Compassion Fatigue: or Why I Didn’t Share Your Post

 

TW/CW for sad things tugging on your heartstrings.

 

 

 

The other day during work I got an email from an acquaintance. A shelter in the neighboring county had posted an urgent notice: they’d been inundated with puppies during the past week and if they didn’t find homes for them by the end of business hours that day, they would have to euthanize them.

Did I know of anyone who wanted a puppy? Like right now? Immediately.

I wracked my brains but couldn’t come up with anyone on the fly.

“Send me the link and I’ll share it when I can,” I offered as a stopgap before delving back into work.

But ultimately, I didn’t share the link. Let me tell you why.

You see, something about that urgent request to spend compassion currency that I have in dwindling supply broke me just a little.

I have to reiterate: it was puppies. Puppies that needed homes right away or they would die. But for the first time ever, getting hit with such a request rang the resentment buzzer instead of the compassion bell.

Whoa. Hold up there. Resenting an impassioned plea to help save at least one or two puppies? Doesn’t that make me some kind of Cruella de Vil?

Sure, I couldn’t do anything directly to save the puppies. But I could share the link, right? How much energy could that possibly take? How could I refuse to put out the word?

Well, there are a couple of reasons. For starters, there was the link itself, which felt very “click-baity” when I read it. “Help us! Puppies will die if you don’t come TODAY!”

Believe me, I know there is probably someone on the other end of that post, hoping against hope that they don’t have to perform the soul-destroying task of euthanizing healthy puppies because some irresponsible person let their dog have them without any intention of raising them and finding homes for them. And my heart breaks for that shelter worker. I know their pain is real, even if they couched their request like so many other posts begging for help.

But practically speaking, by the time I’d put out the half-a dozen or so fires at my job, which also requires a great deal of compassion, it was so late in the day that my sharing the post would have been too late for that litter of puppies. Perhaps it could have raised awareness for someone else out there looking for a puppy that they should check out the shelter, but the puppies in question? Too late.

And that’s when I realized that my compassion bank account was dangerously low.

Because every day we’re hit up with thousands of similar requests. GoFundMe accounts for medical or funeral expenses shared by our friends. Political organizations playing off our justifiable outrage over some restrictive measure that’s just been enacted, and if we don’t donate NOW, warning of the Bad Things coming our way. Just causes demanding we take action. Global catastrophes begging for our financial support. Legal funds for kids in cages, ripped from their families. Egregious acts of racism that deserve investigation and some kind of response. Missing children on milk cartons needing to be identified. And so on.

And yes, I realize that I’m speaking from a place of great privilege because I’m not the one begging for help paying my bills or needing someone to rescue me from having to perform a heartbreaking task.

I think of myself as a compassionate person. Professions that demand compassion tend to attract empathetic people, and I chose my career path years ago because I had compassion to spare. I donate generously to things I believe in because I usually don’t have the time to volunteer in person. I spent years serving as a caretaker to my father because it was my mother’s wish that he be able to stay at home rather than enter an advanced care facility. I trap, neuter, and vaccinate the stray cats that show up around my house on my own dime, finding homes for those that can be tamed and going to ridiculous lengths to take care of the remaining ones (see the expensive catio that I built for these furry freeloaders). I cried when the annoying trash panda, whom I caught three times before trapping the mean tom (who hisses and spits at me every day, despite being nursed back to health), got hit by a car.

I share things. The post about the homeless trans teen who needs help. The post from an internet acquaintance who needs help paying for her cat’s surgery. The posts about fundraisers, many of which I contribute to myself. The posts about organizations raising money to deal with the aftermaths of flooding, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. The posts where some mother is asking for likes to show her son or daughter how beautiful they are. I comment with sympathy on the posts of total strangers who have experienced a great loss.

My lack of willingness to share the post about the puppies, and the resentment the request generated, tells me I must draw the line somewhere. None of us are designed with endless wells of compassion. To mix metaphors, we can’t keep overdrawing our compassion accounts to spend on things out of our control. The constant withdrawal of coins to spend on people we don’t know will bankrupt us.

I’m not Cruella de Vil.

I have compassion fatigue.

Put another way, if I’d found a box of puppies myself, I would have taken them into my home. I would have had them vaccinated and dewormed, and tried my best to find homes for them all, while at the same time, trying to socialize them and instill some manners in order to make them the best possible candidates for adoption.

If the local shelter had a fundraiser, I’d volunteer my time, donate some money, and if I couldn’t do either of the above, I’d share the post about it. I’d probably share the post regardless, but in terms of doing something, sharing is the last on the list. I’ve said it before, but sharing posts without taking action is little more than virtue-signaling. It might make you feel good, but for the most part it accomplishes very little.

I wrote a bit about my struggles with social media in general a few weeks ago, and how I think SM breaks are necessary for our mental health. In that post, I mentioned this metafilter thread that my husband had shared with me: What’s Mine to care about and what’s NOT MINE to care about. The original post cited, as well as the discussion thread it generated, is well-worth reading. In the OP, If You Can’t Take In Anymore, There’s a Reason, the poster refers to the need for an emotional circuit breaker because our minds and hearts aren’t wired to care about everything that’s on fire all over the world at the same time, and if we don’t flip that breaker, our whole house will burn down.

I couldn’t agree more. So like the OP, I recommend you pick one fire to put out at a time, and you concentrate on the fire that threatens the things you care about the most. Battle that fire with all your heart and resources. Fight the fire you think you have the best chance of helping to contain, or the one that is the most pressing to you because it’s in your backyard. You can help fight a fire halfway across the world, if that’s the fire that’s important to you, but you can’t squander your limited resources on trying to fight them all.

Because if 101 Dalmatians show up at your doorstep looking for a ride home, you want to have enough compassion in the bank to get them there.

And perhaps if I wasn’t staring down at a compassion overdraft notice, I would have shared the post about the puppies after all. Because that is the sort of thing I care about.

Is it Time to kiss Social Media Goodbye?

Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels

More and more people I know are discussing leaving social media altogether. Divorcing themselves from Facebook, Twitter, and even the relatively happy place, Instagram.

I’m not surprised, to be honest. Social media has become a toxic swamp, weaponized by those forces wishing to polarize populations and bring countries to their knees. Think I’m exaggerating? Remember the huge hate the latest trilogy of Star Wars movies received from supposed fanboys who hated the fact none of the leads were young, white men?

Welp, a post by Wired in 2018 revealed that as much as half the negative tweets about the film were politically motivated or generated by bots (a storyline worthy of the franchise itself, if you ask me).

It’s not just polarizing people over issues such as diversity and inclusiveness. Social media has become the place most people get their information these days, and the amount of disinformation out there, aimed at creating divisiveness at best and destroying nations at worst, is scary. I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but when I see well-educated people in the medical profession or education supporting unverified, crazy theories over statistically-backed scientific reports, I’m concerned, let me tell you.

On a personal level, I find the damage it causes something else altogether. We’ve become addicted to doomscrolling, and because clicks are king, media outlets are creating provocative headlines designed to keep us in a perpetual state of outrage. My husband and I had a conversation about this the other day, and I think for many of us, we share these anger-inducing posts because it’s the bare minimum we can do. Most of us don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do anything other than share the outrage because we think people should be angry and upset over these important issues.

(Don’t get me started on the data mining these platforms do… how creepy is it that my husband and I talk about buying a new mattress and shortly thereafter, our feeds get flooded with mattress adverts??)

But the truth of the matter is not only is sharing bad news (and OMG, there’s SO much of it these days) completely worthless in terms of doing something about it, there may be great harm in doing so as well. It fosters a sense of hopelessness about our ability to change anything: from the impending climate disasters, to voter suppression and the march to invalidate any election results the opposition doesn’t like, from politicians who get vaccinated themselves, but tell their constituents Covid-19 is nothing to worry about, so don’t bother with vaccines and oh, by the way, get back to work, please. And when we get sucked into a state of despair and cynicism, then we stop trying to make a difference where we can.

My husband shared this great metafilter discussion thread with me, and I’m sharing it here with you: What’s MINE to care about and what’s NOT MINE to care about. It has some great things to say about limiting your anxiety over the things for which you have no control and what to do about the things you can affect. That you can’t fight all the battles in the world, but you can’t opt out of fighting any. And if all you’re doing is sharing outrage posts, how is that different from virtue signaling? The metafilter discussion was in reference to this post here, which points out we are not designed to handle all the suffering in the world, and that circuit breakers exist for a reason: to prevent electrical systems from overloading.

