Be Better

My teenaged students often ask me (innocently) why I don’t have kids. I talk about my life and my nieces all the time, so it makes sense that they are curious. They are also at a point in their own lives where they are thinking about their futures and whether marriage and a family is something they eventually want.

When I was a teenager and just becoming sexually active, I was terrified of getting pregnant. At age 16, I had an older friend drive me to Planned Parenthood to get prescribed birth control pills. I always assumed that at some point when I was older, I would just know that I wanted children. Spoiler alert: that time never came. The idea of pregnancy and childbirth terrified me and when I got married at age 27, I kept waiting for my biological clock to start ticking. Then my marriage went to complete shit. My ex husband gave me an ultimatum about having a baby and I knew better than to bring a child into a bad relationship. I chose divorce.

In my 30s, more and more of my friends announced their pregnancies and I was delighted to buy strollers and onesies and pack-n-plays, but still never felt envious. If anything, experiencing pregnancy through the eyes of my friends made it even more unappealing to me. I excitedly met and cuddled their babies and still never felt the pull to be a mother. The only feeling I remember having is waves of guilt that my mother was not becoming a grandmother like her contemporaries were. To her credit, she never pressured me in any way about whether or not I wanted a baby.

When I was with my exboyfriend, there was a period of time when we discussed marriage and whether or not we really wanted to both close the door for good on parenthood. I was in my late 30s and he was five years younger, so the decision mostly fell in my lap. He, like most men, had more time. My time was running out. I went to my gynecologist for my annual exam and for the first time ever, she mentioned that I should really start seriously considering whether or not I wanted to have a baby. I told her my concerns and she offered to do a blood test that would determine my fertility.

I went into the test pretty nonchalantly, having the confidence of always having good health. My results were unexpected. She essentially said that I would not be able to get pregnant on my own and if I wanted to have a baby, I would need to see a specialist and most likely begin IVF immediately. Although it was surprisingly disappointing to have the choice of motherhood taken from me, I wasn’t devastated and felt as if that was the last real sign I needed that it just wasn’t in the cards for me.

As a teacher, I felt as if I had an opportunity to have a positive influence on children, just in a different capacity and it was fulfilling in a lot of ways. However, when my sister had her first daughter, I understood for the first time what parents always said about their children. My first niece made my heart explode with pure, unconditional, overwhelming love. My second niece made my heart expand in ways I didn’t think were even possible. I don’t know if I could love my own children as much as I love my two nieces. I would literally give my life for either of them and I desperately want them to have the happy childhood my sister and I did not have. I am so lucky to be a very active auntie. My sister lives in the same town as me and I see them almost every day. They are truly the loves of my life.

My mother jokes that my sister’s children are miniature versions of us. My older niece, who is five, is very much like me- in looks and temperament. She is fair skinned with blue eyes, and is so smart and sensitive. People often mistakenly assume she is my daughter when we are all out in public. My little niece, the two year old, is a clone of my sister. She has darker hair and brown eyes and is impish, funny, and stubborn like my sister.

My older niece (I will refer to her as Five) is very sensitive. She gets easily upset and her feelings are quick to be hurt. She is so sweet and cares about other people. Five also seems to be a little predisposed to anxiety- she is scared of thunder and afraid to fall of her bike. Her younger sister is fearless, like my sister was. I was terrified of rollercoasters growing up and my sister would be pulling my mom’s arm to get in line. Even when I was a teenager, I was still scared of storms and would climb in my sister’s bed at the first sight of lightening. I was the older sister, but was always more cautious, a natural worrier, and overly sensitive.

At first, the comparisons between Five and me would make me so happy. I loved her so much and I felt like there was such a connection between us that went beyond the normal auntie/niece bond. I glowed with pride when strangers would comment how much she looked like me (my sister would jokingly call me Aunt Mommy) But, as Five got older, I started worrying about the ways I DIDN’T want her to be like me. I don’t want either of my nieces to have their lives dictated by fears or anxiety or mental illness.

When Five would overreact and exhibit signs of any kind of anxiety, my sister would make comments like “she’s just like you.” This hurt me so much. I know my sister never said it to hurt me, but it did. Because of all the fears I have (and there are a lot), the biggest one I have is that Five will end up like me. It makes me sad to write that because I know I have a lot of amazing traits that I would be proud to pass on to her and her sister, but I do not want her to experience mental illness the way I have. I think deep down that was a big part of why I did not want my own children- that wanted to avoid having a child be genetically predisposed to the mental health issues I have.

