Just One Picture

Can a person who is hurting and living with grief still laugh and feel joyful? Absolutely. Can that person cry and feel like never getting out of bed again? Absolutely.

Why is it that it’s encouraged and supported to relive and carry with us “good” memories but we are quietly (or not so quietly) nudged to let go and move on from the “bad” ones.

Take pictures of that awesome vacation and the hikes and the milestones that everyone is smiling at. Remember those times in your life blah blah blah.

But grief…loss…death? Oh dear, it’s bad to hold onto that. Don’t dwell on it. Let it go and move on with your life. Don’t let that shape how you see life now. Put it behind you and live your life.

Well guess what? All of those amazing experiences and those happy times are inside of me and helped make me who I am today – and so are all of the not so happy times in my life. Joy and hurt can exist in the same body and mind. At the same time.

Why is it ok for me to talk about a great family vacation and laugh as I remember the ridiculous events and the fun, but when I talk about how it felt to leave my son behind in an emergency psych unit, I get told that bringing it up will just make the grief last longer? Life is made up of laughter AND tears. Trust me on this one, not feeling hurt doesn’t mean that all you feel is joy. If you have lost – or pushed away – the ability to feel hurt, than what’s left is not just joy. It’s apathy and emptiness. As bad as grief can be and as badly as it can hurt, I’ll keep letting myself feel it because it means that I can also feel the swing side of it. There was too long after Willie died that I was numb. I’ve learned over the last two years that starting to feel “good” things again – happiness, love, sensuality and silliness – meant letting in the “bad” that I had been hiding away. I can’t move forward without bringing it all  with me.

Like a picture that hangs on the wall, grief is just there in my life. It isn’t the only picture on my wall and it isn’t all that my life is, like it was at first, but I know now that it will always be there.

It’s always present but I don’t always look at it or even really see it sometimes. Some days I go by and barely notice it. Other days, it’s all I can see on that wall. Its presence doesn’t affect what goes on in the room though. There are days that I cry and rage and scream there. There are other days that I laugh and make love and giggle in that room. Some days the room is quiet and mellow while some days the noise can be deafening.

My life is like that room. So much more than just one picture among the many that adorn its walls. It’s a combination of everything that’s there and all the things that will be brought in still as I experience and live my life. There’s always room for more.

Adding on and growing and with every new addition, it changes and becomes…. and is Life.

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Sometimes it’s laughter and not tears

A gathering lately of friends -people who are, oddly, not necessarily closely connected yet are also,more close than can be explained. Tribe. Family. A weekend that words don’t really do justice.

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Words that still elude me trying to bring essence to the awareness of my experience. A soft knowing that happened in a moment when a smile broke out instead of tears. When I knew that, at that moment, healing meant laughter and silliness and the elation of flying and sharing space with a few amazing women. An oddly secluded and intimate space of time, safe, secure, simple and easy and just… yes. No words. Just feeling.

Feeling that in welcoming joy in, it wasn’t going to be with tears and pain. The wind blowing in my hair and ruffling my skirt around my legs as I giggled and joked and connected – with my Self – and more importantly with the people who I was blessed to be with during that time. The wind and the sunshine, the calmness and the joy in the women with me, the water, the trees, the dirt, the rock that brought me back to my senses even, all of it bringing feeling back.

Words try, but they can’t tell what has to be felt and seen with the heart instead of the mind. Sometimes it takes something so deeply in your body to take you so deeply out of it.

What grief takes

Grief takes a lot. It steals away parts of who you are in a way that few things can. The heaviness of loss buries parts of me so deeply now that I am starting to wonder if they will ever see the light of day again.

I miss the lightness of being that I used to experience. The feelings of freedom that used to be a part of my Self. Peace of mind … a term that I never really thought about until recently. I miss that. I have always been someone who feels everything deeply and, at times, harshly. I internalize a lot and always have. Yet, as much as there has always been things that sat heavy with me, that also meant that I felt the highs just as much. Grief, and the depression born from it, has left me wondering if the ease I rarely feel now is always going to be this elusive.