My friends, the majority of whom I met online, are moving off social media and onto other, smaller platforms, such as WhatsApp and Discord. The main reason? To keep up with each other during the day but avoid getting sucked into the mire of disinformation and ugly rhetoric out there. I can’t say as I blame them. I’ve taken Facebook off my phone. I’m considering eliminating Twitter next. Some of my friends have taken things one step further: they’ve deleted their accounts.

I confess, the idea of doing that fills me with a sense of dread. I’m a writer. I’ve been told over and over again that I must have a presence on social media. And without the backing of a Big Name Publisher, I suspect this is true. I need to keep hustling to remind people my stories exist, to build a newsletter following, to manage groups, to post regularly to all my platforms, to stand on the deck of the Ark amidst limitless seas, releasing doves again and again in the hopes of one of them eventually bringing back signs of dry land out there.

To consider eliminating my social media presence feels a bit like giving up. Like accepting that I’ll never be more than a small potatoes writer releasing a handful of French fries once a year. So maybe I won’t delete my accounts.

But I can be a better steward of them.

You want fries with that?

Photo by Dzenina Lukac from Pexels

Not Next Year. Not Some Day… This Year. Today.

I have a huge mulberry tree in my yard. It is utterly enormous, its trunk gnarled and twisted with age, and every year it produces tons of berries. Every year since we moved onto the farm, I’ve told myself I would do something with them. Make mulberry scones. Mulberry cobbler. Mulberry vodka. Something. Anything.

And every year, the short mulberry season slips past me without my making use of my own crop of mulberries. You’d have thought 2020 would have been THE year I would use the mulberries. After all, I was making my own masks (until I found the ones I liked best online). I bought a sewing machine, certain world shortages would mean I would have to learn how to sew. I made my own bread–once I found yeast, that is–and collected dozens of yeast-free recipes when my attempts to grow my own yeast failed. I discovered that homemade banana bread was ten times better than any quick bread mix from the grocery, and I even attempted to grow my own vegetables. I know, I live on a farm, right? Growing vegetables should be something I do. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since my grandfather had the most amazing garden every year in his back yard. As a child, I kept telling myself one day I would get him to teach me all his tricks: when to plant what, and how to get the best from his little plot of land. But somehow I let the years pass without learning his life lessons. Long after he died, I wished I’d asked him to teach me how to grow vegetables when I had the chance. I managed to produce 3 baby cucumbers in my 2020 pandemic garden, which both pleased and disappointed me.

Somehow, the mulberries got away from me in 2020. Perhaps it was because by the time they were ripening, I was deep in the throes of pandemic panic and I could barely focus on tying my shoes, let alone trying my hand at baking something I’d never tried before. A great cook, I am not. I learned from friends the best way to harvest mulberries (place a sheet under the tree and shake the branches: anything that falls off is ripe enough to eat, otherwise the berries are too sour) and I even went so far as to collect recipes (doesn’t mulberry lemon pound cake sound scrumptious?), but May 2020 came and went without me trying my hand at any of the recipes I bookmarked. Okay, I had other things on my mind.

This year, I was in a better frame of mind. While the pandemic is still far from over, I can’t tell you how much peace of mind came seeing my family get vaccinated. One of my friends and I talked about making mulberry vodka (and she did!) and traded recipes for mulberry scones, but once again, I let the mulberry season slip by without making anything myself. I’m not a brave person when it comes to eating things I’ve never tried before, and in all the years we’ve lived on this farm, I’ve never once eaten a mulberry.

But this year, it looks like we’re expecting a bumper crop of blackberries. Somehow in the last few years, we’ve gone from having scattered bushes in the thickets surrounding the house to an almost impenetrable barrier of blackberry bushes higher than my head. And every thorny branch is heavy with ripening berries now.

When I checked them last week, I told myself they’d be ready to pick this week, and certainly there are plenty that are ready right now. But there are still tons of berries yet to ripen, and when I plucked one juicy berry to pop into my mouth this morning, it occurred to me that this is it: this is the year I’m going to make blackberry cobbler from the berries I’ve picked myself from my own property.

This year. Not next. This month. Not next. Not some day. Not if I have time, or if it’s not too hot, or if I can find the Church Ladies Cookbook and pull out the perfect recipe.

This year.

Because I don’t want to look back on this time in my life and think, “Darn it. I never made blackberry cobbler with my own fresh berries.”

As I said, I’m not a great cook. And even with the perfect recipe, the odds are high my results will be disappointing. But not, perhaps, as disappointing as having never tried.

 

Can We Please Find Another Way to Celebrate the 4th Without Fireworks?

This morning I saw a Tweet bewailing the fact the OP’s timeline was full of “anti-fireworks” rhetoric, and it got me thinking about my own dislike of 4th of July celebrations.

I came by them young, when my family would drive for what seemed like an interminable time so we could fight for a spot on a blanket in a mosquito-infested park and watch 15 minutes of fireworks, only to sit in line for over an hour to get out of the park on our way home. Like many other mass group events we participated in when I was a child, this seemed like a huge waste of time for me.

As I got older, I simply didn’t care for the noisy holidays. Give me Halloween, with the excitement of dressing up, the spooky decorations, and the fun of collecting candy. Halloween is the nip of fall in the air and the crunch of dry leaves underfoot. It’s bobbing flashlights in the dark and neighbors pretending to be scared. Or Christmas, with the delight of giving and receiving gifts, filling the house with the scent of cinnamon as you bake cookies and put up the tree, watching old movies, and the promise of snow. (Christmas is always about the promise more than the reality, which is probably why I prefer Christmas Eve to Christmas Day).

I’ve never cared for New Year’s Eve, even without the practice of reviewing the year and assessing your goals and achievements (or lack thereof). Around here NYE has become yet another excuse to light off fireworks. When you live in an area where fireworks are legal, every “fireworks” holiday starts a little sooner and lasts a little longer each year. Sometimes the “4th” starts in late June and runs until the middle of July.

As someone who is both an empath and sound-sensitive, I’ve always struggled when someone’s music bleeds through the walls in group housing, and grind my teeth at the thumping bass reverberating from the car sitting next to me at a stoplight. So I think it’s fair to say that I personally don’t like noisy celebrations of any kind.

Pre-pandemic, around here the 4th meant live music and cookouts at the big park in town. People would start filing in mid-afternoon and enjoy a day in the hot, humid air while vendors sold hot dogs and soda. As soon as it started to get dark, everyone would head over to the big field facing the high school. Fireworks would be launched from the school over the playing fields for the entire town to see. It was a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon. It makes a huge difference when you choose to participate in something.

What I never understood, however, were the people who brought their dogs to the fireworks display. From an early age, I’d learned how devastating fireworks could be to animals. One time my neighbors left their dog outside during the 4th celebrations only to discover on returning home that their dog had panicked and attempted to chew its way back inside the house. He’d ripped the frames off the windows, breaking teeth and nails in the process. Working with animals as I do, one of the most frequent (and devastating) things I hear about are the number of pets that injure themselves or run away during the weekend of the 4th. It’s hard for me to imagine a pet enjoying being present at such a display.

The Forever Dog created a graphic that depicts all the ways in which fireworks negatively living creatures around us, including everything from wildlife and birds ingesting debris, abandoning nests or becoming disoriented to companion animals and humans with PTSD suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. To say nothing of the risk of wildfires caused by fireworks in all settings. Forever Dog has a handy brochure for helping your pets deal with noise phobia. Because my dog has developed a noise phobia after a severe, damaging storm last year, I’ve spent months counter-conditioning him to thunder, gunfire, and loud noises, giving him calming supplements and rewarding him with food every time he hears a loud noise to make a positive association with it. I’ve literally been working on this nearly a year.

Saturday evening, the town celebrated the 4th with their annual fireworks display. It lasted about 15 minutes. Though rattled, my dog handled it fairly well, despite the fact neighbors released bottle rockets and their own fireworks on the ridge behind us. I figured that was the worst of it, and was pleased that it caused minimal distress at our place. The official celebration was over. People wouldn’t go nuts on a Sunday evening, right?

But last night, everyone around us fired off bottle rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers, fountains, spinners, and the like. It was a barrage of noise and light, many times of which went off directly over our house. At no time did I actually see anyone releasing fireworks. The people setting off fireworks weren’t within eyesight. But the acrid smell of powder filled the air, and debris rained down in my yard. With a loud bang, colorful explosions lit up the sky over our trees. At times, it sounded as though the fireworks were going off in our own yard, or could come barreling through a window. The dog, who had managed the night before, now smashed up against me shaking, his lips pulled back in a rictus of fear as he panted. Calming supplements, given in advance of nightfall, failed to touch his panic. When I offered him a tasty treat as usual, he took it only to drop it on the floor (where the little terrier dove in and snatched it). I ended up having to give him strong anti-anxiety meds.

