Wednesday, May 1, 2019

If There's a Map to Happiness, Send Me Directions, Please.

So I've started listening to podcasts lately.

I don't know why it never occurred to me to listen to them; I guess I thought they'd be boring, just like I thought NPR was boring only because of my preconceived notion about it. (I still don't know if NPR is boring or not - I'm just proud I've started listening to podcasts.)

After sifting through a number of show titles, I landed on a podcast entitled The Overwhelmed Brain, hosted by a guy named Paul Colaianni, whose title says he is a personal empowerment coach; however, he stresses that his advice is just his opinion and will always defer to professionals - so he's not pretending to be something he's not. Anyway, the title captured my attention, because, well, Overwhelmed Brain = ME. But what really intrigued me was Paul's introduction:

"Life presents the toughest challenges. Every day you are faced with decisions that test your ability to express who you really want to be in this world. We're told to keep saying affirmations and keep thinking positively, but what do you do when that stuff doesn't work? Welcome to The Overwhelmed Brain, where you'll learn to make decisions that are right for you so that you can create the life you want, now."

What? I don't have to tell myself I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me? I can stop telling myself to "look on the bright side" then get all depressed when I can't find one? I can quit exhausting myself by wondering if there is anything else I can do other than "think positively"?

He had me at hello.

Obviously I know that one podcast isn't going to change my life, just like one self-help book or TED talk won't. But as I've said before in my writings, "Take what you want and leave the rest." If I gathered just one nugget of wisdom on how to create my best life, I'm willing to give up my music on my walks for this guy.

I sifted through the episodes and was pretty amazed at all the topics that stood out to me: "Purging negative emotions as soon as they happen"; "The regrets and upsets from the past that you just can't seem to get over"; "Making decisions that are right for you and tackling obsession and overthinking" … omg is this guy IN MY BRAIN?

I settled on one that really intrigued me: "When you just can't figure out why you're unhappy." The synopsis read, "What do you do when you've done a lot of work on yourself and feel like you've addressed the toughest issues in your life but still feel as if there is something missing? What's the secret to figuring out what's keeping you from feeling fulfilled? By asking yourself the right questions, you'll get the answers you need."

I'm not sure that I've ever been truly happy, and I really don't know why. I didn't have a bad childhood and I don't have a bad life. I have lived with depression all my life, and sometimes it can be debilitating, but even when it's managed, like now, I still feel a void that I can't quite put my finger on. Paul realizes that it's easy to feel overwhelmed and think, "I'm just not a happy person!" when in fact maybe you just need to drill down a bit and get to the source.

Instead of necessarily giving advice, Paul gives you tools - asks questions. I like that, because it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. He says that affirmations work great WHEN THEY WORK but when they don't you feel like you're lying to yourself, and if you feel that you create resistance - so eventually they work against you. You can tell yourself, "I'm beautiful." But what if you don't FEEL beautiful? What if you just can't program your brain to agree with your affirmation? That's me.

I've done a lot of work on myself on this front and at 52, I'm kind of at a crossroads. But Paul offers an exercise that I have been working on that's actually helped me figure out where some of the sources of unhappiness may lie in my life, why they're a source of unhappiness and ultimately what I can do about it.

He calls it mind mapping, but in looking up the term, his example is on a very basic, general scale. First, consider everything that's in your life right now - people, where you live, where you work, everything that makes up your life. On a piece of paper, draw a circle in the center with your name. Now, draw lines out to other circles which contain all the components in your life: your spouse or significant other, children, parents, siblings, friends, where you live, where you work - everything you can think of. Now erase a single line to any component and check in with yourself to see what your immediate reaction is now that it hypothetically doesn't exist. How do you feel with that component out of your life? Then draw the line back in and check in again.

For example, if you're in a relationship that you're not quite sure about and you erase the line, what do you feel? Relief? Loss? What about your job? Excitement? Sadness? What about family? Of course erasing the line to my kids doesn't make me feel good at all, but for some it may make them realize that the source of their unhappiness is something connected to their kids - maybe their child has been tough to raise, maybe you harbor guilt about how you raised them … all of this is simply to help you IDENTIFY what areas may be contributing to you not living your best life.

You can take this so much further - I see mind maps that go into goals, challenges, skills, dreams, etc. but I'm just starting with the basics. I'd love to share it with you, but it's a little too personal even for this blog. Suffice it to say, it's allowed me to really compartmentalize the areas of my life that may be contributing to my unhappiness, whether that's what they are or my approach to them. It gives me something tangible to focus on, rather than just wondering why the hell I can't just be happy.

For some of you, this is unnecessary - and that's fine. If you have it together and wake up every morning blessed to be alive, I envy you. Some of us just aren't wired that way, and no matter how many affirmations we say in the mirror, it just doesn't seem to click for us. For people like me, this exercise may help.

I invite you to check out The Overwhelmed Brain podcast or visit the website. I don't get any money for this so it's no skin off my back if you don't. And if you have a podcast that really speaks to you, feel free to share it in the comments section below.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Find Your Tribe; Love Them Hard

I've never been one to have a "tribe." 

I used to - and still do, honestly - envy those people who seemingly have this large circle of friends upon which they can give to and take from on a regular basis. I just assumed I've never been a tribe kind of person, I guess.

Growing up I had my close couple of friends - my BEST FRIENDS IN THE WHOLE WORLD FOREVER, you know? Though things didn't necessarily work out that way, I at least still know where they are today (thanks, Facebook).

In high school, I had a group - I guess that's the closest thing I had to a tribe, but it helped that I was dating someone within the circle, as was my bestie at the time. That's probably how a lot of young people find their tribes - intertwined relationships become long-term commitments/marriages and voila - instant tribe! 

Attending four colleges in four years didn't really allow me the time to find a tribe, nor did I have any interest in one - I was just trying to get through an agonizing four years of school. I figured (probably wrongly) that any tribe I became a part of would be short-lived anyway.

Motherhood did allow for a tribe of sorts - wonderful people you may not otherwise have anything in common with other than you all have kids the same age. We bonded over kids' ages and stages, birthday parties and the PTO. But middle and high school brought changes in the kids' friends, different interests, and moms like me who returned to the workforce. 

Though I didn't realize I may have had a tribe per se at the time, looking back, I wish I would have nurtured it better. I wish I would have appreciated how precious it was to have at least a handful of people you could call for advice, comfort or to share the latest awesome (or awful) thing your kid just did. A tribe who knew where you were in life and could relate. Once your kids are grown, I find, unless you've established your tribe, it's pretty hard to find one. We're older now, and our routines and patterns - including friends - seems a lot more set. It's hard to find a group of people who have common interests. I'm not married. I don't have kids in college. In fact, I still have a kid at home as opposed to many people my age who are becoming empty nesters. 

Though I was always envious of those who had a tribe, I realized that I never considered myself the tribe type. As much as I love being around people I enjoy, I crave my alone time. I'm old enough to also know that when my mood takes a dive, which it sometimes does, it's best I remove myself from any sort of potential tribal interaction. In fact, I'm very likely to push people away who may attempt to even invite me in, which I figured was best for all involved. 

But I'm starting to realize it kind of isn't. 

I've figured out I need a tribe. It doesn't have to be a big one, like you think of when you think of the word "tribe." It's going to be small. And it's going to be diverse - my friend circle consists of people from a bunch of different tribes; in fact, I'm not sure I could ever get every member in the same room at the same time. 

And that's OK. 

This realization hasn't happened suddenly, obviously, since I'm 52 years old and just figuring this out. Last year, I lost a lot, it seems. One of my good friends (who had a HUGE tribe) died of breast cancer at the young age of 42. My son was in a devastating skiing accident that as a result has changed him physically and mentally - it's been a journey I didn't anticipate it's a lonely, exhausting one at that. I was in a relationship that I wish I could have continued but I just couldn't get my shit together - plus he already had a tribe (that I loved, by the way) and he just didn't need me - and I have found that I need to be needed. (Fun fact: Even if you love a tribe, when you end a relationship, you lose the tribe, too. Don't believe it when he says you'll still be friends. He doesn't mean it.)

All this, along with a couple of personal crises early this year, made me realize that I needed to try to piece together some sort of tribe. I had backed away from so many people because I didn't want to burden them with my shit (thinking: we ALL have our shit - who wants mine?) but in a moment of desperation, reached out to a good friend I had kind of lost touch with. I told her what was going on with me and my reasons for not reaching out like I should have and it was like no time had passed. She told me she had missed me, she was there for me and hopped on board the tribe train. I reconnected with a friend who I hadn't talked to much due to us both being in a relationship (word of advice: don't dis your friends when you're in a relationship - what a stupid move.) I found that she and I were going through similar situations and we were able to commiserate and help each other through. I made more of an effort to talk to and get together with a very dear friend who is quite a bit younger than me - realizing that WHATEVER is going on in her life or mine, she never stopped reaching out. I was introduced to a couple of new friends due to some similarities in our lives right now and they have been my lifeline. And I'm slowly trying to let more people in - people I trust and people who I can try to help in return. Hell, most of my tribe doesn't even live in this town. 

It's a slow process, but I need a tribe - and I need to be needed as part of one. My tribe may not get together for weekly happy hours, and we may not all be on a huge group text, but I guess not all tribes are cut from the same mold. I've found people who may have their own tribes that maybe they consider me a part of, maybe they don't, but they're a part of my motley crew and I'm fine with that. I hope they know I'm here for them and I know they're here for me. And according to this definition, it looks like I got me a tribe after all. 

I'm finding my tribe, and I'm loving them hard. Thanks to all of you who are in my corner. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

