Thursday, February 4, 2016

An Open Letter To Me, On The Day He Asked For A Divorce

Today is the last day of my marriage.

It has been over for a while now; we haven't lived together in a year and a half.  The papers were signed and sealed months ago, but in our state there is a waiting period before the marriage is considered legally and officially over.

That day is tomorrow.

It has made me reflective, because if you had told me on the day my husband asked for a divorce that my life would look like it does today I would never, ever have believed you.

I decided to write her a letter, that broken, sobbing woman who had just heard the words: I want a divorce.


My sweet, sad girl:

I know this feels like the worst day of your life.

He takes you to the beach to tell you, and you don't know why but this makes it worse somehow. It's not like there is a good place to hear your marriage is finished. Maybe it's because as you spread the blanket out on the warm sand, a tight ball of anxiety frozen in your belly because some part of you knows - just knows - what is coming, you have hope. You still have hope.

You start babbling, avoiding his gaze, because you can't stand the depth of the sadness -- no, worse: pity -- you see in his eyes. He waits patiently for you to fall silent, and as he takes a breath and begins to speak you wince, as if physically pulling away can forestall the sting of his words for one more merciful split-second.

This isn't working, he says. I can't do this anymore.

All the air rushes out of your lungs. You start slowly shaking your head - no, no, no - and silently pray: please don't say it.

I want a divorce, he says, like every cliched movie you've ever seen.

The ball of anxiety in your belly cracks wide open, and cold fear rushes through you; your hands and feet are suddenly freezing on this humid July day.

The world goes quiet; you can see his lips moving but there is no sound. You observe the family next to you, as if in slow motion: the mom is pulling sandwiches out of a cooler and the Dad is smearing sunscreen on his toddler's chubby cheeks, such familiar gestures, things you and he have done hundreds of times together. But now there is no you-and-he. There is no us.

Something inside you breaks. The wall of denial you have been pushing against, desperate to keep it standing, crashes down around you.

You walk to the water's edge and gaze out over the sunlight dancing on the water. You can't fix this, a voice in your head says. This time it's really and truly over. 

Tears stream down your face, but you keep your back resolutely turned towards him. You don't want him to see you cry, this man you swore to love forever, whose babies you had, who has stood by your side for half your life. You hide your tears from him like a futile punishment, one that has no teeth.

Hitching sobs erupt from your throat, and right behind them comes the rage; how dare he? After all we have been through he's just going to quit? To walk away?

You storm back to the blanket, sobbing, and say something like: we got through all this crap - the cancer, the death, the rehabs, all that LOSS - and now I'm also losing the love of my life? 

He tilts your chin up and forces you to meet his gaze: I'm not the love of your life, Ellie, he says with determination, resignation and - dammit - love.

This is when it happens, my sweet girl, it's just that you can't feel it yet: a tiny spark comes alive deep inside you, a pilot light, a fledgling flame that signals the birth of something new.

It's a gentle stirring of something - is it freedom? possibility?

But right now, dear Ellie, all you feel is unadulterated fear. A deep, primal certainty that nothing will ever be okay again. He has been your mirror for as long as you can remember; you have measured your happiness, your sense of purpose, your value against his reflection for decades.

You have no idea who you are without him. You desperately don't want to know, but he has given you no choice.

Over the coming days, weeks and months people will tell you over and over that everything will be okay. They will deliver well-meaning platitudes: he has no idea what he's missing, you're better off without him, if he can't see how amazing you are good riddance. Their words bounce off of you, because they don't understand how convinced you are that you are never going to be okay, that you're broken beyond repair, unlovable.

Here's what you can't see, not yet, but it's happening: that little flame is growing. You feed it every day, even without realizing it. You open your eyes each morning, feel the plummet in your gut as you instinctively reach over to his now-empty side of the bed and feel like you can't go on, but then you do.

You cry and wail and curse and scream and trudge through each day, and it feels like you're dying, but each day you make it through is a stitch in that open wound.

And then one morning you won't reach over to his side of the bed. Your first thought of the day won't be one of rejection or despair, but rather about something you have to do that day, maybe, or a cute thing one of the kids said. It won't hit you until breakfast that you only have to serve three plates instead of four, and that one whole hour went by where you weren't in emotional agony. Stitch.

You'll kick your socks off and leave them right in the middle of the bedroom floor, which used to make him nuts, and giggle like a lunatic. Stitch.

