Author Archives: admin

For the First Time in Forever…I Did Not Enjoy My Vacation to Disney World

I think Mickey Mouse is adorable. But let me tell you, that little guy no longer holds the entire Disney empire in his white-gloved little hands. It’s simply gotten too big, too commercial, too regimented. As a result, to quote Anna from Frozen, “For the first time in forever…” I did not enjoy my vacation to Disney World.

Just so we’re clear, I’ve been a humongous Disney fan ever since I was a kid. I’ve probably visited Mickey’s playground three dozen times in the past several decades, and for so long it really did seem like the most magical place on Earth. But no more.

In the past several years, I’ve encountered numerous changes—changes for which I’m sure Disney big-wigs would claim have been implemented in order to make the experience more efficient and pleasurable. I’m here to tell you, however, that my most recent trip was neither efficient nor pleasurable.

Here are a few reasons why:

Magic Bands are in no way magical.
I think a more appropriate name would be Frustration Bands. Or Fickle Bands. Or Roll-the-Dice-Bands. Because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. You’ll feel like Katniss Everdeen each time you touch your wrist to the scanner: “May the odds ever be in your favor.”

Though our family’s bands worked most of the time, other park-goers weren’t so lucky. One day I passed a woman in the hotel hallway with a giant sack of dirty clothes. Her Magic Band couldn’t get her into the hotel’s laundry room—and the staff’s keys didn’t work, either. She’d been waiting for nearly three hours to wash clothes at Disney. That’s not exactly my idea of an ideal vacay.

That evening while waiting in line for food, I got to chatting with the lady behind me who said that her family’s defective Magic Bands hadn’t worked a single day since they arrived. So every time they returned from the parks, they had to seek hotel staff to let them into their room.

I don’t enjoy cozying up to the crowds.
I’m all for making friends, but Disney has taken the concept to a whole new level. At every show we attended—from the Lion King to the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular—the following announcement was made: “We ask that you kindly slide all the way to the middle of the aisle to make room for others. And please don’t stop until you are sitting uncomfortably close to the stranger beside you.” Okay, so I added that second sentence, but the statement was implied. Disney peeps seem to think that if a packed house is good, a cramped house is even better. Not.  

Honestly, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to have heard over the P.A. system, “We invite you to hop up onto your neighbor’s lap. It’s okay if you don’t know the person. Go on and make a magical new connection here at Disney!”

Spontaneity no longer exists at Disney.
I miss the days when I could go to Disney World, get up in the morning, and consult with the family about where and how to spend the day. We could make decisions based on mood, weather, and majority vote. But the “fly by the seat of your pants” approach simply can’t be done anymore at Disney. Now you must plan out your every movement—from parks to rides to meals—and you must do so several months in advance.

God help you if you fail to plan. Then again, even when you do plan, things can get dicey. For example, we were starving one day at Epcot. We considered stopping for a bite to eat, but doing so would have meant missing our Fast Pass for Test Track. We let the kids decide. They chose speed over sustenance. Shocker. All was good into true hunger set in, which prompted massive meltdowns later in the day when we were in line for a Character Meet-n-Greet. I might have skipped meeting Mickey, but the standby lines to see the mouse were insane. And just so you know, forgoing a Fast Pass option is like shooting out your tires. You’re stuck in the same spot for a good while, and let me tell you: standing in a 110-minute line with a ravenous kid in extreme humidity does not put you in a zip-a-dee-do-dah mood.

“Stress” is a six-letter word—just like “Mickey.”
The thing I most noticed about this trip was how stressed I felt about time—all of the time. I stressed about how and when to eat, sleep, and navigate the parks so that we wouldn’t miss any of our dining or ride reservations. You have to remain vigilant of the schedule because there are various parades, firework shows, and Fast Pass tickets. If you stop taking notice of such things, you might find yourself on the opposite end of the park feeling famished, frustrated, and frazzled.

I can’t say I enjoyed spending my vacation in a state of constant stress, though the upside was that I actually looked forward to getting home where I would no longer have to be a slave to the clock and the calendar.

Rides have been refurbished with fresh germs.
The newest ride at the Magic Kingdom is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The newest refurbished Epcot ride is Test Track. Both include interactive games where riders use touch screens to pass the time while waiting in line. While I’m sure many folks see these screens as massive fun, I see massive germ spreadage. Cough, cough. Touch, touch. Sniffle, sniffle. Touch, touch. Aa-choo, aa-choo. Touch, touch. Lordy, just give me that poison apple to hasten the process.

I suppose the old adage is true: “What Dis-ney-ot kill you only makes you stronger.” Nevertheless, I would prefer returning from a vacation feeling rejuvenated, not stronger for having survived it. This trip tested my patience, tenacity, immune system, and ability to continue peeing even as the public toilets repeatedly self-flushed during mid-stream relief.

I’m sure there are legions of people who will assert that Disney is as awesome as ever. I just don’t happen to be one of them. I miss the simpler times when we could visit River Country and Discovery Island and when we entered the parks by getting our tickets stamped. I miss Walt’s vision of good old-fashioned family fun.

I’ll leave you with this interesting tidbit. Last week my 4-year-old was playing with my iPhone when he stumbled upon Siri. He mumbled something nonsensical like, “Piggy knots and monty foo,” and she responded, “I’ll look into it.”

Then he asked her, “What do you know about Fast Passes?”

She responded, “I’d rather not say.”

Note: This article first appeared on The Huffington Post on 12/3/14.

Support After Suicide: How Making Connections with Other Survivors Can Breathe Life Into a Dying Heart

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to move forward in the wake of a suicide? I can only speak for myself, of course, because everybody’s journey is different. But here’s my experience.

When I learned that my mom had died by suicide, it was as if a monster had jumped out of the darkness and beat the living crap out of me. Ill-equipped to handle such a beating, it pulverized every square inch of my being by repeatedly slamming my head against the ground, stabbing me repeatedly in the chest, then strapping weights to my legs before tossing my limp, lifeless body into a vast, turbulent sea without any sustenance, guidance, or light.

