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Out of Reach

Originally uploaded by stephaniedan

I want it all she says

while reaching, reaching, reaching

with one open hand

the other held close

afraid to release what was

doubting what could be

she says I know that

two hands are better than one

but one dream is better than none

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I just have one regret.

I wish I’d been braver. I wish I’d been stronger. I wish I’d been confident in myself.

Then maybe this fleeting, 8-year-old thought would not be whispering in the edges of my mind.

It doesn’t haunt me.

It reminds me that I’m not that same timid girl who was afraid to ask the boy she really, really liked to prom. The same girl who was afraid to ask if he felt the same way.

Like an old friend, it pushes me forward when I want to step back.

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It started about a month into my freshman year of college. It was a faint, almost sweet, rotting scent that permeated my entire dorm room. I asked my two roommates about it, but they had no idea what I was talking about.

I searched the room for a possible cause, but the stench continued to grow until I realized it was actually coming from one of the girls. I had no idea how to broach the subject, and the odor soon lessened until it had disappeared. This cycle continued, and I decided not to pursue the topic in order to avoid embarrassing my roommate. I didn’t see any reason to point out something that apparently no one else noticed.

Sometime later this girl’s mom called one afternoon. I was the only one in, and she asked me to make sure my roommate knew her medication for adrenaline poisoning was on the way.

The next year I was home for vacation when I smelled the same distinct odor around my dad. Again, no one around could smell it. I knew he hadn’t been feeling well, and I told him about the smell and my roommate’s condition. His next doctor’s visit revealed that his hormones were indeed imbalanced. He was experiencing severe bouts of anxiety and panic attacks, and that caused him to excrete adrenaline in excess.

Sometimes when I’m in a crowd in a store or riding an elevator, I catch a whiff of that familiar scent. I want to say something, but where would I start?

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Will lived on the first floor of my dorm during freshman year. He was tall with deep-set eyes and an endearing awkwardness. One night a group of us were walking back to our dorm after leaving the school’s movie theater, and he hung back to poke me between jokes. I remember thinking how childishly sweet he was. A few weeks later he asked me out.

That weekend my roommates went home, and I had a lazy Saturday to myself before getting ready for the night. I was wearing a “borrowed” pink top and black skirt after trying on several outfits, unsure of what he had planned. He came to my door to pick me up wearing dress pants, a button-up shirt, and his short, curly hair slicked back.

We went to Applebee’s where he recommended the chicken-fried steak. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember that there were no awkward silences. We just never ran out of things to say to each other. He seemed completely at ease, so different from the general silence that he exhibited when others were around. The only clue to any inner anxiety came as we got up to leave the restaurant when he removed a large pile of napkin shreds from his lap and placed it on the table.

Once in his car, he offered me some mints while we headed back toward campus for a concert. He admitted that it was a concert he had to attend as a music major, but he promised that it would be good. We arrived about fifteen minutes early, so he pulled out pen and paper to challenge me to a game of tic-tac-toe. We managed to squeeze in several games before the lights flickered to signal the beginning of the concert. It was lovely, and I sneaked a few glances at him to find him completely engrossed in the music.

At the end of the night, he walked me back to my door. I hugged him and thanked him for showing me a good time. It was the best date I’ve ever had with someone I knew deep down I wasn’t interested in dating again.

He and I remained friends after that one date, and I remained slightly frustrated that he couldn’t let everyone see the charming, funny guy underneath the shy exterior.

Will later dated another friend for almost two years. He originally intended to go to law school but then ended up at a NY culinary school instead. I was happy to hear the news because it seemed perfect for him. He’s now engaged to a sweet girl and working at a fabulous restaurant in Atlanta.

I still listen to the cd of classical music he gave me for my birthday that spring. I haven’t seen or spoken to him in several years, but I occasionally look him up on Facebook to see how he’s doing. He deserves the best.

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This is my year. I can feel something deep inside me stirring and rising to welcome the change.

I will be a nurse. That fact alone changes everything for it means that I can support myself completely. I love my family, but I hate who I’ve become while living with my parents again. The last two years under their collective thumb squashed much of the confident independence I’d developed in the previous four. But not all.

