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Rememberance

Six years ago today, on a Friday morning full of promise, my wife, her best friend and I had just left our home en route for Florida to visit Maria and Cristina’s childhood friends. We were less than a mile from home when my cell phone rang. I was in the backseat with Lucy, our squatty white labrador-dachshund mix. It was my brother, George. I answered cheerily and cautious. I hadn’t been able to get in touch with my father or stepmother for two days before. I had called my brother in tears just 24 hours ago. I had a terrible feeling and I wanted to speak to our father. But he hadn’t heard from him either. And now my big brother was telling me in a croaking voice full of sorrow, “Dad’s dead.”

“No way,” I responded as my world went from sunny and light to gray and bleak in a matter of seconds. There was no possible way that my father, 61, healthy, loving and wonderful, could be gone. I choked on my own air that I was gasping in far too fast as my brother explained what he knew: that it appeared he’d had a heart attack while his wife, our stepmother, was at the barn checking on their horses. He’d died alone. That crushing new knowledge bent me over. George said he was headed to Athens, and we hung up, exchanging “I love yous” as we always did.

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What happened next was unbearable as I looked up at my wife and Cristina and said that my father had died and could we go back home. It was an absurd request, but I wasn’t thinking clearly, that of course my wife would be turning the car around and driving the half-mile back to our home and that Cristina would get on the phone to try to fly back to New York while I curled myself into a crumpled ball of hideous heartbreak on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor, unable to do anything but moan as salty tears soaked my cheeks, meeting a runny nose, connecting to the saliva pooling at my open mouth, jaw slack.

My wife came and checked on me but there was nothing she could do. My world had come crashing down and I was shaking from the shock and the grief.

In the week to come while we took time off from work and life to grieve at my father and stepmother’s home in a lake community outside of Athens, my brother and I bonded more than ever before. We were already incredibly close and now this – the loss of our shared hero – had left us clinging to one another in a state of devastation. Every year on Oct. 3 since my father’s death has been difficult as I remember the punch to my chest of the shocking loss. But every day without him has been far more challenging. Every time something big has occurred, like my wedding or the launch of my own magazine or the birth of my twin sons, I’ve wanted him there to celebrate with.

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My dad never missed an opportunity to tell me how proud he was of me, and it meant the world to me to have a parent like that. And when things have gotten rough, as they often do, like when my mother disowned me or I found out I had a life-threatening genetic heart disease or I watched my brother suffer in a hospital bed for 14 weeks before passing away from organ failure at age 36, or when my son was diagnosed with autism, it would have been soothing to have my dad to lean on. And then the lazy, normal days, when there’s nothing going on but an ambling walk on a dirt road, surrounded by eager, wet-nosed dogs and our precocious sons my dad never met, sunlight glinting through the green-leafed oak trees, my heart hurts for him, then, too. Sometimes I just want to call him up and say hi, and hear him say again in his sweet Long Island voice, “Hey, darlin’. I’ve been thinking so much about you and what you’ve been up to. Tell me everything.”

 

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family, healing

Waiting to Live: Fighting an Insurance Company for a Life-Saving Surgery

thanksgiving-with-twins

I felt a lump in my throat as I padded down the stairs, having just kissed my darling twin toddlers goodnight. “I love you, Mommy,” my youngest called after me. “I love you, too, sweet boy. Get some rest,” I replied rather hoarsely, as my throat was swelling with a wail I couldn’t let out. “I’ll see you boys in the morning.” But would I live that long?

That is the question I lay awake with until the wee hours of the morning, unless I self-medicate with over-the-counter sleeping aids. And even then, I toss and turn, sitting upright to check my pulse on the heart rate monitor my wife insisted we purchase the day our insurance company decided it wasn’t going to cover my life- saving surgery.

On Jan. 2, I was diagnosed with Brugada syndrome, an incredibly rare genetic heart disease that sharply increases my chances of dropping dead from sudden cardiac arrest. That’s when your heart suddenly stops beating—not like a heart attack, where blood stops pumping to your heart and you’ve got some time for someone to bring you back to life. With cardiac arrest, someone must be performing CPR within mere seconds for you to have a remote chance to survive. That’s a lot of pressure for my twin 2- year-olds and my graphic designer wife to live under. And it’s quite a heavy wet blanket of fear for me to try to exist under. Though I’ve managed to face most days optimistically, I must admit that it’s been a struggle to keep that oft-seen smile throughout this ordeal.

