How to Be a Better Human

Someone older and supposedly wiser once told me a long time ago that guilt was a useless emotion. I remember feeling very defensive about this. I didn’t want to accept it. I very much wanted this person to feel guilty for all the horrible things they had done to me. That would mean at least they recognized how they had wronged me and who knows, maybe they’d even apologize or make amends in some small way. But no, to this person, guilt was a wasted emotion.

Don’t tell that to Brene Brown, a leading authority on shame and the constellation of emotions surrounding it. In her latest book, Rising Strong, Brown affirms the intuition of my younger self: guilt can be a powerful way to figure out wrong turns, take the steps necessary to correct them, do better the next time. Guilt teaches us to have more empathy and compassion, to be more forgiving and more loving. Calling it a waste is the real mistake.

Brown makes a careful distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling horrible about something you did, shame is feeling horrible about who you are. In a way, when that person told me guilt was a useless emotion, it made me feel ashamed. Who was I to think guilt was a good thing? Who was I to go around feeling guilty and hoping those who had done cruel things to me felt guilt too? What kind of horrible human being was I, anyway? Was I really so stupid as to think that guilt had a place in my life? That it was in some way a good thing? That is how shame gets you. It makes you question your own intelligence and integrity. It twists logic.

There is nothing to be gained from shame, which is the irrational fear that there is something intrinsically wrong in me. Something unfixable. When I drag shame out into the daylight, admit my feelings and unpeel the layers by writing about it, I come to Brown’s conclusion: I am not perfect, I am only human, and I need to forgive myself, let go of shame and get on with things. Shame, not guilt, is the useless emotion.

Once I have let go of shame and absorbed the lessons of guilt, I can use them to grow more fully into what Brown calls wholeheartedness (which to me is pretty much the point of life, to become whole, to be at peace, to accept imperfection and to love myself and others with my whole heart). I can draw more secure boundaries, adjust and affirm my ideas about how to live with integrity, and move on.

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Except what I’ve noticed is that even after I do the work, regret never goes away. I will always regret the harsh words I’ve said, the wrong actions I’ve taken, the times I have hurt someone I love. Regret is a tough thing to live with. Regret is a result of guilt. It’s a burden and it’s something I struggle with. I wondered for a long time if I’d always have regrets or if by some miracle I could cure them, the way you cure shame by bringing it out into the light and looking at it.

As it turns out, I was doing the same thing with regret that other person was doing with guilt, considering it useless, wanting to banish it. Not so fast, says Brown. Regret is as useful as guilt and in similar ways. It  can help uncover shame, because for a lot of people, myself included, when I feel shame I do whatever I can to bury it quick.

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But if I write about my regret and look at why I have this huge block of it, I find boundary issues I had not handled well, problems with trust that ensued from that, feeling foolish for missing huge red flags that tried to warm me disaster was just ahead, and so much more. And the value of that? Shame banished. Also, knowing regret has a higher purpose lets me live more lightly with it. Just like guilt, learning to work with regret lightens its load. It is a way to become a better human.

Homemade Happiness

When it comes to happiness, we are in charge. 40% of our happiness comes from things we can do to keep it alive. I’m usually pretty cheerful but it has been a dire year. With some beautiful highlights, but no way 40%.

Yet, according to Barbara Graham, our culture promotes the idea that happiness is a given, and that most people believe there’s no reason why folks can’t be happy all the time–unless there’s something wrong with them.

I never believed that. When I was young and cynical I was taken with the idea that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” and women got an extra spoonful. As I matured and designed life the way I wanted it to look, I figured I got it right about half the time. That seemed fair: 50/50 equal measures of suffering and joy.

Now math is not my subject, but if i automatically have 50% happiness and I can add 40% more, that means  the happiness in my life shoots up to 90%. Well, wouldn’t that be nice right about now? I really want to get off these crutches, stop dealing with medications and pain and sleeplessness, and just be ME again.

