No apologies for this post

Text reads "Be proud of who you are."

My guiding principle

Is there a difference between being boastful and expressing pride in oneself? I don’t take well to people who boast, to be honest, and I dread ever sounding like one of them. But I’m working at feeling proud of what I do well without bragging. To be honest, I have a morbid fear of boasting. I’ll try to get it all out of the way in this post.

I’ve never told you that I graduated with honours from the School of the Gifted, despite many wondering how I ever got in. Or my completing a marathon, an accomplishment I diminish because my time was 3 minutes slower than Oprah’s. I can solve a pretty tough Sudoku, and I have already shared my ear for music isn’t bad. I sometimes–often?–even make people laugh. I’ve had many a proud moment as a psychologist, but I rarely share this pride with others.

I’m going to add something new to this list, if you will indulge me: I’m really proud of my blog. I enjoy writing and I think I do it fairly well, dangling participles aside. This confidence in my ability to share myself through my writing is much harder to tell you than it should be. In fact, I’ve reluctantly directed people to the blog since I don’t want to be tooting my own horn.

Over the few months I’ve been writing, I’ve received kind and supportive feedback from readers. This past week, two people shared their reactions to my blog in ways that touched me deeply, and I want to gloat with you if you don’t mind.

One woman, a kind and utterly healthy person, told me she looks forward to new posts and she’s found something she could relate to in every entry. It never occurred to me that a healthy person might take anything from what I write, so her input was both touching and enlightening.

And the second woman, who has more than her share of health challenges (more on her next post) asserted that I am indeed still a psychologist even though I may not be working because I am helping people like her through my blog. Her words were a great comfort to me because I often feel I’ve lost an important part of myself since I stopped being a therapist. Maybe my helper gene is still functioning, but in this realm instead of my therapy office. It felt good to imagine that might be so.

I felt great after hearing these comments. By sharing them with you, I hope not to seem boastful, because I’m much more likely to apologize for my very existence than to laud myself. But I decided, in light of recent posts, that I would not apologize for being proud; I would relish it and share it with you, faithful readers. I thank all of you for reading, and I trust you’ll let me know if I’m becoming too big for my britches. I wouldn’t want that.


I’m sorry to have to tell you this

Basset hound with caption "I'm sorry"There’s something I’ve been keeping from you, and it’s time I came clean. I’m an addict. I wish I could tell you it was something as benign as chocolate or reality television, or perhaps even a healthy addiction like excessive working out or cleaning (no risk of that last one for me), but it’s more serious than that. I just can’t stop myself from apologizing repeatedly for anything and everything all the time. In fact, last week I caught myself apologizing for apologizing too much. Really. Before the “S” word was out of my mouth, I started laughing.

I’m certainly not in denial about my problem and I tell myself I want to change my behaviour. But I’ve stayed on the wagon only for brief periods, and my relapses are frequent and fierce. It’s like going from no smokes to three packs a day within a week.

Shall I admit I’m annoyed to no end when someone apologizes too much? (We despise in others what we struggle with ourselves.) Especially if that other is in a position of authority.  I don’t want to know your insecurities if you are my teacher or my doctor; work it out and get back to me. Maybe by then I’ll have my addiction under control and your struggling won’t bug me so much.

As a psychologist, I work not to let my apologetic side show, although I blow it sometimes.  As much as I want my clients to see me as the very human human I am, I don’t think it’s helpful for them to see me doubting myself or my skills. I remember a fellow psychologist once telling me she had long ago overcome the imposter syndrome that plagues many of us fresh out of school, while, sadly, I may struggle with professional confidence until the day I retire. Just don’t tell my clients. Oh wait, I guess I just did.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for taking responsibility for myself when I’ve messed up. Many of my apologies to friends and to clients have been fully warranted, I believe. I just want to stop apologizing when I haven’t done anything wrong.

Over the years, I’ve seen many clients struggle with this issue as well: those who blame themselves for their childhood sexual abuse or their spouse’s hitting them, for example. We all have to look at our part in things, but in some situations the responsibility clearly lies with someone else.

To deal with my problem, I’ve decided to make myself a “Sorry Jar”, something akin to a Swear Jar (okay, I might need one of those too), where I’ll deposit money every time I use my bad word. I’m not sure how much to deposit for each infraction, though–a quarter? a toonie? a twenty?–or what to do with the spoils. I may have enough money for a pretty nice haircut/trip/new house in no time.  I’ll keep you posted.

