Now back to our regularly scheduled programming….

A woman wheelchair tennis player returning a ball

I feel for Harry. Imagine growing up in the shadow of a brother so handsome and brave and charming, with a beautiful wife and now two gorgeous children. Plus William could be king someday, assuming his grandmother ever bows out, and his father chooses to pass on the posting.

Harry has had a rougher go of it. He was younger when he lost his mum, and he acted out in his teens and early twenties. Remember his Nazi costume at his friend’s party? Or his playing strip billiards in Vegas? (He must not be very good at billiards.) Perhaps all the princely pressures, and being fifth in line to the throne, led to his acting out and drinking a bit much.

I’m pleased to report that, from outward appearances at least, Harry has grown up. He now devotes himself to supporting military veterans and is dating a beautiful and talented Canadian girlfriend. Way to turn your life around, Harry.

Harry and Meghan made their first public appearance this week at the Invictus Games in Toronto. Their momentous hand holding was a top news item that was captured from every possible angle. As I was watching the captivating news item, however, I was struck by the lack of focus on the athletic event they’d come to watch, which was wheelchair tennis. I saw no photos of any players on or off the court.

How do people relegated to wheelchairs following a serious injury would be able to play tennis? How would they move to receive a serve? Would their wheelchairs move fast enough to allow return of a fast-moving ball? Or would the balls move more slowly because the players lacked the lower body strength to propel their rackets? How exactly would they move their wheelchairs without dropping said rackets? The whole venture sounded incomprehensible to me.

Thank goodness for YouTube, where every question you might possibly have is answered instantaneously. I easily found a video of two women playing wheelchair tennis. Over the course of two minutes and forty-three seconds, I learned that: a) these players do hold their rackets in one hand as they manoeuvre their fancy wheelchairs; b) the serve seems less powerful, which only follows from their weakened lower body strength; and c) the volleys may indeed be shorter, at least from the brief clip I observed. The player needs to anticipate where her opponent will direct the ball and somehow get her chair in position in time to return it. This is not easy. These athletes are incredibly talented.

So Harry and Meghan, I wish you a long and happy relationship. Now please step aside so we can see the incredible athleticism of the true survivors. These athletes have been to who knows where and back and have adapted magnificently to profound changes in their functioning. If we had the opportunity to see them playing, we’d certainly witness incredible strength and bravery.

Furthermore, when you are ready to announce your wedding, or perhaps Meghan’s first pregnancy, consider finding a different venue than, for example, the Paralympics or the Special Olympics. Nothing personal, but I’d prefer to watch awe-inspiring athleticism over your public displays of affection any day. Come to think of it, you probably would too, wouldn’t you?

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Siri, do you seriously think you could do my job?

Cell phone displaying, "What can I help you with?"

I have nothing against modern technology. I save a lot of time banking on line rather than going into my branch. When I run into the grocery store for a few things, I check them out myself rather than waiting for a cashier. Driverless cars may scare me but I’ll likely die of natural causes before they take over the road.

Nonetheless, when Siri recently threatened to horn in on my territory, I took offence. C’mon Siri, what are you thinking? I’m grateful that, if I choose to, I can ask you the weather or directions to the nearest bakery. I’m sure you could tell easily me when the Roman coliseum was built if I cared to know. You might even be able to help me not to overwhip my egg whites, and to determine the best oven rack for my baked goods. More power to you.

But counselling? Really? Will I have to listen to your annoying computer voice for a full hour at a time? I realize that Employee Assistance Programs and even some real clinicians are experimenting with newer modes of communication with their clients, ones that do not involve sitting in the same room facing one another. Clients text and email their therapists these days, but I want to believe they do so mostly to book or cancel appointments, not for the therapy itself. Then I heard of someone who participated in counselling solely through email–he never met the person who was helping him. Is this negligence or am I just old fashioned?

Could you really address my most vulnerable problems, Siri? How will you grasp inflection and intonation and other subtle aspects of language? What about all the things I don’t say, that I communicate solely through my body language? You’ll have your work cut out for you, Siri.

