Coping with fragility

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.

I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.

Today?

Not so much.

My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.

But I feel so much more fragile.

Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.

It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.

We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.

So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.

But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.

I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.

But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

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Shhhhhhhh! (the quest for silence)

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Next to attention, it’s becoming a rare and precious resource.

Complete silence.

No phones.

No airplanes or helicopters.

No drones.

No one yelling.

No motorized boats or snowmobiles.

No cars or trucks.

The irony?

I bet people in previous centuries had similar complaints — the clattering of horses’ hooves on cobblestones! The clamor of crowds in narrow urban alleys!

Here’s an interesting piece from The New York Times about one man’s quest for blessed silence in New Hampshire:

Connoisseurs of quiet say it is increasingly difficult, even in the wilderness, to escape the sounds of vehicles, industries, voices. A study published last year in the academic journal Science found that noise pollution was doubling sound levels in much of the nation’s conserved land, like national parks and areas preserved by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Noise that humans create can be annoying but also dangerous to animals who rely on hearing to seek their prey and avoid predators. “We’re really starting to understand the consequences of noise and the importance of natural sound,” said Rachel Buxton, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University who worked on the study.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience total silence — and it is profound and oddly disorienting. I once stood in a place so totally quiet — a friend’s enormous ranch in New Mexico — that I could hear myself digesting.

 

Ironically, there really are some spots in the city of Manhattan where you can enjoy near-silence, while my suburban street echoes almost constantly with birdsong, night-time coyotes (!), leaf-blowers and construction work.

What’s the quietest place you’ve ever been?

A few more thoughts about feelings

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

It’s been quite the rollercoaster, kids!

First off — very good news! My surgery July 6 went great and I’m free of disease.

What a blessed relief. I start radiation treatment in September.

But…what a disorienting time it’s been.

Jose, my husband, and I are career journalists — who, since the age of 19 when we began working for national publications even as college undergrads — learned early that having, let alone expressing, our feelings was an impediment to just getting shit done.

When you’re on deadline, no matter how stressed/tired/hungry/thirsty/in pain you might actually be, you have to get the bloody story done.

Jose, working as a New York Times photographer, once stepped on a nail so long it punctured his boot and his foot while covering the aftermath of a hurricane in Florida. He’d flown down — yes, really — aboard Air Force One, as he’d been in Connecticut covering Bush. He got a tetanus shot as the jet took off to head back to New York.

But this has meant, for decades, whatever we truly felt in a difficult situation — also listening to and photographing war, trauma, crime victims, fires — we suppressed our fear, grief, sadness. It might have popped out later, privately, or not.

Ours is not a business that welcomes signs of “weakness” — you can lose the respect of peers and editors, losing out on the major assignments that boost our careers if you admit to the PTSD that can affect us — even if it privately stains our souls with trauma for years.

This cancer diagnosis, and the sudden and reluctant admission of my own very real vulnerability, blew my self-protective walls to smithereens.

I’ve never cried as much in my entire life, (I never was one to cry), even in the toughest situations, as I have in the past month.

Tears of fear and anxiety.

Tears of gratitude for friends’ kindness.

Tears of pain. It’s a much rougher recovery than four previous surgeries on my knees, shoulder and hip.

Tears of pure exhaustion from being medically probed and punctured for weeks on end.

Tears of worry I won’t get back to being wry, wise-cracking me. (If not, who will I be?)

I feel like a lobster cracked open.

I’ve spent my life being private, guarded and wary of revealing weakness, vulnerability or need.

My late step-mother loved to taunt me as being “needy.” That did it.

I was bullied in high school which taught me that authority figures who did nothing to stop it didn’t care about me as a person, just a number in a chair.

But this has been life-changing — not only in the rush of so many negative emotions — but the kindness, gentleness and compassion I’ve also felt with every single medical intervention. Ten minutes before being wheeled in the OR, I was laughing with my surgeon and her nurses. That’s a rare gift.

I also feel some shame at how infantile one becomes — focused with ferocious selfishness  — memememememememe! — when in pain and fear. Two dear friends were widowed and another’s adult daughter died of cancer within the same month as all of this, and it’s taken a lot of energy to offer them the attention and love they so need.

