We Need to Talk About Mental Health.

I have anxiety and depression.

People are sometimes surprised to hear this about me, because, I’ve been told, I come across as a generally upbeat, optimistic person. I try to see the good in everyone and everything. That is partially genuine and partially an effort to help myself focus on the good. Because I have anxiety and depression.

Sometimes I’m fine. Sometimes I’m pretending.

In our modern era of oversharing — inundated by social media feeds and phone notifications and email lists we keep meaning to unsubscribe from — somehow we still have trouble being open about the topic of mental health. Our own family members, close friends, and daily coworkers often hide the battles pressing against their chests. (I’ve done so in all of those interactions, and I’ve often learned of others’ battles only after knowing them closely for many years.) This is a critical failure. Those relationships could be lifelines — often literally — if given just a glimpse of the truths we refrain from speaking.

There’s a cruel cycle at play here: for many of us, a key reason we don’t tell others about what we’re dealing with is the negative self-talk that is so inherent in these conditions (and thus only makes them more urgent): People will think I’m weak, pitiful, not good enough, not up for X, Y, Z. This is especially true when there’s a power issue involved (eg, My boss won’t trust me with that project / won’t think I deserve that promotion) but can be true of even our closest relationships with people who think the world of us. Our rational selves know that those people would not judge us. But our self-image is often vastly different from what others perceive of us.

And, of course, the longer we suppress those feelings, the worse they can get; the longer we avoid those conversations, the harder they are to have.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly amplified these struggles for countless people and brought on new issues for still more. It can be hard to find the light amidst this long stretch of dark days, during which we’re battling loneliness, fear, and the disappointment of postponed or cancelled plans. I suspect these days we’re all some level of anxious, depressed, or both.

So, I want to share a bit about my experiences, in the hope that it might help others, whether you’re struggling, too, or could be in a position to help people around you who are.

My anxiety makes me feel restless, my thoughts obsessive, my brain unable to quiet down. My depression makes me not want to move, or to feel unable to move. These can be in play simultaneously. It most often happens at night, my mind lit up and spinning like a carnival ride at the same time that my body feels weighed down by a concrete blanket. My body aches for sleep, but my mind won’t let it happen, sometimes for hours.

Writing, exercising, cleaning, or some other burst of productivity will sometimes help lift me out of a depressed stretch or quell my anxiety, as will social time with family or friends. Sometimes, those things don’t help, or they make things worse, or I can’t bring myself to try.

Unfortunately, these feelings typically can’t be explained; it’s not as simple as asking “What’s wrong?” and applying X solution. Yes, sometimes there may be a catalyst that brings on an episode or spurs it into overdrive, but ultimately I’m feeling those things simply because I have anxiety and depression. They are chemical processes that flare up and, thankfully, recede. The lack of an explanation can be confusing for those around me — and for me, too! I ask myself, Why do I feel this way? and think, I shouldn’t feel this way, as my mind rattles off the countless great things in my life.

And then I feel even worse: ungrateful, guilty, and like something must really be wrong with me, if I’m unable to snap out of it when I should have no excuse for feeling down. 

Thankfully, this all happens far less often for me in recent years than it did for many years before. There is no question that this is because I’ve put in 8 years of work through counseling (more on that below) and continue to use the tools I gained there. Personally, I’ve chosen not to take medications, as I wanted to focus instead on understanding my processes and triggers and learning how to work through them. But I know many people for whom medications have made all the difference, and choosing to forgo them wasn’t a decision I made lightly. The choice to medicate, and which one(s) to use, is highly individualized and can be a long process.

Some things that have helped me:

  • COUNSELING! Sooo much counseling. Talking to a professional proved to be absolutely essential for me, even on days when I thought I wasn’t up for it; even on days when I thought I had nothing to say. With time, building that trust and opening up in those sessions helped me to offload tension, gain perspective, communicate better, and listen to myself. Just knowing I had that outlet available — that my next appointment was coming up soon, that I could ask that question or share that progress — came to be such a comfort.
  • Learning that self-care is time well invested. It may be some of the best time invested, the most important. “Mental health days” can be hard to give ourselves permission to take — we worry they’ll be a sign of weakness or laziness or will invite suspicion: Is she really sick? But if our mental and emotional health aren’t cared for, our physical health, our work quality, and our relationships all suffer.
  • As I’ve written about before, gratitude has played a huge role in my wellbeing and is something I continue to put into practice. I love Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project one-sentence journal for its simple focus on daily small moments of joy. It has helped me find light during darker days and to remember that things always get better. It’s the only journal I’ve stuck with consistently for any significant length of time. I recently completed a full 5-year journal and started my next one!

Some things you can do to help:

  • Be willing to talk about it. And be willing to listen. Make sure your loved ones know that you’re available for these conversations.
  • Understand that trying to “fix” the situation may not be the best approach. Even when meant as reassurance, saying, “Why don’t you just do this?”or minimizing the person’s concerns as “no big deal” can feel dismissive. Just letting them get some words out (much like in a counseling session) can be so helpful. Maybe ask if they’d like advice, or ask how you can be helpful. And just make sure they know they are heard and valued.
  • Equally important is a willingness to respect their space and their process. For me, anxiety and depression sometimes mean I’m not up for talking or being social or that I have trouble following through on plans, despite my best intentions. It’s nothing personal (even though I worry obsessively that others will see it that way). With a little time, I’ll work through it, and all will be well.

Of course, the perspective I share here is just mine, and others’ will differ in many ways. We each walk a unique journey. But I hope we can work on developing a shared understanding that we need each other, can learn from each other, and can all grow from being willing to talk about the things we too often keep hidden.

Photo by Burst, of what is clearly my spirit animal, downloaded from Pexels

A CHRISTMAS STORY: A Guidebook for Nostalgic Narratives

There are several movies I make a point of watching every year at Christmas time, in a rather ritualistic honoring of my childhood — one of which, A Christmas Story, stands out largely because it shares my reverence for nostalgia. In fact, part of the reason I love this movie is because my grandpa, who passed away when I was a junior in high school, loved it, and we’d always turn on the 24-hour TNT marathon when we were at my grandparents’ house on Christmas. But I also love it because of how its story is crafted and what it continues to teach me about good storytelling.

The magic of Jean Shepherd’s writing (in the screenplay and its source material, his 1966 book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash) as well as his narration of the movie is that, both as a kid and as an adult, it feels like the narrator is speaking to you in a way that resonates. When I was a kid, adult Ralphie’s narrative voice talked about his childhood in a way that implied he understood me — like he was acknowledging that all kids were in on a secret together. He accurately represented the wants and needs of “kiddom.” We shared the perspective that all of the adults in the movie (Ralphie’s parents, his teacher, even Santa) simply don’t “get it” and are being unfair by denying him his coveted Red Ryder BB gun, the thing he wants most for Christmas. Somehow, the risk of shooting his eye out sounds not terrifying to a child viewer but ridiculously overprotective. Viewing the movie as an adult, I see all too easily that Ralphie’s eager enthusiasm to own that gun —influenced partially by successful marketing and partially by jealousy that his friend Flick is getting one — blinds him to the very real risks involved. Further, I can relate to the parents’ various stressors (even without being a parent myself) — the chaotic pace of the holiday season, the cooking, the broken furnace, the blown-out tire — and settle with them into the simple comfort of watching the snow fall through the tree-lit window, wine glasses in hand, after a tiring day.

Catering to both childhood and adulthood, and blurring the lines between the two realms, surely plays a large part in the movie’s continued growth in popularity over several decades, allowing it to appeal to all ages. It also functions as a key element of the movie’s plot. Ralphie’s mother often reaches across the adulthood-childhood boundary as a calming counterpoint to his father’s temper: asking picky-eater Randy to show her “how the piggies eat,” shouting out “Jingle Bells” with the kids in the car, comforting Randy with a glass of milk and gently closing the door to his kitchen-cupboard hideout, covering for Ralphie about his displaced glasses after he gets in a fistfight. But this theme is most powerfully illustrated by the pivotal Christmas morning scene when Ralphie finally gets his beloved rifle. There is a simple beauty in the giddy, almost nervous smile that twitches on The Old Man’s face as he watches Ralphie tear into the wrapping paper, the way he moves his fingers as if loading the rifle himself, experiencing anew a moment that was so significant in his own childhood. In that moment, the divide between kiddom and adulthood that seemed so vast for much of the movie is collapsed, morphing into a shared joy and, thereby, an understanding.

The task at hand for this narrative style is to talk about childhood with the benefit of perspective gained over time, without diminishing what’s sacred about the childhood experience. The narrator has to embody both simultaneously: to recall the joys, worries, and pains of childhood so vividly that we feel the blows Ralphie lets loose on Scut Farkas, Randy’s inability to put his arms down, the delicate “nuance of phrase” in the double- and triple-dare ritual — but with the wisdom that can only be gained by years more of living, providing a frame in which to display those childhood experiences and analyze them fully.

A couple of my favorite lines illustrate this approach well:

“I went out to face the world again, wiser”

— this after the letdown of using his secret decoder pen to uncover an advertisement for Ovaltine. That last word, “wiser,” is not kid Ralphie’s interpretation but adult Ralphie’s, reflecting back on how the experience shifted his worldview. Kid Ralphie just felt disappointed and annoyed. (“A crummy commercial?”) Adult Ralphie knows how that disappointment, after such feverish anticipation, was significant enough to last and color his expectations of future promises.

“The light was getting purple and soft outside — almost time for my father to come home from work.”

I love that Shepherd describes the time of day this way, rather than saying, “It was 5:00.” It makes sense that a child would recognize that powerful image of the changing sky as indicative of his father’s impending arrival home, particularly on that day as he anticipated getting in trouble for fighting Farkas. It’s also precisely the kind of image likely to stick with him into adulthood and stay closely tied to the emotions of those earlier years.

As I hope soon to publish a personal essay I’ve written about the most formative friendship of my childhood, the Christmas Story narrative runs through my head as a prime example of this delicate task, working to merge those two such important perspectives: who I was at 11 and who I am now at 34. The intersection of the two — what I still carry with me from those playground days and what I only know of them now that I’ve lived a couple decades more — is where that aforementioned magic can happen.

I’m excited to share here an excerpt from that essay, which tells the origin story of my sixth-grade girl gang, as we savored a sudden rush of popularity and struggled to bear it responsibly. It’s important to note, as explained later in the manuscript, that we pronounced the name “my girls” — but we spelled it with an “i” because it looked cute.


The MiGirls [an excerpt]

The girls and I had already become known as a unit, but one particular afternoon cemented us as something of a legacy that reached beyond our own classroom’s walls. It was early autumn. I recall the light on the playground as having a golden hue, near sepia; it seems appropriately solemn for the occasion, so I like to tell myself it’s accurate. Regardless of the lighting and the tricks time plays on the weight of things, that day was bursting with a sense of possibility. I had come to cherish the knowledge that I was someone who could make things happen, whose voice mattered for whatever naïve, trivial reasons to those around me, and on that day I felt an urge to make good use of it.

Mary had been lurking around our tree for days, like a raccoon staking out the potential for some good loot. Creeping ever closer to where we sat in the shade, in a circle so compact our knees were touching, she seemed to be watching for the right moment to enter the ring, as if our comfortable routine were a game of Double Dutch. Listening in on our conversations was the norm, but this was more of a direct, offensive move. Rather than acting as if she were merely passing by as she mumbled to herself, she continued to saunter nearer, staring. Her eyes were always so wide and piercing; they gave me the disconcerting feeling she was just barely holding back some form of hysterics. Typically, our whispered crush confessions and giggle fits would trail off as we tried to pretend we weren’t affected by her encroaching presence, and she would soon get bored and move on. That day, though, we couldn’t seem to shake her, and the girls were insistent that I say something. They made pointed eye contact with me, gesturing subtly in Mary’s direction; there seemed to be an unspoken understanding that I should address the problem.

Mary, too, pegged me as the one: as she ventured closer, she warbled my name and beckoned with a finger that looked genuinely witch-like. What was this quality I was emitting that portrayed me as some sort of leader? I had never knowingly displayed a desire to speak for the pack. Now that the opportunity was there, though, staring me down like a dare my inner critic knew I wouldn’t take, I felt a rush akin to what I assumed being drunk must feel like. I walked away from the tree to talk with her, maybe 20 paces out. Open territory, public territory. Not our hallowed space. Away from its shelter, my composure wavered. Trying to be subtle about it, I took a slow, deep breath as I approached her, the crisp air burning my throat.

“What?” I asked flatly. I tried to evoke an effortless confidence.

She wanted to know if we could try being friends again. Even then, her view of the matter struck me as odd: she saw a friendship as something you could force. Just keep pushing until the pieces fit together.

The other three girls appeared behind me tentatively, like deer approaching a roadway.

As we rattled off the evidence against her like prosecuting attorneys, a small crowd began to gather, 15 or 20 kids, from our class and others. This rivalry had become well known. There was something thrilling about realizing that our peers talked about us, amidst their otherness, their own crafts tables and bus lines.

I wasn’t looking to be cruel; there was simply a palpable, urgent need to be rid of this topic. The dance of tenuous friendship had already been through several exhausting rounds over the previous few years; she was always looking to be absolved for her wrongdoings, though not able to assure they wouldn’t be repeated. For every point we presented that day about her past deceptions, she offered a groundless counterpoint. She wanted us simply to trust her that things would be better moving forward, but there was no trust established as a foundation. The crooked grin on her face the entire time she talked implied that she didn’t even believe herself. She was like a salesman looking to close the deal on a crappy product.

“Let me talk with my girls,” I said as I turned, luxuriating in the slow torture of it, the surge of power. I think we all knew there was no further discussion to be had. I took my time walking away, the other girls falling in line like a school of fish. I think I even put my arms around them, something I felt Rizzo might do with the Pink Ladies, complete with hip-swagger and gum-snap. (We had just watched Grease for the first time during a sleepover, so the feel of it was fresh in my mind. We had been enthralled by it, swooning over John Travolta’s combination of coy sensitivity and an oozing sexuality we didn’t yet quite understand.)

As I said it, I placed a slight, but significant, emphasis on “my girls,” highlighting the honorable selectivity of the classification. It was a moment that would live in blissful notoriety among our peers, verbalizing the bond that had long been observed and respected. I had unknowingly formalized an unwritten rule: the four of us were to be understood, consulted, and revered as a single entity. We were made stronger through our unity, and we were not to be crossed. We were a sisterhood that felt like a legend in the making. We were the MiGirls.


In posting this, I send the happiest of holiday wishes to you all, with hopes for a brighter, calmer, healthy 2021. May your dreams on this Christmas be your equivalent of Ralphie’s spectacular hip shots.

Photo by Elly Fairytale, downloaded from Pexels

Cheryl Strayed’s WILD: A Journey of a Thousand Miles Propels a Journey Inward

I recently finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which had been on my to-read list since it was first published in 2012. (As an English major, I’m ashamed to admit that I saw the movie before reading the book. I do highly recommend both.) For those unfamiliar, a woefully oversimplified summary is that it’s about Strayed’s experiences hiking more than 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, alone and inexperienced, after the devastating death of her mother and dissolution of her marriage. As the book jacket states, “Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.” How soothing to think of strength and healing as the resolution after madness. That’s precisely the kind of journey Strayed takes us on.

I had the pleasure of hearing Strayed read from the book and speak about it as part of SUNY Brockport’s Writers Forum series in 2013. I was struck by how humble, approachable, and normal she was; after having completed this astounding journey, I thought she would seem somehow otherworldly, untouchable. I was awe-struck by what she’d accomplished. But as she talked about what it was like to stagger under the weight of a backpack so heavy she couldn’t lift it from the floor — she calls the approach she eventually managed to adopt “hunching in a remotely upright position” — it was like she answered my thoughts of Wow, how did she do all of that? with her own enthralled gush of, I know, right?!

That humility is present throughout the book and kept me mesmerized by Strayed’s narrative voice. She acknowledges her own amazement and gratitude about being on that hike, her unpreparedness for it and how that added to its impact on her. She knows she wasn’t well suited for it on paper, but that was one of the very reasons she knew she needed to do it. Which, to me, means she had exactly the right kind of mind for it, and the rest she figured out along the way.

One of my favorite moments is when she describes settling in at her campsite one night, 7,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range:

“The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight.”

How brave of her to go willingly into that silence, to take that journey inward — accompanied only by a constant soundtrack of her own thoughts, memories, pains, regrets — in order to better understand all that is happening around her. Having gone through a few major life changes myself in recent years (exhibit A and exhibit B, among others), I’ve sometimes felt drawn to the idea of that sort of exploration — a long trip somewhere new all alone, a drive on unfamiliar roads with no destination in mind — but I have yet to conquer the self-doubt that inevitably creeps in as to what it would require of me and reveal to me.

Another favorite moment is when she meets a 5-year-old boy on the trail who sings her a song his mother taught him after learning that Strayed is grieving the loss of her own mother.

She describes him singing “in a voice so pure that I felt gutted” and says she felt “half demolished by the time he finished.”

I love this description of something being so beautiful and moving that it’s painful. That’s how I feel about Strayed’s writing. Her craft is so good, so finely tuned, that it hurts; it’s the kind of beauty that punches you and leaves you stinging.

