Sunday, September 27, 2009

Change in Others

This weekend I've been thinking a lot about the change we see in others, and how we - how I - deal with it. And it seems to me that it might be harder to deal with change in others than it is to deal with the change we struggle to create in ourselves.

My father lives in a nursing home, and he hates it. I don't blame him; unfortunately I don't have a better solution. He wants to stay in the rural area where he's lived most of his life, and the services that might have kept him living at home just aren't available.

So he's angry, and bitter, and I understand that and I hate the fact that I can't change it. But this weekend I realized something else: the sense of humor that has always been so much a part of him - a dry, subtle sense of humor that most people don't even see - it's gone.

It may not be gone completely but that twinkle in his eye that says "got you again!" has become very rare. Understandably so; who makes jokes when you're unhappy?

But I realized today that losing that part of my father really hurts. It's as though my real father died, and I'm left with this shell that looks like him, but isn't really him at all. And I also realized that not only does this change in him make our relationship difficult, but my refusal to deal with who he is, rather than who he was, is not making things any easier.

I need to work on my view of him - and my own sense of guilt for his being in the nursing home in the first place, which muddies the water even further.

If I still loved my mother when she was deep in the grip of terminal cancer, can I not still love my father when he is deep in the grip of a painful old age? I need to let go of wanting him to be my father; he is done with that. I started trying, a couple of years ago, to accept the fact that I can't make him happy. The best thing - maybe the only thing - I can provide for him now is companionship, and in order to do that, I have to stop wanting him to be who I want him to be - the Dad of 10 years ago - and accept who he is now.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Plan

It's been a busy weekend - a lovely dinner party in honor of my niece and her new husband, and a trip to see my father, who lives in a nursing home a hundred miles away. He hates the nursing home and I hate having him there, but there are no other solutions he's willing to consider, so that's where he is. But his unhappiness is hard to deal with. I love him, but I am happy to be at home.

I am drinking a glass of red wine. My favorite lentil-squash "stew" is simmering on the stove, and I have a very old new-agey CD on the stereo - something I seldom listen to, but tonight I need to have the rough spots smoothed away, and this music seems to be working.

Weekends like this are difficult for me, because I seem to need a lot of solitude before I return to the work-week. Not having it makes me feel as though the coming week is chasing me down before I'm ready. As soon as the stew is cool enough to refrigerate, I'll go to bed with a book. While I wait for it to cool, though, I want to write down some of the things that I think are important in making this new and very big change.

I am working towards two goals: to get my daily blood sugar readings below normal (they aren't, yet), and to lose 50 pounds in 25 weeks, beginning last week.

I'm going to accomplish this with exercise and diet, and that requires changing my routine, changing the way I look at food and eating, and changing the amount and quality of food I eat. I have a lot to learn.

It's important to be realistic about what I'm up against: I will be 50 next year; it's far easier - and more common - to gain weight than to lose it at this time in life. I take two drugs, both of which are conducive to weight gain. My thyroid functions well below normal as a further side effect of medical treatment. And I have a long history of living on pizza, cheeseburgers, and scotch. (And ice cream.)

The first major step towards change is awareness. I got a good start on that with the blood sugar scare last week, but that fear will fade sooner than I think. Here are some of the things I have observed, or want to observe:

Hunger - I think that healthy people eat when they feel hunger. I had reached a point where I ate whenever I was no longer full. I seldom got hungry, as a result, and I often felt overfull. So when I have the urge to eat, I need to pay attention: Am I truly hungry, or am I just not quite full? Am I feeding my head - from anger or sadness or fear - or am I feeding my stomach?

Food choices - last week I worked hard to eat a low-carbohydrate, low-fat diet, and it felt really good. I never felt hungry. This weekend I relaxed more than a little; tomorrow I want to be back on track. As a start, tomorrow's meals are already planned, and that's good, because if I don't plan ahead, I make very poor choices. At the same time, I understand that cheeseburgers are one of my favorite foods; as a result, I get one every time I make the road trip to see my father - one cheeseburger every three weeks. That satisifies me, but probably won't kill me.

