Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Complete Honesty

In the interest of being completely open and honest, I want to tell a story.   About a year ago, I found myself in a slump.  It was summertime, so the kids were out of school.  I was a home with our five and two-year-old boys.  I was experiencing worsening pre-menstrual syndrome.  I'd stopped working out regularly, and I was drinking more than was healthy.  I first noticed it when my youngest was about eighteen months old, and by the time he was two, I was almost debilitatingly depressed ten days out of the month.  During that time, I'd get up every day and drag myself through my obligations, constantly fighting the urge to curl up in a ball and cry.  I was depressed about nothing, and then everything I encountered throughout the day, from traffic to puppies, made me more depressed.  I'd work really hard at being cheerful for the kids, but they knew, and their moodiness reflected my own.  I remember trying to make dinner in the kitchen while the kids watched cartoons in the living room and sinking down to sit on the floor, hidden beneath the cabinets, my head in my hands, trying so hard not to lose it.  "What the hell is wrong with me?" going through my head like a mantra.  I tried to pull myself up by my bootstraps.  I read books and articles and followed their advice.  I started a new exercise program.  I took vitamins and made sure I was drinking plenty of water and all that.  Nothing really helped.  I tried to cut back on my alcohol, but I couldn't seem to do it for more than a couple of days.  Wine was my salvation at the end of the day, something to look forward to, something to get the stress to melt away and my brain to stop racing.  Finally, I'd had enough.  I was reticent to try medication, because I was supposed to be able to handle this on my own, I thought, but I was tired of being depressed half the time and having to work so hard not to scream at my children .  School had started, I had more time to myself, I was exercising regularly again, and I still did not feel any better.  I owed it to myself and my family to try medication.  I knew it was hormonally driven, after all.  It happened at the same time every month like clockwork.  I made an appointment with the gynecologist, and before I went, my husband told me, "Don't just tell him you feel kinda down.  Tell him what's really happening.  Tell him it's affecting your happiness and your life."  This was sage advice.  He knows I have a habit of downplaying my feelings, so as not to seem melodramatic. 
It was uncomfortable telling my doctor what I considered personally sacred information, details of my emotions I'd taken months to admit to myself and my husband, but I steeled myself and said, "I get depressed to the point of wanting to cry all the time at the same time every month for the past year.  It's affecting my life and my relationships, and I want to fix it."  To my relief, he didn't act judgmental.  He didn't suggest all the things I'd already tried, like adjusting my diet and exercise.  He said matter-of-factly it sounded like PMDD (pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder) and wrote me a prescription for Zoloft.  Feeling empowered, I had it filled right away and began taking it ten days before my period started.  It made all the difference in the world.  I didn't feel numb or over-the-top euphoric like I'd feared.  I felt normal, which was wonderful.  Suddenly, things seemed manageable.  I'd still get down, but  all the things I'd been trying over the last months to improve my mood actually began to work.  I'd go outside to get some fresh air and actually feel better, which was amazing to me.
Not too many months after cycling on and off the medication, I began to get mentally antsy.  I couldn't figure out why at first.  Then, I realized I had extra energy to burn.  For a long time, for ten days out of the month, I'd been draining my energy just getting through the day and keeping it together.  Then, it would take me a few more days after that to dig myself out, emotionally.  Now that I didn't have to work so hard to just get out of bed and not cry, I could focus on other things.  I cut way back on my alcohol intake - what seemed like a huge sacrifice months earlier suddenly didn't even seem that difficult.  I was tired of being hungover three days a week, and I wanted to be more productive and a better example for my kids.  I started looking into fitness as a business.  A friend had talked to me about it months earlier when I didn't think I could handle it, and now it seemed not just possible but exciting.  Now I'm working on my business and writing more.  I'm more patient with the kids, more in touch with my friends and family, and happier in general, because I feel productive.  I still take Zoloft ten days out of the month, and it makes me a tad sleepy, but it's so much better than being in the hole I was in, I don't even care.  In the end, I did pull myself up by my bootstraps.  I made my life fuller, better, happier, but I needed a stepping stone to get there, and I had to be strong enough to admit I needed it.  To close, I want you to know this has been hard to write, and it's going to be even harder when I click "publish post" and put the link on my Facebook page.  It feels unnatural to me to share my  deep personal insecurities with…well, with anyone.  I decided to do it, though, because it's therapeutic for me, because one of my new goals is to be completely, whole-picture, honest about who I am, warts and all, and because I know there have got to be people out there experiencing something similar who might read this and take heart in knowing they're not alone.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

He Who Walks on the Wrong Side of Someone Else's Fence Shouldn't Throw Stones and Eat Them Too

Growing up in the Dallas area, my childhood was filled with idioms and platitudes the adults around me rattled off in response to my mood, the weather, something I should be doing, or even a general state of being.  I don't know whether or not it's a southern thing, but relatives, from my parents to distant great aunts, were fond of sayings such as, a stitch in time saves nine, or,  too many cooks spoil the broth.  Some I took to heart, like Rome wasn't built in a day.  I was always impatient to make progress with a new skill.  I wanted to be an ace at softball the minute I hit the field.  Over time, I learned to relax and let expertise come in it's own time.  Some I misinterpreted.  When my grandmother said, Many hands make little work, I thought she was talking about little people with "mini" hands (dwarves? gnomes? garden-variety children??) building tiny buildings or washing mini dishes with itty-bitty sponges.  While my grandmother was trying to motivate us all to pitch in and clean up after dinner, I was off in my own head imagining lilliputians dusting and vacuuming with infinitesimal tools.  In my child brain it was irrelevant this interpretation didn't make sense in context.  Some quips I simply did not get.  Most of these were my dad's, like  let the hammer do the work.  What, does this thing have batteries you didn't tell me about?  Why am I sitting here banging my heart out if this thing can do the work itself??  My most common reaction to the idioms of my younger years was an eye-rolling groan, followed by dramatic exasperation anyone could be so stupid as to say something like that, let alone believe it.  Here are some of my favorites:

Anything worth doing is worth doing well. - This one always garnered the biggest sigh from my teenage self, and while I've come around on some of them, I still to this day maintain somethings are worth doing, but only half-assed.  Cleaning the house is a good example, as are most household chores, like doing the laundry when you manage to get it all the way to the dryer and then leave it there for a week and a half.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with grabbing a clean towel out of the dryer when you need it, and it saves the trouble of folding it and putting it away.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. - This was one of my mom's.  You can always tell, because her platitudes are always the darkest, with the worst take on humanity.  Whenever I heard this one, I thought, "as if I didn't already feel bad enough about screwing up, now I'm going to hell as well."  I do think she meant this in a life lesson-type way, as in, "take responsibility for your actions."  Maybe I'd have taken it better if she'd stuck with something less gruesome like, you made your bed, now lie in it, or learn from your mistakes.  Bottom line, though, I didn't really think I was going to hell, and I got her point, which was short and required no rambling lecture.

Everything happens for a reason. This one's a little heavy,  because it's an indicator, to some extent, of religious beliefs.  I know some people really think when you step in gum on the way out to your car in the grocery store parking lot, there's a divine plan involving day-old pavement hubba bubba, but I don't.  And for reasons I can't quite conjure, it has always irritated me when someone explains away some misfortune of mine by indicating it has some mysterious purpose.  It feels like they're discounting my pain.  I know that may be just my own chip on my shoulder, but it's there, and it won't budge.

You choose what kind of day to have, makes me grit my teeth only slightly less than the one about how many muscles it takes to smile versus frown.  No one wants to be in a bad mood or have a crappy day, but they happen.  It's worthwhile to try to turn that around.  I mean when life gives you lemons… and all that.  BUT some days are unsalvageable.  Sometimes no matter what I do, all the little things that go wrong get me down.  Sometimes nothing goes wrong, but the chemicals in my brain and the hormones in my body won't allow happiness that day.  So, whilst one can do one's level best to make it a great day, sometimes it's okay to throw in the towel, wallow in your bad mood, scream a little, stomp around and slam doors, cry and know tomorrow will probably be better.

Who said life was fair?  You may recognize this as one of my mom's downer gems.  I have to admit, I actually don't hate this one.  It was frustrating as a child to hear after having declared, "It's not fair!" but she made her point.  Life is not fair.  You don't get everything everyone else does anymore than they get everything you do.  Life is what you make it, and really that's not even all that depressing if you think about it.

Keep calm and carry on.  Okay, it's not from my childhood, but I'm tired of reading it and seeing the myriad of variations that have popped up on t-shirts and bumper stickers.  While I'm all for calm, and it's something I strive for in my life, this statement is kind of obvious.  It's like saying, "When walking down the sidewalk, don't freak out and kill someone.  Just keep walking." Also, it has a dull, Brave New World kind of feel to it.  "Keep calm, plod on with your menial lot in life, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."  I'm probably reading way too much into it, but I'm overly-analytical by nature, and try as I may, I can't seem to overcome that particular trait.

Here are a couple that are a laugh riot, not because of the expressions themselves but for grand, overly-complex misinterpretations:
The phrase, hair of the dog that bit you, entered my vocabulary in my college years, for obvious reasons.  My sister revealed one post-party morning (okay, it was noon) at a Denny's what she thought it meant.  To paraphrase, it was something like this: "So you drank a lot the night before, right?  And your hangover's so bad, you have to go down to Hades and get a hair from the dog, Cerberus, to make a potion to cure your headache."  I laughed so hard, I spit lukewarm crappy coffee all over the table.  I guess I'm not the only uber-analyser in the family.  I'd still be laughing at her had I not discovered my own stupidly complicated mistaken interpretation.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth.  You may already know this, but said platitude refers to the practice of examining a horse's teeth to determine it's worth.  The point is to instruct graciousness upon receiving a present instead of criticism.  While I got the basic sentiment, I went the long way 'round to get there.  I went back to the Trojan horse, thinking you wouldn't want to look it in the mouth, because all those Greeks would come out of it and get you.  Maybe I was confusing it with, beware of Greeks bearing gifts.  And what is it with my sister and I injecting unnecessary literary references into simple metaphors?

What prompted this brief yet rambling essay is a mood I've been in lately.  I've found recently platitudes of my past are rattling around in my head, and, with a mixture of horror and amusement, I'm realizing some of them are true.  Most of them involve the word, "positive," and have wormed their way into corporate jargon over the past decade or two.   Things like, positive attitude changes everything.  Okay, so I still don't love that one, mostly because it's complete bullshit, along the lines of, If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.  Really??  You think if I put my mind to it, being a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two, I could be an NFL linebacker in two years?  Maybe I'm being too literal, but I come by it honestly.  It's in my blood.
Anyway, I digress.  What's sprouting in my mind is a seed I recently gathered from online somewhere:  Surround yourself with positive people, or something to that effect.  This is the kind of saying I'd have scoffed at several years ago.  Quotes like these that pop up on motivational posters are overly general and suggest the speaker is either a cheerleader or an aerobics instructor from the eighties - sugary sweet, overly peppy, and above all, fake and not to be trusted.  I have never considered myself a positive person, because I have some bad days, you know?  I am not the peppy, "Come on! You can do it!  Work it!  Feel the burn!"  type.  When I exercise, I feel strong.  I breathe purposefully in and back out.  I am focused.  I am not talkative, and I am certainly not bubbly, but….I feel great.  It turns out, I am actually a positive person.  I'm just quieter about it than some.  When I have a bad day, I try to fix it.  If I can't fix it, I accept it, but I know things will get better.  Why do I know this?  I guess because things always have.  It's always darkest before the dawn.  Sometimes it's darkest before the tornado, but the tornado always passes and it gets light again.  I realized just today that surrounding myself with positive people doesn't necessarily mean hanging out with people who routinely use four exclamation points at the ends of their sentences.  It means sticking with those who lead their lives in a way I admire.  It means having friends who love and support me no matter what kind of day I'm having.  It means being with people who don't tell me what kind of day to have.  It's unfortunate sayings like these have been so often reprinted, reposted and retweeted to the point they've become trite, no matter now deeply and honestly the original author may have discovered them within themselves.
I found the following quote by Karl Marx today:

Surround yourself with people who make you happy. People who make you laugh, who help you when you’re in need. People who genuinely care. They are the ones worth keeping in your life. Everyone else is just passing through.

I read it and thought, "Yeah, that's about right." The key, though, is identifying those people, because sometimes they're not obvious, and sometimes we trust the wrong people.  All in all, it's a good thing to keep in mind when deciding with whom you want to spend your time and energy.  It's too long of a quote to make a poster, though, and no one would bother to read the whole thing on the back of your car or t-shirt.   And just maybe folks, to quote one more trite phrase, that is a good thing.

Monday, January 27, 2014

My Grandmother - Sue White

 I was thinking about Sue the other day and also thinking how we often deify the dead - turning them into saints without fault.  And though Sue had many outstanding qualities, she, like the rest of us, was not perfect.  So, in wishing not to do her or the world a disservice, I decided I should remember not only what made her great, but also what made her humanly imperfect. 
 I remember being in her kitchen one day in my early twenties.  It was winter, and I was wearing jeans and a pair of short, black boots I’d just bought.  I loved those boots.  I sat in a chair facing the armchair she sat in, and I crossed my legs and leaned back in my chair as we chatted.  She looked down at my boots and said, “My god, those are the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” and gave a perfunctory chuckle.  Then she moved onto whatever was next in her head, my ugly boots forgotten... forgotten by her but not by me.  I was offended.  How dare she say something like that!  Can’t she just keep that stuff to herself?  At the time, I angrily wondered if she thought she had the right to say things like that just because she was getting on in years and old people get to do whatever they like.
I hadn’t thought about this in years, but now I want to couple it with a seemingly unrelated story.  Since Sue died, several people have earnestly mentioned to me how she always made them feel welcome and how talking with Sue about things always made them feel better.  Then I realized something.  There have been countless times in my life when I did not comfort a suffering friend, when I did not approach the new person at the party because I was afraid I’d say the wrong thing.  Sue was never afraid to strike up a conversation, about the weather or your latest mental breakdown.  No topic was taboo, and because of that, she sometimes offended, but also because of that, she often provided solace and comfort to people when no other dared.  So as I thought about it, I realized for all the things I’ve learned from Sue - from how to make strawberry jam to how to be a good writer - the thing from her I most want to carry with me as I move through life is this:  Never be afraid to say the wrong thing.  Say something.  Say anything, whether the person is in obvious pain or simply a little uncomfortable in unfamiliar company.  And, if you, however well-intentioned, accidentally offend them, don't be too hard on yourself.
I’m going to end with a quote, because Sue loved them.  This one by Hunter S. Thompson describes in a broader sense the importance of daring to say the wrong thing. The first time I heard this quote, it was many years ago from Sue herself.  This is one she both loved and lived. It’s another lesson I carry with me:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!

-Hunter S. Thompson