Sunday, January 31, 2016

Owning our bodies

Body image is something that I think about pretty often. A lot of my clients deal with body image issues or eating disorders. Women especially have a difficult relationship with their bodies. I can't say that I have always been confident in my body but I have made a concerted effort over the years to get to where I am.

A couple weeks ago I was sitting in church and I wasn't expecting to hear anything that would relate to body image but I did. Someone read a scripture, "Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me" (1 Ne 21:16). Some of you know that I am LDS or Mormon. This scripture is from the Book of Mormon. But whether you consider the Book of Mormon a book of scripture or not, the Bible also talks about how after Christ was resurrected, He still had the prints of the nails in His hands and feet. In fact, when Thomas doubted that Christ visited the other apostles, Jesus asked him, "Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing" (John 20:27).  I have heard these things many times but this time a different thought entered into my mind: "Don't be ashamed of your body. Your body tells your story." When we are resurrected, our bodies are supposed to be perfected but Christ chose to keep his scars. They are a symbol of His purpose and love. I realized that I don't need to resent anything on my body. My body tells about my purpose and my love. Why would I ever want to erase that?

There is a theory of therapy that focuses a lot on looking at problems as part of a client's story. One of my favorite researchers and authors, Brene Brown, talks a lot about owning our stories. One way we can own our stories is by owning our bodies. 

I'm 32-years-old now, so it is a very exciting time to be looking in the mirror. Each day holds the possibility of a new gray hair or wrinkle! I don't think anyone wants to age, especially if it is quicker than others. But I don't want to resent or resist that my life is happening and as a result my body is changing. 

Our bodies tell the first part of our story: our genetics. We look like our parents. How fast we age, how tall we are, what color of hair, skin, and eyes, are all in part determined by our genetics. My nose moves when I talk. My mom's nose does it too. I have this little extra fat under my chin. My husband and I would joke and call it "the Crandall double chin." I have no butt. It doesn't matter how much I run or do squats, this baby does not got back! All these characteristics show how I am connected to my family. 

Our bodies tell about the events in our lives. I have two scars on my face. They are really tiny but they are from when I had to get stitches. A lot of us may have scars from accidents or even from surgeries due to illness or injury. Many women have stretch marks from pregnancy. Many women have c-section scars. The scars we have from these events may play a small or big part in our story.

Our bodies tell about our emotions. I've noticed on my face that I'm developing smile wrinkles. Those wrinkles tell a story. The symbolize the happiness and laughter that I've experienced in life. I have wrinkles on my forehead. I have those because apparently I'm raising my eyebrows a lot! Well, I am a therapist...

Our bodies tell about how we cope with our emotions. I have been overweight and underweight. But whatever the weight was, usually it told something about my story. Sometimes it told that I was carefree. Other times it told that I was fearful of being unattractive. It told about my stress. It told about my perfectionism. It told about my effort to be physically fit. It told about my fear that my worth was determined by weight. It told about my self-acceptance. It told about my confidence or lack of confidence. It told about illness. And now it tells about my grief. 

Now, I don't think it is wrong if we want to change our appearance. But I don't think we don't need to feel so desperate to change our bodies. We don't need to feel ashamed of our bodies. If we don't like our bodies, then maybe the greater truth is that we don't like our story. And if we don't like our story, then we need to work on either self-acceptance or we can rewrite the ending. We become so preoccupied with how we look that we forget how miraculous our bodies are! During a therapy session, a client of mine shared that she had completed an athletic accomplishment. I thought it was awesome and I exclaimed, "Wow! You have an amazing body!" She was quite taken aback because we had previously discussed body image issues. I hadn't meant for my comment to be a intervention but I had to explain that whether she liked the way her body looked or not, her body did something amazing. 

It will be hard to exercise if we are doing it to have some ideal body type. But if we exercise because it feels good to feel our muscles move and stretch, we can truly enjoy our bodies. Too often we think of our bodies as something to be visually or sexually enjoyed by someone else. But what about you enjoying your body? What about enjoying a good dance off in your mirror? What about enjoying the wind rushing over your body as you make it down the slopes? Your body is the vessel of your soul. It is a gift for you to enjoy and a way for you to take in life. 

