Dealing with Loss and Regret

I spoke about being a disappointment in my last post. Recently a good friend of mine passed away. The news was sudden and through a 3rd party. I won’t lie, it hurt, a lot. We had been inseparable, but had lost touch over the last couple of years. She was well on her way back after recovering from a stroke and I had a new life which included starting at a new school and a new, serious relationship. I would think about her all of the time and tell myself I needed to make time to call, but I didn’t. She, in turn, didn’t call me. I admit it, I was guilty of letting our relationship fall onto a back-burner. It has been really hard for me to face that fact, that I neglected someone I loved and never got to say goodbye.

We met when I was a student and she was my professor. I was at a cross-road in my life and she was the key to my escaping my old life and starting over, the person who believed in me and kicked my ass. From the first class I had with her I knew I wanted to be friends with her. She was quite a bit older than I was, but we immediately connected. I have to tell you that I’ve never really seen age as an issue, and I think those who can’t relate to people of different ages really don’t know what they’re missing. Anyway, we were immediately smitten with one another and became fast friends. She listened to my stories about my now-ex who was emotionally abusive, tried to take credit for my work, and was so jealous and envious that I couldn’t have friends, go places, keep a journal, or talk about my feelings or what I needed. I even stopped writing poetry and music. When I started making art again, she and her sister often made fun or talked about me behind my back. The only time she ever encouraged me was when I was making art to sell in order to support us. There is so much more to this story, but I am talking about my dear friend and want to get back to that now.

Rhoda, my friend and mentor, was a brilliant artist. I can’t describe the amount of work that went into each of her projects. They were stunning, beautiful, and unique. The first time I ever saw her studio I was taken with her sketches, journals of written research, the amount of work that she put into making sure each detail was perfect. She was showing me new work in progress, nude self-portraits, and I photographed her with my twin-lens camera as she spoke about them. We also went out on field trips and sometimes I would photograph her as she worked. I wish I’d photographed her more.

We spoke about upcoming projects, things we were both working on, life, love, art, food, everything. She was there when I had my first post-breakup solo gallery show.  She knew the pain I had been in, what I had processed, and what the art on the walls meant. I had done everything but bleed for that artwork, and in order to escape that relationship. She hugged me that night and she was proud of me. It is just one of the bittersweet memories I am left with. We were going to work on a large environmental project together. It never happened. Now I’m going to hopefully carry on and create that project on my own.

Man I miss her. It is about a smile, a laugh, the way she said, “fuck it”, so many little things. The last time we spoke I told her I wanted to get together to photograph her for a portrait series I’m working on of inspirational women in my life. She has to be a part of it. I screwed up. I was overly busy working on too many things, as usual. And then I was hit by a drunk driver. It messed up everything – my mind, my body, my work. I was recovering, going to multiple appointments, dealing with memory loss from my concussion, and I let our get together fall by the wayside. I also never heard from Rhoda during that time. When I finally got things under control, months had passed. I felt like shit about it. I called and left a message for Rhoda, explaining and asking to see her. I never heard back. I thought perhaps she’d had another stroke and was unable to contact me. More time went by.
I kept telling myself that I should go to her house and check on her.

And then more time passed and I saw a post on Facebook that a memorial was planned for her. I screamed, I cried, I was angry. I read more online and found out she had been ill with pancreatic cancer for more than a year. She had done an installation which addressed her facing death. She had planned her post-mortem art installation. And she hadn’t told me one word about it. Yep, I was not told one word about what was going on with her. I also had allowed myself to separate from her and that was my fault. After spending some time working through all of my feelings I’ve come to realize that we are both to blame for the emotional mess I am now left with. Perhaps she didn’t want to burden me because I was living my happily ever after. She knew when she had her stroke I was there, 24/7 for her. If I knew about her illness I would want to be there for her. Maybe that was enough for her to keep things to herself. I will never know. If she thought she was doing me a favor, she was wrong. All I have of her are memories, a handful of photos, a feminist book from the 70s from her collection she gave me for my birthday, and regrets. And an empty space inside that eventually will heal with time.

I let her down, I let myself down. I feel like a disappointment to myself and I will always wonder if I was one to her. As much as I am learning to let go of what others expect of me, and the idea that I am disappointing others when I can’t live up to their expectations, it will take a while to work through this. I have to remind myself that she held me at arms-length from her while knowing she was dying. For whatever reason, she did. I have to love her, keep my memories of her close to my heart, and let her go. I am happy she was in my life at all. I know how fortunate I was to have crossed paths with her in the first place. As I always say, everything happens for a reason. Life goes on.

“Am I closer to death than you? Does it matter if I am?
We all tell ourselves that we could die tomorrow, but do we really believe it? Why do we have so much fear talking about death in very personal terms? Am I more willing to discuss death when it’s not my death?”  ~Rhoda London

A video documenting the creation of one of the pieces from Rhoda’s gallery show about death.

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I am Not a Disappointment

I have long-lived my life afraid of one thing, and it’s not what you might think. Yes spiders bother me, and so do other things that can be considered creepy, but my fear comes from a different place. It is tied to my self-esteem and confidence issues that developed from my experiences as a “fat person”. Here it is, the truth; I have always been afraid of being a disappointment. Yep, to my parents, teachers, peers, significant others and even to people I meet and don’t really know well. I confess, it is really hard to put that burden on yourself all of the time. In fact, it is exhausting.

I tend to make light of it now, because I want to move on and leave it behind me, but I have spent the majority of my life being eaten up by self-hatred. It started with the way I was treated by my mom, pediatrician, and others because I was a “fat” kid. I was full of negative emotions and associations because my body was not considered desirable, not up to society’s standards. This is what I was told from the time I was old enough to understand what was going on and I took it to heart. Every child does. This is what I believed and it has had long-lasting affects on me.

I couldn’t shop in the junior’s department as a teenager. No Jordache or Calvin Klein jeans for me during the heyday of designer jeans and Brooke Shields saying, “No one comes between me and my Calvins” in magazines and on giant billboards. This was a great disappointment to my mother, who wanted to dress me in the latest girly fashions from birth until she finally gave up when I was in my 30s. Additionally, society told me that there was no hope of my ever being considered sexually desirable, or of achieving the fantasy life that I’d read about in fairy tales as a child. No, the knight in shining armor was not going to come for me because I was different. It took me a long, long time to realize that I did not need the validation of others. That someone would find me sexually attractive, just as I am. That I am every bit as worthy of love and respect as anyone else. That I had to learn to love myself and let go of the expectations of others. I have had to battle under the weight of all of this and the belief that I have never been good enough. All of this led to my fear of being a disappointment.

So, what do you do when you realize you’ve wasted years of your life trying to be something you’re not and feeling like a huge failure because of it? You crawl out of the hole of negativity you’ve dug for yourself and keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve spent the past 6-7 years doing increasingly intensive work on myself, trying to get to the bottom of my issues and rid myself of them. I realized the only way I was going to make any progress was through baby steps. I started by not putting unrealistic expectations on myself. Every time we expect to make a huge change, and then can’t follow through, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are human, we make mistakes. The sooner we can accept that, the easier it is to stop beating ourselves up.

Often I am asked to give a step by step explanation of my journey. If only it were that simple and there was a one-size-fits-all answer to eliminating the fear, loneliness, sadness, and self-medicating ways of the world. We are all different, living through our own experiences. I can’t tell you how to magically fix your problems. There is no one “diet” that will work for everyone. There is no one way to change all of our issues. There is no magic wand. It took me many years of telling myself I was finally going to change and things were going to be great, followed by epic failure, to figure that out. Here is a list of some examples of things I did, and still do, to finally make changes stick. I will stress that I am still a work in progress, it is a never ending process. There is no such thing as perfection. I mess up, we all do, but the key is to forgive yourself and get back on track as soon as possible.

1. Going to the gym, even if it is for 45 minutes to walk on the treadmill.
It helps me to clear my thoughts and focus on things I should be doing. I ignore everyone else there and just focus on myself and zone out a bit. It’s like meditation, in a way. I also enjoy getting exercise and always feel better after I’ve made myself go. It’s not always easy to get motivated, but once I go I feel great.

2. Cutting negative people out of my life.
I do not allow anyone to speak negatively to me, about me or others, and often spend my time calling people out when I hear hate-speech or people being mean to others. I have no patience for those kind of people and do not allow them access to me. Every person is important and their experience is their own. When others try to judge or fit them/me into a mold it really sends me back to my childhood and I will not tolerate it. If someone is making you feel bad about yourself, for whatever reason, you should not give them access to you.

3. Surrounding myself with positive people who love me just the way I am.
I cannot tell you how important this is. When people genuinely love you for you, it makes you feel like you can do anything. It makes my heart happy. I smile and look at things in a whole new way. A positive support system is a powerful thing. I wish everyone had one and there were no lonely, bullied and/or sad people out there. We all deserve love and a safe place with others where we can be ourselves.

4. Changing my eating habits.
This has had a HUGE impact on how I feel and look. I started by cutting out fast food and soda and have worked my way up to a mostly organic, vegetarian diet. It took years to do, but it wasn’t that hard when I really focused on how good I was feeling once I had detoxed all of the chemicals and crap out of my system. I still drink coffee and tea. Caffeine is one thing I still allow myself to have. I have lost over 60 pounds. It didn’t happen overnight – you have to be patient and not be making changes just for quick gratification. Baby steps. I function better mentally, physically, sexually, and emotionally. I am still heavy and losing more weight gradually, but man do I feel better. One day at a time, right?

5. Forgiveness, for yourself and others.
I know it isn’t easy to truly forgive others for things that have happened to you in your life. It is hard to even talk about things like abuse, neglect, shame, ridicule, bullying, humiliation, and worse – all of the horrible things we humans do to one another. But we have to. We need to. Nothing can ever change unless we are able to try to process what happened to us, or others, and begin to let go of the emotional baggage we carry. Guess what? Hurting ourselves over and over again, punishing ourselves because something horrible happened to us, is only going to make us hold on to those negative feelings. It is really freaking hard to do this, but in the end it is a gift we can give ourselves. And we are the only ones who can do that. As soon as I started to let go of the emotional abuse I held on to, as well as the other emotions tied to it, I started to look at things differently. I felt lighter, more at peace. Believe me, I have cried and shouted and screamed at myself over things that I have endured. I was in a  long-term, emotionally abusive relationship, because my self-esteem was so low and I thought I didn’t deserve better. It ended horribly – I mean HORRIBLY, but I limped away and that was when I really made the biggest changes in my life. I can look back now, 3 years after that break-up, and see it was something I had to endure to free myself. Don’t get me wrong, I still have flashbacks and times when I am triggered by something and I am right back there, in that horrible place. It is a form of PTSD and who knows if it will ever completely go away. The difference is that I pulled myself out and am no longer that person I was. I have moved on. The emotions may come back, but then I realize I am free of that person, of any other burdens from my life, and that I am loved for who I am now. It’s amazing what a difference it makes.

I’ll return and add more next time. For now, just know that you are unique and deserve to be loved for who you are. I am not a disappointment and neither are you. You are imperfect and flawed, and so am I. And that’s okay – I love us just the way we are.