Dear Mom,

It’s been 24 years since the day you left me. That seems like an absurd number, but I know that every year the number gets bigger. Each year, it feels like you’re getting farther away. I lose more memories. I live farther from the people who knew you. Most of the people in my life have never met you. Some of them don’t even know that you’re gone. With each deathiversary, I get more accustomed to explaining where you are.

The closer I get to your age, the more scared I am for myself. Joining a grief group has helped me to realize that this is normal. Most of us who have lost older siblings or parents assume we won’t make it past the age they were when they died, and when we do, we don’t know how to handle it. We never envision ourselves reaching 40, knowing our mom never will, but here I am. I still have some years before I reach 36, but the dread grows the closer I get.

A lot of people mark traumatic experiences, especially deaths, with “before” and “after.” This is how trauma survivors tell time. And while this is how I mark other events in my life, with you there was no “before.” The floaty recollections I have of you feel like another life, a dream, a made up story. My whole life has been “after.” For a while, I wasn’t sure what that meant for me, but recently my trauma therapist explained to me that my trauma isn’t in the fact that you died. I don’t remember it. The trauma of losing you happens over and over again, every time something happens that you should be here for and you’re not here.

I have more pictures of you in my room now to help me remember. I’m doing regressive memory work with my therapist to draw out old feelings and, hopefully, old memories. I mainly remember you taking care of me: scraped knees, bee stings, injuries of childhood. I remember you waking me up to lick the spoon from a batch of brownies. I wonder if you knew then that you didn’t have much time left, and that sweet memory would be more important than my 8pm bedtime.

Next to my bed, I have a tryptic of you, signing to me that you love me. I. Love. You. You smile back at me from a 90s hospital room every night as I go to sleep. And I know that you loved me. There are pictures to prove it. You stared at me with a look of deep adoration. But sometimes I get angry at you. I wish you’d left me more things to remember you by. I wish I had letters for each birthday or a recording of your voice reading me a bedtime story or a video telling me all the things you couldn’t tell a five-year-old. I know it’s not fair to ask for those things because I’m sure you did the best you could. I only ask for them because I miss you.

I’m not sure what I believe about where you are anymore, but I hope wherever it is, it’s peaceful. I hope you are proud of me, but I hope you don’t miss me. People tell me you’d be proud of me, but it doesn’t mean much. Even so, I try to live each day like you’re watching me. I look for you in crowds.

Love you always,

Brenna

6 Women in the Woods

I rarely take vacations. On occasion, I’ll take a long weekend to go to the beach or a friend’s wedding, but the only time I’ve taken off more than two weekdays in a row was when I had the flu. So, clearly, time off is not my strongest form of self care. However, I recently came across the opportunity to go on a writing retreat with one of my grad school professors, and I immediately contacted my boss to confirm my time off before I could back out.

I spent four days at Lake Logan in the mountains of North Carolina with five other women, all at least a generation older than me, many of them mothers. It wasn’t shocking that I was spending the week with a group old enough to be my grandmothers, but what I learned from them was comforting in a way that was unexpected. I went on the retreat to write. I had been feeling stuck in my writing, both in terms of subject matter and because I had been struggling to make time for my writing. I wanted to take advantage of four days with no obligations to churn out a backlog of poems. I accomplished this, but I was offered so much more.

Each morning, we spent time writing together from a prompt, then sharing our writing and giving feedback. I’m a member of a long-standing writing cooperative, so this process was familiar to me. However, I’ve spent the past five years with more or less the same eyes reviewing my work, so the fresh eyes of these women were a blessing. They were not tired of hearing about the same three traumatic things that had happened to me, and this allowed me to find new wonder in my own story. Hearing the stories of strangers also allowed me to open up more space inside myself and shake loose some long-forgotten stories. I wrote about things I’d never written about before, mainly because I’d forgotten they had happened.

Each afternoon, we had time to ourselves. I usually spent my time hiking or doing yoga, napping, and reading. The silence was astounding. I live with two roommates and I work at a social service agency, so my life is not often quiet. At the lake, though, it was. I couldn’t distract myself from the hard things by re-watching Parks and Rec again because there wasn’t any cell phone service. I couldn’t avoid rest because there was nothing for me to clean and no roommate I could go to the next room to chat with. I was forced to sit alone, and it was hard.  It forced me to introspect in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Each night, we sat around and drank wine and told stories.  Hearing about the lives of women forty years my senior made me realize that I will never have my life together. These women are mothers, grandmothers, and retirees, but they are still figuring it all out. One woman recently decided to go back and get another graduate degree despite the fact that she will soon retire. A retired episcopal priest relayed to the group how confused she is about her identity now that she isn’t working. A woman from rural Georgia recounted her difficult relationships to us and the things she had learned. At my fingertips, I had a treasure trove of wisdom. And the wisdom, essentially, was nothing – that I will never really know what I’m doing and that’s ok. That with each stage of life I will continue to be confused and feel like I’m making things up.  We are always learning as we go.

Each of us expressed feeling tired of conforming, tired of doing what was expected. The other women told me I would care less and less what other people thought of me as I got older. At one point, someone exclaimed, “I’m so tired of being nice! I’m so fucking tired of being nice!” And I thought, yeah…same. Forty years from now I won’t care if I was nice. I will care if I sought healing, had hard conversations, chose adventures, and stood up for myself. I’m still learning how to do these things, but the women on this retreat made me feel as though I was ahead of the curve. “At least you’re dealing with your demons now,” they told me. “It took us years to get here.” So, for now, I will continue writing, not really knowing what I’m doing, but knowing that no one else does either.

On our last morning, perhaps my favorite woman on the retreat gifted me a gold necklace with a small circle charm hanging from the chain. “When I look at you, I feel like things have come full circle for me,” she said, “so I want you to have this.” Each time I wear it, I think of her and her small service dog who loved to lick my hands, and I know that I am headed somewhere important, even if I’m not quite sure where that will be.

Why “unguarded”?

When I created this website for my writing, I wanted to have an intention. I didn’t want to write just for the sake of writing, although I need to do more of that too. I wanted this blog to be a space that required something specific of me. I thought about how I wanted to brand myself but, more personally, I thought about what it would mean for me to reveal glimpses of myself on the internet. In the past, when I’ve shared my writing, it’s always been polished. I would rarely share things that were in-process or unedited. Even within the writing group I attend, I wouldn’t bring pieces if they weren’t finished.

It took me a long time to realize that I was a perfectionist, which is ridiculous. But, coming from a long line of perfectionists, for the first 25 years of my life, I thought this was just how everyone was. I thought all of us walked into a room and fixed throw pillows, hung up jackets, and adjusted papers to be at a right angle to the countertop. It turns out, most people don’t do that and I’m a little bit obsessive. Realizing my perfectionism, though, was my first step in challenging my bar for self-acceptance.

What happens if I don’t have the perfect outfit? What happens if I don’t put everything away that’s on the kitchen counter? What happens if I leave a bag on the floor that needs unpacking? Clearly, nothing, but it took a lot of deep breathing for me to realize that. I have so much anxiety around being perfect that it’s physically difficult for me to not adjust everything around me to my unrealistic standards. This doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help anyone else.

So, why unguarded? It’s right there in the tagline. Relinquishing perfectionism. Witnessing messiness. Sharing my truths. Instead of striving to have the smartest, most creative, most innovative piece of writing each time I post, I’m striving to simply write about what I’m experiencing right now. Instead of editing over and over again, I post after one or two read-throughs. Instead of worrying about what others will think of me, I think of who might need to hear about my experiences in order to feel less alone. So, this space is not about sharing my best writing. It’s about sharing all of me, imperfect, messy, and unguarded.

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

I am seven.
I help Grammi
make pancakes flavored with oranges
every Thanksgiving
and cookies with Red Hots for eyes
every Christmas.
I build wooden boats and cars
out of old wood scraps
that Gramps left behind.

I am twelve.
Twenty-four people
come to our house
I mimic the older cousins
at the kids’ table.
We buy the biggest turkey
the grocery store has to offer,
and I am proud of its size.

I am twenty-one.
Two days before Christmas,
my parents tell me
they are getting separated.
When I visit in January,
they’ve changed their mind
but never explain why.

I am twenty-five. 
The table is set for three.
My cousins are in
California and
Virginia and
Kentucky and
prison.
We visit Granddaddy
who speaks only in jibberish
and doesn’t remember me.

I am twenty-eight.
I still sleep with the same pillowcase
decorated with fleece snowmen
every Christmas Eve
because I still
believe in its magic.

Terra Mater

The way all the muscles
in my jaw and back clench
when I feel the gaze of a nearby man,
it’s no wonder I have knots in my neck.
I remind my hips
to relax into the earth,
grounding back into their Mother,
who does not recoil
when we mine her for all she’s worth
and gaze hungrily at her beauty.
Instead her mountains stand brilliantly,
her seas crash violently,
her desserts burn relentlessly.
She reminds me there is power in my bones,
strength in my muscles,
and fury on my tongue.
She shows me the resistance
of blooming
after a prolonged winter,
of new life interrupting the grey.

Magnum Opus

“I’m Trash,”
she says,
“or whatever you want to call me.”
In the Kroger parking lot
in January
she wears pajama pants and flip-flops.
She asks for money.
She says she’ll
clean windows
but can’t offer her regular services
because she has an infection.

He wears a white turban made of blankets
and a puffy ski jacket
no matter the season.
He’s always in the same places,
walking up and down
next to the road
staring at cars,
never speaking,
never walking on the path
with all the other walkers and joggers.
Instead,
he travels parallel,
ten feet away,
to keep either others or himself
safe.

Ten minutes into the church service,
a man in dirty jeans,
carrying garbage bags full of belongings
sits in the third pew.
A large, graying man in a suit
hands him a hymnal.
He holds it away from his chest
as if unsure how to use it.
But when the soprano soloist
takes the stage,
he raises his arms
making small motions
from his fingertips
in the air,
conducting her voice,
his own personal symphony.

Why and How to Make a Mental Health Safety Plan

*tw* suicide, abuse, assault, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders

I once thought that mental health safety plans were only for people who were “really suffering”, only to be used right on the verge of self harm or suicide.  But recently, I realized that once someone reaches a place that urgent, it’s too late to make a plan.  Asking for help should happen much sooner, immediately after symptoms and warning signs start to appear.  Many of us, myself included, think our symptoms aren’t “bad enough” to get any serious help from a hospital or a helpline, but the truth is that it’s much better to ask for help too early than too late.  So, based on my limited experience (DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional), here are some helpful insights into creating a mental health safety plan.

  1. Know your triggers.  Do you have something really stressful coming up at work?  Are you going to have to have a difficult conversation with someone you love?  Are you going to be interacting with someone who makes you feel unsafe?  Have you been looking at literally anything on the news? Be able to identify the things that trigger your anxiety and depression (or whatever it is you experience) so you can make sure to have a plan ready before the triggers are present.
  2. Make a plan while you’re feeling helathy. By the time you find yourself in a hole of panic or depression or suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, you’re not able to make a cohesive plan.  Have you been feel good lately?  Now is the time to make a plan.  Every office building and hotel I’ve ever been in has an emergency evacuation plan posted on each floor.  They don’t wait for the building to catch on fire to make an emergency plan.  They make the plan while things are still safe and functioning well.  Once the emergency begins, the chaos makes logical thinking impossible.  It’s important to be thinking clearly when you make a plan for yourself.
  3. Know your warning signs.  Know what to look for within yourself so you’re aware of when you should start to reference the plan you’ve made.  If you can stop yourself from spiraling deeper by implementing your plan early on, that’s a huge victory.  Knowing yourself and how you respond to triggers is crucial.  If you can identify what you’re feeling and understand your symptoms, that’s honestly half the battle.
  4. Plan for the worst case scenario.  As an anxious person, this is not always something I would suggest.  When I’m getting on an airplane, I should not imagine the worst case scenario because I’ll find myself in a panic spiral about my plane falling out of the sky in flames.  However, when it comes to imaging what you might do at your worst, you need to be prepared.  Even if you’ve never harmed yourself or attempted suicide or abused substances or developed disordered eating, mental health can be an unpredictable monster.  Know which hotlines to call, even if you’ve never needed them before.  Know what resources are available at hospitals near you.  Know your therapist’s phone number.  It’s not overkill to have the resources at hand.
  5. Have a support system.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  This is huge for me.  I hate asking for help.  I’m an #indepedentwoman and I don’t like having to depend on others.  But I promise that your friends would much rather get a call at 2am or have you ask them to come sit on the couch with you in silence than know you were suffering and didn’t reach out.  List a few people you can call when you’re struggling.  If you’re not good at saying how you’re feeling, develop code words with your partner or best friends so you don’t have to do the emotional labor of explaining what’s going on.

RESOURCES

This is all fairly new to me, so if you have any suggestions of your own or things that have worked for you, please share them!  Also, here are a few resources I’ve found helpful:

  1. Check out the My 3 app (not sponsored, just a great resource).  It’s available for Android and iPhone and provides a place for your safety plan that’s always in your pocket.  You can choose friends to contact, list resources for yourself, keep track of your warning signs and coping skills, and make a plan to keep yourself safe all in one spot.  10/10 would recommend.
  2. If you’re more of a “write it down” type of person, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a great Patient Safety Plan you can print out.
  3. Lastly, here is a template that I made based on personal experiences.  I had trouble finding a template related to interacting with your abuser, so I made my own.  Check it out here: Assault/Abuse Survivor Safety Plan Template.

Stay safe out there, friends.  It’s a crazy world, and we have to take care of ourselves in order to fight the good fight!

If you are having thoughts of suicide (or if you are concerned about someone), there is help available right now. A trained counselor is ready to talk to you and provide help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This is a free 24-hour hotline. (Press 1 for a dedicated line for Veterans and their families. Para español, oprima 2.) If emergency medical care is needed, call 9-1-1 or go to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.