A story without a fairy tale ending

Cover of Hunger by Roxane Gay

As the year nears its end, I become excited about the publication of the Top 100 book lists. One book on every list I’ve seen is Hunger: A memoir of my body by Roxane Gay. When I am a grown-up writer, I want to be Roxane Gay. (Sorry Gabrielle Zevin, you’ve been usurped for now. I still love The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, though.) If you’re interested in reading Hunger, know that it’s not an easy book to get through. The author bares all in her writing.

I hadn’t known of her previously, but Roxane Gay is a respected author of both fiction and nonfiction. She is also morbidly obese in what she justly calls a fat-phobic society. She was gang raped at age 12, after which she gained weight to keep herself physically and sexually safe from others. Dr. Gay views herself as a victim rather than a survivor of her rape, and acknowledges she has not healed from the trauma. She suggests people stop judging the obese without knowing their story, and realize that fat [her word] people have other attributes too.

Dr. Gay, who has a Ph.D. in technical writing and is currently a professor at Purdue University, acknowledges years of self-loathing, challenged relationships, and discomfort in her own body. Her frankness about her life is both uncomfortable and enlightening. She described the profound effects of an emotionally abusive relationship in a way that still haunts me.

She speaks of the all-too-frequent judgement and the difficult situations that she experiences. Strangers censure what she places in her grocery cart and deride her as she walks down the street. Well-meaning friends patronize her by sharing their insights about food, nutrition, and weight loss. Professional colleagues cannot hide their surprise when, after corresponding on line, they first encounter her in her physical glory. Imagine realizing you’ve been provided a chair for a reading that will not comfortably support your body, and worrying the whole time that that chair could break.

This book helped me to imagine what being obese would feel like in a society where thinness equals beauty. Is anyone truly above judging people based on their outward appearances? I know I’m not.

Near the end of the book, Dr. Gay described an ankle break that resulted in a hospital stay, and her community of support’s unexpected rallying around her. Despite all her self-loathing, she realized how many people love her and would miss her if something were to happen to her. I was reminded of how moved I was by my own troops’ tremendous support of both me and J. when I was deathly ill in the ICU. I also recall how much I appreciated the teary hugs I received when I was finally sent home. I too felt that I would have been missed had I not survived.

I can’t say reading this book will be fun, but you too could scratch an insightful read off your Top 100 list. Like me, you may find that Dr. Gay’s insights stay with you. When I’m next on an airplane and the fattest person walking down the aisle takes the seat next to me, I’ll think about this book, and I’ll make as much room as I can. Do unto others and all….

 

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What I learned on vacation (other than what Grover taught me)

J. and I were reviewing our trip over our last dinner in Israel. For the first time that we could both remember, we were glad we’d stayed as long as we did. In the past, we’ve often been antsy to get home as a trip nears its end.

As we were chatting, J. asked me what my favourite part of the trip was. I could not think of one moment because there were so many. Over our two weeks, we saw so many fascinating sights, experienced so many different cultures, and met so many kind people.

On our last day in Jerusalem, I insisted we walk above the city on the Old City walls so we could see the hubbub from a different vantage point. Off we went, up and down stairs, along meandering pathways of uneven stone, past one exit and onto the second, at which point we’d have to return to solid ground. It wasn’t an easy stroll but I was up to the challenge.

Shortly after the first gate, we were greeted by two Israeli police officers watching over the area below, ensuring everyone’s safety. Although we were walking in what is normally a safe zone, there had been some unrest in the Middle East since our arrival in Israel and security was high in Jerusalem. The sight of the officers made me wonder whether we should proceed, but the officers were fairly relaxed. One was busy texting while the other was using a kerosene stove to boil water for coffee. “Oh, you have coffee!” we said, and Mr. Barista immediately offered us some. We declined with thanks, and off we traipsed.

Within a few minutes, I tanked (that happens sometimes) so we turned back to the previous exit, again passing by the officers. By now their water had boiled, Mr. Barista had finished brewing his coffee, and he was holding his cup in hand. So I said, “We were just coming back for coffee.” (They didn’t need to know that I am a coffee teetotaller.) The officer held his freshly brewed cup out to me and encouraged me to take it. He was serious.

I declined Mr. Barista’s kind offer, thanked him, and off we went. The overture was genuine. In retrospect, I now wish we’d stopped and chatted with these fellows for a few minutes. They were obviously grateful for the company in their isolated post.

We witnessed kind gestures like this every day we were in Israel. Soldiers not only protect the country; they help elderly people cross busy streets and interact warmly with children. People were patient and helpful when I tried to communicate in my broken Hebrew. On a crowded bus, younger people stand to make way for the elderly or others in need. And if a police officer happens to have freshly brewed coffee while he stands watch above the Old City, he’ll offer it to you, expecting nothing in return. Perhaps that pervasive attitude of caring for others was the highlight of my trip.

Making turkish coffee over a kerosene stove

Introducing the emotional hangover

Have I ever defined the post-Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah, in my case) blues? When someone gears up for something for so long, and it’s fantastic, but then it’s over? That’s what today feels like for me.

After months of anticipating yesterday’s Light the Night Walk in downtown Calgary on a beautiful fall evening, it’s over. My special support team walked the full five kilometres with me–a kilometre for every year–to celebrate my enduring good health. The evening was perfect.

I’ve described the walk before but allow me a medically inaccurate and absurd analogy. Imagine each walker as a blood cell. There are the white blood cells, the largest in size but fewest in number. Those are the leukemia (and other bloody disordered) survivors holding our little white lanterns. Then there are the red blood cells, which are smaller but more plentiful than the white cells. The red-lanterners are those walking in support of the white lanterners.

Platelets are small fragments of blood cells. They are represented by the gold lantern holders, who are survivors in their own way, walking in memory of someone who has died. They may feel they’ve lost a part of themselves.

Finally, let’s not forget the plasma, which carries nutrients, hormones, and proteins through the body. Consider the plasma all the amazing volunteers who registered all the walkers, distributed t-shirts and lanterns and coffee and hotdogs, and lined the pathway cheering us on.

We of many lanterns walked along a narrow pathway, clustered together but hopefully not clotting. We white lanterns were surrounded by our devoted red-lanterned supporters. One group followed after another, each its own community of red-lanterened support for one little white lantern. The gold-lanterned folks formed their own groups or were sprinkled amongst the whites and reds (we had two golds on our team) because blood disorders touch too many people. Along this narrow pathway–an artery? a vein?–walked all these blood cells, supporting one another, guided by our plasma support staff.

At moments during the walk, I looked around me and saw my little group, distinguished by their absurd team attire–perhaps next year you too could look sharp in a multicoloured Dr. Seuss hat–and I realized how not alone I am. While I searched for my own team, I saw so many similar groups ahead of and behind me, reminding me that we’re all in this together.

I’m blessed by the people who walked with me and the people who sent their regrets and wished me well. To the team members who hunted down my ridiculous 5-year pin, which I finally received from a kind volunteer, a 5-year survivor himself. To the two very handsome firefighters, the retired one who appeared on site unexpectedly with his beloved partner, the other one in uniform who handed me my survivor’s rose at the end.

Today I am spent, drained, hungover, but in a good way. You must know this feeling. I look forward to next year’s event. If you too aspire to be a red blood cell in colourful clown attire, know there’s always next year.

Crowd picture at Light the Night Calgary 2017

A microscope may help you see our team.

Getting back on the therapy horse

Bride trying dress with group watching on Say Yes to the Dress

Since I am expecting a hoard of new clients to swarm my office any day now, I felt it was time to brush up on my therapy skills. I considered reviewing some of the books on my office shelves or going to a family therapy conference or ten, but I’m taking the easy route instead: I’m watching television.

I’ve admitted previously that I have an odd fascination with Say Yes to the Dress, and not just because J. and I both wore jeans to our home wedding. Before I started watching this show, I did not realize that brides-to-be took entourages to shop for the special dress. Makes sense, I guess, to seek input.

I imagined that the bride’s opinion would take precedence in the end. If the bride said yes to the dress, who would care if her mother or best friend or clothing-designer cousin or long-deceased grandfather who spoke through her aunt the medium said no? A lot of people care, it turns out, especially the bride.

I’ve witnessed many a bride crying in her dressing room, afraid to exit for fear of the entourage’s reaction to her choice. Many a narcissistic mother has forgotten that the appointment is actually about her daughter the bride. And many the oblivious father is unaware that his daughter is more concerned with pleasing him than pleasing herself. Because I am a psychologist and not a medium, I can’t speak for the wishes of long-deceased grandfather.

I marvel at the sales associate-cum-family therapist who, while helping the vulnerable bride-to-be find her perfect dress, manages the needs of the highly opinionated crew she has brought with her. Consider this a glimpse into family, and group, dynamics. (Turns out we often play similar roles in groups as we do in our families.) Ms. (or Mr.) Dress-a-Bride manages to keep the entourage happy while ensuring that the bride’s needs are met. This often involves skilled negotiation with widely varying personalities.

Now let’s consider another favourite nap inducer, Chopped. The chefs who participate on this show are a product of their family upbringings, as are we all. There are the only-child competitors who won’t share ingredients vs. the eldests who unscrew their competitors’ unyielding bottle tops, if you believe in that birth-order baloney.

I’ve also learned from Chopped how many adult children are tormented by their parents’ disapproval of their professional choices, despite their successes in their careers. This needing-to-please theme sounds oddly familiar. (See above.) The chefs pray a Chopped win will foster their parents’ acceptance, finally, after all these years. Will these contestants ever understand that what matters most is how they feel about the path their lives have taken and not how their parents judge that path? I fear not, barring help from someone like me.

You too can hone your therapy skills from television shows like these. Who cares how to incorporate cinnamon hearts into an entrée or whether a princess gown or a mermaid would better suit the bride? Focus on what really matters, like I do: how people are getting along.

Once you master the complex dynamic issues in these shows, we can move on to 90 Day Fiancé or even Big Brother. On second thought, maybe not. Even I have my limits.

Celebrate your milestones, whatever they are

3 Light the Night walkers with their Survivor t-shirts

We leave on our big vacation in 12 sleeps. When we were first planning this vacation, J. told me her rush of fall weddings would end immediately following Thanksgiving. We could be on the plane already, except I didn’t want to miss the annual leukemia walk. Which would you choose, a trip to Israel or a leukemia walk? Don’t answer that.

This decision to delay the vacation may not make sense to you; I’m a little bewildered by it myself. Going on this annual walk, hanging out with my fellow leukemics, wearing my guest-of-honour SURVIVOR t-shirt, has become a significant event in my year. I’ll try to explain.

My definition of a milestone has changed over my five years with leukemia. After I became so sick, I was proud of being able to walk unassisted and to tie my shoes without falling over. I vividly recall my first post-diagnosis yoga class, which I survived despite falling over a few times. I remember cooking my first real dinner post diagnosis, and seeing my first client. Being alert enough to drive again was another milestone.

As time passes, the goals have shifted. There’s the annual Cancer Centre’s Christmas gift-basket draw, which means I’m alive to lose my money again for a good cause. I don’t hate my birthday anymore, and the importance of cancerversaries is self-explanatory. For whatever reason, this leukemia walk has taken on an odd significance in my annual calendar. It’s my prize for getting leukemia and not dying from it.

This year’s will be all the more special because I will finally receive my 5-year pin. Now you know the real reason I delayed my vacation: I wanted a silly little commemorative pin. Frankly, I could have lied about how many years I’d had the illness and received this pin anytime–no one asks for a doctor’s letter–but I’m too honest for such deception.

This coveted pin is nothing to speak of. It’s the shape and colour of a drop of blood with a 5 on it. The blood-drop symbol is almost identical to that used by Canadian Blood Services. When I wear my pin proudly, people may well assume I am a blood donor (I selfishly only take blood), and not a leukemia survivor.

Does it matter that the pin will have meaning only to me? Of course not. If anyone asks, I can always set them straight. (Ha ha. “Gay person sets unknowing one straight.” And they say we’re out [no pun intended, truly] to convert people!)

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I never envisioned reaching goals like these. Now, planning for my next milestone keeps me hopeful that leukemia is not going to take my life. No wonder cancer-related goals, however insignificant, have become so important to me.

Then, two days later, J. and I will leave for Israel. Who ever thought I’d get any doctor’s blessing to travel so far? Yet another cause for celebration. That and anticipation of the best hummus and falafel anywhere. I can almost taste it….

A plate of hummus with falafel balls in the middle

Sometimes it’s best not to keep score

Newspaper on doorstep

First, let’s get the Facebook page out of the way. To those of you who have kindly sent me Friend requests, I am not ignoring you; I am simply paralyzed by my ineptness. I learned the hard way that there is a difference between a Facebook account and a Facebook page, and had to shut my first attempts down. I will get back to you when I manage to sort my page out.

Now a question for those of you who have your paper delivered: did your newspaper arrive at your doorstep this morning? If it did not, I think I can explain. I received it. Ever since I left those stale banana chocolate chip muffins out for Mr. RAK, we have awoken to one or sometimes even two newspapers on our doorstep. I may have to rename Mr. RAK Mr. DAK (as in “Daily Acts of Kindness”) because he has been so generous with us.

You can imagine that I, who am prone to guilt in much lesser circumstances, am overwhelmed with this current situation. This man receives no financial compensation for his generosity toward us, and I genuinely believe he is not trying to encourage us to reinitiate our subscription. My gratitude is killing me.

Of course I keep a mental tally of the give and take in any relationship. If I feel I’m giving too much over time, either I try to address the inequity with the person directly (when I’m in a grown-up mood) or, if I’m feeling more child like, I withdraw from that person. According to my usual tally system, I’m always in the red. Always. So a situation like the one with Mr. DAK, where I’m getting a lot more than I’m giving, torments me.

I am trying to practice allowing someone–in this case, Mr. DAK, to be kind to me. But in order to rebalance things just a bit, as soon as I finish this post, I will be baking a batch of oatmeal cranberry cookies to leave for him tomorrow morning, when he will be dropping by with an extra newspaper for us. I give thanks to you, Mr. DAK.

I was discussing the newspaper situation with a neighbourhood friend who happens to pay for her daily paper delivery. She mentioned that every so often, maybe once a month, her newspaper does not arrive. As she was discussing this with me, she said, “Hey, wait a minute….” We agreed that maybe Mr. DAK, in a Robin-Hoodish manner, is stealing from the subscribers and giving to the nonsubscribers. So if you’re my neighbour and your newspaper doesn’t arrive, feel free to take ours. God knows we haven’t paid for it. Consider it your way of assuaging my guilt.

Happy Thanksgiving. May you all have much to be grateful for this weekend.

 

P.S. I’ve had a few enquiries about this year’s Light the Night Walk for Leukemia on Saturday, October 21. You are more than welcome to join us. The team name is Annie’s Anemic Leukemics, and the registration link is here. If you are interested in celebrating my fifth cancerversary with me, come on out. All the better if you’re an Olympic weightlifter: you can carry me over the finish line if I get too pooped to walk.

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.

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.

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.