Sometimes the world seems against you. The journey may leave a scar. But scars can heal and reveal just where you are."- Moana (Disney)
Chapter 2: N/A
There’s one memory of A staying with me that I wanted to share. It’s one of those memories I don’t think I will ever forget, no matter how many foster kids come through my door.
* * *
Normally foster parents meet their foster child’s biological parent(s) in private with a social worker present, but my first experience meeting a biological parent was in public … at my first elementary school Christmas concert … as a new legal guardian of their child. I was so nervous to meet her mom, N, because it was my job to not allow her to take over her former parenting duties and override all my hard work getting A to finally be comfortable in my care. The moment I saw N walk in, I knew it was her. Even though their skin tones are different, I recognized A’s face shape in her mother — they have the exact same chin.
She’d arrived late and missed A’s class singing on stage, but I captured it on my phone and sent her the video. I decided I wanted her to know I was rooting for her well-being as much as A was. A clung to her mom, showing her off to her friends who seemed uninterested as their parents were always around and it was nothing special to them to meet someone else’s. I finally walked over and introduced myself. She could barely look me in the eye and stared at A and then the floor. She explained why she was late. The concert was not at the school A attended, but at a local concert hall across town — throwing many parents off, I’m sure; especially a mom who was not receiving her child’s school paperwork because her daughter was now living with another woman who was getting all that information instead. You can see how this can get awkward and difficult very quickly for all parties involved.
There was a wrinkled plastic bag in her hand with little toys she bought to celebrate A’s Christmas concert bravery. I let her know I saved three spots for us in the auditorium — front and center (of course). While the other classes sang their songs, the two of them spent the hour snuggling and opening her gifts. I felt uncomfortable but tried to put myself in N’s shoes as best as I could and offered to take a picture of the two of them that I promised to text her mom later. Halfway through, A had to use the restroom, and because I didn’t know the rules and wasn’t thinking clearly, I let N take her. It was a terrible idea for my sanity. I kept turning around to see if they were coming back, but song after song they were still gone and I started to panic.
Why didn’t I go with them? Why am I so stupid! Oh my god, I’m SO stupid. I’m the stupidest person in the world. If only the social worker would have made sure I met her mom before this, I would have known better. Stop blaming other people. You knew she was on supervised visits, that includes your time alone with them! What if she kidnapped her? It’s been 5 songs. FIVE. How are they not back yet? I know A is slow going potty, but she’s not THAT slow. I’m getting up after this song. I’m getting up. I’m —
Just as I stood up, I saw them walk through the door and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and relaxed all my muscles. The people sitting behind me must have thought I was nuts.
After the concert, we slowly made our way through the crowd to the hallway where A was hanging on her mom and then turning around to glare at me to show me who her REAL mom is. I rolled my eyes when she’d turn away and try not to act hurt, but I must admit it stung a little. I was giving her everything she needed (including love if only she would have allowed me to hold and hug her when she cried), but I wasn’t her flesh and blood and it hurt a little to know that that mattered to her more than her safety and well-being. All while completely understanding why it didn’t work that way. What a roller coaster.
A’s mom and I stood in the hallway to talk while we watched A and her friends dance as a wall of cute Christmas dresses. I took the opportunity to be real with N.
“I hope it’s OK I’m saying this (P.S. This usually means that it’s not OK and you shouldn’t say it.), but I’m a little worried about A. She refuses to let me take care of her and I think she feels like she’s hurting your feelings if she lets me. I’m not sure what to do about it, but I wanted to make you aware of the situation in case there’s anything you want to say to help her when she visits with you.”
A’s mom instantly broke into tears and I felt terrible. Why did I open my big, stupid mouth?
“I’m so sorry, I just thought you should know so you can help her adjust.”
We walked to my car where N strapped A into her car seat for me and they held each other and whispered loving things while I shivered outside, unsure of what to do. I felt like a third wheel invading their privacy, even though she was supposed to be supervised. But she kept telling A she had to go because I was probably freezing (she was right) and she needed to call her ride. She realized her phone was dead, so I let her sit in the backseat and charge it while I begged God to not make me drive her home.
Not yet. Not ever? Don’t make me do this. I told myself I’d have boundaries tonight and I didn’t follow any one of them. Please don’t make me do this. Please, please, please, please…
You see, N was struggling with the same issues as one of my best friends from childhood struggled with up until her unexpected, tragic death two years ago. From the moment I got those details on her situation and what A had just come out of, I wanted to call N and say all the things I never got the chance to say to my friend. But I was also afraid of being lost in the emotions of my late friend and not enough focus on A’s well-being, so I bit my tongue.