“Survive that!” the monster called out to me as I fought for breath, searched for strength, and lost all hope.

When the Good is Gone
Broken, bloody, and battered, I gasped and growled. I flailed and fought. I sputtered and screamed. Then I lost consciousness and sank into a pitch black abyss where everything was senseless. I strained to see a ray of light but was met with murky darkness. I longed to relish a moment of reprieve from the constant pain but was met with denial. I tasted nothing but intense bitterness. I smelled nothing but utter defeat. I heard nothing but eerie silence, save for that one nagging word that played over and over in my mind: “Why?”

I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to find my way back to the top. Back to the light. Back to the land of the living. But I hadn’t a clue how to do any of that. Everything now seemed impossible.

It would be so much easier to give up. After all, I’d already descended into the bowels of hell. And besides, how could I be expected to fight without benefit of energy, armor, or assistance? How could I move when I was weighted down? How could I propel myself forward when my mind kept turning back?

How could I survive?

The Absence of Light
Not long after Mom died, I started attending a support group for survivors of suicide (SOS). This group met twice a month, and it was my life support. It was where I felt understood at a time when even I couldn’t comprehend the depth of my messed up head and heart. It was where I could cry, scream, curse, or vent without fear of judgment. It was where I could hug others who felt, at a cellular level, the same kind of anguish that tortured me. Not that I would wish such agony on anyone, but such unconditional support is priceless.

While at this group, I learned about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) Annual Out of Darkness Walk in which participants walk 18 miles throughout the course of the night to raise awareness about clinical depression and suicide prevention. 

I loved everything about this idea. I was eager to raise funds to support suicide research so that one day we might figure out how to change the trajectory of suicidal ideation. I wanted to help squash the ugly stigma associated with mental illness and suicide. And I embraced the promise of connecting with others who struggled daily with the same emotional wounds as I.

Grieving a suicide is burdensome. It’s like wearing one of those heavy cloaks that dental hygienists drape over you during X-rays. It’s exhausting feeling so weighted down. I wanted to find a way to release the heaviness. So I made a promise to myself to register for the 2014 Out of Darkness walk—no matter where it was held (locations change each year).

This year AFSP coordinated two overnight walks: one in Seattle and one in Philadelphia. I chose to participate in the Seattle walk. (The 2015 Out of Darkness walks will be held April 25-26 in Dallas and June 27-28 in Boston. Visit the AFSP page to register.

Raising the Stakes
When Mom died, it felt like all good things evaporated from my universe. Music, laughter, conversation, and joy were all instantly replaced by the irritating buzz of the Emergency Broadcast System. That’s how it seemed. A sense of intense abandonment settled into my soul. It was as if my mind was a machine that functioned on one of three settings: lost, confused, and scared.

I started my donation drive in January for my June walk, and ultimately I raised a total of $3,637. Raising that money was cathartic in a way I wasn’t expecting. Every time a donation came through, I felt less lost, less scared, more accepted, and deeply loved.

If I’m to be perfectly honest, however, in the days leading up to my trip to Seattle, I was freaking out.

“Maybe this was a mistake,” I told my husband, my stomach knotting in nervous anticipation as I considered the emotional deluge that was sure to greet me.

“No, this experience will be healing for you,” he said.

Walking Toward Hope
Though getting to Seattle was a nightmare, complete with flight delays, mechanical problems, and hotel cancellations, as soon as I arrived at AFSP’s registration table, I felt at ease. Just seeing the other folks, all milling around in the same blue Out of Darkness T-shirts, a sense of solidarity set in.

I met so many wonderful people at the event, including Deborah, Jeff, Dennis, and Chris. They were all walking to honor their children lost to suicide. I encountered folks who had lost mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and friends. I also talked to several people who struggled themselves with clinical depression.

I ended up walking the entire 18 miles with Deborah, and during those seven hours, we walked, we talked, we laughed, we cried. Though she was a total stranger the day before, by the end of the night, we had become soul sisters.

As we crossed the finish line, the sidewalk was lined with luminaries that participants had created for their loved ones. These luminaries went down the path, up the stairs, and around the building. It was breathtaking in a heartbreaking sort of way because each light represented a death by suicide.

Returning to Life
It’s been 19 months since Mom died. As I reflect on the weeks and months following Mom’s suicide, I realize how precariously my life hung in the balance. Back then I couldn’t envision a day when the color, focus, or meaning would return to my world. I couldn’t envision a night when I could sleep soundly without waking up covered in sweat and buried in guilt. I couldn’t envision smiling or laughing or playing or singing. Breathing was all I could do and even that was a struggle. I was truly hanging on by a thread.

Over time, however, I worked to make connections and find support, and doing so has made all the difference in my emotional and physical health. Thanks to local and online SOS groups, the AFSP Out of Darkness community, and the observation of World Suicide Prevention Day, National Suicide Prevention month, and International Survivors of Suicide Day, hope has been restored to my life.

November 22 is International Survivors of Suicide Day. If you have experienced a suicide loss in your life, I encourage you to connect with others who can empathize from a personal standpoint. The connections I’ve made have helped me battle the monster and return to the land of the living.

Note: This article first appeared on the Huffington Post on 11/11/14.

The 8 Best Things You Can Say to Someone Who is Grieving

When someone close to you dies, you initially receive a good deal of advice and support. Some of it is helpful; some, not so much. I recently posted an article titled “The 8 Worst Things You Can Say to Someone Who is Grieving.” This is the companion piece that offers suggestions for helpful things you can say to someone who is newly grieving.

1. “I feel your pain.”
This is not the same thing as, “I know how you feel,” which is a statement I would avoid uttering because even if you’ve shared a similar circumstance, everyone’s journey is uniquely their own. The words, “I feel your pain,” however, is an expression of empathy.

