Saturday, February 3, 2018

Nightswimming. Or, Watch Out 2018.

Finally, it was my very last full day at the yoga retreat center. The time had gone much more quickly than I had anticipated. I had reserved my last day for writing about the future: How can I be my best self in 2018? Should I stay in Rwanda for another year? Another five years? Forever? What's best for D'Assise? What are my long-term goals? What do I want to do with this time that I have on earth? How can I be a good Mama to D'Assise and rock it at my job and have a social life and stay in some semblance of shape and get enough sleep and not drive myself insane (just keeping it real over here, guys)?

Of all the topics on my list of 33 things, writing about the future was by far the toughest. Unlike the past, it did not involve rote transcription of memories from the past year. Unlike the present, it did not involve gazing inward at my current self. Writing about the future involved Decisions with a capital D. Decisions that would affect not just me, but also the life of my son. And Decisions are tough.

I slowly knocked them down one by one, pausing to take swimming breaks and to go to my three yoga classes that day.

I made a few resolutions for 2018:
1) Do more yoga (is this too obvious of a resolution to write while at a yoga retreat...?)
2) Read more books (give me your recommendations!)
3) Read more books with D'Assise (chapter books, here we come!)
4) Cook more small group dinners and host more parties at my house this year.
5) Listen more, talk less.
6) Smile politely when (mostly single, mostly childless, mostly well-meaning) people give me unsolicited parenting advice. Two small public service announcements: a) when I want advice on how to raise my kid, I'll ask for it and b) The only people I take unsolicited parenting advice from are my own parents, since they raised me and lived to tell the tale, and my two grandmas, who raised 7 and 8 kids before microwaves and disposable diapers were a thing.
7) Cultivate gratitude more. Make sure to tell all the amazing people in my life how much I love + appreciate them often.
8) Give zero fucks when someone doesn't want to date me because I have a kid, and never let myself feel guilty, inferior, frustrated, or disappointed, even for the briefest of micro-seconds. Dating for the first time as a single Mama last year was sort of a rude awakening for me. In the car ride on the way to our adoption hearing, one of my lawyer's questions to me was, "You are now single. What if you get married and your husband does not accept D'Assise?" I literally laughed out loud it was such a ridiculous question. It was completely unfathomable to me that having an (awesome, energetic, hilarious) kid who is literally the biggest joy in my life and the best thing that ever happened to me would ever be a reason someone wouldn't want to date me, but I quickly realized how naive I was last year. No matter how it started, as soon as I would reveal that I'm a parent, things quickly came to an end. In 2018, I'm just not going to care. I have everything that I could have ever asked for or wanted in life by getting the chance to be D'Assise's Mom.
9) Do the things I'm afraid to do.

* * * 

By the end of that day, I had nearly finished the journal I'd brought with me. I went to my last evening yoga class. I laid in savasana, the final resting posture, for long after the class ended, just feeling the warm ocean breeze on my face, and trying to hang onto the feeling of being completely rejuvenated and calm. I went up to my last dinner in the beautiful cafe, and then returned to my little beachside house. I sat on my porch, gazing at the stars and thinking about my resolutions (and trying not to think about my 40 something hour flight back to Rwanda) for a few hours.

View from my porch!
I knew that the next morning, I was going to attend the two-hour early morning yoga class, pack up my room, and then head to the airport to catch my flight, and that I wouldn't have enough time to go for one last swim. This was it, my last chance to go for one final swim before returning to the landlocked life in Rwanda. I felt the same mix of sadness and nostalgia that I felt in my childhood at our last day swimming in the cold Atlantic waters before returning to Nebraska. I wanted to go for one last dip. The only problem was that it was around 2 am. And I'm terrified of swimming at night.

This is mostly because I have a huge fear of sharks, which I blame on having been shown Jaws at far too tender an age; that opening scene pretty much ruined me for ever considering the idea of swimming at night.

Nonetheless, I found myself slipping into my swimsuit and slipping out of my room, walking down the path lined with palm trees towards the hidden beach. I took off my sandals on the shore and felt the cool sand underneath my feet. The moonlight lit up the shoreline and the stars gleamed bright above. As a little girl, my Dad would always point out the constellations he knew at night, making us find the North Star and the Big and Little Dippers and even Orion. Orion was always my favorite to locate. Orion's belt is made up of three stars called the Three Sisters, and being one of three sisters myself, I always imagined myself as that middle star in his belt, millions of miles away.

As my toes dipped into the water, my brain started to freak out a little bit, going through a rapid fire list of reasons that this was a bad idea. "There could be sharks, and you're afraid of sharks! You're not even with a slower-swimming friend, so you would definitely get eaten! Are saltwater crocodiles a thing in Thailand? That would be an extremely painful death! It's 2 am and you should go to bed so that you're well rested for the yoga class tomorrow!"

I kept inching into the lightly lapping waves, and my mind grew ever more desperate to prevent me from going further. "If you get stung by a jellyfish there will be no one to pee on you!!!!!!" it finally pleaded exasperatedly, and I laughed out loud at my mind's ridiculous last-ditch effort.

I located the Three Sisters in the sky above me, and plunged into the dark water. It was a pure and utter rush, feeling the cool saltwater surround me and being guided only by the moonlight. I didn't stay in long or swim very far from the beach, but my heart was still racing when I got back to shore.

Resolution #9: Check.

* * *
The next morning, I woke up early for my final two hour class, a bit bedraggled from my night swimming adventures of the night before. I knew that in just a few more hours, my silence would come to an end and I'd be free. But as I packed up my little room after the challenging morning class, it felt like leaving both paradise and prison. Part of me wanted to run as fast as I could to the exit and yell at the top of my lungs, and part of me wanted to linger, unsure of what to do now that the prison door was open. 

It felt like paradise in that I was living in an idyllic little beach banda on an island in Thailand, removed from the stresses of real life and any responsibilities whatsoever. I spent my days writing and swimming and doing up to five hours of yoga a day. I was sleeping so well that I had vivid dreams every single night, and my coffee consumption went from drinking an entire French press every day to just a small cup at breakfast (as D'Assise would say, the struggle is real). 

The cute cafe where I'd have breakfast and just one cup of coffee :)
It felt like a prison in that I had been living with a strict set of rules the past six days: no talking, no listening to music, no phone, no computer, no alcohol, yoga classes three times per day. Although I'd felt tempted, I resisted the urge to get to know my fellow yogis, avoided small talk in favor of smiles and nods, resisted the urge to bolt out of down dog pose and explore the rest of the island, and struggled through the no-music rule, often finding myself playing songs in my head during the week. I had longed to break almost of the rules I'd set for myself during that week. 

I ended up breaking silence three times during the week. Two were intentional (mass and talking to D'Assise halfway through to make sure he was doing okay), and once was unintentional. On the third day, my sunscreen supplies had run out, and I was in desperate need of a re-stock. I headed to the mini-mart across the street from the yoga retreat center and braced myself for the exorbitant price of sunscreen. I walked the aisles and found a tiny bottle of sunscreen, about the size of my palm, with no price on it. Even though I had mentally prepared myself and my wallet to get price gouged, when the lady rang up the price and the screen flashed "570 baht" (about $18) I was so shocked I cursed out loud before I could stop myself, and then swore again when I realized that I'd just broken my vow of silence unintentionally over overpriced sunscreen. You win some, you lose some.

All in all, I felt pretty proud of myself with sticking through the silence nearly the whole time. Not being able to listen to music was a huge challenge. I realized how much of my normal everyday life is spent listening to music. In the mornings, I wake D'Assise up with either "Here Comes the Sun" by The Beatles, "Send Me on My Way" by Rusted Root, or "Take Care" by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx. We play a Beatles mix as I get his breakfast ready and he brushes his teeth, and then I put my playlists on random as we bike to school while blaring our bluetooth speaker (partially to actually listen to the music and partially as a makeshift bike bell to let people know we're coming through). I listen to music as I work, and then I turn on a nighttime mix with Bon Iver and The XX and Belle & Sebastian on it when D'Assise and I play a quick card game before going to bed. All in all, I'm probably listening to music for 80% of my waking hours, and the musical deprivation I felt during the yoga retreat was intense.

I ate my last breakfast at the retreat center and jumped into the waiting taxi to head to the airport. I was free at last. I asked the taxi driver if I could plug my phone into his stereo, and he agreed. I blasted Lizzo's "Water Me" as loud as he let me, sang along to the lyrics at the top of my lungs, and stuck my head out the window to dance at passerby like a total crazy person. "I am free, yeah, yeah, come water me...," I sang along to the main verse, the wind whipping my hair as we drove through the island's villages, until we reached the airport and the driver politely asked me if he could turn down the music to go through security and if I would mind coming back inside the car and rolling up the window.

So was the silent yoga retreat "worth it?" Hell yeah.
Did I have some huge revelations and make some tough decisions? Yep.
Was it one of the hardest things I've ever done? Also yes.

I'm starting 2018 relaxed and refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to take on the world.

Watch out 2018, I'm comin' for ya. 

In case you missed it:
Part 1: Into the Silence
Part 2: Your Work is Not Here

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Your Work is Not Here

When my hand would start cramping up from so much writing in my journal, I'd go for a swim in the crystalline blue bay to relax and clear my mind (or occasionally to ponder about my likelihood of developing serious carpal tunnel syndrome in my wrists, while floating on the gentle waves).

If I had a choice, I would choose to spend the majority of my waking hours in the ocean. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a landlocked state and still live in a landlocked country--the ocean is exotic to me, a rare resource that I'm never quite sure when I'll see again.

During my childhood, we would go on family vacations every other year to a beach on the New Hampshire seacoast. Let me remind you for a second that I'm from Nebraska. So my parents would take turns driving four kids, multiple beach floaties, fishing poles, my Dad's oldies mixtapes, food to last us until New Hampshire, and occasionally a grandma or dog packed into in our '90s minivan halfway across the country. Despite narrowly avoiding World War III on several occasions, there was no feeling like that first glimpse of the ocean as our minivan rounded King's Highway. Despite the brisk 60 degree New England water, my siblings and I would be at the beach from morning to sunset, coming in to sun ourselves on the rocks when our limbs went numb from swimming. I always felt a mix of sadness and nostalgia during my final swim on our last day at the beach, knowing that I was headed back to the Great Plains and wouldn't get to smell that powerful saltwater scent and feel the waves supporting my body for another two years.

My enchantment with the ocean remains today (thankfully, the Thailand water was much warmer than the frigid New Hampshire seacoast of my childhood). I'd soak in it for as long as I could and then eventually, when my hands were more wrinkly than raisins, I'd go back to my writing in the open-air beachside hut. I finished writing about the past after nearly three days and moved onto the present and the future. Even though writing about 2017 took me a long time, the present and future were much more difficult to write about.

Much of what I wanted to force myself to think about under my "present" category was the person that I am today: What are my fears? What are my flaws? What are my strengths? What are my regrets? What am I grateful for? What makes me happy in life? Whereas writing about the past only required a cursory glance at a pile of memories in my mind and a lot of transcribing of those memories, writing about the present and future necessitated a much high degree of processing and contemplation.

I started on flaws. It was relatively easy for me to write about most of my flaws compared to some of the other present and future topics, and I quickly had a list of 21 idiosyncrasies, flaws, and insanities, one coming right after the other. I can be impatient. I can be a perfectionist at times. I'm often running two minutes late, and I want to be a better listener than I am. On and on my pen moved across the pages, thoroughly documenting my faults on the pages of my bright green journal.

I moved onto regrets. Even though I try to not have regrets, there are things that I definitely wish I could change about 2017. I'll spare you the details, but if it makes you feel any better, know that if I offended you or was impatient with you or you were on the receiving end of my very long list of faults in any way whatsoever, I probably spent multiple sleepless nights analyzing and examining every aspect of the interaction in my head over the past year and that I'm sincerely sorry.

* * *
And then I started to write about my strengths. I stared at my journal for a long, long time. Finally I wrote:
1) I'm alive. I'm a living, breathing human being.
"Wow good one, keep going," my mind said sarcastically.

2) I'm not addicted to anything.
"You're really on a roll now," my mind continued.

After pausing awhile longer, I added an addendum to #2.
2) I'm not addicted to anything. Except coffee.

I hesitated, and then revised it again:
2) I'm not addicted to anything. Except coffee. And cheese.

I kept staring at my journal again, waiting for my strengths to jump out of the page at me.

I went to my afternoon yoga class, my mind distracted the entire time trying to think of what my strengths are.
"Clearly not your triceps," my mind whispered after I struggled through what seemed like the hundredth chaturanga of the class. My mind can be a real asshole sometimes.

After the yoga class, I was still agonizing over this question. To be completely honest, it's far easier for me to see my own flaws. I can be my own worst critic. I went out for another swim, trying to reset. I've got to have other strengths besides not being dead and not being addicted to anything but coffee and cheese, right?

I swam further out into the large bay, until the yoga retreat center was a cluster of tiny beachside houses in the distance, and then I stopped to just float on my back. Unlike at the retreat center's sheltered beach, I was out in open water now, and the waves lightly jostled me to and fro. I closed my eyes and felt the bright sunlight warming my face and smelled the seawater and smiled to myself.

And then:
"You are capable of very deep love." 

* * *

By the fourth day, the silent retreat began to feel both like paradise and prison. The silence and practicing up to five hours of yoga every day was wearing on me a bit. I had become accustomed to smiling and giving a friendly nod as a greeting to my fellow yogis, but I yearned for a bit of small talk to get to know them better. How were their days going? Wasn't the breakfast delicious today? Would they fancy going for a swim with me after the yoga class? It was tough to avoid the pleasantries that would normally fill the space and time during a similar interaction outside of the yoga center, but I bit my tongue and kept to my smiles and nods.

I went to the 7 am "complete" class, a two hour class with more advanced postures, on the fourth day. I was sweating through an intense sequence already, and then the next posture was announced: Hanumanasana. Monkey pose. Full splits pose. My yoga nemesis.

Despite practicing yoga for around 15 years at this point, and being a certified yoga instructor, I cannot get fully into hanumanasana.

I was struggling mightily, getting closer to the full expression of the posture than I've ever gotten before. My pelvis hovered just a couple of inches off the floor and I felt my hamstrings stretching to their limit. Sweat rolled down my face in beads as I approached my edge.

And then:

"Your work is not here."

Excuse me? Can't you see how hard I'm working? My work is definitely here, I protested.

"Your work is not here."

I didn't understand. How could this not be my work? I was practically indignant.

"Your work is not here."

And then, I realized.

My work is not at a beautiful Thai island yoga retreat center, where I can get 8 solid hours of sleep every night and write in my journal and be detached from the real challenges and stresses of daily life.

My work is being patient and kind even when I'm sleep deprived from trying to juggle motherhood and a full time job; when I've been up with a sick kid all night and have a project due the next day and I'm wondering how I can keep it all together.

My work is not when I'm sheltered away from the hardships of humanity and sometimes cruel realities of this world, far from the nearest newspaper headline or cable news channel.

My work is in the countryside of Rwanda, where I cannot hide from the challenges of hunger and poverty and climate change some of my own neighbors face, when D'Assise asks me almost daily if we can spare extra bananas or bread to give to his neighborhood friends who didn't eat lunch that day.

My work is not when I'm doing five hours of advanced yoga classes each day with talented yoga instructors from around the world with a stunning view of the ocean, no matter how difficult the poses might be.

It's when I'm trying to fit in five minutes of meditation in between biking my son to school and sitting down at my computer.

My work is not when I'm blissfully swimming in the beautiful warm waters of the retreat center's beach.

My work is when D'Assise is chasing me around the house with underwear on his head trying to tickle me and I'm trying stay present and give him all the love and attention he deserves instead of thinking of my to do list.

My work is not at this peaceful place where I'm served artfully prepared organic vegetarian food in the center's cafe overlooking the bay.

My work is when I'm anxious about D'Assise's health and future, but I'm determined to never, ever let him know.

This is not my work. That is my work.

To be continued. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Into the Silence

Two weeks ago, I did something I've wanted to do for a long time: a silent yoga retreat. It was the best gift that I've given to myself, and the best money that I've ever spent.

Before I begin, I want to be clear on what I did and did not do. I spent five nights and six days at a yoga retreat center in Thailand, where I maintained silence for almost the entire time (more on this later). I did three yoga classes a day and stayed in a nice but simple beach banda facing the ocean. My meals were taken in silence, even though you could talk in the cafe if you wanted to. Some people at the retreat kept silence, others didn't. Although I didn't talk, my yoga instructors did during the classes, so it wasn't complete silence.

I didn't do a full vipassana retreat, where talking is usually strictly prohibited, as are writing and reading, and where attendees stick to a grueling daily meditation schedule, in complete stillness. Although I'm a certified yoga teacher, I still consider myself a meditation novice. Without doing yoga first, my mind tends to wander to the last time I had cheese and wondering when the next time I'll eat cheese again will be. Anyways....

I wasn't there for crystal healing, juice fasting, waking up at 3 am to chant to a guru (actually, waking at 3 am for any reason whatsoever). If that's you're thing, more power to you, but it's not what I was there to do. I knew that as a Mama with a young son being babysat by GrandMom and GrandDad, I would probably want to talk to them at some point and didn't want to choose a place that would kick me out for doing so. I chose the yoga retreat center that I did because it offered a lot of flexibility: I could go to as many as six yoga or meditation classes every day if I wanted to, or none. If I decided this whole silence thing was way over my head, I could talk to other people up in the cafeteria.

So why was I there? 
I came to clear my mind and reset at the beginning of a new year.

I came to think about some big life decisions and hard questions.

I came to listen. I'm not a super great listener, and it's something that I'm really trying to work on. Complete silence was a way to tune out all the noise and realize how I use my voice.

I came to write. In between drinking wine and watching movies on my long flights to Thailand, I'd drafted a list of 33 things I needed to write about: past, present, and future. Yes, need. Let me explain.

When I think of my own mind, I almost never think of it as a brain, as a physical organ in my body. I usually picture it in one of two ways. The first is a galaxy in Star Wars (#nerdalert). As an introvert, I can travel in any direction on lightspeed for hours on end and never reach the edges of the galaxy. There are endless planets to explore, cute fuzzy looking creatures, places that are both weird and wondrous, and a few dark parts that are best avoided in my mind. I'm almost never bored, even when I'm alone, because there's always new and exciting thoughts to think about, pleasant memories to remember, and ideas to ponder.

The second way I picture my own mind is a giant ball of yarn. Each day that I live is a small segment of yarn that enters through my ears and wraps around the ball of yarn, getting bigger and bigger. The ball of yarn continues winding day by day, until pressure starts to build up in my head.

From the time I was perhaps seven or eight, the only way that I've found of unravelling that pressure is to write. As I write, it feels like I'm pulling that giant spool of yarn out through my pen and onto my journal page, and I have room in my head to start afresh and collect new memories.

(To my friends who have asked me why I don't write a book, the honest answer is that 99.9% of my diaries, from around the second grade till now, are essentially pages upon pages of "omg so I have a crush on this boy" or chapters and chapters of "WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!?").

I came for self-knowledge. I wanted to gaze inward, to look equally at the parts of myself that I like and the flaws that I want to change.

I came to set goals and resolutions for 2018, as I try to be the best version of myself that I can be: the best sister, mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, colleague, human being.

* * *

I arrived at the yoga retreat center in Thailand early on a Saturday morning, tired and hungry after an overnight flight from Hong Kong and sweating from head to toe in the island humidity, still wearing pants, a black jacket, and a scarf to stay warm on the plane. 

I was excited and nervous all at the same time. Could I really do this? Would I break halfway through, desperate for human connection? Would I drive myself crazy with nothing but my own thoughts for the next six days? 

I ate breakfast overlooking the ocean as I pondered what I was about to do, and my mind began to fill with fantasies about ditching this whole plan and just having an awesome vacation in Thailand for a week. In the taxi on the way to the retreat, I'd passed delicious looking street food stalls that I wanted to eat at, beautiful beaches where I wanted to swim, and golden temples I wanted to explore. Couples on colorful motor scooters dipped in and out of the traffic from the airport and I visualized myself exploring the island on one (never mind the fact that I've never tried to drive a scooter or motorcycle in my life and would probably seriously injure myself trying). I pictured myself going on one of the rock-climbing adventures advertised back at the last bend, devouring platefuls of pad thai, trying out Muay Thai boxing, and sampling a margarita or three at that beachside bar blasting Shakira.


I sipped my smoothie and I reminded myself that I'd already paid for the week at the yoga retreat in full in advance. There was no backing out now. Maybe someday I'll head back to Thailand and do all those things; in fact, I really I hope I do. But it wouldn't be this week.

I had a few hours to kill before I could check into my room, so I changed into my swimsuit and headed down to the small hidden beach at the retreat center. I decided to celebrate my dwindling hours of freedom by getting my tan on (okay, sunburn), having a couple cold beers on the beach before my week of sobriety, exploring the expansive grounds, and doing a couple laps in the infinity pool. I allowed myself to take a few pictures of the yoga center, had lunch, and then a bit after noon, I locked my phone and computer away for the week and got changed for my first yoga class.

* * *
I had a difficult time keeping my mind from wandering in that first class. I wondered what other people's reasons for coming to the yoga retreat were. Where were they from? Who were they? What were their stories? A couple people had visible physical injuries; one girl came on crutches to the yoga class and modified the postures ("See?! That would have been you if you'd tried out that motor scooter like you wanted to," my mind told myself smugly). Others had other things they were dealing with that I could only guess at; I heard sobs in at least a couple of my classes that week.

After just a day or two at the retreat center, I quickly adjusted to the routine. I'd wake up with no alarm around 6:45 am, head to a two-hour 7 am yoga class, eat breakfast at the cafeteria overlooking the ocean, and then start journaling around 10 am each day. I'd write for awhile and take swimming breaks when my hand would start cramping up, then take a mid-day class or a later afternoon one, write some more, take an evening yoga class, eat dinner and write more, and then go to bed around 10 pm.

There was a small thatched hut right next to the water on the retreat center's beach that provided me necessary shade and welcome ocean breezes, and I chose it as my primary writing spot. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, slowly conquering my list of 33 things from the past, the present, and the future.

Writing about the past took me much longer than I expected. In my previous childless life, I journaled much more regularly, but I find that it's quite difficult to find the time now. I had a lot to catch up on from 2017: vacations, work, friends, family, relationships, D'Assise, life changes, memories that were pleasant, and a few recollections that were painful. I try not to have a lot of regrets; the past has passed and there's not much we can do about it. But as I found my footing last year as a single working Mama managing a team of nearly 1,000 people, 2017 definitely taught me a lot of lessons.

I was journalling about a particularly difficult memory from last year, and I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. I stopped writing and stared out at the waves slowly lapping against the shore and the beautiful bay before me. But the sobs kept coming, quickly turning from a couple tears running down my cheek to full-out ugly crying.

There was an older woman taking a nap in the small thatched hut laying a few feet away from me. She had a floppy straw hat protecting her face as I had climbed the extremely rickety ladder into the open-air seaside hut earlier that day; I could only tell her age from her lightly wrinkled pale skin. I must have woken her with my sobbing, because she soon turned over, took off her hat, and my jaw dropped.

It was the spitting image of my paternal grandmother, minus twenty or thirty years. Rather than the elegant wispy bun my Grandma usually wears, this woman had short white hair that framed her face and had every-so-slightly sunburned cheeks. She whispered something in German to me, and then realizing that I didn't understand, she kindly asked in heavily accented English, "Are you okay?"

I nodded, not wanting to break silence, and she gave me a hug. The resemblance was so striking, I almost asked if she was related to any Eischeids, my German-American grandmother's maiden name, but I just smiled and hugged her back.

I took it as a sign that I was going to be able to make it through the week. When times would get tough, there would be a sweet, slightly more sunburned version of my grandmother who would appear out of nowhere and embrace me.

To be continued...

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

World Mental Health Day: My Struggle with Mental Illness

Today is October 10, World Mental Health Day.

Each year, I’ve silently commemorated this day, but until today I’ve never publicly shared my own struggles with mental illness. I’ve whispered to a few close friends what happened to me over ten years ago, but I have always been too ashamed to talk openly about my battle with depression and suicide when I was a teenager. I’m no longer ashamed.

When I was 16, my world turned upside down.  During my sophomore year of high school, I went from being a happy, normal teenage girl to suicidal in the period of a few months. To this day, I don’t know exactly what happened; there was no triggering event or traumatic circumstances that caused my slide into severe depression, but every day, I felt my world become a little bit darker. Food had no taste, the world became colorless and dull, and things I previously enjoyed no longer brought me happiness. Eventually, I could not bring myself to get out of bed in the mornings and I thought about suicide on a regular basis. I felt like I had to be perfect, and that I was disappointing people if I wasn’t. To be totally honest, I felt worse than useless, and felt like the world would have been better without me.

I’ve kept journals since I was in first or second grade, but the diaries from my sophomore year of high school are particularly difficult to read. My entries turned from cheerful dithering about the minutiae of my life and everything I was excited about in the future to what a waste of space I was, and how I wasn’t good enough at whatever I did. I once went to the library and checked out every single self-help book on happiness, determined to find the answers to my depression in literature, but nothing seemed to help.

My writings became darker and darker until I wanted to end my own life in the middle of the night in May of 2005, the spring of my sophomore year. I woke up in a padded room in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. There was nothing but a bed inside the room, and a nurse had to accompany me when I showered or went to the bathroom to make sure I didn’t try to kill myself when I was alone. I remember nothing of that dark, dark night—I do not recall my parents driving me to the hospital or getting checked in or falling asleep. I stayed in the psych ward for a week, and was finally released with multiple prescriptions of medications to take and appointments with a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

For a little more than a year, I switched from medication to medication, trying to find the right combination that would magically make me feel better, and I saw the counselor each week and the psychiatrist each month, lying to my friends about where I had to go after school.

Then, on a youth trip to Germany several months later, I had another suicidal episode and was taken to a hospital near Cologne. It was the same routine in a different place. I remember nothing of the trip there or being checked into the hospital; I remember waking up and being in another room with just a bed in it, doctors with German-accented English, and a big observation window where the nurses could watch me around the clock. I felt like an animal in the zoo as doctors in white coats would gather on the other side of the observation window and write notes on their clipboards. I do not know how long I stayed at that hospital. It could have been two days or two weeks. The entire rest of the trip was a blur—I do not even recall the transatlantic flight home.

After I returned, I again cycled through a host of different medications, trying to find something that would work. I continued meeting with a therapist who wasn’t that helpful and a psychiatrist who was amazing. And I started practicing yoga, five or six days a week.

Slowly, I came out of the fog that had haunted me. I eventually stopped seeing my psychiatrist and therapist. I finally discontinued my meds, but kept up my regular yoga practice. And a couple of years after that first stay in the psychiatric ward, I felt back to normal. Like waking up from a nightmare, I was back to being myself again.

I’m writing my story today for a few different reasons:

Firstly, I felt a huge sense of shame for over ten years for having struggled with suicide and depression in my past. But I’ve now come to realization that you should feel no more shame about struggling with mental health than physical health (which is to say, none). I shouldn’t feel any more stigma to share my story about depression in high school than if I broke my arm or tore my ACL as a teenager. I am no longer ashamed to tell my story.

Secondly, when I was going through my battle with mental health in high school, I knew no one else who had struggled with depression or suicide, much less anyone who had come out alive and well on the other side. Not knowing anyone else who was going through something similar made me feel much more ashamed and isolated than if I had known depression is a fairly common illness, affecting more than 16.1 million American adults each year. At the time, I could not even fathom a time in the future when I would ever feel happy again, when I would stop dreaming about swallowing pills or fantasizing about walking off our roof or hanging myself. If you are struggling with mental illness, know that you are not alone, and that it is possible to recover completely. Over ten years later, I’m living life to the fullest, I have a wonderful son and a job I love, and I’m grateful to still be here to tell my story. Know that there are lots of different treatment options, and sometimes it takes awhile to find out what works. Not all therapists are created equal—find one that understands your needs. Yoga for me was a lifesaver and more effective than the therapist I was seeing. Keep trying even if it feels like things aren’t working—it took me a long time to get the right combination of support, medication, and doing yoga. Know that you are not alone, and that you can heal.

Thirdly, if you never struggle with mental illness but want to support a friend or family member who is going through it, I want to offer a few words of advice based on my own experience. Although this may sound obvious, never, ever shame someone who is struggling with depression. When I got out of the psychiatric ward, my high school tennis coach let me know how disappointed she was that I’d missed a big tennis meet (WTF). I had a few people who were probably trying to help, but would say things like, “Just think happy thoughts!” or  “You need to start loving yourself” or “Stop being so sad all the time, and realize you have so many great things in your life.” This is like telling a diabetic person to just control their blood sugar.  These comments just made me feel even worse—it made me feel that feeling depressed or thinking suicidal thoughts was my own fault and personal failing, rather than a chemical imbalance in my brain that I had no control over.

Things that you should do if you have a friend going through a mental illness: continue to tell your loved ones that they’re valuable. I had a good friend who was a Catholic priest who continued to tell me that I mattered and my life was important even through the very worst of my depression; he saved my life on more than one occasion. My Dad and brother used to write me notes and leave them on my bed with song lyrics (“I think I can make it now the rain is gone”) or just an “I love you.” Continue to be there for that person, even if they try to push you away. Let them know that you’re there to listen, and actually show up to listen. If they are opening up to you, don’t try to make the focus about you or say you know exactly what they’re going through if you don’t. Don’t even think about saying some shit like, “Everything happens for a reason” to someone in a serious situation like this (this seems like an obvious thing to me, but I actually got comments like that surprisingly often). Try not to take it personally if they try to push you away. Be there, listen, and be supportive.

My brother really took the whole "be supportive" thing literally
Fourthly, I’m writing this today because I have loved ones who are currently struggling with anxiety or depression and are too ashamed to seek treatment. Know that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and there are also multiple treatment options available. You can feel better. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness.

And finally, although I don’t want to put my contact details here on the internet, if you do know me personally, know that you can call me or message me any time of the day or night if you’re going through something similar and want someone to talk to about it. The Samaritans is also a great organization for people going through any sort of crisis—big or small. They operate a free hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you are connected to a trained volunteer who will confidentially listen and offer support to you. When I was sixteen and it was three in the morning and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I called them.

Know that you are valuable, know that you are loved, and know that things can get better.


Saturday, September 30, 2017

How Young is Too Young to Teach About Genocide?

I look forward to Saturday mornings the entire week. If I'm lucky, D'Assise will wait until 6:30 am to wake me up, giving me a whole glorious hour of sleeping in. And then I make us some coffee (watering his down with lots of additional hot water and more milk), and we either play card games, watch Beatles concerts on YouTube, or if we tried to watch a movie the night before but were too tired to finish, we watch the rest of the movie on Saturday morning. It's peaceful outside and the morning sunlight streams into our house, and he snuggles up next to me on the cushions in our living room.

Last night, we'd started to watch The Sound of Music, one of my all-time favorites, but we were both full of pizza and nodded off shortly after Maria gets kicked out of the convent. D'Assise had seen the movie before, when I would regularly watch it with the nuns I lived with as a Peace Corps Volunteer (the nuns would sometimes jokingly call me "Maria" as a result), but he was too young to remember.

This morning, he was entranced by the seven Von Trapp children singing together and delighted when they all fell out of the canoe on the lake. But there were several parts of the movie that were confusing to him as well. When Captain VonTrapp ripped down the Nazi flag that was hung at his house in the movie and when the family flees to the Alps to escape the soldiers, D'Assise asked me what was going on. Why were they so scared? Why were the angry soldiers trying to catch the family?

I have wondered many, many times this past year when it's appropriate to start telling D'Assise about genocide. He's eight years old, and I have parsed my memory trying to remember how old I was when I heard about such atrocities, and wondering when I could talk to him about it without overwhelming him.

Perhaps if we were in the U.S., I would choose to wait a little bit longer to explain the terrible things that humans are capable of. The earliest I could remember learning about the Holocaust in elementary school was fourth grade; D'Assise is in third grade. But we live in Rwanda, where the country still commemorates the million lives lost in 1994 each April, where there is a genocide memorial nearby the route to D'Assise's school, and where human skulls are displayed right outside of the church that we attend on Sundays. A month or two ago, D'Assise asked me after school if he is Hutu or Tutsi. I was shocked and saddened to hear that question from him. I responded that he's Rwandan. I asked D'Assise where he heard those terms, and he responded that he heard kids at school talking about it and was just curious.

D'Assise was born in 2008, fourteen years after the genocide in Rwanda. Since he was abandoned as a baby, we do not know his biological parents, and I couldn't answer the question any other way, even if I had wanted to. He is, and will always be, truly a Rwandan.

This morning, I decided that it was probably a good time to talk about it with him since he was asking questions anyways. I started by talking about the events that were confusing to him in the movie. The movie was based on history, and I gave him an overview of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Holocaust, and the invasion of Europe, while trying not to go too far into some of the horrific details.

I then asked him if he knew what the word genocide meant, and D'Assise responded yes, jenoside---the kinyarwanda-ized version of the same word. I asked him if he knew what the word meant, and he said it was a type of war, but he didn't know much more. I asked D'Assise if knew that Rwanda had experienced a genocide, and he said yes but he wasn't born yet. I asked D'Assise if he had learned about genocide in school, but he said no. He had overheard the Sisters he lived with talking about how one nun in their order had gone out to buy potatoes during 1994, but she was found later with a machete through her skull. I was horrified and incredibly saddened. I asked him if kids at school talked about the genocide, but he said no, that if they ever talked about it, they'd be sent to the police.

I asked him why he thought people committed genocide and how it happens, and he said "because they hate other people." I said yes, but also because a lot of people--their friends and neighbors and community members--- looked the other way instead of doing anything. We both sat there in silence for awhile--I could tell that he was processing what we had discussed. Finally, I gave him a hug and he went out to play soccer.

I know that this won't be the last time we discuss these difficult topics. But I hope that by starting the conversation now, instead of staying silent if his classmates ask him if he's Hutu or Tutsi, that he'll be able to respond that it doesn't matter, that they're all abanyarwanda, Rwandan.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

One Year as Family

Although it feels crazy to actually type, D'Assise and I have been a family for one year. 

Well, technically a year and two months (I intended to write this around the time of our actual "Gotcha Day" on July 19, but in true working-single-mother-fashion, I'm writing it two months later when I'm in bed with malaria and actually found the time to write). 

I've been his mother for one year. He's been my son for one year.

And he's totally turned my world upside down.

We've gone to the U.S. twice together

In winter

First time seeing snow!
And in summer

We've celebrated his birthday

And my birthday


And New Years
Asleep by 10 pm :) 
And my very first Mother's Day. 

There have been hard times.

But there has also been joy.

so, so much joy. 

Having D'Assise as my son has been the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I feel like I'm a hundred times more grateful because I felt that our family was never going to happen, not in a million years. 

When I first met D'Assise, as a 22 year old Peace Corps Volunteer, I knew that I wanted him to be my son someday. I called my family back home that night and told them I wanted to adopt him. They told me that I was crazy and not to mess up my life. And that was largely the message most people gave us for the next two years: don't do this. Why not just pay for his school fees and his healthcare but not adopt him? And I doubted whether it was possible, and I questioned my own sanity for wanting to do something that so many people advised me against.

I was dubious that D'Assise would ever become my son when he started having serious health problems and we discovered he had brain lesions in 2014. I did not know whether he would survive the year.

I doubted that we would be a family even after taking him to Nairobi for treatment and learning how long and complicated the adoption process would likely be for us. Rwanda has largely barred foreigners from adopting, and there were zero successful international adoptions in several years.

Even when my lawyer and I were driving to the courthouse for D'Assise's adoption hearing last year, I could barely entertain the notion that the outcome would be a positive one. I had prepared myself for rejection because I was too scared of getting my hopes up only to have them crushed.

And yet. 

Here we are, five years after I first met him in the convent, as family, just living normal life. We have our little three room house together, I wake him up with the Beatles and make him breakfast as he gets ready for the day, and we bike to school together, blasting music from our speaker and talking about our hopes and fears and everything in between.

I still have to pinch myself to make sure it's not all a dream. 

We read stories together every single night, and sometimes D'Assise will fall asleep before the story is even over. And sometimes I just lie there, feeling the weight of little head on my shoulder, listening to his peaceful inhales and exhales, and seeing his tiny toes peek out under the covers. No matter how tough the day has been, I feel a huge sense of gratitude that everything worked out in the end, that we were lucky enough to get the million-in-one-chance to be a family.

And it's all real.