On De-Stressing, Gradually

I’ve been working on the concept of “me time.”

Since it appears that the 60-hour work weeks aren’t going anywhere, at least for a while, and the decisions that have yet to be made hang heavy over my head, just out of my reach for now, I have been focusing on making small changes in the hopes that they will have that marvelous ripple effect over all areas of my life. Stress mitigation is difficult, because when you’re this deep, it’s often hard to identify which stressors are the root cause of ever-expanding panic.

Last weekend, I was wound tightly, anxious and tense. I thought about my schedule for the coming days and realized that I would have no time — literally no free time during my waking hours that wasn’t allocated for work — for the next three days. That’s the kind of realization that settles heavily over your heart, because there is no choice but to keep going, to keep moving forward, to hope that nothing goes wrong to derail the carefully laid plans or you’ll throw everything off-balance.

Then it hit me. The thing I was most nervous about wasn’t the work, but the fact that instead of cleaning my house from top to bottom during my one free night last week, I’d read. I’d curled up on my front porch with a glass of wine and tucked my bare feet under me and I’d read. It had been worth it, when I thought I’d have Friday night free to clean. But then a co-worker burned herself at her other job, and I had to cover her Friday night shift, effectively removing my cleaning plan from my schedule.

Inconvenient? Yes. Necessary? Of course. When someone needs help, you help them. I had to work at Dairy Queen on Saturday and then go babysit after that, and immediately after that, we were scheduled to host a party at my house (thus necessitating at least a cleaning once-over).

Identifying that the most stressful thing for me was the fact that I’d have no time to prep for the party was key. I thought about how to handle it and cancelled babysitting. I had worked three 14-hour workdays in four days, plus the Saturday shift, and I was exhausted. I told the family I babysit for as much, and they were understanding. As soon as I did that, I felt as though a great weight had been lifted. I even took a nap on Saturday, pausing to rest while the world went on around me.

I didn’t clean heavily. I didn’t stress. The handle of our toilet broke and instead of panicking, we pulled out the duct tape and made it work. It ended up being a lovely evening. (The duct tape solution is still in play, and it’s rather charming in a rustic, we-DIY-ed-this-all-by-ourselves sort of way. I’m rather enchanted by the novelty of it, although it must soon be fixed – it’s not the classiest of stopgap measures.)

These are lovely people – as the party began to die down, we took a Friends-esque photo on the couch outside.

I can’t tell you how excited I was when Evan walked in, carrying a six-pack of my favorite beer. It was funny, because I’d bought him a six-pack of the hard cider he likes, so we had a trade. We snuck off at one point, holding hands, and spent the better part of an hour talking and laughing, and I felt so overwhelmingly content. I am beyond thrilled, beyond terrified, and all-over ecstatic.

The next day was a day of no work. I got bagels with a couple of friends and then laid on the giant bean bag in the basement and caught up on Game of Thrones in between brief naps. It was the best burn day ever.

Afternoon arrived, and Gina went to set up in the park for the second leg of our joint birthday party. I grumped around, bemoaning my headache and wishing for long stretches of welcome sleep. Eventually though, the guilt got to me and I got up, washed my face, and put on my Lannister dress (I’ll have to post a picture – it’s insanely amazing).

I’m glad I went to the park. We sported quite happily. (“Sport” is our newest verb. At one point, my friend Katie and I were discussing our contributions to relationships and she said, “I don’t sport.” It was so spot-on and sincere, and I’ve adopted it as an excellent verb to describe any sort of physical recreational activity.) We played frisbee, football, and a rather aggressive game of 10,000. At one point, we were tossing two frisbees, a football, and a bubble stick between the ten or so people in the park. It was wonderful to stretch and move and be.

I laid on the blanket I’d brought with me and stared up at the tree I was under. In that moment, I was calm and content. I had left all of my stress behind. There was no looming Monday, nor were there any obligations left unfulfilled. I was, for that brief period, free.

The sun set and a new week began.

Last night, after working another 14-hour workday, we played night frisbee in the parking lot. (Working with the people you love is also helpful – we work together nearly seamlessly, and the night passes quickly and productively. At one point, I commented to Evan that I adore getting paid to hang out. He agreed.) The light-up frisbee (you must purchase one, they’re the best thing) flew through the air and I was filled with the heady rush of happiness, of appreciation for the current moment and the lack of worry for the past and future.

They had established a plan for the night before I arrived – food and then Game of Thrones. Mike (Evan’s friend) and I had watched one more episode than Evan had seen and we’d agree to lie about it to Evan and pretend we’d waited for him. I failed miserably at keeping up the ruse, and so we re-watched that episode before watching the newest one (70% of which, I slept through, of course). I woke up just in time for the action – and then cried, of course.

I love where I am right now. I love the people I’m surrounded by. I’m so grateful for each and every one of them.

“Me time” may not be long bubble baths and hours spent lounging and reading, but it can be found in the places where I least expect it. Finding the calm I’m sure exists somewhere inside of me may be the biggest challenge, but it’s one I’m finally really ready to take on, even if it means tackling it in small pieces or finding joy in strange places.

Baby steps forward.

On the Weekend, Quickly

The weekend went by too quickly, as usual.

Friday was a stressful day for me – I had a meeting that took up a few hours in the morning, so I had a lot to get done at work before my shift at Dairy Queen started. We close at 10 pm, but on Fridays, we have to clean the store before we leave. Usually, we get everything done and are out the door by 10:30. On Friday, that did not happen. We clocked out at 11:20.

I declared a fifteen-minute break after we closed the doors and finished dishes. I was tired. We pulled crates out behind the store, like we used to do during summer nights in high school, and we sat for a few minutes. We attempted to try out some team bonding exercises I’d watched in Spokane, but I think we failed. (Or the exercises themselves failed. No, probably us. Something about truth-telling and strength. You push down on someone’s arm and if they’re telling the truth, they’re able to withstand your push, but if they’re lying, it’s easier to push their arm down?)

Then I decided that I wanted food and beer. We ended up closing Old Chicago. (Their late-night menu is amazing. We had bruschetta, 2 orders of chicken tenders, salad, and 4 beers between the two of us and the bill came to like $30. Why do we not do that more often?)

There was such great joy in the knowledge that my brain was working, dusting off some of the deepest corners of thought processes and bringing them to the forefront of my consciousness. I was lost in conversation, content to forget some of my points and make wild assertions that I was potentially incapable of backing up.

Saturday was more work. I was tired, since I’d gotten home so late. I was fumbling around, trying to unpack an emergency delivery order and get stuff done. I ended up flustered. I was grateful when my backup showed up. We were slammed. I stayed later than I was scheduled, but had to rush home to shower so I could go babysit.

During babysitting, I decided that this was one of those “you only live once” moments, and so instead of going to the goth bar to celebrate a friend’s going away, I drove up to Ft. Collins to celebrate another friend’s graduation. Oh my, was that an adventure.

I got there late – everyone had already been out and about for a while so I had some catching up to do. Our main objective for the evening was to make to a bar that had swings. We ultimately failed at that, arriving just a bit too late. But in the interim, we had a blast. (At least I did.)

(Just so we’re clear, I knew that my eyes were halfway closed when we posted that photo. It was just the best one out of the bunch.)

We almost got kicked out of our hotel some time during the early hours of the morning. At the time, I was thinking that we were being so quiet, but now I realize that seven people are in no way quiet. Ever. Especially not when they’re trying to twerk. (Still can’t do it.)

I woke up the next morning hating everything and in desperate need of coffee. I drove back to Denver, took a nap, then headed to my grandma’s house for Mother’s Day. I got my mom a necklace – since she works with the hearing-impaired, she speaks ASL and therefore the sign for “I love you” always makes me happy. I remember having it on something – a stamp? – as a kid. I saw a necklace with the sign for “I love you” and then a little charm that says “Do all things with love” and I had to have it. I hope she likes it.

On Spokane, Productively

Greetings from Spokane! I’m here until Wednesday on a business trip.

Total confession: I got in late Sunday night, and the first thing I did after arriving at the hotel was put on one of the fluffy bathrobes and jump on the giant bed. It was everything Ferris Bueller would have wanted for my first night in a Four Diamond hotel. 

(This is a self-portrait.)

The rental car I got is a Toyota Prius, and I’m in love. It’s cute, the turning radius is beautiful, and it’s fun to drive, but holy cow, touchy brakes. I’m sure the people who have to drive behind me hate me. I love the constant display of battery usage vs. fuel consumption.

Last night, I took it on a drive. I didn’t go very far, but I wanted to see part of the city. I think I’ll do the same tonight, but I’ll go in a different direction. Perhaps I’ll try to see something scenic.

I got back to the hotel last night with a bag of Burger King (yeah, I know, lame. I think I’ll go for steak or something tonight) and I vegged out. I don’t veg out, ever. It was weird. I clicked aimlessly through the channels on the tv, realizing that I no longer have any idea about television programming. Doing nothing felt weird, but it felt sort of good. I think I’ll have to do it more.  (That’s my goal for 2013 – “do less.” I looked at my calendar for the rest of May, and I realized that I work or have plans nearly every single day. Doing less is difficult.)

