The Shadow of Gratitude

Dawn breaks into my bedroom like a baseball through a window. I am tired before I even get up, worn out from a game that has not yet begun.

I manage the start well. I pack lunches, check emails, and schedule appointments as I should. I feel even and productive. It is an effort, but I accomplish what needs get done.

As the sun grows brighter my mood dims. A single sock I find on the floor irritates me. A trip to the grocery store seems daunting. An innocuous request by a repair man for a serial number that is difficult for me to read causes me to grit my teeth in frustration.

A friend stops by unexpectedly to pick up a dish. As kind people do when speaking with someone who has been ill, she offers the obligatory, “How are you doing?”

“I’m great,” I muster in my upbeat voice. “Honestly, in the grand scheme of things, I am lucky. It could have been cancer or it could have happened to one of my kids, I am just grateful for all the support we’ve had.”

The dialogue is well-rehearsed and appropriately measured. I hear the words come out with sincerity, and I feel my head bobbing at the right tempo to demonstrate I am engaged in the conversation. My thin lips purse together in a slight smile, and I tilt my head to the side to show I am appreciative of the thoughts and prayers this generous person provided to me during my time of need.

I am always surprised as the bitter taste of resentment creeps up in my throat like bile during these discussions. I am grateful that my community rallied around my family when I suffered from a rare eye disease that sidelined me for several months. I am grateful for the support of my dear family. I am grateful that I did not lose my vision completely as others have.

Yet, my fury at contracting a disease that happens to only one in a million people lays thick like a layer of blubber, crushing my gratitude deeper into a black hole. Despite being on the back end of my recovery, I am still irritated that it ever happened at all.

Following the encounter, my mood changes. The disconnect starts. I feel my energy draining like a toy dying from old batteries. I find myself in a room with my kids, yet I cannot engage in today’s school stories. I smile and nod and sometimes even laugh. I cluck reminders to “hurry up” or “get your soccer shoes on.”  I tell a joke that even gets them to chuckle. Then I walk away from the moment like it never happened.

I look around at my beautiful home but only see the dust and paper and crumbs scattered around like the remains of a party I did not attend. The chaos of a family of five that once brought joy feels more like carrying a pile of bricks on my back. I heave a load of laundry up the stairs to fold, convincing myself of its importance and pushing back the thoughts that I am avoiding interaction with those who love me most.

Alone, I let the shame wash over my body. My pulse quickens as I recite all the positives in my life, a gratitude routine that should bring me peace. I close my eyes and whisper: “Wonderful children, loving husband, healthy body, beautiful home, great friends.”

The chant should calm me, should shift the numbness to happiness, move the feelings of loneliness to love; but it does not work. Again.

The fight I have with gratitude each day is exhausting. It is a never-ending tug-of-war that slowly deflates my soul like a nail in a tire.

The positive attitude that defined my life no longer exists. I am an actress playing a role I no longer understand.

I am placed in a self-defined purgatory. There is no way someone like me, someone who has everything, could be depressed about their life. There is no way I can’t get past this. There is no way I shouldn’t be grateful.

Then night comes, as it always does, and I start to obsess. What else will happen? What bad thing will come next?

As the minutes click by on the red lights illuminating my bedroom, I try and focus on what I have overcome this year which leads to a chain reaction of extreme emotions. I think about finishing my meds for my eye disease. I remember my pride with my daughter’s release from a therapy program. I am happy that my family is now settled after a transfer to a new state. I think about the people I left behind when we moved. I miss the friend I lost to cancer and the dog we put down. I fear my vision will never be the same. I worry about my marriage if we have to move again for my husband’s job.

The push and pull from practicing gratitude weighs heavily on my heart. It never comes easy to me.

It is work. It is hard. It is exhausting.

As night disintegrates into dawn, I slowly wake, feeling raw and weathered from another tortuous sleep. I begin my day the same, but feel like the last threads holding my life together are about to break. Something needs to give.

I decide to walk out of the shadow of gratitude. I decide today, I will be grateful; but first, I will be honest.

