3 Years

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This is what three years in jail looks like. 

January always marks another year. Another year that my dad has been in jail. Another year that I haven’t seen him.

I wanted to write about this for many reasons. First and foremost, I posted something similar a year ago, and a lot has changed since then.

Secondly, I just think sharing this kind of information is really important. I have an internal debate about this a lot though. On the one hand, I often worry that this type of experience (for lack of a better word??) isn’t relatable enough to the people most likely to read my blog. I worry that no one will care because no one (that I directly know) has been through something similar. But on the flip side, I also feel that this type of content is worth sharing even more than some of the other things I write about because it’s uncommon. I fear that, to an extent, I’m doing a disservice to myself (and others) for not making this all more commonly known.

Most often, I cling to that fear of not being relatable to avoid a bigger issue. In reality, this shit is just hard to put words to. I’ll preface the rest of this post with that. Even though it has been three years, I still have so many contradictory, confusing, and often inexpressible emotions tied to all this. I’m going to attempt to not let that deter me from sharing though.

When you look at the statistics, about 5 million children in America have parents that are (or were previously) behind bars. That’s about 1 in every 14 kids, or 7%. 

Less than 1% of white children have incarcerated parents though. 

My dad has been in jail for almost three years.

**To give a brief background for those of you who are unaware. My dad was arrested in January of 2015. I was living in Arlington, VA at the time. I haven’t seen him in person since Christmas of 2014. I just recently started talking to him on the phone this year. Over the past three years, he has been transferred between multiple facilities in multiple different states (PA, NY, CT). The details of his arrest are vague to me, partly because I don’t want to be involved, and partly because the justice system is extremely confusing and the process takes an extremely long time. From what I know, my dad was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. I also know that, as of now, he is attempting to appeal this for a shorter sentence. **

Each time I try to put words to paper about this, a few things always come to mind:

  1. I often compartmentalize this part of my life which makes vocalizing my experience complicated
  2. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the flaws within the current justice system and accepting the fact that I can’t comprehend how to fix it
  3. My relationship with my dad was very complicated prior to his arrest, which complicates the situation further
  4. There are people out there like me, even though according to the numbers I am part of the <1%
  5. My feelings and experiences are not entirely negative
  6. Incarceration is a loss too, but it’s not final and as a family member you can choose what that means to you over time

Along with that, when I think about my dad, I usually feel overwhelmed with a complex layer of simultaneous emotions. I always, without fail, feel anger, stress, guilt, loss, relief, shame, love, admiration, nostalgia, bitterness, and confusion altogether, every time.

I think that is what often makes me want to refrain from sharing this experience with others, in this way at least. Because my relationship with my dad is so complex, this isn’t just about having an incarcerated parent, it’s about having a parent with mental health struggles too, and how those experiences overlap.

So the way I have coped and the things I have learned are, in a sense, two-fold. Even though most people may not be able to relate to the situation directly, hopefully, what I have to share can possibly be beneficial to others in some way or another.

Part One: Incarceration

To start, I’ve learned to understand that incarceration is a loss, and with that comes grieving. There shouldn’t be shame in that. But there will be. Because the person you’ve lost is still physically there.

It’s not a death, but that’s the closest thing most people will compare it to. That’s the only way most people, who have never dealt with incarceration before, can possibly wrap their brains around the experience and the feelings tied to it.

Unlike a death, people will forget the anniversary. YOU will forget the exact anniversary sometimes. To complicate things, neither you nor your friends will usually know how to talk about it.

You also won’t spend time memorializing the person, not only because they’re not truly gone, but because your loss will always have lingering bitterness and confusion.

Also unlike a death though, you and the person you’ve “lost” will potentially have room to progress together. Your dynamic may change and your relationship may grow. It takes time though, just because you’re not ready at first, doesn’t mean you never will be.

First, you need to process the events surrounding their arrest. Regardless of the situation, I believe one thing will hold true, you will come to learn that no single person is all good or all bad. You will come to see that sometimes you can still love someone, even when they’ve done wrong.

As is true for most things though, the progress you make (both individually and within your relationship together) will never be linear. You will continuously feel like you’re taking 3 steps forward just to take 2 back. That part will never stop, but over time you will accept it as routine.

