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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Shakespeare Sunday: Sad Bastard’s Complaint Becomes Sweet Love Song

Starting this “Shakespeare Sunday” thing, I really wanted to focus on a particular SHORT passage for emphasis, but by week 2, I’m failing utterly because I want to talk about all of Sonnet 29.  There is one particular passage that I favor, but to get it, I have to talk about the sonnet in its entirety. Sorry. If you have never read the sonnet before, here it comes. Bear with it–I promise it will only be 14 lines:

SONNET 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing åçme like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

I used to really enjoy using this sonnet as an introduction to the language of Shakespeare because it is highly accessible and it deals with two common human conditions–depression and being in love (two things which oddly seem to often go hand in hand–or is that just me?).

The thing is, kids often entirely missed the “being in love” part of it.  They certainly could pick up the aspects of depression that the speaker wallows in during lines 1-8. In these lines, the speaker recounts all of the things that are making him feel isolated and sad. He is in full self-pity mode, cursing God and his fate, and even worse, comparing himself to others who in his mind at least, all are more fortunate than himself.  I certainly know the destructive quality of comparing myself to those who are slimmer, more gifted, richer, or less bald than I am.

Of all of the lines the speaker recored, the one that most spoke to me was (bolded) “With what I most enjoy contented least.”  When walking, or spending time in the garden, or enjoying a visit to the local pub do nothing to improve my mood, I know that I’m in bad straits.

What saves this poem from being a straight lament is the major shift that takes place in line 9 (“Yet in these thought myself…”).  Here is where the depressive dude dissolves into a mush of romantic goo–and I love him for it.  He describes how just the very thought of his loved one, lifts his spirits which become “like to the lark at break of day arising” to “sings songs at heaven’s gate.”

By the end, the sad bastard would rather be with his love than to “change [his] state with kings.”  Just the act of thinking of his loved one is enough to dispel his sadness and make him realize just what riches he does possess.

Must have been one lucky guy.

Depression: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Torn pieces of paper with the word "Depression". Concept Image. Black and White. Close-up.

I am prone to depression as I wrote about some time ago.

It’s not the kind of curl-up-in-the-fetal-position, paralytic, soul-crushing kind of depression that I know a lot of people suffer from.  It’s more the garden variety, somedays-I-just-get-the-blues kind of sadness.  It feels like a dark, silently negative squatter invades my heart, mind, and spirit and decides to take up residence.  It’s hard to get rid of him.  He came to town about a month ago, and and just this past week, I managed to evict him–for the time being.

Given the fact that I’ve got a pretty good life, I feel like I don’t deserve to be depressed.  I marvel as I see people who have so much less than I have, so much more to complain about, making their way through the world happily and wonder, what am I doing wrong?

When I sink into this state, I can’t seem to enjoy anything.  I’m sensitive to every slight, every perceived criticism. Every negative perception that I have about myself bubbles to the surface just to make me feel more miserable.  I feel like the people I love the most have withdrawn from me when often I am the one pushing them away at the moment that I absolutely need them the most.  My sense of isolation is palpable.

During this past bout I could actually identify some of the triggers that had opened the door to this sadness.  One was having to watch this horrible election cycle play out where instead of being able to root for an inspirational, dynamic, progressive candidate like Barack Obama, I had to entertain he thought that a buffoon like Donald Trump might conceivably take his place.  Only by unplugging myself from the intense day-to-day  coverage could I begin to feel some peace.

Dealing with chronic pain can wear down my spirits.  My depression coincided with a flare-up of some symptoms that have made my lower back and legs feel as though they are on fire at times, all the way down to my feet.  Since exercise and activity are my best weapons against depression, the pain makes it doubly hard to fight back.

When I start to feel some of my most important relationships begin to shift and drift, I worry that I am beginning to lose something that has been a pillar for everything that means anything to me.  I know our bonds are strong, but fear creeps in and doubts create uncertainty and sometimes resentment in my heart.  What did I do?  What should I do?  Those questions become part of the cycle that squashes my spirit.

So, how did I manage to start feeling better?  It was a web of things, but it started in the midst of my daily practice of yoga.  I’m a firm believer in the mind-body-spirit connection, but at the same time, I think of yoga as a form of low-impact exercise that I enjoy and during which I rarely get injured, not as a spiritual exercise.  However, in the midst of a yoga routine the words “gratitude” and “forgiveness” simply floated into my mind.  I could actually see the words in my mind’s eye.

Afterwards, I thought that by consciously practicing gratitude for all that I have, constantly making myself aware of the goodness in my life, I’d be less prone to the self-pity that goes hand in hand with my depressive periods.  I saw that the practice of forgiveness was something that I have long neglected, knowing that I tend to hold on to past grievances long after their code date has expired, doing nothing but poisoning my own mind and spirit.

Armed with this new insight, I felt I was ready for the breakthrough, but having an intellectual realization didn’t mean I was ready to put it to its best use.  I literally have to practice these values daily. I post the words around the house so I have constant reminders that both my thinking and my behavior must change. It’s going to take time.

I lucked out though, and had a lovely week where I managed to reconnect with family members and important friends, sometimes in just casual and informal ways, just enough to stave off that sense of isolation and feel once again connected to the people who nourish my spirit. I felt, once again, how lucky I really am (practicing some gratitude here!).  It could not have come at a better time.

I didn’t really want to write this piece.  Now that things are going better, I didn’t want to go back, but I know how many of us struggle in this same way.  It seemed that sharing one good moment was the least I could do.

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

depression-anxiety

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.