Friday, May 31, 2013

Reaching New Plateaus

When I look back on my trauma healing journey, I see a lot of starts and stops.  A lot of one step forward -  two, three, sometimes ten steps backwards.  A lot of going in circles.  Some things I have had to learn over and over and over again.  There has been a lot of failure.

Yet there are some things that once I reached the plateau, I never went back.   My first such milestone was facing the world.   After the assault I was pretty much a recluse, very afraid of life.  I functioned at a bare minimum level.  When I met Lauren, my therapist, she worked with me and helped me out of that black hole.  I have very little memory of the details of my therapy work then, except that it was very painful.   I don't know why it worked.  I just know that I could not deal with the outside world, and then I could.  Not in all circumstances, but I became a reasonably functional person and never went back that far in the hole.

Another major plateau was being able to have sex again.   When I first met Martha I was not capable of any kind of physical intimacy.  And again Lauren helped me out of that hole. I remember that took a lot of work, and quite a lot of patience on Martha’s part.   But once I reached that plateau, I never went back to that place where I couldn't be touched.  True, there are some things that I can’t do, some places I can't stand to be touched, but since Martha was willing to live within those boundaries, our intimate life has generally been exciting and satisfying and spiritual.

And now I feel like I have reached another plateau.  This one more difficult to explain in words.  It centers around feeling joy in a way I have been unable to  feel since this journey began.   Certainly in the past I felt joy  - when my children were born or while watching them achieve milestones.   But this is something different.  More akin to when Dorothy landed in Oz and goes from a black and white world into all that color.   Something big inside of me has changed.

I am happier.  I feel lighter.  I am definitely more open - to people and feelings and life.   I am finding it much easier to plug into loving, spiritual energy.  Everywhere.

I am, of course, hoping that this IS a plateau and not a temporary state that can be knocked out from under me at the first anxiety producing moment.  But I don’t think so.  This feels too big.

Once again I cannot quite put my finger on how I arrived here.   I think it is much like playing the piano.   You don't just sit at a piano and play a difficult piece.  First there are years of practicing scales, and finger exercises to build flexibility and strength and dexterity.    And then you still need to dissect the piece, learn the phrasing, fingering and flow.  After hours and hours of practice and repetition,  you can play the piece technically well.  But then, all of a sudden, it all comes together - the technique and the emotion -  and not only can you play the piece well but now your soul soars with it. 

I think back now to all the work Lauren put me through.  All the repetition - forcing me to talk about difficult things, over and over, until they lost their power.  Every little detail I could remember was dissected, examined and put back in it's appropriate place.  She trained me to deal with anxiety with little physical and mental tricks and made me repeat them hundreds of times until they became habit.   She would force me to the brink of despair, over and over, until I learned to find the way back on my own.

There were times that I hated her and the therapy.  Often I collapsed with exhaustion.  There were many times I gave up.   But now I see how the pieces fit.    I have learned to live technically well.   And now, it has all come together, all the practice has paid off,  and my soul has begun to soar with the lightness of being.

Is this the end of the journey?  I don't think so.  I still have issues.  I still have inappropriate, knee jerk reactions to odd triggers.   I still have anxiety and boundary issues,  and a mountain of insecurities.   So many things I have yet to understand.   And I know I still need to practice my life skills everyday or, much like my piano skills, I will become rusty and fall back into old, destructive patterns.

But I have reached a new plateau.   And I like the view from here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Full of Grace

1.  Going to vote (school budget) with my youngest daughter.  What a nice feeling to vote together.  And then we walked around the elementary school, sharing memories. For her, they seemed ages ago.  For me, it felt just like yesterday.

2. A bitter cold, rainy, blustery beginning to the Memorial Day weekend allowed me to forego all outdoor chores and just relax.   Watched a movie, read, played piano, watched the white caps on the pool . . .  being a slug for a couple of days . . . it's a beautiful thing.

3.  Having spectacularly impure thoughts.

4. Beanie got a full time summer job in her field of study, and Peachie got an internship with a doctor in the field she would like to pursue.    There may be hope for them when they graduate (fingers crossed).