Eleven months ago, I lost my good-natured 36-year-old brother, my only sibling, after a 15-week hospitalized battle with severe acute pancreatitis. I was by his side throughout it all, working with both the hospital and hospice to ensure he had the best care. I took on that role because four years prior to that, we lost my 61-year-old sweet father to either a heart attack or cardiac arrest. The men I loved most died far too young.

It would be far less stressful if I had a defibrillator implanted in my chest, which would shock my heart if I ever go into cardiac arrest. That’s the understood course of action for someone with Brugada syndrome: to surgically place an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) inside the chest, wiring the heart with tech-savvy skill to send electrical shocks of power to jolt my heart back into normal rhythm. I’ve heard it’s much like a horse kicking you in the chest. I’ll take that over death any day.

So why did Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia decide mere days before my scheduled surgery in late January that my ICD “is not medically necessary” and merely “investigational?” Because some mystery determiner of my fate didn’t care for my results on one of the tests I had done in December called an EP study. The procedure, which was performed by my electrophysiologist, a respected cardiologist specializing in the electrical workings of the heart, involves threading two catheters from the groin to the heart and watching it on multiple screens while simultaneously injecting medicine meant to provoke abnormal rhythms in the heart. In other parts of the world, ajmaline is used. It’s not legal in the United States, so procainamide is used instead.

The EP study is just one way to view the inner workings of a person’s heart, but it is not the deciding factor for a diagnosis of Brugada syndrome. The American Heart Association, the Oxford Journal and Dr. Brugada have all published studies indicating that there are numerous Brugada patients who do not have a positive reaction to the EP study, and there are cases of false negatives as well. A more indicative factor for Brugada syndome is the unmistakable pattern on the EKG, which I have without a doubt. It’s a cove shape, recognizable at once to electrophysiologists and apparent to anyone else once their attention has been drawn to it. The Brugada pattern appears on multiple EKGs of mine. It is my understanding that no one has this distinctive pattern on their EKGs if they don’t have Brugada.

The specific EKG readings of a Brugada patient were discovered in the early ’90s by Dr. Ramon Brugada, a cardiologist from Spain, during his and his brother’s investigation into a dizzying number of sudden, unexplained deaths. It was a joyous moment, I’m sure, when the brothers realized that there was a link, not only on the EKGs of patients with Brugada, but also in a lot of other scientific evidence that you can read about on brugada.org, such as sodium channel blockers and even a possible gene mutation.

Since Dr. Brugada’s a-ha moment, the arrhythmia specialists the whole world over have been learning about this rare disease. Currently, it’s believed that 1 in 10,000 people have it, it’s inherited from one parent, it usually occurs in men, it’s most often seen in Southeast Asia, people who die from it tend to be around 40 years old, and it often strikes in the early morning while the person is sleeping. I’ll turn 36 on March 1, two days after the year anniversary of my brother’s death. I don’t want to die young. I want to watch my children grow up; to teach them to love to read and, from them, to glean patience and how to better enjoy the small details; to hold hands with my wife and share a watery glance when our boys graduate high school and then college; to help my brother’s children never forget their dedicated father who left this earth too soon; and to soak up the sunshine, walk on crisp leaves and welcome the stomach cramps from laughing with my friends.

I have a responsibility to myself and to my family to strive for living. And I believed that my insurance company had a responsibility to honor the comprehensive plan my self-employed wife and I have been earnestly shelling out hundreds of dollars for on a monthly basis.

But what has happened instead has surprised me. After I read the rejection letter from BCBS, I called my doctor’s office. They were as surprised as I was, though they’d received the letter a day before I had, and had already attempted on numerous occasions to get in touch with BCBS to demand answers, a peer-to-peer review (in which my doctor would speak to a doctor employed by BCBS) or to file an appeal. During the last two weeks of January, voicemails for the insurance company were left by my doctor’s office and by me amidst perilously long holding times, during which an automatic recording would say over and over that the long wait times were due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. One time, the recording told me that because of the Affordable Care Act and the increased call volume, they knew they’d be unable to answer my call that day and then I heard a dial tone. It was only 1 p.m. I was enraged and quite scared of the implications. Finally, during the first week of February, the wheels have slowly begun to turn as my electrophysiologist (EP) was at last able to speak to the doctor who turned me down for my ICD. And yet, that wasn’t enough. Because surprisingly, the doctor who decided my fate is not qualified in electrophysiology, but instead is a general cardiologist. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by thinking that this doctor likely does not know that much about my rare disease, and, of course, I’m reeling that he gets to decide whether or not I shall live based on something he isn’t informed about. My EP is now waiting for an electrophysiologist employed by Blue Cross Blue Shield to review my case.

