Sunday, December 31, 2017

Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

Mara here:

Well, it's that time of the year again. It's hard to believe that this blog has existed for over a year, but here we still are! Thanks to all the readers who have come along on this journey with us over this past year.

A quick housekeeping note: starting in 2018, we are only going to be posting once a week. When we first started the blog, we wanted to make sure there was enough content for people to look back on. Now that it's been a year and we have well over 100 posts, we're going to scale back and only post once a week.

Another more fun announcement is that my mom has a new edition of her book, How to Be Sick, coming out in 2018. So we will have some fun posts about the updated and revised version of the original book that started this whole crazy adventure.

But back to the topic of the post: end of the year. Last year, we shared some light-hearted resolutions—resolutions that we didn't think we would stick to. (I actually stuck to a couple of mine. I only wear my fuzzy pants to jog in now!) 

This year, I thought it might be nice to reflect back on some of the things I'm grateful for from 2017.

For me, 2017 was a bit of a doozy. There were a lot of challenges. There were injuries, mental anxieties, car accidents, missed opportunities—lots of changes.

But there was also so much that I am grateful for.

There are the obvious things: losing weight, going on vacation, my daughter's excellent grades, etc. As always, I am grateful for my husband, Brad, without whom I would literally not be able to survive this crazy world. And I am so grateful for my daughter. She is the brightest of lights in my life.

And of course, I have to mention my parents who are the best. I don't know how else to describe them.

But really what sticks out to me this year is that I feel as if I'm finally coming to terms with accepting who I am. And I'm finally able to understand what's important to me—what makes me feel good.

Part of the challenge of 2017 for me was finally letting go of trying to control my life. That's not to say that I don't have influence over what happens. But I am slowly learning how to let go of trying to desperately force into actuality my pre-conceived notions of how I think my life "should be." 

Does that make sense?

I feel as if for much of my life, I had a mental picture of what a "good life" is, and then I set about to try to make that picture into a reality, but the discord between what I imagined and what was actually happening to me led to a lot of frustration, confusion, and sometimes pain.

But I think I'm finally learning how to truly see—to see with my heart and with my mind's eye. I'm finally understanding better what is real and how I can deal with reality, instead of blindly ignoring what's real and fighting for what turns out to be illusion.

It might all sound a bit fuzzy, but that's because it still is a bit fuzzy for me. I don't know how I feel about all the changes I'm experiencing. And I'm not sure what the end result will be, if there ever really is an "end."

But I feel as if I'm on the right path. I feel as if I'm experiencing more truth than I have before. I feel as if I'm open to more truth than I have been before. And because of that, I'm able to allow myself to feel happiness. I still feel sadness and anxiety. But for the first time in many years, I'm feeling happiness again. Not just feeling manic giddiness or excitement over a temporary success. But I'm feeling real happiness—a peaceful feeling of goodwill. And I'm feeling happiness not just for myself, but I'm feeling it for people around me as well.

And it feels a bit miraculous.

And, for that, I am truly grateful.

As I look toward 2018, I don't feel anticipation the same way I have in past years. I am trying not to have expectations. In 2018, I am going to try and have an open mind and heart. I will be open and grateful for the good that comes. And I will be open and accepting of the bad that comes.

And from the bottom of my heart, with as much grace and sincerity as I possess, I wish you all happiness in the coming year.


Toni here:

Wow. It's hard for me to write something after reading Mara's piece. It so honest and so full of hope. It filled my heart with joy to read. It's definitely a hard act to follow, so I thought what I'd do would be to look back at that post from a year ago and see what happened to those New Year's resolutions I made. There were three of them.

First, I actually had the guts to resolve that I'd stop complaining! I said it felt unpleasant and rarely got me what I wanted (both true). Well, guess what? I complained in 2017. If anyone reading this did not complain this year, you have my undying respect!

Second, I resolved to drink two quarts of water everyday, although I admitted that I make this resolution every year but don't keep it. Well, I didn't keep it this year either, but I did drink ONE quart of water every day. That was a definite improvement!

This, I resolved this: "I will go through each room in the house and give half its contents to Goodwill." To my utter surprise, I pretty much did this in 2017. Yay for me! Not everything went to Goodwill—books went to our local library and some things I gave away through a local "Buy and sell" Facebook group (I put a note up about a free convertible sofa and had over 100 people wanting it...there's a lot of need out there). 

