Thursday, February 27, 2014

Small Things at Starbucks

Sometimes small things make a difference.

I wasn't feeling too good at work this morning. I woke up thinking it was going to be a tough day. I had received a request last night to see a patient this morning, and I knew it was going to be hard. Some patient encounters just are, and you do them anyway because the patient needs help, but I knew it was going to make me really sad. And I was right, it did. I felt very, very sad after seeing this person.

I wandered over to Starbucks later in the morning. I usually try to stay away from the Starbucks kiosk at work because it's expensive and it's not good for me. This morning, though, I wanted a treat. I was sad and my heart felt heavy and I wanted something warm, even if it was just a fancy coffee. Surprisingly enough, there was no line when I got there. This is quite unusual. Usually I have a long wait during which I figure out what I want. Today I walked up to the counter without time to make a choice.

"What would you like?" asked the friendly barista.

"I'm not sure." I said. "I'm trying to decide."

One of the other baristas chimed in. "Between what and what?" she asked.

"Well, I want something chocolate-y. With caffeine." I said.

"Sweet or not sweet? Hot or cold?" the second woman asked.

"Sweet, definitely. And hot." I told her. The two baristas started talking to each other, trying to figure this out for me.

"Maybe a mocha?" suggested the first woman.

"Or maybe a black and white?" suggested the second.

"What's a black and white?" I asked. That wasn't on the menu.

"It's half and half mocha and white chocolate mocha." the first woman said.

"Maybe one and a half mocha and one white chocolate mocha." said the second woman, who had grabbed a cup and put my name on it. "Let me play with it."

And she did. Finally she came up with 3 parts mocha and 2 parts white chocolate mocha, which she thought would give a good balance of sweetness and chocolate taste. She asked me to try it out to see if I liked it. I tried it and agreed, it was delicious. Sweet and hot and definitely chocolate tasting but with a slight toasted marshmallow flavor in the background. It didn't taste much like coffee, but that's okay with me since I mostly wanted the warmth and the caffeine and not a coffee taste.

What charmed me most, though, was the seriousness and thoughtfulness with which they approached the job. They really thought about what might taste good, what combination might be the right latte for me that morning. They took the extra time to make up something different. They wanted to make something for me, that I would like. They didn't have to be so helpful to make the sale. I would have bought something anyway. They just cared about what they were doing.

I'm sure they don't know it, but they gave me exactly what I needed this morning. A moment of connection, of kindness, of feeling like someone saw me and was willing to go a little out of there way to make something nice for me. It wasn't anything huge, but it made my heart warmer and my whole day better.

I think small things are important. I think small things can make more of a difference than anyone ever realizes. Sometimes it's the small things that we need the most.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Calypso the One Armed Sea Turtle

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is an amazing place. It's a place you can sit down in front of a coral reef tank and watch the fish swim by, a place you can see dolphins jumping in a training session or streaking by the underwater viewing window, a place that holds pieces of Australia and the Amazon together under one roof. My family goes there quite often, especially since my husband's parents live in Baltimore. We headed up there this weekend, as we often do when we need a little cheering. My husband's parents are unfailingly loving and welcoming, so a few hours at the aquarium followed by an afternoon at their house is often the tune up we need.

Recently though there's something at the aquarium that upsets our daughter. They have a sea turtle named Calypso swimming in the main tank. Calypso is huge and I'm not sure exactly how old, but I remember her from visiting when I was in college. The problem is, Calypso has only one arm. She is a rescued turtle and at some point her arm became badly infected and had to be amputated. My daughter never noticed the missing arm until recently (growth and development are not an unmixed blessing, you see) but now that she has it really upsets her.

The first time she noticed she was almost in tears. We had to get a helpful volunteer to explain that Calypso is very happy in the tank. The kind woman explained that Calypso plays with the divers and insists that they pet her, and that she eats brussels sprouts like ice cream, and that seemed to be enough to calm our daughter down. We were able to go look at dolphins after that and enjoy the rest of the day. However ever since then our daughter repeatedly asks for a story about Calypso. Sometimes she uses the name and sometimes she says the "cutted-off-arm-turtle."

The request for the story comes out of the blue, sometimes at home while we're getting ready for bed, sometimes in the car, sometimes while we're out and about. We've probably told it about 30 times by now. I tell her the story each time, using the same words as much as I can. I gently explain that Calypso's arm got infected and was making her whole body sick, and she was sad and couldn't play. She was getting sicker and sicker and the vets couldn't make her better and were afraid she might die. Until one day a wise vet said they needed to cut off her arm. So they gave her medicine to make her sleepy and more medicine so she wouldn't feel pain and they very carefully removed her arm. When Calypso woke up from the medicine her infection was gone, she felt much better and was able to go swim with her friends in the tank and eat brussels sprouts and be petted by the divers.

