I just love trying my hardest to be particularly self-reflective as each year comes to its natural close. That fact is made clear by the chronology of these posts. But, here I am.
It seems pretty trite to stop in annually and talk about why this year was the hardest year yet and here’s the lesson. It’s either I have a completely shot memory (entirely possible) or shit just keeps getting harder, because here I am, about to tell you how 2018 truly was the hardest year yet. Or so far. Except, spoiler alert: I don’t think I have a lesson this time.
A lot of no-going-back change has culminated in these last 12 months. As always, there were good things. There were many opportunities, often drenched in uncertainty and my own self-doubt. Lots of chances. Lots of work. Immense grief, pain, loss. Change is the one thing we can all be sure of whether we try to make order of it or not. We can’t put major life events on our calendars: new relationships, heartbreaks, unravelings, joys, dips and bumps. I mean, what even is time anyway? Is this just the run-off from like 2011 or uh, childhood? It’s not like you just restart when the ball drops. Resolutions are cute and all, and I like to enact a healthy change as much as the next lazy asshole who has every intention of going to the gym at least three times a week (I’m gonna do it for real this time, y’all, I swear!), but fucked up things are still going to happen. Gotta love something I can count on.
I guess it makes sense to go back to the beginning. Of the year. Not like, the actual beginning.But mid-January of last year was already pretty rough. My beloved Nana, my person, had a stroke the week after my wedding in October of 2017, and woefully left her home for safer dwellings. She moved into one of those old folk’s homes, you know the type: one part sunny and happening senior center, and one part place to die, where the flowers welcoming you in through the automatic lobby doors are merely keeping away the scent of death. The little Long Island cape that she had raised her children (and me) in, which hadn’t been updated since the 50’s, was gutted entirely and we did our best to turn Nana’s new little suite into a smaller replica of what her familiar home once was: all of her most favorite trinkets and paintings, the blankets and bed she was used to, pictures of our family and her travels lining the shelves. There’s no other way it could have happened – her transition was done with love and tenderness. She couldn’t live there anymore. The place was falling apart and we couldn’t risk another emergency. In the years leading up to the move, there had been falls and scares, and the house itself was breaking down piece by piece. It was sold to a couple of young newlyweds who loved the layout and couldn’t wait to renovate.
She had always loved her independence – making her own meals, driving to her appointments, and having her own place to land. But this was the third stroke in two years, and while she remained mentally sharp as a tack, her declining mobility presented any number of grizzly scenarios. So at 97, she gave in to our worry and agreed to give it a try. But she didn’t want to. She knew what it meant. We all did. But at that point at least, she was managing: playing mahjong with some other old biddies, politely dodging the frequent romantic yearnings of the resident widowed men (“They’re all geezers!” she said), and getting used to the new shape her life was taking.
By mid-January, grappling with the reality of Nana’s mortality, I did my best to stay afloat. I worked very hard, I kept up with friends, I worked out like six or seven times. Then, without warning, something changed. Of course it did.
Through a series of events that could have potentially activated the response (the #metoo movement, my own accountability, flashes of memory I had worked so long to tamp down), some deeply-buried, super dark shit came brimming to the surface and my life was torn apart for a little while. I’m not going into it again over here, but let’s just say that trauma has a way of showing up that can really derail a person. Having already identified as a trauma-survivor for years, this sudden, fragmented, and violent rush of memory was something I had never before experienced. I could be washing the dishes, and without warning, wracked in shame, guilt, disgust, and then other things – nausea, light-headedness. I’m a trauma-informed therapist – my job is to work with survivors and know what “triggers” look like (I prefer the word activated at this point, because the word ‘triggered’ has been so over/misused, but more on that some other time). I can’t express how grateful I am to have known what this was, this thing that was happening to me. If I hadn’t studied the very thing I was experiencing, I don’t know that I could have survived it. But knowing what it was didn’t make it easier. It just made me aware of it. It pulled me completely outside of my comfort zone and made me feel claustrophobic and completely rattled. Everything suddenly felt too small or suffocating. My job, my home, my relationships, my life. I was so busy that I barely had time to reflect on what was happening to me, that I just kept running against the current until I couldn’t find any more forward motion. I was prickly and wired, having intense nightmares and trouble staying asleep. I spent every available weekend with Nana. When not in New York visiting her, I was questioning all of my lifestyle choices and judging myself hard. There wasn’t ever a moment I felt like I could relax. Even when I was resting or being leisurely, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. Every sedentary moment felt shameful – I’d look at cobwebs in the corner of the ceilings or see the pile of laundry I had every intention of folding the week before and feel like I was caving in. I couldn’t get away from myself. That’s what it felt like.