In the blink of an eye

On Friday, I’ll be celebrating more than just my son turning 17 years old. I’ll be celebrating the fact that he’s alive to see his 17th birthday.
If you’ve ever gotten one of those phone calls – the one that makes you stop dead in your tracks as you try to process what the person on the other end of the line is saying – you know how surreal it all is. Especially when it’s your kid.
My son is a sweet, funny, active teenager. When he’s not playing video games, he loves to longboard and hang out with his friends. He loves track – he had been training for hurdles and the 4 x 400 – and with his preliminary times was looking forward to a great season.
He also loves to ski. This is something his dad has done with his older brother and him since they were little kids. Most every spring break, he takes them to one of the big ski resorts out west – Vail, Telluride, Breckenridge … this year it was Aspen. 
It was just my son and his dad spending their last day on the slopes. That morning, my son sent me a beautiful photo of the ski run with the mountains in the background against a bluer than blue sky. They had just started down a run to go get some lunch – shortly after 1:00 pm their time. His dad was about 100 yards behind him when he saw an explosion of powder and knew my son had wiped out. He immediately skied over to him, thinking he had just fallen and I'll never forget him telling me, "He was screaming. He was just screaming." I don’t ever think I’ve heard my son scream in pain, and it haunts his dad to this day. Realizing this was more than serious than a "yard sale", as skiers call them, his dad asked frantically, “Can you move your arms and legs?” Luckily, he could. 
My son said later that the reflection on the snow was so bright – even with his goggles. He went over a ridge at a high rate of speed and crashed back-first into a tree.
Not knowing the extent of his injuries, his dad yelled to another skier who had witnessed the accident to call 9-1-1. The ski patrol arrived almost immediately and called for medics. His dad said it took nearly 15 minutes to dig my son out of the snow under the tree. Thankfully, they were able to give him pain medication right on the spot before carefully transferring him to a backboard and towing him down the mountain to a waiting ambulance. 
I had already received several communications from his dad – the first a text – obviously right after the crash – telling me that my son had wiped out on the slopes. The next said “I don’t think we’ll be home tomorrow.” The next was a phone call – his dad so emotional he could barely speak. “I think you need to come to Denver.”  
Ever wished you could teleport? It was after 3:00 pm my time. I considered driving. I looked for flights that evening. I wasn’t able to get out of Chicago until 7:30 the next morning, arriving in Denver before noon. 
As I rushed home from work to make my arrangements, my son was rushed to Aspen Valley Hospital where his injuries were diagnosed – a crushed L1 vertebrae and a fractured tailbone. The doctors at Aspen Hospital weren’t equipped to treat that kind of injury and recommended he be flown immediately to St. Anthony Hospital, a Level 1 Trauma Center about 45 minutes outside of Denver. 
Unfortunately, he and his dad had arrived at the hospital in their full ski gear - boots and all. His dad had to leave our son at the hospital, drive back to the resort, pack up their things, rent a car since they were shuttled from the airport and drive the three hours to St. Anthony. I cannot imagine how hard that was for him to do, and I literally can’t even imagine how terrified my son had to be being flown in a helicopter to a hospital where no one he knew would be there with him. 
Though I didn’t have to be at O’Hare until 6:00 am or so, I couldn’t sleep, and left my house around 1:30 am for Chicago. I JUST HAD TO GET THERE. Meanwhile, the doctors feared the shattered pieces of my son’s vertebrae were floating dangerously close to his spinal cord, so he remained immobilized on his back for the night as they planned surgery for the next morning. 
I wanted more than anything to be there before he went to surgery, but the gods weren’t in my corner. My bag was late coming off the carousel in Denver, the shuttle dropped me off at the wrong rental car place and traffic was so bad the 45-minute drive to the hospital took over an hour. I missed seeing him before surgery by 10 minutes. His dad met me at the hospital and, through many tears, brought me up to speed on what had happened and what the team of doctors and nurses were doing to repair our broken boy.
I don’t know that I was prepared to see my son after his operation. To stabilize his spine, the surgeon implanted screws in the vertebrae above and below his L1 and secured them with rods. The fractured tailbone, unfortunately, would have to heal on his own. As they wheeled him in, he was connected to so many monitors and tubes, including one coming from his back that was draining blood into a bag by his side. He was in and out of consciousness and obviously in a great deal of pain. The doctor stressed that the first order of business was pain management and also getting him up and into a back brace, which he would have to wear for eight to 12 weeks. Honestly, the thought of him walking at that point was the furthest thing from my mind. Seeing him in THAT much pain – I felt like my heart was shattering just like the broken pieces of his back. It was almost unbearable for me as a mom to watch my son suffer like that, and I feel guilty writing that because of how unbearable I know the pain was for him.
He was in the trauma ICU for two days before being transferred to the “regular” ICU floor. I’m not going to lie – he was on a LOT of pain medication – and he needed it. My son is no slouch – and I learned during this time that he has a very high tolerance for pain. But even then, on his scale of one to 10, he was consistently on the higher end.
He was set up with a Dilaudid pump he could press at specific intervals that delivered an instant dose of pain medication. At first I was hesitant about them giving him that kind of power, but he used it only when he absolutely had to – not every single time he was able. In addition he was on a number of other pain meds and muscle relaxers, which made him sleep pretty fitfully for the next few days. When he was awake, his pain could be excruciating. When he was asleep, he would have nightmares of hitting the tree, which made him startle awake and cry out in pain.
On about day four, his dad and I started wondering when and how we could get our son home. We were told that he would have to be off all IV pain meds before we could make the trip. We thought maybe after the weekend, then two days from then, then the next weekend … it just kept getting pushed back farther and farther. We ended up staying at St. Anthony Hospital for two full weeks. 
Pain management is a dicey thing, I’ve learned. As much as the doctors want to get you up and walking, they are also pretty good about not making you do it if you can hardly stand the pain. My son’s pain didn’t abate. They couldn't find the right medicines and dosages and combinations to manage it – one would work for an hour or so then wear off before he was due for the next, leaving him begging for relief. We had multiple consults with the litany of trauma surgeons on call, and it wasn’t until I opened up a can of whoop ass on a nurse who wouldn’t administer a pain med because she "wanted him to see if he could wait" that we met with a surgeon who found the right mix and schedule to finally provide him some relief.
An aside: The opiate epidemic is real. I get that. Doctors over-prescribe. I get that, too. But let me tell you – when you see your child in that much pain, you don’t give a rat’s ass WHAT they give him – you just want his pain to stop. But there are definitely consequences, as we found out later.
Finally, my son was able to get out of bed. Finally, he was able to go to the bathroom on his own. Finally he was able to walk with a walker. Not without a lot of pain, mind you, but little by little, I saw my sweet, funny boy slowly coming back to me. He had a long way to go, but he had already come so far. We marveled that two weeks prior, he was running a 400, and now we were thrilled that he was able to shuffle down the hall and back. Physically, he was encouraged by his progress. Mentally, though, he was devastated.
Getting him home was a production, and took days of planning. His dad had enough airline points to fly him home first class – there was no other way he could have gone – and we carefully planned our trip. We’d spend one day to get to Denver and find a hotel close to the airport. The next day, we’d drop off my rental car, have his dad deposit my son and me at the airport, he’d take his rental car back, we’d find a wheelchair, get him through security and have him wheeled directly to the gate. We had pillows and pads and just enough of the heavy meds to get us home, and with as much pain as that kid was in, we needed every last one of them. The travel was awful for him, including the three hour drive from O’Hare to Peoria - which we were going to do the next day, but my son insisted, "I just want to go home." 
More on opiates: They are woefully undermanaged. 
The doctors, nurses (except the one) and staff at St. Anthony were incredible – amazing. But once we checked out, my son was no longer their patient, and they handed us off to a spine surgeon in Peoria and said to follow up in two weeks. We had no pain management plan until then other than the dosages that had been directed to us by the doctors - and no refills. My son was on pretty high levels of oxycodone plus two other medications and we stuck to the strict schedule of administration, which included getting up every three to four hours during the night to avoid what they called “pain spikes” – where the pain gets so bad that nothing can touch it. But when we ran out, his primary care doctor – a pediatrician because we hadn’t made the leap to a “big boy” doctor yet – obviously wasn’t crazy about prescribing oxycodone to a 16-year old. He lowered the dosage (not a good idea) and reluctantly gave us just enough to get us by, and we counted the days until we saw the spine surgeon.
The day before my son's appointment, I had gone into work when he called me in so much pain I rushed home and took him to Midwest Orthopedic's prompt care. Luckily we were able to meet with our spine surgeon, Dr. Patrick O'Leary, who told us he was admitting him immediately to the hospital to get his pain under control. Now, since we were seeing the doctor and subsequently going to the hospital, I had held off on giving him his oxycodone, thinking that they’d give him an IV of something in the hospital. Little did I realize that by the time he got to his room at Unity Point (Methodist) Hospital, he was experiencing the symptoms of opiate withdrawal, including vomiting, the shakes and aggressiveness. I had never seen him act like that before. 
An aside: A quote from my son: "If that’s what opiate withdrawal feels like after half a day, I don’t even want to think about what someone who is addicted to them goes through." 
They administered his pain medicine right away and gave him something for the nausea. That night, he began complaining of a stiff neck, then later, showed me how he was losing control of his neck muscles and his head was actually turning on its own. Thinking he was just stiff from being in bed, the nurse gave him a heating pad and we settled in for the night. The next morning, the stiffness was worse, and slowly, before my eyes, all of the muscles in his body started contracting and he went into a full muscle seizure. Within minutes, nurses and PAs and doctors in blue caps and booties were rushing into his room like they just got out of a clown car. At the time, they had no idea what was wrong, and it took them a couple of minutes before one administered two doses of Ativan and Benadryl through his IV. Slowly the seizure stopped, and I remember Logan sitting up, dazed, and the doctor saying, “Hi, Logan, it’s nice to finally meet you.” They finally determined he had an allergic reaction to the nausea medication, Compazine.

