The same three episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations played repeatedly at least three times that night. One, he was somewhere in Spain eating in a local's home. I thought of how Mimi always was the one cooking for us when we all lived together. How would Bourdain feel about her food?
I had been watching Anthony Bourdain for years. I was relieved that at least those three episodes was something of a distraction as opposed to infomercials and other random television bullshit that plays in the wee hours of the morning. Through Bourdain, I saw parts of the world that this working class mountain girl will never get to see with her own eyes. I would watch him have experiences as I would want to have them. Ask the questions I was curious about. See the parts of life that aren't just for show. His jokes felt like they were coming from a friend who got my brand of humor. Watching him felt real. There was empathy in his eyes. A knowing from somewhere deep.
I lost my Mimi not long after that night. She had played the biggest role in raising the woman I am today. Having watched her suffer, I stopped fearing death. When I understood that miraculous healing is not what we are owed and that this life is but a blip in the whole scheme of things, I realized that death means freedom. It's real freedom. And, that when she passed on, she would no longer hurt, suffer, be cold, feel bodily pain, worry, fear, or anything like that. She'd be transmuted.
I experienced the death of my grandfather, aunt, and uncle during that same period of time. And, each time, while I was sad and wished they didn't have to go, I started feeling relieved for them. They each had to suffer so much before death. Sure, you may think it morbid. Heartless even. But, freedom is boundlessness. I only want freedom and boundless nature for my loved ones.
It was within this time frame that I began to not want to exist. I wanted that boundlessness too. I was done having to be at the doctor all the time, having entire days lost to physical pain and listlessness. Done wondering if I was a good enough mother. Done trying to juggle finances and being poor despite busting tail. Done waiting to live because everything was consumed by timelines and priorities I didn't create. There was nothing to make me want to stay aside from the pain that it would cause my daughters to know that I couldn't stay for them. That was the only thing that kept me living.
You cannot judge someone for feeling this way. Sure, you can say, look at all they have going for them. Look at the life they have that I wish I had. You can call them ungrateful, negative, thoughtless, selfish... but, unless you can understand the loss of emotional attachment to living coupled with a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion associated with going about the day in and out... in and out, then you cannot know how not wanting to exist feels. You cannot judge what you cannot comprehend.
It isn't that a person does not value or see their blessed life. It isn't that they are negative or have stopped seeing beauty. And, other than putting a higher priority on their own suffering than that of their loved ones, you can't even say it is selfish. We make other similar life choices all the time. Accepting or declining medical care, smoking cigarettes, walking a tightrope, doing drugs, eating crappy food, driving the car too fast, climbing Mt. Everest... things that we deem worth the risk despite the pain it might cause to us or others in the future. In a way, that's actually living. The thing to realize is that the people who decide they don't want to exist are too exhausted to keep trying. They made the pros and cons list. They did the risk vs. benefit analysis maybe 1,000 times. And, in the moment they end it, the finality of not existing felt like freedom. Boundlessness. All else would go on. Life, for all of us is a series of struggles as much as it is blessings. We cannot save our loved ones from that experience because they are alive.
I understand how "out there" this sounds. Unless you've felt it, it's a hard thing to intellectually grasp. We are born with the instinct to survive. A newborn baby has the ability to wiggle, smell, root, and find it's mother's breast with no help when placed on her abdomen. I watched my grandmother fight for her life even after she knew it was over. We fear the unknown, naturally. Until, through experiences and chemical configurations in the brain, loneliness, and lethargy from whatever cause, the unknown becomes more appealing than the experience we are having. Suicide is NOT normal. It is NOT an answer. It's an avoidance of the problem all together.
What we have to do though is make "suicide" a word we use. We need to ask our friends about it in conversation. We need to check on the friend that seems so very strong and courageous as often as the one who is having obvious struggles. That doesn't mean a text (though that is good), it also means visits. It means getting up in their business even if it gets on their nerves. It means meeting them where they are - even when they decline invitations, finding something that they can say yes to and doing that. It's about really seeing a person. Not just a social media account. It's about eye to eye conversations. It's about belly laughs. It's talking about the tough stuff.