5.  Today is World Hunger Awareness Day.   For all the times I have been poor, I have never been so poor as to know hunger.   And for that, I am truly grateful.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Problem With Not Having Breasts

It has now been a year and a half since my double mastectomy.  My, how times flies!

Physically I am all healed but if I don’t do stretches, I tend to close up and my shoulders hunch forward.   Stretches and a monthly mastectomy massage keep my range of motion open.   Easy.   I still feel like I have a strip of duct tape across my chest.  I am told this is because the scars have adhered to the muscle underneath so when I move, the skin pulls.   I've gotten used to it and don’t really notice unless I think about it.

Most of the emotional issues have faded although I occasionally have a sense of loss and feel a sadness around that.

And there are some real pluses to having no breasts -

- No more mammograms.

- No more wrestling out of sweaty sports bras.

- No need to ever wear a bra.

- No bounce when exercising.

- Incentive to keep the gut in check since having a flat chest really accentuates the belly.  (Think men with beer bellies)

 -No embarrassing hard nipple issues when cold.

- Backpacks, which are generally designed for men, are much more comfortable to carry.

- Sleeping on my stomach is much more comfortable.

- I now have the same body as Angelina Jolie.  Okay, maybe not.

I was left with two serious problems I had not anticipated.  One is clothing.  Although I did buy prosthetic boobs I did not like the feel of them.  And when it got warm they were like heavy, sweaty rubber clinging to me.  I gave up wearing them after about a month.  Which was fine.  I don’t mind the flatness.  What I do mind is the lumpiness.

My summer wardrobe was basically V-neck t-shirts for work and tanks for outside of work.  Dark colors I can still wear, and things with patterns or stripes.  But your basic white T, or anything light colored, shows every lump and bump which bothers me.  Perhaps more than it should.   But how does a lesbian survive without a basic white beater?  I am still struggling with it.

The other major problem was sex.  Frankly sex went to the back burner for a long time after the surgery because I couldn't move very well and my chest was very sore.   Then I had the second surgery and radiation, and again, being touched in any significant way was difficult.   Fortunately Martha was very understanding and patient.  But once I was fully physically healed,  I found I was no longer enjoying sex.  Frankly, I had gotten a lot of sexual pleasure from my breasts and wow, I really missed them.   So we began kind of trying to have sex, having rather one sided sex, or just giving up.  And I started to get really sad about it.  For the first time the reality of the mastectomy hit me.  This was forever.  Even if I opted for reconstruction, the nerves were gone, the sexual pleasure would never return.

Although Martha was never much of an emotional support when it came to the cancer (if fact, she couldn't talk about it at all) she was/is a rock when it comes to the physical stuff.  She took care of all my physical and hygiene needs after my surgeries, she took over all my chores, etc.   And when she saw that sex was becoming a problem for me, she simply said “Maybe this is like when someone loses their sight - then their hearing gets better.  Maybe you will develop other erogenous areas that will compensate.”   Together we set off to find them.   And find some we did.    It’s not the same, but it’s okay.

A year and a half later.  I know a lot of people think I just breezed through this mastectomy.  And perhaps in some ways I did.  One of the benefits of having something very physically and emotionally traumatic happen in my past is that everything else pales in comparison.  “Is this as bad as that?”  Nope.  Okay, I can deal with it.

But in other ways I think I am just beginning to mourn.  And adjust to the changes.  Sex is definitely getting better thanks to a very patient and giving partner.   Clothing is still a problem.  So much so that I am thinking about doing some kind of reconstruction.   I really don’t want non-feeling breasts but perhaps some small implants that will at least stretch out the lumps and bumps.  I don’t know, I really don’t want to go through another surgery for a long while.

So that's where I'm at.  Physically  good.  Sometimes a little sad.  Sex and wardrobe challenged.  Definitely boobless.  But dealing with it.   Day by day.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

(Not so) Full of Grace

Practicing gratitude is one of the many tools I learned while going through therapy.  Besides from the discipline of writing this weekly Full of Grace post, I really do wake up each morning thankful for another opportunity, and end each day with a quiet reflection of the good things in my life.   It is a practice I love and have benefited from.   I am very aware of how very blessed I am.

