Recipe for Battling the Winter Blues

Dear Readers,

Are you hungry for hope this dreary month?

It’s no secret that I struggle with depression. While it does run in my family, friends have often remarked, “Why wouldn’t you, with all you have to contend with? I would be too.” Unfortunately, sympathy doesn’t help. I’m a little worried about my ability to get out of bed in the morning once my youngest is off to college next year and my 21-year career as a stay-at-home mom is over. Of course, I will be looking for a new job, maybe even one that pays, but in the meantime, with the help of several “experts”, I have developed a routine that is motivating and energizing me.

Here’s what my recipe looks like:

* Open mind * Willingness * Toilet * Echo Dot or Hey Google * Medication * Phototherapy lamp * Coffee (or tea) * Apple cider vinegar, lemon, cayeene powder * Cell phone or computer * Jacket, gloves, hat, mask * White cane * Sneakers or boots * YouTube app or website * House plant * A friend of beloved person * Shower and towel * Lotion and facial serum * Rosary beads

* Wake up and run to the bathroom to pee. * Return to bedroom, get on knees and pray: one Hail Mary, the long form of the serenity prayer, and the third step prayer. Sometimes I throw one up to St. Gerard too. * Find a hot cup of black coffee sitting on my night stand and inhale deeply, presumably delivered by my handsome and thoughtful valet/husband. * Hop back into bed and set a timer for 20 minutes. * Turn on my phototherapy light lamp and set it about 18″ from my face. * Wave my hands in front of it for a few seconds just to make sure I still can’t see anything. * Take my medication. * Listen to the national and local news briefs. * Check the weather and temperature. * Ask Alexa to open the “word of the day”, the “slang word of the day”, the Scrabble word of the day”, and the “question of the day”. * Ask her to play a nostalgic game of “song quiz” selected for the ’80s. What a memory trigger! * Turn off “Sunbox” and timer, which is usually sounding at this point, and start my exercise routine. * Do about 20 minutes of stretching and core work, primarily neck, shoulder, and back stretches , a few planks and push ups (girl style), and what I still have memorized from my favorite VHS from college- Super Stomachs with Joanie Greggins. I always play old ’80s music for this. Today was U2. Other favorites include: Guns N Roses, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Journey, Janet Jackson, and the Eurythmics. Am I dating myself? * Head down to the kitchen for my second (and last) cup of coffee. * Make my high school senior’s lunch (only because it is the last year that I have this privilege). * Answer call from my cousin in RI on her way to work until she gets to school or loses cell reception. * Take a shot of apple cider vinegar and a glass of fresh lemon water with cayenne powder as a chaser. It’s a nice and easy daily cleanse. I’ve never been big on breakfast. * Head to my “blue room” to check email, texts, and voice mails once everyone, including Battle Cat, is out of the house. Sometimes I even journal my “morning pages”. * Call two friends. Usually there is someone to call back but if not, I’ll reach out to people I think about often but never reach out to. It’s important to stay connected. * Go wwalking, usually with a friend, for about an hour if there aren’t commitment conflicts. Social exercise is sooooo much more palatable than doing it alone. Kind of like sex. Even during the pandemic, I try to leave the house at least once a day, even if it is just for a walk. This is surprisingly easy with prayer groups, Mass, doctor appointments, recovery meetings, open swim with the Kampff kids, and dinner dates. * Settle down to meditate for about 20 minutes at some point in the afternoon. I really like The Honest Guys and My Peace of Mindfulness. If I haven’t gone walking, I’ll practice an hour of yoga or hoola hoop until I can’t anymore. * Check in with all my houseplants to see if they need watering or tending just to remind me that spring will arrive eventually. Fun fact, I managed to keep my begonia baskets alive until last week! * Take a hot shower in the late evening, followed by a full body lotion slathering and application of my special facial serum. * Find a meaningful or romantic song on YouTube and text the link to my husband so that it will be the first thing he sees when he wakes up. * Do a 10th step inventory. * Grab my rosary beads and open Sleep Jar Sleep sounds. Among our favorites are: Gregorian chants, ocean, purring cat, babbling brook, wind chimes, washing machine, whales, Tibetan bowls, , frogs and crickets, and thunderstorm.

Some of you will think that all of this routine is simply quotidian, but if you have ever struggled with Seasonal Affective or Non-24 Disorder,depression, or the plain old winter blahs, this recipe might appeal to you. So if you, too, feel slower, heavier, more restless and discontent during these cold, dark months, consider trying my recipe or concocting your own. As with any recipe, feel free to omit, add, and adjust in any way that works for you! Bon appetit!


