remembering to breathe

remembering to breathe | the merry gourmet

My mother, brother, and me.

In January, I gave myself the gift of trying a barre class. The studio offers one week of unlimited classes free when you first sign up, and after my first class, I immediately signed up for another. After the first week, I’d taken three classes and felt sore in places I didn’t think possible. I remember getting up in the middle of the night to pee and wishing that my bathroom had rails along the walls so that I could hold on as I gingerly eased myself down and then up again, holding my breath with the pain. The soreness reminded me of the existence of so many individual muscles, but I liked knowing they were there. There was potential in that pain.

This morning, I took another barre class. It was my 141st class since the year began. Toward the end of class, during the final stretching period when the lights were dimmed and the music slowed down, I found my thoughts drifting to a place outside that room. I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and brought myself back. I understood again – because I’ve known this all year, but I love when I remember it – what a true gift barre has been and how necessary it has become to me. For a solid hour of class, I have allowed myself to focus only on myself, on remembering to breathe (especially through the pain), on becoming stronger than I was when I walked in the door.

Barre has been therapy for me. I mean that figuratively, of course, but also literally. In January, I was faced with a choice of what to do with two or three spare hours of my time each week. I could either continue seeing the therapist I’d begun seeing while trying to come to terms with my mother’s alcoholism and my brother’s mental illness and drug addiction, or, I could take barre classes. For that first week, I did both – a few barre classes and a therapy session. After that week, I realized that I felt physically better, but also mentally better, after a barre class. After a therapy session, I mostly just cried. The decision was an easy one.

When my father died, my grief was easy to name. He was physically gone, there was a funeral, and there was an obituary, which I wrote. I can walk to my living room and pick up the blue mason jar that holds some of his ashes, cradling it in my hands. I have a photograph of Dad’s headstone, the one that my husband and I paid for, and I have touched the cold granite of it. I have sympathy cards and email messages that I have saved. They are evidence of my father’s impact on this world. I grieved, and I knew it as that.

The pain that I have felt over these past many months was named by that therapist I saw (before I replaced her with barre classes). I didn’t realize that my feelings had a name, even though they felt familiar, but she pointed out the obvious for me: I’d lost my father when he died of a stroke, I’d lost my mother to alcoholism, and I’d lost my brother to addiction and mental illness. I was grieving, she pointed out, at losing my entire family. I remember thinking: Yes, that’s it exactly.

Knowing that I have been grieving  — that that’s the name for it — hasn’t made it any easier, except that now I can label it. Over this year, I’ve finally accepted that there is nothing I can do about my mother’s alcoholism, despite the many times I’ve tried to intervene. Cutting all contact is what I should do. That’s what all the online forums say, and I know that this would be the best for my self-preservation. I’ve minimized my contact with her, but I can’t cut off all communication yet. She’s still taking care of my grandmother, for one thing. And that one thing is a very big thing.

And she is my mother. I still hold out hope, even though it is very small, that she’ll return to living again. That she’ll want me in her life again one day.

For now, I’m focusing on remembering to breathe, especially through the pain. I’m also focusing on becoming stronger than I was before all of this happened. Just like in barre class.

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10 Responses to “remembering to breathe”

  1. 1
    Janis Tester — December 22, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

    You writing is beautiful.  It is amazing how much we learn about ourselves during these most painful times.  I am going through something similar and I use meditation the way you are using barre.  I think in this last year I have done uncomfortable growing.  You are allowed to take care of yourself. You are allowed to forget all “that stuff”.  It is your right.  So when is your ballet recital? :—)

  2. 2
    Jane, The Heritage Cook — December 22, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    A beautiful piece MJ, filled with the love in your heart. Grieving is such a personal thing. Choices you make have to be right for you. I understand your desire to keep contact with your mother, a complicated relationship certainly, but so important in our lives. You have set boundaries that will help protect you – Brava!! I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your children, husband, and friends and may the new year bring you peace and happiness!

  3. 3
    Jacqueline Church — December 22, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

    Grief takes many forms, as you know. Movement and breathing and focusing intensely can be as therapeutic as talk. But they’re not mutually exclusive and the talk therapy helped you name what the barre classes are helping you to work through.

    I just this afternoon had a little grief epiphany. My grieving of my father (not dead but lost to alcoholism) was a set of training wheels for the real-time grieving of losing my mother before my eyes to Alzheimer’s. I’m grieving in very real ways some other things that are not quite public yet, but this is not about me, I share these things because sometimes it helps to know we are not alone.

    I do love your writing and your insights. I’m really sorry for your pain and I’m very glad you found barre.

    Wishing you peace in this often ironically un-peaceful time of year.
    – Jackie

  4. 4
    Jen Schall — December 23, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    Oh, MJ… I am at a loss for words, but wanted to leave you a comment to let you know that I appreciate your writing and your honesty. I have always admired your ability to express your thoughts through your writing, which is something I struggle with (I’d much rather just take photos).

    Barre sounds wonderful, and I think it sounds like a great path for you and a great way to unwind and take care of yourself. I’ve turned to yoga quite a bit lately, both for physical healing and to clear my head and deal with stress. And, it’s been more helpful than I ever would have imagined.

    My heart goes out to you, and you’re in my thoughts. I hope you’ll keep writing because I’d love to keep reading!

    Sending my love… XO

  5. 5
    Kristen Doyle — December 23, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

    You are such a gifted writer. Know that I’m thinking of you!

  6. 6
    Frances in Texas — January 29, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

    Life can be hard, and I’m sorry there is so much pain in yours. I’m glad you are surviving and have your family to provide peace and joy and purpose.

    I wanted to send along a link to a report on barre classes which I read:
    After reading it, I admire more than ever your strength and determination to do barre!

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  8. 7
    Erica M. — March 7, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    MJ, Thanks for sharing – I can’t wait to read more of your blog!  Grief is a funny thing. It can come and go when we least expect it and it’s hardest to recognize when the loss is intangible or doesn’t come with physical artifacts. Keep breathing and keep barre-ing 🙂

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