N’s ride answered his phone and said he’d be there soon.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…
In the end, N having to sit in my car was the best thing to happen to all three of us. N opened up to me about what had happened and how it affected A. I tried to respond as little as possible, but still show I cared enough for her to continue. It was a world I knew nothing about, and yet, just enough. Then, out of nowhere, as if to break up the conversation out of fear her mom was getting herself into trouble, A said something disrespectful to me (I honestly can’t remember what it was). N responded in the most motherly, selfless way she could,
“Honey, you need to be respectful to, Felicia. She knows that I’m your mom and she’s not trying to take my place. You need to listen to her and be nice. She has to take care of you right now because mommy is too sick to. OK?”
Let me remind you, N is in her early twenties living in poverty with a six-year-old child. She could have been anything but mature, but she took the high road, and I was so shocked by her beautiful words that I didn’t know what to say. After a few minutes, she told me to drop her off at the front doors and she’d wait on the steps for her ride. I told her we could wait a little longer, but eventually agreed it was for the best so I could get A home to bed.
“No, Felicia can drive you home! Stay! Please!” A begged and started to cry.
N insisted it would be OK and I left her there in the freezing parking lot. As much as I wanted to turn around, I kept going, because I had to. Boundaries. I knew her phone was charged enough and her ride was on its way. A part of me worried she was waiting for someone she shouldn’t be and that’s why she’d insisted I leave her. But, then again, what did I really know about her world?
Chapter 1: A
Not all of us are meant to have biological children. But some of us still want to raise children even if they are not our own. I am both excited and terrified to have officially become a licensed foster parent. The crazy thing is, I’ve already had one child pass through my home. The department of human services did not call to warm me I was licensed and could receive a call any day, it just came at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning. And, boy … did ‘A’ go out the way she came in in those two long weeks.
I would like to post as much about my experience with fostering kids as I can since so many of you have reached out with questions. But I can’t share many details about the foster child or the situation they came from, so a lot of it will be my perception of fostering and the situations I dealt with to get through each day.
In With The Lice
Lice is where this story begins.
The social worker dropped ‘A’ off at my house around 3 p.m., smiling uncertainly up at me from the bottom of the stairs. We were introduced and I ran to grab a plastic bag to put her things in so we could rid them of lice. When I came back, she was crumpled on the floor crying. I watched how the social worker handled it, realizing I was not prepared for what I was about to take on. I’ve never been a parent. What did I know about taking care of kids? Much less children who suffered trauma?
She cried twice more after the social worker left, but I distracted her with Dominos pizza and Netflix (Thank God for the Kindle for Kids I purchased on Black Friday!) and started the lice removal process. I poured RID over her beautiful African-American curls, not really understanding how long this night was going to be. I followed the directions on the box since I had never done it before, and after I rinsed the treatment out, she started to itch and cry. The lice was so bad that the medicine didn’t work. They started biting her and leaping off her head. She started plucking them off of her head — alive. I was so disgusted and overwhelmed. I had no idea what to do.
“Found another one,” she said, holding it out to me. “This one’s alive, too.” She placed it on the paper towel and I crushed it with my long thumbnail, trying not to gag. I begged her to stop plucking them out until I could figure out what to do next, but she couldn’t stop.
The directions on the RID box said I couldn’t do this treatment again for another 7-10 days. And that’s when I realized I was not going to survive this alone. I called my friend and used my I’m-kidnapped-but-pretending-everything-is-fine-so-the-kidnapper-doesn’t-know-I’m-calling-for-help voice.
Pregnant angel that she is said, “I’m on my way!” For the next three hours, we each took sections of her hair, brushed out the matted curls and combed out hundreds of bugs and nix from her scalp. At school the next day, the nurse called my social worker, ‘A’s social worker, and ‘A’s teacher to tell them how amazing we did and how clean her head finally looked. When she caught me in the hallway one morning, she said, “I wish we had done before and after pictures to show people how bad it can get and how clean it should look afterward.”
‘A’ hadn’t come with any of her own clothes, and since she was my first child under an emergency situation and I didn’t realize how big she was for her age, all the clothes I left work to go shopping for didn’t fit her. So my friend and I took ‘A’ to Target dressed in my clothes! We filled the cart with necessity items to get her through one full day and night, including clothes, shoes, and hair products. Around 10:30 p.m., we finally went to bed and my friend went home to do her own lice treatment.
Day 2 I was already contemplating the routine I would need to establish. I felt awful dumping her off at school after everything she went through and how little sleep she’d gotten the night before, but apparently it was still more sleep than she’d been getting and she hadn’t been going to school for most of the year so she was already behind academically. Around lunchtime, I picked her up for an emergency doctor’s visit with the children’s hospital where they looked her over head to toe. Talk about more trauma for a child. She was so worried about the doctor’s looking at her private parts, and the doctor and I reassured her that it was OK for doctors to look there to make sure she wasn’t sick. Then the doctors asked me all kinds of questions about her as though she’d been with me for months. I kept having to remind them she’d only been with me for two days and I was given very little information.
The remainder of my days with ‘A’ was spent getting to know her and learning how to balance taking care of her the way she was used to vs. how I felt it should be done. For example, she would throw a fit because I wouldn’t make all of her food in the microwave. Or she would beg me for food and instead of letting her snack constantly until bed, I let her throw fits and shout nasty complaints about how I was starving her until dinner was ready. Or how she never ate vegetables and I would sit with her for an hour or more at the table until she would take one bite of everything. Or finding the proper products and tools to take care of her hair and skin that were so different from mine.
This one was a little tricker than the others. I thought I could get away with products I randomly bought, trying to match what her mom had been using at home, but the longer ‘A’ was with me, the frizzier her hair was getting. Finally on that first Saturday, we stopped at Sally’s Beauty. There was a mixed woman there who had been helping me repair my damaged hair over the last year, and I knew they had similar hair types. When I saw her, I pointed to her and said, “You are just the woman I was looking for!” And I told her our situation in code so I wouldn’t upset ‘A’ by bringing up her mom again. The woman asked a few questions and then started to fill my basket with necessary items to tame the wild beast that had taken over ‘A’s hair. God bless that woman. If it had been appropriate in our culture to kiss her feet, I would have.
At first, ‘A’ wouldn’t let me keep her hair down, even after I styled it.
“No, I want you to put my hair up! Put it up! Please!”
“Why? Your curls are so beautiful.” She’d stomp out of the bathroom if she didn’t believe I would listen to her.
“No, they’re not; they’re ugly!”
After a few days of keeping her hair tamed and out of her face, she started to let me leave it down. She’d always have her teacher to put it up shortly after she’d get to school, but it was a huge hygiene and confidence improvement from anything they’d seen all year from her. I emailed with her teacher daily to keep her updated on how the night went so she was aware of any struggles she may have with ‘A’ that day. Her teacher said she was well-rested and smiling a lot more lately. It made my heart soar. Perhaps I was making a difference. It hadn’t felt like it at all. I just felt like I was floundering and failing every second.
Then ‘A’ got to see her mom for the first time since she was placed with me. When I picked her up from her after-school program, she acted like I was poison, like she hated my guts. We got in the car and she instantly started crying, asking when she could see her mom next. I never had any answers for her. When we got to the house, she was purposely pushing my buttons and keeping herself distant from me even though the poor girl just needed a huge hug. I sat her down and asked her why she was treating me like that and if there was anything she wanted to talk about. Her little lip quivered but she refused to talk, so I continued:
“Are you worried you’re hurting your mom’s feelings by living with me and letting me take care of you?”
She covered her face sobbing and nodded yes. Then she screamed at me to not sit by her, and got up bossing me around that it was time to go back to the after-school program for the Christmas party. She wanted to be done talking, but I instructed her to sit back down to finish our conversation. I told her I was not taking her mom’s place but that she still needs to be taken care of and I’m the person doing that right now. It only made her more upset, so instead we went to the Christmas party where she requested me to leave her and her friends alone. Every now and then she’d check in to make sure I was still there, but would run away into the next room.
That was probably the most difficult moment for me. Not being able to parent my foster child during the party. I respected her wishes and left her alone while she wrapped gifts for her mom and met with Santa all by herself. I kept her in my sight but stayed at a distance holding back my tears, or at least some of them. I wondered if the after-school staff thought I was a terrible parent because I wasn’t interacting with her like all the other parents were interacting with their kids. A woman asked me if I needed help finding my child and I told her my child needed a break from me with her friends.
She said, “Oh boy, what did you do?”
“Nothing … I’m fostering her and she is having a hard time right now.”
“Oh, I see. Why is she in foster care?”
Ah, there it was; the first inappropriate question. I gave her a perplexed look out of my own mommy frustration and responded, “I’m not allowed to discuss that.” End.
