Some Lessons From 2017

Every year I write an end of the year blog which highlights the things I have learned along the way. I usually take the last two numbers of the year and come up with that many lessons (i.e. 15 Lessons From 2015). I went about my business and pulled together 17 lessons from this year, which is pretty impressive. But then I had to actually write about them. All of sudden, 17 lessons seemed unrealistic. Why not come up with 10? 10 is a round number and more manageable. So that’s what I did.

There’s depression and then there is being depressed. – Last year I used my end of the year blog to discuss the ongoing mental health issues I had been dealing with since being diagnosed with Bipolar 2. While I had initially dealt with bouts of hypomania, by the end of last year, I was in a deep depression. Have you ever seen the commercials touting pharmaceuticals to treat bipolar depression? They talk about a treatment resistant depression and promise to lift your mood. Treatment resistant depression is like nothing I had ever experienced. I think I knew something was wrong when I started crying and could not stop. I literally could not stop and the relief that crying can bring did not exist. I just kept going down the rabbit hole. And medicine wasn’t working. I relied heavily on my friends to tell me this wouldn’t last but I didn’t believe them. I felt broken and lost and couldn’t imagine that life would ever be the same. I started to understand why people commit suicide. I started to think that I could not go on. It was the most frightened I’ve ever been. Eventually, we found a mix of drugs that brought some relief. But by then, I was a shell of who I was. The recovery has been ongoing and I am still seeing progress. But I’m not who I was. I’m still trying to figure out who I am.

Disney isn’t as magical when your kid is 15. – When Max said he wanted to go to Disney World for our Thanksgiving trip, I was pretty excited. I have such good memories of my several trips and can still see the excitement on Max’s face when he got on his first ride at 8 years old. I have always been of the belief that Disney World really is the happiest place on earth. The employees are always upbeat, the rides are upbeat and the trash is non-existent. So off we went to Disney….on the busiest week of the year. I’ve never seen crowds like this. There were upbeat employees whose jobs were to simply direct the crowds to stay to the right so traffic could flow smoothly. On day one, we went all in. We were excited. Thank God for Fast Passes or we never would have made it on to a single ride.I entered Space Mountain with high hopes. I left Space Mountain dizzy and nauseous. I started to dread getting on the rides. I knew I couldn’t keep up with Max. But I tried. And on the last day, Max announced that Disney wasn’t as magical at 15, as it was at 8. I felt a wave of relief that I wasn’t a terrible mother for failing to see the magic myself.  I figure I’ll have to wait until I have grandchildren to feel the magic again.
My kid is easy in so many ways. – I’ve always known Max was easy but he continues to surprise me. Everything appears to roll off his back and I think maybe I’m not permanently damaging his psyche in the way I have feared so much in the last few years. My favorite “easy” moment this year was at Disney World when Max refused any ride with a wait more than an hour. And then, when I asked him what we should do next, he replied “Why don’t we go back to the room to relax.” I absolutely love this kid.
I’m able to survive without teaching. – I’ve decided to take a sabbatical (which isn’t even a real thing for adjuncts) this year so I can relax and continue the healing process. This takes a direct hit to my pocketbook but I felt is was necessary. With some adjustments to my lifestyle, I am surviving on less cash.
Given a meal kit, I will cook. -This was one of my biggest lessons of 2017. I discovered meal kits! Think Hello Fresh, Home Chef and Plated. I’ve tried them all (at a discount). The beauty in a meal kit is that it comes with the exact amount of ingredients to cook 2 servings. So instead of buying a pint of sour cream, that I will use 2 tablespoons of and then throw away, the meal kit provides me with 2 tablespoons of sour cream. It’s brilliant! With the amount of money I spend on eating out and the amount of food I buy and throw away, the meal kits are worth every dollar. Give it a try.
A Longwood Gardens’ pass is worth every penny. – If your mental health is in need of some calm, soothing relaxation, Longwood Gardens’ is the place to be. My $135 annual membership is worth every penny and paid for itself after 6 visits (I went at least 20 times this year).
If you do something long enough, it will become a habit. – They say it takes 3 weeks to create a habit so I figured I’d give it a try. I started going on brisk walks around the block at work. This is kind of a big deal because I started doing it last winter. In the cold. And I kept doing it. It became a habit. The next habit I hope to cultivate is cutting back on the carbs. I feel that one will be harder.
You can outgrow people. – I think when people go through life changing events, they can lose people along the way. You go in one direction and sometimes you turn around and only a few are left standing. I used to have anxiety over losing people but now I accept it with grace.
 
