The Little Voice: A Love Story

Of all the relationships I’ve had in my life, my time with alcohol was the most important and destructive of all.  I loved that stuff.  Looking back, any mind altering substance had me at day one.  Alcohol, however, grabbed me and took me on a long, turbulent ride that completely beat the crap out of me.

At first it seduced me and made me feel powerful, but slowly it took control and always had me coming back for more.  I could stop drinking for short periods in the beginning, but I could never stop once I had started.  One sip and I was off to the races.  Between the wanting and the needing, the little voice inside my head would ask, “problem drinker” or “full-blown alcoholic?”  It was the same voice that told me “be very afraid” and also justified my drinking with, “Tomorrow.  Tomorrow I’ll stop.”

It went on for 30+ years, the back and forth of denial and realization.  Sneaking, lying, doing whatever I had to do to get my fix.  I’d switch from liquor to beer to wine, always making deals with myself.  Only on weekends, only after five, etc.  I’d worry about the clinking bottles as I took out the garbage in my quaint suburban neighborhood.  I worried about my kids having a loser for a mother.  Despite all of that, nothing and no one could stop me.  I was on a mission – a mission that was going to kill me.

I ended up developing hypertension and hyperlipidemia.  I was put on medication for both and I had gained twenty pounds of bloat and fat (my poor liver).  I drank for any and every reason.  I was a high functioning addict; never missing a day of work, not even for a crushing hangover.

Slow and insidious, addiction is a chronic, progressive and fatal equal opportunity disease.  It gets a hold of you and won’t let go.  Most people had no idea how very sick I was.  Inside, in private, I was unraveling and falling apart.

Both of my parents were alcoholics, so I was familiar with the genetic component of the disease.  In the early 90’s my father was in rehab at Maplegrove in West Bloomfield, Michigan.  I attended several lectures with him there and somehow, I knew I would end up there for myself.  I was also aware of the physical complications from the disease: cirrhosis of the liver (which is fatal) and wet brain which is loss of brain function and a severe result of end stage alcoholism.  There is no coming back from that.

I lived with extreme shame and guilt every single day.  Me, a regular mother and wife with a good job and a great looking life.  I suspected I would die if I kept going and feared I would die if I stopped.  I couldn’t function without it, but the little voice kept saying “tomorrow.”

I couldn’t imagine going to a wedding or a party without drinking because I believed my life would suck if I quit.  I even grabbed a friend and went to an AA meeting once, putting my big toe in the water, but too afraid to jump.  It was there I heard how there are three eventual outcomes other than recovery: jails, hospitals or death.  Even that didn’t deter me.

It was February 9, 2005 when I woke up and had a moment of clarity.  I guess I just got sick and tired of being so sick and tired.  I wanted to fall asleep and wake up instead of passing out and coming to.  I knew I needed to be an example for my kids because they certainly deserved much better.  I saw my bottom so clearly and I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to hit it.  I got in my car with a raging hangover after having blacked out the night before and drove myself to Maplegrove.  It was like someone else had the wheel, so much so that I really don’t remember what my thought process was, but it really doesn’t matter now.  I got there and I was ready to stop dying.  I wanted to live.  When I look back, I see that it was nothing short of a miracle.

Maplegrove gave me a chance to get my life back, but I had to want it and boy, did I ever! I immersed myself in rehab and recovery.  I sat in the front row at all the lectures, asking questions and absorbing information with the heart of a child.  Something in me had shifted and my obsession had disappeared.  At that point, I knew there was something greater than me taking charge here.  I got my ego out of the way and surrendered.  I decided to listen with a sincere passion.  The speakers at meetings all shared a common thread: long-term sobriety and the 12 step program.

The 1st step states, “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable.”  Hell yes!  I could not deny that.  I grabbed ahold and have held on for eight years.  I worked the steps (more than once) with a sponsor and have sponsored many others.  I lost twenty pounds and my blood pressure and cholesterol are back on track without medication.  I am now spiritually fit and I attend AA meetings on a regular basis.

I’m proud of my journey and call it “the gift of a lifetime.”  I have good days and some not-so-good days, but I have many friends in recovery that I can talk to.  I have an arsenal of tools and knowledge to keep my disease at bay.  I will never be cured, but I know what I need to do – just for today.  I stay true to what I know: I’m patty, I’m an alcoholic and I have a healthy fear of what could be.  The monkey is off my back, but the circus is still in town.

Patty works as a medical assistant in a Michigan based doctor’s office.  Her recovery is the most important thing in her life and she attends 12-Step Meetings regularly.

She makes herself available to women looking for experience, strength and hope and speaks to the patients at Maplegrove as part of an alumni group.  She also runs a weekly “big book” study group at Henry Ford Hospital.

Healing a Broken Heart

Every child you have changes your life, but some change it more than others.  Our third son, Colin, who was diagnosed at the 20-week ultrasound with four congenital heart defects (CHDs), turned my life upside down.

Colin was born via C-section on October 20, 2009.  He was with us for 100 days after his open heart surgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan when he was 9 days old. He fought long and hard to come home with us, but it didn’t happen.  Nothing went how anyone expected and he confounded us all.  He struggled from the very first night of surgery when we nearly lost him and every day after that in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) was a battle against congestive heart failure.

To cope, I threw myself into advocating for him: researching, reading and immersing myself in anything relating to CHD.  I would review his flow charts and all of his blood work.  I practically became a secondary nurse, so much so that doctors and nurses meeting us for the first time would ask if I was one.  That is how fluent I had become in medical jargon, but really, I was just a mom grasping at any chance to exert some control over this truly out-of-my-control situation.  I didn’t want to miss a possible solution to any of his complications.

Life with Colin was a roller coaster: short, fast, exciting and terrifying.  After it was over, all I wanted was to do it again.

The loss of my son is the single most transformational event of my life, but in the beginning those changes were often for the worse.  The day after his funeral in February 2010 was the day that my emotions seemed to get turned off—like water at a spigot.  I was completely numb for a year.  I went to work and took care of my kids. Hell, I even managed to get a new job during this time.  Knowing all of that, I look back and realize there are complete chunks of that year I don’t remember.  I don’t know if I’ll ever remember.

On the bright side, I threw myself into the CHD community.  My husband Mike and I began assembling and delivering comfort bags to Children’s Hospital for the CHD organization It’s My Heart.  I was constantly looking for ways to connect with people who had lost children to CHD.  We did a 5k walk to benefit It’s My Heart and I joined the planning committee for a walk the following fall.  I put most of my energy into charity work to try to make meaning from our loss; to make sure he wasn’t forgotten.  The rest of my energy was dedicated to making sure my kids’ lives stayed as normal as possible.

Back on the dark side, however, I stopped taking care of myself.  I ate too much, sat too much and wasn’t taking my medication properly.  I have Factor V Leiden which is a clotting disorder and also had a Deep Vein Thrombosis in my right leg in 2007.  I am on lifelong anticoagulation and I should have switched to an oral anticoagulant, but I insisted on remaining on injections.  In November 2010, I wound up in the hospital recovering from the pulmonary embolism I ended up with as a result of my noncompliance.  As soon as I was home, I soldiered on and stayed busy.  No stopping, no resting and burying feelings.

Colin died on February 7, 2010, which coincidentally, is the beginning of Congenital Heart Defect Awareness week.  During that week in 2011, I was loaded up with commitments for fundraising and awareness efforts.  Our state senator was introducing a resolution to officially recognize February 7-14 as Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week in Michigan.

The senator was going to talk about Colin on the senate floor and I was ecstatic, but I was also exhausted.  I was tired of running from the grief and it caught up with me when the week ended.  I woke up in the middle of the night with a start—I felt as though I was having hot flashes and my heart was racing.  I realized later that it was a panic attack, but my brain was convinced it was a heart attack.

After ending up in the ER with absolutely nothing wrong with me, I realized I needed help.  I had spent so much time helping others and concealing my pain by staying busy that I had completely forgotten about me.  I reached out to a therapist and finally allowed myself to grieve fully.  I had coped through trying to control everyone and everything in an effort to make up for a situation that had been totally out of my control: Colin’s too-brief life.

The therapist helped me to see my desire to control everything.  He asked if it would really hurt to stop doing and start being.  So I began to meditate again. I began to let things go again. I began to start livingmy life instead of just doing my life.  With that, the floodgates opened: there were tears, rages and meltdowns, but the difference was—it was all OK.

In the desperate need to channel everything that was coming out of me, I started to write again.  I started with little bits and then began filling pages.  I wrote poems, songs, essays and blog posts; I began to find my voice again.  I began seeking opportunities to help others through my writing and through the organizations I had been involved with all along.

In the past year, I’ve increased my involvement with advocacy and awareness now that I am able to feel and live my life fully.  I began writing for an online magazine and I was privileged to appear in the documentaryTransforming Loss.  I’ve begun working on a memoir of our time with Colin and I’ve finally started to take care of my health.  I’m compliant with my medication and I’m a boot camp regular.  I’ve shed 15 lbs. and 5% body fat since January 2013.

I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for Colin.  I wish every day that he was here with us, but I know he wants me to be strong, happy and healthy.  Languishing in mourning and anger after his loss wasn’t getting me there.  Facing the loss head on, helping others on his behalf and placing him squarely in my heart to carry with me for the rest of my life—that is what has gotten me there.

For Colin Timothy Kain

10/20/2009 – 2/7/2010

Rachel works in IT and is on the walk committee for Tomorrow’s Child.  She has spoken to legislators on their behalf.  

She recently became the Advocacy Chair for the Michigan chapter of the Children’s Heart Foundation, serves on the parent advisory board for Baby Heart Screening, continues to write for Still Standing Magazine and has her own blog, Writers Write.

Her dream is to write full-time and be able to spend more time with her children, Ethan and Austin, her husband and her efforts to help others.

My mother, my MOM.

The story I’m about to share is how my mother’s life and death lead to the formation of Mind Over Matter (lovingly referred to as MOM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting mental health awareness and suicide prevention in Michigan.

My mother was no stranger to mental illness.  Her own mother was ill for most of her life.  Psychiatrists first classified my grandmother as schizophrenic, but later changed her diagnosis to “manic depression,” now referred to as bi-polar illness.  Diagnostics aside, my grandmother’s illness was a major source of stress for my mom and her six siblings.  She was hospitalized half a dozen times while they were growing up and as much as they tried to hide it, word got around.  Sadly, other neighborhood kids weren’t allowed to come over to their house to play.  My grandfather did his best to hold the family together, but he was killed when my mom was just 17-years-old.  A decade later my mom would lose her little brother to suicide.

I’m not sure if my mom ever fully dealt with her mother’s mental illness or the tragic deaths in her family.  She just sort of pressed on knowing that someday she’d have her own family and it would all be different.  She would give her children the happy childhood she never had – and she did.

My three siblings and I grew up in a house with plenty of laughter and joy – and my mom was the pulse!  She had an energy about her that was absolutely contagious and people gravitated towards her.  Friends and family were always stopping by to see what she was up to and what she had in store for us that day.  She was always coming up with new games, activities and things to teach us.  We were never bored and we always felt loved, especially on our birthdays.

In our house, a birthday started with breakfast in bed (and I don’t mean a Pop Tart) and ended with the best party you could imagine.  Even though money was tight, my mom placed no limit on the number of guests we could invite. She knew we’d only be young once.  She’d go all out: decorating the basement, making party favors, baking cakes and planning original party games.

I could go on and on, but the point is, my mom was an extraordinary woman.  There was no one else like her and no one I’d rather have as a mother.  She inspired our creativity, taught us to be lifelong learners and truly believed that we could do ANYTHING we put our minds to.  She encouraged us to stay in school and make our dreams a reality.  Unfortunately, my mom’s mental health deteriorated soon after my three siblings and I went on to college.  She had what doctors would later describe as late onset schizophrenia.

My mom believed she was fighting a religious battle between good and evil. She was convinced that Satan himself was scheming to kill her.  She saw horrific images, heard voices and began living every day in utter fear and desperation.  The hallucinations and delusions impacted her ability to sleep, which only made things worse.  She began obsessively reading the bible, went through several deliverances and even embarked on a 40-day fast trying to kill the demons she believed to be inside her.  Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work.  She bounced around from church to church changing denominations every time someone insinuated that maybe she should see a psychiatrist.

We had her hospitalized on three different occasions, but each time she would somehow manage to check herself out and stop taking her meds.  The untreated schizophrenia took over my mother’s life causing her to lose her job, her home and her place in society.  So many people opened their doors and tried to help my mom, but it’s hard to help someone who can’t accept the fact that they’re ill. It’s especially hard to help your mother when you’re the kid and she’s the parent.  Still, I held out hope…

Two years after graduating from Michigan State University, I was working as an engineer at an automotive plant in Indiana. They were getting ready to shut down and I was offered a promotion at another plant in Kentucky.  I wasn’t thrilled about moving farther away from home, but it was a good career move and I saw it as an opportunity to help my mom. No more bouncing around from apartment to apartment or sleeping on people’s couches.  I could afford to buy us a nice home where she could feel comfortable and settled. She wouldn’t have to worry about money and other daily stresses.  She could just focus on her health.