Will I die waiting for a simple procedure that’s afforded to people with much more mild heart issues than mine because of this mysterious denial? If only my insurance company would listen to the extensive expertise of my personal doctor, the one who knows me better than anyone of the anonymous reviewers who aren’t immersed in specialty cases for rare life-threatening diseases like mine.

It does not seem to matter that I might have a familial history of sudden cardiac death or that I’ve had frequent bouts of dizziness and an unexplained galloping heartbeat. Why does an American company that doesn’t personally know me get to make money off of my hard-earned monthly premiums to what I thought was medical coverage in case of emergency while I sit here with my family wondering if this is my last breath? Sadly, I’m learning quickly that insurance isn’t guaranteed medical coverage at all, despite the slick speeches delivered by a president I still admire, but rather a sick and greedy conglomerate that takes and takes and takes, and sometimes doles out pennies for situations it cannot legally extricate itself from.

Since the denial, I’ve spent hours on the phone with attorneys and my doctor’s nurses and administrative team, as well as opening an investigation with the Insurance Commissioner of Georgia and filing my own personal appeal with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia. My doctor and his staff at Piedmont Heart, an affiliate of Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Ga., continue to valiantly work to have my surgery authorized because my doctor believes—as six of his colleagues do—that I could drop dead at any moment because of this disease that may have also killed my father. But BCBS claims that, because of the Affordable Care Act, under which no American can ever be denied insurance, it cannot help me survive this deadly disease in a timely manner. And so I continue to wait in fear for the chance to live.

This article was first published on equallywed.com, and subsequently on Huffington Post and CNN.com.

Blog, featured, healing, loss, pain, the vivid life

I believe in angels

barn-owl

My dad may have left this earth five years ago, but I am positive he is still here with me now. I’ve often thought I felt his presence, but it’s easy to dismiss that and tell myself that I’m just feeling my love for him and wishing him near me. But this year, the year I’ve dubbed “The Loss of George,” my dad has been cradling me and he’s made sure I’ve known it.

When he passed away suddenly on October 3, 2008, we were all shocked. He was 61, a strapping handsome man who took care of himself with just the occasional sneak of a cookie package from his work vending machine. He had just started running again, he fished, he worked in the yard, took long walks with his dogs in the woods, he rode his horse, he loved his wife and family. He did a lot of living. And the face smack of his dropping dead for no apparent reason was life altering for me. The rosy world I knew became an awful shade of gray, and life’s meaning withered. As I was crumbling in my father’s and stepmother’s home the week after his passing, I happened to ask my stepmom about a small barn owl in the kitchen. She said in her sweetest voice that my dad had placed this owl in this very spot because he felt like it was his mom looking over him throughout his life. She passed it to me and said you should have it now so that you can feel your dad watching over you. I took the little taupe owl, no taller than 2 inches, detailed with feathers and a rounded head as a small slice of solace, offering a weepy thanks in return. My dad’s owl found a new perch on our mantel, and I often kissed it as a way of passing my physical affection on to my father, wherever he might be. “Hi dad,” I whisper almost daily, giving the little owl’s beak a tiny peck.

The end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 has by far been the most challenging time of my life as I spent nearly 15 weeks by my brother’s hospital bedside as he lay dying from severe acute pancreatitis at 36 years old. It was an emotional roller coaster that I couldn’t help but be on, and it was alarming when that ride crashed to a deathly end, dumping me out on the side of the rusty cart with little faith left in anything. As I walked out into the foggy gray February morning shrouded in George’s death, I was almost broken. And I’ve remained that way this year. Though my wife and sons bring me so much joy, anytime I got a rare moment alone, I’ve just broken down sobbing, wondering where my dear men are. My heart aches harder than I ever knew possible. It never helped that I felt like a complete orphan, having been also deserted by my biological mother. She’s a distant memory now, but the raw pain of losing my father, brother and mother all in one swoop of five years has been quite the cross to bear.

Soon after George passed away, I announced to my wife, Maria, that it was time for Operation Fold-in. I didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t have a huge place in my heart and who I felt didn’t hold me in theirs. And it was very telling after George passed who cared the most. These precious people are on my team in life, and I feel very much finished with doing any people-pleasing for the ones who just don’t matter as much. In this short lifetime, we only have a certain amount of time every day to spend our precious hours doing things that matter, and to me, that means spending time with the precious few loved ones I have left and making a difference in this world. I am now realizing that those two actions are intertwined; I only have to look to my two shortcakes to see how I can make an impact on this earth. During Operation Fold-in, I haven’t spent hours on the couch in a gray, depressed cloud. But rather I’ve chosen to make the most of every day with my children, wife, family and friends. This has meant declining social invitations where I knew I’d be in an empty fog listening to random people prattle on and on about small things. Small talk has no place in Operation Fold-in. As I said no to more invites, they dissipated on their own. As usual, after a certain amount of time has passed after a traumatic event, the music starts back up and people get on with their lives. It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to jump back into the party or dwell in solitude, nursing your wounds.

