Wednesday, December 14, 2011

525,600 Minutes, How Do You Measure a Year?

It's probably a little early for the year-end tally of events that have defined 2011 for me, but the song that this title is from, "Season of Love" from the musical RENT has been bouncing around in my head for awhile, so I figured I'd get in early on wrapping up the year that was 2011.

For those that know me well and are in regular contact with me, electronically or otherwise, know that I have plenty to bitch and moan about from 2011, but bitching and moaning never accomplishes anything except leading to more bitching and moaning, so I'm not going to do that.

Here, in no particular order, are the top 10 things I'm grateful for from 2011:
1) Finishing grad school & actually graduating.
2) Finding a job I love in a field that I love; it's so true that when you love what you do for a living, you'll never work a day in your life. I know that feeling for the first time ever.
3) My skin cancer was "only" basal cell carcinoma. On Monday of this week my dermatologist took another biopsy of something on my back and he was not reassuring when he told me his initial impressions. His office called today saying the pathology was benign. I can't remember the last time I felt such a sense of relief.
4) Outside of my own cancer scare, there were no major tragedies, (outside of the issue with my husband, which I'll get to later) medical emergencies, or deaths in my family. My maternal grandparents are around for another Christmas, which, at their ages is pushing the life-expectancy envelope. And I'm thankful for that.
5) Going to the Super Bowl in February & watching the Packers win it all. This is not on the list purely for football reasons; traveling to North Texas and staying at the Great Wolf Lodge was one of the best experiences I've ever had with my family & the entire group from Packers Fan Tours which came to feel like family.
6) I fall more in love with Apollo everyday. Of course I love Angel too, but my relationship with my dogs has always been closer than with my cats. There were times during the past year where I thought I'd never feel about Apollo the way I felt about Peanut & I was right: I don't feel the same way about Apollo as I did about Peanut, but that's pretty normal and it's ok. Parents love all their children, at least good parents do, but it's ok to love them in different ways.
7) My husband has been sober since July 28, 2011. This was not an easy year for our marriage, and that's putting it incredibly kindly. However, I married a man of integrity and I knew he was buried in there somewhere. That man is showing more and more of himself. The wounds of the last couple of years will not heal overnight, but they will heal. They've already begun healing.
8) I'm one more class closer to being able to begin my internship as a Substance Abuse Counselor; 2 down, 3 to go. I'm very excited about my professional signature being: Kristine K. Sack, LPC-IT, SAC-IT, and eventually Kristine K. Sack, LPC, SAC. And from there it will be Dr. Kristine K. Sack, PhD, LPC, SAC.
9) Spending Labor Day Weekend with some of the most kick-ass chicks I know (minus 2).
10) My friends, both local and far away, who have supported me, loved me, let me cry when I needed to and kicked my ass when I needed them to.

How do you measure a year? How about love?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why I'm Quitting Smoking, Why it's Going to Suck, & Why I'm Going to do it Anyway

So the countdown is on. I am officially quitting smoking cigarettes this Thursday, 11-17-11 which is the Great American Smoke-Out & the day before what would be one of my great-aunts 76th birthday. She died in April 2010 partially due to complications of lung cancer. My brother quit smoking that day after we got the early morning call that she had passed, & has been smoke free since, which kind of knocks my socks off & gives me hope that I can do the same.

My history with smoking overall has been inconsistent since I began smoking at age 16in late January of my Junior year of high school. Whenever I hear adults talk about "peer pressure" to engage in unhealthy behavior, I still have an image of some kid standing in the shadows with a sweatshirt hood hanging low over his eyes, a cigarette dangling from his scrawny pale fingers, whispering, "Come on, just try it once. It won't hurt you. You might even like it." But that's not really what peer pressure looks like. Peer pressure isn't even the correct way to describe it; it's more like wanting to fit in, not seeing any consequences (because who the hell sees consequences when one is 16 years old & don't even get me started on how the pre-frontal cortex isn't fully developed until roughly age 25, when executive functions actually kick in), & in 1987 smoking looked cool. I'm in no way shape or form blaming any of my friends for the fact that I chose to start smoking; I'm just describing the circumstances around it.

So I smoked from age 16 (1987) to roughly age 23 (1994) when I quit because I started dating the MD I worked for & we discovered much more addictive ways to handle stress & anxiety.

I started again in approximately 1998 when I began working with several people who smoked, people who became my close friends. Which illustrates a trend here of how easily I adopt the habits of those around me. This is true not only of my history of smoking, but also a myriad of other behaviors, which I'm not going to get into here. As a therapist, I know these are things best discussed & explored in therapy.

By the summer of 2002 I had quit smoking again, and again had taken up more addictive measures of dealing with stress & anxiety. That's one of my favorite excuses for smoking: it helps me deal with stress. It helps relax me. When I'm angry/anxious/sad/fill-in-the-emotional-blank, smoking helps calm me down & center myself. I've actually said that: smoking "centers" me. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.

The final time I started smoking was February 2003. (See how I wrote that: the final time - that's positive thinking.) I was in residential treatment for the final time (see, again more positive thinking) & of the 10 people in the house with me for 28 days, 8 of them smoked. I was one of the 2 that didn' the beginning. After about 4 days I felt that all of the socialization and "bonding" between clients was happening outside in the smoking area. So on day 5 I asked to "bum a smoke" from someone who smoked the brand I had last smoked and I've been smoking ever since.

I will take my final puff this Wednesday, 11-16-11. (Final puff; more positive thinking.) I don't know if I'll stay up until midnight to get every last suck of nicotine & carcinogens that I can. I don't have any plans to. I bought my last two packs of cigarettes this morning. If I have any left on Thursday morning, I may likely play Mozart's Requiem as I crush them & flush them down the toilet, but that's all the official ceremonies I have planned. I do have plans to use nicotine lozenges for several weeks to get me through the roughest times, which statistically are related to the number 3: 3 days, 3 weeks, & 3 months are the hardest times for people who have quit. I have plans to contact a toll-free quit-smoking support line where I'm already registered & have told them my quit date. I have told most of my co-workers so they can help support me & "talk me down" which I anticipate needing. I also have a jar where I will put in the money I would have spent on cigarettes. If I slip & smoke, I have decided that I will send the money collected in the jar up to that point to an organization I really, really dislike: Sarah Palin's PAC. That's called motivation to get through the rough spots.

I've used the 12 steps, supportive friends, motivation, & a butt-load of consequences to recover from using some really nasty and addictive substances in the past. Now I will use them again to recover from one more really nasty and addictive substance.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Don't You Forget About Me

Recently I had the wonderful experience of spending the long Labor Day weekend with five wonderful women who have known me since I was approximately 13 years old – that’s about 27 years.

Of course there are people I’m friends with on Facebook that I knew in Junior High and high school, although my contact with the majority of them is pay-by-play updates during Packers games, which is great because there was no way on God’s green earth that most of us would have actually spoken to each other during junior high or high school, and the fact that we now comment on the 5/4 defense amazes me: it amazes me that I know what the hell a 5/4 defense is, but I do!

But this group of women that I spent Labor Day with (minus two who couldn’t make the trip and were sorely missed) have known me for so long, I often describe our friendship to others as: They don’t ask me why I am the way that I am. They were there when I was becoming who I am. Which to me, is a statement of unblemished loyalty, and if there’s one thing I am, it is loyal, often to a fault.

In early 2006 I had a “medical nightmare” (complications from a simple gallbladder removal that landed me in a local hospital for six weeks and included a pulmonary embolism, [a blood clot in my right lung], a buildup of fluid around my liver [I have no idea what the fancy-schmancy medical term for that is], a pleural effusion [fluid between my right lung and my chest wall] which required placement of a chest tube for five days.) When my surgeon pulled out the chest tube, his first words were, “Oh no.” Not something that I really wanted to hear. While pulling out the tube, he snapped the tip off and it was lodged somewhere in my back. An emergency CT scan pinpointed its location and I had surgery the next day with one of his colleagues (he had to be in Minneapolis for a conference, you see) to dig around in my back to retrieve it. Pre-op I asked the attending surgeon if he could put the tip in a bag so I could keep it. He flat out told me that that was an odd request. From my gurney in the OR, I flat out told him that it was odd that an experienced surgeon should make such an error. He shut up and I’ve got my chest tube tip in a biohazard bag in my underwear drawer, where most women generally keep anything of value.

Anyway, I’ve still got the card that came with a bouquet of flowers from these friends who have known me before I knew myself. It reads: Thinking of you. Get better soon! Love – followed by five names that I will not list to protect their privacy. The flowers were delivered to my parents’ house because I had to stay someplace that could provide 24/7 care, which left me with two options: my parents or a nursing home. I was 35 years old and could not envision myself at a frickin’ nursing home, so I chose to stay with my parents.

When the flowers arrived, I gently opened the tissue paper and located the card and read it out loud. My mother and I both started to cry. She because those whom she knew as kids still cared enough about her daughter to send flowers when I was gravely ill, and me because that simple gesture assured me that I had a history, that I had deep, strong roots, and that in a world of full of six and ½ million strangers, five people cared enough about me to send flowers and wish that I got well soon. It made me feel as important as the Queen of England, only much more sincerely loved.

So, on Labor Day weekend, we tossed cow chips (or bought tee shirts declaring that we were there to witness the tossing of said cow chips), ate German food we couldn’t pronounce, shared stories on the porch that got us yelled at by the neighbors (hell-raisers to the end, that’s got to be part of our motto!), and spent time eating our way around Capitol Square in Madison and visiting the only known feminist bookstore in the entire state of Wisconsin.

To commemorate this weekend (we were celebrating the fact that we had all turned 40 this year – oy!) some of us made cds with songs that reminded the cd creator of each of the weekend attendees. It seems somehow very personal to reveal the songs each of us chose for each other, so I will not list any song titles here.

After all, some things should remain between friends, shouldn’t they?

Friday, September 16, 2011

What is "happiness" to you?

At work lately I’ve been hearing quite a few people say something similar to, “My life just isn’t how I pictured it would be at this age.” Needless to say, as a counselor, that’s a very “meaty” statement to my ears and can elicit an entire universe of topics for discussion. One topic I’ve been giving a lot of personal thought to these days is how, as individuals, we define happiness at different points in our lifetimes.