This seems to be helping as this time at the aquarium there were no tears. We looked for Calypso and then went on to other exhibits and all seemed well. I wonder though what a three and a half-year old takes from a story like this, how she puts everything together. I know she knows what being sick is, since we've been doing a lot of that lately at our house. We've had to talk about death recently too as my daughter has both experienced the loss of our cat and also started asking questions like "where's your Mommy, Mimi?" to my mother. I don't want her to be afraid that when she is ill something dreadful is going to happen to her, and so far I don't think she is. I'm constantly surprised, though, at the new challenges parenting presents.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Understanding Meanness

I have found a couple of blogs recently that I am really enjoying. Both of them were introduced to me by friends on Facebook. The first is Rachel Held Evans and the second is Momastery written by Glennon Doyle Melton. Both of these women, in different ways, are writing about faith and love and hope. They both write in a way that is intimate, that really connects with their readers. To be honest, I wish I could do what they are doing. To write so honestly, so clearly about things that are really important, to speak truth and beauty into the world - what else could I wish to do as a writer?

So it was a shock to me, as I was reading through some different comments about their work, to hear some really mean and hurtful criticism. Not that I don't know about internet trolls. I have a good friend who has been viciously attacked by them in the past. But I couldn't figure out why people were so angry about what these two women are writing? What on earth are they saying to get mad about? They're telling stories, about their lives and about what they see, and doing it in a smart, thoughtful, gentle and often humorous way. I felt pretty angry myself after I was done reading all the mean stuff. I wanted to yell back at all those commenters. How dare they attack these women?

I've been mulling this over, and then yesterday I found myself being really judgmental and mean inside my own thoughts towards a new acquaintance. I am grateful that I've learned the discipline and courtesy to keep my mouth shut, because I was honestly being condescending and contemptuous and arrogant towards this nice woman in my head. She wasn't hurting me. She was just telling a story. It was even an entertaining and positive story. But I was getting really angry and tense and unkind inside. I was surprised at myself when I realized what I was doing, and reminded myself to pull back and stop that train of thought, but then I became curious. It's not like me to be that way (or, well, at least I don't think of myself that way... ) Maybe what was going on in my at that moment is similar to what goes on inside all those people making mean comments? Maybe if I take a closer look at myself I can understand them better as well.

So, what was going on inside? The first thing I identified was envy. This woman's life looks pretty good to me, based on the little I know. It looks easier than mine, anyway. Some of the little comments she's made have given me the impression that she has more than I do. I recognize that this is really silly, because I don't know her that well. I don't know her life, her pain, her times of suffering. I don't actually know that her life is easier than mine. Maybe it's actually quite a bit harder. But at least part of what was going on was envy related to my perceptions about her life. So, perhaps some of those mean commenters are envious. Envy is a tough emotion to tolerate or admit to having. Not only do we know that we "shouldn't" envy others the very fact of envy means that we are feeling a lack in ourselves which is embarrassing. Emotions that you can't identify and tolerate have a bad tendency to be expressed in other ways, so that would make sense.

The second thing I identified was a sense of fear, of being threatened. Somewhere in my head I was thinking that this woman wouldn't like me, wouldn't understand me, would judge and reject me for all the ways I am different from her. I don't have any basis for that idea at all and she's been perfectly friendly towards me, so I'm pretty sure this is just my own particular brand of crazy coming to the front. It's interesting that the things I feel she might judge me for are things I don't particularly like in myself. Isn't that always the truth? Our own perceived flaws are so painful that we imagine everyone around us is judging and rejecting them, and we twist that around into judgment on others. Fear can be another toxic emotion, another one that is hard to admit to having, particularly when what you fear is social rejection. It tends to get twisted around into anger and a "I'll reject you before you reject me" type of mentality. Perhaps some of those of so angry commenters are fearful, fearful that their lives would be judged and rejected based on what they are reading.

Thinking this through does put me in a better frame of mind towards my acquaintance. I'm sure the next time I see her I will be more open and genuinely interested in her. This little exercise also leads me towards compassion for those angry commenters. It's easy to have compassion for myself, to say "well, I wasn't feeling good and I didn't actually say anything mean" when I think about how I was thinking and feeling. It's harder to have compassion towards people I find offensive. I still don't think their behavior is okay. Saying mean things is not okay, not on the internet or anywhere else. But I can feel some compassion for their fear and envy and whatever other toxic emotional states they are nurturing, and I can pray for their healing as I pray for my own.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Coping with the Common Cold

Our family just can't seem to get healthy this winter. Colds and coughs and stomach bugs, as soon as one person recovers another one goes down. It seems to be my turn again as I started with my classic symptoms of an upper respiratory infection last night, right as my daughter was finally getting over her most recent stomach bug. Sore throat, achy, that hot feeling in my chest and sinuses that isn't really a fever but sure doesn't feel good... I've had it dozens of times.

