Weekend crash course in child and adolescent development

4 pictures of white dog from puppy growing into adult

I have been an absentee blogger the last few days, during which real life has infringed on my writing time. J. and I left last Friday to visit my family for a Bar Mitzvah. We are back now and I learned a lot over the weekend.

My family is spread far and wide, so get togethers usually take place in Toronto, where I was born. I have visited most years, health permitting, and J. joins me when she is able. My ailing liver interfered with two celebrations years ago, and my attendance at important family events has been increasingly sporadic since my leukemia diagnosis.

It has been seven years since I have seen three of my siblings’ progeny, while I have had sporadic contact with the others. These relationships are some of the many casualties in my battle against cancer, and against illness more generally.

It’s incredible what happens over long periods of no contact. For instance, young people grow. Yes, my nieces and nephews are all taller than last time we met, some markedly so. Those that have not grown in height have grown in maturity and wisdom. All are working toward academic and professional goals, and many have moved away from home. While I was busy being sick, they’ve grown up, in all senses of the term.

Sure, I’ve watched children and adolescents mature before, but a seven-year gap results in especially striking changes if puberty falls somewhere in the middle. My nieces and nephews were real people before, but now they are verging on adulthood, if not firmly in its grasp. This past weekend, it was hard for me to get my head around all these changes. I can’t catch up on what I’ve missed. Instead, I tried to get to know them as the vibrant young people they are today.

I guess I’ve changed over the last 7 years too, but my changes are in a different realm. J. and I have created a home in Calgary. Our years of living in sin ended when we married 4 years ago next week, although any homophobes who are reading this post may beg to differ. We have co-parented a succession of dogs, all of whom have loved J. more than me, and our lives have been enriched through our community of friendships. J. has made great strides in her career, and even added on a second job to support us since my income has slowed to a trickle. I have not yet found a way for my blog to support us. Oh, and that pesky leukemia diagnosis has added considerable instability to our day-to-day lives.

I have missed out on a lot, moving far away and then getting sick, but that did not stop me from marvelling at the miracle of human development. I am so glad to have re-met those burgeoning adults this past weekend, and I did what I could to prompt another family reunion in less than seven years: I asked the niece’s long-time boyfriend to get on with it already. The relationship is 6 years in, and they’ll soon be co-parenting (a puppy, mind you), so it’s about time they get hitched. I hadn’t even been drinking, of course. This liver would never survive until the next occasion if I did.


On not judging a book by its cover

Quote: Judging a person does not define who they are...it defines who you are.

I recently read an insightful novel that addressed the potential consequences of judging others unfairly, and the importance of accepting people who are different from us. (Don’t I sound like a wise book club participant at this moment? Don’t be fooled, I’m parroting a book review I read.) Check out The trouble with goats and sheep by Joanna Cannon if you, like me, enjoy an easy but thought-provoking read. The cover is nothing to write home about, though.

I’ve often acknowledged how judgey I can be, even though I try hard not to be. Within a few minutes of meeting someone, I’ve formed an opinion about whether or not we’ll get along. Sometimes I’m bang on but I wonder how often I’m wrong because, based on that first meeting, I haven’t given the person a chance.

What right have I to judge other people when there are infinite ways that others might judge me? I am nothing but a lazy couch potato who yawns incessantly. I am cranky and impatient and rigid. I can be a real downer and a worrywart. I watch hours of mind-numbing Border Security and Food Network repeats. Sure, I’m sick, but that’s no excuse. Your list of my inadequacies would easily exceed my 500-word post limit, I’m certain.

Although you have more than enough to judge me on already, there’s something else I need to confess, and I beg your compassion and understanding. Over the past few months, I’ve become the person who makes a special trip to the grocery store when I’m low on overpriced unflavoured kefir. There, I’ve said it. I’m one of those.

To support the health of my recently depleted gut bacteria, I have been drinking kefir daily since I was discharged from hospital. But I’m not that kind of person. Except for the wine gums and chocolate and occasional slice of pizza, I eat a fairly well-balanced diet. Come to think of it, I can’t even recall the last time I had a wine gum, but that probably has something to do with the delectable box of chocolates I currently have at my disposal.

