On a recent blog entry, someone finished their comment with, “See you next month!” I had to think about that for a minute. Did someone think I wrote monthly blogs? Then it hit me. It’s October. Next month is November. The anniversary of Michaela’s kidnapping.
Can I tell you how much I don’t want to be the mother of a missing child anymore? Of course, I never did, but as time goes by it seems to become an ever heavier burden to bear. I was talking to a friend recently, whose 17-year old daughter died in a car accident some years ago. “They say it gets better,” she said, “but it doesn’t.” I so much agree.
I have read an article about how grief lessens over time, because it comes to take up less space in us as so many other things fill and expand the space. Or something like that. But what the article fails to take into account is that some griefs — not all, by any means — but some griefs are what I would call sticky griefs. They sit in our hearts, and every single new grief, large and small, goes right to that spot and sticks there. Rather than diminishing, it grows ever bigger. It accumulates so much, sometimes we don’t even recognize it for what it is, but it is there. And it hurts.
I have been struggling lately, having an emotional breakdown of sorts. I have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and PTSD. I take meds. But meds don’t get rid of life. There have been a lot of things floating around in my little world that could explain the grief and anxiety I have been experiencing. My little dog is still hanging onto life. I woke up one day this week to a plaintive little whine, and discovered him completely limp, and wet because he had peed on himself. I picked him up and held him, and I was absolutely sure it was goodbye. He lay limp in my arms for the longest time, as I cleaned him with baby wipes and talked to him. But then he came around, asked to be put down, got a drink, went outside to pee again, and spent the rest of the day fairly gobbling down food. I came to the conclusion he’d had a seizure, which was comforting actually. I could understand that. He’d had perhaps three or four seizures in his life. I have had seizures for 45 years myself. In fact, I had one exactly like what Spike had experienced just last year.
And other things as well. I spend too much time on social media and too much time watching 24-hour news stations. How could I not suffer from anxiety? Not to mention just plain anger at the state the world is in, and the people who don’t care. I have deleted at least one social media network, and about a third of my friends in the last week. I just needed some peace.
I have approached the changing of seasons with some apprehension, because last winter I experienced the deepest depression of my life. I fell into passive suicidal ideation, where you are not going to kill yourself but are not particularly attached to being here. When spring came, there was sun and there was water, and my mood immediately started to pick up. So of course I thought, Seasonal Affective Disorder. And it could be. But I think perhaps it is as much due to all the events of fall and winter.
There have been a number of times I have tried to ignore the anniversary of Michaela’s kidnapped. I have carried on as usual, gone to work if I had a job, done normal things if I didn’t. But while I may try to ignore the anniversary, it never ever ignores me. Those times I have attempted to pretend it isn’t there, I have ended up paying, usually by getting sick, sometimes very very sick. I remember one year I was working a new job and I went to work. Within a week I had to take time off work due to illness, which included infections in both eyes that were so bad I had green goop running down my face. You don’t want to look at your pain, Sharon? Then you won’t be able to see at all.
Then in December, Christmas. In January, Michela’s birthday. All of those seasons colored by that one season, which was spent in the deepest depths of grief, fear, anxiety, of having a just-missing child, that time when the questions of where she is now and what is she enduring and why can’t they find her were immediate. That season of standing in the doorway watching to catch a glimpse of her little blonde head bobbing toward home, because maybe the kidnapper had dropped her off in response to our pleas. “I don’t care about you,” I had told him through the TV cameras. “I just want my daughter back. Just drop her off and go away.” In the same way the advent of Spring might carry you back to past Springs, or catching a scent will take you to other times in your life, there seems to be an autonomic response in my brain that says, this is the time when it hurts.
There are barriers my heart has constructed around this event. Sometimes it only resumes its full horror when I look into the eyes of a child who is safe, and think how I would give my own life to protect them from harm or hurt. It would be so much easier to do that than endure the pain of them having to endure pain. And then I slip right back to that time when the innocent child’s face I would die to save was Michaela.
Oh, and it was in this season that I was diagnosed with breast cancer: mammogram in October, followed by second mammo, then ultrasound, then MRI, and finally in January a mastectomy which showed the cancer had spread to every single one of the eleven lymph nodes they had tested. Minor thing to remember, right? But there it is. It’s three years later now. I have been cancer free for two years, but because it was Stage 3C when they found it, I am still being treated with drugs that cause a number of side effects, including bone pain that wakes me at night. I still have to have a mammogram every October. I still have to have blood work done every three months, with occasional scans and ex rays, because what might ordinarily be allowed time to see how it goes needs to be checked to make sure it is not random cancer cells multiplying somewhere in my body. Upon completion of chemo and radiation, my oncologist wanted me to keep my chemo port for at least a year. “We don’t know when your cancer will come back.” Those were his words. While I don’t know if he meant it that way, it has haunted me, that he used the word when rather than if.
In addition to depression, I have anxiety. Since Michaela’s kidnapping, I have often reminded myself that I have survived the worst that could happen, and I am still alive. I have thought that I would be stronger and braver, having endured the worst thing. And sometimes it has helped. But the longer I live … well, once “the other shoe” has dropped once, twice, a really huge number of times, big shoes and little shoes, well, there is a feeling of living in fear of just what shoe could drop next. I can spin stories about it in my mind.
