The time has come- on December 4th I will enter my fifth decade on this planet. Since my husband’s 40th is not until March 2020 he is relishing the next few months because during that time I am a decade older than him. I have tried to explain that is not how it works but to no avail. (He also read a draft of this where I said I was entering my fourth decade and said “I don’t want to freak you out but turning 40 is actually the start of your 5th decade!)
So I’m taking stock of my thirties and it is an understatement to say that a lot has happened!
I survived pain that could easily have broken me. I had 3 organs removed, 6 major surgeries, 5 blood transfusions (give blood if you can,) approximately 26 colonoscopies/ whatever you call a colonoscopy when you don’t have a colon, about 40 nights in the hospital, and more than 150 hours in an infusion chair. I had cancer and then got to claim my identity as a survivor.
I watched all 6 seasons of Gossip Girl while on a lot of pain meds.
I learned what loss really means. I experienced the unimaginable depth of grief- how it can tear you apart and leave a hole in your heart that never really goes away. I lost a baby, a brother, multiple friends, and just a month ago a grandfather.
But the last 10 years also allowed me to experience some of my best moments.
I married a man I love and who continues to be exactly the partner I need in this life.
I experienced the joy of having children and watching them start to turn into little people with their own ideas and talents and attitudes (which are getting ever more sassy!)
I found a faith that has sustained me in a real and meaningful way- a personal relationship with a God who always shows up when I need it most.
I discovered strength I never knew I had and that when it seems impossible to keep going – it’s not. Sometimes all you can do is Just Keep Swimming.
I learned that sometimes when something seams crazy it’s just because no one else has thought of it yet.
I took a leap of faith and acted on a call I felt on my heart to help a friend and it has turned into more than I could have ever dreamed. I have gotten to build something from the ground up and see that thing changing lives and taking on a life of its own. In that, I have also found a career that I am good at and is deeply fulfilling.
I am still learning how to ask for help, but at least I can recognize that I need to do it sometimes!
So that was my thirties… I am a very different person now than I was at 29 and I am glad of it.
I never thought I would be excited for 40, but I am. This next 10 years will probably be Super… and Crazy… and that is my Life (See what I did there?!) And I’m grateful for it.
** If you would like to give me a birthday present, I am asking for donations for Mommies In Need. Since I am working on asking for help – here goes.
I have A LOT more fundraising do to this year to finish out the capital campaign for Annie’s Place at Parkland and raise the operating funds to run this first of its kind drop-in childcare center for patients at a public hospital. I want to make sure that our current in-home program is on solid footing so that as we grow we are able to continue to provide free nannies to our moms who are battling cancer and other major illnesses. Any amount you donate is a huge help and if you can share the campaign even better!! My husband is taking me to Mexico for a few days to celebrate and it would be amazing if I got home on my actual birthday to see that fundraising thermometer full!**
Next Sunday is Mother’s Day… a day when we are supposed to honor moms. Because moms get stuff done. This world functions because of the millions of things that mothers do every single day.
If you have ever read this blog before you probably know a couple of things about me (if you need to catch up you can check out a brief timeline of crazy):
I am a mom to twin 7-year old girls.
I am a Survivor. I have lived through cancer, the removal of way too many organs, depression, panic attacks, so much surgery, and the loss of my 28-year old brother- all in the past seven years.
I started a non-profit organization called Mommies In Need (kind of by accident.)
I really enjoy maternity pants (even when not pregnant,) the use of parentheses, excessive exclamation points, and the Oxford comma!!!
Today I am going to focus on number 3. Short summary of a very long story: just as I was coming out of the worst of my health problems, my friend Annie got diagnosed with colon cancer and needed help with her small kids. I sent a nanny to her and started crowdfunding to pay for it and it wound up turning into Mommies In Need. When I started MIN, it was just me and a couple of people I suckered into being on a board of directors that met on my guest bed while all our kids ran around screaming. For some reference on how this all started, check out My Why.
And last Friday night, just four and a half years later, I found myself on a stage in front of a crowd of 250 people (next to Dale Hansen!!) announcing that Mommies In Need has now provided over 18,000 hours of free childcare to parents going through a health crisis.
Those who know me understand that I am always ready to hop on a stage. I was basically born with “jazz hands.” I routinely embarrass myself in public and online to raise money for MIN (check out our Facebook page to see the time I sang Mamma Mia at Target.)
And yet leading up to Friday I found myself extremely nervous.
Because this thing, this little spark, this call that I felt years ago has grown into something I never could have imagined. Not only are we continuing to develop and expand our successful in-home program, but we have found an innovative way to serve exponentially more families, and those who need it the most.
On Friday we announced publicly for the first time that we would be building a drop-in center at Parkland Hospital to serve the children of patients while they receive necessary medical treatment. We are working with some amazing partners, like The Beck Group and Winstead, PC, who are donating their time and talents to this project.
And for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Parkland is kind of big deal.
Parkland Health & Hospital System is the safety-net for Dallas County and is there when you need them the most- for the most vulnerable among us and for the most complicated, traumatic injuries and illnesses. And the need is staggering: About 1 million residents in Dallas County are uninsured or on Medicaid and critical trauma patients arrive at their doors every day. It’s innovative approach to care afforded Parkland recognition as one of the top publiclyfunded hospitals in the nation.
And if that previous paragraph looks like I cut and pasted it, that’s because I did. See that is the text of my speech that got cleared by their communications team so I’m sticking to that when I write about it- I have 2 lawyers on my board now!!!
So now you all know where I have been for the last year. When I never responded to your text or email, when I seemed super distracted and ran in everywhere 10 minutes late — oh wait, that’s just me all the time! I haven’t written since December, but it’s not because I didn’t have anything to write about… I had all the things (except time), I just wasn’t able to talk about them yet. But now I can!
This collaboration that we are doing with Parkland is the first of its kind. There have been childcare centers at hospitals for the employees, or even at children’s hospitals to care for siblings… but not a place to care for kids when the parent is the one getting treatment.
