uncomfortable stories

How do you start talking about something people don’t talk about? Whether it’s feeling uncomfortable with church traditions or the changes a woman’s body goes through as she ages, there are certain subjects our society has deemed inappropriate for polite society.

I call bullshit. (Ooh, the use of profanity! There’s another one.)

It may lose me some folks who feel that my next topic is indelicate or icky, but I beg you to hear me out. If we aren’t willing to hear other people’s uncomfortable stories, we are missing an opportunity to love them. It’s really as simple as that. If I can’t even share something that is making my life miserable right now, you can’t know about it. You can’t very well encourage me in it. You can’t even tell me, “Hey, I went through that, and you can do it.” If I’m not allowed to talk about what I’m experiencing, I’m left to try to struggle through alone as best I can.

Right now, I am smack dab in the middle of perimenopause. If you’re not familiar with the term, that’s the time when a woman’s menstrual cycle starts to change as she ages. You, like me, may have thought that was called “menopause,” but before I go any further, let me clarify a couple of terms.

Menopause is the time when a woman stops menstruating entirely. Women are considered menopausal when they have not experienced a menstrual cycle for a full 12 months.

Perimenopause, then, is everything that changes before that.

I was officially diagnosed as perimenopausal at my last check-up. I was hardly surprised. While my cycles have never been terribly regular, the last several months have been especially strange, varying in length, frequency, and intensity. Light bleeding for a few days, constant bleeding for two weeks (or more), spotting throughout the month, sudden unexpected heavy flow, all these things have become unexceptional for me.

As an added bonus to the physical symptoms, I have been treated to a host of emotional vagaries, too. Mood swings and irritability and depression and anxiety. Oh, my. Of course, I can’t say for sure how much of the emotional component has been related to hormonal changes and how much is simply life stress. Because I don’t have enough of that right now. (Increased sarcasm is another symptom I’ve noticed, though it’s a little hard to tell because I’ve always leaned a bit, or a lot, in that direction anyway.)

Last night, I went to bed bleeding. This morning I woke up about 4:00 am, feeling like I needed to hurry up into the bathroom. As I sat down and did my business, I could feel my heart racing and pounding. While I’ve experienced heart palpitations on and off for years, this felt a bit more intense than usual. Staying seated and focusing on my breathing helped to even things out, but moving back from the bathroom to bed kicked my heart rate into high gear again. It was bothering me enough that I woke Adam up. He asked if I needed to head in to the ER. I told him I didn’t want to, but I was nervous that maybe I should. I certainly didn’t want to be sitting here on the side of the bed having a heart attack!

Still, I started some searching online, pretty certain I’d read something once about heart palpitations and anemia. I pulled up a WebMD article on heart palpitations. Sure enough, low iron can trigger palpitations. So can hypothyroid conditions, check, hormonal changes, check, and anxiety, check, check, checkity-check! Reading some more about iron-deficient anemia (with which I’d also been diagnosed at my last check-up), I discovered I’ve been taking my iron supplements wrong. I had been told to take iron with vitamin C to boost absorption, but I had no idea that calcium can interfere with iron supplements. This Mayo Clinic article on iron supplementation recommends spacing iron and calcium at least an hour apart. Apparently, taking pills in the same mouthful like I have been is not as helpful.

Why can’t I ever seem to have these little fits of insight at noon on a Tuesday? Like unexpected phone calls, learning new and interesting things about your body is significantly scarier in the middle of the night. Especially over the weekend, when medical options are pretty much limited to the emergency room and Dr. Google.

It makes me wonder whether our growing lack of community is having greater effects on our health than we care to admit. Not just our mental health, but our physical health as well. We all know, for instance, that not getting enough sleep increases everything from stress levels to immune dysfunction to car accidents. But when you wake up at 3:00 in the morning with your heart pounding, who do you call? Maybe you have a spouse you can wake up, but maybe you don’t. Or maybe he or she is working. Plus, if you’re like me, you hesitate to interrupt anyone else’s sleep, because it was probably just a bad dream and you’ll be fine. It’s a really hard balance between hypochondria, on the one hand, and worrying that I’ll be a bother to people if I wake someone up over these piddly little, extremely frightening symptoms.

And, frankly, while I’m talking all about the stuff we’re not supposed to talk about already, the fact that women’s healthcare has frequently lagged behind the care offered to men is insulting and dangerous. Here is an interesting and terrifying fact for the last day of Women’s History Month.

Did you know that clinical trials for new medications were not required to enroll women or control for gender differences in outcomes until 1993? That was less than three decades ago! Historically, “when studying diseases prevalent in both sexes . . . males, frequently of the Caucasian race, were considered to be the ‘norm’ study population.” Women were viewed “as confounding and more expensive test subjects because of their fluctuating hormone levels” (source). Yikes.

So, what does all this mean for you and me? What exactly am I trying to accomplish in talking about these taboo issues? I’ve laid all this out here because, in the words of Charlie Peacock, “We’re a whole lot different/We’re a whole lot the same.”

In a lot of ways, as humans, we all have so much more in common than we often realize. At the same time, as we each live our own lives, we encounter different experiences that affect us in distinct ways. And how can we know about those similarities and differences unless we share our lives with one another? How can we learn from each other unless we talk, honestly, forthrightly, and listen to each other’s stories? Even, perhaps especially, the ones that make us uncomfortable?

We are so afraid that we won’t look good. We fear the judgement of others or God or both. We don’t want to admit that we’re the only ones, since, if nobody else is talking about this, maybe it really is just me. But in keeping these secrets, in holding in our pain and our fears and our failures, we’re keeping out other people. We’re holding off the opportunity to give and receive true compassion (literally, “suffering together”).

I’m done. I’m broken. I’m hurting. I’m scared. I’m not even strong enough to hold my pretty polished mask up to my face anymore. I hope you’re still there tracking with me. I hope you have suffered through this post with me and we can see each other better, with more compassion, at the end than we did at the beginning.

Please, let me encourage you: take the time, invest the effort to really, honestly be involved in your relationships. Make new friends. Listen to the life experiences of people who look like you and people who don’t. Visit places you don’t live and learn from the folks who find themselves at home there. I, for one, am tired of being lonely and afraid. And I bet you are, too. I’m learning, it’s not really any scarier to be honest than it is to be alone. And, most of the time, we’re a whole lot better together.

Falling in Love

I try so hard
To catch up
To keep up
To stop falling behind
Yet I fail
And I fail
Still I fail
I fall down

A gentle hand
Lifts my chin
Wipes my eyes
Cool lips
Press a kiss
On my forehead

And know
I am

God and the Language Geek

In case there was any question, I’m a complete geek about languages. The words and phrases and gestures and inflections we use to express ourselves fascinate me. When I was much younger, I stumbled upon the the theory of linguistic relativity, also referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The basic idea is that, to a greater or lesser extent, the language we have influences the way we are able to think about things*.

One of the plans I had as a child which has not yet come to fruition is to become a polyglot, a speaker of many languages. Mostly, I just speak this one. I did spend several years studying Spanish, though, as well as Russian, and the act of learning how other languages behave similarly and differently than English has certainly helped me to think in ways I didn’t before. Let me offer you a couple of examples.

In Spanish, the word esperar can be translated into English as either “to wait” or “to hope.” As a native speaker of a language where those are two distinct concepts, I’ve always had trouble imagining how a single word is enough to cover both. As an example, do these two sentences mean quite the same thing?

I am hoping to eat.

I am waiting to eat.

The first sentence suggests that eating may not be an option. I want to eat, but food may not be available. In the second sentence, the availability of food is not in question; I’m simply not yet eating. While these sentences are related (in neither case am I actually eating at this moment), there are definite differences. Yet, in Spanish, both of these thoughts may be expressed by a single, ambiguous sentence.

Of course, English has these same ambiguities. Take, for example, the verb “to know.” In Spanish there are two different words used for knowing: saber and conocer. The closest comparison I can think of in English would be the ideas “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge.” Saber is used for knowing facts, opinions, and generally things you might read in a book. Conocer is a relational type of knowing, the way you know another person. These two terms were on my mind recently after a discussion about knowing God’s love.

From the time I was a small child, I knew God loved me. I was taught so in Sunday school and cannot remember a time I didn’t know Jesus loves me because the bible tells me so. Yet, all of this was a saber-type of knowing, an intellectual understanding that bolstered up my theology but didn’t have much of an impact on my emotions or experiences. Over the years, and especially lately, I’ve come to know the God of Love in a more experiential way. This is a conocer knowledge stemming from a relationship.

There is some element of use-it-or-lose-it with head knowledge. For instance, when I was in college, I took literature classes where we read whole books in the original Spanish and then discussed them, also all in Spanish. I would be hard pressed to do that now. I haven’t been speaking, reading, or writing the language on a regular basis, so it’s gotten a bit rusty with disuse. The thing I’ve just begun to recognize, though, is that heart knowledge, relational knowledge is only as good as my interactions with someone. People are constantly changing. I am constantly changing. I have new thoughts and new ideas every second of the day. While there is definitely greater relational knowledge between a pair who have known one another a long time, without regular interactions, we quickly begin to lose our conocer knowledge of one another.

So what does that mean for my relationship with God? God is unchanging, right? He always is just as He is. But, I’m still changing. I’m still thinking new thoughts every moment and having new experiences and learning new things. If I’m not regularly interacting with God, sharing with Him, allowing Him to speak to me right where I am just now, our relationship, like my Spanish, begins to get lost.

Have you ever noticed when you don’t speak to someone for awhile, it can get kind of awkward? Especially when nothing really happened, you just lost touch for a bit. And now you have this space between you that wasn’t there before. You’ve changed in ways that have affected the relationship, but it takes time and communication to discover exactly what those are and how your relationship can grow and change to accommodate who you have become.

For a while, several times in my life, I’ve made a point to spend a certain portion of my day (a few minutes, an hour, whatever time I set) in communion with God. Sometimes I talked. Sometimes I listened. Sometimes I forced myself to just sit and be, to exist together. But, then something would happen. Our schedule would change or Lent would end or I’d get sick or whatever. I seem to lose touch with God. And then it feels awkward.

So, what can I do? How do I keep this from happening? I’m not sure there’s really a good answer for that. In fact, I don’t think there is a way to keep life from intervening into the best-laid plans (and if you’re like me, you already know many plans we set forth aren’t really the best at all). I don’t believe the answer is a better plan to stop the relationship from breaking down. Instead, I suspect it’s a stronger commitment to facing the awkwardness of starting again. It’s being willing to say, “Hey, God. I got distracted again. I’m sorry. I miss You. Can we talk?”

The great thing about a relationship with God is that we already know the answer to that question: it is always YES!

Lest you think I’ve got this all down pat, I don’t. I’ve had a busy last couple of weeks and I have had one, maybe two actual conversations with God. The last one was several days ago. I feel all awkward about it now. Which is why I am about to take a deep breath, let out a sigh, stop talking about God, and start talking with Him. Again.

*For those of you who may be interested, you can find a more detailed answer to the question What is Linguistic Relativity? at WiseGEEK. (resume reading post)

Falling Sideways

Have you ever played with a top? Most of us have. It’s a simple, common toy, yet brilliantly complex. How is it that a pointy-ended item which falls over at a standstill balances so gracefully in motion?

I wondered that this morning and a quick search led me to this fascinating description of the science behind Spinning Tops, Gyroscopes & Rattlebacks written by Rod Cross, a physicist with the University of Sydney, Australia. (Hint: it’s even better read with an Aussie accent.) The last physics class I took was more than 25 years ago, so I don’t understand all of it, but one thing caught my attention. As they are spinning, tops are, in fact, falling just as much as when you’ve set them on end at a standstill and they topple down. It’s just that the spin changes the direction of their fall from down to sideways, so instead of the top tipping over, it stays upright.

Once upon a time, I read a similar description of walking. I’ll leave it to you to Google that yourself, but from what I remember, walking is basically a series of falls forward. Each footfall causes you to catch yourself before you are laid out flat.

Since I’m not a physicist or an engineer, the mechanics of all this interests me not so much for its own sake as for the opportunity to make a clever analogy. Most frequently when I use the term “balance,” I’m not talking about staying physically upright, but emotionally even.

I haven’t shared it in this space before, but right now, in my own life journey, I’m traveling some rough terrain. Six months ago my husband, Adam, was diagnosed with an aggressive, malignant brain tumor. There is no class, no training program, no webinar to prepare yourself for a disease that’s trying to end the life of someone you love sooner rather than later. It feels like everything that is knowable and understandable begins to move, and continues moving until it’s become a constant, wobbly tornado.

A few days ago, I asked myself, “How can I continue to live in a constant state of crisis? How can I keep managing all this without losing my mind?” It’s really, really hard. Today, reading about the forces involved in motion, I see the glimmer of the beginning of an answer.

I need to learn to spin.

To spin, I must hold fast to that point of connection on which everything balances and simply give in to the momentum. I have to give in, to let myself fall, trusting that, even when it feels like I’m unable to stop, I will not fall over.

I’m sharing this post as part of Spiritual Journey First Thursday. Visit this month’s host Doraine Bennett at Yoga Inspired to find more thoughts on balance.