On Being Better

One morning last week I had coffee with a dear friend. After, I drove home, climbed into bed, and pulled a pillow over my head for three hours. She was probably in the same place: taking longer to recover than the time we spent together.

But it was worth it. Not for the coffee, which was excellent, or even the quiet morning of conversation, which was delightful, or even the lunch of Korean beef stew she had prepared, which was delicious.

She understands—she’s a mom with chronic headaches too.

We talked about the usual things—our kids, their troubles at school, the challenges of their busy lives. But also—how hard it is to be sick when someone else is relying on you. The phases of disability. And what it means to be better.

Why is it that when you’re sick or in pain, every day, better is such a loaded word?

Better is a frame of mind. It means admitting something’s wrong. Why is it so hard to admit that without feeling shame?

Better is okay to put aside. It’s okay to pretend: “I’m just fine the way I am.” Even if: I can’t do as much as I used to. I can’t do as much as everyone else. I’m out on disability. Or any of the other things that get me down. Sometimes, a little bit of denial is perfectly fine.

Better comes in small doses. Yesterday I didn’t get out of bed. Today I walked to the mailbox. I declare: I’m better.

Better is a moving target. One day’s better is another day’s sick.

Better is a little bit of sunshine. Wow, that feels good. One sunny day can really turn things around.

Better is one day where I only have to take care of ME.

Better is beyond your control. If you’re sick, you’re already doing everything you can just to get through each day. Being expected to heal yourself—when all the doctors you’ve seen couldn’t—is obviously impossible.

Better is different for everyone. Just because my friend and I both have headaches doesn’t mean we’re both fighting the same battles. She gets better as the day goes on. My pain gets worse. No one knows what you’re going through except you, even if your daily battles have nothing to do with illness or pain. Everyone’s carrying something up a hill, every day. No one can forgive you for not being better…except you.

So today, do whatever it takes to lighten your load, even a little.

Put down that pack.

Take yourself, just as you are.

You are just the way you are meant to be.

You don’t need to BE better.

You can do this the way you are.

And someday,

Yes,

Things will GET better.

But YOU don’t have to make them that way.

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Why I Write

I’m bad at taking vitamins, keeping track of my glasses, and returning library books on time. My cats probably wish I would change the litter box more often. If it weren’t for my husband waking up thirty minutes early each morning and doing all the hard work—making the kids’ lunches, being my alarm clock, turning on the coffee maker—I’d be a deadbeat mom. A morning person I am not, especially since chronic headaches invaded my life three years ago.

But I’m pretty good at writing. Sometimes. I try to do it every day, although I’ve reached the stage where I now think everything I wrote two years ago is crap. I believe this is progress.

What I’m really not good at? Putting myself out there.

Whether it’s posting regular blog entries (Me? have anything to say that people would want to read?), or submitting my short stories (Is it good enough? Is it worth sending if they’ll just reject it anyway?), I fall short of the last essential stage required to BE A WRITER:

Letting my work be read.

I mean, I’m really not writing just for me. I say that, to justify the hundred thousand words I’ve written in the past year. I say that to my disability company, because truthfully, I’m not fit for gainful employment (and certainly not capable of performing the duties of a pediatric anesthesiologist sixty hours a week—yikes). Staring at a screen for more than a couple hours quite predictably gives me a headache, which I wake up with every day to begin with. So why do I write?

Writing is its own kind of therapy. It keeps me from going crazy. It is a substitute for the intense mental hoops I used to jump through, juggling the anesthetic management of up to fourteen children a day, supervising residents, conducting trials, taking classes, and writing research papers. I never wanted to leave my career at the age of 38. I dearly miss my job. Writing gives me something to do each day. So would yoga.

Don’t get me wrong—I like yoga. But even in the middle of the one class I’ve found that’s mellow enough for me to get through, I’ll find myself zoning out, revising my latest story in my head. (Especially during the ten minutes of sitting and breathing. I know it’s meditative. It’s probably great for my headaches. But it’s boring.)

But secretly, I love an audience. Even as an anesthesiologist, once I had that patient in my clutches, helpless, vulnerable, strapped to the bed, I used those precious minutes before the drugs kicked in to tell jokes. Yes, yes, it established rapport, alleviated anxiety, and put my patient in a beneficial state—beneficial for me. People tend to wake up in the same mood in which they fall asleep. It also was my only chance to perform, since I had neither the time, nerve, nor repertoire for stand-up comedy. In my heart, I want to make people laugh and cry and scream out loud. Maybe even in the same story—I aim high.

Without that outlet, I write. Today, I want to be a better writer than I was yesterday. Tomorrow, I admit it, I want that story to be read.

The only way to do that is to write as if no one is watching, knowing the whole time you’re performing on stage. I did it at the beginning of every case, in front of impatient surgeons, skeptical scrub nurses, and parents who didn’t appreciate my sense of humor. (A sample: “What do you call cheese that’s not yours? Nacho cheese!” It’s all in the delivery.) But if I could make that kid smile as the anesthetic took hold, it was all worth it–even if I had thirty seconds to get the airway in as soon as the little tyke stopped breathing. If I could tell jokes under that kind of pressure, you and I can submit our work. When that story gets out there, it won’t matter how many rejections it gathered along the way. In fact, the more you have, the more you can brag.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t think about what your mother or your English teacher would think. They probably won’t read it, unless you send them a copy. And God forbid, do not even consider the fact that your children have Internet access and know how to perform a Google search.

Write about the spoon

When I first decided to switch careers from doctoring to writing, it was neither a seamless transition, an easy decision, and in many ways, not a decision at all. I was a pediatric anesthesiologist until one day, I woke up with a headache that didn’t go away. I had unremitting chronic migraines. Despite several top of the line therapies, they plague me still. The reason I haven’t written more about my headaches has to do with Daniel Wallace, and spoons.