The Decade in Review

December 29, 2020

Dear Dr. D’Amico,

Do you remember me? Have you wondered how I eventually made out and how I’ve been since our post-op follow up appointment in 2011? In long, here it is.

Exactly ten years ago today, you performed my last surgery to repair the scleral buckle on my left retina. I had very little vision left going into the OR, just some color, motion and light in a very limited field. We hoped to salvage what was left of my sight. In retrospect, that was 20/20 for me. Ultimately, the procedure was not successful. I had already lost my right eye and am now officially NLP. But I would try it all again in a heartbeat.

Upon first meeting you at my pre-op appointment, you were affable and patient but realistic. I was an anxious, desperate wreck. Scrubbed and prepped, we next met in the OR at Weill Cornell. My last memory before the anesthetic cocktail kicked in is of you asking me about my favorite red wines, having realized that I am Italian despite my married surname. Funny I should remember that.

Our journey to the hospital that morning was an adventure. NYC had been hit with a massive snowstorm the previous day that crippled the city. Snowbanks were piled five feet high and dogs were wearing wellies. Trash collection was impossible and nearly everything was closed. We had delivered our seven and ten year old boys to the apartment of college friends for the previous night. My husband watched stupefied from the back of our taxi while a tourism promo by Jimmy Kimmel played. The driver seemed annoyed that we had bothered him so early in such weather. Didn’t we have better things to do in the midst of the biggest storm to hit the city in half a century than to traipse around town at 6AM?

My hopes were reluctantly high. You were the god of scleral buckles and I felt privileged to be under your knife or scalpel or right angled scissors or whatever instrument you would be using to perform your magic. I could barely believe that you were willing to brave the elements to accommodate my travel circumstances. You and your assistant, Morgan, were so gracious and soothing.

By late afternoon, my family was ensconced in the west side apartment of my mother’s cousin’s wife’s son. The boys had explored the Museum of Natural History with my dear college girlfriend and her children. We ordered Mexican from a mom and pop shop on the block. Another dear college girlfriend came to visit and distract me from the pain once the anesthesia wore off. I even called my calm and caring Rochester retinologist at his home to share that it sounded like all went well. I just had to wait and see. Or not.

My follow up appointment the next day felt like it took forever. The boys were tired and cranky. Everything was still backed up and running late because of the storm. And my heart was beating wildly in anticipation of your judgment of the surgery’s likelihood of success. The bandages were removed. There didn’t seem to be much light, but that was to be expected for a while. It could take 3-6 months for the eye to heal and for me to regain some vision. I wondered- would it be as good as it was before the surgery? Would it get a little better? And when I asked about any restrictions or limitations, you simply said, “Rest for a few days and avoid Mexican food.” Shit. After all that, I’d gone and screwed it all up for a burrito. And I was too ashamed to tell you. But maybe you were joking? Did I mention I was an anxious, desperate wreck?

We left your office and the not-so-bright lights of the Big Apple armed with eye drops, paperwork, suggestions for good cabernets, and a pocketful of hope. I remember working furiously to catch the lines of the road as they slipped under the hood of the minivan. And I thought, maybe, that I caught a glint of light reflected off the prisms of the suncatcher I had made at the body peace weekend I had spent with girlfriends on Keuka Lake that summer. Was that a car whizzing by us on the left? Or was it all just my imagination?

I was scared and exhausted by the time we pulled in the driveway in Rochester. It was the day before New Year’s Eve and I didn’t have a stitch of energy to rally for our traditional celebration with friends. I crawled into bed and stayed there until 2011 arrived, with exceptional trips to the bathroom, refrigerator, and wine cellar. The boys traipsed off to the Travers’ house to ring in the new year with my blessing. I wanted to be alone snuggled up with my fears and my cat.

Every day I played games to see if anything was coming back. Did I see the light switch on? Was my husband wearing a red shirt? Could I see my hand moving in front of my face? I just couldn’t know for sure. With all my previous surgeries, I usually had some idea within a week. I felt disheartened. I felt ashamed of my impatience. All the love and prayers of family and friends didn’t seem to be working. But a few glasses of wine appeared to help. At least it took the edge off and medicated my sorrow. Things always improved eventually. Or at least they didn’t get worse, right?

