Sunday, February 19, 2017

7 Years

It felt like a really, really good dream.  I was up early.  I curled my hair, ate a quick breakfast and got dressed in my Sunday clothes.  I got the text, “I’m just outside.”  So I grabbed a laundry bag full of my last remaining belongings, left the house key on the desk, and walked out.  I threw the bag in the back of the little red ‘93 Ford Escort and Jon and I drove up to the Salt Lake City temple.  Our sealing was scheduled for 9:30 am so it was early and cold when we arrived.  The last two and a half weeks had been a whirlwind of planning, preparing and excitement.  Jon had proposed just 18 days ago.  It happened to be the same night that I met his parents, who were taking a break from teaching English, and were visiting during the Chinese new year.  They suggested we get married before they returned to China on Feb 24.  We thought they were crazy...and then we did it.  I fit into Anna’s wedding dress which she let me borrow.  Then, I worked on finding a place to live.  On our way to sign the contract, we got in a wreck which totaled my car. My parents came to the wreck site...then drove us the rest of the way to sign the contract.  Jon’s friend, Dave, took our engagement and wedding photos.  My Mom and sister, Anna had spent the two weeks planning a beautiful wedding reception.  They knew what I liked and decorated better than I would have been able to.  The tables had center pieces featuring old books from my Dad’s study and pictures of Jon and me.  My colors were cream, brown, and sage green.  So many people pitched in to help us pull it off.  Anna designed and printed my wedding invitations, and my other sisters, Abby and Mary remember staying up late, hand painting each one.  They were elegant and beautiful.  My friend, Suzanne, from high school and her family strung up tulle and Christmas lights in the cultural hall.  My other friend, Suzy, arranged for one of the best Jazz quartets from BYU to come and play, and she sang while we danced.  We’d been in an all-state jazz band together and she let me pick the songs.  When we were setting up, the Moms of my students came to help (I was teaching 5th grade at the time).  Last minute, one said she had some tulle strips we could use to tie on the back of all the chairs which she ran home to get.  We lighted the hall with just lamps and the Christmas lights and it really felt magical.  It was perfect - just what I would’ve wanted, only better then I could’ve done it.  It was like a dream.  

And now, after all that craziness, and with the busy-ness of the reception over...we were going to get married.  Today.  Feb 20, 2010.  Jon’s Dad was a sealer and would perform the ceremony.  I remember getting dressed in the bride's room.  My philosophy was that I wanted to look like myself on my wedding I did my own hair, long and curled, and my makeup was just mascara and eyeliner.  I wore little pearl earrings and my temple dress to be sealed in.  My Mom and a lady helped me put on my temple clothes.  I remember looking at myself in the mirror, and seeing my reflection in there, and I felt like a queen.  I felt beautiful and excited.  

Jon and I met and walked to the Celestial room to wait for our turn to be sealed.  The temple was dedicated in 1893, so the workmanship was very different from any other temple I’d seen.  The ceiling was carved and painted in many colors.  There was fruit and intricate wood work that looked old.  Jon and I sat on a couch, holding hands and talking.  When it was our turn to go in, and we walked into the sealing room, I was overwhelmed to see all the family and friends gathered to attend our ceremony.  Jon’s Dad performed the sealing and it was beautiful and short.  We put on rings, and everyone gave us a hug in turn as they filed out.  I was filled with happiness.  I couldn’t stop smiling even though my face hurt.  But I think that my favorite part was the 10 minutes we had at the end of the ceremony, to sit in the quiet room together.  We were married now.  We were sealed.  We were together.  This was our beginning and I was so happy I almost couldn’t stand it.  This was our story.

The first two years passed quickly and happily.  We got through a complicated pregnancy and had Lily in our first year, then Suzy in our second.  It felt like all of the sudden, life was full of babies and time together.  We lucked out with kids who slept really well and while motherhood was hard, I also really enjoyed it.  Jon graduated and started working at BYU in a research lab.  

In our third year, Jon got a job in Pennsylvania, and we got ready to move across the country.  It would be my first time living out of Utah, and I was pregnant with our third baby.  It was a hard transition.  After David was born, I sunk into deep postpartum depression.  I was overwhelmed (who wouldn’t be with three kids and the oldest was just 2 ½...the youngest was a newborn).  It was new to be without the help from family but the good news was that Jon had a great work schedule.  However, our life seemed to spiral downward and get harder and harder.  Things that had worked before in our marriage, started to crumble.  We weren’t able to work through even small problems together.  It seemed like everything we tried to resolve just got bigger.  I remember trying to work through a particular problem for hours one evening after the kids were in bed.  Things just got more tense, and we decided to just go to bed, but I couldn’t sleep.  I quietly snuck downstairs and cried on the couch.  This was not supposed to be our story. I thought: We are not supposed to have “marriage problems.”  And since we have them, does that mean that I’m bad?  That we’re bad?  If anyone knew, would they judge us?  Yes…they would.  This isn’t supposed to happen.  I’ll just hide it and ignore it and try to focus on the good.  I’ll force this to go away.  I can articulate that now, but I couldn’t at the was all subconscious.

Those were the only tools I had.  Try harder.  Do more.  Make it work.  Fix things.  Pretend.  And you know what, they didn’t work.  In October of 2013, I was walking down into our basement to get a can from the storage room so I could make dinner.  I felt so low.  I felt hopeless and like everything was a failure.  I was a failure as a Mom, my marriage was a place where I was hurting.  I was desperate.  I thought: This is why people consider suicide.  I could totally understand why you’d want to just leave the pain.  Just make it stop.  I felt like there was no way out.  Once I realized what I was thinking, it felt like someone had slapped me in the face.  I was suicidal.  I did not really want to take my life and I knew it.  I was going to get help, and I was going to get it now.  

I told Jon about my thought and started looking for a therapist. After a series of trying, we set up our first appointment with Ron, but it was a 45 minute drive just to get there, then an hour long session, and another drive home.  I decided to bring David with us (who was 3 months old), and our neighbor across the street babysat for free.  That was the first of many times that they babysat for us.  So the work began.  Holy smokes, it was hard.  On our first visit, we just told Ron about our histories.  On the second, we sat down and Jon and I started at it.  There we were, showing Ron just how little we were able to communicate about our hurt and our needs to each other.  Ron listened for a little bit until Jon and I stopped.  Then, he leaned forward in his chair, put his hands together and said, “You guys are going to be harder than I thought.”  We would have an hour long session every other week...and we would go home and talk about things for 8-10 hours outside of the session.  No joke.  It was not an easy thing to go into the deep, dark, hidden and unkempt parts of ourselves.  We had to go there together.  We had to face ourselves.  We had to be honest about the fact that we had hurt each other in turn.  We needed humility and a willingness to trust.  That was the first big hurdle for me...learning to really trust Jon with my feelings and needs.  I didn’t even know that I had needs before that.  Here’s some of the things we’ve been learning together.  We’ve been going to therapy now for 3 years, and we still skype with our therapist about once a month.

1- We had to learn that it gets to be hard.  We are allowed to feel the hardness of things - it doesn’t have to shameful, wrong, or threatening.  If Jon is telling me that something is hard, it’s not an attack.  Life is hard.  Marriage is hard.  Having kids is hard.  It’s hard.  There is now space for me to tell Jon about how its hard that he has to be at school so long, and he doesn't feel like I’m telling him that I want him to get home earlier.  Its just hard and he listens.  There is now space for Jon to say that it’s hard to come home with toys evenly scattered over every inch of the main level and I don’t feel like he’s saying that he wants me to make sure its a picture when he’s home.  He just needs it to be ok that it’s hard.  This was our first big step.

2- When we want to try to resolve some hurt feelings, or change a budget, or work on a problem, we don’t talk about it in the moment.  We make time for a mini-therapy session after the kids are in bed (or while they’re watching a movie).  We don’t talk about what we want the other person to do (that’s jumping to solving the problem alone instead of together).  We talk about how we’re feeling.  We’ll say how the scenario in question makes us feel trapped and stuck.  We’ll talk about how we’re worried about something and our fears around the issue.  When we do it that way, we listen to each other, and often we won’t come to a plan of action right away.  As the feelings of the other have time to sit with us, then usually what we want to do evolves gradually and we’re united now - even if one of us has made a 180 degree turn.  Or, we’re ok with being different and not having to feel the same about everything.

3- Pain is not the problem, it's being alone with it that’s unbearable.  That felt true for both of us and is something our therapist has said many times.  Now, we can connect to each other and be there for the other when they’re in intense pain.  I really had to practice the ability to let Jon be weak at times.  Often, when he was feeling scared or vulnerable, it would make me feel unstable, and I would try to shut him down.  Now I say in my mind, “let him be weak, let him be human,” and soon it’s not as hard to just sit in the discomfort with him.

As an example of this, I had a really hard thing happen last week.  It kept me up late and was the source of a lot of tears.  It was midnight by the time I got to bed, and Lily came in for help at 3 am.  I was back asleep by 5 am.  I woke up to Jon gently telling me that the kids were watching a show and they had breakfast and he was heading off to school.  As I woke up more, I felt anxiety at facing the day creep over me, and I started to cry.  Jon rubbed my back and then said, “Do you want me to stay for another half hour?”  He was already half hour late - he had two big projects and a final that week and I knew he was stretched thin.  But, he knew that I was not ok.  He could see that I was not myself and he offered to stay.  In the past, there were times that I felt like Jon would never understand me.  We talked and thought so differently - Jon was rational and I was emotional and it seemed like we couldn’t connect.  But now, he is my closest confidant. He respects my temperament and I respect his.  He understands how I work so much better than he could have if we hadn't done this work together.  Things moved forward and we started to find a place where we could live, together.  We’d still get triggered sometimes, but the old way of handling things...the one that had been so disconnecting...was easier to spot and get out of.  And, there was so much fun and good in our family.  We went on a lot of family walks and played at parks and visited Jon at work.  

