It’s loud in here. So loud. There is some bouncing adventure game happening in the living room, full of vague, change-as-they-go rules and many acrobatics. Hard to follow. Hard to hear over.
Glass of wine in hand, I walk into the bedroom. “Dinner’s in the oven. Dishes are all yours. I’ll be studying.” Eight hours of work for me. Not sure how many for him – it started early, ended late, was disrupted countless times by the needs and desires and demands of small humans. Now it’s dinner, it’s homework for the grad school program that feels like it’s dragged on forever (albeit in fast-paced and grueling eight-week increments), it’s bedtime negotiations and suddenly realizing neither of us remembered to pick up kids’ toothpaste. Then tired, fall into bed I love you’s, before we do it again tomorrow, and the day after that.
Upstairs, our closest friends – the know you a little too well, better or worse kind of friends – are returning home from the weekend away. Soon it won’t just be our floor that’s loud, chaotic, and demanding.
In the seconds between closing the oven and opening my laptop, the realization washes over me, for the thousandth time and the first: This is, truly, the best life gets. It’s not, Hey, this is a good life. Hey, I can be happy here. Hey, I can work with this.
It’s so, so far beyond that.
This is a life the fills other people with longing.
And, more importantly . . .
I forget that way too often.
A confession: I bristle at the posts and memes and poems about how they won’t be little forever, let the laundry sit, just keep rocking them gently mama. No, “bristle” is an understatement. I have a visceral, angry, STFU reaction. Don’t tell me to love this. This is crazy and I’m tired and it kind of sucks. Eff your mommy sanctimony and your rocking chair, too.
I'm right and they're wrong and oh man I am so tired and at the end of the day / week / month the laundry still needs to get sorted by somebody.
So forgive me, please, if my drive to acknowledge and validate the difficulties of modern-day motherhood causes me to lose sight of the beauty and the privilege of it.
Forgive me, because the reality is, this life meets my needs and my dreams and it satisfies my longings for meaning beyond anything I could have hoped for.
All those years I spent thinking it was a question of either / or. Motherhood or career. Work or school. Passion or commitment.
There was no either / or in play. Somebody made that up, and we fell for it, because we were tired.
You guys. There are so many things worse than tired.
Turns out we can have our cake. And we can eat it. We can, in fact, have it all . . . and it will always be inescapably exhausting and overwhelming. Also, it will usually be loud.
And it will always, still, every single moment, be worth it.
It’s Sunday night, and I’ve just finished facilitating dinner, clean up, story time, tooth brushing, pajamas, and goodnights for my four children. No, that’s not quite accurate. The youngest threw a tantrum so spectacular that I gave up on the tooth brushing battle. And one of the middle two may or may not have decided to sleep in his clothes. I’m not sure, because when the younger two were finally down, I told the older kids I was tapped out for the evening, gave them hugs, and escaped to my bedroom.
The first half of the day was a late to church, everything is ridiculous, why doesn’t anyone have shoes on, “MomMomMommyMamaMomMomMom” sort of morning. The youngest got very upset that I thought it was silly to put his mittens on in the parking lot, just outside the church doors, when it was literally -6° and windy and he had refused to wear the mittens before then.
I did it all on my own this weekend, and I am exhausted.
I did it all on my own this weekend, because their father has spent the last two days running a cold weather emergency shelter for individuals and families, people with nowhere to go when the temperatures dip to these record, deadly lows.
During the week, he has been home with them often, trying to get other work done while dealing with the spectacular tantrums, the “DadDaddyDad” on repeat, the incessant requests for snacks, while I am out working with a similar population of marginalized and struggling human beings.
In church this morning we talked about worship, not the song and prayer kind but the giving to others, laying down our lives sort. At the shelter, Jake and his staff are doing this in an obvious, visible way. They miss sleep, they unclog toilets, they negotiate calmly with scared and angry people, they deal with any number of circumstances one might encounter in a shelter for the homeless and addicted at the coldest, loneliest hours. The managers and volunteers who make this shelter possible each winter are heroes, I honestly believe that.
This morning, picking up spilled crayons and cracked communion cups and abandoned mittens (imagine that) after the service, I remembered - I’m a hero in this too. Because if it weren’t for my willingness to do these parenting tasks solo, Jake wouldn’t be at the shelter this weekend.
In reality, if it weren’t for his dedication, this year there might not be a shelter in town at all.
If I am impressed by his passion for the work, for his tireless efforts and the difference he makes, then I get to be proud of my support for the same. I can recognize buckling all the car seats, brushing all the teeth, tying all the shoes alone, as its own form of worship and service. In freeing up my husband for the work, I, too, am helping to provide shelter and safety for those who need it.
I’m not writing this to pat myself on the back or seek accolades, but rather to point out that there is a group of people whose sacrifice goes overlooked - and to point out that they may, like me, often overlook it themselves.
I remember the Christmases when Jake was a cop, the way we structured our celebrations around when he was off shift. I remember New Year’s Eves when I would get a phone call instead of a kiss at midnight. I remember the year he watched the Superbowl without me, because was I was at a birth.