I call an old friend to tell her I miss her. I break down asI talk to her about nerve pain, headaches and poor vision. I don’t say it in passing. I discuss it at length and in detail, describing how much it bothers me, how frustrated I am that the scarring in my eye limits my reading, my computer time, my life. I selfishly complain about the little things — too many soccer practices during dinner, not enough time to write, and an annoying encounter with a woman in the grocery store.

I am lighter after hanging up the phone, almost relaxed. The day passes by quickly and effortlessly.

Later, I let my kids eat in front of the television, and I sit with them marveling at their long limbs and dirty feet and hair that smells like sweat and outside. I am relieved to just watch them as they sit like zombies transfixed at the flood of animated colors filling the screen. I find great satisfaction in the comfort of our flesh touching each other against the leather couch without the need to pretend I am engaged in their stories. I enjoy them on my terms and it feels as if I am seeing them for the first time after a long trip.

Later that evening, I lay in my husband’s arms, crying about a life I no longer know how to live. I do not talk myself out of my fear and anger this time. It flows as easily as the tears streaming down my face. I face the dissatisfaction with my life and the events in it head on, accepting that my struggles are difficult and real.

At the end of my break down, I can sense he wants more of me, yet I have nothing left to give. I feel the slightest twinge of guilt as I selfishly leave our bed, but I’m not pretending I’m okay today. Not even for him.

I decide to shower, and it feels more like a baptism as the warm water races over my head. My breathing flows easy and for the first time in what feels like forever, I look forward to the next day. I make plans in my head for what I want to accomplish, excited to tackle my simple life instead of run from it.

As I settle deep under the covers, I recite my gratitude list again. It is easier this time, uninterrupted and longer than usual. I listen to the cadence of my husband’s breathing and despite my swollen eyes and puffy nose, I feel satisfied that this is exactly where I need to be. Yes, even where I want to be.

My thoughts drift to the past year, filled with pain and conflicts and lows. And for the first time, instead of marginalizing my struggles, I embrace it with the all the energy I can muster. It is a part of me, whether I like it or not. I cannot “gratitude” it away, nor pretend it does not exist.

My weaknesses are now exposed, and hiding it no longer seems worthy of the experience. Others suffering may be more, but that does not mean mine did not matter. I cradle the pain, imprinting the feeling on my soul like a tattoo, so as never to forget this flash of understanding.

I am grateful for this moment of consciousness, grateful for my life, grateful to be living it.

And when night returns, as it always does, I sleep.

One Day, I Will Be Better Because of It

I’ve started writing nine blog posts in the past week. I’ve finished zero.  All of them had something to do with the “good” that has come from dealing with the debilitating eye disease I have faced the past three months. But the words just aren’t jumping onto my paper like they normally do. It feels forced and fake.

I keep trying to write about what I have learned through this experience, and how it has changed me for the better. I want to share how I now see the world clearer with a laser-like focus on what’s important.

But I believe in always writing with authenticity and with truth, and the truth is, I’m struggling to make sure this experience — this experience that was painful and scary and the lowest time in my life — doesn’t change me for the worse.

I have always been in awe of people who face adversity with courage and grace. The ones who can see the beauty in life through the pain, who don’t get angry for their bad fortune in life, who find a higher purpose despite the indignities they face.

I am not one of those people.

I was selfish.  I wondered why this — this awful illness that took half of my vision and kept me away from the people and life I loved — was happening to me.  As someone who believes deeply in karma, I wondered what bad deed I committed in my past that deserved this fate. I even started questioning my faith.

Then I got angry. Each day that passed seemed to be worse than the one before it, and doctors’ visits became slaps in the face instead of discussions of progress. The constant stream of bad news weighed heavily on my psyche, and hope became a four letter word. A bitterness I had not felt since facing infertility a decade before crept slowly up my soul like bile in my throat

So I cried. A lot. I cried like a baby in my husband’s tired arms, on my mom’s weary shoulders, or through the phone to dear friends who were trying to hide their fear. More tears stung my eyes as I heard my children leave through the door in the morning or when I knew they went to bed, knowing that their Mom couldn’t care for them, or sometimes even walk to their room to kiss them good night.

