Two Hikes, Two Years Apart

I remember the nurse’s name as being Al, even though it probably wasn’t, but the man was practically an Al Franken tribute band, with the look and feel of the real deal, an amazing facsimile. Al held my hand every time I cried, which was every time a jittery med student nervously attempted to start my IV – two, three, four stabs, then jiggling the needle around to hit the sweet spot – this despite me telling them that my veins rolled, that they were unusually narrow, that I needed a butterfly needle. I cried every time they placed the gas mask over my nose and mouth—the two plastic prongs never quite fitting in my nostrils—and told me to breathe gently, to count back from 100.

I cried because it hurt, and because I was clinically depressed. I cried because I was terrified that I would never wake up, never see my kids again. I cried because the whole thing seemed like a last ditch crapshoot anyway, with minimal chances of working to cure my treatment resistant bipolar disorder. I cried during each one of the ten ECT sessions I had over the course of a month until, as they geared up to start my eleventh go-round, I found my voice and said, “No more. I’m done.”

And every time I cried, Al held my hand, his gray hair, laughing eyes, and wire rim glasses a constant I’d home in on as I drifted off and awoke later in recovery, head pounding, body aching, tears flowing.

Today is the two year anniversary of my first electroshock therapy treatment. Two years ago I spent a month away from my children, head under the covers, tiptoeing around my then in-laws’ condominium, trying to make my invasion of their space as small as possible, folding and refolding my clothes to fit the allotted child-sized dresser from IKEA, tidying my books, watching movies on my laptop in the guest bedroom, making small snacks and rinsing off my plate immediately, being quiet.

Before ECT, I would lie prone on the shower floor, sobbing as the spray washed over me, unable to move for a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour. I’d make lists of things to do that included tasks like “brush hair” and “make tea,” and “call insurance company,” most of which I never crossed off. I struggled to sit at my keyboard, frozen and unable to type, earning no money.

After ECT, it wasn’t like I suddenly came back online, raring to go. It was more like I rebooted and then waited through 32 updates so I could slowly log back into my life. My to-do lists grew to again include speaking gigs, kids’ birthday parties, coffee with friends, writing projects.

Since that awful month two years ago, big and shitty and stressful things have happened and I have felt shitty and stressed out about them, but I’ve survived. I divorced. Two-thirds of my dogs died in a week. I struggle to pay my bills. But big and amazing things have happened that I never thought would again. I’ve made a few local friends, though I still tend toward introversion and fight a constant battle between loneliness and the desire to be alone. Every day I walk the freelancing tightrope but, more often than not, I’m pretty sure I can make it work. I get anxious, and I get over it. I smile again, and laugh.

On my recovery days off from ECT, I’d hike a path through a mangrove forest not far from where my in-laws lived. At first I took only tentative steps into the isolated woods. But every time I’d venture deeper into its mazes, finding hidden treehouse-like platforms from which I could view the Port of Charleston and watch dolphins flip alongside barges as they pushed in from the sea. I waded to the edges of marshy swamps, waiting like a statue for the birds to materialize from their hiding places around me. I stroked the fronds of unfurling ferns, almost desperately seeking their delicate beauty. The soles of my shoes grew muddy, and I brushed them off carefully before getting back into the elevator.

A month ago, I made another trek, this time hiking seven miles up and out of the Grand Canyon, the world’s longest Stairmaster. After five hours, we emerged into a blizzard, blinded by sideways falling snow, to see a shuttle bus waiting in the distance like a mirage. We sprinted toward it, clambering over decorative boulders to ensure we’d get a well-earned seat. Sinking down, my two-dollar plastic rain poncho dripping on the floor around me, I cried again, this time with the tears of someone who knows she is now truly alive, and how close she was to not making it.


Posted in ECT | 13 Comments

The Magical Power of Doing the Opposite.

say yes tattoo

I wake up every day terrified of something. Whether I’ll meet that day’s work deadline. Whether the last thing I wrote was crap. Hell, I worry about getting the girls to school on time. You’d think that since I’ve never missed a deadline and never been fired by a client and consistently arrive at school so painfully early that we have to cool our heels in the parking lot so I don’t have to pay extra for before care – you’d think that I’d get over these worries. But history of success is no match for my brain’s ability to envision the worst case scenario.

This is what it’s like to live with anxiety disorder.

I used to crave a day when I would wake up calm and reasonable – what I imagine life is like for people who seem to ease through their days unscathed by worry and fear. But I’ve given up hope of that. I’ve accepted that anxiety will by my constant companion, my fellow traveler through life. And so I manage it like one might manage diabetes. With medications, yes, but since the only real “cure” would be to mainline benzos or smoke a ton of weed, I manage my anxiety mostly with thought control.

Over the past two years, since a nervous breakdown left me unable to shower on the regular, what I’ve learned to do is the opposite of what my brain tells me.

