The effects of being broken

While watching one of my favorite Sunday morning shows, CBS This Morning, I always find something to inspire me, educate me or just widen my mind. We should be clear, right at the get go, that I record this Sunday morning tradition and watch it most often on Sunday afternoons when I finally wake up. Today was no different in many ways but the source of my inspiration this time came from an odd place.

It was an interview with Sharon Stone. Sharon Stone of all people! I think I had an impression of Sharon Stone in my mind that positioned her squarely in the place of noted kook, beautiful older woman, famous mostly for THAT scene in that movie where she showed the world her personal, uh, situation in that particular interrogation scene. I thought of Sharon Stone as a privileged, rich celebrity with an awesome life. This particular interview with Sharon Stone taught me some things and blew me away with how much I relate to this woman who is a movie star and completely unrelated to and entirely removed from anything in my decidedly non-celebrity life.

You can watch the whole segment here. I recommend watching the show in general, really, because today’s segments were so especially good, but we’ll focus on the segment about Sharon Stone. She said something, many things actually, that hit me squarely in my core but mostly this one thing:

“…Others are not that interested in a broken person,” said Stone.

She was referring to the time after she experienced a health crisis, a stroke that rendered her unable to walk, or talk or act in anything at all. She had to re-learn how to live. Then she had to figure out how to re-enter a life that seemed impossible to break into (again) even with all of her obvious advantages. The segment made me think differently about Sharon Stone but it spoke clearly to me of things I understand, now, since diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.

First things first, working in advertising has nothing on Hollywood but you might be surprised how much of what we do when we work in advertising is about appearance, performance and showmanship.

I always tell people that I can tell when I interview someone if they’ll be successful in advertising within five minutes of talking to them. There is something you can’t put your finger on or name really, but you can feel when someone has it. It’s that need to put on a show. It’s the need to command a room or want to be the center of attention. The ad business attracts creative people who revel in creative things but excel in leveraging creative ideas to persuade groups of people to do certain things. Believe something. Do something. Buy something (usually whether one needs that something or not).

But our ability to do all of those things relies on a basic theme: Confidence that you CAN. Confidence that you can do this better than someone else can. You love being the alpha (even if you hide it on the outside). You need to be in the room, have a say, share an opinion. You have to believe that you make a difference to a situation just because you and your brain happen to be sitting in the room. You have to believe in yourself as a problem solver. Someone people want to listen to. Someone people believe knows how to make magic happen.

It’s all a bunch of blowhard foolishness. We all learn that eventually, as we get older and wiser in this industry, that what we do is not quite as noble or cool as we once thought it would be but sometimes, other times? It still feels pretty cool. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that. I’m like the quintessential ad guy (girl). I need to be in the room where it happens. I need to be pulling the strings. I love my job even when I hate it.

Once, when I was really young in the business, I had a boss/mentor guy who said lofty things to me that were pithy and generally sounded true most of the time. One of those things that stuck with me was when he said, “You know what kid? The bottom line is, 90% of success in this business is just showing up.”

Christ, how that haunts me now!

Showing up is really hard for me now. It’s not only because of my mobility challenges, it’s the combination of the MS trifecta of challenges including intense general pain, trouble concentrating and crippling fatigue. All of those things contribute, oddly, to my ability to move my legs.

Imagine my anticlimax when I finally figured those things out recently! It’s all inter-related just like my nervous system controls everything in my body from top to bottom, inside and out. It’s all connected! It all keeps me from feeling whole. It leaves me feeling broken much of the time, while also feeling completely frustrated that I know in my literal cells that I am still me and that I can still do what “old me” used to do. I know this. So completely! I just have to figure out how.

I told the ‘showing up’ story to a colleague recently when we were discussing my inability to be physically present at times when I feel that it would be ideal for me to be so. I explained to him how this notion haunts me. It haunts me so much, in fact, that I have movie-like nightmares on the regular about terrible things happening to me in work situations.

I vividly dream about people I trust implicitly betraying me horribly in medication-induced detail and vivid color.

These dreams are so real, I wake up feeling shaken and unsteady. I wake up feeling sick. I can see the rooms, I can feel my legs struggling, I can remember facial expressions and what clothes people wore. On top of making me feel sick at the mere idea of something like my dreams actually happening to me, I also feel sick because I know for certain, 100% certain, that something like what happened in this particular dream would never happen. I am surrounded by people who want me to succeed. People who literally not only respect me but also love me. I am 100% certain about this, as well. So I wake up feeling sick and also guilty! How ironic.