Remember the summer when you were six years old? Just close your eyes and think about it for a moment. Remember the smell of freshly cut grass? Remember your dad grilling burgers and brats on Saturday afternoons, a Brewers (or perhaps a Braves) game on the radio in background, in the garage? For me it was full of riding my Big Wheel with neighbor kids, eating an endless amount of Freeze Pops, playing softball in an empty field in our neighborhood where we made “bases” out of cardboard box scraps. And I too remember fondly the smell of the freshly mowed grass and my own dad grilling out, listening to the Brewers. The Big Wheel, the Freeze Pops, the Kool Aid, all of it was happiness for me then. As a young child, those are the physical things and events that shaped my definition of happiness.

Now, remember when you were 14 years old? Ugh! It’s honestly a bit hard to think of things that helped me feel happy then, because early adolescence, heck, all of adolescence, is not usually a very happy time for the adolescent and for his or her parents. But of course there were countless times when I was happy; getting my first phone call from a boy, junior high school dances where all of the boys stood on one side of the gym and all of the girls stood on the opposite side, starting to baby-sit for neighbors and actually making money for the very first time (and this was tax-free income which was even better!) The boys, the dances, the 50 cent an hour baby-sitting money all helped define happiness for me then.

I’m sure by now you can see where I’m going with this: what made us happy earlier in life are likely not the things that contribute to our happiness now, except of course for the memories. As we age, our definition of happiness changes, and most of the time we don’t even know it! It’s not until we take stock and find ourselves saying, “My life just isn’t how I pictured it would be at this age,” that we even consider what experiences play into such a statement. When I was a little girl and “played house” with my younger sister and other girls from our neighborhood, we all declared that we were 25 years old and drove red sports cars. That’s what we pictured 25 to look like as seven and eight year-olds. I specifically remember thinking on my 25th birthday how completely unrealistic it was for me to think that 25 was some magical age, when life would be the way I wanted it to be and that I could afford a red sports car.

I turned 40 earlier this year. As the decades turn, those birthdays generally seem to be good times to “take stock” and assess the situation that is our lives. How did I get here? Do I have any regrets? Is this how I pictured my life at this age? Am I happy?

I can tell you one thing for sure, I don’t regret anything. Have I made mistakes? Of course! But I believe that if I had not done what I did at the time that I did it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I really dig the person I am today. Am I happy? I don’t ride Big Wheels or spend time in crepe paper-filled gyms on Friday nights anymore, but I am happy. My definition of happiness has had to grow up along with its owner: me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget

It seems to be a part of the American experience that since we fought the British for independence, each generation of Americans has had one defining political, military, or war-mongering event that truly defines the youth of our nation.
I was 30 years old a decade ago on September 11, 2001. My grandparents were all in their mid- to late-20s on December 7, 1941. Both of my grandfathers fought in WWII; my Grandpa Porath in North Africa, then "D plus 3" landing in Normandy, France 3 days after the D-Day invasion. My Grandpa Krause was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I wonder if, at the time, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was labeled "an act of terrorism"? Having been to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, I don't think "terrorism" was used to define that attack because that word was never spoken in the memorial video or listed in any of the books I have on the subject. "Terrorism" is really a late 20th and early 21st century construct. Did we call the 444 days American hostages were held captive in Tehran, terrorism? The first time I can remember events being referred to as "terrorism" or carried out by "terrorists" is either the unfortunately common IRA bombings in London in the mid-1980s or in reference to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the late 1980s to the present day.
Some incredibly talented orators have spoken powerful words over the past 2 days, and I am in no way trying to compete with that level of reflection or tugging of heartstrings. This is simply what I remember from my life 10 years ago today, on September 11, 2001.
I was living in the last place I would live in Milwaukee, my "dream apartment" on 51st Blvd, north of St. Joe's hospital in the large Jewish Orthodox neighborhood, just 2 doors north of Rabbi Tewerski. I was working as the Clinic Coordinator for a Columbia St. Mary's outpatient clinic and was completely overwhelmed with an unsupportive Clinic Manager, departments that were sorely understaffed, and I was working an average of 50+ hours per week just to make sure insurance was being billed and the switchboard phone was getting answered.
At 8:10am my switchboard operator called the office to tell me she was not coming in that day, which I had already figured out since she was supposed to be on the switchboard from 8 to 8:30am and I was the one answering switchboard calls. She said something like, "There's something going on in New York. Airplanes are flying into skyscrapers-" I cut her off right there and said, "I'm too busy to worry about what's going on in New York. Call me later if you're not coming in tomorrow," and I disconnected the call. I remember thinking, I don't care what the hell is going on in New York. I've got to get this clinic open and running.
As the doctors, other staff, and patients came in for the day, patients were telling stories about terrorists flying hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, then into the Pentagon, then that the towers of the WTC were caving in on themselves. The south tower fell at 8:59am CST and by that time, even though we were strictly an outpatient medical clinic, we were affiliated with a hospital that is Wisconsin's premier burn center and there were rumors that Chicago may be hit and injuries could be diverted to Milwaukee. There were also rumors that the nuclear power plant near Sheboygan was a potential target and Milwaukee again would receive diverted injured patients.
At about 9:30am I was called into an impromptu meeting in a conference room with the Clinic Manager, Clinic Medical Director, the triage nursing staff, and on the speaker phone was our Clinic Administrator, the hospital's Medical Director, and the hospital's Emergency Response Director. It goes without saying that there was no "emergency code" for the threat we were now under. The Emergency Response Director developed a plan strung together with paper clips and bubble gum, which was basically, "If something happens that directly effects us, we'll call you with more detailed instructions." Thank God that was a call that never came.
When I walked out of the conference room, for the first time all morning I had a moment's pause to attempt to take in all of the tragic information I was receiving second-hand. I still had not seen any of the video that would begin playing non-stop for the next 48 straight hours. In this brief moment however, I did remember a good friend since childhood and that he worked for a law firm with multiple floors in Tower One, the north tower of the World Trade Center complex. The blood drained from my face and I remember leaning against the hallway wall, looking at my hands which had begun to shake and as much as I mentally tried to get the shaking to stop, I couldn't manage it. My hands would not stop shaking. I walked to my manager's office and told her that a friend of mine worked in the World Trade Center and I had to call him right now. I yelled the words, "I have to call him right now!" without knowing I had done so, until the silence after them was the only sound filling her office.
I had been to New York less than a year before and met my friend in the lobby of the north tower and we took the elevator up to his office, which I think was on the 64th floor. He gave me the "50 cent tour" and after about half an hour, we rode the elevator back to the lobby, said our good-byes, and I spent the next hour or so shopping in the mall that was beneath the plaza between the north and south towers. The subway station I took from the American Museum of Natural History on the upper west side to downtown was also located underground in this area. That was my 5th or 6th trip to Manhattan and I was proud of myself for being able to navigate the complicated subway system, at least enough to get myself around Manhattan to the major museums and tourist sites. Earlier in the day I spent some time at St. Patrick's Cathedral in mid-town. I still have the bookmark I bought there that day, and I still have my friend's business card he gave me that afternoon in November 2000with his WTC address embossed on it.
At work I didn't have my friend's home or cell numbers with me so I called 4-1-1 and got his father's home number. At the time his father was the pastor at a Lutheran church in Appleton and I called the church and his home and left messages on both answering machines. I left both my work and home numbers, hoping I wouldn't have to wait until after work at 4:30pm to hear from him.
At lunch I finally saw the images of the plane hitting the south tower, the collapse of both buildings, and the damage at the Pentagon. Although the images were horrific and I had no factual information about the status of my friend in New York, I felt in my soul that he was safe, that he was not trapped in some oxygen-sucking rubble or staggering through dust and debris that looked more like a moonscape than the lower Manhattan the world knew. I was anxious for confirmation of my gut feeling, but my instincts told me he was ok. I have no idea why I felt this way; I was too old to believe in the invincibility of youth, but knew the struggle of my friend's life that had gotten him to a law office in Manhattan, in the iconic World Trade Center, and something deep inside told me his story was not going to end this way.
I don't remember the rest of that work day, the drive home, or walking into my apartment. I do remember looking at my answering machine, its red light blinking to indicate a waiting message. I pressed play and the voice of my friend's father told me that his son was fine, was safe in his Jersey City apartment, that he hadn't left for work before the north tower was hit at 8:46am eastern time and had been at home all day. He then left me my friend's cell number, with the caveat that phone service was extremely hard to get and that I likely wouldn't get through, but to try anyway. I made several attempts at calling throughout the evening and into the night. I don't remember any of them expect the one that was answered at 8:42pm. He assured me he was ok, and ended the call quickly because phone service was at a premium. After our good-byes I turned off the constant barrage of horror on the TV and went to bed.
I have heard people on TV this weekend say that "it seems like yesterday" that all of these world-changing events took place. That is not the case for me. It has been a long decade of watching other countries like Spain and England move beyond the deep wounds of their own terrorist attacks, hunting first for Saddam Hussein and then Osama bin Laden, trying to reconcile the tragedy of September 11, 2001 with water boarding and the torture and humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It has been a very long decade.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Am I Still the Youth of a Nation, or is it Middle Age Wasteland?