You'll sprawl out in your king sized bed like a starfish, or wrap yourself up in all the blankets burrito-style. Stitch. Stitch.

You'll grope your way through things he used to do, like paying bills, resetting the fuse box, replacing a broken shower head, schlepping the garbage to the dump, snow blowing the driveway, muttering and cursing all the way, but you'll do it. Stitch. Stitch. Stitch.

That little flame will grow stronger, until it begins to throw its own warmth. You will no longer need his approval to feel a glow of accomplishment.

You haven't worked outside the home in over twelve years, but you'll get a job. A good job. You'll buy your own car.

After taking a year all to yourself, with no romantic entanglements, you'll feel ready to go on a date or two. This will be just as awkward and amazing as you pictured it would be. You'll realize you don't need to be someone's other half to be happy, and when a few people you meet want to date more seriously you'll resist, because you're doing just fine on your own.

The voice in your head - the one that sounded a lot like him - will lose its critical tone. Slowly - oh so slowly - it will be replaced with your own voice. A whisper, at first, but it will grow louder each day.

Each day you step closer and closer to the person you were meant to be, before you gave your power away and tethered your self-worth to him.

The gut wrenching sadness, anger and grief will fade. You will travel deep into yourself and face difficult truths you spent a lifetime avoiding, but you will be able to do this, now, because you matter to yourself. You will discover that the key to peace of mind has been in your hand all along, even though you kept trying to give it away to others. To him.

And although you can't believe it now, on this scorching summer day with the words I want a divorce landing on your heart like a ton of bricks, he has given you a precious gift. Because, you will come to learn, he was right. He isn't the love of your life.

You are.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

For Rebekah. Still. And Always.

My amazing friend Rebekah died one year ago today from an overdose.   I wrote the post below a few days after her death, reeling with shock and grief.  One year later and the pain now feels like a dull ache, like something missing, a shadowy darkness where her beautiful, bright presence on this earth used to be.

Heroin is killing our young people in record numbers.  Just in Southeastern Massachusetts, we had more than two overdose fatalities per day in 2015.  I hope, with all my heart, that these staggering numbers are helping us collectively move past the notion that it couldn't happen to our kids. Kids experiment with pain killers, usually found in someone's medicine cabinet, and within weeks, sometimes days, they are hooked, and it's only a matter of time (and not much time at that) before they turn to heroin. Forget any stereotypes you may have in your head about what  heroin addict looks like; it looks like the captain of the soccer team, the straight-A student, the talented musician. Heroin is in all our schools. It is everywhere.

Heroin destroys lives. Please, please know that your kid is at risk, no matter how much we all want to believe differently. Talk to your kids about how dangerous and addictive pain killers are. Watch for signs and symptoms of addiction; if you see a profound behavioral change in your kid, consider that drug use may be the reason why. We can't afford to keep our heads in the sand about this for one. more. second.

I miss her, every day. Her spirit lives on in me, and so many other lives she touched. She helps me stay sober, and I honor her memory by continuing to carry the torch, to break the stigma that surrounds addiction. If you are struggling, you are NOT alone. There is help; you just have to reach out and grab it.


My Dear Rebekah,

It's your smile I think about most.  And that giggle.

I have never met anyone who loved to laugh more than you.  It was infectious.  No matter what my mood, you could pull a reluctant smile from my face, and I soon found my self erupting in laughter.

I want to say thank you.  Thank you for the cozy, late-night chats, the two of us snuggled in our beds. The darkened room and hushed corridors brought something out of us; a pure honesty, shared unvarnished truths.

We'd laugh, you and me, about our twenty-three year age difference.  How could someone so young be so wise, I'd ask.  You would pull a face, stick out your tongue.  See?  You'd say.  I'm just a kid.

But you weren't just a kid.  You were a soul sister, one who had been through so much and still with that smile.  OH, that smile.

Remember the two of us, duffel bags perched on our laps, heading to the next chapter of our journey with wide eyes?  Wondering what would happen next?  You grabbed my hand, as I recall, and said I'm glad I'm going with you. 

One time, as I schlepped up all those stairs to our room, I heard beautiful music playing.  I paused outside our door, listening.  I thought you had speakers for your iPod, and was going to chide you for keeping them secret.  But no, I saw as I opened the door, it was you playing your guitar and singing. Ethereal and melodious, your talent came from someplace deep inside you, someplace God-given. You sat up, startled, when I opened the door, and blushed.  I'm no good, you said and abruptly threw your guitar to the side, nobody is supposed to hear me. 

