Saturday, February 28, 2015

When the Parent Becomes the Child

I have no idea how to write this post.  I really don't.  But I know it must be written.  For me.  For her.  For others.

I try to always tell the truth.  My truth (because that's all I really know).  Especially when I write, because I know it will last.  It will stand as a testament to who I am long after I remember saying or thinking it.

But sometimes our truths intersect.  My truth crosses your truth.  Who owns that portion in the middle, that shared truth?  Who has the right to present that to the world?

I want to be careful about that.  I want to honor the person who shares that space with me.  But I also want to tell the truth.

I hope that by owning up front that this is MY truth and not necessarily THE truth, it's okay for me to share.  This is about me and my mom.

My ability to recall memories is not great.  I have vague images.  And pictures.  I have those, and they help.

This is me and my mom on my wedding day.

As a teen, I always thought she wore too much makeup, and I never understood the hair.  But she was always put together.  She wouldn't leave the house until she "put her face on" and "cleaned herself up."  How she looked mattered to her.

And she was so sharp!  She was the one who edited my papers.  She could type and take shorthand like nobody's business.  She was the Administrative Assistant to the President of the local state college and totally rocked that job!  She was loved and admired by all who knew her.  I don't remember ever hearing anyone say anything negative about her.

That was twenty-five years ago.  She was two years older than I am now.  And things have changed.

It's been gradual.  Little things here and there.  Her asking me how to spell things.  Her not remembering the proper noun/verb correlation.  Her not able to figure out how to use a new cell phone.

This is the profile picture she chose for her facebook account when someone helped her set it up five or six years ago.
She felt it represented well her many moods.  I liked it then. 

It's painful for me now.  It feels like a way too accurate representation of her current fractured state.

I have these vague recollections of her coming to my grade school to do an art presentation.  Of her taking me garage sale-ing on Saturday and then to Arctic Circle for lunch.  Of her telling me I was her saving grace.  The only daughter she got.  The one who could understand her in a house full of men.  I remember her being my best friend - so many years ago.

I don't have a picture of her now.  I'm not sure I'd share it if I did; it wouldn't be a happy picture.

She's seventy-two now.  Only seventy-two.  I wasn't ready for it to happen so soon.

Because she's not her anymore.

I still live in the town I grew up in.  And it's the town she grew up in.  So I regularly run into people who knew me when I was little and she was so capable.  I even run into people who knew her when she was young, long before I was around.  People who grew up with her.

Inevitably the moment comes.  They ask the question.  The question I don't want to answer.  "How's your mom?"

And the only answer I can give is, "Not good."  As I start to tear up.

They ask what's wrong.  I don't know the answer.  None of us do.  My dad.  My brothers.  Me.  Her doctors - many, many doctors.  We each have a guess; we think we know.  But we don't.

My mom has fought anxiety, PTSD, and PMS for longer than I was aware.  I remember when I was young and she discovered walking.  Walking stabilized her.  Walking cleared her mind.  Walking was the mental medicine she needed that made her able to face her life again.  And so she walked.  Miles and miles all over town.

Back then, when I would run into people, they would say, "I see your mom out walking all the time."  Back then it meant they saw their friend and she looked good.  Like she was okay.  It was said with positive energy.

My mom still walks, when she can (she's injured right now).  And those miles she used to walk pale in comparison to the miles she walks now.  She's tiny and frail, and she will walk ten or fifteen miles a day.  Maybe more.  Because she no longer has a driver's license and she can't stay in one place.  Honestly, it feels like she's trying to escape her own self.

She no longer leaves the house beautifully coiffed.  She doesn't always have her makeup on.  She can't smell well enough to know if her clothes are really clean.  As long as they don't have major spills on them and are the right warmth for the weather, she'll wear them.  And off she goes.  Pulling her little rolling suitcase behind her.  Looking like a bag lady.

I remember many years ago, as her own mother was aging and having difficulty walking and preparing meals, my mom said, "If I could choose between losing my mind and losing my ability to walk, I'd choose to lose my mind.  As long as I can walk, I'll be okay."

I'm afraid her wish was granted.

I remember when she was strong.  And healthy.  And competent.  And happy.  But just vaguely.  Because I feel trapped in this moment.  I feel trapped in her hell.

She is angry much of the time, maybe most of the time - usually at my dad.  She has difficulty keeping track of what day it is, even when I've told her three times already in the last hour.  She doesn't prepare meals for herself, do her laundry, or meet most of her own care needs.  And she still thinks she's independent.  Most of the time.

She feels abandoned by my brothers who moved to another state years ago.  She feels abandoned when my dad leaves town, for an occasional respite - which he so badly needs and deserves.  She feels abandoned when my adult daughters stay with her instead of me.  And she feels abandoned when none of these things are true.

She feels abandoned that we don't understand.  Like we've left her alone to her anguish.

She will spend hours upon hours reliving all the traumas of her past.  Over and over.  Telling me the same stories again and again.  Of her pain.  Of all the things people did.  Of all the ways they hurt her.  And they are all true.  They are her truth.  And she is trapped there.

But it hurts.  It hurts me.

When my dad leaves town I become her primary caregiver.  It's my job to help her get where she needs to go, even when she can't decide where that is.  Even if it means dropping everything and going to pick her up at her motel room (which my dad rents for her by the month, because she has to have somewhere to go other than her house).  For the third time that day.  Or taking her to my house, because she feels peace there.

But those are the good days.  If all I have to do is take her where she needs to go and listen to her tell me for two hours straight how horrible my dad is and was, that's a good day.

Lately they haven't been good days.

Lately it's been her showing up at my door, pounding and pounding, hysterical.  Or calling.  Any hour of any day.  She's crying.  Sobbing.  "No one understands how bad I am!  I can't make it!  I just can't make it!  He doesn't care!  All he thinks about is himself!  No one cares!  No one will help me!"

And if I don't answer (because I'm not home and can't answer my door or I'm at church and have my phone off) then she feels abandoned by me.  And sometimes in those moments she'll turn to my brother in town.  And he'll help as best he can.

