Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Real Family: The Story of Mara's Adoption

I was adopted. And it was never a secret because I am Asian and my adopted family is Caucasian. It was very obvious that I was not genetically related to my parents.

For kids in the early 1980's in a small Northern California town, mixed-race adoption was unusual. I was the only kid in any of my schools who was adopted from an Asian country. For comparison, in 2008 when my daughter started kindergarten in Los Angeles, there were two kids in her classroom who were adopted from China by Caucasian families. 

Needless to say, my peers had a lot of questions. Many were shy about asking me about my family. So instead of asking, some came up with strange stories of divorces and re-marriages to explain my existence. Often when going out with my family, strangers would assume I was my bother's friend or girlfriend, or even that a friend I'd brought along with us was my parents' daughter, and I was just her friend.

But I didn't know anything different. It never offended me. Instead of being upset that people would think that, I felt embarrassed that my mere existence caused questions. I didn't want people to notice me or notice my parents when they were with me. I always felt like I had to explain my family before I introduced them to new friends or teachers because otherwise there'd always be that uncomfortable moment of confusion when they met.

And while answering questions about being adopted is sometimes awkward, it's never made me angry except when people ask me about finding my "real family." Aside from always being asked if I was from China (I'm from Korea), the question most people have asked me about being adopted is if I want to ever find my real family—my real parents. It's hard to describe the emotions for me when I hear that question. I know people aren't trying to be offensive when they ask—they're just curious. And if they've never had a first-person experience with adoption, the concept of not being blood related to their "family" seems foreign to them.

But the answer for me is, no. I don't want to find my "real family" because my real family is the family I have known for the last 39 years. My real family are the mother and father who adopted me from an orphanage in Korea in 1977. They're the ones who spent nights comforting me from the many nightmares I had in the years after I arrived in the U.S. My real family are the ones who rushed me to the hospital when I got hurt. My real family are the ones who celebrated my birthdays and who comforted me when I was disappointed and cheered for me at my dance recitals.

Blood is not thicker than water for me. Because I have never once wondered if someone who shared my DNA would love me more than my parents did.

I know that when people ask if I want to find my real family, they mean do I ever want to find my biological parents. And I suppose I have over the years wondered from time to time what they would be like. But I don't have any real desire to spend time and effort trying to find them, anymore than I would guess other people would if you told them they might have an uncle in Ireland or Switzerland. Would it be interesting? Sure. Do I feel as if my life is incomplete in any way because I don't know them? I don't.

My life has had it's share of ups and downs. And in many ways I have struggled more than I think many of my peers have. But I never thought that my struggle was because I wasn't loved enough, or because my parents didn't love me as much as their biological child, or that I was not as much a part of the family as everyone else. 

I have never once imagined that if I had somehow remained with my biological family, I wouldn't have any problems. I have never once thought that I would be happier with parents who shared my DNA. Because the truth is that no matter what situation you're in, life is not perfect. No matter who your parents are, difficult things will happen. I don't imagine some magical scenario where I remained with my biological family and had a perfect life. Perfect lives don't exist. Many of my friends who were not adopted aren't happy with their families. And the reality is that clearly my biological family was not in a position to care for me, or I wouldn't have been in the orphanage to begin with. 

So, my answer is, no, I don't need to find my real family. My real family has been by my side for my entire life that I can remember. 


Questions for my mom:

Why did you decide to adopt a child?

It was pretty simple, really. My brother was adopted, so after having had the experience of a pregnancy with your brother, it seemed natural to adopt when we decided we wanted a second child.

What were some of the reactions you experienced from people regarding the fact I was Asian?

People reacted very positively, so we didn't go through what you did. It must have been hard to have to respond to people always asking you if you were Chinese and even harder to respond when people asked probing questions about your "real parents." Your dad and I didn't have to go through that and I'm sorry you did.

The only thing that was irritating was that a few people acted as if we'd done something charitable and special by adopting a child-in-need, especially one of a different race from us. When they acted like that, it felt as if they were exhibiting that terrible "white man's burden" mentality from colonial days. It always bothered me. We never felt that we were being charitable or special. To us, you were the one who was special because you completed our family.

I was three when you adopted me. What advice would you give to other parents thinking about adopting an older child?

Well, it's definitely not the same as adopting a newborn. When you came, you spoke Korean, you had a lot of your own preferences and habits, and you also had your share of fears (you mentioned the nightmares). So I would advise people to realize that they're bringing into their family a young person who is already formed in many ways. This means you have to be flexible—be willing to provide special food, be willing to help your child through any traumas he or she is experiencing.

So, it's not the same as bringing a newborn into your house (as was the case with my brother) where, even though the baby is adopted, it's as if you've given birth and so you're starting with a blank slate, so to speak (although I remember how, when you were put into my arms at the airport in Los Angeles, it felt as if I was giving birth to you).

Overall, I loved that you were already three-years old. For one thing, no diapers! But mainly it was because it was like bringing a young person with a developed personality into the house. And so, despite the challenges, I think it was a much richer experience than having a newborn whom you can't even talk back and forth with!