In the book Grieving the Loss of Someone You Love: Daily Meditations to Help You Through the Grieving Process, authors Raymond R. Mitsch and Lynn Brookside maintain that the words “I feel your pain” are the four most helpful words that can be uttered to a grieving person.

“No other single sentence does more to break down walls of isolation formed by deep sorrow and regret,” write Mitsch and Brookside. “When those words are merged with a touch or an embrace, they mend the heart and lift up downcast eyes. They tell [the griever] that [he is] not alone in [his] grief.”

2. “How about a hug?”
I get that not everyone is touchy-feeling, but for me, at least, when I was newly grieving, I felt starved for hugs. I wanted to hug the UPS man who came to my door. I wanted to hug my spin instructor after class. I wanted to hug my neighbor and her little dog, too. It was almost as if I was a china doll that had been broken into pieces, and every hug offered a smidge of glue to help piece me back together.

Two weeks after my mom died, my son had an overnight field trip to the zoo. My husband was one of the chaperones. I packed them up and waved goodbye. As they pulled out of the driveway, an intense sense of loneliness settled into my soul. I remember going through my phone contacts and calling neighbors until one of them answered.

“Can you come over and give me a hug?” I asked.

I probably sounded pitiful, but that’s what I needed right then and there. A hug wasn’t going to take away all my pain, but it helped get me through that difficult moment.

3. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
It’s direct. It’s honest. It gets to the point. It shows you care. And as Patti Fitzpatrick, a grief support facilitator and bereavement minister, notes, “Two simple but extremely helpful and healing solutions that anyone can do is to 1) show up, and 2) say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Period.”

4. “I’m here for you.”
Truth be told, grief makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s hard to see someone you care about torn up emotionally. It’s natural to want to fix them, but that’s just not possible. Therefore, the most helpful thing you can do for someone who is hurting is to offer to just be there for them in whatever capacity they need.

Ben Keckler, the minister who runs my grief support group explained this notion beautifully when he said, “When you’re grieving, you don’t want to be around people who will see through you. You want to be around people who will see you through.”

5. I’ll bring you some lasagna next Tuesday.
This is just an example. Offering to do something specific is an alternative to the usual phrase that folks utter: “Let me know if you need anything.” People make this kind of open-ended gesture because they want to help and are not sure what the griever may need. But for those who are newly grieving, the truth is that they often don’t know what they need, either—and/or they don’t have the energy to figure it out and then call you to request it.

That’s why it’s better to just make a specific offer like, “I’m headed to the grocery. I can bring you some milk and bread if you’d like.”

6. “Would you like to talk about your loved one?”
It’s natural to worry that if you bring up the subject of the person who died, you’ll make the griever sad. Actually, the opposite is true. When a person loses someone super close to them, after the death they will continue to think about their loved one constantly. After several months have passed, the griever is astounded by how rarely people mention the person who died. It’s heartbreaking, really. So when you bring up a memory or share a story about the person who passed away, it lets the griever know that others remember their loved one, too, and that’s really comforting news.

7. Ask, “How are you doing?” Then listen—really listen—for the true answer.
When you make it clear that you’re asking for a real and honest answer and not just expecting the trite response of, “Oh, I’m fine,” that promotes healing.

Keckler says that “fine” can be an acronym for “Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional.” That’s certainly an apt description for those who are newly grieving because their feelings truly are all over the map. Sorting through them can be difficult, which is why it’s nice to have people in their life with whom they can share their genuine feelings.

A few months into my grief, I remember telling my husband that I had figured out who my “safe” people were. Through conversations and interactions, I could tell which of my friends were okay with my being my authentic self and which were not. The “safe” ones checked in with me regularly. They sat with me and let me cry. They didn’t mind when I called them sobbing so hard that they could barely discern a word I was saying. They let me share openly, and that’s what I needed.

8. Say nothing.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting that you avoid the grieving person or that when you talk to them you should pretend that you don’t know their loved one has died. That behavior would be hugely hurtful. I’m suggesting that you not be afraid to close your mouth and open your heart. Hold their hand. Offer them a tissue. Make a pot of coffee. Ask if they’d like to go for a walk. Whatever you do, let them lead the conversation. Often the biggest gift you can give a grieving person is permission to speak freely.

Mitsch and Brookside write, “So many of us are taught not to talk about our wounds. We absorb the message, spoken or tacit, that ‘talking doesn’t help,’ ‘weeping doesn’t change things,’ ‘talking about it will just make you sad.’ None of those statements is true. Talking about our sorrow does not increase our sorrow; it purges our sorrow.”

Note: This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on October 5, 2014.

The 8 Worst Things to Say to Someone Who is Grieving

When someone close to you dies, your world is torn apart. As a result, you’re as fragile as tissue paper, feeling as if the slightest breeze might shred you completely. Well-meaning friends may try to console you, but many of them wonder what to say.

“What if I blurt out something stupid?” they wonder. “What if I say something that makes her cry?”

I’ll admit that before I experienced grief firsthand, I, too, was at a loss for words. Now that I’ve been on both sides, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for what not to say to a newly grieving person.

1. “Cheer up. Your (loved one who died) wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
After my mom died, people told me that Mom would hate to see me carrying around such pain and that, to honor her memory, I should stop being sad. It’s true that I can’t think of a single time when my mom said to me, “I see that you’re super sad, and I think that’s awesome!”

Sure, Mom liked to see me happy, but for a period of time after she died, I simply couldn’t be happy.

When you love deeply, you grieve deeply. Grievers need to be sad in order to get to the other side of grief.

2. “Focus on all the blessings in your life.”
While this message is optimistic and all, it’s not really what a grieving person wants to hear when his world has just been shattered. I mean, I get that it’s better to concentrate on the positive than the negative. Nevertheless, even if a griever appreciates the good things in his life, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s reeling from a monumental loss. Therefore, when someone is newly grieving, he likely won’t feel like yelling from the rooftop, “Hey, look at lucky me!”

