Thursday, January 21, 2021

Is That Hope I Feel? (Grief Made Me Dissociative But I Think That's Lifting Now)

I feel like we are all waking slowly from a bad dream this week-- though I also still have the creeped-out feeling that a monster's hand is going to shoot up out of the ground any second, as it doesn’t quite feel like the credits are done rolling yet. Anyone else feeling this way?

I am realizing, from this waking-from-a-nightmare feeling, that I have been in a somewhat dissociative state for the past four years, in part because of Trump’s win but also because my son died four years ago, just six weeks before the 2016 election. The day after the vote, people – no, actually, just women, who suddenly realized how totally devalued they (still) were--were crying in the streets about Trump being our next president, but I was having a very muted reaction to everything except my own grief.

I wasn’t crying about Trump because I still couldn’t have any feelings about anything except my own horrible loss. Still, it made perfect sense to me that others were now crying. I had wondered how the world could be going on as usual when my son had ripped himself out of the known universe. So when most people I knew went into deep grief over Trump being our president, I felt affirmed, as if suddenly everyone had realized with me what a wretched world we lived in.

Before I go on with the point of this post, which is about the protection the dissociative state provided me, I need to tell everyone reading this who is still in early-stage or prolonged-desperate-stage grief: there really is hope; you will not always feel as terrible as you do now. Nothing stays as it is, not the incredible moments nor our most awful ones, even if we feel permanently stuck. You may never feel like you did before your loss, may never be who you were in the land of before, but you will feel better than you do now if you just hang in there. You may even find you like your new self better, as that self will likely be less brash and arrogant having been put through the excruciating humbling we get when a child dies and we are shown we have no control over anything. In time you will stop trying to go back in time and change the past and that alone will give you more peace. Some of you might feel this increased sense of peace faster than four years, some of you might take longer, but that's how long it's taken me, and if I got here, I believe everyone can get here. If you are in the darkest place ever, I promise you it will change one day, just hang on like Rose after she fell off the Titanic and had to stay afloat on that door; I swear  you will eventually feel differently than you do now. (Though if someone is in that water with you, you might want to take turns staying on the door...Just saying, Jack didn't have to die!)

Which brings me back to how I just now feel that I am coming out of a benumbed spell that has been holding me and all my fellow citizens hostage and that has been keeping me slightly disassociative all these years. 

Yesterday my wife and many of my friends cried watching the brilliant inauguration poet  Amanda Garman (pictured here but please watch the video of her reading poem if you haven't). They cried when Kamala Harris smiled, squared her shoulders and lifted her chin at Sonia Sotomayor, something she advises young women to do if they find they are the first of their kind to have achieved a thing. They cried at seeing the little boy who’d been inspired to overcome his stutter by Biden’s example read us a speech during last night’s concert. They cried at JLo's Spanish shout-out and at Lady Gaga's emotional performance. And they cried seeing the list of the first 10 things Biden did with his executive orders. Through all of this, I was totally dry-eyed. I didn’t even feel choked up, not once, no matter how moving each moment was.

I used to be quite a softy, but since my son’s death, the only thing I have cried over is my loss or my increased fear of anything happening to my daughter. Today, though, I feel I might be waking up. (Is this morning in America?) I suddenly feel like it might be safe to come fully back into my body.

When I was in very early-stage grief, I felt like my skin had been torn off and I was being asked to go back to work with my entire body an open, weeping wound. I cried every time I saw anyone. But it didn’t seem like I had any choice, financially, about whether I could stay home any longer, so there I was, back in my office, crying through much of each day. When I had to make my first business trip after my son's death, I scheduled it for the morning after the election, thinking everyone would be in a good mood, celebrating Hillary’s win. I was a fund-raiser for Hampshire College, so my meetings were to ask parents and alums to support the college, and everyone I met with that day seemed in shock. One set of parents I met kept shaking their heads while we were talking, as if each moment they stayed awake that day their disbelief only intensified that this was our new reality. I knew exactly how they felt. Or rather I felt now they had some idea how I felt, as I, too, couldn't believe life without my son was my new reality.

I don’t know when I started to care more about the outside world. I suppose Trump getting into office drove me to care sooner than I might have otherwise. He seemed to be destroying things (civility, civil rights, our alliances, our air and water, immigrants lives) faster than I could keep up and after a year or so I felt like not participating in protests against his behavior was condoning it, so I just acted as if I cared and called senators or wrote letters or did other small things. Eventually, I did those things with more genuine feeling. But even as my ability to feel real outrage over what was happening to our Democracy and Black lives and, say, the Olympic gymnasts’ doctor having molested hundreds of girls, my tear ducts stayed stopped up. I wasn’t consciously choosing not to feel things, but I understand now I just could not fully embody the emotions that came with caring. 

What about children in cages? Surely that made me feel something. It's true, I could not believe how horrifically we were treating our fellow human beings. I was shocked that we were tearing small children from their families and putting them in concrete cells with Mylar blankets, feeding them gruel thinned with water from a hose, providing no one to care for them, and yet calling it a camp. I was pretty sure this was the worst federal thing that had been done in my name since I was born—but I still couldn’t really feel anything about it except anger, which isn't the same as feeling how traumatized and sad those children and parents must be. I did not have the reserves to draw on; it would take a few years for those to build back up.

For at least the first year after my son died, I thought vague things like, “Oh, if I didn’t want to die from the pain of being in the world while my son is dead I might be able to care about [fill in the atrocity]. But I can’t. Too bad.” My mind was preoccupied pretty much every minute with how I could go back in time and fix or change whatever had led to my son's overdose death. Though I slowly accepted that there was no going back, I continued to obsess about what I could have done that would have resulted in a different outcome. 

And, as mentioned, Trump’s behavior was so egregious that there were days I didn’t see how I could not at least have a Facebook argument with someone, try to save a cousin or a friend from whatever was happening to exponentially multiply hate among a significant minority of the population. I argued until I saw that no mind could be swayed. At all. No matter how many women came forward to say Trump had raped or assaulted them, including a woman with a credible witness who alleged Trump had raped and threatened to kill her and her family when she was just 13 years old, no matter how many disgusting things he said or did, it seemed no one ever stopped supporting him. Even my feelings about how thoroughly discounted his victims' experiences were did not really seep in. I had a protective bubble around myself. I could feel anger, but the emotions I ought to have felt for the actual victims of his behavior just weren’t accessible to me.

Which brings us to today. I am so heartened by Joe Biden’s immediate actions: just restoring our alliances in the Paris Climate Accord and with the World Health Organization and ending the Muslim ban and halting deportations and signing the Equality Act and ending the immigration policy that requires all Central and South Americans to stay in Mexico while they apply for asylum would have been enough to give me real hope. But he’s done at least twice as many things and hasn’t been in office 24 hours yet as I write this. 

Being able to feel genuine hope for my country makes me aware of how cut off I've been from having authentic feelings for anyone outside of  my immediate family and close friends these past four years, First grief and then the fear we've all been steeping in shut me down. I needed time to heal from the trauma of losing my son anyway--plus if ever there were a great four years to dissociate from the horrors of what was happening to my fellow humans, these were they. But I am hopeful I might just be ready to return to the world of feelings now that the odds have increased they can be happy, hopeful ones.

#grief recovery #disssociation 

Friday, January 1, 2021

My Happier New Year Resolutions Post

My wife loves setting goals; she inspired me to set more
of my own for the new year--which we celebrated last
night by playing Jackbox games with friends on Zoom.
I was recently asked to deliver a sermon on writing one’s way through grief, which led me to read a slew of books on how writing and the creation of other expressive arts helps people find their way out of the painful darkness that will overtake nearly all of us at some point in our lives.  The sermon went well, I think, and the benefits to me of having done research into this topic are continuing.

My favorite of the books I read was twenty years old but seemed highly relevant to this moment in our world: Writing As a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo. The author, extensively quoting research by James Pennebaker on how much better people feel if they develop a practice of writing about their emotions, reminded me that if I commit this year to write just five pages a week, I will wind up with more than 250 pages by the end of the year, enough to constitute a small book. I have determined to set and keep that writing goal, even if each week’s five pages aren’t going to add up to anything, let alone a book. Five pages of journal entries, poems, letters to friends, blog posts, parts of a short story--all the pages I write will count. And I will hope to devote at least 30 minutes to writing six days out of seven; four days a week I already have writing dates with accountability buddies, which helps ensure I write for two or three hours at a stretch for more than half the days.

DeSalvo quotes May Sarton’s  Journal of Solitude to encourage us to reap the benefits of steady writing: “We write not to create works of art,, but to build character, develop integrity, discipline, judgment, balance, order, restraint, and other valued inner attributes. …We develop self-mastery, which contributes to our emotional and spiritual growth.”

In other words, setting a goal to write five pages a week and keeping that goal will make me feel good about myself. Meeting any goal will enhance my belief in myself. “Seeing ourselves stick with a writing process is transformative,” DeSalvo promises, and I believe her.

This in mind, I’ve created my first bullet journal and set myself daily goals to write, floss, do yoga, and drink 64 ounces of water, and I’ve set myself the weekly goals of one-hour  devoted to card and letter-writing and one hour devoted to submitting my work for publication. 

I’ve also committed to scroll less--to take a book with me into the bathroom instead of my phone, for one thing, to take Facebook off my phone, for another. I can’t make myself give up Facebook entirely (at least not yet) as this month I’ve made a 30-day poetry commitment with an online group, Dive Into Poetry, which requires us to share our poems on that platform. And there's a Facebook page I love for  women and non-binary poets that sets a 100-rejections-a-year goal to help us keep our sense of humor about the odds against having our poetry accepted anywhere.

In one of the most important commitments I've made to reclaim my time for a life of the mind, I've committed to giving up the use of Buy Nothing, a Facebook page through which I give and receive free items such as books, shoes, clothing and home furnishings. I have obtained many, many items in my home, hundreds of items that I cherish, from fellow members of this group. I have brought meals to sick members, made pick-ups and drop-offs for those with no cars, given away rather than sold anything of mine that no longer serves us, made several friends in my community through our shared use of the site. But mainly I have acquired material objects and taken to compulsively scrolling the Buy Nothing page to ensure I see an object being given away as soon as it's posted, as quicker respondents get the most gifts. But I already have more than enough material items; I could die without ever acquiring another non-edible item and still live a full, happy life. Continuing to acquire things will not make me happy. And therefore, I must recognize my Buy-Nothing compulsion as just an addictive distraction and give it up to do more of what I know will feed my soul,

In my previous post, I made a resolution, which I thought would be my only one, to give up my self-pity about my granddaughter, who hasn’t been allowed to see me nor anyone in my dead son’s family since February of 2019, Just putting that resolution in writing made me feel it was already accomplished. I have accepted and released Maggie and her future to the universe, though I still hope someday she’ll find me. I accept that there’s nothing I can do anymore to hurry this process nor pressure Maggie’s mother into letting Maggie know us, so I am happy to turn my energy to things more within my control-- like writing five pages a day. Avoiding wallowing in self-pity will require me to focus my energy on other matters, which, along with my wife's excited love of goals, is part of what prompted me to make these additional resolutions. And here, today, are pages one and two of this week's five pages – which means I’m already 40% done with my top goal for the week. Not bad for day one.

What do you hope to get done in 2021? I'd love to hear your goals in the comments.  Happy 2021, everyone! 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

My New Year's Resolution: No More Self-Pity

I rarely make New Year’s resolutions; they seem silly to me—and statistics back me up. Only eight percent of Americans keep their resolutions, and 80% have abandoned their commitments within the first 30 days. But this year there is something I want to resolve—something I want to hold myself and be held accountable for doing. I want others to hear me state my intention and be prepared to point out when I’m not meeting it and encourage me to do better.

I suppose this is why people keep making New Year’s resolutions despite the low success rates; we feel more likely to do something if we tell others we will. Most years, happily enough, I don’t feel I need peer pressure to meet my goals; I am already doing pretty much what I think I ought to be doing for myself, so I don’t need to state an intention and ask people to hold me to it. This year, however, I know I need help reaching my goal. So here goes:

I want to stop feeling sorry for myself. I am drowning in self-pity and feel way less likeable and certainly less at peace for it, but I find I am unable to stop seeking public sympathy and feeling bad about how wronged I’ve been. I hate this quality in others. I have ended friendships with people who seemed stuck in self-pity, in seeing themselves as a victim of circumstances. We all endure tough breaks, and self-pity doesn’t help us in the long run. I know this, yet I continue to have a daily pity party playing in my mind’s background every day.  

It feels hard to admit I am displaying a quality I abhor. Everyone suffers; I cannot think of many friends who haven’t battled a painful illness or infertility or tragic loss or had to cope with a life-changing diagnosis for their child. And I have much to be grateful for: my wife, daughter, mother, friends, warm home, full fridge, and pets among them. But I just haven’t been able to stop feeling wretchedly sorry for myself and our family.

Many of you may assume I am consumed with self-pity over the loss of my son, shown above sleeping with his daughter. When he died of an overdose in late 2016, shortly after that photo was taken, it seemed natural that I would feel sorry for myself, and I welcomed all the sympathy I could get for the first year or so. The grief books I devoured encouraged me to wallow all I wanted, and doing so felt healing. But then, gradually, thanks to the support of friends and family, thanks to my wife’s extraordinary rearranging of our lives and budget to allow me to stop working outside the home, thanks to talk therapy and medication, writing and daily Yoga with Adriene, I started to feel a renewed sense of wellness and wholeness. I was gradually able to put Kyle’s life and death in perspective, and eventually to feel grateful once in a while for the 26 years we had with our brilliant, generous, hilarious son. I started putting together a poetry manuscript about my son, incorporating his poetry into the book, which helped me find some meaning in my suffering. I learned that finding meaning is key to healing. I found a publisher for the book.

Then, about a year and a half into my learning to live without my son, the girlfriend my son left behind, Amber,  asked if she and their daughter Maggie could come stay with me and my wife here in Massachusetts. To the right is a photo of them watching a 3D movie in our living room shortly after their arrival. Sharing more of this story is just another way of asking for sympathy, so I will refrain. Suffice to say that after Amber and Maggie lived with me for six months and then in a nearby apartment for another year, after Amber encouraged all of us in Maggie’s family to fall in love with Maggie and she with us, Amber cut us all off. She has not spoken to me nor let me or any of us see Maggie since shortly after Maggie turned 5 in February of 2019.  I tried to fight in court for visits, but Amber’s boyfriend (the man she said she needed to escape when she moved in with me) is wealthier than we are and paid for an expensive attorney to battle and bully me in court. After an exhausting and expensive year of trying everything I could, seeing a trial would not be scheduled for many more months, realizing that even if I "won," Amber would appeal and at least another year would pass without my getting to see my granddaughter, I agreed to drop the case. Amber said she would consider restarting our relationship in exchange for my signing away my rights. I never heard from her again.

My wife and I, who opened our home, supported Amber and Maggie, and worked tirelessly to help them both start a new life, have never in our lives felt so used and discarded. And to know that Maggie was cut off without explanation from her entire loving family without our even being allowed to say goodbye has been excruciating. Here's a shot of us at a local Bird Show from 2018.

But what can I do? Although Amber and her boyfriend have blocked us on every social media platform, I have tried reaching out with loving letters to Amber, all of which have been ignored. I no longer have any legal recourse, but I continue to send cards and gifts to Maggie; I fear most of them are thrown out. My last card included this P.S. “I take a picture of every note I send you in case you’re not seeing them now so I can show you all the times we tried to be in touch through the years.”

