How I Step Into the New Year

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It was hours before midnight, and I was already wasted. Running around in shredded jeans that put my hip bones on display, a tight red, spaghetti- strap shirt that revealed the push- up- bra- boobs of a teenager, and a pair of red sunglasses just to complete the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” look, I was not making mom and dad proud. The New Years Eve party I attended was at my own house—my parents’ friends, my friends, and my brother’s friends shared the space in one excitable gathering. We had been throwing these parties for years, but that would be our last one—the last time we could pretend to be somewhat functional. Although, I’m not sure we had anyone fooled.  My father was only half present that year, leaving the room every so often to take a hit— an omen for what was to come. The clock was running out on 2003, and I had no resolutions for 2004. I was 15 and lost. All of the vitality I had lived with most of my life was just gone, eaten up by poison. I wanted out, I sought escape every chance I got. Around ten PM, with a red Dixie cup in hand, I sloppily took a stand atop our coffee table. Inspired by the music of The Spice Girls (I had picked out the song), I made a loud, screechy toast, “You know,” I shouted, “people never keep their resolutions… so THIS YEAR, I’m going to make a resolution to drink and be fucked up as much as possible because THAT’S a resolution I know I’ll keep.” Laughing so hard, feeling so clever, I stumbled off the table, found my way to the bathroom and spent the remainder of the night puking my guts up. I missed midnight. Technically, I was off to a good start considering my resolution, right?

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Treating Anxiety, Part II

Part I here. 

treating-anxiety

My hips led me around a Montauk boutique. My jean skirt was too short, my acrylic nails too long, and my shirt too tight. I drank too much, smoked too many cigarettes and cursed more than a “young lady should.” I was too wild, too antsy, too dishonest, too sexy. I was monitoring my movement around the store, looking for mirrors so I could watch myself sway by. Deeply immersed in the passion of self-obsession, I could hear my mother’s muted voice trying to pull me out of my too-cool-for-you attitude, “Jack, jack, this is cute, isn’t it?” She held up a beige shirt,  “Ugh, no mom,” immediately dismissing her excitement, “I don’t like it.” “Well, it’s not for you, it’s for me,” she said annoyed. “Oh. Well then sure.”  I was 15. My mother and I were vacationing in Montauk and we were killing time shopping. At the register,  I spotted a brown leather bracelet. I picked it up to see what was inscribed in it and read, “feel the fear and do it anyway,” written in italic script.  I was cosmically drawn to the saying. It made me feel like the badass I was determined to be. My life had been so overtaken by mood altering substances and experiences that I was numb to my childhood, numb to my passions, numb to love. SO, when I saw that bracelet, I thought, “yeah, feel the fear of overdosing and take all of the drugs anyway, yeah feel like you’re going to die from the insane adventure and do it anyway, be afraid of drunk driving and do it anyway, feel the fear of mixing all of the booze, of fucking the wrong guy, and DO IT ANYWAY.” It was with that M.O that I begged my mother to buy me the bracelet. Because she was in denial of my M.O, she agreed. I wore it everyday,  I followed its direction, and it got me into trouble. That is, until I learned how to use that saying to my life’s benefit.

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A Note for my Caretakers

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Dear Caretakers,

I imagine that this will be the first of many letters and many conversations between us. I’m starting here in a seemingly distant and formal way  because I’m not strong enough for the more intimate teary-eyed conversations right now. I’m also unsure of who needs to read this letter, and I want to give each and every one of you an opportunity to know that you are seen. As I ascend to wellness and the fog is slowly clearing, the vast impact my Lyme disease has had is coming into focus. I look around and I see many faces who have fought with me, and I have no idea what your experience has been, how hard it might have been for various reasons— I never asked. I’ve counted 20 of you who were very close to me over the last three years— 20 of you who I consider to be my main caretakers. 20 of you who were present for much of the suffering, many of the needles, too much of the heartbreak and all of the unthinkable need I was experiencing. But that leaves out maybe 200 people— or more— who donated, prayed, tracked my progress on Facebook, or worried about me. This letter is for all of you, whoever needs it: those of you who fought with me on an almost daily basis on the front lines, those of you who stayed back in the trenches gathering much needed supplies, and  those of you who prayed from your bedroom.  You were not my cheerleaders— you were my ARMY. I write every week about my story—my personal struggle with Lyme disease, stored trauma, and chronic illness. Yes, I often touch on how grateful I feel to have had the most compassionate army of people surrounding me, protecting me from all angles, but it’s come to my attention recently that you have been at war, too. This isn’t just my story—you’ve had your own journey watching someone you love suffer and fight for wellness. And no matter what part you played in this particular journey, your feelings— whether past, present, or future— are valid.

I can empathize—I’ve watched all members of my immediate family,  suffer for most of my life, and I’ve remained unable to do much of anything to help. While I have seen physical illness take hold of people, my family mainly suffers from addiction and mental illness—heartbreaking diseases that impact all surrounding loved ones. Addiction is called a “family disease” for a reason—the powerful current ripples out larger and larger often affecting generations of people whether they’re drinking OR NOT.  People suffering from diseases like these tend to be under the delusion that no one else is affected, that no one else could possibly be in the kind of pain they are in. But I can assure you, there’s PLENTY of suffering to go around. And it’s that type of thinking, that you’re not allowed to have feelings because you couldn’t possibly be suffering more, that prolongs the effects and keeps the current going strong. For a long time, I didn’t let myself really experience the hurt and abandonment I felt because I just assumed that my father suffered more than I did. He talked often and loudly about his own fucked up childhood and made it clear that my own was a cake walk compared to his. I have no idea if that’s true. But I watch people tormented by that voice all of the time—it says, “oh, but my father had it so much worse than me. He was abusive BECAUSE he was abused so I should just be grateful for what I got.” Or, “My mother was the one who suffered in her illness, I can’t possibly make that about me.” It seems like a very compassionate and empathetic voice but really its DNA is that of martyrdom and martyrdom is the tidal wave on the horizon preparing to wipe you out. IF that voice is active around my Lyme disease, if you are one of the 20— or one of the few hundred— and you have suffered through my illness let me just say your pain is valid, your fear is valid and whatever you experienced or begin experiencing is 100 percent valid. I’m not delusional—I’m not saying that Facebook friend #427 is wildly affected by my Lyme disease and needs to seek counseling. I’m just saying that whoever you are and however you’ve been affected—I hope that you have given/ are giving yourself an opportunity to feel it.

I can’t imagine  what it must have been like to be with me every single day through such horror, so many breakdowns, and so much illness. I have no idea what it was like for you to listen to me talk about my own impending death on repeat. Or what it was like for you to watch me go from excited about the full life I had in front of me to bed ridden and in tears every single day. I don’t know how it felt to lose your fun, reliable and available friend. I don’t know what it’s like to care for someone at such a young age, to not know if they’re going to get well and to be terrified to lose them. I don’t know what it was like to stick me with needles while I yelled out in pain, or  what it was like to leave my house when I so obviously didn’t want you to leave. Or how painful it might have been to hear me talk about how suicidal I was or how much I hated myself for being sick or how much I just “couldn’t do another single day in my body.” I imagine that, at moments, I may have felt safer in my own body than you felt watching me—I always held some sense of knowing that I was going to be ok (one day), and you might not have had that. Maybe you were scared to leave me alone, maybe you were scared to hang up the phone with me after I expressed so much pain. Maybe you’re scared that I’m going to abandon our friendship or relationship now that I don’t “need” you anymore. Maybe you’re scared that I’ll forget about you. Maybe this experience kicked up some old experience you’ve had with illness and death in the past or maybe it’s scared you…maybe now you know too much about the in’s and out’s of illness, fucked up doctors and how the medical system doesn’t EXACTLY have our back. And maybe you’re fucking mad at me. I don’t know. I know that I’m incredibly grateful for every single moment that you loaned your hearts to me, and I know that your love has altered me forever.

