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.