Judgy McJudger Chooses the Carrot over the Whip

“We cannot judge ourselves into improvement. It doesn’t work.” Tara Brach

Yesterday, I did something I don’t usually do, mostly because I forget it’s the better, kinder thing. I made a pact with myself that if I vacuumed the house, made the bed, and cleaned the toilet, that I would reward myself by starting a new book (Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner).

Normally I say to myself, “Get off your lazy ass and get your chores done!” But I’m tired of being mean to myself, or rather, I’m tired of judgement being my go-to threat when I want to accomplish something. I would certainly never say that to a friend!

Judging is so…shallow and lazy. No real thought goes into judging. Over and over I know this is true because after all these years as a mom, grandma, partner, employer, and employee, I know that I get a lot more cooperation when I dangle a carrot instead of a whip.

So why doesn’t that rule automatically apply to me? Especially now. You’d think I would defer to a more kind approach since I’m only one month post-hip replacement surgery. I’m definitely on the mend, and yet my first thoughts on my recovery are usually more negative than positive. For instance, I can’t walk too far or too fast. I am still on a 90-degree restriction, meaning I can’t bend over very far or shave my legs past my knees. I can’t sit in a chair or in a car for longer than an hour without pain around the incision.

But what I can do is: Walk without a cane most days, and with zero hip joint pain. I wouldn’t be able to outrun a bear if it crossed my yard (which they do sometimes), but I couldn’t before either, so there you go. I have a grabber if I drop something, and I’ve mastered the golf ball pick-up move.

golf_ball_pick-up

Obviously, that is NOT me.

I can drive myself to physical therapy and to the grocery store to pick up my online grocery order. And for a week I’ve been riding the recumbent bike at home and at physical therapy for 10 minutes at a time, which is 10 minutes longer than I have the last 18 months.

Rather than buck, kick, and wish things were different or would hurry up and heal already, I decided yesterday that, since I have to put my feet up during the day anyway, I would use that to my advantage and reward my accomplishments. Also, I never thought I’d miss vacuuming or cleaning the toilet, but it felt really good to be self-sufficient again and contribute to the household chores. A positive reward in and of itself! Jim still has to do the laundry since the washer and dryer are in the basement and the stairs are uneven, but I admit that’s one chore I’m not anxious to resume, and I positively embrace that point of view!

Judging is a hard habit to break, but I’m consciously trying to be on Team Lynn and to see the half-full glass.

What about you? As I asked on my Zen Bag Lady Facebook page, do you reward yourself for completing ordinary tasks? Please leave a comment here or join us on FB!

 

 

 

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Pain Is NOT an Identity

Physical pain is something most of us don’t like to talk about in public, or even among friends and family. I mean, seriously, who wants to be that person? Most people wouldn’t believe you anyway if you told them you hurt pretty much all the time, and it’s not easy to brace against the look that says, “Really? It’s probably all in your head.” When we’re asked, “How are you?” we politely reply, “Fine! And you?”

But pain can be scary, especially when its origins are unknown or sketchy, or the cure daunting, and when we carry that burden privately, holed up in our head, pain can make us feel isolated and emotionally weak. We might think we’re being brave by sucking it up and continuing to do the things that make us hurt, like it’s an act of defiance, but really it’s an act of denial. We take the Advil and the Tylenol and the prescriptions, and almost always we adapt, usually without realizing how and to what extent.

Now that I’m on the other side of hip replacement surgery, I recognize how I consciously and unconsciously coped with the pain, and how pain became my identity. I was someone who limped and sat around a lot. I planned my days by how many times I would have to move because standing, walking, and climbing stairs sucked equally and took a great deal of gritting my teeth to do. I stopped doing things I loved, like going to flea markets and perusing antique malls. Jim got the mail most days, even though our mailbox is only 40 feet from the house, up a slight incline. When we’d talk about going on vacation (hell, even going out for breakfast!), to me it felt like a pipe dream, something I used to do. I couldn’t think beyond the pain because it had taken over my life, and I had let it.

I also ate for comfort. My food intake was pathetic. Salads? Nope, because making one meant standing for longer than a few minutes. I’d throw a piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato on a cheese sandwich and call it a day. Fruit? Once in a while I’d slice a banana on top of a bowl of Cheerios. Most fruit and lettuce went to the crisper to die. White bread was more calming than whole wheat, Hershey’s Kisses more sympathetic than an apple.

Now that the hip pain is gone, I look at my world with a bit more hope. But I also realize how deeply embedded those adaptive habits are and how loud that voice is that still tells me I can’t. Therefore, I want to – consciously and in good faith – change the message and the habits.

  1. I want to listen to what’s going on in my body with joy and expectation that this new hip will allow me to move again without fear. When it would be easier to lay around, I will remind myself that it’s OK to move. To get up on that country road I live on and walk a little. Take the dog along, or call my neighbor and have her meet me halfway to her house a few tenths of a mile from mine. Who cares what I look like with a cane and T.E.D. hose? (Confession: I had to do some positive self talk this morning to get motivated to go to the grocery store wearing shorts, my T.E.D hose, and my sensible slip-on shoes. As I walked through the store, I realized that no one but me gave a damn what I was wearing, and it was a humbling and good lesson.)