We are the first organization to offer free childcare for patients at a public hospital. Or any hospital really. Which is crazy! Because something I have learned in the last 5 years of working in this space is that you cannot address women’s health if childcare is not a part of the picture.
That seems like common sense, right?! Except no one has studied it…until now!
Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that we are also working on a research study? When I say we, I mean Parkland and UT Southwestern Doctors, not just like, me with a clipboard.
And I haven’t even gotten to the big, big, picture part of this thing. We are building this whole center to be something that we can scale and replicate in hospitals throughout North Texas and eventually across the country.
I am so unbelievably excited, and also a little terrified. Because this beautiful thing that I created is growing. And with every day it gets a little bigger, and more self-sufficient, and I am proud, and in awe, and realizing that it is not just mine anymore. It is time for it to venture out into the bigger world.
So this is where I circle back to Mother’s Day… see how I did that? Because MIN is like a child… did I just ruin it by explaining the metaphor?
Anyways…I have always looked up to my mom. I just had no idea how much until I became a mother myself. Before that I didn’t really understand that to be a mom is to have your heart out walking around in the world.
My mother taught me how to love well. And she did it under some pretty difficult circumstances.
She took care of me when I was little by making me a nest on the couch when I was sick (which I do for my girls now), and she took care of me when I was a grown woman with kids of my own who needed her Mommy. My mother spent months going back and forth between helping with my babies during the day and staying at the hospital with me at night. She helped feed, and bathe, and dress me when I was too weak to do it on my own. Not to mention the fact that she was the only person who could perfectly arrange a “nest” of pillows for me to get comfortable in a hospital bed.
Sometimes I get compliments on my resilience. On my ability to turn the worst things in life into a blessing for others. On my kindness. But to quote a late 1980’s PSA, “I learned it from watching you, Mom!”
I have written before about Annie, the mom that I started MIN to help, who sadly passed away in 2018. We are naming our new program “Annie’s Place” in her honor.
When we open Annie’s Place at Parkland, we will have a plaque on the wall that reads:
Mommies In Need was built by moms to care for moms. We celebrate the community of women that make everything possible. We dedicate this place, Annie’s Place, to them.
And the first name on it will be my mom, Connie Howe.
Happy Mommies Day!
** If you would like to honor a mom in your life, you can make a donation here.If you donate $200 or more OR sign up to be a monthly donor of $25 or more, we will inscribe your loved one’s name on the plaque and send a card on your behalf to a designated person with the message:
“In your honor (or in memory of your loved one), a donation has been made to sponsor a child at Annie’s Place at Parkland. This donation will give 8 days of safe and loving care to a child whose mom is getting necessary medical treatment at Parkland. Your name will be inscribed on a plaque that hangs at Annie’s Place that reads:
Mommies In Need was built by moms, to care for moms. We celebrate the community of women who make everything possible. We dedicate this place, Annie’s Place, to them.”
Once you have made your donation, please email email@example.com with the name as you would like it to read on the plaque which will hang in Annie’s Place as well as the address you would like to send the card to if applicable. If you would like the card to be received before Mother’s Day we will need all information emailed by Wednesday May 8- we will continue to send out cards after this, they just might not arrive by Sunday.
We welcome donations in loving memory of someone special to you.**
I answered honestly as I broke down in my friend’s kitchen in a fit of wracking sobs. And then I was literally surrounded by love as seven of my closest friends huddled around me and held me when I could not stand on my own. Then one of them in beautiful comedic timing said “Here, hit Sujata!” and we all broke out laughing. And I couldn’t help thinking, “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
See for some reason (that I still am not sure of) this group of ladies who have seen each other through a lot of life’s up and downs decided to have a movie night and watch Steel Magnolias. I think it had been so long since I had seen the movie that I had forgotten how wonderful and funny and well-acted and heartbreaking it is.
The Sally Fields scene in the graveyard is a truly astounding performance. One that I don’t think I ever really understood until now. The rawness and vulnerability of her grief and her uncontrollable anger at the unimaginable injustice of losing a child cracked open a part of my heart that I have been trying very hard to keep closed.
Because grief is deep. It can feel like a giant pit that is too scary to look into because you can’t tell where the bottom is, or even if there is one.
I said for a long time about Mark’s death that I felt like there would be a time when it gets worse before it can get better. I have been swimming really fast and hard lately but I think maybe that time has finally caught up with me. It’s why I haven’t posted in so long…sitting down to write is a form of therapy for me. And as with much of therapy it doesn’t work unless you allow yourself to go to that deepest level.
And being there, dealing with that, feeling those feelings, just plain sucks. It is the fucking worst, and I have been doing everything I can not to have to.
But here I am… crying into my computer with a glass of red and a box of Kleenex. Waiting for the laundry to be done. Because one of the greatest proofs that life marches on despite the unimaginable is that there will always be more fucking laundry.
Yesterday I broke a little. And maybe that’s good. My spine of steel allows me to get through just about anything, I have excellent coping mechanisms that have kept me going despite the constant barrage of difficulties that have been hurled my way these last 6 years.
But that spine that holds so much is heavy to carry around. I have knots and back pain that I am working on releasing through medical massage and even Reiki. But my body is screaming at me that I cannot carry that weight for much longer.
So how do I lighten the load? I think I need to lean on the people in my life who can help me figure out how to make space for my grief. And my anger- which most of the time I am unwilling to admit that I even have.
Today I snapped at one of my girls for something dumb and got off the phone with a friend who was only trying to be helpful by rudely saying, “I need to end this conversation- you are just stressing me out and I can’t right now.”
I’m not mad at them or my husband who has chosen the worst possible time to come down with the dreaded man cold. I am mad at the fact that life is really fucking hard sometimes. And not fair. And that we loose amazing people we love and that we have absolutely no control over any of it.
Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the death of my friend Amanda. And I loved that woman. She cared for her husband and sons with a fierceness that had her battle for every minute of the seven years she lived with cancer. We were instant friends who met waiting for blood results in a chemo room. She was kind and funny and stubborn and just a damn good person. And I am mad that she didn’t get to stay longer in this world and that the last months of her life were agony.
