Boss Up with Bevin Your dream life is at the end of your comfort zone

2014-03-07

Self Care Recalibration with a Chronic Illness and a Baby

This post is part of my mini-blog series about self care. Click this self care week tag to read all the posts!

When I was thinking about folks whose self care priorities I admired greatly, my friend G immediately came to mind. G left me a comment that changed my life a couple of years ago. Researching for my Love for EveryBODY workshop, I wrote a Facebook post asking friends with gender non-conforming bodies and/or chronic illnesses how they worked to love their bodies. G said “Stress is a toxin.” I quote that all the time and it has helped me reconceive how I think about self care. I have known her for over a decade, since we were both baby queers in nearby metro areas, and was curious how self care changed during and after the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and now that G is a parent in her early thirties how it has changed, too.

photoMy friend G and adorable baby L!

1. When you were diagnosed with MS (at what age?), what was your process around assessing the kind of self care you needed as a person with a chronic illness? What kind of self care did you need to engage in?

I was diagnosed at 26. It was what seemed to me at the time a long time to figure out what kind of self care I needed. A diagnosis like that is SO overwhelming. I really think it was probably two years till all the major pieces of self-care are realized, and it’s an ongoing process of identifying how certain parts of my life need to change in order to enact the self care needs, including ending relationships with people or organizations that used to work for me but I might come to realize induce more stress than joy, for example. Those realizations are difficult and ongoing.

I think the “process” involved a lot of trial and error, and a LOT of re-evaluation of the truths/stories I had in my head about the kind of person I was and what I did with my life. For example, at the time I prided myself for being super scrappy and always landing on my feet, getting by with very little financial resources, always believing things would get better in the future and building a lot of financial and social/emotional debt in the present. I had to accept that I needed to read and buy into “west coast” woo-woo talk of mindfulness and do yoga and eat like a hippie. I needed massage and to drink tea and to calm down.

I came to realize these things out of desperation at first–I was so sick restorative yoga was about the only kind of movement exercise I could do, and I had always ran and ridden my bike everywhere. I could tell that gossiping or ranting about something till I was blue in the face only made me feel extra exhausted and didn’t help things.

When something happens like you get really sick, you end up with piles of bureaucratic BS, with a works that seems unfair and unable to accommodate your sick self, and when I fumed for days about the unfairness of the insurance company or a workplace policy, I would feel sicker, and saw that nothing productive got done anyway. So the calculations look different now. I could spend 4 hours on hold and arguing with Time Warner [an American cable and internet service provider] in order to maybe have them correct the $15 error, or I could think “Would I pay $15 not to feel like this?” and call it a loss and move on. Is that awesome? No. Does it hold that evil company accountable? No. Does it save my health? Yes. I had to really focus and choose my political battles, and I really think my targets have gotten clearer and the related actions more efficient. The same is true socially. My world of what and who I cared about got smaller, and that’s ok, (even though it’s sometimes lonely) because the quality of those fewer connections are better.

Also I came to figure our that, as a person who always took pride in my paid-work ethic, that in order to stay alive I had to treat my self-care like a job. I put “exercise” on my work calendar and held myself to it as if I was going to teach a class. Even if I only ended up walking when I had hoped to run. Even if I couldn’t do it as long as I wanted. Required. As was sleep time, as was not drinking alcohol. Things got very clear and firm.

2. What surprised you during that process?

I think what surprised me at first was the way in which some deep themes, like scarcity, or putting others’ needs first until I blew my lid, we’re not isolated to say, finances or romantic relationships. They were deep and everywhere. I had to show up for myself in a new and major way. And it was scary.

I was also surprised that eventually, I was happier. Again that was some “west coast woo” stuff that I was sure my Protestant Midwest working class cultural pride had no time for-that happiness linked to healthiness. But it was and is true. The happier I am the way healthier I am. Not that I don’t get sick anymore or don’t have MS. I do. But I thrive and shine much brighter in the times between flare ups.

3. How did your self care needs change when you had a baby? What was anticipated and what was something you had to adjust to?

Hahaha. Well. I have to say I still haven’t mastered this one. I draw from lessons when I was a non-parent with MS, but it requires a whole new mantra. Because if I had a TON of extra cash for daycare when I was not working (I work on my phd work 2 days during the week and stay home with our infant 3 days a week) I could maintain my self-care bar. I could schedule yoga 1 or 2 times a week, go on a run a couple times a week. But that’s not happened. Massage and acupuncture has been greatly reduced. One income and a baby is real tight. So I’ve had to modulate what gets me through (aside from the added joy of the miracle of my baby and the stellar support of my partner) is telling myself “It will not always be like this. It will end eventually.” And it does. The days of sitting in how position for hours and hours has passed. The days of not being able to do anything like pee without the baby in my sight has ended.

