migraine life (part 3b: reality)

As the last week of June comes to a close, you should be receiving “migraine life (part 4: getting better at it)”, and you will… next week.

Because this week, the time I would have spent finishing that post, was used recovering from a migraine attack. The second of the week and one of the worst I’ve had in quite some time. It came on with vengeance on Sunday morning and now, even now, Monday evening around 7:30pm, is still lingering. As soon as Lukas got home from church with Tabby, he took over with both kids and I went straight to bed. I asked him to come check on me after he put Bubba down and by that point, I was in tears, sobbing, I thought this wasn’t my reality anymore. He offered to bring me a few things and shortly after that conversation, I, mercifully, fell asleep, waking to a tray of food and an ice pack on the bed (best husband ever!). Several hours later I drug myself out of bed, and went to Home Depot with the family.

When I came downstairs Lukas said “so you’re going with the ‘distraction’ method of pain management?” Sometimes pain requires me to rest, and other times the pain is so miserable, even resting in bed sucks so why not wander around Home Depot with my people, instead? We started out with me driving because I thought the nausea might be better with me at the wheel but after the second “hon!” from the passenger’s seat, I realized my inability to focus well was endangering my family, so we pulled over to switch drivers. I stuck a grocery bag and a napkin in my pocket, just in case nausea became something more and I couldn’t make it to the bathroom. The lights from the ceiling were almost excruciating but watching James have a blast riding in the cart and Tabby running back and forth with seeds for the garden she begged us to plant for her, was soul medicine.

Next week’s post is about how I’ve gotten better at managing my health, how few migraine attacks I have these days, how few depression symptom days I have, and yet, the reality is, both are still a part of my life. I know how to manage my health and doing so is still a conscious reality on a regular basis.

What’s also a reality is the amazing life I’ve been able to live in the moments I don’t have pain, like at Bubba’s first birthday party celebration a couple Saturdays ago. While pregnant with him, we set out to build a physical community around us. We are blessed with so many people in our corner but most of them were spread far and wide. Digital connection is awesome AND we longed for a physical one. People we could touch and see on a weekly or even daily basis. We are blessed to have that, now. Church family and neighbors fill our home and hearts with their smiles and hugs on a regular basis and having a lot of them in the same place at the same time was pretty cool! Happy 1st Birthday, James Paul, you are one loved little dude!!

xoxo, va

migraine life (part 3: chronic pain consequences)

Did you catch part 1 and part 2 of this migraine life series? June is the month designated to bring awareness to migraine, a condition affecting 39 million people, based on the American Migraine Association’s figure. That’s a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of stories. Stories primarily kept quiet because, if they were anything like me, they are suffering in a dark room, praying for relief.

When asked about how I’m doing with my migraine journey, my latest response is “really well. I manage my symptoms primarily with diet and the more I heal from depression, the more I heal from migraine.” Which came first — the depression or the migraine?

The statistics on depression and chronic pain are staggering. 85% of people suffering chronic pain were identified as having severe depression. One fifth of the country is suffering from chronic pain and depression is the third largest contributor to the worldwide disease (aka money, money, money), burden. Reading the data, my brain can’t even take it all in. People are hurting. A LOT of people are hurting. And the connection between chronic pain and depression is so interwoven it’s hard to identify. At least it was in my own life.

The more I learn, the more I heal, the more I recognize how interconnected these two ailments were. So which came first — chronic pain through migraine or depression? Honestly, it’s unclear.

I’ve let the cursor flash on my screen for over thirty minutes. I’ve searched for photos on my phone, I’ve had ideas for other posts I’ve started, I’ve stood up from my stool a couple times when my back started hurting, I’ve popped my knuckles and talked to Tabby and Lukas, and almost wanted James to cry so I could go rock him back to sleep instead of sitting here writing more about this.

It’s not that I can’t write about it or that it hurts to write about it… it’s just I don’t know what to write. I don’t know how I can put into words what it was like to live with chronic pain and depression. The lines are all blurry. When it started, how it started, how I survived it all. I look back at pictures and I feel sad, and then strong and bad ass that I still lived a life with memories I cherish. To attempt to chronologically lay out how it happened and what it was like in the middle feels dauntingly impossible.

Then there’s this pressure I feel to give you warning signs, to help you recognize you’re not okay if you’re suffering, to help you see yellow flags before they become red flags, to give steps for prevention so you don’t have to suffer the way I suffered.

I feel like I have so little to offer. No tips, no advice, no counsel. As I put myself emotionally back into those days, those hours, when I was suffering, I had so little to give then, which makes me have so little to give, now. My brain will switch back to the logical side eventually, hopefully soon, so I can give you “something something” (as Tabby calls it when she’s strategically and diplomatically asking me for some kind of sugary sweet) but for now I sit in the trenches.

Everything seemed hard.

Everything.

My therapist and I talk a lot about “doing the dishes”.

Now, I’ll unload the dishwasher in less than 10 minutes. Sometimes I play music, sometimes I just knock it out in silence, either way I do exactly that… knock it out. As long as little hands and feet don’t get in the way.

But then.

Oh, then.

Doing the dishes was my Mount Everest.

It was impossible. I couldn’t get it done. Day in and day out, if the dishes did, in fact, get done, it was the big event for the day. I needed a nap afterwards. I don’t say that in jest. I say that in total seriousness. Doing the dishes would wipe me out, if I even was able to get there to do them at all.

And let’s talk about naps.

I would nap, and nap, and nap, and nap and never get rested.

I’d sleep eight, nine, ten hour nights and wake up more tired than before I went to bed.

That wasn’t every day or all the time. Just sometimes. Sometimes that came on without warning and lasted any length of time it wanted. I never knew when I’d be trapped in darkness. I’d get reprieves, where things would look light, life would look hopeful, and then back to the darkness.

