Grumpy Old Man

My wife recently made the observation, with both honesty and concern, that I was becoming a grump.

With both reticence and reflection, I had to agree that she was 100% correct.

The evidence was undeniable.  There are a growing number of things which I just find intolerable.

First and foremost is that Donald Trump continues to be President of the United States no matter how often I wake up and hope that I’ve just been having a bad dream.  Sure, there is some satisfaction in watching him careen about from crisis to crisis, constantly showing off his incompetence and ignorance.  But watching the horrifying damage he is causing to America’s reputation, his willful destruction of our environment, and his lack of concern for justice and human rights is almost as appalling as the fact that 30% of Americans still think he’s doing a good job, or at least are willing to “give him a chance.”  The hypocrisy of his backers grates on me remembering that this same 30% along with 100% of Congressional Republicans never gave President Obama a moment of support even as he advanced initiatives that would improve the lives of all Americans.

I mean, that should be enough to justify four years of grumpiness.  It is epic and bigly, and I have absolutely no control over it.  So, I think that carrying around that angst has made me hyper sensitive to little things, like noise.

I always thought I lived on a quiet street until I retired and was home more hours of the day.  Now it seems as though there is a mower or a blower or a chain saw in operation near my house (actually as I am writing, a chain saw just fired up somewhere nearby) from 7:30 AM on.  I appreciate that people are keeping their houses and yards in good shape, I really do, but couldn’t we have some established “quiet hours” in the middle of the day when I like to take my nap?  Is that really too much to ask?

And when did it become OK to carry on conversations in public places with your phone set on “speaker”?  It seems that everywhere I go now, I run into people on their phones and have to listen to both sides of the conversation when I’d prefer not to hear either of them.  I was taking my walk around a local lake and had to push myself hard to get past a lady who was negotiating with her bank, phone set on “speaker”,  and I could hear her getting put on hold and bounced from person to person and telling and re-telling the story of her loan problems.  I got anxious just listening to someone else getting the runaround!

I even feel my grouch level rising when I know someone with whom I am having a conversation has put me on speaker so that he or she can walk around the house or dust or do the dishes or god knows what.  Can’t we stop a moment and actually talk to one another without feeling a need to multi-task?

I love my smartphone.  I don’t want anyone to take it away from me.  But I don’t want to listen to your conversations.  I certainly don’t want to listen to your music (headphones, please!), and if you want to dust, or do the dishes rather than talk to me, call me back when you have time, for god’s sake.

See what I mean?  Grouchy.

It can even come down to a scrubbing sponge, wet and soapy and full of germs, left in the bottom of the kitchen sink.  I’m not a germaphobe, and I can’t even pinpoint when I started to obsess over this, but when I do the dishes, I’ve trained myself to always wring out the sponge and put it in a spot to dry.  So when I find it sitting, soggy and gross in the bottom of the sink, there’s only one other person who could have left it there.  We no longer have the kids at home to blame things on, and I think we both really miss that.

I tried to approach it in a lighthearted way since it was one of those issues that I can recognize as being both petty but increasingly critical at the same time.  “Hey,” I told her, “you know, it’s the weirdest thing, for some reason I’ve developed this sponge obsession” which I went on to describe to her.  You know, subtle, joking, not really a big deal.  She just looked at me blankly.  “I never do that,” she claimed.  “Oh, ha ha!  Guess it’s just me!”  because, you know, it’s petty, inconsequential.  So now, I’ve begun snapping photos of every time it happens, every time she leaves the damn sponge behind.  Clearly, I need to come with evidence next time.

See what I mean?  A Class-A grump.

I’m not actually taking pictures of every time she leaves the sponge in the sink.  I’d like to continue to stay married.  In truth, the root of my grumpiness is me.  Sure, I need to read the news less and take whatever other medicine is available to combat the Trump-virus in my brain.  But I came to realize as we talked about my moodiness that most of my unhappiness comes from the nagging anxiety that comes with being retired and a little unsure if I am still relevant in some way.  It comes from being unhappy that I can’t lose the same 10 pounds that all Americans are trying to lose, no matter how many failed attempts that I make. It comes from every new ache, pain, and wrinkle that announces my advancing age.  It comes from every time I look about me and see a project I haven’t finished or the list of projects that I haven’t even had the energy to begin.