When dinner was served, she went through the line without me and found a seat at a table. I wandered to the back of the line, knowing that if I didn’t eat now, too, I wouldn’t eat at all, and I wasn’t about to put myself through another night of hunger no matter how upset my belly was. I grabbed my food and started to look for a spot in sight of her but at a different table. As I walked passed her, she shouted to me,
“You can sit here.” She pointed at a spot across the table diagonally from her.
Her sweet and innocent heart was so confused, and it broke mine a little more. Eventually, we headed home and she wept, crying out for her mom for about 20 minutes while I got her clothes and school items ready for the next day. I tried not to openly weep with her but was not hiding my tears this time. She asked why I was crying. I told her that I was sad her mom was so sick and that I was sad it was making her so sad. I promised that I would help her mom in any way I could so she could go home, but I didn’t know when that would be. She nodded, drank her water and distracted herself with Netflix. (Thank you, technology. Sometimes you are worth the trouble.)
Some Relative This Way Comes
The night of my work party, I got a phone call from ‘A’s social worker who informed me that a relative was willing to take ‘A’ before Christmas. I was both relieved and afraid for her sake and sad for mine. The cliche phrase “roller coaster of emotions” is exactly what it felt like. I started to feel myself shutting down, closing off to her as I do in relationships I feel aren’t going well. It’s my I’m-going-to-leave-before-you-hurt-me response. But I realized as soon as it began that I couldn’t do that to a child, so I put on my big girl pants and pretended to be ecstatic for her new adventure.
I was warned by the many podcasts I was listening to as well as other foster parents that this moment would feel like a death in the family. Luckily I didn’t have her long enough for the attachment to run deep enough for that, but it was still hard to imagine life going back to the way it was. She may have only been around for two weeks, but it felt like months. I imagined how quiet my apartment would be again; how I could cook and drink whatever I wanted after work again; how I’d go back to playing the news and other adult shows in the background instead of hearing cheesy kid cartoons; how dark and lonely but efficient the mornings would be again; etc. Part of me was scared to go back to my former life, and part of me was happy. Part of me wished I could keep her and raise her right, and part of me knew she would never accept my love.
As I packed her things the night before she left, she started to have a meltdown wanting to help, not trusting me to give back all the clothes and toys her mom sent with the social worker that first week. I put her to bed so I could finish in peace. I was always so distracted with too many other things while she was awake that I often had to put her to bed before I could get any work done. Plus, I needed her well rested so she behaved when her relative picked her up. I knew how she was with me when she was first placed, and I wasn’t sure how she would be moving again. Also, I didn’t want to hurt her feelings when I didn’t pack everything she’d been using because I knew I’d need some of the donated items for the next kiddo.
All of these big decisions and rules made me feel like a greedy, selfish human. I had never felt more in the wrong than in those two weeks with ‘A.’ I had no idea how terrifying parenting was. You never feel like you’re making the right decision. Ever! Since she was my first foster child, and first child to ever live with me, I was making up my house rules as we went. Sometimes I would break them when she was having a bad day, but mostly I was a hard ass. I remember on day 4 I felt like such a bully. I think I said “no” to every single thing she asked that day. I went into my bedroom for the five seconds she’d let me have alone time, and cried. Was I being too strict? Too mean? She’s just a child. Shouldn’t she get some leeway on SOMETHING? But then started to get my answer to some of those questions. Even for how stern I had been, she STILL tried to push my buttons with certain rules. But thankfully because of my “bullying” on day 4, she knew I wouldn’t budge on certain rules and all it would take was a simple, stern “no” for her to move onto ask me about something else.
On day 3 or 6 (I can’t remember), I cried in my room for the loss of my old life. I hadn’t realized at the time that she would only be with me for two weeks, but I was already feeling guilty for not spending time with my cat Luna or taking care of myself since she came to the home. On top of that, I was missing my first holiday party as well as the bars and comedy shows downtown. I felt anxious at the thought of every morning being consumed by kids clothes, shows, toys, tantrums, etc., that I just broke down, trying to process it all. ‘A’ couldn’t be left alone long, so I had to hurry up and let it out before she started to cry herself looking for me.
“Where are you?”
“I’m just in my room.”
“What are you doing?”
“Getting some things done. I’ll be right out.”
Thirty seconds later, “Hey!”
“Where are you?” she asked, quietly knocking on the door, listening. “I just don’t like to be alone.”
“I know. I’m sorry; I’m coming out right now.”
When I talked to my friend about it, she said it sounded like post-pardom depression was already setting in. I thought, if this is post-pardom, then I want to drive to all of my friend’s homes who are parents and hug them.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the single mom, too. I wondered, HOW DO THEY DO THIS?! I now understand THIS is why people have children and choose to foster/adopt when they are MARRIED. I now realize that it takes two people sometimes to get things done, and get them done well. And it definitely takes a whole village to raise a child.
Everyone who is still reading this,
do the world a favor and stop by a single mom or dad’s house
with a meal or offer to watch the kids to give them for some
peace and quiet.
Out With The Bed Bugs
Bed bugs is where this story ends.
As I finished packing her clothes and toys, I noticed something crawling on the suitcase her mom asked me to give to her when she was first placed with me. One of our clients at work owns a pest control company, and I’ve been writing nonstop about bed bugs for the last year, so I knew instantly that’s what the insect was on her bag. My heart sank and my adrenaline kicked in. Luckily the bed bug was flat, so I knew it hadn’t feasted on us yet. And I had just taken the suitcase out of the garage earlier that day.
I spent the next few hours going over every seam, fold and corner on all the furniture in my home, especially the beds. Every corner of the bed, I had to wake ‘A’ up and move her to another part of the bed so I could check under the mattress. So much for a good rest on her last night with me. I didn’t find a single splotch of blood or black poo stain or creepy crawly. Thank goodness! But I knew it didn’t mean they weren’t hiding somewhere.
Her departure was bittersweet. I don’t think I was convinced it was OK for her to leave me in this transition until I met her relatives who picked her up. They were open about being unsure how to care for her hair and skin, and asked me all kinds of questions.
“My babies have blonde hair and blue eyes, so I don’t know what I’m doing. If you have any advice, please share it! I want to do this right.”
That comment alone let me know she would be in good hands. I spent most of the night texting her more things I thought to share with them. Her relative said she was grateful to know that she had been living with someone who took the time to learn ‘A’ so well in such a short time. I was so grateful to hear that coming from her family. I told them to call me for respite care anytime if they needed a break.
The first night I came home from work after ‘A’ left and I started making dinner in silence, the tears came. I always play something in the background now when I’m home to forget that ‘A’ isn’t sitting in the next room ready to ask me a thousand questions before, during and after the food hits her plate.
That night I also had an exterminator stop by to look over all the furniture. I was afraid I would have an infestation for the next kiddo who comes through my doors. So far there hasn’t been any signs bed bugs, but I am not letting my guard down. Where there is one, there will be more.
- Taking silly pictures with her
- Hearing her laugh
- Dancing tango and freestyle in the living room and down the hallway (She’s a good little dancer!)
- Reading a bedtime story every night and putting a sticker on the calendar to keep track
- Rubbing her back until she fell asleep
- Teaching her how to brush her hair and teeth properly
- Doing homework and signing her school agenda
- Emailing updates to her teacher
- Packing a snack in her backpack for school
- Getting her clothes ready for the next day
- Picking her up at her after-school program after work and playing basketball with her before we came home
- Making her fun breakfast foods on the weekends
- Using my dad’s rule: Have to take one bite of everything on your plate before you can leave the dinner table
- How independent she was (She would be out of the car, opening the trunk, and pulling out groceries before I even opened my car door. She would also parent me if I wasn’t taking care of myself.)
- When she would sneak in hugs, pretending it was a game she was playing
- When I could tell she finally felt safe and comfortable with me in my home
- Meeting her mom and getting to know her after the Christmas pageant
- Coming up with rules of the house
- Figuring out activities to keep her busy and off the tablet on the weekends
- Trying multiple ways to tame her curly hair without luck until the trip to Sally’s Beauty
- Not knowing how often to bathe her or what to dress her in for school
- Magically coming up with gloves and hats and snow pants every day she left them at school
- Trying to dress her for spirit week at school with limited resources and time
- Her mom turning off her phone so she couldn’t answer ‘A’s nightly phone calls
- Not being able to get ahold of social workers for days with my questions, concerns and updates
- Lice treatments
- Finding bed bugs
- Being woken up four times a night unless I let her sleep in my bed
- The tossing and turning, keeping me awake when she slept in my bed
- Calming her down after nightmares she’d have about her mom
- That emotional first night after she saw her mom for the first time
- The dirty looks she would give me to show her mom that she didn’t like me when we were all in the same room
Embarrassing Mom Moments:
- Hide food so I can eat later without her begging to eat in addition to her meal and snacks (I went through two client meetings with a granola bar in my bra.)
- Forgot to buckle her into the carseat once
- Kept forgetting to give her something to drink with every meal (because I never drink with meals)
- Forgot to add vegetables to some of her dinners during the school week
- Did not ask her to brush her teeth before bed one night
- Dressed her in a shirt that was too big for her and they had to give her a sweater at school
Stephen King In Wisconsin
Suicide Is Not The Answer
TRIGGER WARNING: This is a post about suicide.
If you are not in the right state of mind or unprepared to read about this subject,
please stop now.
For those of you still with me, here it goes.
I just finished 13 Reasons Why. At first, I rolled my eyes a lot with all the over-the-top high school drama and unrealistic dialogue, but there was a dark undertone that kept me going. I thought maybe the main character Hannah was murdered instead of the alleged suicide. Either way, I was prepared to unearth the mystery of her death. I love a good think piece. Maybe I would even guess the ending before the final episode. It turns out I had no idea what I was in for. Even with the trigger warnings prior to episodes 12 and 13, I carried on, thinking: Can’t be any worse than what I’ve already experienced.
My college career was clouded and occupied by suicide. The winter of 2007-08 was my own personal hell. (Sounds like a great first line for a cliche story, right? Read on. The cliches get better.) Suicide is never just one person’s hell though. My three college girlfriends and I went came out on the other side together. I don’t know how any one of us could have done it alone. It felt as though God wanted to take someone important from each of us. And we each had to wait our turn. One right after the other.
It felt like it would never stop. Like those roller coaster rides at Six Flags Great America, where that first drop gives you butterflies until suddenly the smile wipes off your face and it turns to screaming, because there’s no possible way you could still be dropping — it’s too far down. Any farther and you’d swear you’re heading toward the Earth’s core. Then suddenly you’re horizontal again, but still trembling, wondering when the next drop is coming. Before you have time to wrap you head around it, you feel your body being pulled back into your seat as you head toward the sky and know– you just fucking know–something terrible is coming. Another drop? Sure enough. You scream again, so loud you’re sure your fearful energy has reverberated onto everyone in the theme park. The carney must stop the ride at any moment now. But then you reach the bottom, and you’re still alive and the ride is still going. Horizontal movement again, like a plateau. The world doesn’t stop because you’re afraid. You think you’ve caught your breath, but you’re still trembling, you feel dizzy, unsure you can survive another great drop. Until you have no choice. Your body is pulled backward into your seat again, heading for the sky. One more rush — you’ve been here, done that, so you think it couldn’t possibly affect you the way the first two had. But suddenly it’s here and you remember everything. (No more. Not again. I just can’t do this again.) All the pain and fear and screaming. So much screaming and crying and–. Each drop, no matter the depth, was just as scary.
This is what living through a loved one’s suicide (or attempted suicide) is like.
“Death comes in threes,” they say. Who started that, any way? I’d like to slap whoever first discovered this and pointed it out to the rest of us. That phrase can send you reeling. One person passes away and you walk on egg shells, terrified to wake up the next morning to find out someone else you know was next. As soon as you hear about three deaths in a row, you tell yourself, “OK, it’s time to relax again. The hell, the waiting, is over. The rest of my loved ones should be safe. Until next round … ta-ta!”
The ripple effects of suicide begin to control your every move, every thought. Each of us began to struggle in our own ways. Psychology is a powerful tool to understand the changes in one’s behavior after a traumatic event. In a semi-stressful situation, most people can keep their cool and logically work through it, but others with deeper scars are left in the middle of a grocery store having a meltdown because they can’t choose which brand of ketchup to go with because they’re terrified of making the wrong choice and losing another person they love. If I go with Hunts but the right answer was Heinz, game over. Who’s it gonna be this time, huh?
After the first suicide, the inner screaming started. I know this might sound absolutely insane for anyone who has never experienced it, but it happens. And it happens at the most unfortunate times. The first memory I have of this inner screaming was at my newspaper job in college. My co-workers started talking about the full moon. For some reason my brain instantly went to a scene from Practical Magic that talks about the “blood moon,” which meant there was a hazy, red ring around the moon. When there was a blood moon, it meant that someone was in trouble or possibly dead. When I turned around to see my co-workers running toward the one accessible window, I suddenly felt anxious. I felt like something bad was happening, even though I knew they were just looking out the window to see the moon. The large room suddenly began to shrink to the size of a cardboard box. I could feel my heart quicken and I instantly got dizzy. All while this overwhelming fearful screaming rose from my stomach, into my chest and up my esophagus. I realized I could let it out, or I could swallow it down and pretend it wasn’t there. I thankfully chose the latter. I lept out of my chair and ran toward the window to occupy my mind. I figured if I just looked at the moon and saw that it was full and there was no red ring around it, the inner screaming would stop. But it didn’t. So I put my hands on the sides of my head and just touched my skin and hair to realize I was still alive and I was OK — one piece. I began to babble about something my dad told me about full moons and continued to deny the panic attack that seemed to reach the brim. Ignoring it long enough worked that night. But it didn’t always.
Over the years, each one of us hit rock bottom. We were ticking timebombs. Some of us hit rock bottom a few months later, while others let a few years pass. I was the latter. Us late grievers struggle through our mental breakdown in a gradual manner, to the point that our loved one hardly notice you’ve changed until it’s almost too late. It felt as though a part of the past was always lurking around every corner, nibbling at my ankles like a pack of mosquitoes in the deep forest. Thirsty for my blood, begging for me to give in to their instincts and just let it be. Let what will be, be. But sometimes we can’t, so we start to run in hopes we can convince them to give in to something more stationary. Eventually you run out of energy and have to stop, and the mosquitoes will find you and start the process all over again.
I accepted my fate in the most lonely city in the world. Madison, Wisconsin. It was one of the busiest places I’d ever lived, but I had never felt so alone. I started to worry suicide was like AIDS: Something that lays dormant inside of you until it decides to show its hideous face. The memories of those who took their lives or tried to mixed with the loneliness of the city and denial of the past, throwing me into a quarter life crisis.
Sounds silly, right? Try telling that to a veteran suffering from PTSD after years fighting a bullshit war. We have young men and women willingly joining the military at 18 years old to be broken down, brainwashed and built back up into a machine that protects the country and each other. They are sent overseas to fight an unwinnable war, watching their friends, their brothers and sisters, dying before their eyes, while we watch from our television sets and drink our alcohol and celebrate our freedom, thanking those who have fought for us to live our silly, little lives. Yet many of them come home in their mid-to-late twenties, their service forgotten over time. They sit at home alone in their thoughts, too, just as I was tonight watching the show — both of us survivors of hell, triggered by some distant memory we feel will never stop surfacing. And we go into our defense mode. Our desperate mode. Our freedom mode. Our survival mode.
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is not just a term for veterans. Regular people — civilians — who have witnessed their own personal hell can also struggle with it, too.
My stomach churns when I look back and think about how my group of friends used to say the phrase, “Shoot me now!” at anything that made us roll our eyes or stressed us out. Homework. Boys. Math. School. You know, meaningless shit. Or “I’d kill myself if that happened to me.” How about the good ol’ signal of putting your gun-shaped hand to your temple and pretend to pull the trigger? These are all triggers, my friends. They will send any one of us who have lived through this hell to spiral out of control. Just don’t do it. Period.
The thirteenth episode of 13 Reasons Why shared a suicide trigger warning. I braced myself, but I had to watch it. For some reason, I thought I could handle whatever it was they were going to throw at me. After all, I’d come a long way from those horrific episodes, interrupting memories, what ifs and fuck yous. I was safe at home, comfortable with my cat on my lap. Just another Monday night. Then I watched the scene and all my years of therapy and meditation went right out the fucking window.
(HUGE TRIGGER AND SPOILER ALERT AHEAD)
Hannah graphically slits both of her wrists and slowly dies as she bleeds heavily in the overflowing bath tub. Her mom knocks on the door asking Hannah what is going on with the wet carpet and bursts in the door to find Hannah floating lifeless in the family bathroom. And she says,
Hannah, Hannah, honey. It’s OK. It’s OK. You’re OK. Come here, baby. You’re OK.
She then erupts into screams for her husband who instantly weeps and cries out for his daughter.
It hovers on that scene for a moment while Hannah’s one friend Clay finishes retelling the story to her guidance counselor that failed to help her.
* * *
I cannot even begin to describe the hysteria that arose inside me. Once again, it started in my stomach (flip-flop – this isn’t real) to my chest (oh, god, it can’t be real) to my esophagus (oh, god, no, no, no, not again, not again). I felt bile creeping up my esophagus with my uncontrollable grief and was sure that between the drooling and shaking, I was going to vomit. But I guess adrenaline and hysteria can keep those refluxes at bay. It took me a few moments to realize I wasn’t reliving the memories of another person’s hell. This was television. Even though it was someone else’s story, flashbacks of all the sights, sounds, locations came back full force as though I was there all over again, watching weeping parents who had just come from the dead body. The things those parents blurted out–things a person should never ever have to hear about their friend. And while you are trying to calmly and rationally comfort everyone around you, you yourself are on the brink of insanity.
Some of us live with this fear every single day of our lives. It’s enough to make a person go mad. If you can survive that first breakdown, you’ll keep surviving, even if you find yourself back in the middle of a PTSD trip. Do everything you can to find your way back out. That’s where this blog post came in. One o’clock in the morning hysterical and alone in my apartment, I had no choice but to get it all out. I’ve decided to share it with you in hopes it continues to bring light to something so horrific. Keep your eyes, your minds and your hearts open.
Choose life, my dear, sweet friends. You’ve only got one.
If you or someone you know is suicidal,
do not hesitate to call
1 (800) 273-8255.
Put It On Paper
I have been revising my Johnny B. Good, Johnny Be Rotten short story since 2012, because I am convinced it’s the one I’m meant to publish.
Today I decided to edit a printed version and see what it would do. AMAZING!
This might sound obvious and I’ve done this with other people’s work, but not my own. If you’re writing and not doing this, I highly recommend it. I felt as though I was reading it for the first time …
Put it on paper, my friends!
Lakefly Writer’s Conference
Last weekend I attended the Lakefly Writer’s Conference in Oshkosh. It was exactly what I needed to recharge after a long, busy winter churning out copy for work without having time to sit back and reflect on the beauty of the process.
It reminded me that every few months, creatives must put themselves in front of other like-minded artists to revive their inspiration. I was grateful to have attended all the presentations I could, conversate with other hardworking writers and touch all the published book displays.
Some of the more memorable moments at the conference included:
Kristine D. Adams talked about her experiences in writing memoir and recommended techniques to tell your story. I spoke with her afterward, as writing memoir has always been an interest of mine, and we discussed capturing family history. One of my goals is to interview and record my grandmothers’ stories and turn them into biographies to remember where I’ve come from. But also to remind them how far they’ve com. Plus, it’s always a nice excuse to have coffee or tea with your grandma.
Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development presented a novel’s worth of information on how to know when you need to hire an agent, how to get one and what to do once you start working together. She shared her knowledge of the publishing industry while inspiring everyone in the room how simple it could be if you could just find your spirit agent. Someone who believes in your story as much as you. She taught me that a writer should never have to beg for an agent’s unconditional love. NOTED!
And, finally, Orange Hat Publishing. It is a small, indie publishing company in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Kristen Bratonja, editor and head of marketing at Orange Hat, presented on the evolving publishing world, including how to avoid scams, the rise in indie publishers, and the pros and cons of each type of book publishing.
Thank you to everyone who was a part of this great conference! Looking forward to next year.
You Don’t Own Me
At a time in our country when facts are alternative and grabbing women by the p***y without consent is acceptable, standing in line to meet Margaret Atwood has become important.
I did just that on Sunday, April 30 at the UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay.
In case you haven’t read the book or watched the new TV series on Hulu, I highly recommend both! Book first, though. Always.
The Power of Creatives
Let’s just get it out there because we all know it’s true:
Too many people were taken too early from this earth, including one of my best friends growing up. I have not experienced grief like that before and realize it will always be there, even if the intensity changes over time. While the loss of someone important to you can send you to a dark place of questions unanswered and “what if’s,” it can also wake you from hibernation.
When a friend passes away in the prime of his or her life, it can open windows, clear fog, unlock doors, free fear and knock you into the next chapter. It can give you perspective: Life is short. Things that bothered you before, seem to take a backseat. Things you’ve been putting off for years suddenly seem important to tackle.
Intangible goals aside, I focused on writing and traveling endeavors. My first goal was to reconnect to creativity by meeting up with some of my former female educators who have inspired my writing over the years.
I also kept in mind all the strong, inspirational women that have influenced my perspective of the world.
Next it was time to let the world fall at my feet. My BFF and I found out our favorite podcast, Guys We Fucked (Sorry About Last Night) – The anti-slut shaming podcast with Krystyna Hutchinson & Corinne Fisher, were touring in Chicago before the holidays! So we spent a weekend with our feminine selves in the big city.
Listen to Live in Chicago episode here.
This was the first trip I’d taken in far too long. And it certainly won’t be the last one.
Next up … Cancun in October for another incredible woman’s wedding! It will be my four college buddies (a bride and her three bridesmaids) at an all-inclusive resort — the Spring Break we never took! #CantWait
After that — who knows where I’ll end up. But I do know I’ll be going somewhere. What with this new luggage I got for Christmas and all …