One last thing, Mara: I just want to share with everyone that reading your essay made me weep. What a blessing and privilege it is to be your mother.


Note: If you'd like to read more about our adoption story, a few years ago, I posted three pieces at Psychology Today. Here's the link to the first one; it contains the links to the other two: "Adoption Diary, Part 1: Giving Birth in an Airport." Part 3 was written by Mara and is a moving and incredibly insightful essay about how the birth of her own daughter helped her make peace with her past.

Mara, soon after her arrival from Korea

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Our Gratitude List for February. What Are You Grateful for this Month?

Here are three things that Toni is grateful for this month, and three things that Mara is grateful for. Enjoy!

From Toni

—This has been a tough month for me healthwise—too many doctors' appointments and too many side-effects from medications, and so I'm grateful that February has only 28 days!

—I'm grateful for my mid-day nap. Last Saturday, it was only because I napped that I was able to visit in front of the house for two hours when old friends whom I hadn't seen for over five years came through town and stopped by to visit.

—I'm grateful that, so far, I seem to be able to dabble in watercolors after striking out at oils and acrylics. With watercolors, I can recline in my lounger and paint on paper that I've taped to a board on my lap. I can ruin a watercolor with one misplaced stroke of the brush, and so I throw away more pieces than I keep. This is helping me overcome my perfectionist streak and that's another reason I'm grateful for this particular medium.

From Mara

—I am grateful for my rice cooker. My daughter wanted to try and eat vegan for a week, so I joined in the experiment to support her. (If you know me, this is the ultimate test of my love for my daughter because I am very much a meat eater.) I am not a person who cooks very much so, for the most part, I spent the week eating rice and tofu. And I'm very grateful for the rice cooker that my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas because it was easy to create big, lovely, perfectly cooked batches of rice for us!

—I am very grateful for our sturdy old house. We have had more rain this year in California than in the last decade. A storm last weekend brought with it 5-7 inches of rainfall within a few hours. All over Facebook I saw posts from friends dealing with leaks and power outages. Our house is small and it's in need of some touch-ups. It only has one full bathroom (much to our daughter's frustration). But in the 13 years we've lived here, it has never leaked. So when it's storming outside, I feel safe and protected in our lovely home. Very grateful.

—I am grateful for our crazy cat. We adopted a cat last year. He's a ginger cat and my husband named him Demetrius. He's quite a character. Both of the doors to our backyard have glass panels, and he has figured out that if he throws himself with lots of drama up against them that gets our attention and we'll let him in. But about 50% of the time, once we've gotten up from wherever we were sitting and walked across the room to the door to let him in, he decides he doesn't want to come in anymore. When we open the door, he either runs away or he stands and looks at us as if we've interrupted him. This drives me crazy. 

But he's a constant reminder that I am not in charge of the universe. Demetrius is his own little being. He's not a stuffed animal. He doesn't live for just my pleasure. And he reminds me that I can get mad that I can't control him, or I can just let it go and wait for him to throw himself up against the door again so I can get up and let him in again. And he'll come in if he wants.

One of Toni's watercolors

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Helpless Is Not Hopeless

There have been many times in my life when I felt helpless and only a handful when I was hopeless. 

It has taken me most of my life to realize that helpless and hopeless are not the same thing—to realize that the thought that I feel helpless and actually being helpless are very different. For me, feeling helpless simply means I don't know how to help myself in that moment. Hopelessness is when you think you can't be helped, or you think you don't deserve to be helped.

And that is a very scary place to be.

People who have never suffered from depression or never had to struggle through adversity may not understand what I'm talking about. And if that's the case, I'm truly happy for you. Because my greatest wish for everyone is that they can live a life without feeling hopeless.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I have all the answers to suddenly make your life a perfect package with a bow on top, because I don't. I regularly find myself feeling helpless, especially when I don't know how to help myself go beyond something that is worrying me. However, I finally came to realize that when things start to get very difficult for me, the feelings of helplessness descend into hopelessness when I started to believe that things will never change—that I'd always feel a certain way or I'd always be in the same situation.

As we've already written about a lot in our blog, change is one of life's constants. If we can count on nothing else, we can count on change. And this realization is one of the things that has helped me stop a downward spiral toward despair when things feel bad. I know now that things will change. It might not always be a big change. But just as in walking, taking one step, even a small one, moves you forward. If you add up all your steps, you will realize you've traveled a far distance.

Lao Tzu said, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." I think about this often as I remind myself that I need to keep myself moving forward, physically and mentally. I remind myself that I can't predict the future, so I don't know what life will be like in a day or a week or a year. 

My dad, a Buddhist teacher, has been working with and counseling prisoners at Folsom Prison. These are men with violent pasts. They're not ever getting out of jail. I asked him, "How do these men not give up? What keeps them living?" He thought about my question for a moment and then replied, "They have lives. They don't have lives that you and I would recognize, but they do live. They have friends. They have a social structure. It's what they live for." Some of the prisoners he works with have learned to meditate. They have learned to find peace and feel joy within themselves. They continue moving forward in the ways they can.

