Sunday, December 10, 2017

Thoughts About Friendship

Mara here:

As we're heading into the end of the year, I've been spending some time thinking about what has happened during 2017. It's been a bit of a turbulent year. There's been a lot of change.

Change overall is good. But I shy away from it. It makes me uncomfortable. Even if the changes are good, I get anxious. And when the changes are not necessarily positive, I really struggle.

One of the changes from this year was a distancing of some friendships that I'd had for many years.

I've always felt as if I struggled with friendship. Looking back on it, I think I have always struggled with being comfortable with myself and that translated to me being uncomfortable around other people. However, I didn't realize this for many years, so I often felt separated from people.

It's not to say I didn't have friends. I've had a lot of great friends over the years, but the picture of "best" friend I had created in my head never seemed to match what I felt in reality. And that always made me question my relationships.

As a child, I remember distinctly the feeling of wanting a "best friend." But much like so many other ideas I had about life, the concept of "best friend" didn't materialize. I had the Hallmark movie image of friendship in my head. I thought friendship was very cut and dry. You had friends and you would do anything for those friends and your friends were your friends no matter what.
But there were always these nagging doubts in my head that made friendship complicated. I always worried my friends liked other people more than me. I often got irritated with my friends. Sometimes I didn't want to be around my friends. And there were times when mentally I simply had nothing to give to anyone else.


And it always made me feel as if I was a failure as a friend.
I spent decades feeling like I was a bad friend (i.e. bad person). I spent decades worrying there was something "wrong" with me that I couldn't have friends like everyone else.

As a child, I wanted to have as many friends as I could. I wanted to be popular and be liked by everyone. I thought that's what everyone wanted. When I got older, I realized that trying to get a lot of people to like me was exhausting. For a few years, I  went the opposite way and thought maybe I didn't want any friends—and I didn't care if people liked me.


But I do care.

Finally, in the last few years, I've realized that I'm somewhere in the middle.

I do want people to like me. But I don't need a lot of friends. I do like doing things with friends. But I don't like doing everything.

And I've realized I like, and need, to spend a lot of time by myself. I have had to learn to respect my own limits.

Hardest of all, I have had to learn that there are people I can't be friends with.

I am a person who struggles with anxiety and depression. There are times when it takes all my energy to take care of myself and my immediate family. And that means there are times when my friends have to take a backseat.

It also means that I have a low tolerance for drama. I can't handle constant crisis because it overwhelms me. Of course I want to help out my friends when I can, but I can't constantly be nursing friends through repeated self-inflicted catastrophes.

For a long time, I felt bad about walking away from friendships. I always felt that if I really cared about someone, I would stick with them no matter what happened.

But, I've come to realize that it's okay to have limits on who you decide to invest your energy and time into. I've decided it doesn't make me a bad person for not being willing to subject myself to relationships that don't feel good. It doesn't mean that I don't like those people. It doesn't mean I don't think about them or care for them. I do. It simply means that I can't continue to be around them.

And I know that I'm not for everyone. There are many people who might need a companion who is up for anything, anytime.

I'm not that person.

And I've learned to be okay with not being that person. The amazing thing is that there are a lot of people who understand how I feel. I've been amazed to discover there are a lot of people who feel the same way I do. And there are a surprising number of people who are willing to accept me for how I am, and they allow me space when I need it. 

Honestly, as for the friends I've had for more than a decade, I just lucked out to find such great people. But for newer acquaintances, I have spent time trying to figure out how to avoid the pitfalls of getting close to people who aren't a good friend match.

Here are the most important things I've discovered:

Try to not present yourself as someone you're not. It's still my instinct to be a person who is "likeable." But the reality is that I'm kind of moody, and I don't like a lot of things other people like. So I try to be upfront and honest about myself so people don't make assumptions about me that would be disappointing in the future.

The best advice I ever read was from book, The Baby Whisperer. The author Tracy Hogg said, "Start as you mean to go on," meaning—don't bring a baby home and treat it like a prince or princess for 10 years and then suddenly expect him or her to live like a regular person all of a sudden at the age of 11. No. Start as you mean to go on. So I try present myself as truthfully as I can from the start so that people are getting to know the real me. 

I'm super flawed, but I realize that about myself. Sometimes I have to kind of hide out in my house because things feel overwhelming. Sometimes I won't want to go out to lunch and I almost never want to go to a party. I try to be up front about that because it's too easy for people to feel like I'm avoiding them. I am. But I'm usually avoiding everyone. It's not a personal thing about that individual person.

Don't get upset when people treat you the way you've treated them. People I'm friends with have to put up with a lot of hot and cold from me. So I try to be as understanding with them as I need them to be with me. There are times I can't do normal friend things because I simply don't have the energy. So it seems obvious that when people respond to me the same way, I need to be understanding and not get my feelings hurt.

