This Is My 40

Three life lessons from a tumultuous last decade.

1. Self care is no joke.

For a long time I believed that rest was for wimps. In college, I attended class all day, headed to a grueling three hour gymnastics practice, then studied at the library well into the night. I’d wake up for my eight o’clock classes and start all over again. It wasn’t that I was a human machine - one of my professors even called my gymnastics coach because I was constantly falling asleep in class. I simply would not acknowledge that I needed rest. After college, I kept this familiar schedule, working all day and coaching at night. Looking back now, I was running on fumes of anxiety. Down time terrified me. The expectations I put on myself were crushing and no amount of studying was enough. 

It took having kids and leaving a job in academia after almost a decade to help me understand that this pace was unsustainable. It wasn’t one moment or even several, but a slow realization that I because I was not taking good care of myself I was not showing up as the person I wanted to be in the world. I had an extremely short fuse, lots of simmering anger, and I didn’t have any clue about experiencing the present moment. I had one speed - GO. 

Gradually, I made big shifts in my life. I quit my job that had me commuting over an hour each way (with kids, full time). I started a new job from home. I went to therapy for the first time. I began my writing practice. More recently, after my migraines started significantly impacting my quality of life, I decided to try to get eight hours of sleep each night. I finally figured out how to nap. 

I did these things over the course of about five years. There was surely no magic bullet. But I can honestly say that most days I feel really good about what I’m doing with my time and how I am progressing as a person. I have so much room to grow, but I’m also really proud of the choices I’ve made to get myself to this place. 
 

2. Most of the small stuff doesn’t matter. Really.

Not long after my husband and I moved into our first home, a poorly built condo for which we paid way too much at the height of the real estate market before the recession, we had a toilet break. My parents were visiting. All of a sudden water starting coming through the ceiling where the chandelier was hung over the dining room table. I completely lost it. I was screaming at my family as if it was somehow their fault. I couldn’t calm myself down. My dad finally suggested I go out for a walk to cool down. This was my thing - get really mad, really quickly. Why was I so quick to boil over? Who did this anger serve? I guess I got a release and adrenaline rush when I let that anger go by yelling, but this was something I was not proud of. 

For me, it took experiencing significant life challenges to fully understand and agree with the idea that most minor annoyances of daily life are not a big deal. When you say goodbye to your newborn, delivered into the world just hours earlier, and watch him wheeled away to undergo a cardiac catheterization under general anesthesia; well, traffic and picky eating and email just seem like ridiculous things to be worried about. Practicing being grateful has helped me too. When I’m struggling mightily with being a caregiver for my mom with advanced dementia I try to recall how grateful I am that my sister and I are a team, almost always aligned in decision-making and having each other’s backs for support. Facing this disease without my sister is unthinkable. 

I lose sight of this one routinely, but I think I’m getting quicker in my recovery and I know my anger has decreased significantly. Just recently I arrived at the pool with the kids and noticed a hissing sound when I get out of the car. Turns out there was a screw in my tire. Instead of losing my cool, I thought about how fortunate it was that I noticed it and I quickly got the car back home before the tire was entirely flat. No biggie. 
 

3. Your story really is your strength.

Like lots of new moms, I joined a baby group when my eldest was a newborn. There were probably 20 mom/baby pairs in this group led by a breastfeeding expert. I remember watching with a kind of horrified fascination as all the moms laid out their adorable teal and white chevron baby blankets, placed their baby upon them, and then actually sat back and participated in the discussion. My own dear baby (the one who’s now 10), screamed bloody murder if you dared try to leave her on the floor by herself. She was usually screaming anyway, but the volume was somewhat decreased if she was attached in some way to me. I can’t recall a single positive moment from that group and I think I may have stopped going, unable to handle the feelings of defeat that came in waves as I tried to get through those sessions. My early motherhood was filled with these moments of feeling alone, separate from the other moms, aside from my closest of friends. 

We've since learned that this little baby, my daughter, Carly, experiences the world differently than most people you know. When she was a toddler she would often tell me she wished she was still inside my belly. The world was too much for her to bear. She needed parents who could let that be ok. Parents who could handle huge emotional hurricanes that roared through her little body. We were not those parents. Slowly, over the course of several long years, we changed the story of the parents we thought we were to become the parents Carly needed us to be. 

