Sunday, December 31, 2017

Tell me something good

A friend asked on FB this morning for people to tell her something good that had happened to them this year.

I love this. Tell me something good that happened to you in 2017.

In truth, 2017 felt calamitous in many ways. The news was relentlessly dark and exhausting. Conversations in DC are always political, and this year all the more so. I went to my dermatologist for my annual skin check and asked how he was, and he said, "Fine, thanks. I mean, considering."

That's how many conversations started this year. It felt inescapable.

But recently I read an article about gratefulness which said that basically, just thinking about what you are grateful for, even if you can't come up with anything, changes your brain for the better. Now at dinner we go around the table and say something we are grateful for.

I will say that one of the positive things about having 2009 be the absolute worst year of my life is that my benchmark for most terrible is very high.

But let me not bullshit you about being all zen and grateful because we all know I fret a whole lot and get sucked into depressive vortexes and the like.

Mostly I'm saying I try to be grateful, because it is a better way to life. I was delighted to learn that because of cell turnover, every seven years all of the cells in our bodies are new.  I think it was seven. In any case, you aren't exactly who you were, and you are constantly changing.

Kind of like Heraclitus and the moving river. I like this idea.

This was a pretty sporadic blogging year, and I'd love to tell you it's because I was working on my book, but it wasn't. It was just because of life, anxiety, depressive vortexes, the moving river, and more life.

We had some calamities--mainly my mom's cancer scare, and her being hospitalized thrice in the summer for anemia.

But we had some good, beautifully good things, for which I am extremely grateful.

In January Betty, the kids, my friend Leigh and I went to Cartagena, Colombia. This is possibly the best piece of 2017 for me. We rented a great house, and Cartagena is a magical place. All of us loved it. The kids ask when we can go back.

These are memories I will cherish forever, and such a gift.

We also attended some protests in January and February. (We missed the Women's March, as we were flying back that day, the trip having been planned and tickets bought well before the election.)

In April we lost our friend John. In May we lost our dear friend Pat. Both of these people I had known my entire life, and Pat was another mother to me. These continue to be tremendously hard losses.

In June I walked with my dear friend Laurie and Team SOLOS in my fourth Out of the Darkness Overnight walk.

As I am listing them this way, I realize it really was a year with big events and travel

In July the kids and I joined Wendy and her family in the Outer Banks. They invited us for the second year in a row, and kindly included us as family.

Beyond that, my kids call Wendy's mom and dad "Mimi" and "Papa," which is what Josie and Zeke call them. My kids don't have a grandfather, and her parents are so loving; I am extra grateful that my children get to have these grandparent relationships with them.

The end of July, I had the good fortune to visit Seattle for the first time, to a Peace Corps reunion at our friends' house on Whidbey Island. In blogworld and real world convergence, my Internet friend Laura picked me up at the airport, and we spent the day in Seattle together, before she dropped me at the ferry.

I got to see friends I saw at Rhonda's birthday in Austin, and others I hadn't seen in decades. I am so very grateful to have these people again in my life.

It was a quick three-day trip, and then I was home for a few days before loading up the car and driving to Toronto. I have an unfinished blog post on this adventure and I plan to post in the new year. We visited Sophie and Sean and their family; it was an extraordinary week.

We got home in time for my birthday, which was the same day as Australian Builder Kim's memorial service. (We realized at Christmas dinner that it was Kim's birthday, and we put candles on the cake and sang Happy Birthday to him.)

Just days after returning from Toronto, Betty went into the hospital for the second time for severe anemia. I had tremendous guilt, having dragged her all over creation or anyway multiple states and a bit of two countries.

And then, then we went to Family Camp in Maine.

This fall I went with great trepidation to a reunion of my Kappa sisters in Chapel Hill. And I left with a heart so full of amazing reconnections. It was a fun time, and for me, it was healing.

We gathered because two of our sisters have passed away, and Melanie, the amazing organizer, took the lead on getting us all together before too much more time passed.

We all took a photo in front of the house, and signed mattings to give to the famlies of the two women who died. I delivered one of the photos, and the parents weren't home when I stopped by, so I left a note with my number.

The mom called to tell me how grateful she was that we had gathered in memory of her daughter. She asked about her daughter's friends. We talked for a while, and she asked if I'd get in touch when we are out that way again. I said it would be my pleasure, and in truth, it would.

I didn't go to the reunion looking for that kind of connection, but I lucked into it nonetheless.

So I suppose that 2017 was not the kind of year that I might have anticipated, but it taught me a lot about myself and the world, and brought me a surprising number of gifts.

I'm thankful for all of them.

I wish you all a beautiful, bountiful, love filled 2018. I am grateful for you.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas

The holidays are a time to be close to those we love, and to miss loved ones who are not with us. It's such a pretty, happy holiday.

But the overriding expectation is to be joyful--fa la la la la! There are parties! There are pretty, shiny lights and baubles!

And when you have young kids, they are SO EXCITED! This part is incredibly exhausting, and extremely fun.

But for many, even the joyful among us, the holidays are accompanied by private sadness and ache. You set the table and are aware of who you're not setting a place at the table for this year.

It's OK to be sad. It's an intense time and season.

This is my funniest Christmas memory. Christmas was always rough for my dad, and he didn't smile a whole lot, much less belly laugh at this time of year.

I cannot imagine why I bought my mom those terrible gold tights, which she never wore, but I am sure glad I did.

If you are struggling, know that you are not alone. You are never alone. If you need someone to reach out to, I am here. My email is in the side bar.

Big love and hugs to all of you.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Weaving time in a tapestry

December.

December. December there's so much to do, and not enough time.

And not enough light.

**

Our tree is missing a whole section of lights.

This is exactly how I feel about myself.

**

Christmas is my favorite holiday. I love the tree, the lights, the treats, the songs, the wrapped packages.

Still. Winter is not my friend.

This morning, after yet another disagreement between us, Nick suggested that I've been sliding into a dark place. Sometimes when we fight I feel like he puts the onus on me, because I'm honest about depression and anxiety. Easy to blame.

But in this case, I think his feedback is fair. I've been exercising five days a week, eating well with barely any sugar, and rarely drinking. Even with all that, I am going to up my meds, at least until we have more daylight.

I don't feel hateful, but why wait until I do?

**

December is one of those months where I easily feel like everyone does everything better than I do.

I got holiday cards. But being me, and continually adding people I love to my list, I wound up in the position of having more people than cards. So I got more cards. I haven't yet addressed them all.

I wrote holiday cards for the teachers, bought gift cards, stuffed them. They'll all be delivered by this afternoon, the last day before the holiday. Cards for our tenants, who are terrific. A card for the mail carried, a lovely man.

There are dearly loved ones on my holiday card list who aren't with us anymore. Our traditional Christmas Eve plan...isn't anymore.

Loss. This was a year of significant loss. 

Life is letting go. I've had a life of goodbyes. I used to be good at them.

**

Gifts. Gifts. This year, I pushed for one gift per person. One toy. People could still get books and clothes. Nobody but me liked this idea. But with my hard line--which has made Nick treat me like the Grinch--this year we are more restrained.

Next year, my hope is to travel. We all have an experience, rather than giving each other more stuff.

This year, as in most recent years, I made photo books for both grandmothers. It took me no fewer than 100 hours. Hand to God.

**

In prior years, I've invited a million people for Christmas dinner. OK, not a million. But one year we had 40 people. Because every time someone said they'd be here for Christmas, not traveling to family, I said, "Oh, you should come to our house!"

Betty told me to stop inviting strangers at the bus stop. It was practically at that point.

This year, I've held my tongue. It isn't easy. I open my mouth and then I tell myself to shut it and I do.

I wasn't raised with self-preservation skills. I was raised to carry your weight. Too heavy for you? I'm strong. Let me.

But it takes a toll. I can carry a lot, but I have a family of people who need me.

Sometimes I have nothing left to offer freely, because it's all been claimed already.

**

When I say I hate people, which I have exclaimed a plethora of times this past year, someone near and dear to me says, "Oh, bullshit. You love people. You have SO MANY people you love."

It is true. I have SO MANY people I love. I may have myriad weaknesses, but people are a strength; I have spectacular taste in people.

But when I spend a period of time all PEOPLE PEOPLE PEOPLE I stop functioning quite so well.

As it turns out, I'm a more delicate flower than I'd like to admit. I need a lot of sleep. I need a lot of time alone. My head is a busy place, and when there is too much outside commotion, I get exhausted.

It'd be easier, I am sure, if I were an extrovert. Or a misanthrope.

Apparently, I am neither.

**

I haven't yet made Christmas cookies with my kids.

I haven't finished my cards.

I have presents to wrap.

I don't even know what I'm going to make for dinner.

**

I'm doing my best.

It's December.

Monday, December 18, 2017

O Christmas tree

Eight years ago, my big boy was a small baby. I had just returned to work from maternity leave. And I had just started treatment for postpartum depression.

Our house had mostly new electric wiring by that point, I think. It didn't yet have all new pipes, and it certainly didn't have a new boiler to power the radiators; I know this because because the old one died for good a month later on the first day of Snowmageddon.

I think we got the new windows, the ones that the wind didn't whip through, in January or February. I can't remember anymore.

But at this point, Christmas was upon us.

Our ground floor was still under construction, but our kitchen was nearly complete, in that we had a functional sink and stove and counters. But the rest of the floor was ripped up, dusty, unusable. We were still walking on planks to get from front door to back.

The outer front doors were still missing, and the inner door had a good inch of air at the top and bottom. The basement door had a big piece of plywood as one corner, and I still feel lucky that noone broke in that way.

At that point, our alley was sketchy, and humans used to use our garage as a private bathroom.

All true.

So at this juncture in our lives, heading toward my first Christmas without my dad, the Christmas of the most painful, hardest, worst year of my entire life, Nick and I discussed a tree.

I say "discussed" when I actually mean "fought about". Just like we fought about where to put the washer and dryer, and numerous other things, when really each fight was a vehicle for screaming out pain and grief.

Christmas was fast approaching, and we weren't going to go to my parents' house to celebrate, because Dad had walked out the door one beautiful day that May and never returned, except as ashes, and Betty was at our house most of the time.

We needed to make Christmas. We needed to get a tree.

Nick wanted a fake one and I railed against the fakeness of fake. Even in Bangladesh, when we'd tied two sort-of-Christmasish trees together to make a Christmas tree, we'd had a real one. No way no how did I want a fake tree.

And he said, "Are you going to make sure it stays watered? Are you going to vacuum up the needles?"

In this period where he was working 12 hours a day and I was hanging on so barely by my fingernails, where it was all I could do to make sure I had all of my clothes on before heading to work, where I still cried every day, I knew that I could not add a tree to my list.

"Fine," I said. "Do whatever you want. You always do."

I don't, in fact, remember my exact wording. But I know I have the tone just right.

So Nick went to Home Depot and there were two trees left, both on sale. He brought one home and lugged it up to the third floor and took it out of the box.

It had lights. Already strung on it. It was big. It held all our ornaments. It was pretty.

It was perfect. I loved it.

Eight years later, we still have the same tree. It's still very pretty, and we get compliments. And every year I say, "Thank you! You'll see this exact same tree next year. With the same ornaments."

It lives in a box under the stairs, and the weekend after Thanksgiving, Nick pulls it out and assembles it, and Betty, the kids and I decorate with the same ornaments we've had my entire life. Plus a new one or two every year.

I still love it.

This year, a string of lights went out. Nick bought a gadget to find the problem lights. He fixed a number of them. (This love of tools and gadgets, and his propensity to fix things, are aspects of this man I absolutely love.)

And then two strings went out. Our tree is still perfect, just with a band or so of no-lights.

He said with all missing lights, next year it might be time to replace the tree. I suggested just buying lights.

Why add a great tree to landfill, when we can add lights? I vote for bulbous, milky, colored lights, just like my childhood. Those are my favorite kind.

Our tree is still lovely, just aging. It mostly works, just with a couple places that need some help. This all feels very familiar.

It's not what I'd have chosen eight years ago, when I didn't actually have the energy to chose anything.

But I don't get itchy welts on my arms while hanging ornaments, there are no needles to vacuum, and we can have the lights on as much as we want without worrying about fire.

This is the tree my kids have grown up with, and could well be the tree we still have when they head off to college.

As it turns out, it's perfect for us.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which is such a better acronym than WFSAMMCAEATT

I was thinking about the acronym SAD, and how fitting it is, and how I couldn't come up with a better one that made a word.

I mean, Winter F$%&ing Sucks And Makes Me Cry And Eat All The Time doesn't work for a variety of reasons. One, it doesn't include the word disorder, and two, WFSAMMCAEATT is both cumbersome and doesn't make an actual word. (And three, but less importantly: you aren't supposed to capitalize the And, And, or The but acronyms with big and small letters are kind of weird.)

ANYWAY.

This is a sort of PSA but rooted in a personal story because I believe that if you're telling other people what you think they might ought to do, but you've never lived through it, then you're a jackass.

Which I try not to be, with varying degrees of success.

(Also, I firmly support double modals, in case you're wondering.) 

So. We are in November, which in the Northern hemisphere means it's fall, with short days that get progressively shorter until December 21. And when the sun is out, the light is thin.

This matters.

