What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

My First Mile: Overcoming a Lifetime of Negative Beliefs About My Body

I wish someone had told me, years ago, that the way I saw myself at 10 or 15 could be the way I’d see myself at 25, 35, 45.

Certain self images can and will change but others will be stubborn as hell to budge.

I had weight issues growing up, but not the variety that our society pays attention to: I was underweight. In fact, I think I may have even fallen off the growth charts at some point. I remember catching colds frequently and being teased about my small frame. I turned down friends’ invitations to the beach because I didn’t dare get into a bathing suit. But most damaging of all was what I came to believe about my physical ability.

Moving was not my activity of choice. My mother said to me once that she could stick a book in my hands as a child and forget that I was in the room. I preferred daydreaming, reading, writing, and drawing. P.E. in school was an exercise in torture and humiliation from elementary school on through high school. Unlike the physical education that my son is now getting, my schools didn’t emphasize wellness, or at least that is not what I remember. What I remember is cringing at dodgeball, kickball, softball, and relay races. P.E. was about competition and winning.

And yes, when it came time for the captains to pick their teams, it would always come down to me or the fat boy as the last candidate. Maybe no one felt good about this because I remember their sympathetic and uncomfortable looks, even at 10 or 11. I was a nice girl, everyone liked me, but competition is competition.

Am I being melodramatic and overly sorry for myself when I say that I still tear up when I think back on that? Over 30 years later I can still feel the wind blowing over my hair and hear the muffled sounds of chatter as I stand there waiting for the captains to make up their minds and wishing that I could disappear.

As a teen I learned to forge my parents’ signatures to get out of P.E. and swim classes. I discovered that I could wear gym clothes that passed for regular clothes and sit out the rest of class after attendance was taken. I took myself out of the category of humans who could do things with their bodies. “I’m not an athlete,” “I’m not good at sports,” “I don’t exercise” all became part of the identity I would, for years to come, describe to others.

Thankfully though, life became more humane after high school graduation. I enrolled at a women’s college despite their graduation requirement of a year of P.E. credits. It was in college that my eyes opened to real physical education for the first time. The choices seemed endless, and kind: yoga, ballet, strength training, aerobics…yes, there were competitive or “hard” sports like lacrosse and squash but the menu was inclusive. I came to look forward to each semester when I could try something different. By senior year, I felt safe enough to even sign up for tennis. But my tennis instructor, also the coach for the women’s team, soon put me into the bottom group of the class so she could focus on the more talented players. “Your forearm is so thin,” she had said to me. “You’ll never be truly good at tennis.” I wasn’t trying out for the varsity team; I just wanted to try.

And so it went. I didn’t become a permanent couch potato as an adult, but I have been up and down. I joined a gym for the first time at 27, after a bad relationship break-up, and continued for a couple of years. And I tried yoga for the first time, as well as ice skating and rollerblading. With each sport the person teaching me would say the same thing: “You are really good for someone who has never done this before.” It was nice to hear, but my own messages about my athletic potential overpowered their words. I continued to dabble in yoga on and off over the years, but I abandoned the others.

It is ironic that I ended up marrying an athlete, seeing how I had always been intimidated by athletes. And then I birthed an athletic son. I also work with many successful professionals who had once been athletes. The last ten years of my life have been a gradual armchair lesson in the transformative value of sports, of believing in your body, of developing teamwork skills, perseverance, and a goal-setting mindset through sports. Most eye-opening was the fact that many “athletes” were not necessarily born but made…made over the course of many years if not decades of physical obstacles and self-doubt. It was this shred of belief that perhaps my body isn’t so different from everyone else’s that at 41 I overcame my lifelong terror of the water to learn to swim.

And last week, on Memorial Day, I ran my first mile without stopping. I never thought I could run. I was one of the last to finish in my high school running assessments, straggling in the rear with my lungs hurting. It was Max, who ran his first half-marathon at 48, who said that I could do it. Even after I had broken my ankle, even after undergoing surgery, even after believing for nearly 40 years that I didn’t have it in me to run more than 30 seconds before gasping for air. Max has been running with me, coaching me gently a few times a week. He didn’t know me when I was 10 or 15 or 20. He doesn’t know the person that has been occupying my thoughts all these years. Instead, he sees the woman I never met: beautiful, athletic, capable of anything.