But usually it's me.  Often even when my dad is in town.  Because he and she have had another screaming match and she wants a divorce and her life will be all better if she could just get a divorce.

Because she can't see that he manages her world.  That he wraps his life around her and what she feels and what she needs.  That he drops everything, including his job, to come get her.  To take care of her.

Yes, they have an ugly history.  I know that.  I was there.  There were many years I prayed they would divorce because he was so mean.  So controlling.  So angry and unkind.

But he isn't that way now.  At least, not that I see.  I am sure there are times when he loses it and he yells back when she's screaming at him.  But not nearly as much as she is horrifically unkind to him.

Those rants I hear for hours and hours?  He gets them, too.  She just rips him up one side and down the other.  All while he is trying to help her.  Because sometimes she isn't clear in her expression of what she wants (when she can figure out what she wants).  And when he, or any of us, gets it wrong she says it's because we don't care what she wants.  We don't give a damn about her feelings.

A month ago, when she found out he was going to leave town to go golfing with my brother for six days (which we were happy about and fully supported, because he needs refueling - even if he won't admit it), she lost it again.  She showed up at my house - hysterical - and just cried and cried.  Not quiet I'm-so-sad cries.  Anguished end-of-the-world crying.  Lost.  Alone.  Abandoned.  Sobbing.  Screaming.  And somewhat slurred.

Because it turns out she took twice as many pain pills as she should.  Along with Ritalin.  And Valium.  And progesterone.  And whatever else she could think of that would take care of the pain and help her be calm enough to survive in her own skin.

I called my brother, who had prescribed the pain pills, and asked him what to do.  He sent her a text begging her to give me the pills.  He couldn't live with it if she died as a result of something he'd prescribed.  She gave me the pain pills.  And then I kept watch over her as she slept and watched Elvis in my living room for the next seven hours.  I tried to feed her, but the most I could get her to eat was half a banana.

You see, her teeth are very bad.  So bad that I don't think she brushes them anymore because it hurts.  She knows she needs to have work done on them, but her anxiety is too intense to sit through it.  So she can't eat anything that's not soft.  And she has gotten to the point that she usually doesn't even want to try.  She lives on Ensure and chocolate.  And water.  She will go days without having anything else.  I know this because I've lived with her for several days at a time.

That day when she took too much medication was a major turning point.  (Oh, who am I kidding?  I think she takes too much medication every day.)  Since then, she has needed nearly round the clock care.  Someone to be with her all the time.  Yes, someone to try to feed her and get her where she needs to go.  Someone to tell her when she can take what pain pills.  But mostly, someone to help manage her panic. 

She can't sleep well.  She can't walk much, because of her injury.  And the meds just don't manage the anxiety like they used to.  So she melts down.  And she needs someone there when she does.

This last week, which started with her pounding on our door at five in the morning on Sunday, was the most difficult for me yet.  There were at least five times in the four days I took care of her that I was sure we would be heading to the ER in the next five minutes.

I've taken care of a lot of people over the years.  I've acted as nurse to many people through surgery recovery, illness, and many emotional breakdowns.  I've raised five children (as a stay-at-home mom, so around the clock) from birth to adulthood.  I'm good at it.  I'm good at taking care of other people.  I am patient.  I am knowledgeable.  And I truly care.  I'm really good at it.

But this last week broke me.  Over and over.

When she showed up at five in the morning, my husband answered the door.  She was in a bad way again.  My dad had told her he was leaving town the next day and she'd lost it.  They'd gotten into another screaming match.

My husband was able to get her to lie down on our couch and try to sleep.  And then he let me know she was there so I wouldn't be hit with it unexpectedly when I got up.

I had a long day ahead of me at church, on my feet in an energetically demanding calling for two hours.  I hadn't had more than four hours of sleep the last two nights.  So when he told me she was there I tried so desperately to go back to sleep.  But, knowing she was there and was likely to throw off my entire morning (possibly the whole day) and bring that angry energy to my family and completely drain me on a day of rest, made it impossible to sleep.  I did stay in bed and at least try to rest.  Even as my panic and anxiety began to set in.

A couple hours later I got up and got ready for church.  I talked to her a bit as I put the evening's dinner in the crock pot.  Well, talked with her is not exactly right.  Two-way conversations don't happen much anymore.  She just talks and talks and talks and I just listen.  So as I walked around getting ready, she kept talking at me.  I have no idea what about, except how awful and self-centered my dad is.  (I would be lying if I said I don't sometimes tune her out while she's talking at me.)

Eventually I was ready and told her I needed to go, but my husband was there and would help her if she needed him.  I told her he could take her anywhere she needed to go.  And then I called him and told him he was on duty.  I could hear his heart drop in the answering sigh.

I went to church.  I had a wonderful, soothing day, as I almost always do.  And as I came out of church I checked my phone.

I had missed several calls from my mom.  And I had a voicemail.  The worst voicemail I've ever received.  Sobbing - "Robin, I need help!  I've made a mistake! I need you to come and get me! I need somebody to because everybody just doesn't think I'm as bad as I am! I can't make it! I can't make it anymore!!!  Please!" - followed by more sobbing.  I can't describe the emotion, panic, pain, and terror that I heard in her voice.

I also had a missed call from my local brother.  I called him back.  He was on his way to pick my mom up from her motel (where she'd had my husband take her).  My brother told me she had called my other brother, the doctor, and yelled at him about how worthless he was.  She also called my dad and told him she'd taken a bunch of pills and would see him in the morgue.  My brother was on his way to a job when she called and wondered if I could take over.  I told him I would meet him at her house.

You may be wondering why we didn't go immediately to the ER, after the statement about pills.  Honestly, she says a lot of things in anger that aren't even close to reality.  Especially to my dad.  She tries to punish him and strikes out quite frequently.  She wants to hurt him; she has said so.  But when I ask, she has no hesitation in telling me what she's taken.  As long as she can remember what she's taken.  So I knew the ER was a possibility (one I was terrified of), but wanted to talk to her first.  To assess the truth of the situation.  As it turns out, she didn't take a bunch of pills.  She didn't take anything other than her regular stuff.  She admitted she just said that to my dad because she was mad at him.

I stayed with her at her house for many hours.  (I wish I could truly convey what that day and those to follow were like.  It felt like she was an 18-month old child who is overly tired.  A child who is so tired but won't sleep.  She wants to be picked up and then when you do pick her up she hits you and wants to be put down.  She wants the toy but when you hand it to her she throws it back at you and hits you in the face.  You feel bad for her because you know she has no idea what to do with the emotions she's feeling but you don't know either and you're sure if she could just sleep things would be better.  And even though you feel bad for her your frustration at her unwillingness to comply grows.  And your stress grows.  And your sadness grows.  And you want to throw things, too.  You want to hit someone, too.  And you're getting no sleep, or even rest, because of her temper tantrums and she won't let anyone help her but you.  And it goes on for days and days.  It's a lot like that.  Except this toddler takes prescription medication according to her own whims and walks all over town any time of the day or night and has money and a cell phone to call a cab and is considered an adult who is in charge of her own life.  Oh, and she is completely verbal so she can tell you over and over how much you've failed her and how much everyone else who's trying to help has failed her and how none of you care and are all so selfish.  It's like that.)

As I said, my mom doesn't sleep well.  Even when she's taken enough meds to put down a horse.  So it was a day of trying to sleep.  Pacing and panicking because she can't sleep.  Her calling and texting my dad about what to do.  Him trying to help from another state.  Him calling and texting me asking what's going on and suggesting other things to try.  And encouraging me to try to keep her from going to the ER (which she does at least once every month or so).

My 24-year old daughter came over to relieve me for a few minutes so I could go home and finish dinner for my family and get some food.  I was only gone about fifteen minutes.  I then stayed with her until my 20-year old daughter (the one my dad had asked to stay with my mom while he was gone) came over at about ten thirty to spend the night.

I went home, hoping that now that my mom was finally sleeping she would be a bit better and my daughter could cover for a bit.  But my mom showed up at my door early the next morning telling me she couldn't make it.  And it started all over again.  A couple more times thinking we were going to end up in the ER.  Then she called her therapist who said she could see her later that day.  I know this usually calms her, so I was eager for this to happen.  Even though I don't always agree with this therapist.  Or what my mom presents as the things this therapist says.

Somehow we got through that day and got to the therapist.  I was hoping to get her in and go lie down in the car for an hour.  I just needed a few minutes alone.  A few minutes of not needing to take care of her.  A few minutes of not having to calm anyone but myself.  But it didn't work out that way.

My mom asked if I wanted to come in with her.  I said I would do whatever she wanted.  Her therapist suggested they meet together first and then invite me in if they needed me.  Which meant I needed to stay in the waiting room.

Half an hour or so later, her therapist invited me into the room.

This was rough.  My mom had gone there to get help from the therapist on how to divorce my dad.  The therapist asked me how I felt about my mom divorcing my dad.  I told her I didn't care at all if she and my dad stay married.  I spent years as a child praying they would get divorced.  I truly didn't care if they were married.  And then I paused.  I am always as truthful as possible in therapy.  This was the moment I worried about.  This was the moment I had to tell a painful truth to my mom.  This is the moment I knew I would hurt my mom.  Just the first of many that would happen in that session.  I said I didn't care if they divorced, but I worried about who would take care of my mom if that happened.  He does so much for her that she can't do for herself.  And I couldn't take that load on.  I just can't.

Lots of other discussion.  Lots of other distraction.  More truths I told her.
*  When she rejects one of us, she says it's because she needs someone who sees reality.  I challenged her on that and said, "Your reality.  Your reality isn't the same as the reality I see or others see."
*  When she called my dad manipulative I challenged her on that.  "What about when you called him and told him you'd taken a bunch of pills and would see him in the morgue?  Don't you think that was manipulative?"
*  When she said my dad has everyone on his side because he gives them money I challenged her on that.  "I have never felt obligated to take his side because he's given me money.  None of us do.  We're not taking sides.  We listen to both of you.  We try to help both of you.  We are not against you."

There were other truths I shared.  It did hurt her.  She's brought at least one of them up again since.  The one when I said I couldn't take the whole load on by myself.  Later that night or the next day (things are kind of blurring together), as I was getting my stuff together so I could go back over to her house with her, she walked out the front door.  She didn't tell anyone she was leaving or where she was going.  She didn't ask for a ride.  She just left.  I sent my daughter after her.  My daughter came back and said my mom was unwilling to come back.  She just needed to leave.  It was cold and my mom was in no condition to be out walking to who knows where.  I told my daughter to go get her in the car and bring her back.  My daughter said she wouldn't come back.  I told her to just bring her to the driveway and wait for me, she didn't need to come in.

I went to the car and asked her where she wanted to go.  She said she guessed she had to go to her motel.  She just couldn't go home.  She couldn't be in that house.  I asked her if she felt like she could be okay alone at the motel.  She said what other choice did she have.  She couldn't go home.  I asked if she wanted to come back into my house.  She said I had said I didn't want her calling me with her problems.  She said I had said I didn't want to help her.  I said that just wasn't true and what was she talking about?  She said that I'd said it in her therapy session.  I tried to clear up what I'd said.  I do want to help her, but I can't take on the whole load without dad.  I again asked if she wanted to come back in my house.  She said yes, if there was somewhere private and quiet that she could be.  (So far, she'd been in the living room.  It's the center of the house and the only gathering room other than the kitchen - we don't have a large house.)  I said she could try my bedroom.

I led her to my bedroom.  I helped her get settled on my bed.  I made sure she had what she needed nearby.  And then I sat in the chair by the bed and listened again, for half an hour or an hour.  When she finally felt stable, like maybe she could sleep, I left and closed the door.  She must have slept because I didn't see her again for hours.  (You would think I would rest during this time, but not so much.  In those moments I'm still on constant alert listening for her and knowing at any minute I could be called on again to manage another crisis.)  She got up and went to the bathroom once, but then went right back.  Eventually it was bedtime and I just curled up on the couch, hoping she'd get lots of sleep and finally feel better.

She came out a few times starting at about three in the morning.  I pretended to be asleep, although I woke up each time.  I was hoping if she thought I was sleeping she would go back to bed.  It worked three or four times, until it started to get light and she could see for sure that it was me on the couch.  She woke me a little after six, in another panic and wanting to go to the hospital.  I spent the next hour trying to settle her enough that I could get my kids up when I needed to and another hour after that as I tried to get my kids out the door for school.

A couple more days like that.  One night when she actually let my daughter be in charge and I got some sleep.  And so much panic and anger and recycling trauma.  And so many hours of me suppressing my feelings so I could do what needed to be done without causing her additional stress - and then going into the bathroom to break down in sobs from the emotional weight of it all.

Near the end of her therapy session, her therapist had asked if she could talk to me alone.  My mom said that would be fine and went to the waiting room.  As soon as the door was closed her therapist looked at me and said, "Do you think your mom is competent?"  Without missing a beat I answered, "No.  Absolutely not." 

Her therapist said she'd seen a noticeable decline in my mom since the last time she'd seen her.  She was very concerned about all the meds my mom takes and the addict behavior she displays.  Then she said she wanted her to have a neurological evaluation, to have her competency assessed.  She spelled out how to do that, recommended who to call, and told me what could happen afterward.  She said if my mom and dad divorce or separate that we would likely have to put her into assisted living.  And she told me my mom would likely be very angry with me and with her.

And I felt another weight drop heavily on my shoulders.  I now have the expectations and wishes of the therapist.  And the feelings and needs of my mom.  And the feelings and beliefs and stewardship that is my dad's.  And my brothers.  And my own issues, anxieties, panic, and sadness.  And somehow I am supposed to balance all this and figure out what is right.  What am I to do?  My dad is her primary caregiver.  How am I to tell him?  Should I tell him, knowing how my mom feels about him?  How much do I involve my brothers, not wanting to place extra burden on them?  And honestly, not wanting them to make my job harder by disagreeing with me when they aren't here and don't see what I see.

She thinks if she could just get on the right meds she'd be her old self again.  My dad thinks if she would just get off all the meds she'd be her old self again.  I'm not sure what my brothers think.  I think her old self is gone.  I think the meds are a problem.  I think she needs to be in a treatment center where they can take her off all the meds and figure out which she really needs and teach her to manage them properly.  Or hand the management off to someone else.  But I also think her mental capacity is declining.  A lot.  I think we are past the point of no return.  I think she will never be competent again, no matter what we do.  I think we are on a downward slope and we will just continue down until she dies.  But I could be wrong.

So, for now, I am sitting on it.  I'm not making a decision about what her therapist said and what to do with it.  My dad is back and has taken over, although I'm still getting calls for rides.  It's only a matter of time until another crisis.  And she will turn to me.  Or he will.  Because I've managed them well in the past and none of us knows what to do and we all reach out for the piece of driftwood that will keep us afloat just a little longer.  And I am often the driftwood.

And sometimes I'm the one sinking.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Struggling with Compassion

A while back I was invited to participate in the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion blogging event, #1000Speak.  I quickly agreed.  I'm a nice person.  I believe in showing compassion to those around me.  My heart reaches out, yearning for my fellow man to learn to be more kind to each other.

And then reality hit.

I've known about this for a month or two and haven't written a thing.  First off, it was way out there in the future and I had more urgent things to do.  Second off, I couldn't think of any way to write about compassion that didn't leave me feeling like a hypocrite.

You see, being kind isn't that tough.  It's like being polite.  It's something I can do without truly feeling it in my heart.  But kindness isn't the same thing as compassion, although I believe true compassion does lead to kindness.

Kindness is an act.  It's the way we treat someone.
Compassion is a feeling.  It's the motivation behind the way we treat someone.

Except when it's not.

You see, I can look kind.  Act kind.  Do kind.  Without feeling compassion.  So all that looking, acting, and doing kind is just hollow.  But it looks good.

I don't usually do it just to put on a good show, so others will think I'm a good person.  "See how kind I am?"  But sometimes I do.

I don't always do it unwillingly.  "You're making me crazy and I really don't want to have anything more to do with you but I'm sure it's the right thing to do and it's what I should do so I'll grit my teeth and just get it done."  But sometimes it's like that.

Sometimes I really struggle with compassion.

I'm really good at feeling compassion for people who are struck with illness or difficulty that was beyond their control - those situations when life just happens.  Or when someone else's actions hurt them.  I have no trouble feeling compassion for people in those situations.

But when someone is struggling because of their own stupidity or immaturity, it's tougher for me.  There's some judging that happens here.  I find myself with a bit of a you-got-yourself-into-this-you-earned-it attitude.  Definitely not compassion.

And when nature does its damage, destroys a home or ravages a body with disease, my heart aches with compassion for that person.  I want to help and I try.

But when that damage interferes with the life I had planned for myself, when it inconveniences me, I'm not as caring.  Not as giving with my time.  Even though I know the other person is suffering much more than me in that moment, I still find myself throwing a self-pity party.  And getting irritated that this person is messing up my life.

Because I think compassion is easier from a distance.  Compassion up close can be difficult, especially if it's needed for a long time.  If it's an ongoing situation.  That shows no signs of ending and which will be a part of my life for an extended period of time.  Compassion under those circumstances can be hard.

And this is the part of the post where I expected to spell out all the ways to be compassionate anyway.  This is where I planned to set goals to work harder and be better, to look beyond myself.

But that's not what I'm going to do.  Because all of a sudden I am feeling compassion.  I am feeling compassion for myself.  (Which has been an uncommon feeling for me.)

Sometimes we experience compassion burn out.  Sometimes we have to stop focusing on others and focus on ourselves a bit.  We need to sit down.  We need to eat a good meal.  We need to get some sleep.  And sometimes that means letting our hearts worry about our own hearts instead of everyone else's.

There are many people in my life who are having severe difficulties.  I am frequently called on to help them in some way, even if it's just listening for an hour or two while they try to process their thoughts.  And I do.

But sometimes it's okay to say I can't.  Because I need to have compassion for me, too.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

With Purple Hair

On December 2, 2014 my family and friends received a bit of a shock.  Without telling anyone - not my husband, best friend, or children - I dyed somewhere between six and eight inches of my hair purple (actually, my amazing hairdresser did).  Bright purple.  Troll doll purple.
Troll doll with purple hair
Me with purple hair
Reactions varied.  My husband and my best friend both loved it.  My kids had mixed reactions; mostly I think they just needed time to adjust.  My son worried that it increased the chances that I would hurt myself (I had received a diagnosis of Bipolar 2 shortly before this, although I'd had symptoms for years, and have a history of self-harm).  We got through that.  They adjusted.  Everyone adjusted.  And even though people were surprised, there seemed to be a general, "Oh, that's just something Robin would do" attitude.

They asked why.  I said it was just time.

The reasons are many.  First let me say, I'm color-blind.  I've done various things in shades of red in my hair many times in the past.  It has to be very bright in order for me to see the red in my brown hair.  When it fades, which it does very quickly, I can't see it anymore.  Other people can and they still comment on how great it looks, but I can't.  And that bothers me.  I dye my hair for my own entertainment.  For my own pleasure.  Because I like the way it looks to me.  That effect is nullified when I can't see it.  And that's a lot of money to like what I see for only a few days.

Also, a part of me has always wanted to do something bold and shocking with my hair.  I'm generally only rebellious in subtle ways.  I'm not really a whole-head-purple or shaved-head person.  I'm more of a comes-out-with-a-couple-washes purple-streak-for-Halloween person.  But for some reason, it was just time.

And purple has never been a favorite color of mine.  But since my daughter was diagnosed with a Chiari malformation a couple of years ago and purple is the color of Chiari awareness, it's grown on me.  Purple has a special place in my heart now.

My hair has gone through many phases as it's faded.  My hairdresser told me it would, but I wasn't quite prepared for it.  When it lost the very intense brightness I was sad.  But then I saw all the variation emerging and it became fun on a different level.  It became My Little Pony purple.
My Little Pony with variegated purple hair
Me with variegated purple hair
Truthfully, once it got to this stage I still only saw it as purple.  My husband would point out where it was purple, where it was blue, and where it was pink - but it just looked purple to me.

And, see, that's part of the point.  While I couldn't see all those colors, I could see the purple.  Every step of the way I could see the different color from what it used to be.  That made me happy.

Then it faded more and my friend told me it looked like Meryl Streep's hair in Into the Woods.
Meryl Streep
Me
Seriously, how can you go wrong when you're being compared to Meryl Streep?  Even if it's when she's playing a witch.  (By the way, that's one of my favorite semi-recent photos of myself.  My hair looks good.  You can't see the bags under my eyes or my double chin.  It'll be my profile picture for a good, long time.)

That was about a month ago now.  It's faded a lot more.  There is definite white showing through.  Since we had to bleach my hair in order to dye it, just letting my hair go back to its natural color isn't going to happen.  Without the color my head would look like the hoof of a Clydesdale.
Clydesdale hooves
My bleached hair before the purple
It's time for something new.  Tomorrow I'll be getting it colored again.

So I thought today would be a good time to reflect on what I've learned in the last two and a half months.

As much as I pondered this, (and it was planned for more than two weeks before I did it) I didn't think through all the ramifications.  I was prepared for the way my family, friends, parents, neighbors, and ward (parish) members might react.  I wasn't prepared for the way strangers would react.  They either stared or refused to look at me.  Except the younger ones.  The ones my kids' ages and younger would come right out and comment on it or just move past it.  The ones my age and older either glared at me (seriously?) or glanced and then turned away quickly (while sneaking secret looks when they thought they were out of my field of vision). 

I get it.  Especially when it was bright purple it was a bit shocking.  But some of the looks I got, many in fact, felt like judgments.  Like me having purple hair meant I was a certain type of person who believed a certain type of things and acted in a certain type of way.  And worse, like it was something to be embarrassed about.  My daughter (who shaved her head almost two years ago in support of her sister who was having brain surgery) said she went through similar things.  In fact, she was flat out told to hide her head more than once.

Let me tell you something, judgy-judgers, most of you would be hard pressed to find more conservative people than me and my daughter.  We are both very active in our church and attend every week.  Neither of us has a tattoo.  Neither of us has ever done drugs or had illicit sex.  Neither of us has been to jail.  We both vote in every election and take that right/responsibility seriously.  In fact, neither of us has even ever had a ticket.  By most measurements of the world, we are quite boring.  We just did something fun with our hair.

The other thing I wasn't prepared for was how I would feel about these reactions.  It's not that I care so much about how others feel about how I look, although the first time (when I was completely unprepared for it) I felt very self-conscious and couldn't wait to get back to the safety of my own home.

No, the reactions of other people served to point out how public this experience was.

Okay, so that should have been obvious before I did it, but it wasn't.  I dyed my hair the way I did for me.  I wanted it to be distinctly different from my natural hair.  I wanted the lift it would give me in the middle of winter.  I wanted the fun of that little bit of rebellion.  But I was irritated by the fact that I couldn't do this fun thing - that I couldn't play - without the whole world watching.

I went to a high school basketball game a week or so after I had it done.  I don't know how many people fit in our gym, maybe a couple hundred.  But as I walked in and felt the eyes of so many people on me I realized I was the only person in the room with purple hair.  I don't think I've ever felt so much in the spotlight as I did in that moment.  And it was not something I enjoyed.  I prefer to blend into the crowd.  That moment kind of freaked me out.

But I've adjusted.  I've acclimated to the new temperature of the waters.  As I prepare for the next color, I'm ready for whatever it brings.  Because I've been there before and the personal joy it brings me is well worth the cost.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Valentine's Day Post - I Know, a Little Freaky Coming From Me

I am not big on romance.  Lovey-dovey, schmoozy, baby talk - all lost on me.  Or, even worse, they irritate me.  I don't read romance novels and I don't generally watch chick flicks.  My friends have seen me roll my eyes and gag at book club when there's too much love story in the book we've chosen.  My husband has been rejected (sorry, honey) when he's gone that route, too.

But every once in a while I feel the need to join the love brigade.  (Actually, I try to be loving most of the time.  It's just not easily recognizable by the people around me.)

Today, my husband and I are going to share ten reasons we each love the other.

I'm not going to call mine a top ten, because I don't want to take the time to organize them that way and I might leave out something important.  It's just a list of ten; I could easily come up with many more.

Ten reasons I love my husband:
1.  He loves me.  Without fail.  No matter what, he loves me.  This matters more than I can say and is the one thing that keeps me going.
2.  He believes in me.  Enough that he helps me believe in myself when I'm not sure I do.
3.  He thinks I'm beautiful.  For real.  When he says, "I love your body," he means it.  And since I often don't love my body, that helps.  And when he looks at me like he's the luckiest man on the planet because he has me, I know he truly feels that way.
4.  He trusts me.  With other men.  With our money.  With our home.  With our kids.  With his heart.  Even with his dvds (usually). ;)
5.  He's willing to learn and grow.  He's taught me a lot about being humble.
6.  He doesn't mind making a fool of himself (which sometimes makes me crazy).  He's open to making mistakes.  I admire this in him, mostly because I have such a difficult time with it.
7.  He wants to be the man of my dreams.  He tries to be what I want.  He tries to talk to me the way I want.  He will change his clothes when I ask him to.
8.  But he also wants to remain true to who he is.  He will tell me when I've pushed too far.  He will stand his ground when necessary.
9.  He went to therapy to save our family and our marriage.  There is no way for me to express how vital this was and how much it means to me that he would go, participate, and know when he needs to go back for a tune up.
10.  He supports me.  He loves watching me succeed.  He wants me to soar.  He's willing to share me with the world.  He is happy for me to be me and never tries to change me.

See, wouldn't you love him, too?

And here's his list -

Top Ten Things Bill Loves About Robin:
1.  Your hair and the fact that you are not afraid to try new things with it.  (This will make more sense in another post, coming soon.)
2.  Your lack of jealousy of me having friends that are women.
3.  Your trust in me. 
4.  That you are always right but are not afraid to be wrong and can admit when you are.
5.  You love me - even though I'm a non-believer.  This should be number one.  It means a lot to me.
6.  Your love for people even when you don't agree with their choices.
7.  I love how well you have raised our kids.
8.  How you don't let pain stop you.
9.  Your humility and forgiveness.
10.  You stayed with me and helped me become a better person even though you had to crawl through the mud to get me there.

I love everything about you.

We're coming up on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary (watch for a special post that day, March 2).  We've gone through a lot to get here.  And I think we are closer and more in love than we've ever been.  We just fit.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Monotasking - Oh my gosh, it's so hard!

I was once talking to a woman who said she admired my ability to multitask so well.  She just didn't work this way.  She was only able to work on one thing at a time, focus on one thing at a time.

Many thoughts went through my mind as she said this:
 - What would it be like to just work on/think about one thing at a time? 
 - I wish I could think about just one thing at a time and shut my brain up a bit. 
 - I bet she could multitask if she worked at it; it's a skill just like anything else and can be learned.
 - How can she get anything done by working on just one thing at a time?

See?  Even in that second that followed her comment my brain was jumping around.

According to my Buddhist meditation DVD, that's called the monkey mind.  It's part of our nature.  And the way to peace is to learn to calm it.

So why is it so hard to focus on just one thing at a time?

I think a big part of it is that our society rewards multitasking.  Many of us struggle with I'm-busier-than-you syndrome.  I know I've bought into this way of thinking.  Busy is good.  Busy is productive.  Busy is something to be proud of and wave around like a flag of accomplishment.

How many times have you written a Facebook post that says "I have to do this and this and this" - which is partly complaining and partly bragging?  How many times have you been talking to someone and done the same thing?  How many times have you heard someone rattle off their list (in the same feigned griping way) and felt like you had to match or top it by complaining of your day?  Or felt like you couldn't talk about your day because you only did one thing or didn't have anything really to do that day?

Seriously, when did having a light schedule come to mean you were lazy?  When did a day of peaceful rest or strolling through the park or reading for hours become something to be ashamed of?  When did doing one thing instead of five things come to mean you were a slacker?  Why is chewing gum and walking considered more intelligent than just walking?

Studies have shown that monotasking is more efficient (but since I can't reference any of them I'm not going to talk about that anymore).

I'm going to talk about the value I see in doing one thing at a time.  Seriously think about it for a minute.  Just.  One.  Thing.

Now, if you're a reader you might do this already.  I know I can't do anything else while I read.  Except laundry.  Or the dishes.  Or run errands and then come back to it.  Each of these interruptions makes our reading less efficient.  It takes us a few minutes to get back into what we're reading.  We lose the cohesiveness of the content.  And if it's a story, we pull ourselves out of the moment the characters are having.  In my mind, that's a less enjoyable story.

All this is to say I believe monotasking is more efficient and more accurate (okay, so I'm going to talk about its efficiency a bit).  If we jump around from thing to thing to thing the power of focus on just that one thing is lost.  There's a rev up factor to most tasks.  If we have to rev up again and again because we did something else in between, it takes that much longer. 

And if we're giving something our full attention it will be more accurate.  Do you think your taxes will be more accurate if you're concentrating on that task alone or if you're having a conversation while you're working on them?  Is your driving safer when you concentrate on that task alone or when you're also texting or talking on the phone or arguing with someone in the car?  Would you like your surgeon to focus just on his task at hand while operating on you or would you like him to also be consulting on another case with another doctor as he cuts into your body?