My nieces are a huge reason why I fight to stay healthy and try to manage my anxiety and panic disorders and agoraphobia. I know I am not doing a great job at it right now, but I am working through it all. I just worry as they get older, they will start to notice things more and more. I just want every aspect of their lives to be better than mine and I want them to be better than me.

A cry for help

There is a little girl across the street from my sister’s house who is a couple of years older than my five year old niece and the two of them hit it off and became fast friends. She comes over almost every day to play with my niece (I will refer to the girl as A.) A. has two older brothers and her parents spoil her lot (she seems to really rule the roost at her house), but they often take advantage of my sister’s generosity when it comes to watching their child. A. is bossy to my niece and often does not have the best manners. My family nicknamed her “Kimmy Gibbler” (Lol! If you know, you know…). I find A. quite annoying and I do not think she is a great influence on my niece’s behavior, but she still is a child, so I always try to be nice to her. If I pick up a little gift or candy or balloons for my nieces and I know A. is at the house, I get an extra one for her. My sister makes sure she has A.’s favorite juice boxes, even though her girls do not ever drink them, and she often makes her plain, buttered noodles for dinner since she is a picky eater.

I think my sister and I both got the impression early on that A. gravitates to my sister’s house for a reason and that something was not right at A.’s house. A.’s mother is originally from Russia and is a very sweet woman. When I first met A.’s father I definitely got a negative vibe from him. Another neighbor told my sister that she had once called the police out of concern after overhearing loud arguing coming from A.’s family’s house. A. would occasionally say disturbing things about her family. When my niece had her first wiggly tooth, we were having dinner and talking about it. A. said something about her older brother losing a tooth when their dad hit him in the face. My sister and immediately locked eyes across the table.

One day over the summer, A. had eaten dinner at my sister’s house and it was getting dark out, so I offered to walk her home. She told me just her dad was home and that she needed to use the back door, so we headed to the back of the house. The back door was locked. She rang the doorbell and no one came to the door. A. started to knock loudly on the door and I heard her father scream, “fucking go away and stop fucking knocking!” in a really furious voice. My heart immediately started to race and I swear I had a moment of PTSD of my father yelling at me in the same kind of tone. I calmly took A.’s hand and said, “let’s go back to my sister’s and wait for your mom.” This was the first of two occasions that I heard her father scream at his seven year old daughter like that . It bothered so much and my sister and I talked about it a lot, but both agreed there really was not much we could do, except to offer A. a safe space. My heart went out to a little girl that I could unfortunately relate to all too well. Even though no one explicitly said it, I just assumed her father was a drinker, most likely because of the parallels to my own dad.

The other day, A.’s mother confided in my sister that things have gotten worse and that she is concerned that all of the fighting that has been happening between her and her husband has been negatively affecting their children. Their middle school aged son has been suspended two times from school for fighting. She told my sister that her husband has been drinking more and is in “denial”. I feel so bad for her and the children, and it is a helpless feeling to know that someone is in a bad situation like that. It is also bringing up a lot of negative memories about my own childhood and what my sister and I experienced with my parents.

It makes me wonder if my mom ever tried to ask anyone for help or how many people tried to help her. A lot of our neighbors knew that my dad was abusive, evidenced by how often they called to police to come to our house. My paternal grandmother supposedly offered to give my mother money to divorce and leave my father. I just don’t know what my sister can- or should- do. I said that we should put together some resources for her. My sister is in a group text with a few other women on her street, who are all concerned and are on alert to watch out for the children if they need help.

It is just SUCH a sad situation. As much as “Kimmy Gibbler” drives me crazy when she is at my sister’s house, I have so much empathy for her. Being the child of an alcoholic, and an abusive one, has defined and shaped a lot of my life. It is difficult to reflect back on how terribly my father treated my mother and my sister and me. I never want anyone else, especially a child, to experience that. I know I am making assumptions and I do not really know what is going on in A.’s house, but I do know that she wants to be at my sister’s house for hours and hours every day and there is most likely a reason why. I am so proud of my sister for breaking the cycle and creating such a safe and happy home for my nieces…and for A.