3. “She’s/he’s in a better place.”
Yeah, maybe. Heaven is, after all, supposed to be pretty spectacular. But here’s the problem: if my mom is there, she can’t be here. And I want her here. Call me selfish, but I want her here beside me, holding my hand, offering advice, giggling, singing, and doing that humming/whistle thing that only she could do.

And although I do believe that I’ll be reunited with Mom in Heaven, unfortunately that reunion requires that I die first. So, that’s a bit of a bummer.

4. “It’s been awhile since he/she died. It’s time you get over it.”
You know how a week zips by in the blink of an eye for you whereas a week, from a toddler’s perspective, feels like an eternity? That’s kind of how grief time works. It’s skewed. A grieving person can look at a calendar and see that “X” amount of time has passed since their loved one died, but time is irrelevant when it comes to healing a broken heart.

You can’t put a timetable on grief, and if you struggle to comprehend that notion, well, then clearly you have not yet mourned the death of someone close. When you do, you’ll understand and then feel ridiculous for ever having suggested that anyone should hurry up and “get over” losing someone special.

5. “Cherish all of the wonderful memories. They will bring you peace.”
I think this statement is true, in time. But the last thing a newly grieving person wants to hear is to cherish the memories. When their heart is hurting and their mind is spinning and their faith is broken, thinking about old memories guts them because the only thing they want to do is create new memories, which they can no longer do.

6. “Pull yourself together because you need to be there for your kids.”
Grief, in its initial stages, is the emotional equivalent to having major surgery. The person is fragile and needs to heal. Following surgery, health care professionals will advise the patient to take it easy and focus on herself. No one would expect the patient to hop down off of the operating table after undergoing heart surgery so that she can fix her kids dinner. So please don’t make a grieving parent feel even worse by suggesting that she’s neglecting her children due to her grief; that’s just cruel.

Grief affects every aspect of someone’s physical and emotional health. It interferes with one’s ability to sleep, eat, concentrate, and function. Therefore, no one has the right to ask another person to swallow her pain in order to focus on others. Doing so only prolongs grief.

Kristi Smith, author of Dream: A Guide to Grieving Gracefully, says that transformation comes from first taking care of oneself.

“Choose to help yourself, so that you can then turn around and help others,” says Smith.

It’s kind of like the oxygen mask rule in airplanes: ensure your own breath before assisting those around you.

7. “So, how ’bout them Broncos?”
Though it may seem like you’re doing the griever a favor by keeping conversations at a superficial level, what grievers need is someone who is willing to let them be real. They need someone who isn’t afraid to talk about the tough stuff. The sad stuff. The human stuff. They need someone who will sit and listen and maybe even cry with them. This isn’t to say that you must never discuss sports or the weather; just try to keep in mind that real healing comes from some of the heavier conversations.

8. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now.”
I would encourage you to do just that. Stop and think about how you would feel if you were faced with the griever’s circumstances. Consider their feelings. Contemplate their pain. Imagine their struggle. Doing so will spark empathy in you. And empathy is the best thing you can offer someone who is hurting because when you empathize, the right words come more freely.

Note: This article was first published on The Huffington Post on September 25, 2014.

13 Insanely Hot Things Men Do

Through an informal survey, I have gathered a collection of 13 qualities women find highly attractive in men. Guys, if you want to know what makes us purr, read on.

  1. Men who can fix stuff around the house. If you can don a tool belt and actually know how to use the tools that go in it, you are hot. If you can hammer a nail without smashing a finger or fire up a chain saw without cutting off an extremity, you’re even hotter.
  2. Men who cook. Let me make this clear right off the bat: these meals don’t have to be fancy. If you boil pasta, toast some garlic bread, and toss salad in a bowl, chances are you’re gonna get lucky tonight. If you offer to do the dishes, it’s a done deal.
  3. Men who clean house. We are not picky. If you scrub floors, that’s hot. If you wipe down the kitchen counters, that’s hot. If you vacuum, that’s hot. If you empty the garbage can, that’s hot. If you scoop the litter box, that’s hot. Do you get where I’m going with this? We are hot for anything you do that helps us out with the never-ending list of house chores. When I started dating my husband, Eric, one of the first things I noticed is that his toilet was clean. It’s not like I studied it with a black light, but I detected no noticeable pee streaks on or around the lid or seat. He probably has no idea how many points that scored him.
  4. Men who kill spiders. Enough said.
  5. Men who offer massages. My husband began giving me back massages when I was preggers with our son. Though it was the best ten minutes of my day, I assumed that once I gave birth, those massages would cease. Only they didn’t. Eric has continued this ritual, and I can’t even fully articulate how loved this nightly gesture makes me feel.
  6. Men who follow through. If you say you’re gonna pump up the bike tires, drag out the Halloween decorations, or change the beeping smoke detector battery and then you actually do it, you’re smokin’ hot.
  7. Men who talk. Communication is sexy. Far sexier than moans, mumbles, and monosyllabic grunts.
  8. Men who ask for directions. See how #7 comes in handy here? Getting lost is no fun. If you ask for help, that shows us that you, too, realize that getting lost is no fun. Believe me, if you have the courage to admit that you haven’t the foggiest idea where you are, that’s a one-way ticket to “Hot Town.”
  9. Men who refer to the kids—including the step-kids—as “our kids.” The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but the way to a woman’s heart is through the children.
  10. Men who respect, support, and encourage our aspirations and endeavors—whatever those may be. Life is hard, and we all need cheerleaders, so when you (metaphorically) pick up those pom-poms and tell us that you are proud of us, you make us feel like rock stars.
  11. Men who are kind. Sure, there are those girls who like bad boys, but those girls don’t count because they have not yet matured enough to appreciate what truly matters in life. And that’s kindness, plain and simple.
  12. Men who tell us we’re beautiful. That just feels good to the ears. And it’s kind of like eating chocolate in that it never gets old so feel free to repeat daily.
  13. Men who can recover lost computer files. When Eric and I were dating, I was working on a huge project for a boss that had taken me weeks to compile. The night before it was due, the file went “poof” and I proceeded to nearly poof my pants. Although Eric lived 50 miles away and had just worked a full day himself, he showed up at my doorstop that night in full “techie” mode and managed to retrieve my file. Wow, nerds are hot. To this day I don’t know how he Houdini-ed that file for me. All I know is that’s the day I knew I wanted to marry this man.