You people have inspired me every single day to be a better human. You have taught me through your own kind hearts and incredible efforts how to show up for the people I love. I am grateful for each and every thing you did for me. For you who held me day in and day out, always believed in me, and made me feel beautiful when my lips were purple and I was under 100 pounds. You who flew around the world with me to care for me while I got Ozone therapy. You who put me up in Florida and wheeled me around Disneyworld so I could have a day of magic in the midst of shit. You who sent me care packages, called, and texted endlessly. You who made me fundraisers and rubbed my body when it hurt. You who changed me into pajamas, who helped me get up stairs and hills, who brightened up my day with smoothies, food, and laughter. YOU are my fucking heroes.

I sincerely hope that you’ve gathered your own support through whatever journey you’re on—your own army—and that, if you haven’t, you begin to get help now if you need it. This is not just a message about my Lyme disease. It’s also a message to say that no one gets left out of life’s obstacles. Pain is pain—it’s relative and credible no matter what. And while I’m not particularly ready to counsel with you on how the past three years have potentially hurt you, I do want you to know that you are in my thoughts. I hope you know that I think of each of you everyday. That I know I couldn’t have gotten well without your endless support and love. I hope you know that I’m not going anywhere, and that now we get to do all of the fun things we’ve been planning for the last three years. I hope you know that every single hug, every text message, every phone call, and every time you held me while I sobbed, screamed and cried took me one step closer to health. And please know that as I heal, I imagine all of us healing together.

With Fun and Love,

Jackie

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No Inner-Child Gets Left Behind

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Stored trauma is Lyme disease’s best friend. They play off of each other like school yard bullies relentlessly tormenting the mind, body, and spirit. Lyme is an opportunistic disease and tends to jump on those whose systems are already compromised. Personally, I had a weakened immune system from years of infections and antibiotics, I had been breathing in mold and smoke all of my life, I had those heavy -metal- filled amalgams in my mouth, and I had—maybe most importantly—a shitload of stored trauma. Healing the past has been a vital part of  my recovery; I went into the basement and the attic and met the old memories, had a new experience with them, and then went to the freakin’ Materials Recovery Facility where they got recycled into something new and sparkly.  But how to do that? Getting sick stripped me of all of my effective coping mechanisms. I had nothing— no distractions, no booze, cigarettes, cake, no over exercising, and no late-night coquetry (well, Ian got some of that). I had only myself—a self that was ignored for most of my life, a self that I was scared of, a self that I often absued. Caring for myself and healing all of the built up heartache meant getting in touch with my inner-child (yup. deep breath. I am talking inner-child work. It might get weird. But if you’re here to save your life then maybe it’s time to try weird shit?)—that little girl inside who had been shouting out for attention for two decades. The little girl who I just kept hushing, “you want to rest? Well, too bad, I want to party.” We were going to have to team up to fight this thing. I was going to have to pay attention to all of her needs. My parents weren’t showing up for me and I was either going to cry over that every single day or take the power back into my hands and “re-parent” myself. My boyfriend and my friends made an incredible support system, but there were too many times where I was left alone and panicked. It’s frightening to go into the darkness alone—naturally, we want someone to hold our hand through the haunted house tour. And that’s ok. Hold a hand. God knows, I hold so many hands. But, acquiring the art of being my own primary care-taker while everyone else acted as support instead of the other way around enhanced my life, my freedom, and my health.  I needed to find a way to rely on myself, to hold myself through the hard times, have my own back, and thoroughly heal from all of that old nasty trauma.

I was an adult before I ever got to be a kid, and I was pissed off about it. Full of resistance, I sought people out who would care for me the way my parents never did. Collecting father figures and mother figures was my favorite hobby—I had a whole china closet full of them and, yet, no real fulfillment. My collection brought me short-lived comfort; my internal-void remained. I was introduced to inner-child work in 2013  when I was detoxing from a wildly fucked up romance. In an effort to snag what little dignity I had left and not text or call this dude, my friend suggested I start telling myself everything that I wanted him to tell me. When the quick-fix cravings hit, she would say, ” put your hand on your heart and say, ‘I love you. I’ve got you.’Imagine a photo of you as a little girl that is just so cute and precious and start taking care of that girl.” I was down. Anything to get my life back. I found myself picturing my little self and organically saying, “I’m your guardian now and I’m going to take really good care of you.” That became my mantra. I said it all day ,everyday, so that I could make positive choices for myself: like going on a hike instead of calling someone who would inevitably hurt me. I practiced just enough self-love to keep me from getting involved in another demoralizing situation, and (for the skeptics) I’m here to tell you that my practice paid off—I have been blessed with a beautiful relationship. However,  when I got bit by a tick just six months later,  my inner-child got tossed away and quieted again. She suddenly needed way too fucking much from me (sick people are needy as fuck), and I had no idea how to give it to her.

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I spent a long time beating myself up for being sick—maybe a year. It felt like my fault, like I was weak, powerless, or had bad Karma. There were moments where I was so angry at myself for not being able to “pull it together” that I considered physically harming myself. I couldn’t stand the sight of myself in the mirror. Every single day was agony. I couldn’t tell what was worse —the physical symptoms or the way I emotionally tormented myself. My internal dialogue went on repeat, “Get better. Be better. What is wrong with you? You’re disgusting. You’re weak.” Oh hi mom and dad!  That voice started keeping me awake at night. I lied in bed seething in pain and with a monster in my head, “you’re faking it. You’re not even really sick. This is just a ploy to get people to pay attention to you. Stop being so afraid. You’re not dying. You are being SUCH A BABY.” I only got sicker. Shockingly, that cruel self-talk wasn’t doing the trick. I was not “pulling myself up by my boot straps” at all. In fact, I was getting to a point where I could hardly put on my own shoes. As my symptoms ramped up and not a single doctor had a complete answer, I got willing to do whatever it was going to take—to do whatever was in my power— to get well.

I said farewell to the audiobook “A People’s History of the United States” which took up  most of my cell phone space with its 35 hours of “entertainment” and purchased—instead—self-help books like, “SelfCompassion,” by Kristin Neff and “You Can Heal your Life,” by Louise Hay. I listened to those calming voices preaching self-tenderness in the car, in bed, and while I made myself food. I was in research mode, a good student of self-love, entirely teachable. It was one thing to care of myself enough so that I wouldn’t reach out to a toxic dude, but how do I take care of and love a sick person? Like a really sick person?  I went practical—the basics— I started with the 101 course, if you will.  I used to work in childcare—I have looked after hundreds of children of all ages. I used my behavior as a caregiver  as my blueprint for my own self-care.  I would never let a child go hungry or thirsty or without sunscreen. I wouldn’t let a kid fall asleep without brushing their teeth and listening to a calming story in their comfiest PJ’s. If a child woke up afraid, I would comfort them.If they were too hot, I would take layers off and give them some water; too cold, I would give them layers and hold them tight. It seems so simple, but I certainly wasn’t that careful with myself on a daily basis. There’s no “age plateau” where we stop needing those simple things; we just get better at tolerating the discomfort.  I had to learn that it didn’t make me “high-maintenance” to need the basic human comforts. I didn’t let myself go hungry, thirsty,  without a nap, or without my vegetables. That was a tremendous beginning for me, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