I love my body! Not because I think I'm some hot mama, but I love that I can walk and run. I love that I can wrestle with my children. I love that I can feel their little hands touch me. I love that I can express love in more than just words, that I can hug or kiss someone and feel a mind and body connection. Embracing my body helps me to embrace life and to own my story. So my hope is that we will stop focusing on the way we look and with a grateful heart enjoy our bodies. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

My new life

I haven't written in a while because I have been preoccupied establishing my new life. I've been applying to a PhD program. I've also been checking out daycares for the kids for when I start school. There is really a lot to think about when you lose a spouse, even after all the initial items of business are taken care of. Then, you need to start preparing for the life you want to lay ahead of you. Most of the time, taking these steps to set up my new life is exciting or at least emotionally neutral. I feel passionate about my work and I feel very excited about pursuing my doctorate.

When I went to look at daycares, I encountered some things I hadn't expected. The first thing I noticed was that at most of the daycares, all the children were white. Most of the staff was Hispanic or black. I seriously felt I had walked into the movie "The Help." I was glad that at least the staff was diverse but realized for the first time that my children might feel different. Maybe they won't notice at all. When Isaac was alive we attended a Spanish-speaking congregation for our church so we made a lot of friends that were Hispanic or were in interracial, bi-cultural marriages. I became accustomed to being in situations where there was more diversity. It was the first time I realized that my kids might feel different and would identify with being a minority and experience the emotional burden that comes with that. It felt heavy to think that Isaac won't be here to help them navigate that.

With all this busyness, I have been pretty distracted from grieving. Of course, I am constantly reminded of Isaac's death and think of him often but I realized that I wasn't grieving the same way I had been the month before. It is so strange to see how my grief changes with time. In that moment, I almost missed my grief. So I decided that I was just going to sit and grieve. And I do that sometimes. I'll just sit and listen to music and cry. Sometimes I journal. Sometimes I just think. Music really soothes my soul, so I try to either play the piano or guitar or listen to music when I want to sit in my feelings.

During my graduate program, the faulty really emphasized self-care. I'm trying to be vigilant about self-care. Sometimes that means going to the gym. Sometimes it means skipping the gym. In all the busyness I'm trying to prioritize eating. Ha! I never thought that would be a struggle for me! I've stopped cooking, which if you know me, is giving up one of my favorite things. Costco is my new chef. And although it's not quite as tasty, it makes my days more manageable so I can spend my time doing the things that are most important.  When I work, I take myself out to lunch. And I have a dear friend who I schedule a long lunch with a couple times a month. I find that giving myself this break and also connecting with my friend really helps me to have the energy and emotional capacity I need to have for my work.

With the kids, I've tried to make sure we eat breakfast together. They are very into pancakes, so we eat a lot of pancakes. Before Isaac died, I didn't always sit down with the kids to eat but it feels important for them to have a sense of unity and consistency. Maybe it's for me. Also, before Isaac died, we didn't have a super consistent bedtime routine. Now that I've been working more and sometimes later into the evening, I've really tried to make this time, their time. Wyatt is always asking to sleep in my bed, so I decided that it might be fun for them to do our bedtime activities on my bed. So we read stories, sing songs, say prayers, and brush teeth. They think it's the coolest. Sometimes they try to turn it into a wrestling match. I think establishing these times together has helped me feel connected to my kids even when I have to spend the day thinking about a million other things.

In some ways, I'm grateful for grief. It's not always easy to find space for it but it forces me to reflect on how I care for myself. My grief has also helped me to be better at holding boundaries. I can't rely on Isaac to reinforce my parenting, so I have to be fully committed to disciplining. I have to communicate more effectively the expectations I have for my children. So in some ways grief is making me a better parent, at least I think it is! I started seeing a therapist and that has been helpful as well. You don't really have expectations for grief because usually you don't "expect" to be grieving. But as I grieve, I find that things are working out much differently than I would have thought, which means that somewhere in my head I must of had some expectations of grief in general. I'm trying to accept that my grief doesn't have to look like that of others, and that if things aren't bad, it doesn't mean that something is going to blow up in my face.