People have offered to talk to me about their experiences of breast cancer. I can’t. Too often, they plunge into detail and I can’t listen, process and empathize. It’s too much.

That may be my own weakness, because feelings can feel so overwhelming.

Interesting times….

 

Carpe the damn diem!

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All the time in the world? Maybe not…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

You know how this goes.

I’ll do it: tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Sometime.

But not right now.

I’m too: busy, tired, broke, otherwise committed, ambivalent, not sure it’s going to work out perfectly.

It might be trying for a dream job.

It might be repairing a broken relationship — or starting a tender new one, romantic or platonic.

It might committing to a course of study.

It might mean selling everything you own and/or disappearing for a while (not abandoning your loved ones.)

 

Whatever it is, I urge you to get on with it.

 

It’s the worst cliche, but a cancer diagnosis — even one as incredibly hopeful as mine is — will instantly alter how you perceive time and its brevity and its value.

I’ve cut off useless drama. I’ve turned down invitations. I’m avoiding situations I know will stress me further.

But I’m also making and planting gorgeous new wooden planters for our balcony and accepting assignments for later this summer and planning a trip, possibly to Cornwall, in the late fall.

Two dear friends — one in London, one in California — were widowed in the same week. Both were, sadly, expected but still.

Now another friend’s husband is newly diagnosed.

 

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This time last year I was carefree, solo, sunning myself in a tiny, beautiful Croatian town on the Adriatic, Rovinj. I stayed in, and loved, a boutique hotel made up of two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, walking down smooth cobble-stoned streets.

If this had happened last year, I would have lost a ton of money on prepaid flights, tickets and hotels and had to cancel a trip that was absolute heaven.

This year I’m walking down hospital corridors and consulting with six physicians, submitting to seven presurgical tests and procedures — slightly less amusing!

I am so glad I was able, financially and physically, to make that journey as a birthday gift to myself.

To take it for myself.

To give it to myself without reservation or guilt or remorse for that “wasted” time or mis-spent savings.

 

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Whatever brings you joy, get out there and claim it.

 

Today!

 

 

 

 

Some thoughts on being touched

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By Caitlin Kelly

Touch can be soothing or frightening, a source of comfort or terror.

The past few weeks have made clearer — personally and politically — the importance of touch, physical and emotional.

Since telling people about my DCIS diagnosis, Jose and I have been deeply moved and touched by so many people, worldwide, young and old, friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have called and emailed to share their love and concern.

It’s been surprising to us — tough old boots of journalists that we are, working for decades in a fact-based business — to feel such a powerful wave of love and emotion.

We are very grateful.

The business of diagnosing breast cancer, (like other forms, perhaps),  also means your body gets touched by many strangers, compressed repeatedly, punctured with needles and having markers inserted and written on your skin. By the time of my surgery, July 6, I will have had seven different medical appointments and five different pre-op tests.

When a medical professional, who does this job every day, is kind and compassionate, communicating it through their gentle touch — the nurse who held my hand through my biopsy, the phlebotomist so skilled I didn’t feel a thing as she took my blood, the radiologist who stroked my other wrist even as he guided the needle — it is deeply moving and so comforting.

As someone who has always really lived in her head — a thinker, not a feeler — and a lifelong athlete who sees (and appreciates!) her body not for its size or shape or putative beauty — but instead for its strength, flexibility and resilience, this is all disorienting in the extreme.

Of course, grateful for a medical team we like, but it is so odd to suddenly be — as of course we all are, every day (even as we may deny it) — so corporeally vulnerable and now so…handled.

The larger political current context — of tiny children being taken from their parents and shut into cages by American officials — is so grotesque it would be a parody, if it were not.

From Arizona Family:

Dr. Colleen Kraft, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that she visited a small shelter in Texas recently, which she declined to identity. A toddler inside the 60-bed facility caught her eye — she was crying uncontrollably and pounding her little fists on mat.

Staff members tried to console the child, who looked to be about 2 years old, Kraft said. She had been taken from her mother the night before and brought to the shelter.

The staff gave her books and toys — but they weren’t allowed to pick her up, to hold her or hug her to try to calm her. As a rule, staff aren’t allowed to touch the children there, she said. [italics mine]

“The stress is overwhelming,” she said. “The focus needs to be on the welfare of these children, absent of politics.”

 

From Texas Monthly:

Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats. So the father just let the child go.

Take a break!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know, for some of you — parents, caregivers, those on super-tight budgets, in school — that’s not easy to do.

2018 did not begin well for me — the first time in many years I earned no income at all from my freelance work, for two months.

And our fixed monthly living costs, even without children or debt, are more than $5,000 a month, so no income from my side meant digging into our savings. (Which we are lucky to have!)

Burned out, I recently took a two-week break, and that cost us even more lost income and savings, in hotel/gas/meals, for 2 weeks back in Ontario, where I grew up and have many friends. (A last-minute change of plans meant our free dog-sitting housing fell through.)

The “freedom” of freelance work also means that every minute we’re not working, we lose income. No paid vacation days for us!

But oh, I needed some time off, and so did my weary full-time freelance husband Jose, a photo editor.

We didn’t do very much: napped, read magazines and books, had some very good meals, enjoyed long evenings with old friends, took photos, hit some golf balls at the driving range. Visited with my Dad, who lives alone and who turns 89 in June.

I was burned out and deeply frustrated by endless rejections and some nasty encounters. Fed up!

I came home renewed, and have been pitching up a storm of fresh ideas and projects, trying for some new and much more ambitious targets. I’ve also been asking others for more help achieving some of my goals than I used to — doing everything alone is exhausting and demoralizing.  (It’s really interesting to see who follows through, generously, and who — for all their very public social media all about how they believe deeply in mentorship — won’t lift a finger.)

In a country, (the U.S., where I live) and state (New York) where costs are so high and many people work insane hours, it’s counter-cultural to even admit to wanting a break, let alone taking one.

Not a glamorous brag-worthy Insta-perfect exotic and foreign vacation.

No poolside fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Just a break.

I’m really glad that we did.

 

Are you able to carve out time to recharge?

 

Daily? Weekly? Every few months?

 

 

What do you do to re-energize?

Pleasure matters

By Caitlin Kelly

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I was struck recently by a social media post by someone I know who works in a demanding healthcare specialty. She had treated herself to a fantastic day trip to a nearby natural wonder and a gorgeous splurge of a breakfast.

Alone.

What struck me most was the sense this was something, perhaps, to apologize for.

That taking —- making — time to care for herself and her soul was somehow suspect or self-indulgent.

I think being consistently kind to ourselves is essential and something too often overlooked or dismissed as silly, by others and worse, by ourselves. Women are so heavily socialized to take care of everyone else’s needs first and foremost that, when there’s a lack of time or money — and there often is — we get the short end of the stick.

I’m not someone who advocates self-indulgence or hedonism, (and who draws the line?) but I’m absolutely committed to what is now called self care.

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For me that’s everything from playing my beloved vinyl on a Sunday morning to making home-made meals I can enjoy during the week, with my husband and on my own.

I spend real money at our local florist, sometimes as much as $25 a week, to fill our apartment with blooms and greenery, whether fragrant eucalyptus or bright gerbera or the tiny purple orchids that come all the way from Thailand. To me, it’s an investment in daily joy and beauty.

I go to a spin class at the gym to burn calories, manage stress, to enjoy the music and see familiar faces. It offers me a low-key social life and human contact when I work alone at home, now 11 years into that isolating workstyle.

I make play dates with friends, meeting them face to face for a coffee or lunch or a concert or ballet performance, creating memories we can share years later. I went to a fantastic Iron & Wine concert this week at Town Hall with a dear pal and made her spit with laughter over Manhattans at the bar in Grand Central. Priceless!

I love to travel, so am always looking a few weeks and months ahead at where we might be able to afford to go, and for how long. It refreshes me, whether seeing old friends back in Toronto or meeting new ones, as I did this summer in Berlin and Zagreb.

