Somewhere in the middle

I’ve been craving calm lately, and rejuvenation. I’ve spent the last few weeks perusing yoga retreat websites, searching for the perfect destination. I needed something restorative but also inexpensive.

Then I heard about Yoga Fest from my yoga teacher, Andrea. The annual day-long retreat in Raleigh features dozens of yoga sessions from meditation to acrobatic yoga. I attended my first Yoga Fest on Saturday, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. It was a day of releasing for me. I let go of emotions, tensions, judgments. By the end of the day, I felt cleansed, lighter and looser. It was a powerful experience and more than I could have imagined.

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My day started out with an amazing Yin Yoga session with my yoga teacher Andrea. She’s the coolest yogi I’ve ever met. I just adore her! She’s a wonderful teacher. See how happy and relaxed I am after her class? 

The biggest turning point of my day came in the afternoon. Between sessions, I visited the exhibitors’ area and had my aura read for $5 by a woman from a Raleigh yoga studio. I’ve always been fascinated by aura readings and curious about what my own aura looked like. I’m not an expert on the subject of auras, but I’ve been reading about them since I received mine. The best way to describe an aura is it’s a field of energy that surrounds a person and reflects their essence — who they are and what’s happening at their core. The rainbow of colors that appear in an aura are supposed to reveal one’s emotional, physical, spiritual and mental well-being. Since I’ve been dealing with some heavy emotional “stuff” these past two months I was eager to see what my aura would reveal. I placed my hands in the outlines of what looked like two metal fingerprints and within seconds my aura appeared on the screen in front of me.

I studied it for a second and turned to the woman beside me anxiously awaiting her analysis. My aura contained an overwhelming amount of red, which she said represents high energy, creativity and love. “You have a lot of passion,” she said to me. I smiled and nodded. But red, she continued, can also indicate anger, stress and too much thinking and analyzing. She asked if I had been under a lot of stress lately, and I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Not really.” I’ve been managing my stress better at work, doing more yoga and meditation every morning and sleeping well. So no, no stress. She said I have so much energy, creativity and ideas that I want to accomplish, but I’ll never be able to accomplish any of them unless I focus my energy. True. That’s been an ongoing issue.

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“This concerns me,” she said, pointing to a darker area on the screen. I looked closer at the cloudy blob of darkness sitting in the center of my chest. It looked like an ominous, black hole and it was near my heart. I noticed more murky blackness along the edges of my aura, around the crown of my head, but the hole in the center of my heart appeared the densest. “You’re protecting yourself, keeping your emotions closed in,” she said balling her hands into fists and pulling them to her chest. She mentioned illness and grief. I told her I had suffered a great loss in February. She nodded as if she already knew.

It’s been almost two months since my husband and I lost our baby. And it’s a loss unlike anything I have ever felt. It’s a shock to the heart, to the body. Most of all, I grieved the potential, what could have been. Now, what I’m mostly left with is anger. I’ve been through a lot of tough experiences in my life – chronic illness, deaths, divorce – but nothing compares to losing our baby. That black hole, it feels like an abyss. And I was staring directly into it. As I sat there studying my aura on the screen, I saw so much sadness. It’s a strange thing to see your emotions displayed in front of you. It was almost like looking at a self-portrait I had painted. But it’s up to me to change the canvas. The woman who did my reading recommended I meditate more, do some deep meditative breathing and yoga postures to open the chest and release the emotions I’m holding onto. “The gong bath will be good for you,” she continued. “It’ll be interesting to see what your aura is like after the gong.”

Gong bath. I had been hearing about this all day but had no clue what it was, and for some reason I never felt compelled to ask someone. I guess I wanted to be surprised and not go into it with any expectations. With my phone, I took a photo of my aura on the screen, thanked her, and went off to my final yoga class of the day: Cultivating Calm. How appropriate.

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The whole time I was in the class, I couldn’t get the image of my aura out of my head. Every time I tried to concentrate on a particular posture or my breath, my glowing red silhouette with that black hole in the center kept popping up. I kept thinking about how much better I thought I had been doing, how my life was getting back to normal … almost. But I’m still healing. As a friend so eloquently put it, I saw my “true colors,” and it scared me.

