Today is surgery eve…I decided to name the occasion as part of my day-long experiment on managing the internal chaos that accompanies each and every surgery. Today, I am also getting a haircut because I like the smell of the barbershop (for the soothing), eating lunch at my favorite spot (for the indulgence), and obsessively cleaning (for the control). This is the formula for my own personal self-care cocktail.
I don’t get nervous about the actual operation. I can’t even remember if I ever was anxious about hospitals and doctors and surgeries. For one surgery, the techs accidentally interpreted my calm for sedation, causing me to hear and witness more details than a patient wants to while lying on an OR table. I remember they were enthusiastically singing “I’m Too Sexy”…I really want to believe the OR is filled with classical music or Dalai Lama quotes read aloud or something. Right Said Fred should never be the last noise heard before being overcome by anesthesia.
I imagine I was anxiously impacted by medical stuff at some point in life, but that’s distant. Don’t get me wrong…I don’t like all that comes with living in a struggling body, but I think my brain now understands that the hospital piece is the easiest part for me.
What I hate is the recovery. I don’t like being dependent and needy and limited and weak. In short, I don’t like my humanity. This gets in the way of progress in many parts of my life. Somehow I made the mistaken connection early on that being capable means being distant, aloof, and independent at all cost. Not only is this completely fallacious, but I’m now working on rewiring my mind to see that strength actually comes from the ability to share burdens. I share my burdens with you and you with me. Then, like breadsticks at Olive Garden, there is a never-ending supply of nourishment from which to draw strength. Now, I’m off to practice living that out…
“We’re a long way from the farm…” is a phrase uttered many times between Dr. Mentor and me on recent trips. Although we grew up many states and some years apart from one another, we share a common rural upbringing that was far from exotic. I didn’t even know how to imagine things I’ve experienced on my last few trips. I’m grateful and humbled.
Our most recent trip was back to Lebanon and Jordan. I love these countries. The people. The beauty. The history. The FOOD. And when you teach, it feels like a rich conversation. I feel more like an extrovert that at any other time, but it is really just people relationally honoring my introversion so that I feel socially safe.
On a day-off excursion in Jordan, we were treated to a luxury camping experience in the middle of breathtakingly beautiful desert. Camels roaming about and more stars in the sky than I’ve ever seen, Dr. Mentor and I just sat in the quiet presence of our lovely hosts. My curiosity was skyrocketing as I imagined what ancient feet passed through this same patch of land and what thoughts had been wondered by the minds connected to those feet.
Then I rode a horse. Into Petra. I don’t ride horses. I believe horses are beautiful and to be feared….like the ocean and Helena Bonham Carter. However, the opportunity to experience a wonder of the world on horseback was temporarily bigger than the fear. My horse guide, Mohammed, led me into the ancient city while excitedly asking me about how many cowboy hats exist in Texas. I became relaxed and then even connected to the horse. I asked what the horse was called only to have Mohammed say there was nothing. So, now that I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, I feel strangely settled.
Even with all the exotic beauty and unusual adventures, the people I’ve met are the source of joy on these trips. I’ve begun friendships that already feel lifelong. They are caring and committed to building community rooted in love. They are authentic and full of life. If I’m honest, the fear of horses was a playful distraction compared to other fears that almost prevented me from ever traveling to the region. However, as I have so quickly experienced the receiving and giving of sincere compassion from my new friends, I more understand the paradoxical reality of how fear displaces love. Thanks friends. See you soon.
I have a disturbing number of bathroom stories. They humble me in the moment and entertain me later…sometimes it’s a while later. This post is dedicated to bathroom stories so do not read further if you’re unprepared for disturbing potty-related mishaps. If you make it to the end, there will be a lesson learned. It just arrives after an indelicate journey.
I have found that the automatic flush feature in airport bathrooms is either incredibly hypervigilant (rushing me off with continual Niagara-like flushes) or not at all functional (where I am frantically waving at the sensor like Annie Sullivan trying to communicate with Helen Keller for the first time). Then, once I arrive at the sink for hand washing, there is extreme inner conflict as I realize anything I touch in an attempt to wash the experience away will actually only make me more contaminated. Recently, I had a particularly disturbing experience with some guys sponge bathing in the sinks and I couldn’t make peace with any plan that involved handwashing. I engage in prepared self-talk, reassuring myself that I had hand sanitizer in my backpack and I would survive this. Seated at the gate, I begin the process of trying to extricate my hand sanitizer from the seven levels of zippers in my bag. Next I’m trying to go back and sanitize anything I have touched while trying to access the sanitizer. Oh the futility.