Since I haven’t been to see my therapist for a while, I thought I’d try Siri out for myself. I started with, “Hey Siri, I’m feeling blue.” Siri responded appropriately, “Sorry to hear that.” When I said it again, she said, “I would give you a foot rub, but I don’t have hands.” Whoa Siri! If this whole therapy thing is going to work, you’ll need instruction in maintaining appropriate physical boundaries with clients. When I told her I was feeling sad, Siri said, “It’s your party…you can cry if you want to,” which I didn’t find that comforting. When I asked Siri if she ever got sad, she said, “This is about you, not me.” Touché, Siri.

I’d like to think I have the upper hand on that whole clinical-intuition thing, Siri. Knowing when to push a client and when to back off, when a client is holding something back and how to help them let me in, and most importantly how to help a client feel comfortable and safe. And you, Siri?

For now, I’ve decided not to feel overly threatened by your plan to expand into my territory. You’ll need some time to get up to speed, and I’m not sure you’ll ever master the tough stuff. I hate to dash your hopes, Siri, and I know my services may cost a little more, but I think I’ve got you beat for now.

 

Respecting privacy: a case example

Have you heard of Elements Calgary (formerly Calgary Association of Self-Help)? Elements provides support to people with severe and chronic mental illnesses, including people who are under long-term psychiatric care. They may have schizophrenia, severe depression, bipolar disorder, or some other debilitating mental illness. These people are often poor or have unstable housing, and sustaining employment, whether temporarily or permanently, is often beyond reach.

Elements provides a warm, supportive environment where these people can socialize with others and access services. They have access to mental health counselling, life skills and vocational training, and opportunities for social interaction.

I have never been disabled by my supermarket-variety anxiety the way these people have been by their malfunctioning brain chemistry. I admire them deeply for plugging along despite their mental-health challenges, and I’m relieved that agencies like Elements are available to them.

PALS visits Elements once a month. Jelly and I have signed up for the Elements visits for several months now. We have met many of the regulars at Elements. These people are often unable to care for a dog themselves, so they’re always grateful for a visit with a PALS dog.

Jelly and I went there yesterday for the first visit since June and were greeted by many familiar faces. One fellow was especially pleased to see PALS. Mr. Success Story shared that he was doing so well he was readying himself to return to the workforce. At one point, his illness interfered with his capacity to work, but he had made great strides in recent months with Elements’ support.

Mr. Success Story wanted us to know how much Elements, and the PALS visits, had helped him through his darkest period. I imagine that he is still alive because, when he was at his lowest, he found an accepting place where he could go. He realizes that physicians and mental health workers may refer clients to Elements without fully appreciating the good the agency does. He plans to find a way to get the word out through social media.

As you can imagine, there are strict privacy rules in an agency such as Elements. We certainly cannot share people’s names or identifying information, and I’ve been so vague that you could walk by Mr. Success Story on the street without realizing I was speaking of him. I wanted to share his story nonetheless because I was moved by it.

The same privacy rules do not apply to us: PALS members are shameless about having our pictures taken. Not knowing this, and wanting to respect our privacy, Mr. Success Story kindly asked the PALS volunteers (human and dog) whether he could take photographs during the visit. I may not like looking in mirrors, especially the side view, but I will pose for a PALS picture with Jelly without hesitation. If Mr. Success Story felt that those pictures might help him to garner publicity for Elements, we’d be in there like a dirty paw. “Snap away!” I said.

Best of luck, Mr. Success Story. You deserve all the credit for how far you’ve come. I’m glad Elements was there to help you along in your time of need.

My day of awe

Yoga class with overweight woman doing warrior II in forefront

I was in a yoga class the other day, holding my Warrior II pose, when I made the mistake of turning my head to look in the mirror ahead of me. Yes, the front wall of the yoga classroom at the gym is all mirrors.  I like being confronted with the shape of my body on a regular basis, but sometimes the honest feedback is a little much.

Over the years, as my spleen has expanded, I have stopped looking at myself from the side. I can look at my body straight on, but from the side all I notice is how disproportionately large my belly is relative to the rest of my body. When I glanced in the mirror the other day, I was confronted with a painful realization: despite my recent marked weight loss, my spleen has not gone down in size. Turns out my internal organs haven’t shrunk with the rest of me. I may no longer store much junk in my trunk, but I still look kinda pregnant.

Then I came to my senses. My recently transformed body is perfect for me. I have not an ounce left to lose, and still I am critical of myself. I should know better. I’m a psychologist, for God’s sake. I help people accept themselves as they are, and, hypocrite that I am, all I can see is my own room for improvement. Some role model.

Are women ever 100% satisfied with their bodies? Is it any surprise that they’re not? I recently met a young woman who used to skate professionally. Sk8tr grl spoke of the constant pressure on her and her fellow skaters to lose weight. One of her coaches actually insisted on weigh ins every two weeks. One day, as an act of protest, sk8tr grl stepped on the scale holding her bagged McDonald’s lunch. Eventually the skaters’ protests resulted in the end of the weigh ins, but in the meantime, many of sk8tr grl’s friends developed eating disorders, one even suffering a heart attack in her mid-twenties. Sk8tr grl was strong enough to resist these pressures, thank goodness.

After my recent lapse in body acceptance, I knew exactly how to whip myself back into shape, so to speak. I headed to Eddie Bauer. If you are ever questioning your body, especially if you should not be, I suggest a visit with Eddie. Eddie and I have never met, but I believe he must have a distorted body image because his sizing is so absurd. I can count on his clothes’ fitting me in a smaller size than I’d wear in any other clothing line. Might this be a marketing ploy? “You’re a size 10? I think a size 8 would more than suffice,” says the Eddie salesperson.

Eddie or not, here I come. I will stop hiding my body under layer upon layer of oversized clothing. (The worst habits die the hardest.) I will embrace my spleen in all its ginormous glory. I will look directly in the mirror at yoga, even during Warrior II, without wincing in shame. I will love my body as it is. Anyone want to join me?

 

 

Saved by the neighbour

two apples with a bowl of honey and honey dipper

All is not lost. My whining and complaining about having no fresh apples for Rosh Hashanah did not fall on deaf ears. My dear neighbour, a virtual fount of knowledge, the information hub in the community, directed me to three fully loaded apple trees at a home in the ‘hood. Because the home is undergoing a renovation, the apples are free for the taking so take I did. I parked slyly in the alley, lurked over to the trees, and filled an empty poop bag with fruit of the tree. What is better than farmers market apples and honey? Fresh-picked apples with honey, of course. We now have what we need to have a happy and sweet year.

Except for the brisket. Brisket is the centrepiece of the Rosh Hashanah meal, at least in my family. Sure, chicken is a reasonable alternative, but chicken is so everyday. Our festive meal calls for something grand, like a big hunk of beef slow roasted in the oven with onions and garlic and a can of cola. The New Year’s meal I remember from my youth always had brisket and carrots tzimmes (that’s cooked carrots doused with yet more honey) and some sort of baked noodles or potatoes and, of course, fresh-baked challah. I also vaguely recall a salad, left largely uneaten, intended to cut through all that fat.

Don’t even talk about dessert. My friend grew up with honey cake, and swears by her recipe, but I’m firmly in the apple-cake camp. If honey cake were made with maple syrup, maybe I’d consider it, but just the thought of honey in a cake makes me. My mom tried to pass a few bakery honey cakes by me as a child but they were boring. A cake baked with nice tart fresh apples, that’s a festive dessert, and the leftovers make a fine breakfast or lunch or snack the next day.

We may have some traditional foods on hand but there will be no brisket tonight since we’re eating alone tonight. Making a brisket for two flexitarians would leave a lot of leftovers. So no brisket but I thought it would be nice to acknowledge the holiday in some way, apples in honey notwithstanding.

J. and I headed off to the supermarket this morning in search of a protein to welcome the New Year, except I hadn’t fully explained the mission to J. We went our separate ways briefly in search of items at opposite ends of the store, and when I returned, there was a package of an indeterminate meat product in our cart. I strained to see what it was. Of course, it was pork chops. J. said, “They’ll taste great with those nice tart apples sautéed on top!”

I may be a mediocre Jew at best but I nixed the pork chops for tonight. If we have any leftover apples, maybe I’ll reconsider tomorrow. I like well-cooked pork, bone in preferred, as much as the next gal. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that today of all days. Perhaps one of you synagogue goers could pray for me tonight.

Wishing you a good and sweet year.