Let’s talk about talking about it

Two cartoon figures with empty balloons reflecting conversation

That’s me on the left.

I was out to lunch with a dear friend last week and we talked more about talking about cancer with people. L. wisely asked me how I wanted people to talk to me about my illness. Despite all my practice, I drew a blank. Since then, I’ve been struggling to come up with an answer.

I understand the news that I have cancer might be a shock to you and your gut reaction is hard to control. If you get upset, I won’t feel worse; rather, I can see you care.  Beyond that I appreciate just being able to talk about what it’s like to live with this illness. If you’re able, try not to change the subject, okay?

By asking me about my cancer, you can help me feel you’re trying to understand. In this context, there are no bad questions and nothing is off limits. I’m not afraid to talk, and I actually feel better if I do, even when things aren’t going so well.

You can show me you’re not afraid by asking about my leukemia. Because, even though I might not like it, leukemia is part my life.  It’s on my mind when I first wake up in the morning and as I go through my day and even as I fall asleep (or worse, can’t sleep). I try not to let the illness drag me down and I’m not wasting time thinking about dying; rather, I’m focussing on how to live well with the beast.

I realize not everyone feels the way I do. Some people don’t want to think or talk about their cancer, or other ailment, or any touchy subject for that matter. I can respect that; it just wouldn’t work for me. I want support for my situation, and people can’t give support if I don’t let them in.

If you can’t ask, know that that’s okay. I know it’s hard for some people to broach cancer and other hard topics. But the psychologist in me can’t help but encourage you to work on this because chances are you’ll have to have such conversations with someone close to you down the road, and practice now might make that eventuality easier.

At one point I paid someone to listen to me, and she was fantastic at it, so I’m glad I did.  But now I’m trying to rely on the people close to me to lend me that ear. Don’t worry, I don’t expect my friends to replace my therapist–although I’ll admit it’s handy that so many of you share my profession–but I am ever grateful when anyone asks how I am and is able to tolerate the answer.

And rest assured, cancer is not all I want to talk about. That would bore both of us to death, wouldn’t it? I still want to know how you are among other things. But I’ll still contribute little to discussions on world politics or history; those disinterests long predated my leukemia.


Keeping secrets

One girl telling another a secret, the other very surprised.

I can’t believe you just told me that!

I’ve never been especially social, but I’ll admit my energy for socializing took a nosedive after I was diagnosed with leukemia. I find it especially draining to be with people I haven’t met before. I can’t blame cancer for my dismal capacity for small talk.

This brings us to last Monday, when I attended a lovely Seder with a mix of old friends and people I had not met before. J. and I enjoyed the company and a great meal, even though I couldn’t bring my fantastic challah, but I was knackered by 8:00, so off we toddled to bed.

When I meet new people, I struggle with whether or not to disclose that I’m sick. I especially dread the “What do you do?” question. Of course I could say I’m a psychologist and leave it at that, but this answer seems evasive since I’m not really working and my bigger job right now is staying well. On the other hand, I don’t just define myself by my illness(es), and I don’t want others to either. I worry if I tell people that I’m sick, especially when we first meet, that that’s all they’ll think about. I also hate seeing their faces drop, which happens without fail when I share the news. I hate that panic or pity or whatever gut reaction they unwittingly share.

Often I find I need to reassure the other person that I’m fine because really, on a day-to-day basis, I am. Sure, I’m not working, but I’m also not sitting at home moping, or at least less often than I used to. I run errands, I see friends, I go to yoga, I walk my dog, I cook and bake up a storm, I even empty the dishwasher or do a load of laundry every so often.  If I’m not up to going out, I have the loyal companionship of my sweet pooch, who follows me adoringly around the house and nestles into me quite nicely when she’s allowed on the couch. And don’t forget hardworking J., who heads off to work as I’m just rolling out of bed. Really, in the scheme of things, I’m pretty lucky.

Last year, I spoke to a cancer survivor who mentioned that, many years following his diagnosis, he realized he didn’t feel the need to tell everyone he met that he had cancer. Sure, his cancer had been wiped out with a bone-marrow transplant, but still, he’d been through a lot. I’m not sure I’m ready to stop telling people altogether, although I hope I’ll get there. The truth is, whether I like it or not, leukemia is a big part of my daily life now and affects my functioning in so many ways.

Last Monday, it felt a bit weird to go through the evening without mentioning my illness. At the same time, it was kind of fun playing pretend. I might try the charade again sometime. Maybe I’ll just have to get out there and socialize a bit more so I can practice.

Bye bye free flights

I’m in the thirteenth row on the left.

I have 3508 Airmiles and I feel dirty. The College of Alberta Pharmacists announced last Friday that, on ethical grounds, prescriptions will no longer be eligible for incentive points as of May 31, 2014. I’ve been involved in an unethical endeavour.

J. and I could fly round trip to Vancouver or Seattle or Portland, and have points left over, or one of us could have a free ticket somewhere farther afield. Airmiles are one of my few benefits of being sick.

I earn these points primarily through a grocery store’s pharmacy, where I am granted 7 Airmiles for every $20 I spend on drugs. Sure, I earn the odd Airmile by buying groceries, but I shop rarely there since groceries are cheaper elsewhere.

Every three months, my current drug cocktail costs me $2440. That’s excluding the exorbitant cost of my cancer drug that the Alberta Government generously covers.  Actually, let’s clarify that: I’m not the one paying. Every three months, after paying for a private drug plan and J.’s including me on her work drug plan, I pay nothing out of pocket for drugs. I flash my Airmiles card when I pick up my stash, pay nothing up front, and receive a huge number of miles. Here’s the math: last quarter, I earned 854 Airmiles from said drugs. 1000 Airmiles is enough to fly me to Vancouver (or Regina or Kelowna, but I don’t really want to go to there).

In the one month that my personal coverage ran out prematurely, only 80% of my drug total was covered, which amounted to almost $500 coming out of my pocket. Luckily, I was able to find a different drug plan that covers everyone irrespective of health, and I decided my $63.50 monthly fee would be more than worth it. I can see how people in the States without drug plans go bankrupt.

I appreciate that the Pharmacists’ College does not want people to abuse such a privilege, but, in my view, that is presuming I would choose to be on all of these medications. Trust me, I do not. The side effects are too numerous to list, but I can say that I often question whether a new symptom is due to one of my ailments or to drug side effects. No, I would not choose to be on all these drugs–my doctors have told me I have to. Trust me, I wouldn’t buy them from any pharmacy if I didn’t have to.

Some people may go to a particular pharmacy to collect their rewards points, but I frequent mine because it is close to my home, and I can buy groceries there. Most importantly, the very kind pharmacists have followed me through many illnesses and helped me manage endless potential drug interactions. They have kept me safe for almost 14 years now.

So l am saddened by this news. I have only one more expensive prescription to fill before May 1, and I will. I didn’t select this pharmacy to receive Airmiles, and I won’t stop going there once I don’t. At least I won’t have to worry about the ethical implications anymore.

The reluctantly squeaky wheel

I’ve told you before I don’t mind if doctors are late for appointments. There’s another aspect of waiting I find more challenging, however, despite my years of practice. It’s waiting to hear back from the doctor about an appointment booking, a test result, or a change in treatment direction. I’ve watched others struggle with this kind of wait and I feel for them.

I’ve learned over the years that the medical system moves at its own pace, and that I don’t have much control over that pace, as much as I wish I did sometimes.  I may leave a message at a doctor’s office and not hear back for some time, or know I need a test done but have to wait to find out the date. I trust that the call will come soon enough–usually it does–and do my best not to sit around waiting; I busy myself with living life instead. Not waiting has proven my best coping strategy.

In this vein, I’ve heard a watched pot never boils. I’m much more likely to let the pot boil dry and start burning before I notice and take it off the element. (Just ask J. about the unfortunate incident with the brand new kettle.) But every so often I catch myself watching the pot, and realize I’ve been watching for not just minutes but hours or days and I know the darn thing should be boiling furiously already. Actually, it should have boiled dry days ago. So it’s time for me to turn up the heat.

I despise this part, calling the doctor’s office a second time to see if there has been any progress. I don’t normally mind calling doctors’ offices, but I dread these follow-up calls.  Although I can certainly be a pain in the ass–please don’t ask J. about that–I’m just not the squeaky wheel type, and I never want to be seen as one.  I’m convinced I’ll never get called if I squeak too much.


Very rust old wheels.

For some of us, it’s not easy being squeaky.

Recently I have been waiting for a doctor’s decision considerably longer than I’d been advised I’d have to. I hadn’t thought much about it until I realized how much time had passed and then I couldn’t think about anything else. So I made Call #2, only to be told by the warm greeter that the doctor had indeed advised her to book a procedure. She just hadn’t done it. Since I’d reached her directly, she booked me in. I can let anything go once I know what’s happening. In fact, J. and I are going to go on vacation the day after this procedure is done. Now that’s something worth waiting for.

I expect to have many more pots to watch, but I know I’ll manage better if I just forget they’re on the stove. Hopefully my approach will not cause a lot more damage. And if I glance over and see that I’ve waited so long that I’m starting to boil myself, I’ll just make the call. Better squeaky than forgotten, I guess.

Deck the halls with matzah balls!


The Rabbinowitzes

The Rabbinowitz Mishpacha

Let me introduce you to the Rabbinowitzes, our family’s incarnation of Peaster (that’s Passover and Easter, for those of you unfamiliar with Christmukah). This family, which one might mistakenly believe is gracing an Easter wreath, is in fact our latest mixed-marriage holiday compromise.

If you look closely at Mr. Rabbinowitz (J.’s spelling), you’ll see that J. has kindly adorned him with a kippah. The family is grimacing slightly because 8 days of matzah is awfully constipating. Hopefully that 40 years of wandering in the desert kept things moving, if you know what I mean.

I married not only a woman, but a non-Jew to boot. Thank goodness she’s a mensch, or the family would never accept her. To be fair, I’m a lapsed Jew myself. It’s been years since I voluntarily attended synagogue, and I can’t quite recall why my pre-psychologist aspiration was to become a rabbi.

Yet my traditions are important to me, especially those associated with food. I bake a mean challah, which none of my friends seem able to replicate despite my sharing the recipe. And J. has graciously accommodated my traditions. She does a better job than me of braiding my perfectly kneaded challahs, and even made matzah balls that were floaters on her first attempt, which is quite a feat even for many Jews. And of course we hold an annual Easter egg hunt. Thank goodness high-quality chocolate crosses all cultural boundaries.

Christmukah took a little more finagling. I was horrified when J. first wanted to hang Christmas lights, initially insisting on blue and white, the colours of my people, on our Hanukah bushes. Then came the Christmas tree, which I’ll admit is very pretty all lit up. It is adorned with a motley collection of dog ornaments and nary a religious symbol except for a lovely blue Magen David. I have also convinced J. to give me a gift each of the 8 days of Hanukah, a tradition that we never followed when I was a child but which I’ve insisted on as an adult. (I reciprocate in kind, don’t worry.) Also, out of respect for J.’s tradition, we buy gifts for under the tree. Don’t confuse us for materialistic, however: most of these gifts are small, cheap, and predictable, like the annual dog pajamas.

There are a few issues that we’ve failed to resolve, however, and I doubt we ever will. As a Ukrainian, J. does not understand how Jews could put tomato sauce on our ground-beef-filled cabbage rolls, whereas I choke down hers, which are stuffed with rice and bacon.  (Okay, I love the bacon part–I told you I’m a bad Jew–I just know they’d be better with tomato sauce.)  And J.’s first experience with gefilte fish was quite traumatic. The thought of chopped liver, even spread generously on my perfect challah, is enough to make her gag. Don’t even mention my childhood favourite, boiled tongue.

Despite our differences, J. and I have managed to respect and even embrace each other’s traditions. And who am I to complain about two sets of gifts every December and the magical discovery of a basket of sweets every Easter?

Yet another firing

As if my client’s firing me a few weeks back wasn’t enough, my therapist had the gall to show me the door last week. It was bound to happen sometime.

I’ll explain. I arrived at our session thinking it might be time to say good bye, but my therapist beat me to the punch. I realize this sounds lame–“I broke up with her before she had a chance to break up with me”–but you’ll just have to believe me. I really was thinking of calling it a day before she pulled the plug. I mean it. Honestly.

I trusted she would welcome me back if I needed her down the road (okay, admittedly my anxiety compelled me to check), so saying good bye didn’t seem quite so scary. And the truth is that I’m managing the cancer roller coaster fairly well right now.

Therapy has really helped. I talked mostly about that mundane daily health stuff and its impact on my life and my relationships. My therapist listened attentively and supported me in ways I didn’t even know I needed. She helped me address the bigger issues so I didn’t get caught up in the details. Who am I kidding? I still often got caught up in the details, but she gently and persistently redirected me. The woman has the patience of a saint. Bless her soul.

So why the departure? As I told my therapist, some unanticipated shifts have come with my blog. A blog is a weird and wonderful thing, which I did not realize until I started mine. It is a public link to my support network. My training taught me not to talk about myself with clients, and I generalized that edict to friendships. But here, in 500 words every few days, I get that chance, and sometimes people actually read what I’ve written. Even better, my friends’ reactions have been so kind and supportive. I’m struck by the number of people who have said to me: “I had no idea ….”  I am interested in their observations and grateful for their caring.

Let me clarify: it’s not that my wonderful support system did not try to understand. Everyone tried even though I didn’t share much. But now that I am sharing more through this venue, they understand better. Friends now know the important stuff (and a lot of the really dull stuff too, I’m afraid) from my perspective. I’ve learned that friends can only be supportive if we ask for their support. (You’d think a psychologist might have had this revelation earlier in her life.)

When people talk to me about what they’ve read, the blog has already broken the ice, which makes the discussion easier. I’m not starting from scratch with each person, which can get pretty overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that there was a time that I left it to J. to update everyone. If only I’d been able to initiate these discussions myself sooner.

Since the ultimate goal of therapy is to be fired, I guess I succeeded. Maybe my therapist only had my best interests in mind when she told me not to come back. Maybe “graduation” better sums it up. Sure, that’s what I’ll tell people.

Charlie brown walking in direction of sign that says "Hope"

P.S. Today’s entry was closer to 550 words. Sorry.


No regrets

I’ve had the chance to visit with friends over the past few days. Three very different people who have all had to deal with very challenging situations in the past few years. They hold one thing in common: they took action, making significant changes to feel better. I respect that.

Their collective resourcefulness was highlighted yesterday as one friend shared his impending move to a new job after over 20 years with the same company. He was nervous but excited to be taking a huge risk with great potential rewards. It had been quite a while since he’d enjoyed his work, so imagine that.

As this friend was describing this exciting opportunity, I realized how important it is for all of us to make changes if we’re not happy where we are. I’ve never understood people who stay in situations that clearly make them unhappy. People who work every day in a job they hate or stay much too long in a relationship that is unhealthy or unhappy.

As a psychologist, I’m not the most patient with clients who want to complain about their situation but don’t want to do anything to make things better. I can only be supportive for so long before I want to shake them.  (I never have, don’t worry.)  But I remember a supervisor once telling me that it’s not necessarily empathic to nod and say “Boy, that’s tough!” for too long because you won’t be helping the client figure out how to make things better.

Sure, there are things we can’t change–I’ll always have two blood disorders and an ugly blood clot, barring unexpected medical advances–but we can still figure out how to make the best of a challenging situation. If I can’t control these ailments, I can control how I approach life despite them. I can choose to be happy and live well.

Woman kissing a frog

We’ve all done it at some point.

I don’t mean to preach because I don’t always succeed at this myself. Trust me, I kissed my share of Princesses Charming before I found someone as caring and loving and kind and loyal and patient as J. And maybe I’m just lucky that I happened upon work I really enjoy. I admit I left one job I hated only to pre-empt my firing.

Do I deal with problems more expediently now that I’m older and wiser? Not always. In the year before I was diagnosed with leukemia, I was I-forgot-to-rinse-out-my-shampoo and I-got-into-three-minor-car-accidents and I-was-a-walking-zombie exhausted before I decided I needed to reduce my workload. J. had been urging me to cut back my workload for some time before I actually did. Of course, I immediately realized I should have cut back much sooner.

The other wise thing this fellow said yesterday is that we can’t live with regrets. Maybe we wished we’d left that job/relationship/hairdresser sooner, but we didn’t, so there’s no point dwelling on that. Might as well just get on with it. Now that’s a great idea if I’ve ever heard one.