My insomnia was a son- of- a- bitch. When hard-drugs weren’t working, I needed to find a way to soothe myself enough into a sleep. That’s how I started a dialogue with “little me.”   I would put one hand on my heart and one on my belly and picture little Jackie. My imagination— which sometimes works like the Beauty and the Beast mirror— showed me a toddler. She sat alone on a metal folding chair in the middle of a dark room. Her shoe laces were untied and she wore grungy sweats. She was so lonely, afraid, and dying for someone to come save her.  And, in my head (because, hello, Ian sleeps next to me and I was still trying to seem *somewhat* normal) I would tell her things like, “you’re OK, I’ve got you. I know this is so so scary. And I know you feel so bad. Yes, I feel that crazy pain all through our body. It’s real. I’ve got you. I will take the best care of you that I can. You’re not making this up. I love you.” It was usually the only thing that would calm me down. And, eventually, I started imagining myself hugging her, and ASKING, “what do you need little Jackie?”  And then I’d listen. This is truly one of the fucking winning practices in healing. My inner-child is smart as fuck. Every single time I ask “what’s up?” she’s like, “this is what’s up! Please fix it!”  Sometimes, she wants things like Advil or a cool cloth and other times, she wants a hug, but A LOT of the time, she really wants to have FUN and be free. It’s my job to give that to her. When a child is sick, parents do the bulk of the work to get them well, right? A Doctor only steps in for prescriptions and a diagnosis. So, it only makes sense, that we need to constantly care for ourselves the same way.

I was getting noticeably better. I had  this direct line of communication to my inner- child.We were having ping-pong conversations before I knew it, and I started knowing exactly how to care for myself at all times. I no longer saw little me in that lonely metal folding chair. She grew up a little bit, wearing bright colors and a high ponytail. She was healing and needed to play and be free more and more. The more I did this, the healthier I got, and the less I needed from others— including my parents. Being able to meet my own needs time and time again left me feeling, ultimately,  free.

Now I’m in the home-stretch and I’ve got this one problem: there’s a wildly hurt teenager in me that i really do not want to commune with. So much damage was done in those years, they were the most dangerous years of my life—because my parents were more unreliable and more destructive than ever, but, on top of their ruination, I was harming myself.  I turned all of my anger inwards and started self-medicating to make the pain stop.  I remember once around 16 when I was so stoned I hadn’t stopped laughing for three hours… or maybe 30 seconds? There was no such thing as time. I said to my best friend, “You know, if I ever met myself, I would absolutely hate her. We would never get along.” We both laughed so hard, knowing it was true. I hated myself. I shudder thinking about those years, between the way I behaved in public and the lunatic man who merely resembled my dad that lurked around corners in my “home.” So, can’t I just put that all to rest? Tie it up in a neat little box, pack it away in the attic, and just forget about it?  Apparently not.

I sat at my shrink’s office confessing how deeply I’m aching for Ian, (who’s Ian? Keep up!) the man I love who I don’t get to join on his big adventure for another 4 weeks. “I don’t know. We are both in so much pain. And it’s sweet, but it also feels just…excruciating,” I said. She suggested, like a good pain in the ass shrink, that it wasn’t just “love” and just “missing” each other, but that it may be something deeper. Something probably relating to my family of origin. ugh I had to open my big mouth about Ian. Here we go again. “Really? I think that’s maybe a psycho-babble stretch. I mean, how many times am I really going to miss my dad?” I retorted. “Exactly,” she said, “I think you miss your dad. That’s not to say that you don’t miss Ian and love Ian and that you guys aren’t yearning for each other. It’s the excruciating pain you’re experiencing that I think might have something to do with your dad.” With the same immediate shock value of a popped balloon, I broke and started to cry. Oh, fuck.

I kept that idea safely on the periphery for the next few days, not letting it quite into or out of my sight. I got on Skype to do a distance-healing with the dazzling, vital, sweet and madly intuitive  Emily, and as I detailed the week, I mentioned the possibility, “My therapist thinks that Ian’s departure has opened up my “dad” wounds and that all of the hollow emptiness I feel in my heart is actually from my father. I mean, whatever, it’s almost too obvious. So obvious I don’t really buy it.” But Emily, bless her,  was intrigued. I had to open my big mouth again. Thankfully, her instict had been precise on earlier occasions so I trust her. In our work together that day, she had me travel back to my past, finding the moment that left me with that hollow emptiness. In my meditation,  I found this one tragic scene from when I was 17—the day I watched everything I knew about my nuclear family collapse in on itself. Emily had me watch the scene play out and then freeze everyone and everything except my younger self and my present self. Everyone was frozen —my father froze mid-stomp on his way to attack me, my mother froze with her head in her hands crying in the car, and our dog froze in a frantic bark. Emily said, “approach your past self and tell her all of the things that she needs to hear right in this moment.” I slowly approached her, feeling very skeptical. I judge her, and I don’t know how to comfort my teenage self. She’s so stabby.  So I started with the basics again. I took her by the hands and brought her to the curb to sit down, I got her some water, and I took her bubble-gum pink leopard coat off. It was a warm day in October and she was covered in sweat from running, screaming, crying, and being dressed in 1,000 awesomely torn up layers. I fanned her off, helped her breathe and got her some food. I parented her. All things that I needed that day, that year, my whole life. Finally, I was able to say some kind things, “I love you. it’s ok. you’re ok. You’re beautiful, and you’re doing the best you can. Don’t worry about your dad. I promise you are loved.” My 17-year-old self was feeling calmer and calmer, and as I walked her back to the car, to finish out this scene, I said, “I really love you, and I promise dad is just high. This isn’t about you.” My past self turned to me with a smirk, totally cool and calm, and said, “thank you, you know, I don’t even like him that much. I think this day is actually the beginning of my freedom.”

I realized, as I came out of this time traveling experience that once I gave myself all the love I needed in that moment, I didn’t need my dad anymore and the experience completely transformed—from one of traumatizing heartbreak, to one of total freedom and joy. I also—wait for it—didn’t feel empty without Ian. With the willingness to heal this part of my life, I’ve had more and more memories surface over the last few days leaving me feelng irrationally unsafe in this world. That’s the risk of doing this work—all the stuff really does fucking surface. But UP AND OUT, BABY, my body has limited storage space and I need room for joy! I know now to go into the darkness, to let it surface, and heal it instead of ignoring it and powering through. Because no matter how much I try to fight it with my mind, there are things that my body will not let me forget.

Two nights ago, I laid awake panicking. Why, I wondered, while tears soaked my pillow, why am I especially panicked in my own home, in my own bed? Why, in my unscathed, sweet home today, do I feel terrified, like someone is lurking around every corner. I thought I’d ask that teenage version of myself what was up since that has worked so well in the past. Again, I was willing to do what it took to fall asleep. I did the ol’ trick: one hand on my heart, one on my belly, and I asked, “what is going on? Why is it at home that you’re so afraid?” In my imagination, we were sitting on the same curb outside of my teenage “home” that I comforted her on in my last meditation.  She said, “Well, it’s not outside that’s scary. It’s in there,” she nodded to the front door, “that’s where I fear for my life.” Ding ding ding.  My home was always the scariest place to be. There was no resting in my house, resting left you vulnerable to god knows what. By high school, I was realistically safer outside of my home. So, of course I feel like enemies are at every window or just outside of my door. Of course. But I am safe now. In this present moment, I have given myself a very safe life. And, so, with the knowledge of why I’m freaking out, I can start comforting myself, “you’re safe. you’re loved. It’s over. It’s OK.” All of that healing in the middle of the night when no one else was around to comfort me? It’s proof that I have everything I need within.

