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 scalpโ€™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.

Public Use of Face Masks May Slow the Spread of COVID-19 #masks4all

I need one of those Star Trek memes where Dr. McCoy is speaking to Captain Kirk. I’d make him say, “Damn it, Jim! Wear a mask!”  If you make me one I’ll be forever in your debt. Extra points if you put a surgical mask on McCoy.

I posted earlier this week about my struggles as a freaked out, middle-aged, high-risk woman in the middle of a deadly pandemic. The post was largely about things I did to help me beat down my fears and get on with my life, particularly since I work in an essential job and cannot stay home in isolation where I would dearly love to be. But one of the things I wrote about in that post was how I’d come across some information regarding how wearing wearing masks in public on a national scale might have significantly contributed to the slowdown of COVID-19 in certain countries. This impressed me so much, I’ve begun wearing a mask for work and in public for all essential errands. It impressed me so much I ordered a sewing machine, and though I haven’t used one since I was a teenager (to disastrous effect then), I am determined to make my own masks as soon as I can safely get some fabric and the rest of the things I need to do so.

But today I came across another video by Jeremy Howard where he demonstrates how to make an effective mask out of an old T-shirt–and how to make it more effective with just a simple household item. I was SO impressed with this, I have to share it with you right now.

But here’s the thing. My social outreach is pretty small and I think this is possibly the single-most important thing we as individuals can do to slow down COVID-19  in our nation and around the world. Perhaps even protect our friends and families. So please share this information as far and wide as you can. Let as many people know over as many platforms as you use. I don’t care if you share this page or the link directly, but we must get the word out: #masks4all

 

An Anxious Woman’s Methods of Staying Calm in the Midst of COVID-19 Panic

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I want to preface this first by saying most posts exhorting me to be calm when the situation is frankly terrifying annoy the snot out of me, so I understand if you are already a little peeved from the beginning here. I get it. I think we’re royally screwed in a major way, the more so depending on whether or not you live in a country run by incompetent, criminally negligent assholes who are more concerned with lining their pockets and slashing regulations during a worldwide catastrophe than trying to halt a pandemic. Ironically, if the yahoos in charge had put the lives of the world population FIRST, the economy would have been better protected, but that’s a rant for another day.

I also have to share with you the fact that the threat of a pandemic is one of my personal bugaboos: the reason I can’t watch zombie movies or anything about epidemics. I’ve been terrified of things like that my entire life, so no Walking Dead or Contagion for me, thank you very much.

All this is to say that my fear is real. I’m not denying the risk to us all. I think we’re in big trouble. I don’t think things will just “go back to normal” in a few weeks or months. I think if we survive the pandemic itself (and that seems iffy for a large majority of us), then we will have to deal with shortages and disruptions of supply chains, the loss of our medical personnel, and people without the knowledge or means to grow their own food, and well-armed people who will likely take what they want. Wow. I’m not doing a very good job of decreasing anyone’s anxiety here, am I?

Deep breath.

Okay. The point to this is that many of us, myself included, were already at the top of our anxiety charts before this came up. We were stretched too thin, taking on too many responsibilities, working too hard, and putting ourselves last on the list every time. I’d been planning to write about my job burnout before the pandemic struck. I mention it now because this crisis coming on top of all the daily fires I had to put out sent me spiraling into a tailspin of anxiety. The kind that spikes your blood pressure, that crushes your head in a vise, that makes it hard to catch your breath. Is that panic or is it COVID? Who knows?

Well, if you’re not running a fever, the odds are it’s panic. I’ve had to reach for my anxiety meds more than once this week, though having a few days off in a row where I didn’t have to risk exposure to the general public helped a lot. Feeling stir-crazy on self-isolation? I find I’ve been able to cope much better by having a few days where I wasn’t on high-alert constantly.

So let me share with you some practical advice from the trenches, so to speak.

It’s okay to be scared. Most of us with any sense are. Stop beating yourself up for being terrified. Just remember that a lot of people around you are scared too, so be kind to them as well as yourself. I can’t emphasize this enough: STAY HOME if you possibly can. But if you MUST go out, treat your delivery people, grocery store attendants, bank clerks, pharmacists, etc with kindness and patience. It’s not their fault. Treat your customers with the understanding they are panicked as well. Also, WEAR A MASK. More on that below.

But the main thing here is there is no shame in being scared right now. Maybe you need medication to calm down. That’s okay too. Just be conscious of the other people in your life and allow them room to be scared or depressed as well. If they are always being strong for you, then you aren’t helping them.

Prepare as best you can, then let it go. Hopefully by now, you’ve done what you can with regards to laying in supplies. You’re stocked on acetaminophen and cough meds. You’re taking your temperature twice a day and self-isolating if you get sick. My advice from this point is to limit the news as much as possible. Check in twice a day, much like you take your temperature, but then turn it off. Many of you are home now with time on your hands: resist winding yourself into a tizzy over things beyond your control. Every time I start to feel a bit calmer about things, I check in with the news and I’m back to panic mode again. I don’t think it’s good for our immune systems to be geared up like that all the time. So turn off social media and the news once you’ve caught up on the important stuff–like what the restrictions are in your area.

Find some meditation apps, play your favorite music, explore some museums online, but stop haunting the news threads. (Side note: If you are taking MAOI medications (as many prescription antidepressants are) find out what OTC fever and cold medications you can and cannot take. NOW.) Remember what I said about being on high-alert constantly? It’s bad for your ability to cope.

