Hope hurts.

I’ve been hearing some version of “Just hang in there, things will get better and stop being hard soon!” so many times in the last 2 years that I’ve stopped believing it. “What if this is just what life is like now?” I often wonder.

Which leaves me in a bit of predicament. I’ve experienced enough loss and disappointment and Bad Things That Are Not My Fault And Are Out of My Control lately that I am having a hard time being as present for happiness and joy as I’d like. To wit:

The first time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was elated. The kind of excitement and happiness that gives you butterflies, has you dancing alone in the kitchen, and flushes you with enough adrenaline that you have trouble sleeping. I was so excited that even the few weeks of morning all day sickness felt like an adventure that I was 100% willing to endure because of the vast hope flowering within me. And then I miscarried that pregnancy.

The second time I had a positive pregnancy test, I felt numb. “Oh,” I thought “Well, I guess it’s too early to be excited.” So I wasn’t excited. And then I was depressed about the fact that I wasn’t excited. Women all over the world get to be excited about their pregnancies, but I was no longer one of them. That experience had been taken from me. And that felt like shit. And then three days later I miscarried that pregnancy.

The third time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was surprised by a small twinge of excitement. A little seed of hope. “I’ve got a present for you,” I told my husband, and I showed him the test. “Oh,” he said casually, “well, I guess we’ll wait and see if it’s worth getting excited about.” My heart dropped a bit, but I knew he was right. Over the next few weeks, each time I told a close friend that I was pregnant they gushed, “OMG congrats! Are you so excited?!?” and I had to admit that neither my husband nor I were particularly excited, and were in fact feeling rather guarded. At that admission, one of my dearest friends said “I know you’re so worried that this pregnancy won’t work out…but what if it does? I don’t want you to have missed all the fun things things about the beginning of your pregnancy.“ And I realized she was right.

I’ve been hurt by people in my past, and yet I’ve never stopped cultivating new relationships because of the fear that someone new might hurt me. I am devastated every time a beloved pet grows old and dies, and yet that doesn’t mean I’m going to put my current dog up for adoption and never have a pet dog again. I’ve had milk that’s gone bad (shudder), and yet I still have a carton of goat milk in my fridge as I type this! So why was I refusing to let myself be excited about this pregnancy because of the fear it might not work out?

And so I decided to give in to the joy and the hope.

And then the following week, I miscarried that pregnancy.

Well, shit.

Just today, I got some good news related to work. And instead of bringing me excitement and joy, it made me feel overwhelmed, frightened, and anxious, because I just don’t trust good news at the moment. “No news is good news” has never felt like a truer maxim. And yet…I am full of hopes and wishes. I hope I get this job. I hope I get pregnant. I hope I am able to find a home that feels like I could live there forever. I hope, I hope, I hope for all manner of things that are outside of my control. It’s awful. Those hopes feel like naked, vulnerable, tendril-like extensions of my heart sent out into a room full of mouse traps, jackhammers, and stampeding rabid elephants with explosive diarrhea.

How do I do this? How do I remain open to joy and hope, and yet protect myself from the looming specter of pain?

I think the answer is that protecting myself from pain is the wrong goal (and not just because it’s impossible). Increasingly, the way I’ve been getting through the pain has been by focusing on the present moment. My initial reaction to bad news tends to be a mind that races, thinking of all of the ramifications of the bad news, the ways that it will impact the future, and what I will have to endure next, and then after that, and then after that, and then…before I know it I am overcome with anxiety and existential depression about what has happened.

Instead of spiraling into the despair of what this event means in the long term, simply focusing on “I feel so sad right now,” or “this is terribly painful and disappointing,” and just sitting with those emotions is incredibly helpful. I cannot predict how an an event will affect my future. I can sit with and honor how an event made me feel—which is a moment I am able to move on from. It deescalates an event from existential horror that I am caught in, to the feelings I am feeling right now, which ebb and flow.

I think really practicing this will also help me believe that I am allowed to feel hope and joy, and not worry about the many “what-ifs” and things that could go wrong. The next time I receive good news and react with fear, my intention is to ask myself “Am I just afraid that something bad might happen?” And if the answer is yes, then to try to release the fear, and to take joy in the present moment.

