Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Tough First

The past few weeks has given me a window into my true growth throughout the past years. Sometimes there are moments in our lives that truly give us the opportunity to see the “Then and Now.”  Most of the time, we are too close to the situation to really see it clearly, but every once in awhile the clarity is there.  

I will tell you that the world of firsts sucks.  There’s the typical grieving firsts that I went through on year one; the first birthdays, holidays, anniversary, 1st day of school, music concert, etc.  Those were there, and it was just known that they were coming and the suck factor was going to be all over those days.  Then there are other firsts that sneak up on you.  The first time Abby scored a soccer goal and Jo had a softball hit, those firsts were so exciting and I was screaming my head off, as any sports mom would do.  Then, it hits you in the gut...shit, he was supposed to be here for that.  Or the first dates I’ve had, should have nothing but anticipation and excitement but instead filled me with insecurities and nausea.  My first time sitting at my kitchen dinner table with just me and my girls (took me literally years to do that, by the way.  One of the hardest counseling tasks I was ever given).  Firsts are zero fun.  

Last week had another first for me, my first death.  My grandfather passed away rather suddenly last week.  He was a wonderful man who always had hard candy in church, taught me how to drive a combine, fished with me in the creek, sat at every single one of our shows in the summer no matter how far or hot it was, and taught me the love of the bacon/syrup combo at Hwy 65 Cafe.  He’s a man that will be missed by so many.   His passing was so challenging all on it’s own, because he was my grandfather.  Then, there was the challenge that came with his passing being my first death since Rhea in 2013.  

My sister called me to tell me about my grandfather.  First, I will tell you that she doesn’t have a disguise for her “everything’s going to be okay” voice.  The moment she said my name on the phone, I knew something was way off.  Or maybe, it’s just because we’re sisters and we can read each other that well.  I couldn’t go straight to where they were right away, I had to wait for instructions, on where I needed to go, either to St. Lukes if they were life flighting him, or if not, I was going to my hometown where everyone was at. It was about 30 minutes of wait time.  And where do you think I waited? My closet, the safe zone.  Waves of emotion went over me immediately.   I wasn’t ready to lose someone.  I knew I was lucky to have gotten 4 years without having anything major happen, but I still was not ready.  Is anyone ready?  Probably not, and definitely not me.  While I should have been using that 30 minutes to figure out what I needed to do, my processing skills were out the window.  So when I finally found out where I needed to go, it was massive panic in my world.  Along with the loss of my grandfather, I knew his death meant I was going to be asked to do things and be put in situations I was not at all ready for.  

It took me almost 3 years to go to a full family event that included extended family.  I have missed weddings, baby and bridal showers, graduations, birthdays, etc.  Family events to me, for a long time, just magnified what was missing in my little family.  Large groups of people put me back into all of the events and services for Rhea.  I wasn’t trying to be standoffish, I just literally couldn’t do it.  The anxiety that would take over my body when an event would come up, would almost make me full fledged ill.  I went to my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary party last October, that took me 4 months of counseling preparation to even go to.  And that’s all I did.  I didn’t sing, even though countless people asked.  Literally, barely even got there, so singing was out of the picture.  I was there, in a corner, with my best friend by my side, and that was huge.  There was so much that I still couldn’t do, but look at what I did do.  I was not at home in my closet of safety, I was at my parent’s 40th.

I had 4 months prep for that.  My grandfather’s services, I had 2 days.  Only 2 days to figure out how I could do this and not take 45 steps backwards in my journey.  I needed to listen to my needs and also be there for my mom, grandmother, and for myself, as well.  I knew where the services would be at, and that was the first thing to tackle. You see, Grandpa’s services were at the exact same church that Rhea’s were.  Rhea’s services were at the church we attended in Sedalia.  It’s a big beautiful church, filled with so much love and people that we both cherished.  That church was where we married and where he first heard me sing.  It was special to us.  And since his death, I cannot go inside that sanctuary.  In my mind all I see is his casket, covered in yellow roses  at the front of the sanctuary.  I can’t do it.  I can’t go in there.  I can go in the church, I’m a little shaky at first, but I can’t do the sanctuary at all.  What did that mean for the visitation?  The funeral?  Viewing my grandfather?  It was a disaster for me.

I was so fortunate that both my grandmothers, mom, dad, and sister were so extremely supportive and were fully aware of the challenges that were ahead for me.  My mom and dad arranged for me to view my grandfather in advance at the funeral home, instead of the church.  I was 45 minutes late, and pushed down a panic attack while driving in Independence stop light traffic, cried ¾ of the way there, but I made it and was able to view him.  To say I was scared to see a casket for the first time since Rhea, is an understatement.  I didn’t know how my mind was going to handle all of it.  Those panic attacks sneak up on you and your brain plays tricks.  But my family let me have my moment with him in that little room, and I did it.  It was hard, and I was still okay.  I was actually kind of proud of myself for how well I did.  

