Coming out of depression, which not everyone can do, can feel like bursting through a wall ala a Kool-aid commercial (“ohhh yea!”) I’m grateful that what I experienced all throughout the last year was “temporary”, although, there were several moments when it felt like I would never feel good again. That is a very common feeling, and there are many of us who have battled depression all our lives, who must rely on medication because the depression is so biologically and neurologically based. More on the pros and cons of medicinal support for depression/anxiety in a future post (I chose not to take anti-depressants to get me through.)
So, here I am, knocking down those brick walls and doing air fist pumps like it’s my job because I have started to get my groove back. Actually, I could feel the beginnings of feeling better back in early May. Perhaps it was the warming temperatures or the fact that I was about to take a month-long sabbatical from work (best decision I ever made for my career and my personal well-being!) Around this time, I also started having a burst of creative energy. I started this blog and I also began an Instagram account called She Sets the Sky to channel my love for the outdoors and passion to get everyone outside.
During my month-long sabbatical, I went riding and hiking all the time, and at least once a week with two amazing friends – Jen and Kathy. We’d follow our rides from Superior to Eldorado Canyon with the most delicious margaritas and snacks. It felt so liberating to do whatever my soul and creative heart begged of me without any rules because, at heart, I am a free spirit.
As spring turned into summer, and I was slowly starting to feel human again, I would listen to a lot of jazz. It felt so easy to listen to the mostly non-lyrical music that kept my brain at a low vibe. Eventually, I could listen to all kinds of music – fast, slow, energized. It was the more energized songs that reminded me how much I love to sing (in the shower, especially) and dance, and how for so long, I had stopped doing both those things. I am a child of New Orleans after all, and when I more recently rediscovered the thumping percussions of brass bands that I realized, hells yea – I’m back!
Feeling well again doesn’t mean feeling the same as I did before this last year. But, that is a beautiful gift. I am Katie +. I have a perspective that is new and illustrates how I’ve grown. I can never go back to being who I was before, and I wouldn’t want to. That Katie didn’t know how fear and resistance trapped her from experiencing life. And, oh, what a colorful, complex, funny, tiring, bright, loving life it can be.
So, if you see me driving along belting out the tunes, as I will on the daily, don’t feel embarrassed for me or shy away from giving me a glance. I’m not crazy or weird. I just have my groove back.
No, I haven’t found it, in case you’re wondering. But, I am learning and starting to embrace the notion that the “sweet spot” or sense of “happiness” or “stress-freeness” is not what I used to believe it could be.
Looking back at my upbringing, or even going deeper and reflecting on American cultural norms, we are set up to think that happiness is “good” and feeling stressed, angry, sad or depressed is “bad”. Unfortunately, I am finding, this sets us all up for disaster. Sure, feeling sad or angry brings out a lot of unpleasant emotions, but trying to avoid those emotions tends to aggravate them and do yourself a disservice – as if you are committing an act of aggression against your own well being.
Imagine your emotions are like teenagers. You see your teenager, let’s call her “pissed off Annie”, freaking out about the fact that she wasn’t invited to her supposed best-friend Lilly’s slumber party. You decide, as the amazing and supportive, yet sometimes misguided parent that you are, to tell her to “suck it up” and “get over it.” It’s not the end of the world. I mean, she’s only in high school for gosh-for-tootins’ sake! Next thing you know, Annie is climbing out her bedroom window at 12 midnight to go hang with that jerk of a boyfriend you can’t stand (and honestly, neither can she) just to show you up, leaving you worried, sleepless and angry that she was so disobedient. In a nutshell, taking on the directive, dismissive and tough-love approach got nobody nowhere and it’s almost as if you are back to square one on continuing a surfacy, confusing relationship with your teen.
Just imagine if you gave Annie a big hug that moment she told you she was upset about not being invited. What if you told her about that time in high school when you were rejected or felt out-of-the-loop? What if you also told her that she has every right to be angry, but she also has the right to be sad and cry? What if you made it safe for Annie to feel whatever she needed to feel in that moment instead of trying to make it all go away, or make it all better on the spot?
Emotions act in a lot of the same ways. When we tell our sadness to take a hike, it clamps down and turns into anxiety. When we deny ourselves anger or frustration because we’ve been told since we were young that it’s rude, unclassy (especially for young girls) or won’t get us anywhere, it festers to an explosion. Ignoring or invalidating our emotions doesn’t make them go away. Just as using old tricks that got us by previously to “get over” something no longer work eventually.
Everything in our lives evolves, moves and changes, even when – and especially when – we don’t want it to. We can’t stop this momentum, but we can learn to embrace it and understand that happiness or sadness are not mutually exclusive emotions that we need to accept or reject respectively.
Just imagine for a second. That’s right, go ahead and close your eyes (well, maybe after you finish reading this.) Imagine what it would feel like if you stopped acting aggressively toward yourself and you simply allowed to feel whatever you were feeling. It’s scary to even begin, right? But, go on and give it five, 10, 15 minutes or more. I think you’ll find that everything settles down a little. The tense feeling in your body quiets some. You begin to breathe again. The feeling of anxiety softens, the tears may roll down your cheeks – but it feels like such a relief, you’ve forgotten about the anger. This is what it feels like to be kind to yourself.
What we tell ourselves matters and how we treat ourselves matters. This is our one and only life, or as my grandma Ronan used to say, “this ain’t dress rehearsal!” So, do yourself an act of kindness today and stop whatever it is you’re so busy doing and let yourself feel whatever it is that needs feeling.
Does anyone else get anxious as summer comes to a close? This may only apply to people living in places with seasons, as I certainly didn’t experience this in Texas. Summer’s end there was a welcome reprieve from eye-ball scorching, sweat dripping down your crack heat. It also didn’t arrive until late October when the temps might drop down to 65 degrees and you could put on your trendy puffy vest and beanie.
Now that we’ve lived in Colorado for four years, and we are about to experience our fifth fall here, summer is much more precious to me. Summer in Colorado is downright magical. Sure, there were a few weeks in June/July where the temps were in the mid 90s, and when you live a mile closer to the sun, that can feel like someone’s touched a frying pan to your face. But, overall, summer here is dry, breezy and al fresco the whole season through. The only problem is that the season only lasts four months. Sniff.
So, when the end of August rolls around, I start to get a little anxious about the fact that one month from now, we’ll be the farthest away the whole calendar year from these delightful summer days. Thankfully, fall in the Rockies may be the second best season after summer, so it softens the blow.
Living in Austin for 11 years, toward the end, I craved the seasons…so…hard. Now that I’ve had them for a while, I fully recall and acknowledge how they come with a change in mood. It just more recently struck me how varied my moods can be from season-to-season, which means the logical next step – like most healthy approaches to life stuff – acceptance.
Changing moods with the seasons, and like the seasons, are part of the natural order of things. I’m sure when I lived in warmer climates, I felt these changes as the months floated into one another. However, they must have been more subtle – just like the weather changes were more subtle. In Colorado, we’ll be looking at possible snow starting in October, and that my friends is sans-subtlety.
This year may prove to be particularly challenging because I am reminded that the fall of 2017 was the beginning of my many months-long struggles with depression and anxiety over childlessness. Coming up on that anniversary does not give me the warm fuzzies, and yet, it’s also very rewarding to look back at that Katie from last year – the one who couldn’t see any light at the end of a very dark tunnel; the one who lost all interest in the things she normally loved; the one who feared everything – have so much energy, excitement and genuine joy back in her life. It’s also rewarding to know that my transformation was the result of some very hard self-work, including starting and dedicating myself to a near-daily meditation practice, surrounding myself with loving friends and family, sparking my creative mind again, pursuing interests that lay dormant for too many years and one bad-ass, amazing husband who saw me through my worst days and allowed me to soak his shoulders with my face water.
No doubt, I’ll be writing more about the transition into fall and winter – especially as the days get shorter and darker around here. But, for now, I’m doing my best to live in the present moment and not focus too much on the impending “farthest day from the warm days” day. Buying a new puffy hoody to add to my collection may help ease the transition. Just sayin’.
What will I be when I grow up sounds like a great question for an eight-year-old or 18-year-old – perhaps not a 41-year-old going on 42 in a month. But, here I am all the same. And, not so much because I’ve figured out the career. Has anyone truly? Especially as we humans live longer, I have observed almost everyone I know face a career crisis multiple times in their – eh-hem, “career”. I’ve known for far too long that my calling is to help others far needier than myself. (That understanding will slowly, but surely be realized and is a great topic for another day.) My brothers and I always laugh that we wish our parents had encouraged us to be hedge fund managers instead of encouraging us to follow our bliss. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Or, would I? Not to be a hedge fund manager – not in the least. More to be a mother. That “career”, vocation or role was never mine to have. But, I wanted it more than bacon bloody mary for a Sunday morning hangover. I’m not a mother by choice, but by circumstance, nature or bad luck. My husband and I will never understand why that blessing was never bestowed on us. The specialists tell us we are in perfect health and we are just “one of those unexplainable” infertile couples. How much easier it would be to know that I had blocked ovaries or Mike had bad swimmers. But, we don’t have that clarity (all things being relative, as I know it’s not a joy to hear you have health issues either). We just know we don’t have children.
I’ve spent the last seven months struggling with depression, anxiety and grief over our new reality. So many dreams of a different life wiped away forever. A life I seriously could never have imagined without children. All of my plans had kids in the mix. Diapers, little league games, Christmas mornings with wide eyes and cookie crumbs on a plate. I just assumed it was something that would happen to someone who was a good person and wanted it so badly. Instead, I’m dealing with a triple threat that has sidelined me, enraged me, surprised me and taught me a helluva lot about myself, my relationships and my next steps. Stepping away from my Plan A has left me paralyzed by fear of…everything. And, only recently, have I had brief moments where I can feel a deep contentment and happiness I never knew would be possible again. I’ve likened the most recent experiences I’m having as like a snake shedding its skin or a caterpillar – turned butterfly – trying to escape its chrysalis. I can almost feel my shoulders writhing back and forth yearning to transform into the new person I am becoming.
So, what will I become after I leave my skin and shed my cocoon? Instinct tells me it will be something even more amazing than before and my unconditional kindness and love for my self will grow even wider and stronger. That is my hope for this day and for the day after this.
Lucile Theiler is our furry, black and white light of our lives. Standing at 4’7″ – when I coerce her into a dance – and throwing her punching weight of 37 pounds right onto the edge of our bed, three-year-old Lucy is an extraordinarily intuitive creature. She can bound at full throttle 100 yards down the park grass after a tennis ball and then just as easily curl up on the floor with a calm, sweet softness to her being. She kept a good amount of her silky puppy fur, the white blaze down her chest and the tiny white spot on her nose (which gave her the original name of Spot by the no-kill shelter from where we rescued her in New Mexico). It’s absolutely meditative to watch her sleep.
A week after we adopted her, Lucy became very sick with Parvo – a deadly virus for puppies in particular. Fortunately, we caught it in the early stages, but those three days, while she was in quarantine at the vet hospital, were very hard. I remember the first night we were allowed to go see her. After putting on the proper medical gowns and sanitizing our footwear, we walked in to see our 11 pound, brown-eyed puppy hooked up to an IV and wearing the cone of shame. We cooed and told her we loved her and how good she was for being in a kennel with a large plastic ring around her head. I remember Mike having a moment with her – looking at her squarely in the eyes. As we left the room, I was afraid it may be the last time I would see her, but Mike turned to me and said, “no, she’s gonna make it. I could see it in her eyes.”
Three years later, Lucy can’t be stopped. She’ll do anything for a game of fetch, loves chasing bunnies and birds (she’s part lab) and greets other dogs by doing the army crawl on her stomach (she’s also part border collie). And when I’m sad, she doesn’t let me out of her sight, attacking me with kisses and head bumps. She also adores Mike, but perhaps that’s because he lets her kiss his face for as long as she wants. Personally, I’m good with a couple of licks. Sometimes our roles with Lucy can sound very similar to how my friends are with their husbands and children. As the “mom” in the family, I do the majority of feeding, walking, vet visits and grooming while Mike gets to come home and be the “fun one”.
Dogs (and cats – I guess) add an indispensable quality to our lives. There’s a beauty in their inability to communicate with us in our native language. It makes them somehow both so genuine and so vulnerable all at the same time. And, in that beauty, we are reminded of our own vulnerability and our own desire to communicate without judgment. Without the ability to have a full blown conversation, both owner and dog are forced to look deeper into each other’s needs. It’s this amazing effort to find a common ground to care for one another. You could say that about most animals, but dogs are domesticated enough to experiment with the relationship on a daily basis in the comfort of your home.
So, thank you Lucy for bringing such wonder to our family and challenging us to be good caregivers and communicators. You remind us that a life lived for only oneself and a life lived focusing on external factors can only go skin deep. To get to the heart, you have to care and nurture something beyond self – and you doggie help us do that everyday.
As I drive the two-and-a-half miles to the grocery store, I develop my plan. I’m not agitated yet and I’m even listening to some music with the sunroof open and windows down smelling the slightly cool humid air filled with the smell of salt water, flowering trees and the promise of spring. I breathe deeply. I know the layout of the building fairly well. Most of what I need is straight through the entrance sliding doors on the left of the store, so I should be able to get in, pick up what I need, get to the self-checkout and make my escape. It’s Sunday, and I never shop on Sunday. Even before all of this, I never liked shopping on Sunday. Too many slow, ambling, rubbernecking produce pickers.
I weave through what seems like a hundred people, grab my products and head for the self-checkout, which has a line. I look at the woman I am waiting behind. She’s blonde, tanned and has only a few items to purchase. I think to myself, “I bet she’s happy and not nervous at all. I bet she’s thinking about all the errands she still needs to run on this beautiful day or what she’ll do with her family once she gets home.” These thoughts seem to make me feel worse and the waiting and thinking begin to confuse my breathing and turn my heart into a blood pumping, thumping drum. I’m uncomfortable, but know, through lots of meditation, a couple of months of cognitive behavioral therapy plus acupuncture and a jump start to my spirituality will certainly get me through. I finally checkout – perhaps the fastest checkout in recent Harris Teeter memory – head for the exit and inhale a large deep breath. I walk toward the car with a little smile on my face almost proud that I did it – I was able to buy four products at the grocery store and not completely fall apart. Although I had wanted to make Sazeracs for pre-dinner cocktails, there’s no way I was going to make a second trip to the liquor store. Getting groceries was plenty, and I’m glad I did it. After all, I’m on vacation.
For most of my life, I’ve been looking at other people’s suffering through a plexiglass window – somewhat translucent, but not completely clear. I never knew grief could feel this physically and mentally painful. It’s not that I hadn’t faced a couple of temporary darker times over a break-up or life transitions in my early adulthood. Those moments of sadness carried with them a sense of longing to return to my “normal” self, but they didn’t last long. They were typical – they were hard, but not unusual.
Now, after the loss of a life I believed I would live with my husband, I find myself in a disconnected place. Disconnected from what I used to enjoy. I mean really enjoy – a lot. Goodbye eating out, goodbye enjoying a cocktail, goodbye shopping. Goodbye to having a consistent feeling of peace in my body. Hello to avoiding so many things.
It took some time to truly understand and even longer to accept that depression, anxiety and panic were in the driver’s seat of my day-to-day life. At first, I was convinced I had a recurrence of Grave’s Disease from my late teens. The doctor ran every blood test under the sun and a few days later the test results were in – I was blissfully healthy. The diagnosis was in the differential – I had anxiety. Not a very satisfying diagnosis.
At this point, I was able to face the “why”, but was unclear how my anger and sadness over not having children had lead to this. Anxiety? Off all things, why had my feelings on being childless turned into anxiety and panic? If I were truly upset about not being a mother, why didn’t I just start crying all the time and stay in bed all day? Isn’t that what grief looks like?
Through this journey I keep learning. Reading an obnoxious amount of self help books helps with that (however, don’t overdo it – sometimes engulfing yourself quickly into finding a solution can only exacerbate the symptoms.) The first thing I learned was that anxiety for me is actually my body’s way of masking the deep feelings of shame, failure and loss that I didn’t think I deserved I should feel. My initial perspective had been – I may not be a mother, but I have my health and no one died. My husband and I enjoy a very loving and supportive marriage. He is and will always be my best friend, and I’ll say it and dare sound trite – soul-mate. I’m blessed and fortunate. Any yet, somehow, my body doesn’t currently manifest itself with consistent joy or appreciation. My body knows that the life we envisioned for ourselves is over – it did die. My body had already been working out the grief that my rational mind could not accept.
Millions of people, who not by any intrinsic or extrinsic choice enter into the journey of childlessness – whether genetically, environmentally or socially caused. It can be life shattering. In fact, a 2009 Harvard Medical School publication references a study of 488 women unsuccessful in having children and found they felt as anxious and depressed as those diagnosed with cancer or recovering from a heart attack. Some cancer survivors have even reacted to the study stating that the later infertility they experienced was even harder than the cancer because at least their cancer was cut out, or treated. Infertility, on the other hand, was not reversible. Of course, cancer can also turn deadly, and that is something I have experienced personally with friends who have passed away, as a former Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team in Training marathon coach and through my work as a volunteer over the years for children with cancer. I hesitate to mention the study for fear of retribution. However, what the study tells me, and I hope tells all of us, is that infertility grief carries a heavy weight and a deep sense of loss that can impact couples, individuals and loved ones in very similar ways that other, more socially acceptable forms of grief can. Lives are changed forever in infertility’s wake, but to the outside observer, being childless was either a choice or something one should move on from – or better yet – why not choose adoption or fertility medicine?
Everyone – without exaggeration – who has faced infertility, whether during the battle to get pregnant or after all options have been exhausted, will be asked the following questions: “Will you adopt? Will you consider seeing a fertility doctor? What about IVF?” These questions are typically followed by the sharing of miracle stories about a friend who got pregnant after three miscarriages and four IVFs, or the friend who adopted and then got pregnant, the friend who had two children after 10 years of infertility medicine. These well-intentioned stories are designed to provide hope, and while you are on your infertility journey to get pregnant, they can serve as a shimmer of possibility and keep you focused on the task at hand – having a child.
Once you enter into the phase of your life where having a child is unquestionably not feasible, the miracle stories land on you like a grenade. You may not have wanted or have been able to afford to adopt or do IVF because of the expense. There is also the potentially lengthy process to adopt and go through fertility treatments that can bring with it a lot of stress, or perhaps, like me, you wanted to experience pregnancy and to see your husband’s dimple replicated in your child’s face.
Fertility treatments are also costly, stressful and without guarantees. Some studies show that IVF has a 40% chance of success for women under the age of 35 and can cost roughly $30,000 for one round. Keep in mind, IVF is one of the most successful options one can choose when seeing a fertility specialist. IUI, which like IVF can involve thousands of dollars, drugs, poking, prodding, testing and customizing your life around your cycle, presents far less statistical chances of getting pregnant. And not to be overlooked, these treatments can cause an incredible emotional strain on a marriage. The shame, disappointment and anger some couples endure can prove to be too much – resulting in divorce. You may be thinking, well, raising a child or children comes with a lot of stress and expenses, so if you can’t face adoption or fertility treatments then perhaps you shouldn’t be a parent. I’ll ask anyone thinking this, who has been blessed to naturally conceive, or who have adopted or had success with medical intervention to try to think back to when they envisioned building their family. Did they imagine it would be so hard? Not the raising kids part – just the getting started part. Did you foresee that it may not work out for you in the end? Everyone tells you raising kids costs money and may make you prematurely grey, but no one ever prepares you for what to do when you don’t even get the chance.
