Archive | August, 2011

So Ends Another Summer …

It’s been stalking me for a couple of weeks already . . . that melancholy that creeps up on me every year as summer break draws to a close.  This year, it’s hitting me particularly hard; it’s a year of big milestones and transitions, and that, coupled with my already fragile emotional state in the wake of the struggles our family has had over the last several months, well, let’s just say this mama is having a hard time letting her babies go.

Tomorrow is the first day back to school.  Kevin will start high school.  He’s caught in that weird limbo between boy and man.  His pediatrician informed us this summer that Kevin’s shot up 9 inches (NINE inches!) and 33 pounds since his last physical a year and a half ago.  He wears men’s sizes in shoes and clothes now.  It’s a little strange to look at this boy who is bigger and taller than me now and think that I gave birth to him.  He’s nervous about starting high school, about the newness and unknown of it all.  I’m nervous for him, but trying to convey confidence to him.  This is a new chapter for him and for us, and sometimes thinking about all the changes that the next few years will surely hold for him makes my heart ache.

Lilah is starting kindergarten.  I can hardly wrap my head around it – kindergarten.  She stopped being a baby when I wasn’t looking, apparently.

You never realize when they’re born just how fast they’re going to grow up.  And every year, every summer, just seems to whip by more quickly than the last, and I am left wallowing in nostalgia, wondering if I made the most of the time I had with my kids this summer.

So tonight it’s early baths, early dinner, early bedtime, and tomorrow morning I will try very hard not to cry when I see my kids off to their first day of school.  Or at least I’ll try very hard to not let them see me cry.

Family Interrupted

I submitted my last post to Yahoo Associated Content, and it was chosen for publication:  Blindsided: Navigating a Post-Cancer Life.

I waffled about submitting it.  On the one hand, would it be selling out, exploiting a very personal issue for the sake of benefitting my dreams of being recognized as a writer?  On the other hand, it could help someone out there – someone dealing with similar issues and possibly feeling very alone.  The latter won out; I really want to do my small part to raise awareness about the other side of cancer.

With advances in technology and medicine, more and more people are surviving cancer nowadays.  That’s a very, very good thing.  However, with the increasing survival rate, a sector of people is growing with unique issues that just aren’t talked about much.  How to go on from cancer?  How to pick up the pieces of a broken existence?  How to mend hearts and psyches and families who have been bulldozed by cancer and cancer treatment?

The first, and perhaps most important step, I think, is to acknowledge it and talk about it.

Obviously, as I alluded to in that post, my own family is going through a very difficult time.  It’s all rooted in the cancer Michael had two years ago, and the havoc it wreaked on our life long after the cancer was driven out of his body.  For a long time, we just kept hoping that things would get better, that the pieces would fall back into place.  But things continued to grow more and more difficult until we finally reached a breaking point.  Things aren’t going to get better by themselves.  There is help out there, but it requires a humbling of oneself, and reaching out.  We are trying to pick up the pieces now, but it’s not easy.

If you or someone you care about is facing cancer, please be aware of the emotional impact of cancer, and the utter devastation it can inflict, not only on the cancer patient, but on everyone around them.  There is help available, but you have to ask for it.

Blindsided: Navigating a Post-Cancer Life

It’s been two and a half years since my husband was diagnosed with stage III colorectal cancer.  After a year of aggressive treatment that included weeks of daily radiation, months of often debilitating chemo, and major surgery, a routine follow-up scan deemed him cancer free.  You would think there would have been boundless rejoicing, a new lease on life.  But two and a half years later, we are still dealing with the fallout.

It’s true that we rejoiced at his post-cancer treatment clean bill of health.  And in hindsight, it appears that we even went into a post-cancer euphoria for a time.   For me personally, the spouse who watched her husband face down death, everything good about our life together suddenly seemed more vivid, and I was filled with a gratitude I could hardly find the words to describe.  I know now that it was a sort of honeymoon period following the hell – the absolute hell – of cancer treatment.  And honeymoons are notoriously short-lived.