"As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt." ~Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown
In a culture that puts so much value on "manifesting" and "postivity," we cannot neglect the experiences that allow us to understand what a "happy life" means. We cannot stop giving space to our pain and hurt. We cannot underappreciate sadness.
Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. ~Susan David
Stop avoiding your the topic of your friend's suffering. Stop ignoring that funny look in their eyes that you kind of wanted to ask about, but didn't want to intrude or make things uncomfortable. Be willing to get uncomfortable dammit! It won't KILL you!
This past week, despite all the great things in my life, the feelings of not wanting to exist would well up from time to time. It happens when I haven't had a break and get really tired. Now, that I understand those feelings, I think I will always face them when things are especially tiring, hard, or the right combination of this or that brings them up. I have attempted suicide twice in my younger years, before I truly grasped what it was I wanted to do in attempting such a thing. Now, being a mother will keep me from attempting, because I know that I don't want to be a source of any suffering for my girls. Yoga will give me reprieve. I will be open about the thoughts and tell people that if I quit talking about it, that's when they need to pay attention most. Being unmedicated now, I know I must diligently use my new coping tools. I will teach yoga, and I will give myself and my gifts as a resource to humanity. Anyone who wants to sit with me, I will, with honor, listen and I will share if you want to know. Don't discredit me or the things I share with you because I have these feelings. Don't label me negative. Yet, I will still be ok with the thought of not waking up. I have lost my attachment to living even in all its beauty and glory. Time is only now and a long, happy life is never a guarantee. No reason to be attached.
Then, today, while wishing I had more energy to face my day, I saw that Anthony Bourdain had made the choice to end his time here on earth. I cried. I've cried multiple times. I feel like I have lost a good friend. I've openly talked about him as my favorite of favorites. His work opened the world up to me. I'm devastated especially for his daughter, whom it was obvious he loved dearly. I hope she has a good network surrounding her. I hope Anthony is free. Boundless. He, if any of us, knew the beauty this world offers as well as the bad, and understood it twice as good.
I can’t help but share my story when I hear the struggles of others. The year I became a mother, I learned the hard lesson that ignorance is not bliss. More of us, especially women, should be sharing the truth of our stories. We need to share it all, even the hard parts – the parts we’ve yet to fix or grow into, included. It’s how we learn from our own mistakes and from one another. It’s how we can prevent a little heartache and some aimless wandering. You may be thinking, I don’t want people to think I’m a negative person. Or, on the opposite end, I don’t want anyone to think I’m bragging. I understand. Totally.
My story of healing sounds nearly impossible if I tell it in its entirety. Pieces of it are scattered throughout this blog and my other writings. I share bits of it on social media. A lot of it isn’t easy to hear, but I try not to be shy about sharing those parts too. I’m a warrior. I battle depression, anxiety, Hashimotos Thyroiditis, polyarthropathy (chronic non-specific joint pain), chronic migraines, and chronic gastritis and colitis. I have a little bit of stuff that likes to slap me in the face every morning. But… I’ve lost over 100 pounds, and I have weaned myself off of all prescription medications aside from my daily thyroid hormone.
I could say that the main factor in getting this far for me was consistent positivity, but that would be a HUGE lie. It would not only be a lie, but it could even set others up for failures in their own journey if they think positivity alone can get them where they want to be. Try remaining positive when in constant pain, worrying that something you said days ago was taken the wrong way, and all the while you don't want to exist anymore. In that state of being, nothing is as simple as a positive attitude. Worse than that is if that positivity is a distraction from the things we’re truly feeling, because it will keep coming up and asking for our attention. For those of us born into a state of fairy like bliss, positivity may come naturally. For others of us, life coupled with brain chemistry wired us differently.
I don’t mean to sound derogatory toward people who naturally tend toward positivity. In fact, there are aspects of that tendency that I can become envious of if I’m not careful. Yet, we must point out, in the age of incessant out of context quoting and the popularity of memes, that positive thinking, as it is portrayed by that mostly online culture, is not accessible to many people who desire to make positive life changes. At worst, those types of attitudes can bring shame, guilt, and alienation to those who feel like they must always keep a positive outward appearance to not seem like an ungrateful, sour person.