None of us slept well last night. Long after sundown, and well past midnight, an intermittent explosion still took place. My husband had nightmares. Both dogs wedged their way onto the bed between us. I’m sharing this because I don’t want you to think I’m just trying to harsh your squee because I’m a big ol’ party-pooper. I’m sharing this because having night after night like this sucks. And honestly, I don’t understand why your celebrations should impact my quality of life.

At last count, the sale of fireworks is banned in only two states in the Continental US. Ordinances may vary from state to state, but most allow them. I found this handy fact sheet on the risks of injury and wildfire from a law office, which should tell you a little about your liability in such matters. The craze for fireworks is something I don’t understand. Light a few sparklers with the kids (making sure they’re safe and there’s no fire risk for the back 40). Attend a sanctioned event held by your town and run by professionals. One night, 15 minutes, yay for the US of A.

But I think it’s time to retire home fireworks displays. My dog and I will thank you.

Persistence: When Should You Give Up?

I’ve been thinking a lot about persistence lately. When it’s a good thing. When it’s a bad thing.

I chose persistence as one of my power words a few years ago, and I have strong feelings about the concept. In fact, one of my favorite quotations is Calvin Coolidge’s famous quote on persistence (shared below). Nothing worth achieving is possible without persistence: the academic degree, proficiency at any task (be it art, sports, writing, or competency at work), the successful relationship…

But when is persistence the wrong move? When is it “beating a dead horse” and a denial of reality?

I guess to some degree, it depends on the stakes involved. The higher the stakes, the bigger the consequences of giving up. You have to know in your heart quitting is the right thing to do. Giving up has to bring a sense of relief instead of a sense of dread. Conversely, if the consequences of giving up are so minimal, you might fall into quitting by default without ever declaring your intent to do so. You don’t finish the book you were reading, or the project you started, in part because you had other, bigger demands on your time and energy and it just didn’t matter than you failed to reach a specific goal.

Last summer, someone gave me a potted orchid. My first thought on accepting it was, “I wonder how long it will take me to kill this?” Not because I hate plants and want them to die but because I have so many demands on my time and so many living things that depend on me, it’s easy to let plants take a number and wait a LONG time in line. And even though I read the care instructions that came with it, I managed to get something wrong, and sure enough, that’s here’s what this plant looked like a few months ago.

The planter is set up so that it minimizes the risk of over or under watering the orchid, but it turns out I was putting the water in the wrong slot and I drowned the plant. After six months of meticulously remembering to water it on the correct schedule, I’d nearly killed the orchid anyway. Giving up and tossing the plant out isn’t a big deal because the consequences of doing so are nil. Only a slight guilt on my part for having such a black thumb.

Quitting in this case is an easy call. But what if the stakes are higher? What if we’re talking about a relationship, or your job, or your dreams?

That’s a different ball of wax altogether.

It still comes down to the consequences of quitting, I think. In part because quitting is often the easiest part of the decision-tree. We’ve been taught if we can’t achieve something in two weeks (weight loss, master a new skill, change our lives…) then not only is not worth doing, it’s not achievable in the first place. We’re also taught the value of “being realistic” over being someone who has dreams. If we’ve chosen a difficult goal, it’s easy to get discouraged and contemplate quitting. Being persistent is a character trait that can be both good and bad depending on your point of view.

It comes down to whether being persistent is hurting you–or someone else in your life– or not.

Toxic workplace environment or relationship? Yeah, maybe that is something you should consider quitting. Persistence may not be in your favor in those situations. It may be a situation you need to walk away from even if the alternatives seem super scary (like having no immediate income or place to live). If you remain in a situation or relationship that threatens your mental and physical health, you need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of doing so. Sometimes there are no easy answers. But the questions need to be asked, just the same.

Persisting in following your dreams when everyone around you tells you to “be realistic”? Yeah, don’t listen to the naysayers. If it’s something you want to do and have faith in your ability to do it, keep plugging away at it.

What if your Number One Naysayer is you? That’s a tough one because if you don’t believe in your ability to accomplish something you set out to do, then you will never reach that goal. But if the idea of quitting, of not being a writer, or musician, or artist, or teacher, astronaut, or whatever is more painful than the idea of continuing to strive toward your goals, then you should persist. The world is full of success stories about people who kept trying, who didn’t give up, despite repeated rejections or failures. Like Coolidge says, I believe persistence is more powerful than natural talent or ability.

Even if you never achieve your lofty goals, if you persist in doing something you love, it’s never time wasted.

Three months ago, I came very close to tossing the orchid in the trash. It was mostly dead. I had no great attachment to it. But there was one shiny green leaf among the dry stalks, dead flower heads, and dull, curling leaves. So I left it on the windowsill, didn’t water it for a few weeks, and then began taking care of it, following the directions correctly this time. And that single shiny leaf was joined by another. And another.

I’m not sure why I didn’t pitch the planter in the trash, unless it was because of the persistence of that baby leaf pushing its way out of the soil when all the odds had been against it. It reminded me of how I keep writing, even when I know realistically I am not going to be the Nora Roberts of paranormal romance or cozy mysteries. Though I get discouraged at my lack of progress sometimes, writing isn’t toxic to me, and sometimes is the only thing that keeps me going.

So let’s hear it for healthy persistence.

The Last Horse

Last night, I put my beloved horse to sleep.

I’d gone out to feed her and found her drenched in sweat, her coat caked with mud and clay as evidence she’d been rolling. We’d been through colics before–even bad ones–but somehow this time it felt like The Big One.

And it was. After hours of medical management that failed to make her more comfortable, and with a progression of clinical signs for the worse, it was clear that she wasn’t going to squeak through and make it one more time. At 11 pm, standing in the headlights of the vet’s truck, I made one of the hardest decisions of my entire life. I let her go.

It wasn’t the first time I faced losing her. In fact, she’d nearly died so many times in her life, we jokingly referred to her as The Mare Who Lived. At ten, she twisted her colon, necessitating surgery to save her life. Not many horses survive colic surgery. Fewer go on to be functional riding horses again. But survive she did, and went on to compete as well.

I never did get to do all the things I planned with her, though. Oh, we had such plans. She was my first ever horse raised from the ground up. I chose her parents. I carried her ultrasound photo in my wallet. The day she was due, I spent the entire day with her dam, watching her mother quietly crop grass while meadowlarks sang in the summer fields, noting the changes come over her body as she became ready to foal. It was a magical experience. One I will never forget. I was there the night she was born, imprinting on her even as she imprinted on me. Childless myself, she was the baby I never had.

She was why I got up on my days off and drove four hours round trip to spend the day training her. She was the reason I continued to ride after my car accident, after my doctors told me I should stop, and despite grinding chronic pain. She is probably the only reason I’m still functional today. She is the reason I continued to go and do despite clinical depression, and probably the reason I am still alive after surviving one of the hardest periods in my life.

I rode in weather so cold, my breath came out as a vapor, and the weight of her body crunched ice crystals beneath her feet. I rode in weather so hot I risked heatstroke again and again. We worked together in indoor arenas that had to be watered down so we wouldn’t choke on the dust. We rode in outdoor arenas baked into brick-hard surfaces that had to be dragged so they were useable again. We rode down forest trails under a leafy canopy and forded streams like we had to bring in the herd at the end of City Slickers. We jumped fences, and cleared ditches, and galloped across open fields with the Blue Ridge mountains in full autumn color as a backdrop.

She was so massive–hence the name The Moose–that I needed a mounting block to get on her. Never in all the years I rode her did I fall off–I joked you would have to run to the side and leap to fall off of her. In her youth, turning her was like steering the Titanic–I often said her name should have been Inertia. She was excitable, but she was kind. I was never in fear of my safety when riding her, even though she weighed half a ton and stood at 17 hands tall. And she was brave and honest, too. If I pointed her at a fence and gave her the right direction, she’d take it without question. She might have slowed down to give it a stare, and leapt it as though it were six feet tall, but jump it she did.

Life prevented me from doing everything I wanted to do with her. She was bred to be my event horse, though we never made it to a single event or horse trial. The only competitions we made it to were the occasional dressage show. My dad developed cancer and I became his caretaker, and then she had the colic surgery, and somehow, it became good enough to know she was doing first level dressage at home, and able to jump a 4×4 oxer like it was a Kleenex box. (For the uninitiated, “first level” isn’t the beginner level–watch the link if you’d like to know more). We didn’t compete often, but when we did, I like to think there was a collective muttering of “damn” when we showed up because we came home with all the ribbons. When I unloaded her from the van at a show grounds, all heads turned to watch her move. She was simply that impressive. It didn’t hurt that she’d get lit by the excitement of a horse show, and would float across the ground with huge spectacular strides as a result.

I did achieve one life goal with her: I took a jumping clinic with a former Olympic Coach, wherein I discovered we were PB&J in the caviar world of eventing… and you know what? Sometimes PB&J is good enough. It was good enough for us.

Probably my biggest regret is never having had professional photographs taken of her. I took thousands myself, however, because she was gorgeous, she was magnificent, she was The Moose.

I can tell you funny stories that will fail to capture her shining personality: of how she was afraid of pigs, or the time when as a baby she tried to get in my car with me, or the time she spooked and cleared the length of a football field in six ginormous strides–all running toward an enormous cross country fence that she tried to jump from the wrong direction. I can tell you about the time she went galloping with the herd toward a field where someone had forgotten to open the five-bar gate at the other end. Every other horse screeched to a stop at the closed gate. She sailed over it–and cleared the water trough on the other side as well. Or about the time she was like a powder keg with a lit fuse when we competed in our first simple walk-trot dressage test, and she ended up doing airs above the ground in the chaotic melee that passes for a warm up ring–and then calming down enough to win the class by a landslide. Oh! Or how about the time we left her on the van to school some other horses and she broke her chain lead, bent the breast bar like it was a pipe cleaner, and jumped out of the van to graze quietly beside it. Oh, Moose. There will never been another quite like you.

We always knew she was on borrowed time after the colic surgery. Many don’t survive the surgery. Those that do frequently become chronic colickers, which she did. Most of her episodes were mild gas colics that resolved without treatment and were probably due to adhesions in her guts after the surgery. About four years after the surgery, I came out to feed her and noticed she was standing in her “colic corner”, the spot where she’d go when she felt bad, and would begin to paw and shift in place. As I’d approached her with a halter, she stood straight up on her hind legs and then shot into the air, kicking out in a perfect capriole, something she’d never been taught. I’d known then, we were in for a bad time.

It was a night that will live in memory. I hand-walked her for seven hours straight as we attempted medical management. The odds of a horse surviving colic surgery twice were slim to none. I wasn’t going to put her through that again. I watched as she became more and more distended and uncomfortable, and as all medical management failed. And just when I was on the point of asking the vet to put her down…. she farted. Long, loud, repeatedly. And ten minutes later she was actively looking for grass to eat.

My vet said he’d never seen any horse look so bad and yet spontaneously recover. He called it a miracle. We suspect she’d been mildly impacted because of an adhesion, which caused gas to distend her bowels but something shook loose even as the request to euthanize her stuck in my throat. That evening, I’d stood at the fence in the middle of the night, watching her graze beneath the light of a full moon, with Saturn and Jupiter blazing overhead. We’d gotten lucky once again, I knew it.

Just as I’d somehow known last night this time we wouldn’t be so lucky. She actually didn’t look as bad as she had as the previous colic over a decade ago. She initially responded to pain management, she had none of the markers that indicate you’re in for a bad time. I grew hopeful that once again, we’d dodged a bullet, even as I mentally acknowledged that sooner or later, one of these colics would get her. We’d been saying that for so long, it was hard to remember that she’d already lived far longer than anyone ever thought she would. Yet as the second round of sedation and pain meds wore off, she gradually began showing signs of discomfort again: pawing the ground, threatening to roll, looking at her flanks which were gradually distending. The parameters of her exam had changed: we now had evidence of displaced bowel, of another twist.

I wanted to believe we’d get our miracle one more time. We’d had so many near misses and spectacular recoveries. She was The Mare Who Lived, after all. She would make it. She had to make it. But as her condition deteriorated, it became clear she wouldn’t, not without surgery, something I wouldn’t do, not a second time, not for a 25 year old horse.

And so I stood in the light cast by the vet truck’s headlamps and made the decision to let her go.

I wanted to rail against the unfairness of it all. I’d had so much loss in recent years. 2017-2018 became known as The Year of Grief. Things had eased up in 2019, only to have 2020 say, “Hold my beer.” Emotionally, physically, mentally exhausted, losing The Moose last night seemed like the one thing that would finally break me. Even now, I’m not sure that it might not.

But the truth of the matter is loss is part of love. It was just an ugly trick of fate that handed me so many losses so close together for such a prolonged period of time. I am not special in my experiences, nor in my grief. And the only way to avoid this pain I’m experiencing now would be to have never loved The Moose in the first place.

Impossible.

The Moose was my last horse. I’d had to euthanize my other horse in the winter of 2018 at the age of thirty-five. Losing him was a wrench because he was my first horse, bought with my hard-earned cash as a green-broke three-year-old off a slaughter truck, and I’d had him ever since. But thirty-five is a ridiculous age for an old horse, and though making the decision to put him to sleep was hard, it was expected as well.

I’d retired The Moose a few years back–she wasn’t sound enough to ride any longer. I’d chosen to lease a riding horse instead, which I kept up until that horse too, was retired. Covid-19 forced me to take a hard look at the risks of riding during a sweeping pandemic, and I’d made the tough call to stop riding last March, at least for the time being. I still had The Moose. I was still a horsewoman. I just wasn’t riding.

Now, for the first time in over thirty years, I am without a horse. And I don’t think I will ever have another one again. This isn’t just a door closing. It’s slamming shut and locking me out. In some ways, that’s the hardest part to bear. Today I called to cancel her farrier appointment for next month. I gave away her winter blanket and sold her brand new, never-worn grazing muzzle for the summer season. I’ll pull out her bridle and saddle, clean and oil them for the last time, and donate them to someone who can use them.

If you’ve never experienced the euthanasia of a horse, it is a tough thing to watch. It’s a bit like felling a tree: done right, it happens in stages and no one gets hurt. I held her head as the vet administered first the sedative and then the euthanasia solution. I promised her that I’d seen her into this world, and that I would see her out. She breathed her last breath into my ear with a shuddering sigh, and we guided her into a controlled fall onto her side. I stroked her muzzle, but the light was gone in her eyes.

She’s being buried today. I couldn’t be there: I had to work. Perhaps that’s just as well. Though she is being laid to rest in a field overlooking the Blue Ridge mountains with the redbud coming into bloom, I know she’s not there. She’s running with her friends who have gone on before her, frisking in the pasture free of pain, ready to eat her fill of grass and snooze in the sun to the lazy drone of bumble bees. She lives on in my memories, in my photographs, and in the cameo appearances she makes in my stories.

And someday this summer, I’ll sit on the hillside beside her grave, with the dogs at my side, listening to the meadowlarks sing.

The Pandemic One Year Later: Are We Ready to Return to Normal?

This time last year, I was hunkered down on the farm, desperately counting down the days until I had some time off. We’d made the decision to split our households into Essential Workers (me) and WFH/High Risk (everyone else) and I was watching videos on how to make masks, posting about flattening the curve, and searching for toilet paper and bread yeast. I organized my personal documents and instructions for taking care of the animals in the event of my long-term hospitalization or death. TV shows, books, and movies that had been favorites before fell by the wayside as I looked for gentle, less-traumatic ways of entertaining myself. I took the dogs for long walks and obsessed over my neighbor’s baby goats.

I was terrified.

The pandemic was a terrible thing to have happen. But having it happen on Trump’s watch made it a national–if not global–tragedy.

This past weekend, as I was walking the dogs, I noticed the first of this year’s crop of baby goats in my neighbor’s field. And while I was charmed, I didn’t have that odd compulsion to stalk and photograph them. A simple, slightly out of focus snapshot with my cell phone was sufficient to appease my interest.

It made me think about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same since this time last year. My family is still divided: I have not yet completed my vaccination series and none of my other family members have been vaccinated yet. I shop online and have groceries delivered to my car. I wear a mask in public and carry hand sanitizer with me wherever I go–and I avoid going anywhere except to work.

The number of Covid-19 cases is higher in our area right now than they’ve been during the entire pandemic–by a factor of twenty–and yet so many people seem to be acting as though the crisis is over. I have a bad feeling we’ll see a huge uptick in cases nationally again once people come home from Spring Break, and I have to tell you, my bad feelings are almost always right.