I will try to trust that things will work out, or that they won’t, regardless of whether I worry. I will try to trust that I will get through it, however difficult or painful it may feel. I will try to feel unmitigated hope, even if it only lasts for a moment.

I will try.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

No One Told Me I’d Be A Little Bit Terrible…At Everything

I could write a whole list of the Things No One Told Me About Grief (in fact, it may become an ongoing series of posts.) But the one I want to focus on for this post is how grieving has affected my ability to feel competent. Period. And I’m not just talking about feeling competent in the face of highly complex logical reasoning and/or emotionally stressful situations (although that has doubtless been affected). I’m also talking about, like, feeling competent about putting on pants.

I am a person who has always prided myself at being hyper-competent. I’m an incredibly independent natural leader, and a quick learner with high standards. Give me a job, and I will do it to the best of my abilities simply for the sake of pride in a job well done. However. Since my mom died, and then the subsequent losses and trauma that occurred (mom died, childhood friend died, three miscarriages and a major injury, plus some other stuff) I just kind of suck at…everything. Here is a partial list of things that I used to be amazing at but which I’m pretty sucky at right now:

  • Being on time (hooooooboy this is a big one for me. Being “on time” used to mean arriving, fully prepped, half an hour early. Now being “on time” means anything that’s less than 10 minutes late and with pants on.)
  • Feeding myself and my husband (gotten a lot suckier at making sure the grocery shopping is done and that we’ve got ample food to stay alive in the house)
  • Putting on clothes that aren’t sweatpants (I’ve actually just given in to this one and adjusted my wardrobe to embrace what I’m calling the “Sweatpant Lifestyle.”)
  • Being social (everything from just talking to people at a bar, to running into an acquaintance on the street, to throwing a party, now requires a billion times more physical and emotional energy)
  • Not breaking things (I have lost track of how many glass jars and bowls I have broken in the kitchen…in the last 3 weeks)
  • Being consistent (how many weeks has it been since I published the last blog post? Lolz I don’t even know)
  • Remembering things (scheduling? Phone numbers? Names? What day of the week it is? Who you are? Yeah, sorry, no idea.)
  • Putting clothes on, period. (there was one day a few weeks after my mom died that I was trying to put a shirt on but I couldn’t because I literally forgot how to do it. For clarity: I forogt. How to put on. A shirt.)
  • Keeping the house organized and tidy (I am a person who is House Proud, which Google defines as being “attentive to, or preoccupied with, the care and appearance of one’s home.” Preoccupied with? Sounds judgy. But unless you are a super duper best friend…you are not allowed to see my house when it’s less that immaculately clean.)

Not only did I used to be  amazing at these things, but I identified as a person who was amazing at them. Needless to say, this has all been a profound lesson in humility and loss of ego.

In some ways, I feel like a different person than I was in December of 2015, before the shit started to continuously stream through the fan at an unrelenting pace. And I’m not sure if my current state of reduced capacity is temporary, or if it’s the new normal. (I assume folks feel similarly after having a baby, when the “you” that you used to recognize has faded into obscurity, and you wonder if you’ll ever be that person again). I’m trying to accept my current suckiness with grace, and  stop judging myself for it–I am trying to view it with patience and humor.

But one day when I was feeling a particularly ashamed about the fact that I was wearing the same sweatpants I’d been wearing for the last 5 days, and I was running late to meet somebody because I was sweeping up the glass I’d broken, and I was crying with frustration and berating myself for being so horribly incompetent, I had a moment of clarity; after the tantrum of shame passed I thought “You know, I might be fucking up a lot of things that I used to find effortless, but I’ve also gotten really good at some things I used to struggle with.”