Now it was time to figure out the services.  Being in the sanctuary was not an option at all.  Please know, that I terribly want to be able to do these things.  It sounds ridiculous to some people, I know, I’ve heard that before, trust me.  However, as badly as I want to be doing these things, and as disappointed as I get in myself for the things I still cannot do, I just can’t do them.  One day I might be able to, but not now.  So, during the visitation I was able to stay close by, in the foyer of the church.  It was a long 2 ½ hours being right there in the midst of people waiting in line who haven’t seen me for years.  My sister jokingly called me The Greeter. Though in all honesty, I was trying to blend into the wall as much as possible.  During the funeral, I was blessed again to have my best friend take off of work to come sit with me, because I wasn’t going to be able to be with everybody else.  I listened to the service up in the sound/videographers booth with my back turned, so I could hear but couldn't see.  The service was challenging.  I cried and she held my hand, and I made it through.  Then I was able to join my family at the cemetery.

So, this first was pretty rough, but included some growth for me.  I wasn’t able to do a lot, and yet at the same time there was so much that I did do.  I said no when I couldn’t do something, and I tried hard to do the challenging things.  The aftermath of the services has shown itself in my appetite and sleep patterns.  I’m up to two meals a day right now which is excellent rebound for me.  I’m still struggling with getting my sleep back, but it will come.  Overall, I’m okay with how this first went.  It could have been better, but it also could have been way worse.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Continuing the Work and Breathing

When I last blogged, quite some time ago, I discussed how my focus was going to be on living life for me.  I have done that and then some over the last ten months.  However, I’m still sitting here with that same focus.  I’ve made some great strides since last October, but I’m not finished yet.  I might not ever be finished actually, but some definite great gains have been made.  When I left off in October, I was preparing to go to a PTSD retreat called Warrior’s Ascent.  It was 4 days of extensive work on skills and tools to help myself through everyday life.  This was one of the best decisions in the past 4 years of my life that I could have ever made.  It was a step in the direction towards getting my life back.  

Let me be transparent here and tell you that last August, September, and October were by far the lowest months I have ever endured.  Worse than the first months following Rhea’s death. Those first months were full of waves of grief, lack of sleep, little food, and being utterly lost.  Exactly as I should have been.  But, 3 ½ years later, I still felt utterly lost, but in a hopeless kind of way.   At that point in my life, as I sit and reflect, I felt the most alone I had ever felt.  I was trying.  I was pushing myself back to Christ.  I was willing myself to put my faith and hope back in Him, but my heart was so not there yet.  I would put my girls to bed at night, and the stillness would set in.  My panic attacks would creep up on me in the silence of my world and would take over me, and they would nightly.  My sleep was suffering again.  It affected my home life and work life.  I was quick tempered, anxious, and emotionally everywhere.  My closet was my safe place (and still is today).  I would feel the world closing in on me and retreat to my closet.  Literally, I go to my closet.  How crazy does that sound?

My thoughts were to the point that it was scaring me.  I know deep down I would have never taken my own life, but I had thoughts of just wanting to stop it all.  I wanted to stop the pain, the emptiness, the judgement of so many, the judgement of myself, all of it.  I wanted it to stop. That alone was too far for me and scared the living daylights out of me.  I remember crying to my parents on the phone on how I didn’t know what to do.  I was not okay, I knew I wasn’t okay, but I did not want to be medicated. I had done this journey without medication, and I didn’t want to start now.  I felt like I needed to feel all of it, I was supposed to feel it.   I was already signed up for the retreat, and I made a deal with myself.  Go to the retreat.  Learn as much as I can.  Take 4 days and focus on only me.  And give myself a month to implement the tools.  If I was still in the same spot, then I would go look into medication for my anxiety and depression.

