As I groped through the month of March, I tried a LOT of different things to feel better.
I wrote. I ran. I talked to my friends. I drank wine. I cried. Sometimes I sobbed. I even texted my friends that I was thinking about following Michael Pollan’s experimentation with psychedelics. (My therapist friend Kelly responded with, “don’t do mushrooms! That’s a hard no.” I listened. Because, kids, you shouldn’t do illegal drugs to dull your pain. There are plenty of FDA-approved medicines that can help if that’s where you find yourself.)
But before I get too far away from my key point here: March was terrible. (And yes, I know it’s not over, but it’s ALMOST over, thank God.) I was miserable. And I was willing to try anything to make myself feel better.
I started reading everything I could get my hands on about grief and sorrow, including some interesting online articles about the idea of “radical acceptance.” Basically, the idea with radical acceptance is that you have to accept the reality in front of you in order to really move forward.
So, I took out a post-it note one morning. On it I wrote 3 lines:
You are alone. Accept that. Carry on.
I put it in my pocket and went to drop off Tommy at my friend Purva’s house. “I’m trying radical acceptance,” I told her, and showed her the note.
“That’s one way to do it,” she said, “but I think the future is probably brighter for you than that.”
But I couldn’t see it. All I could see – especially in the middle of the night – was a sad future where I was totally alone in the world. I was okay during the day, distracted by my students and my children and the fact that I needed to make sure that I had signed all of the permission slips and coordinated rides to baseball practice. But when night came, things became difficult. Usually, I could fall asleep. But at 3 am, when the anxiety woke me, I couldn’t keep myself asleep.
It’s bleak at 3 am.
Before Shawn died, I almost never woke up at night unless one of my children needed me. But now….well, it’s rare that I sleep through the night. And the more unhappy I am, the worse the sleep is. One night, so totally upset at 3 am, I wrote a blog post. I read it the next morning and decided it was one of those blog posts that would remain in my “drafts” folder forever because publishing it would cause my loved ones to worry excessively. But as a window into my mindset, here’s an excerpt: “I will die alone. That much seems true to me at 3 am.”
So, yes, things did not look good for me in March and I figured that radical acceptance might be the only way to move forward.
Still, I made an appointment to see an actual therapist. This particular therapist would be number 7 or 8 since Shawn died. I believed in therapy, and yet the therapists I saw didn’t always help. I was still sad. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to try yet another therapist. I remained hopeful that I might be able to get a bit of relief from seeing her.
(As a side note, a few hours before I went to see this therapist, I was in the hallway with some students. They were in a psychology class, practicing how to use a certain kind of therapy that was patient-centered. In the scenario, the fake “patient” was complaining that her boyfriend always ignored her unless he wanted to make out with her, and the fake “therapist” had to just keep asking questions about how it made her feel.
“Well,” I said to my students, “I know this is what you are supposed to be doing, but isn’t there something to be said for telling it how it is? I mean, how about ‘your boyfriend is a total jerk and you should break up with him!’?”
They laughed. I did too. But I thought, “God, I hope my therapist isn’t like that.”)
A few hours later, I met with my therapist. She listened to my story and offered some thoughtful reflections. As we wrapped up, she said to me, “I think what we need to work on is containing the thoughts you have about being alone for the rest of your life. Yes, you may be alone. Or you may not. But thinking about being alone forever is what’s causing you anxiety.”
I agreed with her.
“What I want you to do,” she said, “is try to stay in the moment. When you are up at 3 am and you start thinking about being alone forever, I want you to really try to focus on the next day or week. Do your best to stay in the present.”
Then she put her hands together, as though she was holding a small ball. “I want you to stay in the small. When you start feeling like you are spinning out of control, think about the next morning or the next day. Don’t think about the rest of your life.”
I left her office, put on my headphones, and went for a long walk. I thought about what she said.
Stay in the present. Stay in the small.
I thought about my “radical acceptance” note. Maybe I was alone for now. Maybe I would be alone for a long time. Or maybe not.
But I can’t know what is next. And this “radical acceptance” plan I was using was really only making things worse.
That night, I put my hands like hers, pretending to hold a small ball. “Stay in the small,” I said. I wasn’t really sure what else I was supposed to think about. I was so tired I fell asleep easily, which was a blessing.
Later, around 3 am, Tommy crawled in my bed. I was asleep, but he woke me. A few minutes later, he was snoring and I was wide awake with anxiety.
I looked at my note that I kept in my nightstand. “You are alone. Accept that. Carry on.”
It was bleak.
And then I thought about the therapist. “Stay in the small,” I said to myself.
I rolled towards Tommy and put my head next to his. His hair smelled like baby shampoo. He must have woken up a bit when I moved towards him, because right then, he reached his hand over to mine.
And in that moment, I was able to stay in the small.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.