How does one survive chaos, or rather trauma*?

How does one move past the bits of life that you so desperately want to leap over? 

These are just a few of the many questions I have been asking myself for going on two years. 

For me it is no secret as to why our blog posts have slowed down to near non-existent. It hasn’t just been a combination of bad timing, a heavy work load, and kids. I suffered a traumatic blow to the structure of my life as well as the resurfacing of childhood trauma I had packaged tightly away. Nor was it just one small change that undermined life as I knew it or the addition of multiple small new things. Rather it was the culmination of big life changes, bad timing, kids, and trauma all at once.

Still I tried to keep up an appearance of life just tossing lemons my way and me trying to figure out how to juggle them.

The appearance of holding my life together helped keep me moving forward without feeling truly lost. But lost is how I felt when no one was looking.

I knew that I couldn’t maintain our blog while I felt so lost. Rent-a-Dad was busy with helping pick up the slack in other areas of our life that blogging was the last thing on his mind.

While I didn’t give up writing in general (journals, poems… starting a family cookbook) I felt like anything I shared on our blog was somehow tainted by what I was experiencing, and feeling. More than a few times I would start to write a blog post but either I didn’t finish; they felt non-authentic; I felt like my writing style/voice wasn’t represented; and worse… they all felt either too emotional or very watered down. Suddenly I felt like what I had to share had no value. I was struggling with the topics that I felt comfortable making contributions to as well as with feeling what I had to say was relevant, and the thought that I was a fraud (as if suddenly I was “less than” and unworthy to write/share).

Instead of burying myself in writing and coming out the other side through self-expression in blogging, I felt further lost. So, I put blogging on hold, always the thought in the back of my head of returning when I felt more like me.

I needed to find myself.

Looking back, it hasn’t been a journey about finding what I lost. I know what was lost and what changed me. The journey was really about finding a new “normal”/way of life that I could be comfortable with, and found joy in.

Suffering trauma was not new to me. The new factor that spun me around and rocked my foundation was drastic shift in my support system. This shift caused me a lot of pain, both physically and mentally. I was questioning everything I was doing including how much worth I had. 

For all mental health professionals, I am sure this is setting off alarms.

Between good friends and a supportive spouse, I knew I needed help. I talked to my doctor about my physical health and sought counseling from a mental health professional as well as from our pastor so I was taking care of my mental and spiritual health as well.

After a few counseling visits, my diagnosis was given and I wasn’t surprised. I knew I was depressed. Also that I have severe anxiety issues and lived with high amounts of stress. The only thing that really surprised me was being diagnosed with PTSD and that the counselor felt this was something I was living with since my childhood trauma. That the new traumatic event and shift in my support network was making me re-live some childhood trauma that had never really been addressed.

To the world at large I was still presenting a good face while inside I felt like my world was crumbling. Seeking help was what I needed to do. It made me feel better talking about what was happening and the ways I was trying to move forward. My counselor didn’t even feel I needed any kind of medicine to help me move forward. For me that was a relief on several levels but mainly that there is a history of alcoholism in my family tree, and therefore always a fear in my head of a hereditary gene for addiction.

Were there hiccups in all this? Yes, yes, and yes.

For months I only shared my journey with a select few. I had a hard time reaching out and confirming my new support network/structure.

Some close family wanted to call me crazy, messed up and worse. These specific family members were not interested in me as a person getting better let alone the length of time it might actually take. Sadly many people apply a pre-conceived idea of how long they think it will take someone to heal… Healing doesn’t work that way. We all heal differently and in our own time.

No one seeking to better themselves should ever be put down. 

Another truth, I owe no one an explanation into what caused my depression or what traumatic event set off my PTSD. Does not mean I didn’t, or don’t, want to talk about it. I am just a bit more closed off right now then I have ever been in my life. I am protecting myself better, and re-learning who I can/can’t trust; how that looks; and how that feels.

The problem that has existed with some family members is that because I have always appeared to be an open book with others, I was suddenly expected to continue with the same level of openness with the very people who caused the trauma. Those family members were not very happy with the boundaries I was trying to set into place and may never be happy with these boundaries, but they are necessary.

In addition to affirming my new support network and setting up boundaries, it has also been important to recognize the toxic people in my life, what their toxicity looks/feels like, and learning how to section that off from my daily life. Doing all of that while trying to keep pace with kids and other parts of my life has been a challenge.