There have been times when I personally have felt demeaned for sharing aspects of my story that others perceived as negative. Other times, I’ve taken a deep personal look at this idea that a “change of attitude” is what it takes to bring happiness. I saw a meme once that brought such a sick felt heartache to me that it shocked me to feel it. It said:
The person who posted the meme said they had no room for negative people in their life. It felt as though because I was in a state of unhappiness, I was being accused of being ungrateful. I am immensely grateful for my life and always have been. I do go through periods of intense unhappiness without losing that gratitude. Secondly, I felt rejected by this person for any possibility of friendship or working together because I openly share my struggles with depression and anxiety. Our society sees these things as negative, therefore, did they perceive me as one of the negative people they were referring to in their posting?
I took a long time to explore this idea for myself. Was there something I was missing? Is it really as simple as saying – hating my pain is negative, I need to stop whining and just accept my pain as a permanent part of my life. Be positive. It isn’t that simple. For me to make positive changes in my life, I could not wait for myself to feel that positive attitude, I had to harness the energy of the emotions seen as negative to create my forward momentum. I had to transform "negative" emotions into positive motion.
A fair number of people reach out to me who are also feeling sadness, depression, or intense struggle. Often, these feelings are coupled with health problems, financial issues, or loneliness. None of them want to remain in this state. They want it to end or at the very least believe in the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. It is naïve to expect that someone (even yourself) can just choose not to feel the emotions our society have deemed “negative.” To transform these emotions into forward, or healing momentum takes time, goals with a plan to reach them, and a willingness to be more flexible in your thinking. Consistency in those three things is key. Some things will be worked at hard with no results. Some will make you feel worse before you get better. Others will ask you to confront some really hard truths about yourself and your life. The process will demand you use your intuition to guide your way forward.
A lot of language I hear from people as they share their story is self-limiting, such as: I have no motivation. I can’t. I won’t. Others use blame shifting like: There’s no time. The kids won’t let me. I can’t afford it. I have no support.
I’m not going to call those “just excuses.” They’re not. Many of these things are very real obstacles. I am, however, going to call it “stagnant” or “stiff” thinking. While some obstacles will be ever present, those things do not have to block us in other areas. If a person I’m talking with doesn’t respond to my suggestions, or seems resistant, I know what I am offering isn’t something they are ready for at the present time.
For example, diet can be pretty difficult to change, but you want to make yourself physically healthier overall. Don’t start with diet. Start with exercise. You can exercise at any time. You can exercise for free. Research shows that exercise lifts the overall mood. Exercise can look a lot of different ways. Begin by setting a goal. I will exercise 3-4 days a week. Then, make a plan. I will wake up 30 minutes early and do chair yoga. I will always use the stairs at work. After dinner the kids and I will walk the dog. With that, you’ve begun. As you reach goals, you’ll become motivated to create more. You may begin see some of your obstacles differently, turning them into opportunities.
If you’re wanting to begin a healing journey, but find yourself “stuck”, ask:
For those who carry some heaviness of heart or circumstances, it can sometimes be the things meant to guide us toward the light that add to our darkness. No one sharing these memes or ideas means harm. The most important thing to remember is that everything exists in shades of gray. Nothing is completely black or white. No one will be happy all the time. You don’t have to accept your darkest days as a state of permanence.
According to the Buddha, there is suffering. Suffering is common to all. Everyone experiences the tears of birth, sickness, old age, and death. Buddha said,
“There is happiness in life, happiness in friendship, happiness of family, happiness in a healthy body and mind, but when one loses them, there is suffering.” ~from the Dhammapada
Our family gathered to wait with us. It was snowing, and all the local buses were on calls. Our drivers came from Elkorn City to Prestonsburg to pick us up. We waited over two hours after getting the news. I had time to explain to Ivy about surgery. How most of the people she is close with have had surgery. How she was born and alive because of surgery. How she's strong, and I won't leave her side. I would never leave her side.
