Hanging Tough

I used to be tough. A long time ago — before therapy and marriage(s) and children. Back in high school, every move I made, everyone I befriended or didn’t, everything I wore was part of an attempt to be tough. And I succeeded. I was pretty tough in high school. So was my crowd.

But I grew up – my whole crowd did. And as we did, we shed those protective layers. As we surrounded ourselves with safe people, we shed the need for the protection that was once so vital.

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Father(s) Day

I should want a father. I really should. How many people get a second chance with a new father? Well, probably a lot, with all of the blended families and whatnot, but not too many get the opportunity that I have.

I have a brand-new father who wants a relationship with me. He’s my birth father, and he’s great. He’s kind and caring, upbeat and sweet, and he’s wanted to know me since I was conceived. He calls me from time to time, and when I pick up the phone, we talk for hours, but when he misses me, I don’t call back. I tell myself I’m going to call back, but I never do.

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Saying “I love you” or Hedging Regrets

Still focused on my daughter’s lunch, I took the phone. “This is the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.”

I squeezed a handful of chicken nuggets. My hometown police. This was it. My dad fell asleep at the wheel and wrapped himself around a tree. Worse, he killed someone. Oh God.

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…And a Happy New Year!

My birth mom, Rose, Christian and me (Clockwise from top)

I tried to kill myself.

Twenty-four years ago, after a shameful bout of promiscuity, drug use and my first brush with manic depression, the thing that put me over the edge was my date’s indifference at the senior prom. After he rebuffed me a few times on the boat that served as our ballroom, I went down to my cabin and took some pills. I hoped that the pills, combined with the half-gram of coke I’d snorted, would do the trick. Fortunately the pills were just cold medicine but they were strong enough to counteract the coke’s stimulant effects. I slept for a few hours and then woke up wondering what I’d done. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to live, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to die. I told one of our chaperones what I’d done and they had me at the school psychologist’s office on Monday morning.

Years later I learned that I’d performed more of a suicidal “gesture” than an “attempt,” but it felt the same to me. I just wanted things to end. I wanted to get out of waking up the next morning and having another horrible day. I didn’t see much of a future, at least one I could enjoy. I went to therapy all summer and once I got to college, away from the shame and the dysfunction at home, I quit drugs, lost weight and began to look forward to a long, happy life.

This year more than any, I’m so grateful for that “failure.” 2010 has been an amazing year for me. I got pregnant after a year of trying, a discouraging prognosis, and giving up on the whole idea. Despite my age, Christian was born healthy and normal in all aspects – and darned cute too, if I do say so myself.

This year I reunited with my birth mother and we’re building a wonderful relationship. She’s giving me the mothering I still need at 42, and I’m giving her the daughter she never had. I finally have a parenting coach. My mother could never do that for me, because her Alzheimer’s disease took her away before my daughter was born.

I just had my first phone calls with my birth father, and that’s been a great experience as well. He’s warm and welcoming, even though he endured so much heartbreak around the events of my birth. He’s my shot at a good relationship with a father figure.

This year I attended my first real writer’s conference, had three publishing professionals ask to see my work, and I got laid off from my day job so I could realize my 17-year dream of working solely as a writer. I’ve seen this blog grow from 100 readers to more than 800 each month, and I’ve received such encouraging feedback from everyone. Let me pause for a moment to say thank you. The publishing industry says I need a lot more readers to sell a memoir, but my numbers are growing so I’m confident I’ll get there, and every little bit helps.

If I had known what this year would bring, maybe I wouldn’t have tried to off myself so many years ago. Then again, I’d have had to wait 24 years for 2010, and 17-year-olds are not patient. That day I couldn’t see brighter days. I couldn’t see how my life would get better, but it did. And I didn’t have to wait 24 years for that.

Had I known how the freedom and positive environment would affect me at college, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d finish my college career in Florida, I wouldn’t have done it. Had I known that I’d publish my first essay on the second try, I wouldn’t have done it. All those things were right around the corner for me back then.

