What a Difference a Person Can Make

Last year, I went with a friend to the Great Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition here in Seattle, and I blogged about it. I had a wonderful time. But beneath the surface, I was feeling this great, yawning, howling, aching chasm of loneliness.

While I spent most of the holidays bravely stuffing that down and trying not to let it overwhelm me, it was a very near thing. Sometimes I could feel it surging upward, and I knew that if I let it take over, I’d probably lose my battle with depression and start howling or something.

Even so, Figgy Pudding is a wonderful event, and I decided to make it part of my Christmas tradition. I went again this year with my husband. As we stood there, listening to the carolers beneath the glow of the huge Christmas tree, what I felt was joy. No physically painful ache in the pit of my stomach. No feeling of being on the verge of hysteria. Just contentment. What a gift this man is in my life. He’s all I need for Christmas.

And then I looked around at the crowd, and I realized that no one who looked at me this year or last would have known my state of mind. I’m sure there was a lot of joy in the crowd, but also a lot of longing for companionship. A lot of pervasive emotional pain. The fact that it often looks one and the same is a bit troubling.

I’m not saying that everyone in the whole world must walk about two by two in order to be happy. Some people are perfectly satisfied being alone. I know I felt that way for quite some time. Some people who are in relationships are even more lonely than their single friends, and that’s got to be even more emotionally excruciating.

I just find it kind of enlightening to realize that there’s really no way to know what’s going on beneath the surface unless you talk to someone. We need to communicate more. We need to put down our devices and actually connect.

And to those of you who are swirling in that deep dark pit of loneliness that I used to know all too well, I just want to say that it may feel like that’s your forever, but keep reaching out. You never know when someone will take your outstretched hand, and that changes everything. I’m living proof of that.

Carolers

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Hostile Poetry

I will be the first to admit that writing can be very therapeutic. I have vented my spleen enough in this blog to be able to attest to this firsthand. And I highly recommend journaling or expressing yourself creatively when you are trying to work through your feelings. It can go a long way toward helping you communicate assertively with the person or persons who stirred up these emotions within you.

That’s the healthy scenario.

And then there are those who write bitter diatribes instead of communicating. They sit on those feelings for a decade or more, and let them fester and eat away at their souls. They can’t grow up or move on, like 13-year-olds trapped in aging bodies.

I got to read one such poem the other day, in which the author stated that he’d get a vicarious thrill in watching someone else get hurt. It really made me sad about his arrested development and his inability to communicate and get past his pain.

That this person chose to post this in a public forum makes me question his mental health. It’s a cry for help, but it’s an impotent one. It puts the focus on the pain instead of on the healing. The only thing it achieves is making others feel sorry for him.

Yes, there’s no guarantee that the instigator of your pain is going to understand or apologize or make you feel better if you try to talk to him or her. That person may not even be in your life anymore. But vomiting out your emotions for the world to see will only cause you to be pitied.

Write and then communicate. Or write to educate. Or just write. Or just communicate. Or seek therapy.

But don’t wear your wounds on your forehead for the world to wince at and then do absolutely nothing to treat them. It’s not a good look. And it sure as hell isn’t healthy.

Just a little head wound

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Let’s Just Say He’s Innocent

I had a nightmare last night that I was held down and sexually assaulted, and when I tried to speak out, I was mocked, threatened, lied about, and publicly humiliated. And a huge group of white men smiled approvingly while it happened.

“Can’t you just investigate?” I asked. “I’ll let the facts speak for themselves, if only you’ll take the time to look. I have nothing to hide. Do you?”

So they pretended to look, but they were in a hurry. They had other priorities. My pain, my trauma didn’t matter. They didn’t care.

I felt like I was brutalized all over again.

If only I had been taken seriously, if only a full investigation had been done. Even if my attacker was deemed innocent, I would have felt heard. But that’s not what happened. These men didn’t care about me in the face of their agenda.

Let’s just say Kavanaugh is pure as the driven snow. (We’ll never know, now.) Why not take the time for a full investigation, then? What harm would it do? In fact, it would do a great deal of good.

Because, today, I’m every woman who has ever been assaulted. I just want to be listened to, with respect. I want the world to acknowledge that what happened to me matters. Couldn’t Kavanaugh’s inevitable confirmation have waited a bit longer for a thorough investigation so that sexual assault victims the world over could feel acknowledged? What harm would that have done?

Before any justice is appointed, we all should be justly taken into consideration. That’s it. That’s all.

And that’s what didn’t happen. Instead, every aye vote felt like a stab to the vagina. Rest assured that we will all bleed our way to the voting booth.

Shame on all of you who were so busy praying that you’d get a judge that would vote your way that you were willing to step on millions of women to do so. Shame. You have shined a light on the darkness of your soul, and none of us will ever be the same.

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Don’t Overdo

Your body is one smart cookie. It tries to talk to you all the time. Are you listening?

It’s really tempting to push through pain and exhaustion to finish up what you’re trying to get done. Believe me. I know. It’s also hard to stop having fun even when your body is protesting. But it’s not as if you get to trade your body in for a newer model if you wear it out. Aside from the possibility of a few replacement parts, this carcass, flawed as it may be, is pretty much it for you. So it’s important to take care of it.

The day I wrote this, I had been mowing the lawn in the hot sun. It was the only opportunity I would have to do it this week, and I really didn’t want my neighbors to give me the stink eye due to my neglect. That, and the lawn does look better when it’s properly maintained. So mow I did.

But I had to keep taking breaks. I was sweating profusely. My heart was pounding. I was getting dizzy. More and more, I had to stop, sit in the shade, drink some iced tea, and lie flat until my heart slowed down a bit. Then I’d mow some more, and sure enough, it would happen again. I’m neither as young nor as thin as I used to be.

At one point I thought I was going to pass out or vomit. Back to the shade. As I lay there, I thought, “You know, I could die. All alone in my yard.” That would suck. I have plans. I’m working toward a future, here!

Suddenly I realized that the lawn was not worth dying for. Common sense, you’d think. But it was actually an epiphany for me. So, the front lawn looks great, but the back yard is choked with dandelions and clover. But, hey, I’m alive. And the bees are thrilled.

Afterward I took a cool bath, and then a nap, and felt much better for it. I bet my body is astounded that it took me so long to wise up. I suspect it feels like that quite often.

I need to become a better self-listener. I’m not going to win some prize for pushing myself too far. There are no medals for abusing one’s health. I don’t know about you, but I want to live to mow another day.

Bee and Dandelion

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The Ingredients of Happiness

It always comes as quite a shock when someone famous commits suicide. Hearing on the radio that Anthony Bourdain chose to take his own life nearly caused me to swerve off the road. This is someone I’ve envied. He got to travel. He had crazy experiences and met fascinating people. He won countless awards. No doubt he also made a boatload of money.

This was someone who was successful, rich, and had an exciting life. Three things many of us strive for, and yet, now he’s gone. On the surface, you’d think that his was a life worth living. But to make this permanent choice, he must have been in a great deal of emotional pain. He must have been suffering. Surrounded by all of us, who admired him, he must have been all alone. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. I doubt any of us will ever know the full story.

The only thing I can know for sure is that I am happier than Anthony Bourdain was. I would never have guessed this a week ago. But there’s incontrovertible evidence of this now. I’m still here.

So, what constitutes happiness? One thing is for sure: it isn’t money. I know that’s a cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason.

I know someone who is a millionaire, but he’s also a divorced, estranged father and a raging alcoholic. He’s one of the most miserable people I have ever met. Money does nothing to solve your problems when all is said and done. Most of us know this, and yet so many of us still seem obsessed with filthy lucre. It’s such a waste of time.

As far as I can tell, the two things you need to be happy are connections and purpose. Humans are social animals. They need community. The more you surround yourself with people you love who love you back, the happier you will be. And having a purpose, such as a job you love, or a goal to strive for, or even a hobby, makes life worthwhile. If you have none of those things, I encourage you to become a volunteer. Helping others is the noblest of purposes.

Don’t get me wrong. None of us can be happy all the time. People who are happy all the time are mentally ill. It’s how we cope with the rough patches that truly defines us. But there’s a lot that you can do to make your life satisfying overall.

If you are contemplating suicide or know someone who is, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Here in the US, a great resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255. Please, just do that one last thing before taking any steps that, once done, can never be undone. Surely you owe yourself that much.

Anthony Bourdain, I hope you have found the peace you apparently could not find in this life. I wish you had made a different choice.

Anthony Bourdain

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Incremental Changes

About two months ago I had a very old filling replaced, and that tooth has been giving me agony on and off ever since. It makes me wonder if I should have left well enough alone, and mercury be damned. Probably not. But I do have my moments.

At first, even the slightest contact with the tooth above would have me clinging to the ceiling like a cartoon cat. So, the dentist made a slight adjustment. Just the tiniest change, the size of the head of a pin. That was all it took.

But when you think about it, every mountain peak ends in a microscopic, pin-sized point. But when you pound on that point hard enough, the mountain feels it. (In this scenario I suppose I am the mountain, which is a comparison I’m usually loathe to make. I’d much rather be the mole hill.)

That first adjustment made a huge difference. Pressure was no longer an issue, but unfortunately heat and cold were. Those abrupt changes would send the pain radiating up to the very front of my mouth. That was no fun. So, more adjustments were in the offing. Each one made a slight improvement, and yet the pain persisted.

You have no idea how often you change the climate in your mouth on a daily basis until it causes a pain response. Mercy me.

So, yeah, the tooth is still a work in progress, getting better all the time, but it occurs to me that it’s also a metaphor for life. At least for my life.

I do stuff, hoping to make things better. Occasionally, all holy hell breaks loose. Sometimes I get hurt. So I make a change. It might seem like a small change, but it’s effective. Things get better. So I make another small change, and so on. Much of the time those around me don’t even realize that the mountaintop of my life is a work in progress, but I’m acutely aware of it.

Eventually, I hope to achieve balance and contentment. Isn’t that everyone’s goal to some degree? But it’s a process. Sometimes a painful one. I do take comfort in the fact that the one constant is that I seem to be learning things along the way.

It might be a daily grind, dear reader, but grind on. You’ll get there.

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What Took You So Long?

It’s heartbreaking when a beloved dog dies. People who don’t have pets don’t understand, really. They become like your children. Only, if you lose a child, there’s a vast support network. When you lose a dog, people expect you to snap out of it. They nervously offer up something about the Rainbow Bridge, and then they feel like their job is done. They don’t want to dwell on it. That makes it really hard to grieve.

I’ve lost a lot of dogs in my lifetime. It absolutely destroys me, every single time. But I try to comfort myself with the fact that I always do all that I can to give my dogs safe, happy, love-filled, and comfortable lives. And they give me so much love in return. There’s no greater gift. “You are my person, so here is my heart.” It’s a rare human who is that generous.

The last time one of my dogs passed away, some fool said, “You can always replace him with another one.” I nearly lost it. My dog is not like a toothbrush. It’s not like just any old dog will do. “Honey, while you’re out, can you pick me up a carton of milk and a new dog?” None of my dogs could ever be replaced.

Having said that, though, you’ll probably be surprised at what I am going to say next. I sincerely believe that when you lose a dog, you really should get another dog as soon as possible. That’s what I have always done.

No, I don’t mean the dog you lost can be replaced. In fact, no two dogs are alike. I’ve had a unique relationship with every single pet I’ve owned.

The reason you should get another dog, and soon, is that you are needed. There are so many dogs out there who are desperate for love and nurturing. You have a lot of love to give.

I know many people who have been so heartbroken by the loss of a dog that they never get another. That devastates me when I think about it. Because there’s a dog out there somewhere that is supposed to be loved by you, and that dog isn’t getting that love. It’s so sad.

I know the pain of loss is horrific. I know that you don’t want to go through that again. But do you also want to never experience that kind of love again? How can you pass that up? There’s a dog out there, just waiting for you. And when you go get him, he’ll say, “What took you so long?”

cute_dachshund_by_animalsavior-d52rhxi

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The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

I5_ShipCanal_Web

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Bruxing

True confession: I am a bruxist. When I’m feeling stress, I tend to clench my jaw and/or grind my teeth. I don’t even realize I’m doing it much of the time. I even do it in my sleep. I know I’m going through a rough patch when I wake up in the morning and my jaw aches.

Once, I had a dream that I was deep within the bowels of an old, creaking wooden ship. I woke up and could still hear the creaking. It was me, grinding my teeth so hard that they were groaning in protest. Needless to say, I got a night guard to wear right after that. I’d kind of like to keep my teeth.

But for the past week I’ve had to wear my night guard even in the daytime. I had a filling replaced, and my constant grinding was not allowing the area to heal. I had to go back to the dentist 3 times for bite adjustments, and in the meantime my clenching and grinding caused the ligaments under the tooth root to get bruised. So here I am, wearing the adult version of a pacifier, feeling really grateful that I work alone, and looking forward to the day when I’m not in pain anymore.

My subconscious does its best to send me signals when all is not right in my world. Unfortunately, I’m quite adept at ignoring them. So then the signals get louder or more persistent, until I get with the program. I think I need to pay closer attention to what I’m trying to say to myself.

Our bodies have a language all their own. Since they cannot speak, they act out in other ways. Panic attacks. Back spasms. Stomach upsets. Reduced immunity. Heart attacks. It’s best to listen to these messages while they’re still “whispers” instead of “shouts”.

Bruxism

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When Someone Has a Sad

Many years ago, I came across a woman who was crying. I didn’t know her. I didn’t know the reason for her tears. It didn’t really matter. I just knew she was sad, so I gave her a hug. Sometimes you just need a hug.

She clung to me like I was a life raft for a minute. And I actually felt her emotional pain pass through my chest and out my back. It was the strangest thing. It was palpable. I’ll never forget that.

I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. We didn’t. She just gave me a weak smile and we went our separate ways, both of us, I hope, feeling a little better about ourselves.

Quite often when we need comforting the most, we are hesitant to ask for it. We don’t want to impose. We don’t want to be a burden.

But I submit that allowing someone to comfort you is like giving a gift to the comforter. It feels good to be helpful rather than feel helpless. It’s as nice to give love as to receive it. It’s wonderful to think that this gesture will be reciprocated if the situation is ever reversed.

I remember another time when I had a disagreement with the person I loved most in the world. We lay in utter silence, marinating in the tension, and I felt like my heart would break in two. Then, out of the darkness his hand reached for mine, and it felt as though life flooded back into my body. We hadn’t resolved our conflict. We still had work to do. But that gesture reassured me that it could be done, and at that moment, that was all that mattered.

Comfort, either given or received, is the most wonderful feeling on earth.

having a sad

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