You will always, always, always be filled with mixed emotions. There is nothing wrong with that. There is no handbook to teach you how to appropriately cope. Even though there are literally 5 million other people out there that can potentially relate to you, you will still feel alone.

Sometimes you will feel helpless that someone you know is suffering, alone, behind bars. You will feel shame and stigma associated with the concept of incarceration as a whole. You will feel guilty that you couldn’t help “fix” them when you still had the chance. You will miss them, even when you think you don’t.

Part Two: Mental Health

In my case, to some extent, I feel a lot of relief regarding my dad’s arrest too. If it wasn’t for his arrest, I don’t think I would ever feel so free from the responsibilities of constantly worrying about his well-being.

With that comes guilt too though. Guilt that I’m finally, in some ways, using this space as a chance to be selfish. Every letter and every phone call is another reminder that I have separated myself from someone who needs me.

My dad, from what I know, struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, and Anxiety. As I think I’ve shared before, in a lot of respects, when my parents split up when I was 18, I became the person my dad turned to.

Until my dad was arrested, I spent almost every day helping to manage his problems that I couldn’t fix and emotions that I couldn’t bear. I did so partly out of love, partly out of fear, partly out of a false hope that I could really “fix” him someday, and partly out of a desire to avoid my own problems.

One of the best things to come out of my dad’s incarceration has been the realization that, at the end of the day, I can’t be responsible for anyone but myself.

In general, sometimes I also feel embarrassed. Sometimes I feel so unbearably alone. Sometimes I feel like all anyone can think about when they look at me is my father. And sometimes I think everyone forgets completely.

I’ve learned a lot this past year though. In many respects, my dad’s arrest has shined a light on all of his mistakes for me. It has given me an opportunity to see what he struggles with, avoid running into similar situations, and live my life completely differently as a result.

From this, I’ve learned that there is no shame in being yourself. In fact, the things you tend to be most ashamed of are the things that you should wear with the most pride. I’ve learned that people will accept you if you accept yourself, and if you wear your experiences confidently, people will often have respect for you rather than judgment.

I’ve also learned to let go of fear. It’s so easy to be afraid of what you have yet to try. I spent over two years telling myself I didn’t want to “live my life in fear like my father”, yet never truly followed through until recently.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t actually hurt that much to be disliked for being yourself. It hurts so much more to constantly try morphing yourself into the person you think people want you to be.

I couldn’t be more comfortable with who I am and what I like than I have been this past year. I am so proud to say that the things that kept my dad living in shame, like his mental health and sexuality, are some of the things that I am most proud to be open and honest about in my own life.

As selfish as it sounds, I can confidently say I would have never gotten to this place if my dad hadn’t been arrested.

Like I mentioned though, it isn’t always easy. It’s usually like sailing into uncharted territory with no sense of direction and no compass to show you the way. Most of the time I’m just guessing and hoping I make some sort of progress as a result.

I don’t have all the answers, in fact, I literally have none, but I hope, to some extent, my lack of knowledge is helpful too.

I think what’s most important to remember is that even the most confusing and seemingly negative experiences can have positive outcomes. And just because you don’t have it all figured out, doesn’t mean you aren’t dealing with your experiences correctly.

Take things one step at a time. Don’t forget to look back at where you started, and remind yourself of how far you’ve come. Be proud of who you are, and the factors that have helped to make you that way. And remember that everyone else is going through their own unique experiences too. Have patience, approach others with acceptance, and be understanding. We’re all just figuring it out as we go along. AMIRITE?

Happy 2018!!!!!!!! BE U AND LUV URSELF

(If you have any interest in reading the similar post I wrote last year, click here)

Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – Kathleen Pt. 2

 Today’s piece is the second half of Kathleen’s story. Here she shares her experiences with recovery and self-love.  If you have not yet read part one, I highly encourage you to first start there. 

I know I said it before, but Kathleen’s words are so raw, and because of that, so important. 

The nature of blogging is supposed to be concise, yes, but I think it’s extremely difficult to wholeheartedly share a story of struggle and recovery in such a short format. Each word that Kathleen writes has so much meaning, and because of that, I felt so compelled to share it, length and all.

I think one point I really want to stress though, is that suicidal thoughts are so far from a one-size-fits-all type of “problem”. Kathleen’s struggle developed in conjunction with her eating disorder. This is not always the case. The more we open up to share each of our unique experiences, the more others struggling will begin to realize that they are not alone. Although each of our feelings are uniquely ours, we are all in this together. 

Without further ado, here is pt. 2: 

My “final recovery process,” lasted just over two years. There are so many things I want to share about those two years. So many life-changing moments. Moments of lucidity and transformations that ultimately resulted in me finally fully healing from suicidal thoughts and the eating disorder. I hope that by sharing a few of these moments I will be able to help someone else find hope, restoration, and a path to become fully-healed.

First of all –I came to realize that there was an urgent need to stop thinking the way that I had been thinking.  This was no easy feat, as many of you reading may know.  It is also especially difficult when you are malnourished, drinking to numb the pain, and when you have felt, for 18 years, that the earth would be better off without you.

But in meeting Kitty and the George’s, I realized that suicide and eating disorders kill people at an alarming rate, often times without warning or intent.  On June 13, 2002, I also realized that suicide was real, it wasn’t enigmatic, it was final –and it leaves behind a pain that is indescribable.  In order to stop considering suicide, I had to tell myself over and over again, “Suicide is NOT AN OPTION.”  I told myself that for months and months on end.  There were many dark moments during my final recovery process, but it was too dangerous to allow suicide to even be a consideration.  No matter how hard things became, and no matter how truly dark, empty and desolate my whole life felt, I had to continuously tell myself, “Suicide is NOT an option.”

Thankfully, I was very, very blessed to have my dog Gretz by my side to help me in these darkest hours.  His fur soaked up more tears than I knew were possible to cry.  During this time, he never left my side. Sometimes he was even the ‘only reason’ I felt life was worth living.

Secondly, I came to realize that there was much more left to heal beyond my suicidal thoughts–I also had to truly nourish myself.  Before skipping lunch for the first time, I had never felt suicidal.  It was stunning how quickly the under-eating and purging changed my ability to handle my feelings in a rational way. They drastically impacted my mood. My body didn’t have the nourishment it needed to help balance my emotions. And although, yes I had been very sad about my appearance in the past, I had never considered suicide–not until my brain was malnourished.

Think about it this way: imagine if you decided to stop feeding a baby.  How would that baby react?  Would it be content, joyful, and able to self-soothe?  No, not at all! It is nearly impossible to feel happy, self-soothing, rational or stable when you are not well-nourished.

Third –I finally gave myself permission to take recovery seriously. This was not my first attempt at healing. In fact, by this point, I knew my family was extremely tired of my constant cycles in and out of poor semblances of recovery. Taking recovery seriously this time was very bold and new for me.  This piece of my healing meant that, even though I still battled constantly with feeling desperately unworthy of living, I still managed to put myself first.

Somehow, this time, I found a way to start recovering just for the sake of recovering.  In my previous attempts, I always had a reason that I needed the quick fix. Whether it was because I wanted to go back to school, or because I wanted to make my parents happy, there was always something I felt like I needed to accomplish. The flaw in those attempts though, was that I ignored the fact that I hadn’t yet found myself worthy enough of actually healing. I just wanted a problem to go away so I could live “normally” again.

I had to finally get comfortable with putting aside my idea of my “life’s timeline” (ie: get my Ph.D. b the time I was 33, get married before 35) and I had to make healing my number one priority. No matter how long it took, I gave myself the permission to heal WITHOUT FEELING GUILTY ABOUT IT.  I gave myself the same permission we afford people who have visible, physical illnesses –we do not expect people with cancer, for example, to feel guilty about the time and treatment they need in order to heal. Why should this be any different? This mindset allowed me to accept that working on healing was a worthy pursuit.

Fourth –I now believe that part of the reason I suffered for so long is due to the commonly repeated misconception that “no one can ever fully recover from an eating disorder”. After meeting the George’s and Kitty, I realized it was just not an option to let that statement be true. I had to come to understand how wrong it was that therapists often told me to “learn to accept that I would always dislike parts of my body” and that “there would always be days when I felt fat.”  After seeing what the eating disorders had done to Kitty and the George’s lives, I felt compelled to want more from life than how I had been living.  I could not accept mediocrity, knowing the pain the George’s and Kitty were living with. I vowed to never use the word “recovered” unless it was fully and completely true.

I started with baby steps. The first baby step was just to allow my brain and self to get used to the concept that I could, one day, actually, love my body. I then began to dream that recovered, in all ways, existed. I started to consider that fully healing was possible. I had to learn to cling to, and believe in, hope. Hope became an enigmatically powerful force in my healing process. A Song About Hope

Fifth –I got pissed off.  By getting pissed off, I got motivated.  I got pissed that people had told me I wasn’t capable of recovery. Whose right was it to tell me what was or was not possible in my life, my brain and my body?!  I got pissed off at the professionals that had set limitations on me, which propelled me to fully and honestly heal every single nook and cranny of what led to me to consider suicide.

Then, I also began to examine what “body image” meant to me. My body image had become society’s view of me rather than my view of me.  That epiphany compelled me.  It compelled me to start believing that I deserved a co-existence with and within my body. Slowly, I began to form my very own body image. It took nearly two years for of self-talk, a lot of positive post-it notes on my mirror, a lot of time spent without looking in a mirror at all, a lot of simply ignoring my brain when it said something negative…and a lot of talking to myself in ‘dog voice.’

Yep, I started looking in the mirror and talking to myself like I talked to my dog:  “Aren’t you just the cutest!  Oh, I just want to smoosh that face with kisses.  You are the best human ever!  I love you so much!” –I realize that might sound silly, but, it really did help.

You see, my dog Gretz never compared himself with the dog next door.  When he went outside, he didn’t check to make sure every piece of fur was in place. He didn’t think he was any less than other English Setters who had more fur and more spots.  He didn’t base his self-worth on how much kibble he ate the day before and he most certainly didn’t want to go “o-u-t-s-i-d-e for a w-a-l-k” because he thought his butt was too big.

People loved him and thought he was absolutely adorable.  People thought he had just the right amount of spots.  Perhaps most importantly, people, and Gretz himself, thought he was worthy of unconditional love because of who he was, broken tail and all.  Gretz taught me that a mirror is not an enemy nor does it hold any power over me.

The reflection I see in the mirror now is very surreal.  When/if I pause for a moment to look at myself, I see a reflection of life and happiness and peace.  I no longer see my body in pieces or my face as ugly.

I believe that everyone deserves to realize the truth that Gretz taught me: It is a given you ARE beautiful, because you are alive. Simple as that.  (Gretz’ story: https://youtu.be/mDKIdrSg5jk)

*

Oftentimes I am asked, “How do you know that you’ll never go back, I mean can you really say you’re recovered?” or, “Do you ever have urges, think you’re fat, or ever think of suicide?”

My answer to those questions is this: I spent many years chasing after the enigmatic word “recovery.”  Now healed, I can see that during all those years of chasing recovery, I was actually just chasing after a whole and healthy brain and a spiritual peace, two things that the eating and body image disorders had convinced me were not possible.

After a year of doing nothing but focusing on healing, I had made many strides in my healing process. Regardless, there were many days on which I had to talk myself into feeling happy. In many ways, I was still dealing with the feeling that I was about 18 years ‘behind’ in life.  Cognitively, I was able to tell myself to “choose happy thoughts and embrace a unique path,” but that didn’t automatically mean that happiness was visceral.

One day, two friends of mine, Joe and Chas, recommended I go talk to a Priest. I had long before stopped going to church. At one of my darkest points, I had even started to believe that God created me to die from suicide.  But Joe and Chas somehow convinced me anyway. I remember on that day, the Priest said, “Well, tell me what’s on your heart.”  In that moment, I bared my soul and said, “Now healed from so much, I still feel lonely because, while I was focused on healing, I didn’t form any friendships.”  I remember the Priest genuinely suggested, “Pray for friends.”  Seriously?  That’s it?  Pray for friends?  Wow, what a wasted hour of my life, I thought.

I left his office certain that nothing would be different. As I walked to my car I fought back tears thinking, “Great, I have my health and my brain back, but I still have no friends –thanks, Priest.”

As I got on the road to face the mess of traffic, I began to take a scornful look at the long stretch of cars ahead, I saw something.

I saw the sky.

And the sky was blue.

The sky was a bright blue with big fluffy white clouds. Nearly fifteen years later, I still remember it so clearly to this day.

The miracle in this?  I realized that I had been so entrenched in depression and an eating disorder, that for 18 years I hadn’t even noticed the color of the sky.  I had been living my life under a sky of gray, believing that was all I could have and all that I deserved.

But on that day of seeing the blue sky I remember thinking, “Anna doesn’t even get to see the sky anymore…”  In that very simple moment, something clicked: I realized that my negative thoughts about life had held me bound in such a negative cycle for so long, and they needed to be resolved.

On the way home, I stopped at one of my favorite book stores in Ann Arbor, Michigan and picked up what would be a book that changed my life: Peace Is Every  Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh.  From there forward, I have felt happiness and I have seen the blue sky, no matter how cloudy the day.

Since then, I have been tested time and again by life challenges, some greater than I ever could have imagined.  But nothing life brings my way has or will ever drive me to consider suicide an option again. Nothing has or will ever trigger the return of an eating disorder. God, nourishment, spirit, my friends and family, Gretz and I transformed my brain, thoughts, soul, and body. I firmly know that Life is meant to be lived, and enjoyed, in health and peace and with humble respect for who I am, broken nose and all.

And, since I have healed, life really has come full circle.  I went on to be the Education and Prevention Coordinator of the Gail R. Schoenbach F.R.E.E.D. Foundation where I developed the College Speaking Tour –speaking out about eating and body image disorders and suicide.  I became Policy Director of the Eating Disorders Coalition and through this, I was able to address BMI report cards through the CDC. I also have the humble privilege of speaking every year at Leslie George’s Memorial at James Madison University and her sorority is now my sorority; I became a Tri Sigma in 2014.

At present, I am a Health Insurance Advocate at the only law firm in the country, Kantor & Kantor, LLP that has a dedicated eating disorder practice. There, I write appeals on behalf of patients and families when they are denied treatment (we also handle much more than eating disorders).  I feel so blessed to have a circle of trusted friends and colleagues. My family and I are close again, I have repaired my finances and my spiritual health, and I know that one day I will achieve my educational goals.

I also became an Aunt to the most amazingly sweet, kind and perfect nephew  who has never known me as “Aunt Kathy with an eating disorder.” He has only known me as “Aunt Kathy.”

I have been a ‘mom’ to seven English Setter rescues. I am a hospice volunteer. I sit on the Educational Committee for the MT American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I am a healthy runner, an artist, a mentor and…Life is full.

Life is not always easy, but it is wonderful and I am so blessed to say that, since I traversed those two long and restorative years of healing, nothing life has thrown me has made my mind default to thoughts of suicide again. I will never ever be thankful for the times I was suicidal and suffered the eating disorder, but I will always be thankful for the healing process that resulted.

I deeply hope that by sharing these experiences I can help others to see that the gift of life without suicidal thoughts is yours to behold. I hope I can help others to believe that you can undo years of damage. You can work hard at your healing towards whatever is healthy for you. You can embrace your unique body and self. You can begin speaking to yourself in a language of self-love, not of self-deprecation. You can decide to begin the process of living again.

There is hope and there is freedom and there is also no shame in suffering or recovering.  May you go forward from reading this to find…your blue sky.  

**Special thanks to Alex for her blog and for her seriously-amazing patience.  Thank you to the George’s and Tri Sigma for keeping Leslie’s legacy alive through the Speak Out.  Thank you to Kitty for sharing Anna with us.  And to all those who have lost a loved one to suicide, depression or an eating disorder, my deepest and most sincere sympathy.  If you need help: American Foundation For Suicide Prevention **

Also, if you would like to see how Kathleen and the Leslie George Speak Out have impacted some members of the Tri Sigma sorority at JMU, check out this video I made a couple years back: https://vimeo.com/136264045