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UC Berkeley has an entire department devoted to the study of happiness (I think I would be 100% happier had I graduated with honors from that school) and they put together a sort of top ten list of things to do to increase the happiness quotient. Let’s see. Right now, honestly, I’m at about 30% (with zero being dead). This is up from 20% yesterday when I spent yet another day having blood drawn at the doctor’s office.

So here’s my plan. Do those ten things on the list and get 70% happy. I can totally live with 70% happy. The first thing on the list is to SAVOR LIFE’S JOYS. “Pay close attention to life’s pleasures and share them with others.”

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All I have to do is look in front of me to see one of my favorite pleasures: my laptop. I don’t know what my happiness numbers would be without writing, oh wait, I do, because some days in the past couple of months I’ve been too sick to write. So here I am with my best pleasure. And next to me: a cup of tea. Nothing beats a cup of tea. I like Stash Black Breakfast with a splash of almond milk. And almond milk?! Thank you whoever thought of that stuff. Regular milk and I don’t agree, soy milk is just okay, but almond milk is like a sweet dream.

Seems I don’t have to reach far to get that happiness thing heading higher. Next up? DROP GRUDGES. Give me a few days for that one as I have a longish list. But I will be back and will send progress on my health and happiness for the next ten posts. Want the complete list now? I read it in the June issue of “Mindful” magazine. Page 49. And there’s another of the joys I savor, reading and sharing what I read:)

Dieting Through the Decades

Life is a trip, a journey, an adventure. Sure there are bumps in the road, and I don’t mean cocaine. One of my main problems in the second half of my life has been weight. In my 20s I was a size 8. Then later, a 10. The much dreaded double digits, but I wasn’t too concerned. Yet.

30 Something

For me, when I quit smoking in my early 30s, after a dozen previous attempts, some lasting as long as a year or more, I started eating. As a smoker from an early age, my taste buds had been reduced to ash. I craved nicotine and food was a necessary evil.

Then my buds bloomed and suddenly I discovered sugar and fat and salt and pizza and burgers and chocolate and potato chips. In my 30s I gained 30 pounds. So for the first time in my life, I was a chunky size 14. But very happy to be done with cigarettes. I made a few weak attempts to lose weight, but I was so busy teaching every day, acquiring a graduate degree at night, taking care of my family, and writing that adding one more thing to my to-do list was next to impossible.

Fat 40

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First half of my 40s, I was the fattest I’d ever been. Somehow I had gained 20 or 30 more pounds. I was a size 16-18 and wore a lot of Plus Sized outfits. Also, I’m petite, so I looked like a little butter ball. People even asked me if I was pregnant because the extra fat on my face plumped any wrinkles and I held the bulk of my extra fat in my middle.

After a friend showed me a photo of myself all dressed up and looking really huge, I joined Weight Watchers. This is me after losing a significant amount of weight. I went from size 18 to size 14. I’m not really slim and the love handles are evident. Most of my weight was still in my middle. I was somewhat okay with this weight.

50 Revision

After surgically induced menopause, I quickly shot up to a size 16 again. I started getting reports from my doctor that said I had pre-diabetes, high blood sugar, and metabolic syndrome. I took each one of these reports seriously, read all the books and tried all the diets. Sugar Busters, Atkins, Fat Flush, South Beach. They all worked as long as stuck to them. I never got below a size 14, though. And I couldn’t quit, or even limit, carbs for very long.

In my mid-50s, I developed Barrett’s Esophagus (a pre-cancer condition brought on by acid reflux) and had another surgery, this time to remove my gall bladder. My body, I was told, could no longer process fat and I’d have to maintain a low-fat diet for the rest of my life. So much for the low carb approach.

After reading Quantum Wellness, I became a vegetarian. Initially I lost weight, but not that much. The pre-cancer condition cleared up, which seemed like a miracle as I was told it was a “forever” condition and would never get better, only worse. I attributed this miracle to becoming vegetarian. I still get checked regularly for Barrett’s, but it has not come back.