Back then I couldn’t have imagined how Carly would have changed my outlook on life, but now I see how she has rewired my entire brain. The experience of feeling isolated as an outsider was new to me and brought along a new perspective, a new compassion for other people and for myself. Seeing my own child struggle in every possible way and trying for many years to help without seeing much success also made me a more empathetic person with a capacity for holding space for heaviness, discomfort, and loss. 

This very thing I resisted, the ability to sit with the most challenging of emotions without changing or avoiding or shoving them behind the curtain, is the exact thing I bring to the women I work with in my business. It’s what I am teaching them to do with their own stories; look at the darkest of times square in the face and see the beauty in what you’ve become because you found your way through.  

How One Remarkable Woman Sees the Psych Ward as a Gift

It is my great honor to introduce to you one of the most courageous women I know, Cassandra Tillinghast. This is her story.


This is a story about the importance of giving ourselves gifts - you see, I just celebrated my 42nd birthday, and so gifts are front of mind.  These days, though, I’m finding that the kinds of gifts I value most are taking on a different sort of patina. For example, last year around this time, I gave myself the gift of attending a week-long silent meditation retreat in West Virginia.  My 30-year old self definitely would not have considered that such a great gift (she would have preferred a pair of Jimmy Choos) - but she would at least have acknowledged it as a loving act of self-care. But sometimes the gifts we give ourselves don’t feel that way.  And it’s one of those types of gifts that I want to write about today - it’s a gift that I gave myself not all that long ago, one that didn’t feel like a gift at the time, one that I almost never talk about and about which only a very few close friends and family members know.  It’s a gift that I’m terrified, and yet feel compelled, to share with the world now. That gift was the night several years ago when I checked myself into the emergency room, and then the psychiatric unit, at Inova Fairfax hospital. At the time, it felt less like a gift, and more like an act of desperation – and in a sense, it was. At the time, it felt like the most conclusive evidence I had to-date (and believe me, I had LOTS of evidence) that I was a complete failure.  A fraud. A nobody. A disgusting human being. Not even a human being. At the time, living felt too big, too hard, and basic acts of self-care (such as eating and sleeping) were beyond what I was willing or able to do because of the extreme hate I had for myself, and for the world. I later learned how to peel the layers off that hate, to seek the truth behind it. At first what I found was a deep well of sadness, profound grief, intense fear, and the darkest shame. I later returned to love.  And admitting myself to the the psych ward was the gift I needed to begin making the journey back.

You may be asking what was it that happened to me that brought me to that point?   The stories that answer that question are complex and go back as far as 35 years. Some of those stories I've shared, and many others remain my secrets to keep (for now - maybe forever).  But this story - the story of finding the courage to get help - I’m sharing today, even though the telling is terrifying, as another gift to myself, and also as a gift to others, in the hopes it helps to destigmatize mental health diagnoses and treatment, and maybe even give someone the courage to seek out the help they’ve been putting off getting.  So many people are suffering – I know I’m not alone in my story. I don't want to to turn this into a litany of statistics, but the data on mental health is astounding. Some 20% of American adults experience a mental illness each year - including 18% living with anxiety and 7% living with major depression. The impact that mental health issues have on our societal well-being is staggering.  If dollar figures impress you, consider that some estimates suggest mental illness costs the U.S. $193 billion annually in lost earnings. Or how about lost lives, rather than lost earnings, as an indicator - 90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness, and before you file that under the category of the blindingly obvious, did you know that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.?   And the ways that our mental health (or lack of it) play into other societal challenges we face - domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, gun violence (and the list goes on) - cannot be overstated. By the way, only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year - and preventative mental health care isn't even something that we're talking about in a cohesive way.  Yet.

