Real Love

The first time I held my son, my heart was forced to stretch and grow, almost painfully, to accommodate the deluge of raw pure emotion that was birthed in me that day. I remember wondering how was it possible that my once normal life could be turned so completely upside down by such a tiny creature? Blinded by the kind of insanity reserved exclusively for the newly in love, I was naively confident leaving the hospital that I was destined for a smooth transition into motherhood. Bathed in the mind-altering glow of the “love hormone” oxytocin I thought to myself, what could possibly go wrong?

Evidently quite a lot. Hung over from too much percocet, cracked nipples and too little sleep, my fantasy of having the perfect little family was fading as quickly as my resolve to start a post-baby diet. I am quite sure my son came into the world bearing the motto that sleep was for the weak. And when he finally did allow himself to close his little eyes, succumbing to absolute exhaustion, the second I put him down in his bassinet he would pop back up as if to say ” exactly where do you think you’re going?” 

Bleary eyed and exhausted I would pick him up, lie him on my chest where he would at last sleep, lulled into a peaceful slumber by the rise and fall of my breath and the reassuring rhythm of my beating heart. Me on the other hand, I woke with his slightest movement, every sound roused me back into the world of the semi-living. Evolution had conspired against me, calling out my momma bear need to protect him and keep him safe. Even on the rare evenings when the stars and planets miraculously aligned and he slept for more than an hour or two, my brain churned on unrelentingly, impervious to the bone deep fatigue that threatened my already questionable sanity.

 I worried about everything, real and imagined, although truth be told it was mostly imagined. The hormonal upheaval I was experiencing turned my usual non-descript brand of neurotic into a full blown, pass the Xanax, this girl needs help quick kinda crazy. I imagined people on the street could see it in my eyes, how frighteningly close I felt to a breakdown. Our days passed slowly, fueled by too much coffee and my inadequate attempt to care for a baby born into the world with an overwrought nervous system. We struggled mightily to get in sync with one another. He soothed himself by breast feeding non-stop and me, well I tried to do the same with chocolate donuts.

Let me tell you, when you have a baby wanting to nurse every 45 minutes, the next feeding rolls around with some measure of dread. I should have plastered a sign to my chest “CAUTION, STAY AWAY!” The girls became totally off limits to all but my son. Aching boobs, smelling vaguely like vomit, and wearing clothes I had put on yesterday, believe me when I tell you I in no way resembled the ethereal picture of motherhood.

Life after having my son became almost unrecognizable. I am not sure if it was the chronic lack of sleep or the natural consequence of all the changes postpartum, but I am fairly certain I lost at least 20 IQ points during this trying time. Where I had once considered myself quick witted, bright, insightful with the ability to carry on an educated adult conversation, I was now reduced to walking around aimlessly muttering to myself- Where are my damn keys? 

On my list of things to do, showering became optional. Clothing choice was based solely on whether it had an elastic waist band, frequently covered in spit up and hair that had not seen a brush in weeks. The once frequent sex, that ironically, had been what led to the birth of this sweet baby boy, began to feel like having one more person laying claim to my time, energy and body when all I yearned for was a room to myself and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Now, when I look back, I see how time passed too quickly, even the moments that felt like they might never end. But they always do. And I love that little boy with every breath in my body. He has taught me that real love always involves sacrifice and that our idea of love never lives up to how we imagined it should be. He taught me that life happens in the every day moments and if you refuse to open the door to happiness until life meets your unrealistic demands, well, you will be waiting forever. 

He showed me what it honestly and truly means to love another human being. He didn’t care how I looked, when I had my last shower, if I knew the current secretary of state or was keeping up with the Kardashians. He unreservedly, and with complete abandon allowed his heart to become one with mine, trusting that our love would rise above the sleepless nights, the petty frustrations and the countless disappointments that come along with being a mother. He accepted me wholeheartedly, embracing my flaws and shortcomings. In his eyes he mirrored back to me the best parts of who I am, and I can only pray that I was able to live up to his unearned belief in me. 

Real love isn’t wrapped in pretty packages and bows, it comes in the cold dark of night, bone tired and suffering, wondering if we can will ourselves to get up one more time to soothe our crying child. Real love is hard earned, born in sweat, blood and spit up in the steady monotony of daily life and often passes unnoticed. 

Like many mothers, I look back now wistfully and wish for time to fold over on itself so I can go back and revisit those sweet days. Another chance to live those moments with greater grace and equanimity. Hindsight is always like that isn’t it? Our most precious moments often only fully realized after the fact. I have learned on our journey together that real love is a complicated mixture of joy, disappointment, grief and euphoria all woven together in one messy, crazy beautiful and gut-wrenching tapestry. A beautiful illustration of how real love is often not what we expect, but so much more.

Finding your way back to hope

As a therapist my currency is hope. I would argue that it is perhaps the most potent gift we have to offer to one another. The unwavering belief that change is possible and no matter our circumstances, things can and do get better. Far too many days I check the news only to see another high profile, tragic suicide in the headlines. People with seemingly everything to live for- money, power, prestige, the things we believe make us invulnerable to the kind of unhappiness that leads to the gut-wrenching decision that life has simply become too much to bear. I am haunted by the countless nameless other suicides that we never even hear about, but for those they loved, their lives have been irrevocably changed forever.

Suicide is one of the top ten causes of death in the United States right now and between 1999 and 2016 there was a 25% rise in the rate of suicide. As a person whose own life has been touched by suicide, I can’t help but believe that the act of taking one’s life means we have somehow found ourselves living within a world marked by the absence of all hope. We have come to a crossroad and are shaken by a belief that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we will never feel any different than we do in this moment right now. We reside in the vastness of the encroaching darkness, leaving us only with the echoes of our own deafening hopelessness.
I sometimes wish I had a simple prescription or masterful four step plan to combat this growing public health crisis that would help others find their way back to hope. But if I did, maybe in some way that would diminish the collective sense of hopelessness that we have all experienced at one time or another. Certainly, teachings from countless scholars, authors and spiritual leaders speak to us of the importance of our human need to search for meaning and the existential angst we experience when we have lost our way. It is why we seek out places of refuge, whether it be therapy, time with friends, family, sangha, or places of worship. A lifeline to this thing we call hope when we find ourselves with none. Somewhere, someone, something we can reach out to, temporarily leaning on, borrowing hope until we can once again find our way back home to our own.

Almost 30 years ago now I walked into a self help meeting, myself bankrupt of all hope. I carried with me the heaviness of a young women who no longer believed that life was worth living or worth fighting for. I don’t remember much of what was said at that meeting, but what I do remember, and what very likely saved my life was the hope I found in that room. It did not belong to me yet, but I had found a place to go where I could experience the shimmering, beautiful, almost palpable feeling of hope, so ripe with possibility that I believed them when they told me that things would get better.

I am forever thankful that during this time in my life, I had a tiny crack in my armor, an infinitesimally small opening that allowed for a molecule of light to find its way into the darkness. Not everyone is as fortunate. Many have found themselves in a place so dark, even the light of hope has difficulty penetrating. I imagine if we lived in a world that readied us for the inevitably of suffering each one of us will face at some point in our lives that we would be better prepared when the shadow does come. How might our lives be different if from a very young age we were taught the necessary skills to tap into our innate human capacity for resiliency and we learned the steps to take to gently hold our pain and suffering as readily as we learn reading and mathematics.

Sadly, instead, we are bombarded with images of happiness on social media that perpetuate the illusion that we have somehow failed if our life isn’t Instagram ready. We continually compare our insides to the manufactured outsides of a culture uncomfortable with embracing the full range of all of who we are, including the places that feel dark and uncomfortable. We hide these parts away in the deep recesses of our bodies, walled in by our wounds and layers of defenses and wonder why the light can’t find it’s way in.

I want to live in a world that welcomes it all, the good the bad, the beautiful the ugly, all of it! I want to let the sun shine down on my broken bits, experience the warmth and comfort in those places that hurt and need attention. Invite it all in without judgment, extending kindness, letting it touch the edges of sadness and allow it to be the bridge that connects us to one another. Refuse to let shame relegate us back to the prison of our aloneness. By destigmatizing and welcoming the dark night of the soul we defy shame by fearlessly allowing the sweetness of companionship into our deepest sorrows. Our most meaningful relationships were never designed to make this pain go away, instead, they offer the transformative and magical alchemy of connection to soothe and soften our pain and hold us close until once again, we can find our way back to hope.