I commit a few hours each week to my favorite television shows. (Poldark!)

And this year — for the first time in my life — I’m driving a brand-new car, a luxury vehicle we’ve leased. Despite my initial trepidation, it is sheer bliss: quiet, beautifully designed, with intelligent and helpful technology. Our other vehicle is 16 years old, dented and scraped and, no matter how much money we drop at the mechanic, always has the check engine light on; freedom from that anxiety alone is a form of self care for me now.

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It can feel weird, even guilt-inducing, to put yourself first, to say no, firmly (and mean it!) to others’ demands on your limited time and energy.

But without adding even the smallest pleasures to our days, and to our lives, we can end up stewing in resentment and self-denial.

No one really benefits from that.

Self-indulgence, self-denial, self-care

By Caitlin Kelly

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Which of these best describes your default choice?

I know a few people who immediately choose the first, justifying their expenditures — sometimes far beyond their budget or means — with “I deserve it” and “I work hard” or “It’s only X$/euros/pounds.”

I watch those people from a distance, warily.

Not spending money can be a monumental challenge for some. Or not over-eating or drinking or smoking.

Maybe my perspective is a result of my unlikely and stringent childhood, shuttling between a strict girls-only boarding school and more permissive but still-regimented girls-only summer camps.

The former offered very little comfort, softness or emotional respite, only a large, shared dark green wicker basket of cookies every afternoon and the chance to watch television in the common room for a few hours one evening a week.

So I’ve always been suspicious, sometimes even disdainful, of people who constantly insist on pampering and spoiling themselves, having seen too much of it in adults who should have been more aware of, and attentive to, their responsibilities.

I do enjoy many pleasures — good food and wine, travel, music, a lovely home — but I can also wear myself out battling internally over how often and how much is too much.

I sometimes find it hard to just be nice to myself.

 

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And, as someone who works alone at home, with no boss or colleagues, no performance reviews except winning repeat business from my clients, it’s all up to me to find and complete enough work to earn my living.

That means no dicking around — I don’t even sit on our comfy sofa until my workday is done, daytime television only tuned to CNN or BBC in the case of huge breaking news.

Self-care, a word I find odd although I heartily endorse its spirit, can be difficult for people who’ve been raised to be stoic and uncomplaining. It can feel like self-indulgence when it’s really just putting gas back into your depleted physical, emotional and spiritual tank.

It’s also deeply unAmerican, (a nation founded by Puritans), to take time off, to slow down, to actually take and enjoy vacations.

It’s so much easier, in an economy driven by consumer spending, to just buy stuff, more stuff, better stuff and newer stuff — which (funny thing!) also takes no time away from remaining “productive”.

It does very little to produce happiness.

And not being perpetually busy here is often seen as evidence of stupidity or laziness — not a smart decision to rest and re-charge.

My six weeks off, unimaginable to some, (and yes, a huge investment), was a great gift to myself.

Many could see it as self-indulgence, and maybe it was!

But here’s the thing….

The money that funded it only resulted from years of self-denial, saving hard, whether an unexpected windfall, (a massive copyright settlement in Canada that won me and many journalism colleagues five-figure sums), or my own income.

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Americans also continue to have frighteningly low rates of savings, for a variety of reasons: health insurance and post-secondary education — hardly luxuries! –— are now big-ticket items, for one.

Low and stagnant wages are another problem.

But if you’re making enough to surpass basic needs, you have to save. And that often means — ideally for a while anyway — doing fewer fun, cool, tempting things, like buying the latest tech toys or phone or putting a vacation or wedding or new something on credit cards.

I’ve also been fasting, (800 cals/day, 2 days per week) since April 2016 and it’s helped me to lose weight; I’ve blogged about it here.

No one wants to go through life forever feeling deprived. But, I’ve seen, if you can stick it out and be patient, results do accrue.

Living in chaos is exhausting

By Caitlin Kelly

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photo: NBC News

It took me a while to figure this out.

The way that President Donald Trump behaves — a mixture I find both exhausting and toxic — is far too familiar.

He scowls.

He rages.

He accuses everyone who disagrees with him of trying to undermine him.

He’s flapped his hand at his wife in public as if she were a poorly-trained servant, leaving her behind as he ascended the White House steps — leaving the Obamas, instead, to escort her, each extending a gentle hand to Melania’s back.

He has every privilege and power the world can bestow upon him and it’s insufficient to his insatiable needs.

There’s no way to predict what he will say or do next, and millions worldwide are now on tenterhooks, anxious and insecure.

What fresh hell awaits tomorrow?

Been there, lived it and hated it.

I grew up in a family that had mental illness and alcoholism in it. You learn to adapt, even while you wish you didn’t have to. You’re constantly on-guard for the next draaaaaaama, the next mess to clean up.

Americans are learning to similarly bob and weave and dodge and feint to accommodate his incompetence and capriciousness.

How to cope:

We become hyper-vigilant, ever alert to the next catastrophe.

We anticipate disaster, ever ready to finesse it, no matter how scared or overwhelmed we really feel.

We’re confused, because what was said the day before — or 10 minutes earlier — is now different. Pivot! Fast! Do it again!

The cognitive load leaves us unfocused or less productive at work and in intimate relationships. We’re burned out.

Gaslighting is incessant, the denials of terrible things they just said. You heard it. You saw it. But…no, you didn’t, they insist. 

Four years of this?

I’m exhausted after a week.

Fleeing toxicity

By Caitlin Kelly

I took on a freelance project in August that, while hardly ideal, sounded like it might be worth doing.

I was willing to try.

It was a lot of hard work for not-enough money.

It was also, though, a lot of hard work with editors whose skills proved deeply disappointing.

Last week I ditched it.

I rarely walk away from regular paid work; like every full-time freelancer (or anyone running a business), I know how difficult it can be replace one client with another or, more realistically, with three or four.

But I finally hit breaking point when I spoke up for myself (not a quick decision) — and in reply was smacked down like a puppy who’d peed the rug.

By someone barely one-third my age and with two years’ experience.

Done.

Anyone who grew up in a family where their feelings were routinely ignored, let alone one with some seriously nasty behavior patterns, knows that it can a lifelong challenge to parse what’s “normal”, (especially indifference to respecting you), and what isn’t.

To determine if it’s “just you” feeling shitty about that relationship all the time, or maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason for that, and you need to get away now.

To know when to stand up for yourself — sick to death of cringing and genuflecting to people whose treatment of you is miserable, but whose payments cover stuff like your groceries and health insurance.

And to know when to simply say, enough toxic bullshit.

Throughout my life, I’ve marked these pivotal moments with a piece of jewelry, a talisman to signify, with beauty and grace and a tangible memory of taking the best possible care of myself, the important transition away from a soul-sucking situation and a movement towards freedom, re-definition and independence.

It’s scary.

It’s not easy.

I don’t bolt quickly, easily or without much deliberation and self-doubt.

The first was the decision to end my first marriage, at least in its then-iteration, (deeply lonely, adulterous on his part), while I was 100 percent reliant on his income.

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I was alone in Thailand, on  Ko Phi Phi, a remote island when I decided. I bought a coral and turquoise and silver ring for about $20 and brought it home to remind me of my resolution. My husband, of course, didn’t like its style. Within six months, the marriage was over.

The second was putting my alcoholic mother into a nursing home. Our relationship had been tumultuous for decades. The experience was emotionally brutal for reasons too tedious to detail here.

I found, in a craft shop on Granville Island in Vancouver, a small sterling silver heart that looked like a stone that had washed up on some beach or river shore, pitted and rutted, battered — but intact.

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It symbolized exactly how I felt; I wear it on a long piece of cord.

The third was this one, to shed a client I’d had doubts about from start.

So I found this gorgeous small lock at a Christmas market in New York’s Bryant Park, a Turkish design. It consumed almost exactly the paltry sum I’ll earn from my last piece of work for them.

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Open the lock.

Go.

Freedom feels good.

Talismans remind me to chase it, cherish it and never relinquish it so easily again.