People ask me all of the time if Ian has been my primary caregiver. And, I usually say something like, “it has taken a village to get me well, but, in the end, I have been my own primary caregiver.” I am not a victim today. I can choose how to take care of myself, who takes care of me, and furthermore/even more radically I can give my past self all that she’s been looking. ALL of my past selves. Even the needy, over sexualized, annoying and sweetly confused teenager. I’m calling off the search party! Now, I can get get busy collecting memories instead of mother and father figures.

With fun, and love,

Jackie

 

 

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Finding your G-Spot: On Gratitude

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I was sitting  in a circle of spiritual strangers on a meditation pillow,  my knees resting heavily on the pillow’s surface, my sit bones heavy on my heels, and my head heavily hung— crying. The air was humid—the air was always humid  in Bali. We had just been led through a magical service conducted by the radiant and tender High Priestess of Bang Li— an experience that thawed me out, leaving me in tears. A vibrant woman approached me softly, “I feel moved to speak to you,” she said, “are you sick?” God, it hurt me so bad to know that I didn’t look well, that people could see it,  “I’m getting better but, yes, I have Lyme disease. I’m in Bali doing Ozone therapy,” I said.  She held my hands,  “I had MS, I was about to end up in a wheelchair—in fact I had ordered the wheelchair— and now my lesions are reversing because, in a weird way, I started vibrating above the illness.  You will get well, I can tell.” I cried harder…because I was sad, because I was exhausted, because I hadn’t slept in maybe 2 weeks, because I felt loved in that moment.  We talked for a good while—she was Greek,  a graduate of MIT, and on her way to study mysticism in Thailand and she found her extraordinary story hilarious. She laughed and laughed. I cried. “You just need a few things to heal,” she said,  “one, you need to laugh.” I stopped her, ” I never laugh anymore. My sense of humor is gone.” It was true. I had been suffocating in my own sadness AND lack of sleep for so long. Her lightness was contagious though, and  I softened enough to release an honest smile and chuckle. I felt free in her presence.  She continued, “you need to vibrate above the illness. Do what brings you joy. I think you belong on stage—dancing or acting.” I lit up, my energy coming more forward thinking about the things I loved.  “And, third,” she said, “you need gratitude.” I jumped in, “OH I have that!” She said, “I can tell, you’re actually full of gratitude.” I was so relieved. I was doing something right all of that time. I was/am grateful and she could see it. I wear gratitude like I wear my other glaring personality traits—loud and proud. She hugged me goodbye that night, promising I’d get well, and we never spoke again, but she gave me an incredible gift in that brief exchange. That was the night I welcomed my sense of humor back after an absurdly long intermission, I reinstated myself to the performing arts, AND that was the moment that I realized that my gratitude practice (nine years deep) was having a profound effect on my life. In more exciting words, I’ve done the work, I know where my G-Spot is and—ahem—I  can orgasm whenever I choose.

Now that I AM on the way to a full recovery, I’m here to back her up—an “attitude of gratitude” is indispensable during illness (or at any other time—let’s be real).  It can be the light IN the tunnel—not at the end of it. And if joy and happiness are scientifically proven to support our immune system then making a list of things we are grateful for (which is a verified way to increase joy and satisfaction) seems like a really obvious place to start, right? But how to gratitude!? How does this practice just become part of your life instead of that nagging thing that you HAVE TO DO every night?  And, how can you ALWAYS be grateful no matter what horrifying thing is happening in your life? Like  chronic illness, depression, loneliness, death, divorce, and so on. Gratitude got me out of bed and happy to participate in my life countless times, and how did I get there? Like so many of my stories, it all started  with my personalized cocktail of cocaine and daddy issues. 

My father was in rehab again.  He had been sent once  before under the same Wall Street conditions, “get sober and you can keep your six-figure income and your executive position. Don’t get sober and keep up this behavior— we will have no choice but to fire you.” Eight years earlier that threat worked, but this time, he was frighteningly unaffected by the potential risk. He was wildly against getting sober—putting him in rehab was like caging a lion, he was just waiting to get out and go on a killing frenzy.And I, apparently, wasn’t one to judge.  On February 14th, 2004, while my dad sat on his hands in rehab fighting his cocaine addiction, I ripped my first line off of a mirror in a bedroom on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And I got so high—so staggeringly high. Later that night/early that morning,  back at home, I was experiencing my first miserable come-down while my brother stumbled around freshly wasted. We did what 2 high siblings affected by alcoholism do—we fought an incoherent, mindless fight. He wanted to visit our father in rehab, and I was not invited. In fact, I was forbidden, he said. I squealed in his face, pissed off,  provoking him to throw cautionary punches at me, purposefully grazing past the tip of my nose— just to let me know how mad he was and close he was to losing it. I eventually stormed off to bed. Defeated and exhausted, I fell asleep as the sun came up.

When it turned out that my dad didn’t want visitors, we were given the option to write him a letter. I wrote him a fucking letter, alright— my anger toward the old man had become unhinged. The problem with my “unhinged” letter was that it lacked ANY strategy. If my plan was to shame him into getting sober (which I believed it was), I was failing miserably.  My real motive—that of a 16-year-old girl desperate for her dad’s attention— went undisguised:

“I’m a party girl. I just ripped my first line of coke the other night. I party hard.I’m no goodie                -two- shoes. I drink and smoke and take pills—I measure up to all of the guys, but I don’t get carried away. Not like you. So this isn’t coming from some pussy place. I know what it is to love drugs, and I know     what it looks like when someone needs to stop. You need to stop. I love you.  Jackie”

Ah, the Hallmark greeting card from one dysfunctional family member to another.

He never wrote me back, but in his first few turbulent days back from rehab, he asked to speak to me alone. I was on edge and excited—I hadn’t been alone with him in so long, and I was hoping for some deep connection, a new spark, love reignited. We went into his office, I took my seat at his cherry oak desk and he strutted to the power seat— behind the desk. His office was dark, heavy, and cluttered.  We  lit our respective Marlboro lights. He took a deep drag and as the smoke filled his lungs, he got his thoughts in order. He leaned back, exhaled, smoke filling the room, and said,  “Let me just read your letter aloud…” After he read it in full, he took another drag, put his cigarette out and leaned forward— his elbows on the desk and his piercing narcissistic eyes challenging me.  Yikes. Embarrassing—I could even see that I sounded loco. But I kept my cool, “yeah, well, it’s true. I do drugs, and, as it turns out, I like cocaine.” He grilled me. We must have talked for an hour about my specific experiences with sex and drugs before he challenged me to not drink, smoke or use for two weeks. “Two weeks. that’s all,”  he said. Anxiety coursed through my body. He took note, “you look scared because you’re thinking about the two weeks, but you can do it just one day at a time,” he said.”OK. but how in the fuck will I not use ‘one day at a time’  for TWO WEEKS?” And that’s when he laid out some other tools like journaling, the serenity prayer, and gratitude lists.

When he said “every night, you write down 10 things you’re grateful for,” my immediate response was, “but what if I have nothing to be grateful for?” Sound familiar? Have you scoffed in a similar way the last time someone suggested you write a gratitude list? My dad, totally fucked up in so many ways, came through with a life-long lesson in that moment: “You have nothing to be grateful for? You have ten fingers and ten toes. There, that’s 20 things.” I giggled, a bit ashamed that I had missed something so equally simple AND significant.  He went on, “you have all of your limbs, your senses, you can walk, you have shelter, a bed, and food.” Oh shit— It was jarring that I hadn’t thought of those things myself, but I’m forever grateful for that lesson— even though I didn’t take the suggestion for another couple of years.

Neither of us made it through the two weeks without using.  Instead, we took one last family vacation to the bowels of Hell. Apparently, Satan found the taste of me  unsuitable for his palate. Too feisty or too sweet,  he couldn’t fully digest me so he spat me out. Once I was upchucked from that vile journey, I had a lot of grime to clean off. And so at 18, I started wiping away the debris with spirituality. When a wise woman on the spiritual path suggested that I start writing gratitude lists due to my blinding self-pity,  the lessons my father taught me in his office two years earlier came rushing back.  I picked up a pen and started writing: ten fingers, ten toes, my limbs, and my senses. It was an unbearably painful time— so I kept writing and my lists grew;  I’m grateful for my limbs, my senses, shelter, food, a job, clothes, and my friends. And they kept growing.

In 2009, when my twenties were as fresh as a juicy peach, my treasured friend asked me if I wanted to participate in a gratitude email chain where we would each write our daily lists and “reply all.” “Sure,” I said, not thinking much of it, unconsciously assuming it would fizzle within a few months because most things like that do. How fun it is to be proven wrong sometimes. That email chain has changed my life. There are 11 of us on the exchange, all women,  and we have been writing for —please wait as I access the left side of my brain—seven years! We started as friends in NYC and, in seven years time, we have adventured with one another through big moves, marriage, children, death, divorce, break -ups, new relationships, new jobs  and, in my case, illness—all through gratitude listsWe have had delicious “gratitude brunches,” attended each other’s weddings, been on the other side of the screen when the first  “Introducing: insert new baby picture” got sent, been cheerleaders for each other’s dreams, and every one of those girls donated to my fundraiser. I’m so grateful for them. But because of all of that practice, I never have to do much digging to find my gratitudes, and, as a result, I’m often (not always) one of those “glass half-full” people: often optimistic with moments of pure elation. Let me be super clear as you may now be rolling your eyes at my perkiness. I am madly-pro taking days off from “positive thinking.” This is no time to go beating yourself up for not being “grateful enough.” If you need to lie in bed and steep in self-pity every once in a while, I support that, and I believe it’s also crucial to healing (in small doses). I never suggest you “gratitude list” your way out of feelings, out of humanity, but that you gratitude list yourself into a more balanced view of reality. 

You’re feel -good- G can be equally as accessible (if it isn’t already). Here are some tips:

Make your own email chain! All you need is one other person and access to your own discipline and consistency. It can take as little as 30 seconds to shoot off a gratitude list and  connect with a friend. Most of you know that I’m all about FUN (and love) so give yourself a laugh and a creative outlet as you write your lists. The subject line is where all of the genius is in our group:  We have seven years worth of quirky subject lines:  “G’zzzzzz ma Ladiezzzzzz,” “Gratitat,” “Nothing left to do but gratitude,” “Forever G,” “In Flight Gratitude announcement!” “Saturday Graterday””Guys WHOA I need gratitude,” “Spring Ahead into Sunny Gratitude,” “She’s All Grat.” “Even in Frosty California, Gratitude Survives,” “We so G and so Free,” “Grateful Feet have Got A lot of Rhythm.”  Do you catch my drift? I know, we are *the coolest.*

If your stomach is turning at the idea of being on a gratitude email chain with corny subject lines then simply start writing lists. Write them on your phone as you sit in waiting rooms ( or half-naked on the exam table), pause your stinking thinking and say things out loud when you’re stuck in traffic, write things down in your journal, and on the days when things are just so bad and you’re desperate, text a friend and say, “wanna do the gratitude ABC’s?” All day long, you can go back and forth with that trusted friend stating what you’re grateful for. They say “I’m grateful for my hot Ass,” and you say, “I’m grateful for my Bone Broth.” And they say, “My Cat,” and you say, “My Dog —AND ew you have a cat?” This is so efficient as you’ll be mastering multiple “healing activities” at once: gratitude, laughter, AND companionship. But if you’re still rolling your eyes and you’re a driven person that just needs a challenge then I challenge you to find one thing a day and write it down for the next 365 days.Try and make it as specific to the day as possible.I promise you that if you practice gratitude consistently for just a little while, you, too, will find your G-Spot. You, too, will have gratitude orgasms.

Get writing!

With fun and love,

Jackie

 

 

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It’s My F#$%^ Party Now, and I’ll Cry if I Want To.

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I walked into a healing space this past Sunday morning, a space where people go to feel their feelings, get quiet, and be all lovey-dovey. I took a seat— I totally do the lovey-dovey shit. Immediately bored/ over caffeinated, I started surveying my surroundings. To my right, there was a big childlike sign, a huge white scroll taking up the better part of the wall. Even though the all-caps font was uninteresting, the hot pink lettering was a zing, calling my attention to the words, “DON’T WORRY.” I smirked, yeah, worry is a useless emotion. I swiveled to my left and got instinctively and irrationally angry when I saw a nearly identical scroll taking up the back wall that said (in the same boring all-caps font), “BE HAPPY.” AH, of course, that saying, “don’t worry. be happy.” I don’t like that saying. I’m not a monster—I like the song because c’mon the dude makes magical music with his mouth, but I have a problem when the lyric stands on its own as a pressuring and trivial blanket statement. There is no light without the dark. Sometimes, it IS sad, and sometimes we cry. The broad statement, “be happy” makes me want to throw a protest. I get all defensive and “activisty:” WHY? Why is it shameful to be unhappy sometimes? Isn’t sadness a part of life, and something we have to move through? Isn’t unhappiness often revealing something to us—that it’s time for a change, maybe. Why is it shameful to cry? Why is it especially embarrassing to cry in public? Should tears be stored and saved for only special occasions? What’s the special occasion? The psych ward? Rehab? Jail? A funeral? Because from what I’ve witnessed in my short life, those are the places you go when you just keep stuffing your cells with garbage. How many times have you been told, “don’t cry?” How many times have you watched another panic at the sight of your tears and say something like, “no more crying now, only smiles.”  Or, if you had a childhood like mine, then you know what it is to get in trouble every time you cried–to have to hide your tears— your unhappiness, your honest concerns for what’s happening—and build up an armor of “numb” to protect yourself from a heated attack.

OK, fine, so maybe my reaction to phrases like, “don’t worry, be happy,” have SOMETHING to do with my past. . .but hear me out.

My home was a battleground, and my bedroom was my trench. There were land mines, step on one and experience an explosion. No matter how much memorizing I did, no matter how limber, acute, and dexterous I learned to be, there was always a new land mine. I never quite had the system figured out, and I TRIED—in an act of fierce self-preservation, I tried. Smart-enough, pretty-enough, quiet-enough, kind-enough, polite-enough, good-enough are assets that will always lay just outside an irrational alcoholic’s peripheral vision—they do not see “enough.” And, as a child, I didn’t know that it  wasn’t personal, and there was nothing I could have done/been to make it better. There is NO hidden map to avoid the land mines in an alcoholic home—you will continue to step on ones, they will shock you, it will hurt, and then, if you’re like me, you will go to your trench and cry. Because crying wasn’t allowed anywhere else.

My father came home out-of-the-blue one day in 1995. My dad wasn’t expected at home much, and he certainly was never expected before dark. . .on a weekday. His absence was delightful. I was six or seven, and my brother was/is/has always been 16 months older than me. We sat on our dirty, old, orange carpet in the living room, playing, while my grandfather watched over us admiringly. My grandfather, a man who might resemble the minds-eye of a jolly candy shop owner—his toothless smile lit up a room and the warmth that came from his slightly overweight body was as comforting as the duvet cover when you’re exhausted. In his endlessly loving eyes, we were perfect without having to do a damn thing to prove it, our existence was enough for him. He was on after school child-duty while my mother worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, a job she needed to take because my father’s Wall Street checks didn’t quite make it home. I remember hearing my dad’s car that day. My heart skipped a beat, his stomping darkness preceded his entrance. I had learned in my seven years of existence how to take the temperature of a room and be hyper/painfully aware of my surroundings. I mean, land mines will do that to you. I could tell without him entering what kind of mood he was in. Energy shifted, I held my breath, and he finally stormed in— his dark hair disheveled, like black paint splattered on his head as his long- legged strut whooshed by us accompanied by a volatile smirk and “hello.” “Hello,” I said, thinking, “speak loud enough so he can hear you but not too loud.” My smile was gone. I kept my voice down, holding my breath, and I waited like a soldier at war, standing-by to see what the enemy might do first; hoping that he would eat something and leave again or eat something and go to bed, or eat something and die— anything but stick around. Instead he shouted for us, and like his little soldiers, we went running, “coming, dad.”

There were some crumbs on the kitchen floor. Come to think of it, they were quite possibly left by my grandfather. He did ALWAYS have a habit of leaving a mote of crumbs around his chair—he was a pastry-lover and eventual diabetic. Regardless of whose fault it was, there were just a few crumbs— something that’s fairly normal in a house with two working parents, two young children, and, that day, a 75-year-old pastry-eating man who couldn’t bend down. My dad’s reaction, I know now, had nothing to do with the crumbs. He probably needed a good cry, he probably needed a hug. My brother and I stood, shoulder to shoulder, as he shouted at us, harassing us and name-calling, “you’re a couple of pigs,” “you’re fucking disgusting, now get down on your knees and pick up every last crumb.” When we got to our knees, on opposite sides of my dad’s legs under the kitchen table, he grabbed us by the backs of our necks, as you would grab a dog, and shoved us into the ground again and again, as you would do to a to a dog who peed in the house, “there are no fucking crumbs allowed in this house.” (That house was super unpleasant and needed a remodel in like 1950. . .crumbs were not the issue). My face was burning and I had that knot in my throat, the thing that happens right before you burst into tears. That knot was my warning signal…HOLD IT IN, SWALLOW, I was shouting in my head, DO NOT CRY, Do not let him see you cry. If he saw me cry, it would be like setting off another land mine. He HATED when I cried and, quite frankly, saw no justified reason for me to EVER shed a tear or be angry or overwhelmingly happy or have really any feelings, for that matter.

We were sent to our bedrooms for the remainder of the night. I wanted to spend more time with my grandfather, but we were told not to say goodbye to him, not to speak, just to go to our rooms. So as we marched sheepishly away, I covertly glanced at my grandfather on my way up the stairs, my eyes begging him to come save me. He looked devastated and helpless. I got to my room, shut the door, sat on my bed and quietly wailed, holding myself while I shivered. I’d always get so sweaty in the midst of attack, and by the time I had my freedom to release, I’d be drenched and cold. I loved my bedroom. I felt safe crying in my 30 square foot dust-box as long as my dad stayed downstairs. That is the most common example I have of my process. I hurt all of the time, and I held my breath until I found solace in my room. My room was a haven— a place to live in fantasy, to cry, and, later, in a natural progression under the circumstances, to do drugs.

My family fell apart and dispersed. I sobered up and became really passionate about my emotional freedom and my growth as an individual. I didn’t want to save my sorrow for my bedroom or even for my house. I didn’t want to “behave,” or “be quiet,” or be the kind of person who said, “stop being over dramatic—pull yourself up by your boot straps.” I wanted to HEAL. I’m all in for this journey—mine and yours—the anger, the grief, the joy, the laughter, the sadness, the mother fucking TEARS. I watch people behave like assholes all day, every day— I live in LA. Customers snap at their baristas or make some sideways comment about the long line they’re standing on or shut doors in your face, or shout unrepeatable things at other cars on the road, but CRYING in public is a fucking taboo. Give me a break. Crying is a necessary part of healing and growing. It doesn’t need to be saved for your shrink’s office. If you need to cry now, cry now. If you’re sad and need a hug, say so. It’s better than going home and taking it out on your family in some ass backwards way. Trust me.

Healing is not easy or fun, but I have solid role-models to show me what ignoring trauma looks like and that looks a lot less fun.My brother is, unfortunately, a prime example. He’s not so into feeling shit. I swallowed years of nasty, condescending language from him. When we were sent upstairs as kids, I would try to team-up with him, feel it with him, and he would shoo me away with a pained and angry stare, “go away.” He never did any crying with me, he never even told me how it made him feel. He called me a “drama queen,” “annoying,” “a pain in the ass,” “a liar.” He stuffed it all, had sudden outbursts of rage, and found a way to numb further. . .on repeat. If you take a look at both of our lives today, I may be the one with Lyme disease, but I am the more healed. No bacteria in my body could ever be a match for the poison that has built up in him over the last 30 years. I am, somehow, with all of the medical shit I have going on, the healthier one. . .sadly, without getting into the dark details, it’s not even a close call.

Twenty  years of poison- build- up ahead of my brother is my old man’s example.  Not knowing how to handle his own childhood trauma, his own emotions, initially made him a highly unpleasant human, but as time went by, he became a dangerous human. So, when he mounted our suburban front stoop at noon in 2005—a stoop that was supposed to be my entrance to home but instead was my landing pad for a war zone—in a pair of gray boxers, 20 pounds too skinny, and began chasing me and my bloody mother around and cursing at us while all of the neighbors watched, I had to wonder, “what the fuck was SO UNACCEPTABLE about the tears I cried in public? Or about those crumbs under the table?”

Feel your feelings, save the world.

With fun, love, and tasty, salty tears,

J. Shea.

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Pulling for Latoya

madness

This was my infusion week. My drip line was removed yesterday, and I am restlessly recovering now. During infusion weeks, I have a hard time deciding what to write/when to write/how to write. It seems like all of my energy— creative and otherwise— is sucked from me and stuffed in a bag for safe-keeping until I’m ready to play again. How do I rally? Day one of my infusion, I watched that Tony Robbin’s documentary everyone is raving about, “I Am Not Your Guru.” It’s a good watch — “I mean nothing mind-blowing, nothing I don’t already know,” says my self-righteous ego.HAHAHA. Except that I did learn something new and my mind was blown over this one thing: Push motivation vs, Pull motivation. Push motivation is exhausting, he says, you’re pushing yourself, using willpower and discipline to accomplish your goals. The push will never last long-term because you get burnt-out. PULL motivation, on the other hand, requires no “rallying,” no forced effort; you are being pulled—you want to do it, you don’t have to do it. This is crucial advice for those of us who are sick—so sick that there’s no room for push. So sick that push can actually delay healing and drain our adrenal glands. PULL, however, feels fulfilling, joyful and bring us toward healing. So, I thought, what am I pulled to write about this week while my IVIG infusion drips? There’s something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for a couple of months now—something I feel utterly PULLED towards, therefore, something easier to write about with an IV in my arm, aching pain circulating through each cell of my body, and a deep exhaustion that makes me wonder if I’ll ever stand up again. I am pulled to an upright position. I am pulled to an upright position for Latoya and all of those just like her.

In early June, I sat in static LA traffic, the sun blasting through my windows— attempting to blind me or burn me, adding pressure to an already tense situation. I sat, nail- biting,  1.5 miles from my home (a ride that should take 3 minutes), watching the red light change to green, to yellow, to red again. . .on repeat. I switched on KPCC, our local NPR, and happened to catch A Martinez interviewing John Hwang, creator of “Skidrow Stories,” an online photography series documenting the lives of the homeless that live on skid row in Downtown LA. My mind was ripped from self-obsession, traffic obsession, obsession around my illness, and directed toward the immense calamity happening just 7 miles SouthEast of where I luxuriously sat. I was PULLED, pulled to know more, pulled to help, pulled especially in the direction of one woman he met on skid row. I wrote to John after I heard the interview asking if I could write about him, his mission, and his friend, Latoya—he graciously agreed and thanked me for my interest. I also asked if I could accompany him one time which he kindly agreed to as well. I love the work John Hwang does—the work he was pulled to do.

Standing on a bridge in downtown LA, killing time in order to wait-out the traffic (yes,traffic, the way I was introduced to him. . .maybe there are benefits to traffic), John randomly chatted with another pedestrian on the bridge—nothing out of the ordinary, just some face-to-face human connection—something that, I suppose, IS becoming extraordinary. John remembers, “So we’re just having this conversation and then he tells me he was on the bridge because right before he saw me he was going to jump off and kill himself…He said that somehow our conversation made him feel better and gave him hope in life…” That moment inspired John to spend time on Skid Row—just…talking to people. In an effort to share these stories—of tragedy AND triumph— with his friends, he pulled out his camera and asked if he could take  someone’s picture. Hwang has no interest in exploitation, he has never had a gallery or exhibit—he even turned down CNN’s interest in making a documentary series. But the pictures are what put John Hwang, “Skid Row stories,” and it’s inhabitants in the spotlight. It’s what helped us to see the people, and hear their voices…#LIVESMATTER. Skidrow Stories is a way to support and encourage the thousands who live forgotten and ignored. John Hwang is actively changing the lives of people on Skid Row by listening to them. By listening to people like Latoya…

Latoya is a woman who would likely intimidate me on the streets: angry and quietly volatile— that’s how I imagine her. Like most people who present themselves with anger, drug addiction or mental illness, there is a story, a background. A story that needs to be heard and loved, not overlooked. Latoya has been hardened from unfathomable trauma, a life so unfair it seems like fiction. John noticed that every time a dog would pass her by, she’d soften, and her tender heart— her innocence—would break through like a bit of light at the end of a long storm. Hwang questioned her one day on why she had such a different reaction to dogs. She said, “dogs would never hurt you like people do…”

Latoya was repeatedly raped by her stepfather until she was 11 years old when she decided to run away. Her family chose not to look for her so they could continue collecting welfare checks on her behalf. She met a pimp on the streets as a pre-adolescent.  When Latoya was 11, she was in the throes of human-trafficking and working as a child prostitute. When she contracted HIV in her late teens, she was left— dropped and abandoned…again. That is when she started using hard drugs on the streets. Latoya prefers to stay on drugs in an effort to numb her sense of worthlessness and loneliness. How many people only see “homeless drug-addict,” when they look at her? I wonder. Her story is, unfortunately, not even close to “unheard of.” Her story is one of tens of thousands.

When I was young and naive enough to think that the world could operate in “fair terms,” I thought a lot about the homeless community. I remember driving by a vacant, off-white house, the paint was peeling, the windows were boarded up, and the front door seemed to be made of steel. It was a big-enough house—big enough to make me wonder why it was taking up all of that hardened space, dead energy, offering nothing back to the world. People were living on the streets, and so I wondered like I thought anyone would, “why don’t we fix that house up for the homeless.” I would see this could-be-shelter from the back seat of our suburban SUV and have grand fantasies of cleaning up the place, and painting it some bright color, inviting all of the homeless people nearby to live inside. I imagined myself cooking for them (I owned one of those cookbooks for kids so I could get by). I imagined smiling and laughter: a community of strangers feeling loved, seen, and heard. I felt pulled to make that happen and didn’t know where to begin (because I was like eight). As time passed and my innocence passed with it—I came to realize the vastness of the homeless community, the intricacies of our government, and then I was really stumped. I turned a blind eye.

I live in Los Angeles, a city where homelessness is multiplying daily right alongside the billionaires. I drive past people all day, every day. Women and men walk the double yellow line with signs like, “please have compassion. anything would help.” They stare at me, and I usually have nothing to give—sometimes a Lara bar or two, but more often than not, I just look away. In fact, I usually lock my door because I’ve been taught (through experience) that as a small woman, I am unsafe. But this epidemic cannot be denied. All people deserve to be seen and heard. I feel pulled to do something. I want to know Latoya. I want to know all of the pre-adolescent girls, gearing up to run away from home because they are being raped by their guardian, and I want to take them to my magical bright  house where we smile and make food all day. I felt inspired to get immediately over to Skid Row and talk to people, too. Maybe even find her, hug her, love her. And I feel completely unsafe doing that on my own, but I can’t ignore the PULL I feel, the aliveness that pull generates.

Yesterday, I got shit news. I received scary blood test results that sent my central nervous system into an anxiety-ridden shock and eventual collapse. Just as I was pulling myself together from that news, I got the news that I was denied federal disability because my condition isn’t “severe enough,” and I can “adjust to different work even though I am  hindered.” And then I cried. I cried because I feel abandoned by the system, by my doctors, by the minimal friends and family who haven’t shown up, and by my body. When I think about my childhood, I don’t just have abandonment issues because of my parents. I think about all of the onlookers—the neighbors who didn’t call the cops, the family members that didn’t rescue me, the teachers that never checked in when I was clearly losing my shit, the cops that didn’t show up, and the justice system for letting down my mother and therefore me. It’s those people that I WISH would have said something. . . at least acknowledged what was happening and asked if they could help. I felt all of that sadness again yesterday, the heartbreak. And with my own devastation, I felt an even stronger pull to tell Latoya’s story—because none of us should be denied our truth.

With love,

Jackie

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In Loving Memory

 

dad

My father is not dead- not by medical standards. Not yet. Tick tock- I’ve been waiting for him to die, watching, angrily, as the more innocent go in his place. He’s more..missing with an expectation of no return- I expect he’ll die, lonely, on his lifelong search for the unattainable. I tried. I tried to show him that maybe I could BE all he was searching for, but there’s no competing with the ever- sparkly temptress crack cocaine. She comes with immortal magic AND hookers. At some point, it’s just demoralizing to compete with that world ESPECIALLY when it’s for the attention of an abusive lunatic- the whores can have him. I let him go. He’s now an unrecognizable imposter still called my dad. He’s the walking dead. This kind of grief is very complicated- losing someone completely before they’ve actually departed. I tried to avoid the feelings for a decade, covering my heartbreak up with “forgiveness,” “acceptance,” and “apathy.” When I got sick and was stripped of all of my defenses, maintaining any sort of relationship with my father felt like voluntarily signing up for a causeless war that puts me in the front line alone with no protection or weapons. Being on a mission for total wellness, that would be insane of me. Instead, I faced my past- my devastating heartbreak, and, very recently, uncovered the love I had forgotten all about.

It’s SO easy to vilify my father: he’s an abusive crack addict/ alcoholic, narcissist with sociopathic tendencies, cheater, liar, and he left my family in shambles. I spent most of my childhood tortured by fear, wishing my parents would divorce, or wishing him dead. He was a scary, nasty, and handsy drunk that I could honestly say, I did not love. SO when, at my very impressionable age of 9, my Dad sobered up and ripened into a tall, dark, handsome, and rich man, I was bamboozled into falling in love. I didn’t know how to brace myself for a love like that so I just let myself fall like the naive child I was. I was totally taken by him. My heart went all fireworks every time he held my hand or gave me a hug or said something nice to me. When he wanted to be with me, when he wanted to take me on a date, I put on my best dresses and sat cross-legged across from him at fancy restaurants as I tried to be his peer, his most beloved. Sound a little weird? TOTALLY. It is weird. It’s unhealthy but kind of sweet at best and like super creepy at worst. It’s the truth, though, my father was my first all-encompassing love. And my first (arguably my only) shattering heartbreak.

In 2001, after just a few short but poignant years of sobriety, he started drinking again. There were signs. He was being cruel, and he had that look again: that feral look. I lived with an unshakable faith that my father, MY FATHER, would NEVER use again so it was very confusing for me the first night he didn’t come home. At 6 AM, on my way to school I asked my mother what happened. She said, “ I’m not sure what happened- I think Dad’s in the hospital. Maybe a car accident? He’s drinking again.” I was dumbstruck. I thought about it for the rest of the day in a sort of daze- a world where my dad drinks again? The puzzle pieces didn’t fit- it just didn’t fucking fit. I admittedly have an active and dramatic imagination, but I could have never thought up what was about to come.

2001-2003 were bad years- challenging and disorienting, but they were also the hopeful years. Yes, the downward spiral was picking up speed, and, yes, really nasty things were happening in the home, and, yes, my father was not only drinking, but also snorting coke, and not coming home and acting unstable at best but, he still had a job, and it appeared from my 15-year-old perspective that, at any minute, he’d change his mind and it could all just magically go back to “normal.” I attempted to sway him- believing if he loved me enough, he’d come around – be my knight in shinging armor again. He had an office in a dark corner of the house. It was filled with all of the expensive things that he purchased at the height of his simultaneous success and sobriety. In 2001, he sat behind a big oak desk, smoking cigarettes, clicking away at his computer, and taking business calls that he always sounded so authoritative and intelligent on. By 2003, it was a drug den. He locked the door, and left the lights out so there was always an uncertainty about whether or not he was even in there. His oak desk was now piled with clutter of all sorts and his drawers were filled with the paraphernalia of his new lifestyle. I sometimes knocked on the door. I often wondered if he was around, if he would be willing to see me- if he would maybe hold me once more, and tell me it was OK. I would write him letters and slip them under the door with high hopes of how they might affect him.

He responded to one of my letters, and I saved it all of these years. I think I saved it because it is this one piece of loose leaf that proves what he and I had together- the love we shared as father and daughter. It slipped out of a book the other day, and inspired this post. From late 2003:

Dad,
There are just some things I have on my mind that I want you to know. I want you back in my life…You haven’t hit rock bottom yet because you still have a family who loves you…don’t let that slip away. I hate seeing you do this to yourself but I believe in you. I have hope that you will pull through this. You have a problem that you understand better than any of us so all I truly get is that you are in lots of physical and mental pain. I see the anxiety and guilt in your eyes. I just ask one thing: please don’t turn your back on me and pretend I don’t see what’s going on. I see it, but I still love you soooo much and am extremely concerned about you. I just want you to know that people still care…especially me..hitting rock bottom is when you lose that. I LOVE YOU. I hope you can feel this deep in your soul. LOVE, JACKIE

and on the back of the piece of looseleaf, he returned this…

Jackie:
When did you get so smart? So mature? Sorry I am giving you this particular lesson this way. Yes, I am in a really bad place filled with fear and guilt. It’s nobody’s fault and no one can help. It’s all up to me. Unfortunately, the same things that have given me success in life bring me to this place. It’s part of who I am and I have to overcome it. There is no denial on my part. I see and feel everything which is why I will prevail! I need you to stay strong and stay on course. I feed off that. Ultimately, this will make me stronger and a better person. Don’t cry baby- let me see your strength. Show me how people like us handle things! You know what I mean- I know you do. God damn I’m proud of you! Love, Dad.

I remember reading that letter and feeling so much hope- dad was on the horizon! The very next thing I remember is Crack-the fucking Devil’s drug- I’ve never seen anything like it. That drug hijacked what was left of my father’s heart, his spirit, in the middle of the night, leaving no time for me to say my goodbyes. That letter is the last thing I have from him that resembles the man I loved. The years 2003-2005 were the most violent, destructive years we lived through. I wondered often whether my Mother would get out alive as there were ever-increasing attempts to take her out. I wondered nightly whether or not my father was alive. I heard his screams in the middle of the night (if he was home).  He’d convulse on the couch so fiercely that his crack pipe would fall out of the pocket of the terry cloth robe his body was now too frail for. If he was alive, I considered killing him myself which, by the way, I am VERY GLAD I never fully attempted.  He lost his job, our cars, our house, and my parents divorced all in those 2 years. The last engagement I saw between my parents as married people was October of 2005 when my dad said, “Jackie, there’s one last thing I want you to see me do to your mother,” and then he spit a wad of yellow phlegm right on her face so it dripped off of her nose. That was not great. See- IT’S EASY TO VILIFY MY FATHER.

I thought I walked away from all of that unaffected. It was my mission to move on and be unaffected. I numbed it- who could begin to deal with all of that garbage AND continue living a life? I talked about my past like it was some story- someone else’s life. “Yeah like that time my dad had hookers in the house and beat my mom and threatened to eat my dog,” I’d laugh while others would crane their necks in silence.  I moved 6,000 miles away from home, and I decided to be the best daughter I could be regardless of who he was. All that meant was that we maybe talked once every six months, and I sent him a “Happy Birthday” text. The last time I saw him, 2 years ago, he was so high that I swore/ hoped I was leaving him for dead, and I had NO PROBLEM leaving. Five minutes after I left him, my doctor called to let me know that my Lyme results came back still very much positive.

When I got sick and my father was what he had been for 15 years (absent and high) I fell apart. I lived, I think, with some reservation, that if I ever needed my father desperately enough, he would show up. Surely, if I got sick, he would revert back to 1999 Dad. When I had to face the reality that my father was no help whatsoever but only a hindrance to my well-being, I was faced with a level of grief so painful, I thought I’d never get over it. As a coping mechanism, I again turned to hate- vilify the asshole.  I felt and often feel the anger, but he’s not just this one thing. He’s not just “monster.”

When I found that letter, I remembered everything I ever loved about him, and I remembered how much he loved me. There was good there- there was even something innocent there, I think. I can take an eraser to my hard edges that leave no room for mistakes. I can see the whole, messy, imperfect picture. It’s weird, I know, to talk about him in the past. It’s so complicated to grieve the loss of someone who is still bodily alive…somewhere…I don’t even know where. Today, I wish he was dead just so I could talk to him. I really do miss that man- the man in that letter.

I remember my father telling me one day in 2004 while we both fiercely sucked down cigarettes in his Porsche, “The opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is not caring.” I TRIED so hard to not care about my Dad- just to show him. Wouldn’t it be so easy to not care? But I’m on a fucking mission to heal, and that has meant unveiling all of the nasty shit, facing it, and finding what lives underneath- an innocent, unshakable love. It also means, staying the hell away from the toxic, lunatic man he’s become. But, dammit,  I love you, Dad- can’t wait till you find peace.

Fun and Love,

Jackie

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