But don’t cry for me, Argentina.  I have discovered one powerfully curative potion.  Within the past week, on a trip to visit my niece in Colorado Springs, in the space of 4 days, I went zip lining over beautiful Colorado canyons, something I’d been afraid to try on other occasions AND spent two glorious hours roaring down the Arkansas River through Class III and IV rapids, feeling an utter sense of calm and a pure rush of adrenaline coursing through me at the same time.

When I got home, suddenly everything seemed possible again.  I came home younger than when I left, ready to let the little stuff go.  Ready to look for the next chance to push the limits for myself.  Turns out that that may be the cure-for-what-ails-you.

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Panic Attack–A Bridge (Way) Too Far

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Ok.  Top 5 things I am afraid of:

5.  Dying as a result of mere inattention either by me or some other idiot.

4.  Dying while trying to fix my own plumbing or electrical problem.

3.  Dying at the hands of a crazed, spandex-clad bicyclist.

2.  Dying slowly of some kind of progressive, degenerative disease.

1.  Having to drive my car over a bridge.

Clearly from the list above, mortality is on my mind, as I imagine it is for most members of the over-60 club. The good news is, when you join the junior geriatric set, you get an increasing number of discounts. The bad news–you don’t get to enjoy them for all that long.

Death, however, in all its bizarre and mundane forms, still seems very abstract to me. I do not worry that I am going to die—that much is certain. However, how I go about dying is of much greater concern to me.

The difference between fears 2-5 and #1 is that the former are all somewhat existential concerns that don’t cause fierce heart palpitations, hyperventilation, and a desire to leap out of my car when I am faced by them.

I used to love to talk with my students about their various phobias. I was surprised to find out how many were still living with what we think of as child-like, boogieman fears. It was a revelation when one girl offered that as she prepared for going to bed, she would turn off the room light and leap into bed from the spot of the light switch. For years, when the subject of fear would come up in class I would share that story and always find others who still, even as 17 and 18-year-olds, practiced the same behavior.

I don’t remember many of the fears I had as a youngster or an adolescent. However, I do remember when reading the novel The Exorcist late into the night, I reached a point where I simply could not turn another page. I put the book down, and sincerely prayed that none of the evil spirits that I was convinced were now swirling about me would invade my body and turn me into a head-spinning, projectile-vomiting creature.

And, of course, I was fearful of having my adolescent heart crushed by someone like Theresa, a girl that I met when I was a sophomore and developed a huge crush on. We worked together on a project and I convinced myself that I was somewhere in her league—convinced myself so much that I finagled an invitation to her house on or about Valentine’s Day and gave her a gaudy, Hallmark V-day card. I met her mom, and she seemed happy that Theresa was “dating” a “nice boy.” Theresa traded on that impression to get her mom to let her to go to a dance with me. I was over the moon about the whole thing and still wondering at my luck as we entered the gym and she quickly informed me that she hoped it was OK with me if we didn’t stick together for the whole dance, and before long, she disappeared. She was kind enough to make sure she got back with me for the final slow dance and she managed somehow to hold me closely enough that it almost made up for the whole, slow burn of humiliation that I had felt during the night.

But these are all fears that I would think of as being common human experiences, just as I think we all worry about the onset and manner of our eventual deaths. It wasn’t until I was fully adult that I discovered the white-knuckled, heart-pounding, breath-taking fear that came on me unexpectedly when I was doing something as simple as driving over a bridge.

I don’t exactly remember when I discovered that I had gephyrophobia –yes, it actually has a name. For me, it is truly the mother of all completely irrational fears. I had a hint of it the first time I drove up to Carmel and my new bride and I took the scenic Hwy 1. I could not relax once in that three-hour stretch as I hugged the north-bound lane and hoped to God I wasn’t about to plunge over the all-too-close cliffs and down to the rocks and ocean below.

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I do remember that it became an issue for me when we were headed home from a trip to the Napa/Sonoma area. Heading back toward Oakland, I was totally unprepared for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which as I approached, began to look like a piece of ribbon about six inches wide. As the bridge shrunk in size it also took on the appearance of a huge roller coaster ride that I had not signed up for. Suddenly, I couldn’t grip the steering wheel hard enough, as if at any moment some (Exorcist-like) force would make me veer off, break through all of the guardrails and send us to our deaths. I tried to find a lane that felt comfortable, crossing back and forth without consulting my mirror or using my signals. I did not give a flying fuck about anyone behind me. I was in full-blown panic mode and was trying to find any comfortable space where I could survive the five minutes it was going to take me to get across this span.

Of course, a fear like this feeds upon itself. I started to study maps of our driving trips and if I spotted a bridge crossing, I’d worry about it for days. Often the bridge would be so short and flat that I’d be over it before I would even notice but one successful crossing did not breed confidence. Once when I was at a conference in Palo Alto, I wanted to go over to Oakland to visit with my son who was living there at the time. To get there, I would have to cross the Dumbarton Bridge or take a very circuitous route through San Jose. I actually looked up the bridge using Google images to find a picture of this beast and see if it looked passable. I made it, back and forth, but not without a lot of concentration and deep-breathing exercises.

This means there are a lot of cities I will never live in. San Francisco, New York, and Seattle come to mind right away. We are currently planning a trip to the Adirondacks and there is just so much water there. I don’t even want to look at a map and start thinking about it.

I’ve come to realize that it is bigger than just bridges. I don’t like to be near the edge of the abyss. If I can see a dramatic drop-off, I start to panic. I don’t like mountain driving, or even hiking on a narrow trail with a steep drop. Strangely, I have gone para-sailing without incident and stared over the edge of the observation deck of the Empire State Building without any problem. I suspect that I could do a parachute jump although I have not yet taken that one on.

There is something about being near the edge though, that continues to haunt me. Maybe that drop-off is somehow metaphorically connected in my mind to the Abyss with a capital “A”—the fear of death that permeates the other four of my top five fears.

Or maybe I just hate bridges and will assiduously continue to avoid them at all costs.

 

 

 

 

“Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In”

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Note:  Thanks to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition for the title (you have to go way back to know that one!)

 

Of course I’m depressed. I mean, who wouldn’t be. Ebola, climate change, Supreme Court decisions, police injustice, terrible things going on in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. There are days that I have to avoid the front section of the newspaper altogether. I withdraw to the sports section where I can be comforted by the complete meaninglessness of whether or not the Sixers will win more than one game this year, or court the anxiety of my Chargers trying to stagger, once again, into the playoffs, and ponder if the Padres are about to make yet another horrible trade.

On my worst days, I figure that anyone who is not depressed is just not paying attention.

And this is one aspect of me that drives my wife just a little crazy. After all, I don’t actually have Ebola. Like most Americans, I have little say over the direction of the country, and people much smarter than me have failed miserably to guide events in the Middle East. No one at the Padres or Chargers seems much interested in my advice as sound as it might be.

Instead, right at this very moment, I’m writing as I sit out on my deck, drinking a beer, and enjoying a lovely, San Diego sunset. I am in reasonably good health. I’m retired which means I don’t have to do anything on a given day, although I do enjoy substitute teaching occasionally, attending adult school classes, hiking, taking long walks, reading, writing, doing yoga, swimming, traveling, and gardening.

In other words, from the outside, it would seem that I have no good reason to be depressed. I have no good reason to be anxious.

And yet, I do get anxious. I still slip into depressive periods. I start to see every setback as a personal failure. The car breaks down and in my mind, it spirals into a catastrophe. I make a simple mistake on a project and I curse myself as an “idiot.” I get disoriented in an airport, and I start to panic. How come everyone else knows where they are going? I am a sponge for other people’s sadness and for the troubles I see in the world. I get a headache, I worry about brain tumors.

I’ve been seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety for over ten years now. I was encouraged to seek out help because I kept slipping into depressive episodes as I became overwhelmed with work (an almost constant condition for a teacher), and because I noticed how I increasingly reacted to everything and everyone negatively, sarcastically. I resisted for quite a few years, but now I take medication to even out the highs and the lows. The sessions were frequent at the beginning. Now, I go in every couple of months, just to check in, just to make sure that I’m still moving in a positive direction.

It’s not something that I share lightly, but also something I’m not afraid to share especially with my former students who from time to time have in the past, and still today, seek me out in times of distress.

I came to know early on in my teaching experience, just now little I knew about the lives of my students as I interacted with them for my 54 minutes per day. If I saw a kid obviously in distress, I would take him aside and offer support and give him a chance to talk. Some students welcomed the attention. An equal number resented the intrusion.

Others were in pain so close to the surface, that the slightest interaction was enough to cause them to open up. One girl came in after school, ostensibly to talk about a problem with writing, and promptly dissolved into tears. What she really needed was to talk to someone about her mother who was creating chaos in her life. I once teased a young woman about the baseball cap she was wearing, whereupon she burst into tears. I took her aside and we spent the next two hours (and a good chunk of the following year) talking about the very painful break-up she was experiencing with her first boyfriend.

Just last week, helping a former student finish her college essays, we ended up talking about the pressure she was feeling from her parents, how she often felt isolated, how she felt guilty about moments of enjoyment, about how she felt somehow she didn’t deserve to be happy.

All three of these students were young, vibrant, bright, engaged young women. They were all high achievers who expected much of themselves. All three had a very hard time seeing beyond their present crisis or beyond their present way of thinking about it.

Somewhere in my conversations with all of them, I brought up my experience with therapy, with having to seek out some support, with how I came to realize that I needed professional help. Invariably, my students are surprised by this because the impression I give to my students when I am in front of a classroom, is that I am a positive, happy, high-energy person. They come to assume that I am like that all the time. What they didn’t know was that persona would pretty much collapse after 6th period on any given day.

Like these three young women, before therapy, I didn’t have strategies to cope with outside forces that I couldn’t control. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t quickly bounce back from the debilitating pain of loss. I often felt like a fraud and was incapable of accepting a compliment gracefully.

The most startling part of entering therapy was discovering how normal I was. I still remember in the first few sessions, as I started to describe the thoughts that plagued me, as I unburdened myself of all of the stuff I had been carrying around with me for so long, how utterly unimpressed my therapist was. “Yeah.” he responded. “You have a number of what we call “cognitive distortions” which is just a fancy way of saying that over time, you’ve come to distort the way you look at yourself and the world around you. You’re not an idiot, every setback is not a crisis, lots of people get lost in airports, and you probably don’t have a brain tumor.”

Then he handed me a list of “Common Cognitive Distortions”. There were 15 of them. They had neat little labels. The situations I had described fit nicely into 5 or 6 of the categories and I could see hints of how I perceived the world in 4 or 5 more.

I felt a little deflated. I thought I had really serious issues and here they were all boiled down into nice little boxes, all described on a single sheet of paper. I wasn’t anguished after all; I was mundane.

That last sentence is an example of a cognitive distortion. I just can’t remember which one right now.

Of course, my concerns and the pain I felt were real. The work it took to begin to recognize and respond to years of perceiving myself negatively was hard, and I have had to learn some lessons over and over again. The ruts in my ways of thinking are deep and even now, I fall back into them. That’s why the check-ups continue to this day.

I certainly do not share all of this with my students who are in distress. What I mostly do is listen to their concerns, share similar experiences that I have had, and most especially make sure there is help and support available to them. If I feel they might need the help of a professional, I try to demystify that experience for them. It’s amazing how comforted they seem to feel to know that a trusted adult has also struggled, has sought out professional help, is still working on personal issues that are not always all that different from their own.

