I snapped this picture in the Norfolk Library on November 10, 2020. Naturally, I posted it to the Dogspotting Facebook group to which I belong. The sole purpose of the group is to post pictures of dogs we’ve never met before and share their awesomeness with others.
A few days later, over four thousand people had liked this photo.
I didn’t have much to celebrate in 2020, but I will always have Koda.
Now that it’s 2021, it’s time for my annual death meditation. This is my fifth year in a row of imagining how I would live if I knew 2021 would be my last year on Earth, and thanks to the gut-punch-then-kick-me-while-I’m-down year that was 2020, thinking about my death this year has been quite different from past death meditations.
I experienced a staggering amount of loss and grief in the last year. It started early on with learning about Faith’s liver tumor in January, followed by the loss of Oscar Meyer Weiner Dog a few weeks later.
In February, we lost the incomparable Eve Thew, one of my first (and dearest) friends in Norfolk.
In March, the whole world changed as COVID-19 spread and we, humans, made it significantly and substantially worse than it had to be. Heath and I had to temporarily leave our Norfolk housesitting job, which meant I had to say goodbye to living with my beloved Smudge and Faith for the foreseeable future.
In June, my father went into the hospital after an acute attack of his nervous system by his own immune system. The doctors diagnosed him with Guillain-Barrè syndrome. While in the hospital, he also suffered a heart attack and contracted pneumonia. When he was released a month later, it was to come home to die.
My father died in the early morning hours of July 19th. Eight people attended his funeral, and nine people attended his burial three months later on a freezing cold and wet day in late October.
Four days after my dad died, Smudge unexpectedly collapsed. The vet recommended immediate euthanasia. I said goodbye through video messenger because that was the only option I had.
Then, on November 14th, I said a final goodbye to Faith. I had moved back into our Norfolk housesitting home on November 12th. All through the summer when I visited Faith, I asked her to please hang on until I moved back. With all the loss this year, I didn’t think I could handle losing her, too, and not being there.
On November 12th, I brought an overnight bag to get me through until the weekend. That Saturday, the 14th, Faith and I woke up together. We sang our going down the stairs song, which I created one morning while walking down the stairs back when we took care of four dogs – Tobey, Smudge, Faith, and Moon – and their tippy tappy paws provided a nice accompaniment. It goes a little something like this,
We’re going down the stairs
Without any cares
Not wearing underwears
It’s time to eat some food
We hope that it is good
If not, then we’ll be rude
Faith and I had a nice morning together. I snuck her lots of extra turkey slices every time I went into the fridge, because I thought she was looking a little thin. We went for a walk about around the pond and up and down the driveway. I even snapped a picture to send to her human mom and described Faith as being “very frisky on this chilly day!”
I then went over to our apartment to pack up the rest of my belongings since I had only brought that overnight bag for the first few days.
When I got back to the house, Faith watched me make five trips back and forth from the car. I set my belongings on and around the dining room table. That’s our staging area for whenever we leave or come back to this house. Faith has watched me do this unpacking at least a dozen times in the past.
She died less than three hours later. It was like she knew I had *finally* moved back to the house and she had fulfilled my request to please hang on until I got back.
As Faith lay dying, I lay next to her. Heath sat by her head. We both put our hands on her, giving her all the love we could. I stroked her little ears, scratched her head, and petted her back. I told her my favorite stories of our time together. I told her that she would be with Tobey, Smudge, and Moon again very soon.
I thanked her for the chance to love her and to live with her these last four years. That she brought so much joy and happiness to my life. And that it was her little face, more than Tobey’s or Smudge’s or Moon’s that I fell in love with at first sight on the TrustedHousesitters.com website that made me say to Heath, “Look at how cute this dog is! Let’s apply for this job.”
Losing Faith after losing so many other people and dogs this year was right in line with how awful 2020 was. At the same time, my love for and loss of Faith has instilled in me the mantra I want to take forward into 2021. We spent a perfect last day together. We filled it with love and fun and some of our favorite activities.
I didn’t know when I woke up on Saturday morning, November 14th, that it would be the last time I woke up with little Faith asleep next to me on her dog bed.
I didn’t know it would be our last time singing down the stairs.
That it would be our last parade up and down the driveway.
That it would be the last time I said, “let’s go to bed,” and then wait for her to walk up the stairs with me.
