Category Archives: Essays

Half-life takes on a whole new meaning

Half-life (t½)

noun

  1. the time taken for the radioactivity of a specified isotope to fall to half its original value.
    • the time required for any specified property (e.g., the concentration of a substance in the body) to decrease by half.
  2. the amount of time spent actually living your life if you have chronic migraine

You’ve probably seen the ads.

A woman curls up in fetal position on a couch, her back to the camera, while a voiceover asks: “Are you living a maybe life?”

The voice goes on to describe how chronic migraine — defined as 15 or more migraine days a month — leads to living a “maybe” life, full of tentative plans that may have to be jettisoned at a moment’s notice. Maybe you can go to the kids’ dance recital tonight, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be able to get out to the grocery store today, maybe not.

Know the half of it.

Let me tell you. I’ve had chronic migraine all of my adult life, meaning that I am ill about half of the time, and there is no “maybe” about it. If you have that many migraines a month, you’ve got a 50/50 chance on any given day that you’re going to have a migraine. Do the math. Fifteen days out of a possible 30 (plus or minus) in any given month is 50 percent of the time. That’s half of your life.

That’s why I think it would be far more accurate to call it living a half-life, because if you’re sick this often, you  spend half of your life trying to make up for the other half that’s been lost.

A genetic link?

I’ve often wondered if there’s some biological correlation between my condition and bipolar disorder. There are striking similarities, not the least of which is the fact that studies indicate some sort of neurological dysfunction in the same area of the brain for both conditions. In addition, both conditions are characterized by manic swings from one state to another. In the case of bipolar disorder, the swings are of mood, whereas the sweeping changes with migraine are physical but equally dramatic.

This is more than idle curiosity. There is a history in our family of women being afflicted with one or the other of these conditions.

My mother’s mother suffered from migraines for much of her adult life. In her case, the headaches came only one day a month. But my mother can vividly describe how they often occurred on washday. Grandma would rush through the day’s wash with the old-fashioned wringer and tub before she had to retreat to a dark room, from whence she would not emerge until some 24 hours later, ashen and spent.

The good, the bad and the ugly of it

Similarly, I spent my childhood watching my bipolar mother swing crazily from euphoric bursts of creativity in which she would sit at the piano for hours, banging out one complex piano concerto after another, completely oblivious to her children and our needs. On her good days, she could plan an entire program for her school’s holiday music concert in the course of a single evening. These were glorious displays of her extraordinary talent.

But then there were the bad days, where she would plummet into a  pit of doom that seemingly had no bottom to it, and that seemed to need nothing quite so much as to drag me down into the depths with her. Those were the times when I would cringe in my bed in the dark, waiting for her to burst into my room and demand tearfully that I come keep her company in the living room. Once there, she would  recount the day’s litany of wrongs, injuries and slights that had been done to her by life, by other people, by anyone but herself.

There was never an official diagnosis for her condition, primarily because in my mother’s eyes she was fine and everyone else was crazy. So she never sought treatment of any sort. But you tell me. What does this sound like to you?

Like mother, like daughter? 

In reaction against her perpetual emotional chaos, I carefully cultivated a persona that was her exact opposite: determinedly calm, detached and unflappable. I am the ideal person to have around in a crisis, because I can keep a level head when everyone around me is coming unraveled.

But secretly, I dreaded passing on the legacy to my own children.

I dreaded it so much, in fact, that I almost didn’t become a mother at all. As it is, I waited until fairly late in my childbearing years before giving birth to two beautiful, healthy daughters. So far, both of them seem to have escaped either manifestation of this curse.

Still, while my own moods have remained relatively steady throughout my adult life, my physical wellbeing — and the accompanying energy spikes and nosedives — has been rather unnervingly similar to my mother’s wild mood swings.

The legacy limps on

I spent years worrying that the only thing my daughters would remember of their childhoods would be watching their mother crawl around the house on her hands and knees on the days when the pain was particularly intense. It was the only way I could see to the day’s pressing needs, which are always present when there are small children in the house.