Donald Trump is more delusional than I thought. – I’ve tried to curtail my political rants but enough is enough. This guy is frightening. He doesn’t deserve to be called President. And yet, there are people that still believe he is going to make America great again. Even more mind blowing is these people tend to be low income and rely on government subsidies. Subsidies that he doesn’t want you to have. And you like him…..why?
I’m lucky in so many ways. – I have this uncanny ability to feel gratitude in my darkest moments. Maybe this isn’t rare but it feels like it. Last winter when I hit my lowest low, the gratitude I felt for my friends was palpable . The fact that they put up with my shit every single day is just amazing to me. A shout out to Kelli and Melissa for never missing a single day of checking in on me. It’s a year later and Kelli still hasn’t missed a day. We all need people like this in our lives.  I think if you can cling to gratitude, you can survive.
Happy New Year!
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Remembering My Brother 8 Years Later

Taken from Facebook

I usually write a blog post every year around June 30, the anniversary of Ralph’s death, I never take that blog lightly, putting a lot of thought into what I want to say.
This year I’m having a hard time articulating what I want to say, and I’ll probably skip the formal post. But I still have something to say.
I miss my brother. I miss him every day and in so many different ways. When I counted out the years on my fingers today, I was almost shocked to see that it’s been eight years.
I miss the fact that he got on my nerves. I miss saying “Oh really?” while inside I’m thinking, “Ok, wrap it up” I miss that imperfect relationship that I would never change.
I miss the family constellation that was complete before June 30, 2009. When there really were 6 of us, bound to an expectation of love and loyalty. And again, it was imperfect.
I miss that despite knowing that I’d spend the afternoon listening to Ralph snore, I spent nearly every Sunday at my mothers house, watching football. I miss wanting him to shut up. Because he was loud and annoying.
I miss knowing that I would always be his little sister, and have the necklace (and a bunch of other jewelry) to prove it. I miss his sincere gifts, like a Snuggie or an Avon watch, because he was always so excited to see what you thought. I always loved them, even if they never made it out of the box.
I miss my greatest supporter and knowing that he truly believed I could do or be anything. He was always so surprised by my struggles with myself.
I miss him because he was kind and good. I miss him because he is my brother

 

Facing The Stairs

 

I’m afraid of the stairs. You know, steps. The things you walk up and down.

My fear of the steps has become somewhat clinical. If I can’t walk down the stairs while holding the rail or bracing myself hand against the wall, then I just can’t do it. The fear is so overwhelming that it literally paralyzes me. At the top of the stairs, trying to figure out how to hold on.

You see, I’m convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that I will surely fall. And become injured. Or die. The conviction with which I know this is almost unparalleled.

This is how I live.

I don’t know exactly when I developed this fear. When you come out of a breakdown, the world is a different place. I search my mind for the moment when I could no longer bear to step down and I can’t find it. But that doesn’t change anything. It’s not like a world gives you a pass. No, the world says “Get the fuck out of the way. I’ve got places to go.” The world, for the most part, does not understand.

That doesn’t make my fear any less. It just means I need more time. Or to turn around. I need to figure out how to try again.