You can buy the beds at this hotel, and I’d like to expense one – it’s like sleeping on clouds. The sheets are so soft, the pillows are even softer, and the bed is that perfect blend of support but comfort.

The cool thing about this conference is that vendors (me!) are on the balcony of the ballroom where the majority of the conference is being held. The session today is about learning how to reduce stress and avoid burnout. (I’m having one of those moments where I’m thinking about how fortuitous my presence here is….)

(My view from my vendor table)

The material in this session matches the material that I’m currently reading for my Leadership through Emotional Intelligence class. Don’t you love it when that happens? I love it when things fall neatly into place like that. I was going to get a bunch of work done today like I did yesterday, but I’m actually really interested in what they’re talking about in this session, so I’m listening to that, trying to absorb all of the information.

This whole mindfulness thing is fascinating. It’s so simple, but so easy to overlook. They’re sitting here talking about “thinking brain,” which I’m assuming is their simplification of mindfulness. They’re talking about “survival mode” – which is what I’ve been in for the past few months. It’s amazing to think about the physiology behind it and its effects on your life.

We’re looking at setting boundaries, saying no, and recognizing stress signals. I love things like this. This trip is such a nice little break – not a break, necessarily – but it’s a nice chance to remove myself from my routines and my regular stressors. I’ve been enjoying it immensely. One of my strengths is interaction and assistance – which is weird because I consider myself to be so shy – but I love being able to meet our clients and listen to them and try to offer solutions, assistance, and support.

I think I’d like to be a fixer. Can that just be a job description? (Sort of like in Breaking Bad where they’ve got that guy who does the hiding of the bodies and the other stuff…he’s the fixer. I want to be the person with the power to solve problems and the knowledge of available solutions.)

I was nervous to come out here by myself, but I read a horoscope last week (I know, I know, but I read an article about positive encouragement as a way to increase productivity and technically that counts as positive encouragement) that said that even though I’m walking on a tightrope with no safety net, I shouldn’t look down because I’m going to make it. With that in my mind, I haven’t looked down. I’ve been staring straight ahead and I’ve been taking baby steps forward.

Of course, there are still five hours left of interpersonal interaction and there’s still time to fall off. But I don’t think it will happen like that. I am comfortable, content, and capable. I’ve got this.

On Books and Chocolate-Covered Pretzels, Hopefully

Bookstores are dangerous places for me. I go in for one book, just like I did yesterday, and I’ll come out with five. When I have the time, I devour books. As a child, I had to start borrowing books from the library based on their thickness, simply because I read so fast and so much that I’d be finished with the books and desperate for more long before our next library trip. (And then of course, I’d lose them and the fines would begin to rack up. It’s much easier to locate a 750-page book than it is to find a tiny paperback.)

I found myself standing in Barnes and Noble yesterday, reminding myself why I don’t go in more often. (I had a gift card from when I graduated from college in 2010 that I found and hadn’t used. “Treat yo’self!” said my subconscious, so off I went.) I just want to buy all of the books.

My friend Evan is starting a book club. I’m thrilled. We voted on our first book, so I wanted to run to the bookstore to buy it. (I know, I know, I could have gotten it at the library. But I blame college for giving me the distinct pleasure of writing in books. There’s something so satisfying in marking quotes, starring pages, underlining, making notes in the margins. I don’t know what it is about it, but that makes it the best thing. I’m also far too impatient to order it on Amazon and then have to wait for it to come in the mail.) I got the last copy. He was not pleased when I informed him of that.

Our first meeting is at my house in a few weeks. We’ve got that amazing free space in the basement, or if the weather’s nice, the backyard. I’m imagining hors d’oeuvre, wine, and a lively discussion. I can’t wait. I’ve been wanting to use the remaining intellectual capacity that’s left over after hours of legal stuff, or computer screens and spreadsheets, or fake-smiley customer service for good and I feel like this endeavor is the perfect commingling of friendship and worthwhile debate. Besides, I’m starting to love having an excuse to make bacon-wrapped jalapenos.

I also got the first two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series: A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. I’m going on a business trip this weekend through the first half of next week, and I imagine I’ll have tons of time to read. I’m secretly thrilled to have nothing to do after the conference day is over. It’s going to be amazing.