“Breathe in possibility and optimism,” the instructor said during our final meditation. “Breathe out fear and doubt.” As I breathed out, I pictured the black hole in my chest leaving my body and light coming in. My closed eyelids trembled as I tried to hold back the tears.

As I waited for the gong bath to begin, I pulled out my phone and Googled “gong bath.” The first result brought up: “A gong bath is a form of sound therapy where the gong is played in a therapeutic way to bring about healing. … The term gong bath means that you are bathed in sound waves, there is no water involved, or clothes removed.” Well, that’s a relief.

I closed my phone and laid down on my yoga mat, waiting to be healed. A woman with thick, blonde curly hair, black and white geometric yoga pants, and an off-the-shoulder black flowing t-shirt entered the room pushing on wheels a gong the size of a Smart car. She suggested lying down on the yoga mat with your head toward the gong and laughed as she told us one of her friends describes the gong bath as a “magic carpet ride.” The idea of floating around on a magic carpet sounded good right about now. The ultimate metaphor for freedom.

She turned off the lights, and as I laid there looking up at the dark, empty ceiling, I kept thinking about the words “healing” and “unreleased grief.” “Give yourself the gift of letting go,” the blonde-hair girl spoke gently into her wireless mic. And with that, the gong bath started. The sounds of the gong began gently like ripples of water, then increased in intensity. I could feel each sound wave reverberate throughout my body. I tried to stay grounded in the present and not let my mind drift, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the past – and that black hole. Eventually, the obsessive thoughts stopped and I let myself just be.

I’m not sure how long the gong bath lasted. Ten minutes? Fifteen? When the gong music stopped, I laid there waiting for something to happen to me. Was it over? Am I healed? What am I supposed to be feeling? Do I feel any different? With the lights still off, a musical recording began to play a New Age song I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t know what the song was about because the lyrics were in another language, but it was beautiful and moving. As I laid there flat on my back, palms turned upward toward the sky, something broke inside of me. Hot tears slipped from the corners of my eyes and slid down my cheeks. My throat tightened and my chin trembled as I tried to hold back the tears. This is the stuff I’m still holding onto. Let it go. I surrendered to my grief and started a flood. Tears streamed down both sides of my cheeks. Some tears pooled in my ear canals and slid down my jaw bone and down my neck. Others rolled off my skin not knowing where they landed. I felt like I would never stop crying.

When the lights came on, I dug in my bag for a tissue and dabbed the tears from my eyes. I was a mess. My cheeks were wet, my neck, my chest. I felt like my whole body was covered in tears. I kneeled on my mat and started to roll it up when I noticed there were tears the size of dimes pooled on it. I had never seen my tears manifested in that way. They looked so big — perhaps the larger the grief, the bigger the tears.

I took a few deep breaths, then collected my things and hurried out the door to my car. I didn’t want anyone to see what a mess I was. When I stepped outside, the gray rain clouds that followed me on my morning drive had dissipated and the sky was now a cloudless blue. I turned my face to the sun and let its rays dry the rest of my tears. And I told myself, “I’m going to be OK.”

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Andrea introduced me to the works of poet Thomas Merton after her Yin Yoga session. “Sit still and rest.” Ah yes. And I love the second poem “At the End …” I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

 

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Remember Pearl Harbor

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December 7th means two things to me – Pearl Harbor and the day my mother died, almost 12 years ago.

Both events caused mass shock and destruction, albeit on different scales – one historical, one deeply personal.

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Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941.

I know it probably seems strange to you that I even note the connection between these events but as a writer, I’ve always appreciated the ripe imagery here.

My mother’s death was not a surprise attack – she had been battling a wicked head and neck cancer with weeks of radiation and then chemotherapy. The results were cruel – she lost 50 pounds and her voice only to learn that a previously undetected tumor on the base of her tongue was discovered.

I know you know – cancer sucks.

She was devastatingly brave, making even her aloof oncologist shake his head at her steely grit. He told us she probably had a couple of months left so we approached the holidays with a “We are the World” attitude, thinking we could turn the tables on cancer and make it a Hallmark Christmas.

A C. diff infection obliterated that plan pretty quickly and she died peacefully in a hospital on a blustery December night as I held her warm hand.

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This is how I remember the Virginia sky the evening my mother died on December 7th, 2002.