Motivation - It would be very easy to say "oh, well, I don't have diabetes after all, so why not loosen up a bit." This is why I've gathered together all my books on the subject - nutrition, the food business in this country, emotional eating - with several books on diabetes added as of this week. Each day I will read some portion of one of these books, and write down the major points in the journal I'm keeping. I want to remind myself, daily, of my reasons for doing this.

The journal is where I'm tracking progress. There is a section to make notes on my readings. There is a food journal, where I track not only what I eat, but how I fight or give in to excess. Weight and blood sugar are recorded here as well,, and exercise for the day.  Then there are a few random pages where I jot down ideas or insights. These are obvious, very broad, and would sound silly to people who aren't standing where I'm standing - but I need to learn to reward myself for making good choices, if only to take a moment to celebrate doing the right thing.

This is the first time in years I've felt confident of making change; the first time, perhaps ever, that I've laid out such a detailed  plan. But it's not an easy goal; if it was, I'd have accomplished it years ago.

I'm going to put my low-fat, low-carb, high-fiber stew in the refrigerator, grab my "prediabetes/diabetes prevention" book, update my journal, and call it a night.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


What kind of motivation does it take to make a big change?

I had wanted to quit smoking for a long time before I actually did it, but I had a number of reasons I believed would cause me to fail (yet again.) Allen Carr's book convinced me, in an afternoon, that I actually could succeed, and for that I am forever grateful.

I realized very soon after I quit smoking that one of the times I really missed smoking was when I was on the verge of losing my temper, or otherwise losing control. For twenty-five years, I had managed my emotions by walking away from a situation, smoking a cigarette, cooling off, and coming back. I thought I knew all the reasons that made me a smoker, but I didn't know I used it for the physical management of emotions - and I couldn't do that any more.

I began to learn to manage my temper in a more positive way. I joined an on-line political discussion group so that I could learn to present a reasonable and solid argument. But that was only a partial solution. Slowly I began to lean on food for far too many things - celebration and consolation, relief of boredom, a brake on frustration.

That behavior, plus the side effect of my medications, brought me where I am today - 5'9" and 220 pounds.

I have another problem with losing weight, and that's a societal one. I think I became a feminist at 13, the day Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs -a long time ago. I am well aware of the fashion, beauty, and weight loss industry's reliance on making women feel less than acceptable. Not being the cute cheerleader at the front of the room, I learned early on that if I didn't learn to value myself for who (rather than what) I was, I would never be happy. (This would have made for a very healthy woman had not depression intervened to convince me that I was ntohing at all.)

So I have a real problem with diet plans and programs; I think they are almost all, at heart, exploitive of women, and I don't trust them any further than I can throw them. I was in an on-line Weight Watcher's group for a while, but it tends to have a large number of somewhat more traditional women, and I just didn't mesh well with the group. Not their problem at all,  mine - but a problem.

In a way, this diabetes scare was the best thing that could happen to me. It gives me the motivation I've been lacking: first-hand knowledge of a diagnosis I want to postpone as long as possible. I have a measurement - blood glucose - that doesn't buy into all the the cultural garbage about women looking ":wrong."

And I have a collection of books with information about the problem I'm trying to deal with, and I'm going to use every one of them.

Serious Change

I learned today that I have a terrific second chance, and I intend to take advantage of it.

I am genetically predisposed to diabetes. Both of my parents, both of my grandmothers, uncles on both sides, and my sister all had or have it.

I've gained a lot of weight with the help of antidepressants, lithium, and the effect of lithium on the thyroid., I'm a good 50 pounds overweight.

Those two things are major indications that some day, I'm going to be diagnosed with diabetes. For most of this week, I expected it to happen today.

Because scales don't work well for me in trying to lose weight, I bought a blood glucose monitor last week. I thought it would motivate me to lose weight and keep my blood sugar in check.

My first test was Saturday, and it scared hell out of me. Fasting blood glucose between 100 and 126 is considered "prediabetes." Over that is a very strong indication of diabetes. My readings were over 170 for two days in a row, over 150 for four.

Even though I have expected a diagnosis, given my risk factor, I was deeply upset. I called the doctor first thing Monday and made an appointment for Thursday - the earliest time possible.

While I waited and worried, I also bought and read books on diabetes, changed my eating, and started 25-30 minutes of daily exercise.

Today I got the results of my A1C blood test - a test that checks average blood sugar for the past few months. I don't know how it worked out this way, but I don't have diabetes. And I'm thrilled; absolutely thrilled. This is a gift.

So I am not going back to my old ways. The weight is coming off. I am not going to blow this second chance.

This will not become a weight-loss blog, but because my weight gain is in part a result of the treatment of my depression, and because this is going to be some really serious constructive thinking, I will write about it here here from time to time, especially at the beginning.

For now, I'm just happy and relieved. And I laughed at myself this afternoon, because, although I won't ever overeat my favorite food, it's good to know that once in a while, "I can still has cheesburger!"

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Resolutions and New Paths

Whenever I have a few days off, as I did last weekend, I try to take a little time to step back and look at my life, to identify those things that work well and those that don't. Very often I come away with a plan for change. Sometimes those plans "take," more often they work for a little while and then fall away - but even then, they have nudged me a little closer to where I want to be.

This time the issue is, once again, weight. Very simply, I am nearly 50, I am obese, and I am genetically in a high-risk group.

I started gathering books from various stashes in my apartment, to try to make a plan. And because I hate the concept of dieting, and scales don't mean much to me, I decided to buy a glucose monitor to help monitor my progress.

Today I checked my blood sugar for the first time, and the news is -- not good. I'm going to test every day this week and at the end of the week make a doctor's appointment. But - when I see her, I want to see her with a plan in hand.

I also ran to the bookstore for a half-dozen books on diabetes, glucose, etc., and moved a picture of my parents into the kitchen. Both of them were diabetic. Dad doesn't manage his very well. When my mother was diagnosed she was told she was "a slice of pie away from a coma." She turned into a bulldog, and diabetes was her enemy. She lost weight, she changed her diet, and never needed insulin until chemo screwed up her entire system.

I'll be writing about this - and about my plan - off and on in weeks to come, because my attitudes towards food and much of my weight gain are directly or indirectly related to my years of depression and the treatment for it.

It's strange. For much of my life, I didn't get along well with my mother (my depression was a serious wall between us; fortunately it  started coming down a year or two before she died) -- but this morning it feels like she is right behind me, encouraging me and offering to help me learn what I need to learn. It's a strange feeling, but a very good and welcome one.

Now I have some reading to do.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Navel-Gazing: a Justification

I had an experience at work today which made a lot of my effort at self-improvement, at constructive thinking, worthwhile.

I have been working for months on a project with little leadership and less direction. It requires a huge amount of effort for a very small payback, and no one wants to touch it. I've been struggling for months to write a program that is central to the project, for which I had no specs -- I haven't even been able to verify the data coming in or the data that should go out.

This is my idea of employment hell. It saps the energy out of you; it reminds me of what Pirsig, in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," called a gumption trap. Wiki (I'm not going to try to find the novel right now) describes it as "an event or mindset that can cause a person to lose enthusiasm and discourage them from starting or continuing a project."

This morning, after a few days off, I went back to the office, energized and ready to start again, only to find an email from my supervisor: "Julia, your program is getting too complicated. I rewrote all your code. Can we meet this afternoon to go over it?"