I have to admit that one reason I kept this resolution is that my husband and I have to do some drastic downsizing because we're planning to move to a small apartment in the near future. That said, it was freeing to get rid of so many things, and I loved those moments when I'd be going through a drawer and suddenly I'd see a treasured photograph I gazed upon for years.

I haven't made any New Year's resolutions for 2018, but thought, for inspiration, I'd share a piece I wrote in 2011 when I first started writing for Psychology Today: "New Year's Resolutions the Buddha Might Have Made." I re-read it myself every year. 

Mara and I wish the happiest of New Years to you all!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What is the Most Unexpected Present You Ever Received?

Mara here:

We hope all our readers who celebrate Christmas had a wonderful day. My family had a great time, aside from the fact that we are all suffering from a bit of a cold. We spent the day eating lots of sugary and fatty food and blowing our noses.

But as I sat in our living room, watching my husband and daughter open presents, my mind drifted back over the years of gifts I've given and received. And there's one present I received for Christmas about twenty years ago that always sticks out in my memories. You might assume it's a fancy piece of jewelry or a pet, something that made a lasting impact on my life.

Um, no.

It was a Star Trek uniform.

Now, if you know anything about me, you know that I'm not a "Trekkie." I have enjoyed a Star Trek movie here and there, but I can't name all the characters, I don't know names of the different incarnations of the television series's.

Most importantly, if you know anything about me, you would know that even if I was a Trekkie and knew all the information there is to know about Star Trek, you would know I'd never do anything with a Star Trek uniform. I don't go to Comic Con or Trekkie Conventions. And even if I did go to those conventions, I would never dress up in a costume.

Now here's the thing. I wasn't mad about getting the uniform. I would never be mad about any present anyone gave me. In fact, I thought it was pretty funny when I opened the gift. The man who gave it to me was very sweet, but a little odd. He definitely lived his life to his own drumbeat. I don't want to embarrass anyone, so I'm not going to name names. For this article, I'll just call him "Friend." And I'm confident he doesn't read this blog or I would never repeat this story, because while he was an odd guy, he was very sweet. I would never want to hurt his feelings.

So Friend was looking on with great expectation as he handed me my present. I peeled off the wrapping paper as he watched intently. And when I got the item unwrapped and saw it was a Star Trek costume, I was so confused that it didn't even occur to me to hide the look of complete surprise and confusion that surely came across my face. It was one of those pure moments of total surprise.

I might have even started laughing.

But Friend was so sincere in his enjoyment of giving me the uniform. He very earnestly explained that he could tell last year when he had given Brad a Star Trek uniform that he saw the disappointment in my eyes, and knew that I had wished I had one too.

Yes, you heard that right. The previous Christmas he had given Brad a Star Trek uniform as well.

Brad's made a tiny bit more sense. I mean, don't get me wrong; it was completely random that he gave Brad a costume, but at least Brad was more of a Star Trek fan. But, like me, if you know Brad, he's really not a dress-up-for-the-premiere-of-a-Star-Trek-movie kind of guy.

But Friend definitely saw the world through different lenses, and he had interpreted my complete and giddy hysterics at watching Brad open his Star Trek uniform, as envy. I remember being unable to stop laughing.

Friend must have remembered it differently, and went out and found me a matching costume so I could share in the enjoyment of Star Trek uniform ownership.

Brad and I still laugh about this story. It was one of those moments where you simply could not have expected it, nor will it ever be repeated. And the thing is that the Star Trek uniforms were given with so much love that it was impossible to do anything but thank him and tell him how much we loved them.

Toni here:

This one's easy for me, Mara. I kept a diary for the first few months after you joined our family from Korea. I wrote it out in a cheap notebook almost every day. One Christmas, your dad had it made into a book—typed and with lots of photos of you and the whole family. He had three of them made—one for me, one for you, and one for your brother. It was the most unexpected present I've ever a mile. I treasure it to this day.

So what about you? Do you have memories of unexpected gifts you've received?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

All It Takes Is a Few Seconds of Bravery

Mara here:

I had to go to the dentist a couple of weeks ago. I hate the dentist. The dentist and I have a not so great history.

I have very weak teeth. I've been told that malnourishment when I was an infant in Korea is probably the reason my baby and adult teeth never formed correctly. My enamel is weak. I remember going to a check up at the dentist when I was a child and being told I had eight cavities. EIGHT.

My adult teeth have not been much better. It hasn't helped that after a childhood of many painful visits to the dentist, I have an extreme aversion to going to the dentist. I just don't do it unless I absolutely have to. I once went a decade without going. And then things went very badly for me.

One year, I had abscess in a tooth while I was on a train between New York City and Washington DC. A few years ago, the root of one of my teeth snapped in half and it needed to be pulled. Most of my teeth have fillings, and at least half of my molars have had root canals.

Last year, I actually had three teeth crumble, literally, out of my mouth. I was spitting out pieces of teeth that had broken. In my complete inability to deal with what was happening, I would simply put the pieces of tooth down around the house—on the mantle, on my desk, on my dresser. I found a piece a couple weeks ago tucked away in a box that I keep my daily medications in.

If this sounds bizarre, it's because it is.

All my life, I've had a recurring nightmare about teeth crumbling out of my mouth, and now it was literally happening. It felt surreal.

So last year, when I spit out a large piece of tooth, I knew I had to go to the dentist. But I really didn't want to. In fact, every cell in my body was screaming at me to simply just ignore it. There wasn't pain, but I had a large piece of a tooth in my palm that was supposed to be in my mouth. Even though there was surprisingly no pain from the broken tooth, I knew I needed to get my mouth looked at. But I was afraid. I was afraid to go to the dentist. 

My fear of having to go to the dentist was so overwhelming that I spent a couple of days pacing around the house wondering if I could simply just not go. 

After years of neglect, it's hard to go to a dentist and explain why a person, who looks at first glance like a relatively responsible well taken care of person, has teeth falling out of her mouth.

But I knew it had to be done. I could tell there were problems with multiple teeth. It had been three years since my last visit to the dentist and there had been follow-up work from that visit that I had simply, well, not followed-up on.

So I stared at the phone. I hate the phone. I hate the dentist. Nothing about the situation was good.

There's a movie I saw a few years ago called We Bought A Zoo. It's based on the book of the same name by Benjamin Mee about how he bought a zoo, while raising his two kids after the death of his wife. The story is cute and the movie is charming to watch. It stars Matt Damon and the little girl who plays his daughter is ridiculously cute. But what I remember most about the movie is something that the character Benjamin says to his teenage son. They're discussing life and love, and Benjamin is trying to encourage his son to be brave. He says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

And that idea, that sometimes to accomplish great things, we simply need a moment of insane courage, really stuck with me. Sometimes we have to do something quickly, ignoring any doubts, in the moment, to get the ball rolling.

And for me, last Fall, that moment was picking up the phone and making a call to the dentist.

It probably sounds silly to some people that calling the dentist would elicit such a reaction. But it does for me. So with my heart thumping and fears of pain and concern about the expense of the treatments flying through my head, I took a deep breath and called the dentist to make an appointment.

The whole phone call took a couple of minutes. And once it was done, it was done. There was no going back. And once I have the ball rolling, I'm fine with the process of going to the dentist and getting the work done.

All in all, in a month, I had seven appointments with my dentist, spent fours straight hours at the endodontist getting two root canals, and ended up with three crowns. I dutifully went in and endured hours and hours of discomfort. It cost us over $3000 out-of-pocket (our insurance covered an additional $3000).

But I survived.

So a couple of weeks ago when I got the reminder from the dentist that it was time to come in for a checkup, the memories of last Fall were fresh in my mind. I ignored the first email. I simply deleted it.

When the second reminder email came, I knew I needed to do the right thing and make an appointment. I could feel there was something wrong with one of my teeth, and I didn't want to wait until crumbled out of my mouth to do something about it.

After looking at the reminder email sit in my inbox for a few days, one morning I impulsively pushed aside my fears, grabbed my phone and made the call. It took less than a minute, just a handful of brave seconds. And it was done. 

There are so many things I can think of where it only takes those few seconds of bravery to make things happen. It can be right before telling someone you love them for the first time, or hitting send on an email about job. It can be that moment right before the nurse gives you a shot, or taking a deep breath before you step off the platform to bungee jump.

Big or little doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if other people wouldn't think it was brave. What matters is whether or not you make the decision to summon the strength inside yourself to do something that feels scary to you.

There really is something magical about realizing that if you can simply muster the courage to push yourself past a few seconds of fear, you can accomplish something that will be with you for your lifetime.


Here are two questions I asked my mom on this subject:

Is there a Buddhist approach to managing fear and encouraging bravery that might be helpful to people who feel as if they feel they're holding themselves back from accomplishing something they want?

I would say that Buddhist mindfulness and compassion practices help us manage fear and also encourage bravery. This is because a large part of being brave is taking action despite your fear. In my experience, you can't do that unless, first, you become aware that you're afraid (that's the mindfulness part) and then, second, refrain from turning away from that fear in aversion and, instead, open your heart to it and take care of it (that's the compassion part).

The expression "take care of it" comes from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and one of my earliest teachers. In one of his books, he writes about taking care of our fear. To me, this means recognizing that everyone experiences fear during their lives so it's nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. Instead, be compassionate to yourself over how painful fear can be. That takes away it's tight grip on you. As long as it remains hidden (that is, we're not mindful that it's present) and as long as it remains ugly to you (that is, you hate it instead of taking care of it), you're caught in its web and can't take skillful action, by which I mean action that you really need to in order to take care of yourself or others.

What I'm suggesting isn't always easy to do, which is why I love that quotation from We Bought a Zoo—Benjamin saying that sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of bravery. I write a lot about taking baby steps—baby steps toward compassion, baby steps toward equanimity. Twenty seconds is a good baby step.

And if you can't pull it off, with understanding and kindness, tell yourself that it's a really hard situation for you and then resolve to give it a try in another 15 minutes...or another hour...whatever suits you at the time. I can see this with you staring at the phone, knowing that you need to call the dentist. I'm sure there were times when you walked away from that phone. All of us have done that I'll bet. When we do, we're much more likely to be able to try again soon if we don't get down on ourselves but compassionately tell ourselves, "It's hard. I'll try again later."

Is there moment in your life when you remember needing an extra boost of courage to accomplish something?

I needed that extra boost of courage almost every time I walked into a law school classroom to teach. I always felt a big weight on my shoulders. First, I thought that a lot of the students were smarter than I was and that was intimidating. Second, I felt that they were there—and had paid a lot of money—for me to teach and inspire them, and I took that responsibility seriously. If I was teaching a new subject, I always lacked confidence that I'd be good enough. I remember many a day standing at the door to the classroom truly afraid to open it.

Of course, I knew I'd have to open that door at some point and when I did, I wanted to walk into the classroom looking like I belonged there, not like a deer in the headlights. And so I'd give myself a little pep talk as I stood outside the door: "You prepared for hours. It's okay if you don't know everything. You know enough. Just be yourself and try to enjoy the experience." That was my twenty seconds of bravery. Then I'd open the door and walk on in. 


What about you? Can you think of something in your life that required a moment of extra bravery or courage to get through?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Special Holiday Treats

Mara here:

I made peppermint bark this week.

My family loves peppermint bark and it's super easy to make. (Anything I make has to be super easy because I'm kind of terrible at cooking/baking.) All you have to do is melt chocolate (you can do two types of chocolate if you want to be fancy) in the microwave (the melting has to be done in 30 second increments so it doesn't burn), then adding some peppermint oil, then spread the chocolate on a baking sheet lined with foil, and then sprinkle crushed peppermints on top. Let the whole thing cool, and voila! You have a super tasty holiday treat. (BTW, it's easy and fun to make with kids!)

There's the added bonus at the end of getting to crumble the cooled finished product into bite size pieces. Its messy and strangely satisfying to break it up.

The peppermint bark is something I only make during the holidays, and because we only have it around for a week or two right before Christmas it feels super special.

It's funny that there are foods that we only make during the holidays. Because honestly, I could make peppermint bark any time of the year. But if I made it in March, I don't think people would be very excited by it. I'm sure my daughter would just be confused.

It's nice that there are some special treats that show up during the holidays to add to the festive feel. There are a few foods that we consider "holiday only" foods: the peppermint bark, marshmallow salad, and Pfeffernusse cookies from Trader Joes.

Our version of marshmallow salad is a strange mix of mini-marshmallows, plain yogurt, and fruit cocktail. It's a little bit like ambrosia, but it's lighter. You let the mix chill in the refrigerator, and the marshmallows dissolve into the yogurt at bit, so you get a sort of fluffy mush of sweet fruity goop. My daughter and I love it. A lot of people think it's gross. And if we ever have guests over for Thanksgiving or Christmas, they often sort of look askance at it.

