Regrets, I’ve Had a Few

small father day

The week of Father’s Day 2007, my dad asked if I’d come with him to a church he’d been visiting, and then to our scheduled lunch. At the time, I was teaching Sunday school at a different church. I could have gotten someone to cover for me so I could join my dad, but frankly I just wanted to stick to our original plan. So, I told him I was sorry but I couldn’t meet up any earlier.

We spent a wonderful Father’s Day afternoon together.

Two months later, and in shock, I walked through the doors of that church to plan dad’s funeral.

At the end of our time together, the minister handed me a church newsletter. There was my dad’s smiling face, front and center on the back page. He’d decided to join the church on Father’s Day.

It was a gut punch. All I could think about when I saw that picture was that he’d been alone on a morning he was excited to celebrate. He’d stood by himself at the altar as the congregation welcomed him. He’d posed by himself for the church’s family photo. And he kept it to himself when we met up that afternoon. That’s maybe what broke my heart the most.

Someone once told me that when a loved one dies, the biggest comfort was being flooded with beautiful memories of them.

My experience in those early days after his death was the opposite. I was immediately filled with regret. (I have no doubt part of this is some sort of maladaptive coping skill to distract from the all-consuming anguish.) My mind fixated on the times I’d let my phone go to voicemail when I saw dad was calling. Or the time my iPod died while on a flight home with him but I kept my headphones on because I just wasn’t in the mood to talk. I thought of the lunches I rushed through with him so I could get back to the office. I remembered times I’d disappointed him or hadn’t been honest with him.

I didn’t really feel like I could talk about that ugly side to many people. I felt like it would expose me as a selfish daughter or as lacking faith. But I simply couldn’t stop those thoughts from gnawing at me.

Thankfully, a few months later, the grieving changed. And for most of the decade since he left this world, I’ve been flooded with those happy memories.

But Father’s Day, man … it’s a consistent sting. Every year (some less than others). There’s the pain of missing him. And grieving for a life he’s missed. But that’s also when these little regrets sneak their way back in, even if only for a day or two.

I know I’m not alone in this. So, if you’re in the same boat – particularly if this is your first Fatherless Father’s Day – I SEE YOU. And the sting doesn’t last long. My prayer for you is that this week floods you with beautiful memories. Or at the very least, a semblance of peace. That’s what our dads would have wanted.

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Change the Bulbs, Fix the Windows

Vintage electric lamps scenery with wooden planks

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” 
― Plato

On New Year’s Day I gave myself one assignment – change every burned-out light bulb in my house.

I’m a textbook ENFP, so rather than deal with chores, bills or preventative car maintenance for the rest of my life, I’d actually prefer you just punch me in the face. My ENFP leanings also mean that I’m wildly observant in some areas (I’ll obsess over your word choice and body language from that one conversation two weeks ago), but oblivious in others (oh, my car registration expired three months ago? Didn’t notice, I was too busy reading all the bumper stickers during my commute.).

This, coupled with my love for candles, lamps and open blinds, means a few missing overhead lights typically don’t bother me. I’m breezy! Adaptable! Once I actually notice the problem, I quickly convince myself I don’t have the tools I need to fix it right then. So I ignore it. (The high-tech missing tools? Uh, a new light bulb and a step-ladder.) But as I looked around my home the week of Christmas, I realized I didn’t just have one or two bad bulbs. I had seven of them.

Seven.

It’s not that I didn’t care about these burned-out bulbs. (I mean, obviously I didn’t, but that’s not the real reason I left them alone.) It’s that I hardly realized I wasn’t operating with all the light offered to me.

I wasn’t practicing what I preached.

You see, the lamp by my front door has a beautiful base, but I never really liked the lampshade. So a few months ago I covered it with lyrics and quotes about light. I love words and believe in their power, and I wanted everyone who entered my home to feel inspired when they walked in the door. I wanted them to feel that light. Meanwhile, the rest of my house was getting darker and darker and I just looked to more and more quick fixes to brighten it up. More candles, more daylight. Or I let the room stay dark, lit only by the TV.

As I wandered from room to room, flipping switches, suddenly I no longer felt “breezy and adaptable.” I felt ashamed.