Our mom had lived in Michigan for 48 years and did not want to leave, but after much convincing, she finally agreed to come live with me.  It was a HUGE weight off my shoulders.  I was relieved and as excited as any 23-year-old girl could be about their mother moving in with them.  I knew it would be challenging, but things were falling into place.  I was going to “fix” my mom and give her a new lease on life.  Of course, I never got the chance…

On May 1, 2005, two weeks before the move, my mom overdosed on prescription-strength Benadryl that doctors had prescribed to help with sleep. I was in utter shock and disbelief.  I didn’t see this coming.  She promised us she’d never do “that.”  I was devastated, I was angry; I was every emotion under the sun.  I blamed myself, I blamed my mom, I blamed the hospitals and the doctors.  How could this happen?  How could I ever trust another human being again, let alone myself?  How could I ever be happy?  I went around in circles like this for a while until I realized that I could not live in the past. I had to find a greater purpose and move forward with my life.

In 2006, my siblings and I formed Mind Over Matter, lovingly referred to as MOM.  We put on the MOM Race for Mental Health Awareness & Suicide Prevention in our hometown of Royal Oak each May.  It’s the ultimate tribute to our mother and the ultimate therapy, as well.  We are bringing families and communities together to talk about mental illness.  We are sharing stories of loved ones lost to suicide.  We are showing the world that our loved ones are so much more than the manner in which they died.  We are providing hope that, together, we can help erase the stigma and start to save lives. 

Julie has recently become a mother and put her engineering career on hold to raise her daughter, Abigail.  Her main focus is on her non-profit organization and helping with her husband’s business.  

She lives in Royal Oak, Michigan.

To date, the MOM Race has raised $90,000 for Michigan-based suicide prevention efforts and brain research.  The 8th Annual MOM Race is scheduled for Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 10 AM in Royal Oak.  The 5K run/walk starts and ends at Starr Jaycee Park, right across the street from where the Boledovich family grew up. 

Proceeds from the upcoming MOM Race will benefit brain research at the University of Michigan Depression Center, suicide prevention programs by KnowResolve, and crisis intervention services by Common Ground.

To register or for more information on the MOM Race, please visit MOMrace.org.

 For more on the charities benefitting from the MOM Race, please visit the following websites: 

The UofM Depression Center

KnowResolve

Common Ground

My Friend Natalee

On May 25th, 2005 at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I walked into my Mom’s house only to find out the news that would shape my life forever.

I moved to Birmingham, Alabama when I was starting high school and became friends with a wonderful group of girls.  We all had so much fun together and shared countless memories, just as high school kids do.  It was our senior year and we were planning the trip of a lifetime to celebrate graduation.  The place was chosen: Aruba, here we go!

As I was leaving my Moms for the senior trip meeting, she stopped me on the way out to ask where the destination was going to be.  I told her our decision and she told me to have fun.  I came home a couple hours later and my Mom had suddenly decided not to support me in going to Aruba.  I thought my life was over.  I knew I was going to be missing out on so much and to an 18-year-old, girl that was pretty awful.

I asked my Mom to give me one good reason why I couldn’t go.  She told me she was afraid that I wouldn’t make it back home safely.  My friends and I would laugh about her reasoning.  They even tried to put together a fund to support my trip, but I lost the battle and was not able to go to Aruba.

The afternoon of May 25th, I walked through the door and my Mom said she had some news to share.  She told me to sit down.  She explained that Natalee was not on the flight home from Aruba.  My first reaction was, “I can’t believe she missed her flight, that is so unlike Natalee.”  My Mom then expressed that it was a little more serious than that.  She told me they actually had no idea where she was.

From that point on, everything was a blur to me.  That entire summer, while everyone spent so much time searching for her, I remember thinking to myself: “Well, they found Elizabeth Smart after two years, so we still have time.”  Today, as I write this, it has been almost eight years since I last hugged my dear friend.

In the beginning, it never felt like Natalee was no longer with us.  I found myself worrying that she didn’t have the things all girls need – the little things: a hair tie or clean underwear to change into.  I see now that my heart was in tremendous pain and I was just so confused.  I honestly couldn’t comprehend the fact that someone would want to hurt her or keep her from family and friends.