I felt okay about having a cupcake now and then and dark chocolate became a “healthy” favorite. I love potato chips and mashed potatoes and french fries. Those are all vegetarian and I ate them. I balanced these splurge foods with soy products, pasta, brown rice, and multi-grain bread. I also ate pizza at least once a week. I love my wine. Also vodka martinis with blue cheese olives. Yet I also enjoy healthy fare like seafood and salad, things I did not like at all before becoming vegetarian.

In my late 50s, a friend successfully lost a lot of weight on a mini-meal plan and I followed it, vegetarian style. I lost 10 pounds and went to a size 12. Then, at age 59, I lost 10 more and went down to a size 10. But even so, my pre-diabetes was not getting better. My doctor suggested cutting carbs and alcohol. I was already cutting calories to the bone on the mini-meal plan. I wasn’t sure how to incorporate her suggestions and remain slim and vegetarian.

60s: The First Year

IMG_1477I turned 60 last month. That’s me on my birthday. I want my 60s to be a healthy happy decade. I want to travel and be able to walk for miles and sleep well at night. I want to look at pictures and not see a muffin middle, which quickly reappears if I stop my semi-starvation diet for even a week. I want, more than anything to stop the endless round of gaining and losing and gaining again.

From Thanksgiving 2014 until March 2015, I packed on ten pounds. Two pounds a month. When I returned from a winter vacation, my carb cravings were intense. Soon, I couldn’t zip my size 10 jeans. And I had another sugar test scheduled in May. I knew I had to form some eating habits that would hold me for life. I felt out of control but also determined to make some necessary changes, and this time for good.

I of course bought yet another book, this one about forming good habits. In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin mentions another book, Why We Get Fat. She said the science was impeccable and she’d effortless lost weight and kept it off. So did her sister, a diabetic, and her father who had an issue with belly fat. This was just a side issue in her book about making and maintaining excellent habits. But it sparked my interest so I read the book in a day and was dismayed to find that my vegetarian diet was a real problem for my particular body. This book suggests the same thing my doctor did after the last sugar report: cut carbs. I’d already mostly forsaken sugar and that had not helped my glucose levels. Carbs were the clear culprit, at least for me.

The most brilliant analogy in Why We Get Fat is that not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer. And not everyone who eats carbs gets metabolic syndrome/glucose intolerance/insulin resistance/pre-diabetes. Those medical health terms all mean the same thing. And along with pre-diabetes comes a cascade of almost every serious disease you can think of, diseases that kill you, diseases that cut life short, diseases I’d been flirting with for decades.

When I quit smoking in my 30s, I saved myself from possible lung cancer. People with pre-diabetes are prone to various cancers, including cancer of the esophagus. I’d already done that. Got a reprieve. Didn’t want to go there again. Then with Type 2 diabetes, there’s a good chance of heart disease and dementia, especially Alzheimer’s. I have seen people I love, in their 60s, 70s and 80s suffer and die with these diseases. All of them were overweight. All of them had metabolic syndrome. Science has proven that these life-ending diseases are preventable, but only if you catch the culprit that creates every one of them: pre-diabetes.

Today

A little over two weeks ago, I decided to go very low carb until I could zip my size 10 jeans again. That happened within a week. In 17 days I lost 7 pounds. My first goal was to drop the 10 pounds I gained since last Thanksgiving and I am well on my way. There’s also my glucose testing next month. I don’t want yet another bad sugar report. I noticed another benefit of giving up “bad” carbs: I no longer crave sugar OR carbs. I no longer lose control and binge on anything in my pantry that contains mostly carbs. For the first time in forever, I can have cookies, bread, rice, potatoes, crackers, muffins, donuts and every other bad-for-me foods in the house for my husband, who has been the same healthy size since we married.