But the reason I write has to do with the same things.

A year after the headaches began, I was out on disability and desperately looking for a new purpose in life. Coming from the challenging world of academic anesthesia, stay-at-home mom was wonderful but less than satisfying (my children are school age, and busy as they were, I was not used to free time). I decided, rather literally overnight, to start a novel.

You can imagine how that went, since the last creative writing I’d done was in high school. Plus I’d had a constant headache for twelve months. But I persevered. A friend offered to put me in touch with local author Daniel Wallace, UNC professor of writing and author of Big Fish and recently released The Kings and Queens of Roam. I took her up on it, despite flutters of anxiety at having to say, out loud, “I’m trying to be a writer” to a real writer.

He agreed to meet me over lunch. He was incredibly kind, patient, and professorial. I only wish my employee tuition benefits extended to UNC and not The Other Triangle University.

This was my first introduction to what life as a real writer could be. He warned me even successful writers have other jobs. He asked me if I really wanted to give up being a doctor for a career where I might never make money again. I had to say I was afraid so. He patiently answered all my questions about agents, publishing short stories, finding writers’ groups (“I believe you look on-line”), etc., then offered two very good, very memorable pieces of advice:

  1. When asked if he might look at something I’d written, he said, after a lengthy pause, “If you’ve only been writing for two months, you’re probably not any good.” This was honest, and true, and had the right effect: It motivated me to take a serious look at what I’d written so far and try to make it better.
  2. After I explained about my headaches and why I’d started writing, he said something to the effect of, “Don’t write about headaches. Write the story through mundane things.” At which point, he picked up his spoon and said:

“Write about the spoon.”

I truly believe he was unaware of blogger Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory of Chronic Illness. I only recently became aware of it myself. I’ve heard several friends refer to it casually when they’re having a bad day, e.g. “I’m running low on spoons.” Spoons are a ready framework for that indefinable quality of energy we have, sometimes more of sometimes less, somewhat mood and weather dependent, a stash we can occasionally borrow against tomorrow’s, or maybe not, and sometimes, for no reason, they just get swept away.

Spoons changed my life. Finally, someone had put into words what I’d been living with since I stopped being healthy. I had yet to admit that I’d become sick.

“When other people can simply do things, I have to attack it and make a plan like I am strategizing a war.” – Christine Miserandino

I live spoon to spoon. I’m lucky, because my chronic disease gives me a fairly predictable daily supply and won’t ever deplete my cutlery drawer to zero. I can borrow against tomorrow’s, and simply pay the price with a nap or a headache or both.

So I ignore the headache, and write about the spoon. I’ve learned to appreciate the story in every piece of silverware, from the miniscule pickle fork to the mighty pie wedge. I’ve learned to create characters with real problems, quirks and habits and emotions and flaws, and not one of them has a headache, ever. Sometimes they have spoons, but life isn’t fair, so when it furthers the plot, I sneak in and empty their drawers.

But when I do, I keep their spoons for myself.

Thank you, Daniel Wallace, for teaching me to write about the spoon. Thank you Christine Miserandino for the Spoon Theory.

 

A Day in the Life

Just to prove that there is nothing special or romantic about the life of an aspiring writer…

7:45 Woken up by grumpy husband. “Do you have a migraine? No? Good. Marlon” (one of our non-secret agent cats) “knocked a glass over in the kitchen. I need help.”

7:50 My limbs feel like lead and my eyes barely stay open. This is what happens when I try to wake up before all of my anti-migraine meds are out of my system, and I didn’t remember to take them until about 9 pm last night. They seem to last about 12 hours. I sleep at least 11 hours a day. But I get out of bed.

7:51 By the time I make it to the kitchen, he has everything cleaned up. The kids are dressed and sitting at the table. I don’t have much to contribute so I start asking what cereal they want. When they don’t answer fast enough, HE yells at them. I snap back, because I’M not awake yet. We both realize that neither of us has had our coffee yet.

7:52 Whole family, sitting at the table eating breakfast as normal. Really, this is kind of our normal day. My husband works from home and is an absolute saint–he was before my chronic migraines came on, but especially now. You’d think that being home on disability I’d be more available to my kids than I was working 40-50 hours a week at the hospital, but really, no. Having migraine headaches ALL THE TIME does not leave you much time for socializing.

8:10 Husband and kids out the door, I’m back in bed, collapsing into semi-drugged sleep until, like a switch, everything wears off and I can finally open my eyes again at 9 o’clock. That is the price I pay, but it is better than being up half the night in pain, which I have spent months and months doing also.

9:30-10:00 Conversation with husband about…? Library book renewals? Kids? Something mundane. OK, maybe I wasn’t that awake.

10:00-12:00 Drive to school: Helping out in son’s classroom with end-of-year projects and such.

12:00-12:15 Lunch (leftovers)

12:15-2:45 BLESSED PROTECTED WRITING TIME!!!!! I worked on Timber Howligan Book 2 (Still need a title, but I’ve got a synopsis and five rockin’ chapters). My goal has been one chapter a day. Things went slower, only got 500 words, but got Lester and Pfizz through a pivotal plot scene and introduced at least one new major character. At this point, I’ll slow down and do some character sketches for the villains and minor characters next, now that I know who they are (or are going to be) so they can start having some fun.

2:45-3:30 Back to school to pick up kids

3:30 Kids doing Legos, Minecraft. I’m letting them, so I can do this. With any luck, I’ll get another 1,000 words in before bed tonight (mine, not theirs, although the times are converging).