The luck of the draw

Toddler sitting on sidewalk with little puppy kissing his face

I love my PALS visits with Jelly. I get to go to new places and meet new people and watch them adore my dog. Of course I love to tell them funny stories about her, but I don’t go on and on about her because it’s not all about us, especially during these visits. I have to find other topics of conversation instead.

I’ve long accepted that I’m terrible at small talk. Getting-to-know-you conversations are hard for me in general. I was particularly stumped at a PALS outing last week.

We had volunteered to visit a special nursing home. The residents there are hard-to-place older folks who would not otherwise be accepted into seniors’ homes. Many are alcoholic and/or mentally ill, and many once lived on the street. The alcoholic residents are given controlled amounts of alcohol at regular intervals. Without access to alcohol, these people would likely continue to live in poverty on the streets. The residence’s goals are to reduce these people’s run ins with the police and their need for emergency health care.

I’ve been in many seniors’ homes with Jelly and this one was more run down than others I’ve seen. (Imagine the challenges gathering funding for a place like this.) So were the people there, many of whom were socializing in the common area when we arrived. Still, this special residence gives them a roof over their heads and three meals a day, access to laundry facilities, and on-site medical care. There are significant daily supports in place, so they don’t need to be trying to survive on the streets anymore.

I didn’t know what brought these folks to this residence and my asking them would have been inappropriate. Of course I wondered about their pasts, though. Sometimes their mental-health issues were apparent, but others simply appeared poor and downtrodden. I hope my discomfort wasn’t obvious, but I felt even more awkward than usual finding common ground for conversation.

I often fall back on one strategy when I have no idea what to say. On all our PALS outings, people can choose to visit with the dogs or not, so those that do attend are clearly dog lovers (or cat lovers who are willing to accept second best). Their interest in animals gives me an easy inroad: I ask them about their experiences with dogs. That breaks the ice, probably for me more than for them. People love to talk about their dogs–I can relate to that–even if they may be sad recalling better times in their lives.

On this visit, our dog conversations reminded me that our lives may not have been all that different at one point. These people weren’t born mentally ill, although they likely were harbouring bad genes that would reveal themselves later. They likely lived with family when they were younger, just like I did. But at some point, poverty or mental illness or addiction derailed their lives. I expect they’ve had bad luck, while somehow I did not. Life is truly unfair.

I’m glad this special residence can provide these folks a home. Everyone deserves at least that, no matter what.

Yeah, sure, sometimes I’m grateful.

Let’s start this post by saying that I don’t buy a lot of clothes. But a few days ago I bought a t-shirt, size medium. (Hopefully it will still fit me when my unintentional hunger strike ends.) It says #grateful across the front, which I find a little Oprah-esque, but I liked it anyhow.

I don’t like to preach gratitude but occasionally I do find myself thinking of things I’m grateful for. Being alive is the most obvious one.

Soon after I bought the shirt, as if by fate, I had a texting exchange with a doctor friend, my second debrief of sorts with him following last week’s adventure at the urgent care clinic. He was kind enough to check in the evening of my incident, and somehow we got to texting again on Friday afternoon.

I was worried my friend might be angry with me for what I’d recently posted about my visit to the clinic because he’s the kind kind of guy (no, that was not one of my frequent editing errors) whom I imagine feels responsible for anyone’s mistreatment by a medical professional. That’s quite a burden to bear, don’t you think? I reminded him that he can let that go.

When I asked him whether he was angry with me for what I’d written, he responded: I could never be angry with you. To say I was touched by his response would be a gross understatement. The sentiment actually brought tears to my eyes. I know, you’re not surprised.

Sometimes someone says something to me that I know I will never forget. Some are traumatic moments, the ones where someone has blurted out something very hurtful or mean. We all have moments like those, interactions where we feel shamed or belittled or bullied. I try to let these incidents go because I don’t find stewing about them helpful. Sometimes I am successful but sometimes I am not.

But the moments where someone says something that so kind and supportive, those are moments I want to hold on to. I must have reread the text several times before I deleted it. It has been a great comfort.

Has anyone ever told me that I could never evoke anger? No one, ever. I understand why. I spend my days infuriating people with my irritability and cluelessness and rigidity and all my other tiresome quirks. Maybe this dear friend doesn’t know those annoying sides of me that would drive him crazy were we to spend too much time together.

Or maybe he does know how difficult I can be, and he still chose these words of support. That’s a true friend. So everyone should know how grateful I am. Thanks, dear friend, for debriefing with me after your very long day of work. And thanks for your continued kindness when we caught up a few days later, even if you were disinhibited by your first vacation beer. This post’s for you, bud.

And now I must go put on my new t-shirt, to drive the point home.

 Beer stein filled with beer on a wooden table at a pub

 

Pride comes nowhere near the fall

Woman who has fallen off bike, bike lays on ground

If a woman stops eating in the forest, will anybody notice her pants falling off? Does it matter?

I am here to confirm what the research has been saying for years: your stair master is lying to you. Weight loss is about eating less, not exercising more. Trust me, I know. But keep exercising because it’s good for you in so many other ways.

Many moons ago, I was dating an avid cyclist. I made the mistake of trying out one of those fancy road bikes with the skinny wheels at the prohibitively expensive cycling store. Of course this bike had fancy clip-on pedals, so I sported an ill-fitting pair of those absurd looking clip-on shoes for my trial ride down the block. Needless to say, I did not make it far before I teetered over and, unable to unclip my shoes, fell to the ground. It was not pretty. No bikes were purchased that day.

Things haven’t changed all that much over the years. I no longer need the fancy bike or the clip-on shoes to fall to the ground, however. On Wednesday, for example, I took Jelly out for her morning constitutional. As we returned to the house, I failed to properly negotiate the small rise from our lawn to the driveway, a rise that has been there since the cement was poured 15 years ago. Somehow I found myself flat on my face, with skinned hands and knees and badly mangled glasses. Surprisingly, my recent weight loss did not seem to lighten my fall.

Thankfully my trusty therapy dog was at my side, as she often is when I fall, since I do most of my walking with her. She sighed, “Oh mom, not again.”

Jelly has has been PALSing around for 6 months now. She has visited retirement homes, hospice patients, university students, and a variety of special-needs populations. She has offered wags and kisses far and wide. People marvel at how calm she is in even the most chaotic of settings.*

She had an especially successful visit with a hoard of high-needs preschoolers. Somehow, in the midst of all the activity, she napped. One of the children saw Jelly sleeping, and observed, “She looks dead.” He repeated this statement several times. I was ineffective at disabusing him of this notion. I even placed his hand on Jelly’s belly so he could feel her breathing, to no avail. At least he wasn’t upset about Jelly’s apparent demise.

When she has her little PALS outfit on, Jelly is an equal-opportunity love sponge. She will take affection from anyone who will give it. I wouldn’t say she’s one of those miracle dogs who is drawn to the person who needs the comfort the most, but I may need to reconsider in light of my mishap.

After my fall, Jelly immediately rushed to my side, started kissing my face, and then waited patiently until I got up. I collected myself and arose slowly. Other than a few bruises, I’m absolutely fine. J., on the other hand, believes, for good reason, I am unsafe to venture out so I’ve been grounded.

Happy Canada Day! And be safe.

 

*I too marvel at how calm Jelly is in these special settings, since she’s often utterly frenetic at home. Remember the dining room table incident?

 

Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

 

Did you miss National Cancer Survivors Day yesterday? Not to worry, so did I. I scored nary an invite to any of the festivities. I’m not even sure I am a cancer survivor; all I know is that my cancer hasn’t killed me yet.

Turns out I’ve got a good cancer, if there is such a thing, one that people can live with for many years. And since most of the time I’m in complete denial about my co-existing conditions (my impaired liver and my polycythemia–Happy 17th Polycythemaversary, by the way), I can pretend I too will be one of these people who will live a long life.

One of the main reasons I don’t feel like a true survivor is that I still take daily medications to keep my leukemia at bay. Oh, and my regular visits to the Cancer Centre. There’s nothing like hanging out amongst my cancerous peers to remind me I’ve still got the big C.

Unlike many other cancerous folk, I have very few leukemia cells now, according to most recent testing. So few that, in a CML patient booklet I just read, I am considered in remission. No one has used the R word with me before; in fact, when I was first diagnosed, I was told people with CML don’t go into remission. I was as surprised as you may be. If I’ve misled you, I did it unintentionally.

I also learned from that informative booklet that, with the advances in treatment of CML, many of us are living to a ripe old age. The focus of intervention has shifted from treatment to our quality of life. That part I get, now that I have reached Day 7 of The Wrath of the Gouty Finger. The leukemia isn’t so bad; it’s the symptoms and medication side effects that I find challenging.

So I’d like to suggest a new day of celebration more appropriate to those of us with CML. Let’s call it National Cancer-Symptoms Survivors Day. We’d be celebrating maintaining our quality of life while living with the threat of a potentially terminal illness hanging over our heads. We gatherers could compare notes on our various medication side effects and how we have survived them. We could share information about the interventions we’ve added on to manage those side effects.

I can think of many ways such a get together could benefit me. I’m sure there’s a CML survivor out there who would know how to manage yoga postures that require my lying on my belly. “Do you also have to rearrange the position of your football-sized spleen when you lie down?” I’d ask. Or how about our unrelenting fatigue? “Do you too fall asleep during matinees? How do you keep yourself from snoring?” Then there are the challenges of taking all those drugs. “How do you manage to time your medications to minimize all drug and food interactions?” The possibilities are endless!

We’ll plan our special day to coincide with the National Cancer Survivors Day. Then those of us who feel left out will have somewhere to go where we feel a sense of belonging. We all need to feel we belong somewhere.

Cut out figures holding hands

The dangers of dependence: a tale of two doctors

A tree that is unbending is easily broken

Did I happen to mention that my beloved Dr. Family will be heading off on maternity leave in August? The gall of that fantastic physician to place her family ahead of her patients, placing her family ahead of her patients. I was diagnosed with leukemia during her first maternity leave. Who knows what will happen this time she leaves?

I don’t talk about Dr. Family much because she is, in some ways, a peripheral member of my care team. By necessity, I spend more time with my specialists than with her. She has always diligently reviewed my file before I do visit, though. She is an astute diagnostician and has cared for me well over the years I have known her. She has arranged for excellent coverage during her two prior leaves.

Her upcoming departure for baby #3 happens to coincide with Dr. Blood’s leaving for her year-long sabbatical. That’s a lot of change at one time for a change-averse gal like me. Thus I considered becoming completely overwhelmed when I first saw Dr. Family’s baby bump, but I’d recently reached my fretting threshold over Dr. Blood.

That’s how I decided to approach to Dr. Family’s leave differently. I recalled my shutting my practice temporarily–unlike me, my clients had no opportunity to ready themselves for my departure–and how, unsurprisingly, my clients survived without me. I’d expect no less of them.

As a clinician, I am always walking a tightrope between assuring my clients they can rely on me when they are distressed and encouraging them not to become overly reliant on my support. From the outset, we discuss those supports available to clients outside the occasional hour that we meet. I’d never want a client to think he needed to talk to me and only me in a crisis because that would set him up to be overly dependent on my care.

I’ve always known I’m not the only psychologist in town. Other highly competent clinicians jumped in when I got sick because they had to. I redirected clients that asked; others muddled through in their own way. Some clients may have ditched therapy altogether to see how they’d do without a therapist’s support. I trust they managed well.

Those who transferred to someone new may have had to share their story from the beginning, which is certainly harder than returning to someone who knows them. Nonetheless, unexpected change like this can be good for clients. I may have missed something or focussed excessively on one domain when they could have used a different kind of support. I realize my former clients may have found a therapist who was better suited to care for them. Sometimes a client reaches an endpoint with a psychologist and a new perspective is beneficial.

If my clients can survive or even thrive without me, maybe I can do the same with my new physicians. I’d hate to become a needy patient, and I trust both my physicians will find solid interim replacements. Who knows? Maybe the change will give my flexibility muscle a good workout. I may even learn that there’s more than one doctor in the world who can keep me alive. That would be reassuring.

Two women walk into a home improvement store….

Picture of yellow and black drill

Sounds like the first line of a joke, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. Or maybe it is, if you’re thinking of klutzy me. J. is less injury prone and better with a drill. I am wisely relegated to a supporting role on home improvement tasks, e.g., “Honey, a beer/iced tea/lunch would be nice.”

We went to the store to buy planks for raised garden beds. According to J.’s careful calculations, we had room for two 12 x 3 foot beds. What we hadn’t considered was how we’d get those 12-foot planks home my little black car. Remember the car I said I’d never eat in and forever park at the far end of every parking lot to prevent door dents? I know, sounds a touch unrealistic.

The helpful and eager young employee–let’s call him McDreamer–believed we could somehow get those long planks home in my teeny car, so he and J. attempted to manoeuvre them while I watched in fascination. (I bruise easily, remember?) All was going well until McDreamer decided to move the planks a bit farther up the dashboard, at the expense of the windshield. Once he realized what had happened, McDreamer was so upset he bolted off in tears to seek help.

How would a normal person respond in this situation? J., ever the normal one, uttered the F-word several times. I am not normal, however, so my instantaneous response was to flash back through my many job disasters over the years and feel McDreamer’s pain.

I clearly recall the first time I really messed up at a so-called job. Early in my babysitting career, which was quite busy and lucrative, I somehow forgot a booking altogether. I remember feeling so ashamed by my error, and my shame was compounded by the parents’ rage. Needless to say, this family never asked me back.

Since then, I can think of critical moments with clients that I haven’t handled well and wished I could revisit. I addressed these mishaps with the client if I had the opportunity, but sometimes, because of circumstances, I did not. Unfinished business is unsettling.

In case you’re wondering, no, I did not immediately put on my psychologist hat and offer McDreamer my services. We’ve recently reviewed the prohibitions against ambulance chasing, and, in this case, I was the one in the ambulance. Rather, McDreamer appropriately sought help from an older and wiser employee, who explained that 12-foot planks could not safely be transported by a 6-foot-long vehicle. The store manager then magically appeared and offered to pay to replace the windshield. She was lovely and gracious, including with McDreamer, so everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

J. returned to the store the next day with a revised plan. If we built 6-foot rather than 12-foot boxes, the shorter planks would fit easily in our friend’s van. Since McDreamer had not been fired, he gladly helped us out. Even without my professional help, he seemed to have fully overcome the prior day’s trauma. The shorter planks were loaded in and nobody got hurt.

Even my car has learned an important lesson about knowing her limits. I doubt she’ll ever try that again. Or at least not under my watch.

Turns out being born Baptist precludes being born gay, in Alberta at least.

Girl in overalls and plaid shirt

Don’t judge a book by its coveralls.

Not long ago, our fair province had to introduce legislation mandating gay-straight alliances within all schools. If the students request it, schools will allow a safe LGTBQ space for anyone who seeks it. Sure, students shouldn’t have to ask, but at least something is in place if they do.

The Catholic school boards didn’t like the idea initially, but they have found a way to support the ruling within their schools, albeit with a nod to Catholic doctrine. The Baptists, on the other hand, have openly denied their students such a safe space.

To be fair to the Baptists (and I’m always fair, aren’t I?), none of their mostly-elementary-aged children are self-identified as LGTBQ. In this atmosphere of exclusion, even those children who identified as LGTBQ from a young age would shout it from the rooftops, don’t you think? If everyone around you told you that being gay was sinful, do you think you’d risk coming out if you were? Too many LGTBQ youth are homeless because they are kicked out after coming out.

Let me be the one to break the bad news to you, dear Baptists. Let’s say that 1 in 10 or so children fall on the LGTBQ spectrum. (My quick internet research revealed wide variations of this estimate, due partly to people’s reluctance to come out even when asked on anonymous questionnaires.) With 85 kids in their faith-based schools, let’s estimate 8.5 of them fall within a sexual or gender minority. Maybe the extra half indicates a bisexual child (yes, I’m joking; no offence intended, bisexuals).

There’s more bad news, Baptists. Whether or not children self-identify as LGTBQ (and I’m sure you’ve polled all 85 children in your schools, including those in kindergarten), whatever their sexual- or gender difference, they were born with it. Some of your precious little babies came out gay or transgender or whatever, whether or not they (or you) knew it. You may not have wanted them to be, but they were, and they are, and no amount of counselling or censure or denial will change that.

Some children realize from a very young age that they are different, whether or not they can label that difference. I was not aware I was gay from a very young age, although in my favourite picture as a toddler, I was wearing overalls. That would be a sure sign, especially were I wearing a matching plaid shirt, wouldn’t it?