Because I am an impulsive person of whimsy and circumstance, I get bored extremely easily. Okay, let’s be real, I’m honestly just a Sagittarius and I’m still annoyed by how accurate that shit is. Not only was I hyperaware of myself in a way that made me uncomfortable, but work stopped being challenging. I had to get out of my head, and I decided I needed to take a plunge into something else completely. A local organization I had been peripherally aware of by their real-deal reputation, reached out to me upon a recommendation of a fellow clinician. Completely unexpectedly, I was being sought out by a serious, highly-profesh group therapy practice that was so far out of my current circumstances that I leapt at the chance and dove in. After a few intensive interviews (feedback I received: “You’re anxious but we like you…”/my response: “Ah yes, the Lauren Ledoux story”), I was taken on as a clinician there and launched myself into a six month commitment to sex therapy training. Having been coming to terms and trying to understand my own sexual trauma, the work was incredibly hard, but helpful. Sometimes I was terrified about what it would be like to come face to face with a client who had a story like mine, or to be entrusted with people’s relationships in spaces that deserved delicate and deliberate handling. The trust I had always had in my clinical skills was now being challenged by something that didn’t come as naturally to me as plain old therapy. Not everyone can be a sex therapist. As I started seeing more and more clients, I realized that working with couples and other non-traditional relationships was actually invigorating and challenging in all the right ways. I was excited about this new kind of problem-solving and the different kinds of clients: the needs more specific, the cases so complex. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing, with frequent supervision and training opportunities.
While I’m a big risk-taker, I also have abandonment issues (shocked?) and despite taking on my husband’s insurance, giving up my salaried position, and drastically cutting my hours – I decided to stay in my chaotic community mental health job for 10 hours a week. I couldn’t say goodbye to all of my clients just yet, and the free office supplies continue to be a huge perk. While I Tetris’d together a relatively manageable schedule and finagled a somewhat functional way to work out of two offices, I figured, hey, not busy enough, right? By March, I’d gotten my advanced license and could now practice therapy privately, so I teamed up with a colleague and began renting a perfectly cozy little office to split between us. Add to that the new calamity of becoming paneled with insurance companies and learning how to bill for myself (and ultimately hire a biller, because no no no), I was heading into unrealistic territory. By April, I was working out of three offices, averaging a 12-hour day, and judging three different literary contests in my “spare time” – which was usually at Nana’s bedside on the weekends or after work in my bed, falling asleep in front of my laptop. I was doing that thing I’ve done all my life when I’m losing grip on reality: filling my life with all possible obligations and activities as a means of keeping the darkness from seeping in. I spent as much time as I could denying how burnt out, overwhelmed, and anxious I was while continuing to say yes to various projects and catering constantly to the people in my life who rely on me as a sounding board for personal woes. As I have come to accept the caretaker role that I have possessed since childhood, I gave myself only rare opportunities to take care of my needs, ask for help, or practice any of the hundreds of things I preach to my clients about self-care (which head’s up, doesn’t have to be yoga, mmkay?). I pushed my own therapy off for weeks to make room for clients and commitments and any time I paused for even a moment, I had to remember that my personal life was giving into the strain I had been so stubbornly ignoring.
By May, Nana’s health was in further decline. My relationship, while one of the few stable things, was barely experienced awake, outside of our bedroom. I had allotted such little time for fun or pleasure that I literally couldn’t relax. Back to that guilt spiral: if you have free time to play, you must not be working hard enough, you lazy jerk. I would have told any one of my clients that they were being unrealistically hard on themselves, but hindsight and all that. Other people’s lives are so much easier. I was literally falling apart. No longer turning to booze or anonymous sex as a means of defining my worth, I had to ask Mark over and over to convince me I had any merit in the world: “Do you actually love me?” “Why?” “Here are all the reasons you probably shouldn’t…” It’s exhausting work to constantly question your own motives. I wasn’t doing myself any favors.
At this point, I couldn’t make it through a full day without crying in the bathroom, could no longer carry on conversations with the only person I really wanted to talk to about any of this with (Nana was now actively telling us she wanted to die and her suffering stirred such an ache and fear in me, I still can’t let myself think about it too deeply). She became less and less coherent over time and more depressed. Her suite began to look more like a hospital room and less like her familiar little space. She didn’t want to participate in any of the activities anymore, and the home threatened us constantly with moving her to a nursing home where her needs could be better met – something we fought and fought against tooth and nail. Each time I’d leave Long Island, I knew it would only be a matter of time. On one particular visit, Nana and I both cried hysterically in the main lobby after wheeling her outside had been too adventurous and she became disoriented and terrified. She was slipping away from me and her well-meaning friends kept coming over: “Audrey’s not well, can’t you see that? She’s not well.” But she begged me not to take her to her room just yet and squeezed my hand: “Get me out of here.” I sat on the bench for what felt like hours holding her hand, both of us just crying and crying.