 

Six Years Later: Remembering My Mom

It was her greatest adventure; a dream come true.
My mother was scared to death of flying. She was so afraid that it left her grounded for the majority of her life. In 1995, my brother got married in Iowa, which forced most of the family on to an itinerary that included a 12 seater plane that squealed as the air rushed through the seams. I turned to my sister and said “The family that flies together….” and she joined in, “dies together.” But my mother remained calm, likely with a little help from the benzodiazepine family. I looked at my mother and through my white knuckled fear, said, “See mom, now we can go to Ireland.”
About a year later, I got engaged and one of the first things on my list of to-dos was to take my mother to Ireland. This was my last chance before  soldiering off into my adult life to make my mother’s dream come true. So, we went.
Here are a few highlights to our trip.
– Driving through Ireland had to have been one of the most stressful things I have ever done. They just hand you the keys to a car that has the steering wheel on the right and send you out onto roads where everyone is driving on the wrong side. My mother didn’t care. I was her chauffer and she was out exploring the world.
-Maps. Remember maps? Those paper things that you spread out to figure out where the hell you are going? Yeah, I used those. But not my mom. She didn’t read maps and she was too busy touring her mother land. So every morning, I poured over the maps so I could take her on her next adventure.
-If you go to Ireland, you have to go to Blarney Castle. You have to kiss the Blarney Stone. If you didn’t, you must self combust. My mother and her lifelong fear of heights hung off the side of a castle and kissed a germ-covered rock. I almost backed out.

-Ireland is known for its bars, beer and Baileys. These are all things my mother was not known for. But when in Rome…. My mother decided she had to experience the real Ireland, so one afternoon she decided she wanted to go to a bar and have a drink. We walk into this small tavern and start to walk towards the bar. I looked off to the side and realized there was a sitting room and figured out quickly that this was where the ladies sit. Well, I’m no lady and neither was my mother. We bellied up to the bar despite the disapproving looks from two older men sitting to our right. My mother topped off the day when she ordered a Baileys with cream. The bartender just stared at her. He presented my mother with a Baileys and a small pitcher of cream on the side. It was as if he could not bring himself to poison the Baileys with the cream. I, on the other hand, ordered a vodka. Because that’s what you do when you are in Ireland; you drink vodka.
While these are just a few of my memories of Ireland with my mother, the thing that sticks out most is her face. So many times I turned to look at my mother and was met with a look of total contentment. Pure peace. As tired and anxious as I was, I let my mother have her greatest adventure. I’m just glad I was there for it.

Just One Day

I took an online personality test last night and was labeled 88% anxious. My primary personality trait was not sensitive, assertive or reasoning. It was anxious. What the fuck has happened to my life?
The past two years have been a roller coaster of emotion, a never-ending quest for balance, a constant reminder that I’ve been slowly robbed of my ability to write. I’m tired.
I had a med adjustment this past week which has left me nervous, shaky and definitely left of center. I had to make the decision to ask for a reduction. I’m afraid.
Life hangs on a chemical balance. All those moods you have are really just a result of your brain firing the proper amount of neurotransmitter. When it works,  it works. It’s beautiful when it works.
I’m fighting biology right now. Hoping and praying that things will settle down. That daily walks will work. That engagement with friends will work. That maybe writing will work the way it used to.
If you are lucky enough to be chemically balanced, cherish it. Embrace the shit out of it. And try to remember that it’s a gift so many would kill to have.
I’m going to try to remember that this too shall pass. And I have people who love me. Tomorrow will be a better day.

2016

Carrie Fisher clogged up my news feed today and initially, I didn’t think much about it. Maybe too many celebrities have died this year and I’ve lost my ability to be shocked. And the fact that I haven’t seen an entire Star Wars movie didn’t help either. So I was looking for something beyond news of Princess Leia when I stumbled on a quote that made me look further.

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.” ~ Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