When I visited her just a week or so before she died she had wasted away to nothing and was in constant pain and in and out of consciousness. But she still held my hand, and laughed with me, and I got the chance to tell her I loved her and had the blessing of a moment in which the haze from her eyes cleared and she told me she loved me too.
So I weep for her. For the unimaginable- to know she was dying and having to leave her children. I weep for her husband who is a such a good man. And for her two boys who I think are destined to be spectacular people because of the heart of the woman who raised them, but who don’t get to grow up with her there.
And I prepare. Because I know that my grieving season is just beginning. We are almost at the first anniversary of my brother’s death. Then I go into my first Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years when I have to really begin to understand how to live with a giant hole in the fabric of my family. Then before I know it will be the one year anniversary of the death of my friend Annie (who was my reason for starting Mommies In Need.) And shortly after that the 30th birthday of my living brother and the reality that his twin will never hit that milestone.
So that’s a lot.
In a few weeks I will be gathering with my family to acknowledge the fact that it has been an entire year since Mark shared this earth with us.
That is so hard to comprehend because it seems both like it was just yesterday that we were learning he was gone and like it was a lifetime ago.
I have only recently been able to start looking at pictures of Mark as a child because for some reason it is those images of him as the sweet little baby that I welcomed home from the hospital, or as the little boy who would fall to the floor in fits of laughter at shows that he had already seen a million times that make me ache most profoundly.
November 1, 2018 will find me mourning the loss of Mark and also celebrating him with the things and people he loved. We are doing a small Day of the Dead gathering in his honor with my immediate family- after all he had a huge Sugar Skull Tattoo so that seems right. We will enjoy his favorite food (which happens to be Mexican), drinks (there will be much Jack Daniels,) and I might even try to cough my way through a Malboro Red. I am looking forward to the chance to gather with those who loved him most and talk about him. But I’m also on emotional overload.
Don’t get me wrong…there is a lot of good in my life right now. I am healthy for the first time in a long time, I haven’t needed blood or iron in almost 6 months (which means that horrible surgery worked!) My kids and husband are a constant source of joy in my life, and there are fantastic, game-changing things happening with Mommies In Need that I can’t wait to tell you all about.
And I have dear friends, so many of you, both in Dallas and all over the world, who I know love me, and pray for me, and who will show up for me time and time again.
But if you see me and I seem off, or not myself, or I don’t respond to your email/message/text/call, forgive me. I’m probably just trying to make my way through the unimaginable.
“There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable.
If you see him in the street walking by her side, talking by her side,
My family went to see Finding Dory last weekend, and besides being an adorable film that all of us loved (and that made me sob like a baby being sleep-trained,) it was also a good reminder for me about where I am in my life right now.
I want to be able to say that everything is wonderful, that my health is great and that life is nothing but joy. Sometimes I feel like that is what people want and expect from me. I mean I am a Cancer Survivor! I have lived through so much, it’s kind of time for me to be over all my health issues and emotional baggage. Now I realize that most of you probably don’t actually think this, but it’s what the not-so-nice voices in my head tell me. There’s also a lot of “Quit whining, at least you’re not dying,” and “Stop being so lazy,” that last one may be surprising to those of you that think that someone who runs a non-profit and has twin 4-year-olds has the right to relax every once in a while. But anyone who also battles depression and/or a really harsh inner critic understands that those voices aren’t rational and that they are extremely hard to ignore. Part of my well-developed coping mechanism system is that I keep myself busy doing things, I keep creating, I keep moving- because sitting still is dangerous for me.
I don’t know if depression is something you ever really “get over.” For me, while I’m not in the dark hole of major depression that I have known, there is still a certain heaviness around my heart that feels frighteningly close. When the tragedy in Orlando happened I spent days weeping. Breaking down into sobs at unexpected moments. Because I have such close ties with the LGBTQ community. Because there were years of my life that I spent dancing my nights away in gay clubs and I understand how much of a safe space that is supposed to be. For some people, especially in conservative areas, a club or bar is the ONLY place that they can truly be themselves. Imagine how exhausting that would be. To constantly be pretending, hiding yourself from the world and to have the one place that gave you relief from that pressure be violated in such a horrific way.
That same week I also got some test results that have left me in a pretty raw emotional state. My anemia, which I have been dealing with ever since my colon surgeries in 2014 has been getting worse. My numbers suddenly dropped alarmingly so the doctors decided to do an Endoscopy and Flex Sig (like a colonoscopy for a person with no colon) to check for bleeding. I was hoping that they would find the bleeding and be able to zap it right then and there and the problem would be solved. Unfortunately, they did find the bleeding, but the area was too large and too fragile to cauterize. Basically my pouch is just fine but the area around where they reconnected my small intestine has large bleeding ulcers and the tissue is extremely sensitive, so trying to stop the bleeding could actually wind up making it worse.
My GI did some biopsies and said he would talk to my surgeon and get back to me. The biopsies came back negative for celiac (duh, the only thing I eat that doesn’t bother my body is gluten) and Chrons (thank God, because if I had my colon removed because of Ulcerative Colitis and then developed Chrons too I would have totally lost my mind!) So that’s good, but it still leaves me with significant internal bleeding that “has no medical solution.” The current plan is to keep dumping iron into my system, check my blood more regularly to see exactly how much I am loosing and hope that I eventually just get better on my own.
Um…yeah. That doesn’t really sit too well with me. Oh, and by the way when I asked about a time frame for my intestines just “healing themselves” the GI said maybe years. Like 2-5 years or more. So I’m just going to be bleeding internally, which leaves me feeling tired and kind of crappy, and have to go get iron by IV every 2-3 weeks potentially forever.
I have a pretty good amount of perspective, and what I am dealing with now is absolutely nothing compared to the kind of daily agony I was in a few years ago. And I guess I know that my body does not, and will not ever function like that of someone with all their organs. And I have to learn to deal with that- but I feel I have a right to be a little pissy about it now and then.