Hold on…let me overthink this

So much of my anxiety is anticipatory. Like 90% of it. I know this, yet it is really hard to control. It is almost impossible to tell myself to just simply not think about something. It would be like me saying to you, “close your eyes and DON’T think about the color blue.” ALL you are going to do is think about and imagine the color blue. Since so much of my anxiety is related to travel and most travel or trips or drives are planned and not spontaneous, I suffer from anticipatory anxiety almost constantly. If I am invited to a dinner or event, I anticipate it for the days leading up to it. I overplan, checking Waze and other maps to see how long it will take to get there. I overthink all the different things that could go wrong or the elements I can’t control.

Even with horrible anxiety and panic disordered, I have always been pretty independent. I preferred (and still do prefer) to drive somewhere alone. I never want to be a burden to someone or ruin their time by having anxiety. My sister went away for a weekend over this past summer, during the same time I had a negative reaction to a new antidepressant, and I had the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I have ever experienced. It is still hard to think- or write- about. My sister has been planning a girls’ weekend trip to Florida for the first weekend in December (like fly out Friday and home Monday) and I have been soooooo anxious about it. It has literally ruined the entire month of November for me. I just think over and over, like a broken record, that I don’t want her to go. Selfishly, it isn’t that I think something will happen to HER, rather it is that I think something will happen to ME.

I have never been or felt so dependent on other people. I never had this kind of a reaction to someone else going away. I was desperately hoping for something to happen to prevent her from going, but I also knew that wasn’t fair to her. She didn’t ask to be my person like this and she is a hard-working mom who deserves a fun weekend away. It has been difficult because she is the person I am closest to and who I would confide in the most about these things, but I don’t want her to feel guilty about leaving me or me being upset.

The most confusing thing about this is that I don’t logically know WHY I need her so much or why I am so afraid for her to be away. But, like most people with anxiety, I know that logic really goes out the window. My therapist has pointed out many times that I am actually the one who does things almost daily for my sister, whether it is babysitting my nieces, running errands, picking something up for her, helping her with something at her house, etc. I do a lot for my sister and yet I feel this immense panic at the thought of her being far away.

It is frustrating because I don’t need ANOTHER thing to be anxious about. I have enough things already and now it feels like I am adding something new to the list, while still not making a lot of progress on my existing triggers.

Tears in Heaven

My best friend’s mother passed away very suddenly. Growing up, she was like a second mother to me. I always called her “Ma” and she always called me a special nickname. It happened so quickly…like after years of battling one health problem and thriving, she was diagnosed with a second, unrelated disease and within 48 hours she was gone.

Almost every single loss I have suffered in my life has been unexpected and sudden. A good friend died by suicide. He jumped off a bridge in NYC. My ex boyfriend, M., of ten years had a heart attack and was found dead in his apartment. I have lost other friends to drug overdoses, which even though you know they are struggling with addiction, you still think they will ultimately survive. The only deaths I have dealt with that were not huge shocks were the loss of my grandparents, who were in their 90s…and even with them, they were in such good health for their age and died peacefully in their sleep.

It is really hard to write this without sounding and feeling so selfish, but the loss of my Ma has made me feel so scared to lose my own parents. My father’s health has been so bad for so long that it is easy to think that he will continue to beat the odds. I literally can’t even think about something happening to my mother without feeling ill. Watching my best friend go through having to tell her children that their Nanny is in heaven and plan a funeral was heartbreaking. I honestly don’t know how she got through it and is making it through each day as a functional person.

I logically know that eventually my mom and dad will no longer be here with us. And I understand that it is the circle of life and children are supposed to outlive their parents. I just honestly don’t know how I will be able to get though it. I had a complete breakdown with my panic disorder over the summer and contemplated going to a mental institution to get help and literally nothing was even wrong in my life (I mean that’s a whole other story really…) I can’t imagine how I will survive losing my mother.

I feel comforted by the fact that my Ma was such a religious and spiritual person. I really am not, but I do believe that she is in heaven, reunited with her husband, and is no longer in pain. But she was only 64…she was supposed to be here to watch her grandchildren grow up. Life just seems very unfair sometimes. My mother just turned 75 and although she is so youthful and energetic and healthy, I am so so scared of losing her.

