Ambiguous Loss: I totally understand that concept. I have an adult son who has been battling mental illness for almost 20 years. He has been hospitalized numerous times, seems to recover and lead a productive, relatively “normal” life for a while, only to “relapse”, which actually implies he was ever free of his mental illness, which he has never really been. He is schizophrenic and is now on medication, but does not comply with the things he needs to do to function in the world. It is especially difficult because he lives in NJ and I live in Georgia. However, I have tried to get him into program after program, with therapists, and case managers only to have him reject the help that is freely offered him. He has been homeless for years, yet keeps turning down offers of housing from his treatment programs. I actually wrote about ambiguous loss in my blog, A Woman Speaks Out, back in 2014. When a loved one physically dies, there is a period of mourning that eventually gives way to some sort of acceptance and healing. But when your child becomes, “someone you used to know”, it is particularly difficult because how can you mourn somebody that has not died? It is easy and anybody who deals with a loved one with dementia or especially mental illness can understand this concept. I mourn the adorable boy he was, the young man with promise, the son who was always on the same wavelength with me, the boy with the great sense of humor. I am always waiting for “the other shoe to drop” and wonder when the next crisis will be. I grieve my boy, who I speak to periodically and actually sounds fairly “normal” on the phone. But, there simply is no reasoning with him about anything he does not want to do. It is a constant battle for me to disassociate myself on some days, just so I can have some sort of happiness. I am in mourning every single day and sometimes I wonder how things would be if he passed away. God forbid, but I could grieve and then begin to heal. But then I hate myself for even thinking the unthinkable. When there is ambiguous loss, you grieve the loss of the essence of your loved one; you mourn every single day, some days less then others. You live in a roller coaster world where one day you may get some good news from his therapists and then suddenly there is no movement or he goes backward. One step forward, two steps back and then you often have to start from scratch. This happens over and over with no relief in sight. You cannot talk to most people about your “loss” because they do not understand. You cannot constantly bombard people with the latest horror story because they do not want to hear it. You have to put on a happy face, when underneath there is about 20% of my brain that cannot ever, ever, be happy. There is that part of me with a broken heart that I have to hide lest I be considered a “negative” person. And then there is the loss of hope—the feeling that nothing will ever get better. That hopelessness is deadly because it leads to depression on my part. I know that acceptance is the key to everything, but this is often a bitter pill to swallow and it is hard to accept that your child is gradually disappearing before your very eyes.
When you’re a kid you think you are invincible and the thought of “growing old” is not even in your consciousness. When I tell childhood stories I sometimes want to describe people as an “older person” but then I have to pause and think, “Everyone seemed much older than they probably were”. So, I really don’t know if my description is accurate. Who knows, they might have only been in their 30s or 40s, but to a child that is pretty old. But it ‘s funny how your definition of “old” changes as you rapidly approach the age you considered old. I remember being so depressed when I turned 26 because I had passed that magical number of 25, which meant that I was closer to 30 than 20. In my mind, 30 was officially a “real adult” and, although I was a mother already by 19, I still thought that I was a kid. But, when I passed 30, then 40 became the new “old age” for me. Each decade, I raise the bar on what it means to be “old.” Since when did 40 become “young?’ How about 50? To me that is now “young” or at least still “young.” How many times have I heard myself saying lately, “They’re not that old”, referring to someone in their 70s. The fact remains that the world is geared to youth and no matter how “young” you think you look, feel, or act, you are not young, and you are often treated as such. People say that age is just a number, and you can remain “young at heart”, be active, athletic, keep yourself in shape, but time is rapidly advancing, and it seems the older you get, the faster the years go by. I remember endless summers, being the playground champ, spinning tops, playing Skelly, melting bottle caps on manhole covers, eating Good Humor sold by old man Joe, the ever present ice cream man. Then, going home for dinner only to go out again in the evening. I was athletic and that was my life during those magical summer days and nights. It seems almost as if those days were just yesterday, and I sometimes wake up and think, “how the hell did I get to be this old and when did this happen?” I remember hearing about “the Golden Years” but I have recently found myself thinking that is such a fallacy. Often the “golden years” are fraught with age-related illnesses, even if you think you are healthy. With aging often comes a gradual betrayal of your body. There are exceptions, and I believe that if you keep yourself in good physical condition, taking care of what is so precious, you may skip the extreme decline. But the thing about life is that unless you have a crystal ball, or a link to God, you don’t know what the future holds. I am a firm believer that we should live NOW, and not look too far into the future. The media is famous for preaching about the evils of retiring too early (taking your Social Security too soon). I laugh when I see these dire warnings because I know from experience that life is very fragile and you should take your happiness now, if you can, rather than later because later may never come.
