Mourning the Death of a Friendship

“If a friendship lasts 7 years, psychologists say it will last a lifetime.” I’m calling bs on that cute little meme. Many people are fortunate enough to have such relationships, and I count a few long-term patient people among my friends. But still many more of us know that the time you put into a friendship is no guarantee of success. Friendships end. Not all, but many do. Sometimes it’s with a fight, a betrayal, a bang. Sometimes it’s with distance, time, a whimper. And none of us are immune to the death of a friendship after a major life change – weddings and babies are like sieves that not everyone makes it through.

I’ve seen my share of friendships end so don’t think I’m referring to any one person when I say I’ve mourned. Years ago I found myself searching the internet for coping skills on friendships ending. My face was sticky with hot tears, my stomach knotted in grief. I was in pain, in mourning, in disbelief, and didn’t know what to do. There was nothing I could do to salvage this relationship that had once been so precious to me, and I couldn’t just sit with the sadness. I needed something to do, a guide, a tip, some way to get through this.

But there was nothing.

Lots of stuff about how to get over an unworthy boyfriend, a few things on how to pick yourself up after the loss of a job, but nothing about how to deal with the loss of a confidant, surrogate sister, and the other half of so many happy memories. Sure, the stages of grief can apply, and yeah, getting over someone isn’t too terribly different just because you didn’t date. Love is love and grief is grief, but there’s something distinctly tragic about the loss of a friendship that leaves us raw and aching in a way no other breakup can. Friendship is felt in a different part of our selves, has a comfort and familiarity to it that we don’t notice until it’s gone. We trust our friends with our secrets and share with them our silliest of memories, so when they leave they seem to take those with them. It’s like the door we were leaning against suddenly opens and we fall flat without the support we didn’t realize we’d come to rely upon. Even when that door opens slowly, we can feel it giving way, but we still can’t stop it and we’re still left standing alone with a whole half of ourselves exposed that was previously firmly against our support. Got some good news to share? A secret to spill? An inside joke that you’re dying to laugh at? You turn and are left with the gaping doorway now, a giant hole. Instead of the familiar you are left with… nothing. Well, the pain is there. The ache of missing someone who is very much alive, of the realization that you must retrain your brain and rid yourself of the muscle memory that tries to constantly direct you to where your friend once was. The old adage tells us that when a door closes a window opens, but loss is much more an exposed and open door than a shut one.

This is where I was when I found myself searching for how to deal with the living loss of a friend.

Over my years of hurting and healing I’ve come to a few realizations that I hope will help you in coping with the same loss. I can’t say I have tips or tricks or exercises, because really you can’t trick a heart into healing or speed the process up, but you can allow it to make itself whole again.

First, allow yourself the memories. Whether there was a huge, emotional blow-up over a devastating betrayal or the two of you just drifted apart, you get to keep the memories. If they’re good ones, you’re still allowed to smile at them. No matter how mad or sad you are at the end of the friendship, the memories before that are happy and should be left that way. You had your laughs, your jokes, your special movies and shared memories. Your friend was a comfort and a joy at one point – don’t rewrite the past by not allowing yourself to remember those times fondly. Whoever that friend is now, they were special then. Keep it that way.

Don’t try to replace them. The closer the friend the larger the void they leave. Sure, you’ll have another best friend someday, and no one is ever limited to the number of friends they’re allowed. But don’t try to find a replacement. Don’t try to find a knock-off version of the friend you’ve lost. Don’t compare potential suitors to the past ones. Sometimes you’ll need more than one person to fill all the gaps the lost friend leaves behind. This doesn’t mean the new friends aren’t as good as the old one, it doesn’t mean you’ll never find that same closeness again. It means that everyone has unique gifts to offer each other, and while one may fill your laughing tank you may need another who will listen without judgement. Don’t try to find someone who will do everything for you. Don’t compare your new friendship to the deep one you’re grieving. And don’t scroll through your contacts to create a queue for best friend auditions. The living person you’ve lost was special and unique, and  whether you think of them now fondly or ferociously, who they were to you will always be special and unique. Let everyone else be as special and unique as they can with you.

Wish them well. Seriously. As you work through the stages of grief – or as you work through the disbelief at whatever event has led to the end of your friendship – wish them well. Whoever they are, they’re stuck with themselves. You’re not around anyway to see them hit their shins on trailer hitches so why waste your energy hoping for it? It would be impossible to remember the good times fondly if every thought of the person you shared them left you seething  with bitterness. Healing just isn’t possible while holding onto hatred. However it ended, they once meant a great deal to you. Protect what you had – and your own heart – by wishing them well.

Don’t wait around for them to realize their mistake. Denial is part of the natural process of grief. Hope is inescapable and can protect the heart by easing into the pain of sudden blows. Let yourself accept that it’s over. Delete their contact information from your phone. Yes, at some point they may miss you, too – you’re awesome, after all, right? But don’t pin your hopes on getting a text or message bursting with apologies and promises and invitations to dinner. Allow yourself to accept the finality of the situation. It will suck. It will hurt. But it’s the reality.

Admit any contribution you may have made to the demise of your friendship. Obviously there was nothing you could have done if your friend turned out to be living a double life as a snake you’d never have recognized, but in the cases of slow death, repressed hurt feelings, misunderstandings that festered, take the time to examine yourself. None of us are perfect. If you seem to have a lot of friendships fizzle, do some self reflection and honestly own – then address – what you may have done to aide in their expiration. Improve yourself. Don’t allow yourself to believe the hype that makes it easier to hate – you won’t heal if you simply point the finger and try to move on. Reflect. Admit. Accept. Grow.

Grieve. It seems so simple to say, doesn’t it? Of course you’ll grieve, right? In all the searching I did for help in getting over the living loss of a friend, not finding much tells me that no, we don’t know it’s okay to grieve. The person is still alive, after all, so what’s to mourn? If you’re mad at them then you’re totally justified and shouldn’t feel the sting of sadness, right? No, dear. A friendship is a living thing, a special something that only exists between the love of two people. It strengthens over time, fills with memories, has its own unique quirks and eccentricities, and must be nurtured to grow. It’s perfectly acceptable – even necessary – then, to grieve its death. There is nothing silly or indulgent in shedding tears over a pair suddenly separated. When a friendship dies a bit of magic is lost, and the cold and lonely reality of what’s left – and what’s gone – demands adjustment, acceptance, healing, and grief. Let yourself cry. Acknowledge the loss. Something has died and it is, indeed, very very sad. It is an end, but not the end, so grieve what you must in order to move on. But maybe wait a while before you watch Beaches, there’s really only so much grief a person need face all at once.

All of this to say, if you find yourself mourning the death of a friendship that ended too soon or healing from one that didn’t end soon enough, you will be okay. You will make it through. You will heal and laugh again. You will even find yourself one day living a life you never thought wouldn’t be shared with your friend and be startled to realize just how much about you they don’t know now. This gone-away friend is not the last one you will ever have. You will make new friends, more friends, different friends. What’s gone is gone but the memories will live on, and so, my friend, will you.

 

 

Where Did My Fun Go?

Last week I had a quick conversation with friends, a few of them I’ve known for years. We were joking about this, laughing about that, when one of them said, “I remember the exact time I realized you were funny.” He described a time when I was, indeed, very funny, because let’s face it, I can be a hoot. We laughed at the memory of it, I gave him a hard time about how he’d known me for two years (!!!!!) before that occasion when he finally noticed that my jokes were good, and we went on our merry way, me with that I-just-spent-time-with-adults glow.

Later that night, it hit me.

He’d known me two years before he found out I was funny. Granted, I hadn’t spent every day of two years with this friend, but surely I’d made some kind of wise crack, right? It’s kind of my thing, after all. Had my jokes been bad? Did my timing miss a step? Did I stumble into some bad lighting? (Clueless reference.) No, I realized, that wasn’t it. My humor had been fine, it was me who wasn’t. Because every time I’d been around that friend, every encounter we’d had over those two years, I’d had my kids with me. He hadn’t seen me be funny because he’d seen me being a mom.

He hadn’t seen me, he’d seen the overtired, hypervigilant, herding, correcting, feeding, deep-sighing version of me.