But wait, there’s more. I’ve taken this whole kefir thing a little too far. Last week, I baked my favourite honey whole wheat bread with kefir, substituting it for the buttermilk. Do you have any idea how much sodium is in buttermilk (not that sodium matters anymore)? And were you aware that you could substitute equal amounts of kefir for buttermilk in baking? So that’s what I did, and it worked. The bread is great.

Except for the live bacteria, that is. After baking with kefir, I did a bit of research and guess what? Heating live bacteria decimates them, thereby eliminating the gut benefits. You probably knew that already but I’m new to this whole gut flora thing. So throw kefir in your smoothie, drink it straight up, make your salad dressing with it–I’ve always got some on hand if you’re out–but don’t bake with it if you want those gut-healing effects. And if you judge me for my kefir obsession, you really need to read that book.

Turns out getting cancer isn’t bad luck, or is it?

Salt shaker spilled over, pile of salt around it

Good thing I closely follow media reports on health research. Without this information, I’d probably be dead by now. There’s a new study suggesting that a reduced-sodium diet places people at higher risk for heart attack or stroke. Last Friday night, J. and I did what normal people do regularly: we ordered a high-sodium pizza from the local place. After reading that study, I felt so much better about consuming the sodium bomb.

Remember the “bad luck” cancer study that was published a while back? It suggested that lifestyle factors were less important than the genetic card you were dealt in determining whether you’d be diagnosed with cancer. A new study published last week has countered this finding, thank God. Male and female health professionals were followed for several years. The researchers discovered that four factors contributed to their not getting cancer. I’ll review them for you so you can implement them immediately.

First, in case you hadn’t heard, smoking is a bad idea, especially if you indulge over the long term. I do not smoke, I have never smoked, and I don’t plan to take up smoking in the near future. Why not, you may ask, since I already have cancer? Good point.

Second, alcohol consumption should not exceed one drink per day maximum for females, and two for males. (And they say girls have more fun.) Keeping within this range has never been a problem for me. I am not a drinker, I never have been, and, now that my liver is ailing, I don’t plan to take up drinking anytime soon. But don’t worry, I have many other vices in place to fill the void.

Third, the BMI range for cancer prevention is somewhere between 18.5 (very skinny) to 27.5 (chubby but not obese). Most of my life, I have stayed within this range, despite my high sugar and chocolate consumption. Sure, I trained for a marathon so I could replenish after long training runs with ice cream sundaes. Do you have a problem with that?

Finally, 75 minutes of high-intensity or 150 of moderate-intensity exercise is recommended each week. Easy peasy. Exercise is my Prozac. I may not be the high-intensity gal I was through my teens into my forties, but I still manage to meet and exceed the moderate-intensity guidelines by walking the dog at a furious pace and attending regular strenuous yoga classes.

But wait a minute, through my life I’ve met all those guidelines, so why do I have cancer? Maybe this study applies to health professionals, i.e., doctors and nurses, but not mental health professionals like me. (Had I just gone to medical school, I’d be cancer free.) Or maybe the study is looking at trends within a population and not at specific people. Guess I do have bad luck after all.

Now that I have leukemia, should I keep up the health-promoting behaviours so I don’t get a new and different kind of cancer, or should I give it all up? Has all this fretting about my weight, and my sodium intake, been for naught? Might as well pick up another pizza on the way home, honey. Yes, extra cheese and pepperoni. Thanks.

Pizza with one slice lifted, cheese and pepperoni

Jelly is spreading her wings, so to speak

Image result for charlie brown and snoopy images

You know by now that Jelly is not to be trusted. She is a counter surfer, a laundry basket raider, and, up until fairly recently, a toilet paper thief (thankfully from the roll more often than from the toilet). These are but a few of the reasons we confine her to her crate when we go out. We’d have no idea what we’d come home to if we didn’t.

We were actually trying to move toward not crating her when The Break In occurred last year. I was glad Jelly was in her crate while the robber was in the house because her confinement may have lessened her trauma and kept her safe. Since then, I’ve been reluctant to leave her uncrated when I go out.

Over the past few months, for reasons unknown, Jelly has started resisting confinement. In fact, rather than racing into her crate to await her treat, as she’s always done in the past, she’s been running in the opposite direction to hide. I have been trying not to resort to begging and pleading, so I throw her bribe treat in her crate and, so long as I leave the room, she’ll wander in to fetch it. I then close the door to her room, leaving her in a smaller area with fewer opportunities to wreak havoc.

She was trying to tell me something with her behaviour, but I wasn’t catching on, so she instigated a mother-daughter chat. It went something like this:

Jelly: Mom, I’m going to be six soon, and I know I’m still full of P & V, but I think I’m old enough to be left out when you’re not home. Heck, kids my age stay home alone after school and make themselves pizza pops for dinner. 

Me: I don’t trust you.

Jelly: But mom, I promise to be good. I’ll stay off the counters and out of the toilet and I’ll leave the dirty socks in the laundry basket, I promise.

Me: I still don’t trust you.

Jelly: All the other dogs get to. Why can’t I? It’s not like I’m asking for a bigger allowance or a later curfew or anything.

Me: I don’t care what the other kids are allowed to do. You are not trustworthy.

Jelly: You’re my mean mommy. My favourite mommy would let me stay out. When will she be home?

Me: Stop trying to play us off against each other. You know that won’t work. Your mother and I always agree on all aspects of parenting. And quit the puppy dog eyes.

Jelly took our conversation to heart, and slowly became less resistant to her crate. Perhaps she again decided the good bye treat would be worth the crating. Meanwhile, I am impressed with her maturity and am again considering letting go of the leash somewhat, so to speak.

So imagine my surprise the other morning when I realized I could not hear the pitter patter of little doggy toenails on the hardwood floor. Jelly was nowhere to be found. I searched high and low, only to locate her resting calmly in her crate of her own volition for the first time ever. Maybe she’s now realized that parents act only in their children’s best interests. Either that or she’s accepted that I’m more stubborn than she is.


The perils of drinking pineapple juice in the pub

You probably want to know how my appointment at the Cancer Centre went yesterday. I’ve been holding out on you long enough. Let’s not keep you waiting any longer.

We arrived early despite construction on the route to the hospital. That’s because we allowed one hour for our 15-minute journey. Remember J.’s motto: “If you aren’t early you’re late.” The appointment started and ended punctually, so we did not even reach the parking maximum. What’s the saying? 7 dollars saved is 7 dollars earned? That’s it.

What’s that? You wanted to know about the appointment itself?

The visit was lovely. The very kind nurse, whom we had not met before, beckoned us before J. had finished filling out my form. (As an aside, I forgot to confirm that J. had checked the “Itchiness” box, but I trust she did.) After we discussed how I’d been doing, the nice nurse asked me whether I’d been drinking. “Ha ha,” I responded.

Then we met with Dr. Blood, who had the most gorgeous shoes on. After discussing her footwear, she asked us all about our trip. Then we heard details about her upcoming vacation, which sounds fabulous.

Could I get to the point? But isn’t this the point?

Then, just like the nurse, Dr. Blood asked me whether I’d been drinking. Why was everyone asking about my alcohol consumption? Turns out my liver enzymes had inexplicably jumped since they were last tested. Elevated liver enzymes may indicate excessive happy hour participation.

My fair readers, you know I don’t drink. I never drink. Drinking is strongly contraindicated for those with a bum liver. So when Dr. Blood jokingly suggested I’d spent a little too much time in the pub, I chuckled again, whereupon J. raised her hand and said: “That would be me.” That gal of mine doesn’t miss a beat, does she?

Were you aware that over time women who live together end up cycling together? And by “cycling”, I don’t mean going for a bike ride, I mean visiting with Aunt Flo, having their time of the month, or menstruating, whichever terminology you prefer. This led me to wonder: since J. and I can no longer cycle together–I gave up cycling a while back now, poor balance and all–perhaps our bodies are finding other ways to commune. She drinks a few beers in the pub and my liver enzymes skyrocket, even though I’m sticking with pineapple juice and soda. It appears I am suffering the consequences of J.’s actions.

But there’s another reason Dr. Blood was asking about my boozing: I had told the nurse I was itchy. Intense, unrelenting itchiness can be a sign of a troubled liver, hence the “Itchiness” box on The Form. But I have itchiness à la polycythemia, i.e., my itchiness is short-lived and occurs only after a shower, as I explained to the doctor. “Oh,” Dr. Blood said, “that kind of itchiness.” And since everything else seems a-okay–if my liver were really in distress, I’d have no appetite, and there’s certainly no sign of that–Dr. Blood sent me for repeat blood work in a few weeks, and suggested a visit to Dr. Foie Gras if the numbers don’t improve.

