food is not love ( or: Hail keystone party mix, full of carbs…)

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I’m working a lot of days this week. 6 out of 7 days. Which when you work 12-13 hour days, is a lot. For me and for my kids and husband. #UrgentCareLife.

I needed to prepare for this by making freezer meals for both this hellish week and then the week after since I’d have no time to make *those* meals as I normally would the week before. Because I’m working 6 out of 7 days this week. Did I mention I’m working 6 out of 7 days this week? It’s kind of awful.

I was making a new recipe for the freezer. One I had never attempted before: chicken cacciatore. As it was simmering, I thought of my childhood, of my grandmother’s house. She used to make chicken cacciatore. She wasn’t Italian; she was a farm wife whose people had come from Scotland and England like the people of Appalachia tended to have done. She always cooked from scratch. Three meals a day. No sandwiches for lunch. It was boiled potatoes and pork chops and sliced tomatoes and fruit and… Something was always cooking, the scents hanging in the house when you walked in the door. She wasn’t much into baking so when we would walk the mile down the road to her house on hot summer days to go swimming in her pool, she would bring us Keebler Soft Batch chocolate chip cookies as a snack. Something we did not get at home. Something we absolutely loved.

I thought back on the chicken cacciatore she made as I watched mine coming along. I felt my heart warming to think mine was turning out as well as hers. And then I thought, my Grandma never seemed to love me. I mean, I’m just being brutally honest here. It sounds awful, but I come from a dysfunctional family where I just had no emotionally intimate connection with anyone. It astounded me when I grew up and found out how other people felt about their grandparents, the close bond they shared. Not so with me and mine. I had just assumed that’s what a grandchild-grandparent relationship was *supposed* to be like. Turns out I was wrong.

So, why was the chicken and peppers boiling away in our cast iron skillet making me feel all soft and gooey?

I thought back on my grandmother’s chicken cacciatore and my mother’s snickerdoodle cookies. The peanut butter bread my mother made for us with raisins that made a smiley mouth and two mini marshmallows for eyes. The trips to McDonalds with my mom when my sisters were at school, just me and her. I told myself that food was her way of showing love. But it wasn’t. It was the desperate attempt of a little girl to believe her mother loved her in a way she definitely did not. Children are completely dependent on their parents for their very lives. They have to believe in them, in their love. And so I found a way.

What I didn’t realize until that moment in the kitchen next to the hot stove with the chicken cacciatore wafting into my pores, is that it wasn’t love at all. It was just food. And for all these 37 years I’ve been alive, I have comforted myself with food because, to me, it is love. Not a symbol of love, not a sign. It is literally love. When you’re upset, you should be able to go to your mother to be comforted. I never could. But I could eat chocolate. I could pour my sadness out to Little Debbie cakes and my anger into Doritos.

If your parents don’t comfort you when you’re young, you never learn to comfort yourself. Not in a healthy way, anyway.

For me, food has been my answer to sadness, worry, uncertainty, joy, anger, boredom, frustration. It’s been my self care and entertainment. It has been my secret, my rebellion, my hiding place, my distraction.

I remember being 10 years old in 4th grade and we had to all cross the road to the YMCA and take swimming lessons. I felt horrible about my body. I thought my thighs were just massive. I couldn’t stand the thought of being seen in a bathing suit. I’d never been made fun of. But the idea was there because of what I heard discussed at home as well as the messages we get in our culture. I began looking for excuses not to participate. I would forget my clothes on purpose. Say I wasn’t feeling well.

There was a vending machine at the Y that we were forbidden to use (this is in the days before there were vending machines in schools). I used to try to be the first one out of the locker room after class so I could quickly deposit my quarters to get a snack size bag of Keystone Party Mix. A compilation of pretzels, cheese covered tortilla chips, barbecue corn chips and cheese doodles. I would hide it away in my bag and save it for later. I would take it back to my bedroom and eat it in secret.

My parents found out I was missing swimming class and sat me down and asked me why. Was someone picking on me? No, I answered honestly. But I knew I couldn’t tell them why I was really skipping class. An unwritten, unspoken rule of the family. Don’t have negative emotions. Don’t expose your vulnerability or they will pounce. Everything. Is. Fine. And so I said what I was supposed to. Made up some unbelievable excuse which they readily believed. Everything. Is. Fine. After all.

My Keystone Party Mix comforted me. My Keystone Party Mix was the secret I kept from them. It was mine and mine alone. A protective wall. The more they know about you, the more they will hurt you. Reveal as little as possible. Protect yourself.

Hail Keystone Party Mix, full of carbs, … protect us, Mother.

That was the beginning of it. This is the end.

I know I deserve more now. I deserve love. And food is not love. I am finally able to eat healthily and be happy. I am able to comfort myself without turning to cake. I can get angry with my husband and not stop off at McDonald’s on my way to work for a Sausage McMuffin. I can make it through a boring, frustrating day at work without noshing on candy all day. I can stop after a handful of chips or a single brownie, because I am not empty and searching. I hope I am giving this to my children too. The ability to sit with the hardships of life, to turn to people who love and support them, to know they’re worth more.

