Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Emotional Plateau

A couple of months ago, I had made enough progress in my twice-weekly therapy sessions that my therapist agreed I was ready to cut back to once a week. Since then, the progress has slowed considerably.

Each Wednesday, my therapist opens the session by asking "What are you feeling?" or, sometimes, "How are you feeling?" The answer to the second question is much easier for me. These days, I generally feel pretty good, much better than when I started therapy 13 months ago.

The answer to the first and more often asked question is much more difficult to come by. Truth be told, I don't know if I am feeling all that much. Today, finally, I was able to put it into words to at least describe where I am at.

Because I knew she would ask me that question, I actually thought about it as I climbed the stairs to her second-floor office. What came to mind was a sense of having stagnated or plateaued emotionally. I feel I have gotten to a comfortable place emotionally, much better than I have ever been but still not fully engaged emotionally in my own life.

She talked about the idea of there being a lid on things, one I put in place as a child as a means to protect myself while living in a violent household. We talked about my wanting to become invisible so as to not draw attention and possibly the wrath of an abusive stepfather or stepbrother. I stayed hidden as much as possible in the shadows.

She went to talk about the idea of my childhood ending when I was very young because of the circumstances in the home, and I have an increased sense of that. From at least the age of five until the age of 12, I never had other kids come over to our house to play, and I never went to anyone else's house to play.

As our session unfolded, I recalled an episode from around the time I was five. I had a favorite toy, a sort of scaled version of a car interior: there was a dashboard with windshield, wipers, steering wheel, dashboard, and working radio. I loved playing with it.

One day, an older boy (I think it was my future stepbrother, although I am not sure) took this toy and threw it into the swimming pool of our apartment complex. Without thinking, I went in after it, blindly disregarding the fact that I had not yet learned to swim.

Fortunately, I guess, I also did not yet know how to dive, so I landed fairly close to the edge of the pool when I jumped in and was able to grab the side of the pool, saving myself while the toy sank to the bottom of the pool. Thinking back on it, I think that was the moment when I decided not to let anything (or possibly anyone) matter that much to me again. I disciplined myself not to be ticklish and not to show pain when I was spanked. I got very good at closing myself off.

As we talked, she would ask me from time to time how something made me feel. One time, I surprised myself by saying I felt like I wanted to scream. She said that was a good first step to finally blowing off the lid to my emotional life and suggested I find a place to do just that, somewhere by myself and, hopefully, somewhere that I won't cause an avalanche (the avalanche danger is fairly high at the moment in some of the areas around us).

Sometime in the next few days, I intend to take her advice. It will be a new experience for me, as I don't know that I've ever screamed. Yelled, yes. Screamed, I don't think so.

If this weekend you hear a loud roar or noise off in the distance, don't be too alarmed. It will likely be me screaming as loud as I can muster, in hopes of chipping away the emotional rust and prying loose the lid and maybe letting some light back in.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Counting My Blessings

Every year around Christmas, we sit down to watch the 1954 film "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen. With the recent events in Haiti, culminating in the impromptu telethon put together by MTV, one song from that movie pops into my head.

The song is "Count Your Blessings," and the first verse goes like this:
When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
Sometimes, disasters of such scale as that in Haiti serve to remind us how fortunate we are. I have a loving, patient, and understanding wife; a wonderful son who is sometimes challenging yet amazing. Unlike many in our own country, I have a job with somewhat decent health insurance, and I am able to do many of things I truly enjoy: camping, cooking, enjoying a glass of wine, enjoy a sunset without worrying whether I'll have a roof over my head when it gets dark and turns colder.

If there can be said to be anything positive out of events like the earthquake in Haiti, perhaps it is that such cataclysmic disasters jolt us - even for a moment - out of our complacency and remind us of our own mortality and also of our own good fortune. Such events can bring out the worst in people - remember the looting in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and even now the attempts by some to scam those unsuspecting people trying to help the victims in Haiti - but it can also bring out the best in people.

One thing I hope this disaster does for me and for you is to remind us of how precious life is and encourage us to live each day to its fullest. By that, I do not mean through conspicuous consumption, as is often seen to be the American Way. No, I mean by taking time to really see the world and the people around you.

Take the time to smell a rose, savor a walk in the woods, really see a sunrise or sunset, say hello to a neighbor or a co-worker, laugh, cry, truly be in the world around you. These are all things I have spent the last year in therapy trying to learn to do as I continue my own recovery efforts from the emotional upheaval of so many years ago and attempt to dig out from under that emotional rubble.

My hope is that the recovery effort in Haiti shows as much promise in a year's time as I feel my own personal recovery has shown over the last year. If you have not already done so, I encourage you to open your hearts and your wallets and make a donation to help relief efforts in Haiti at Hope For Haiti Now. And always remember to count your blessings.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Art of Patience at 30 Miles an Hour

Around Thanksgiving, Teresa and I decided it was time for us to climb another rung up the recreational vehicle ladder. It was something we had discussed off and on for several months. The discussion usually went back and forth between a motor home and a fifth wheel trailer. We ultimately chose the fifth wheel route, the purchase of which I have outlined in an earlier entry.

Of course, to tow any trailer, we would need to get a truck. So we traded in our beloved 2006 Subaru Outback on a 2006 Ford F-350 Super Duty Crew cab truck with dual real wheels and a diesel engine.

Needless to say, the truck does not get the same fuel mileage as our Subaru. Every day, I try all kinds of tricks to coax another tenth of a mile per gallon in mileage. For instance, I start out slowly from a stop sign or stop light, especially when the engine is still cold. I also take my foot of the gas - as much as a block away - when approaching a stop sign or a red light.

In addition to that extra tenth of a mile per gallon (or even two), I have gained something else: a growing sense of calm. I no longer feel in such a rush to get somewhere, and I realize that one or two minutes really doesn't make much of a difference in the greater scheme of things.

In the past, I used to get more irritated with drivers who would speed up and cut in front of me. I used to go a little faster just so they would have to get in behind me. Now, because this truck is geared more for towing than it is for quick acceleration, I couldn't keep another vehicle from pulling in front of me if I wanted to. More often than not these days, I don't want to.

I watch cars speed by me, then see them idling at the next red light when I catch up to them. They didn't seem to gain very much.

The ancient fable about the tortoise and the hare has the oft-repeated mantra of "slow and steady wins the race," but racing is far from my thoughts. Instead, I think more of slowing down and being more aware of the world around me, slowing down to see and experience my world instead of racing from one day to the next as if I were late for an appointment.

I spent many years trying to escape the world around me, so this is a new experience for me, and I have some work yet to do. So far, though, I like what I see. I am reminded of the opening lines of Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song: "Slow down, you move too fast. You've got to make the morning last." Now, that's a goal to hurry toward.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Finer Things in Life

I'm sitting here at my computer on a Thursday evening, and instead of watching the National Championship game between Texas and Alabama, I'm reflecting on an episode of Oprah that my wife, Teresa, recorded because she thought I might be interested.

It turns out she was right. In general, the show was about women around the world and how they live. Oprah talked to women in Copenhagen, Dubai, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, and Tokyo. It was the segment with the women from Copenhagen that most interested and and intrigued me.

Apparently, a recent study or poll concluded that people in Denmark are the happiest people in the world. This, despite the fact that they pay the highest average income tax rate in the world of around 50-percent.

What makes them so happy? First, everyone has access to health care. People get paid to go to school. Women get six-months to a year of maternity leave. Most jobs pay similar incomes, so people go into fields because they enjoy them and not simply because they pay well.

There is almost no homelessness, almost no crime, and people who lose their jobs are supported for up to four years while they look for new work and get government help to learn new skills. As one of the Danish women put it, she is happy to pay the high income tax rate because she looks at it as people helping one another and taking care of each other. Some in America would look at these things and label Denmark socialist. The Danes interviewed by Oprah look at it as being civilized and being humane.

One other thing the Danish women said that I think speaks to the heart of why the Danes might be so happy is that they have less stuff. They are more interested in living life and spending time with friends and family than they are working to get more stuff, which seems to be the American Dream or at least the American way of life. Could there really be more to life than money?

I think that is one reason the full-time RV life appeals to me so much; it is more about living life and doing things and less about getting stuff. One Danish husband put it this way when describing living in Denmark: "less space, less stuff, more life."

As I sit here typing this and enjoying a glass of wine, I think the idea of "less space, less stuff, more life" has much to recommend it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Resolutions for the New Year

When I was younger, I would every New Year's Eve, without fail, make ten resolutions for the new year, resolutions I would invariably fail to keep. For many years, this was probably the only systemic and organized thing I would do.

After many years (I'm a slow learner), I realized that the only thing as consistent as my making these resolutions was my failure to keep any of them. So I stopped making them.

Last year, I decided to try again. I resolved to try to put my past behind me and finally stop letting it control my life. While I was not 100% successful in keeping this resolution, I made enough progress to encourage me to try again this year. So here goes.

In 2010, I resolve to embrace and enjoy life more fully. I feel I am already along the path toward accomplishing this. I laugh more (thanks in large part to Oliver, our beagle), I probably cry a little more, and I more fully appreciate and enjoy nature, especially sunsets. I intend to do more of these things in 2010.

I also resolve to try harder not to let little things bother or irritate me. This will be easier said than done. I have a real problem with idiot drivers who speed to get past me, get in front of me, and then slow down or turn. I'll at least try harder to clean up my language toward such drivers when these things occur.

I was going to try to come up with a third resolution, but I realized that these two cover most contingencies. As an author once wrote, don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff. If I manage to have any success keeping my second resolution, it all but guarantees I will have success keeping my first resolution.

I hope 2010 brings much happiness and success to each of you. And I resolve to be happy for you when that happens. There, that's three. Happy New Year!