Shame came next, and came hard. Shame for losing my gratitude, losing my optimism, losing myself. This disease was not fatal, How selfish of me for complaining about my eyesight while I watched friends and family deal with cancer, traumatic brain injuries or unfathomable accidents.  I felt shame for wasting the grace and generosity so many people afforded me, shame for not seeing the beauty in the small moments I did have. How could I not see the painfully wonderful good that was coming out of this situation?

I wanted to be strong, courageous and grateful, but it was just too damn hard.

Then I would feel good for what felt like a second. One good moment when I felt something, anything, like the person I was before my world turned upside down. And you try to go on and believe that everything will, just maybe, be okay.

I have learned that there is no right way to handle adversity. When the shit hits the fan, all bets are off.

When I one day look back on this time, I hope that I see there is strength in vulnerability and courage in letting yourself break down during the tough times.  While this illness that shook me to my core did not always bring out the best in me, I certainly watched it bring out the best in others, like my husband, friends and family. That may be the good I am so desperately seeking.

What I do know is that every situation, every road bump in life, is different, and every — every single one of us who are suffering through our own battles no matter how large or how small — deserves compassion. It is okay to break down and it is okay to need help.

I’m not sure where I am in this chapter of my life story, but I I am thankful to once again be able to exchange my fear of the unknown with optimism that I will find my new normal. Each passing day my body gets stronger and my heart weighs less. I no longer need to rationalize the why’s of this, and can focus more on the what’s next.

How has this changed me? What have I learned from this experience?  It may be too early to tell, but this I know:

I am broken.

I am human.

I am a survivor.

And, one day, whenever that may be, I will be better person because of it.

On April 17, three and a half weeks after my first symptoms, I was diagnosed with acanthomoeba keratitis. Acanthomoeba is an amoeba that invades the cornea of the eye and may result in visual impairment or in some cases, blindness. In the United States, it is often associated with contact lens use. 

When We Turn Our Grief into Gratitude

I believe the true measure of a person is determined by how she acts when faced with adversity. I am constantly amazed by my friends and family who have handled seemingly insurmountable obstacles with such incredible grace and compassion — both in their lives, and in the worst of times, when there is death.

And when I see these people, these people who are composed, who are lovely, who are kind in the most dire of circumstances, it makes me wonder, did their grief change them, or did they change their grief? Were they this strong before facing adversity, or did they find this strength only because they needed it?

I am in awe of the people I know who can still see the light in the midst of a tragedy. A mom who has shown so much compassion and gratitude as her young son faces leukemia. A friend who lost her battle with lung cancer, yet fought courageously even to the end. A young dad who creates a beautiful life for his daughters despite losing his wife in a freak medical incident. And a young girl who digs deep to win her war with addiction.

grief

I often wonder, could I be that strong if faced with such an issue? Could I see beyond myself? Would I be paralyzed with the unfairness of it all…could I bear the unbearable? I’m not so sure, so I try to see life through the lens of my friends, to find my gratitude in the every day knowing that today it was not me, not my family, not my life that was shattered. I will be thankful, because I feel it is insulting to those facing such pain, such grief, such sorrow if I am not.

I discussed this once with a friend who has been dealt a lot of bad cards in her life. Of course making it all about me, I remarked that I often struggled with enjoying my own life when so many close to me were struggling with their own. She said something like this: “Life is truly seasonal. Some of us will never know that we are in a beautiful spring until faced with the harshness of winter. Some of us know that the seasons change quickly. And some of us never know because we’re too busy looking up at the dark clouds.  Regardless, it’s up to each of us to know when the sun is shining.”

True dat. We must know when our sun is shining.

This past Saturday morning I woke up early. With nothing on the schedule and my three girls lazily watching cartoons downstairs, I rolled over to grab my phone to check some e-mails and Facebook. The very first post I read was from my friend Anne, a tall, beautiful woman with a California tan and an equally sunny disposition. She was the girl in my sorority I admired from afar, although she always gave me a warm smile when she saw me in the year I was a lowly pledge and she a supremely confident senior. Flash forward twenty years and she is equally gorgeous and tan, but now has a beautiful family, recently started a successful business, and lives a full life.  Seemingly perfect.