I do cook for my family because I love them. I work urgent care for them and clean for them and kiss boo boos too. But I do not offer food as a substitute for love and compassion, emotional validation and open, safe, discussions. Sometimes our family *isn’t* fine. Sometimes we’re a wreck. No, like, a flaming tire fire kind of wreck. And that’s okay. It’s life. It is what it is. We all have permission to feel whatever it is we’re feeling at that moment. We’re allowed to have boundaries. I hope they like my cooking and the birthday cakes I make them, but I hope that’s the least of what I mean to them. They deserve more.

 

I have slept in the bed with evil

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I am wearing all black today. I am in mourning. I am not going to make a joke about my goth days in high school. I am not going to compare the title of this post to that awful made-for-TV movie from the nineties starring Tori Spelling, “Mother May I Sleep with Danger.” This is no joke. This is not a nightmare we will wake up from tomorrow, a bipolar fugue we will not remember when it ends and we find ourselves far from home. It may be the 1930s.

I do not use the word evil lightly. A lot of people have referred to Hillary Clinton as evil in this election cycle. I am as big a critic of Bill Clinton’s policy and Hillary’s record on free trade, her foreign policy, and her “super predator” comments as anyone. But she’s hardly evil.

For four months, I slept in the bed of a man who can rightly be called evil. A man who loved raping and torturing little girls above all else, who admired Hitler, who raped me again and again and again and threatened to kill my children. A man who disturbed even the seasoned federal judge and the FBI agent who were involved in his case. He was a medical student on his way to becoming a doctor. Nobody suspected. None of us even knew such evil existed as it all came out, certainly not that our fellow medical student possessed the evil.

Trauma changes you. It changes your relationship with yourself, with your family and friends, with God, with the world itself and every person you encounter day by day. They say the fundamental experience of trauma is the feeling you have been abandoned. By the people you love, by the ones who were supposed to protect you, and by God himself.

My Ordeal changed me in so many ways but one of the worst was the knowledge of just what evil exists in our world. Evil I did not know existed. And I had not lived a sheltered life to that point. I was not naïve. And yet I was. My fear now is that we as a country are being naïve. Despite our very violent history.

We cannot underestimate the possibilities of this new world. We cannot afford to be naïve. I do not know what will happen but I know it could be very, very bad.

A few years ago we were at a festival at a place called City Island in Harrisburg. Our three sons went off on their own while my husband and Princess (still a baby) and I stayed and chatted with some friends. Eventually two of our sons came back, but not the third. Our legally blind, autistic son was not with them. They told us they’d had some kind of fight with him and decided to leave him. They were too young to know not to do this. Too naive.

My husband and I split up to cover the island looking for him. And as I looked in booths and the dense woods that framed the island, pushing Princess in the stroller, terror went through my body. My mind went to Jeremy. To the people he talked to on the internet who also loved raping and torturing children. Who sent him images of their horrific acts, recorded in stills and movies. The ones presented at trial that took any remaining innocence from anyone in that courtroom. I cried as I looked. I pictured what might happen to him. Things that are worse and more common than we allow ourselves to believe. I didn’t want to scare Princess, but I could not hold back the tears. My husband found him and I ran up to him, shaking and crying and finding it hard to bring the oxygen into my lungs.

I do not know how so many people at Penn State stood by while little boys were raped and did little or nothing. I will never comprehend that. The coaches, the janitor, Mike McQuery whatever the hell he was. I could have been killed. My children could have been killed. I laid down my body. I laid down my mind. I lost seven years of my life to PTSD. So did my children and husband, lost seven years of me being truly present in our lives. I have no regrets and never have. Not for a second. But I know the men of Penn State are much more common than people like me. And this election confirms it.

Evil can flourish, slowly, insidiously. I see friends who loved Bernie so much now so glad they voted Trump. I can see the mainstream Republicans now falling in line or being eliminated (we’re assured by Trump’s people the are making “a list” of “his enemies”). I can see the inevitable persecution of journalists and violent crackdown on peaceful protests. Hate crimes and sexual assault rates rising (if you don’t believe me, look at what happened in the aftermath of Brexit). Muslims forced to wear badges identifying them (yes, Trump said this).

You think I exaggerate. You think this couldn’t be the 1930s. And I hope you’re right. But I know in my bones you probably aren’t.

God bless and protect the Union.

 

Lemons and sugar in the snow

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My husband and I are trying to get out and meet new people, to try to make some friends. “We’re putting ourselves out there,” I said to him as we discussed it the other night, “so to speak. It’s kind of like dating. We’re trying to find another couple to be besties with so we have to be more social and put some feelers out.” He looked a little annoyed, or maybe mildly disgusted. Sort of like the face you make when your stomach is slightly off and you’re trying to figure out if it’s going to pass or if it’s the beginning of a full on GI issue.

I took the first step for us (just as I did back when we first met) and found a get together for us with other 30-something couples with kids at a nearby pub. It’s other Catholic couples so I figured I could pique my hubs’ interest with it and I was right (this is, in fact, even more complicated than dating as it turns out. It’s like I’m a matchmaker *and* I’m dating. This analogy is getting a little cumbersome). I checked with our babysitter and she was free the night of the cas’ soiree so I entered it onto our family scheduling app and we were all set (It wasn’t actually that simple because nothing in our chaotic life is that simple, but we’ll leave it at that).