My best friend confided in me that she feels so angry that her mom is gone. I remember after M. died, I read so much about the stages of grief and I was stuck in the anger phase for a really long time. It was like as long as I stayed mad- at his family, the circumstances, etc- I didn’t have to face the fact he was really, truly gone forever. I would never see him again. I would never talk to him again. That was it- the end of his life. At 37 years old, his story was over.

But I eventually started to work through it and I found an article about the Herschel Theory. It essentially explains grief like a big box with a “pain” button inside of it. There is a giant ball that is almost the size of the box and as it bounces around inside the box it always hits that button, and you always feel pain. As time goes on, the ball gets smaller and smaller. It can bounce off the walls of the box without always hitting the pain button, but occasionally it still hits it. That is when grief just hits you out of nowhere. That is how I feel now with M. I am not consumed by his death anymore- the ball is pretty small. But occasionally I just remember he is gone or a memory or something and I am flooded with grief. My best friend’s “grief ball” is humongous, but I hope that with time, she will be able to think of her mother and remember all the happy memories without the lightning bolt of pain from her loss or the deep, dull sadness of her mother’s absence.

And someday, I will be her in shoes and I dread that day so much. Today, my family went out to lunch- my dad, mom, sister, two nieces, and me. I can count on one hand how many times we have done that- certainly never when my dad was actively drinking. It just reminded me again why I made the decision I did to try to forgive my father and allow myself to make new memories with him and our family. I know one day when he is gone, I will be grateful to have them.

It’s my party (and I’ll cry if I want to)

I have never been a huge birthday person and this year was no exception. To say the past month has been hard is an understatement of epic proportions. The only thing I really wanted for my birthday was to start feeling better. Thanks to lots of extra therapy, time, effort, patience, and medication, I was happy that by my birthday I was starting to feel like myself again. The panic attacks I was having seem to have tapered down and my anxiety has been more manageable.

My sister always makes me feel really special on my birthday- we always go all out for each other. Because my boyfriend’s birthday is the day after mine, we celebrated together with pizza and cake at my sister’s house with her, my nieces, his two sons, and my parents. It was a laid back day and I was glad to be with everyone.

My boyfriend and his kids left to go pick up the pizza right around the time my sister got home with the ice cream cake. I was hanging out in her living room with my parents and my sister made a comment about my dad paying for the cake. I already knew this because he not only mentioned it several times throughout the day, but also commented more than once about how expensive it was. I took it with a grain of salt because I don’t think my dad always gets how much things cost now and I knew the cake was expensive because I had purchased the same one for my sister’s 40th birthday.

I jokingly said to my sister, “yeah dad mentioned it about six times”, kind of laughing and he FREAKED OUT. He sat straight up on the couch across from me, pointed his finger at me, and through gritted teeth yelled “you are a LIAR. YOU ARE A FUCKING LIAR.” In that moment, I honestly get like if he was physically able to get up and attack me he would have. He became so immediately, irrationally irate. My sister and my mom and I were all just shocked and I muttered that I was just kidding and that I appreciated the cake.

For the next few minutes, I just silently stared down at my phone because I had tears welling up in my eyes and I was so shocked and embarrassed and uncomfortable. Thank god my boyfriend and his kids and my nieces were not in the room when it happened.

So, I’m hindsight, perhaps my joke was not funny, even though I had thanked him every time he mentioned the cake and it was said in a very lightheaded manner. But, I was so taken aback by his reaction, I felt so awkward the rest of the night. I can tell he did, too, because he was really quiet.

Later that night, once everyone was home, my mom called me to talk about it. I was surprised by this because she normally kind of sweeps things under the rug. She was really upset and upset that I was upset. My family obviously knows that I have been having a really difficult time, so I think she just felt very badly about his behavior. My mom and sister and I have been having more conversations lately about the possibility of him developing the onset symptoms of dementia or something like that and I know anger and agitation are some of the first signs.

Regardless of what it was, my sister summed it up best afterwards. She texted me saying, “It shocked me too and it made me upset and instantly brought me back to childhood when he used to scream like a psychopath at the top of his lungs about us being liars.” I swear we both have some form of PTSD from how he acted during our childhood days.

The most important things are that I am feeling better and I was with all the people I love and I’m trying to focus on that, but it was a reminder how delicate the boundary is between the old way of life for my family and the currently status quo. My dad is one drink away from turning back into that monster again and I think seeing that glimpse of him reminded me that no matter how good things seem now, there is still always the threat of that looming under the surface.