Towards the end of last year, things began to unravel.  A young woman on a cancer support message board my husband frequented died very suddenly and unexpectedly from complications of the same cancer my husband had.  This coincided with his upcoming annual scan – this would be the first scan he would undergo after a year of no cancer treatment.  These two events served to stir him up into such a frenzy of agitation and anxiety that he could barely function.  His scan showed “no evidence of disease” – the best news we could ask for.  And still the anxiety didn’t abate.  I began to think he was suffering from some form of PTSD – a delayed reaction to all the trauma he went through, physically and emotionally, during The Year of Cancer.

Since then, our life has been like riding a roller coaster, to borrow an old cliché.  There have been just enough good times to keep us hopeful that things will return to “normal,” but some really low lows, and an almost constant pall of sadness and anxiety cast over our life together.  There have been health setbacks for my husband – the cancer is gone, but the cancer treatment itself left him with complications we weren’t prepared for – complications which have landed him in the hospital more than once, and close to death again.  There have been some horrible moments when everything has culminated in destructive rages, and our whole family is left trembling, in tears, frightened, angry, and terribly afraid that this is just how it is from here on out – goodbye happiness, goodbye dreams, goodbye safety and stability.  It’s as if my husband – my kids’ father – didn’t really survive cancer – it managed to steal the best parts of him and of our life together.

Although I’m not a doctor, I still believe that my husband has been dealing with some form of PTSD.  It’s also dawned on both of us of late that he is dealing with depression.   Depression that is chronic at this point, and insidious.

We’ve been completely blindsided by all of this.  People don’t talk about this – about what happens after you get through cancer treatment.  Everyone on the outside just heaves a huge sigh of relief for you – thank god you got through that!  And I think everyone just kind of hopes and assumes that life then goes on for you, pretty much back to normal, but hopefully even better.  What you tend to see and read about people who face down cancer is that they either (a) die from it, or (b) survive it and then become very vocal cancer awareness advocates, participating in marches and walks, doing 5- and 10Ks to bask in their good health.  I wonder, though, how many of those cancer survivors, in the privacy of their own homes, have crying jags, or sleepless nights, or bad tempers, or anxiety attacks.  I wonder how many of them secretly feel like outsiders, like cancer changed them for good and they’ll never get their “old self” back again.  I wonder how many of them are grieving for their old life, for their innocence that disappeared with a cancer diagnosis.  I wonder how many of them find their previously stable, dependable marriages in crisis.  I wonder how many of them privately swallow a dose of Prozac or Lexapro or Ativan every morning, or spend time crying and talking it out in a therapist’s office.

I’m betting more than people realize.  Way more.

I think there is a stigma surrounding the mental health of cancer survivors that goes beyond the garden-variety stigma surrounding mental health in general.  I think for outsiders, there is an expectation that cancer survivors live up to some ideal to show the world how to make the most of life after such an ordeal.  We look up to cancer survivors – they are heroes and role models to us ordinary folks.  Look at Lance Armstrong!  Live Strong.  Don’t let anything get you down – not even cancer.  And for the cancer survivor himself, there is the perhaps self-imposed pressure to just be grateful.  And to have some great answer to the mystery of life’s meaning.  So we don’t talk about the depression and anxiety and in some cases, the PTSD that wreaks havoc on families, following a pronouncement of “cancer free.”

But the truth is, cancer survivors have been through something akin to war on the front lines.  Active combat.  Through cancer treatment, they have been subjected to systemic, long-term poisoning.  They have been made to face the indignities of a weakening and diminishing body, a changing appearance, and often, physical disfigurement.  They often have parts of their bodies removed, forever changing the functionality of their bodies.  They are forced to rely on the help of others.  For some, their medical issues create financial hardship.  And through this all, they are faced constantly with the threat of death, and all that might entail: pain, suffering, leaving children unraised, bills unpaid, loved ones bereft, and a life unlived.  How can anyone come out of this with his or her psyche unscathed?

More than raising cancer awareness, I would like to raise awareness about the mental health of cancer survivors.  It’s not all roses and sunshine and 5K runs after cancer.  The aftermath of cancer can be a longer, more painful journey than cancer treatment itself.  I remember being mired in the darkness and difficulty of the year my husband was going through cancer treatment – myself suffering from depression at the time – having a hard time seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, thinking this was the hardest thing we could ever face.  I lived, during that year, with an almost palpable wish for the year to just be over so we could have our life back.  I look back on that time now and think, “That was the easy part.”

There is a lot of hand-holding going on during cancer treatment: doctors and professionals always present, taking care of the patient, implementing a plan of action, constantly looking after the patient’s wellbeing.  When cancer treatment ends, even with the best of results – a clean bill of health – it’s a sudden free-fall.  You’re on your own now.  Find your way back.  Assimilate back into the land of the living.  Make the most of it.  But how to do this if nobody talks about it, if nobody acknowledges how goddamn hard it is?

That’s why I’m talking about it now.  I believe that in sharing our experiences as human beings, we help each other, by asking to be heard, and by touching someone else who needs to be heard.

Ashes to Ashes

This morning my ex-father-in-law died.  To say “my” in relation to him almost seems fraudulent, really, because I haven’t been in touch with my ex-in-laws for several years, and so can’t claim them as “my” anything.  There was a falling out, rooted mainly, as best as I can figure, in the fact that I moved on so thoroughly and completely with my life after their son, my first husband, died.

I was never especially close to my ex-father-in-law; he wasn’t a person many people got close to, and our relationship was sometimes contentious.  In the end, there was no relationship at all . . . and yet there was still the tie to Kevin: one of the last remaining blood ties Kevin has to his biological father.

I remember learning a year or so ago that he had been diagnosed with cancer.  I didn’t know what his prognosis was, only that he was already almost 80 at that time and had other chronic health issues that limited how aggressively his cancer could be treated.  I guess I knew on some level that he probably wasn’t long for this world, but I figured that when he died, I would be indifferent to it.  After all, so many hard feelings have been stored up over the years.

When I was told this morning that he had died, however – by Michael, who had received a call with the news while I was out grocery shopping – and I swear to god that when Michael took me into the bedroom and told me very gravely that we needed to talk, I thought he was going to tell me that his cancer was back and that he was dying; my heart felt like it was going to pound its way right out of my chest and I actually had a momentary thought of fainting – I started crying.  Pretty hard, actually.  The tears and the sudden feeling of loss hit me very unexpectedly.  Why did I find myself so sad over the passing of someone I had a mercurial relationship with in the best of times, and no relationship with in the end?

I think it just brings so much home: he was a vestige from a chapter of my life that I left behind a long time ago, and yet will never leave completely behind because of Kevin.  And there is Kevin’s loss in all of this, too.  It is a reminder to me, too, that our time here is finite; all of us, and everyone we know, whether we love them or hate them or are indifferent to them, will one day exhale our last breath, reverberate briefly with our last heartbeat, and our consciousness will sputter and be extinguished like a candle blown out.

And what is at the end – not after death, but just before?  Thoughts of going to be in a better place with people loved and lost?  An accounting, or recounting of one’s life? Regrets? Peace?

I hope that when the end of my life is upon me, I have an opportunity to take final stock, and I hope I will see mine as a life well lived.  I hope I die with a full heart.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Pass it on . . .

Another piece I submitted to Yahoo Associated Content was chosen for publication!  I’m feeling a little momentum here, and planning to crack down and get some real writing going when the kids return to school in a couple weeks.  In the meantime, please support me by clicking on the link below and passing it on!

Life As a Happiness Project

“At-Risk,” or Imposing One’s Religious Views on Society

I hate Michelle Bachmann.  Okay, I know “hate” is a strong word, and I don’t even know the woman, but every time I see a snippet of her on television or read about something she’s said, I want to slap the shit out of her.

When did all these extremist nut-jobs start entering politics, anyway?  Has this always been the case and I just didn’t notice until the last decade or so, or is this a new phenomenon, possibly reflecting impending Armageddon?