And sometimes it makes me really angry, or really sad. Last Tuesday, I had just talked to the doctor and started crying when we got off the phone. I could not stop but I had to go get the kids from summer camp. So I walked into their school crying, and signed them out crying, and buckled them into the car crying, and then got home and put on Annie and watched it with them until I cried myself out and passed out on the couch.
At least my girls are growing up knowing that mom has feelings too. When they asked why I was crying I just said “because I’m really sad. You know how when you are sad you cry?” And they accepted that answer and gave me hugs and cuddles and didn’t fight while I slept next to them.
But through all this I do see how lucky I am. Lucky that I have friends who call me and offer to watch my kids after they see me crying uncontrollably at school pick-up. Lucky that my girls have amazing emotional intelligence for their young age and are able to be gentle with me when I need it. Lucky that I have a husband who will let me sob in his arms even when I don’t have the words to explain what feels so deeply wrong.
So what does all this have to do with Finding Dory? Her mantra, one that was present in the first movie but gets a meaningful explanation in the sequel is “Just Keep Swimming.” Whenever things get bad for her, when she forgets and is terrified, she always goes back to a little song she sings to herself, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” And every time, if she can just calm down enough to keep swimming something will happen that will lead her to a better place.
I’m adopting this as my motto too. Because I have been through a lot, like A LOT, and when people ask how I got through it I usually answer, “I just decided to keep going.” or “I got out of bed every day (well most days) and prayed that there would be another day and that it would be better.” But Dory’s line is simple and effective. The opposite of swimming is drowning and that is something I refuse to do.
So when I make myself so busy that I don’t have time to think, I’m swimming. When my body is so fatigued that I can’t make it through a day without napping and yet I still decide to create an entire summer camp program in just a few weeks [seriously check out Camp Kindness, it is really cool!]- that’s me swimming. And sometimes if I don’t return your call or email or text, it’s not because I don’t appreciate the love you are showing me, it’s because at that moment I am unable to discuss what is going on in my life without missing a few strokes.
Some days I am barely keeping my head above water with a frantic doggie-paddle, and some times I am gliding gracefully and joyfully through the water with ease. But no matter where I am on the about-to-loose it scale that day, I will trust that I am not alone, and that I am having a tough time right now, but there will be an easier season eventually if I just keep swimming.
It could have been a bad day. For most people it would probably qualify in the seriously crappy day category…I even planned it that way.
See, I knew that I needed to have a wart frozen off/dug out at the dermatologist, and a filling, and an iron infusion before the end of the year. The iron infusions involve several hours, blood work, an iv, and inevitable abdominal cramping for the rest of the day- I know because I get them every month.
So I just decided eff it, I’m gonna have my supernanny take the kids and plan for a crap-tastic day of doctors and dentists and generally unpleasant and painful procedures.
I figured that if I planned for the day to be terrible then I wouldn’t be disappointed when it turned out that way.
And yes- the wart thing hurt, and the doctor had to apologize for having to dig so deep in my skin. But she was really nice about it!
And at the dentist he decided the cavity was shallow enough that he wouldn’t numb me. We discovered he was wrong when he touched a nerve with the drill and my whole body jumped. But he numbed me up after that and I got through it fine.
And that’s all just life. Those are normal people problems.
Because I planned for it, I wasn’t annoyed by all the stuff I knew was going to suck about the day. So I had space to not loose my mind when my three and a half year old decided it would be a great day to cut her own bangs and spread her hair out all over the floor.
And I was actually in a fantastic mood all day. When the nurse told me I didn’t have to do blood work this time, I almost high-fived her. It’s a good thing I stopped myself because as anyone who knows me well can attest, I am an extremely awkward high-fiver.
And then I sat down to get my iron and struck up a conversation with the woman getting chemo next to me. She asked how often I am in there and I told her “once a month, probably forever.” She said that she was just getting maintenance too- because she was past the point of a cure. I told her how sorry I was and she said, “You just decide to keep on going.”
Yep. That’s it exactly. So many people have asked me how I got through the past few years with everything I have been through. And I usually make some sort of joke abut Xanax. But she summed it up perfectly, you just decide to keep on going. And then you do. You do whatever you can that day, and then the next day, and then the next. She made me realize how lucky I truly am that my story is on an upswing. We laughed and cried together and I left there feeling grateful. For Life.
For this messy, painful, beautiful, awesome, whirlwind that is my life.
And if yesterday was what “bad” looks like to me now, then bring it on. Because I’ve learned something about myself; that no matter what happens, every day I will make that choice to keep on going.
It has been a long time since I wrote on this blog, which some of you may have noticed (although probably not, I don’t kid myself that you are breathlessly awaiting the next installment of my life story!)
There are a couple of reasons I haven’t written. First of all, I majorly overestimated my time management skills and overcommitted. Like a lot. As in I decided it was totally doable to be a stay-at-home mom to twin 3 year olds, run a growing non-profit, write a blog, be on several boards and committees for other organizations, and manage my insane list of doctors appointments and health conditions.
I think that part of the issue was that I felt like my life was on pause for so long, that once I started to feel a little better I cannon-balled into a million activities rather than inching in and doing just a little to see how it went. And maybe that wasn’t the best idea.
And if I am being truthful, which is what I strive to be in this blog, in a lot of ways it was easier to fill my time with tasks I had to do, rather than to turn the focus inward and deal with my own crap- sometimes literally.
My recovery has not been what I hoped for. It is taking a really long time for me to get to whatever my “new normal” will be. I am coming to terms with the fact that I’m missing a bunch of organs, and that means life will never look the same as it does for other people. I am living with the fact that I had cancer and there is no guarantee it won’t come back. I am learning how to keep from yelling at doctors who tell me frustrating and semi-absurd things like I either have some amount of internal bleeding (which they can’t do anything to fix,) or a bone marrow problem (for which the treatment is worse than the problem so they won’t even test me for it,) that is causing me to be chronically anemic and get IV iron every month- probably forever.