Now that they are grown (or nearly so), they can tell me themselves what they do and do not remember. And luckily, they don’t remember any of that. What they remember is going out into the back yard to hunt for flower fairies. They remember spreading big blankets on the living-room floor to accommodate the groups of friends who came for sleepovers, which of course never involved anyone getting any actual sleep. They remember trips to pools and parks and museums. They remember my appearing by their bedsides to soothe them if they awakened in the night. Normal kid stuff.

Whew.

Back in an upright position

These days, the demands on me are considerably lighter than they once were. My neurologist has prescribed a whole raft of powerful prescription drugs to manage the pain. And even if they can’t completely eliminate it, even on those days when the pain is still sort of hanging around and flying at half-mast, it’s still possible for me to function.

Even if the world is spinning dizzily around me as though I just stepped off a 90-mile-an-hour carousel … even if  my stomach is lurching and roiling with a volatile stew of acids … even if the jackhammers are mercilessly drilling craters in my skull … even if I’m so drained and fatigued I’m at the brink of bursting into tears … I can still manage to present the illusion that I am perfectly fine and all is well.

I’m not being a martyr. I just get tired of explaining myself, and I’m not willing to miss out on half of my life–or any of it, for that matter. Sometimes it’s easier to fake it as best I can in the hope that no one notices how grey my skin is that day, or how my hair hangs down around my neck in a limp clumpy mat, or how my eyes are sunken deep within dark rings that look like ghastly bruises. Or how I seem not quite as funny that day, not quite as sharp, a little slower on the uptake in an exchange of witty banter.

And sometimes, faking it can come reasonably close to actually making it.

Those are simply the days I won’t be going to the gym. You probably won’t find me mowing my lawn or washing the windows on those days. And if you’re really observant, you might notice that my face may be just a tad grey, my hair just a tad clumpy, and my eyes just a tad sunken and bruised.

And I just now got the joke you told me two minutes ago.

As a matter of fact …

You might even say I lead a double life nowadays, rather than a half-life. On any given day, there’s a 50/50 chance I am deliberately concealing my true physical condition to keep colleagues, friends and even close family members from guessing how I’m feeling. I take considerable pride in the fact that many people who know me fairly well have never guessed I even have this condition. (Although I suppose some of them are going to know now that I’ve posted this essay.)

And if it’s one of those truly awful days — one of those horrible terrible no good very bad days when even the maximum dosage of those drugs can’t make a dent  — it’s possible no one is going to see me at all. I do my best to avoid letting anyone witness what’s left of me on days like that. It’s not pretty. In fact, according to the small handful of people who have been there to see it, it can be downright terrifying.

Don’t worry. Be happy.

But I don’t think anyone should worry on my account. Truly. Because don’t forget: No matter how poorly I am feeling today, there’s a 50/50 chance that tomorrow, I’m going to be feeling just fine.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Articles, Chronic migraine, Essays, headache, healing, Migraine

In which I confess my shameful drug abuse

This is how a nasty addiction gets started.

The little lies I tell myself. It’s just for today, just to ease the stress a little, just to help get through a patch of bad weather.

I’ll stop as soon as things get back to normal.

They’re only painkillers. The doctor wouldn’t have prescribed them if they were truly dangerous.

Still, he’s only 17 — too innocent, really, to understand the consequences of the choices I am making for him. Too innocent to understand how he might come to crave the hazy euphoria that creeps up on him within seconds of my plunging the syringe deep, deep into his docile, yielding form, while he tries to meet with his trusting eyes my own shifty gaze. And if the demand increases while the supply dwindles, where can he go to get his next fix? To what depths will he sink to score the next hit?

I’m only thinking of him

But hey. What am I going to do? The heat wave of 90-degree-plus temperatures is forecast to hold for several more days, and every time my cat wanders out for even a few moments, he comes back inside crawling with fleas. I swear they must be lying in ambush right by the  door, just waiting to pounce on his  shoulders, where he is unable to reach around and pick them off with his teeth.

Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to insist that he stay indoors until the heat breaks. Maybe by then, the fleas will have given up on Mozart and moved on to some other neighborhood, someplace where pet owners allow their animals to roam a bit more freely.

Still, he would go out, in this heat, fleas or no fleas. He is very insistent about this. He’s even taken to hiding himself under the hutch by the door, poised to make a desperate run for it as soon as one of us opens the door on our way out.

Seventeen years of getting used to things being done a certain way is a lifetime to a cat, and I worry that the sudden change in the order of things might be too stressful for him at his advanced age.

Excuses, excuses

That was why, today, I gave him a dose of the painkillers the veterinarian prescribed for a dislocated shoulder, even though he is no longer limping. I try to soothe my stinging conscience by reminding myself that, including the dose he got that day, this is only his second. It surely can’t do that much harm. It’s for his own good. It’s to help keep him calm. To get him through a rough couple of days.

Even so, I can’t help thinking that if anyone ever got wind of my behavior, this would all look very, very bad in the tabloids.

And I can only thank my lucky stars that, at least up to this point, Mozart has never shown the slightest interest in penning a tell-all memoir about how I led him to a life of debauchery and ruin. 

If he ever does, I’m in deep, deep doo-doo.

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Filed under Articles, Essays, humor, Quick takes, Uncategorized, violation of trust, writing

Curvy schmurvy. I prefer well-rounded

Tell me if you see what’s wrong with this picture that was posted on Facebook from the Women’s Rights News web site: a plus-size model clad only in her lingerie, with this blurb emblazoned in all capital letters and vivid purple ink: “There is no such thing as percect (sic). There is just me, and guess what I’m OK with that.”

Underneath that photo is the text line: “Curvy is fine.”

Click here to see the photo:

Leaving aside the poor grammar and spelling in the blurb … and leaving aside, for the moment, the irony that such an act of self-objectification appears on a web site that purports to promote feminist values … I have to wonder if anyone besides me is bothered by the use of the euphemism “curvy” to mean something it doesn’t actually mean. It implies that all women of ample proportions are curvy, and that simply is not the case. It also implies that no slender woman can possibly be curvy. Also not true.

I prefer the term “full-figured,” which is far more accurate without being pejorative. Better yet, how about “intelligent,” or “talented” or even (and I know this is a radical notion) “human”?

But what’s even more troubling to me is the fact that women feel the need to pose in their underwear to prove something. Because frankly, I don’t choose my friends on the basis of how they look in their lingerie. I’m interested in knowing what books they’ve read, or the results of their latest lab experiments, or what they’re doing to eradicate puppy mills.

And if someone is judging me on the basis of how I might theoretically look in my skivvies–especially considering that the vast majority of the population will never in fact see me in them without the proper street attire on top–it’s probably not worth trying to prove anything at all.

Except perhaps how quickly I can move on to a more engaging conversation with a more well-rounded person.

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Filed under Articles, body image, Essays, feminism, friendship, Misogyny, Quick takes, social change, Uncategorized, writing

Chasing the elusive Chapter 2

Some people devote their entire lives to finding a cure for cancer. Some spend their lives looking for true love. For others, self-fulfillment is a lifelong goal.

The Holy Grail. The fountain of youth. The One Ring. Whatever the object, the quest for something larger than ourselves is what drives human civilization forward and separates us spiritually and intellectually from the animals.

Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah.

For me, I’m afraid, the goal is far more simple. At least it should be. I’d just like to finish Chapter 2.

Time to break the pattern

You see, it’s no problem for me, when inspiration nudges me toward yet another not-too-shabby book idea, to knock out Chapter 1. I have a long and impressive history of producing butt-kicking, attention-grabbing, spine-tingling first chapters. At last count, I had  six Chapters One for various books that never made it to Chapter 2.

