Wednesday, November 18, 2015

49 and doing … fine.

For the past few years, I’ve written a blog on or around my birthday as kind of a retrospect as I plod through my 40s. Now that I’m kissing up to 50, it’s time to review my second-to-last year of my fourth decade. And as per usual, it’s been anything but usual.

I didn’t use “fine” in my title only because it rhymes with “nine”. I’ve found that “fine” has been my go-to word – as it is for many – that non-committal, non-controversial, non-conversation-inducing answer to anything from the indifferent, “How’s it going?” to the more interested, “How was your weekend?” to the landmine laden, “So, how’s your son doing?” “Fine” is safe. “Fine” lets everyone know you’re status quo. Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along.

No one’s really “fine,” though, are they? I mean, everyone has their shit. That’s one thing I’ve learned in this past decade. “Don’t compare your inside to someone else's outside.” Of course, it also doesn’t mean when someone asks, “How’s it going?” you launch into a laundry list of things that are wrong in your life. (I know people who do this. Hint to those people: Start using “fine.”)

However, there is some real benefit to sharing at the right time. I’ve been told by quite a few people that my blog is “honest,” “raw,” “blunt” and whatever other words are a nice way of saying “I cannot believe you actually wrote that down for everyone to see.” But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t write what I write for sympathy or accolades. I’m not writing for the masses and I don’t want to be famous. It’s nice if people like what I write, sure. But what I LOVE – and what compels me to write every single time – is knowing that I can't be the only one – that SOMEONE out there HAS to be experiencing or feeling something similar. And nine times out of ten, that’s the case. I’ll get a private message or email from one person or several saying, “I’m going through the same thing!” or “Thank you for saying what I couldn’t say.” It HELPS people. It lets people know they’re not ALONE. And in this day and age of people texting versus talking and social media making it look like everyone’s life is perfect except yours, you need someone to say, “This is my shit. If you have the same shit, I’m with you. I get it. Let’s talk.”

So it seems ironic that I start this post by talking about being “fine.” I mean, I am FINE, generally speaking. I have a roof over my head, a good job and I’m healthy. I can’t complain that my basic needs aren’t being met. That’s more than a lot of people can say these days. But true to form, my life and the situations around me never seem to follow a straight line. I once referred to them as “God’s curve balls,” but now it’s more like God has one of those ball machines and he’s just pelting me right and left with them.

But the thing is, there’s this thing called “stigma.” And it’s rampant in our culture. “Stigma” by definition is, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” And unfortunately, stigma prevents a lot of people from talking. From sharing. From helping and healing. I am truly amazed at the people I have known – some I even had to release from my life – who were so judgmental about things they knew NOTHING about or had never experienced. And they were so ADAMANT in their judgment, too, so much so that I wanted to blurt out, “You’re an idiot and you don’t know what you’re talking about so just shut the hell up because you’re making a fool out of yourself.” But instead I said, “Well, if that’s what you think then that’s fine," all while cursing them under my breath.

See, it’s not fine. We need to either stick to topics we know something about or come into a conversation open-minded and asking questions. It’s OK to do that in order to learn. When I was going to see my son for the first time in a long time, I asked an advisor how many questions I could ask him without seeming to be probing or judging. She said simply, "Be curious."

Be curious. What a novel idea. Talking to someone out of true curiosity to learn about that person or their situation is probably going to be better accepted than an automatic defensive opinion. And if after your curiosity is satiated you choose to accept or not to accept based on knowledge and (preferably) experience? Well, fine.

Just think of all the stigmas we have out there. Mental illness is a big one. Sexual orientation. Gender identity. Ethnicity. Religion. Absence of religion. Addiction. And many who are outspoken in order to educate people about a stigma are usually labeled as a blowhard, or an outcast, or misplaced, or abnormal, or odd (except by those who are sitting in the wings going, "Me, too!") Kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. See? Stigma against red noses. Sheesh. 

Someone recently asked me, “Does it ever scare you to hit the ‘Publish’ button after you’ve written something?” I said, “Sure – every single time. But that’s when I know it’s good. When it scares me.” However, there are a few stigmas in my life that I can’t quite hit “Publish” on yet. Boy I sure want to. Because I know there are many, many people out there who could relate, and who I could potentially help. But I’m not ready. The past year has been full of quite a bit of judgment as I’ve navigated some unfamiliar waters, and I’ve found that the only comfort comes from those who are swimming in the same pool, not those who are sitting up on the deck. Those of us in the pool help each other – when one of us starts to go under, the better swimmers throw out a life preserver, while the ones on the deck just sit there and wonder how the hell we even got in the water in the first place.

That’s stigma. And that’s what I’ve struggled with this past year. On the other hand, I’ve become an excellent swimmer. I became stronger this year than I think I have ever been, both physically and mentally. I’ve learned what I NEED in order to keep my head above water, but I’ve also learned that you may find that you’re treading water like crazy trying to keep someone else afloat thinking you’re saving them, when in actuality you’re both going to drown. And that’s when you have to say to that person, “It’s time you learned to swim.”

Here’s what I’m trying to say. Forty-eight definitely had it’s challenges – once again. But it was also a great learning year and a great growing year. I realized that my life is always going to be a little quirky, and I’m probably going to continue to find myself dealing with unique situations unlike many of my peers. But instead of trying to fight it and wonder why the hell I can’t just be “normal,” I’m embracing it, learning how to manage it, and offering flotation devices to anyone who might find themselves at the edge of the same pool.

“Come on in,” I’ll say. “The water’s fine.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"I am the storm."

In the past few months, I've felt better than I have been since the summer of 2013. That was when shit hit the fan in my world, and little did I know how much shit and how big of a fan I would be dealing with for what seemed like would be for the rest of my life.

Quick recap: In May of 2013, I was let go from my job as part of a downsizing. Not my first rodeo with a mom and pop company, but hopefully my last. The next month, my mom, on the day she was supposed to receive her LAST chemo treatment for ovarian cancer, suffered her first of two brain aneurysms and had her first brain surgery. A month later, one week into my new job at a new company, she had her second aneurysm and subsequent brain surgery. My friend, mentor and advisor, Norma Mall, also died in July of that year. And that fall, my son’s life started spiraling out of control, taking me with it.

Little did I know that the next two years would be a veritable shitstorm, leaving me clinically depressed, overweight and completely broken. Looking back, those years were so full of tears, sleepless nights, panic, sadness, hopelessness and fear that I am truly amazed I am still here today. There are a number of people who deserve credit for helping me through this time; but ironically, most of them are people I do not know well. Friends drifted away as I pushed them away; only one or two remain. New ones I met shared one or more common denominators that drew us together, for just a season or longer.

By some grace of God (and a balanced cocktail of medication), I feel like I am emerging from the ashes of the past few years, albeit more like a burn victim than a phoenix, but whatever. It’s truly taken some hard work, soul searching and a huge amount of letting go. It didn’t happen overnight, and I’m not all the way there yet. But instead of seating my emotions in the front car of an endless roller coaster, we’re more like riding in a convertible over the hills of Kentucky.

Here’s what I’ve figured out:

I can’t change others (aka "Serenity Now.") “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Easy to say; difficult to realize. For so many years, I tried to parent the way I thought was best - because I was the parent and I thought that’s what parents did. But there comes a time when giving your best turns into giving too much and losing yourself in the process. This quote says it best: "I will not continue to set myself on fire just to keep you warm."

Even if you are completely sure what is best for your child, it will get to the point where you need to just stop, and realize that no change is going to happen unless the child wills it. So you stop parenting on the outside, even though it hurts to see your child flounder and make poor decisions and do things that you don’t think he should do. But in the end there is nothing – NOTHING more you can do but parent on the inside and let him know that you’re there waiting in the wings IF he should need you. So you take all that energy you were expelling and you work on yourself  - changing the things you can and gaining more and more wisdom every day.