The frenzied waltz never ended. I just felt more worried and weary and dizzy. The orchestra in my head got louder and more cacophonous. There were too many sounds, too much noise. Sleep was the only respite for the descending darkness in my heart. There I could dream. There I could see, albeit imperfectly. Oh, to watch the world painted in hues of every color, to witness the emergence of Henry’s dimple or the gentle cleft in Oliver’s chin, to be hunting for praying mantises in the tall grasses of my childhood field! Although I hate shopping, time and again I would find myself sifting through racks of children’s clothes alongside my grandmother, in search of a magnificent bargain for some baby I didn’t know. Even snakes and nightmares and monsters were beautiful.

By the time I returned to NYC for my follow-up in March, my husband refused to accompany me. My drinking was out of hand and he couldn’t tolerate my gloom. He had become distant and angry. He was scared too. And he had no tools to grieve. I smiled in public and yelled in private, mostly at him.

Terrified that the darkness was permanent, I worried who would hold my fear, my anger, my sorrow? It was too heavy for me. Blindness had crept up on me from behind. I could feel its hot breath on my neck but I couldn’t turn around. I muffled it with merlot and Funyons nearly every night for two years. But I kept smiling in public, kept being the friend that I needed, kept honoring my commitments and mothering my kids as if my life depended on it. Mother of the year, PTA president, professional volunteer extraordinaire- it wasn’t enough to fill the hole in my soul. So I numbed it instead. Who would listen to me anyway? Who would have pitiless compassion? Hadn’t I been gifted three decades of sight on which my memory could feast? What kind of ingrate was I?

I casually asked a friend if she wanted to come with me to NYC for my follow up in March. To my astonishment, she agreed and we boarded a Megabus together on St. Patrick’s eve. We stayed with Liz, the college friend who had watched my boys during my surgery. The appointment was early and ostensibly painless, but for the sinking feeling in my gut. It might take a few more months, you said. The repair looked good with no inflammation or infection. And so I knotted up that thread of hope and swallowed it.

The day was young. We ate way too much Indian food on a bench in a random little park near your office. We rummaged around Central Park and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, landing square in the middle of the parade. The only thing I remember is the smell of beer everywhere and Amy’s description of a large white rat riding on a man’s shoulder as he watched the floats pass by. Oh, yes! And the scene in the subway of a gaggle of twenty-somethings drunk off their asses, trying to figure out destinations and fares and regaling each other with their inebriated exploits.

Back in Rochester with dwindling hope, I jumped back into life, Shoving off all the pity I perceived and donning my supercape and flying around town doing good for other people. Really, I was trying to prove to myself that I could do the things I had done before, only without vision. I created a student -driven literary magazine at my kids’ school and served as president of their PTA. I taught sensitivity to blindness seminars at our local agency for the blind. I volunteered with the Rochester Broadway Theater League as an audio description consultant.
I hosted playdates and organized birthday parties, Christmas parties, Halloween parties, and, of course, wine parties. I ran and participated in five different book clubs and delivered homemade meals to families in need. I cleaned my house, did the laundry, and cooked wonderful dinners for my family. I crafted with my boys and took voice lessons. I attended baseball games and soccer games and swim meets. I grew tomatoes and squash and eggplant and herbs. I pruned bushes and shoveled snow. I smiled the whole time and I wore myself out. What did all that prove to the world but that I was an overachieving, insecure nutjob? Never did I cry. Always I neglected my husband. And I drank myself into Alcoholics Anonymous.

That is when I started to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to slow down and learn to love myself. Ever so slowly and with more than a few cases of the “fuck its”, I have gotten sober and more content. Sure, I still do a lot, especially for others, but I am discerning what actually matters and learning the practical strategies and skills of living with no light perception. Yes, I have skydived, downhill skied, learned to play beep baseball and created a nonprofit for blind athletes. But I have also learned to meditate, practice yoga, rely on my God, worked hard with a therapist and a sponsor, and invest more meaningfully with my family. I have embraced adaptive technology, utilizing screen reading software and the voice over feature of my IPhone. Like everyone else, I have learned to Zoom this year. I have worked briefly and sporadically and am ready to transition from my 21 year
career as a stay-at-home mom back into the regular workforce.

