Archives for posts with tag: stress

Next Monday is my 49th birthday. My husband asked me what I wanted. I told him, “I don’t want anything. I just want to have dinner with you or something.”

I didn’t really have the emotional energy to think about what I wanted. It’s been a stressful few weeks with lots of worries on top of my normal worries. Sometimes, I worry that I think too much. I think about cancer every day. I think about my husband and daughter every day. I think about the obligations I have to my family, my friends, my job, and to myself. When I am really stressed, as I am at this moment, I worry that I am burdening my friends and family by asking for support, even the support of knowing what I am going through so I don’t have to do it by myself. I am worrying about this right now by sharing this with you. But I also know that when I feel most alone and burdened is the time I need to call on my resources and this means friends.

My friend, Nancy, sent me an email with a parenting resource. Actually, the email was to a bunch of people. Nancy is a dear and she always prefaces any email with, “I hope you are well.” I replied just to her. “I am hanging in there. Things are not going well but I hope you and your family are well.”

I’d never done that before. I got a phone call from her within the hour. I felt a great deal better after we talked. I am very lucky to have such wonderful support in my life.

I’ve been wishing very much to go on a vacation. Then I realize that I’ve just had two vacations, which were wonderful. What I really want is to be away from the stress of the current complications of my life.

Yesterday, I thought to myself, “For my birthday, I want a simple life.”

Immediately, I reflected that this was a fantasy. There are people who have simpler lives than mine, but their lives are complicated. More importantly, I can’t be anyone else, anyway. My life is complicated.

I also started thinking about the fact that I am ending another decade of my life, my forties. I thought, “Wow, a lot has gone on during my 40’s.” But then I started thinking about all of the other decades in my life. Just thinking about all of the changes that occurred for me just as a natural part of growing up during the first two decades made my head spin. A lot happens between the time we are born and the time we hit 20 years old. Holy Cow!

But I still want a vacation and I want a simple life.

And then it dawned on me. Although I am working on Monday, my birthday, I will not go into the office for the rest of the week. I host Thanksgiving every year and to do so, I need cooking time. So I’ve made a habit of only seeing patients on the Monday of Thanksgiving week.

My job after Monday will be to cook and spend time with my family. My husband is taking off the entire week.

I think I will get my birthday wish for a few days and this makes me very happy.

Some animals, like bees, are eusocial. They live in highly organized social groups, each with a job to do, and all for the survival of the group. Adult bees are drones, workers, and for one unlucky female, the Queen.

This would all seem so complicated except for one thing. Bees have tiny brains and they don’t live very long. In other words, it is unlikely that more than the tiniest bit of learning goes into this process and I’d say it’s safe to say that no thinking goes into it. Bees follow instinct. They do their jobs, they don’t change roles, and when they communicate, they send messages that are easy for everyone to understand.

People are also social animals but from an evolutionary standpoint, we are driven for individual survival, not group survival, a quality the ethologist Richard Dawkins called the “selfish gene“. Evolution is not everything. There are other forces at work and some of them even motivate us to get along with one another and nurture each other for the greater good.

But people have big brains and live a long time! We learn to play many roles and carry out many responsibilities. And these roles and responsibilities are not predetermined at birth. Unlike bees, we are not born into an inflexible caste.

Living in a group is really complicated. We communicate with our words and other behaviors. We don’t always say what we mean. We don’t always know what we mean. Our roles overlap and our goals may be at cross purposes.

Bees have very organized relationships. However, they don’t have intimate relationships. People bump and scrap with each other all of the time. We protect ourselves from real and perceived slights. Most of us put a lot of energy into individual survival as well as to helping our loved ones.

I try to live a peaceful life. I try to be a helpful and nurturing person. I try to belong to the community of humanity and to contribute to its health. But I often fail to do so and sometimes spectacularly so.

I am a nice person but I am not always nice. I am a caring person but sometimes I try to protect myself at the expense of others. Sometimes, I use my intellect to come up with fancy justifications for my behavior when in my heart of hearts, I know that I am doing wrong. I am a happy person but sometimes I am irritable and sometimes I lose my temper and yell at the very people that in my hearts of hearts, I love the most.

Almost every time this happens it is because I have neglected my self-care. I have pushed myself too hard, worked too many hours, not eaten well, not taken time to myself, and not exercised. When I think of myself last, it is because I am looking outward to what I think my family needs, ignoring cues from myself that a good deal of my distress is simply because I am not caring for myself.

It is at the times I make these seemingly altruistic sacrifices, I am most prone to behaving selfishly.

I am not perfect. That is okay. Expecting myself to have no needs is not okay. Being selfish is not okay.  I am not perfect. That is okay.

bee1

I come from an Italian American family on my mother’s side. Her great grandparents were farmers in northern Italy who immigrated to the U.S. to raise children and work the coal mines near Seattle. In other words, they were not fancy people. They were poor. But they were smart, hard working, life loving, and resourceful. They not only loved food but had a lot of mouths to fill. They knew how to “make something out of nothing”.

My mom knew how to do this, too. It wasn’t as if we were poor but money was tight and there were a lot of people to feed in a family of eight. Mom is also masterful at re-purposing leftovers into new meals so that food is not wasted.

The week has continued to exhaust me. I rallied in the writing of my last post, only to have an extremely fragmented and stressful evening, during which my irritability peaked, and I became quite irrational. My daughter had gotten rather angry with me because she told me that she had another parade the next morning and I had reminded her that I had asked her to tell me about all of her events and she had just told me, “Don’t worry about it, Mom.” I was not able to sacrifice half of a work day to get her there. She got very angry. It was kind of a last straw for me and I mostly took it out on my husband because she had treated me extremely disrespectfully and he left the room instead of backing me up. Realistically, he was probably doing what he needed to do to keep from yelling, with which I was already doing a good job.

I spent a good deal of the early part of yesterday fighting the urge to go back to bed. I have not had a day like this in a very long time. My brain and my heart were utterly exhausted despite the fact that it was a gloriously beautiful summer day in which I had much to do. I forced myself to stay out of bed. By late afternoon, I was sitting on the couch with a head both full of everything and nothing, swirling in eddies of acute pain and numbness.

My husband came home early from work and asked what I wanted to do for dinner. I said, “I am not doing well at all. I know I will be okay. Right now, I can’t think. I can’t answer questions. I need 15 minutes to finish up work.”

Then I started on my unfinished progress notes, one by one, and with the completion of each one, I gathered a tiny but noticeable bit of energy. In about 45 minutes I was done. I had accomplished something. I told John, “Sorry, that took longer than 15 minutes. I’m going to cook dinner.”

I walked into my kitchen. I had a perfectly ripe mango, a perfectly ripe avocado, and some limes. They were not planned for a particular meal. In general, that is often the way I shop. I just buy what looks good. In my freezer, I had some large shrimp. I also had a bit of simple salad left over from another meal. It was made from jicama, radish, and lime. I thought that might be a nice textural and flavor contrast with sweet mango but I wasn’t sure but I started getting excited to try. And as I sliced, zested, crushed, sauteed, and mixed, my spirit continued to lighten and I felt myself filling up again. When I tasted, I could tell that I’d made a lovely summer salad full of good things. My husband and I had a nice meal together, which led to a nice evening.

I had been depleted and feeling in utter need, just an hour before. I needed to give myself an experience of creating from start to finish, to remember that I am capable of making wholes and not just carrying an armload of loose fragments, which keep falling to the ground, and then others fall as I stoop over to pick them up.

Remember what you have and make use of it.

That is my meditation for today.

Shrimp and mango with lime, avocado, radish, and jicama.

Shrimp and mango with lime, garlic, avocado, radish, and jicama.

Here is the recipe:

About 1 pound of large shrimp, peeled and deveined with tails left on.
1 lime, zested (put zest to the side), then cut into quarters.
1 large ripe avocado, peeled, pitted, and cut into large dice. (Squeeze one of the limb slices on it so it doesn’t discolor).
1 large ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and cut into large dice. (If you have not cut up a mango, read some directions on doing it. It’s not hard but it’s different than other fruit.)
1/4 of a jicama, peeled and cut into matchsticks.
3-4 mild-flavored radishes, peel on, sliced thinly. (I used a small portion of a large watermelon radish, which was about the size of my fist and cut it into match sticks.)
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed.

1. Put all of the ingredients into a bowl except for the shrimp, garlic, half of the lime zest, and all of lime wedges into a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste and the juice from 2-3 lime wedges. Mix gently with your hands so the avocado does not lose its shape.

2. Heat 1 teaspoon of oil and about 2 teaspoons of butter in a large saute pan, on medium to medium high, taking care not to burn the butter. Add garlic and cook for about a minute, stirring frequently. Add the shrimp and cook for a minute or two on each side until curled up and opaque, but not rubbery!

3. Put the salad into a serving bowl and top with the shrimp. Sprinkle the remaining lime zest on the top so it looks pretty!

There’s a vaudeville theater in my neighborhood, Kenyon Hall. It’s about two blocks from where I live, located in an old house. They have an antique Wurlitzer organ, which is occasionally played as live accompaniment to old silent films. They used to sell root beer floats for a dollar each on these movie nights.

We haven’t been there in a long time. There was a change in ownership and the types of entertainment offered there has narrowed. About ten years ago we went there with friends along with our daughter for a comedy juggling act, Brothers from Different Mothers. They were very funny and excellent jugglers. I laughed a lot.

Now, when I laugh, I do so loudly and with my whole body. Kenyon Hall is a small venue with no stage. We were sitting in the front row because we’d arrived early and wanted to make sure that we could see. I was quite noticeable and also conveniently close to the two performers.

I’d not seen them perform before so I didn’t know that they used audience members in their act. When it came time for that part of the show, I was promptly asked to go up front with them. I can’t remember everything that they had me do. But I remember being a very good sport about the whole thing.

But one part of the performance actually got a bit stressful. I was to grab one of the balls from one of the guys while he was still juggling. PERFORMANCE PRESSURE. I missed 2-3 times and I noticed that the juggler was holding the ball for increasingly longer times in order to make it easier for me to grab from him. I knew that there was only so long he could do this before having to attend to the other balls in the air. I also knew that if I didn’t get it soon, the act would drag. I mean, a woman hyena-laughing while trying to grab a juggling ball gets old after a few failures. Each time I tried to memorize the timing and rhythm of the balls in the air. On the next attempt, I got it, much to my relief. I had not spoiled the joke with ball dropping ineptitude.

I know it is cliche to compare one’s life to juggling balls. We all try to keep the balls in the air. However, when we parent, we are also trying to do a hand off balls or take balls from another, all in order to make sure no one’s load is burdensome. And we do it while each of us is juggling a full set of balls.

When my husband and I have an established and coordinated routine, this can go pretty smoothly. We know what to expect, can plan for it, and we’ve handled it before.

Then there are the times when the unexpected happens or we have to learn a new routine. At these times, it can feel like juggling water. I feel all of the responsibilities but can’t put my hands around them. What’s worse, I can’t tell which responsibilities are mine and which ones are John’s. They just splash to the ground, undone, and making a huge, undifferentiated mess. “Who’s water is this?” “And who stepped in it with muddy shoes?” “Who’s going to clean it up?” “What happened to the mop?”

I have been more irritable lately. I initially attributed it to the heat as well as my hatred of driving through downtown Seattle, something I am doing at least once per day right now in order to get my daughter to activities. All of these things do contribute to my mood.

Today, I woke up feeling sad and it took awhile to shake it. I realized that part of the reason is that each day is a different set of logistics and responsibilities. Our daughter’s schedule is different, every day. My schedule is different, every day. And not only am I taking my paperwork on the road, John and I have to figure out who is doing what, every day, almost from scratch. This means we have to remember to talk to each other about logistics and texts and phone calls from each other need to be exchanged. As a couple, this is not our strong suit. I over-communicate and my husband doesn’t communicate enough. It makes both of us a source of aggravation to the other.

Our daughter has two more years of high school. She will likely be driving in a year or two. There are some wonderful things that come out of spending time with her in the car. Yesterday, she told me what a fun time she’d had talking with me on the way to and from her activity.My husband and I have more evening time together during the summer, just the two of us.

Those are opportunities I can grab and hang onto.

 

 

 

One of the requirements for my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology was completing a one year long internship at one of many sites around the country. The application process is a very stressful rite of passage for students. I often say, “You can have time or money but not both.” Well, in grad school, most of us had neither. But we managed to fill out internship applications and travel for interviews to the sites that were most promising. I remember traveling from North Carolina to Oklahoma City, Seattle, Chicago, and Gainesville, Florida.

Internship offers were made by phone back then on “Match Day”, which started at 10:00 am Eastern Standard Time and I believe was on a day in March in 1996. Prospective interns would wait by the home phone (no cell phones back then), hoping that it would ring right at 10:00 am and that we would hear the sound of the voice of the director of the desired internship. We were allowed to say, “yes” or “no” on the spot. There was no, “I’ll think about it after I’ve considered all of my offers.”

Prior to Match Day, we had the option to send an internship site a “first choice” letter. The communication was, “If you call and offer me an internship, I will accept it.” There were a number of rules around this. Sites weren’t allowed to ask us if we were going to “first choice” them and if we “first-choiced” a site and didn’t take it, it was considered a very uncool thing to do. We were also not allowed to “first choice” more than one site.

After my visits to sites, I made a rankings list, weighing professional and personal variables. My first choice for professional reasons was the University of Florida. However, getting back to Seattle was a high priority so the University of Washington made it to the top of my list. Both sites were prestigious and offered excellent training. I sent a “first choice” letter to the University of Washington. A few days later, I received a call from the internship director there. She told me that I was a “very strong candidate” but that it was not in my best interest to give U.W. my first choice letter. She recommended that I withdraw it, which I did. This was a painful phone conversation, but even at the time I knew that it was very kind of her to let me know I was not one of their top candidates. I sent off a new “first choice” letter to the University of Florida.

Meanwhile, John and I were nervous wrecks. John was researching job markets for all of the potential cities in which we might live. Fortunately, since Gainesville was a drivable distance from where we lived, we had gone together and he’d gotten an opportunity to check out the area, which he liked a lot. The job market there was terrible for him, though.

There was nothing for us to do at that point but wait for 10:00 am on Match Day and hope that the phone would ring. I was well trained, having completed some ridiculous number of supervised clinical hours during my years at UNC. (If memory serves, I’d logged 2700 hours when the requirement was 500.) Oh, the other stressful thing was that sometimes, no one called a student. There was usually one student each year from our program who despite their excellent application and the strength of the reputation of our program, did not get an offer. Those students had the chance to go through the “clearinghouse” process and be placed in one of the leftover spots. (These days, incidentally, there are no “leftover” spots. There are more applicants than there are spots at accredited internship sites.)

Match Day came. All of the worry about where we would live, what I would do, and would I be able to work anywhere would hopefully be reduced. 10:00 am came and went. I willed the phone to ring. At 10:02, the phone range and I answered it. It was the University of Florida and they made me an offer, which I accepted. It was really quick so quick that I said, “You just made me an offer and I accepted it, right?” The director chuckled and said, “yes.” We said our goodbyes. The first one I called was my husband. He was happy. The second call was to my parents. My mom was happy. My dad was happy though said, “Florida? You are moving even FARTHER away from home.”

Exactly two years ago, I found myself waiting by the phone again. The call that I would receive would say a lot about my future. I was waiting on a call from the Swedish Cancer Institute with the results of my core biopsy, which had been performed two days before. I knew that a call would arrive at any time. As fate would have it, I was called at 10:00 am, just like Match Day. The diagnostic radiologist told me that I had an invasive ductal carcinoma tumor of approximate size of 1 cm. She said, “This is the most common breast cancer. A surgeon will call you within the hour. I’m sorry. We will take good care of you.”

The first person I called was my husband. He told me that he was taking the bus from work to be at home with me. Then I called my parents. My mom answered and I told her, “Mom, I have cancer. Mom, I am scared.” She was comforting and I was able to stop crying so that I could get information and make decisions. (Not everyone copes this way. I like to work fast and get things in place.) I called my friend, Nancy, a 12 year breast cancer survivor and psychologist who works with breast cancer patients. I got her voicemail so I left her a  message. I had not even previously told her that I’d had a biopsy. Then I left a voice mail for my friend, Jennie, who had known about the biopsy. As soon as I finished my message to Jennie, Nancy called.

Nancy was reassuring and also gave me a list of surgeons who had excellent technical skills but also good people skills. Dr. Beatty was on the list. His office called while I was talking to Nancy. I got off of the phone with Nancy and picked up the call from Rhea, who was the scheduler at his office back then. I made an appointment for the next day. I was not required to accept the first surgeon who called. I could have met with another surgeon after I met with Dr. Beatty. But I immediately adored him and didn’t feel like I needed to see anyone else. Nancy, who had accompanied us to the appointment, and John agreed.

My family has been through a great deal in the last several years and not all of it was related to my cancer. If you’d asked me even as recently as five years ago, how I would cope with all of the life events that were in store for me, I would have guessed that I would go into an anxiety spin, followed by depression, and some kind of severe mental breakdown. I certainly would not have guessed that along with the anxiety, anger, and pain, I would also find more joy and peace than ever before in my life.

I feel a mixture of feelings and thoughts today. And maybe that’s part of what these “anniversaries” are about. Experiencing a year or several years’ ups and downs in the span of a few days.

I will never say, “Cancer, you have met your match.” I know that cancer can kill. But I can say that right now, I am a match for its aftermath.

When I was a girl, my younger brother, Jim frequently rode our bikes. I remember the pumping my legs furiously so that I could coast along for awhile without having to do anything to propel myself. It was exhilarating going down hills and on the flat, it created joyful stretches of ease, moments of effortlessness.

Being a healthy person, having a healthy marriage, and being a good parent are all “works in progress”. When John and I saw a psychologist for marital therapy years ago prompted by family planning issues, I asked her sincerely, “When is the time when we get to coast in marriage?” She promptly responded, “Never.” I remember my shock at her response at the time. It’s kind of funny looking back at my thoughts at that time. I do know that I was quite overwhelmed by my life and about to enter my second episode of major depression. It was a fantasy I had that after all of the hard work I had done in my life, that I would be able to coast. I would have an easy time as a wife, parenting  would get easy.

I was reminded of my wish to coast recently when I realized that after all of my hard work, I had strayed off of Weightwatchers and begun to gain weight. I didn’t gain a lot of weight and I’ve started losing again. It may not seem to be a big deal to you but I have gained and lost weight many times since I was 14 years old. And as I have mentioned, the last two periods of weight gain had put me into the clinically obese range. My breast cancer was highly responsive to estrogen and progesterone. Our adipose tissue (fat and other stuff) has glandular function and increases female hormone production. I know it is important for me to exercise and eat right. I am very lucky to not have physical issues that would interfere with my ability to exercise and to have a life situation that makes it possible for me to work part time. But even knowing these things, my weight has crept up in the past when I stopped paying attention to my habits, when I tried to coast in my life.

I have lived a good bit of my life working at capacity and feeling fairly stressed out. At these times, I have thoughts like, “It will be SO much easier, when ____________” This blank has been completed in many different ways over the years, “when I finish school”, “after the baby starts sleeping through the night”, “after my career is established”, “after my daughter is grown”, “when my husband’s job situation improves”, “after my cancer treatment is done”, “after my energy returns”, “after I start working full time again.”

But the truth of the matter is that although stress ebbs and flows throughout out lives, we are never done with it. And there are always unknowns and unexpected challenges that loom on the horizon.

In my work, I specialize in what for most children are chronic difficulties. And although many of them have loving and very skilled parents, even the most loving and skilled of the parents gets exhausted with the extra work their child or children require. There is also a period of adjustment after diagnosis that can take anywhere from weeks to more regularly, years, and sometimes, never. It is the adjustment to the idea that there will be no coasting as a parent and that one’s children will likely need more support and over a longer number of years, than other children.

I sometimes use an analogy with parents. I tell them, “Raising a child with these challenges is like running a marathon of unknown length and unpredictable terrain, with uphill, downhill, and stretches of flat. It is important to take the cups of water whenever you can.”

If I really think about it, coasting on a bike only lasted so long before I either had to brake because I was going too fast or start pumping my legs again so I could keep going. I have been working hard to take care of myself but also to nurture my relationships and carry out my responsibilities. I will keep working on the rhythm of knowing when to pump and when I can coast so I can keep moving forward and maintain my balance. And if if that little cup of water looks too small to last a lifetime, I will take them when they are offered.

 

I am good at seeing patterns in my behavior, better than I was in the past when my cancer experience was new. I think I am leaning into an anxiety and grief spiral. I have been very stressed about situations that are mostly out of my control. My pattern is (1) define a current or anticipated problem, (2) develop a plan, (3) put the plan in place, (4) fall into a pit of varying depth and circumference, and (5) cope like crazy until I regain my footing.

Right now I feel myself transitioning from step 3 to step 4. But meanwhile, I am dealing with another problem. Time I spent taking care of the highest priority problem meant that I got behind in my work. Now I am shuffling around to put a plan in place for that.

Additionally, I agreed to participate in a breast cancer charity function. The proceeds go to patient assistance fund at Swedish Cancer Institute, which provides very practical assistance like emergency rent money, meals, and transportation to and from medical appointments to breast cancer patients. This is a very worthwhile cause that makes a real difference in patients’ lives, not to mention the fact that I am very grateful for the treatment I have received at the institute. Last year, this event raised $120,000.

I do have mixed feelings about the event itself, which is a fashion show. You know how I love wearing pretty clothes but also have major misgivings about the fashion industry. I also suspect that I’m going to have to wear at least a little something pink at some time but based on last year’s video, I see that pink is present but not omnipresent. The models are all normal looking people. The women are all breast cancer patients. The men are friends and family. Everyone looked like they were having silly fun. And the fun was balanced out by speakers talking about the real negative impact of cancer on patients and their families.

The rational part of me thinks, “Why throw out the pink baby with the bathwater?”  The good outweighs the bad of participation. I have wanted to get involved in a small cancer related charity and this is a chance for me to see if this is an organization with which I would like to continue to develop a relationship. There are lots of things they do and a variety of events that are put on over the year.

Did I say, I was starting to spin? I spun at least a full revolution on my walk in the woods this morning. I’ve started having abandonment fears. I have been stressed and relying on my friends to give ear to my distress. This morning I was worried about being a burden and losing my friends because the sum of the negative parts of my life are really scary. I know this is irrational but I also know that my behavior can still be motivated by irrational fear even when I am aware of it. This is when I start flailing and apologizing to my friends. I try to solicit their support in an overly sparing manner.

And the fashion show? I was worried about that, too. I was afraid that I would lose some of you out there because you would believe that I was “pimping myself out” or that I have been pink washed. Then I thought, “I just won’t say anything about it.” I wouldn’t be able to get the word out about the event so that the charity would make more money and more patients would get real, every day assistance. How silly and counterproductive. In my efforts to reduce the attention to the aspect of participation that I don’t like or am unsure about, I would contribute less to the part to which I feel clearly committed. And the biggest flaw in my “avoid it” plan was the fact that the only person I need to convince about whether this is right for me or not is myself.

When I was a little girl, I used to spin in circles until I got dizzy and fell to the kitchen floor. I would get up and do it over again and again. I remember how the pattern on our linoleum floor used to bind together into a blur. It was mesmerizing and fun.

I don’t spin for fun any more. But I still know how to get up after I’m done.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been sleeping better since I semi-unplugged from Facebook. Now that I am not so frequently stimulating my brain, keeping it awake, I realize how tired I was. I’ve slept A LOT this week. I often feel kind of lazy when I sleep in and typically, my schedule does not allow for this option, anyway. Mid to late September are usually slow for child/adolescent psychology practices, though because families are focused on getting kids back to school and it’s too early in the year for teachers to refer most kids to me for evaluations. (Occasionally, there is a little kid who can’t keep from running around the classroom and into the halls, and all around the school. I hear from those families during the first week of preschool or kindergarten.) So I’ve been sleeping in. I don’t know if I’ll ever work off the 1+ year of accumulated sleep debt but I definitely feel less in the hole today.

Maybe I will actually be able to stay up past 9:00 pm tonight!

It’s all about attainable goals, people.

Several years ago, I read John Robison’s autobiography, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s. Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder and without going into great detail, one of the main difficulties for individuals with this pattern of brain development is to make positive social connections with others. People with Asperger’s also typically have narrow interests, which can contribute to unusually well developed specific abilities. It is an excellent book and I love his story of transformation. John Robison is a successful businessman. Although he never graduated from high school, in the 70’s, he worked for the heavy metal band, KISS, designing their fire breathing and rocket launching guitars. He also worked designing electronic toys for Milton Bradley.

Robison was not diagnosed with Asperger’s until 16 years ago at age 40. As he got older, he gradually improved his abilities to form meaningful social connections, to make eye contact, to demonstrate empathy and perspective taking, and to have a more integrated flow of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning. He remarried and found lasting love. But there were trade-offs to his transformation. Robison could no longer understand the technical designs he had previously made. Robison’s brain was able to function less narrowly which meant that he could no longer focus such a large proportion of his mental energy on his complex pyrotechnic designs. If memory serves, I believe he was happy with the trade off.

As I have written in the past, I have experienced changes in my cognition since my cancer diagnosis. Although overall, things have improved, I still have concentration difficulties and difficulties integrating information and making simple conclusions. It doesn’t happen all of the time but every so often I find myself thinking, “D’uh!” The most persistent difficulties have been with my writing mechanics. It’s not like I never made errors before because I did. But I make so many more spelling, grammatical, syntax, and punctuation errors than I used to. Sometimes I think of a word and write down something else entirely. That is a new problem. I don’t remember doing that before. It is a language processing problem and I don’t like it at all.

My writing errors have caused me variable amounts of frustration and embarrassment. However, it has not gotten in the way of my posting in my blog, anyway. The objective part of me figures that I am not a professional writer and should not hold myself to that standard. Additionally, I think I have interesting things to write and a number of people seem to like to read my blog. Finally, carefully combing through my writing for errors frankly requires more brain energy than I can spare right now. My job requires intent concentration and I just don’t have much left by the time I write my posts. Any that’s leftover really needs to go to having conversations with my family, which was something that was hard for awhile from a concentration perspective. I still have trouble following the train of thought for my husband and daughter at times. Neither of them consistently use topic sentences in their oral language. My husband often leaves the point of what he is saying until the end of a several minute explanation. In my current mind space, especially after a work day, I feel that my brain may explode. I need clues to organize what he is saying. Is it good news or bad news? Is he telling me about the status of a work project (so hard for me to follow as I am not an engineer) because he just wants to share about what he is doing or because he is going to tell me that he has to work late tonight? I feel frustrated with my brain for not being there for him as much as I’d like to be. I also sometimes get frustrated with his communication style.

I saw the book, Look Me in the Eye on my coffee table yesterday. I’d taken it off of the bookshelf to give it to one of John’s coworkers, who used to design pyrotechnics for Billy Idol. I figured he’d get a kick out of reading it. But he either forgot to bring it with him or didn’t want it because it was still on the coffee table after he left our house. When I looked at the book I remembered John Robison’s trade off and saw a parallel in my own life.

I may never get back my consistent attention to detail or all of those thinking skills on which I used to be able to rely. But I have much less anxiety and a lot more meaning in my life. I have a more interesting life. I have a lot more fun. I’d say that this trade has worked in my favor.

I recently came across a scrapbook my husband made for me to commemorate my 40th birthday. In it friends and family, old and new shared memories of their relationship with me. I came across an entry by a friend from graduate school, Beth. She and I were both married to men named “John” who were graduate students in the Computer Science Department. It was a funny coincidence. We socialized a little as married couples and I have always thought very highly of her as a gentle, thoughtful, and intelligent person. We exchange Christmas cards each year and an email every ten years. I had forgotten what she had written in my book or even that she’d taken the time to respond to John’s request. What she said was lovely that she sees me as a kindred spirit with whom she will always have a connection. She described me as “fun, smart, and safe.”

When I was a psychology intern, I trained at a medical center in which our services were integrated with the medical services. We worked with cancer patients, burn patients, spinal cord injury patients, organ transplant patients, etc. We also had a separate outpatient psychology clinic and provided testing services to the department of psychiatry.

In my work, I don’t typically work with people who are in imminent danger. I remember the trepidation I felt prior to this internship that I would have nothing to offer individuals with serious medical illnesses, especially those with terminal disease. And I really really really didn’t want to work with children with cancer and other serious life threatening illnesses. But I did.

I discovered that I had something to offer them. Even as children, they understood the danger of talking about their illness with their parents. They understood the burden. As an outsider, I could lift it. They could talk to me without fearing that they were hurting me in some way. If I empathized with the sadness, anger, and fear, I was just a supportive adult not a parent who is supposed to be the strongest person in a child’s life. And I could listen and avoid the unintentionally non-accepting messages that adults give children when they try to talk kids out of emotions because they are unable to regulate their own. Children, even children who are dying, like to play and laugh. I could do those things. I could be fun, smart, and safe.

I keenly appreciate the fun, smart, and safe people in my life right now. And many of them come from unexpected places. I left for vacation right as Diane from dglassme posted the very excellent Deep Dark Trenches of Virtual Space. Diane writes about her own link to the Internet, especially the cancer blogging community. The post is also accompanied by a photo of sharks. I identified with the post so strongly, especially the following:

When you start to look forward to seeing your doctors more than your friends, you know something has gone dreadfully wrong considering they have some pretty ridiculous personalities, or when you care more about what a complete stranger you met on the internet has to say than a close friend or loved one. Who are these people? They are mothers, psychologist, college students, diplomats, attorneys, historians, writers, nurses, surgeons, oncologist, etc.  – people from all walks of life, from all over the world – who have cancer or are working with people who have it.

During this technicolor stage of my life, especially the part of my cancer recovery during which many people in my life consider cancer to be in my permanent past, I find myself drawn to my cyber buddies. Most of them are cancer patients but others are not. But the thread that binds them is that due to personal circumstances and/or chosen professions, they are accustomed to life changing events. They deal with challenges with intelligence, kindness, and humor.

I have developed a few unique and close friendships with individuals whom I have never met in person or even spoken to on the phone. I have no frame of reference for these particular kinds of relationships. I had never blogged prior to my cancer diagnosis. My Facebook use in the past, basically boiled down to “Look at my kid!” “Look at my kid again!” (I still do plenty of proud mama posts. And by the way, “Look at my kid!”)

Sometimes I feel ill at ease with the uniqueness of the relationships. I feel at a loss as to how to explain to others how I learn so much from “strangers”. Fortunately, my husband gets it and never seems to feel left out or disappointed that I look outside of our marriage for support. Sometimes I have trouble navigating the waters of my cyber friendships, but by and large, I still feel safe. In this community, I feel that there is always someone who can sit beside me and hold my hand during the lowest points. And there will be someone who will laugh at my jokes even if they are dark. And there will be someone who communicates an understanding of what I am going through even if his/her experience is different. And since it is a community, there is always someone who can step in for support when someone else is not available. So the network is consistent and always there.

I am thankful for the times that my technicolor emotional expressions are not only tolerated but accepted because there have been a few times that I am been taken aback by the intensity and intimacy of my outpourings. I boo-hoo-hoo’d with dysregulated empathy over one of my friend’s Facebook posts, when she was having a particularly difficult day. I was embarrassed afterwards and even thought about apologizing. But knowing that apologizing for these kind of behaviors can be a kind of unnecessary flailing dance that I do, I held back. In time, normalcy returned on its own.

I have dear friends and family who help me heal and grow stronger each day. They love me and want the very best for me just like the parents of the children with whom I worked at the hospital.

But as Diane pointed out, the people, even the dearest ones in our day to day lives, don’t constantly live with cancer or some other life changing experience. When I talk to them about my fears or my illness, I know that I may tip them off of their axes and send them spinning in other directions. I have been in their shoes before and I totally get it.

Thank you for being fun. Laughter helps me deal with the ridiculous aspects of my life, it distracts me from my worry, and it gets me breathing again.

Thank you for being smart. I feel understood and connected rather than lonely and weird.

Thank you for being safe. Thank you for sitting with me in my grief and trusting me to work through it. Thank you for forgiving the times I step on toes, don’t pay enough attention, or misplace my tact.

I hope that I provide the same things for you. Cancer is scary enough without scaring each other.

Art, Science, Heart ❥

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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