Every encounter I’d had with this friend had not been me at my best, or my most comfortable. I hadn’t felt free to joke because I’d been bound by fatigue, schedule, mentally keeping track of how many packages of fruit snacks I’d already let the kids have. I wasn’t fun, I was frazzled.

So when did I lose my fun?

Did it get lost underneath the pile of unmatched socks?

Did it stay in bed when I had to get up so many times in the night?

Did I lose it when all the articles popping up made me aware of dry drowning and how I had to observe my kids for every second of an entire week after they submerged their heads in water?

Did the fun get lost between the lines of ingredients I read, both fearful of the allergens that could harm my children and trying to make sense of the latest ones I’m supposed to avoid?

Maybe I lost my fun when defending parenting choices became a part-time job for us all, when it suddenly took as much time to stand up for ourselves as mothers as it did to research alternative methods to what we’d been doing, since that latest article just detailed why we’ve been doing it so horribly wrong.

Did it feel left out between doctor appointments, cancelled date nights, trips to the schools, refereeing siblings, scrubbing stains out of brand-new clothes, price-matching brand-new shoes, or cleaning more pee than any 3 small humans should ever be able to produce?

*whispers* Was it delicate and I accidentally washed it with the towels?!

I wonder if it’s stuck between the pages of one of those books I started but haven’t been able to finish.

Maybe it’s in the backpack I’m pretending isn’t stuffed into the closet, still full of locker contents from the end of last school year.

I hope I find it when I’m purging for the next garage sale.

My fun could very well be shivering in the back of the fridge, either trapped in a dish of leftovers or wedged between the long-expired ingredients I bought to try a Pinterest recipe.

Is it an early bird and I’ve just missed it? Is it away and I haven’t been able to visit? Is it in the dust, the crumbs, the dish water, the lint trap, the mulch, the soot, the empty photo albums I’ve yet to fill? Could it be in my instrument I haven’t played in forever? Could it be in the gym clothes I haven’t seen in too long?

I’m not sure where it went, I don’t know how to find it. But I won’t stop looking now that I know that it’s gone.

Because as much as I wish my friend had known my humor those two years, I wish my kids had seen it more.

I’m going to chance that it’s in the bucket of water balloons I’m about to unleash. Or maybe in the fort we’re going to build. Perhaps I’ll find it in the extra laughs I’ll make time for after bedtime has passed. Maybe it will show up if I don’t rush dinner. I hope it comes back if I watch that movie with the kids. I’m even willing to roll the dice on it being lost somewhere in Minecraft. It’s not on my schedule, so I’ll stop looking there. It’s not on Facebook, or Instagram, or even on Pinterest. It could be in that mess I haven’t wanted to make, the project I haven’t made time for. It might be in the dirt, in the mud, in all the things I’ve found imperfect. It’s not in my laundry or I would have found it by now, so maybe it’s in a place I haven’t been in too long – or a place I’ve yet to go.

Wherever my fun went, I’m determined to find it. My kids deserve more, I deserve more, and dag nabbit, I’ve got some great jokes to share.

 

 

How to Treat Fat People

Airplanes, buses, trains, movie theaters – there are endless places where you may find yourself seated next to a fat person. I’ve talked about it time and again here – I’m a big woman. Plus-sized. Curvy. Overweight. I’m fat. We as a nation tend to shy away from using the word “fat” when we’re describing someone we love. We flinch at it, it makes us uncomfortable, we dismiss the word and tell them that of course they’re not fat. Just big. Or plus-sized. Or curvy. “Fat” carries with it a negative connotation, it’s used in comments sections to put people down, dismiss them, describe them, always in a bad way. It’s just something on a person’s body, literally everyone’s body, just in different amounts. Like freckles or hairs. But because weight is hard to hide and obesity is rising, I feel compelled, as a fat person, to offer the world this in-depth guide from the inside on how to treat someone like myself, a fat person.

Step 1: Treat them like you would any other human being.

That’s pretty much it. Taking up more space does not mean they’re worth less.

While I get the occasional creepy Facebook message from guys who fetishize big women, I also get to see the thousands of comments every day all over social media left by people who are disgusted by fat people. Their actual words, they’re disgusted. Why? Because a human being dares to look differently than they’d prefer. Do you want to date or marry every person you’re kind to on a daily basis? The person you held the door for, are you harboring a deeply-rooted love for them? Did you profess your feelings to the person you smiled at across from you at the restaurant? Have you entered into long-term relationships with every stranger you’ve encountered without turning your nose up in disgust? No? Then why do people have to make themselves attractive for you to be nice to them? Why must someone conform to your physical ideals to not be reviled?

They don’t.

If you think your lower numbers on the scale or higher numbers in the gym make you a better person – or worse, assign you more worth – then the problem isn’t my weight, it’s your heart.

“Ah, Jen, I’m glad you brought up the heart. Obesity is so bad for you – ”

I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a post to celebrate or encourage obesity. This is not a post where I justify my weight. Search it line by line, and you will find no excuses, justifications, or fact-ignoring celebrations. This is purely and entirely about treating people with kindness. If you react with anything that resembles a, “yeah, but…”, then you don’t get the point and should start back up at the top. Repeat as many times as necessary.

But since we’re on the topic, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something we keep hidden deep in the bowels of Lane Bryant – fat people do not have to justify their choices to you. Ever. Period. Not caloric intake. Not activity levels. Nothing. Overweight people are not dumb. They are not ignorant to the medical research on obesity any more than they are to your stares and snickers. (Yes, the snickers pun was intentional.) Every single time a fat person visits a doctor, for literally any ailment, they must first spend at least 20 minutes going around and around with their doctor over their weight. Truly. Got a headache? Well if you’re fat, good luck getting your doctor to look past your waistband. There is no greater population of people that must justify their right to be heard by a doctor. So we get it, we’ve heard it, extra weight is hard on your body. No one person in an internet comments section is the messiah of skinny news, you will not bring to them the sudden realization through your “concern” that losing weight would be healthier. Suggesting diets is not helpful. Asking an obese person if they’ve tried exercise is a lot like asking a person struggling with infertility if they’ve tried conceiving. Messaging someone about a miracle product you’re selling is just plain rude and bad internet etiquette. And heck, if you’re really so concerned about someone dying sooner, then be NICE to them with the little time they apparently have left. Shaming anyone for something on their body isn’t just cruel, it shows an incredible lack of intelligence. Really, the most obvious thing about me is the only thing you could think to talk about? Teach your kids to see the person and not the size, to describe people as, “That man in the blue shirt,” instead of “that big fat guy over there.”  They’ll be better friends – and writers – for it. While we’re on the topic, please don’t teach your children that eating too much will cause them to get fat. That’s really not the whole truth. Genetics, conditions, hormones, medications, injuries, depression, and yes, food choices, can all play a part in the amount of jiggle in someone’s wiggle. Diet and exercise are not secrets that have been kept from fat people. Most of the fat people I know diet and exercise more than the average-sized people in my life. Keep your regiments to yourself and don’t assume that just because a person looks a certain way that they aren’t working on it – or even that they don’t want to look like that.

J.K. Rowling said once, “Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me.”

While there is more of me, there’s also more to me. I have two degrees, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I have three kids. I can quote a mind-boggling number of movies and every episode of Friends. My husband is my best friend. I get really excited really easily. I used to want to be a professional whistler. I love to laugh, write, create. I love costume jewelry and leopard print. I can sing the 50 states song in about 40 seconds. I’m terrified of aquatic plants. I am certified to SCUBA dive down to 60 feet in open water, and want to someday swim with sharks. I play the trumpet. In high school I sang with the men’s choir at UIL competition – and the women’s. I’m an insomniac, a history buff, true-crime fanatic, and a friend. I’m not the most interesting person in the world, but the outside of me does not even come close to how much more there is of me on the inside.