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    First order of business once I don’t have to wear these anymore: a good shave and a pedi (in that order).

  2. I want to be more mindful of my food intake. Not that I will return to my militant ways from 2005 to 2012ish, but instead, I want to engage with food in a more balanced way. To see it as all things healthy and comforting. More vegetables, fewer nachos. That kind of thing.
  3. I also want to work on changing how I respond to pain in relation to other people. I noticed that in the last 18 months, I often compared my physical pain with someone else’s pain and pain circumstances, especially those that I perceived were worse than mine. I would then demote my experience to insignificant/not-so-bad, even though it impacted every facet of my life. But my pain is my pain, and it’s possible to acknowledge and sympathize with the pain others experience, while also acknowledging that what I feel is significant to my life.
  4. Also, there’s no need to feel guilty for reaching out to a friend to say, “Today is not a good day. I hurt. I needed to say that out loud.” I say this because today I reread something I wrote in 2014, the last time I had a hip replacement, that helped me remember that we really do need people, and that people need us to need them.
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Family therapy a few hours after surgery. The grandbabies brought me a pink sloth and a blanket that says “Namaste and Cuddle”. 

Pain is a suck fest, no doubt, but we’re better off acknowledging it, especially to ourselves and those closest to us. It’s the only way to be aware of our responses and our coping mechanisms. There’s nothing wrong with a good cry, a woe-is-me moment with a friend, or a slice of carrot cake when we’re mindful of why.

Pain is not an identity. It might be a part of our life, but it’s not who we are.

 

 

 

 

Laid Bare By a Questionnaire

Talking to a stranger about ourselves can (sometimes) be fun at a party or on a first date; cathartic when the stranger is receptive or being paid to listen; marginally OK/not OK standing in line at the grocery store; and downright disconcerting when the inquiry is particularly personal and your life kinda sorta depends on how you answer.

In preparation for my hip replacement on Wednesday, a surgical nurse called Friday to ask me questions about my medical history. Even the blogger in me, whose “job” is to write stuff about my life and share it with strangers, is unnerved by the medical interview because who doesn’t want to bring their best to an interview?

Martha, the surgical nurse, seemed very nice. She’d had her hip replaced last year, so she was empathetic. She started with the easy questions. Well, easy questions to answer, but not so easy to feel inside. Date of birth? How tall am I? How much do I weigh…? Apparently “Not what I’d like to” isn’t the right answer. Old habits die hard, and I made an excuse for being overweight again and vowed to her (reminder, she is a complete stranger who I’ll never meet) that I would lose 50 pounds once I had a new hip.

I could hear her typing and she offered no response, so of course I thought, ‘Crap, maybe she’s overweight, too, and I’ve insulted her!’, but I didn’t go there. Apologizing would maybe have furthered an even bigger cluster f*** than I’d potentially created.

My mind was everywhere it didn’t need to be at that point.

*deep breath*

Martha moved on. She asked about what surgeries I’ve had, how my various body systems were functioning, and how I responded to anesthesia. I gave short, succinct answers. She didn’t need to know that after I had my tonsils out, when I as 17, when I woke up after surgery, I lifted up the sheet and cried, “I’m naked! I want my mom!”

Martha asked if I had children. I said I did. God love Martha, I dodged a bullet when she asked, “When were your babies born?” I answered, without hesitation and with a deep breath out, “1983 and 1984.” In prior medical interviews, the question was phrased, “How many times have you been pregnant?” That’s a red-flag question for anyone who has had a miscarriage or abortion, and the response can trigger a shit-ton of regret and sad feelings. Thank you, Martha, for not making me go there.

Any depression or anxiety issues? Well, now, that’s complicated. I blabbed on for a while, giving her way more info than she probably needed, but then, I wanted her (again, a complete stranger) to understand that I wasn’t always depressed or anxious, and that lately, things were going well and…and… and… She listened patiently, and when I was finished, she simply said, “Take an Ativan the day of your procedure.” End of convo.

There’s so much about our lives we want to keep private, and it’s in our protective nature that we don’t want to offer full disclosure about things that, to non-medical folks like me, don’t seem relevant when being interviewed for a hip replacement. Just like a job interview, you want to stay upbeat and say what you need to in order to get the job.

Was I 100 percent truthful? Not really. But I doubt that the joint(s) I smoked when I was 16 (to 24) preclude me from getting this hip. I’ve had five other surgeries since that last high and I’m alive to tell the story.

Just don’t tell Martha, OK? (Or my mom.)

 

 

There Is Always an Otherwise

It’s early afternoon, and I write this propped up in my bed, listening to it rain…again…with my little dog Zuzu curled up at my side. Next to her is my tablet, in case I want to read or watch a show; my latest journal, which has some angry entries of late; my phone; and the strap I use to stretch my leg muscles, IT band, and hip flexors.