He’s one of the lucky people who does not have the propensity to gain weight when eating carbs. I’m not so it is good-bye to bad carbs forever. I’m pretty sure this time I will stick to the diet, because if I don’t, the rest of my life, as I envision it, with good health and great energy, will be over. I strongly believe (it only took a couple of decades to sink in) that if I correct my body’s insulin resistance, the best is yet to come.

Rosemary for Remembrance

Thinking about alternative therapies lately for health issues. It’s not like I haven’t tried herbal remedies before. Ginkgo and zinc and I still use, um, what’s it called? Starts with an E? Echinacea! I swear by that stuff for colds. Ginkgo did not help my memory, alas. But now comes a new option: rosemary.

Actually, it’s pretty old. Shakespeare wrote it into Ophelia’s speech as she goes mad with love of Hamlet, strewing flowers and herbs hither and yon. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…” she says, tossing the flowers like scattering tears. Sometimes not remembering can be a blessing. Remembering better times with Hamlet, after all, is what brought about Ophelia’s suicide. Memories can be precious or poison.

But forgetting an easy word, or someone’s name, is simply annoying. When I get together with my friends, we say this forgetfulness is because we have so much more to remember now. Passwords, for example. I have a million of them. You, too, right? So maybe that somewhat wonky memory of mine is a product of life today. And maybe putting a drop of rosemary oil into my shampoo will make my hair healthier and improve my memory.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to pop fewer pills. Not because taking tons of pills is an old person cliché. I don’t mind being old; I quite enjoy it. For one thing, I have lots of time to peruse the dictionary or just putter patiently until the right word comes. It almost always does. Personally, I like pills just fine, it’s the side effects I despise. I’ve heard certain essential oils (herbs in concentrated liquid form) are cures for sleeplessness, migraine, acid reflux, even stress, which, come to think of it, probably caused all the other things.

I put a little drop of lavender into my palm last night, rubbed my hands together, and swiped the bottoms of my feet. My little instruction book said I could have put the lavender on my pillow, too. Slept like a baby. Another perk of being older, as in old enough to retire from the day job: I can stay in bed as long as I like. After slumbering a soothing eight hours (almost never happens) I lolled around in my warm cocoon for another hour, meditating. Not only had the lavender given me good rest, it had calmed me to the point of an early meditation, something I used to do regularly until anxiety to get my day started robbed me of that meditation time.

Meditation is the best way I know to cure ills, particularly mental ones like fear and panic. I regularly meditate in the afternoons (I’m happy to add a morning meditation in as well if the lavender keeps working!) and recently I added an element to a twenty year practice. I’m phobic and have been for most of my life. I’ve written about my struggles before. Until recently I thought that phobias were a permanent part of what it meant to be me. I accepted them and made peace with my less than easeful mind. Then I decided I’d try a few things, like facing my fears and learning to be braver with age.

Somehow just deciding helped. My plan was that I would, instead of immediately reaching for a pill or (worst case scenario) emergency vodka, I’d breathe and I let myself feel fear.  I’d face it with the in breath and do my best to let it go with the out breath. I practiced this letting go during afternoon meditation and on sleepless dark nights. And breathed it in, tried to let it go with the out breath. I worked at it. I didn’t just auto-pop a pill or six.

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When you meditate, everything slows down, so it’s very easy to watch fear unfold, to feel the heartbeat slowly accelerate. I have even meditated my way through mild panic attacks. It’s interesting. Not pleasant, but the side effects of doing this inner work are remarkable. Some months back fear of public speaking abruptly departed, and a few months later I started flying without meds. That’s actual flying in a plane, not a metaphor for euphoria. But I do feel euphoric!

Because, amazingly, without warning, in real life, phobia number three vanished a month ago. It happened in Florida while Al was driving. I knew about the bridge. I knew we’d be driving across it. I knew soon it would come into view and that would start the panicky feeling in my head, in my heart. I had already decided to let the fear come and to white-knuckle it. After all, I’d done that for years before things got too unmanageable and I went on medication.

Then, as the bridge came into my line of sight (I believe it’s the tallest suspension bridge in the world. Or maybe just the country. Or perhaps only Florida.) I didn’t feel the fear. I expected it and had my little bottles of emergency vodka in the glove box, just in case. But emergency vodka can be very inconvenient at nine o’clock in the morning, and I was hoping not to have to resort to it. So no fear. No anxiety. No panic.

To say I was amazed is making light of the liberation I felt. I was so happy and uninhibited, I opened the sunroof and popped out of the top, snapping photos as we approached the bridge. Absolutely zero fear. Also, I arrived sober at our destination, which is always nice. I gradually realized that I didn’t have to face that fear in the moment because I’d already done the work, months before. Meditating. It works.

So those are some mental miracles, but the physical ones still stubbornly cling. I’m making progress, though. My neurologist of close to two decades told me on our last visit that my migraine symptoms had decreased so dramatically that he felt I was fine to just let my GP handle the occasional medication refills. That is huge. No more “my” neurologist. No more “my” migraines.

Yeah, sure, I still stress. I still have fears. Phobias. Probably I have not experienced my last panicky moment. But full blown out of control panic attacks? I can’t remember the last time one came upon me. I had a dream last night about one of my remaining phobias. I have two left to conquer before I shuffle off this mortal coil, claustrophobia and fear of heights. I know the bridge is high, so maybe that’s all gone, but I need to tackle a mountain before I’m sure. So I had the “buried alive” dream under lavender’s spell. And I didn’t wake up in a panic. I woke up calm and ready to face anything. And that is something worth remembering.

Surrender to the Words

Shame. Dammit. There it is again. I feel it burning in my chest. Surrender, don’t suppress. Sure enough it dissipates, even sooner than I’d thought possible. I’ve been surrendering to my uncomfortable and negative feelings for months now, simply sitting with the pain as it moves through me. When I first began doing this as a regular practice, it took much longer, sometimes an entire thirty minute meditation session.

I remember when meditation used to be for relaxing deeply into nothingness. Surrendering to the empty everything. So relaxing not to have to think about feelings. Or feel them. I was suppressing, or that’s my guess. You can suppress or repress and repress is automatic, you really can’t control it, it just happens to save you from pain. Suppressing negative emotions also saves you from pain — in the short run. But let me tell you, it comes back. Especially if you are going through a particularly bad patch in life.

Everyone has those. No shame there. No shame in trying to fix them, either. My shame goes a little bit deeper than that … it’s #ShareBlogSunday on Twitter and as I sipped a coffee and caught up with my favorite bloggers, I came upon Sharon’s post about choosing a word for the year. Hers for 2014 was “release” and that’s another way of letting go. Surrender to the feeling, allow yourself to feel it, if it hurts. Don’t suppress it, which is always my first inclination, but now I just surrender, feel the pain, and release happens by itself. Surrender is the first part of release.

I started thinking about a word for myself for this year. It’s gonna be peace. I need me some. Surrendering to the painful parts of life “the full catastrophe” as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it, is now a habit with me. It feels good to let it out and let it go. I tend to stick with things that feel good, like meditation  and yoga and drinking wine and writing. I know surrendering will bring peace. It already has, a tiny bit.

But there’s that shame. It’s old, and it’s been shoved so far down it is crammed and compacted and now that it’s coming up it just expands and expands. There’s always more. I might be releasing, um I mean surrendering, this crap for the rest of my life. That’s okay. That way I die clean. Shameless no matter what.

I’ll tell you what brought on the latest round of shame … I’m reading a new self-help book and I wrote a too-long Facebook comment on it that was supposed to be funny. A commenter chastised me for it, advising me to stop reading that self-help crap. I was having fun reading the book and cracking myself up about how much self-help I’ve done though the years, I just laughed and laughed, until this comment made me feel bad about myself. Listen, I like to laugh at myself. I think of the self as the human condition in that we are all in it together and we all have felt these emotions and its absurd and wonderful and just a laugh to look back on our particular peculiarities.

But that comment, meant kindly I’m sure, made me feel all alone in my strangeness. It wasn’t so funny anymore. Shame, shame, shame. Except …  the commenter misunderstood.

I wouldn’t change anything. I’d still read every one of those books and have incorporated many of the habits of mind such material has given me. I’m better for it. I like myself better. I’m more at ease in the world, and that ain’t been easy. So anyway, that was the particular shame thing, not anybody’s fault, just my own stuff coming up from lord knows where. A blog post I read this morning by my friend Laura Zera had another clue for me.

Laura wrote about making a soundtrack of your life. Like in songs. She wrote hers down. It was fascinating. Some good tunes on there! I love music. And I thought about making my own soundtrack, just like I thought about finding a word for 2015. What can I say? I like trying things. So I thought back to the first song I really loved. The song I played over and over on my first record player when I was a little girl. It was Elvis and it was “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” I was five years old and I thought someday he’d marry me and we’d never be lonesome again.

I actually felt a pang when I was thirteen and he married Prisilla. I felt betrayed for a minute. I know it was stupid, and I quickly suppressed that feeling. “You’re such an ass” I told myself. Then, and this is years later, I cried the day he died. I don’t cry easily and especially about celebrities who I once adored but currently made me cringe. I felt embarrassed about that, too. My husband was simply baffled. I bought the switchplate snapped above a few years later. It’s been through many moves with me. And then today I thought about that song and I realized it is the soundtrack of my life. All by itself. One song.

Elvis does some spoken word on that song. He says “You know someone once said the world’s a stage” and that someone is of course Shakespeare who I went on to study extensively and to teach for many years. My favorite play As You Like It includes that “All the World’s A Stage” speech. I never made the connection before today. Do I love Shakespeare because he’s Elvis’s “someone who once said…”?

And the whole “lonesome” thing. If my life had a word “lonesome” would be it. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams is the only country song in the world I adore, because country is not my thing, but that one speaks to me so clearly. Williams knew lonesome. Don’t we all?

I’m not alone in this lonesome thing. Plenty of people have told me, or written, that they too feel isolated, alone, distanced, detached … one of the most famous Buddhist sayings is “we are born alone and we die alone” and nobody can argue with that. Being alone, being unknowable, is the basic fact of humanity. We all feel it. Or we suppress it. I think I’ve suppressed it. A lot. Because everybody longs for connection, even if they don’t know it. It’s in our nature.

We want connection, we miss it over and over, we are lonesome. Or alone. Because they are different. Lonesome is the shameful, sad side of alone. Alone and okay with it is fine, maybe even enlightened. People like me, who seek to constantly improve their happiness quota as quickly and painlessly as possible, will do things like fall in love, get married, go on dates, have many friends, all in order to stave off lonesome.

I’ve been “in love” a million times, playing out that same scenario Elvis speaks: “Act One was when we met/You read your lines so cleverly and never missed a cue/Then came Act Two/You seemed to change/You acted strange/And why I’ll never know./Honey, you lied when you said you loved me/Though I had no cause to doubt you/But I’d rather go on hearing your lies/Than to go on living without you./Now the stage is bare/And I’m standing there/With emptiness all around/And if you won’t come back to me/Then they can bring the curtain down.”

Elvis was still speaking, that whole part. I have not played that song in over fifty years, but I remember every word. Then he sings “Is your heart filled with pain? Shall I come back again? Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?” And that’s the end of the song. Except for those brief “Act One” in-love moments, my answer has always been YES I AM. I’m lonesome.

Even married. Even with a boyfriend. Even in a room full of people who love me. I feel so alone and not happy about that. I feel so lonesome around people I hate parties. I have to go home and be alone just to feel better about being so lonesome. It’s fucked up, yeah? Shame. Come on, you know you want to hit me again. But shame is not here right now. Neither is lonesome. Peace is here. And oh how I welcome it. Now I just gotta make a new soundtrack.