For some reason I seem to be susceptible to colds. I can't count how many bouts of laryngitis I've had, which is really a hazard for a psychiatrist. It's been worse since having a child. Anything my daughter brings home from school I'm sure to get. My husband doesn't, for some reason. Maybe he's the unusual one in his resistance to illness? Sadly, cold medicine just doesn't do much to make me feel better. I seem to get side effects without benefits when I take over the counter decongestants, cough suppressants, etc... Ibuprofen for the aches can help but otherwise I pretty much just have to wait it out. So I'm always looking for new tricks to make the suffering less.

Rest, of course, is an obvious one. I definitely notice that when I can sleep a little extra at the time the symptoms start I get better faster. It's not always easy to arrange my life to accommodate that solution, but it is effective. It's even better if I rest in a room with a humidifier, and best of all a humidifier with a vicks vaporizer in it. This is a trick I picked up as an adult that really cuts down on the sore throat that comes with every cold.

Complete rest isn't always good though. I need extra sleep but during the day it seems to be better not to lie on the couch in misery, but rather to be upright and moving around somewhat. I'm not sure if that's physics (better drainage) or distraction (not just focusing on symptoms) but short gentle walks, gently yoga, and generally participating in my family's life does seem to keep me feeling better.

Warm fluids (not too hot though) definitely help. I think there's a comfort factor in addition to improved hydration. I love chicken soup, and my family's recipe involves plenty of vegetables in addition to chicken, broth and rice, so there's plenty of good nutrition to build up my body. I also find that very salty fluids cut down on my sore throat, while tea with honey can soothe any residual aches. Acidic foods like orange juice don't actually make me feel that much better, because my throat ends up feeling pretty raw.

I take Airborne, an over the counter non-FDA approved herbal remedy at the maximum dose when I am sick. It's sold as an immune system booster. It has zinc and vitamin C and echinacea and ginger in it (plus plenty of other herbs and vitamins). I recognize that is very non-scientific of me, since there are no studies stating it will help. But my whole family (except my sister - she's a rebel) swears by it and if it gets me better through a placebo effect I'm okay with that. It really does seem to help, cutting my symptoms down to a more normal 3-4 days instead of the weeks of symptoms I used to get each time I got a cold. I also use nasal rinses, which was recommended to me by a doctor when I had a sinus infection. It's not very pleasant to do but it seems to cut down on the congestion and I think it helps prevent secondary infections.

Other than that it's just a tincture of time until I get better. But if you have any other tricks please let me know!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Winter Grumbles

I was thinking this evening about running away with my family. It's been a month of hard days at work with long long days, sick patients and critical colleagues. January and February are often like this in mental health. It's been a month of hard days at home too, with sickness and loss and pain pressing down on us and those we love over and over again. It all tends to build up as time goes along, as I get worn down and my daughter gets anxious and clingy over the amount of time I'm away and my husband gets tired of coping with the two crazy women in his life. We both become less flexible and less creative as parents and the result is more temper tantrums and struggles.

Honestly, part of the problem is just winter. I really don't like winter much. In my opinion winter should start right after Thanksgiving and end after Martin Luther King Jr day. That's enough cold weather for me. I can't stand being cold, the dark is discouraging and draining, and snow and ice just really don't appeal to me at all. This winter has been particularly cold and snowy where I live and I'm not thrilled. I'm trying to be a good sport for my daughter, since she likes sledding and snowmen, but I'm starting to feel like it's time to hibernate. Or, better yet, run away.

When I feel like running away I want to head for a nice, cozy little cottage on a beach somewhere. Somewhere perpetually warm and sunny, with minimal hurricane risk. In my mind the cottage has a wrap around porch with a hammock, a view of the ocean, and some nice palm trees providing a bit of shade. Inside there are two tiny bedrooms, a bathroom, a teensy kitchen and a handkerchief sized living room; just enough space for my husband and daughter and I. Plenty of windows and light with easy to clean floors (the sand, you know) and comfortably shabby furniture. And of course, wherever it is, it's cheap to live there so that no one has to work. We can just goof off all day, eat our meals when we're hungry, go to bed when we're tired and wake up to do it again. No schedule, no clocks, no demands.

I've noticed this is a common fantasy for my healthier patients when they get overwhelmed. Not the exact details, of course. Those are mine. But the general gist of things is the same. Getting away from stress, being on a permanent vacation somewhere, kind of checking out of life. I've heard it from colleagues too. Someone mentioned the idea just this evening as we were chatting towards the end of another long day.

Realistically, I know this is not something I'm ever going to do. For one thing, it's not financially feasible. For another thing, I'm pretty sure I'd get bored in short order. I tend to keep myself busy and when I'm being really, really honest I acknowledge that much of my stress is self-generated. I am sure I need to learn to moderate better, but I don't think I'm cut out to laze around for the rest of my life. Lastly, I agree with George Bernard Shaw: "This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." I don't think that living a life on the beach, with no purpose but my own enjoyment, would really lead to joy or peace in my heart.

Still, when I'm sitting inside with yet again freezing temperatures keeping the snow from melting, it's a nice fantasy...