Some other things that have really helped me in my grief is my friends. I have an amazing friend that calls me every week day. This has been so helpful. Sometimes we talk for a while. Sometimes it's 5 minutes. I have other great friends that invite me to dinner, or we go to Costco together. I've found it important to spend time with friends. I'm pretty extroverted but when Isaac was alive, I didn't really feel like I had to socialize because I could just socialize with him at home. My family has been helpful as they check-in on me often. Isaac's family has been great as well. I feel really lucky to have their support and love. They treat me like I'm their biological daughter. I think that seeing the bond that they share with my children also makes the loss of Isaac a little less heavy.

Although grief is heavy, I can't help but feel so grateful for all the people that help me carry this burden. It makes all the difference. Sometimes I wonder, "How am I not falling apart?" And the answer is that I have so many people helping me do this. And even though life is much different from what I expected and one of the worst things that can happen, did happen, I feel good. I feel like I'm still me. I'm developing this sense of peace and acceptance that God is in charge and I can trust Him. It feels good to have that message consistently reaffirmed to me. It's so hard to struggle and trust that God will deliver you or bless you when you need it because you always think you need it right now. God continues to bless me in unexpected ways, sometimes through His spirit and sometimes through the people in my life. I'm so grateful for my faith. I'm grateful for my mother who taught me how to develop faith. My relationship with God sustains me when I'm low. It is a humbling experience to let God bless you. I don't understand why I've been so blessed in my circumstances when others have had similar experiences and don't receive all the blessings that I have received. I know that blessings can't be deserved or not deserved; it's God's gift. I think that it's hard for me to comprehend that someone so mystic and all-powerful compels me to Him in such a personal way. And although I've been hearing that my whole life, it's different when I experience it.

Friday, January 8, 2016

When I'm not enough

I've been listening to the book "Rising Strong" by Brene Brown. She is brilliant! She is raw and she teaches me so much about what's really going on in my head and my heart. She helps me find the language to explain the emotions I experience. Her book is not on grief but as I listen to her book, I realize that some of my suffering with grief isn't even about the loss of Isaac. Some of it is about me.

I'm an overfunctioner. Yep, that's a thing. Apparently, Brene is too. So I'm among good company! :) Being an overfunctioner can be great. You receive a lot of praise, you get a lot done. But at the end of it all, you still aren't satisfied. Because if you aren't doing, then you are failing at over-functioning! Ha! One great thing about Isaac is that he would help me to see how ridiculous I can be at times. He would help me to see that even though there was merit to getting it all done, getting it all done wouldn't make me happy. I would never be able to get it all done and rest later because there would always be more to do. Before Isaac died, I felt like I was learning how to let go of my to-do list and be present. So when Isaac died, it made me so mad because now I need to function at a higher level. On one hand, it's good that I can do it. On the other hand, it perpetuates a behavior that can get unhealthy real fast.  People tell me, "You're so strong," or "If someone can do this, it is you." Sometimes I don't want to be strong. It makes me feel like hard things happen to me because I'm strong. I've since realized that I'm looking at it wrong. The truth is that if I wasn't strong, this still could of happened and I'd just be a mess. But I'm still not happy about it.

In her book, Brene talks about realizing that she is uncomfortable with her own need. As she talked about this I just started to cry. I realized how much I shame myself for needing. The other day, some friends had us to dinner. They were so sweet and had called my friend to see what I liked to eat. They got presents for the kids and me. I was so grateful but I felt so dumb because I hadn't even thought to bring them a treat for Christmas. As I listen to Brene's book, I realized that I didn't just feel dumb. I felt like a failure. While it's good to be polite and be thinking of others, I realized that it is hard for me to accept people's help or generosity without feeling the need to give back. I feel like I've been taught to do my part, always give. And while that's good, it's also not good. Because the truth is that somewhere deep inside me, I don't believe that people will love me if I don't give back. If I don't have time, or if I forget something, there is a part of me that feels that I have failed. That expectation is so unrealistic. And it leaves me feeling like I'm not enough, that if I'm not the giver, then I have no value in the relationship. And I'm more needy than I've ever been. This shame has probably made me judgmental of others when I thought they weren't giving enough or being polite. If I feel that I can be perfectly giving, then I probably expect that from others too. That's not fair. None of us are perfect.

After Brene had already had me crying about being needy, she decided to lay it on thick. It felt like she opened up this little door in my heart that I locked a long time ago, probably in high school. It was almost like she started opening the door and then said, "Rebecca, what's in here?" Then she said:

"...most girls raised in this state are taught the opposite of integration. We're raised to compartmentalize. We're raised to be tough and tender, but never at the same time...we're taught how to be tough and sweet. And, of equal importance, we're taught when to be tough and when to be sweet. And as we get older, the consequences of being tough and independent when you are supposed to be tender and helpless increase in severity...but as we get older, the consequences for being too assertive or too independent take on a darker nature: shame, ridicule, blame, and judgement...When that day comes, we start to get the message, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that it's best that we start focusing on staying thin, minding our manners, and not being so smart or not speaking out so much in class that we call attention to our intellect. This is a pivotal day for boys too. This is the moment when they're introduced to the white horse. Emotional stoicism and self-control are rewarded. Displays of emotion are punished. Vulnerability is now weakness. Anger becomes an acceptable substitute for fear, which is forbidden."

And that's when I realized how much shame I feel about who I am. I had never admitted that I was ashamed of myself because I don't do "bad" things. I don't commit crimes. I'm not mean. But I'm smart. I'm ambitious. I talk a lot. I have opinions and I don't hesitate to share them. I'm talented. And in subtle and not so subtle ways, I've been taught that these things were why I didn't marry at a younger age. In college, I wasn't skinny enough. I wasn't blonde enough. I wasn't sweet enough. My grades were too good. I was a teaching assistant for a very difficult writing course. And, I cared too much about getting married. I was supposed to move forward with my life, but not too much because "no man wants to be with a woman who is smarter or more ambitious than him." I learned that I had to have an answer ready to the question:  "Why don't you think you are married yet?" I learned that people would think there was something wrong with me the longer I stayed unmarried. And the worst part is that I started to doubt that I had real faith in God and His plan for me. I'm not sure that I ever doubted God. What really happened was that I felt shamed for being single. Being single seemed to send a signal to everyone else: "She isn't worthy of love. You should try to find out what's wrong with her." And you know what? That's bullshit! I'm callin' it. A person's marital status does not determine his or her worth. All the best things about me, the things that make me love myself, the parts of myself I enjoy, were made out to be the very things that made me unlovable. How awful! And that saddest part is that this didn't just happen to me. This happens to a lot of women, and men!

This new knowledge of the shame I feel, helped me to realize why I felt angry that Isaac's death left me alone. Because once I realized that his death made me single, I feared the shame. I feared the way people would judge me if I never remarried, or if I remarried too soon. It didn't matter that I wasn't rejected in a divorce (the shame from that would probably be even worse). I knew that single=shame. And I never wanted to feel that as intensely as I did before. But now that I know what it is, I don't have to accept it. And I'm done with being the person everyone else wants me to be. I'm going to talk because I have ideas to share. And I'm going to be ambitious because I have things to do. And I'm going to be tough and tender. And I'm going to be spiritual and inappropriate at times. And I'm going to be a good homemaker and a good worker. And I'm going to trust God and know that I am worthy of love for all the parts of me.

Maybe that is why I enjoyed my marriage so much. Isaac gave me permission to be me. He didn't shame me for being smart or talented. He never shamed my body. He loved all of me. The truth is that I didn't have to wait for Isaac to love all of me so that I could love all of me. Grief has broken my heart open, and now I can see all the scar tissue, anger, hurt, and resentment. With God, I'm going to heal all the parts of my heart. Not just the part that misses Isaac. I have people to forgive, things to let go of, and parts to reclaim. These are the things that will make my heart whole. I almost wrote "whole again," but that would be a lie. My marriage made my heart full. It will take a lifetime, and maybe more, before anyone of us could be perfectly wholehearted. But I will never get there if I won't look at all the places in my heart.

"Integration is the soul of rising strong. We have to be whole to be whole hearted. To embrace and love who we are we have to reclaim and reconnect with the parts of ourselves we have orphaned over the years."-Brene Brown

Before I finish this post, I want to share a few bits of advice on how to interact with single people:

  • Never ask, "Why do you think you aren't married?" You are implying that there is something more wrong with them than with you or any other married person. Think about it. You know plenty of screwed-up married people so this question inaccurately blames the single person as though something makes them unlovable.
  • Value a single person for the individual he or she is. You should do the same to married persons.
  • A single person has the right to long for a romantic relationship without being accused of being or acting desperate. Single people aren't stupid. Just because they haven't been married doesn't mean that they don't sense the connection, companionship, and sexual intimacy that they are missing out on. So don't make them feel silly or desperate for wanting that.
  • Don't assume that the single person has an addiction, problem, or personality trait keeping them from marriage. The truth is that a lot of married persons have these problems too. Single people are the same as married people. The are just pre-married people.
  • Realize that your discomfort with a person's marital status is your problem. Families might need to grieve. You may have expected to had grandkids by now. You may have expected to raise babies with your sister or best friend. Most likely, your single friend has already grieved the loss of these expected shared experiences, but you have probably failed to recognize your own need to grieve that these things haven't happened and may never happen in the way you had hoped.
  • If you are close to a single person, ask him or her how you can support them. Some may feel like a third wheel, and others might want to be included. Some might want you to set them up on dates, some might not. Some may want to talk about their dating life. Ask the individual so you can know what is helpful and not helpful.
If you've done these things, don't worry, we all have. As a society we've bought in to these beliefs. I've been guilty of some of these behaviors too. But we can stop doing this now. We can start treating every person as an individual worthy of love and belonging. All of us at times feel like we aren't enough, and it is the worst feeling in all the world. Let's not perpetuate that when we can do better.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Bitter in Bittersweet

So, I know you might be wondering, "What's it like to be a widow?" Well, let me tell you. Sometimes it's fine. Sometimes it's good. And sometimes it downright sucks. It's fine because I'm doing what I normally do. I take care of my kids, I go to work, I go to the grocery store, etc. It's good because my children say the cutest things and make life so magical. And it sucks because I'm lonely, and I'm doing everything alone and deciding everything alone, and I never wanted this. And I realize that was a run-on sentence, but that's what my life has come to!

The other day my friend called to chat and like any concerned girlfriend, she asked, "Okay, so I've got to ask. How are you doing on the whole no sex thing?" I laughed and responded, "You know what? Thank you for asking!" Obviously, I don't want everyone asking me about something so intimate, but she is my best friend so I didn't mind. It was nice to have someone acknowledge that there are so many different parts to my grief. And sex is one of them. It was actually one of the first things I started to miss. I thought it was strange at first but then I realized that it made perfect sense. That was when I felt closest to Isaac. That is the one thing that we shared that was never shared with anyone else. It is hard to lose the person who is your truest, closest friend, and lover. No relationship comes close. I have to live with going 100 to zero. No one can just step in and make it better. And, I think that's why we call it "loss." We can't get it back. It can't be fixed. Now, that doesn't mean that I can't be happy or that it doesn't get better. It doesn't mean that I won't love again or that I won't have other meaningful relationships. But it does mean that I have to make room for this ominous feeling.

A couple months ago I was talking with my church leader who also happens to be a marriage and family therapist. We talked about the difference between grief and depression. I think that often people think that if you really loved someone, that you should be depressed. Grief can be a trigger for depression, but you don't have to struggle to function to experience grief. Now, that's not to say that functioning at times can't be difficult. For a lot of people it can be. My church leader made the comment that some people run hot and some people run cold. He stated that I seem like someone who runs hot and that I was probably not at risk for depression. I was more likely at risk to be anxious and have panic attacks. So I've been trying to monitor that and be aware of my anxiety. And, I definitely feel anxious at times. I try to use a lot of the coping skills that I've learned as a therapist. It helps a lot. But just because I'm a therapist and I know what is going on, doesn't mean that I can avoid the pain or the feelings that I experience. I sometimes find my mind racing with all sorts of thoughts. Sometimes I get caught up in problem solving mode. Other times I realize what's going on and I remind myself that the thoughts and worry are just my brain trying to fix this. And, I like to fix things. I'm not one to sit around and wait for things to happen. I'm a go-getter, but you can't go get healing. Grief doesn't have a finish line. It doesn't work like that. So methods that have worked great in other areas of my life won't work with grief. I have to learn to sit with the unknown and wait for grief to come to me.