And also self care right now looks like “good enough.” The day has ended and the dirty dishes cover every inch of my kitchen? I did good enough. Sit down in the couch with your wife for one hour of no-responsibility chill time. I can’t get a vigorous run or yoga session in? I make the baby’s nap time a sleep in the Ergo [a baby carrier that straps to a big human] while I take a 4 mile walk. It’s a lot of approximation and survival. And it has to be good enough for now.

Really it’s an extension of the major learning curve when I was first diagnosed, which is self-forgiveness. I was do disappointed in myself for having the disease, for being able to do less. I still have to practice self-forgiveness for not doing “enough” self care, or for not getting “enough” of my work done or not being a present enough parent the day I felt like crap. And I found that this practice allowed me to have a lot more compassion and generosity towards others.

4. How to you manage self care priorities as a parent with a chronic illness?

See above I think re: good enough and self forgiveness. Also, my wife is really amazing and if she hears me have a tired MS cough she sends me to bed or calls one of her besties over to our house to watch the baby so I can rest when I wouldn’t have done so myself.

5. How do you deal with “missing days” and let yourself off the hook for them?

See self-forgiveness. Also–scaled expectations. I have very long term goals. They are not made or broken in one bad day. I have had to accept that if they are, with the exception of having to push through one big presentation or deadline or something, they are not environments I want to be in. Like, if I am unable to think one day I had planned on reading a ton, then I do something mindless like delete emails, then rest. If my whole career as an academic crumbles because I strategically read the introduction of each book the day before class, it’s not a sustainable career. Also I’ve had to let go of the over-achiever image of myself I’ve had since I was little. I am not going to win 1,000 awards in grad school for service, teaching, and research. I have prioritized my health, stability in my family life, long-term involvement with political movements, and research. My work in the world is not to win awards. It’s to, as I think of that Alice Walker quote all the time, find my work in the world and do it. I will raise supported, loving, engaged children. I will have a robust and happy life-long loving relationship with my sweetie. I will produce research that changes the tides of the homelessness-industrial-complex. I will be a part if meaningful political change. I am doing it, and it us bigger than one day.

6. You told me once you treat stress like a toxin and nix it in the bud right away. How did you realize stress was a toxin and what are your body/mind/emotional warning signs that you’re feeling stressed? What do you do to nix it in the bud?

I can be a super intense person and I tend to recognize stress if something becomes invasive thinking that I can’t stop looping back to, can’t seem to let go of, or if something is taking a lot of my time when it shouldn’t be. Those are the “quantitative” things if you will (the things I can count, recognize, and reason).

Physically/emotionally I notice that I feel anxious and spent. Both exhausted and amped up. I tend to shut down, then suddenly come out of the shut down place very angry and upset. These kinds of things.

Some things, like when my daughter was in the ER last week, are necessarily stressful and they can only be mitigated–ask our friends to bring us dinner in the ER, be kind to and find the joy in my wife and baby even though it’s stressful and my body is tanked by it, cancel our weekend plans so we can just rest.

Other things, like people who are drama, involve not engaging, or being real clear like “our interactions do nothing but stress me out so I am not doing this anymore. I wish you well.” Some things, like undue stress when teaching, involve setting up really clear boundaries from the get go–I don’t check email between 5pm and 10am. Don’t expect me to. I don’t haggle about grades. Period.

Actually, I find email in general, or really any communication devices that are “input” a no-go after 5 or 6. I can’t have stress if I don’t know about it, and I tend to be most tired and ineffective after 5, and stress interferes with sleep, and 8 hrs of sleep is a requirement. So even though I am not working for wages right now I tend to avoid email or lots of texting or going places in the evening. It is time to take care of my and my fam’s bodily needs and go to bed. It sounds so boring on paper, but it’s really great. I love routine, I love slow, quality interactions with friends coming over for dinner. Getting MS is stressful and has been terrible, but it’s given me the impetus to have so much discipline and perspective in making my life center around what’s important, and at a fairly young age for our culture. Thank the Goddess. I am blessed.

Thank you so much G for this interview, this was amazing and gave me so much to think about. We don’t often learn how to distill our core priorities in life and then how to align our time spent with those priorities.

2013-09-23

Learning to Not Stress Out About My Fertility

About a year ago, my weekend plans to go away were torn asunder by an emergency vet visit. I got home from the gym and my cat ALF was slumped against the wall, meowing at me. He couldn’t walk, he looked scared and confused. I scooped him up and paced around the apartment doing the math about whether we were going to go to the vet, was this an emergency. I realized pretty quickly that it was, called a couple of friends to get some support at the vet and was really grateful I had borrowed a car for my weekend away because I was able to get right over to the clinic.

The vet was very kind and expensive and I spent that weekend sitting next to ALF on the couch while he slowly recovered, which thankfully he did. He couldn’t really sleep and kept breathing laboriously until eventually he was drinking water and walking again.

On my way to the vet I was crying and sort of glad that ALF was a cat and not my child and so I didn’t have to be “brave” in front of him so he wouldn’t flip out. Being a single mom to pets is hard but not like being a single mom to kids.

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Photo by Kelsey Dickey.

I think about having kids a lot. I’ve been wanting to write about this for the blog for a really long time. I want to preface what I have to say is that this is my journey and I don’t want to put my journey on anyone else.

I have a lot of privilege in that my body can bear a child, or at least that is what I know to be true based on regular GYN exams. Lots of folks who want kids don’t get the luxury of being able or willing to bake the baby themselves inside them, so I acknowledge this is my own experience of what is going on with my parts.

So about four years ago I started flipping out about my eggs. I was thirty. Everywhere in the media people talk about how as you age your fertility becomes non-existent. Suddenly I was aware of this ticking time bomb in my gut and I wondered if it mattered if I ever did anything about it. I had heard all those stories about Martha Stewart’s daughter trying to get knocked up and her foreboding warnings that women should not forget about their waning fertility. It was one of those worries that was at the back of my mind. Something I consider now recreational stress, but I used to partake in that kind of stuff a lot.

Then all of my old co-workers from the job I had for five years when I was first out of law school started getting pregnant. They were younger than me, but here they were, married and having kids. I wrote myself a note, “I want to have a baby but I am going to give birth to a talk show and a book first.” I realized I was putting my decision to change careers at thirty from lawyer to artist ahead of becoming a mom.

Then a bunch of my queer friends started making babies. And I’ve witnessed how time-consuming fertility is, and how complicated and expensive it is to create life or adopt life. It reminds me that I’m already fighting an uphill battle when I decide I’m ready to start walking up that hill.

The fertility stuff really started hitting home for me two years ago when I began to read Michelle Tea’s journey in xoJane about getting pregnant, aptly called “Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea.” I adore Michelle so much as an artist and writer, so when she, a punk rock queer femme writer who I have been inspired by for over a decade, said she turned forty and realized she forgot to get pregnant I was like, “Oh shit!” It only added to my arsenal of recreational worry about the age of my eggs and whether I was going to be able to get pregnant when I wanted to. Seriously, every time a new installment of Michelle’s journey was published I would feel a panic about my own fertility.

I think about having kids all the time. So do a lot of women I know who are in their thirties. It’s a thing. It’s this decade in our lives where it feels like we have to make this decision or else!

But what this panic inspired in me was the knowledge that I had to do something about the panic. I couldn’t live like that. I have a lot of complicated feelings about my waning fertility, but I also knew it wouldn’t help me if I just got pregnant because I was scared that someday when I was more ready to do it I would fail. So rather than cook up a kid and become an intentional single mom to allay my panic about fertility, I decided to resolve the panic.

Holding mutliple conflicting emotions at once is an extremely human experience, so the first thing I did about the panic was just to recognize I have lots of feelings about becoming a mom and that’s okay.

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I feel so grateful to have friends who are like family and to get to watch my nieces grow up.

I want kids. I do. But I also don’t want to have a kid on my own. Sometimes I feel guilty about that; I don’t want it enough because I don’t want do it on my own. It feels kind of selfish to want to wait for a partner, someone I know I can rely on, who is invested in mutual growth and creating a family that is spiritual, smart, both independent and interdependent and most of all fun.

I grew up with a single mom. She left my dad when I was eighteen months old for lots of good reasons, including fears for my own safety in the home. She was a single mom with a really young child who was not a single mom on purpose but it was really hard.

I have such a wildly different understanding of her now than I did when I was younger. Once I turned thirty and I realized my mom was single, struggling to put herself through school and raise three and a half year old me when she was my age and I was blown away by her strength and resilience. Everything about being raised by a single mom has colored my entire life–growing up poor, worried about money, class passing–continues to affect my emotional and mental health on a daily basis.

Lots of people in my life have chosen to become single moms and I completely support them making those choices. I can’t do it. I know there’s nothing that prevents me becoming a single parent circumstantially but at this point i don’t want to do it by design. There’s too much I’ve had to overcome. My mom did an amazing job with what she had, but I want to give my kids a different life if I can.

Accepting without judgment that I want to find a good partnership with someone who wants to create a family with me was a big part of pulling the plug on my panic about my fertility.

