“Normal”

I talked to my milkman Wednesday, and I’m sure we’ll talk again tomorrow. He’s the only person I talk to in real life on a regular basis other than my partner Jim and a guy named Ben from Martin’s who puts groceries in my Jeep every other week.

Each week, the milkman, also named Jim, stands a few feet off the front stoop and I open a window and we talk through the screen, about eight feet apart. He’s a nice guy, 30ish, and married with a young daughter. He lives in the country and is wickedly sarcastic, not that the two are related. I think I’d like his mother from the stories he tells about her.

During our last conversation, he asked if I’d heard about the customer at the Johnstown Walmart who was cited and fined for spraying Lysol on lettuce. No, I said. We rolled our eyes.

He told me about the bear that startled him in the early morning as he walked out to his car to go to work. I told him about our bear and how he has figured out how to open our garbage can, despite the bungee cord.

Except for talking through a screen, our weekly chats are about the only somewhat pre-March 12th normal thing I do anymore. Our conversations are always light and ordinary, but on recent Wednesdays, for those ten or fifteen minutes, I feel the importance of ordinary. While the rest of the world feels uneasy and scary, there’s always the milkman, delivering milk and sour cream and butter. His schedule tethers me to what’s left of the rituals that ground me.

Birds are like that, too. They are predictable, rhythmic, and steadfast.

I’ve maintained at least one bird feeder everywhere I’ve lived, thinking, “Oh look, I’m helping birds,” which is silly really because they’ve managed to survive for millions of years without humans throwing out birdseed and peanuts and mealworms. This spring, though, they probably did need a bit of help. We had several nights of below-freezing temperatures the first two weeks of May and a birding friend told me that the cold meant no bugs were flying around for them to eat and that bird feeders are their emergency food pantries. So, yes, in a way I was “helping” birds, but mostly it’s for selfish reasons that I feed birds.

I need birds. I need their physical beauty and the beauty of their flight. I need their songs. Their voices fill the void of the so much quiet of these days, especially the difficult ones. Also, they behave like humans – bitchy, testy, helpful, picky – so that I don’t miss humans quite as much. A Blue Jay calls for his mate that he’s found food. She arrives and chases away the Cardinal, who doesn’t return until the coast is clear. The male Oriole chases away his mate from the orange half he’s enjoying and she flies off to the suet feeder. He decides he wants suet instead and so she goes to the orange until he decides that the orange is his favorite after all…and on and on it goes.

Some states, not mine, are opening up everything, and people are flocking to shops, restaurants, bars, and nail salons, many unmasked, because they say they want to feel “normal” again. My normal is that it will be a while before I am comfortable eating in a restaurant, getting my hair cut, or having a pedicure. I’d like to go to a baseball game, and I’d especially love to embrace my family and snuggle with my granddaughter as she sucks her thumb and fingers her blankie and chats about a friend I don’t know or the bug she found on the ceiling. But right now, normal is in my backyard. It’s chatting with the milkman once a week through a window screen. It’s watching Jeopardy at 7:00 and playing Battleship via Facetime with another granddaughter. It’s texting with my daughters and friends about their days.

This is in no way to say that my life right now is some Xanadu-like existence. Please don’t think I don’t think about the paycheck, or how to put food in the cupboard or pay the phone bill. Normal – no matter how we define it, and whether we like it or not – is fluid. It always has been, but it’s especially fluid now, and we can’t afford to seek the normal we once knew, to look the other way, as though there isn’t a presence looming over us, an invisible “what if.”

Deep breath… It’s so easy to get caught up in all the chaos, noise and chatter, right?

My hope is that, for even a few moments during your days, you can find normal and ordinary in the view of a bird, a social-distancing chat with a friend (or milkman), or even in your own breath.

I really mean this…namaste (you are divine, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not).

Care in the Time of COVID

In a recent poll,fifty percent of Americans said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. My guess is the percentage is much higher because, you know, denial. “I’m fine!” is our trained response to “How are you?” even when, or perhaps especially when, we ask ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to care about people in the abstract and people we know up-close and personal, including ourselves, and how we can’t effectively have one without the other. When I saw a recent photo of a large, white (and unmasked) man screaming in the face of a state trooper in Michigan during a protest against government mandates put in place to flatten the curve, my initial response was, Wow, what a jerk! and then, after some time to think, I wondered, What do we have in common?

Take away his disregard for the health and safety of those around him, I saw a person whose actions were motivated by fear (both rational and irrational) and not by an overarching compassion for humanity. “The government can’t tell me what to do!” is not born out of anger. Anger itself originates in fear, and in this case, fear that the government can, and will, tell people what they can do.

There will always be folks who lose their shi*t and those who keep it together no matter what crisis they’re faced with. While I am often the former, I live with the latter, one such folk who keeps it together. Even though Jim feels the underlying emotional impact of the uncertainty right now, and the fear of “What if I get it?” and the economic toll it’s having all around, he expresses his fear by caring about people, not screaming in their face.

Here’s what I mean. You know when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you can’t type another word or read another word or watch another minute of news? I reached that place on Friday. I couldn’t think anymore. I needed to talk to Jim. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my cane, and started walking across the yard to the garage, gathering emotional steam along the way.

The dog had run out of the door ahead of me and she announced my impending arrival.  Jim appeared in the doorway and his smile quickly turned to concern.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, and all that pent-up fear disguised as anger came tumbling out.

“I miss my kids, I miss my grandkids, my knee hurts, and I’m a horrible writer!”

He wrapped his arms around me and I sobbed into his sweatshirt for what felt like an hour. When I started to pull away, he pulled me closer, and I cried even harder.

“You did the right thing coming out here.” He knows I would stew in silence, or make mountains out of mole hills that had nothing to do with what was really bothering me, kind of like the protester.

We sat down and devised a plan for a social distancing visit with my daughters and the grandkids the next day. There was nothing we could do about my knee except talk about it, but acknowledging that it’s messed up and needs to be replaced helped untangle the abstract fear I have of never walking again. As for being a horrible writer, I know this is not true, but the fear in that statement is that I’m not good enough and that I’ll never be good enough, and saying it out loud lay bare that fear, too.

Listening, saying “I hear you,” can mean so much anytime, but especially now.

It doesn’t mean fears go away just by saying them out loud. But saying them out loud to someone who cares takes them down to their bare bones and they become more manageable. Solutions become more clear. Or if there are no immediate solutions, we can better eke out a way to handle the fear rather than deflecting it on to other people.

I’m heartened to see, in contrast to protesting, so many people demonstrating their care for others through their gifts and talents, their livelihood, and through simple random acts of kindness (even wearing a mask is an act of caring). Something I look forward to almost every evening is poet Billy Collins’s twenty-minute poetry reading/mini lecture on Facebook. Instead of watching it on full screen, I like to read and sometimes participate in the comment conversation that streams up the page. I feel less isolated, even for a short time.

Statistically, half of you are in the pandemic-is-having-a-negative-impact-on-your-mental-health camp. Or as I said earlier, probably more than half. How are you taking care of yourself? That is both a rhetorical question and a genuine inquiry. I might not know you, but I care.

 

Emotional Transportation

My sister texted me last night to say she was on the struggle bus. I wrote back saying I was on the vacant train. I can’t think my way out of a bag this week, and I can’t retain the plot of a movie or TV show without referring to IMDb. To help shake these cobwebs, I’m cooking things that, unlike slapping together a grilled cheese, require thought and concentration. Even then, I follow a recipe like I’m stoned. It took me over an hour to make rice pilaf yesterday.

On Monday I made bread in the bread maker, which is simple enough to do, but I measured out the yeast like it was the last glass of wine I’d ever drink. I have one and half yeast packets left, enough for one loaf of English muffin bread and another loaf of bread maker bread, and it feels weird and waaaaay hypervigilant that I know that. I can buy bread in the store, but like many of you, I’m trying to limit where I go. It’s been nine days since I was in a physical store (Lowe’s for water softener salt) and it was the first time I’d worn a mask. I support wearing a mask in public, but wow…I didn’t realize how confining they are. Nothing like a little claustrophobia to go along with a heightened state of germaphobia.

I understand that this vacant feeling is part of my emotional response to the pandemic, and I admit that I have adopted old coping mechanisms, including self-judgement for utilizing old coping mechanisms, and I really need to stop “doomscrolling” before going to bed. But the one emotional transport my sister and I agreed we wouldn’t hop on is the guilt wagon.

I’m all for utilizing time creatively…in normal times. But right now, I’m not up to faking creativity. Sure, I would love to write something brilliant with this “extra” time on my hands, but never in a million years could I guilt myself into it. What I’m writing right here is borderline boring, or maybe it’s all-in boring, but it’s all I’ve got right now and that’s OK. And if I feel like reading a book or watching a show at 1:00 in the afternoon instead of being brilliant, I do it. Now, sometimes I do it with a glass of wine or I eat crackers and cheese in bed with the dog (*see the last paragraph about coping mechanisms), and sometimes I say to myself, “You should ____” (write, exercise, sweep the deck…), but I’ve gotten pretty good at shutting myself up.

Nesting Interrupted

We thought the snakes would work, but they only scared the tufted titmouse, who was back this year to make a nest on top of a spotlight bolted to a rafter on our back porch. I was sitting at my desk last week when she arrived, and from my window, I watched her fly around the rubber snake and fly away, never to be seen again. A sparrow, however, was not deterred, and yesterday, she went about building a nest in that precarious, fateful place where few baby birds survive. They often fall out of the nest or die from the oppressive heat coming off the tin roof.

It’s fun to watch a mama bird sitting on her nest and then feed the babies once they hatch, but I couldn’t take another year of watching them die, so before the little sparrow could go any further, Jim got up on a ladder and removed the dried grass and leaves she’d so carefully put in place, and removed the light. He also covered the small electric box with heavy duty tin foil and stapled it to the rafter.

As he worked, I watched the little bird, with a scrap of grass in her mouth, fly from the clothes line to the hemlock on the edge of the porch to the opposite corner of the porch and back to the clothes line, no doubt concerned by what she was witnessing. I said, “We’re doing this for your own good,” but you can’t reason with a bird, of course. Now, sitting here in my office, I watch her flying around the rafters, wondering where her little nest went. She circles through every few minutes, like what I do when I’m looking for something I’ve lost and I keep looking in the same place, hoping it will magically appear.

things

I’m sorry, little bird. I know this is a stressful time for you. I remember “nesting,” that inexplicable urge to prepare before my babies were born. It was like I woke up one morning and a switch had gone off in my head: Get ready NOW! You need to do all the things NOW! If someone or something had stopped me, I’m sure I’d have been stressed beyond belief.

A friend of mine who knows a lot about birds (she’s who bought us the rubber snakes) assures me that sparrows are resourceful and that the little bird will soon find another place to build her nest. That is helpful, and hopeful, even though as I complete this, she’s still circling, still with a tuft of grass in her mouth. I think how she is a metaphor for these confusing times. She is stressed, and rightly so. But she’ll be alright, eventually. And so, too, will we.

The Worrying Worrier and the Worries of Worry

Never in my life have I dreamed about toilet paper…until Sunday night. I woke up in a panic at 1 a.m. wondering what would happen if we ran out, and you know how everything is 20 times worse in the middle of the night, right? It wasn’t a Xanax-worthy panic attack, but it took me a while to go back to sleep, and I woke up still wondering where I was going to buy toilet paper.

Of all the things to worry about (and believe me, I worry), toilet paper is on my mind the most, I think, because toilet paper, or the lack thereof, is an easier worry to worry about than all the other worries right now.