The waves of darkness were unpredictable and therefore made planning anything, impossible. Lukas wanted to go and hang out with people, meet new people, go on fun adventures and experiences, and I was scared. Terrified of when the next migraine would hit, fearful of how I’d act around others if the pain came on, embarrassed about how needy I’d become.

I couldn’t leave home without a myriad of support resources. Glare glasses, medicine just in case, essential oils, water (so much water), snacks. And heaven forbid I had to eat at a restaurant. That was hell.

Trying to find a menu item that followed the diet restrictions, or even worse, trying to explain my diet requirements to well intentioned servers. Or, still worse, when the server and chef would work really hard to meet all of my needs but the dish would come out with the one ingredient we had forgotten to tell them I couldn’t have. I’d pick at the dish, mortified to send it back but even more terrified to eat something that might trigger pain.

One of my favorite quotes is from a Good Wife episode. A client, who suffered a great loss, asked her lawyer, who’d suffered the same, “does it get any easier?” The lawyer replied “no, but you get better at it.”

“Getting better at it” hasn’t been a solo endeavor. Lukas never gave up on me and the life we wanted to live, free from the chains of chronic pain. My mom has logged hours upon hours of tearful phone calls and texts as she’s suffered, carrying the pain along with me. My mother-in-law has been in the trenches in our lives on a weekly basis, witnessing pain and depression first hand and supporting me through it. There has been a church community who has been a safe place for me to “not be okay” and allowed me to show up however I am on Sunday mornings. There are a handful of key friends who have been encouragement, cheerleading and prayer warriors. There are also some friends who couldn’t handle the constant suffering and decided they’d rather spend their attention elsewhere. I GET IT, I don’t hold grudges. Chronic pain, depression, this stuff is intense and the burdens are heavy.

There have also been two AMAZING therapists (one who diagnosed depression and was the crisis treatment navigator and the second has been my longterm treatment facilitator). I start to cry thinking about these two women because, well, Meagan saved my life and JaNeen has helped me get my life back. Is it weird to link them in this post? It feels a little socially inappropriate to call them by name and even point you to their websites. Which is DUMB because if I had an amazing physical body doctor, it wouldn’t be taboo to shout their name from the rooftops. Y’all see me starting to climb up on my soap box? I’ll stop myself from getting to the top and get back to the point…

Getting better at managing migraine and depression hasn’t been a solo affair. Actually, if it had been up to me, I might not be here. I hesitate, hovering my fingers over the keys, desperate to delete those words. “Is it too dramatic?” “Am I just writing that for attention?” “Stop being the victim.” And yet, if you’re reading these words, and you’re suffering either mentally or physically and you are just not okay, I need you to know, am pleading with you to know, you can’t do this alone. You can’t survive chronic pain alone. You can’t survive depression alone. If you’re anything like me, alone is exactly how you feel, and yet, you can’t stay there. Send a text to anyone you halfway trust. “I’m not okay”. You don’t have to give anymore details. Keep it simple. Hell, why don’t you just send them the link to this post and say “help.”

My advice for those who might receive “help” texts? Be available. Be safe. Don’t fix. Don’t try to solve the problems. Just be there when they text or call. Drop off ice cream (in a cooler with ice because the person might not get out of bed for awhile) Don’t make them get out of bed if they can’t, just be there when they want to. Send snail mail, silly ridiculous snail mail that has no purpose other than a smile. If you’re tempted to ask “how can I help?” Try something like “I really want to help but I know it can be stressful for you to try to figure out what you need. Just know I’m here and I’m willing to navigate it all with you.” You could even throw something in like “If it’s dark, know I will sit in the dark with you and I won’t bring my flashlight.” Flashlights hurt your eyes when you’ve been sitting in the dark a long time. I wanted to find the light, oh desperately I wanted it, but the light was also scary. It’s a whole lot easier to walk towards the light when you’re holding someone’s hand.

I did start seeing the light, thanks to all the hands who were holding mine.

Next week, I close out this series talking about what it looks like now that I’m a little better at it.

xoxo, va

PS If you don’t have a hand to hold. If you don’t have a number to send a text or anyone you trust will answer if you call. Call this number. 800-273-8255 Now, don’t wait. You’re worth another breath, another hour, another day, and they will help you find a hand to navigate the darkness with you. Here it is again, seriously, call. 800-273-8255

migraine life (part 2: the “other way”)

Once I was a Young Living Essential Oil member on a team (what happens when you buy a kit from them), I was exposed to a whole new world I knew so little about. It was SO MUCH MORE than essential oils for me. It was about learning this new lifestyle with a group of women who were trying to figure out their own health journeys. My research brain went crazy. Living in New Jersey, in a hotel, surrounded by nothing but farm land, this new world I was experiencing was a divine gift. Something that even later became my first attempt at starting a business. I could talk way too much about that but I’ll stay focused on the migraine piece.

That was July. I started learning and experimenting and seeing enough impact that I wanted to learn and do more. Yet, I was still chained to my medications. The holistic stuff I was doing was helping migraines not happen AS often (like maybe one less a month) but I was still feeling intense migraine symptoms on a chronic level.

Knowing the end of our insurance was nearing, I stocked up on enough medication as the doctor would write a prescription for, knowing I had a runway to figure out this migraine life sans medication OR start paying the high bills.

Communicating with me via telephone, I’d told my neurologist my medication had started not working. “Level one” had stopped really doing much a few months prior but now “level two” was beginning to fail me. I now know this was drug tolerance — my body was getting used to the medication because I was taking it regularly and therefore it stopped working as effectively as it once did. The doctor prescribed another medication, I’ll call this “level three” (even though it technically replaced “level two”) because it felt more intense. This was a snorting medication. I had this contraption where I’d put a capsule into it, push a button which broke it into a powder, and then I snorted it into one nostril. I’d repeat the process with the second nostril. Awesome, right? (insert insane sarcasm there!)

That medicine worked…for a very short time. The MAJOR turning point for me was October 2017. My friend was getting married and another friend had come into town to stay with us. The wedding was on a Friday evening and my out of town friend showed up around noon to hang out for a bit. While we were getting ready for the event, my fingers started tingling. I was DETERMINED not to ruin this night. Determined that migraine wasn’t going to ruin, yet another, social situation. I willed myself not to be in pain. Used all the oils. Took all the meds. And put on a happy face and my big girl pants and dammit, refused to let it happen. Here are pics from the night! It was so special. I even found out that TWO of my girlfriends were going to have babies!!!!

Between the lights and the loud music and the dancing…by the time I got in the car to head home I was in more pain than I’d ever been in my life. Once we got home I used one of those fancy snorting medicines and was able to feel enough relief to get in bed. I awoke 4 hours later in WORSE pain. Yes, the pain that was the worst I’d ever experienced in my whole life got worse. I used another snorting medicine and was able to sleep again. The next morning I woke up feeling terrible. So I’m readily, absolutely terrible. I survived the weekend and then by Monday morning, I had the energy to want to do something different.

Back in the summer, a friend recommended a book called Heal Your Headache when I first announced my holistic health journey. I’d bought the book and never actually read it. That morning, I went to find the book and climbed into the bath tub (my safe place).

I got to page 18ish, burst into tears “THIS MAN GETS ME”, read a few more chapters and then fast forwarded to the recommendations page. First step is to get rid of all medication (okay, well, that’s not going to be hard, that crap isn’t working for me anymore anyway!), step two is the HYH (Heal your Headache) Diet, and third is introducing prevention meds if necessary.

With step one out of the way, DONE, I was off to the grocery store to buy things that worked with the diet. I went VERY unprepared and was VERY overwhelmed.

Literally all my favorite foods I couldn’t have, and the things I could, BLAH. This sucked. It was awful. So awful. I wish I had a quick happy ending bow to put on the migraine diet story but the real deal? It was hard for almost two years. I realized I relied on certain foods when I was having a bad day — like Kraft macaroni and cheese — and I couldn’t eat that stuff. Food was my happy place in a myriad of ways and with those happy places stripped away, in the midst of one of the hardest fought physical and mental battles of my life, I was like a lost little puppy with out my comfort food.

After that day in the grocery store, it took a few weeks before my first headache hit. We were in Dallas at a resort before heading home after spending time with dear friends. The pain came on and no matter how bad it got I wasn’t going to use meds. And the pain got BAD. Real bad. I had to board a plane and get home with the pain, the nausea, the intense neck and shoulder muscle strain, it was as bad as labor pains with no relief for two straight days.

But the relief did come, finally. Followed by a “migraine hangover” and intense anxiety about it happening again.

I think I made-up the term “migraine hangover” but it fits perfectly. The after wave symptoms after the pain subsides: mental fog and extreme mental and physical exhaustion. That takes about 12-24 hours to clear for me to get back to normal, a new normal that remains terrified of it happening again.

As hard as those first 6 months were, navigating the holidays, frustrating family members who were trying to make food I could eat, crying at restaurants because it just felt too hard, spending WAY too much time on food selection, it started to get exciting as I entered the reintroduction phase. This is the phase where you reintroduce foods one at a time to see what triggers you the most and then you abstain from those foods and eat everything else on moderation.

I’d done two weeks of that, citrus and avocado were my firsts, and then I found out I was pregnant. The massive hormone shift brought on a new level of migraine intensity coupled with pregnancy symptoms and I was a mess. I was working part time, and couldn’t even maintain those hours anymore so we decided I’d step down permanently.

As I get into describing this next season of life, I’m experiencing physical signs of anxiety as I recollect it. This was a HARD season. Hard on me physically and mentally, hard on my marriage, hard like I wouldn’t want to wish on my worst enemy. Perinatal depression was identified by a therapist that summer. I never sought treatment after the diagnosis because I didn’t realize it was necessary. I wasn’t under the care of a therapist at the time and from Lukas and my limited knowledge of depression and our focus on the intense physical symptoms I was experiencing, we didn’t know what we didn’t know and didn’t seek professional help.

Next week, hear more about the consequences of chronic pain and the impact living a life of fear had on every aspect of who I had become.

xoxo, va

migraine life (part 1: the beginning)

June is Migraine and Headache Awareness Month. For the month, I’ve written a series of posts sharing my chronic migraine story in an effort to bring awareness to the cause and increase advocacy for suffering patients. This story is not an easy one to write. There are emotional triggers for me all throughout these posts. It was a scary, intimidating, painful, and lonely time in my (and my husband’s!) life. It’s a hard one to write but not a hard one to share because there are people suffering every single day with migraine (35 million people, actually!) and I want to shout from the roof tops — you’re NOT alone! If you are one of those 35 million people and feel alone, please email me virginialeefortunato@gmail.com. I’d love to advocate for you, personally!


Recently, Lukas had a colleague ask him for essential oils for migraine recommendations. It reminded me how that was our life, SO MUCH of our life, in earlier years. Migraine life is NOT my life anymore. And yet, it’s such a big part of my story I want to capture it here. To encourage others in their own migraine reality and to give hope that there IS life outside of physical pain.

