I’m clear about who I am, where I’ve been, where I’m going, and what I’m doing. What I realized this week, though, is that isn’t the whole story, especially at work. What matters in that arena is how others perceive me – correctly or incorrectly – and to a large degree, that isn’t up to me. I suppose that’s true in all areas of life, but to me it matters less in those other areas. I can do without friends; I can’t do without a job. Not now, anyway.
Acme Health Services hired a new Public Relations person, or in our industry-speak, a Public Information Officer, a couple of months ago. She’s really fabulous and enthusiastic and young. She’s brimming with great ideas and on fire with the desire to succeed in this job and spread the great news about AHS. I’m excited to work with her. She is not my boss, but I take direction from her regarding many of my job responsibilities, as I do the website and social media and all the promotional publications.
We went to a class together on Thursday to learn about using Instagram for business. I’ve wanted to add an Instagram account for a long time, but couldn’t really wrap my head around how our business would translate to that platform, but our new PIO has a great idea about how to go about it and she got admin staff approval and so we’re full speed ahead! The class was in a town nearby, and lunch was provided. I was looking forward to learning something new, and also the chance to get to know my new co-worker a little better outside the office.
So, the first thing I noticed when I got there was that I was by far the oldest person in the room – by at least 20 years. Whatever, right? Being older doesn’t make a difference in my mind, except I’m more experienced in business than any of these other people. A positive, as I see it. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, I’m thinking, cuz were all just trying to navigate this new way of marketing, so what does age or experience have to do with any of it? We’re all beginners.
And the fact that my new co-worker is at least 20 years younger than me? Why should that matter? We’re just people working for the same company, wanting to do the best job we can. We want the same thing, so we’ll work together! It’ll be great! I’m great! She’s great! We’re going to be GREAT!
Yeah, so I can be pretty naive.
First, before the class started and we’re eating our lunches, the two young women at my table, my co-worker and someone who had taken the third chair, knew each other, and are talking, talking, talking, about their kids and all the people they know in common and blah blah blah blah blah. I smile and eat my lunch, pretending that I’m listening and that I care and that it doesn’t bother me at all that they are completely ignoring me.
Then class started and it’s okay, though I actually knew most of the information the “social media expert” was giving us. Still nice to be out of the office for a while and to have lunch out, not something I get to do very often anymore. And then two things happened simultaneously:
And so began one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in my life, and I had to get out of there FAST. Fortunately, the class had run over the scheduled time at this point, so other people were leaving, too, and I scurried out of the room and straight to the bathroom. I was in there for about 20 minutes, trying to get my breath and waiting for the dizziness to pass, and when it did finally, I slunk out of the restaurant and out to my car, which was not very far away, fortunately, and collapsed in the driver’s seat. I sat there for another 20 minutes or so, and when I felt like I could drive, I headed out toward my town. As I passed a hospital on the way, though, I started to feel dizzy again, so I pulled into the ER parking lot and contemplated going in.
Not my first panic attack though, fortunately, so I knew I probably wasn’t dying, and I sat in the car for another 10 minutes or so. Finally the pain in my chest, the tingling in my limbs, the sweating and the dizziness passed and I put the car in gear and headed back out again.
One of my favorite old songs came on the radio and I was singing along, trying to feel better, until all of a sudden I was overcome with memories of when that song was popular, when I was young, and pretty quickly I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t breathe and I had to pull over again, and wait until the worst of it passed. I started out again finally, cried all the way to my office parking lot, pulled myself together, walked in and continued my day.
Exhausted. Bone weary. But I was there. Damn it. Because that’s who I am. That’s age and experience. I’m committed and loyal and I see things through. I had work to do and even though I felt like crap, I went back and did what needed to be done.
As the afternoon went on, I kept thinking of all I wanted to say to that super fantastic clever and bright young woman:
I WAS YOU.