When I started writing this, I was reminded of a poem I saved from a teaching demonstration I gave in a grad class once, and I want to share it with you. It will help explain the rest of this post.

WHEN I COULD WALK

By Katherine M. Clarke

 After Edward Hirsch, “The Sweetness”

The times my failing body and I could walk 
come back to me now: strolls by the Charles River, 
ambles through Harvard Square…

Magnolias waved and buskers’ antics
delighted our summer nights, companions 
as we roamed and wandered.

Remember the bags of groceries muscled
from porch, to countertop, to cupboards? 
We made a dinner, we made a life.

Wasn’t that us sliding into a bath, slipping 
into fresh sheets, moving as we wanted, 
with whom we wanted, when we wanted?

They come back to me now, dear body of mine, 
the times when I could walk and loved you more.

I got about 90 minutes of sleep last night. Thanks to Dr. Google, at about 2 a.m. I learned I probably have a pinched nerve in my left hip. Twelve hours later, I fear sciatica has set in as well.

Surely we all know someone (yourself, perhaps) who suffers from no-turning-back physical pain or deficiency; the kind that will be around – in some form or other – the rest of their/our days. It is with all of us in mind that I write with empathy, sympathy, and – even – joy (or at the very least, acknowledgment) that we’re still breathing, one breath at a time.

When I turned 55 ten months ago, I was super OK with it, unlike when I turned 30, which I realize now, my response was ridiculous. I should have celebrated instead of getting drunk and getting a half-assed, unfinished tattoo of a dolphin because it reminded me of my high school boyfriend, who got a dolphin tattoo when he was in the Navy. What? But 30-year-old me, and most likely 30-year-old you, couldn’t possibly (thank god) know what life would be like at 55, and so we went with whatever flow was going on in our brains at the time, and my flow was having a bit of a meltdown. So be it.

These days, I’m less concerned with filling in that tattoo as I am putting my Humpty Dumpty body into some reasonable semblance of reliability. Last night, as waves of nerve pain snaked through my hip at 3- to 5-minute intervals, keeping me awake, I shifted from anxiety (thank you Ativan), to denial, to meditation. I concentrated on my breathing and told my thoughts that I’d think them later. For the most part that alleviated my fear, which was what dominated my monkey night mind. Can any of us claim to be rational in the middle of the night?

One of the more difficult things about grad school wasn’t the sometimes obscure reading, research, or writing papers. It was getting around campus on two bad knees, a bum hip, and a back in need of titanium rods and screws. Now, a year after graduating, and countless attempts at physical therapy, yoga, and trying to be “normal,” my body has slipped away from my control. A cane completes the leg that limps, 50 percent what it used to be. I sometimes let myself wish for my 48-year-old body. (I don’t think I’d know what to do with my 30-year-old body again!) When I was 48, I knew I wasn’t invincible. I sensed that my body and I were on the cusp of the inevitable, but still we had our adventures. I took advantage of my body because I knew it wouldn’t last long.

Last night, I wrote in my journal: “Do I want to live to 100? Meh…no. I’m OK dying ‘young’ish – sooner if pain will be constantly in the picture.” That neither alarmed or surprised me. I assure you I’m not suicidal. But the older I get, the more willing I am to face my fears. I don’t have to like them, and I don’t like how my body has betrayed me, but I want to live with them, live in this body, with as much peace as I can.

And so, from this perch on my bed, with my dog still beside me, I share another poem, one of my favorites, by Jane Kenyon, called “Otherwise.” In all of our lives, there is always an otherwise.

Otherwise

By Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

 

 

 

 

“Vietnam Coffee Cans” and Other Childhood Memories

I was born in Minneapolis in 1963, when the tallest building in Minnesota was still the Foshay Tower; Harmon Killebrew and the Twins, and Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings played ball at Metropolitan Stadium; the Guthrie Theater opened; and Hubert Humphrey was a senator.

Several famous people share my birth year: Johnny Depp, Tori Amos, John Stamos, Mike Meyers, Brad Pitt, Coolio, Quentin Tarantino, Larry the Cable Guy, and Charles Barkley. We were born at the apex of the Baby Boom and Gen X, in the age of Mad Men, “Duck and Cover,” and the space race. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech two weeks after I was born, and JFK was assassinated in November.

My family at the time – Dad, Mom, Marty, sister Debbie, and me – lived in the then-burgeoning suburb of Bloomington. In 1966, my brother Matthew was born.

We lived on the west side on a street of newly built houses with enough structural variety that they didn’t all look the same. We lived there until I was 8, so my memories are mostly of a Leave it to Beaver, homogenized neighborhood, where husbands went to work in the morning and wives stayed home to take care of the kids. Neighbors held Fourth of July parades, backyard carnivals, and picnics in the summers, and in the winter, there was ice skating and hockey at the rink near the grade school. Mom made us put bread bags over our socks so we could pull on our boots more easily.