Note: This article was first published on the Huffington Post, September 3, 2014

Why We Should Talk About Depression and Suicide When It’s Not Trending

by Christy Heitger-Ewing

Due to the tragic death of beloved actor Robin Williams, this week the world is talking openly about depression and suicide. Sadly, this trend will soon change as the buzz settles down. And to me, that’s equally as tragic. I say this because it’s astounding the number of people who, like Robin, fall into a deep pit of pain filled with such unbearable agony that it alters their ability to imagine the prospect of a brighter day.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide claims more than 32,000 lives in the United States and one million lives worldwide. That’s beyond heartbreaking.

When somebody ends his or her own life, it’s not uncommon to hear reactions such as, “But he was so funny.” “But she was so kind.” “But he was so cheery.” “But she was so sweet.”

The truth of the matter is that people who battle clinical depression may very well be funny, kind, cheerful, and sweet; they are also woefully despondent. In fact, those who suffer from depression often exhibit a greater level of empathy because they know what it is to drown in anguish.

My mother was full of amazing qualities. I’ve never met a more playful individual. Her infectious laugh and joyful smile were so sparkly it was as if she was made of glitter and sunshine. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to make her kids and grandkids happy—including jumping into a lake, fully clothed.

In short, she was fun.

Until she wasn’t.

Once clinical depression took hold of her, my once gregarious, vivacious, loquacious mother felt worthless and weak, ashamed and anxious, sad and scared. Just as dementia strips away a person’s identity, so, too, does depression.

My dad, brother, and I knew tried to get her help, but people with depression are scary good at faking their true feelings. They learn to be deceptive and evasive. They learn to straight-up lie. And I think they do this because society has taught them that mental illness isn’t to be discussed.

When Mom was in treatment, I encouraged her to snarf up every last resource that was provided to her—individual therapy, group therapy, medicinal therapy. She looked at me with frightened puppy dog eyes and whispered, “But then everyone will know.”

A part of me could understand her trepidation. When I was 12 years old, I endured a month-long hospital stay when anorexia had whittled me down to 78 pounds. During that time, I begged my parents not to tell anyone why I was hospitalized. Just like Mom, I feared people would call me “crazy.” At the very least, I suspected they would minimize my condition, as evidenced by the number of times I heard, “You’re so thin! Why don’t you just eat?”

Mom likely assumed folks would say something equally as stupid to her like, “You’re so sad. Why don’t you just cheer up?”

Although our family tried to get Mom help, she didn’t know how to accept it. Instead, she focused her efforts on convincing the medical professionals that she was improving, and, by god, they believed her. The psychiatrist’s exact words to us were, “She doesn’t belong here.”

Five weeks later, she killed herself.

So, what are family members to do in the aftermath of a suicide? I’ll tell you what we want to do. We want to curl into a little ball, shrivel up, and die. Because now we are reeling from an intense pain that we cannot escape, either. So for a period of time, we have no choice but to eat, sleep, and breathe pain. Thankfully, I have found that by going to therapy, exercising, hugging, sharing, and crying, it is possible to return to the land of the living.

For me, that took about six months. At which point I felt compelled to begin speaking out about depression and suicide. The more I thought about Mom’s death (which all but consumed me in those six months), the more I loathed the ugly stigma that surrounds depression and suicide. It’s this very stigma that keeps those who are hurting from seeking professional help.

I refuse to feel shameful, strange, or mistaken for taking a proactive stance against this insidious disease that robbed me of my precious mother. Therefore, since Mom’s death 16 months ago, I’ve written several articles about these topics. Some people in my life applaud the effort. Others are dumbfounded as to why I would share such a personal and difficult tragedy.

It’s pretty simple, actually. I’ve always been a fairly forthright person. Being a freelance writer, through the years I’ve written about a number of embarrassing, ridiculous, and heartbreaking situations from my life. Like the time I sped down a dark road in order to make curfew when I was a teenager. And the time I flunked college math. And the time I nearly starved myself to death. By sharing my stories, I remind my readers that we all struggle, we all stumble, we all hit rock bottom in some way, shape, or form, but despite how it may feel, we are not alone.

In an article titled “Suicide: Finding Hope,” Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., writes,

“Suicide grief is lonely….And we feel lonely because often we don’t have any one to share the road with us….In this confusing and often lonely journey we call suicide grief, there is one aspect that sustains us and guides us: hope. It is hope that keeps us forging forward. Hope helps us to know deep down somewhere inside of us we will one day feel good again.”

My mom was deeply compassionate, and so I believe that she would encourage me to do anything I could to perpetuate healing in both myself and others. This is why I write about depression and suicide. This is why I raise money for AFSP. This is why I participate in AFSP’s Out of Darkness Walks. This is why I wear my AFSP shirts out in public. This is why I post on social media about mental illness. This is why I ask people how they’re doing…and then take the time to listen for their honest answer.

So, let’s talk about depression and suicide—and not just today and tomorrow because it’s a trending topic. I understand that not everyone feels comfortable discussing such subjects so candidly, and that’s okay. I’m not trying to shove an agenda down anyone’s throat, nor am I trying to rip open any wounds folks may have.

I’m just trying to get the conversation started and keep it going. Because doing so may save a life.

Note: This article was first published on the Huffington Post on August 13, 2014.

Let’s Get Real: Embracing Vulnerability to Build a Better World

by Christy Heitger-Ewing

If I had one wish for the world, it would be that more people would open themselves up to vulnerability. I say this because I truly believe that if we all allowed ourselves to be more authentic, the world would be a better place. Vulnerability is the key to developing and maintaining meaningful relationships, so in order to forge those bonds, we have to be real with others and also get real with ourselves.

