Love and Baseball

Photo by Mike Tigas via Flickr CC

(This is a guest post by Greg, my baseball-loving and very sweet husband.)

***

I have always been a baseball fan, and I grew up wanting to play for the St. Louis Cardinals. I remember pitcher Bob Gibson who was such an intense competitor that he continued pitching after suffering a broken leg. I never made it to the major leagues, but I did pitch in college.

When Barb and I were dating about 25 years ago, we went to a Cardinals game together. It was miserably hot as it often is in St. Louis, and I was very focused on the game. She said I ignored her and she swore afterward that she would never go to another game (one of our first fights). Over the years, she grew to tolerate baseball and even have some fleeting interest.

Of course, her interest was most intense when our son was playing little league and I was coaching. She loved the games and wanted to document every moment. Once she was taking pictures of our son warming up to pitch when one of his throws got away. The ball hit Barb squarely in the shin. Over the next few days, we watched as her leg took on a variety of technicolor hues. Barb may be very gentle, but she is also very tough.

This brings me to today.

Chris Carpenter is pitching for the Cardinals. Carpenter has been the ace pitcher for the Cardinals for several years, and he was a key to their championship in 2011. Carpenter has been out all season due to chronic pain, numbness, and weakness as a result of thoracic outlet syndrome. Just two months ago, he had a rib and part of his scalene muscle surgically removed. His return today is a testament to his determination. In baseball parlance, he is a gamer.

So, why am I writing about a baseball player on a self-compassion blog?

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that Barb has been struggling with chronic pain. Like Chris Carpenter, she has thoracic outlet syndrome. She was diagnosed by the same doctor that first identified Carpenter’s condition. Barb and I feel a kinship with this major league pitcher that we’ve never met.

Barb works at a job that requires a tremendous amount of typing. Typing (or any repetitive motion, such as pitching) exacerbates the pain of thoracic outlet syndrome. But, just like Bob Gibson pitching with a broken leg, Barb continues on with pain. She doesn’t like to complain–she just wants to do her job.

Today, though, Barb went against her basic nature. With my encouragement, she talked to her boss and explained her condition. Barb had been dreading this because she does not like to call attention to herself, but I thought she should let her supervisor know in case she needed anything down the line. Perhaps in an effort to channel Chris Carpenter’s determined spirit, she wore a Cardinals shirt to work (it was a “dress-down Friday). Her boss responded very reassuringly, telling her that she is one of the agency’s “rock stars,” and that they would do anything possible to support her.

Cardinals fans revere Chris Carpenter. He competes intensely, and by his example, he brings out the best in his teammates. His efforts are seen on televisions across the country.

I love the lessons and mythology that come from sports. But, as I talk with Barb tonight, I realize not all warriors wear uniforms. Not all heroes are famous. Let’s acknowledge all those who struggle with dignity, and let’s love and support them.

Long Days, Short Summer

Gretchen Rubin said, “The days are long but the years are short.” That’s how I feel about this summer. Some of the days dragged for me, especially dealing with more pain than usual (see my post Tiny Dreams). But now I don’t know where the time went. Everyone is back in school and fall is near.

Despite the pain, there are definitely fun times I will remember about this summer. I feel a little silly sharing them–they’re not exciting things like going on vacation or anything like that. But they mean something to me.

* Watching the HBO series, Flight of the Concords, as a family for the third time. It’s hard to describe the show’s appeal; you’d probably either love it or hate it. The series revolves around a pair of folk singers from New Zealand as they try to achieve success as a band in New York City. It’s off-beat and quirky. I love it that we all three laugh out loud through every episode. (Well, I’ll be honest. Greg did fall asleep once.)

* Turning a large walk-in closet in the basement into a makeshift recording studio for our son. We pinned old comforters all over the walls and had blankets lining the ceiling. A folding chair and old table for his laptop, plus his guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, ukulele and some other new instruments ordered off the Internet (a melodica?) made for a cozy space. It was pretty insulated, but occasionally I’d hear some random clapping wafting through the vents. I’m so happy our home could be a place where he could create his own wonderful (also off-beat, quirky, and make-you-smile) kind of music.

*Spending lots of time sitting on the covered patio just watching the birds and hearing the neighborhood kids playing. I really embraced just being, and didn’t worry that I didn’t “accomplish” much of anything this summer (see my post Busy Be Gone).