25 years ago, I was you. I was the super fantastic clever and bright young woman ready to set the world on fire and LIVE A FABULOUS LIFE! Despite years of depression, despite utter fall-on-my-face disasters in other areas of my life, I was always good at my work and for the 5 years I had my business, I was golden. I was smart and innovative and creative and soaked up information like a sponge and turned it into Wonderful! Brilliant! Amazing! projects for my clients. And when I came to Acme Health Services 20 years ago they were thrilled to have me, and I was amazing, and wonderful, and brilliant then, too, until…well, I don’t know.
When did I get old? When did I become irrelevant?
I didn’t imagine it. It was there. It was in her eyes and in the eyes of all the other 15 year-olds in the class. I said something I felt was relevant to what was being discussed, and they all turned around and looked at me like they were amazed I could speak, including the teeny-bopper conducting the class.
So, I’m comfortable in my skin, and I’m confident in my abilities and ready to go everyday. What worries me, is that it may not be enough. As someone pointed out to me the other day, I’m almost 60 (sounds so much older than 57, doesn’t it – gave me chills) and I guess there is probably a lot I don’t know about the generations behind me and how they think.
They’re running the show now, and that is as it should be, I guess, but they don’t appear to be interested AT ALL in what went on before they came along, or how much experience someone older has; in fact, I think most of them think there must be something wrong with someone who stayed in a job for 20 years. An eternity! My god, how could you stand it?
So there were other factors in the panic attack (one being the never-ending plumbing issue we’ve been dealing with at home that FINALLY was resolved yesterday after much stress and aggravation all week), and I’m going to address the 24/7 care-giving stress issue with my doctor in May. I’m thinking some good drugs, but I’m open to whatever she suggests. I’ve had my fill of ill-timed panic attacks and almost constant anxiety.
I have no idea what to do about work, though, and I’m really afraid at some point the bean counters are going to look at me and look at her and think, why do we need both of them? This is not the first time I’ve experienced the age handicap at work, and I know a lot of people have gone through the same thing. I get that my experience is not unique.
Somehow, I just never thought it would happen to me. Naive, I know. But that’s who I am – ever the optimist, ever the idealist, wanting always to believe the best about people and hoping that things will work out if I just work hard enough and try as hard as I can.
So, back to be here now, and one day at a time, and just doing the best I can. Whatever is going to happen will happen and I’ll deal with whatever it is.
Ultimately that’s all there is, isn’t it? Dealing with whatever is. Doing the best we can. Hoping for the best.
Life goes on.
This weekend we had another house-falling-down-around-us event. I kept my cool and did what needed to be done and mom and I got through the day just fine. The plumber is coming on Wednesday and I’ll hemorrhage some more money and then we’ll keep going on as before until the next house event or health event or whatever.
I feel like something deep within me changed, though. Something shifted, and the death grip I’ve had on the future and my belief that I will survive this experience with my mother and go on has loosened. I think in order to keep going now I have to let go of any idea of a positive outcome, including emerging at the end with my health intact – mental, physical, emotional and financial – or even of surviving at all.
Hope has gotten me this far – the hope that this too shall pass and I’ll go on – but I have to let go of that hope and just do what needs to be done, with no thought beyond today and today’s needs. This has been a long journey, but the end is no where in sight, and I have to marshal my remaining resources, few though I feel they are, and just keep going, one foot in front of the other. It’s a waste of energy to keep looking ahead, to hope that things will change, that I’ll be free to go on with my life.
I may never get there and thinking about it, hoping for it, and planning for it is simply counter-productive now. It saps vital resources from the limited supply available, and compromises my ability to take care of my mother’s needs. Also, my near constant pre-occupation and exhaustion puts us both in danger.
Before the water event Sunday I had a go at trying to burn the house down completely. I boiled water in the tea kettle for breakfast and after I poured the water, I put the kettle back on the (electric) burner and forgot to turn it off. I went upstairs to eat my breakfast and answer an email and it wasn’t long before the smell of something burning wafted up the stairs and into my awareness. I ran downstairs, plucked the kettle off the burner and turned it off.