A few days later, we were driving home from our Saturday evening marital therapy appointment where we’d spent an hour making a family genogram (don’t ask), and my mind began to wander as my hubs drove the minivan down 376 as Soldier Boy made explosion noises behind me and the Baby tried to decide if he was going to cry or fall asleep. I started thinking about what I would wear when we went out to the pub in a couple weeks. I’ve been losing weight lately and I thought of the clothes I haven’t worn in a while that will now fit. I mentally assembled an outfit from med school and paired it with a pair of boots I recently bought. I pictured my hubs and I alone in my car (not the damn minivan, thank you very much) heading out and what nice compliment he might pay me. And then I thought of what I might say to him.

“Do you remember this outfit? Remember the last time I wore it?”

The answer is not our honeymoon or our first date or anything other such romantic thing. The answer is actually that I bought this outfit at the Millcreek Mall in February of 2011 while we were in Erie for the trial of Jeremy Noyes. The man who put me through my Ordeal.

I did not think of this moment, of telling him this, with sadness or anger. I actually thought of it with a slight small on my face.

Jeremy’s trial started on February 14th. It was my hubs Eric and my first Valentine’s Day as a couple. We spent the week up in cold snowy Erie. Jeremy had fired his attorney and chosen to represent himself. He subpoenaed me to testify. I’m not sure which is worse: having to be questioned by your rapist in federal court, or all the time before it that you spend imagining what it will be like. We spent the whole week in Erie, waiting for it to be my turn to testify. Eric was allowed to sit in on the trial but I was not since it could affect my testimony when I was called to the stand later on.

I only packed one suit but I thought I might need a second if my testimony took more than one day. So, as Eric sat taking in images and words at that trial no person would ever want to, evil hard to imagine, I went to the mall. I bought more than I needed, more than I should have. I bought a really, really pretty top. A flowy translucent top with corals and browns and turquoisie blues in a muted floral design like the impressionists, Manet and Monet and all that. It was so pretty. The trial was so ugly. So I bought it even though I was broke. I’m not sorry I did.

We stayed at a nice hotel that the government said they would reimburse us for. We went down to the nice restaurant in the nice hotel one night. I don’t remember which night. The night before I testified? The night after? The night in between? (I was right, it was two days of testimony so I really *did* need that second suit. Not everything else, but, the suit yes)

I don’t remember which night it was but I remember getting ready to go downstairs and making him laugh. I remember sitting there in that nice restaurant in that nice hotel in that pretty flowy top eating a lovely meal with my lovely fiancé. I remember he ordered us dessert and we shared it with two forks and it tasted better than I thought food could. I remember laughing. I remember his eyes. His mouth when the corners turned up. We were still there. In Erie. At a horrible stomach turning trial of a sociopath child predator. We were still there, but for a night, it was a little less. A little less there. There, but better.

And so, almost six years later, when I sat in the mocha colored minivan, a wedding and two kids and a hell of a lot else later, I thought of wearing that top again with the corners of my mouth turned up. It didn’t make me think of my trauma or sitting in that courtroom as Jeremy said the worst things imaginable to me. It made me think of that night. Of that respite, of the soft lighting and the attentive waiter and the clean linen table cloth on the little round table we sat at together. It made me think of all the years and all the hell he’s stood by me through. Of this most unusual life we’ve had together. Of the sweetness that comes with the bitters.

We had watched a documentary about a Holocaust survivor the night before. Made by a man Eric had made films with in another life. And the survivor in the movie told a story of starvation, of being moved from camp to camp. And on one train ride they all looked so malnourished these village women threw food onto the train, whatever they had with them from the market. And so, they had things like flour and sugar and lemons. And at one stop, a man got snow off the ground and brought it on and they made lemon ice with the lemons and sugar. The survivor in the movie said how much he loved lemon ice for the rest of his life. How could that be, I’d asked my husband. Eric had made a lot of films with survivors and he said, yes, he’d heard that many times before. He said, the lemon ice was the first thing he’d eaten after starving for so long, why wouldn’t he love it now? I said, “I guess if I was more like him I could take fish oil capsules.” But I can’t.

Jeremy made me take fish oil capsules. I can’t take them now. I can’t even take vitamins. The body remembers. The esophagus remembers. Remembers the other things he forced down my throat, remembers not breathing, not knowing if he would ever let me breathe again. Eric says I should try to overcome my aversion to fish oil and I say, No. I have overcome a fuck of a lot in the past eight years. I’m just gonna take fish oil as a loss. I’m gonna pass on conquering that one.

But sitting in that mocha minivan, I see the fish oil capsules are not my lemon ice. The flowy top is my lemon ice. I see now how he could love lemon ice. The joy and the beauty and the bodily memory of quite a different kind.

Life is not simple. Is not, yes or no. Good or evil. Would that Eric and I hadn’t spent our first Valentine’s Day together in gray snowy Erie at the trial of a madman. But there was beauty there too. There were lemons and sugar in that snow too. There too.