For many, many, MANY days, weeks, months, I didn’t believe that. The thought of not living with migraine on a regular basis was a reality I saw no end in sight. A dark, dark tunnel with no light to be seen. I don’t label my life like that anymore and it’s truly because of God’s grace seen through support from my hubby, a few key subject matter experts, and a whole lot of stubbornness and refusal to accept that my life was “as good as it was going to get”.

If you are suffering from migraine, I want to tell you that you’re in hell. Literal, absolute, hell, and don’t let anyone (including yourself) tell you otherwise. If you’ve been battling for awhile, you’re probably in survival mode and the thought of doing ANYTHING probably feels daunting and stressful and overwhelming and… yep, all of those words. Reading this blog post might even be triggering you, the blue light emanating from your phone, the focus required to read the words, you might not even make it past this paragraph and honestly, that’s okay. You are surviving hell and all I want to say is that you’re a freaking warrior for doing your life day in and day out.

I say migraine, not migraine(s) with an “S”, because, even though it’s common to hear “I have a migraine” or “I suffer from migraines” this is actually medically inaccurate. MIGRAINE is a neurological condition that can cause multiple symptoms. Headaches (typically severe) are one of these symptoms. Others include: ringing in the ears, intolerance to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, neck or shoulder pain, numbness or tingling, and difficulty thinking or speaking.

The symptoms I have (and still continue to face occasionally), I bolded in the list above.

My journey with migraine started in college, my sophomore year, sometime in the 2011-2012 school year when I was 19 or 20 years old. I remember sitting in the hallway, spread out with my class as we worked on some kind of design project. All of a sudden my fingers started tingling and then went completely numb. The numbness began climbing up my arm and I started to feel pain in my head. My teacher released me from class early and I started walking back to my apartment. By the time I arrived I was in hell. Thankfully, my studio apartment only had one window and I put pillows in front of it to block out every bit of light I could.

My grandmother suffered from migraine pain for the bulk of her life so I wasn’t totally “in the dark” on what was happening to me. I can’t remember what I did in that moment to relieve symptoms other than hang on for dear life. Attacks came few and far between for many years. I can count on one hand how many attacks I had before I was 25 years old. While in corporate America (2014-2015), things started ramping up a little more. I ended up in a neurologist’s office to get help. The doctor gave me one pill to take when an attack was coming on. That worked…for awhile. Then it became as soon as I felt oncoming symptoms, if I left work, went home, got in bed, and took the medicine, I’d be okay in a few hours, left with a “hangover” feeling, but at least not in pain.

Leaving work wasn’t an option on a regular basis so I found myself back in the neurologist’s office. I don’t remember exact timing on this but it was either right before or right after I met Lukas. At this appointment the doc gave me different medications, and this time it was in two phases. I had a “level one” and a “level two”. Level one was a powder — if I could drink it within 10-15 minutes of the first symptoms, I’d typically be okay. If the powder didn’t work, or I wasn’t able to make a powder potion quick enough, then I’d have the level two option. Level two typically knocked me out mentally and physically and I often times had to go to bed and wake up an hour or so later groggy and “hungover” but again, no pain.

This phase of the journey was when things began really starting to affect regular life. Even the phrases “level one” and “level two” cause trauma triggering reactions in me because of how much life was affected in that part of our journey.

I remember headed to (or from) Niger on a plane where everyone was sleeping, when I started experiencing the first symptoms. I scrambled over the people in my row to get to the aisle, scurry to the stewardess’ cabin, and beg for a cup and a tiny bit of water, to get that powder into my system. I started carrying a water bottle with me everywhere so I’d be able to mix this myself, sometimes even in the cap of the bottle because there was no other option. Then there were the times we (Lukas and I after we were married) were “out and about” and I’d realize I didn’t have my medication. Either before or after the symptoms (typically tingling/numbness) started coming on. The latter would cause a full on panic attack, but the former wasn’t any less intense. I can’t count how many times we have turned the car around to get my medication.

The medical definition of “chronic migraine” is having 15 migraine days a month with 8 days of having migraine features, for more than 3 months. In the summer of 2017, I was officially at that point.

In this season, anxiety really started ramping up. Anxiety around if I had my medication, anxiety about being in social situations and being “stuck” in a migraine attack, anxiety around migraine ruining social situations or events or plans or, well, just about anything. At the time, Lukas nor I had language for what we were experiencing. And I say “we” because even though I was the one with the physical symptoms, I’ve learned now that chronic conditions don’t just affect the patient, they drastically affect the support system, as well!! We didn’t know how to talk about it — all we knew was I could be in intense pain at any moment, and that affected us, oh man it affected us so much!

Speaking of medications, the two I was taking weren’t cheap. We were blessed with incredible insurance so our medication bill (for two prescriptions) was about $40/month, but with the end of Lukas’ Chick-fil-A employment on the horizon, and doing the research on new health insurance, I realized we’d be paying the bulk of the cost of the medication out of pocket. “Level one” medicine was about $10 each powder pack I used and “Level two”, each pill, was $68. Yes, $68 PER PILL. I was at the point of taking both medications 6-8 times a month.

Because of our traveling around, I’d been calling my Atlanta neurologist to get medicine refills but wasn’t being seen by anyone regularly. Once the reality of the cost of my migraine medication faced us, I decided there HAD to be another way. We couldn’t spend $1000 a month for medication, seriously, there were far better ways to spend the money and I was determined (this is where that stubbornness comes into play!) to not affect our family’s finances this way.

In July of 2017, a friend of mine got really into essential oils. She was seeing incredible health benefits from those powerful plant juices and it felt like a great place for me to start. I bought a kit from her and so began my holistic health journey.

Expressing my desire to do things differently, more holistically, Lukas was concerned I wouldn’t be under the care of a doctor. He asked that I get an MRI of my brain to verify there was nothing else going on. At the time, we were living 15 hours away from my Atlanta neurologist so I just found a random one around the corner and got on their books to get checked out. I am so grateful for this office because, not only did they confirm that my brain was “okay” and I was again diagnosed with migraine, they also were the first doctor’s office that introduced me to vitamin supplementation for migraine relief. They recommended the “migraine trifecta” — Magnesium, Riboflavin (B2) and COQ10. I started taking those daily and even to this day, take them occasionally. With the “all clear” from a medical professional, Lukas supported my pursuit of the “other way” of doing things.

So, that’s the beginning! The next phase of the journey was exploring this “other way” which included getting rid of all medication — a pretty scary thing for someone experiencing chronic pain on a regular basis!!!!

xoxo, va

big moments

Yesterday, was my dad’s birthday. He’s now one year shy of 7-0 but you’d never guess he was rounding the corner into his seventies with how much full life he is still living.

Growing up, he worked a whole bunch. Sixty, seventy, even upwards of ninety and hundred hours weeks (the latter was a scary season that, thankfully, led to a job change!), were the norm. There aren’t tons of small, every day moments I remember having him around. My mom was superwoman, handling all day to day tasks with us kids. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve explored how this affected me growing up. There has been a little soul work to do and with Dad’s retirement a few summers back, it gave opportunity for reflection and discussion. He and I have talked about it and I’m good. Being loved by him was NEVER a doubt. I don’t hold it against him. But there’s always been a part of me that wishes he had been around for more of those every day moments.

Yet, two weeks ago, something clicked in my head. I was flying over the Gulf of Mexico, in a sea plane, above giant sea turtles, after traveling 60 miles off the shore of Key West to a remote National Park called the Dry Tortugas. No cell service. No electricity. And some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen in my life.

After having had a full day away from the kids, spending it in nature, my soul was alive, set on fire, and typically when that happens, every fiber of my being wants to write. Since I get air sick, and flying in a plane used commonly in the Alaska bush not designed for passenger comfort, I couldn’t write much but I penned this on a note app in my phone to attempt to capture what I was feeling.

“Adventures are worth it. The investment is worth it. Don’t get so caught up in the day to day life stuff that you forget to invest in BIG MOMENTS. Life is full of small moments and big moments. The small ones matter, the big ones do, too.”

This big moment wasn’t supposed to be mine. I wasn’t supposed to be on plane in the first place. It was my brother’s ticket but in the final hour, he heard I wanted to go and offered, not just his spot on the plane, but also to BABYSIT (Yes, best brother in the world!!)

So here I find myself, on a sea plane, with two of my favorite men in the world (my dad and husband) and I’m thinking about my father. Who he is. What makes him tick. The relationship we’ve had. His presence while I was growing up.

It dawned on me that most of my memories with my dad are BIG moment memories. Like when we rode a trolley in San Francisco, took a ferry to Prince Edward Island, saw the Pope speak at the Vatican, hiked rim to rim of the Grand Canyon, watched the Allman Brothers at the Beacon Theater in NYC, visited Alcatraz in San Diego, traveled on a house boat down the Florida coast, climbed a lighthouse to watch a sunset, at my wedding, just to name a few.

I almost talked myself out of getting on the Sea Plane to the Dry Tortugas. Anxiety was kicking in and my professional “worst case scenario” tapes in my head started to play. Would there be enough water? What if I got a migraine? Air sick? Sun burnt? As I opened up and shared this with a few fam members at dinner the night before, my brother asked “what’s the BEST scenario?” (That deserves it’s own blog post — how GREAT is that question?!)) and my response was something to the affect — I’d have the best time with two of my best men making life changing memories.

That’s exactly what it was. A true life changing, soul filling, experience. Only a week removed from wearing my breastfeeding hat, I had begun the journey to find out who is VIRGINIA, apart from the kids. Being gone a full day with no cell service, shoved me into a sacred space of being present on the grand adventure and, like I said, it set my soul on fire.

And my dad? He made it happen. He dreamed of the experience. He planned the trip. He paid the bill. And he sat next to me on the plane.

I spend a lot of my time and energy fighting to stay present. To soak in the little moments with my kids. To make the daily grind a little less grind-y by fighting for joy in any old hour out of the day. That’s a worthy cause, a cross I would die on to prove it’s importance. AND I see how important it is to also fight for the big moments. I’ll quote myself, again…

“Adventures are worth it. The investment is worth it. Don’t get so caught up in the day to day life stuff that you forget to invest in BIG MOMENTS. Life is full of small moments and big moments. The small ones matter, the big ones do, too.”

My dad has been a champion for those big moments, my entire life. He worked long, tireless days to put money in the bank to pay for them. He’s created countless spreadsheets and done a bajillion hours of research to prepare for them. He’s instilled in me an adventurer spirit, a wanderlust heart and through these adventures, a confidence to take risks and be brave.

It’s a legacy I’m grateful for…for me and for my kids. We are sure blessed to have him as a father and Papa!!!! Happy Birthday, Dad, I love you SO much! Thanks for these memories and all the many ones we will make in the future ❤️

xoxo, va

learning to lament

I’m cooking dinner/washing clothes/playing on my phone/staring out the window (any number of normal every day life things) and Tabby starts crying. Tears that communicate pain, not frustration or anger or annoyance. As her mom, I know the difference.

My first thought, and the first words out of my mouth instinctually are “what happened?” It’s done very empathetically (most of the time), there’s a hug involved, a brushing tears off her face, a sadness in my own heart as I watch my child suffer.

And yet verbally, when I am asking her (sometimes over and over) “what happened?” I am requiring something from her in that moment. I’m requiring her to explain to me what happened, explain to me why she’s hurting.

When she’s crying, I am uncomfortable, I hurt, there’s an ache in my own heart. And I’ve been trained (by God who designed me this way, by myself, by my caregivers, by the world) to run away from pain and discomfort. One method of running from it, in an effort to get away from it, to stop hurting, to make the pain go away for both of us — is to fix it.

And I can’t fix it if I don’t know what happened.

So, logically, my first question is — “what happened?”

In that moment I’m communicating something with the purest intention — mommy is trying to understand so mommy can fix it.

With the tears flowing, when she can’t catch her breath, when her heart is heavy with pain, I am asking her to articulate what has happened to her and I recognize, that’s a really big ask.

So…I started experimenting.

I practiced focusing on her pain, first, and THEN tried to figure out what happened, second.

Insert same scenarios, sometimes multiple times a day…I’m cooking dinner/washing clothes/playing on my phone/staring out the window (any number of normal every day life things) and Tabby starts crying. Tears that communicate pain, not frustration or anger or annoyance. As her mom, I know the difference.

“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry, Tabby! Come here!” I get on her level, I hug, I wipe the tears away, I feel the sadness in my own heart as she feels the pain in hers.

At first, it was so hard. Everything in me is screaming — FIX IT FIX IT FIX IT!!! WHAT HAPPENED??!! FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED SO YOU CAN FIX IT.

And I even snuck in some “what happened?” questions to start.

But then, over time, I got better at it.

I’d be cooking dinner/washing clothes/playing on my phone/staring out the window (any number of normal every day life things) and Tabby starts crying. Tears that communicate pain, not frustration…you get the picture.

And I’ve learned some stuff.

1. When I wasn’t using emotional energy trying to understand what happened, trying to fix, getting frustrated I couldn’t fix, I was able to fully show up for her in her pain while causing my own self minimal pain in the process.

2. In turn, she wasn’t using emotional energy trying to communicate the situation. She focused her emotional energy on healing instead of explaining to me what happened.

3. With less emotional energy spent from either of us, the moments passed quickly, sometimes almost instantaneously, with minimal interruption to the flow of the day.

4. When I stopped focusing on fixing it and instead focused on showing up for her in her pain, I realized, 9 times out of 10 there was NOTHING for me to even fix. The getting on her level, the hug, the wiping the tears, that was often all she needed.

I have so much I want to say. So much about lamentation and compassion. So much God is teaching me about both. He’s connecting dots, He’s revealing stuff about who He is, letting me learn things, showing me better ways of doing things. I’ll get more clarity on that one day and I’ll share, because as a writer, I can’t, not.

In motherhood, I get the opportunity to “fix” stuff in their lives, with band aids and snacks and iPad and skin-to-skin and kisses. And it feels REALLY good to fix stuff. But with every day that passes. I recognize there are and will continue to be, more and more things that I can’t. More stuff in their lives I can’t fix. I can only cry when they cry. Hurt when they hurt. And just sit in all of it with them.

I want to be a more compassionate human — for the world, outside my home, for people standing on the streets and the ones who live next door. People are feeling SO MUCH PAIN right now and I want to engage with it, well. In a way that’s healthy for me and healthy for those I want to lament with.

I tell my self all the time I will never be able to do “it” (whatever it is) out there, if I don’t first do it in here (with my own “four people”).

God has gifted me a safe place to practice lamenting in the four walls of my home. When I’m tired and grouchy and fussy and my oldest bursts into tears, I still grab for the comfortable “what happened?” but I’m learning to not use it as often. I’m learning to let her cry, hold her tight, and tell her she’s okay. Sometimes we get to a point where the question “what happened?” makes sense, and other times she just runs back to her toys and I go back to stirring the soup on the stove.

xoxo, va

sleep training update

Can I even call it sleep training anymore? I’ve literally been telling people we’ve been sleep training for six months.

We haven’t hit a sweet spot.

We haven’t gotten consistency.

We haven’t made it to a schedule.

And yet, we’re all still here, still breathing, still living, still, dare I say, THRIVING.

If you’d asked me 10 months ago what I’d need to thrive here, now, with James outside of the womb, the first thing on that list would probably have been sleep.

How do I manage a 3 year old as a stay-at-home mom with a baby who doesn’t sleep with any kind of regularity?

How do I plan our days, set up appointments…FUNCTION…without sleep consistency?

I’ve heard it said before that different kids parented by the same parents can still come out differently. I think there’s studies out there where they follow twins and one is a thriving member of society and the other is a sociopath. Before becoming a mom, or even a mom of up until about 6 months ago, anytime I thought about parents raising multiple kids I’d always pictured one, or two, parents parenting kids the same. I mean, that makes sense, right? If they are the same parents, aren’t they parenting the kids the same, or at least super similar?

I’ve also heard many moms before me talk about how different their kids are. I heard that and thought, okay, sure, they are different, that makes sense, as they grow up they will be different but how different can they really be as babies, they are BABIES, aren’t babies kind of all the same?

Or at least that’s what mainstream data/culture/info told me as a mom:

“Babies need to weigh this much at this point of their lives.”

“Babies need this many hours of sleep.”

“Babies need to eat this quantity, this many times a day.”

So if all “babies need… should…. have to…”, how DIFFERENT can they actually be?

And then I had James Paul Fortunato.

Tabby slept through the night very early on. James hasn’t done so, yet.

Tabby drank 6 bottles a day, 5 ounce bottles every single time. James nursed on demand and even now as a bottle fed baby, sometimes drinks 2 ounces, sometimes 7, sometimes won’t even drink anything at all.

Tabby ate solid foods via baby led weaning. James started with purees.