Some days moving forward is not as easy. I have my setbacks and am still re-learning who I can lean on and for what. Even at the worst point of struggling with depression I still smiled and found joy. What I needed help with was not feeling ALL the feelings ALL the time. Time doesn’t heal all wounds but in my case time, and talking about my problems, has helped me find my perspective again. And in time, in finding my new normal, I am hoping my voice will reemerge.

My backstory and Take-Away:

In college I was blessed with having a good group of friends who openly talked about mental health. It wasn’t something to be shied away from, packaged up or hidden. I went to college in a small Midwestern town and because of the location many of the student body dealt with seasonal depression. January through March were some of the hardest months to deal with for seasonal depression. Not only do those months follow the holidays/joyous times with family/friends, but it also meant a return to school life. For many that alone brought on a heavy sadness. Added to that were wintry conditions that meant staying inside more and evening/nighttime descended upon us by 5pm. Many of us would enter the dining hall on the last few glimmers of sunshine, when it was present, and exit on full darkness. Talking about mental health was important to our daily life.

Leaving college, I found that mental health was not something people easily or readily talked about. It was once again something to be buried away, hidden, stigmatized… People couldn’t be depressed without the worry of being involuntarily committed for a psych evaluation. People fear how others will perceive them as if they are less or not worthy. Fear is as powerful as depression (perhaps more so) as it can hold someone hostage in their own personal hell incapable of seeking help.

Mental health should not be treated that way. The stigma needs to go. We all need to be set free from the fear of others knowing about hidden diseases and hidden struggles.

Everyone suffers from trauma and loss at some point in their life. It is why there are support groups. Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists are there to help be sounding boards so we know that what we are feeling does not drive us to isolation and darker places. Mental health should not be boxed up and hidden away. It needs to be taken from dark places and light to be shown on it.

We all have our struggles. Talking about those struggles in safe places is what helps us move forward and be over all healthier people.

While everyone at some point feels that they are struggling alone, none of us are without struggles.

Reaching out is hard. If you are in a good place don’t forget to check in on your friends to see how they are doing. Reaching out does go both ways. If you aren’t in a good place don’t suffer alone…


To learn more about the crisis text line, click here

And remember… emotional distress doesn’t mean you are thinking about suicide right this minute, you could just feel isolated, alone, like you have no one to turn to and not sure what your next step should be… but it’s no reason to keep it all caged inside. Feeling isolated and alone can feel like a personal hell with no end in sight. A problem shared can make someone feel like their load is lightened so they can make clearer decisions. I have been reminded recently that humans are not meant to suffer alone or in silence. Call. Share. Lighten your load.

I have been reminded recently that humans are not meant to suffer alone or in silence. Call. Share. Lighten your load.

A problem shared can make someone feel like their load is lightened so they can make clearer decisions. I have been reminded recently that humans are not meant to suffer alone or in silence. Call. Share. Lighten your load.

* Keep in mind, trauma takes on many forms from the loss of a loved one, having to make an unexpected move (residence, schools, even jobs) to surviving events like a robbery or sexual assault. Trauma doesn’t take on one simple form like being a survivor of a war but can also mean you survived your own personal battles that have left you traumatized.

While I don’t think there is a month safe from loss in our family, January through May is a bit difficult because these are our most recent set of losses. This includes my dad May 2011 to my last living uncle a year ago in February. Talking about loss can be difficult but talking about love after loss, before a loss even occurs, feels unfathomable. This is a topic most of my family has discussed in recent years and is one that is important to have with your loved ones while you have the chance.

My dad died in May 2011, one by one each of my other three uncles have passed away since. My youngest uncle lost his battle with cancer last January. As my uncle knew he was dying he had time to talk with each of us about all the things he didn’t want left unsaid. This included love after loss.

During one of our visits he sat first with my mom and then with Rent-a-Dad and I. He talked about the weather, projects he wanted to complete and the journal he was keeping in his final days. Then he brought up a topic which he thought might be a touchy with one with me.

Since my dad’s death, the roles have been reversed between my mom and I. My dad used to say that when I was a child that I was my mom’s shadow. Now my mom is my shadow. She does not want to leave the house unless I am with her. To some extent my uncle knew this. He wanted to make sure that my mom was not lonely and asked how I would react if my mom found love again.

I remember chuckling.

That initial response made my uncle ask if that meant I was against my mom marrying again.

Not at all. Love after loss has been a conversation I have had often with my loved ones since losing my grandfather.

As a kid I wanted to know when my grandmother was going to remarry. The first time I asked my mom that question, or perhaps maybe she asked how I would feel, I remember answering that my grandmother could marry anyone she wanted so long as they loved her. Then I followed up with the fact that whoever it was had to be rich enough to take care of all her grandchildren (financially). The last part was a condition one of my cousins and I had already discussed. If we were to have a second grandfather he needed to be able to spoil us. We were either four or five at that time.

After losing my dad the thought had crossed my mind about my mom marrying again but we didn’t really discuss it. The reason was my mom rarely left my side so how was she going to meet someone and fall in love? To my mom the question was silly because she didn’t want to be married again. For many reasons she was done with marriage. She was content with having her children, and now grandchildren, be her life.

There was a second reason as to why I laughed. I have never been opposed to my mom finding love again. As a kid I not only wanted to know if my grandmother would remarry but if something happened to my dad would my mom remarry. In essence I had been preparing for the inevitability of this kind of loss my whole life.

As an adult my only stipulation for my mom is that she marry not just for love but marry someone who didn’t see her family as their prize. When mom finds herself meeting a gentleman who is single they end up talking about how she is so lucky to have a daughter who takes such good care of her. I appreciate the compliment but that always makes me a bit leery. Why? I don’t need to have a stepdad who thinks I am going take care of him in the same way I have taken care of my mom. That is not to say I wouldn’t but rather that I don’t know if I have it in me after going from being one of my dad’s caregivers most of my life to then being my mom’s caregiver.

So when my uncle asked me if I would consider letting my mom marry again I couldn’t help but chuckle.

As usual there are a few more levels to this story.

My uncle wanted to make sure that each of my aunts found love again. He was thinking in terms of soul mates, partners, or companions.

Now, as an adult, I think about finding love on many different levels. The person who taught me that lesson, well it was my grandmother.

The reason my grandmother never remarried? She already had her soul mate and didn’t want another husband.

Love after my grandfather looked very different than what most would think of. My grandmother had a rich life with all of the organizations she was involved in and the children she helped as a substitute teacher, after retiring from being a full time teacher. Not to mention her family. That was the love she threw herself into. My grandmother moved to be closer to one of her children and help with her grandchildren. We all loved her so much that she didn’t need anyone else after my grandfather, or that is what she would tell us. There were plenty of men who tried to woo my grandmother from strangers to fellow church goers to members of my grandfather’s squadron from WWII who still kept in touch and had their own losses.

Just because I think of love in more of an umbrella terms doesn’t mean I haven’t had the talk about love after loss with Rent-a-Dad.

As a young adult I had this sinking feeling that I may never see life after the age of thirty. Honestly I have no real idea why except that maybe it is a feeling buried in my DNA because later I found out it was also a fear my mom had as a young adult. When I found out at the age of 29 that I needed surgery and might have cancer, I thought that fear turned into reality. In the days leading up to my surgery I made sure everyone knew what my wishes were if the surgery didn’t go well or if I did have cancer. This meant having the talk with Rent-a-Dad about love after loss should something happen to me.

The conversation was darkly humorous to him because as he says nothing bad is ever allowed to happen to me. My reply always is that I doubt the universe has the same plans (hint: bad things happen to everyone).

To me the conversation was about giving him permission to love again. He didn’t really need my permission but I know it is easier to love again if you know your partner felt that way. We talked about his type, yes he has a type and didn’t know it, and I actually named a few people I wouldn’t mind taking my place.

Sometimes I am more pragmatic than others. At the time, and well even to this day, I feel that is pragmatic. I wanted Rent-a-Dad to know I loved him enough that he should move on if something happened to me. Of course I gave him a list of what I wanted done with my stuff and how I didn’t want him to neglect our animals if his new girl had other animals. The point was I wanted him to realize it would all be ok and I didn’t want him to become a recluse like he vowed would happen.

Several months after my third uncle passed away, and the question about my aunt finding love again came up, Rent-a-Dad reciprocated the permission for me to find love after loss if anything ever happened to him. Years ago Rent-a-Dad didn’t want to think about the inevitable happening but after seeing my aunt’s spouses, their loves, slowly losing battles with their health, he decided it was time to have that conversation with me. He knows I am not good on my own and that I have this need to take care of other but also to be taken care of (on an equal level).

