Friday, March 26, 2010

Leave the Predictions to the Weather Forecasters










"For at least a century, psychologists have assumed that terrible events--such as having a loved one die or becoming the victim of a violent crime--must have a powerful, devastating, and enduring impact on those who experience them. But recent research suggests that rather than being fragile flowers, most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma. As one group of researchers noted, 'Resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome trajectory following exposure to a potentially traumatic event.
"Negative events do affect us, but they generally don't affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to. Able-bodied people are willing to pay far more to avoid becoming disabled than disabled people are willing to pay to become able-bodied again because able-bodied people underestimate how happy disabled people are. If negative events don't hit us as hard as we expect them to, then why do we expect them to? If heartbreaks and calamities can be blessings in disguise, then why are their disguises so convincing? The answer is that the human mind tends to exploit ambiguity."--Daniel Gilbert from Stumbling on Happiness

My friend Linda, the older lady whom I visit once a week, has recently experienced a very unexpected and positive life change.

She used to live in a studio apartment on the first floor in a building that also happened to house mentally ill people who are transitioning to living on their own. Linda was not a part of that group; they just happened to take up a certain amount of the apartments and have their meetings in the basement. It's great that these programs exist, but it's not without risks. For example, I read in the Brookline Tab that one of the mentally-disturbed residents (most likely off his meds) almost choked the program director to death. That was my first inkling that Linda's living situation was not ideal.

Before the choking incident happened, I thought Linda was doing OK. Because of her physical disability she's always been Section Eight, which means she pays a small portion of her rent and the government pays the balance. My assumption was that Section Eight housing was in bad neighborhoods in run-down buildings. But Linda's studio was on a leafy street in Brookline. All the things she needed--her pharmacy, her podiatrist, etc., were a short walk away. Her apartment was on the small side, but it was just her and her cat, Maxine. The building didn't look like it was in any disrepair beyond the usual troubles that pop up from time to time, like a non-functioning air conditioner or an over-functioning furnace.

But I soon learned there were other problems. One mentally impaired resident had decided that he didn't like Linda and threatened repeatedly to kill her. During the night, Maxine caught a mouse and when Linda woke up there was a mangled rodent carcass in the place where you'd normally put your slippers. The windows only opened a crack and her blinds were falling apart to the point that she felt as exposed as an Angelfish in a fishbowl.

When complaints to the landlord fell on deaf ears--even the death threats didn't seem to bother him even though just a short while ago this same man had been CHOCKED NEARLY TO DEATH. He told Linda if she didn't like it, she could move. But where would a fixed income 65-year old woman find another apartment in a wealthy neighborhood like Brookline? I was skeptical.

But then the strangest coincidence happened: in just a week's time, Linda found a new apartment! One had just opened up down the street in a senior living facility that usually had a multiple year waiting list. She was getting a one-bedroom apartment on a higher floor. The amount of rent she'd need to contribute was less. The building had an on-site hair salon, fitness room with a personal trainer, and lots of common areas for sitting and socializing. Not that I expected Linda to do much socializing--she's shy in group situations. But maybe she'd bump into someone--likely another woman with a cat--and make a friend. It was certainly more likely to happen in this new building than in the old one where she was afraid to walk the hallways.

A few weeks ago, I visited her for the first time in her new apartment. I was impressed by how spacious and clean it was. Any repairs she needed were promptly taken care of and the maintenance men were actually NICE and TALKED TO HER. At the old building they showed up a week late and barely mumbled a hello. For someone who lives alone and who doesn't go out much, every interaction she has is an important part of her day.

I started talking to her about a book I was reading by a Harvard psychologist who writes about how humans are bad at predicting what will make them happy and what won't. Part of the problem is that we expect to feel exactly as we do now in the future, so we make plans based on our present feelings. This was interesting to me since it seemed to support the idea of living in the present moment. It hadn't occurred to me that my feelings in the future wouldn't match what they are now. But of course they won't! For example, I used to think wearing my collar up looked cool and that saving money was for cynics.

Linda told me that ten years ago she had looked at this same senior living center and made up her mind that it was a depressing place. She didn't think she'd ever enjoy living there. But now she relishes the quiet, she appreciates the many conveniences (no more asking me to mail her bills--they have a drop box in the building.) These may seem like simple things, but to a disabled woman used to having to do everything the hard way, her new living situation was like moving into the Ritz-Carlton.

I spend a lot of time worrying about the future, about the bad things that will happen and how I'll feel as I get older (not good.) But all we really have is the present moment and our feelings right now. We can't know the future or predict how we'll feel ten, twenty, thirty years from now. It's like that expression of which my husband is so fond, "Worrying about something before it happens is like paying interest on money you haven't actually borrowed yet." Over the last few years I've been paying a lot of squandered interest.

It's comforting to know that we don't have all the answers and that we don't need to. Just concentrating on what is going on today is enough. And who knows--maybe when I'm 80 I'll be an irreverently happy old lady with a posse of other happy old lady friends, and things like the daily coffee hour, a nice view from my apartment, and the sun on my face will be enough to make me content.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tonglen for Dummies


"Tonglen is a practice of creating space, ventilating the atmosphere of our lives so that people can breathe freely and relax. Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain.
"When we protect ourselves so we won't feel pain, that protection becomes like armor. When we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armor. With the in-breath the armor begins to fall apart, and we find we can breathe deeply and relax. A kindness and a gentleness begins to emerge. We don't have to tense up as if our whole life were being spent in the dentist's chair."--Pema Chodron, from When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

I thought that Tuesday, March 2, would be the worst day of my week because I had an appointment to get my gums assaulted--I mean "cleaned"--at 2. An hour in the chair with the hygienist telling me to relax, then digging her little hook deeper into the recesses between my back teeth, until I'm spitting blood swearing I will floss once a day. Please. Just be done.

I like comfort. Who doesn't? But I really like comfort. A lot. It means I'll probably never hike through the Amazon or go ice-fishing but I'm happy to skip those things. I'll read about others' experiences. Just put me in a 3-star hotel. It doesn't even have to be 4-star! Is that too much to ask?

But Tuesday was a hayride compared to Wednesday. Around lunchtime I threw up at work. In the bathroom, thank god, but I work in a small office and I guarantee that at least half of the employees heard my retching. I skulked out of the bathroom, grabbed my bag, and left the building. I got into a cab and gave the driver my destination, worried I'd get a talker. I stared out the window, acting fascinated with the scenery like I had never driven through Kenmore Square before, just so he wouldn't talk. If I had had to respond, he might not have liked my answer.

The next 24 hours are kind of hazy. I just remember a surging pain in my lower back and legs, like I'd been beaten up and left for dead. I had a pounding headache and was incredibly thirsty, and still nauseous. When Mike came home I could only utter "Coke" and "wet cloth" while I writhed on the bed, clinging to the heating pad wrapped around my middle. I was going from chills to sweat in 60 seconds.

"Kidney stone" my mother said. "You can take Tylenol Extra-Strength but there's not much else you can do until it passes."

I spent a sleepless night lying on my back, then rolling over and back again. I just couldn't get comfortable. Not even a little. The pain was constant. It was hostile.

The next few days I would experience more of the same symptoms, accompanied by some new ones just to sweeten the pot. I was thirsty, yet I couldn't pee so my bladder felt like a water balloon ready to be hurled at someone. If I had a needle I would have burst it myself. I could barely eat anything except ice and...yeah, I think that's it, ice.

At times my thirst was so acute that even after drinking a gulp, my lips and tongue would instantly turn to cotton. I started doing my own form of tonglen, breathing in my pain and the pain of others, breathing out relief for me and for everyone else who suffered. Except I really wasn't feeling relief. Only in theory.

I got to thinking about how precious clean drinking water is. It may seem like stating the obvious, but the typical American rarely thinks about how lucky they are to have the basic elements that they need to survive and thrive. They think, I have to have that new Droid phone or when can I afford that trip to Sardinia. They don't think, well at least I have fresh drinking water. There's that.

But I'm telling you--this past week, I could have easily gone without food but I wouldn't have lasted a day without a drink of water. I have even more respect for shipwreck survivors who find themselves stranded at sea unable to drink the water. If that were me, I'd have been the first to start hallucinating a shoreline and jumping out of the dinghy.

It made me feel empathy for everyone around the world who suffered and could not get relief. Me, I could at least drink flat Coke and chew on a Saltine while listening to old radio mysteries on my stereo. I had blankets and a bed and my husband to lean on (to the point that I left a dent in his left shoulder.) Others were not so lucky. I vowed that when I was feeling better I would give a donation to Doctors Without Borders.

I don't know what I had, if it was a kidney stone or gastroenteritis. My doctor never gave me a diagnosis. It could be A, she said, or B-G. I'm on antibiotics as well as probiotics; let them fight it out, I'm exhausted. I'm also ten pounds lighter, but I don't recommend this particular crash diet.

Last night I ate my first real meal in a week: stir-fry vegetables over rice. I knew my appetite was coming back when I sequestered myself in the bedroom so I could eat without threat of Joey Thumbs stealing food from my plate.

I feel grateful for all my food choices and the availability of Gatorade. We should all have it so good.