So it's actually pretty remarkable that I sought - and received - treatment when I was in crisis.  In terms of the immediate triggers that got me there - frankly, the days and weeks leading up to the night I checked myself in are a blur.  I remember that I was overseas, traveling on business, when the cracks started to show. I remember, on the morning of a big presentation to a client, receiving an upsetting text from my father (as it turned out, I later learned, he was having a stroke).   I remember my already high levels of anxiety, which pretty much was a normal state of being for me at that point, amping up to complete panic. I remember my primary thought being how I was going to get through what I was sure would be a disaster of a presentation, in no small part due to my own ineptitude at trying to transform myself into something other than the myopically focused work-a-holic M&A lawyer I had fashioned myself into over the prior 10 years.  And in that moment, I remember judging myself for worrying about the silly presentation when lord knows what was ailing my dad, but feeling trapped into thinking my job assignment first because I was the primary provider for my husband and children. I remember feeling like I was failing all over the place - as a professional, as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother, as a woman.

Memory is a funny thing - I have no memories of the presentation (it must not have been too much of a disaster) or the flight home.  The next thing I do remember is being back stateside, gripping my steering wheel, white-knuckled, as I sped down the George Washington Parkway on an early morning commute like an endless series of so many others, still dark out, with NPR like white noise on the radio with the latest unbiased report on…something.  As I neared the Key Bridge, suddenly, I wasn’t feeling the vibration of the road beneath me, but instead the breeze in my hair as I stood on the side of the bridge, watching my car accelerate off and over the guardrail and plunge down into the Potomac River below. And then I was back in the car, water all around me – in my hair, in my eyes, in my mouth and lungs.  The rush of water turned into the rush of wheels on the road, and the vibration returned as a reminder of the here and now. I don’t recall how I got through that particular day at the office, but I remember that night. I remember being angry at myself for not having retained my life insurance policy after I left my BigLaw job with its BigLaw salary in an effort to reduce monthly expenses now that I was earning significantly less, because I had Googled whether life insurance would pay out in case of suicidal death (the answer was not if it occurs in the first two years of the policy).  And so I was crunching the numbers on how long my husband and two children would be able to cover expenses on our current savings after I was gone (I’m the one in the family that is responsible for our financial well-being), and it wasn’t long enough. 

Somehow, in that moment, some rational part of me realized that this was insanity, that I was in crisis, and that I needed to seek help.  And so I started trying to figure out how to do that. I just want to say that process was not easy and required multiple attempts. If I were not who I am - an educated, empowered, resilient and feisty bitch - with the resources I have available to me - including supportive friends and family, money, a good job, and great insurance - I'm not so sure how things would have ended up.  After some internet research and several phones calls to a friend, a therapist, a crisis hotline, and a private wellness center, I learned that my options were to: (1) do some deep breathing exercises (thanks for the tip, but not sufficient), (2) wait for space availability and check myself into a private wellness facility (which would not accept insurance and would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars for a 2-4 week stay), (3) wait for space availability and seek outpatient care from a hospital-run mental health treatment center (that might accept insurance) or (4) admit myself to the nearest emergency room for immediate evaluation and treatment.  I chose option 4, and my husband drove me there. The rest of that night, a resident and a nurse took turns holding my hand as I cried what seemed like an ocean of tears I had waited a lifetime to release.  They waited with me for hours to find out whether a psychiatric unit had a bed that I could take that night, or whether there was space available in an outpatient facility that would accept my insurance and could take me the next day.  As it turned out, the only immediately available option was the psychiatric unit at Inova. I remember a social worker asking me several times if that was what I wanted to do, because maybe we could figure out something "nicer" for me. But I didn’t feel like I could wait – and I wasn’t really worried about making sure it was "nice,” because at that point the alternative was death, so beggars can't really be choosers was my philosophy.  So, once my bed was confirmed, the nurse put me in a wheelchair and an orderly took me on what felt like a very long trek from the ER to the 4th floor psychiatric unit.

I have struggled mightily to find a good way to describe my first night on the psych ward.  In that, yes, it is an experience that is decidedly not good, and it’s also just incredibly difficult to convey to the uninitiated.  It was dark on the ward – it was the middle of the night – but hardly quiet. Patients, inmates, I didn’t know which, shuffled aimlessly around, some vocal, some mute.  There was a muffled sort of painful sound as I entered my room and found my roommate asleep, but not peacefully. As she moaned and cursed, I fumbled in the darkness toward the bathroom with no door and flipped the light to find a sink and a toilet, but no mirror (a safety measure, I was later informed).  I rinsed my mouth out with water, flipped off the light, and crept into bed. I felt such complete and total exhaustion. But also a sense of sheer relief at having temporarily escaped the torture of being me; at finally being able to rest; at getting a vacation from myself. And I was terrified. I closed my eyes, my mouth felt sour, and pulled the covers over my ears as I tried to drown out the sound of my roommate’s nightmares, and to hide from my own.