Social Distancing is PHYSICAL DISTANCING. If you’re not sick or super high risk, and if you are physically capable of doing so, you should get out in your garden or walk the dog in your neighborhood. Sing. Dance. Move. When we become anxious, our bodies turn to flight or fight mode, and with nothing to battle, we direct that energy inward on ourselves. Movement of some kind can help diffuse this energy and redirect it into a better outlet. BUT, and this is a big but, this doesn’t mean you pile the family in the car and take them to the local playground! It doesn’t mean crowding down at the beach or causing traffic jams on walking paths or hiking trails. If someone isn’t going to give you six feet of clearance, avoid going in that direction. And please keep in mind not everyone can see you!

Give a person with a service dog a wide berth–their dogs aren’t trained for social distancing and it’s up to YOU to pay attention to the people around you. Better to stay home than to endanger yourself or someone else if you can’t maintain distance. Social distancing means STAY HOME if you don’t need to go out. It does not mean run to the store because you want Twizzlers, or take the dog in for routine vaccinations, or pop in to the nail salon. Come to think of it, if you have acrylic or SNS powder on your nails, will a pulse oximeter work? I don’t think so…  Bottom line: I can’t stay home because YOU won’t stay home. So just do it, okay?

Wash your hands. Yes, you’ve heard this. Soap and hot water, 20 seconds or longer. Frequently. Soap disrupts the lipid layer of the virus better than anything else, better than hand sanitizer. But sanitizer is better than nothing. You need to wash or sanitize your hands after you touch ANY public surface: gas pumps, door handles, keypads, etc. Before you touch your face or things inside your house. Change out of your work clothes if you’re not staying in, and shower before you interact with the rest of your family. I wash my hands before leaving work. I use my elbows to open the doors. I use hand sanitizer when I get to my car. When I was still going to the store, I sanitized my hands again after leaving the store and before I got out of the car at home too. And then washed my hands as soon as I got inside the house. I also wash my hands after every interaction with a customer. Yes. That often.

Set up a support network with family and friends. Email chains, chat groups, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Zoom. I find I don’t need a lot of contact until I do, if you know what I mean. Make sure you check in with someone once a day. If nothing else, you’ll know you’re not alone in all of this. I’ve also found myself contacting relatives I haven’t spoken to in years. Let people know you care about them. I can tolerate a LOT of alone time. I love being alone! But even I can get too much into my head sometimes.

Talking with someone can break that cycle, even if you’re both scared. Be respectful of other’s fears though. Someone may need to NOT talk about the pandemic when you’re bursting to share your concerns. I belong to several groups and for many of them, we’ve created separate channels for voicing our fears so not everyone in the group is exposed to our anxiety. At the same time, I know there’s a channel I can do to where the conversation will be light and fun when I need it.

Can’t go to your convention or conference? Do something anyway. Consider an online version! I was supposed to go to the ATA Spring Writer’s Retreat this weekend. The organizers wisely saw the writing on the wall and converted the entire thing to online sessions. It’s been fabulous–but you know what? I had a hard time making myself attend some of the sessions. At first it was because I wanted to wallow on the sofa watching another 37 episodes of Monk. I couldn’t focus on the material in the sessions. But when I made myself join the Zoom groups, it was like purposely doing exercise: something I had to force myself to do that made me feel better for the action and ended up with me being glad I did it. For a couple of hours, I completely forgot about the world crisis. I learned things and shared things and made plans for the future–something that has more power than you realize.

Making plans means you believe there will be a future, and there is great power in that kind of belief. My point is if there was some event you were looking forward to attending that’s been cancelled, look for alternatives. If you think you’re too frazzled to concentrate on whatever project you are working on, give it a try anyway. You might get more out of it than you think.

Along those lines, I’m also planning to put in a garden this year. Okay, I’ve been planning to do this for the last ten years, but I’ve gone as far as to order seeds this time. See? Practical planning for the future is helpful to my state of mind.

Not feeling productive? Don’t worry about it. No, seriously, I realize that seems like the reverse of what I just said, but if all you can manage is Netflix 10 hours a day while eating Sugar Pops dry out of the box (not that I would know anything about that…), that’s okay. It’s okay if this is your coping mechanism of choice. Don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t “making the most” of your time to finish your opus or write the equivalent of King Lear (as Shakespeare has been said to do when quarantined during the plague). We’re all doing the best we can during a terrible crisis. It’s okay. And you know what else is okay? Not wanting to watch or read your usual comfort tropes.

There’s a reason why I’m watching back-to-back episodes of Monk and Psych. I have reasonable expectations that nothing in these shows will hurt me too badly, and yet I’m not so invested in the characters that watching the programs will somehow taint the show for me in the future by association with this horrible time. I’m not “spoiling” anything I love by linking it to my almost toxic fears. These shows are also just unfamiliar enough that they keep me engaged and distracted. So if you can’t bring yourself to read your favorite books or watch your favorite movies, it’s okay. I understand.

Wear a mask in public. So I know the CDC is saying don’t wear masks. And I know that our medical professionals are so woefully under-prepared for this pandemic that television medical dramas are sending their props to hospitals, so no one wants us buying up all the face masks our medical staff desperately needs. But there’s been a study out of the Czech Republic that shows when they went from zero masks to 100% usage in 10 days, they were able to halt the spread of new COVID-19 cases. They made their own! So if you already have the materials, think about making masks–as many as you can. Do NOT make them if you are sick, and after you make the first one, wear it as you make the rest. You need to keep the mask making process as clean as possible. Donate to hospitals. Give them to your friends and family. Because we’re probably looking at 18 months before a vaccine is available and we’re going to have to go back into the workplace before then.