And worst of all, I have had this “mystery pain” going on that I can’t trace to anything I eat or do. For a long time, I was always living with the uncertainty that at any moment I could be feeling perfectly fine and then suddenly be wracked with extreme abdominal pain that could last for hours and make it impossible to continue my day. Sometimes I could fight through it, and other times I had to lie on the floor of the bathroom crying and call my mom to come get my kids because I was physically unable to put them into the car and get them home.
I have also been dealing with a lot emotionally. I have discovered that my battle with depression and anxiety is directly tied to the amount of medical issues that I am having. So this summer, when I went through three weeks of extremely invasive and, in one instance, legitimately torturous testing to determine the cause of my mystery pain, I became, well, a big hot mess. It was hard for me to find joy even in the great moments I had with my family. I was just boxing up those yucky, unclear, unpleasant thoughts and feelings and sticking them in a closet to deal with later. I have gotten pretty good at that particular defense mechanism over the years, but at some point that closet can’t fit one more thing and when you open the door it all comes pouring out.
I spent a lot of time the past few months in therapy discussing the fact that part of my brain is always alert for the next thing that is going to go horribly wrong with my body. It’s exhausting. My mom once said to me that it seemed like I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Yes. Exactly. Why wouldn’t I expect that, because in the last four years of my life, it always has. Every time I would just barely recover from a major blow, there would be something else to come along and knock me back down.
Boom. Miscarriage. Feeling hopeful because of a healthy twin pregnancy then Boom. Emergency hysterectomy when the twins were 6 weeks old. Start to come to terms with the fact that I almost died and had my uterus yanked out without my permission and then Boom. Find out that all the medicines I have been taking have caused me Osteoporosis, and then come very close to fracturing my spine. Boom. My ulcerative colitis flares so bad I have to have my colon removed. Boom. I have Thyroid Cancer. Boom. Three major surgeries in four months. Begin to slightly feel better and then Boom. Anemia so severe I could barely move and we were considering another blood transfusion.
It just kept coming, I mean how many effing shoes are there?! So when the doctors found a giant gallstone during all of those tests I almost felt relief. I thought, well here it is, the Boom that I can almost count on. One more surgery.
But then they decided that the gallstone was not the cause of my pain and surgery to remove it would be too dangerous with all of my scar tissue. That wasn’t so much of a Boom as a sigh…
So I go to my GI again, and try upping the dose of the medicine he gave me last time that is maybe kind of helping. Truthfully I am not really expecting it to work.
And then a miracle happens…my pain is gone. I realized one day recently that it has been almost three weeks since a major pain attack- I was having them 2-3 times a week. And then I start to feel like I have a little more space, more patience, more light. That’s when it hits me, not with a Boom but with a HAZAA! My background pain is gone too!
See, I didn’t really even count my everyday gut pain amongst my list of things to worry about because it had moved to the back of my brain. The chronic cramping and steady pain was just a hum running through my life that I could manage, it was the acute bouts of pain that I couldn’t live with.
But once it was gone, I realized how freeing it is to be without pain. How much space that pain took up in my head and my heart. How much anxiety and depression and hopelessness that pain caused.
The reason I haven’t written in so long is because I couldn’t. I didn’t want to share my feelings with the world because they weren’t good enough. Because I wasn’t good enough. Because my writing rang false every time I tried. Depression will do that. And some of you reading this who have suffered with depression might understand, all the rational thought in the world couldn’t overcome the ugly, nagging voice that was whispering quietly that I was destined to be sick forever, that I should just get over myself because so many people have it worse, that I had nothing of value to say.
But when my pain eased, and I got on the right combination of medicines to manage my pain, depression, and anxiety, that gloom started to lift. Yet again Xanax for the win!!
I’ll never forget the first time I realized that my hope was back. I was on the floor rolling around with my twins playing some sort of ridiculous game and the three of us were all laughing hysterically. And I looked at the two of them and my husband who was sitting across the room chuckling at our antics, and I felt like my heart would explode. I was hit with an overflow of gratitude for my life, for my ability to be present with my family in body and in spirit. It was a fleeting but absolutely perfect moment.
And with that moment, I started to find myself again…I started to get some of my sparkle back.
Yesterday was an amazing day. A Hallelujah, sing in the car, have a super-cool dance party with the hubs and kids sort of a day. Yesterday I got some incredible news- my Osteoporosis has not only stopped getting worse, it may actually be reversing itself!!!! I also had a great meeting with the wonderful folks at Cancer Support Community of North Texas. The work they do for people affected by and living with cancer is unbelievable. If you or anyone you know are dealing with cancer, please check them out as a resource. They have support groups, informational meetings, kid’s nights, social workers, counselors- you name it, all FREE to members (but that actually cost a lot of money, so if you have some extra cash laying around you might want to throw it their way!)
At this meeting I got invaluable ideas and support for Mommies In Need, and I also came away from it with my favorite new term: “Mitzvah Therapy”
When I explained the whole backstory of Mommies In Need coming from my struggles and said that it has really been a huge source of comfort and joy to me in my recovery, one of the women in the meeting said that was an example of Mitzvah Therapy. In its casual usage a “Mitzvah” is an act of kindness that you do for a person without expecting anything in return.
When I got home I googled the term and found this video:
The story told here made me cry in it’s simplicity and beauty. In it, Bill O’Hanlon describes what the late Dr. Sol Gordon coined “Mitzvah Therapy” and tells a lovely story about how it changed one woman’s life. Now, I am all for psychotherapy- I’m not canceling those appointments anytime soon! But as he says in the video, psychotherapy is all about you and Mitzvah Therapy is all about giving.
And I have a confession to make here, I have kind of become a giving junkie. Seriously, I am always looking around for my next fix. I actually keep some of it a secret (I guess until now) from my family because it seems a little crazy- well, crazier than usual. If I have extra cash I pay for the parking of the person behind me whenever I leave the hospital lot- someone did that for me once and it made me smile on a not-so-good diagnosis day! I have blessing bags in my car with protein bars, tissues, soap, etc. to give to any homeless people I see. We did a diaper drive for the twins birthday and I got a huge high when the woman picking up the donations was so excited about everything she was loading in the car to distribute to underserved families. I even carry around $5 gift cards to Starbucks that I sometimes give to random moms when I see them carting 3 kids through Target or dealing with a toddler having a stage 5 meltdown. I hand it over with just a few words, “One mom to another, you probably need to treat yourself” and walk away.