Well, that didn’t go as planned…

Like most teachers, I tend to kick off my summer with ambition plans. THIS summer was finally going to be the one where I focused on my health and practiced self-care. I was going to make myself a little daily plan that included hitting the gym and eating well. I was going to read a ton and walk a lot and go in my pool and see my friends for lunch and do some small house updates, etc.

Well, to say that things did not go as planned would literally be the understatement of the freaking century. I am not a person who does well without routine and since I didn’t have a job to wake up for (or kids to take care of or really any other responsibilities besides feeding my cats), I ended up lounging around a lot. And then that turned into staying home more. And then THAT turned into me getting more anxious when I DID have to go somewhere. Only a few weeks into my “relaxing, self-care, healthy me! summer” and I told my therapist that I thought I needed to go back on an antidepressant. This was not a shock to either of us because my issues with agoraphobia started to spiral out of control in the spring, after two years of covid giving me a completely valid excuse to not have to go anywhere. I guess I convinced myself that I was going to use my summer off to work on getting better and expand my comfort zone, but then the opposite happened.

I went to my doctor and she prescribed me Prozac. I have taken a few different medications over the past two decades, so I was open to trying something new. I have a lot of medication anxiety (which is the literal definition of irony when you need medication because of having anxiety). But I knew that I needed to go on something and I accepted that. The first couple of days were fine. I had a little dry mouth and lost my appetite completely. I can definitely afford to lose some weight, so this side effect wasn’t a deal breaker.

After only being on the medication for a week, my sister left on a four day vacation with her family that was about a five to six hour car ride away from the town we both live in. I was anxious about her leaving. She has always been my “person” (or if you are a Friends fan…my “lobster”), so I was uncomfortable about her being so far away, but I tried not to burden her with my fears because I was happy she was taking a well deserved vacation with my nieces and brother-in-law.

She left and I COMPLETELY LOST MY SHIT. I honestly don’t even know what happened. I have had panic attacks obviously, but they usually hit and then subside. I have had lingering anxiety, but even that eventually has a period of relief. I had what felt like panic attacks 24 hours a day the whole time she was gone. I have never experienced anything like it. I completely shut down and wouldn’t talk to anyone. I could not get off my couch. There were times I wanted the blanket off my legs and I couldn’t do it- I couldn’t muster the energy to peel the blanket off of myself. I didn’t eat, hardly drank water, and just felt like I was having heart palpitations. I obsessively thought about needing to go to a mental institution or the hospital. I desperately wanted her to come home. No one else could soothe me at all, not for lack of trying. I felt like I was crawling out of my own skin and I was terrified about what was happening to me.

I called my doctor, who told me to stop the Prozac. I somehow survived the weekend and my sister came home. I thought that as soon as she was home, I would immediately feel better. I didn’t. It’s been another week now and I am just starting to feel a little better. I still am having SO much anxiety and am taking Xanax several times a day. I have had a bunch of extra appointments with my psychologist. I even went back to the doctor and unfortunately, my primary care physician was on vacation and I saw another doctor, who told me to (and I literally quote) “bake a cake for your sister and read The Secret” and then she patted my arm and said, “you feel better, right? Ok good”.

I desperately tried to find a new psychiatrist and it was SO hard. It really made me realize how messed up our mental health care system is. And I am privileged enough to have health insurance and the internet and the ability to make phone calls. My appointment isn’t until Tuesday and I am just trying to make it through each day until then.

I don’t know if it was a negative reaction to the medication or just complete fear of being without my sister, but I was genuinely so scared and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I still do not feel right. I am still so anxious. It is not completely crippling like it was last week, but it is there- steady and festering. I am scared about what to do next. My mother came to my house to sit next to me and make me shower and I remember saying to her that I promise I would never hurt myself, but that I can now understand why people do. I wanted the panic and fear and pain to end. I still do. I literally felt that I was going to die.

I feel like this all just sounds so stupid and is just not capturing how bad I felt. But I guess those who know, know. I still don’t feel like myself. I worry about the damage I did to my relationship with my completely normal and not mentally ill AT ALL boyfriend, who was so sweet and caring and probably shit scared. I know the feeling of helplessness that comes when you are the one having to deal with this. I am sure he sees me differently now. I worry about the stress I caused my family, the burden I have placed on my sister, the guilt that I have or will negatively influence my sweet little nieces.