All kinds of things went through my mind:
- You've done this once before and never admitted to it.
- I've been asking for help for weeks; this is not help
- If you were going to write the goddamned program, why wait until I've beaten myself silly over it?

oh my God, what an insult, and

- he's rejecting all my work, and
- I'm a lousy programmer, and
- he's not going to fire me but I bet he wishes he could.

It felt like such a huge rejection, of my work and my effort and ... it was awful. A cross between anger and shame that hits me whenever I am publicly wrong.

All morning, whenever I thought about it, I had to fight tears of anger and frustration. But constructive living kicked in: feel what you feel, but act. So I turned my back on the program for awhile and did other, smaller jobs that had been pushed aside during testing.

Lunchtime came and I was still, well, gobsmacked by the whole thing. And I knew if I met with my supervisor in that state, I would either lose my temper, or cry (I have a tendency, much detested, to lose control and cry when I'm angry.) I had gain control before the meeting started. I began to think about cognitive errors.

- Does he wish he could fire me? Probably not. The guy I replaced couldn't get along with anyone, and I get along with just about everyone. That counts. And I have other duties in addition to writing this one program, and he would have to find someone else to do them. As an employee, I'm a net gain - although it probably doesn't feel like that every day!

- Am I a lousy programmer? Yes and no, and mostly no. I told him when I was hired that I was a good maintenance programmer, but that I hated writing my own code. In fact, every organization I've worked for avoids writing original code, because it's so expensive. But my boss loves to code. I don't. So, yes, I'm bad at a task we try to avoid; I'm good at the task for which I was hired.

- Why didn't he just rewrite it weeks ago and save me all the hassle? Because he hasn't had time to look at it earlier, and (truth be told) he wasn't sure what he wanted the program to do (see missing specs.) In the four rewrites of this program that I've done, I've hammered out most of the specs and the potential errors. That was a big advantage for him in the rewrite.

- You've done this once before and never admitted it. Yes, in fact, he has done this once before, and he didn't tell me - just quietly put the rewritten code into production. That was a shitty thing to do, and I think he felt badly about it, because the first thing he said in the meeting was "I feel like I'm treading on your toes here." No, really?

- Oh, my God, what an insult! Was it an insult? Hello to the Buddha, hello to Dr. Al: it is an insult if I perceive it as one; if I'm so attached to my reputation as a programmer that I can't take criticism. But - he's a much better programmer than I am. The new program is a great improvement. If he had re-written it and it was worse, then I might be upset. But it's better.

And he did acknowledge the groundwork I had done. (I think he also realizes that he's not being particularly helpful to my growth as an employee when he pulls this programmer-ex-machina stuff, and he prides himself on his managerial skills - with reason.)

As I sat there sifting through everything I've learned about emotion and control and what's really important, pulling out nuggets to help me get through each part of the meeting, I realized that pre-medication I would have burst into tears, quite possibly lost my temper and, if not my job, at least my boss's respect. Post-meds, with what I have learned from the Buddha's teachings, and constructive living, and Dr. Al, and cognitive therapy -- I can't say I sailed through the meeting, but I can say I handled it better than I ever thought possible. I think my supervisor was surprised - and I'm willing to bet that he was impressed - that I handled it as well, as gracefully, as I did.

Doesn't mean it was a good way to handle things, and there's no way I can claim a poker face - he knew that I was unhappy about the way it was handled. But it's done and I still have a job and the long nightmare of screwing with that program - having to face, daily, a task that requires my weakest skills - may be just about over.

It could have been much worse - especially if my actions had been negative. Just when I think I spend way too much time thinking about this stuff, I get a payback like I had today, and it makes me want to keep getting better.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Time off

I am very fortunate; I live alone and I have time to think about perspective, and priorities. I realize this is a luxury.