I was “on the inside” for a week, and there’s probably a chapter (maybe even a whole book) on what that week looked like for me.  I’m not sure what you imagine a psych ward to look like, but if scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest come to mind, at least in the case of the place I was, you would not be too far off from reality.  The walls on the ward were a dingy green, the smell of disinfectant and urine and worse – nothing at all like the pretty pictures I had seen on the internet of the private wellness facility that I probably could have afforded, but that I would not have availed myself of anyway because I didn’t value myself enough to think I was worth it.  I remember the morning after I checked in going to the showers and looking down at the water that covered the floor, ankle deep and covered in places with frothy grey scum. I had summoned everything in myself to go bathe, to let the hot water strip away the dirt that permeated from my skin down into my very soul. There were towels on the ward, but no soap or shampoo, and I hadn’t been in a frame of mind to pack a bag when I left for the ER the night before.  So I undressed down to my socks and carefully tiptoed over to the showerhead under which there was the least amount of sudsy grey. Lukewarm water poured over me, but I couldn't feel clean. I never had. I scratched myself dry with the threadbare towel, redressed, and wrung out my socks. When I returned to my room, my roommate took one look at my bare feet and handed me a pair of pink fluffy socks from her bag. “Take these,” she said, “until your husband can come and bring you another pair.”  I still have those socks in my drawer today and wear them from time to time as a reminder of how far I’ve come and of the beauty of small acts of kindness of others. I smile every time I put them on.

And over the course of the time I was there, in various group therapy sessions that all of us (patients? inmates?) were required to participate in, I learned I was keeping company with, among many others, a middle-aged woman (my roommate) with a husband, two children, and schizophrenia; a 9-11 first-responder and career firefighter/EMT with PTSD; a 20-something drug dealer, addict and father-to-be whose pregnant girlfriend was in rehab at another facility; a teenage girl who spoke barely above a whisper to share she was in for the third time, and was now a candidate for shock therapy.  There were some of us there who were suffering from severe mental illness to the point of being catatonic, but there were others of us that seemed functionally "normal." As I looked around the ward, I wondered what is it that causes a person to crack. How is it that some seem to be able to endure and endure, while others break under the pressure? And for us broken ones, do we share some common trait, quality, defect? Looking at the statistics again as I write this, I'm realizing that we're all sort of broken, that suffering is part of the human condition - and that "cracking" is simply one indicator of the fragility of our human existence.  I guess it's a relief to have discovered that I'm not defective - I'm just human.

After a few days on the ward, I was able to meet with a psychiatrist and tell her what I then understood to be my story (which, by the way, is constantly evolving as I lean in to better understand my past and my present).  She quickly determined that outpatient treatment was the appropriate place for me to be. AND she commended my choice to come to the psychiatric unit first, as she noted that sometimes insurance companies balk on coverage for outpatient mental health facility services in the absence of clear evidence pointing to a need for treatment.  Time on the psych ward was, apparently, adequately clear evidence. She also told me that a parent’s suicide is psychologically more harmful to a child than physical abuse– a message that I needed to hear. So I spent the week there, before moving on to spend another three weeks in outpatient treatment. And that outpatient treatment led me to an incredible therapist.  And that therapist led me to many other things, one of which was the meditation retreat I mentioned at the beginning of this post. 

Believe me, there is no one more thankful than me for the treatment I was afforded – I’m not 100% sure I would be alive today if I hadn’t received it.  But I think we need to be very very real about the state of our mental health system – what works, what doesn’t, what we think good should look like, and how it can be better.   And telling stories like these feels like one way to start that conversation. I have been – and still am – terrified to share this story with the world. But I’m feeling the fear and doing it anyway because mental health is a topic we desperately need to advance on as a society, and I want to be a part of the conversation and our evolution. Of course, it’s also possible that sharing this will affect my ability to “succeed” (in traditionally understood terms) in my current – or future employment.  People judge – it’s what we are wired to do. But I’ve decided that it’s more important to me to take that risk and speak freely on something that I feel passionate about as an advocate for change. After all, I’m trained in advocacy. It’s high time I use that training in a way that feels meaningful.

I don’t know what that advocacy looks like just yet.  I think it starts with sharing this piece of me with you – many of whom know me and may have thoughts about me that aren’t consistent with what you think about someone who has seen the inside of a psychiatric unit (or maybe they are entirely consistent, only you know).  I think it also starts with something simple – and which involves an ask from you. On my last day on the ward, as part of discharge procedures I was presented with a “customer satisfaction” survey of sorts. As I checked through the boxes, rating the unit on a scale from 1 (best) to 5 (worst) on dimensions like cleanliness of facilities and tastiness of food, I wondered who would read my responses, and what, if any, change would result.  I wondered if funding was an issue, and thought about the access I had to people in the “1%.” I wondered what the employees on the ward thought were the biggest challenges and needs in providing service that would warrant all “1” ratings, rather than the all “5” ratings I had given. So when I turned in the survey, I asked the nurse – if you could have anything you wanted to improve the level of patient service you are able to provide on this ward, what would it be?  She looked at me blank and confused – she obviously didn’t understand the question. So I asked it again, in a slightly different way – if you could wave a magic wand, what would you wish to have on this ward to make things better for the patients here. She still looked confused, but this time she gave me an answer. “DVDs,” she said, “the patients always enjoy good movies.” I remembering feeling really crushed by this answer – just so disappointed as it seemed so mundane and simple and not something that would move the needle at all.  And so you know, I didn’t give them that. It’s over four years later and I still haven’t given what she asked for. I don’t know why – maybe because it just didn’t feel big enough. Maybe because once I left, it took until just recently for me to be able to look back at the experience and the ask in a different light. And so this month, in honor of Mental Health Awareness, I’m going through my DVDs. And I’m assembling a box. And I’m taking that box to the 4th floor at Inova Fairfax.  And if any of you have any DVDs you would like to contribute to the cause, please contact me and I’ll come get them from you.  Because damned if I’m not going to give them what they asked for. And then I’m going to find a way to give something more. And I would love for those of you reading this to in some way be a part of that – whether it’s through donating DVDs, or money or time – because it’s going to take one hell of a village to make our mental health care system better.

So, today on heels of the celebration of my birth, sharing this story is my gift to myself, to you, and to the world.  Thank you for reading it. And of course it’s not over yet – this is just the beginning. And so life goes on. Thank God.

Gratitude

This one’s for my sister.


Every inch of my body screamed, "I can't do this again. I need to leave. I can’t handle One. More. Moment.” I felt agitation running through my veins, anxiety rising in my chest. Resentment and anger came bubbling up as I thought of all the families sitting down to their Thanksgiving dinners while I found myself in a room alone with my mom, inside of the assisted living facility we had moved her into two weeks prior. She was downright refusing to get dressed and come with me to join the rest of our family for the meal. Or maybe it was her disease, the PCA, that was refusing to come.

I took a step back and tried to breathe to stop myself from yelling. I wanted to yell all the time, at anything and anyone. At the squirrels who got in my way on the sidewalk, at the aide who should’ve had my mom dressed already, at my kids to put their shoes on. In that moment I wanted to yell at my mom. Then my sister, Dani. “It isn’t fair that you get healthy grandparents”, I would scream. “You get to leave for the holiday and go on date nights with free babysitters and have someone cook for you while here I am, stuck in this room.”

The thing was, I really couldn’t convince my mom to come with me. While I was seeing red inside of my reptilian fight or flight brain, I knew enough to know that I was not mentally in a place where I was going to be able to connect with my mom, get on her level, empathize. Get her dressed so I could be with the rest of my family who were already together, waiting on us. So I called Dani.

Isn’t this what we do as siblings? I would do this to no one else on earth (well, except maybe my husband - sorry babe). I’m so resentful in this moment, I’m letting my emotions get the best of me by attacking my sister in my mind, I know she already feels horribly guilty about leaving me alone to deal with the situation, and I decide to call her?

