Hearing my fear

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Driving in to work the other day, Pete Docter, the director of the new Disney/Pixar film “Inside-out” was being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. I had seen ads for the movie, but hadn’t paid much attention. The basic premise is that we see a young girl’s emotions as characters inside a girl’s mind, and how they drive the girl’s actions and feelings after moving to a new city and leaving her friends behind. The segment that most moved me was the director recounting a letter he had received from the father of a boy who had attended a screening the movie. The boy was in a swim class, but for the entire session he had been too scared to jump off the diving board. The day after seeing the movie, the boy finally jumped off the diving board. People congratulated him, and his father asked what had happened that had allowed him to take the jump. The boy replied with “I saw that fear was driving, and I asked it to step aside for a bit”.

It seems that the universe has been trying to send me a message. Everywhere I turn, I run across some mention of fear. From the radio to couples therapy to T-shirts and many places in between, the message coming through is that I need to pay more attention to my fear, and the role that it plays in my life.

The first time that topic of fear came up was in couples therapy a couple of months ago. For a few weeks in a row, I had come into the session feeling okay, and invariably at some point in session I would get triggered and I would emotionally shut myself off. Seeing as how this normally happened when I had to deal with voicing strong emotions or feelings, our therapist suggested that FEAR had a large role in my ongoing depression. My coach had presented this idea a long time back, so I didn’t find it a novel idea, but it served as a reminder that I had to pay attention to that.

Soon after that while reading Refuse to Choose, a book about personality types like mine who don’t seem to be able to limit themselves to one interest or pursuit in life (Scanners or renaissance souls), I found myself face to face with another mention of fear. In this case, it was demonstrating how fear can kick in too strongly and when not necessary. To paraphrase, it’s good to experience some fear when considering a life-threatening scenario, but being paralyzed when contemplating singing in front of other people(or in my case dancing) is fear overreacting. A little bit later in the book it laid out some examples of where fear can stop someone from starting on a new route or idea because rather than start small, people often look at the whole thing and get overwhelmed. I felt it described me perfectly.

Then, perhaps the coolest of all, a couple of days later I saw a T-shirt which read “Fear is the Mind Killer” The fact that fear was on the shirt drew me in, but the phrase seemed familiar and I eventually found it was the beginning to the Litany Against Fear from the book Dune by Frank Herbert. The full text is as follows:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through
And when it has gone past
I will turn the inner eye to see its path
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing
Only I will remain.

Here’s a link to a scene from David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune that incorporated the use of the Litany Against Fear

That’s some heavy stuff there, and I don’t normally have the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit holding a gom jabbar to my neck while I try to resist the primal urge to pull my hand out of a painful situation. However, I think it speaks to how if one let’s fear take over, then you lose control. My experience with a potential drowning while surfing made that very clear. Also, thanks to my experiences with mindfulness, the idea of facing your fear and letting it pass rather than try to fight seems very true. I also like how this is very visual representation of the concept that the fear or idea of what he is experiencing is much worse than the reality of the situation, his mind is telling him that his hand is burning and being ripped open, but his hand is fine when he looks at it. I think of it as an amped-up version of how my fear often kicks in to tell me that a certain task at work, or a certain conversion with my wife, will be much worse than it actually turns out to be.

Coming back to the boy on the diving board, this is where I am aiming to get with my fear. It’s been working so hard to keep me safe, but in the end I am not really living my life as richly as I would like. I still am held back in a lot ways by my fear, but I’m trying to work with it. Being aware of it is the first step. I’ve found myself more engaged at home recently, more patient and the voice telling me how horrible I am has decreased in volume, and I can usually gently answer back to it. Hopefully by continuing a dialog with my fear it will eventually relax enough to step aside for a bit, and finally let me take the plunge into really living.

More life lessons (and possibly death ones too) from surfing

surfpanic-1When I’m in more depressed states, I often feel that things would be easier if I were dead. I haven’t really thought about killing myself for many years, but the idea of escape sounds comforting from time to time. However, while surfing during my break last month, I actually came much closer to dying than normal, and I had a very different reaction.

The ocean can kill. I’m always well aware of that, and never take the waves or water for granted. Up here in Northern California, several abalone divers were killed earlier this month due to rough and changing conditions. I tend to stay out of the water when the waves look too big, but on this last trip I got caught by surprise. I was down in Southern California for spring break and went down to the beach on my first full day there. I haven’t been surfing much at home because of weather and water conditions(Oh San Francisco! You fickle surf temptress) and our hectic schedule, so I’m also not in the greatest shape either. I went to a section of Newport Beach with various rock jetties, since the waves tend to be bigger than at the pier which is where you normally find the longboarders, and I don’t have a longboard down south to use.

I paddled out without any issues, but then kind of drifted around for the next hour without any success. I found that either the waves were closing out, or that someone else was closer to the peak and would get the wave. I had started at one end of the beach and eventually found myself on the other end, with a jetty in front of me and to my left if I faced towards the shore. Suddenly a set of what seemed like HUGE waves started coming in. I was sitting in too close to shore for these waves, so I was not able to paddle out past impact zone. The first wave tore the board out of my hands as I tried to dive under it, and for good measure it pushed me around underwater for a bit. At this point I wasn’t too worried. However, the waves kept coming. I would come up, get some air and then try to dive for the bottom to get out of the roiling water, but the waves must have been breaking hard because it didn’t seem to help, and I kept getting pushed and turned around underwater. This was scary, but I had experienced something similar in San Francisco, so I knew I could wait it out since the set wouldn’t last forever. What really scared me was that the Jetty was getting uncomfortably closer with each wave.

