Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Everybody Knows Somebody

Some time ago, NEDA sent out an email blast to members encouraging them to pledge that they would do something in honor of Eating Disorder Week, which is next week.  Some people are sponsoring NEDA Walks, some are working booths, I agreed to dedicate a blog post.  Well, as it happens I'll be presenting a three-day training session for my work, so you get my efforts a little early.  But, the theme of their conference this year is "Everybody Knows Somebody", so I thought I would stay in that wheelhouse.  Because I could speak to that even if neither of my daughters had ever had anything remotely revolving around an eating disorder, which means that I would have never met a lot of the people who are now very integral to my life.  But, as it happens, I still would have been able to tell you about this guy I went to high school with.  We worked on the yearbook together.  He was outgoing, friendly and in with everybody:  the popular kids and the geeks like me.  He moved in and out of all groups with ease.  I remember him as always upbeat.  I never knew there were storm clouds in there somewhere.  I heard from him a few years after we graduated.  He had suffered from anorexia for the first few years following high school, but was in recovery, had come out of the closet, and seemed both more secure in who he was, but sort of amazed and relieved that he was alive.  Or at least that is how I remember it all these years later.  I do remember being happy for him, but a little surprised.  I didn't know men ever had eating disorders.  I wasn't alone in that fallacy.  They definitely do.  Straight, gay, black, white.  It doesn't matter.  Men in increasing numbers are falling victim to the disease.  You hear less about it because there is still the shroud of shame around it that is taking some real efforts to break through.  Later I would find out that he succumbed to AIDS.  It seemed that Death just had him marked, which to this day makes me sad.  He was a really great guy. The world needs more all around great guys.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that I do know a number of somebodys who have struggled with an eating disorder.  Some still do.  Some have survived it.  Some will survive it.  Some may not.  And some did not.  I was the mother of two daughters.  Now I am the mother of one.  I know this all too well.  And forever after probably my eye will be trained to look at all individuals I meet a little differently.  Kelsey was like that.  She made me crazy actually.  She would look at someone and immediately make an assessment on whether they had disordered eating or not and would sometimes flat out judge them as having a full-on disorder.  She was just judging people she knew very little about much of the time based on her own warped perceptions, but she hit the nail on the head more often than was comfortable.  There were a lot of individuals we knew who restricted their eating in regimented, ritualized ways much like I saw Kelsey do and had learned was typical for ED patients.  I never thought much about it before Kelsey would point it out, but then you couldn't help but observe the people she had labeled a little differently and listen to them talk about their food.  Which they did a lot.  Like an obsession.  And you would think, suddenly, that this is not normal.

What have we done as a society?  There is such a premium on appearance that we obsess over what we eat and then spend all our time thinking about it, posting about it on Facebook and talking about it, in full earshot of our impressionable sons and daughters.

Wouldn't it be something if we could be judged on something other than how chic we are?  Like if we volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters maybe, or even at an animal shelter.  Wouldn't it be freeing not to have to worry about how attractive we were outside, but rather how beautiful we are inside?  But, that's not the way we are as a society.  I count myself in that grouping by the way.  I got really excited when I saw Donnie Wahlberg's Twitter profile picture.  The fact that he actually Tweets some profound stuff (for 140 characters) had very little to do with me following him.

So, yeah, we do all know somebody.  Maybe we are the somebody.  My challenge to all of us:  work on the inside more, not the outside as much.  Be healthy, sure, but do whatever you do for that reason, not because you want the guy in the next cubicle to notice you.  If the only reason he notices you is because you ate nothing but celery for a week and squeezed into that tight skirt, then he's not worth the effort anyway.

Life is so short.  Live it fulfilled, not less than full.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mean People Suck...

...Are We All Mean?