I hate this. If I won the billion dollar mega millions lottery yesterday, I would trade the winning ticket to make this go away forever. Every shooting star, ever birthday cake candle, every time the clock shows 11:11, I make the same wish: please make my anxiety go away. I’m so tired. I’m so tired of it. I realized this week that I have suffered from anxiety and panic and agoraphobia for almost HALF OF MY LIFE now.

So, my only plan now is to try to stay busy, make myself eat and drink enough to stay alive and make it to this appointment with the new psychiatrist. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself. I keep seeing my friends’ pictures on social media of them being at the beach or on vacation or at a concert and I have shut most of them out and when they ask me what I did over the summer, I am not sure if I should be like “had a total nervous breakdown”?? Maybe I should actually read The Secret and learn to bake so I can just say I did that (I kid). I have always been my own worst enemy so I am trying to just go easy on myself, but it is really hard sometimes to just hate the mental illness and not actually hate me.

Stairway to (not) heaven

My parent’s house is beautiful. It is very large- around 4,000+ square feet. I was very lucky to grow up in such a nice house. I had my own bedroom with a huge walk in closet. My younger sister and I shared a big bathroom and had our own separate living room, furnished with couches, a computer desk, a closet full of games, and a TV for us to watch MTV and play Nintendo. I had a very privileged upbringing and am grateful for that.

However, as my ex-husband used to sarcastically say about my family: “big house, no problems”. I have often jokingly referred to my childhood home as The House of Horrors (The Simpsons reference!). Hidden behind the three car garage and perfect landscaping were secrets. My dad was successful at a very well-paying job. My mom was able to stay home with us and was a volunteer at our school. Our McMansion gave the world the appearance of a perfect family. This was far from the truth.

My sister and I were talking about our childhood memories last night, which we seldom do. I wonder why we don’t talk about it more. My sister said something about just how truly traumatic it was for us. We talked about our nightly family dinners, without a doubt the worst part of every day. Our mother would make dinner and call my sister and me to to the kitchen. Then she would either get my dad or ask/force one of us to call him to the table. He always was drunk and he always was nasty. I feel like I have blocked a lot of this out, but my sister remembers it all so clearly. She said that I would eat as fast as possible, like I barely chewed my food. I did this so I could be excused from the table. I still eat so fast to this day. My parents would inevitably end up screaming at each other (mostly my dad yelling at my mom) and my father would throw things and leave the kitchen and before long my sister would be sitting alone at the table. She is admittedly an emotional overeater and she thinks it stemmed from this.

Where my sister vividly remembers these dinners, what I recall the most is the stairs in my parents house. There are actually two sets of stairs- the front and the back. The first is more grand, it starts in the entryway of the house and you see it as you walk in the front door. My sister and I were not allowed to use the front stairs because my parents wanted to keep them clean. We used the back stairs (I know this makes us sound like hired help lol). They were located on the side of the house and led from the garage door up to our playroom (which is the living room that belonged to us). Basically, you could walk in the front door, go up the front stairs, go down the hallways where the bedrooms were, end up at the playroom, go down the back stairs, go down the hallway into the kitchen and then turn down another hallway into the front foyer where the front staircase was. It was a giant loop. I’m explaining this in detail because completing this loop became part of my survival mode. When my father was drunk, he often chased us. That sounds really peculiar to write, but I am not sure how else to explain it. He would literally run after me and I 100% believed that if he caught me, I was going to be hurt. So if I talked back or ignored him or didn’t do exactly what I said I was going to do, he would quickly stand up from his spot on the couch in their living room, which was attached to the kitchen. That was my cue to run. I would take off towards one of the staircases, which provided a nice escape route through the house. He usually gave up very quickly, his point simply being made by the threat itself. He just wanted to instill fear and he was successful.

A lot of other memories involve the stairs. I remember my sister and me sitting at the top of the front stairs, listening to my parents fight. There were times the red and blue lights of a police car would illuminate the front foyer and we would “spy” on my mom answering the front door to convince the officers everything was fine.

One time we were all in the main family room and I told my dad I was going to go upstairs to get something from my bedroom and would be back in five minutes. Like a typical teenager, I must have gotten distracted by something and stayed in my room longer. When I returned, my father was angry and determined to teach me what “five minutes was”. He made me follow him to the back staircase, where I stood on the landing and faced the blank wall. He set a timer for five minutes.