And then she shared this:

In a continued effort to make my Facebook page as authentic and purposeful as possible, I am gathering up my courage and sharing this post. Here goes..

Six years ago today we lost our daughter, Brooke, when I went into labor at 21 weeks into my pregnancy. I never felt brave enough to openly talk about it on Facebook, but something compelled me today to share this very personal post.

Every year on this date, in the days and weeks leading up, I find myself quietly and painfully remembering her loss. We always mark the day by going to our special beach where we scattered her ashes, and we bring rose petals to toss in the ocean. But this year, it was not until well into the morning that I suddenly realized what day it was.

My husband had already left for work and I was packing the kids lunches, when it hit me. Of course I felt incredibly guilty that I had forgotten and not planned my day accordingly. And then all at once an incredible sense of gratitude and calm washed over me as I realized it was OK. It was OK that I did not feel the pain and the grief. I carry Brooke in my heart everyday and am constantly finding her beautiful little spirit in so many areas of my life.

But today for the first time in six years I allowed myself to let go of the painful part of her loss and simply celebrate her birth and her precious, brief, little life with us. So, instead of bringing roses to the beach tonight, I took our beautiful daughter, her sister, who was born two years later, to the beach instead. We played in the surf, made seagrass bracelets, and afterward we had dinosaur chicken nuggets and clam chowder, and toasted our blessed life with milk and Sauvignon Blanc at The Boathouse.

And now we are home and taking baths and my heart is just so full. Six years ago I could never have imagined feeling such joy. I really debated sharing this tonight. But despite my trepidation, I hope that maybe this post will serve as a little light of hope for anyone struggling with grief. In a huge display of irony I received a call today from a dear friend asking for advice on how to support a friend who experienced a very similar loss. As I shared with her all of the wonderful ways my own good friends “showed up” for me, it reminded me how fortunate I am to have such compassionate and loyal friends. Without them, I surely could not have reached this place of healing. So, thank you. You know who you are, and your friendship has made all the difference.

It took me until the end to realize that tears were streaming down my face. I have always thought of Anne as larger than life, but reading this, reading how her grief changed her, and then how she changed her grief…well, it was something special. Glennon from Momastery calls it living “brutiful”, where everything beautiful in our life now comes from the pain and grief we faced in our past.

And while some of our pain and grief and sadness is because of  awful things like sickness and death and addictions, sometimes it is the small things, like insecurities or betrayals or cruelty from others that limits our happiness, our joy, our gratitude. Sometimes a lot of these small things can cloud our sunshine, make us miss our season of spring.

But by sharing these stories, sharing our pain — the pain we all have in some form or another — we can learn from it. We can help each other find our sunshine again, as Anne’s close friends and family helped find hers. While yes, grief changes us; but that does not mean we cannot change our grief.  Moving on does not mean forgetting our loved ones, our experiences, our loss. With time and support, we can change our grief into gratitude.

At the end of  the day, I am so thankful for the bravery of people like Anne and others in my life that share their struggles, and decide to share them with the world. We all face pain and grief and heartbreaking, unbearable loss, and we all face a multitude of issues that weigh us down– and in the face of this, we must decide if we want to see the sun again. By sharing our stories, we also give hope to those that may follow.

In the movie The Fault in Our Stars, there is a line that says: “Grief does not change you Hazel. It reveals you.”

May we all reveal our true selves, our best selves in the harshest of winters. May we all find the sunshine after our pain, after our sorrow. May we all find our spring day at the beach, that day when our grief turns to gratitude.

 

 

Developing an Attitude of Gratitude

As parents, how often do we express gratitude for our lives? The crazy, manic, over-scheduled messiness that comes with being a working mom, dad who travels too much, exhausted stay-at-home mother of multiples and everything in between.

We hear it all the time when we hear of tragedies. I do it myself. “I am just thankful for my children’s health” or “I am so grateful my spouse has a job.” But developing an attitude of gratitude…a constant stream of appreciation for the life you have. Now that’s pretty powerful.

I am not going to tell anyone that you have to be appreciative for every little thing about parenthood.  Most of parenting in my eyes is just about survival or getting through, like the time your daughter takes her diaper off during nap time and decides to “paint the walls” (I may or may not be talking from experience.) Or when your five-year old finds the Sharpies and decides to decorate the stairs. Or when your seven-year old decides she wants bangs, so she cuts them. Herself. Or half of them.