I turned 40 in May, and this whole "40 thing" has been rolling along pretty smoothly, until several situations over the past week gave me pause to consider what "age cohort" I consider myself to be a part of.
Example 1: One of the receptionists at the Thompson Community Center (where I work) resigned recently and last Thursday was her last day. She had already turned in her work keys and asked me to open a locked office for her. As I pulled out a ridiculous number of keys on my work-keyring, I said, "With all of these keys, I feel like Schneider from 'One Day at a Time'!" I thought I was being witty. She stared at me blankly. I said, "You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?" and she answered, "Not a clue." She is 19.
Example 2: I was sitting up at the front desk late Friday afternoon when one of the volunteer receptionists at work called another local agency and left a voice mail. She turned to me and said, "On their message, they said if I was calling from a rotary dial phone, to hold for an operator. What's a rotary dial phone?" Instead of answering her directly, I asked, "How old are you?" And she answered, "Eighteen." Then I said, "It would take me too long to explain it to you," and I walked back to my office.
Example 3: My new car has a 6 cd changer. Since I became somewhat adept at using iTunes (which happened around September of last year) I have been burning "comp cds" (we used to call them mix-tapes, back in the day) like a banshee. I think I've developed carpal tunnel in my right wrist from holding the mouse and clicking for hours on end. Anyway, I was driving home from work this week and the song "Youth of a Nation" came up. I love this song. Even though there were no metal detectors in my high school, no one could image something like Columbine happening, and the biggest high school prank was toilet papering the campus trees during Homecoming week, for some reason, when I listen to this song, (I think) I can empathize with the angst and violence and sense of unfairness about having to grow up too fast that is expressed in the lyrics. The next song that came up was "Baba O'Riley" by The Who. I understand that baby-boomers claim The Who as their own, however, during the summer after high school graduation, several friends and I saw The Who's "The Kids are Alright" tour AND The Grateful Dead at Alpine Valley within the same week, which makes a pretty strong argument I believe, that "Baba O'Riley" especially, belongs to everyone. As I was listening to this song, I remembered being at the concert and turning around to look at the people standing behind me, and thinking, "Man, are they old. What the hell do they know about being a part of a "teenage wasteland"? Thinking about it now, they were probably 40ish.
So the task I'm trying to accomplish is reconciling my biological age and the fact that I'm surrounded by people with a completely different set of cultural references than I have, with the fact that I don't at all feel my biological age and for some reason can relate to the violent, unfairness of being marginalized and not taken seriously that is a hallmark of American adolescence.
Am I just really hip and don't know it? Do I have that "thing", that essence that some adults have that make them trustworthy and authentic? Or am I really middle aged and simply in denial? These are questions I don't have answers to.
They say, youth is wasted on the young. When I was in my late 20s and early 30s and trying to put myself and my life together I believed that.
Now that I'm 40, I believe that age is only a number, you're only as old as you feel, and middle age ain't so bad.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Dermatology Appointment Wasn't Supposed to be "A Big Deal": Instead, I've Got Skin Cancer

First, I have to say that this morning the topic of this blog was going to be how great I felt wearing heels for the first time after my hallux rigidus correction surgery, which is a fancy way of saying that my Ortho doc removed arthritis from the big joint in the great toe of my right foot on May 19th. However, an appointment with a Dermatologist this afternoon has changed all of that...and it's changing some other things too.
I've been taking a medication for 6 or 7 years and one of the side effects of this med is hyperhydrosis, which is a fancy way of saying it makes me sweat...A LOT. Especially in my face, which is very off-putting when I introduce myself to a new client and after I shake my new client's hand, I pull out a wad of paper toweling and mop up my face. At one client's first appointment she asked me if I was nervous and wanted to know how long I had been a therapist, statements I'm positive were related to my hyperhydrosis. The relief I get from taking this particular medication is remarkable and has had an incredible positive impact on my overall health, so the sweating was (and still is) something I'm going to have to live with. I've tried prescription anti-perspirants, including ordering one from Canada on-line, all with little to no relief. So about six months ago I started thinking about seeing a Dermatologist to investigate alternative treatments for my super-sweating problem. Four months ago I got the name of a Dermatologist from a doctor I know who knows this Dermatologist personally and came highly recommended. About 3 weeks ago I finally called and made an appointment with said Dermatologist, and that appointment was today at 2:30pm.
Dr. Dermatologist is a very nice, informative doctor and we talked about various treatment options for my hyperhydrosis. Just as he was getting up to shake my hand and make his way to another exam room, I said, "Before you go, can you look at this 'thing' on my forehead?" About 6 months ago I noticed this "growth" that sprang up out of nowhere on the left side of my forehead, almost right on my hair line. Dr. Dermatologist squinted at the "growth", put on a pair of exam gloves, and examined it further under a magnified light. Then he said, "I'm 99 percent sure, just by looking at it, that it's basal cell carcinoma. You've got skin cancer."
Umm...WHAT!?!? We grew up with a swimming pool in the backyard and my mother and sister would both slick themselves up with baby oil and lay out in the sun on the deck for hours on end all summer long. I would estimate that my exposure to the sun is at least 30% less than my sister's and 15% less than my mom's. Those are both conservative estimates, especially for my mom. And yet I'm the one that ends up with skin cancer? Really??
So Dr. Dermatologist's assistant numbed my forehead and he took a "shave biopsy" which is literally him taking a straight-edge razor and shaving off the newly-named "tumor".
The sample will be sent for examination under a microscope by a Pathologist. On August 17th I have a follow-up appointment for a procedure called Mohs Micrographic Surgery, which the American Cancer Society's website tells me is a process of the doctor cutting out a layer of skin, looking at it under a microscope, and if the margins and depth aren't "clean" (free of cancer cells), the cutting and microscope examination process keeps repeating until the margins and depth are both clean. The website warns me that it can be a lengthy process if the cancer is either wide and covering a larger area than just the site of the removed tumor, and/or deeper into the various layers of skin. I will also need follow-up visits to the Dermatologist every 6 to 12 months for the next 5 years, I'm at a greater risk for a recurrence of cancer in the same spot, for developing skin cancer in new areas, and that recurrence is most common in the first 2 years post-diagnosis. On the upswing, basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, is not likely to metastasize (spread to other organs), and the cure rate is approximately 98%. Those are all very encouraging words to read, but I think my brain stopped really absorbing any information after the doctor said, "cancer."
I'm 40 years old and I've got skin cancer. Statistically, I'm fairly confident that after the Mohs surgery everything will be fine and this diagnosis won't haunt me for the rest of my life. Emotionally, however, I'm still stunned, shocked, and in a bit of dis-belief. I know those are essentially all the same thing, but that's the only feeling I can put to this right now. Plus, the site of the excision is really starting to hurt, which is not helping my mood.
Where do I go from here? I need to tell my parents, other family members, & friends at work. I have been reminded in a really big way that today is all I, or any of us, have. The future is unknown to me.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Responsibility: Really, You're Talking About Me?

