Thank you to Alicia for sharing her strength, hope, and experience in this beautiful post.
Four years ago, I spent an entire July in what felt like total upheaval. I’d had my gall bladder out, my son broke his arm, my husband and I separated, and I ended the month with an ER visit over what felt like vicious food poisoning and turned out to be my first ever panic attack.
“I can barely come up for air,” I said. It was the same thing I’d said the prior autumn when my cousin almost died weeks before my Dad almost died, when my Grandpa ended up in the hospital and the family hay barn lit itself on fire (it happens).
“It’s like we can’t come up for air,” I’d said.
Messages like that are funny things… they start out like alarms: we hear them loud and clear at first, but if we listen long enough, they begin to blend into the fabric of our day pretty seamlessly. I went for a walk with my 5 year old today and realized how loud the trains by my house can be, though I rarely even hear them anymore. When my Dad -by all accounts a very active, sound big cowboy of a man -was lying close to death in a hospital bed, all I could hear was the alarm.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t come up for air.” Everything that happened after that was an extension. My brother chastising me for making a mistake. The leaky washer. The broken freezer. The crayon on the toilet (seriously? Seriously).
“If I could just breathe, just come up for air…” The alarm was gone, replaced with a solid sort of acceptance. Difficulties were dovetailing, and I was suffocating. As I laid on my bed after coming home from the ER with diagnosis: panic attack, I felt all at once half-dead and sure that IF I COULD JUST BREATHE, things would get better. A dear friend spoke honestly to me, “Alicia, the difficulties aren’t what is hard. What is hard is your mindset ABOUT the difficulties. If you could stop viewing them as dovetailing and live more present with where your feet are, things might clear up.”
I didn’t speak to her for a week after she said that. Truth can sometimes be hard to hear. When I finally did talk to her again, I held a compassionate space for both her wisdom and honesty and where I was at, “I hear what you’re saying and see the wisdom in it, but I am not in a place to see it that way. All I can see is that I’m getting knocked down just as I’m about to stand up again, and I’m so tired.” I was working my 12-step program, calling my sponsor, talking with a therapist, keeping contact with a spiritual leader. But the difficulties were so thick, I couldn’t see beyond them. I could only see difficulties, and God wasn’t done with me yet.
“I just need some air. I need to come up for air,” I said. And then a family member passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. At the funeral, I hugged my Granddad. He joked with me, teased me, and hugged me back. Seven days later, I was at HIS funeral. At that point, I just sort of stopped trying to get back up and just took my lickings laying down. What do you call that? Weakness? Acceptance? Vulnerability? Surrender? I had no name for it. I was too tired to assign it a category. Basically, I unplugged my alarm -the one that kept reminding me that THERE WAS AN AIR SHORTAGE -and I went to sleep, solidly. When difficulties began piling up, I felt cynical more than anything.
“That’s how life is,” my sponsor said, making Life sound like a muddy boy presenting his freshly dug-up worms to his mother, “boys will be boys.”
I’ve never liked worms.
But I decided to study them anyway because I’m not naturally cynical. Cynicism made me feel like a tourist in my own skin, so when I was good and ready and tired of tourism, I traded cynicism for curiosity. Maybe there was something about worms I was missing. I began expecting that muddy boy called Life to stand at my door and dump worms on my carpet. I kept tools on hand to sweep them up. I sent Life back outside to dump his worms in appropriate holes. The more I let Life in and quit trying to turn him into what I thought He should look like, the more fascinating he became. Sure he wasn’t polished, but it turns out he did more than bring dirty worms to my front door. He also brought in bottles of sunshine and laughter. Sometimes he’d really surprise me and plop a good book full of heart on my doorstep. I didn’t know Life could be so cultured -it was hard to see his education through his mud-caked clothes. His visits were sometimes irritating, yes. Sometimes they shot right past irritation to devastating, but when I quit focusing on his visits NOT being what or when or how I wanted them to be, I started seeing him show up in ways I didn’t expect. As it turns out, Life isn’t a “drop the worms and run” kind of character. He likes to send helpers -people who specialize in worm removal -and I ended up making connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise. When Life brings a jar of devastation to my door, it’s usually followed by truckloads of newfound understanding, deeper perspective and the good lotion-infused tissues that don’t rip at every sniffle.
After a few months, I started trusting Life a little more and I began giving my own gift back: gratitude.
“I’m grateful for this sunshine, Life.”
“Thanks for the worms. I know you picked just the ones I’ll need today.”
“Thanks for the opportunity for more understanding.”
“Thanks for the laughter.”
“Thanks for providing me with truly meaningful relationships.”
“Life, I think I’m falling in love with you.”
In a dramatic turn of events, my Dovetailing Difficulties turned into Dovetailing Blessings. In a few short months, we had a new house and a new car. Our marriage bond deepened and strengthened as we painted walls and fixed our house to make it into our home. If there ever was a polar opposite of The Fateful July we lived in the nearby hospitals (plural) and watched our marriage flutter in the wind, that polar opposite would be December 2017 when pieces fell into place and blessings rained heavily on our doorstep.
As we moved in, my health took a downturn more than once. The washer broke. The bills were higher than anticipated. And in one swell, devastating blow, we lost our favorite dog. He was my husband’s first work dog -a highly trained and skilled K9 who had retired due to arthritis. He was more than devoted to our entire family. Everyone who came into our home loved him and knew him. He was The George Washington of dogs: rare and great, a once-in-a-lifetime dog.
We are sad. We are so sad. I am not a dog person at all, but I’m pretty sure that dog was actually a person in his soul.
In my sadness, I sat in my daily meditation. As I sat and listened, I could hear the train whizzing by -the train I never hear anymore unless I’m really paying attention. I heard the silence around me where no dog was breathing next to my chair, waiting impatiently for me to finish. And I heard my old alarm.
“I can’t breathe. If I could just come up for air.”
But it wasn’t me saying it this time -it was a distant voice, unfamiliar and scared. A reply shot through my heart.
“The water has as much to offer as the air.”
This truth settled on me and my heart burst open as I reflected on the experiences we had with our dog, how lucky we have been. I thought of the man who refused to take payment for fixing our washer. I reflected on my recent illnesses and the reprieve they brought after the overly-taxing task of painting and moving.
Did you know that Gratitude gives us gills? I have learned that that YES -LIFE WILL STOMP ME UNDER THE WATER -but that gratitude gives me the capacity to breathe underwater? And if I can breathe, I am able to see the adventure around me, and I become willing to cut the ropes tethering me to the idea that the shore is where I need to be and air is my only need.
I now surrender. I let go of trying to make Life over into what I think it ought to be and pour that energy into exploring Life AS HE IS RIGHT NOW. He has so much to offer if I am willing to trade control for surrender, comfort for peace, gratitude and gill-growth.
Best of all, I discovered that surrender is the ultimate “dismiss” button on the alarms that go off inside my own head. Where there once was the incoming message of, “not enough air,” there is now peaceful curiosity of what lies before me in the water. I walk forward with confidence and reassurance in the words, “The water has as much to offer as the air.”
I am grateful.
Alicia is a country girl out of Arizona who loves to write, cook, drink herbal tea and hire other people to clean her house. She has many interests and dabbles in anything she can get her hands on, and her family is always along for the ride. She’s been married for 12 years, has three children and more pets than she wants to admit.
She’s been working a 12-step program for almost 7 years, and has been working the SA Lifeline model with a sponsor for the last 4.