Watch Jeremy Howard’s presentation on YouTube explaining the importance of #masks4all. I spent some time researching DIY mask making this afternoon and it’s a practical thing I can do to try to keep myself and my loved ones healthy–and it’s something we ALL should do. But here’s the thing: don’t run out to the nearest fabric store to buy supplies! NO SHOPPING. Talk to your crafty friends! They’ve been dragon hoarding materials for YEARS looking for the perfect opportunity to use them. CRAFTMAKERS ASSEMBLE! Having something concrete and useful to do during this time of crisis has been one of the best things for my head.

Here are the best videos I’ve seen so far. There’s one for if you have no sewing machine, as well as a very detailed one for if you own a machine. The best is by the doctor that’s embedded here (I recommend this if you have a high risk job or if you’re making masks to send to hospitals) but remember, any mask is better than none.

 

The important thing here is my anxiety and need to prepare is being put to GOOD USE here. It’s a practical redirection of my energy that has the potential to make a difference as well. Not the sewing type? Me neither. But I’m going to learn to be.

The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

A few years ago, I used to take a 30-40 minute walk on a near-daily basis. It was rare for me to miss a day, even when it was bitterly cold. The thing most likely to deter me was extreme heat and humidity (which we get more often than not now). Even then, I made it out there most days.

It wasn’t easy. I work long hours, and in the short time between getting home and going to bed, I have to feed all the livestock, cook and eat dinner, do the routine chores, and hopefully get a little writing done. A daily walk wasn’t virtuous on my part–it was necessary. I had a big high-drive dog who needed the daily exercise to keep him sane enough to wait until my day off to take him for a longer hike. The only way I’d get it done was to walk in the door and go straight to his leash–if I didn’t do it right away on getting home, the chances were much slimmer I’d take him out for the length of time he needed. Especially, after dinner, when exhaustion would kick in. But I made it work because it was necessary.

Fast forward two years: my beloved but difficult dog Sampson succumbed to cancer, and Remington, my current big dog, though young is made of less intense stuff. Remy is also even more heat intolerant than I am, which is saying something. Then back in January, I injured my foot, which exacerbated an old knee problem, and the next thing I knew, I was no longer walking every day. By the time the foot/knee problem improved, I’d gotten out of the habit. I’d gained weight and my fitness was down as well. Now it was the hottest part of the summer and it was just easier to throw the ball for the dog in the shaded yard where he could jump in and out of the water trough at will than it was to force myself to do that daily walk again.

Likewise minding my food choices. See, I have a mild form of acne rosacea, which has gotten progressively worse with age. In my case, while stress is a player, food is definitely a trigger for me. Which means many of the foods I could get away with eating when I was younger are no longer an option. And yet, sometimes I forget that. No, scratch that. Sometimes I choose to ignore the truth. It’s especially hard for me around the holiday season. For me, the worse triggers are cinnamon (sob), cheese (double sob), and wine (bawling now), but also tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (anything from the nightshade family), vinegar, and citrus. I recently discovered that people with acne rosacea frequently have hypertension too (which makes sense, as rosacea is a vascular problem), which means I’ve had to take wine off the list permanently. Along with caffeine, it sends my blood pressure into the stratosphere. I also seem to be sensitive to gluten and peanut butter, staples of my diet for most of my life. No cheese, no snickerdoodles or apple pie, no wine, no coffee, no chocolate (yep, there’s caffeine there) no bread, no pasta, no peanut butter? Is there really anything left? Anything left I want to eat that is?

Recently on a trip with friends, I choose to ignore my ‘rules’. After all, I’d broken them over and over again without major penalties, right? Only the combined effect of abusing so many rules at once was two days of feeling like crap while I had a major rosacea and hypertensive flare, which left me unable to enjoy my time with my friends. In response, I made a strict effort to eat according to the rules as I knew them, limiting myself largely to roasted chicken and massive salads (no dressing, limited tomatoes) for the rest of my trip.

What I discovered was not only did I calm my current BP and rosacea flare, but I felt better than I’d felt for a while. It made me realize that all that “cheating”, while it hadn’t erupted into an outright flare, was keeping me from feeling my best. From wanting to take the dogs on evening walks. From wanting to do anything more than flop on the couch when I got home from work. Even from writing. Because let me tell you, when you feel like crap, it’s much much harder to be creative.

You know what else is hard? Picking back up your good habits when you’ve fallen off the “habit” wagon. Just like exercise (or writing), practicing a good habit is a muscle that gets stronger with use and weaker with disuse. And when you’re already tired and not feeling well, finding the fortitude to stick to the changes that will make you feel better again isn’t easy. I come back to this point again and again in life: the realization that my current (minor) health issues now must dictate my eating choices, something I’ve resisted mightily ever since I was diagnosed. I drum my heels and wail in protest like a two year old, and yet the only one I’m hurting in all this is me.

I also know without a doubt that if I don’t start, I’ll lose even more ground than I already have. With fitness, with my health, with my writing… and even though I don’t feel as though I have the time to chip away at making these habits part of my life again (seriously, by the time you walk the dogs, and go shopping to keep fresh food in the house, or food prep in advance, and don’t forget that yoga/meditation/prayer–30 minutes here and there adds up to hours you must carve out of your daily schedule), if I want to see change in my life, I have to be the one to make changes.

