Upon Trauma & Grief…and Writing Again

TW: Death, pet death, drowning

I’ve been absent for a while, unable to feel inspirational enough to write or even to inspire myself. But then Joan Didion, one of my favorite writers, passed away this week. If you read A Year of Magical Thinking (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you know that Joan dealt with not only the sudden death of her husband, in front of her, but later the same year, the slow death of her daughter to cancer. From that trauma and pain came her lovely book about grief and healing. Remembering her journey helped me to process the end of my journey. Even writing this, which I’ve been drafting in my head for months, is a huge step forward.

So what happened? In late September, I was working from home alone, except our three dogs: Coco, our elderly girl of 14 1/2, Jax, now 6 and Suki, then 6 months. Coco had been struggling for the last year with some mobility issues but still got raving health reports from our vet. That day, she was struggling a bit, so I had to carry her outside to go to the bathroom. I left her there and walked back inside with the puppy. A few minutes later, I went back outside and realize that Coco was floating lifeless in the deep end of the pool. I jumped in, pulled her out and tried lifesaving measures. I was told later that CPR on an animal, even when performed by a vet, is less than 10% successful. My kind neighbor heard my shouting, ran over and then got her car for a quick drive to the vet we share. Unfortunately, too much time had gone by and Coco did not survive.

My lovely Coco

Processing what had happened was so difficult. I felt responsible even though now I can see that it was a freak accident. At the time, though, it sucked all of the life out of me. The pain was so great, I couldn’t image how people who lose a spouse or a child could ever cope. What I realize now is that the intersection of trauma and grief is a strange one. You never quite get to deal with the traumatic event, the flashbacks, the post-traumatic stress, because you are thrust immediately into grief. You have a husband who you made a frantic call to and rushed to the house only to find you gone. You have a child who lost the dog that she’s spent her whole life with. You eventually need to make arrangements, to say goodbye, to start informing your friends and family. You shield the majority of people from the entire story. You push all those feelings down.

Luckily, I realized I needed a few things. First, I needed an emergency session with my therapist. She was instrumental in telling me that even though this was a pet, I still had to go through the grieving process and especially allow myself to be sad when I needed to. Validating my feelings was important. We also took a nightly walk with our other two dogs, giving them attention and love and allowing my Husband & I to talk out our feelings together. Honestly, we also got a short-term prescription from our doctor for some medication that helped us relax and keep calm. We had to not only take back the pool so it wasn’t a negative place. We also needed to make sure our other dogs knew where to go to get out of the pool if they ever fell in, especially the puppy who had never been swimming.

While these things helped, I still went through a depressive slump. The thing is if you have depression, you can slip into a dark place for a lot less! I wasn’t working out regularly (not even yoga) and I was overeating a lot. Needless to say, running went straight out the window. I wasn’t necessarily eating unhealthy, I just was just eating until I felt over full and even a little sick. It’s a familiar concept for those that self-harm: make something hurt outside so the inside doesn’t hurt so much.

I kept thinking I would get back to “normal” next week, then the week after. Pretty soon it was December and I still was stuck. I think I didn’t want to treat myself well because I was still blaming myself for what happened. The “What Ifs” were the worst. What if I hadn’t gone inside with the puppy, What if I had brought her back in right after she went to the bathroom, What if I was able to get to her quicker.

I read recently that grief is all the unexpressed love you have. In focusing on that love, I have been able to turn some of that love towards myself. I started doing yoga, even if it was only 10 or 20 minutes. Then, I focused again on my eating. Last week, I even fit in some strength workouts. Did a switched get flipped? No. Not even close, but I’m moving forward and pushing through. All I can do is take one day at a time.

I still sometimes sit out by the pool, either sitting on the part of the deck where I pulled her out or just in my chair next to it. I still have flashbacks but I quickly try and replace them with good memories. My husband and I continually trade videos and pictures and we have some gorgeous pictures of Coco around the house so we are bombarded by beautiful memories.

Coco & the puppy, Suki

Really in the end, life is about processing feelings and moving through. For all I have lost in 2021, I have gained a lot too and that can’t get lost in all the grief. I’m choosing to take all of the unexpressed love and spread it around.

My Moment of Zen (or how therapy is the ultimate self care)

2020 and now 2021 was a year of a lot of changes for the majority of the world. All of our best laid plans in January mostly fell apart by Spring and we were left scrambling to figure out what to do from there. Not knowing when the pandemic would come to an end made future plans nearly impossible.

One thing that has helped me immensely is therapy. Being a busy professional made it almost impossible before (or so I told myself) but working from home and the availability of telehealth made it so easy to slip into my week.

Although so many people do it and get positive results from it, therapy is sometimes perceived as only something damaged people do or that talking about things don’t make them better. I think we all have a little bit of damage that we incurred throughout our years, especially in this year, but you don’t have to be teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown to get benefits from therapy.

What therapy has helped me do is reconnect when my life and do a lot of self-analysis on why I feel a certain way. Reestablishing this connection has made so much of my life better, even in this lockdown state. I am more in tune with my family, my physical well-being, my health and fitness journey and even what I am putting into my body.

The most insane thing in all the pandemic craziness is the plan that fell apart in January of 2020 revived itself in January of 2021 and I am exactly where I wanted to be a year ago. The difference between then and now is that I know a lot more about myself because of my journey in therapy. For that, I am extremely grateful.

Real Talk About Depression

The legal profession is ripe with stress, depression, substance abuse and other mental health issues. Add a pandemic to that mix, and the result can be intense. While the Florida Bar has had the Florida Lawyers Assistance program, it wasn’t until a few years ago that they, with the lead of the Young Lawyers Division, has made mental health a priority. Their Stigma Free YLD, with resources and testimonials from lawyers throughout the state, has made mental health a priority.

The hardest thing for people to understand about depression (even those that suffer from it) is that is goes beyond being sad. Your entire outlook on life is affected. You often feel hopeless and worthless. You don’t enjoy things you usually do. You think people don’t care about you. You often can’t see any good if your life because the depression is coloring everything with its lens. I have not been without my share of depression throughout my legal career but it wasn’t until a former professor and mentor, who was an incredible attorney and well loved by all, died by suicide in 2017. This made me and every other attorney in Florida realize that depression is a vile and often hidden disease that affects so many that we know.

I’ve never talked openly about my depression before but it’s been there most of my life. I’ve taken antidepressants for two different periods: early in my career and at the end of the time I was practicing law. It was tough for me to reach out for that help but it was essential for me to function at the level I needed to. Unfortunately I had an extremely difficult time coming off the antidepressants the last time, to the point that it felt like torture some days, so when I started to experience depression at the beginning of 2020, I was hesitant to go down that road again.

As you can imagine, starting 2020 with some depression did not set me up for success! A series of events coupled by the pandemic and the isolation made things extremely difficult. In the last year, I’ve suffered many major triggering points: a toxic workplace, a huge salary cut, getting laid off, and a period of unemployment. The pandemic had me worrying about my family members with Type 1 Diabetes, my elderly parents and in-laws and even myself, who has been susceptible to respiratory infections throughout my life. I rarely sleep through the night, often waking to take care of my daughter’s blood sugar or my elderly dog, and then struggle to get back to sleep because of racing thoughts. For months, I muddled through and just tried to ignore how I was feeling but sometimes your actions to mask the pain actually make it worse.

A few months ago, I realized I needed to get help. I had been trying to run away from my life because I couldn’t recognize the signs that I had slipped into depression again. My first step was to start therapy. Through this process, I was able to be introspective and dig down to what I was actually feeling. What I thought my problems were was what I had created to mask my actual feelings.

Was it an instant cure? Absolutely not but it was a good start. With my past experience with antidepressants, this time I looked to more holistic methods to help. I cut way back on drinking alcohol, I did the 21 Day Refresh eating organic and vegan foods and doing yoga every day. I joined a yoga book club discussing a year of self-care with a group of amazing yoga instructors and their students. After I finished the Refresh, I tried to keep 80% or more of my diet organic and plant based, keeping room for the occasional restaurant food. Although on the days I just can’t muster exercise, I allow myself the rest.

I just turned 50 and that really weighed heavy on my depression. I didn’t even realize how depressed I was until my therapist remarked on my sullen demeanor in our session right before my birthday. Luckily I was able to finally spend some time with my parents (yay for vaccinations!) and that helped. My husband, daughter and parents made a big deal about it with decorations and cake and it brought me a lot of joy. Everyone that reached out to wish me a happy birthday reminded me that I have a full life. I think birthdays are one day that Facebook is actually positive!

I used to tell my clients that it was like being on the airplane: you need to put your own mask on before you can help someone else. So my advice to those that are feeling down: seek help in whatever form you can and feel comfortable with. I think therapy is great but you have to find the right therapist. You may need to try a few but don’t give up. Surround yourself with those that love you at your best and your worst. If you need medication to help, get it. Remember that alcohol is not medicine and can make you feel worse (and mess with your sleep). It’s important to remember that there is no one antidote for depression so you have to figure out what works for you.

You may feel alone, but you would be surprised how many people have suffered. I am just one lawyer to tell my story, but there are many stories on the YLD website. You can also find the stories of celebrities like Kristen Bell, Chris Evans, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Harrison Ford, Lady Gaga, Dolly Parton , Michael Phelps and more.

MOST OF ALL, IF YOU ARE FEELING LIKE YOU MAY HARM YOURSELF. GET IMMEDIATE HELP. THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE IS 800-273-8255. HELP IS OUT THERE.