Tuesday, August 26, 2008

One Thing at a Time

The day I wrote the previous post, I’d woken up feeling like I was coming down with a virus. I cancelled dates and asked my husband to stay home a little later and help out with the kids before he left for work. I called the sitter. I did everything I’ve learned how to do when the flu is coming on.

Only it turned out not to be the flu. It turned out that my brain had the flu, or my soul, or whatever it is that gets “depressed” during these episodes. As I understood over the course of the morning that I was sick in the head and not the body, I told myself there was only one thing I could do to get through the day:

(Reader, are you sitting down?)

Do only one thing at a time.

“Do one…thing…at a time?” you parents might be asking. “But what about the…and the…?” I know. How can you possibly make the kids lunch while not talking on the phone? How can you get them dressed without also doing a load of laundry? And what about all that time you spend going to the bathroom and eating? There are hundreds of questions from the kids that will have to go unanswered while you’re behind the closed door! And if you don’t read the newspaper over breakfast (while also checking e-mail and ferrying food and drink from kitchen to table and letting the dog in and out 14 times), then whenever will you?

Well, some days are just about survival.

I’ve tried other means of survival during mental crises, usually with a different twist, like: no chores before breakfast. No reading the newspaper or being online while the children are at the table. I thought this one simple rule, doing one thing at a time, would streamline the day.

I recruited Jonah and Audrey to help. I sat them down on the window seat in the dining room and made my intentions very clear.

“I am playing an important game today,” I explained. “Since I’m feeling sick and yucky, I’m going to only do one thing at a time. So if you ask me for something, and I’m doing something else, I’m going to ask you to wait until I’m done.”

“Why?” asked Jonah.

“Because this will keep me relaxed and help me get better sooner. And I probably won’t yell as much.”

They were down with it. Having my “game” as the reason why I didn’t cater to their whims all day was a wonderful thing for my mind to fall back on. Normally, I’d have despaired that my kids would NEVER let me get any peace, and they were spoiled, and in my grandma’s day they’d have already been wacked upside the head with a wooden hairbrush. I reminded myself that, oh right, I was trying something different today. And I reminded the kids that. And they were fine with it.

Doing one thing at a time turned out to be a meditation of sorts. It didn’t nourish me the way sitting meditation does, but it kept me from committing what my teacher calls, “unskillful behavior.” Doing one thing at a time, I was always present and I could always handle what was happening.

The downside was that I stayed up late folding laundry, cleaning the kitchen and writing. I couldn’t bear for those things to go undone. Some things took longer. But I was calm.

Is this kind of behavior really possible in modern life?

What if we tried? How different would our days be?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Oh, Crap

I am not well. My irritation is pure PMS (thank you , my dear friend Sara, for setting me straight that no, everyone is not purposefully being an asshole just to make my life miserable), but the heaviness gathering in my belly and my great desire to be wrapped in fuzzy blankets at all times is something else.

Feeling like – being – an instrument controlled by nerve receptors and hormone leakings makes me question the point of anything. I feel like nothing more than a highly-refined reptile. I wonder if this descent into the mental life of a snake is partly to blame for all the crying we depressed people do. We're flooded with inexplicable grief, like someone dear to us died. We lost something essential that kept us warm. We lost something that kept us human.

All I can hold onto right now is what the yogis discovered – a system that expands and liberates even the most stubborn, infantile, unworkable minds. They found an opening to the beating heart of the universe. I have to have faith that they were onto something. Otherwise, I should just unhinge my jaw, swallow a whole mouse and then go sit on a warm rock for the rest of my life.

What I Can't Resist

I’m playing a game with myself where I try not to get carried away by my moods all day long. Right now I’m in a foul mood and thinking all kinds of uncharitable thoughts about my family, nuclear and extended, so I’ve escaped to my bedroom to observe this quietly.

Moodiness and negative thinking are so familiar to me that they feel like coming home. “Come to Mama,” they seem to say. “We’re the ones who really understand you.” Their pull is often irresistible, like the smell of cinnamon rolls baking at Pike Place Market. Follow that smell! You know you want to. It seems to promise comfort, or at least the kind of comfort that falling back into an old pattern brings for awhile.

My ego wants me to believe that things are always other people’s fault. That way it can feel superior and separate, which are its primary goals. It wants me to believe that I am the hardest working member of this family and I have every right to throw tantrums.

But that is all a story. Pema Chodron talks about how we all have a storyline about ourselves that we like to follow. We wake up every day and our egos kick into gear, recreating that story, which leads us by the nose because we think that’s all we are: some story. Today my story goes something like this: I am so much more together than half the people in this family and it’s really a shame that I have to put up with their incompetence.

Now that I’m sitting here observing my thoughts, they are losing their bite. They actually sound goofy. None of the storylines I’m creating right now are even true. So what next? What am I supposed to do with my addled mind and my bad mood?
I guess look at the mood. Say yes to its existence. Hi, here you are again. Let the irritation, indignation – whatever emotional maelstrom my ego has dreamed up to protect itself – dissipate.

Failing that, I will look at design magazines until I have to go downstairs and clean the kitchen.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Does That Come with Fries for My Kids?

(Disclaimer: this post is about a diet for a healthy brain. I include it only because I know some of you, gentle readers, are burdened with the affliction of depression and anxiety and parenthood, often all at the same time, and so this post just might hold some interest for you. Others of you may find this topic incredibly dull and for that, I apologize and ask you to check back soon.)

In the past, I have waited until reaching crisis points before I'd deal with the signs of depression. Then my treatments involved talk therapy and pharmaceuticals. Now that I have discovered the great joy of living in my body (that pesky thing I never paid much attention to as a younger person), I am going to try a new tactic: treatment of the body to balance the chemicals of the brain.

Yoga has gotten me to this point. To complement it, I’m officially on The Antidepressant Diet, designed by my naturopath, Amy Fasig, ND. The diet-for-mental-health involves a change in my daily garbage-disposal eating habits. As you can probably guess, this means moving away from all the foods and drinks I go toward when I'm down, have PMS, am ovulating, mad at my husband, or ready to murder the children.

• Sugar
• Caffeine
• Hooch
• Wheat
• Rice
• Excessive dairy

• Cod liver oil
• 14 capsules worth of herbal supplements per day
• Leafy greens
• “Ancient grains” such as quinoa, spelt, and amaranth
• Food every three hours, like an infant
• Protein with every meal
• Animal protein at least once a day

I am supposed to increase yoga, walking and meditation. I am supposed to cultivate earth and fire elements. It turns out that, in ayurvedic language, I have a vata imbalance. (Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medical practice.) This means, in not too uncertain terms, that I’m an AIRHEAD. See, I knew that, but it was nice to have it confirmed by a professional.

The animal protein thing will be interesting. I learned to cook at fourteen, when I believed that Meat is Murder and announced to my family that I would no longer be eating any of that chicken-fried steak. The animals had rights, too. Anyway, I had never liked the mouth-feel of animal fat. I had always secretly slipped my bacon into a paper towel in my lap to blot it before eating when I was a kid. (This may sound like the beginnings of an eating disorder, but I don’t have that kind of capacity for self-denial, so I was okay.)

My mom rolled her eyes and told me I’d better learn how to cook, because she didn’t intend to run a short-order cafĂ© out of her kitchen. So Molly Katzen of the Moosewood cookbooks became my Julia Child. I enjoyed discovering things like pesto and exotic pilafs, and torturing my asshole stepdad by stinking up the house with fried falafel. He, in turn, enjoyed gagging at the sight of my hippie/other culture food and torturing me with Karen Carpenter references at the dinner table. Those were good times.

Anyway, I haven’t been a real vegetarian for years. Chicken was the gateway food back into the life of an omnivore sometime after college, and then when I got pregnant with Jonah I acted on my body’s deep need for swine. I ate salami, bacon, and ham. But the vegetarian cooking background means that I’ve never properly learned to buy or prepare meat. I don’t know a T-bone from a pork butt. And I still can’t stand the taste or smell of beef and lamb. Given my druthers, I’d eat mostly vegetarian food forever. It’s what I am used to.

But I’ve got my eyes on the prize, which is drug-free mental health. So, when my husband brought home some organic, grass-fed beef jerky, I ate a piece. Reader, it was delicious. I’m sorry, but it just tasted good. Apparently I have a taste for cured meats. If I want to get well, I’m going to have to go with that.

The biggest impediments in my quest for balanced blood sugar are my kids. I know there are people who swear they’ve raised their children on seaweed and barley water from day one, and that their six-year-old would rather eat steamed tofu than mac-and-cheese any old time, but I can’t make those claims. My kids enjoy a limited selection of sushi, but they do turn their noses up at a steaming plate of quinoa-and-chard. So what’s a girl to do? It already takes more time in the kitchen to prepare “whole foods” (i.e. things that don’t come in packets). And not only do I refuse to make separate meals for my kids, I don’t want them eating so much of the bread, sugar, dairy and chicken nuggets that have become the staple of the American childhood. Look what it does to me, their mother! And God knows my girl doesn’t need anything that will increase her mood swings. She's only three, but she usually acts like a fifteen-year-old girl on the rag, bless her heart.

So. I will continue to serve the quinoa and the fresh veggies. Sometimes I grate cheese over it for my kids and bribe them with ice cream. It’s a balance, you know. They get a few bites of ancient grains into their system and a shred or two of fresh vegetables, and then they get rewarded with a flood of heart-clogging cream and blood-sugar-spiking "evaporated cane juice." At least they didn’t eat a plate of fish sticks and the ice cream. And maybe they’ll develop new habits? Or just start eating out of fear of starvation?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Cranky Pregnant Yoga Snob

It is the week of Seafair, and whenever the Blue Angels come to Seattle, I remember the time when I was pregnant with my second kid and trying to find a few minutes of peace in a prenatal yoga class. The Blue Angels, as they screamed over the neighborhoods ringing Lake Washington, made this hard for me. So did my substitute teacher.

I wrote this post after that class:

Yoga class is supposed to be a place for me to learn about how to practice compassion and emotional equanimity. When I’m not pregnant and can attend the classes of my favorite teacher, Denise Benitez, I learn to practice compassion by watching her. She has been practicing yoga for thirty years, teaching for around twenty. In class, it’s easy to ape her attitude, naturally follow where she leads me. She reminds me that I don’t need to control everything, at least in that room, and shows me how to practice compassion for myself.

I don’t usually have to practice compassion for others in yoga class. Everybody takes care of themselves there. We know the routine. We turn inward. In a good class, you can just focus on your practice. A good teacher relieves you from the responsibility of taking care of her.

Today I took a prenatal yoga class with a teacher who was not good. She subs for my favorite prenatal teacher. Unfortunately for me, this teacher is also a doula and often has to attend births. Which means here comes Maia [not her real name], fresh-faced, busty, clear-eyed, and brainless. Maia reads aloud too much from books. She talks too much during meditation. She speaks in what someone must’ve told her is a soothing voice, but really makes me feel like I’m a kindergartener rather than a 33-year-old pregnant lady trying to get some goddamn spiritual fulfillment.

I have taken classes from Maia before (when my real teacher was out), and find that I turn them into something counterproductive. Instead of releasing tension, I fixate on everything that’s “wrong” with the class. It doesn’t take long for me to actually become hostile. Soon I’m in a state where there really is no way Maia could guide me into any sort of spiritual awareness, because I’m just going through the motions; I arranged for child care, drove and paid my drop-in fee to be there. I’ll be damned if I’m leaving.

Today I was in the agitated state I feel in firelogs pose (in which you sit with your shins stacked on top of one another), pretty much for an hour and fifteen minutes. I didn’t feel the need to practice compassion for myself. I had so much compassion for myself that I felt I deserved a better teacher, right now, and an air-conditioned studio, and the banishment of Blue Angels fighter jets from Seafair for the rest of eternity.

I composed a letter of complaint about Maia in my mind: "She is a lovely girl, I’m sure, but she clearly has no idea what she’s doing. Kindly get rid of her so I can have a nicer prenatal yoga experience. Yours truly, Cranky Pregnant Yoga Snob."

Really, what could one say? I knew she was a beginning teacher. She told us so, and also I recognize some of the New Teacher hallmarks, because I have displayed them myself in countless middle school English classes. Hadn't I wanted compassion from my students when I was struggling? I recalled how hard I had worked as a new teacher. How much I wanted to do everything right. How impossible it was for me to do very much at all right, because I was young and clueless and inexperienced. But damn, my heart was there.

And so, I had to admit, as I rolled onto all fours, was Maia’s.

I decided to abandon my mental letter of complaint. I settled into my modified pigeon pose and just focused on releasing all the tension in my hips. Afterward, Maia led us into what she called “vocalizing,” which was really a way to practice making the unattractive noises we would make while riding the waves of labor. This, I could use. I gave into it.

“Aahhhhhh,” I moaned. And with that came notion that this class was a chance for me to practice compassion for someone else when I didn’t feel like it. I did not relish the opportunity like I thought a good yogi should: The day was bleeding hot (no A/C, another thing to add to the letter of complaint), the Blue Angels were screaming right overhead, I had heartburn and my toes were cramping. If anyone deserved an hour of pure self-compassion, it was me.

But that was not on the day’s agenda.

So I dropped the attitude and kept breathing.