My mother often says, "This is the life we've been given." I've truly taken that one to heart. My life is the life I have. I spent many years being angry that my life wasn't the way I thought it would be, or should be. I felt dissatisfied that I couldn't make my life be a certain way. And every time I found myself consumed by those thoughts, they would lead me to feeling hopeless.

But if I simply acknowledge the life I have and take steps toward living the life I want—then there is hope. And, yes, sometimes feelings of helplessness arise. But that's ok. It's ok to feel helpless. And it's okay to ask for help. And it's ok to allow yourself to be helped. And then, once again, you can start taking those steps forward. If I look back on the path my life has taken, there are so many things I'm grateful for. So many things I cherish that I never could have known were possible. 

Questions for my mom:

Have you ever had a time in your life when you felt hopeless?

I don't think you can get to be my age without feeling hopeless at one time or another. I think it happens to everyone. But it's rare for me these days. I liked what you said about helplessness and hopelessness being different. You also mentioned feelings of not deserving to be helped, and I'm really fortunate in that way because I've never felt that I don't deserve to be helped. I don't get down on myself in that way. But I can feel as if I "can't" be helped and that does lead to feeling hopeless. 

The reason I rarely feel hopeless anymore is that, over the years, I've changed my perspective on life. I don't expect life to be rosy all the time. I don't expect to always like everything that's happening in my personal life or in the world. I know this means that I've lowered my expectations, which some people may think is a negative approach, but, for me, it depends on the context. In the context of trying to diminish being susceptible to feelings of hopelessness, I think it's skillful to lower expectations—to know you're not always going to get what you want.

Do you recall what action you took to help yourself move forward past those negative thoughts?

In addition to that change of perspective, I have a couple of tools for dealing with feelings of hopelessness. One is that I treat hopelessness as an arising and passing mental state or feeling or emotion—whichever word you like. Like you said in your essay, change is universal, so I treat hopelessness as a temporary visitor to the mind. 

One of the ways I do this is to describe it to myself in a way that makes the feeling not a permanent part of who I am. So I may say, "Hopelessness is present today." I know that sounds awkward, but it's very different from saying, "I am a hopeless-filled person." When you dis-identify with the emotion in the way I've described, you lessen its hold of you and that makes it pass away more quickly. When you're able to see it as a temporary mental state, it's easier to wait it out. 

The second thing I do to keep feelings of hopelessness at bay comes from a Zen saying: keep a don't-know mind. Readers of my books will be very familiar with this idea! "Don't-Know Mind" has been tremendously freeing to me, including freeing me from hopelessness. After all, none of us knows what will happen in the future. We don't even know what tomorrow will bring, personally or globally. It could be an unexpected positive change.

So rather than worrying about the future, which can lead to hopelessness, my advice is to acknowledge when you're feeling hopeless, but to also recognize that you don't know how things will play out. Maybe something wonderful will happen! I know it's a cliché, but tomorrow is a new day. We have a friend who fell in love at 71. Neither he nor the woman—who's about the same age— thought there'd be another love for them in their lives. But there it is. You just never know.

But I do want to add something important. If someone who is reading this piece has been feeling hopeless for weeks on end—maybe 2-3 weeks straight—then they need to seek help. Reach out to a friend or get help from a therapist. Feeling hopeless for that long is a sign of clinical depression. A person can be depressed and not feel hopeless, but the two often go hand-in-hand. You should always keep an eye on how long a dark mood sticks around and, if it's a few weeks, then take some steps toward getting help for yourself. 

Do you think people with chronic illness are more likely to struggle with feelings of hopelessness?

I would say that all things being equal, yes. But to me, living with chronic illness in a country like the U.S., in most cases can't be compared to a parent who is living in a dirt-bottomed tent in a refugee camp with her three kids with hardly any food, no sanitation, and no idea how or when she's going to get out of there. Hopelessness in that situation is truly tragic.

Back to your question of whether people who are chronically ill are more likely to feel hopeless. If we are comparing healthy people to chronically ill people with all other factors generally being equal, then, yes, I do think that being chronically ill can lead to feelings of hopelessness. The reason is that people who are chronically ill (which includes chronic pain) feel powerless to do anything to improve their medical situation. 

Of course, there are healthy people who can feel powerless too. Maybe they're in a bad relationship or they're unhappy at work and have no alternatives. That's truly sad. For the most part, though, healthy people can find a way to change their situation because they have some control over it. By contrast, people who are chronically ill can't control what's happening to them physically and/or mentally, and they often feel there are no alternatives for them in life. Feeling that way can give rise to feeling hopeless. I know it happens because chronically ill people write to me about it all the time. 

Whether people are in good health or not, hopelessness is disheartening and it feels terrible. My heart goes out to anyone who's feeling that way right now and I hope our suggestions will help.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mara and Toni Observe Parents and Their Kids at Work Together

From Mara:

We’re having an EV charger installed at our house. My daughter has a Volt and we are having a special charger installed that allows her car to charge quickly.

As usual when I need to have something installed at our house, I go onto the web and find places to call for estimates. I found a place where the installation price seemed reasonable and they seemed knowledgeable, so they’re now installing the unit. It requires some piping to extend the electrical connection from our electrical box that is located on the side of our house to where the charging unit will be located near or driveway.

