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Some Thoughts on Pain and Suffering (with love)

There are many stories I want to share about the surgery I had on July 27, but they aren't ready to be told. Among them though is this new, unexpected, sister story that I really do want to share. Now. Even though it may not be ready either.

It started a couple weeks after my surgery. Everything went well with the surgery and initially I felt great. Then my body (specifically my skin) moved ahead with its own agenda. 

I quickly developed wounds where my skin refused to cooperate. Two weeks ago I had a second procedure. My skin is stubborn. So now, this is how it goes once, usually twice each day: I work up the courage to change my dressings. I peel back the existing dressing on one side of my body. I peel back the existing dressing on the other side. I apply ointment to non-adhering transparent gauze and then place that gauze, ever so tenderly, over my wounds. I cover that with regular white gauze and adhere it to my body with surgical tape. Finally, I adhere a surgical pad over the gauze with more tape. I am very well padded.

There is wincing. And often tears. There is curiosity, wonder, doubt, fear, and occasionally regret.

I have restrictions. I cannot do the things I want or need to do and I've grown weary from asking other people to do them for me. I am walking a fine line between sustaining the strength I know I need to sustain to properly care for myself and withdrawing into my warm, cozy bed. Indefinitely. I cry a lot lately.

I miss the things I can't do now. The things that normally bring me comfort and joy. Bear hugs, bubble baths, and yoga to name a few. Believe it or not, I even miss my ability to do laundry - to carry heavy things.

And every single day I think about the other people. The people who have been doing something just like this for weeks, months or even years. For themselves or for someone they love dearly. I think about how those daily rituals affect these other people. I wonder how they keep going? If they keep going?

I often think about what goes on under our cleverly cloaked faces and bodies. The pain that resides beneath the surface is no stranger to me. I carry it frequently. I know anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and grief from all of it. It creeps up when I am not expecting it. I wonder who is in it with me - at the grocery store, at my son's soccer game, on Facebook. I know there are others. I feel for them.

And now I have a new understanding of another kind of pain that nobody can see. Wounds that are dressed and then dressed again for protection - and hiding. The wounds we don't discuss when we see friends around town. The wounds we carry all by ourselves. 

In these moments I think about the way we treat each other on this planet. I think about the ways we can be so quick to criticize one another. I think about the ways we so carelessly inflict pain on each other - with words, with our bodies, and with weapons. In our own homes, on the playground, in the board room, on the field, and all around town, we hurt each other. Often. It is usually on the defense. We want to protect ourselves from each other's choices, actions, and beliefs. We hope none of it is contagious. We don't want our kids to catch it. We lash out. And we have no clue about how the other person came to these choices, these actions, or these beliefs. And we don't even care. We lash out anyway.

These thoughts have been lurking in my head for days. I write to process things. These thoughts and this experience are things that need to be processed. I kinda don't want to process them though. They aren't easy for me to face. They are heavy. So why would I share them? Why today? Because this morning I woke up to learn that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. And I thought about all those people I know are out there suffering in silence and I wanted to tell them (you... us...) something...

You are not your experience. I am not mine. I am not my wounds, my pain, or my suffering and either are you. I don't care who you vote for or whether you vote at all. I don't care who you pray to or whether you pray at all. I don't care if you kneel before altars in churches or build your own altars on the beach or at home. I don't care if you use your when you mean you're. I don't care where you went to school, where you work, or where you live. I don't care what kind of car you drive or if you even drive at all. I don't care if you swear like a sailor or speak with the eloquence of the Dali Lama. I don't care if your body is covered in tattoos or moisturizer. None of that matters to me (although some of it is really interesting to me and I might want to talk more about it later... Without judgment.). The only thing I do care about is that you don't hurt yourself because of the stories - the lies - you've come to believe about your situation. And, I ask, please do not hurt others.

Ask for help, even if it is hard and you think you might have worn out your welcome.

I will too.

Sit with what you need to for as long as you need to, but please don't suffer alone in silence. It's not necessary.

I love you. God loves you. The Universe loves you. Mama Earth loves you. You are lovable and worthy of all the love you can imagine. It's true.

Heading to the doctor now... letting the tears flow. I'll be the one with the runny mascara. 


Be gentle with yourself. 
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. 
In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. 
- Max Ehrmann

an old favorite


Hope in the Holes

Looking Up

I was in eighth grade when I first considered suicide. I decided on pills. That is as far as I got. In the space between knowing without a doubt that the people in my life would be better off without me, and swallowing pills, I found the holes in my story. I saw hope in those holes.

There have been times since then when I have imagined dying. About four years ago, after my dad died and all the pain I had stuffed deep down inside came rushing out and over me, I wanted to disappear. I thought about how the people I love most in the world would go on without me. I knew they would be happier. They would have less to worry about. Their lives would be more peaceful. They could move on. I imagined being shot. Getting hit by a car. Having a heart attack on the treadmill. These were times where I felt hopeless. Helpless. I knew I had to snap out of it - suck it up and get on with my life, and I didn't know how to keep going.

Can you imagine being that desperate? In so much pain that I would even consider welcoming the possibility of leaving this behind?

My people.

It is an infinite amount of pain.

It is painful thinking about it now. I cannot even imagine being in such a dark place now, and yet I have been there. Sitting here in this moment, I am at a loss for words to describe my gratitude for the people I love. I am grateful for every second I spend with them. I know they love me. I know I am blessed. 

In my darkest moments, I still lose sight of the beauty that surrounds me. It is truly unimaginable now - when I am grateful and at peace - sitting in the sunshine. In the darkness, I feel lost. Hopeless. Helpless. Worthless. I lose faith.

There are numerous triggers - things that happen that can send me down a dark path. I run anxious and I always have. In an average day any of the seemingly small things that a person faces can stress me out. Things like social situations, having to make small talk, returning items to the store, driving in heavy traffic… Depending on what else is happening in my life, I might fall into depression.

Mostly, looking back over my life, my depression occurs when I believe I am falling short. It comes from the belief that I am not enough. It comes from my certainty that other people also believe that I am not enough. All the lists of the reasons that I am not enough compiled in my head are the impetus for shame. As I grew older, and especially since I've become a wife and a mother, there was guilt. There is always something to feel guilty about.

With a lot of soul searching and some anti-anxiety medication, with time and yoga and writing and art, with therapy and life coaching, and the support of my husband, I cleared space to come up for air. For the most part, anything that was ever a source of shame is now just a piece of me and my story. It has been rendered powerless. In retrospect it is usually an opportunity to transform into something meaningful. Something beautiful.

I try not to stuff the pain anymore. I don't like to let it fester. I sit with it. I feel it. I look for lessons in it. I thank it. I let it go.

None of this is easy for me. I am not always good at it. It is messy. It can be really ugly. The process of working through it though makes all the sweetness waiting on the other side even sweeter. The beauty is more beautiful. The glory is more glorious. I can appreciate all the goodness in a much richer way now that I allow myself to experience and move through the pain. I am grateful I can say I know what it's like on the other side of the pain. I am grateful for the courage and support required to look up, to move on and out of it.

I haven't solved anything. I'm not cured. Living and working through my depression is a process. Life is a process for me. It is a practice. With practice and knowledge and support, I get stronger. I bounce back more quickly. Things don't look quite as bleak as they used to. I have faith that there is something bigger than me at work in the world, and that I can be of service to that force. I know I am loved. I try to keep my blessings in focus - when I acknowledge those blessings it is harder to fall down the rabbit hole.

This, obviously, comes in the wake of the death of Robin Williams, another great talent gone too soon. He was one of my favorites. I'm taking this opportunity to share a bit of what I know to be true. That even when things look fine on the outside, it can be a facade. Behind the scenes there might be turmoil. 

This is a truth that more of us are coming to accept as we see past the misconception of neat packages, nice clothes, good hair, pretty faces, hot bodies, successful careers, power, money, big houses, and fast cars. Behind it all, we are just people doing the best we can. 

A lot of us are encouraging those who suffer with depression to seek help. I think that is sound counsel. And, I also invite each of us to be a little kinder to each other. To be more compassionate. To search for the beauty and the love and the sweetness in the bramble of the berry patch that is life. The good is in there and there is a lot of it - enough for everyone.

Suicide is not a selfish act. It can feel that way to those of us left behind. Suicide is a desperate act. Of course, it isn't something that can really be generalized. And yet, I feel confident in saying that a person who takes his or her own life is not doing it for selfish reasons. I believe suicide occurs when the victim thinks the world would be a better place without them.

It is an infinite amount of pain.

It us up to each of us to prove to one another that we are each here for a reason - to enjoy the uniqueness of one other and the beautiful experiences that life has to offer. The world is a better place because of us, not in spite of us. That is our challenge actually - to accept that it is better because of us, and to keep working to make it even better. And better. And better.

It would be fun if we did it together.


My sister is a social worker who works with Veterans at the VA Hospital in Ann, Arbor, Michigan. I asked her to share some of what she and her colleagues use as a safety plan for clients with suicidal ideation. While seeking professional help is the very best option for those who need it, I thought this might be of use too:

Very General Components for A Safety Plan

  1. These are the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that describe how I am experiencing...
  2. These are things I can do to feel better, or to distract myself from these thoughts…
  3. These are people I can talk to when I'm feeling down (make sure to have contact information handy)…
  4. These are the professionals I can reach out to… Include the National Suicide Prevention Line, and keep in mind that loved ones can call support lines for help too: 1-800-273-8255 (also include 911)
  5. What can I do to make my environment safe...
  6. How will you ensure you use this plan? (where will you keep it, etc.)

Consider signing it to seal the contract.


The Rest of the Story

My son Alexander turned 8 years-old today. I have told his birth story before. In short, my pregnancy was without incident. He came earth side fast, like he was on a mission. He was purple when he made his debut. He had severe meconium aspiration. My poor little buddy. 

He was rushed off to the NICU rather quickly after a very brief plop on my emptied belly. We hadn't even named him yet. We were leaning toward Henry. It all happened very fast. My husband Dan named Alexander in the NICU in a moment of knowing that our little guy needed name. Once Alexander was settled into the NICU I got to see him again. He seemed to be nestled in a forest of machinery. A nurse asked me if I wanted a priest to come and baptize him. His little life was in danger. It was awful. A few hours later Dan and I squished together like spoons in my hospital bed. Sobbing. 

Alexander was transferred to a different hospital as a candidate for ECMO - a heart and lung bypass procedure that might help his lungs to recover. My midwife discharged me several hours later so I could join him. Alexander was in a small plastic incubator when I saw him next. He was in a medically induced coma under a maze of tubes. We were instructed on the acceptable ways to touch him. On the top of his head and the bottom of his feet. I remember staring at his little body in utter disbelief. There were tubes everywhere. And needles. My heart was broken. 

In the end Alexander didn't need ECMO. Three days later he returned to the hospital where he was born. His new NICU bed was one with fewer contraptions and the first order of business, according to his new nurse, was to be held by his parents. We were elated. 10 days after Alexander's birth we welcomed him home.

Baby Alexander and his big brother James

What I haven't really talked about is what happened once we came home. Things must have looked pretty normal. We were a happy family - a young couple with a pre-school son and a newborn baby. Dan had missed a lot of work while Alexander was in the hospital. He had to jump right back into his job. I was at home with my two little guys. Life moved on. Two years later we welcomed a baby girl, Sophia, into our family. 

When I look back, I can't say I was unhappy. I loved my life. I'm not going to lie though, as anyone will tell you, it isn't easy being at home day after day with three small children. It is an emotionally and physically challenging undertaking - to grow people. No, I wasn't unhappy. I was numb.

I operated on auto pilot for another two years. I think I lived most of my life feeling more anxious than the average person. I didn't know I was "anxious" because that word wasn't even part of my vocabulary. I worried a lot, and mostly about things that would never happen. I felt things deeply as a child. I was told I was too sensitive, too nice, too quiet, too shy. I learned to adapt. I learned to hide my feelings. I learned to smile when people looked at me. It is amazing what one can hide behind a smile…

I felt incredibly lonely at times, usually in the midst of friends and family. When I felt uncomfortable - sad, angry, scared, and so on - I stuffed those feelings way down deep in my soul.

Next month it will be four years since I lost my dad. His death was a huge shock. It felt like everything I ever knew to be true came crumbling down around me. My dad's death was devastating, and what it stirred up inside me was painful too. Every little hurt I had ever buried, rose up and out of me. A miscarriage before Alexander was born, then Alexander's birth, and truly every bit of heartache that came before that. It all wanted to be healed.

My grief in the face of losing my dad gave me space to feel things I hadn't allowed myself to feel before. I couldn't stuff another hurt. I allowed myself to feel the pain of loss. It was really hard for me to feel AND to function in my daily life. I remembered a dear friend telling me about how she had started taking an anti-depressant. I'll never forget the way she looked at me as I told her some of my own stories about living with depression and anxiety (I had learned those words by that point). She said, "Anna, you don't have to live like that."

I come from a long line of Polish women. We are tough. We suck it up. When my dad died, I just couldn't suck it up anymore. I felt weak and tired and sad and I had no shame about any of it. I no longer felt the need to put on a happy face. I didn't care at all what anybody thought about any of it. I wasn't going to pretend that everything was okay. I marched right into my doctor's office and said, "I am sad and my husband can't sit here holding my hand anymore because he has to go to work. I have three little kids to take care of and my entire support system is grieving. I need help."

I started taking medication for my anxiety. At that point I didn't consider how it might impact me, I just wanted some relief. What I experienced was a newfound ability to be the me I always wanted to be - calm on the outside AND the inside. At last! My exterior reflected my interior. I wasn't faking it. I felt like a miracle was occurring within my very own body. 

I know I was very lucky and not all people have a positive experience like mine. I know that if they do have a positive outcome, it might come after a lot of trial and error. It can be a long, painful, confusing road. 

I am eternally grateful for my stroke of medicinal luck. Easing my anxiety about every little aspect of my life freed some space for me to dig deep into what needed to be healed with a therapist and in my own soul work. It may have even helped me to let go more and to reconnect with my creativity, which has been a very large part of my journey. Am I healed? I don't think it is that simple. For me, healing is a practice. Every day I try to do something that soothes my soul. I can't always get to it. The longer I go without it, the more likely I am to begin to feel anxious, and eventually depressed. 

So, no, I'm not suggesting that if you are feeling depressed, you should absolutely get medicated. Not at all. I share this story here because I believe that in this time of celebrities overdosing on drugs and non-celebrities overdosing too, I think it is more important than ever to understand two things about being human. 1) Things are not always as they appear; and 2) It is actually a sign of strength to ask for help. Asking for help is one of the strongest, bravest things a person can do.

Please ask for help if you need it. Ask for help even if you suspect you might need it.

I am off to get the birthday boy off the bus. One last thing before I go - the greatest gift I receive in allowing myself to really, truly feel my pain is the opportunity to also really, truly appreciate my joy. Celebrations are sweeter than ever before.

With so much love… xoxoxo