Monday, November 28, 2011

The Monday Blues

Blech.  Is it just me, or is everyone having a hard time getting back into the swing of work today?  I actually had no intention originally of taking all four days of the Thanksgiving break off, but life sometimes has a funny way of making you do what it wants and not what you intend, and so, here I am, all the unfinished work I had on Wednesday evening still staring up at me along with the new deadlines pressing in, trying to get my head wrapped around what I need to do, but feeling fidgety and confined sitting at my desk again after such a break, and just in general fumbling around what is normally a fairly rigid and set work schedule.  One more reason that the holidays are just chaos to be endured.  Of course, I realize that is the workaholic in me talking.  Because the family person in me had a robust and fulfilling Thanksgiving break.  Not only did we spend time with my family - thanks to not one, but two gracious invitations from my mother's family - but most (not quite all) the Christmas decorations are up, most (but not quite all) of the gifts are bought, and many (but not nearly all) of them are wrapped and ready to mail. All in all, I should be taking stock of the holiday break and feeling very, very satisfied.  But, of course, holidays for us are complicated.  And likely will be for a while.

I woke up Thanksgiving morning to the same routine I do everyday.  Chappy, Cheyenne and I walk around the block, then they help themselves to dog biscuits and watch me do a little jaunt on the treadmill while the coffee brews.  Same almost every day.  Rain, shine, wind or - soon - snow.  But, as I trudged away on the treadmill, I felt as though something was crushing on my heart.  I just couldn't quite imagine suddenly that here we were - at the dawn of another holiday without one of our children.  For a minute I thought it would overwhelm me.  It didn't, and I actually managed to push that thought to the back of my mind for the rest of the day.  I didn't mention her.  To anyone.  But it was there.  For all the days I get up, get to work, watch hockey, watch football, eat, drink or whatever else I do, there is a difference in how the Now What feels when it's on a holiday.  Holidays are, as I said myself in my last blog, about family.  It is naturally hard when when part of that family is missing.

There were other signs that all was not right as the weekend wore on.  My mood swings were wild - I was up, then very far down.  I was enjoying myself, then irritated to the point of fury.  Poor Marissa had to keep me in check.  Looking back on it, I can only surmise that every time I was having some fun trying to figure out where all the holiday things should go in the new little house, part of me would begin to feel guilty and sabotage the moment.  But, I soldiered on.  The worst moment is always opening up the ornament box and finding the Baby's First Ornament that Mother gave me.  I really should just take it out of there and put it somewhere else with Kelsey's things.  I won't hang it on the tree, but I'll certainly never get rid of it - but it's a reminder of a double loss.  A time so far removed that it doesn't even seem real:  when I had a healthy baby girl and a mother who doted on her first grandchild.  As long as I leave it with all the other silly little ornaments I've collected over the years, I'll forever feel that pain when I come across it.

For Greg it was clearly, undeniably harder.  He really wants no part of Christmas.  He helped me pull the holiday decorations down from the attic, but his participation stopped there.  He bordered on pouty at times as Marissa and I worried over where this or that would go, and he camped out in the basement, far from the melee.  At the moments I felt the best, he seemed to pull further in and down.  A little piece of me sat above it all and observed the complex melodrama our collective emotions put on over the weekend and wondered, "Will it always be like this, or will we someday actually have our lives back and be able to participate in the holidays like normal people?"  I am not sure.  But, really, what is normal anyway?  And certainly what is normal for us?

I can tell you that, for my part, I want to take some inspiration from my cousin who hosted us on Thanksgiving day.  She has had her own losses and, as I found out that day, right around the holidays to boot.  Yet, quite spontaneously at one point as she prepared an excellent feast for us, she turned to me and exclaimed, "I love the holidays!"  And I know she means that.  She has learned to honor her loved ones and not forget them while not losing sight of the remaining joys in her life - her son and daughter, her grandchildren, her friends and extended family, her lovely home.  She seems to have found that magic word that is so very elusive for many of us:  contentment.  When she said it, I thought to myself, "Wow, these Pennsylvania women are made of hardy stuff!"  And they are.  My fervent wish is that there is a little Pennsylvania stock in all of us.

In the meantime, I will do what I can.  My little cottage is, if I say so myself, adorable in its holiday best.  The one thing about cottages is that they seem ideally suited to dressing up in garland and bows.  That's a start - the rest time will have to tell...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Welcome to the Mean Season

Norman Rockwell
As I have mentioned before, our family therapist coined the phrase "mean season" in reference to the holidays for those who suffer from an eating disorder.  Welcome to the Mean Season.

As we all finalize our plans and menus for the Thanksgiving holiday, we officially enter into a month and a half roughly of what is often a sheer nightmare for some of us.  So, this post is for the friends and families of the men and women struggling with an eating disorder.  Understand that I write it from a position of complete empathy, love for the people who try and support an individual with ED, and respect for the hard choices we face ourselves during this time of the year.  But, I saw a Facebook post from another mother yesterday that bothered me to the point where I really felt that I had to address this.  Because we can make this minefield better for our loved ones, or we can make it far worse.  And if you ever doubt what the consequences of your choices are, just think of Kelsey and the others like her who are not with us this holiday.  Then take a look at your loved one and imagine life without them.  Ready now to hear me out?  Okay, let's go...

First of all, read this article for some quick pointers on helping your loved ones through the holiday.  Simple advice, but, trust me, I've seen the fallout of not following these simple, straightforward tips.  Secondly, make the rest of the family members read it too.  As I've written about before, there is a tightrope many of us have to walk:  countering the needs of our suffering children with the demands and expectations of the rest of our family.  And, when you have an older individual involved - like, say, a grandmother who grew up in the Depression and thinks that having a table laden with high caloric food is a status symbol of conquering that time - it can be hard to make them understand.  But, it's important to try.  I would say that if you have someone who cannot behave themselves and not say things like, "You need to eat more, you're skin and bones," that you need to just have them stay away from your table, but how can you tell your elderly mother or father they are not welcome?  I get that conundrum.  So, have the conversation ahead of time about the delicacy of the situation.

Have foods available that are not as threatening.  I have some specialty dishes that were traditions for us at Thanksgiving, but even the vegetables were heavy.  For example, I make a corn dish that is almost like a souffle with heavy cream.  It's good, but it's threatening to someone with ED.  Kelsey specifically had to ask me at one point to also have some simple, healthy vegetables without any additions to them available.  Don't make your loved one ask.

Talk to your loved one in advance so they know you're aware of their anxiety and listen to what they have to say about what would make it easier for them.  Help them with some references they can use.  The Something Fishy site has a whole list of related articles.

Remember what a therapist once said to me:  it's not about you.  You're a parent first and foremost.  Most of you would tell me you would die for your child.  It doesn't need to be that extreme, but it does sometimes mean setting aside your own ego and vanity to help your child through this disease.  What caught my attention was a post from a mother about her own diet of 500 calories a day.  I know she loves her daughter desperately, but wow, what a message to send to her!  Not to mention which I cannot imagine that a diet that extreme is healthy for that mother.   The research on restricting calories to that level was controversial to say the least.  I found a lot of posts and articles on both sides of the fence while looking for a definitive response on what caloric intake someone of average height and weight needs to remain healthy.  But, just speaking as an untrained individual, I am concerned that level of restricting is not healthy, and I hope the individual consults a nutritionist to find a better way to achieve her goals.  Obsessing over one's own weight and body image is so hard not to do - we're all subject to the same social stigmas our children are after all - but we have to remember that we are the biggest influences on our children, for better or for worse.  They watch what we do and how we are way more than they listen to the words we say to them about their own bodies.  How can someone tell their child not to worry about body image when they are participating in the same destructive behavior? Don't fail to take care of yourself in the process of helping your loved one, but be mindful of how you are going about it.  Maybe for now don't worry about getting into that slinky holiday party dress.  Eat healthy, exercise and accept yourself as a beautiful woman just as you are.  If you need to lose weight for health reasons, go about it the right way.  Not just for your loved one, but for yourself as well.