OK, now my story. And then I'll get back to what may or may not be about you.

Two weekends ago, at Carolina, a friend asked if I've basically been skinny since those 40 pounds I gained in college.

The answer is no, and yes. Depending on the season.

Prior to antidepressants, I gained 10-15 pounds every winter. This is a lot on someone with small bones who is only 5'3". I'd lose it by summer, to gain it again the following year. My size was always in flux. I thought about my weight all the time.

I was great at not eating in the spring and summer. I could not eat and not eat, and run and run. I had energy, I laughed, I got skinny, and it was great. The longer the days, the better I felt.

But as it turns out, I'm extremely sensitive to light. So I'd notice the shift of light in August, and fully start being affected in September, when it didn't (then) make sense, because it was still warm out.

As soon as the light strength and amount diminished, I'd start the downhill slide. 

This for me meant eating more. I always ate sugar, no matter what else I was or wasn't eating. Mostly wasn't. I eliminated a lot of food over the years. But candy was my thing.

And running.

But once the days were short and the amount of light I got was not sufficient, I couldn't starve myself. I lost control.

It didn't ever matter how much I ran, because I could out-eat all the running.

Really, until I started antidepressants consistently, that was how I lived. Weight gain all winter, weight loss all spring and summer. I'm talking about my weight here, but I cried all winter as well. The crying went along with the eating.

It's not that I didn't cry in the summer, just a lot less.

Now I'm on a much more even keel, both weight-wise and emotionally. Not an even keel like someone who doesn't struggle with depression. But an even keel for me.

And since I've been on antidepressants, that big chunk of dread doesn't lodge in my stomach in September, when the sun is still golden but the slant and quality are wrong. I still get nervous; I won't pretend I don't.

But not like before.

With this level of removal, and no longer being all wrapped up in my own struggles, I can actually see and hear other people. And this is what I've noticed: Quite a lot of people have a hard time. They want to eat all the sugar and all carbs, all the time. They hate winter. They want to sleep a lot more, to never leave the house.

If you're someone who has said these things to me, yes, I'm talking about you, but absolutely not targeting you, because let me assure you: you're one of many. You are in great company.

So.

There are a number of things I do daily that are helpful, although for me, they're not enough without medication. I know this; I've tried.

I don't always manage all of them, but the more I do, the better.

1. I use a light box. Here's a series of Mayo Clinic pages on light therapy.

2. I get sun exposure. I get outside when the sun is out. I either go for a walk or run.

3. I exercise. I do this almost daily, and whether or not I do it makes a big difference in my mood.

3. I eat protein and fats--two things I avoided for too many years. I've always loved veggies and fruit, and have always eat a lot of those (except, you know, when I mostly wasn't eating). Most significantly in my diet, I try to avoid sugar and fast carbohydrates. This is the hardest item for me.

I have drastically reduced my sugar consumption. I had no sugar, bread, pasta, rice, etc, for about five weeks straight. I was basically having a glass of wine once a week, and not every week. Once I quit sugar, my interest in wine went away.

Two weekends ago, I had a debaucherous reunion weekend, and I'm struggling to get back to completely eliminating sugar. I don't even know that this is reasonable for me over the holidays, and I am not going to beat myself up for it.

Stevia in my tea is not delicious the way sugar is. But I will tell you this: I'm sleeping better than I have in a decade. And sleep is more delicious than sugar.

Sleeping well is perhaps the part that has changed my life the most. It makes me feel way better and behave much more kindly toward every single human I encounter, my family being the humans I spend the most time with.

Now, I have a lot of mental health conversations with a lot of people. And lately people are complaining about winter. So many people hate winter.

I mention the fact that I'm on antidepressants in the same way I'd say, "The bus is late." I do this on purpose, because so many people don't talk about it.

And I often hear that people are having a hard time, but "It's not that bad."

I'm not in anyone else's head. I don't know how they actually feel, or what their threshold is.

I would never tell anyone that their bad is that bad, even if I sometimes think it. Sometimes I suggest it might be, gently and indirectly. If these suggestions are met with hostility, I back away.

Sometimes people get downright hostile when you suggest therapy or medication. I am not exaggerating.

But I hear what people are saying, and I see how people close down in this season in particular. I relate to their stated feelings. I know what happens to me, and I know what my threshold is.

Medication can help. Sunshine. Artificial light. Exercise. Talk therapy. Eating in a way that keeps blood sugar balanced.

There are lots of things that can help.

I'm not a doctor, and I don't even play one on TV. But I do know this: it doesn't have to be quite so hard.