As to my fear she might suggest lotion? Completely unfounded. She knows better than that.

Picture of woman drinking beer

Vamoose, dark horse!

Person's hand scratching other arm

You may have been skeptical when I spoke so glowingly about our recent trip. No vacation could be that good. Almost no rain in the UK for two whole weeks? Incredible sight seeing and church climbing? Great meals and fantastic lodging? Perfect health and Everready-Bunny energy? Surely, I must have been exaggerating.

I wasn’t. The trip was that good, except for one tiny health hiccup I haven’t shared. It was nothing major and in fact something I’ve experienced on and off for many years. Lest I forget that I am sick, I had two full weeks of this odd symptom on vacation. Every day following my shower, I was itchy. Short shower, long shower, cool shower, hot shower, it didn’t matter. Within a few minutes of drying myself off, the itching started.

“Why are you telling us this?” you ask. It may seem a strange thing to share, but it’s also one of polycythemia’s strangest symptoms. The itching feels like bugs crawling under my skin and lasts for about half an hour. It occurs most commonly after bathing, although overheating can bring it on as well, because of some defect in my body’s histamine reaction. Although I’m usually scratchy when I’m itchy, I refrain at these times because scratching makes it worse. And no, lotion doesn’t help.

I don’t write about my polycythemia much because I cope with it by pretending I don’t have it. Once leukemia took up residence, polycythemia moved to the basement suite. Polycythemia is a bone marrow disorder that is not considered cancer, and people can live with it for many years. Since it’s usually a disease of older people, the research on us young’uns is limited. As far as I know, I’ve made it past the median survival rate of 10 years post diagnosis but I haven’t yet attained outlier status.

Although there are many things that could potentially be the cause of my demise–leukemia, a failing liver, polycythemia, a wayward bus or a lightening strike–I can only consider one cause at a time. Remember, denial is my best defense, except when it isn’t.

Polycythemia is my dark horse. I take medication to manage my other medical issues, i.e., to keep my liver copacetic and my leukemia at bay, but I can’t do anything to slow the progression of my polycythemia. I am at the mercy of my polycythemia-specific JAK2 genetic mutation.

So we flew back to Calgary, the dry-as-a-desert city where everyone is itchy after bathing, and the bugs crawling under my skin took up residence elsewhere for a while, to my relief. But a few of them have returned, just to remind me that my polycythemia is still alive and well. So I slather myself with lotion after my shower since that’s what everyone in Calgary does and I sing happy songs and think of rainbows and puppy dogs (lots of puppy dogs), and I get on with my day.

Tomorrow I’ll mention my itchiness to Dr. Blood. (That’s after J. checks the “Itchiness” box on the Cancer Centre form.) Dr. Blood will tell me to use lotion and I’ll nod and pretend I’m not scared. And this too shall pass.

My willpower knows no bounds

Box of fancy chocolates open

I love sugar and I love chocolate. I don’t keep this stuff in the house because I’d gain weight. Imagine how many people would ask me if I were pregnant then.

I have spent this past week trying not to eat a box of chocolates gifted to me by the esteemed Drs. Hound. The chocolates were gifted in thanks for relieving their dogs from their loneliness and their full bladders while Drs. Hound are working long days.

Jelly deserves the bulk of the thanks, however. She’s been an entertaining visitor, using her primary method of engagement, which is loud and incessant barking. Sometimes it works but more often it gives me a headache. I am keeping all windows closed and thanking goodness the closest neighbour is an elderly fellow whom I pray is hard of hearing.

Tragically, despite Jelly’s persistent efforts to entertain her friends, I cannot share my chocolates with her because chocolate and dogs don’t mix. Life is unfair sometimes. Thus, I will have to eat all 19 delectable chocolates on my own. I am determined to pace myself.

Today is Day 5 and I have eaten only 1 chocolate thus far. If chocolate is a weak spot, a nemesis, an addiction, how have I managed this miracle of uncharacteristic self-restraint? I have employed every strategy in the book. Some researchers believe we have a limited amount of willpower that we should allocate judiciously, but I say “Balderdash!” I think my willpower is infinite under the right conditions.

Here are my simple strategies for success on the non-consumption front. First, I left the box at the Hound house, knowing if I took it home, I’d probably eat the whole thing in one sitting, or, even worse, I’d have to share it with J. I waited until Day 3 to break the cellophane and studied the legend enclosed so I could imagine what was to come. And then I closed the full box.

On Day 4, after a stressful morning–yes, I’m an emotional eater–I finally consumed my first chocolate. It was especially delicious since I’d been salivating over it for days. I first determined which chocolate I’d eat, reviewing the legend again at length. I then chose one chocolate and savoured it slowly, after which I quickly shut the box and left the house.

Drs. Hound have commended me for my self-restraint, but in fact I needn’t show self-restraint if I limit my access. My open box of chocolates remains at the Hound house so the restraint is all theirs. Were I in their shoes, I’d hold off only so long, consume a chocolate or two, and buy another full box to replace the ones I’d consumed. So good on you, Drs. Hound.

Now I must go home to eat something indulgent. I never said I was abstaining from everything I love this week, just from the fancy chocolates. I can’t see those chocolates going bad. Let’s see how Drs. Hound do over the weekend with my tempting open box within reach. At least they know where they bought the first box if they need to run out for a replacement.

Some of my best friends are self-help books.

Book cover: DIY Therapy: simple self-help skills

FYI: Counselling is so passé.

A while back, I may have unfairly accused some of my fellow yoga classmates of being unfriendly. Then, to my surprise, the long-familiar woman beside me in class asked me whether I needed to modify a pose because I was pregnant. OMG! That’s why I’m so tired! I am the first long-post-menopausal gay woman to get pregnant without a turkey baster or a transplanted uterus. Guinness Book of World Records, here I come.

Let’s move to more serious matters: I’m concerned my post deriding the psychological do-it-yourself genre may have left you with the wrong impression. I am not against self-help books. Quite the contrary. I believe there is significant merit to these books. Often I feel I learn more from a good self-help book than from the academic writing on the same topic.

I’ve sought self-help books out when I’ve been struggling with various issues, and I’ve read titles that others have recommended. I may not have loved all of them but they’ve all made me think. I’m still learning from the book I maligned recently, for that matter.

Throughout my career, I have often recommended specific books to clients if asked or if I felt a book might help. I even have favourites on a variety of topics. Are you depressed? How about anxious? Ready to disown your acting-up teenager? I have just the book for each of you. Let me grab it from my bookshelf.

Maybe I felt that book I critiqued had shortcomings, but I have no right to judge whatever book you might find helpful because I’m not you. So what if it’s not written up to my ridiculously rigorous standards; all that matters is that it speaks to you.

I recall once recommending my favourite grief book–of course I have a favourite grief book–to a client following a significant loss. She informed me at her next session that the book I’d suggested wasn’t very helpful but she’d found another one that was if I was interested. I then wondered how many other clients had disliked the book suggestions I’d made over the years but hadn’t had the heart to tell me. More power to the client who did, I say.

If I’m honest, I think many a potential client would benefit more from reading a book or two than from coming to see me. Forget counselling; just read this seminal work on the topic. Or talk to a friend who’s gone through something similar. Or watch a show on the subject. All of these things may help.

So read away, potential client. I hope your book helps. Save yourself some bucks by not going for therapy. But if you decide talking to a professional might help, give me a call. I’m still alive and counselling. Maybe I’ll go down to my office tomorrow and talk to myself about how it feels to be asked if I’m pregnant. Oh, I forgot, two new clients are coming in. Yippee! Too bad their bedside reading didn’t suffice.

And on the 21st day, I tanked.

It wasn’t long ago that I likened myself to the Everready Bunny. I had been oddly energetic through my vacation, and even got through the return jet lag without much trouble. I was so perky I was starting to wonder whether I had left my body in the UK and come back with someone else’s, although my outside appearance was largely unchanged. I even questioned whether I really had cancer, and why people with leukemia whine so much about fatigue. I figured I’d been presenting a fraudulent picture of myself to you, my faithful readers, for all these years, and you know how I value honesty.

And then this frenetic activity started to catch up with me and I crashed (no, not my car, although I imagine your mind went there). I became a walking zombie again, to my dismay. All I wanted to do was to sleep but, oppositional one that I am, I refused to give in. Within a few days, all my illusions about the new energetic and leukemia-free me were dashed. The more I fought my fatigue, the sadder I got, and the crankier I became. Let’s just say I wasn’t the funnest kid on the block this past weekend, even when I was awake.

So here’s the confusing part: Was I tired because I was down or was I down because I was tired? Depressed people often speak of fatigue. Like me, they have difficulty dragging themselves out of bed in the morning. Was I depressed because our great vacation was over?

I could be wrong–you know my personal insight is often lacking–but I wasn’t down after our vacation; I was in a great mood. We had had such a fantastic time, we had come home with so many good memories and so much good Cadbury chocolate. We even returned with the hope that there would be more travelling in my future, after months of being hesitant to venture far. I had absolutely no reason to be down.

Armed with this insight, I gave myself a firm talking to yesterday. This is what I said: “Self, stop it already. No one likes hanging out with you when you’re cranky. You’re only down because you’re tired. Go take a nap and you’ll feel better.” And so I did, and it helped, sort of. I’d forgotten how much energy it takes to be cranky.

Because J. had been subjected to my crankiness all weekend, she found a way to bring some levity to the situation: she took a picture of me while I was napping. During my nap, my hand had moved up to my chin and, from a certain angle, I looked like I was sucking my thumb. I’d show you the actual picture but you know how much I value my privacy. This reasonable facsimile (without the badly dyed red hair) will have to do:

Picture of woman napping sucking thumb

I told J. to erase the picture pronto but I don’t know if she did. I hope it doesn’t show up some day on one of those internet sites. You know the kind, with unsuspecting adults in compromising positions. Oh, the shame!



Even psychologists read self-help books

Some people read romance novels or mysteries to escape. I choose self-help books instead. When I was getting ready for my recent vacation, I was torn between the two depressing novels I had on loan from the library–one had a suicidal protagonist and the other a miserable family–and a self-help book with a snazzy cover from the New and Notables shelf. To maintain my no-depression travel zone, I chose the light reading, i.e., the book with the snazzy cover. I have long been known to judge a book by its cover.

This self-help book focusses on people’s difficulties changing their habits and provides strategies to help them to do so. Its author is completely unqualified to make broad statements about behaviour change, but her book is compelling nonetheless. Critical psychologist that I am, I read the book as much to feel superior–I could do a better job of writing this book, I told J.–as to learn from her commonsensical ideas.

I have been thinking about one of the book’s core concepts, because even mediocre books can have interesting ideas. The author distinguishes between what she calls “abstainers” vs. “moderators”. Consider these terms with respect to chocolate consumption, my favourite habit of choice. An abstainer is someone who cannot just have 1 square of chocolate; she is tormented by the remaining 19 squares and will obsess about them until she eats what’s left soon after that first square. A moderator, on the other hand, has no trouble with chocolate stashed around the house because she can have just a bit and leave the rest. I am an abstainer, J. a moderator. She doesn’t understand why I can’t have just one bite, and I can’t understand how she can stop at one.

But I don’t like the word “abstainer” because it suggests people do not consume their forbidden fruits at all. In truth, when they fail at abstention, which they do by definition, they binge. “Bingers” is a better descriptor, don’t you agree? Think of an alcoholic, for example. An alcoholic can’t just have one drink, since one will lead to another and another, until she has drunk to excess. A person who does not have an alcohol problem, i.e., a moderator, can easily stop after one or two drinks.

This leaves Jelly, who defies simplistic categorization. She is a moderator when it comes to playing with her toys–she’ll race around the house with her favourite toy in her mouth (you know what that is) for a while and then get tired and take a nap–but she’s 100% binger when it comes to kibble. She binges on her kibble, her bestie’s kibble, food on the counter, food on the floor–Save money on a vacuum! Get a dog!–food on the ground (can’t forget the scrumptious rabbit poop). Need I go on?

When if comes to food (dog food, human food, anything she can get her little teeth on), does she sound like an abstainer or a binger to you? I rest my case.

Basset hound eating out of overflowing bowl of kibble