Do I have thyroid problems? Hormonal imbalances? Injuries, medications, genetics, or snacking habits that have led me to become overweight? I don’t have to tell. I don’t have to justify my size. For a long time I have, and out of insecurity I sometimes still will, but really, no one, from the petite to the pudgy, has to justify their size to you. To anyone. No one’s meals, no one’s choices need your approval. My weight does not define me, but your words do clearly advertise who you are. No one, not the most morbidly obese person in the stretchiest of pants with the biggest of plates, deserves to be treated with any less respect. You don’t have to marry them, you don’t have to date them, you don’t have to befriend them, but you are not entitled, ever, to elevate yourself over them with your disgust.

Treat everyone kindly. That’s really it.

Measuring Others’ Pain

This post has been stirring in my heart for a while. It seems that almost every conversation I have had for the last few weeks has just confirmed the need for me to write these words down, even if only to humble myself into accepting them. I myself am guilty of what I’m about to write about, as many of us are, and I apologize.

We all, at any point in our lives, have a friend or loved one who is hurting. Death. Sickness. Divorce. Infertility. Special needs. Mental illness. The loss of a job. The loss of a child. The loss of a parent. The loss of a home. The loss of an ability. The loss of a friendship. Addiction. Affairs. Abuse. Straight-up drama.  We can all call to the front of our minds someone we know who is going through something painful. I can name a friend for almost all of the above-mentioned situations, and it’s sobering. Pain is all around us, even when it doesn’t directly affect us. We cannot always protect those we care about from experiencing it and we cannot walk this earth without at some point feeling it ourselves. Pain is a part of life, and a very important part at that. And while pain is, at some point, unavoidable, that does not make it dismissible.

My oh my, how many times have we heard the plight of a friend and commented to ourselves, “If I were in that situation, I’d……”, almost with a sense of superiority, as though our opinion of their situation held more weight than the situation itself?

“I’d never stand for that.”

“I’d never stay if he did that.”

“It’s been six months already, how has she not moved on?”

“I’d have seen a doctor sooner.”

“I’d go to college.”

“I’d get a better-paying job.”

“I’d never do that.”

“I can’t believe she stayed.”

“I can’t believe she left.”

“I can’t believe she’s still talking about it.”

We go on and on, offering our opinions instead of our support, proud of ourselves for having it all together and never realizing how lucky we are to be able to view the pain from the outside. Or we apply our own experience.

“When that happened to me, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps.”

“I worked hard, so anyone else can, too.”

“It worked for me, there’s no reason she can’t do it.”

“I was smart enough to leave.”

“I struggle, too, but you don’t hear me crying about it.”

“I never let my kids do that.”

“I had to pay, they should, too.”

The fact is, pain is not quantitative. There is no way to measure what another person is going through, therefore there is no way to compare what they’re going through.

There is no expiration date for grief, no way to determine when an appropriate amount of time has passed before one must “get over it”. Whether a pregnancy was lost in the early weeks or in the delivery room does not hold any weight to the pain felt. There is no “at least” that will bring comfort to the persons who have said goodbye to someone they love – “at least you were only 6 weeks pregnant”, “at least you know you can get pregnant”, “at least you had all that time together”, “at least they went quickly”, “at least you had time to prepare yourself”, “at least you had a chance to say goodbye”, “at least you’re young”, “at least they were old”…. there is no “at least” that is bigger than the hole left behind.

Disappointment is not relative. A friend of mine delivered her first baby a few years ago and was deeply disappointed over the experience, as it had not gone as she’d planned and prepared for. In the middle of her tears she said, almost apologetically, “I know, at least I didn’t have to have a C-section like you, so I should be grateful…” NO. Disappointment is not relative. My disappointment being different from her disappointment does not make hers less, and does not make mine more. It’s okay to admit disappointment – it’s not the same as discontentment. And that old monster “At Least” has no place in disappointment. “At least” hints that the pain that is felt is too great, that the feelings experienced are not proportionate to the situation. But as grief cannot be quantified, there is no such thing as proportionate pain.

Mourning is not morning – it is not over at a specific time. A death, a divorce, whatever has ended has an effect, and your opinion of how long the process has taken does not speed it up. “Long enough” is not helpful, is not supportive. It does not push one towards healing, but rather towards isolation. If someone cannot share their pain with you because of how you attempt to measure or judge it, they will keep it to themselves and share the burden of their feelings alone.

While we are not meant to be sad, we are meant to feel sadness when it arises. One of the most powerful representations I’ve ever seen of its importance was, of all places, in a Pixar movie. If you haven’t seen Inside Out, go rent it tonight! The main character, Joy, obviously wants everything to be happy all the time, as do most of us. Social media, Pinterest, tv, Instagram… we’re surrounded by the most perfect and joyous of images and messages all day long, and we like it. We strive for it. But when something legitimately sad happens, Joy tries to push through, move on, gloss over it and pretend like it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In the movie – and I promise you I paused immediately after this scene to wipe my tears and explain how impactful it was to my kids – Sadness sits down and talks about how sad it is. She lets the tears flow, admits that it is sad, and feels the pain of it all. Once this has happened – and ONLY after this has happened – are they able to move on in their journey. Sadness must be felt. We have to acknowledge how painful something is before we can begin to heal from it. To become stronger we must admit we were once weaker, and accept that neither is better than the other. Sadness, pain, grief, mourning, disappointment – they’re all very real emotions that will take place regardless of our opinion of the circumstances they showed up in.

Ah, the circumstances. This one is tough, because all too often the circumstances of one’s pain create an excuse for others to dismiss them. You never liked that friend’s husband so you’re not sad to see their marriage fail. You don’t do drugs so you have a hard time feeling compassion for those who lose everything to addiction. You would never let your kids behave so poorly so you feel justified when someone else’s teenager runs away. You know he cheated before so you have a hard time feeling sorry for your friend who stayed anyway when he does it again. You judged their spending habits or their low-paying jobs so you judge their bankruptcy or their pleas for help. You had success with a weight loss program so you are exasperated with your overweight friend. But our opinions, again, are not helpful. They didn’t protect anyone from getting hurt and they certainly won’t help anyone to heal. To put it plainly, it truly, 100%, completely, wholly DOES NOT MATTER what we think. We do not get to decide who is deserving of their pain. Not agreeing with another’s pain does not negate it. Just because you don’t agree with someone’s divorce does not mean you can drop off a casserole and hope it goes away. Your discomfort is not a factor any more than your opinion. People around us are hurting, and we are not called to sit in judgement of them. We don’t have to like what’s happening, only love the person its happening to.

That’s what it all comes down to, really – judgement. We think we know better, think we’d do better, feel we’ve done better. But the hurting ones around us are not asking for our expertise, they’re asking for our compassion. One of the most humbling experiences of my life has been to tell someone I love that I support their decisions because I support them, and then watch them make a decision I would not have made. So what am I to do now? Do I withdraw my support because I disagree, or do I swallow my pride and recognize that my opinion is literally worth nothing in such matters? Do I henceforth offer only conditional support to loved ones in the hopes that they’ll do what I want them to? Do I sit in bitter judgement and disbelief at their choices, or do I thank God that I am not in the same boat, having to make the same ones? Do I turn up my nose or lend them my ear?

Don’t misunderstand me, support is not the same as enabling. Enabling is offering your permission; support is offering your hand. Enabling is making something possible; support is making someone stronger. Support is propping up someone when they’re too weak to stand on their own. Support is listening to them, crying with them, praying for them. It’s offering your help, your ear, your time, your words when asked and your shoulder when needed. Only offering support when your opinions are followed is friendship on demand, it’s help for sale, it’s selfish. So when you find yourself beginning to judge someone else’s pain or reactions, as yourself, “How on EARTH is their pain about ME?”

It’s not.

So stop telling people to get over it already. Stop telling yourself you’d do any better. Stop trying to measure someone else’s pain and stop kidding yourself that you even can. Start listening without forming an opinion. Start acknowledging sadness when you’d rather stick your head in the sand. Start accepting that there is only so much you can control, and it’s even less than you think. Start being a friend instead of a jury. And for the love, stop telling people how to feel.

 

The Tagged Photo

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know I’m a big girl. I’ve written about some of the issues I’ve faced as a plus-sized woman here, here, and here. It’s not a big secret, it’s something I discuss openly, it’s something I’ve had to deal with for a long time now. Yet for all the struggles I’ve shared and the courage I’ve mustered, few things terrify me as much as the tagged photo.

You never know when it will strike, when it will creep up on you, completely unprepared and unaware. You step away from social media, have a lovely day, then come back to a strange surge in notifications – gasp! You’ve been tagged in a photo… and people have SEEN it! You can remove the tag if you want, sure. You can adjust your settings so that you must first approve tags (and I thought I had). You can walk around in full hair and makeup, sucking in everywhere you go and appearing to candidly laugh in the background at all times. No matter what precautions you take, it never fails that someone, somewhere, will at some point tag you in an unflattering photo. Such tragedy befell me yesterday.

Earlier this week I went on a field trip with my daughter and her pre-k class. She had a great time, talked about it for the rest of the day with the biggest smile on her face, just so excited about what we’d done together that day. The day was a success! Truth be told I was as excited as she was about the day and couldn’t wait to announce it on social media, it was such a fun time. But I didn’t. Over the course of the morning we took at least 30 selfies together, and none of them met my standards. We tried side light, low light, direct light, sunlight. Silly faces, vogue faces, the right side of our faces and the left side of our faces. Different backgrounds, different poses, different angles. I looked at every single one of them and dismissed them as unworthy of sharing because I didn’t like how I looked in them. My daughter, of course, was adorable in each one, even though the last dozen or so really began to show her annoyance with the constant pictures. I’m a photographer and this is my busiest season, so I’ve been staying up working at a computer screen until 6 am, getting about 3 hours of sleep a night, and it showed. I had bags under my eyes from editing, grey in my hair from parenting. My nose looked too pointy in one photo, too bulbous in another. I didn’t like the way I looked and controlled how my friends on social media saw me. Goodbye, photographic evidence of an otherwise lovely day.

Or so I thought.

Yesterday evening, my adorable daughter’s amazing teacher posted some photos she had taken of the day. Group photos of the class, pictures of her with some of the kids, parents… and then I saw it, the reason I’d gotten a notification in the first place – a photo of my little girl and I, together, and I was – gulp – tagged.

My cheeks instantly flushed, my ears burned with embarrassment. I was sitting, rarely a good pose for anyone and never a good one for a plus-sized person, and my tiny little daughter looked positively elfin next to me. There I was, obviously large, nothing and no none to hide behind. Just me. I was humiliated at how much of the photo I took up, how apparent my size was. I was disappointed, all my carefully-crafted, expertly-angled, creatively-cropped selfies gone to waste now because this photo was showing the truth. I felt exposed. Here I was and there was nothing I could do to change it. I’ll be honest, as silly as it may sound, my eyes burned with tears. I didn’t like what I saw and I didn’t want anyone else to see it.

But they already had.

The photo already had a handful of “likes” from friends who had seen me, the real me, in their newsfeed. As I stared at the image and dissected it, made a mental list of everything I hated about myself, I got a few more notifications that friends had “liked” the photo I was tagged in. Crap, there goes another one. And another.

I put my phone down and hung my head. I stayed silent for a while, just sitting on the couch, watching tv with my husband and feeling that gnaw in my stomach that comes with regret. I badly wanted to go back in time and either decline the photo op or set my daughter in my lap and smile over her shoulder, shielded from the camera, from the truth of who I am. I wanted to remove the tag. I wanted to investigate and look at who all had seen the photo.

I opened Facebook back up and checked my notifications. Yep, a few more “likes” on that embarrassing picture of me. I clicked on it and started reading the names of my friends who had taken the time to react to it. Not react – they liked it. Some of them even took the time to “love” it. Some of the friends I’ve never met in real life. I’d met them in groups where we shared similar interests and hit it off,  but we’d never met, never hugged, never shared a cup of coffee. These people had just gotten their first glimpse of me – the real me. The unflattering, sitting-down, chest-is-bigger-than-the-head-of-the-child-sitting-next-to-me, what-on-earth-is-my-hair-doing me. Some of the friends – there goes another like! – do know me in real life. They’ve hugged me, seen me cry, listened to my loud voice and smiled when I walked into a room. They weren’t duped. They’ve seen me look like that, every time they’ve been around me. They’ve seen me sit, seen me with lipstick on my teeth, seen me sweat and get frustrated and take my heels off in stores to walk around barefoot. They’ve seen me, and still they’re my friends. And they “liked” the picture. They support me, encourage me, and are happy to see me smiling on a field trip with my daughter. They may not have cared if I was sitting, they may have, but they’ve seen me and it didn’t matter. They “liked” it. Oh man, Amber just saw this picture of me. Come ON, I saw Amber in person two weeks ago, this picture isn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know about me!

Instead of seeing each notification as a nail in the coffin of my image, I began to see them as little high fives, little pats on the back, little gestures from friends who saw me, the real me, and were happy they had. Friends I’d encouraged to make sure they had pictures of themselves no matter how unhappy they were with their appearance. Friends I looked up to. Friends I grew up with. Friends who knew me when I was thin and friends who first met me when I wasn’t. It sounds so simple, they just “liked” my picture and went on scrolling. But it meant so much more. Instead of feeling exposed I was feeling accepted. Instead of feeling disgusted I was feeling loved. I may not have liked what I saw in that picture, but my friends did, and not because of how I looked, but because it was ME in it.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be changing my profile picture to that one any time soon. My profile picture which, by the way, is a carefully-angled selfie of me wearing a shirt that says “Plus is Equal”, picked from about 30 other attempts at the same shot and run through a filter or two. Do I look like that? Well, sure, from the right angle and cropped close in. But I sit a lot more than I stand on my porch in full makeup, looking up just enough to elongate my face and neck. I have bags and greys frequently enough, too. I’ve been hiding in plain sight, so scared of how I’d look that I forgot that this is how I really do look, that people in my life see me every day without a second thought. I’ve been laying bare my emotions and experiences and hiding my appearance, the very thing about me that so many posts have sprung from. I’ve been telling everyone without hesitation that I was a plus-sized woman but was too embarrassed to prove it.

So there I am. I’m not removing the tag. I’m not mad, I’m not upset. I’m still probably a little sheepish about the picture, but I’m glad I have it, glad to have a memory saved of that wonderful day with my girl, glad she’ll have something to look back at and remember. I’m challenged now to embrace who I am. I’m convicted that I’ve been using my voice to advocate for people who look like me but using any other means possible to keep people from looking AT me. My pants size didn’t change when that picture was seen by others, my weight didn’t fluctuate. I’m still exactly who I was and I still look exactly the same. My husband still loves me and tells me I’m beautiful, I still have 3 awesome kids, and the Backstreet Boys are still better than N Sync. Nothing really changed in my world apart from how terrified I’ve been to let my friends see me.

Now I challenge you, friend, to do the same. Let your friends see you. Let us know you. Don’t duck away from photos (guilty), don’t hide behind the camera so you don’t have to be in front of it (guilty), don’t pass up an opportunity to capture a memory forever because you didn’t want to see yourself in the present (also guilty). Take pictures. Heck, jump into the pictures. Who you are is not how you look, so anyone who calls themselves your friend has already decided to like you without knowing that you wear your belts under your bust instead of around your waist (so very guilty). So you look different than you used to – there’s a whole day devoted to laughing and musing over how much we’ve ALL changed, Throwback Thursday. So you don’t love how you look – you’ve got a lot of people who love who you ARE. I challenge you to answer these questions whenever you hesitate to share a photo, a memory – what is the absolute worst thing that can come from an unflattering photo of you being seen by others? Is it catastrophic or can you survive it? Is the memory of that moment more valuable than the image you’ve crafted up until then? Have you ever lost respect for someone or ended a friendship with anyone because they had a roll of chub showing or were in the middle of a breakout? If you have never been so shallow as to stop caring for a friend because they didn’t look perfect, then do your friends the courtesy of not assuming they will, either.

Let’s put ourselves out there, warts, tight shirts, wrinkles and all. Let’s be real. Let’s encourage and empower one another. Let us let go of the pursuit of perfection and remind ourselves that even Beyoncé has some embarrassing pictures tagged, and that while our social media images may be a little imperfect, at least ours aren’t as easily found on Google. Give your friends a chance to “like” what they see, and give yourself the freedom to accept just what it is they’re looking at.

