A Dream in Which I Tell Myself “I Would Do Anything for You”

I keep thinking about a dream I had several months ago. It was brief and blurry, but one element has remained persistently clear: I was sitting across from myself [a clone? A reflection? That part I’m not sure of, but there were two distinct yet identical presences of me], and the self that I embodied said to the other, reassuringly, matter-of-factly, “I would do anything for you.”

The caring was instinctive, deeply rooted, the way I feel in my waking hours about my boyfriend, my family, and my dearest friends — a level of protectiveness and pride I feel especially about my nieces and nephews: I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. You are strong and beautiful and talented. I believe in you. I’m here for you anytime. I love you beyond words.

Why don’t I treat myself that way?

Well, a couple months ago, several weeks after having had that dream and having it echo in my mind since, my self-care and -compassion were put to the test.

In one simple misstep, I slipped and fell in the yard, landing with one leg curled awkwardly beneath me and my foot bearing the weight of the rest of me collapsing. I’ve replayed that moment countless times since, as if I could retroactively change my footwear or my armload of stuff or whatever it was I stepped on that caused my foot to slip, and each time I’m struck by the notion that I had no idea in that instant how it would ripple out to affect the entire trajectory of my summer and my physical and mental health.

I don’t intend this to be a pity party nor to belabor the details, so I’ll give the abridged version:

  • The sprained foot led to a blood clot in my leg, which has continued to cause periods of swelling and discomfort as well as send my anxiety and depression on a seemingly endless roller coaster.
  • The prescribed blood thinner required me to stop taking another medication that had long been very helpful for me and left me scrambling for an alternative, none of which have proven satisfactory.
  • It was a hot summer to have one leg encased in a boot brace — although that brace has been a godsend in allowing me much better mobility than I had for the first few days, during which I couldn’t put weight on the foot without intolerable pain.
  • This whole experience has been an eye-opener as to how many elements of my typical day are not easily accessible, with any stairs, gravel, or hills leaving me unsteady at best and at times incapable of navigating without help. That is to say it’s opened my eyes to how very much I was taking for granted before.

The dream was not a stretch in that I have long been one to talk to myself — even out loud, even in public — but this too has now been manifesting in new, gentler ways: “We’ve got this,” I’ll say to myself. [We?! As if, again, there are two of us in the conversation!] “Okay, here we go. One step at a time.” I am aware that I am someone in need of caring and more willing to give myself that care than probably ever before. As I step slowly in and out of the shower or turn gingerly to rinse my hair, as I stretch my cramped-up calf muscle, as I climb into bed and appreciate the shedding of a long day, I am carrying myself differently, with more awareness, patience, and forgiveness.

While I wish it hadn’t taken an injury for this slowing-down to happen and I’m eager to start feeling more like myself again, I hope that as I continue to heal I can maintain this new perspective.

And I wish it for all of you, too — without the dramatic catalyst! Let’s adopt an attitude of showing up for ourselves. We need it more than we may realize.

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR, downloaded from Pexels

A Letter to My Nieces and Nephews, Growing Up in the COVID Era

Dear D, L, C, and E,

Sometimes I feel sad or angry that these past 19 months (and counting) of your childhood have been so heavily shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. I do very often feel both sad and angry about all the time I’m missing out on with you and restless to get to the end of this difficult stretch so that I can be with you much, much more.

I recently found myself thinking of this strange time we’re in as “the lost years”: we’re missing out on so much, with plans continually cancelled, postponed, or dialed back. Again and again, we say “hopefully soon” or “maybe next year,” even though we’ve been taught to live in the present and not take a day for granted. So many things are on hold and uncertain, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, tired, and scared.

But then I get to see you or talk to you and am reminded that these years, these days, are not lost. You are continuing to grow, learn, laugh, and find joy throughout it all. You continue to give and inspire love so powerful, so unconditional, that I’m humbled to be a part of it. And you remind me that that’s what we should all be aiming for, always.

There is so much changing around you all the time, and yet you continue to roll with it and accept it. You understood when birthday parties had to be held by Zoom and dance classes had to be (still have to be) held with 6-foot squares taped out on the floor. You adapted to remote learning, and now you’re navigating being in school in person with so many added safety precautions and restrictions. You wear your masks without question and try hard to remember to keep safe social distances. You are much better about these things than many adults. You understand the big differences that little actions can make.

You run around playfully with your masks on. You give masked hugs or air hugs and say “I love you” on video calls. You ask me what kind of hand sanitizer we just used because “it’s a good one.” You make a game of changing your facial expressions, with exaggerated eyes, and seeing if I can guess whether you’re smiling behind your mask.

You tell me about the video game you’re playing, or the clubs and activities you’re starting, or the friends you’re making, or the boy in your class you think is cute, and the world feels normal again. You remind me of all the good there is in every day, and you remind me that I don’t want to lose sight of any of it.

You have more wisdom and clarity in your 9, 7, and 4 years than many of us have managed to acquire in decades. Given all that you’ve accomplished during these restrictive times, I can only begin to imagine all that you’ll achieve and inspire in others as the world continues to open its boundless self back up to you. Thank you for helping me to remember what matters and what’s good.

I love you more than words can ever say.

Love,
Vovo

Great Expectations of the Content We Consume

I’ve written before about the mixed emotions I feel as I near the end of a good book: there’s excitement to find out how it will end, a little worry as to whether I’ll be satisfied with that ending, and also a particular sort of sadness, deep in my rib cage, about parting ways with it. When I’m immersed in a great read, it can be so absorbing that I can’t help but leave part of my mind in the book’s world as I’m moving about in my own; the characters’ voices and predicaments continue to play out as if on a TV screen in the corner. I find myself wondering about them — how they’re feeling, what will happen to them. The haze of that other realm, the texture of the language, follow me around and beckon me to come back soon.

This is often true of TV shows and movies, too. While I enjoy creating my own vision in my head while I’m reading, the provided visuals and audio of the screen add so many more crevices to explore and cozy up with: the costumes, the sets, the actors’ vocal inflections and facial expressions, the music… (The music is utterly essential — I’m planning another post soon about the infinite ways music is tied to emotion and memory. Stay tuned!) Friends, The Office, Community, Gilmore Girls — I came to care about those characters and their worlds so deeply that I felt as if I truly knew them.

One of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic is going to the movies. In recent years, I became a proponent of going to the movie theater alone. It’s the best way to allow yourself to become fully transported into the story. This is how I experienced some of my favorite films of the past few years: A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman (no coincidence about the run of music movies!), and my second viewing of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (which I found mostly to be lovely but in many ways to fall short of the 1994 version, which happens to be my favorite movie of all time). I’m excited to say I recently ventured out to resurrect this tradition and see In the Heights. (Highly recommend.) As the opening musical number swelled and reverberated through the room, I was buzzing with adrenaline and such profound gratitude. I would argue that going to see a movie alone is nearly on par with attending a live concert in terms of savoring a fully immersive consumption of entertainment. And it’s a consumption of content — as a writer, it always comes back to that for me. Someone else has created this piece — these words, notes, visuals, etc. — and, in sharing it, has added content to my life. They have imparted an experience.

The ability of words on a page (or acted out on a screen, as the case may be) to make us laugh or cry or gasp is what solidified my dream of being a writer. I read a sappy Lurlene McDaniel novel in junior high and remember crying actual, full-fledged tears when one of the main characters died — and immediately afterward feeling a full-bodied awe at the fact that those tears were brought about by symbols on paper. I’d always been an avid reader and enjoyed making up poems and stories of my own, but that was the moment I knew: I want to do THIS.

We invest so much of ourselves in all of these types of content that it’s only natural to have such high demands of them — we invest not just time but emotion: hope, curiosity, vulnerability, the expectation of some sort of escape. We don’t want to be let down by the writers, the characters, the actors; we feel appreciative when they come through for us and impart an impactful experience.

The other side of that coin is that when we finish good content of any type, there is a mourning period of sorts. We emerge from that other world we’ve inhabited for however many hours and have to adjust to being back in our own familiar surroundings, often with a pang of longing — something, already, like nostalgia — for the friends and atmosphere we’d come to know.  

For me, though, the most exciting part of finishing a book is picking out which one I’ll read next. I’m a bit of a book hoarder. My multiple bookshelves are stuffed with favorites I hope to reread someday (or simply feel I must own, even if they don’t get reread in their entirety) and many, many books that I haven’t yet read. A small sampling — maybe 20 or so — are promoted to my bedside shelf as a sort of holding area for what’s to be read soon. There’s a pressure of sorts, an eagerness that borders on anxiety, as to picking the next read. What about all those others still waiting? Is this the one I’m ready for next? Choosing the next show or movie to cross off my to-watch list is a similar struggle. The thrill and uncertainty of these decisions, every time, speaks to the power that quality content has over us.

What great reads or binge-watches have you gotten lost in lately? Share your favorites with me — so I can add them to my ever-overflowing queues, calling to me as they wait in the wings.

So many friends, old and new

We Need to Talk About Mental Health.

I have anxiety and depression.

People are sometimes surprised to hear this about me, because, I’ve been told, I come across as a generally upbeat, optimistic person. I try to see the good in everyone and everything. That is partially genuine and partially an effort to help myself focus on the good. Because I have anxiety and depression.

Sometimes I’m fine. Sometimes I’m pretending.

In our modern era of oversharing — inundated by social media feeds and phone notifications and email lists we keep meaning to unsubscribe from — somehow we still have trouble being open about the topic of mental health. Our own family members, close friends, and daily coworkers often hide the battles pressing against their chests. (I’ve done so in all of those interactions, and I’ve often learned of others’ battles only after knowing them closely for many years.) This is a critical failure. Those relationships could be lifelines — often literally — if given just a glimpse of the truths we refrain from speaking.

There’s a cruel cycle at play here: for many of us, a key reason we don’t tell others about what we’re dealing with is the negative self-talk that is so inherent in these conditions (and thus only makes them more urgent): People will think I’m weak, pitiful, not good enough, not up for X, Y, Z. This is especially true when there’s a power issue involved (eg, My boss won’t trust me with that project / won’t think I deserve that promotion) but can be true of even our closest relationships with people who think the world of us. Our rational selves know that those people would not judge us. But our self-image is often vastly different from what others perceive of us.

And, of course, the longer we suppress those feelings, the worse they can get; the longer we avoid those conversations, the harder they are to have.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly amplified these struggles for countless people and brought on new issues for still more. It can be hard to find the light amidst this long stretch of dark days, during which we’re battling loneliness, fear, and the disappointment of postponed or cancelled plans. I suspect these days we’re all some level of anxious, depressed, or both.

So, I want to share a bit about my experiences, in the hope that it might help others, whether you’re struggling, too, or could be in a position to help people around you who are.

My anxiety makes me feel restless, my thoughts obsessive, my brain unable to quiet down. My depression makes me not want to move, or to feel unable to move. These can be in play simultaneously. It most often happens at night, my mind lit up and spinning like a carnival ride at the same time that my body feels weighed down by a concrete blanket. My body aches for sleep, but my mind won’t let it happen, sometimes for hours.

Writing, exercising, cleaning, or some other burst of productivity will sometimes help lift me out of a depressed stretch or quell my anxiety, as will social time with family or friends. Sometimes, those things don’t help, or they make things worse, or I can’t bring myself to try.

Unfortunately, these feelings typically can’t be explained; it’s not as simple as asking “What’s wrong?” and applying X solution. Yes, sometimes there may be a catalyst that brings on an episode or spurs it into overdrive, but ultimately I’m feeling those things simply because I have anxiety and depression. They are chemical processes that flare up and, thankfully, recede. The lack of an explanation can be confusing for those around me — and for me, too! I ask myself, Why do I feel this way? and think, I shouldn’t feel this way, as my mind rattles off the countless great things in my life.

And then I feel even worse: ungrateful, guilty, and like something must really be wrong with me, if I’m unable to snap out of it when I should have no excuse for feeling down. 

Thankfully, this all happens far less often for me in recent years than it did for many years before. There is no question that this is because I’ve put in 8 years of work through counseling (more on that below) and continue to use the tools I gained there. Personally, I’ve chosen not to take medications, as I wanted to focus instead on understanding my processes and triggers and learning how to work through them. But I know many people for whom medications have made all the difference, and choosing to forgo them wasn’t a decision I made lightly. The choice to medicate, and which one(s) to use, is highly individualized and can be a long process.

Some things that have helped me:

  • COUNSELING! Sooo much counseling. Talking to a professional proved to be absolutely essential for me, even on days when I thought I wasn’t up for it; even on days when I thought I had nothing to say. With time, building that trust and opening up in those sessions helped me to offload tension, gain perspective, communicate better, and listen to myself. Just knowing I had that outlet available — that my next appointment was coming up soon, that I could ask that question or share that progress — came to be such a comfort.
  • Learning that self-care is time well invested. It may be some of the best time invested, the most important. “Mental health days” can be hard to give ourselves permission to take — we worry they’ll be a sign of weakness or laziness or will invite suspicion: Is she really sick? But if our mental and emotional health aren’t cared for, our physical health, our work quality, and our relationships all suffer.
  • As I’ve written about before, gratitude has played a huge role in my wellbeing and is something I continue to put into practice. I love Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project one-sentence journal for its simple focus on daily small moments of joy. It has helped me find light during darker days and to remember that things always get better. It’s the only journal I’ve stuck with consistently for any significant length of time. I recently completed a full 5-year journal and started my next one!

Some things you can do to help:

  • Be willing to talk about it. And be willing to listen. Make sure your loved ones know that you’re available for these conversations.
  • Understand that trying to “fix” the situation may not be the best approach. Even when meant as reassurance, saying, “Why don’t you just do this?”or minimizing the person’s concerns as “no big deal” can feel dismissive. Just letting them get some words out (much like in a counseling session) can be so helpful. Maybe ask if they’d like advice, or ask how you can be helpful. And just make sure they know they are heard and valued.
  • Equally important is a willingness to respect their space and their process. For me, anxiety and depression sometimes mean I’m not up for talking or being social or that I have trouble following through on plans, despite my best intentions. It’s nothing personal (even though I worry obsessively that others will see it that way). With a little time, I’ll work through it, and all will be well.

Of course, the perspective I share here is just mine, and others’ will differ in many ways. We each walk a unique journey. But I hope we can work on developing a shared understanding that we need each other, can learn from each other, and can all grow from being willing to talk about the things we too often keep hidden.

Photo by Burst, of what is clearly my spirit animal, downloaded from Pexels

On Grief and Gratitude

The first thing you need to know about Leah is that she wasn’t “just” a dog. She was the first dog I had in my adult life, in my first house, navigating her care around my first full-time job. I brought her home when she was just a few months old, small enough to rest up against my shoulder like a baby or curl perfectly into the triangle of my criss-cross-legged lap. In so many ways, we grew up together.

We challenged each other and supported each other through a whole lot of ups and downs. We navigated sleepless nights — in the beginning and again near the end, months of housebreaking issues, and various training approaches. I nursed her back to health after multiple illnesses and surgeries, including an ACL repair that meant no running or jumping for two months. I put my mattress on the floor so she could still sleep next to me and guided her outside, step by tedious step, using a towel as a harness.

She returned the care I gave her tenfold. When I was stressed out or crying, she would lay her head in my lap or bring me a toy, reminding me to take a breath and laugh it off. When I slipped on ice while walking her once, she immediately came close to my side and bent down, a confused but ready protector. She was a friend to all of my friends, an adored grandpup, a charmer to our neighbors (even a couple who said they otherwise didn’t like dogs), and a calming, neutral-party mediator between my ex-husband and me, as we navigated coparenting her after we split.

Through the divorce, three moves, two job changes, and a master’s degree, she was on the journey alongside me. Amidst all the changes, she was a constant.

For the last few years, it was just the two of us in our little apartment. I talked to her all the time. I still do.

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And now she’s gone.

She passed away in July, after a brief and rapid decline into kidney and liver failure. She was 8 years old. Those 8 years felt like a lifetime and a fleeting moment, all at once. It still feels so strange to talk about her in the past tense.

Without her, I have now entered a new phase that feels foreign and tricky to navigate. A chapter in which I was quite comfortable was closed before I was ready, and a new one now stretches out before me. This is one of the most palpable experiences I’ve had of life operating outside of my control. I see myself now as a character standing upon that new chapter’s blank pages, trying to figure out what comes next.

This change has been heartbreaking and scary — and also, when I allow it to be, filled with new possibilities. I’ve barely known an adult life that didn’t include making plans around dog care, and I don’t quite know what to do with it yet. I’m trying to gain an appreciation for the more flexible schedule and the lessened responsibility, but most days I would rather go back to the 2 am wakeups and the snowy walks and the vet bills if it could mean having her back.

One thing that’s guiding me through this is the refreshed perspective I’ve had toward life since entering a previous new phase about a year ago. Last fall, I left the job I’d been in for 6 years and entered a new field, gaining a revitalized outlook and energy in the process. I got serious about my health — not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. Happiness and gratitude became priorities. I’ve found that, by simply paying better attention and shifting my focus, there is so much to be grateful for in every day. I work hard to acknowledge it, rather than mindlessly let it slip past or, worse, let the negatives take over my attention.

As I’ve talked with many loved ones and with my counselor about losing Leah, I find myself returning again and again to gratitude, falling into those kinds of statements without even trying — gratitude for the time we had together, for all that she taught me, and even for the ending we were given. I’m finding that gratitude is what sustains us during the times when it’s particularly hard to feel grateful.

I’m grateful that I can say Leah’s decline was brief. Just a month before she passed, she’d had a great annual check-up and had more energy than she’d had in months. Her dad took her to the beach and took stunning photos of her with a happily tired, wide-mouthed smile. I will cherish those all the more so now, because I want to think of her that way — loving life and savoring a beautiful day. She loved lying out in the sun.

I’m grateful that, shortly after Leah first went to the vet that Saturday morning, I had a girls’ day out and sleepover with my niece, Cora, that kept my focus on something positive while waiting for an update. (The vet needed to keep Leah there for the weekend on an IV.) Cora and I had had these plans set for weeks, and I didn’t want to cancel. When I got the call Sunday morning that Leah was not improving and I should get there soon, I’m grateful that Cora displayed maturity far beyond her 5 years in understanding the change in plans and getting herself dressed and packed while I made a flurry of phone calls. I’m grateful I have some positive memories associated with that weekend thanks to her.

I’m grateful that we had a heads-up that the end was coming and were able to be with Leah for her final breaths, as difficult as that was. I’m grateful the decision we had to make that day was clear, as she was no longer herself and was not going to bounce back. There was no agonizing uncertainty or wait; she had gone a long way down a dark road very quickly, and we helped her along the rest of it. I’m grateful that my ex, his new wife, and I were all there together to remind Leah of how much she is loved and to support each other through this overwhelming loss, as we’ve continued to do.

I’m grateful that I stumbled upon the perfect “urn” at the At Home store after debating for weeks what to do with Leah’s ashes. Nothing had felt right. And then this little tin with a bird on it was waiting for me at the end of an aisle, the only one of its kind. I picked it up and carried it around the store with me, and instinctively I found myself holding it close, almost cradling it, rubbing the bird’s back mindlessly with my thumb. I felt comforted, reassured. Not only do I think of birds as a symbol of peace, but Leah loved to chase after them and bark at them, hopping around as she looked up at them in the trees. It felt like a sign, at a time when I had long been ready to receive one.

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I’m grateful for all the lessons and challenges Leah brought to my life, for how much she helped me to grow, for her snuggles and playtime routines and the way her eyes would light up as we rounded the last corner of our walks and ran to our door. I’m grateful for all the little pieces of each day that will always make me think of her.

As daily life carries on amidst this jarring change, I still often endure waves of grief, but I return again and again to gratitude. It’s going to take continued practice and mindful effort, and I know there will still be days I fail at it. But I’m grateful I had already laid that foundation and can try to call upon it now, when I need it more than ever before.

Losing Leah has been such a profound loss precisely because of how fortunate I was to have her as an integral part of my day-to-day life. The key is to try to keep my focus on that second part and let that swell of gratitude continue to carry me forward.