Last night’s dream was a vivid representation of an event that will happen in real life tomorrow night. My boss’s boss (my boss’s title starts with a “P” and my boss’s boss starts with a C and ends with an EO), is coming to town to join me for dinner with clients. Tomorrow is actually a company holiday so I will be off work all day but it was the only day we could find that worked for all parties, so dinner on a day off it shall be.

This dinner only involves minimal effort. I need to get to the hotel where our CEO will be staying, pick him up, drive to the restaurant and eat dinner with people I genuinely like and respect, drive him back to the hotel, drive myself back home. Easy peasy!

In my very vivid dream last night all of this started in a blizzard.

In my dream, I was upset that I had to wear my winter boots to dinner instead of something more snazzy. That was the first sign that things were going awry. The second hit me when we arrived at the restaurant for our reservation to meet a large group of colleagues. I had never been to this restaurant before so I had no idea what to expect. As we approached, I saw what amounted to a multi-level tree house-like structure that had wooden steps, covered in snow mind you, circling all around the structure. Kind of like fire escape stairs? But wooden and running from floor to floor in a five story structure. The stairs had twinkle lights on them.

Our table was in a room at the top of the tree house, because of course it was. In my dream scenario, there weren’t clients at this dinner but people from my team and from our home office. They smirked at me as I clung to the wooden railings, dizzy and weak. I asked where the bathroom was and was told it was on the third floor (I’d have to go back down and back up the stairs again). I remember how painfully cold it was and how afraid I was of falling. I made it back to the table, out of breath and dizzy, and sat down but I couldn’t see anyone. My eyes had gone all blurry. I could hear people snickering. I heard someone say, “Yep, this is what we get now.”

Guys, it was so vivid! Wood grain on the stairs, sparkles in the ice where the twinkle lights hit the snow on the stairs, the numbness in my feet and legs, the tingling in my hands, the fact that my hair was sticking up in the back in the wrong direction and how embarrassed I was that I hadn’t been able to take a shower before my dinner meeting. I remember my panic thinking about driving home in the dark, in the snow, when I couldn’t really see anything.

I woke up shivering. I’d thrown the covers off in the middle of the night and I was actually cold in real life. I actually DID have to go the bathroom so I stumbled down the hall to pee. I shook my head to get the images from that crazy dream out of my mind.

This was the second similar vivid dream I’d had in a week about being “outed” at work for being useless. What is happening in my brain for heaven’s sake? I started to question my additional dose of baclofen that I’m now taking at night because that shit makes me have these crazy, movie-like dreams that freak me out. I know it will stop eventually as the side effects from the increased dose settle down but, damn. Dreams that vivid are scary as hell.

It occurred to me, then, how stressful it is for me to keep trying to figure out new ways to “show up” even when I can’t actually, physically show up. What doesn’t come out in my daytime thoughts finds a way out in my medication-fueled epic intense dreams. It’s me, again, not giving myself a damn break but subconsciously preparing myself to fail.

Here’s the thing. I do show up. I show up now more fully than I ever did before my diagnosis because I have to try harder now than I’ve ever had to try.

I used to do this job effortlessly, with barely a thought. It comes that naturally to me. I’m a born performer (hidden inside of a secret home-body). Now, I can’t always be in the room where it happens physically but I work really hard to be present, to make myself known, in other ways. I work harder. I talk on the phone a LOT (and I truly hate talking on the phone). I do my best to physically show up when I can and when I can’t, I do my best to prepare others to show up in my place.

It’s been working like a dream, to be honest. Things at work are still working. Our office is still successful. We’re still making money. We still do great work. I still show up. And even more gratifying is watching so many people I trust show up in my place and perform like the pros they are. It’s working!

Listening to Sharon Stone talk about how she is coming back to performing after years of working hard to physically come back, but this time in an entirely different time of her life, in an entirely different head space, spoke to me. I relate to that. I also work in an industry that worships youth and appearances. I’ve only been dealing with this come back of mine for a little over two years so I can’t really claim it to be a success. Half the time I sit back in awe wondering who’s life this actually is! But listening to Sharon Stone, of all people, made me believe that coming back is actually possible. Even when you think it’s way too late to even consider such a thing. I mean, Sharon Stone is over 60 and a woman in Hollywood. Those aren’t good odds even for someone that looks like Sharon Stone with all of her obvious financial advantages.