By July, she’d barely remember my visits at all. It was haunting to see her disappear so visibly, but her new presentation was childlike and more cheerful. She ate chocolate ice cream for every meal and lit up when I came to her on the weekends. She struggled to find her words and was often confused, but she seemed more comfortable this way. I went down for a (most depressing) luau the home was putting on and watched Nana bop around in the hyperbolically decorated Hawaiian-themed dining room with a plastic lei around her neck and chicken all over her face. At least she wasn’t suffering anymore. As she spent more time sleeping and eating became an almost impossible chore, it became more real. My aunt and uncle, instrumental in her care, managed to set her up with in-home hospice care and a rabbinical chaplain who prayed with her. The woman who had not only raised me, but instilled in me the meaning of unconditional love, was breaking down systematically and it was completely out of my control.
Nana died on August 17th, 2018. All of the things I had put off feeling so that I could keep moving forward struck me with the most intense grief of my life. Nana wasn’t just a grandmother to me. I had lost my other grandparents years before. Of course I mourned for them and loved them dearly. But they weren’t her. Nana knew me and understood me like no one else. Cut from the same cloth, it feels impossible still to imagine anyone could ever make me feel as seen and validated as she did. It’s been just shy of five months since my world has been made emptier with her loss. I want to say that it’s become easier. I want to believe that it will. But nothing has felt the same since she’s been gone. The light in my world has become dimmer without her. She blessed my life for 32 years and left this planet at 98. But there’s so much pain with that blessing. Who do you go to when the person who has always been the one to holds your hurt can’t talk to you about the biggest hurt of all? Irony is cruel, you know? There’s living with it, and coming to a place of acceptance. But there is no moving on. There’s just knowing things are different now.
Some time in the midst of all of this revolving grief and constant movement, I decided to get back on antidepressants. Sometimes there’s this cloying resistance to accepting that I experience my own mental health shit. I don’t think it’s possible to sit “in the chair” if you haven’t “sat on the couch” but it’s still sometimes hard to accept that my well-being depends on how functional my brain chemistry is. I know my need to be medicated fluctuates around what my life looks like at the time, but there is relief in knowing there was something cushioning the blow of these months of minimal emotional survival. Grieving for Nana forced a sort of slow-down and reflection that I had no choice but to make room for. I found connection through the rekindling of old friendships, I grew solidly confident in my sex therapy practice, specifically in working with couples, and was creating a client base in my private work that felt both rewarding and well-deserved. I spent the year investing in my own career goals in a way I never had before, and finally, the work was paying off. After ten years at the mercy of failing systems, productivity over patient care, and working as a cog in the wheel of street-level bureaucracy, I was finally working on my own terms, within my own system.
Come October, I had some semblance of stability in place. I had made it through the first year of marriage having navigated some of the biggest life stressors I’d ever experienced, I had some money in the bank (finally), and was managing a work-life balance that felt more possible than it had months before. But I was still pretty deep into my void, unable to slow down lest I see myself as cumbersome as I truly was. Just work. Just keep going.
It was around that time I traveled to Richmond, VA to reunite with some old friends for a wedding. I embarked on the ten hour drive feeling a little achey in my lower back, but attributed this to the first day of my period. By the time I had arrived, I was in moderately more pain but chalked this up to sitting in the car for the journey–but by the time I left two days later, I was doubled over in pain and after the drive back home, I could barely walk upright and was in the most excruciating physical pain I had ever experienced.
