Please Hold On To Me: Introduction

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Divorce is the tragedy that sits far too close, like a high bank waterfront house at the edge of a cliff. We can see what could happen with enough weather, but turn our heads to enjoy the exquisite view instead.

“The divorce rate is still fifty percent, yet I can’t think of one couple we know who looks to be at risk,” I said to my husband a year before I found out it was us, that we were the ones about to collapse under the weight of a beautiful life and smash into the rocks below. We never think the list of terrible things that happen to other people could actually happen to us. Just in case though, it’s sensible to properly insure ourselves against the most common things like losing a job without prospects for a new one, or our health, safety, or home. It’s not easy to live with the uncertainty of real life, but we do our best to insulate ourselves and our families by doing things like going to college, exercising and eating well, we keep batteries in the smoke detectors, and teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street, to not put random things in one’s mouth.

It feels like divorce is different, that we have less control in one of the most common and devastating life-altering events, after all it takes two willing hearts to hold a marriage together. You could follow all the rules, do everything in your power and your spouse could decide they want something different. What? And, of course, we could have a change of heart too. It’s much better for our peace of mind to not look too closely. And if there are children, the heart-wrenching threat of losing your marriage is compounded by what we know or learned about what happens to kids when a family splits apart.

For me, because I experienced my parent’s divorce and subsequent remarriages, I learned what divorce was before I learned to count, and in my mind divorce meant death — that’s what my nervous system told me. It meant the end of a happy childhood and my three kids were right in the middle of theirs at the ages of six, nine, and eleven.

Although I couldn’t prevent the divorce, I could look back to understand what happened, what I could have done differently, and take responsibility for my life and my kids’ childhoods going forward. I could sift through what happened to my original family in order to understand how to get my kids back on course. Most importantly, get my kids back to being kids, allowing them to grow and flourish just as they would have if their mom and dad stayed together.

My most vital questions were, “Will divorce ruin my kids’ childhood, thus setting them up for a life less than their potential?” And, “Is there anything I can do to make sure they are protected from the statistics that follow kids who grow up in divorced families?”

Based on my own childhood growing up with my dad through three divorces and a funeral, things looked bleak. I could see the ribbons of smoke and ashes drifting and following them throughout their most formative years. In fact, my experiences growing up and the idea that my girls’ lives would be turned upside down forever caused me PTSD during and after my husband and I ended our marriage.

For me, learning more is always the first step in understanding myself and others, including why people do the things they do and act in the ways they act. Books have always been where I’ve found the answers to my most heartfelt questions and so, I set out to understand the threats to my children, assimilating the lessons I learned growing up, and what I can do to make the impact of our family transition the least traumatic for my kids as I could.

 

This story begins with the generational times and its effects on how we live and what we expect from a good life. My parents grew up in an idyllic part of our history where the dad went to work, mom stayed home, and the kids were either in school or playing outside in the freshly mowed grass, wandering through the trees watching butterflies land on wildflowers. Things were peaceful until the 1960s, when a simple life turned tumultuous. Divorce was just one social change that would forever alter the nuclear family. The big change came in 1969, when the Divorce Reform Act was passed, allowing couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years (or five years if only one of them wanted a divorce.) A marriage could be ended if it was irretrievably broken, without either partner having to prove fault.

When Ronald Reagan signed the first No Fault Divorce Law for the State of California in September of that year, with most states following in the next handful of years, it was meant to help struggling couples and families in traumatic circumstances. But, it proved to be the last barrier in the dam holding back the social changes of the past decade. A couple no longer needed proof of a broken marriage, such as infidelity, addiction, mental health issues, or violence, and so moving on to someone new may have seemed easier than saying “I do” in the first place.

It didn’t take long to understand you can only see the top of the proverbial iceberg from the surface of the ocean. Instincts come from the depths of our origins to fight to stay in the tribe or fight against our enemy, even if they used to be a part of you. Divorce is difficult, stressful, and traumatic and that is especially true for children. The Seventies and Eighties became known as the Age of Divorce where over a million kids a year found themselves living in two homes in the best case scenario. Maybe they moved to new neighborhood, had their own keys because mom was now working long hours. Maybe they hardly saw their dads. Many of the statistics from the Seventies and Eighties are still true today, yet we do know more based on research and, sadly, experience.

Even though the divorce rate has declined slightly since the mid-Nineties, still over a million kids a year are expelled from their lives with two parents in the same home, to a life that looks vastly different. Three quarters of kids from divorced families live with their mother and almost a third are living below the poverty line. In the New York Times Bestseller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein, Julie Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee documented the lives of 131 children and adolescents from sixty families living in Marin County, California whose parents separated or divorced in 1971. It is a landmark study that followed children in divorcing families, both parents, as well as a comparison group of twenty-seven families in the same middle to upper-middle socioeconomic status, kids from the same neighborhoods and schools. The children selected for the study had to be developmentally on track, never having been referred for emotional or developmental problems. These kids and families were the same as you and me.

Each child, 59 mothers, and 47 fathers were extensively studied the initial six weeks, and then at eighteen months, five years, and ten years post separation. A subset were interviewed after fifteen years and then a formal follow-up of forty-eight of the original 60 families was completed after twenty-five years.

Although once silent, these children of divorce are now adults, some in relationships, single, married, divorced, and some with families of their own and can now give a voice to the effects of what many didn’t want to believe. And that is, divorce is emotionally traumatic for children and adolescents and the stress, uncertainty, and damage doesn’t necessarily end when the financial and parenting plans are signed, when most adults feel initially freed from the ugliness of the process.

Some, like many in the study, would say that is where the trauma begins and a carefree childhood ends. Like the shot of a gun, chronic, unpredictable stress starts when one parent moves out of the family home and then it continues while the family is plunged into grief for what could have been, regardless of who initiated the ending. Even if life gets back to peaceful, the stress starts again when new relationships begin, when parents get remarried, when stepsiblings are introduced, when those marriages fail (because they are more likely to,) and the single parent starts the healing process once again. Half of American children will witness their parents divorce and half of those will also witness a parent’s second marriage end. The divorce rate for first marriages is closer to forty percent, second marriages is sixty percent, and third marriages have a seventy-three percent chance of failure.

The complexities of life do not get easier in a new marriage. It becomes much more difficult, especially when children are involved and the natural alignment of life is thrown into disarray. For most kids in the study, now adults, life was forever altered when their family split apart. The ramifications coming to full fruition in their adult lives, when they have difficulties in their own relationships whether a partner they truly love never materialized, they were petrified their marriage would fail, or it did fail and they are picking up the pieces, trying their best to hold their children above the raging rivers of life not going as planned.

As a kid, divorce is a Before and After, much like when Pearl Harbor was bombed or John F. Kennedy assassinated for our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, or when the Twin Towers collapsed on that crystal blue Tuesday morning in New York City. For me, it wasn’t my parent’s “Divorce” that was so terrible, it was the severing of my connection to my mom when she moved away, and then the slow poisoning of my attachment to my dad as he put life back together three more times.

Looking back on my childhood, it was like falling out of the nest over and over, with a lack of protection that cannot be seen, only felt by a child without words beyond their basic needs. For so many of my generation, divorce represents isolation, emptiness, and overwhelming grief throughout childhood and beyond for what was forever lost: a heart connection to one or both parents. Yet, as a child you don’t have the awareness of your own emotions so you make modifications to adapt to your surroundings, your patterns of how to love and be loved get solidified as the foundations of who you are setting you up for relationship problems later in life.

Like so many whose childhood has a before and after, the seeds of heartache were planted deep in the underground of my psyche. One of those seeds is that children who go through divorce are more likely to have relationship difficulties and to get divorced, despite it being the one thing they swear they will never do. How does this happen? There isn’t a statistic I wanted less to do with than this one, and in fact, I thought I had outrun that one in my thirteen year marriage that had all the right ingredients for success. The nuances of our relationship patterns are buried deep and no one wants to get the shovel out unless that’s the only option. I certainly didn’t.

But, you can’t will the seed of sunflower to grow tall and strong with exquisite petals, just as you can’t will the roots of a dandelion to wither and die without digging into the depths of the soil and remove it from the base. We can’t fix a problem unless we know it exists. Awareness is the first step and that is the basis of this book by example of my childhood growing up in the Age of Divorce. My experiences laid the foundation for me to know what to do for my girls when our life took a turn — despite all instincts that go along with being plunged into your worst nightmare.

When parents decide to part ways, it can be a single emotional trauma within a childhood or it can be the beginning of a cascade of adverse childhood experiences that cause lifelong emotional and physical consequences.

It’s about chronic emotional stress caused by the threat of a parent not being as available as they have been in the past either physically or emotionally — and both cause a child distress in a range of severity depending on the age of the child, temperament and other factors that can be out of the control of parents. For example, when a non-custodial parent (usually the dad) remarries their visitations drop in half the first year. Their kids from the failed marriage slowly lose their connection physically and emotionally to their father. The most devastating statistic of divorce is that twenty-eight percent of children in our country are being raised without their father in their life at all — they lost a parent to divorce whether the parents were married or not.

In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study called The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that looked at 17,421 child and adolescent histories of middle-aged, successful adults enrolled in Kaiser-Permanente for their healthcare. In this landmark study, The Center of Disease Control and Prevention compared the emotional childhood experiences of this mostly white, almost three-quarters college educated group to their later adult health records and found that nearly two-thirds had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) or chronic, unpredictable, and traumatic period of stress. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse. The researchers identified ten areas of childhood chronic stress and trauma that point to family dysfunction and proved to be overwhelmingly correlated with adult disease.

The study found that children who are exposed to chaos, uncertainty, chronic stress, violence, loss, emotional/physical neglect, and abuse have significant increases in the biggest disease states as adults such as cardiovascular disease, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, migraines, multiple sclerosis, cancer, stroke, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and suicide. The reason is chronic, unpredictable toxic stress rewires the brain and nervous system to be more susceptible to all stress for a lifetime and stress is deadly.

When you have children, more is required of you. When you have children and you get divorced, an extraordinary amount is required. The stress for everyone in the family is overwhelming, instincts and fears rule behavior for the adults and their kids. Our world narrows to what is needed for surviving the day, the past and future nonexistent. Kids will reach out in tears, anger, needs for attention or behavior problems, and then they will shut down all feelings to survive the heartache of losing a parent. This is what overwhelming stress and trauma looks like for a child.

It is imperative for your child’s long-term health to limit that stress as much as possible, so they can go back to being a kid, worrying about where they will sit at lunch, games to play at recess, who their best friends are from year to year, working hard to make the basketball team, and not, what’s going to happen to their family or if and when they will see their parent again.

Divorce can be a minor emotional trauma in the lives of our children or it can be the beginning of a spiral of adverse childhood experiences with lifelong ramifications. Yes, even well-meaning, educated parents and families can harm their children — by having limited involvement in their child’s lives, emotionally harming their child’s other parent, or poisoning their child against the other parent — it happens every day, even when we know better.

There is nothing more important to a kid or teen than to be inextricably connected to the adults in their lives. Losing a secure emotional connection to an adult to whom a child has attached to causes real trauma. Sometimes this cannot be helped but to the degree that it can be, as is the case for so many couples going through a divorce, it is a parent’s absolute responsibility to foster the continuous loving connection first for the child to themselves and then to the other parent, even if it’s only in the kid’s mind and heart by speaking about the other parent with compassion.

Parents are supposed to hold the safety ropes, be the child’s witness through all their trials and tribulations, allow them to develop confidence to step out into the world, reflect the essence of their child. Kids are supposed to be the explorers, learning how things work, trusting the people in their lives will be there for them, eventually becoming a person who knows what it feels like to be loved so deeply they can feel their soul and in turn, they learn how to love themselves and others. This is what it means to grow a healthy, happy child into an adult who will attract kindness, compassion, understanding, success, and love. A child who is held onto by both parents, even in stressful times, will not become a negative statistic or repeat family traumas.

Despite our intentions, divorce cuts these healthy roots unless parents are purposeful in cultivating forgiveness and compassion for each other in marriage and in divorce. Kids can become defended and self-sufficient beyond their true self. Their emotional growth can be stunted and they become hardened to hurt much like an alpine tree weathered from winds and freezing temperatures. A child cannot grow as they are supposed to grow if they are continuously going through the storms of emotional trauma.

There are many ways children can lose their heart connection or secure attachment with their parents over the course of childhood, but divorce detonates the explosives setting the avalanche in motion, even if all other conditions are optimal. Divorce makes being a parent harder, much harder because you can no longer let the natural order of things carry your children down the trail, with the dad leading and the mom following, now you have to forge a new path to get them back to solid ground. And, although not intuitive, parents have to do this together, despite their feelings about each other. Holding on to your children through divorce is a hero’s journey that requires courage, fortitude, and forgiveness of yourself and your child’s other parent, so that they can become who they were meant to become.

What I didn’t know when my marriage unraveled is that divorce doesn’t ruin kids or childhoods, it’s the loss of a child’s attachment relationship with their parents. This means that even if your marriage cannot survive, your children can continue to thrive in a new family structure and will go on to become their best selves with the added character skills of authenticity, empathy, and resilience among others. This will require more understanding, communication, kindness, support, emotional maturity, compassion than probably occurred in the best of times in the marriage.

Family is the ecosystem in which children grow. Happy, healthy parents parent happy, healthy children and it goes the other way as well. You cannot have peaceful, content children who show up to learn at school, make and keep friendships, grow in their talents and gifts if one parent thrives and the other withers, it’s not possible. And it’s also not possible for a child to thrive without both parents in their lives on a regular basis. There will be consequences for everyone, including the parents — both of them. Growing up in a happy home (or homes as is the case post-divorce) protects children from mental, physical, educational, and social problems. We are forever connected by our beautiful children. Kindness, compassion and understanding matter.

As Jacquelyn Kennedy has been quoted, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” We have a choice: hold on to our kids and get them safely through a stressful time for the whole family together or allow sadness, grief, anger, guilt, blame, or even entitlement to a better life with a new partner to arrest the healthy development of our kids in body, mind and spirit. This is my story of choosing my kids based on what I learned from losing my parents to divorce.

Maya Angelou said it best when she said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

 

 

 

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 10) “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?”

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I have gone way beyond what they wanted to know. Since their dad left, I hold nothing back. I’ve promised them to answer their questions as truthfully (and age appropriately) as I can. This was never so poignant as to when, after a hectic day and barely getting my girls into bed, Ryanne asked the question I’d been avoiding, “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?” It’s only been a month after Santa delivered presents that filled their stockings, five months after their dad moved out. Gut punch!

I never ever wanted to have this conversation with my kids—no one does. I never believed there was a chance this would happen—until it did. I used to tell them to give grace to kids whose families were in transition. We talked about how hard that was for those friends and that maybe that hardness is a reason they could have said or done things that were out of character. We were supposed to be the ones offering compassion and understanding. Never did any of us think it could happen in our family.

I called Kellie into Ryanne and Alex’s room. We all piled on Alex’s white, twin bed like getting into a magic sleigh in another world. “Ryanne asked me a question and I’ve told you that I will always answer you the best I can with what I know to be true. She asked me if your dad and I are getting divorced.” I pause to let us all take in that ugly word. I try to take a deep breath, but my lungs only go halfway. It’s all I can do to look at my three precious daughters without falling into the deep crevasse I’ve spent my life climbing out of.

Here we go… the nightmare has come true. Three pairs of big eyes implore me to tell them this is not what is happening to our family, that their dad will be back when he’s feeling more like himself, that life will go back to soccer games and birthday parties and weekends at our vacation house on the Peninsula. But, I can’t do that. I have to tell them the truth. Once again, I’m the one standing in the room delivering the devastating news. This makes me so, so sad and enraged simultaneously.

I pause like I’m looking over the cliff I’m about to jump off of into frigid waters below. “The answer is yes, we are getting a divorce.” I whisper the nonsensical words strung together referring to my marriage with their father. I can feel my whole body contract awaiting the fallout of such awful news. For every action there is a reaction and, unlike my five-year-old self who couldn’t take it in, my girls buckle from this news. Tears well and stream down their cheeks. We are in a pile on the baby blue, flowered duvet, all sobbing from me voicing what I thought they might have already known. They didn’t.

“You said you weren’t getting a divorce! You said he was just moving out for awhile,” one voice says in disbelief, desperate for this to have been only a very bad dream. Their dad has always traveled so much that it’s easy for them to forget what was happening when it’s the four of us.

I take a deep breath, try to collect myself. “I know I did, honey. I said that this summer and it was true at the time. There had been no discussions; your dad was just going to move to the condo so he could feel better. I’ve only known a handful of weeks and it was Christmas. We were going to Hawaii. I hoped it would change…”

“Why? Why can’t we go back to like it was before we lived in Sun Valley?” a sad voice says.

“I wish we could go back to the way it was. I had hoped that we could.”

“He broke his promise! All he does is work! I hate his job! He’s always gone and even when he’s home he just stays in his office,” an angry voice says.

“Yes, he did. Sometimes people break their promises even when that wasn’t their intention. He’s doing the best he can. A divorce is just the paperwork that your dad and I will take care of. This part doesn’t have anything to do with you girls. Things will look like it does right now. We live here, you’ll go to your school, you have your friends, play soccer and basketball and dance, you’ll go to you’re dad’s on weekends.” They are quiet looking down, at each other, and back at me, tears stream through lashes. “Things will be just as they are now. It’s going to be okay. We already have done the hard part. It’s only the paperwork .”

I will repeat this a hundred times before we get to the finish line of our family transition. They need to know what is coming in the future and that the past was absolutely real. This reminder helps my psyche as well. It’s one step at a time out of the darkness.

“And you know what?” I gather my resolve to stick up for the dad they love despite wanting to scratch his eyes out. “Your dad works really hard. His job pays for all of the things you get to do. His job allows us to live in this beautiful house, go on fun vacations like Hawaii, it pays for all your activities and your school. Most importantly, his job allows me to stay home with you so that I can pick you up and help you with homework and drive you to all the fun things you get to do. You don’t have to have a babysitter or go to after-school care. When I get to do those things for you, your dad is there with me. He loves you very much and this is hard for him too. It’s never what anyone wants, but it happens and you move forward.”

“I don’t want things to be different. I liked it how it was before. This…sucks!” a truthful voice says.

“You are absolutely right! Yes, THIS does suck. This right here, all of us crying on your bed in the dark because our family has changed, SUCKS! I think we need to say that as loud as we can. Ready?” Two sets of blue eyes the same color as their dad’s and one set of light brown eyes like mine look at each other, look at me. “Let’s say it together. Okay? On the count of three: One…Two…Three…THIS SUCKS!” We all scream this word I don’t let them say. It feels like balm to my soul. It is so very hard but it’s authentic and real. Finally, the storm clouds part for a moment. We all smile in spite of ourselves. They look at each other; giggle at hearing me say a “bad word.” It feels good to scream what we think about this outrageous situation. Acknowledging the truth directly, no matter how hard, feels far better than running from it, hiding from it, railing against it.

“This is not what’s supposed to happen, but it happens more than anyone would like it to. No one wants their family to live in two houses. But, families look different. We are a family still. We are a family with a mom, a dad, and three kids.”

“And a dog and a cat.”

“Yes, and a dog and a cat. That has not changed. Our family is going to look a little different than it did before. Life is just like that. Sometimes things are amazing and sometimes they are awful. You can feel angry and sad and want things to go back to the way they were, but at some point you realize you’re okay, pick yourself back up, and start again. We are okay. We are more than okay actually. We have a beautiful life here together. We will continue to have a beautiful life together.” I pull them all in for a silent family hug. I breathe in the love I have for my girls, breathe out a lifetime of heartache caused by divorce.

The conversation was terrible, but it actually wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. The anticipation of their reaction was far worse than when we faced it together, cried and laughed. It shined a light on what had been complete darkness for them. Kids know the truth whether it’s spoken or not. We may as well allow what is true and real be what binds us. And, feeling loved really is what holds families together, holds kids together. They need to know without any doubt they are absolutely loved and cherished by both their dad and me. I have the responsibility to fill in the cracks and crevices caused by their dad moving away, at least until life is back to peaceful. When they are okay, I am okay and when I am okay, they are okay. We walk out of the dark together. We are connected still—even after the D word was spoken in our home.

Magic Can Be Found in the Darkest of Places

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This is one of my favorite sunflower pictures. I was in Upstate New York at Old Stone Farms, an inn near The Omega Center. It was a healing journey that August after getting my family (all five) through a cataclysmic transformation that left me emptied of who I was, am, and would become. My kids would be away from me for two weeks; an incomprehensible amount of time in any scenario but especially this one. It was a nightmare I desperately wanted to wake up from. I couldn’t wait for them in the house where there had been magic a lifetime ago, moments ago.

Through the poisonous fog and acid rain, I reached out toward the only thing I could do – write. Despite my past career in marketing, a graduate degree in business, and an ambition that used to propel me through the narrowest of passageways, my soul gently told me to write books about people, everyday traumas we unintentionally inflict on each other, and relationships starting with the parent and child, my dad and me. I traveled thirteen hours by car, airplane, train, and a night in Manhattan to get myself to a memoir workshop where Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, would be speaking among others. I spent five days at this lovely inn, mostly numb in my exquisite room, a blend of old and new. On the door was the word Spirit.

The ones who managed the inn were soft and loving, made me feel like I belonged right there on the other side of the country from home. They checked in on me when I didn’t come to dinner. “Are you okay? We were concerned about you. Can I bring you something?” the woman asked. Equestrian therapy, massages by a goddess (a young single mother with a singing voice like an angel and a spirit for listening), walks, yoga, reading, seclusion filled my days until it was time to move to the more austere Omega Center for the five-day writing workshop.

This photograph, half blue sky and the other a dense forest with a bright, golden sunflower in the center, reminds me of how far I’ve come. Writing was but a seed three years ago, it was the only direction I could go, and now my book is in its final stages of being completed. I have walked through the darkest forest and come to the other side where blue sky and bright clouds can be seen again.

This trip was magical and not in a euphoric, picture-perfect sense like life used to be. It was magical because I was on my knees like I’d never been before; because I allowed sadness to overtake me and because I allowed the kindness and concern of others to envelop me at a time when I couldn’t meet them at that place. I could only receive and say thank you. It was magical because there was love. It was the love you feel for someone who has done something brave and courageous, it was the love I have for my girls. I allowed myself to love and care for me, for maybe the first time in my life, and it made all the difference.

Walking Out the Door

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Have you ever been afraid to be away from your house? Afraid to say yes to anything—an invitation to a get-together, a party, a walk in the forest with friends? Have you been the kind of afraid that does not consult with your head, you just turn the other way and run or stay in a book on the couch or in your bed for twelve hours awake seeing nothing, listening to the sound of your own breathing?

I have.

It’s not who I am, I’ve always said yes, at least since I decided that I wanted to be a person who always said yes. I turned the button to fear off completely. I said yes to the things that made my heart quake but ventured forth anyway. I said yes even when every cell in me screamed NO! I turned my head, smiled and said, “Yes, I would love to, give me two minutes.” I said yes to selling books door-to-door for thirteen hours a day, on commission, in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the summertime! I said yes to jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 13,000 feet in the air, hurling myself down black diamond ski runs before I really knew how to ski, going away to college a couple months after my third stepmother died of cancer, getting married the first time even when my dreams all but slapped me in the face and told me to run because somehow the dream world knew I was not ready. And then I said yes to leaving the boy I’d grown up with because eventually, my heart message made its way to my head.

My internal guide was rendered voiceless from a very early age. I said yes to moving to New Jersey, going to graduate school at night while working fifty hour work weeks, and climbing the corporate ladder faster than others thought was appropriate. They complained. “Why does she get a different ladder?” I said I’m so sorry, you can come this way too.

Climb that mountain? Yes. Run that race? Yes. Grab my friend out of the abyss? Yes. Have a party? Yes. I said yes I can do that until I could not say yes one more time. I said yes until even speaking the word was too much. And then I stopped—for an entire year. I followed the breadcrumb path to my girls’ school and back, to the store and back, the soccer games and back. It was all I could do. Friends said, “I miss you, let’s have coffee or lunch.” I said I would love to but I couldn’t reach out farther than my own front door.

Last September, my head told me I needed to get myself back together. I’d been talking about writing a book for three years. I’d read a hundred books about writing a book, sat through a hundred hours of lectures, written hundreds of pages of notes in notebooks, and my mind swirled the story around hundreds of times yet I had not opened up my laptop and typed one word. Write the damn book! my head screamed. You are all talk, no action. Maybe you can’t do it. Maybe you will never recover from losing the life you thought you had. Maybe you will never be the person you used to be…

 I could hear them through the walls. “She used to do it all, but she was never the same after the divorce,” these people whispered.

And then courage floated in on a rain cloud one fall afternoon last year. I decided that I needed to be accountable if only to myself, so I signed up for an online class that came with a book coach. I sent ten pages in every week and Collette gave me feedback; she was a cheerful coach who told me everything I did was great. It helped. I could do this class sitting at my kitchen table with my dog next to me on the floor and my cat vying for a nap on my keyboard while I watched the weather coming and going.

I decided I needed to meet other people who write books and learn what they learn, so I signed up for a workshop on how to write that took me to Salem, Massachusetts where girls were deemed witches if they dared to speak their mind once upon a time. Thankfully, my lovely friend, Angela, joined me. My true self was coaxed out of hiding just a little bit more.

My head told me I needed a goal. You need to write this book before the end of next summer, she said. So, I signed up for two different writer’s conferences the following July and August to pitch my ‘finished’ book to agents and editors. I did it all in an afternoon. It was easy. I just sat down at my computer with my credit card while my heart felt happy surrounded by spa music and crystal rocks. I did it, I said. Oh, wait…

New York City was the last of my accountability action plan. I really wanted to cancel. I’m not done with my book is an easy justification. Agents only want finished manuscripts you see. I’m super busy, I’ll miss Lexie’s summer camp play, I’ve been gone too much, Sage and Apple have a hard time when I’m gone, there are only a couple more weeks of this gorgeous summer in the Pacific Northwest… The reasons went on and on.

The real reason is it scared the hell out of me. It scared me to get on an airplane and fly to New York—something I used to do without a second thought. It scared me that I don’t know anyone. It scared me that I would have to make my way from New Jersey into Manhattan on the train, which I’d never done before. It scared me that I would be told no, you’re not good enough over and over. It scared me to leave my house by myself, without the responsibility of being the mother. (I have a special cape I wear so my kids don’t pick up on my anxiety—it looks like a pasted on smile.)

But I did it anyway, just like my old self but the fear button is stuck in the ‘on’ position now. It was okay that I was feeling scared, I walked forward anyway. Maybe it would take four hours to figure out the train, but there is no hurry. I told myself it doesn’t matter what happens, it’s good enough you are here.

I happen to think my book is good and that when it’s published it will help many people navigate divorce in a more compassionate way because they read my story. This is enough. I remind myself that when I’ve been the most successful it’s been after I’ve had the most dismal failures or that ‘no’ was said to me more than anyone else in the group or that it simply doesn’t matter. I’ve succeeded if only because I’m sitting in a Manhattan hotel room after pitching to a handful of agents and I accomplished what I set out to accomplish: I have almost finished a book, I’ve put my shattered heart back together, I’ve forgiven those who were responsible, and I walked out my front door. I am moving forward body, mind, spirit, and heart. I am not broken anymore, but I am changed and for that I am grateful.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 9)

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I drive toward the neighborhood gate passing the frozen pond and ghostly trees that line the road leading to and from the place I call home. I pull over near the “mansion with the lion statues” as my kids call the house by the bus stop and wait for my middle school girl to climb in.

She gets off the bus with a smile. This year has brought me to my knees, and from this perspective, just the sight of my girls often overwhelms me. The love that wells inside me feels like it might just melt me to a puddle of holy water made of tears. It’s hard to keep any emotion inside, especially love. “Hello, Honey Bunny! How was your day, Ellie?

“It was fine. Can I sit in the front seat?” She assumes so and heaves her backpack with every book and notebook from every class on the floor, climbs into the front seat. I haven’t let her sit in the front except within the neighborhood, afraid of getting in an accident and she is only recently tall enough—mostly the former. Their requests wear me down faster than they used to. The unfortunate part is they are aware of this new power they have.

“Of course, we need to run to Target before we pick up Abbie and Lexie.” We drive out the gate and down the hill past the new hospital before stopping at the roundabout. Even though there’s a car ahead of me I see an opening and assume that person does too.

“What are we having for dinner tonight?” Ellie asks. I look over at my daughter who is next to me instead of looking in the mirror to see her in the backseat. I let my foot off the brake and start to pull out… My head slams the headrest, my foot already on the break, and then I hear what my spinning brain can’t comprehend. Like the delay of thunder after the lightning, I hear the CRUNCH! Ellie screams. I snap back together, turn off the car, and fly out of my seat into the road where there’s a short woman with angry eyes and flailing arms ready to fight me. It smells like burning oil and cars are lining up behind us.

“Are you kidding! What were you thinking?” She continues shouting at me but all I can see is the damage to my new car. The front end is bashed in and there is tan fluid pouring out all over the pavement, steam. I look back at her and instinctively touch her arm.

“It was an accident. This is a brand new car. Do you think I wanted to wreck my brand new car?” I say in a softer than normal voice still touching her arm. “I’m so sorry. This has been a very bad day. I just got served divorce papers. I’m a little disoriented.” She looks startled by my response and stops making noise. We both look toward her bumper. It might have been bent in, but clearly, I took the brunt of the impact. I get back into my car to get the insurance information and a piece of paper and pen.

“Are you okay, Ellie?” She nods. “Everything is okay. No one is hurt. We are okay.” I rub her leg and give her a hug. Ellie’s skin is a shade paler than a few minutes ago, maybe ghost pale. Her blood has been redirected to her heart and muscles, ready to run, but she sits and waits. One more hit is registered in my poor child’s nervous system log. My daughter who is wired like me when it comes to handling stress is too full. With every event, her true self gets shoved further and further to the bottom of a dry canyon. I can count at least ten stressful events, good and not so good, in the past couple years, not to mention the all out trauma of losing her dad as she knew him to be, her family. Every stressful situation becomes overwhelming and gets stuffed down to deep places out of my reach. Her cup is already spilling over and letting go is as hard for her as it is for me now and certainly when I was a kid. Drip…Drip…Drip. It’s an inverse relationship: the more change, stress, and emotional trauma, the less curiosity, openness, and joy. Children need to “grow where they are planted,” says my therapist. When there’s too much change and stress children can’t grow like they’re supposed to grow—from the inside. A stable life gives a child the time and space to change from within, to do what they innately know how to do—become. This requires both sides of the brain to be integrated like fishtail braids.

Traumatic events, like divorce, and the cascade of stress that follows for everyone, causes kids to become unbalanced in more ways than one, but especially inside their growing brains where one hundred billion neurons are busy connecting based on life experiences. The growth of the right side of the brain, in charge of emotions, creativity, sensuality, movement, imagination, sensations, color, peacefulness stagnates under traumatic experiences, chronic emotional and physical stress. However, school provides ample fertilizer for the left side of the brain where language, reading, math, music, strategy, analytics, drive, goals, logic, and organization play central roles. If the right and left sides can’t wire together during adolescence, traumatic memories get stuck in the body and not connected to a narrative about their life; over time an unbalanced brain can achieve whatever it desires in the outside world, but long-term health is affected, our ability to have healthy relationships is affected because learning to love and be loved cannot be studied in books or taught at school and that is the secret to life. There is nothing more important for my child to learn than to love another and to know what it feels like, on the inside, to be loved. If your emotions are locked down in the deepest caverns of self, life will have far more challenges within your body, mind, and spirit than a child growing into an adult who experiences safe, stable, loving relationships from the very beginning.

Depending on the depth, length, and age of the trauma, a cascade of emotional and physical health problems in adulthood can result and it’s very difficult to reverse, as I know. Researchers have found strong correlations with trauma and toxic stress during childhood and health consequences later in life such as depression, unexplained anxiety, suicide, addictions to food, alcohol, drugs, work; and then there are things like cancer, cardiovascular, liver, and auto-immune diseases, chronic migraines, unexplained illnesses and on and on. You will also be more likely to experience post-traumatic stress as an adult while others traverse the same treacherous waters but are able to let go much easier. It’s called The Adverse Childhood Experiences study or ACEs. Sixty-four percent, two-thirds, of Americans have at least one adverse childhood experience. I have six out of ten. I know the long term effects of toxic stress in childhood all too well even though nothing catastrophic happened—just chronic, unpredictable everyday traumas throughout my childhood and adolescence, stemming from my parents getting a divorce in the 1970s. I am the Forest Gump of adverse childhood experiences; every year was a box of chocolates, I never knew what I was going to get. And now, life has been an earthquake in my small family’s life for too long already. And this is happening at the very worst time for my oldest daughter.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 8)

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Once they leave with their dad, my house is devastatingly still and silent but for the sound of Sage’s nails clicking the hardwood floor on the way to her bed. I fall onto the couch for time-lapsed hours not sad or relieved or depressed. I feel nothing like someone who just returned home from Normandy, France the summer of 1944. My eyes are open to see my family room with beautiful paintings, purchased at art walks and festivals, of mountains and rivers that hang on every wall, yet I see nothing. I listen for sounds of walkers and runners outside on a Sunday afternoon but hear nothing. Even my mind is still of its normal scrolling and replaying of past events, hypocrisies, and transgressions. I can’t feel my heart beating or blood pulsing through veins. I’m not sure I blink or swallow saliva in my mouth. I’m not sure I’m breathing. Darkness overtakes me, and my house, but I can’t move my arm to pull the string on the lamp next to my body. I’m in a void between the vigilance of fighting for all I have left in an apocalyptic world and the smooth, white light the child in me associates with goodness, purity, protection, God. I stay here until Sage nudges me from my trance hours later, reminds me I need to still take care of her. I get up, turn a light on to chase the darkness away and feed my only witness.

Slowly, I make my way through the empty rooms of my now oversized house in the darkness. Yesterday we occupied every room, the lights twinkled, the house vibrant, alive, and the happy sounds of my children filled the playroom where puzzles and American Girl dolls and dress up clothes gather dust, next to the boxes that remain unopened from our move back home from Sun Valley. I will my legs to step up each stair until I get to the second floor, then scuff bare feet on the beige carpet toward the bathroom. The playroom remains dark now, play a luxury we used to have. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. This person is emaciated. She has devastated eyes that don’t seem to open like they used to, she can’t choose to smile, she has more lines than the person I used to be. She looks old but for her dark hair. I don’t have the energy to do anything more, not even to wash the mascara smudges from my face. I fall into the king-size bed with the same clothes I woke up in. I occupy a quarter of the space. I sleep on the edge, dreamless and dead to the world I used to belong in. Just go to bed has become a mantra when there is nothing more to do or say or figure out.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 7)

Learning to fly the summer before sixth grade…

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“Hey, let’s go over to the other side of the lake with the guys,” Lisa says.

“Yes, let’s go. Do you want to go too, Janna? I think Jason likes you.”

“Sure,” I say, very unsure of what we are going to do over there that we can’t do right here. And unsure of what “likes you,” means, but I agree to follow nonetheless To be included in the group feels like lying on an air mattress with the sun shining on my face, splashes of cool water on my skin. I can’t remember when the last time someone asked me to come along. There is no way I would say no.

“Let’s go guys,” Monica calls. Eric follows Monica, Nate follows Lisa, and then Jason follows me. We walk the trail through the tall grasses and trees, over fallen logs and cross makeshift bridges covering small streams that funnel into Lake Annette.

“So, where do you live,” Jason asks.

“I live in Federal Way. How about you?”

“I live in Auburn,” he says. We keep talking as we make our way around to where our camp counselors can no longer see us. It’s easier to think of him as just another kid, like a cousin, when I don’t have to look at him. Monica, Lisa, and their companions have disappeared into the forest while I was preoccupied with keeping up in the conversation.

Jason and I reach the spot we all decided to venture to and sit down on a rock to wait for everyone to come back. Jason is almost as tall as my dad and a little heavier than the other two boys. He has light brown hair and a sloped chin. He seems kind of nerdy except he likes to talk about how great he is. The girls and I did a lot of collective eye rolling at the campfire last night. It occurs to me that I’m the only sixth grader in our group of eighth graders. He sits down inside my personal bubble but I don’t want to move or he’ll think I’m weird. I am weird, maybe awkward is a better word, but I’m trying really hard to not to let anyone here in on this secret. Everyone knows this at my school. It’s nice to just be one person in the group for a change. Jason asks questions and I answer while looking into the lake for fish or dead branches to hold onto or the Loch Ness Monster. There are long pauses while he thinks of new questions to ask. Where did Monica and Lisa go?

I haven’t been this close to a boy that actually wanted to talk to me, let alone spoken to one since Kevin in the second grade. Boys don’t like me—and neither do girls for that matter. I’m always the last one to get picked on a team in P.E. Dodgeball is the worst and most played game. The boys love it and are always the captains. I’m the last one picked—literally last—and then I stand in the very back with a bull’s eye on my head. Boys don’t want me on their team, they want me on the other team so they can practice their power shot. They certainly don’t “like me.”

I’m so busy thinking of what to say that I barely notice he’s moved his arm behind my back, scooted a little closer. “Are you warm enough?”

“What?” I turn away from the lake to find his face two inches from mine. Reflexes jump like a doctor tapped my knee.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine…” I say as I adjust my place on the rock, try to move further away without him noticing. The familiar dread sneaks up on me despite blue sky and big puffy clouds. Where is the Loch Ness Monster anyway? I feel like a deer on alert to rustling in the bushes.

“I really like you. You’re pretty cool,” he says. I look back into the murky lake for an answer. You make every hair on my body stand on end? In one motion he leans into me, drops his head down and puts his mouth on my mouth. I freeze like Bambi seeing hunters for the first time. The motor buried deep within starts trembling. His lips are touching mine and then his front teeth hit my front teeth. I can feel air coming out of his nose. There’s no air coming out of me. I forget to breathe, I forget where I am, and I forget that I can choose to move my body. My inside-self leaves the scene to figure out what I should do. I haven’t even seen the “Birds and the Bees” film at school yet. That’s sixth grade, next year. I had no bloody idea this is what was coming. I’ve been set up.

He scoots even closer to me. Just as I start to close my mouth to say that I think we should go back, his hand pushes my head forward and his tongue touches my tongue, stretches to my tonsils. It’s like a garden slug in my grandmother’s flowerbeds—slimy, thick, slow. The ones I pour salt on and watch curl up into a slimy ball. His tongue is writhing just like Morton’s has been poured down his throat. Peanut butter and jelly bubbles in my esophagus.

Instincts take over, my spirit reenters my body, and my head is yanked back by invisible forces. I am freed of the slug in my mouth. Luckily, I didn’t bite it off or throw up. That would have been harder to explain, embarrassing. “Um…we better get back to the camp. It’s probably getting close to dinner,” although the sun is still shining overhead. I put my hands on the rock and get up in one rapid movement like I’m doing a back handspring—if I could actually do gymnastics. I don’t wait for a response or even register his reaction. I want to wash my mouth out with the bacteria-laden lake water but secretly vow to spit this slime into the bushes as soon as it’s physically possible. Until then I hold it in my mouth. Mine has gone dry anyway.

“Wait,” Jason says. I stop to wait, to play it cool like I’m not so repulsed by what just happened that I can’t think straight. I concentrate on not letting his saliva drip out of my mouth.

“I’m waiting. I thought I heard Monica and Lisa, but it must have been a deer or something.” We walk back to camp in half the time it took to get here. I lead again. This time there’s no chitchat. I go straight into my tent and start reading my book, safe by myself inside my sleeping bag. When Monica and Lisa come back I tell them about what happened with Jason, at least the version of what could have happened if I were two years older than I am—not a kid who fell into a rabbit hole.

“You know, Jason is really nice but there’s another guy I like and so it was kind of weird.”

“Oh, tell us about this other guy,” Lisa says, her eyes sparkle, forgetting about her new backpacking boyfriend’s friend. Who knows what her at-home boyfriend is doing on the weekdays.

“He’s going into seventh grade next year. He has light brown, feathered hair. He lives in Kent and he’s really cute,” I say picking up details as I go. “I feel really bad about Jason. Will you tell him there’s someone else?” Words come out of my mouth like I know what I’m talking about. Being a reader helps everything, including instructions on getting through the most awkward of situations. Or maybe it came from watching General Hospital last summer. I’m learning how to do and say things like other people do and say things, like the characters in the books I read, television shows and movies I’ve seen. I’m learning how to watch, listen, and mimic my new, older more mature friends. I learn how to orient myself to the one who knows how things work.

“I will,” Monica jumps in. “It’s kind of weird that he just up and kissed you without warning.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t like that. That’s totally gross.” Lisa adds.

“Yes. You’re supposed to wait for signs that the other person likes you too, right?”

“Yeah, he definitely didn’t follow protocol.” I don’t say any more. In only twenty-four hours in backpacking camp I’ve learned it’s better to let other people fill in the details about what I’m thinking. The less I say the better. Just smile and things usually work out.