Last Monday, when I could feel that I was running much longer than I ever had in my life and without any pain in my lungs, I began to cry, trying to juxtapose what my body was doing against all the pictures that were passing by of my days as a child. I did it. I finally did it.

running_onlyou

 

 

The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.

 

 

 

Overcoming inertia (and living with ‘depression’)

Please give me a hand because I had two major accomplishments this week: I started decluttering the house and I joined a gym. 🙂

It’s been a long road to these two mundane achievements. I’ve had depressive tendencies for most of my life. Though I still have some qualms about telling people, I’ve become pretty open about it. It’s a part of me the way being introverted or being sensitive is a part of me. I see it in some of my family as well and so I know it’s in me and in my blood (or perhaps in my neurotransmitters). But it doesn’t make me weird (I don’t think) and no one who’s ever met me would ever describe me as sad or depressing. I’ve done well in life – at school, in my career, in my personal relationships. But having had a major depressive episode during college means that I’ve learned to live with this little bomb inside my body, wondering when and if it will ever go off again. In recent months it has, to some extent, though this time more often as a by-product of hormonal fluctuations.

I’ve sometimes asked Max, “Does it feel like a lot of work for you to make dinner? Is it easy for you to get out of bed in the morning?” At some point during adulthood I had a nagging suspicion that how I feel sometimes is not how normal people feel.

On bad days, doing the simplest things like preparing a meal or going to the bank feels like this: You’ve just come home from a 12-hour day at the office and you are being asked to then walk five miles to make a presentation before 200 people. Exhaustion and dread color the simplest tasks of living.

I’ve had some bad days more recently, and it was enough to scare me into making some serious changes. I love my family so much, and my friends. I have it good but when your thoughts are distorted you just can’t see all that you have, how privileged you are. You can’t see that pain is temporary and small compared to all the joy and love you have but can’t feel at that moment. I told Max and a couple of good girlfriends what I was going through because this time I didn’t want my struggles to fester in secrecy. I am grateful for those breaks of clarity.

One of the things I wanted to do was to create serenity in my surroundings. So I reached in and found enough energy to clear off the dining table to start with.  You don’t have to do the whole thing if you want to make a change. Just enough to get moving, to break out of that inertia. The first step is the heaviest and the slowest.

After the dining table, I moved on to the kitchen counter, and then the t.v. area. I intend to declutter the whole house over the coming months.

Yesterday I joined a gym. Since I broke my ankle a year ago my favorite yoga teacher had to temporarily close up shop and I haven’t resumed my exercises. But the lack of physical activity was, I really believe, literally killing me, one small minute at a time.

I didn’t like the gym, to be honest. It was all men and I felt self-conscious even though it wasn’t like anyone was looking at or bothering me.

I stepped on the treadmill first and selected “Fitness Test.” It had me walking at different speeds and inclines and then asked to put my hands on the sensors to measure my heart rate. After the six-minute test, the following message scrolled across my control panel, in red caps: “YOUR PERFORMANCE LEVEL IS VERY POOR.”

I almost had to laugh, because this was a most unexpected message in this age of positive reinforcement and self-esteem boosting. I was expecting the machine to say ‘CONGRATULATIONS’ but instead it told me I sucked! The honesty was refreshing, actually, because I really am out of shape and I need to be scared straight, basically. It was pure boredom and torture being in that gym but as I read the message scrolling by over and over I became resolved to come back to this gym as often as I can.

