Tag Archives: Life

An Open Letter to my Former Students

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Today is the third morning in a row I’ve woken up exhausted from narcolepsy. This occurrence is nothing new.

What’s different this time is that it’s the third morning in a row I’ve woken up from a dream about teaching. It’s always the same dream, though the details are different: I’m unprepared for class and make a fool of myself in front of the students.

In the dream, I feel myself losing control of the situation, the classroom, the students. My humiliation becomes deeper and deeper. I don’t know what to do. Then I wake up.

Thank God.

These types of dreams are not unique to narcolepsy. Though because of narcolepsy, my dreams will last significantly longer and be in much more vivid detail and color than a typical person’s.

I also just happen to be house-sitting in the Chicago suburbs right now, an area where I lived for 9 years as a psychology professor, except for the year I took a sabbatical. Coincidence? I’d bet not.

After my sabbatical, I handed in my resignation for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list was because I didn’t want to teach anymore. I often did not feel comfortable as a college professor and that’s something I’m still feeling the effects of today.

Part of my discomfort was because I lacked confidence. My entire time in graduate school I had undiagnosed narcolepsy. While I could handle the exhaustion and sleepiness in undergrad, I fell further and further behind in graduate school.

Yet, somehow, through the Grace of God, and perseverance on my part, I graduated with a doctoral degree. And yes, I also have dreams where I am back in graduate school and I still have to defend my dissertation.

I wake up from those dreams, too. Thank God.

A good friend of mine, who is a social worker, recently suggested to me that part of the problem was that it’s hard to take seriously the concerns of someone in a top-tier doctoral program who believes they are failing in life. By the sheer fact I had excelled enough in college to be on a full-ride in grad school, including tuition remission, stipend, and health insurance, I couldn’t be too much of a failure.

Another part of my discomfort with teaching is that being a psychology professor was never my life’s dream. It became the next best option after I listened to someone who said to me, “you can’t be a high school English teacher. Those kids will walk all over you.”

High school English teacher also had not been my life’s dream, either. It became the second-best next-best option after I listened to several people say, “you can’t get a job as an English major. You’ll never make any money and you’ll end up working at a department store.”

So, psychology professor became the goal. And I achieved it. I’m really glad I did because I met some wonderful students along the way. You know who you are. Thank you for being amazing and awesome and I hope you are doing well.

I also met some not-so-wonderful students. I didn’t get to know them in any situation other than the classroom, and that is how I judged them. That was my mistake. And, again, something I am still feeling the effects of today.

Unfortunately, these students also know who they are.  How I treated them is one of my biggest regrets with teaching.

I let these students down. They are the ones I now suspect were most like me during my time in graduate school, struggling and uncertain and maybe even feeling like they were not supposed to be in school in the first place. I was often rude to these students, allowed myself to become offended by my assumptions about them, and treated them with arrogance and condescension.

To these students: I am so sorry. I wish I had been a better teacher for you, the type of person that I needed when I was in school. I didn’t see myself in you and your struggles and for that, I am sorry.

Another of my regrets is those students I met at the end of my teaching career. After 21 years of pursuing a life that never really felt like mine, I was on the verge of making my dreams come true after handing in my resignation.

I tried not to check out, but in the end I did.

To those students: I am so sorry. I never wanted to give you a bad classroom experience or an educational experience that was less than you wanted or needed. That wasn’t fair to you and the time and effort you were putting into your studies, and for that I am sorry.

To any student who may recognize themselves in this post, please know that I think about you often and hope you are living a good life. Thank you for teaching me such valuable lessons, and I am so sorry if they came at your expense.

If there are any students out there reading this who are struggling, please know you are not alone. You have my heart and prayers. I have been one of you and in some ways I still am. Please reach out to me if you need help.

Finally, to any student who has ever been told they couldn’t or shouldn’t pursue a goal, go for it anyway. No one can predict the future.

Sincerely,

Kelly Kandra Hughes, PhD

Former Associate Professor of Psychology

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking About Death During the Holidays

Christmas is coming

With Christmas fast approaching and only nine days left in 2017, it’s time for my yearly reflection entitled, “Even Though It’s Christmas, People Still Die.” And yes, I totally stole this idea from the late 1990’s sitcom Friends.

Because I know many of my friends and family who read my blog sometimes worry about me based on what I write, let me clarify that thinking about death during the holidays does not mean I’m depressed. Quite the opposite.

This has been one of the happiest, most joyful years of my life.  2017 also happened to be the year I read five different books on happiness (two of them I re-read for the second time):

ANtidote

Subtle art

Happiness Project

51XWb7K-jHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_

joy

I recently told someone about all these books and she joked, “shouldn’t you be happy by now?”  Her point is excellent, except I read these types of books as someone who has a professional interest in psychology, science, and research, more than as an I need these books to improve my life mentality.

Although, I would be lying if I said these books haven’t improved how I live. Each one of them has contributed positively to some aspect of my life, most notably The Sweet Spot because I’m now exercising on a regular basis and it’s become an actual habit.

What I find most interesting about these books is that every single one of them included a chapter on death. They all claimed that to truly experience sustained and long-term joy, you have to keep your own death a central part of your life.

Last Christmas, death ended up being forefront in my mind because one of the dogs we were caring for had been diagnosed with a mass on his spleen. He didn’t have much longer in this world and sure enough, he died within a month.

moon-cropped

I also wrote last Christmas about my 43-year-old cousin Becky, who was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2013, and succumbed to the disease in April, 2014.

Those losses are still heavy in my heart today, just like all the other people and animals I’ve lost throughout my life. But like these books suggest, I don’t allow the losses to weigh me down.

Instead, I use their heaviness as reminders which ground me to my own life; they’ve become a rock on which I can stand and look around at our wonderful and marvelous world. These losses lift me up into the here and now because all of us could be one hour, one minute, or even one second away from death and I know it.

Our time is so precious and because I still have so much of it right now (God and Kelly willing), I don’t want to waste it. This reason is why death meditations can be so useful. If I knew 2018 would be my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?

Based on what I wrote last year – spend more time with family and friends, travel with my husband and/or niece to national parks, pet as many dogs along the way as we could, finish my first novel, publish my picture books, and see a bear in the wild – I’m tearing up with happiness right now because I’ve either done what I set out to do or I took major steps towards making these dreams a reality.

In addition to spending time with my parents in Pennsylvania,

Hawk Mountain

and my husband’s parents in Tennessee,

TN Sunset

we visited with various extended family members in North Carolina,

Kelly with Choco Lab

 

 

 

 

 

 

and my husband got to meet my oldest brother who lives in San Antonio, Texas, when we all met up at my parents’ house in Harrisburg.

Hersheypark

 

 

 

 

 

We brought my niece to visit us in Connecticut for a week in May,

Jori and Smudge

and I spent a few days with her in Washington, DC, this fall. We’ve also had friends come visit us in Connecticut and we’re making plans to see some friends in Illinois again this summer.

This past August, my husband and I visited the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio on one of our house-sitting road trips,

Cuyahoga Valley

and this coming June we’ll be in Glacier National Park as part 2 of our super secret summer plans (SURPRISE! This is how my husband is finding out about our trip to Glacier. He still doesn’t know part 1).

Anyone who reads this blog, knows I’ve wholeheartedly met my goal of petting as many dogs as I could along the way, and I even managed to befriend some cats, llamas, chickens, turkeys, a goat, and a pig.

And, although I have not yet seen a bear in the wild, this past July I applied to be a volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Center in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, for bear season (October and November). I had an interview a few months ago for fall 2018 and my prospects look good for being selected as a volunteer.

As for writing, not only did I finish my first novel, but I wrote another book, started two more, and outlined several more. Those don’t count the picture books I finished. I also submitted two stories to Highlights magazine (no word yet on their submission status) and I submitted a blog post to a major minimalism blog that featured the post in their weekly newsletter sent out to over 24,000 readers. Combined with getting an agent to represent my work, this has been a benchmark year for my writing.

So when I think about my life this past year, I can boil it down to one sentiment. I’m about to break a cardinal rule of writing right now (i.e., avoid clichés), but here goes: WOW! My cup runneth over.

I am so grateful to everyone who has supported me along the way, most notably God who gives me the courage to live life this way and my husband who is also my best friend.