I am living in the land of Nowhere and it is very frightening. Many years ago, when my two boys were very young, I took them on a car trip to Great Adventure, in NJ. Now anyone who knows me well understands that driving anyplace new is highly traumatic since I have literally no sense of direction. This of course was in the days before GPS technology and cell phones, so I had to rely on actual written instructions and directional skills from my sons too. Miraculously we arrived at Great Adventure uneventfully and met up with my then sister-in-law and her kids. Throughout the entire day, I was extremely anxious about the drive home, worrying that I would get lost (a huge phobia I have). By the time we said our good-byes, it was dark, making it even harder to navigate. Sure enough we found ourselves in a lonely, dark wooded area, with no visible signs, going around and around in circles. My poor children had to endure the increasing panic that engulfed me each time we found ourselves back to the beginning. After many desperate attempts to extract myself from that never-ending merry-go-round, I blurted out that we were officially in “Nowheresville.” At the time, the kids actually thought that was very funny, and it makes me laugh now, but at the time, I was terror-stricken. Now so many years later, I still sometimes get the feeling that I am in “Nowheresville”, sometimes known as “Loserville” or “Lonelyville”, depending on my specific state of mind on that particular day. When I was officially employed and doing “important” work, I didn’t have time to feel like I lived in “Nowheresville.” But now that I am on my own it is an effort to find a reason to “keep on keeping on” sometimes, especially in the morning. I constantly fill my life with all sorts of creative endeavors such as writing, photography classes, blog sites, social media, which creates a sense of peacefulness and purpose for a while, but it never lasts. Years ago I wrote in my journal that the amount of times I felt “good” and “peaceful” was so little that I actually could count them on my fingers, and I think that still holds true to this day. I live in the land of Nowhere, fleeing from the feeling that I am becoming more and more invisible as I get older, that I am alone, that I am becoming less valuable than I used to be, less relevant. Being creative and busy are good things when done for the right reasons. But, in reality, I am still seeking the praise, recognition, and love I never received as a child by filling my life with everything, when I am really running away from my demons. It’s human nature to not remember where we came from and to “forget” what life was like. When my life was a living hell with my medical issues and my son’s homelessness, I prayed and prayed to God to help me, and when my prayers were answered in the form of knowledge (about my spinal tumor) and surgery, I was literally glowing with happiness and filled with gratitude. But, almost two years later, I am feeling LOST again and I don’t know why. Life is a journey, and I know that my wild ride was not in vain because, although painful, I grew as a person. Human beings need to grow to thrive and I am doing just that, but sometimes maybe I need to just stand still and enjoy what I have NOW, rather than looking for the next thing, and the next thing. Maybe I need to just stand still and feel God’s grace.
I think it is normal to have regrets in your life. I don’t know one person who has not wanted to go back in time and correct some of the more glaring “mistakes” of their lives. Yet, if you ever saw Back to the Future, hurtling back in a DeLorean, to a time where we feel our life went off track (and actually take that job, or ask out that girl, or go out with that boy) is very tempting. The problem is if we altered our past, everything else would shift and the entire course of our life would be different. In Back to The Future, Marty attempts to change the course of his father’s life and discovers that people existing in the present, disappear. This of course is fantasy, but the truth is that you just cannot press the UNDO button and edit your life. Your past is your past and is, after-all, what makes you who you are. The trick is taking those regrets and using them as a learning experience rather than continually berating yourself. I was not exactly mother-of-the-year, and I have to admit it. I don’t think I ever really learned how to be a nurturing human being, coming from a very dysfunctional family. Although my Mom was affectionate, there was a real disconnect in my family and I literally could not wait to “get the hell out” of my house. To escape, I began carousing, using drugs and alcohol to give me the “happiness” and wholeness that I did not feel at home—trying to fill that hole in my gut. While working in Korvettes in Manhattan, I met my first husband, my hero, whom I looked upon as my rescuer. When I got pregnant, I was not ready to be a wife and mother, and consequently I was a dismal failure at both. However, I have learned that, presented with choices, it is virtually impossible to navigate those waters without choosing something we later consider a mistake. As the saying goes, “Acceptance is the key to everything” and I truly believe it; acceptance of both past and present situations we have no control over. In the past 18 years, I have tried to make amends to family members, both living and deceased (in the case of my parents). It does not totally absolve me from my actions, but it allows me to dig myself out of the regret graveyard. All I can do now is accept that not all my decisions were the best but they seemed right at the time. Growing and learning from bad decisions are how I try (and I say “try”) to handle my life’s choices rather than with regret, which is just a form of self-flagellation. Staying in regret will keep you mired in the past, and prevent you from moving forward in life.