I stood speechless for a moment, awestruck.  That was beautiful, I said.  Please don't stop.  True to form, you picked up your guitar and belted out some crazy made-up tune, twangy and funny, and I jiggled around the room in my own middle-aged funky way.

Every morning you got up early.  Every morning.  You weren't going to miss that morning meeting for anything. While I mumbled and grumbled from the comfort of my blankets, arguing in favor of an evening meeting, you be-bopped around, humming.  Get up, girl, you'd say.  I got us a ride. 

You made fun of how all my shirts had stripes.  Is that some middle-aged Mom thing? Or just an Ellie thing? you'd grin.

Interesting coming from you of the eleventy-seven-hundred LOVE PINK sweatshirts, I'd grin right back.

Of all the girls in the house, you worked hardest at getting to meetings, chasing your recovery.  The minute you were eligible to get rides from other women in the program, you hit that pay phone and called and called and called until you got to a meeting.  You wanted this, badly.

Keeping a clean room, however, not so much.  You bounced into the kitchen one morning chirping about how you made your bed, how proud I should be.  Later that day, I smiled to myself when I saw the comforter pulled up over a pile of clothes, lumped up like a tiger sleeping under the covers.

I could make you bust out laughing by trying to be all hip (nobody says hip anymore, Ellie, you'd say).  I'd tell you I was feeling some kind of way, and you'd clutch your stomach laughing.  Sorry, you'd say, it just doesn't work coming from you.  I had to ask you want a 'snipe' was, which you found endlessly funny.  For those of you wondering, it's also called a 'put-out'.  Yeah, I had to ask, too.

A favorite memory is the day we were told to put on a skit about the counselors.  You picked one of the more colorful counselors, and groaned.  I can't act, you mumbled.  I'm not funny.  But then, your big entrance came, and you clacked in on borrowed  high heels, reading glasses (mine, of course) perched halfway down your nose and gave everyone a stern look before breaking into a dance and belting out "Because I'm happppyyyyy!" - a dead-on imitation.  I glanced over to the counselor you were portraying and she was wiping tears from her eyes she was laughing so hard.

And a proud moment:  when we put on a recovery version of the Wizard of Oz, and you bravely played your guitar and sang to the acoustic version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", facing one of your biggest fears:  putting your talent out there for all to see.  You were, of course, amazing.

You made friends everywhere you went. People were drawn to you, to your light.  Always quick with a hug and a smile, you had an eye for someone in pain.   You made people feel special - you made me feel special, the way you'd light up when you saw me.

Even after we were no longer roommates, you encouraged and inspired me.  We'd text inside jokes, check in on each other.  Your bubbly sweetness flowed through your words:

But nothing - NOTHING - compares to the way you loved your child.  Little Madisyn.  The way she would squirm and wiggle and dance when she saw you, then collapse into your arms and stay there for hours, perched on your lap like a queen ruling her subjects.  And just like her Mom, she would giggle and giggle and giggle, for hours.  Her little face so like your own, big eyes staring up at you with unadorned love.

My sweet friend, you left a gaping hole, a dark space devoid of light, when you left.  You are one of the great ones, those rare people I meet who slip into my life like a pair of comfortable slippers.  I owe you a huge debt, sweet girl, for being there for me during such difficult times, for buoying me up when I was sinking, for making me laugh in spite of - and at - myself when I needed it most.

Mere words fall short of how much I love you.  And I always will.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Dating Online In Your (late) 40s; Life In The Discomfort Zone

If you ever want to test your self-confidence, try dating in your late 40s.

The last time I dated was 23 years ago. I was coming off an ill-fated two year marriage to my college sweetheart, all of 23 years old and on the prowl. The dating world was a tad different back then. 

In 1993 we dated the old fashioned way: I would take my nimble, dewy complected self to a bar with a gaggle of my friends, and we'd drink and flirt with guys.  Maybe we'd get a phone number, which we would write on a napkin and stuff in our purse, because cell phones were big clunky things that a few rich people and business executives had installed in their cars. 

Then we'd go home and angst over whether to call him, or wait for him to call. If we were feeling particularly obsessed we'd come home from work and dial *69 to see if we missed his call .  Or we'd call him to see if he was home and hang up, because caller ID had yet enter the scene and foil the plans of stalkers everywhere.