Those moments were difficult for us both. When I was the one at home, I don’t remember feeling heroic, or like I was contributing to a greater goal. I remember feeling lonely, disappointed, and sometimes resentful.
It did not occur to me, then, to think of any of that as a sacrifice. I didn’t recognize it as something done in service to to others.
But it was. And now, I know I can be proud of that.
So this is for the spouses, those of you co-parenting with police officers, firefighters, nurses and doctors and midwives, soldiers, and yes, social workers. They do the hard work, every day, absolutely, but you are part of the reason that work can happen. Lives are changed and saved by your support and by your sacrifice.
Thank you for all you give.
I’ll run the risk of being intimate with brokenness. ~ Sleeping at Last, “Son”
There is a feeling that creeps in sometimes, when sitting with a client. I used to think it was because I was new to the work, that it was merely an issue of inexperience, something that would fade with practice. Face to face with pain, they talk, I listen, and I wonder, “Is this helping? Am I helping?”
Sometimes, the things they’re saying - or more often the things they aren’t saying, but I know from their history - all feel like too much. How can you possibly help someone who has been through this?, whispers the voice of doubt which accompanies me to every session.
As I speak with, and learn from, a greater number of therapists, counselors, and social workers, fellow students as well as those with years of experience, I am learning to quiet that voice. I am finally reaching a point where I have stopped interpreting my misgivings as an issue of incompetence.
Sometimes, this not-knowing is the best thing I can do.
Trauma is defined as an event in which the normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed, and thus the memory is stored differently in the brain and in the body. Trauma occurs when the thing that happens is JUST TOO MUCH, when the body and the brain - and perhaps the soul? - say, “I have no idea what to do with this.”
And so I’ve come to see it as a mark of respect and validation, to sit with these clients and think, just for a little while, “I have no idea what to do with this either.” It can’t end there, but maybe it’s necessary for the beginning.
After trauma, things feel broken. It’s all too much. There is hurt and shame and a general sense that one is trying to put the pieces back together but they just aren’t fitting the way they used to, so now what? And maybe, in an effort to make things whole again, to not have to feel that brokenness any longer, we hurry up and glue the pieces back in a clumsy, haphazard way, so that nothing works quite the same anymore but at least all the pieces are there. At least we feel like we’re doing something about it.
Have you ever tried to put flowers in a cracked vase, the kind that gets smashed and glued back together right away, before anybody has a chance to see it broken? If you don’t take the time to glue the pieces just right, it leaks. Set something heavy on it, and it crumbles. Maybe it looks okay on the shelf, maybe you can turn it in such a way that you can’t even see the broken pieces in the right light. But under any kind of stress, it just can’t hold up.
My role as a social worker, as I’ve just begun to understand it, and the role of anyone who works with trauma, is to look at what's been crumbled, to confront the brokenness, and to stay the rush to crunch together mismatched pieces that don’t fit the way they used to.
It is to say, This is your brokenness and I am not afraid. It hurts so much and I am going to look at it with you anyway, until we can put the pieces together slowly and carefully and make things truly whole.
There is an intimacy in looking at such brokenness that is both necessary and terrifying. In doula work, we call it “holding space.” It refers to sitting, standing, walking, or swaying with, holding the hand of a woman in labor and saying, No one can carry this pain for you but I will stay with you in it and help you not be afraid of it. While I’m hesitant to compare the birth of a baby to the survival of a trauma, I would argue that there are elements of the pain and the transformation that are remarkably similar. More importantly, I would argue that for those of us who come alongside the people experiencing such pain, the roles in each scenario are nearly identical.
Further, I would argue that this mentality is not in any way limited to those in professional roles, and that we could all benefit from learning to be intimate with brokenness - in ourselves, in our loved ones, and in our culture. I would argue that the beauty of the Advent season is the expectation that our brokenness, individually and collectively, will find healing - and that the commercialism of the holiday season is a desperate attempt to pretend such brokenness does not exist.
Nobody wants to see brokenness. We don’t want to see it in our culture and we don’t want to see it in our friends or our kids and definitely not in our marriages (I’ve written before about how I contributed to some major problems in that regard), and under no circumstances do we want to see it in ourselves. Oh God please no not that.
We’re wired to try to get away from pain and we’re wired to turn away from brokenness. If by some chance we see our own brokenness, we typically put the pieces back together real quick, because we know nobody wants to look at that.
For as long as we refuse to acknowledge our brokenness, we miss out on opportunities for healing.
Advent is difficult for me because sometimes I feel numb to it. I want to be in the beauty and magic and love and peace of it, but it’s hard to get there.
Why? Because I don’t want do the part where you have to feel the pain and brokenness that makes the resolution so comforting and healing.
This year, I know that Christmas and all its silver and sparkle will stay meaningless and hollow unless I allow myself to feel the brokenness in the country, in the world, and in our spirits, in a way that gives me something to celebrate in late December.
In preparing to celebrate Christmas with its intended meaning and power, let me first face all the brokenness and resist the urge to turn away. Let me remember, when I feel afraid of it, that facing brokenness is the first and essential step on the path to healing.
