Sunday, January 27, 2013

Uncomfortable Reality

I wrote last week about my desire to be ‘in the moment’.  To be focused on my present reality at any given time and aware of the choices I am making, conversations I am having and the things that I am doing.  In order to do this I have to turn off my autopilot…and in order to do that, I need to get enough sleep.  I am proud to say that on five of my nights I achieved my necessary 9 hours of sleep.  On those other two nights I got close to 8 hours. 
Lesson learned from my week of staying rested, turning off the autopilot and staying in the moment?  I have a LOT of uncomfortable moments in a day!  There were times when I said out loud and to no one in particular, “this is painful!” or the more abrasive, “are you freaking kidding me?” 
There were the physically uncomfortable moments, things that I probably do all the time while ignoring the physical discomfort ‘in the moment’ but later come back to haunt me as I lay this middle-aged body down to sleep at night.  I learned that my Rolodex at work is way too far back on the desk and I am doing an Olympic reach to look up a phone number.  Someone in my office is microwaving brussel sprouts every day.  People are not always patient when I let them know that I did not understand what they just said. They don’t know to be thankful because it means I am actually trying to listen carefully. A lot of people talk way too fast! My arms hurt when I hold a steering wheel.  The floor vent in my car produces no heat. There is no good place for my left foot. No wonder I want to let the autopilot drive while I think about future ocean get-aways or what’s for dinner! 
There were also far too many less tangible moments of discomfort.  These concern me the most.  These are things to begin addressing immediately, but much less easy to fix than sliding the Rolodex closer. I headed into this weekend with hot flashes (cheers for perimenopause) and a feeling of fatigue and numbness.  Not from lack of rest, but from the realization of how very uncomfortable my present reality is.  Do I want to be doing the work that I do? Can I find a way to feel joy or fulfillment from this work? Even if I stop laying on floors.  Do I really want to drive so far every day, giving up precious time and precious money for gas and bridge toll? 
Can I emotionally continue the challenge of working with families and individuals that are in difficult circumstances? People that need a gallon of help and I have a cup at best. Can my curled shoulders carry that? Because I don’t seem to be fully capable of leaving it where it lies and with each story my shoulders droop a little more.  The autopilot was a wonderful defense for this. When the stories got too tragic I let him step in. Sitting with these stories this week, staying in the moment with people who are going through such challenging times, that was the most painful part of my week.
Am I okay with the limited amount of time that I have for my family, my friends?  I miss you my friends!  Know that I miss you and I hate that we are all so busy.  It is not a comfortable feeling to know that my best friend has been home over a week from a 3-country tour and I have not spoken with her.  Phone tag is a sign of unbalance.  My teeter-totter is too heavy on one side!  I feel an edge of discomfort with all of my close relationships.  With each interaction I felt there was not enough time to talk, sit together, laugh together.  Ah…but when I did laugh, it was me cracking up, wondering how bad my mascara had smeared and hoping I had not drank too much tea. It was me that wandered away from this post a half hour ago to get a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich and me that chose to answer the phone call from another dear friend. Because I knew it was her birthday weekend. What is more precious than a friend of 28 years and an ice cream sandwich?
And I am painfully aware of the hour!  Tomorrow I get to sleep in and go to work two hours late because of my interferon hangover.  So I will procrastinate no more and go volunteer my sagging shoulder for Mark to inject. 
Next week I will share about my 50 by 50 list…now those are things to be present for!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Changing Positions

As I changed positions, moving from my knees to a more leisurely and casual ‘sideways lounge’ across my client’s bedroom floor…I thought, “I have really got to set better boundaries with this job”.

Wow! What does Judy do for work? I work in the fine and reputable field of public health. Environmental health to be precise.  Now if I said I worked in the communicable disease program, you could continue your suspicion just a bit longer.  But no, just good old environmental health.  Specifically indoor air quality and asthma.

But why does Judy lounge on clients’ floors? I will tell you goes back to the issue of my autopilot. Despite my best intentions I started out last week on a sleep deficit.  I know that many people function on 6 or 7 hours of sleep.  I need 8 or 9, even 10 hours if I have a particularly rough day.  Whether this is the way I was born or a function of my MS, I have no idea.  It really doesn’t matter.  What does matter is the math. The math just doesn’t work.

We all get 24 hours in a day and I use approximately 9 of those each weekday for work. The hours become ever more scarce as I add up the extra tasks of personal hygiene, eating, cooking, email and phone calls...along with other surprisingly frequent events like filling out forms for my son's school, paying bills, insurance paperwork and quality family time which includes me saying things like “do not roll on the floor, you are picking up dog hair like a giant tape roller”.   By the time we throw in help with homework, driving the kid to lacrosse, laundry, a late night trip to the store because we are out of toilet paper or milk...well the hours are almost gone.   With the best time management and boundary setting (we will talk more about boundaries when we get back to laying on the bedroom floors of strangers) I can squeeze in a little ‘me time’ for things like my gratitude journal, this blog or some reading. Often I am doing a mental negotiation between the journal and dental floss. Time to read a book may mean PB&J for dinner!

To make matters worse, sometimes my job requires me to work evenings. Mondays are my ‘interferon recovery’ mornings and I work just a half day. Despite this extra rest, I am probably not functioning at 100% on Mondays. I need to take you back to last Monday in order to explain why I was kneeling, and then lounging, on a client’s bedroom floor by 5pm Thursday. On this particular Monday I was obligated to speak at an evening asthma support group, an engagement scheduled by my autopilot several months ago.  My autopilot failed to get specifics and instead of ending at 7:30 pm as I thought, the group actually lasted until 9pm. I had been talking for over an hour before I became aware of this. A normal person might have smiled broadly and said something like “Oh my, I was only prepared to stay until 7:30, perhaps I could take two more questions and then come back another time if needed.” However, I am not normal. I was tired and dealing with my interferon hangover. So I took a snooze, turned things over to my autopilot and he talked to the group until 9pm.

Yes, despite my New Year’s resolution, I fell back into bad autopilot habit this week. As a result I ate dinner at 10pm that night, went to bed around midnight and got 6 hours of sleep.  Thus began the vicious cycle; a lack of sleep forced me to engage my autopilot and enable my body to ‘do’ more than it should and thus continue to feel exhausted and dependent on my autopilot. As the week progressed my autopilot was responsible for way too much and the cycle of ‘not enough sleep’ continued. My autopilot drove, cooked dinner, cleaned house, walked the dog, talked to clients on the phone at work. It’s a little frightening really, who knows what he’s told people! I know what he did not tell people- he never says “No”! This guy lets my boss, co-workers and clients push me past my job description boundaries.  He has me do things for my children that they should do for themselves.  Yet no matter how much I did, it wasn’t enough.  One client accused me of taking a bribe and left a voicemail warning me that I would pay for my sins the rest of my days. She was unhappy that I could not do enough for her.  One client died before I could get her the legal assistance needed to move to healthier housing. I don’t believe her housing killed her, but I felt bad that she spent her last weeks fighting for needed repairs.  Friends got impatient when I didn’t return calls. Co-workers got annoyed when I lost things or bumped into them as I staggered through the office. I fought my way through a bleary fog to force me into the moments when my sons wanted to talk about what was happening in their lives.  I communicated through grunts and my ‘droopy eye’ stares. I ate whatever was easy to find, drank too much coffee and arrived at Thursday afternoon in a place of surreal exhaustion.

I left the office late for my client’s house. I literally jogged, carefully, in low heels, one glove on, coat buttoned askew and equipment tackle box thumping against my thigh. This was my second visit to the home to conduct mold sampling, not something we have traditionally offered through my office. I have since determined we will not continue to offer this service.  With a small but fiercely loud vacuum pump, some tubing and a sampling cassette, I must ‘vacuum’ 36 square feet of a client’s home. The intake on the cassette is about the diameter of pencil lead.  The sampling protocol results in approximately a teaspoon of dust. 

My autopilot had dressed me appropriately for my midday meeting, but entirely inappropriately for the 34-degree day and the chilly fog that was mixing with our PM2.5 (pollution) laden skies.  As I wobbled in the client's doorway long enough to slide my blue shoe booties over my pumps I was painfully aware that my attire was incorrect.  Initially I kneeled, in thin dress pants, through 18 square feet of living room floor and 9 square feet of bedroom floor. My middle-aged kneecaps were done.  In fact, they had probably been done halfway through the living room. The truth is my autopilot was controlling my body and the sampling activities, while I carried on a conversation with my client about outdoor air quality, the weather, paint colors and pregnancies.  It was my autopilot that heard the groan of my knees and made the decision to just sort of ‘lounge’ sideways, propped on one elbow, to complete the sampling.  It was me that saw a shadow of something cross my client’s face as my feet and lower legs disappeared under her bed. A shadow of concern I think.  Not concern for my knees, but rather concern for etiquette. Or perhaps concern that I had fallen and could not get up?  And it was that shadow that caused me to send my autopilot away so that I could focus on the task at hand and finish quickly.  It was me that pondered the various ways my autopilot had led me astray as I squinted into the thick fog, darkness having settled on the semi-rural suburb, as I slowly drove back toward the office, shivering in my thin pants. 

As I struggled up through my internal fog, I realized that my autopilot has no sense whatsoever of boundaries!  He will not set boundaries with bosses, co-workers, clients, friends or family.  He will commit me to the most foolish of ventures, decidedly unhealthy and potentially unsafe. I have got to stay in control. I have got to make my own decisions, set boundaries that allow me to get the rest that I need and therefore to be present for my own life.  I have got to be the one to feel it if a position is uncomfortable and make the decision to stand up and regroup rather than carry on until I can only lie down in an awkward collapse.  If I can manage to stay in the moment, be fully present, I will know when it is time to change my position…in ways both small and big.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

New Year’s Resolution? First You Must Disengage Your Autopilot!

Did you make a New Year’s resolution?  If you cringe at the formality of a resolution, maybe you decided to just make some ‘changes’ for 2013?  I am one of those who cringe at resolutions…I find it impossibly difficult to commit to just one!  There are so many things that I could and should do differently or better, how do I choose?!  This year, as I mulled the pros and cons of practical changes like financial planning, exercise and local produce against the bigger work of spiritual discovery and fostering a spirit of giving…I determined one thing for certain…I needed more chocolate! The many options were completely stressing me out.
Several chocolates and one hot toddy later I reached a decision.  My resolution would be none of the above! It would instead be something along the lines of the beloved and oft equally hated, “Live in the moment”. Beloved because who would not want to stop and smell the roses, glory in the sunshine on your face, relish each new development in your child’s life?  But yes, this notion or phrase often drives people to turn purple in the face and sputter about ‘hippy, happy crap’ and ‘who has the time’! I see two problems with ‘living in the moment’.  One issue is that there are plenty of moments that just downright suck!  Staying in those moments is a topic for another blog. The second issue is what I will delve into for this post, and that is the fact that by choosing to ‘live in the moment’ we have to accept that we will accomplish less. But here’s the punch line…while you are accomplishing less, you will (I promise) be experiencing so much more.

In order to do this, you must say goodbye to an old friend, your trusty autopilot! Or at least be willing to send him or her away more often.  And so, my New Year’s Resolution is to disengage my autopilot more often. I have an essay that I wrote shortly after my diagnosis of MS, at a time when my autopilot was completely unreliable. I would find myself in a room (or a parking lot!) with no idea why I was there, sit on a toilet only to find that the seat was up, put milk in the cupboard and detergent in the fridge.  It drove me crazy. It also forced me to stay in the moment.  No more multi-tasking.  It is not you alone doing the multi-tasking. It is you and your autopilot.  While your body may be accomplishing much more, you are only experiencing a portion of it.  Your autopilot gets the benefit of the rest.
Now I know you probably don’t mind if your autopilot gets the experience of bringing in the mail or cleaning the toilet.  But I expect that you want the experience of hearing your child say “I love you” and YOU would like to be the one that says it back.  Unfortunately, when our autopilot is engaged, we don’t have control…the autopilot does. You might be the one stirring the spaghetti sauce and making a mental shopping list while your autopilot is responding to the kids. Once you turn the autopilot on you don’t get to choose which of your multiple moments you are fully engaged in.

No matter what your New Year’s resolution is, I believe you have a much greater chance at success if you first disengage the autopilot.  I was able, after a bit of time, to see the benefit of losing my autopilot during the early years of my MS. As I accomplished less, it became clear how much more ‘in the moment’ I was. It also became clear that this was a better way to experience life. As my body responded to treatments, my brain mended itself a bit, and my autopilot returned.  At first I was reluctant to use it, but as time wore on and our society of busy-ness lured me in, I found myself again relying on my autopilot in order to ‘accomplish’ as much as I felt expected of me. And as I accomplish more, I experience less. 
I often don’t remember at all, or vaguely recollect at best, the work that is done by this other me.  When I am stressed my autopilot eats chocolate instead of heading outdoors for a short walk.  My autopilot does most of my grocery shopping, purchasing out of habit, rather than looking for ‘locally produced’ stickers.  My autopilot goes to Starbucks and orders a latte, instead of making coffee at home. In fact, my autopilot does far too much of my spending and eating!  My autopilot steers me through the office so that I don’t have to look around, missing many opportunities to give a gift of kindness. It steers my car home in the evenings, while my mind wanders and I ignore the beautiful sunset reflecting on the water or the snowcapped peaks of the Olympics in the distance.  Before bed it encourages a half hour of web browsing rather than a soul-nurturing book.
When I am reading email, I am tempted to let my autopilot listen to my son tell me about his video game, because I don’t actually have an interest in this topic.  But I do have an interest in my son and my autopilot is not going to listen carefully for those moments when a door is opened. Talking about video games can be the way a teenager shares their world. Somewhere in the explanation of Halo a sentence may be casually thrown in, “Steve said he got a girl pregnant” or “Amber posted on Facebook that she got suspended for having pot in her backpack”. If I miss these moments they are not likely to be mentioned again.

By disengaging my autopilot I have a chance to make progress toward all those changes that I considered for the New Year, I don’t have to choose. Take a moment (and be in that moment) to think about what change you want to see in your life this year.  Think about how your autopilot may get in the way of those changes.  When do you need to be sure that it is YOU in control?  Then, for those moments, tell your autopilot to take a hike, the fresh air will do them good!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013