Pain is expressed in many forms

I went to the movies by myself last night. In my early 20’s, this was a fairly regular practice. I was living in Boston in an attic apartment with no air conditioning and little heat. I found a $5 movie theater that showed second-run movies and most important, had air conditioning and heat. A medium popcorn made a passable dinner.

While those days are long behind me (I hope), I still, and always will love the movies. I have a particular fondness for mostly empty theatres (but not the creepy kind with guys in trench coats and dark glasses). I can even forgo the reclining lounge seats for a good film. This was the case last night.

A friend recently shared their angst on social media trying to decide if they wanted to see “The Whale” for which Brendan Fraser received a Best Actor Oscar nomination and earned SAG and Critics’ Choice Awards for the same category (well-earned IMHO). The title pays homage to Melville’s “Moby Dick”, which is woven throughout the story. My friend’s post, or more accurately my friends’ deep conflict about seeing it, compelled me to see it.

The story centers around Brendan Fraser’s character Charlie, a morbidly obese man who teaches college online. The story unfolds over a week in the confines of Charlie’s apartment where he has imprisoned himself physically and emotionally. The other characters intersect with Charlie throughout the film weaving their stories together in a patchwork of emotional pain, each expressing it with their own particular brand.

I didn’t come to this realization immediately. As I drove home I thought primarily about Charlie, about self-soothing with food, something I did with some regularity earlier in my life. I put all of this in my back pocket, went home, and drifted off to sleep.

Having coffee with friends this morning, the themes of the film came up. Each of the characters was carrying pain: loneliness, abandonment, mourning, guilt, shame, regret. And each of them expressed it in what seemed like the only way possible for them. I thought about the many ways emotional pain is expressed in everyday life.

High-functioning, socially engaged, well-rested individuals who’ve recently eaten (not hungry, angry, lonely, or tired) might exercise, talk about their pain with a friend or therapist, make art, or articulate it in a blog post or journal. So how does that pain look in less than these optimal conditions? It looks a lot like life.

It’s pain in the form of anger, impatience, sarcasm, shouting, slamming doors, road rage, retribution, insolent silence, or violence. It’s pain from abandonment, loneliness, betrayal, guilt, shame, and regret in the form of tears, blame, co-dependence, outrage, retaliation, or self-harm in its many forms.

When I am in the thick of my pain, it is very hard to see out of it. I am fortunate to have the language, people, and places to share it. Not everyone does and I have to remember that before I rush to judgment of who and what someone is when they act in ways I don’t like. Because, really, who and what they are, are people who are in pain.


In the gray

That early morning time between the first threads of consciousness and the reality of awareness. Wisps of ideas seep up between the remaining pebbles of sleep. Some dissipate on contact with the morning, others linger, forming clouds of thought. As the gray lifts, I reach out to grab the thought clouds hoping they rain into puddles of colorful words before they evaporate with the day’s busyness.

I didn’t always have the gray. For a long time, particularly when stressed or operating in survival mode, my brain went from the black of unconsciousness to the blaring red of my alarm, and the dull white of things that needed to get done. I woke up everyday feeling like I was late for something, that I had missed something important, that I was letting someone down – and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed yet.

Some of that comes from my family of origin; the idea that the early bird gets the worm no matter how tired that little bird is. That you always had to be productive to be of value. And some was self-induced. As the bird got older, she was up early for long days of work while her FOMO had her staying out late on the other side of the day. The aftereffects of the night’s activities often resulted in fitfull sleep and usually a sizeable headache followed by subsequent and repeated assaults of the snooze button.

My brain could not rest, recover, rebuild, or create in stress or survival mode. The thoughts were tamped down, superseded by the most essential functions: get up, shower, get dressed, go to work, overachieve, go home, eat, anesthetize, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat. My anesthetic was TV, food, alcohol, iPad. I was not a total recluse and had an engaged social life; theatre, bowling, softball – but most of these involved alcohol. The action made the alcohol okay. It became the undercurrent of my activities. It also resulted in loss of self, damaged and severed relationships, and withdrawal from the beauty and color of the world.

The last of those days were in black and white. Awake and asleep praying that the pain and emptiness would end. And they finally did when I made a decision to change how I was living. It has been a gradual process, adding white pigment to the black, and colored hues to the white so life is polychromatic and mostly beautiful.

I’ll admit that the TV and iPad are still where I sometimes go for comfort. I have also been known to watch the Food Network excessively but I’m okay with that. Because I’m watching in color. And when the day retreats, I can slip into a restful sleep of warm browns and deep purples, and wake up in the gray.

Undraft the draft

I started writing again. After a few years of starts and stops, too much self-editing, doubt about the value of my work and words, and significant depletion of resources – time and emotional energy. Honestly, the time I could have captured, it was the emotional energy to make it a priority that was the issue.

In my “I’m not a scientist” interpretation, stress affects our synapses, the neurotransmitters in the brain, essentially disrupting communication between cells ( So, as my stress/survival mindset has shifted, and with the help of an amazing therapist, I am rebuilding the synapse in my brain. And making my way back to writing.

I signed back on to my blog (thank you for reading) and my attention was drawn to my “Drafts” folder: there were 16. To say they were incomplete drafts would be an overstatement by a lot. They are more accurately 16 thought fragments that popped out of my head and fell on the page. Splat! Is that all you’ve got Amanda? Yup, that’s it. Nothing to see here folks, let’s move that into the drafts.

I decided to dust off the drafts and construct complete thoughts and sentences and maybe use some cool words. Whenever I use cool words, not “splat” but real words, I think of my 7th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Blinn. She introduced me to the beauty of cool words. I still think of myself as recalcitrant, as she would describe me with a laugh. And, by the way, still true.

I also decided to dust off the things that were holding me back from sharing my writing. Who would read this? What will they think of me? Do I have anything of value to say? Guess what? It doesn’t matter. For me, writing is like exercise – I do it for myself. Unlike exercise, I enjoy it. As I recently shared with a friend, without language and words, my thoughts just ramble around my head looking for a way out until they become so exhausted they just wither and die in loneliness.

So here is my charge to you who love to write and are held back by fear, stress, sadness, time: undraft the draft. Put your words and thoughts out into the world. As I have discovered this week, someone may need to read what you have to say. You don’t have to write a book, start with 500 words on something that matters to you.

In the words of the amazing Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book (blog, essay, song) that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

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Before I lost my dreams

During a phone call with one of my sisters recently, I was reminded of who I was before I lost my dreams. The loss occurred over time, a slow chipping away of self by events, people, and circumstances, in addition to the natural wearing down of time and age.

Who I was, my sister reminded me, was the curly-haired spirited child with a quick laugh and a curious nature. As a toddler, my mother would take me to meetings of the various volunteer organizations she was part of. I would sit quietly under conference tables with a plate of scrambled eggs and a picture book, entertaining myself. There was much cooing and adulation from adults.

My three older sisters were often tasked with my caretaking which they did with joy. They still talk about fashioning my unruly hair into something they called a “ducktail ravish” – curls slicked back with Dippity Do into well, a ducktail.  For those not familiar with Dippity Do, it was, for a time, the ONLY hairstyling product around, with a wet consistency of aloe and a  dry consistency of papier mâché.  I felt safe and loved.

Moving out into the world, to school, friendships, relationships, and jobs opened up opportunities – for learning, success, and love.  It also exposed the harsher elements of life: criticism, disappointment, betrayal, violence, depression, fear, isolation, and addiction to those things that brought me comfort and escape – food, work, alcohol.  Milestones for lost dreams.

My world became increasingly dark, caution signs, potholes, and red lights everywhere. The longer and harder I looked at that road, the darker the path became.  I was comfortable living a chaotic life. I plowed forward through sheer force of will moving point-to-point with no real destination other than survival and trying to maintain control. I thought I would know when I “arrived”.  But my tank was empty, the engine sputtering along on fumes. I hid the tumult masterfully under the hood of a shiny job and title and my social media highlight reel. Fortunately, my friends and family kept me tethered to life.