I’m OK being alone. I mean this twofold. I enjoy being alone and doing my own thing. It’s been 10 years since I’ve been in a marriage and it’s true – the older I get, the harder I think it becomes to let someone in to my life on a daily basis. I like not having to answer to anyone and waking up on a Saturday with my own agenda. I’ve found that as much as I am envious of those I see on Facebook who go to this party and that social event and are always surrounded by a bunch of friends, I am not that person. I like my alone time and I have a few close friends, and that’s OK. Would I like to have someone to share life with? Yes, I would. I would love to meet someone who would not make me miss being alone so much. Someone with whom I’d rather be with than be alone. That’d be cool. But until then, I’m OK.

Calories in, calories out. It’s just that simple, and I credit my high school friend Mark Buesing for the mantra he’s been preaching for years that I just recently adopted. I mean, DUH. In the past month, I’ve started tracking what I eat and when I exercise, and I’ve learned a TON. Namely that I eat too many empty calories for no good reason. Like those stupid chocolates in the bowl at work. Now if I get a craving for one, I think, “This fun-size Snickers bar is 80 calories. Is it worth it?” Sometimes it is, and I work it off later. Sometimes I walk right by it. It’s awesome. I joined a gym right near work and realized I had forgotten how much I actually ENJOY working out. I gifted myself 10 sessions with a personal trainer that have been well worth the money simply for what they do for my mood, my confidence and my motivation. Hell, I’m going to the gym at 5:30 in the morning!!! Oh, and I’ve lost seven pounds since the end of September, thank you very much. Now this may sound vain, but being heavier than I have ever been made me hate myself to the point where I didn’t even want to go out for fear that someone would whisper, “Is that Amy? I barely recognized her – she’s put on weight!” I have a ways to go, but knowing I CAN drop it has given me promise.

I love my job and I better not f*&k it up. By the grace of GOD, I have somehow, at 48 years old, FINALLY landed at a great company where I truly feel like I have a CAREER rather than a JOB. A company with a retirement plan and great benefits that is well-run and did I mention less than five minutes from my house? It’s probably no surprise that I started this job in May, right around the time things started to turn around for me. Now it’s up to me not to screw it up. I’d love to make a difference here, advance here, and retire from here. There’s no reason I shouldn’t. I just need to keep my attitude in check, especially when it comes to being supervised by women younger than me. It can be a challenge balancing the fact that I know they know more than me or they wouldn’t be in their positions, but I wish they’d realize that I have about 10 plus years of experience on them and I’m more capable than I think they’re giving me credit for. Deep breath when this happens – don’t f*&k it up, Amy. This is a good one.

I can’t fix my family any more than my mom could (see Serenity Prayer.) My mom was all about family, and she absolutely hated it when things were not right with us, even when she was right at the center of it. I’m sure she’s not very happy with how we’ve done since she’s been gone. I guess I figured we’d all kind of bond together after her death just over a year and a half ago, since her illness seemed to bring us closer together. But that hasn’t been the case. I can’t remember the last time I saw or spoke to one, another won’t accept my sincere apology for something that happened nearly six months ago, and another I usually only talk to when something’s wrong. Who would have thought that I’d spend more time with my dad than any other member of my family? (Yes I know how lucky I am for sure about that!) However, I’d like to crawl into bed right before Thanksgiving and not wake up until after Christmas if it's all the same to you. But as much as this bugs me at times, I remember that if and when a crisis hits, all the crap will go away and we will be there for each other just like we were with my mom. And that will give her peace.