The gym is across from the supermarket where we normally shop. That is a major reason why I selected this gym, and it was part of my itinerary to hit the market after my workout to get groceries for dinner. Though I walked out of the gym unenthused, I noticed that I walked out of the market lighter and brighter. I went home starving and eager to start dinner. I would’ve whistled if I knew how. The endorphin rush came more like a drip, but I’ll take it. I’ll keep taking it.

~~~

I do want to say that in cases of serious depression, people cannot just “snap” out of it. If you know someone whom you suspect may be depressed, please take initiative to offer your most non-judgmental support. If you are feeling depressed, please, please reach out to someone.

The American piano

piano inside

Photo credit: Fred

Over thirty years ago, when I was about Fred’s age, my mother took me around to a couple of piano retailers. I had somehow gotten chosen to take piano lessons through our school’s music program, and after a year or so of lessons, my mother thought that to make any improvement I was going to need a chance to practice at home.

Eventually, and to no surprise, my mother told me that we weren’t going to be able to afford a piano after all, or even a keyboard for that matter. And it wasn’t just the piano, but a house large enough to accommodate a piano and the private lessons that I would need once the music program ended when I entered middle school. I knew it was a pipe dream anyway, but it moved me that my parents – recent immigrants who wouldn’t even treat themselves to an occasional coffee – would even consider the possibility of piano lessons for me.

I don’t remember feeling overly disappointed about stopping piano, as my interests in playing music barely had a chance to germinate. Whether it was a way to rationalize our inability to afford music or actual belief, the refrain “We’re not a musical family [and thereby have no talent or potential]” came to play over and over, so much so that I never picked up another musical instrument again, nor did I ever expect or plan for my own child to play music.

Then one day we were at a friend’s house for a playdate. Fred was three years old at the time. While the other children were playing, Fred caught sight of my friend’s piano, and walked over and planted himself on the bench. He grabbed a pizza take-out menu, placed it on the music rack, and began “playing” with both hands. He kept his eyes intent on the menu, following the “notes” dictated by the different pizza and side order options and periodically flipping to the next page of the fold-out menu to continue with the piece. Emotion took hold of his small body as his entire posture took on the shape of his impromptu pizza masterpiece.

We adults all gathered around this toddler “virtuoso” and laughed and applauded. In the years following this episode, Fred would gravitate toward pianos and keyboards at friends’ homes and at electronics stores and experiment with the keys.

When he was eight, I finally decided to find him a piano teacher. He will never be really good – I’d convinced myself of that at the time, and told all my musical friends that we are not a musical family – but since he seemed interested, I thought it would be nice for him to learn to play, and to make music a part of his life. We got him a $250 keyboard using credit card reward points and found a graduate student in music who was teaching twice a month. This more relaxed schedule suited us and the expectations that I had for Fred.

Fred’s been playing for a year now, or technically a half year, since he only meets every couple of weeks for lessons, and has performed wonderfully in two recitals. Sometimes (often) he complains about having to practice, but there are times when we can’t get him to stop. He enjoys taking familiar pieces and playing them in a half dozen different ways, making his own “Chinese” versions and “Halloween” versions, or creating his own pieces inspired by commercial jingles. Once, a couple of musically sophisticated friends – the type of near-prodigies that I always imagined the children of real musical families to be – laughed at Fred’s rustic pencil-scrawl compositions. Sadly, my normally assertive boy did nothing to defend himself and I knew it was because deep down he believed himself to be inferior. But I no longer believed this of my son, and while I typically stay out of friendship squabbles, I stepped in this time to stop the ridiculing. No, we had come too far to be shamed back to square one.

This weekend, we bought a piano.

When I was younger I’d always known I would one day own a car, a house. No matter how modestly one starts out, a car and a home are always an accessible, equal opportunity part of the American Dream. When I put my signature on our piano purchase this weekend, it dawned on me that the dream I never dared have was suddenly realized: more than just ownership of a magnificent instrument, it was the lifting of barriers through the generations in my family that said “We can’t.”

Keep walking

I’d struggled to write for the last few weeks.

We reached a domestic code orange when we came back from our spring break trip in early April. For the first week we were all tired and uninspired. The house was in disarray and it was a struggle to get Fred to stick to his daily routines and homework assignments. Then the Boston Marathon bombings happened and the clouds and rain took up residence over our town. Max stepped up to the plate while I wrestled with guilt, self-criticism, and an internal debate over whether or not I should seek therapy. Because behind the lethargy was an undercurrent of anxiety and loss of purpose that I have only recently begun to acknowledge.

During all of this, a former client paid a visit from the UK. His visit forced us to make the house presentable. This has been an area of struggle for me for as long as I can remember, and as an adult I have wondered if all this time I have been suffering with an undiagnosed case of attention deficit disorder. Deep down, I knew that our lack of organization in the home was also a prison of chaos for our son, making his completion of daily tasks distracting and difficult.

