Month: October 2023

Written In Fingernails

The story is written in my fingernails. If I turn my thumb just-so in the light, I can see the ridges. That same light reveals the wavy edge as the nail is brittle and flakes have torn off. The ridges smooth out toward the cuticle. Evidence in keratin of the medial changes three months ago, when I stopped taking a medicine I’d been on for years. When I changed the food I ate. I like to believe the lack of brittle ridges is a sign that I’m headed in the right direction for my health. But the more important thing is the reminder to approach my health with patience. I would like to hurry and find solutions, flip the switch and make things better. My fingernails tell me that this is a long slow game. It will be six or eight months before the last ridges are trimmed away. Other systems, other portions of my body need time to heal as well.

I wanted to fix it fast, be done and move on, but I need to listen to my fingernails. They are the historians of my health.

There is a book called The Body Keeps the Score, which I have never read, but the title felt like a blow when I first heard it. Ever since I’ve carried with me the idea that bodies remember trauma even when we’re not consciously aware that we’re carrying it. I’ve cried far more tears over my current medical choices than a mild chronic condition really merits. An outlandish quantity of tears, that has spilled in embarrassingly public ways. An appointment in a wrong location should be an annoyance, not something that makes me sob at the poor admin trying to do her scheduling job. I like to think of myself as an emotionally stable and rational person, but evidence accumulates that in this case, with this medical adventure, I am neither. I am like the Marina District in San Francisco where all the structures were built well, but the ground they stood on was fill rather than bedrock. When the earthquake came in 1989, everything collapsed because of ground amplification.

I did not realize I had faults in my ground. Fissures left by my experiences of surgery and radiation therapy twenty-five years ago. Medical trauma that I thought I was done with, but which is being stirred up now. This is one of the sources of emotional amplification. I can show up for a scoping, chat with the nurses, be cooperative and personable with the person stabbing my arm for an IV. For them it is all routine, they had similar patients before me, and the rest of their day will be exactly this. I pretend it is routine for me as well. “Oh yes, this is my third scoping. I know how it goes.” A veneer of cooperative normality. I even try to pretend to myself. Almost successfully. Except if any information is unexpected, I am upside down, flailing for balance, emotional. Knocked flat by an unexpected amplification from a trauma by body remembers and wants to protect me from.  Trauma I didn’t even realize I had.

I began to see it on the day Howard and I watched a show where a medical person had to do an emergency intubation and camera down a patient’s throat. I jumped out of my seat and left the room, unable to watch without feeling that it was me. My throat with tubes and cameras. When I was out of the room, waiting for the scene to be over, I puzzled at the odd, instantness of the reaction. It was not rational. It was a trauma response and I couldn’t unknow that I’d just reacted to trauma I was carrying.

Trauma is not written in my fingernails. There are no ridges where I can track the moment I began healing. I wonder if it would be easier if trauma healing could have a progress bar or graphs. Instead what I had was the day after I cried at the poor desk clerk. The day I realized all my emotions were overwrought, and that my emotional state was actively interfering with my ability to collaborate with my doctors about a chronic medical condition. That was the day I recognized I had to stop trying to hurry. I had to find ways to create stability and prevent emotional amplification.

It began with a meditation. Possibly the first real, deep meditation of my life. It was only eight minutes by the clock, but felt much shorter. I breathed and then formed clear thoughts and intentions about my grief and how I wanted to interact with my doctors going forward. (Less crying. A lot less crying.) I visualized a rock in the waves, a rock in deep water. The ocean is vast, it can absorb anything. So I pictured my own calmness as vast as the ocean, as firm as the rock within it. I went deep into the muffled calm of being underwater.

And then I prayed. I gave thanks for this body that is trying its best to protect me. All my troubles are protective systems gone out of bounds (this is the core irony of autoimmune illnesses). I thanked my throat for it’s service. I handed over my long-term fate to God and asked God to carry it for me. If I put the future in God’s hands, I don’t have to live in an endless branching contingency tree with plans for all the twigs at the end of numerous branches, connected to possible trunks. My mind is too small to carry so much. The strain of carrying it adds to the tears. While I was at it, I handed over my daughter’s pregnancy health and the coming baby. I handed over financial concerns as well. Both of which were amplifying factors.

Prayer pulled me out of the deep. I rose up brown rather than blue. Light instead of compressed. And then the time was gone.

I’ve no illusion I am all healed, trauma is not so easily resolved, but the next day I did not cry at my doctor’s appointment. Then I was able to catch up with a friend and tell the story of my throat without crying. So something has shifted. If there were fingernails for trauma, would that be the beginning of ridges smoothing out?

I have to be patient. I have to let things grow. Eventually I will be able to see. This is a long slow corrective process, body, mind, soul. Recognizing the slowness is the beginning.

Grandmotherhood Impending

My oldest child is 38 weeks pregnant. When I tell people this, I get the question that friends and family have been asking for the past eight months, “So how do you feel about being a Grandmother?” I rarely have a ready answer for this question. On one level the answer is irrelevant. This birth will happen no matter how I feel about it. I am confident in my ability to love a child once he is here. (Yes, a boy). But before I can take on the task of forming a Grandmother relationship, I need to tackle the ongoing mothering task of helping my daughter with her pregnancy. I’m support crew for labor and delivery as well. Then there will be helping a pair of new parents during the first weeks of baby. These mothering tasks are more imminent than the grandmothering ones. The mothering tasks will not stop. I will continue to be a mother to my daughter even as I begin forming a grandmothering relationship to her son.

