But, coronavirus

Have you ever done the “in bed” thing with fortune cookies? My friends and I thought it was a riot in our 20s. It’s a simple game: You add “in bed” to whatever fortune your cookie gave you. For example: “You will meet a mysterious stranger … in bed.” Or: “A new adventure awaits … in bed.” Very funny. Har har.

That’s sort of how it feels now with coronavirus. Every time I worry about our relaxed rules, I add that asterisk: But, coronavirus. For example: “I’m drinking a glass (or two) of wine per night. But, coronavirus.” Or: “The kids are sitting in front of screens for 5 hours per day. But, coronavirus.” Or: “The kids are bypassing carrots and hummus to stuff their faces with ice cream. But, coronavirus.”

Maybe you have your own version of this fun game. Whenever I’ve broached the subject with my friends, they admit that they’re succumbing to the Quarantine Slide. They’re making bigger, stiffer drinks than they used to. They’re baking way more cookies than they used to. Their kids are spending way more time on screens than they used to. But come on. Coronavirus!

In the early days of the pandemic (before we were even calling it a pandemic), I reached for these crutches because I was scared. And it was a new kind of scared. No one had any definitive answers about how this wily virus infected, presented, or killed. In the early days, when the virus was primarily in Washington state, the federal government dismissed it as “just a flu,” and something that would just go away. I remember saying to Steve, way back in March: “No one is coming to save us, are they?”

Now, the mood has shifted. We’re all antsy and anxious about being cooped up with our families for two months. It’s not normal for people to be together all the time. We’re worried about the economy. But we’re also, increasingly, really angry. We’re judging each other. We’re railing at the government. We’re looking for theories that confirm our own suspicions. We’re lashing out at teachers and officials that we feel are doing the wrong things. We feel as though we have no control, and that’s emerging as fury. And so, we reach for our calming crutches to take the edge off.

Except, here’s the thing. It’s been over two months for us here in Washington. The coping strategies are becoming habits. And habits are hard to break. By most accounts, this probably won’t be our last quarantine. We’ll emerge for awhile, and then, as cases spike, we’ll withdraw again. I need to find other ways to blur the edges than my nightly glass (or two) of wine.

Here’s my cycle: I wake up with a wine headache, and I vow to abstain. Then, I’ll have a day where doing dishes is a Sisyphean task, where Evan falls dramatically from his chair when asked to do math, and one of the cats pukes on the computer keyboard.  That lovely, velvety glass of Pinot Noir just beckons me. It promises — and delivers — exactly what I “need”: a way to turn down the volume on the irritation and anxiety. Pouring that glass, I feel like failure, but when I sip it, I feel like I’m tumbling back into a pile of fluffy pillows.  And then, I wake up with a wine headache again.

I’m not drinking to excess. Usually, it’s one glass. Sometimes, it turns into two. But that adds up, and I’m concerned. Both about this “need” to find edge-smoothing from alcohol, and the insidious calories my Velvet Friend is delivering to my waistline. If I’m honest, the latter is what makes me most worried. And that’s because my big crutch — which is detestable rather than pleasurable — is my eating disorder.

In times of stress, my decades-long struggle with food and weight pops back up like an unwanted houseguest. It’s a long story, so I’ll give you the Cliff Notes: At 15, I wanted to lose a few pounds. I got positive feedback for that weight loss, so I lost more. And more. Before too long, I was 89 pounds and my dad was weighing me every week. But I was clever: I took some old ankle weights from my figure-skating days, cut off the straps, and stuffed them in my pocket.

I “cured” myself so my parents would get off my back, but by then, the die was cast: Restriction was where I went during times of stress. Sometimes it was food; sometimes it was punishing, hours-long workouts that I disguised as “training” for my many running races and triathlons.

When Bini was 2, I realized that my destructive behavior was incompatible with my efforts to be a decent mother. So I took a year, and did intensive therapy. I worked with a nutritionist. It was a very uncomfortable process. And I did make some progress. But again, I wouldn’t say I was “cured.”

So. It’s 2020, we’re in quarantine. I’m home all the time. People keep bringing me baked goods. There’s always a delicious bottle of wine ready to be uncorked. I’m spending a lot of time in my own head. I’m stressed. I’m anxious. It’s fertile ground for my old nemesis.

But I’m terrible at restricting my food anymore. It’s not very fun. So I’m back to my punishing workouts. I ride my Peloton until I look like a wet cat. I lift heavy weights. I swing kettlebells. Exercise is helping people stay centered, right? But Steve isn’t fooled — he knows what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing.

But, coronavirus.



My tiny little pill

Mother's little helper.
Mother’s little helper.

It is January 23 in the Pacific Northwest. And I am happy.

Traditionally, these two things did not go hand-in-hand for me. Seattle is, from November to April, quite chilly, damp and gray. It took a couple of winters to figure out that my February blues could be attributed to the lousy weather. I thought I was way too tough for Seasonal Affective Disorder. I was wrong. I bought a happy light and upped my Vitamin D significantly.

I know that my current happiness is partly due to our impending adoption. In six weeks or so, our family of three will board a plane to Shanghai, and then another plane to Xi’an, where we’ll become a family of four. Our soon-to-be new son is almost three. He’s adorable. And I can’t wait to get over there and become his mom. I just can’t wait.

But I also know that my happiness, or at least my ability to focus on the happy parts of our upcoming adventure, has much to do with the little pill that I started taking in November. An antidepressant. A teeny, tiny dose that my doc calls a “therapeutic” dose. A dose I could stop taking whenever without any taper. A dose that has radically altered my mood.

Before this pill came into my life, I was kind of a mess. Even the tiniest bumps in the road would activate my emotional airbags. I radiated stress. I was always ready to do battle.  I snapped at my loved ones and friends. And I couldn’t sleep.

I don’t know how I got that way, which was another source of anxiety and self recrimination. I was totally aware that I was touchy, reactionary and unhappy, but I couldn’t right the ship. When my insomnia flared up, in August, my anxiety found fertile ground in my exhausted brain. I felt like my nerves were tightly wound violin strings. I found it impossible to relax.

On the rare night when I did sleep, I had a recurring nightmare where Bini was hit by a car, and I was too late to prevent it. I would wake up gasping, my heart pounding so hard I thought for sure I’d wake Steve. I’d stumble from my bed and into Bini’s room, just to make sure he was OK. Then I’d spend the rest of the long night thinking stuff like: It’s a sign. It’s a message. I’m not fit to parent. I need to stop this second adoption.

I started spiraling downward. I felt like I was at the bottom of a muddy, slippery hole, and I couldn’t find my footing. I was scared.

There were reasons for this. The adoption process, this time around, was really hard. We said no to five deserving little boys before we were matched with our soon-to-be son. I tried to go cold turkey off my Lorazepam sleep meds and it made my insomnia much worse — a side effect I wasn’t aware of. We got some bad news, which I won’t go into. And I got into a terrible argument with a close family member, who still won’t talk to me.  But people go through difficult times, all the time, and they don’t fall to pieces. Why was I so different?

I tried everything, really I did. I went to counseling, and did neurofeedback. I went to acupuncture twice a week. I started meditating, thanks to a handy iPhone app which featured a nice man with a soothing British accent. I cut out alcohol. I took L-Theanine. I went to see a sleep-specific naturopath. I started tapering off the Lorazepam, very slowly. Still, I was off-the-charts anxious. So I went to my doctor, for some blood work.

“Have you considered going on a low dose of antidepressants?” she asked.

“No. No way.” I replied.

“Why not?”

Why not? Because I’d been on a low-dose of antidepressants before, when I had a terrible job and wasn’t sleeping at all. I have Paxil to thank for helping me crawl out of that muddy hole, get my resume together and get a kick-ass job that I loved. But the tapering process off that stuff was brutal, even though the dose was small.

I went on them again when Steve and I were going through infertility, and they helped. But I went off them after I sought treatment for my decades-long eating disorder, and that weaning process had also been brutal. Why do that again?

Because. Because my doctor pointed out that anorexic and bulimic brains have shown to be permanently altered after decades of endless punishment-reward cycles. I was an expert at both severe food restriction and hard-core exercise bulimia, which I camouflaged quite successfully as “training” for many years.

Because. When my doctor asked me how long it had been since I was happy, I really had to think. I knew what she was after, so I wanted to tell her “yesterday,” but in fact, the best I could come up with was October 2013, when Steve and I were in Paris.

Everything was a chore to me, even good things. A relaxing massage appointment was just another thing on my to-do list. Making cut-out snowflakes with Bini was just another thing for me to clean up. A night out with Steve was a temporary reprieve from the stressors of parenting, four pets and a house that always needed cleaning. Give me something good, and I would squash it under my Mighty Foot of Doom. It’s my gift.

“That’s not normal,” she told me. “That tells me that there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain.”

I made some sort of dismissive noise. “Chemical imbalance? Everyone I know is on antidepressants. Does EVERYONE have a chemical imbalance?” I went on to point out that great art, great music and great literature would have never been created if people were never sad. Anger and anxiety were normal emotions. They were part of the deal.

“Happiness is also part of the deal,” she said gently. “And you’re telling me that you haven’t been genuinely happy in a year. That’s not good. It’s not healthy.”

So I took the prescription. A week later, I got it filled. And a week after that, I started taking my therapeutic dose. I felt better almost instantly. (I’m very sensitive to medication. I took Vicodin once, and it made me sneeze uncontrollably.) Taking my tiny pill was like entering a warm, cozy house after trudging through the frozen tundra. I felt relaxed. Relieved.

Two months later, my hard edges are smoother. I absorb bumps in the road better. I am much more patient and kind to my son. I’ve quieted my savage inner critic, which was as relentless as CNN’s news ticker. I still feel anxious and sad and overwhelmed at times, but those feelings don’t dominate me anymore.

I’d be lying if I said that writing about this isn’t itself causing me apprehension. Once I hit “publish,” this goes public. Maybe three people will read it, maybe 3,000 will. It’s probably not great for my “brand” as a freelance writer to acknowledge my anxiety, and my little happy pill. There were be people who judge me.

To paraphrase Veronica Sawyer from the movie “Heathers,” I’m a human being, not a game show host. Writing authentically and transparently, at least in my personal writing, is all I know how to do. And throughout my career as a journalist and now, a blogger, I’ve heard from hundreds of people who’ve told me that my honesty was helpful to them. It certainly helps me. If someone doesn’t want to be my friend or hire me because of it, they can quite cheerfully bugger off.

We have a huge unknown entering our lives any day: A child that we don’t know, who doesn’t know us, and who’s lived in an orphanage his whole life. At best, it will be difficult, and at worst, it will be a disaster. But we’ve sought counsel from doctors, fellow adoptive parents and therapists who work with adoptive families. Steve and I have made the best decision that we can, given the information that we have. The rest is a leap of faith, of love, and of hope.

I know for certain that my tiny little pill is helping me handle the uncertainty. I feel clear-eyed, I feel strong. I feel ready, damn it. I am ready. I know we’re tempting fate. I know there will be dark days when I wonder what the hell we’ve done. But Steve and I are experienced adoptive parents. We have an extraordinary son. We can bring up another one. I know we can.

I do feel a little strange about my happiness, knowing that it’s due to a little tiny pill. It’s like winning a medal that I didn’t entirely earn. But I’ll take it. I’m choosing to look on the bright side, for once. It comes much easier now.