I had this blog almost ready to send Wednesday morning. It started like this:
I choose hope in 2021, in spite of everything that could still go wrong—COVID, political turmoil, record snowstorms like we had here in upstate NY last week, failing to get a book deal.
Had I sent it, I would have felt foolish. That afternoon, watching the siege of the US Capitol unfold, my hope was overpowered by fear and bewilderment. I was glued to the TV, paralyzed from doing anything else.
My original blog continued:
But my hopefulness isn’t a conscious choice. It’s something I feel in my gut, almost like it chooses me. I can’t shake it, even when the feeling all but disappears.
I let hope choose me.
When I sat down to work on this blog today, three days after the seige, I didn’t know how I felt. Do I still have hope? So I sat quietly, listening to my body’s signals, paying attention to what I felt in my gut.
I’m almost embarrassed to say yes, I still have hope.
I never used to be a glass-half-full person. I thought and talked more about what went wrong than what went right, an unhealthy tendency I only realized in retrospect. As I’m writing this, though, I’m aware that I’m not as negative. I can’t tell you when or why that changed—I’ll have to process it for weeks, I imagine, to figure it out. I’ll be sure to let you know when I have an answer, or at least a good guess.
But I wonder if my career change in September 2016 due to chronic health problems, and my subsequent renewed goal to finish my memoir, is part of it.
More from my pre-seige blog:
I recently sent out a new batch of queries to literary agents, and one responded within five hours that she wanted to look at my manuscript. That was almost unheard of–to hear back so quickly. And she was a significant agent. Being represented by her would have been a writing coup.
But 24 hours later, she emailed to say she was going to pass. I don’t know if I’m cut out for this, was my first thought.
The highs and lows of book publishing are emotional minefields. I couldn’t decide at that moment if I should close my laptop and have a good cry, go read a book, or get off the querying hamster wheel completely and self-publish my book.
But my gut said carry on.
“Carry on”–such prophetic words for me now. Some goals are so important, like getting a book published is to me, we have no choice but to carry on, and that very act means hope is alive.
The very act of carrying on means hope is alive.
And I will carry on in 2021, in spite of the attacks on our democracy, in spite of what may come in the weeks and months ahead. I will continue to choose hope that my book will be published. I will continue to search for answers about my partially-diagnosed chronic health issues. I will continue to interact with others–in person, through this blog, and on social media–with respect and kindness. I will continue to fight my people-pleasing tendencies, at the same time refusing to tolerate racism and other injustices in my community and country.
I’ll be busy this year. And if I lose my will to choose hope, I will let it choose me.
What about you–do you choose hope? Does hope choose you? I’d love to know your thoughts.
Have you checked out my new page? Ten Signs You May be a People-Pleaser?
It may have been Oprah who coined the phrase, or at least popularized it: “Living life large.” I remember her show where I first heard it. Oprah rang the doorbells of homes in and around Chicago (if I recall correctly), surprising families with a visit. One couple gave her a tour of their backyard with its extensive brick paths and patios, neatly manicured lawn and gardens, and built-in pool.
“You’re livin’ life large!” Oprah proclaimed, as only she can do.
I was envious of the neat and tidy yard and home. (Some other day, I’ll tell you my thoughts on envy, a fully human emotion). And, while I didn’t covet the family’s obvious wealth, I envied what I assumed to be their lack of financial uncertainty.
Living life with uncertainty.
My husband will tell you I’ve always worried about money. My Oprah-watching years, from around 2001 to 2008, were the worst. Our son, Matt, was living life with a brain tumor—diagnosed in 1997 when he was 11—and his comparatively minor impairments made every day a challenge. It finally dawned on me that I’d have to leave my school-counseling job to coach and mentor my child if he had any hope of graduating from high school. Matt, 33 this year, may disagree with that assessment, but, as his mother, I knew it was the truth. So I became a “kept woman” as I joked, and our family began our lean (but still privileged, compared to many) one-income years.
Although Oprah’s show made me yearn for a neat and tidy, financially secure existence, the idea of “livin’ life large” felt unsettling. It seemed to be what society valued. Why didn’t it feel right for me?
That was before I had done the work to accept who I am.
In this short blog, I can’t even begin to explain what led to my self-acceptance; I’d have to write a book. (Oh wait. I did write a book.) Suffice it to say I’ve realized I prefer to live life small. Small is where the growth lies for me. Small is where I blossom, where I find purpose, where I’m more productive and content.
