The Fixer

Life is such a committed and earnest teacher. Everyone has their stuff. And life dutifully provides opportunities, over and over again, to practice navigating whatever yours might be.

I like to fix things. Not like broken machines, but like broken people or uncomfortable situations or disorder. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t like the feeling of anything that I feel responsible for being out of place. And I feel responsible for a whole bunch of stuff. That goes for people as well as a leaky faucet. I. Just. Can’t. Ignore. It.

I am experienced enough now (read: old) that I can see it happening, and I actually recognize it for what it is. I discover a “problem,” a switch flips in my mind, adrenaline floods in, and I hone in with laser focus on “solving the situation.” Everything else going on around me becomes annoying distraction. It’s really primitive. And if it weren’t so uncomfortable and I weren’t so focused on whatever the perceived threat might be, it’s also quite fascinating. I know what I am supposed to do here – lots of deep breaths and comforting reassurance to my anxious parts. But my brain keeps tacking back to the VERY BIG PROBLEM THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED. In those moments, all I really, really want is to fix it so I can put this horrible feeling away and chillax.

The way this manifests when it comes to people who need help is much less obvious than when something breaks in my house. When I say “need help,” I don’t mean like they are hurt or that their house is on fire. Surely I’d go into adrenaline-driven fixer mode in those cases. No, in this case, I mean they need help with something emotional. There isn’t the flood of adrenaline or the laser-like focus, but it’s still a problem to be solved. Internally, it feels like some sort of calling, that it’s my job to fix the bad feelings, or at least temporarily to take away the pain. That’s a lot of pressure and, rationally speaking, it’s totally unrealistic. But who ever said this behavior was rational?

I noticed long ago that very often one’s best attribute or character trait doubles as one’s worst. For me, this is where being reliable and dependable kind of backfires. I am dependable and reliable so people find any number of ways to depend and rely on me. And, of course, then I feel the need to continue to prove my dependability and reliability and to not let anyone down. And it goes on like this in a sort of self-fulfilling cycle for ever and ever…until I crash and burn because I have lent out so much of myself to so many people that I have completely hollowed out my own core. Emotional problems tend to have a longer-running course than physical, house-on-fire problems. They require the pacing of a marathon versus a sprint. But when it comes to fixing things, I have the mindset of a sprinter and, inevitably, I hit a wall and start to get awfully tired…

I think a lot of moms suffer from the feeling of having only so much to give, being needed by many, torn in too many directions, and wanting to fix things that are out of their control. That’s certainly the case for me, and I fully support little getaways here and there to revive oneself and actually be able to think and breathe and just be.

But, for me, this internal fixer is a lifelong pattern. Only after I completely lost myself with the responsibilities of parenting (I don’t even need to explain that kids have needs), childing (also known as: being a reliable and dependable daughter), working (see also: proving I am a productive citizen and “pulling my weight” because, obviously, only a paycheck tells you that), being a good friend (“you can count on me!”), did it become clear to me that the two most-used phrases in my vocabulary are “I’m sorry” and “I should.” I’m either a disappointment/failure/inadequate (“I’m sorry”) and/or I’m driven to prove my worth/worthiness/value (“I should”). Nowhere in there am I thinking, “gosh, I’d love to do that.” It got to the point where I would ask myself, “What stirs your soul?” and I had literally no idea how to answer. Because, I’m sorry, I am so selfish, I should not be thinking about myself when so many people need me.

It turns out that it just isn’t possible to save everyone without totally tanking yourself. Another disappointing life lesson, but a true one. That’s the whole reason my blog has the title it does – it’s a reminder that you can’t run around putting everyone else’s oxygen masks on while simultaneously allowing yourself to be asphyxiated. It won’t end well.

None of this is to say be selfish. Not at all. I certainly struggle with that notion, because that’s how it feels: I am letting people down. I am selfish. I should just try harder. And, of course, there are plenty of things that just need to be done, whether they fill your cup or not. That’s life, and I spend the majority of my day doing just that. Most days, I do much of my to-do list, in all its mundane glory, joyfully. And I admittedly love knowing that people can count on me, and that they know that I am loyal and reliable no matter the circumstances. The trouble strikes when I need a break and don’t know how to say no. It would seem to be such a simple word. Two letters, and virtually the same spelling and pronunciation in multiple languages. And, yet, I am much more apt to say “maybe,” which really isn’t super helpful to anyone involved because it leaves the door open to a road I already know I don’t want to go down. SO, take it from me – when your plate is full and your cup is spilling over with responsibility to and for others, make sure there is a little time carved out in there for you. And if there’s a “no” screaming in your head, say it. It’s not indulgence, it’s self-preservation.

You can be more effective, not to mention more fulfilled, if you actually replenish yourself along the way. Find your inner compass, actually listen to it, and let it guide you. Prioritize. Be in charge of your to-do list, not subjugated by it. Evaluate the opportunity cost of the choices you make – what do you sacrifice by committing to x, y, z? Be intentional with how you spend your time. Think “if I say yes to ‘x’, what will I have to say ‘no’ to?” Say no sometimes. Be true to you. Make sure you are filling your cup. I can assure you, life will provide ample opportunity to practice.

 

Can Your Skin Cream Transform Your Mind?

“Our teachers weren’t kidding when they said we’d take lots of walks and that people in the villages are very content to do nothing. No plans, nothing. I thought I’d handle that well because I, too, like to do nothing. But I only really do nothing for brief interludes during the day, in between finding something else to do. When I sit and knit, read, write letters, make necklaces, etc., I consider that pretty much doing nothing. Here they just sit. It’s not an easy lifestyle to adjust to.” – me, March 2, 1996

I had to laugh when I read this journal entry from my village homestay in Madagascar. In the U.S. we live in a culture that is so go-go-go that I didn’t even recognize that my doing nothing was still doing something. That was true 20 years ago, and it remains true today. I just happen to be more aware of it now. Doing nothing and remembering to breathe are literally things I need to practice. Five minutes sitting still without my mind wandering to a hundred different items on my to-do list is impossible. Truly. Try it and you’ll see it’s not just me! “Monkey mind” is the Buddhist term for the incessant chatter and sense of unsettledness in one’s mind. It looks like this:

Monkey Mind image
This is what a monkey mind looks like; illustration by Lilian Leahy

That phrase evokes images that just crack me up, quite like this Lilian Leahy illustration. The ring-tailed lemurs shown in the following photos that I took in Madagascar also crack me up. They are very Zen. This is NOT what having a “monkey mind” looks like.

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and finally accepted it (that’s another story altogether), I considered all options for how to live my healthiest life given the cards I had been dealt. Besides doing all the regular stuff my doctor asks – take all the prescribed medications, see her every three months, have bloodwork done at the lab regularly, get exercise – I wondered if there was anything else that would help. I had two very little kids when I was diagnosed. And I love leading a busy and active life. I want to be as healthy as possible and have left no stone unturned in my quest.

Having RA has taught me many, many philosophical but also practical things about life. My diagnosis and subsequent eventual acceptance was like a massive 2×4 smacked across the head saying, “ummm, hellooooo, for real, you need to pay attention.” It has taught me about cherishing the little things in life, and not taking any day or any thing for granted. It’s like a constant anatomy lesson – yes! that pain I was wishing could be solved by a root canal is in fact a jaw joint (too bad for me). It has taught me about control, and that it turns out I am not in it. And, it has taught me about how stress and my monkey mind can be implicated in RA flares and general feelings of being overwhelmed.

After a bit of research and a lot of finagling of schedules, five years ago I enrolled in an 8-week course at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This course introduced me to the term “monkey mind,” not to mention to the fact that I have an extremely active monkey. You may have already figured that out from the sheer breadth of subjects I write about. I am not exactly focused on one thing, rarely one thing at a time, and I am passionate about many!

For the record, I am not one to buy into the concepts of meditation and relaxation easily. The term self-care makes me cringe, as do the words snuggle and cuddle (but that’s an aside). Bluck. All that touchy-feely stuff gives me the shivers. So you could say that I entered BHI skeptical at best. But I figured since I had devoted my time to this, I might as well go all in and have an open mind (pun intended).

Did my life change overnight and was my RA banished for good? No. It takes a long time to learn new habits, and the brain tends to tack back to its well-trod neural pathways. It takes effort and practice to become aware of the mind’s motivation. For me, sitting still and doing nothing were bad words. My inclination is still more towards whirling dervish than calm Buddha.

But I learned an incredible amount about how important the act of doing nothing and sitting still is for the brain. It’s a biological reality that is now backed up with MRI studies and scientific data. The scientifically validated benefits of mindfulness include: decreased stress; reduced symptoms associated with depression, anxiety disorders, pain and insomnia; an enhanced ability to pay attention; and a higher quality of life. Don’t believe me? Check out Harvard researcher Sara Lazar’s TEDx talk on the effect of meditation on the brain.

Or Dan Harris, the ABC anchor who had a panic attack on live television that led him to meditation and eventually to writing the book 10% Happier.

Personally, my most notable takeaway from the course happened on the first night. The instructor flashed a powerpoint slide that read, “If you can’t make room for exercise now, you’ll have to make room for illness later.”

I was already making room, lots of room, for illness. But I wasn’t prioritizing myself. AT ALL. This one quote completely changed the way I viewed my calendar and what was and was not negotiable on it. I began swimming and made it a permanent item on my calendar. I trained myself to take a deep breath every time I come to a stop sign or stoplight. I downloaded a million mindfulness apps (still working on pausing long enough to actually use them).

My message to you is this – skin creams may help with wrinkles and dry skin, but meditation enhances a wrinkled mind. 

Breathe. Deeply. And often. It helps.

Serenity Prayer

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Neibuhr

Rude Awakening

I know a thing or two about pain.  Emotional and physical.

Any woman who has had a baby knows about breathing through pain.  And I am here to say that I am absolutely as imperfect as they come when it comes to breathing through anything.  I get so angry and frustrated and want to just wallow in my misery sometimes.  Very graceful.  Very zen.  I am more of a just-give-me-a-to-do-list-and-I’ll-do-it kind of person.

As with most new parents, we didn’t sleep much those first few months.  Our baby was fussy and needed to be held all the time and, being the worried new mom that I was, I spent what little “free time” I had researching what I was doing wrong and the many ways I may never sleep again.

I am from a family that says things like, “I am not sick, I just don’t feel well”.  We push through and don’t complain.  So when my hands started to hurt about six weeks postpartum I chalked it up to constantly holding a heavy baby and exhaustion.  The pain would come and go, and time was a very slippery and elusive concept in those days, so carpal tunnel syndrome seemed like a legitimate possibility.  Sure some days my legs kind of ached, too, but that’s what atrophy feels like, isn’t it?  I distinctly remember hobbling down the stairs to the backyard saying to my mom, “I feel like I am getting worse and not better.  Is this normal?”.  Then one day my knee visibly swelled up.  Having barely left the house in months, let alone done anything active enough to cause an injury, I finally couldn’t find an answer for that one.

I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) two weeks later.  Cue record scratch.  Arthritis is for old people, isn’t it?

I’d love to say that I went home from the doctor with my chin held high and soldiered on with zero self-pity.  Ha!  No, no, no. There were some serious bellyaching moments and I definitely asked “why me” more than once.  I was shocked, almost offended, that this could happen to me.  What the heck did I do to deserve this?  Very zen, like I said.  For me, RA meant one big old Rude Awakening.

Pro tip – don’t google your newly diagnosed disease when you get home from the doctor.  It doesn’t end well.  Ignorance truly is bliss.

With the words “severe prognosis” ringing in my ears, I was sent home to begin to ween my baby off breastmilk so I could start on some pretty powerful medications to try to change the course of the disease.  I remember calling my OB and asking for advice on how to ween a baby, explaining what had happened and why in this age of “breastmilk is best” pressure I was stopping.  The nurse I spoke with, thank goodness, was so compassionate.  I will never forget her kindness and her words, “You did such a good job”.  I needed to hear that. It’s very lonely to be sick, have a brand new baby with all the societal judgment that comes with parenting, and your choices aren’t yours anymore.

That was part of the emotional pain of RA for me. The diagnosis, whether you have a little baby or not, brings a flood of fears and unknowns. Google told me that 1/3 of people with RA are so disabled after five years that they can no longer work; I was denied short-term disability; the medication side effects and disclaimers were terrifying to read. The disease itself is an unpredictable roller coaster ride. Some days are better than others, some medications work well, others make you nauseous. It’s all trial and error. No lists.

And the physical pain? Well, it’s like nothing else, quite. A broken arm? Maybe. Childbirth?  I guess so. It’s intense and deep and unrelenting. 40mg of prednisone and 800mg of ibuprofen wouldn’t even touch it some days. I couldn’t lift my baby out of the crib because I was cradling my arm so gingerly. Some days I couldn’t walk. I never knew where the pain would go next, which joint would be affected. Hips, shoulders, jaw – those are the worst. You can work around a hand or a finger, but it’s impossible to eat or even smile when your jaw joint is inflamed. I begged my dentist to tell me it wasn’t RA and I just needed a root canal. Anything, like I said, for someone to just fix it.

I have tried to figure out what triggers my flare ups.  I cut out sugar and caffeine and alcohol and gluten – pretty much all joy – and it made no discernable difference except that I was more miserable and now high maintenance as well. I have submitted myself to science and participated in pain studies. Mostly I learned that I have a high tolerance for pain and that ice is my friend. I have no idea why some days are better than others. Remember how I said that I like order and a nice to do list? Yeah, RA doesn’t work like that.

It turns out that that kind of checklist mentality, where if you just check the right boxes you are in control, is a false premise. That remains a disappointing life lesson for me. But I am working on it.

Long, long story short, eventually the meds did their thing and my RA went into remission. For the time being, I don’t have any pain and haven’t had any permanent damage to my bones or joints. That in and of itself is a miracle. Truly. I’ll write a whole post on how different the outlook is for RA patients who were diagnosed after methotrexate started to be used to treat RA as compared to previously when all that could be done was attempt to manage the pain.

It took a lot of time, a lot of deep breathing, thousands of laps in the pool, sometimes screaming underwater, sometimes also crying into my goggles, for all the emotional toxicity to work its way through my system.  But eventually, that piece settled, too.

Now I swim in a masters swim program. I participated in a triathlon a year ago, something that was absolutely unimaginable only a year prior. I go to crossfit. I traveled to Guatemala! Hope abounds.

I am tempted to say that I conquered RA, that I win. But that would mean that I haven’t learned anything from all of this. I have been around the block enough times now to know that my RA and I are just in a temporary place of peace, and that it will inevitably come back. And when it does, honestly, it will be really hard for me. I don’t expect that my despair will be as deep, but I’ll surely still long for that elusive checklist and the return to normalcy. Now I know, though, that I CAN come back, that RA is just one part of my story, and that I am not less than because of this. As Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming”. Seems like some pretty darn good life advice. One day at a time. One breath at a time. One lap at a time. One foot in front of the other.

Post Triathlon
Post Triathlon with my “I have RA AND I am an athlete” shirt on

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

It would be disingenuous of me not to share how HARD it was for me to go to Guatemala.  That may have been clear from my earlier post that mentions the soul-searching I went through to decide to go in the first place.  I am nothing if not risk averse.  Or from the tears I cried when it was actually time to go to the airport.  It was really HARD to leave – there were so many unknowns and my old friend self-doubt had a lot to say about my decision.

Sure, I’ve been brave before – ostensibly.  I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve taken jobs in states and countries I had previously never even been to before arriving for work.  But so much of that bravery was born of desperation or an “it can’t be worse than this” attitude, not actual courage.  And so much of it was before having children.  Going to Guatemala, on the other hand, was a choice to do something different when things were going perfectly fine.  And that kind of rocked me.

One of my favorite all time quotes is: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”.  That’s from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  It’s a message I picked up decades ago, and it’s one I’ve carried with me since.

In my twenties, I would literally go to the woods, especially my sanctuary around Katahdin in Maine, where I found my people, my place, my footing in this world when I needed it most.  I find life there to be a little less noisy, a little more simple, and the scenery so beautiful that it soothes my busy brain.

As I’ve gotten older and my responsibilities to and for others have expanded, I try to find ways to simplify my life, to front only the essential things, to bring the peace that I find when I am in the woods home with me.  Despite all my family responsibilities, my anxiety, my self-doubt, I don’t want to forget to live.  I want to live authentically and bravely and not, like Thoreau says, from the vantage point of looking back at the end of my days, discover that I had not lived.

And so I choose, daily, to face into the fear.  I get on the plane (heck, I buy the plane tickets!) to Guatemala; I push the publish button on this blog while cowering behind the screen awash in vulnerability; I belay at the rock gym even though, fully trained to belay, my mind still tells me it’s awfully risky; I participate in a triathlon for the first time ever when my Rheumatoid Arthritis is finally in remission and I think “maybe I can still do something like this after all”; I drive my beautiful, vivacious, young and also scared mom to the doctor and hear the Alzheimer’s diagnosis we have suspected but been dreading; I go to the woods with my kids and share with them the joy I’ve found there, though it’s not nearly as simple or quiet with them in tow!  I stretch the boundaries of my comfort zone.  I breath through the self-doubt and the fear and I LIVE.

My life has been the very definition of bittersweet these last several years.  And I am so incredibly grateful for all of it.  Without the fear, how would I find my courage?  Without the bitter, how would I taste the sweet?

Meme zoom in for blog
From Tinybuddha.com, through Finding Joy website

Some days you need a little time to breath

It turns out that setting up a little bloggy-blog takes a bit more time and has a steeper learning curve than maybe would have been expected.  I spent most of my “writing time” yesterday on formatting and figuring out this blog platform situation (oh, yeah, and chaperoning a second grade field trip).  So I am going to take my own advice and step back for a minute and take some time today to breath and catch up.

For today I am posting a few pictures of the beauty that is Guatemala as well as one of my favorite quotes.  Stayed tuned for more on Colegio Impacto/Maia and Guatemala; on community and friendship; on more local stories of hope and courage; on my personal reckoning after a diagnosis with Rheumatoid Arthritis; on my journey in caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s.  But that’s all for another day…

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

Pink flowers
Flowers of Guatemala

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Fisherman La Laguna
Fisherman on Lake Atitlan

 

Day of dead landscape
Day of the Dead, Sumpango