I am not planning vacations, but I am making much-delayed doctor’s and dentist’s appointments for later this fall. I won’t go back to the nail salon anytime soon–if ever–but I’m looking for a hairdresser that practices Covid protocols for after I complete my vaccine series. I never, ever need to go back to the movie theater again. Between shooters and the inability to exit quickly in a fire, movie theaters always felt like death traps to me anyway. I love being able to pause my movie to use the bathroom or make popcorn that doesn’t cost $10/bag. I don’t need the “movie experience”, though I realize some people love it.

A friend wants me to take a cruise with her next spring. Ten years ago, I would have leapt at the chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do. Now the horror stories coming out of the industry as a result of the pandemic have canceled any desire I ever had to step foot on a cruise ship.

In some ways, the pandemic has forced me to Marie Kondo my life. Not in terms of physical objects but in terms of activities. How I want to spend my time. Who I want to spend my time with. This past weekend my husband and I met for a socially distanced dog walk and talked about so many things we can’t seem to manage by phone or email. It was a great day.

Other things have changed for the better too. Funny how having competent leaders in charge–despite the enormity of the mess they have to clean up–has done wonders for my overall anxiety and my blood pressure. I have hope for the first time in years, venting off some of that building pressure that made it difficult to get through the day.

One thing that has become clear: I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working at a job that is literally eating me alive. As someone tied into a narrow list of job opportunities due to my specialization and the lack of jobs in the area, I can’t just step out of the plane and hope I find a parachute on the way down. But I am getting closer and closer to the hatch.

I find in many ways, I dread a return to “normalcy.” Especially if normal means daily mass shootings or increased pressure to make bricks without straw. I shrink from the idea of businesses opening back up to the public, and of my husband being expected to go back to the office. I rage internally when I run into entire families at the store without masks. As an introvert and an empath, I find I want the distance between me and almost everyone else to be greater than ever before. I could easily become agoraphobic if it weren’t for the dogs needing to go on walks.

But I also miss hugs. I miss hanging out with my husband, who is also my best friend. I miss the excitement of traveling to a place I’ve only ever read about. I don’t want to go to the beach, but I’d like to rent a cabin in the mountains. I’d like to read books or watch movies without worrying if the story was going to hurt me in any way.

I think these things will come back again–eventually. I’m already noting a greater willingness to be more adventuresome in my entertainment, taking a chance on shows I would have deemed too dark last year at this time. I’m seriously looking into other work opportunities. I’m making plans for the future when this time last year, I couldn’t think past my next day off from work.

The baby goats are still cute and interesting, but they are just goats.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I’m Starving and I Can’t Fill Up

Photo by Criativithy from Pexels

TW for eating disorders.

 

 

The struggle is real.

I’ve always been prone to using food as a reward, probably in part because food was so often used as a weapon in our house growing up. But I mean, who doesn’t think about celebrating an important event or a special date with a fancy meal? Perhaps a bottle of champagne, or a cake ordered from the bakery? Or think about how the arrival of a box of doughnuts at the office puts a happy smile on everyone’s face–even on a Monday.

We celebrate the holidays with feasting: turkey at Thanksgiving, ham at Christmas, chocolates for Valentine’s Day, candy at Easter. Then there’s the obligatory cookouts for Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Labor Day. Mega-candy holiday at Halloween and then we’re back to Thanksgiving again. And let’s not forget birthdays, anniversaries, and New Year’s Eve.

Food, glorious food, eh?

I have long used food as a reward for making it through a crappy day and have recognized the tendency to eat (especially carbs) when stressed.

But lately, it’s been more out of control than usual.

I’m not quite sure when things changed. I went through a bad year, that became a bad couple of years, that turned into a bad four years… but the weight was already creeping up before then. I have a high-stress, high-pressure job (even more so than what passes for normal here in the US) and somewhere along the line it began catching up with me. Cortisol, produced in greater amounts when you’re stressed, has a multitude of negative effects on the body, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Weight crept on, became the new norm, then stabilized.

But in this past year, stability has gone out the window. In part because I’m never full. I’m never satisfied.

Oh sure. I can eat so much I don’t want anything else. And for a while, it seems to work. But in less time than you would expect, I’m rummaging around in the kitchen again, opening cabinets in the hopes of finding something that appeals. Something that would be just right. So perfect that I would eat it and go, “Now, I’m satisfied.”

Only I never am. There’s just this bottomless pit of hunger that can’t be filled.

I caught sight of my reflection in a window today, and I scarcely recognized myself. Tonight, when I found myself in the kitchen shortly after dinner poking about the shelves and rejecting all my choices, I realized I wasn’t hungry, and yet I was starving.

And I asked myself why.

A lot of it has to do with the pandemic. What doesn’t? But right now, life consists of going to work, coming home and taking care of the animals, going to bed and getting up to do the whole thing all over again. My husband, still working from home in the house in town while I tend to the farm, said today, “I get up in the morning and think, ‘What am I going to do today? Oh. Right. Same as every day. Go to work.'” He has a ridiculous amount of leave that he hasn’t taken because work demands more and more of him but as he also pointed out, what would he do if he wasn’t working?

We’re not going to ball games or horseback riding. We’re not seeing family or traveling to places we’ve always wanted to visit. It doesn’t look like that will change for most of us in 2021, and honestly, I’m not sure 2022 will be any better. I’m hug-deprived and miss simple human contact with those I love. And if I’m really being honest here, I’m staying up later and later because going to bed only brings the next day and the endless cycle of Same back around again. The sleep deprivation only makes it that much harder to roll out of bed and face that Same Old Same as well.

And so I seem to reach for food to fill all the voids, but the truth of the matter is the food isn’t all that wonderful. It’s just accessible. And when you’re completely exhausted, accessible is good enough, isn’t it?

The thing is, most of us were already sliding down into this pit long before the pandemic struck. It’s a national problem: we take pride in working ourselves to death and doing whatever it takes to keep working at an unsustainable level. We’re like rats in a maze, running the paths just to press a lever and be rewarded with a food pellet.

I suspect I’ve been starving for a long time, it’s just taken the sheer weight of the pandemic to make it utterly clear how my life has narrowed down to work and food. And now that I’m standing at the bottom of the pit I’ve fallen into, I can see it’s going to be a bitter climb back out.

So I’m going to concentrate on the things that I know will improve the quality of my life. I’m going to strive for 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week–hey, the dogs will love that! And I ordered a plant-based cookbook–there has to be something you can make with vegetables in between steamed kale and a salad. Hopefully better food choices will result in curbing this drive to eat when I shouldn’t be hungry. I’m already meditating, but I plan to spend more time in nature–I miss my long rambles through the woods. And I’m going to strive to reconnect with friends and family–online if necessary until we can all be safe again.

The days when I could eat sugar-coated cereal dry out of the box or make a stack of cheese and crackers and call it dinner are gone. That’s kid stuff. It’s time to grow up.

Because climb I must. Because no amount of food–not even eating Fruit Loops straight out of the box–is going to fill me up. And I want more out of life than to work and eat.

 

McKenna Dean: Siamese Hunter

I’ve always been drawn to nature programs. I grew up watching them as a child, feeding my love of animals with the need to know more about all kinds of species. I thought seriously about becoming a naturalist, following in the footsteps of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. I kept little notebooks where I jotted down observations of the species in my own backyard. I learned how to identify a wide variety of birds and mammals. Our squirrels became so tame, they would wait for me on the front step to come outside and feed them each morning. One of my fondest memories as a child was spending a snow day on friend’s family farm, and identifying a large number of different animals by their tracks in the snow.

The thing that ultimately kept me from heading off to Africa to study chimpanzees in the wild was the realization that as a zoologist in the field, it would be virtually impossible to take my dog or cat with me, and I couldn’t imagine leaving my pets behind.

As an adult, I found other ways to work with animals, but I still remain at heart an observer of nature–and a sucker for anything that shows up begging to be fed.

15 years ago, I trapped, spayed, and released an ugly female cat that kept having kittens under my porch. She was too wild to catch the first year, and her kittens scattered into the surrounding land too.

Once I caught her, I was able to catch the latest litter of kittens and find homes for them all. It took me another year and a half to catch the big male that was likely the father. Once I neutered both of them, they tamed down and hung about the property, greeting me when I’d arrive home in the evenings and following as I fed the livestock.

Over the years, other cats have showed up. Again and again, I went through the taming process. Some I could find homes for. Some were too feral even once neutered. The dad cat died last year from a combination of hyperthyroidism and kidney failure. The ugly mom cat is still with me, now creaky with age and deaf as a post. I built a catio for her because its no longer safe for her to roam at large.