I’d be tickled pink if you’d like my self-compassion Facebook page–you can click here. You can also follow me on Twitter by clicking here. I’m turning into a social media junkie 🙂

Here is Gretchen Rubin’s heart-warming one-minute video, The Years are Short.

Tiny Dreams

Larry loves to dream, big or small, it doesn’t matter

People tell you to dream big

but maybe it’s the tiny dreams that matter.

Sometimes my dream

is just to make it through the day.

I wrote these lines a few weeks ago and have been waiting for more words to come to mind, words that would sound more positive and hopeful. (I shared in my last post that I’ve been dealing with a bout of increased pain–more than my usual baseline of chronic pain, which I’ve learned to manage.)

I’ve decided to stop waiting for any profound insights because I’m really at a pretty basic level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs right now. So, I’ve decided to take my own advice and focus on the tiny dreams:

  • When I feel tired, I will rest.
  • When I feel hungry, I will eat.
  • (And I’ll try not to get the previous two mixed up.)
  • When I feel sad, I will let myself cry.
  • When I feel happy, I will let myself smile.
  • When I need help, I will ask.
  • Regardless of how I feel, I will be kind.
  • I will remind myself that my blog is called The Self-Compassion Project!

Most of all, I will remember that tiny dreams are still dreams. All dreams matter.

Busy Be Gone

Brene´ Brown recently posted this on her Facebook page: “It’s so easy to buy into the idea that if we stay busy enough the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us. When they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.” This clearly resonated with people.  1,183 people liked it and 80 people commented. I replied, “Great idea, but I might be too busy to go.”

I love her writing, but sometimes Brene´ uses such big concepts, I’m not 100% sure what she means. I definitely relate to the part about busyness, but I’m not positive what it means about the truth of our lives catching up with us. Maybe I’ll figure it out as I’m writing. Maybe it will be a separate piece.

In my post, The Grass Always Grows Where You Water It, I wrote: “It’s May 1st, and I usually would have already had my monthly goals mapped out in my mind (and on paper). But not this month. I’ve been busy living, so that’s a good thing!” I also added that I wasn’t even worried about not having any formal goals. Well, I lied. I’ve been scared out of my mind. I’ve been doing a lot of not being busy, and I wonder if I’ll turn into some sort of sluggish sloth!  What if I never set another goal again?

Busy has always been a good thing in my family. It means you’re being productive. My family is of German descent, and I think it’s a cultural thing. During weekly Sunday phone calls, my mother cheerily told me to “Have a productive day.” In talking with another woman of German heritage, she said her mother said exactly the same thing! She also told me about a German word,  sitzfleish. It literally means the virtual flesh that exists between one’s behind and the chair. Figuratively, it refers to the ability to persist in one’s work, the patience that can endure anything, and the idea that work is more important than play.

I’ve certainly had a lot of sitzfleish in my life. I’ve prided myself on being able to plow through work and sit there until the job is done. And I’m not knocking the value of being able to keep your butt on the chair. It’s a skill that has served me well over the years, especially spending oodles of study time earning a doctorate and pounding out four books.

For me, busy has been fun. It has often meant being fully focused and engaged, in a state of creative flow.

My problem is that I take it too far. I don’t know when to stop, take a break, get up from the computer, walk around, stretch, move, breathe. Can you have too much creative flow? Sometimes I think so. I can get so immersed in what I’m doing that I forget to eat—and that’s saying something! (Maybe there’s a book in there…Write Yourself Thin.)

Ethan Nichtern, a popular Buddhist teacher, talks about the Tibetan concept of coemergence. He defines it as  “the ability of any particular phenomenon or experience to manifest as either wisdom or confusion, helpful or harmful, a weapon or a prison. So busy is not good or bad, it’s what we do with it.

I’ve never been good at finding balance in my life. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl. Greg teases me about it all the time. For example, when I want to change the thermostat in the house (and being a middle-aged woman that is about every five minutes), I ask him, “Are you hot or are you freezing?”

If there’s one good thing that has come from my chronic pain, it’s that it’s making me more mindful of my work habits. I simply can’t work for as long as I used to. But I’m still fighting that fact. I usually don’t notice I’ve worked too long until my body screams at me.

Hmmm, I’m sensing a new goal…start listening for the tiny whispers.