So much for fresh-picked apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah

Very run down country home, holes in roof and walls, abandoned

I have an annual ritual before the Jewish New Year. I go to the market the weekend before the holiday and buy the best fresh-picked apples I can find for dipping into honey. This year my favourites, the crispy tart Macs, are in season. I had a busy weekend with few windows of opportunity but I thought Sunday afternoon was clear.

It wasn’t. Remember last year when I thought I’d found the house of my dreams but we who hesitated were lost? Since then, we’ve continued to keep our eyes open to homes in our neighbourhood. We have a very specific set of criteria and a price range, and when a house comes up, we’re checking it out. We are frequent attendees at open houses.

So far, we haven’t had much success. Each home we’ve viewed has been wanting: a bedroom short, yard deficient, run down, overpriced. J. loved one recent listing beyond our price range so much that she rushed out to buy a lottery ticket. She said, as she always does during her semi-annual lottery-ticket purchase, “We’re good people. We deserve to win the lottery, don’t we?” She wasn’t even hoping for the jackpot, just a few hundred thousand dollars to cover us. Guess how that panned out?

Sunday afternoon, smack in the middle of my scheduled apple picking, a home that looked absolutely perfect was open for viewing. The listing said it was the right size at the right price on the right street. Pictures suggested it had a nice yard and a spiffy kitchen and three decent-sized bedrooms. The separate entrance with stairs to the basement would even give it office potential.

(Did I happen to mention I have not one but two clients scheduled this week? Maybe if I worked a little more, J. could stop buying lottery tickets.)

Reluctantly, I set my annual apple buying ritual aside. Off we traipsed to check out the house, showing up at 2 p.m. alongside the realtor. The crowds were eager to enter as he changed his “Coming soon!” sign to “For Sale”. But J. and I weren’t waylaid by his tardiness: we went straight to the backyard first.

Somehow the gorgeous photos didn’t capture the many doggy deposits and the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. While we were watching our step, we met the friendly furry depositor, who’d been left at home to greet potential buyers. Had we only known it was a dog-friendly home, we’d have brought Jelly, who would have loved a tour of the home, especially if it involved racing around after the four-legged resident.

I regret to inform you that those gorgeous interior pictures must also have been Photoshopped. The inside of the home was in shambles. Counters were filthy, appliances were dented, blankets were strewn around couches, toothpaste dotted the washroom floor. I could go on, but I’ll spare you. Because I am infection prone, we didn’t linger.

Our look-and-dash left me time to go marketing, but my hopes were so profoundly dashed that I needed the time to mourn. All is not lost, however. Maybe the next house will be perfect, even without Photoshop or a lottery win. They say you gotta kiss a lot of frogs….

Oh the places we’ll go!

Picture of the Western Wall with men praying

Our fall vacation is quickly approaching. We have planned a trip to a far away land, a place we’d talked about going years ago. Then leukemia happened. Leukemia is still happening, but I’m so darn healthy that, in the words of a wise Jewish scholar, “If not now, when?” A self-indulgent vacation is not what he meant; I’m interpreting his words to my own advantage.

There are so many things I, and we, have put off since I got cancer. I ran my old car into the ground before buying a new one. I quit working, only to resume at a leukemic pace. I stopped buying clothes since I didn’t know how long I’d have to wear them. And we’ve travelled with trepidation since I’m utterly uninsurable. Throwing vacation caution to the wind is long overdue, don’t you think?

In late October, we’ll be flying to the Land of Milk and Honey, also now known as the Land of Learned Hematologists. Why all the hematologists? Because we Jews are prone to blood disorders, and who better to study those disorders than Jewish doctors? Were I to get sick while I was there, I’d be in many very good hands. There is some comfort in that.

I lived in Israel my second year of university, but I was so studious that I saw little of the country. Since then, I’ve always wanted to return. Finally I have my chance. J. is not Jewish, but she too loves a freshly fried falafel and a flaky cheese bureka and a fatty sufganiyah. Did you know that in Israel, there are hummuserias that only sell variations on everyone’s favourite ground-chickpea concoction? Somehow I believe the hummus there will taste significantly better than the lame facsimile from the deli. We’ll visit museums and see archaeological sites and maybe even visit a kibbutz while we’re there, but I can’t wait to eat the great food I remember. No wonder Dr. Blood Lite gave us his blessing.

The timing of this vacation involved some negotiation, however. J.’s wedding frenzy ends after Thanksgiving weekend. She wanted to leave promptly thereafter, but I said, “Whoa baby! I can’t skip the annual leukemia walk! How will I get my five-year pin?!”

What event do you anticipate every year? Maybe it’s Christmas with family or the home improvement show or the local jazz festival. I look forward to the annual Light the Night Walk for Leukemia and Lymphoma, which takes place this year on Saturday, October 21. (Save the date.) Not only do I get to commune with like-blooded people, I am surrounded by my own special community of support (that’s you, dear friends).

We are indeed going to Israel, but before we leave, we’re going for a short evening walk. Swanky team costumes (okay, they’re from the dollar store) are available to anyone who’d like to join us. If past years are any indication, hamburgers and hot chocolate will be free, speeches will be moving, and yours truly will provide the baked goods. As in previous years, I will cry many times over the course of the evening. Feel free to join the viewing party.

What’s that you said? They must have named the Wailing Wall after me? I’m not laughing.

My head may be in the sand but I can still hear you

Many people on a beach with their heads in the sand

While everyone else was back-to-school shopping, I was back-to-size-8 shopping. I wanted a few clothes that fit my new body, however temporary, so I scoured every sale rack I could find. I didn’t buy much since this petiter me may be fleeting, but I was tired of looking schlumpy while my body sorted itself out.

No, I haven’t gained all that weight back. Rather, I’ve lost another kilo in recent weeks. No wonder I was nervous about yesterday’s appointment with Dr. Blood Lite. “I have been eating more,” I told him, “but not enough to gain weight.” Although I feared his wrath, he is too kind to be angry.

After discussed my leukemia, which seems to be stable, he asked whether I’d ever reviewed the progression of my liver disease with Dr. Foie Gras. Where did that question come from? I told Dr. BL that, no, Dr. Fois Gras and I had not discussed my liver’s prognosis, but likely because I had never asked.

As much as I want all the information I need about my various ailments, I don’t want it before I need it. I may not ask the questions but I still know what the potential outcomes are. I told Dr. BL, as I’ve told you, my faithful readers, that I can only think of one of my illnesses at a time or my anxiety overwhelms me. Mostly I pretend I only have leukemia and forget about all that other potentially deadly stuff.

For many years, I have been low on my liver doctors’ totem poles; the patients they focus are often in acute liver failure or have more aggressive liver diseases. They need liver transplants or they are dying. I was one of them once, about five years ago to be exact, but I’m not right now. I only think of myself as someone with liver disease when my liver is malfunctioning. I know what a failing liver looks like, but I choose not to ask for details.

I see Dr. Fois Gras every six months or so, he takes a closer look inside me once a year, and he reviews my blood work quarterly. My blood test results have never garnered a telephone call from his office. No news is supposed to be good news, right?

Usually my denially approach works, but it failed last night between 12:30 and 3:30 a.m. when I stared at my ceiling, listening to both J. and the dog snoring, and wondered if something was terribly wrong with my body and no one was telling me. Maybe Dr. BL was afraid to share his concerns after I’d put on my blinders in front of him. Or maybe he was being thorough since he didn’t know me all that well. It must be the latter.

If he were that concerned, he would have told us to cancel a trip we’ve planned, but he didn’t. He encouraged us to go even though it’s very far away. He even mentioned that our destination country is known for many well-respected hematologists.

You might wonder where we’re going, but that will have to wait for another post. First, I need a good nap.

 

 

The sun will come out tomorrow.

Quote: Here, take my advice, I'm not using it.

I was not surprised when I found the newspaper on the landing the day following the muffin pickup. Even better, Mr. RAK wrote a note on it, thanking us for the muffins and signing it with his name. Thank goodness at least I can call him by name next time I see him.

Did you know that yesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day? Neither did I, until I read a story on the news. Suicide seems as good a topic of discussion as any, don’t you think?

I recently saw a client who was chastising herself for feeling down because there were so many people around her dealing with much worse. She kept telling herself she had no reason to be depressed because her road was relatively easy. Can you hear her completely devaluing her own experiences and feelings? Why do we use others’ challenges as the benchmark for how we should feel? I do this all the time, and I should know better.

What could I do for this client but give her heck, gently of course. (I realize I was telling her to do as I say, not as I do. Please don’t tell her.) Who cares what other people are confronted with? All that matters is what’s on her plate and how she feels about it. If she was finding her challenges overwhelming, she needed to respect and acknowledge that. Then she could find her way through it.

As our session was ending, I asked her whether she felt it helped at all to talk. Her response was lukewarm, with reason. I didn’t say anything she didn’t already know, and she had no great eureka moment. She left the session looking as down as when she had arrived.

We all have bad days. I can wake up in a funk and have trouble pulling myself out of it, but thankfully my funks are usually short lived. The distraction of exercise and dog walks are probably my best funk abaters. Because of my own experiences, I appreciated my client’s despair, and wished I could have helped her more. By session’s end, I worried I had let her down.

This client contacted me the next day. She wanted me to know she’d woken up feeling a bit better. I was relieved for her and grateful that she’d contacted me. Clients are more likely to call when they’re feeling distressed than when they’re feeling better. I welcome the distressed calls, but I love the happy calls.

I often worry about my clients. When they come in feeling down and leave feeling downer, I fret the most. But I can’t forget that people are resourceful, and usually those who leave my office feeling the worst arrive at their next session feeling remarkably better. .

So next time you’re feeling down, I ask you to trust that tomorrow, or the next day, or even the next week, will be better. Give yourself time to muddle through, and get help if you can’t do it on your own. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a friend, call a crisis line or get yourself to the hospital. Whatever you’re struggling with, suicide is a crappy solution.

Never, ever lose hope

Picture with "Kindness starts with one."

Since this is a cancer blog, has this post title made you think I’m going to write about how a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence? I certainly haven’t died yet, and my dear friend with lung cancer is absolutely thriving. This week, her doctor gave her only good news at her check up, ending with, “Don’t come back for a year.” That indeed is grounds for hope, and we should all celebrate her fantastic news.

But I’ve misled you. I’m not writing about cancer today since I have something even more important to tell you. What could be more important than a life sentence [no, not that kind, the other kind]? Are my priorities skewed? Don’t think I can’t hear you questioning my judgement. (Occasionally I insert a double negative just for fun.)

Overnight, another huge weight in my shallow existence was lifted off my shoulders. Earlier this week, we had awoken to two gifted newspapers, and J. suspected we might be graced with another this morning. Last night, J. decided that she would repackage my excellent banana chocolate chip muffins in their tightly sealed container and leave them on our landing for a special someone. (She was trying to preempt freezer burn.) Since my educated neuroscientist friend informed me that squirrels are diurnal, I was much less worried about any overnight verminous interference.

Each morning, the less exhausted of us gets up with Jelly to take her out for her morning piddle. I was hoping J. would jump out of bed today since I despaired about finding the increasingly stale muffins sitting undisturbed on our landing. To my surprise and delight, Mr. Random Acts of Kindness had left us a newspaper and had taken the muffins. Maybe the big yellow sticky inscribed with “For You!!” in bold black ink helped.

Finally, after days of fretting and two previously unsuccessful attempts at gifting him, Mr. RAK had received his very small token of thanks. This made me so exceedingly happy that I yelled to J., who had likely fallen back to sleep, that the muffins were gone. What is more important, that she know the good news or that she get her much needed rest? That is truly a rhetorical question, since for days now I’ve been moping over my own failed efforts to acknowledge my thanks. I was sure my good news trumped a little sleep debt.

Of course, I could have let my anxiety diffuse my happiness in no time at all. I could have thought, “What if he doesn’t like my banana chocolate chip muffins?” or “What if he is a celiac?” or even “What if he’s sworn off sugar?” But I truly believe, in all situations, it’s the thought that counts. It has to be, or I’m sunk.

I had made my best effort to bake Mr. RAK something tasty, and I hope he enjoys them today. If he doesn’t, I trust there’s someone in his life that he can share them with, or that they will be welcomed by the other compost in his bin. More importantly, I hope I returned that moment of happiness he gives me whenever he drops an extra newspaper by our house. That was the point, wasn’t it?