The electricians are a father and son. And if you look at them, they look like father and son—the son a younger version of the father. They're both very friendly. The father is clearly the owner of the business, but the son has been working with him a long time and probably will take over ownership when the father no longer wants to work. 

And as I sit here and listen to the pounding and noises of pipes being attached to the side of our house, I can hear them talking back and forth to each other. They’re not speaking English (maybe Russian?) but the tone struck me as familiar. They sound exactly like my daughter and I when we are trying to get stuff done—when there’s a problem to be solved and we both have input to give about how to solve it. They're not talking in a relaxed tone. There are sharp quips and static responses, but it’s not aggressive. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s the conversation of two people who know each other so well they don’t have to be polite and they don’t have to use complete sentences.

And although I have no idea what they’re saying, I can imagine it in my head, “Hand me that thing. Don’t do it that way. Stop pulling. Can you hold this?” And it makes me smile. I like the idea of kids working with their parents. I don’t know that my daughter and I could ever do it, but I love that there are people out there who can. I love that this father worked hard to create a business where he can work with his son. I love that the son appears to enjoy working with his father. It makes me happy that I found them.

From Toni:

I love Mara’s piece because I’ve had the same experience with a man who does work for us when we need it. His name is José. He’s a U.S. citizen, originally from Mexico. His English is pretty good although there are a lot of idioms he doesn’t understand (I always ask if he knows what I mean when I use one).

Whenever I hire him to do something (build a hand rail for our steps, rebuild a gate on the side of the house), he brings his sons with him—one is a pre-teen, two are teenagers. As they work together under José's guidance, they speak to each other in Spanish (even though his sons’ English is flawless). I’ve never seen José speak sharply to his sons. His tone is always kind and loving. 

What I love about these interactions is the same thing that Mara wrote about. But there’s something else I appreciate. Here is a family who came to this country to fulfill the American dream, and they’re working so hard. José has a full-time job during the week for a cement company, but he works these additional jobs on the weekends because the family needs the extra income. I don’t know when he takes time off. 

I also think about his sons. While most kids I know are hanging out with friends on the weekends or practicing sports or doing other fun things, José's kids are working. They’re handing him tools. They’re sawing wood as he carefully shows them how to do it correctly. And they never complain. Seeing the family working hard together to fulfill the American dream moves me deeply.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Change Is The Only Constant

My mom refers to it as impermanence, but I call it change. And both words are are accurate. Nothing is permanent—everything changes. Sometimes the changes are small and sometimes they are big.

Last week my daughter got her driver's license. For the past 8 months, there have been almost daily conversations about driving: learning to drive; thinking of what it will be like when she can drive on her own. And now it's happened. 

And for the most part I am relieved. The burden of driving her all over a city the size of Los Angeles was starting to wear me down. I was spending 3 or 4 hours a day in the car just getting her to and from school, dance, auditions, friends' houses, the store, restaurants...on and on. And it was causing us to fight. She felt stifled by the limits I imposed as to when or where I was willing to drive her places.

Suddenly this morning, I woke up and watched her get in her car and drive away. As I watched, there was almost a painful physical sensation, as if there had been another invisible umbilical cord that had held us together all these years and it was suddenly cut. But unlike in the hospital, when the nurse cut her umbilical cord because she no longer needed it to survive, this time she cut it...because she no longer needs it to survive.

She's growing up. She doesn't need to me to constantly watch over her. She doesn't need me to make sure she knows the proper directions and knows exactly where she's going. 

It's taken me almost 40 years to realize I don't like change. Change is scary for me. When I was younger, I didn't think about it. Change would happen and I would simply adjust. But as I've gotten older, I find myself fighting things that are unfamiliar. It's hard to learn new routines, and it's hard to make adjustments to habits that make my days familiar.

And now, if I find myself confronted with impending change, I immediately find myself worrying. I assume that changes will be for the worse, and I have to remind myself that all of the good things in my life were brought about by change. That change isn't always bad. Sometimes change is pleasant. At the end of the day, we just don't know. Sometimes things I thought were good changes, ended up being negative experiences, and sometimes things that were changes I hadn't wanted ended up being blessings in disguise. 

My mom refers to her state of sickness as her "baseline." I've sort of adopted the idea of a baseline as the place where I am able to balance the good and the bad, the happiness and the sadness. Sometimes there are days where I am thrown off my baseline because I am feeling particularly sad. And there are other days where I am feeling excited and happy. 

When I find myself feeling out of sorts, if I take a minute to re-center myself and think about what I'm doing, I can usually find my baseline again. I can find that place within me where I can see that most changes, whether they feel good or feel bad, are not actually movement higher or lower, up or down, but more parallel. I can see that most change doesn't mean things get "better" or "worse." They just shift around.

So, as I sit here with a slightly heavy heart, I am reminding myself that my sadness about my daughter being able to drive, being able to have independence, is joyful for her, which brings joy to me. And the changes that feel painful to me because she is more independent are necessary for her on her road to becoming an adult.

