Are You White Knuckling Life?

19 Oct

My significant other-person golfs. He is wild for it. I have only tried hitting golf balls twice in my life. Both times were with him. During our little lesson at the driving range, he told me not to grip the club. Instead I was to hold the club like a bird in my hands. Whatever. Even when I got a blister thirty minutes later, I didn’t think I was holding the club that hard. Later that night when I looked at this photo of me, I saw “it.” I wasn’t just gripping the club. I was strangling it. For further proof, the veins in my neck and arms were about to bulge.

I don’t know what it is about humans that makes us susceptible to over-extertion. We try too hard to control outcomes. Instead of easing into things and allowing a certain degree of flow, we push with our will.

Occasionally, we see the light and lighten up. The next day when I tried hitting golf balls, I loosened the grip. Surprisingly, I hit a few well.

When we grip too hard on things, we don’t allow for any type of organic evolution, whether this be in our relationships, work, or creative endeavors. There is a tension that needs to be struck between surrender and action. What helps negotiate this dynamic is our breath. The more we can let oxygen flow through in and out of systems, the better we navigate our life force.


This seems to be the lesson someone wants me to learn of late. The other day I received a card in the mail from a friend. Written on the card, in large letters, was the word, “Breathe.” I burst out laughing. If my friend only knew that her card had come like an omen.

It’s time to stop white knuckling through this year. Instead, it’s time to breathe a little…


Fabricating Drama

12 Oct

If all the world’s a stage, my mom’s death in 2008, played out as a tragedy. She was found dead on the streets of La Mesa with pills scattered around her. She died from acute intoxication of amitriptyline, a medication given for sleep and to calm nerves. She had just been released from prison, after doing time for her fifth felony DUI.

Her death was the climax of untreated depression and alcohol dependence. It was a terrible event in my life, but I had anticipated it as a possibility because she had made previous suicide attempts. I loved her very much.

After her death, events in my life became quiet. There was no drama. Nothing was wrong. No one was in the ER or in jail. No one was dead. To counter the surreality of this, I developed the nervous habit of checking things to make certain all was fine. I discovered my anxiety increased because things were suddenly calm.

When you grow up around addiction, the resulting dynamics often lend themselves to “drama.” Things occur that are only supposed to happen in the movies or on a depressing t.v. show. You work hard not to fabricate drama, yet you’re so used to it unfolding, you stay on guard for calamity nonetheless.

One time my mom didn’t answer her phone for many days. I was in my early twenties and came into work crying, thinking my mom might be dead. I had called the police to see if they could do anything. Eventually, my mom surfaced. Over the course of my tenure at this particular workplace, my mom disappeared a number of times. Because of this, my boss pulled me aside and said, “This is beginning to feel like the girl who cried wolf. You have to stop getting upset.”

So I followed her directive. I became numb. I sealed off. I survived.

To practice detachment, expressions like, “Your emergency is not my emergency,” became personal mantras.

The funny thing about the wolf story is that the wolf eventually comes. My mom died. The drama became a reality.

I try to be a serene, peaceful person who lives in the moment. I often tell myself, “The worst thing already happened. Nothing bad can ever happen again.”

Sadly though, if you’ve lived with this kind of life experience, sometimes the fear of loss is just there, hovering over you when the  stakes are high. There was a time when I didn’t fabricate drama. There simply was tragedy. And the weight of it lingers like smoke hanging in the air.

Personal Inventory: Are You Living The Life You Want?

9 Oct

This morning, despite the fact that I need to be up and ready by 8:00 a.m., I spent an hour in bed reading a light, fluffy novel. I didn’t immediately check FB or my email. I simply stayed in bed, enjoying Nantucket and red roses, as my mind travelled to the setting of my novel.

Last night, I crawled into bed with this same novel and fell asleep by 8:30 p.m. I then proceeded to sleep for ten hours. This was the second night this week that I slept that long.