It's been almost three months since graduation & my 40th birthday, so I think now is as good a time as any to take stock of some significant changes that both of those events have brought on.
On June 13th I began working as the Older Adult Counselor through Lutheran Social Services at the Thompson Community Center. I have to admit, it would be a lot easier for me to call it a "senior center", but that would be the equivalent of saying my job description is "someone who listens to old people bitch and moan" which is NOT the case. So "community center" it is!
My clients have to meet one of two criteria: they either need to be age 60 or older, or they need to provide care for someone age 60 or older. They also need to either reside in Outagamie, Winnebago, Calumet, or Waupaca county, so I guess there are two of three requirements to sit across the desk from me in my office.
I'm the only Master's trained therapist at the Thompson Center, which means I am responsible for signing the charts of the two AODA counselors whose clients have a dual diagnosis. In non-therapy language, that means that for any of the clients in the alcohol and other drug addiction program with a mental health diagnosis, I have to discuss their status with the AODA counselors, understand and approve the counselor's treatment plan, and then (here it comes) sign the client's chart as the supervising clinician. Cue "dun-dun-dunnnn."
Me? Really? "Supervising clinician"? I guess that's what a Master's degree gets you nowa-days. Our AODA counselors do an incredibly good job of recognizing those clients with a "dual diagnosis" as we call it in the mental health biz, so it's not particularly taxing for me to agree with their treatment plans, but the fact that I have to sign my name in any sort of supervisory capacity kind of makes me giggle. Not because I take the responsibility lightly, but because I generally don't see myself as "knowing" any more than the two experienced clinicians I "supervise." I promise that as I become more comfortable with this process, the quotation marks will disappear.
I flipped through some of the cards I received for graduation and many of them contained inscriptions like, "Congratulations, a Very Proud Great-Aunt", "Congratulations on your accomplishments. You have much to be proud of, as we are all proud of you," and "Enjoy this moment and all the good feelings that come wrapped up in this special time. You deserve it." For some reason, now that I'm a bit removed from the pomp and circumstance of commencement, it doesn't seem that it's really that big of a deal.
What reminds me that it really is that big of a deal is that only 10% of all 4-year degree holders go on to post-undergraduate education. That when I look at the group of my best friends from high school that I'm still incredibly close to, out of the 10 of us, we all graduated with bachelor's degrees, 7 of us have post-undergrad degrees, with 1 of us currently working toward her Master's degree. (I swear that some kind of social study should be done on us because our level of education is way beyond the normal curve.) I think of my great-great-grandmother, Grandma Wilber, whom I never had the privilege of knowing, who had nothing more than a sixth grade education and became a farmer's wife. I've been told by my grandmother and one of my great-aunts that she wouldn't be able to even believe that someone in her family, much less a female member of her family, would reach the academic level that I have achieved. I've also been told that she's looking down at me from Heaven, shaking her head, and in today's parlance, saying, "You go girl."
Those are the things that help me believe I deserve all the responsibility I can get.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Life with Apollo After 372 Days