She slept on the ambulance ride. I texted with some of my mama friends and family a little, but I mostly watched her sleep. It was hard to reach her where I was belted in, but we had the kindest EMTs with us, and the man in the back also had three daughters. He'd reach over and run his fingers through her hair every now and again. He won't know how much I appreciated that he wasn't afraid to touch her for me.
Like I said, I planned. What would this look like? I had only been with my job since October 2015. I guess they'd just have to let me go. I had been a stay at home mom for 10 years and nothing like this had every happened to us then. Now, I had made the decision to change our entire lifestyle so I could find fulfillment and a purpose beyond parenting, and this happens. As my mind is always analyzing, I asked - What is Universe trying to tell me? Have I become a neglectful parent in my pursuit of engaging work? Am I a selfish mother in even considering how this all will affect me?
Thank God, it wasn't cancer! Ivy is on the mend. University of Kentucky Children's Hospital and her surgical team were amazing. She had a 6cm vascular abonormality that was a total bizarre fluke. They removed it all, and now, almost two weeks later, you can only tell that she was operated on because she has four little incisions covered with surgical tape.
We got home on a Monday evening late. I went directly back to work the next morning. I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay, but now, we are dependent upon my income. My income pays for all the new things in our life. A house that meets our spacial and privacy needs, tuition for cottage school, babysitting, food, insurance and my medical bills, my supplements and medicine, and gas money. I can't not work.
Again,because we can't do without this income, I thought, what have I done? I had to think on it awhile. I came to a conclusion that I had come to months ago as I was making the decision to go back into the workforce. It doesn't matter if I am a stay at home mom or a working mom, I'm going to have guilt placed upon my shoulders by myself and by society for all the things I'm expected to be and cannot. We cannot be everything - even to our children. Becoming a parent shouldn't mean we are expected to. Then, I realized, being at work was a kind of relief. I wanted to be both places, actually. At work, I could breathe. I could focus on something a little less heavy for awhile. I could see something through from beginning to end.
I remembered an essay in _Brain Child Magazine, online that I had read back in September before I knew I had gotten my current public affairs position. Aubrey Hirsch writes:
I’m learning a lot, too. The big revelation for me came the first time he woke up on a Saturday morning and, as we were lazily playing in our pajamas, said, “I want to go to Melissa’s!” Movies and mom blogs had prepared me for this moment to be heartbreaking, but it wasn’t. It was totally fine.
Before she ends the essay this way, she wrote, "Watching another woman cuddle and comfort my son didn’t feel bad; it felt great. I knew he would be fine and that Melissa would take good care of him." With those lines, I was reminded how I'm not a natural nurturer. When my own mother was caring for my dying grandmother, she broke down in her stress and grief and said, "I'm not good at this stuff. If I had wanted to be a nurse, I would have went to school and become one!" I realized so much watching my mother caring for my grandmother, and when she spoke those words so much acknowledgement poured through my soul. Hugging, rubbing, touching, holding... it all wore her out too. She too had to make an effort to do it in an extended way. I realized it wasn't that she didn't want to hug me growing up, but she got tapped out quickly. It didn't mean anything was lacking in her care of me or her love for me. It just meant she would show it in different ways that aren't typically associated with the act of mothering, and she did.
I hadn't thought I would be a mother up until a few months before I began trying to become pregnant with my first child. My plan was to be a writer. For various reasons, plans change. In this season of my life, I'm revisiting the dreams of my early twenties. Some would call that a mid-life crisis. Others might say I'm finally accepting myself. The biggest point is that I don't have to feel guilty for it. In fact, I have come to understand the huge contribution working mothers make, and how it actually is more difficult in many ways than being a stay at home mom. Mentally and emotionally, being a stay at home mom almost devastated me. It brought me to a very dark place after years of denying to myself that I really felt the way I did about not pursuing my interests.
You DO NOT have to be a martyr to be a mother. I wish for the life of me that society would help us convey to our daughters that you DO NOT have to be a martyr to be a woman. For if you find yourself a mother with a career or job, you may also find yourself holding the brunt of household chores, cooking, bill paying, errands, and outside family commitments. Going out and finding yourself is just another thing to add to the plate that is already spilling over the edge. Yet, it might be the most important piece in being not simply a caregiver, but a role model for your children. Being a role model can be achieved in the home and outside of it and will be particular to any given woman.