Here is a partial list of things that I used to be pretty sucky at but which I’m amazing at right now:

  • Saying “no” to things that I don’t want to do
  • Asking for help when I need it
  • Being present for friends who are going through some Rough Shit
  • Having difficult conversations
  • Initiating difficult conversations
  • Watching awesome British television
  • Finding humor in even the darkest situations
  • Slowing down to really enjoy a beautiful moment
  • Thinking about death
  • Talking about death
  • Thinking about my own death and the deaths of those nearest and dearest to me in a way that is not terrifying or awful, but is actually okay
  • Communicating clearly and honestly with others about my emotional state
  • Going to bed early (Okay fine, I’ve always been good at this one, but I’m extra super good at it right now.)

So while I’ve had to let go of feeling like a person who Does Everything Well, I’ve also grown in some rather profound ways. Would I go back to the old, more competent me? Well, yes insofar as that me was ignorant to the pain of profound grief. But if I’m really honest; no. I think the experience and emotional intelligence I’ve gained is more meaningful than being able to juggle my schedule, get places on time, and dress myself well. I think that for all my new flaws, inconsistencies, and mistakes, that the new me is actually a better version of myself.

Umm, okay wow. To be completely honest, this is not where I thought this post was going. When I started writing this my only intent was to write a humorous and honest piece about how much I feel like I am failing at basic tasks right now. (“Me! I’m such an idiot, amiright?”) I am surprised to have arrived at a completely different conclusion—that I’ve actually changed for the better, on a post that I set out to simply write about my incompetence. Well…shit. You learn something new every day.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

The Question I’ve Been Avoiding

Lately, there’s one question that I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding. It’s enough to keep me away from parties and social functions, and turning the other way when I see someone I know coming down the street. I dread it. I try to come up with distractions or jokes or just my own questions to avoid being asked. I’ve gotten quite adept at preemptively asking lots of questions and steering the conversation away from the Dreaded Question, which is:

“So how are you, what’s been going on with you lately?”

When someone makes it past my defenses and I am asked the Dreaded Question, my general response is to smile, pause, take a breath, and then ask “How honestly do you want me to answer that?” That reaction alone generally takes folks aback, because it’s not the expected “I’m fine! Things are great. How are you?” Then depending on their response, they get one of 3 answers to the Dreaded Question:

  1. “It’s actually a long story. We should catch up some time.” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and avoid making plans to catch up.)
  2. “Well, I’ve had a really intense year with a lot of emotional upheaval, but there have been a lot of really wonderful things too and I’m doing really well overall. How are you?” (and I launch into a full asking-a-million-questions assault position, and give more details if they ask direct questions.)
  3. They get the truth.

For those who get answer #3, there is always a brief silence when I am finished, followed by a heartfelt “Oh my god Kat, that is…that is so much. I’m so sorry. But you sound like you’re handling it all like a champ” (see this blog post about hearing that last comment often). And I hear the shock and concern in their voice…and imagine pity and revulsion.

And I do not wish to be pitied or reviled, and so in answering the Dreaded Question honestly, I tend to highlight the Positive Things, share a few of the Things I’ve Learned, and add a couple of Humorous Anecdotes. And I’ll be darned, it works! But sometimes it makes me feel like I’m performing a version of myself, rather than just having an honest conversation about the last year.

The biggest relief is when someone hears what I have to say and interjects as some point with “I know exactly what you’re feeling, I went through something just like that myself” so that I can just look them in the eye, drop the act, say “Oh, so you know,” and then give them a big, wordless hug.

I’m not sure what the answer is to all this. Just get comfortable being dishonest and answering “I’m fine! How are you?” Trust people to be able to handle the truth? Just keep staying home and avoiding people forever? In any case, I’ll probably write about how it plays out.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

 

Fragility and Resiliency

Every time I take a ridiculous Buzzfeed quiz (Who would play your best friend in the movie version of your life?  Which Ryan Gosling character is your soulmate? Are you actually a hipster?*) and it asks, “Which word from the following list best describes you?” my immediate reaction is always “This is stupid. No one can be described in one word.” And then, invariably, I scroll down the list and select “Independent.”

It’s a personality trait that I inherited from my mother, but also one that I actively cultivate, and that I value in others. I take great pride in being very capable, competent, and self-sufficient.