When my compassion for a difficult person begins to run low, I allow myself to wonder what he or she was like as a child. I try to picture them at the age an unknown trauma may have occurred, and ask myself how it may have contributed to the behaviors that make our interactions challenging now. Then I try to respond as if I’m talking to that child, hurt, angry, and confused, rather than the belligerent, defensive adult standing in front of me.
I’ve spent the past week in graduate school focused on trauma-related mental health disorders, particularly those affecting children. By the end of the week I need to finish reading a book on the failings of the current mental health system and the double-edged sword of deinstitutionalization. And in my long drives from one client to another, I’ve been listening to Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, in which the title essay dissects 1960s counter culture in Haight Ashbury.
These were the concepts occupying space in my head when I woke up this morning and my phone greeted me with a news alert about the death of Charles Manson. The article included a biographical summary - of a man who had no family, who committed his first dangerous acts by the age of eight, who begged, as an adult, not to be released from prison because he didn’t know where to go.
Granted, Charles Manson has always been peripheral to me, the murders a thing that happened a long time ago. I am of the generation for whom Manson was a twisted historical figure, not a courtroom news story; the first reference I ever knew to Haight Ashbury was in the form of a Nirvana song. I have never experienced the visceral reaction a baby boomer would have to the story of the Manson murders. When I first learned of them, I found them nauseating and unsettling, but they did not rattle my worldview.
By the time I learned of the Manson murders, violence was familiar.
Likewise, I had heard before of Manson’s bizarre court testimony, but never read it: “These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them; I didn’t teach them.” Horrifying, yes? Let’s strike that from the record please. Keep these irrational thoughts to yourself, Mr. Manson. Nobody wants to be implicated in your bloodbath. No, dude, you’re just crazy. Shut up.
Except . . . there’s that nagging fear that he might be right.
80 years ago, Charles Manson was a three-year-old boy whom nobody protected. Blame my coursework, blame my bleeding heart, blame my obsessive need to make sense of the tragic and nonsensical, but I cannot write off that crazy unstable man’s accusations. These children were our children. They were teenage runaways - from good families, yes, sure, as far as we know. They were children, many of them privileged, who grew up in a society in which some people were disposable - including the fatherless son of a prostitute whose early years indicated a slew of behavioral problems, but nobody stepped in.
When Liam was four he asked me, “Does God make the bad guys?”
I answered, as any good recovering evangelical would, that there aren’t really good guys and bad guys. That we’re all people, with some good and some bad in each of us. That God loves each of us, when we’re good and when we’re bad, and knowing just how much God loves us makes us want to be good like God.
What I did not say at the time - and maybe I just didn’t want to believe it - is that sometimes, we help make the bad guys.
That every person must choose for him or herself which direction to go.
That ultimately we all have the capacity, hidden beneath our fears, our anger, and our selfishness, to choose what’s right and connects us with the divine.
But that when we cast aside a three-year-old boy as unimportant, as a drain on society, as a person who shouldn’t exist, as unworthy of our care, we make his choice to do evil a much easier one.
And so I’d like to humbly suggest, as we attempt to mitigate our holiday spending with a couple of cans to the food pantry, as we think maybe we’ll serve at a soup kitchen for a couple hours Thursday morning so we can enjoy our Thursday afternoon excesses guilt-free, that we sit with this one for a minute. That before we celebrate the death of a terrifying, volatile, evil cult leader, we mourn the life of a little boy protected and loved by no one.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to think about this. I want to clean out the crock pot and thaw the cranberries and mutter about someone using up the nutmeg and complain about the crowds at Market Basket. I want to sit down with my family this week and agree not to discuss healthcare or gun control and just all celebrate and be nice and grateful for what we have. I want to eat pie. And honestly, I am going to do all those things, and I am going to enjoy every minute of it.
This is what we all want, right? To relish the fleeting holiday feeling of safe and cozy love, to pour a warm drink and plug in the twinkly lights that push back the darkness, at least a little.
Because to do otherwise is uncomfortable. Like any other privileged middle class white woman, I would much rather focus on the pretty twinkling lights than think about the darkness persisting beyond their reach. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it - until the lights stay warm and cozy in our own homes, and let those in the darkness outside fend for themselves.
Charles Manson, before the swastika on his forehead, before the batshit crazy helter skelter terror, was a little boy left in that darkness. We left him there.
I signal right, take the off ramp, steel myself as I wait at the light. Once more into the pain. Once more into the sadness. My husband, an ex-military survivalist, is fond of the quote “Once more into the fray.” I hear his whisper as I prepare to see my next client, to go once more into the fray and the sadness.
A few weeks ago, I had to testify against a former client. Only when I was seated on the witness stand and was peppered with questions did I realize how gut-wrenching the experience can be. To sit and state, for the record, truth and whole truth sworn, that this client has failed. This one can’t manage to do what they’ve been asked to do. If one cares about their work - if one cares about the people for whom one does the work - it’s nauseating. I drove home shaking. That evening I consulted with my cohort, who validated my stress.
