(Almost) Suicide. My Story Of Life In And Out Of The Psych Ward

(Almost) Suicide. My Story Of Life In And Out Of The Psych Ward

“Welcome to Nobel Hospital. We are glad you are here. Or we should be. Because we are here to help. And you are hiring us to do just that. Keep that in mind from now on because that may be hard to remember once you have fully arrived at the experience you are about to have.Your journey has just begun.”

Checking in at The Front Desk

“The concierge is out, so I will help you. I am a desk clerk. I probably have a different title, but that is basically what I am. I may have this job because I have an interest in the mental hurting and healing of others. Or I may just have a family to support and bills to pay and found the job on “Indeed.”

“My name is irrelevant. But I only make $8 an hour, and I may go home from my shift before yours begins, so try to keep your expectations of me low. I am not a licensed therapist and I don’t play one on TV.”

“First, let us have your ID and Insurance Card. Put them in that little opening on your side of the bulletproof glass there. Thanks.”

“Next, step through that door. That is where we screen people before we ‘[bring them back.’”

“Now, once Grumpy Guard has finished searching you, taking your belt, your shoelaces, anything sharp, except the pain that brought you to us and depending on the size of his piles, some of the very slight amount of dignity you may have left, step through the solid core steel door to the inner sanctum.”

“Pay no attention to his callousness to the fact that you wanted to die and came to us for help. He could give a shit. He has a bitching wife at home, bills to pay, and I suspect, some really bad hemorrhoids.”

“Next, we are going to take away your personal items that you have brought from home. Your clothes, shoes, any makeup, whatever you brought.  We will give them back. At some point. We need to be sure that what you have is not potentially harmful to you or others.”

“So just  take this clipboard please. And write as if your life depends upon it. And it kinda does. The forms will ask you to say what stressors have brought you to us today, what substances you might have ingested today, what made you take that whole bottle of lithium when you have a promising career ahead of you and are months away from a Master’s Degree.”

 Be thorough. Be honest. Don’t leave anything out. Because your miracle may rest with just one set of the many eyes that will read your words during your stay. 

“What HAS brought you here today? Was it the food? The ambience? Or your broken heart that caused you so much pain that you hurt so much to be awake you tried to go to sleep. Forever.” 

In my many experiences in several psychiatric locked facilities, I think the majority of the people who work  there do want to help people heal. Just keep in mind, they, like you, are all human. They have families. And stressors. And addictions. And mental illness of their own. In fact, some of them may be in as much or maybe more pain than you are in. So be mindful. Because hurting people are on both sides of the nurses station. The bulletproof glass. The solid core steel door. I don’t think Grumpy Guard woke up at age 4 and said, “When I grow up, I want to be a jerk to fragile people in my job as a security guard at a hospital.” Hurting people hurt people. 

“And then, just wait. It may be an hour. It may be several hours. You may see some things you can’t unsee. You may feel more worthless than you thought possible when your 20 year old daughter who brought you here looks to the counselor with despair after filling out your paperwork for you because you cannot function well enough to put pen to paper and leaves you for what you feel like is a habitual abandonment of the one who you love the most.”

My daughter was three weeks old when she first lost her mother to mental illness. 

In her 23 years since, I have had well over a dozen stays in several psychiatric facilities. From Oklahoma to Texas to Virginia. I hope I have been an example of someone who goes for help when they think they need it.

“By now, you have likely been assigned to a room. And possibly a roommate. And if you are lucky, you have received your belongings. Unless Grumpy Guard, (let’s call him GG from now on, cuz he will be back) has not had a chance to search through all of your belongings. In between bathroom breaks to apply his preparation H and call his wife to say what he wants for dinner.”

Search Me

“There is good reason for the searches of your belongings before there is a determination as to what you can and cannot have with you. You may not fully understand why a person can’t have a product like makeup because it has some alcohol in it.”

“Or why you can’t have your eye shadow because there is a tiny mirror in the compact. These are all valid safety measures taken by us as we take your physical safety and the safety of those around you seriously.”

“Because while you may think you have the greatest pain in the room, there are others around you who are in their own exquisite agony. And they may be creative enough to try and get to your makeup mirror or alcohol infused cosmetics to try and relieve their pain.”

Yes. people really do hurt that much. Pain is ambitious.

You see, hurting people are not just suffering. They are creative. When a heart is broken enough, a tiny makeup mirror can also be broken. And used as a weapon of mass destruction. 

Because when one person cuts themself to bleed, to feel, to not feel,  to bloodlet, perhaps to let all of the blood escape, that is a mass destruction. 

What? No, that is wrong! The very definition of mass states in large numbers.

Okay, I’ll take the debate. Let’s unpack that. A person is in enough pain that they are willing to break a compact mirror in shards and cut the very vessel that carries them through life. Let’s say they succeed with their bloodletting. They let it all go. The pain. The blood. The very life juice in their body. 

Yes. They are dead. Our society calls it suicide. But this is just one person. Where is the Mass in that? 

Well, if they are Catholic, maybe they suffered great injury where Mass should have been safe. 

Were you affected when Robyn Williams hung himself? Did you join the masses who felt shocked and saddened at the loss of such a gifted joy bringer? Millions of people did. Millions are a mass. And I would rest my case, but I have more to say.

When I was 11, I was in the 7th grade. 1971. Happy as a clam. Living in Illinois, bowling every Thursday, about to hit puberty. 

One day, my mom sat me down. She told me that my cousin was dead. He was 14. He had taken the family shotgun and shot himself in the head. This was the first I had heard of the word suicide. I was told there were drugs involved.

My 11 year old brain had just learned that a person could make themself die. On purpose. And that drugs were dangerous because sometimes people could use them and then make themself dead.

And my cousin, who was the oldest of three, who was a talented and creative and sensitive and funny young boy, was gone. Forever. 

And this was just the beginning. In the 51 years that followed to date, I would come to know suicide well enough.

On the way to “Your Unit”

“These are the beautiful grounds of Nobel Hospital. See the fishpond to your right?  Beautiful. Right? You will get to go there. And once you have become a ‘resident’ here at what is likely to be a 3 to 10 day stay at “The Spa”, you will want to go there. Because beauty is healing. And you need that.”

“To your left, you will see the swimming pool. Weather permitting, you can enjoy the healing powers of the sun and some of your fellow travelers here. I recommend it.”

“We even have basketball. The ball may seem very heavy as most things in your life right now clearly are. Don’t worry. There is a child in all of us that still likes to play H.O.R.S.E. Let yourself play. And move. And breathe. And even laugh. These things are all medicine for which there will be no charge and no side effects.”

“There is sidewalk chalk too. Use it. Do it. Express. Draw. Create. It is in you. Just like when you were a kid. And that kid is still in you too. Let him or her out to play. That is part of being fully alive. Believe it or not, it isn’t too late for some of that.”

“And down the way there, you will see our 18 hole golf course under construction. We are trying to come up with a way to use Nerf clubs and balls so as to provide a safe experience when you get teed off.”

Once on the Unit

“Now, strip.  No, we aren’t asking which cut of steak you want for dinner. Yes. We are going to have you strip. For a search. No cavities. That is for your dentist to look into.”

These nurses are usually quite nice. They will weigh you. They will measure your height. And your demeanor.

And they will take your blood. But not all of it.

Just remember. Everyone here is human. And everyone has things going on in their life. And some of them could easily qualify to be your roommate.

There will be groups to attend. I recommend them. Some of the group facilitators are really gifted. They speak from experience, making them both capable of and giving of both compassion and empathy. They bring helpful tools to be used when you return to the outside world.  

“And remember. Trust the process. You get out what you put in. So if given the choice between sitting in your room staring out the window with the heavy rubber curtain out at the helicopter pad of the “regular” hospital or laying on the tiny bed with the lifeless pillow, Go down the hall. To the T.V. room. Or the group that is going on.”

“Don’t be alone with you. Not right now. That likely is part of the reason you have come to need us. You have spent too much time alone. In your head. Allowing those thoughts of how worthless, unlovable and hopeless you are to grow. Like weeds. In a garden.”

“Or maybe you have been hurt by a person. Maybe you have just learned all in one night that your husband of over 20 years has been paying for sex for six years and drinking all the while you are thinking he is sober and happily married to you and that his head bobs up and down at the dinner table because he has jet lag. After all, he travels all over the world.”

“Or maybe you have suffered yet another loss. You have already lost a husband to disease or addiction, children to violence because of their demographic in life. And now, the death of your dog, your last companion proves more than you can bear. “

“Or a father who has killed himself has led you to relieve your own pain with opiates and now, in your early thirties, you need help to save your own life because your addiction is out of control. 

If you have a substance abuse problem or alcohol problem, and if you are fortunate enough to be where there are those who bring information about twelve step recovery into the unit, check out what they have to say. 

You may just find your answer there.

Your Room/Roommate/Fellow Travellers

“Now let’s take you to your room. You are likely quite worn out after checking in for wanting to check out, so let’s see who we have for you to share your nights with.”

Looking back, I have had several roommates.  

One was a young woman of 18, who had been in serious abuse with men from a young age who was certainly facing a hard road when she got out. 

Another young girl in her thirties. She was bright and creative. She would come to groups practically juggling all of her colored markers and coloring books that she was using to cope with her second round of opiate withdrawal after the suicide of her father.

Another bright young woman with an unusual name that I got really good at mispronouncing, but who I had a great connection with, as we were both “frequent fliers” of a sort in that we had both darkened the doors of several psych wards. Much like inmates, we would steal off to the corner of the group room on breaks to laugh and discuss our observations and experiences before and during our current stay.

She was a few months out from her Master’s Degree, having taken an overdose of her lithium, the very drug that gave her brain the capacity to function well enough to get that degree. I surmise God has big plans for her because on paper, she should not have survived that toxicity. And survive she did. Only to get that Master’s Degree along with a new life complete with a happy marriage and a career in non-profit.

 Another who, upon entry to the hospital, the nurses asked me to “show her the ropes.” Well, there were no ropes, that was not safe, but you get my drift. They wanted me to encourage her, knowing that by encouraging me to encourage her, I would have some sense of purpose or value, which I was lacking upon my own arrival. 

I told her “You are going to do great here.” Today, she is engaged to be married, building a home with her fiance and sporting a tattoo of the words “You are going to do great here.”

Proof that I mattered in the life of another human. Because of the words I said. That is a good feeling.

But I also made some poor choices over the years in choosing friends from the hospital which affected my family at home. 

I asked one friend to come and live with me and my husband and daughter, who,was not even 10 at the time.  This woman who I cared deeply for took 40 Restoril one night, trying to kill herself. Right down the hall from my daughter’s room. Thankfully, she lived. But when I imagine the trauma my daughter would have suffered around that…

I met another good friend while in Dallas for some care for my horrific depression and grief after my mom died in 2011. (Turned out there was a lot of grief there, but that is not in the DSM, so they just called it depression. Which was unfortunate, as I elected to have shock treatment. Which doesn’t fix grief. More on that later.)

I was also hurting from a lonely, unhappy marriage that had yet to be put out of its misery. So having someone to engage in joy with filled a void that I had had for many years.

She was a bright, young, broken hearted woman of 40 something who had tried to kill herself after her divorce. And she and I became friends. I was there for two weeks for an outpatient program and I stayed with her and her sweet dog Sophie as a guest in her home. We laughed, cooked steaks, watched tv and I helped her hang pictures in her charming bungalow home where she had just moved near SMU. 

It was Spring when we met. 

In July, I reached out to her. Could not get in touch. I contacted her mom only to find that she was finding Sophie a new home because my friend had succeeded in leaving this life at her own hand. And my heart broke.

All gave me compassion. For human suffering. All gave me gratitude. In hindsight. For what could have been my life. Or the end of it.

You may feel like you have found that best friend you have never had because, let’s face it. There is no sorority or fraternity called WTD (Wanting To Die) in which you can meet, socialize and feel like you belong. And we all need to belong.

Remember. None of us come here for the food. (Although the chicken tetrazzini is mighty tasty. And those ice cream bars are to (not) die for.)

But take caution in forming “fast friends” where you have come to get help to find a reason to live. For there are those here who have tried to die several times before and some will leave and succeed. And there is nothing you can do. But stay alive yourself to honor them.

My First Time At Nobel Hospital

My first time at Nobel Hospital was when I was 37 years old. I had just experienced the miracle of bringing a life into this world. 

It is my estimate that  from the age of 37 to the age of 58, I had been in some kind of hospital setting for some kind of treatment for mental agony or food dysfunction around two dozen times, give or take. I lost track. I do know that upon my last (and by my intent, FINAL stay,) the opening line of the doctor assigned to my care was, “You have been here 7 times in 7 years.”, so you see, the accounting of these facts might require a forensic CPA. Suffice it to say, I have done my time.

Three weeks after the birth of my daughter, I wanted to take a life out of that same world she had just come into. Mine. My brain chemistry went to hell in a hand basket. I wasn’t sleeping. My thoughts were terrifying. And out of control. I was under siege. 

The day my daughter was born, all of the happy mothers and some of the fathers were gathered around for the baby bath training class. I remember about 6 or so of us with our spouses and new bundles of joy. As I recall, all of the moms got up to bathe their babies at the nurse’s instruction. Except me. I could not get out of my chair. I felt paralyzed. And I had no interest in bathing my baby.  Or anything else really. It is a bit of a blur to recall.

We were sent home. I had read the book “What To Expect When You Are Expecting”. And beyond the baby, what I was expecting was the possibility of the thing called Postpartum Depression. Because I had had such prevalent depression from the age of 13 up to the age of 36 when I became pregnant. 

I had told my OB/GYN of my concerns when I first became pregnant. It would have been prudent to do so. And it would have been partly on him to see to it that in the event of my “coming down” with postpartum depression or psychosis, he would be accountable to help me so that my baby had a healthy and safe mother to be with.  That was not the case. So with that I should change OB/GYN to OBO/AICMMIOT (or #oncethebabysoutandicollectmymoneyimouttoo). 

 You might recall the case of Andrea Yates. The woman who drowned her five children in June 2001 after suffering from postpartum psychosis after the birth of her fifth son. She was convicted of murder which was later overtuned and she is now living in a low security mental health facility.  When I saw that story, my daughter was just over three years old. While America ranted and judged and “vigilant-eed” at her, hungry for a witch to burn at the stake for her actions, I knew her sickness. I remembered what, for me, my husband and our baby was the year from Hell. Postpartum. Because I had survived it, albeit on a much smaller scale.  

As I was trying to be with my daughter at home, I became sicker. The sleep deprivation of the late night feedings. The crying baby. The strange and annoying voice of the woman on late night talk radio while I sat in that glider rocker all the girls at pregnant mom swim classes had raved about, trying to get my baby to latch on, (latching on for me was like trying to snap that tiny snap at the top of the back of my dress in the dark with no fingernails), all were taking their toll. 

I was beginning to know firsthand why child abuse is a thing. Why people shake their babies. 

The thoughts showed up. In my head. Uninvited.  I did not act on them. But my brain chemistry was a fucking shit show and there is a reason sleep deprivation has been used to torture prisoners of war. 

Because it will make you crazy. 

I wanted nothing more than to breast feed my daughter. And to be connected to her.  But while I had expectations of months of being her milk machine, losing the baby weight and gaining the much needed connection between me and my child, instead, I found myself standing  in my kitchen. Obssessed with thoughts racing at such a pace that I found myself gripping my center island in my hands, thinking, “If I do leave a suicide note, what will I say?”

What I really needed was to be there for my new little baby girl. Who had just had  a lovely 37 week vacation floating peacefully in relative darkness and quiet, with her foot wedged between my third and fourth ribs, only to find herself pushed out into fluorescent lights to the charge of a mother that was somewhat incapable of meeting her basic needs. 

I had a home health nurse with me who was trying to advocate for me that I could use her so that I could heal at home with my baby. She was like my personal assistant. She got it. She knew I was in Hell between my ears and she was picking up the slack.