But again, it's a unique thing we only make at Thanksgiving and Christmas. So it's something we really look forward to. It makes the holiday meals feel extra special.

And the Pfeffernusse mouth waters just thinking about them. They are a German spice cookie covered in crunchy powdered sugar shell. They show up in November and they disappear after New Years.

But it's always very exciting when I see them in stock.

And again, because they only come around once a year, they feel very special.


Toni here:

I'm not much of a baker so my favorite holiday foods over the years have come from other people. My mom used to make the best latkes for Hanukkah (potato pancakes made with grated potatoes, flour, and eggs). My mother-in-law used to make the best cookies and candies, which she always displayed on a beautiful silver stacked candy dish. I had to keep from myself from eating everything on the dish when we'd arrive! I can still taste her rum balls and her candied walnuts.

The best I've been able to muster has been a great-tasting pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, a personal recipe I perfected over the years, including a buttery yet flaky crust. I learned to make pies when my husband was a graduate student and we lived in a tiny place in the countryside. Our cottage was at the edge of a huge apricot orchard. There were always lots of apricots left on the trees after the pickers had come through. We were welcome to them, so I made everything apricot: apricot jam, apricot butter, and many many apricot pies.

P.S. I love Mara's marshmallow salad!

So what about you? Do you have any favorite foods that you only have during the holidays that make the season extra special?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Would You Change the Past?

Mara here:

It's the end of the year and I'm feeling contemplative. I'm reflecting on the past year, which usually leads to thinking about the whole of my life, weighing the ups and the downs.

When I was younger, I would often re-imagine scenarios, creating more positive outcomes and thinking about how wonderful my life could have been. But as I get older and I am able to understand the interconnectedness of everything, I no longer wish I could change the past.

Trust me, this doesn't mean I'm happy about how everything turns out. I have many disappointments. I have many struggles with momentarily wishing things had had a different outcome. But overall, when I look at my life, I'm happy with how things are.

I recently read Stephen King's book 11/22/63. It's about time travel. It ponders the question of whether or not changing the past is a good thing or not. In the book, it specifically focuses on the assassination of President Kennedy. If you could stop President Kennedy from dying in 1963, would you?

On the face of it, it seems obvious to want to change things that were bad or are painful to remember. Wouldn't you want to stop the untimely death of a friend or loved one if you could? Wouldn't you avoid World War II if you could do something to stop it?

For most of us, our instinct would be to step in and try to fix things that are remembered as "bad."

But we can't really know what the ripple effect of changing one thing in the past would be. Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect both discuss how everything that happens is dependent on everything else. The classic metaphor is how a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the would can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world—cause and effect. If you kill the butterfly, what events are you subsequently changing? If the hurricane doesn't happen, you might keep your house from flooding, but then maybe a tree that would have been uprooted in the wind of the storm instead falls on someone's car causing deaths?

It's kind of mind boggling to fall into the wormhole of what-ifs.

My first introduction to the idea of the Butterfly Effect was actually the movie Back to the Future. In the movie, the character Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, goes back in time and does the younger incarnation of his father a favor. That favor changes the course of his parents' lives to the point where they don't ever get married, which means he isn't born—in the future. He starts to disappear. To nine-year-old me, the concept of causing damage to your future self, from the past, was disturbing. And it turned me off to the idea of time travel.

I didn't want to mess around with time.

And I still feel that way. I have the luxury to feel that way. I've had a pretty nice life. And when I look at the people in my life, including my parents who adopted me, I can't imagine doing anything that would land me in different circumstances.

Did I get abandoned by my birth family when I was two? Yes. Did I get to go to Yale? No. Did I book the role in Rent on Broadway after making it to the fourth callback? No. Did that feel crushing at the time? Yes.

But would I go back and change the outcome? I wouldn't. Because if I hadn't been abandoned, I wouldn't have been adopted. If I had attended Yale, I would never have met my husband Brad, who I met at UC Davis. If I had booked Rent, would we have ended up with our amazing daughter? Probably not. I'm not saying we wouldn't have had kids, but it likely wouldn't have been, Malia.

Timing matters. Do I know things would be worse if they were different? No. Can I imagine a world without my family as it is now? No.