I believe monotasking allows us to enjoy the full flavor of a moment.  If you glance at the sunset as you drive to the store and note how pretty it is, that's nice.  But if you pull over and take a few moments to just examine the sunset, the multiple shades of multiple colors, the wonder of the earth, the feeling it gives you, isn't that a different experience?  A better experience?  Imagine how this would change your experience at church.  At the temple.  With your spouse.

And that brings me to my next point.  Imagine what it does for the person you're with when you pay full attention to them.  When you're not also playing on whatever device is at hand.  When you're not checking text messages.  When you're not answering calls.  How do they feel when you are just with them, completely?

Imagine the stillness it can bring.  Not just physical stillness, although I would argue some of us need a bit more of that.  But the mental stillness.  The emotional stillness.  The spiritual stillness.  To just be in that moment.

I heard a podcast many years ago that has stuck with me.  It was a Quaker woman.  She talked about how the Quakers strive to devote each action to God.  When they are sweeping, they are only sweeping.  And they are doing it for God.

Maybe you have no intention of sweeping for God, but what if all you did was sweep?  What if your brain weren't running all over the place trying to solve the problems of your life?  What if you focused on that moment instead of just rushing through to get to the next chore?  What if you focused on the sound of the broom on the floor?  The feeling of the muscles in your arms and hands maneuvering the broom?  The sight of the cleanliness that emerges as you sweep?  What if you just swept in stillness?

I think even sweeping could be rejuvenating that way.

And that brings me to my final point.  I believe monotasking can be rejuvenating.  I believe it relieves our minds and bodies of the constant back and forth that is so draining.  I believe it lets our muscles relax a bit, both mental and physical.  I believe it's good for us.

And, yes, this was a long way to describe mindfulness.  A powerful way to live life (even just moments).  A way to soothe depression, anxiety, stress, high blood pressure, and many other struggles.  A way to feel more peace.

Because couldn't we all use a little more peace?

But just because I believe it's good for us doesn't mean I'm good at it.  I'm working on it.  I'm still often uncomfortable doing just one thing at a time.  I still find myself listening to an audiobook while cleaning the house.  I still find myself playing solitaire while watching something on Netflix.  I still have trouble calming my monkey mind.  But I'm trying.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

An Alternative to Self-Harm, an Anxiety Attack, and Just Yuck

So, I'm seeing a new therapist.  He and I are finding our way.  I felt like we were floundering for a bit (turns out, so did he), but I feel like we have a plan now.

I have gone to therapy for many years, off and on.  I've seen several therapists.  And sometimes I feel like I'm in therapy to keep a grasp on reality when my life is crazy.  That my therapist is my anchor.  Because sometimes the waves are so far over my head and I can't even find a piece of driftwood to cling to.  Therapy has been the lifeboat for me many times.

Other times therapy is my mental gym and my therapist is my personal trainer.  His job is to help me strengthen my weaknesses.  To prepare for competition or just to feel my best.  This time is one of those.

This therapist (Jason) is my coach.  His job (and my job) is to help me fight.  His job is to help me win.  In my fight against self-harm.

Which is kind of an uphill battle because I'm still not sure I want to give it up.

I know that doesn't make sense to most of you, and I'm happy about that because it means this isn't a part of your life.  But some of you will get it.  Self-harm is a drug.  It's soothing.  It's numbing.  It feels good.  It stops the pain.

Anyway, all of that was just an introduction to where I am now and what I experienced today.

In therapy we discussed what happens when I get triggered.  There are many things in my past that have been traumatic.  When something happens that reminds me of one of these, I can be taken back.  I go into fight, flight, or freeze.  (Which is something I'd surprisingly never connected with self-harm before - good job, Jason.)  I can be a child again.  Or a teen.  Or even a toddler, depending on which trauma is triggered.

So, in my last session I had a particular trigger in mind, because I almost self-harmed a couple weeks ago and have been craving it a lot since.  I figured that was a good place to start.  Jason asked me how old I feel with this trigger.  Five.  I am five years old.  Didn't have to think about it.  I am a helpless, powerless, scared little girl.

As we talked more, we discussed the place in our brains that thinks logical thoughts and the place in our brains that thinks save-your-butt thoughts.  The animal brain that's ready to fight the saber-tooth tiger.  When a person has PTSD, and is triggered, the thinking part doesn't get to play.  It gets completely bypassed.  The run-so-you-don't-die part takes over.  It's visceral.

And through all these years of therapy I've learned so many techniques to deal with those moments.  I know behavior after behavior that is healthier and longer lasting as a fix.  To get me through those moments.  But those are not habits for me yet and they are in the thinking part of my brain.  The ones I've used for years, the unhealthy ones, the ones that are habits are in the get-me-through-this-alive part. 

Those unhealthy behaviors are the ones in the path of the trauma brain process.  Trigger - freak out - make the pain stop.  It's very automatic.  Again, visceral.

So my therapist introduced a novel approach.  Skip the thinking.  We're not going to think our way through this.  We're going visceral.  Since your brain isn't going to take the thinking path, we won't either.  We're going very basic.

We're going to use my senses to shock my body out of that moment I feel trapped in and back into the real moment I'm in.  My new mantra is "new moment-new experience."  This moment isn't that moment.  And more importantly, I am not that little girl.  I am a forty-five year old woman.  I have forty more years of experience than she does.  I am strong.  I can make my own choices.  No one else has control over me.  I don't have to do what I don't want to do.  I am powerful!

So how do we slap my brain in the face and tell it to wake up and see that it's a new moment when it's on the path to destruction?  We're going to use my senses.  Like smelling salts, we're going to smack my brain and tell it to wake up.  To break that spell (from Sleeping Beauty) that's got me mesmerized and is calling me to the spinning wheel to prick my finger.  And I think it's a good plan.

My assignment for this week and next was to find five things that are very unpleasant to me (that attack my senses) but that aren't harmful and don't relate to or bring up any trauma.  And for extra credit, I could try them for real.

I figured out several things I could use, one or more for each of the five senses.  I have a couple of them in place and am working on the others.

I tried one of them earlier this week.  I was triggered by something that has frequently led to self-harm in my past.  And then I grabbed the lavender oil.  I HATE the smell of lavender oil.  It makes my muscles cringe.  I used it like smelling salts.  And it was enough to remind me of my mantra.  New moment-new experience.  Then I took a few deep breaths.  I smelled it again.  Ick!  And I reminded myself that I am not that person anymore.  I can face this.  A few more deep breaths and I was better.  The problem wasn't gone, but it wasn't beating me in the head and punching me in the stomach anymore.  It was just there and I'd get through it and it will pass and soon it won't matter anymore anyway.  That was a good moment.

Sometimes when I'm in therapy, and we come up with a new plan of attack, I'm so sure I understand how to use it.  And then I leave and get into the real world and realize there were a couple points of clarification I didn't get.  But I often don't realize that until I use my new behavior wrong.  And that can turn out bad.  Like today.

I've been on edge for a while now.  Three or four days.  No, I guess it's been longer than that because I was feeling it before I went to therapy Monday.  So at least a week.  It's a difficult thing to describe.  It's like all the nerves in the periphery of my body (especially my arms and shoulders) are on hyper-alert.  It's hard - even painful - to have people close to me.  Like closer than about three feet away makes me cringe internally (although I try not to show it if I'm in public; I don't want to be rude).  If someone touches me, my body starts to whimper.  It hurts in a psychological way.  But the feeling of wanting to climb out of my skin is very much a physical thing.  When I am alone again I find myself shaking my arms trying to make the feelings stop.

Today I was hit by this when I was alone, but stronger.  Out of the blue and without a trigger.  I've heard restless-leg syndrome described and it kind of felt like that, but through my whole body.  I felt like I just needed to shake my whole body, like a dog after a wash, hoping whatever was hanging on that was hurting (and kind of electrified) would fling off.  And I could settle.

So I thought I would try one of these new behaviors.  I got my piece of newspaper out (which I absolutely HATE the feeling of) and rubbed it between my finger and thumb.  I opened it up and started to glance through it, while paying attention to the way it felt in my hands.  My anxiety climbed higher and higher until I felt like a balloon that was over-filled and ready to pop any minute.  I couldn't touch it another second.  I threw it away from myself.

Very quickly I went from wanting to crawl out of my skin to feeling like I was going to explode and wanting to crawl out of existence.  I found myself with my head in my hands, rocking back and forth.  Pretty strongly and swiftly.  Trying to dispel this energy which was attacking me.  I was deep crying.  I added Lamaze breathing.  Kept rocking.  And I turned on the stopwatch on my phone.  I had the sense that this moment was a panic/anxiety attack and have heard that they pass much more quickly than we expect in the moment.  More quickly that it feels like.  Estimating the amount of time from when it hit hard before I turned on my stopwatch, and including that time, I think it lasted about five minutes.  Five horrific minutes.  But I got through them.  And it helps to know how long it lasted.

At that point I still felt like crawling out of my skin but no longer felt out of control, held hostage by my body.

So it was yucky.  Lots of yucky.  But I learned a lot.  I learned that moments pass.  Even the horrible ones.  I learned that there are other tools in my mind and body that I can use that my body will sometimes lead me to if I will listen.  And I learned not to use my new shocking tools for a panic/anxiety attack (I'm not sure if there's a difference between those two and don't know which it was).

Rough day.  Still crawling out of my skin.  Still want that three-foot bubble.  But no longer screaming internally.  I'll take it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Are You Ready to Feel Better?

In July of 2005 I got a very bad headache.  A debilitating headache.  It didn't go away for a couple of weeks so I sought medical treatment.  Long story short, I still have it.  Lots of tests and doctors and treatments later.  No answers.  But that's not what this post is about.

I got the headache.  We tried a bunch of stuff, including Lortab.  It was great and made me feel awesome, but it didn't take the headache away.  And it made it difficult for me to function as a mother and an employee.  So I quit taking it and just didn't take anything for several months.  The headache intensity fluctuated.  If it got too bad, I just took a nap.  The pain meds weren't worth the trade off of being completely non-functional and the rebound headaches I'd get.

But in October of 2006 my headache got bad and stayed bad for quite a while.  I went to the doctor and desperately asked if there was something else we could try.  Wasn't there something that could help that wouldn't make me feel like a zombie?

He said it was time to go to the pain clinic.  Again, that's another story for another day.  But there's one element that needs to be told for this post to have meaning.

In addition to the regular medical stuff we would try with the doctors, they wanted me to meet with their psychologist.  I don't remember his name, and he has since retired.  Let's just call him Dr. Old Guy.

So I met with Dr. Old Guy.  He said we would work on bio-feedback and relaxation.  He gave me a cd and told me he wanted me to spend thirty minutes twice a day listening to it and practicing guided relaxation.  I may possibly have laughed in his face at the idea of two thirty minute relaxation sessions a day.  He said the fact that it seemed impossible to me was just a sign that we were on the right track.  Whatever.

So I did it and came back to meet with him again.  And as we walked into his office for our second appointment he asked me a question that has stuck with me ever since.  Haunted me?  Maybe.  He asked, "Are you ready to feel better?"

It kind of stopped me in my tracks.

Now it could very well have been one of those things that really doesn't mean anything.  It could have just been his way of saying, "Let's get started."

But I pondered it.  I analyzed it.  I agonized over it.

Was there something I was gaining from having this headache that made me resistant to healing and was that why I wasn't getting better?

At the time it seemed ridiculous.  What good was there in a headache?  It had caused so much stress in my life.  It had disrupted so many of my plans.  It would eventually be the reason I had to quit my job.  How on earth could anyone think I was choosing this?  Was I choosing it?

The reason any of this matters all these years later is because of my word for the year.  I chose HEAL as my word for 2015.  And I still hear this question in my head.  "Are you ready to feel better?"

And I still don't know the answer.