I was once engaged to get married and we broke up six months before the wedding. We were getting set up to move away and get pregnant. We said it was an “eventually” but I know we would have jumped right into it and had kids. I thought I was happy but I was really living an inauthentic life and not serving my purpose on this earth. I was just doing what I thought other people wanted me to do and walking lock step into what I thought I needed to do to be happy.

Everything about me is different than it was six years ago and I feel really great about that. But for a long time I would think about that relationship ending and hurt myself by thinking, “I lost my shot at having kids.” Such an abusive thing to say to myself, but I’ve done a lot of work to learn how to crawl out of saying self abusive things!

Learning how to change the tapes that my brain plays was another thing that was essential to easing my stress about whether I was ever going to be a mom.

People get really caught up in the fear factors around fertility. Like obesity, people just link age and fertility as forever bad news. But sometimes it’s not bad news. My aunt started trying to get pregnant when she was thirty six. She went off the pill and poof, that month she got pregnant with her first daughter. She had two more pregnancies after that (one miscarried). I also know plenty of people who have had easy times with fertility at lots of different ages, and people who have had hard times with fertility at lots of different ages.

It’s interesting being a homosexual, too, if you’re cisgendered homosexuals. In a pairing where one partner can’t get the other one pregnant there are automatic fertility issues–for me I’ll always have a shortage of sperm unless I can get a friend to give me some, which is still a whole transportation logistics situation. Getting pregnant seems like it happens so easily when you grow up in a culture where 90% of people are opposite sex partnered and getting a kid is actually a lot trickier when you have non-procreative sex. No matter what if I want to become a mom, short of randomly being named in my friends’ wills as potential guardian of their kids, getting a kid will be A Thing.

Whenever a fat friend of mine who is getting married starts talking about going on Weight Watchers I know it’s because a doctor told her she should lose weight to get pregnant. I am always dubious of medical advice to lose weight because I am suspicious of the medical industrial complex that pathologizes weight.

I am also dubious of all the doom and gloom about how old you are and how your eggs wither. Sure, obesity is linked to lots of different things, but people can also be completely healthy and fat as well. Frankly, I think stress and anxiety seem to be the bigger preventions of fertility than fat. I know lots of fat people who have gotten knocked up (either intentionally or accidentally) and I know lots of stressed out people who have not gotten knocked up despite herculean efforts.

I choose what information I participate in by choosing my media. Media is so toxic about weight and my readers know that I choose to love my fat body in a cutlure that says that I shouldn’t. Well, I choose to have faith in my fertility in a cuture that says I’m practically barren at thirty four because old people can’t get pregnant. There’s a whole line of legal thought called the fertile octogenarian and I know that pregnancy is totally possible and I’m not buying it.

Being critical about the media I consume helps me to not buy into other people’s panic about fertility.

One of my favorite genres of reality television is the big family ones. I especially love Sister Wives. I like watching the experience of having a big family with lots of siblings. I also really love that show because I think it’s a genuine portrayal of people living an alternative lifestyle that is faith-based and grounded in a common spiritual purpose. I think about how I probably won’t be able to have four kids like I thought I wanted when I was in my twenties.

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I read a lot of mom blogs (my latest favorite is Michelle Tea’s new project Mutha Magazine). I love them. I know a lot about teething necklaces and cribs. I know I can celebrate and appreciate other people’s motherhood without stressing out about not having that in my life. It’s good detachment, learning how to separate my experience from other people’s experience. We’re all on different journeys with different struggles! Probably there are folks out there who are moms who experience my plus size party girl lifestyle similarly.

There are lots of ways to be a mom. There are lots of ways of getting a kid.

I made the decision to let go and let my faith lead me about how and when I’m going to get or brew a child. It helps me be less anxious about it and in the last six months I’ve really calmed down.

You know that saying that worrying is like a rocking chair? It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere. I’ve decided worrying about my fertility is optional and only serves to stress me out. Getting at the root of anxiety provoking behaviors, thought patterns and lifestyle choices and removing them is what I’ve been doing to be less stressed out. Maybe even these choices I make now about learning how to live an abundant, stress free life will help my body be primed to get pregnant if that is ever my decision.

I think I just want to know that when I have a kid it is going to be because that is the right next step for me. And right now it’s not the right next step for me. Right now the right next step is get my rent paid, continue doing the self care I need in order to finish my memoir, continue to produce really meaningful and fun art. Make good human connections. Do the spiritual and life work I need to do to be truly happy and love myself exactly where I’m at, which is mom to two squishy faced pets and mom to myself.

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ALF, Macy, Me and RIP Bear. Photo by Kelsey Dickey.

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