Kirsten Ott Palladino / photo: Our Labor of Love
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How optimism has saved my life (and sanity)

I don’t call myself an optimist to self-compliment. It can actually be a curse. I don’t get to wallow in self pity for long. I forgive people way too quickly. I trust others in bad situations, and I put myself in close proximity to toxic people because of my naïve nature, thinking that people will be good if I just give them a chance.

But I’m proud, too, of being an optimist. It’s gotten me through the dark times of my life. Very dark. I have survived a lot: When I was 8, my parents divorced. At age 10, my mother, the county jail nurse, moved a convicted felon straight from the jail into our home. By the time I was 15, I’d been molested by a family friend and then repeatedly gang raped by my boyfriend’s friends for a year and a half—all high school athletes—until numbness overtook me. For the remainder of high school, I acted out in every way possible, demonstrating just how poorly I thought of myself and found myself pregnant in my first year of college, but I lost the baby to a heart-wrenching birth defect. It took me seven years and five schools to graduate college, and I did it all on my own, amassing a huge amount of debt and hangovers and a strong circle of friends who believed in me as much as I did.

Finally, at 25, as I found myself through a career I’d wanted since I was a child reading books and magazines under the covers with my flashlight, I began to blossom, and my optimism, my ability to see the light through any tunnel I’d trudged through, started to do more than just save my life—it enabled me to fully enjoy it.

And that’s when the universe gifted me with Maria, a strong, sincere woman who loves me despite my troubled past and supports me emotionally through the good and bad times. For the next five years, our love bloomed and grew. The moment she proposed to me in Central Park, the day before I turned 30, rushing rivers of happiness plummeted through my body. I couldn’t wait for my father, a man for whom my affection was boundless, to walk me down the aisle.

When he was ripped from my life just 8 months before my wedding, my heart throbbed in a way I never knew possible. My whole chest ached as the loss drenched me. It would be years before I could even speak of him without tears quickly spilling down my cheeks, without warning. By my side through this has been my steadfast wife, but on my other side has been my sweet brother, a man whom I’ve admired and appreciated as a devoted father, a beloved uncle and a really fun comrade. George walked me down the aisle when I married Maria in 2009, and has stood by my side through thick and thin in every way. When my mother and I became estranged before the wedding, George helped me cope with comedic relief (how else are you going to deal with a woman who tells you a week after your dad dies that her responsibility to her children ended when they turned 18?).

It never got much better with me and my mom because every time we were around each other, I would open myself up with a forgiving heart, only to get hurt again (see how that optimism is my Achilles heel?). When my brother became terribly ill with severe acute pancreatitis this past November, it took me 24 hours of serious pep talk to embolden myself with nerves of steel and some serious detachment to put my strained relationship with my mother aside to help my brother. As George’s sickness progressed and he was put into a medically induced coma, my mother’s mental capabilities decreased and I had to take on the role of parent in addition to sibling, taking on all of George’s financial affairs and medical decisions.

It was a 15-week roller coaster of incredulous highs and rock-bottom lows, peppered with a sharp increase of verbal abuse from my mother (winning statements include disowning me and my children and telling me she was sick of me and didn’t want anything to do with me once George recovered), the death of our dog at Christmas, our water heater breaking, the threat of toxic air pumping into our lungs and thus our heat having to be turned off for two days, a close friend of George’s going absolutely mental on me, daily discussions with George’s doctors in ICU and then his horrid rehab facility and then getting him moved back to ICU, all on my own because my mother was essentially just a visitor coming to see George and looking to me to make all of the decisions.

The lowest point of the journey of George’s illness was his rapid decline at the end due to the development of three medically resistant infections. Ten days after he had taken 10 steps, the doctors were speaking to me with heartbreaking phrases such as “it’s time to think about hospice” and “we’re doing him more harm than good” and “he’s on the strongest antibiotics available and they’re not working” and “there’s nothing more we can do for him.”

We moved George into hospice on the last Friday in February. Those were some of the longest days, but they were no longer filled with the constant worry that had troubled me the last 14 weeks. While George was in hospice, I felt that I was watching his spirit being tangibly stilled with peacefulness, and though it was difficult to watch him slowly leave his body, it was an honor to be by his side throughout it all. By Tuesday night, his breathing became so shallow that it woke me up. I’m a heavy sleeper with serious hearing impairment in both ears. But I had watched him breathe for more than an hour before I’d finally given into sleep, only to wake three hours later when his breathing made significant changes. He was gone 30 minutes later, and I laid my head on his strong chest and let out my tears for my sweet brother, just 18 months older than me, with two children of his own, and his entire future wiped out. Poof. Gone. My heart remains broken, and I don’t know when it will be repaired. Maybe it won’t be. I’m not trying to fix it right now.