It’s never been safe for them to roam, however.

One of the hardest things about making yourself responsible for a set of creatures that are largely wild animals is that sometimes there’s a limited amount you can do to protect them unless you are willing to make them indoor animals. We’re already over our indoor limit here, and the one house cat (from the second litter born under our porch) is a bully who prefers dogs to his native species.

A couple of winters ago, I lost my favorite feral cat to the road, and I vowed I wouldn’t get that attached ever again.

I’d spent months taming Ghost, and while I couldn’t pick him up, he was my little shadow around the farm. I was devastated when he died.

But then a new lot of young toms began drifting in, and the cycle of trapping, neutering, and releasing began again.

Black Jack was too nice a cat to let get hit by a car, and he was fighting with Harley, the other young tom who’d showed up about the same time, so I put him in the catio rotation with the ugly mom cat (okay, her name is Psycho Kitty because before she was spayed she would attack you). Harley seemed to be smart about the road, but I overfeed him so he’ll have no need to cross it looking for food.

 

Harley disappeared for months after I had him neutered, only to show up again when it got cold. I made a kitty shelter for him out of a Styrofoam cooler and and he sleeps in it every night. Like the others, he greets me when I come home from work, and follows me (and the dogs) all around the property.

But then Judge showed up. Talk about feral. Judge is so wild, I’m not entirely sure of his/her gender. I’ve never managed to get closer than 20 feet or so. She/he is so named because I’ll catch him or her staring through the bushes in silent judgement of me.

With the latest round of ice storms, both Harley and Judge had been showing up for meals twice a day like Swiss timepieces. But just before this last winter storm, Judge disappeared for a few days. He was gone so long, I was starting to think he was gone for good, but then he showed up right as the latest bout of weather was about to begin.

And he was injured.

I could tell from the way he held one eye closed there was something wrong but what could I do? It was too cold to set out a trap, and even if I could catch the cat, I’d only be able to put eye medication in if he was sedated. Operating on the “do what you can” model, I put antibiotics in his food and did a little fist pump when he ate them.

The following day as the storm rolled in, he appeared holding both eyes open, but dear Lord, his left eye was a mess. He must have been in a fight with a penetrating wound to the globe. And short of putting antibiotics in his food, there was nothing I could do about it. The problem is, antibiotics taken by mouth seldom affect infections in the eye because the eye is a closed system. Few medications can travel through the bloodstream and have an effect on them.

I still can’t trap the cat–he’d perish exposed in a live trap overnight in this weather. I still wouldn’t be able to medicate his eye directly if I could catch him. He’d have to go someplace where aggressive measures would have to be taken (like a third eyelid flap) and I doubt the eye is salvageable.

I managed to get a good look at the eye with a 300 mm telephoto lens, and believe me when I say if it makes me cringe to look at the photo, you don’t want to see it here. But here’s a pic of Judge eating.

So I keep putting antibiotics in his food. At some point when the weather warms, I plan to trap him anyway. He’ll probably have to have his eye removed–and that will also prove problematic if he isn’t tame enough for aftercare. All I can do is watch and worry and hope for the best.

Does this make me a crazy cat lady? Probably. But I don’t know any other way to be.

Fighting Hair Loss in Women: What Does and Does Not Work

Thinning hair is something I’ve been battling for many years, and Good Hair Day_RedI’ve been contemplating this blog post for a while now. I wasn’t sure sharing this post was appropriate on many levels: I’m a romance writer and there is nothing sexy about thinning hair, right? Writing about my thinning mane of hair is quite personal and decidedly off-brand.

But it is something I felt I had to share with you on the off-chance someone else out there is struggling with the same problem, and feeling just as bad about it as I did.

See, the one constant of my entire life has been my long, thick hair. It’s been one of my identifying characteristics. My dad’s nickname for me when I was a child was “a bag of bones and a hank of hair.” It was incredibly apt and I spent most of my formative years slightly resenting that nickname until I found out it that the line actually came from the lyrics of a very old song. Hairdressers never failed to comment on the volume and waviness of my hair, frequently pointing in awe at the amount of clippings piled around the chair after a simple trim. One woman jokingly told my mother to “Stop putting Miracle Gro on that child!” A college friend of mine likened it to kudzu, that invasive species of plant that was brought into the Southern US to stop soil erosion and ended up engulfing entire mountainsides. I myself compared to it as wearing a wet fur coat in the humid summers we have here.

Yep, that was me. Kudzu woman.

As such, I was always a little perversely proud of my hair, even when I hated it. Oh yes, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my hair. When it got too long, all the curl was pulled right out of it due to the sheer weight of it all. Wearing it up in a ponytail or pulled back in barrettes was necessary for work–but I often had to use multiple hair implements at once to corral this mane, confining it in stages or otherwise dealing with the wicked headache pulling it back would create. Barrettes would frequently pop open with a loud crack, stinging as the clip bounced off my head and onto the floor. Sometimes it would land across the room. I kid you not.

Periodically, I would become frustrated with its heavy mass (usually at the height of August in 100 degree heat and humidity) and go into the hairdresser’s armed with a photo of a cute, wickedly short cut, only to be told that there was no way my hair would do that, and I did realize that I had three times as much hair as the model in the picture, right? When I would insist on cutting it short anyway, I’d always regret it. Sure, it was wash-and-wear convenient, but the very density of it made me look like an angry hedgehog. No sooner would I cut it, I would decide I needed to grow it out. In less than a year, I would be back to shoulder-length hair again.

That was before the hair disaster a few years ago.

Let me be clear–I’ve had hair disasters before. Who hasn’t? There was the horrendous cut that made me stumble out of the salon in tears and immediately seek out another hairdresser who could minimize the damage. There was that time I got talked into a permanent wave to ‘control the curls’ (seriously, with my hair? What was I thinking??) and ended up looking like a poodle. There was the other time when I spent over an hour with a new, highly recommended hairdresser who put magenta stripes in my hair and suggested I let my curls ‘come out to play.’ I looked like Bozo the Clown after that visit. I once had to shave my head nearly to the scalp to undo the damage from a home perm given too close to a recent coloring. That time, my hair developed the consistency of Brillo, and I could actually twist it into place and it would stay there.

I laughed it off because after all, hair mistakes are never permanent.

Until this last disaster.

For a while now, coloring my hair had become increasingly problematic. My gray roots, present since my thirties, were becoming resistant and unpredictable in color uptake. Nothing infuriated me more than to color my hair and, less than a week later, spy the glitter of gray roots somehow missed or already bleeding through. The amount of time I could go between root touch-ups was getting shorter and shorter, and yet I still clung to the idea of coloring my hair. It made me feel good about myself. It was a cheap way to give me an ego boost, a simple way of making a statement. If I wanted to be bold, I went red. If I wanted a power look, I went dark. Coloring my hair was no different to me than choosing a nice pair of glasses or wearing make up.

Sure, I suspected there would come a day when I might have to give it up. Salon coloring was too expensive; I reserved that for the times when it was really important for me to look smashing, like my college reunion. But even my salon guy, who is a genius with color, was having a hard time getting predictable results. My at-home adventures were worse. Finding a color that would last more than three weeks (no matter how much I babied my hair and used protective shampoos and conditioners) was tough. Not to mention the streaky, uneven color, or the fact that sometimes my roots turned out a different color than what I expected. I even went so far as to buy a book on the subject: Going Gray by Anne Kreamer. I confess, I didn’t read it. Gray wasn’t something I did.

Back then, to me there were two kinds of women: those who fought the aging process with style and those who embraced it. Women who looked like Mary McDonnell at 61 or those women who kept their own sheep, spun their own yarn, made their own kefir, wore Birkenstocks year-round, and did yoga. If that sounds biased, I keep my own sheep, but I like nail polish and pretty shoes. I’m a walking example of what I thought didn’t exist, and was too hard-headed to see it.

But that’s how I saw it then. No middle ground. I came by my fear of aging honestly. My mother fought the good fight to retain her youthful appearance with everything in her arsenal. Expensive youth serums, cosmetic surgery, lying about her age, you name it. It wasn’t until much, much later in life that I discovered this had nothing to do with her wanting to appear youthful and pretty–she was afraid of losing her job (and her health insurance) to younger, fresh-out-of-school new graduates. Now that I am in the same boat myself, I can understand her hard-core desire to remain youthful looking with an empathy that dismays me.