Thank you for contacting the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section. This message acknowledges the receipt of your email

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97b4387e5e4c8cb774f98aee73ea273d

Eight years ago, in the hot sticky month of June, I called the FBI field office in Pittsburgh to turn in a fellow medical student for trafficking a child. A three year old little girl, specifically. They never returned my call. So, I sat and typed it all out and emailed it to them on their website. I didn’t think I’d ever hear from them. So, I copy and pasted it onto an anonymous blog I was keeping at the time. I didn’t think he’d ever go to prison. And I thought he would probably kill me as he’d promised to do if ever I turned him in. No one in my life knew what had been going on for months. My ordeal. So I pasted it to my anonymous blog. Because you need to speak, no matter what. Because I needed to believe somewhere someone would read it and know my truth. And maybe if I died, the truth at least had a chance of coming out.

He went to prison. He’s in prison for 45 years now. In Arizona. I track him online on this federal prisons website where you can look up any prisoner by name (who knew such a thing existed? Funny how life goes). My victim advocate from the FBI, Bridget, has long since released me from her care, although I wasn’t clear on what she did anyway. When the judge sentenced him, sentenced Jeremy, Jeremy Noyes, he said Jeremy was one of the worst sadistic criminals he’d ever seen. You should be grateful, dear reader, you weren’t at his trial when they showed the images he had on his computer. You would never be the same again. You cannot imagine the evil men are capable of. Men that are medical students, future doctors. I was there. I was there in that beautiful courthouse with its arches and mezzanine (or was it a balcony? It was beautiful either way) when my rapist called me to the stand to question me (did I mention he fired his lawyer and represented himself? That I got the unique experience of being cross examined by my rapist?). There I sat in federal court in Erie, Pennsylvania. Just me and my rapist. And 12 jurors. And the press. And several lawyers. And all the people who just came to watch.

My school was not kind to me for turning this man in. And so, after all these years, I have finally found the courage and the energy to once again email the federal government. I’m once again afraid nothing will happen, so here I am on a blog. Once again. But this time it is not anonymous. I am not ashamed anymore. I am proud. I am a goddamned hero.

The demons they won’t fight

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When I was fifteen, I met a wonderful, intense, intelligent. creative, amazing, intoxicating group of boys who made me feel so alive. They swore and smoked cigarettes and drank beer and smoked pot out of a Coke can bowl. They were nothing like me. I was a quiet, shy girl who’d never sworn or done anything else good girls aren’t supposed to.

I spent the next three years with them, going on adventures always exciting and sometimes terrifying. They introduced me to William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac and E.E. Cummings. To grunge and industrial and Irvine Welsh and surrealist art. We were so intensely alive. In love. All of us.

They also did a lot of drugs during these years. I did not. I started to swear, I’ll admit, but I wasn’t into drugs. I was the permanent designated driver for three years straight. I was into political activism and applying to college and various other positive activities they thought were a waste of time. They started out with just pot and beer. They made fun of stoners and burnouts. Kids who did heroin and crack and too much acid. But by the end of high school, they were the kids doing crack and meth and tripping on shrooms.

One didn’t graduate. Another dropped out of college the third day. Another dropped out a year or two later. They all descended into more and more drugs and alcoholism. I would see the poetry and genius in them every now and then but it became less and less common. I knew they were in there somewhere. Somewhere. Deep inside.

I wanted to help them. Wanted to save them. I tried. They knew they needed to change and they would try every now and then to quit. They would try giving up beer and just drinking liquor. Giving up pot and just drinking. Giving up alcohol and just smoking pot. Giving up cocaine and just taking pills. It never worked.

I felt bad for them. I knew there was a sadness in them so deep and so wide. They were trying to fill it with drugs. I wanted to save them from that darkness. They were capable of so much. I loved them so much. But it wasn’t enough.

I realized one day that they loved drugs more than they loved me. More than they loved each other. Maybe it was the night they let one of their friends die from an overdose rather than dump him at the ER because they were afraid of getting caught and I was the only one who seemed to care. Maybe it was no special day in particular. I looked at them and knew. Knew they loved drugs more and it was time to let them go. As much as I loved them, they didn’t really love me anymore. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved and all that. It was time to let go.

People criticized me for it. Said I should have helped them more. How could I abandon my poor lost friends like that. And I’ll admit it made me sad at the time. But I never regretted doing it. Never regretted saving myself. Never doubted the fact that they would never change.

A time like this comes to all the relationships we end in life. The day you figure out the person you love, loves something or someone else more than they love you and that’s not all right. You stop asking, do they love me or not? They do, but not enough. They do not love you more than their dysfunction, the demons they won’t fight.

When you let them go and with them your guilt, you are light. You are free. You have fought the good fight and given them your best. And now you are free. For better things.

That choice is gone (or, This is hell. get walking)

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Mental illness kills.

It kills with heroin overdoses and self-inflicted gunshot wounds and anorexia induced cardiomyopathy and obesity induced sleep apnea and girls who take risks they shouldn’t with dangerous boys.

And when it does, there are usually kids left behind. And that is the worst tragedy.

When I was a resident, we would admit patients overnight who had failed at killing themselves with drugs. We needed to make sure they were medically stable before being sent to inpatient psych. The ER  had saved them but we were the ones to run fluids and monitor them and fill out the paperwork once the psychiatric hospital was ready for them.

