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


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 6)


I’ve been taking care of our life without this guy for at least three years and I can continue to do it without dragging him along, heels dug in. I can let go of him and do what I know how to do—love and care for my girls, hold on to them. Good riddance.

This understanding fills me and I run faster and deeper into the trees, through mud, and over logs. Control and empowerment give me temporary strength. Time stands still. I can do all the life things without him. I can take care of my girls and pets and house even with the leaks and moss and the weathering from the rain. I have and I can.

As if a breeze of confidence calls my subconscious from the deep ocean within, doubt leaks inside my ship. But what if he’s hiding money, I hear another voice call to the surface? What if he disappears altogether? What if he leaves you with nothing? What will you do then? You’ll have to get a new house and they’ll have to change schools and get new friends—or worse, they won’t have friends. What if you have to leave your girls every day to go back to work? Remember how much you used to work, how hard it was to stop at the end of the day, the weeks spent traveling from New Jersey to Chicago and Sacramento and Denver? How will you hold on to them if you’re consumed with putting your life back together? You know how this will turn out, the voice says.

I’m a hard worker, loyal, passionate, and have lots of experience—I can get a job. But, I also know for sure I can’t work like I used to work and take care of my girls like I’ve been able to take care of them—by myself in the suburbs where my kids have their friends and activities and school. Any major change after this year will be a final blow. I can’t pick them up and move them without serious repercussions to their fragile psyche—they are experiencing trauma just like I am. The only thing more traumatic to a kid than divorce is the death of a parent and right now it feels like there’s been a death without the balm of love and kindness that surrounds a family in loss. I can’t even summon the wherewithal to hold myself together, how will I prove myself at a new job AND keep them together? Bang! The thunder stops me. My stomach seizes because I know the guy I’m married to is capable of leaving me with nothing. He doesn’t care. He’s gone.

This terrifying path starts to track like a Survivor course: my kids are abandoned by their father who lives in Florida now, I resume my career, we are pulled further and further away from the life we know. They feel emotionally abandoned by their mother. They see him once a year and have a stepmother (or stepmothers) who doesn’t want them around, scares them and doesn’t let them close to their dad; they are untethered in this world and start to rely on only themselves. They turn inside out and their true selves—sweet, curious, and trusting—disappear into the world. They fall down the rabbit hole of statistics on children and divorce: they can’t deal with the stress so they leave their body and turn against themselves (and me), they’re angry and distraught, school becomes too hard, they have issues with peers, get bullied, start smoking pot and drinking beer or Jack Daniels with Coke in a red plastic cup to belong; they sleep with boyfriends to feel connected, smile and shove who they are so far out of reach, they don’t remember who they once were, they marry someone only capable of loving themselves, they don’t remember their light, or worse they give it all away because it doesn’t seem worth holding on to…

I stop walking because I can’t be in this nightmare, use my muscles, and breathe at the same time. I am me now, reeling from the disaster called my life; I am my younger self trying to hold on, and I am my girls. Is this just the beginning? Will I lose my girls like I lost my parents—shells discarded from a long ago ecosystem scattered hundreds of miles by the rhythm of the tides?

I see myself on a deserted island after the storm that raged for days and I am pulled under fifty-foot waves, black and white, charcoal and gray, resurfacing for seconds of breath until I am washed up to the shore choking, barely breathing, lost, alone, wrecked. Am I destined to be left on a deserted island, unworthy of rescue? Will my girls be by themselves, repeating the story because their father left them and their mother was decimated by the aftermath?

Life at the Speed of Life

Harbor 2

This week I had two of my three girls home for Spring Break. Since they were tiny, we have always traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho to catch the end of ski season and the beginnings of spring in the Rocky Mountains. However, this year is the first year our family of five is a family of four and we are all feeling less like butterflies and more like a caterpillars ensconced in chrysalis. Staying home was a chance to do life at the speed of life.

My younger girls are what I call Pioneer Girls (my preteen is a pioneer-girl-in-training, I call her my book girl) because they like to get their hands dirty and would prefer anything that has to do with real life than the entertainment most kids would go for. We had a ball sewing blankets and pillows, baking, gardening, cleaning our house, bike rides to the park, play dates with friends, and a few movies thrown in for extra snuggling on the couch after sleeping in and hanging out in our PJs for at least half the day. It was balm to my soul. It was life at the speed of life for all of us.

This year has been one of the most difficult (okay, actually the MOST difficult) years of my life, but at the same time has been the most peaceful, filled with extraordinary ordinary moments that have changed my perspective on life forever. Instead of breakneck speed of shuttling three kids to, well, everywhere, traveling and keeping everyone in a family of five happy (not easy when one was hell bent on being unhappy), our lives have now become grounded in our tranquil home with candles, flowers, flute music, healing crystals and art, lots of art. Sometimes the activity schedule gets disregarded, school breaks are spent at home and our lives are now filled with color, kindness and love.

The vibration of life has changed dramatically. I am noticing all that is quiet and lovely. When you slow life down to quiet, your inner self can come out of your head and you notice all the people who are doing the same ordinary, beautiful things you are: taking their kids to school, going to work, the grocery store, walking their dog, planting flowers, reading the newspaper, helping their parents or grandparents, nursing a hurt knee or teaching a child how to ride a bike or fix a flat tire. You revel in small conversations with the woman at the check out counter or the veterinarian or the man helping you at Home Depot. Kind people living life at the speed of life, who go home to their families, make dinner, go through the mail, let down their shields in the only real place that any of us can; at home, our sanctuary.