Thousands of people suffer daily with clinical depression and struggle to get help because they don’t feel safe being real. They are paralyzed to speak up and share their true feelings for fear of being ignored or misunderstood. Perhaps they’re afraid their feelings will be ridiculed, minimized, or discarded. As a result, every day there are those who give up the fight and take their own lives because they cannot bear to endure such intense inner turmoil.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year more than 800,000 people die by suicide; this roughly corresponds to one death every 40 seconds (http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/). The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) lists suicide as the tenth leading cause of death in the country (www.afsp.com). In the interest of “keeping it real,” I’ll admit that I gave little thought to the subject of suicide until it profoundly affected my life.

My mom was a happy, playful, fun-loving woman. She cared about people in such a genuine way, and she exuded a sweet innocence that drew people to her. I can’t begin to describe her infectious positive spirit, which is what made her such an outstanding wife, mother, and grandmother. Last year, however, the fierce grip of clinical depression took hold of my mom, and it drained all happiness, confidence, and joy from her soul. I know she desperately wanted to feel better, but the words wouldn’t come. Ultimately, she was so tormented that she took her own life.

In the days and weeks following Mom’s death, I had a big decision to make. Would I lie about the suicide? Would I share half-truths about her death? (Sure, her heart, lungs, and kidneys all failed her, but there was a specific reason her organs gave out.) Would I just stay quiet and keep my mangled, messed-up feelings stuffed deep inside me to fester and poison my soul?

None of those options appealed to me. So when people asked how she died, I answered them honestly. I chose this authentic approach not only because I’m a terrible liar but also because I didn’t see the point in lying to family, friends, and neighbors when I was in desperate need of care, compassion, and comfort. I figured that people who knew the truth would have a better understanding for why I was an emotional wreck for so long after Mom’s death, and quite candidly, why I would never be the same again.

I’m glad I chose this path because full disclosure has allowed family, friends, and even total strangers to be better equipped to help me heal. It also has kept some from blurting out phrases that sting such as, “It must have been her time” or “This was God’s will.”

There was another big reason I felt compelled to be forthright. I can’t stand the social stigma that is associated with mental illness and suicide. It bothers me greatly how voices hush and rooms clear at the mere mention of the “S” word.

I get that there is no good way to lose a loved one to death. But what helps mourners through the loss is being free to discuss it. And options are limited with suicide. I don’t think it’s fair that if my mother had passed away due to cancer, a heart attack, a stroke, or any other physical ailment, I could discuss it openly without fear of backlash. But because I lost my mom to suicide, I’m left to feel shameful, guilt-ridden, and afraid that I’ll be ostracized from members of my own family because I dare to speak the truth. I understand that suicide is an uncomfortable subject to broach. However, it’s vital that we do discuss it given its prevalence here in the United States and around the world.

Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” I like the sound of that. “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it,” says Brown. “Only when we are brave enough to explore darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Early in my grief journey, I struggled to breathe, to move, to focus, and to function. In an effort to find my footing, I gravitated toward the AFSP and registered for June 14’s Annual Out of Darkness Walk that will be held in Seattle. It’s an event in which survivors of suicide gather to walk 18 miles throughout the course of one night to elevate awareness about clinical depression and suicide prevention.  The walk sounds like a wonderful way to both foster support and also to witness, firsthand, noticeable healing despite unimaginable loss.

Again, cards on the table: I wish I wasn’t in the position to be an advocate for suicide prevention. Instead, I wish my mom, with her sweet voice, kind smile, and open arms, was here for me to love, hug, and treasure. But since I am here and she is not, I will crusade for those who are struggling. I will do my best to instill hope in others. And I will walk throughout the night with others who are hurting because I wholeheartedly believe that vulnerability brings insight, healing, strength, and peace.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen,” says Brown. So that’s what I’m going to do on June 14 and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. I’ll show up. I’ll speak up. And I’ll open up my heart because that’s how my amazing mom taught me to live.

To learn more about the AFSP and the Out of Darkness Walks, visit www.afsp.org.

Note: This article was first published on the Huffington Post on June 4, 2014.

 

 

Say Cheese! Documenting Our Lives in Every Imaginable Pose

by Christy Heitger-Ewing

These past few weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with countless prom pics—all with gorgeous backdrops of peaceful ponds, rustic bridges, and flowering bushes. There are poses beside the limo. In the limo. On top of the limo. There are solo poses. Group poses. Date poses. And then a nice mixture of all the aforementioned. There are poses by ponds with ducks. Poses with duck faces. Poses holding irritated ducks. (Okay, this I haven’t seen, but surely one exists somewhere in rural America.)

This picture extravaganza is not just limited to prom night. The numerous iteration of poses and backdrops encompass a wide variety of occasions, including senior pictures, graduation pictures, engagement pictures, wedding pictures, pregnancy pictures, new baby pictures, baptism pictures, confirmation pictures, first communion pictures, we-just-found-out-the-sex-of-our-baby pictures. You get the idea.

Of course, in the era of social media, every event has the potential to be documented. This is why we are subjected to the “Look! Our dog just pooped on our expensive Asian rug!” pics as well as the “I’m hungry, and this is the food I’m about to consume” pics.

I grew up in a simpler time when every event wasn’t made into a major production. So, for instance, when I zipped up my prom dress (after applying my own makeup and curling my own hair), my mom told me and my date to go stand in the living room beside the recliner where the lighting was better.

We stood. We smiled. Click. One more in case one of us was blinking in the first one. Click.

Mom was pleased and we were hungry so off we went to dinner. Mom didn’t make us stick around for another round of pictures in the foyer, on the porch, in the backyard, and on the driveway. Nor did she upload prom photos for friends and family to see because in those days we had to drop the film off at Osco and wait for it to be processed. It was only three weeks later (when we remembered we had pictures to pick up) that we would discover that most of the shots turned out blurry and that our eyes looked demonic because of the flash.