I know my real experience of this dinner meeting I have tomorrow will be nothing like my dream experience.

For one thing, I’ve already showered and we all know that’s half the damn battle. For another, I know exactly where I’m going because I took the time to Google that shit this afternoon, just to be safe. It’s weird to have a client dinner on a day off but even this detail actually works to my advantage! I get to rest all day, giving myself the best chance of holding my shit together for a few hours after dark, when I’m usually safely at home in my jammies.

This might be the best case scenario possible for someone like me to have a client dinner with corporate bigwigs. It’s all going to be fine! I will be fine. I will do what I always do and hold myself together while others are looking. I will show up physically and mentally this time. And it will be good. Nobody but me will know how hard it is. This is also good. It’s part of how I show up, now.

Oddly, the weather is calling for snow showers tomorrow night. I couldn’t get that lucky, could I? But I won’t be alone. I will have a supportive person with me and I will be dining with even more supportive people. I am almost as lucky as Sharon Stone (though I don’t live in her fabulous house with her fabulous wealth, but I do OK for a regular person). I’m pretty fortunate in more ways than those in which I am not.

I will keep showing up in as many creative and unusual ways that I can because I love my job, I love my colleagues and clients, and I need to hang on to as many parts of myself as I can, for as long as I can.

And that’s that.

Here’s an image I relate to right now, maybe more than the one above of the broken thing.

This is a very, very old ceramic tea pot. It belonged to my grandmother, I think, but I can’t really be sure. To be honest, I can’t remember. You might be able to see that it’s been broken several times and glued back together several times, as well. I keep it because I love it. I can’t explain my penchant for tea pots (and salt shakers) shaped like other things. I’m weird that way.

Now I will keep it for another reason.

New year…new me?

My new/old obsessions.

I’ve had a lot of time to think this holiday season since I took some left-over vacation days at the end of the year to allow myself to actually rest instead of just “pretend resting” which is what happens when I am working. When I’m working, I never turn off even after actual work hours because I’m too afraid of falling behind. When I’m really and truly off work, my constantly churning brain allows itself to slow down a bit. This only happens on those rare occasions when I’m off and my entire company and most of my clients are off too. Our offices close the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It’s like the best gift anyone could give us. Time off when everyone else is off too! Brilliant.

It’s all over now, the holidays are past and life goes back to normal for normals and back to something else for us non-normals. But while I was in that holiday limbo, I got to thinking about lots of things. One of those things I thought about was putting some serious effort toward finding my lost joy.

You guys won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had a hard time this year thinking about anything but how horrid this disease is and how it was more or less ruining my life. It crept into every corner of my life, every hidden nook and cranny, before I knew it, it had become everything. Everything in my life was tainted by MS. I let it happen, sure, but I think we all find ourselves there sometime when the lows get really low, lower than you thought they could go.

Your ever shrinking list of goals gets smaller and smaller. At one point, my only goal was pretty simple. REMAIN EMPLOYED. All efforts were focused on that goal because it is the foundation of everything else in my newly complicated life. My first goal was to function with limited travel (my HQ is in Atlanta, my job often requires in person meetings with clients not in Pittsburgh). I told myself it was no big deal and I could make things happen from my office in Pittsburgh no matter what it took. Then that stopped working – my new office created new problems. I had to cross the street (harder than one would think while dizzy). I had to get myself to the office but then once I was there I was good for nothing because I was so exhausted by the time I arrived, it felt sometimes like my brain stopped working (to say nothing of my body). That isn’t good. I get paid for my brain. I had to think of another plan. Again.

I decided to do my best to keep things moving, rolling and functioning but I would try to do that from my home office instead of my actual office. My body didn’t work so well but my brain still does! I could do what I do without putting my life at risk crossing the damn street. The only way this would work is for me to make 150% more effort to make sure I stay involved, relevant, impactful and useful. I had to build relationships over the phone – not as easy as actual face-to-face interaction. I had to support behind the scenes (direct, tweak, re-focus, support) to enable others to do what I couldn’t do. It works, it really works, but holy crap is it tiring. By the time I got to the extensive holiday time off I had planned (a little over two weeks off) I was depleted. I looked back at the last six months and felt very demoralized.