Embracing small has opened up room for incredible growth, including all that goes into finishing my memoir—the creativity, the discovery of hidden talents, the relentless hard work, the roller coaster of rejections and accolades. In addition to my writing, I’ve grown in my relationships, my faith, my self-acceptance.
Good things come in small packages.
The Tiny Love Stories book in the photo was released by the New York Times this month. It’s an anthology of 100-word stories, including mine, from the past few years.
My hundred words–“My Son, The Homeowner,“–tells about Matt buying his first house in 2019, and my astonishment and pride at his accomplishment. “My heart. It’s bursting,” the story ends.
I bought Matt a copy, and in the inscription, I wrote, “There’s nothing tiny about my love for you.”
Living life small speaks volumes.
Like many, your pandemic life may have grown uncomfortably small this year, out of an abundance of caution, out of necessity. I hope in those tiny spaces, you have found room for growth. And in this difficult, unprecedented season of endings and beginnings, I hope you find peace, joy, and love.
P.S. Check out my new page on this site: Ten Signs You May Be a People-Pleaser. How many did you check? I’d love to know!
I started this blog before my dad, from whom I learned the importance of doing good unto others, was given just days to live. Soon, he will leave behind his wake of kindness. Hold tight–it’ll be a tsunami.
Dedicated to you, Dad, for all you’ve taught me.
Earlier this year, my hairstylist and I experimented with a new hair color. I was iffy about the results when I left the salon, and after a few days, decided the gray/blond was too silver/purple–like, really purple–so I went back in for a fix.
The failed experiment wasn’t a big deal since so few people would even see it. I was usually stuck at home with chronic health issues anyway, and even pre-COVID, I didn’t go out much. Besides, I had okayed the color experiment. I was 50% at fault, not that I was looking for anyone to blame.
Months later (after waiting-out the COVID salon closure), I returned to the stylist, who gave me a container of home-baked muffins as a thank you for not being upset. Upset about what? I thought, until she reminded me of the experiment. It moved me to tears (granted, not a difficult feat) and validated how I choose to live my life.
I avoid conflict. It’s a manifestation of my people-pleasing, my sensitive nature, my upbringing–too much to unpack here. But sometimes, what looks like conflict-aversion is really a choice to err on the side of kindness.
Choose to err on the side of kindness.
Like me, no one is perfect. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen. If I trust someone’s good intentions and if the consequences of whatever went wrong are minimal, I choose not to fight that battle.
It doesn’t mean I let people take advantage of me, or walk all over me–not anymore. And I’m better at holding people accountable for their mistakes, such as asking my stylist to fix my color. Only recently, through my journey to shed my people-pleasing, did I understand that kindness and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive.
The thank-you muffins reminded me of one of the first blogs I ever wrote, about my 2016 flu shot, when the CVS pharmacist asked me to relax my arm.
“I would hate to hurt you,” she said, “You’re always so nice.”
It’s that noticeable? I thought. I pictured the hundreds of times I’d walked through the aisles and stood at the pharmacy counter. The thousands of interactions with staff and other customers. The times I’d complimented the manager on his employees’ exemplary service. I didn’t think the pharmacist even knew who I was, but not only did she know me, she knew me. She was right–I am nice. Feeling the color rise in my cheeks, I thanked her.
“Nice” is the public face I try to present to the world. Part instinct, part intention, it is who I imagine myself to be, who I want to be. And, although I didn’t know the distinction in 2016, I am also kind.
The flu shot scene was great fodder for my blog, but I was stymied by this question: How do I write about being nice without sounding self-righteous?
When writers get personal on the page, they are advised not to indulge in Look how great I am prose because it’s a turn-off for readers. We’re in this together is more relatable. But I was too new to figure out the nuances. I ended up questioning if being kind really matters, though I knew the answer was unequivocally “yes.” And now, thank-you muffins in hand, I had proof.
Your kindness matters to the hairstylist and the pharmacist and the grocery store cashier and the stranger for whom you left the last roll of toilet paper on the store shelf. It matters to the person whose life may be falling apart, when your smile gave them a moment’s relief. It matters when hate fills our airways and our psyches and threatens to poison the world. People don’t always speak up when they’ve received a kindness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t notice. And if they didn’t consciously notice, neural connections in their brain still register the transaction and store it permanently. Your kindness becomes part of them.
When we die, I believe we leave a wake on this earth caused by our actions. Our wake can push people under, or give them a footing to rise above the moment, and get a clearer view of the challenges facing them. I choose the latter. People-pleasing may be one of my character flaws, but kindness is not.
Kindness is not a character flaw.
In honor of my dad, whose kindness, generosity, and selflessness have lifted up so many people in his 88 years, I ask you to consider your wake. Especially in the coming months, when almost half of our fellow Americans will be hurting and scared even more than they are right now, the world needs all the kindness we can muster. Fight for what you believe, hold politicians accountable, demand the truth, and, most importantly–VOTE. And leave a wake you’ll be proud of.
All the best. Stay safe and well.
Do you know someone who needs to hear this message? Please share it!
I had an interesting exchange on Facebook recently about personal accountability, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.
I’m in a private group for Recovering People-pleasers. (There’s a Facebook group for everything isn’t there? If you’d like to know more, reply to this email.)
A group member—I’ll call her Jane—posted that a close circle of friends had excluded her from a party at which everyone received an inscribed gift. The friends then plastered social media with pictures of the party and the gifts. It seemed clear to Jane (and to me) that the group intentionally ousted her, and they wanted her to know (in a passive-aggressive way, if you ask me.)
Jane asked for advice about how to respond.
I rarely give advice unless it’s requested, but since Jane asked, I started working on a reply. I was going to suggest that she mourn the loss of her “friends,” and then move on, as it was clear they didn’t value her friendship.
Before I had a chance to hit “post,” another member—I’ll call her Sue—replied with a much more direct and assertive suggestion. Sue suggested Jane contact one of the friends and ask up front why she had been excluded.
It was an aha moment for me, and immediately, my planned reply seemed lame. It was way too victim-y. I realized I had stooped to my people-pleasing fallback–to avoid confrontation, walk away, accept whatever people dish out. As much as I’ve grown in standing up for myself, avoiding conflict is still my default response to the world.
As a people-pleaser, avoiding conflict is my default response.
In contrast, Sue’s reply felt empowering. It held people accountable for their actions, a position I’ve not often taken in my life.
Personal accountability is the impetus behind my memoir. When I looked back on the saga of my son’s brain tumor, diagnosed over twenty years ago, I realized how much my people-pleasing hindered me from fighting for him. It was and is a horribly humiliating awakening.
I realized the only way to make sense of what happened was to hold myself accountable for my actions, or lack thereof. Doing this in a very public way–here, in my other writing, and especially my memoir is how I will finally overcome my people-pleasing. And I know that others who read my truth and see themselves in my story will experience their own accountability, and grow as well.
Personal accountability–owning our truth–demonstrates respect for self.
Holding myself accountable for my shortcomings required me to hold others accountable, too. My intent wasn’t and isn’t that anyone would change their ways or apologize, as that’s not within my control. And I don’t expect that someone else will see the story the same way as me. My purpose is to acknowledge how someone’s actions, words, and/or attitude impacted me and my story.
It’s a sign of respect for my self, showing that I had confidence in calling out the Emperor’s lack of clothes.
Confronting others about their behavior is hard for people-pleasers because it carries the risk of rejection. It’s less scary to pretend negative things don’t happen.
A friend excludes you from a party? Pretend you didn’t know and don’t care.
A romantic partner ignores you? Ignore it.
A colleague fails to complete their part of a project? Do their work for them.
A boss passes you over for a promotion? Lick your wounds in private.
A doctor fails to return a call/order a test/identify a serious diagnosis? Don’t make waves.
What we fail to see, however, is that being accountable–owning our truth–is a path to personal growth. Only when you’ve named the problem can you fight the problem. And opening up an awkward conversation may lead to new insights for both parties. It’s another opportunity for growth.
Being accountable is an opportunity for growth.
In the Facebook group, Sue suggested that Jane invite a member of the inner circle to coffee, talk about what happened, and explain how it made her feel. It would be gentle, caring accountability.
Once my conflict-averse floodgates were open, however, I imagined Jane calling one of the “friends,” and demanding to know WTF was going on. Sometimes, being all nicey-nice just doesn’t work. Often, though, aggression backfires.
I ended up posting my initial comment in the thread with a caveat that I changed my mind and liked Sue’s idea better.
Jane didn’t report back to the group, so I don’t know how she handled the problem. But I’m curious what you think.