The (New) Stages of Grief – and How We’re Doing it Wrong

The (new) Stages of Grief - and How We're Doing it Wrong

Our world is grieving right now. World events, news, relationships, health, wealth, dreams… there’s a lot happening every day to process and mourn. And faster than we can heal, there’s another breaking news story, another blow, and we’re left reeling and feeling all over again. Grief is not new to this divided world – it’s been felt and studied and survived since the beginning of mankind. In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the world to what are now widely accepted as the 5 stages of grief, basically the 5 steps to how one copes with extreme sadness and loss.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages aren’t always experienced in this order, and sometimes a person may skip a stage entirely, but in general this is the best way to understand the way that grief moves through us and how we, in turn, respond to it. This does not minimize the experience, rather it is comforting to know that, if nothing else, there is acceptance at the end: You will make it through.

However, at some point in our culture, we’ve begun to rework these stages, tossing out some, renaming others, and really just making a mess of Elizabeth KR’s work. A very powerful, very moving, and very, very destructive step was added and it began to eat away at the other steps, as well as us. It has taken over and assumed the role of trailblazer when we’re faced with grief, leading the way and dictating our actions and reactions from the moment we first hurt. The stages have been whittled down to only the one remaining, distorted stage that doesn’t allow for acceptance on the other side.

Blame.

It’s not a new concept. It’s not always an undeserved one. But it has become the sole obsession of our world when faced with tragedy. Politicians, religion, parents, culture, schools…. Read any single news story shared on social media – seriously, any – and then check the comments. You will find blame. Finger pointing. Assumptions, judgements, name-calling, armchair quarterbacks, “experts”. People who claim they would never have allowed such a thing to happen to them, people who claim such a thing would never have happened if someone else had been in charge. People who blame mothers for accidents and parents for crime.

Blame abounds where pain confounds and comfort – what of comfort? There can be no peace where blame exists. Blame is the exact opposite of acceptance – it is projecting responsibility onto someone else, literally putting your ability to heal into the hands of another person. Blame is justified bitterness. Blame being the opposite of acceptance means that acceptance cannot be achieved, one cannot heal, get over, get through, get better, so long as they blame someone else for their pain.

“But this isn’t my fault!” No one said it was, friend. Sometimes tragedy is just tragedy. Sometimes bad things happen. And never in the stages of grief is “blame” listed as healthy or necessary to the process. Sometimes there’s no one to blame, only feelings to feel, and those feelings are really hard to deal with when you feel alone in them. You can feel powerless, weak, exposed. Blame creates a false sense of justification, of power, as though blaming someone else enables you to rise above the waves of grief with the dignity of someone who should not have to experience them. Blame is a bandage, a temporary fix, an attempt to curb the very real pain without aiding in any actual healing. Blame fuels the fire, makes it easier to feel indignant than hurt. Blame is a poison disguised as a defense mechanism that will, eventually, fill the void with bitterness – something much harder to rid yourself of than grief.

Blaming your husband for your lack of finances, for the long hours he works. Blaming your kids for your lack of free time or loss of happiness. Blaming your friend for the breakdown in your relationship. Blaming your pastor for your offense. Heck, blaming your pastor for religion. Blaming your boss for your career path. Blaming world leaders for tragic events. Blaming parents for their children. Blaming your ex for… well, everything. Blaming an entire group for the actions of one. Blaming society for the actions of one. Blaming God for the actions of one.

As I type, my 3 wild kids are just feet from me, doing one of their favorite things: all out wrestling. Seriously, tripping, grabbing, pushing, rolling, all over the floor, it’s wild and chaotic and they LOVE it. They’re all giggling and smiling and having a blast… until someone knocks a little too hard or a fall is a little worse than expected. It happens, every time, and every time the crying kid is pointing at someone, blaming them, and the guilty kid stands over them, defending themselves. Through the tears, the scratches, sometimes even the blood, they are more concerned with whose fault it is than helping the hurt kid feel better. And always, before I hear opening statements from both parties, I have to remind (force) the accused to get down on the level of their hurt sibling, apologize for them being hurt, and see if they can help. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s on purpose. But no matter what, someone has been hurt and the important thing is to help them. Someone is hurting and needs to heal, and assigning blame has yet to be proven to help.

Sometimes there is someone to blame. Sometimes there is a systemic breakdown and a societal failure. Sometimes imperfect people act imperfectly and really are buttheads. But they still can’t heal you. And blaming them implies that they have control over your emotions, blaming them puts the responsibility for your wellness in their hands. There will be a time for assigning blame where blame is due, but I urge you not to give into the temptation to allow blame to become your first reaction, the only step in your grieving process. Do not allow blame to create a false sense of righteousness in you. Do not believe that your opinion of another is their reality. Heal, friend. Feel. Pain and tragedy are so, well, painful and tragic, that it’s easy to want to avoid them. None of us are immune. That doesn’t mean we’re deserving. That doesn’t mean the person to blame gets away with anything. It means you’re human, and you’re getting through it.

I’m no fitness expert (pause for laughter), but I do know that muscle is built by creating small tears that then heal to be stronger. You go to the gym, do werk, and are sore. You’ve created tiny tears in the muscle that now need the opportunity to heal in order to grow. Feel the burn, some might say. No pain, no gain. Well, at the risk of sounding super cheesy, the heart is a muscle. You have to be able to heal to get better. Blame is nothing you want any part of when it comes to healing. Blame is acid on the wounds, a distraction, and a missed opportunity to care for your self.

So please, the next time something comes across your path that is heartbreaking, pause. Feel the sadness. Allow the grief. Watch Inside Out to see how necessary sadness is to the healing process. Cry. Mourn. Be vulnerable. Don’t judge. Don’t react. Let yourself feel so that you can sooner heal. And get a hug if you can.

 

A Love Letter to People of Color (To Be Read By All My White Friends)

My Dear Friends,

First, let me say that I know I don’t speak for everyone, and I know I’m not an expert on race relations. I get it. I have (mostly) blonde hair, live in the ‘burbs, watch Friends and drive a minivan. I’m super white. I won’t do the thing where I give you my background and tell you about the places I’ve been and the life I’ve lived to try and qualify my statements, to make it seem like I know what you’re going through. Because the truth is, I don’t. I won’t tell you about all the friends I’ve had in an attempt to present myself as an ally. Because the truth is, having friends is not the same as standing beside you and it does not cancel out centuries of hatred. I won’t burst through your mourning with defense or rhetoric, with anything that begins with “not all white people…”. Because the truth is, you hurt, and those words do not heal.

I fear, my beautiful friends, that I’ve been grossly misunderstanding racism up until now. I’m afraid that I allowed my understanding of it to become my definition of it, when in reality they’ve been two very different things. I assumed that because there are no signs separating your family from mine while we eat that racism was a thing of the past. I thought that because I struggled with paying the bills that white privilege was not real. And I reasoned that, while ignorance still runs rampant, my generation had been taught to be color blind… which I again associated with the end of racism.

I’ve discovered, however, that in our earnest to remain color blind, we’ve dismissed the idea of color bias. I’ve discovered, through my introduction and attempts at understanding cultural appropriation, that color blindness was never the goal. Color blindness strips you of your glorious heritage, your sacred rituals and histories. Color blindness makes the assumption that you and I are alike, when we very much are not. Color blindness has led me to believe the lie that because we are equal in personhood, we are also equal in experience. Color blindness caused many to blame the victim before they ever listened to the outcry. Color blindness spurred on #AllLivesMatter. Color blindness, in an attempt to mix this melting pot we call America, instead brought it to a boiling point where everything is in such a rolling turmoil that we’re clashing, banging, picking, blaming. Color blindness told me I was an ally, while all along I was just the stubborn friend who meant well but didn’t know what the heck she was actually talking about.

I reach out to you now, my friends of color who are hurting, who are scared. I was wrong. I was ignorant. So often we associate the word “ignorance” with “stupidity” so we are reluctant to identify with it, when really it means I just didn’t know. I was ignorant. In my passion to declare you the same as me, I was dismissing your loud cries to the contrary. I was ignorant. In my attempts to make sense of your experience, I listened to my own reasoning instead of your words. I was ignorant. In my own firm belief that I was not racist, I ignored the fact that a lot of people are. And a lot of people are ignorant to what racism is. I thought my declarations of equality were comforting to you, but in my ignorance did not see how they drowned you out. I hate it when I’m sharing a story or struggle with someone, desperate for someone to hear, only to have them respond with their own. That’s what we’ve been doing all this time, isn’t it? When we bring up stories of white people in seemingly similar situations, when we spout off our own experiences. We’ve been using our words in an ignorant attempt to relate or explain, when all along you’ve just wanted to be heard.

So here we are, friends, at the crux. Where do we go from here? I imagine you’re tired. Tired of explaining to white people how things are different, tired of answering ignorant questions, tired of seeing your race represented on the news more than primetime shows, tired of being told things about yourself by people who just don’t know. So I will urge my white friends to listen more than they speak, to hear your answers without forming a response. I cannot promise to not ask patience of you as I work around my lifelong ignorance. I cannot promise to always get it right. I cannot promise that things will get better starting now. But I can promise that I will try. I can promise that I hear you now, and I will listen. I can hope that each day will get a little better, that maybe as the roar becomes deafening some will be unable to hear their own ideas over your words. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know what will be said next week. But I know I will listen. I will hear you. I will not attempt to make sense of it, because my own experiences can never equate to yours, and because so much of it is just senseless.

 

Image from here.  I have no idea what they say or support, I just needed to use the image!

The Cinderella Mom

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Hey, Mom. I see you, up late.

The kids are in bed, the husband is snoring, and the place is all yours: it’s go time on mom time.

The time has come for you to be who you were long before the kids were there – the writer, the reader, the artist, the seamstress. We spend our days as servants, ragged, worn. But when night falls and the clock strikes, our transformation takes place. Bippity, boppity, boo! The responsibilities of the day and the plans for tomorrow fall away, and for just the slightest of time we’re alone to be us, to follow our dreams, to play among our passions.

Not every night. Some nights all we can manage is a little Pinterest, maybe some Netflix. Some nights end in tears, some end in guilt over how you wish the day had gone, some end on the couch before you mean them to. Heck, some nights don’t seem to end at all because the kids keep coming out of their rooms and asking questions and wanting more water and complaining and tattling and remembering details about a YouTube video from 7 months ago and being the thirstiest person to EVER LIVE. But some nights are magical. Some nights the stars align, the alarm doesn’t taunt you, and the silence is golden. You don’t have a pumpkin carriage, but you have a couch, a desk, a favorite chair, or even just the whole living room floor awaiting you, ready to take you where you’ve been itching to go. There isn’t much time – there never is – but what you have is the stuff of fairy tales, the stuff that holds you over, energizes you, reminds you that you are more than Mom, that you can do more than laundry and shuttling and meal prepping and breaking up fights. You can produce more than milk and fruit snacks. Maybe you work magic with a pair of needles, maybe you paint, maybe you read… maybe you rest. Whatever it is that you do, it is of the utmost importance that you keep doing it.

Whatever it is that you miss about the time before becoming a mom, do that. Did you meet friends for movies? Do that. Did you write short stories? Do that.  Did you sculpt, garden, give yourself pedicures? Do those things. There may never be time to do them every night, or even every week. But there may also be no other time than the magical midnight hour to do them at all. You cannot afford to invest all of yourself into motherhood. You will never see a return on it if you do. Huge parts of you, yes. More than you knew you could give, sure. But you cannot give every part of yourself to raising your children or you will have nothing left when you’re done. And you will be done, at some point. Not tonight, obviously, but someday.

Beyond what is left of you then, the world needs what’s inside of you NOW. You, your perspective, your gifts, your words… they don’t just disappear once you become a mother. You still matter. You have not become a bookmark in someone else’s story, holding the place and marking pauses. Your name may have been changed to Mom, but who you are was not modified, what you are capable of remains.

There’s a quote that makes the rounds, I see it about once a week and the person accredited to it changes as frequently. It says, “Children are not a distraction from the more important work. They are the most important work.” I don’t know that a quote has ever filled me with so many conflicting feelings at once. Yes, this privilege we have in child rearing is great. The weight of our decisions hangs heavily over us every night, the words we speak, the job we do, can ripple outwards who knows how far. We get one shot at raising these people, and it’s a really big deal. But we also only get one shot at being us, and we have more to offer and are more impactful that motherhood alone. Do not misunderstand me, I’m not discounting motherhood and all its glories. I’m saying we’re mighty moms BECAUSE that’s not all there is to us. We were not given talents and gifts and callings and likes and preferences simply to let them waste away once we started changing diapers. You are made up of so much more than mom genes. You have ideas, passions, abilities, and the world needs them. You need to exercise them. And, just as important, your children need to see them. What better way to raise strong young women than to show them what all a woman is capable of? What better way to raise appreciative young men than to show them all the facets of you? Let your kids be in awe of you. Let them see you create, let them know what’s important to you. They see every day how human you are, so give them a glimpse of how superhuman you can be. My kids’ mom takes photographs that hang in peoples’ homes. They sit on chairs their mom painted and sometimes even wear clothes she made (though just washing the store-bought stuff is equally miraculous most days). Show them the stories you wrote that impacted people they’ve never met. Make sure they know about the baby blankets you made that will become heirlooms, or the recipes you shared that feed countless families. Tell them about the job you work at, the kids you teach, the patients you help, the companies you help run, the services you provide. Let them see the stack of books you’ve devoured, show them your art, your hobbies, your contributions, your gifts. Show them YOU.

In my experience, kids don’t appreciate the meals or the cleaning or the folding or the pick up line. They expect it, it becomes mundane. It can do the same to us. And it’s hard, pulling yourself up out of the mundane, the rut. It can be difficult to feel inspired when you’re surrounded by the same mess and chaos and laundry piles that you were in all day. But just wait. Wait for the clock to strike and allow the magic to work. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to work all day, to feel the press and the rush to get home and get everything done for the day, then everything prepped for the next, in a span of a few hours. The temptation to fall fast asleep and rest your brain must be overwhelming most nights. But sometimes, just sometimes, don’t give in. Stay up and do something for you. Transform. Be YOU. Not the employee, not the mom, but YOU. The unique you who existed long before the babies and the meetings and the appointments. Allow yourself to indulge in what brings you joy and dare to feel no guilt for it.

I admit to losing myself when I first became a mother. I won’t go into too much detail now, mostly because I’ve already gone on for so long, but also because I’m saving it for another blog, wink wink. But whatever the details, I was lost. Me, Jen, the goofy, movie-quoting, fashion-magazine-devouring, creative person had become a shell, a robot, someone only capable of carrying out tasks necessary for my baby. I didn’t recognize it at first. I didn’t know I wasn’t fulfilled, and if I had, I wouldn’t dare have voiced it for fear of being judged. But I remember the moment I realized something other than caring for my son was making me happy. I had taken photos of a family friend and was skipping through the house as they transferred onto the computer. Me. Skipping. I don’t do that NOW, and I’m sure it was just as ridiculous to see then, but something was awakening me, something had stirred a part of me I didn’t realize had gone stagnant. I was doing something creative, and I was loving it. Over the years, as with any relationship, my dance with motherhood has had highs and lows. Some days I crush it and some days it crushes me. Some days the monotony so consumes me that I forget what I’d want to do with free time, should I scrounge any up. On those days, on the really hard ones, when you’re so completely overwhelmed that you can’t see past the moment to come up with a hobby, just sit. You don’t have to create anything. You don’t have to cure cancer. You don’t have to have hoardes of fans or followers, customers, influence. But you DO have to take care of you, and just sitting can do it. Maybe that leads to reading a book you’ve been wanting to get to. Maybe that leads to getting an idea. Maybe that leads to you singing a song. Or maybe you just get to be with yourself for a little bit and catch your breath with no one to touch you, to ask of you. Your relationship with you began long before the one you have with your children, and it’s just as important to maintain it.

It can be really hard, having to wait to do what you want, to do what you’re passionate about. It can make you feel unimportant to have to put yourself on the back burner. It can make you feel guilty, to use precious and finite time doing something only for yourself. Find the time. Make the time. Heck, trade, barter, or steal the time. Cinderella had only one night and it was enough to change her. She had a pretty rough day the next day, too, and still it was worth it. You’ve spent so long being the unappreciated attendant and all you want is the chance to have a night of magic… or maybe to get your hands covered in Mod Podge or sculpting clay. You don’t have a fairy godmother or glass slippers, but an adult coloring book could be just as transformative. Make your passions and hobbies a priority, make YOU a priority. Fight for who you are, not what you do. Wait for your moment, enjoy the quiet, and have a wonderful night with yourself. Don’t be a stranger. Be Cinderella. Isn’t that what we wanted to grow up to be, anyway?

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This Blog is Not About You – Which is Why You Should Absolutely Read it

I like blogs. I like reading them. I long for the time to write more of them. I see blog posts shared multiple times a day in my social media feeds. A bunch of them are open letters, which I tend to skip most of, but blogs are an enormously untapped source of information, perspectives, encouragement, and personal journeys. Whether it’s renovating a home or educating on a childhood disorder, there are blogs by anyone and for anyone. They exist to share information, for free, quickly and easily. Yet they go largely unread.

A friend texted me a few months ago, a friend who has children with special needs and regularly shares blog posts pertaining to those needs. She asked if I thought anyone ever read the blogs she shared. I told her, sadly, that there were probably very few who do, because they think it doesn’t apply to them. Not having a child with those particular struggles, they see the title and move on, figuring there’s nothing for them to gain.

After a big news event, there is always an influx of blog posts (especially those open letter ones). Gorillas, guns, Miley Cyrus…. everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to share theirs. Which is totally fine. They’re as free to share their opinion as I am to share mine. I won’t turn this into a rant about how many of these opinions are about assigning blame rather than dealing with the issue. I won’t. But I will address the issue I take with these opinion pieces: we’re not reading them. We see the title, decide we disagree, roll our eyes and move on. It’s not for us, so we don’t click.

Here’s the problem with that: we don’t learn. When we don’t read anything new, anything that is outside of our own perspective and experience, we fail to grow, we miss the opportunity to learn how we can support someone else. We cannot be so arrogant as to believe that our perspective is the only one and our opinion may as well be fact.

A major part of blogging for me is the catharsis that comes from giving my thoughts words, sharing my experiences, and hoping that someone else who is in a similar situation can find some encouragement in at least knowing they’re not alone. But another reason I do it is in the hopes that someone will read my words, stop, and think, “Wow, I had no idea that’s what it was like.” I want to educate others on topics that are important to me, topics that I don’t see discussed. When my friend shares a blog about children with mitochondrial disease, I read it. I can’t relate to it, but it helps me understand her struggle a little better. When my friend who lives in Australia shares links to the political happenings in her part of the world, I read them. I can’t vote down under, but it helps me gain an understanding of her beliefs, and keeps me abreast of world issues. And far more sensitive, when my friends of color share blogs about their experiences, about what it means to be black in America or the discrimination they face because of their religion, I READ THEM. And you know what else? I really, truly, learn a lot from them.

Unbeknownst to me, I grew up in a bubble. I was surrounded by people who believed similarly to me and lived similarly enough to me. I came of age at birthday parties where I was often the only white girl, and since I truly didn’t see color and my friends didn’t seem to mind my lack of it, I thought racism was dead. Because we got along I assumed we had similar lives and nothing was different for us. I live in a town now that is pretty devoid of melanin, but my feelings never changed, so when the term “white privilege” first started popping up I rolled my eyes. In my bubble, there was no such thing. Then a friend of mine, a brilliant sociologist, shared a blog that I thought I at least should check out. I gave a deep sigh at the title and prepared myself to come up with a biting defense, but the words were so…. true. I wasn’t racist, but my experience as a white woman was far different from that of a woman of color. I could not presume to know what it was like to grow up not seeing people like me on TV. I’ve never gone to a doctor’s office and been unable to communicate my symptoms because no one spoke my language. I get stereotyped and people make assumptions about me, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same. Equal as humans, yes. But our experiences are not the same, and me dismissing that fact was never going to help anyone. Not agreeing with it doesn’t make it go away, and acknowledging it doesn’t make me a racist. In discussing parts of the Black Lives Matter movement with a very dear friend, who is black, I went from annoyance to understanding. No one was saying other lives didn’t matter. No one said Black Lives Matter More. They just were saying, “SEE us. ACKNOWLEDGE us. REALIZE that our experience is not the same as yours.” Because every time we dismiss the notion, we tell them that black lives, in fact, do not matter. I’m not here to discuss riots or shootings, only people. People who are trying to tell us something that we are too entrenched in our own beliefs to listen to. Admitting that our experiences are different is not admitting to being a racist. It’s listening to someone and expanding your horizon. It’s caring about someone else and doing what you can to make sure they know they’re heard.

Your friend who shares a personal post about the struggles of parenting a child with autism – read it. You may not be dealing with special needs in your home, but it will never hurt you to learn what her experience is like. Did you realize how much she spends on therapies? Did you realize how many different therapies she schedules? Were you aware that some schools have no programs in place… or that some states will pay for private school if your district cannot meet the child’s needs? Do you know how little sleep she gets and how badly she needs a pedicure date? Do you know what a big deal it is that her son finally took a shower without screaming? It doesn’t apply to you, but learning these things sure do help you in empathizing with her, in understanding more about her experience. It cost you a few minutes to be a better friend, and she’s better for having someone who hears her.

Your cousin shares ANOTHER link to homeopathic treatments, or FDA conspiracies, or essential oil cocktails. Read them. They are sharing because they are caring. They genuinely believe they can help people, they have seen a change in their lives and want others to experience it. You don’t have to give up your ibuprofen, but you could stumble upon a nugget of information that could boost your energy, or give a name to a symptom you’ve been experiencing, or help you find an entirely new way to treat an ailment that you’re tired of dealing with. Just like when someone blessedly shares some glorious cheesy bacon chicken something or other recipe, they see something great and want to share it with others. They say, “This is AWESOME, I have to make sure everyone knows!” You may think they’re off their rocker, and sometimes they may be, but they want to help and are offering you tools to try something new.

There’s that post again, the one about foster kids sleeping on the floors of offices. I don’t have foster kids, so I don’t need to read it. Except that children need homes, and you may be the one to offer it. If nothing else, understanding their heart-breaking circumstances can give you a new purpose in your prayer or giving. You may have thought foster kids just slept in bunk beds and carried everything in their backpacks. You may have thought it looked like Annie. But when you take the time to read about the plight of these children who did not ask to be in such dire straits that an office floor is preferable to home, your heart can grow. Those kids deserve to be known about. Clicking the link won’t get you a knock on the door with unruly teenage foster quads, but it will offer you a look into a life you know nothing about.

Your friend posts a blog entry that is going viral, you’ve seen it a few times already, and haven’t read it a single time because of the title. It’s political, and you can already tell you won’t agree. But let me challenge you – how do you know you won’t agree? Unless you read the words, unless you take the plunge and consider another perspective, how do you even know that your opinion is truly yours and not just a collective opinion formed by the people you surround yourself with? Until you’ve seen all the sides, how will you know which one you land on? One of the reasons we send our children to – gasp! – public school is because  I want them exposed to different people, different songs and ideas than they’d get at home. I want them to come home and talk about them with us, so that they can form their beliefs and KNOW WHY they believe them. I don’t want my children to blindly follow my opinions, I want them to think, listen, and form their own. So I challenge you, friend, read that blog. Read it even if it makes your blood boil. Know what’s going on beyond your own bubble, beyond your own viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to enjoy it. But challenge yourself to test your opinions against the perspectives offered by others. Because we do all have different perspectives. We all have our bubbles we’ve grown in and the internet has given us the amazing ability to pop them. Sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes it’s enfuriating, but sometimes it’s enlightening. Get out there and LEARN. Funny enough, the more you learn about another opinion, the more educated it can make you about your own.