So when my friend and PR maven Jamie invited me to a soiree at her home in August, I said to myself, “It’s time to join the party.” Jamie also has lost a brother, so it seemed like a safe, nurturing place to begin my journey back into the social fold.

Jamie’s party showcased several small business owners she was introducing to the media, including a medium named Jennifer. She was doing private readings throughout the evening, and though I had not initially planned on having a reading, I was swayed by all the praise people were singing for her. Not just from the readings that night but from long-term relationships elite members of the media had with Jennifer, who had been dead-on with her predictions and connections with spirits. So I made an appointment to have my 20-minute session.

Jennifer was sitting quietly in Jamie’s bedroom waiting for me. One of her first sentences after welcoming me was that if I wanted to know about anyone living or dead that I just needed to tell her their first name. And so after a short time of getting her predictions of my own future, I asked her about George and Bruce. She told me first that they had both “crossed over” and they were together. Jennifer told me that George had died from something with his stomach, but that he’d contracted a virus in the woods that was undetectable by the time he’d gotten to the hospital. This made complete sense to me, and it left me feeling peaceful. George’s girlfriend had been told almost the very same thing a week ago from her psychic reading, and this was all without prompting from either of us. I had agonized about why George had pancreatitis, knowing most of the typical causes didn’t apply to my brother. Jennifer said that George was watching out for his two children and that he was at peace with his death. By this time, tears were running down my cheeks.

We moved onto Bruce (my father, but I didn’t mention this). Jennifer said some really lovely things about him as well, and it made me incredibly happy to hear that she felt like he was doing well in the afterlife. As we were wrapping up, I asked Jennifer if she believed that spirits visit us as butterflies, as I’d often heard. She said that sometimes that’s true, but that spirits will find a way to communicate with us in a way we’ll most recognize as a sign from them, something special and shared. For example, smelling a strong pot of coffee, when none is brewing, or feeling a warm sensation of heat enshroud your body as a spiritual embrace. I left the meeting feeling at peace. As I talked to myself in my head, I said even if that was fake, it felt good, and really, isn’t that all that matters?

As soon as I walked into Jamie’s hallway and several media friends looked into my tear-filled eyes, Jamie swooped in, looped her arm in mine and took me out to her deck to talk. She wanted to check on me about my grieving and be there for me in an empathetic way that’s just not possible from someone who’s never lost a sibling. As we were talking in the early dusky evening, something caught my eye over Jamie’s shoulder. It was a barn owl, perched on Jamie’s detached garage about 15 feet away from us, and he was staring directly at me. I said, “That is a gorgeous owl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real owl outside of a zoo!” Jamie swiveled her neck, her red tresses swinging with her. And we both silently stared at the woodland creature so clearly out of his element on a busy city street. As I looked into its eyes, I felt more comfort than I ever have since my father was catapulted out of his physical life. Jamie and I both sat still, savoring the moment, which lasted at least 3 minutes. Maybe 10. Time wasn’t a factor in this generous visit. A friend of ours stepped out on the deck, caught a glimpse of the owl and went to grab Jamie’s camera for us. As she motioned for it, the owl dipped down off his roost, expanding his wings in full glory and soared away. Motionless, I sat. Once I gathered my feelings as much as I could, I told Jamie about my dad’s owl at home. It was such a gift to both of us to share in this moment together, and one I hold very dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

featured, healing, recovery

Thanksgiving through the years: an attempt at gratitude after a loss

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Every year, Thanksgiving gets a little sadder for me. All holidays do. I was born into a small family—a mother who is an only child, a father whose only sibling lives in another state, and one brother. Growing up in Athens, Ga., was a lesson in Spartan familial ties and my brother—older by 18 months—and I were fiercely close (sometimes we fought like angry rams but there was nothing we wouldn’t do for each other).

20131128-121708.jpg George and I became even closer after our parents divorced when I was 8, but there was so much we didn’t know how to talk to each other about: my mother’s increased nightly consumption of glass jugs of Carlo Rossi merlot and incessant sucking on menthol cigarettes; her live-in boyfriend freshly sprung from the county jail who filled our apartment with billowing clouds of marijuana smoke; the Playboy my dad awkwardly bought for my 10-year-old brother at the airport on our first Christmas trip without all four of us together (OK, maybe that was just awkward for me); the sexual assault I endured from a family friend; the chronic gang rapes I survived in high school (which started on Thanksgiving night, Nov. 28, in 1992 and ended in December 1993); and the strain of going back and forth between two parents’ houses, knowing somewhere deep down that we were loved, but the parental watchtower we desperately needed was sorely absent.

