Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Declaration of Independence

I had drafted something last Friday after a brutal interaction with someone. I ended the post with a countdown until I was going to be free of the obligations that were making me miserable.

Well, what a difference a day, or at most a weekend, can make. By Saturday night I had removed myself from one, and by Monday morning I had extricated myself out from another. Those two were the biggest stressors, and everything else aside from that has a deliverable and/or deadline that feels much more doable. So, even though I am not entirely free of obligation, I feel lighter on my feet and happy. Not just "much happier" but happy.

People who were unkind to me and got me to the point where I made this decision shouldn't be proud of themselves, but ultimately, this is about me, not them. I have been suffering for years under toxic stress, and it wasn't until March of last year that I realized I wasn't crazy for thinking so. (I also suffered from it as a child, but distance in time and circumstance meant I didn't have to argue with myself about that.) The health problems associated with toxic stress are well-documented, but one thing that isn't emphasized enough is that we don't make good decisions. We don't walk away from jerks because they're not as bad as monsters, and the smallest bit of praise ("hey, I see that you worked your ass off for weeks/months so something could work really well for a couple of hours" or "look at you, being a competent human being") feels incredibly rewarding when you're around people who make you feel like you're not a human being, period, so you'll keep going back for more (unpaid) work if it means that you'll eventually be rewarded with feel-good praise. And should you have a moment of clarity, one in which you can't deny that you're miserable and dread not just your next meeting but the hours of the day itself because it means there's some work you need to be getting to, but whatever it is you do, it's never going to be enough, you'll suppress any thought of taking care of yourself first because that's what selfish quitters do and you've been spending your whole life picking up after them and god, if there's one thing you can avoid, it's being one of them (FYI, they're the ones that eventually start to look like monsters). So you suck it up until you can't breathe any more, but that's okay, you're used to not being able to catch a deep breath.

Really, that says it all

I started to come out from under the stressors in April of last year, but it was a lot, and deep, and thorough. Which is all to say that in May I still wasn't making good decisions, and I wasn't even making good decisions in September. And maybe I should step back here and admit that I'm a bit of an optimist as well, and I believe in potential. (If that sounds maladaptive, you have a point, but know that looking at the future is sometimes the only way to get through the present.) So it's only as I'm genuinely beginning to feel better that I realized I wanted to feel much better, even happy. That combination highlighted for me how trapped I felt.

But here's what people don't tell you when you feel trapped: sometimes it takes just one step to start finding your way out of your prison. It started, not with the projects alluded to above, but a much smaller body, though nevertheless one I did a lot of work for a few months out of the year. After one project was completed, I heard (for the second year in a row) that there were complaints behind my back about how well the project went, never mind that there was effusive praise to my face. Maybe - it's always dangerous to believe gossip - but it was enough that I had no interest in working for that committee again. When that became official, I felt...fine. I wasn't overwhelmed by guilt, I wasn't worried that I was irreplaceable, I knew life was going to go on just fine without me. And then I was relieved that I wouldn't have to be with people who made me uneasy. That, combined with the nasty interaction above, made me start fantasizing about what it would be like to feel that way about everything.

And now here we are. I keep checking myself for dread and worries about doom, but instead I feel good. I feel like I have a bunch of things I'm looking forward to doing, not ones I need to do or else. I feel un-stressed. Might this also have something to do with the yoga practice I've been developing for myself, especially since it included a lot of twists this morning? And might it also have something to do with the green smoothies I've been drinking? Maybe and maybe, but believe me, even delicious things like twists and smoothies can feel like drudgery when that's all you see.

Another plus of my independence is that I get to blog more (in addition to things like writing and spending time with my family). So, woo hoo - I'll be back to this sooner than I usually am.

Until then,
Deb in the City

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A spoonful of honey

My husband has been sick for the last few days. This follows a lingering cough I managed to shake last week, but overlaps with one of the kids having some kind of GI...thing. Such is winter in the Northeast, especially when everyone is pushing just a little bit (or more) past capacity.

As I was putting honey into my husband's tea yesterday morning, I was reminded of another child, suffering with another cough, but of a different. Back when my now-almost-twenty-six year old was an only child, she suffered from chronic congestion. The protocols seemed to have changed: I spent a lot of time being told that she could take hot, steamy showers to loosen up whatever was making her cough, and then she was finally given an inhaler and a nebulizer after a few trips to the ER. By the time her younger brothers were born ten years later, they just wrote a prescription for an inhaler as soon as they listened to some unclear lungs for the first time.

Back in the steamy shower days, when she was about three, my husband and I spent a lot of time in a neighboring town for certain errands. We liked being there, back then. It was smaller than where we lived, and had had for many years a thriving Jewish culture. Numerous Russian Jewish immigrants had settled in that area, and as we both have Ashkenazi ancestry, it was nice to be in that area among people that reminded us of our ancestors.

Much better than a spoonful of sugar

One of the places we went frequently, with little girl in tow, was a dry cleaners. It's not there anymore; it's either been replaced by a swankier dry cleaner, or an even swankier restaurant. Such are the ways of gentrification. But back then such a place still existed, and it was run by an elderly Russian Jewish couple. I remember now: I went there first to have my shoes adjusted. The man's English was hard to understand, but he was well-practiced in his craft, so when he handed me the shoes and the insert and gestured with his hands, I understood what he wanted me to do. He was kind, but he was busy. His wife, however, satisfied all the stereotypes of an elderly immigrant grandmother, and she thought my daughter was adorable (she was correct). I seem to remember some cuddling.

One day, they had another customer, perhaps a little younger than the two of them, but old enough to be my mother. She was one of those people who aren't given to smiling naturally. I tend to shy away from those people, especially when I have a small child in tow, and especially when that child is ill. I was aware, of course, that we should get her home sooner rather than later, and I was hurrying to make sure we could. I also had the sense that I was interrupting something, even if it was only a chance to share a conversation in their native language.

After my daughter's tenth burst of coughing, the other customer nodded at me. She spoke more softly, and more gently than I thought she would. "Give her hot water with honey," she said matter-of-factly, but with sympathy. "It will soothe her throat, but it will also bind up whatever is making her cough." That sounded...very reasonable. I smiled, as I do when I'm nervous, nodded, and thanked her.

I believe I did give my daughter hot honey water when we got home, but I'm not sure how much it helped. (Surely, it was no less effective than the hot steamy shower.) But that's not why we do everything, is it? Sometimes it's nice to be reminded of when someone wanted to help you, whatever help it was they could offer, and sometimes those are the easiest gestures to repeat.