However, once in a while I just need to bitch.  And this would be that day.

1.   That my daughters, now home from college for the summer, have their crap spread from one end of the house to the other.  The whole garage is taken with boxes and stuff.  I can't get close to the laundry room.   We live in a small house.  I live simply and can't stand clutter.  Something needs to change . . . very soon.

2.  That I went grocery shopping only to find out I couldn't fit the food in the refrigerator because it is now filled with beer.

3.  That our dog (the one that I didn't want - even though I love animals but didn't want to be tied down) has now taken to digging huge craters in the backyard.  Holes large enough that if the lawn tractor falls into one, you need to stop and get a few people to help lift it back out.  Ask me how I know this.

4.  That my youngest daughter, who asked if she could use the lake house with a bunch of friends all going to the Dave Matthews concert, failed to mention that the two night concert was Memorial Day weekend.  So I have now lost the use of my camp for the holiday weekend.  What?  

5.  That my brother with whom I have no relationship, buried my parents ashes in a cemetery without ever telling my sister or me.   My mother was laid to rest without benefit of prayers or ceremony or her daughters being there, which breaks my heart.  Which I'm sure was his intention.

Okay, I feel better now.   My daughters will hug me and the dog will give me slurpy kisses and will all be forgiven.   And I will again be back next week, grateful for raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens . . .

Monday, May 20, 2013


For all of us.

"There's a part of me I can't get back
A little girl grew up too fast
All it took was once, I'll never be the same
Now I'm taking back my life today
Nothing left that you can say
Cause you were never gonna take the blame anyway

Now I'm a warrior
Now I've got thicker skin
I'm a warrior
I'm stronger than I've ever been
And my armor is made of steel, you can't get in
I'm a warrior
And you can never hurt me again"

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Last 3 Peaks

One of the things on my very short bucket list was to climb all 46 high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains.  This was actually not a real “bucket list” kind of thing.  It’s just that I had recently learned that there was a list of high peaks and that I had already climbed 43 of them.  So it became more of a desire to cross the last 3 off the list more than anything else.  And the three were all located in a group and so it seemed reasonable to tackle them all at the same time.

I've got packing in the mountains down to a science.  I usually go into the woods for two nights and carry 27 pounds.  I used to carry a lot more weight but age and bad knees have forced me to eliminate all but the absolute essentials.  27 pounds are the bare necessities and I carry them from start to finish.  It is not easy to navigate some of these climbs with 27 pounds strapped to your back.

However doing three peaks in one trip called for a different approach.  We had decided to do this trip as a 3-day pack-in, make a base camp, and then climb the summits as day trips.  This allowed us to carry in more gear, leave it at the base camp and just wear a small pack with snacks, water and a few supplies.   Which was a blessing because these were some spirit breaking climbs.  Mountain trails are usually ranked on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being an easy hike and 7 being quite difficult.   We did one 5 and two 6 mountains, none of which had groomed trails.  These were some of the guide directions:

From this area, the trail will get steeper for a while and MUCH rougher. The trail is over rocks and areas of persistent boot-sucking mud that will prevail.

The trail can be very wet with many deteriorating wooden corduroy laid in the trails. Caution do not to step off the wood trail maintenance. In some areas the mud can be 2 feet deep.

This was the "good" trail maintenance

The herd path reaches the lowest point near the 3400 elevation mark. Here you will encounter a vast swamp. There are many herd paths attempting to find a dry way through the swamp. I have found that traversing straight through it is the best.

The best way is straight through it?

At the bottom of the saddle, you will reach an open bog.  From this point on, it is a never-ending continual battle with the cripplebrush and upward travel that will teach you to dislike this mountain.

Are we lost?
They were right.  This section of mountains was dense thicket and swamp with no well marked trails.  We got lost quite a few times and often I would sink up to my ankles in muck   It’s no wonder we never climbed them in the past.

A rare dry place to rest

The weeks before this trip the weather was in the 70s during the day and the 50s at night.   But for the 3 days we choose, a cold front had settled in.  Day time temps were in the high 40s, which was great for hiking but at night it dropped into the teens.  Monday night it actually snowed.   And while my sleeping bag is rated for arctic conditions and kept me plenty warm, it was mighty difficult to pull myself out of it to use the “facilities.”   Which I might add - squatting in the woods was never an issue for me, however, my knees no longer bend enough to allow me to fully squat.  Awkward and literally freezing my ass off would be a polite way to describe my in the woods constitutionals.