And if he didn't call? Oh, well. We had decades of youth stretching out before us; there was plenty of time and oh-so-many fish in the sea.  We'd simply slip into a little black dress or a cute pair of jeans that hugged our curves in all the right places, take our hopeful visages, toned legs and perky breasts out to the bar and wait for the boys to flock like bees to honey.

For some of us - like me - the mission was to find The Guy. I wasn't a serial dater; I've always been a monogamous type. I sought stability, predictability and loyalty. I was looking for a good future husband and father. Of course he'd have to be hot, though. And tall. And funny. And smart. 

I could afford to be picky, because I was all those things: funny, smart, tall and - although I sure didn't think it at the time - I was hot

And, lucky me, I met him by age 24. He hit every single "must-have" on my list. Sure, he was a tad commitment phobic, but I could work with that. I had all the time in the world, remember? And I was patient. I could wait forever for The Guy.  Forever turned out to be seven years, before he looked at me with fear and excitement in his eyes and said, "You're gonna marry me, right?"  The rest, as they say, is history. 

Or so I thought, as I skipped merrily into middle age thinking my dating days were behind me forever.  

Crash landing in the dating world in 2015 felt like time travel, but where the protagonist doesn't simply plunk into the future an adorably befuddled but still-youthful version of herself.  Instead, she wears every inch of the 22 intervening years.

So how does a 46 year single working mother date?  A sober one, at that? Long gone are the bar days. And even if I did go to bars, far in the rear view mirror are the times when all that was required to garner male attention was to walk into the room. 

Dating, nowadays, is (mostly) online. I don't think anyone has scribbled a phone number on a napkin since 2002. 

If you find yourself freshly divorced in your 40s, startled and blinking in the harsh light, I have compiled a timeline for you, so you know what to expect. 

You're welcome.

The first step is to join every single dating site you can find, because you know nothing about anything and casting the widest net possible seems like a good idea (you will live to regret this decision).

Then you create your online profile. You search for pictures that make you look good, but not *too* good because you don't want him to be unpleasantly surprised if you meet in person.  You find that full-body shot that still looks like you, but maybe with an arm or a kid or a chair placed strategically in front of your less desirable parts.

Then comes the dreaded self-description. You answer the basics: height/eye color/lifestyle choices/employment.  Then this: what is your body type?  Are you (a) slim (b) toned (c) athletic (d) average (e) a few extra pounds (f) Overweight?  Was is "average" anyway?  Unless you are decidedly in the first three, everyone picks (d).

Even worse than the photo selections is the dreaded self-summary.  Can you imagine if in order to grab someone's attention in a bar you started with this buzz-kill opener:  "Describe yourself in 1000 characters or less!  Make sure to include who you are and everything you've ever wanted!" 

If you survive the first two with your sanity intact, you get to describe what you're looking for in a mate. This will be a tad depressing, because long gone are the days when you could prattle off this list fully expecting to check every box.  You'll manage to craft an eloquent description nonetheless, but what you're really saying, you'll come to discover, is this:  "Not still married. Not looking for just a hook-up. Not living with his mother. Hair a plus".

You upload all of this information onto about six dating apps, and then obsessively check all of them all the time.  You swipe and click and wink and message your way to a first date. 

The first time you dress for a date you will agonize, try on everything you own, fling yourself on your bed, curse your middle aged body and wonder when it was that your boobs fell about six inches.  It will dawn on you, with horror, that if the relationship progresses someone will see your c-section scar which has evolved into a kind of reverse tummy-tuck (producing a jiggly pocket of skin you can't lose no matter how many sit-ups you do), your love handles and that mole you never had removed (because only your husband saw it, so who cares?). This thought will make you want to die, but you'll persevere. 

You won't want to look too nice (desperate) or too casual (slovenly).  It will take hours to find that outfit that says: "I tried but not too much".  You will then proceed to wear this outfit on every first date. You will wear this outfit a lot, because you will mostly go on first dates. 

You will quickly realize that everyone isn't who they appear to be online. There will be the date where the moderately handsome man, according to his profile pic, turns out to be at least forty pounds overweight and missing a couple of teeth. Oh, and an eye.  There will be the date that starts as a casual stroll in the woods and turns into a hike worthy of its own mini-series, and you are wearing sandals and striving valiantly to appear you aren't slowly dying (after all, you said you like exercise in your profile).  

You will learn most guys say they are looking for a relationship, but what they really want is to hook up.  You won't be able to decide if this horrifies or flatters you.