I remember when my worrier self fully fledged, 38 years ago today (April 2). It was the day before my wedding. I’d recently moved to the acreage where my future husband, Bruce, and I would live before taking over the family farm in a few months, and I was there waiting for my family and a few friends to drive down from Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, warm for early April, and it was humid and windy. It smelled and felt like a severe storm could form any minute, and it did, late in the afternoon, after everyone arrived safely. My family was staying with my aunt and uncle in town (Jasper, Minnesota, population – at that time – 750…give or take), and my friends, Pam and Mike, were staying in our spare room. Bruce drove out after evening chores, and the four of us hung out and drank beer. After dark, the wind picked up again and rattled the windows. Thinking another thunderstorm was on its way, I looked out a window and it was snowing, as in I-couldn’t-see-across-the-road snowing! And that, my friends, is when my worrier self was born.

I freaked.

I think I said something like (and almost certainly all in one breath): “Oh my god how can we get married tomorrow no one will be there what if our soloist can’t get here from Iowa what if the ring bearer’s family can’t drive down from Minneapolis what if we get snowed in what if…what if…what if???”

Bruce, ever the patient and calming presence, assured me that we would get married the next day, even if he had to borrow a tractor or snowmobile to get us to the church. Still…I worried, and I’ve been worrying ever since.

For the better part of the last half of my life, I’ve spent countless hours (and money) in and out of therapy to “cure” my worried self. What I learned, though, is that I won’t ever not be a worrier, it’s in my DNA, and that I cannot control much of anything except how I respond to what it is I’m worried about. And it’s the response part that I work on, or at least try to be aware of, every day.

These are unprecedented times, indeed. The other word I use a lot is “uncertain.” It’s hard not to worry in these uncertain times. But I heard something recently that stopped my worrying mind in its worried tracks. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Times are uncertain, but they’ve always been uncertain and always will be uncertain. We’ve never been able to predict the future. Be focused on now and not spend your time worried about what might happen.”

The big difference between today and a day six months ago is the devastating virus now in our midst. But that day six months ago is also no different than today because the uncertainty of six months ago is the same uncertainty now. Our response to our worry is where our strength lies. That’s the only thing we can control.

Yesterday afternoon, as I read the news, “Three Little Birds” popped into my head, insistently, like it really needed me to listen. I found the song on YouTube and I listened to it over and over (sometimes sobbing) until I started to believe that every little thing is gonna be alright, in its own way and in its own time. It always has been that way and it always will. May you, too, believe what Bob is singing, and that it helps lessen the worry in your own mind.

PS: We got married (alas, without a ring bearer), and we didn’t need a snowmobile to get to the church.

wedding

Searching for Normal

Normally on Saturdays, Jim and I go on a breakfast adventure. We either try a restaurant we’ve not been to or try something new in the places we have. Jim is always on the lookout for the perfect sausage gravy or creamed chipped beef over home fries. I look for fresh brewed iced tea, non-instant oatmeal, and homemade hash browns. And if the place uses fresh mushrooms in their omelets, five stars on Trip Advisor! Generally we stay within 45 minutes of home, but we’ve been known to wander a bit farther on a nice day.

20191222_092550
Zuzu loves breakfast adventures, too, and when she’s with us, I get her a side of bacon or a slice of ham for the ride home. Today, she enjoyed looking out the window at cows and very large farm dogs who could eat her in one bite.

There’s definitely not much normal about these days. Schedules have changed, activities are greatly limited or restricted (or greatly increased if you are an essential worker, and I can’t thank you enough for what you do). As a germaphobe with anxiety, everyone and every surface is suspect to me anyway, but that sense of germs, germs everywhere(!) is heightened right now. I needed a slice of normal this morning, so Jim and I went on a breakfast adventure, sans breakfast, since the drive is always half the fun.

