Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Support Class


My first two years living in Chicago nearly ended with my suicide. This is not an exaggeration, and this is not a joke. I had a step-by-step plan of how to execute myself with a few items found in my own home so I wouldn’t have to go buy anything and risk changing my mind at the store. The plan was carefully thought out so that it would work the first time. I practiced the steps mentally over and over again so that if I ever made the decision I would be rehearsed enough to carry them out without screwing it up or losing my nerve.

Never mind the reasons why. Never mind the reasons why not.

It took months before I didn’t want to any more, and those were some of the longest and loneliest months I have ever faced. Certainly I could have benefited from either medication or therapy, but what I ached to feel in those days was human contact. My friends were all Back Home, and my problems couldn’t be solved over the phone.

What I really needed was to be . . . held.

It was in my first year of grad school when I started to realize how much I’d missed another person’s touch. In a class focused upon movement exploration we were assigned to follow one another around the room. I was instructed to walk normally, and one of my classmates was instructed to place her hand upon the side of my shoulder and feel the way my joint swayed when I walked.

It was the first time in a year someone had touched me on purpose. I struggled not to cry. No one seemed to notice.

Eventually I got over it, but only just. Found a woman who wanted me, and being touched came not so few and far between. I felt better for a while, because of her and because of time.

A couple of years later, I found myself again Wounded. Wanting. Alone. This time I made a plea to my Facebook friends, and I was flooded with support. I didn’t want to put all the weight of what I was feeling onto any one person, but dividing it among so many alleviated enough of the guilt, and I was able to recover in weeks instead of months. I’ve been okay since then.

Why tell this story now?

A new friend is going through some trouble, and confided in me so that I might help. While sitting together I reached out and took her hand in an expression of comfort. She held on tight and mentioned how good it felt to have human contact after so long without it.

Suddenly I remembered again what that was like, to nearly weep at the slightest gesture of kindness. I thought of that time in my life when such a simple, fleeting moment of contact could have such a profound effect. I began to fear for my friend, and that fear has driven me to press forth every ounce of support I can reasonably muster to the point where I’ve begun to question whether I’m being overbearing with it.

Today I realized that I’m the one I’m trying to save. I’m reaching back into my own past to make sure I don’t kill myself eight years ago. I guess it’s working?

Maybe I didn’t leave those days behind; maybe I’m just outrunning them. I’ve a strong lead these days, but on worse nights I’ll nightmare them within the reach of recent memory, and I’ll fear for those around me. I’ll fear that the Loneliness will take them, too.

Is there anything I can do for you?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Good Old Age


Contrary to the popularity of the meme, it is not the age of pop culture which makes me feel old. It’s not about what year SpongeBob premiered or how many seasons of Full House had aired by the time I finished high school. It’s not about old Bart Simpson would be if he aged normally. It’s not about how long ago New Kids on the Block stopped being relevant, and it’s not about how long ago Kurt Cobain died. Time passes for us all, and to us all is an equal potential for it to be unkind.

It’s not technology that makes me feel old, either. I don’t care that “kids today” don’t use floppy disks and don’t know why the Save icon is shaped that way. It doesn’t bother me that they never used a VCR, a phone with a cord, or shoved a pencil through an audiocassette. It’s not like I ever used a lawnmower that wasn’t gas powered or stood up to change the TV channel. Technological advances are always coming, and future generations will have unique quirks which are shaped nothing like my own.

I do feel old, though. Ancient. Decrepit. Irrelevant. Useless. Used up. Washed out. Cashed in.

Done.

It’s all because of injuries.

Anyone who has known me long enough has seen me in some kind of exercise-induced physical pain, and “long enough” is about three weeks. I’ve bought braces and wraps more often than I’ve bought socks. I’ve eaten more ibuprofen than M&Ms. I’ve absorbed more camphor than sunlight.

It’s too easy to say that I’m not young anymore, and besides, none of this is a recent phenomenon. I started having knee problems before I’d tasted my first whiskey. Once when I was twelve some asshole on the opposite football team dove at my leg. His helmet speared my thigh pad hard enough to bruise me hip to knee. It was a while before I could walk normally.