***

We have a great covered patio, and I think I’ve sat outside more this month than in all the months we’ve lived here combined (about 5 years). I’ve been watching birds build nests, listening to them sing, and feeling the breezes blow. I’ve enjoyed sharing this time with Greg, my college-age son who has been home more, and of course, Lily and Larry. As I’m sitting here finishing this, I see 7  Goldfinches, an Indigo Bunting, two Cardinals, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and two Wrens who live in the birdhouse you’ll see pictured below. I’ve named them Henry and Harriet. They seem like a great couple! I wonder if they’ve done much decorating in their house…

There’s no place like home.

Windy day!

Trying to get Lily and Larry to pose.

We’ve had enough of this!

A Horse with No Name

I traipsed through the long hallway with my large white envelope under my arm. I’m  seeing yet another doctor, carrying these films that are supposed to reveal what is going on inside of me. I open the door and see several people sitting there, with their own white envelopes. They look up briefly with a silent, knowing glance. I check in with the receptionist, my hand trembling a bit as I turn over my MRI. I notice for the first time that the envelope is marked “MISCELLANEOUS.”

But this story isn’t about me. Well, not only about me.

It’s been an exciting week for The Self-Compassion Project. Ashley Hasty’s Paint the Town Purple day was a huge success. Her Facebook Status 11 hours ago read: “Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for your support in celebrating and honoring those with Crohn’s Disease. We had 16 photos posted from at least 6 different states! We gained about 20 new “likes” on this Facebook page and there are 150 people talking about this project on Facebook! We are definitely taking steps toward raising awareness about Crohn’s, building a supportive community, and ultimately finding a cure!”

Toni Bernhard’s interview on her book How to Be Sick and coping with chronic illness reached the most people ever on this blog. One of her supporters said it so well: “A gentle and penetrating interview in which Toni reveals again her authenticity as a human applying wisdom to a senseless sickness. She demonstrates over and over again, the profound message of acceptance by exploring its mysteries, its boundaries, its illusions and strength. As Jack Kornfield says of mindfulness, ‘simple but not easy’. We are fortunate to have Toni.”

Yesterday I wrote about cancer, and about how everyone has a unique journey in their recovery process.

Today, I’m thinking about names, and how important they are. I don’t know about you, but when someone calls me, “Barb,” I feel seen, really known. It’s a little thing, but it makes a difference.  (Much better than “Hey you!”). In the same way, having a name for a condition, a diagnosis, can make people feel better. On the one hand, being told you have a horrible disease is frightening. But for the first time, you don’t feel like you’re crazy. There’s a legitimacy to having a name for your symptoms. Having a name for the problem also holds the promise of treatment, maybe even a cure. Once you have a diagnosis, you’re immediately part of a group of people in the same boat. You can rally together and be a team. And to top it all off, you get a colored ribbon!

So I’m thinking about all the people who aren’t sure what’s wrong with them. They’ve been to specialists, had all the tests, and carried their MRIs down many a hallway.  I  wish there was a ribbon for people like us. I even went to a paint store to look at paint chips, in hopes of finding the perfect color name for our ribbon. The best one I found was “Mysterious Mauve.” It’s a subtle mix between gray and purple. Beautiful.

Greg was reading over my shoulder and said this made him think of the song by America, “A Horse with No Name.” Yep. That’s going to be the name of this post.

Today, know that I believe you. I know you’re not crazy. Doctors do the best they can, but they’re human, too. They make mistakes. They don’t have all the answers. They don’t always have a name for what we have, but that doesn’t make it not real. As Toni said in her interview, “The single most important thing we can do is to be kind to ourselves.”

Have a restful weekend!

Cancer: No Single Path to Recovery

A winding road in Budapest
photo by Peter Sikori via Flickr

(I wrote this for another publication, so the tone is a bit different. I thought some of the ideas might resonate for people.)

Popular magazines tell readers how to live with cancer by having a positive attitude, attending support groups, and managing stress. While these strategies can be important, not everyone will follow the same path in their journey. In my counseling work over the years, I’ve learned there’s no one right way to cope, and variety in experience is the norm.

 Not Everyone Wants to Wear Pink

Now if I were diagnosed with breast cancer, I’d be tempted to use it as an excuse to go on a shopping spree to buy anything pink and sparkly. Yet there are plenty of people who don’t want to wear clothing and jewelry advertising the fact that they have cancer. Take  Amy, for example. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, a good friend gave her a T-shirt and baseball cap with the familiar pink ribbon logo on it, joking that she might need the cap when she lost her hair. Although Amy knew the gesture was well meaning, she was taken aback. She wasn’t ready to announce her cancer to the world. On the other end of the spectrum, another woman I know got a tattoo of a breast cancer ribbon and posted a picture of it on Facebook!

Positive Thinking Has Its Pitfalls

I’ve always assumed if I had some sort of life-threatening illness like cancer, I’d be doomed because there’s no way I’d have the requisite “good attitude.” Despite reading Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking when I was a teen, I’ve never quite gotten it down. We’re inundated with the notion that we have to find the positive in every experience. Fortunately, I think it’s a cultural myth that you have to “fight” cancer with positive thinking. From my take on things, positive thinking can backfire. If you’re so busy trying to look on the bright side, you may deny the reality that having cancer is scary. Experiencing a range of feelings including shock, fear, sadness, and even rage is normal. It takes a lot of energy to deny the reality of your feelings, energy that could be better used elsewhere. My advice? Allow yourself to feel it all, and don’t judge yourself if sometimes you simply need to whine and complain. It’s really okay to have a pity party sometimes.

Support Groups Are Optional

Another woman, Michelle, wanted to do everything possible to complement her medical treatment. She had read research that support groups were an important part of the recovery process, and she went to several meetings. Each time she left feeling worse than before. One of the most caring and sensitive people I’ve known, she absorbed all the painful feelings in the room. She also berated herself for any “self pity” she felt, when others clearly had worse situations. In addition, some people are naturally too reserved and private to benefit from support groups. I’ve spent much time reassuring these people that it’s okay— they don’t have to go to a support group. While it’s beyond the scope of this article, the research is actually conflicting on the subject. In 1989 there was a landmark study that argued for the curative power of support groups. More recently, though, systematic reviews of the literature have found there were problems with the research. The bottom line? Do what’s best for you, and keep in mind there are many different ways to get the support you need.

Avoid New Age Guilt

We’ve all heard about the mind-body connection—how stress can play a role in every-thing from the common cold to heart disease. Bob came in every week and said, “Are you sure I didn’t get cancer because of all the stress in my life?” Last year I took a course called Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, taught by professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, Ron Siegel, Ph.D. An important thing I learned was a concept he called New Age guilt. He said that in our zeal to use our minds to transcend pain and suffering, we tend to blame ourselves for everything that goes wrong with our bodies. Dr. Siegel reminded us of what happens to even great meditation masters: No matter how wise, skillful or compassionate they are their bodies fall apart in the end.

Give Yourself a Break

Life is hard. Add cancer into the mix and well, it can seem pretty unmanageable. This isn’t the time to put more pressure on yourself. You don’t have to be a perfect cancer patient—doing things a certain way. You’ll get lots of advice, and you need to judge for yourself what will be helpful. Sometimes positive thinking can perk you up; other times, it is a needless drain. Sometimes you want the support of other people; other times you need some alone time with the cat on your lap and your favorite music. And what you feel like doing one day may be completely out of the question the next. Remember to be gentle with yourself. Life is lived one day at a time.

Coping with Chronic Illness…Compassionately

Although Toni Bernhard’s book is called How to be Sick, I found it a lovely and poignant read on how to live, regardless of one’s health status.

Toni was a law professor at the University of California–Davis when she became ill on a trip to Paris in 2001. At the time, she was diagnosed with an acute viral infection–“the Parisian flu” they called it. Unfortunately, she never got better. Amazingly, she wrote How to be Sick from her bed using a laptop. The book won the 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award in Self-Help/Psychology and was named one of the best books of 2010 by Spirituality and Practice.

Toni has not recovered her health, but her spirit remains strong. She writes regularly for Psychology Today and generously donates her time and wisdom. I was so excited when she graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog.

When do you accept your pain or health condition as is, and when do you keep trying new approaches?

In my opinion, we have to do both. Acceptance is not the same as indifference or resignation, which carry aversion with them. Acceptance to me is an opening of the heart to the difficulties we face and being able to say, “This is how things are right now” even if “how things are” is difficult. I try to accept how I am AND continue to pursue new treatments. But I’ve learned a lot in the past eleven years about having to pick and choose skillfully among those treatments.

First, of course is the cost. I’ve spent so much money on failed treatments that it’s been a strain on our budget. At the point when the strain outweighs any benefit I can foresee, I stop (I did this recently with the third Chinese herbalist, even though he’s one of the most respected herbalists in the world).

Second, I’ve had to learn to not just jump at every treatment option, but think about it carefully and see if it’s at all reasonable. I used to try everything. Now, I’m very careful.

So, you have to find a middle way — but to me, acceptance of how you are now AND continuing to pursue treatments are not in conflict with each other.

I have also gone through periods where I’m just too exhausted to keep an eye out for treatments. I just retreat, as if I’m in hibernation, and that seems to be good for me sometimes too.

How do you have self-compassion when you’re feeling sick and tired?

I always tell people that the single most important thing they can do is to be kind to themselves. I look at it this way. We control so little in our lives, but the one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves. I see no reason for us not to be as kind and gentle with ourselves as we can be. It’s not our fault that we have health problems. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured. It will happen to everyone. This is how it’s happening to us. I’ve had so many people write to me and say the single most important thing they got out of my book was to give up the self-blame and forgive themselves for being sick or in pain. Many people have said they didn’t even realize they hadn’t forgiven themselves until they read How to Be Sick. Those emails always touch me so much — just to know I’ve been of help to them.

I really think it helps to speak to yourself with words of self-compassion — to find just the right words for the moment: “It so hard to be sick yet another day.” I said to my husband yesterday, “I’m sick of being sick.” But, instead of “feeding” that thought with stories I spin: “I’ll never get well.” “I’ve been cheated of eleven years of my life,” I’ve learned to just let myself feel “sick of being sick” and speak to myself kindly about it. It’s natural for that emotion to arise so I try not to make it stronger by feeling it with worse-case-scenario stories. Instead, I’m just gentle with myself until the emotion passes — as it will.

How do you deal with uncertainty and unpredictability that goes along with chronic illness?

I use what I call “weather practice,” which I describe in my book. It was inspired by the movie, The Weather Man, which takes us inside the meteorologist’s craft where we see that the weather is unpredictable and ever changing. I use this as a metaphor for life. It helps me hold painful physical symptoms and blue moods more lightly. I can’t predict when they’ll arise but I know for sure that they’re just blowing through, like the wind. It makes it easier to wait them out. It applies to what happened yesterday when I suddenly got that “sick of being sick” feeling. I wasn’t expecting it to descend on me but it did. So I let it be there, knowing that it was an arising and passing mood. Sometimes, I do something particularly nice for myself — put on a movie — until the mood passes.

I also like to remind myself that uncertainty and unpredictability can work in my favor. We assume they’ll be a source of stress, but they could also mean that something unanticipated but wonderful is just around the corner. So, I like to remember that these two can be our friends.

How do you pace yourself (not doing too much on good days, then paying for it later)?

Now you’re asking about something I’m not very good at doing. I get off the hook a bit because my symptoms are pretty consistent from day to day — relentless you could call them. So for me, it’s not a question of overdoing it on a good day v. a bad day, but of overdoing it when something I enjoy is going on — like my son and his family coming up for the day from Berkeley. I try to pace myself but usually overdo it anyway. Then what do I do? Self-compassion again! There are some limits to which I can’t stretch myself, but visiting in the living room for longer than I should is one of them. And so I do it, and accept that paying the consequence was worth it.

How do you deal with anger?

I’ve been angry about my inability to be with my family more than I can. Sometimes, I do have to leave the living room and it’s hard to listen from the bedroom to all the laughter and good times I’m missing. But I’ve learned that getting angry doesn’t get me anywhere. It certainly doesn’t allow me to visit longer. All it does is increase our suffering.

Anger will arise. Don’t be upset with yourself for getting angry. It’s a natural response to your situation. The question is, how can you respond skillfully to it so as to minimize the suffering it causes. Here’s what I do. I note that it’s there, often by labeling it, “Feeling angry” or “This is what anger feels like.” I don’t get angry at myself for being angry — that’s just a judgment that makes the anger worse. In fact, I try to treat it like a guest I know well — an uninvited one perhaps, but still a guest. I find if I do this, it doesn’t fester and grow stronger. Then I look for what’s behind the anger. Almost always it’s some form of desire — I’m not getting what I want or I’m getting what I don’t want. It’s that “want/don’t want” I refer to in the book.

Just finding the desire that’s the source of the anger often loosens its grip on me, because I know, deep down, that we simply can’t fulfill all our desires and that if I continue to be angry about it, it will only make me more miserable and, in the end, won’t get me what I want. So, with this awareness that anger is present and that it’s because of a desire I can’t fulfill, I just let it be. Just sit with it. Just let it be until it gradually changes, weakens, and passes out of my mind. This is one of the ways in which the law of impermanence can be our friend!

Again, I’m so thankful to Toni for sharing her wisdom.  

To soak up more of Toni’s inspiration, click here.