It was always a bummer when photos were ruined due to red eye. This never happened to my Grandma Heitger’s pictures, however, because she notoriously cut off the tops of everyone’s heads in photos. Short folks were often safe, but anyone over 5’10” were bound to be headless. Now whenever we glance through old photo albums, people ask, “What’s the story there?” Then we sit and study the photographs like a who’s who of puzzles and determine the people in them based on chin acne and facial stubble.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll be the first to admit that well before digital photography, I took countless snapshots of my cats Furry, Fluffy, Puff, and Princess. I have more pictures of these four cats than the Kardashians have pout faces. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I started the movement for taking pics of felines snoozing, stalking, and staring out the window. My husband can attest to my cat-picture-taking compulsion because back when we were dating, I sent him (through snail mail) hand-written love letters, and in them, I always—and I mean always—included a photo of one of my cats. The fact that he not only married me but also kept every single kitty cat photo I ever sent him is hard evidence of true blue love. Because let’s get real—nobody wants or needs to see that many cat photos, no matter how darling. Just like nobody really needs 12 million prom pictures.

Still, I must admit that as I scroll through my Facebook feed, I get all smiley. These kids look happy, proud, and snazzy. And I’ve gotta say, I’m thrilled that today’s youth has the patience to stand still and hold a fake smile for 30+ minute photo shoots. Seriously, that’s impressive. I think back to all of those Easter Sundays growing up when my brother and I darted through the garage door and raced to our rooms to change even as my mom yelled, “Don’t you dare change out of your church clothes before I get a family photo!”

We usually ignored her because we were so eager to get out of our pastel sundresses and plaid trousers and into something comfy. Therefore, we don’t have those goofy family photos of me, my brother, and my parents on Easter Sunday standing beside the lilac bush in the front yard. Now, of course, I wish I had stayed fancy for just a few moments longer so that I would have those pictures to cherish. Just like the prom goers will cherish their pictures—all 87,000 of them.

So, snap away, I say. Chances are, I’ll like the photos you post. Especially the blurry, non-perfect ones with the heads chopped off. Because I have to say, I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for chin acne and facial stubble.

Note: This piece was first published on the Huffington Post on May 19, 2014.

Survival: Spring Break Edition

by Christy Heitger-Ewing

My son came barreling through the front door, dropped his backpack to the floor, threw his hands into the air, and announced, “I’m on vacation!”

I remember bursting with excitement to get a break from boring homework, cranky teachers, chaotic classrooms, and sticky cafeteria floors. Those were glorious days because I was a kid.

Now that I’m an adult, spring break looks a whole lot different. I’ve removed the rose-colored glasses and replaced them with lenses smeared in caked-on mud and dipped in slime.

Now, before you label me as a kill-joy mom, let me remind you of the winter we just had. Much of the country endured bitter temps and massive snowfall, which meant school was cancelled a lot. In the words of Taylor Swift, I thought, “We are never, ever, ever getting back to school…Like, ever.” But we did. It’s just that as soon as the snow days ended, spring break started—a two-week break, no less.

Although my fourth-grader was stoked to not have to go to school for 16 days, he was feeling mildly sorry for himself since he had deduced, through various bus chats, that most of our neighborhood was headed to Orlando. A cursory glance at Facebook confirmed his deduction.

“So, what do you have planned, Mom?” my son asked. (Translation: “How will you entertain me?”)

“Well, you and your brother will have to go with me to Wednesday’s dermatology appointment,” I said. “I also scheduled your annual check-up for Friday. Oh, and I’m long overdue for an oil change.”

My son shot me a look that suggested he was none too thrilled with the week’s itinerary. The prospect of banking and grocery shopping didn’t excite him, either. I suggested going to the mall to find pants that actually fit him since his growth spurt has turned his slacks into waders. The mere mention of the word “mall,” however, made him gag.

“Wow,” I thought. “The female mind is vastly different from that of the male.”

This concept was driven home this week every time I drove my sons somewhere. The gross, bizarre backseat boy humor was completely lost on me. The noises, looks, phrases, and howls left me shaking my head and turning up the volume on the radio.

Spring break, as it turns out, wasn’t very “spring-y.” We had a bit of snow, a ton of rain, and mostly brisk temperatures. Such foul weather translated into more iPad and XBox time than I care to admit. The moment the sun peeked out, however, the boys were yard-bound. Those few glorious moments of peace and quiet were the best part of break. But the serenity never lasted long because invariably the garage door would fly open and I’d be greeted either with a stream of tears, a series of screams, or a cry for help.

One day following a request for assistance, I found a rope severely wrapped around the gears of my younger son’s bicycle tires. Apparently the plan was to attach the rope to a sled and pull each other around by bike. Epic fail. You know when you pack your dainty necklaces for travel? And upon reaching your destination, you find your chains in such a tangled mess that you consider tossing the whole lot of jewelry? Well, that’s what this rope/bicycle gear situation was like. I fiddled with it for awhile, but once my fingers were covered in grease and my patience had grown thin, I uttered the words every frazzled mommy eventually blurts out: “Daddy will have to fix it.”

I threw in the towel and packed up the boys to head to the grocery because although the kids were adamant that they didn’t want to shop, they were equally as adamant that they did want to eat.

No sooner did we reach the produce section and the bickering began. Who was going to push the cart? Who was going to pick the snack? Who was going to greet the fishies first?

Then came the check-out line. This is the point in which kids’ hands turn into octopus tentacles as they grab for anything within their reach—even stuff they don’t want or need. Gum, candy, magazines, beef jerky. It all looks appetizing, apparently. Nail clippers, gift cards, batteries, feline breath mints. WTF?

“Put it back.”

Eye roll.

“Put it back.”

Deep sigh.

“Put it back.”

Head shake.

