Thursday, February 24, 2011

Control the Putting Down

If you're in therapy enough years you will occasionally have some insights, and if your therapist's office has a window you may even occasionally see the sun break through clouds within the same half hour as your mental breakthrough – pretty darn cool.

In my session today we endeavored to find some new approaches to my spending, my compulsive behaviors…if not stopping, at least trying to get inside my compulsion to buy so much art so fast. We made some real progress in exploring how negative self-talk, anti-Sarah thought patterns, contribute to the urges to have something external that I consider beautiful, or at least more valuable and attractive than myself.

My behaviors are strong and my motivations are complex. One of my favorite things about Dr. Sally is that she does not try to simplify me. I have always hated that – in all people, and certainly in a therapist. I am complicated, damn it! Dr. Sally can even outthink, out-insight me, and that's why I pay her and why I go to see her.

Last night I was thinking (kind of a night-before-therapy thought), when you stop compulsive or addictive behavior the key is to get at the pre-thought thought. It's not just willpower to stop the finger from pushing Purchase (I had to laugh when Dr. Sally imitated me doing the finger click, which was almost as funny as my friend Henry commenting on Facebook, “Sarah will stop buying when they pry her cold dead finger off the Pay Pal button”)...beyond willpower, it's how to stop the negative pressures from building up and the thoughts and urges escalating and taking me to a place where I create more negativity for myself by buying.

Yep, it’s so easy to ignore those yellow-triangle warning signs saying HALT (a mainstay of 12-step and self-help programs): Don’t let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. If I made a bar graph of those 4 bad things, mine would be maxed out a lot of the day, every day.

There are many stages where I could fight the buying – and they are all resistant to lasting change. The "just one more" seems like an obvious danger point – you should stop before the last purchase, the last glass of wine that makes too much. But really you should, could, try not to open the bottle of wine or get on the art website...and really you could go back and get at the earlier thinking and living that made you crave satisfaction, attention, ____? in the first place.

(Notice how I changed from the me to you pronoun? That makes this only slightly less embarrassing to write about.)

Behavior changes – so difficult. Not easy.

No magic pill for it. In fact my anxiety pills may contribute to all the purchases – I have a little less guilt and anxiety than I would have had pre-pill. Back then I bought too much stuff but I felt almost constantly horrid about it. Now, chemically enhanced, I buy even more/much stuff but it is easier to let go of the anxiety for chunks of time (during which I buy more).

Many years ago I bought a diet book in the grocery store checkout line, a 1980s version of self-published, displayed next to the pamphlets of vitamin cures and baby names. The author was not a nutritionist or personal trainer but simply someone who had figured out and stuck to behavior adaptations that helped her lose weight and keep it off. Portion control was key – control in general.

She talked about how during traumatic times like having a family member in the hospital she had figured out that by sticking to her diet, she felt more in control of the situation, and therefore better. She was able to reprogram her brain from, Daddy is having surgery and a cheeseburger would make me feel better to, I can't control what the doctors are doing to Daddy in the OR suite but I can control whether I eat healthy meals today. The feel-good feeling of staying on her diet kept her at a better place than a cheeseburger would have gotten her to.

Well…let me state for the record that I have never managed to not eat during stressful times with this kind of rationale. During my semi-anorexic phases I did control (many uses, some different meanings, of that same word in this post) the food I put into my mouth, but anorexia is in a bigger way about a loss of control. Sometimes I wish I could transition myself back to those anorexic days (last such phase was in my 30s) but it seems that in one's 40s the mental and physical mechanics that trigger that kind of eating are almost impossible to summon. (Which is a good thing, riiiiight?)

When I started reading that diet book I was eating something like a Sonic steak sandwich – I came home loaded up/down with the book, whatever trashy groceries accompanied it (probably Pop Tarts and Coke), and a Sonic lunch. I remember so clearly reading, "Don't start your diet this weekend, or after you finish the next big meal – start it now." Literally the words in the book said to me, "Put the sandwich down." And I did.

I thought that was brilliant advice and I believed I could intervene my cravings for deep-fried breaded stuff, I would throw away the 2nd half of that lunch and move forward to skinny glory.

But that was not an anorexic phase, just a plain old diet attempt, and I only lost a few pounds before I binged on a streusel poundcake. How do I remember this 1982 stuff so vividly...a new type of streusel cake mix had just come on the market, very moist, evil science at its best. After eating half a cake my diet seemed irrelevant somehow.

Of course that was many years and many weight changes ago.

It’s amazing what our brains and bodies store.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Shaken, Not Steered?

I’ve owned my car since 2004 and never realized it has an adjustable steering wheel – yes, that’s how car-oblivious I am – until I started driving to work yesterday and realized the steering column was wobbly. It took several miles before I had a long enough red light to find the page in my owner’s manual (those are not the easiest texts to navigate, even sitting still) that told me where the lever was. Whew, easily fixed. It must have been altered ("altered" - good word that takes the blame off me) when Firestone inspected my car on Saturday.

I was on a completely straight stretch of my commute on a road with a 40 mph speed limit so the car wasn’t hard to navigate, but it’s impossible not to feel uneasy when a steering wheel is wobbling in your hands. It’s also impossible to avoid the metaphor…barely in control while moving forward. I’ve been told that in a car dream, usually the car is you (the dreamer) – thus I’m piloting myself through…something.

To somewhere. (Should I be all dramatic here – use italics, put a question mark after somewhere, etc.?)

Uneasy times at my company, frustrations in my job…evolving roles within my family and my marriage. Nothing bad, just sometimes…uneasy. Not completely in control under my hands.

And/or I focus so much on what’s under my hands that I’m not properly looking ahead. (See what I mean? So metaphor rich I feel uncomfortable typing it – sounds corny.)

(As corny as this Fotosearch photo...)

I hate the car dreams where I’m forced to drive up an extremely steep road or down one, with terror that my car will slide, fall… Those dreams are rarely about the actual drive, more about contemplating the steep stretch ahead. Even in the dream I have a dim idea that physics of car weight could keep that from happening but I’m convinced of disaster anyway.

There’s another horrible one where I have gone on a hometown visit and can’t get back to Dallas without merging onto two highways that terrify me. I try to remember the back way that takes calmer roads, but I never manage that and instead end up doing death-defying traffic merges (almost a close-my-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best) or missing my exit and carried in the wrong direction, with traffic I can’t keep up with.

Just writing about those last dreams is giving me tendrils of night terror.

The wobbly wheel thing is so small in comparison.

Maybe that’s good perspective for today, as I head in to work. Maintain an appropriate speed and move forward. My wobbliness to date has not taken me off course.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fears and Dreams Time Capsule

(Funny what turns up on Fotosearch when you enter “time capsule” – this image is called "Pills and Time")

Just because I'm blogging on Valentine’s Day doesn’t mean I have a Valentine’s Theme – in fact, I’ll state starting out that I may not even mention Craig much in this post. Considering how important he is in my life, it’s interesting what a relatively small presence he has in my night dreams, my writing and even my psychotherapy. I think this is because he has always been one of the least complicated parts of my life – there is less to work through, resolve, hand-wring about. It’s not perfect but it’s been consistently good. (This statement from a glass-half-empty person means a lot.) Well (here comes the Sarah disclaimer), not every day is great but overall it is…good. OK – this is sort of a Valentine’s post, LOL.

The other day I was thinking about life milestones, ways to find perspective… A silly memory that always pops up is my friend Joe saying when he got fuzzy on the timeline of his life, he wrote down all the cars he had and the years he had them. What’s funny about that to me is that I have so little interest in cars, in driving…at first thought it's a ridiculous memory tool but actually I have had few cars and the acquisition and divestiture of each was so painful (I hate car dealerships!) that I actually could track a good bit of life and memories that way. Except that would force me to think about bad car experiences - uh no, I'll try a different approach.

I have already done some timelining on the Formative Experiences list on the lower-right of my blog, but this exercise is different. I am going to force myself to go with the first memory, initial impression, my gut-generated words. No belaboring, no wordsmithing – cough it out!

Okay, counting from 1961 in 5-year intervals, which seems reasonable…(at least in car purchase terms, LOL).

(Fotosearch titled this image "A woman sitting in front of a calendar, clock and pills.")

1966: FEAR: I must not be smart because some kids know how to read before they start school, and I don’t. DREAM: Someday I will be a real princess, not just a play one - I already have a white bed headboard with a crest on it (yes, the paint is flaking off a bit – in the 1930s it was my grandparents’ jade green bed, as I learned later).

1971: FEAR: I am stupid because I am not a good knitter, the scarf I’m making has constantly widening edges (my 3rd grade homeroom teacher taught us all to knit, for some reason). DREAM: Someday I might be a teacher, I like it when my teacher has me help other kids with reading.

1976: FEAR: Nobody who is not my teacher will ever talk to me in high school. DREAM: Maybe I will mature into somebody who has an easier life than mine.

1981: FEAR: I will never get promoted out of this file clerk job because one of the senior people noticed I have jagged nails. (He thought I bit them – not true!, I only eat food, I ripped nail-to-nail, that was my tic.) DREAM: Maybe I will be a secretary someday.

1986: DREAM: Maybe my boss means it when he says he might move back to California and take me as his secretary. FEAR: I will not have the courage to move…I will not have the patience to put up with this boring job.

1991: FEAR: I will lose the patience to put up with this incredibly demanding job. DREAM: I will win the lottery and tell my boss to Shove It.

1996: DREAM: Craig and I will live in a bigger, nicer house and have more money than we do now. FEAR: If he proposes (his proposal being a combination dream/fear), he will soon get tired of my weirdnesses and break up with me OR he will insist on having a bunch of kids immediately OR he will insist on moving to Seattle right away.

2001: DREAM: Now that I have volunteered to be downsized with a severance package based on 14 years with the company, I will write the great American novel. FEAR: I have no talent OR I have no discipline AND I will have to go back to the office one day (and I don’t miss the office and I love being out of the office).

2006: DREAM: When I graduate this November I will tell my boss to shove it, and move on to a job better than anything I have had before. FEAR: I will hate whatever job I get, I don’t know what I really want to do and I am still not qualified for an alternate career.

2011: FEAR: I am heading toward unemployment, bankruptcy and divorce, along with the rest of this declining country. DREAM: I will finish the Great American Novel, make money from it and be able to keep buying art, and if I have enough money Craig will stop grumping about the art.

And to end this post, on Valentine’s Day 2011, here is a final image from Fotosearch: "What looks like an old space capsule has crash landed in the desert."

Yep - that sums me up! LOL

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Empty Purple Tool Box

A couple of HR heads ago we had one who used to give out tool boxes – Joe’s Tool Box – at HR department meetings. Each little wooden container held a Home Depot gift certificate. Kind of cute until you realized (it took most of us about 1.5 meetings to realize) that Joe did not necessarily give these boxes to employees the rest of us would consider deserving. For example if Joe’s admin left early one day and someone else had to help him do something he should have known how to do or at least tried to do himself, that would be rewarded by a tool box. They went to those who went “above and beyond” to help Joe – but it had to happen seemingly accidentally, he seemed to want to believe people helped him because they were just that engaged and empowered, not because he was Big Boss Man.

At home, I don’t like Craig’s tool box because it has a weird plastic or rubber smell from some of the older tool handles, when I open the top I get a waft of something bad like 1950s toys stored too long in a hot Texas attic. (This association is based on some degree of person experience.) I finally started keeping my picture-hanging hammer in a kitchen drawer so I can avoid Craig’s tool box altogether. Yes, that drives him crazy – as does almost everything about my picture hanging.

Third tool box example and the real motivation for this blog… Dr. Feelgood, my silly name for the educated and respectable professional who does my quarterly Medication Management (I love that term!, sometimes it makes me think of throwing a drugged steak into a tiger cage) and I were talking about tool boxes at my last appointment. She is not my regular therapist, she does med management only, which puts her in what seems to me the odd position of evaluating my mental health in a 25 minute discussion held every few months. She tends to seize on one thing I say and run with that – a memorable early session was spent discussing Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters in Arkansas. I could tell you the dialogue that led to that topic, but it’s still weird.

While we talk she makes notes with a timing that I can’t connect to my comments or my laughter – is she noting that I’m depressed? manic? Maybe she’s just making notes to remind her of who I am for future. Sometimes between appointments I decide I will ask her next time, “What do you look for exactly in our sessions?” but I never do. Anyway – it’s her renewing the Happy Pill Prescription that really matters.

Well, last time Dr. Feelgood and I met I was venting a bit about work, and she gave me advice on coping with my frustration and angry feelings – not bad advice, it was well-meaning, clinical yet sympathetic, but since she has, frankly, only scratched the surface of knowing Sarah, I had trouble taking it to heart. And you know when you are complaining and someone gives advice and you don’t take it to heart, you tend to feel annoyed by it.

She said, “Why don’t you empty out your tool box when you drive to work tomorrow…” (She meant why don’t I stop doing the obsessive mental lists and rants that have gotten me nowhere) “…and put all new tools in the box.”

Then she asked, “What’s your favorite color?” I said, I like many colors…how about purple... “Well, a purple tool box then.”

Leaving her office and driving back to work, I felt the frustration stuff churning up again but when I flashed an image of an empty tool box – even, or especially, a purple one – it just annoyed me. Maybe that was partly because of the association I make between tool boxes and former SVP Joe. (25 minutes didn’t give me time to delve deeply into the tool box thing with Dr. F., so she couldn’t have known that word alone would remind me of feeling unappreciated as an employee.)

I know there is merit in the idea and I wish I could bring fresher thoughts to it. I want to act calm and positive and mature in the workplace. And really I want to be those things!, not just act them.

However the only activity I have managed with the concept to date is making fun of it. For example, when bouncing ideas off my cousin I joked that I could put a loaded firearm in my tool box, but of course I would never do such a thing and I’m not even comfortable typing that in my blog. (REALLY.)

My cousin and I talk about dogs a lot (our dogs, TV dogs, dogs who have died, dogs we saw while driving somewhere, do dogs go to heaven?, etc., etc.) so I suggested I could put a puppy in my tool box.

My cousin has a puppy who possesses the power to stretch and relax In The Moment, to an incredible degree. In fact before I get my blood pressure checked these days I spend a few minutes looking at cell phone photos of that puppy stretched out and snoozin’. Even a tiny cell phone photo lowers my systolic and diastolic numbers, I swear.

Similarly…I could put a blanket in my tool box. Aaaah – another great nap idea. Think relaxation…

Jack Daniels? Yes, I really suggested that to Cousin but I wouldn’t really do it. Alcohol is not for during work – after work is soon enough, and enough in general.

I didn’t get much farther than these ideas but there is surely more to be thought and said about the empty tool box - no, not empty, ready to be filled with better stuff.

Seeing it as purple seems silly – but it’s silly anyway, so purple might be right.

Do I have a bad attitude? Quite possibly.

Do I need more medication? Maybe...