I’m shedding the darkness that has crept over me since failing and falling away from my goals. I have a surge of energy and motivation without the taxing weight of doubt, fear, and frustration. I’m ready to be fully open to all possibilities and to pursue my interests and passions wholeheartedly.

Last year’s measurable goals were to graduate with my BSN, run a marathon, finish my novel, and knit socks. I met the first and last.

This year:

I want to reach the first step of the clinical ladder (clinical progression at work).
I want to run with more discipline.
I want to finish every story I start.
I want to knit more for myself.
I want to follow my interests and see where they take me (currently – learning to handle a gun and dancing).

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It’s by no accident or misfortune that I’ve spent countless hours in hospitals. I’ve chosen to be there. With graduation coming up soon, I need to make a more permanent choice. What will I look for in a hospital? Pay and benefits are important, but ultimately they won’t be the deciding factors. I want a healthy environment where I can grow and develop my clinical skills. I want supportive coworkers and a supervisor who will fight for her nurses. I want an administration who will supply everything I need to give the best care possible. I want respect from the doctors for the role I play in the patient’s progress. I want patients to know that I am their advocate.

Edit: I think I’ve found that hospital!

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We hadn’t run together in nearly a year. At least once a week he would ask, “Are we training today?” Our private running joke, pun intended. We once agreed to train for a marathon, but I abandoned my training schedule after the first painful 10 mile run. (I don’t know how far he got, or if he ever really started since we lived in separate states.) This particular evening he came home from work and asked, “Do you want to go to the track?” He was serious, and I went to change.

Twenty minutes later we pulled up to the high school stadium. Our town has a yearly week-long festival that takes over the main street every March. The sun was just beginning to set as we stepped onto the track with the Ferris wheel looming a block ahead. We could see the fair lights and hear the lively, tinkling music blending into a discordant, jangling sound. Our easy pace allowed us to talk, but for some time we simply ran in silence broken only by our breathing.

When he finally spoke, it was about his current struggles with anxiety. Only in recent years have I come to understand the depression and anxiety that has plagued my father most of his life. All throughout my childhood I never understood what he was battling. I just knew that I didn’t like the father I saw: angry, short-tempered, always yelling. We would tiptoe around my father and speak softly to avoid setting him off. At night I would imagine ways to get him out of my life (not usually fatal…and if so, painless). I hated the man I lived with, but I loved the daddy that occasionally made an appearance – the one who gave me wet kisses on my cheek, who told bedtime stories about superheroes, who teased my mom, who laughed loudly and played soccer with us in the backyard. It was those brief moments that gave some hope, but that hope wasn’t enough. Our relationship was strained and difficult at best. I was angry at my father and only made angrier by him always telling me that I was just like him.

The turning point finally arrived when I was 18. I had accepted a full scholarship to a university four states away, and I was ecstatic. I just knew this was my chance to get away from everything I thought was holding me back. He fought hard and dirty with daily lectures of how I was abandoning my family and by throwing away my mail. I responding by working more hours and using a friend’s address for correspondence with the university. I was livid the day I discovered that he had answered phone calls from the scholarship committee and told them not once, but twice that I had decided not to go after all. During my freshman year, he never once spoke to me while I was at school. I would call home once a week, and my mother would always end the conversation with “Your father says he loves you.” When I was home during vacations, the subject of school was never brought up. By my third year he was talking to me regularly on the phone, though the conversations were brief. He surprised me at the end of one call and told me that he was proud of me. After I hung up I sat on the floor and cried.

Our relationship improved gradually. He began asking about school and my life. The tension during my visits home was dissolving. I was happy, sharing an apartment with my three best friends and enjoying my job on a cardiac unit. Everything felt good and then great when I was accepted into a nursing program along with one of my roommates. Until I began experiencing my own bouts of anxiety.

