Rare Bird – A Book About Life

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{Anna Whiston-Donaldson’s beautiful debut book Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love launches today and is available on Amazon.}

Death is a part of life. Nothing about this truth is easy to accept. But chances are pretty high that if we love deeply, at one point or another in our lifetime we will suffer tremendous loss.

I haven’t experienced this rite of passage yet in my life. Sometimes I get scared and anxious about losing the people I love the most. How would I survive without them? Would I ever be able to experience joy and laughter again if I were to lose those who send me into fits of giggles complete with tears rolling down my cheeks. Do I tell them I love them enough? Will I ever see them again after they leave this Earth?

I met Anna only after she had lost her son Jack in a tragic flash flood in a town only 25 minutes from where I live. In 2011, when a mutual friend and author/blogger wrote a post about Jack’s accident, I immediately clicked over and read Anna’s blog in disbelief and started praying along with the rest of her loyal readers and the masses of people sending love and strength to Anna, Tim and Margaret.

How could God let this happen to such a loving, spiritual family such as the Donaldson’s? I had a hard time believing it was true. I struggle with my faith, especially in times of crisis like this. This unfathomable tragedy made me doubt Him even more.

At our mutual friend’s book signing in April last year, I spotted Anna in line waiting to congratulate Glennon and get her book signed. Weeks earlier, I was surprised when I saw a comment from Anna pop up on my blog post about Wild Mountain, a memoir writers retreat I had attended in March. She mentioned in her note to me that she wished she could have been there and it was then that I knew she was writing a book.

We made plans to meet for lunch and talked of the craft of writing, but mainly just got to know each other. We spoke of our upbringing and faith, and I was so appreciative of her openness and honesty with me even though it was our first time getting together. I’m an open book, and I loved that Anna felt comfortable enough to be the same with me. It’s just her nature. She’s thoughtful, smart, easy to talk to, funny and I didn’t want our lunch date to end.

At that lunch, Anna gave me a blue Lego heart keychain left over from Jack’s service and to this day it is in my hands nearly every day. This handsome, witty, intelligent young man who I’d never had the pleasure of meeting would from that point on enter my mind whenever I reach for my car keys. I already knew he loved Legos, the bible, and being silly like your typical 12-yr old boy, but I couldn’t wait to read Anna’s book to learn even more about Jack.

I wouldn’t have to wait long. I was honored when Anna handed me an early copy of the book before it hit the pre-order stage (although I pre-ordered my own hardcover copy months ago, now available on Amazon). Once I sat down to read Rare Bird, I couldn’t stop. From the introduction of her own childhood to tales of family life with Jack and his goofiness which made me laugh out loud. I pictured my two kids six years into the future and realized exactly why I loved Anna’s book so much.

It’s about life. And how no matter how hard we try to plan for the future, we cannot guarantee that it’ll unfold the way we had hoped. There will be unthinkable losses, whether it’s the passing of a dear loved one or the news of a terminal illness, forcing us to embrace the past as much as the present. Anna’s words are a reminder that we should never take any moment for granted because no one knows what the future holds. Each day is a gift.

Anna’s writing is captivating from the first chapter to the last. She held back nothing because she knew in her heart while she was writing Rare Bird that her vulnerability would help others. And not just those who had lost a child suddenly. This book to me explained so much about love and life and why we’re here. Plus, it gave me hope for heaven. The signs Jack sent were some of my favorite parts of the book. Anna selflessly shares these intimate moments within the pages of Rare Bird.

I read and loved Anna’s book because I wanted to know what it felt like to experience early grief and also how to walk lovingly beside someone who is on such a journey. I wanted to understand how to wrap my arms around a friend moving through grief or a traumatic change in their life. Because life is hard. And chances are, it won’t reveal itself to us the way we expect.

Which is why we have each other to learn from and hold onto.

I love you, Anna. Thank you for sharing so much of Jack with us. He will always be in my heart. And I am here for you holding space.

Stepping Away from the Blog

The good writer seems to be writing{A photo I took on one of our hikes on Mt. Rainer.}
 

I read a piece in The New Yorker online recently by an author I deeply admire. In it, she spoke of how social media – with its ease of sharing, the way it encourages us to gloss over and digest large quantities of information, its impersonal nature – is threatening a writer’s ability to think through and reflect upon his or her life. Will we ever really connect with our readers if we’re so wired to spit out episodes of our life in 140-characters?

We’re all so busy lately. Constantly plugged in. The week before we went on our summer vacation I found myself noticing that it’s been so long since I was last able to sit down and do nothing. Other than the three minutes it takes me to fall asleep after I crawl into bed, hours after everyone else in my house has. And even then I have a to-do list of things still waiting for me running through my head before I nod off. Life is so damn non-stop these days. Dani Shapiro is right – most times these little bits of our life are dashed off on social media to efficiently inform our entire networks. What ever happened to picking up the phone? And why does the entire world need to need to know what we ate for lunch?

We’re such a distracted society. I often find myself thinking back to when my son was a baby (he turns 6 next month) and how people in my life barely used Facebook, Instagram wasn’t born yet, and Twitter was just a toddler. I spent more time on the living room carpet playing with my child than I did on my phone and laptop combined. The ipad wasn’t even an element in the equation in our household yet. Sadly, I can’t say the same today. I know I only have myself to blame.

My blog turned 3 this month. Three years of my life written out in blog posts, shared on the vast interwebs by clicking “publish.” I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in three solid, fairly consistent years of blogging. And I’m in awe of the incredible connections I’ve made in this virtual world, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person, who I’ve built lasting friendships with.

The time just feels right to take a step back from this space. I’m not calling it a break because I may get the burning desire to hop back on here and share my perspective on one thing or another. But at this moment my heart is telling me if I put more energy and time into reflecting on the story I want to tell – this memoir living inside me – I’ll become a stronger writer during the process.

One of my idols in the literary world, Cheryl Strayed, wrote a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. When she signed my copy at the Wild Mountain Memoir Writers’ Retreat, she wrote this:

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The red-cover collection of letters, her advice on life, love, loss and humanity will blow you away. Cheryl’s inscription refers to her response as the advice columnist Dear Sugar, to the final letter captured in her book. A twenty-two year old had written Sugar to ask one simple question: What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?

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Cheryl may have inscribed all the copies of Tiny Beautiful Things the other writers in line handed her with the same note, because it’s rock solid advice from a writer who’s been there. The essay she wrote when she replied to “Seeking Wisdom” included the following paragraph:

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.”

I know my book has a birthday. It’s coursing through my veins. It permeates my thoughts countless times a day. It’s a part of me and I need to nurture it and develop it and give it wings by first doing the work of practicing to fly. I need to practice my writing with pen and paper and my thoughts and crickets chirping when everyone has gone to sleep and the house is quiet. Staying focused is something I’ve never been that great at. I’m recognizing this now and in recognizing this I’m also realizing that surfing Facebook does not contribute to a page count of my memoir. I want to find discipline in my writing practice to reach my dreams and I know I can do it.

I’ll be posting here less and will be writing more by hand with my flowy, fast pen and my favorite notebooks anxiously awaiting words to fill them up. If anything happens to be born from this more focused writing, I promise to share it with you here. I’ll still be tweeting and Instagramming and taking Facebook breaks only once I’ve put in my writing time for the day offline. I hope to continue to write for What to Expect.com, PostpartumProgress.com, and the International Bipolar Foundation, in addition to running our non-profit, This Is My Brave, Inc., with my creative partner Anne Marie Ames.

I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for a few months, and am thankful I finally listened to my gut and the wise advice of two brilliant writers I look up to. This isn’t goodbye, it’s only so long for now. I hope by shifting my priorities from blogging to practicing the discipline of writing, that I’ll be able to wait, as Dani Shapiro describes, “for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself in time.”

 

How I Dug Myself Out of Suicidal Depression

{Trigger warning: talk of suicidal thoughts. If you’re in a sensitive place right now, you may want to skip this post.}
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Looking back now it’s so easy to point to the things I did during my year-long devastating depression which in turn lead to my recovery. But in the moment, my husband, my parents and I, we had no clue what would work. We were just trying so hard to get the “old Jenn” back.

Why is it so hard to look forward when you live with depression? Because you’re just trying to make it through the day you’re in. Tomorrow feels impossible, too heavy and suffocating to entertain even a thought of it. So you stay in the here and now and try not to let the anxiety about what’s coming next crush you.

That’s how it felt for me, anyway. When I thought about my life and what the future might look like after two hospitalizations for mania and a diagnosis of Bipolar type 1, I wasn’t able to fill my lungs with air. Every day felt impossible to bear, like I was drowning. So instead of thinking too far ahead, I sipped the air in gulps and lived my life in moments.

Like the moment I realized I was experiencing suicidal thoughts for the first time.

And the moment I realized I had to tell my husband but was terrified because I didn’t want to hurt or scare him. He had been through enough already.

Or the moment I realized the pulsing anxiety making me so nauseous I could barely eat from day to day was the reason I suddenly had to shop for a size smaller.

This realization was soon followed by the moment I admitted to myself that I didn’t want to go on like this. That I had had enough. That I wanted to get well already, for the love of God. I was done being sick.

I didn’t want another sun to set while my anxious mind paralyzed my dreams, didn’t want to be forever consumed by this sadness. I knew I was the only person who could make the decision to change my outcome.

I wanted to come out on the other side of a mental illness diagnosis smiling and happy, despite it all. I wanted to enjoy life. I wanted a family. I wanted to build a future.

So this is what I did at my pivotal moment at the end of 2006, the most draining year of my life.

I advocated for myself.

I decided to try the medication my doctors had been encouraging me to try for many months. I stayed on top of side effects and my symptoms by keeping a detailed journal so I could share my concerns with my doctor between appointments. And I came to terms with my illness, this life-long condition I face each and every day.

I am extremely fortunate to have good doctors, and the most loving, supportive people around me who care deeply about my well-being. I realize it’s not always as simple as trying a new med and communicating with your doctor. But this acceptance thing. The point in my life when I decided to embrace my sometimes malfunctioning brain so that I could move on and make progress was my turning point.

It’s what sparked the fire in my belly to advocate for mental health. It’s what told me that sharing my story could help other people. It’s my way of saying that if I could do it, you can do it, too.

Last week’s tragic news of the passing of Robin Williams occurred while we were traveling on the west coast. I, like the entire world, was deeply saddened by this tremendous loss, but we need to remember that suicide claims the lives of over 39,000 people a year, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 64 years old in the United States. It’s time we start talking about mental illness and how to prevent suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a great place to start. Also, if you are struggling, please reach out for help. Talk with a family member or friend. Or contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline
1-800-273-8255
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EAPs: A Hidden Resource

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full-time job with health insurance benefits. Six years, to be exact. But even when I had my own benefits available, ever since my husband and I got married in 2003, we always went with his benefits plan because his employer seemed to have the most robust plan for the lower price, compared to mine.

I’ve never paid much attention to the details of our health insurance plan. To me, insurance is a necessary evil. All I knew was that it had morphed over the years from co-pays to deductibles, and when enrollment time came around I’d complain to my husband that we seem to be paying more with each passing year and yet we’re getting less and less coverage. A sign of the times, I guess. Still, I’m extremely grateful to have insurance at all.

We used to pay a co-pay for visits, and had to get referrals to see specialists, but last year and this year we moved to a deductible plan. Now instead of co-pays, we pay a premium each pay period, have a {pretty high} family deductible to meet, and once that’s met, the insurance plan covers our doctor’s visits at 100%.

I hadn’t been to the dermatologist since 2009, and with the recent news reports about skin cancer, Ben and I decided it was time he and I get checked. I called our provider to double-check that I didn’t need a referral, since I couldn’t for the life of me remember. The customer service rep I spoke with reminded me that referrals weren’t required with our plan. While he was reviewing our account, I happened to make a comment about how far we were from meeting our deductible and the cost of doctor’s visits, and how I’d love to be able to see my therapist again but since I’m working for free to start-up my non-profit and we’re living on one income right now it wasn’t really possible.

Here’s where the Employee Assistance Program comes in. The rep told me that my husband’s company participates in an EAP which would allow for me to see my therapist for eight visits completely free, if I qualified after speaking with an intake counselor over the phone. I immediately asked to be transferred and had a ten-minute conversation with a kind woman who assured skeptical ole’ me that the benefit was most certainly available for my use and she’d email me the authorization code so I can book my appointment. There’s nothing dire going on with me, just the usual stress of being a stay-at-home mom who is struggling to balance life and work and family and if given the opportunity to talk with a professional about it, I’ll jump at the chance.

{Happy dance! I’m going back to therapy!}

I went ahead and booked appointments two weeks apart for September, October, November and December and then decided I needed to blog about this.

Maybe you’ve been feeling really down lately, or you’re struggling with your anger management and it’s affecting your home life. Or your glass of wine with dinner has turned into two or three, or maybe an entire bottle. Financial worries are giving you anxiety attacks and you are at a loss when it comes to what to do. If the weight of everyday life is crushing you and you’re gasping to catch your breath, it’s time to stop feeling ashamed and do something about it.

EAPs aren’t just for the employee, people! They include every family member on the plan, from what I understand. They can offer assistance in the following areas:

  • Counseling Services (Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, Mental Health issues, etc.)
  • Occupational Stress and Emotional Distress
  • Financial and Legal Advice
  • Family Support
  • Help with Work and Home Relationships
  • and more

Maybe I’m just naive in my estimate that many folks out there don’t realize they have access to this valuable resource. I certainly didn’t, even though they mailed us information and I read it and put the magnet on our fridge.

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My point is, if you’ve been wrestling with a personal issue and need someone to talk with, check your health insurance plan and see if you have access to an Employee Assistance Program. You may be pleasantly surprised and on your way to a happier, healthier you.

Do it for yourself, do it for your family. Namaste.