And, you know what? She answered.

Thinking back on it now, I have tears in my eyes. Tears of deep gratitude for Dani. Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. After months of crisis, I mean crisis every damn day for weeks on end where you are pulled from meetings at work and bedtime with the kids to take care of our mom. Off to the neurologist, the psychiatrist, the ENT. Off to the emergency room. Off to a meeting you’ve been called to with the director of the facility. It is only us. Her and I. We moved her here away from her village and so it is us and only us who are responsible. Dani has finally gotten an opportunity to take a moment to breathe. A few days where she can be with her two little kids and focus on them with her full attention because she knows that even if she gets called she can’t physically come. It’s a huge weight lifted for a few precious days. And I evidently wanted to sabotage it for her.

Not only did she answer the phone, but she answered it free of hostility, even though she had to know it was an SOS call from me before she picked up. We had been answering each other’s calls with, “What happened?” for the past two months. But on Thanksgiving she sounded happy and peaceful when she said hello. Immediately upon hearing her voice I started to relax. I put her on speaker and she spoke to our mom in the way that I wasn’t able. She soothed and listened and comforted. After we hung up, I got mom dressed and off we went. 

For years people have told me, “It’s good that you have your sister.” For a long time, I wanted to respond by saying that having a sister doesn’t make the pain go away, you know. It’s still the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. “You’re reminding me of my sister because you want to create distance between yourself and this hardship I’m in; it’s easier to sugarcoat it with my sister rather than acknowledge the pain, isn’t it?” I wanted to say.

This year though, a deeper level of gratitude than I have ever felt before, came into my life. We have walked through the hardest days together, Dani and I. Facing the depth of this disease together, the stripping away of the woman we both love dearly has bound us together in the most beautiful way. We have chosen, time and again, not to scream at each other. Not to take our pain out on each other. But to support. To be the other person’s person. To love.

Now when people tell me how lucky I am to have my sister I close my eyes and say a prayer. Thank you for Dani. Please keep her safe. Please protect her energy and bring her peace.

This brave person shared her story with me.

Remember the prompt I sent out a few weeks ago: What is one thing that motherhood has taught you this month? Our friend Michelle wrote on the prompt and sent it to me! You guys - this is what I have been asking of you and one of you actually did it - YAY!! Please use Michelle as an example and try it. You don't have to send it to me, but if it's as awesome as I think it will be, I would love to share it. I really hope to add other voices to this newsletter on more of a regular basis. 


Questions by Michelle Small

The other night I saw something that just didn't seem right.  I ask, "What happened today?"  Silence follows.  I ask, "Did this happen at recess?  Who were you with?" She stares at me with her lips as straight as a line and her eyes completely glossed over.  I tell her I love her and I am only trying to help and she holds her hands up to her ears and walks away.  Exhausted, I want to just yell after her “Fine! Forget it!!”  I look down and there is my five year old, laying on the ground incredibly lethargic - an instant sign sickness is coming since he rarely ever is still for more than 20 seconds. 
 
I give my daughter some space for a moment while I try to get my son to get up and put on his pajamas, knowing tomorrow I will likely be taking him to the doctor’s office.  He refuses so I ask him “What hurts?”  “How do you feel?”  “Are you hungry?”  He stretches his arms out and whines, “Momma.  I want momma.”  I give him a hug and then he lays back down.  I let him lay there while I go search for the thermometer and check on my daughter. She is in tears and yells, “Don’t ask me anymore questions!!!  It is too hard to talk about it!!!”  

Reflection on my quest to help them both, I am realizing that asking a bunch of questions - a strategy that always helps me and also my students with their comprehension - is not always helpful.  In motherhood, I am learning, sometimes silence can produce the answers.  Sitting quietly with my son after taking his temperature (he didn’t have one at the time), I was able to check in with my gut feeling to know he needed to go to the doctor (he wound up having a high fever the next morning and an inflamed throat that needed medicine).  Since the blow up with my daughter, I have stopped the constant peppering of questions and wait for her to cue me she is ready to talk.  Amazingly, last night, she asked if she could read to me a part from a book she was reading.  This book is one I actually recommended to her and, for the first time EVER, she took me up on the recommendation, AND now she wants to show me a part she likes and connects with.  I feel like I finally have a win.  