Skills check-offs took place at the beginning of each semester. Skills were drawn randomly and performed in front of an evaluator. At first I thought I was just nervous. After all, it was either 100% pass or fail. Success determined whether we continued in the program, regardless of our standing through classes and clinicals. As the semesters went on, that nervousness grew into something I couldn’t manage anymore. No amount of preparation and study made a difference. I was comfortable with the skills, having performed them regularly during clinicals and for my job, but I couldn’t seem to pull myself together when it mattered. I felt fine and ready the night before and on my way to the school. It wasn’t until I made my way to the testing room that I would start experiencing shortness of breath and tremors. As I waited outside the room, I tried desperately to quell those foreboding feelings and calm myself with breathing exercises. Once inside the symptoms would only worsen. A sense of suffocation came over me, and my hands would shake so violently that I had trouble manipulating the equipment. At one point I was to draw up insulin into a syringe, and I couldn’t get the needle into the vial. After several attempts a sympathetic evaluator asked me to take a moment before continuing. (They aren’t supposed to say anything to us during testing.)

With all the anxiety, it was a lone, innocuous mistake that kept me from passing. I argued the point to no avail. The program’s policy with a first failure was to pull you out and let you try again during the next semester’s check-offs. I was embarrassed but determined not to let this keep me down. The weeks before my next check-off were spent in the skills lab practicing with an instructor. She had worked with me during clinicals and seemed just as determined that I succeed. We went over every skill until we were both confident that no amount of nerves could impede my performance. In the meantime, I was also practicing every available skill at work with my supervising nurses. I couldn’t think of anything more that I could do to prepare myself.
That afternoon I pulled the skills that I had hoped to pull: a female catheter and a blood draw. When those familiar feelings hit me with a vengeance, I felt helpless. It was as if I was just watching myself make one ridiculous mistake after another; all I could hear was the screaming in my head. Afterwards I didn’t even wait to hear what my evaluator had to say. I held back tears until I’d hidden myself in a bathroom stall on the fifth floor. What the hell was wrong with me? I knew this stuff. I was supposed to meet with my director, but I e-mailed her instead and received a very polite e-mail in return. Two unsuccessful check-offs meant an immediate dismissal from the program.

I’d never failed before. Not like this. How do you fail gracefully? I was so ashamed and angry at myself. I didn’t understand what had happened to me. I’ve been nervous before, but these feelings went deeper and were beyond my control. I knew that I was good at nursing. Every experience in clinicals and on the job affirmed that choice, but my journal entries from that time questioned everything. I felt like such a failure. The only option I could see was to move back home and finish my degree at a small, local university. My scholarship was ending, and I couldn’t afford to live on my own and pay tuition. I sent in the paperwork and tied up loose ends. On the surface I was getting along with my life, but that shame and doubt was eating me away inside. I withdrew from my friends and my regular activities to the point that I was just working and sleeping. I didn’t want to leave my room, but I would make myself so that my roommates wouldn’t worry. We had such conflicting schedules that they had no idea I spent most of my time in bed. I thought I should be stronger, and it was even more embarrassing to me that I couldn’t rise above this temporary failure.

I dreaded telling anyone the truth, so I didn’t. I just said that I decided to transfer programs and gave vague explanations such as “I wasn’t happy with the program” and “for a lot of personal reasons.” More than anything I dreaded my father’s reaction, the man who told me I would never get into college after I got my first B in the seventh grade. I imagined him to be self-righteous and smugly satisfied. Instead, he was just happy that I was home again. That meant so much to me, and I settled back into a routine. I was admitted into a new program, and I’m currently set to graduate (finally) this December with my BSN.

It’s been over a year; I’m not in that dark place anymore, but I feel down when I have time to think. I’m not where I want to be, and I’m still angry at myself for messing up my plan. It scares me how quickly I fell down that depressive hole and how long it’s taking me to find my way out. I haven’t again experienced such crippling anxiety (my current program is set up quite differently), but I am afraid of the prospect.

As I listened to my father’s agony in the dark, I focused on the white lines before me and struggled to keep from crying. I understood better than he knew, but I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Me, too.”

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During my last visit to Colombia, I asked my grandmother to teach me how to make arepas. It was Christmas Eve, and arepas and hot chocolate* have always been a special treat, marking birthdays and other occasions.

