How To Stop Raging Against Reality

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My grandma is hurting again. Last Sunday, she leaned over in her recliner to rearrange some books and she slid out of the chair onto the floor. And her hip broke.

This is the latest and maybe the gravest incident in a string that started about a year and a half ago, and I gotta be real about it — it’s been a tough time. Ma has had a heart attack, a MRSA infection, dizzy spells, multiple skin tears, limited mobility, and varying levels of lucidity. There have been dozens of visits to the doctor and to the ER, dozens of nights in the hospital, and two nursing home stays totalling up to more than seven months. There have also been countless hours on the phone and mountains of paperwork to fill out so that she can have medical benefits and at-home care and prescription coverage and everything else she needs. It’s a real project management situation.

On top of all that is the way she feels about what’s happening to her. My grandma has always been a quick and bubbly and memorably warm person, and she still is. She is a little forgetful, sure, and sometimes confused and anxious, but essentially, she is still herself. Unlike a lot of old folks.

And that is an enormous blessing, but also somewhat of a curse, because she understands what’s happening to her. She clearly sees that her capabilities are diminishing, and it sometimes brings her way, way down. So, on top of all the logistical and bureaucratic and medical stuff, my brother and I have also been trying to keep her spirits up, too. We know it could be a lot worse, but it still has not been easy.

Part of the difficulty is that the situation just fucking sucks. People say taking care of an old person is like taking care of a child, and I guess there are some similarities, but I think the comparison breaks down for one simple reason: children grow. They develop and change and great new things keep happening with them all the time. But with an aging person, it’s the exact opposite. With every incident, new levels of horror are revealed, and even the strongest souls can falter a bit in the face of it, I think.

But the other part of the difficulty is on me, because I have to admit that I am kind of selfish prick. I don’t want to get into my whole life story — at least not right now — but suffice it to say that my childhood was bananas, and I spent most of it trying to grow up quickly so that I would no longer be subject to the weakness and poor decision-making ability of the adults around me. That is way harsh, I know, but it’s the way I grew up thinking about things.

So, now, yay, I am a grown-up, and all I want is freedom, and I can’t have it. I can’t spend my day doing what I’d like to do because I have five phone calls to make, and I have to stop at my grandma’s apartment and pick up some clothes for her to wear when they transfer her from the hospital to the rehab place, and I need to take them to the hospital and talk to her and try to explain what’s going on and see the wildness in her eyes that means she is terrified. And I have to go to work and try not to lose it even though my heart is breaking. And then I have to drive out to rehab to bring her suitcase and make sure she’s settled in and comfortable. And by the time all that is over, I will be exhausted and it will be time to go to bed.

Sometimes I feel like Louis CK in this bit of stand-up — “Now I have an old lady.”

And sometimes I rage against it. Sometimes I cry my eyes out and drive around screaming at a God I don’t really even believe in that this isn’t fair, and what has she ever done to deserve such misery besides be a beautiful loving person? And what have I ever done? I’m a freaking orphan, shouldn’t I somehow be excused?

In short, I turn into the worst person ever — resentful towards everyone, entitled and selfish, full of anger and despair.

This is a pattern I found myself playing out a lot last year. I can’t call it a rabbit-hole, because it’s bigger and more menacing than that. I guess it feels more like a road with well-worn ruts that I sometimes just find myself on without even realizing it. Something goes wrong with my grandma’s health, or someone drops the ball on her care, or I hit my daily limit on dealing with bureaucratic bullshit, and suddenly I am the freaking Hulk. Impatient and surly and, eventually, ashamed.

I know there’s no point to it. It brings me no relief, no catharsis. It’s just an emotional reflex, a pattern of adolescent rage against reality itself, and it does nothing but sap me of my strength. I’m not, like, satisfyingly cried out after one of these rages. I’m red and raw. I’m spoiling for a fight.

Going away for a month gave me a lot of perspective on the situation, and since then, the raging hasn’t been as much of a problem. And I guess I was foolish enough to think I had magically conquered it through the power of, I dunno, travel-related attitude change or something.

But the other night, after a long day of work and a long emotional visit with Ma, I found myself driving home from the hospital scream-crying at no one. Knee deep in craziness, before I even knew what was happening. Again.

When I got home I sat on the edge of the bed in the dark and cried and ranted and felt wretched for a while. But then something new happened … a wisp of a thought drifted through my brain. What are you doing, honey? Haven’t you spent enough time playing this terrible loop? Isn’t there something else you’d rather do? Something useful, or at least not destructive?

And suddenly I was looking at myself. I was looking at the tornado of emotions rising up out of my chest, and I was breathing. And that gave me the blessed grace of space — space I needed to stop, to step back, to pop myself out of the swirling part of my mind.

From there, I was able to talk myself down, to be as reasonable and reassuring to my own self as I try to be to the people I love. I was able to say very accurate, rational, and kind things like Oh, my sweet Madge, anyone in this position would feel awful. But do you want your whole life to be about this? Isn’t there another way you can go about it? Can you acknowledge that this blows and let yourself feel sad without allowing it to turn into a fiery rage that burns up the rest of your life?

And then, having received a perfect dose of logic and sweetness courtesy of my brain’s sanest part, I felt myself open up. I felt the knots inside me untwist, and I felt the emotions flowing through me. And I remembered that taking good care of my grandma is not a burden that’s been thrust upon poor put-upon me — it’s a choice I have made. It’s something I can and should feel good about. It’s an important commitment, and I am fulfilling it the best I can.

But as much as I want to help, I simply don’t have the power to set my grandma’s world right. All I can do is take care of the logistics, love on her as much as possible, and let the rest of it go.

Because the reality is that she is almost 90. Shit is probably going to suck from now until the end of her life. But there will be moments of grace, too, as long as I can accept what is instead of raging against it.

You’ve heard me talk about the process of side-stepping craziness before — notice what’s going on, breathe, reason with yourself in a kind way, and turn your attention elsewhere. It ain’t easy, but the cool thing is that it seems to work the same for all kinds of irrational, unpleasant, hard-to-corral feelings, even existential rage at the impersonal cruelty of aging. Once you get good at noticing what’s going on in your brain, you almost can’t help but get a little saner.

It’s not magic … you have to keep trying as hard as you can and sometimes even harder than that … but it does work.

And as it turns out, I don’t have to look very far to find a role model — Ma herself is a master. (I don’t think a person can make it to 89 otherwise.) Time and time again I have witnessed the way she gets through hard stuff. She holds tight to her friends and family. She appreciates how good she’s got it and focuses on what’s possible rather than what’s not.

Most of all, she never gives up. Even when she’s worn out from surgery and can’t keep her eyes open, she keeps trying to connect, to soothe, to give and receive love. She has the heart of a warrior, my sweet ancient grandma. And I do, too, as long as I keep my craziness in check. Thankfully, I am learning how.

Be Less Crazy About Your Body, Injury Edition

Twenty thirteen got off to a pretty productive start for me. January 1st I slept in after a late New Year celebration, but January 2nd I got up at 5 am to meditate, do some yoga, and write. I’ve had this kind of routine before and it works beautifully — I love the feeling of heading to work knowing that I’ve already accomplished some goals for the day.

And I’m excited about my writing projects — this blog, columns for The Hairpin, and my next book, Be Less Crazy About Love. So it’s great to block in lots of high-quality early morning time to work on them.

For about a week, this was all working perfectly. Then, last Monday, around 5:15 am, before my first cup of tea, I stumbled on the edge of my yoga mat — irony!! — and dislocated my shoulder. Aaaaah! I got it back in after a few minutes, but Lord did it hurt.

My shoulders used to come out all the time when I was younger. In fact, genius that I am, I used to do dumb things with my hyperflexibility on purpose, to impress people, I guess? Sigh. There were probably better ways. Anyway, I haven’t had any problems with them for about ten years, which is great. But this dislocation was worse than the ones I did on purpose. More painful, for sure.

Even harder to handle than the pain, for me, is the anxiety that comes along with it. I have known people in my life for whom getting injured is not a very big deal, but I am not one of them. When I hurt myself, I have a tendency to feel extremely disconcerted, to get stuck in ruts of thought that are all about how weak and clumsy and stupid I am.

And most especially about how vulnerable I am. In every moment, so many things can go wrong … I could twist my ankle on that hole! I could trip and knock my shoulder out again! Anything can happen!

Which is always true, but hurting myself forces me to acknowledge that it’s true. And it wigs me out, more than a lot of people I think.

Why are you smiling?!? Don’t you know that your arm is broken, and that human life is tenuous?

I’m not sure why — it might be because I lost people close to me when I was young, and so have a bones-deep understanding of how quickly life can change for the worse. Or maybe it’s just because my imagination has always been a lot more active than my body.

At any rate, the last week has not turned out the way I was picturing. I have not been getting up at 5 am; I have not been abstaining from alcohol the way I’d planned. Instead I’ve been wearing a sling and popping Advil and watching lots of episodes of The West Wing.

But I am dealing with it better than I have in the past, I think. So far I’ve resisted the urge to cry and feel sorry for myself and what have you … I haven’t gone down the wormhole of worry and wigdom. Once again, my craziness avoidance techniques are coming through for me.

The most important thing is the simplest and the hardest — to notice when the anxiety whirlpool is starting to gather speed. Just noticing it gives me a little bit of power over it, because looking at it positions me outside of it. I’m not trapped in it, so I can see what it’s up to.

At that point I can pour on lots of reasonable objectivity, and sometimes even flip the situation to realize how lucky I am. Because having an unstable shoulder is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to anyone — heck, it’s not even the worst thing that’s ever happened to me! Not even in the top ten! And, boy howdy, could it be ever so much worse than it is. Like, orders of magnitude worse. So that’s something to be grateful for, something to anchor me.

Something else to appreciate: I have had shoulder issues for a long time, and right now I have both insurance and a reason to get physical therapy, so I can finally deal with those problems. Ameliorate or even eliminate them! Which is actually pretty cool.

Replacing my upsetting thoughts with reasons to be grateful — plus a certain amount of sweet sweet distraction — has really helped prevent a lot of craziness from happening. And the more I practice, the easier it gets.

Yesterday I had my follow up orthopedic appointment, and the doctor told me that I’d be fine after a bit of physical therapy. And as it turns out, contrary to what I’d feared, I haven’t actually done myself any permanent harm with the genius shoulder-popping hijinks of my youth. Which is great!

So, though I am still feeling a little bit disconcerted and sore … I’m on the upswing, and I’m not wigging out. There is an inherent danger in being alive, but it’s useless to focus on it, because what can I do about it? It’s just one of those harsh things that is 100% true: humans are incredibly vulnerable.

Also 100% true: we are resourceful as hell, and we tend to survive a lot of messed-up things. More than that, we have the ability to learn from them, to decide what they mean for us, to spin the straw of distress into the gold of hard-earned, useful knowledge. That is the part to focus on. This injury is not only giving me a reason to sort out my shoulders — it’s also helping me sort out my mind.

Wedding Photos! Finally!

It has taken me a godawful long time to do this — I’ve been married for three months already! But better late than never, right?

So here are some pictures from one of my favorite days ever, the day my brilliant handsome fiancé Rich became my brilliant handsome husband Rich.

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The weather was great, everyone was in a wonderful mood, the dresses and crafts turned out pretty much just like I wanted them to, and at the end Rich and I were all hitched up! Couldn’t have been more perfect. We sure lucked out. 🙂

And thanks so much to our dear friend Dan Buczynski for taking these amazing photos!

Two Things I Recently Learned Which Made My Life A Little Less Crazy

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1.  Use a brush to clean a colander / strainer / sieve, not a sponge. Because the bristles go in the little holes and poke out all the crud! When I think of the dozens of minutes of my life wasted for lack of this knowledge, my heart aches (just a little).

2.  Feeling stressed out doesn’t mean that my life is shit, or I’m a mess, or I’m specially doomed or something. It just means I have action chemicals building up in me and I need to work them out. So lately, instead of doing my normal stress things — eating, watching TV, drinking wine — I’ve been attempting to get up and break a sweat. I am kind of astounded at how well it works.

Could I / should I have learned these things before age forty? Possibly, but at least I know them now.

What about you — picked up any useful tidbits recently? Oh, how I love a good useful tidbit!

Riding the New Year’s Boost

Good morning and happy 2013 and God bless Hillary Clinton!

I came across this video about New Years Resolutions last week after watching its creator’s famous pro-exercise classic 23 ½ hours. It talks about a study that tracked people who made positive changes to their lives, and found that those who started around the New Year were on average ten times more successful than those who started whenever.

Which I found a little bit shocking! There’s no hoarier winter magazine trope than the Hapless New Years Resolver, but science tells that it simply isn’t accurate. Making positive changes is difficult for most people, but apparently, this time of year gives a little shove in the right direction. We only need to take advantage of it.

In the video, Doctor Evans says that it has to do with our culture, and the fact that the New Year is one of the few pockets we have for self-reflection. I think he’s right – I always spend a lot of time in the last week of December figuring out what I want to do and become in the next year. Humans love that feeling of a fresh start.

And after the decadence of the holidays, I get kind of into the idea of focus and living not quite so large for a while. I mean, I love cookies as much as the next person – possibly more, even – but I have reached the top of the Cookie Appreciation Curve and started to slide down the other side. Enough!

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Right now, I am feeling excited to put my head (and the cookies) down and knock out a season of hard work. To stick to basics and get shit done.

Are you feeling a motivational boost or a draw toward (relative) austerity? What are you working on?

Here’s hoping that you and yours all officially Kill It in 2013.