There was the time my mother came home and found him lying on the tile floor at the bottom of the front stairs. He was very drunk and fell. I have always wondered if for one, terrible moment she believed he was dead and if she felt a fleeting sense of overwhelming relief. He was very alive, though.

Sometimes when my sister and I talk about these things or I write about them, I feel guilty. My dad has been sober for over two years and seems like a different person. His role as my niece’s “Papa” could not be more different than my experiences of him as a father. I have been struggling a lot about the past vs now. I am obviously glad that he is not drinking and is not the monster he used to be, but it is still hard to reconcile who he was when he did these terrible things to the gentle-ish giant he is now.

My sister and I talk a lot about my parents selling their house and how it is simply too large for them to live in alone, especially since they are in their 70s now. My sister said they need to find a home that is just one floor and my gut reaction was to think “how will mom get away from him without the staircases?!?!?” It is just so crazy how it has been so long since I lived in my childhood home and yet these memories feel so vivid in my mind.

Time

Dear M,

When I think of you now, so much relates to time. Even from the beginning of our relationship, time was a factor. How many days would pass before we saw each other? How many days until you moved in with me? And then…how many days were you sober, how many days were in the coma, how many days were you in the hospital? As an English teacher, it is ingrained in me to find symbolism. The object that would most symbolize you would be a wrist watch. Very fitting considering how much you loved your Omega.

But time is different now when it comes to you. It is no longer days. After you died, it became weeks and then months and then finally…a year. I was dreading February so much. November always was my least favorite month because of losing my grandparents and getting divorced. February tried to take that title over.

With the date you died looming, my emotions were all over the place. But, strangely, on that day I felt so little. I had grieved so much for so long, it felt anticlimactic. I slept a lot, which indicated I was sad, but I planned to look through my “M box”- a tote of things I had packed up when we broke up and then stuffed new things into after you passed away. I told myself all year long I would look at it on the anniversary of your death (there needs to be a better word than “anniversary” for something sad). I finally did open the box at night and looked at photos and items that belonged to the dog and so, so many cards. It was sweet and I felt nostalgic, but I was not overcome with sadness like I thought I would be. I talked with my therapist about it afterwards and she thinks because I finally got answers about how you died, I had more closure than I thought I had.

A week or so later, my sister and I went out to dinner for your birthday. You would have been 39. I took her to “our” restaurant, which I had not been to since we broke up. It actually felt like a celebration. Again, instead of feeling sad, I was happy to remember you and all the good memories of our life together. It really felt like turning a corner. Being able to think about you and focusing on your life instead of you being sick or drunk or dead. I really celebrated your life on your birthday and it felt…right.

I will ALWAYS be sad about you being gone. It is just a part of who I am now. But, February is almost over and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I finally felt a sense of peace, of being able to move on, of being able to balance grieving your loss and remembering happier times with you.

There is a quote by Robert Frost that I always have up in my classroom: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.” This past year, I have missed you, I have been depressed, I have been heartbroken, I have been SO angry, but my life has also gone on. I have been overjoyed, I have been happy, and I have fallen deeper in love with a wonderful man. I would like to think it is what you would have wanted for me.

RIP Tony

I babysat my little nieces the other day and I asked the four year old if she wanted to FaceTime her grandmother. She replied, “Mama’s dying”. I couldn’t help but laugh. My mother had a stomach virus, so I’m sure she FELT like she was dying, but she certainly is very alive. I had to explain “exaggeration” to my niece. We then got ready to FaceTime my mom to say hi. Before I could finish setting it up, my niece continues with this:

“My uncle is dead.” I know my sister talks about my exboyfriend/her uncle/her godfather with her a lot and has explained death in a child appropriate way to her. Her paternal grandfather died before she was born, so they talk about him often.

“I know. Unc did die,” I responded, not really thinking too much about it. But then she continued, “Do you want to know how?” That stopped me in my tracks. “How?”, I asked, having no idea what her response was going to be. She confidently replied, “he drank too much alcohol.”

Now, obviously she was repeating this from my sister. My niece is four and does not even know what alcohol is. I was very shocked at her response and didn’t know what to say, but luckily the FaceTime call connected and she started talking to my mom, the conversation already forgotten (by her).