I used to believe it took 21 days to create a new habit, good or bad, and honestly, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s not even a month. Anyone can manage 21 days. But the truth of the matter is this is a misleading conception: It takes a minimum of 21 days to effectively instill a habit. It can take up to 90 days of regular (ie daily) engagement to make a habit stick.

At first glance, that seems discouraging, I know. After all, I’ve been telling myself I need to get my act in gear for years now. I’ll try for a few weeks–sometimes, depending on how hectic my life is only a few days. Invariably, I slide. But really, the only difference is time. We’ve been taught by too many advertising campaigns to Expect Results in 2 Weeks or Less! It’s just not true, whether we’re trying to institute new habits or return to old ones. No matter what we want to do, whether it’s to change our eating habits or get back into some form of regular activity, or learn a new craft, or improve your current skills–the key is regular practice of the thing in question. So really, the long time course to creating a habit is a good thing. It means I can keep trying and not give up.

I took this photo today and it made me so happy. ๐Ÿ™‚

November will soon be upon us, and I know many will dive into NaNoWriMo as a result. Not me, I know that particular pressure isn’t one I need in my life right now. However, I fully intend to take advantage of all the great articles and conversations surrounding NaNo, and hope to make daily writing another one of those habits I pick back up again.

Today, I started with throwing out some of the trigger foods I know are problematic for me. Others, like the unopened jars of peanut butter, I’ll donate to food banks. I also took the dogs for a nice long walk in the woods, and though I’m a little stiff tonight, I managed without the pain I feared the activity would trigger. I ate a relatively healthy dinner too. Now I’m going to sit down with the WIP.

You don’t have to run a half marathon, go on a radical diet, or force 10 K words out of yourself in a single afternoon to call it progress. Slow, steady, and regular wins the habit-making race.

Walking the Fine Line of Burnout

Let me start off by saying first of all, this is not meant to be a whiny post about how I wish I could quit my Evil Day Job and spend all my time writing books (although I do). Nor is it a contest to see whose job sucks the most. Since I’m writing this post, chances are I’ll think it’s mine, no matter what you say. ๐Ÿ™‚

It’s a post about walking that fine line between being able to do your job to the best of your ability and burnout–and what to do about it.

See, I think most of us are closer to burnout than we think. It’s almost a given these days. Who hasn’t heard of the newly minted lawyer or the medical resident who is worked to the bone as some sort of rite of passage, putting in over a hundred hours a week into a job that demands nothing less because they think that’s how it’s done. That’s how you advance, become partner, a senior staffer, move up in management. That one day you’ll have the corner office and the healthy paycheck and you’ll be able to catch up on sleep or your kid’s recitals or afford that really awesome vacation.

Only it’s never enough, is it? Because (at least in the US), our workplaces demand more and more from us every year, expecting us to get more done with less support staff, improve the bottom line with fewer rewards. Accept a “promotion” that is largely a title for doing the work we’re already performing. Forcing senior, experienced employees out because they can hire two new graduates for what they have to pay the veteran employee. I recently overheard employees at my local grocery discussing how everyone’s hours have been slashed to just under full time so the national chain can avoid paying benefits like health insurance. At the same time, the company is replacing cashiers with automated systems for checkout, and eating the cost of shoplifting instead of keeping the live people on staff.

And we accept it because we’re scared we’ll be the next on the chopping block.

I live in a rural area where work is hard to come by. I have a mortgage and bills to pay, which as I age, increasingly includes medical bills. I’m lucky to have a FT job which contributes significantly to the household economy. I know this. And at the same time, I resent the degree to which the job owns me.

I resent putting in 10 hour days and having that never be enough. I resent the advent of mobile technology making you accessible to your employer 24/7 with demands you fix something or take care of something on what should be your down time. Twenty years ago, my employer would have paid my health insurance in full as a perk of the job. Now I’m expected to contribute $400/month out of my paycheck every month to retain coverage.

I resent coming home at the end of a long day irritable and fried, unable to interact pleasantly with those I love. By the time I get to the house, I’m too tired to make reasonable decisions about what to have for dinner, let alone find the energy to work on the current story. I don’t like the person I am right now. And yet I scarcely know how to change.

It’s a little thing, but one of the dictates of my workplace is that management gives me the next day’s assignments before I’m finished the current day’s work so I can review them in advance. They take this one step further in that I receive the workload for the day after my day off as well. The end result is my inbox is never empty. I never get to check off the day’s assignments as complete because there is always more sitting in my inbox.

Small wonder I dream about work as though I’ve never left, nightmares in which I look out the office window to see long lines of people waiting to be seen, like the lines outside Best Buy before a Black Friday sale. I never get to say I’m done for the day.

For a while now, I’ve been saying I’m on the edge of burnout, because in my head, “burned out” is a state of non-functionality, where you are incapable of doing your job, one step away from a nervous breakdown. Not willing to declare myself a charred cinder, I admit to being close just the same. And I have to admit there are days when the idea of a nervous breakdown sounds good if it means weeks spent in an asylum with nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling.

But I’m starting to think the gradient toward burnout is more subtle than you’d suspect. Whatever it is, I think I’m nearly there.

But if I am, then what? I still have bills to pay. I can’t just lie on the couch and read books all day, though I’d dearly love to give that a shot for a few weeks.

Which was why I was glad to stumble across Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. Various people on my social media feeds had been talking about it, and though I didn’t want to admit to actual burnout, I felt I was close enough to consider reading it.

I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’m already of the opinion almost every woman I know could benefit from reading it. Not just those suffering from near burnout, either from work or their family lives, but also women struggling with PTSD, or relentless perfectionism, or just the demands that society seems to place on most of us. Men, too, with their struggle to meet society’s needs as well as those of their families, all while holding their emotions tightly in check.

According to the book, the biggest factors in burnout stem from never completing the cycle: as cavemen, if we were attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, we either survived the attack or we died. If we died, our stress was over. If we survived, there was a huge sense of relief and a celebration among our other cave-dwellers as  we shared our story of our exciting near-miss. The adrenaline spiked, our muscles expended the energy in our survival, and then it was over.

In modern society, it is never over. The saber-toothed tigers are always with us, snapping at our heels, demanding we run faster, jump higher to escape–only we never do. We nap fitfully on the ledge outside our caves, always ready to leap up and run again.

Small wonder we struggle with weight issues here in the US. Our adrenal glands are on maximum overload all the time. And how do we handle stress? We eat. It’s a physiologic drive for survival because we always feel under threat.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I can change things given I have so little say so in how management tells me to do my job. But change I must. I can’t keep dozing on the edge of my ledge, longing for the day when I’ll be able to rest knowing I am in a saber-toothed tiger-free zone.

So while I take most self-help books with a grain of salt, this one is resonating with me.

Fighting “Productivity” Culture

I work weekends, and my husband doesn’t, which frequently leads to me coming home on Saturdays and asking how his day went and what did he do? Often, he sheepishly tells me he didn’t do anything, and then he apologizes.

“What are you sorry for?” My asking about his day isn’t meant to make him feel bad. I’m just showing interest in how he spent his time while I was gone.

Invariably, he says, “I feel like I should be doing something productive.”

I know what he means.

I work 10-12 hour days. My “free” time is so constrained that I feel I must get the most out of it. The dogs have to get some exercise every day, and if I don’t ride the horse enough each week, it’s not safe for either of us. I want to finish my current WIP (and I’m so close! Nearly there!) but I also need to write blog posts, work on my newsletter, schedule social media postings, write some Bookbub reviews, and read or watch all those marketing posts and videos jamming my inbox. Weekends are when I try to do a little meal prep for the coming week, which usually means a grocery run, and then there’s trying to cram in yoga and meditation to manage my stress levels. I have so much to do on any given day, I feel as though I can’t waste any of it, especially if that means just sitting around watching TV or reading a book, or God forbid, taking a nap.

Too often I come home from work completely fried, unable to make healthy dinner choices because my decision-making capacity is used up for the day. Sometimes I can barely muster enough energy to watch TV or read a book. Because of my tight schedule, I have to plan everything pretty far in advance, and sometimes I resent the hell out of that. Most days I have to pick and choose what I’m not going to get done, and I feel resentment and guilt over that, too. 

This morning I was scheduled to meet friends to go horseback riding, but I’d slept badly the night before, and had only just dropped off to sleep when the alarm went off. The day dawned in the upper 20s with the threat of light snow–and it would still be close to freezing by the time we mounted. Normally I love riding in brisk weather, but I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I texted my friends and weenied out. I just didn’t want to go.

More and more, this is becoming a default choice for me, even for things I love doing. I realize it isn’t necessarily a good thing–I’m missing out on activities I enjoy and spending time with people I like–but the truth of the matter is many of the things I do for fun don’t feel like fun right now. They feel like another obligation, another task that Must Be Done. Sundays can be the worst because I’m all-too conscious of the coming work week ahead and am already dreading it.

I’m reminded of the article I read about a Search and Rescue dog whose handler inadvertently burned him out by taking him to the golf course every weekend and letting the dog search for missing golf balls. The handler thought he was giving his dog a little fun, but the dog took searching for the missing balls as seriously as his ‘day job.’ In short, the handler never let his dog take a break and just be a dog.

That’s how I’m starting to feel about the things I do for fun. It’s my cue that I’m overbooked, over-committed, and completely exhausted.

This past weekend, a friend of mine confessed she was feeling guilty for not doing anything except sitting on the couch watching TV. The thing is, I know (like me) life has thrown her a series of hard blows in a row, finishing up with a debilitating illness. That sort of thing takes it out of you, and yet we live and work in a culture that expects us to shake off everything and keep going. This is so ingrained that we expect it of ourselves as well. We expect to be doing something “productive” at all times and feel bad when we don’t.

Especially here in the US, we burn the candles at both ends, scrape up the wax, slap it back on the wick, and burn it some more. We’re penalized at work if we take sick days and we’re weirdly proud of how little vacation time we take. You’d think if anyone understood the value of keeping the staff healthy and minimizing the spread of disease, it would be medical professionals, but I once had a conversation with a nurse at my doctor’s office about the fact there was an employee’s notice on the wall about staying home if they had a fever–and yet she pointed out to me they got written up if they missed too much time off work.

We’re a culture of do more with less means and yet we don’t understand why our bricks are substandard because we ran out of straw a long time ago.

This weekend, my friend needed to sit on the couch and veg out with some comfort-level movie-watching. Mentally, emotionally, physically, that was exactly what she needed to do. Know what happens to fields that constantly bear the same crops without letting the soil go through fallow periods? The dirt becomes depleted of nutrients, the quality of the crops goes down, and eventually, nothing grows.

So stop beating yourself up for those “lazy” Sundays. Doze on the couch with the cat. Read a book. Take a long walk or lie in a hammock and do nothing. It’s not a sin. It’s allowed. More importantly–it’s necessary to your mental and creative health.