I was eventually led to the conclusion that living life this way was untenable and began a process of self-examination that saved my sanity, and, I believe, my life.  Pick a name for whatever or whoever it was that led me here; I just know I didn’t do it on my own. This trek was not easy but it laid out a path to recovery that continues – because we never really do “arrive”, nor should we.  But it does lead back to the possibility of dreams, of reclaiming those parts of myself that had fallen by the wayside, of drawing closer to the adult version of who I was before I lost them.

Bravery is in the undoing

My friends call me brave. Brave for the things I’ve done: jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, ziplining, rock climbing, rappeling waterfalls, starting CrossFit (all of these after age 50), traveling solo, doing stand-up,, acting and singing onstage, doing karaoke at the drop of a hat. I was a police officer for many years, I enrolled in a doctoral program at almost 50 years old, and (gasp), I speak in public.

I won’t say these tasks are easy but the bravery required is a momentary decision. Check the box – done!

As I walked the dog the other day at an uncharacteristically leisurely pace, it occurred to me that my greatest acts of bravery have been in the act of undoing. I could walk at this uncharacteristically leisurely pace because I had just left my job after six years – with no solid backup plan, hence the bravery.

This was not a momentary decision; it was painstaking, sometimes painful, and long overdue. My line of work has an inherent amount of stress. Managing a large staff and multiple functions in an industry in which the main focus is to keep bad things from happening (public safety) and managing those bad things when they eventually do happen because they do. I’ve done this for a long time and I’m good at it: in the face of crisis, I am unflappable. I am also loyal to my people and my employers. This is what made the decision hard (aside from not having a full-time gig to jump to).

The organization I left has been experiencing an exceptional number of “growth opportunities”. For those familiar with that phrase, it essentially means challenges that make life working there really uncomfortable and uncertain. It was hard to determine if there was a plan or just that the plan changed so often that calling it a plan seems spurious. This created a level of organizational stress that caused people to retreat into their own safe spaces and eliminated the ability to engage in healthy discourse without fear of blame. Continuous resource scarcity at the lower and middle levels of the organization was juxtaposed with beefing up the top of the food chain.

Resource scarcity, the fear of not having enough or losing what I have, for me and my department, put me in survival mode. The stress increased my cortisol levels to the point that it affected sleep, appetite, depression, and my generally affable nature. Life was tremendously dark and every tunnel light was a train. In the last several months, a series of non-events were convoluted into events by those who shall not be named. I felt my livelihood threatened and I walked myself onto a precipice, standing there for an interminably long time. I could either jump or slink back into the chaos.

I ruminated, I contemplated, I best and worst case scenario-ed. I talked to my financial planner, my therapist, and my lawyer. I talked to friends and family. And what I noticed, is that my greatest pain was when I recounted my circumstances over and over and failed to make a decision. So I did. I quit. With plenty of notice and a solid transition plan for my team. As soon as I sent the resignation letter, I was swept with a relief I had not known possible when I was living in the morass of indecision.

I have been overwhelmed with the support from friends, family, and colleagues; their encouragement about the future; their validation of the decision; their approbation of the bravery to make it.

As the dog and I strolled leisurely, I recounted other undoings. Relationships and jobs that literally made me sick and my misguided thought that I alone could fix them. How brave I felt when I finally decided to leave them. And how free.

The Saint of Stenton Avenue is Missing

Every Friday morning except for last week, the Saint of Stenton Avenue stands in front of Martin Luther King High School. I have no idea what her name is but this is what I’ve come to call her. She is of a certain age, most likely retired. She is well-dressed and always wears a hat. Not a regular hat; a church lady hat. She takes her role seriously.

The Saint is sometimes on the eastbound side of Stenton, sometimes on the west. But she is always there on Fridays holding up her cross equipped with a big, bright, blinking orange LED light. She makes the sign of the cross over and over probably hundreds of times but the only one that matters to me is the one directed at me as I drive into work. And she wasn’t there last Friday.

I have a regular spiritual practice and a relationship with a god of my understanding but am not a regular church-goer. After many years of attending as a member of my church choirs, I just stopped. I am now a “Chreaster”, or CEO (Christmas and Easter only).

I am not a hypocrite or a heathen although I have not always lived my life in a manner consistent with the moral high ground. And I swear a lot – but not as much as I used to so I’m taking that as a win. But I do have a firm belief that there is someone/something else in charge and I pray daily (sometimes more). It brings me great relief.

I also believe that my higher power sends me signs in different forms; people, pets, warm sun, the ocean, the smell of autumn, good food. And The Saint of Stenton Avenue is one of those signs. I don’t know what blessings she bestows; safe travel on Philadelphia’s roads (much needed), peace (ditto), eternal life. The blessing I receive is to treat others kindly, to enter into my work with joy (some days this is very hard), and to know that someone or something is watching over me. On Fridays, it is The Saint.

So, when I don’t see The Saint, I worry. First that she is okay, and second, that in the absence of her blessing, will I be okay? I choose to believe that where ever she is, The Saint is sending out her blessings to all, most importantly to me. Because I really need them.

For the love of November

I love November but it seems all too short. I feel like we lose the first few days in the aftermath of Halloween as if the energy put into the holiday robs us of them. Then we ramp up to Thanksgiving, followed by the aptly named Black Friday, that dubious exercise we’ve fooled ourselves into believing will a) stimulate the economy, and b) provide us the best sale prices EVER. (Wait a week or two, they will get even sales-ier.)

In the blink of an eye, we’ve jettisoned November like a bad cup of coffee we couldn’t wait to finish but desperately needed to get through to reach “the holidays”. Bye November.

I want to savor November. I love the way the word feels in my mouth. It’s the only month with a v in it; it lends it a resonance, our teeth humming just inside our bottom lip rolling into that deep emmm then the “ber”. I know you’re saying it right now.

Living on the east coast and having lived in New England for many years, I appreciate the variety of temperate days, a few rainy ones, sometimes a morning frost, and many clear, crisp days where the colors of autumn seem to jump off the trees. And the smells. The leaves, or more correctly the process of their decomposition, create the earthy, musty, fungal, harvest smells I associate with the waning days of autumn. They are complemented by the occasional smell of burning leaves or a far-off wood stove, evoking visions of quiet nights settling in with a dog and a good book, maybe a family member or two: definitely at least one dog.

Please remember November, enjoy it, honor it, savor it. Between the sugar fest of Halloween and the food fest that is Thanksgiving, appreciate the smell as you take the first deep breath when you go outside. Take an afternoon walk and look up at the trees and the sky. On the best days, the sky is so blue, the name of the color does not do it justice. The next events on the calendar will wait for you; they like November too.

All the straws and the broken camel

“The straw that broke the camel’s back”, is trite, and in my experience, highly inaccurate. I discuss this periodically with my therapist and I think I’ve swayed her to my thinking. I believe that the straws hang out on the side somewhere, waiting for their other straw friends to show up, and when there’s a bunch of straws, they all jump on at once.

Recently, I went through a period of anniversaries. Not the good kind, not the cake and balloons and go out for a fancy dinner kind. These were definitely the, “oh shit today is that day” kind. I hate to admit that it caught me surprise. I tend to be a planner but had been in head down, running straight ahead, get ‘er done mode so had not been paying attention to the calendar other than to show up for meetings when the little Outlook “pling” told me where and when I needed to be.

I did notice, however, that I was not feeling great. Marginally ill-tempered, impatient, and physically exhausted, I was craving anything with salt or sugar and harboring a number of gastrointestinal maladies which I will NOT describe.

I work in higher education. The start of the academic year usually brings a burst of energy and excitement, greeting new students who infuse life into our campus which had seemed all but drained by the restrictions set upon us by COVID. This year, however, I entered with caution, afraid that if I were too enthusiastic, too optimistic, that something would snatch it away, and crush my soul. Hypervigilance is exhausting.

I had been looking forward to my upcoming visit with friends to spend some desparately needed time at the beach. Unfortunately, one of them was quite ill and my travel plans were thwarted. I was so disappointed and really feeling quite sorry for myself. I did eventually remember that my friend was sick so reshuffled my priorities, and my sympathies, in the appropriate order.

Last Friday, September 10th, I wrote my bi-weekly missive to my staff reflecting on the 20th anniversary of September 11th, and the loss of my high school friend and fellow theatre nerd Paul Keating, a NYC firefighter who went into work on his day off and lost his life saving others. I thought about his family and how difficult a day it must be for them. I was definitely in my feelings at this point.

After hitting send, I checked Facebook and those feelings were shattered into a million shards of pain and shame. One of my sisters posted a memorial for the anniversary of my mother’s death that day, 8 years earlier. I felt the sting of embarrassment that I had not remembered unbidden by the cue, and the pain of the loss. The date also drew my thoughts to the anniversary of my final divorce decree, which was 5 days prior to my mother’s death; those dates linked by sheer happenstance.

Did I mention a recent medication change that was not working out well for me?

So there they are, the straws. And they did not come one-by-one. They ganged up on me and BOOM! – broken camel! We can manage life’s challenges in small doses, one straw at a time, but life doesn’t always work that way. So how did I help the camel recover?

I found the courage to ask for the help I needed.I shared my straws, my pain, with friends who listen without judgement, without the need to fix me, or tell me what to do, but just sit with me in my pain, to be with me until I feel better. I am also fortunate to have resources, health insurance, and the good sense to use them.

May your straws be few and well-spaced.

The Elevator*

Imagine you’re 14 years old. You are with the kids from the neighborhood, maybe where you went to school. You have known each other a long time but you still feel awkward and different. You’re fat or have glasses or a speech impediment or weird clothes or a weird family or you’re really, really smart. Maybe you have secrets you are never supposed to tell. Maybe all of those things. All you know is that you do not fit in.

Now you all find yourself at the top of the highest building you can imagine. The view of the sky, the horizon, the landscape, are amazing, beautiful, full of promise. Your friends are happy, taking in the sights, talking excitedly about the day. You are fidgety, impatient, bored. You want to get on to the next adventure.

You try to get everyone the elevator on this top floor. “This will be awesome”, you tell them as you hand out beers as they get on. Some decide not to get on, content where they are, with what they have.

You notice there are no buttons in the elevator, no emergency stop: just a huge red down arrow and more beer, wine and alcohol than you can imagine. Every time empty one another one appears. The anticipation of where this elevator will take you is building.

The arrow turns green and it begins to descend. Your stomach does a little “flip” with the drop of a few floors. You are excited by the sudden but unfamiliar sensation. Your friends gasp, the look of fear evident. Several people throw up. The elevator stops and some get out: they’re not up for this unpredictable ride to nowhere.

You keep drinking. The door closes to continue the down. This time the drop is faster and longer. It feels like a rocket ship to center Earth. You grip the handrails to keep the momentum from hurtling you towards the ceiling. Your adrenaline surges: you are laughing with the thrill of it.

There are only a handful of you left. Another tremendous drop and a jolting stop throws someone to the floor, another person falls into a group in the corner, someone is unconscious on the floor. They are out as soon as the doors open. Now it’s only you and your best drinking buddy. Just before the doors close, she wobbles through them unsteadily, first walking then crawling. As she turns around, you see her expression turn from fear to relief.

The doors close again. You are in an endless plummet. The green arrow is blinking faster and faster with the speed of descent. You close your eyes. Your feeling of excitement has become abject fear. When you open your eyes, the elevator car has shrunken and become dark and cold.

Your heart is beating out of your chest, your head is pounding, you squirm to find a position to relieve your anxiety and pain, you are asking yourself why you are still on this DAMN ELEVATOR! Now you are screaming into the abyss: “STOP! STOP! STOP! LET ME OUT! I AM DONE!”

A soft light comes on in the elevator. It comes to a slow, soft stop. The doors open to a set of ascending stairs. You begin to climb, unsteadily at first. You can hear voices upstairs: they sound happy, they’re laughing. You stumble and suddenly someone comes to help you. You shake them off and stumble again. They reach out a hand and smile. This time you accept the help and begin to climb out of the darkness. You know you can’t do this alone.

* The title, The Elevator, is inspired by my friend Paul Churchill and his Recovery Elevator podcast, which I have been binge-listening for the past several weeks. Paul is committed not only to his own recovery, but to being of service to others and helping them with theirs. The RE podcast quickly became one of my tools to maintain my sobriety and the people around the country who I have met, personally and virtually, through Paul, inspire and motivate everyday to continue living a life of sobriety. Thank you Paul.



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