I remember a time when my mother listened to me managing a pre-teen crisis for one of my kids. After everything was settled my mother said to me,

“I’m so glad all of that is your job. I just get to enjoy them.”

Later that same day I listened to my mother make a series of calls to doctors and pharmacists to manage medical care for my Grandma and I felt the exact same thought. I just got to enjoy my Grandma without having to manage her.

So the grandparent and grandchild relationship is about enjoyment, finding joy in each other. I like that thought. I’ve thought about it as I’ve moved through the world these past few months. I’ve paid more attention to the children I pass in grocery stores and in neighborhoods. I see the stages of development and know that those are coming for this baby. The baby who isn’t here yet, but will be. I will get to read to a child snuggled on my lap. And I will get to help manage tantrums over broken crackers. I will blow bubbles and take a child to parks. I will baby sit. I’ll probably spend some hours walking and jouncing a colicky baby. Sometimes I will gleefully hand the baby back to his parents when his diaper is stinky. Other times I will collect the stinky baby from an overwhelmed parent and say “let me do that for you.”

I’ve pictured all of this, held the possibilities in my head. The reality of it will be different I’m sure. And reality will show up sometime in the next two weeks. Baby will have a face I can see and a name I can call him.

Some of my friends when they ask me how I feel about being a grandmother are looking for the small talk answer. They want me to say “excited” so that the conversation can move on. Others are leaving a deliberate space. They know, possibly because they’ve also crossed the grandmother threshold, that feelings can be complex and deep. That it is possible to be excited, ambivalent, and wary all at once. There is an oddness to picking up the title of grandmother at a mere 50 years old. I had my kids young, so I am young for grandmotherhood. I rather like that. I can begin this role with some energy and let it wear on me until it is as comfortable as my skin.

My House is a Mess

My house is a mess. It isn’t just the normal accumulation of clutter which happens to us every time we need to move things around to make space for a project. Furniture gets shifted. Piles are stacked in corners because we don’t quite know where the things belong in the shifted space, but at least over there they’re out of the way. Temporary piles linger for months or even years. They gather dust. Dust turns to gunk. Until every place I look feels like an indictment of our housekeeping.

I can trace the map to explain how we arrived at this place. The decisions and compromises we made because of how fast we needed to move and what we were able to carry. My house is a mess because I was busy with an endless stream of tasks that were higher priority, more urgent, more anxious. We’ve been living reactively for years now. Beginning with the summer of 2019 which felt five years long because of plumbing disasters and needing to reconstruct half of the house. Then the pandemic and the multi-year scramble to adapt to the shifted world, Howard’s disabilities, and inflation with rising interest rates. Everything in our world seemed tighter quarters. No space to really see anything.

Gunk accumulates in those conditions. Clutter accumulates. And we don’t even see it because we’re focused on important and urgent priorities. Yet over time we begin to feel frustrated and dissatisfied with all our rooms. Then comes the morning that I finally see the shower, the sink, the floor and think “wow, that’s disgusting. How do we live like this?”

I sat with that thought for weeks. It percolated in my head waking the voices of self-criticism that live there.

This summer added a new burden to contend with, one I won’t get to put down for the rest of my life. Going forward I will always have diet restrictions and/or medications to manage my EOE. I responded to this with my usual crisis management instincts: dive in, cope, grieve efficiently, plan thoroughly, perform all the experiments, do all the research, move everything as quickly as possible into a stable state. Three months of that approach ended with me sobbing in the doctor’s waiting room because a cluster of clerical errors delayed a treatment and an appointment. Annoyance is an appropriate response to these sorts of errors, not sobbing. My approach had to shift if I was to be able to collaborate effectively with my doctors about ongoing care. I needed to shift myself out of crisis-sprint mode and into something that could be sustained day after day for the rest of my life.

Making that shift while in the middle of running a Kickstarter, which is 100% energetic sprint, has been tricky. I is like I imagine carding wool to be. Pulling and separating strands that were entangled, slowly creating order out of knots. I have to run at the Kickstarter as hard and fast as I can, because every penny we bring in during this 31 day run buys me breathing room for everything else. So each day includes Kickstarter pushing. Then I have to step away from the Kickstarter and find a way to move that isn’t running. There are deadlines and writing goals that I set for myself which I’m blowing off right now. I’m not going to get SLSC mostly edited by the end of October. My newsletter is late. I owe two posts to my Patrons. All of those require focus push energy and that pulls me in the wrong direction. I have to spend all of my non-Kickstarter moments in a slower space. I need to pause and recognize that fast and efficient isn’t always better. Sometimes it is just exhausting.

If managing my EOE needs a slow and steady pace, perhaps the answer to my other messes is the same. It is kind of all the same mess really. My house is the physical manifestation of how I’ve been thinking and organizing. The piles and detritus are the results of my decisions. Perhaps untangling one will make sense of the others. So this week instead of pushing at writing, I am picking one thing in my house to de-gunk each day. It’s fine if I do more while I’m working. As I’m cleaning I notice ten or twenty more things which also need de-gunked, but I do not make a list to keep track of them. I do not assign them to myself. Lists and tracking are a focused-energy burden. They engage “get things done” sprint energy. Instead I pick one thing for the next day, trusting that I will notice the other things again. In fact, as some areas become cleaner, I will notice the messy spots more. A little bit of daily de-gunking will go a long way toward improving my habitat and perhaps will help me approach my health in the same way.

I’m on day 3 of the de-gunking initiative. Small spots in my house are better. I’m feeling good about it so far. Two more days of Kickstarter push and then I can do all the math to figure out how much breathing room we have.