Sunday, September 10, 2023

Waves of the Ocean

 “Nobody said it was easy, it's such a shame for us to part. Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard; oh take me back to the start.” ~ Coldplay

It’s been ten years since my father’s passing, and these lyrics still hit. These were the lyrics that rang in my car radio in the wake of my fathers death as the weight of the words reminded me of him and hit me like a ton of bricks, before I found myself weeping behind the wheel. Now, ten years later, and the song doesn’t make me a sobbing mess, but it always gets me choked up. And I find myself wondering - really, why is it so hard? Losing a parent; ten years later certain days still trip me up; ten years later I’m not a blubbering mess like I was that first year after (hell first few years after), but the pain of losing my father is still very real. 

Like clockwork, the loaming start of September gets me riding that grief coaster. I’m reminded more of those stark and vivid memories of his deteriorating health. His once tall and stocky body turned thin and frail. Chemotherapy and how it made him perpetually exhausted. The image of my father hunched over, as I watched him inch down the front porch in a walker. This was a man who would hoist me on his shoulders, now he barely had the strength to walk. When we started in-home hospice for him, he lost his ability to speak. The times we’d feed him, give him water, sit and talk by his bedside just to be with him - it was all we could do as his time was quickly approaching. As much as I try, this time of year, I can’t escape this coaster, or these painful memories. 

And September 3rd always wakes me up at the exact time my mom came rushing in to tell me he was gone - 3:52am. Her sobbing tears echo in my ear; my heavy footsteps down the hall to his body flash in my mind; his lifeless body as I weep to my knees at his bedside are always so vivid on that day. But then I’m hit with his sweet smile and the glimmer in his eye when he’d genuinely smile or laugh; or his great big hugs; watching him iron his work shirts and tie his work tie in the living room mirror in the morning, or put his Aramis cologne on. The memory of them pulling a white sheet over his body before they rolled him out of the house after 6am; summer camping trips as he’d teach me and my siblings how to pitch a tent, sitting by the campfire listening to him talk about and point to the constellations; later that day in the mortuary standing as close as I possibly could to him; stroking his face; studying his expression; and not wanting to leave his side.  I couldn’t leave!  Don’t make me leave you dad!  Dad, please don’t leave me!!!  Please - is all I could scream in my mind. His barefoot walks to the school bus stop as a kid; tickle monster wrestling in his lap paired with him pushing me on our front yard blue rope and wood plank swing that hung from a great and grand ficus tree. The morning after his passing a crying into a bowl of Cheerios as the pain of his death still stabbed hard; mornings with my dad as we’d sit on the front porch and chat over our morning coffee.  It’s really like that - a constant juxtaposition of memories whirling through my mind on that day. I’m willing to admit this time of year always gets me feeling a little like Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Woods, gray cloud and all.   

In a recent conversation with my therapist on the subject he didn’t go to the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Rather he spoke about the four tasks of grief: acceptance, processing the pain, adjusting to a new life (some people might call it “the new normal”), and finally staying connected with the deceased while embarking on a new life. While I know the stages of grief all too well, I like to think I’ve done a fair job of the four tasks, including staying connected while moving forward. One shoulder blade tattoo of my father, a drawing I did of him that now hangs framed above my teacher desk at work, countless blog entries of him (including this one), retelling stories of his life and taking moments to treasure those moments, remembering his essence and temperament during crucial moments to get me through and come to decisions, appreciating the older I get, how I look more and more like him - like a chip off the old block. But it’s this time of year that makes me question. How much of these grieving tasks have I really accomplished if I’m just thrown right back to those vivid memories and pain? Am I to be tormented every year this time of year? Some of me tries to make sense of it humoristically by saying “it’s the Pieces in me,”or “I’ve always been particularly sensitive.” 

While I miss my father terribly, and while losing him in my 20’s was a traumatic and defining moment, I will say I’ve definitely learned a lot from this kind of pain and grief, in the way it’s shaped me. For one, most people (without realizing it) are inept to their emotional intelligence and are absolute buffoons when empathy is needed. While it pains me to admit it, the worst cases of compassion and empathy I received was from my Sunday church folks - and this is coming from a Catholic girl. It’s always fascinating and infuriating to me how so many of the people you’d expect to be the most empathetic are so often deprived of these skills. Do yourself a favor and don’t say any of the following “it’s part of God’s plan” “everything happens for a reason” “I guess it was his time to go” “it’s been a while, aren’t you over it yet?” “he’s in a better place.”And for the love of God, when someone walks in who just lost someone, don’t all unanimously go silent. Rather, do say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” “I wish I knew what to say to comfort you” “can I give you a hug?” “I’m here for you.” And just show up. Don’t ask, just show up. 

After ten months - to the day - I did just that. A couple of acquaintances who suddenly lost his mother I found myself attending his mother’s memorial service, and as is customary in Indonesian culture every guest processes down the aisle to offer a hug and condolences to the family. And as I stood in front of my loose friend who just lost his mother, and his wife I looked them both in the eye and said “I know the pain you feel, and you will be seeing more of me, I will be checking in with you.” What was not given to me in the wake of my dad’s passing, I gave to them over and over. Now nearly ten years later, the wife is my best friend, they consider me family, and their eldest is my goddaughter. 