We cleaned up. Got rid of all the paper that made my waking hours a living hell. Cleared our tabletops. Set up a gigantic white board checklist for Fred. As soon as we organized our house, everything clicked into place. Fred checked off his tasks one-by-one and by the end of two weeks we were high-fiving and hugging one another over his achievements. Of course, he improved in his time management because we removed the noise that had been drowning him.

Clearing my physical surroundings made it possible for me to begin making sense of the static that was inside my mind. And I finally admitted that maybe I was not okay. I have certain anxiety issues that I have conveniently ignored, that Max and girlfriends have so kindly worked around. Driving makes me anxious, for example, and I am dependent on rides if going beyond the confines of our small town. While I never loved driving, at least when I was younger this fear never really stopped me; it took more work but I would make it my goal to get to where I needed to be. I’ve since stopped pushing myself in this way. The risks outweigh the benefits, I would tell myself. But this is not okay. It is not okay because I am letting my anxiety over driving and other areas box me in at an age when I should be heading toward self-actualization. But I have harbored these secrets because I am competent and professional, and I am at an age and stage in my career where I am supposed to be confident, not afraid.

Being present – acknowledging, admitting and doing – has helped me swing out of these up-and-down three weeks. I was so traumatized by the cleaning job we did that now I deal with every piece of clutter as soon as it presents itself instead of waiting for it to accumulate. I’ve re-started my walk/jog program post-ankle surgery, having so far moved from a snail’s pace of jogging 20 seconds to jogging 30 seconds for every two minutes of walking. Someday, I think, I might go for a 5K. Or drive to the next city to meet a friend for lunch. Someday I might do more to help expand our business. Somehow, I’d let my dreams for myself and my goals for self-improvement fall away the moment I began nurturing someone else’s life as a mother.

Especially since I broke my leg last summer I’ve learned to accept that improvement can often only inch along. As it is often said, any journey is made up of many small steps. I don’t need to run. I just need to admit that I have to take that first step, and to keep walking.

Are there areas in your life that you’d like to improve? Do you also have issues with anxiety?

Our sky: on having goals mid-parenthood

I received my college newsletter the other day. It opens with a pep talk by our class president, in the equivalent of a drill sergeant’s 0500 whistle: “We all need to have GOALS, people!” (I paraphrase; this is how her words sounded to me when I read them in my pajamas at 1200.) “We’re in our mid-40s! It’s time to GO!”

Continued, on page 2, is the feature article, written by one of our classmates whose recent novels have been nominated for awards and praised by Oprah. The books are being translated into multiple languages and there is discussion about a possible television series, or a movie. But she is not here to talk about success, she says; she’s here to talk about failure – the many failures that she had overcome before she won her first book deal, and the fear of failure that we can’t allow to stand in the way of our developing our goals.

Good ideas all around, except she was apologetic… apologetic for bringing up the taboo topic of failure to our class of female glass ceiling shatterers. My alma mater carries a long history of women who have changed the world, women whose names are too big for this humble blog.

The newsletter jarred me. My first instinct was to cry and crawl back into my own womb of girlfriends, writers/bloggers and fellow mothers with whom I have shared my real life these last three years, into this world where I never have to apologize for being anything less than human.

The truth is, I don’t feel like GOing. I’ve gone, I went, and I don’t want to go back. In fact, I want the opposite. I’m trying to slow down. There was a long time in my life when it was exhilarating to keep getting better than I was and to keep learning more than I knew. I threw caution to the wind and moved to Tokyo when I was 30, working 6 days a week and trying to absorb every ounce of intercultural newness. I had a seemingly permanent zip code in Outside My Comfort Zone. Then one day I turned inward. I wanted steady, and predictable. Maybe I needed that because this new project called parenting that dive-bombed into our lives was so new and explosive that I needed everything else around me to be constant and easy.

While I sat there momentarily judging my class president, I stopped to think about her pep talk. Ear-splitting whistle and whip cracking aside, maybe there is validity in her words. The idea that I have to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or break the frontiers of science or write a Pulitzer Prize winning novel are expectations that I read into her words, because I viewed her not as a friend or fellow mother but as a spokesperson for the alma mater that had long ago made the sky both our limit and our goal. We all need purpose, but perhaps we need to make it up to us in what direction we want to reach.

I’ll be honest. For the last 6 weeks or so since my work season has quieted down I have dragged my feet from one day to the next. I worked hard these 8 years to finally achieve this balanced life style that I now have, and instead I find myself feeling listless and without purpose. What do I want to do now? What will be meaningful for me? My relentless years of nursing and diapering and chasing a little child around are over. My years of trying to build up a fledgling business are over.

I need a goal and another form of purpose. But before I can figure that out I need to re-define my sky and know that it will be a different one from the alumna next to me, and from the one that shone on me a decade ago before I became a mother.

Do you have goals outside of parenting? Do you feel you’ve also changed in how “ambitious” you are since you became a parent?