The first few times you meet someone in person you'll be nervous and coquettish. This will not last. You won't become jaded, exactly, but you will discover you know in about thirty seconds if you're even remotely interested, and become skilled in disengaging quickly (your go-to will become the fake text from home).  

It will take a while, but the day will come when you are totally interested after that first sniff-test coffee date and he isn't

Here you will realize how much stalking has progressed since 1993.  You will be able to see when he is on the dating site, presumably chatting with young, supple women who don't have stretch marks. You'll debate how often to check his profile, because of course he can see when you do that. All your messages back and forth are still there, frozen in virtual eternity, mocking you.  You may even find his Facebook page and die a thousand deaths when you see him with his arm around a gorgeous young blond. 

You won't be able to decide if you really like him or if you're just obsessing because he didn't like you.  

This may even happen to you a few times, and you will spend a few dark nights of the soul thinking you will be alone forever, that you're uninteresting and unattractive. You'll curse your ex, who enjoyed the last years of your youthful self and left you with this unrecognizable old-person's body. 

You will delete your online accounts in a snit-fit and curl up with Netflix and ice cream for a while, but eventually you will go back. Perhaps more selectively this time, on the more reputable sites.  You will become more adept at screening out the undesirables. You will no longer answer every message you get because you feel badly if you don't. You won't feel as guilty if you meet someone in person and there is no click.  Instead of lying your way out of it, you'll learn how to disengage with honesty and compassion.

And one day you'll wake up and realize you aren't obsessively checking the sites anymore, and that you are okay whether or not someone likes you back. You will have reached way out of your comfort zone - several times - and emerged okay.  You'll have ample opportunities to work on your boundaries, and will eventually learn not to go on a second date because you feel badly letting someone down.  

You won't spend every minute of every date wondering if he likes you.  Instead, you'll be thinking about whether you like him

You will come to embrace your beautiful, battered body, and you won't care as much about your perceived flaws.  You'll realize you're still pretty hot in your own unique way.

When someone doesn't like you for exactly who you are, it will no longer obliterate your self-confidence. You will learn to accept that you don't need to be all things to all people.

Most importantly, perhaps, you will come to know that you don't need everyone to like you. You will believe, for the first time in your adult life, that you don't need to be anyone's other half to be okay. 

This whole excruciating process? It will lead you back to you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Keep Going, Strong.

It's so easy to benchmark failure, isn't it? Ask someone to rattle off the things they have done wrong, or don't do well enough, and most of us can prattle of examples with ease.

Success, however we define it, is harder to pin down.  Especially when we're making major life changes, like getting sober, going through a divorce, recovering from illness or the loss of a loved one.

I've spent the past year working on self-care, on changing the tape in my head from one that tells me I'm not enough, to one that tells me I'm okay just the way that I am.

A year ago, my husband had recently moved out. I couldn't drive a car. I didn't have a job. I had to call a number every morning to find out if I had to go in for random alcohol testing. I had a probation officer. 

All around me lay the wreckage of the life that had been familiar to me for decades. I was slowly repairing my relationship with my kids, adjusting to life without a husband.  I felt fractured, broken into a thousand pieces. All I knew for certain is that if I stayed sober, everything else would fall into place.

Days passed very, very slowly. When you can't drive, or escape through work or staying busy, you spend a LOT of time in your head, staring at the walls surrounding you and feeling ALL the feelings.

If I wanted to stay sane, I had to stay in the moment. The literal moment. Days were carved into manageable bites: take a shower, go for a walk, meditate, read, ask for rides to grocery shop, get your kid to soccer or go to a recovery meeting. Go to bed at a reasonable hour, get up the next morning and do it all again.  

I suffered when I thought too far ahead, when I got tangled in the wires of self-doubt and seemingly insurmountable hurdles: how will I get a job with my record? How can I possibly be a single parent when I don't drive?  Who am I if I'm not someone's wife?  Will my kids ever trust me again?  

I suffered when I went back in the past, too, and rehashed all the "what-ifs" and "should haves". 

All I had was the moment I held in my hands that very second. And then the next. And the next.

And I sat with the feelings. ALL the feelings. I couldn't numb out or escape.  I found that I didn't want to, because I finally, finally understood that the only way out, dammit, is through

Staying present in the moment, sitting with feelings and not labeling or dismissing. them, and accepting life just exactly the way it was became a daily, life-saving practice. For just over 18 months, I practiced. I stayed still. I repaired, bit by bit, by working on myself, cleaning up my side of the street. I focused on self-care, which is so counter-intuitive for someone like me, who just wants to FIX everything and everyone. Instead, I focused on fixing myself.