In August of 2015, Jon got accepted into a master's program at BYU.  So, with only six weeks notice, we moved back across the country to Utah. Shortly after moving, we remembered how hard it is to be in school. In Pennsylvania, Jon never had to work odd hours or long hours. He always had a 40-hour work week. Now that we were in school and Jon had to get a certain grade in his classes is to be able to continue with the degree, the pressure was mounting.  In addition to that, the huge change was very hard on our kids. I found that my days at home were full of a lot of difficult problems as I was trying to help them adjust to a new house and a new place.  I felt like the demands on me were way above the skills I had and it saying that is was “really hard” doesn’t quite express it for me.  I was desperate and scared and wondered if things would ever get better.

Then the exhaustion set in, and then my extended family was going through a hard time. It brought up so many emotions that I didn't know how to deal with.  I was suffering, my extended family was suffering and I felt so sad and alone.  So I did the thing I taught myself to do when pain is present...I turned to sugar.  That was not new for me.  Whenever there were hard things growing up, and I didn’t know what to do with my feelings, this had been my coping mechanism.  However, right after Jon started school, the characteristic of this particular cycle was that I was hiding how much sugar I was eating from Jon. I told him not to say anything about my food, and I would try to eat most of the unhealthy stuff when he wasn't home or when he had just left the room. I was good at rationalizing all of this.  I would point to the fact that I wasn't overweight. I would count the grams of sugar in the chocolate chips I was eating, and compare it to the sugar in bread. But, when I recognized that I was hiding from Jon, I didn't like it. I didn't want to have anything that I was concealing from him. We had worked so hard to bring our relationship to a place where there was trust and that we were open with each other. I told him that I had been eating more sugar than he knew and I decided that I didn't want to have that be part of our relationship anymore.  

But, I’d been using sugar to handle my hard emotions since I was 11 and it wasn’t easy for me to just stop.  I’d tried before and would have success for a while.  Then, once there was a big event that caused a lot of emotions for me, I was always thrown back into my cycle of using sugar to cope.  So, on January 4th 2016, I committed to having absolutely no sugar for 67 days. I took an online course for support which included an entire recipe library, as well as weekly check-ins and support from the community of people who had already graduated from the course.  It was much harder for me then I thought it would be.  I struggled with headaches for a couple weeks, and felt sick.  I struggled with cravings and felt like there was nothing worth eating.  One video in the course was an interview with someone who’d been off sugar for 8 years.  She said that going off of sugar was like having her skin removed and she felt so raw and like there was no filter. She said that everything hurt so much.  I felt that way. I felt so exposed. I didn't have anywhere to hide and my emotions were overpowering at times.  Hearing that was very really was that intense for me.  I couldn’t handle things like I used to be able to.  I thought that just not eating sugar anymore would be the hardest part.  But, in the last year, I’ve really had to combat a lot of thoughts I’ve had about the world which are false.  For me, refraining from sugar was the tool that allowed me to have space for the emotions to surface.  It’s been a long road to work through them all.  And what does that look like?  Taking time to journal and feel my feelings.  Crying to Jon.  Therapy sessions.  Trying to learn about and set healthy boundaries.  Reorganizing my life so it’s not always full, making it so I can have time to do all the emotional work that there is to do.  Hard talks with Jon.  Taking care of myself.  Challenging the idea that I have to be perfect before I can be loved.  Learning not to care so much about what other people are thinking and letting them judge me (if they even are).  Crying, lots of crying and sometimes grief.  It’s been intense.

And here we are.  This is our story.  This is my story.  I’m just human.  I’ve always been trying to make sense of life and things as they are as best as I could.  I can look back with compassion at the self-righteous Lauren from high school who was always in the lime light.  She was trying to earn love.  She was separating people into categories of “good” and “bad” because that was all she knew how to do.  I can look back at the Lauren on her wedding day with a warm glow of content.  She was so happy.  And, it only took two months for her to realize that the life and story she’d planned out was not reality for anyone.  But she figured it out and worked on it.  I can look with compassion at the suicidal Lauren, with three kids and no feelings of connection.  How hard was that!  What a struggle, she thought it was on her shoulders to fix everything but couldn’t make it happen.  I can look with compassion at Jon, with three small kids, and a wife struggling with mental illness, who didn’t know what to do but was trying his best.  He was giving it all he had.  And you know what, we made it through.  We got the help we needed and it was so much harder than I could’ve imagined, but we did it together.  This is our story.  This is our marriage.  This is our family.  This is me.  And “me” includes him, my Jon, my husband.  The one who has hurt me, and I’ve hurt him.  The one who sat through hours of therapy with me to try and learn who we actually are (instead of who we thought we were when we got married) and who has seen me and loved me as I am.  And I love him.  I think that my favorite thing Jon has ever said to me was, “Lauren, You are good. You are kind. You are weak. You are flawed. And I love you.”  Jon, thanks for the last 7 years.  I’m so glad that I’m with you and that we’ll get to be together always.

Also, I've been working on this project for the last while, and I'm excited about it.  Here's the progression of our family in video form.  It's super long, but my kids are going to love it...and if you have an hour to kill - here ya go.  ;)