During this tumultuous period, George and I clung more to our friends than we did to each other, growing further apart after high school when I came out as a lesbian (he had married a devout Billy Graham follower and his slight societal discomfort with homosexuality leapt into a new dimension of hate when fueled by his then-pregnant wife’s disdain for me bringing my girlfriend around their expected child).

But we reunited, George and me. I wrote him a letter after a year of not speaking telling him that I missed him terribly. And so he called me. And that was it. We’ve been thick as thieves ever since. It really helped that he finally got a divorce. He called me a week before Thanksgiving in 2004 to tell me he and his wife were splitting up—their two children would stay with her and he had to move out over the holiday.

I trucked on down to Florida where he was living, and we spent Thanksgiving moving what little he was allowed to take from their condo into his new apartment. Then we went to Denny’s, one of the few eating establishments open to a couple of college-aged kids in soccer shorts and T-shirts, and had our Thanksgiving dinner—a cheese-and-veggie omelet for me, and Moons Over My Hammy for him.

George’s life was maddeningly heartbreaking after the split. His wife moved the children to Georgia, and he drove the 6-hour trip every other weekend to be with them. But he was a dedicated father and didn’t miss a legally afforded opportunity to see his son and daughter. We spent most of our Thanksgivings together when he was in town, especially with the children. Our grandmother gathered us up at a French restaurant outside of Atlanta to spend the day together, but in the blurry midst of laughter and turkey, there was always a layer of regret and pain, whether it was because we were choosing to be with my mom’s side of the family and not my dad’s, or because my mom couldn’t go too long without saying something wildly inappropriate, or because we knew George was going to have to return his children in just a few short hours. There was always something unsavory under the surface that no one quite knew how to handle, but we stuck together because what other choice is there than to cling to the family you have, no matter how wacky?

We were going about this turn-style life with pleasantries mixed with oddness when out of the blue, my father suffered a massive heart attack on Oct. 3, 2008. He was 61. My father was my biggest cheerleader, never had a harsh word to say about anyone, was loved by so many, took fairly good care of himself and poof, he was gone. George called me to tell me. My chest caved in where my heart once was whole. Broken and in disbelief, my fiancé Maria, drove me to my hometown, to my father and stepmother’s home. All I remember about that day after we arrived is crumbling into my brother’s arms when he stepped out of his cherry red SUV from his longer road trip. He held me so strongly against his chest, and I still feel his arms around me. It is my mental safe place.

The following month, Maria and I decided to put on Thanksgiving for several of our family members, including my brother and my stepmother, who has since become my true mother, a jewel of a human being. Despite having lost our dad almost two months prior, we came together from a place of love and the onset of peace at this Thanksgiving. As hard as it was for me to get through even one sentence without crying, I still found an immense sense of strength from our togetherness.

The following March, my mother withdrew further into her incomprehensible cycle of sheer meanness, and announced that she wasn’t coming to my wedding in June 2009. Lest you think it had anything to do with my sexuality, you’re wrong. That’s probably the thing she likes most about me: I’m different, which gives her more fodder for church gossip. And I’m pretty sure she had a crush on Maria. Anyway, that Thanksgiving, Maria and I were welcomed with open arms by her family, chowing down on a Southern feast, but my heart ached knowing that my mom didn’t want anything to do with me and the only one who might be able to make me feel better about it—to remind me that I was a wanted child—was my father, who I could only hope was somewhere better than this earth.

By the time Thanksgiving 2010 rolled around, I was a massive woman, waddling like a mother duck because I was carrying twin boys. My grandmother insisted Maria and I come to Thanksgiving at the French restaurant and see my mother. “Only if my stepmom can come too,” I responded. I positioned her between us at the table, and we made it through with only the occasional odd remark from my bio mom whom I hadn’t conversed with in more than a year and a half. My brother had gone to his new girlfriend’s family Thanksgiving, and I wished hard that he could be there to slice the palpable tension with some of his gut-busting humor.

By Thanksgiving 2011, my mother and I were working harder toward mending our relationship, and we again met at the French restaurant, where my stepfather, grandmother, Maria, George, his children, his girlfriend, Maria and our children all gathered at a large table and focused all our energy on the children while George and I whispered little jokes under our breath about our nutty family when we walked to the bountiful carving stations of duck and turkey (not to be confused with turducken). George and I could crack each other up with just a look, and his jokes lessened the burden on almost all that was wrong with my family.