No, I’m not one of those Positive Paula’s that says you should embrace every single moment and be thankful for it. But I do think having a regular attitude of gratitude can impact your daily life. It can empower you to be more productive. And you may just smile a teeny bit more in those crazy moments.

gratitude

Why is gratitude important? Simply put: giving and receiving gratitude makes us feel good. Think of how great you feel when you get acknowledged with a promotion for a job well done. How good does it feel when someone tells you your kids are well-behaved? And do you get all warm and fuzzy when someone reacts in kind when you do something nice for them?

Gratitude-ing is contagious. Here’s a few tricks I’ve learned along the way:

+ Believe in good intentions.  One of things we do as women is constantly try to read between the lines in our interactions…in a Facebook status, text message, or conversation. It often leads to misunderstandings, hurt feelings and resentment. Each and every time we have an interaction with someone who makes us unsure of someone’s intent, try to think the best of that person. Obviously don’t be naive, but when you think the best of someone, you may be surprised in how it turns out, and you aren’t consumed with the negative energy.

For example, did you not get an invite to a party? Instead of getting mad, believe that it was either inadvertent or because the host had constraints. Someone not call you back? Believe it was because that person is swamped. Did someone decline an invite? Maybe they really just were exhausted. The net-net for women: don’t let our own insecurities skew the way we look at other people.

Of course, there are the times when people are being malicious, but it’s always easier to let them mess with their karma, not yours.

Write down your blessings. You don’t have to do this every single day (although I know journaling about gratitude makes it a habit), but write what you are truly thankful for down at least once, then refer to the list often.

This helps me a lot when my mojo is off. When I was unhappy in my job, it was good for me to think about how the extra money I was earning was helping with my daughter’s horse back lessons and build our retirement. When my kids were little and made me want to pull my hair out, I was reminded that at one time I wasn’t even sure I could physically have children. Looking at the world this way didn’t make me completely Zen after the fifth time being awoken in the middle of the night, but it did help me cope with stress better and not sweat the small stuff.

+ Take Notice. When you see someone –whether it is a stranger or family member — doing something nice, acknowledge and thank them. Sincerely. Stop a member of  the Armed Services in the airport and shake their hand. Tell a kid that picked up some garbage that other people walked around that you noticed. Thank your son for taking out the trash, even if you had to ask him three times to do it.  Acknowledging kindness spreads the good will.

Be a giver. While I try to do things for the less fortunate, I also try to give to my friends, my kids’ schools, my neighbors, etc. Showing gratitude to the important people in your life is a double whammy — it makes your recipient feel good and you feel great. Take a meal to someone (doesn’t have to be homemade), cut your neighbor’s grass, drop off a bouquet of flowers or offer to bring a neighbor home from practice. When I feel like nothing is going right in my world, I always do something for people who have it worse off than me. It’s a great reminder that my life isn’t quite as bad as I feel in that moment, and I feel good about helping someone who needs it.

+ Change your vocabulary.  You know that saying it’s not what you say but how you say it? Well, not exactly true. Studies have shown that the words that come out of your mouth can change your attitude. For example, say you had to wait two hours at the pediatrician’s office and missed a deadline at work. Instead of instantly complaining to your spouse, start the conversation off by discussing how at least it was a minor issue with your child and how well-behaved she was at the office (if you are super lucky that day!) The point is: if you start off with gratitude, the rest doesn’t seem so bad.

+ Don’t worry about the Joneses. One of my all-time favorite sayings is: “If you aren’t happy with what you have, why do you think you’ll be happy with more?” One of the biggest problems we have as women is we think what we see externally is the truth. Someone is skinny and has a big house — they must be super happy. A mom and her kids who is always dressed perfectly  — she must have it all together. But, we all know that is often not  the case. When we take all the energy away from wishing we had what someone else did and focus it on being grateful for what we already have, it is amazing the contentment we can feel. And it spreads throughout the whole family.

What are your tips for being grateful?

 

 

%d bloggers like this: