Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, Part 1

I don’t think that enjoying the Nana saga is weird at all. Hell, I’m waiting for updates. (Thus far, still silence. And we’re all more peaceful for it. It’s so much simpler once you stop rationalizing, isn’t it?)
I’ll let you know as developments occur. But right now I’m going to try to articulate what I hinted at in my prior post: the Big Changes in my outlook on life.
I am in a good place, and what follows is part one of a rough travelogue of how I got here. (“How” in the sense of snapshots of sights along the way more than where to book a reservation for yourself – I have no idea if it will be of any benefit to anyone else, though I certainly hope so.)
I’ve been working on my own outlook for years. I am a tremendous fan of many of the tenets of AA — especially “act as if” and “fake it till you make it” — despite not having any addictions myself. I figured out long ago that you don’t have to feel something deeply to act as if you do; often, the feeling will follow. For instance, in medical school, I started out being too reserved, and then learned to act as if I were outgoing. Eventually, I started to enjoy the sound of my own voice, and there was no looking back. I advise my own students to appear interested and happy, and they may become so; even if they don’t, they’ll get higher marks. As an intern, I noticed that my favorite residents were the ones who appeared serene no matter what kind of insanity was going down. I resolved to be this way myself, and I became famed for being unflappable and cheerful. (I admit I am by nature relatively unflappable, but when you have 12 admissions to your team and they’re bleeding out or seizing or screaming about the bad food or scoring crack in the cafeteria and then developing chest pain, the temptation to freak out is great.)
I learned to give up anger. (Apparently another recovery thing! Perhaps I’m an addict manquée?) As with flappability, anger has never been a huge problem for me, but I started to notice how dangerous an emotion it is. Righteous anger in particular is radioactive. So I quit it. Not that I never feel it — I often have that immediate flash — but I am able to let it go. The trick is, pretty much anything that makes me angry also makes me something else. Humor is the most frequent fallback; a situation that can piss me off can also make me laugh. There are others: pity, envy, sadness, compassion, on and on — I swap out the anger, and there you go. If someone cuts me off while driving: maybe they have an emergency. Or maybe they’re just lost in thought. It’s not like I’ve never cut someone off, and I don’t think I’m an asshole most of the time. I have a sticker on the back of my laptop that reads “HAS ANGER SOLVED YOUR OTHER PROBLEMS?” that is quite entertaining to make people gaze upon in meetings.
I made an “attitude list” years ago when I was hunting unsuccessfully for a job and a baby. It helped immensely (I think I’ve lost it, but mostly it was about realizing I’m not the center of the universe, that pride doesn’t help, and that I have to connect with people), but I can’t say it made me happy. I have arranged my living and working spaces to be as bright and colorful as possible. The rooms in my house are painted yellow, green, red, orange, and raspberry (the guest room is a pale cream, so visitors have a safe soothing place to retreat to if they’re rattled by the loud palette). I have nearly a dozen pairs of different wild eyeglasses to match every outfit. I run, of course, which is the closest thing to mainlining happiness I’ve ever found.
So I’ve worked for years on at least appearing to be one of those serene, cheerful people who make others happy (at work, anyway; home was harder), and for the most part it worked. And sometimes, just sometimes, I came close to making it.
But over the past few years, I stalled — maybe even backslid.
Having HB was a derailment of sorts. It was a hard five years. There were most certainly moments during that time I felt I’d made a mistake in deciding to reproduce, when I had to just have faith that one day it would get better — though I did have a sense that most of the things that made his baby and toddler years so hard would also make him a really cool kid eventually.
This is the year. He is perceptive, analytical, logical, kind, loving. He is magnetic — everyone in the neighborhood knows him. The other day I dropped him off at school and a very hip-looking middle-schooler leaned over the stairs and yelled, “Hi HB!” He waved, then whispered to me, “I don’t even know her name.” He has gained much insight and control over his frustration. The lines that made me happiest in his recent progress report from his teacher: “His intellectual and emotional understanding of what is going on in our class is really exceptional for a child his age … He, more than almost any other kindergartner I have known, really seems to care about his friends’ thoughts and ideas.” I let out my breath and thought, I haven’t totally messed him up. Don’t get me wrong — he’s still prickly, quirky, and exhausting, but it’s finally becoming worth it, you know?
Work has also been going well. So the ground was fertile for me to feel good this year. And yet — I wasn’t there.* I was starting to wish that I could just be anesthetized to get through a lot of my normal (nondepressed!) days. (I am ashamed to say I sort of tried that, in fact — fortunately it didn’t work.)
I think things started turning around sometime in December. I was putting together a seminar for my interns on well-being, and I spent time looking over some of the happiness literature. As I was reading, I was thinking, yes, I know that. Yes, I do that. And that. And that, and that, and that. So … what the fuck is wrong with me? I have a wonderful husband, child, job, friends, city, family; everyone’s healthy; I have no money worries; hell, I don’t even want to lose weight. If I can’t be happy, who can be? Am I really going to spend the rest of my life bitching, moaning, complaining, and feeling not really here?
A phrase started to knock around in my head like a moth looking for an open window: This is your one life. This is your one life. This is your one life.
(Part 2 coming up within the next week ... )
*Why be happy? A comment on my earlier post mentions the “cult of positive thinking,” and my answer was: well, yeah, I know what you mean. But shouldn’t we — and by “we” I mean anyone who has the means to access the internet and the leisure to poke around on blogs — be able be positive and appreciative? Including appreciating the importance of sadness and the existence of suffering. It’s the whining I have a problem with, not the acceptance of reality. Especially when one’s own reality is very, very good.


