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hughes Heart of Snow

Then my world exploded.  Kristen shared a terrible secret that she’d been baring the weight of alone for far too long.  When she was a child, a family member had sexually and emotionally abused her repeatedly over a period of years.

As a therapist who had witnessed the unfathomable devastation of child abuse far too many times, I’d been determined to keep my child safe.  I’d carefully screened the few people who had access to her when she wasn’t in my presence, we had completed the coloring book that described red light/green light touches when she was four, and had read and discussed a children’s book developed to provide children with tools that would serve to protect them from sexual abuse.  We rehearsed what she should do if someone touched her inappropriately or frightened her, and had talked about the importance of never keeping secrets that made her feel “yucky.”

And now I knew throughout my body and soul what I had only known intellectually - no child is ever truly safe.  I had failed to protect my innocent little girl.  In fact, we had welcomed the devil into our family.  And now I was careening into a terrible darkness, on fire with rage, repeatedly tortured by images of my precious child’s abuse, and brutalized by the utterly overwhelming twins of grief and guilt.

In November of 2012 my mother died at 4:20 on a Sunday morning.  The two days preceding her death had been excruciating, and I am thankful that I was stroking her face and singing her a love song when she finally sighed deeply and slipped away.

My heart was far too full of grief, love and regret to make room for my brain to fully absorb her death at first.  In fact, I’m still in the process of coming to terms with the painful truth that she is never, ever coming back to me.  And although I was no stranger to the heaviness of loss and grief, for days following her death I was struck almost mute by the weight of a heart that was so swollen and bruised, I was absolutely exhausted from carrying it around.

In Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, James Hollis points out that the word for grief originates from the latin term, “gravis,” which translates as “to bear,” and observes, “To experience grief is not only to bear the heaviness of the condition but, again, to testify to its depth as well.”  The gravity of my grief lead me down into the depths of both my longing and my love.  One moment I was strong.  I was the comforter and the matriarch.  And the next, I was weeping without warning — a motherless child, a guilt stricken mother, a woman underwater clamoring for breath.

Three months after losing my mother, I unexpectedly lost my oldest childhood friend, my anam cara – my soul sister…

I still remember the first moment that I saw her. She was a tiny little waif, leaning lightly against my grandmother and laughing at something that had just been said. I was a lover of fairy tales and with her blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and sweet pixie face, my eight year old self quickly concluded that here standing right before me, in my very own kitchen, was Goldilocks!

At eight she enchanted me, by ten she was fully integrated into my family, and by twelve she was my confidant and best friend.  I’m not sure when she became my sister and a vital part of me, but she did.

Her maiden name was Joy, which was both fitting and ironic.  As a young child she and her younger brothers had been removed from her parents and placed into foster care. As a very young woman, one of her brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia, followed by the death of his twin. Her only consolation was that she had been with him when he heaved his last breath.  Next, not long after she and her estranged father began building a relationship, he perished from lung cancer. And then, eight years ago, her husband of nineteen years (and my first love) went to work one morning and never came home. He died instantly, leaving her to finish raising three of their four children alone while battling the fierceness of anxiety and depression.

This past February as the abominable storm Nemo surged towards them, those same beautiful children bravely and graciously greeted friends and family who had come to honor their mother’s life. She had been admitted into the hospital with pneumonia and died there.

The amount of pain and suffering she and her children have faced at such tender ages was and is completely incomprehensible to me, and the urge to bellow up at the heavens, “why!! why!!!!  Why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” sat wound tightly in my chest for weeks, threatening to explode and scatter shards of my shattered self everywhere. In fact, the urge rises up even now from the center of my chest as I write these words and something terrible and dense comes to occupy the space around my lungs and heart.

For the last three springs of her life I had  told her that I thought I could manage a visit during the summer, and yet had found myself apologizing each autumn when my plans to visit fell through.  I believed that we’d have many more summers, plenty of time.

She called me right after my mother died and left a message explaining that she understood that I might not have the energy to call back right away, (I didn’t) and that she would simply be waiting and available to me when I was ready to talk. She emailed me before Christmas and warned me that the holidays would be brutal, but that I’d get through them. I emailed her back and thanked her, promising that I’d call her soon. That was our final contact.  I ache still with the knowledge that there will be no more phone calls, no more heart to heart talks, no more promises, and no more summer adventures to plan.  I have lost my soul sister, and along with her I have lost a piece of myself.  I love and long for her fiercely now.

I’m unspeakably grateful for my years as a therapist, and for the fifteen years that I spent researching trauma and transformation in earnest before my own life spiraled so out of control.  I can’t imagine how I would have possibly moved through the pain, fear, and chaos that has occupied so much of my life during these past few years without having witnessed time and time again the tremendous strength and resilience of my clients, and the stubborn albeit shaky faith that I would be able to emerge deepened and refined by the excruciating yoga of despair that I’d gotten lost in.

And now at 12:01 on Wednesday, January the first, 2014, I am thinking about two questions Dawna Markova posed in her book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life and that I have asked myself repeatedly during these past three years, “what if the moments of the greatest wounding in your life were also places where the divine crossed your path, and the unquenchable dream of your life was born?…what do you love that is bigger than this wound?”   While my answer to the second question has remained steadfast, it is only recently that I have been able to fully recognize where the divine had indeed penetrated my  darkness.  I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are surrounded by new life even in the midst of death, and that poet, Mark Neppo spoke the truth when he pointed out that “each cocoon must break so the next butterfly can be.  And it is our curse and blessing to die and be born so many times.  So many sheddings.  So many wings.”

When sunlight greets this first day of the New Year, I will welcome it with a heart that now holds as much gratitude as it does pain, and with a life that contains a love that is far greater than its wounds.

 

Alfons siber    love frozen

Artist: Alfons Siber

“Life does not accommodate you, it shatters you…Every seed destroys its container or else there would be no fruition.”                                                

                             ~ Florida Scott-Maxwell ~

On a beautiful, light filled Thursday afternoon in August of 2010 I learned that my mother had lung cancer.  I remember standing stunned in the dooryard, the phone pressed tightly against my ear while my mother’s voice drifted in and out of focus.  I recall very little of what we said that day, only that I commanded myself to sound strong and in control and braced myself as best I could, knowing all too well that from the moment I heard the words,  lung cancer,  the world as I knew it was never going to be the same again.

I immediately made arrangements to fly to Florida and to take a leave of absence from my coaching and psychotherapy practice in Maine.  I stepped onto the plane as my mother’s frightened daughter, and disembarked as her primary caregiver.  Between August of 2010 and November of 2012 I would make frequent trips between Maine and Florida, doing my best to keep track of my mother’s treatments and medications, to comfort and keep her fed and clean when the chemotherapy and radiation proved too brutal, and prepare myself and my family for what became more and more inevitable.

Within three weeks after rejoining my family following my first four emotionally and physically exhausting months in Florida, Kevin, my sweet husband, the man whom had represented safety to me throughout my entire adulthood, fell apart.  Besieged by agonizing and unrelenting panic attacks for the first time in his life, he found himself one morning too weak and too ill to get out of bed.  He felt trapped by his pain, by his panic, and by his life.  He’d left the corporate world, and sacrificed his six figure income in order to engage in more meaningful work, only to discover far greater dysfunction than he’d ever confronted in the corporate world.  He struggled for months attempting to accomplish the impossible until he collapsed, broken down and worn out by the sense of helplessness, anxiety and futility that he’d carried day after day.  Leaving his job and abandoning his career was an act of both desperation and courage. At fifty two he found himself unemployed, his future uncertain, and our income pared down to one fifth of what it had been.

Two weeks after I returned to Florida to resume my caretaking duties, I received a phone call informing me that Kristen, my precious only child, had been hospitalized for post- partum psychosis.  She’d grown delusional, battling urges to put her fingers on the burner of her stove and observe how long it took them to burn to bone, and had been hiding in the closet with her children, certain that ‘they’ were coming to take one away.    When I learned of her illness, I immediately made arrangements to fly home, terrified for my daughter while devastated at the same time to be abandoning my cancer ridden mother.  I remember sitting stiffly on the plane, my jaw clenched and my stomach in knots, enduring alternating waves of guilt and fear.