Do you know that she not only believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, but that children of same-sex couples are “at-risk”?  Maybe you agree with these sentiments.  If you’re a Tea Partier yourself, or just a Republican, or perchance even just a Good Christian, you probably do.

Here’s the problem: first of all, without going into a big, long, ranty diatribe about the fact that “marriage” is a man-made institution and therefore there is no inherent definition; it is what society decides it is, and it has historically, and should continue to, evolve to reflect a changing society (remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that black people were by law not allowed to marry white people; and there was a time before that when black people weren’t even allowed to legally marry other black people!  Yes, indeed, right here in the Good Old U S of A).  This whole “marriage is between a man and a woman” bullshit is nothing more than thinly veiled prejudice cloaked in fake morality.  It’s imposing one’s religious views on society – nothing more, nothing less.  And it pisses me off.

Moving on to Ms. Bachmann’s other claim, though, that children of same-sex couples are at risk – how are they at risk?  What, exactly, are they at risk of?  She makes this claim, this vague but ominous sounding claim, and yet offers no specifics, and no facts, studies, or research to back it up.  Oh yeah!  I keep forgetting – she’s part of that special sector of society that gets to make ludicrous claims that have no evidence to back them up (um, have you heard about the invisible, all powerful guy in the sky who rules the universe?)!

I decided to do my own mini-research project.  Are children of same-sex couples actually “at-risk”?  Here’s a sampling of what I came up with:

How Do Children in Same-Sex Adoption Fare?

Same-Sex Couples and Same-Sex Couples Raising Children in the United States (It is interesting that this particular study notes that, “Many people in same-sex couples look like Americans generally. Individuals in same- sex couples raising children, however, do not fare as well as their different-sex counterparts: they are less affluent, more racially and ethnically diverse, and hence particularly in need of the legal, social, and economic benefits of marriage.” Note that this is a statement about the individuals in the same-sex couple itself, not a statement about that couple’s children.  Basically, though, people in same-sex couples don’t fare as well in society as their different-sex counterparts because they are not afforded the same rights and benefits as their different-sex counterparts.  In other words, they suffer, not because they’re gay, but because they are subject to discrimination.)

LGBT Parenting

Children of Lesbian Couples Do Just Fine, Studies Show

Children of Same-Sex Couples Do As Well As Other Children

In fact, I didn’t find a single article that supports the notion that children of same-sex couples are “at-risk.”  And for the record, my search queries were neutral: “How do children of same sex couples fare?” and “Children of gay parents.”

I have gay friends, and some of them are raising children.  I can tell you that they are just like us heteros: they buy groceries, they worry about money, they water their lawns, they wonder where to send their kids to school, they volunteer in their kids’ classrooms and attend PTA and Girl Scout meetings, they argue with their significant others, they complain about their extended families, they take their kids to the doctor, they take their kids to swimming lessons, they want to see their kids go to college and get married and have families of their own some day.  They are not “deviant” or “immoral.”  They’re people who generally have the same dreams and goals and values as anyone else – they just happen to be attracted to members of the same sex.  They are not raising their kids in any deviant or immoral way.

Let’s talk about the kids who actually are “at-risk” – as evidenced by history and various studies (and by at-risk, I mean at risk for things like depression, low self-esteem, teen suicide, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, eating disorders, dropping out of high school, and the like):

  • Kids of alcoholics
  • Kids of drug abusers
  • Kids of parents who inflict emotional abuse
  • Kids of parents who inflict physical abuse
  • Kids of parents who have unstable relationships
  • Kids of families who live in poverty
  • Kids who are subject to discrimination and prejudice
  • Kids who are bullied
  • Kids of uneducated parents
  • Kids of unemployed parents
In other words, kids who grow up in unstable homes.  And all of the above scenarios are rampant in heterosexual households.  If we really want to protect kids and eliminate all the “at-risk” factors, then we should, as a society, do the responsible and moral thing, and make pretty much everyone get sterilized when they hit puberty, let the human race die out, and be done with it.  After all, there’s always Heaven.
I contend that there is another sorely at-risk group: kids of parents with extremist, intolerant views.