Years ago, when I was teaching Yoga and fitness classes, when I was in a marriage that was falling slowly apart and I felt I was suffocating under the stress and transitory hell, I used to find peace in movement. I would stay after my last class of the day… it was 9:30 at night by the time the last of the people would be gone and I had the studio to myself. The rest of the recreation centre was almost empty… just the few lifeguards left and building workers. I knew I had until pm when they would come to close up and kick me out. That was my time for my freedom and my time to fly.

Sometimes during those times, I would turn off all the lights in the studio except for the dimmed recessed lights…press play on the drum-heavy, beat driven music that made my spirit move … turn up the volume until I could feel the vibrations… close my eyes…breathe…and fly… I would dance and move, my worries would fall away, the stress would pour out of me like the sweat that ran off my body. I would push myself or let myself go as I felt I needed. Sometimes tears would come or smiles, whatever needed to come out, would. Panting and exhausted, I would slow and eventually find my way to the floor… stretching and feeling the peace as the music still pounded in my body. The calmness inside, powerful and soft all at once.

Other times I would move and flow in vinyasa. Either rhythmic primal beats of music or utter silence depending on my mind… Yoga to unite and bring ease to both my mind and my body in a different way than the dance did. This dance different…fluid and soft with edges of strength and stamina…endurance in both flexibility and ability. Feeling my muscles as they supported and held my body is gruelling postures, the strength resonating from the inside out. Embracing the softness of muscles as they found release and ease in the yin as I sought and found that opposite shore of my practice.

Both opposing rituals brought me the same calming. The same lightness that I needed to be able to balance the heaviness in my life.
I look back to the last three years and find a handful of moments that I’ve experienced that, within them, I have found that freedom. Only a handful. Fleeting and so loosely grasped. Gone so quickly and so spontaneously found. Enough though… enough to let me see, when I really look at them, that the ability to feel that is still there.

Grief clouds and eclipses so much, and hope is a casualty of it that still manages to hold on… however tenuously.

Good enough isn’t good enough

There comes a time in life when you look around and take stock and have to be honest with what and where you are.

Birthdays are that for me. Having just had one, it’s was a time to reflect and analyse.

I’ve had a life that was, at times, nasty and rough and hell to wake up to. This same life has had moments that took my breath away, times that I simply could not have been any happier without bursting was how I felt. Lots of times of just middle of the road “ok” as well. We all have. I know what it’s like to be miserable and unhappy in the truest meaning of those words. I count my blessings that my life is pretty good now. I have a lot to be thankful for – and I am.

So what’s worse than “bad”? It’s becoming complacent with less than what you really want. Becoming accepting and tolerant of the unacceptable.

So I asked myself what’s so unacceptable in my life? Settling. Not going hard for what I want. What I desire. Having dreams and goals and not making them happen.

I’m tired of listening to my Self desire and to seeing my Self no further towards the realization of that.

It’s easier to look around and say “it’s pretty good”. My son said to me the other day that he wonders who he thinks he is to feel that he should have it better than other people… That made me reply swiftly that not just him, but everyone, deserves – seriously deserves – the best and to have dreams and goals come to fruition. Then I had to sit back and wonder why I wasn’t necessarily living that sentiment myself.

I have been, for a couple of years now, allowing myself to start to grieve the death of my dreams as I get older. Shelving some aspirations as unrealistic or unachievable. Telling myself to stop dreaming and smarten up and just enjoy what I have and not desire anything else. There’s always something that comes up and demands energy and focus… and I allow that “something” to be not Me. I allow that “something” to take that focus and energy in entirety…leaving nothing for me to draw from to make happen what I want to happen.

I get slightly infuriated with myself when I take time to look at where I am with regards to achievements. Knowing that I am the only reason why I haven’t progressed further. Time to change that.

I look at travel options and lifestyle choices and I ponder and I think “one day” or “maybe” to things that I want, things that speak to me living my truths. Then I face the “why not?” … and the only answer is for me to get off my ass and make it all happen. No more waiting, no more “one day”. We all have a finite number of days and we don’t usually know what that magic number of them is, so….

Good enough isn’t good enough anymore. A nice life is nice…but I want one that sweeps me off my feet and leaves me breathless and grinning and saying “again!”. It’s my life, time to craft it, nurture it and make it that way.

We all deal differently

We all deal with things differently. Going through the death of my son has shown me that in so many ways.

I was at a conference recently where I saw and reconnected with people who I haven’t seen in a long time. Some of them were colleagues that I haven’t seen in a year or two; not since I moved away in summer 2012.

After the death of my son, I never really went back to my job. I did briefly but it was a disaster. People not sure what to say to me or how to act around me. On my part, I was trying to be “ok” and not at all pulling that off. After a couple of miserable attempts at getting back to “normal” I made the decision to not return. So the end result was that I basically fell off the grid to most of the people who I had known for the last 20 years or so.

Coming face to face with a few of them last year at another conference was hard. It was 2013 and it was my first time back since I had moved. I spent that conference ducking most people. The first hour I was on site I ran into a couple of people. With one, I burst into tears as soon as I saw him and had a hell of a time regrouping myself; the other turned and almost tripped over herself trying to take off in the other direction and pretend we hadn’t made eye contact.
Needless to say, I spent the rest of that weekend with my head down, going from session to session as isolated as I could and getting off site as fast as possible at the end. Not exactly a great experience.

This year, very different, and interestingly so. A lot of healing and change has happened in the past year in me. Also, I was open to just let it come as it would this year.

I spent the first couple of hours this year very similar to last. I saw a number of colleagues and past friends in the first hour or so…and avoided them. Quickly changing direction to move to a different hallway… shifting my glance and making like I hadn’t seen them when I saw them turn towards me. For the most part, it worked. They were all ok with not coming in contact with me as well. Then the unavoidable happened. I walked almost face into one of my previous staff. No avoiding this and we both stared and said hello. Awkward chatter ensued and he seemed relieved when I said I was going a different way and would see him later. But the seal had been cut. I had done it. I had spoken to someone and I was ok.

It got easier after that…and a funny thing happened. I found that I started seeing that everyone deals differently indeed. Some people who I had known very well, who I would consider very close, were surprisingly distant and vague with me. Lots of chit-chat and “how are you” but very superficial and almost cold. It was apparent that it was a “please don’t tell me how you really have been… I don’t want to/can’t handle hearing the real honest answer”. So they got the standard reply of “doing good” and that’s that. Some mindless talk about catching up with who’s still working where etc and we would hug and say how great it was to see each other again and move on. This went on again and again with lots of people throughout the weekend.
On encounter in particular thought made me notice how different people are though… and how you can’t tell how someone is going to be.

A colleague who I hadn’t worked with in years but who I had known for a long time before that saw me across the entry area. I thought this would be a quick hello and great to see you and I’d be on my way. Her and I had been friends and work companions for almost 10 years at one point but we were never really close. I was stunned when she hugged me and asked, very plainly, how I was doing… saying in the same breath “I’ve been worried about you, losing Willie must have been horrible. I don’t know how you got through it”. Bang, right out there. No tiptoeing about or sad faces while she did the “how are you?”. Just a straight forward acknowledgement that life had dealt a shitty blow and there’s no point putting it any other way. It took me by surprise but also was a breath of fresh air. And a funny thing occurred. I answered her, openly and honestly. I teared up and wiped them away and kept talking through it… and it was all ok. We wound up walking and talking for almost half an hour until the next session. She was someone I ended up spending a few breaks and a lunch with that weekend, with other people too, but also alone and catching up.

She gave me the gift of seeing that the grief and the pain and what happened is just simply there. Not to hide from other people or to pretend it never happened. It’s just there. And it’s ok if it’s uncomfortable or if it hurts. Life’s like that. She talked about her son’s struggle with depression and how he’s doing ok now. Just simple, open conversation. Refreshing. And needed.

I needed to see that some people will run, some will mask it and pretend everything is how it was, and some will face me head on and openly. It’s all ok, not one is good or bad, no right or wrong, just unique.

No one can tell me how to grieve… and no one can tell anyone else how to react to someone grieving. We all deal, differently

The Answer

I’ve been in a place in my life lately where I have been seeking and feeling very unsettled. It seems to be going around. I have a few friends who have been struggling with some significant decisions as well. Lots of questioning and soul searching has been happening.

With some, it’s a matter of choices. There are clear and laid out options. This or that, or maybe a few this and thats but essentially, the options are known. The talks and texts…the coffee dates and the walks… all connecting and trying to come to some sort of place of knowing, really knowing what is the “right” decision to make. Weighing all the pros and cons and talking it over for hours. Calculating out and projecting and trying to make rational and logical decisions over matters of the heart and spirit. What it inevitably comes down to is what “feels” right. What does your gut say? What sits right in your heart?

At the end of it all, when you take the chatter and the lists and the scales of option a or b away… you’re left with the truth. The scary truth that we avoid with a vengeance.

The truth is, we each know the answers we are searching for. We know the answer even before we’ve let ourselves pose the question; because, by the time we start to question, the answer has been found inside already. The question is our mind and hearts way of bringing us to that answer. Sometimes it takes a little longer and sometimes we have false starts and we pick the other option that we know, deep down, isn’t “right”. But the fact is that even then, it is right. For that time. Because it wasn’t the right time yet to make the choice we need to make. But we find our way eventually. We always will, if we look inside and listen. That’s where the answer is. Always has been, always will be.

The place I have found myself in is a bit different. There’s no way to listen to the answer because I’m stuck with my Self not being able to bring through the question yet. Just unsettled and knowing that there’s a maelstrom brewing underneath. A change needed, a time of growth is here and a direction needs to be seen. Some answers have already been discovered and they feel right. But there’s more. Not sure exactly what or how or where but a calmness is inside, knowing that the answers I look for are waiting for me to find them. And I will.

How far we’ve come? I think not.

I’ve had this blog bouncing about in my head for the last week or so and have been so emotional and upset that It’s been “stuck”. Let’s see if I can shake it loose… settle in, this is a long read …

Mental health and how we handle it in the workplace is something that I have lived with for a while now. Personally, it started back when Willie became ill and I found that I had no idea what to say when people asked how things were going. So I didn’t say anything. I went through months of hell while we struggled privately as a family to try to get Willie help and later, to try to keep him here and stop him from the suicidal thoughts that plagued him.

No one knew except for my very close colleagues who were also my friends. I shuffled my schedule around and had the blessings to have understanding people who supported me and helped me to be where I needed to be. They accepted that there were days that I was in the bathroom crying more than I was at the desk… and I am grateful for them.

When Willie died, it was many weeks before I went back to work. When I did, it was beyond what I could face. The silence and the looks. The hesitancy of anyone to even acknowledge because no one knew what to say. I finally elected to leave my job that I loved. I felt unable to explain what happened if someone did ask.

Flip to a year later and I am in a new city with a new job that I love and I find myself spiralling down quickly. Grief has turned into a depression that had me barely able to make it to work every day before getting home to fall onto the couch and not move until the next morning. Day after day of struggling to not make the same choice that Willie did. The pain more than I wanted to feel. The cutting started to try to stem the thoughts that I was having to do worse and more final things to myself. Eating and sleeping were almost non-existent. I finally went to my doctor and shared how I was feeling and what I was doing. I was terrified and ashamed and the only reason I did that was because of how scared I was of what I might do to myself. There was still a part of me that was not wanting to be gone.
I was lucky, my doctor saw the crisis and before I got home that day I had an appointment made with an urgent intervention center.

What followed was a year of counselling and eventually medication for a short-term to help with severe depression. Throughout it all, I functioned at my job. Barely. Looking back, I don’t know how really. My psychiatrist suggested and strongly encouraged me to take time off, that he felt I needed to for my own safety and to be able to focus on getting well. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I would explain again and again that, as the manager at my office, I would be jeopardizing my job to go in and explain and admit that I wasn’t “ok”. Why? Because the admittance that I’m not well – mentally and emotionally – still carries a very real and large potential to threaten job security. I’m not stupid, I know that we have laws now that say you can’t be fired for that reason. I’m also not stupid and know that companies have ways around labour laws. A drop in job performance, an unacceptable increase in sick days… there are many ways that depression and mental illness can affect you that you can be fired for. My psychiatrist finally convinced me to talk to my supervisor and explain that I was under care for depression and that I was getting help. His reasoning was that if there was a record that I had been open about it, then it was better than trying to hide it and ending up being fired for performance issues and then trying to save my job by divulging the depression.
My company was understanding and supportive but certainly not overly so. I was told that I had holiday days and could use them as needed for days when I wasn’t well enough to come in. And that was that. I regretted immediately saying anything as the “feel” was different from the words of support.
Time went on and I slogged through. Months have passed now and I function. I still have bad days and days that I just can’t make it in. Days that I have a “migraine” or am “just under the weather”. Wonderful euphemisms.

Which brings me to where I am now with a work situation.

A practitioner at work has been slipping in performance for many months now. Without going into details, it has been apparent that job duties have been lacking and it has seriously affected her performance to the point that it was impacting other practitioners and something had to be done. Repeated meetings and deadline for improvement were met with seeming disregard and a lack of respect. Deadline after deadline passed and finally I set up a meeting to discuss termination. It was at that meeting that she finally told me, in sobs so hard I couldn’t understand her even, that she was struggling with a depression so bad she was seeing medical help and had been advised to take a leave of absence. She explained that this had happened years before and she had pushed through and ended up being hospitalized for her own safety and that this time, she was trying to avoid that. She was apologetic… she was exhausted and she couldn’t hide it anymore. I assured her that her job was safe, she could take a medical leave of absence and when ready to return, we would work that out. Her relief was amazing and I left that meeting drained and emotional, feeling both glad that she finally came to me and told me but also sad that she held it in for so long out of fear of not wanting to admit that she “wasn’t strong enough to be ok” (her words).

So here’s where the issues come up. I have been stunned and shocked by the reactions and responses to this situation at work. I had really thought that we, as a society and as compassionate people, had come farther… but apparently not.

One staff member in particular who is privy to the fact that it is a medical leave due to mental health issues shared this info with just about everyone in the office. I had explained it as a “personal medical leave of absence” but office gossip travels faster than wildfire and by the time I talked to the last person I had to, they already had heard.

Here are some of the reactions;
“You know what her problem is, she’s single. Too much time to think. She needs a social life then she’d be fine”
“What she really needs to do is just hunker down and focus and stop dwelling on being sad. What does she have to be sad about anyways?”
“It’s not like there’s anything actually wrong with her. She’s not sick, she’s depressed. Nothing a walk around the block and some change in attitude won’t fix”

These are well-educated people who work in the paramedical field. People who are nice and caring and considerate people. Yet the prevailing sense is that with mental health, it’s not a “real” medical issue. It is, quite simply, all in her head and she should be able to get over it.

The matter worsened for me when I went to advise my supervisor of the development. What I thought would be a simple act of me reporting and letting her know that the other practitioners would cover her hours and that it was all taken care of turned into a nightmare meeting.
I was advised to terminate her contract. Immediately and to replace her. When I explained that wasn’t appropriate I was given clear direction that she had given us just cause by not fulfilling her job duties (she’s a contractor, not an employee) and that we could, at any time, for no cause even, chose to terminate her contract. Again, I reiterated that letting her go because she is taking a leave for mental health issues is morally and ethically wrong.
I was advised that she was a liability now. That she has shown herself to be unreliable and that we can’t be sure this won’t happen again.
I argued that if she had come to us and said that she needed a leave of absence for a physical medical reason like cancer that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The response was that was true, but mental illness affects her ability to perform her job in a way that a physical ailment wouldn’t. That we can’t risk someone who is “unstable”.

I am mad and I am more sad than anything else in some ways because the truth is that we, as a society, haven’t come anywhere near as far as we celebrate. Even myself today, working from home because I couldn’t bounce back from the night of tears and depression last night… I didn’t feel that I could say I was having an emotional day and needed self-care. Why? For all the reasons already shown to me. It would make me appear unstable and unreliable and a liability. That my ability to do my job would be questioned. All because it’s mental health and not a physical ailment that afflicts.

So let’s stop patting our collective selves on the back for all the gains and see things for how they really are.
As a note, the practitioner still has her contract and is not being replaced. I am, after all, the manager and I’m sticking to the fact that it hasn’t to start somewhere if we’re going to change this. She’s taking time off to heal and will be welcome when she is ready to return.