When my sister got home from work I told her about the conversation and we talked about it. First she seemed surprised too and thought maybe my niece overheard an adult conversation, but later she said that she does try to tell her the truth about questions she asks. I wasn’t mad or anything, more just surprised I guess.

My sister and I have had discussions about eventually talking to my two nieces about alcoholism and how much to actually tell them about our father. They LOVE my dad. They only know their Papa as a sober man. And I hate to admit this, but one of the driving forces in my breakup with M. before he died was not wanting my nieces growing up with an active alcoholic in their lives. I am so close with them and spend so much time with them, I just do not want them exposed to alcoholism as children. I am relieved that they do not have anyone in their lives now that drinks.

But I also know that there is a genetic element to alcoholism and it is important for them to know the dangers of addiction. I don’t think they necessarily need to know everything from our own childhood or about my dad being abusive. I feel like that would just be so damaging to them. Growing up, my paternal grandfather was one of my very favorite people. He passed away when I was 12 years old. Many years later, my mother confessed to me that my grandpa was very much like my father- that he was an alcoholic and very, very mean. Obviously he was able to control that when I was around him because I had no idea. I felt so hurt, betrayed, and angry when I found out and I think it marred his memory some. I hated thinking about him in a negative way. I am very appreciative that my sister involves me in these decisions, although I would obviously support her and I know that as their mother she has the right to make all of her own decisions when it comes to the girls.

Last night my sister called me, whispering into the phone. “Tony’s dead! What should I do? Should I go get another fish to replace him or do I just tell her?” Tony is (was?) my niece’s blue and red betta fish. She said she was going to talk to her husband when he got home and they would decide what to do. I quickly googled an article from a psychologist about what to say to children when pets that pass away and sent it to her. It said that most children can handle the loss of their pet and it is important for them to talk about it, feel sad, etc. It is a part of the circle of life.

When asked my personal opinion, I half jokingly said, “well if you can tell her the truth about her Uncle dying, I think you can do the same about her fish.” I guess it kind of bothered me more than I thought that she knew the circumstances of M’s death. But I think more than anything, I just still feel so sad. It’s still SO hard. And I am glad that they still talk about him and loved him so much. I want his memory to stay alive and for everyone to remember him. It is coming up on the one year anniversary of his death and it still feels so raw.

❤️ This post is in memory of Tony 😆 He was a really cool little fish 🐟

There is always something to be thankful for

Dear M,

Happy Thanksgiving in heaven, love. I have been thinking about you SO much lately- more than usual. As you know, before you moved in with me, this time of year was always difficult. I had so many bad things happen in November- filing for divorce, my grandparents passing away, my dad having a stroke, my sister getting sick- I dreaded the month and Thanksgiving went from being one of my favorite holidays to just another day. Then, it became “our” holiday. Do you remember the first time we made a turkey? I can’t think about it without laughing. We must have watched 15 youtube videos and called my mom ten times! The best part was when I made the herb butter mix and you figured out how to get it under the skin. I was crying from laughing so hard. By the second year, we had a lot more confidence, but it was still a lot of work. After that, we were pros! And then, of course, there was the annual (and very epic) turkey leg photo. How that became a tradition, I have no idea, but those pictures are some of my favorite of you.

I know I am feeling nostalgic and not remembering everything. We definitely had some pretty bad arguments, my family always added a layer of stress, and I always worried if you were drinking before and during them being here. But I think for today, I just want to remember the good memories of all of our Thanksgivings together. It is still hard to believe that you are no longer here. After you got sick and we broke up, I made my sister start hosting Thanksgiving at her house. It was just too hard to do it without you and I was too sad. But there is a world of difference between us not being together and knowing you are with your family and I am with mine and you being gone.

It breaks my heart to know that you will never have another Thanksgiving. That there will never be another turkey leg photo to add to the collection. We aren’t having a traditional dinner this year, my sister wanted to do just appetizers and desserts (which would have been right up your alley) and I am secretly glad. I feel like I would have seen a turkey leg and cried. It is pretty weird and funny that something like a turkey leg can make me think of you.

I have so much to be thankful for this year (M, you should see our niece- she is amazing and you would love the baby!) Rather than being sad today, I am going to try to smile and think about you and the happy moments we shared together on this day.