Mental Health, Grief, and the Hole in My Nose

Well, hello! It’s good to see you again! It’s a gorgeous day here in my tiny part of Pennsylvania. It truly feels like fall: the air is quiet now that the birds have moved on. The sun is low. I’m sitting on the front porch with Riley. She likes to hang out with me when I take a moment out here in the mornings or evenings, my constant–but quiet, which is good for this introvert–companion. I don’t know if she just likes the company, or if her canine instincts feel the need to protect me from the chipmunks, but I love having her here at my feet. David and I have been readying the house and yard for the season: shrubs trimmed back, mums blooming, the trusty burnt-orange wreath that will hang against the front door for the next several weeks. Riley sits and sniffs and takes it in. A chipmunk runs by her front paws, ignored.

Fierce protector, this one.



I touch the outside of my nostril, where my new-ish piercing is settling in. I call it my third nose hole, to the disgust of anybody who hears it. When I scrunch my face I can feel the titanium rod there, bumping around places titanium rods should never go. I’ve wanted a nose piercing since my 20s (why, you ask? Because it sparkles, of course), but instead I got it the day before my 45th birthday with my friend Anne. I joke that it’s my midlife crisis manifesting itself (Saoirse: “STOP. It’s not a midlife crisis. It’s cute! You look cute. Now, when can I get one?”). Anne’s husband shook his head when he saw the two of us after we got it done. He’d said something about making poor life decisions, but I like to think he admires our follow-through. David looks at it and laughs that I actually stopped yammering on about it and finally did it.

FOLLOW-THROUGH. It only took me 20 years to get here.



We’re well into our school year here, which is still hard to believe. This summer wasn’t…awesome. I think last year, in the midst of everything going on with my poor mom, I was anticipating this past summer as a relief from all the pain we were enduring then. I kept holding onto the idea of Summer 2021 as the balm on the wound. But I forgot that’s not how grief works. Really, I was being as naive as my sweet 13-year-old who talks of getting her own nose pierced some day (only 32 more years to wait, kiddo!). I mean, what was I thinking? I cried when we finally sold my mom’s car last spring. Her car.



So mine was the heartsore summer. It was the therapy summer. The realization that anxiety and depression are actual conditions of mine and not just, like, my personality. It was the Lexapro summer. The summer where I brought a couple other family members along for the ride, because once one of you starts filling in all those little spaces in the mental health Venn Diagram, the entire team might as well break out its markers, too.



Last summer, when my mom died, it felt like I was out in the ocean, stuck in the breakers, and those big waves just kept washing over me, knocking me down against the rocks. Around mid-winter, I felt like I’d found my footing again in the quiet weeks of quarantine and Christmas time and Covid isolation and snowfall. I began writing again, and started a new book–a completely spontaneous idea–and kept writing until I had 90,000 words and the completed draft of a new manuscript. THAT felt good. I stood up from the metaphorical surf and was able to catch my breath.



But then, at the end of the spring, the undertow got us. That sneaky current grabbed our ankles and pulled us back under. It wasn’t just me–it got me and David and the kids–and that’s when I reached out for help. It’s been a shitty few years. We were tired of gasping for air.



Amid the sadness and stress, though–maybe because of the sadness and stress?–this past summer has been a gift. I’m not fully appreciating it juuuuust yet, but I will, absolutely. Because when I look back to the Leah of 2020, I see someone so desperate to stop all that pain she actually thought she could create a deadline for it (because there are two things I love in this world: cookies and deadlines).



I’d forgotten that even after you get out of the surf, even when you’ve gotten away from the rough water that knocked you down and you’re finally walking on the dry sand, you will look down and see that there are cuts all over your feet and hands. Your knees are scraped up, and your eyes are burning from the sunscreen and salt water. There are jellyfish stings and shards of clam shells in your skin. Your ears are clogged up, your vision is blurry. You’re still not okay. You’ll still have work to do to get back to rights.

If you’re anything like me, this will frustrate the hell out of you. Everybody gets roughed up once in a while out here, so what made me so different to feel this way? I’ve see many people around me who’ve weathered awful life crises, who are doing so even as I type this. I’m not special. It was supposed to get easier.

Wasn’t it? 



This summer felt like a lot of work–a lot of slow, steady, quiet work. Our extended family and friends suffered both losses and joys, and my writer friends have experienced triumphs, but I’ve been largely silent through it all. I’ve stayed close to myself, close to my five-person unit and a friend or two. A little wall went up last year, but I needed that wall. I needed the fortress.

(Those waves are scary, man: I’ve never been in a place like this before, this kind of reckoning. And when I peeked over my wall and I saw how much was happening in my world on the other side of it, felt all those big emotions, I ducked back down and let the wall stay.)



Midlife can knock you for a loop, you guys. (Parents die, piercings happen, etc.) But there’s good that comes with it, and it’s a funny moment when you understand that you’re just beginning to grow up, really. That you are about to climb over the wall and see what’s there on the other side of it. 



I’ve always loved this season: my sense of a new year beginning always aligns with the start of the academic year, so autumn to me feels like a time of renewal. I miss my mom–and my dad, goodness–so much it can feel like physical pain, right in my chest. And as the anniversary of that awful day of her initial seizure comes and goes again, I can’t hide from it. But I’m in the middle of learning something big, and I’m patient enough to wait to see what that’s going to be.



David and I took the kids to the beach right before school started this year. The water at Hilton Head Island felt like bath water, and we were all out in it from the first day on, rough waves or not, swimming together. We endured jellyfish stings and surf rash, lightning warnings and sunburn. We got knocked down by the breakers and scraped up our knees, and were told one morning we’d gotten too close to a feeding shark (we did get out real quick after that). There were many, many jokes made about peeing on jellyfish stings. There were sting rays that swept by our feet. Every single one of us, except maybe David, got whacked in the head with a boogie board. 

You know where I’m going with this, right?



You guessed it. No matter what, every single day found us back in the water. Because that’s what you do, even after you get hurt (or spooked by a shark). We know that joy can follow right on the heels of pain (and vice versa) and to feel happiness is also to risk loss. So we all keep getting back in the water, right?



I think I’m ready to get back in, too. It’s always too hot out there on the sand, anyway. You know how it goes: the sun’s too bright when you want to read, and the dumb umbrella keeps flipping in the wind. If you stay put in your chair, you’ll be bored in no time and eat your weight in the Cheez-Its somebody (you) insisted on bringing down to the beach. The ocean waves are, really, the best place to be–especially once you do get past the breakers. Even if sometimes the sand–your fortress–seems like the safest place to hide behind.

My people keep lifting me over the waves, so in I go, holding their hands.



Do yours? Then there’s no reason not to let ourselves swim.



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