Again, a defining moment in how it’s shaped me.

While I know my father is still looking out for me, I still can’t help but miss him and what I’d give to hear his voice and talk to him on that front porch with our morning coffee just like we used to. The reality of not having him around during the holidays or milestones stings, and I find myself thinking of him and trying not to cry. And while I know he’s in a better place, and I know I’ll see him again, still what I’d give to feel his embrace. Too soon, he went too soon, and I’m left with this pain, this awful heart wrenching pain. 

People often describe grief in countless metaphors, but my favorite one is the one being out at sea. One moment you’re floating along, aware of the sadness around you, but navigating it all just fine. Next, you'll be slammed by the rush of feelings—gasping for air and desperately trying to gain your equilibrium before the next wave hits. And that’s just it, grief comes in waves. Sometimes I can predict it, and other times I’m blindsided. In moments of storm I find comfort and hope knowing this too shall pass, and like the story in the book of Matthew, God will calm the storm and I will find peace again. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

And Still I Rise

"If only our eyes saw souls instead of bodies, how very different our ideas of beauty would be."

Inside I knew. I knew I had a problem. But I didn’t tell anyone for quite some time. It wasn’t till I found myself hospitalized that I had to admit it out loud to myself. After an overnight stay at the hospital and being questioned by the nurses and doctor, I first told my sister, then I told my best friend. As I told each of them, I knew implications would follow; and as I told them the heaviness in their voices told me the alarm they felt, and it reinforced the concern they had trepidatiously expressed to me for some time. “Oh Barbara, I’m really concerned about you.” said my sister. “Barbara, you need to see someone about this,” said my friend. 

I had developed an eating disorder. 

As some might naturally wonder, how did this happen? It stemmed from a few factors. But the root physiological reason was control, rooted in ego - as my therapist has come to help me understand. 

It was the one thing in my life at the time I felt I had control of. In the trenches of ACL recovery and physical therapy I was constantly being told no. No Barbara, you can’t take off your brace yet. No Barbara, you can’t do cardio yet. Knee health aside, I also lost some control as a teacher amid the countless and ever changing COVID school/classroom regulations that left my hands tied and powerless to do many of the activities I loved doing in my own classroom. Again, it was a “no Barbara, you can’t do that.” I felt like a kid in an oldies film reaching for anything on the kitchen counter and having my hand smacked by some older family member at every turn, and in turn shaking their finger at me in a patronizing manner. 

Aside from the constant regulations that affected my classroom, I also battled with a handful of rambunctious 5th graders. A class of 34 of them with no aid, in the middle of COVID rules and mask mandates, coming off the heels of a year and a half of social isolation because of Zoom teaching, and eight problematic students whose behavior was constant and often explosive. Bear in mind, every teacher deals with one or two “problematic kiddos” but I had eight in my class of 34 students. I often felt like I was playing a game of Whack-a-Mole at a carnival; whenever I’d deal with one student’s behavior, another one acted out. A colleague described it as trying to predict an earthquake or an aftershock. It was exhausting; it was maddening; and I often felt deflated and defeated. There was no time to catch up on grading or lesson plans, since all my prep time was monopolized by office visits and parent emails to follow up on whatever shitshow decided to happen that day. I’m not proud to admit I suffered a few emotional and mental breakdowns in the staff bathroom or my colleagues’ empty classrooms away from any sign of students because of the mental and emotional strain that school year posed on me. I would leave work completely empty or anything left other than pass out on my bed at the end of the day. Between my ACL recovery and my classroom situation, I was in survival mode. Hence control was what I was desperately grasping for.

You might ask, why didn’t you do something that you love; you know, self care? Well, I would’ve normally been eager to, but remember all the things I love most - dancing, skating, running, hiking, biking were off limits per doctor's orders for my ACL recovery. And if I can’t have an outlet to beat the pavement (so to speak), I can’t really tap into my creative side either; ie. blogging, drawing, making jewelry. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains it well: if my psychological needs aren’t being met (and attacked even) how could I reach my creative side, or as he puts it, self fulfillment. And so the vicious cycle continued. Again, I was in survival mode. 

Here’s where the control came in. While I couldn’t control how long my ACL recovery lasted; and I couldn’t control classroom/COVID regulations; and I couldn’t control any other number of things going on in my personal and family life (whole other blog entry and story for another time), I could control what I ate, how much I ate, and when I ate. It was the one thing I felt I had control of.

It started with intermittent fasting, and it quickly turned to an obsession; this was the one thing amid my chaos I could control. I dropped 30 pounds in less than two months; and continued to drop weight. Most days I would go 17 hours or more not eating, and ultimately dropped about 40 pounds through this illness. I'm not proud to admit I became addicted to how much MORE I could lose. Inevitably comments started coming in from all ends: 

“Wow you’ve lost a lot of weight, you look great.” 

“Have you lost weight, you’re looking good.” 

“Geeze Barb, your whole frame has shrunk.” 

Then the other end of the comments came…

“Are you okay? You’ve lost a lot of weight really quickly.” 

“Barbara I’m really concerned about you, you look really thin; you need to stop.” 

“Barbara, don’t lose anymore weight, okay.” 

The latter end of these comments, I have to admit, had me silently in my head, saying: “oh you think I’m thin now, watch me drop more weight; see how you like that.” “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “I will be damned if someone else is going to tell me ‘no Barbara…’ When I look back on my mindset then, it’s fascinating how that sense of ego was so prevalent - but just behind my facade. All the while on the outside I was everything a well mannered woman should me: respectful, gracious, and thankful for their concern. But on the inside I was stubborn, I was strong willed, I was grasping for straws of that control I thought I had. The psychology of the situation still fascinates me. 

It wasn’t until chronic muscle and stomach cramps paired with lightheadedness led me to get some blood work done. Frantic calls from Kaiser the next morning told me I had critically low potassium levels, and could go into cardiac arrhythmia. For those unfamiliar, it’s heart failure; ie death. So I found my stubborn, strong willed ass in the hospital - hooked up to IVs to address the deficiency. Loads good that stubborn spirit got me. Pride is a powerful emotion, and in this case it was my demise and near death. Again, up until that point I hadn’t admitted I had a problem to anyone - silence truly is at the heart of eating disorders. With my eating disorder, a lot of it was presenting a front of 'everything is okay' as I was slowly killing myself. Gone were the days when I was just a happy 30 something year old who was running, dancing, hiking or skating, and suddenly I felt this inability to interact with people and to nourish myself. The irony is, the thing I thought I had control of, eventually took control of me.  

After being forced to take a hard look at myself I got myself set up with a therapist. And being no stranger to therapy, I honestly welcomed it. It’s been refreshing to talk to someone about my load, and to have someone both validate all that I’ve borne, but also hold a mirror up to me and my ego. It’s been both affirming and humbling to say the least. 

Months after my hospital visit and months into therapy, I wish I could say that I’m cured; that my urge for control is healed, but it’s not. It's funny, my best friend asked me after my hospitalization, "okay so you're gonna stop fasting altogether, right?" But that's just wasn't the case. With any illness, is it as simplistic as just shaking an etch-a-sketch like it never happened and stop cold turkey? More often than not the answer is no. 

And this likely goes without saying but body dysmorphia definitely played a role in my eating disorder. Any woman I know can understand the impossible beauty standards we’re held to, and constant attacks on any part of our body that’s not conventionally attractive also played into the equation for me. On my own account, after having open conversations with close friends and family, a friend mentioned she would love nothing more than to shove a cheeseburger down my throat because she was concerned with how thin I became. I, on the other hand, saw nothing but thick thighs and internally and immediately started self criticizing my body. Hell, even the models we see in magazines wish they could look like their own images. That’s textbook body dysmorphia for ya. 

However, I can say that I’m getting better. I don’t go days in a row fasting, and I certainly don't go as many hours at a time in between meals, and I don’t beat myself for indulging once in a while - especially this time of year. I listen to my body when it’s hungry; and when I’m hungry I eat, and when I know I’m satisfied I stop. One thing that’s helped me realign my mindset is looking at old pictures of myself when I wasn’t as thin, and recognize the beauty I still held. Make no mistake, prior to this eating disorder, I know I wasn't overweight, but I’d describe myself as filled out - curvy if you will. And so, in my journey of recovery, I find myself remembering that there’s nothing quite more attractive than strong confidence, ambition and a friendly smile. And I can look no further than the plenty of examples of women in Hollywood that exude that confidence in a size that’s not rail thin: Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Demi Lovato just to name a few. As cliche as it may sound, I find a shared sense of women empowerment in these examples of strong bold women. 


I wish I could say that was enough to cure me, but this like I’ve learned is an illness; a mental illness that requires daily practice. There is no magic cure, no making it all go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, a release of control, my mind that doesn’t distort a mirror; and even a mirror that doesn't matter anymore.

Because at the end of the day the size of my body has nothing to do with my worth as a person. Nothing in the least. Losing weight or maintaining weight is not my life’s work, and counting calories or meals or hours that I’ve fasted is not the call of my soul. I surely am destined for something far greater and profound. 

"She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful for the way she thought, for that sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loves. She was beautiful for her ability to make other people smile."

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Entertaining Angels

Disclaimer: I originally wrote this blog entry nearly 5 years ago, but somehow it was deleted. I tried to retrieve it, and did everything I could to somehow archive it. No dice and I was left with no such luck. Inevitably though, I’ve shared this encounter with different people over the years and every class of students I've taught, and every time I recall the events of that day in perfect clarity, and those who listen are always awestruck. So, I decided to rewrite this entry. Most of what originally was written was saved on a Word Document, but some of the nuances were edited when I transferred it to my blog document before posting. Enjoy the read.

Justin Schaefer 6/28/89 - 11/22/15

Captain’s Log: June 27th 2016

The time was around 6 o’clock in the morning, and the morning dew & fog still lay it’s presence over the mountain landscape that was just outside the tribal hunt I found myself in.  As I sat on a rickety wooden bench, between & across from fellow travelers from around the world, we clutched our instant coffee mugs and savored our bread with jam breakfast the locals served us that morning.  The air – even in the hut – was below freezing.  With my many winter layers & gloves on, I asked the person next to me to pass the butter, and I happened to glance down the long table from me & my heart stopped! 

“Justin?!” I thought…

After an abrupt thank you to the person next to me, I took the butter, & I immediately looked down.  After a few seconds, I looked up and down the table at the same young gentleman.  “What?” I thought skeptically. “No.” I repeated in my mind with uncertainty.  “He looks just…like…Justin.”  In this moment, my heart is beating as I stammer & stumble for my coffee on an uneven table with my bulky gloves half getting in the way of my breakfast. I take a third, fourth & fifth spy like glance at this clone look-alike stranger. 

It’s the summer of 2016 & the previous November my good friend from college – Justin – passed away very suddenly while on a morning run in Detroit.  At the age of 26 years old, & a young man who lived a very healthy, active and giving life, his cause of death remained a torturous mystery to many of us for quite some time.  It wasn’t until the following March, while visiting with Justin’s father –  Mike – that he shared the results of the autopsy; & I had some answers & a bit more closure.  But of course, closure doesn’t cure all grief, & grief is a slow and sometimes redundant process. 

So now months later, in the Andes of Peru, as I struggle not to stare, I bury my face in my coffee before taking another glance. I was in awe. In every way, this stranger had every physical characteristic of Justin. It was uncanny how identical this man looked like my late friend.  If I’m honest, the sight nearly brought me to tears. 

Color Run San Diego - Fall of 2012
In the moment of surreal shock, & reminiscent grief that was bubbling up, I turned away for some distraction & for a moment to gather myself.  My attention went to table conversations with the other travelers in my immediate table space to divert my attention from the end of the table that gave me those eerie goosebumps & floating curiosity. 

After breakfast, we were all ushered to huddle in front of a large map at the front of the hut as our local guides went through the logistics of how the hike to the top of Rainbow Mountain would go. I found myself glancing over to Justin’s doppelganger.  Geeze – I could not get over how this man looked just like my friend; same height; same build; same hair; same facial structure; same eyes & nose. As though Justin was risen from the dead & standing in the flesh right before my eyes. 

Once outside & after passing a herd of alpacas on the hilly & overcast landscape, the guides instructed us to lather the sunblock on, & take a swig of water.  After realizing I forgot my sunscreen at my hostel in Cusco, I noticed this mystery clone (who was just a few steps away from me) had some of what I needed.  After some hesitancy, I approach the man, & asked,

“Excuse me, do you have some sunblock to spare?” 

“Oh, of course!” As he hands me his bottle with a smile that was familiar to someone else I once knew.   We both comment on how cold we were, and how it was simply too early for this temperature. 

“I’m Barbara by the way.”

“Oh, my name is Michael.” 

“Where are you from Michael?”

“The Netherlands.  And yourself?”


“Oh, how nice, I’ve always wanted to go to California.  I hear the weather is great!”

Moments later we began our hike at an elevation of 14,000 feet. 

Talking to this stranger & being in his space had a comforting feeling. Besides his reminiscent appearance, maybe it was his calming & friendly voice.  And aside from the European accent, he had a similar cadence in his speech as Justin did & the manner in which he spoke was calm & kind. Again, in a way Justin spoke.  I cannot fully explain the peace that I felt being near this mysterious Michael from the Netherlands. As we journeyed through an undiscovered land of wild desert landscape, snow capped peaks, herds of alpacas, llamas, donkeys & horses, I took some comfort in walking along side Justin’s mysterious twin.  Come to find out this guy also had many other similarities to Justin outside the clone like similarities: the outdoors, his age, family background, & even his mannerisms were...just…like…Justin’s. 

Some moments later, our guide begins to give us a spoken dissertation on the rainbow-like landscape we were hiking to grab a glimpse of. And in guide-like fashion (& possibly like a geologist) he went into great detail. He talked about how the area has four major geological features: the Andean uplift formed by granite, the hanging glaciers and glacial erosional valleys, the Permian formation with its singular colors of red, ochre, blue, turquoise and the cretaceous. I couldn’t ignore the ‘coincidence’ at this moment. You see, Justin studied geology in his undergrad and graduate studies at Cal Berkeley. He would geek out on rocks & minerals, & go into great speeches in how incredible a rock was, & how it would always amaze him, & how his love for this science affirmed his faith & in God. A gemstone was often a token he gave his friends with an analogy of God behind it. 

I couldn’t help but say to myself: “Justin, this is right up your alley, the science behind how the rocks & minerals formed this colorful landscape painting.  I can absolutely see you and hear you geeking out over the geology of it all.” 

As we are continuing along the green pastures and valleys that are starting to change color – as if to indicate we were getting closer to this Dr. Seuss landscape, I began (in good faith) to speak to Justin in prayer; there were too many signs not to. 

“Justin, it’s almost like you are here with me – in physical form.  This guy is like your twin – I can’t make sense of it otherwise.  Your geological nerd side would totally love this hike Justin; the beauty of the changing landscape, the fresh cold air, the wild animals, the beauty of the locals.”  

After a long three hour trek we finally reached the top of Rainbow Mountain - throbbing thighs & all. As I stood at the peak of this storybook vision I took stock of this 360 view. Snow capped mountains on one side, & dry & colorfully layered mountain peaks on the other. The air was freezing, but my adrenaline & awe kept me from noticing. Like every other pilgrim of a traveler there I couldn’t help but snap every possible picture of this Rainbow Mountain. As I stood there shoulder to shoulder next to Michael staring & gazing, almost wanting to never leave, I said to him…

“You know Michael, I gotta tell you; you look just like a friend of mine.” 

“Oh really? You’ll have to show me a picture of this friend of yours.”

I didn't tell him this friend had recently passed. I decided it was unnecessary and likely too much information to share with a stranger. Instead we exchange phones for our individual Kodak moments. 

For the better part of the descent down the mountain, I hiked alone. I thought about Justin’s life & how much he meant to so many people - least of all me. I thought about the guilt & regret I held on to for months after losing touch with him after he moved to Detroit for a volunteer teacher program. A similar one that brought me to Philadelphia, & one I wrote a letter of recommendation for him. I thought about the conversations he had with me about teaching, & how my experiences were part of the decision that drew him to go from an office job to the classroom. I thought about how I rarely cared to follow up with him about his year & a half of teaching before his dying day came for him. While I know it’s an irrational thought, & I’ve come to peace with it, at the time I felt as though I had abandoned him in the thick of a first year teacher. 

But in this encounter, it was as if God & Justin were telling me that he was okay; that God was taking care of him up there in the great beyond; that I didn’t need to beat myself up; that Justin didn’t blame me for any of the preconceived notions I held against myself. For the first time, I felt peace that day over Justin’s death. 

And at the risk of sounding theological, the symbolism and parallelism of Rainbow Mountain, and the Rainbow after the Great Flood in the book of Genesis was hard to ignore - God’s promise to not destroy life. But a rainbow that suits Justin and his deep interest in geology, a rainbow that speaks of Justin’s life? It was all too coincidental. A modern day Bible story - kind of.

Sneaky picture of 'Michael'
Upon returning to Cusco after sunset that day, I piled out of a crowded 10 person van & stood on the cobblestone alley with Michael for a bit as we chatted one last time. We exchanged Facebook profiles, & I promptly proceeded to sit in a corner cafe & fervently  filled a few pages of my travel journal. 

Hold tight, story isn’t over. After returning to California some weeks later from my solo travels in South America, I met up with a mutual friend for dinner. I told her about this Justin’s look-alike encounter. She promptly asked to see this mystery man’s Facebook page that I was recently friends with. His profile was gone from my page - I couldn’t even look him up anymore. It was as if he didn’t exist. Was it real? Did I really meet this man or was it a figment of my imagination? Or was it something more divine that I could never truly understand? I vote the latter. 

Now months later, his death anniversary came up, & I made the decision to drive to his grave sight in San Diego, & pop in to visit his parents later that day. Upon arriving to Justin’s resting place I take some moments in prayer, & as if a jolt of lightning hit me, I notice something I hadn’t noticed before. It was his middle name that was etched in his headstone - Michael. My heart dropped and I broke out in tears of gratitude for Justin’s life, his friendship, and this gift of a divine encounter I was given.  

Now, I know some skeptics will have their comments on this encounter & somehow say it wasn’t divine. To that I say, anyone is free to believe me, or not. Yet, I know what I saw in this mysterious Michael, and I know what I felt in the core of me that day. Can I prove it? No. But I can't disprove it either. And believing something like this encounter is something of faith. Take it or leave it.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

What a Jagged Little Pill

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversations.” – Glenn Close

As I sat in on the doctors couch with a pile of tissues in my lap, the psychiatrist said without a shadow of a doubt: “Oh yeah, you have major depression.” 

Like a shock to the heart I said, “What?! Major depression??” as I wiped the tears from my cheeks. “Not mild or moderate, you’re saying I’m majorly fucked?!” Fantastic, I thought. (Insert deep sigh paired with a contemplative eye close)

It was mid February last year, and it wasn’t exactly how I pictured a psychiatrist telling me of my mental illness. Rather, I pictured something more gentle and sympathetic. Perhaps a classic sugarcoat delivery. Nope! I got a cold splash to the face complete with ice cubes - so to speak. 

As I took in the weight of the news, I sat on her couch with that pile of tissues, and I felt the weight of the news sink into my shoulders and chest. I wondered: 

How did I get here?

Where did I go wrong? 

How could I be so weak? 

And that was the operative word that resonated - weak. 

I proceeded after the appointment in a daze. 

Down the monochrome painted hall of the doctor's office - in a daze. 

Sitting in my car, in the parking structure, for God knows how long - in a daze. 

Driving down the freeway - in a daze. 