The kettle was ruined and the kitchen smelled horrible, but beyond that, everything was okay. A bullet dodged. When my mother got up I debated whether to even tell her about it, but I did finally, and she razzed me a bit, and we went on with the day, both feeling grateful that it hadn’t been worse. Then the water thing happened and that was not so easily remedied and that’s when I could feel something in me shift.
Fire and water.
Elemental forces are working against me now, and this whole thing is starting to take on a fateful tone. I was already stressed to the max from a really crappy week, and had hoped the weekend would provide a chance to recover a bit, but nothing less than FIRE and WATER said no. No rest for you.
Okay, so I’m not really so paranoid as to think that anything is out to get me. But I do believe in karma and I do believe in fate – in the role it plays in karma. For the last seven years I’ve seen myself as the hero on this journey and assumed that I would complete the quest and go on. Karma would be exhausted and I would live out my (many) remaining days enjoying life. Tra la la.
In seven years, I have never even entertained the idea of any other outcome.
Sunday night I realized that other outcomes are not only possible, but as time goes on, they become more likely. There is no guarantee that I will complete the quest or go on, and so my only recourse is to just let go and let whatever is going to happen, happen. It is the need to believe in a certain outcome that is sapping my strength, making me constantly stressed and on alert for trouble, and so completely pre-occupied all the time.
This change doesn’t make me sad or happy, or anything. I feel nothing about it in particular, I’ve just noted that it happened, and I’m not really sure what it’s going to mean going forward. I hope it makes me feel less desperate and stressed and I hope it makes me feel clearer and present in each moment. My mother deserves that and so do I.
Whatever happens it’ll just be what it is. I’m done papering over things to make them prettier or more comfortable. Whatever happens happens. I don’t know if what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, but I suppose that’s as likely to happen as anything else. We’ll see, won’t we?
All of us, trying to navigate our difficult lives and just trying to figure out a way to be okay; to not feel so bad and unwelcome and unworthy when we’re not at our best.
Somehow, we go on.
I have survived the holiday marathon. I’m now panting and depleted at the finish line, but I’m here. I made it. It was sketchy there for a while – my resources were dwindling rapidly at the end – but I staggered through the tape, and now, after a few swigs of metaphorical Gatorade and a good night’s sleep, I am ready to go on. It’ll take the whole of this 4-day respite from work to completely recover, but now I know I’ll be okay, and knowing I won’t have to go through it again for another year is cause for much celebration and rejoicing.
I don’t hate Christmas. I’m not one of those people. I’m not the Grinch. I’m not even the Grinch’s distant relative. I like the music, the lights, seeing people I don’t normally see in the year. I like the presents, even, though not the greed and commercialism, but…whatever. Not my circus, not my monkeys. I like selecting just the right things for the people I care about, and I enjoy receiving gifts from the people who care about me.
I love the magic feeling of Christmas Eve, and I like Christmas Day. Christmas Eve morning I’ll listen to the broadcast of the Christmas Eve service at King’s College Cambridge, and Christmas Eve I’ll watch the service from the Vatican before I go to bed. Those two things I’ve done every year of my adult life and that continuity is important to me.
Those kinds of things – Christmas with Conniff, the record that for me is the soundtrack of Christmas; at least one viewing each of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Holiday Affair, The Bishop’s Wife, Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas; my grandmother’s little artificial Christmas tree with the little angel topper that’s as old as I am; my mother’s Santa collection, some favored Christmas tree ornaments that are two big to go on the little tree, so they hang from the mantle in between our stockings, and a little Santa holding a string of tiny Christmas lights that I’ve had since college that lights up when you touch him – help me to remember the people I loved who were here for other Christmases, and to remember who I am.