Speaking of my memoir, I’ll be sending an update in my quarterly Newsy Letter soon, which includes book recommendations, and an embarrassing (G-rated) photo with a fun or funny personal tidbit about me. Wouldn’t you like to be in-the-know? Just scroll down or over to find the “Subscribe via email” box. If you can’t find it, click here. (If you’re already subscribed, don’t worry, I’ll weed out duplicates.)
I look forward to hearing from you, and hope you are safe and well.
All the best,
I recently had an aha moment about the pandemic. It came after days of typing and clicking on my laptop without producing or accomplishing anything of value. I had zero energy and wondered if I was depressed.
Do you have those days?
Many writers have struggled to practice their craft after COVID-19 hit. I had been fairly productive for several months, but lately, I’ve felt my enthusiasm wane. During this period of writing sloth-dom, even this short blog took me
three four five days to finish. (Below, I list of some of the topics that bounced around my head in the process. It’s kinda funny, actually.)
I was pretty discouraged, as I get sometimes. Building a name for oneself as a writer is not for the faint-of-heart. And the pandemic adds another layer.
The pandemic adds to our already-full plates.
I think it’s because every day—every hour and minute, for some of us—we’re facing existential questions about our lives, the future of our country, even the future of humanity and this planet. My husband and I have gone so far as to give each other “if I get COVID” instructions above and beyond our advanced directives.
Many of our deepest existential questions have no easy answer, if they have an answer at all. The whys and hows just bounce around our brains until they fall in a black hole, only to pop up again the next time we ask.
This intensity of unknowns creates… (and here’s my aha moment)…Pandemic Brain.
Pandemic Brain is caused by an overload of existential questioning and the intensity of the unknown.
When I realized I had Pandemic Brain, I already felt better. Funny how naming a problem can do that.
Imagine a pinball machine. If you walk past it, it’s quiet. But as soon as you engage with it by pulling the plunger, you’re trapped. There’s so much pent-up energy in that tightly coiled spring, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to let it snap back. And when you finally release it, bedlam ensues.
With Pandemic Brain, the plunger is engaged by the news, a Facebook post, a comment from a friend, or even a thought you have in a quiet moment. You may have felt on top of things, but as soon as you release the plunger with a sproing, your thoughts zig zag in a million directions with a gazillion different trajectories all at at once, and you try frantically to create some semblance of order, knowing you’ll have little control.
Pandemic Brain is like a pinball machine
Yup. That about describes it for me. So whatami gonna do about it?
What I’m going to do is return to the strategies I use anytime I feel overwhelmed, distracted, unproductive, in a funk:
- Give myself permission to be imperfectly human.
- Look for and articulate the lessons I learn from every struggle.
- Meditate–even five minutes helps.
- Look for moments in the day when I am not in overwhelming pain or discomfort, nor under extreme pressure. For many of us, there are more of those moments in a day than we realize. I revel in the calm of those moments.
- Practice gratitude of the little things. Of course we’re all grateful for family and friends, but don’t forget to appreciate curbside pickup at the liquor store, plentiful rolls of toilet paper again available, and programmable coffee makers.
- Laugh. I’ve never watched the Ellen Degeneres show, but her funniest moments Youtube videos are fall-on-the-floor hilarious.
And for some roll-your-eyes humor, here are some topics that dinged around in my Pandemic Brain for this months blog:
- Why I call my husband Michael “Mike” in my book, and my son Matt “Matthew,” and what it’s like to be “Karen” lately now that the name is infamous, and do you even know that “Karen” is a thing, and what’s really in a name?
- My book proposal is almost done except the marketing section, which is the thing I dreaded most about writing a proposal and I think I’m having a major flare of imposter syndrome.
- I’m such an introvert that even virtual engaging like on Twitter and Facebook is exhausting so I take breaks for a few days but then I think about what I should be posting and tweeting and I’m going to coin the phrase “the vortex of engagement,” and that would be a great essay if I ever have the time or energy to write it.
- And what authors can I ask to blurb my book, but the real question is, do I have the nerve to ask?
One thing I failed to mention in my list of “treatments” for Pandemic Brain is writing. It may be hard to generate intelligible prose with a blur of ideas and questions and fears buzzing around in my head, but when the words come, they help me understand myself and the world I inhabit.
So writing is another thing for me to be grateful for. And I’m grateful to you for reading this today. Thank you, my friend.
Now it’s time to get back to work.
Last week I shared a post on Facebook and Twitter that began, “Guess what Miss Brilliant just did?” You may have seen it—the picture of my kitchen after I brewed a whole pot of coffee without the carafe in place, causing a small flood that soaked through to the basement.
Two of my favorite comments from friends were “You are wonderful,” and “I love you.” And there were many comments to the effect of “I’m glad I’m not the only one who does stuff like that.”
It struck me how much people relate to each other’s vulnerability. How much, even, they crave it. Brene Brown—you may have heard of her?—said this about vulnerability:
Vulnerability is at the core, the center, of meaningful human experiences.
Vulnerability is inevitable.
Vulnerability is inevitable–no one and no life is perfect. But it’s the act of sharing our vulnerability that keeps us humble. If all I ever wrote and talked about was what I did well, my successes, what’s going right in my life, how could I possibly retain a sense of humility? How could I not start to think I was better than others? How could anyone possibly relate to me, and why would they want to?
Brene Brown achieved astronomical success through her research and insight on vulnerability, shame, imperfection, and other frailties of the human condition. But I wonder—how does one retain a sense of humility when fame and fortune of that magnitude come calling?
By making a conscious decision. Because owning our vulnerability and retaining humility are choices.
Humility is a choice.
Early in the coronavirus, my dad sent me this link about the Washington State lieutenant governor who left office to pursue the Priesthood.
The New York Times reported that Cyrus Habib, a political rising star, said “he could feel himself being sucked into a ‘celebrity culture’ in American politics that had nothing to do with public service. He could feel himself being swallowed by pride,” so he walked away before that happened.
A politician choosing humility over ego? How was that not splashed all over the headlines?
I was so impressed with Habib’s story, I planned to write about it, but then the coronavirus took over our lives, and it took our lives, and then racism took George Floyd’s life, and those events seemed so much more important than writing about vulnerability, humility, and ego. (Although I believe ego is at the root of both our pandemic fiasco and systemic racism, but I’ll save that for another post.)
Then an ego-boosting thing happened to me and I realized the universe had given me an excuse to tie the threads together.
Tying the threads together.
Last year, I had a Tiny Love Story–My Son, the Homeowner–published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. (If you click on the link, scroll down to the 4th story.) It was a thrill, but I kept my ego in check, as it was only 100 words, not a full-blown personal essay. Yes, it was the New York Times, but my words were a blip.
Out of the blue last week, I got this email from an editor at the Times:
I write with exciting news from Modern Love: We have partnered with Artisan Press to publish a book of Tiny Love Stories. Of the hundreds of Tiny Love Stories we have published, we plan to include roughly half of them in the book, including yours. It will be in bookstores late in 2020 and is available for pre-order online.
“Including yours.” Including mine.
Whoa, ego. Fame and fortune haven’t found you yet. It’s still just 100 words. It’s not like it’s a best-selling memoir.
The gist of my memoir—that I’m a people-pleaser, that the compulsion to keep the peace at all costs prevented me from advocating for my son in his hour and months and years of need—keeps a lid on my ego.
It’s not a premise to brag about. It’s not something to be proud of. When someone asks, “What’s your book about?” a part of me cringes.
But I tell my story because I believe my vulnerability will be someone else’s grace. I believe others will see themselves in me, in my timidity, my fear of conflict, my self-doubt, and the recognition will open them to personal growth.
My vulnerability may be your grace.
Will my story achieve astronomical success? Will my memoir become a best-seller? Unlikely. I may never know if I can maintain humility when fame and fortune come calling. But that’s not the point.
Vulnerability…[is] having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.~ Brene Brown.
The point for me is to continue on the journey, even without knowing where I’ll end up. On the way, I’ll continue to tell you of coffee floods, and buying the wrong milk, and my people-pleasing backfiring, and other silly and not-so-silly trials of life.
It will connect me to you and you to me and remind us both to keep our egos in check. Brilliant, don’t you think?
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Once again, I’m writing about a topic I didn’t plan to write about–racism. Once again, as a writer, I feel obligated to use my skills and my modest platform to say something of value. I’d rather leave the societal commentary to the bigwigs—those with sway, with clout, with fancier and more relevant degrees than me. Those who can make a difference.
But to not speak is to be complicit. And. I. Refuse.
So I’m sharing my thoughts about the murder of George Floyd, the black man in Minneapolis who was “kneeled to death” on camera. He was yet another man killed for the color of his skin.
I didn’t want to watch the horrendous video of the last eight minutes and forty-six seconds of his life, and yet I couldn’t not watch. I made myself pay attention to bear witness to his death. To look away was a privilege he and his family and his community could not exercise.
So what am I gonna do about racism? That’s the question we’re all asking ourselves, isn’t it?
I start by looking within. I consider myself a non-racist, but I acknowledge that in the past, I’ve not always confronted racist words or actions of others. That is racist on my part. I own that. For many of us, if we dig deep enough, I believe we’ll find racist leanings in our conscious and subconscious thoughts, and in our visceral reactions.
How do I fight the racist hidden within me?
First, by acknowledging it. And here I am.
Second, by changing.
Speaking up doesn’t come easily to me. Even the potential for conflict is anxiety-provoking. I’ve been actively working to escape the unhealthy people-pleasing box I built for myself. Now, when a voice in my head says, Karen, speak up, I do. I don’t give myself a choice.
George Floyd took his final breath under the knee of an oppressor. I will use my breath to speak up on his behalf and others who are oppressed. I will call out racism wherever and whenever it hides.
This declaration scares me. I’m not an in-your-face person. Then I think of the terror Mr. Floyd must have experienced, and I resolve to be mightier than my fear.
Third, by increasing my awareness.
Other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, I can’t recall if I’ve read works by African-American authors. (Truth be told—I’m very bad at remembering authors and titles, so I may have read other black-authored works. I promise to pay more attention going forward.)
So I’ll buy books to enlighten me. Anti-racism books are selling out across the country, and I may have to wait for Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. You can see these and other recommendations here.
Anti-racism books are selling out across the country.
But, even before I became a memoirist, I knew I gained more insight into issues through personal accounts than from most other forms of writing. Offer me story vs. expository writing, and I’ll choose story every time. Here and here are great lists of memoirs by African Americans.
If you have other book recommendations, memoir or not, please let me know.
After I finish one of these books, I’ll pass it along to someone in my majority-white community, and ask that they pass it on when they’re done. Collectively, in my little part of the world, maybe we can become better allies to our neighbors of color. And maybe, if this type of thing happens all over the country, it will make a difference. And maybe, just maybe, George Floyd will be the last person to fall victim to his skin color.
My efforts feel so… disconnected, so abstract, when others are protesting and putting their safety and lives on the line to make their statement. But sometimes, when so many are screaming, one more loud voice is not heard. Sometimes a whisper gets the attention.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,
In a gentle way, you can shake the world.
I will fight racism in my gentle, meaningful way, and continue to look for other ways to change our world for the better. We so need it, don’t you agree?
How about you? How are you fighting racism?
I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “The light at the end of the tunnel.” At this stage of the pandemic, I can still see the light, but it feels like this damn tunnel keeps getting longer and longer. Does it feel that way to you?
Or maybe you’ve lost sight of the light altogether.
I hope my words today will help—they are my final thoughts about the Art of Manliness podcast my son, Matt, brought to my attention last month. To catch you up, I first wrote about pandemic grief, and then about the sixth stage of grief, which is making meaning.
But the reason Matt sent me the podcast in the first place was that it referenced something else he and I have in common.
This was our text exchange:
Matt: “Wow! This is that podcast I always talk about. The episode I just listened to is about the pandemic, but from the perspective of emotions.”
Me: “Cool! I’ll listen at lunch.”
Matt: “I WAS NOT expecting it, but they went on to talk about a lot of your book stuff, and just as I was starting to think it, the guy mentions…POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH!”
Post-traumatic growth—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma, instead of languishing in it, as they might do with post-traumatic stress disorder–PTSD. I had never heard of post-traumatic growth until Matt introduced it to me a few years ago after hearing about it on NPR.
Post-traumatic growth—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma.
When Matt told me about the segment on post-traumatic growth he heard on NPR, he said, “I have that, Mom. I have PTG.”
After I looked into it, I realized I, too, have post-traumatic growth, twenty + years after Matt’s diagnosis at age eleven with a brain tumor.
Twenty years. It was a long tunnel.
And I didn’t realize until recently, when my therapist suggested it, that I probably had undiagnosed PTSD. Every once in a while, it’s still triggered when Matt hits a snag in life that I am powerless to solve, like when his basement got flooded last fall with five inches of water.
With no idea what to suggest or who to call–and it was late in the evening, so who would answer anyway?–I was lost. Michael was out at a meeting. I had just finished a glass of wine and didn’t feel safe driving over to Matt’s to offer emotional support, although he needed it.
It triggered the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness I had when Matt was young and was deteriorating before my eyes. That crumbling tunnel was three years long, and the light almost flickered out.
Helplessness and hopelessness–sound familiar?
So when Matt called about his basement, my mind flooded, too:
It was a mistake for him to buy that house. It’ll get mold and he’ll get sick. I wish he didn’t live so far away. (Twenty minutes!) I wish I could buy him a perfect house that would keep him perfectly safe and he’d never have an emergency like this and I’d never have to worry like when he was little and I wanted to move us to a desert island where no one would tease him or make him feel bad and I’d love him enough to keep away the hurt and I’d keep him safe and I’m so tired of worrying because I’ve done enough worrying already to last me a few lifetimes.
Yet Matt got his basement pumped out, dried out (mostly), and grew wiser, more confident, and seasoned as a homeowner. I grew too, in reminding myself that my fears are not Matt’s. I grew in understanding that with adversity comes growth, a lesson I hadn’t fully embraced when my children were young.
My difficult motherhood taught me more than I would have learned from the perfect life I had expected. It’s cliche, but I’m a better person because of it—more compassionate, humble, forgiving, wise. That’s part of post-traumatic—appreciating the lessons of your experience.
If your interminable tunnel has been too chaotic or lonely or dark to see any lessons yet, I hope you’ll be open to finding them in retrospect, when they often reveal themselves. And I hope you’ll remember that the light is there, even if you can’t see it.
The light is there, even if you can’t see it.
If this rings true for you, if it feels right, feel free to stop reading.
It may not ring true if you’ve lost loved ones during this difficult time when our normal support systems for grief are absent. The loved one was your light. That light did go out.
I have not walked in your shoes, so feel free to X out this page, and know that my heart goes out to you. But if you’re open, here are my thoughts:
I believe you are now in a different tunnel, one without your loved one. It is longer and darker and grimier and lonelier than you ever could have imagined. You may not see the light at the end of that new tunnel, so you may believe there is none.
But it is there.
And on the days when you feel you can’t get out of bed or pull on a pair of pants or put a fork to your mouth, all you need to accomplish in those difficult moments is to believe in the light.
Believe it is there. Believe you will see it again. And believe you will reach it, because someday you will get there, and that will represent growth.
Post-traumatic growth (PTG): The path is paved in meaningful moments.
In the podcast, grief expert David Kessler, who lost his teenage son unexpectedly, says the path to PTG (at around 13:50 in the podcast) is paved in meaningful moments. When friends and family call and text and send food and flowers, those are meaningful moments. Revel in them. Allow them to buoy you. They are reminders that the light exists, even if it’s still hidden.
When you are ready, you’ll create your own meaningful moments—picture collages, memorial gardens or displays, virtual celebrations of life—and you will catch a glimpse of the light. It will flicker on and off for a while. But it will call to you, and you will put one heavy foot in front of the other and slowly, laboriously, painfully move toward it.
Only you can decide if your loss manifests as PTSD, and if your growth feel likes PTG, but those are only labels anyway. What matters is that you climb out of your tunnel, and the you who exits, worn and tired though you may be, has survived.
That is my wish for us all—that we move toward the light, that we survive, that we grow.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. What will it hold for you?
(The podcast doesn’t go into much depth about PTG, so here’s another great resource.)
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People don’t race through the original five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—like running a marathon. There’s no mile marker to put behind us as we pass by, and there is certainly no finish line.
Grief is more like a revolving door—we cycle through the stages multiple times. Every so often, we step off, and then a song, a word, a memory sends us spinning again.
This week, I’m spinning. I’m reeling.
I had alluded to a sixth stage of grief last week, but I didn’t want to get into it, as I thought my blog was already too long. I didn’t want to lose you.
Sadly, I did lose someone. My friend who had battled COVID-19 for over a month died last Thursday.
Rest in peace, Ron.
As for Ron’s family, peace will evade them for a long time, especially since family and friends can’t gather to comfort them. It’s a cruel twist to this deadly disease. My husband and I drove up on Sunday to see Ron’s wife—my girlfriend—and we stood in their—in her—garage, just out of reach of the pouring rain. She and her son stood near the back wall while we all chatted and fought back tears.
No hugs. No kisses. Just presence. It was a meaningful moment. That’s what David Kessler, the grief expert in the podcast would call it.
“Making meaning” is the sixth stage of grief.
(You can find it at about the 10:22 mark in the podcast.)