I can't always stop myself from wishing I could stop change from happening. But I know I can't stop it. Nothing can stay the same. Nothing should stay the same. 


Here's my interview with my mom on this topic:

You often write about impermanence. Would you say this is a concept that became more important to you after you became ill?

I don't know whether it became more important, but it certainly became more evident. I realized that my life and the world was all about change, change, change—which is the name of the chapter on impermanence in one of my books. Impermanence is a universal law. It doesn't just come from Buddhism. It's recognized by all religions and by science too. 

But change can be wrenching. Your essay talks about that. It certainly was wrenching for me when I got sick and had to give up a profession I thought I'd be in for another 20 years. Perhaps because it's a universal experience, the Buddha focused on change a lot—how we'll all grow old, and we'll all experience illness, and we'll all be separated from those we love. 

Many people think about separation as referring to death, but it can apply to any separation. For me, it applied when you and Jamal [Mara's brother] moved out of the house. That separation was really painful. You talked about Malia now driving on her own, and I thought that, as much as it was a burden for you to have to drive her everywhere, it did put you next to each other in the car. And that physical closeness nourishes a relationship. So suddenly you're not in the car with her, so I see that as a kind of separation that may not be easy for you—and maybe not for her either. 

When I write about impermanence, I always focus on what I refer to as its corollaries: uncertainly and unpredictability. Because if change is ever present, then we can't be sure what's going to happen next. Uncertainty and unpredictability are uncomfortable, that's for sure. No wonder we don't like change. Imagine if we could control what's going to happen next, whether it be in our personal lives or globally—it would be easy to be content. But that's not the way life is. So one of the things that helps me is to work on making peace with impermanence and the fact that we control so little. 

Are there specific Buddhist practices you can share that help with coping with change?

My books are full of practices. I write about impermanence and unpredictability a lot. So I'm going to share something I've never shared before. This is something called the five remembrances. It comes from the Buddha's list of what we're all going to experience in life at some point, like it or not. A lot of Buddhists recite these remembrances daily. I offer it here, knowing that it might not suit everyone. If it isn't right for you, that's fine. 

So here are the five remembrances:
  • I am of the nature to grow old. 
  • I am of the nature to have ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. 
  • All that I cherish and everyone I love will change. I cannot escape being separated from them. 
  • My actions are my only belongings.

Whew. Talk about tough love! But don't take the Buddha's word for it. If you think about it, all of these are true. The first four are about change. They describe four experiences that are a natural part of the life cycle. This is why it helps to make peace with them. 

I'm sharing them because I've been finding them helpful. Here's how I use them. I don't automatically recite them every day, but if something related to one of them pops into my mind (for example, a concern about growing old or fear about death), I immediately stop whatever I'm doing, and I recite the five remembrances silently to myself. 

This is definitely having a positive affect on me. At first, reciting them felt strange to me—even shocking at times—but gradually, it's helped me to regard growing old, being ill, dying, and being separated from those I love as a normal part of the life cycle and that's taking the fear of them away. That's why I'm sharing it—in case others find it helpful.

Sometimes after people experience a big change in their lives, they feel regret. Do you have any advice for people who find themselves stuck with regretful thoughts?

There are two kinds of regret. First, we can regret the paths we didn't follow, the dreams we didn't pursue. With those, I suggest saying to yourself something like: "Everyone experiences this kind of regret. Everyone has dreams and plans they wish had work out. I may be disappointed but I'm going to move on with the life I have right now, today."

Second, there's regret that arises when we do something that might have hurt someone or even made ourselves feel bad. That kind of regret feels really bad. In my view, when something feels really bad—like guilt, for example—it rarely serves a useful purpose. Here, though I'd say that this kind of regret does serve one useful purpose: you may be able to learn from it. 

Here's how I suggest handling it. First, don't blame yourself—forgive yourself for what you did. If you don't forgive yourself, it's hard to move forward. Next, see if you can learn from whatever you're regretting by investigating it—thinking about it. Was it something you said? Or some unkind thought? When I talk about action I'm including thoughts, speech, and actual behavior. So, it could just be a thought—for example, rushing to judgment about someone. I used to do that a lot. 

Usually this kind of regret arises after you've acted out of greed—you want something and you don't care who you hurt to get it—or out of anger or ill-will towards someone. So look for those things. Were you being greedy or harboring ill-will for someone else? 

Once you can identify what you did that's making you feel regret, resolve not to do it again. (Remember that fifth remembrance: your actions are your only belongings.) And if you find yourself doing it again, investigate what happened, and renew your resolve.

Bottom line: everyone has regrets. But if you get stuck on them, you're living in the past. For me, life is too short to do that. So I would say, forgive yourself—why not? You've said something unskillful, or you snapped at someone, or you didn't spend enough time with someone—just forgive yourself. Then resolve not to engage in that behavior again.