As I neared the final chapters, I experienced that wonderful juxtaposition of emotions stirred up by a great read: I was eager to learn how it would end and yet reluctant to part ways with it. As I read the last few paragraphs — and immediately read them again — I felt gutted. I felt I was mourning a loss. Like Strayed, I was in awe of the journey and grateful to have experienced it.

Reaching the end of her hike and trying to process its finality, she writes:

“There was no way to go back, to make it stay. There was never that.”

Oof. Doesn’t that so accurately describe, with such aching beauty, any sort of loss? There is no route back to before it was gone, no choice but to continue moving forward, no matter how uncertain the steps may sometimes seem.

Photo by Skitterphoto, downloaded from Pexels

A Semi-Open Letter to [the Boss Who Let Me Go]

I’m calling this “semi-open” because I won’t use your name. A lot of people who know me know who you are anyway, and I suspect that many who read this can easily fill some other name in those brackets — someone who wronged them, who rattled them, who forced them to start over and discover a new version of themselves. I hope that for them, like for me, that new version proved to be far better off.

Two years ago, after many exhausting months of our work styles and priorities failing to coexist in harmony, you terminated my job contract. In an instant, with the sight of a single checkmark on a PDF, my life changed. After six years, I was no longer going to be the person who worked that job in that office, made that commute and parked in that spot, collaborated with that team of amazing friends.

There was no way around it: you and I did not see the world through the same sort of lens, and you were in a position to make that issue go away. In addition to being stung by your decision, I felt powerless to counter it, which hurt even more.

There were many broken pieces of our attempted partnership that, in hindsight, I wish I had addressed differently — many things I’ve realized only since leaving that would have helped me tremendously to know while I was there:

My voice deserves to be heard. It has as much potential as any other at the table, regardless of its volume or its speaker’s title or gender. And when I’m feeling overlooked or disrespected, that’s not a reason to retreat into silence but an urgent reason to speak up louder than ever.

I am the most important advocate of my work. I wish I hadn’t let you shake my confidence in my work or my approaches to it. I should have promoted my own successes instead of hoping you would notice them or looking for the flaws you might see. I shouldn’t have let my passion for my work occur mostly behind a closed door.

I can prevent frustrations from festering. I wish I had pushed more for us to address the frustrations I felt about my job — the uneven workload, the extra hours, the stress level — as they first became issues, rather than letting them build. I kept hoping you would see them as I did, that they would then be solved as if by magic. Our conversations about them were never active enough and soon became empty words.

A job should not define the entirety of a life. I never could have believed at the time that the concerns of the workday could be left behind when signing off for the day. I was so controlled by deadlines and processes, so afraid of letting other people down, that those anxieties followed me home at night and consumed my attention. I know now that no pursuit of success should ever come above my health or happiness.

While I was first reeling from your decision, all of those things were harder than ever to believe. My brain didn’t have the capacity to process them. I doubted myself, thinking maybe I wasn’t good enough for that job or for any other, that I was doomed to fail.

After a short period of wallowing, though, I was no longer willing to give you that power over me. My anger became a source of motivation more than pain. It propelled me into my next chapter, one so much better than I could have imagined. After initially breaking me down, your decision ultimately set me free.

A friend of mine — seeing the potential for that motivation before I could — told me I should dedicate the book I’m writing to you, because none of it would have been possible without you. At the time, I laughed at the irony and felt slightly nauseated at the thought. But, in a way, she’s right. I did need to be released from that suffocating situation in order to feel inspired again (how fitting that one definition of inspire is to inhale), to have the energy to work toward this enormous goal and the confidence to make it happen.

There’s a great analogy in Buddhist teachings that compares anger to a burning ember: I may pick it up with the intention of throwing it at someone, but I’m the one who gets burned by it.

Holding onto my anger toward you did burn me for a long time, and I grew tired of it. I’ve let go of that ember now and am walking farther and farther away from it. But I still remember the heat of it. And I need you to know how utterly fantastic it feels to be free from its weight.

Photo by Pixabay, downloaded from Pexels

Enough.

It’s been a while since my last post — which was somewhat intentional. It wasn’t that time slipped by quickly or that I forgot about blogging; in fact, it was rather the opposite: I’ve thought a lot about what I might post next. But nothing seemed good enough — not important enough, not informed enough — to follow the weight and personal significance of that first post.