I didn’t know that my life would change (again) forever that day.
And it didn’t matter that I didn’t know because I enjoyed every single moment of that day with her. I loved her. I appreciated her. I thanked God for letting us be together again.
So, as I think about my own death and what, if anything, I would do differently if I knew 2021 was my last year on Earth, I think about that last day with Faith. I take that day with me going forward. That day with Faith will serve as my guideposts for how I want to live in 2021 – quality time with those I love, enjoying the quiet moments of our lives, and knowing and expressing just how grateful I am to be there.
Last week was an emotional week for me, as it was for many Americans. I had already cried many tears in the last several weeks leading up to the election. I had hope that the current president would be defeated. But I also felt terrified he would not. I didn’t know how I could stand another four years of the heartache.
Someone once asked me why I care so much. I’m not always good at thinking of a quick response and I couldn’t come up with a coherent answer that summed up everything I was feeling about the election. I mean, I was sobbing at the time, so I’m not sure what kind of answer I could come up with in that kind of moment.
I’ve taken the time to reflect on that moment these last few weeks. Here’s what I’ve come up with about why I care so much.
In the past, I’ve served as a math and literacy volunteer at the local elementary school. Children are adorable! They’re clever and witty and they’re imaginations are delightful.
From one of the students I worked with at Botelle Elementary.
Knowing that our country purposefully chose to separate children from their parents at the border and put them in cages has destroyed pieces of my heart. I don’t understand why everyone also isn’t destroyed by this cruelty. Sometimes, I wonder if people just lack empathy that they could never imagine a situation in which they could be separated from their children in such an awful and scary way. And, perhaps, even if they couldn’t, surely they have heard the words of Jesus at some point in their lives – that which you did for the least of my brothers, you did unto me. I suppose those words don’t really mean that much to people anymore.
Or, what about knowing that these children are watching and hearing “the most powerful man in the world” berate, condemn, criticize, name call, insult, and admit to sexually assaulting women and not be held accountable? He is not a role model for children in any way, shape, or form. Yes, I cry over the idea that some children will lose their innocence because somehow this level of rudeness, incivility, and criminality is acceptable to many people. It will never be acceptable to me.
There is only one person that I stay in touch with from my grade school and high school years. She is a Black person and I love her dearly. When Heath and I eloped, I carried pictures in my pocket of all the people I would have had as a bridesmaid in my wedding party if we had married in a traditional ceremony.
How can I love her and value our friendship and not get emotional when I see people in this country targeted for something as stupid as skin color? What if she were next?
Some of my favorite students from my time as a college professor are Muslims. These students are some of my best and brightest memories from an often-depressing time in my life when I wasn’t brave enough to say I had chosen the wrong career path.
We share the same God! How is it fair that their particular beliefs are not just considered less sacred than mine, but also considered radicalized and extremist? Christianity has also had its fair share of radicalization and extremism throughout history, yet somehow, we’re better than others? How does that make sense?
One of my favorite people at the church I attend is a 90-something year old woman named Dottie. I love her! She has such a mischievous twinkle in her eyes and she is always happy to see me. Getting a hug from Dottie is one of my favorite parts about going to church on Sundays. I haven’t hugged Dottie since March due to the pandemic. It is almost painful to see her and not be able to hug her. So, yes, I cry over this loss. How many more people are out there who can’t hug each other? Who miss their family members? And for some people, there will never again be the chance to hug them. Over 238,000 people in our country died in part because of the ineptitude of our leaders. It is so bad that one of the most esteemed medical journals in the country took a stance on the election for the first time in their 200+ year history. My dad was a doctor. I took it very personally when the president claimed that doctors get more money when they put “covid” on a death certificate. Yes, of course, I am emotional!
But that’s not the case everywhere. Millions of acres of protected lands have now been opened for industrialization. God is the breath of life! When there are no more trees, how are we going to breathe?
Seeing polar bears lose their habitat and the rippling effects that loss of arctic ice has on the rest of the world devastates me. I can’t imagine a world without these bumbling, lovable, playful, and yes, powerful creatures, and I can’t imagine a world where we can survive the coming climate catastrophe from climate change. Why wouldn’t I cry over more loss of life?
As I think over this list, frankly, it is amazing that I wasn’t crying nonstop these last four years! But you grieve when you need to and then you live the best you can other times. Hopefully, there’s a good balance between the two. For the last month or so, I have been so out of balance I cried many, many days.