So when I was in my therapists’ office** and she observed “You are extraordinarily sensitive and fragile” my immediate reaction was “TAKE THAT BACK I AM NOT FRAGILE I AM INDEPENDENT HEAR ME ROAR.” I was actually taken aback that she described me as fragile.

Me!? Fragile!??!??? But I drove myself to college by myself and insisted I move in on my own, with no help from my parents! And I am super organized and smart! And I moved to a foreign country by myself to work there for 4 months! And I’ve gotten through super hard breakups with grace and dignity! And I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations! And I’ve done solo road trips and camped all by myself! And I’m a super reliable and strong friend! And I can change a flat tire, and fix things around the house, and and and…oh right, one can do all these things and still be fragile.

The first step was admitting that I was fragile. “Who am I kidding?” I finally sobbed one day “I’m practically a hothouse lily!” *** The next was realizing that fragility is not a weakness or character deficiency.

And yet I still felt confused about admitting my fragility, because I’m a person who weathers chaos, emergencies****, and extreme upheaval quite well. “Wow, you’re handling this like a champ” and “You are so strong” are things I hear often. So how does that square with being fragile?

What I ultimately realized is that personalities, like everything else, are extremely complex. And that seemingly contradictory traits can exist within one person. And that the trait that allows me to weather all the things that life throws my way is my resiliency.

“Resilient” has replaced “Independent” as the adjective that I most identify with, and am most proud of. I am able to be fragile, sensitive, vulnerable, emotional, and yet stable and reliable because of it. It is a trait that, again, I think I’ve always had, but one that I now put thought and energy into cultivating and strengthening.

Part of it is just my brain chemistry that gravitates towards joy and happiness, but one of the most important emotional skills I’ve developed as an adult is asking myself “What can I do right now to make myself feel better in this moment?” during times of distress. Sometimes it’s going to bed at 7pm. Sometimes it’s initiating a difficult conversation that I’ve been putting off. Sometimes it’s binge-watching The Great British Bake Off.***** Or getting a hug from my husband. Or making hot chocolate. Or ordering pizza or snuggling the dogs, or getting my taxes done. The practice of asking that question and then listening to and honoring the answer over and over has created a deep sense of trust within myself that I will always take care of myself.

So at this point, I know that I am sensitive, emotional, and yes, fragile. And yet I am not afraid of loss, pain, and difficulty, because I know that I will take good care of myself, land on my feet, and be better and stronger for it.******

Until next time, with fragility and resiliency,

The Cry Babe

 

 

 

*Lupita Nyong’o, Lars from Lars and the Real Girl, No.

**Every human being should be required to be in therapy for at least 6 months of their life.

***I could be mistaken, but I believe this particular meltdown was brought on by the fact that I had multiple rashes due to my incredibly sensitive skin, but my skin just felt like a metaphor for my entire personhood in that moment.

****Like the time a lady collapsed in front of me in the produce section at the Berkeley Bowl. Time slowed down, and I moved her shopping cart out of the way, knelt by here side, and immediately began checking her vitals. When I looked up there was another woman on the other side doing these exact same things. “Are you a doctor?” she asked. “No, I’m an actor.” To which she responded, confusedly “Well…you could have fooled me. You’re doing all the right things.” I backed off and let the doctor take over, then ended up driving the woman who had collapsed to the emergency room. (But not before paying for my groceries and buying her a magazine, because there is usually a long wait at the emergency room.)

*****There is nothing that binge-watching The Great British Bake Off doesn’t make more bearable.

******After crying for hours, obviously.

You’re Crying in Public: Now What?