An aside: You know what really sucks? When your son is in so much pain he looks at you and says, "Mom, I just want to die." 
We were in the hospital for two days, but it was a pretty productive two days once that was over - and I cannot say enough good things about the fine people at Unity Point. During our stay, we met with a number of specialists who made sure that no stone was unturned as far as my son’s health. We were given a an extensive pain management plan that was reviewed with us in great detail. The doctors, nurses and social workers spent as much time with us as we needed and answered all our questions. My son, who had arrived in a wheelchair, left under his own power.
The healing continues, with physical therapy his next hurdle, if you will, though my son is obviously light years ahead of where he was three months ago. He will always have the screws and rods in his back, and about an eight-inch scar that goes right down his spine. His tailbone is still healing, and he's still unable to do a lot of the physical activities normal teenagers like to do. He's struggled with some depression and still has nightmares about the accident. To put it mildly, it’s been a bummer summer. 
But he’s alive. My son is alive. Maybe that sounds dramatic to some – it does to me at times. I think of what could have been – if he would have hit head first. If he would have been paralyzed – he came SO DAMN CLOSE if he would have died. I seriously have to continuously push those thoughts out of my mind.
I look at him now and I am so thankful. So, so thankful. I’m thankful God spared him. I’m thankful for the doctors and nurses who helped heal him. I’m thankful for his dad who brought me coffee and traded nights in the hospital room with me and worked with me as we navigated this horrible situation with our son. I’m thankful for the ski patrol and medical personnel on that mountain who were so quick to respond. I’m thankful for the surgeon who so expertly fixed his back. I’m thankful for the nurses who were so kind to him (except the one), and the doctors who helped manage his pain and assuage our fears. I’m thankful for my friends who reached out. Seriously – it’s times like these that you find out who your friends are. I had people I hadn’t seen since high school who lived in the area or who had kids who lived in the area offer to come sit with me in the hospital. My dad took care of my dog for two weeks and my friend from work checked in on my cat twice a day. I had people I hadn’t known very long or barely at all texting me and calling me. Friends made contact with people they knew who had planes in an effort to get my son home when we had no plan (this blew my mind.) A great friend of mine went to my house, packed a bag for me and brought me dinner at the hospital in Peoria. People stepped up – people I adore but am not close enough to that I would EVER expect that kind of support. 
It’s true what they say – family isn’t always blood. And some people just DO – they take care of your house or run errands or bring you dinner or just pray – they DO when you don’t know what to do or what you need. You all are priceless to me and I am eternally grateful for getting me and my son through a time when we both felt so incredibly alone and powerless. When your child is hurting, nothing else matters – NOTHING. So when friends pick up the slack – when they know to pick up the slack – it means the world. The absolute WORLD. 
This will be with us for awhile. My son is still physically and mentally affected from the accident, and at this point is doubtful he’ll ski again. He started physical therapy just today, and it is evident that he has a long way to go before he'll be hitting the track again. His dad, who witnessed my son's pain in the hours before I arrived, was traumatized from the moment it happened and I can’t imagine how horrible it had to be to witness what I did not see. 
As for me, I’m sad. Sad that he has endured pain I have never known and to which I can't relate. Sad that he was poked and prodded and cut and medicated and had to get a taste of the horrors of opiate withdrawal. Sad that he will forever have these screws and rods in his back. Sad that he missed track again this year and has to question whether he will ever get back to where he needs to be for next season.
But overshadowing my sadness is this tremendous thankfulness. I'm thankful that my son is OK – my sweet, funny son – held together by some screws and rods but in one piece. I’m thankful for those who helped – you know who you are. But most of all, I’m thankful that as we celebrate his 17th birthday, we're also celebrating that my son is still here … alive … walking … because I can’t imagine life without him. 
I know this post is long, so if you read it, thank you. Now go hug your kids. Life can change in the blink of an eye.