Who are You?

When school ended, I thought I would be abuzz with creativity. I was expecting a summer of discovery after a winter and spring spent coming to terms with my own chronic illness. What started to happen was a buzz of mindless activity.

It was as if I was afraid to be still with my own thoughts — afraid of the answer to a question that was evermore on my mind.

“What if I’m not actually an artist?”

We had planned an overseas trip for last week and this to see family and sightsee. Thing1’s chronic illness had other ideas, so I took my sketchbooks and watercolors to Boston (where he’s working all summer) so we could visit our firstborn in the hospital.

The change in plans was disappointing at first (once we knew Thing1 would be okay), but if chronic illness has taught all of us anything, it’s how to find the silver lining in any situation. Thing1 got his release papers after two days, and the four of us had an mini-staycation so he could reintroduce us to our old stomping grounds.

Having lived there as newlyweds, the Big Guy and I have seen our share of sights, and, except for wanting to see a Turner exhibit, we were happy to walk around our favorite haunts. Thing1 and Thing2 made it clear that, no matter how air conditioned it was, they would not be going inside any museum while there was still street food to be sampled, so, on the last day, we turned Thing2 over to his brother and went, child-free for the first time in 22 years, to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Turner exhibit was going until July 10, giving us one more silver lining for the week. Joseph Mallord William Turner has been one of my favorite artists for decades, and, while we had been to a few exhibits focused on his work, nothing prepared us for this one. Boasting room after room of watercolors, drawings, and, of course, oils, the exhibit focused on Turner’s artistic and philosophical evolution against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, the end of the British slave trade, and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

His masterworks were awe-inspiring, but about halfway through the second room, I stumbled on to something much more humble that, for several hours, quieted all the toxic questions in my head. In a glass case by a doorway sat a 4″ x 5″ dog-eared sketchbook next to a faded pencil and gray-wash drawing. The sketchbook was laid open so that the viewer could see several entries.

Studying them was like walking through a forest for the first time.

The first sketch looked as if Turner had been sitting near a soldier — it was a quickly drawn impression of some detail of the uniform. It was by no means perfect. The next drawing appeared to be inside a tavern of some sort. It, too, was perfectly imperfect. It was never intended to be a masterpiece or even part of one.

It was Turner bearing witness to life around him. Good or bad wasn’t part of the equation in any of these sketches. There was no questioning of who he was, there was only doing work he was driven to do.

So much of the noise in my own head is created by the question of “is it good?” I worry about the better artist at the next table seeing my inferior work. The irony is that when my own students worry if their writing or art is good, I make sure they know that creating, working — good or bad – is what helps them grow.

As we moved from gallery to gallery, I began to see more of the same theme in his masterpieces, as well as his sketches and “practice” watercolors. Even in his most celebrated work, different elements highlighted Turner’s strengths and minimized any “weaknesses.” It finally occurred to me more than once that the only thing that would have kept him from being an artist would have been if he had worried about the artist or creator at the next table in that tavern and let that sketchbook stay empty.

Hot Mess, Cool Brain

In the end, it’s the not just the content of the racing thoughts that drive people to a swallow that bottle of pills – I think it’s a  desperate to escape the noise inside your brain. I realized that a few weeks ago as I got out of bed just past midnight and padded to my office.

I’d been lying in bed tossing and turning over a health insurance question I knew I couldn’t solve that night. It was a vital one, affecting my ability to get and continue treatment for my and my sons chronic illnesses, but it was still a problem that had no midnight solutions. 

No matter how many times I rolled over to a different side to try to reframe the question, it wouldn’t be solved that night or in the middle of any night.

That’s what I told myself when I’d tried to go to bed an hour and a half earlier, and after 90 minutes of mentally calculating budgets and consequences, it was still true. Knowing it was true, however, didn’t stop the thought racing through my brain. I knew some of this is anxiety from the shooting in Texas and multiple threats against schools here in Vermont during the same week. 

I also know that is what mania feels like. Sometimes you get the fun mania – – you feel all powerful and try to take on as much of the world as you can before the inevitable crash. Other times — most of the time during one of many sleepless nights – you just can’t stop thinking about anything and everything. 

I see this in my students sometimes. An unnamed but very real trauma may completely derail any attempt to sit at a desk and learn. When they are vocalized, internal monologues escape at a fast and furious pace as these kids who have already seen too much try to process and suppress the memory of whatever has happened between school days. 

When I see it in my kids, I instinctively turn to art — not the meditation that comes from drawing, but the expression and venting that comes with color. The irony is, that as my own head had become crowded with worries over the last few months of school, I didn’t automatically return to art to quiet my own thoughts.

That night, battered by real worries I couldn’t resolve in the dark on a weekend and feeling steel bands of stress tighten around my chest, however, I finally hopped out of bed and went to my office, put on some music and started to paint. I didn’t know what I would paint and I didn’t care. The result at the end of a 45 minute session was a hot mess but a cool brain that, for a few critical moments, managed to escape the noise inside.

Can We Talk about Anything Else

A year into this blog, I wrote about my lifelong dance with bipolar disorder. Clawing my way out of a deep depressive episode at the time, I was writing nothing and had nothing to lose. Even in 2013, coming out as bipolar was something only celebrities did in public When you’re not famous enough to announce it on Letterman, people look at you funny, and I was anxious about hitting “Publish” that day.

That’s nothing compared to the angst I feel as I click the publish button today.

Five years ago I was trying to move from IT to teaching. I’d found a teacher prep program. I got a part-time job as a para-educator at a place to get experience and student teach while keeping my old job. 

I’d forgotten, however, that my work at home mom status (WAHM) had not been entirely a matter of choice.

A few weeks into the new job, we were trying to get a group of preschoolers out for a walk, when I started to pass out. The other teachers in the group covered for me as I tried to recover, but I had literally fallen down on the job. I left to go home but passed out when I got to my car. 

When I woke up, I decided that an ambulance would scare kids at the school and stupidly drove myself to the emergency room. The ER staff ran bloodwork, and, discovering I was severely anemic, told me I needed rest and no driving. I said I’d always been anemic but never knew why. 

I was having my period and asked to go to the bathroom during the first hour. Having learned years earlier that ibuprofen could stop bleeding, I’d taken a pile of pills in the morning. They were wearing off, and about 20 minutes later I asked  to go to the bathroom again, and the nurse asked me about it. 

I don’t know why, but even wearing a Johnny that left little to the imagination, with wires and tubes attached to and coming out of me, I had to whisper when talking about my “period” (I cringed when I typed it just now). Most people – including me – would rather talk about anything else.

As I talked with the nurse and then the doctor, they realized I wasn’t having a normal period. I never had a normal period. I single-handedly kept Tampax stock prices afloat. I was the mother of the Mississippi.

For almost 20 years, I had mentioned “heavy” flow to various doctors or midwives, usually getting a pat answer like “everybody’s different,” so I accepted that anemia was normal. Going through a small bottle of ibuprofen every month to be able to leave the house for a few hours was normal. 

I never talked about it with anyone else because most other people would also rather talk about anything else. The very thing that makes it possible for women to have babies is also a subject that is most taboo.

The ER docs gave me a prescription and a referral. My regular GYN had retired, and the referral connected me with a new one. He got my health history and scheduled an ultrasound, quickly diagnosing me with a condition called adenomyosis, similar to endometriosis. The then-new doctor explained there were minimally invasive options to manage the condition but only one foolproof cure. 

Why am I bringing this up five years later when there are so many other things to write about?

Because the only cure for adenomyosis is it hysterectomy, which I’m having a week from today.

I’ve had enough surgeries over my life that I’m not particularly nervous about this one, but I am annoyed with myself. I’m haven’t let convention dictate my writing or conversations much in recent years. This topic maybe a doozy, but I realized convention had kept me from talking about adenomyosis and from finding answers years earlier. Period silence creates fewer places to get information and help  — online and off – for many women.  For me, silence caused multiple miscarriages, kept me working at home because I was terrified to be more than 10 feet from a bathroom five days out of every month, and nearly cost me the opportunity to do something useful.

So, while it’s not something I want or plan to talk about all the time, I’m no longer willing to tip-toe around it. 

Try Anything

Raise your hand if you can identify:

It’s Wednesday morning. You’re looking for something to wear, your Zoom sweatpants and work-appropriate shirts are just snug enough to make a day in front of a camera uncomfortable in more ways than one.

No problem, you think. I’ll just swear off meat/carbs/diet soda/sugar/rat poison and turn my life around. I’ll work out for an hour a day and run a marathon like everyone else.

Everyone knows you always start a diet on Monday, however, you should enjoy those last hurrahs of meat/carbs/diet soda/sugar/rat poison until then. You think about how fit you’ll be by the end of the year as you indulge in a last bit of gluttony on Sunday.

Monday rolls around, and your first morning of abstinence starts beautifully. You even get some exercise in – a slow start, of course. You can’t go from couch surfing to marathons overnight.

And then dinner time rolls around. You’re not really hungry, but suddenly you remember just how much you loved meat/carbs/diet soda/sugar/rat poison.  Maybe you should try a different diet/lifestyle change. Maybe have just one bite of that favorite food.

Wednesday rolls around again, and you’re thinking maybe you need to buy a few new shirts.

That’s been my winter, and I’ve tons of excuses for my bad behavior.

  • I’ve been dealing with a bleeding disorder that causes anemia making it hard to build iron, and I need to eat more (I actually have been, but the eating more part was just an excuse).
  • I’ve been tired.
  • I’ve been depressed.
  • I’ve been working too much to workout (but not too much to study or watch TV).
  • I’ve been tired… Oh wait.

Now it’s spring. I’m looking at the scale and the mirror, thinking a loop of the two images could make a great horror movie I’ll call ‘Terror in the Bathroom.’ It might finally get my blood pressure up, but won’t be progress.

Last Wednesday, I had started my ‘time-to-change’ mantra just before a lunchtime Zoom book club at school. We’re reading Lost at School by Ross W. Greene, a psychologist and child development researcher whose nonprofit, Lives in the Balance, promotes the idea that most maladaptive behaviors result from unlearned skills rather than a lack of motivation or consequences.  I’d read his work during a prior behavior analysis and intervention class and found it immediately applicable in working with students with challenging behaviors.

The book club should have been my a-ha moment, but it took a day.

Instead, as soon as class ended, I resumed my own maladaptive behavior – planning for a healthier lifestyle to start four days hence, preceded by overindulgence to mentally ‘prepare’ for deprivation and discipline.

To be sure, sometimes I’ve disrupted the cycle long enough to lose 40 or even 50 pounds, but no ‘lifestyle change’ is never permanent. I’ll blame circumstance or my mental health for the addictive/obsessive behavior. Never once have I questioned if a lack of skills has kept me on the hamster wheel.

Thursday I was debating the merits of low-carb vs. whole foods plant based diets. Each plan has brought some success but eliminating entire food groups – even with the promise of gorging on ‘allowed’ foods – always leads to ‘cheat days’ that turn into cheat weeks and months.  I’ll beat myself up, knowing I ‘have the skills’ to lose weight but not the motivation (even though I really do want to be able to run up our mountain when the zombie apocalypse happens).

Recalling our book club discussion from the day before, I wondered, if I had the skills (and, possibly, the motivation) what function does the hamster wheel serve?  What skills do I lack?

I looked at my diet behavior which is usually at one extreme or the other. For a while, each extreme feels good physically and emotionally, especially when I’m hitting a depressive phase. Next, just like I would with a student with a challenging behavior, I looked for a healthier replacement.

Trying to remember the opposite of extreme, I stumbled over a strategy that had worked in the past – moderation.

I’d tried moderating ten years ago with slow but steady progress. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy, however, and the siren call of extreme dieting and workouts ultimately pulled me back to battling the extremes.

Thursday, instead of eliminating entire food groups or adopting an unrealistic workout routine, I came up with a set of deliberate behaviors that will, hopefully, eschew the extremes. I identified a reasonable daily calorie limit. Everything is on the menu – in moderation. There are no diet days and no cheat days. There will be physical activity every day – in moderation.

Then, just as I would with a student with ADHD or bipolar, I identified skills to learn or relearn and practice moderating.  That means accountability with a food journal. It means serving emotional needs with activities other than over-eating or extreme dieting/exercise.

I don’t know if this plan will work, but I do know the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result.  And, needing to keep what precious little sanity I have, I’m willing to try anything. Even moderation.

I’ll keep you posted.

Get Closer

Thing1 texted today that is spring break return this weekend will be the beginning of an extended stay as his schoolmoves to dance learning to respond to this virus that the world health organization now calls a pandemic. The University, like so many other organizations, is recommending “social distancing“. I often think we have too much social distancing in this country already.

While I texted back-and-forth with Thing1 about the logistics of getting his stuff home for an extended stay, I I clicked on Facebook a few times. A fellow artist in town announced that it was plein-air season and she was looking for people to go paint nature. I had too many meetings after work to go paint today, but as she posted another open invitation to any would be painters, I begin mentally assembling my travel kit and checking the weather for the next few days.

Painting outside, for me, means painting alone most the time, but is anything but lonely. Painting outside means communing with bugs and birds. it means meditating on setting Suns or the dozens of colors of green. It means becoming part of the scenery so that you can feel it and try to keep that feeling in your work. It is solitary, but it is never lonely.

A few years ago I used to run. My favorite places to run were our mountain roads, flanked by trees and teeming with life. Like Plein air painting, running was solitary but never lonely. It was feeling morning do on your skin mixing a sweat. It was hearing your feet setting on dirt and dead leaves crackling underneath. It was listening to birds and smaller creatures wrestling in the woods next to The road or path. It was The opposite of distancing. It was getting closer to nature end to life.

So even though I know temporary recommendations for social isolation are probably wise in light of the impact of Corona in other countries with excellent health care access. I do think there is a an antidote do the Loneliness (and fear) it may bring. The answer is to move closer, Not farther, to life. Reconnecting with the natural world seems like one of the better ways to do that.

I Got This

Sometime last weekend Corona arrived in southwestern Vermont. The place where nothing ever happens, suddenly had something happen that’s happening everywhere.

Our school and most of the schools around here are taking common sense precautions and outlining new policies. There is talk of some people being quarantined as a precaution. And, even though most of the strategies still center around good old-fashioned soap and water, our conversations at home have included a few inquiries into whether or not we could handle a quarantine of the type being instituted in the Lombardy region of Italy right now.

But the Green Mountain prepper in me isn’t thinking about how much TP is left in that giant skid we bought before the winter or if we’re running low on canned soup or firewood. stocking up for tough times – weeklong power outages, blizzards, occasionally hurricanes, and, more frequently, economic downturn‘s – is a way of life for most people in rural areas like ours.

For most of the last twenty years since we moved to Vermont, I’ve had a veggie garden big enough to fill my freezer and keep me out of trouble for most of the summer. The last few summers it’s languished as I worked toward my teaching certificate. The first warm sun this weekend, however, got me mentally mapping paths and raised beds in the overgrown plot next to the house.

So, as spring and bad news, all I could think was, I got this.

I got my gym for the summer.

I got our backup grocery store.

I got my broken foot physical therapy.

But, most of all, knowing there is some dirt and sweat in my near future, I’ll get the calming kind of mental health therapy that usually ends up being the most important element in getting through any crisis.

How are you taking care of your mental health in this era of endless crises?