This morning as I stood by our sliding glass door and stared out the window, I realized a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Everything that broke my heart these last four years, those problems are still there. Yet, I now have hope.
In fact, today when I walked Dodger in the woods, I sang to God about my blessings. I do not have a singing voice. And then, I cried. But this time, they were tears of joy.
For the first time in a long time, I find myself living without any dogs. Long story short: our Norfolk housesit is on hiatus due to the pandemic. Smudge and Faith now have their human brother living at their house, and Heath and I moved into a small apartment in Norfolk.
The first few days upon moving here, the sadness of being without Smudge and Faith stayed with me like a shadow. I scrolled through my phone, looking at photos of them.
I watched videos of them being silly. Even mundane videos like watching them walk down the stairs, I would watch on repeat.
Confession: It’s been about a month and I’m still mooning over their photos and videos. This may or may not be the most effective coping mechanism. Of course, I still visit Smudge and Faith, and I’m still walking Annie and Dodger.
And, yes, having Heath be so supportive and loving helps quite a bit.
But with all these changes in my life, plus living through a pandemic, and witnessing the heartbreak and injustice of racism in real time, and grieving the loss of my father’s health as he remains in the ICU without a good prognosis, I find myself struggling to let go of my attachment to Smudge and Faith.
So, when I feel like I should be doing more to help deal with my sadness over not living with Smudge and Faith anymore, I turn to the wealth of dog videos that is the internet in an attempt to branch out.
Sometimes, I think the invention of the internet has done more damage to the world than its intended benefits. But if it wasn’t for the internet, I never would have “met” Stevie the Wonderdog.
This photo is from Stevie’s Instagram account.
Stevie has cerebellar hypoplasia. This means Stevie’s cerebellum is much smaller than normal or not completely developed. It’s the reason why Stevie’s balance, posture, and coordination is much different from other dogs.
Here’s the first video I ever saw of Stevie:
You can see why I love him!
When I watch videos of Stevie, my heart does a tippy dap dance of joy the same way Stevie tippy taps his paws in puddles. It’s like I can press pause on my life for just a moment. He’s the breath of fresh air I need to know I’ll be okay with all these changes in my life.
That’s why I want to share Stevie with you today. Just in case you could use some tippy tap love and joy in your heart, too.
Being able to celebrate the simple joys in life is a gift. Since our lives have all been upended by the pandemic, I hope you’ve been able to find a few new simple pleasures that give you this joy.
For me, I’ve discovered that I could watch salamanders playing in the water for hours on end. How cute are these little guys?
They even inspired this poem.
On this warm and sunny day
The salamanders swim and play
To my delight,
They never stop!
I’m also finding joy in removing this rock from the driveway.
Every time I walk Smudge and Faith around the yard, I stop to dig up some dirt. I use my foot, so it’s maybe not the most effective method. Still, I make progress every day, and one of these days the rock will be free.
How I’m approaching this rock could also be a metaphor for how I’m approaching the pandemic. Maybe I’m not as productive as I would like during my time of isolation, but little by little I work on projects that are important to me, and with enough small steps on a consistent basis, I’m hoping that by the end I’ll look back on this time as one of great creation.
I’m also loving my pandemic diet, which consists of eating the same meal for breakfast and lunch every day. Here’s what I eat: 4 strips of chicken bacon, an Ezekiel bread English muffin with coconut oil, and a smoothie. My breakfast smoothie uses almond milk, protein powder, one chopped up carrot, four strawberries, and a few shakes from the cinnamon, the ginger, and the turmeric spice jars. My lunch smoothie is ½ coup of tap water, ½ cup of maple water or coconut water, two handfuls of frozen greens, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and a sprig of frozen mint.
I savor these foods every meal. They are delicious and healthy, and because I enjoy the taste so much, I don’t mind that it’s the same foods twice a day every day. In fact, I look forward to it!
Also with this meal plan, I don’t have to waste any brain power deciding what to make. Cooking is not a strength of mine and the relief of being free of that stress is priceless. I also don’t procrastinate on doing my dishes because: 1) I need a clean blender for both breakfast and lunch; 2) there’s not that many dishes to do; and 3) I know how long washing the dishes will take since I’m washing the same ones over and over.
At first, I felt like eating this way was somehow “wrong.” That I should have more variety. It wasn’t until Heath said to me, “Kelly, if that’s what you want to eat, then just eat it,” that I let go of all the worrying and shoulding on myself.
Isn’t it funny how giving someone permission, even if they don’t need permission, can have such a positive effect on the way they approach something. Since then, I haven’t looked back. I suspect I’m going to keep eating this way even when the pandemic is over.
Finding these new joys is a good reminder that there are things to be grateful for even during times of uncertainty. And even when there are days when life seems so hard and I worry about what is happening to this world we live in, there is always Smudge, ready to pose for a picture for the simple price of one toss of a tennis ball. How could I not be grateful for this guy?
On July 21st, 2007, I read the above sentence in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. One of the characters, Albus Dumbledore, had it inscribed on the gravestone of his sister and mother.
I know the date because I bought Deathly Hallows from The Regulator Bookshop (Durham, NC) when the book went on sale at midnight. Like millions of other readers, I finished the 784 page book by that afternoon.
There was so much to process with the last Harry Potter story, that I gave zero consideration to this final epithet that Dumbledore bestowed on his family.
Then a few years later I was sitting in church and heard JK Rowing’s very words read aloud from the lectern.
Turns out those words aren’t attributed to JK Rowling at all.
This mind blown feeling reminded me of my freshman year in college when I learned that Aslan the lion from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was really a metaphor for Jesus Christ.
Sometimes I wonder what, if anything, I learned in high school. Because whatever the teachers attempted to distill into my brain did not make it very far. Of course, I did have undiagnosed narcolepsy at the time so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.
After my visit to Gettysburg National Military Park a few weeks ago, I’m now thoroughly convinced that education is wasted on the young. But I’ll save that topic for another day.
Anyway, guess who else has borrowed from Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21?
I’ll give you a hint: it’s a book where I fall asleep nearly every single time my husband and I start listening to the audiobook version.
That’s right – Moby Dick!
I wonder how I would have reacted if I had never realized for where your treasure is came from the Bible and instead thought JK Rowling stole it from Herman Melville.
Guess we’ll never know.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement as of late, especially because Heath and I are back in Norfolk. My reunion with Smudge and Faith had me nearly in tears of joy, as did the first time I went over to see my friend Cecily and walk her dog, Dodger.
Cutie Pie Faith
As I walked through the woods with Dodger, I felt a profound sense of gratitude come over me. I am living my dreams – traveling with my husband, taking care of dogs, wandering in the woods, and writing nearly every single day.
How did I get so lucky?
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Luck has nothing, yet everything to do with my current life. I made the choiceto give up tenure and quit teaching. I knew where my heart was and it wasn’t with being a professor. If I hadn’t made the choiceto quit, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the right place/right time opportunities that came my way.
My choice is important for me to recognize because I had an encounter on my road trip where someone showed a lot of skepticism for the life Heath and I are currently leading. When this person asked how we were doing (financially) compared to when I was a professor, I said just fine.
Sure, you are, came this person’s response.
No, really. We are.
Uh-huh. Do you know what it means to be delusional?
I then told this person that maybe I wasn’t earning anything close to what my salary was as a professor. But what I have instead is more joy, happiness, and good health than I’ve ever had. Not to mention the abundant time and freedom to take an 11,500-mile road trip or walk in the woods with a dog nearly every day of my life.
So yes. I am doing just fine. Better than fine actually.
I wish I had also mentioned during this discussion that I haven’t had rent or utility payments in three years. And the houses I’ve lived in — I never could have afforded them on my salary, even as an associate professor. But I didn’t because … you know, emotions. I don’t always have my full wits about me at times like that.
If I thought the person who argued with me would be amenable, I would recommend they read Harry Potter. Or Moby Dick. Or The Bible. But I don’t think they are, so I’m not going to waste my time.
I don’t think they’ll ever realize it’s not about the money.
Instead, I’m going to keep on keepin’ on. And that’s just how I like it.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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,
and my husband’s parents in Tennessee,
we visited with various extended family members in North Carolina,
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.
We brought my niece to visit us in Connecticut for a week in May,
This past August, my husband and I visited the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio on one of our house-sitting road trips,
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.
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
being an animal enthusiast
serving others with the best of my talents
connecting to nature
traveling to new places (preferably with my husband and/or family)
growing my spirituality
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!)
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.
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:
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.