I didn’t know until I was much older that a pedophile lived among us, as did a drug dealer and murderer. My only bad memory of Bloomington was when I nearly drowned in a neighbor’s pool when I was 5.

I had asked my mom if I could go swimming in “Tyler’s pool.” Tyler was a little boy about a year younger than me. She thought I meant his plastic wading pool and I didn’t correct her. My plan was to go in the big pool with the slide.

Tyler’s parents were at the same backyard picnic as my parents, so there was no supervision. I don’t know if I thought it just came naturally, but I had no idea how to swim. There were a few other kids there, swimming and playing Marco Polo. I stepped carefully down the ladder, but being less than four feet tall, I didn’t clear the shallow end by much. As I floated into the deep end, I struggled to stay afloat and started gasping for air. I don’t know if it was grace, luck, or a guardian angel directive, but when I was no longer able to keep my head above water, an arm reached down and pulled me out. It was Mr. Hoard and he saved my life. (Mr. Hoard, from Little Avenue, if you read this, thank you!) He wrapped me in a towel and brought me to my mom, who offered a little sympathy, but mostly a good tongue lashing.

I took swimming lessons a few years later, but I never conquered my fear of water. I still need to be able to touch the bottom whenever I’m in a pool, a lake, or the ocean.

In 1970-71, Vietnam was still abstruse to me, but not to the women in the neighborhood or my older sister. I recently asked my sister and mom (who will be 87 on Sunday) to fill me in on what I remember as “The Vietnam Coffee Cans” days.

Debbie: I do not recall whose idea it was to do this, but the women named the group “Little Avenue Neighbors.” Little Avenue was just a few blocks from our house. We got the names and addresses from neighbors, churches, etc. When dates were settled on when the cans would be filled, the families would start saving coffee cans of all sizes. The women would visit local businesses – usually drug stores – for donations of toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, mirrors, sweets, writing paper, pens, air mail envelopes, etc.  

Mom: A neighbor on Little Avenue had the idea of sending packages to our service men and women in Vietnam. I am not sure how she got the names and addresses, but she ended up with many of them. She would go to grocery stores, drug stores and any other stores she could and got them to donate products to be sent.

Debbie: I only recall this event being held at our house, but I could be wrong. The evening before or the morning of, Dad would move the furniture in the family room against the wall and put in a few saw horses and some plywood for our work space. We circled the tables with folding chairs.  

Mom: We met at her home to pack the coffee cans, also donated by businesses and
neighbors. She didn’t have much room at her house. We had added on the family room, so I
volunteered our house and that worked out well. All the products were brought to our house the night before, so our living room was quite full.

Debbie: I would help make simple sandwiches for everyone in the morning for our lunch. Probably also had some chips, coffee and iced tea. All the ladies brought their non-school kids, so it was quite chaotic! We wanted to get the whole job done by the time the school age kids got home and in time for the ladies to make dinner, I’m sure!  

Mom: Even the kids helped when they had a day off from school. Also, some women brought their little kids with them, so we made sure they had things to play with. The women would bring food for lunch and treats for coffee. Being I furnished the house, I just had the coffee and Kool-Aid for everyone.

Debbie: We filled the cans assembly-line style, so we put all of the goodies in piles and moved the cans down the line. Everyone would fill out a recipe card with their name and address in case the guys wanted to write to us. This would go at the very top of the can before closing it. The lid would be taped down with masking tape, then we would wrap the can in brown paper and label it. All the cans went into large boxes and one of the men would drive the cans to the post office. Everyone pitched in for the postage.

Mom: All the things we were sending had to be put into individual piles. We had bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, candy, peanuts, you name it. We were not to pack cookies or anything that would crumble in the cans. We would write notes to them and change off jobs packing, typing addresses, etc. We worked all day and then some would pack up the cans and take them to the post office. The postal workers did not like to see them come in with all of the cans!

Debbie: I think our dinner those nights were very simple or take out! The whole experience was exhausting, to say the least.

Mom: It was a lot of work and we were all tired at the end of the day, but it was a good tired. We had a good time. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. I do believe the families of all of the women knew they would have to take care of themselves for supper. We were all pooped! Your dad (now age 88) reminded me that we would have Chinese takeout with extra rice and extra noodles.

Debbie: I just looked at my letters. I have one from a guy from January 1971 and three from another guy in August, September, and October 1970.  I have two photos from the guy who wrote three times.  

Mom: Forgot one story. We found out that there was one woman we sent to. Her name sounded more for a man. Anyway, she wrote us thanking for everything, she used the shaving cream for hand lotion, said it worked great. The next can we packed for her we made sure she had all the right things.

Thanks for having me relive that time in my life.

I’ve been thinking more lately about my childhood, namely because all four of my grandchildren are old enough to remember things, and their kind, loving, grandmother (and my compatriot in grandparenting) Julia passed away in February. There are bits and pieces that 6-year-old Audrey will remember, and more than bits and pieces that 11-year-old Claire will remember from these days and beyond, and I hope I have the good fortune of being able to fill in any missing pieces of their childhoods, should they ask me when they are my age.

