Sometimes, Life is a Roller Coaster

The last year or so has been quite a roller coaster ride, particularly the last few months.  Last spring/summer I was dealing with debilitating, unexplained pain which had me nearly wheelchair bound.  This turned out to be severe endometriosis, which culminated in extensive surgery.  I felt far better immediately after surgery than I did for the months preceding.

But then not long after I was allowed to resume normal activities, I spent several months fighting a recurrent sinus infection, which turned out to be MRSA in my sinuses.  I haven’t had surgery for that, but it may be necessary soon, probably before cold and flu season hits full swing.

In spring of this year my daughter was struggling with severe depression, for which she ended up medically withdrawing for the semester and spending a short stint at a mental health hospital. Then at the beginning of summer, I broke my ankle.  A month later, our 15 year old dog and my grandfather, who I was extremely close to, died within a couple of days of each other.

So yeah, the family has been through the ringer.  I’ve been generally crappy at savoring anything lately, and not really accomplishing much at all, to be honest. I’ve been far more inclined to become a hermit. I’ve withdrawn from people, from activities, from life. But I am acutely aware that it’s not healthy for me to continue that indefinitely.

In the process of trying to diagnose my unexplained pain, one rheumatologist said he was pretty confident I had fibromyalgia.  Not long after that they found the endometriosis, so honestly I kind of dismissed the fibro diagnosis.  I think I was mostly hoping that with the surgery, anything that could not be attributed to my other illnesses would be resolved.  Unfortunately, that has turned out to not be the case. I am still really struggling with “swiss cheese brain” (fibro fog), pain and swelling in various muscles, and profound weakness and fatigue which doesn’t respond as well to my Addison’s medication as I would like. So it’s put me in a state of not remotely caring about much at all. I haven’t even been doing things that I normally enjoy.

Of course, those of you who have dealt with depression know that this is prone to happening to someone who is sinking into that quagmire. We don’t feel like doing things, so we stop doing things we enjoy. We don’t feel like interacting with others, so we withdraw from everyone. Naturally, this makes the situation worse. Depression is a black hole that sucks you in and spirals down further the more you cut yourself off from those things.

I’ve talked before about depression, and I’ve been on medications for it at a few different points in my life.  But not one doctor has urged me to see a counselor, or even suggested that it might be a good idea. I’m not trying to diagnose or treat anyone else, but I think that tends to be a mistake. I have become more and more convinced that in most cases, if your depression is affecting your life enough that you seek medical help, then medication PLUS therapy would usually be better than just medication alone. If you can find the right therapist, of course.

So I’ve been doing just that. If there is something I can do to help myself feel better, both mentally and physically, why would I NOT try that? Honestly, why haven’t I tried it before now? It may be partly because no doctor ever suggested it. It may be that I was subconsciously buying into the cultural assumption that only REALLY messed up people see a psychiatrist. But if it can help me cope better with the unrelenting, rapid-fire garbage that life has been throwing our family lately, it’s all to the good, and I’m in with both feet.

I’ve seen my new therapist a half dozen times now. I think one of the biggest benefits for me is that I feel like I’m taking some of the pressure off my husband. I am often a physical drain on him because of my health, I am a huge financial drain on the household, and I know the stress of worrying about me doesn’t help. But unloading to an outside person periodically has seemed to at least take some of that emotional burden off him. And although I’m not sure I’ve learned anything groundbreaking about myself, I think it’s helped me process the difficult stuff, especially the grieving. Stay tuned for progress updates, and cheer for the return of the enthusiastic, optimistic person that I am at heart. I’ve missed her, and I’m sure my family and friends have as well.

And if you’re struggling with depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. No matter how alone you feel, there is someone out there who wants to help you be well: a family member, a friend, maybe even someone you haven’t met yet, in the form of a doctor, counselor, or a hotline volunteer. Always keep fighting.

 

Investing in Relationships

Last time I wrote about simplifying our holidays, and one of the things I mentioned was giving fewer, but more heartfelt gifts. My daughter has a quirky habit that whenever she introduces herself to someone new, she follows immediately with something along the lines of, “What’s your favorite color? Mine is green.” And I realized, I don’t know even this most basic information about the likes and dislikes of many of my friends and family. It seems like a simple thing, and I guess it is, but if I were choosing a birthday card, or wanted to knit a scarf, or buy a blouse for a friend, wouldn’t this be good information to know?

The thing is, knowing little details about people takes TIME. We have to invest time in the relationship to know what their favorite authors, movies, shows, hobbies, activities, and styles are. Unless we are just unnaturally lucky, we can’t really get them something they like if we don’t know what they like! I can’t pick something that you would want to hang on your wall if I don’t know how your house is decorated. And I don’t really want to spend the time to knit you a sweater in your least favorite color.

So I guess I’m starting a New Year’s resolution a little early. Especially during the holidays, and then continuing throughout the year, I’m going to try to pay a little closer attention to what colors and styles people wear, what programs/movies they watch, how they decorate their homes. Because even if it’s a small, inexpensive item, it will be much more appreciated if it’s a clear sign that you know what they like. That you care about them enough to invest the time to really “get” them.

How do you plug in to your loved ones to learn what they like? How do you keep track of it all? I’m considering keeping a year-round “gift-giving list” for just such a purpose. I’d love your input!

I Choose Joy

Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything.  We’ve had a lot of things going on in recent weeks (months), and I’ve been having some back problems that have made it pretty darn uncomfortable to sit at the computer for any length of time.  But thankfully my awesome doctor has prescribed some new medication and started me on physical therapy to regain my strength from being a forced couch potato, so all is well (or on its way there, anyway).

Those who know me know how frustrated I’ve been to be tied to my recliner, unable to do all the things I’ve wanted to do.  And most days it’s been hard not to complain.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone needs to vent their frustrations every once in a while, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s been a real struggle to keep myself from falling into a pattern of continual grouchiness and/or whininess.  God bless my exceptionally patient husband (and the rest of my family) for putting up with me.  I know I’ve been particularly short-tempered as of late.

I recently got invited to become “Facebook friends” with one of the receptionists at my doctor’s office (I’ll not call you out and embarrass you, but if you’re reading this, you know who you are), and I was happy to get the invitation.  See, when I first met her, I was still trying desperately to find a doctor who was willing to work with me to make me well, not just “good enough”, and willing to learn about a pretty obscure disease.  She was the first person I talked to, and has never been anything but kind, cheerful, and enthusiastic.  Have you ever met someone and instantly thought you were kindred spirits?  She is one of those people. This girl reminds me of myself 20 years ago.  And I find that nearly all of her posts are uplifting and encouraging, things that just make me smile, so I’m so much happier to see something from her pop up on my newsfeed than most of the political, negative, woe-is-me or woe-is-our-country crap that I often see.  Even as rarely as I’m on Facebook, I’m already glad she asked me to “friend” her.

I think there are two main parts to choosing joy in our lives, and one is primarily internal, the other a little more external.  First, how do I view and think about myself and my circumstances, and second how do I view others and my relationships with them?  Today I’ll just talk about my attitudes toward myself, and deal with my attitudes towards others in my next post.

There’s an old-ish song (1994) by Larnelle Harris called “I Choose Joy”.  The video is pretty goofy, but I love the lyrics.  Specifically, the line that keeps coming back to me is: “I’ll never let the problems keep me down”.  Note that it doesn’t say, I’ll never let the problems GET me down, because that is entirely unrealistic, but I won’t let them KEEP me down.  That’s important.  Everyone has times of discouragement, but it’s when I allow myself to wallow in that and remain in a state of self-pity and despair that I have a problem.  Now I’m not saying that someone who has clinical depression can “wish” their way out of it, but I will go so far as to say that even when medications are necessary, they cannot work as well alone.  I have to make a conscious, sometimes daily, even minute-to-minute decision to choose joy.  I repeat, I’m not saying you can magically think yourself out of depression.  But I truly believe you CAN mentally trap yourself there, regardless of medications.  I shouldn’t think of depression as a pair of handcuffs, where if I just have the right key I can open them, click, and then I’m not carrying that burden any more.  It’s more like being bound by a spool of unbreakable thread. I have to unwind myself a little at a time in order to get free.

There is nothing wrong with occasionally saying, “Ugh, I don’t feel well”, but if every phrase that comes out of my mouth is “oh, my aching ____” or “oh, my terrible job/husband/friend/family member/life” or some other version of “woe is me”, my focus is in the wrong place.  I’ve seen the thankfulness challenges quite a bit lately (I guess they’ve been extended from just being thankful around Thanksgiving) and there’s nothing wrong with those, but I challenge you to make sure those statements are not superficial.  Better than saying, “Ugh, my back hurts, but at least I’m still breathing”,  I should be thinking something more along the lines of, “Ugh, my back hurts, but it’s better than it’s been at its worst, and I was able to fold a load of laundry today!”  I can’t be afraid to celebrate small accomplishments, but I have to make sure that my thankfulness for them is genuine.  I may not enjoy being a cashier or a waitress or burger-flipper or whatever, but at least I have a job while I’m looking for something better.  And there is nothing wrong with wanting something better, but I have to take care that I don’t allow myself to fall into the constant pattern of never being content with what I have right now.  I’ve written about contentment before, but it’s a topic that’s really important to me.  I just see so many people who live their entire lives with a “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” mentality, and never reach a place of contentment because of that internal attitude.

All this to say, we all struggle with challenges like this.  You’re not alone.  My frustrations might not be exactly the same as yours, but I do know how it feels to be frustrated with myself or some aspect of my life, and I know you do too.  But I issue you this challenge: try to be really observant about what comes out of your mouth (or what gets posted on your status, or tweeted) for the next few days, and see if you can add something positive, even if part of it is negative.  It might just be baby steps at this point, but we’ve got to start somewhere.  I’m with you on this; let’s keep moving forward together.  Choose joy in this moment.

40 bags in 40 days

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This great article about purging 40 bags of crap for the 40 days of Lent was shared on Facebook by a friend, and I thought I would share it with you guys.  My hubby and I have definitely benefited from clearing our home of the crap that we never use, but we still have a lot left to get rid of.   I LOVE the idea of using Lent as a motivator. Instead of giving up a food (or in addition to), try giving up a bag of stuff you don’t need to someone who does, each day of Lent.

This is such a win/win/win proposition. You’ll have less garbage just taking up precious space in your home, your home becomes more peaceful because of it, you give the items to someone who will use and love them, and you can even claim the donations on your taxes if you want to.  Here’s some helpful hints from the article for letting go of the things you’re reluctant to purge (as usual, my comments are in blue):

On those days when you’re feeling craptastic and “Crap Clingy” ask yourself the following questions:

    1. Do I really, really love it?  This doesn’t mean, “Do I love the person who gave it to me?”  It means, “Do I use it regularly, or does it make me smile when I look at it?”  This is extremely personal.  Others may not understand why I still cling to a whole ton of books, but then I may not understand why they keep a ton of cheap souvenirs from every city they’ve ever visited.  Don’t feel guilty about keeping something that makes you smile, just because others don’t understand its worth to you.  But don’t feel guilty about getting rid of stuff you never use, either.
    2. Would I buy it again?  In other words, is it valuable enough to you that you would spend money to replace it if it was broken or lost?
    3. Have I used it in the past year?  With the exception of seasonal items, I’d dare say things should be used even more often than that in order to merit a place in our space.  But if this is hard for you, try getting rid of everything you haven’t used in two years, then wait a few months, and try to get rid of things you haven’t used in a year.  Remember, you’re keeping these items from being used and love by keeping them in your home for dustcatchers.
    4. Would it be hard to replace if I needed it again?  This is the hardest thing for a lot of people.  I don’t want to get rid of this because I might use it again someday.  Chances are if you haven’t used it in a year or two, you’re never going to need it.  It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a great/useful/ingenious item.  If you’re not using it, it can’t be the great/useful/ingenious item it was intended to be.  This is especially good to consider for small appliances and power tools.  It’s not amazing if it’s just gathering dust.
    5. If I were free from guilt, would I want it?  Meaning, just because it was great-aunt-whoever’s, or was given to you buy dear friend x, doesn’t mean you should be obligated to keep it if you never use it. Take a pic if you’d like, for the memories. Maybe even write a short bit in the caption about the person who gave it to you, and then give it away to someone who will appreciate it.

I know I’ve been pushing the “get rid of stuff” thing a lot, but it really does bring peace to your household.  It’s so much easier to take care of the things you really use and love if you’re not spending all your time and effort shuffling through and caring for the things you don’t love.

And if you’re not ready to commit to 40 bags yet, try just a little.  Every little bit helps, and once you get rid of the first few bags, maybe the added peace and sense of accomplishment will inspire you to do more.

BTW, the pic above was posted on Becoming Minimalist today, and I thought it went well with this article.

How about you guys? What do you find hardest about getting rid of stuff?

The Quest for Enough

The idea of minimalism really resonates with me.  I’m not sure why I find it so appealing, except that I’ve never really been a big one for “stuff”, and it seems to generally cause more trouble than it’s worth.  But here’s the deal: it’s not the stuff itself that’s the problem.  It’s the attitude that the stuff is necessary for happiness.  That we have to own as much stuff as the next guy in order to prove that we’re as successful.  And sometimes we adopt the same attitude with other things in our lives as well.  I need to have not just the stuff, but the prestige, the house, the location, perfect body, the whatever.  And we even compare ourselves to others in completely abstract ways.  I need to be the most minimalist minimalist, the most eco-minded eco-warrior, the most successful, the most surviviest, whatever draws you.

Whatever things or accomplishments we want, we’re never going to be satisfied until we’ve got enough.  The problem comes in when we inappropriately define “enough”.  If it’s always more than what we have, we’ll never reach it.  While I’m not sure I want to pledge to not buy new clothes for a year, this post from Becoming Minimalist really points out our difficulties with contentment.

It might seem like I post on contentment a lot, and I guess I do.  Part of it may be because I struggle with it myself.  But part of it is because I think this is one of the biggest problems in western society.  We are never satisfied with what we have, because instead of seeing how much more we have than others, we look at those who have more than us.  This applies to belongings, homes, cars, spouses, just about everything.  Even primarily internal things (like wanting to be more minimalist) can become an issue if we allow ourselves to become discontent with the level that we’ve reached.

Now I’m not encouraging a sense of complacency, either.  We should be striving to improve ourselves where we can.  The problem occurs when we start beating ourselves up about what we haven’t yet achieved, instead of seeing how far we’ve come.  This can happen in any endeavor.  We can’t be proud of the 10 lbs we’ve lost, because we have another X lbs we want to lose.  We can’t be pleased with the progress, because we haven’t reached the goal.  This is why it’s recommended to break a large goal down into multiple smaller ones, that way we can celebrate the little accomplishments on the way to the big one.

But here’s the crux of the matter, and I know I keep harping on this, but I think it bears repeating (because I know I need to hear it continually):  We need to stop comparing ourselves to others.  I can’t be the best you; I can only be the best me.  You can’t be the best me; you can only be the best you.  It has taken me about 40 years to realize the truth of this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to constantly remind myself.  I have to be happy with the baby steps that I’m capable of taking today, knowing that even if I’m not speeding towards my goal, at least I’m making progress in the right direction.

So today I want to encourage you.  Don’t look around; look at yourself.  Don’t agonize about how much farther you have to go until you’ve achieved success (no matter what the goal is); look into your own past and see how much progress you’ve made.  If you feel like you’re not heading in the direction of your goals, make the necessary course corrections.  Go back to school, take on an apprenticeship, ask for on-the-job training, join a gym, find a co-conspirator working toward the same goal, whatever will help you reach the goals you’ve set for yourself.  And celebrate the tiniest successes.  No matter how slow your progress seems, it’s still progress.  Keep on keepin’ on.

A Ray of Sunshine Instead of a Rain Cloud

Let’s talk about cooking for a bit, shall we?  Imagine a big pot of your favorite comfort food slowly simmering on the stove.  It might be stew, or chili, or potato soup, or gumbo, or veggie soup.  You’ve been working on it all day, and you just taste tested it; it may be your best batch ever.  Perfectly seasoned, perfect texture, perfect blend of ingredients.  You can’t wait to sit down and have a nice big serving, maybe two.  But then someone comes along and throws in a big chunk of rancid meat.  Or a tiny vial of poison.  Or a ladle of sewage.  Suddenly you’re not so apt on eating that perfect bowl of comfort food.

There are a lot of phrases we use to symbolize this idea:  one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel, a little yeast leavens the whole batch, etc.  While I’m not sure it’s quite as absolute as my above example (would you just scoop out the offending item and eat a bowl anyway?), I truly believe that even little bits of negative garbage can have a drastic effect on our lives.  And if it happens often, it becomes a real problem.

If we surround ourselves with people who put us down, put others down, or put themselves down, we’re going to end up being down.  That’s just how it works.  It’s even worse if WE’RE the person putting everyone down, including ourselves.  Think about the things that come out of your mouth (or end up as your Facebook status): I hate my boss; he/she is horrible.  I can’t stand so-and-so; they’re so intolerable.  I hate my body; I wish x-y-z was different/prettier/better.   The reason the country is being ruined is because of (insert least favorite politician here).  If you find that statements like these outweigh more positive statements, you may want to rethink that choice.

Do you really want to be the one who chucks poison or sewage in everyone else’s stew?  Do you want to continue to throw those things into your own stew?

Perhaps your boss IS horrible.  But if you do in fact have a boss, that means you’re employed.  And while circumstances are not an excuse for being horrible to another human being, you don’t know your boss’s back story.  There may be something going on that is consuming his life right now, or something in his past that has left him like that.

Maybe your body is not exactly how you’d like it to be.  Stop focusing on what you hate about it.  Change the things you can (and be patient because it doesn’t happen overnight), and stop whining about the things you can’t change.  Find something about your body that you really like, and think of that when another self-berating thought pops up.

I know everyone gets sick sometimes, and I don’t have the least bit of problem with the occasional, “Ugh, this illness is really kicking my butt” statement.  But if every single post is whining about every single ache and pain, people begin to wonder if anything good ever happens to you.

And I said I was pretty much going to avoid politics on this blog, but I have seen so much negative garbage lately, it makes me ill.  I have seriously considered “un-friending” some people just because their status updates are nothing but constant political poison.  Regardless of your political affiliations, there are two things you need to get through your skull:  one person cannot single-handedly destroy our nation, nor can one person single-handedly bring it out of the difficulties we’re in.  Nobody has that much power.  If you disagree, you were clearly not paying attention in government/economics in high school.  I invite you to educate yourself–there’s this really cool resource called the internet that’s great for that sort of thing.  I might recommend that you avoid sites that pat you on the back for spewing poison, though.  That’s not really going to help the issue.  Nor is it likely to educate you.

I’ll admit it’s not an easy habit to break.  You have to completely retrain your mind.  And hijack your mouth, most of the time.  And then you’ve got to nail those internal thoughts as well.  Like I’ve said before, you can’t control when a negative thought pops into your brain, but you CAN decide how long it gets to stay there, and whether it makes it out of your mouth (or onto your FB page).

While I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution (not really my thing), I do intend to continue working to improve myself in this area.  I have a ways to go yet, but I think progress has been made.  It’s very important to me that I am a source of positive input to my friends and family instead of being a constant rain cloud.  Excuse my Pollyanna moment for the day, but I’d rather be a ray of sunshine.

One of my favorite quotes from my favorite episode of Doctor Who:  

The Doctor, after Amy is heartbroken that they couldn’t save a friend: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.  We definitely added to his pile of good things.”

May I always be mindful of whether I am adding to others’ piles of good things, and may I not add to their pile of bad things.

How to Stay Healthier This Winter

On the heels of the nastiest storm we’ve seen in quite a while, we may be bracing ourselves for a pretty harsh winter.  To minimize our chances of getting sick, we know that we should wash our hands often, try to avoid people who are sick, and take our vitamins (because no matter how much we TRY to eat well, it’s likely we’re still missing something).  We might supplement with vitamin D and a few others, or try to boost our immune systems with Echinacea and zinc.

But how much does our attitude affect our health?  This article on the Mayo Clinic site discusses how positive thinking can have a dramatic effect on your health.

How do you react when you first start feeling like you’re coming down with something?  Do you try to stay positive that you might have caught it before it got too bad?  Or do you bemoan how terrible you feel, and how certain you are that it’s only going to get worse?

I’m not trying to say that positive thinking can keep you from ever getting sick.  A virus is a virus, and sometimes they just get us.  That’s what they’re designed to do, of course.  But keeping a generally positive attitude can do several things for you.  First, it gives a boost to your immune system, thus making it harder for the invader to get a foothold in the first place.  Second, it allows that heightened immune system to fight the invader more effectively and evict it sooner if it actually does manage to get through your defenses.  Third, it makes the recovery time more pleasant for you and those around you.

Positive people also generally tend to be kinder to themselves and take better care of themselves.  They eat better, get up off the couch and get moving more (but NOT obsessively exercise), and make healthier life choices (such as not smoking).  All of those things are certainly going to have a positive impact on your overall health.

“But I’m just not naturally a positive person!  I can’t be Pollyannna all the time!”  I call bull.  While some people do seem to have a naturally positive attitude, and some seem to be Eeyore, when it comes right down to it, most of your attitude is a conditioned, trained response.  Which means that if you WANT to, you CAN un-learn your bad habits.  Again, this may come easier to some people than to others.  But I truly believe that everyone can improve their outlook if they are willing to give it some work.

It all begins with self-talk.  We internalize everything that happens to us.  Those things that pop into our heads, unbidden, are often not very positive.  The stuff we say to ourselves has far more impact on us than anything that comes from outside.  True, we may be hearing bad stuff about ourselves from the outside, but it’s not until we believe those things to be true about ourselves and beat ourselves up about them that they really begin to harm us.

We may not have much control over the fleeting negative thoughts that pop into our minds without invitation, but we certainly CAN control how much we dwell on them.  We can decide whether we kick them to the curb immediately or allow them to take up permanent residence in our thoughts.

When faced with the thought “I am a horrible person because of X”, we can choose whether we agree with that mental negative and berate ourselves for every wrong thing we’ve ever done, or we can choose to contradict that thought with this:  “Yes, I may have made x mistake, but I have also done x, y, z, etc positive things”.  Counter the “Oh, I’m so miserable because I have this disease or that illness, or I’m just sick all the time, or I have no motivation or willpower or blah, blah, blah” with “no, I don’t like where I am right now, but I don’t have to stay here forever”.  Temporary illness will pass, and lifelong illness can be dealt with.  Sometimes life sucks.  It is what it is. But there are also plenty of things that don’t suck.  You can choose to constantly complain about all the suckiness, or make the best you can of a bad situation.

As for the motivation and willpower thing, ask yourself if you really don’t like that aspect of your character.  If it’s not something that really bothers you, then quit bemoaning it.  If it IS something that you don’t like about yourself, then CHANGE IT.  Don’t keep talking about how much you don’t like it.

It’s not going to happen overnight.  It will not be easy to overcome years of conditioning.  We may have fallen into the negative self-talk habit so often that we aren’t really aware of it any more.  But we can retrain ourselves out of even the most ingrained of bad habits.  Is it going to take a lot of work?  Probably.  But it’s so worth it.  Your health and well-being depend on it.