Well, it’s time to break the pattern. Today I started working on Chapter 2 of the seventh pretty decent book idea that, come hell or high water, I am going to finish. Now. This summer.

And this time I’m pulling out all the stops, looking at every possible angle, studying every obstacle. And what I’ve discovered, as I think about all the distractions that have prevented me from forging ahead into the rest of whatever book I’ve started, is that my biggest obstacle is me, and how I always manage to get in my own way.

I have met the enemy …

I might call it something else. The dishes piled up in the sink. The papers that need to be graded. Serious questions about whether this is really going to be a marketable idea and, even if I succeed in landing an agent, who’s to say anyone will want to read it?

The reality is, those are all obstacles of my own making. I even understand the basic underlying principle here. If I never really make a serious effort, then I’ll never have to face the painful possibility that my best just wasn’t good enough.

No one has to tell me that this is the classic definition of failure. I already know from firsthand experience that the only regrets I have ever had in life are about the things I didn’t do. They’re never about the things I did do … even when those things didn’t work out as I’d hoped.

I know, too, that by sending myself my own rejection slips before I even get started, I am making sure no one else beats me to it. Unfortunately, in so doing I am also ruling out the possibility that somebody might be interested enough to take a chance on me. And that maybe somebody else–and maybe a lot of somebody elses–might actually be glad I made the effort.

Tell me what you think

Sound familiar? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please respond in the comments below and tell me what stops you from pushing through your own negative self-talk. And, tell me what tricks you use to get past it.  I’m looking for some good ideas, and there’s a good chance I’m going to try try some of your suggestions. If I do, I’ll write about it here and tell you how it worked out.

So there’s my challenge for my fellow authors out there. What does your negative self-talk look and sound like? What do you do to get past it?

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Filed under Articles, change, Essays, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

A paragon of professionalism

Pen poised, wits sharp, I nod in profound comprehension as my brilliant colleague, a science professor, explains the groundbreaking research he and his students have been engaged in. This is all familiar territory to me, having spent the past several years of my career reporting on some of the innovative technologies under development at the Notre Dame nanotechnology facility.

Paragon …

One of the things I like to reassure my scientist sources about right up front is my comfort level and professionalism with the subject matter. I want them to know they’re in good hands. That their prized investigative research  will be handled with the utmost sensitivity and intelligence. That they can entrust to me their most complex and advanced concepts, knowing that I will distill them into simple, easy-to-understand explanations without altering a single subatomic particle of their sense and meaning. I may be a journalist, I may be an English professor, I may be the writing center director, but I also have a head for grasping  complex scientific subjects and translating them into everyday language for a variety of audiences. (You can check my LinkedIn profile. I think it says almost exactly that.)

So here I sit, nodding knowingly, laughing appreciatively at his brainy-scientist jokes, scribbling furiously to get down some of his better quotes.

Heck, I even smile sagely when our interview is interrupted by a call on his cell phone and he carries on a brief conversation that goes something like this on his end:  “Pronto. … Sì… venti minuti … ” and a few other phrases I forget now but the point is I understand every word.

When he hangs up, I say, “Parli italiano? (Do you speak Italian?)” See? I even speak the same second language he speaks.

Yep. That’s me. Ever the consummate professional, right down to my high-powered demeanor and my businesslike attire: chic red sheath dress accented with pearl jewelry, ivory peach-skin jacket and  elegant ivory pumps.

… or paradox?

And, for the pièce de résistance, a big glob of spinach left over from lunch, wedged prominently between my front teeth. So every time I smile at him, which I do engagingly and often to demonstrate that I am right there with him, he can’t help but see it.

And which I myself don’t discover until I happen to glance in the mirror, several hours afterward.

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Simple pleasures

“Sssshhh; we need to use our inside voices,” I caution my students primly as we leave the sunlit campus courtyard to head back inside the building.

This is met with a burst of raucous laughter from my twenty- and thirtysomething students before we settle into a tasteful silence as we enter the hallways. Our decorum lasts mere seconds before we break into fresh merriment. They’re a witty group, and no one is exempt from the gentle barbs  … including the professor. (Lest anyone think we are using the fine weather as an excuse to goof off, I will add that the students have been sharing with one another their rough drafts for a final project, and the fresh air and green space helped to sharpen their mental faculties. Their comments on their classmates’ work are detailed, respectful and astute.)

“This is the best English class I have ever had,” Kaytlyn chuckles. “I’ve been telling everyone they need to try to get you as their teacher.”

I live for simple pleasures like this. A day warm enough to hold class outside, laughing loudly enough to disturb everyone  in the classrooms inside. An afternoon at the farmer’s market, chatting with the rosy-cheeked, suspendered Amish (Mennonite?) vendor about the absence of GMOs in the food he gives his chickens. And he shows me their picture: fat, glossy and smug, strutting around among patches of bright emerald-green grass. A simple meal of fresh, local, organic food in season. And a tree so beautiful on my afternoon walk it takes my breath away.

Spring took forever to get here, but today made it worth the wait. Well worth it.

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Never the Twain shall meet

I can’t stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people. I see what they are at a hundred years before they get to it and they just tire me to death.” – From a letter written by Mark Twain

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it now:

Samuel, Samuel, Samuel. Sometimes you need to know when to shut up.

This from someone who has been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain’s writings and pithy sayings. I love his books. I love his short stories. I love his little bon mots that have been duly passed down by generations of admirers.

Come see the softer side of Twain

I love repeating his famous bits of wisdom like this one:  “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

And of course, this oft-repeated classic: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

There are even times when he borders on lyricism and beauty. His book Adam’s Diary, a little gem that in my opinion gets far too little attention, ends with this tender line about Eve:  “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

Aaaaahhhh.

But spare me the venom

Sometimes, however,  Twain can be a little too much like the MTV character Daria.

For those who aren’t familiar, Daria is an animated TV series created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for the teen-to-young-adult audience of MTV. The series features Daria Morgendorffer,  a sharp, acid-tongued and decidedly antisocial teenager whose wry observations about the people around her expose the follies and hypocrisies of popular culture and suburban life.

At first, her relentless cynicism is entertaining and makes her sound edgy and sharp, maybe a little smarter than the rest of us. But after a while, you just want to smack her and tell her to get over herself. Knee-jerk cynicism isn’t really any more intelligent than rank sentimentality … and given the choice, I’d rather be friends with a sentimental fool.

In praise of happy endings

I say this because Twain’s scathing dismissal of Nathaniel Hawthorne feels particularly harsh to someone who, as a teenager, found redemption and hope in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Like his main character Hester Prynne, I felt publicly branded and stigmatized for sins that  were of other people’s making. The oppressive condemnation and ostracism from self-righteous Christians that I experienced in small (and small-minded) backwater towns felt remarkably similar to that of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s tale. 

The novel ends with a happy ending of sorts:  evil is exposed, the guilty are punished, and the heroine finds genuine forgiveness and peace … and even a measure of respect from the townspeople who once shunned her.

It was good news for me

Maybe a worldly man of Twain’s maturity and experience could see where that story was headed. But to a 15-year-old girl who could barely hold her head up for all the shame that was heaped on her, it was a revelation of astounding proportions that a respected man of letters and man of God might actually be on the side of the tainted woman.

So with all due respect to Twain’s undeniable wit, given the choice between a sharp-tongued cynic or a compassionate if sentimental fool, I’ll take the sentimental fool any day, hands down.

Because if we writers truly have the power to shape the world around us, then I want to be on the side of the ones who offer mercy and hope. Seems to me that’s a much happier ending.

And when you get right down to it, don’t we all, deep down, want happy endings?

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Filed under compassion, Essays, Faith, friendship, God, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing