Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Nine Months

For the third time in my life, something amazing happened in nine months. The first two times resulted in two amazing little boys who have stolen my heart. During each of those pregnancies, my body knew instinctively what to do. Growing, incubating, and giving birth to a child is truly a miracle. To think something as microscopic as an embryo now runs to give me snuggles around my neck, throw a baseball, screech whilst swinging on the swing set, or make me smile with just the thought of him. Somehow, Mother Nature and biology knew each step to create each of my children. Some women feel the nine (or so) months of pregnancy seem like forever.

I felt I blinked, and those nine months were up.

When you decide to have a baby, you don’t realize all the sacrifices you will make. Sure, you have the financial conversation: calculating diapers, clothes, doctor’s co pays, furniture, eventual college, child care, etc. At a certain point, somewhere around the fifth figure, you stop and know it’s going to be a long time before you get comfortable. Then the physical sacrifice – at least for mom. My body doesn’t resemble anything like pre-pregnancy, and I wouldn’t change that. I love my scar. It’s a physical reminder of my experience. Besides the financial and physical sacrifices, there are the emotional sacrifices. No one told me I wouldn’t be able to hear a story about a child’s death without feeling physically ill. I did not expect to cry at every stupid Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card I read.

And no one told me how comfortable I would become with urine. It’s sterile, right?

Earlier this month another nine months came to a close. No, we haven’t added a new addition to the family that I can blog about over at my other writing post AllMommyFail.  Last Spring, we sat down to calculate the sacrifices it would mean for me to go back to school. Cancel the house phone, downgrade the car, re-assess our insurance, cut fun-money and vacations…the financial sacrifices go on. Looking back, some of it makes sense since neither of us have time for fun, phone calls, or vacations. We asked for help when we needed it – a scholarship to the Y to continue our membership, student loans (ugh). In the short-term, it’ll suck. But much like having a child, in the long-term, we’ll be better off, right?

I was not prepared for the physical sacrifice. Ever since I could remember, I can function on 5-6hrs of sleep. If I get more, I’m off. Once Autumn Quarter started, I was lucky to get 3hrs per night. Less than 30hrs of sleep per week is just not healthy. I see pictures of me from Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and I would have been worried about me if I were my friend. Grayish complexion, carry-on luggage under my eyes, dust collecting on the gym bag, the pounds creeping back on the scale. No sleep, no exercise, no downtime = incredibly grumpy me. Okay, let’s be honest. I was a bitch to my family from September through…let’s say January?

That wasn’t in the orientation materials.

There were emotional sacrifices as well. In the past decade, I have enjoyed a certain comfort in being good at anything that was thrown at me. I have been very fortunate to have been employed consistently since entering the workforce, usually in fields that related to psychology: research assistant, control coordinator, clinical interviewer, grant/program coordinator, research coordinator. My best skill was taking someone’s problem and saying, “I can do that.” And then do it! I knew what I was talking about, I was confident.  Then I got some crazy idea that I should go into a field I thought I knew nothing about.

In our first class, the professor had each student in the room describe where they came from (institution), background in communications, and research interests. It was probably the fourth time we each had done this, so it was a well-honed speech at this point. Each student was able to drop a name, an institution, a project related to communications, besides a few of us. They were all SO YOUNG!

What the hell did I get myself into?

I don’t think anyone has any idea of how mentally exhausting my brain can be. I would perseverate on everything someone said in class, how they said it, what I said, how people reacted non-verbally to my comments, the professor’s nonverbal and verbal response, was I right, was I wrong, was that stupid, oh god I shouldn’t have said that, now I have to make up for it, please don’t talk so fast I need to get this down because I’ve never heard of what everyone else is nodding their heads to, wait I didn’t read that article I didn’t think we had to, what was that analysis, we have an exam TOMORROW? All this would go through my head every 2min or so.

If anyone actually recorded my thoughts, I’d sound like a crazy person. No, I’d sound like three crazy people.

My first quarter was wicked rough. I questioned everything I ever said, wrote, thought. I feel graduate programs really must do a better job warning students, especially older students, of the imposter syndrome we all will encounter at some point. It takes a lot to counteract the effects of imposter syndrome. Intense, tenured professors who aim to push students as hard as possible are not the anecdote. Surrounding yourself 24/7 with others experiencing the same symptoms attempting to counteract with MORE fervor and knowledge is worse. The icing on the cake is those financial and physical sacrifices you’ve made while trying to understand what the hell is happening.

I felt in the first three months, much like when you’re pregnant, you have to give your everything. Most women get really sick in their first trimester, and have to adjust to a changing body. It’s really hard NOT to get swept up in every twinge, pull, queasiness. You worry because in those first three months is where stuff goes horribly, horribly wrong. I’ve experienced that loss, and once you have, you’re terrified until you feel your baby kick or see a head on an ultrasound that you’ll experience it again. The first three months of graduate school isn’t much different. You worry that everything you’ve worked so hard for: the studying for the GREs, the personal statement, the grades during undergrad, the letters of the people you don’t want to let down – will all be pulled out from under you. Once you’re dumped, can you ever go back? What about those sacrifices I made? My family? I don’t have a job to go back to. I can’t be a failure to my family? Everyone KNOWS I’m doing this – I CANNOT FAIL. No pressure.

Pregnancy can break bodies and leaves scars. Graduate school can break spirits and leaves equally noticeable scars.

But there was light. In January I got to take a class of MY choosing – not a mandated. It wasn’t perfect, and I still felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But in that class were different people. These second and third years were just more comfortable in their skins. They survived their first year, I could too, right? And we were talking about stuff I give a shit about. I found my voice with my advisor; I figured what to take and what to leave in comments from what professors. I listened more. And I began to find balance. My computer didn’t come out of the car until the kids were asleep. I didn’t get there much, but I did see the gym a few times. Eric and I finally figured out what our shifts looked like together and we felt more comfortable with the arrangements. Much like pregnancy, the middle three months of your first year in graduate school is the most comfortable. Sure, there was stress and a few all nighters. But they weren’t nearly as painful as the first three months. It was as if that horrible-no-good-marathon sprint of the first three months prepared me for the less-steep-incline of Winter Quarter. Still a hike, but a doable hike.

During the last three months of any nine month journey like this you have the finish line on your horizon. Your due date is on the calendar, you visit the hospital, you have the baby shower, and you prepare the nursery. You know the end is near, so everything is a little more tolerable. My last three months of my first year of graduate school was similar. I was pretty damned snarky in my last few months. I stopped giving a shit what other students (not in my program) thought of what I had to say. I wasn’t there for them, I was there for me. The best part was getting to do research that I designed. Research surveys and projects other people were excited about, that was sexy, and successful. I got to frame what I wanted my future to look like, and then I got to sell it to others. When the lead is let out of the leash a little bit, the thinker in me goes nuts. That’s where I’m comfortable. Not constantly comparing to what I should know or should care about, which is mostly in the past? But preparing for the future.

My research program is like my birth plan – how will I bring into my present that future I’ve incubated?

I know my first year wasn’t perfect and I know I won’t have another opportunity to experience or do it over. I would need a thick book to write down all the mistakes I made: emotionally, socially, financially, academically, professionally, and with my family. But I’ll learn from them. I now understand why those second and third years seemed so comfortable in their bodies. Scars and all, they were still here. They could laugh about missteps and stumbles. The fourth years remind me that on job talks or interviews, no one asks how much your classmates liked your comments in your first seminar or what grades you got on unassigned yet graded homeworks. It’s the JOURNEY. It’s what you did with your time while you were learning.

I remember my maternity time with each of my kids. I adored that time, sleepless nights and all. Actually, the first kid was really easy – slept through the night at like week 5. We bonded as a family, being together. I know how incredibly fortunate and blessed I am for having that time. I feel like I’m on maternity leave all over again, bonding with my data sets. Taking the time, unrushed, to be creative. I’m preparing for the next step, in three months (okay 8wks) to move to the next platform. It will be challenging, difficult, stressful, for sure. But as long as I keep the scars I have from the first year, I’ll understand how to keep from others marking my spirit.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

After the storm and over the hill, memories fade

In my study/writing music wheelhouse is Mumford & Sons’ album Sigh No More. The entire album is rich as an experience. Every song for me, though, reminds me of my grandmother I lost this past August. I’m certain it has to do with the Celtic sounds, the scruffy lyrics that reference long-forgotten battles, or maybe just the musicality of the whole thing. There’s one particular song, however, that doesn’t just tug at memories of Grandma Dillon. “After the Storm.” It’s my Alzheimer’s song.

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) has claimed two of my grandparents. I’ve seen older loved ones die of cancer, old age, cardiovascular disease and strokes. I can say without a doubt, Alzheimer’s is the shittiest disease I have ever laid witness to. My father’s mother and my mother’s father both suffered far too long from this disease before they finally went “home,” at least physically.

I’d like one day to go without thinking about this fucking disease.

I guess getting that tattoo in October wasn’t the best idea if I just wanted to stuff everything I feel about AD down into a hole until I have to inevitably deal with it again. I don’t want to think about it because it clouds and colors the memories I have of my grandparents. My grandmother gobbled up knowledge like some people breathe. The impact my grandmother had on my thirst for knowledge cannot be contained in this post. I’ll save that for my dissertation.

And after the storm,
I run and run as the rains come
And I look up, I look up,
on my knees and out of luck,
I look up.

My grandmother’s funeral card sits above my desk, just out of my line of sight. Whenever I struggle to find a word or the next sentence, I tend to look up (science proves we all do it!). Then I see my favorite photo of her, accompanied by the Irish prayer. Then the stupid rain comes and an eventual tear sheds. Sure, I could move the prayer card, maybe put it away so it doesn’t trigger a memory. But then I’d have to give up hot tea, my study sweater, knitting needles, card catalogues, and any music with a violin.

Night has always pushed up day
You must know life to see decay
But I won't rot, I won't rot
Not this mind and not this heart,
I won't rot.

Because we are rational beings we have to ascribe some sort of reason to why things happen. I guess it’s one of those cognitive behaviors that separate us from the chimps and cockroaches. What purpose could Alzheimer’s possibly serve? Perhaps to live and create and revel in memories as we create them. If the purpose to life is to live, then we must live. Without such darkness, seeing memories fade into some distance Grandma and Grandpa always seemed to be staring into, we never see those bright moments. The sun cannot come up unless it has set.  You must know life to see decay. But my memories do rot in my heart. They rot with the stink of Alzheimer’s. They rot when I think of the last time I spoke to my Grandmother. I got to tell her I was going to start a PhD program. She was so far gone (she died the following month) that the only thing she understood was pretty much the word doctor. She won’t be there to see me walk. She won’t be there to hear about all the stuff I’m learning. She won’t get to hear about the books I get to read. There was only one memory I wanted to create with her. I didn’t get to.

And she sat there and rotted. This amazing woman that raised 6 kids, two not even her own. She married the love of her life and they lived life exactly how they wanted. My grandfather rotted in the same way. A man who helped get us to the moon, who could figure any mechanical device and fix it or even make it better. He is the smartest man I have ever met. He couldn’t figure out how to swallow when he died.

And I took you by the hand
And we stood tall,
And remembered our own land,
What we lived for.

The last time I saw Grandma I just sat and held her hand for hours. Her skin was still so soft, paper thin. That was the only way I ever remembered her skin, so it was kind of comforting that at least that hadn’t changed. But in that freezing, hospice room under the stench of her rotting tumor that eventually killed her, I tried my damnedest not to secure that as my memory. We listened to her favorite Brandenberg concertos, and while she slept I told her all about my kids that she had met but didn’t remember 5 minutes later. I told her how much I wish we had talked about raising boys instead of artists and seashells. I told her how much I learned about life whenever we were on the boat. I told her I was who I was because of her, no regrets.

And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

I don’t think there will be a time when there won’t be tears. My children were robbed of the opportunity to learn and grow with these grandparents. I promise you both Grandma Dillon and Grandpa Chernick would have lived to be 100 if it weren’t for Alzheimer’s. As stubborn as they both were, they would have beaten any other disease with a big bat of kickass. 

And now I cling to what I knew
I saw exactly what was true
But oh no more.
That's why I hold,
That's why I hold with all I have.
That's why I hold.

All we have to cling to whenever someone dies or leaves our lives, is our memories. But too often those memories are formed not through the actual experience we have had or created together. But through the accessing of those memories. If Grandma hadn't died of Alzheimer's, but instead say skin cancer, with all her faculties, would I have these same memories. Would I still "know" what I "know" now?

I saw exactly what was true. At her memorial service in Big Pine Key, a few of us spoke of our memories of Grandma. Some I had heard, some I hadn't. Some I knew if she were there she'd be giving that stern look with pursed lips that everyone knew the smallest and slowest would get the brunt if she caught their collar. Grandma lived to make memories, she really did. She didn't do anything small or slight, even though she was both things. She was an only child raised by a single mother (how many of those back then?). She had all boys until a teenage orphaned niece came along. I saw not only in that memorial service, but in the last moments I got to spend with her what I knew was true. She was graceful, quiet, peaceful, and loving. Alzheimer's couldn't rob her of that much. 

I will die alone and be left there.
Well I guess I'll just go home,
Oh God knows where.
Because death is just so full and man so small.
Well I'm scared of what's behind and what's before.

I know, physically, my grandmother did not die alone. She was surrounded by people she loved, who strived to make her as comfortable as possible. But she did die alone, mentally. A part of me wishes I didn’t see her for the last time. That maybe my last memory could be the year prior, when she was still better. There were at least flickers, then, of memories. She remembered my father so by association remembered me. Or the Spring prior to that when we walked on the same beach together as we had 20 years before. Sure it was different sand and surf, but it was still the same.

Because death is just so full. I often say that death is beautiful in Autumn and Alzheimer’s. My mother talks of how privileged she felt when she got to be present at my grandfather’s death. Maybe that’s what has given her some peace that I cannot seem to find in my grief. Maybe death is a relief for those with Alzheimer’s as well as those who love them. And then in their death, we conjure up those memories all over again. In our grief, we make an emptiness full. It’s made full in a way we don’t at 9:30am in a meeting or at 8:45pm when the kids just won’t go to sleep.

Well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before. I know, somewhere in the terribly pessimistic part of my heart, this disease isn’t through with me or my family. Whenever I prayed through both Grandma and Grandpa’s experiences, I heard God say, “it’s in preparation.” I would pretend that aching anticipation meant it’s preparing me to live my life with my husband and my children to the absolute fullest. Just ask anyone, I try to cram as much into my kids’ lives as I humanely can. New festival? We have to go! Want to jump in that puddle? Have at it. New exhibit at the museum? Let me get my shoes.  But what if it’s not that. I have to somehow learn from these experiences with this terrible, shitty disease because it will break me when the next diagnosis comes.  I’m not sure my soul is strong enough.

And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears. It’s the very love you hold for someone with Alzheimer’s that breaks your heart. You can’t do ANYTHING. Nothing. No medicine, no therapy, no prayer, nothing. It’s like watching someone on the train tracks and you can’t do anything to stop the train or move the individual. Actually, that metaphor sucks. Because it implies it’s quick and striking. It’s nothing like that.

And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

Get over your hill and see what you find there. On that funeral card is an amazing picture of Grandma Dillon. It’s actually my favorite (besides the one with the Velcro helmet-ball game). It’s Grandma and Grandpa Dillon, in their shorts and sandals, on a mountain somewhere in Colorado. It’s well before any hint of the disease. She has such a genuine smile on her face. She wasn’t a big smiler, something we actually talked about. Grandpa Dillon did enough of that for her (at least around me). They’re in love, in God’s country, bathed in light, surrounded by amazing blues and greens and clouds. It’s how I want desperately to remember them.

When I hear this lyric, and see that picture, it’s Grandma telling me to find that apex in my grief. It’s okay to sit on top of that mountain of grief, of memories that never were. I can still hear her voice in my heart and I’m terrified for the time that comes when I won’t. But eventually I’ll have to step over that hill. I’ll have to eventually see what’s on the other side of this grief, of this experience. Right now I feel like that’s when the door shuts on my time with Grandma. That’s the moment when I truly live my life without her. The grief is comforting in a way because it keeps her here. When the grief leaves me, when I’m over that hill, what then? Will I be able to see it with grace in my heart?

So for the time being, when this song comes on, I pause my typing or stop walking or slow my pace on the treadmill and choose to experience it. Sometimes I look like a damned fool at the library or gym silently crying through a song no one else hears. And I’ll know that moment when my heart hears it differently and I’ll know I’m over that hill. Until then, I hope the wind is at my back and the sun on my face. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Present Self, Learn from Past Self

Letter to Winter Quarter Self:

It’s a New Year and a new quarter – full of lots of possibilities and opportunities. It’s up to YOU to make sure they are positives and not more “learning” opportunities. Last quarter was rough, but I think it was in part because we let people get into our head. There are four things we need to remember that we’ve learned from last quarter: confidence, permission, balance, and mindfulness.

Confidence: I’m not sure when you’re spirit was broken (okay, we both know when, where, and by whom), but that was done and gone with over three years ago, enough already.  You’re in the #3 program in the country! You’re in the #1 research program in the country! You’ve written funded grants – multi-million dollar Federal grants. You’ve won awards for your writing. You can hold your own in a statistics meeting with seasoned professionals in a complicated research design. You allowed others to define your identity in this program before it even started.

IF IT WAS EASY, YOU’D BE ONE OF HUNDREDS, NOT ONE OF TWENTY. When you doubt yourself, whether you should be here or if you can cut it, open up Buckeyelink and look at your grades from last quarter. Then, click on the SEIs from 463. Look at what students said about you – students who had nothing to gain but gave their opinion anyway. Look at the letter your supervisor wrote about you. Re-read your personal statement. It got you in. If this doesn’t convince you, close your eyes and imagine that 20’ wall. Smell the mud, the sweat, the straw. Feel the pressure of the people running behind you. Are you going to climb this motherfucker or not? You kicked that wall’s ass. You screamed, you trembled, you were scared, you were tired, your muscles were beyond fatigued, but you did it. Now open your eyes, and write this fucking paper.

Permission: For some reason, we thought we needed permission to be confident, or to belong.  Since when do we need permission!?! Your days of asking permission ended when you were made an offer of admittance. YOU DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO BE SUCCESSFUL. Stop looking for reasons to go meekly. Act like you’ve been here before, because you have been. You’ve done research. You’ve gotten published. You’ve presented at National Conferences. You’ve coordinated major political events, campaigns, a successful household, what makes you think you don’t belong? Because they’re younger? Are you here for an education or for a good time? Are you here to network with professionals or to make sure you’re popular? You have permission to be successful – you no longer need to pause to determine if you should, JUST FRIGGIN’ DO IT.

Balance: Last quarter was rough, no one who knows you would argue otherwise. You weren’t yourself, and it’s because the balance you’ve been working hard for two years was disrupted. You were trying to be 110% for all the 100% in your world, and that just doesn’t work. You tried to make it like nothing has changed, your new job was just school, that’s all. For the sanity of yourself and for those who have to put up with you, maintain balance. That means getting in a workout, don’t touch the computer while the kids are around, make time for your husband, take a moment each day for just you – even if it’s just dancing stupid in the car or strutting on the way to class. When you feel like yourself, the other stuff will fall into place.

Mindfulness: Remember ALIA? Remember the lessons you learned there? What was your goal? To find your swagger. You found some of the tools to find that swagger. This new journey is the rest of that.  Last quarter we were pretty scattered, in thoughts and action. There was little flow between tasks. You abandoned your organization and at some point, gave up trying. Take a moment and breathe. LITERALLY. Reflect in a simple task for a moment. Be mindful to BE HERE NOW. Don’t wish away a moment to hurry to the next.  Allow yourself to feel the range of emotions you want to – you don’t have to be strong all the time. But you also don’t get to wallow in defeat or difficulty for very long. You’ll miss the next opportunity.

We did a lot right last quarter. The best thing we did, though, is survive and prove that we are WORTH IT! Each quarter is going to be different, with new opportunities. Try not to take it so seriously. You might actually have fun instead of ulcers. Remember, each step you’ve taken so far has lead you here. You belong here. Discomfort is temporary. These lessons are long reaching.

Your Autumn Quarter Self