It is hard to not feel a little hurt when people turn down your invitations for things. And it's hard to not go into the rabbit hole of wondering why, and whether or not there are ulterior motives for their answers. But at the end of the day, the people I end up forming lasting relationships with are people I trust. They're the people who, when doubts creep into my mind, I can remind myself that I don't need to be suspicious.

—Believe people when they show you who they are. I think this is a quote from someone famous, but I can't remember who it is. But it is very true. When people have behavior patterns that make you uncomfortable, you need to assume that it's not a coincidence. Yes, sometimes crappy things happen to people, and when we hit bumps in the road, we need our friends to support us. But when the bumps are happening over and over—and getting bigger and bigger—it usually means it's a reflection of the choices those people are making.

The most important thing to remember is that everyone is different. Everyone needs different things from friendship. Everyone wants different things from friendship. What works for me doesn't work for everyone. What works for other people doesn't have to make sense to me.

Know what you want from friendship and work toward finding similar people—people who make you feel good—to share your life with.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about friendship.

Once you became sick, I know your friendships changed dramatically. What have you found to be the most important aspect of the friendships that you've been able to maintain through your illness?

The topic of friendships can be such a difficult one for the chronically ill that I've written half a dozen articles on it for Psychology Today. Just about a month ago I wrote one called "How to Respond to Unkind Remarks When You're Chronically Ill." There's a lot about friendship in that piece. I've included the link in case people want to read it.

I also write about it in my books. As I said, it can be a challenge. You asked what I've found to be the most important aspect of my friendships. Three things really matter to me. The first is that my friends be flexible because I never know how I'm going to feel on any given day. I may make plans to get together with someone, but then have to cancel, sometimes at the last minute. The friends I hold dear are flexible about that because (and this takes me to my second "criteria") they accept that I'm sick; they aren't put off by it.

For a friendship to flourish, I have to feel accepted as I am. This is true for everyone, but I'm thinking of it in the context of chronic illness. Some people are put off by others who have health problems. I've come to not take this personally. I know they wish the best for me. They're just uncomfortable around people who are struggling with their health. It could be that it triggers their own fears about it. There are lots of possible reasons. Whatever the reason, I've learned to wish those people the best and then pass over them as potential friends. I don't have the energy to try and convince others to accept me as I am! 

The third aspect that's important to me in a friendship is that the person be a good listener. And this goes both ways—I need to be a good listener too. If one of us is struggling, all we need is a sympathetic ear. There's nothing quite so wonderful as feeling that you've been heard and understood.

For people who are sick, do you have advice for how to form new friendships?

If you're housebound—or, like me, mostly housebound—the internet is a good place to find friends. You can make friends with those who share your particular health problems or with those who are simply chronically ill like yourself. You can also make friends with people who share your interests—interests that have nothing to do with your health. It may take some time, so be patient. Some of the sources of friendships can be Facebook groups that have formed around various interests, forums that are connected to a particular interest (e.g. embroidery, knitting, painting).

If you're able to go out, then you can form new friendships the way everyone does—through churches or temples, through community activities. You just need to be aware that some people may not be willing or capable of giving you the support you need, which almost always involves the need for them to be flexible when you make plans together. Such is the unpredictability of chronic pain and illness: sometimes plans have to be cancelled. 

In attempting to form new friendships, it helps to go into it knowing that some prospective friendships will work out and some won't. This is true for everyone, too. Realizing this is a form of what Buddhists call "equanimity" and it protects you from the pain and exhaustion of going to extremes—on the one hand, being overly excited about a new person you met and the prospects for friendship it brings and, on the other hand, falling into despair when a potential friendship doesn't work out.

Because I'm not able to go out very often, the number of my friendships has dwindled dramatically and sometimes I do feel sad and even lonely about it. But most of the time, I'm content with the friendships I have because I know these are people I can count on...and I hope they feel they can count on me—for emotional support at least.





 
 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What Are Your Favorite Holiday Songs?

Mara here:

So, I'm hearing rumors that there's a Christmas tree shortage this year because of the wildfires we had a couple months ago. I'm not sure if it's true, but we went ahead and got our tree this weekend so we didn't have to worry about it.

When we decorate our tree, we always listen to Christmas music. Since I wasn't raised as a Christian and I didn't spend much time in church, my knowledge of Christmas music is pretty much limited to whatever I hear on the radio.

I did spend a year singing in a church choir, so there are some classic/traditional Christmas songs I learned and think are beautiful—but they're not the songs that make me really feel like the Christmas season has arrived.

I am sad to say I don't know any Jewish holiday songs that weren't written by Adam Sandler. (Insert laughing emoji here.) So if any readers have any songs that they love for the Jewish holidays, I would love to know about them!