Perfection–what is it and how do I achieve it? I get up every morning, and dread looking into the mirror because I don’t like what looks back at me. I quickly put some Noxzema on my face, which serves two purposes; one is to hopefully get rid of the puffiness under my eyes, and the other actually hides all those imperfections. The older I get, the more imperfect I become in my eyes. When did I get that saggy skin around my mid section? When did I get those droopy jowls, or how come my face has become so thin and lost that youthful volume? In an age when many imperfections can be “fixed” if you have the funds, it is easy to go overboard. I somehow think I will finally achieve Karma if I could just get rid of the fat on my thighs. But, I know for sure that the minute I get a tweak here and there, some other complaint surfaces. Oh, no, my breasts are uneven, or my foot is on backwards. I know that no matter how many surgical procedures I had to “correct” my many imperfections, I would never be satisfied. So many people go through their life with an ideal image of what they want to look like. It is so easy to get caught up in the plastic surgery game, getting one thing, then another, and another, until you don’t even look human; more like a doll or mannequin. I have seen people with real deformities, which, when corrected can transform the quality of their life. But, that is different–I am talking about the obsession with youth or beauty that causes so many people to devalue themselves even when they look fine, just not “perfect”. I know that I could go to the doctor and say, “Look just fix everything that is wrong with me”, and after he did, I’d find something else. It could be never-ending and unfortunately brings momentary “happiness” but it is not lasting. Happiness does indeed come from within, and by continually focusing on that coveted ideal we all see with celebrities, we will forever be chasing a ghost that will vanish in a wisp.
Happiness, what is it and how do I achieve it? Years ago, when I was at our neighbor’s house in NJ, we were all together and our friend Debby said, “Can I ask you a question” about something (can’t remember what). As a joke I said that her question was, “What’s the meaning of life?.”I expected her to just dismiss this silly comment and continue asking me whatever it was, but she actually stopped, and after careful consideration, she answered me with, “Having fun.” Wow, what an answer. It was such a simple answer to a very profound (although it was not meant that way) question. I have often thought of that answer; having fun is the meaning of life. But, at the same time I have to wonder if I ever have FUN. Early on in my first marriage, my husband commented that I didn’t know how to have fun and he was right, I didn’t. When I was a child, my idea of fun was competing in the playground in races, or tether ball, or swimming, or skateboarding, or bike riding, etc. That is a child’s idea of fun, but as an adult I lost that innocence, and I lost the art of simple pleasures. I don’t know how that happened. One of my main problems is that I often live in the future, thinking of what’s up next and consequently don’t feel that happiness in the moment. I know that I am still in competition with everyone, in my mind, of course. This causes me great unhappiness because I am always comparing my life with everyone else’s, my level of “happiness” with others. What makes me “happy” is always something external–I receive praise from somebody, I find out people are actually reading my blog, I get a picture accepted on a Stock site, or whatever it may be. It is almost never “just because” and I envy people who have that ability or art (and it is an art to me) to just feel good for no reason at all. When I was drinking and drugging, I achieved that Nirvana at times, but that was artificial, and when I was sober again, the good “high” was gone with the wind. That’s why I loved to get high, because I was “happy” for a few hours at least. Since I no longer do that, I have to rely on reality, not a chemically induced state of mind. So, I search and search for that elusive state of mind, and once every so often I do feel “happy” for no particular reason. But it is so rare, and I don’t know how to get it back. That is one of the greatest gifts and I wish I could just bottle it or find the right configuration so I could achieve it again. I guess that is why I drank, because at that moment of my first drink, I felt that “ease and comfort” of happiness, like nothing could touch me, like everything in life was good, and everything bad would be OK. I was suddenly transported to a fantasy world where my dreams would come true and I was proud of myself for all my achievements. But, I think without that fantasy world, I am lost, and was even as a child at home (unless I was outside playing), and I just don’t think I ever really learned how to be happy or if I will ever find it.
It is amazing that so many people take for granted being well and feeling well. There is nothing more humbling than having a debilitating illness or injury to bring you back to earth. I have been one of those athletic people who would look at someone struggling in the gym or out just walking slowly, without trying to understand that each person has a story. I have been struggling for many months with debilitating back pain and severe degenerated right knee. My back and knee pain was so bad that I would have to hobble from bed into the bathroom each morning, walking like I was 85. The constant, unrelenting pain and soreness also affected my state of mind, causing depression. It is so hard to look at the bright side of things when you are hurting over and over and life looks so bleak. It was so humbling and embarrassing on my trip to Guatemala. On the plane I would start to get anxious when we were about to land knowing that my back and knee would be so stiff that it would take a while for me to unbend. Getting up and carrying my luggage out of the plane was torture. I always thought of myself as this physically fit specimen and now I felt like a cripple, limping down the aisle. Things that I used to take for granted, like climbing down the steps of the airplane (in Augusta for some reason you have to climb down these stupid steep steps to get off the plane) caused me so much anxiety—being so afraid that I would fall or need assistance. When you are physically well, things like that don’t even occur to you. Now things that were never issues were now major concerns. Once in Guatemala, I was in constant pain, living on Ibuprofen. It prevented me from going on walking tours and, coupled with me being lonely, I was miserable. When I went on a tour to Panajachel I had to constantly climb in and out of the boat that ferried us from village to village on Lake Atitlan and that was pure torture. Once if it had not been for two guys holding me, I would have collapsed, due to my knee totally buckling under me. Back in the States, it did not get any better and I have since had knee surgery (much more extensive than I thought it would be) and have also had epidural steroid injections to my back. I want to travel now, but I was unable to plan for anything due to the constant uncertainty of my physical condition. Whenever there is a life altering event, whether it be a loss of a job, illness, death, divorce, you always look for a reason. The thing is that I feel there are no coincidences in God’s world and it may not be revealed until years later or weeks, you do not know. I am slowly starting to feel better but being so debilitated gave me real empathy for others. When I see people hobbling slowly across the street I know that there is a story behind it. I have a friend who suffers from MS and is on disability. She is estranged from her family who is totally unsupportive, yet she still perseveres. Another woman I went to school with just finished battling stage 4 uterine cancer, having gone through hell with chemotherapy, major surgery, colostomy, and having to rely on others since she lives alone. Then I look at myself and realize that maybe it is not that bad. Of course, when you are feeling better it is easy to look back and say it was not so bad. I am still having problems with numbness in my body, but maybe this is God’s lesson for me; be grateful for each day that you feel well and don’t take it for granted. It has given me a better understanding of other’s problems and pain, physically and mentally. Nobody has a perfect life, although sometimes it seems that some people do on the outside. It has also given me more of an incentive to change my life because I can appreciate that there are no guarantees that you will be around tomorrow or even later in the day. We take for granted that we have an infinite amount of time to achieve that elusive happiness and that is not true. My friend Janet is now in France with her husband, one among many trips they take. They are living now, not putting off what may never happen if they waited. Being so ill has put a time frame to my plans. I know that I absolutely cannot continue to live a life doing what I don’t want to do. I ask myself sometimes, “when are you most happy.” The answer always comes back, “when I am not at work.” It is time for me to move on to the next phase of my life. I am so consumed with making money due to my upbringing (compulsive gambler dad) when money went flying out the window and life was insecure, that now it is my main focus. Yes, money does buy things I like, but continuing doing what I don’t want to do is killing me over and over. One day I will wake up and it will be my last day on earth and I will die never having taken the big risks and living a life of my dreams and how sad is that?