Having done that, forget about it. Move on. You can't control the thoughts that pop into your mind. So, if you feel regret—you feel regret. Don't make it worse by dwelling on it and assigning blame. Acknowledge it and move on.  One thing I feel certain of: living in the past is the road to bitterness and anger, not the road to happiness.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Penny For Your Thoughts

I found a penny today while I was jogging. I was breathless and tired, but I stopped and picked it up and clutched it in my hand for the rest of my workout. Holding small items like that in my hands while I’m exercising is not something I particularly enjoy. This is because my hands get sweaty and it’s hard for me to not drop things like my phone. And I don’t like stopping when I’m jogging because when I stop my momentum, it’s very hard for me to get started again. But I stop for pennies. 

I haven’t always picked up “lucky pennies.” There have been years when I just ignored them. But I have a friend who believes that money she finds are gifts from her mother in heaven. She often posts on social media about how she knows her mom was sending her love that day because she found a penny. So for a long time this idea about pennies was always floating in the back of my mind. I would see them in the street and think of my friend, but I rarely picked them up.

Last year I went through a very tough time. I take medication for both my depression and anxiety, and all the medications needed to be adjusted. Combine that with trying to raise a teenage daughter without all of us losing our minds, and it made for an emotionally unbalanced time. During my darkest moments, I started noticing money on the streets. A dime. A nickel. A penny. Two pennies. I wasn’t convinced that it meant anything, but at some point I realized I didn’t need to be convinced. I just wanted to be open to the possibility that maybe the universe was trying to send me love, hope...anything. 

So I started picking them up. 

One day I texted my friend a picture of a bright shiny new penny I found and told her I was thinking of her. She replied, “Put it in your bra over your left boob.” I replied, “That’s a very strange suggestion” and she wrote back, saying, “It’s the closest to your heart and that’s the closest to heaven.”

I’m still not doing that because my brain can’t reconcile the idea of jogging with pennies in my bra. But I do clutch them in my hands for the duration of my runs. It might be for a block; it might be for several miles. But I do it. And having the pennies in my hands reminds me to be grateful. It reminds me to be present. It reminds me that there might be something bigger out there in the universe. 

About a month ago, I was on a long walk. I was debating about whether or not I felt like it was the right time to start looking for a job. My daughter is older and much more independent, so my main role as her caretaker and driver is no longer taking up as much of my time. But I wasn’t sure I was mentally ready to get a job. I’d been having such a rough time. And, after 16 years of not working in traditional settings, I was feeling insecure about whether or not I could even do a job, let alone figure out how to get someone to hire me. I was feeling confused and frustrated. 

At some point during that walk, while I was giving myself a little pep talk about not letting my insecurities and anxiety stop me from trying, I realized that I might try and not succeed, but that not trying at all would be worse. And at that very moment I saw a dollar bill on the sidewalk right in front of me. It was folded up into a little square and laying in front of me as if someone had put it there for me to find. Again, I’m not particularly superstitious, but I truly felt in that moment that it was a message encouraging me to follow the positive thoughts I was having. Perhaps the universe was telling me that this was the path I needed to follow. 

Within a month I found a job. 

Today the penny I found was in a little puddle of water from the recent rain. It was old and corroded, its surface barely recognizable. But I instantly felt love with that old penny. No matter what it had endured, it had survived to provide me a little hope this morning. 

Thank you penny. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"Sick Upon Sick": Handling Sickness When You're Already Chronically Ill

Early on in our lives, we learn that being sick is no fun. When we're kids, being sick feels bad and it means we don't get to play or go to a birthday party. When we get a bit older, being sick becomes even more burdensome because it means we can't get our homework done or we have to miss work. But for me, it wasn't until I became a parent that being sick took on even greater significance.

As the mother of an infant, being sick meant that I wasn't sure I would be able to take care of my daughter. And that terrified me. I was already sleep deprived and feeling lost as to how I was supposed take care of a little human life. The addition of a fever or an infection made me realize that my own health felt like a secondary concern compared to what my other responsibilities were. I couldn't not feed my daughter just because I had a fever. She still needed me to change her diaper or put on her jacket.

And during periods of severe depression, the worry about how my own mental illness was affecting my daughter compounded the confusion, guilt, and anxiety I had always felt. 

For my mother, getting an additional illness on top of her chronic illness is hard to cope with. She calls it, "sick upon sick." I often wondered, how a person who already feels sick all the time feels when they are more sick. 

For people who are generally healthy, getting something like a cold can be an annoyance. But if you are already so sick that you can't leave your house, how does the effect of a cold or a fever impact you? 

Here are some questions I asked my mom about this.

Because of how limited you already are, do you worry about your current illness getting worse, or getting a new illness, or becoming injured?

It's not that I sit around and worry every day that something else will happen. But if you ask me and I think about it, I have to say that I do worry. Not so much about my original illness getting worse because it's been almost 16 years and so I feel as if it's settled into what it's going to be. But I do worry about the last two things you mentioned. 

And I did in fact get a serious additional illness, on top of the original one—breast cancer. I'd been chronically ill for 13 years when I was diagnosed and it's become an ongoing additional health issue for me. The medications I've been given to prevent a re-occurrence have side effects that I have a lot of trouble with, and we think it may be because of my preexisting illness. In fact, one of the side-effects is that the medication exacerbates the symptoms of that illness. So yeah, it's been hard.

I also worry that something will happen and I'll have to be hospitalized. Part of my concern about that comes from reading other people's experiences about how doctors and other hospital staff seem not to understand that a person can be very sick but look fine. So I have a plan that if I'm ever hospitalized, I'll have the doctors get in touch with my primary care doctor so that he can explain my illness and how it might impact or be impacted by various treatments. Actually, this is what my primary doctor told me to do since many people in the medical profession don't understand Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (now called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or ME/CFS).

When I got breast cancer, the doctors and medical staff were fantastic except for one thing. Only one of them acted as if my chronic illness was relevant. It was the anesthesiologist, and he asked me a bunch of questions about it but only because he happened to know someone who has ME/CFS.

At some point you broke your ankle. How did you handle that?

Ah, yes, that was my experience with an injury being a kind of "sick upon sick." I write about it in my first book, How to Be Sick. My husband was out of town, so I was on my own. If I hadn't already been sick, I would have gone to the doctor right away. Instead, after I tripped down the step and knew something was terribly wrong with my ankle, I crawled to my bed, pulled my laptop over, and looked on the internet. It said that if I couldn't walk on it the next day it was probably broken. So I waited and spent the day crawling everywhere I needed to go.

When I couldn't walk on it the next morning, I called a friend. He took me to my doctor who had me get an x-ray and then put a cast on it. The healing was a lengthy process. My doctor arranged for a physical therapist to come to the house for several weeks. He also wanted me to see an orthopedist so I had to do that. He ordered his own set of x-rays and then put on a different kind of cast. 

The whole experience was way outside the zone of what I'm comfortably able to do, given my chronic illness. So although it was only a broken ankle, it exacerbated the ME/CFS for weeks. So yeah, that was an injury that made my chronic illness worse because it forced me to be more active than I'm able to be. 

What's the worst thing about being "sick upon sick"?

When I think of "sick upon sick," I tend to think about a cold or the flu, not something like breast cancer. I'll answer your question based on those first two—what I call acute illnesses. The worst thing about getting an acute illness is the effect it has on my sleep. The single most important thing that determines how I'm going to feel on any given day is how well I slept the night before. I can sleep well and still feel lousy, but if I sleep poorly, I always have a rough day ahead of me. When I'm sick upon sick, like most people, I don't sleep well. For someone who's otherwise healthy, it's no big deal. But for me, it makes my ongoing illness worse.

A close second to sleep is the emotional impact. It's hard enough feeling sick all the time, so having an acute illness is like a second blow. I have to remind myself to use the practices I teach other people—that everything is impermanent and will pass, like the a rain storm; that I still have blessings to count; that life always has it's ups and downs and this is simply one of those downs. Those kind of things.

Oh, there's one other thing and that's that often the medications I'm given for something acute can exacerbate the ME/CFS. That's tough. For example, I suffer from chronic bladder infections. When they come on, it's terribly painful until the antibiotics start to work. I do have a prescribed pain medication I can take, but it makes my chronic illness much worse for some reason. So there's always this dilemma that medications that help with an acute illness may make my chronic illness worse.

What advice would you give people who have become "sick upon sick"? 

I would advise them to remember that healthy people come down with colds and the flu too. It's not reasonable to expect that because you already have a chronic illness, you won't get something on top of it. So, don't think of yourself as having been singled out for bad treatment in life. Illness—and injuries too—are a natural part of the human life cycle. So, recognize that and don't blame yourself for what's happened.

I'd also say that if you get an acute illness, pamper yourself. The law of impermanence will be your friend here, because the acute illness will go away. In the meantime be as nice to yourself as you can.

Have you ever worried that an acute illness will turn into a chronic one? 

I have but, you know, some people who are healthy have told me that they worry about that too. When an acute illness makes my chronic illness worse, I do sometimes worry that I won't get back to what I call my baseline; but I always have. Even though that baseline isn't very high, it's still my baseline. It's what I've come to know and accept.

Is there anything positive you can think of about being "sick upon sick"?

It's hard to think of positive things. There is this crazy positive thing that some doctors have mentioned. We think my chronic illness is caused by an immune system dysfunction of some kind—that my immune system is upregulated, meaning that it's overactive. And so, there's always this hope that some kind of traumatic event to my health could reset my immune system—like restarting a computer. Unfortunately, doctors don't know how to do that with the immune system. My doctor and I joke about it sometimes, but we're actually serious. We even shared that both of us were hoping that maybe the radiation I got for the breast cancer would re-set my immune system. It didn't. But I guess this shows that there's a potential positive aspect to everything.

When you've recovered from an acute illness do you ever think, "Wow, I'm not as sick as I could be"? That would be a positive.

I guess that does happen. It certainly happened with the breast cancer. It took me nine months to recover from the six weeks of radiation treatment. It gave me extra fatigue to the point where I was having trouble functioning. So when that extra fatigue cleared up, I did feel relieved not to be as sick as I could be—to be more like my "old sick self" as I sometimes call it.