I'm still trying to find the balance of being both in the home and out of it. The truth is, I'm going to give up most of the yoga classes I teach so I can be home a few more hours in the evening. Mothers need rest and cuddles too. Even mothers who get tapped out quickly. We all need self care, but from what I see, especially women. Pursuing the interests and hobbies that help us nurture ourselves so that we can nurture our children and loved ones.
Hillary Clinton, back when I was younger was known for saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." She is right. Back in the day, the whole holler watched after your kids while they ran from house to house and hill to hill. Only since we have become nuclear families and neighbors with closed doors have we lost the village mentality. That doesn't mean that it still doesn't take a village.
Things happen, and I will be the mother who deals with them as they come. I will be the mother who seeks and finds herself. I will be the mother who shows her daughters that a woman can be whatever she wants without the permission of anyone. I will be the mother who knows and understands that we are each unique and being a good mother simply means providing an environment where your child is nurtured, safe, fed, warm, and loved however that may appear.
“The moment you touch your soul, you become fearless." -Yogi Bhajan
This past summer and early fall, I gave myself the space I needed to get in touch with my soul. I found there a fire burning so bright and asking me to change my whole life to feed it. I made some significant changes. I went from homeschooling to working mother. That was the biggest. I decided to move on the grid. I'm packing today. I began teaching yoga, and I applied for and received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women to finish an essay collection I'm working on concerning events in my own life as a rural mountain woman. I feel the essays will illustrate the universal experience of being a woman. My 3 year old goes to a babysitter 3 days a week now. Between yoga work, driving, and my work as public affairs director at WMMT, I'm doing this thing 50-60 hours a week.
Another gift I gave myself during this time, was to be honest with me. I searched my heart and let myself be free to experience things my heart longed to experience. We don't have this freedom all the time, and when we do it is intoxicating. I'm 37, so maybe what I experienced some would call a mid-life crisis. I'll be a lucky person to get another 37 years, so maybe it is. For me, it held real meaning. For the first time in a long time, I gained the feeling that there was something to hope for, not just for my daughters, but for myself. I felt like I woke up and had decided to come out of the shadows to live.
However, there were some moments for those who were attending to my needs that became frantic. What I was experiencing while they were assessing my bleeding and getting it under control was bliss. My body grew warm and fuzzy. My ego retreated. I felt whole. I didn't care if I continued on in life in the physcial body. I felt like I was completed. It is very hard to describe, but I haven't felt anything as good before or since. What makes it even stranger to talk about is, if I hadn't been tended to. If I had been alone to care for myself, I likely would have bled too much and passed on. In the moment where the veil between worlds grew very thin for me, I felt most at peace. That makes people uncomfortable. That makes it hard to share because there aren't many who understand.
This summer, I began finding a way to live and recreate those feelings of letting go completely. It isn't as easy to replicate in life as it is when your body actually is letting go of its life blood. Life is complicated. I'm a realist. I fought to keep that energy going, but it became just embers and I've had to accept that for now. I couldn't control the death of it and I've taken that in a hard way. I've sunk into a dark and grieving place. I'm not a crier. I've been crying a lot lately. The hope I built has been put away. I'd say it is gone, but there's always the possibility she will return. She stayed in Pandora's box after all. I just have to not wish for her anymore. I find myself thinking more and more about those moments. "Kelli, stay with me," she said. I thought, why? I decided I didn't care to stay and if it was meant that I go, I'd let it happen. "Just a minute," I said. Another minute in complete surrender. I long to go back there. I'd happily go back there unafraid.
I was fighting tears Monday while driving the girls out of the holler. Right as we were going into the creek, I noticed what appeared to be an old weathered bone on the flat rocks in the shallow part of the creek. I collect bones, skulls, and other natural oddities, and I stopped to get a better look. I opened the car door and discovered this very heavy statue. It's been either buried or in the water a long time. It was painted at least twice. Once red and once black. It had also been mounted to something. Maybe a fence, entry way, or gate. It looks like it is holding a staff or spear. A resting warrior. The Universe had sent me a gift with no explanation of how it made it there on that day for me to find. Universe told me to rest. To be patient. It's ok.