None of us enjoy bursting into tears (or just having tears slide silently down our cheeks, unbidden) in situations that feel inappropriate or awkward. And yet for a person who cries, it is a scenario that is sometimes unavoidable. Some examples of places I have found myself unable to keep from crying that felt inappropriate:

  • In the cheese isle of a gourmet grocery store, because I had enjoyed buying cheese there with the man I broke up with 5 months prior
  • In front of a group of 5 year olds, because they “Weren’t taking Aladdin rehearsal seriously”
  • At work at a summer camp, because one of our campers, a 3rd grade boy with a twin sister, died tragically the day before
  • At the chiropractor’s office, because I was in so much pain, and he was an asshole who was telling me that failing to treat my misaligned back by seeing him for 12 sessions (which I couldn’t afford) could result in my death
  • SOBBING in a movie theater, after the credits for “Captain Philip” have finished, and the lights are on, and the employees are trying to sweep up popcorn because, as I kept repeating to my date: “It’s so complicated, there are no easy solutions!!!”
  • In front of a group of high school students I was teaching, because I was sad that my mom died
  • At a bar, because my husband and I saw a homeless kitten on the way there.
  • Checking people in to a yoga class because I was sad that my mom died
  • Silently sobbing in the back room of a tax office I worked at because my mom died.
  • In the radiology lobby of Kaiser, where I was waiting to get a “I had a miscarriage” ultrasound
  • Buying shampoo at CVS because I was sad that my mom died.

The list goes on and on (and on), but you get the idea. The reasons may be completely stupid or profound, but the result is the same: you are crying when you really don’t want to be crying. You are horrified, and would like to make it stop, and yet that just makes the crying happen more. Sometimes also with snot running down your face.

In the aftermath of my mom’s death in February of 2016 I’ve been in this situation so many times that I’ve (almost) become comfortable with it. At the very least, I have accepted that it is a part of life. And here are some strategies that I have found helpful:

1. Leave. I’ve left in the middle of yoga classes. I’ve abandoned shopping carts in grocery stores. I’ve just quietly excused myself and left the room. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to quickly get yourself somewhere that you feel less awkward crying. Just go. No need to explain yourself (because you’ll probably just burst into tears AT the person). You can always tell them later that you had to step out for personal reasons.

2.If you can’t leave, don’t try to fight it. The more I try to resist crying, the worse it gets, and the longer it drags on (and sometimes results in that AWFUL sound that is a cross between a ragged gasp and a snort that results from trying to hold back sobs and that is roughly the same volume as a sonic boom). So if I feel those tears building up in a place that is awkward and I cannot leave, I just accept that it’s happening, cry some cries, and then move on.

3. Warn those around you that crying might happen. This one is a biggie and, frankly, my personal favorite. I’m a big fan of transparency and disclosure. There are some days when I wake up knowing that I will not get through the day without multiple cry-fests, and that I will have no control over when they happen. On those days, I give my students, friends, or co-workers some version of the following heads-up:

            Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m having a really emotional day. I’m fine and everything is okay, but you’ll probably see me cry at some point. And I want to assure you that if that happens you don’t need to do anything to fix it. 

And then, when the inevitable crying happens, I once again reassure them that I am okay, and continue to work/teach/hang out. And when I do that, something magical happens: people stop caring about the fact that I am crying, because they see that it is not a problem that they need to fix. They see that I am just a person, and that having visible emotions doesn’t interfere with me going about my day or being competent at what I do.

4. Phone a friend. Do this literally or figuratively. If you are alone, call someone that you can talk to through the episode. The time I was crying in the cheese isle, I called one of my very best friends who had been roommates with me and my ex boyfriend, and told her about my emotional breakdown at the sight of dill havarti (it was his favorite!). Walking down the street with my husband in downtown San Francisco one day, I had a panic attack because the sight of a man’s leg injury brought on flash-backs of my mother’s emaciated body in the hospital when she was dying. I tapped on my husband’s shoulder and managed to squeak out that I needed a minute, and we stopped walking, stepped out of the way of other pedestrians, and he just hugged me for a few minutes while I calmed down. If you are by yourself and you cannot hug or call someone, put on music that is familiar and comforting to you, find something nice to look at nearby, or just buy yourself a hot chocolate. These are not suggestions intended to help you avoid crying, but rather to provide comfort and support, so you can feel the feelings, cry the cries, and then move on.

While these tactics have been incredibly helpful to me, I’m sure they’re not everybody’s cup of tea. Do you have a go-to trick for when you start crying in public? I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe