A Story Told in Haiku

Sometimes in my writing workshop, Spike encourages us to write in haiku, as a way to pare down our story to the essentials, to make every word count.

I had been thinking about this experience, from when I first taught high school. I was 24-years old and physically assaulted by a student. The words tell my story but they might tell your story, too. Perhaps it was not a student who hurt you but maybe a parent or a lover or a stranger. It seems, for women, this story is somewhat universal. Thankfully, we break out of our shells. We grow from our pain. We become whole despite the damage.

Why Choose Misery?

Recently I read an article in the Sunday NY Times written by a mom who left her high powered job in New York to move to North Carolina, closer to her parents, and stay home with her two young children. It was mostly about how miserable and tired she was with this new role. But, of course, she wouldn’t change it for anything, because it was going to make her a better person. Seriously, the title of the article was “I Didn’t Become a Stay-at-Home Mother for My Kids. I Did It for Me: I was miserable. But sometimes misery can make you a better person.”

Since when does being unhappy make you a better person? Parenthood isn’t a synonym for martyrdom (although there are certainly times when a parent is a martyr). And there is nothing noble in being miserable. In fact, I am a firm believer that the happiness and well-being of young children depends almost entirely on the happiness and well-being of their primary caregiver. So why choose misery?

All this said, I’m not about to judge some woman for how she raises her kids. There are enough of us telling other women how to do mothering right. Have a vaginal birth, not a C-section. Breast feed don’t bottle feed. Use cloth diapers not disposable. No screen time before the age of 2 and then heavily limited afterward. Don’t feed your kids junk food. Don’t be on your phone when you’re at the park with your kids. And on and on.

But, why choose misery if you have an alternative?

Look when I was a young mom, when my sons were babies and toddlers, I was either a full time student or working, or both. I stayed home as much as possible not because I wanted to be the primary caregiver but because I didn’t have the money to pay for a sitter or send my kids to daycare when I could be at home with them. But, when I was home with the boys, and not doing homework or studying, I didn’t have the energy to be a great mom, to be nurturing and present. So they watched a lot of TV. Was this great parenting? Probably not, but it was parenting that allowed me to maintain my own sanity. And that was good for everyone.

Tjere are only so many hours in the day, so much energy to move from A to B. If you are burning it all at work, what’s left for your home life? Or if you are burning it all on home life (taking care of kids, cooking, cleaning), what’s left for your work life? Rarely will you be in work-life balance (a silly phrase, which, like “having it all,” doesn’t have any basis in reality). This doesn’t make you less of a parent or less of an employee. It makes you fully human, having to juggle the realities of life. It’s not easy.

Women, do what you want. Leave the house to go to work. Or stay home to spend time with your kids. If you have the privilege, then make a choice. But if your choice makes you want to lay on a bed and never get up (as the author of the NY Times piece wrote more than once), then maybe it’s the wrong choice for you. Why choose misery? Do what you need to do to make yourself – and no one else, including your kids – happy. 

Alphabet of Intention

When I wake up in the middle of the night. Instead of counting sheep or counting backwards from 100, for each letter of the alphabet, I repeat a word that inspires me or that is a trait I’d like to embody. I repeat this alphabet of intention until I drift off. It always works.

As the year begins, I thought why save this practice for my insomnia? Why not incorporate the alphabet of intention into every single day? So, I am going to practice saying my ABCs regularly, reminding myself that these are areas of growth for me, qualities to cultivate, ways of being to aspire to.

Of course, there are other words that can be used (I don’t repeat the same ABCs every night; they vary), but this is what I’ve been repeating for the last few weeks.

A –  Appreciation. Recognize the good, the beautiful, the inspiring.

B –  Bravery. Be bold. Stand up. Speak out.

C –  Compassion. Be sensitive to others.

D –  Delight. Enjoy life.

E –  Engagement. Be involved both with whom you are interacting and with what you are doing.

F –  Forgiveness. Let go of resentment.

G –  Gratitude. Give thanks for the large and small gifts in your life.

H –  Health. Be well, physically and emotionally.

I –  Intention. Have a purpose and work toward it.

J –  Non-judgement. Be with things as they are instead of automatically reacting to them.

K –  Kindness. Be nice. To everyone.

L –  Let go. Release expectations.

M –  Marvel. Notice the miracles and the wonder all around you.

N –  Nourishment. Do what you need to do to be healthy, both in body and spirit.

O –  Openness. Be yourself. Be honest. Be vulnerable.

P –  Peace. Maintain presence of mind.

Q –  Quiet. Allow for moments (or longer) of calm.

R –  Reflection. Examine your own thoughts, words, and actions. Regularly.