So I spent my 3 days in the mountains wondering why I was there.  16 hours of hiking through swamps, scaling impossible rock formations and navigating non-existent herd paths.   Cold and wet and muddy.  And all just to cross off 3 peaks from a list.

Seriously?  That's the trail?

Now I've come home.  I've taken a long, hot shower, washed my clothing and gear (although I don’t think my boots are salvageable), and slept in my soft bed.   When I got up this quote was in my inbox :

At times we may feel as if we are slogging uphill through dense mud and thick tress, getting nowhere.  If we keep going, however, we will reach a summit and see clearly that we are finally free of the past.  

And I realized that in many ways that is why I go into the mountains.   Whether I am climbing a beautiful scenic mountain on a beautifully groomed trail, and sleeping under a canopy of stars,  or slogging through swamps and thicket,  I go because when I am connected with nature, everything else falls into place for me.   This is when I am in sync with the rhythms of the universe, of life.   This is when I can appreciate how far I've come in my healing and feel whole.   This is when I truly feel the spiritual within me and sense all that I want to be . . . and dedicate myself to becoming.

The Indian name for one of the mountains we climbed was “dismal wilderness.”  While I was out slogging through it, I was cursing it.   Now, as I reflect, I would give anything to be back on her remote slopes once again, listening to the sounds of the wind through the trees and the conversation of critters, smelling the damp earth, and enjoying all that living, breathing vegetation.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order - John Burroughs

Yep, works for me.  Every time.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Full of Grace - Mother’s Day edition

1.  That I was told I could no longer physically have children - but I have them anyway!

2.  That almost every day I get an  “I love you mom”  text or phone call.

3.   The cards and texts (and cupcake) I received from my “adopted” daughters - Beanie and Peachie's friends since they were little and now some of their college housemates too.    I love how our non-traditional family keeps picking up more members as we roll along.

4.  That both my daughters drove home from college for the weekend even though they are frantically studying for finals.  I love seeing them sleeping in their childhood beds.

5.  That I miss my mother more than ever.  As hard as that missing is, especially today, I know far too many people who have lost their moms far too young or have fractured or non-existent relationships with their own mothers.   I had the benefit of a full and wonderful and loving relationship for decades.  I can’t think of anything for which I am more grateful.

 Happy mother's day all.  And now I will be going into the woods for a few days of soul rejuvenation.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What you love

The artist has a skeletal/muscular problem and wears heavy orthopedic shoes and metal leg braces.   Years ago, if the weather was good, she would come to her niece’s field hockey games and I would help her walk to the field - field hockey being a less popular sport and therefore located behind the football and baseballs fields.

I would always kick off my shoes and squish my toes into the grass which is my habit almost anywhere I am.   We started talking about those things we love to do, but often don’t, and she mentioned how she used to love being barefoot as a child but had not had that experience for decades because it took so much time to take the braces on and off.  Of course I took that as a challenge and talked her into it.  Whenever she came to a game I would help her take her braces off and we would sit together, barefoot.

This spurred more conversation about things we love to do, but for whatever reason, don't do.  I spoke of my love of playing the piano.  I took lessons for many, many years in my youth and have always had a piano in my life.   I went to a music school and had rows of practice rooms available each with its own Steinway.  During the first year after Daphne died I had a baby grand and spent most of my time alone, sitting and playing.  I often acknowledge that having that piano saved my life.

Now I rarely play, although I usually have it on my New Year’s resolution list.  Lack of time and/or lack of commitment, I suppose.

A few years ago my artist friend invited me to her art gallery show, entitled “Angels.”   She told she had painted this angel as a reminder to always take the time to do the things we love.  (If you look closely you will see that the little girl at the piano has her bare feet tucked under her, you can just see her toes)

I could not afford the original painting but my friend gave me a print of it which now hangs in my bedroom.  It is one of the first things I see when I wake.