Sometimes you climb the mountain. Sometimes you admire the view.

 

A Resolution I Must Keep

At this time of year, there are a lot of blog posts about getting fit, losing weight, joining a gym, etc. Especially after several solid weeks of overindulgence over the holidays, and the prospect of starting clean with the New Year, many of us formulate grandiose resolutions about reclaiming the bodies of our youth–even if we never had the ‘best’ body before. Even if we never share these resolutions out loud. It’s a promise we make to ourselves. This time, this year will be better than the last. And part of being better means looking our best, right?

For years I’ve been muttering about needing to clean up my diet. Yes, I need to lose some weight–my BMI has crept up into the ‘overweight’ category–but because that weight is evenly distributed and because I am a relatively active person, I didn’t give it much thought unless I needed to get into a swimsuit–and I could find lots of reasons to avoid doing that. Heartburn and digestive issues were annoyances that made me consider changing my eating habits more than once, but my hectic work schedule made it more important for me to to grab something fast and portable than to choose a more healthy meal. The critical thing was to keep going, keep moving. Work at the pace demanded of me.

I wasn’t going to give up an entire afternoon a week of my precious time toward meal prep. I’m a terribly picky eater, so meal services tend to be a waste of money for me. My weight wasn’t keeping me from doing the things I needed to do–in fact, most people looked askance at me when I said I needed to drop some weight, and so I kept putting off doing anything about my health and eating habits until my body said, “No more.”

First it was caffeine. I had to stop drinking any caffeinated drinks about 5 years ago. A cup of tea would send my BP through the roof. Now I’m at the point where I can’t even have a piece of chocolate without a corresponding rise in BP. Are you weeping in sympathy? Because giving up caffeine was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Until I had to give up wine. Yep. One glass of my favorite red makes my BP skyrocket now. I said goodbye to all alcohol recently because it’s just not worth it: feeling as though the beast from Alien is going to burst through your chest at any moment for at least 24 hours after a single glass.

I’ve had workups out the whazoo–including a stress test I passed with flying colors. I’m on medication, and it was working at first. But now the BP is creeping up even on meds. I know that BP can be controlled with diet and exercise, as well as meditation and stress management–and I am working on those things. But I’m resistant to change when it comes to food.

Most of my research indicates that I’m not alone in my struggles with blood pressure–more than 33% of Americans over the age of 40 have hypertension. And though no one in my family has had a stroke or heart attack until they were in their late seventies or eighties, having hypertension definitely increases that risk for me.

I’m also suspicious I could be sliding toward metabolic syndrome. I don’t fit all the parameters, but some of them are there, and honestly, I think given the typical American diet, more of us are at risk than you’d think.

I’ve spent the last few weeks examining the salt content of most packaged foods, and it’s enough to curl your hair. Rice is pretty healthy, right? Salmon, kale, and rice–not a bad dinner by any means. Only that flavored rice packet my husband loves so much contains 45% of the daily recommended allowance of salt. And that whole grain oat cereal that’s gluten free, high in fiber, and comes in those tasty little “o” shapes? 6% of your RDA.8% if you add milk.

Many people believe that it is just as important to restrict sugar as salt when it comes to BP, and if you factor in insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, it makes sense.

Then there is stress. I figure my adrenal glands–which produce the “flight or fight” hormone cortisol–are probably the size of cantelopes right now. My work environment is incredibly stressful, and I’ve had a lot of personal loss over the past couple of years, so I recently made the decision to seek counseling. The first session was productive, if for no other reason than to have someone outside your family blink and say, “What the hell, man?” when they hear your story.

But all these measures have failed to maintain my BP in the normal range and my anxiety about it isn’t helping. So now it is time to finally get serious about changing my diet. No more grabbing cookies or donuts from the break room when the workload gets too hectic. No more fast food lunches. No more relying on prepacked meals or frozen pizza because I’m too damned tired to cook anything (and am a terrible cook to boot) when I get home at night. I’ve got to go clean, which means fresh, non-processed, made-from-scratch, low salt, low carb, low sugar.

I gotta tell you–when you’ve lost so much, when you’re dealing with chronic pain and high stress, you come to rely on your damned rewards. Snagging a cookie from the break room is a reward for surviving a bad encounter with a client or an energy boost to get you through the next five hours of work. A glass of wine when you finally get to sit down to watch some television is a pat on the head for a fulfilling another long day of responsibilities and very little credit for doing so. Popping a pizza in the oven that will present you with hot bread, melted cheese, and spicy sauce in less than 17 minutes is a lifesaver when you’ve hit maximum decision fatigue. Recently, I mentioned to my husband that giving up chocolate, wine, cookies, and bread wasn’t going to make me live longer. It would just seem like it.

At the time, I thought of this as a funny take on a crappy situation. “Oh look, she still has her sense of humor!”

The thing is, I’ve been resenting like hell having to make these changes. I think I’ve been taking the wrong attitude about this, though. The fact I can tell when my BP is up (even if I don’t know why) means I’m in tune with my body. That’s a good thing. I can use that to my advantage. Hypertension won’t be a silent killer in my case because I know it’s there and can take steps to manage it.

And I’m determined to do just that.

So relax–this blog won’t turn into a series of before and after images, with constant updates on my miraculous weight loss or stats on my progress. I probably will share my adventures in cooking because I really am a horrible cook–and I can use any advice or tips you guys see fit to offer. I’m seriously considering getting an Instant Pot, though I’m hesitant because I hear there is a learning curve. What I intend to post here is about baby steps into a healthier me.