As the last wave approached I mentally readied myself to be bashed against the rocks and tried to roll up into a ball with my head protected. I took a big breath and the wave hit. I was pushed fast and hard underwater and I kept expecting the impact. It never came. By some stroke of fortune I had been pushed across the front of the jetty and ended up on the other side, so it was on my right when I surfaced. My surfboard had come along as well. The water was much calmer when I came up and I was able to swim in to shore. I was extremely tired and winded so I sat on the beach for about 10 minutes recovering, then walked back to the car and went home. I told the story to everyone at the house, but despite everything, it really didn’t impact me in the way I would have imagined. The next day I went to the pier to surf the smaller waves.

I was telling this story to my coach and she asked me to think about what I did that allowed me to not drown in that situation. My first answer was “luck”. All bets were off if I had hit the jetty at full speed. But I was urged to look a bit deeper. It’s always hard for me to say positive things about myself, but I can say the one thing I did correctly was the first piece of advice imparted by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I did not panic. The second piece of advice imparted by that book is to know where your towel is and have it with you, so I guess I somewhat followed that bit as well. If I had panicked I would have used up my energy and probably not have been able to hold my breath underwater. I feel like I should come up with more things, but that is really the key, to not panic. I was scared and uncomfortable, but I was still able to plan my moves. Everything I’ve been taught during SCUBA diving and everything I’ve read about surfing stresses the importance of not panicking. Even Jaimal Yogis, in Saltwater Buddha(which I’ve written about before), recounts a similar experience while surfing at Rockaway beach in NY(but he got trapped under the rocks of the jetty). It was keeping calm that let him find a way back up to the surface. If you can’t think clearly, you can’t function well, and bad things tend to happen.

It’s an important lesson, which I’m trying to figure out how to apply in the rest of my life. I’m just coming out of a persistent low-ish level depression. During this time, so many interactions with my children and with my wife, as well as thoughts about how little movement I’ve made on my career issues have triggered waves of despair or overwhelm to crash over me. That’s when the thoughts of how things would be so much better if I were dead start. I need to work on ways of not panicking so much when these emotional waves come up. Despite the thoughts, I really don’t want to die yet. I think there are too many good waves left in life for that, maybe it’s just a matter of going one beach over, or waiting for the next day.

Aging in both directions

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I turned 40 last month. 40! My wife organized a wonderful party for me which ended with me, my sister and some close friends I have known since high school around a firepit at 2:00 in the morning, feeling full from paella, beer, s’mores and friendship. My wife kept texting my sister to tell her we were being too loud. 40. I’ve probably lived more than half of my life already. 40. Aren’t I supposed to have figured out my life by now?

40… One part of me finds it very scary, and I start worrying that career-wise I have wasted a lot of my life pursuing something that is not a good fit for me. On the other hand, other than the aches and pains that are more common than a few years ago, I don’t feel all the different. In the months leading up to my birthday, I had several people, mostly in their 60s it seems, independently tell me that 40 was young, and a lot of people they knew hit their stride in their 40s. My hope is to use that fear of having wasted a lot of my life and the optimism that I have more to come, in order to change my life and career. I want to not only find more meaningful work, or at least my make my current work more meaningful, but also be able to step back from the stress and annoyances and appreciate my family and life more fully. Tall order, but if this my mid-life crisis, I want to do something useful with it.

My eldest daughter has taught me something about aging as well. She’s about to turn 8. Behavior-wise, it has been a particularly rough few months, It’s been hard for both me and my wife. My daughter has been increasingly oppositional, has had issues with feeling bullied at school, and in turn has taken some of that out on her younger sister. With me, almost anything I say is greeted with eye rolls, or looks of extreme disgust and hate or just plain screaming in irritation. In addition, the slightest request is greeted with “You are sooo MEAN!” which often devolves into saying how much she hates me. I can usually let it roll off my back, but experiencing it over and over and over again allows that antagonism to sink in. With all of this behavior, I tend to think of her more as a teenager, and often forget that she is really so young.

It was in the midst of this, that I ran across a new teddy bear she had made at the mall laying on the floor of her room. It’s extremely pink, and she spent her own money to buy it a little dress. I found it so girly and young, that I was suddenly yanked out of the past few months and was able to see my daughter as the really young girl that she is. I could see her behavior as a coping mechanism for the discomforts she is going through in life. My wife had been telling me this for sometime, but it wasn’t until the teddy bear that it finally clicked. I also remembered the observation made by our couple’s therapist (our daughter’s behavior has been a major stressor in my marriage) that I am usually the only one who can get her to fall asleep(she has chronic insomnia). It doesn’t make the behavior any better, but it gives me something to hold onto when she is telling me how much she doesn’t like me. Being the only one to get her to fall asleep can be inconvenient, but I know in a few years time I will look back wistfully at our youthful 40 and 8 years of age, when I could lay next to her, scratch her back and watch my daughter fall asleep.

Notes from the past

September 1993, found on my dorm room door.

September 1993, found on my dorm room door.

My parents are selling the house. As I wrote before, my parents’ marriage is over. My dad moved into an apartment close to his work several months ago(we just moved the bunkbeds over there) and my mom moved in with her boyfriend last month. My sister was the was last one in the house, and she moved out last weekend to a studio apartment in another city. There had been some talk of renting it out, but in the end it looked like it was going to be too much work and they are preparing it to put up for sale.

