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Three Years Later…

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Today is my blog’s 3rd birthday! Can you believe it? I’ve written 277 posts and still haven’t run out of things to say!

In those 3 books about God that I read this summer, they all said that we have many rebirths in the course of a lifetime, and the beginning of this blog year definitely feels that way. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, my baby brother had quadruple bypass surgery less than a month ago. What I did not mention at the time is that I am taking care of him, so his heart attack has been a life-changing experience for both of us. While taking on this new role has presented many challenges, in some ways it has simplified my life. My behavior is more intentional; my motivation for everything I do is clear. Many of the things I have realized in this past month relate to themes I have written about over the past 3 years, so I thought I would share some of them.

1. Self-care. I often tell people to treat self-care as though your life depends on it, because it does. Nevertheless, I still struggle with it. It’s hard to go to bed on time, to cook, to go to the grocery store. I still have trouble saying no. Still push myself to the point of exhaustion. But now that I’m taking care of my brother, self-care really does feel like life or death. I have to go to the grocery store and cook healthy meals because if I don’t, he can’t eat. I have to get out of bed, even if I don’t feel like it, because I have to check on him. I have to set limits, or I won’t have the energy to care for him. Like Romeo said in his last post, sometimes it’s better when you don’t have a choice.

2. Mantras. There are so many new things to worry about now that I often feel overwhelmed. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep. I wake up to anxiety attacks. In rare moments of stillness, I cry, thinking about what he went through, wondering how we will make everything work. But in addition to my usual mantras (e.g., everything is going to be OK; I’m doing the best that I can), I have added 2 more: 1) anything is better than him being dead, and 2) if God saved his life, then he’ll help me find a way. And that helps to calm me down.

3. SolitudeI offered to take care of my brother without really thinking about it. At the time, I didn’t realize it meant that he was going to live with me indefinitely. Not that it would have changed my decision. But it’s sort of like suddenly having a child without the 9 months to mentally prepare for it. There was a moment where I mourned the loss of my space, my freedom, but that quickly faded. And surprisingly, I have gained far more than I have lost. I have someone to watch football with. Someone to talk to when I get home, to share my thoughts with. He cares about how my day went, whether I won my tennis match. I don’t dread days when I have nothing planned now, because they’re not as dreadful when you don’t have to spend them alone.

4. FriendshipsMy friends are so awesome. I am so thankful for them. Even though they don’t know my brother, they call and text to ask how we’re doing. They’ve made meals for us. They say prayers for us. They wished me luck on my first day back to work because I was stressed about it. They’ve listened to me cry. They’ve spent hours putting together shelves so that my brother could have space for his belongings. They are taking good care of me, so that I can take good care of Romeo.

5. GratitudeIn my prayers, when I give thanks for all of my blessings, I always do so with some anxiety, knowing that at some point I will lose the things that I am thankful for. What will I do then? Fortunately, hardship and loss have heightened my awareness of how plentiful my blessings are. I am even more aware of what a gift it is to be able to breathe, to feel your heart beat, to walk. (All mindfulness exercises, by the way.)  I’m thankful that I have a job that has vacation days. I’m thankful that every day my brother gets stronger. That he is happier now than he was before the surgery.

If this period of my life marks a rebirth, then my goal in this lifetime is to be more fully aware of what a gift it is to be alive.

Life is Not a Test

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Once when I was at Wal-Mart I came across this Filipino cashier. She was excited to see me because there aren’t a lot of Filipinos where I live. So instead of speedily checking me out with as few words as possible, she asked me a bunch of personal questions. Which was a little awkward and probably annoyed the people behind me. But I still tried to answer all of her questions to the best of my ability.

Are you married? Dating someone? Do you have kids? A pet? She became more distraught with every “no” answer. I tried to make light of the situation. I have some plants, and I’m barely keeping them alive. That’s enough of a challenge for me. (Which is true, by the way. I don’t get much light in my place.) She didn’t seem reassured.

After I left Wal-Mart, I sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to think of how I could turn this blow to my ego into a blog post. I couldn’t think of anything at the time. It still hit too close to home.

In my defense, I tried to get the answers right. I got married. I tried to have kids. It’s not completely my fault that my marriages didn’t work out. And it’s definitely not my fault that I didn’t get pregnant. And I didn’t know I was supposed to get a pet if I’m alone. That was not in the study guide.

But to be honest, this is where I want to be. When I was in high school, I said I didn’t want to get married or have kids, but no one believed me. You’re just saying that. You’ll change your mind when you get older. You don’t want to be an old maid, do you?

I took their word for it and did what I was supposed to do. But maybe things haven’t worked out because I did know what I wanted back then, even though I was just a kid. I mean, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist and a writer back then, and those things are still true.