The family slowly gathered after I made the phone calls around 4:30 a.m., and by 11, the funeral home had come to take George’s body. At a family lunch at noon, my mother threatened the life of her only living child: me. And though I remained calm and polite and invited her to a therapy session with me, inside I knew that in order to protect myself and my own family, I needed to put some distance between us for awhile. Again. It’s not our first go at estrangement after all, and though I might be too forgiving, the time has come to be even more protective of what I have left.

Life will continue to hand out lemons, and though I’m honestly not trying to make lemonade from it, I am still able to enjoy the happiness that life offers, even in the midst of trauma and tragedy. Life is a bounty of smooth and rough patches, and I’m quite certain that it’s better this way, than always being easy with no challenges. Does life suck sometimes? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Do people suck sometimes? Clearly they can. But most of them don’t, and I feel such a connection with the people on this planet, just for the simple fact that we are all in this together, that I haven’t lost any of my faith in humanity. Do I startle easily? Yes. Do I more easily suspect people of child abuse and molestation? All the time. Do I want to make sure my wife drives extra carefully and goes to the doctor once a month to make sure no crazy illnesses are developing? Yes, I’m guilty of now worrying that I might lose her, too.

But I’m not searching for any deep meaning for the reason that I have lost both my brother and my father and have been left with one family member—the one who loves me the least—from my original four-pack, because to me, there’s no good reason. Life just isn’t fair. We enjoy who we are blessed with for as long as we have them. I’m going to do my very best to enjoy the people I have left in my life while enjoying my own existence. I am just happy to still be here.

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  • Reply Laura A. March 19, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    I knew very well that you’re amazing and wonderful and strong, but I had no idea just how deep those straits run. You’re a fucking badass warrior optimist! Look at how you’ve triumphed! Thank you so, SO much for writing this.

    • Reply Anna Wong March 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      Kirsten, you are amazing! Going through all that would have the rest of us mere mortals in pieces. You ROCK!

      I used to think I was an optimist…always looking for the good, and naively watching a people walked all over me and took advantage of my generosity. I admit, I have become jaded these past few years.

      You give me hope and inspiration to persevere!

  • Reply Jaymi Curley March 19, 2013 at 9:00 pm

    You are so wonderful and always so sunny, I had no idea of how hard a start you had. You have earned every good thing you have in your life and the more to come.

    It always breaks my heart to hear of mothers who do so poorly by their children. Please remove that woman from your life; you don’t need the toxins. You have a wonderful strong family and friends who love you unconditionally. There’s your family. And sometimes the family we build is better for us than the one blood gave us.

  • Reply Amber Wolford March 19, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    so strong so wonderful love you forever

  • Reply Toren Anderson March 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    A mom is to impart well being into her children, it’s that thing inside that says, “It’s going to be okay. I am going to be okay.” When you are a mother and have a mother doing that, it impairs your ability and at some point detaching with love has to be part of the answers to go on and create a life that flourishes for you and your family.

    This was brave to share, oh so brave! It means you are free. It is the ultimate airing out. Nothing can beat you around anymore by “the secrets.” This is a new South, one that allows these stories to be shared and to change others by the act.

    I was emotionally and physically abused as a child by “treacherous loving relatives” as Conroy wrote in Prince of Tides. I get that line more and more. My beauty queen mother is one of the greatest narcissists in history. She kept a freezer key around her neck and ate after we 5 girls were sent to bed hungry. It was a sickening thing to behold, because even as a child I knew how awful it was for someone to be that selfish. But I realized these torturers are treacherous to themselves most of all. Beating down someone else is the truest sign they are fragmented sometimes beyond repair. Though I feel so protective of anyone enduring it. But if we forgive, move on and look up things can get better. I detached with love to my Mom 8 years ago. I had no choice, she was tearing me down as I was here trying to raise and nurture five children. I listed some of it in my letter, I said just in case you don’t realize, here is what I forgive you for. Since then, I have gotten confirmation that she still trashes me, her most loyal respectful daughter. The only one that served her gladly all those years. The rest did with some mixture of resentment and disrespect, she had earned that. She is feeble and dangerous even now. I know keeping myself and my children away is best. It’s a long road.

    I grieve your losses. I pray for grace for you to heal. But I celebrate that you have memories of George that will always make you smile as soon as you are able to mourn him properly. I wish I had known him. He was an amazing brother.

    This is big stuff. Big life changing stuff to share. Surround yourself with those that make you say, “I can do this thing” after you see them. Anything less is compromise.


    Love & Blessings to you four.

  • Reply Paul H. March 29, 2013 at 11:54 am

    I have too many accounts, too. And for what? I’d like to simplify!

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