I got my license back on August 3rd.  I no longer had a probation officer. I no longer had to check in for random testing. I had adjusted to life as a single mom, as much as anyone can adjust.  My children trusted me again. I could sit with feelings, hold them in a sacred safe space and listen to what they had to teach me. 

The work of rebuilding my exterior life could begin.

It is unfathomable to me that August 3rd was only a little over three months ago.  I have a job. I spend hours in the car zooming around from place to place - school, soccer, play dates. My day starts at 6:40am and doesn't end until the last excruciating math problem is finished, usually around 10pm. 

I'm divorced.  My emotional wounds are healing into scars, and they remind me that I never, ever have to go back, that I am now free to move forward.

It is my practice, now, not to let gifts of recovery, of doing the work, of healing, lead me away from the present moment.   I must make space for myself, each day. I check in to my gut, to my heart, and I listen to their sacred messages.    

As the exterior gifts come my way, I turn up the volume on my journey inward. Back to my Ellieness. 

I don't ever want to lose sight of her again. I remember who she was, before the addiction, before the failed marriage, before the chaos and destruction. I travel inside, deep down to the core of me, and she is still there - she always was -  it's just that she got buried under layers of distractions, masks, and adult-ness. I spend time with her, in the stillness of healing, and I finally love her again.  

I do not want to legally change my name back, because I don't want to have a different last name than my kids.

But I want to honor my return to self, somehow.  And what better way than to make it Facebook official? I'm going back to my maiden name, Strong, at least online.

It seems, well, fitting.

Keep going, Strong, but don't forget to stay where you are, too.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


I have a scar on my belly.

It is from the feeding tube I had, at the worst of the cancer treatments, when my throat was so ravaged by radiation even swallowing water was painful.

It's a small, round hole, about four inches above my belly button. It looks like a bullet wound.

Three years ago this hole was punched into my stomach.  It was made to sustain me, to give me life-giving nutrients. Without it the treatment would have been too much for my body to bear.  I hated it then, and I have avoided looking at it ever since.

It's on my soft white underbelly, and it makes me feel exposed, fragile and barely tethered to the world.

So, I ignored it. I filed it away in the mental morass where all the messages my body sends me go, into a dusty, overlooked and overstuffed file cabinet full of uncomfortable truths and feelings.

I prefer to live from the neck up.  I squeeze all experiences through the filter of thought. Emotions - especially the uncomfortable ones - are carefully strained, compared, analyzed and then meticulously explained.

I like my mind. I'm comfortable there. It makes me feel in control.

There are sound reasons to ignore my body. It makes me uncomfortable, what with all its imperfections, cumbersome functions and tendency to betray my carefully constructed illusion of control.

It screams at me to pay attention, particularly my gut. That's where I carry all the really uncomfortable shit: fear, conflict, anxiety, grief and sadness.  My insides curl into a tight, painful ball whenever I experience anything unwanted or uncomfortable, and my brain swoops in and madly begins explaining away.

Turning my focus from the ticker-tape of my mind to my body makes me squirm.

Another uncomfortable truth: the things that make me squirm are the most deserving of attention. My poor, overlooked, ignored body has carried my hardest truths, and it is the gatekeeper to my most vulnerable, authentic self.

And so, with as much compassion as I can muster, I practice turning my attention to the sacred messages it contains.

We are hardwired to protect our soft white underbelly. Exposing it triggers an ancient danger message, which in turn triggers the freeze, fight or flight response.

We aren't running from saber-toothed tigers or woolly mammoths anymore, but our brain doesn't know that, nor does it particularly care.  It responds to any perceived threat like it always has: avoid at all costs.

Addiction, and all forms of escape, are coded into that avoidance message.  There are so many ways to avoid: workaholism, perfectionism, the internet and the numbing effects of alcohol or drugs are but a few of the most beloved ways to hide.

In recovery I can't afford to ignore the woolly mammoths that come lumbering out of the morass. And so, I turn towards instead of away.

In the past, I have turned towards pain with my mind, but not with my body. Facing pain feels a lot safer as a mental exercise.  When I feel the vibrations of hoof beats thundering down the path, the last thing I want to do is unfurl, lie down and feel them come.  I would much, much rather just think about it.

My cancer lived in my body, and the deep fear this experience instilled in me lives there, too. I have written and talked about my cancer experience, but I haven't felt it.  My relapse taught me that what I avoid will, eventually, bring me down.