“I cried the first time I had to do it.”
“I cry every time.”
“I can never sleep the night before.”
It was cathartic, this sharing of the sadness.
As I drove to the courthouse the second morning, I passed an older woman, ever so slowly moving down the sidewalk. “Walking” would not be an accurate term. She stood with a walker, and every footstep appeared to be agony. Each small movement lasted perhaps 20 or 25 seconds. I sat able-bodied in the car, and the slowness and the pain in her movements nearly brought me to tears. This world just hurts too much, I thought, as the light turned green and I drove past. It was only three blocks later, the image of her laborious footsteps a sad GIF playing in my head, that it occurred to me - she was not in a wheelchair. Had she been immobile and reliant on a device, I would not have given her existence a second thought. It was the struggle against the pain, not the surrender to it, that had caught my attention.
When I heard the news out of Texas on Sunday, this same sadness swept over me again. I did not bubble with anger, as I did after Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or Boston. I did not feel the despair and the disorientation that struck when I was younger, after 9/11 and Oklahoma City. This time, just sadness. Too much. This hurts too much.
This time, I did not respond with solutions, with angry declarations about necessary changes to gun control or mental health treatment - all warranted, but they felt wrong. Off. Callous. Premature.
I am a fixer of things, my husband and my best friend and my children and my family and my clients will tell you. Problem? Pain? Here, let me offer my suggestions. Here’s a band-aid. Let’s make it so we don’t have to see this sadness, m’kay? Let’s just make that go away. Quickly, please.
It’s only natural that when we see pain and suffering, we want to make it go away. This is, perhaps, one of the better parts of human nature.
But on Sunday afternoon, as the darkness descended early, the sadness felt right. The country was hurt and crying again. Children were lost to violence in a building where they came to learn about love and hope, about the someday restoration of all things. In the quiet, rainy night, allowing my heart to break open over this circumstance felt like the only appropriate response.
It would be wrong to stay there, I think. Hopes and prayers and warm thoughts and the world moving on would be just as unacceptable as offering a pat policy solution to make myself feel in control.
But - maybe - we have to mourn before we can make real change. Maybe our rush to fix rather than feel is an impediment to lasting solutions.
Personally, when I rush to fix, whether it’s for clients or loved ones, it’s an effort to maintain my safety and security. It is entirely self-motivated. I don’t like the idea of you being homeless, so let’s find you a place to live. It’s unsettling to see you so depressed. Here, take these pills. You relapsed? Let’s get you into a program today.
Don’t feel ready? Don’t care.
Do they need housing? Do they need medication, and counseling, and treatment? Unequivocally, yes. But when I try to fix too soon, so I can feel accomplished and return to my baseline of comfort and security, there are underlying problems I might miss. There are bigger issues in play, that I choose to ignore, because I feel overwhelmed and powerless to solve them.
Rather, I am powerless to solve them.
What I have learned, in the aftermath of nauseating court testimony and the image of that woman on the sidewalk, is that this sense of powerlessness can be appropriate and necessary. That tears and silence are, for a brief time, just the response that’s needed.
I do believe in the someday restoration of all things. I do not believe that restoration, and love and hope, became any less true for children in Texas this weekend, though it certainly feels a long way off. I believe, to my core, that we are responsible for bringing about that restoration, in partnership with Something / Someone larger and more powerful and more capable of restoration than any of us could be on our own.
And in the meantime, I do believe in policy reforms. This was, clearly, a preventable tragedy. The anger is justified. But let me not rush through the process to a half-assed restoration and a handful of policy changes without first being in the sadness. As the pain comes in, real and undeniable, let that motivate us for change.
Let us start by going into the fray.
The list of things I’d like to make you know could fill volumes. But no matter how long the list, it will be years – a lifetime – before you understand the words. For every single thing you say I just don’t get, there are ten more from me to you.
And that’s okay, I remind myself.
As I write this, however premature it may be, you are screaming at your siblings, crying at your father, slamming doors and hating your life - all ten years of it.
You won’t know that a small piece of me is proud of you for screaming in rage. When I was your age, when I wanted to scream, I stayed silent.
You won’t know that a part of me understands you. My mother never understood either. At least, I thought she didn’t.
You won’t know the struggle I felt as we walked to the store and back, the deep breaths I took in a failed attempt to temper my defensiveness. You won’t know how hard I tried to hear you, even as my frustration built a wall between us. I want so badly for you to feel heard.
You won’t know that I’m annoyed with myself for already feeling drained and worn by the time we get a chance to talk. That my compassion has run dry for today, and in this moment I’m angry at a client for using up the patience I needed for my daughter. I want so badly for my patience to be limitless.
You won’t know that I worry constantly about messing up with you, that I feel like I’m forever floundering in this murky world of raising a tween, no, this murky world of raising you, at every stage. Seriously, I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to you, and I never know what to say.
You won’t know that I want to yell, “Can’t you just be happy? Can’t you see how good you have it?!” even though I know you can’t, because you are a girl on the edge of puberty and no girl on the edge of puberty is happy with her life. Can I promise you this despair won’t last, without sounding like I’m discounting your feelings?
You won’t know that I cried when we came home, cried for your sadness, cried for my own. Cried because I am trying, and you don’t see it, because you can't.
Right now, you cannot know.
You won’t know that I am torn in the desire to give you everything that will make you happy, because I don’t want you to feel like the center of the universe. I don’t want you to have everything, because I love you too much for that. You are not at the center of the universe. But you are at the center of my heart.
You won’t know how hard we try to make this work, two parents in a field where the pay is low and the hours are strange. You won’t understand why we chose this life not only for the world, but for our children. But someday I hope you will see the value in it.
You won’t know that I remember. That the anger, the frustration, the desire to feel heard, is not yours alone. I ache, because I remember.
You won’t know the way I struggled to make my mother understand, the way I cried in secret when my father defended her. I hadn’t meant to come off so harshly. I hadn’t wanted to hurt them with what I said, but the words came out wrong. Words have a way of doing that, out of the mouths of tweens and teens. I know, because I remember.
You won’t know the memory of holding you tight, propped up and sore in a hospital bed. You were two hours old, and your dad had left to move the car. Finally alone, I cried tears of relief into the fuzz on your sweet, tiny head. We had survived birth, together, and I was amazed. I whispered through sobs, “Delaney, we did it. We did it. We did it.” I honestly believed the hardest part was over.
You won’t know that I didn’t say that to the others, that I never again felt that sense of “us” when I delivered a baby. With your younger siblings, no, it was “I did it,” and there was relief and euphoria, but never again did I think in terms of “we.” Only once. Only with you.
You won’t know that the distinction is yours alone, my mysterious, daunting, terrifying eldest daughter.
But one day, maybe in 20 years, maybe in 30, maybe you will find yourself tasked with raising a young woman, and you will remember how it feels to be on your side of the jagged, tenuous mother-daughter equation. Maybe then, when the side you are on looks like mine.
Maybe then you will know.
“Should I post it?” I ask him almost every time. One, because if I reveal anything about him I figure he has a right to say whether it goes on the internet. Two, because writing deeply personal material skews my normally very private filter. I lose perspective, by necessity.
So, why write at all? Why would a private, introverted individual put their personal life on blast for everyone from closest family to loose acquaintances or maybe even strangers?
Because, the night he told me, I had two thoughts, one immediately after the other:
We agreed, it would be a secret. No one else’s business. And so we kept it that way. And every day I dreaded someone finding out.
The irony is, all the pain had started because of secrets. Jake’s went back to when he was seven years old, at least, with a young man I still struggle to forgive, who ordered him to keep everything a secret. And then the infidelity, of course, all secret.
We learned, in the most painful way possible, that for as long as you keep your pain a secret, it can control you. It can blind you. It can keep hurting you.
In the aftermath, I looked for support, and I discovered most of it was provided anonymously. Women changed their names when they told their stories. The covers of the self-help books were dark and shadowy. One day, I started to post an introduction on a support group site, but I was worried the IP address would give me away. Someone would figure it out. I closed the site and never looked at it again.
And so, for the most part, we kept quiet. A few close friends were on a “need to know” basis. There was a crisis, or there was an awkward social connection, and we agreed, “Shit we need to tell them.” And so we did, cringing, hoping they wouldn’t judge too harshly.
No one ever did.
And then one sunny summer afternoon, the secret a few years old, I received a tearful and entirely surprising phone call. The news shocked me. And yet I was able to inhale deeply and say, “Me too. I get it.” The relief in the voice on the other end of the phone was profound. We had solidarity now, we two survivors of deeply imperfect marriages.
Six months later, over coffee with a friend, I said it again. “Me too. I get it.”
I was met with the same shock, the same surprise, the same solidarity.
And with this: “But you guys? Not you guys. You’re like the perfect couple.”
And that, right there, is when I began to consider this ridiculous idea of writing it all down.
Because there are no perfect couples, and zero perfect marriages in the history of the world. There are only flawed marriages composed of flawed people. The best you can hope for is that deep down, you and that other deeply flawed person really like each other. And in the moments when you don’t really like them, you need to love them until you start liking them again.
The morning after he told me, I sent Jake a short text: I refuse to let this define us.
(But maybe in five years I’ll create a blog devoted to talking about it? Oh, yes, I see the irony.)
It still doesn’t define us. But it shaped us.
A funny thing happened, after my first post on the subject. My expectations and goals in writing about it were two-fold. First, I wanted to take control of the story – to share on my terms and shed the burden of “what if someone finds out.” Second, I wanted to create safe space where others who had shared my experience – that is, those who had been cheated on – could find solidarity, understanding, and healing.
In the week after I first posted, I received several deeply personal, heartfelt messages.
Most of them weren’t from people who had been cheated on.
Most were from people who had cheated.
Some had told, some hadn’t. Some had stayed married, others had split up. Many had childhood trauma, though not all. Many were in what outsiders looking in considered a perfect relationship.
What I learned was that we were not so different. Over and over, I found myself saying, yet again, “Me too.”
Once or twice a week, I remember: Everybody knows now, and I have a moment of panic. Who does that? And why? What was I thinking?
It’s Jake (of course) who brings me back. “Because,” he says, “if you hadn’t, then it would still be a secret.”
And we would be another polished, sanitized version of ourselves, a fairytale couple who never struggled to stay together, never wonders if the choice was the right one, never wrestles with the idea of choosing each other daily.
That couple doesn’t even exist, unless they just got married this past weekend.
You guys: We have to start saying marriage is hard. We have to start admitting it isn’t fun all the time, but that it can still be so, so good. We have to own that a strong marriage between two dedicated people can withstand a whole lot of pain. Because that is inspiring and encouraging. That is aspirational.
That is a story that deserves to be told.
They won’t tell you this in training, but you never forget their eyes.
They don’t tell you, because knowing their eyes so well is not a touchy-feely, warm and loving, soul-connecting experience. In the moment, you are checking for dilation, responsiveness to light. You are looking for a glassy sheen, hoping you don’t find one. You are screening, assessing, holding your breath to see if this thing we call recovery has truly taken root.
When they leave, you hope that the next time they come in, their eyes will be just as clear.
But when the text comes, late at night, or when the obituary unexpectedly slips into your newsfeed, early in the morning, it’s their eyes you remember. When the prayer request is shared on a Sunday morning, marking the passing of the nephew of a sister’s coworker or some equally removed relationship, it’s unethical to walk up after the service and say, “I knew him. He was funny; he made me laugh. I am sorry.” You can’t say that, so you sit in the pew, and you remember their eyes. His were hazel, with a hint of green. Hers were naturally bright and cheerful, beautiful and deep.
You wonder who found them, how long each relapse lasted. The obituaries, even the news articles, they don’t tell you the pieces of the story you really want to know.
They tell you only one thing: That no one is safe, that this substance will take and it will steal and it will kill. That it robs our community of energetic spirits, compassionate hearts, and beautiful voices.
Another day, reading another obituary, I sighed and said, “He was so nice.” Jake glanced at the photo and said, “That guy tried to punch me.” I met the guy when he was in early recovery; Jake encountered him when he was dope sick.
It is the contrast in our memories that proves the point: Heroin changes a person, long before it kills them.
Heroin isn’t a problem just because our privileged middle-class kids might step on a contaminated needle at a playground. It’s not a problem just because it’s burning out our first responders and filling up our emergency rooms. It’s not a problem just because it’s sapping our community resources. Middle class America, heroin is not a problem just because of all the ways it bothers you.
But it is a problem because of what and whom it takes from all of us, long before breathing slows and hearts quit beating.
With every use an addict knowingly assumes the risk of death. Most of those who die, already know it might happen. So why don’t they stop?, the pundits want to know. The corners of the internet go wild with judgment every time there’s an overdose, solving problems with a few key strokes in a comfy living room. Just don’t do it, if it’s going to kill you. Just don’t stick the needle in your arm, idiot.
If “they should just stop” is your solution, you are missing the entire fucking point of this epidemic.
Before death happens, there’s a bigger risk. No, not a risk, there’s a guarantee: Because whether it kills or it doesn’t, heroin is going to cause a spiritual and emotional coma that makes death seem just fine. No big deal. Maybe a little inviting.
They don’t stop using even when they know it could kill them, because they do not care.
They do not care, because their brains are chemically hijacked, gripped by a substance that makes them not care.
Sometimes, I have the chance to know them when that grip is loosened, and I get to witness their passion for being alive. They love life as much as you do.
More importantly, they matter as much as you do.
The needle your child finds on the playground won’t tell you this. A mug shot will not tell you this, posted at the top of another article about a bust. The mug shot will show you only hollow, empty eyes, blemished skin and a malnourished frame. The mug shot will show you an addict in their hostile, apathetic, spiritual coma state, when they do things like steal and lie and cheat and try to punch my husband.
When you lurk in your living room tempted to post your easy-peasy, compassionless solutions to the epidemic, please don’t think of the people in mug shots and evaluate their moral failings. It’s not the people in the mug shots we’re trying to save anyway.
Rather, before you even begin to suggest a solution, imagine the addict in that mug shot free from the mask heroin has them wearing: Picture them with their eyes bright and their skin clear, their voices strong. Better yet, close the tab with the mug shot, and listen to the song above instead. We cannot talk solutions if we don't understand what (and whom) we are losing.
Some days I think I run for the conviction.
It doesn’t start that way. When I start, it’s to alleviate the restlessness, to quiet the noise in my head. On a low day, it’s purely for the endorphins.
But inevitably, when the noise quiets, and I am left with nothing but myself, sweaty and stinky and out of breath, there is a bit of space for a voice other than my own.
Sometimes it’s a whisper out of nowhere, an idea without an obvious source. Sometimes it seems to come from rustling in the trees or it rides on a rare and welcome breeze through the city streets.
Sometimes it comes from a few lines of Florence and the Machine through my headphones.
Hey, look up
You don't have to be a ghost
Hidden amongst the living
You are flesh and blood
And you deserve to be loved
And you deserve what you are given
Deserving. Ha, yeah, right.
We've been fighting this week, a little more than usual. Two nights ago we said cold, courtesy "I love you"s and I went to sleep curled up in a ball of self-loathing. I never know when to shut up. God I am such a bitch. What is my problem.
Last night we were headed for it again. And then, almost imperceptibly, something shifted. One of us softened, or maybe we both did. And Jake asked, What happened to you, that you do this to yourself? He knows, and I know, it predates anything that happened between us. I’ve been this way for as long as we’ve known each other.
But last night, to my own surprise and through intermittent tears, I was able to answer him. I told him that, however subconsciously, I believe that my worth is dependent on achievement. That to deserve his love, or anyone else’s, I need to be smarter, nicer, prettier, stronger, thinner, and generally just better.
Years ago, when Jake told me he had cheated, it reinforced every false belief I already held. It must have happened because I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t thin enough. I wasn’t fun enough.
I must have deserved it.
And now that things are good, I had better keep achieving or improving, or all this could go away again.
And by that I mean, if I don’t keep up the ruse that I have it together, it’s all going to crumble, any second now.
I caught my reflection this morning, running along with Florence’s words in my head. A strong-looking woman. Good posture. Decent stride.
Must be a weird curve in the window, I thought. Optical illusion.
That couldn’t possibly be what I look like, because I am just not that good at this.
“Four kids?” people say. “You look amazing.”
I smile, I say thank you, and I think, You haven’t seen me in a bathing suit. You haven’t seen me naked. You’re only complimenting me because you don’t know what I really look like.
I spend my work hours telling clients they are deserving of love. That their worth is innate, irrevocably tied to their humanity. I remind them we don’t need to earn love, we just need to accept it. I tell them shame is a liar and that we need to have compassion for ourselves. I remind them we need to see ourselves for how wonderful we are.
Jake said, “You need to find a way to work on this.”
I responded, “What do you want me to do, use some bullshit hippie affirmations or something?”
In my inner world, there is no such thing as enough. There is no smart enough or pretty enough or thin enough or strong enough or fast enough. There is no good enough. Even though I know there should be. In my inner world, I am not so wonderful.
So what, my choice, right? If I want to make myself miserable with such an outlook, so be it.
Except, every time I choose this viewpoint, I’m slapping God in the face.
My entire belief system, my entire relationship with a Higher Power – the pieces of the relationship that are intact, anyway – hinges on an understanding that love is not earned, because it is by nature un-earnable. That mercy and grace are the only way, our one remaining option for connecting with a Being greater than ourselves.
If I have not love, I am nothing.
When I allow myself to be convinced that I can earn love – when I believe that my worth is tied to achieving this elusive “enough-ness” – I am living in defiance of my Creator. I’m blatantly contradicting the Source of every ounce of love I’ve ever given or experienced.
Traditional evangelicalism would call this sin.
Because it’s an entirely cocky and self-centered mindset, to think that somehow I can earn the love and affection of the Creator of the universe.
High stakes. Geeze, don’t screw it up.
But, that’s totally okay, because I already have it. I get to be loved and connected if I’m smart and strong and pretty, or if I’m dumb and weak and ugly. Or, as is the case most days, if I am a confused and jumbled ball of all of the above.
In marriage, I used to think I was committing to love him even if there were moments a part of me found him dumb or weak or ugly. Or at least, you know, kind of annoying.
And yeah, maybe that’s a part of it, staying by someone’s side when they piss you off.
But even more, it’s a willingness to accept from another human being the kind of love we get from God – arguably, the only kind of real love that exists. It’s letting someone see you as more than dumb and weak and ugly, even when you can’t see it in yourself. It’s accepting love you haven’t earned, and choosing to believe you deserve it anyway. It’s being loved by somebody who knows how you really think and what you really look like.
It’s a willingness to become, undeservedly, the Beloved.
There is one (no bullshit, non-hippie) affirmation I love. It’s arguably trite. You probably already know it. But consider it again anyway.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God."
I used to read this passage as a comfort. Today, I read it as a challenge. If I believe myself to be a created being, if I believe it’s possible to personally connect with One who is greater than I am, I don’t get to have a negative view of myself. It’s contradictory and illogical. It’s self-centered and damaging. Who am I, Who gave me the right, to see myself in such a negative manner? Nobody.
To do so defies the gift of grace.
Because grace says I will never be enough alone, but that I’m more than enough already.
“I need to talk to you.” My voice is tense; my expression somewhere between a smirk and a prelude to a sob. A little of both, honestly.
He follows me around the corner, out of view of the kids. I am standing on the stairs in our old house, two steps up from him. Looking down at his face, I show him the test.
I hadn’t even bothered to tell him my suspicions – I was taking the test to put my mind at ease. Just to rule out the possibility.
I move down one step, until we are eye level, and lean into to him. He kisses me lightly. “We’ll figure it out.”
Two weeks later, it’s his turn to surprise me with unexpected news.
His news has less potential for joy. My reaction is less reassuring. But in the end, I let him lean into me. I kiss him lightly. I promise him we’ll figure it out.
Before that, though, between bouts of crying, my whisper is like a knife, and I know just how deeply it will cut a man like him. I don’t care; I say it anyway. “This poor baby.” He sobs.
The months that follow . . . I’ve never been able to describe them. They are horrible and they are wonderful. I scream at him, I hit him more than once. I cry with him and I hold him. In between, we raise two precocious children. I slump through cardiac function lectures and battle nausea through two semesters of nursing clinicals as my scrubs get tighter; he puts on a badge and gun each day and trudges through police work he hates. We see an elderly marriage counselor who is gentle, kind, and going deaf – or perhaps he pretends to be – and makes me repeat the sad, painful things I murmur about trust issues and forgiveness.
And yet, we are close to each other, somehow, maybe closer than we have ever been. The invisible walls we have built between us every day for over ten years have crumbled at our feet, leaving dust no one else can see.
I wonder, every so often, what impact my grief process is having on the baby. Around 20 weeks I break out in terrible hives with no explanation. For months I have a disturbing amount of spotting. But at every midwife checkup she is growing well and appears to be thriving. So I don’t bother to mention my increasingly intrusive thoughts and frequent panic attacks.
Jake’s walls are broken down, I guess. Maybe mine are still up.
Until a Thursday morning, two months before my due date, when Rowan decides she has had enough.
At 11 am I feel off. I should be alarmed by how much I’m bleeding, but I saw the midwife only two days before and she doesn’t seem worried. At least, she didn’t then.
I spend the afternoon drinking water and lying on the couch. Maybe it will stop. I don’t bother to tell Jake at work. No need to alarm him. I pull up the pregnancy tracker on my phone and start timing contractions, which feels a little silly when I know my baby isn’t coming for another two months. After about 20 minutes I hit the button for “get results.”
My phone lights up. “Congratulations, you’re in transition! Your baby is almost here!”
I call the midwife, and I call my husband. No rush, I say, but meet me at the hospital when you can. I drop the kids off at my parents’ house and tell them, It’s probably nothing. I’ll be back soon.
I know it isn’t transition.
And it isn’t. I’m less than 2 cm dilated when they do the ultrasound. They bring me upstairs and put me on the monitors for a little while, just to check on things. Maybe they’ll keep me overnight, maybe not. I have a history of uncomplicated pregnancies, after all.
Four hours later, there she is, 15 inches long, weighing in at 3 pounds, 13 ounces. Four years ago tonight, that’s where we are.
Jake and I confessed to each other afterward, we were both afraid of her birth. Not when we knew I was in labor – not when being scared was the obvious choice – but in the months that led up to it. I didn’t know whether, when I really needed him, I would turn to him, or turn away. He didn’t know either.
But when it happened he held my hand, and I leaned into him, just like I had for our other babies. Somewhere in between the pain of the labor and the fear for my too-soon baby, I found reassurance in this. Whatever happened to her, we would be okay. We would be together.
The moment she is out she cries. So do we, sobbing with our foreheads pressed together, relieved about all of it. Miraculous, it feels, that all three of our hearts are still beating.
They let me hold her, briefly, before they transport her to the NICU in the next city. Jake follows in his car. I shower alone, and wait for the ambulance that will bring me to her. While I wait, I imagine Jake and the NICU ambulance have crashed and my husband and baby have both died in the wreck.
Riding in the ambulance they've called for me, I email a colleague from my days as a childbirth educator, the head of the perinatal mood disorder taskforce on which I served. I ask her to recommend a therapist. Because relieved as I am to have a breathing baby and an intact marriage, even then I know, this is going to get rough.
I don’t schedule an appointment right away. Life becomes a blur of driving to the NICU and back, of trying to explain things to the older kids, of waiting, and waiting, and waiting for her to grow, all seen through the milky, sleepy haze that comes from spending every two hours attached to a hospital grade breast pump. It isn’t until two months later, when seething rage creeps in, when I want to break everything, all the time, that I realize I need to see someone.
So I make an appointment, and bring Rowan with me, and tell my therapist I think I have postpartum anxiety. Oh, and also a traumatic birth. Oh, and also infidelity. I tell her that between everything that’s happened in a year, I can’t shake the feeling of impending doom.
But even as I speak it, finally, my voice breaking, my baby looks up at me and smiles. And I smile back.
Because of Rowan, even my memories of picking up the pieces are brighter.
People say about Rowan, not infrequently, that she brings joy. Personally, she reminds me of sunshine.
When our friends and family get together later this week to celebrate her birthday, they’ll celebrate her cheerful nature, her quick smile, her friendly, feisty demeanor. We will, too.
But even more, when we celebrate Rowan, we’re celebrating our family. We’re celebrating that in the year she came into existence, difficult, crazy, chaotic year that it was, we held on to each other. There are days when I think we held on to each other because of her.
Rowan is my daily reminder to be blessed by circumstances unexpected, and even, maybe, by circumstances unwanted.
She is the baby who changed everything. And in changing it all, she taught me to find joy.
Happy birthday, sweet girl.