A couple of weeks ago I read this article:

In it, the pianist notes that:

We can function - sometimes quite brilliantly - on six hours' sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can't even smoke? 

A cancer diagnosis is a surefire way to force yourself to examine what you do with your life.  But the reality is, we all the the same prognosis.   We all have the same amount of time every day and we all make choices about how we spend that time.   Once the day/hour/minute is gone, it is gone to us forever.

Six hours to do whatever we want.  (In reality  4 hours for me because I do need my 8 hours of rest.)   I have always been very aware of  time wasters.  I do not watch television, or have Facebook or Twitter, or go drinking.  But I don't always use my time doing what I should/could/want/love.  So I have once again made a commitment to doing things I love, that make my soul soar, and that includes playing the piano.

Every morning I look to this angel for my inspiration.  I have made a commitment to practice 30 minutes, at least 5 times a week.  My fingers are stiff, my technique rusty, my fingerings awkward and I have had to drop back quite a few levels in my exercise books.  I am not soaring . . . yet.   But it is a start.

Four to six hours a day to find what you love and do it.

What are you doing?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Full of Grace

1. That the woman who took the picture in my last post, and the woman standing beside me in that picture (cropped out) are still standing beside me today.  Friends.  If you've found a good one - don't let 'em go.

2.  Taking a leisurely evening bike ride through the neighborhood and smelling all the barbecue.

3.  Being barefoot almost all the time.  Even at work when I can get away with it.

4.  Sitting of the front porch glider with Martha, enjoying a hot fudge sundae, and lazily watching the world go by.

5.  And best of all this week - My former secretary called and invited me to go horseback riding.  The last time I rode a horse was over 20 years ago when she was still my secretary.   After about 20 minutes I discovered that riding a horse is much like riding a bike - you don't forget.  And then spent a glorious hour galloping at full speed across meadows.  Oh what a feeling!   Pure freedom and joy and exhilaration!   I don't think I'd ever want to own a horse, but I definitely need to wrangle an invite to ride more often  (once my nether regions recover : )

Thursday, May 2, 2013


This is me.  The picture was taken maybe 4 or 6 weeks after the assault, in front of a new house my friend rented so I would have a place to live.    She found the picture a few years ago while cleaning out her attic and gave it to me.  At the time, I could barely look at it.  The triggering was instant and hard.   Now, after years of therapy,  I can look at myself and remember and be okay.  This is how I know I am also healing emotionally.

My foot was broken in numerous places when a man slammed his foot down on it to hold me down. I remember the sound it made as it shattered.  And the searing pain.

I had three broken ribs on my left side, a damaged kidney and a ruptured spleen.

I had been kicked in the jaw that dislodged two teeth.  They had stuffed a shirt in my mouth to muffle my screams and I began to choke and gag on the teeth and blood.   I now clearly remember that frenzied panic of choking to death.  

I continue to wrestle with the rest.  Although I remember it, I still cannot talk about it.

But I'm working on it.

I survived the physical punishment although some the effects remain with me -

My left foot is now filled with arthritis filling in all where all the bones broke.  It is very stiff and bothers me a lot in the morning but is not unmanageable.

To this day I am still protective of my left side.  I still flinch if someone approaches me from the left and I instinctively position myself to protect myself.  I also lost some hearing in my left ear so I tend to tilt my head when someone is speaking to hear from my right.

And I have a wicked gag reflex.  I cannot swallow pills.  The taste of blood in my mouth can send me to a fetal position for days, although I am a much better about that now.  Trips to the dentist are still a little rough.

Still, I consider myself physically healed.  Emotional healing is taking a bit longer.  But just as physically healing did not erase all the permanent effects and scars and need for physical protection,   I now realize that emotional healing will not eliminate all the soul wounds and scars and my need for emotional boundaries.    And I am okay with that.

My therapist often told me that once I was able to talk about it, it would be a sign true healing.  

So today, here I am.  Talking about it.  And that is my victory.

Today I can look at this picture, calmly and with love.  And that is my victory.

Today I can share love and joy and intimacy.

Today I can climb mountains - both emotionally and physically.   And that is my victory.

They win some battles but they will not win the war.