Eighteen months ago my brain broke as a result of an incredible loss I experienced. My late husband’s death put me into a fog that permanently changed my brain chemistry. Even though we weren’t compatible anymore, I cherished our 24-year relationship. He was sensitive, intelligent, and kind. He was one of my favorite people on the planet and losing him was like cutting off my arm; I lost a part of myself. “Grief brain” did not turn me into a numb person. Instead, I was more like an inanimate object. I found myself just existing, taking up space… wondering if I would ever be able to maintain some semblance of my former identity’s ambitious lifestyle.
The mental health diagnoses didn’t really reinforce hope. Complex grief, a psychotic break, depression, and more made it nearly impossible for me to manage the day-to-day functions of life. Familiar streets of my own city suddenly became a labyrinth even with Siri’s help. Except for school drop-off, therapy, and the occasional work gig I stopped leaving the house. I’d snap awake at my desk, realizing hours had passed and it had turned dark outside. The effort required to engage in conversation was exhausting. I napped like it was my J.O.B.
Human behavior and brain chemistry have captured my interest since college. I’ve seen the benefits that various therapeutic methods offer for processing difficult emotions and learning healthy coping skills. My experience with grief brain made time pass without differentiating shifts between day and night. Normal pleasures like eating, playing, sex, connecting with others, or cozying up with a good book all went out the window while my trauma-informed brain tried to sort out painful emotions. My team, my friends, my family, and health professionals (my tribe!) helped me stay above water this past year and a half. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain my consultancy. Working full-time was not an option for me, as it took all the energy I could muster to get to my therapist, my healers, and counselor appointments. Grief moves on its own timeline. For someone used to moving at lightning speed, I found myself uncharacteristically cynical about a MEME I saw on social media…
While I’d like to think my efforts will result in fragrant blossoms, more often than not I feel like my efforts are the water that slipped through the cracks in the compact clay, trickling into an abysmal underground grotto putrid with anaerobic organisms, stink, and rot. “Blossoming, my ass,” snorts the cynic. An entrepreneur at heart, I’ve always been able to pull myself up by my bootstraps, to “create my own luck.” But the dreadfully slow process of grieving Phillip’s death leaves me questioning whether my efforts ever mattered in overcoming life’s difficulties. This leads into feeling like an imposter because if my efforts don’t matter in my own life, then they certainly don’t matter in improving the lives of others, right? How can I help others if I can’t help myself? After all, I couldn’t help Phillip.
It’s hard to overcome life’s difficulties when you are trying to negotiate your identity (see also, #instamom); When sometimes even breathing is a struggle. Cruising around the bottom of the world, plotting ways to make it a better place (see AntarctiConf), I am reminded by a mentee’s gift that sometimes we have to take life day-by-day.
So “just for today” my healing journey continues. This week I delivered the opening keynote address for the first-ever tech conference in the coastal waters of Antarctica. About 45,000 people a year get to visit Antarctica. That’s only .006% of the global population. Even fewer people can say they have delivered talks on all 7 continents. Pinch me, I must be dreaming. I feel fortunate, lucky. And yet who am I to share my thoughts on emotional intelligence and leadership? “Imposter!” shouts the cynic. “Everyone knows you’re a fraud.”
Beliefs define an identity and mine have been challenged at every level these past few years. Beliefs about success. Beliefs about empathy. Beliefs about parenting. There is no going back to the former version of myself. I think differently. I work differently. I love differently. Sometimes I worry that I’ve lost my identity completely, then I am reminded that the only way out of a difficult situation is through it. I know that there is no going back there is only moving forward, even if that means there won’t be any of the “old me” left.
I want to do better. I want to be a better parent. I want to not need mental health support. I want to help more clients improve their marketing and advertising results. And I want it now, without going through the painful stages of grief. I want it now, despite having a broken brain. Friends tell me to allow myself to honor the grieving process, that it’s on its own timeline. “There’s no point in trying,” hisses the cynic. “You deserve to suffer.” Yet, if my daughter had a broken arm I would make sure she honored the healing process. We would go to the doctor, take x-rays, do all the things required for the care and repair of a broken limb. I suppose healing a broken arm is more tangible and the timing more predictable than learning how to survive the loss of a soul mate to suicide. Perhaps I’d honor the grieving process more if I could just have a definitive timeline.
During this week’s conference I saw a talk by Cassandra Faris who begged the question, why, as a society are we programmed to not honor healing mental health issues as much as we honor physical health issues such as a broken arm? My friends and family must get impatient with my impatience. Their reassurances are often met with resistance. When they remind me to give myself permission to heal, that I have the equivalent of a broken arm, I snap back at them, using the old me as a measuring stick with which to measure the new me against. “But you don’t understand!” I wallow, followed by a long list of self-deprecating points supporting the victim narrative. During a recent rant my friend, Ted, wasn’t having any of it. He reminded me that I can improve my coping skills by choosing to practice more compassion for myself (go get yourself a friend like Ted. He rocks,).
Compassion for others is pretty easy. You see someone in need —vulnerable and struggling— the impulse to help, comfort, support rises up inside most of us, triggering our natural sense of empathy. But so many of us shut down that part of ourselves when we are forced to look inward. What happens when the vulnerable person in need of comfort and support is ourself? Shame, guilt, depression tend to sprout up and some of us are left feeling hopeless, refusing help even when generously offered.
The messy parts of being human are the parts we are most afraid to explore and to share. It’s as if showing our humanness makes us less heroic somehow. Really, the heroism we want to embrace comes from the very act of acknowledging and communicating with those who are paying attention to what we need, want, or are struggling with. We are all part of something, connected in ways we can’t quite explain. Those connections run deeper, take stronger hold, and feel more transformative when we show each other who we really are.
Phillip died. That will always be sad for me. He will always be a huge part of the story of my life. I understand that grief isn’t something I can navigate my way around. It’s a thing that lives both outside and inside of me. It transforms me. Like exercise or therapy or learning, it continues with no end date, just a process that I walk alongside. I know that sometimes the gifts it brings will be more difficult than I want to deal with. Other times it will transport me through space and time to remind my heart that the story of my life (and his) is one that is littered with pieces of joy that can’t be erased. Embracing that seems a good way to honor someone. I invite those bits of joy to be present as I continue writing the story of the rest of my life.
My pledge is to try to give myself permission to be human, even if that means sometimes I feel broken and unfixable. And when I feel that way, to do my best to communicate openly and honestly (and yes, messily) to those around me. In so doing, I will display the kind of self-care heroism I never have in the past. Every hero has an origin story, so begins mine.
Meet Christina Aldan for the first time and you will feel as if you have known her all your life. she is proof that you can Create Your Luck with perseverance and a desire to learn.