I could not handle too much sound or light. And I could not have visitors. She put notes up in the house saying to keep the TV off and the lights down. The sleep deprivation from the night feedings along with my already irregular brain chemistry had become the perfect storm. It was as if I experienced all sensory things tenfold. Light. Sound. Smells.  

Sadly, I was not supported to care for my baby and heal at home as I should have been.Our healthcare system is run by insurance companies, where Satan is in charge and they told my home health person that if I was in such need of her services that they felt I should just be hospitalized.  

That was  the world my innocent child had arrived in in 1997 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

In Europe at that time, they were advanced in their preparation and ensuing care in the event of these episodes where the mother is rendered ill by the very body that has just produced the miracle of life.  They even had husband’s and support members of the family involved in caring not just for the newborn child, but for the newborn mother. 

They say when you fly that the mother needs to put the oxygen mask on herself before her child in the event of an emergency. Well this poor baby lost her mom to mental illness at age 3 weeks because the oxygen was running out at her house and mom needed some air to breathe.

So off I went. To the place I have since come to know too well as “The Spa.” Also the Pink Palace. In fact, the psychiatric hospital is a part of the “regular” hospital on the same campus. Had I known I would have ended up in “The Spa” on the day my daughter was born, I would have just had them roll me down the one driveway where they treat all of the other body part ailments and up the driveway where their house specialty was the contents of the human head.

My psychiatrist at this time had been astonished at how well I had done in my pregnancy. 

In fact, when, after him treating me medically over two years for bipolar disorder, (later found to have been an erroneous label,) I walked into his office a woman of 36 announcing that I wanted to have a baby, he urged great caution in making my decision to do so. Because what would be required was that I be taking off a slew of psychotropic meds (sounds like tropical, but not so much a beach experience for me, unless you count the beached whale experience of my bloated carcass after 2 years on the drug lithium which for me caused a flatline personality on a blowfish puffy woman with a whole lot less hair than God intended…)

Once off all meds, including a 16 year run with birth control pills, I was pretty fertile, the boys DID swim, and I had a bun in the (maiden)Bunn oven. 

Pregnancy was interesting. I hosted that little alien to her heart’s content. Spent the first trimester in bed. Not eating. Or smelling much. In the way of food. I could hardly swallow anything. The mere smell of food made me want to hurl.  I had morning noon night sickness from Hell. Finally, after 10 pounds of weight loss, and a two month steady diet of “Days Of Our Lives” and “All My Children,” I was admitted to the hospital for severe morning sickness and dehydration.

But that was just the first trimester. I came back swinging and eating in the second. I was on fire. And was happy. Happy. Happy. No depression. Much like prior to the onset of my first menstrual cycle at age 13. Coincidentally (?I think not.) The same time my moods began to go to Hell. Definite hormonal component to my story here. 

I was working a temp job part time. Had thick ringlet curls. Ate everything that I wanted. I felt amazing.

Then the third trimester arrived. (Today, I am in my third trimester again. Only for MY life. It’s how I see it since turning 60. Mom made it to 88 so…)

This is where the ropes course for sleep deprivation begins. She now has kicked up her heel or heels or all pointed limbs that can be used to dig into my ribs. That is where she liked it. And that is where she parked it. I, on the outside of all of this, made love to my body pillow, which went the length of my body for about four feet and around which I gave it my all to contort myself into whatever human pretzel shape would accommodate some damn sleep. Not much success here. 

So, I would wander out of the bedroom and into my blue gingham recliner in the living room, where I would obsessively read The Bible. Not THAT Bible. The one for expectant mothers in 1997 which was the book, “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” 

All the girls were reading it. The girls from my pregnant mom’s swim class, where I had hung out in the health club pool for the second and part of the third trimester leading up to baby day. 

THAT was an education. There were five or six of us. ALL first time moms. ALL freaking out in the locker room, sharing our “baby parasite and what it is doing to our bodies” stories. Such a comfort. Community. That is a good thing. But their stories about their loving nurturing baby doctors were not MY experience. If I could go back, I would have changed that. But that is hindsight. Right? 

One of the girl’s was expecting twins. I saw her months out after hers were born. Walking through the Flea Market. Looking dazed and not amused, pushing that stroller that had her outnumbered two to one. It was more fun in the pool. Said her face.

That book was my go to. It told me how I could carry a jar of pickles with me in my purse so that if my water broke in public, I could drop the jar of pickles and say, I don’t know, “Sorry, my pickle jar fell out of my vagina and got your floor all messy?”

I did not have a mother from whom to glean anything. I mean, mine had popped out three kids, but frankly, she wasn’t really into the maternal thing and to be fair, I never thought to ask her about what it was like for her. In any event, I felt fairly alone in regards to having the loving nurturing mother to go to and draw from. That was not the mold she had come from. 

I dug through the placenta to find the manual for how to be a mom and do all of this by the way. Nothing. I was on my own. In so many ways.

My Last Mental Health Hospitalization 

To summarize, I was in and out of the hospital three times for nearly 30 days total .

When I was released for the third time in February 2018, after nearly a month I told the doctor. “I have to do this on the outside.” they had given me all of the tools. Three times in and out of there adding up to nearly a month.

They were an acute care unit and they needed the bed and I needed to leave that nest. One where I sometimes wonder if I didn’t say the right things to get admitted so that I could get away from my unhappy life, go where someone who didn’t struggle to plan a menu or eat could make sure I was fed, where I had a roommate because at home, my husband had moved across the house  out of husband status and into official roommate status in the guest room and to be fair, I did not put up a fight. We were over before we even got started. Didn’t even consummate our marriage on our wedding night. I digress. The doctors agreed and I was discharged in February 2018 for what I hope is the last time I will ever see the walls of a psychiatric hospital again. 

My Life Today

And now, it is September 2020. In what I like to refer to as the year of perfect vision. For me, it has been just that. In February, I got a clear vision that God wanted me to look into relocating from my home for most of 50 years in Tulsa, Oklahoma to the Emerald Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Destin, Florida, to be precise. 

I came here for the entire month of February to be certain that my heart’s desire was in direct alignment with God’s will for me. I had made moves based on my will more than once and at the age of 60, I did not want to do that again. So I rented a tiny cottage three blocks from the beach at Miramar Florida, Destin’s answer to a superb suburb, where I acted  as if this were my home. I did not buy alot of souvenirs. Or eat out alot. Or go on fancy boating excursions.  Instead, I cooked fancy dinners at home for me and my soul. I watched “Eat, Pray, Love”, and I painted pictures and made art. I took long walks on the beach every single of the 29 mornings, taking photographs so that I could bring the beach with me when I returned to Tulsa. 

I went to a meeting with other sober seeking souls  every morning at 8am, finding my tribe to end all tribes of my 35 years sober.  I knew this was it. I was home. These were my people. When people asked me where I lived, I happily replied, as more was revealed of where God wanted me for his purposes “I’m glad you asked. I moved here to Destin on Feb. 1. I will remain here for the entire month at which time I will return to Tulsa, fulfill my lease commitment, launch my 22 year old daughter into the world and then I will return home. Here. In Destin, Florida.” 

And I did just that. My daughter is on her own and on her way. And I am living the dream  in my third floor one bedroom roomy lofty apartment a mile from the beach, where I have been home since August first. I have a new fur baby girl named Miramar and I have many friends in place as well as new ones showing up every day. At the pool. In my building and at the beach. Where I continue to go. Every morning. To watch God turn on the lights.

I don’t see me ever again darkening the doors of another mental health hospital, but out of respect for a brain chemistry that I cannot control beyond a certain point, if any of my many tools in my kit fail me, I will go for help as that help is why I am still here. All of the pain that took me to check in for wanting to check out, has subsided for the most part as a result of doing the things that have been recommended. I eat well, sleep, exercise, pray, meditate, medicate and I do things for others. And as long as I continue to do these things, a day at a time, I have every faith that all will be well. Even when things may not seem or feel well in the world, I know from experience that they can be well inside of me. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

So if you are reading this and you are in any way relating to the pain I have shared, but feel hopeless in the present tense, get help. Because so far, in spite of your pain, at this very moment, you are a 100% success. At staying alive. And some days, that is enough.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Whatever it is. Don’t believe those thoughts. You are hurting because your pain is asking for your attention. Please give it that.

Call a trusted friend. And if you don’t have one, call me. (918.813.6983. Lucinda) Because if you have read this far, you will have an idea that I have been there and I am on the other side. Let me encourage you. Keep looking forward. Whatever is plaguing you right now will one day be just a speck in your rear view mirror.

And if you don’t have someone and you still want to die, I am not going to ask you not to. Or try to save you. But I am going to ask you to just have one more conversation. Make one more phone call. Reach out one more time or maybe for the first time. Because I can tell you, for all of the suffering my thoughts and mind and brain chemistry have caused me, if I could believe listening to one person who is done with this life could help that person want to keep going, then I will know I have not suffered in vain.

I may not know you, but I love you. 

And if not me, make that last call to these people who will not judge you, but who will instead just listen. 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

800-273-8255

How I Spent My Cancer Vacation

How I Spent My Cancer Vacation

(My favorite wig.)

“We don’t like your image. Come back tomorrow.” The words that I heard just before I hung up my phone. This wasn’t about public persona either. No, the image referred to was the mammogram that I had just had. Number 13 in a series of annual boob squishings.

I was 42 years old, a wife and the mother of a 4 year old daughter. We were getting ready to build our dream home and move to suburbia in Bixby, Oklahoma to raise Abby, plant flowers, walk dogs, go to basketball games and be happy.

My mother had breast cancer when I was 30. She was 67, lost a boob, took tamoxifen for five years and she was good. Hell, the day she got home from the hospital after over a week of festivities, she was out sunbathing on her deck while I passed out on her couch.

When I showed up the next day for this follow up appointment, I wanted to throw up. I lay on the table, surrounded by techs and in walked the doctor. Not just any doctor either. This guy was the head of radiology for Hillcrest Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I tried to crack jokes as I lay there outnumbered by people who had their clothes on and one ominous looking shadow about the size of a grape with a big red circle around it on the x ray screen.

I am quite sure I was funny, but this was a tough room. Not a peep. Until the doctor took over the stage. “You have a stage 1 breast tumor, 8 out of 9 for aggressive growth…blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah” was what I heard. In an instant, I had joined the ranks of a group I wanted nothing to do with. My mother was a member, her mother had a breast removed, (unclear if that was cancer), my Aunt Rosemary had succumbed to metastasis and we had just buried a member of our church who fought long and hard for 16 years from a stage three breast cancer. And I was about to get schooled in the science of cancer, whether I liked it or not. And I did not. In fact, a lot of the information bounced right off as I was in complete shock.

My case was more complicated than my mother’s. The start to finish of it all. My journey, while not as bad as some, I mean, I lived, but what I did experience in the process was from hell. There is no other way to put it. Not only was the cancer actually a 9 out of 9 for aggressive growth, meaning whatever was in me was growing at the highest speed, my ensuing treatment and recovery spanned two long, hard years.

Cancer Treatment Center is in Tulsa and was open at that time, offering a holistic approach, using conventional medicine, spiritual guidance as well as counseling and nutrition.

I chose just plain conventional medicine. I didn’t give much credence to spiritual anything or nutrition for that matter at that time because frankly, while I was sober and spirituality is the cure for me there today, at that time, I worshipped a God in the form of my intellect and the fact that I had it all, things outside of me- the kid and the van and plans to build the house, so I saw no merit in the added expense of that other God stuff. What’s funny is that it was The Cancer Treatment Center that ultimately made me whole again at the end of what was a two year walk down a hallway that had a few burned out light bulbs along the way.

The day I found out it was cancer, I was exhausted. It was an afternoon sometime in June and I was sprawled across my bed. My daughter Abby, age four, walked in and stuck something on me and left. When I looked down, what I saw was a red heart shaped sticker about an inch in size that she had gotten out of a February issue of a kid’s magazine. And when I looked at the spot where she had (not so) randomly placed it, it was right where the tumor was located. This was one in a series of many moments that drove home the undeniable fact that God was present in the midst of a very rough patch in my life.

In order of appearance, the treatment players were these:

July 18, 2002-Lumpectomy in Sunny California, where we were led by a long set of circumstances. These made Dr. John Phillips, a brilliant surgeon in Tulsa, Oklahoma who had taken care of my mom, and removed many breasts once belonging to old Tulsa oil money bless the trip.

Dr. Phillips is part of the reason I am still here because right after my mom’s surgery, he sat me down when I was just 30 (like the father I did not have after age 7) and said, “You, young lady, will have an annual mammogram from now on.” I did not do the recommended self exams because I had fiber cystic tissue, a.k.a. lumpy boobs and the “normal” bumps to the touch made me gag, so thanks Dr. Phillips. Those mammograms paid off.

Lumpectomy is where they just cut out the lump and the tumor, along with a prudent amount of lymph nodes from under the arm so that they could check them for cancerous cells. The good news for me was that it came back a negative, meaning that avenue for spreading was likely to be a dead end.

Lymph nodes are small, round or bean-shaped clusters of cells. Inside lymph nodes are a combination of different types of immune system cells. These specialized cells filter your lymphatic fluid as it travels through your body and protect you by destroying invaders.

They took 14 of these good guys away from me and I was left with the lifelong threat of a thing called lymph edema. That is when there is a swelling in the arm which can come on anytime post cancer and can be very painful. I attended a support group once with cancer survivors who had a long period of recovery and had been get hit with this painful condition out of nowhere. I take precautions with massage therapy, exercise and I wear a compression sleeve to travel.

We made the best of California. My ex -husband, who I refer to as my wusband, daughter and I sleeping together in a “Heavenly” California bed like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka’s time. We lived at the Westin Hotel in Costa Mesa, near the breast care center at Fountain Valley. We were there for a couple of weeks and while there, we enjoyed the beaches of Malibu, Laguna and Huntington.

(Me and Dr. Jane Kakkis-She saved my life. Twice.)

The day after my lumpectomy, I left my wusband and Abby asleep, slipped off to La Provence, the fancy hotel coffee shop for a scrumptious celebratory bowl of oatmeal that had creme brulee on top. As I made my exit, I stopped at a round table of people who appeared to be having a business breakfast, uninvited. “Yesterday, I had cancer. Today, that tumor is in a ziplock in a dumpster somewhere in Orange County.” This was my boasting. It wasn’t much weight loss to be rid of that tumor, but the weight lifted was immense. The response was enthusiastic as they gave me a unanimous round of applause.

A day or so later, we got a doctor’s note for the short lines at Disneyland and went to the Magic Kingdom. I had never been and since my daughter was four, well, we just HAD to go. We had a great time, I bought out the gift shop and then it was time to return home to our “new normal” life living after cancer in Oklahoma.

(A welcome distraction)

Summer/fall 2002-Next up, chemotherapy. I could paste the definition of the word and the process, but my version will make the point. It’s liquid poison. Used to kill lots of things. Like cancer cells, healthy cells, happy cells, appetites, spirits and energy reserves, and any hair that you might be fond of and even some that you aren’t.

Abby was also quite cognitive of the fact that I was going to lose my hair because I was sick. “Mom, I wanna shave my head.” She sounded like a teenager, standing next to me in the bathroom at Lowe’s, until she followed that up immediately with a perky “Will it grow back in two weeks?” We compromised and she settled for a mohawk with blue glitter.

(My little hero)

When I was pregnant just four years before this, I spent my first trimester in bed and in the hospital for nausea, but let me tell you, that was NOTHING like the nausea I had with the “A/C Cocktail,” as the kids in the clinic like to call it. That stands for Adriamycin/Cytoxin. Two toxic liquids that get shaken, not stirred, then placed in an IV and slowly, but surely, over a period of hours, with six trips over a couple of months to just drive that shit home, sent into the body through an IV and a port. Just to give you a clue, Cytoxin has a pet name of “Red Devil” as it is one of the most toxic of all. If it gets ON the skin, it can cause severe burns. And from my experience, (I won’t get into much detail,) it felt like gasoline coming up my throat when it left me through a different pathway from the nice little port it came in on under my chest skin.

The day before chemo was to start was a field day at the hospital. I was wheeled and rolled from place to place to get checked out for treatment. Bloodwork and installation of a chemo port, all part of the day. A port goes in the chest area so that there are less needle sticks in the skin so that when they plug in the IV, the access is already there.

Somewhere along the course of my day, I decided to have a party. That night. I called it my “Comfort Shower On Chemo Eve.” The idea was to have a party to distract from the fact that I was having chemo the next day. And it grew to include a cost for admission which was a tube of pink lipstick.

My anxious brain had a wild idea to start a foundation called The Great Pink Hope. I had worked in low income housing and when I found out I had cancer, I learned that the demographic of low income and minority women had a higher incidence of breast cancer. I thought that maybe these women, who typically did not have access to any reliable transportation if they did go for a mammogram, could be coaxed out of their apartments to be tested with some kind of mobile mammography service by giving them a free tube of pink lipstick for their trouble.

(My Comfort Shower)

It was a slow news day in Tulsa, so all three local TV stations showed up to cover the happy event. One ran their story in a special that October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I confess, I invited them. I still knew the number to the KJRH newsroom, Tulsa’s NBC affiliate where my brother had been a reporter in the 1970’s and I felt like this was good news.

By the end of the night, a good time had been had by all 50 or 60 people who attended, some I knew, some I had only met that day in my travels through the hospital halls, and whose cars at one pointed wrapped the street next to my house down one side and filled the cul de sac on the other. It looked like that scene from Field of Dreams where all of the cars showed up at the baseball field. “If you invite, they will come.” And they did. Leaving me with a huge bowl of pink lipsticks ready for a good night’s sleep.

(It wasn’t QUITE this many cars…)

My posse and I arrived for day one. Me, my wusband and daughter, our pastor, my mom and my neighbor all crammed into the waiting area. Then they took me back first, and in a few minutes, my wusband followed. On his way, he was met by a woman wearing a white coat with her name embroidered on the pocket who claimed she had been to med school and who, violating HIPAA, spoke to him before speaking to me about her plans for my (mis) treatment.

“Your cancer is back. It’s in your breast, your liver, your uterus and your ovaries. While it is incurable, it is treatable. We can make you comfortable for two years, using the drug Taxotere.” I could only wish that this shock came from a toaster dropping into my tub, but no. Not only was I just pronounced soon to be dead, but the drug she named to “make me comfortable” was a word I had heard once before.

In the midst of all the jargon and staging and planning in California, the one thing that got through was the result of my assay, which is the process they use when they cut up the tumor and test various toxic cocktails to see who the best ones are for the job. And the one drug that my tumor essentially said “F*** no, I won’t go” to was called Taxotere.

I had California on speed dial and while I stood in line for stand by boarding, I prayed to God, “Please get me on this flight.” when my name was called and I boarded to seat 1 A.

(Me with Abby, on the phone with a real doctor)

Across the top of my chart, this oncologist in California, who actually went to class looked at me calmly, then looked down at my chart, and then popped his head up when he realized it was me. “What are you doing here? You are supposed to be starting chemo in Oklahoma.”? Incredulous in his affect and tone, while trying to remain professional. “The doctor over read her chart.” His words to the diagnostic center (I think it’s code for “some doctor f**ked up here”) where I would spend the next four days, drinking barium smoothies, getting injected with contrast fluids, having my ears plugged to drown out the hammering of the MRI. Four days where my 9 out of 9 for aggressive cancer, if there were any crumbs left, was throwing a party at my expense.

On day five, I was cleared of all counts. And the death penalty was off the table. Now I had been given a prognosis with better odds, a first round of chemo and a plane ride back to Oklahoma to get back to my “new normal” life as a cancer patient.

(The diagnosticians who got it right.)

And that woman in the white coat in Tulsa? That was in the (mal)practice of prescribing toxic drugs? I could not find her. And believe me, I looked. She was off the grid. I intended to file a complaint, with the hope that she wouldn’t (mal)practice on anyone else. And I said a prayer that whoever she did serve in her illustrious career might be someone across the counter at the food court, as she sported a tall, stupid hat, selling hot dogs on a stick.

During the early part of my treatment, Bob Losure was there for me. Former anchor at CNN, Bob had worked with my sister in television in Tulsa back in the 70’s. Bob was also a cancer survivor, so he knew what it was like. All throughout my treatment, Bob either called, emailed or visited me, inspiring me with his words of hope and encouragement. It didn’t hurt to hear them in that beautiful satiny broadcast voice. He interviewed me for a story he was doing about cancer and survivors.

(Left-Steve Sembritsy, right-Bob Losure)

Next was radiation. Another burning process. This time, burning tissue, leaving it hard in the aftermath. The recommendation for my flavor of tumor was 35 rounds, 5 days a week, over 7 weeks time.

By this time, it was winter, and I was bald, tired and very depressed, so after 6 rounds of laying on a sterile steel table, wearing nothing from the waist up but a creepy screen mold that was shaped like a torso set over me so that they could aim the xray guns at the small tattoes I now had dotting my upper body for precision of their sharpshooting.

It was a Friday afternoon and I had just come home from round number 6, when I sat on the floor of my brand new dining room, (we built the house against the advice of my primary care doc and friend Marilyn Culp because I thought I needed the distraction) and the phone rang. “Lucinda, it’s Jane.” My surgeon from California who had saved my life once already by cutting out that tumor and a second time when she told me on the phone that she did not “have confidence” in that cancer of an oncologist.

Her call was divinely timed, although I was a little mad at her, because when we first made the pilgrimage to Fountain Valley, California to the Women’s Breast Health Center that had been recommended, I had BIG plans to come home with BIGGER boobs than the ones I left home with. She was too good at her job, coming to tell me after surgery, “Good news! You are cured with breast conserving lumpectomy!” I was both relieved and disappointed. I think my first wusband’s message to me at the age of 23 that he thought I needed larger breasts had stuck with me all those years. I even had a Hooter’s T shirt that was autographed by the wait staff wishing me well on my trip and treatment.

“How are you?” Jane said. She let me call her Jane because California doctors like her, whose esteemed medical family have streets named after them in Long Beach can do whatever the hell they want.

I explained that my mood was not good. An underlying concern throughout as I showed up on her table with a significant history of major depressive illness. I also let on that laying there for that radiation was playing games with my head as I felt vulnerable being naked from the waist up and not free to move. “I don’t want to finish the radiation.” I told her, knowing in my heart of hearts that I could not take any more of that. “What do you want to do?” She asked, to which I did not miss a beat in my speedy reply. “I want to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction.”

I could have stopped there. At lumpectomy and chemo. On paper, I was “cancer free” the day I left a tumor in a ziplock bag somewhere in a dumpster in Orange County. And the chemo most certainly did a number on SOMETHING. But the prudent measure was not to stop there.

I had done much reading and the consensus among women who, in some cases, were in the medical field, was to go ahead and have both breasts removed to reduce the chance of recurrence because statistics were higher for metastasis when the breasts were left behind. I later learned of two cases of women who, like me, were deemed “cured” with lumpectomy and chemo, but in both cases, the cancer returned and the women did not survive.

The reconstructive procedure that I chose, after the breasts were removed, is called a pedicle TRAM FLAP reconstruction. In a pedicle TRAM flap procedure, the surgeon cuts a section of skin, muscle, fat and blood vessels from your abdomen, tunnels the tissue underneath your skin to its new location, and uses it to form a new breast mound.

In my words, what happened to me was this. Over a period of six hours, four doctors would have a part in this. The general surgeon came in first, removed the breasts, leaving the surface skin. Then, enter the plastics guy. He is the artist. You don’t need a bedside manner with this one. You need someone who thinks they are God and performs to the best of their ability. And I got that in spades. What he did was make a big cut across my abdomen in the shape of an elipse, then take the tissue and muscle there, divide it up and going under my own skin with it, he moves it up from my abdomen and into place under the top skin that remains where the original breasts once were. And if you are cringing here, sorry. But this is my story. And it is quite amazing.

While the procedure was a technical success, the recovery was from hell. At six weeks post op at home, where I was sleeping in the recliner because I could not lay down yet, the pain was severe. And because of my mental health history being part of my record with the plastic doc’s office, he was all but too eager to say hasta manana to me when I hit their magic six week mark. “Our patients don’t have pain at six weeks.” The dismissive words on the phone from his office as I was left on my own to find a solution to some very real pain that resided in my back.

(After my surgery. The smile was fed by morphine.)

It took two years from that point to find my solution. Went down the pain management hallway, treating the symptom but never the problem with fentanyl patches for a large part of that time.

Nothing was working. And the reason I was hurting there was that I was literally stuck. To myself. Yes, you can laugh if you know me. I was stuck on myself. The pathway that my abdominal tissue and muscle had travelled along my mid section from my well earned tummy tuck to my abdo boobs, as I like to call them, was full of scar adhesion. And this made standing up straight and upright completely impossible. So my 5’10” frame was working against gravity for all of that time, until finally, somehow, because there is a God and I am not him, I was directed to the Cancer Treatment Center of America for what is called myofacial release. A most gentle and gradual process of a massage therapist gently coaxing my innards to let go of each other, where they were holding me down so that I could join my fellow upright apes.

I survived. And today, I thrive. 18 years. July 18. Cancer free.

If you are reading this and you are a woman, or if you have a mother or a sister or a daughter or someone you love who you don’t want to lose, ask them if they are taking proper care of their girls. Mammography has come a long way. I learned that some women know that they should go, but they fear the discomfort that might come along with that. My reply? DO IT ANYWAY. The pain of your absence in the lives of your loved ones if you are lost to this far too common form of cancer could be prevented.

There is much more to this story, which I am telling in my book. But for my purposes here, I want to list the gratitude that I take away from my experience of having had breast cancer.

I am grateful for the oncologist who taught me to trust my instinct over someone who is quite literally practicing at their craft. She did me a favor. I have no idea what went so terribly wrong with her interpretation of my medical records, but had that not happened, I would not have seen the need to be my own BEST advocate for health and medical care. Those who, even well intentioned, practice medicine, are just people. Who went to school and got training. Don’t get me wrong, I am not dismissing the expertise of some doctors, but not ALL doctors are worth their salt. And they are ALL human. The lesson here? Trust your gut. If it says, “What this doctor is saying to me doesn’t sound right.” Listen to that still small voice. And run like hell for a second opinion.

The plastic surgeon also did me a favor. When he dismissed me and my care with the insinuation that my pain was “in my head”, it drove home for me that when a person has a mental health diagnosis on their chart, some doctors don’t want a thing to do with that. I didn’t go to med school, but I have noticed that the human head, where the mental health or sickness resides, is a part of the physical body. But hey, nobody asked me.

This was not the first time I had found myself being dismissed by a doctor with the coincidence of my chart including a mental health diagnosis and the blessing in that was the education to the fact that some doctors don’t care. Stigma is a powerful thing.

The first doctor who dropped the ball on my care over mental health issues was the man who delivered my daughter. I suffered with tremendous postpartum depression which required hospitalization after she was born, which rendered me virtually unable to take care of her. For that entire pregnancy, my resounding concern out loud with the OB/GYN doc was that I was ripe for the picking to have some kind of major depression after childbirth, based on my history and the research I had done on postpartum depression and psychosis. I had a reasonable expectation that he would support me in my care after her birth. And I was wrong, as he too, dismissed me at that magic six week mark. I guess that is a time frame that specialists get to use to decide when they can dump people who are too much work for them.

I am even grateful for the cancer. And while, at times since, I sometimes forget that I got another shot at life having survived it, it is proof in my book that God wants me here fore something. I lived through it, and since it is far too common today for people to get breast cancer, I know I did not suffer in vain because I can share my story in the hopes that it will enlighten others to see what they might expect and also what they do and don’t have to tolerate from the doctors along the way.

I am grateful for the scars that I have. My scars have made me feel unfinished all these years. They have been difficult to live with as I don’t look the same. Over the years, the scars have faded quite a bit, but I still have a long one across my abdomen and scars on both breasts which I intend to have tattoo art done on at some point as I, an artist, am my most precious canvas.

And when it comes to intimacy, it has been quite a vulnerable thing to have to prepare someone for the scars that contributed to the ending of the intimacy in my marriage of 24 years. That left a mark of its own. But it has all forced me to find a self love that goes beyond skin deep. In that respect, these scars are a thing of beauty because without them, I may not even be here.

If you find yourself with a diagnosis for breast cancer, remember that you are paying the doctors to provide you a service. Coming to an end are the days when the doctor is the authority and final say. You have always got a choice in how your care will go. Do your homework. Learn all that you can. About your diagnosis and your treatment options. If you don’t trust your doctor, find a new one. Your life may depend on it.

Find people who have been through the kind of cancer treatment that you may be facing. The American Cancer Society is a great resource for pairing people up with those who have been through that same type of cancer and the resulting treatments. I had two people matched to me as mentors for when I faced chemo and my double mastectomy. They were great comforts to me for the fact that they had survived what I was facing at a very scary time.

One of my doctor’s (I have one for every orifice at this point) said, as I look to find a replacement in my new home out of state, that a doctor/patient relationship is not a dictatorship. It is a collaboration. And should be a relationship based in a mutual respect. Especially in matters of life and death.

I don’t have a problem changing doctors as I age if I feel I am not both respected and well cared for. You wouldn’t take a Maserati to Joe’s Garage, and aren’t you worth the best you can find? I think so. Life is a precious gift. And so are you.

The Circle Game-Pondering My Upcoming Move from Tulsa to Florida

The Circle Game-Pondering My Upcoming Move from Tulsa to Florida

I am reflecting on my life. Surrounded by boxes waiting to go to Florida after living in Tulsa, Oklahoma for most of my 60 years on the planet, it seemed fitting to share my thoughts out loud.

I graduated from high school at Monte Cassino School in Tulsa. At the time, it was an all girls school. It was May 1977. And this was our senior song:

The Circle Game

written by Joni Mitchell

“Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.”

My years have spun by 60 times. And the majority of those have been here. In Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I arrived at age 12. Not real happy to be here either. I was born in New York where I lived until I was 5. Then we moved to Connecticut where I lived from 5 to 9 and where, at age 7, my dad died unexpectedly at the age of 42. He was my first best friend. Two years later, my brother and sister were out of the house and it was just me and my mom. She liked the song “You and Me Against The World” by Helen Reddy for us, as it was just the two of us moving forward.

I was promised a move to Ft. Lauderdale, where I was to go to school with children from all over the world, only to find my mom detouring to her old home town of Taylorville, Illinois and then Springfield, Illinois from the age of 9 to 12. And from there, we moved to Tulsa to be close to family as my siblings were in college in Oklahoma City and one of my dad’s brothers and his family were in Tulsa.

I was not happy here. I loved the beach as a child. Learned to swim in salt water at the Larchmont Yacht Club in New York and played at not getting caught in the undertow at Jones Beach. Toe headed blonde with a constant sunburn and smile, I was a beach baby. And while Oklahoma boasts the most shoreline in the US for it’s numerous lakes and such, I am a salt water snob. When people ask why I came to Oklahoma, I like to say that my mom made a wrong turn on the way to Ft. Lauderdale.

(Larchmont Yacht Club)

Don’t get me wrong, Tulsa people have been good to me. My complaint is one of geography. And as I age, the winters are hard on me. Between the short days and colder weather, I suffer with chronic pain and seasonal depression that just get harder each year during the winter months here.

My first brief exit from Tulsa was to Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas at the age of 17. I had big dreams of finding myself, making lifelong friends and living happily ever after.

None of that happened. After four weeks total, I withdrew from school. Because I was ill prepared for the realities of life away from home in a fast lane of sex and drugs and alcohol and academia that was way over my head in a matter of days. I was afraid of the partying, I was a virgin and while my test scores showed my intellect worthy of admission to this prestigious private college, my practical skills lacked when I tried to apply myself.