I tell you this, but please don’t go on about how awesome I am or anything like that. I mean, I’m pretty cool, don’t get me wrong, but I am not writing this for compliments! See for me, those acts are actually pretty selfish, because I get such a huge boost of happiness and even self-confidence from doing those things. When I walk away from that mom who has a little light of hope in her eyes that someone gets what she is going through, I feel pretty darn good about myself. And that feeling, really helps me get through the day sometimes. I have been forced to deal with a lot in the past few years- see A Brief Timeline of Crazy. And there are days when I can get pretty depressed or anxious or just plain mad that all of those crazy and terrible things happened to me.
And I need my psychotherapy to work on the root of that depression and anxiety and anger, it’s not something that just goes away when you ignore it- believe me, I tried that and wound up with panic attacks (which I really don’t recommend!) But for me, when I get in a dark place, being alone and thinking about myself is a surefire way to go even darker. And the quickest fix? A little Mitzvah Therapy!
So maybe I have taken this to an extreme by starting my own non-profit, but seriously, try to insert a little random kindness into the days you are feeling like crap. It’s hard to be grumpy when you are giving joy to someone else. Even just holding the door open for someone with a genuine smile on your face, rather than grudgingly doing it with no eye contact can brighten a person’s day just a bit.
Ugh, sorry if this whole post is a little Pollyanna, but I am coasting on a major high right now. Mommies In Need has officially accepted TWO new families to help! I am overwhelmed by the amount of support that this cause has gotten in such a short amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, my heart hurts for the women we are helping. I have been in situations like theirs and I know the kind of rough road they are going down. But I am filled with joy knowing that Mommies In Need is taking a huge burden off of them by making sure their children are well taken care of.
If you feel like doing a little Mitzvah Therapy of your own today, please consider donating to our campaign to support these Mommies in their journeys through cancer.
I’m in the middle of a 24 hour urine test today for my Osteoporosis. It will help give a progress report to my Mineral Metabolism specialist about how much calcium I am losing and what course of treatment we should pursue. I’m hoping for a “just keep doing what we’re doing” response since all of the Osteoporosis drugs have some pretty serious side effects, especially for someone as young as me. (Thank you Prednisone for giving me Grandma bones at 35!)
And this test is super annoying, because I have to collect all my urine for 24 hours and store it in a jar in my fridge. Then I have to bring it into the clinic tomorrow after fasting for 12 hours (that means no coffee in the morning- I may be a danger on the roads) and get huge amounts of bloodwork. So if you are someone like me who pees every 5 seconds, you basically can’t leave the house unless you want to carry a little mini pee jar around in your purse. Plus my in-laws are in town so I had to be all “please don’t touch the orange jug in the fridge, it’s full of pee.”
Flopsy has pink eye and ANOTHER ear infection. My Uncle, who usually takes our dog to play with his during the days, has been recovering from surgery- so my dog’s constant barking is driving me up the proverbial wall. My to-do list seems to be multiplying on it’s own and no matter how many things I cross off, it just keeps getting longer. And we are transitioning the twins to big girl beds, which means they are crappy sleepers again and it takes roughly 800 hours to get them to go to sleep each night.
I was pouring my pee into a jar for the fifth time today and feeling extremely annoyed when I stopped and laughed and realized for a moment just how lucky I am. I am so happy to be at a place in my recovery when my treatments, symptoms, and diagnostic tests are merely annoying to me. This time last year I barely noticed when I had to do the urine test because I was so sick and in so much pain that I wasn’t leaving the house anyway. And I wasn’t frustrated with my dog or my kids or my to-do list because I was completely incapable of doing anything. I was in survival mode: trying to manage my pain, discomfort, and depression just to get through the day.
Even though I still have rough days where I am clutching my heating pad with wretched cramps for 6 hours because I accidentally ate a vegetable, if I step back and look at it I am truly grateful. Because now I am in a place when every day is not full of pain anymore. Life is not always easy, but it is livable. And I have hope that it will continue getting better. I get extremely frustrated with setbacks in my health, and even though I understand rationally that I have to be patient with my body because healing (especially from as much trauma as I have been through) is not a linear process, I don’t wanna. I am so over being sick and just want to be “normal” again. I am working on being kind to myself and coming to terms with the fact that like it or not I am missing 3 major organs now and my body will never function the way it did before I got sick. Fundamentally I don’t trust my body anymore because so much has gone wrong with it in such a short time.
But I am working on that too. I am just starting to have a glimmer of confidence that eventually I will figure out this body and become comfortable with my new normal. It might not be on my timeline but I think it will eventually happen, and that’s a far cry from the days when I could not see any sign that I would ever feel good again.
I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and my friend Annie has just finished her chemo and is in the middle of that intense healing process. We are also opening up for applications for a new family to help with Mommies In Need. So I am hearing from people who are in that really dark and difficult place where I was hanging out a year ago. And my heart hurts for them. Because being really sick sucks. And it sucks for a long time. But if I can do anything for the people that are in that place of intense suffering right now, maybe it is to be a little shred of hope that eventually it will get better.
Maybe one day they will find themselves being annoyed by little daily tasks and laugh with joy because they realize that they are actually able to do those tasks again. They will realize that annoyance is actually a blessing because it means they are past the point where being sick consumed their entire lives. That perhaps everything they went through lead them to a life they never thought they would have but are profoundly grateful for.
Now if you will excuse me I have to go pee into a jar.
I would like to start this post by saying that I am not a doctor, or a scientist, or an astronaut. Although I do know many, many doctors (seriously, I have seen close to 50 different MDs in the last 4 years) a few scientists and one guy who did a summer internship at the Air and Space Museum- so by internet article standards that pretty much makes me an expert. I mostly get my news from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and since his show returned a few days ago (hooray!) with a giant expose on doctors taking gifts from pharmaceutical companies I have seen even more articles pop up in my newsfeed about the dangers of “Big Pharma.”