Anonymous said...

I'm kind of new to your blog. I think I was googling some stuff about starting to run again and found it. Or maybe a link on another blog since I am a fan of a few blogs.

The happiness stuff hits home for me. I've been working on my anger, attitude of gratitude and so forth and I am still not feeling it. So I am going back to square one where you present the outward appearance of being very zen and hope my desire to whine and be sensitive about things goes away.

Lynn Jenness said...

tell us more! several weeks ago i arrived at that same "wtf is wrong with me?" moment-- newly married, having a great time in grad school, recently freed from major financial worries.. what gives?

my self diagnosis was that i simply NEEDED something to fret about-- i'd been under stress for so long, suddenly not having it made me all sorts of tense and edgy and just WEIRD, like the most idiotic withdrawal you've ever heard of.

my recent solutions are to resume the vitamin supplements i left off several years ago, pick up my beloved yoga again, and when i feel angry, STOP for an extra 3 beats to be sure it's something worth being angry about.

it's an uphill battle in many ways, but so far so good... looking forward to more of your story to see how you did it!

OMDG said...

Your serenity comment reminded me about what I disliked about my internal medicine rotation. It wasn't the patients or the chaos that made things tense, it was the ridiculously unpleasant and tense resident and attending I had to work with. They were not serene at all! Maybe that was the problem. ;-) Someday perhaps you can provide some tips on how to manage THAT.

It's great that you're managing to see the big picture of how awesome your life is now. It's so easy to forget when we get caught up in the stupid stuff. For me, I've found if I just focus on doing the best that *I* can do, and stop trying to compare myself to other people, things get a lot better.

Also, if all else fails, get a dog. I got one in December, and she has been soooooo helpful to me in reducing my stress and making me a happier person. I suppose it would be too much to ask for any (future imaginary) offspring to do the same, unfortunately.

Snickollet said...

I need to start swapping out the anger. Additionally, I think I should wallpaper my home with those bumper stickers.

Love this post.

Anonymous said...

Someone said that it takes courage to be happy. It takes courage to be positive. It seems so easy, but it's not.

mary said...

I'm reading a book called "The Art of Happiness at Work" by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, MD and although I'm not finished with it yet, I am getting some of the same messages that are in this post.

I do think happiness is a choice and an attitude thing, for the most part, but I also think that peace and joy and meaning comes from knowing the ultimate purpose for your life and keeping your eye on that purpose. At least for me, I don't think I can be happy if I believed that my life is all there is.

Also, gratitude and happiness go hand in hand too.

Thank you for your thoughtful post and honest sharing. Love the "This is your one life" mantra. =)

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. I would like to lose weight, but otherwise am ridiculously fortunate.

Nonetheless, I "think" that I hate most of what I do, and still grieve giving up what I really wanted to do with my life (at least this is what I 'think that I think' - maybe this is an old belief I've clung to, hell if I know) and find myself on the more than frequent drive to work thinking "If I were dead, at least I wouldn't have to be a lawyer" when I SHOULD be thinking "shit, girl, I have a safe, reliable car, XM radio, a great husband, retirement funds (not enough yet, but still), one used Hermes scarf....stop bitching"

Gratitude practice works wonders but apparently I need to up my game. Thanks for the reminder to up my game.

This IS my one life, and the rest of the legal profession can suck eggs - I'm gonna be happy.

Not on Fire said...

I think that for me, the key has been to examine my thoughts to see if they are really true. Often I lie to myself in ways that lead to unhappiness. Learning about my capacity for self-deception has helped me.

E. said...

I love the challenge/mantra. It reminds me of one of my favorite scraps of poetry: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life? " (from "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver)

Jul said...

Love this post. My Objectivist father would harumph at me to hear it, but... it's all about the personal perception. Deciding that my depressed mind was like a "bombsight" (and that anything I thought about invariably wound up getting exploded) was a giant revelation. Until then, I'd just assumed that feelings were like armed thugs... they attacked from behind, and my only option was to cower and hope they avoided my skull. Wish I'd known how much control I had... sheesh, for the last two decades, at least.

Anonymous said...

Wow, how did you know how much I needed to read this today?

I've come to integrate some of the strategies you describe into my life - but not nearly as much as I could.

Am now facing the prospect of a messy, bitter divorce. But it's also unavoidable, it's reality, and the truth is that anger will not help. THANK YOU for reminding me of that.

Next maybe I'll go for a jog? Stranger things have happened. ;)

Anonymous said...

Damn, but the running does help. For me, so too does a Carbon Leaf song: "What About Everything?"

Key phrase of the refrain: "I am not in need."

The only thing I'd add is that happiness is so not cool in our society...which is bananas, since we're all supposed to be pursuing it. But think about the conversations you have with people, and think about how much of those conversations are spent bitching about something. Anything. Work. School. Kids. Dog. Spouse. Some of it's totally good-natured--I adore my boyfriend but will still tell a story about why he's a bonehead sometimes. But there's little room for conversations about being happy--frequently, no one wants to hear it.

This goes double for when you're happy with something that someone else wouldn't be happy with. Sure, I'd be happiER if that boyfriend and I were in the same zip code again, or if he wasn't having such a hard time getting a job, but...as it stands, I'm really happy.

And, subsequently, very quiet at gatherings.

Mama Goose said...

Wow. Thank you for this. I can't wait to read more of your journey.

Until then, starting today, I am giving up anger. I'm bookmarking this in case I falter.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Mama,

Thank you very much for writing about this.

I was struck by this sentence: "The trick is, pretty much anything that makes me angry also makes me something else."

I have made progress with my anger, but still, I would be very interested in reading more about how you learned to shift your attention to other emotions when you got angry.

But I also accept that what you've written here may be the most detailed account you're able to give at this time. I mean, no pressure, really. I really, really appreciate your post here, it's wonderful.

Also I'm thrilled by how mature and kind HB is. You once write that you didn't enjoy your childhood very much because you "hated the helplessness of it."

I wonder if HB experienced a comparable frustration. Sometimes the brightest kids are the ones that struggle with limits.


Unknown said...

Cool post. Thank you. This was a lot easier to chew up and digest than the FranklinCovey seminar on positivity.

Heather said...

I love some of your ideas. Actually Al-anon uses the same tools as AA so you are not alone in using them even though you don't have an addiction.

Actaully the longer I've been in Al-anon the more I think a lot of people could benefit from it. Can't wait to see part II.

shriek house said...

I'm working on letting go of anger too, and what you say about swapping it out for something else (say, humor) makes absolute sense. Yet, the thing I'm sticking on, is how to do it in the middle of that initial flash of rage? When something pisses me off it is RIGHT then, but I need a few moments/hours/whatevs to be able to convert it or let it go. How do you deal with the initial anger reaction?

I'm going to try your one life mantra and see if it helps. Also, looking at my kids when THEY are being assholes: "This is their one life. Their one life. Their one life."

HB sounds awesome. Nice work.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for admitting and owning that your reality, Nana and all, is very, very good, with no hyperbole intended. I know too many privileged folks (myself included although not financially) who don't feel or act grateful or acknowledge that they've got it good. That's the first step. Gratitude.

OK, the next part, anger. Oy vey. The flip side of anger is fear, always. I can't think of any exceptions. We get angry when we perceive that something we value is threatened, whether it's respect, safety, way of doing things, sleep, health, sanity, etc.

So how in the world do you transform anger into emotions and sensations other than its root, which is fear? I can sometimes muster amusement, but it is in the context of "my God, life is absurd," and not in the funny way, but in the tragicomic Shakespearian farcical way. This is where I need help.

I can recognize fear in my anger, and I can make light of it publicly and act like a clown and it's no big deal (neat! ha ha!), but inside, I'm still thinking, "what the f***!," I'm still scared and mad.

As a control freak, anger is my Achilles tendon. I have read Thich Nhat Hanh's book Anger, a humanitarian and Buddhist perspective on it, many times. He suggests treating your anger as an honored and treasured guest, and really listening to it. For me, this becomes dwelling on it and not getting to a good place.

Anybody else? DM?

DoctorMama said...

Nodding head vigorously at all of this, especially:

“It takes courage to be positive. It seems so easy, but it’s not.”

“I simply NEEDED something to fret about – i'd been under stress for so long, suddenly not having it made me all sorts of tense and edgy and just WEIRD, like the most idiotic withdrawal you've ever heard of.”

“I also think that peace and joy and meaning comes from knowing the ultimate purpose for your life and keeping your eye on that purpose.”

“Often I lie to myself in ways that lead to unhappiness.”

“I wish I’d known how much control I had.”

“There’s little room for conversations about being happy – frequently, no one wants to hear it.”


“The flip side of anger is fear, always.” Did you get an advance copy of my Part 2 or something?

Re: HOW to give up anger … I’ll have to write more about this in the future, but I will say: 1) it takes constant practice at first 2) it takes constant self-reminders later 3) there have been some things (fortunately very few) that made me SO mad that I couldn’t drop them instantly and I just had to leave the whole situation alone for a while and 4) the one thing that defeated me many times was a three-year-old – I probably controlled myself 97% of the time, but when he pushed my buttons multiple times every goddamn day, it added up to a pretty ugly number.

{patting self on back for beating FranklinCovey}

DoctorMama said...

(and Carbon Leaf song: purchased!)

Anonymous said...

Ah, anger and fear - can't wait to read that post. I've heard that anger reveals fear but never really "got it" for myself until last year.

I was up for a promotion that I didn't want, because I really don't love what I'm doing and my purpose and goals are elsewhere (and yay - all promos were frozen last year so I'm up again). Always a very chill person, I found myself having phone throwing, treatise throwing rages in the office once every 1-2 months.

In rage #2, after hours on a Friday so I thankfully had no witnesses to beating a professional manual against a structural post in the hallway and sobbing "I f-ing hate this, I f-ing hate this, I hate all of you, I f-ing hate every f-ing minute of this)" I realized that 1) yes I did hate it but 2) I was melting down because of my terror of getting the promotion and - more than anything - 'being trapped' forever. The terror of having to do and be something not me was totally unhinging me.

Now I don't like any of it any more, but I've changed my mental script to "you are not trapped, this is your life and you are in control" so the fear is lessened a bit. Either that or I'm so burned out that I no longer care.

Color is good too. I became a very gray person for a long time and I'm trying to un-gray myself. It helps.

RM said...

I have found your comments about your son very comforting. I love my 3 year old son immensely, but he is a challenge- can be very intense, stubborn, prickly. Some days we seem to just go from one meltdown to another. I work a lot (still in residency) so especially regret it when our limited time together is a constant struggle. In one post you said that you didn't know what people were talking about when they said it all went by so quickly (the early childhood years). My husband and I feel the same way- it has been slow. At the same time we realize that we are lucky to have a bright, sweet, healthy little boy. I don't think that these are experiences that people talk about often, and I appreciate your candor.

sqpeggy said...

I love your blog. Thanks so much for sharing. It's nice to know you've taken time to take stock of things. I'm having a hard time doing that between work and chasing a 3 yr old around.

I wanted to ask you specifically though about this line regarding HB: "He has gained much insight and control over his frustration." How? Please share! My 3 yr old is "high-spirited". Often that takes the form of being a total extrovert and energizer bunny but when her sadness, anger, or frustration take over-- it seems like a horrible place for her, like she's on a runaway train that scares even her.

How do you help these intelligent,empathetic, passionate little kids to "gain insight and control" over their frustrations. Is there a technique or a book you recommend? Or is it just the age?

Thanks again for such a great blog and post.

DoctorMama said...

"... especially regret it when our limited time together is a constant struggle," "like she's on a runaway train that scares even her" -- yup, yup.

The first book that helped me was Raising Your Spirited Child. The second one was The Explosive Child. If nothing else, they make you feel like you're not alone, and you're not an idiot for "letting" your child be that way.

Also super helpful is having friends who really get it and limiting time with family who don't.

Unknown said...

Apologies for leaving an Anon comment above - but I wanted to be honest and have difficulty doing so under my blog tag (about certain work related things).

My comments on Part 2 are left as moi.

Sheri said...

as someone who has suffered "angst" since I was old enough to realize what it was, I love how you are trying to free yourself of this.

thanks for a great post.