It’s their last day of school today. Audrey, Luca (10), Mae (8) and Claire.

gkids

“Will Garage Sale for Salmon”

Last weekend, my daughter and son-in-law held their annual/sometimes semi-annual garage sale. Several of us participate, friends and family alike, and at some point alcohol gets involved. We can never predict what will sell, and we’re pretty laid back (some might say lousy) hagglers. But we always have a good time, rain or shine, and never fail to meet the most interesting people.

Carlene and Ben live a 90- to 100-minute drive from me. For this sale, in addition to the usual garage sale stuff I’d packed in boxes, I had a porcelain stove and display tables to haul. I’m…meh…OK/comfortable driving Jim’s pickup on a good day, but the stove took up the back window, and I had to rely on the side mirrors to see around me, so I was a little nervous. Thank goodness I had on my big girl panties that day. It rained almost the entire trip, sometimes so hard I couldn’t see the end of the hood. It took two hours and change, but I got to their house, and in the end, it was worth the work and white knuckles for the experience.

I talked to a woman who’d recently lost her mother and bought a lion necklace in her memory, and a little boy who bought a scooter because his mother said he refused to ride a bike. A guy (wearing a political hat representing a person I oppose with all my being) and his wife stopped by, and when she spotted the jewelry, he didn’t once say an unkind word to her (not that I anticipated he would, just to be clear) about her taking 45 minutes to go through the unsorted costume jewelry. He just seemed happy that the sun was out, like we all were. He even brought her back the next day. Lesson learned: garage sales can bring people of opposing views together if both parties are willing to rise above the rift and difference. There was also the guy who my son-in-law is convinced was flirting with me as he bought my Moody Blues and Elton John CDs, but I think he was just enthusiastic about music and talking about JBL (or was it JVC?) speakers.

God knows the proceeds of a garage sale won’t make any of us rich. This weekend I netted about $50, $10 of which went to pay for a tuna sub on Friday and a calzone on Saturday. The rest I spent on the way home at the gas pump and at Willy’s Smokehouse in Harrisville, PA (population: not too many), home of the most amazing smoked salmon and, I’m told, ham salad. The salmon was my splurge from the booty; the ham salad was Jim’s.

I love smoked salmon, but it’s spendy. I’m not much into the thinly sliced stuff you get in a flat package that you pay $10 for 4 ounces for at the meat counter (although in a pinch…lox and bagels…). I prefer a filet-o-fish, one that looks like this:

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I forgot to take a photo before I dug into it for breakfast yesterday, but you get the idea.

I had in mind two specific purposes for this lovely filet: smoked salmon on an English muffin with a dippy egg (yesterday’s breakfast), and this no-fail, amazing recipe for quesadillas:

20190603_121514

Even though the recipe comes from one of the companies that sells the thinly sliced stuff you find at the meat counter, I can attest that it is best with the kind of smoked salmon you flake off a filet.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog about how tight $$ is (see Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels). And it still is, like it is for many millions of us sometimes or all the time. The $50-minus-gas profit would have paid for some groceries, part of the phone or electric bill, or more petro. And that’s what makes this salmon so special. For me it was like splurging on a pack of fancy-ish underwear or a pair of flip-flops. When you have an extra $20…money can buy a little happiness, even if it’s fleeting.

I will garage sale for salmon (and ham salad because I love Jim). The next sale is in August. If you’re in the area, stop by. We’ll get you a lawn chair and a plastic cup of something, and you can watch and talk to people with us. Bring something to sell. You just might make enough to buy a little something for yourself.

Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels

Have you ever put on your spring jacket after a long winter and found a $5 bill in the pocket? Or looked in the glove box for a pair of sunglasses and found a Hershey Kiss?

That’s Past Us taking care of Present Us.

We don’t plan those little surprises; they just work out that way.

For instance, last month, money was really tight. Zu needed to take her monthly heart worm and flea medicines. I knew I had a heart worm pill, but I was out of the flea pills, which cost in the neighborhood of $10 each if you buy in bulk and $17 if you buy one. I didn’t have the $60 for the bulk discount, and $17…well, it was going to be hard to come by. When I dug through the crate in which I keep Zu’s treats, brushes, and toys, I found the heart worm medicine AND, tucked way on the bottom, one flea pill. Thanks, Past Me!

Also last month, I thought I was out of Zu’s favorite dog chews. It would be a few weeks before I could buy any more. Then I spotted a package behind her bin of dog food. Thank you, Past Me!

When I was working in the garage, sorting things to eBay, I was jonesing for something sweet. I opened my desk drawer looking for a paper clip and found a Salted Nut Roll I forgot was there. Thank you Past Me!

The other day, I was feeling really low, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. Then I found this photo of 19-year-old widowed me with my daughter Carlene.

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Thanks, Past Me.

 

 

Ignore It and It Won’t Go Away

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am republishing this blog I wrote in 2013. Quoting Dr. Frasier Crane, I wish you all good mental health.