This doesn't directly relate to your question about an acute illness, but I do hear from people who say that they're glad they became chronically ill because it forced them to live a more relaxed and slow lifestyle. But I hear from just as many people who feel trapped and miserable due to pain and illness. It's nice to know, though, that there are some people who have found positives in it.

I tend to say to myself, "This isn't what I chose and I wish I weren't sick, but I'm going to make the best of it because this is the life I have."

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Some of Our Favorite Movies...and Why We Love Them

It's award's season time. Many people probably don't think about all the different awards shows, other than the Oscar's. However, because I live in LA, award's season is a big deal. There's the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, People's Choice Awards, MTV Movie Awards, Kids Choice Awards, Emmy's, Independent Film Awards, and on and on.

So my mom and I thought it would be fun to list out some of our favorite movies. We'd love to hear what your favorites are!

Mara's Favorite Movies:

Hidden FiguresGreat movie. Great story. Great acting. Octavia Spencer is one of my favorites. Cannot recommend it highly enough. So inspiring.

Schindler’s ListThe acting, direction, and story are exquisite. This movie haunts me. I was absolutely obsessed with Ralph Fiennes’ character even though he gave me nightmares. This is one of the few movies that makes me cry every time I watch it.

Sense and SensibilityI’m a Jane Austen fan, and an Emma Thompson fan. And a Hugh Grant fan. And a Kate Winslet fan. And an Alan Rickman fan. And Ang Lee makes every frame of this movie look like a painting. It’s stunning. 

Zero Dark ThirtyThe acting and the story are riveting. It’s smart and thought provoking.

The DepartedI love the acting in this movie. Vera Farmiga, Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg are all fantastic.

The GodfatherClassic. I’ve seen this movie a hundred times. 

Raiders of the Lost ArkIt doesn’t get better than a young Harrison Ford.

Gosford ParkNot really sure why I’m so drawn to this movie, but I love it. 

A Few Good MenAaron Sorkin at his best. My favorite Tom Cruise movie.

Sleepless In Seattle I am not a huge fan of romantic comedies. I like them, but they rarely stick with me for long. However, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are so charming in this film and Nora Ephron's direction make this my top feel-good movie.

Runners up: Sliding Doors [Note from Toni: I love this little-known movie too!], Elizabeth, Love Actually, Star Wars, Pretty Woman, Field of Dreams, Broadcast News, The Bourne Identity, 48 Hours, Zodiac, Bend it Like Beckham, Apollo 13.

Toni’s Favorite movies:

Remains of the DayAlmost all of the Merchant-Ivory movies are favorites of mine, but this one is flawless. [Note from Mara: oh I love this one too!]

Sense and SensibilityBecause of what Mara said. (I wrote my list before I saw Mara’s so it’s nice to see we have several favorites in common. Some of our joint favorites surprised me, including the next one.)

The DepartedMy favorite Scorsese film. I agree with Mara that the acting is terrific.

Christopher Guest’s mockumenariesMy favorite is Best in Show, but I watch the others whenever they come around on cable. 

Gosford ParkThe predecessor to Downton Abbey. Need I say more? I guess I will because I see it’s on Mara’s list too. Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay and then went on to create and write every episode of Downton Abbey. 

Gosford Park has it all. It’s a murder mystery; it's a comedy of British manners with a hilarious bungling detective thrown in; and director Robert Altman cast just about every famous British actor he could find. (Judi Dench must have had a prior commitment.) 

One more thing (I could go on and on about this movie). It's final line, spoken by Maggie Smith's "Lady's Maid" has become a kind of "checking in" mantra for me when I'm about to do or say something that I think is justified but may make matters worse for someone. I ask myself, "What purpose would it possibly serve?" Many thanks to Julian Fellowes for writing that line.

The Painted Veil—based on Somerset Maugham’s novel. There have been many movie versions of his books over the years. This one is special because of its setting and its acting. It was filmed in a lush but unforgiving remote area of China and stars Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Liev Schreiber. I’ve watched this movie many times. I find it mesmerizing.

Juno—I know this is a silly movie to have on my favorite's list, but J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are hilarious as Juno's dad and stepmom, and what Juno writes on a scrap of paper and then tapes to Jennifer Garner’s front door gets me every time.

FargoOne reason: Frances McDormand.

Cast Away—I think this is an underrated film. Tom Hanks does a spectacular job of being centerscreen for the entire movie. Even more, it’s a moving personal story. The final scene still haunts me.

Radio DaysI love Woody Allen movies, even the bad ones (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Whatever, Hollywood Ending—to name just three). And I love many of them that the critics panned (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, To Rome with Love). I picked Radio Days as my favorite because it's rich in character development, and because Allen filmed it with a purposeful nostalgia that captivates me, and because one of the storylines is that of my immigrant parents.

French KissMy favorite romantic comedy. It stars Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. In my opinion, Meg Ryan was the best comic actor in the movies for many years. I also loved her in When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Prelude to a Kiss, and You’ve Got Mail. Unfortunately, French Kiss was largely overlooked. If you get the opportunity to see it, I hope you will.

This was fun, Mara. Thanks for the idea. I hope to pick up a few new movies to watch from the comments!