I get that the pharmaceutical industry is a big money making machine and needs a lot more oversight in place. What worries me, however, is how this discussion feeds into the paranoia that leads people not to vaccinate their children because they believe doctors are only giving vaccines to get huge kickbacks. The doctors John Oliver is talking about are making bank pushing things like Viagra and Anti-Depressants. The Polio vaccine is not a big moneymaker, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have any off-label uses!
I will be the first to say that I truly understand that drugs can have horrible side effects- this is coming from a 35-year-old who has full blown Osteoporosis from all the Prednisone I took in the past few years. But I will also say that Prednisone was the only thing that actually controlled my Ulcerative Colitis. My doctors kept trying to get me off it, but without it, my flares were debilitating- I got Osteoporosis, but I didn’t bleed to death, so I count that as a win.
I would like to highlight here that I also tried everything else possible to control my disease. If you aren’t familiar with Ulcerative Colitis, it is an auto-immune disease where your body attacks your colon and causes these horrible ulcers that are intensely painful and come with digestive problems that I am sure you don’t want to hear about. It was like living with food poisoning for several years. Oh yeah, and I bled- a lot. So as much as I knew that steroids were not a long term solution, I kept begging for them because it was only when on a high dose that I got any sort of relief. I went through 6 or 7 other prescription drugs, multiple specialists, tried all sorts of diets, acupuncture, some wack-a-do thing called Total Body Modification (which did absolutely nothing and was stupidly expensive btw,) and spent months in treatment with a woman who is a highly regarded naturopath.
I did my research and found someone with excellent credentials, wonderful reviews and great recommendations. This woman was lovely and kind and I am sure that her methods work for some people, but it was the holistic supplements that she gave me that sent me into the worst flare of my life, and down the path where I eventually had to have my colon removed.
This is where I get really worried about people who choose to use Complimentary Alternative Medicine instead of the opinions of actual doctors. Because medical specialists exist for a reason. I have a GI Specialist, Colon and Rectal Surgeon, Endocrinologist, and a guy who just focuses on Osteoporosis in young patients because no one person can possibly be a true expert in all of these fields- there is just too much information.
When I went to the naturopath and asked if she had ever treated anyone with Ulcerative Colitis, she said “I treat the whole person, not just the disease,” and then gave me some water that had been blessed by a Shaman to drink. But I bought into it because I wanted so desperately for something to work. Her months of treatment never helped me (she convinced me that all my problems were because of diet, but after 4 months on her strict and gluten free meal plan, my symptoms were no better) and when I got a cold, she gave me some herbs that probably work fine for people without a diseased colon. But because of my medical conditions, something about them triggered a life-threatening flare for me.
And then when I went on prednisone again, it no longer worked. So we pulled out the big guns and I went on Remicade. This is an iv immuno-suppresent with a host of nasty side effects but at this point I was willing to do anything to get some quality of life back. It looked like I was getting a little better for a few months and then it just stopped working. That was the point at which my GI had a long sit down with me to discuss options.
At that meeting he told me that if I wanted to continue to try various perscription drugs there were many left that we could attempt to use. But he flat out told me that in his experience patients that have proven resistant to multiple treatment options often don’t find a drug that works for them, and he referred me to a surgeon to discuss removing my colon. At first I was horrified by the thought, but after a lot of research and discussion with my family and doctors, I realized that this was the best option for my long- term health. I am happy to report that a little more than a year after the first surgery, the only thing I take for my digestive system is Imodium and an RX probiotic. I am pretty much drug free except for my Synthroid (because of the thyroid cancer, but that’s a whole different story!) and my Xanax- which you would have to pry from my cold dead hands!
I tell this lengthy story for a few reasons. First of all, while I don’t doubt that there are unscrupulous MDs that over-proscribe because of the perks they get from drug companies, I also KNOW that there are many doctors who do what they do because they truly want to help people. I’m pretty sure that my GI would have made a lot more money by keeping me on a string of different drugs- at one point I was coming to his office twice a week (and now I only need to see him once a year!) Also, Remicade is extremely expensive (around $7,000 a treatment) so he also could have pushed me to keep trying that for another six months. But instead, he referred me to a surgeon who CURED me! Granted, it was a horribly invasive cure that required 2 surgeries, weeks in the hospital, and close to a year of recovery, but long-term the drug companies are making a lot less money off of me!
Secondly, all of this concern about “Big Pharma” is just fueling the vaccine debate- WHICH SHOULD NOT BE A DEBATE.
As someone who has spent the better part of the last four years either with newborn infants or in a severely immunocompromised state, I beg you to vaccinate yourself and your children.
Measles and Whooping Cough are coming back because we can no longer rely on herd immunity to protect those that cannot be vaccinated because of age or actual medical reasons. Yes, some people have vaccine reactions- some people are also deathly allergic to peanuts. Are you not introducing your child to any potential food allergens because there is a small chance they might have a reaction? If so, fine, that doesn’t hurt anybody but your child who will just be eating boiled chicken and white rice for their entire life.
But choosing not to vaccinate does hurt people. Little babies are getting sick and you can prevent that.
I am truly shocked by some of the things that friends and friends of friends believe about vaccines. For example- I am 99.999% sure that vaccines are not, in fact, made from aborted fetuses. If that is why you don’t vaccinate your children, I am 100% sure that I just unfriended you on Facebook.
And then there are the people I know who are incredibly well read and educated, smart and articulate, who still refuse to give their children vaccinations. And that’s where I circle back to homeopathy.
Most people who don’t vaccinate cite individual examples of vaccine-injuries as one of their reasons. Well, if anecdotal evidence is enough to convince you, then your shouldn’t use homeopathy either because I just told you a story about how I was homeopathically-injured. Therefore, homeopathy must be terrible for everyone and evil and it is irresponsible to give to your children.
