Fetal Adult

disclaimer – this is my memory as I can best summons, a few words here and there may be off…

I am lying down in the fetal position, eyes closed but not asleep in the standard issue gown on the standard issue hospital bed surrounded by three roommates that weren’t there before I was wheeled into surgery. Suddenly a cold sweat breaks out all over my body, the kind of cold sweat that makes you feel simultaneously freezing cold and instantly sweating through your clothes, hot. “you don’t look good, are you ok?” asks my wife, Amanda. That’s all it took, I sit up and open my dry cracked mouth and instead of the usual heaving and loud vomiting, blood just pours and pour and pours out of my mouth, most of it landing in the hospital issued cardboard puke tray – it fills to the top and Amanda quickly grabs another. I barely heave again and blood flows into the second tray. “Hello, is there a nurse around? We need some help in here” yells my wife. I feel instantly relieved of the clammy cold feeling but am having that feeling that I am not quite of my body. The nurses come in and force me to swallow five gulps of water so icy cold I didn’t know it could be that cold without freezing. “five?!! “I barely manage to whisper. “yes, we need to be sure you stop any bleeding” – it felt like swallowing razor blades followed by cups of salt – “you must have had a small vein bleeding after the surgery while you were still out, your stomach knew to get rid of it.”

The pain of the raw gaping holes in the back of my throat was like nothing I had ever felt before, even compared to natural child birth. My tonsils had become the size of large figs, barely enough space for air to get through. I had been sick for nine months and my body was unable to fight the infections and inflammation – a tonsillectomy was the last resort. I was 35 years old and living in Amsterdam. The gaping holes in the back of my throat were the result. While laying in the hospital bed I scribbled a note to my wife, “can they please give me something for the pain?” When Amanda asked the nurse they told me all I could have was a paracetemol suppository (tylenol without codeine). While marijuana is legal in the Netherlands, they don’t actually believe in pain medication. As a result they don’t have a pill addiction problem. So I suffered. Had I been home in the US I would have been given morphine.

At 5:50pm I had gone 15 minutes without vomiting blood. “Ok, you go now” says the nurse in her broken english “we are close”. I was in an outpatient hospital that closed at 6:00pm, apparently regardless of whether you were vomiting blood or not. Amanda went down to the lobby with her Euro coin and brought back up a rented wheel chair – they managed to get me into the chair and my wife wheeled me down to the car. I don’t remember much of the next five days, other than delirious pain and hunger.

On day six I thought I would feel improvement, at least be able to eat something, it had been seven full days since I ate. The pain was excruciating as I laid on the yellow womb chair in front of the garden and listened to Amanda and my 2 year old son Henry laughing and playing.

Even a joyful life has pain and suffering – and I had dealt with more than my fair share of suffering. I grew up in a house of addicts, my father an alcoholic, my mother a pain pill popper. I sat there remembering the last time I felt so desperate, both physically and emotionally. I was 12 years old. After years of verbal abuse, explosive yelling matches, walking on egg shells afraid to laugh at the dinner table or be sent to our bedroom, two week long disappearing acts where we thought he was dead, we staged an intervention with my dad. My mom told him he was coming for marriage counseling, which he begrudgingly agreed to. It is just like it is on TV, the family and close friends all get together and learn about the disease of alcoholism. Each and every one of us old enough had to write a letter and read it. My brother was only 8 at the time, and my sister just 9. We write heart wrenching letters to my dad telling him how we love him and how “the disease” has hurt us, bringing up happy memories to remind him of how it used to be, in those brief moments of sobriety when things felt relatively better. Then, we slowly crack open the deepest most vulnerable parts of our little hearts to ask, please oh please will you get help and be my daddy again. When it was my brother and sister’s turn to talk all they could say between their sobbing was “i love you daddy, don’t be sick anymore”. Together, we all cried, for lost childhoods and painful marriages and hurt feelings and vacations where we had so much fun we laughed until we peed and then laughed some more. Then came the moment of truth. We all closed our eyes as my mom reads her letter, describing how they met and fell in love and the life they dreamed of having together. She talked about the yelling and abuse and the deep sorrow and their three beautiful children that they made together, and then she asked “Jeff, please from the bottom of my heart, for your sake and the sake of our family, get help so we can be a family again. If you get help we will be with you the whole way and waiting for you with open arms when you get home. There is a van outside waiting to take you to rehab, I love you. But, if you refuse, we will be gone, and you will lose us forever”. We all slowly open eyes to see what he will say. He closes his eyes, and starts to laugh, softly at first and than maniacally, his face turned so red I though he might burst, and then he suddenly stops and says “you thought this would work, you would ambush me with your sob stories and manipulate me? Fuck all of you, this is not my problem, this is your problem.” He then walked right out the door. I ended that day babysitting for our neighbors, which as an adult realize my mom should never have let me do. I was fine until I wasn’t. I put the kids to bed and called my friend, and told her about my day. She responded by telling me that I just told the story like it was out of a book, not like it had happened to me. We hung up and I suddenly had a raging headache, like no headache I had before. I was nauseas and seeing double and felt like I was dying. I can’t remember if I called my mom or not, but I do know I stayed, I stayed until 2am and they were supposed to come home at 11pm – it was before cellphones, so all i could do was lean my head against the cold window and cry myself to sleep, all the while wishing it would all go away.

This was only really the beginning of the suffering we would endure as a family. It was the catalyst for slow self destruction by most everyone. For another time.

As I listened to my son giggling, the memory washing over me, I sat in the fetal position, in our womb chair, and felt nothing and a smile came over my face. Maybe it was the combination of the memory, the extreme physical pain and the fasting that caused the moment, tears started running down my face and I realized that this was it, it doesn’t get any better than this, there isn’t anything else. We all experience pain and suffering and joy and happiness. We break and put things back together again. We take the whole apart and look at each piece but all that is there is a part of something bigger. Life is a series of events, minutes, days, weeks, breakfasts, diapers, friends, joyful surrender, working, mourning, parties, laughter, birth, bills, death, cleaning, stress, finances, broken bones and broken hearts. The searching for the next thing is over. This is what we have and the moments will change, the location will change, the people may even change, and i am the same, i am always there and i am nothing and everything and the rest will not go away, it will just shift and change. I took a deep breathe, it was over.

Acceptance asks only that we embrace life as it is, not life as we want it to be.

“this is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.”

~Rumi

with love.

Trigger – no not that kind

It happens to all of us, you may not even know it is occurring when it does. Your heart rate increases, your face may flush, maybe your palms get sweaty, if you have a nervous twitch it may show itself, and likely you get defensive, that is if you are like me. It is that moment when someone says something that irritates you, sets off an alarm, or otherwise triggers a reaction in you that likely stems from some set of experiences from growing up.

If there was ever a trigger in my life it is my mother. She has been visiting my wife, son and I for the last two weeks. What that means for me is I have been in my version of hell for two weeks. Culminating in last night’s conversation that started with:

“I feel like you constantly have a wall up with me. I thought we were going to be close again” quickly followed by, “what did you think of your childhood”. Now, of course she waited to have this conversation until my wife was safely out of the country (home for her brothers graduation) and of course not until she had a good two or three glasses of wine topped off by a few tokes of hash. I think I should provide some context here.

We all have a story, mine may or may not be like yours, to some degree. I grew up the oldest of three, (sister than brother) in a small house in a wealthy suburb in Illinois. We, however, were poor. My dad was a train conductor (ticket taker) and my mom stayed home. Not because we could afford for her not to, but because my dad did not allow her to work. My dad looked like a guy who worked on the railroad. A little over 6 feet tall, balding black hair, mustache, about 50 pounds overweight, all in the belly with a loud voice you could hear booming even down the street. The funny thing about his job is that he would take the commuters in and back on the morning ride, and then hung out at the station until rush hour that evening. During that time he drank beer, smoked and played poker with his buddies. For 5 hours! And somehow was paid to do this. What that meant for me is he always came home drunk, before the night even began. My mom had her own addiction issues, pills, coke (though not ever day), a smoker and light drinker, at least at the time.

We lived in a tiny bungalow on Brandon Avenue. I shared a bedroom with both my brother and my sister. There was puke dried on the carpeting in the hallway to our upstairs bedroom from the previous owners dog, I think it was permanent. Most of my friends came over one time to play and then weren’t allowed over again due to the daily screaming matches in my house and the never-ending flow of drugs, booze and cigarettes.

And that is just the beginning, really just a light-hearted set up to what was to follow. So you can imagine the trigger reaction I had when my mom challenged me as to why we weren’t close, and what I thought of my childhood. I mean, I have been in therapy for 12 years and have had my own executive coach for five, I coach people for a living to further help me get away from the childhood that I never stopped running from. So much so that I am 34 on the very cusp of 35, a Global Manager of Organization Development for a multi-billion dollar global company, have moved 4 times in 9 years, all for promotions and each time happier that I wasn’t living near my mother. In case I haven’t mentioned it, my dad has been missing for 18 years, so I didn’t have to work to get away from him.

She really didn’t know what that question was going to get her. And I am certain now she wishes she never asked.

One of the quotes that I use to remind myself that life is just life, and with it comes both suffering and joy is below:

“Pain is not punishment, and pleasure is not reward.” Pema Chodron

I don’t think my mom found it helpful when I ended our conversation with that. But it helps me realize life isn’t out to get me, or reward me. It just is.

Queensday – or weeks for some

Today is Queensday, the day in the Netherlands that the Queen is celebrated – the ultimate matriarch. Unlike in other countries where there is much pomp and circumstance, the Netherlands celebrates with a giant party, drinking, music, and…wait for it…a giant tag sale. The entire city of Amsterdam empties out their closets and cellars and throws down blankets to sell the crap they no longer need. Walking through Vondelpark where the “children’s market” is reminiscent to walking through grant park on the 4th of July during the taste of chicago, but with used clothes and toys for sale.

On this particular day my mother is in town visiting, and has been for two weeks. While she is technically the matriarch of my family, since my father has been missing for 18 years, she doesn’t embody any of the traits. Pill addicted, on disability for “pain”, she has spent the trip like a raver from london, taking her pain pills, drinking, hash, weed, cigarettes, sleeping until 10, and more drinking (did I mention it was my good scotch and cognac???). My mother has been here for two weeks and has acted as if it has been her queensday every minute of it. While I mistakenly thought she was coming to visit her grandson and help out around the house a bit, she was here to party. If you are like me in any way, spending more than 4 hours with your mother triggers you into some moment in the distant past when you were 16 years old – my skin prickles at the sound of her voice, everything she does sets me off, crunching potato chips and talking so loud it indicates she is in desparate need of a hearing aid.

Now you may think I am a bitch, talking about my mother this way. I have always had a hard time with the idea that “blood is thicker than water” or the “come on, she’s your mom” – we all have heard it. However, in my humble opinion, getting knocked up and giving birth does not entitle you to a lifelong loving, close relationship with your children in which they in turn take care of you (yes, there is some resentment there). You have to earn that. We do not owe our parents for giving birth, putting a roof over our heads and feeding us. That was a decision they made when they decided to get pregnant and go through with it. My mother is still making my sister pay her back for when she was in rehab at 13. Not kidding. I digress.

It is this feeling of entitlement that gets people, including me, into trouble. As adults no one owes us anything and vice versa. We can make the conscious choice to particpate in this world and give of ourselves. Give by listening, being compassionate, loving, taking care of ourselves first (yes, i said first), at the very least, treating people as you would a campsite in a national park – in better condition than it was before you arrived.

So how does one survive a two week visit by someone who triggers the worst of you? Well, a good friend of mine reminds me ofter of the Prayer of St. Francis, particularly three lines:

Grant me the ability to comfort rather than be comforted;

to understand, rather than be understood;

to love rather than be loved.

I use these three lines to deal with difficult people, including my own mother. I try to have compassion for her, she is unhappy, so I manage my expectations and don’t expect of her. The trick is not to lose yourself in this. For another time.

Happy Koninginnedag!

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