And the entire time I not so successfully held back tears from a crumbling facade as the news sunk in. 

The following month progressed with sharing the news with my inner circle: my principal, the administration team on campus, my mother and sister, along with my best friend, her husband, and a couple other close friends. Of this inner circle, I fondly remember a conversation I had with a former coworker I affectionately called my work dad shortly after my diagnosis. I told him the news with a face full of tears in the teacher supply room. 

“Miller, I just feel so defeated. I feel so weak. 

“Babzy, you are anything but weak. You felt something was off for a while, and you sought out help. You didn’t ignore it. You didn’t sweep it under the rug, or bury your face in the sand. You’re dealing with it. That’s strength if I ever saw it." 

After the initial shock subsided I proceeded with setting up a follow up appointment to look into antidepressants and a therapist. Aside from a medical standpoint, of facing down this depression opponent, I continued to armor myself with everything else that had kept my depression demons at bay: dance, the gym, boot camp, and friends and family gatherings. Normal life as I knew it. 

Then the last thing I could have fathomed happened - a pandemic hit and the world shut down. Imagine...a month after I received my diagnosis - we go on lockdown because of COVID-19. Suddenly, everything my mental health depended on to cope was taken and stripped away from me. My armor vanished. My 5am boot camp workouts with a community of people - gone! The usuals I’d see greeting me as I’d enter my local Chuze Fitness after a long day - gone! My Wednesday night hip hop class with my favorite dance instructor and the usual faces jamming energy with - gone! Being able to see friends and family for any litany of an occasion - gone! My students’ faces and our playful banter IN THE CLASSROOM - gone! The few folks at work I confided in over my depression - gone!

I thought to myself, pour yourself a glass of wine and buckle up! It’s about to turn into the Wild West up in here!  

And, as someone who doesn’t have someone to come home to at the end of a day, I faced a kind of isolation I never thought I’d face - I was truly alone. Just me and my depression. Let that sink in.

And don’t get it twisted, this isn’t some kind of pity party story. Believe me when I say, I like to think I’m a fairly strong woman, but battling this depression, coupled with the isolation from the pandemic, my demons have been having a full blown rave. They wreak havoc on me any old time of day - but their favorite time has got to be in the middle of the night when I lay awake trying to simply sleep.

I comically illustrated this to my best friend Ana as we sipped wine while watching our “This is Us” obsession. “Ana, I wake up, wide awake, at an ungodly hour and it’s like a party with me and all my demons. I’m like oh hey rejection, how ya doing? Abandonment, come on over and take a seat! Grief, it’s been a while, what’s new? Insecurity, I appreciate that reminder - I almost forgot that. Inadequacy, I appreciate that new insight. Loneliness, please tell me more. Oh, y’all are staying? You ain’t just popping in and out for a quick hello? Y’all gonna stick around a while? Oh, and ya won’t let me get some more sleep? Gee, that’s so sweet of y’all. Really fantastic. Gosh! 

This year I’ve battled more breakdowns than I care to admit. Breakdowns in the midst of loneliness; breakdowns in the midst of trying my damndest for my students in the midst of a pandemic; breakdowns amid breakups, heartbreak and disappointment; breakdowns from family triggers; breakdowns as I wrestle emotions surrounding an empty classroom and all the yellow tape that’s involved in bringing students back on campus. Believe me when I say the amount of regulations, yellow tape, work, planning, stress, and constant protocols takes away every joy out of teaching. 

And when I say breakdowns, I mean the kind that starts with a trigger, progresses with that deep dark spiral of thoughts, and ends in pure unadulterated rage of tears. The kind of rage that brings me to my knees as I fold to the ground overwhelmed by a gushing white water rapid of tears. Unapologetic ugly crying, and screaming, and slamming hands, and throwing; all the while as I’m emitting this chaos, I’m in a muffled vacuum - as if underwater. I barely hear any of the rage I’m spewing out in my unadulterated outbursts. Every time it’s happened this year, (like most things in this pandemic), I’ve been alone. No one there to catch me; nobody there to grab me and just hug me, tell me it’s going to be okay. In the wake of each of these breakdowns, I’m left sitting, face wet from my waterworks, and just numb, hardly able to think straight, or at all for that matter. Like being jumped, but instead of physical damage, it’s an emotional beating. It’s as if I’m in the music video for an Alanis Morissette song, and I can really connect to her lyrics: “you cry you learn, you lose you learn, you bleed you learn, you scream you learn.” And true to the song, “you wait to see when the smoke clears.” I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve had her playlist on repeat - often. 

When I tell someone from my inner circle about a recent breakdown they always ask: OMG, Barb I’m so sorry. Are you okay? Why didn’t you call me? 

My answer is always the same: “Sometimes it comes outta nowhere and it’s all consuming, and other times when I see it creeping in, it’s difficult to articulate myself when I’m just trying to keep it together before falling apart. That lump in my throat is hovering, & I know if I open my mouth it’ll be a mess, like a major spill on aisle 5 - so to speak. 

I recall one very controlled breakdown around this time last year as I sat in my principal's office speaking to him and the vice principal at the time. And when I say very controlled, it took everything I had to remain somewhat composed in an effort of professional tact. I came in to drop off some paperwork and he stopped me to ask about a kid who burned his hand on a hot glue gun from making their model missions, and the interrogation of questions that followed was enough to push me over the edge. And to be clear, I had a great working relationship with our principal at the time, but he was young and new in the position, and likely felt some heat from the parent, and so in turn he felt he needed to question me about it. This then turned into a conversation about a moment a week prior in which I asked a support staff to walk my class to Mass because I needed a minute before losing it, due to a repeated behavioral issue that happened between two boys in the hallway. Again, to be clear, I didn’t allow my students to see me like that, and I made sure they had a staff member with them. But, when my principal asked me about it, it was more in an interrogative manner, as a pose to a tone of care and concern for my well-being.

As I looked at him dead in the face with the most stone cold tone, “are you implying that I’m incompetent?” 

“No, no, no, I just want to make sure we have a point person who can take your class so they don’t see you like that.”

“They didn’t see me like that. I made sure there was a faculty member with them. And I followed up with disciplinary measures after. I did my due diligence.” 

(Insert nervous backpedaling statement about supervision and a not so sensitive statement about my mental health)

With a deep sigh and pressed lips before saying, “You know Josh, this “incident” happened almost a week ago, I handled it with professionalism. I removed myself, but still made sure they had an adult with them, AND I took disciplinary actions with the boys in question. But since then, you didn’t follow up with me once about it; you didn’t ask me how I was doing; if I was okay; or how I was feeling since my “moment.” But now, NOW, you want to bring it up; and NOT from a sympathetic standpoint, but from a logistical standpoint. You know Josh, you were one of the first people who supported me in getting assessed, and one of the first people I told about my depression diagnosis, and you received it with care and encouragement. So you of all people, to speak to me in this feels as if you could really care less about me as a person and one of your teachers. As long as the logistics are covered, fuck my feelings right?” 

I rendered the man speechless and dare I say a tear welling up on his bloodshot face. I had never seen that look on his face before. We ended the conversation with a sincere apology from him, and him acknowledging his misstep; I expressed my gratitude for his apology, before we ended in a hug of reconciliation. 

A year under my belt of this official diagnosis I can confidently say I’m definitely not out of the woods, but the shame I initially felt a year ago has since passed, and I’d even go as far to say I have a bit of a sense of humor about my mental health (hopefully that was evident in this entry). In my experience of my battle with depression, I can relate to the words of Elizabeth Wurtzel, “The thing about depression is that a human being can survive almost anything, as long as they see the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.” Or like the song lyrics of Natalie Imbruglia “it’s as if running out of faith, feeling cold and ashamed.” 

Speaking honestly and candidly, I’ve been on my knees in tearful prayer, weeping to a God I wonder: is He even listening? Like his Son on the cross screaming why He’s abandoned Him. And after I say some explicit, choice, angry words to God I get some reprieve in some way or another. Make no mistake - it’s crumbs of reprieve. It’s as if I know what the Israelites felt when they’d get just enough mana in the dessert after they escaped Pharaoh. But as I was recently teaching my students about the Theological virtues, I was reminded how hope gives my pain meaning.  That hope in some ways has been restored. I may not be able to go to hip hop classes comfortably yet, but I sure can try out roller skating. You certainly won’t find me in a gym yet, but you sure as hell will find me running or hiking. I might not be able to go to social gatherings with friends and family yet, but ask me how my new found interest in cooking is going. And in my pain and brokenness, I’ve become ever more grateful for empathy, patience, kindness and humor of those around me - as it really does lighten this load. The adage is true: be kind always, because you never know what inner battle someone is fighting. 

At the risk of quoting a cheesy chick flick, Prince Eddie from The Prince and Me said it well: “and while our sorrow may be profound, the clouds will clear and the sun will shine on us again.” I can assure you, I will savor the warmth of that sunlight when it shines on me again. Because these clouds have and will continue to foster more empathy and sympathy for others in my life; it makes me appreciative of goodness and generosity; it teaches me to love harder and not take love for granted. Because the truth is, once you’ve been in the dark, you learn to appreciate everything that shines, and life’s nectar is just a little sweeter. 

“It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling—that really hollowed-out feeling.” —J.K. Rowling

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Aspiring Class Clown Gone Wrong

There are few moments as a teacher that really take me off guard. As an 11 year veteran teacher, I pride myself with thinking on the fly when it comes to any number of absurd situations. Let it be known that when I am truly taken aback, and haven’t the foggiest clue to do, I delay, I stall, and I make them all think it’s a silent storm about to hit. What they don’t realize is, I am frantically and mentally scrambling for a plan of action to prove that I am still in control. 

One of these situations happened in the spring of my first year teaching 4th grade - back in the spring of 2018. We were in the middle of our novel read aloud. Now, I should pause and give some background. 

I use a classroom management technique known as “pace reading.”  It’s a technique that’s helpful for kids who find it hard to sit still and focus while reading literature or novels. Basically how it works is you have a handful of kids at a time pick a spot in the classroom to pace back and forth as they read. And since this isn’t my first rodeo, and as any good teacher knows, you preface it with all the caveats: “alright kiddos, make sure you’re not going to inadvertently run into anyone or anything; and if I see any of you not take it seriously (insert the classic teacher look), or ‘fake’ reading, then you best believe I will tell you to sit down.” As every other page was completed I’d invite a new group of kids to “pace read” while I asked the previous group to take a seat. They loved this technique; and to be honest I do to. day, a kid took it to a level I never thought a kid would ever take it to. 

All is well in my 4th grade classroom. I’m leaning up against my table in the front of the classroom, as I’m reading aloud to the class, and all is calm on the western front as I hear the soft shuffle of feet from those kids pace reading. This sacred peace is ravaged when all of a sudden GUSHHHHH, SWISHHHH, PLOP! My head immediately turns right to the sound, and I find one of my boys...butt the trash can...with his limbs dangling up and outwards, and the biggest grin on his face. 

Cue the unanimous giggles and chuckles from the rest of the class. 

This is where I went to silent stoic mode, and I simply closed my book, set it on the table behind me, crossed my arms and gave this kid the most subtle, silent and stoic glare. This changed the kid’s tune on a dime, as he felt the heat from my dagger eyes. He stumbled and stammered out of the trash can, and back to his desk, and the giggles and chuckles from the peanut gallery went silent for fear of what was about to go down - we’re talking hands over mouths and wide eyed. With his hands folded perfectly at his desk, and red in the face from my glare, this culprit of a boy proceeded with a shaky voice: “I’m very sorry Ms. Quigley.” 

I opened my mouth while maintaining my stance, glare and demeanor. 

“Arron, I’m just going to point out the obvious, you fell in the trash can. Let me reiterate this to you. You...a 10 year old...fell in the trash can. Now you can naturally understand my curiosity for how in the world this happened. Why Aaron, how Aaron could you have landed…the...garbage? But you know what buddy? I‘ve come up with three possible reasons as to how this could have happened. Now Arron, in true school form, as I list off these possible reasons, please by all means think of this as a multiple choice question, to which I expect an answer from you, given the options I give you. Alright? 

Option A: You wanted to be funny and impress your classmates with what a jokester you can be, so you thought what a better laugh than this? You know, get a little pat on the back after school with “good one Aaron.” And a high five to boot. 

Option B: You just plain don’t know why you could have done such a thing; you literally have no conceivable reason why you would do such a thing. You’re thinking, Ms. Quigley, I truly and honestly don’t know how or why…”

Option C: It was an accident, just whoops! But, hey, you know something, before you answer, I’ll do you one better Arron. I’ll help you out on this multiple choice question by eliminating one of the options: It wasn’t an accident. You know why Arron? Because, the trash can is against the wall and pinned in between the bookshelf and the cabinet. And using that logic, even if you happened tripped on the side of the trash can, there’s no physics that could turn your body a full 90 degrees that you’d land butt first in the garbage can. So, no, Aaron, it wasn’t an accident. So what’s your answer buddy?” 

I’m still daggers for eyes, the peanut gallery of the rest of the class is holding their breath in anticipation and silent amusement, and the kid on trial is about to die a death of public humiliation that’s written all over his face. 

“I don’t know why Ms. Quigley.” 

“Well, honey, I hope it was worth it, because the cost is going to hurt, it’s gonna hurt real bad.”

The rest of the class is holding their breath at a stand still waiting for the mic to drop. 

As I turn back to the defendant, I say, “Aaron, mom or dad?” 

His eyes widen with fear, and the rest of the class does a resounding gasp. 

As he delays, and ponders for a moment before answering: “Dad.”

“Okay, great, so we’re calling mom.” 


Arron drops his head in his arms on his desk. 

I take my gaze to the two girls in the back of the classroom and ask them to grab my iPad and cell phone. As I look through the school's online system under student contact information, I find his mothers contact number and dial it on the spot. 

It rings to voicemail. “Oh, Arron, you lucked out, I got her voicemail (he inhales hope) but don’t worry, I’ll leave a message.” (He exhales dispare). 

“Yes, hi Miss. ___________ this is Ms. Quigley calling from OLPH school. I wanted to call and touch base with you about Arron’s behavior in class today. We were in the middle of our ELA lesson, and we were reading our novel, when he decided to find himself buttock first in the trash can. He claims he just doesn’t know why he’d do such a thing. And you can image how disruptive and distracting this incident was to todays class. So if you could have a sit down chat with him about body spacial  awareness and appropriate behavior in class that’d be much appreciated. And of course if you have any questions feel free to give me a call back at the school. Thank you.” 

As I end the call the class unanimously are jaws dropped and eyes wide, as Arron is sitting in shame likely wanting to crawl under a rock. 

I will reiterate, I haven’t the foggiest clue to do, I delayed, I stalled, and I make them all think a silent storm was about to hit. They were none the wiser. Moral of the story? Fake it till you make it. And don’t EVER cross me in the classroom kids; I will have no hesitation in putting you on trial for all to see.