As I sit in my parent’s living room looking out over a low country marsh, I look for the grace to be kind to myself. I’d been planning this vacation – this much needed time off – for months, and it was meant to be a turning point in my grief. I looked forward to dinners at nice restaurnats, visits to the beach and to my favorite pub on a nearby island. I so badly wanted to be rejuvenated by the salt air. Instead, I collapsed when I arrived and have been afraid to go very far from the house for fear of a panic attack. My depression and anxiety remind me that these things takes time and I am not out of the woods yet.
Grief over childlessness has been a confusing journey for me and my loved ones. Everyone in my life who knows me would agree that I’ve always been a genuinely happy, joyful and optimistic person. Perhaps my reaction to not realizing my dreams of motherhood – the crying, the panic, the general sense of unease and tension in my heart – gets compounded for me because I don’t recognize it. Depression and anxiety have been foreigners to me most of my life and it can be discouraging to think about. Mental anguish can carry its own mental anguish. So meta, right?
Some people remind me to take it a day-at-a-time, but I want to respond that I need to take it minutes at a time some days. In the space of a few minutes, I can go from laughing with my husband at a YouTube video to needing to be quiet altogether and be by myself for half an hour or go for a walk. In the middle of a conversation, I can literally ask him to either pause or keep talking while I walk out our back door to grab a breath of fresh air. My grief can feel suffocating.
So, I share my story, not for sympathy. We all have our journeys to take in our different times. And some of us will take more than others. I share because I have found specifically with depression related to being childless there are few resources and many of us suffer in silence. However, I should mention the few I know that are amazing – Gateway Women, Life Without Baby and Justine Foekler. I would also add that many men suffer in silence as well, and the resources for them I’ve found (or better yet, not found) are paltry.
So, now to look at this time as a gift – a loosely wrapped present of information and empathy to myself and to others. Now, that I have experienced deep grief, I can never again look at suffering from a distance. I will no longer look through a plexiglass window at my suffering family, friends, co-workers or strangers and not fully understand the physical and emotional toll taking place. I’ll know – but never fully know anyone else’s journey – that they may have shortness of breath, an inability to eat, a ringing in their head a panic attack looming in the next few minutes. I’ll know they need to be treated with softness and without judgment. Often people observing suffering will either not know what to do and walk away or offer advice that cannot be heard when you’re just trying to get your foot out of bed. Mostly well-intentioned, advice can be harmful and that is a scary, frustrating realization for those supporting a depressed or anxious loved one.
My advice to you – try the simplest act. Get permission first, and if granted, perform a simple duty for your loved one without words or expectations. In Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak; Listening for the Voice of Vocation, he describes a moment in his deepest depression when a friend named Bill – with permission – visited Palmer every afternoon, “sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling – and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.”
Sadness over infertility and a life unrealized will always be with those of us who experience it. But, the deeply felt physical and emotional pain of depression and anxiety does not always need to manage our lives. As we face the reality of childlessness and adjust to a life we didn’t imagine, we must know that we are not alone. Society and even our own selves may not treat our pain with the respect and magnitude it deserves, but we must honor the pain before we can walk together with the intention and hope that there is a whole new life to be created. There are dinner outings, grocery store runs, walks on the beach, cocktails to drink, concerts to dance at, even baby showers and children’s birthdays that we will once again enjoy with so much abandon (scratch that – I never like baby showers.) There will come a day when we won’t think about the pain anymore. And then that day will be followed by another day and soon it will be a week and then a month. Dare I say, it will take baby steps. But, we can take this journey together in its ups, downs, setbacks and growth. I’m all in – will you join me?