It was the job of the residents to go see these patients at two in the morning and complete an H&P, a history and physical exam. We would ask the questions we asked all patients: chief complaint, onset, duration, intensity, chronology, exacerbating and remitting factors, associated symptoms. In this case, the chief complaint was not shortness of breath or fever. In this case, the chief complaint was, I wanted to die. So I tried.

Sometimes onset was a long time ago, often it was right beforehand. Intensity was of course always a ten. Sometimes they told you their story freely. Sometimes only the bare minimum. (we would write “history limited by non-cooperative historian)

I remember one patient in particular. She was a mom. She had three kids around the same ages as my three kids at the time.  She told her story of how her boyfriend had hurt her. Hurt her so badly she decided to die. I asked where her kids were when she took the pills. They were home with her. Maybe they’re the ones who found her and called 911. Maybe it was the worst night of their lives after many other bad nights. She didn’t know whether they’d found her or not. She didn’t care. She never asked us where her children were now. Just went on about the boyfriend and how he’d hurt her and how hurt she was. And I tried very hard to have compassion for my patient, but all I could think of was her kids. Of how badly a successful suicide by their mother would have wounded them.

I have never been the type to lack compassion for those so hurt inside they feel killing themselves is the best solution. I have heard good Christians say they will go to hell. I have heard people call them selfish for hurting their families and thought, do you have no grasp of how much pain they must be in?

But by this time, at the age of 34, I’d lived a bit more of life and had a more nuanced view, you could say. I still think its’s awful to say they’d go to hell. But I do not think, when children are involved, we can simply say they were ill, they were in pain, and so it was.

When I was 28, I had a boyfriend too, just like my patient. He broke my heart too, just like my patient. And I decided to die too, just like my patient. I planned out which pills I would take and when. I’d just had pharmacology before Christmas break had begun and knew which ones would be most effective. It was Christmas. The tree was up. I hadn’t given my kids their presents yet. We were alone in Erie for break. I decided I would drop them off with their dad. He would take them to his parents house for several days for New Years as he did each year. No one was expecting to hear from me. It was time to die.

I was in a depression as deep as any I’d been in many times before. But this time was different. I was 28. I’d been battling depression since I was ten. I always held out hope I would get better one day. Life held so much possibility. But at 28, I thought, here I am again. I can’t keep doing this. I can’t. I sat on my floor crying as my three year old and two year old asked what was wrong and brought me Children’s Tylenol to try to make me better. I hate that I did that to them. I am sorry that I did that to them.

I kept pulling presents from the basement and giving them to them one by one to keep them occupied. I fed them leftovers from the Christmas eve party at my family’s house I’d brought back. I suppose I changed their diapers. I don’t remember.

I planned out how to die and thought, they will go live with my parents and be so much better off without a worthless mother like me. But then it happened.

I entered into rational thought long enough to realize they wouldn’t go live with my parents if I died. They would go live with their dad. And their dad, luckily, was a tremendous asshole at that time. And I thought, I’m really worthless, but he’s even worse. Thank you God he was such an asshole. I couldn’t do that to them.

I remembered when my oldest son Soldier Boy was a baby and I didn’t know if he would live because of a genetic disorder they thought he might have. I remembered sitting in the glider in the nursery wailing a gutteral wail from as deep down as a person can, begging God not to take my baby. Put me through the pains of childbirth for all eternity, I said (I’d just finished a 32 hour natural birth so that’s no small statement). Put me through hell, I said. Just save my beautiful baby.

And he did.

And I thought to myself, I am in so much pain. It hurts so much to live. I am in hell. But now it seems I must do what I told God I would. I must walk through hell for my babies. And so I did. One step at a time.

When you are that depressed, finding the will and the energy just to get out of bed in the morning is excruciating and exhausting. But I did. I got out of bed and I took care of my babies. I went to class and studied. I called a psychiatrist’s office and was told they don’t take Medicaid. That about did me in. But I made myself call another. And I got a psychiatrist appointment for a month from then and a therapy appointment in a few weeks.

I kept breathing. I kept living. Every breath hurt. My heart ached. My muscles ached. My soul was not in my eyes if you bothered to look. Luckily no one looked.

I wanted to check myself into inpatient psych but I knew if I did it could ruin my career and I could get my kids taken from me. I was right. I’m glad I didn’t. But it hurt. It hurt so damn much.

It was in this time, this darkness, this exile, waiting to see a psychiatrist that I entered into the relationship with the man who was my trauma, who was my Ordeal. I was in hell, so I laid with a demon. I suppose.

There in the midst of my Ordeal, I made my way through hell. I chose to live each and every day in every decision I made. When I did not feel like getting out of bed,  I would say to myself, you either live or die. If you stay in bed, you are choosing to die. When I didn’t want to go for a walk to get exercise and fresh air, I would say to myself, you have two choices, life or death. If you do not go on this walk, you are choosing to die. And that is not an option. Your babies need you to live. This is hell. Get walking.

I do not know how it is that a part of me found wellness inside the trauma, the Ordeal. Sometimes I think it’s that a part of me, a version of me, broke off and endured the trauma while the rest of me went on with life as usual. Sometimes I think it was the adrenaline. Sometimes I think it was God. Maybe a little of each.

I know that with my therapist and my psychiatrist I got to a point where I could do a load of laundry without exhausting myself. Where I could study and enjoy neuroanatomy and feel proud of myself for rocking the exam. Where I could play with my kids.

Then came PTSD, but that’s another story for another time.

And so this is what flashed through my mind and heart when I stood there collecting this patient’s onset and chronology. For her chief complaint of choosing to die. This is why I could not lend her more compassion.

When we choose to have children, certain choices go away. Dying is one of them. Even when living is hell.

And to not die is not enough. We must choose to live every day in every choice we make. We must fight for our children. Even when we can’t bring ourselves to fight for us.

They are innocent. We are not. The body is weak, but the will is strong. Must be. For them. This body, this mind, this pain, is not endless. It will all fall away. Ending it a little sooner is not worth the price of their innocence.

It is not a choice. That choice is gone.

 

 

 

 

 

After 37 years, I did

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I feel different today. I feel lighter.
I am 37 years old and have never stood up to my mother. Never spoken back to her. Not once. Not as a child, not as a teenager, not as an adult no matter what she said or did to me. I have never stood up to my sister either. Yesterday, I did. After 37 years, I did.
*
I have worked hard to turn the other cheek, to look for the log in my eye and not the splinter in theirs. I have tried to be empathetic and loving and kind. To not meet their aggression with mine, as you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. But there is a difference between being aggressive and being assertive. I gave up the passivity that defined my role in my dysfunctional family.
*
It was no great scene. Not emotional or dramatic. I simply told my sister I did not want her dirty money (I don’t. She made it off the backs of the poor) and that someone who’d hurt my children like she did, did not get to dictate the terms of our dispute. And then I told her something true that I’m sure cut her to the bone: that she is just like our mother. Because she is.
*
My mother responded by telling me she knew I’d sent “hateful” texts to my sister. I told her the truth. I told her I’d simply told my sister she was just like my mother and my sister apparently considers that hateful. (it’s kind of funny, looking back on it) She said, I suppose I won’t be hearing from you for a while again (referencing the months I’d taken while in therapy a few years ago to work out my wounds from her and what kind of boundaries I needed to establish. During which she was free to see my children whom adore her, but whom she chose not to see). I replied, No, unlike you I don’t write people off for disobeying me. I wouldn’t hurt my children like that.
*
I texted her today to assure her she was still invited to the three children’s birthday parties we have coming up and that the children would be sad if she didn’t come. No reply. I’m not surprised but I am sad for my children.
*
The narrative of what happened will go down in the family history book like this: crazy Libby did something irresponsible again (believe it or not, this whole thing was precipitated by a dog I’d bought impulsively. Don’t ask) and responsible Becky came in to save her and the poor innocent dog (my mother was considerably more concerned about the puppy she’d know for 24 hours during our exchange than her grandson she once referred to as her “soulmate”). Libby responded vindictively and cruelly.
*
I’ve no doubt my sister Becky, who had shut my parents out of her life for the past five years along with me and my children, will now return to the fold. And so my dysfunctional family will go on as it always has. But without me. Not by my choice but by theirs. And my children will be the ones to suffer. First their cousins taken away and now the grandparents they adore.
*
I hope this doesn’t happen. I hope a distant awkward peace can be made enough that they can bring themselves to see my children.
*
I spent my childhood trying to be the good one, trying to earn their love and never be bad. Good grades, never talk back, extracurriculars, stuff your emotions down, don’t ask for help even when you’re in so much pain inside. I was never good enough. I tried.
*
And so in my lightness today, I am using my energy to write letters to my children. To let them know I love them and I’m proud of them. To let them know I only push them so they can be their best and achieve their dreams and purpose in life. I admit to them I am imperfect but I’m sorry for my wrongs. That they don’t deserve the frustration I take out on them at times. I remind them they have a perfect mother in heaven who is always there.
*
Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, I seek a new people now. For mine are gone away. They were never there; I just couldn’t see it.

Go For It

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I stepped out into the cold January air, the first real 5 degree-wind blowing-makes your face hurt winter day of the year. It was Martin Luther king day. The kids were off school and we’d gone to visit my parents for the day. I took Soldier Boy, The Ax, Princess and Our New Baby. Poobah and Tree stayed behind to work on the house. It was a nice day, admiring the newly remodeled kitchen my mother finally had after dreaming of it for forty years and getting to meet my sister’s new boyfriend, the chef. I caught them up on all the goings on at our house and my mother shared the latest from the various relatives. We talked politics a bit (Go Bernie! was the consensus). My mom offered me a nice crockpot too big for her empty nest and a Keurig the wrong color for her new kitchen, both of which I excitedly accepted. She told me to go through the old board games because they were throwing out whatever I didn’t want. I scored some Gumby Colorforms (remember those?), VCR Clue II, and Go For It, my favorite 1980s board game centered on accumulating red convertibles, hot tubs, and ski chalets: the good life, eighties style.

Our afternoon was wrapping up. The kids were getting cranky and it was time for us to go. So I gathered up an armful of the dusty board games and headed out to my car. And as I stepped out of my parents newly remade kitchen onto the familiar patio, the bitter cold air hit my face and suddenly I was in Erie.

Erie. January 2008. Class just let out and we’re walking to his apartment through the snow. The crunchy kind with a thin layer of ice on top that your foot catches on for a moment before sinking in. They say the Inuits have a hundred different words for snow, don’t they? (I don’t know if it’s true but it’s what they say anyway) I could not normally tell you much about what kind of snow there was on any particular day of my life years ago. I am not an Inuit of old, surviving in the Arctic north. Snow is not something of great importance to me. But those days, those memories, are not normal memories. They are not stored in the circuitry of my brain as normal memories are. And I am not now remembering that day. I am reliving it. I am there.

We are walking to his apartment to study and eat lunch. And maybe when we’re done he’ll rape me too. My stomach is in a knot. My chest is aching. My limbs are heavy and slightly numb. Not from the cold but from The Ordeal. My head is there but not there. How do you force yourself to walk to a violent sadist’s apartment? You will it. It is survival, moral spiritual survival. Protecting the young. You must. And so you do. Your will tells your legs to move and they do. They feel heavy and numb like they don’t belong to you but rather someone else. Because they must. For surely you would never go with this man so seemingly cooperative. Surely this isn’t happening. But it is.

I am afraid of what he will do when we get there. I am more afraid of the plans he has for his other victims, that I won’t find a way to stop him. He makes my whole being nauseous. Not just my stomach but my muscles and my head and my skin. My myocytes and epithelial cells. My heart and my spirit. Helpless. I am helpless with him. If I cannot stop what he has planned then I’m hopeless too. Powerless. Utterly alone in the universe. That is how it is in his apartment. Just me and him. Only one soul in the room. Mine. And he is trying to take it from me. His apartment has become the whole universe. At once a vast expanse and a vacuum. Just me and him. Nothing else, no one else.

I make him lunch and he talks about nutrition and he talks his madness all over me, coating me in its sticky thick tack. Cortisol is coursing through me. My pulse is quick. I am hypervigilent. I must be able to detect any changes to his mood so I can prepare for what’s next. The worst thing is to be caught off guard. Defenseless. I must cut the apples just so, but I must pay attention to the nuance of his speech: the tone of his voice, the rate, the cadence, the choice of words. His body language too. The way he carries himself, the tone of his muscles, the subtle change of expression on his face. He is a sociopath so he rarely shows anger. It is not so simple as that.

The irony of this is that he has brainwashed me into believing he can read me so easily, that he is always watching me and can tell when I’m lying and what I’m really thinking. He tells me he has researched it all thoroughly, how to tell if someone is lying. The direction their eyes move when answering questions, the rate their heart beats, the tone of their muscles. (But he really was terrible at it. I fooled him. He went down. He lost his life as he knew it. Why? Because he wasn’t hypervigilent. Why? Because he wasn’t afraid. He was arrogant. My fear saved me really. And allowed me to stop him. It saved my life and my soul.)

It pressed this moment into my memory too. This moment I am reliving now eight years later. In an instant. Yes all of this comes and passes in just a few seconds. And then just as suddenly I am back in 2016 packing up my car, hurrying to get back to Our New Baby before he starts fussing in his car seat.

I’m free of my prison. I have been PTSD free for a year now. I have my moments. I have my hours. But I am no longer trapped inside. I am free and I can now appreciate the fear for what it did for me then. It saved my soul. It stopped a sadist. And now I am free to live the good life, 2016 style.

We Liked You Better When You Didn’t Talk So Much: Life After PTSD (a.k.a. after your fasciotomy for compartment syndrome of the soul)

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Compartment Syndrome with Fasciotomy Procedure

It’s been four months since I recovered from my seven year bout of PTSD. (See previous entries of my blog for real time coverage of the recovery process). My coworkers don’t really know I had PTSD (although I did give a talk on PTSD and tell them the reason I was giving it was because I had it, I think they either weren’t paying attention or blocked it out). They just know that all of a sudden a few months ago I stopped being so quiet and agreeable all the time. At first they thought it was great. I’d blossomed. Developed self-confidence, gotten a backbone. They assumed it to be the result of residency training. But as the months have gone on and I’ve become more and more my true self, they’ve started commenting to me they miss the old quiet me.

I’m a little too opinonated, they say. Talk a little too much now. I’m too hard on the interns. I’m angry, they say. Well folks, what I really am is … me. The real me not suffocating under PTSD. The real me not constantly trying to avoid the bad things I think are coming. The real me who isn’t convinced I’m going to get kicked out of the medical profession if I let on to who I am.

I am indeed angry at times. Unapologetically angry. Righteously angry. Old testament angry. Jesus turning over the money changers table angry. Malcolm X I’m-done-begging-for-crumbs angry. No apologies.

I am hard on the interns. Hard on them like my senior residents were hard on me. I thank God my seniors were so hard on me. Guess what? We’re training them to be doctors. We’re not at the brownie jamboree seeing how many friendship bracelets we can collect. They’re here to learn to be excellent doctors: thorough, hard-working, devoted, compassionate physicians who think things through and can communicate and lead. Some interns need more nurturing than others, but even the most fragile (hi, I had freaking PTSD when I was an intern. I was about as fragile as they come) needs to be held to a high standard. We owe it to them and every patient they will ever treat.