I was talking to someone late yesterday whose feelings are hurt that I was chosen to co-develop a training program over her.  I get her disappointment.  She has a lot of experience with the topic I'm working on.  On the one hand, she is indeed better qualified than I am.  However, she struggles with some of the processes we use that are unique to the company I am doing this for and is openly grumpy about that.  We're about the same age and both ran companies at one point, so I get it:  she's very used to a certain way of doing things, was successful at it, and so she struggles with why she needs to change, along with the fact that technology is moving so fast it is hard for us to keep pace.  What got me the nod therefore is my willingness to accept the direction the company wanted to go.  Commitment trumps experience in these situations because how can you possibly stand before a group of people and "train" them on something you do not believe in?  Nonetheless, she is unhappy.  Rejection is hard on the ego.  I get that too.  So, as we were talking, I was sensitive to her open wound.  Where I felt she went astray with me is when she insulted me and told me flat out I was unqualified.  I've actually had more experience than she realized, and I'll give myself some major props for not bristling immediately, staying calm (because she meant it personally, I don't have much doubt), and letting her know in what I hope was a tone completely devoid of defensiveness some things about my background that she wasn't aware of.  She did graciously apologize and then go on to say that she is glad, therefore, that I'll be involved.  Now she's both embarrassed and still hurt.  And, as calm as I tried to stay, and as much as I knew the underlying motivation for her attack, her words have stayed with me.  Like usual, that got me to thinking...

And here's what I thought:  there was a time that I would have absolutely delighted that I won the verbal sparring match, but it is funny how life has a way of humbling you.  For that, I am actually glad.  I like much about the current Me as opposed to the person I was even ten years ago.  If I could combine the personality I have now with the way I looked in the early 90's, I would be so thrilled.  But, the price of wisdom is your youth, I'm afraid.

Of course, I am telling you the tale, so I guess you could say I'm still reveling in it a little.  I hope that's not why I bring it up.  It's just stuck with me since it happened.  I mean, I got a sincere take back, and I'm also not as thin skinned as I once was, but I won't deny that the vehemence with which she originally made the statement stung me a little, and I genuinely think that's why it has sort of bounced around in my brain cavity instead of going in one ear and out the other.  I am quite capable of using words as lethal weapons, but I certainly hope that if I ever get that temptation again, I remember how she made me feel.  Not as bad as some things that got said to me a few weeks before by someone a lot closer to me.  But, here's the thing about all of that:  okay, you got it off your chest.  Do you really feel better that you've hurt someone?  Or do you still feel bad, and you've just now made someone else miserable?  Does that saying "misery loves company" hold true for you?  If it does, are you willing to pay the price of damaging a relationship?  Remember another saying, "Don't burn your bridges."

Now the other thing I thought about, or rather am thinking about right now, is how my estranged sister-in-law would react to all of this, because, as some long term readers know, I threw down a verbal gauntlet not all that long ago when I was upset by something that transpired between us.  And I did it in a somewhat public format.  I was hurt at the time, but it certainly doesn't excuse it.  I know that.  I knew it at the time.  I've admitted both privately and publicly that I behaved badly, but we're done with one another.  And here's the kicker:  what she experienced from all of that was the hurt from my reference.  I think the larger topic of how I was made to feel that caused me to react in the first place got completely lost.  Not surprisingly.  So, who am I to talk about keeping it civil?  I'll tell you.  I'm the one who has made the exact same mistakes before.  Learn from me.  Do as I say, not as I do!

That leads me to the other thing I was thinking about.  We're all just works in progress.  I know full well not to lash out at people when I feel slighted.  My sordid tale with my husband's oldest sister is just one in a long line of stupid inter-personal relationship stuff I've done in my life.  But, I do it anyway every so often.  It is like the pressure builds and builds until you end up popping off at someone.  Particularly someone whom you think it is safe to do it to.  And, of course, that's the person who's going to be most hurt by your cutting words.  You may assume they'll forgive you.  But, sometimes they don't.  Remember my mother and her sister, who took their silly feud to their respective graves, as will my sister-in-law and I most likely.

Finally, however, I respect the right to say what you need to.  I fully support the woman's right to tell me she felt she was highly qualified and to admit she was flummoxed by her omission.  That's completely fair and a heck of a lot different than saying in comparison that I am not qualified.  She has the right to say that, and I in turn should respect her feelings when I reply to her, with empathy and compassion.  But, it's a skill a lot of us don't have.  Some of us would never be able to pull it off, but most of us are pliable enough to learn some new tricks, particularly if, at the end of the day, it is really us who benefits from it.  And all of this to end up with the burning question:  this is important to master.  Why is it then "They" don't spend more timing teaching us inter-personal relationships as part of our required education?  We are left to flounder around and either figure it out or not on our own.  I bet at least one or two wars might have been prevented.  Certainly a murder or two.  Definitely a whole lot of break-ups.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Shout Out to the Parents

February is Eating Order Awareness Month.  It is not lost on me, as I am sure it is not on any African American contemplating Black History Month, that ED gets the shortest month of the year.  Even the color that is assigned to it is shared - it stands for everything from cancer awareness to anti-animal cruelty to eating disorder awareness.  I support all those things, so I suppose I can wear it on behalf of everything it's associated with.  However, at least ED awareness has a month and a colored ribbon, so I guess that is better than it being ignored altogether.  I don't know how long February has carried this designation really.  I tried to research it, but didn't come up with an answer.  I know that when I was in the middle of the pitched battle with The Beast, I was unaware of it.  I wouldn't have cared if I'd known really.  I was too busy 24/7/365 just trying to stave off the disease that enveloped my children to worry about whether society in general carved out 28 days out of the year to focus on it.   But, I do think there is more attention on the disease (and not just because of Demi Moore) now than there was a decade ago, and that's a good thing.  Not because it's exciting that it is such a prevalent disease that it is garnering this kind of attention, but good that the individuals suffering from it and their family members can feel a little better about coming forward and getting help.

I have been in contact lately with some other mothers whose kids have or are suffering with either bulimia or anorexia.  Their stories sound achingly familiar, but one thing I've heard more than once:  I felt/feel so alone.  I was thinking about that even before those conversations because I had agreed to do something during Eating Disorder Awareness Week (the last week of the month) that coincides with NEDA's theme for this year, which is Everybody Knows Somebody, and that took me back down memory lane to our early days as a family trying to come to grips with what was happening.  Mainly because I didn't feel like I knew anybody or had anywhere to turn at first.

For anyone who has followed this blog for a long while, you know we admittedly did not do a very good job initially of helping our children.  Speaking just for myself, I never reached a level of perfection - obviously - in trying to support my children through their eating issues and addictions.  I've been openly critical of myself and other parents like me who live in a state of denial or self-absorption.  But, here's the thing that struck me as I was thinking about all of this the other day: it wasn't particularly easy a decade ago to get answers or find help.  I have written about that some.  I know I've told the story of the horrible doctor I took Kelsey to at one point.  His ignorance was only matched by his callousness, and I really cannot say it any kinder than that.

There were others we came across that were much more sincere in their desire to help, but had no training or familiarity with the disease.  I credit the crisis counselor at the high school with forcing me to have the original wake up call that there was something more serious going on with Kelsey than simple teenage angst.  He would later be instrumental in helping Marissa.  He was kind, compassionate and overly emphatic, (I always marveled that he could do his job without suffering major depressive issues of his own because he was so easily moved by the students; if you began to cry in his presence, it was a pretty safe bet he would as well) but he, by his own admission, knew nothing about eating disorders.  And, again by his own admission, that particular high school was rife with young girls suffering from some form of eating issue, being that it was the magnet school for gymnastics in the district.  As I learned about it, I would feed him information and took him reading materials.  I offered to speak to other parents so they could get a better sense of what they were facing and what to expect from insurance carriers, health care professionals and their own kids.  No one ever called.  Ten years ago there was a lot of shame involved with the disease, it would seem.  Social media has broken through that a little, I hope.  At the time, I was too wrapped up in what was happening in my own family to really think about the larger issue, which is how in the world can a school administration ignore the fact that there is a need to address this issue and not have some training at the very least for their counselors and nurse, if not the staff as a whole?!  Again, I was met with ignorance only matched by gross callousness when dealing with the school administration.  For educators, they were in many ways very uneducated, and I really cannot say it any kinder than that.

What we were left with was the hit and miss, trial and error, one step forward, ten steps back process that we ended up following over the next nine years.  But, I realized the other day that, as many mistakes as I made, I did plow forward.  I did make a sincere effort to steer my daughters free of their obstacles.  There are a lot of parents out there just like me.  Some have lost their sons or daughters like I have.  Others have seen their offspring win the fight and go on to happier lives.  Others are in the trenches still.  As critical as I have been, I should cut all of us some slack and give all of us our props, win, lose or draw, for at least fighting the battle with the often inadequate tools we had at our disposal.  It may not be as lonely out there as it was ten years ago, but it is just as scary because the stakes, the lives of our children, are just as high.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Becoming an Islander

“I just want to know one thing – when do I get to become an islander?” Ellen Brody
“Ellen, never, never!  You’re not born here, you’re not an islander, that’s it,” Mrs. Taft
From Jaws

(SPOILER ALERT:  This has nothing whatsoever to do with the hockey team bearing that name.)

So, a Montana girl moves to Texas, spends three decades there, ages past the point of being deemed "girl" and finally settles into the City of Champions (hey, Ryan Secrest called it that before I did).  How's that acclimation going, you ask?

I figured that it was going pretty well, all things considered.  I already had the right wardrobe.  I already had the right sports affiliations.  I knew people who knew people here.  And most importantly, I chose it, so I wanted this for myself.  Whom you really want to ask is my poor husband, brought here unsuspecting of us Yankees and our ways.  Yet, as you know if you've followed along as I ventured out and about over the last twelve months, it wasn't quite as seamless as one might think.

There's the little stuff that still seems awkward:  I drink a pop about half the time, the rest of the time, it's a soda.  They are the same thing, just in case anyone is wondering.  No matter what I call it, someone is going to look at me funny.  I still have no idea where half of the little boroughs and townships that populate a state like this one are, so when I meet someone and they tell me they are from - say - Fairywood or Banksville, I can only stare somewhat blankly and confess I have no idea where that is.  There are over 90 "districts" in the city.  That is not counting areas like mine, which still boggles the mind, since I live in the Shaler Area and Glenshaw both, and it was my husband who hipped me to the fact that Glenshaw is the larger entity, the alpha if you will.  I thought all along is was Shaler, since it is an "area".  I'm not sure he's right actually because I pay taxes to Shaler, not Glenshaw, but I still marvel at the layers of bureaucracy around here.  That actually means I'm fitting right in, so do the locals.  But, it all seems to work in the end, the trash gets picked up, I get water when I turn on the faucet, and my streets are plowed on the rare occasion there is snow (this year anyway), so I do not lose sleep over it.

If you tell me you are from Houston, I will immediately assume you mean Texas, not the tiny little town south of here unless you are wearing a Steeler jersey when you say it.  But, if you say you are from California, I will probably judge which one you are talking about based on your tan.  If you are pale like me, I'll go with the little college town where my father went to school.  Otherwise, I may assume it's the other place west of here.  I still think 84 is the weirdest name for a town ever and am waiting for someone to tell me exactly how that came to be, and how, if you live there, do you write out your address?

I love potato pancakes and pierogis, but every once in a while I just want a cheese enchilada and a Corona with a lime.

In short, I am not quite firmly planted on northern soil yet.  This was confirmed recently when I had to travel twice back down south in rapid succession.  The second trip was to an area I was very familiar with, and I rented a car and drove myself around to save my co-workers the hassle of playing taxi service.  The sensation was extremely odd.  I knew the streets I was on, but in the year or so since I had been on them, things had changed.  Businesses closed, new ones taking their place.  New strip malls springing up along highways I had driven many times before, changing the landscape that had been cemented in my memory.  Life had moved along in Texas without me it seemed.  But, the flat, straight roads I traveled still felt more comfortable to drive on than the winding, confusing morass of roadway I deal with back "home" in PA.  The sensation of being both on familiar turf coupled with the inevitable changes was disorienting.  All I can for sure is that as I listened to the Pens game on the radio stream on my computer that night in my hotel, I was ready to get back.  I have many friends, people I love dearly, in Texas, but there are ghosts there for me.  I can't look at Reliant Stadium without thinking of taking Kelsey there for a Steeler game.  That's just one of a million triggers littered all over the state laying in wait to trip me up there.  I left Texas for a reason.  That was validated in no time flat in a brief time back.

I was curious therefore to see what I felt when I landed back in Pittsburgh.  Hard to say for sure, as Texas left me with a parting gift of food poisoning - or maybe I caught a little bug from the Giant Petri Dish in the Sky, who knows - so, stuck in a cramped window seat with a fever and an uncooperative stomach for two-plus hours, hoping I didn't make a fool of myself and get really sick on the same plane that Big Ben Roethlisberger occupied (fortunately well away from me up in first class), my impressions were tainted.  I can tell you this:  dragging a huge suitcase from the terminal to my parking space is a lot farther in Pittsburgh than in Austin.  But, as I drove the now familiar route home from the airport, I didn't have to think where I was going, and everything looked comfortably just as I had left it a few days before.  There was the Ikea looming up on my left.  There is the traffic jam as I approach the Ft. Pitt tunnel, there is the skyline exploding into my view as I leave the tunnel, there is Heinz Field and PNC Park off to my left, there is the compact downtown with Point State Park off to my right.  There was my little house and four dogs really, really glad to see me when I walked in.  I had spent my time away thinking I'm really a Man Without a Country right now, not really at home here in the 'Burgh yet, but clearly no longer belonging to the South.  Yet, as I sit here with my dogs at my feet, looking at the familiar landscape outside my window, I am happy to be here.  I may not have learned all there is to know about this strangely complex place, but that's half the fun.  So, Texas, yinz can keep your cheese enchiladas and Corona with lime, I've got everything I need right here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Collateral Damage

I have been considering whether or not this blog has played itself out.  Maybe, I think to myself, I am ready to move on to a happier blog such as "What Crazy Thing I Saw a Yinzer Do Today."  Or, maybe I'm ready to take another stab at writing short stories that end up not being very short and therefore never finished.  Maybe I should revert to an actual journal where I can write the petty little things that pop into one's head like, "Saw my neighbor when I went to get the mail today.  She won't say hi no matter what.  What a jerk." (Not a real example, my neighbors with the exception of The Mikes are exceptionally lovely people.)  And, as it happens, I've been on the road a lot lately, so there has not been a lot of opportunity to  sit down and write anything, so for a brief while it looked as though I had by default sent it off gently into the night.  However, certain events have pulled me back here for now.  And, as with my last post, I hope this helps someone else someday because it's a crying shame if the participants in my recent dramas stumbled through all of this for nothing more than the sum of our experience.

If I have said it before, I will say it again because it bears repeating:  if, as a parent, you ever say, "At least I don't have to worry about [insert name here]..." then you really need to worry about [insert name here].  That is exactly the position I found myself in a decade ago.  I had one child sliding into a hell I didn't understand.  I had another child watching all of this, way too young to process what was taking place.  And, still trying to maintain a career, I abdicated a lot of responsibility for her older sister to my youngest daughter.  She had to call the ambulance once.  She had to help Kelsey up the stairs more than once for various reasons.  She had to make me dinner or lead me off to bed countless times when I was so overcome with fear and frustration, I failed to take care of myself.  I've since seen this in other households: where the child becomes the parent.  It's not the way it's meant to be.  There will be consequences when it happens. 

I don't tell my youngest daughter's story often or in great detail because she is still capable of voicing it herself - as much or as little as she cares to.  That doesn't mean I'm not sensitive to it, and that I don't realize the role I played in it.  And I am extremely aware of the hard work she put forth to overcome her own eating and addiction issues.  I am proud of her.  She has had to battle her own demons while battling her deep grief, as well as all the other normal young adult garbage everyone struggles with:  the pressure of college, the bumps and grinds of young relationships, trying to define oneself as an adult, trying to have some fun while you're young, but on a budget.  We had remained close through this process.

And I was grateful for that because some of the reading I had done indicated that was not the norm.  That surprised me a little at first, but if you think about it, there is some logic to it.   The knee-jerk reaction is to either smother the surviving child or abandon them as the parents lose themselves in a blanket of grief.  At the least, the dynamics of the familial relationships have to shift some.  What I am finding now is that it is myopic not to examine that.  It is so hard to do it right, though.  How do you let your surviving children know that you love them as much as ever even though you're hurting?  How do you let them live their lives without smothering them with your fears?

I have been made aware recently that I have not answered those questions well, so I have to get back to you about that.  What I will tell you now is that everyone walks away from deep trauma a different individual.  That means the family unit is forever changed as well.  Ignoring it does not change the fact of it.  My advice in that case?  Talk to your children about how you feel and listen to them when they respond in kind.  Understand one another as much as you can and also understand there will be times where you just will not be on the same page.  Understand that trauma does not release you from your duty as a parent.  Conversely, it does not give a sibling a blank check to act out.  And, above all, be careful with your words and do not wield them as weapons, because they can cut deeper than the sharpest blade and some cuts do not heal easily.

Above all else:  love one another.