When reading became crucial in my prep school where I was for most of my high school, I know today that I was not able to learn by simply reading from a book. I could not pay attention. The science and math and history all just bounced right off my brain when I looked at the page. They suggested speed reading as my grades began to suffer, but that was not the solution. I now know that I have a different learning style and an attention issue. I learn by experience. There are now schools called demonstration academies for people like me who require a different way to be educated. Sadly in the 1970’s, they only had so much information and boy did I suffer for the lack of that. I have a brilliant mind, based on ACT and SAT testing, but I could not access most of it with the conventional styles of learning. I have spent most of my life feeling stupid and hopeless for that.

Looking back, I now know I was in the grips of a severe attention deficit disorder that had never been labelled or addressed, a crippling anxiety disorder that made walking to class excruciatingly frightening, coupled with a burgeoning eating disorder that I had honed all summer, losing weight to “fit in.” What I couldn’t do anymore was fit in to my swimsuit bottoms because I was entering anorexia and they were falling off at the pool.

At 17, I returned to Tulsa barely able to function over dreams dashed and I began my career of being a floundering human being and drinking and eating to relieve the pain. I got really good at all of that. I waited tables to survive, drank a lot and at 19, I escaped Tulsa for the second time to the mountains of Colorado. My private school friends had all been skiers, and I had never seen the mountains, so I decided the best way to see what that was all about was to move there.

One year in Colorado and lots of fun times skiing and drinking when drinking was fun led to a summer from Hell in Lake Tahoe working at Caesar’s where there was an even faster lane than college. It was 1981 and cocaine was all the rage. I was a pit clerk in the casino. Keeping track of the high rollers who played with house money. Hailing from Mexico City and San Francisco, these people had credit lines of $500,000 to $2 million. And when they came to play, the big boys from the cat walk above me came down to the pits to breathe down my neck while watching the big money players.

The mafia is alive and well and I wasn’t, so I moved on to Houston, Texas for two years, got pregnan the first time I had sex, had a miscarriage, got married, then moved to Austin and hit bottom with my drinking and ended my brief first marriage to my first wusband. All of this Texas drama took place within four years.

It was from there that I crawled back to Tulsa in my first year of sobriety. I was newly sober, freshly divorced, unemployable due to crippling depression and I was just 25.

I stayed in Tulsa then until I remarried and we moved away to Pennsylvania for my second wusband’s job when I was 32. That lasted a year and while we aimed for Austin to get out of the Dutch Country where they only like you when you don’t bring a moving van, the jobs were in Tulsa, so it was back to living on Tulsa time one more time.

This time, for 28 years, which leads me to now. As I aim my car south, the phrase “Never say never” comes to mind as I see the pattern of returning to Oklahoma from wherever I go.

I am pointed to Destin, Florida. The Emerald Coast. And for good reason. Or I could be corny and say for God reason. Because that is what it is. I am led by my spirit to go live at the beach.

In September, I was grieving a romantic loss and I found myself spending four days at a work retreat on the beach of Miramar in the panhandle of Florida. Literally in a house on the water, I found great healing in those few days at the beach where I become right-sized just by opening my eyes and ears to the wonder of the sun, sea, sand and horizon. And these beaches are white and go by the name of The Emerald Coast because of the emerald green waters. As an artist, I see teal and sapphire and periwinkle and pink in those skies and waters. My favorite palette to make art with.

(Miramar Beach sunrise)

When the winter hit a couple of months later back in Tulsa, I was not happy. The short days coupled with the cold weather which made it hard to go outside without hurting just made me bitchy and sad. “Go get it out of your system. Find out if it is meant for you to live there.” Wise words from a friend over dinner at Christmastime as I was dimmed by the lack of a charge to the solar panel in the top of my head. This was made worse by the fact that the relief I get from my chronic pain comes from being outside in nice weather and moving.

(Miramar Beach)

So I went on a pilgrimage. Rented a tiny house three blocks from the beach at Miramar, Florida (which is basically Destin,Florida) and off I went with the back of my SUV packed with art supplies and belongings.

(Assigned Quarters)

I spent every morning at the beach. Two hours, give or take, in most cases just me, with maybe a dozen or so snowbirds from up north who would be there when God turned on the lights. I took dozens of pictures, communed with the sea birds and wrote my gratitude in the sand. I even made a sand angel in the sand. Like when we were kids with snow in Connecticut, only way warmer. I laughed as I lay there. Flapping my arms up and down. Mindful to be sure that I pushed hard enough to make an impression. The beach patrol drove by and gave me a wave as he smiled real big. Their version of winter worked for me as my daughter sent photos of her freshly built snow woman, complete with hot pink spray painted boobs from my back yard in Tulsa where I was happy not to be.

(I’m 60, but the O is silent.)

I now understand why people move to Florida when they grow older. Their bodies ask them too. At least that is what mine has done. And so has my spirit. In fact, I did not want to uproot myself without being sure it was divinely ordered as I try to live by whatever my God has planned for me. I do believe there is a plan for me. My job is to listen for what that is on a daily basis. And when I pulled back into my Tulsa street on March 1 after a fourteen hour drive back, I felt a resounding “This is not your home.” As if God all but spoke the words.

I have plans when I get to Florida to help female felons perhaps get their own businesses going. I am moved in my spirit to do so, using my talents with furniture painting to teach those women who have done their time but can’t get a break because an F word follows them for the rest of their lives.

I also plan to finish writing my book. Something that I have also felt moved to do. With the intent of offering hope to the hopeless for things I have endured and survived and live to tell about which when I do share, I have been told that I help people.

I got really into writing during my #covidvacation, learning that sitting for great lengths and remembering can be painful. So I will return to the writing with breaks to paint and play at the beach once I get settled in my new place.

It’s funny. I started this meaning to pay tribute to Tulsa and my experience here. And this is what came out on the keyboard. I am just a channel. It really is not up to me.

And while this time feels different, I know that Destin, Florida is my next stop, but my intuition says it may not be my last.

So Tulsa, I won’t say goodbye. Instead, since my daughter’s current return address has a Tulsa zip code on it, I will simply say “See you later.”

Four Shades of Gray

Four Shades of Gray

(Written May 15, 2020 The Year Of Perfect Vision)

I woke up this morning at my usual just before sunrise time feeling like I had already had a full day. There was a tiredness. A heaviness. Kind of like the darkness in the gray outside of my picture window. 

Yesterday, I started a project that had been parked in my mind and on my closet floor in brown bags for some months now. A mixed media canvas project of great proportions, figuratively and literally. A 3’x5’ canvas, covered in dozens of bottles. Of pills. And dozens of bottles. Of paint. All coming together in the vision from inside my head to the outside in the form of a double rainbow, made by arching the spectrum according to ROYGBIV across the top, with the second rainbow comprised of pill bottles just underneath it.

As I moved into the project, I emptied the pills out into a glass bowl. That bowl of pills was about four inches deep and six inches across.  I was knocked back looking into the bowl, as if my life were a fire, and I was staring into the gasoline that had threatened it on so many occasions. Forcing me to seek the safety of psych wards in three states.

So more is revealed as to what will be on my canvas, complete with a Suicide Lake, the body of water asking to be comprised of all of the pills glued down in one layer of 12 rainbow inches by 10 jagged edge inches with Lost Marbles Falls spilling into it. 

I was uncomfortable. Haunted to see my life laid out in the metaphor of paint and pills. So much so,that I boxed it up thinking I would go back to it later. But I am not going to do that. Because I have already been there. Looking back has it’s value, but if I stay there, I will miss the present. Which is surviving the past. I disposed of all that you see in the images.

After seeing that bowl of pills and all of those bottles of prescriptions with names that spanned the alphabet, I began busying myself to avoid my feelings. Which were sadness, grief, distraught, anger, and shame. I prefer the happy, joyous and free variety, but those can’t be fully experienced without walking through their shadows.

At bedtime, I am usually quite tired and sometimes that is when the feelings ask to be heard.  God likes to work with me when I can’t squirm out of it. Usually tired is when God gets God’s way. Because I have no fight left in me. As if I need to fight. All I am doing is fighting the unknown and putting off my own relief. But yet, I get pretty scrappy before I relinquish my imagined control. And walk through. Or should I say walk out whatever pain needs to be let out. Of me.

When I should have been strapping on my CPAP mask (my call sign is Luna, btw,) I make the poor choice for me to log on to Facebook.  Screentime light interrupting my brain’s next efforts to wind down and get some sleep. To the rabbithole of memories of your lives and memes and news feed about world events and lives in the shitter. When the better choice would be to tend to my own shit.

Shit being my painful emotions. And my body’s need for rest. And I have a tendency to get emotionally constipated before I get the satisfaction that comes from, shall we say, taking a big ol’ stinkin’ feelings dump. 

Let’s be honest.  Sometimes one of those every three days is more satisfying than something on a more regular basis that just lacks the thrill of the moment. TMI. Sorry. I digress.

When I am emotionally constipated, it is made worse by lack of hydration. Often found in tears that are healing when I let them come.

Instead, I like to let my feelings back up to the point of going postal in my kitchen because my daughter didn’t wipe the counter off, even though she just cleaned up all the dinner and took out the trash. 

Or, as I am hanging out with that same 22 year old adult daughter in the living room packing the Christmas CD’s and movies up that were the soundtrack of her childhood and our mixed bag of a family, I don’t hold still when the twinge of pain comes at the loss of those Christmases that I loved so much as a time for giving and expressing joy. 

I am in pain. There is a lot going on in my life. A lot of change. Growth. Leaving the town that has been my home for most of my life, while a happy plan for a new beginning to live at the beach in Florida in just a couple of months is still the end of a very long series of chapters that are my life here in Tulsa, OK. And with that. Some endings. Hell, even the coffee maker that was a happy reminder of the good parts of my last relationship died yesterday. And that made me sad. And for every ending, I have learned, there is a necessary grief. For all of it. That has to be experienced. And respected. 

I don’t do grief very well historically. Nor does our society, in my not so humble opinion, but mine is the one I am responsible for. And consequently, now, when there are current events asking the respect of the grieving process, old ones that have yet to be resolved ask for attention too.

“Hey Lucinda. I notice you feeling sad about moving 800 miles away from your daughter. Who you have fallen in love with all over again as you have been living with her, delighting at the sight of her each morning, as she stumbles down the hall from her room at dawn to go off to her union job. When you finally purge that with a good cry or two, can you throw in some tears for me? I’m that part of you that is sad for the fact that it has taken you so long to get on with your life. The part that while grateful, grieves the youth that you wasted when you chose hopelessness and an unhappy marriage over joy and happiness. With you.  At the beach.” 

I did my usual prayer, read Jesus Calling, listened to Deepak Oprah meditation, wrote my three pages ala Artist’s Way and several notes to my daughter Abby in my journal to her, aptly named “Dear Abby.” 

The sun was starting to show up through the dark rain clouds and I was ready to go back to bed.

“You can’t.” “We don’t do that anymore.” 

“Do what?” 

“Go back to bed to pull the covers up.” 

I have given up many hours of living to those thoughts, pulled up many a cover, wallowing in that darkness for what I am sure would add up to years if I could count that high.

Today, I have found the gray area of my life, thank God. It doesn’t hurt that the background in my home is walls of a gray called “passive,” painted by a former love who they may well have named the paint for.

And even though I had only been up for about an hour, I grabbed my gray pillow and laid down on my gray couch in my gray room and setting the timer for 20 minutes, gave myself permission. To rest.  And I was just getting settled into it when the timer went off. Like a cranky teenager on a Monday school morning, I let out a protestant grunt, hit the button, and got my ass up. Off the couch.

You see, while seated doing all of my spiritual preparation for my day, my body was aching. It does that. The longer I keep it in one place, the bitchier it is when it yells at me. “WHY DID YOU IGNORE ME FOR A WHOLE HOUR! I was trying to get your attention. Didn’t the ache in your hips alert you that I needed movement? What about the soreness in your shoulders from those muscles you have neglected strengthening since they fused three vertebrae in your neck three years ago!?!”

So I took me by the hand and got in the shower. Taking action. That is what my friends tell me to do. And sometimes, the action goes better when it is preceded by rest.

What I am avoiding here is what is really needing to be said. On paper. Right now. And I am fighting it with every fiber of my being. Looking at my phone. Wanting to look at Facebook. Enough already.

My pain scares me. Still today. But I know from having lived through a lot of it in the past that it is here to teach me.

The physical pain is teaching me what needs attention. Sore hips need a walk. 

Or a good stretch that I might get when I find myself romantically tangled up.

Sore shoulders need a stretch. Or a massage.

The emotional pain. That’s the one that scares me. Because I have known so much in my life, I get afraid that when I feel sadness, all the old losses that may have been neglected by me to process will have their remnants just waiting there. In a big pile of unfelt sadness.  And I am afraid I might drown.

But grief commands respect and is tenacious about receiving that. 

In writing my story, I have chosen to pause over some of the events that I experienced because at the time they took place I found them  traumatic. Pausing because, while I have done much work in therapy and spiritually to address them, I find some still hold more power than I am happy to admit. It surprised me when writing for my book about my experience with breast cancer for example, that  I felt some of the upset that went on at that time seventeen years ago as if it were yesterday.

So I stopped writing. Avoidance is not always an unhealthy tool. I avoid a hot flame. I don’t want to get burned. And I avoid a deep end where I can’t see the bottom because I have worked my ass off to tread water and I am not going there. Without help. 

There was an episode of West Wing once where the character was seeing his psychiatrist after there had been an assassination attempt on the president. The character had been shot. And was having a great deal of difficulty recovering from that trauma. Triggered by noises in the White House during the Christmas season where the sounds were in fact festive ones of music and joyful tourists, for him, it brought back the memories of the calamity of the day that he almost lost his life. And appeared to cause him to attempt to take his own, by putting his hand through a plate glass window and significantly cutting his arm.

The line that stuck with me from that episode, “You know you have recovered from the trauma when you can talk about it without reliving it.” 

TV or not, it sounded good to me. Then and even better now as I am still plagued enough by some of the memories in my past to have them affect my ability to be fully present in my life today at times. 

I had two brushes with death when I had breast cancer. And while I know intellectually that I have survived that, I learned after writing down the details of the traumas I suffered from having the cancer, the miscare of inept doctors, all of the treatment and the 2 years of unresolved physical pain that I endured post op before finding a solution, I found myself reliving it. I have that here as I write too. All of the thoughts jumble up fighting to get put on paper all at once. My pain is trying to get my attention here. And it has it.

So instead of shoving myself through completing the process of writing that part of my life down, I stopped. And after I flogged myself first for doing so, saying, “See? You are avoiding and procrastinating. There’s no way you will ever finish a rough draft at this rate.” I made a kind decision. I had a friend’s help with this, as she is more practiced than I am at not heaping recrimination on herself for her humanness, so I took a lesson from her, remembering the time I shared that I was struggling to write because I was having trouble with my attention deficit and felt I was pushing a boulder uphill. She offered to me the option to speak to my computer as if I am speaking to my story, saying, “I will be back. I am not abandoning you. Trust me.” 

And I have a few crumbs to maybe a partial loaf of self trust now. So today, when I intended to write more of the nuts and bolts of my story, instead, I made the loving decision to give myself love. And a break. 

It is dark and rainy. I have all of my lights on around me, my full spectrum lamp in my face to assimilate the sunlight that is absent outside as I sit. With me. And my door open. To the sound of the birds singing in spite of the thunder and lightning and slapping of the rain on the patio.  

In the gray area, where I realize I can still share with you things that I hope will help you if you face any of this in your journey.

And if you are relating to any of this, but don’t hold hope, don’t give up. I have hope for you, just as others have held it for me when I could not. You have 100% success rate of staying alive. That’s a pretty good blank slate to work with from this moment on. 

Whatever your age, I know that you are as old as you have ever been and maybe things don’t look so good moving forward. Move forward anyway. And know that you are loved, and valued and here for a reason.

I love you.

Lucinda