This didn’t leave much time for joy. I couldn’t remember what made me happy. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt actual happiness. I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I thought surely, this too, is normal and I just need to ride it out until happiness comes back some day! But maybe that wasn’t right. Maybe they were right.

“They” were two people, primarily, that I interacted with over holiday break.

The first was a woman on the internet. She read my Christmas blog and took the time to comment on the post. Her approach was new to me – I haven’t gotten much negative push back on my writing so far, mainly because I think I attract like-minded MS’ers. I try to find people who aren’t motivated by what I call the “sunshine and roses” blogs – “the MS-doesn’t-have-me” crowd. I know that whole thing works wonders for many people, but I think it’s obvious that this disease took me to some places where thinking on the bright side became impossible.

The woman commented on my blog and said (I’m paraphrasing here) that my real problem was that I always think negatively and I feel sorry for myself. She told me, with all good intentions I believe, to always remember that there is someone out there who has it worse than me. Huh. OK. I thought on that a minute or two, debating a few snappy come backs, and eventually decided to leave it be. Her intentions were good. I knew that. This is the price I pay for putting so much of my emotional baggage out there for the world to read! I let it go.

But it nagged at me. I wanted to explain to her that I knew what she said was probably true, and yet focusing on people much worse off than myself as a means to make myself feel more positive didn’t really work for me. It gives me no joy to think about how bad other people have it. In fact, it makes me even more sad. I want to fix things for all of those people. I want to make them better. And I can’t. So it’s just not that easy for me. Not yet anyway.

Later in the week, another interaction, this time a positive one, got me thinking about my approach to my lost joy again.

We had a post-Christmas get together with some dear, dear family friends. My mother’s friend Norma from childhood has two daughters and a son who have been part of my life for literally my entire life. As we got older we got closer and our moms remain dear friends to this day. We have an annual holiday get together that we call MMDDSS (or “mother mother daughter daughter sister sister) usually hosted at one of our homes, usually involving much laughter and a most excellent white elephant gift exchange. You may remember it as the night I stayed out past midnight! Of course I had to post that accomplishment on Facebook based on it’s sheer remarkable wonder.

My sister is a fan of tradition. She has always been the one that holds all of our family traditions together to the point where I jokingly refer to her as Tevya (Fiddler on the Roof? Anyone?). This year at MMDDSS, my sister wanted to start a new tradition. The thing is, we’ve all had some pretty shitty things go down in our lives this year. Our mothers both lost their husbands. We’ve all had relationship challenges, health challenges, challenges on challenges you could say and we all felt kind of over 2017.

My sister’s new tradition idea was inspired by the notion of people using sage to rid their environments and their lives of bad juju. Saging, or smudging, is a way to remove negative energy from your space and essentially your life. My sister’s plan was that each of us would write down the things that sucked about our 2017 on a sheet of paper. We would sprinkle our sheets with sage, fold them up and toss them in the raging fire in my sister’s living room. By doing this, we would ensure more positive energy for 2018.

I loved the idea but it stumped me too. My struggle was showing on my face…My mom’s friend looked at me and said, “You could probably write just two letters on your sheet to cover a whole lot of things, right?” And she was right. I was stumped because throwing my saged sheet into the fire couldn’t really change a goddamn thing about me having MS. I got a little twisted up trying to generate some actual positive thinking but I wrote my list and I sprinkled my list like everyone else. Actually, we sprinkled our lists with oregano since my sister didn’t have any sage, but as Italians we talked ourselves into the idea that oregano is probably good enough to erase our negative Italian juju. So oregano it would be!

I had a great night that night. Not physically. I felt like crap physically and I was worried I’d put a downer on the entire gathering by having to bust out early or sitting in a corner scowling like I usually do at holiday parties. But I did neither. I rode the wave of the laughter surrounded by people I love and I had a really good time. I felt happy. I thought I was just playing along, throwing my list into the fire, but it worked. I found myself vowing to try harder to feel happy more often. I vowed to try harder. I might not be able to rid my life of negative energy with a bit of oregano on a list thrown in the fire but I could try to change the way I think.

I’ve tried a couple of things to make it happen, some of them (photo above) are presents to me. Little things that make my life easier or that give me some kind of small happiness – whether big or small. I procured myself a little pile of happiness in the mail (presents for me! hooray!) and I remembered what it was that I used to love about my quiet, rather solitary life…

First, a new pillow. I am physically not able to resist advertising for the perfect pillow. I’ve tried them all. I’ve bought them, slept on them and subsequently stacked them in a closet when I eventually hated them. And yet, I still succumb to the idea of the perfect pillow that will lead to pain-free sleep.

This time, I bought myself a Talalay pillow. I would make 2018 the year of comfort, just like the ad said! You might think that I would be immune to outrageous claims in ads, what with being an advertising professional myself, but you would be wrong. I am the ideal target for these kinds of claims. I cannot resist them. The pile of supposed perfect pillows in my linen closet are proof of that! Talalay was going to be my ticket to a year of comfort delivered directly to my front porch.

Next…I might not dress fancy or work very hard on my “look” like I used to with glamorous makeup and high-effort fashion but I love to smell good. Smells make me happy. One in particular is as close to perfect to me as a smell can get. A small whiff makes me feel happy. People ask me all of the time what scent I’m wearing. Sometimes, in elevators, people tell me I smell like cookies. I mean, this might mean I use way too much perfume on the one hand but on the other hand, who doesn’t want to smell like cookies? Exactly.

Vanilla-based perfumes make me happy. I scour the web to find the best of the best. I use perfume every day – even when I don’t leave the house. It’s not for anyone else. It just makes me happy. I got myself two new ones to try, pictured above, at my favorite perfumery Lucky Scent. They sent me a bunch of little new vanilla perfume samples in the box, too, so it’s like a double dose of happy.

My next love to come in a box was from Barnes & Noble. You guys know I’m a huge reader. When I was dizzy all of the time late in 2017, watching TV made me nauseous. I was stuck in the house. A lot. But TV and computer work made my head swim so I dove into books even heavier than usual. In 2016, when I started to spend a lot more time at home after diagnosis, I challenged myself to see how many books I could read in a year. I read 30 books that year.

My goal in 2017 was to beat that total and with the health year I’ve had, it was pretty easy. I read a LOT. My grand total for 2017 was 35 books. I’m looking to beat that again in 2018. Since I’m a lover of actual books, a new stack like this gives me actual joy. Reading can go back to making me happy now, if I let it. It’s not going to be that thing I do because I can’t do anything else…it’s gonna be the thing I do because I freaking love to read. Thinking = changed. Boom.

The little item in the front, the magnetic mirror tag for my handicapped car placard was inspired by my friend Kara’s post on one of the MS Facebook pages I follow. I’m always worrying about ripping my placard. It’s crazy! I know. I pull it off and put it on a bunch of times in a day and it gives me actual anxiety. I can’t stop thinking about what I would have to do to get a new one should mine get destroyed. Yeah. This is a good example of my over-active brain over-thinking every little thing about every single action in every single day. A magnetic, plastic handi-capped placard holder? Why, yes, yes I will thank you. One less anxiety in my life for a mere $11.95!  It totally counts. Not all joys are big joys. They still count.

Next, there is my begrudging acceptance of the Ugg boot. The poster-shoe of basic bitches everywhere (those pumpkin spice latte loving, velour sweat pants with a word across the ass wearing girls with bouncy pony tails in colorful scrunchies and big hoop earrings). The Ugg short boot, is an eternal and likely permanent force in my life. I have denigrated the Ugg boot every time I wear them. They’re so…ugly. They’re so…NOT fashiony. They are so…for people who’ve given up on life and don’t care enough about their footwear, thinks Old Me. (I also love sweat pants and hoop earrings so I’m a total hypocrite, too.)

Guess what? Uggs are horrid but they are also comfortable, flat, furry and freaking warm as hell during a bomb cyclone. My black Uggs have seen better days so I got myself a new pair. I still don’t have a slogan across my ass, but I wear the crap out of my Uggs so I got myself a pair with bows on them. Bows make me happy! Even if nobody ever sees them. I see them.

I know you can’t buy happiness. I know that joy cannot come in a box. What this is really about is me giving myself permission to stop being so judgemental about what and how I should be living my life. I’m going to try and stop beating the joy out of every aspect of my existence.

I will smell good. Be comfortable. Read many books and protect my placard. It’s not much. But it’s a start.

P.S. I didn’t love the damn pillow. My eternal quest for the perfect pillow goes on! I will not be thwarted.