Finally, let's all remember what this holiday should really be about:  family.  Oh, and football.  Not food.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, may it be Beast free.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

To My Dear Little Cottage

Our house is a very, very fine house

With two cats in the yard

Life used to be so hard

- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

My first week here, this is what you looked like
I met you, my dear little house, a year ago this weekend.  I stood in the living room for the first time two days before I was set to close and become your owner.  That term strikes me as a little ironic actually.  Who really owns who in these situations?  I was leafing through my mother's photos today looking for one to re-print for my Aunt Ginny's birthday and saw a photo of a relative's house from 1952.  It could be any number of houses in my neighborhood today, and it made me think about the other souls who have spent time in your walls and the people who will come after me.  You will stand long after I can no longer.  I am just a temporary caretaker, I realize that.  Probably more so in an area like this one, where history lives comfortably with the present.  But, for now, you offer us shelter and a place to begin this new life, and we in turn owe you our allegiance and the obligation to care for you while you are "ours".  With that in mind, I am therefore very sorry that a whole year later that horrible floral wallpaper still adorns the walls of the downstairs bathroom, but I hope you will be patient with me.  You do, after all, have a lot of time on your hands.  For us, it has been a tumultuous year, and just getting here and working to adjust to what I call the Now What has been a lot to do and process.  Hopefully, as we enter our second year together, things can smooth out and that wallpaper can finally come down.

A houseguest sleeps over
In the meantime, let's pause to reflect on our year together.  For my part, I will never forget that first moment, standing in the empty, cold house a little after sunset after a long, hard day of traveling to see what I had gambled on.  And hating it.  For a full ten minutes I thought I had screwed up royally.  Everything seemed so little.  The walls were low compared to the vaulted ceiling of my house in Texas.  The rooms broken up into little spaces, the staircases narrow.  Then, after the initial culture shock, for lack of a better term, wore off, I was able to see the possibilities instead of the drawbacks, and I would spend the next two months plotting and planning where all of our things would fit into your little spaces - all the while forgetting to take into account the floor vents, which threw a lot of that out of the window, if you'll pardon that pun.  And, then of course, I failed to think about measuring doorway widths and stairways to make sure everything would even fit inside, let alone where I envisioned it.  Needless to say, that lack of foresight meant that I had to do some mean improvising once I got here with a crammed truckload worth of stuff.   As a result bedroom furniture is in the dining room,  kitchen stuff is in the sunroom and a bunch of everything else is jammed up in the attic - which once seemed to be a cavernous space, now fairly crowded with a lot of things I swore I couldn't live without.  But, as I look around, I have to admit I get a little puffed up with pride at the work I did here alone those first few months.  If I say so myself, I made the most of your little spaces.  It may pale in comparison to the work that Greg and his friends were doing to re-hab the house back in Texas, but I think you and I have coupled to make a really comfortable little space here.  Good job, Cottage!

The Final Wave:  Marissa's Dorm Room Stuff Arrives
And we did it three separate times really.   After the initial push, you had to endure two more loads worth of stuff, including my personal little zoo.  I sometimes wonder, if walls could talk, what you would have to say about all these four-legged animals invading your space.  Or maybe the walls would just be screaming, "NOOOOOOO!"  Just think, at one point, I had twice as many...  You got off lucky, my friend.

But, you're gamely housing them as well as three humans, and, despite my complaints about the tiny kitchen (which, I am sorry, I still struggle with), the really important things are here:  which is my little family.

 You have witnessed a lot of collective angst over these months as we struggled to find our way, literally and figuratively, in this new world.  But, at the end of each day, your stout walls envelope us and keep us protected.  For that, no matter what happens going forward, I will always hold a special place for you in my heart.  And I will, as a reward, take that horrible wallpaper down.  Soon.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11-11-11 (A Life Summarized in Five Easy Steps)

I pulled my old journal from high school to open to the entry I made on 7/7/77.  I remember sitting down at the dining room table to make it.  I just didn't remember what I wrote.  Wow.  It was underwhelming to say the least.  "Note the date.  Actually nothing splendiforous happened, but I promised I'd write on this momentous date.  It won't happen again until 11 years, one month and a day - TADAH!  I'll be - [l'es] see - 28.  Aren't you thrilled?"  Then it goes on to note that I had a check-up earlier in the day and something stalkerish about the boy I had a mad crush on.  Nothing deep, nothing to hint at a intelligent person buried in there somewhere.  Certainly nothing to hint at a dark future.  Or a bright one for that matter.  Just a teenage kid being a teenage kid.

When 8/8/88 came around, I was a wife, a mother, a worker, a college student, a dog owner, and not a journal writer any longer - who had time!?  So there is no record of how I passed that day or what my mindset was.  However, it had been a heady 11 years, one month and a day.  That was for sure.  Out of high school, out of college and then back into college, out of Montana and into Texas, finding one serious, but highly dysfunctional relationship and only having the courage to break from it by leaping to another relationship.  Less dysfunctional, that one was, but I brought all my baggage with me, so still a little rough around the edges.  Nonetheless, that one married me and we brought a kid into the mix while still trying to figure all of that other stuff out.  One can look back at that time and have little wonder that our poor child would develop issues.  But in the hot summer days of 1988, that was far from my mind.  What was on my mind was trying for another child.  I remember that almost painful biological imperative was at its height at that time.  I would watch Kelsey play alone in our backyard and nearly ache to give her a sibling.  It would only be about a month from that August day that we were on our way to another family member, still trying to figure out what it was to be adults, let alone effective parents.  I am sure if I had made a journal entry on that day, I would be equally underwhelmed with it.  In all those 11 years, was I really any better, smarter, more mature than the 17 year old who spent most of her waking moments dreaming of boys she would never know?  Sort of doubting it.

Nor would I hold out much hope for the person who met the morning of 9/9/99.  By then, Mother had moved to Texas, but was still fairly independent and had her own circle of friends and we saw one another once a week or so, but she savored her independence, and I mine.  I had my two kids, my perfect house with a pool, a career.  I had a satellite dish with NFL Sunday Ticket and was working on the streak that still exists of never missing a Steeler game.  I had a fancy title and part ownership in my company.  I would have thought I had it all figured out, of that I have no doubt.  But, the fact of the matter is, as I was about to find out, I had my eye on all the wrong balls.

I knew that by 10/10/10.  Kelsey was gone, Mother was gone, and all my illusions of being a success at life gone with them.  Because I knew by then that being successful isn't about having NFL Sunday Ticket - it's about being present for your children and family.  I could tell you by then that I hadn't been.  And, the life I thought I had put together for all of us was shot to hell, and we were trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces.  By then, we were looking to Pittsburgh as the place to start that process.  I didn't write that day.  I was busy at Austin City Limits - trying to say a fond farewell to the city I had begrudgingly called home for thirty years.

So, here I am in Pittsburgh (well, close enough) a year, one month and a day later.  So, what do I have to say about myself on this day?  Well, in some respects, I'm not that much different from the girl who wrote in her journal back in 1977.  On this day, I was all a flutter with the news that Sidney Crosby might play tonight against the Dallas Stars and crushed when I saw that he won't.  We'll be in attendance - all of my little family.  What a thrill that would have been.  So, I guess I still get sort of twitter-pated over boys I'll never actually meet, just for different reasons and with a different agenda.  And, I listen to the same music.  I all but guarantee I was listening to the Moody Blues when I wrote that journal entry back in '77.  I still do.   Just a little harder to hear it now - thirty plus years of loud rock and roll later have taken their toll.  But, in other ways, I'm so utterly different, it's hard to recognize me.  What would I say to that silly teenager sitting there at my parent's dining room table?  Besides the fact that I would someday listen to Rush, that is.  So much.  Oh so much.  I'm not sure she would listen, full of hope, ambition and dreams about her future.  Like many kids her age, she was pretty sure she had it all figured out and could handle anything.  I envy her confidence.  I regret her short sightedness.

Where will I be on 12/12/12?  The future has yet to be written.  Hopefully it will include Sidney Crosby in some form or fashion.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Geography Lesson

Courtesy of Craig Del Grande, Bozeman Broker
Several years ago I tried my hand at a novel.  I was pretty disciplined about it too.  I worked on that sucker every day, but I never finished it, and now it lives only somewhere in the innards of my first Macintosh - may it rest in peace wherever it is.  I simply couldn't figure out the right ending for it.

They say one's first novel is autobiographical, and I guess mine had elements of that.  Here's the premise:  a native Chicagoan has an aunt and uncle who live in Bozeman, Montana (where I grew up).  She grew up spending her vacations there, went to college there and when her relationship with a local boy she was expected to marry goes bad, she moves there permanently.  She loves it there - despite having to live with a roommate to make ends meet.  She has met a new man and is engaged to him, a young professional from Billings, and things seem set until she meets a handsome, sad stranger from Texas (yeah, I know - but it's where I was familiar with).  The mysterious stranger's brother is going to graduate school at MSU and he comes to stay with him after a bad episode with his wife's lover.   He has a young son he has left behind.  Long story short, of course, they meet, fall in love, but he has to go back because that's where his life and son are.  She has to choose.

I got to that climatic point in the book and couldn't finish.  I couldn't decide what she should do.  One day I would decide that she would stay in the mountains I had so lovingly described.  The next I thought she would sacrifice them to be with the man she determined was her soul mate (she of course had a nasty, violent break up with the Yuppie from Billings, the roommate ended up leaving - I can't remember how I wrote that other than I think she originally had the thing for Tex, so she felt she had been betrayed and so on and so on - all meant to show how my heroine had fallen hard for this sad, broken man).

Maybe that conundrum was the most autobiographical part.  I love my husband, I chose to stay with him even though he was firmly rooted in a place I did not love, but my heart always yearned to go home to those Rocky Mountain sunsets I spent pages describing.  So I created a character to explore that choice anew and tried to get her to make the definitive decision maybe to test my own.

I could re-write it now if I wanted to, and I think about that from time-to-time - it would give me an excuse to go back home for a while to get the local environment down once more.  The Bacchus Pub was a central location in the novel - is it still as awesome as it once was?  But, I'd probably come up against the same wall.  If you meet someone you think you love, but they aren't where you want to be, what is the right thing to do?

There is a school of thought that you should be content with wherever you find yourself and that happiness comes from within.  I follow that, but I notice that anyone who has ever said that to me is not saying it from a location that could generally be considered unlivable.  And, I doubt anyone who has ever said it to me when the ghosts of their past float around every where they go.  Sometimes breaking free of a place is the way to find that inner peace.  For that school of thought, just check in with any addiction counselor.  They will tell you that going back to old haunts is highly ill-advised.  Bottom line:  you can debate place v. person all day.  That it is an individual decision, and every decision with this much heft carries a price.

This is on my mind lately because I know two people whom I care for deeply who have called a long distance relationship quits.  And I'm trying to decide how to think about it.  I was originally extremely angry with the individual who did the leaving, but can I see that point of view?  If they are both committed to staying where they are, did they have a future?

You may think I'm asking if long distance relationships can last.  Ask me twenty years ago, and I would have said no.  Ask me now, and I would tell you it depends.  It depends on the two individuals in the relationship, their maturity, why they are apart, and their own sense of self.  The reason I would have said no twenty years ago is because I could not have done it then.  I had none of the requisites to pull it off: ample maturity or self esteem.  We all gain those things at different places in our lives - I'm a bit of a late bloomer.

Now I think they're possible:  under the right circumstances.  I think once a relationship transcends the need for physical contact and if there is ample trust on both people's part, then, with some real serious commitment, it can happen.  But, at some point, you expect to be together.  Or at least you expect to have periods of time when you are together.  However, what if it the distance and circumstances are such that spending real quality time together would likely never happen?  That is not a long distance relationship any longer really.  It is two separate lives that collide occasionally.  Where, it is fair to ask, is the relationship part in that?  So, is it better to face the reality of the situation in that case and call it quits sooner rather than later?

These are complicated questions to complicated situations.  I have no easy answers.  I only know that two young people I love were hurt because they tried to walk in my long ago heroine's shoes and couldn't find the right answers either.

I can tell you, however, that, in my mind, more often than not, my young heroine would sit out on her aunt and uncle's patio with a view of the Rocky Mountains in front of her and think about how there is only one Bozeman, but men?  Well, like fish in the sea, there are a few more of them out there.

Montana State University School of Bison Study (I kid you not)