Then, I get word from the artist Bonita Parsons that someone who wished to remain anonymous had bought this piece of art from her and asked her to send it to me! I adore this piece and when I found out I cried. I feel so unworthy of such a gift. I socialize very little. I don't talk on the phone even with family and friends I want to talk to. I forget to answer some messages I get on Facebook. Very few people really know me. I am as a ghost and very alone. I have no idea why someone was compelled to gift me this. It makes me feel very thankful and at the same time sad. When I write about my own life, I write it honest. It isn't a bad kind of sad, but it is a type of sad. I've cried several times over the receipt of this gift. I simply don't feel worthy of it and would like to understand why it was given me.
The Universe has gifted me twice in a week when I just wanted to completely give up. I don't want to stoke the embers. I want a lobotomy. Yet, Universe is telling me that my life is a gift. Don't squander it. It is ok to be sad, but it isn't ok to take yourself away from the collective before it is your time to go, whether you do it metaphorically or physically.
I discovered with certainty this summer that my totem animal is the crow. Crow medicine and those who carry crow as a totem can be intense. It's true. It's not a thing we can help and it comes to use by nature. Crow crosses the veil of existence on the regular and is thought to live outside of time and space. Crow carries an honest message and doesn't care to deliver it. Crow is lonely, a loner, but never without work. Crow has magic. People come to us in private to hear their secrets. It's kind of like what I imagine a priest in the confessional to feel, except we don't absolve or give penance. We acknowledge, accept, and help the processing begin as best we can while still being what we are.
I had a dream this week. A woman with a clipboard met me at a convention and said, "You've been idealized." I got so mad at her I could have hit her. I turned around and went back to the room I had just left instead of entering the convention. I've been worried about what she means. I hope that isn't true of me, and yet, when I receive anonymous gifts, or am told I inspire. It is hard to swallow. I'm struggling with my inner light. I'm just living life as best I can right now. Nothing I'm doing is special or beyond what any other human is capable of. I've been called by some younger women a "hero." That makes me very uncomfortable. I don't understand where it comes from, or what I'm supposed to do with that fact. It's hard.
This week though, Universe told me I have a job. My job as the holder of crow medicine will include these things and it will include them whether I am experiencing the light or the deepest darkness. I hear the crows cawing as I'm writing this now. I can't not accept it. It's what I am. My heart won't let me say, no, as long as I am living. It's just that I don't feel that character in me. That sage hermit woman in the woods who holds the secret the adventurer hopes to find. I've not gotten the ability to fully stand in my own light. Maybe I never will. How can I be anything to others? How can I do what I'm asked while at the same time feeling I have no outlet for it myself? Words though powerful are never enough and that is all I have. Typed or written words.
Today, we are preparing for another round of snow. There is the possibility of six inches. My car is in the shop for who knows how long. Yet, I feel okay with that. Me, who doesn't like to sit around the house, is okay with these moments here, just me and my girls. In our school time today, I found inspiration to write for the first time since the snow in my girls' enthusiasm for getting back to a normally structured homeschool day. I was inspired by the fact that even though we have had a rough patch, we have 122 attendance days completed as of the end of this week for the 2014-2015 school year. I was inspired that my house feels tidy enough in this moment. I can not feel like talking to people. I can only want to see a few folks. I can dream of travelling. I can be playfully envious of Anthony Bourdain and his job. I can get wrapped up in a good television story. I can grieve. I don't have to feel guilty about it, or lazy. I don't even have to accuse myself of being stagnant. I can be productive on my terms. I can be still and content right now as I am. Is this what contentment feels like, or is this the stillness of grief?
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, and avid yogi. She is the creator of Truly Express Wellness and teaches yoga in her community. Connect with her @ Truly Express - Yoga, Health, Beauty, & Spirituality with Kelli
Blogs I Appreciate