I stood next to her and watched as she gathered her supplies. I was ready to take notes only to find that she measured salt and water with experience instead of cups and spoons. Her response to any question was “until it looks right.” I set aside the paper and pen to knead the cornmeal and roll it into palm-sized balls. A hole is made on top, and cheese is placed inside. The cornmeal is then flattened between hands before placing it on the stove. My grandmother stationed herself at the stove to fry the arepas, bathing each side in melted butter. When they were done, I brought out a platter piled with arepas to the dining room where all my family had gathered around the table to eat before opening gifts.

My arepas still aren’t as good, but I keep trying because I can’t think of anything more satisfying than a mouthful of that warm, salty/buttery cornmeal and cheese washed down with sweet, hot chocolate. It tastes like home.

* Real hot chocolate – made by melting raw chocolate (in the ethnic foods section of your grocery store) in a mixture of water and milk

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What inspires me?

My writing is inspired by the people I see and meet everyday and their stories. The ones they tell me, and the ones I make up for them.

My nursing career is inspired by the needs I see in my community, the needs I know I can meet, and the passion that knowledge gives me.

My personal life is inspired by my parents. Every area of my life revolves around what they have taught me and what they have lived in front of me. Whether it’s things I want to repeat or avoid, so many of the decisions I make reflect their impact on my life.

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Life is the journey that we take to (hopefully) realize our dreams. No matter what path I end up taking along the way, my dreams are the same. I want a family life that is stable and glitters. I want to surround myself with people that I love. I want to support myself doing something I love. I want a home that is a refuge. I want to be unafraid of the unknown. I want to never stop learning something new. I want to push my limits. I want to explore my world. I want to be content with the life I’ve lived.

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My Happiness Project

1. Set a bedtime.
2. Make my bed every morning.
3. Always be reading something.
4. Move more.
5. Toss and organize.
6. Give proofs of love.
7. Leave the past.
8. Fight right.
9. Don't expect praise or appreciation.
10. Kiss more, hug more, touch more.
11. Aim higher.
12. Find some fun.
13. Ask for help.
14. Smile.
15. Realize it's possible.
16. Don't compare;be inspired.
17. Focus on what I have.
18. Beware of drift.
19. Take a chance.
20. Listen.
21. Be mindful.
22. Cultivate gratitude.
23. Spend out.
24. Do good, feel good.
25. Show up.
26. Have the courage to be imperfect.
27. Find joy in the ordinary.
28. Work smart.
29. Enjoy now.
30. Talk to strangers.
31. Go outside.
32. Start where I am.
33. Show up on time.
34. See art everyday.
35. Love with abandon.
36. Be colorful.
37. Dress the part.
38. Revel in accomplishments.
39. Learn something new.
40. Fear less.
41. Take pictures.
42. Speak with integrity.
43. Don't be critical about small things.
44. Manage my pain.
45. Surround myself with creative people.
46. Practice, practice, practice.
47. Don't force it.
48. Deal with something once.
49. Trust my instincts.
50. Avoid gossip.
51. Choose to see the best in people.
52. Take time to be silly.
53. Throw my own party.
54. Be a mentor.
55. Lean into my fears.
56. Find the others.
57. Do the unexpected.
58. Don't break the chain.
59. Do things others aren't.
60. Slow down.
61. Be cool with not being cool.
62. Be kinder than necessary and more generous than reasonable.
63. Pretend I'm good at it.
64. Keep in touch.
65. Row my own canoe.
66. Do what only you can do.
67. If it doesn't work out, find something that does.
68. Dream bigger.
69. Notice what's right.
70. Stop talking. Start doing.
71. When in doubt, choose laughter.
72. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
73. Respect everyone.
74. Be early.
75. Delete the unnecessary.

Three Simple Rules

1. If you do not GO after what you want, you will never have it.
2. If you do not ASK, the answer will always be no.
3. If you do not MOVE forward, you will always be in the same place.

All I Need

1. Someone to love.
2. Something to do.
3. Something to hope for.

What I’m Reading

Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy
Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston

U.S. States I’ve Visited

New Mexico
North Carolina

Countries I’ve Visited

Bermuda (British territory)

I write about…