Oh wait, but there is a contingent of people who believe they can get full immunization just by using homeopathic products. So they are giving their babies all sorts of herbs and medicines that are not at all controlled or tested by the FDA. Is the FDA flawed? You bet. But it is far better than having no controls in place.
Here’s a fun tidbit for you: Hyland’s, a very popular brand of homeopathic medicine, uses Belladonna in it’s baby teething tablets. Does that sound familiar? It is a highly toxic plant, also known as Deadly Nightshade, that people used to poison each other with in ancient Roman times (I heard about it on a tour of the Getty Villa, but I digress.) Apparently it is such a small amount that it shouldn’t have any adverse effects on children. But there is no one but the company making it that oversees the process and makes sure that the batch you give your babies didn’t get a little extra POISON in it by mistake.
Look, despite my history, I am not an alternative medicine hater. I think that it actually has great benefits for some people if used carefully and with the knowledge and guidance of a person who has actual medical training. But it is called Complimentary alternative medicine because it should serve as a compliment to advice from your MD, not in place of it.
Find doctors that you trust and then listen to them. 10-15 years of medical training is not exactly a “get rich quick” scheme. Most people who go through that do it because they actually want to help, not so that they can secretly inject your littles with mercury and aborted fetus tissue while bathing in $100 bills from the makers of the whooping cough vaccine.
Please, don’t let your internet “research” guide you to leave your kids open to diseases that could kill them or that they could spread to others. Because anyone can write an article on vaccines… you just read mine and I fully admitted in the beginning that I get my news from a comedy program!
Seriously, stop asking Facebook. No, I do not want to share a montage of my life the past year with the caption “It’s been a great year!” Because 2014 sucked!
It has been nothing resembling a great year, in fact I can genuinely say it has probably been the worst year of my life. Now before I go on, I want to make it very clear that I have had bright shining moments this year. I have found love and support everywhere I turned, I have reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I have had some wonderful times with my family and been hugged a million times and laughed a lot. For example, today my husband taught Curly to do a dance routine that included “The Sprinkler” and ends with Jazz Hands. Well, to be fair, she is 2 1/2, that is pretty much the whole routine, but still… awesomeness!
But honestly, the best thing I can say about 2014 is that I survived it. I survived 3 major surgeries, the removal of my colon, 3 months with an ostomy bag, a skin cancer biopsy, a thyroid cancer diagnosis, the removal of my thyroid gland, panic attacks, depression, anemia, and being told by multiple doctors that my hemorrhoids will probably never go away. I survived 16 days in the hospital and countless more in recovery. I survived mountains of pain. Epic, horrible, screaming pain. Pain that was so bad that when I finally got the drugs (I heart you Dilaudid) that helped, I may or may not have tried to kiss the male nurse who gave them to me, with my amazing husband standing right next to me. Umm awkward!
I struggled with seeing my husband take on more than anyone should ever have to by caring for me and our kids. He stepped up in a major way but I hated having to watch him do it and not being able to help. I survived not seeing my little loves even by Facetime because all the tubes I was connected to scared them. And after months of being at home with them but being too tired, or sick, or in pain to play with them, I survived learning that I can’t always be Supermom.
That was a hard one for me. I have never been good at the home-maker part of being a stay at home mom. So having other people come around and help clean, cook, and do the dishes and laundry was perfect for me. But I’ve always been good at the “Mom” part. I love getting on the floor and playing silly games with Flopsy and Curly. I love teaching them, and listening to them, and reading with them, and wrestling with them, and cuddling with them. And for a good part of this year I couldn’t do those things, and when I did, it was not with my usual enthusiasm. I survived letting someone else take care of them when I did not feel up to it. And guess what? They survived too!
And I came out of this year a changed person. I really don’t think I could go through all of that and not be a little different at the end. I am much more anxious about everything, and I don’t really trust my instincts when it comes to my health. Finding out I had cancer when I had absolutely no symptoms and between two other major surgeries for a completely different issue, kind of made me into a nutcase. So now I tend to expect the worst, am kind of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I’m working on that.
I do like some of the changes in myself though… I have found this blog, a place where I can be truly honest rather than just “sucking it up” or pretending that I am fine when inside I am a giant hot mess. It has been wonderfully liberating to have pretty much everyone I know (and a lot of strangers) filled in on my struggles so people are kind of caught up to my drama and I don’t have to spend every moment talking to them discussing my health issues, because I Refuse To Be Old!
I also really like that I have become a resource to people who are going through a difficult time. Over the past year I have had friends come to me to talk about surgery, miscarriage, anxiety, depression, cancer, and lots of other issues because of how open I have been about my difficulties. I don’t want anyone else to ever suffer through the things I have had to deal with, but if they have to, I am at least grateful that I can be there for them. I can be a listening ear that lets them cry or a voice to tell them “that just sucks,” and allow them to feel their negative feelings, because pretending those don’t exist doesn’t make them go away… believe me I tried.
And I love that I have become more compassionate, because I understand that things can get really, really bad. And that I want to make it easier on people going through a difficult time in any way I can. So I started a non-profit, Mommies In Need, that helps sick moms have temporary in-home childcare so they can focus on recovery rather than constantly worrying about who is taking care of their children. I may have done it with no plan in place and in a very fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants manner, but hey, we got 501(c)(3) status in just 2 months, so I must have done something right!
So I guess that 2014 hasn’t been all bad, just… complicated. There is no way that a Facebook algorithm is going to be able to sum up my year, so I did it here instead.
Friends, family, and virtual friends, I wish you a very Happy New Year and a wonderful 2015. To 2014 I say, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out!”
** If you want to help other mommies out there who are sick and need help with childcare in 2015 and beyond, please consider donating to Mommies In Need here or share that link wherever you can. We accept Paypal and all major credit cards (or you can mail a check) and you can get a last minute 2014 tax deduction! If you ever wanted to do something for me when I was sick and didn’t know what to do, you can help now. I am really passionate about this cause, and starting Mommies In Need has been a huge source of healing for me. It helps me understand that maybe all the crap I went through in 2014 can lead me to something positive in 2015 and beyond!