And so, I place my hand over the scar on my belly. I feel the softness, the vulnerability it contains. I listen to its message.

I feel the truths wash over me: you are deeply, primordially scared, Ellie. You are traumatized by your cancer experience; it plunked your mortality right into your lap, and this made returning to the land of the quotidian very, very hard.  You relapsed over it. You turned and you ran, as hard and as fast as you could.  

And then, this:   You are flawed and imperfect and wondrously alive. This tissue thin skin reminds you of the tenuousness of life, which is a truth whether you had cancer or not. 

I feel a loosening deep inside, a forgiveness, a compassion. I honor what the scar represents, which is another chance, a second umbilical cord that tethers me back to life, instead of away from it.

With one hand over my scar, and one hand on my heart, I feel my strong, steady heartbeat and I let the fear come.  I slip out of the world of the mind, and into my body. Cancer made me feel my body had betrayed me, when in fact the opposite is true. My mind is the only organ capable of betrayal.

That scar? It's not a wound. It's a doorway.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rumbling With My Story

I slipped on my new patent leather chunky-heeled pumps and gave my lipstick one last check before heading out the door. As I clacked down my brick walkway, my skirt shushing about my calves, I had one of those out-of-body moments.  You know the one where you feel like you're behind a camera, watching the movie version of yourself?

Do you have those? If not, don't tell me.

There are many moments, lately, when I actually see myself as the protagonist in my own story, and when they happen I realize how much time I spent feeling like the side-kick in someone else's story. It was a role I think I relished, in fact, because that meant I wasn't the lead, didn't have to bear the responsibility of momentum or outcome.

There I was, freshly brewed coffee steaming in my travel mug, sliding into the leathery scent of my new car, and heading off to my first job outside the home in twelve years.

Why does this feel so monumental, so different, I thought. You used to be an executive, for crying out loud. You could present to boards of directors when you were barely in your 30s and not bat an eyelash. And now off you go to answer phones and type memos and you feel like an explorer discovering a new continent.

I have tackled a lot of challenges in my life, many just for the sake of tackling them. I always had to climb higher, do more, see what was just on the other side of first one peak, and then another. It was a mad scramble to give ordinary the slip, to side-step regular.

After tumbling around in the unpredictability and chaos of the past few years, regular feels like sticking the landing, like grabbing the brass ring.

And there is so much bravery in regular, in normal.  Being the protagonist in my own story has required more courage of me than most anything I've done in quite some time. It was less scary to hide behind all those side-kick roles I played so well.

Being the other half of a relationship - and I did think of myself as the other half - stopped suiting me a while ago, although I was too scared to realize it on my own. The idea of being a Single Working Mom was nothing short of terrifying to me.  I didn't have faith in my ability to be the protagonist in my own life.

The first afternoon at my new job, I created my email signature.  Below my name, in bold print, I typed, Receptionist.  I am a Receptionist. I am one who receives.

The definition of receive? The action or process of receiving something given, sent, or inflicted.

It is my choice, how I view my life as it is today. It can be inflicted on me, something that happens TO me. Or it can be a gift sent to me, given to me.  The Universe cleared my path of all my self-placed obstacles to finding my place in my own story.

In her new book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown says this:

Men and women who rise strong are willing and able to rumble with their stories. By rumble, I mean the get honest about the stories they've made up about their struggles and they are willing to revisit, challenge and reality-check these narratives as they dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity and forgiveness."
These words shook me to my core. Getting honest with how I feel about my own story is a long journey inward, an intrepid adventure full of jump-scares and trick mirrors. I used to read quotes like this and think:  yes, but I'm always truthful when I tell my story, so this doesn't apply to me. 

But, oh, it's so much more complex than that. The facts aren't the meat of our story. What I didn't have access to were the tough emotions - the ones that make us truly vulnerable - like grief, anger, fear and remorse.

So I dropped the script, the one I had so carefully crafted for myself.  It's just words. It's just a story. The key to freedom is to own my story, but not to let my story own me.

So as the camera swings wide we see our protagonist - a middle aged woman sipping coffee and humming along with her car radio - on her way to first day of work.  She wears a pensive smile, and we wonder what thoughts dance in her head.  Is it a fond memory? The anticipation of plans later that evening?

No, it is none of those things. She is wallowing in the gift of normalcy; the ability to step into the spotlight of her life - hard feelings and all - and to receive.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Fail Better - On Divorce and Creating My Own Orbit

Divorce is hard, in ways that I expected and in ways I didn't.  We filed the paperwork, going to the courthouse together, bumping mostly silently along in the car, a long stretch of already-spoken words trailing behind us. I kept waiting for the wham-o of emotions to hit; everything was signed and we were officially putting an end to this twenty two year relationship.

What I mostly felt was numb. There is nothing more to say, and the whole thing was anti-climatic. We didn't even have all the right forms, but we both didn't need to back the next day to drop them off, so he went back alone.

Now we wait for the court date, for the legal end of what has already ended.

I have (mostly) stopped staring at everyone's ring finger. I don't know what I was looking for, really. I still feel a surge of kinship when I see a Mom with no ring on, out and about with her kids and looking happy and whole, but I have stopped searching the faces of the married couples I see and wondering if they are really as happy as they seem.  I no longer look at them and feel that disquieting combination of longing and emptiness.

The tsunamis of rage have subsided. I was so angry, at myself, at the Universe, at him, at his new woman.  She used to be my good friend, this new love of his. They began before he and I had ended. That betrayal blasted a hole through my world, left me shattered and with a shuddering rage that festered and bloomed like an infection in my soul. I don't write about it here, because what could I possibly say?  He has a life to lead, as does she, and it isn't my place to broadcast their business for everyone to see.

That infection has mostly healed, leaving a dull ache. Happy marriages don't fall apart in one explosive event, so I don't blame our demise on her, but it has taken months of licking my wounds, exploring my part in everything and begging the Universe, over and over, for surrender and acceptance to get to this place where I am now.

And where is that, exactly, I ask myself.

The answer surprises me, sometimes, because it's so simple: I'm right here. I am fully present in my skin, in my heart and mind. I didn't realize just how much of myself I had given away until I was forced to find me again.

I have learned that I am good on my own. It wasn't this way at first. A marriage develops grooves, patterns, and those take a long time to smooth out. Five o'clock would roll around and my mind would click into wife mode:  what's for dinner, is the house tidy enough, what do I need to do to make sure he is pleased when he gets home.  

For weeks I heard his voice in my head, both the one that would criticize me for the things I didn't do well enough in his opinion, and the things he would praise me for.  Marriage is a constant stream of compromises, little coming-togethers and moving-aparts. And at the end of each day there was always that marital download; the one that takes place snuggled into bed each night, where we shared our we-are-in-this-together moments.

Without the push-pull of marriage, when it's just me and the kids, I didn't have anyone else's gravitational pull to anchor me.

I had to create my own orbit.

From the perch of hindsight, I can see how I have grown, the ways in which I surprised myself with my resilience, my ability to feel all the hard feelings and come out out stronger, but OH it didn't feel like progress. It felt like a tearing-down from the inside out, because that's what it was.

I started by forgiving myself, bit by bit. I treated myself gently, and slowly changed my inner dialogue from words of worthlessness and shame to those of love and compassion.  I waded through feelings of abandonment and rejection by holding tight to myself and the love of my kids. I leaned - hard - on the people in my life who love me just as I am.

There are recovery slogans I have heard over and over that didn't mean much to me before, but that are mantras to me now. One of them is this:  pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth.  I have grown and stretched uncomfortably in so many ways, but I am finally in a place where I can say all that discomfort was so, so worth it. Like sore muscles the day after a hard work out, I limped along at first, but with a smile growing slowly wider on my face, because I knew that ache meant I was growing stronger.

My other mantra comes from the Buddhist monk Pema Chodron (she has a book coming out shortly with this as the title):  fail, fail again, fail better.  My life doesn't look anything like I imagined it would, but I have learned that the disconnect there isn't in life itself, but in the imagining, in the expectations of how things are supposed to be. I no longer believe in supposed-to.

I have long said we are not defined by our mistakes, but rather what we make of them. I amend that, now, because I am defined by my mistakes. I used to try to run from them, from the uncomfortable feelings, the anger and shame they evoked in me. I embrace them, now, because without them I could never have been forced to do the hard work it takes to find acceptance and peace of mind.

I look down the road at new milestones, now. It puts to test all this work I've done of self-acceptance. I am going on job interviews, and even on a date here and there.  One interviewer said, "So, if I Google you, what am I going to find?"

I felt a pinch of fear, a panicky feeling that maybe I should just take it all down - the blog, the recovery stuff, all of it.

Then I chuckled, out loud, and said, "well, you'll find me, I guess."