S –  Strength. Dig deep and unleash your ability to be resilient, to endure and not break.

T –  Transformation. Allow change to happen.

U –  Uplift. Raise your awareness. Be encouraged.

V –  Value. Know your principles.

W –  Wisdom. Cultivate insight.

X –  Exultant. Be happy.

Y –  Yes I Can. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities.

Z –  Zen. Engage in quiet meditation.

Happy New Year! May we all be happy and healthy.

Suicide: He Did Not Kill Himself

My friend Fred was in town from Colorado for Jason’s memorial. The morning of the memorial, I was part of a group that met with Fred to run the hike and bike trail and then have brunch at another friend’s house. While I was talking with Fred at the brunch, Jason’s name came up, and Fred said to me, “He didn’t kill himself; depression killed him.” Whether these were Fred’s own words or not, they struck a chord with me. Honestly, I had never considered that the disease of depression – not the person – could be held responsible for the death.

Even as I speak the words, I realize that no one would ever say, “He killed himself,” when talking about someone who died from complications related to Type 2 diabetes or about a life-long smoker who died of lung cancer, even though their own actions or inactions certainly contributed to their deaths. Part of this has to do with the way in which we think about mental illness. We minimize the biochemistry responsible for the disease. We put the sole burden of being mentally ill on the individual, as if it is his choice, a decision made of a rational mind, one  that is not wrecked by a faulty brain. Even I, who lives with depression, who has survived suicide attempts in my life and studied neurobiology, even I fell into this trap, resorted to thinking that it is the person causing his own death rather than the illness causing it.

Major depression is not sadness. It’s not feeling down. It’s feeling completely empty, worthless, and hopeless. It’s an all-encompassing darkness, in which you lose the will to eat, to work, to do anything. Eventually, you can even lose the will to live.

Yes, there is treatment. Prescribed medication, psychotherapy, lifestyle changes like exercise and nutrition, even electroconvulsive shock treatment. But because the disease is so complicated, so nuanced, its etiology so unknown even by the experts, treatment guarantees nothing. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you get better and maybe you don’t.

Depression is not a choice. No one chooses this outlook on life. No one would choose an outcome of suicide. Choice is not part of the equation. So let’s be very careful about the words we use. Language matters when we talk about mental illness, because our own words can either reinforce the stigma and shame associated with it or they can weaken that stigma and shame.


It is the worst kind of victim blaming to say that people who die from their mental illness are responsible for their own deaths. Depression is a disease, and suicide is death from that disease.

Acceptance: When Life Is Good and Bad at the Same Time

“The good news is that I know what I have and I accept it. The bad news is that I know what I have and I accept it.”

My friend Leyla said this to me the other day. I was visiting her in the hospital, where she has been living indefinitely since she got a diagnosis of leukemia last month. Leyla had some odd symptoms. Initially, she saw her doctor for phlebitis, which the doctor didn’t think much of it as phlebitis can have relatively minor causes. But, the very next week, Leyla had an 11-hour nosebleed. That was concerning. After lab work and a diagnosis, she’s now receiving regular blood transfusions and undergoing chemotherapy.

Leyla was my high school chemistry teacher. Not for the whole year, because her class was hard, so I changed out of it and got into regular chemistry. But I lasted about six weeks in her class, and I learned a few things about Leyla in that time. One is that she is loud. Really loud. She is also in your face, which was intimidating as a 15 year old. But the reason she is in your face is because, she loves chemistry and that love is shown through her enthusiasm. She connected everything to chemistry. She celebrated Mole Day. Even after decades of teaching, she was still excited about what she did. Needless to say, Leyla was a great teacher, a legend in the school and in the school district. Lucky for me, when I returned 15 years later to teach biology in my high school, Leyla became my department chair, my mentor, and my friend.

Leyla has always been really positive, and she remains in this state of mind despite a really scary and life threatening medical condition. When I asked her how she was, she said, “The good news is that I know what I have and I accept it. The bad news is that I know what I have and I accept it.” This was like a koan to me, and I’ve been thinking about it non-stop since I heard her say it. It reminds me that duality is the nature of life. It can be, in the very same moment, both liberating and painful. But this is only true if we are aware of what we’re experiencing. If we bury our head in the sand, if we fail to pay attention, or if we choose to avoid difficulty, we cannot be fully engaged with our life.

I left the hospital wanting to cry, and yet, I was so glad I got to spend time with Leyla, so grateful for the wisdom she shared with me. This reaction of mine seemed to be the very embodiment of what my friend spoke about. Shunning what is scary is not the answer. Learning to accept is the first step to dealing with it. That can be both good and bad, and that’s okay.