Then, last week, the family and I went a couple hours south of our hometown so I could have a meeting. While navigating the various traffic hazards, we decided to dismount the interstate for a gas station bathroom and candy break. This is a travel stop sort of place and there is quite a line in the men’s room. As I walk in to the bathroom, a man with some fascinating face tattoos (who seems to have proclaimed himself as mayor of the travel stop) directed me to choose between the “line for number ones” and “the line for number twos”. I fall in line behind him because I always try to align myself with those in power. He immediately takes me under his wing and advises me not to enter any stall that is exited by a guy with a backpack. Because I’m me, I need more information. In 25 seconds or so, he succinctly describes drug mules and the role of the cartel in the upcoming presidential election. While I’m trying to process the possibility that I was being initiated into a gang or cult, a man exited a stall with a backpack overflowing with plastic bags. Mayor Face Tattoo raises his eyebrows and waves the third in line into the now available stall and I decide I can hold it.
Perhaps the most traumatic of all my bathroom experiences happened in the middle of the night at a Walgreens. It is possible I am about to admit to breaking any of a number of city ordinances. In order to digest this story, you need to know that when I get sick, I get SICK. There is no off switch. When the fluid starts to exit involuntarily, I have to get to an ER. So, several years ago, I get sick in the night and my wife can’t take me to the hospital due to having little ones at home. It is a relatively short list of friendships that I think can survive taking me to the ER in the nighttime for this particular ailment. Enter friend V. V has witnessed some of our catastrophic and historic family moments, but none would compare to this night. V comes quickly and begins the seemingly never-ending drive to the hospital. While unsuccessfully trying to override every biological impulse in my virus-infested body, I unleash a fury in V’s car that simply can’t be captured in text. I ask for her to pull in somewhere, anywhere. Enter Walgreens. I urgently and gingerly walk through the empty aisles in search of the bathroom, evidently gathering suspicion in my plight. As I assess the situation in the bathroom stall, I realize there is no option other than search the store for replacement clothes. I find some sort of moderately offensive t-shirt easily, but there are no pants. I’m panicking. Anything will do. I’m not picky…please let there be pants. Any pants. And then I found them….one pair of way too small WHITE sweat pants. Honestly. I get the white sweat pants and make the purchase while avoiding any eye contact. This, in retrospect, is just adding to my suspicious behavior. I rush back to the bathroom, which has no lock, and start to clean myself in the sink when the manager comes in to discover what illegal activity is going down in his store. Unclothed and unspeakably disgusting, I feverishly tell my story and, let me tell you, this guy couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I put on the t-shirt and terrifyingly white pants and, with relentless apologies to V knowing she can never un-see this, resume my trip to the ER. By the way, that did not make the Carfax for whatever poor soul next got that car.
Let me tell you something about frame of reference. When I consider myself as the one to be contaminated by others, as in the airport bathroom, there is a part of me that looks upon others with disgust. When I see myself as the straight-laced law abider, I judge the life choices of others, as in the travel stop. However, when I see that I am the actual broken, filthy, break-any-norm-to-survive-the-moment person, I soften. I remember that every life choice is preceded by a story and that context gives capacity for seeing situations through a filter of grace. I shouldn’t need humiliation to remind me of this, but it sometimes takes that. Remember that in your future bathroom moments.
I grew up with six grandmothers, my two grandmothers and all four great-grandmothers. Plus, they all lived relatively close so I spent a lot of time with each of them. Until recently, I didn’t know how unusual this was. Most people have to stop and think when I insist that everyone has actually four biological great-grandmothers.
I lost my great-grandmothers in my late teens and twenties. There was Little Momma, Big Momma, Grandma, and Oochie. One taught me how to do word games and persevere no matter what. One showed me survival. One modeled work ethic, strength, and how never to spend money unnecessarily. One exuded compassion and grace and had the best giggle. They all taught me resilience.
I am blessed with the surpassingly wonderful pleasure of still having both of my grandmothers. They are incredible women. Full of life. Devoted to family. Ma Billye lives in the same house now that she lived in for my entire childhood. Even though she is five foot nothing and probably no more than a hundred pounds, I always felt safe with her. She worked in an office, which was unusual in the rural setting of my youth, and I thought that was amazing. Plus she kept candy bars in the freezer. There is nothing better than a frozen Snickers.
Ma Nellie, my maternal grandmother, is hysterical. She is full of kindness and gratitude, but also never minces words. An amazing cook, she owned a small country store and café when I was little and I rode the bus there after school. I miss that food and, even though it now would cause me and others unthinkable discomfort, I would crawl back to that store for the gravy.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent some days with Ma Nellie in Las Vegas. Together, we assertively dealt with slot machine lurkers, narrowly avoided ambiguously-named strip clubs, shared sidewalk vendor Lebanese food, spontaneously joined a screening audience for an upcoming sitcom, fought off capitalistic super heroes, laughed at confusingly-provocative slot machines and talked and talked. It was just an awesome privilege.
All of my grandmothers are novel worthy characters. Their strength is undeniable. Gratitude doesn’t feel like a strong enough word to describe my appreciation for all they have provided to me and so many others. My personal goal is not to waste any pain that comes my way while also not being defined by my pain. I was given a generous head start on this goal thanks to the sacrifice, drive, and love of my grandmothers.
My daughter and I took our very large dog for a bath yesterday. We’ve made a lot of bath progress (from the first bath that we stupidly did in our own tub as my daughter hid in the shower videoing the entire trainwreck). Now we go to a store with tubs behind giant glass walls where strangers can stand and watch. So it’s like our freak show of a home movie moved to the stage production.
Yesterday’s bath went great…best one yet. The only hiccup occurred on the way to the store. The dog attempted to migrate from the back of my small SUV to the back seat. But she’s too tall to make the full transition. Her enormous front legs are in the back seat and her very long back half is still pressed against the back glass. We looked like magicians who shoved her in a box preparing to saw her in half.
During this portion of the experience, as she is trying to extricate herself without the benefit of a developed prefrontal cortex, dog hair gets everywhere. I mean everywhere. We decided to complete the bath, deposit the dog at home, and later find the carwash with the free car vacuums. Only I get distracted and part three never happened.
So fast forward to this morning when it’s time for school. I am ready to drive my two teens and my daughter’s friend to school when I remember the dog hair-laced crime scene that is now my backseat. I tell the girls to grab a blanket and cover the headrests and seats. Simple enough. But now they can’t buckle their seatbelts. I “helpfully” advise both on how to work around the blanket without any part of their persons making contact with dog hair. Now, they are basically sitting in the backseat wearing part toga, part blanket diaper…as we pull into their high school.
Needless to say, they get out of the car quite quickly and I enter into traffic gridlock on the way to a meeting. I’m not the best driver. Combine the poor reflexes that come from a lifetime of neuropathy with the attention span of a Jack Russell terrier and a driving pro I am not. As a result, I get quite a lot of attention from other drivers. I don’t even pretend to be apologetic anymore. I reject the angry and sometimes startled stares with a general look of indifference.
However, I’m getting more double takes and stares than normal. I go through the cursory list of potential car issues I have often ignored to my own peril. The gas tank lid is closed as are all doors. I’m not dragging anything or anyone behind me. A segment on the radio is now talking about a tongue-shaped brush for cat owners where they “lick” their cats free of tangles, so the inventory of potential automobile hazards gets understandably truncated.
I arrive at my destination and disembark. As I get a sideye view of my backseat, I flip out. The space where two teen girls had been sitting on contorted blankets now startling looks like propped up covered bodies…the way dead bodies are usually covered in shows. I’m driving through heavy suburban traffic looking like a scene from Breaking Bad…or Weekend at Bernie’s. This explains a lot about my morning drive, except the cat brush because that is still a mystery.
If you have read my previous entries, you know this is the place I mention what lesson I took away from the experience. People, I’ve got nothing for you today. Drive safe.
Last night, while in a pharmaceutically-induced sleep, I dreamed I was in an MRI machine (a frequent occurrence) being sprinkled with salad toppings by various relatives (a less frequent occurrence). I kept insisting that they needed to let me out or I would miss my American Idol audition, which is ridiculous because American Idol is no longer on the air.
These sorts of wacky dreams are common for me. I daydream like this as well. All the time. During grad school, I passed (or failed depending on how you look at it) the tests that confirmed ADHD. “H” is for hyperactivity would make an amazing Sesame Street episode. I believe that my various physical struggles limit my musculature from expressing said hyperactivity so it all bottlenecks in my nervous system, creating monster dreams, too many words that could ever come out of one mouth, and daydreams that make me ideal for hanging out with 7-year-olds but tend to limit my professionalism with grown-ups.
All of this makes me quite anxious or maybe I was anxious in the beginning. Either way, I’ve tried for a long time to shut off my dream world. I believed that denying all of this impulsive mental pinballing would help me fit somewhere. (You see some anxious people start to label stuff as broken in them and this makes it harder and harder to believe they could ever naturally belong…so updating your personality to a newer version will finally eliminate the bugs.) Suppressing dreams only seems to have intensified my struggles, however.
Years ago, I met someone who would eventually become a mentor and friend, to be called Dr. Mentor in this story (which looks a lot like dementor when I type it…did Rowling mean for these creatures that truly terrify me to represent the exact opposite effect of what a true mentor does…like Dumbledore is to Harry…mind. blown.). Anyway, Dr. Mentor has this laugh. It is a wonderful, infectious laugh. Dr. Mentor has wisdom, but is not flashy with it (though has every right to be). Dr. Mentor has gone through tremendous heartache and modeled vulnerability, faith, strength, humility, grace, and through it all, how to keep dreaming.
Dr. Mentor likes my dream world and makes it feel safe to express it. I would even say that Dr. Mentor nurtures my dreams. Then dreams turn into action and I’m living in a world of possibilities instead of limitations.
I hope everyone gets to have a Dr. Mentor and then eventually gets to become one to someone else. It’s a game changer.
We have a lot of accidental traditions in my family. We may eat Chinese food off paper plates while playing Monopoly one 4th of July and the next year one of the kids says, “What do you mean we’re having salmon and salad….we always have Chinese food on paper plates with Monopoly on the 4th….it’s tradition.” Truth be told, I’m always in favor of happenstance tradition over salmon.
Some of our traditions are just silly. Every Christmas Eve the kids open one gift. It’s always pajamas. They know it’s going to be pajamas. And they say so. We do a song and dance where we pretend this year could be the one deviating year and then they open the pajamas. I don’t know why we do this, but our world seems to find its balance when we exercise such patterns.
There is one tradition that I have grown to love above all others. On New Year’s Day, we conduct our annual summer vacation pitch meeting. It’s like Mad Men without the booze and sexism. Everyone secretly researches possible vacation destinations (after a budget is established) and we spend the afternoon in negotiations. One by one, everyone lays out his or her arguments for the trip of choice. Then there is a ludicrous round of balloting with blind and weighted choice sheets. It gets complicated and we love it. The winning destination is revealed and then we nap to recover the mental exhaustion of it all.
You really get to see the personality of each family member in the locale choice, pitch style, and definitely in the method of preparation. My wife is last minute but thorough. I steer toward the unusual and difficult to pronounce. The kids each show what makes them truly brilliant.
My son chooses extravagant settings that he is literally googling while presenting. Not much forethought, but plenty of conviction. He passionately argues the virtue of his chosen city like he’s been pondering it since birth.
My daughter begins her choice selection weeks ahead of time and sends us all meeting reminders. She is organized without being obsessive and thoughtful of how everyone could enjoy the trip. Without show, she presents a contemplative and quiet set of well-designed slides.
We have had some great trips and have thousands of unsorted, digital images to back it up. The greatness, though, is less about the destination and mostly about the process of getting there. I wish I could claim pre-determined parental brilliance in establishing the New Year’s Day pitch meeting tradition, but it was an accident (like the anti-salmon movement). Through this yearly adventure, we have come to trust our kids’ judgment more and more and to hear their voices. As a result, they are invested and begin to celebrate the trip in advance of its coming (regardless of who chose it) because they were included. Because they were heard. Because they were respected.
Now, January 1 is my favorite day of summer vacation.
I get myself into all kinds of messes. All the time. For the few of you who know of this specific incident, prepare yourselves because I’m now going public with the banana story. This is only for the hope it might offer others.
A couple of years ago, I uncomfortably attended a large, professional conference. The conference was great and the people seemed generally lovely, so the issue was with me and not with the seeming billions of people intruding upon my introverted soul. I just become so awkward in these settings and then do ridiculous things.
Arriving early, I took the escalator down from the conference ballroom to the coffee shop. Bought a coffee. At the last second I grabbed a banana and then headed back to the conference room to establish a nest in the back corner of the room. This gives me a vantage point that reduces the number of spontaneous conversations or least allows me to see them coming. Anyhow, back to the banana.
As I am precariously balancing my coffee, conference materials, and the aforementioned banana, I began to panic at the prospect of navigating the upward escalator without a free hand. Knowing me makes this part self-explanatory. So I naturally stuck the banana in my pants pocket and boarded the elevating escalator. I stumbled, unsurprisingly, and did not spill the coffee, surprisingly. However, the stumble caused the banana pocket leg to be a rung above the non-banana leg. And the banana began to squeeze and smush and spread, creating a sensation impossible to adequately recreate in words.
I get to my corner to assess the situation. I insert my hand into my pocket to try and extricate the mostly flattened banana. It turns out that smushed banana and panic-induced leg sweat make quite a paste. Now I can’t get my hand out and am realizing I should have attempted this part of the rescue mission in the bathroom. With a not so swift motion, I yank and banana paints the conference wall, creating a fruit graffiti situation. My hand is disgusting; the table is a wreck; banana is dripping from the wall; I smell like laffy taffy.
Fast forward a few minutes and I simply must settle in to hearing someone teach about something profoundly professional. At this point, I see a friend sitting three tables in front of me. She is a lovely and expressive extrovert who tolerates well my quirks. In a moment of verbal vomit, I text her my best effort at explaining this self-created situation. It was an impulsive attempt at seeking some removal of my aloneness. I don’t even know what I needed other than someone to be in this with me. I watch her pick up her phone, place her head on the table, and begin to laugh in that way that shakes your shoulders. Her attempt to control laughter brought me to laughter. I cracked up at the absurdity of it all.
Her laughter spoke acceptance, and even appreciation, of my quirks. I didn’t feel judged by her enjoyment because everything about my prior conversations with her had informed that she was safe enough to know about banana-induced problems. This now shared experience shaped my perception of the experience.
In my first blog article, I mentioned I wanted my posts to reflect on the lessons learned from interactions with people I enjoy in the world. That day, I learned from my shoulder-shaking conference-mate what helps me move from self-judgment to self-acceptance--the acceptance of another. However, I couldn’t experience acceptance without first risking vulnerability. Thanks to my friend for the lesson…and honorable mention goes to the banana.
I am a marriage and family/play therapist, therapist supervisor, teacher, and adoptive father. In order to survive for long at any of these, you have simply got to be teachable. Constantly learning from my family, clients, interns, and students, I hope to pass some of their wisdom along to you.
In addition to those mentioned above, I am currently being properly schooled by my dog. Our sweet Angel came to our house as a rescue at the beginning of the year. Right away we began working with a trainer (the amazing Megan with The Stellar Dog) to establish skills for later therapeutic training. People...training a dog is a serious look in the mirror.
Angel's learning is 100% dependent on my intention, consistency, self-awareness, and patience. She can only be expected to repeat what I establish as patterns. I now see a one-canine parade reflecting my never-ending neuroses. At first, this made me incredibly self-conscious, which, of course, exacerbated the issue. Doing well by Angel required that I start to give myself grace and space for learning about my own tendencies. This it turns out would be the key.
As a believer in all things attachment-theory inspired, I should no longer be surprised by the phenomenon of my own personal growth being required in order to notice and allow for growth in others. This has been over and over again reinforced as truth in my work with clients, interns, my children, and now my dog. Angel is just my most recent reminder of the need for patiently pursuing my own self-betterment. As a show of appreciation, I hope to use this blog to look back on the various life-learning opportunities provided by so many over the years.
Check in from time to time...I hope to have offerings on a regular basis.
Reflections on lessons learned from being a therapist and adoptive dad.