The Slippery Slope of Special Treatment

One of my commenters recently shared a link to this article:

Player With Down Syndrome Kicked Off Team

In all honesty, I’m not sure I understand all the outrage.  I mean, I do – I do understand the hurt feelings and the disappointment being experienced by this teen and his family – but I guess I don’t actually agree with it.

You know what my first thought was when I read the article?  Probably not what you might expect it would be from a parent of a child with Down syndrome.  My first thought was, “This kid never should have been on the football team in the first place.”

See, here’s the thing:  I don’t want my kid to be anybody’s mascot.  These feel-good stories you come across from time to time about the kid with Down syndrome being on the high school water polo team, or being crowned Homecoming King . . . those stories always make me wonder.  And they always leave a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth.

The article in question says, “. . . a student with Down Syndrome who would suit up and cheer during every varsity game, eventually earning the right to lead the team onto the field and run a touchdown play after every game. He even scored one official touchdown in a game.”  Wow.  He even scored one official touchdown in a game!  That’s so great.  It’s so heartwarming how the community gets to feel like such do-gooders over this kid, isn’t it?

Yeah, well, no thanks.  To me, this represents another form of marginalization and dehumanization.  If my kid is going to be in the club, or on the team, I want it to be on his own merits and abilities – not as some charity case of inclusion that affords everyone around him an opportunity to give themselves a collective pat on the back for being so big that they can get past the fact that he has Down syndrome (gasp!).

And the truth is, the fact that he has Down syndrome will necessarily preclude him from being able to do certain things.  I can accept that, and I’d like to think that my husband and I are raising all of our kids with realistic expectations – lofty goals, yes, but also the ability to accept whatever limitations they might have (and they all have limitations – we all do) and deal with them with grace and dignity.  I do not want Finn to grow up receiving or expecting all kinds of special treatment just because he has Down syndrome.  This is a separate issue, in my mind, from making accommodations for him to receive an equal education with his typical peers.  Yes, I want to see him fully included in a typical public school so that he can received the same education his brothers and sisters are receiving, and so he can benefit from non-disabled role models, but I don’t want him to be the token disabled kid, included in extracurricular activities as an act of charity.

Whether this kid on the football team should be allowed to continue as a “full-fledged” (ha!  he was never really a full-fledged team member, now was he?) team member, I can’t say.  It seems to me, from the article, anyway, that the school is between a rock and a hard place, and that it has attempted to handle the situation as sensitively as possible.  Part of me thinks, well, yeah, if the kid is still actually enrolled as a high school senior, then the age limit shouldn’t apply.  On the other hand, because of his age, he gets to do things – like vote (yes, a person with Down syndrome can vote) – that his underage classmates cannot do.  It is a slippery slope when the rules are bent to accommodate people with special needs like this as a matter of charity, and I, for one, am not completely in favor of it.  I want my kid to be respected and valued for who he is as a person.  When he starts being treated “special,” that’s just another form of discrimination.

Published, Me

Have I ever confided in you, the world at large, that I have this aspiration, this . . . dream . . . of being a published writer?  Well, I do.  If you were to ask me what my passion is, writing would certainly be very near the top of my list.  But I usually feel ambivalent about saying outright, “I want to be a writer,” because, really, who doesn’t?  I have this sneaking suspicion that just about every blogger out there fancies him- or herself a bona fide writer, with fantasies of being discovered and seeing their name in bylines and on book covers.  And who am I but a harried stay-at-home mom with no college education, a lot of opinions and a good computer?  My point?  There are lots and lots of people out there who write, who write very well, and who write about compelling topics.  I’m a small fish in a big sea.

Still, I’m not going to just lie down and admit defeat without even trying.  So I occasionally submit things I write to different forums and venues.  And some of the things I’ve written have actually made it past the editors’ desks and into the public eye.  But this morning, to my surprise, I was greeted by an email notifying me that a piece I recently submitted was not only published, but that I will be paid for it (this is a first for me)!  How much I end up getting paid for it depends upon how much traffic the article gets, and that’s where you come in.  Please visit my article and pass a link onto your friends!   Feel free to share your thoughts with me, and maybe what I wrote will even encourage some meaningful thought and discussion among you and your circle of peeps.

Slow Suicide

Thanks so much for your support, you!

Smoke and Mirrors

You know that scene towards the end of The Wizard of Oz, where the unmasked non-wizard is handing out the things to Dorothy’s friends that they’ve wanted most of all – courage to the Cowardly Lion, a heart to the Tin Man, and a brain to Scarecrow? That part of the story had me convinced for a while that L. Frank Baum must have been an Atheist. As it turns out, although apparently raised in a devout Methodist family, he and his wife later became Theosophists, of which I have very little understanding except that it appears to be more of a philosophy than a religion. Whether L. Frank Baum actually believed in a god or not is unclear, but in any case, I still think that that passage in the story is powerfully analogous to modern Christianity.

Show me a born again Christian, and I’ll show you someone who “found” god at a time of personal crisis, or who, at the very least, was existing in a state of discontent or searching for something
– something they were unable, for whatever reason, to see within themselves to that point. Unless a person is raised on Christianity and spoon fed its dogma from before they are wise or mature or discriminating enough to make practical judgments about such things for themselves, people don’t generally go looking for solutions to their problems or meaning to their suffering in the supernatural. In other words, I think that you would be hard pressed to find a non-believer who is content and has a reasonable degree of self-esteem whose head can be turned by promises of the divine or supernatural.

In The Wizard of Oz, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion spend the entire movie on a quest to obtain from the Wizard that which they long for and don’t believe they actually possess. Even after the Wizard is exposed as a sham and revealed to be not a wizard at all, but just a man with some fancy gadgets and a big curtain, our three friends hang onto the belief that he – and only he – can give them what they’ve been searching for for so long. In the end, the so-called Wizard (all powerful, all-knowing . . . hmm, sound familiar?) bestows on Scarecrow a paper diploma representing a brain/knowledge, Tin Man with a cartoonish and loudly ticking heart, and Lion with a medal representing courage and bravery. It’s a funny and touching scene, because we, the audience understand without question that these three had the traits they were searching for within themselves all along – they just didn’t realize it.

And so it is with finding god. I’ve met so many people who “found God” when they were at what they perceived to be their lowest points. “My life was a mess, in complete shambles, until I let God in.” I’ve heard it time and time again. It’s a beloved theme of novels and memoirs – people struggling terrible struggles and suffering awful ordeals of the body and mind, until god comes along and changes everything for them. Personally, these kinds of stories always leave me feeling disappointed, not inspired or enlightened.

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time was Unbroken by Laura Hildebrand, the true story of Louis Zamperini, a fighter pilot during WWII, during which he survived a plane crash, forty-seven days on raft floating in the Pacific ocean, and several years as a POW. Towards the end of the book, he finds god. I was disappointed. “Really?” I asked him in my head as I read. “You single-handedly fought off sharks! You improvised to survive starvation and hellish elements, torture and abuse! And then you found God?!” True, when he found god, he was at a very low point in his life, suffering from PTSD, alcoholism, a violent temper and a failing marriage. But clearly, as demonstrated time and time again throughout his life up to that point, he had vast reserves of fortitude and strength and wherewithal and smarts and survival abilities within himself – he just stopped believing in himself. And god and Christianity offered him everything he could no longer see that he had inside himself. It was like Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion all over again.

But really, what’s wrong with this? What’s wrong with people believing that their strength comes from outside themselves? The way I see it, what it really does is not make people stronger, but instead exploits and encourages their frailties. It’s an illusion, a crutch, and it encourages people to not see the best in themselves, nor to tap into the best in themselves. “I am nothing without God.” So this imaginary, invisible being in the sky who is unable/unwilling to provide irrefutable evidence of its own existence – it gets all the credit. I see something very wrong with that. And that’s not even taking into consideration the pesky habit believers have of doing everyone the favor of enlightening us so that we, too, can benefit from their illusions.

I believe in myself, with all my strengths and weaknesses, and in my fellow human beings, not the smoke and mirrors of religious faith.