Warrior’s Ascent is for first responders, or veterans who struggle with PTSD.  I didn’t fit the qualifications there.  But, I sent an email, explained my situation, counseling, and conditions, and they welcomed me with open arms to their community.  I was going to be with 15 other women who struggle with PTSD.  And that increased my anxiety.   I have a form of PTSD that a lot of people don’t understand or recognize it as such.  I have noncombat PTSD.  My girls do, as well.  I don’t have triggers like veterans do to fireworks, gunfire, etc.  Nor, do I have night terrors or flashbacks of war.  I, instead, have triggers to doorbells, soldiers in full dress blues, the smell of a man’s cologne, large gatherings of people, etc.  And, I have night terrors to what my mind has developed as the events of Rhea’s death, where I’m there and I’m watching it all happen before me, but I can’t do a thing but watch it.  Going to this retreat with people who probably were dealing with a different form of PTSD made me feel not enough, not the same, and not worthy. I was so scared to be on the outside and for people to think I didn't need to be there.  I’m not a first responder or veteran who have done and seen some really messed up stuff.  I was just a 33-year-old military widow who was a hot fucking mess.  But, I went.  Scared to death, I went to Warrior’s Ascent and hoped for acceptance and some kind of deliverance from the hell I was silently living in.

This program, Warrior’s Ascent, I can wholeheartedly say, saved my life. (I know sounds dramatic, but I mean every word of it.)  I learned about taking steps in my own journey back home.  I learned the art of yoga, though lack extreme amounts of flexibility.  I learned about the beauty and peace of nature (and most know I’m not an outside kinda girl.) I learned about different ways to journal or releasing your thoughts. I learned about trust for others and for myself.  But, I can probably say the one tool that helped me the most was the practice of meditation.  

Meditation is a practice, and every meditation is different.  When I started it at Warrior’s Ascent, I was not good at it.  In fact, for two days straight, I had panic attacks during every single time we practiced meditation.  I was so fortunate to have a patient teacher.  She would pull me aside and talk to me later about what I was feeling, what happened, what had triggered the panic attack.  I learned so much just about my panic attacks from those conversations with her.  For example, I bounce my leg, I get restless, I look around the room as if searching for something, and I hold my breath.  When I’m nervous, anxious, worked up, etc., I hold my breath.  Who knew?!? Not me.  I had no idea I was doing it.  Of course I would hyperventilate and panic.  I wasn’t giving myself oxygen when I most needed it.  On the 3rd day of the retreat, we did 6:30 morning meditation and yoga in a different place than normal, and I was by a window that was open.  And, it was the first time I did not have a panic attack.  My meditation/yoga instructor came up to me after and asked what was different.  I could hear birds, a cricket, and a light breeze.  I could hear sound.  It wasn’t still and silent. I have trauma that circles around silence.  Sitting in silence is painful for me and puts me in a terrible place.  Look at my panic attacks nightly...when it was still and silent.  Holy crap!  Look at what I learned about myself.  This was huge for me.  Huge.  I could meditate, but I had to meditate with sounds and/or music.  And from there, the world of meditation just opened up so much healing for me.  I breathe.  I push away everything.  I breathe.  I let myself have peace.  I breathe.  I breathe.  I breathe.

Along with learning the practice of meditation and learning more about my own panic attacks, I also learned about the love and acceptance of a sisterhood.  The 15 women I went through this program with are not me.  We do not have the exact same life experiences.  But, we are very like-minded and we have a respect and love for one another that I cannot properly describe.  They accepted me where I was at, and I accepted them.  I am their confidant and they are mine.  But the thing that brought us together the most, I think, is that we were all at the exact same spot.  We were done with life as it was.  We wanted more for our life and we were ready to do the work to get there.  

The final day of retreat with my sisters.

I’m still there.  I’m still at that spot.  I’m still doing the work.  I have days where I’ve got it all together.  And, I have days where I still resort to finding safety within the walls of my closet.  But, I show up for myself daily.  Every single day, I show up for my girls and for me now.  I also have a tribe of my sisters from Warrior’s Ascent still behind me, and a village of friends and family that still shower me with support.  I’m not done.  I’m still working.  And I breathe.

Side note:  My favorite way to meditate is to prayers, most of the time they are Catholic prayers.  I have found such peace in quite a few of them.  I’ll leave you with one of my personal favorites, the Prayer of St. Francis. This is an adaptation of the prayer, and I love it. Maybe you'll find some peace in it today.

My God, source of light, source of love
May I be your messenger in a world that’s in desperate need of you
May I be an instrument of your peace
In a world filled with division and discord
May I bring love, where there is anger and hatred
May I bring compassion and understanding, where there is hurt and suffering
Where there is doubt and fear, cause my faith to rise up
Where there is despair, may I be a voice of hope
In darkness, may I bring light
In sadness, may I bring joy
My God, rather than seek my own comfort and consolation
May I show mercy and be a comfort to others
Rather than needing to be heard and needing to be right
May I bring patience, understanding, and a willingness to listen
Rather than seeking to be loved, may I be love
For it is in giving that we receive
In forgiving that we are set free
And in dying to self, that we are born into our eternal life
Let it be so, let it be now, let it be