After watching how others were responding to my aunt, he wanted me to know how he felt. That he too wanted me to be happy and to do whatever it meant to find that happiness even if that meant being in love again six months after his demise (yeah we sometimes are dramatic with our words). After a few hugs and some tears we were both good. We knew how each other felt and had permission to find love after loss.

While we hope that we will be like Allie Calhoun and Duke in the Notebook, never truly knowing a day without each other’s presence, we know the likelihood of that really happening is small. We can still dream though while at the same time being practical with our final wishes.

Yes we are still young but strange and painful things happen daily. Somehow having this conversation and knowing each other’s wishes makes life a little easier to move through on days where loss can be so painful.

When my uncle asked his question about finding love after loss and I chuckled, it wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. We had all had this conversation, or a version of it, days, months and even decades before. All of us were good. Something about that made some peace with my uncle that day.

Information on Love After Loss

Love after loss is a hard conversation to have at any time. I am a very open person with the ones I love. They know my feelings and should never doubt how I feel. That is not the case with everyone. Even Rent-a-Dad has his moments when he doesn’t know how to share what he is thinking. If you are struggling with this concept and want more information, guidance, or just want to find someone like minded, here are a few links to help you with your journey:

Psychology Today has an article about widows (widowers) finding love after loss.

Christina Rasmussen explores her feelings about exploring feelings of finding love after loss in a post on her blog Second Firsts.

Huffington Post has multiple first person articles about finding love after loss.

Five years ago I was planning on quitting my job and becoming a full-time caregiver for my parents. My mom and I had talked with the physical rehab facility where my dad was staying and he was almost ready to exit their care. I knew my mom could no longer handle the care of my dad on her own and she did not want to be a burden. The decision had to be mine and I needed the support of my spouse.

My Dad

My Dad

Almost one year prior when I had been ill and took almost a month off from work, my Dad loved having me visit on a daily basis. We had time to do things together like craft, cook, and watch movies. We were even able to take long lazy drives. So I knew he would be excited that I would be available to support mom like she needed. I wasn’t stupid to think it was always going to be sunshine and daisies, after all most of the time my dad and I got along like oil and water. He was my dad though and I knew this was what I needed to do. The bonus was that Rent-a-Dad supported my decision 100%.

Then 7 a.m. on May 6, 2011, I received a call from my mom. My dad had been rushed to the hospital with breathing difficulties once again. He asked the facility to call us. Mom sent her love and said we would meet him at the hospital. She then called me so I could drive her to the hospital. I frantically rushed around the house to get dressed, grab a project or two for the hospital wait, and dashed over to my parent’s house to pick her up. We were at the hospital within the hour. Then we waited in the waiting room for what seemed like forever. After finally being asked to come back the doctors took us aside for a moment to let us know something had happened but we didn’t expect that it was the worst.

When they shared the news with us that my dad had thrown a blood clot to his lungs and they couldn’t save him we were devastated. The only peace of mind at that moment was that we knew one of the nurses in the ER. She told us she was with my dad the whole time and that he knew he was not alone.

The words “shocked” “devastated” and “out of sorts” only begin to explain how we felt at that time. My dad had never been 100% healthy since I was 8 years old. I lived with his illnesses for over 24 years and they had become a part of my normal.

My Dad was supposed to come home to us in a week… I never thought he would go to the BIG home… Not yet.

In the days that followed his passing, I began a letter to my dad and scrapped it over a dozen times. I couldn’t think through my pain or see through my tears. Putting aside my own grief, I had to be the rock that my mom needed me to be. I wasn’t yet ready to deal with my own. Now almost five years later I think a letter to heaven is well overdue…

A letter to my dad in heaven

Dear Daddy,

 We are quickly approaching the day we lost your battle here on Earth. It has been almost five years since that day… How did that happen? Where did the time go? How have we survived that long without your quirky smiles or grumbly bear personality?

 The first few weeks people were so kind with their thoughts and actions. When the unfairness of it got to us there was family that knew what to say or to just offer a hug when words seemed senseless.

 Even five years later I play out those last few months… How excited you were over the last minute gift I found for you that Christmas, the home-cooking we “snuck” in to you, and all the good moments we had together… Mom telling me you felt like you had your little girl back and how after she told me that I made sure to dress up on the days I knew I would be visiting with you.

