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On Death and Dying

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I’m going to warn you up front that this post is morbid and depressing. I’m reluctant to write it, but this is what’s been on my mind, and I’m committed to writing what’s true. So here goes.

My friend’s father died last week, and I have been obsessing about death and illness since then. I am terrified of getting older and of dying. And I’m terrified of watching someone I love die.

If I could have, I would have asked my friend if his father was in pain. If he gave any indication that he was ready to let go. His doctor thought he would only live 9 more months, and it occurred to me the night before he died that perhaps he didn’t want to live that long. I imagined being in his father’s place, lying in bed, in pain, not being able to do anything. Not feeling like myself. Perhaps 9 months felt like too much.

When my dad was depressed, he looked like the walking dead. A shell of his former, manic self. It was painful to see him in that state for four years. But he got better, and every day I say a prayer of thanks for this. He is in full form now, reckless in his pursuit of happiness.

It’s disconcerting, all the crazy stuff he’s doing. But if he has to go, I guess he wants to do it on his terms, being fully alive when it happens. And to be honest, that’s how I want him to go, too. I don’t want to have to go through that again–watching him become less and less like himself until he is gone.

I also had the morbid realization that if I were diagnosed with a terminal illness, I would not have anyone to take care of me. No one to take me to my appointments, to make sure I got my meds, to bear witness to my suffering. I guess that’s why people get married. In sickness and in health, ’til death do us part.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, because I don’t have any one who I need to live for, anyway. No children or spouse who relies on me. And I wouldn’t want to ask anyone in my family to put their life on hold to take care of me. I can barely ask for help as it is.

Maybe I wouldn’t even tell anyone. Maybe I’d just keep going to work and playing tennis and blogging until I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t want to be known as the person who is dying during what little time I would have left to live.

That might be a problem with my commitment to honesty and vulnerability in my blog, though.

This is the most depressing line of thinking I’ve had about being single.

When clients are obsessing about things to come, I tell them that they don’t know what the will future bring. That when they get there, they can worry about it then. So I guess for now, I’ll take my own advice.

Faking Good

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Did you know that some personality tests are sophisticated enough to detect when a person might be faking bad or faking good? When I took one in grad school, the computer report said that I could either be faking bad, or that I’m just really hard on myself. Talk about sophistication! My Inner Critic was detected right away.

In general, I think people are more likely to fake good than fake bad. I am no exception. Most people can’t tell when I’m upset. Even when I tell people I’m upset, they don’t believe me because I’ll be smiling–like when I bought my mattress. So even when I’m trying to be honest, my face is still faking good.

Facebook is the perfect example of millions of people faking good every hour of every day. Even though I know from experience that things are often not what they seem, I still feel like my life pales in comparison to my friends with their happy spouses who declare their undying love for each other on their anniversary. Or their children who are winning sports competitions and getting good grades and saying funny things. Or their vacations to exotic places while I’m stuck at home because of the snow.

But then again, sometimes I’ll scroll through my pictures and wonder if people feel the same way about me. All of the happy pictures with my family. Pictures at sporting events, tennis tournaments, and karaoke parties with my friends. Pictures of my latest knitting project or the jewelry I just made.

Even if we want to be more honest on social media, it’s hard to do because it’s so visually oriented. Like, it never occurred to me to take a picture when I was getting my divorce papers notarized. Or to take a selfie of me lying on the couch, too depressed to do anything. I guess I could have taken a picture of that time I shattered my microwave door and had to sweep up hundreds of shards of glass, but I was too busy being pissed off.

The most honest posts I’ve seen are the ones where people say how they still miss a loved one on their birthday. I have not yet lost someone close to me, and the thought of doing so fills me with fear. And now I know that the sadness stays with you for the rest of your life. It exists right alongside of those happy family posts. But at least it makes the picture of their life seem more realistic, and therefore more relatable.

If you scroll through my wall, amidst the posts of family and friends, sports and crafts, you’ll see my blog posts. Verbal snapshots of my obsessiveness in action. Guilt and shame over failed relationships. Evidence of how difficult it is for me to be kind to myself. To believe that I deserve to be loved. That I’m worthwhile. This is my attempt to be honest through social media. My tribute to the complexities of real life.

But not everyone has a blog. So if you have ideas for how to stop faking good on social media, I’d love to hear them. It could be the beginning of a campaign. Like the one to stop bullying. We can work on the catchy phrase later.

Choices

When it comes to money, my mom and dad are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. My dad loves to buy things and does so often and freely with no regard for cost. My mom, on the other hand, doesn’t buy something unless it’s “half of half of half” off. Depending on the day, I can be on either end of the spectrum, but most of the time I am more like my mom. As a result, my relationship with money is plagued with anxiety and guilt.

For example, when my ex and I were at the airport on the way to our honeymoon, I bought a neck pillow because we had a long flight ahead of us. It had one of those tags that they have on mattresses that you aren’t supposed to remove under penalty of law, but it was annoying me, so I ripped it off, anyway.

Apparently this law exists for a reason, because after I ripped it off, all of those little white things started coming out of the gigantic hole I had created and were spilling all over the place. I had to throw the darn thing away. I was distraught about destroying my pillow less than 5 minutes after purchasing it and wasting $15. It was only fitting that I should have to spend the next 10 hours on the plane with an unsupported neck.

While I was berating myself for my obsessiveness, my ex bought another neck pillow and snuck behind me and put it around my neck. Unlike me, he did not obsess over buying stuff. This became a source of many arguments later, but at the time it was a sweet and loving gesture. He was not great with words, but this one action said everything I needed to know: it’s OK by me that you’re obsessive, and you still deserve a neck pillow.

When memories like these pop up, it activates the same cycle of thoughts. Am I doing the right thing? Is there anything more I could do to make things work? I go through the scenario of what it would be like if we got back together, and I always come to the same conclusion: things would be exactly as they were before.

I wish choices could be more clear-cut, like on a test. But life isn’t like school: answers are rarely 100% right or wrong. I have to remind myself that with any decision, there are things that I will lose. I can’t make the perfect choice. I cannot escape the sadness of having to give up the good parts of our relationship.

Memories like this one make me want to cry. But at the same time, I am also thankful. Even if things didn’t work out, he was a good guy. He was a good choice for many reasons. And even as we finalize our divorce, he continues to be kind and helpful. Not many people can say that at the end of a relationship.

Darkness and Light, Part 2

I am deeply saddened by Robin Williams’ death. I love the roles he chose as an actor. He was a comedic genius. And he was full of life–a light that seemed to shine a little brighter than the average star.

As a psychologist, I don’t have any special knowledge about why Robin Williams committed suicide. I wasn’t there. I didn’t know him personally. I wasn’t his therapist. I do know that, no matter how well you think you know someone, it is difficult to fathom the depths of the darkness they live in. Because who wants to share that with other people? Who wants to burden other people with additional darkness? It’s hard enough to deal with our own.

I also know what it’s like to have multiple depressive episodes. My psychiatrist compared relapses to breaking your leg in the same place multiple times: with every break you become more vulnerable to injury; it takes a little longer to recover each time.

My dad had 3 major depressive episodes. His last episode hit when he was 69 and lasted for almost 4 years. It was a tremendous amount of work for him–and my mom–to recover again. I know sometimes he didn’t want to try. And I know he felt that way more often than he let on but tried to be strong for my benefit.

In my last depressive episode, there were times when I wanted to give up, too. Well, it’s not so much that I wanted to give up. It’s more like the depression told me that I should. And in my weakened state of mind, it was hard to fight back. I am thankful that I was able to do so in the end. That was my 2nd major depressive episode. I’m trying to do everything within my power to prevent a third.

What if Robin Williams had 5 or 6 depressive episodes? What if the demons of depression never took a break unless he threw himself into something like acting or drugs or alcohol? I don’t drink and I have never used drugs, but if I had to live my life feeling the way I did at my worst, maybe I would. I don’t know that I would have been any stronger. So I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Robin Williams of being weak. Clearly, based on his body of work, he was anything but weak. He was fighting it all the time.

I was also taken aback by the anger that some people felt about his suicide. But I don’t judge them for it. I can understand why, if you have been personally affected by suicide, you would identify more with the people who are left behind and have to make sense of this loss for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, I have never been there, but if my dad had ever given in to his demons, I know I would have been devastated.

I think that people who see mental illness as a weakness, an excuse, or a nonexistent entity fear the darkness in themselves. They try to deny it in themselves and in others as vehemently as possible, lest it find a way to escape. But some of us don’t have that luxury. We can’t lock our depression in a closet and throw away the key; it is too powerful. It does not obey our will.

One positive outcome of having known that kind of pain is that it has deepened my compassion for others. It motivates me to alleviate whatever suffering I can in others. In my opinion, the people who know what it’s like to live in darkness are the ones who are the most motivated to enlighten others. So if Robin Williams inspired more people to become light bearers, then that is at least one good thing that can come from this loss.

 

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Telepathy

I went though a period where I was really into books about Near Death Experiences. It started when I went to this training on positive psychology, and the presenter said that the book My Descent Into Death, by Howard Storm, is the only written account of someone who went to hell before he went to heaven.

I already knew all the stuff about positive psychology since that’s one of my areas of expertise, but the story about this guy got my attention. I had to find out what someone could have done that would be bad enough to go to hell. It was surprisingly innocuous. But I’ll save that story for another post.

One of the things that struck me the most in the book was Storm’s assertion that we are capable of communicating with other people without words and across space and time. I’ve always felt this was true–especially with people whom you’ve known. You know that expression about someone tugging at your heartstrings? That’s how I imagine it happens. Some invisible wire connects your heart to theirs when you meet someone, and you can communicate with them through this wire.

I actually tested this out last week. I was thinking about this guy and I texted him later to find out if he could feel it, and he said he did. He named the time of day and everything. And he’s not someone who would ordinarily be thinking about me.

Sometimes I’ve tried to communicate with people after a break up. Usually there are things that I want to say that I no longer have the opportunity to say. Things that I could never say in person, or that I didn’t realize at the time.

For the longest time I was mad at my first husband for ruining our marriage. But every now and then I’ll remember something about the way I treated him, and I’ll tell him that I understand why he had to leave. That I’m not mad anymore. It makes me feel better to think that I can still tell him things, even if we never see each other again.

This is also the book that went into great detail about how angels play a role in our day-to-day life. So when there are important messages that need to be delivered, I pray that God will send an angel to someone. My high school teacher and her daughter recently lost their husband/father, so I’ve asked God to send extra angels their way to surround them with strength and love. He can even take some of mine if they need more. Sometimes that’s what I do for clients, too, when I don’t know how else to help them.

You know that confrontation problem I mentioned in my last post? So far, the closest I’ve come to telling him that he needs to get on meds is to ask an angel to whisper it into his ear while he’s sleeping. Because if the message comes from God, he might believe it. If it comes from me, not so much.

Maybe I can even do the same thing I did with my friend: ask him if he’s gotten any messages from God lately. If nothing else, it could be a good opening for the conversation.

100th Post!

One of my favorite books of all time is What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty. It was our most popular book in our Remedial Book Club; we actually had a meaningful discussion about it for the entire meeting. Ordinarily we talk about the book for 30 minutes–mostly about who would play the characters if the book were turned into a movie–and then we eat, drink, and gossip about people in the tennis community for 2 hours.

The book is about a woman who falls off her bike in spinning class and loses her memory of the past 10 years. In her current life, she is about to turn 40, has 3 children, and is going through a bitter divorce. After the accident, she thinks she is 29, madly in love with her husband, and is about to have her first child. The book also follows the stories of Alice’s mom, sister, and grandmother, all of whom are in the process of letting go of grief. In addition to being hiLARious, the book also makes you reflect on who you have become and what you thought your life would be like.

I am now in the process of filing for divorce, at my husband’s request. I am glad that I waited until he was ready, because now he understands why our marriage can’t work. I have a better appreciation for the significance of rituals. Even though it’s just a formality, since we’ve been apart for almost 4 years, the legal aspect of it has reawakened my grief about losing him. Of all the people I’ve been with, he is by far the one who was the most stable, reliable, and trustworthy. It saddens me that this wasn’t enough to make things work.

I will be 45 in a few months, and I would have never predicted that this is what my life would look like. Although it is still sad and scary to be alone at times, I am thankful for this opportunity to get to know myself better. I am still experiencing compassion fatigue from my last relationship, and I really want my next one to be different.

I’m currently reading The Art of Empathy, by Karla McLaren. It’s the first book I am aware of that teaches hyperempaths like me how to keep from burning out. I’m hoping that this will help me be more intentional about my next relationship. I’m hoping that it’s possible to break the pattern of relationships that you’ve grown up with and that you’ve followed all your life and to start anew.

Since I have reached my goal of 100 posts, I thought I would also take stock of my blogging life, which is much more positive. This blog is the first time that I’ve shared my writing with others, and I am so proud of what I have written so far. Even prouder than I was when I finished my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to write on and off for about 10 years now but only took it seriously a few years ago. Until then, I never realized how demon-filled the writing process was. Every time I sat down to write, Perfectionism, the Inner Critic, and the Drill Sergeant were all there to meet me, reminding me of how much I suck. So to commit to blogging 3 times a week–and to share the most vulnerable parts of myself in every post–is a huge accomplishment.

However, now that I’ve learned more about publishing, I am forced to accept that the odds of writing a best seller are not great, and even if it does happen, it won’t be any time soon. I’m not going to give up, of course, because I never give up, but I’m trying to focus more on the process of writing rather than the end result.

I’m trying to approach blogging the way I approach tennis. I’ve made $60 in prize money, which was several years ago when I won the 35 and over singles division of a tournament. (I was also the #1 rated 35 and over singles player in Virginia that year!) But I spend hundreds of dollars a month on tennis, so as a money-making enterprise, it’s a failing business.

But that’s OK. I’m not doing it to make money. I play tennis because it’s fun, because it challenges me, and because I have made wonderful friends. Although my romantic relationships have been a disappointment, my friendships have far exceeded my expectations.

Blogging is also fun and challenging, and I enjoy getting to know my readers and other bloggers. And it’s way cheaper than playing tennis. So I’m going to set another goal, which is to write another 100 posts by my blog’s first birthday, which is September 24.

Hope to see you then!

Memory

I love the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I love the idea that even if you take the memories away, the love between two people remains. And I like the message that we must experience pain in order to experience joy. But lately I’ve been wishing I could erase the painful memories from the past 10 years.

Let me first say that I am thankful for my memory, lest I be struck down with dementia for being ungrateful. It helps in my job because clients expect you to remember everything they’ve told you from the first session on. And when you see 30+ clients a week, that’s a lot of stuff to remember.

The most painful memories help me to have more compassion for other people’s suffering. When I was depressed, I could not conceive of any possible value that could come from my pain. But now that my brother is depressed, I am better able to help him because I know what he’s going through. You’re not afraid to sit with other people’s pain once you know firsthand how lonely it is.

My memory also helps me capture the intensity of my feelings when I write about my experiences, which hopefully makes my blog better. I am guessing that most writers have good memories and intense feelings. But sometimes it can be a tough combination. That’s probably why writers are so neurotic.

Lately there have been some memories that I wish I could forget. Or at least remember without feeling like it’s happening all over again. It’s almost like having PTSD, reliving these hurtful experiences every time they pop up.

Yesterday I remembered how my first husband told me while we were separating that I have a heart of gold. He said it was the happiest day of his life on our wedding day and the saddest day of his life when we signed the divorce papers. How can you feel that way about someone and still choose to leave them? What good does it do to have a heart of gold if it doesn’t help you make a relationship work? In a way I am thankful that he was loving through the entire process, but sometimes I wish I didn’t remember how I felt at all.

The letting go process in my second marriage has been just as painful. It hurts just as much now as it did 4 years ago. It still makes me cry. Every step we take away from each other renews my sadness. When will this grief subside? That whole one year estimation is a bunch of crap. I wish I could just forget the past 4 years–all the pain and all the stupid things I did to try to ease the pain that just made things worse.

The only memories I would miss from the past 4 years are the first trip when my mixed doubles team went to districts, getting Federer’s autograph at the Cincy tournament, and UVA’s basketball season this year. Which makes me seem like some superficial sports fanatic, but it’s true. In my defense, part of what made these experiences memorable is that I shared them with my friends and family. I’m sure there were other positive memories worth holding on to during that period of time, but I can’t think of any at the moment. Right now, all I remember is the pain.

The only good thing about this second divorce is that it helps me understand how you can love someone and still let them go, even when it breaks your heart. I’m not angry at my first husband any more for leaving. I understand why he did it. It doesn’t alleviate the pain of either loss to realize this, but I have a better appreciation for how complex love and marriage are. That’s something.

Today I’m not able to do the things I try to focus on in my blog–practice self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. But maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently.