Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Flashbacks

Sometimes we experience things in life and it becomes a trigger for something that happened in our past. If we are educated about triggers, we may be completely aware that it is happening. Having insight though, doesn’t always change the intensity of the experience.

Last year about this time of year, I did a series of blogs on the mental health system based on my experiences with my daughter Emily. The purpose was not bash the mental health or medical system, but just to share my experiences in hopes that it would be helpful someday to someone, and who knows? Maybe a small, tiny pebble of change might happen in the large mountain that needs to be moved.

Recently, I had another experience and I spent the morning being painfully aware that I was reliving that experience again. The details are different of course, but there are two things happening inside of me that are so real I could touch them.

First, is the utter helplessness and powerlessness I can feel as a human being. It is so strong it makes my head spin and it is maddening. I found myself again knowing what someone needs, but also knowing that I had no idea how to help her get it. She has been in and out of the mental health system for much of her thirty years of life. In my (professional) opinion, she has not ever been properly diagnosed and therefore not ever properly medicated. She re-lives her self-destructive cycle over and over again and then is filled with self-loathing because she can’t change herself. She has been decompensating at an accelerated rate over the last month and has become a danger to self and others. There is a spouse and a beautiful newborn in the mix.

There is literally no system in place to get her what she needs. She needs a very thorough evaluation. That’s not how the system works. But I was in the ultimate catch-22. I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t. That would be unprofessional, unethical, uncaring. I couldn’t let her go home. Yet I knew that putting her through the system might not help either.

I spent three hours with her, canceled all my other sessions. Called the mobile unit. I was scared, sad, worried, sickened because I care so damn much. I didn’t just go the extra mile. I went the extra six miles, because that’s just what I do. And in the end, her last words to me before getting in the ambulance were: I never want to see you again. Now I will embark on several days of documenting everything that happens. I will spend hours on the phone trying to get a different experience for her. And I am painfully aware that my chances for success are slim to none. The only analogy I can come up with, is that going to work is like walking into a room and purposefully banging my head on the wall. But I have to do it. I have to do everything I can for her, even though I am doubtful it will help.

Utter helplessness and powerlessness. What the hell do you do with that? I know I am doing my best. I know it’s not my fault. That isn’t the struggle. The struggle is the anger and pain from watching a system go wrong and a very real person and family suffering because of it.

The second part, is dealing with the last words. I absolutely get it. I know she doesn’t REALLY hate me. I know part of that frustration and anger is directed at me because she feels safe with me. I get that part of it is because of the mental illness. BUT IT STILL SUCKS. And I went through that with my daughter too.

Here I am, being the single, solitary person who is truly advocating intelligently in her corner, and I’m the bad guy. Yep, that’s what my daughter did too. No amount of self-talk and insight makes it hurt any less. I go through rapid flip-flops of sadness and anger. Why do I do this? Why do I repeatedly do this?

Because in my world, in my brain, in my head, in my heart, I have no other choice. Without thought, I dive in and I love and care.

But I have to tell you… THIS is why I want to work at Family Video when I grow up. I’m not even kidding.


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Simplicity

I’ve been labeled (or accused) of being a drama queen several times throughout my lifetime. Then I met with a spiritual director over a decade ago who helped me understand my personality type. I was able to be less offended by it when I realized that I didn’t LIKE drama. I knew I never liked it, but when you think of a drama queen, you think of someone who craves attention and stirs up shit to get it. When I worked with the director, I came to a very sad and painful realization that I required drama in my life because I felt dead otherwise. Empty. Void of life. It’s like an uber version of no self-worth. So I would/could be attracted to people who were problem-ridden because if I could be Super Woman, then maybe I would have the worth of just an average person. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but it is really quite startling. I had to be Hercules, dealing with the toughest of things ever that most people can’t handle, in order to justify taking up human skin. Yikes.

Then another shift happened after my mother died. I really started investing more in my sisters and girlfriends. I have awesome ones, more than most people do. None of the relationships are perfect of course, but overall I am pretty damn fortunate. They get me in ways that are very deep, and it is quite healing to have that in your life. Recently, Summer (who I’ve written about several times) and I were having a conversation about life in general. I’m sure I won’t paraphrase her entirely correctly, but she said some people have messy lives because they make bad choices and then have to live with their chaos. Some people have messy lives because they are dealt a hand that is unavoidable- i.e. born with a disability or disorder of sorts, born in a war-ridden country, etc.. And some people have messy lives because the people around them do crummy things to them and hurt them. She thinks I mostly fall in that last category.

With the therapy and spiritual direction I’ve had, I’ve worked hard on minimizing the drama in my life. I’ve learned that I don’t have to save the world. My friend Mike has been pounding that in my head for the last two years. But I try to balance this without losing my generous and loving heart. I still do things (like educate about death and dying) that many people can’t do. I still do things that are too hard for some people. I am actually proud of that. But I try to keep it more manageable.

I’m trying to keep things simple, that can be kept simple. Because loving people, being present with them, being connected is not always simple or convenient, but it’s what you do when you have compassion. I realize some of the growth that I have made when I’m sometimes around people who don’t often keep things simple. In fact, some folks can take the most simplest of things and make them into complicated conflicts. I have less and less patience for it the older I get because my heart and time are busy dealing with things that really do require my attention. It makes no sense to me, but then when I try to see it from a different perspective, I soften a little. Sometimes, people use all that defensiveness and complicating of things to keep themselves from getting close to others. If true love and intimacy frightens you, you will take even the most smallest of things and create a barrier out of them so you can protect yourself. It’s kind of tragic really, if you push people away that are actually safe for you.

Anyhow, I’m being long-winded again. Point is, I will take my punches when I deserve them. When I get too complicated or too drama-ish, I will look inside and adjust myself as necessary. But when I am absolutely not being any of those things, and it is probably being projected on me, I know the difference now. I don’t take those punches or accusations when I don’t deserve them. And I will pull away from interactions that are toxic. Even if they fall in that category of wanting to protect themselves, it is not my place to take punches that aren’t warranted.

One of Freud’s most famous sayings is, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Simplicity. It’s a good thing. And I will seek it out when the important things in life really are complicated and tearing at your heart. I may be slow to learn, but I think I’m heading in the right direction!


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Grief at it’s Best

Jill Duffield wrote an article for a Presbyterian magazine in the context of pastors. I thought it applied equally as well to counselors. “An honest seminary professor had warned me about grief, but no warning is sufficient. He had said it is painful to keep burying people you love. He was, and is, right. But death only represents a small part of the large, complicated puzzle of sadness that accompanies pastoral ministry.

“One of the hardest aspects of ministerial grief is this reality: As the pastor you know far more than anyone else the extent of grief in the room, the depth and breadth and variety of suffering present at any given moment. Add to that the fact that you can’t share it, except with Jesus and your therapist, and this mixes loneliness to the pain of hurting with people you care deeply about. It has the capacity to disturb your soul.”

I have the double whammy of being a counselor and being an author/lecture on the topic of death/dying and grief/loss. Those are my choices, although part of me believes that the professions have chosen me. For me, being a counselor is being present in the room fully with my clients, no matter the breadth of their pain. I work hard to be unafraid of it.

Yesterday I had a lecture at a college. It was not for a particular class, but was advertised to the college campus in general. The college had just had a memorial service earlier in the week for the one year marker of a student’s death by completed suicide. Plus it’s the holidays. I knew the audience was ripe for strong emotion. There was only about ten in the group. Sometimes smaller groups are great because they are much more intimate and allows for a more meaningful experience.

The lecture went well. That is, it was well received and clearly touched the people who listened. But it was also hard. I had to focus more than usual to keep on track. There was one gentleman there. He was likely in his 50’s. About half way through, he started weeping quietly. He was in the front so no one else could see him. I could though, and he was clearly suffering.

There was a young college student, and she wept through most of the hour. I was able to meet her after and give her a hug. She told me she has lost three grandparents in the last year. She was also mentally tortured as she was unable to be there for one of them. We talked at length and I was glad to know she was connected with a counselor.

I am used to making audiences laugh and then sniffle. That’s part of the power of the message and the heart of bitter and sweet. But yesterday was a bit more difficult. It was mostly painful for people and I had to keep going through it, knowing they we were hurting so badly.

When I got home, I was exhausted. I laid on the couch for a while instead of doing the big list of things I had to do (like write my blog!). It seems obvious, but I didn’t even put it together until eating dinner at night. I couldn’t figure out why I was so wiped out and then I was like, duh! That was pretty intense. And things like that can definitely “disturb my soul.”

Ms. Duffield’s article ends with this paragraph: “Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light, but the lead apron of grief is heavy and sometimes we need help taking it off, if only for a while. I am grateful for the people of faith who have helped me, quieting my soul so that I could once again wear a garment of praise instead of mourning. May God gift you with those people when you need them most.”

If you read my blog regularly, you know I am fortunate enough to have a nice, healthy number of amazing people in my life who quiet my soul. My hope and prayer is that those people I met yesterday will be surrounded by the same kinds of people as they are processing whatever grief is taking hold of their life. While it was hard, I am grateful they took the time to come and hear a talk that hopefully helped them with their healing. Blessings!


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Successful Failure

Recently, I went to two different professionals for assistance in dealing with the after math of my daughter’s situation. Specifically, I want to know how to handle it when you have given something your all. I mean, you have really gone beyond the call of duty, done more than most people could have possibly done. But… you were still ineffective. In spite of all your knowledge, your fierce heart, and your relentless pursuit, you still weren’t able to make things happen the way they should have happened. Even though I know I was up against a system larger than life and broken to the core, I still felt like a failure. How do you accept defeat?

The first person I talked to was my first spiritual director. Her “stance” was to assume (without knowing many details) that because of my intensity, I probably offended people and overwhelmed them. She said my kids may have asked for my help, but they were probably not prepared for the tsunami that they received. Yes, she actually compared me to a tsunami. Now when I hear that word, I don’t think of anything good. I think of brutal destruction, devastation and death. Holy shit. Could that be my problem? I left with an even heavier heart than I came in with.

Thank goodness I had my session the next day with good ‘ol Scott, my therapist of 15 years. Some may same it’s time to make a change. I vehemently disagree. He not only knows me, but he knows my husband and my children. And he has seen me interact with them dozens of times, even under great distress. I trust his opinion, which is very informed and well-rounded.

Scott said that in no uncertain terms, has he ever experienced me like a tsunami. Even when the other party deserved that kind of response. I show remarkable restraint and patience and seek solutions whenever possible. I’m intense all right, but it’s internal mostly. I am incredibly hard on myself and feel deeply and passionately, which makes me try that 120% when others give up long before that.

Then he gave me something to wrap my head around. He said when he thinks of all that has happened in Georgia with my daughter and her “treatment team” (I use that term loosely), he is reminded of the movie Apollo 13. He said that mission was a failure. No one landed on the moon. Objectives not met. But the fact that everyone came back home alive, was nothing short of a miracle. It was the tenacity and intelligence and passion of a group that never gave up that brought them all home. THAT IS A SUCCESSFUL FAILURE. While the ultimate goal was not reached, those men should be proud as hell of their success.

I’ve thought about that a thousand times since my session and it has helped tremendously. While my daughter is now (in my opinion) mis-diagnosed, on the wrong medicine, cycling through mood swings and symptoms, and yet another medical professional has informed her that her mother is a pain in the butt… and every professional “helping” her has refused to talk with me in spite of her signed release, I can’t consider myself an utter failure. Yes, I was hoping to change the course of her treatment and thus change the quality of her life and my grandchildren’s. That objective was an utter failure.

But damn it, I gave it my best shot. And my best shot is pretty remarkable by most people’s standards. And maybe someone else will be helped by my blogs. And most importantly, my grandson is seeing a counselor at his school. She emails me every week and lets me know how he is. She delivers messages between us and he is now in a self-esteem group which he desperately needs.

SO THERE. I am a successful failure. And I’m slowly becoming ok with that, maybe even proud.

P.S. I politely resigned from spiritual direction. I think I will stick with my beloved Scott.