"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau



Wednesday, May 29, 2019

I Just Miss You


I had 34 years of Julie in my life - not nearly enough. We spent more years living apart than we ever spent together. I was 13 and she was 7 when our family was split, with her and my two other younger siblings moving to Colorado to live with our mom. We saw each other during holidays and summer school breaks. When I was 19 and she was 13, I married. For much of her teenage and young adult years, I was caught up in building my own adult life. We still saw each other often, and kept in touch between visits with regular phone calls and irregular note cards and letters to each other. 

Christiansen kids in the early 90's.
Our abrupt, early family separation after our parent's divorce instilled in me a sense of importance about making time to see my family, especially my siblings, whenever the chance arose. Julie moved to Utah to attend college when she was 18 or 19. She lived in Salt Lake City, about 30 miles south of me. She changed apartments and roommates frequently during those years. I visited her in Salt Lake for lunches and dinners when I could, and she came up to Ogden frequently too. 

Those years are a blur in my memories. The dates, incidents and time lines are all jumbled in my mind. Julie had her first serious mental breakdown and suicide attempt during that time. She moved to Ogden to live with our brother for a while so she could be with family and have more stability and support. I marvel now at how little we understood about how serious her condition was. My heart breaks at our naivet√© back then. We essentially thought our love could save her.

Julie eventually went back to Colorado. Life went on. We were in our twenties, each of us caught up in living our own lives. We always stayed connected, and I always adored her, but our day-to-day worlds were very different. 

By the time I was in my thirties, I'd come to appreciate and rely on both of my sisters much more. I was a mom, and a three-time divorce√©. I had friends and a full life in Utah, but my sisters were my besties. Technology helped. Finally, the decades of physical distance between us mattered very little.  Staying connected became so easy. We had mobile phones, email, instant messaging and texting. Julie and our sister Amy were almost always together. They even worked at the same small company for a time. We were part of each other's everyday lives, just like so many sisters everywhere. If there was a life moment to share or commiserate about - funny, frustrating, sad, challenging - they looped me in. We had constant group instant message chats, 3-way phone calls and text messages.  

Those were such happy years. Somewhere in the mix of that time Julie had another suicide attempt. We were all alarmed and frightened. Mixed in with all the happy times was a growing awareness in the family that Julie was fighting some very dark demons. None of us took her struggles lightly. We knew she was sick. Each of us did whatever we could to help, love and support her. I realize now that much of what we did was well-intentioned, yet often woefully inadequate. 

Maybe it was this awareness of the fragility of her mental health that drove my willingness to spend tine with Julie and my family whenever possible. Until I was 32, I'd never driven alone from my home in Utah to Colorado to visit my family. That changed in 2002 when I drove to Colorado for the birth of my niece Hannah. From then on, my road trips and flights there became more frequent. I said yes to visits much more than I said no. I wanted my daughter Gillian to grow up knowing her cousins, aunts and uncles like I had mine. Julie adored her nieces and nephews, and made equal efforts to visit Utah to see them whenever possible. 

It wasn't always easy to travel so frequently to see Julie and other family members. I was a single mom without a lot of disposable income. Traveling required a fair amount of planning, sacrificing and saving. Much of my vacation time was spent visiting family - driving long hours across Wyoming, enduring summer hail and lightning storms, and often unexpected snow storms - rather than on warm, sunny beaches or in exotic locales. It was stressful to make long road trips with my young daughter. I did it anyway. Of course, I had no way of knowing then how fleeting those times were. I thought we had a lifetime of opportunities to be together

I'm so grateful for the time we had. If there's one thing I could tell anyone about what I've learned from her loss, it's to make time. Make the effort. Make the sacrifices. Spend time with the ones you love. You never know which time will be the last time you see them.

The feelings of loss and the void of no longer having Julie in my life will never go away. 34 years of her wasn't enough. I will always wish there had been more. 

Earlier this year I read a wonderful book, Tragedy Plus Time, a Tragi - Comic Memoir by another survivor of suicide loss, Adam Cayton-Holland. Very few books have been written about the experience of losing a sibling to suicide. He writes eloquently about his experiences in the first few years after his sister Lydia's suicide death. So much of what he wrote touched my heart. His closing words to his sister could have been from me to Julie. 

"I wish I could have had so many more years with you, but I'm grateful for every second that I had. So thank you. I love you. And I miss you so much. See you on the other side."  

I love you forever Jules. I'll miss you always. 
Aunt Julie jumping on the trampoline with her nieces and nephews.
Hannah reading to Aunt Julie. 
Gillian and her Aunt Julie on the 4th of July. 

Julie and her dog Phoenix at mom's house on Easter morning. 

Julie rocking a bikini. 


Julie, Atticus and Keicha in the Cheers bar in Boston.

Sisters together in Boston's North End. 










Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dirty Dishes

By now I should know the memories will always be there, laying in wait for those unguarded moments in my mind. Tonight it happened while I was unloading the dishwasher. Such a simple act - who knew that it could bring back such powerful, painful memories? 


I think it was her dishes that took my mind to that place. I kept two of her serving bowls. One is hand-blown glass with a tinge of blue/green color. The other is white ceramic. It has a small chip on the edge. I use it anyway. Last night I had a small get together at my house and used the glass bowl. Tonight, as I unloaded it from the dishwasher and put it away, my mind suddenly went back to the day nine years ago when we cleaned out my sister Julie's apartment after her death. It's odd what I remember from that day. The details are few, but vivid. 

I loved Julie's last apartment. She always created such cozy, eclectic, classy homes for herself regardless of the space she was living in. The apartment she died in was no different. I spent many happy, content hours there with her in the last 18 months of her life. I remember being so afraid to go inside it after her death. I had no idea what to expect, and I didn't want to taint the memories of the happy times I'd had there with her. 

Tonight my mind didn't care about the happy memories. Suddenly I had one persistent thought, a question I can't answer for myself. Were there dishes in her dishwasher that day? Were they clean or dirty? I don't remember. Why can't I remember? It seems important, like a clue to her possible state of mind. How much of what occurred that night was pre-meditated? Did she make sure there were no dirty dishes for us to deal with? If there were dirty dishes, did we run the dishwasher? I have no idea. It doesn't matter anyway. Yet, still my mind seeks an answer. 

Whenever I entered Julie's apartment it felt like arriving home. One of the first things I'd do whenever I visited her was look at the mementos displayed on her fridge. On it were notes, quotes, cards and other things that encapsulated her personality and her latest connections with loved ones and friends. There were always several funny magnets, holding in place the latest drawings and notes made for her by her nieces and nephews. One of her magnets is now on my fridge. On her stove she kept a set of green milk glass salt and pepper shakers that I envied. More than once she whipped up scrambled eggs with toast for my breakfast, seasoned perfectly using those shakers.  


Her serving bowls, salt and pepper shakers, a refrigerator magnet, and Kitchen Aid mixer all reside in my kitchen now. Most of the time they serve as touchstones to me, reminders of my sister and happy times spent together in her home. Other times, like tonight, they are painful reminders of my loss. They're powerful triggers for traumatic memories of a horrible Memorial Day weekend nine years ago. It was a weekend that changed me forever. 

I've mostly healed from the trauma from all I experienced during that time. Mostly. I've come a long way in nine years, but my journey of grief and healing continues. Whether or not my sister left dirty dishes in her dishwasher doesn't matter. There are no answers there, no insight into her state of mind the night she died. I know this intellectually, yet my mind still seeks the answer. It tells me that my mind is still unsettled about her death. I want acceptance. I want peace. Tonight, my subconscious mind reminded me that there is still work for me to do. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Colorado, Kansas and Back

We're barely a week into July and it's already off to a jam-packed start. As is my habit most years, the 4th of July holiday was spent in Colorado. The plan was to be tourists in Denver. We had a charming apartment in an Airbnb located in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood in Denver. Although I've been to Denver many times over the years, I've actually never spent much time there exploring the city. Kelly and I were excited to play tourists there. 

The trip started with taking in a long-awaited concert featuring Old Dominion, Thomas Rhett and Kenny Chesney with my sister, her boyfriend, my niece and her boyfriend. 


The exterior of our Airbnb
As it turned out, life threw us a curve ball with the death of Kelly's aunt the week before our trip. Our five days of relaxing and exploring the city turned into a bit of a whirlwind, with one night in Denver, a drive to Hays, Kansas for two nights to attend the funeral, then back to Denver for two more nights.

It wasn't the trip either of us planned, but there was still plenty of fun and lots of family time. It was my first visit to Kansas, and also the first time I met Kelly's family and cousins from his maternal side. Although I never met his Aunt Dora Lou, I felt as though I knew her a little from all the stories Kelly has told me about her and times spent with her family over the years. Her obituary details some of her accomplishments, including earning her pilot's license at the age of 16!

Hays, Kansas and Kelly's warm family captured a piece of my heart. I felt like I was in a bit of a cocoon while I was there. The slower pace of life, family meals, and sharing laughs and stories on the patio while the sun set and cicadas chirped was just what my frazzled nerves and anxious mind needed. 

We finished our trip with a quick visit to my sister's in Erie for a 4th of July celebration and a Rockies game on the 4th. We only sampled a little bit of what the Mile High City has to offer during our time there. There's still plenty there left to explore and experience. Denver, we'll be back!
Keicha, Evan, Hannah and Amy
Tailgating with Jewett & Amy's friends before the concert
Powering through after what had already been a 14+ hour day!
The view from our seats.
The Clark family
Kelly's Uncle Russ and a long-time friend.
Dora Lou was married in the same church that her funeral was held in. 

Trying to keep things together to prevent my skirt from 
blowing up and my hat from blowing off!
Kelly outside Coors Field.

Our first Rockies game!


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Regrets

Today marks eight years since my sister Julie died by suicide. It's not an anniversary I look forward to, and having it permanently connected to the Memorial Day holiday weekend makes it especially hard to navigate. The weekend is full of sad memories and emotional triggers. Things that I rarely feel or remember tend to get dredged up from the dark, protective places my mind has tucked them into. I've spent quite a bit of time in my head the last several days, replaying memories and revisiting that horrible day 8 years ago and the events leading up to it. 

I've come so far from the broken, grieving, guilt-ridden person I was in the first few years following Julie's death. I truly feel healed and as at peace as I think someone can ever be with prematurely losing someone they deeply love and cherish. I've worked diligently to regain my equilibrium, mental strength and resilience. I forgave myself for not saving her. I've studied and learned about mental health, suicide and suicide prevention. I even changed careers in order to work in the field of mental health. I feel whole again. If there's one thing I still feel though, it's regret. 

Merriam-Webster defines regret is as: 


1 : sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one's control or power to repair
2 : an expression of distressing emotion (such as sorrow)
Last night I dug out the police report and the coroner's summary report related to Julie's death. I'd only read them once before about a year after she died, then filed them away in my basement. After re-reading them I was struck by some of the details that I'd forgotten. Regret filled me as I read the timeline of events and summary of her phone and text communications in her last few hours of life. 

Surprisingly, I knew very little about mental illness and suicidal ideation before Julie died. Even though my sister had struggled with bipolar disorder most of her adult life, back then I was unbelievably naive and unaware about what that really meant for her. I'm shocked now at my ignorance. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. Despite our closeness and sometimes near daily contact, we almost never talked about her illness or how she was, or wasn't, managing it. I didn't know how to have such a conversation, and I certainly had no idea how to effectively come to the aid of someone experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Today at work I was talking about all of this with one of my employees, who also happens to be an experienced mental health counselor. When she talks to patients and others about mental illness, depression, etc. she compares it to someone with diabetes. They are both diseases that if not properly managed are potentially fatal. The patient should know how to manage their disease, which includes having a good network of caregivers and supporters around them. Most importantly, their loved ones and supporters need to know how to best help them manage their disease, including how to help them if they're in crisis because of it. It's a simple, and I think very accurate, analogy. Sadly, although I think it's safe to assume Julie viewed me as one of her key supporters and helpers - especially that night - I had no idea how to come to the aid of my sister during her time of crisis. 

It's easy to think that knowing how to intervene when someone is suicidal or in another type of mental health distress isn't something you'll ever need to know. But what if you do? Just like medical First Aid and CPR, I believe everyone should be trained in Mental Health First Aid. On that horrible night eight years ago, I was powerless to change the ultimate outcome because of my lack of knowledge and training. I can't change what happened. What I can do is learn from it and share that knowledge with others. Please take the time to learn how to potentially save a life. Here are some resources:

Eight Ways to Help a Friend with Depression from Mental Health First Aid

Mental Health First Aid Info.  from Mental Health First Aid USA

How We Can All Prevent Suicide  from the Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Utah Suicide Prevention Training & Classes from NUHOPE Suicide Prevention Coalition


Love you forever Jules

In her element
In the waves at Cape Cod
Besties - Amy & Julie
Hannah reading to Aunt Julie at grandma's house
Inside the Old North Church with Atticus
Julie, Grandma French, Keicha
Julie and Jason
Sisters
Relaxing poolside after running the Georgetown
 to Idaho Springs 1/2 Marathon
Shopping for running shorts at the dollar store

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Liberation

The year I turned 40 I gave myself a new name. When I was born and for some time after, days or maybe a week or more, I didn't have a name. On my original birth certificate my name was recorded as Female Christiansen. Eventually, my parents decided on my name. A month after my birth, my name, Keicha Christiansen, was officially bestowed on me by my father in a Mormon religious ceremony known as a baby blessing. I wasn't given a middle name since my father decided they weren't necessary for girls, as we would eventually marry and have a third name anyway, or some such similar logic. In our family, the naming of the children was a decision mostly made by my father. Sure, my mom had some say, but the decision was ultimately his. In fact, my mom tells the story of her surprise at my younger sister Julie's baby blessing when my dad gave her the name of Julie Ann. For some reason his previous logic in regard to naming his daughters was thrown out when he named her. My mom found out about her youngest daughter's middle name, in church, with the rest of the congregation. Even now I shake my head in disbelief and wonder at my strong-willed mom's submissiveness to my father's authority during the years they were married. 

In the years that followed, my name changed several times due to marriage. I became Keicha Nielsen, followed by Keicha Chapman, and then Keicha Ballif. I changed my name without question each time I was married. It was just something women do, which is a weird tradition when you think about it, at least to me. A name is such a fundamental part of a person's identity. Now, I find it odd that so many women so casually discard their family's last name to take on the last name of their husband's family. 

Changing my name at 40 to what I thought it should be, Keicha Marie Christiansen, was surprisingly liberating. I had always been referred to as Keicha Marie by many in my family, and had I been given a middle name that would have been it. So I assembled all of the necessary paperwork to change what my father had decided was sufficient for me 40 years before. When I called to ask him to sign the paperwork allowing for my name change, I was surprised at his attitude. He did it begrudgingly, and let it be known that in some way he considered what I was doing disrespectful to him and his authority. Looking back, I realize what a courageous thing that was for me to do. I've always feared my father's judgement and have spent much of my life trying to avoid making him angry at me. 

For the last year, I've avoided my father completely. The reasons are plentiful, and complicated. It's been more than a year since we've spoken. My sister and I often talk about our father and our complex feelings about him. We've both decided that for now, it's mentally and emotionally healthier and safer for us to not have any contact with him. It may always be that way. 

My childhood, though often happy, was also fraught with conflict and abuse. The stories of the physical abuse I witnessed my father inflict on my mom are ones I will leave for her to share. The emotional scars I carry from being a witness to it, along with suffering from his emotional abuse, are mine to talk about. I've long resisted talking about this mostly hidden part of my history out of fear, but also due to shame, guilt and not wanting to hurt others in my family by speaking my truth. Even now, as I write this, my heart is racing and my palms are sweaty. There is a part of me that will probably always feel like an insecure young girl seeking her father's approval, constantly striving to avoid being the object of his wrath or disappointment. 

Today I finished reading a recently released book by Tara Westover called Educated: A Memoir. Her story and history is very different than mine, although there were enough similarities in some aspects of our upbringing that reading it left me feeling somewhat emotionally unsettled, but also filled with gratitude and respect for her. She is also estranged from her father. When I read this paragraph she wrote, I felt a shock of recognition. "But what has come between me and my father is more than time or distance. It is a change in the self. I am not the child father raised, but he is the father who raised her."

I've spent much of the last year trying to make peace with my history and my relationship with my father. There is much I love about him. His good side is delightful. He can be funny, charming and extremely interesting to talk to. During his life he's pursued many different hobbies including marathon running, backpacking, macrame, and photography. He is intelligent and well-read. He was an obedient, caring son, especially in the final years of both of his parent's lives. He has been extremely generous to me, and has been there for me many times when I needed help. Yet, he's also deeply hurt people I love, both physically and emotionally. I find his outward devotion to LDS religious principles disgusting and hypocritical given all that I know about him. His lifelong emotional abuse and manipulation of his children is so twisted that sometimes I've thought that physical abuse would be easier to heal from. His love and acceptance always came with a very steep price. Last year I finally decided I was no longer willing to pay that price. 

I haven't written much here for a year or more for many reasons, a primary one being that my writing voice felt strangled and afraid to write about what I've been experiencing. I didn't want to hurt or offend others, or create ill will with my extended family. And, yes, I am also afraid of my father. I fear him reading this and his reaction. I was, and still am, deeply afraid of speaking my truth and sharing my journey. Today I've taken the first small steps away from my fear. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Goodbye 2017!

As I look back on 2017 the first thought that comes to my mind is how quickly the year flew by. I know for many, including myself, it was a painful year due to the political climate. Excluding politics though, it was a great year marked by several milestone events, including birthdays, graduations, job changes, saying goodbye to dearly loved family members and joyfully welcoming new ones. 

Here's a recap of the year's highlights in photos. 




We welcomed 2017 with style, celebrating with our friends the Knightons at the beautiful Victoria Club in Riverside, CA. It was a great start to the new year! From there we traveled on to our happy place, San Diego, for some much needed R&R. 
The view from our beachside condo in Imperial Beach, CA.