After being placed on a waiting list for far longer than I would have believed possible under the circumstances, the treatment Kristen received was far from adequate.  For close to a year she, her father, husband, and I stumbled through a ghastly twilight zone as diagnoses shifted and the number of heavy-duty psychotropic medications she was prescribed grew at an alarming rate.  I struggled to contain my mounting panic as my beautiful child drifted further and further away from her family, exiled by mental illness and the medication prescribed to cure it.  And I, a seasoned mental health professional, could not bring her safely home to us.

Continued in Part three

 

free to use man and dog walking in snow

The following is the first of three related blog posts.

On this, the last day of  2013,  I am reflecting on the past three years — years that have  proven to be the most painful and challenging of my adult life — my very own dark ages.  These have been years that have both tested and shattered me.  Years that I have needed every bit of wisdom and skill accumulated over a life time to pick up the pieces of my broken self.  Years that broke my heart and beat me down.  Years that I would never ever want to face again, years that had I been forewarned about, I would have run from screaming.

Why am I about to share such a huge part of my personal life here in this blog?  Because of an email that a young woman sent me.  An email that contained so much despair that it kept me tossing and turning last night until the wee hours of this morning.  She ended her email by writing that while she appreciated my wisdom and compassion, she knew that I couldn’t possibly understand, and though I had worked hard and deserved all of the wonderful gifts that my life contained, I had not had to face anything like what she was confronting now.   She concluded that some things that happen to us simply demolish us, leaving us without hope and in total darkness.

I wrote back to her explaining that I know all too well about fumbling hopelessly in the dark along an uncharted path which offered inadequate shelter and no exits.  During these past three years I’ve  endured pain so heavy and dense that even now it can literally take my breath away, have suffered so intensely that my body has still not recovered, and have fought to control a rage so consuming that I sometimes fear it will  burn me alive if I fail to break completely free of it.  Living has hurt, hurt desperately.  And much of what I have lost can never, ever be recovered.

I will share some of what these past three years have contained in my next two blog posts, as I am only now beginning to truly fathom how they have shattered, tested, taught and transformed me.  I am sharing this painful part of my life in order to connect with, reassure, and honor all of those who have lived through or are suffering through their own period of pain and darkness.  They are my sisters and brothers and I am holding them close in my heart as I write…

earth connected

As we approach 2014 I wanted to share our five most viewed posts in 2013.  Here they are (drum roll)

 

Poem for a New Beginning  (perfect for a new year)

The Secret Life of Bees and the Black Madonna (ultimately about love, hope and the transformative power of grief)

Therapy Worksheets (points to some wonderful resources for therapy clients)

David Whyte, Brother David Steindl-Rast , and the Antidote to Exhaustion (a story that helps locate the way forward)

I Love Your Story Still…. (an open letter to someone who needed desperately to know about the beauty of his story)

If you have a favorite, I’d love to hear about it.

Warmly,

Tammie

 

 

 

 

The following video was sent to me today by the SHIFT network.  It’s beautiful and inspiring, particularly if you allow yourself to get lost in its images and lyrics.  It offers warmth and light in this cold season of short days and long dark nights…

Art by Steve Hanks, Bookends

Art by Steve Hanks, Bookends

One easy way that you can tell which books in my library have touched or taught me the most would be to notice which are the most marked up.  I came across a book just the other day that is filled with yellow highlights, it’s Dawna Markova’s, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life.”   Beautiful and wise.  Reminding us of what’s sacred,  asking us what it would look like to live our lives “fully, sensually alive, and passionately, on purpose.”   Encouraging us to live days that are “a sweet and slow ceremony” and nudging us as winter approaches to let go of “what no longer is alive, to get bare enough to find the bones of what is important” to us.

“I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit. “

~Dawna Markova~

 

More wonderful wisdom from Maya Angelou…

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