Resilience is a learned skill

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In my last blog post, I named some of the worst experiences I’d faced in earlier years, and several people commented on how tough they were.

Or how tough I must be to have weathered them.

I later realized there were two more years that were also very difficult, one when I was 14 and another right around my 20th birthday.

What I also realize, looking back now, is what made the first one excruciating and the second one less so, was having emotional support, people who love me who really stood by me through it all.

When I got a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, right at my birthday in 2018, I was floored and deeply surprised by the flood of love and support and good wishes, cards and gifts and flowers, that people sent to me. One woman I know really only professionally, who lives far away from me, sent me a bracelet with the word I chose — onward. Even though I did a lot of crying and was very scared, knowing how many people were with me in spirit was incredibly helpful.

My late mother suffered a tremendous amount of health problems — multiple cancers (which she survived), COPD, a late-life colostomy — but she, until that point, was relentlessly determined to just get on with it.

Her expression, whenever face with yet another crisis: “What should I do? Jump out of my skin?”

I agree.

 

Life is rarely smooth and easy!

 

We get sick and injured and people we love get sick and injured and get dementia and fade in front of our eyes. We don’t get the dream job — or we do, and get fired or laid off. We may face (as I did, even at 30, when I arrived in New York seeking a journalism job) a six month job search. Or a search that never produces a job we want.

Or any job.

So the things I’ve faced and overcome are nothing compared to what others face — a drug-addicted or incarcerated parent; having to care for younger siblings; not being able to afford any sort of education with which to escape poverty.

Chronic poverty. Disability or chronic illness. Food or housing insecurity.

Or racism and daily microaggressions, as so many BIPOC are describing now. Police brutality and mass incarceration.

 

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Sometimes it’s all just a hopeless mess!

 

My experiences, for sure, have been much eased by my race, decent health, the skills to make a living, an excellent university education with no debt (Canadian) and the financial help of a relative.

But I also take pride in my acquired resilience when the shit — again!! — hits the fan, in not lying in bed in the fetal position weeping for days, escaping into drugs or alcohol. I’m not judging people who do.  People do what they can with what they have.

Surviving hardships creates resilience. It’s a muscle we only develop by using it, probably repeatedly.

 

You don’t know how strong you can be until you’re sorely tested.

 

Right now, thanks to the news and social media, I see a tremendous amount of whining and complaining, mostly by Americans, some who just can’t tolerate the slightest discomfort (wearing a mask, staying out of crowded places indoors) and whose selfishness is lethal as it continues to spread COVID-19.

This behavior sickens me. It’s stunningly immature.

Ironically, I gained a new client this year who is Finnish.

And Finns take pride in a national culture with a name — sisu. It means grit, determination, the willingness and ability — and pride in so doing — to tough things out.

 

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20 questions — your turn, too!

 

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Think hard!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

For a change of pace, 20 questions…

 

What was the best year of your life and why?

At 25, I won a fellowship based in Paris that had 28 journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35. People came from Bangladesh, Togo, New Zealand, Ireland, North America, Brazil, China, Japan. It was absolutely fantastic. We each did four 10-day solo reporting trips; I went to Amsterdam and London to write about squatting (taking over abandoned properties); went to small-town Sicily to write about Cruise missiles; went to Copenhagen to write about the Royal Danish Ballet and took an 8-day truck trip from Perpignan to Istanbul to write about the trucking industry. We also went on group trips to Munich and Siena and forged, en deux langues, deep friendships lasting to this day. My love for Paris and France runs very deep with gratitude for this life-changing experience.

 

The worst?

A toss-up between 1983 when I saw my mother in a locked psychiatric ward in London; 1994 when my first husband walked out for good; 1998 when I dated a con man and 2018 with a (not bad) breast cancer diagnosis. At least I had time to recover from each before the next one hit.

 

 

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Tea or coffee?

Both!

 

The best place you’ve ever visited (outside your home country?)

A three-way tie between Corsica, Thailand and Ireland. I cried when I left all of these.

 

 

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Best book(s) you ever read?

Whew. Too many. I loved The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachmann and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Cutting For Stone. Random Family (non-fiction) is astounding, as is Skyfaring.

 

 

 

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Favorite movie(s)?

So so so many! Casablanca. All the Ocean’s movies. All the Bourne movies. Michael Clayton. Dr. Zhivago. The Devil Wears Prada. For documentaries, Capernaum is a powerful, unforgettable must-see.

 

 

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A you a nervous flyer?

Regretfully, yes. I love to travel and am not good with turbulence.

 

 

 

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Secret super-power?

I can whistle really loudly with two fingers, grind jib really fast at the start of a sailboat race, have an excellent color sense and almost always know — within 20-30 minutes, day or night — what time it is.

 

Activity you most dread?

Seeing a doctor. Too many visits for too many reasons.

 

 

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Most look forward to?

Hmmmm. Landing/arriving somewhere distant at the start of a long vacation.

 

How do your weekend mornings typically start?

The New York Times and Financial Times, in print. Coffee. Probably toast and an omelette and fresh orange juice. More coffee!

 

Do (did) your parents approve of/support your career choice?

Absolutely. My father made films and my mother worked as a writer and magazine editor.

 

What do you most admire in others?

A passion for, and commitment to, social justice. Honesty tempered by kindness, tact and thoughtful timing. Deep loyalty to friends. Skills I lack — musical ability, gardening. A massive work ethic (not to be confused with workaholism.) I really enjoy people who are deeply curious and have an appreciation for beauty and elegance.

 

What do you most abhor?

Liars. Hypocrites. Rage-a-holics. Laziness. Self-righteousness. Whining!

 

What (if anything) do you most enjoy cooking?

I love making soup, roast chicken, a good salad and vinaigrette.

 

 

 

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This is easy and so good!

 

Eating?

Hmmmm. So many things! Rice pudding and flan. Strawberries. Oysters with mignonette sauce. Branzino. Baguette with brie.

 

Do you have a pet?

No. We keep discussing getting a dog but have not yet.

 

Is/was your family of origin a happy one?

No. Have mentioned this here many times.

 

 

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What’s your favorite thing to wear (clothing, shoes, accessories)?

I’m mad for scarves of all kinds: linen, silk (two Hermès), cotton, cashmere, wool. It’s really my signature. Rings and earrings — Jose has given me some lovely ones. Also very fond of quality footwear, like the low black suede boots I bought in Canada last year.

 

What are your three best qualities?

Hmmmm. Loyal friend, hard worker, mentor.

 

Your turn!!

 

 

How it happens…

 

IMG_5790By Caitlin Kelly

This isn’t a cheery holiday post, but a bit of personal history that the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell has brought back up for me…

The authorities had been tracking Ms. Maxwell’s movements and had recently learned about her relocation to the New Hampshire home, an F.B.I. official said.

The indictment charged Ms. Maxwell with six counts, including transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. She also faces perjury charges for statements she made during a deposition in 2016 about her role in Mr. Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking operation.

“Maxwell enticed minor girls, got them to trust her, then delivered them into the trap that she and Epstein had set for them,” Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference on Thursday.

 

 

I was never — thank heaven — sexually groomed and victimized.

But I absolutely understand how it happens, and have written here before about this, so I won’t get back into all the grim details.

In 1998, I was a lonely, worried, isolated new divorcee, with no children, living in the suburbs of New York — an affluent place full of people with kids. This was back when we had and read weekly alternative newspapers, whose personal ads were still a thing, when the Internet was newer as a way to meet potential partners.

I answered an ad placed, it said, by a lawyer who liked to play tennis. “Integrity and honesty paramount,” it said.

But of course it did — placed by a convicted con man who had already victimized many people in Chicago, done time and moved to New York to start again.

He was, oddly, extremely kind and apparently generous, bringing me a pot of home-made soup when I was ill, “paying” for a plane ticket to Australia after I missed my flight (part of his set-up since he made me late), quickly cooing at me (which I found creepy and weird) how much he loved me.

It took me four long crazy months, and hiring a former NYPD detective turned private investigator to finally smoke the guy out, to realize what I had allowed to enter my life and terrorize me.

By then, he’d committed at least six more felonies, including opening my mail, activating a credit card in my name, using that card and forging my signature — in front of me.

And the police and district attorney laughed it all off, because it was “only” fraud.

My point?

Predators choose their victims carefully.

Maxwell, allegedly,  did her grooming very skilfully — finding young, vulnerable women who found her attention thrilling, at first.

What I learned very painfully, as an adult in 1998, is that being vulnerable and alone can leave one very easy pickings for people with nefarious purposes.

Nice isn’t always that at all.

After I recovered from my own experience, I joined a church, shored up my friendships and took a long time to trust again.

The book every girl must read is The Gift of Fear, by Gavin deBecker.

It is a brilliant analysis of all the many powerful ways girls and women are socialized to be delighted by attention and what appears to be affection.

To let a kindly stranger “help” us when we’re lonely and broke and scared.

Being vulnerable means being too open, too trusting, too quick to set aside our intuition that it’s time to flee.

From Wikipedia, and from the book, his useful warning signs that someone is grooming you:

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person implies that they have something in common with their chosen victim, acting as if they have a shared predicament when that isn’t really true. Speaking in “we” terms is a mark of this, i.e. “We don’t need to talk outside… Let’s go in.”
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a chosen victim in order to manipulate him or her by disarming their mistrust.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible to their chosen victim.
  • Typecasting. An insult is used to get a chosen victim who would otherwise ignore one to engage in conversation to counteract the insult. For example: “Oh, I bet you’re too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me.” The tendency is for the chosen victim to want to prove the insult untrue.
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help to the chosen victim and anticipating they’ll feel obliged to extend some reciprocal openness in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means the chosen victim will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt their chosen victim.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept rejection.

I admit it — I fell prey to numbers 4, 5 and 6.

 

I hope this is never your fate.

 

Looking back…

By Caitlin Kelly

With so much more time at home to reflect, it’s been interesting to flip through old photos, enjoying happy memories.

A few of these:

 

Jose and I, now together 20 years, married in 2011, met through an online dating site, which I was writing about for a magazine story. His was one of (!) 200 replies to my profile, whose candid headline was Catch Me If You Can. He did!

Not one to hesitate, he pulled out the big guns and, within two months of meeting me, invited me to the White House News Photographers annual dinner, a black tie affair in D.C. seated with senior photo editors of his employer, The New York Times. No pressure!

And, showing off his extraordinary access as a former NYT White House Press Corps photographer, we were allowed into the Oval Office.

 

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Two of my proudest moments: Malled (2011) and Blown Away (2004.) I loved writing both books and have two proposals I’m slowly working on. Journalism has been so decimated in the past decade and there are very few places that still offer room to tell a story in depth — and pay enough to make it worth doing.

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

 

September 2019, Ontario, doing one of the 30 interviews for my story on Canadian healthcare, interviewing a physician. Jose and I traveled around rural Ontario for three weeks that month and had a fantastic time — I interviewed plenty of people but we also stayed with old friends, like a woman I hadn’t seen in 50 years (!) I went to private school with. So fun!

 

 

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Jose thought it would be a good idea to photograph the judging of the Pulitzers, so he did! When you work 100 percent freelance, as we both do, you’re constantly drumming up ideas to sell. No ideas, no income!

 

 

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The fab team of radiologists and physicians my on my final day of radiation for early stage breast cancer, November 15, 2018. They were so kind and compassionate.

 

 

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We love visiting Montreal. Such charm! It’s about a 6.5 hour drive from our home in New York. I love speaking and hearing French encore une fois and we have some friends there to catch up with. We even now have a favorite room at the hotel we like, the Omni Mount Royal — which overlooks the exact site of the (torn down) brownstone I lived in at 12 with my mother. We used to fly kites on Mount Royal — and when I met my first husband in his final year of med school at McGill, took him up there on a ffffffrrrezzzing caleche ride. So many memories!

 

 

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Summer 2017, a glorious Budapest cafe. I treated myself to an unprecedented six weeks’ travel through six countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, England. It was worth every penny. Dying to travel again! Unlikely — I met up there with my best friend from university, who lives in Kamloops, B.C., whose daughter had been studying in Eastern Europe. 

 

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Yup, that’s fellow Canadian, actor Mike Myers, who I met at Fleet Week in NYC a few years ago, at a Canadian consulate event. He was a lot of fun.

 

 

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Our wedding, September 2011, on an island in Toronto. A tiny church, with 25 friends/family in attendance. It was a perfect fall afternoon.

 

 

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This would have been pre-1994, when I was competing as a sabre fencer at nationals.

 

 

 

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The view from across the road. Can’t walk down to the sea very far — thorns and bog!

 

June 2015, Co. Donegal, where we rented a cottage

 

 

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

 

I’ve been so fortunate to have paid adventures like this one! March 2014. My first ride in a dug-out canoe.

 

 

 

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I had planned to leave journalism and become an interior designer so I studied here in the 1990s — and loved it! Then I taught writing there for years.

 

 

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring

 

I’ve been twice. What an amazing place! This is from 2013

 

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What a hoot! This would have been 2011 or earlier, before my hip replacement. They gave me the clothes to keep! And the photographer (small world!) came from Atlanta to New York, the husband of an old friend.

 

 

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This is probably my proudest writing moment — a National Magazine Award for an essay (humor!) about my divorce. I wrote it and sent to a national Canadian women’s magazine who sat on it for a few years (I got divorced in 1995), but they did a great edit — and voila!

The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

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By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:

 

I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.

Headwinds, tailwinds

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As an official #avgeek, who thrills to the sight of any aircraft and loves the smell of JP4, aka jet fuel, I often think in/use aviation metaphors.

Last week I had a long heart-to-heart with a dear friend, a much younger woman still in her 20s. She’s feeling stuck and frustrated, and has had a family tragedy hit her as well. It’s a lot!

When all those around you look like they’re making much faster progress towards personal and professional goals — marriage, kids, buying a home, getting a job or a promotion — it’s so easy and so demoralizing to feel left behind. Even at my age, decades into a good journalism career, I still gnash my teeth and rend my garments when I see other writers winning big awards and fellowships and fancy book and movie and TV deals.

Envy is also a fairly human emotion.

But…

I also subscribe to the belief that, just as some flights go much more quickly thanks to a tailwind and some more slowly thanks to a headwind, so do our lives.

And many of the obstacles and many of the privileges (head/tailwinds) also remain invisible. 

And in American can-do, individual, no-social-safety-net culture, it’s completely normal — and really bad for your psyche — to blame only yourself. If only you had done X! Or didn’t do Y! So and so did Z and look at their success!

But…

We just don’t know, unless someone is completely candid with us, what tremendous advantages or disadvantages they have had to overcome or enjoy. It’s rare that we compete on a level playing field.

 

Headwinds can include:

 

Chronic illness

Mental illness

Serious illness

Acute illness/recovery — or any of these for a loved one

Disability

Caregiving

Grief

Miscarriage

Infertility

Unemployment

Underemployment

Lack of skills

Lack of access/income for training

Solo parenting

Poverty

Poor access, or none,  to transit/transportation

No medical care

Hunger

Lack of education and access to same

Race, gender, ethnicity, religious prejudice

Misogyny/chauvinism

Becoming a crime victim

Emotional or physical or sexual abuse

 

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Luxury itself is a tailwind

Tailwinds:

 

Inherited money

A high-earning spouse or partner

A safe, green and attractive home and neighborhood

Wealthy parents or grandparents offering money

Excellent health

Excellent education

Fluent English

Excellent work skills

Successful legal role models

Wise, kind, reliable people to turn to for help and advice

Secure housing

Secure employment

Secure non-work income, like a pension or other solid investments

Social capital, i.e. knowing people with power who will help you

A sense of self-confidence

A safe and reliable vehicle or ready access to safe, affordable, reliable public transit

People who actively love and check in on you

Solid, strong friendships

 

So I told my younger friend it was necessary to see her life differently, even though the tragedy is permanent and life-altering and no one seems to understand its effects, which also leaves her isolated.

I know the choices she’s made were risky and unconventional — and I admire all of them, for her guts and sense of adventure and all the skill and wisdom they have brought her.

And I told her how much I admire her.

 

 

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I worked retail for 2.5 years, a day a week for The North Face, and made $11/hour, from 2007 to 2009. It was a tiring, poorly-paid, emotionally-taxing and unrewarding job in most ways.

We needed cash. It offered steady, reliable cash. And I was not a teenager, far from it — in fact the oldest person of our 15-member staff.

How I felt about it was irrelevant to getting the damn job done.

It ended up becoming my second book, but none of that appeared likely to me until September 9, 2009 when we had a major publisher committed.

The 2008 crash was very much a headwind, and a shared one.

Now, 12 years later, we’re all screwed thanks to the pandemic — with only the wealthiest and healthiest feeling no/few headwinds.

 

The rest of us will have to fly onwards as best we can.

 

 

COVID’s challenge: moral injury

By Caitlin Kelly

I hadn’t heard that phrase until September 2019, when I sat down to interview an American physician, Dr. Emily Queenan , describing why she stopped working in her native country and moved to work in Ontario. It wouldn’t have been the easiest choice, choosing small-town Ontario with mixed-race children and having her husband leave a corporate job.

But it was absolutely the right choice for her.

From my 2020 story for The American Prospect:

 

Dr. Emily Queenan, who is American, also voted with her feet; after studying biology at Williams College, working for Americorps in Peekskill, New York, in community health, and attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, she did her residency in Rochester, New York. She opened a family medicine practice there in June 2009, closing it in May 2014—and moving to Canada.

After being recruited by an agency of the MOH, Queenan visited four cities selected from a list of rural communities needing a doctor, She chose Penetanguishene, a middle-class town of 8,962 in northern Ontario on Georgian Bay, a beautiful area that welcomes many summer-home visitors.

“It was a wrought decision to close my practice,” Queenan says, sitting in the 1920s-era red-brick house in small-town Ontario whose main floor is now her office. “I envisioned having my [U.S.] practice for decades. But I was really burned out by the burden of being someone’s family doctor and the moral injury of denying care versus the lack of payment versus dealing with your own medical bills. This is not asked of other professions.”

Still in New York, Queenan attended a local meeting of Physicians for a National Health Plan, an American advocacy group founded in 1985 by Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein, “trying to decide what was next. I was on the cusp of turning 40 and saw a career of fighting stupid fights. Doctors across the country were going through exactly what I was going through. I am not unique.”

 

 

Maybe you are, or know, a physician or nurse or other healthcare worker; my first husband is a physician I met when he was finishing med school at McGill so I watched him through his residency and early practice — which brought him to some unpleasant realities.

Most healthcare workers choose their profession because it expresses their values — to help and to heal, whenever and wherever possible.

Covid has torn their world to shreds, as evidenced by the recent suicide of Dr. Lorna Breen, an ER physician who had worked in a New York City hospital under such terrible circumstances that her sister said she called it Armageddon.

Her father is also a physician, so she would have grown up with this moral code.

From The New York Times:

 

“She tried to do her job, and it killed her,” he said.

The elder Dr. Breen said his daughter had contracted the coronavirus but had gone back to work after recuperating for about a week and a half. The hospital sent her home again, before her family intervened to bring her to Charlottesville, he said.

Dr. Breen, 49, did not have a history of mental illness, her father said. But he said that when he last spoke with her, she seemed detached, and he could tell something was wrong. She had described to him an onslaught of patients who were dying before they could even be taken out of ambulances.

“She was truly in the trenches of the front line,” he said.

He added: “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”

 

When patients die in the ambulance, on stretchers, in waiting room chairs, or after appearing to be recovering, your skills, strength, speed and teamwork still aren’t enough.

 

You just can’t help.

You can’t comfort.

You can’t save.

 

You feel angry and helpless and overwhelmed — for doing everything you know and it’s not enough.

Let alone re-using PPE.

Here’s a definition from a PTSD website run by the VA:

In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations (1). Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events (2). A moral injury can occur when someone is put in a situation where they behave in a way or witness behaviors that go against their values and moral beliefs.

Guilt, shame, and betrayal are hallmark reactions of moral injury (e.g., 3). Guilt involves feeling distress and remorse regarding the morally injurious event (e.g., “I did something bad.”). Shame is when the belief about the event generalizes to the whole self (e.g., “I am bad because of what I did.”) (4). Betrayal can occur when someone observes trusted peers or leaders act against values and can lead to anger and a reduced sense of confidence and trust (5).

 

Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

I leave this week for a week away from home, alone, and am ready for it.

I drive to Virginia — about six hours (not a fan of flying) — and have two small-town days at an inn, all to myself.

Then to a conference, the Northern Short Course, which is an annual event for photojournalists, some freelance, some working for news organizations. It’s the second year I’ve been invited to speak, and I’ll talk about the many challenges of pitching ideas and projects to would-be clients. I began my career in Toronto as a teenager selling my photos to newspapers and magazines, so I have some street cred as a photographer as well as writer.

A dear friend of Jose’s, and a lifelong mentor, will be flying in from New Mexico, so I am looking forward to dinner with him and his wife; we stayed with them in June.

 

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Then two days’ playtime in D.C., catching up with friends there.

Then home and diving into three successive freelance projects: for The New York Times, my second story for Mechanical Engineering (!) and a story for a Canadian business magazine.

I’ve done very little work over the past two weeks since my mother’s sudden death.

It’s been the usual and expected flurry of phone calls: her nursing home, the funeral home, her executor and the law firm handling her estate and will.

I’m really really tired.

Despite our last decade of estrangement, I’m still struck by/with grief, grateful for Jose’s support and the cards, emails, calls and flowers from loving friends.

I wish — however retro and weird this sounds — we still wore black to signify mourning (instead of what all New Yorkers wear all the time!) or even a black armband on the left sleeve. I Googled it and it appears to be wholly out of fashion and would not be understood.

It would be a powerful and effective way to signal mourning — without having to discuss, explain, react. The conference organizer is losing her mother right before the event, so she will be so exhausted. While others’ love and consolation and condolences are very welcome, they’re also tiring to acknowledge and respond to, especially in person. Some (luckily, only a few) will try to share their story of loss.

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

While I’ve shared quite a bit of my feelings on social media, I also have many, many more and need to process them slowly, quietly and without the energy drain of being social.

Now that coronavirus is making public gatherings suspect, this will be easier.

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

The Devil Wears Prada: 11 life lessons

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Having now seen it so many times that I can recite its dialogue by heart, I still stan for this movie, made in 2006 for a relatively small $35 million— it’s since grossed $327 million — no doubt aided by the fact it’s shown so often on various cable channels and fangirls like me keep tuning in again.

I love seeing two of my favorite cities featured — New York (mostly the towers of midtown) and Paris.

The final scene grabs my heart every time as, in the background of that final shot, are the offices of Simon & Schuster, which publishes Pocket Books, which published my first book. I will never ever forget the joy and pride I felt crossing that same intersection  clutching the galley, (unpublished final version.)

And, now that so many magazines are gone or have shuttered their print versions and slashed their budgets, it’s also a nostalgic vision of how glitzy and glamorous life often was (and still is for a few) at a Big Name fashion magazine.

The soundtrack is fantastic as well, pushing Scottish songwriter and singer K.T. Tunstall into much wider prominence with her songs, like Suddenly I See, absolutely the perfect fit for this film.

Starring Anne Hathaway as Andrea Sachs, an initially gormless-but-ambitious young journalist, (and based on the true-life story of Vogue assistant to its editor Anna Wintour) and Meryl Streep as her voracious boss, Miranda Priestley, it’s a fun film that also offers some helpful lessons:

Never show up to a job interview with no idea who you’re talking to

Never show up to a job interview looking like an unmade bed

Your friends can be a terrific support group — or whiny and negative. Choose wisely

Ditto for your boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/spouse

Yes, your first job out of college may feel “beneath you” but it’s meant to sharpen all sorts of skills, from time management to EQ to how to read a room

Yes, for a while, your personal life may suffer. You shouldn’t do it forever, but some jobs and industries offer a weeding-out: only the truly determined survive.

If your boss is extremely demanding, what else did you expect?

Alliances matter — the only way Andy gets her hands on an unpublished manuscript quickly is knowing someone with access, and being willing to make the ask

If you want to make it in New York City journalism, you’d better bring your A-game!

Empathy matters, whether for your boss, your coworkers, your friends, your sweetie

Know your priorities and your values

 

 

How to thrive unmothered

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By Caitlin Kelly

The word mother, like the word  husband, is a noun and a verb.

Some are better being a noun.

Some aren’t given the tools to do that job well.

Some are distracted by mental illness or  addiction.

Some end up incarcerated.

Some lose their children because the children, or the state, removes them.

Many people learn to thrive unmothered.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and moved in with my father and his girlfriend, later wife, who was 13 years older. I was 14 and she was 27.

Neither of us were equipped for this.

So, what happens when you’re not classically nurtured by another woman related to you?

 

You figure stuff out on your own

You read magazines and watch TV and listen to the radio and to podcasts. You talk to other adults.  I was a teen and young adult long before the Internet or YouTube. But opening myself early to the world meant learning to pay attention and deciding what was important.

 

You learn to ask others for help  — and know when you need it most

No crying wolf! When you know your requests are falling into the ears of people with their own lives and jobs and families, you know not to be a whiny pest but ask when you need them most. If you’re healthy and solvent (and if not, it’s much harder), you can manage a lot by yourself and grow massively in self-confidence as you do.

 

You’re fine challenging authority — because classic maternal authority isn’t there

Many people live in fear of what their mothers will say or do if…they say or do something that might offend or scare or anger her. When  your mother isn’t around and your stepmother isn’t very interested, you get on with it, unimpeded.

 

 

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You have to suss out what it means to be pretty or attractive or well-dressed

This was a big challenge, since I was taken shopping twice (both times with great success) between the ages of 14 and 20, once for a prom dress and once for a winter coat. But no one ever showed me how to wear makeup or what to do with my eyebrows or what stockings went with which shoes. It just wasn’t in the cards. So I learned to develop and trust my own taste, and work within a budget.

 

And how to cook!

My stepmother was an amazing cook but never taught me. I have a pile of well-used cookbooks, and recipes. I entertain often and  make very good meals. I take a lot of pride in this.

 

Managing money well is essential

I had money from my maternal grandmother, which for four years of university was all I had to live on  — $350 a month when my rent was $160 and annual tuition $660. It took me a few months to save the $30 I needed to buy a leotard, tights and slippers to take a ballet class. Wants had to wait behind needs. No one was there to bail me out and I knew it.

 

You learn to stand up — and fight for — your own needs

There’s no one calling ahead to smooth  your path or help you battle whatever shows up. I learned very young to figure out what I need and to ask other adults for it — whether professional, medical, financial. That would be my job as an adult anyway. It just started early.

 

The world is full of “other mothers”

From Guillemette in Paris to Marcia in Toronto to Salley in D.C., I’ve found deeply loving women friends whose kindness and affection and loyalty have felt maternal to me. Salley was the witness for my second wedding, which my mother did not attend. Barbara sat with me for a whole day’s worth of hospital tests and Catherine, in Dublin, sent flowers after my breast cancer surgery.

 

When you can’t rely on your mom, you rely on  yourself

Most things are quite manageable on your own. Many skills can be learned or, if  you have the money, hired.

 

 

caitlin team

The terrific team at radiation, Phelps Hospital, November 2018, at the end of my treatment

 

The kindness of strangers is astounding

I’m always amazed and grateful at the kindness I’ve experienced, especially when traveling alone. When  you haven’t been nurtured much, you forget — or never know — that many others have been well-loved by their mothers, and are happy to share their love with you as well. That generosity and acceptance, let alone affection, always surprises me and always  delights me.

 

Friends are family

The truest lesson of all. If you can open your heart and arms — and without a loving mother you have to — there are so many people happy to take pride in you and your work and your character, to laugh and cry with you, to take you to the hospital, to visit you after surgery, to send you flowers and cards and remember your birthday.

It doesn’t have to be your mother.