June 27th of this year marked the one-year anniversary of the arrival of Apollo into our home & our hearts, and, being completely candid, into my very soul.
Those of you that know me well already know that a dog is never merely a "pet" or "companion" for me, but a go-between of my existence and my belief that there is unconditional love in this world sent from some Higher Being, personified (or dogified) in four paws, a tail, an exceptionally long tongue, & those eyes that say, "You can trust me. I will never leave you. I will never hurt you. I will always love you."
When searching for a new puppy after the loss of Peanut, my husband & I applied for two dogs from different rescues. We had to list personal references, which both rescues contacted. My friend Jeanette (who I listed as one of our references) told me, "You'll get the dog that's meant to be yours." So on Sunday, June 27, 2010 we drove to Kewaskum to "meet" "Red" as he was named by the rescue. He & his sister were being fostered by one of the rescue's volunteers, who welcomed us into her home to spend time with "Red" & get to know him. (As if there was any doubt I would turn down taking any 12-week old puppy home after he's licked me in the face.) He was listed on the rescue's website as part Dachshund & part Chihuahua which appealed to me because Peanut's biological mother was a Chihuahua (and his biological father was a Rottweiler pup. Those of you that know me well know that whole story too.) Then the lady brought "Red" into her kitchen & he jumped up into my lap and began the whole face-licking thing. This puppy looked NOTHING like a Dachshund or a Chihuahua. I ran my hand down the length of his coat: wire-haired. I looked at his stature: tall. I looked at his face: pure terrier.
Mark & I paid the fee & drove home with "Red" dozing on my lap the entire trip. Names kept flowing in and out of my head; "Red" was just not going to do it. As I was gazing out over the rolling hills of central Wisconsin, I thought about what this puppy represented in my life. Peanut had seen me through some gut-wrenchingly hard times. If that dog could talk, I'd probably be in prison. Or maybe jail...on work-release. So what was in store for this new little one? Mark & I were still grieving the loss of Peanut, but our home felt incomplete without a dog inhabiting it. The sun shone through some gray storm clouds on our way home, and I thought, "Apollo: God of the Sun and God of Healing" in the ancient world. I needed nothing more than some sun and some healing, so this 12-week old pup was officially saddled with the responsibilities that come with his name. He has never disappointed.
Outside of the emotional journey that we are now forever apart of with Apollo, here are some facts about his first year with us. I have no idea if these stats are withing normal range or not, and frankly, I could care less. Their documentation is for my pure enjoyment, and I hope, yours too.
Apollo's First Year: By the Numbers:
Total trips to the vet: 3
Total number of times he's escaped from the house & sent Mark & me on a search & rescue mission: 3
Total number of footwear lost during said search & rescue missions: 1 slipper (mine)
Total number of times he's escaped from my parents' house: 1
Total number of obedience training classes: 16
Total weight gained: 10.2 lbs
Total number of visits to a dog park: 2
Total number of photos taken: I don't even want to try to count
Total number of nibbles of human food consumed: 1 (that I've caught my husband feeding him)
Total pounds of puppy food consumed: 66
Total time it took for potty-training: 4 incredibly long weeks
Total amount of love given & received: C'mon. You can put a measure on that.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Final Countdown

In approximately 5 hours, my 30's will be over and I will enter my fifth decade of life.
I feel a sense of duty to acknowledge this milestone and I will with a celebration combining my birthday and my recent graduation on Sunday. If I had to do my 30's all over again, would I? I would say an unequivocal "No," but I wouldn't answer as quickly as I would if invited to re-live my 20's. Who the hell wants to do that again??
I feel that I have really grown into becoming the woman I knew I could be and was supposed to be, throughout the past decade. My teen-age years were filled with the requisite amount of angst, I made some life-changing, horrific mistakes in my 20's, and although I certainly made mistakes during the past decade, my vision has slowly become clearer and my picture of who I am and where I belong in the world is markedly sharper. I attribute most of that clarity to the last several years which I've spent in graduate school. While learning to become a therapist, it's inevitable that one review ones' life in therapeutic terms: What motivates me? How do I define happiness? How can I confront others with empathy? How do I respond to being confronted or critiqued? How gentle, comfortable, and accepting could I be with my feelings, and am I gentle, comfortable, and accepting with my feelings now? There are probably a dozen more examples I could give of how studying to become a therapist has prompted me to re-examine and re-frame my own life. Socrates believed that "the unexamined life is not worth living." I wouldn't go that far in support of internal insight, because I've met plenty of clients, fellow students, and other folks that spend so much time engaged in self-reflection that it quadruples their current anxiety, depression, obsessions, etc.
I'm happy to be turning 40 tomorrow. Happy because I'm still vertical and not "sleeping in eternal rest." Happy because I've come so far in re-establishing a life for myself after moving back to this area in 2002 when I was horribly active in my addition. And I'm probably most happy because I have a meaningful life surrounded by the unconditional love and support of family and friends and a career that I feel I have been "called" to do. Although I've struggled and survived heartbreaks, I've also relished in the joy of accomplishment, loving others and being loved in return, and knowing within my soul who I am and what I stand for.
Happy Birthday to me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Resurrection of a Marriage

It's only fitting on this Good Friday of Holy Week that I can claim that my marriage has been resurrected.
Fifteen days ago my husband walked out on me. The night before that, I came home from my internship unexpectedly early and he was drunk. This is after living with him during a 1 1/2 year relapse after 5 years of sobriety; after a 4 day detox which included watching him have a seizure in the Emergency Room; after a month of residential treatment an hour from home and running myself ragged trying to visit him whenever I could, keep up with my school work, my internship hours, and provide therapy to my clients; after what I thought was 57 days of his new sobriety. Hurtful things were said by us both that evening. Then the next morning, after showering and dressing, at 9:25am he walked to his car and drove off.
I won't - actually I don't think I can, describe what the past two weeks have been like. Only those who have lived it really know. Some days I was all "I-don't-need-no-man" bravado, other days I felt like I was getting hit by the same bag of bricks, over and over again.
He and I didn't see each other or speak to each other during this separation, and all I kept hearing from the few people he was talking to was that "he wasn't ready to come home yet." Some days I felt like I would keep the door open forever, other days I felt like this door ain't gonna be open for much longer.
After much deep prayer, meditation, and contemplation I came to my decision: the door wouldn't be open forever, but knowing that my husband is an alcoholic, it wasn't slamming shut anytime soon, either.
It's not a coincidence that all of this thinking and feeling was happening during Holy Week. I often contemplated my pain in light of the pain God felt, having to sacrifice his only son for the forgiveness of us all, and Jesus's pain of having to sacrifice his very life for our, for my, salvation. I was betrayed by my husband and the most insidious disease I have ever encountered, but I had to consider where my compassion and my forgiveness lay. I am by no means a New Testament scholar, but I imagine that the list of crap humanity had accumulated by the time Jesus was crucified way out measures my hurt, my pain, and my sense of betrayal.
So my husband came home today. Within days of his leaving, both of us had taken off our wedding rings. Earlier today I placed his band back on the ring finger of his left hand, and he did the same for me.
I can't explain the unconditional love I feel for this man and that I know he feels for me. In 5 1/2 years of marriage, this is the first true "rough patch" (that grossly under-describes it, by the way) that we've encountered and we've endured. In my mind, it defies logic and's something more like faith.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On the Precipice of 40

I will turn 40 years old in 29 days. Several of my close friends have already crossed this barrier into the unknown of "middle age." Does 40 even count as middle age anymore? If you listen to people in their 50s and early 60s, it doesn't. "Life begins at 40" has been a popular saying since the bulk of Baby Boomers began to turn 40 two decades ago. I think Baby Boomers latched onto that saying out of a shear sense of denial, which has defined much of the average Baby Boomer's existence.

One of the reasons I think turning 40 doesn't mean much more to me than any other birthday is the fact that I don't have children so I can't compare my lifetime milestones to theirs: I can't say, "Oh I remember when I started kindergarten" while watching my own 5-year-old hesitantly entering elementary school for the first time. I also can't say "Oh, I remember when I got my driver's license" as I watch my own 16-year-old tear out of the driveway. I don't have anything or anyone in my daily life to compare my aging process to, which in my mind keeps me thinking, "I don't feel like I'm 39 and 11/12, I feel like I'm 22." Which has both it's benefits and it's drawbacks. On this point I think I have inherited that Baby Boomer denial mechanism.

Being close to turning 40 has made me question some of my physical abilities, however. I often wonder if I don't feel like taking the puppy for a daily walk because I'm 16 years older than the last time I was responsible for walking a puppy, or if it's due to something more sinister like depression. It's hard to tell some days.

As I am a self-disclosed hopeless romantic and enjoy a heavy dose of schmaltz to mark certain milestones, I imagine I will do a lot of reflecting on my life thus far over the next 29 days. All I know for sure is that I have no regrets, because if I hadn't done what I did at any given time, I wouldn't be who and where I am today. Whether I'm 40, 20, or 60 years old, that much I know for sure.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Happy 1st Birthday Apollo

1 year ago today, in a miserable puppy-mill in Georgia, a wire-haired terrier mix & his sister were born. That little puppy had no idea in what direction his life would go. He didn't know that a family in Wisconsin was beginning the mourning process of letting their 14 1/2 year old dog go in the most gentle, peaceful way possible. He didn't know that he would be driven to Wisconsin & rescued by that family only 1 month after losing their precious life-long companion. He didn't know he would be named Apollo, ancient god of the sun & healing. He didn't know how much sunshine he would bring to this family & how much healing he would provide. Happy 1st birthday Apollo.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Super Bowl XLV

It's been 12 days since my Green Bay Packers (I can authoritively say "my" because I am a Packers Shareholder) won Super Bowl XLV in North Texas and every time I look at one of the 176 pictures I took, my ticket preserved forever with a 4x6 snapshot of my family at Cowboys Stadium in a frame with green and gold matting, or the pin that came with my ticket lanyard which states "I WAS THERE", like Tim Layden's tribute piece in Sports Illustrated reads, I too believe that Aaron Rodger's 26 yard pass traveled a far greater distance.

For me and my family, it traveled back to the early 1980s with a picture of my parents in the parking lot at Lambeau Field, my mother sporting a number 10 Lynn Dickey jersey (which hung in her closet for decades) and a green and gold cowboy hat. It traveled to a pre-season game I watched alone in the old Foxboro Stadium when the Packers played the Patriots my senior year of college in Boston, MA and none of my college friends would go with me. It traveled back to December 20, 2009 in Heinz Field where my family watched Ben Roethlisberger march down the field in under two minutes and steal a snowy, road victory certain to be ours. That pass traveled over my Wisconsin family's history of Packers wins and losses, glory and heartbreak, 60 degree games in December (against the Bears) and minus 4 degree games (against the Lions), surprise at receiving Packers stock for Christmas, and elation with the Super Bowl XXXI victory.

Two years ago when Green Bay lost the NFC Championship to the New York Giants, my father off-handedly commented, "If they had won, we would have gone to the game." Within minutes of the end of the Chicago Bears game on January 23, 2011 (my parent's 40th wedding anniversary) my sister and I simultaneously phoned home and our dad made good on his off-hand comment: we were going to Super Bowl XLV. Went came, we saw, we won and we brought the Lombardi trophy home.

That 26 yard pass covered a lot of ground, a lot of time, a lot of memories, and a lot of love: within a family and it's hometown team.