I learn and grow by questioning, but I am learning that isn’t how my kids necessarily learn or grow.  It also does not seem to be a method to helps them to open up to me about what is going on in their lives.  For my kids, the more questions I ask, the more unwilling to share they become.  My daughter gets tense and stressed and my son just flat out ignores me and/or dances around (sometimes with underwear on his head) repeating my question or words in a sing song voice and refusing to answer them (He is feeling better today!).  

It is SO hard for me, but I am learning to look for those opportunities to sit in silence or just side by side, waiting for them to be ready to share.  I won't stop asking questions, but I will start pausing more before I do.  It will help me decide if the questions I am bombarding them with will produce the answers I am hoping for.   

A Frowning Smile

I've had a rough week full of disconnection with my nine year old daughter. Today I noticed she was getting dressed without prodding, brushing her hair and doing what she needed to do to get out the door on time for school. I was so proud of her and she seemed so beautiful and precious to me in that moment. I made eye contact with her and smiled. Not a huge wide-toothed smile, but I felt my facial muscles move into the place they go when I smile.

She stopped in her tracks when she saw me staring at her and said, "What?" Let's just say I sensed some venom in her voice.

I just love you and I'm proud of you.

Then why are you giving me that look?

I'm smiling at you babe.

That's a frown trying to be a smile.

Here I was showing up with the absolute best of intentions trying to connect and she still didn't see it this way. How bad must it feel when I'm reacting out of a place of anger or irritation? It was a reminder of perception and how much our kids feed off of our energy. We have to literally ask them the question to make sure we are on the same page.

This applies to all relationships in our life. With our partner, at work, with our friends. Unless we have the courage to check in, "You seem a bit off today, did I say something that upset you?" we could be two ships sailing on different rivers, in opposite directions.

I wrote today's post in response to a podcast interview question from the amazing Maria Alcoke of The Engine Mom podcast. Use this question that Maria asks all her guests as your writing prompt for this week:

What is one thing that motherhood has taught you this month?

For those of you without kids, simply substitute partnership or yoga or nature or life for "motherhood". I’d love to read your response - email it to me!

My Title

I posed the question: In the story of your life, what is the title of the chapter on Mom? Here is mine.

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For most of my life, my mom was my best friend, closest confidante and strongest advocate. After dementia entered our lives eight years ago, this relationship began to shift. Slowly at first. Almost imperceptible changes. Strange handwriting began showing up on the kids' birthday cards. She stopped driving at night. Once a phenomenal cook and home entertainer, she stopped taking down her favorite recipe books and spending days in the kitchen. 

You know how you can't remember when your three year old was an infant? And then when she's six you can't remember three? Dementia is like that too. It's hard to remember what my mom was like before something strange and unknown took hold of her brain. 

My therapist gave me a tool that's really helped. She asked me to find mementos of the "before" days to remind me of who she was as a person and a mom. I dug out an old card she sent to me in college. It was full of sweet love and support. Full confidence in me. The familiar and cozy feeling of being taken care of flooded me. That comfort that someone believes in you no matter how many stumbles. 

This was the place I brought myself back to in order to come up with this title of my life story chapter on my mom. Distilled, this is what she taught me. She had no family near the town where we lived. Instead, she built her family with friends. She cooked for them, she took care of their kids, she spent time with them, regularly. And when things got hard, she didn't hesitate. Two of her best friends were diagnosed with cancer and died in their forties, when I was in high school. My mom didn't wonder what to say or how to take care of them. She marched herself into their homes to check on her girlfriends and to see what help their kids needed.

She taught me that showing up as yourself is love. 

Marathon Monday

On April 16th my husband, Curt, ran the Boston Marathon. Throughout the entire training process, every time I talked about the marathon I said "we," as in both Curt and me, as if I was running the marathon too. It just came out. I am not a runner and in fact I can't quite stand running. I think it's because when our partners decide to commit to something big, we feel a stake in it too. We want it badly for the person we love and we often have a significant shift in our daily schedules too.

Because he was running for a charity, Team Frannie of the Ethan Lindberg Foundation, this added to my feelings of connectedness to the race. I wanted to give back to this organization that had been alongside us since my son Griffin was diagnosed in utero with congenital heart disease (CHD) seven years ago. 

Also, the lives of several children who had died of CHD were integrally woven into this race: Ari, Chase, Ethan, Frannie. Their moms, dads, and siblings would all be present on race day. 

On race day, Curt got up early and headed out. The weather was as bad as predicted. The kids and I sat in the hotel restaurant watching the elite runners and wheelchair athletes at the starting line.  The rain was already gushing in torrents over the hotel entrance, soaking passersby. I was anxious about Curt having to stand in the wet and cold for hours before he started. I was anxious about all of the runners having trained so intensely to show up for this weather. Then they did a tribute on tv to the five year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and my kids starting asking what had happened. Yes, I was anxious about that too.

We headed up to the hotel pool and I watched Carly and Griffin play. My heart was hurting, confused and joyful. Hurting for the pain that CHD has caused these families and my own. Confused about how some kids make it and other kids don't. Joyful that we had the once in a lifetime opportunity to be in Boston that day and participate, in our own way, in the race. 

A little while later, we arrived downtown. We stepped out of the uber and within ten second we were drenched. The kids starting complaining immediately but we went up to Beacon St. to watch the elite women pass. At mile 25, they were almost done. 

We stayed inside for a while, keeping warm. But, I had only one chance to see Curt and I didn't want to miss him. So, the Team Frannie crew headed out to Beacon St. Again, fully drenched within seconds. The rain was coming in sheets, sideways. By now the runners were slowing down. Many were walking. Several were already wrapped in the silver thermal blankets they normally receive at the end. Some were in between two runners who had their arms wrapped around the middle runner, almost carrying the person along. A double amputee made his way by on his prosthetics. I could see the pain in his clenched face.

About 15 minutes before we expected Curt, I took my hand out of my glove and held my phone, with the camera open. I wanted to capture the moment on video. This meant that my hand and arm were sopping wet and frozen and that I couldn't follow Curt on the tracker app because I wanted to keep the camera ready. 

The 15 minutes came and went. By this time Griffin was crying hysterically. He was freezing and wanted to go inside. Carly was ready to give up on seeing Daddy too. I couldn't hug them because we were too wet and I was holding an umbrella and the Team Frannie sign we made and the phone. I tried picking Griffin up and putting the umbrella down but that made things worse. 

I needed to make a decision and quick. Should I let them go inside and get warm? My mother's instinct said yes, especially for Griffin whose health could really be affected by this weather. But my human instinct said no. Their dad had undergone a grueling training for this day. The families standing next to me had undergone weeks and months of hospitals stays for their sick children. And, even if they didn't feel it right then, my kids would always want to have the memory of seeing their dad at mile 25 of the Boston Marathon. So we stayed out.

I started wondering if we missed him. What is he wearing? the Team Frannie supporters wanted to know. I didn't know or couldn't remember, the anxiety getting the best of me by this point. Is Griffin ok? they asked. I wasn't sure.

Finally, we spotted him through the driving rain. He looked fantastic - a big smile on his face and a great energy in his stride. I instantly felt ten pounds lighter. The kids switched from crying to cheering. I pushed the red video button on my outstretched hand. 

He gave us a each a kiss and then he was gone. I looked at my phone and realized it hadn't recorded the moment. I tried again as he ran off towards Boylston St, the final stretch the runners dream of. 


All the struggle and pain and beauty and transformation of life was happening right in front of us that day. Feeling so many emotions at the same time IS life. I was filled with pride and love as I watched Curt run past. Then I turned to take the kids in and caught the eye of my friend Jessica, mom of Ethan, and became filled with sadness for the loss of his life. 

Life is not black and white. It's not either or. It's messy and gray, confused and beautiful. I'm lucky to be here, right in the middle of it.

Help me decide!

I'm squirreled away hard at work getting my class content into a new format for my online class coming this spring! I'm making great progress and would love your insight. 

Which of these versions do you like best for the title slide? Let me know in the comments. Find out more about class here. Hope to see you there in a couple of weeks.