He was so perfectly uncle-like with Maria’s and my sons. This was their first Thanksgiving, and they, especially baby B, had melted in George’s arms like butter on a hot sweet potato. Baby B looks just like George did as a toddler, and their bond was apparent not just to me, but to the entire family. I’ve always known that I wanted to marry a woman and have children with a woman, and I’ve known all along that our children would thrive with two moms and no father. But I believe very strongly in having a dependable and loving male figure in my children’s lives. Watching George with our boys on Thanksgiving Day reassured me that even though we didn’t have my dad around, we had George. And I remember the distinct feeling of comfort that George would be around as my sons became men, demonstrating how to be a successful and generous man, just as he was. A man we all loved to be around, a man that didn’t seem to have one enemy—even his ex-girlfriends all seem to flutter at the mere mention of his name.
But the universe had other plans for George.

Last Thanksgiving, my brother stayed home alone with what he thought was a horrible stomach flu. He sent me a cheerful text, not wanting me to worry. The morning after, he called an ambulance because he knew something was terribly wrong. A day later, he was put into a 9-week medicinally induced coma. He never came out of the hospital, and 14 weeks later after all those ups and downs, surgery after surgery, tears shed and a few rare smiles, my brave, sweet brother passed peacefully in the night.

It is heartbreakingly difficult this Thanksgiving, a holiday we always tried to spend together. But I am working hard on feeling gratitude in the midst of my grief 9 months after George’s passing.

So on this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for two beautiful, tender and silly boys I’m blessed to call mine, a crazy-smart wife who caters to almost all my crazy whims, a stepmother who has gracefully and lovingly stepped into the role of motherhood for me when mine has fully abandoned me after threatening to kill me the day George died, a few precious rock star friends who keep me sane and make me feel special, a loving aunt and uncle who have taken me under their wing, and my own life for I am truly thankful to just be alive. It’s a heavy-hearted way of expressing my gratitude, I know. But some years just aren’t lighthearted, glistening with candy-puffed rainbows. But I hope and pray that 2014 is that way–for all of us still lucky to be here. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

featured, happiness, healing, twinspiration

Deep in the earth

I’ve finally realized as of late what really makes me happy in between crying jags over my lost brother is to have my fingers sunk deep in the earth or rapidly slicing something bright and green on my bamboo chopping block. What better combo is there then but gardening and cooking? It couldn’t have come at a better time, this realization: My mother-in-law, wife and I are in a serious weight-loss challenge (the first person to drop 20 pounds wins two $20 gift certificates to the store of her choice).

For Earth Day (but really for our own personal slice of happy home on earth), my wife and I spent the weekend judiciously selecting plants for planting, and then I turned around and made all sorts of fun (and surprisingly delicious) vegetarian meals.

On Sunday afternoon, my trusty helper and I got started.

kid-gardening

OK, truthfully, that was snapped during Leo’s nap and Mama’s quickie trip back to the gardening store for more potting soil. But we did plot out how exactly we’d rule our yard during this rare one-on-one time.

Once all four of us were properly suited up in our lesiure yard clothes, diapers were changed and the laborious snack routine finalized, we got started laying out all our plants, from the veggies we’ll hang our next three grocery bill bets on to the fig tree that might one day be our bread and butter to the citronella plant that will save Mama and Leo’s sensitive skin in the summertime from all those crazy skeeters who don’t have any use for Rocco’s and my German blood.

rosemary

Perhaps the most exciting plant for me is the rosemary bush, which takes me straight to heaven in a single whiff. I’ve no idea why though perhaps it’s the idyllic childhood I longed for–one wrapped up in homemade pasta sauces, filets and pastries instead of the tastes of Hamburger Helper and Kool-Aid still sourly burning the tongue attached to the latch-key kid I wish I weren’t. I think perhaps that’s what has me hell bent on providing my children with a true farm-to-table childhood, and I am thankful my wife feels the same way. She grew up privileged with a lemon tree always ripening for lemonade and limoncello in her grandparent’s backyard, a loving mother and doting grandmother cracking and cackling away at some feast in the kitchen for a dozen or more for there were always people wanting to come by and welcomed when they did.

 bell-pepper-bud-gardening

We planted among other things green bell peppers (pictured above), golden bell peppers and yippee-kai-yay jalapenos to spice up our salads. My love already has a healthy lettuce garden donating handfuls of greenery to our bowls almost nightly.

