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Friday, December 2, 2011


Unfavorable extremes
We've had terrible weather around here as of late, at least from my perspective. Three days of wind and rain and generally stormy weather left me so sick that I was only just barely well enough to attend my family's Thanksgiving dinner and certainly not up to writing a post on gratitude as I had hoped. Then the barometer swung dramatically the other way, which made me feel just as awful, and I was forced to delay finishing this post once again. This essay has been pieced together over four different days, but the delays caused by these unavoidable bouts of terrible, weather-related fatigue are one of the realities of my illness and are exactly why I work so hard to find reasons to be happy in a world where I have so little control over how I physically feel. Also, in a way I'm glad this post was delayed because it's almost more appropriate to write about gratitude on a day other than Thanksgiving when part of my strategy for coping with the migraines is finding things to be grateful about every single day. While this may cover things that I mentioned in my 30th birthday post, I feel it's a theme that can't be repeated often enough.

People often wonder how I'm able to cope with being disabled at this age and living with pain on the daily basis. My strategy involves being grateful for what I have rather than being unhappy about what I lack. Happiness, I've found, is easiest to discover when you want what you have. There are, of course, situations that people can find themselves in that are truly awful, but if many of your needs are being met, you may find that it's possible to realize happiness within your limitations, whatever they may be.

Better living through chemistry
First of all, let me make something clear: I wasn't born this way. In fact, you might say I was physically incapable of truly feeling happiness for the first twenty-five years of my life because of screwy brain chemistry. Back when I was so depressed, it would just make me feel worse a lot of the time to tally up what I had to be grateful for because I'd think, "What is wrong with me, why can't I feel glad when I have all these positive things in my life? I must be a terrible, flawed person." It took the introduction of lithium into my system for my brain to be capable of feeling happiness. Within two weeks of starting lithium, it was like the sun had come out. I'm grateful for Lamictal and Effexor, too, but without lithium my life would be so much harder.

It wasn't lithium alone that made me capable of seeing the world in a way that focuses on what I have to be grateful for. I went through some excellent and intensive therapy that trained my brain to recognize these things. (Of course, lithium was essential in making me able to absorb and embrace the therapy. I know this because I started the therapy before I started lithium and there was a marked before-and-after difference!) One of the central tenants of Dialectical Behavior Therapy is that it is possible to hold two opposing beliefs in your mind at the same time, namely, "My situation is hard, unfair, miserable, disappointing, etc." AND "I am capable of feeling happiness, joy, pleasure, satisfaction, etc." This way of thinking can free you. Feeling happy in no way invalidates the reality that you are suffering. But suffering in no way prevents you from finding happiness. To find happiness involves learning to see it, to find it, to will it, to make it. This doesn't come naturally or easily. But if you become skillful enough, it becomes unthinkable to live any other way.

Cases in point:

I still clean up alright
A few days ago, for example, I wasn't feeling well because of the weather, but I had the thought that even though my life isn't what I wish it could be, at least I like what I see when the mirror. There are plenty of people out there who don't, but I do. And so, in that way, I am lucky. The next day, I was grateful for my mother. I had a sudden resurgence of a tough emotional issue that made me seek her out just before she was going to bed and I dumped all this trouble onto her lap and she listened to me, held me, and reassured me, and I'm so grateful to have her there to do all those things. On Thanksgiving Day, I had initially been feeling poorly enough that I was not sure I would be able to appear at dinner at all. However, when the time came, I was at the table, fully dressed (including makeup!), and while I only made it through dinner and not any of the festivities before or after, I was present for the meal and ate well. The other day I was grateful for the company of my dog on a rainy afternoon when the barometric pressure had left me fit for nothing but dozing in bed. The dog, of course, thought this was the best possible thing that could ever happen
and she nestled up against me and tucked her head against my chest as I slowly stroked her velvety fur and listened to the sound of the falling rain. It was a very peaceful and I felt lucky that I was able to let go of the notion that I should be trying to get stuff done and accept that I was unable to do more than snuggle the dog and, furthermore, to appreciate how wonderfully warm and soft and soothing my bed was on that stormy afternoon.

Other things I am routinely grateful for include having a warm, safe place to live; caring, respectful, medically-literate parents who are able to afford the health care I need; the love and friendship of my wonderful sister; the excellent doctors and other care providers I have on my team; my art and ability to create; and the internet, which allows me to keep in touch with many people, share and sell my art, and even watch TV. In fact, I've become so accustomed to seeing the world through the eyes of someone who's grateful that is almost difficult for me to see myself as someone who is unlucky or in a bad situation. Yeah, yeah, I have the daily migraines and all of the complications that go with that, and sometimes I do get frustrated by how little I can do, but often it doesn't seem worth complaining, not when I have so much I'm grateful for.

Abbey celebrates the simple
pleasure of peanut butter
My dog also helps. Canine critics have been known to sniff at the way dogs are so goofy and happy about everything, but really, what's so bad about that? Abbey's favorite time of day is when my parents have come home from work and we're all standing around in the kitchen together. Food is being prepared, she knows she will be fed in just a few minutes, and in the meantime she will drum out her happiness on the cabinet doors with her tail and bask in the heat of the oven whenever the door is opened. This scenario happens almost every night and yet her delight in it never lessens. And why should it? It is wonderful to have the whole family together and to know that dinner is imminent. Why on earth do we take that for granted? She teaches me this lesson in a dozen different ways every day and it keeps me focused on the good things I have right now, right in front of me.

It took a nice camera to take this picture, but all it took to find it was keeping my eyes open.
I found this rain-drenched hydrangea just around the corner from my house.
Besides always looking for reasons to be grateful, one of the biggest and most important factors in my ability to experience happiness on a regular basis despite my situation is that I actively cultivate a sense of wonder. I'm highly visual, so it's very easy for me to look around at the world in a way that sees all that is marvelous, but I think anyone who is willing to break away from passively looking at the world and start seeing the world can learn to do this, too. My focus on the macro in my photography is one result of this sense of wonder. One of the reasons why I love taking photos is because it enables me to show other people the world as I see it. There's so much amazing detail in even the most ordinary objects that fill our lives. I'm always on the lookout for textures or patterns, inspecting objects down to their most minute details and watching how they change in appearance depending on how the light strikes them. And, of course, there's plenty of amazing things to be seen outside in the natural world. I look for wonderful things on all possible scales, from big beautiful clouds painted pink and orange by the setting sun to the smallest streak of color on the very edge of the petal of a flower. Again, I look for textures, for details, for colors. There are so many unexpectedly beautiful things all around us if you look with your eyes truly open!

Beautiful color, evocative odor
I'm highly visual, but we experience the world through all our senses. Truly paying attention to music or the taste of favorite foods or scents that invoke nostalgia are all great ways to awaken your sense of wonder. There were a few days last week when the vine maple leaves on the trees in the backyard had turned yellow and that's when I smelled it, the scent that for me defines and encompasses the essence of all things autumn, the slightly spicy smell that maple leaves give off when they've turned color and are starting to fall. It's a smell I remember from childhood autumns and the giant maple tree that grew by my elementary school's portable classrooms, an aroma I carried in my heart and longed for during four long autumns in Florida, a scent of emotional importance that ranks up there with the smell of the Noble firs that we gets every year as Christmas trees and the memory of my grandmother's perfume. If you're awake, if you're paying attention, the world is littered with wonderful sounds and aromas and flavors!

Laugh all you want, but I think the
centuries of innovation and all the
tiny gears that make this watch tick
are pretty amazing.
An active sense of wonder doesn't just have to be about sensory things. My friends teased me a little while back when I mentioned, in a status update, that clocks were pretty darn cool, but think about it! It took millenniums of innovation for clocks as we know them to come into being. They are such a basic background part of our lives now that we don't spend much time thinking about how amazing it is that all those little gears can work together, evenly dividing the passage of time in three different ways. Of course, digital clocks are very cool in their own way, but it's so satisfying for me to think about the development of clocks, from primitive machines that showed only the hours, eventually evolving to show quarter hours and minutes, becoming more complex and accurate until they could to be shrunk down and carried on the person. Each innovation built upon the last over many centuries and now we absolutely take it for granted that we can accurately determine the time by looking at watches on our wrists or clocks on our walls.

Petrified wood
Another cool thing that we also take for granted is the ability of blood to clot. It's fundamental. The survival of living things depends on it. But unless you happen to be a hemophiliac, you probably don't spend much time thinking about how cool it is that when you bleed, you clot, and that your blood doesn't clot (except under specific medical circumstances) when it's circulating around your body. Talk about an awesome evolutionary adaptation! Or how about this: take a look at that rock in the photo on the right. Once upon a time, this rock was a tree--back in the days of Pangea! We're talking about something that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 million years old. 250 million years! And now you can see it sitting on the ground in Arizona. Isn't that incredible?

Science is cool. Ideas are cool. There's a lot amazing technology out there. Our bodies, even when being difficult, are absolutely fascinating. There are so many engrossing sights and stories and sounds to be absorbed. So much of the world is beautiful.

One of my favorite Mouse photos makes
something beautiful out of poisoned grass
It's also true that there is much that is hard and horrible and ugly and unfair about the world. It used to be that that was the only way I was capable of seeing it. I remember how, in the early fall of 2004, when I was really, really sick, I saw dead trees everywhere. There were a lot of dead trees around. Most of the dead ones were young and had recently planted, so there must have been a combination of a cold winter and a dry summer or something like that that killed them. But to me, those small, dead trees seemed like the saddest possible thing and, furthermore, a representation of the world at large. I could still see a world full of dead trees, so to speak, if I wanted to. But I choose not to. I choose to protect myself from a certain part of what happens in the world, not because I wish to deny it, but because I can't afford to make myself miserable over things that are beyond my control. I can't prevent hunger or war or greed. I can't change the weather or transform my brain or wish away my migraines. However, I can choose how I feel.

I choose to be happy. I choose to be grateful.

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