I was reminded of the (controversial) broken windows theory. The theory applies to policing and basically says that if a community tolerates petty crimes like broken windows, graffiti, public intoxication, etc., it becomes more vulnerable to larger crimes.

I looked around my house and noticed the other “broken windows.” A stack of unopened mail. An unmade bed. Coats with missing buttons. A refrigerator that needed cleaning.

Slippery slope. On the surface, none of those is a huge deal. But the more they build, the more out of control my life feels. The more that apathy for the small tasks grows into apathy and fear of the big tasks.

So I bought a ladder and eight light bulbs (one to grow on), and on New Year’s Day I flooded my home with light.

I’m not making resolutions this year. Instead, I’m just fixing the broken windows.

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When it’s not “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

bench, foggy winter day

Ten years ago, while grieving the sudden loss of my father, I decided to actively avoid the build-up leading to Christmas. Thanksgiving had nearly done me in, and I couldn’t handle an entire month of cheer accompanying another grief milestone.

My plan? Avoid the mall. Or any store that might play Christmas music. Only buy presents for my immediate family. No wrapping – just gift bags. Don’t open any mail that looked like a Christmas card. Don’t decorate. Definitely don’t watch any Christmas movies. And for the love, avoid any and all versions of “The Christmas Shoes” at all costs.

My plan worked for about a day. But then my coworkers started listening to Christmas music at their desks. I started receiving e-mails about holiday parties. The stores below my loft were decked out with tinsel and lights. Everyone else was leaning way in to the magic of the season, and I could hardly breathe. What was once my favorite time of year slowly but surely threatened to destroy me.

My grief and depression didn’t manifest itself as sadness. At least, not all the time. It mostly manifested itself as a blackout rage.

The month of December made me furious. For the first time in my life, it was not “the most wonderful time of the year.” It was a mirror, reflecting everything I’d lost.

Every gift from my secret Santa was a reminder that I had one less person to shop for. Every Christmas card a reminder that my family had a gaping hole that would never be filled. Every party was hours of torture, trying to appear festive and light while swimming in darkness. I hated it. Every minute of it.

For many of our friends and family, the holiday season will be the final highlight of a year that included unimaginable joy: a wedding, a birth, a promotion, an exciting new chapter in life. And for just as many, the new chapters are dark and sluggishly slow: an illness, a divorce, depression, grief, or death.

There are times when “leaning in” to the holidays really can help change your mindset. You fake holiday cheer long enough and eventually you experience the real thing. If that has worked for you, wonderful! I’ve done that, too, and I’ll honestly do quite a bit of that this year.

But for some of us, December will be the most painful month we’ve experienced in an already painful year. It will feel as if there’s nothing worth celebrating, and we’ll feel guilty for dragging others down. The contrast of joy around us and despair within us will be too confusing. Too bittersweet. Too devastating.

For some of us, this will be the one holiday season in our lives that we simply can’t handle. If that’s true for you or someone you love, my message is this: it’s okay to “lean out” this year.

• You don’t have to decorate your house or put up a tree.
• You don’t have to send holiday cards.
• You don’t have to accept any holiday party invitations.
• You don’t have to buy presents.
• You don’t have to honor family traditions.
• You don’t have to be festive and cheerful.
• You don’t have to succumb to the pressure to make the season magical for everyone else.

Your one job this year is to make it through the season.

Maybe that means December just looks like any other month. Maybe that means you only accept a few holiday invites instead of over-scheduling yourself. Maybe you forgo gift giving and instead volunteer your time. Maybe you reach out to someone else who is hurting, and you quietly acknowledge the season together. Maybe you schedule a vacation and spend the holidays in a new city. If you are religious, maybe this is the year you strip the season down to its origin.

It’s okay to simplify. It’s often crucial to simplify.

This holiday season might just be one painful struggle after another. And it’s okay to acknowledge that and operate accordingly.

It might not be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but you will get through it. And there will be the promise of a new year.

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How Running a Marathon Led Me Back Home to Writing

marathon

This will forever be one of my favorite pictures, taken minutes after crossing the finish line at the Nike Marathon in San Francisco on October 14, 2012. Physically, mentally and emotionally WRECKED. The culmination of a really hard journey to 26.2.

I mostly love it because that “other Laura” is starting to feel like a lifetime ago. I ran a little bit my senior year in high school, and in a stunning display of foolishness I took an 8am running class my first year at A&M. Then I took a break from running for the next decade.

I started running with my coworker when I was 29, hitting up the Katy Trail most week nights. I was approaching a milestone birthday, and I was very focused on my bucket list of things I should accomplish that were way out of my comfort zone. So I decided to run a half marathon. (Waaaay outside the comfort zone of the girl who always finished last in the timed mile runs at school.)

I discovered I loved the training, and I loved the running community. So I ran a handful of half marathons and decided to go for it when my coach suggested I train for a full marathon.

All of my mental, emotional, and physical focus went into training for this marathon. All I wanted to do was just finish – could care less about how long it took. (And it took a long time. Really long. Like, “watch Titanic twice” long.) Crossing the finish line, I experienced complete euphoria for completing the task I never thought I could complete.

Then, after the race, I really struggled with what was NEXT. My fellow runners crossed the finish line and immediately plotted their next marathon. I knew I’d not be joining them. I’d finished the race before me, but just barely. One was more than enough for me. And it nearly broke me.

I started to feel a little emptiness. The good kind of emptiness that pushes you toward something else. I spent the rest of 2012 trying to figure out why I didn’t feel happier when I’d just accomplished “my life’s dream.”

Then I realized I hadn’t actually accomplished my life’s dream. I’d accomplished somebody else’s. My life’s dream was to write a book.

Whereas I had ZERO athletic ability/build to accomplish that running goal, and I had to fight against my natural state to do it, everything in my life has set me up to write. Yearbook and newspaper classes in high school, majoring in Journalism in college. Writing short stories and tag lines and poems and jingles since childhood. But tackling that dream felt way scarier than reaching for a stretch goal.

If something had happened and I was unable to complete the marathon, I could have said, “hey, what did you expect – I’m not a runner!” But I am a writer. And with the life of a writer comes many, many moments of rejection … rejections from the art to which you feel most suited.

I realized I was trying too hard to make my 30s about “becoming someone else” and “trying new things!” Those things are all fine, but at a certain point they are just an escape. A “refusal of the call,” as my friends/professors Suzanne Frank and Daniel J. Hale would say.

So I more or less hung up my running shoes and signed up for a creative writing class at SMU. If I was going to dedicate weekends and early mornings to something, I wanted it to be something I was meant to do. Not something I was doing to prove a point. And as it turned out, marathon training was the perfect mental go-to to prepare for the years it would take (and is still taking) to write a book.

That first night of class, as three hours of writing flew by faster than it ever could have running, I realized I was home. I’d run the long route to get there, but I was home.

 

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To The Woman Who Stole My Purse During My Father’s Funeral

pen

We don’t know each other, but we’ve spoken once. Nine years ago. I was 27, and it was the day after my father’s funeral. You answered my cell phone.

Dad loved writing letters, so it felt appropriate to write one to you. I don’t know your name or address, but you certainly know mine. I don’t know anything about you, actually, which seems unfair since you already know so much about me: my birthday, favorite mascara and lip gloss, social security number, etc.

If you scrolled through the pictures on my camera, you also know my friends. My family. My nieces and nephew. You know that I take cliché pictures of clouds from airplane windows, and I love chasing sunsets. You might assume I love flowers, and I do. But the dozen or so photos of roses and orchids? Those were the flowers from dad’s visitation.

If you opened the lavender envelope, you know my dad’s handwriting. You know that even though it was August, I still carried the Easter card he mailed (even though he lived close enough to hand deliver it).

Did you see a limo outside the church and assume it was for a wedding? Were you hoping to find a bridesmaid’s bag tucked away in a room?

Or did you see a hearse and know that sometimes grief makes people do careless things, like leaving purses unattended in a prayer room.

Did you know that I had nightmares about you? I slept on my couch for months because I wanted to keep an eye on the front door, since you knew my address. The rational part of my brain understood that you’d probably forgotten about me the moment my debit and credit cards stopped working for you. But the irrational part – the part ruled by grief and rage over my dad’s sudden death – decided you were diabolical.

Did you know that I stopped trusting people, stopped believing that people were inherently good? A lifelong optimist, I suddenly started assuming the worst.

Did you know that I stopped going to church for a few years because I had panic attacks every time I entered a sanctuary? That, for a time, I decided God left me. In a time of unimaginable loss, I blamed you for my biggest loss of all.

 It’s been nine years, and I still think of you. I’ve imagined what I’d say if I ever met you.

But I realize I know nothing about you. So I have a few questions:

  • Why did you enter the church that Saturday morning? Did you need help? Were you a visitor? Have our paths crossed since then?
  • Did you exit down the stairs by the mosaic of Jesus? Did you notice the colors bouncing off the walls from the streams of sunlight?
  • Do you have a family who loves you? Is your dad still alive, or is grief a common bond? What made you decide to steal? Was it just for fun or to support an addiction? Or did you need money to support your family?
  • Did you by any chance happen to overhear any of my father’s funeral service?

I hope you did.

You would have heard some beautiful music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” might have seemed like an odd choice for a funeral, but it was one of dad’s favorites. If you had never before heard “It Is Well” performed by an accomplished cellist, then I guess we can actually call ourselves even.

You also would have heard stories from me and my brother about what it was like being raised by a dad who was so free with his emotions and love for us. You would have hopefully gotten a taste of his sense of humor, and how he encouraged us to see life as “the hilarious spoof it really is.” Even without meeting him, I think you would have felt his passion for life and love for people.

You’ve become a mythical distraction for me, and for that I actually thank you. You provided an outlet for my rage, and your actions left me (temporarily) dead inside. Had I actually been fully present to absorb the deep grief heading my way, I would have shattered far sooner than I actually did.

I’m a mosaic now – broken and glued back together. For the longest time, you alone held the hammer. But in reality, you were simply the final strike. The light and love have returned to my life, and I have no more room for bitterness or fear.

So I’m setting you free. Wherever you are right now, I forgive you.

You’re no longer my epitome of evil. You’re just a fellow broken soul. You know some things about me, but you don’t know my story. And I certainly don’t know yours. But I know it’s an important one.

To quote Dr. Who, “we’re all stories, in the end.”

And if you’d had the chance to know my dad, you’d know that he loved nothing more than a good story.

This first appeared on The Huffington Post.

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No Comment(s)

I broke one of my own rules: I read the comments.

Like many watching Monday’s presidential debate, I was bewildered to hear a presidential nominee insinuate that our cyber security could be put at risk by “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” What kind of fresh hell are we living in when this candidate can’t make it through one evening – on a national stage – without fat shaming? Then, at a commercial break, I listened as Alicia Machado described this same presidential nominee’s treatment of her during her reign as Miss Universe.

According to Machado, she’d gained 18 pounds after being crowned, and he began ridiculing her in the press, calling her “Miss Piggy” and sending reporters to film her working out.

The pressures to remain beautiful in the eyes of the world – not to mention in the eyes of a textbook narcissist – sent this 19-year-old woman into a rabbit hole of anorexia and bulimia.

A blurb from The Guardian put it best: But when she put on weight soon after winning, Trump turned what should have been a golden year into the most traumatizing one of her life. It wasn’t just that Trump shamed her about about gaining weight, calling her things like “Miss Piggy” and “an eating machine”. It wasn’t even that he did so publicly. It was that he did it with the biggest audience he could find, in an attempt to sear her weight fluctuation into the public consciousness, forever changing how she would be remembered.

I read the articles about Alicia Machado, and then I read the comments. Never, never, ever read the comments.

Listening to Trump’s words and reading the fat-shaming filth from the worst America has to offer took me to a dark place. I was no longer a 36-year-old, self-actualized woman. I was a self-conscious teenager, trying to remain invisible in the hopes that she’d make it through a day without being made fun of for her size 14/16 frame.

As I read the comments criticizing Ms. Machado’s numbers, I went over my own numbers:

  • 5 – my age when I first remember being teased for my weight, while wearing a swimsuit.
  • 13 – my age when I was chosen to be an 8th grade cheerleader.
  • 3 – number of hours before I began fielding prank calls congratulating “the chubby girl” on making the squad.
  • 17 – my age when, after three tries, I finally made my high school drill team.
  • 1-2 – number of dress sizes I was told to lose if I wanted to be allowed to perform during half time.
  • 45 – number of calories in an orange, my preferred lunch senior year of high school.
  • 18 – my age when I began to binge and purge.
  • 0 – the number of people I told.

unnamed

One off-hand comment when I’d been on this earth for five years was enough to implant a permanent fun-house mirror in my brain for the next 31.

One off-hand comment from this presidential nominee is enough to begin picking at the scabs we allowed to form over our childhood wounds. One year of campaigning later, the scabs are gone and the blood is gushing.

I’ve never met this presidential nominee, but I know him. He’s the guy who used to prank call me. The woman who made me order uniforms a size too small and told me to spend the summer finding a way to fit into them. He’s the frat guy at a crowded bar who would ask for my phone number, as his buddies howled with laughter behind him. And he’s one reason why my self-esteem dropped so low that for years I thought my only source of control was to throw up or over-exercise to prove my worth.

His words matter because a new generation is listening to a presidential nominee tell them they are not enough. That they should be hidden. That they are lazy, dangerous, undesirable, a joke, and that their value is conditional. And if they are by chance enough right now, they better hope to God something doesn’t happen to change that.

When you’re looking to November 9, assuming the worst and ugliest is behind us once the election is over, remember that words have a long-lasting impact. Even when they’re past tense. It will take a while for the scabs to form again.

 

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What I Want My Loved Ones to Know When My Depression Makes Me ‘Disappear’

bpsnq430bvI know my depression has returned full-force when I start to triage my life.

The simplest tasks overwhelm me, so I begin to make silent, irrational deals with myself.

“If you can get out of bed and make it to work on time, you don’t have to check the mail. (And obviously you never have to make the bed.)”

“If you show up for your friend’s birthday dinner, you don’t have to go to the work happy hour.”

“If you shower Monday through Friday, you can stay in bed all weekend.”

My mind goes into fight or flight mode, and any outside stimulus seems to be a threat. That text from a friend? They might need energy from me. The call from Mom? She might have bad news. The email from someone I haven’t seen in months? They might be able to tell I’m not doing well. The meeting with a client? Fine, of course I’ll go to that — but that’s all I’m doing today.

When my depression returns, I live by a spoon theory of effort, keeping most of them locked away. Just in case. I’ll do what’s required to stay employed, but once I leave the office, my energy leaves, too. At that point, I make no promises that I’ll be responsive to the outside world.

I search for tasks I can postpone or eliminate to conserve energy and simply make it through the day. I don’t share my plan with my loved ones, making life harder on myself. And them.

When they follow up after the third, fourth, fifth unanswered text or email, I get upset that they need anything from me. But really, I’m mad at myself because I know their frustration and hurt is my own doing. I want to let them in, but I need to stay closed off to make it through the week.

Avoidance becomes my preferred method of communication.

I disappear into a world of my own making that’s safe, contained and predictable. New information is overwhelming, so I turn to what I know. I re-watch episodes of “The West Wing” that inspire me. I listen to my favorite albums. I crave one-on-one interactions and avoid overwhelming crowds.

Glennon Doyle Melton tells the story of the canary in the mine, sent ahead of the miners because canaries are delicate enough to detect the poisons humans don’t even notice. The canaries save the miners, but they pay the price. They are the first to absorb the poisons of this world.

What I want my friends and family to know when I’m in triage:

I love you with a depth that’s hard for me to even process, much less explain. I feel in extremes, so when I disappoint you, I devastate myself, too.

I’m not sitting at home crying and ignoring you. I’m at home healing, trying to regain the energy to interact with the world again with compassion and authenticity. And light. To me, the world is a toxic mine, and I’m a canary who’s afraid she’ll be poisoned.

I’ve read all the articles suggesting we should forgive people with depression for disappearing for a while, excusing the flakiness that accompanies minds at war. I ask for grace when I’m at my worst, but I also demand you feel your feelings. I ask you to hold me accountable. Tell me when I’ve hurt you. Tell me how my non-responsiveness made you feel. I’m locked in a chamber of torment inside my mind, and the worse and darker it gets, the more selfish I feel I become, for self-preservation. Help me remember who I used to be, and please remind me that you need my time, too.

Help me remember I’m not a canary on a dangerous mission. I’m a canary who was put here to fly free.

This post first appeared on The Mighty.

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