Because part of loving who we are is accepting what we cannot change and changing what we can. There may be quite a few things in my life I can’t change right now, but my eating habits aren’t among them. That I can fix.

Of course this is going in a book someday…

I started out with the best of intentions today.

I’d forgotten, however, that the Powers That Be had decided we needed to start doing weekly office meetings prior to the start of the business day. On Mondays, no less. I know this is for the benefit of the newbies on board, but as someone who is not a newbie, I resent upsetting my morning schedule to come into work even earlier than usual. As such, I forgot to allot time to make breakfast and wound up grabbing a granola bar. Okay, could have been worse. I could have chosen Captain Crunch.

Fine. Off to work I go. Only because we now do the early morning meeting thing, it’s been decided I get out early on Mondays, which yay! for getting out early but… that means I get to work through lunch. Because why stop to eat when I am going to be leaving in an hour, right? So now I’m leaving work at 1 pm, and I’m well beyond peckish and moving into hangry territory.

But it’s okay, because I’m going to stop at the store where they have that new salad bar. I’m going to load up on good, healthy food and pick up a few items while I’m at it. I juggle the flimsy plastic tray while I kick my shopping basket along side me, loading the plate as I go. I am just at the end of the line applying a dash of salad dressing when the plastic gives in the middle and the whole thing dumps down the front of my pants and into my basket sitting on the floor at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is salad and dressing everywhere. My planned purchases are covered with bacon bits and cheese. I attempt to wipe up the mess with napkins from the salad bar, but quickly end up with a sticky goo on my hands. A shopping passing by smiles and says, “Don’t take it so hard. It happens to all of us.”

I don’t know what she saw on my face but her words do me in. Tears begin to flow. A staff member comes to help clean up and says, “Having a rough day, dear?”

“No,” I say. “I’m having a rough year.”

And the words threaten to spill out messy and sticky like the salad dressing. I recently lost my cat to heart failure. I lost my mother to an unexpected stroke two weeks later. My dog is dying from cancer. My sister is dying from cancer. Our country is either on the brink of destroying democracy or taking us back into war–or both. Civil rights are being taken back to pre-1950s status. We’re poisoning our planet and the government wants to remove restrictions aimed at slowing that down. And someone has had the gall to be nice to me.

Because kindness is just too much to bear right now.

But I don’t say any of these things. I sniff and wipe my face with the parts of my hands not covered in salad dressing. I see a cute guy looking at me with a worried expression on his face, but instead of offering to help, he tiptoes away like someone who doesn’t want to get involved with the crazy lady snuffling into the California French.

“You can get another salad, sweetie.”

I shake my head. I don’t want another salad. I thank the people who helped me clean up and take the rest of my purchases to the checkout. I don’t want to talk to anyone, so I go to the automatic cashier, only the scanner can’t read my dressing-covered food. I try again and again until I am slamming the items down on the scanner and I have to call someone over to help anyway.

Deep breath. It’s all good. It will be okay.

In the parking lot, I overhear two women speaking of the likelihood of us going to war with Korea. I’m waiting behind them patiently while they put their carts away, but  then one of them says, “Well, we’re living in the end times now. Everything that has been predicted in the Bible is coming true now.”

She shrugs, resigned.

I can’t help myself. “Well, there will be some people in the government that are going to have a rude awakening when Jesus comes back,” I snap.

They look at me, blinking slowly like sheep surprised at finding a dog among them that might possibly be a wolf, only they’ve forgotten what wolves really look like. One of them smiles uneasily.

“Jesus,” I say, shoving the cart into the rack with a little more force than necessary, “believed in charity. Jesus believed in taking care of the poor.” My voice rises a little higher, louder. “Jesus believed in health care.”

One of the women laughs. “That he did.”

“And Jesus, ” I said, not yet finished. “Believed you should pay your taxes.”

There is a narrowing of eyes at that, and a little nod. Maybe I got through. Maybe not. But I swear if I hear one more person fatalistically state that the end times have come and there is nothing we can do, I think I shall scream.

Which is why I ended up in the bathroom at McDonald’s, scrubbing the dressing off my hands like Lady MacBeth trying to remove bloodstains. Right before I stuffed my face with a burger and fries.

SAMSUNG CSC

So no, as a ‘first day’ on a new diet plan went, it was not highly successful. But I didn’t punch anyone, so I count it as a win.

Besides, I am so using this in a story some day. Only it will be funnier, and the cute guy will have the balls to come over and help, and another romance will be born.The realization hit me as I was finishing the last of the fries and my hangry pains faded away. Oh yes. Good stuff here.

 

 

McKenna Hates to Cook

Believe it or not, I used to be the girl you hated when you were growing up.

I say believe it or not because I was the girl with the Coke-bottle lenses, braces, and mountains of frizzy, untamed hair. I was also a bookworm and a nerd, the first one to answer the teacher’s questions and the last one to get picked for any team sports.

As a matter of fact, I was Hermione Granger, only I didn’t grow up to look like Emma Watson. But (and this is a big ‘but’ here) I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce. 

Yep. You read that right. I lived off of bread, cheese, crackers, and peanut butter. I could grab a burger and fries and not feel the slightest bit concerned about my weight, while my friends subsisted off diet Coke and a cup of yogurt. I never gained the ‘freshman twenty.’ In fact, I was underweight much of my life, to the point that my dad used to call me ‘a hank of hair and a bag of bones.’ It was well after his death that I discovered those words actually referred to song lyrics and were not as fondly insulting as I thought.

I’ll never forget that time in college when I sat down in front of the television with my usual plate of snacks, only to have my roommate say to me, “One day you’re going to wake up fat.”

She spoke with such utter seething resentment, it quite took me aback. But I thought no more about it, and ate my stack of cheese and crackers. Years passed. I survived college, grad school, and entered the work force. My job had ridiculous hours: I started the day with a Coke and a package of Lance peanut butter crackers. Lunch was usually a bologna sandwich or a burger. Dinner was leftover Chinese if I was lucky, but usually a frozen pizza, and sometimes a bowl of Captain Crunch. On a bad day, maybe two. I lived this way for decades. I kid you not. One of the things that impressed me most about my husband when we first met was that he actually knew how to cook. Before we started dating, it was rare that I bothered to make a meal for myself.

My weight slowly crept up from 121 to 135, but it stayed there. I’m not athletic by any means, but I’m reasonably active. I walk the dogs every day. I ride my horse when I have time. I’m on my feet all day at work. But I don’t do any sort of organized exercise. The one time I tried an aerobics class, I dropped out from sheer embarrassment at my inability to follow the routine.

Then one day it happened. My former roommate’s vindictive prophesy came true. I did wake up fat.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But after a lifetime of rocky hormones, menopause hit me like a freight train. I began having 30-40 hot flashes a day. I gained 20 pounds in a two week window. Horrible heartburn assailed me whenever I ate, and suddenly I could no longer handle the foods I’d always eaten. Things were so bad, I wound up having a full GI and Gyno workup done because the changes were so abrupt and so intense, I thought something had to be seriously wrong with me.

Nope. Just hormones leaving town and wrecking the place in their wake.

Worse, I had no idea what to do about it. I was like that kid in high school who never had to study only to get a rude awakening on reaching college. Just to complicate things, eating disorders run in my family, so I tiptoed the fine line between trying to change my eating habits and not getting obsessive about tracking points or calories. We’re talking scary eating disorders in my family–the kind where someone thinks eating nothing but an apple and a cracker for an entire week is something to be proud of. Whatever I did, I had to make sure I didn’t fall down that particular rabbit hole.

I did My Fitness Pal for a while, but the tracking proved problematic. I found it very useful for helping me realize just how many calories I consumed on average however. Jiminy Crickets! I had no idea.

Then I did what any good author would do: I began researching diets. Let me tell you, I practically own the diet section of the bookstore. I have it all: Paleo, Whole30, South Beach, Blood Type, Wheat Belly, FODMAP and more. I got books on healing your gut, your metabolism, your thyroid, and curing your adrenal fatigue.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

There is no one perfect diet for everyone. If there were, we’d all be following it. The next thing I’ve discovered is that most of these diet plans have something useful to say. Most of them also have a fair amount of BS associated with them. My takeaway message from everything I’ve read is this: eat more fruits and veggies. Eat less red meat. Avoid processed foods.

We all knew that, right? Of course we did. But somehow it’s more palatable to dress it up under the guise of the X diet. Do I believe that Paleo and Whole30 work for some people? Absolutely. But not because we’re cavemen or because of some entirely arbitrary set of rules handed down by some parents in ‘tough love’ mode. I think the reason Paleo or Whole30 or Wheat Belly plans are so effective for many people is because most of what we eat is really bad for us. I’m not just talking Cheetos and KFC, here. I mean the granola bars and the fruit cups and the Lean Cuisine. I mean 90 percent of what the average on-the-go person consumes here in the US because we’re too damn busy or tired to buy, prepare, and eat real food.

Most of these diets are impossible to maintain long term. As is the four hours of exercise a day that one of my friends used to do to artificially maintain her weight at 125 pounds. To be honest, the idea of giving up bread forever makes me weep. I’d honestly rather give up chocolate. No, seriously. I can’t think of anything finer than that moment when you remove a crusty loaf of homemade bread from the oven and slather that first slice with butter.

But bread is one of the things that makes me feel horrible after eating it. Bread, pasta, cheese, peanut butter… I feel like I’ve swallowed a basketball after I eat these foods.

So what’s a girl who’s an incredibly picky eater and hates to cook do? Especially when her husband can eat three times as much as she does, casually decide to lose some weight and drop ten pounds without blinking. Ah, now I finally know how my old roommate felt. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill me.

Silhouette of a cheese burger loaded with summer garden vegetables isolated on fire, macro

Well, this is my journey. Stick around and find out. I plan to blog something each week about finding my way back to health without losing my joy for living. Maybe the answer is a metabolism reset with one of these diets. Maybe the answer is that I truly will have to give up foods I love and learn to love others. It’s not just about the weight, though I would love to go back to my previous hormone-crash existence. It’s about not feeling like crap all the time. It’s about sleeping better at night, and having the energy to do the things I love to do, and being able to bend over and tie my hiking boots without feeling like my stomach is about to explode.

Come for the food/diet/exercise/recipe chatter and poke around the site if you enjoy paranormal romance. Share your thoughts and experiences. I’d really like to know about your successes and failures.

As for me, several of my friends are doing Weight-Watchers. Of all the paid diet programs out there, it’s the one I’ve seen be the most successful. That said, I’m going to be accountable to my friends rather than to a group. I don’t want to move into ‘apple and cracker’ territory…