Sometimes I can point to a reason, like that one(several) time(s) I fell and sprained a wrist trying to catch myself on a reflex. Sometimes I can point to NO fucking reason, like last night; my ankle hurt so badly it woke me up. I had to disturb my Lady Love to bring me an ice pack and some painkillers because I couldn’t walk without gasping loudly enough to wake her. Why is my ankle in pain? Not a clue.

The frustrating bit is always when an injury first presents itself. First I have to figure out the rules. How am I allowed to move without the shock of agony? Am I supposed to stretch it, or is stretching what caused it? Do I ice it or heat it? Does it go away on its own, or do I medicate?

If I’m very lucky I can identify what instigated of the pain and avoid the behavior which lead to it. If I’m very unlucky it can take YEARS to identify and undo the damage. In the meanwhile I move slowly, aggrieved, longing for last week when I was able to do simple things like walk to the toilet without strategizing every pitfall.

If only so much of my career weren’t based upon my physicality I’d hardly mind at all.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Recognize Vulnerability, Stress Empathy


In the seventh grade we were given an aptitude test. The questions measured our desire undertake certain tasks as well as our ability to carry them out. When the results were processed and returned there were two things I was best suited for:

Humanitarian/Caretaker
Artistic Expression

I’ve never been able to remember in which order these were listed, but I do recall their scores were rather close together. I remember thinking how divided these paths were. Apparently I was equally suited to run a soup kitchen or write a novel, though it didn’t seem to me I’d be able to pursue both. We were only allowed one elective a year.

In the end it was the artistic expression that won out. After a couple of false starts, I’ve spent the last twelve, maybe thirteen years trying to make a sustainable acting career. Some years are more successful than others.

I’ve always had an itch to do something more important.

A few years ago my Lady Love suggested I try a gig that several fellow Chicago actors have been doing for extra cash: working as a standardized patient. Most medical universities have such a program whereby their students can practice their communication, physical exam, and diagnostic skills on a real live human being. It helps them to work on a stranger, who is an average layperson, instead of a colleague or instructor.

There’s an area of the school designed to look like a clinic. Examination rooms line a carpeted hallway. In each room there’s a standard set of basic equipment: blood pressure cuff;  wall-mounted thermometer; That Thing they use to shine a light into your nose, your ears, your eyes. A glass jar full of tongue depressors. A reflex hammer.

I’ll sit on a narrow exam table, in a thin gown, waiting for a student to knock and enter the room. My street clothes hang on a set of hooks by the door. Based on the questions they ask I give them a series of answers (carefully scripted by their educators) based around a chief complaint. Shortness of breath, ankle pain, persistent cough, “it hurts when I do this.” If they ask the right questions, they get the answers which lead them to conduct the tests which lead them to the correct diagnosis.

A typical exam gives the students five patients to examine. After their first, third, and fifth encounters, we drop the patient persona and give them feedback on their communication skills. Essentially we’re coaching them on their bedside manner through a combination of objective criteria (as defined by the school) and subjective (as defined by We the Standardized Patients).  

I’m very fortunate to have rarely had a need to see a doctor. Most of my experience has been vicarious as I’ve shown up to provide emotional support for someone I care about. For each and every person I know who voiced a complaint about going to the doctor, it’s always been on the same topic: the way they were personally treated by the staff. They felt belittled, judged. They felt like no one cared. They didn’t want to go back no matter how sick they felt or how much pain they were in.

These are the memories I carry with me during the communication feedback sessions. Nearly every student I speak with expresses a desire to make a personal, human connection with their patient. Many of them get stuck on how to do that while simultaneously trying to determine cause of their complaint and how to treat it.

Unless there’s a more pressing issue to discuss I always stress the same two elements to every student. I’ve said it so many times now that it’s become a script:

The very nature of the fact that a patient is sitting in your office means that something has gone wrong in their day. They’re uncomfortable, they’re in pain, they’re probably scared to some degree. This room is not where I want to spend my day. This gown is not how I like to dress when I meet somebody for the first time. It’s an incredibly vulnerable position for your patient to be in. Especially compared to you – you’re at your job, you’re in your element, you’re dressed professionally. The key in making a human connection is to recognize that vulnerability, then bridge the gap with an empathetic connection. Tell them, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. We’re going to do our best to find out what’s wrong, and get it taken care of, and get you back to your day.” If you make that the foundation of all your communication, it creates a partnership, fosters a trusting environment for your patient to tell you the things you need to know to make your diagnosis and find the best treatment plan.

I never did become a professional caretaker, and I probably never will . . . but I can help other people do it. Like Sam said to Frodo, “I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

And I can use my acting skills to do it, and that’s gratifying.

And I can earn a paycheck doing it, and that’s satisfying.

And lots of people get to see my back tattoos. They get extra credit for telling me how cool they are.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Countdown


I remember the first day of 6th grade. Not the whole day. I remember standing at the doorway to my first class (English), about 40 minutes before it began, staring at the empty desks lit only by the fluorescents spilling in from the hallway. I remember recognizing that I was at a kind of crossroads. The world was now a bigger place. It was going to ask more of me than ever before. I developed strategies for how to be successful. I would fall short of them all.

For many years I thought about where I would go if I could go back in time and start over. Where was the point it all started to go wrong? This was the moment I would have picked.

Then the same thing happened again in high school, college, the first five years out of college, grad school, and the first two or three years after grad school.

Skip to my 18th birthday. In an attempt to find guidance I got myself a subscription to Men’s Health magazine. After a year of rephrasing the same handful of articles (Make More Money, Lose That Gut, Fun Times While Naked) I cancelled that subscription, but not before I saw the following in an article regarding getting into shape:

“What’s stopping you? You may say, ’But in two years, I’ll be 40!’ Look, in two years you’ll be 40 no matter what. The question is: what kind of 40-year-old would you like to be?”  

I remember thinking that it was okay to slack off just about anything in life as long as I got it together by 40. It’s an arbitrary deadline set upon a round number, and I understand that. It’s the same mind frame as when I get out of bed in the morning; it has to be when the time ends in a 5 or a 0, but 15 is better than 10 or 20, 30 is better than 25. It’s a way of negotiating with myself that it’s okay to postpone.

It’s not okay, though. It’s bullshit. Approaching a task with an attitude that it’s okay to push it back is NOT helpful. It’s worse when, instead of a singular task, it’s about making a permanent lifestyle change.

I do it anyway.

One year ago today I started trying to get a head start on my Two Years to Forty. It wasn’t a Monday, the first day of any given month, or my favorite arbitrary-self-improvement-start-date: my birthday. It was simply Day 1. My goal was never really about the result. My goal was about making the change to my lifestyle and keeping track of how those results played out. Most of all I’d hoped that by the time my birthday came around I’d have made so much headway that I’d be an unstoppable improvement machine.

Maybe I was trying too hard. Certainly I was drinking too much. By publicizing my journey every day I found myself the recipient of a LOT of advice (none of it solicited, much of it contradictory). Instead of losing weight, I was gaining it. My mood soured, my health got worse, and five months after I began my resolve finally broke, and I quit trying altogether. I decided to take some time to clear my head and regroup.

Then I turned 38. My Two Years to Forty had begun, and I was behind.

I found a measure of success with my summer job. Thanks to a close friend recommending I join him for the World Naked Bike Ride (so many butts!)  I found myself the proud owner of a new bicycle. I started riding it to work every day – twelve miles, which took me an hour. Then I’d work on my feet for six to eight hours in the summer sun before riding back home. I’d get home too exhausted to do much drinking. My lunch was either chicken broth or a Clif Bar. I lost 30 pounds in about two months.

So far I’ve kept that weight off, but the progress has stalled since August. It’s been nearly three months since I dropped the weight, and I can even feel some pudge trying to creep back on.

No more. Enough.

Three days ago was my second wedding anniversary. Through a series of merry miscommunications I joined my Lady Love for an 8:30am Halloween-themed spin class she had originally intended to skip. Pedaling through a hangover, in the dark, music thumping loud enough to vibrate my core, hair hanging in my face, beads of sweat chasing each other down my arms to pool at my feet, I had a thought: I could be super-human if I wanted to. I found it odd, but empowering.

So now I’m going to start the same daily ritual I started one year ago today, only this time, I’m not going so public with it. No daily photos. Not indulging so much in habits I know are harmful. I’m tired of looking back and seeing myself make choices I know are the wrong ones. I’d rather look back at moments like this one and recognize them as those first moments I started to do something right.

This is Day One.


…Take Two.

“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.”

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Day Itself


Yesterday I hoisted the mainsail all by myself because no one volunteered to help me (a colleague stepped in, but once I got going I wanted to see if I could finish on my own). I even got to quote Fezzik: "It's not my fault, being the biggest and the strongest. I don't even exercise!" Which is true, I stopped exercising a couple of months ago.

Speaking of The Princess Bride, I started reading the book for the first time yesterday. It is an absolute treasure. Make sure you get the 30th Anniversary Edition, which includes a delightful introduction in which William Goldman explains the superior introduction in the 25th Anniversary Edition. Both introductions are included, and they are worth reading every word, even though it delays the first chapter by 50 pages (this was after pages, but before eBooks).

On our last sail yesterday (at 3:45, the 5:30 was cancelled due to an impending thunderstorm), the delightful couple who helped me raise the mainsail asked if these were eel infested waters. They didn't know why yesterday was the perfect day for them to have asked.

I finally figured out where the roasted almonds stand is, and I plan to finish every work week by buying a very small bag of them while walking toward my bus home. Yesterday I got out my cash to pay, and the cashier stopped me. I'm guessing it's because I was wearing my work shirt and folks on the pier do each other little favors from time to time, but I will forever remember it as The Time A Stranger Didn't Know He Bought Me A Secret Birthday Present.

Finally, on the walking portion of my way home, I got to experience one of my favorite sounds in the world: the rain dancing on the leather brim of my hat. It was the best part about forgetting to bring an umbrella.

It was a Happy Birthday.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Cry Uncle


I've always been intimidated by Before & After photos. On the wall at the gym, magazine ads, Xenadrine commercials, pictures of an unhappy schlub were paired with a smiling, thinner, more toned counterpart. Those testimonials made six weeks look like an eternity. How much time, energy, and effort must have been poured into those six weeks to accomplish that result? How many sacrifices? How much pain? How many times and ways do you say goodbye to aspects of your identity that made you into what you are, and into what you've grown to hate? Two photos simply do not encompass enough of the story.

I began to see myself in the mirror as a full-motion Before photo. I hated staring at myself, but I did it anyway. I'd require myself to hold the gaze, identifying which areas I wanted to change - the areas I was bullied for from grade school to grad school. I'd stare until the afterimage stained my eyes when I'd blink. I'd stare until my image lost all meaning, like a word repeated too many times.

I'd stare until I developed enough self-loathing to inspire change.

In college I owned a Polaroid, and with it came the notion that I could take a Before picture of myself and tape it to the mirror. Then, every time I'd pass to or from the shower, I could measure my progress at a glance. I considered taking a series - once a week, perhaps - and watch the progression. It was an idea I never actually tried; the cost of film and inadequate mirror space I thought would tank the idea before it amounted to anything cool.

I've gained and lost a significant amount of weight a few times over the years.  By "a significant amount" I mean I'd get a lot of attention and commentary from people if I hadn't seen them in a while, and by "a few times" I mean once every two years over the last ten. Every time I longed for a decent set of comparison photos, but never had the foresight to know when I'd have an effective round.

The larger frustration was how often the cycle repeated. Gain 30 pounds one year, lose it the next. A set of old clothes shifts to the front of the closet, then back again. A belt cinches up a couple of notches, then releases. I longed for a way to keep the problem solved once and for all, and find other things to worry about.

A digitally kept photo album made possible a tracking system I hadn't imagined. It'd be even better than a simple Before & After because it would tell the whole story. All the pitfalls and moments of despair. Each struggle and every triumph. Strategies attempted, failed, modified, adapted, adjusted. Best of all, it provided the chance to do a time lapse video of my very own. I've always been enamored with those, and the idea of creating one with a long time frame and personal values had a deep significance for me. Just maybe, doing so under such public scrutiny would grant me the permanence I so desired.

But it didn't work.

It's been five months. Every few weeks I'd shift my pattern. Different amounts of exercise, different types of exercise, different diets, different amounts of food or booze or running or lifting, different times of day . . . no difference in the mirror. No difference in how my clothing fit. No difference in how my body felt. The only difference was on the scale, demonstrating that I had, in fact, gained about twelve goddamn pounds.

One person even asked me why the same picture kept reposting since November.

In the end there's only been one thing I'm doing differently than I've ever done before, and that's doing this so publically. How does that matter? I don't know. Why would these pictures supersede all other forms of previously successful tactics? I cannot fathom. What does one have to do with the other? I can't even guess. But I know I can't do this anymore.

If any good has come from this experiment, it is that a few people have told me I inspired them to action, and they're happier for it. Some people expressed trepidation about what others would think of their own posting every day, and my reaction was the same - fuck 'em if they don't like it, they can keep scrolling. None of this is required reading. If it serves you without harming anyone, do it.

I've come to realize my own posting isn't serving me anymore. So I stopped. I have neither plans nor desire to catch up or continue. I'm done with this.

I do still plan to get into shape, mind you. My battles with diet and exercise will remain for years to come, and my health will play a larger role in that struggle the older I get. But apparently this is something I have to do alone if it is to happen at all.

The punchline is that one week after posting the last picture, scale says I lost 6 pounds. So.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Endgame


What is my weight loss goal? How will I know once I'm finally in shape?

Again, I picture how things were when I was 15. I know cannot reasonably expect to be in that kind of shape again. I've done myself a few injuries which make it unlikely. I've taken on a few responsibilities I refuse to ignore, because I've set a few goals which are linked to dreams I refuse to give up.

And so I think of it like this.

All my life I was taller than anyone my age. I didn't have a growth spurt which put me over the top - I just had a head start. For a 5th grade class assignment we measured everyone's height; that's how I learned I was 5'8" (I was ten years old). Similar events lead to someone measuring my height about once a year, so I know that I grew at a steady pace of two inches a year . . . until the age of 14, when I hit 6'4". That was the age I stopped growing for a while.

Texas high school football is no joke. Because of my height advantage the coaches decided the best place for me was on the line, and linemen are further required to bulk up as much as possible. One coach gave me a specific weight gaining diet to follow (not that I was thin to begin with, mind you), and they had me weight training six days a week in the off season. I don't know how much muscle I gained, but I still bear a six inch patch of stretch marks from the inside of each bicep toward my chest.

Some years later I learned that such weight training can divert the body's resources away from growing height and into growing muscle. This explains why I stopped getting taller just as I started bulking up, about 4 years before most people stop growing. I consider myself lucky; life at my height is frequently uncomfortable, awkward, and inconvenient as it is. If I grew to be the 6'8" or 6'9" the doctors predicted… well.

Besides, I do enjoy the irony of being 6'5" and having stunted my growth.

When I was in high school sports I was weighed obsessively. Every August brought Two-A-Days for the football team (practice from 7-10:30 am, and again from 4-7:30 pm, for two weeks). We were required to log our weight before and after every practice, presumably so the coaches could identify drastic changes as a warning sign that someone was about to drop dead, so maybe ease up. Wrestling season had me weigh in for tournaments twice a week before every meet and tournament. This is how I know I never weighed more than 210 pounds in those days.

These days I tend to hover around 270. Somewhere between that ages of 18 and 22 I gained an inch of height, but I lost a lot of muscle mass since I don't lift like I used to, and haven't in years. So when anyone tells me "muscle weighs more than fat," the first thing I hear is You could easily stand to lose about 70 pounds.

Is that my goal? Well, no. If all I wanted to do was see a lower number on the scale, I could just cut my fucking legs off. Yes, the only statistic I post on my daily photo is what the scale reports, but that doesn't mean that's the only thing I'm tracking.