Anxiety is like a hamster wheel in your head. It turns and turns and turns without your volition or attention. And it squeaks. Each little squeak is a “what if” or an “if only.” You don’t even have to hear the words. The squeaks just run in the background reminding you. One thing I know is I keep fearing that I have missed something somewhere. I was sorting out my medications, and I kept noticing that the bottle caps, where I write the date I received them, almost invariably indicated that I should have finished that particular bottle months ago. How is it that I didn’t? I don’t know. I’m sure there is a good explanation, but not knowing what it is disturbs me, and makes me wonder about what other things I may have missed.
Now this kind of thing is completely useless. As the Bible says, we can’t add an hour to our lives by being anxious. In fact, we’d be more likely to subtract one. My mother always used to say, “never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.” I understand this. I can do it. But my body and mind don’t necessarily get it. Anxiety is above all a physical reaction to that squeaking wheel, and it can be awful. You can just ask my children how I react when I can’t get hold of one of them on their cell phones!
I always hate writing things like this, because there are so many people who tell me that my courage inspires them, so it’s hard to let them know I am not courageous, People I know continue to lose people they love, and what do I say to them? It sucks. Always and forever. It will get easier, then it will get harder again. You will never, never, ever recover from this. It will be a part of who you are.
Survive we must. But how? What can we do?
Well, we can talk to our doctors. I had been on one antidepressant for ten years. I had started it in the aftermath of the three months I spent waiting for a bone to be tested to see if it was Michaela’s or not. I tried to get off it once, but ended up going back on it. It no longer seems to be working, so I am trying a new one. It was twenty years after Michaela’s kidnapping before I sought or accepted this sort of assistance, but it helped at the time. There is no shame in this.
There are a lot of things we can do to feel better. Get out and walk. The exercise, the fresh air. I know these things are immensely helpful. The only thing is that when I am depressed, I cannot make myself do that. Wet cement pours into my limbs and I just want to sleep my life away.
Write, even just in a journal nobody but you will read. Draw, paint. Dance out your grief.
I can’t tell you, though, how much I hate articles that write out prescriptions like those above. Big fat bandaids, and just a little bit condescending. My broken heart will not be cured with exercise!
I have been reading some books recently that deal with faith, and the dissolution of it, in hard times. I understand this, and experienced it for a very, very long time after Michaela was kidnapped. But eventually I came to understand things in a way that allowed my faith to coexist with my heartbreak and unanswered prayers. One of the books I have read recent is Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, by Sarah Bessey. I lingered long over this book, and in fact just finished it this morning. I’d put off reading the last few chapters because I didn’t want it to end. Indeed, the last chapter is actually a prayer by Sarah for her reader. In the next to next to next to last paragraph of the book, she begins by saying, “We’re about to say good-bye until next time,” and tears slipped from my eyes. This book is important enough to me to write a whole blog about it, but I’m just going to say, if you suffer from pain, emotional or physical, or doubt, there are worse things you can do than read Sarah Bessey’s book.
For me, when my heart is aching and my grief is more than I can handle, or when I am so afraid, my faith doesn’t dissolve. I am always, consistently drawn to God. I don’t ask why he is letting me suffer. Well, I will admit that one day this week I spread my arms wide and said, “God! Why have you left me here like this for 31 years?” But it was a cry in a moment. For the most part, I understand suffering. I understand why we suffer. I can accept it. In the depth of it, I don’t get mad at God and turn away, I want only to burrow into him, into my faith, to draw all of it over my head like a warm blanket. I want to know that I am not alone, that there is Someone who cares, Someone who will take care of me.
Today, I have turned off the television. I have spent less time on social media and more time reading. I have been listening to my worship music playlist all day. I love worship music. Anyone who thinks that praising God for eternity sounds boring has never attended a good worship service. But so many of those songs were born in heartache, and in doubt. They speak to me. They are me.
And for the moment, I feel better. For the moment, the anxiety and despair hover in the distance where they can’t hurt me. I know they will fall on me again, and I hope I can always remember to turn from them as I have managed to do today.
It’s a moment by moment thing, surviving such pain. It has so many faces, so many expressions, so many good and bad ways we can deal with it, I could never in my life write about it fully.
I have written this, I suppose, for others who are suffering. I wish I could tell you that one day you will wake up and it will all be better, but I can’t. I can tell you that it is very possible to find beauty and wisdom and grace in this darkness, however. I can tell you that somehow it touches others. Someone commented on one of my facebook posts the other day that she’d had a really hard day, but when she went to bed she thought about little baby Kingston, whose journey I have been chronicling on Michaela’s Facebook page, about the ordinary but spectacular miracle of his liver transplant and his survival. And she felt better. I told Kingston’s mother about this, because as a mother I know my only real consolation over my daughter’s suffering is the knowledge that through it, in ways I don’t even comprehend, she has touched others in good ways. If you change just one life, you have changed the world. Michaela has done that.
I hope she touches you as well, that she brings to your life just a bit of the light and love that surrounded her when she was here, a loving, compassionate little girl in our midst.
In years past, I have “canceled” the anniversary, made it a purely private thing. I am not doing that this year. You are welcome to come, bring your ribbons and your love and your prayers. I will not create a facebook event page, or keep reminding people about it, but if you know about it, you are welcome to be there at the market where the kidnapping happened, at 10:15 on November 19th.
Lord, please just help me to survive this season with grace and peace and joy in all the wonderful blessings I do have in my life, because honestly, I am blessed.
As always, thank you for being here. Your presence helps.