All posts by grieving an addict

In the Belly of the Serpent

Do you sometimes feel like you’ve been swallowed up by your grief, like you’re Jonah trapped in the belly of a whale? Or maybe you feel like you’re shooting through a dark, enclosed water slide, tossed round like a log, without a clue where you’ll end up, or even if you’re going to survive.

For this kind of terror, I find some solace in an ancient myth that appeared in different world cultures. The story was told that at the end of every day, the sun would get swallowed up by an enormous snake, yet would be reborn the following morning. The early Egyptians pictured this as the sun god on a boat that was being carried through the body of a huge snake. In Ohio, a similar concept is depicted at Serpent Mound–the largest prehistoric effigy mound in the world, located near Peebles, Ohio. The quarter-mile-long snake has a three-foot-high body rippling over the ground, ending in a coiled tail. Its horned head opens out to a large oval, as if it’s about to swallow it. Many think the large oval represents the sun being swallowed by the serpent because the giant maw faces due west.

When the sun of life sinks and the dark night rises, I know I am back in familiar yet frightening territory. My more recent soul journey through blackness started during 2009 with highly aggressive end-stage cancer; continued through a three-year divorce and the loss of my father to dementia; and culminated with the unthinkable: losing my 19-year-old son to a heroin overdose.

Yet during those two long years of cancer treatment, my friend Gary gave me a turkey feather. During the divorce process, I felt drawn to Serpent Mound, during which I had a waking dream: The oval filled with light, and in the center lay the body of a woman, radiance surging through her. She stood up, as if being born. I came to realize I was that radiant woman rising up out of the egg. My friend Margaret Klein heard this story and painted it for me. It became the cover for my third book, Thriver Soup: A Feast for Living Consciously During the Cancer Journey. And during a 2019 trip, tour guide Anneke Koremans gave me a little boat.

This June, when my friend Mica invited me to take a day trip to Serpent Mound, I knew it was time to return with gifts of gratitude to the Great Spirit for allowing me to survive the past eleven years.

At the mound, I sat with my back against an old tree and faced the undulating coils. I closed my eyes to meditate. I immediately found myself, in my mind’s eye, lying inside the oval. I heard the words “Life Boat.” And as if on cue, the “boat,” with me inside, slid uncontrollably into the mouth of the giant snake. I was trapped, powerless, terrified.

Night engulfed me again inside its terrible suffocating walls. Water sloshed under my Life Boat, forcing me forward. I sped through the serpent’s slimy body, rounding curves, getting splashed, ever aware of the shadowy energy of the snake. I clung to the sides of the oval and surrendered to the inevitable.

All the way to the coiled tail, and all the way back through, I hung onto life.

And then I slid back out of the mouth. I had survived. Just as I had survived the horrendous circumstances of my life.

Before leaving the park that day, I left the little boat—representing my Life Boat—and the turkey feather—representing the wings I’ve been given, as well as the wings my son Brennan gained when he flew to Heaven during 2015. It was time to let them go, to offer them to the Great Spirit, with gratitude for my survival and renewal.

A couple of days later, I found a snake skin on my drive-way. It’s the second time in my life I have encountered one, and this one was nearly intact. The Serpent had shed its old skin, transformed, and been reborn. As have I.

And today I saw a large bird of prey rise up out of my garden with a snake in its claws. The serpent was taking its final flight on feathered wings—like my son took his final flight into the heavens, carried by the wings of angels. Reborn on the Other Side.

 

 

Sign in a Fawn

 Do you long for a sign from your dear one who has passed on? Do you receive possible signs, yet wonder if they really mean something? Or do you find that synchronicities show up in your life that are so amazing you find it hard not to believe they are gifts from your departed loved one?

I feel fortunate to have been given another wonderful sign this year, on the fifth angelversary of my son’s final overdose. The first astonishing synchronicity arrived just before that first horrible Christmas without Brennan. An unordered gift box appeared on my deck, and the sender said I could keep it.

Last year a gifted tea rose had exactly four blossoms on exactly my son’s fourth birthday in heaven. It has not produced a single blossom since.

The third most amazing gift arrived on Friday, the day before Brennan’s fifth angelversary. I was startled to find a beautiful little fawn curled up in my garden only six feet away from where I was working on my deck. She stayed in that spot all that Friday and all through Saturday, the day my son left our world five years ago.

I spent as much time as I could on my deck, despite temps in the mid-90s, to be near that fawn. Not for her safety—nature was doing its best to take care of her—but for my own sake. I was surprised to feel a sweet sense of solace from being near her, because her doe-eyed gentleness and innocence reached out and enveloped me.

On Sunday morning when I walked outside, she was frantically pacing along the south side of my yard, distressed because her mommy stood on the other side of the short fence. At one point the fawn turned around and ran directly toward me. I did not want to frighten her, so I talked softly while slowly moving a hand. The motion caught her attention and she abruptly stopped. She stared at me for a breathless moment; then she wheeled and ran back toward her mommy. She soon found her way through the fence.

This lovely creature spent two days with me, the two exact days I would have wanted her here. The two days when I most needed a little extra comfort in my life.

Did my son, or something else, arrange the perfect timing of this beautiful gift? I’d like to believe so. I choose to receive these moments of grace as Divine gifts to help ease my way, to help me know my son is still with me and that our love goes on into eternity.

What is the best synchronicity you have received since losing your loved one?

Message in a Fawn

Do you feel like you did everything you could but still lost your loved one to substance use disorder? Do you think you abandoned him or her in the one most critical moment of need? Does it overwhelm you with guilt and shame?

While my head might repeatedly tell me these tales, my heart is finding this is not the case. I have a little fawn teaching me this lesson on the angelversary of my son’s passing.

On this morning, exactly five years ago, my son Brennan’s overdosed body lay lifeless and alone in a retreat center bathroom. My body had woken up at 4 a.m. with a terrible feeling of sorrow for my son, but I did not know where he was or what had happened.


Today I am sitting on my deck and the sun is rising over the housetop. Not six feet away is a sweet little fawn. She is curled up, hidden among the lilies and hostas, all alone. No mother anywhere to be seen. Why did that mother abandon her darling Bambi? What was wrong with her?


Fortunately my friend Kay had told me, a few years after she lost her own son to suicide, that a fawn was left alone on her lawn for a couple of days. Kay made some calls and learned that does often leave their babies hidden somewhere so they can go feed. This is normal, natural, instinctual behavior. They can only do what they know how to do. Could she lose her fawn? Sure. My house is surrounded by homeowners with large dogs. Will she? Not likely. Does have been doing this for millennia. Yes, some come back to find their babies are forever gone, but clearly not all do, or there would not be so many deer. Their behavior works for the majority.


Our behavior with our loved ones would ordinarily have worked. The problem is, the drugs now available are not normal or natural. Our bodies are not designed to consume them, yet somehow many of our loved ones got trapped in the lies that these substances would be cool, would help them feel better, would help take away their pain. Instead, their pain was multiplied, and so has our own.


If you hadn’t lost him or her on that horrible day, it probably would have happened on another horrible day. The addiction overpowers every other consideration.


If you loved your dear one—and clearly you did, or you would not be grieving—then you did enough.

How Can We Help Protect Ourselves from Covid-19?

 As the bereaved, we are automatically much more prone to bodily inflammation.

A relatively new study in Psychoneuroendocrinology (Vol. 93, July 2018, pp. 65-71), and reported by Forbes (Oct. 30, 2018), found that “the blood samples of those who were experiencing ‘elevated grief,’ including feeling like life had lost its meaning, had inflammation levels 17% higher than those who didn’t feel that way (measured by levels of inflammatory cytokine proteins). And the top one-third of the grieving group had levels nearly 54% higher than the bottom one-third.” [1]

These inflammatory cytokine proteins can multiply quickly and cause a “cytokine storm” in Covid-19 patients. According to Randy Cron, M.D., Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham, “Cytokines are inflammatory immunologic proteins that are there to fight off infections and ward off cancers… But when they are out of control, they can make you very ill.” (Forbes Apr 16, 2020, article on cytokine storms and covid-19 patients) [2]

Also of concern is that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood, according to Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice University. [3]

Therefore, perhaps the best defense against Covid-19—and other illnesses—is a good offense: reduce the elevated inflammation levels in our bodies. This can help us stay healthier overall anyway—so we don’t end up with more grief about our own bodies.

Following my 26 tips for improving your immunity, which you can find on my Thriver Soup blog, I will next be offering ideas for reducing inflammation in our bodies to help us better cope with the terrible hand we have been dealt.

Here is a foundation for better understanding inflammation from my book, Thriver Soup:

“When threatened by wounds, irritation, or infections, cells inflame to assist with the transition back to health. A molecule called nuclear factor-kappaB (NF-kB), which normally resides in cell cytoplasm, moves into the cell’s nucleus (hence the name ‘nuclear factor’) and generates redness, heat, swelling, and pain. When the body heals, the NF-kB molecules return to the cell cytoplasm.

“NF-kB, however, also provokes the genes involved in creating chronic inflammation, which generally does not help the body heal. Instead, long-term heat and swelling becomes an open invitation to cancer. One-sixth of all cancers are directly linked to chronic inflammation. Most, if not all, cancers have unusually high levels of active NF-kB. This protein is considered their missing link. Researchers, for example, found that NF-kB regulates the inflammatory cascade necessary for breast cancer cells to proliferate and metastasize.

“Fortunately, inflammation can be smothered through diet and supplements. NF-kB can be suppressed by phytochemical-rich spices, vegetables, and fruit. Antioxidants can block the proteins so they don’t move into cell nuclei. Vitamins C, D, and E, curcumin (found in the spice turmeric), the herb ashwagandha, pomegranate extract, garlic extract, ginger root, green tea, omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, and isoflavones found primarily in beans can be effective cellular firefighters. I found such a diet helped reduce my discomfort during treatment, decreasing my need for pain medications.