I do talk a lot and have a lot of opinions. It’s not that I have a lot of opinions that bothers them though. I haven’t met many doctors who don’t have a lot of opinions they feel you must be dying to hear all about. What bothers them is that my opinions disagree with theirs. I don’t find their sexist jokes funny or even acceptable. I’m really such a drag, I know. But I’m 36 and I have a daughter and I’m done tolerating that crap.  The male residents are assertive while the female ones are called aggressive and told to tone it down for the same behavior. The male residents really hold the line and don’t take shit while the female residents are told to calm down and lighten up when we do the same thing. To hell with that.

It’s possible I’m a little overly zealous with the assertiveness and rightous anger right now as I delight in my recovery, but can you blame me? PTSD is hell. You’re not dead but you’re only technically alive. I’ve got seven years of pent up thoughts, words, feelings, and actions here.

In my defense, it’s not all anger and thunder bolts around me. I have a lot of joy. I’ve made a lot of progress on forgiveness (entry on that to come). I’m just not PTSD Barbie anymore, putting all my energy into pleasing everyone and always agreeing and going along and not complaining and working myself to exhaustion because I’m afraid everything’s going to fall apart at any moment.

My husband and I met when I was in the thick of the PTSD so he’s had a little bit of a switch-a-roo pulled on him. He always wished I’d be more assertive and talk more, but , as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

The thing that’s frustrating about all of this for me is that I’ve been given this amazing gift. PTSD was hell. I can’t tell you how much of the past seven years I had spent wishing I could die. Knowing I couldn’t kill myself because of my kids and asking God why he would put me in that position. The blackness inside of you. The expansive emptiness that feels like it will break you apart. The loneliness you feel like you just can’t bear. And there’s no end in sight. There’s no hope. The fear. Every noise makes your heart race. Do you know how many times your pager goes off a year as a resident? Do you know what it’s like to feel terrifed every time it does just because of the sound it makes? To not be able to trust anyone, not even your husband. To not let yourself open your heart to your kids because you’re expecting them to be gone any minute. To go on psych med after psych med after psych med looking for an answer and all they do is make you tired and remind you you’re crazy.

And I finally escape all that and the people I work with, the physicians I work with, they tell me they like me better the way I was. So, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m unapologetic. If I relish giving them a piece of my mind when it comes to what is right. Silence does not protect us, it fills us with its void until the tensile strength of the matter of us gives out. It’s like compartment syndrome of the soul. You must release the pressure surgically and when you do, sometimes things burst forth and get messy. But it’s the only hope of saving the limb. The real me has come back out and I couldn’t stuff her back in to the old necrotic shell even if I wanted to. And I most definitely do not want to.

What Love Really Means

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trenchfoot

This week is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik El Shabbaz. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 21 and it changed my life. Changed it enough that I named my second born after him. Malcolm X was Godly and brilliant and brave. But the thing I’ve always been most inspired by in him was how much he changed and grew in his life. Why am I writing about this on Valentine’s Day? Because I wanted to write a Valentine for my husband.

He was born in the summer of ’69, a couple weeks after man walked on the moon and a couple weeks before Woodstock. He made his first film at age ten. He was an entrepeneur from the start doing everything from delivering papers, mowing lawns, to selling Grit magazine. He grew up and went away to a small town three hours away in Western Pennsylvania for college. My hometown. I was in elementary school then (I was born in 1979, the year of the collapse of the industrial economy in America. Not quite as cool). He went into computers and had a good job but he left behind the security of it to go to film school, to pursue his calling. He came home and made two independent films and got married and had a son. He found God and set about following Him. When God called him to open a cafe, he did. Crazy as people told him it was. And then he got this email from this girl who’d seen his picture on the interwebs and he decided to write her back. It turned out she’d been raped by a madman in med school and she had two kids who were dealing with mental health challenges of their own. On the day they got married she was $400,000 in debt and had failed to match into a residency and might never be able to make a decent living. He married her anyway. He’s not afraid to take risks. He follows God into the fray.

In the years since then, he has found himself facing the sacrifices of residency and the hell of PTSD. He has driven roughly 35,000 miles going back and forth between residency and our son back home. He has devoted himself to our hooligans. He has been a major factor in the amazing transformation of our son Malcolm. He has washed and scrubbed and shoveled and fixed and cooked and shopped and juiced. Wiped butts and cleaned up vomit and blood. Endured temper tantrums, meltdowns, wiped tears, kissed boo boos. He has listened to my frustrations and guarded the bedroom door from invading children when I needed to sleep.

More than that, he has gotten down in the mud, crawled on his belly, down in the trenches. He has done the real work of marriage, the emotional work. He has faced down his demons and mine. And that is the bravest, hardest, most loving thing there is. He has come with me as I travelled into the heart of my PTSD and faced my spiritual crisis. Been there through the anger and the bitterness and neediness and depression and the one-step-forward-two-steps-back-is-this-ever-going-to-end. He has come to be as outraged as I am about rape. Sometimes I think he’s moreso. When the petition we signed to stop the Bill Cosby performance at Heinz Hall worked, he was more excited than I was.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, said, “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” You can keep your long stemmed roses and diamonds. I have real love.

I love you, Poobah. I’m so proud to be your best friend. Forever.