If anything, I try to help them to feel normal again, to feel mundane—but in a good way.

 

 

 

“So, Hypochondriacally Speaking…”

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I’m not a hypochondriac.  At least, I don’t think so.

But at 61, I have several chronic conditions (TMJ, upper neck and back pain, anxiety) and then other issues that make guest appearances from time to time (vertigo, extra heart beats, random muscle pain and spasms). I go to the doctor if something seems unusual, or if I suspect they might have some treatment that will improve the chronic ones but other than that, I just try to enjoy the fact that basically, I’m pretty healthy.

However, if several of these symptoms show up at the same time, say vertigo, a restless heart, and a little chest tension, then, of course, my anxiety shoots up and I start getting worried—which makes everything worse.

I’ve had enough false alarms that I’m wary of rushing off too quickly to the doc. I have learned not to call the Kaiser “advise nurse” because no matter how benignly I might describe my symptoms, her solution is always to send me to emergency room hell. I also NEVER Google a symptom. There is no quicker way to be sure that you are dying of some heinous disease, than to plug in a couple of symptoms and let a multitude of websites guess at what you might have.

Because the neck pain drives me crazy, I take ibuprophen every day. I’m confident (because I’ve read the warnings on the side of the extra-large bottle) that eventually my stomach will explode because of it. So when I started to develop a chronic pain on the right side of my abdominal area, I decided to go in to see my doctor. I explained my concerns about the ibuprophen destroying my stomach, and he told me straight out that that was not the issue since my stomach is on the left side. The right side contains the pancreas, liver, and spleen. Great, I thought, now I’ve got three critical organs to worry about.

After reviewing my blood work and doing a physical exam, he told me that he was pretty sure I had something called “abdominal wall pain” which sounded like something that doctors say when they have absolutely no idea what is wrong with you. He reassured me that he had eliminated 95% of the “really bad stuff” and that this diagnosis really did make the most sense. To eliminate the other 5%, he could order up an MRI and blast me with lots of radiation. I decided that I was OK with 95%.

During the exam, though, he introduced me to an interesting bit of doc-speak. He told me that he understood my concerns and my desire for him to be thorough, and that every doctor has to evaluate his patient’s “tolerance for uncertainty” in making a diagnosis. I now know that my “tolerance for uncertainty” is 5% or lower. If I’m 6% uncertain, I’m going to want to full monty of tests, radiation be damned.

However, my tolerance was sorely tested on Christmas Eve this past year. After our usual wonderful meal and as the family celebration was continuing, I excused myself to go to the restroom. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my urine had turned pink. Blood in the urine! This can’t be good. Either my stomach had finally exploded or something was surely wrong with my pancreas, liver, and spleen now that I knew for sure where they were.

I could not rush off to the emergency room on Christmas Eve even if it meant having my kids watch their dad slowly bleed out as we drank beer and watched “A Christmas Story.” I calmly told my wife, and she agreed that I should monitor the situation and as long as I wasn’t in pain, we could get it checked out later. By noon the next day, the symptoms were gone and all that was left was that nagging worry that at any moment, I could go critical again.

I waited until December 26th to go in to see an urgent care doctor and recounted the series of events and my various theories, all of which he kindly discounted. In fact, he seemed intent on assuring me that he was in far worse shape than I appeared to be. He asked me a long series of questions, none of which led to a conclusion. Finally, he paused and asked, “Did you eat anything unusual?”

Beets. Mary had made a beet salad from fresh beets and I ate it to be polite and because I read somewhere that purple food is good for you. I don’t even like beets. No one had ever told me that fresh beets, eaten in large enough quantity, will color everything that passes through your body for about 8-12 hours. Sure, ibuprophen has warning labels, but not beets.

So, am I a worrier—yes. Possessor of a 5% tolerance for uncertainty level—absolutely. Anatomically ignorant—check. Hypochondriac?—Hmmm. Still not sure. I think I’ll wait until the next time I’m nearly killed by a vegetable to decide.