So here are a few of my current favorite Christmas-themed songs:

—"Drummer Boy," Pentatonix version. Pentatonix is an acapella group and I love their version of "Drummer Boy." The harmony of all the voices is really beautiful and creative. (Watch video)

—"All I Want for Christmas," Mariah Carey version. It's a modern classic. It makes me happy. I listen to it all year around. (Watch video)

—"Drummer Boy," Justin Bieber version. So this is a little bit of a strange one, but it was hugely popular a few years ago and I heard it over and over for a whole month in all the dance classes Malia took. That might not seem like a lot, but it was sometimes two or three classes a day, and they basically play a minute of the song repeatedly for 90 minutes while they learn the dance. I heard it so much that it's carved a little place for itself in my brain. It feels like Christmas when I hear it. And it will always remind me of little 10 year-old Malia dancing. (Watch video of Malia dancing to it.) The song is peppy. It's upbeat. It's fun. (Watch video of Justin Bieber singing it Live)

—"Where Are You Christmas." This was a song that was in the film, The Grinch, sung by the character Cindy Lou Who. It's a sweet song, from the viewpoint of a child, about longing for the Christmas spirit. Here's a link to a video of the end of movie credits version, sung by Faith Hill: (Watch video)

—"Mary Did You Know," Clay Aiken version. This is a newer song to me. I love it because, although I'm not Christian in the literal sense of believing in the Bible, I would love to believe in the spirit of Jesus. It's a song sung to Mary, asking if she knew when she gave birth how important Jesus would become to the world. (Watch video)

—"Believe" from the movie Polar Express, sung by Josh Groban. This is a song about not losing the spirit and magic of Christmas as we grow older. (Watch video)

What are your favorite holiday songs?





Sunday, December 3, 2017

Weak is Not a Four Letter Word

Mara here:

Okay yes, weak is technically a four letter word.

But what I'm referring to is that we societally use "four letter word" as a euphemism for a "bad" word. Bad words are words we think are shameful or inappropriate. They're words that we are supposed to avoid in polite society.

And for most of my life that's how I have felt about using "weak" as a way to describe myself.

I never wanted to be weak. In fact, consciously and subconsciously, I set about to vigorously prove that I wasn't weak.

Growing up in the 1980s, after decades of women breaking legal barriers and centuries of women fighting for their rights, sometimes dying to prove to the world that they were strong capable humans who could be equal to men in all the important ways, the concept of being "weak" was abhorrent.

And I do believe that being adopted made me feel as if I needed to prove my worth.

I spent most of my youth being very ambitious and pushing myself mentally and physically to be a high achiever. And it worked. As a young person I was extremely successful.

Looking back, I think I was able to accomplish what I did by basically ignoring any mental or physical warnings I was getting from my body and mind.  I was severely depressed and I got severely sick on a regularly basis. I got so sick my junior year of high school that I was pulled out and put on bed rest for the last four weeks of school.

Somehow it didn't occur to me that maybe I needed to change my behavior. I thought of sickness as an inconvenience—just a bacterial thing. I told myself I was strong and that I could push through anything. Strong meant being tough. Tough meant that I could handle anything. Nothing was going to stand in my way of getting what I wanted.

But as the years passed, I realized I simply couldn't sustain the level of stress I was putting on myself. The reality of understanding that I was not able to live the way I thought "I should" live—the way I thought I wanted to live—was a huge blow.

I had always thought of myself as "strong." I was the one who could handle anything. I was the one who could achieve anything. I was the one who started college in high school. I was the one who took 30 units a quarter in college on top of being an actress and having an internship at the State Capitol.

I was the one who basically didn't sleep for two years straight.

The idea that maybe I couldn't handle anything and everything made me feel weak. To my mind, being weak meant I wasn't strong.

There was no middle ground.

The cracks in my pretty obtuse theory started to appear when I achieved what I had thought I wanted, but there was no joy in my success. Graduating early from college brought no relief. Finding the love of my life didn't somehow bring a feeling of contentment. Being offered my dream job, didn't feel the way I thought it would.

And realizing that there was no end to the constant panicky feelings of pressure to keep pushing myself harder and harder finally came crashing down on me. If there was no actual thing that marked success—that would guarantee happiness—what was I pushing for?

I fell into a deep depression. I withdrew from the life I always thought I'd wanted. I didn't take the job at the White House. I didn't take the LSAT. I didn't push myself into law school.

I got married and was happy with my new husband, but I was lost.

After years of thinking I knew exactly what I should do, I floundered.

I spent years battling back and forth with myself. I couldn't figure out how to "be strong" and not cause myself to crash both mentally and physically. I spent years with severe bouts of depression and physical illness.

Becoming a mother was another milestone in my life that confirmed that there was no single event or thing that would magically transform my life. In fact, it just added more complications to my feelings of how I "should" be. Being a mother made me feel even more strongly that I needed to be a good role model and create a world where there were no limits on what a woman could do.

So I continued the cycle of manic achievement, followed by crashes of depression and illness.

Finally, at some point it dawned on me that all this struggling had not been toward strength; it had been running away from the concept of being "weak." I was fighting against a vision of myself, created by myself, of someone who was weak.

And what did weak even mean to me?

When I sat and thought about it, I didn't know. But it felt bad.

In contrast, strong felt good. Strong meant I was eager to say "yes" to everything. Strong meant everyone liked me. Strong meant that I didn't need sleep. Strong meant that I never felt sick. Strong meant that I could handle anything.

But my version of strong was impossible to sustain. 

So I re-evaluated my understanding of "weak." 

I'd spent a lifetime running away from the idea of being weak. I'm not even sure why, except that I think it's engrained in us from a young age that weakness is bad. Weak means frail. Weak means unsuccessful.

And I'd only allowed myself those two choices: weak or strong.

Strong was blindly pushing myself toward the idea of success. Strong was achieving things even if they weren't things that I particularly wanted. Strong was being in charge—and wanting to be in charge. Strong was not allowing myself to be weak.

So what was weak? I finally realized that weak was being kind to myself. Weak was allowing myself to feel sick when I didn't feel well. Weak was acknowledging that sometimes I felt overwhelmed at the idea of organizing a school fundraiser. Weak meant that it was okay to take naps so I wouldn't feel so exhausted. Weak meant that if I got sick a lot, it's ok. Weak meant that I was not afraid to tell people I suffered from depression. Weak meant that I didn't have to pretend I could handle everything.

It took me a long time to let go of the notion of seeing myself as strong. It's taken me until pretty much this point in my life to stop trying to project an image of myself to people I've just met that I'm strong. I'm trying to learn to present myself as I am.

I'm flawed. I'm often tired. I'm interested in things, but I don't need to do everything. I want people to like me, but I don't need to be everyone's favorite person. For a while I went too far the opposite direction. I would put myself down a lot in front of other people. I would be distant and not engage them. I was terrified people would have expectations of me that I couldn't meet.

But I'm trying to let that go.

I have finally realized I don't care if people think I'm strong. I'm okay with not being the "go to" person for everyone; in fact, I need to not be the "go to" person. I'm finally focused on doing what I need to do for myself and my family.

And I'm comfortable with having weaknesses. The idea of being weak doesn't upset me anymore. Allowing some weakness into my life is what allowed me to take care of myself and that allows me to take care of my family. 

And if that means I'm weak, I'm okay with that.


***

Here are two questions I asked my mom about this subject.

How did getting chronically ill change your perception of your own strength or weakness?

First, I have to say Mara that your essay stunned me. I had no idea that you were struggling so much, even while you were still living at home. I hope with all my heart that it wasn't because I wasn't paying enough attention to what was going on with you. I also have to say that your courage astounds me, both the way you've worked through those harmful demands you were making on yourself and also your candor in writing about it for all of us to learn from. You are remarkable and I'm so proud to be your mother.

As for your question, getting chronically ill completely changed my perception of my own strengths and weaknesses! I thought my strength came from being a law professor and being an active member of my community—things like that. In other words, I thought my strength came from factors external to me. It turns out that strength comes from within. To me, it comes from the very things you talk about in your essay, mainly having the courage to examine your life and to acknowledge your weaknesses and limitations—and then to embrace them. By embracing them, I mean two things: not turning away from them in aversion; and treating those weaknesses and flaws (I've got plenty of them) with kindness and compassion. 

I've said this before, but it's worth repeating. There's so little we control in this life. The one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. When I start to get self-critical, I think of how my Nana treated me when I'd share those feelings with her. (She lived with us when I was a child.) She'd invite me onto her lap and hold me gently. Just as she embraced me, I hope all of us will learn to embrace our troubles with a kind and gentle heart until things change (as they always do).

How did you cope with the changes to what you could handle mentally and physically due to your illness?

As readers of my books know, it took me years to learn how to cope with grace. For years, I mounted a militant battle against the changes brought about by being chronically ill, and all that fighting and denial just made life worse for me. It added another layer of suffering—mental suffering—to the physical suffering of the illness. 

Then I "put my head in the lap of the Buddha" as the Dalai Lama calls it, meaning I started examining my life through the lens of the Buddha's teachings and practices. As I say in the Preface to How to Be Sick, with his help, I had to learn "how to be sick, meaning how to live a life of equanimity and joy despite my physical and energetic limitations."  

It's not always easy; I work at it every day. But this is the life I have—one where I'm mostly housebound, feeling sick all the time—and I don't want to squander this precious life by being bitter and resentful. As you so beautifully put it, accepting your weaknesses and limitations enables you to take care of yourself and those you love. 









  



Wednesday, November 29, 2017

How Do You Cope with a Cold?

Mara here:

I think I'm getting a cold.

I get sick easily and it generally happens when there's any kind of change in the weather. It's gotten chilly, well, as chilly as L.A. gets, and I was just traveling, so it's not surprising that my body is telling itself it's time to get sick.

I don't always interpret the signs correctly when I think I'm getting sick, meaning I don't always end up getting sick. But every time I get sick the signs are there.

So here are my signs:

—I am cold all the time
—I have trouble sleeping at night
—I sneeze more than usual
—I have a scratchy tickle in the back of my throat
—I realize there are piles of tissues following me all over the house

Ugh.

So what do I do about it?

Previously, I had all sorts of vitamins and meds I could take to prevent a cold. And they did help. They usually kept me from getting a full-blown cold. But they never seemed to actually make me healthy. They simply put off the inevitability of my getting sick. So I can delay getting sick, which is sometimes helpful.

But at some point it seems as if my body needs to go through the process of getting sick and then healing itself to truly clear the virus up.

So now, when I feel like there's a cold lurking, pretty much all I do is take some extra vitamin C and I nap during the day if I can. I make sure I stay warm and I keep a box of Kleenex with me at all times because my nose will soon become a fountain.

I don't have any tried and true methods of preventing a cold or for quickly recovering from one.

If and when I finally succumb to a cold, usually I just have to give up. I have to just revel in it. I lay in bed and feel sorry for myself and carry tissues around and talk at my family members with my snuffed up nose in a very pathetic way.

Otherwise I do the opposite and try to pretend that I'm not sick. Although this is my preferred method of dealing with getting sick, I've found that it's not particularly successful and generally makes my body force me to acknowledge that I'm sick by turning whatever I started out with into strep throat or bronchitis.

So I've learned to just give in. I've learned to politely say, "Hello cold, my old friend" and give it some space. It usually takes two weeks for the whole cold process to run its course.

The cold starts with my feeling generally run down and a ticklish throat. Then the sneezes and stuffy nose appear. At some point, all ability to regulate my body temperature disappears. Then the watery eyes. Oh those annoying watery eyes that make people think you're crying.

This is followed by a hacking cough that is rough for a few days then tapers off until it's just an annoying cough that sometimes manifests itself as a tickle so intense that my eyes water and I can't talk, breathe, or basically do anything until I drink some water or suck on a cough drop,

And I don't know where the eating-chicken-soup-when-you're-sick cliché came from, but it is my mantra when I get sick. Usually all I want to eat is chicken soup. It soothes my throat, makes me warm, and doesn't make me feel uncomfortably full. So I eat a lot of chicken soup.

Then finally after two or three weeks I wake up one morning and realize I can once again breathe through my nose and I'm no longer coughing.

And for a day it feels like a complete miracle that I am no longer sick.

This cycle for me tends to repeat itself three or four times a year. Usually once or twice a year I do end up with an infection that requires antibiotics. I am prone to strep throat and, because of my asthma, it's not uncommon for me to get bronchitis. On the rare occasion, I get a sinus infection.

But usually it's just a cold.

Toni here:

Mara's piece was a "blast from the past" for me. Why? Because, since I became chronically ill in 2001, I rarely get an acute illness. I've had two colds in the past 16 1/2 years. 

My best guess as to why this is the case (and several doctors have agreed) is that my immune system is "upregulated." It never returned to normal functioning after I got the viral infection in 2001 that triggered my illness that now goes by the name ME/CFS. By upregulated, I mean that my immune system is actively on high alert all the time. This means that, on the one hand, it's able to fend off acute illnesses, but on the other hand, it's always in a heightened state of "sickness response." 

(I have no medical training so this is a lay person's understanding based on a lot of research about how the immune system works.) When people get an acute illness, they don't realize that it isn't the actual virus or bacteria that makes them feel so sick. The sick feeling ("the sickness response") is a side-effect of the immune system going into action, for example, producing cytokine cells to fight off the offending critter. That side-effect is worth it; your immune system may be saving your life when it does this. But it's hard to bear when your immune system doesn't return to normal after the immediate threat has passed.

One infectious disease doctor I saw described this way. He walked over to the light switch in the examining room and said, "It's as if the light went on to fight the acute infection you got in 2001, but then never went off. We need a reset button for your immune system but we don't know how to do that."

I guess it's a blessing that colds and the flu pass me by, but to be honest, I'd trade feeling sick all the time (and the house-boundness it imposes on me) for those acute illnesses.

Mara and I would love to know about you? Can you tell when you feel a cold coming? Do you have tricks for recovering from a cold quickly?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

It's Okay to Hate the Holidays

Mara here:

"It's the most wonderful time of the year."

That's what everyone tells us. It's Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Years! Everyone is happy, right?

I was recently with a friend who hates the holidays, and I could tell she feels a lot of guilt about feeling that way. And then she feels angry that she feels guilty. Most of all though, she simply doesn't want to have to endure months of being surrounded by reminders that it's a time when everyone thinks you should feel happy even if you don't.

She's not alone.

We grow up thinking we have to like the holidays. We grow up thinking when it's the holidays, everyone feels joyful. We grow up thinking there must be something wrong with us if we don't feel the same way everyone else does.

For many of us, when we were children, the holidays were magical. Houses got decorated. We got time off school. There were candy and baked goods all over the place. And, of course, there were presents. It's not until we're adults and suddenly have the responsibility to create this magical happiness that is supposed to appear out of nowhere at the start of November, that we realize the holidays are a mixed bag.


What people don't like to talk about is that the holidays come with a lot of pressure.  First of all, there's pressure to celebrate the holidays at all. (Some people don't.) There's pressure identify with a religion. (Some people don't.) There's pressure to have loved ones to celebrate with. (Some people don't.) There's pressure to have money to decorate houses and buy lots of gifts. (Some people don't.) There's pressure to stop everything in your life to accommodate the holidays. (Some people can't.) There's pressure to have happy memories of holidays past. (Some people don't.)

There's a lot of pressure to love the holidays. Some people don't.

Here's the thing...just as with everything else in life, we all have different experiences. For some people, the holidays are painful. Some people had childhood experiences that make the holidays hard to enjoy. But since most people don't run around wanting to air their personal experiences in public, people who don't enjoy the holidays feel they have to pretend to enjoy them anyway.

Because if you don't express love for the holidays people will question you. Or worse, people will automatically think there's something "wrong" with you.

There's nothing wrong with not feeling love for the holidays.

It's okay to not enjoy them. It's okay to not feel the same way everyone else does. In fact, a lot of people feel dread when Fall rolls around and people realize that the barrage of festivities is about to bear down on them.

Even someone like me who does mostly does love the holidays, feels the stress of holiday madness. There's a lot of forced cheerfulness. There's a lot of expectation. There's a lot of change of routine.

For many families, the holidays are a huge financial burden. You can love Christmas and still feel a huge amount of responsibility (and subsequent stress) to live up to other people's expectations. So many of those expectations are directly related to money. We need money in today's world to celebrate the way everyone tells us we should.

Even though I have the good fortune to not feel overly burdened about the financial aspect of the holidays, buying presents is still very stressful. There's all this pressure to give good gifts. There's all this judgment about how thoughtful gifts are. And there's a lot of judgment about whether gifts are made versus bought and the stigma against gift cards or cash. 

Good grief people! We need to seriously give everyone a break. I buy lots of gift cards and give out a lot of cash. It's not because I'm lazy or don't care. It's because I feel a huge amount of anxiety about buying presents people like. I feel awful when I feel as if people don't like the gifts—not because I feel rejected or my feelings are hurt—but because I honestly want people to have gifts they will enjoy.

So for older kids, I started giving them cash for everything. If people want to think it's because I can't be bothered to think about personal gifts, they are welcome to think that. It's really because it's not worth it to make myself crazy and end up not giving a gift because I'm too worried that recipient won't like it. And seriously, why would anyone complain about cash?

Enough about presents. Let's more onto family.

Ah, family.

We all love our families, but that doesn't mean it's easy or that we always have a good time. Relationships with our parents or siblings are complicated. And just because we are related to people doesn't mean we choose to spend a lot of time together. You can love people without liking them. You can even love people without wanting to spend a lot of time with them.

Even in families who have good relationships, getting together under circumstances where there is an expectation for everyone to be "happy" can be difficult. It's a busy time. There's a lot going on in everyone's lives during normal times. Add in parties, buying gifts, wrapping and shipping gifts, decorating your house, sending out holiday cards on top of your already busy life...and by the time we actually manage to get to wherever it is we're going for the holidays, we're usually exhausted.

And being exhausted can make it hard to enjoy ourselves and that makes us even more unhappy. There's guilt associated with telling ourselves it's wrong to feel the way we feel.

In addition, there are a people who don't have family or close friends to share their holidays with. There are people who have lost loved ones. And, for many of our readers, chronic illness has made being with family and friends impossible. Holidays can be particularly hard for people who feel isolated.

I won't pretend to have all the answers. I don't. All I really hope people will keep in mind is that there's no right or wrong way to feel about the holidaysThere's no should or shouldn't, and other people don't have to understand or accept why you feel the way you feel.

If you're not comfortable with the feelings that you have during the holidays, it's perfectly valid to explore those feelings. If you're feeling unhappy about how you feel, instead of worrying about feeling the feeling, take the time and energy to explore how you could change the way you experience the holidays. If doing holiday-themed things isn't fun for you, plan things that you do enjoy. Or plan to have no plan.

Do whatever works for you. And give yourself as much kindness as you can; you deserve it.

It's okay to love the holidays.

And it's okay to hate the holidays.

Here's what I asked my mom about this subject:

As someone who is chronically ill, I know the holidays are hard for you. Can you share some of your feelings?

When I first became ill and couldn't travel to see family or even hang out for long with them when they came to our house, it was heartbreaking. I cried a lot. I was bombarded with a lot of painful emotions: anger, resentment, frustration...and a general sense that life was being unfair to me and that I was letting everyone down.

It took me about five years to start to accept that this was how things were for me and that my negative reactions were only making a difficult situation worse. I still feel bad at times, but it's nothing like it used to be and I'm able to bounce back from it more quickly.

How has your Buddhist practice helped you accept the effect of chronic illness on the holidays?

The Buddha's teachings have made all the difference to me. In fact, I've written several articles for Psychology Today online on this very subject. Here are two of them:

"How to Ease the Pain of Isolation During the Holidays" and 
"Surviving the Holidays When You're Chronically Ill."

In these articles I talk about how I've learned to make the best of the holidays even though illness and pain limit so severely what I can do. Rather than repeat what I said it them, I'll just tell you what you'll find if you read them. 

The first article covers how to cultivate self-compassion, how to learn to feel happy for others who are able to celebrate the holidays fully, and a practice called tonglenwhich comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (not my particular Buddhist tradition), but is a powerful way to ease suffering when you're feeling isolated.

The second article contains four strategies for making the holidays as stress-free as possible. I wrote it with the chronically ill in mind, but re-reading it right now, I think these are good strategies for everyone.

Take good care of yourselves during the holidays, dear readers.










Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Turkey or Ham for Thanksgiving?

Mara here:

So yesterday was Thanksgiving.

I actually visited my parents for a couple of days and then my daughter and I flew home early Thanksgiving morning to spend the rest of the day with my husband. In a moment of madness a month ago, I thought that catching a 6:30 a.m. flight was a smart thing to do. We'd get home early and there would be a much smaller likelihood of getting delayed.

However, faced with the actual prospect of having to deal with my teenager at 5:00 a.m. to get her to the airport made me rethink that decision.

Let's just focus on the good things.

Turkey. I love turkey. I love the turkey wings. I love the whole idea of eating turkey on Thanksgiving. I even love the turkey leftovers. I think to myself every year that I might make turkey soup. It hasn't happened yet, but it might.

So it was very confusing to me when I married my husband and he asked me if we were going to have turkey or ham on Thanksgiving.

Um, what?

I had never heard of not eating turkey on Thanksgiving. I didn't even know that was an option. If you have ham there's no carving of the turkey. There's no wishbone. There's no turkey sandwiches.

How can there be no turkey?

Apparently, lots of people prefer other meats to turkey at Thanksgiving. I am suspicious of these people, but they do exist.

My husband loves ham. It's not that he minds having turkey. He likes turkey. But given the choice, he'd probably pick ham over turkey. And I'd probably agree with him on every other day of the year...but not on Thanksgiving.

Here's a funny story about when we were living in London. One of our local friends very kindly hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for us. It was surprisingly strange to be living somewhere where Thanksgiving wasn't celebrated.

So we arrived at our friend's house and one of the dishes served was a root vegetable medley. He wanted to know if that was a common dish because he had looked up "American Thanksgiving Meal" and that's what had popped up. We sheepishly admitted that "No, we don't usually eat root vegetables on Thanksgiving." I can only guess that he was looking at Martha Stewart's menu for a colonial American meal. The dish was delicious and it was such a sweet gesture. We were so thankful for his friendship.

This year we made a turkey because, although I no longer insist there be turkey, I prefer it. It always gets my vote.

So what about you? Do you prefer turkey, ham or something else for Thanksgiving?

My mom and I are so thankful to everyone who takes the time to spend a few moments reading our blog. We hope everyone had a wonderful day!!




Sunday, November 19, 2017

Coming Thursday: Stuff Your Face Day and Think Thankful Thoughts!

Mara here.

Thanksgiving is almost here which means it's time to reflect on how grateful we are and be thankful for the bountiful gifts we have in our lives.

I'm kidding. Let's face it, it's about eating.

I'm mean, yes, it's a good time to remember to think thankful thoughts and project out there into the world that Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. But in the grubby real world (not the shiny Hallmark world) for those of us who are lucky to have close family and friends to spend the day with, the holiday is really about eating until we're so full we want to cry and then sleeping over the long weekend.

Don't yell at me and tell me that I'm wrong and you are proof that there are people who spend the day piously having thankful thoughts all day. I will concede there are some people who make that the focus of the day.

But I'm not one of them.

And the people I know who come close to putting a jubilant "Thanks" in Thanksgiving are pretty much like that every day. So it's just another regular day for them...with lots of food.

But I'm not completely hard-hearted to the sentiment of having a day of thanks.

The other day while I was doing dishes, Malia (my daughter) was asking me about my relationship with Brad. (For new readers, that's my husband and her father.) Because, while Brad and I have many faults, being outwardly appreciative of our marriage and each other is not one of them. We are grateful for each other.

So she was asking me if we had the same relationship now as we did when she was younger. She wanted to know if we had always been so happy together.

And I had to think about it. My initial instinct was to say, "of course." But if I am being honest, that's not true.

Malia was born when I was 27. Looking back I cringe at how young I was. But at the time, I felt very adult. I didn't realize how much life changes—constantly. I thought, "Well, here I am. I'm an adult and this is just how it's going to be for the next few decades until I'm 'old'."

Hahaha. I want to pat that 27-year-old me on the head because life has changed dramatically since then.

And one of the biggest changes is my ability to recognize how important gratitude is and to actively be thankful for all everything and everyone who makes my life what it is.

That twenty-seven year-old me was a bit too hung up on wanting more instead of being thankful for what I had. And while I was always very happy with Brad, the younger me didn't appreciate him as much as I appreciate him now. And the 30 to 40-year-old me wasn't as thankful as I am now for all the amazing things that have happened in our family. 

The forty-three year-old me of today is thankful all time in my own kind of sarcastic way. I mean there's still stuff I want. And I get irritated all the time. But I no longer believe that my happiness is dependent on things that may or may not happen in the future. I don't assume having something or getting something will make me happy. And that has been a huge change for me in my life. 

And for that I am truly thankful.

Whatever it is that you are thankful for, I hope you have a wonderful holiday next week! I hope you get to eat lots of food! I hope you think about being thankful and what it means to you! (But mostly I hope you get to eat lots of food!)

For those of you who struggle during the holidays, we will be doing a blog post about that next week!

Here are two questions I asked my mom about being thankful and about celebrating Thanksgiving.

How do you maintain an attitude of thanks even when it's not Thanksgiving?

Before I start, I want to acknowledge that we have a lot of readers who don't live in the U.S. and so either don't have a Thanksgiving holiday or celebrate it on another date. (I lived in Canada for several years where Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October.) To all those readers, I hope you enjoy our reflections even if you don't have a big feast coming up on Thursday!

As to your question about maintaining an attitude of thanks, it can be hard, especially when this chronic illness limits what I can do so much. Just last weekend, as you know, your dad went down to Berkeley (a little more than an hour from where we live) and spent the evening with Malia and Brad and with your brother and his family. And where was I? At home in or on the bed as usual. 

Readers of my first book, How to Be Sickwill have followed my struggle to come to terms with missing out on so many of life's joys, such as last weekend's Berkeley gathering. I came to terms with it with the help of a lot of wisdom from the Buddha. (There are many wise teachers out there; he's just the one I drifted to.) With his help, I learned to accept my life as it is and to be grateful for what I do have (a supportive family, a roof over my head, food to eat, the ability to connect with others on the internet—to name a few). 

I've also learned how to keep from being resentful and envious when I can't do things. I practice what's known in Buddhism as muditawhich means empathetic joy, that is, feeling joyful when others are happy. I used this to help me handle missing out last weekend. I knew that everyone was having a good time, so I practiced feeling happy for them and feeling thankful that they could gather together even though I couldn't be there. When I'm able to tap into that joy and thankfulness, resentment and envy fade and I feel at peace with my life as it is. It's the life I've got; fighting it only makes me feel worse. Resentment and envy are formidable emotions, but the peace that comes from feeling happy for others and being thankful for what you do have is a good way to tame those critters.

We've never really had set traditions in our family for Thanksgiving. (I'm reminding you of the year dad decided to make a polenta pie thing instead of turkey ... I wasn't traumatized at all can you tell?) Did you have Thanksgiving traditions growing up?

Ha! I don't even remember that "polenta pie thing." Maybe the trauma it inflicted on the family made me forget! But you know your dad. He can be goofy and he likes to swim against the current, so I'm not surprised he did that. His heart is in the right place though.

As for when I was growing up, my family always ate the traditional Thanksgiving meal—turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce (which I've never liked), and pumpkin pie. All I remember is eating a lot!