My first writing job was doing obituaries at my hometown newspaper. Even though my position was the lowest of the low, I loved that job, and I was so proud that I wrote for the same newspaper that brought me the comics and Ann Landers since I was 6. One thing I learned from being the “Obitch” was that more people die during the holiday season than any other time of year. We didn’t know why. We just saw it happen year after year.

We didn’t get a lot of suicides at the obit desk, at least not that many obvious ones. But so many people get depressed during the holidays that it made us wonder. I used to think that people got depressed about the holidays and just gave up on living. The whole idea made me so sad. Maybe if they knew what was coming up for them, they would have held on.

The holidays used to depress me too. After my divorce, I spent six years as a single girl in Washington, D.C. – a place reputed to host three women for every man. I had a boyfriend during the holidays only once during that singlehood. But I started the plan to bring on better holidays back then. One year I spent 12 hours driving home for Christmas in the snow, and my parents tried to cheat me out of the New York pizza I’d been promised, and then handed me my Christmas present in a wadded-up grocery bag. (See “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for details.) I vowed never to spend Christmas with them again, and ever since I’ve chosen my Christmas “family,” without the fights, without the drama, and without the heartache that Christmas used to bring.

During those single days, I had one date for New Year’s Eve over a six-year span, yet somehow I always found someone to kiss at midnight. And every New Year’s Eve album has pictures of me dancing with a bottle or two of champagne in my hands well after midnight. I would have preferred to have had a date, but just being able to dress up and go out was enough for me.

And I spent the seventh New Year’s Eve with Matt, whom I’d started dating that August. We married three years later. He’d been divorced only nine months when we met, so if I’d met anyone sooner, I’d have missed out on the love of my life. Meeting him was a good foundation for my belief that everything happens for a reason.

The holidays are supposed to be celebrations. And they’re not celebrations unless you actually celebrate. They’re not about drama and they’re not necessarily about family. Spend them with the people you love and choose your holiday company wisely. If your real family doesn’t cut it for you, find people who do. You can always see your real family when there’s less drama and pressure. If the holidays depress you, figure out what you can change to make them better. Then do it. And never forget that you have no idea what might be around the corner. I wish you a very Happy New Year!

From Angry to Grateful in Just 30 Years

Have you ever had to describe yourself in one word? My single-word slugs have changed over the years. I remember having interviews when I was 22, and if they’d asked me, I’d have said “responsible,” but if I’d been really honest, it would have been “angry.” My anger had deep roots. It dated back to my 12th year, at least, when Sue and I started smoking cigarettes and pot after school. My anger sprouted from several seeds. My uncle first groped me when I was 11; my live-in grandmother got sick and my parents constantly argued about her care; and my newfound independence earned my father’s angry disapproval.

I stayed angry through high school and college. I was a self-destructive mess. I smoked; I drank; I used drugs. My first steps toward recovery came in college. I remember I’d lived at SUNY Albany for two months, and I realized I hadn’t had one argument during that time. I was accustomed to fighting with my parents on a daily basis. The realization that life was not a series of arguments hit me hard. Besides the lack of daily family clashes, once I got to college I realized that everyone did not live their lives on drugs. I had already spent all of my college money in high school, so in college I had none left for drugs. Just like that I stopped using cocaine. Every time I smoked pot in college, it would make me withdraw from the group, depressed. I realized I had never really liked the high, either. I just did it to escape. So I quit smoking pot. By Thanksgiving of my first semester, I had quit drugs, mellowed a bit and lost 17 pounds.

My second year of college found me depressed and detoured me back to my path of self-destruction. The previous semester, my roommate and I had quit smoking, but over the summer, I’d gone to Greece and smoked some cigarettes at a date’s insistence. That experience, plus the depression, made it easy to go back to smoking full-time. My depression persisted that semester, and I missed weeks of classes and begged my parents to come home. Over winter break, I campaigned to take a year off of school, but they sent me back. During the first few weeks of that semester, I continued my campaign and my father finally relented because he’d been able to sign me up for another school. I attended a few classes, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I stopped going and got a job selling pets. My father finally realized he couldn’t force me to go to school and I took that year off. I decided I might want to go to cooking school, so I got a job as a prep cook in a restaurant. Once I saw the hours and conditions under which chefs work, I decided against cooking school and signed up for community college.

I had a major manic episode during community college. It lasted for three weeks or two months, I don’t know. During it, I couldn’t keep track of hours or days or weeks. My parents denied that there was a problem, and only after my friends staged an intervention did they take me to a crisis center. I got some pills, slept for three days, and my parents figured I was cured.

After I graduated community college I chose my own school: The University of South Florida. USF fed my tropical soul and my need for control over my life. It was also far enough away that I could distance myself from home life. I got my psychology degree during the Bush Senior “recession”, went back to New York for a year, lived with my parents, and decided that I’d rather be in Florida, so I moved. Happy to be in the sunshine, I started working on myself. I saw a therapist for group and individual sessions and they legitimized my pain. I never felt entitled to my feelings. I’d been programmed to think that my home life was normal and I was crazy and overdramatic.

In therapy, I met some amazing people. My therapist was understanding and supportive and one woman in our group had suffered horrific child abuse. I had nothing on her and I felt my struggles were nothing compared to hers. She showed me compassion and upheld the notion that my difficulties were legitimate. Hearing about her hell and seeing that she still had so much love inspired me. During that time, I realized that working in the psych field was compromising my own sanity and I realized that I really wanted to write. I hadn’t considered writing because my last high school English teacher admonished us not to major in English. “You’ll never get a job!” was his constant refrain. (For the record, I’ve held five writing jobs over the years, and lots of freelance work.)

Once I decided I wanted to be a writer, I wrote about the “Mid-Twenties Crisis” – realizing that my degree had nothing to do with my desired career. I sent it to Cosmopolitan magazine for its “Life After College” special issue and they rejected it, but they hand-wrote a note that said “Interesting but not what we’re looking for.” I sent it to a smaller magazine and they published it. They didn’t pay me but they complimented me and showed me that I was good enough to be published. And the next Cosmo “Life After College” contained a story about the mid-twenties crisis, written by somebody else.

I would never have legitimized my desire to write without therapy. And I stayed in touch with the woman who showed that incredible compassion. I continued to work on myself. I kept going to therapy, eventually got diagnosed as bipolar, and added a psychiatrist and a 12-Step program to my regimen. You’re supposed to stay in 12-Step programs forever, and I didn’t, but I managed to maintain several of the principles in my life.

The 12-Step program gave me a huge gift. A program friend invited me to participate in a gratitude group. Every weekday, we’d send each other our lists of things we appreciate. Over the years, we’ve had some turnover, but the group keeps going. Composing the list forces us to think about what’s positive in our lives. Some are surprising, like when I felt the pain while I lost my mother. Some are mundane, like morning coffee. But the result of the exercise is the same. We force ourselves to focus on the positive and we find a way to see the good. And when we focus on the good, it’s much easier to get through struggles and find solutions to problems of any size.

This is my 12th year of practicing gratitude on a daily basis. Through the lists, we learn about each other’s struggles, triumphs and life’s mundanities. In the lists, we find strength, support and understanding. And if you asked me today to describe myself in one word, I’d say “Grateful.” I’m grateful that the anger I held for so long dissipated, that I have a wonderful family and the opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and friends who make my life complete. And since I’ve given up most of my anger and focused on the positive, so many great things have happened. I met and married the love of my life. I had two children, one a fertility long shot. I had the adventure of moving to the West Coast. I met my birth mother. I became a full-time writer.

Celebrating gratitude is the whole point of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims understood gratitude. They initiated Thanksgiving as a concrete way to practice gratitude, and we kept it up – once a year, whether we needed it or not. This holiday is the best marketing tool gratitude’s ever had. This year I’m wishing for more “Thanksgiving Creep” – marketing gratitude sooner and sooner during the year, starting on Black Friday. Maybe we can start a trend. The 12-Step programs say “Let it begin with me.” If we work on feeling grateful every day, good thoughts fill our hearts, leaving less room for the bad ones. I believe that if we focus on the positive, we can’t help but attract good things. It’s worth a shot, right? Really, what have we got to lose?