Tabby had ZERO issues with weight gain and was always on the high end of the spectrum. James’ weight was a serious battle for a few months.

Tabby never learned to nurse. James was a pro.

Tabby cried, A LOT, randomly and for no reason, during the day. James only cries when he’s pissed off or needs something.

Tabby took SO LONG to fall asleep but when she was out, she was out. James falls asleep instantly but really struggles to stay asleep.

Tabby slept in our room for less than 2 weeks. James is still with us.

Tabby hated crawling and walked at 9 months. James is a lightening fast, knee moving machine.

Tabby ate anything we put in front of her, James will spit something out if he doesn’t like it and will eat around items to find his factories.

As I think about the differences in my children, I think about how differently I’m parenting them. It’s not just them who’s different, it’s me too. I am different. VERY different. The mother I was December 19th, 2018, is very different than the one I was June 13th, 2021 and still today.

There’s a verse we quote in our home, A LOT. I’m sure I’ve taken it out of context, have the history all wonky, and am using it all wrong, but the words “for such a time as this” speak huge Truth into our home when spoken.

“For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14

For such a time as this, I am the exact mother both of my children need. I was different when Tabby was a baby and that was the mom she needed. I am different now, and this is who James needs as a baby. I’ll be different in a month, a year, a decade, as we all ride this wave of mother/child life together.

So in summary, sleep training, is, well, it’s just our normal every day life. I’m thankful for the plan our sleep consultant, Denise, put together for us (she is SO GOOD!!!!!) because we keep coming back to it as true north and just continue to take it all one step at a time. And if you ask big sister how sleep training was going she’d say AWESOME because she gets to “watch iPad when you put baby down!!!!!” Good or bad? Hard to say!

xoxo, va

IT’S OUR HOUSE!!

It’s finished!! It’s ready!!!! And it’s OURS!!!!!!

As you read these words, we are only hours away from signing paperwork and getting keys to our NEW HOME.

Throughout this process, I’ve checked in on our hearts regularly. How are we feeling? How are we handling stuff? Where are the pain points? What’s keeping us hopeful?

The other day, in one of these three-year-old version check-ins, I asked Tabby if she missed our old house. She said no but she was sad and wanted to go back. I asked why. “Because our POD (with all of her toys) is there.” I told her the good news — our POD will be at our NEW house when it’s finished! She started clapping and jumping up and down and said “I’m ready to be in the new house!” Me too, baby girl, me too.

Today we sign paperwork and the POD, packed to the brim with everything we own, will be dropped in our new driveway.

The washer and dryer should be delivered soon after, refrigerator and wifi installed tomorrow and then by the evening, our hope is to move the kids in.

The only furniture we have is our beds and a few sentimental pieces we decided to keep after selling 75% of our stuff in February’s yard sale.

We won’t have furniture…or blinds…but we have a whole lot of excitement!!

We are excited to get off this 2022 home selling/buying rollercoaster. We are excited to be moving for the last time, for a really long time. We are excited for this next chapter of our lives, for the community we’ll be a part of, the memories we will make.

Through every unknown, towards the end of this process, my heart repeated over and over “don’t stop marching”.

Do you know the story of Jericho? Instead of fighting, God told an army to march around a city. They marched and marched and marched. Sometimes silently, and then with loud voices and shouts, the walls of the city fell down. I can only imagine how insane they looked and how silly they felt.

There have been moments, in this process we probably looked insane (like choosing homelessness with two small kids!) and there have been many moments I felt silly (and crazy and dumb and full of doubt), as we continued to March in faith on the days everything looked SO hopeless.

But here we sit, standing on top of the rubble with the walls crumbled down. Not by our might, but thanks to a God who fought the battle on our behalf.

One of my battle cries in the waiting was “even if…”

Even if God didn’t bless us with this home, He was still good, still God and still in control. He didn’t have to make this all work out. He could have gotten glory another way. I’ve received plenty of “holy nos” at the end of the “holy waits” but this time, THIS time, it was a HOLY YES and I, WE!, could not be more grateful.

xoxo, va

is it wrong?

Last night I dreamed of the house. Our builder was there, the project manager we’ve gotten to know, their realtor, some of the construction guys. Our builder was showing his team what a great job they did, congratulating them on their work, thanking them for the effort they put in that created the amazing product we were standing in. James and Lukas weren’t attending this meeting but Tabby and I were present. She, running around her new house, later watching iPad as I walked around with the group. 

I wanted to call it our new house but I couldn’t. Everyone knew we were in this appraisal dispute process. Our builder knew what the house was worth and wouldn’t take less. We knew what cash we could put forward to close. We were all waiting. Waiting for the bank to review it, and review it, and REVIEW IT, with hopes the conclusive numbers meant this beautiful home was ours. 

I woke up spinning. This has been SO HARD. Does that make it wrong? Can we really afford this? Is this God’s protection to get us out of it? Maybe it’s not a right or a wrong, maybe it’s a grey area? If that’s the case, I believe we get to choose — do we WANT to spend our money this way? I go back to all the reasons we wanted this house in the first place…those haven’t changed. Those are still my heart’s desire.

Is it a risk? Absolutely. There’s nothing certain. Nothing promised. Nothing guaranteed. 

I want to make decisions not based on fear, but on faith. Not faith that everything is going to be “perfect” but faith that we will figure it out. We will adjust. We will adapt.

Do we believe that we can use this home for God’s glory? HELL YES. Do we believe this is the best place, the best neighborhood, the best home, for our family? HELL YES. Then is it worth fighting for? HELL YES! 

What’s the alternative? Not buying this house means a temporary rental solution, and another house hunt for the same home in a different neighborhood or a smaller home in the same neighborhood. Neither option makes me excited, neither one is what I want, neither one sets my heart on fire.

In 10 years, will I be glad we took the risk with this house? 

I don’t have to sit on that question for any length of time. The answer is simple…YES. Even if the housing market crashed and the investment wasn’t worth it anymore. Even if our paychecks disappeared. Even if we had to sell it and lose money. Even if, God forbid, we lost the home entirely. Would I say this was worth it? YES. I’d say I’m proud of the risk we took for all the reasons we’ve spent hours upon hours wrestling with and thinking on. This wasn’t a decision we entered lightly. This wasn’t a flippant choice. This has been an 11 month process. We said NO to houses for various reasons. We were diligent. We’ve been intentional. And even if we “fail”, I’m so glad we took the risk. 

Because I don’t think it’s a question of is it wrong or is it right? I think it’s a question of is it worth it? 

And my answer, today, is YES. I bet on this house. I bet on the life we want to build in it, the home we want to create in it, the community we want to have around it. I bet on this home. I bet on the people who’ll live in it. I bet on the fact that we will figure it out. I bet on us!!

xoxo, va

maybe not our house

“I want to get OFF this rollercoaster” I texted a friend this week.

On January 10th, I stepped foot into a house I thought we might want to buy. That was 3 houses ago, with the same builder, and we’re still riding.

Two weeks ago, we received the appraisal report on our house. It was over our contract price so great, full steam ahead, thumbs up, check, close date scheduled for March 24th.

Within 24 hours we found out construction was pushing our closing date a week. PIVOT. We had to figure out how to extend our Airbnb stay, figure out a new plan for childcare for the close, and find new people to help with the new move in date. That all seemed really overwhelming but we navigated it and bam, we had a new plan in place by the end of the weekend.

Monday afternoon we get a call from our lender, a voicemail to both of our phones that said “since your house appraised less than your contract price we need to know your next steps…”

UM. WHAT?!

This must be a misunderstanding.

Hurry, hurry get them on the phone.

No one is answering.

Omg. What is going on??

Come on, answer!!

Finally, we get on the phone with the lender (in all actuality this was probably 2 hours max but felt like TWO YEARS because what is going on????)

Well, that’s weird. We’re looking at the same appraisal report but different numbers?

Turns out, we weren’t supposed to see the appraisal report, yet. The higher number wasn’t “real” because the lender didn’t like the results and was auditing the report, asking for different compatibles to be used. The new report, the binding one, the one that was being used to make decisions on our loan was significantly less. Aka, the bank wasn’t going to give us the money we needed for our house. Dang.

What the heck? How did we get here? We sold our house, moved into an Airbnb, our construction was delayed but now we might not even get in there…EVER?!

That was last week. And since, there have been a lot of tears, a lot of processing, a lot of seeking wise counsel and crunching numbers and…a lot of new information.

It actually wasn’t even the big bad bank’s fault after all. The appraisal company did their own internal review, called for an audit, and brought the market value down 90K. NINETY THOUSAND DOLLARS. Are you kidding me?? I’ve learned more about appraisals than I ever wanted to know, in my life…EVER…and am learning most importantly how subjective the objective process can be.

Thankfully, our bank, a BIG bank that mostly has a bad wrap but we chose them anyway because they’ve always treated us phenomenal, well, they are on our team, in our corner, and fighting this out in our behalf. Looking at the appraisal, they too, see glaring issues and are “moving it up the food chain”, if you will, in an escalation process that gives our account a lot of attention from the right people. We received the BEST possible news late Friday when our bank team deemed the appraisal “unusable”.

We still aren’t a hundred percent sure what the next steps are. Our lender rep has learned a lot from our account because it’s presented him with challenges he’s never faced before. He’s THE BEST and has been fighting so hard for us ever since we had the two hour “you’re pre-approved!” call with him back in January. He’s shouldered the roller coaster of emotions burden with us as he’s the one that is always delivering the good, and not so good, news.

We may not be clear on what’s coming next, but one thing is for certain, God’s never left our sides. What was “supposed to” be a harvest season for family has felt, for lack of a better word, brutal. In the past two weeks, we have spent more days NOT knowing what roof we’d have over our heads than days assured of where we’d sleep. Each day, or even hour, as we’ve reached the end of our rope, God shows up. Often times in ways we never would have expected.

Currently? We are living with Mom and Dad Fortunato. Our AirBnb was unavailable for an extension so we moved out of there this weekend. We moved…again. And it was hard…again. And Lukas and I are exhausted…again. But find ourselves roommates with two amazing humans, feeling love and security and safety, tucked into what we call “Tabby’s Narnia”, at Mimi and Papa’s house with more toys than any little person could ever dream of wanting and perfect spaghetti and meatballs these two weary parents can’t get enough of!!

This was the verse from my email devotion this morning. I was so convinced when we found this house back in January that THIS would be our season of harvest. We’ve done a lot of sowing seeds these first five years of marriage and it felt like WOW, YES, look at what fruit the Lord is blessing us with!!

There have been days throughout these past few weeks I’ve thought, “well, guess this wasn’t the harvest season after all” so this verse stopped me in my tracks.

Open your eyes, VA, and look all around you! There is MUCH fruit to harvest!

Fruit, not in material possessions of a new and beautiful home, but in the Spirit.

Love. Patience. Kindness. Joy. Peace. Faith, Gentleness. Self control.

I have witnessed these fruits in my family in ways that blow me away. Spirit is HERE. He’s among us, because with so much stripped away, with so much unknown, so much uncertainty, so much out of our control, we are still laughing and loving and enjoying each other. And you know what? Whether we end up in this dream home or are back to square one on where to call home, I declare with confident assurance that this HAS been a season of harvest for Team Fortunato!!

xoxo, va