Here’s another piece of enlightening information for the Baptists: one can be well aware of one’s LGTBQness without acting upon it, just as one can be well aware of one’s heterosexuality without having sexual relations with someone of the opposite gender. What is an unrequited high-school crush if not an awareness of one’s sexual proclivities? Are you genuinely worried your Grade 3 gay student will act on his awareness with another boy?

The Alberta government isn’t very happy with the Baptist school board right now for defying their legislation. Meanwhile, the Baptists insist they’re following the law because, since none of their students are gay, they don’t need gay-straight alliances. Wake up and spot the gay students, Baptists. Those students deserve a safe space to gather, especially in your atmosphere of exclusion.

Amen.

The Validator saves the day!

Boy at table in striped shirt writing with pencilCan you believe I started my blog three years today? As a writer, I decide which stories to highlight and how I’m going to tell them.These decisions are often completely arbitrary. Speaking of which, I ended Friday’s tale prematurely because I felt I’d dragged you down enough for one day. That and Joy doesn’t like it when Sadness steals the limelight.

Now that you’ve had the weekend to recover, I’ll finish what I started. After my chance encounter with Mr. Shuffle at the Cancer Centre, I headed back to the car. J. could tell immediately that my mood had shifted. I was glum and quiet, so she asked, “Whassup?”

I described my encounter, and how bad I felt for this man, who was unwell and appeared to be alone. (His family could have been waiting for him, for all I know; I just didn’t see anyone with him.) I’d made many potentially erroneous assumptions about his life. Then I added, “My cancer journey is so much easier than everyone else’s, I’m so lucky to have a good leukemia–a good leukemia? I said that?–and an easy chemo, blah blah blah.” You get the idea.

Enter the Validator, J.’s other superhero persona. (You’ve already been introduced to the Anti-Procrastinator, who completes tasks before anyone realizes they need to be done.) She said, and I paraphrase here, “Remember when you almost died? Remember when you were so weak that you couldn’t tie your shoes without tipping over? People stared at you because you looked so sick. Remember how many months it took for you to regain your strength and to complete a 5-star Sudoku again [excuse the humble brag]? You’re not working in the profession you love and you’re tired all the time and your cancer has been no piece of cake.”

You may recognize this old theme in my blog: the incessant need to convince myself that my cancer is lame, and that my suffering is small potatoes compared to everyone else’s. Heck, I’m 4-1/2 years in, and I’m not even dead yet. I’m a cancer failure.

All these things are true. I’m still alive, but cancer still courses through my veins. At one point, my leukemia made me as weak or maybe even weaker than Mr. Shuffle, not that cancer is a competition. You know this already; I’m just trying to convince myself that I don’t have to minimize my experience. I’m reminding myself yet again of the dangers of social comparison, which sometimes makes me feel better about my situation, but more often makes me feel worse.

So Mr. Shuffle, I’d love to nurse you through your illness, but I’m hoping you have your own community of support since I don’t have the energy. Believe it or not, I’ve got cancer too. I may look perky now, but my road has had its share of bumps. I hope you’re able to regain your strength and that you’re feeling better soon. Fight the good fight and know my heart is with you.

Then the Validator wisely reminded me that feeling crummy is often one stop on a cancer patient’s way to healing. Wise woman, that Validator. I hope she’s right, for Mr. Shuffle’s sake.

The Real End

A moment in (cancer) time

hand pushing elevator down button

I usually try to end my blogging week with an upbeat post. Something funny or light to make you laugh. Who wants to hear from Debbie Downer right before the weekend? But Sadness nixed my planned frivolity this week, and I always listen to Saddy. Everyone should listen to Saddy.

Yesterday J. drove me up to the Cancer Centre to pick up my chemotherapy refill. (I’ve given up on having my drugs mailed to my home since that unfortunate Canada Post fiasco last year.) J. waited in the car while I popped in to the pharmacy.

Things went as planned. I made my way through the hoards of patients–cancer stops for no one–hopped onto the elevator, and headed to the pharmacy. I showed the kind pharmacist my red card (also known as the PROOF YOU HAVE CANCER card), and she gave me my little brown paper bag, as if I were hiding condoms or something (not that I’d know about that).

I returned to the elevators, which at that moment were overflowing with patients going up. I needed to go down. After the uppers were gone, I pushed the down button while I watched an older gentleman shuffling toward me very slowly. I asked him where he was headed, and he said he too was going down. “Great. I’ll have company,” I said, perhaps a bit too jovially given the environs.

When our elevator arrived, I let Mr. Shuffle enter first. I followed him in and pushed the button for us. He leaned against the elevator wall as if it were holding him up. After the doors shut, he said, so quietly I almost didn’t hear, “I am so weak.” I looked at him sympathetically but did not know how to respond, so he added, “The chemotherapy.” I touched him on the arm and said, “Cancer is hard.”

I struggled to know how to respond, and I still wonder if I said the right thing. Is there ever a right thing to say? It wasn’t the time or the place to get into the nitty gritty of his treatment; we had only one floor to travel. I didn’t want to minimize his experience with a “Things will look up!” because I didn’t know if this would be true for him. I could have given him a hug, but strangers don’t often hug, and I might have tipped him over. It’s more than that. Since he seemed to be alone, I wanted to bring him home and take care of him, but my boundaries stepped in.

Cancer is hard in different ways for different people. I’m hoping this man sensed that I could see that he was struggling. Maybe I provided comfort, however fleeting. And I’ll hope there comes a time when he doesn’t feel so weak. But right now, I feel sad that anyone has to endure the worst of cancer. I know it’s not easy.

I still feel sad when I think about this man, but I have to let that go today. Joy is joining Jelly and me at the university, where we’ll be cheering up some stressed-out students. Volunteering, my purely selfish endeavour.

Let’s talk

Two cartoon drawn people sitting at a table facing one another

Wednesday, while I was writing about silly things like extended health benefits, Responsible Psychologist Annie should have been drawing your attention to the national mental health day initiated by a Canadian telecommunications company. The goal was to get people talking about their emotional struggles, thereby lessening the stigma of mental illness. Great idea, don’t you think?

That day, the company generously threw in 5 cents for every text, call, and tweet (and a bunch of other stuff that only younger people know how to do). That’s all it took to raise $6.5 million, which will be distributed across the country to a variety of underfunded mental health programs. Unfortunately, since I don’t pay for this company’s service, my many vacuous texts on Wednesday didn’t count toward this total. I hope that highlighting the issue here instead will count for something.

A lot of people shared a lot about themselves on Twitter, Facebook, and other venues over the course of the day. The initiative did indeed get people talking about signifiant mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, as well as eating disorders, postpartum depression, relationship challenges, and the aftermath of sexual abuse and physical violence. So many people, even famous people, talked openly and publicly. People feel much too much shame around mental illness. It’s time for that to end.

Why do people struggle to speak openly about their mental health challenges? They often feel like they are the only ones with those feelings because no one talks about them. And often those listening have trouble knowing how to respond; they forget that just being there to listen is often enough. If the person you’re talking to can’t offer the type of support you need, find someone else to listen.

Are you one of those people who doesn’t talk about such things at all? Well, give that up already and start talking. Let me be your role model. I’ve written about my anxiety and, less often, my depression (remember my Sadness doll?). I don’t share everything with you because I don’t think that would be appropriate in this forum, but I’ve shared a lot. Hopefully from my openness you’ve learned that feelings, even bad ones, are normal. (Either that or you’ve determined that I’m a deeply disturbed clinician.) If my disclosures have helped even one person to feel less alone, I’m happy.

I may be a psychologist by training, but, first and foremost, I’m a person with feelings, and those feelings occasionally aren’t happy. I am lucky to have some tools at my disposal to help me through my rough patches, but knowing what to do and doing it are two different things. Sometimes all the tools in my arsenal aren’t enough. I’ve openly shared that I visit a therapist because I want to encourage you to seek help if you’re feeling like you can’t move through your funk on your own. There is no stigma in that. If anyone derides you for needing help (including you, Tom Cruise), give that person my number and I’ll gladly tell him off educate him.

Wednesday is over, but please don’t stop talking. For all you know, you may inspire someone else to open up. Trust me, it feels great knowing you’ve helped someone share the hard stuff.