My happiness is my choice. A friend of mine is battling her second bout with breast cancer. In addition to her warrior attitude, she has an incredible and enviable Army around her (yes, I meant to capitalize that) who barrage her with uplifting support and gifts, help with her kids, meals and doctor appointments, and offer positive thoughts and prayers. A few weeks ago, I found a saying that I thought was so perfect for her because I could just imagine her face as she said it over and over. But the more I read it, the more I saw MYSELF saying it over and over, so much so that I taped it to my mirror so I can see it every day. It says, “Fate whispers to the warrior, "You cannot withstand the storm." And the warrior whispers back, "I am the storm."

My friend is in the middle a hell of a storm - I do not for a minute think that mine is worse than hers. Everyone has their storms, I realize. But over the past couple of years, I’ve weathered quite a squall myself, and came out of it completely drenched from head to toe, and I could have stayed that way. But I chose to dry myself off. I chose to face the sun again to warm me and lift me up. And that’s not easy – but I’ve stopped letting the things and people around me dictate my happiness. It’s not up to them – it’s up to me. As one of my son's mentors would tell him, “You choose, Buddy,” I now choose every day. I choose to wake up and decide I’m going to have a good day before the day even starts. I choose to exercise and avoid the Snickers (most of the time.) I choose to work hard at my job and blow off the annoyances as best I can. I choose to make the most of my life instead of looking for someone to make it for me. And I choose to “let go and let God” as much as I possibly can when it comes to situations and people I can’t – and shouldn’t – control or change.

For the first time in a long time, I’m hopeful. I know I’ll be faced with hard times in the future just like everyone else and yes, that does scare me – a lot. But for right now, I’m going to try to live my life the best way I can, choose to be happy and enjoy the calm (for however long it lasts) before the next storm.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Got drugs? I need them. Give them to me.

As a volunteer member of the Peoria Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, I’ll be at the Peoria Heights Police Department on Saturday collecting your old or unused prescription drugs during National Drug Take Back Day. This event is taking place at police departments and agencies across the nation to help curb the purposeful or accidental use and misuse of prescription drugs, as well as the improper disposal of such drugs into the trash or water systems – both potential health and safety hazards.

Last year the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and 4,076 of its national, tribal, and community law enforcement partners collected 617,150 pounds (309 tons) of unwanted prescription drugs at 5,495 collection sites. Begun in 2010, this brought the program's collection total to 4,823,251 pounds, or 2,411 tons — a clear indication of an ongoing need.

These drugs run the gamut from mild sedatives to potent pain killers that are subject to the taking by anyone with access to them — either on purpose or accidentally. This can be a young person looking to experiment, an aging parent who grabs the wrong pill bottle, or someone who chances that an expired prescription will do them no harm.

Fun Fact:

The Peoria Substance Abuse Prevention (SAP) Coalition's mission is to work to prevent and reduce substance abuse in Peoria County through collaboration, education and awareness for a healthier community.

The misuse of prescription drugs is second only to marijuana use as the nation's most commonly used illicit drug. A U.S. government report shows that more than 70 percent of people who first misuse prescription drugs get them from their friends, relatives or simply take them without asking.

(Start rant.) And here's the deal, parents. Even if you think "my kid would never" or "my kid's friends would never," WAKE UP. They could. They might. They do. So just get your heads out of the sand and get rid of them - just in case. K? (End rant.)

This is a no-questions asked, no judgment passed opportunity for you to dispose of prescription drugs safely, and it takes no time at all. Heck, if you don’t want to get out of your car, text me or wave me over and I’ll come to you (if I’m allowed to do that. I’m not sure. Just throw them out the window at me and I’ll make sure some responsible person comes over and grabs them.)

Here's the details.

National Drug Take Back Day runs from 10 am – 2 pm on Saturday, September 26th. Collection sites in the Peoria area include:

Peoria Heights Police Department (this is where I'll be!)
1311 E. Sciota Ave. in the Heights

Peoria Police Department
600 SW Adams St., Downtown Peoria

Bartonville Police Department
5918 S. Adams St., Bartonville

To find the event in your area, visit the DEA website at and enter your ZIP code.