In that moment, I mourned Carrie Fisher. I realized how brave she had been in the face of an invisible illness and how much we needed people like her to remind us that it’s ok to be not ok.
The night my brother died, I basically threw up my emotions on Facebook. I put it all out there to see and I didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about it. I spent the next 5 1/2 years writing about every little painful thing I could think of and I felt free. I was living my truth and was, for the most part, minus the pain, loving my life.
That all changed about a year and half ago when, what I now refer to as a “chemical event” occurred. My mind started to change.
I had noticed a pattern in the last few years during the fall of increased stress and difficulty managing everything.  I legitimately had a lot of things that happened in the fall, so I just assumed that the solution was to step back and figure out what my priorities were. Unfortunately, that didn’t help.
I look back now and realize that it started in late summer, increased in September and spun out of control by late October. I was experiencing a prolonged episode of hypomania, although I didn’t know that at the time. According to Wikipedia, hypomania (literally “under mania” or “less than mania”) is a mood state characterized by persistent disinhibition and pervasive elevated (euphoric) with or without irritable mood but generally less severe than full mania.
Ok. I said it…..In case anyone is wondering, I have Bipolar II. Bipolar II is different that Bipolar I in that you never reach a full manic state, but your mood cycles nonetheless.
My hypomania, while at times euphoric, was largely irritable. The longer this episode went on, the more out of control my life became. I was agitated all of the time. I wasn’t sleeping. I was testing boundaries and pushing people to their limit.
I didn’t know I had Bipolar until my life started falling apart and I became desperate for help. I ended up in a psychiatric nurse’s office on a Sunday afternoon and she broke the news.
I was devastated. I felt damaged; like my life would never be the same. And it hasn’t.
I started a psychotropic cocktail of meds that included mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics. (Side note….why the fuck can’t they call it something other than anti-psychotic?) The next day my mind was so quiet that it was frightening. For the first time it occurred to me that maybe I had always had this problem. I didn’t know that people actually live without noise in their heads. I didn’t know what to do.
I responded quickly and positively to the cocktail, which the nurse was pleased with. At one of my first med checks, she looked at me very seriously and asked, “How did you function? You’ve been able to get a Masters, hold down a job, teach and see clients. That’s amazing.” My response: “I did what I had to do. I didn’t know I had a choice.”
Several months later, I had put on a large amount of weight, which is common with certain psychotropics. I was at greater risk for high blood sugar and the nurse and I together, decided to make a change to my regimen. It’s been a very long road.
Summer came and went and I was faced with another fall. As expected, I noticed I was more agitated but hoped that we would continue to tweak the meds and I could avoid a relapse. I didn’t.
This fall is a blur of cycling hypomania and depression. Things were happening so quickly, I’m not even sure if I was hypomanic or depressed. Best I can tell, I was both. I was frightened. I was alone.
I’ve had a LOT of shitty things happened. I watched my dad die when I was 11. I endured the loss of a sibling. I had to say goodbye to my mother. All of those things felt overwhelming and were life changing. None of them were anything like this.
My body and mind betrayed me. I’ve never felt so helpless or so alone. I got up everyday and lived my life because the world doesn’t recognize psychological illness without an incredible amount of stigma. It takes so much to trust people with this secret. And even more energy to hide it.
Am I better? The answer is no. I’m close but then again, we are all just one chemical away from disaster. But it dawned on me that this illness seems to have taken my ability to write. That, coupled with the intense fear that people would find out pushed me to write this today.
As Carrie Fisher pointed out, I need to stop being ashamed. As my nurse pointed out, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve been able to do all of the things I have. I should be proud. I shouldn’t be hiding.
So this is Bipolar. 

Riding the Depression Wave

Two years later and today I needed to read this more than ever. Recognize the slope!

maximusred

Given all of the attention placed on Major Depressive Disorder and suicide this week, my son said to me last night, “So, are you going to write a blog about that?” pointing to an article about Robin Williams. And my first thought was, no. Not going there.

I’ve written extensively over the last five years about death, dying and grief, but never specifically addressed depression in any of my writing. Was I depressed dealing with the loss of my brother and mother? Absolutely. I was dealing with not only what they call “ambiguous grief”, which is often experienced by children of a parent who has died, as well as siblings who lose a brother or sister (i.e. you aren’t a widow or a widower, so society tends to minimize the impact), but also “complicated grief”, which is what they call it when you lose more than one key person in a short…

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Juxtaposition

In a world where it feels like so many things go wrong, sometimes, things can go so right.