I was happy she was no longer in pain and that her exit was full of grace and a peace that she rarely found in her life.

My bombs dropped later, as I dealt – or more accurately, did not deal – with a paralyzing grief and despair that I had never known. And there were many causalities – my loving partner (irreparable damage), my relationship with my sister (since repaired), and my own certainness in the world (a work in progress).

I eventually made my way back to the living and my life – a new life, not the one I had always imagined. And I always think of my combat experience with grief when December 7th rolls around each year.

I think it’s important for me to remember it all – the pain, the destruction, and the armistice I finally brokered through a lot of hard work in therapy and a renewed relationship with my faith.

My mother died young – 70 – and in the past several years I’ve seen many friends navigate these same battles. I try to help in meaningful ways but for the most part, I think it is a solitary journey for each of us.

And I think Winston Churchill got it right about war, any kind of war, when he said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

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My beautiful, glamorous, elegant mother.

 

Alternate Routes

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Why?

The most asked and wholly unanswerable question following a suicide.

I asked that question almost four decades ago when my cousin Russ killed himself with a shotgun blast to the temple when he was 19. I didn’t know any better. I was only 17 and couldn’t imagine why anyone would take their own life.

I did not ask that question a few weeks ago when I heard about the suicide of Robin Williams.

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The cover page of my cousin’s suicide note

You see, I’ve learned a great deal about chronic depression over the years, mostly from my younger sister, who has battled it since she was about 12. She was a lone warrior for many years, growing up in a family and a world where such things were not discussed openly.

Lord knows my parents tried to understand and eventually agreed to let her see a psychiatrist when she was 19. My father was a proud and private man and simply couldn’t process the idea of his daughter spilling her guts to a complete stranger.

A frantic phone call from my mother one afternoon telling him to hide his shotgun changed his mind.

I was tone deaf to her depression for so many years. When she bailed time and again on plans we had made because she couldn’t get out of bed, I took it personally and thought she was selfish and lazy.

A glimmer of light appeared one day on the phone when she said to me, “Addison, this would be easier for you to understand if I had cancer or a broken arm – something you could see.”

She was right and I can still choke on the shame and regret for my lack of compassion during that time in her life. But I did begin to “see” her illness through a very sober lens when she told me she was going to undergo ECT – electroconvulsive therapy – a “last resort” treatment where seizures are electrically induced to provide relief from among other things, major depression.

Yes, that got my attention in a big way. I had chilling visions of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and tried to imagine how desperate my sister must have felt to agree to undergo such an intense procedure – twice.

There was a period of a few years after that when the phone ringing late at night would stand me still. I knew it would be someone on the other end telling me that she had taken her own life.

Today, my sister says she is one of the “lucky” ones because in her late thirties, she was led to a psychiatrist who had done a lot of work around the connection between the thyroid and chronic depression. He put her on a drug combination that pulled her out of the abyss she had lived in for over 20 years.

She vividly recalls the overwhelming awe of experiencing what “normal” feels like after only a few days on the regimen. Is she living happily ever after? No, she still struggles not infrequently with bouts of depression, but she has not experienced suicidal depression since then. This may be as good as it gets for her, but she’ll take it.

My sister and I at my wedding in May.

My wife, a psychotherapist for over 25 years, explained to me that medication treatment for chronic depression is “like trying to hit a moving target” because what is effective today may not remain effective over the long term.

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, my sister and I have had some long and insightful conversations about depression. His death rattled her to her core – that someone with all of his success and resources – could not survive his demons.

She’s told me some things I never knew before – like that her earliest memory of depression was when she was in the first grade. She didn’t have the language for it then but she just knew she was different and that she “wasn’t having fun like the other kids.”

My heart ached for the little red headed girl that loved Hello Kitty and Snoopy and followed her big sister around like a shadow.

She pulled out our cousin’s suicide letter and read it again. Our beloved Aunt Phyllis gave it to her many years ago, knowing that my sister might understand her son’s words in a way that the rest of us could not.

I read it again, too, this time with the wisdom of years and tears and I kept coming back to one line again and again. Russ wrote, “I am not actually seeking death but only an alternative to an unhappy life.”

Any questions?

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Robin Williams