Still a “good girl”, I have maintained regular check upst with my retinologist and my corneologist. I have cried and I have laughed. I have battled depression and accepted medication as part of my recipe for sanity. Ironically, I have started light therapy to combat non 24 and Seasonal Affective Disorder. This blog about courage and gratitude has given me space to reflect on my experiences in a Satisfying way. It has afforded me a picture window to the multitude of gifts in my life. I am developing the ability to recognize my resilience and
blessings. My anger has largely transformed into patience. I am trusting others with what was my secret sadness. I am recognizing the difference between compassion and pity. I am accepting help.

My life is better because of my experience with you, even if the surgery wasn’t a success. I am a more focused and willingly vulnerable person. I lean on my friends and have discerned the difference between them and acquaintances. I’m allowing myself to receive empathy and realizing that my life is worthwhile. I am cautiously optimistic that technology will be developed to gift me with some kind of vision in the future. We’ll just have to wait and see.. Regardless, I thank you for trying and for unwittingly giving me the opportunity to grow and thrive. If I lived nearer to you, I’d take you out for Mexican to celebrate our efforts!

Anyway, How have you been?

Kirstyn Smith
Rochester, NY

Raining Gratitude

It is plain old yucky out today. I can feel winter coming. And yet, today I am consumed with gratitude, hope and joy. I have two incredible children. Our family is going through a very difficult time. My boys are not only compassionate and honest, they are willing to be vulnerable and share intimate relationships. Their generation gets a lot of negative publicity. They are evidence that not all of what we hear and see is valid.

It is hard to talk with adolescent boys about difficult things. My kids don’t prefer to talk with their mother about addiction, mental illness, sex, or abuse any more than yours do. But they are willing and able to. They know how to listen, share, be open, and love. These are characteristics way more important to me than scholarship, athletic performance, and political opinion. In the language of their school, they are “men for others.” I feel deeply thankful that they have evolved into such people.

I would like to be able to take some credit for this but deeply acknowledge the effects that their friends, teachers, coaches, and others have had on them. They are able to be true friends and, in turn, have earned true friends. When life is hard, they have resources to call upon besides good old mom and the surface world of social media. Underlying all of this is their faith in a merciful, loving God and their acceptance that much in life is out of their control. Neverthe less, they have the wisdom and courage to say and do the things that affect change. They are able to look at themselves and recognize their weaknesses and defects and work to improve them. They derive happiness from the joy and comfort they bring to others.
They vote and bear witness with their hands and their feet. How fortunate I am.

I will admit that, in the past, I have shallowly prayed that they grow tall enough to be satisfied with their height and that they would achieve certain swim results; I care about what they have cared about over the years. But my deepest, most intimate prayer has been that they become the kind of young men they are. God doesn’t often do what I advise, but (S)He sure does listen to my suggestions. Together, we bleed, feel, change, and heal. I am so grateful for this and for the fact that they have found and chosen to befriend others like them. I won’t always be here to guide and nurture them, but they will always have the faith and the friends that will fill that hole.

The Titanic

I keep hearing the oldsummer camp song “The Titanic” in my head this morning.

O, they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue
And the people said that the water’d never come through
So they had a big surprise when the water rushed inside
It was sad when the great ship went down.
(Hit the bottom)
It was sad. (So sad.)
It was sad. (Too bad.)
It was sad when the great ship went downto the bottom of the
sea/Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down.

My family of origin is that ship. Mom and Dad did it all so right. They worked hard, loved hard, did the next right things, and parented well. For decades. It was a beautiful ship. And yet, here I am watching the family ship sink.

My only brother is an addict of the worst variety and has been since 1999, at least. His body is imploding, medically speaking. And his mind? Remember the old TV commercial- “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. See the difference?” He has now gone completely crazy, clinically speaking.

But only my parents, three family members, and I know. They are “being strong” and doing the best they can. He is a physical danger to them and himself. He lives with them and holds them physically and mentally hostage. In trying to care for and love their sick son (addiction is a disease aftre all), they have enabled his mental deterioration and now live all day, every day, in fear and shame. They are exhausted. Their bodies and minds are failing them. They love their son and are trying to keep him safe, at their own risk.

The iceberg? Alcohol, then drugs, then mental illness. Just like the giant floating chunks of ice in cartoons, it seemed treatable enough, at first. But there was so much hidden beneath the roiling waves. It got bigger and bigger and badder and badderr. Fathoms beneath the surface is the insanity of what was a beautiful little boy. And here we are with a sinking ship and not enough life boats.