And then I realized that that self-dialogue was, in itself, the post I needed to write.

I realized how much of my inner monologue (which, heaven help me, is always on) centers around that word, “enough” — or, rather, what I perceive as a lack of enough, a mark I haven’t met: I haven’t written enough lately, this writing isn’t good enough, I didn’t get enough done today, I haven’t lost enough weight yet, we haven’t gotten enough done on our home renovations, I haven’t saved up enough money…

Enough, enough, enough.

I’m hearing these sentiments from a lot of friends and family lately, too, especially those trying to balance parenting, homeschooling, and working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. They feel they aren’t able to devote enough time, attention, or effort to any one of those elements, let alone the combination.

But who defines what’s “enough”? How are we each defining it for ourselves? By comparing our situations to our perceptions of other people’s lives? By notions we had in the past about what our present would look like? I tend more toward the latter — whether that’s what teenage Val thought thirtysomething Val would be like or what when-I-woke-up-this-morning Val envisioned for her day.

I don’t think it’s fair for us to hold ourselves too inflexibly to any sort of past or outside concept of what we’re supposed to have achieved. It’s great to have goals, of course, but so much unfolds in any given day that we never could have anticipated. Whether it’s a small interruption (or ten) or a major, life-altering moment, the unexpected has a tendency to waltz in and command our attention.

And some days it’s not about too much else happening but about the need for very little to happen — days we decide it is enough to have gotten out of bed, maybe taken a shower (maybe not!), maybe put on pants (maybe not!), and been present in whatever form the day takes. Even if that’s just watching TV or reading or goofing around with loved ones. For me, those can be such helpful ways to recharge that I’m then all the more productive the next day. Refocused, realigned, renewed.

Professional writers often advise that, when you find yourself stuck, you simply need to start writing — something, anything — without worrying about how it sounds or where it will end up (ie, whether or not it’s good enough), because you never know what might come out of it. I’ve seen that advice prove true many times in my own writing. Sometimes I only keep a sentence or a key word or a vague idea; sometimes I suddenly find the solution for something I’d been stuck on for months or discover an entirely new idea that I love. Sometimes, of course, I end up with nothing worth keeping. But, even in those instances, maybe having made the effort is enough.

And maybe this unique time we’re in right now is an opportunity to shift our way of thinking. It’s certainly forced us to slow down in many ways, and it’s brought out so much kindness and generosity and creativity that might not have come about otherwise. Personally, I’m trying to apply that kindness, generosity, and creative energy toward myself as well. I want to use this time to reassess my measure of what’s enough. Some days, “enough” is just about doing what I can and continuing to move forward, knowing there are challenges and wonders that await around corners yet to be seen.

enough
A couple years ago, when I was going through a tough time, my counselor recommended I get myself a MantraBand® bracelet that would keep my focus on a positive affirmation. Looking through the many options, we both knew right away that “I am enough” was what I needed to hear. I’ve come a long way since that time, so I no longer feel compelled to wear it, but I keep it displayed prominently above my dresser as a continued reminder.

On Grief and Gratitude

The first thing you need to know about Leah is that she wasn’t “just” a dog. She was the first dog I had in my adult life, in my first house, navigating her care around my first full-time job. I brought her home when she was just a few months old, small enough to rest up against my shoulder like a baby or curl perfectly into the triangle of my criss-cross-legged lap. In so many ways, we grew up together.

We challenged each other and supported each other through a whole lot of ups and downs. We navigated sleepless nights — in the beginning and again near the end, months of housebreaking issues, and various training approaches. I nursed her back to health after multiple illnesses and surgeries, including an ACL repair that meant no running or jumping for two months. I put my mattress on the floor so she could still sleep next to me and guided her outside, step by tedious step, using a towel as a harness.

She returned the care I gave her tenfold. When I was stressed out or crying, she would lay her head in my lap or bring me a toy, reminding me to take a breath and laugh it off. When I slipped on ice while walking her once, she immediately came close to my side and bent down, a confused but ready protector. She was a friend to all of my friends, an adored grandpup, a charmer to our neighbors (even a couple who said they otherwise didn’t like dogs), and a calming, neutral-party mediator between my ex-husband and me, as we navigated coparenting her after we split.

Through the divorce, three moves, two job changes, and a master’s degree, she was on the journey alongside me. Amidst all the changes, she was a constant.

For the last few years, it was just the two of us in our little apartment. I talked to her all the time. I still do.

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And now she’s gone.