I was in Australia as part of the UC exchange program when my parents moved from my childhood home in Davis. I was glad to miss that move, and am even more glad that they weren’t still living there when this all happened. I tend to form strong emotional connection to places and I think it would have been too hard to say goodbye to that house, especially if it had been because my parents were divorcing.

Despite not being my childhood home, I have grown attached to the newer house in Livermore. It was the place my wife first met my family on her way back to Southern California after college. It was the last place my grandparents saw us in the United States. We’ve spent our winter holiday’s there for almost 20 years, and for the kids it has always been their grandparents’ house. Despite the fondness, clearing out of the house hasn’t been as bad as I had imagined. Perhaps that is because it has not been the sanctuary it used to be for several years now. We actually hadn’t gone as a family(with my wife and kids) in over a year, because the comfort and joy that it used to offer disappeared along with my parents’ marriage.

Despite the fact that both my parents have moved out there, this is still a lot of stuff in the house. Oh god do they have a lot of stuff to get rid of! I went by the other weekend to collect some of my remaining possessions (mostly books and the like). I ran across the briefcase that my grandfather gave me as a high school graduation present.It holds even more sentimental value now. Among the Magic eye 3D-eye puzzles that used to run in the Sunday newspaper’s comics pages, and many of which I collected for some reason, and student loan documents inside the briefcaes, I ran across a note that someone had left on my dorm room door my freshman year. I didn’t know I had it, so it was a bit of a surprise.

I actually hadn’t thought of my neighbors, Ari and Michael, in the dorms for some time. I do remember Maryam, she was a high school friend of Ari’s roommate, Michael. Ari and Michael were something else. I guess they knew each other from High School and Synagogue. Ari apparently did not approve of Michael’s partying and started reporting back to his parents who in turn contacted Michael’s parents, and then they started checking in with Michael. Michael obviously did not take this well. For the last couple of months they shared that room, there were sheets hung across the room so they wouldn’t have to see each other. As for Maryam, I remember her as outgoing and assertive. The primary memory I have of her is a voice message she had left for Michael on the answering machine(this was before everyone had cell phones). I was walking by while he was listening to his answering machine and had to stop and listen. I had never heard anyone sound so hoarse and tired. I didn’t recognize the voice as hers, as it sounded so different. I asked if she was sick and Michael said, “No, that’s just her morning voice.” I remembering teasing her about it later.

I don’t actually remember getting the note, but I’m pretty sure of how I responded. I’m fairly certain I spoke with her on the phone and said something to the effect that I didn’t know how to play chess and left it at that. Maybe it’s my imagination, but part of me can hear her disappointment and annoyance. So 21 years ago I totally missed a literal sign that someone was expressing interest in me. It’s hard for me to remember what I was thinking at the time, but the fact that I kept the note says that I found it important. I’m not sure if I took the note literally or if I realized what she was saying and was too scared to take her up on the invite. Either way, I passed up the opportunity.

Regardless as to whether anything might have come of it, I’m struck by how I passed up an invitation to connect and get to know someone. If I had run across this note, say 15 years ago I would have been beating myself up for passing up opportunity to get to know a girl, and added it to my list of romantic failures and all-around-hopelessness when it came to dating in high school and college. At this stage in my life I’m glad to report that it’s not that I’m upset about missing out on the opportunity to get know a girl, it’s just that I passed up an opportunity to connect. Someone took a chance on me, and I totally blew it off. I’m relieved to know that at this stage in my life I am able to recognize it for what it was and if I knew what I know now I would have handled it differently but damn, how many invitations like that I have I turned down in my life either out of fear or ignorance?

More generally, how many invitations has life sent my way that I have totally missed? Relationship-wise, I lucked out and met the woman who eventually became my wife. In other areas though, especially career-wise, I think I still hold back out of fear. My life coach had me see the movie Yes Man last year. The basic premise is that the main character(Jim Carrey) starts saying “Yes” to everything, and as a result, all sorts of wonderful changes occur in his life. Perhaps 2015 will be the year I start saying “Yes”, at the least to messages left on my life’s front door.

Adíos Tata

Me and my grandfather, 1978

Me and my grandfather, 1978

My grandfather(we called him Tata) passed away in Novemeber, at the age of 93. The last time I saw him in December of 2013 he was enjoying watered down Scotch. However, the drinks I will always associate him with are two Chilean cocktails, the Vaina*(recipe below) and the Pichuncho. As both drinks require sweet vermouth, we’ve gone through a couple of bottles in the past week in his memory. I am glad that I got to see him last year during our trip to Chile. Even at that point, though he was lucid, he seemed a shell of the man he had once been. It was tough to see him so frail and slow. He had always been such an imposing figure, full of life and energy, even if his hearing and patience were getting worse over the years.

It makes me emotional to look back over the pictures of my grandfather and to realize I’ll never see him again. I think I knew it back last December when I broke down crying as we left his house after Christmas. I’m glad that we made the trip, and that I got to see my grandfather one last time, and that he got to see my kids. I also am glad that I got to see the house(my grandmother will probably move in with my aunt in a different city). That house was where my mom grew up, and where we would always come to at some point during our trips to Chile when I was growing up. Since most of that generation is gone, their house was the last remnant of the locales that used to be a home of sorts to me in Chile. I was glad to be able to consciously experience it, to see the various rooms and decorations and have them remind me of my past, to take pictures, to breathe in it’s smell one last time. It’s comforting to know that my grandfather passed away in his beloved house with at least some of his family there.

My grandfather could be a very difficult person at times. I grew up hearing stories about how he had been very strict and even abusive towards his kids. He got into the stupidest fights with his children and my cousins. I saw him demeaning my grandmother on many occasions. Even with my sister and me when we were in our teens, he would often try to pick fights, making racist comments, criticizing our music, or just being purposefully annoying. He also had all kinds of affairs, and even into his old age was trying to seduce the household help. He professed so much love for my grandmother, yet he often made her life a living hell, by being rude, dismssive, or berating her in front of other people.

Despite his mean side, he could be very sweet and charming. On one of my trips to Chile, during the winter break of my last year of college( Dec 1997), I went to see him and my grandmother after staying in Santiago with my aunt and cousins. I awoke to the sound of hammering, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I went into the huge pantry, and he was cutting corn cobs to prepare humitas (a Chilean variant of a sweet corn tamale) as a treat for me. I remember him and the way he could play cute and coquettish, especially when there were girls around. My wife and I were reflecting back on my grandfather and she remembered during out first trip to Chile in 1999, how he kept playfully flirting and smiling at her the whole stay, and how he insisted on speaking English to her, although his hearing wasn’t very good and he couldn’t really understand her responses. To me he would always recount the story of when I was about 2 or 3, and he had taken me for a walk on his shoulders and I kept saying hello to passerby’s and asking their name. He would light up with glee every time he told that story. I still remember when he came along with my family to visit me at college, and how a friend found him so cute because he was wearing vans along with his regular outfit. Growing up, him and my grandmother came out many times, and we did many trips, including one to the Grand Canyon(6 of us in a car for 5!).

He was also very good with his hands. He had been an engineer by training, and had even worked and lived in Sewell for many years when my mom was young. I have memories of him splicing in thumb switches into electrical cords, securing a ladder to my loft bed in high school, all sorts of little engineering and tinkering projects around the house. Maybe that’s where I got my interest in fixing things. His desire to fix things led him to have his house fixed after the chilean earthquake of 2010. I didn’t see the house, but everyone was urging him to move out and to sell the land. He absolutely refused and made it very clear that he expected to die living in his house. His stubbornness paid off well, he got his wish, and he also left my grandmother with the house to sell or rent so that she can be taken care of.

During that same trip with the humitas, we sat and talked for awhile one afternoon. After much time and several pinchuchos later, he got a bit tipsy and admitted to me that he had cheated on my grandmother, but that he loved her more than ever. It’s these contradictory sides of him that really make an impression on me. I guess it serves to remind me that everyone has something good in them, something to look for. Yet, also I think that it taught me that it’s not just enough to love your partner, or kids, you really have to make an effort to treat them and with respect for it to really count.

So I say a tearful farewell to my grandfather, thank you for nearly 40 years of memories. I will always keep a bottle of sweet vermouth around to celebrate you.

*his version of a Vaina, as gathered by watching my sister make them:
Enough for 4 people
4 shot glasses of sweet vermouth
approx 1 shot glass or less of creme de cacao (to taste)
1 whole egg
spoonful of condensed milk(to taste)

Add ingredients to blender(can add ice if desired), blend until frothy. Serve in champagne flutes and sprinkle a little cinnamon on top.

Conspiracy Theories

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Several years ago I participated in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) group to help with my depression. The group didn’t do much for me, but I did gain some insight from it. We had a session where members of the group were talking about different issues. I remember talking about the realization that since we live in the Bay Area, I would never be able to afford a house in an area that I would actually want to live in. Mundane, but at the time upsetting to me since I had grown up believing that since my parents bought a house(while my dad was still in grad school) that I naturally would follow in their footsteps. The most striking shared story was from a young woman who started with a tale about being in a minor car accident, but that quickly morphed into some weird conspiracy theory about the government or some shadowy organization being out to get her and ruin her life. I remember the rest of the group just kind of going quiet and realizing that perhaps this person might be better suited for more specialized help. The facilitator played it cool, but I really hope that he talked to her afterwards. What I took from this was the way in that people can distort reality. Not just this young woman who took a car accident and some random phone calls and assembled the pieces of the story in a highly elaborate conspiracy, but that even I was guilty of it. I think I thought of it as differing levels of reality distortion. I tend to twist or filter reality to push out any positive traits about myself and convince myself that I am a complete and utter failure, worthless and better off dead. Having that realization didn’t make the thoughts go away, those thoughts still float around in the back of my head at times, but they aren’t as powerful or present as they used to be, but it made it easier to see that perhaps I wasn’t viewing things from a completely accurate perspective.

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife and I started up couples’ therapy earlier in the beginning of the summer. The focus has been on recognizing how we trigger each other and fall into these negative loops. Our therapist specializes in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and recommended a the book ‘Hold me Tight’ . It’s been amazing for me to be reading this book and look back on what we’ve been doing in our sessions. I can see how our patterns of behavior are very commonplace and how many other people react the same way I do to stressful situations with their partners.

Things have been stressful at home with a new schedule for my wife’s work and a new school for the kids, as well my starting a position in a new lab. It came to a sort-of-head the other night when my wife seemed to suddenly get really cold and annoyed with me. I asked what was going on, and she told me that she was really mad at me and had been for several days . She didn’t know completely why(although there are plenty of reasons), but there it was. Normally I would have stormed off and announced thoughts of how our relationship was doomed, and I that couldn’t do anything right.

This time around, those thoughts were still there, but at the same time I was also a bit mad and feeling that she was being unfair. From the reading and our therapy sessions I knew that me withdrawing wasn’t going to help, so I calmed myself down and tried to engage my wife in conversation to see what was going on. She was very resistant to talking about it(I found it interesting that I was the one trying to work out issues this time around), but in the end we did manage to discuss her stress and worries over work and the kids. Nothing was solved, but it felt like a bit of tension was released and were able to do it together.

This episode reminded me of a recent exercise given to me by my coach, I had to come up with a list of reasons that I am a good husband. Painting myself in a positive light of any sort is extremely hard for me, but this exchange with my wife and thinking back on the CBT group has pushed me to go ahead and do it. Here is a subset in no particular order:

  • I respect my wife as a person and individual.
  • I support my wife in times of need as well as in the pursuit of her own dreams and goals.
  • I am committed to bettering myself and constantly working on our relationship
  • I am conscientious of how my being away from the house can impact the family and make an effort to always check before participating in activities that will keep me out later than usual.
  • I take an active role with the children.
  • I am willing to adjust and shift my schedule if she has her own obligations to take care of.
  • I encourage my wife’s independence, but also appreciate shared time and activities.
  • I appreciate how lucky I am to such an amazing woman as my partner in life and try to let her know that.

So that’s it for now. It’s hard for me to look at this list and not want to qualify it or put some sort of disclaimer, but I’m going to let it be. I hope I can keep this perspective during the inevitable stressful periods that I will encounter in the future. I’ll work on reminding myself that difficult children, eye rolls and exasperation from my wife are not necessarily signs of a conspiracy proving that I am a terrible person.

10 years and still learning something new everyday, even if I’m not surfing

Where I didn't get to surf

Where I didn’t get to surf

Last weekend my wife and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. As has become custom, we watched parts of our wedding video and looked over the photo album. The kids, as usual, complained that it was boring but at least they were able to comment on how many people that they knew looked younger. It made me nostalgic to see us so young. The world seemed so open to us and family and kids were an adventure waiting to happen. I still lived under the illusion that my parents would be together forever. I looked so happy! Later, I wondered what I would have told myself if I could go back in time. No clear answer, but I wish I still had that optimism.

My mom was kind enough to take the kids for the weekend while my wife and I went to Santa Cruz. We had chosen Santa Cruz with the idea that I could go surfing while my wife did her daily run. There would be something for both of us(on previous getaways I felt kind of stuck while she was off running). Of course the one time I make it to Santa Cruz there were no waves, so my surfboard and wetsuit ended up just coming along for the ride. I ended up joining my wife on hikes in the redwoods for both days, and really enjoyed the experience. She ran off a few times to get her jogging in, but overall we spent a lot of time together on the trails. I realized how much I missed being in nature and started getting a bit depressed since I obviously was so out of order in taking care of the things I value. The interesting part was that I shared my experience with my wife as it was happening, and she was able to redirect me to acknowledge that I wanted more nature in my life, but without the judgment. Amazingly enough it really helped me feel better.

Coming back home was not too difficult with the kids (I tend to miss them when I’m away and they didn’t have a difficult readjustment this time), but I was kind of swallowed up with the stress at work. Since I’m leaving my current group I have to train my replacement and also try to finish up some loose ends. At the same time I am attempting to get trained for the group I will be joining since there will be no overlap between existing group members leaving and me officially starting. It’s been hectic.

In our couples’ therapy after our weekend away, I triggered a big episode because I said I had a “nice time”(I’m not the most verbal person) during our weekend away, but I was back to the grind. From the ensuing discussion, among other things, I was reminded that I tend to have a very porous sieve for holding onto the good stuff in my life. It made me think back to the origins of this blog, and how it was an attempt to keep track of the good things in my life, to hold onto them longer.

It’s good to be reminded of my intentions. Seeing the video and photos from 10 years ago reminded me that we got married so as to go through life together. We were vowing to be there for each other. In the subsequent years I think I’ve forgotten that fact when it comes to my own issues, and have tended to operate under the assumption that my depression is my problem to deal with on my own. However, between our couples therapy and the experience during our hike, I am learning that it’s not just my problem and that I can get support and help from my wife and in doing so brings up closer together. Being alone with my wife reminded me of how well we tend to do with each other when we get time alone, and also of our connection and bond from all those years ago. I don’t know if this blog will be around in 10 years, but I am working to make sure the marriage is. Maybe for our 20th anniversary celebration I can convince my wife to go surfing with me.

Raindrops keep falling on my head

raincloud

The image above is a recreation of what our couple’s therapist drew. Yes, that’s me with the raincloud over my head. For some background, we started up couple’s therapy again because my wife has been so stressed with work, the kids in general, my daughter’s recent behavior(really worth a post in it’s own), and our lack of communication. During our last session after hearing my wife discussing her various stressors. I was asked what I was feeling. I responded honestly that I felt like a complete failure in all aspects of my life. I feel so unhelpful and disconnected from her and the kids, and I don’t know how to help. Saying it out loud really hit me hard, and I really felt off and a bit out of it for the rest of the day. The therapist made the drawing and asked what we could do so that I was not only protected but not alone under that raincloud.(the theme of our therapy has been for us to turn to each other during difficult moments instead of turning away). By this point I think I had shut down, but I also was taking the question quite literally. I really couldn’t come up with a detailed plan on what to do next. My wife, being much less literal than me, and quick on the draw, jumped in with “an umbrella for both of us”. She’s sharp that one.

The deep depression from that session lasted the whole day and night. Since then it’s come and gone, and I had thought that I was doing okay. But then, earlier this week I ran across an article entitled Five lessons I learned from dealing with depression . I found it an interesting article. Not because I got new tips or techniques for dealing with depression(I didn’t), but it made me realize more about how my depression manifests.

The first lesson was that our self perceptions are frequently wrong, but following that was the lesson that our feelings regarding those perceptions are valid. This is me! I tend to have a negative self image to begin with, but when I’m more depressed than normal I tend to get VERY negative. In therapy, the “I’m a complete failure at everything” was a perfect example of that. I wasn’t beling melodramatic, I really and truly felt it. What I’ve noticed, is that despite knowing somewhere in my head that I’m not an absolute failure, I can’t seem to answer back to that idea. After relaying the incident to my coach she wanted me to come up a list of achievements and things I have done and learned. I’ve done this before with her, but I couldn’t come up with a good list this time.(Some examples were learning how tie my shoes and driving stick shift). I could start formulating more substantive examples, but I couldn’t follow through due to a mix of immediately rejecting those since I felt I hadn’t done anything well, but also due to a part of me which consistently fights attempts to get out of that negative mindset.

This is where the idea that those negative feelings are valid comes in. The article goes on explain that being told that you really aren’t that bad doesn’t help much. Several years ago, during a more prolonged and severe bought with depression, I tried a Cognitive Behavorial Therapy group. The basic idea is that you take your fear or belief and map out what the worse case scenarios are. The goal is for you to realize that your perceptions are off and that that information will help relieve the anxiety or depression. It didn’t work for me. I could follow the thoughts out rationally, but it didn’t seem to matter, it didn’t help change my negative thoughts about myself. I also felt like it didn’t deal with the underlying emotional aspect, but I digress. I see that same pattern still when I’m trying to answer the negative voices in my head, it is so easy to dismiss the counterarguments to my depression as inconsequential or not really representative of myself.

Perhaps more worrisome, is that, when depressed, to embrace those counterarguments feels like I’m getting sucked out of a sad but comfortable place. It’s like laying in the mud at the bottom of the ocean, it’s lonely and not so pretty and there is a huge weight bearing down on me, but I’ m used to it. To be pulled all the way up to surface feels like it would take too much effort and it’s too scary. Like some of those deep sea dwellers, I would die up on the surface. There is also the feeling that I would have to exert more energy all around.

Reading the article made me realize that I’ve probably been much more depressed than I had thought recently. The stress over my work(I found another lab to work with, but still worried), the kids, and the tension between me and my wife have left me in a not so good spot. I noticed today I felt pretty good. Looking back I realized that I had pleasant conversation with the casual carpool driver (a complete stranger) and I had run a successful experiment with a colleague at work. It’s a reminder that connecting with people is so important to my emotional well-being. I’ve been working on trying to connect more with my wife, which has been hard with my daughter’s behavior issues, and it’s helped a bit. Time to start working on that large umbrella for my me and my wife.

Spring, trees and surfing

coral_tree

For some reason, this year was the first time I noticed the pink magnolias (Magnolia × soulangeana) in the bay area. I was dumbfounded, how could I have not noticed such amazing trees before? It seemed almost everywhere I looked I was running into them. For spring break we did our usual trip down to my in-law’s house in Southern California. The photo above is of a Coral Tree in their neighborhood that I always love to see in bloom at this time of the year. I’ve noticed this tree every time I go down there in spring. At times, Southern California tempts me not only with her beaches, but with the varieties of trees(and fruits) that can grow down there(I would love to have a fruiting Cherimoya tree someday).

It was an interesting week for me. Besides the flowering trees, I noticed a lot of stress in myself around the unsettled nature of my future employment and possibly a resultant depression. As has become custom for trips down here, I was waking up early to go surfing in the mornings. I managed to go every morning except for one. I finally realized I was depressed since surfing wasn’t bringing me the energy that normally keeps me content and in a good mood for the rest of the day. I noticed that I was more restless than usual and my wife and I had several stressful days when the topic of my difficulties in finding a job came up.

Despite not getting the usual boost, all that surfing gave me a lot of time to ponder life and the “bigger picture”. Besides being out in the water and the thrill of catching a wave, what I really appreciate about surfing is that it gives me the opportunity to slow down and think a bit. I’m realizing that for the past few months at home I really haven’t a chance to slow down at all. At work I’ve actually been pretty busy(not usually the case), but I have been stressing about the upcoming end of my current position, while also trying to sort out my research data for an upcoming presentation. At home things are always hectic and I haven’t had many chances to just be still. All in all, surfing that week gave me the chance to really slow down and take stock of things. I was greeted almost every day with dolphins and each day I found a new way to see the experience of surfing as giving me a message on life. Interpreting it has not always easy though.

On the first day out I was reminded that waves look a lot bigger or “scarier” when you are lying on your stomach. I’ve been out of the water for a few months due to weather conditions and scheduling, so I was happy to have small waves the first couple of days. I noticed(or was reminded) that when I was paddling out or just resting in a prone position on the surfboard that the waves looked a lot bigger than they really were. This meant that I might paddle for a wave that had no chance of breaking, or that I would get a moment of panic when an incoming wave seemed too big. I would sit up to turn the board around and realize that the wave was actually quite small and nothing to worry about or expend energy on.

Another day I went out it was quite foggy. I could only see a bit of shore and a small distance out towards sea. My focus was on a small circle around me that I could make out. At one point the fog lifted a bit and I could see the pier and other surfers up and down the beach. I had known where I was more or less all along but it was startling to be socked in by fog for so long then suddenly get a much larger view of where I was in relation to everything else. I felt more connected to the beach and world at large.

Another morning I went out again a bit earlier than usual and found the waves were bigger than the previous days and looked like it would be a bit of a challenge. I got out past the breakers and did well initially. Then for the rest of my session I kind of just drifted. I went after some waves with no success. I drifted closer to the pier where the waves seemed to be breaking with a better shape but it was more crowded and I never seemed to be in the right position to go for the wave. In the end, after my first couple of waves I spent the next hour or so not doing much other than floating and paddling for waves while in the wrong spot; I went home frustrated.

The insights from my surfing experiences are various. First of all, I found the experience of seeing waves as bigger than they really were speaks of my tendency to see problems or hurdles to overcome as much bigger than they really are upon first “seeing” them. Usually, any sort of obstacle immediately seems impossible and I tend to give up in despair. Perhaps I’m going through life in a passive and prone position and from that vantage point everything seems daunting. Maybe it would help to sit up and get a better view of what is really around me and what I am capable of. Similarly with the fog, I tend to focus on what is immediately around me and have a hard time getting the wider view of what is going on. I’ve found that in science, unless I have a good sense of the “big picture” I feel like my drive and purpose get hazy.

The experience that impacted me the most was the feeling that after a decent start, I kind of slack off. A lot of surfing is about going with the flow, but at the same time, especially at beach breaks where the waves don’t always break in the same spot, one must put effort into observing where waves tend to be breaking. Then, if you are going to move over to the “good spots”, one must be confident enough to jostle for position with the other surfers that will inevitably be there. I think I tend to seek out the less consistent waves because they are usually less crowded. Sometimes that is fine and I don’t mind the lower wave count and quality, I can be happy with the opportunity to be out in the water. That day however I was frustrated that I didn’t hunt down more waves. Perhaps it was because I was colder than usual(My old wetsuit isn’t in the greatest shape)or because I hadn’t been surfing for several months before the trip, but I wanted the short window I had to be more fulfilling. The realization I had was that I would have to work harder at not only making an effort and moving if I needed to, but also to be more observant and critical.

In life, I think this early success followed by passivity has come up again and again. More recently this has manifested itself in my current work position. When I came on about 10 years ago I had a highly productive period building models for research. After that I kind of coasted on that and let things come to me rather than actively search out new projects and opportunities to learn. As I trying to determine my next career move I see that tendency trying to take over all the time. I have a possible offer for employment, and while I appreciate it another part of me knows that I would be better off all around if I had several options to choose from. Even if this position works out and I choose it, I think I would feel better about it I knew that I had worked at setting up various options to choose between.

After that frustrating surf day I made a conscious effort to constantly reassess where I was and where the waves were breaking. I moved if I needed to and tried not to let the presence of other surfers deter me from the good peaks. It helped a lot. I felt more confident and had a better time. I even caught myself almost giving up an opportunity to surf on my last full day there(I was upset since my daughter had woken up with a fever after coming down with a cold the previous day). I realized what I was passing up and took my wife up on her offer, and had a really good time. I’ve tried to carry that experience into other aspects of my life as well this past week. I hope to keep at it.

A week out from vacation, and back at home, I am left with many things to think about. First of all, even if surfing wasn’t giving me the usual lift and energy, it still gave me time to still my mind, and from that I was able to slow down and make connections between surfing and my life. It reminds me that surfing has immense meaning to me, and I should devote more energy to making it happen more often at home. I should also sit up and better see the “waves” and beautiful flowers that life is placing all around me.

Parenting Overseas (for two weeks)

My youngest daughter and my grandparents

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, At times I’ve felt a bit ambivalent at times about the whole concept of parenting. Sure there are good moments, but those tend to be quickly forgotten when the hassles and stresses of parenting come roaring back. I’ve felt somewhat redundant as a parent at home, perhaps this leads to my ambivalence? In my more gloomy moments I feel my sole contribution is bringing home money(grant is running out, so for how much longer?). The kids go to their mom by default since she does such a good job with them, and I often feel useless and ignored. However, for two weeks this past December, I had the amazing opportunity of being the sole parent to my kids while on vacation in Chile. That experience changed my idea of my abilities and enjoyment of being (at least under ideal conditions) a parent.

The reasons I went without my wife are several and complicated, but a major factor was the desire to be the sole parent to my kids. I thought it would be an opportunity for me to bond with them. My family (mom, dad and sister) were coming along, so I felt that this was the rare chance to not only give the kids the chance to learn more about their family origins, but to do so with support. I had considered doing a trip just with my wife and kids, but I felt a bit nervous about getting around Chile on our own. Despite the fact that my parents are separating and knowing that other than Christmas and our last weekend my parents were not with us at the same time on this trip, the thought of having at least one of my parents and my sister around was reassuring; I could focus strictly on the parenting and not on the “survival” aspect of the trip. Not that Chile is hard to get around, in fact it’s quite the opposite, but it made me feel more comfortable.

The trip itself was wonderful. We arrived in Santiago and stayed at my aunt’s for two nights. We saw some of my dad’s cousins and his sole remaining aunt. Then with my dad, aunt and sister we drove south to the Lakes Region in the south of Chile and stayed at amazingly kid friendly accomodations in Lican Ray. The kids got to see a volcano up close, go swimming, and of course play at the playground(they LOVED that playground). From there we drove back up north to meet my mom and spent Christmas with my grandparents (my mom’s parents). From there we drove to the beach town Algarrobo, home of the largest pool in the world (although we didn’t get to see it because it’s a private resort) and stayed at my mom’s cousin’s beach condo for about 4 nights before coming home.

For me there were several aspects of the trip that made it truly wonderful. First was seeing how resilient and adaptable the kids were. Before going on this trip, the idea of longish car rides with the kids had been pretty scary. We’ve done long trips a couple of times, but tend to avoid them. Here, at home, my oldest daughter is prone to start whining and complaining after 15 minutes in the car. My wife actually thought I was being irresponsible for planning the trip with long car rides. During the trip to the south, we were driving about 4 hours each day. There was some whining, but I found that it wasn’t too hard to distract the girls by playing a game or putting on a movie on the portable DVD player. They even were fine when our rental car broke down on the side of the road and we spent several hours waiting for a tow truck and cab. We ended up turning it into an adventure, playing near the railroad tracks, watching movies. Even trying to squat while peeing was an adventure for them! Importantly, throughout the trip they were fine. They weren’t traumatized by the time in the car and once we reached our destinations were full of energy and ready to go.

Interestingly, spending all that time with the kids made me appreciate them more. Before this trip, the thought of spending 24 hours a day for 2 weeks straight with the girls would have probably been overwhelming. However, I found I really enjoyed it. Granted, we were on vacation and we avoided any major illnesses, but I still had to manage minor flare-ups and and bouts of tiredness. I found that I really enjoyed being able to soothe them, and being the person they went to when they needed something. I also feel that I gained a better sense of their individual personalities. My younger daughter was so outgoing and chatty and friendly to everyone she met. My older daughter’s resilience surprised me as did her sharing and observational skills. I also loved how good they were to each other, taking turns, sharing toys and objects, playing together; it was just a joy to watch. They also have such a great sense of humor. My dad is still in awe of how well the girls did on the trip.

I also got to be the person standing up for the kids. There weren’t that many chances that I felt I had to step in and make changes to plans because of the kids, but on the few minor occasions that It was required I was able to, and I felt fine doing it. I also think I was able to accurately judge how much the kids could handle (the car break down being a case in point). I’ll even go as far as to say that I think I did a really good job as a parent (I almost never say I’m good at anything). It was empowering to feel good at something for once, and to get such positive feedback from the other adults around me.

I’ve also gained much more appreciation towards my family, which makes my parents’ separation harder. Everyone was present and helpful, but my dad and sister really did an amazing job. My dad was fantastic at getting us around and making the necessary arrangements, and was also available to help with the kids. My mom was creative in finding ways to entertain the kids, especially over Christmas at my grandparents house. My sister was the best aunt a kid could ever hope for and the best sister I could ever wish for. She was such a huge help with the kids. She was always there for me, and could take care of one of the girls if I had to attend to the other one. She helped me entertain them during the car trips, and was just a soothing presence all around.

Spending time with my grandparents was also very special. My grandmother has been in love with my girls since they were born. She got to see them nearly four years ago, but my youngest was only a few months old at the time. On this trip, we were at the house for almost 3 days and they are old enough to interact with her. The kids spent a lot of time running around the house exploring the rooms, but they also spent a lot of time with hanging out with grandparents (my youngest particularly). My grandmother got to practice her English with them, watch TV, just spend time together. My mom later told me that my grandmother was ecstatic after their stay and even weeks later can’t stop talking about them or showing pictures to her friends.

For me spending time with my grandparents feels like coming full circle in some way. They have lived in the same house my entire life and it has always been kind of a base of sorts during my trips to Chile, the sole exception being our trip right after the 2010 earthquake because it was being repaired. My grandparents are both in their nineties and are beginning to show their age, as is the house. During my last trip, I was convinced that I would not get to see them again. The chance to share my grandparents and the house itself with my kids was important. It was a joining of two very important parts of my life, my kids and the family in Chile. I don’t know if I’ll get to see them or the house again, but I take comfort in knowing that I got to spend one last Christmas with them and the kids and that my grandmother got to enjoy her great-grandchildren.

Coming back has been a bit harder. Almost immediately the girls have gone straight back to wanting “mommy” for everything, even to the point of telling me to go away since they don’t want me. I don’t take it personally, but it’s still hard at times. They’ve also reverted back to the usual whining. My wife and I had some issues to sort through, I think stemming back to me asking to take the kids without her. I’ve also noticed that my patience and engagement is not what it was on vacation. Obviously it’s more stressful at home with school and cold season, but beyond that there is something different. Thinking about it some more, I wonder if the reason I enjoyed “parenting” so much was that it was my sole focus during the trip. At home there are usually a million competing things I want to do or feel I have to take care of and I’m often tired and feeling rundown. It’s harder to be patient or fully pay attention if I feel something pulling me away. During this trip, other than having arranged the main destinations I didn’t have an agenda. I brought along my wetsuit in case I got to so surfing, but I didn’t make it a priority and was not upset that I didn’t get to use it. At least for those two weeks, focusing on the kids, and mostly putting my wants aside was somewhat liberating. Being so attentive to them I guess I couldn’t help but get to know them better and gain a better understanding of who they are.

In the end, I hope the girls look back on this trip fondly and that they learned a bit more about the Chilean part of their heritage. Now that I’ve had the practice, I’d be happy to do it with my girls and my wife. They asked several times during the trip if we could come back with mommy so I know the enjoyed it at least. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been back, but I hope the memories and the discoveries about myself and my girls will stay with me for a lifetime. At least for now, even though I get stressed out a lot at home, I don’t feel so ambivalent about being a dad anymore.