Since the Wal-Mart incident, I’ve gotten better at embracing the fact that the answers to my life make small talk awkward. I tell myself it’s OK. That life is not a test where there are right or wrong answers. So in the spirit of embracing who I am, here are 10 things that I’m taking off my wrong answer list:

1. I still love the song “Let it Go.”

2. I’m not a cat or a dog person. Or an animal person.

3. I bring my karaoke machine to potlucks instead of cooking something.

4. I don’t drink.

5. I count when I pee.

6. I don’t follow most of the advice on how to get your blog noticed.

7. I live my life more like a college student than an adult.

8. I’ve had two divorces.

9. I use an astounding amount of sweetener in my coffee.

10. I don’t change my sheets often enough.

If you have items you’d like to take off your wrong list, I’d love to hear them. It would help me feel more normal.

Why I Don’t Hate Valentine’s Day

This is the second year in a row that I will be spending Valentine’s Day alone. Well, I’ll be playing in a tennis tournament, so I won’t really be alone. But I probably won’t be getting any chocolates or flowers or anything. And if I do, that actually might be a little creepy.

Still, unlike many single people, I do not hate Valentine’s Day. I sat home alone last year and knitted and watched the Olympics, and that was fine. It wasn’t any worse than being alone on any other holiday.

To defend my pro-Valentine’s Day position, I thought I’d provide rebuttals to the most common anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments.

1. All holidays are made up. The most common objection to Valentine’s Day that I hear is that it is a conspiracy in which Hallmark, FTD, and Russell Stover Candies all got together and made up this day so they can sell more products. But the thing is, all holidays are made up. Think of Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day. We made those up, too, and nobody is complaining about it.

2. There are lots of consumer-driven holidays. But, you may argue to my response to #1, all of those holidays are not fueled by consumerism. Which isn’t true, either. I’ve seen lots of car commercials offering great deals for Presidents Day, and cars don’t have anything to do with Washington or Lincoln’s birthday.

Plus, have you ever heard of Black Friday? Which now starts on Thursday? The holiday on which people are supposed to spend time with their family eating turkey and pumpkin pie and watching the first Christmas special? Nobody throws anti-Black Friday parties that actually start on Thursday in protest of this consumer-driven conspiracy.

3. Chocolate. Most of the holidays that we don’t get a day off for at least allow us to indulge in something. Green beer on St. Patricks Day. Candy on Halloween. And chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Who could be against a day that celebrates chocolate? And if you’re single, you can go to the grocery store around 10 pm and buy chocolate at 50% off. And it tastes exactly the same.

4. Singlehood is nothing to be ashamed ofIn my opinion, living in a culture that makes people feel bad about being single is much worse than being alone on Valentine’s Day. I avoided being single for the first 45 years of my life, but I have to tell you, trying to pick out a Valentine’s Day gift for someone you don’t love is way worse than spending the day enjoying your own company.

5. I have people who love me. Being single does not mean that you are not loved. As I indicated in my post from last year, the best gifts I’ve ever gotten on Valentine’s Day were from my dad and my baby brother. So even though I am not in a romantic relationship, I know I am loved. I have always been loved, and I have faith that I will always be loved. And it’s nice to have a day that reminds me of this.

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robynola.com

Indispensable

Indispensable

My therapist once told me that I try to be everything to my partner–even things that he didn’t know he needs. This was not a conscious strategy. Why in the world would I want to do something so unrealistic?

After I thought about it, I realized that I want to be indispensable so that if the person needs something, I can say, don’t go anywhere! I can fix that! That way he can’t leave me.

This is a pretty common strategy for helpers–professionals and nonprofessionals. Everyone comes to us when they have a problem. We are such good listeners. We give fantastic advice. What would they do without us?

Although being indispensable gives the illusion of safety, in reality, it has not actually prevented people from leaving me. And it has not protected me from heartbreak.

Plus there are other drawbacks. It is impossible to be all things to all people, so I can never succeed. Which increases the likelihood that I will feel like a failure.

And even when someone thinks I am everything he needs, it becomes a burden because then I have to try to convince myself that I love him.

But then when I can’t convince myself, I still can’t leave him, since I tried to be indispensable so he wouldn’t leave me. That would be unfair.

So then I just start another relationship and let the new person’s needs pull me away from my existing relationship. Which is way worse than just breaking up with the person to begin with.

Or if he breaks up with me, I’m all devastated at first, but then I realize I actually didn’t like him all that much. Which makes me feel crazy for having invested so much energy into the relationship.

The biggest problem with trying to be indispensable is that, until recently, I never asked myself what I need in a relationship. This is proving to be a difficult question to answer because, as I indicated in a previous post, I don’t know how to distinguish my wants from my needs.

Usually the guy, my family, and my friends would tell me that I’m being unreasonable. So then I would try to convince myself I don’t really need what I think I need. But that doesn’t seem fair to me.

This is exactly why I am not looking for someone to date. Too many decisions that don’t make any sense.

However, I now realize that I can choose to give myself what I need. I can even choose to give myself what I want.

So now I don’t have to worry about someone else telling me I’m unreasonable. I don’t have to be afraid of being alone. Or force myself to try to love someone. Or try be indispensable so that I won’t be abandoned. In theory, at least.

So for now, that’s what I’m working on. Reminding myself that I am indispensable–to me.

Depression vs. Sadness

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‘Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder like me. Don’t get me wrong–I still love the holidays. But there’s a better than average chance that I’ll be depressed in the midst of them.

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sadness and depression–especially if you have been depressed and are worried that you might be getting depressed again. In a previous post, I admitted that I don’t always know. It’s not like a pregnancy test that you can take and find out that you’re either depressed or “normal.” There are degrees of depression, and I have experienced almost every point on the continuum.

Last year after my breakup, I was alone for the first time since I was 14, and it was tough. I was sad that my phone rarely rang. That I did not automatically have plans for the weekend. That I was helpless when it came to things like changing my air filter.

My sadness turned into depression over the holidays because in addition to being alone, I had to be around my family, which stresses me out, tennis season was over so I wasn’t exercising and didn’t see friends, and my sleep was out of whack because I was off for 2 weeks. Still, it was nothing like the full-blown major depressive episode I had several years ago.

If sadness vs. depression were an SAT question, then sadness is to a cold as depression is to the flu. You can barely get out of bed. You do not have the energy to do simple tasks. You are in pain. You feel like you may die. But the difference is, when you have the flu, you may blame yourself somewhat for not getting your flu shot or for kissing a sick person, but you don’t hate yourself for being sick.

One of the ways I distinguish between depression and sadness is in how I respond to the “think of people who are worse off than you” strategy. When I was too exhausted to do anything the past few weekends, I would think about all of those people who are bedridden and how awful that must feel. And then I wanted to do something about it. So I said one of my neurotic prayers: God, if there’s any way that my praying for these people who are sick and bedridden can help them feel better, then please let that happen.

When I’m depressed, I think about people who live in war-torn countries, and how that’s far worse than being depressed. So who am I to complain? This is nothing. I don’t even have a good reason for being depressed. I’m just lazy and irresponsible. So get off the couch and do something, damn it!

Since this is the time of year when I am vulnerable to depression, I am hypervigilant of possible signs. So far I’m tired and stressed, but no self-loathing. And I haven’t missed any work (knock on wood). Maybe I’ll make it through this year unscathed.

Why Blogging is Better than Dating

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Last year I told you how blogging is my new boyfriend, second only in my heart to tennis. And after a year of bloggng, I’m proud to say that our relationship keeps getting stronger. I think that’s why I’m in no hurry to find someone. Because blogging is a much more suitable parter in many ways. For example:

1. Blogging is a much better listener. I talk a lot. I want to share every thought that I have about what book I’m reading, what new insight I have from my latest therapy session, what happened in my last tennis match. In my relationships I usually started conversations with, I have a bunch of stuff to tell you! Usually stuff that they didn’t find all that interesting. Go figure. But in my blog I can talk as much I want, whenever I want, and in whatever level of detail I want.

2. I sleep better at night. I know a lot of people say that one of the hardest parts of being single is sleeping alone, but I have to disagree. I sleep much better by myself. My blog doesn’t care about my night owlness and that I don’t get out of bed until the afternoon sometimes. It doesn’t get annoyed because I toss and turn a lot. It never pulls the covers off of me in the middle of the night. And most importantly, blogs don’t snore or sweat or fart.

3. My blog doesn’t care that I’m obsessive. I have to admit, I even annoy myself sometimes with my obsessiveness. So I understand why I get on other people’s nerves. But my blog doesn’t care. I can check my stats a hundred times a day and my blog doesn’t say it needs a break from me. I can talk about the same things over and over again, and my blog won’t be like, you’ve already said that. If I decide to wake up in the middle of the night and send out a bunch of friend requests or look for people to follow, my blog doesn’t tell me I’m crazy.

4. My blog is always there for me. There have been periods over the last year that have been lonely and painful. I don’t think I could have made it without my blog. It has given me an outlet and an audience that I’ve never allowed myself to have. It validates my feelings. It hears my confessions. It helps me to let go, but in my own time. And when I’ve shared some of my lowest moments, it connects me to other people and reminds me that I am not alone. That I am never alone.

So thank you, blog, for helping me develop a better relationship with myself, and with all of you.

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don’t make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don’t have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA’s, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don’t schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don’t see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It’s just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I’m burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I’m being honest with myself–more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.