Reflexive: How I had to fall apart to start taking care of myself

A four-sectioned image with a pink, purple, and blue color palette. The top left section depicts 3 women dancing in a club, while the top right shows two people sleeping in bed at night. The bottom left section depicts a dark, empty room with only a chandelier and a singular window. The bottom right section depicts a girl sitting on a lawn with books piled next to her.
Graphic by Nina Potischman

CW: paternal death, depression, anxiety 

Last semester, the spring of my junior year, I studied abroad in Madrid. About two weeks in, my dad died from complications from esophageal cancer.

With an emergency grant from Pomona College, I was able to fly home, attend the wake and memorial, then return to Madrid five days later. This exact horror story, in which my dad died while I was abroad, had kept me up at night since my sophomore year, when I declared a major that required me to study abroad.

My dad, a very Sicilian and very expressive New York City restaurant celebrity, was absolutely the most loving, hard-working, resilient, fascinating and funny person I’ve ever known. All five of my siblings and I adopted his fun-loving nature, charm and intense personality. Not only did I lose my dad and the person who inspired me every day, but I also lost a part of myself — I lost someone whose dynamic energy I strived to emulate every day.

Immediately following the trip back to Madrid, I struggled. Tears streamed down my face throughout all my classes, and I labored to do things that were formerly basic for me, like walking.

After about two weeks, I started to feel a bit better. I largely account my emotional turnaround, and consequent ability to function throughout the rest of my time abroad, to my two best friends in Spain, who loved, uplifted and took care of me always, even though they had only known me for nine days before my dad’s passing.

I also credit my emotional stability to someone I was seeing in Madrid, because he always made me feel loved, focused and comforted, something that was particularly valuable to me when other parts of my life were really sad.

These three people, along with the distance I had from New York — which specifically allowed me to avoid the gravity and reality of my situation — made me really love my time abroad. While I was certainly depressed frequently, I was also having fun for extended periods of time for the first time in my life.

In Madrid, I somehow became good friends with a promoter, so we often went to these fancy clubs where we drank for free and had big swaths of space to dance. Dancing became the highlight of my week. 

My closest friends were absurdly fun to be around, loved me and loved to eat as much as I did. I was spending a lot of time with this hot and kind boy who gave me tons of attention and frequently made me feel good about myself. At the end of the day, I had very few responsibilities except doing everything possible to make myself happy.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day we moved — lying on my bedroom floor, with the sun shining through the windows onto the furniture-less wood floor, sobbing while trying my absolute hardest to remember the look of the ceiling, walls and floors.

Things took an emotional turn once I returned home for the summer. My parents’ movement studio, which I used to live above, promptly closed after 20 years of business, forcing us to move.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day we moved — lying on my bedroom floor, with the sun shining through the windows onto the furniture-less wood floor, sobbing while trying my absolute hardest to remember the look of the ceiling, walls and floors. I compulsively took pictures of every room in the apartment, hoping that if I could somehow hold onto the memory of my apartment, I could hold onto my dad. 

The owners of the building arrived at 1 p.m. to take the keys from my mom. They stared at me, my siblings, my mother and my three-year-old nephew as we tearily exited the building. I knew that leaving that building would be the largest loss and disappointment my dad could have ever imagined.

After that, the reality that my dad was gone finally dawned on me. My depression, but mostly my anxiety, ballooned in the following weeks. 

The balloon popped over one week in the summer. In the course of three days, I went on a date with someone new, saw my high school ex-boyfriend and went out with the guy I pseudo-dated in Spain. I felt terrible for ultimately rejecting the new guy, panicked upon convincing myself that I lost all feelings for my ex and was extremely upset that the guy from Spain seemed like he didn’t like me anymore. There was one day where I sobbed for 12 hours. 

Because my level of anxiety and emotion was so high, I understood that there must’ve been something else upsetting me. I surrendered to the fact that I wasn’t really devastated about my relationship with any of them; I just wanted someone who would make my intense emotions go away.

I committed to confronting my greater problems. I wanted to spend one month allowing myself to feel sadness, without the distraction of relationships, which I so often utilize to avoid my feelings. While I initially planned to “confront my problems” for just a month, it ended up going on for longer. 

I wanted to first address my anxiety, as I couldn’t access my emotions without fearing I would begin a never-ending panic attack. I read a book about cognitive behavioral therapy and practiced the skills I learned whenever I had a “thought distortion,” which is essentially catastrophic anxious thinking.  

I also read a book called “The Body Keeps the Score,” which studies how the body remembers trauma. The book included many mentions of yoga as a form of therapy. I began doing yoga a few times a week, as it grounded me in my body after the shock of my dad’s death left me more dissociated than ever.

I swore off drinking and partying and decided to have zero sexual or romantic interactions for a month. 

I delved into my obsessive eating and body image behaviors, which had become unmanageable. I read Jane R. Hirschmann’s book “When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies,” which revolutionized my relationship with food and exercise.

I journaled and wrote frequently, went to therapy and met with a grief group.

I also started going to Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) meetings. Although CoDA is similar to Al-Anon, a support group for those concerned about people close to them who struggle with alcohol addiction, it concentrates more deeply on relationships. It helps participants understand how their childhood impacts their current relationship behaviors. 

While fortunately everything I utilized is free or low-cost, I acknowledge the immense privilege I had of living at home rent-free and and having the time to invest in myself so extensively. I was also lucky to have many supportive friends and a sibling who encouraged this process. 

My dad always wanted me to feel taken care of. He would promise me anything and empower me to craft a life I wanted. He was in many ways my biggest supporter because he always supported my happiness. “Quit Paloma and come back home!” was his response to any Pomona-related complaint of mine. 

Losing my dad taught me that I need to take care of myself, because he is no longer here to back me and remind me of my value. My dad would be proud of the work I did this summer. I’m not only much more self-reliant, but also a better friend and kinder human being. I miss my dad every day, but the best thing I can do is remember his love and the way he expressed it, and continue to nurture that within myself. 

Micaela Macagnone PO ’20 is a columnist who dives deep into relationships, growing up, feelings, well-being and art. She is an international relations major from New York City who misses bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches everyday.

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