Now, if my brain tells me to stay under the covers, to not bathe, to eat Eggos and chips for breakfast instead of real food, here’s what I do instead: I force myself to get up, to make the bed, to wash myself, to fry an egg.

And if my brain tells me to stay timid, to not raise my voice, to give up at freelancing and seek a day job that would be much easier on my nerves than this constant hustle, then I send out more pitches, reach out to more contacts, dive into new projects.

Because to hunker down is to die. At one point, that death could have been quite literal, as suicidal ideation was my mind’s favorite hobby. Today, giving in to worry would represent more of a figurative death: Death by letting anxiety keep me from living a bold life.

And in 2017, my goal is to live the boldest life possible.

 

Just this week, fate-like, a friend from twenty years past reached out to me with an offer to fill in for a drop-out on her Grand Canyon rafting trip at the end of March. A trip that will end with me hiking ten miles out of the Canyon with a mile gain in elevation.

I’m not a hiker, not a wilderness camper, and I’ve never rafted. I can’t tie knots, I don’t cook, and I cannot overstate how out of shape I am. “Irregular yoga” would describe my exercise routine for the past year. As in, sometimes when my back hurts from writing all day at the computer, I’ll do child’s pose on the mat behind my desk for like thirty seconds.

I said yes.

I mean, I have a tattoo on my wrist that tells me to do just that: Say yes. To do things even though they terrify me, even though I absolutely hate doing things I’m not good at, hate the thought of letting people in a group down, cried through a humiliating ski trip years ago with experienced skiers, broke my foot getting out of the bathtub, and passed out at Universal Studios and spent the rest of that vacation in the Disney World hospital recovering from heat stroke.

I said yes. Even though I spend my days anxiety-ridden about the smallest of small stuff, even though I battle imposter syndrome on the daily, even though I don’t particularly like being wet and/or cold, even though I make a thousand decisions every week simply to stay sane.

Because I will not let anxiety defeat me. I will do the things that scare me – the big things and the little things. And I will no doubt wake up the next day still terrified of something, and I will do it all over again.


Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

300 Words About Grief.

12079920_10204673397103852_2139655413600267237_o

You walk into the vet with a Saint Bernard and you leave with an empty collar that somehow weighs more than she ever did, 120 pounds of sadness pressing down against your chest. This is your second dog lost in seven days, following the evaporation of your 16 year marriage, and the grief feels too massive, something you can’t possibly bear. But you aren’t alone—you must also shepherd your children through this journey—and so you bundle their grief up too, folding it neatly into hatboxes and fastening it atop your own steamer trunk of sorrow with a strong sisal rope. And when your handle breaks, you gather the weight into your arms, cradling it like an overgrown child too old to be carried, yet still needing comfort. Burdened so, you sit by the river and, as the waves of fear and sorrow flood your body, you try not to flee but to be present to the pain. Wisdom must be earned—you know this—but the opposite bank seems too distant, a shore you can never hope to reach. You dip your toes in the water, thinking perhaps your load will become buoyant, that maybe you can grab hold of it like an overtipped canoe and float, carried along by the current. For even if you can never ford this river, somewhere downstream there must be a way out of this place, if only you follow its meandering curves far enough along. The weight of the grief drags you under and you think: I could just let go and I’d be free. Then you remember: Carrying grief is sacred work. So you kick your feet and surface, knowing that of course you can hold on to this burden a little longer. You’ve been carrying it all this time.


Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

When Everything Ends All at Once.

20161024_090117

The floor in the back of the newly opened pet store was covered with sawdust. I wandered past row after row of large dogs in crates until I came upon a single tiny Lhasa Apso puppy, his brown eyes boring into my heart.

“She dropped him off just like that! All bathed with this brand new leash and collar!” The woman in charge of the adoption event scooped up the dog and handed him to me. “We don’t get many small dogs, certainly not purebreeds.”

I called Matt and told him he needed to come over right away, that this dog wouldn’t last long in a room full of pitbulls, senior canines, and frightened cats. I held fast to the leash, already claiming him as my own. “I’m just waiting for my husband,” I’d say to anyone who dared to inquire about the puppy.

Turns out, there was a reason someone abandoned a purebred six-month-old dog to a shelter. Oscar panicked at being alone, chewed his way out of our bathroom window, splinters on the floor, the remains of the screen splayed open to the breeze. He chewed everything, in fact, destroyed a coffee table, two couches, an ottoman. He apparently had missed some opportune window for house training and never got the hang of it in his entire fourteen year life. I gave up on floor coverings years too late, having lost hundreds of dollars of rugs to dog urine.

He was supposed to be mine, this sweet fluffball of fur, but when they met, Oscar placed his little paws on Matt’s chest and gently licked his face. In the back of that pet store, Matt—who never wanted a second dog—conceded, and they became constant companions.

In his final year, Oscar would cry if he couldn’t find Matt, searching the entire house and even checking the shower stall to locate his dad. No longer our clown who’d tear across the slippery wood floor, he became an old man. He lost six teeth, then an eye, then most of his hearing. Our marriage ended too and, when Matt moved out two weeks ago, Oscar moved out with him, finally losing sight in his remaining eye. He was scared and confused and in pain and we knew it was time.

Behind my desk, I notice that the tumor in our St. Bernard’s front leg has ripened to plum size and I know that we have mere weeks left with her, if that. She struggles to stand and hobbles down the three steps to the yard and I can’t lift her by myself. I curl up on the floor, face in her soft fur, and try to match my breathing to hers. The ceiling fan rotates on its axis, its chain ticking out the time we have left together. I could stay here with her until then, but there are children to be picked up and suppers to be fixed alone and bathroom doors to cry behind, the shower running to muffle the sound.

The leaves are changing here in western North Carolina and a chilly wind kicks up in the mornings, though by late afternoon we are again sweaty and I never get the layers right on my third grader when we dress for school. Night falls more quickly, but October can’t quite give up on summer and neither can I. And so I continue to tug on cutoffs that now hang off my frame, my appetite lost to a season of sorrow.

The pumpkins on my neighbors’ porches bring me to tears. November promises to hold too much that is unfamiliar and I lie in bed at night terrified of what I no longer know.


Posted in Uncategorized | 27 Comments

Getting a Plan: How I Found Out I’m Not a Financial Loser

SUM180 IMAGE

Two years ago, I quit my day job to become a freelance writer. This is the third time in my life that I’ve switched not just jobs, but careers, choices that have not been without financial consequences. So I was excited at the opportunity to try out a new online financial planning service for women called SUM180, which promises a jargon-free personalized financial plan that provides three next steps to create a clear path to achieving your financial goals.

How does SUM180 work? SUM180 provides reliable financial planning advice without any accompanying hard sales of investment products. Your payment gives you a year-long subscription to the service, so if your situation changes, you can update your information and get a new plan or, if you’re a real go-getter and complete your three steps, you can tick those off and get three more.

The process is simple:

  • Prepare for your online interview
  • Complete your online interview
  • Receive your plan
  • Take action and update your plan as needed

Preparing for Your Interview. SUM180 gives you a comprehensive list of the documents you’ll need for your interview – information about income, expenses, taxes, assets, investments, and debt. The process requires some legwork on your part to get your paperwork in order. Think: “Getting ready to do your taxes” level of legwork. When SUM180 says you’ll need PDFs of your securities statements and your latest Social Security benefits info? You’re going to want to download or scan those files before you hop onto the online interview. You’ll also need to categorize your expenses and have those figures at your fingertips. Plan to spend an hour or two getting your ducks in a row.

The Interview Process. Once you’ve prepped, the interview itself is simple because you’re just plugging in numbers or uploading statements at your own pace in response to SUM180’s prompts. The process should take 30-45 minutes max.

Receiving Your Plan. I received my plan in about a week, but I didn’t look at it right away, feeling that trepidation you experience before turning over a test you’re pretty sure you didn’t ace. Finances are always at the top of my worry list, and I was worried.

But the very best part of the SUM180 plan is that its opens by listing your key accomplishments, which position you in comparison to others at your stage in life. As a writing teacher, I appreciated this approach because it’s exactly how I provide constructive criticism to my students. Tell them what they’re doing well, then gently make suggestions on how to do better.

So when I finally did study my plan, I was pleasantly surprised that despite a career path that has certainly not been designed to foster the accumulation or growth of wealth, I wasn’t the financial loser I had feared. I felt an enormous sense of relief that, at midlife, while I am by no means cushioned for retirement, I am still in the hunt. This was especially welcome news after a first year of freelancing when our family also faced significant unexpected medical bills.

After the key accomplishments, you get your three steps. Why just three steps? Because probably you’ll do them. I paid for a marketing plan once that sketched out a whole year’s worth of action items. I read it, experienced a mild level of panic, did one thing, and filed it away. Instead, SUM180’s three steps are clear, specific, and actionable so that you’ll actually, you know, accomplish them.

And I’ve already started. Now I have a plan to get rid of some nasty lingering consumer debt. I have a new way of thinking about the resource that is the equity in our home so that maybe we can build wealth with it and not just throw up our hands and call ourselves “house poor.” And I have specific cash reserve targets that will move me to the next level of financial security. Because beyond just giving you numbers and targets, the plan gives you detailed strategies to meet them. I didn’t need a degree in finance to understand it. I just need to complete my three steps.

And when I’m done with those? I can go back to SUM180 and keep growing, three more steps at a time.

The best part? SUM180 is offering a special promotion for a limited time! Just visit SUM180.com and use code SPRING50 to get 50% off the current product offer.


This post has been sponsored by SUM180. I was provided with product at no charge to sample in exchange for my review. The options expressed in this post are my own. I am in no way affiliated with SUM180 and do not earn a commission or percent of sales.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Getting a Plan: How I Found Out I’m Not a Financial Loser