Kessler is careful to say this stage is not about finding meaning in death. He mentions the sudden death of his son three years ago, and says the unhelpful platitude people often express—“Everything happens for a reason”—is bullshit. (My word, not his.)
It’s about honoring the life that has ended.
Making meaning is about honoring the life of the person who passed.
Sometimes making meaning is big, like fund-raisers and movements and lobbying for legislation. More often, it is a phone call, a “thinking of you” text, a card, the food and necessities we drop off, the pictures, stories, and memories we share.
These days, meaning includes car caravans, waves, socially-distanced visits, even social media posts, and this blog.
Meaning is a cushion for death, the “light within the darkness,” says Kessler.
The grief expert says meaning follows the acceptance stage, but I imagine it’s in the revolving door, too. After we cycle around a few times (or a few hundred times), the door opens to acceptance and we see that it’s there, but before we can fully step in, we’re dragged back, our head spinning.
It’s too early for me, and especially Ron’s family, to embrace acceptance, but the community of love that buoys them is hard at work creating meaningful moments. I am so grateful to be part of that community.
Whatever your experience of this pandemic, my wish is that you find ways to make meaning. You may already be doing that, and now that you’ve identified it as such, I hope it cushions you in the uncertain days ahead.
I hope you find light in the darkness. I hope you become light in the darkness of others.
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Are you still struggling? Me too.
So much loss and pain and fear within myself and among humanity. I’d been trying to wrap my brain around what I could say about it but it all seemed like more blah, blah, blah, just like the blah, blah, blah that fills the airwaves and my inbox every day.
Then my son Matt sent me a link to a podcast he listens to regularly: The Art of Manliness. In this particular episode, the host, Brett McKay, interviewed David Kessler, a grief expert and collaborator of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross—-creator of the five stages of grief.
You may be familiar with the stages, which ebb and flow, not in any sequential or linear order: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
In this interview, Kessler said what we’re experiencing during this pandemic is grief. All of us, except those rare individuals (if they exist) who are somehow immune physically, socially, and emotionally to what’s happening to our world, are experiencing grief.
We’re experiencing pandemic grief.
It certainly feels that way to me.
Kessler goes on to assert that we’re the first generation to have “feelings on feelings.” In other words, “I feel X about this situation. And I feel Y about my X.”
No wonder this is so difficult!
Kessler doesn’t name the second level of feelings, but in many cases, as it is for me, that feeling is guilt: since I have it so much better than others, I feel guilty about and un-entitled to my negative emotions.
I believe it’s a form of survivor guilt. I recognize it from Matt’s rumble with a brain tumor when he was eleven, and it persists for me today. He was, and is, so much better off than many, many other brain tumor survivors. How can I possibly grieve for what was lost when I have so much to celebrate? Deep in the thicket of bringing my memoir into existence, I fight that war often.
And I find myself fighting with my first and second generation feelings about COVID-19:
- I lost my disability income last September and my appeal was recently was denied. I’m not able to produce any sustainable earnings. But how can I feel sad when my husband is still employed and we’ll never lack for food and shelter?
- I’m afraid of getting infected, but I rarely have to leave my house. How can I worry when so many others put their lives on the line every day?
- I feel hopeless about the future of the book industry, and worried that I’ll never get an agent for my memoir. But how shallow can I be to even think about a mere book when people are dying?
- I’m distraught over my good friend who is extremely ill with COVID-19. But how can my feelings even compare to what his family is going through?
You get my drift.
Kessler’s advice is to “Stay in your first generation feelings,” allow yourself to feel without judgment. If you do this, he says, the feelings will pass through you in a few minutes.
I’m not sure that “passing through” happens so easily, but I’m going to try that this week.
I’m going to feel whatever I feel. I’m going to sit with all of my feelings and acknowledge them. I’m going to accept them whether they pass through me or not, and my goal will be to go easy on myself: self-acceptance is key.
I hope naming this collective expereince as grief helps you to go easy on yourself. I hope you can sit with your feelings today, accepting them for what they are. I hope you can grieve in whatever way you need to. And I hope that gives you solace.
Above all, I hope you are safe and well. If not, know that I grieve for you, as does the world.
There was much more in the interview that I’d like to share (including a sixth stage Kessler added) but, because there’s so much we all have to process every day, because of all the blah, blah, blah, I’ll save those thoughts for another week.
What about you? Does this pandemic experience feel like grief?