I sometimes dream of writing a book about other grandparents who have been unfairly cut off from their grandchildren after their child has died. There are a lot of us. Perhaps writing a book would help me find meaning in this experience, give me a constructive use for all of this self-pity. 

In the meantime, I am at a loss as to how to stop feeling sorry for myself. I am giving myself the rest of December to wallow—and to hear suggestions from all of you on how you have moved on from a brutal betrayal—and then, as of January 1st, I’ll be working on keeping this resolution. Thanks for your help. I’m going to need it. In the meantime, if anyone reading this knows how Maggie is doing, please drop us a note letting us know.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Why People March

A mom friend in Australia asked me to explain to her children why people march. I couldn't find a book to explain it, so I wrote this. Feel free to share -- and offer feedback. 

Once upon a time, much of the world was ruled by kings and queens. One especially greedy king, Louis XIV of France, and his greedy wife, Marie Antionette, demanded all the people give their money to the royal family to make their big, fancy palace and their bejeweled, fancy clothes even bigger, fancier and more bejeweled. 

They told the people they didn't care if they starved.
Off with their heads!

The people of France grew angry at how unfair it was that they worked hard but then had to give their money to the king and queen. They thought Versailles, the palace, was fancy enough! They grew so angry, they marched into the streets and demanded change. This was the first known march.  Soldiers fought back, but in the end, the people won -- and made the soldiers chop off the heads of the king and queen!  (Things were very violent back then.)

Since then, all around the world, people have marched to get their leaders to pay attention to their demands for fairness and justice. If their leaders ignore peaceful marching, some people burn and break things to get the leaders' attention -- and the marches turn into riots. 

A lot of marches start, just like in France, because people are angry their leaders are taking too much of their money. When leaders take the people's money, that is called a tax, and tax money is supposed to be spent to help everyone, such as by building roads or schools or libraries--but greedy leaders often keep much of the tax money for themselves and their rich friends. Like that French king and queen, they don't care if people starve. 

Early Americans rioted by throwing tea off a boat because their leader, the King of England, was keeping their tax money instead of spending it to help them. When the Americans won that fight, they made a new rule: NO MORE KINGS AND QUEENS bossing the people around. They wanted every person to choose their leaders and their laws by vote.  

Everyone should vote -- as long as they have pale skin,
a penis and some land. (What?)

Unfortunately, those early Americans had a crazy idea about what “a person" was: they thought only people with white skin, a penis, and a lot of money should be able to vote. (No, really!) They made a new law that said only men with white skin who owned land could be the leaders and the voters.

How did we change this terrible situation? People marched! And protested! And sometimes rioted or broke the law to get the leaders to change their minds. 

White women had to march, riot, scream, break laws, starve themselves, and chain themselves to the White House fence for 134 years before they were allowed to vote. Here are 5,000 women marching in Washington six years before they could vote. All over the world women have had to march to get the right to vote. 
Here are women marching in Washington D.C. six years before we could vote.

Africans living their lives in Africa
and then after they were enslaved.

Things were even harder for men and women with darker skin. White people stole land from the darker-skinned people here before them--and then they stole actual darker-skinned people from their homes in Africa and made them work in the U.S. as slaves. Whites put the Africans in chains and made them do all the whites’ farm work and house work for no money. 

White people stole the babies of Black people and sold them. White people beat and even killed the brown and black-skinned people. This happened in Australia, too, to the Aboriginal people who lived in Australia for tens
Aboriginals stolen from their families and enslaved in Australia.
of thousands of years before the white people came. The Aboriginals weren't called slaves but they were beaten and forced to work for free, which is the same thing.

How did we change this terrible situation? People marched! And protested! And sometimes rioted or broke the law to get the leaders to change their minds. People with darker skin had to march, riot, scream, break laws, starve themselves, and run away for hundreds of years before they were allowed to be free. Some white people realized how wrong slavery was and helped the black people gain their freedom, but changing everyone's mind about slavery took a long time. Some people's minds still aren't changed! 

Even after we fought a war to end slavery and black people were allowed by law to vote for 100 years, white people still treated black people unfairly. They paid black people less money. They didn't let black people get a good education. 
This girl was spit on and screamed at by white kids
for going to their previously all-white school.
They didn't let black people live in their neighborhoods or borrow money from their banks to buy houses or start businesses. They put black people in jail for no good reason and made them do hard work for free, just like when they were slaves. They wouldn't let black people share their pools or water fountains or restaurants or bathrooms. 
And sometimes white people beat up or even killed black people just for looking at them.
Angry white men threw food on black people eating
in a restaurant that was supposed to be for "whites only."
So …how did we change this terrible situation? People marched! And protested! And sometimes rioted or broke the law to get the laws and people to change. Black people (with some white friends) marched, rioted, screamed, broke laws,
starved themselves, and fought back.

The people who have the power, mostly white men, fight hard not
to let women of all colors and men with black or brown skin get any of their power away from them. One of the ways they do this is by fighting the marchers. The police have guns with rubber bullets and real bullets, bayonets, batons or clubs, tear gas, snap bombs, water hoses, vicious dogs

and pepper spray. Sometimes police use these weapons to violently scare even peaceful marchers into giving up and going home. 

Marches for black people’s rights and women's rights are still happening today because things are still not fair.  A lot of white people say everyone has the same chances in life and gets equal treatment now from teachers, police, bankers, and employers. They insist this is true (even though the facts definitely show otherwise) because they like to think they have nicer homes or better jobs only because they worked hard and got what they deserved. But lots of black people work very hard and never get to buy a house or have a good job. 

The worst thing happening to black people now is that police are killing them for no good reason. Sadly, this has always been the case but now people have cameras on their phones and are taking videos of the killings, showing the black people didn't do anything wrong before police killed them. The police have been lying to us, which was hard for white people to believe, as police are usually nice to us. 

Most recently, a Black man named George Floyd was arrested for maybe

giving someone a fake $20 bill, and the officer arresting him choked him to death by throwing him on the ground and kneeling on his neck. George called for help. He said he couldn't breathe. People all around were begging the policeman to get off George's neck. George even cried out for his Mama. But the police officer stayed on George's neck until he was dead.

How can we get police to stop killing unarmed black people? We have to march! and protest! And sometimes we even have to riot or break the law to get the leaders to pay attention. Because people marched, the officer who killed George Floyd was arrested and is in jail. 

Sadly, the U.S. is currently ruled by a crazy, mean man who loves the police to use violence. He has told cops to be rougher when they arrest people; he had police hurt people to clear away a march in front of the White House. He even wanted them to use a weapon
called a heat ray that would make protesters' skin feel like it was on fire. The police don't want to give up their power so they have been doing what he says and treating th
e people they are supposed to serve and protect as if they are the enemies. They are spraying tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters, even peaceful ones, or beating them with clubs. Some protesters have even lost an eye or been killed. This little girl is crying because police shot pepper spray into her face; her parents are pouring milk on her eyes to help wash it away.  
And here is a little girl on her daddy's shoulders being threatened by police with giant guns. 

Many white people are trying to let black people lead the protests, because for too long white people haven’t listened to black people.  Now white people are trying to support black people with our money and our time. We are fighting against police violence and the leaders who support it. This November we may have to march to give everyone the chance to vote again, since in Black neighborhoods, many voting places have been closed. 

I have marched against wars, for women's rights, and for black people's lives. I have taken my children to march with me, and my now grown-up daughter is a passionate activist who marches all the time. I'm very proud of her.

My wife and I stand every Saturday for black lives in our town. (Standing vigil is like marching except everyone stays still. We do this now to avoid giving one another the Corona virus.)

So the next time someone asks you why people march, you can tell them people march to make life better for everybody. I plan to keep marching until more changes are made and black and white people can all feel safe together. 

Luckily, sharing our pain helps everyone

Several months after Kyle's death, his grieving sister Jamie made this art of a poem Kyle wrote her, "Pipeline," which inspire...