July 1987

It was 3 a.m. My mother, older sister, and I were watching Mickey Mouse cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a major heart attack. I was reclined sideways in a chair, my legs dangling over the arm when my stomach started to churn. The feeling crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. Then it went to my lungs and I couldn’t complete a full breath. It finally settled in my mind and I thought, ‘I’m dying, too!’ Within a few minutes, I was on a gurney in the emergency room, and a doctor was handing me a pill.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “Here, put this under your tongue.”

It was Halcion. Valium with a kick, and now illegal in England. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me as she poured me into the front seat of my car to take me home. I remember saying, “Oh, that’s right,” and drifted off to sleep.

I slept the rest of the morning. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was groggy and deeply frightened. Did my heart just skip? Why can’t I breathe? The panic had returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue.

Panic came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week, my defenses were spent. The pill bottle was empty.

The next two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for relief, usually in the middle of the night, waking my husband and dragging the kids out from their beds because I couldn’t drive myself. The last ER physician I saw said I needed to see a psychiatrist and refused to write a script. He sent me home shaking and throwing up.

So I called a psychiatrist. He wanted to explore my past. I just wanted drugs. He assured me I could control my panic through deep breathing. I told him I hadn’t caught my breath in weeks. He still refused me drugs.

A few days later, my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke at work and I began to cry. I cried while I changed it, cried as I typed a memo, and cried when my boss sent me home because I couldn’t stop crying. I cried driving home, cried while I made and ate a grilled cheese sandwich, and I cried as I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying. I cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.

A few hours later, my husband dropped me off at the front doors, and I checked in to the psychiatric ward. I’d stopped crying, but I was exhausted. My head felt like a bowling ball, and I answered questions with monosyllabic words.

After filling out insurance forms, a nurse led me to a scale in the hallway across from the nurses’ station. I was wearing knee-length knit shorts and a size XXL t-shirt stained at the hem. Tears had washed away my makeup, and my hair was matted to my head. I took off my slip-on canvas shoes with the hole in the toe and laid them beside the scale. The nurse optimistically started the large metal weight at the 150-pound position and nudged the smaller weight higher and higher. The balance arrow didn’t budge. She moved the large weight to 200 and again moved the small weight higher. The arrow bounced a little around 240. For accuracy, she should have moved the large weight to 250, but she said cheerfully, “We’ll call you 249.”

The next day, I spent two hours in group therapy drawing pictures and writing in a journal and feeling completely out of place and ridiculously selfish among people facing electric shock therapy. One woman was the only survivor of a car crash that killed her niece and sister. She’d been the driver. A chain-smoking young man had locked himself in a closed garage and started his car’s engine a few weeks before. He’d been repeatedly molested as a child.

I thought, ‘Can I be a bigger baby?’ as I wrote my name with a blue crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. We were to draw a “family tree of feelings.” The only thing I felt was guilty for taking up space in a facility meant for people with real problems, and stupid for having called my doctor in the first place. So I’d cried for a few hours? Big deal. People cry.

I took a two-hour, fill-in-the-hole-with-a-number-two-pencil psychological test that asked me to answer yes or no to statements such as, “I would like to do the work of a choir director” and “If I could sneak into the county fair or an amusement park without paying, I would.” Were they kidding me?

The next day, a psychiatrist went over my results. She showed me a line chart indicating how I “scored” in regard to various emotions and behaviors. The line was flowing along nicely, indicating I was “normal” here and “normal” there, just as I expected. Then a steep, jagged line rose across the paper like a fjord on the Norwegian coastline. It went all the way to the top of the chart before plummeting back to the middle.

“That’s your anger line,” the doctor said.

“What?” I laughed. “Just because I don’t want to be a choir director, I’m angry? I have nothing to be angry about!”

I explained that I had a panic disorder, and told her how a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just needed to calm down, maybe lose some weight. I’d be fine.

She nodded, wrote a few notes, and gave me Xanax. I promised to visit my psychiatrist weekly for a month and was released from the facility at the end of the week.

The Xanax worked almost instantly, and it kept the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay. But the relentless weeks-long waves of panic prior to the Xanax made me afraid of fear, and I was scared I’d have another attack at any moment. I needed something to change, something to help me feel normal again. God knows my psychiatrist was no help. He read the hospital psychiatrist’s report and ran with her whole “anger” diagnosis. He wanted me to journal about my anger, even though I insisted I wasn’t angry. But in order to get the Xanax, I wrote in the journal.

He brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about my current husband, who in the past had been physically and emotionally violent, but I wouldn’t go there with him. All was forgiven. There was nothing I could do to change the past, so why dwell on it? He said something about unresolved grief and lack of self-esteem and blah blah blah.

‘Buddy,’ I thought, ‘all I want is some control of my life.’

I discovered the golden loophole a few weeks later when I went to my gynecologist for a routine exam. I told her how anxious I’d been feeling, leaving out the part about the hospital and the psychiatrist, and she diagnosed me with severe PMS. She wrote me a script for Xanax and that was the end of journaling about non-existent anger. I focused my energy on the one thing I knew I could control: my weight.

I joined Weight Watchers, but not before saying goodbye to a few of my “friends,” the ones I knew I wouldn’t be able to “contact” once I was on a diet.

The week before the first meeting, I made macaroni and cheese with real butter, and I grilled a T-bone steak. I ate garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy hash browns, baked a chocolate cake, and went twice to Dairy Queen for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight. I poured 2-percent milk over Captain Crunch for breakfast, and made a parade of pasta dishes for dinner. Then on Saturday morning, after throwing out the leftover brie and French baguette, deviled eggs, and Hershey Kisses, I walked into a Weight Watchers facility, paid the $8 fee, weighed in and left without attending the meeting. After four weeks, I’d acquired all the basic program materials and stopped going.

“You’ll leave me once you’ve lost weight,” my husband said.

“No, I won’t!” I insisted.

I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk, and plain baked white fish. In my WW food journal, I checked off every allotted carb, protein, and dairy allowed. I ate nothing more. I quit drinking and started riding a stationary bike I bought at a garage sale for $10. In return, I averaged a 3.5-pound loss every week.

I wasn’t angry. Heck no. Just highly motivated.

2019 update: I continued running away from my anger and anxiety for nine more years, always looking for shortcut solutions and substitutes for therapy. Finally, on a summer day in 1996, I decided I was done. I went to a sporting goods store and put ten percent down on a handgun. I filled out the background check paperwork and the clerk said I could pick up the gun in two days.

I drove to my favorite spot by the Clarion River. For an hour, I hated on myself, and I cried for my losses and the stupid decisions I’d made over the years. Then I remembered my children. They were just up the hill from the river, in our apartment, completely unaware their mother was thinking of leaving them.

I went home, made an appointment with a psychologist, and didn’t complete the gun purchase. 

Today, I still have anxiety, some full-blown panic attacks, and I have no problem taking lorazepam to help me out when it happens. I know people who treat anxiety and panic attacks as character flaws and believe if they were just “strong enough,” they wouldn’t suffer as they do.

Please, I’m begging you, if this is you, stop beating yourself up. Talk to your doctor. And if that doctor says it’s all in your head, talk to another doctor. Keep talking until you get the help you need. Also, read The Bloggess. She knows what’s up.

A Wake-Up (Scam) Call

It was the week that nothing I planned got done, and instead, I earned a degree in Phone Scams 101.

Since Tuesday, I’ve been on the phone with bankers and doctors and computer experts and a plethora of other people to help get back the $9,500 phone scammers stole from my brother, a vulnerable adult with short-term memory loss.

Some of you might recall that in 2011, Marty suffered a grand mal seizure, and the post-ictal period (the time during which the brain recovers from a seizure) lasted several hours. It was the next day before he recognized anyone, and five days later, he still had no sense of time. Eight years later, he lives independently in a senior living community, but his short-term memory is almost nonexistent, and so our younger brother Matthew and I serve as his power-of-attorney.

We’re not sure if it was the Social Security, IRS, or Microsoft scam because Marty can’t remember the details, but how it played out is in keeping with the description reported recently in the New York Times: “In some cases, the criminals are quite aggressive and try to scare their targets into action. In one common tactic, the fake callers tell the potential victim that his or her Social Security number has been ‘suspended’ because of suspicious activity or because it has been involved in a crime. The callers may ask their victims to confirm their Social Security numbers. They even say that the victims must withdraw cash from their bank accounts and that the accounts will be frozen if the victims don’t act quickly…Some people are scared enough that they follow the caller’s orders to withdraw money and put it on a gift card, then give the card’s number to the criminals.”

In Marty’s case, the pieces-of-sh*t (toned down from what I originally called the thieves) convinced him to transfer money from his line of credit at his bank to his checking and then they took it from there. Literally.

They also convinced him to go to the nearest retailer and buy a $500 Google Play gift card, which he did. But before he called them back with the card number, something in his fuzzy brain told him to report it. He went to the police, but they did nothing but call the county adult protective services to report Marty as a vulnerable adult. I was mad at first, both at Marty for not calling Matthew or me first and at the police for making a report. It turned out to be a blessing, though, because the social worker gave us some invaluable advice and information on how to protect Marty from future scams. His case, for now, is closed.

Thanks to the manager at his apartment complex, Marty was referred to a computer expert who cleaned up his computer, erased the malware, and created a Fort Knox-like wall that (we hope) no one can break through or climb over to gain access to Marty’s computer again.

There’s a special hell for people who prey on vulnerable adults.

I’m sure you, like everyone, get fake calls almost every day. I choose not to answer any call that isn’t from someone I know because the one time I did, it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

Caller: Lynn! Is that you? (like she was my best friend)

Me: Um…who…

Caller: I’ve been trying to get a hold of you! I’m a professional solicitor…

Me: Click.