gardening-buddy

My son, forever dubbed “meatball” because he ate far more than his fair share in the twin beds he and and his brother took up residence in while in utero, aims the hose at whatever interests him. As soon as my hands entered the soil to get dirty and happy, I no longer had access to the camera. And that made me happy, too, since it was another step from removing myself from technology. Though I’m sad I haven’t got the proof of our joyful gardening afternoon, except this fabulous Celeste fig tree we potted, just in case we move, in which we’ve invested probably too many hopes and dreams.

celeste-fig-tree

However, I did go veggie crazy starting last week, preparing all sorts of scrumptious vegetarian delights (who knew barley made an excellent substitute for risotto?), and I bought an enormous collection of Swiss chard. I’m admittedly a Swiss chard virgin, and I didn’t really even know what I was looking for as I scanned the veggie section at my local grocery store. And before you nutty shop-local-or-you-get-the-stink-eye folks get up in arms, know that I must shop only in places that offer me and my twin toddlers a double-seated grocery cart. 

kale-leaf-knife

Today I skipped working during my sons’ nap for a chance to enjoy myself in the kitchen instead, slicing off the leaves of Swiss chard and prepping them for our vegetarian burritos tonight.

chard-rolled-sliced

I took full academic pleasure in learning how to slice Swiss chard, which, if you don’t know, you cut the leaf as close to the rib vein running down the middle, roll the leaf into a tight cigar and slice it from there.

vegetarian-burritos-black-beans-corn-slow-cooker

After my concoction of corn, black beans, fire-roasted tomatoes and Mexican seasoning simmered in the slow cooker for a hefty 4 hours, I chucked in the chard for 20 more minutes to let it wilt enough to be delicate to chomp through. I added the mixture to warmed wheat tortillas, heaped on the all-important sour cream, cilantro from our herb garden and some salsa verde and called it a night.

That’s what made me happy today. What about you?

healing, quotes, twinspiration

Happiness in a glass

elderflower-cocktail

My wife and I have deep discussions about our passions all of the time and how we can best pursue them whilst changing our twin toddlers’ diapers, tempering temper tantrums (we have not mastered this new activity), maneuvering the constantly mounting piles of laundry (hey, at least it’s clean laundry), maintaining our tidy home, grocery shopping for the insanely huge and rapidly changing appetites of our 2-year-old sons, and somewhere along the way, fitting in sleep (which has been newly interrupted by one of our son’s curious fascination with screaming himself hoarse for no apparent reason like clockwork at 3:41 a.m.).

What are our passions? We’re artists who love to create, and we thrive on serving the under-served, which is why we launched Equally Wed, an online magazine covering gay and lesbian weddings. And we’re currently raising funds to launch Equally Family, an online resource for LGBTQ parents.

But we have to get outside sometimes, too, especially with the approach of warmer weather. Maria and I both love working outdoors, her building and me, well, not so much working but I’m willing to hammer a few nails if the end result is that I can relax on a deck with a cocktail in my hand, taking in the greenery amidst the wafting scent of freshly cut mint from my drink, Kindle in hand and my children nicely taking turns on our little toddler playground we just installed for their birthday.

It’s not necessarily the effect of alcohol in my system that brings me happiness. It’s the concoction of the cocktail: the art of slicing the cucumbers, the snipping of the fresh mint, the expert popping of the champagne cork, the adding of crushed ice (oh, how I love crushed ice), the pouring of bubbly, the layering of thinly sliced crisp cucumber and  aromatic mint, and topped with St-Germain, a delightful elderflower liqueur that instantly brings to mind bicycling in the Alps, a lung-clearing air-fresh exercise for the body and soul. It is the enjoyment of the process that delivers me from any dull or dark thoughts that might be looming around in my brain. That’s how I find happiness in a glass.

Photo: Zested

 

healing, moving on

Forgiveness is a gift to oneself

forgive-definition

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes

In order to achieve mind-blowing, heart-fluttering, so-many-weights-lifted-I-feel-like-a-fluffy-cloud happiness, I need to learn how to forgive.

I’ve been working a great deal on the idea of forgiveness. The trouble for me has always been that no one has asked me for it. The people who have hurt me the most in my life – and I’m talking about heart-wrenching-this-shit-is-against-the-law type of hurt – haven’t begged for forgiveness. They haven’t even apologized. And one person is still active in my life, much to my psychological detriment, and I can’t get rid of them. Not currently, at least.

I always thought that to forgive meant to excuse, as if to say, “It’s OK that you hurt me. I don’t mind. I’m not worthy enough to be angry with you for hurting me. Heck, I probably deserved it. Maybe I was even asking for it.” I’ve known cognitively for quite some time that forgiveness isn’t about excusing someone’s behavior, but sometimes it is terribly hard to get your heart to believe what your brain is trying to tell it.

I can be pretty dense sometimes. Flighty. Head in the clouds. You know the type. But it has finally sunk in that in order to set myself fully free of hurt caused by someone else’s actions, I must forgive them. It isn’t a gift I’d be giving them. It will be for me.

Isn’t it interesting how when you’re enraged with someone for slighting you in some way, oftentimes it seems like they don’t even give you the pleasure of noticing or acknowledging your frustration? That’s because the only person you’re hurting with your anger and resentment is yourself. And so it’s time to bless and release. Let it go. Move on. Forgive.

So what does it mean to forgive?

Ever the English nerd, I looked it up on my favorite dictionary website: M-W.com. To forgive is to cease to feel resentment against someone or to give up resentment of or claim to requital for, meaning you’re not looking for retaliation.

Can I do this? It’s such a tall order. But that’s what I’m looking for so that my own heart can feel better. I only seek peace. Of course, I’d like to tell the people I’m angry with why I am angry with them. But I’ve gone through countless scenarios in my head of how that might go, and it never ends well. Even if they’re groveling at my feet, I will still feel horrible because it doesn’t take away the pain they caused me.

Only I can take it away from myself. Only I can free myself of the pain.

Psychologist Peter R. Breggin addressed this in an article in The Huffington Post last week, writing, “Forgiveness, as I understand it after all these decades on Earth, is about an attitude toward both ourselves and others. Forgiveness is an attitude of letting go of enmity and resentment and encouraging ourselves to feel genuinelove and empathy. It begins with kindness and understanding toward ourselves.

Forgiving ourselves allows us to recognize our own faults and then to correct them as much as we can without languishing in unforgiving guilt and shame. Guilt and shame actually make us less able to examine ourselves. We try to relieve these self-punishing attitudes by denying responsibility for any wrong actions. In a state of denial that protects us from guilt and shame, we cannot identify what we need change about ourselves.

Further in regard to ourselves, to forgive others is to make peace within ourselves. We give up anger and resentment and thereby become freer of spiritually-corrupting malice. We no longer give those who have hurt us the power to continue to do so by preoccupying us with their deeds.

In regard to others, forgiveness relieves us of the motivation to gratuitously harm others. We may still feel the necessity of taking self-protective actions that end up harming them, for example, by excluding them from our lives, but we have not done so out of malice. We have acted to protect ourselves or our families and not for the purpose of inflicting harm.

Similarly, people may be harmed in our political lives if we fight against their interests, but we are better off if we are motivated by the pursuit of ideals and principles rather than resentment. If we are trying to improve the world in some way, this difference in attitude enables us to behave more rationally and often results in our having a better impact.

Forgiveness also leaves room to welcome back friends or family when they have changed and are no longer a danger to us or our loved ones. The same is true in our political lives where, whenever possible, we try to let go of old resentments in order to accomplish a greater good.

Forgiveness ultimately empowers us by clarifying our minds. Unclouded by resentment, jealousy, or hate, it is far easier to make rational decisions about who can be trusted and who cannot be trusted, and about how to best improve our lives and the lives of others.

Forgiveness goes hand in hand with empathy. Empathy involves a caring and even loving response to another’s viewpoint and experience. It does not, however, mean that we approve or reward another person’s viewpoint and behavior. In my experience, when we approach other people in an open and receptive manner, if these people have bad intentions, it becomes much more readily apparent to us than when we approach them with suspicion and callousness.

People who are forgiving do not become vulnerable to individuals who have harmed them or have the intent to harm them. Forgiveness involves seeing people for who they are, both the good and the bad, while letting go of spiritually-corrupting negative emotions that make us anxious and keep us up at night, wasting our energy, which can be turned to better uses.

As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, it’s apparent to me that the most forgiving people are the happiest and most effective, and that the least forgiving people are the most miserable and ineffective. A great deal of personal suffering, including what gets called mental illness, is rooted in an angry, unforgiving attitude toward oneself, other people, and the world.”

For years, I have counted myself among the happy and forgiving. But lately I have been struggling in a place of being unforgiving, tormented by anger and anxiety.

I know why. I know the source of all of it. But knowing why doesn’t make it go away. I have empathy toward the person I have anger for. I have compassion for them, too.

Writing this post makes me feel less anxious, as I call upon what it is that I want to do. I want to forgive one of the people who have hurt me the most. But it won’t be an easy journey and writing it down is only the first step.

Have you forgiven someone for something hugely terrible? How did you do it — and really make it stick to your heart for good?