(Here is a good example of multiple perspectives: I know there are others who would look at my life and think "Poor Julia, no husband, no children, all alone in the world, nothing to distract her." Ha! And there are still others who think "If Julia would only be more involved in the world she wouldn't spend so much time navel-gazing; just think what she might accomplish." And my mother: "Julia, if you would just do something instead of thinking so much!" Those, and other, views have come from inside as well as outside at various times in my life. The perspective in the opening sentence is the one I'm working with these days.)

I have always worked in the non-profit sector. It's less demanding, I think, than the for-profit world. It's also less lucrative - in terms of dollars. It's much more lucrative than the average American corporate job in terms of time. I get about a month off a year, maybe a little more.

For a long time I hoarded time off - I don't know why. Maybe I was subconsciously preparing for a time when I couldn't work; I really don't know. Now I have about a month coming (which I can't take all at once.) So I took a couple of extra days on this Labor Day weekend; I'll take a few more at the end of a conference I'm attending in October.

What I've realized over the last few years is that I need regular, extended breaks. Even though my medications keep me relatively healthy, there is still a lot I need to learn, a lot I don't do well, and life is simply more tiring than it would be if I had always been well, if I was better at dealing with people and situations.

I know, too, that I tend to lose my focus, or my perspective, if I don't take time for mental tune-ups. When I get to the point when work is keeping me awake at night, when I'm digging into clothes I haven't worn in months because everything is in a pile to be ironed, when I haven't eaten anything but frozen food or take-out in over a week - then it's time to take a break. I've lost focus, I'm running too fast in too many directions, things are piling up, and I've lost track of what's important.

I haven't really done much with this break -- some ironing, a lot of reading, some movies. Not as much writing as I expected, and probably more napping than was strictly necessary. (I finally finished Anna Karenina!)

Today, the fifth and last of my days off, I'm finally feeling a little peace. Whatever has been chasing me is quieted for now. I am rested; I can think. I can smile. I just now realized that I haven't been smiling lately.

I just bought some music by a new performer, Zee Avi, so I have something to listen to this afternoon if the temperature stays reasonable and I feel like finishing the ironing. In the meantime, I'm going to visit the bookstore, buy too many books, and take a notebook to the Japanese restaurant down the street, where I can drink sake, have lunch, and make notes.

In the next day or two I'll write about the priorities that floated to the top during this break.

...and How it Went

It went well, actually. Most people my age talk about drinking more than they actually drink; we have all (all who aren't actually alcoholic) paid the price of hangovers and alcohol-induces errors in judgment and have had enough.

So we had just enough to drink to unkink the muscles and the shyness, from which I suspect all three of us suffer. We were in the country, deep in a woods, and spent much of the evening simply watching the changing light on the leaves. There was the most beautiful old - ancient - oak tree, with knarled, twisted, angled limbs. I've never been able to draw, but I know if I lived in that house I would spend hours trying to draw that tree.

The word "gloaming" comes to mind, from the old song - 'In the gloaming, oh, my darling, when the lights are sad and low / In the quiet shadows falling, softly come and softly go.'

So, I didn't drink too much, I didn't try too hard to be funny, and I didn't talk too much. I did find that as I drove away, composing a mental thank-you note, I wanted to apologize for any number of things. It took a while to convince myself that I had nothing to apologize for.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


I've been invited to dinner at the home of some people I don't know well but would like to know better. I'm trying to think of the things I need to keep in mind:

- Stop drinking early so I can drive home; I really don't want to overdrink and have to spend the night.
- Remember that years of depression gave me a sense of humor; I can be very funny, and it isn't necessary to try too hard.
- If I pitch my voice low and speak a little more slowly than usual, my tongue won't (I hope) outrun my brain.

As usual, not knowing what to take with me, I'm taking too much -craft root beer and ginger ale, chips and salsa, and a key lime pie I couldn't resist at the store.

I haven't written as much lately because I've been working on two goals: trying to shut the work project off when I leave the office (I've watched several movies this week), and trying to get through "Anna Karenina." Forty-five pages left; maybe I can do it before I leave for dinner.