The Black Dog

 

BlackDog

There’s nothing I can say about Robin Williams’ suicide that hasn’t already been said. I can’t mourn his loss,  celebrate his talent or rage against the demon that is depression any more eloquently than has already been done. But one of the crazy things about depression is this: even though people who suffer with it generally experience the same symptoms, it is a very individual and very personal disease. There are few experiences  that are so universal yet so isolating. Depression, thought it might manifest in the same or similar ways, grabs us and keeps us and affects us very differently, which is why I believe that sharing our experiences (without comparison or judgement) is so important.

Mental health is a tightrope many people walk every day, and depression is often triggered by a major life event. For me, it was an ovarian cancer scare followed by pulmonary emboli, surgery and recovery. (Sorry to make light, but anyone who’s given themselves needles in the stomach and been forced to wear a horse-sized maxi pad for weeks knows these aren’t things you easily recover from. I can’t even see a white surfboard without breaking out in hives.)

After hearing those amazing words – “there’s no cancer” – and being sent on my way sans left ovary, everyone around me celebrated (except for the right ovary, who was very lonely). But returning to normal life and trying to put my body and mind back together quickly became an insurmountable task. Some people describe depression as “the black dog” (sorry Austin) or a dark cloud. For me it felt like being trapped in quicksand (now that I have kids I would describe it as silly-putty on steroids.) It was a persistent pressure that smothered me from all sides every minute of the day. It made getting out of bed or off the couch feel impossible. I cried over everything and couldn’t feel happy, let alone ecstatic, that I was going to be okay. I had terrible nightmares about being told they’d made a mistake in surgery and that there actually was cancer but now it was too far advanced to treat.

Predictably, the people around me didn’t understand this. How come I wasn’t happy? How could I be sad when I’d just received the best news ever? So what if I hadn’t pooped for 17 days and my bedtime ritual was a needle in the stomach … there was NO CANCER.

I was emotionally drained, exhausted, sore, mad and VERY hormonal. All before noon. I was like an angry hornet: pissed off because I wasn’t invited to the party and determined to ruin it for everyone else. I didn’t want company but I didn’t want to be alone either. The things that always gave me pleasure, books, my dogs, my favourite TV shows, FOOD…. I didn’t enjoy any of it. Intellectually I saw my emotional state as ridiculous, but I couldn’t do anything about it which only made me feel worse.

The missing ovary and resulting hormonal instability (“hormonal instability”, THERE’S an understatement) probably deserve some of the blame, but whatever the cause I was a MESS. I tried counselling but that got off to a rocky start when my therapist left the office early the day of my first appointment. Apparently she forgot I was coming.

Even before the surgery I’d been taking a low dose anti-depressant. Depression and mental illness lurk among the branches of my family tree so I’ve always been a bit obsessive about my mental health. I told myself taking anti-depressants was just being proactive but in truth they made me feel like a different person. I was less irritable and emotional and better able to manage setbacks. Minor disappointments were no longer the end of the world, and I was now able to enjoy myself and my relationships with more of an even keel.

In her amazing book “Twenty Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed”, Sherrie Eldridge wisely counsels parents to “Evaluate Your Emotional Health” during the adoption process. Often, the stress of infertility, the waiting for a child, the setbacks, the multiple disappointments can all lead to depression. And then when you actually get your child, there can be challenges you were completely unprepared for and ill-equipped to manage. It’s a cruel fact that the thing you’ve yearned for and waited years for, can be the thing that sends you down that rabbit hole. When you realize that the serene fantasy you’ve spent years envisioning is never going to happen, it can be a real shock to the system.

But we soldier on. We all do. Each of us finding ways to manage our demons and our stresses. Some work and sadly some don’t, but as long as we’re trying and hoping, I think there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Even at my worst, I never even contemplated suicide and for that I am incredibly thankful because I know that place exists, and I can scarcely imagine a hell any more real than that.

 

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I Think We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Bridge.

There’s a beautiful story making the rounds online about Duke Roberts’ last day on earth. Duke was a beautiful, three-legged, cheeseburger-loving black lab who had to be put down because of a large tumour growing inside him. Duke’s owners tenderly documented his last day as they took him swimming, to the park and had goodbye visits with all his favourite people. If you haven’t read it (and you feel like sobbing), grab some tissues and look it up.

Duke on his last day

Duke on his last day

Duke’s story hit me hard, not just because he we had a similar experience three years ago, but because we recently said goodbye to two feline family members and I wish I’d thought to document and honour them in this way.

Before I get to recent events, here’s a bit about our late lab, Buster – aka B, B Dog and Sir Fartsalot. Like Duke, Buster was also a rescue, which is ironic because that’s what he loved to do most when you were swimming. We let Buster go when he was 14, after discovering a large mass on his spine. The vets predicted he would never walk again and most troubling (to Buster) was that he would need to be fitted with a catheter and have his stool manually removed for the rest of his life. When he heard that I swear he looked up with his big brown eyes and said “Guys, I’m good.” On Buster’s last night, we ordered him a meat-lover’s pizza, hand fed him cat food and slept beside him on the dog bed.

Buster

Our boy

Like most black labs, Buster loved to eat, run, eat, lick, eat and snuggle. He LIVED for the cottage where he spent his days chewing sticks, chasing ducks and “rescuing” swimmers. He never made it to PEI but I know he would have loved it so we christened our ocean-front “Buster’s Beach” and every summer we go there to strip down and lick our privates. (Just kidding, we have a champagne toast and lick our privates inside.)

A friend comes to pay his respects

Beach sign courtesy of Jim Millard

Like all certifiably crazy dog-lovers, we always assign our pets thoughts and feelings:

“Look at Buster, he’s like ‘No way I’m eating that shitty kibble. I want what they’re having’.”

“Check Buster out. He’s sad because it’s raining and he can’t go swimming.”

“Buster is NOT happy about the olives on that pizza. Could you please pick them off for him?”

Always with a Scottish accent.

When we adopted Buster at age 9, we were told he “loves cats” which we later understood meant he loves to chase and ideally eat them, like ALF. But they soon found a way to coexist and eventually formed an interspecies alliance (now legal in Ontario and 20 States!) against puppy Scout.

Technically, the cats belonged to me. Lucy (short for Lucifer) and Avery were mine before I met Daren (who still rues the day he didn’t pretend he was allergic). The cats (aka “the girls”, “fish breath” and “God Dammit!!!”) turned 14 and 15 this year and they were as much a part of our growing family as the dogs and binge drinking.

Ready to pounce

Ready to pounce

Lucy and Avery were put down last Monday and it’s taken me a week to be able to write about them without blowing snot bubbles all over my keyboard. With multiple health issues coming to a head, we made the difficult decision a month ago but it took a few weeks to summon the courage to actually go through with it.

Anyone who’s ever euthanized a pet knows it’s one of the Worst. Things. Ever. Relieving pain and making “the right decision” amounts to nothing but a crock of shit when you’re waiting for the vet to enter the exam room. And when you have to do it twice in one sitting you can expect to spend the rest of the day lying in a dark room clutching catnip mice and babbling to yourself. Trust me.

Approach with caution

Lucy. Approach with caution

My cats weren’t like the adorable yet hapless Cirque-trained acrobats you see in homemade videos. They were stone cold nasty and about as cuddly as a box of weasels. Trying to pet them was like playing Russian roulet, but with a worse potential outcome. Adopting bobcats would have been safer. Even our vet had to use gardening gloves and two assistants to handle Lucy at routine visits. If our family wasn’t singlehandedly financing her niece’s Ivy League education I’m she would have fired us as clients.

When we went on vacation and had the gall to leave them with capable in-home caregivers, they used their liquid vowels to voice their displeasure forcing us to spend thousands of dollars in replacement mattresses, furniture, clothes, hockey equipment and autographed memorabilia. The last two went over real well. And the liquid bowels? They turned up at other times too, like the night before our wedding when about a dozen family members were looking for a place to sleep.

Avery sleeping soundly

Avery sleeping soundly, dreaming of bloodshed.

They hated most people, especially children. It took them years to warm up to Daren (no connection to the previous comment, I’m sure). And because cats love change, the parade of dogs and multiple house moves – not to mention the general pointlessness of life – made them a tad surly. They were like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting the Golden Globes: no one was safe.

It was the kind of relationship (ie. abusive), where I took whatever they dished out and kept coming back for more. It was like the colonoscopy you know you must have but can’t quite bring yourself to accept with open ….. arms. To quote the Bandaid Christmas song, it was a world of dread and fear.

But it wasn’t all bad. Before the double D’s (Daren and dogs), they were the ones I came home to and the ones whose fur I sobbed in when my Dad died. They might have used their claws to say “no thank you” when I suggested we sit together, but they also kept me company in the bathtub and slept on my head.

But as the house filled up and life got busier I spent less and less time with them. Three dogs and two kids take up so much physical and emotional space that I had very little left for Lucy and Avery.

There’s a lovely verse that many people find comforting when grieving their pets. It’s called “The Rainbow Bridge” and it’s named after the place we’re supposed to meet our animals before we  cross into heaven together. So I imagine them there now, with Buster, healthy and happy, throwing out sarcastic one-liners like the two old guys on the muppets. Waiting for me.

Me and Lucy.

Me and Lucy.

 

Open to Openness

This week Leah McLaren wrote a column in the Globe and Mail titled “Kids Don’t Care Where The Love Comes From.” It’s a terrific piece about “alternative family models” (those created by donor eggs, donor sperm, surrogacy and adoption) where “biological parents take a secondary role to non-biological parents” creating new levels of openness. Leah rightly points out that because these children are less threatened by the unconventional, adults no longer need to “protect” them from the details of their birth.

In adoption, openness refers not only to how much information is shared with the child but also to  the amount of contact the adoptive family has with the birth (biological) parent(s). As mom to two adopted girls, I feel the same way about openness as I do about Lady Gaga and Brazilian waxes: fascinated and terrified.

Initially, Daren and I believed closed adoption would be “best for the child.” Whether our future child was given up willingly or not, we didn’t see what good could come from ongoing contact. But truthfully we felt threatened. Although we came to adoption happily and willingly, we still experienced a lot of fear, anxiety and insecurity, and we dealt with it by taking control of as much as we could and eliminating wild cards wherever possible. Put your hands over your ears and scream “LA LA LA LA LA” at the top of your lungs. Yup, that was us. But our intentions were good. We wanted to create a safe, secure environment (read: impenetrable fortress) for our little one, and we were determined to eliminate future hurts by making her ours and ours alone. But guess what? When you adopt a child, especially when the adoption happens years after birth, that’s neither possible nor wise.

When you embrace adoption, you embrace the fact that many people other than you will play an important role in raising your child. Birth parents, foster parents, extended family, grandparents, social workers, therapists … it truly does take a village. Modern parenting has come a long way from the Victorian era when children were considered property, like livestock and chastity belts. But while we’re no longer locking our kids in dark closets as punishment for spilling their milk, many of us still think of them as property. And while no one would equate a child with a goat, few would deny feeling a sense of “ownership” over their children. But this doesn’t work in adoption and once we understood that we were able to see all the benefits to openness.

Why is openness so important? Because knowledge is power. Because a child can’t truly understand her story unless she understands where she came from. And if she doesn’t understand where she came from, she will have a hard time figuring out who she is. Think about the curiosity you had as a child, the questions you asked about your parents and grandparents as you tried to understand why you are the way you are and why you look the way you do. Where did my red hair come from (insert mailman joke), why am I so tall when mom and dad are so short (insert milkman joke). If your children don’t find these answers, it can be confusing and upsetting. We all want to feel connection and belonging and sometimes it’s the things that seem trivial (hair colour, height) that help form our identity.

Unfortunately there is still some stigma around adoption (a bright, well-educated 11-year old recently asked me if I got my girls from an “orphanage”), and there is still shame associated with being born to parents who gave you up, willingly or not. Layer in secrecy and a lack of personal history and you’ll probably be seeing that child on the news for all the wrong reasons.

Currently the birth parents of both our children have opted not to have any contact with us. Twice a year I write a letter to Harmony’s birth mom that goes into a file at the adoption agency, and soon I will start doing the same for Leila. If either girl’s birth mom or dad ever requests contact beyond the letters, the agency will ask us if we want to exchange pictures, emails, meet in person, etc. I do this for the parents but also so each girl knows we respect and honour the birth parent relationship. I hope this will help them feel more comfortable talking about and researching their history if they ever choose to do so. I won’t pretend this doesn’t make me want to throw up a little, but it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of raising these amazing kids.

photo-64

 

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Version 2.0

Today was Leila’s first day of pre-Kindergarten. Here she is looking perfectly adorable and ready to kick some academic butt.

Doctor? Astronaut? Prime Minister?

Fact: 89% of successful women brought kitten suitcases to school.

Someone sent me Robert Fulghum’s “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” and even though it’s chocked full of wisdom I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting updates for a (less) mature audience. Here goes:

  1. Wear underwear everyday, no exceptions. They’re called privates for a reason.
  2. Do not put anything in your nose, ears, mouth or anus that doesn’t belong there. This includes play doh, lego, crayons and your fingers (all of them).
  3. Don’t follow the big kids. They’re all following each other and pretty soon it’s going to be like the zombie apocalypse in your school (without the flesh eating). So do your own thing.
  4. Don’t let your mom talk you out of wearing fleece pants underneath a taffeta Christmas dress if that’s what makes you feel good. It’s not your fault you’re the only one in the family with any fashion sense.
  5. It’s okay to have pet hair all over your clothes. The kids with goldfish will be jealous.
  6. Brush your hair only if the mood strikes you. You’ll spend plenty of time in front of the mirror when you’re older.
  7. When it comes to lip gloss, less is more. Mommy should not need a spatula to get it off you.
  8. Your mom has no idea where your library books are so don’t bother asking.
  9. It’s okay to poop at school. It’s not okay to hold it all day then run home screaming, clutching your butt.
  10. Wash your hands 30 times each day. 50 if the turtle/chicken/lizard is in your classroom this week.
  11. Change your food preferences daily. Just because you begged for it yesterday doesn’t mean you have to like it today. And if you’re not hungry, just take a small bite out of everything in your lunch bag so it cannot possibly be reused the next day.
  12. Include everyone in your games, invite everyone to your party. You never know when you’re going to be the one who needs a friend.
  13. If mommy goes out with her friends you are probably going to find a bag of chips and a brownie in your lunchbox the next day. Embrace it.
  14. If it’s not blood, broken bones or barf mommy will not be coming early to get you so don’t bother calling.
  15. Know that mommy and daddy don’t expect you to get straight A’s but they do expect you to try your best.
  16. Good behavior is EXPECTED and will not be rewarded. Deal with it.
  17. The promises mommy makes when you are screaming and clutching her leg may not always be honoured. It’s never too early to learn that life is full of disappointments.
  18. Don’t bother asking to bring the turtle/lizard/baby chick home. The answer is no.
  19. Be especially nice to the kids who aren’t nice to you. They are sad and could use a little bit of your smile and your light.
  20. If those kids are still mean to you, kick them in the shins and run away.

 

“Gotcha” Day

Tomorrow is what’s known in the adoption community as “gotcha” day. After months, often years, of hoping, waiting, praying, burning incense, consulting astrological experts, reading tea leaves, and sometimes giving up (but only temporarily), this is the day you finally get to take your little one home.

Tomorrow Leila will unofficially be “ours”. It will still be another 12 months before it’s legal, but as of tomorrow there is no more back and forth between home and foster care. “Home” is now HOME.

This is the last day of family life as we’ve known it for the past 3 years. The last day Harmony will be an only child. The last day she will feel like, and actually be, the centre of our universe. The last day that the little nest we’ve built and feathered and protected will ever be the same. It’s hard to admit, but this new chapter is very bittersweet.

Second adoption aside, the road to today has been a long one. We’ve worked hard and put our whole hearts into making this family work, and making a beautiful little girl, now 7, feel loved and special and wanted and perfect. There have been countless tears, tantrums and sleepless nights, but there has also been indescribable joy, incredible pride and a depth of love I had no idea existed within me or the world at large. (Scout, if you’re reading this, I’m really sorry. And stop licking yourself. And when did you learn to read?).

photo-67

The original golden child

Our family of three feels perfect. So are we crazy to mess with it? Maybe. Are we nervous and uncertain? For sure. Are we terrified? Absolutely.

When we met Leila two years ago she was still in diapers, taking afternoon naps with a bottle. The first time I laid eyes on her she was asleep, her beautiful, dark hair damp with sweat, her tiny chest rising and falling with each breath. At this moment in time, to say a second child wasn’t on our radar would be an understatement. In fact, the radar wasn’t even turned on. It’s quite possible we didn’t even HAVE a radar. But when I saw her, something in my heart shifted. I felt it move, as though my organs where physically rearranging themselves inside my chest, and I knew. I knew I wanted to bring her into our family and love her and raise her and make her do terrible crafts and eat my terrible cooking and have her be licked nearly to death by dogs and force her to listen to country music and watch hockey (which she HATES, by the way).

The bonus factor, the one huge thing that made me think this would even be remotely possible, was that both girls had been raised in this incredible home. And this was an opportunity to give them something, a past and a connection they would share only with each other, and not with us.

Harmony has asked why we want another child. And I can barely answer without choking up because the thought of her ever thinking she’s not enough is the darkest possible place my mind can go. So I tell her the truth. That she has taught us so much about love and patience and parenting and life. That had it not been for her incredible spirit, her capacity to love, and everything that makes up that stubborn, feisty, amazing little package, we would never have had the desire, or the courage, to adopt a second child. She doesn’t understand this logic, and I can almost hear her brain processing my words, turning each one over, looking for any hint that this her “fault” or that this is happening because we are looking for something else, something she’s not. But it’s the truth. The fact is, Harmony brought us to Leila. And now there will be three of yelling “gotcha”, instead of two.

Our last selfie as a threesome.

Our last selfie as a threesome.

 

 

 

 

Nothing says “Bon Voyage” like a penis pool

Yesterday we said bon voyage to my brother Paul and his wife Aja. They are moving to PARIS next week!! Happy for them because, duh, it’s PARIS and sad for us because the girls and I love hanging out with them. Fortunately Harmony appears in 97% of their wedding photos so they won’t be able to forget us even if they try. I have a feeling they might renew their vows in Europe just to get a new set of snaps.

Party crasher

Miss H photobombs Paul and Aja’s wedding

So in true Miss H fashion, we spent yesterday afternoon saying “see you soon” instead of “goodbye”. The kids enjoyed the world’s most epic blow up pool imported specially for the party. Note the red and yellow penises protruding from the rainbow in honour of World Pride. Supposedly they were for a ring toss but who wants to throw rings on a penis?

Fun fact … at $90 this pool cost $44,910 less than the swamp in our backyard.

Suck it Mr. Turtle

Suck it Mr. Turtle

The cousins

Who spiked the juice boxes? No one, unfortunately.

Party time

Stay still dammit

So now that we have 2 sets of amazing aunts and uncles in Europe, we will definitely be making a trip across the pond as soon as we finalize Miss L’s adoption and can get her a passport. See what I did there? It’s in writing. ON THE INTERNET. Daren can’t say no now. And did I mention it’s our 10th anniversary next September??

Is that President Business in front of the Louvre?

Is that President Business in front of the Louvre?