It’s that last part that’s important. I get overwhelmed by all the people and emotion of the season – all the get-togethers, the hugs, the smiling – I love it all and I love my friends and co-workers, but it wrings me out like a sponge and leaves me a little twisted and dry. The disruption of routine is a little hard to get through, too, with mom and work and trying to get to the gym and eat properly. I’ve only been to the gym 3 times in the last two weeks. Last weekend I took a couple of long walks as the weather here was blessedly un-wintry for a couple of weeks, and that was helpful.
Exercise and writing and photography and reading are the things that fill me up, and the hard part about October, November and December is that there isn’t much time left over for any of those things because of all the hoopla. Hoopla wears me out. Not only is it just too too for me, it denies me the time to for the un- things like unwinding, and unstressing, and un-overwhelming (de-overwhelming?). Throw in the crap weather and it’s just downright challenging for my tender parts.
But here I am. Finally. It’s the Saturday before Christmas. All my shopping is long done (very short list) and all the friending is over. All the smiling, laughing, hugging, thanking, feeling is over for me. Four days of sleeping in, eating Christmas cookies, turkey and apple pie (with cheese) and drinking Irish Creme (a friend’s family recipe that I look forward to every year), watching movies, reading, playing cards, long walks (I hope), and hanging out with mom stretch ahead and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Whatever you’re doing the next 4 days, I hope it’s wonderful and whatever you hope it to be.
Merry, Merry Christmas to you and yours.
I went to the gym last night after work. After 60 seconds or so, I remembered what it is I hate about going to the gym.
It’s not the exercise. I don’t mind that. I feel so much better when I’m moving regularly, and I know I have to do it if I’m going to keep my blood pressure down without meds. They have some nice spinning bikes at this gym, and I like the step machine. Also, as cycling is a non-weight bearing exercise and I’m a woman of a certain age, I’m looking forward to some strength training.
It’s not even the inconvenience of having to get my workout clothes together in the morning, remember to put them in the car, go somewhere after work when I’m tired and hungry, change from boots and winter clothes to a tee-shirt, tights and tennies in a bathroom stall, then climb back into a cold car and drive home sweaty an hour later, freezing in said tee-shirt and tights. That’s all a pain, but whatever. I’m good at organization and routine. I’ve got this.
It’s not the music, but…ack! I’m old. I get that it’s what’s the thing now, but…just…ACK! MP3 player and ear buds in the gym bag next time. I recently subscribed to Audible.com, so maybe an audiobook, or maybe just some good 70s rock and roll. We’ll see. I don’t like earbuds, but I think the odds of the 20-something owner ever choosing music I like are so slim it’s not worth thinking about.
It’s a little bit the germs. I have hand sanitizer that I use frequently while I’m there, and the gym provides something in a spray bottle that you spray on the equipment when you’re done and then towel off (with towels that look like they’ve been chewed by hamsters), so I’m doing all I can do minimize the chance that I’m going to get sick from trying to be healthy, but still…ew. Not a deal-breaker, though. I’ve had my flu shot. I’ll be fine.
There are things I like about this particular gym. There’s a dog named Elle, who is just lovely and likes to be petted and talked to, and there aren’t a lot of people at that time, which surprises me cuz when I used to go to the gym 20 years ago 4-6 pm was the most popular time. Also, I knew two of the people who were there working out when I was, and one of them showed me how to turn on one of the machines I wanted to use.
And…wait! That’s what it is: I felt stupid. I don’t remember how to use the weight machines and I can’t figure out even how to turn on the cardio machines.
I used to know about the gym, but that was a long time ago and I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. Thank goodness a friend was there and he offered to help. When I go again on Friday (complicated mid-week, so a couple of turns on the treadmill at work will have to suffice until then) I’ll ask the owner for help. He offered when I first got there, but he’s young and good-looking, so of course I was cool, and said I was all set.
***finger gun at head***
I hate that feeling. I hate feeling new. Dumb, not knowing. Uncool. I have been uncool all my life and now mostly I couldn’t care less what people think of me, but still sometimes that familiar feeling of humiliation trips me up. Sometimes I just want to be suave and cool and hip and fun and pretty and all those other “I-fit-in-with-people-and-they-like-me” words. In a situation like last night, suddenly I’m 8 years old and the cool kids are all doing something I don’t know how to do (or more likely, not allowed to do as my mother was VERY strict), and I feel different and dumb and generally unworthy to draw breath.
I have to step back and remind myself that I’m not 8 years old anymore, and I’m doing fine just the way I am, thank you very much, and not knowing how to do something does not make me unworthy of anything. I just have to ask someone to teach me. I’m not dumb or different from anyone there, really. I may be older, but hey – points for me for dragging my old butt out in the snow after a long day to do something I know I have to do to take care of myself.
In a couple of weeks – maybe sooner – I’ll be comfortable going there, and maybe I’ll have the opportunity to help someone who’s new after the holidays when everyone shows up at the gym to attempt to keep their New Year’s resolutions.
Most importantly, I’ll live a long time. That’s what matters. I’m doing something good for myself and I’m paying for the privilege, so I have to go. Period. I’ll enjoy it, cuz I choose to. I’m not doing this for anyone else, so it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.
The dog likes me, after all. That’s all I need.
Who knew? I guess we all did probably, but man, are they hard to remember. Then you’ve got the 10 Commandments, and the 7 Deadly Sins. Yikes! There’s a lot to keep in mind.
In my experience, these seven rules work pretty well. Fairly simple to write down and post on Pinterest, I guess, but not so easy to live by. For me, one of the hardest is #5 – Don’t compare your life to others, comparison is the thief of joy. That is just so true it glows. Facebook and Instagram make that rule even harder than it ever was to keep a handle on. Those two bandits sneak right in and grab your happiness so quick it defies logic. Look how much fun (money, sex, family, friends, whatever) everyone’s having – what’s wrong with me?
The truth is they’re probably not having that much fun or whatever, either, but if they really are, good for them! Has nothing to do with me. Unless it’s someone I know and care about and I can be happy for their happiness or good fortune, those happy, shiny people photos don’t mean a single thing to me in my life at all.
I went to the doc yesterday for a 6-month check-up and it didn’t really go that well. My blood pressure is through the roof again, I’ve gained a little bit of weight and my cholesterol and triglycerides are climbing again. I feel okay and have been doing well mentally and emotionally the past few weeks, but the numbers don’t lie, and I’m going to have to do something about it. That just really p*sses me off, cuz I had been doing really well with all that stuff, and now here it is again. I. Can’t. Catch. A. Fecking. Break.
It made me angry, and anxious, and I didn’t sleep very well last night – I’m going to have a stroke! I’m going to die! – but this morning I feel a little more reasonable and I know what I have to do and I accept that I have to do it. We all know someone who smoked and drank everyday, ate whatever they wanted, never exercised and yet still lived to be 100, right? Yeah, well, that’s not going to be me. Bad genes, mostly, but also a general winter laziness and fondness for sweets are my burdens to bear. Never mind all the fat people who do what they want and still live forever, I have to exercise and lay off the pastries if I want to live to be 100, and I do.
Thinking that I’ll be okay because I’m doing better than someone I work with who weighs twice what I do, or someone who doesn’t exercise at all ever – I rode my bike over 1000 miles this summer, after all – is not serving me well. Forget joy, comparing myself to other people in this way is likely to steal my health, if not my life, and I need to just get over it. Do what needs to be done. Period. Suck it up, Buttercup. Figure out a way to get some exercise this winter. Say “no” to the goodies in the break room everyday (and the lovely blueberry scones that call to me in the grocery store bakery every week).
Surely I can manage those two things again. I wish I didn’t have to, cuz geez, I hate going to the gym, and OMG, do I love sugar cookies (and scones). I have to do what’s right for me – in all things – and just not think about what other people are doing. It’s right for them – great! Not right for me. Oh well.
I think I got too relaxed! I’m having trouble getting back into regular life after the holiday weekend. Work yesterday was less than invigorating. The day dragged on and on, and while I got done all that I needed to, I didn’t really do very much. I slouched home around 4:30. I took the long way and drove past a few favorite lake viewing spots, cuz it was really windy and the waves were powerful and gorgeous, and that helped a little. Mom wasn’t feeling well when I got home, so it was a quiet evening, and I was relieved the day was over when I climbed into bed.
So now…Tuesday. It’s. Only. Tuesday. I didn’t sleep very well; I had a bunch of weird dreams and woke up jangling with anxiety. So yesterday’s mild inertia has become today’s yawning paralysis.
Good times. 👍
A couple of things have happened in the last couple of days that have caused me to worry about the future. Change is hard. Loss is hard. I don’t have so much in my life that I can afford to lose some of it – any of it. Everything is in short supply – time, friends, money, ease. My life is simple these days, by necessity, but it’s not easy. I don’t necessarily need it to be – I’m doing fine with facing and doing what needs to be done mostly – but I’m not thrilled by the idea of it getting harder.
So I have to remind myself over and over that I’m not in control, and that I know how to keep myself sane and on-task. All the clichés are on auto-repeat in my head: This too shall pass, Nothing lasts forever, Change is inevitable and not necessarily bad, etc.
Sometimes I wish life happened in slow-motion and that you could press a cosmic Ctrl-Z to do over the things that don’t happen the way you want them to. Wouldn’t that be great? Too bad it doesn’t work that way. (Certainly if Microsoft could manage it the Creator of the Universe could have. Just sayin’.) An occasional window into the future seems like it would be a good thing, too, but maybe not. I would only want to see the good things ahead; the bad things would be too discouraging, I’m afraid, and we know there is no good without the bad, don’t we?
Don’t we? Honestly, though, I’d like to try it out.
Sooooo…here I am, at my desk, trying to keep the anxiety at bay in between giant gaping yawns. No worries. It’s gonna be a GREAT day. 🙂
I was listening to a talk by Dr. Christine Carter today. I’ve heard her speak before, and I read her blog, but she said something in this talk I’ve never heard or thought about before that really resonated with me.
She pointed out that being comfortable is a relatively new thing for human beings. For the most part, our ancestors led mostly uncomfortable lives by comparison to ours – long days of manual labor, the constant threat of disease, early death by our standards. Even creature comforts like a warm house, readily available food, and comfortable clothes were not something they could take for granted.
Pleasure was an occasional thing. Not the focus of every day and every activity for most people. Folks were much too busy just staying alive to make pleasure a priority. Certainly they found pleasure in life, but it wasn’t the focus or the expectation. Those who survived were those who could tolerate and survive physical adversity. Until relatively recently humans didn’t have the luxury of considering their mental health – about whether they were happy or comfortable or leading a meaningful life – they just lived. They got through each day doing what needed to be done to survive to the next.
In some countries, this is still true, as well as for the poorest in this country, to some degree. But for most humans living now, life is relatively easy in those terms – our basic physical needs have been met and in many cases, exceeded. Now we are free to spend our time and energy pursuing pleasure – and we’ve gotten very good at it. Sugary foods, mind-altering substances, shopping, the internet, gambling, TV, porn, etc. are all readily available.
The trouble is that we’ve confused pleasure with happiness. They are not the same thing, and we’ve lost sight of the distinction. We’ve become addicted to pleasure, but we’re unhappier than ever. We’re too comfortable and we’ve become complacent and dissatisfied because it takes more and more to meet our need for pleasure. The “high” wears off too quickly. It’s not the robust, sustaining happiness we really need and that we think we’re reaching for. Pleasure is merely a brain receptor thing, not a soul thing. It doesn’t feed us fully – quite literally, pleasure provides only empty calories.
This was quite a revelation to me this morning, let me tell you. It caused me to evaluate my perception of my situation with my mother yet again in these terms. I realized that some of the things I’m missing by devoting so much time and energy to her care are things that really only bring me short-term pleasure, not necessarily happiness, and that being without them for a time isn’t that big a deal.
Further, my anxiety stems from the fear of discomfort in this situation. I’m not comfortable having her rely on me for everything. I’m not comfortable going to the emergency room every few weeks. I’m not comfortable being unable to solve all her problems. I’m not comfortable having another person, especially her because of our history together, determine the course of my days. I’m uncomfortable spending so much time with her because I’ve always been uncomfortable with her.
Life is uncertain. Life with my mother is, and always has been, uncertain. This is something I’ve struggled with all my life – I am never safe from having to deal with her. She has always been ill, she has always been needy. She has always been a big source of discomfort. All of my life.
I survived, didn’t I? The discomfort hasn’t killed me to this point, and it won’t going forward. As Dr. Carter said in this talk, human beings have survived for millennia being uncomfortable. I can make it through a couple of months, or in this case, years. Being with her and taking care of her now is still the right thing to do, and the fact that it makes me uncomfortable doesn’t change that. Having less pleasure in my life makes it dull, but that won’t kill me, either. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger is a real thing – adversity helps us learn and grow as humans. It’s hard-wired.
Having said that, there are a couple of things that I’ve identified in the past couple of months as being necessary to my health and well-being – my long-term happiness – and mom and I are figuring out ways together to insure that I have time and energy for those things. So that is easing the discomfort to a great degree and has raised the pleasure quotient at the same time. It doesn’t remove the uncertainty, but that’s just the way it is. Life is uncertain for everyone, all the time. Even under the best of circumstances.
This too shall pass is true of all of life – the good and the bad. The pleasure and the discomfort. The trick is to be happy through all of it. In each moment joy is available to us, and if we reside there as much as possible, focus on what’s good, even joyful, in each moment, we tilt our brain scale toward happiness. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do, but it’s worth a try every single day.
In another talk I heard yesterday, Geneen Roth said she tells her students to list everyday the 5 things that aren’t wrong. It made me laugh when I heard it, but it resonated with me because it’s related to gratitude, but it’s not as hard as gratitude. Sometimes I find it hard to feel grateful for really difficult things, really difficult days. Often I look back on those times and realize what I’ve gained from going through those uncomfortable experiences and then I am grateful, but in the moment, not so much.
But even when everything seems to be falling apart, there are things that aren’t wrong, that are still wonderful and helpful and beautiful – friends, pets, books, flowers, bicycling – and focusing on those things and knowing they’ll be available to us again at some point, is very comforting.
I may not always be able to list 5 things on any given day that I’m grateful for, but certainly I can think of 5 things – even really mundane things like the hot water heater is still working – that aren’t wrong. A shift in thinking is sometimes all it takes to turn things around even when you’re the most uncomfortable and feeling low.
So. I learned a lot this week, and that makes me happy.
I’m grateful without reservation for these and other teachers who offer their wisdom and insight to us daily. Thanks to the Awake Network and the Shambala Mountain Center who sponsored Mindful Living Week, I have been able to listen to these speakers and others for free. What a gift. Definitely tops the list everyday this week of things that aren’t wrong, and how appropriate during this time of new beginnings.
I have two cats, Clare and Grace. They don’t like each other much, even though they have lived together since they were both kittens. Clare likes to ambush Grace with some regularity, usually on the stairs, and Grace falls for it every time. I think she knows Clare’s waiting for her – she’s always in the same place – but it’s a game, so what the heck? Breaks up a long, boring day.
Today at lunchtime, Clare saw Grace heading through the den on her way upstairs, so she scooted through the living room quickly to get in position. She waited…and waited…and waited. I have no idea what Grace was doing in the den, but in a few minutes she wandered back into the living room.
It took Clare a few minutes to realize her plan had been foiled, but when she did, she sauntered back into the living room, grabbed a toy and plopped down on the floor to play. Grace walked past her on her way upstairs and that was that.
That is exactly what I’m trying to get to in my life: immediate acceptance when things don’t go as planned, and the willingness to move on to the next thing without looking back. Totally in the moment, totally in the flow of life. A lofty goal, and one I will never achieve totally, but I’m working toward it everyday now.
It’s the default for animals, of course. They are, for the most part, free of worry about the future, as well as regret over the past. Humans…not so much. In fact, almost not at all. Anxiety and depression are pervasive among humans. Life is hard, and our brains are hard-wired to alert us to that fact. The fact that it’s not hard in the same ways it used to be – we rarely encounter animals that mean to kill us anymore – doesn’t matter. That wiring is in place and it works very well. Too well.
Granted, some folks are more prone to anxiety and depression; either we’re born with faulty brain components which overreact to life’s difficulties – real or imagined – or something happens to us which causes the wiring to short out or the chemistry to be thrown out of whack. In my case I think it was a combination of both.
Whatever the cause, my life has been shaped by depression, mostly, but since menopause, anxiety has joined the party. It’s very popular there in Brainland, and is now selecting the music and serving the drinks. The life of the party, and the life of my life.
I could take medication, but I don’t want to. I took drugs for depression for a number of years. They saved my life. After 10 years or so, though, the side effects outweighed the benefits, and I weaned off of them. I don’t regret that decision – it was the right one for me at the time and it still is. I had been through therapy and was going through peri-menopause – consequently I was in a much healthier place at that point, and depression no longer ruled my life as it had when I was younger. Therapy had given me tools to deal with my emotions, and menopause had stemmed the tide of hormones.
After I moved in with my mother and I was post-menopausal, the anxiety moved in, too. So it’s been about 5 years now, and I’ve been looking into natural remedies and coping techniques. That’s how I came to mindfulness. It’s been on my radar for a long time. I was a yoga practitioner and a regular meditator many years ago, so it has been like welcoming an old friend to revisit those teachings. Mindfulness is more than just meditation, though, and my practice now is more meaningful.
Gratitude and self-compassion are part of my mindful journey now, but when I was a young woman, both of those concepts were utterly foreign to me. I wasn’t ungrateful, necessarily, but I didn’t really think about gratitude in the real, tangible way I do now.
Self-compassion was the farthest thing from my mind as a young person. I was very hard on myself – and on other people. Very judgmental, beating myself up for everything that didn’t go well, certain there was something different and terribly wrong with me. There was, of course – my brain didn’t work like most other people’s – but that wasn’t something people acknowledged or talked about then. I, and probably most everyone I knew at the time, thought I was just immature and lazy, terribly needy and self-centered, difficult to get along with, and an unforgiving perfectionist.
It took decades of suffering for me to finally learn just to give myself a break. It took being ready to end my life to get me into therapy, and it took 3 years of therapy to get to the point where I could accept myself as I am: flawed.
Not perfect. Just like everyone else.
What a relief. That was quite a few years ago, and since then I’ve been trying to keep my head and my priorities straight, manage the anxiety, be kind to myself, stay well, and take care of my mother.
This winter life with my mother got a lot harder, and I found myself at my wit’s end again. So I started reading and watching videos about mindfulness and taking baby steps toward meditating with regularity. Life is not much easier yet, but I am starting to feel better-equipped to cope with the daily twists and turns, and that helps keep the anxiety at a more manageable level.
I simply try to focus in the moment. In each moment there is safety and sanity, and as long as I stay there and pay attention to what’s happening now and how I’m feeling now, anxiety doesn’t have a chance to sneak up on me and start spinning everything into chaos.
Is mindfulness the cure for anxiety? No. It’s a way of thinking about and experiencing life that makes you more aware: of your mind, your body, other people, the planet, life. Studies have shown, though, that being more mindful can fundamentally change the way your brain works, including calming the centers that send the erroneous danger signals to the rest of your brain and body all the time. So though it is not the intention, mindfulness has the effect of calming anxiety.
That’s a side-effect I can live with.