“Put it back.”

Eye roll. Deep sigh. Head shake. Repeat.

This irritating behavior is not as big of a deal if no one is in line behind you. It’s just that almost always someone is in line behind you. And sure enough, there was an older couple waiting to load their items onto the belt. Therefore, I felt the need to explain why my offspring were behaving like zoo animals (only worse because zoo animals don’t scream, “I poop on your face!” to elicit a reaction from their sibling).

“We’ve been on spring break for nearly two weeks now,” I said as I slid the gift cards back into their proper slots.

The woman nodded knowingly and said, “We understand. We just had our two grandchildren here for ten days and we were counting down to the release date.”

Upon closer inspection, this couple did look worn out, withered, and weary. Mostly, though, they looked relieved.

I returned the smile and congratulated them on their survival skills.

Three days later, I loaded my older son onto the bus, then deposited my three-year-old at preschool. When I got home, I dropped my purse to the floor, threw my hands into the air, and announced to the cat, “I survived vacation!”

Read Christy Heitger-Ewing’s new book “Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat” (www.cabinglory.com).

 Note: This piece was first published on the Huffington Post on April 23, 2014.

Lordy, Lordy, Look Who Finally Appreciates 40

by Christy Heitger-Ewing

I was channel surfing the other day when I came across a Dr. Oz show that caught my attention. I think the segment was called “Beauty Secrets Debunked” or something along those lines. I stay tuned because I thought I might learn a thing or two, and I did. But boy, was my education depressing. For example, did you know that plucking a gray hair from your head damages the follicles so severely that hair may not grow back there at all? And if it does, not only will it still grow back gray but it will also sprout in the opposite direction as the rest of your hair, thereby making the gray even more noticeable? I think back on all of the hours I’ve spent, cross-eyed, leaning in close to the bathroom mirror, plucking away at those stray grays. And to think, I’ve been hastening the balding process, pluck by pluck….Oh, pluck!

In addition to my eager tweezing, I’ve been sleeping on my side for over a decade now—ever since my OBGYN told me it was the best thing for pregnancy. Now Dr. Oz enlightens me that side-sleeping causes delicate facial skin to wrinkle. Well, drat! I’ll spare you the sagging breast question Dr. Oz fielded from an audience member. Suffice it to say that the makeshift model he used to demonstrate the way in which nursing a baby and the mere passage of time impact breast tissue was nothing short of horrifying. I cringed and cupped my breasts in the same way a man reflexively grabs his package each time he watches a video of a crotch-hit.

So, last year I hit the big 4-0 milestone. Anyone who proclaims that age is nothing more than a number has not yet begun to physically fall apart for no apparent reason. For me, at least, 40 is when random ailments started plaguing me—nothing that would be considered a medical disaster but highly aggravating nonetheless.

For example, I used to be able to ride in the car for long distances without any problem at all. Last summer, however, I exited the passenger’s side of our Toyota 4-Runner after a 500-mile trek and noticed that my back was ridiculously stiff. I wasn’t shocked given that I had contorted my body into unusual and uncomfortable positions in order to make floor room for our kids’ snack bags, toy trucks, and various electronic devices. I shrugged it off, assuming the stiffening would subside in a day or two, but instead I battled chronic back pain for several months. All because I dared to ride in a car.

That same summer, I did something else that I’d done numerous times before. I jumped off the back of our boat’s swim platform into waist-deep water. When my heel hit the sand-bottom lake, a piercing pain shot through my right foot. It turned out to be plantar fasciitis, which required six months of intense physical therapy. 

This past year I also suffered from tennis elbow despite the fact that I never play tennis. This supposedly came about because I sleep curled on my side (as evidenced by my wrinkly face) with my right arm tucked beneath me. Bending the arm is apparently a ligament no-no; it’s better to sleep with the arm outstretched, especially when a tendon is inflamed. Man, I miss the days I could just conk out, willy-nilly, and awaken feeling rested instead of wounded.

Honestly, I think all of these irritating injuries are karma for the ribbing I gave my grandparents when I was a kid.

“Whaddaya mean you don’t want to ride the roller coaster?” I’d ask Grandma and Grandpa. “It’s not that bumpy!” I insisted. (Meanwhile, the wooden death machine whipped around the tracks so violently that my earrings popped out.)

Every time Grandma and Grandpa visited our house, within an hour of arrival, they made a beeline for our sofa. “You’re seriously going to take a nap?” I’d ask with disgust. As a youngster, I could not, for the life of me, understand the appeal of sleep during daylight hours. Now, of course, I start to salivate if I know I have a shot at 15 minutes of shut-eye.

My grandparents knew a good thing when they saw it (an empty couch, for instance). They also never edited their thoughts. I remember Grandma used to tell me, “You’re so pretty you’d look good with a burlap bag slung over your head.” It sounded like a back-handed compliment at the time. Now, what with the wrinkles and wily stray grays popping up here and there, the burlap bag doesn’t sound like a half-bad suggestion.

With age, of course, comes wisdom, and now I understand the meaning of Grandma’s message. I look back at my teenage pictures and I looked good! But I never thought so at the time. I only focused on the zit or the freckle or the number on the scale. As a result, I never really appreciated what I had when I had it. Thankfully, I’ve grown. I’m grateful for the here and now because, with time, the “here and now” becomes the “there and then.”

Grandma encouraged me to embrace my beauty, brains, health and wellness (just as Dr. Oz has encouraged me to embrace the invention of the support bra).

Grandma “got it”, and now I get it, too. My optometrist tells me that my excellent vision will deteriorate within the next two years because “that’s just what happens to 40-year-old eyes.” Alrighty, then. So I’ll appreciate what I see and hear and taste and feel right now. That’s my beauty secret. (I’ll also keep the burlap bag handy for bad hair days).

Read Christy Heitger-Ewing’s new book “Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat” (www.cabinglory.com).

 Note: This piece was first published on the Huffington Post on April 22, 2014.