Sunday, March 31, 2013

Top Regrets of the Dying

I'm proud to be a member of AARP, which I've been looking forward to for years. Now I really feel grown up.

The AARP newsletters sometimes have very intriguing articles and right now I'm focused on Bronnie Ware's Top Regrets of the Dying, first posted in February 2012. Ware worked in palliative care and saw many people live their final weeks. From these personal interactions and talking to many people as they faced their end, she created this list. It's not everything that came up, but these were the top five. Ware gives meaningful explanations for each, so please click on the links to see details.

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn't work so hard.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It's hard to take risks when we think we have the rest of our lives to live with the consequences, but Ware's article shows that what's most important at the moment of our death isn't what others thought of us or how much money we made, but our personal relationships and the dreams we either did or didn't reach for.

What I like best about this list is its focus on being yourself, expressing your feelings and not letting others' expectations get in your way. I'm proud to live that way, unafraid of making enemies or coming off as a weirdo. I'm uncommonly honest and take risks to speak up for what I think is important. I let people know how I feel about them, whether I like or dislike them. No one has to wonder where she/he stands with me.

But I'm surrounded by people who made safe choices, who started out their lives going in one direction and then took compromising turns because of what others wanted. I've listened to them talk about the day when they'll start living the life they meant to lead, just as soon as A, B and C happen. They assume they have decades to redo their lives and enjoy the choices they wish they'd made the first time.

Maybe they have the time to do it all over again. Maybe they don't. I've carefully avoided the paths I didn't really want to take. In case I die tomorrow, I want to leave behind memories of Regina Rodríguez-Martin that really represent me. I intend to be remembered for working hard on my personal relationships, painstakingly nurturing friendships, telling the world exactly what I thought and taking risks to express the truth I believed needed to be spoken. I intend to be remembered for going after my dreams and not being afraid to let them go if they were no longer what I really wanted.

The one item on Ware's Top Regrets of the Dying that deserves more of my attention is the last one. I could do a better job of allowing myself to be happier. I've been afraid of so many things for so long, but in my late 40's I'm finally emerging from my shadowy crouch. It's time for me to take my new positive view of life as far as I can. So my new goal is that if I die tomorrow, I want to know I spent today allowing myself to be as happy as possible.

It Is Lifted!

Easter Sunday usually depresses me, but last year, for the first time in my life, it didn't. Why? Our dog Ozzie seemed to make the difference. Between doing some volunteer work and taking care of our new dog, I made it to the end of Easter 2012 with no feelings of dread or sadness. At the end of the evening I was startled to tell the dog that it was the first Easter I could remember, all the way back to childhood, that hadn't made me feel bad.

So this year I didn't scramble to find an activity to keep me occupied on Easter Sunday or try to find a way to distract myself. In fact, I so completely didn't dread Easter 2013 that I made no plans at all. As the day got closer and closer, the old fear didn't kick in and right now I'm enjoying Easter as just another Sunday afternoon. It feels so good to have the curse taken off this holiday!

The lifting of my dislike of Easter also shocks me because I didn't even focus on it. I've spent decades emotionally healing many fears and fixations, but my problem with Easter was not one of them. Maybe I don't always have to work very hard on every single problem and neurosis. I tend to work very hard on my personal problems and it's paid off, but I'm very happy to find that some things can heal on their own, while my attention is on other issues. That must be what happened here because I can tell that even if I didn't have the company of the dog, I'd be okay on Easter. Easter is no longer scary to me.

So while others today are rejoicing "He Is Risen!" I'm rejoicing "It Is Lifted!" Hallelujah!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Depression can look just plain mean

Lindy West's Ladies Be Moody: The Sad Sack Women of Anti-Depressant Commercials makes a few excellent points, but this is my favorite: depression does not only manifest as low-energy sadness that saps you of your will to get out of bed. That's one way it can appear, but really depression  can have a wide range of symptoms.

I've let depression sneak up on me because I've fallen victim to advertisements that show a sad slumpy depressed woman (depressed men don't show up as much). Such images suggest that depression means sadly not engaging in life at all. How could I be depressed when I was showering every day, holding down a job, seeing friends on weekends and wearing clothes with color?

Some years ago my poor husband had to live for months and months with a woman who was becoming increasingly shrill and critical, started each day with loud complaints and was extremely energetic in her unhappiness. Depressed? I wasn't depressed. I was pissed!

I wanted my co-workers to stop making small talk, god dammit. I wanted assholes in the street to stop looking at me. I wanted the goddamn phone to stop ringing. I wanted all these slow walkers to get out the fuck of my way RIGHT NOW. I didn't want to have to return anyone's damn smile ever again.

Well, duh. Anger is a major symptom of depression and it can knock people down, literally and figuratively. It has been suggested that one reason so many more women are diagnosed with depression than men is that men express more rage when they're depressed and that just isn't what we expect depression to look like.

Depression strains relationships, but not just because the moody partner refuses to get dressed. There are different kinds of behaviors that make depressives hard to deal with including irritability, restlessness and lopping people's heads off. We start fights. We disappear outside of the house. We constantly criticize everything and everyone. We act like we just can't be bothered with anyone because we are way too important.

There are all kinds of ugly that can come out of depression. Don't believe those ridiculous, monochromatic commercials that show droopy eyed women staring into space and ignoring the dog. I've struggled with depression for decades and it comes in all flavors.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stranger Here: A memoir on weight loss surgery

Jen Larsen gives a stunningly honest account of her weight loss through surgery in Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed with My Head. With a publication date of February 19, 2013, her book is still making its splash and I'm glad I came across it. It's just one woman's experience and cannot be taken as representative of what people go through with weight-loss surgery, yet I suspect it is representative of how women constantly judge our own bodies and find them pathetically in need of huge improvement that feels impossible.

The first part of Larsen's memoir shows her filled with shame about her body, barely able to make herself leave her apartment and putting up with a less-than-ideal relationship. Eating and drinking are her main coping mechanisms. The next part of the memoir shows how Larsen struggles with all that self-loathing even as she becomes a thin person. The big lesson is that becoming thin does not does not solve all your problems.

Larsen has said in interviews what she says in her book: being skinny is much easier than being fat. She expresses no regret about getting the surgery, even though her book describes a nightmare of adjustment to her new digestive system: lots of vomiting, gas, diarrhea, queasiness and even a crapping-her-pants story. But her narrative points to a better way that she could have gone. She eventually sees that she has "dishonored" the beautiful, accomplished person she was before surgery by trying to "wipe out" that person. She writes, "I wasn't brave enough to address the physical and emotional realities attached to being fat in a world that doesn't like fat people." She admits that grappling with her emotional issues before heading into surgery would have been a better way to do it.

Larsen urges others to do it differently than she did, but seems to think this was the best she could do. Part of the beauty of this book is her honesty in laying out for us her suffocatingly negative thinking, her bad decisions, the relationships she strains and the humiliating details of having a body that doesn't digest food in a normal way anymore (weight-loss surgery seems to cause permanent stomach flu symptoms). She's impressively candid about her denial of the dangers of surgery and her delusional terror of what others think of her (she has trouble being honest with even her closest friends).

In all it seems to be a pretty well-balanced statement about weight-loss surgery: Larsen describes a terrible experience, but it's her terrible experience and she takes complete responsibility for it. My interpretation of her message is that ideally we would all face our problems head-on and deal with them directly before allowing our inner organs to be permanently damaged, but if radical surgery is what you need, then radical surgery is what you need.

Maybe part of her message is also that we not criticize someone's choices as she tries to change the parts of her life that aren't working. I know I've had to reach unbearable amounts of pain (emotional and physical at different times) before finally taking steps to heal myself. Larsen's refusal to consider the long-term effects of weight-loss surgery and headlong plunge into the decision when she was at her most depressed are terrible moves in hindsight. But Larsen's story points to how society brainwashes women into thinking that causing ourselves pain and damage is worth achieving the cultural standard of beauty. Hell, we go through all kinds of pain just to achieve an ordinary appearance. Larsen makes clear that being skinny is her ideal, but just getting down to "normal fat" instead of mordibly obese would be a dream. She just doesn't want to draw attention to herself anymore.

Stranger Here is painful to read, especially if you've been where Larsen is at the beginning of the book. I'm very glad I read it because it affirmed for me that whenever I harshly judge my body, those are subjective views I learned from American culture and they are bullshit. This book reminded me of how little it matters what size I wear and how much it matters that I feel happy with my life, my choices, my own company and myself.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano puts it well on her blog The Beheld: The mirror is a reflection of how we feel, not how we look. I've only begun to learn this lately as my self-esteem goes up at the same time that I'm gaining more weight than ever before. Startlingly, I love my body more now that I've outgrown most of my wardrobe, while for most of my life I had hated my body even though it was thin.

It truly doesn't matter what you $%^damn look like or what size you are if you just don't like yourself. Likewise, it doesn't matter what you look like if you're happy with yourself. The lesson that complete self-love is separate from physical appearance is one of the hardest lessons American girls and women have to learn. Larsen's book shows us one way not to go.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Someone asked me about being pregnant

On Friday morning a co-worker asked when I was due. Even with my prosopagnosia and a staff of over 500, I felt sure the two of us had never properly met because I pretty much have every middle-aged Latina in my workplace memorized. And I certainly didn't know this one well enough for her to be asking such a question.

I said, “What?” She asked again when I’m due to have my baby. I looked at her blankly and then said with vague hostility, "I'm not pregnant."

"Oh! I'm sorry!" The woman clearly felt terrible about her mistake. She said someone told her I was pregnant.

"Um, I'm Regina. I don't know if we've met?"

Now the stranger introduced herself.  I'm not sure if Maria Julia (not her real name) was just trying to cover for her embarrassment or if someone else has really been discussing Regina Rodriguez-Martin's pregnancy, but I asked just in case, "Who told you I was pregnant?"

"Oh, I don't want to say," she demurred with a smile.

Since I had started putting on weight in October, I had kind of been waiting for this mistake, so I clarified, "I've gained 30 pounds in the last few months, but not from getting pregnant. I’m just fat." I paused while Maria Julia nodded placatingly.

"I don't even want kids," I pressed. "I'm married to a man who also doesn't want kids. I don't even like kids. And I'm 46 years old. I'd have a hard time even getting pregnant." I wanted to be sure that if there were an actual rumor, it would end here.

"Oh, that's fine." Maria Julia tried to assuage me. "You're 46? You look great!"

"Thank you," I said distractedly. I was still trying to imagine who else might think I'm pregnant. The idea was as amusing as it was irritating. Eventually I let Maria Julia lead me into other topics for our first discussion as acquaintances of five minutes. It was a weird conversation, but I guess we won't forget each other now.

Later I decided that being mistaken for being pregnant is actually fine. It would be funny for women to watch me suddenly gain 30 pounds, but never hear me announce being pregnant or see me have a baby shower. Then June would come and go and I'd never give birth. Psych! Damn baby-obsessed people.

Then I imagined having a baby shower. What the hell? I’d get my co-workers to buy me my favorite cake and an expensive gift that I can return for cash, and at the end of the party I’d go, “Punked! Ha ha! You just celebrated thirty pounds of pure fat!"

For the rest of Friday I wondered why women think pregnancies are everybody's business. Why is all this baby stuff treated like public knowledge? What if someone doesn't want to talk about her pregnancy? Why do even strangers impinge on women's privacy this way?

As I discussed this with various people, in person and online, one response I got was that if you know a woman is pregnant, it feels rude if you see her but don't mention it. Even if you don't particularly care for her or feel like talking about it, if you see someone who you know going to have a baby, there's almost a social obligation to comment on it. It's just polite. But even the women who told me this said they wouldn't inquire if someone were pregnant because the risk of offending her is too high. Being asked if you're pregnant when you're not, usually leads to a crisis of body image ("Am I that fat?").

Someone else put a positive spin on it. She emailed me that among people for whom a new baby is a wonderful thing, commenting on a pregnancy feels like joining in the celebration. Even strangers will try to connect with a woman who looks pregnant because it's a way to share joy, "doubling it." When I read this I said to myself, "Oh, yeah! Ninety-nine point nine percent of regular people think another baby in the world is a good thing. I always forget that." Seriously, I forget that. We're in the tiny minority, those of us who think life is endless pain that no woman should put another innocent human being through.

Another friend (who knows I'm against parenthood in general) chided me for feeling offended by the question at all. He saw it as an honest mistake made by someone who was trying to be nice. I don't suggest that Maria Julia wasn't trying to be nice. Everyone who makes the mistake of assuming a non-pregnant woman is pregnant is undoubtedly trying to be loving, inclusive, supportive or at least friendly. The problem is that talking to someone like that is always risky.

The most common problem is that when you ask a non-pregnant woman when she's due, she will feel fat for the rest of the day (or week or year). In the past the question has really messed with my self-confidence (yeah, it's happened a few times to me). It can be a painful question for other reasons, too. Maybe the woman recently had a miscarriage. Maybe she's having fertility problems. Maybe she would love to have a baby but has recently learned that she'll be unable to do so. Questions like that, however well-intentioned, are very personal and there's no way to know what could come up if you're guessing wrong.

Me, not pregnant.
Pregnancy is just too loaded a subject, people. Leave it alone. I'm amazed by how many people don't know that and who just blunder into it like Maria Julia did. Between fertility problems and body issues and motherhood pressures, people, just leave it alone. Unless the woman herself (or maybe her mother or partner) has told you that she's pregnant, don't ask when she's due.

Yes, Maria Julia was trying to be nice, but "I didn't mean it that way" is no defense for offending someone. Questions about if someone is pregnant are very personal and can be painful no matter how nicely they are asked.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

EFT for pet problem behaviors

My Fellow Dog Owners (or "Doggie Moms" if you prefer, whatever) -

Here's an impressive way to connect with your dog, whether or not you have actual issues with him/her. Emotional Freedom Technique uses the meridians and energy points of Chinese medicine to release blocked emotions that can cause physical pain, cravings, fixations and stuck emotions like grief, fear, anger and sadness.

EFT has changed my life since I started practicing it and it's available to help animals, too. Lili Betancourt attends my weekly EFT group and she's amazing. I've had private sessions with her that helped me tremendously. If I were to recommend an EFT/hypnotherapy practitioner, I coudn't do better than her.

Check it out.

Class in Emotional Freedom Technique for Animals
3358 N. Pulaski, Chicago, IL USA
Wednesday, 27 March
7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
$20 per person/$35 per couple
Do NOT bring your animal. Call 773-736-3641 to reserve your space.

Whether you work or live with animals, this class will show you how to relieve stress and address problem behaviors in your animal. And it can be ANY animal,
not just dogs.
EFT involves gently tapping on acupressure points to balance the body's energy field. The idea is that all problems start on the emotional plane and can be healed there.

Lili Betancourt is a board certified consulting hypnotist and member of the National Guild of Hypnotists and the Association for the Advancement of Ethical Hypnosis. She has certifications in pediatric hypnosis, pain management and EFT Level Three. She offers private and group instruction in self-hypnosis, stress management and EFT at the City Colleges of Chicago. For more information about Lili and her practice, see her website.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dog. And the ebook I'm writing about him.

Ozzie's a 50-pound pit bull mix with crazy ears.
We've had Ozzie for a year and a half now and he's probably about 5 years old at this point (not sure because we got him from a shelter and they weren't sure of his age). For the first full year that we had him, I regretted the decision and wished there were some way we could give him back. Technically, we could have, but it would have broken my husband's heart, so I muddled through the adjustment period.

In November, during National Novel Writing Month, I churned out a 50,000-word draft of a memoir of my experience. The working title is I Never Wanted a Dog. This month I've begun the process of rewriting and reorganizing those chapters to make it a proper manuscript. My plan is to self-publish it as an ebook, just for the fun of doing it.

Readers of this blog would recognize content from posts, but most of it is original. I find that announcing my plan to the world keeps me committed, so here it is: I'm revising the manuscript by the end of spring. Then I'll find some friends who are willing to read it and give feedback. I will publish this ebook and Ozzie will make his mark on the world!

Doctor's response to my weight gain

Yesterday I saw my doctor for a regular exam. I hadn't seen her since last fall or maybe it was summer. I was looking forward to the weigh-in because I've gained so much weight and I wanted to see the big total, but the nurse forgot to do it this time, so I saw the doctor first.

"They didn't weigh me this time," I told her from the examining table as she sat in a chair taking notes. "And I've gained thirty pounds since the last time you saw me."

Dr. Jguenti looked up and said, "You look great!"

I smiled, "Yeah, I feel good."

"It looks really good on you."

"Thank you." I felt relieved that she wasn't scolding me and grateful for the confirmation that yes, this was the right thing for me to do.

Dr. Jguenti went on to say that weight gain can look really good on women our age while losing weight can leave the face not as pretty. I totally agreed.

So there it is! A professional medical opinion about how good it is that I'm now a size 16 instead of a size 10. Dr. Jguenti (pronounced "yuh-GEN-tee") is Russian, so she probably has a different cultural context for her view and that's great. I'm not sure an American-born doctor would have responded the same way, and I really doubt an American-born male doctor would have supported me.

I love my doctor. I want to send all my friends to her!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin USA, Winter 2013

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin USA. Photo by Bob Martin

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin USA. Photo by Bob Martin. Okay, it's bad enough to drive your car onto a frozen lake, but to then build a FIRE?
Ozzie loves snow.

Taking pictures with an iPad looks dumb, but the photo quality is excellent.

At the end of our tromp along the lakefront, I noticed this sign. Oops.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook: can't wait to see it again

In a talk he gave at Cornell University in 1993, Chicano actor Edward James Olmos said that seeing movie while it's in the theater is like casting a vote. Ever since, I've tried to get myself to the theater when I feel a movie is very important, in spite of the motion sickness I often get in theaters. A movie with mental illness as a major theme that isn't about a killer or dangerous person who terrorizes others is damn rare, so I finally dragged myself to the theater and risked nausea to see Silver Linings Playbook.

It turned out that I didn't get queasy AND I LOVED THE MOVIE. After decades of movies like Mommie Dearest, Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Silence of the Lambs and countless slasher films, I was delighted to see a representation of people living with mental illness who you might actually like to be friends with. The scene in which Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) first meet, state their innermost thoughts bluntly, compare medication histories and show their emotions openly made me feel amused, supported and recognized. Why? Because I share my innermost thoughts and say/write inappropriate things regularly. To see Tiffany and Pat do it felt very affirming for me.

I don't know how general audiences respond to this film. Do they just laugh at the wackos or do they recognize themselves? Do most people get their first experience with mental illness through this movie or is most of the audience for this film people with mental illness in their lives? I'd love to know that, but I suspect those who enjoy this film the most are people with some experience of mental illness, either in themselves or people they know.

Silver Linings Playbook shows two troubled people working their way through their symptoms to make a real connection and true friendship. This gives me such hope for myself! I also have behaviors that don't work for everyone. My passionate fervor, bluntness, unusual views and tendency towards pessimism sometimes alienate people to the point at which they stop being my friend. I understand this and don't hold it against them. I know I don't have good instincts for what's appropriate at all times and I often say, do and wear things that most people would know are not a good idea. After decades of trying to learn the protocols everyone else seems to know, I've started to just accept myself as I am. Fortunately, I have enough people in my life who can tolerate my behavior that I'm not lonely, plus my workplace is very forgiving. For friends, I just stick with the people who can stand me!

Likewise, Pat and Tiffany are not easy people to get along with. Tiffany is a ball of anger who doesn't mind walking out on a dinner party before the entree is served. Pat wears a garbage bag and wakes his parents up in the middle of the night to give his response to the ending of A Farewell to Arms. They both express exactly what's on their minds at all times with no filter whatsoever. I realize it makes no sense for me to look at mentally ill characters for confirmation of my normality, but that's kind of what happened to me in that theater yesterday. The film portrays Pat and Tiffany as sympathetic characters who the audience supports from the very beginning. Sure they're weird, sure they have their diagnoses and their medications, but the audience sees that they're also human, feeling, loving people with dreams and humor and good sides to balance the bad.

For Silver Linings Playbook to show that people with mental illness are really just like everyone else (just at a more intense level) felt like an act of reaching out to me and everyone who lives with bipolar disorder, depression and other disorders. This is the first movie I've seen that normalizes mental illness, shows it to audiences from the inside and let's everyone see that it isn't dangerous or scary. This movie affected me like a powerful support group that bolstered my self esteem and acceptance of myself.

Seeing Cooper and Lawrence portray people with mental illness helped me see that my behavior isn't so freakish. Pat says to his mother, in front of his father, "You just said it five minutes ago. You said, 'Don't say anything, but Dad lost his job...'" I winced because even I wouldn't do that, but I also recognized it as not too far from things I have said. Why did seeing Pat do things like that make me feel better when he's mentally ill?

I'm just happy about the depiction of mental illness as a functional chronic condition that might be difficult sometimes, but that allows people to maintain relationships, have fun in life and fall in love. By the end of the movie we are absolutely on Pat and Tiffany's side, rooting for them and knowing that whatever challenges they have -- with each other or individually -- they are going to be okay. And they might even be people we'd be fine living next door to.

Edward James Olmos' statement is still true twenty years later: seeing a film while it's in the theater is like casting a vote. Please support positive images of people with mental illness by going and seeing Silver Linings Playbook as soon as possible. I'll be back to see it again next weekend.