There’s this thing called vicarious grief, which is a grief response, stimulated by someone else’s loss. I find this concept difficult and misleading because in some ways it dehumanizes the loss experience. My friend Jeanette’s daughter was strangled in her dorm room by her boyfriend 18 months ago. I knew Karlie, but not well. The morning of her death, my sister called me, gave me no details of what happened and asked me to put some food together and come to the house. I showed up with food, because that’s what friends do. The next few weeks were a barrage of emotions, many of which left me wondering, “Is this my grief?”

When our friends lose loved ones, we often neglect our own feelings in order to offer strength and support. But I was devastated. I ached. Each night, I would climb in bed and cry. I’d cry for Jeanette. I’d cry for Karlie, who must have been so afraid. I cried for her sisters, knowing how devastating it is to lose a sibling. I was experiencing vicarious grief, but I was still grieving.

Karlie’s trial was stressful for everyone and I found my blood pressure rising everyday when I read the accounts of the testimony online. I cried at night, again, devastated that anyone’s daughter could endure so much.

And then today. Today was sentencing day. I knew this was such an important and painful day for Karlie’s family and yet, there really is no good outcome. You only hope that justice is served. Karlie’s killer was sentenced to the maximum. That didn’t make me cry. This did.hands

WGAL posted this picture of Jeanette’s hand reaching out with a caption that said “This is the sculpture of Karlie Hall’s hands that she was working on before she was murdered. Her mom now compares it to Karlie, calling her an unfinished piece of art as well.”

What I wanted to do was throw myself on the ground and curl up in the fetal position and wail like a baby. In that moment, I thought of Karlie and every other unfinished piece of art. I thought about how much life we waste and what I wouldn’t give for so many moments to redo. We are all unfinished pieces of art.

And then in all of that ‘vicarious grief”, this happened today too.

Ed

While I was nervously waiting to hear the sentence, I was in a Facebook group message and a friend mentioned Ed Washington. I had no idea what she was talking about so I looked on my News Feed and found this link https://www.gofundme.com/2g9asws .

Ed had graduated with my younger sister Crissy in 1991, but had been paralyzed his freshman year during a football game. I didn’t know Ed but Crissy had been friendly with him. I had thought about him from time to time so I was surprised to read this update:

Ed, who was paralyzed in ninth grade from a football injury 29 years ago, is an amazing young man with a positive attitude. He never asks for much but he now has a situation where he needs his “lifeline”, his wheel chair, to be fixed. He has not gotten any cooperation from his insurance resources and he has been bedridden for over five months because he has been caught up in the red tape of trying to get his wheel chair repaired. We are asking family and friends if they would be willing to help pay the expenses of repairing his wheel chair ($4995.00). We want to get Ed out of his bed and back in motion in his wheelchair. A donor has already put a deposit down to order the parts needed. If you would like to help Ed, please donate through this page.   God bless you and thank you for your prayers and support.

This gofundme page was shared on Unionville High school Alumni page, as well as, individually by many former students. In just 13 hours, nearly $10,000 has been raised for Ed, a man who has been bedridden for 5 months. When I opened that page and scrolled down the names, I was so proud to know that 30 years later, people did not hesitate. I wanted to cry. I seriously wanted to cry. Because Ed is an unfinished piece of art too. And now he’ll have new wheels.

The world  is still good.

 

What People Don’t Understand About Racism

I think given the current events and general misunderstanding about racial bias and privilege, this is quite timely.

maximusred

I’m about to make some controversial, yet, hopefully, thought provoking statements. In light of all of recent accusations of police brutality, riots, police shootings, etc., I have seen a lot of strong opinions on the topics. I’ll be honest, I don’t watch the news very often anymore. My life has enough going on without me taking on other people’s stuff. I’ve been accused of being uninformed and if that’s the case, then, I can live with that. I may be uninformed on the particulars of media slanted coverage that paints African Americans as crazed lunatics stopping traffic, looting stores and killing cops. I’m also under informed on the particulars of innocent police officers being gunned down for no other reason than wearing a uniform. But I am not uninformed when it comes to the underpinnings of the racial divide and why it is so vast. It’s my business to know.

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7 Years Later: Remembering My Brother

Facebook has this nifty feature where you can search “On This Day” and instantly be transported back to this day in history over the course of your virtual life. I have actually enjoyed this feature. It’s surprised me in fun ways over time and everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good memory.

Back in May, I happened upon a “On This Day” status from 2009 that read something like “Asking for prayers for my brother”, and at that moment, I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach because I knew that at that moment, seven years ago, I was losing my brother and I had no idea.

For the last 6 or 7 weeks, every morning when I wake up, I have reflexively, searched “On This Day”. For the first time in 7 years, I was able to actually watch from a virtual distance, day by Facebook day, as the time ticked until my brother died. But 7 years ago, I had absolutely no idea.

The first few days after that first “asking for prayers” post, I continued to update people on my brother’s health. Things changed daily and we really didn’t know much. It just didn’t look good. I remember being very scared. About a week into it, I posted something about a clown visiting my brother and fearing for the clown’s life but that wasn’t the case. Looking back, it all really makes sense. You see, my brother had been told a few hours earlier about multiple serious health issues by an asshole doctor with really shitty bedside manner. I didn’t really know the full extent of it at the time but I now refer to it as Ralph looking “broken”. He did. He looked broken. And then he went home.

Life went back to normal according to Facebook. I posted random bullshit about  The Bachelorette and work. At one point, someone asked in a comment about how my brother was doing and I reported that he was doing ok but needed to follow up with the doctor.

I started and finished the last class I needed in order to become licensed as a professional counselor. Yep. In the eight weeks from start to finish of the story of my brother’s death, I completed a class on Career Counseling. Exciting, huh?

In the last week or two, I have really been more interested in what had been happening in those last few days before Ralph died. I mean, I remember but, what about those damn Facebook posts? Again, the Bachelorette was pretty important that year. And I had a few pretty interesting work events in the first few weeks of June.

The last week became increasingly deja vu, though. Because I remember that last week. June 25, 2009 was a pretty big day in history. Farrah Fawcett died that day after a long battle with cancer. Oh, and Michael Jackson died that day too. I still remember standing in the gym at Devereux next to my soon to be boss looking at our respective cell phones,saying “Oh my God, he is only 50 years old. That’s just crazy.”

June 26, 2009 was Ralph’s 5oth birthday, and while I didn’t talk to him that day, I did leave him a message that night. I remember being a little spooked by the whole Michael dead at 50 thing so I didn’t mention it (obviously). No Facebook birthday shout out to my brother. I mean, he didn’t even have Facebook.

June 27th was a Saturday and I took Max and his cousins to the pool. I posted several pictures of them at the pool on Facebook that day. I remember Michael Jackson was playing everywhere and Rylan was moonwalking.

June 28, 2009 was a Sunday and Sundays meant Ciliberti dinners. Ralph had settled down a lot over the past two months. He had been on oxygen when he first got home but was off of it now. He had quit smoking. I knew that he might be going out with his friends here and there but I didn’t want to argue with Ralph. No one but Ralph ever won those arguments. So, Ralph handed me some money and sent me out to the store with a list of things to pick up for dinner. As I was leaving, he said to me, “And pick up a birthday cake too.” I did. A chocolate cake with red and blue balloons. And we did what we did for every other birthday. We sang Happy Birthday to a 50 year old man and we ate cake. I never saw my brother alive again.

June 29, 2009, I posted on Facebook “Carol Ciliberti is cracking up watching Kathy Griffin’s mother refer to Facebook as Facepage.”

I absolutely 100% remember that day. But until now, I never realized that would be the last “pre-Ralph death” day. It’s absolutely stunning to me that the last normal day of my adult life consisted of my watching Kathy Griffin’s mother talk about Facepage.

The next post about Ralph happens on July 1, 2009 in the early morning and consists of the seeds of my blogging career. It was the seed of my teaching career. The seed of my “FUCK YOU ALL” career. The seed of my “Own your shit”.

Life can really suck. But I’ve learned so much. And Ralph is always in my ear. Always telling me I can do it. Always telling me to fuck you all. Of course, he’s smiling the whole fucking time.