The new year was also marked by sadness as I said goodbye to my grandpa, Charles Christiansen, who died on December 28, 2016. On January 5, 2017 he was laid to rest with full military honors next to his sweetheart, Gloria. 
My uncle Clayton Christiansen, a Vietnam War vet, was presented with grandpa's flag. 



The cold days of February were broken up by fun nights out in O-town and our traditional Valentine cookie making extravaganza. 
Kelly and I at a pre-Valentine's Day party at Ogden's Union Grill. 

Gillian joined the ranks of political protesters and marched with me in downtown Ogden to protest the president's proposed immigrant ban. 
March was mostly uneventful, other than one of our favorite events each year, the Eccles Art Auction. It's always a fun opportunity to get glam and spend an evening enjoying hundreds of pieces of great local artwork and socializing with friends. 
April brought sunshine and glimpses of summer along with more social events. We spent Easter in Dallas, TX with Kelly's oldest daughter and her then boyfriend, Simon. Kelly was thrilled when during our visit Simon asked him for permission to marry Cammi. The entire family is looking forward to their wedding next fall. The highlight of the month (actually the highlight of the year) was welcoming the newest member of our family, Leon Roberts Christiansen. My brother Jon and sister-in-law Sam surprised the family in January with news of his impending arrival. He joined big brother Atticus and immediately captured the hearts of family and friends across the country.  
Tessa and Keicha at the Junior League of Ogden Gala
Brady, Keicha and Kelly at the JLO Gala


May brought a whirlwind of activity. I spent hours happily digging in the dirt preparing my yard for summer. My heart was full of happiness and pride when I watched Gillian graduate from Ogden High School with an Honors Diploma on May 24. Three days later we were in Colorado to watch my nephew, Mason Hopfenspirger, graduate from Erie High. It was a fun-filled weekend full of family, laughter, love, and a few tears. On Memorial Day, May 29, I joined 50,000 others and my sister Amy to run (okay, I mostly walked) the Bolder Boulder for the second time. It was the perfect way to mark the 7th anniversary of the loss of our sister Julie. Kelly ran it too, but since he's in much better shape than me he left us in the dust shortly after we started. Amy's boyfriend Jewett was a good sport, joining us for his first ever Bolder Boulder. We had so much fun together on the race course that day!
Kelly riding in the Sunrise Canyon Bike Ride down Ogden Canyon
May 20, 2017

Mother's Day selfie with my girl





Summer was in full swing by June. My Easy Does It rose bush, planted in memory of Julie rewarded me this year with an abundance of beautiful blooms, as did my peony plants. I spent many moments of gratitude this year enjoying the golden light in the evenings and relaxing on my back patio. 

Kelly marked a birthday milestone in June, which we celebrated in style with a big shrimp boil bash in his backyard. 


The rest of the summer was filled with outdoor concerts, Raptors baseball games and another trip to Colorado in July to finally meet baby Leon. He didn't disappoint! July also marked the end of my 30-year career at the credit union. I enjoyed three weeks of vacation time and made the most of it relaxing in Kelly's pool as often as possible. On July 31 I started working as the executive director of Family Counseling Service of Northern Utah, a non-profit mental health clinic. It's been challenging, busy, exhausting and exhilarating so far. 

Family fun at the penny arcade at Manitou Springs, CO
Kelly was excited to find his favorite game at the arcade.

Gillian and her newest cousin, Leon.


The Shins concert with 7,000 other people!

Santana concert at Red Butte. 

Blues, Brews and BBQ at Snow Basin

Hope loves the Snow Basin concerts too.

One of my favorite views in Ogden - Lindquist Stadium 
The arrival of fall meant Utah Utes tailgate parties and football games, Kelly's annual Sigma Brothers golf tournament fundraiser, the Martini Bash, and Gillian's 19th birthday on October 6. We hosted our third Halloween party, which is always a fun-filled night! We celebrated Thanksgiving this year with friends and were happy to have Kelly's youngest daughter join us. 


Kelly and Kenzie at the Sigma Brothers Golf Tournament.
Gillian's 19th Birthday.





It's been a busy, eventful year with lots of happy memories made. Christmas was spent in Ogden with our daughters and Kelly's soon to be son-in-law. We'll bid farewell to 2017 and ring in 2018 in sunny Mesquite, Nevada away from Utah's polluted air and cold weather. 



Kelly, December 31, 2017
As I look forward to 2018 I'm reminded of this saying from a friend's Christmas card this year. This is my wish for myself and everyone I love and cherish. I hope 2018 is a year of peace for all of us. 

Peace: Not the absence of noise, trouble or hard work, but to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.