We took a circuitous route on back roads, across swollen rivers and past a covered bridge. I saw Canada geese floating on ponds, turkeys walking across bare corn fields, chickens free ranging, doing their chicken thing. Daffodils dotted the banks of the hills and the ditches…a sure sign of spring. Listening to the radio, the song “Roll Me Away” by Bob Seger came on and we were acutely aware of that desire for freedom within uncertainty: “Roll, roll me away, Won’t you roll me away tonight. I, too, am lost, I feel double-crossed, And I’m sick of what’s wrong and what’s right.” 

There’s a freedom in normal, and now that normal has been turned on its head, I realize how much I take my normal for granted. It’s the right thing to stay away from others as much as possible, especially in the upcoming week (although I confess I giggled when I heard a doctor say we need to take “prophylactic measures”), but my hope is that, despite it all, each of us can find a little freedom in our lives every day, either inside our homes or inside our heads or driving down the road listening to the radio.

Or…if you have some cheese and macaroni lying around… Comfort food is not always a bad thing, people 😉.

Macaroni and Cheese (Lynn’s adaptation from an Epicurious recipe)

8 Servings

6 T butter, divided

1 C Panko bread crumbs

8 C shredded cheese (I usually use 6 C extra sharp cheddar, 1 C mild cheddar or Monterey Jack, and 1 C smoked gouda – the secret ingredient 😊)

1 pound macaroni (it’s more fun with spiral pasta or medium shells)

3 ¼ C whole milk

3 T all-purpose flour

1 ½ t dry mustard

¼ to 1 t fine sea salt (I start with ¼ t and adjust later if needed)

½ t ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, although you can make this ahead of time and bake later. Store in the fridge sans the topping, which you make just before it goes in the oven.

Spray/grease a 9×13 baking dish, or use a 3-quart round casserole. I find that the round casserole keeps the mac and cheese more creamy.

Cook the macaroni according to the directions on the package. When done, drain without rinsing and return to the pot they were cooked in.

In a medium saucepan, melt 3 T of butter. Add the flour to make a smooth roux. Add a bit of milk and whisk until smooth. Add remaining milk and cook over medium high heat until the sauce thickens. Just be sure not to let the milk come to a boil. Turn the heat to low and add the mustard, salt, and pepper. Add the cheese and stir constantly until it is completely melted and smooth.

Pour the cheese over the macaroni and mix well. Taste and add more salt if you want. Place in casserole or baking dish.

For the topping, melt 3 T of butter and mix it with the Panko. Sprinkle on top. Bake for at least 30 minutes or until the topping is browned and crispy.

#Coronapocalypse

 

“Hope”ful New Year!

hopeI woke to a poem in my inbox this morning, January 1, a day of hope and possibility. At least that’s how it’s marketed.

I’m optimistically cautious by nature, and I don’t believe in much, especially fate, destiny or divine intervention. Each of us has the potential to act in accord with our innate goodness. Each of us is responsible for how we respond to heartache and loss. No one is responsible for making us happy, and each of us is no better than the other.

But…I do believe in hope and possibility, which is, sadly, lacking in too many people’s lives. And for those of us who can, I believe it is our responsibility to offer hope and possibility – when appropriate – to those we love, and even those we don’t know. Not pithy hope, and certainly not head-in-the-sand hope, but genuine care, be it a smile, a helping hand, or simply not expressing every opinion we have when we have it. For me, today, it’s sharing this poem that I hope will offer you…hope. In spite of everything, may you find hope to begin again. And again, if necessary. Happy “hope”ful new year!

The New Year
by Barbara Crooker

When a door bangs shut, a window doesn’t open.
Sometimes, it slams on your fingers. God often
gives us more than we can handle. A sorrow
shared is a sorrow multiplied. There’s a bottle
of Champagne waiting to be uncorked,
but it’s not for you. Nobody wants another poem.
The prize-winning envelope has someone else’s name
on it. This year you already know you’re not going
to lose those ten pounds. How can you feel hope,
when the weight of last year’s rejections is enough
to bury you? Still, the empty page craves the pen,
wants to feel the black ink unscrolling on its skin.
In spite of everything, you sit at your desk and begin.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.