I apologize to any of you who are employed as a “professional solicitor,” but that’s one job in the gray area of ethical. No legitimate solicitor should pretend to know the person they’re calling. For people like my brother, they could get confused and believe (and do) whatever the caller says.

My boyfriend Jim regularly gets calls from someone claiming that if he doesn’t pay his student loans, he will be prosecuted. Jim has never had a student loan, and he tells them that, only in a very…colorful way. He enjoys messing with phone scammers. So does my daughter and our milkman. They say it gives them a moment of satisfaction.

Matthew is in possession of the Google Play gift card, and thankfully Marty didn’t give the scammers the card number. We’ve also made sure his bank account is locked up so tight that he can’t withdraw $5 without us being notified. The only satisfaction I’ve gained from this scam is that it was a wake-up call to yet one more way in which my brother is susceptible to fraud. Matthew and I have said many times this week that we “should have been” more diligent, but we can’t figure out how we could have prevented this scam without taking away more of Marty’s ever-shrinking independence.

Have you ever had to take away Dad’s car keys? Move Mom into a nursing home? It’s a fine line we walk being responsible for a vulnerable adult. In many cases, they’ve entrusted us to make the right decisions for them when they can’t or won’t see the big picture, but love and a long history make these decisions emotionally difficult. We have roles as children or, in our case, as a younger sister and brother, and those roles are part of the emotional fabric of the family. It’s not “natural” to tell your mom or dad or older brother what to do, and yet we must.

If this is you, if you’re in the position of being responsible for a vulnerable adult, how are you doing? How do you walk that fine line? How do you make those decisions, and how do you feel when you do?

Chelsea Handler Made Me…Cry?

Chelsea Handler has made me gasp in disbelief (“OMG, did she just SAY that out loud?”) and laugh until I cry. But never has anything she’s written or said made me cry cry, as in, real tears of sorrow.

On Monday, Handler was on the NPR show Here and Now promoting her new book, Life Will Be the Death of Me…and you, too! Broadly, it’s a memoir about her psychological journey after the 2016 election, and more specifically, coming to terms with her oldest brother Chet’s death when she was 9 years old.

Handler and Here and Now host Robin Young covered a lot of ground in the eleven-minute interview, and I was … surprised? Is that the word? … by Handler’s serious and thoughtful exploration of her white privilege and the not-so-funny parts of her growing up.

At around minute nine, Young acknowledged that people tuning in to an interview with Chelsea Handler typically expect her to take down, in comedic fashion, the latest societal ridiculousness, but that their interview was pretty serious. Young asked, “Is Chelsea Handler going to be funny still?” Handler answered, “Of course! That muscle is fit and ready to roll. This other stuff is what I needed more of; this seriousness and thoughtfulness and to think about talking before talking.” I was sitting in my car, high-fiving (no one but me) Handler’s honesty and thinking how great it is to face that sh*t head on.

Then came the next question: “Where is Chet now? Where is he now in your life?” Handler broke down, and her answer is so heartfelt that I couldn’t help crying along:

“In my mind, now that I have a deeper understanding of awareness, of mindfulness, of like, you know, that people aren’t really gone, now I believe that he’s like — not that people die and they’re sitting around floating above your body, not that stupid nonsense — I believe that he’ll always be a part of me, and so will my mom…The people that we love are with us, and we should be spending our time honoring them, instead of grieving for so long. We can grieve, because we need to get that out, but we have to honor those people, and the way to honor them is by fixing yourself and getting healthy.”

I’ve written a lot about grief over the years, and countless numbers of readers have shared their experiences with loss, too. We’ve often engaged in what feels like an online support group. I will forever maintain that grief has its place.

To Handler’s other point (and maybe I’m splitting hairs), though, “fix” feels akin to “heal,” and nothing really gets “fixed” in our efforts to deal with or understand loss. When we experience loss, we’re forever changed. But she’s spot on about getting “heal”thy.

Something my pastor said to me in the days after my husband died has stuck with me, and I share it often with others who grieve. He said that time doesn’t heal, it only gives us perspective.

At the moment he said that, I was angry.

“What do you mean time doesn’t heal?” I cried. “It has to! It must! How else am I supposed to feel better and normal ever again if something doesn’t heal me?”

“Time doesn’t have the power to ‘heal,’” he replied. “Healing implies it all goes away.  But years from now, you’ll be able to recall this time, and feel everything you feel at this very moment. In time, you will get stronger, you will feel joy again, you will build yourself up, but this comes from inside you, not because a certain amount of time passes.

“It’s a lot of work and you won’t be the same person you were before he died. You can’t be.”

In time, I understood that he was right, and once I accepted that grief is a journey down a long and arduous road, I no longer put a time line on when it “should” end, because it doesn’t.

While “fixed” isn’t my go-to word or believe it should be our desired outcome when we are living with loss, Chelsea Handler is right about healing. We honor those we’ve lost by taking care of ourselves and not living in a rabbit hole of grief. It’s brave and takes a crap-ton of self-awareness to achieve acceptance, and I believe that it’s healthy grieving, even years later, that allows us to do that.