Sometimes the waves of grief come at unexpected times. Sometimes something will trigger a memory of Isaac and the loss feels like a sharp knife. Sometimes it feels like a actual ache in my heart, not like the ache of a heart palpitation or when you think you are having a heart attack. Sometimes my heart physically feels like it is hollow. Sometimes I lose my appetite, but I still eat anyway (cause if you know me, you know I love food). Sometimes I feel so exhausted that I can't even cry because I don't know how to create the space I need to let it all out. Sometimes I re-experience some shock symptoms, especially when I have to deal with things pertaining to the automobile accident.

Sometimes I'm happy when I expected to be sad. And sometimes I can cry one minute and laugh the next. Sometimes I can remember things about Isaac and not feel sad at all. Sometimes I can feel confident and full of hope and faith. And other times, I'm full of fear and longing. Sometimes I'm angry and super pissed to be alone. And sometimes I'm tired because I'm trying to stand up as huge waves of emotion wash over me day after day in addition to the normal things I do. So I'm trying to simplify my life to make space for the grief that rolls in when it pleases.

It's a lot. And I don't share these things because I want you to feel sorry for me. I share this because I know that a lot of my family and friends really want to know what I'm experiencing and this is a way for them to grieve with me. And it helps me. Sharing these things helps me give space to process what I am experiencing. It helps to be able to talk about my grief and know that others care to listen. Because I'm not really looking for advice. I really just want someone to sit with me in this vulnerable and unfamiliar place.

I want to take some time here to talk about what I think is helpful to a grieving person. What is helpful to me might not be what another grieving person needs, but I think it's a place to start if you are trying to support someone who is grieving. First, a grieving person wants you to ask. You can ask something as simple as a genuine, "How are you doing?" Now, I'm a pretty open person so if I feel the need to talk about my grief, I will seize that moment to tell you. And if I don't feel like talking about it, I won't. Others might not be so open. So politely ask how they are doing and let them know that you don't want them to feel obligated to talk about their grief but that you would love to be listening ear if that's what they need. Second, advice can be annoying. Not all advice is annoying so this is tricky. I would say that you probably need to think about how well you know the person who is grieving. If you know them well, not much will be annoying. But when people who I don't know me well are telling me what I should do or how Isaac or God feels, it can be annoying. Not all the time, but sometimes. Sorry to be vague there, but that's the way it is. Now, I don't get offended easily, so don't worry, I'm not thinking anything about you if you did do this but at the time I was probably thinking, "Okay, stop talking. I don't care." Third, check in. I have a friend that calls me almost everyday. We don't talk about my grief most of the time but having someone be there to talk to each day about the little things really helps. Fourth, don't fear my grief. If my sadness or pain make you feel uncomfortable, that makes me feel like you don't accept the human parts of me. So if you have trouble tolerating sadness or pain, you need to figure out why. Your loved one needs you to listen and sit there calmly. And when you can't be there, it makes your loved one feel like they need to feel better to be loved or accepted by you. I also think that it will prolong grief and depression because when you can't be tolerant of their grief, they will move deeper into their grief. Validate their grief. Be there. Fifth, don't just offer to be there, show up. It means a lot to me when people don't half-heartedly ask me to do things. When they make specific plans, or ask me if I need specific things, that is helpful. The other day a friend asked if I needed help with the snow. I happened to be out of town, but it meant a lot that he recognized that I might have a very specific need at the time. Although, I know my friends are happy to help when I ask, moments like these help me to really know that I can ask for help and my friends will be there.

Now, I realize that this was a heavy post. I'm so very grateful for everyone's support and prayers. I don't want you to be worried about me after I've shared with you that I experience difficult emotions. Sometimes I feel like when I share my sadness, everyone starts to worry. I need you to know that this is a part of me. And it doesn't mean that I'm slipping into a depression or that I'm not doing well. I'm just letting you see that I am a whole person. And that means I experience ups and downs. And the truth is that most of you didn't know much about my downs before now. I want to be authentic about my grief. My grief isn't just spiritual epiphanies, growing closer to God, and remembering good things about Isaac. There are some really tough, ugly, gut wrenching parts to grief. I would be doing a disservice to anyone else who experiences grief if I left out the hard parts. I hope to show you that my life is a bittersweet combination of both loss and love, and that where there is a lot of pain, tears, and struggle, there is also a lot of laughter, singing, and dancing.