I, and my little family, are safe enough on one of those rescue crafts. But it sucks watching the ship go down, with your parents on deck crying and waving good bye. And it sucks even more to know your brother drove that boat straight into that iceberg, in spite of all the warnings and assistance he was offered. It even sucks to be the one who survived- so far.

The more I write this, the more apt the metaphor feels. I don’t honestly know if my little life boat with my husband and children on board will make it safely to shore. While witness and prayer instruct our navigation to safety, there is just no guarantee we’ll all make it back in one piece. What happened to those carefree days of singing by the campfire that cautionary tale of hubris and terror? So blithely I belted out those lyrics, hardly suspecting that very story would be replayed in my own life.

I am sad. I am angry. Despair washes over me again and again like the tumultuous crests of the North Atlantic. I am scared. But fear, I’ve heard, is the very thing we feel as we summon the courage to accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can, and learn the difference between them.

I am trying to be brave.

The Imaginary Boyfriend

Dear Jake from Connecticut,

I doubt you’ll remember me. I never actually met you at Hampton Beach during the summer of ’85. I just pretended I did. You were probably the boy throwing a football around with your friends while I lay all lotioned up as seductively as I could the year I turned thirteen. I prayed that you would notice me and make an excuse to introduce yourself and fall madly in love with me so we could write to each other all year and reconnect each summer at the beach until you were old enough to marry me, when we would live happily ever after. That’s what I believed at that tender young age would be the very thing that would make me “normal” and afford me the security I’d needed to live out the rest of my adolescence . But it was just my imagination, fueled by a few too many afternoons watching “Days of Our Lives” and “Santa Barbara” and wishing my nights away by moonlight. Thank God I learned about feminism!

I remember sitting at my desk in my room, the very heart shaped stationary I used, to write you love notes, telling you my deepest secrets. And I remember the plain old lined paper I used with my very best left-handed penmanship to craft your sweet, cool, tender but hunky responses. The letters I’d leave sitting on my nightstand or peeking out of my school bag so some curious, jealous friend could snoop and see what a lucky tween I had become. Oh how entirely embarrassing and somewhat normal!

Now I hear stories of my girlfriends’ children writing soft porn in middle school and inventing their very own “Mr. Wonderfuls”. Perhaps it is naturaldevelopmentally ? I’ve reassured them that their daughters aren’t whores, that it is probably a temporary hormone-driven transition from imaginary friends, and that, yes, I did it too. Fantasy and imagination are powerful God- given gifts and will, in time, evolve and transform into beauty and wisdom. At least I think mine have!

So, Jake, wherever you are in an alternate universe, please know that I am grateful to you for letting my hormonal imagination run wild and for never telling anyone what a fake I really was! Besides, I eventually did find the person I wanted you to be and he was definitely worth the wait!

Yours forever (in my adolescent daydreams),

Our Magic School Bus

September 9, 2019

Dear Byron, Joe, and Jose (in that order),

With the arrival of a new school year, I listen to the squeak and rev of the yellow busses as they rumble down my street this morning. I reminisce at the days and years gone by since you sheparded my boys to and from Seton Catholic School on Bus 944. How I miss those days and the reliability and competence of your work!

I just wanted to take a minute to tell you how much we really a ppreciated all that you did. As I cannot drive and my husband was often out of town, we entirely relied on our bus service to get our children to and from school each day. I never had a doubt that you would arrive- on time and smiling. I loved your little horn toots and genuine”good afternoon!” shout outs! I knew that the boys were safe with you and that you ran a strict ship.

My boys LOVED riding the bus. It was a punishment for them to have to be driven to school in the mornings, which, unfortunately, did happen from time to time! They might have missed out on some hijinks or your review of the previous night’s Yankees game. Your job was tremendous: scheduler, navigator, driver, disciplinarianEMT, , and memory-tickler. The responsibility is enormous and I’m afraid you were very underappreciated. I just don’t know how you did it and with such aplomb!

And somehow, over the years of daily minimal contact, I learned that your hart is weak, you love Dogtown and the driving range, send money back to your family in Puerto Rico, and that you take your chihuahuas to Cornell for medical care, among other things. It broke our hearts when you decided to retire to somewhere warmer after decades of service to our children and our community. You were the first and the best bus driver we ever had. And so on this Hallmark occasion when I doubt many people have taken the time to tell you or their own bus drivers what you doing your job meant to us, I want to thank you so very much from each of us on Bus 944!

Have a great week, wherever you are!

Love, Kirstyn, the blind lady who tried to throw water balloons at her kids when they got home each day