My Story: Part 3

My Story: Part 3

May is mental health month, with mental heath week having just concluded on the 21st. So I want to talk about mental heath. At the end of April, in “Part 2”, I shared the story of my husband’s suicide. Part of that story is still untold. It’s what I learned about mental health. I thought it was worth sharing.

Like any survivor of suicide loss, I have replayed in my mind the weeks, months, and even years, leading up to that event, trying to figure out what went wrong, what I could have done differently, what I could have said, to prevent that tragedy.

In February, I believe in some sort of effort to make peace with the thoughts – the guilt perhaps – racing through my mind, I took an 8-hour course to become certified in mental health first aid. As I attempted to joke to a friend, “no more suicides on my watch.”

The course was offered by Vantage Health System here in Bergen County, New Jersey, as part of the Stigma Free initiative (for more information on a course in your area, go to http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs/). As explained in the introduction, “most of us assume mental illness is something that only affects others and believe it won’t affect our family or friends. The truth is that mental health problems are more common than heart disease, lung disease, and cancer — combined!”

When we think of mental health problems we often think of conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which can be caused by genetics and biochemistry, but psychosis is far from the most common. The course explored mental health issues in five categories. In addition to psychosis, it looked at depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, and eating disorders. The causes of many of these are far more common: difficult childhood, trauma, separation and divorce, loss of a job, financial problems, death of a family member, developing a long-term illness, caring for a family member with a long-term illness, to name a few.

In the first hours of the course, I saw my husband in the symptoms and causes being discussed…difficult childhood…a more sensitive emotional nature…substance use…long-term job loss…anxiety…depression…a break up of a relationship… And as I listened to the instructor share the dos and don’ts of what to say to someone in need of mental health first aid, I couldn’t help but beat myself up realizing I had done everything wrong…and was, at times, downright insensitive.

But then something changed. I began to see myself not as a caretaker or first aider, but as someone who had been in need of mental health first aid myself. I realized that I was in no shape to administer first aid to anyone. Not long after her father’s death, my daughter said to me, “you know I always thought you were the unstable parent.” I realized there was some truth to that.

I have mentioned before that prior to my cancer diagnosis, I was experiencing what I referred to as “toxic stress.” It came on gradually beginning in 2005. I was already a full-time working mother of a pre-school child; my husband was out of work. I took on the position of CEO of a struggling, young non-profit organization in January. They were celebrating the 5th anniversary of their founding and I was the 7th CEO. Later that year my parents moved back to New Jersey. I started to realize my father was becoming frailer. In the fall, in order to improve the financial position of the organization, I had to lay off a third of the staff.

Although the organization’s financial health improved somewhat, we were running short-staffed. I was working long hours. My father’s health was deteriorating. At that time, I was grateful that my husband was out of work, spending time with our now 6 year-old daughter and keeping things running at home. Having him as a “stay-at-home dad” worked for me at that time.

My dad died in October, 2006. A year later we moved into a bigger house and moved my mom in with us. That was supposed to make things easier. My husband was supposed to go back to work. However, it became obvious that my mother’s “senior moments” were something far worse. My husband grew angry and resentful in caring for my mother and juggling a 2nd grader. I spent my days trying to manage a non-profit on the verge of bankruptcy and came home in the evenings to chaos. My husband was struggling.

After moving my mother into an assisted living facility and taking a few months off from work to regroup, I went back to work full-time, commuting everyday now into New York City. My husband continued to stay home despite my pleas for him to find a job. Within a year, my mother’s condition exceeded the level of care available at her current home and she had to be moved. Not long after that, I was called on to be guardian to my aunt – her sister – also with severe dementia. For the next year I managed their financial affairs and healthcare, called out of meetings to talk to nurses, doctors and lawyers. My dog died. Then my aunt died and then there was planning her funeral and settling of her estate. In the year that followed, my mother had to be moved twice as she spent down her life savings.

After three years at my job, a new boss decided I needed to go. It was understandable. Maybe I was too distracted. So I was out of work six weeks when my mom died. I will always appreciate the time I had with her at the end. I buried her on the first day of summer in 2012 and it seemed to bookend nicely the difficult times. I found some work to do, the bills were getting paid and I went into 2013 with a new lease on life. I was ready to live…but with that the stark differences between my husband and me became more obvious. And I also began to need his support more, only to realize he wasn’t capable of being who I needed him to be.

Once both of my parents were gone, I was without my emotional safety net and my biggest fans. While I never doubted my husband’s love for me, because of his own struggles, he lacked the capacity to love the way they loved. I also felt an enormous strain in being the sole provider for my family and having very little flexibility in terms of what I wanted to do. I went where the money was because I felt I had no choice. The last stop of my career at that point was Chief Development Officer of a big adoption agency located on the Upper East Side. The average commute was 90 minutes – one way (on a good day). And if that wasn’t bad enough, I had a very difficult boss; absent at times, micromanaging at others. It was a snowy winter and I opted to work from home against her wishes on the really bad days. I remember a phone conversation with her one day I was working from home. She was frustrated I wasn’t in the office and a miscommunication between us resulted in a document not being ready for a meeting. After I hung up the phone, I sank to the floor and sobbed.

Why am I telling you all this? Because that’s mental illness. Life is not about being positive and staying optimistic. It’s not whether you see the glass as half empty or half full; it’s how heavy the glass is and how much heavier it feels when you can’t put it down. It’s getting to the breaking point…and then being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer six weeks later. Mental illness doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you, any more so than when you catch the flu. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t get better.

At that point in my life, I couldn’t make simple decisions. I felt paralyzed. Alone. Angry. Frustrated. Hopeless. And Chris felt all those things too. But it was all I could do to support myself, so he lost the support I had provided for so many years. I had read something many years ago about marriage; how a marriage fails when both partners “go crazy” at the same time.

My mental health issues were caused by the cumulative affects of the stress of caring for my mother and aunt, loss of my parents, job losses, financial instability, and the trauma of my cancer diagnosis. I recognized that and got help. I started counseling a week after my cancer surgery. Chris refused to go for counseling and his issues were more deeply rooted in a difficult childhood and ultimately exasperated by the potential loss of the person who had kept it all together for him for over 20 years.

Thanks to two years of therapy, I no longer hold myself responsible for that. I mediate daily, and of course I run. When I got my certificate in Mental Health First Aid, I forgave myself and I forgave Chris for not being the people each of us needed in our lives at that time. My daughter told me too that she realized that “healthy” people get help like I did. One day recently when she was having a particularly stressful day she told me, “I’m going for a run.”

So go for a run. Meditate. Talk to a therapist. Call a friend. Find a coach. Realize it’s okay to ask for help.

IMG_1092My most happy place. Montauk, New York. June 2015

 

 

Birthdays

Birthdays

I have two birthdays. Like presidents, I have a legal holiday and the actual day I was born. May 14th is recorded as my legal birthday. It appears on a my birth certificate, driver’s license and any other official documentation. It’s the date I have to use when asked for my date of birth at the pharmacy, doctor’s office, and on road race applications, which makes me feel like I’m lying since that’s not the day I was born. It is however the day on which I celebrated my birthday for the first 29 years of my life. Just before my 30th birthday, I found my biological mother who was quick to inform me that I was actually born on May 13th. She’s the only person I know who was there, so I will take her word on it (plus if you were to look up the date in The Secret Language of Birthdays, May 13th describes me accurately, the 14th does not). There are some theories on what happened. Someone may have thought that the 13th was unlucky or maybe it was an efficient approach to record keeping at County Hospital in Roscommon, Ireland (all the week’s births being recorded on the Friday).

It really doesn’t matter. My mother told me that she had celebrated her mother’s birthday in August all of her life. After her father died, her mother informed her that her birthday was actually in March. Apparently when she met my grandfather she needed an excuse to invite him to her house and told him it was her birthday…and through 40-some years of marriage she never fessed up. Some people were born on February 29th and can only have a “real” birthday every four years. And I’m sure I’m not the only person with an improperly recorded birthday. The important thing is that we mark the passage of time and birthdays give us one day every year when we as individuals get to feel extra special.

I now mark the occasion on the 13th, but tend to celebrate a little on the 14th too (it’s still the anniversary of a lot of great birthday celebrations and the day I got my driver’s license). But regardless of what day you want to recognize, it just past. I’m now 51; no longer simply 50, but “in my 50s.” I’m okay with being in my 50s. I’m happy with who I am and what I’ve achieved and proud that I have met the challenges that could have prevented me from getting this far, this well. I’ve already dealt with aging parents, assisted living, and their deaths. I’ve had cancer. I had a colonoscopy. I’m a widow and received social security checks. I wear reading glasses, joined AARP and last week, broke down and got a hearing aid. Aging isn’t about lying down and giving up. It’s about regular maintenance, fixing what needs to be fixed, and getting back out on the road. Honestly, my 50s are starting to rock!

I loved when the American Cancer Society started calling themselves “The Official Sponsor of Birthdays” even before I was a cancer survivor. They said, “Together with our millions of supporters, the American Cancer Society saves lives and creates more birthdays by helping people stay well and get well, by finding cures, and by fighting back.” From my perspective as a non-profit professional, it’s a fabulous campaign. Now as a cancer survivor, I understand it’s truth more fully. As a survivor I relish every birthday and have respect for every year.

Some people lie about their age. My grandmother (who obviously had no problem lying about birthdays) always said if you’re going to lie, you should lie older, not younger. If you’re 50 and you tell people you’re 40, they will just think you look old for your age. But if you tell them you’re 60, they’ll think you look good, right? Runners can’t lie about their age because it gets plastered all over the race results. But most runners I know are okay with aging, because every five years we get to be the “youngsters” in a new age group. And honestly, I’m often shocked when I realize just how old some of my fellow runners are. I was speaking with someone at the New Year’s Day race and he mentioned he’d be moving into a new age group this year. I said, “the big 6-0 this year, huh?” He said, “No! I’m turning 70!”

Every year I notice more and more people winning age-group awards in the 80 and over category. I imagine when I reach that milestone there will be a lot more competition and I won’t be getting awards just for showing up. Being a runner not only makes me look forward to birthdays and new age-groups, it makes me feel better – healthier and stronger – when I get there. Some people stress about getting older. Most of them aren’t runners…or cancer survivors.

IMG_3753Union Cemetery, Darlington Avenue, Ramsey, New Jersey. The alternative to getting older; a very pretty place I pass on my runs.

Mother’s Day Reflections

Mother’s Day Reflections

I was thinking recently about how I survived 2014. A lot of people tell me what a strong woman I am. Perhaps. But what made me strong was a foundation build so long ago. Like any tree that weathers the storm…it’s flexible, yes (able to bend, not break against the strong winds), but it is also held in place by solid ground and strong roots. The solid ground and strong roots that I have were put in place by my parents.

I spent this past Sunday – Mother’s Day – with my daughter in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I had gone there numerous times with my parents as a child. I thought a lot about my mom and how I wish to give my daughter what she gave me. My mom died on June 19, 2012. This was my eulogy to her:

June 21, 2012
I was going to do this the easy way. I spend all day yesterday trying to locate the letter I wrote my mom for Mother’s Day 1990 and I was just going to share that with you. But I couldn’t find it and then realized maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do anyway; mom deserves something fresh! Especially since I learned the most important thing ten years after that letter was written – I learned how difficult the role of “mom” can be and I learned how deeply one can love a child.
As many of you know, I didn’t start out my life as my mother’s child. While most mother’s wait a short 9 months for their babies, my mom waited the better part of two years. I have stacks of letters that went back and forth from my parents and Mercy Convent in Ballinsloe, Sean Ross Abbey in Limerick and Catholic Charities here in the States; no one ever really knowing when all my paperwork would be in order or when I would be on a plane to America. But I finally arrived on May 22, 1967 and my mom confessed only in recent years that her first reaction was that I looked so grown up and independent compared the baby photos she had been sent and she wasn’t sure she’d be needed.
But she certainly was!
She nursed me through illnesses, helped me with my homework and always supported me (even if her idea of support differed from mine – she always sided with the teachers!).
And she was constantly telling me how “terrific” I was.
From her I learned that being a mom had nothing to do with biology and everything to do with love.
When I was in elementary school I came home one day all upset because the other girls could jump rope and I couldn’t. So she got a rope, tied one end to a tree and turned the other end so I could learn how to jump in and keep jumping in a safe and supportive environment.
Not many people know this, but she was also a runner before I was. After my parents closed the restaurant and the gift shop, she became a supervisor for a telemarketing company – drawing on some of her initial experience with the telephone company in the late 40s. She joined their Manufacturers Hanover Corporate Challenge Team and trained during the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I thought she was a little kooky.
And sometimes she was kooky and that’s what made her fun.
I remember her dressing up as a card for my 2nd grade Halloween party; and as a clown for a Shelter Island Seniors party about 30 years later.
She wrote a column for a weekly newspaper for years. The sound of the banging typewriter keys often lulling me to sleep. I remember one specific article she wrote about the convent at Most Blessed Sacrament and how she made it sound like the nuns were taking in an orphaned child – when they were actually adopting a black lab.
No one ever left our house without being properly fed; although if you wanted the recipe she’d leave out an ingredient so no one could make it as good as her! All her recipes (with all the correct ingredients!) will soon be available on the internet.
In 1977, Gubernatorial Candidate Ray Bateman was passing through Franklin Lakes and planned to make a brief stop at our house which was serving as Republican Headquarters. My mom noted that it would be about lunch time and after all everyone had to eat! So the brief stop turned into a sit-down lunch for about 100 people – in our house! She volunteered at my school, the church, the library, numerous political campaigns, meals-on-wheels and probably a whole bunch of things I can’t remember.
When my parents retired to Shelter Island they planned to stay out of politics, but my mom was also not someone to sit idly by when something wasn’t right. So she ran for tax assessor – and won – twice!
She had a great marriage, but was a strong woman – an equal partner in their marriage and their business. She was a successful wife, mother, business owner, supervisor, volunteer and elected official. Without her example, I know I wouldn’t be who I am today.
And she never did stop telling me how “terrific” I was – which I admit got a little annoying at times. I thought it seemed patronizing and over the top. You know me; I’m not THAT terrific.
When I was a kid, my greatest fear was losing my parents. But when I thought of a time when they wouldn’t be with me, they were together. In life and in death, in my mind, they were always together. They were the epitome of what a married couple is supposed to be…two becoming one.
That is why the last 6 years have been so difficult. I am at peace now knowing they are once again together as they should be.
The last time I saw her was this past Friday. I will tell you that in her illness she had good days and bad days. Christmas was a bad day. This past Friday was a very good day. She knew who I was, she laughed at my jokes, and she kept saying I was wonderful, marvelous and terrific!
This week I realized having your mother’s voice forever in your head saying “you’re terrific” isn’t such a bad thing.

IMG_3716Sunny Mother’s Day 2016 in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Delaware Canal State Park. The Canal Tow Path on the right is the course for the Bucks County Marathon which I ran last November. My daughter wouldn’t take a picture with me.

FullSizeRenderMe and my mom. 1969.

Reflections on Marathon #7

Reflections on Marathon #7

My seventh marathon. I’m just going to let that sit there and sink in a moment. First of all, I’m still often amazed that I ran my first; but that was almost 20 years ago. Last year as I was starting to think about training for my fifth, I never would have imagined six or seven. I ran Chicago last October just about 18 months after my previous marathon, a feat which in itself was an anomaly for me. There were much bigger gaps between my first four (NYC 1997, NJ 2003, NYC 2005, NJ 2014) and after each of the first three, I was quite certain I was never going to run another marathon. I thought 18 miles, maybe 20, was the point at which I could still run competitively. In each of my first three marathons, I hit “the wall” where the wheels came off and it was all I could do to keep from sitting down on the curb to cry. So what changed?

In 2013 I ran 13 half marathons (13.1 miles each, get it?) as a way to attract publicity to a fundraising effort for my friend’s organization (AliveAndKickn which I wrote about in March). I guess I got bored with the challenge; I guess 13.1 started to seem easy. I guess I was addicted and like any addict, I needed something more. So I signed up to run the NJ Marathon in 2014, and I started working with my coach. Coaching was the difference. I surprised myself. I never hit the wall. And I finished in under four hours – a stretch goal – and I came within 2 minutes and 50 seconds of a Boston Qualifying time. That was a super stretch goal. But now I knew I could do it. In the two years since, I moved into a new age group and now only need to do what I did then. I know I have it in me. And that’s why I have run 3 marathons in the last six and half months. But I still haven’t qualified for Boston. Am I disappointed?

Yes and no. I realized I don’t care. I mean I do. It’s just that I know I’m going to do it…eventually. But before I get ahead of myself and start thinking about #8 where I am most certainly going to BQ, there’s the business of this reflection. What did I learn from this experience?

  1. Running 3 marathons in 29 weeks probably wasn’t the best decision. I ran into some trouble with my hip flexors and left hamstring during training for this one that I have to think was probably from over use.
  2. But wow! I’m pretty strong! I improved my time with each marathon…4:20:12 on October 11, 4:12:28 on November 15, and 4:05:13 this past Sunday.
  3. I found out that if you do have anything wrong with you the marathon is going to find it and probably make it worse. I thought I was cruising to a BQ through mile 22 on Sunday and although I never hit “the wall” my left hamstring wasn’t working right for the last 3.5 miles.
  4. Hamstrings are really, really important, and so necessary if you want to accelerate.
  5. Time doesn’t really matter…I finished 16th out of 62 women ages 50 to 54 on Sunday. And all 62 of us finished ahead of everyone who didn’t start. I have to remind myself that just simply doing this is something of which to be proud. It’s easy to forget that a large majority of people don’t do this when most of my friends are runners — and several of them just ran Boston.
  6. The reason I wanted to get into Boston 2017 so badly is because it falls on what would have been my mother’s 90th Birthday. Since she was my initial inspiration to sign up for the 1995 Corporate Challenge – my first race – I thought that was the perfect way to spend the day. I had thought a couple months ago that if I didn’t BQ on Sunday that I would still do Boston next year with a charity group, but I decided I want to qualify. I’m a professional fundraiser. Fundraising my way into Boston almost seems like cheating. I want to earn this. I also feel, at least for myself, that I need a real connection to the organizations for which I raise money. The list of charities working with the Boston Marathon is somewhat limited. My charities aren’t included and I think it’s important to be genuine and as donors, volunteers and fundraisers we only have so much energy, time and money and it should go to the things that matter to us. Who we are is reflected in the causes we support.
  7. While spending 16 weeks training to be be as perfect as I can be in everything I have some control over – strength, conditioning, endurance, nutrician, rest, recovery, shoes, socks, clothing, chafing, GPS, heart rate, etc – it often comes down to the one thing I have absolutely no control over: the weather.
  8. And speaking of the weather, I’d prefer a cold rain to heat any day. Yeah, Sunday sucked. It rained. Sometimes it rained heavily. It was cold. And just when I was good and soaked, it got windy. It was horrific. Several times I questioned why I was out in it wearing shorts and a singlet. But there was a positive. I wasn’t stopping. In Chicago it got hot. I felt better when I stopped. Not so Sunday. The weather motivated me to keep going in order to find warmth and dry clothes as quickly as possible.
  9. As great as it is to have the guidance, expertise, accountability, and motivation that comes from having a coach, sometimes I need to think through things on my own. I am grateful for the time – over 2 years – that I worked with Coach Rob McCarthy of De Novo Coaching. I appreciated the Wednesday night speed sessions my running club offered led by Coach Joel Pasternack over the past couple months. I know the workouts as well as everything I learned from them contributed to how far I got, but one of the things I learned is that no matter how much a coach knows about the sport, the one thing no coach will know more about than you, is YOU. On March 7, I sent an email to my coach: I’m just not running with the same mojo that I was 2 years, 18 months or even just a year ago. I don’t know what happened. It may be physical changes or it may be mental. Perhaps I’m not running “away” anymore. Who knows. I want running to be fun and it is when I’m just enjoying myself and not setting goals that I’m falling short of…”fun” for me now in running is the journey, the destination, and the company. Not the speed. But yet, I go out and am left feeling empty because I am not achieving a goal. And in wanting to BQ, perhaps I’m setting an unachievable goal…I want to go out with the group on the weekends and not care what my HR is…I want to run as far or as little as I feel like any given weekend…I think I need a reset. And no one can do anything about that but me.
  10. I realized too though, that sometimes when I let go, I still do pretty damn good.
  11. I so greatly appreciate all of my friends and family who encourage me and inspire me to be a better person everyday. Many of you run and understand this side of me; many more of you don’t, and yet support me nonetheless. Thank you.
  12. I love my fun, ridiculously supportive running club – De Novo Harriers! I can not thank my fellow members enough for sharing so many of the miles, for providing kindness and encouragement, and for being amazing, inspiring, and simply magnificent human beings!
  13. Running over 10 miles with your sister trumps every other spectacular detail about a race! Thank you, Jacqueline, for coming all the way from Ireland to accompany me for the first part of this journey (and thank you for standing out in the rain to cheer me at the finish).

So what now? My first priorities are to focus on my daughter and my new job, do a few things around the house I’ve been neglecting, and very importantly, get healthy; figure out what’s going on with my hamstring and do what I need to make sure I’m strong and flexible…creating the foundation that enables every runner to weather the storm. Then, and only then, will I be ready to sign up for #8.

480379_228829029_XLargeMy sister and me, Start of the NJ Marathon and Long Branch Half, May 1, 2016 (before the rain).