The message I subconsciously picked up from her, however, was that aging was something I need to fight tooth and nail. Even my husband, who is very much against Botox and other artificial means of looking young, hesitated when I suggested I might stop coloring my hair. The most supportive guy on the planet, and yet after a brief pause, he said he wasn’t sure he was quite ready for me to have gray hair yet.

Yeah, well me neither.

Then, ironically right after a cheerful online interaction with friends about To Color or Not To Color and why we all choose to keep coloring, the disaster struck. I’d switched brands of home color in the hopes of finding one that would be more consistent in shade and last just a little bit longer. I followed the instructions, as usual, applying the Medium Ash Brown shade.

ombre from flickr commons

ombre from flickr commons

When I washed it out, my hair was jet black. No, seriously. My husband referred to me as his ‘raven-haired beauty’ for weeks. I laughed it off, especially as the color didn’t take evenly, and the ends of my hair were still reddish brown. I told everyone I looked like Xena: Warrior Princess, and one of my clients told me I had an ombre–and that people actually did this sort of thing on purpose to their hair. So I laughed. No big deal, right?

Until my hair began falling out. Big time.

At first, I thought I was just going through a fall molt. After all, I’d done that before. One October when I was in my twenties, I lost so much hair all at once, I began to get worried. But that was when I was twenty-ish. And it stopped. This time, my hair continued to come out in great fistfuls to the point that I could see scalp, so much so my part looked exactly like that woman on the Rogaine box.  For the first time, I had to consider the possibility that not only was I losing far too much hair, but that it might not come back, either.

I went to the doctor and had a lot of expensive tests done to rule out some metabolic reason for why all my hair was falling out. I looked at all my supplements and medications that I took to see if any of them could be a factor. To my surprise, I discovered that completely unrelated side effects from one medication was probably increasing my depression and anxiety, so I stopped that one (always, always read the fine print, peeps!). I also found out that the melatonin I was taking to help me sleep at night could, in a very small percentage of women, cause permanent hair loss. You can bet I stopped taking that right away. In fact, I pretty much stopped taking everything except my multi-vitamin. Anything that could remotely be a factor, I stopped taking cold turkey.

(word to the wise: always check with your doctor before stopping any medication)

That still left me with the possibility it was stress (my whole life was undergoing restructuring, which is part of why I was having trouble sleeping) or hormones. Simple, goddamn aging. My doctor told me I could try minoxidil, and I was desperate enough to buy a box (despite the fact it can exacerbate hypertension, something I struggle with). Everything I read said minoxidil was the ONLY thing that promoted regrowth of hair, but that you had to keep using it or you would lose what you gained. Also, most of the websites I encountered said forget about the 2% solution designed for women and go with the men’s 5% product.

blinding, widening part: 2014

Have you ever read the side effects? “Unexpected weight gain and the potential to grow facial hair.” I have to say, given the fact that I usually get every side effect in the book, the possibility of looking like a bald, fat, mustachioed man made me quake in my shoes. Not to mention, I discovered minoxidil can is incredibly toxic to your pets! I have a cat who likes to lick my hair when I sleep. I threw the minoxidil away.

Each time I took a shower and watched a pile of hair accumulate in the drain the size of a small mouse, I hoped that maybe it was the hair dye. That maybe I’d burned my scalp or something and my hair all fell out in shock. The loss was certainly most prominent at the crown, where the dye had been on the longest. And so I made the decision to stop coloring my hair.

Oh, I railed at the thought. But given my alternatives, I thought it was the best choice to see if my scalp and my hair would recover. My hair guy offered to do lowlights and highlights to minimize the look of the growing out process, but at this point I didn’t want any more chemicals on my hair at all. I had him cut it into a chin-length bob–NOT my best look, but at least it minimized the thinning layers and gave the impression of being fuller. Of course, when the weather was humid, I looked just like Gilda Radner’s Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Looking in the mirror made me almost physically ill. As time went on, I saw myself as not only balding but also getting progressively grayer. This wasn’t ME. This wasn’t who I am! I’m not an old woman. At the root of my distress was the concern that my husband would no longer find me sexually attractive. Hell, I’m not ready to give up on sex yet! I’m a romance writer, FFS. Sex interests me. I like writing about it, I like what sex can tell you about characters at their most vulnerable and open. I just plain like it. I wasn’t ready to be assigned to the scrap heap.

So yeah, not ready for the entire world to consign me out to pasture. I’m still not. But one day I woke up and said, “Oh for Chrissake, get over yourself. Losing your hair and going gray is not the worst things that can happen to you.”

No, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. But it is something that is very personal and very distressing for virtually everyone facing this situation. And let me tell you, when you are in this mindset, it eclipses everything else in your world. For days, when I first realized that this indeed was really happening, when my hairdresser confirmed my worst fears by walking silently around my chair and finally saying, “We can fix this” in a determined manner, I couldn’t think of anything but the fact that I was losing my hair to some unknown cause.

Chemo? I get that. Hair loss is expected. If you have a great support network, friends will even shave their heads in support of your battle. I can even see where it can be a badge of honor–a symbol of your determination to survive. You are fighting a much bigger fight than hair loss–and yet I have a better inkling of how devastating that portion of your battle can be.

You’re a guy? Sorry, but hair loss is almost the norm for men. I’m not saying it is any less upsetting when it occurs, but you are in good company. I know I sound callous here, but that is my whole point. All I could think about was me, me, me and how this would impact my life.

When it really comes down to it, for me the problem wasn’t so much the hair loss itself as the unexpected nature of it.  It felt unfair. I could accept that I’d gotten heavy, that I was developing wrinkles around my eyes, even that I had gray hair in the first place. Going bald wasn’t on the list of expectations, however, and given how much I’ve compromised on things in the last ten years of life, this was one thing I was unwilling to accept, childish as it sounds.

Especially since we have so many negative reinforcers for older women in this society. Sure, we’ve got such strong positives as Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Jamie Lee Curtis, but most older actresses are all about making 40 the new 20, or whatever the phrase is now. They *have* to, unless they want to be relegated to playing the mom, or the school principle.

Add to that how many times we see younger actresses paired with older actors on shows: on two of my favorite shows, the lead actress was in her twenties while the lead actor was in his late thirties, early forties. Even dating sites such as OkCupid release stats that pretty much prove that when women reach a certain age, they are considered undesirable–while men of that same age demographic are still seeking out women twenty years younger than they are.

It took me a long time to reach a point of acceptance, but I finally did. I am not responsible for whether my husband, or the bag boy, or the hot young client thinks I am attractive or not. That’s their bailiwick. I can’t make anyone else find me attractive. What matters is whether or not I think I’m attractive, and the answer to that has been a surprising no for a while now. Long before I stopped coloring my hair. Coloring my hair was a means of clinging to this ideal of what attractiveness meant to me–where nearly every woman over forty on television has long flowing locks of honey-touched hair. I keep forgetting that these actresses are in the business of looking beautiful. That they have full time hairdressers and stylists, and the money to spend on looking good, and when all else fails the magazine industry Photoshops them into the semblance of youth. Given how few strong roles there are for women on television, I can understand the need to provide the industry with what it wants if you want to be an actress. But in my case, I was clinging to this false sense of security. I couldn’t really be old, now could I? Not as long as I could pass for ten or fifteen years younger. Not as long as I still occasionally got carded. Right?

The Great Hair Disaster caused me to stop dyeing my hair for about a year and a half, but it made no difference to the thickness of my hair. As a matter of fact, my gray hairs were thinner and finer than my colored strands, and after giving my hair a good long break from coloring, I went back to dyeing it again. Why? Because I liked how I looked better with dyed hair. I looked so tired and washed out with my dull, dead-mouse-graying hair color.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned in my hair journey: once you rule out the other causes of hair loss, over 50 % of adult women will experience hair loss for hormonal reasons. About the time of the Great Hair Disaster, I’d stopped using birth control pills after a lifetime of being on them for dysmenorrhea. All the women in in my family have developed thinning hair as they hit their forties. I never knew this was so widespread or such an issue until it became personal for me. And yes, harsh chemicals, such as dyes and perms, definitely are a factor in hair loss as well. So lucky me, I’m not alone in this. Thinning hair in women is far more pervasive than I ever realized. I only wish someone had warned me a long time ago. It doesn’t seem to be a topic women discuss readily.

So what are the solutions? Are there any fixes for this?

You’re probably not going to like the answer, which is: not really.

You can slow it down. If you’re not willing to use minoxidil (and I’m not) there are few proven hair loss reversal remedies out there. You need to start early because once your hair follicles shrink and shut down, there is no reversing that. Lady Alopecia runs as website that is a font of useful information about products. Here’s what I’ve tried and what works for me:

Supplements: Biotin, hair and nail supplements, multi-vitamins, etc:

Viviscal is a supplement touted to promote hair growth. I haven’t managed to take it long enough to see a difference because it seems to make my face break out (but a lot of things do, so take that with a grain of salt). Not recommended for those with shellfish allergies or celiac disease.

I take a wide variety of supplements for my poor nail growth (also a side effect of hormonal changes, I suspect. I used have nails with the strength of Wolverine’s adamantium…). You can read about them here. While I think they’ve helped my nail growth somewhat, I’m less certain about the effects on my hair. When you do a number of different things at the same time, it’s hard to examine the benefits of a particular product.

There are a LOT of supplements out there. I’ve looked into many, only to decide against using them because of the ingredient list or because of the unproven results. The supplement industry is poorly regulated, and many products out there don’t even included the listed amount of ingredients on their label. Buyer beware in this department.

Shampoos and Conditioners:

Anti-DHT shampoos are recommended the most for controlling hair loss. There are a wide variety of products out there which claim to be DHT blockers, but only a few actually have the ingredients shown to be effective. DHT is a hormone which is a factor in hair loss. From WebMD: 

DHT stands for dihydrotestosterone, a hormone produced in both men and women by the male sex hormone testosterone. If you have a genetic predisposition to hair loss, certain receptors in your scalp’s hair follicles will encourage DHT to bind to them. Then, DHT stimulates an enzyme to shrink the follicle.

In most ciswomen, estrogen levels offset the natural amount of testosterone present. As your hormones change in output (for whatever reason), your DHT levels have nothing to counteract them. Remember what I said earlier? There is no reversing the follicle shrinkage once it occurs.

I was using Pura D’Or original Gold label shampoo for over a year, but then they changed the label, removing the DHT blocking description. The website says it prevents hair loss through reduction in hair breakage, which makes me suspect it no longer contains any DHT blocking activity (if it ever did).

Lady Alopecia recommends the Nioxin brand line of products, and I have used those as well. The shampoo definitely has a tingling effect on my scalp, but I feel as though the products make my hair too soft. Without a certain amount of body, the weight of my hair causes my scalp to be even more apparent, so I like a certain amount of texture to my hair, not slick and shiny like a seal. What I like about the product line, however, is a tiered approach to your hair thinning and what they recommend using. They also make products specifically for dyed hair. Apparently they are now making a shampoo containing minoxidil, however, so read your labels.

Thicker, Fuller, Hair Shampoo and Conditioner: The original product with the “cell-u-plex” ingredient has been discontinued. Again, making me wonder about the value of the replacement product. The new products is also listed as a “hair strengthening” shampoo, which goes back to breakage, not anti-DHT. I like the fact the conditioner is extremely lightweight and doesn’t weigh my hair down. Not sure I will buy the newer version though, but Women’s Health does list it among the products in their 2020 post on thinning hair. As a matter of fact, I’m going to give that list a hard look here. I suspect I will be trying some new products when I run out of the current ones.

Diet:

A hard one for me, as anyone who knows me knows I’m a carb junkie. As in PopTarts, not kale. Dr. Gundry, who has gained recognitions touting a diet that eliminates lectins (including bell peppers, seeds, peanuts, and beans), claims not only will you lose weight on this diet, but your hair will regrow. Call me skeptical, but willing to look into it more. Given I need to clean up my act there in general, it can’t hurt, even if it doesn’t help with hair growth.

Sugar is a huge culprit in aging in general. We all know about the risks of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and dementia, stroke and heart disease, but when life is stressful and there are doughnuts in the break room, it’s easy to set those concerns aside as something that will happen to someone else, or later in your own life. But did you know sugar affects the cross-linkages of collagen in your skin? It’s one of the marked causes of sagging skin and wrinkles. Now my fear of looking old is at war with my love of sweets.

The sad thing is, I can look at 2020 and see what a toll it has taken on my appearance. I feel as though I’ve aged a decade in this past year due to stress and bad coping mechanisms. I wouldn’t be surprised if sugar played a role in hair thinning too. If I tell myself this often enough, I might actually do something about my diet at long last.

Cut your hair:

What? You heard me. Those long flowing locks with the center part only accentuates the widening of that part and the thinning of your hair. Give up the look you’ve been hanging onto for the last decade and embrace something that doesn’t emphasize your thinning hair nearly as much. Remember that pixie cut I couldn’t wear when I was younger? I can now because I have a third of the hair I used to have. Bonus feature: not having a defined part makes the hair loss less noticeable as well as increasing the time needed between hair coloring from every three weeks to every six or so.

Hair Color and Hair Products:

I’ve stopped using drugstore box dyes. I’m not going to the salon, either, due to Covid-19. I’m ordering my hair color from e-salon, and I have to say I’m not only thrilled with the color and coverage, but my hair feels healthier and softer, too. I’ve given up the dramatic reds and too-harsh-for-my-coloring brunettes and have settled on a dark blonde that hides my gray nicely when it starts to grow out. But I can tweak the color with a simple request: make it browner, redder, etc.

Yes, the cost is a bit more, but given I’m only coloring my hair every 8 weeks instead of 3, and the quality of the product is better, it’s worth it to me.

Be careful what hair products you use to style thinning hair, however. Your favorite mousses and gels frequently have a lot of alcohol, and even if they aren’t damaging to your hair, they can clump strands together, emphasizing areas of thinning.

I used to let my hair air dry, but now I use a hair dryer with a diffuser set on low to give me the volume I desire without excessively drying out my hair.

Hair fillers and fibers:

These are itty bitty fibers that you sprinkle into your hairline, increasing the thickness of the single strand as well as coloring in your scalp. They tend to stay put until you wash your hair as well, though I haven’t tested them through the heat of a summer in the Southern US. What can I say, though? I’ve been pleased with the effect.

Wigs and toppers:

Yes. Check them out. I bought my first wig when I was unable to get my hair cut for seven months during the pandemic. Before my hair loss, going without a cut for that long would have left me looking like Cousin It. The very fact that seven months without a trim resulted in me looking like a shaggy Maria Von Trapp is another indication of how slowly my hair grows these days.

Frustrated with how unkempt I looked, I found a wig in a cute style that matched my own color nicely, and I challenge anyone to have told the difference. Don’t want to go for a full wig? Definitely check out toppers. The difference in my appearance is amazing. Doing what makes you look and feel amazing is okay. We wear makeup, right? Or maybe you don’t, but you still buy clothing that looks nice on you. Wigs are an accessory, like eye glasses or shoes. Don’t talk yourself out of doing something that makes you feel good about your appearance because it somehow feels like cheating if it isn’t your own hair. It’s not.

Last but not least, the only other product proven to affect hair loss: laser therapy.

WebMD’s jury is out on the effectiveness of cold laser for preventing hair loss and encouraging growth. I can only tell you about my experience.

It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It takes a long time to see results (six months or more) That makes it hard to do on a trial basis. I shelled out the big bucks for an iRestore because I knew I wouldn’t use a comb for the necessary period of time and I could read or watch TV wearing the cap for the 25 minutes needed for treatment. It’s relatively safe (just don’t shine the laser in your eyes!! and don’t use if you take photosensitizing medications). My biggest problem is remembering to do it regularly–I have to put it on a scheduler.

Results? I am seeing hair regrowth but NOT from the shiny, dead follicles where no hair is growing anyway. It seems that I am getting new growth around my hairline where there are still active follicles, and I’m also noticing double strands of hair coming out of the same follicle. Even more interesting, the new hair strands are not gray and are much denser than the gray ones. Overall, I would say hair regrowth is slight, but my shedding seems a lot less, so I’ll take it.

It is very difficult to get a non-blurry selfie of the top of your head. I apologize for the amateurish images. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that’s a lot of gray”, it is. I’m definitely not coloring my hair as often during the pandemic. Most of the time, I can gt away with it but I wanted to show you the new growth.

So there you have it. If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is this:

Hair thinning in women is more common than you think.

The only person who decides if you are attractive is you–and you’re allowed to do what it takes to make you confident and happy with your appearance.

This shouldn’t be a topic we shy away from. We should be having these discussions with our children so they aren’t blindsided by normal aging changes.

It’s not too late to decide how you want to look and feel from this moment forward.

Be safe. Be well. And most importantly, be happy in your own skin.