don’t understand until you experience them yourself. You may empathize with someone, you may think you know how it feels, but without the actual experience, you really don’t “get it.” Into this category, I would put childbirth, migraines and I would now add depression.

Everyone has heard (and many have seen) that childbirth is a painful process, and we have all heard about how you “forget” the pain (you don’t, you just decide that it was worth it). Given the nature of migraines, many people dismiss them as being a “bad headache.” (Nope, not even close.) And depression, well that is a big one and like many other things, experienced differently and to different degrees with influencing factors too numerous to list. Not only is there the stigma about anything related to “mental health,” there is also the idea that it is something that one can “snap out of” and that it is just being really sad.

“Really sad” is a fully inadequate term. It may describe some experiences of depression, but what I went through a few months ago was NOT really about being sad. Instead it was an overwhelming feeling of apathy, an emptiness, a hollowness that nothing could seem to penetrate. I would say it was more a lack of joy than an actual sadness. I knew what it was, I knew I was in a dark place, but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. There were memory lapses that scared me (was I suffering early onset Alzheimer’s?) and I had frequent, debilitating headaches. It was the most unsocial holiday season of my life. After a few doctor visits and many tests, it has been determined that my brain is fine and the headaches were likely brought on by this depression.

Why did it start? Multiple factors were likely in play, with the loss of my dog probably a precipitating event (though it took well over a month after that happened to get to the lowest point). Why did it stop? That is even more of a mystery. While in this dark tunnel, I was convinced that there would be an end, that I would pull through and things would return to “normal.” (Normal is very much a changing state of being. Life events constantly bring on a new normal.) I knew I was depressed, but was not concerned that it needed any sort of intervention, that time would heal me. I have always been a firm believer that our bodies can overcome many ailments, if we let them (eating well, sleeping well – our bodies are designed to tell us what they need – we just need to listen).

That is where my fact-finding mission made me question things. When looking up major depression on medical websites (and yes, using their criteria, that is an accurate assessment of how I felt) all indications are that it cannot be “cured” without some sort of professional intervention. Knowing how serious this can be and possible repercussions of unrecognized/untreated depression, I wonder if that attitude is an instance of CYA in the medical community. I don’t doubt my “diagnosis” and know that I was not treated for it, it just went away on its own.

What I do know about depression is that is has given me a new outlook and appreciation for not having it. Over the next couple weeks, I felt stronger and more aware in general. It is almost as if I had forgotten what it feels like to be truly alive. Now, I feel energized, ready to take on challenges, dig deep, and get things accomplished. I also know that I would rather not go back into that dark place and will need to pay attention to early signs and make different decisions (like getting outside more and eating healthier, which I should be doing anyway).

It is an interesting coincidence that articles and blogs about depression and mindful living keep appearing. It may be that I am more in tune to them now or it may be that the climate is right for self-awareness in general. I think it is a very good thing that mental health issues are staying in the public eye. Every week I seem to see some new promising development addressing health issues relating to the brain.

Depression is frightening. It was to me and I am sure it was to my family who had to live through it with me. Like other brain issues, it varies widely from one individual to another. There is no one treatment that is right for everyone, nor is treatment always necessary. (The doctor referred to three months being “too soon” after my loss and explained that is why he held off on prescribing medication then. A month later, we determined that it was not needed.) It is possibly the only area in which doctors seem willing to admit they don’t know “why.” Treatment seems to be a “let’s try this” course of action. Web searches turn up more options than you can read through. As is true with many other ailments, exercise and a good diet can have positive results.

From my viewpoint, last year was a horrible year. Terrible things happened to people I love. There were many tests and trials and too many losses. I have felt that my loss is insignificant compared to that of others and that my reaction was disproportionate. An article I read recently hints that I am not alone in this feeling and that it is common among pet owners to not allow themselves to fully grieve, since it “was just a dog/cat/etc.” I have to say that I am a bit surprised, and very appreciative of the people in my life who have made a point to remind me that I did have a significant loss and need to go a little easier on myself.

I spent the last couple months of 2014 wishing it away and looking forward to 2015. The year is quickly approaching the halfway point (I am still wondering what happened to January) and so far it has been fairly uneventful, but very busy. I am trying to remember to slow things down; to notice and appreciate the little things; to find joy in the everyday. I am very good at reminding others to “Breathe.” I guess I need to remind myself too.