“When brought back under control, NF-kB provides the body with important healing mechanisms…. Keep the chronic flames doused with an anti-inflammatory diet to help preserve your internal landscape.

“Thriver Soup Ingredient:

         “Ask your doctor to measure inflammation markers in your blood (C-reactive protein and albumin). [Cancer] ‘patients with the lowest level of inflammation were twice as likely as the others to live through the next several years,’ according to long-term studies by oncologists at the Glasgow Hospital in Scotland.”

Thriver Soup, Pg. 174

Sources:

[1] [https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/10/30/new-research-on-inflammation-shows-how-extreme-emotions-can-undermine-health/#4bc491af56f5]

[2] [https://www.forbes.com/sites/claryestes/2020/04/16/what-is-the-cytokine-storm-and-why-is-it-so-deadly-for-covid-19-patients/#6b77ed6460fc]

[3] [https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/10/30/new-research-on-inflammation-shows-how-extreme-emotions-can-undermine-health/#4bc491af56f5]

How to Cope with Anger During Lockdown

There are so, so many legitimate things to feel angry about right now. The loss of your loved ones. The opioid epidemic. Now the coronavirus pandemic. The basic, reliable structures of your life have collapsed, compounding your grief. It feels so overwhelming.

Your rage is multiplied, complicated, and justified. And on top of that, you are locked up, either alone or with loved ones, as if a prisoner in your own home. It’s like you’re sitting in your personal pressure cooker, where grief, resentments, and blame build to the explosive point.

It’s something none of us have really dealt with before. It’s a hard time for all of us.

We want relief from that constant niggling agitation we might feel. Our minds acknowledge that life is way out of whack, but that doesn’t always translate into compassion for ourselves and each other. To cope, it seems easiest to disconnect our awareness from our bodies. We sometimes end up self-destructing with food and alcohol and maybe even lashing out at those whom we love. I find myself eating a lot more chocolate and popcorn these days, and I have been less patient with my son.

Even though our ways of dealing with stress can be quick fixes to ease our discomfort, they are ineffective ways of coping. While we might feel some sense of relief, these knee-jerk reactions usually make us feel worse in the end.

Processing

We can’t control these difficult external events, but we can control our internal attitudes, behaviors, and choices. We get to choose if we are going to be victims of our circumstances, or if we’re going to rise up and take responsibility for ourselves and our own lives.

If we look underneath our anger, grief, and sorrow, we will probably find an incredible sense of powerlessness, as if the floor is giving way underneath us. It may not feel like it at the time, but this sensation is just an emotion—energy in motion within our bodies. While it’s scary to feel these feelings for what they are, our emotions alone do no harm. They are the result of a chemical dump from our brains into our bloodstreams. For the emotions to lift—which is where we can find relief—these sensations need to be deeply felt without our minds running interference.

So have a seat, or lie down on your bed. Tune in to your body. Where is that irritating feeling of powerlessness sitting? Can you feel the rage putting pressure someplace inside you? If so, take a moment to feel it. Allow it to be what it is without any thoughts or words. Give it your whole, undivided attention without judgment. That’s all it wants, anyway.

Your emotions, if felt fully and deeply, will lift after ninety seconds. If it lasts longer than ninety seconds, you’re probably engaging your mind and thinking about what’s bothering you. That’s not helping you right now. Let the thoughts go, and if you can’t, write them down and shred them. Then try the process again.

Another strategy you can use is to breathe deeply while mindfully observing your anger, grief, and powerlessness. Just look at it. Don’t judge it or act on it. Instead, have compassion for whatever it is you’re feeling. It’s a human response to an inhumane situation; there is no logical reason to feel ashamed or guilty about your feelings.

By loving yourself enough to experience the energy moving inside your body, without thinking about what makes you upset, you can allow it to harmlessly shift around until it evaporates.

Integrating

Once the emotions lift, you can begin reorganizing your reality, away from the victim mentality and toward opportunities, learning, and desires. There are so many free educational and entertaining options available online. Perhaps focus on gratitude that these choices—vastly more wonderful than at any other time in history—are accessible to you right here, right now. I find these gifts extraordinary.

For example, I finally got my son to watch the movie The Cold Blue so he could see what his grandfather lived through during World War II. I watched a documentary about children’s show host Fred Rogers, of “Won’t you be my neighbor?” fame, and was amazed. Fred had the uncanny ability to explain difficult concepts, like “assassination,” to help children cope with national crises. Most recently, I participated in free online meditations.

These would never have happened without the lockdown and the generosity of others. With gratitude, I find my attention shifts and so does my internal awareness. It’s a lovely, empowering gift to myself and relieves the stress of living in lockdown.