Que Sera Sera, Coursera

In mid-August, I was feeling fairly well.

I had begun experimenting with driving locally.  Sticking to a strict 5 mile radius, I headed out for short grocery runs, the library, the gym, my stepson’s job and the modest “downtown area” of the neighboring town.  I kept with the rules of not driving when it was raining, dark, during rush hour or when there was no one home to rescue me if I couldn’t completely my journey.

The new freedom and independence went right to my head.  I began feeling like I could take on the world and get right back into it.  I swore that before I knew it I’d be able to drive all over the place, whenever I wanted, where ever I wanted.  I’d be able to keep my house clean again consistently, hold dinner parties, be with friends and actually get back to work.  Life was looking great and I was ready to conquer!

All great plans need a test run.  There are inevitable holes in any design that need discovering before being set into motion, lest it become a sinkhole of death.  In my previous life, I worked a mandatory 55 hour work week that usually became 60-70.  I did this while I had a social life and a clean house.  Before that, I had worked a normal 40 hour job while I took a full time course load in college.  In both slices of my past, I managed to read 2-3 novels a month as well.  In other words, my schedule was pretty busy. I decided my test run would be relatively small but address some major components of recovery for me.

I joined the gym.  This would prompt me to have to drive more as well as be out and about with others.  The gym is challenging for a few reasons: 1) I’m spending money on it and I have a guilt complex about this since I’m not working; 2) it is very difficult to be overweight in a facility full of fit and trim people.  However, I’m determined to be healthier in body as well as mind so why not the gym?  I learned the gym may be filled with fit and trim folks, but they really don’t notice anything but their own form in the mirrors.  I did feel one set of judgmental glances, but…. c’mon… I’ve dropped 4 sizes this year.  I’m proud of that.  Let’em judge.  (Woo hoo! See? Healthier!)  The only thing with the gym is that although I’m around others, I’m not really interacting with them.  That’s ok.  There were other things I could do.  Keep in mind my disorder isn’t a form of social anxiety but it is a general, wide-spread anxiety. Without working, my interactions with others is limited and I feel I need to be with other people in order to feel more “normal” (and no, we’re not going to try to define normal….)

While at the library, I saw a flyer for a fiction writing workshop.  This workshop had been offered earlier in the year but when I tried to sign up then it was full and could only add my name far, far down on the waiting list.  As my books were being checked out, I asked if there were any openings left for this session.  There was!  I signed up!  I got home and said, “I must be out of my mind!”   What?  Why, you ask?  Surely there’s no pressure in a writing class.  Simply complete random assignments of creativity given to you by a professional author and read it in front of perfect strangers.  NO PROBLEM.  I rationalized: I love writing; I need a push to get myself back into fiction writing; this gave me a little more interaction with people, with the added pressure of deadlines.  After all, if I expect to go back to work, I need to learn to deal with deadlines again.

So far my test run had the following challenges:  social situations, deadlines, driving, and commitment.

This should have been enough.

In hindsight, I probably should have stuck with just the gym or workshop.

Did I mention I was feeling like I could take on the world?

In a previous post I had mentioned I’m a fan of Book Riot.  One of their features mentioned an MOOC called Coursera.  (MOOC means massive open online course.  Don’t worry. I had to look it up too.)  They have a bunch of free web-based courses and I promptly signed up for Social Psychology.   Great!  Now I had another set of deadlines with the added challenge of seeing if I can retain information.  My memory was once like a party trick.  I would be able to see a name in our appointment book and tell you who they were, what kind of job they want, where they worked and to which companies I would or wouldn’t send him or her. Now I have trouble recognizing my neighbor at the grocery store.

I was excited.  I had a plan and it didn’t seem too overwhelming.  The only financial commitment was the gym and I had my incredible DH’s approval.  Everything else was a personal commitment and I really wouldn’t be letting anyone down if I cancelled anything.

Except for myself.

Isn’t that just dandy.

I started full steam.  I went to the gym and I started the social psychology course as soon as the lectures were posted (which was a week early).  I read through some of my old writing to remind myself I was once good at fiction and short stories.

So what happened?

Wellll……..  The gym has been side tracked for a few reasons.  One, I pulled something in my leg— not at the gym, mind you.  I’m not sure how I did it, but I could barely walk for a bit.  After not doing a heck of a lot for the past month, I went for a short walk today and it felt it twinge.  I need to get back into it slowly.    The other is I encountered some problems driving.  Early in September I set out to the store while I was a little stressed out.  That was a bit of a mistake.   I had a hard time getting back. Then I went out feeling ok but too close to dusk.  The angle of the sun and the shadows had me guessing where the road was and I had to stop.  (Not to mention the number of suicidal deer that decided they didn’t need to wait for me to pass before crossing the road…)  I’ve been incredibly hesitant to get behind the wheel since then.  (Side note: I learned in the Social Psychology course this is called the availability heuristic—a cognitive rule that judges the likelihood of things in terms of their available memory.  Be impressed. Please.)

The writing workshop was fun.  I expected the group to be comprised of older residents who knew each other. I was partially correct.  Just about everyone in the group has been taking this workshop every single session for years.  The age group was mixed.  I think we ranged from 30-60s.  One lady I learned in the last class was going through chemo treatments.  She looked to be our most senior classmate.  I’m wondering if she probably wasn’t as senior as I think.  The assignments were difficult.  I wanted structure to jumpstart my writing but I felt this was too much.  It may have felt that way because I haven’t written anything with an assigned subject or specific guidelines in at least 20 years.  I feel like I did well.  I accomplished what I was hoping for:  I wrote every week and I met some fun people.  In fact, I may have actually started to forge some local friendships.

And finally the Social Psychology course… I think this was the most challenging for me even though it did not require driving, socializing or even consequences for missed deadlines.   My scholastic career was exemplary. I never worked very hard in school but I had excellent grades and was accepted into prestigious colleges (I didn’t attend any… long story… not ready to write about it yet).  My success in school is very much a part of my identity.  It justifies my claims of intelligence and diligence even though once a person is out of school and gets past the first two years of working, a GPA isn’t discussed or acknowledged.  (Hint—if you’ve been out of college for more than 2 years, HR people do not really care what your GPA was. Keep it on there for a year after you graduate and only if it’s a 3.0 or higher, please….).  Retaining information has been difficult since the anxiety became disabling.  I wasn’t sure if I was ready for my sense of intellectual pride to be shaken.  The deadlines were very difficult and keeping up with the readings felt impossible.  There were a few unexpected stress triggers as well.  The first was the expectation to grade others’ assignments.  In order to get full credit for my own assignment, I needed to grade 5 others.  If I didn’t, I’d lose 20% of my own score.  I was not expecting to have my actions impact someone else’s grade.  I know this was a free course and completion of it did not attribute to a degree program.  However, after going through the forum discussions, a good number of people were taking their grade incredibly seriously.    Two of the assignments had emotional triggers for me.  I worked through one, and the subsequent peer assessments.  I decided it was healthier for me to skip the other one altogether.  I weighed the impact of the trigger and decided it wasn’t worth it.  It felt good to make a conscious decision about it.  I knew I wasn’t running away from it.  My decision was based on the idea I was testing the boundaries of what I could handle and I knew I wasn’t ready to confront this particular trigger.

What did I learn?

This post is long enough as it is so I’ll spare you the actual learning discoveries of the proper form of squats, the definition of magical realism (HA HA ha ha ahem) and spontaneous trait inferences.

I learned while I have come incredibly far since this disorder knocked me on my ass just about 2 years ago, I still have a long way to go.  I joke on Twitter that I have difficulty doing too many things at once and that by “too” I really mean “two”, but it’s not a joke.  My capacity to focus is still very limited and incorporating multiple things into my life at once is not the best way to proceed for now.  Expectations, either from others or myself, need to be simple.  I was much more symptomatic throughout September and I attribute it to putting more on my plate than I can handle.  My recovery took a step back—as in I need to work on reining in the symptoms that have been running amuck this month….but I moved forward too.  I worked hard this past month and I have clearly redefined the boundaries of this disorder.  I’m going to work on one thing at a time now… once it becomes comfortable and fluid, I’ll add in something else.

When I was awarded disability, I was told I would be reevaluated in August 2014. My goal is to be able to inform them I don’t need to be reevaluated and am ready to try to get back to work.

And if I’m not ready by then, so be it.  I’ll be reevaluated and then set another goal.

To my family and friends, thank you for dealing so well with me this past month.  I know my symptoms are challenging and I feel guilty for your frustration.  Your support means everything to me.  I appreciate you more than I can ever express.

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Standing in Place, Past and Present

In November of 1997, a 6 month old pup was placed in my arms. She was tiny, soft and warm. She nuzzled under my chin and sighed.  She looked up at me, licked my chin and settled back into place.

In the early morning hours last Tuesday, my 16 year old pup was still tiny, soft and warm.  She nuzzled under my chin and sighed. She looked up at me, licked my chin and settled back into place.

A few hours later we stood together in her vet’s office.  The news was incomplete yet completely definitive: we could run a battery of tests to find out what has happened in over the past 38 hours but the prognosis was she would not get better.  She had stopped eating and drinking. One side of her tiny, soft, warm body did not respond. She would not be coming home with me.

She and I had come full circle.  Together we started a life that wouldn’t last.  We bought a house and moved. We married and divorced. We started and stopped 3 jobs.  We welcomed and sadly said goodbye to a cat.  We fell in love again. We married and moved again.

Our journey together began and ended with a nuzzle and a kiss.

Someone once said a person is in your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Pets span all 3.  That little dog gave me a reason to get up in the morning when I felt life wasn’t worth trying.  She celebrated every time I walked in the room. She made friends with countless people who claimed they didn’t like dogs.  She offered comfort and love to a group of struggling divorcees.

Her reason:

to teach me

naps are restorative

nothing beats eggs for breakfast

roll in the grass

the sun there is bask in

greet each person like a VIP

examine every blade of grass

every petal

every scent

 unconditional love

Her season:

16 years, 2 months

3 homes, 2 marriages, 1 cat

enough life lessons  for a graduate degree

She’ll be with me for a lifetime.

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Thoughts on a fall-like Monday in August

I remember hating Monday.  The dread would start midday on Sunday. In the evening, I’d hear the 60 Minutes clock tick away my life, my weekend, my sanity.

That was when I was in a constant struggle between loving my job and hating my company.

The consensus of my friends and family is that this job “drove me crazy”.  My long time struggle with anxiety and panic came to a head and broke me into pieces. This is where my current state of disability started.  But was it?

No. I think it was just the proverbial last straw.

Throughout my life, I felt the pressure of unattainable expectations and reminders every which way that my best wasn’t good enough.  Some people see this as motivation and thrive on the challenge while others retreat a little to figure out why xyz wasn’t good enough only to become discouraged when the belief of “that was the best I could do but it still wasn’t right” sinks in to taint the next whatever.  I’m in the latter camp.  It’s a conditioned response. I know it’s in the past, but I still allow it to sabotage current life decisions.

Some people call it emotional abuse.  I have no clinical training but I’ll disagree with that label in my case. There was no malicious intent.  It goes with the philosophy of adapting the tools you learn as a child.  A person will employ the same tactics used by their own parents— unless said person had the advantage of therapy or some other path to enlightenment.

The shaming technique is bad.  I’m enlightened. I still stumble and find myself using it. I hope I’ve caught it each time and corrected its effects.

It’s the beginning of August, but I awoke to a morning more standard issue for mid-September. Mid-60s, breezy, sunny, blue skies, light dancing on the lake…  not a flicker of the dreaded Monday.

I did what any other sane person would do:  I sat outside with my morning coffee. I brought my book, a pad of paper and my phone. Mother Nature blew at my pages.  The wind carried a fresh scent and I stopped my usual morning bustle of catching up on the latest atrocities of the news and creating the day’s to-do list.

The only thing I wanted to do was experience this perfect moment.  I closed my eyes and listened. I heard birds and the water lapping on the dock. The air smelled like fall after a light rain. Sunshine warmed my face.

It all felt good enough.

How to harness this serenity didn’t feel like a mystery anymore.

Close your eyes and experience what is around you.

I’m going to practice this every day.

Book Riot’s From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books: I Failed Huckleberry Finn

I love Book Riot; when they published From Zero to Well-Read in 100 Books, I felt up to the challenge.

Never mind that my TBR pile already has more than 100 books awaiting attention. I decided to read my way through this list with the only rule being I would have to re-read anything on it I haven’t opened in the past 5 years.  The list is alphabetical and I started with the first one: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Huck wasn’t part of my scholastic curriculum.  His buddy Tom made two appearances.  I thought this would be easy.  Fooled, yet again.

My first problem was the phonetically spelled dialect.  Allow me to clarify: I understand why it’s there. I do not have a problem with this technique being in existence.  I do not mind reading through it occasionally.  I simply cannot focus well enough for a main character’s dialogue to require code breaking.  By the time I get to the end of Jim’s statement, I need to go back to the beginning to remember what he started to say and why.  It’s distracting, disheartening and I closed the book after 200 pages or so.  It’s hard to love to read and have issues that prevent me from enjoying it.

Discussing my dislike of phonetics and dialects at the dinner table was a mistake. (A little background, perhaps again: I’m the only liberal arts minded person in this house.  My husband has a PhD in Applied Math; his mind is scientifically oriented.  About two years ago,  my stepson decided school is useless.  He completed high school via a part time alternative learning program and pretended to be interested in college for about a year.   He has an interest in computer science and programming but no desire (or maybe courage) to take the steps to make this interest a career.)  My roles as sole liberal arts major and perceived grammar snob took center stage over my thoughtfully prepared dinner. To explain the conversation simply, and in no way fully, my husband reminded me that “proper grammar” was arbitrarily deemed the standard by a group of white elitists and dictates who is considered educated and worthy of being included in business/society/(insert any institution here). Though I haven’t researched it,  just living in a very white society tells me he’s not wrong.  My stepson claims we have spell check, grammar check and auto-correct so we do not need to learn proper grammar. I’ll save his assessment for another post after I stop banging my head against the desk… and wall… and (insert dull, strong object here).  I made a mess of defending myself against grammatical snobbery while simultaneously reinforcing my designation. We went in circles around grammar, education, elitism, prejudgement, politics and I forget what else.

By participating in all these extra discussions, I lost my chance to explain what I meant.  My panic disorder has robbed me of the concentration to read unusually written dialogue. It’s another facet of my life I fear I’ll never get back.

My other problem is probably another post waiting in the wings. I was reading Huck when Florida declared George Zimmerman not guilty. My introspection on the state of our judicial system, perceptions and injustice sent me into a hole of depression so deep that the casualness of the N word in Huck made me cry. I still can’t gather my words well enough to discuss this well enough for posting. It’s too important to try with a scrambled brain.

I was fighting through to read Huck. I decided I can’t right. I need to pick my battles and joining Jim and him on their raft will have to wait a little longer.

I’m going to continue reading Book Riot’s list, though perhaps not in order. There are a few named that correspond to my TBR pile… and I think it’ll take me much longer than the hypothetical 4 years mentioned. I need to accept that.

Question for those who have finished Huck Finn:  Does anyone else think Huck’s entire story is just another one of his easily concocted lies?   I think he and Jim never set foot on that raft……