She passed away in July, after a brief and rapid decline into kidney and liver failure. She was 8 years old. Those 8 years felt like a lifetime and a fleeting moment, all at once. It still feels so strange to talk about her in the past tense.

Without her, I have now entered a new phase that feels foreign and tricky to navigate. A chapter in which I was quite comfortable was closed before I was ready, and a new one now stretches out before me. This is one of the most palpable experiences I’ve had of life operating outside of my control. I see myself now as a character standing upon that new chapter’s blank pages, trying to figure out what comes next.

This change has been heartbreaking and scary — and also, when I allow it to be, filled with new possibilities. I’ve barely known an adult life that didn’t include making plans around dog care, and I don’t quite know what to do with it yet. I’m trying to gain an appreciation for the more flexible schedule and the lessened responsibility, but most days I would rather go back to the 2 am wakeups and the snowy walks and the vet bills if it could mean having her back.

One thing that’s guiding me through this is the refreshed perspective I’ve had toward life since entering a previous new phase about a year ago. Last fall, I left the job I’d been in for 6 years and entered a new field, gaining a revitalized outlook and energy in the process. I got serious about my health — not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. Happiness and gratitude became priorities. I’ve found that, by simply paying better attention and shifting my focus, there is so much to be grateful for in every day. I work hard to acknowledge it, rather than mindlessly let it slip past or, worse, let the negatives take over my attention.

As I’ve talked with many loved ones and with my counselor about losing Leah, I find myself returning again and again to gratitude, falling into those kinds of statements without even trying — gratitude for the time we had together, for all that she taught me, and even for the ending we were given. I’m finding that gratitude is what sustains us during the times when it’s particularly hard to feel grateful.

I’m grateful that I can say Leah’s decline was brief. Just a month before she passed, she’d had a great annual check-up and had more energy than she’d had in months. Her dad took her to the beach and took stunning photos of her with a happily tired, wide-mouthed smile. I will cherish those all the more so now, because I want to think of her that way — loving life and savoring a beautiful day. She loved lying out in the sun.

I’m grateful that, shortly after Leah first went to the vet that Saturday morning, I had a girls’ day out and sleepover with my niece, Cora, that kept my focus on something positive while waiting for an update. (The vet needed to keep Leah there for the weekend on an IV.) Cora and I had had these plans set for weeks, and I didn’t want to cancel. When I got the call Sunday morning that Leah was not improving and I should get there soon, I’m grateful that Cora displayed maturity far beyond her 5 years in understanding the change in plans and getting herself dressed and packed while I made a flurry of phone calls. I’m grateful I have some positive memories associated with that weekend thanks to her.

I’m grateful that we had a heads-up that the end was coming and were able to be with Leah for her final breaths, as difficult as that was. I’m grateful the decision we had to make that day was clear, as she was no longer herself and was not going to bounce back. There was no agonizing uncertainty or wait; she had gone a long way down a dark road very quickly, and we helped her along the rest of it. I’m grateful that my ex, his new wife, and I were all there together to remind Leah of how much she is loved and to support each other through this overwhelming loss, as we’ve continued to do.

I’m grateful that I stumbled upon the perfect “urn” at the At Home store after debating for weeks what to do with Leah’s ashes. Nothing had felt right. And then this little tin with a bird on it was waiting for me at the end of an aisle, the only one of its kind. I picked it up and carried it around the store with me, and instinctively I found myself holding it close, almost cradling it, rubbing the bird’s back mindlessly with my thumb. I felt comforted, reassured. Not only do I think of birds as a symbol of peace, but Leah loved to chase after them and bark at them, hopping around as she looked up at them in the trees. It felt like a sign, at a time when I had long been ready to receive one.

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I’m grateful for all the lessons and challenges Leah brought to my life, for how much she helped me to grow, for her snuggles and playtime routines and the way her eyes would light up as we rounded the last corner of our walks and ran to our door. I’m grateful for all the little pieces of each day that will always make me think of her.

As daily life carries on amidst this jarring change, I still often endure waves of grief, but I return again and again to gratitude. It’s going to take continued practice and mindful effort, and I know there will still be days I fail at it. But I’m grateful I had already laid that foundation and can try to call upon it now, when I need it more than ever before.

Losing Leah has been such a profound loss precisely because of how fortunate I was to have her as an integral part of my day-to-day life. The key is to try to keep my focus on that second part and let that swell of gratitude continue to carry me forward.