There are a few things that I know, for a fact, have completely altered the course of my life: my adoption, meeting my husband, and the birth of our daughter. And I can't imagine anything that would be worth risking those things.

By the way, I enjoyed 11/22/63. If you enjoy Stephen King books, you might want to check it out. It's definitely food for thought.

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this.

I think that not having a wish to change the past, has freed me from living a life feeling regretful. Do you have regrets?

Mara, I do what you do. Every time I feel regretful about something in the past, I think about the wonderful things that came about because of that very thing I'm regretting, whether it's not going to an ivy league college, or whether it's the most painful regret I still feel in my life: the death of my sweet father when I was ten. When that regret arises, I let myself feel sad but then I reflect on how, had he lived, my family would have had the money to send me to that ivy league school and I'd have never met your Dad.

And yet, I can still cry over losing my Dad. I cried last week on December 7th, the anniversary of his death. I still wish he hadn't died so young...and when I was so young. At the same time, I wouldn't have wanted my life to take any different path than it has because then I wouldn't have met your Dad...and wouldn't have adopted you. 

I reconcile these seemingly contradictory feelings with a wonderful line from Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contract myself. I am large; I contain multitudes."

Are there Buddhist teachings that can help with feelings of regret?

There are. One that comes to mind is the Buddha's teachings in the first noble truth about the realities of the human condition—how all of us are going to face unwanted losses in life, whether it's not getting a job we want or whether it's the most devastating loss—that of someone we love dearly. When we're able to accept that not having things go as we wanted and that losses are a natural part of the life cycle and that we don't control when losses will happen, we can begin to make peace with the past. Then we can turn our attention to the our life right now...rather than living in regret about the past.

I'm sure you remember Martha Dickman who was a music teacher in Davis when you were young. I'm working on a second edition of How to Be Sick and I'm including a quotation from her that was in her obituary when she died about two years ago: "The past is history. The future is a mystery. The present is a gift." Nice words to live by I thought, and that's why I added them to the book.

So what about you? Would you go back and change the past if you could? Are there events in your life that you can think of that felt bad at the time they happened, but that with reflection turned out to be positive?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wrapping Presents: Fun or a Chore?

It's that time of year. Boxes are arriving at our house daily, and I dutifully grab them off the porch before anyone sees them and shove them into my closet. There's now a very precariously balanced pile, shoved into the rather limited available space.

I love buying presents. I don't always like trying to decide what people want. But if I know the person relatively well and know that I can give them something they will enjoy, I get a lot of pleasure out of being able to give them a treat.

And I like the idea of wrapping presents.

I like buying all the stuff to wrap presents.

I love buying different patterns of wrapping paper and ribbon. I like buying boxes and tissue paper.

But the prospect of actually wrapping everything feels daunting.

First of all, you have to assemble all the stuff needed. And if you're like me, you don't have a whole wrapping station, with all the supplies readily at hand. So I usually grab the obvious stuff—the paper (I like having a lot of variety in paper so it's usually several different rolls of paper), the ribbons (many different rolls of ribbon and bags of bows), a scissors, and if I'm on my game that day I remember to actually grab the gifts I need to wrap. 

We have a small house, so to have privacy when I'm wrapping gifts, I'm usually crouched on my bedroom floor, trying to clear space between a pile of unfolded laundry and shoes that are spread around.  It's not what anyone would call ideal an wrapping environment.

So, once I've gathered the wrapping supplies, then I have to open the shipping boxes the gifts were delivered in. I grab a box, cut through the packing tape (hopefully I don't cut into the actual gift—this has happened before) and I toss the box and the bubble wrapping aside. Then I have to find a gift box to put that item back into, which requires me to haul myself off the ground, out of my bedroom, out into the livingroom (where the wrapping stuff is piled) to try and find a box that fits. 

Then I go back into my bedroom, close the door (sometimes having to chase the dog out because there's just not enough room to deal with him, and settle myself back on the ground). I hopefully have remembered to grab tissue paper, because I'm tired at this point and don't want to have to get up again. If I have all the stuff, I try to fold the item neatly, pretending I work at the Gap in an effort to make it look like it is actually the new item that it is and not a wrinkled mess that I grabbed out of my laundry bin and shoved into a box.

Once I've gotten the box/folding situation sorted out, I have to try and figure out how much wrapping paper I need. If the room isn't a complete mess, and there's enough floor space, I can roll out a bunch of wrapping paper and try to eyeball the length and width needed to cover the box. Sometimes this has to happen more than once because I am apparently very bad at visualizing how much paper is needed to cover a box surface and I find a very frustrating inch of uncovered box when I try to wrap the paper around it. There are also times I cut way too much paper, which then requires me to awkwardly cut off a strip of two or three inches of paper off the end, while trying to hold it somewhat wrapped around the box so I don't cut too much off.

After the paper is finally cut, I usually realize that I've forgotten the tape and I have to haul myself back off the ground, zip out of the bedroom, and find some tape. Once tape has been acquired, I have to go back into the bedroom and once again wrap the paper around the box to secure it with tape. I can't even describe how cumbersome trying to get the end bits to fold evenly and flatly. Sometimes there's way too much paper, which makes it everything cumbersome and lumpy. It's supposed to look like an envelope. All the ends are supposed to somehow line up. Mine never do.

And sometimes once I've folded the ends over, there's not quite enough paper—which is a calamity because there's no way I'm going all the way back to re-cutting the paper. Sometimes wrapping paper patches have to be improvised.

When the wrapping paper is actually wrapped around the box and all the loose bits have been taped down, then comes the ribbon part.

Now the ribbon is tricky. Actually, one of the amazing thing I discovered when I married my husband were the little pre-made bows that you can just pop on. For some reason we didn't use those growing up and I had it in my mind that it was "cheating" to use them. But my husband used them—and it was a bit liberating to be able to just pop a little bow in the corner and be done. However, I actually love loose ribbon, and try to do a combination of ribbon wrapped around the box along with a pre-made bow. Seems like a good compromise.

Once the ribbon as been applied, the gift is looking good! It has the wrapping and the ribbon. This is when I realize that I've forgotten to grab the to/from labels. I have to put these on immediately because there have been unfortunate times when I have forgotten who the wrapped presents were for and they have to be unwrapped, which is no good. Nobody wants to have to wrap a present twice.

So I drag myself off the floor once again, hobble out of my room, back into the livingroom, dig through the wrapping box and find the labels. Sometimes, I remember to grab a pen on my way back into my room, sometimes I don't and then have to turn around to grab one.

Then it's done. The gift is wrapped, and ribboned, and labeled.

And I'm usually pretty satisified with myself. I feel accomplished.

But then, when it's the holidays, I realize I have to repeat the whole process times a hundred. Okay, maybe not a hundred, but if feels like a lot.

The first couple of presents usually have nicely coordinated wrapping and ribbon. There might even be crisp creases and a fancy extra loop of bows. But the rest of them get hastily thrown together because my patience and time dwindles rapidly.

And by the end, I'm exhausted (probably a little grumpy) and the room is a chaotic mess of discarded wrapping bits—an explosion of holiday detritus. I've been crouched in an awkward position for too long. I've had to get myself up and down off the floor a few dozen times. I've lost and found the scissors over and over. I've had to shoo away the cats and let them in and out of the room a few times.


But it's always worth it when the gifts are stacked under the tree. And it's definitely worth it watching my family joyfully tear open the wrapping on Christmas morning.

My mother is, not surprisingly (given all her artistic talents), a very good gift wrapper. 


A note from Toni: I laughed out loud at your gift-wrapping adventures, Mara. Actually, the reason I'm so good at it is that my father owned a gift shop on Hollywood Blvd and, when I was young (I had to be quite young because he died when I was 10), at Christmastime when school was out, I went with him to work and stand behind the counter, wrapping holiday gifts all day. I love it. I felt so grown up.

In fact, I got so good at it that when I was in my 20s, I got a job because I could wrap presents so nicely. It was a small gift shop in our town that prided itself on its fancy gift-wrapping—year round. (Anyone from Davis will remember the store Discoveries.) After a short interview with the owner, she took me to the wrapping station and told me to wrap a present. A few minutes later, she hired me!

(Mara note: Discoveries was notorious for their wrapping. They did special paper, with fancy little dried flowers, fat ribbons looped in a distinctive way, with an embossed gold Discoveries sticker. Gifts from Discoveries were very distinctive--like getting a Tiffany box.)

Mara and I would love to how about you. Do you enjoy wrapping presents? Are you good at it?

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


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?