The question still remains, though: if 2018 were my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?

My answer? Nothing. It is with delight and joy that I can say this and feel nothing but enthusiasm and hope for the coming year. I’m going to keep on keepin’ on! And maybe, just maybe, I’m finally going to see a bear in the wild.

119 portrait

The Positive Ways Narcolepsy Has Affected My Life

Title

After writing last week about how frustrated and angry I felt with having narcolepsy, a funny thing happened.  I began to feel better about the situation.

Initially, I debated even writing that post.  Narcolepsy is a part of my life, but I didn’t want my struggles with it to define me.  I wondered if I shared my feelings, would I suddenly be “that person who can’t cope.”

Why that would bother me is a post for another day, but in retrospect, I realized it was silly to think a one-time post would become the essence of who I am as presented to the world, more so than my dozens of posts about writing, playing with dogs, procrastinating, and dreaming about seeing bears in the wild.

Instead, I felt free from the hold that my poor-quality sleep had on me.  Once I got out all my feelings, the anger and resentment stayed on the screen and allowed me head space to start moving on.  I thought to myself, well, if this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life, does that change anything?  I realized, no, it did not.  I still have goals and dreams I’m working towards and I’m not going to stop.  I may be more tired along the way, but I didn’t come this far to quit now.

My gratitude habit also kicked in about 24 hours after I wrote that post.  For years now, I have either written prayers of gratitude for the blessings in my life or I have practiced gratitude in a meditative form.  I honestly could not help but think of all the ways narcolepsy has improved my life.  The biggest way is that I realized if I only have so much energy to expend, then it’s going to go towards things I value the most:

  • prioritizing my health

flip flops

  • writing

Writers Group

  • being an animal enthusiast

Snake

  • serving others with the best of my talents

COP

  • connecting to nature

SMudge at HayStack

  • traveling to new places (preferably with my husband and/or family)

Library

  • growing my spirituality

TObey and Erick

  • and now that I’m married, loving my husband as much as I possibly can (super easy; he’s such a good person and so cute!)

Heath edited

Not on the list of things I valued was being an associate professor of psychology, and so my narcolepsy was one of the biggest motivating factors to give me the courage to quit my job, and give up tenure, amazing benefits, and a matching retirement account.  Thank you, narcolepsy.

I also didn’t expect the amount of love and support I received from friends and family who read my post.  My phone blew up with blog comments, Facebook comments, IMs, emails, and pictures of polar bears, all from people who wanted me to know they heard what I had to say.  I received validation, empathy, and sympathy, and let me tell you it felt really good.

These responses were especially meaningful to me because there was a time when I lived a rather isolated experience.  At that time, my closest friend at work had moved on, my office had changed locations to accommodate my narcolepsy so I could have a space with natural sunlight from a window and my new suitemates didn’t have the same level of socialization as my previous ones, I wasn’t on social media, and most of my friends (the few that I made since moving to Illinois) lived more than 30 minutes away (on a good day), and the ones who lived close by were married with families.  I felt lonely for many days and then a doctor told me, “you need to spend time with people.”

It took me several months to really buy in to what the doctor said, but once I did I began to realize just how important community is.  Especially when you are dealing with chronic illness.

So, thank you to everyone for showing your love and support.  Two days after I wrote my blog post last week, I got a decent night’s sleep.  And the night after that, and another night after that.  For three days in a row, I felt like I had won the sleep lottery.  I believe it can happen.  I plan on using a natural sun light for when the Connecticut mornings are dark and dreary.  I’m going to utilize my health insurance for therapy to help me cope on sleepy days.  I’m also going to investigate acupuncture as an option.

There are so many wonderful things going on in my life.  It looks like narcolepsy just may be one of them.

Living with Narcolepsy AKA Today, Life Sucks

This blog post is brought to you by frustration, irritation, and anger.  As a generally positive person, I don’t usually succumb to these feelings.  But as a recovering academic with a PhD in psychology, I know full well that when I have these feelings I am at perfect liberty to actually feel them.

Case in point: Dr. Daniel Wegner’s classic psychology study on suppression.  In this study, which was published in 1987, Dr. Wegner asked undergraduate psychology students not to think about a white bear.  If they thought about the white bear, they should ring a bell.  Then, he told them to go ahead and freely think about a white bear if they wanted to.  These students ended up thinking about a white bear more often when they were “allowed to” than a control group who had not been asked to suppress their thoughts in the initial testing round.

So today, I am feeling my feelings and let me tell you I am blankety-blank sick and tired of having narcolepsy. It has been weeks since I’ve had a good night’s sleep.  I can’t tell you the last time I woke up after 8+ hours of sleep and didn’t have deep dark caverns under my eyes that would make a racoon jealous.  It takes me hours (that’s right, plural) to get out of bed some mornings. I have even broken one of my cardinal rules of good sleep hygiene and I’ve started writing and reading in bed in the mornings.  It’s the compromise I have to make because I have no energy to force myself out of bed.  Dreams about snakes and death and being stuck in never-ending time loops will do that to you.  Plus, it’s dark outside and I wake up before the dogs, so I don’t even have external motivating factors to get out of bed.

This morning while meditating at the kitchen table I fell asleep twice.  I had only been out of bed for 20 minutes.  I had already spent three hours being awake.  I suppose I should be grateful because I still manage to be productive – I finished Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Lit as an Adult, I wrote over 400 words on a new manuscript I’m working on, and I wrote a prayer for my daily devotional manuscript for people who struggle with chronic exhaustion.  Yet, I am not grateful.  I am mad.

In my quest to treat narcolepsy with lifestyle and diet choices, so I do not have to take medications with other effects such a paranoia, delusions, bedwetting, suicidal thoughts, anorexia, etc., I have cleaned up my diet, meditate for 20 minutes at least once a day, mostly twice, strength train for 20 minutes six days a week, and run interval cardio drills six days a week (I’m now up to five full minutes).  I do not eat white potatoes, my favorite food (well, French fries) because they are a night shade.  I limit technology at night.  I used to wear amber glasses around the house at to block out additional blue light until I left my glasses in Nashville.  I wear a sleep mask and ear plugs.  I keep my room as cool as possible.  I do not drink caffeine or alcohol (although that one is super easy for me because I think alcohol tastes gross; most times, I can’t even stomach the smell of it).  I go to bed relatively early and I get up relatively early.  WHAT MORE CAN I POSSIBLY DO?

It flat out sucks to be doing everything “right” and still struggle with the one thing I desperately want more than anything else.  Is this my cross to bear?  Am I missing something?  Is there some physical, emotional, or spiritual component at play?  Do I just accept it and move on, do the best I can?

As I typed the above paragraph, I am reminded of another psychologist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  She developed the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Perhaps that’s what I’m experiencing now: I am grieving the loss of hope that I will ever get a good night’s sleep again.  Realistically, that may happen.  And part of me thinks it’s so silly to be crying as I type this because there are people living in this world right now without access to any healthcare, without love, without hope, without goals and without dreams.

Should I really play the what sucks more game? Seriously, what sucks more than not getting a good night’s sleep for, well, years now?  Okay, now that I’m thinking about it:

Terminal illness

Sexual assault

Child abuse

Animal cruelty

Poverty

Famine

Genocide

Homicide

Mass shootings

Illiteracy

Terrorism

Climate change

I have to admit, I do feel a teeny tiny bit better when I look at this list, though now I am questioning what it says about me as a person that I use things like climate change and genocide to make myself feel better.  I can’t win.

The truth is, I don’t think any of us can win.  We all have struggles, and they are all personal and individual to us.  I’ve chosen to share my struggle today in the hopes that someone somewhere may be reading this and feel like they have a comrade in arms going through the same tumultuous experience we call life.  Narcolepsy is frustrating, awful (comparatively speaking), and a part of my life.  It’s okay to hate that part.  The important thing is to know that the hate and frustration are feelings.  They are not permanent and they are not who I ultimately am.

If you believe in prayer, I would appreciate some.  If you don’t, then just send thoughts of baby polar bears my way because those of you who read my blog know just how much I love bears.  I would have been awful in Dr. Wegner’s experiment.  They would have had to throw out my data – why is this woman thinking about white bears every five seconds?

And special thanks to my husband, who is incredibly supportive through all the narcolepsy ups and downs.