 Then those horrible tornadoes came through our area. The facility you were in had limited power. You were so concerned for others. You were even worried over my health. Those last two weeks I was not the best version of me. What you said and what I heard were two different things. My concern for my own health and work had me so tied up that I couldn’t think outside of myself. I was concerned that my conditioned worsened and that it might even be cancerous this time… For that I am so truly sorry daddy.

What I am glad for is that our last day together was a good one. We had received good news on your progress and that we had a date when you would come home from the facility. The plans we made for all the day trips we would take once you were out made us all happy. You knew I was looking forward to leaving my job and being home with you and mom. You were so very excited about it all. We would figure everything out one step at a time as a family. You were also excited over a project you’re working on so you kicked us out saying we will get enough time to be in each other’s pockets soon enough… We said our “goodbyes” and “I love you”… for the last time… If we had only known…

 Those are words I use often about you Daddy.

 You kept so many secrets from us but I guess that had become second nature to you. Between the generation mindset you had grown up in and the government security clearance you had as a radio operator in the Navy, keeping secrets was what you did. You weren’t used to the “share all your thoughts and feelings” generation that I was a part of.

 So when you requested that I purchase more snacks for your approved of “stash” and I asked (out of habit) how your snacks disappeared so quickly that week, you didn’t need to shut me out or let me assume the worst, that you had been sneaking extra snacks and over indulging, because you were raised not to shout your good deeds from the mountains… But Daddy if you’d only told me you were sharing your snacks with those less fortunate at the facility… to brighten their days during such a miserable time… If I had only known…

 There were so many things like this that I found out after you had gone. It made my heart so heavy that I had only really started to know all of your “layers” far too late. Like how compassionate and optimistic you really were, because I had only seen what years of untreated PTSD and the loss of so many friends in Vietnam had done to your spirit.

 Mom says my ever replenishing optimism came from you. That you always told her “sweetie we will find a way” and that “together we are stronger than when we are apart”. I now know that we weren’t so much oil and water as much as we were magnets, so much alike that we constantly pushed each other way.

 Even though I hear myself say “I wish you’d given me the chance to love you more while you were here”, I am ever grateful that you showed me how to clean spark plugs, use tools properly, make chili, bake and decorate a cake, cultivate a love of photography create arts and crafts, help me develop a science project that evolved over years and took me to the state level, develop a love of obscure things, science fiction, and so much more…

 I may not be able to pass on your DNA but I can pass on your love and through that love I will see you in everything.

Often I think on the conversation we had following your coma. You said “everything will change in 2012” At the time I thought you meant something bad and foreboding but now I wonder if you knew a baby that would change our lives would be born in 2012 and you thought it would biologically be Rent-a-Dad’s and mine… You just didn’t know it would be our first foster child. Children do change everything especially our perspective.

 Some days I cry because you aren’t here to know these children in our lives but somehow I think you’ve been able to meet each one of them before they were ever born and guide them our way and that you have known how much we have needed those children in our lives. How do I know this? JoBe talks to your photos on the bookcase all the time. He even comes to pull me away from chores so I will talk to the photos as well. Stinkerbell has started doing the same thing. Your photos aren’t the only ones they can reach on that bookshelf but your photos are the only ones that they talk to.

 I talk to your photos all the time too Daddy. I still hear your voice in my head…

 “I love you Daddy”

 “I love you too Nic-Nic”

 Always Daddy, Always

 

Living with Loss

Sadly losing a loved one is not something anyone can bounce back from easily. We all heal in our own time and at our own speed. Never let anyone tell you that you have grieved long enough. If the feeling of grief is just too much to handle on your own (and it can be so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) there are many programs through local organizations and churches. There are also some national programs. Here are three websites dedicated to the discussion of grief and breaking down the myths and stigmas concerning the process:

 

Mental Health America: Coping with Loss: Bereavement and Grief

“The loss of a loved one is life’s most stressful event and can cause a major emotional crisis. After the death of someone you love, you experience bereavement, which literally means “to be deprived by death.”

 

Psych Central: The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief

     “In our bereavement, we spend different lengths of time working through each step and express each stage with different levels of intensity. The five stages do not necessarily occur in any specific order. We often move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death. Many of us are not afforded the luxury of time required to achieve this final stage of grief.

The death of your loved one might inspire you to evaluate your own feelings of mortality. Throughout each stage, a common thread of hope emerges: As long as there is life, there is hope. As long as there is hope, there is life.”

 

Help Guide: Coping with grief and loss

     “Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold”