Identity

Identity

I'm spending more and more time lately wondering when I'll stop being the woman whose partner died. When that will stop feeling like my identity, when it stops being the mask I put on every morning, when it will stop being reflected in the faces of my friends and family. It will never not have happened. But I am tired of being swallowed up by it. 

I guess I started thinking about this seriously in the days after I finished my 50k. It hit me that it was the first big positive life event for me since Mark died. The first one he missed. I was sad, mostly because it took me a few days to realize this fact. It was a Big Thing That I Did, initially. Only later did it turn into the First Big Thing That I Did Without Him. In recent weeks I've been taking steps towards making something out of the life I have in front of me. Scary, nauseating, tear filled stutter-steps. 

As I’ve discussed on my training page, the weeks and months after the race have been filled with anxiety. Aimless. I’d spent six months holding my emotions at bay, burying them in the miles. For those six months I wasn’t anything other than a runner. That was my identity. Then I became an official ultrarunner. But as soon I started wearing that mask I felt it slipping off. Nothing else had changed. I don’t know what I was expecting to change but I was disappointed at who I still was. At what my life still was.

What I am trying to accept is that I can't keep life at arm's length anymore. I have to be willing to experience the complicated emotions of my grief but I also have to be open to the life going on around me. It is exhausting, pretending not to have feelings, joking about being dead inside and better for it. If that were truly the case my heart wouldn’t ache as I hold the children of my friends, feel a twinge of jealously as I watch couples share the simplicity of the day to day together.

I’ve built a safe, comfortable, introverted existence. I meticulously plan how I spend my time and with whom, usually choosing to stay home alone watching The Office ad nauseam. I have a handful of safe people to see and safe places to visit over prescripted periods of time. I do not like to divert from that, nor do I like feeling as though I have to defend it. It is only now just occurring to me that those safe people are also the ones that allow me to reinforce the identity I want to shed. To be clear, I don’t think that these friends project that label onto me. They are the ones that I’ve allowed to remain present with me in the After, the only ones I consider sharing the dark moods with. No wonder I’ve come to believe they only see me for what happened to me.

I am only a couple of weeks away from the two year point and the weight of this identity grows as the days tick past. I don’t have any expectations for where I am supposed to be or how I am supposed to feel. I am mostly amazed that I am still alive. But this eats at me. I wanted to be seen as Mark’s wife. Not his widow. I think I’d still have this full and beautiful life if he were here, me being his wife one of my favorite parts. My life now feels anything but full and certainly not beautiful. Being his widow has permeated every inch of my existence and how could it not? As if there was a way to stop that from happening. I just can’t go on living as this person.

I don’t know how to be anyone else. You might as well ask me to stop breathing or being a crazy cat lady. It’s in my marrow now. I’m trying to do things that I used to do. I’m trying a few new things too. All of it feels awkward and unnatural. Like I’m pretending to be someone I can’t be again. But what is the alternative?

I’m taking a few days later this week to go to the mountains. I’m going with new friends, to a new place, to possibly do things I haven’t done before. I’m completely terrified. In another life I would be making this trip with someone else. The terror would be replaced with excitement. I’m trying to tap into the presence of possibility for this weekend. Just because it isn’t what it is supposed to be doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. That I can’t enjoy myself.

This isn’t about what Mark would or would not want. I don’t like to think about that because I don’t believe it is knowable. I’m not interested in lying to myself to make difficult decisions easier. What this trip is about is trying to leave who I feel trapped as behind, if only for a few minutes. Be present with people who want to be present with me. Experience my favorite season in a beautiful place. Let it just be.


Sweetness

Sweetness

I really haven't dreamed about Mark since he died. At first, perhaps, that was a gift. My mind protecting me, as I inundated myself with thoughts of him during my waking hours. As the weeks turned into months, I wished for a dream of him. Prayed. Begged. Yelled. Became resigned to the fact that perhaps that just wasn't going to be one of the ways he chose to remain present with me. Instead I looked for signs. Songs on the radio, scents, sounds, you name it. Grasping at straws? Perhaps. 

Last weekend as Becky and I started our long run, we passed a huge patch of honeysuckle blooming wild and fragrant on the side of the road. It made something in my throat catch and quite uninvited, a memory came crashing forward. Mark would gently pull a blossom from its stem and bring it to my lips to taste the sweetness of its nectar. He knew so much about flowers and plants, and it was a pleasant surprise the first time he showed this to me. I looked forward to it every time after. We passed that patch again at the end of the run and I wish I had drawn a deeper breath. The run had gone so poorly, my mind was focused elsewhere. I didn't realize. I passed more honeysuckle on my run Sunday, and again on Tuesday, and again today. All on different trails. All with the same catch in my throat, followed by a few short breaths to take it in. That memory and a small smile. 

A few nights ago I woke up and knew Mark was in my dreams. I couldn't remember a single detail other than the certainty that he was there. Hmm. This morning I woke up and remembered. I was at a ballpark, wandering all over trying to find someone. At the end of the dream I see Mark coming towards me, with a big smile. I burst into tears and run and jump into his arms. Then I woke up. There was no sweetness in those waking moments. I was wrecked. I laid in bed for a couple of hours after, never mind the run I had planned or the office I was supposed to be at. I eventually dragged myself out of bed, opting to work from home, to face a day I had suddenly no interest in facing. Why now?

I didn't made the connection until I messaged a dear widow friend today, asking if she ever dreamed of her husband. I explained that I hadn't since he'd died. Her first question was the obvious one and the one that hadn't occurred to me. Was a significant date coming? Yes. YES. In 6 days it will be 18 months since he died. 6 days after that, our 5 year anniversary. Cue clouds parting, lightbulbs lighting, hand slapping into forehead. That is why now. It doesn't make it easier, but it makes it understandable. 

Bittersweet? Perhaps. But I hope the dreams don't stop. I hope the honeysuckle keeps blooming. I hope the sharpness of the pain from both softens in something like a tap on the shoulder. A kiss on the cheek. A whisper in my ear. Good morning, beautiful. 

sweetness.jpg

Take your Transformation Narrative...

Take your Transformation Narrative...

And shove it up your ass. 

I have been wanting to write this post for a long time and I'm finally sitting down to let the words come out. I want to call bullshit on the transformation narrative. You can probably name an example of one even if the term itself doesn't ring any bells for you. I'm not talking about #TransformationTuesday where your social media feed is full of Before and After gym pictures. I'm talking about the expectation that is held of any person experiencing hardship to turn that bushel of lemons into GD magic lemonade. 

nope.png

There is a widespread belief that suffering (grief, in my case) can lead to transformation and growth to the point of benefiting greater social good. I do not deny that this is true, but I take issue with how this possibility has evolved to an expectation of the sufferer from those observing the suffering. A few examples: creating memorial foundations for loved ones, fundraising for medical research, lobbying for legal or social change, hosting annual races or other events in memoriam. I can tell you from personal experience that there is so much pressure to find meaning and purpose from loss and it is not fair.  

Survivors of indescribable pain owe the world nothing. Our one job is survive. The end. We recognize that for friends and family that feeling powerless to help us is terrible. We're powerless too, we get it. We don't know what we need either and there is no making it better. While the stories of grief transformed can be heartwarming, they can also be damaging.  Not everyone is that strong, has access to the same resources, or wants to grieve in a public fashion. We often already feel like we are not doing enough to "get better" or "move on." Not everything happens for a reason nor are we under any obligation to create meaning when none exists. Sharing these stories with us is not comforting, it is pressure. It is obligation. It is cruel.

Kudos to the leviathans that have been able to rewrite their stories so that loss isn't the end, but rather a beginning. Truly, I am in awe. What I am asking is for those are not in our shoes to stop seeing that as the norm. To stop assuming that those of us who haven't done anything yet only lack direction. Start looking at everyone else you know who has suffered a loss, and not just through death. We aren't moving mountains. We're just trying to survive today the best we can and we want to know that it is good enough. That waking up is good enough. Thank you. 

Permission

Permission

I'll start by thanking the She Explores podcast (if you don't listen already, you should start) and the guest on episode 41, Amanda Machado, for sparking this post idea. To inadequately summarize the episode, Amanda was struggling to reconcile her love of the outdoors with her identity as a Latina (full article here). The big picture idea is feeling out of place (culturally, in Amanda's case) in a location/sphere/space where you were never well-represented before and/or don't feel welcome because you aren't the "typical" hiker/mother/astronaut/whatever that is arbitrarily shown in the mainstream.  

“I wanted someone to give me permission for that kind of stuff. I felt like I needed to hear from lots of people that it’s okay to do it and I think that was probably what restricted me from doing it for a really long time. I wish that I would have just done it without permission from anybody. To just trust that eventually by doing it I’m going to meet all these other people who do it as well. And will validate that it’s not weird or crazy or doesn’t make you strange. And that it’s totally normal and wonderful to do these things anyways.”

You may think this is a bit of a stretch, but I immediately related to her experience as "other" in the outdoors based on my experience as "other" in world of grief (no, I am not equating them). I am not your typical widow (yeah, I just said widow). I wasn't married, I didn't have kids, I wasn't of an advanced age. From the moment Mark died, I felt like I'd been widowed. But as soon as my brain used that word, I flinched. I told myself not to say it out loud, I didn't want the shit storm to be worse than it already was. On the worst day of my life I was more concerned with how people outside our relationship would react. How fucked up is that?

From day one, Mark and I fought for the legitimacy of our relationship. For external validation from numerous people that would never come.  I didn't truly accept the impossibility of that task until Mark was gone. It was made painfully and abundantly clear that acceptance would never come. I've since spent the year dancing around that word. It is an ugly and exhausting dance that I have performed in support groups and counselors' offices, at my job and among friends. Hell, even basic adult paperwork these days includes a question on marital status. Who am I, unmarried person with dead partner, to lay claim to the widow mantle and all that comes with it?    

I'm not one to have a strong backbone most days. I do care too much about what people think and I waste an inordinate amount of time making decisions, large and small, because I wonder who will judge me. Grown-ass woman, still insecure as hell. More often that I would like to admit, I let that fear of judgement steer the ship. I would rather have everyone like me or approve of me than live my own GD life. I've gotten better in the last year (that happens when you run low on fucks to give) but only with the smaller choices that don't seem important anymore. That ends today. I'm a fucking widow.  

I don't need permission from his family, my family, or my friends to be a widow. I certainly don't need (or want it) from anyone who has never lost their significant other. If you knew us, you knew we were it for each other. You know that my age has no bearing on me "finding love again." There is no "at least you weren't..." there is only "I will never get to." The fact that we never had the piece of paper that serves as the sole measurement for legitimate relationship status in this country no longer matters to me. If you disagree, feel free to go kick rocks because I don't need you in my life anymore. 

Beyond what I am giving myself permission for today, I wanted this to serve as a blanket permission slip to anyone reading to do (or not do) whatever has been weighing on your heart. Whatever you afraid to do, say, be, or think because it is scary or other or a path different from the rest. Dearest person, you hereby have permission to:

Have kids
Don't have kids
Get married
Don't get married
Be happily single (yes, that is a thing!)
Take that crazy trip
Register for that intimidating race
Take that class to start learning that hobby/skill/trade
Quit the job that eats your soul
Take the job that pays less but fills your heart
Go camping/hiking/climbing alone
Go minimal and get rid of most of your material possessions
Fill your home with items that give you joy and comfort
Live in a van and hit the open road
Stay happy right where you are
End that toxic relationship with your friend/coworker/family member

This is a woefully short and surface level list of what you have permission to do. If the only thing holding you back is permission, and this thing would make you happy and will not cause irreparable harm to others, the wait is over. I know it won't be easy. If these were easy choices to make we would have made them already. I fully expect fallout from this post but the weight lifted off of me is beyond worth the risk. If you want to share what you've been waiting to get permission for, I'd love to know. For now, I will leave you with these words from She Explores host Gale Straub: 

"We so often look around us for permission to take a risk, when we just might not find it within our close circles. Amanda’s advice? Take the risk, with or without external approval."

 

A Falling Out

A Falling Out

Somehow, September has arrived. For the first time in a long time, I'm not excited. September generally kicks off my favorite part of the year. The best of the four seasons, Fall. I loved cruising through September, October, and November, soaking up everything this time of year has to offer. Now I want nothing to do with it. 

 Orr's Fall Farm Fun Days - September 2016

Orr's Fall Farm Fun Days - September 2016

A lot of tough firsts are approaching, the soonest being my first birthday without Mark. I would be happy if I went to bed the night before and woke up the morning after. I just want to skip the whole day. It wasn't that Mark made a big deal of my birthday, that wasn't his style or mine. But he was sweet and thoughtful and made sure I felt just a bit more loved than I already did. I treasure my family and friends, but there is no equal replacement or substitution here. I view each day of my life through a lens of absence. Everything is colored by what is missing. On a day that will only accentuate that which is painfully obvious, I'd like a pass.  

 I still dream about this cake - September 2016

I still dream about this cake - September 2016

I felt a cool edge to the air today, the edge that usually brings a smile to my face and spreads a warmth across my heart. Today it just made me sad. It made me want to pull the collar up on a jacket the way you do when the chill hits your neck and you just can't wait to get indoors. That small gesture I chuckle at in others is what my spirit did today. Cold air on raw soul. It wants to hunker down, bundle up, and see you in a few months.  The realization that fall brings with it ache where it once brought joy is unsettling. My foundation cracked, shifted. 

 Morning on the ATT, November 5, 2016

Morning on the ATT, November 5, 2016

I'm not saying that this time of year is ruined for me forever. But the magic that it has carried for me for so long has disappeared. I am not ready to make the best of it. I will not do and see and taste and smell all that I once anticipated with something bordering on childlike wonder. The beautiful simplicity suddenly got dreadfully complicated. I am not in a place where making new traditions feels possible. I will limp through the next three months, as I have limped through the past nine. I will survive this first dark year, through both hell and high water. 

 Backyard Burn race - October 23, 2016

Backyard Burn race - October 23, 2016

Everything is a little less shiny, less bright, less brilliant. Just...less. I could rattle off a laundry list of things big and small that won't happen this season, most of which are of no consequence to anyone but me. In a season usually defined by its colors and spices, I find myself feeling flat and bland. I had no idea this would happen, until it did. A temporary falling out of love with Fall. She will pass, as all seasons do, and come round again. I doubt she'll notice I'm gone but I know she'll welcome me back when I'm ready. Until then, collar's up.  

Memos in the moment

I recorded a couple of voice memos last night. Things that I wanted to remember and felt were important reflections on my grief experience as it unfolds. What follows here is not a word for word transcription of those voice memos. It is a large part of the content, edited as I felt necessary for clarity, listening to them a night later. What you won't get here is the sound of bathwater sloshing in the background, or the sound of me choking up and sniffling. You're welcome. I'm not going to preface this with anything else other than to say that my intent is not to upset anyone who has supported me these last several months. Here we go: 

The reality of grief is that you will never be more alone in your entire life. There will be so many people that love you and want to help you, and yet you will never be more alone. There is just no way to describe it because everything that other people will say...they just can't possibly understand what you are going through and saying that it's not always going to feel this way or think about the times you had or it will get better...it's all fucking bullshit. 

This is all shit that people say to make themselves feel better because they are terrified at the magnitude of your situation and cannot and do not want to imagine what it might be like to feel what you are feeling for five seconds. And they don't mean to be harmful. They don't. Your friends and your family love you and they do not mean for a moment to hurt you. In an act of self-preservation they do. There is no getting around it and they do and you don't want to hear that shit. You really don't. I would rather hear someone say "this is so fucking terrible, I can't imagine, I'm so sorry and I love you." I don't want to hear "it won't always be like this, it will get better, why don't you just go to sleep, why don't you do this, blah blah blah." Be fucking honest.

I had no idea about grief, I had no concept of grief before this, and oh my god, the horror. Truly, the horror. I'm learning so much about what grief is like and what love is like, what life is like. And I just want someone to say it might always be this fucking shitty. It might. It really might. But somehow you will still continue to survive. You might come out of it. You aren't the same person you were and you're never going to go back to that. That's just not possible. There is no new normal or new life or fresh start or whatever. There's just before and there's after. This is the after. And its ugly and messy and dirty and scary and violent. its all those things that no one wants to think about. Until you're there and you have no choice but to think about it and honestly its all you think about all the time. 24/7. 

You have a phone full of contacts and yet no one you can truly talk to. And I've tried, I really have. And God bless my friends and family for what they've tried to do so far but you're crying into the phone and they don't know what to do. They just say they're sorry and inevitably the distractions start. The world does not revolve around you and your loss and other people have the challenges of their life. But if I'm reaching out to talk to you and asking you for help I don't want you to distract me with what happened at your kid's school that day. I just don't.

You start to learn how those conversations are going to go before you even have them. So you literally scroll through your history of text messages and your finger hovers over the "voice call" button but you don't actually press it. Maybe you post some sad image or depressing quote on Instagram or Twitter but you don't actually talk to a human being. I would never want anyone to know what this was like but holy shit would it be great to have someone who knew you and loved you and knew what you were going through. I could be connected with anyone in the world within seconds on this smartphone and this social media universe and there is not a person on this planet that I would want to talk to right now. Maybe just one, but he's dead. 

There you have it. I wanted to share this because I think it shows what my experience of grief is like. This was my Tuesday night. I went to work, I ran, I did all the other required daily adulting things. This is also what most Thursday afternoons or Sunday mornings or any other time of day or night can be like for me. Sometimes there is an obvious trigger, more oftentimes not. I do my best not to let show in public or impact my work. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't. I can't control it, though I damn sure try to. More and more I find myself too tired. Too tired to think I can hold back the ocean for eternity. So, here's a wave for you. Breaking and crashing on my shore. Thank you for witnessing.