I couldn’t sleep in my own bed, which was suddenly too soft, and I didn’t sleep more than two hours a night in six days before I was finally able to get in with my doctor who couldn’t do much more than prescribe me muscle relaxers and call it a flare-up. Meanwhile, my entire left side, from my hip to my foot, called out in agony all day and took up every ounce of my time. With the help of a short-term sleep aid, I was finally able to sleep, but every waking hour was wracked with pain. I was forced to walk with a cane and carry an inflatable donut everywhere I went. I had to interrupt sessions to pause for muscle spasms and I dehydrated myself during the day because walking to the bathroom from my office became an impossible chore. I broke down in sobs multiple times a day, I exhausted myself with research that lead me nowhere, and took a dose of prednisone that left me borderline suicidal (but convinced I needed to learn how to play the piano), but did nothing for my pain. I stopped eating sugar, I did all the stretches, used every ointment known to man, iced and heated and iced and heated and iced again, drank concoctions of turmeric and oregano oil and read John Sarno’s “Healing Back Pain” with both devotion and skepticism. Do I think that the trauma of 2018 caused this sudden and crippling pain? I’m not totally convinced of that but I do think it was a factor. Without warning, my body shut down on me and I had no choice but to pay attention to everything that had happened over the last nine months. I somehow continued to go to work, using self-disclosure as a humanizing tactic. Clients kindly offered me suggestions and home remedies, empathized with experiences of their own chronic pain, and were entirely understanding when I had to stand at times or even stop a few sessions early because the spasms were too intense to maintain my focus. Other than the painstaking walk from my car to the office, my only other activity was thrashing in bed and wailing. Mark made all of my food, assisted me around the house, and rubbed lotion in my left side for an hour every night. I did nothing for myself and honestly don’t know how he didn’t kill me, but alas, the man is a true gem. Going to the grocery store was off limits, restaurants, friends’ houses, driving more than 20 minutes at a time: completely impossible. My second floor office required a step by step process of balancing and bracing that took ten minutes to navigate. My only link to the outside world was the internet, and most of the time, propping myself up just to grab my phone was too much effort.
In the midst of this seemingly unending flare-up, I learned that the group practice that I had invested my time and energy in over the last year was dissolving unexpectedly. I loved the work there and had received invaluable training and a respect for my colleagues that I had never yet experienced. The skill of my fellow clinicians made me realize how possible it was to make meaningful impact on people’s lives and this new loss was too much for me to confront. I was in so much physical pain that when our director broke the news, I sat in a glazed over numbness and returned to my office stone-faced and incapable of processing. Something else to face. It didn’t seem real. Somehow, the hindsight of opening my private practice softened the blow of my would-be unemployment, and I projected future plans for an unknown time to figure out my next chapter, depending entirely on my body recovering and returning to function.
After six weeks of nonstop physical misery without even one moment of relief, I asked for help. I reached out to my community and told my friends I needed them. The last month and a half had been so lonely and void of connection. Despite my love of the comforts of home and hearth, I need to be around people. I was truly suffering and officially worried about myself. That weekend, friends came and I was reminded that I was loved and cared about: other friends sent gifts and letters, phone calls came rushing in. So much of my time spent wasted in the belief I was needy and pathetic was fast remedied by all of the support that only my pride tried to get in the way of. It was after that weekend that my body began feeling like my own again. I woke up that Monday and didn’t immediately wince in pain as I stood up to use the bathroom. In fact, I didn’t even take the time to realize that the walk to the toilet wasn’t spent unsurely using countertops and door frames to steady my balance. By Wednesday, I was making trips to Whole Foods and the following Friday, my mobility had improved so vastly that even my doctor was shook. I wish it was possible to retain the feeling of gratitude felt by the return to normal function. To live and move and play in a body that allows for it is a miracle. I hope to never take that for granted again. I wish people understood the levity of chronic pain or illness. It was so isolating, lonely, and depressing that no amount of Prozac could have pulled me out of it. I know there will be more flare-ups. I know I am constantly on the precipice of an unknown moment in time that I will be forced out of my everyday life violently and without warning. But returning to a routine that allows for a daily walk, standing on my feet for more than two minutes at a time, and dancing – oh the dancing – it’s such a gift. But it’s temporary. Like everything else.
And here I land. I’m down to two jobs. I have a full private practice. I have Wednesdays off for self-care and general upkeep (here’s looking at you, piano lessons), a weekly craft date with some bad bitches, a newfound appreciation for my body and all its quirks, a good guy to share my bed and a couple of real cute dogs to push me out of it every night, people who remind me everyday that I matter to them. I don’t have my Nana, I continue to struggle with facing my own shortcomings – specifically things I can’t predict or control – and I use my meds as a reminder to myself that I’m allowed to be flawed. I’m trying to write more, to better love my body, to prioritize myself at the same level I do the people that I love. I’m still working on that. I’m not sure I will ever really embrace adulthood or stop kicking and screaming my way through tunnels of denial. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s growth to say those sort of things out loud. I don’t know. It’s just another January. I have a sweet new monthly planner, I drank some apple cider vinegar after being manipulated into resolution-drenched shelves of it at Stop and Shop, and even did some yoga yesterday. I’m not the mother I thought I’d be by now, I don’t own my own house, my bedroom is still full of unfolded laundry, and I’ll never get used to dusting. But there’s some good shit going on. And I can always rely on change.
**Shoutout to Catherine Weiss who designed the bag featured in this post. Buy her merrrrchhhh.