I hate stereotypes. I hate assumptions. I hate being lumped together with a group of people based on the way someone else views me. The longer we resist learning about the experiences of others, the more we allow stereotypes to perpetuate. Having a child with autism isn’t just a kid who rocks back and forth and won’t look you in the eye. Having a kid with severe allergies doesn’t mean she has to live in a bubble. Having a gifted child does not mean the day is full of chess and math (I mean, there’s chess and math, but there are a lot of struggles that come with it, too). Having a parent with an illness doesn’t just mean a retirement home is in order.  Being black today is not the same as being white today, and ignoring that fact won’t make it change. A lot of posts about modern feminism aren’t for me, but I’ve learned a lot of facts that are. I’ve read new perspectives and theories and my mind has been opened to learn. People need and want to talk about what they’re going through. All they’re asking is that we listen.  Not every movement is one I want to join and not every political party is one I want to jump on board with (seriously, there are NO parties for me to claim now). But I can still learn, educate myself, consider other perspectives and strengthen my own position.

It’s hard having a newsfeed with so many differing ideals.   It’s hard to see those memes you hate and statements that sting. It’s hard to see yourself lumped into a group who someone just made a joke out of, and it can make you pretty rage-y when disrespect is paid towards a topic you are passionate about. But we’re also adults. I hope I never find myself back in my bubble, sealed up with only people who agree with me and concerned only with things that relate to me. My wonderfully diverse group of friends have introduced me to countless ideas, shows, songs, foods, perspectives, struggles… all because I was willing to read them. I still know who I am and I still know what I believe. I have not been swayed to join any dark sides and my head did not explode from reading about a presidential candidate I’m particularly fearful of. Debates have happened, and we’ve all survived. I don’t unfriend anyone for disagreeing with me, and I’m delighted that most of my friends don’t, either. We’re all so much bigger than one topic, anyway, it’d be a shame to lose out on what else I could learn from them just because we disagreed on an article. Surround yourself with like-minded people, yes… but be open to considering far different-minded peoples’ perspectives, as well. Just read the stuff. Learn the stuff. Be prepared to be wrong sometimes, or at least lacking in knowledge. Embrace your friends’ experiences. Take an interest in something other than your immediate surroundings. Push yourself to take it in, then prove yourself as an adult by loving them all anyway. The people with differing opinions, the people who are in very different places from you, the people who don’t share your beliefs and the people who bash your beliefs – love them anyway. They don’t have to agree with you, either. Though, hopefully they’ll have read this blog and will and least respectfully consider your stance.😉  In this age, in this climate, in this election year and this country constantly divided by one thing or another, be the one who is big enough to reach over. Don’t let yourself be part of a split. Don’t let your friends’ experiences go unnoticed. Read. Learn. Consider. And then move on and have a great day. Because it’s not about you. It’s about a better, more considerate, more educated, more sympathetic you. Go you.

Loving the Mentally Ill

I’ve written, deleted, and re-written this blog for months. It’s a tough subject, and it’s hard to be honest without offending, or encouraging while still being truthful. But in light of everything that’s being said about the recent suicide of a beloved actor, I need to write this. Again.
You see, not much offends me. Things anger me, confuse me, sadden me, sure. But not a lot hurts my feelings. But I’ll say it: I’m offended at some of the reactions to the death of Robin Williams. Straight-up offended. As if it’s our place to pass judgement on a man’s death. As if our opinions on the circumstances surrounding his life and death hold any weight. As if our own experiences give us any modicum of expertise with regard to the experiences of another. I’ve seen a lot of people who claim they overcame depression, so someone else should be able to, as well. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety for decades, I still have no ounce of justified judgement towards someone fighting a similar battle. I’ve seen even more complete misunderstanding and disregard for mental illness. The fact is, depression is an illness. Sometimes it’s temporary, like post-partum depression or seasonal affective disorder. Sometimes it’s based on circumstances, like bills or illness or difficult relationships, and can thus change with the situation. Sometimes, though, it’s chemical, it’s through no fault of the sufferer, and it’s STRONG. Chemical depression CAN be overcome with prayer, but just because it isn’t sometimes doesn’t mean the person suffering has no faith. It doesn’t mean the person is weak, just as requiring insulin says nothing about a diabetic, other than the fact that they’re diabetic. Depression is a symptom of a chemical imbalance that must be corrected and observed constantly, or else it will quickly overwhelm. Depression is an ILLNESS, not a choice, not a lack of appreciation or contentment, not a weakness or a fault, and it most certainly is not selfish.
Ahh, selfishness. This is what so many of the judgements I’ve seen seem to get caught up on. The selfishness of the sufferer who chose to end their life. Does suicide affect so many more people than just the one who decided to take their life? Absolutely. But how quick we are to forget that mental illness affects the family and friends of the sufferer in life, not just in death. How quick we are to dismiss the suffering of the depressed or mentally-ill person. I’m not here to argue the theology of suicide, nor do I believe that death by one’s own hand brings about a poetic release or freedom, but I will say, LOUDLY, that mentally ill persons do not think logically. We can think logically, yes, and using our working, non-muddled-up brains we can look at the circumstances surrounding someone’s suicide and decide that it wasn’t worth it, it wasn’t that bad, or they were selfish cowards. But just because something doesn’t seem to make sense to us doesn’t make it untrue. Just because you’ve never been so overwhelmed by darkness that you thought death was the only life for you DOES NOT MEAN it did not appeal to someone else. In discussing mental illness recently with a friend, she said that mental illness “gummed up” her brain, and it was the best description I’ve heard yet. Your brain may work, firing on all pistons, using logic and reason and recognizing cause and effect and multiple escape routes. But a mentally ill person’s brain does not. I need glasses to see clearly and you may not. This does not mean that because I need help to see, your eyes are better than mine. It means I need help to see.
I’ve lived my whole life with mental illness in the form of a bipolar mother. Is it hard? YOU BET. Do my struggles with her illness change her? In no single way at all, ever. It’s been a long road, and a very difficult one. Sometimes she does things that just make no sense… but they don’t have to. Just because I cannot empathize with her suffering does not mean her suffering is any less real. My confusion does not heal her. My frustrations do not heal her. Even my hurt does not heal her. Because SHE CANNOT HELP IT. No matter how much I want her to not be mentally ill, it won’t change the fact that she is, so I can either love and embrace her as she is, or I can live life constantly disappointed. A few times, in her darkest of days, she has even tried to hurt herself, and as a young girl who did not understand mentall illness, I was offended. My feelings were hurt, I was mad, and I thought her selfish. But just as a thirsty person will drink, a mentally ill person will do what their body is telling them to. Someone with Tourette’s or Parkinson’s cannot control every movement their body unwillingly makes any more than a mentally ill person can control every thought or action they take. Cop-out? To someone who does not have understanding or empathy with regard to mental illness, maybe. The fact remains that no matter how hard it is to love someone who is mentally ill (and it’s okay to admit that it’s hard), our suffering does not negate or outrank theirs.
Robin Williams, specifically, also dealt with addictions many times during his life, further proof of his suffering, his inability to control himself, his inability to behave like a “normal person” or think clearly. Robin Williams suffered a great deal more than any of us will ever understand, even those of us who have battled the demon of depression and stepped back from the ledge just in time. The truth is that we don’t know what he was going through. We don’t know what he thought or felt or lived or saw. We do know that he made us laugh and cry and quote a lot of movies, and we should be grateful for the impact he had on our childhoods. But we should not and CANNOT pass judgement on the very last choice he made, no matter how much that choice hurts us. Because it hurt him, too. Because it may have been, in his gummed-up brain that just wouldn’t submit, the only choice he had.

***EDITED TO ADD***
If we continue to publicly pass judgement and name-call those who are suffering from mental illness, especially those who are no longer alive to explain their pain, we will make it even harder for someone who needs help to have the courage to speak up, reach out, and get what they need. Stop making it NOT okay for someone to suffer. Have some sympathy and maybe save a life.