Grief can be helpful. It drowns out a lot of other things, like muscle soreness from really solid exercising, or boredom from monotonous forms of work. Go organize all the receipts for your taxes. Run. Take the cat to the vet. Do 500 calf raises. Make flashcards of French verb conjugations. Grief will numb you to the little trials and boredoms that bog down happy people.
Just do really productive, somewhat-boring things repetitively and stoically in order to improve your life, so that when you feel better, you’ll look around and say, ‘Holy sh$t, the sun is shining again and my job is amazing and I can do six pull ups in a row and I speak French?’
I read this quote a couple years ago. It resonated with me as I was in the thick of an uncertain custody battle and beginning my second semester back at Wright State to finish my bachelor's degree. I wasn't courageous enough to call myself a "pre-med," and I was really nervous about retaking anatomy. It was useful for me to think of all my (secret) big dreams in small baby steps that consisted of:
Looking up new words and noting how to pronounce them, like acetylcholine.
Reading paragraphs in the book from behavioral neuroscience again and again to understand the simple components of an action potential and the confusing cellular anatomy of a neuron.
Figuring out what the heck an orbital is that my chemistry teachers kept talking about.
Waking up early to do statistics homework & wrapping my head around the meaning of a P value.
Using the long commute to listen physiology lectures.
Returning to college at 32 years old, I had major deficits in math and science. The last couple years have shown me that winter months are perfect for building on my knowledge base. It’s a good time to memorize neuroanatomy & practice physics. In fact, I enjoy it or else I do not think that I could tolerate the work. I like the stimulation. It is a nice change from the life I left.
The slower pace of this semester has created a space to take inventory of how I can practice gratitude for the progress we've made. After navigating morning rush hour and dropping my sons off, I walk to my lab and try to remember the incredible opportunities presented to me. I'm still tethered to this place, but it's become the greatest honor of my life to be a student-mother-scientist. I have an enormous responsibility to recognize that I am privileged to be here.
I’m thankful I can finish my degree. I’m thankful my car is filled with boys who bring richness to my life that I would never relinquish for any price. The mornings start early & the days end late, but I get learn about the concepts that fascinate me. Difficult decisions, like prolonging my graduation a semester, led to a place that allows me to grow stronger.
It’s been two years since our divorce decree. Several legal documents & multiple hearings followed. My “grief” was the legal cloud that would not go away. Almost a month ago, I had my last post-divorce hearing. Since that day, I've suffered from quite severe side effects of spontaneously smiling, increased energy from improved sleep, and enhanced focus (secondary to a significant decrease in custody-related anxiety).
It was pure elation to close the gate for good and look toward the future.*
I say, "future," but the sun is already shining and I am waking up to realize I already built a new life that looks nothing like the one I left. In 2015, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a neutron or an electron. But while I lived in the hazy cloud of divorce & post-divorce proceedings, I created new habits and was happy for the distractions. I came close to finishing my degree, started becoming a neuroscientist, and inched closer to applying to medical school. When the stress from my case was almost unbearable, I had very careful conversations with advisors about taking time off. After looking at a lot of factors, (financial aid, how close I was to finishing, when classes would be offered, etc), they encouraged me to push forward. They reminded me that I do belong here.
Monday I'm finishing up my data collection for my undergraduate research thesis on cytokine activity in the brain in response to stress & inflammation. Cytokines are tiny tiny proteins that are involved in many cell signaling processes in the body, but we are interested in their role in the central inflammatory response. We are curious about their role in behaviors that appear to be associated with anxiety & depression. Oh I have so much to learn! I embrace it because I love the learning process and I believe in neuroplasticity. We aren't tied to our past or who we have always been. I believe that we can get up and make small decisions that impact our future very effectively. The synapses in our brains are incredibly malleable- don’t think for a minute that I am an exception. Channel the “grief” into fuel, even when you don't feel like it's of any use. You will be surprised how far it takes you. 🙌🏼
*Yes, Stranger Things, final episode, season II, seemed to be the perfect metaphor for ending the chapter on court.
** As a photographer, I'm impressed by the tapetum lucidum of a cow eye. The first time I saw it, at an anatomy club dissection from my second semester back, I was in awe of the iridescent color & significance of its function. Animals with these structures have mini soft boxes to amplify light to see better in the dark. We learned from these structures again in a course I'm taking this semester (pictured in blue & white, above). I spoke with my sons about how neat it is to know that even simple species, like fish, have elegant physiological systems that compare to our most innovative technical advances in cameras & lighting systems.