That summer, I occupied my time by helping to raise awareness for Natalee’s disappearance.  It turned out she didn’t need much help in that area because her Mother was so unbelievable in getting Natalee’s beautiful photographs all over national television.  Still, to this day, it seems crazy to me that I can write about her and almost everyone who reads this will have heard about the person I am talking about.  For a while I was very angry about that.  I thought, “Random people shouldn’t know who MY friend is.”  I would hear people talk so casually about Natalee, a person I knew so well, and I just wanted to slap them in the face.  They would never understand that this girl wasn’t just my co-worker, neighbor, or even schoolmate.  She was my friend.

We shared so much together: days on the lake, sleepovers, and a mutual passion for dance.  We would tell each other juicy gossip about who we were crushing on and so much more. To me, she was “Hootie,” not the girl that went missing in Aruba.

So as I said before, my life changed forever.  I became consumed by fear, realizing anything could happen at any moment.  I was in constant fear that something terrible was going to happen to the people around me.  I would get out of my car and run to my destination, so terrified that someone was following me and might get me.  I had night terrors about death.  I would check to make sure my doors were always locked.  I constantly had a feeling in my stomach that just wasn’t normal.  My body was full of anxiety and grief and in my head the only way to cure it was by numbing my body.  So I turned to drugs and alcohol, which of course worked for a while, until it didn’t.  Three years later, after putting my body through hell, I was so broken down that I finally had to ask for help – and I received it.

During this time of healing, I wrote a very personal letter to Natalee.  I stood at the shore of the Pacific Ocean and read her my goodbye.  I then burned the letter.  That was my funeral for Natalee.  I finally allowed myself to let her go and was able to truly start the healing that I so desperately needed.  I wish I could say that my life changed rapidly for the better, but I have to admit I’m still grieving and working on my issues with death.  The difference is, today I can get up, get dressed and make it to work everyday.  It has been a long 4 1/2 years since I decided to face my grief and trauma, but I am so grateful to be healthy and sober.

I am grateful for my story and my experiences.  I still miss Natalee very much, but honestly – for me – the anniversaries and birthdays aren’t the hardest.  It’s times when I hear Lynrd Skynrd or watch the Wizard of Oz that make me miss her the most;  the things that remind me of the memories we shared.

I wish I could offer some advice on how I get through those tough moments, but all I can tell you is this: I breathe, put one foot in front of the other and try to imagine Natalee in a better place, one that is free of pain.

Mallie, 26, is currently living in Utah.  She has 4.5 years sober and works as a client care coordinator for Ascend Recovery in American Fork, Utah.  She was born and raised in Alabama.To find out more about Natalee’s story and how you can help bring awareness to the search for those who have gone missing, visit: The Natalee Holloway Resource Center and Help The Missing on Facebook.

Worthy

I used to dream that one day I would live in Colorado.  I’d close my eyes and picture myself surrounded by all those beautiful mountains and imagine how happy I’d be venturing through all the beauty.

For the last three years, I went back and forth picturing my life there and living my life in Michigan.  It wasn’t so much about “Michigan” because I have a lot of love for my hometown, but I knew something was missing.

Maybe it was the lack of adventure in my life or that feeling you get when you know you’re supposed to be and do more but can’t figure out exactly how to do it.  People ask me all the time “What made you decide to randomly move?” and the quick answer is always “Have you ever been to Colorado” but the long answer always starts with “It took me three years to finally do this”.

Moving to Colorado was just another step forward in my personal journey of growth, but by no means did I just wake up one day and decide to pack up my car and move. I believe fully that everything I had been working on was getting me ready to finally live my dream instead of dream my dream.

Changing your life is not easy and you definitely can’t change everything at once.  So before I was ready to go, I needed to make sure that I had a good hold on some not so good habits of mine.  I had to break what weighed me down before moving onto this next phase of my life.

Moving away felt like I was finally giving myself permission to become the person I’ve always wanted to be and even now, 6 months later, I still have to remind myself that I live here because I’m not sure I ever really believed I could do it.

There are so many dreams, goals and things we all want for ourselves, but most of the time we just don’t feel worthy enough to chase after it and that’s really what it comes down to.

I knew in my heart that if I didn’t believe in me, I would never be able  to get what I wanted, so I made a choice. I finally decided that I could become whoever I wanted and that I was worthy of creating this new life for myself.

Once I decided that, there was no turning back. I’ve played this game before and  knew if I turned around even just for a second, I may not allow myself to do this.

So if you’re trying to decide whether or not you can do it, remember that not only can you do it,  but the world needs you to chase after your goals so you can make this world a better place.

Take the jump. Book the ticket. Stay fearless.

Because yes, you’re totally worth it.

Break the weight,

Ricki