My boyfriend would attribute my behavior to the fact that I am an introvert. According to him, I’m on the extreme end of the introverted scale. I attribute my behavior to the fact that it is Autumn, and that I am tired. Autumn is the season where we harvest the events of the year and take inventory. It is the time where we prepare for Winter. If we live in a cold climate, which I don’t, we are at the mercy of the elements. If it rains or snows, we may choose to stay in and build a fire.


What crop are we harvesting and was there a good yield? And what do we need to do to ensure next year’s crop? Sometimes this entails letting a field lie fallow. Regardless, Winter will induce a period of dormancy.


Fall and Winter are probably my most productive periods of the year intellectually and creatively. Yet they are also the seasons where everything in me screams to slow down. I want to savor the pretty October days and the cool nights. I want to actually enjoy the holidays vs. be consumed by the stress of them. And I want to feel my own life, as another year rolls by. The older I get the more I realize that the years pass quickly, and that if we don’t take ownership for how we want to live, regrets will surface. I will not live that way. I want to fulfill the dreams I had as a child, that I played out in my mind, as I trotted off to school and admired the Pumpkins and turning leaves of Fall. I want to watch that sun setting like orange fire over the Pacific, and to know that I embraced its beauty.

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Applauding the Moment

25 Sep


When my best friend’s baby was learning to eat we slowly introduced him to different solid foods. One day we put a few raspberries on his high chair tray. As he crammed a raspberry into his mouth with his little fingers, a smile suddenly came over his face. He gave us a huge grin as if to say, “Thanks, guys,” and then started to clap his hands. For weeks, he applauded every time he ate a raspberry or a strawberry. His ecstasy was palpable.

Children, in being new to the world, live completely in the moment. They take in their surroundings with curiosity, awe, and delight. Whenever my friend’s son saw a bird or a flower, or discovered a loved one lifting him from his crib after taking a nap, he smiled. This in turn made us smile.

I often think back on that time with my friend’s baby as I sometimes babysat for him. On those mornings, I’d arrive and we’d have breakfast. Then I’d sit on the couch and read while he sat on the floor and made new discoveries; how to grasp an object; how to roll over, how to make a sound. After about an hour of that, we’d get out the stroller and go for a walk. Then it would be time for lunch. After lunch, he’d fall asleep in my arms. When I spent time with him, my worries and struggles seemed to melt away, as he taught me how to focus on the here and now.

Those of us living in the adult world sometimes struggle with being in the moment. Often we want out of the moment and into a new one! I personally get frazzled and frustrated when I have too much to do and not enough time to pause. When this happens I long for more quiet time. Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m trying too hard to control my reality. I wonder if my real task is to find joy within the chaos instead of trying to manipulate life to be different. I’d like life to have a slower rhythm but more than that, I’d like to find joy from moment-to-moment. In each moment, there is an opportunity to talk to someone, to look at one’s surroundings, and to breathe. In fact, in each moment, there is an opportunity to applaud.

But I’m Your Baby!

3 Sep


Although I forfeited visiting my mom at Chowchilla, her friend Bob made the drive. It took him ten hours to get there. When he arrived she was on suicide watch, which meant Bob wasn’t allowed to see her. The logic of this was absurd. Isolation would only increase despair. The second time Bob made the trek he was denied visitation rights yet again. This time the prison was on lock down. He called me expressing extreme frustration.

“Boy, did you make the right decision,” he said. I listened to him vent and for the first time acknowledge that taking care of oneself wasn’t necessarily an act of selfishness. “I spent all that time and energy and couldn’t even see her! Cards and letters will have to be enough.”

I never knew if cards and letters were enough. My experience had been that nothing was ever enough. All I knew was that my inability to fill the void within my mother had left me with one as well.

Before mom transferred to Chowchilla, she spent two weeks in the local jail. Bob and I visited her there together. He couldn’t admit that she had a drinking problem. He just thought it was unfortunate she had been pulled over while under the influence. Yet sensing her depression, he brought photographs with him to cheer her up during our visit. The pictures were of dolls she owned. At her most neurotic, she drove them around in the back seat of her car and talked to them as if they were real. 

When mom faced us through the glass, I saw depression plastered all over her face. “Isn’t it terrible?” she kept repeating over and over again, staring at me hard, as if I could fix it. I wasn’t even certain she knew it was me. I felt I could have been anyone. When Bob pulled out the photos, I was astonished to see my mom’s face suddenly brighten. It was wildly and instantaneously transformed. “My babies. Lisa, see my babies. Bob brought me my babies.” And then she proceeded to name them all, cooing and gooing at the pictures. I felt like I was in a Fellini film.“What about me?! I’m your baby!” I wanted to scream. “I’m your baby! WHAT ABOUT ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I wanted nothing more than to be her baby and for her to coo and goo at me. Instead she was becoming my child. 

Prison of Shame

22 Aug

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. In the year and a half she was there, I never visited her. During her first month at Chowchilla, she sent me forms to fill out for visitation rights. The procedure was more complex than the one at the local jail. You had to request visitation dates weeks in advance and wait to get approval. My mom’s friend Bob, who was in love with her, pressured me to make the trip but I refused. Although he offered, I felt uncomfortable making the ten-hour drive with him. And I felt incompetent to make it alone.

Years later, when I was teaching a public mental health course nation wide, I spent one week in Modesto, California. To get there I flew into Fresno and rented a car. When you walk from the gate towards baggage claim, you pass a replica of a Sequoia. It gives you the feeling that you have just arrived at Disneyland instead of near Yosemite National Park.

As I maneuvered my rental vehicle towards the highway, I gave a sigh of relief as I adjusted to the various gadgets of the unfamiliar car and found a station on the radio I enjoyed. An hour into the drive, I saw that the town of Chowchilla was a few exits away. I had never looked on a map to see where it was. Now I saw the barbed wire fence of the prison along the side of the highway. A flight from San Diego to Fresno was inexpensive. I hadn’t realized. Yet at the time, new in my career, I was struggling to make ends meet. The cost of a flight, car rental, and hotel would have all gone onto a credit card.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

She had pleaded with me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in. I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a pain in the ass. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

The Final Laugh

14 Aug


One of the risk factors for suicide is having a family member who died by suicide. I have this risk factor. My mother took her life six years ago after a long battle with depression and alcoholism. She was imprisoned by the disease and by the legal system. She drove under the influence one too many times. 

When I was a little girl my mother and I watched “Mork and Mindy” together. I remember she thought Robin Williams was very funny. She and I also watched “Little House on the Prairie.” I don’t have many more memories of watching television with her though. As my mom’s illness took over, she slowly began to lose interest in things like television, movies, and novels. She also stopped playing the piano and didn’t laugh as much. Depression will do that to a person. So will spending time in jail. 

Robin Williams’ death hit a nerve for people this week and struck many people’s hearts. He was a comedic genius and gifted actor plus had a kind face with soulful eyes. When I heard the news I couldn’t help but think of my mother. She would have been sad that Robin Williams took his life. He died at 63. She died at 62. 

Watching the news briefly, I couldn’t bear to hear the talk about waiting for the coroner’s report and the fact that the police were called. These types of details are simply too close to home. Later this week I heard that a Fox newscaster said Williams’ act was selfish and cowardly. After my mom died someone said it must be difficult knowing that my mom is in hell. 

People were surprised – shocked to hear of Williams’ death. I wasn’t. When a person battles depression and addiction, there is a risk for suicide. I waited for the call about my mom for many years. 

But when you do really get the call the loss hits you like a hand grenade. If you’re lucky, the love of other people pieces you together again. 

In my fantasy life this week, I saw my mom greet Robin Williams at the Pearly Gates and she thanked him for making her laugh. 


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