Monday, 24 September 2012

What Worked for Me

Friday marked 11 months.  In just a few days it will be one year since P entered the hospital, never to leave.
I'm feeling fragile, reverting back to activities that got me through the early days.  I've become immersed in seasons of tv shows, impatiently awaiting the time in the evening when I can sit down and watch countless episodes.  In the early days I remember feeling anxious when I couldn't watch my shows.  The characters had become my friends, watching episodes back to back was my routine, and the action unfolding on the screen took me away from the drama of my own life.  I'm eating sporadically.  Nibbling here and there, trying to make sure I have proper meals too when I can, and consuming copious amounts of chocolate and sweets.  I'm back on the wine.  In the early days I had to have 1-2 glasses of red wine every night just to sleep.  Many times 2 became 3....Now I'm finding myself drawn back to the wine aisle, back to the routine.  I'm shaky, at times.  When P was in hospital, the fear of losing him, and the stress of looking after him used to make me shiver uncontrollably.  I wasn't necessarily cold, but my whole body would shake, from the inside out.  I've learned recently this is a symptom of the adrenal system gone out of whack, the fight or flight instinct in overdrive.  I'm spacey too - well that's never quite gone away.  Grief robs you of your memory.  That's why so many people say 'it was all a blur' when referring to the early days.  And it takes a LONG time to get that back.  I still haven't recovered it fully but I'm getting there.

But things are also completely different than last year.
I've found ways of coping.  I've learned what this 'grief thing' is, what the symptoms are, and how to deal with them.  Or...I've just gotten REALLY good at ignoring the ugly grief monster.

Nevertheless, here's what's helped me through the past 11 months:

1.  Staying with friends immediately afterwards.  I was not ready to be on my own.  They gave me a home for a few months, where I had space to be alone, but people quietly there for me when I needed them.
2.  Getting my UK driving license.  Starting lessons in January gave me something to focus on.  Learning a new skill that was vitally important, and which held an end goal was instrumental in helping to me begin to put one foot in front of the other.
3.  Running - I started running with a friend only a few weeks afterwards.  It was the only time I didn't feel like crying and the only time when I felt alive.  Training for a 10k and then a half marathon meant that I couldn't stop because I 'didn't feel like it'.  And nothing beats exercise endorphins - they are natural anti-depressants.
4.  Working with caring individuals.  I was really fortunate to have joined a teaching assistant agency before P got ill.  When I told them what had happened, they were completely understanding and said that when I was ready they would find me work.  They found me something part time, working with kids who were going through a rough time too.  The staff there are naturally very caring and working provided me with some structure to my week.
5.  Blogging!! This has been a wonderful outlet for me.  Before beginning this, I journalled regularly, writing to P.  I wasn't ready to stop talking to him, so it helped me to stay connected to him.  I still do this occasionally when I need to.  I really encourage everyone who's going through something to write. It helps to get the emotion out and it is something to look back on.  I have been looking at some of my early entries and it helps me to realise how FAR I've come.
6.  NEW CHALLENGES!!!  I have become much more adventurous in these past 11 months.  Tandem sky dive, scuba diving, hiking up mountains, and next up - snowboarding!  When you're doing something new you have to focus on it 100% and it gives you a wonderful reprieve from the constant all-consuming grief thoughts.  And when you complete a new challenge, you feel alive and invigorated! and strong!
7.  Getting the right lodger.  Living with my new flatmate has meant that I no longer feel able to sit on the sofa feeling sorry for myself in the evenings.  And this is a good thing! at some point we have to drag our bums off the sofa, dust ourselves off and say 'well, that happened, now how am I going to handle this? what's next for me?'  Because even though I'd loved to have gone with him, I am still alive!      The best way of honouring P's memory is by living.
8.  Finding a way back to your passion - I have slowly been returning to my acting career.  It's different now.  It doesn't define me, or even mean that much to me.  But being involved in theatre is a part of who I was and I am reclaiming that part, bit by bit.
9.  Returning to the day job.  I used to work in promotions.  I never thought I'd be able to be smiley enough, outgoing enough, vibrant enough to work in promotions or sales again.  Recently I've been working as a rep in a retail store.  On my feedback forms I was described as 'smiley, and pleasant'!  The experience there has built my confidence back up tremendously.
10.  Being open to getting to know new friends and relishing the company of old friends.  I have been immensely fortunate to have been graced with angels (friends who have walked into (or back into) my life at the time when I needed them most).  I can not thank you enough.  I'm sure I devote a whole entry to each of you, but you know who you are.  You have kept me going when I thought I had nothing left in the tank and you continue to do so.
Thank you.  You have quite possibly saved my life.  Thank you.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

'Feel the Fear and Do it Anyways!'

What are you afraid of?  
Success and it's responsibilities?
Not living up to your potential?
Losing a loved one?
Starting over?

and then there's the little fears....
Hurting yourself?
Hurting someone else?
Going too fast?

We're all afraid of something and most of us experience the first list of fears to some extent or another.  I've started reading a book called 'Feel the Fear and do it anyway' by Susan Jeffers (side note: my good friend wrote her thesis on this subject as well!).  I've been blown away by the simplicity of it all!  She doesn't make any life changing, revolutionary statements, but by extracting what we all know to be true and putting it into bold face font, she reminds us that all those successful people out there?  Yea, they're scared too!  They just don't let their fear stop them from doing anything!  They are mentally strong.  We spend so much time trying to become physically strong, we often forget to invest time in developing our mental and emotional strength!  This doesn't mean becoming an ice-y, unfeeling, calculating person; it's about becoming someone who can 'handle it!'  Whatever life throws at you.

After 10 months and 3 weeks, I can honestly say I am revelling in my new ability to 'handle it'.  Sure, there are times when I slip up, when I crumble at the thought that he's not here to help me solve a problem, when I'm lying in pain, desperately wishing he was there to hold my hand.  BUT I have become an adventurous person.  I was never that girl.  I was afraid of hurting myself, of failing, of making a fool of myself.  I worried about what others thought of me, what P thought of me, what I thought of me.  But now?  I want to do it all!  Jump out of a plane? Yes please! Learn to scuba dive?  Name the time and day!  Learn to snowboard?  Happening.  Hike up a mountain? Thrilling.  I have a new take on life and I am grateful for that.  P gave me this parting gift:  the realisation that life is short, so LIVE IT!  Screw fear!  LIFE is scary.  And the scariest thing of all is NOT living!  P was always saying 'I wanna, I'm gonna, I'd like to, I wish...I could do this or that'  Well, gonna, wanna, like to never happened.  He was the master at 'thinking about it'.  People have held him up as an adventurer and he was, in spirit, but he didn't get the chance to do half the things he wanted to.  I've been left with a very long bucket list, and I LOVE it, because taking on all these new adventures, learning all these new skills, losing P and surviving has made me realise that whatever life throws at me, I can handle it.  Facing those fears makes us stronger.  The fear will never go away, as long as we continue to learn and grow, so really, Fear is a pretty great thing.  So embrace it.  And stop letting fear stand in your way. 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Secure Your Mask First

'Ladies and Gentleman....We are about to take off on a journey that will never quite end.  We are likely to experience turbulence from time to time, and in the event that you require an oxygen mask, one will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe deeply.  If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until you are 100% sure you no longer require it's use.  And if you require additional assistance, please notify someone immediately.'

How often have you attempted to assist someone else without first securing your own mask?  Sure, it may seem more humane, it may seem easier to help someone else and worry about yourself later, but it will certainly take longer to help that person when you're struggling to breath.  Selfishness has become a vulgar word in our society.  Yes, this world is plagued by selfish people, but it is not selfish to focus on yourself when your world has been flipped upside down.  It's OK to put yourself first!  How can you possibly help someone else when you aren't sure which way is up?

I know some widows and widowers have quickly jumped into another relationship and I am not here to judge.  We all deal with grief differently.  But for me, personally, the idea of a new relationship seems like a quick fix and a welcome distraction, and oh so tempting....but the reality is that nothing and no one can take this pain away.  I need to heal me first.  I NEED to be selfish.  I am rediscovering who I AM right now.  You can't be a good partner unless you invest in you first.  This past 10 1/2 months has taught me so much about myself and I have come a long way from the early days, when I walked the streets as a zombie, always in sunglasses with swollen eyes, unable to utter anything beyond the necessities.  And I can honestly say I am proud of myself.  And that's not bragging!  I have come a long way, but I still have a long way to go.

If I could bring P back, and erase the events of the last year, I would.  But I can't.  So instead, I am grateful for this opportunity to readjust my life, to rediscover who I am as a woman, and to find a new path in life.  So I'm sorry if it takes me some time to adjust my mask.  I have clumsy fingers, what can I say ;)  But I will get there, and then I hope I will be able to assist you.  

Monday, 10 September 2012

Life of an Expat

Once you start your life as an expat you realise 'you can never go home again'.  You're destined to permanently exist in a state of longing.  I moved across the ocean at the age of 22, thinking I would return a year or so after my course finished.  But 5 years later, and I'm still here.

Throughout my childhood and early adult years I always felt like I didn't quite fit in.  Raised by a first generation European, I heard tales of a land far away with a distinct culture, an exotic language and old world charm.  We had a chest that sat in a place of pride in our living room and acted as the coffee table.  From time to time, I would kneel down in front of it, take the books and tablecloth off the top, and gently lift the lid of the wooden box.  Once inside I would run my hand over the carved Norwegian flag, and tentatively remove each individual item, examining each prized piece of treasure.  Every item had it's own story, and told of a time when my father lived in Norway, and backpacked through Europe.  The chest had been my grandfather's, which he used when he moved to the US during World War II.  It had such a sense of history to it.  The act of discovering each relic soon began to provide me with such a strong link with a country I'd never known, and a culture I was not yet a part of.

I've yet to make it to Norway but I like to think that I live in the next best place, in a country just a stone's throw from it, where the language is my own.  The culture here in the UK suits my personality.  It is not as superficial or materialistic of a culture as it is in America.  Pubs are for having a drink and a chat with good friends.  Travel is so easy here in such a small country.  In just a few hours I can be in Wales or Scotland.  Hopping on a plane can land me in Africa in just 6 hours.  And London, well, it's frankly one of the best, if not THE best city in the world.

But it doesn't stop me missing my family and my friends; it doesn't stop me longing for those who know me inside out, who helped shape who I am today.  After losing P so many people assumed I would flee back to the US, assuming my attachment to the UK was only dependent on my relationship.  I am sure I disappointed many when I adamantly affirmed that I would be staying in the UK for the foreseeable future.  'My home is here' I thought.  But as time goes on, I'm not sure I really have a home.  That's the truth, for an expat.  Because even if I returned to the town I grew up in, it wouldn't be the same.  And I would long for the UK.  I realised this a long time ago and clung to the idea that 'home is where the heart is' but my heart is with P, so what am I to do?

I love living here, where my memories of P and I are interwoven into the fabric of this country, but part of me knows he would want me to go back to the US.  It was always our plan, after all.  But that would have been different - a perfect amalgamation of the UK and the US for me.  So would it really be easier there now? To start anew?  Is it ever really possible to start over?  Is it worse to never go home again? or to go home only to realise it's not as you left it and nothing is quite the same?

Once you've taken the leap into expat life, is there any going back?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Lost for Words

I've struggled to write as of late.  I wondered why and I've missed it.  But since my wedding anniversary I have been keenly aware of the BIG one looming in the distance.
It's as if I'm sat in a rollercoaster, slowly chugging up to the top of a very steep, very long, very high peak.  I'm now reaching the top and I know that at any moment I will be propelled down the hill at a rapid rate.  All I can do is adjust my grip, tighten my seatbelt, and try to keep breathing.  There are no words to describe my emotions these days.  It is a state of numbness, of readying myself.  I know I have come a long way, and I am confident that no matter how hard the Grief Monster may try to pull me back into that deep dark hole, he will not succeed.  I know now that I am a fighter, I am a survivor.

But I am tired.
Tired of the everyday little battles
of being alone
Tired of trying to start again
of figuring out what I want now
of getting to know this new me
I'm tired of seeing happy couples all around
of trying to be happy for others,
when secretly
I'm just plain jealous.
I'm tired of feeling guilty
for thinking bad thoughts
for not thinking of him
every second of every day
for not being the best friend
best daughter
best person I can be
I'm tired of thinking of what could have been
should have been
might have been
Of remembering the moments I'd rather forget
I'm tired of the boredom
so great
nothing can cure it
But most of all
I'm tired of missing him

I do not know what effect the Grief Monster will have on me over these next few months.  I must admit, I am afraid.  I don't know how much more strength and stamina I have left in me.  But for now, I'll just keep breathing, close my eyes, and hold on tight.