I also got a romance novel (already halfway through it; can’t help it), and a book about resilience in the human spirit. Lately, I’ve been struggling and feeling weak is one of the things I hate the most. I know that time heals all wounds, but I also know that there’s enough uncertainty in my life right now to keep me edgy and upset as I wait to find what the future holds. Perhaps some baby steps toward recovering my inner strength will help put me on the right track, or at least help me feel better about the things that are out of my control.

***

Last night I worked with Evan, who is by far my favorite co-worker and one of my best friends. (I didn’t start to think about this until a few weeks ago, when we were talking about how hard it is to find fun, intelligent people. Then I was like, holy shit, there’s one right next to me.) I was trying to explain to him how much I hoped my Wednesday people would come in.

My Wednesday people are a mother and her teenage son. They’re so sweet. Do you ever just really like people even though you don’t really know them? I can’t put my finger on it, but I love this family. They come in every Wednesday night (hence my use of descriptive naming) and we always have the best conversations. They’re my favorite.

Last night they pulled up and came in carrying a cup wrapped in duct tape. My face lit up. I knew immediately what it was.

About a month ago, we were having a conversation about my serious addiction to the chocolate-covered pretzels we have for a limited time at work and I told them that we’d been cautioned not to eat all of them. (This was as I was shoveling chocolate-covered pretzels into my mouth.) I told them that I wanted to get my hands on a box of them. (They’re terrible in ice cream. Absolutely horrific. But by themselves, they’re delicious. If only they were dark chocolate. If only…..Trader Joe’s needs to hurry up and get to Colorado. I’ve got pretzels to purchase!)

“Where have you been?” they asked me. I apologized; I’ve been working Tuesdays and Thursdays instead.

The mom laughed, “I couldn’t get a whole box, but I brought you these. We thought we’d cover the cup in duct tape so they didn’t think you were stealing.” They have a Dairy Queen connection, and she asked her friend if she could have some pretzels for me. How thoughtful and sweet of them. I am overwhelmed with how happy that made me.

This is what I love about the world. These little moments. I’m not trying to get all sappy here, but if you think about how much impact a little moment can have, you start to realize how important “good” is. I was updating Evan on my life situation, and was telling him about Tobias telling me that I radiate light, and Evan agreed. “That’s such a great way to say it. You give off positive energy.” Last night, as I was handed a duct-taped covered, chocolate-pretzel filled cup, I started to believe it a little bit. No one would waste precious pretzels on someone they hated. (Unless, of course, they hated pretzels. But that’s beside the point.)

On Earth Day 2013, Sandily

Happy Earth Day 2013!

When we were little, Earth Day was a big deal. We did projects, and papers, and dioramas about Earth Day. Maybe I’m making that up, but I remember loving Earth Day. I looked forward to it. I think I imagined that my future self (which would equate to present me) would be this great planter of trees every year on Earth Day. To date, I have planted zero trees.

I did, however, rake my entire garden last weekend and plan on planting some things this year, so I feel like that’s a baby step in the right direction. Some day, we may be eating vegetables that I grew. I’m thinking tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, basil, mint, and so on. In reality, it will most likely be a sad plot that starts out magnificent but ends up overgrown with weeds. But everyone does that at least once, right?

I may have no idea what I’m doing, but I have friends who know how to do this, so I imagine I can call on them to help assist me with planning, planting, and harvesting.

In the meantime, let’s focus on current ecological issues (of which there about ten billion). I was reading this article about building structures out of plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are great (not really – they’re terrible for the environment, but they’re ubiquitous), and they’ve been used in a ton of very ingenious ways such as providing light to homes and being used to help grow gardens inside.

However, reading about building structures out of plastic, all I could think about were the drawbacks. What about weather? What about security? How is the building going to hold up and be a strong structure going forward?

When I was in South Africa, one of the biggest problems in the townships (informal settlements) was the fact that the houses were built out of essentially reclaimed materials. The houses (some more shack than house) were built out of wood, sheet metal, plastic, anything and everything. The floors were often dirt, or dirt covered in carpeting. It’s hard to keep a place like that clean, but more than that, it’s hard to protect that sort of structure from the elements.

When a fire breaks out in a township, it’s often inside one of the homes. However, it’s nearly impossible to contain the fire based on a number of factors, including the lack of accessibility to running water, proximity to the other homes, and the materials from which the houses are constructed. When one house burns, it’s likely that the others around it are going to burn too, causing unnecessary damage and threatening human life.

The building project I visited was creating a house out of sandbags. These sandbags are laid down in a concrete foundation and eventually plastered or covered in concrete, creating a structure that is nearly impermeable, providing a safer structure that can withstand the elements.

This sandbag house is such a wonderful idea because it makes use of the ubiquitous sand that’s found in and around the Cape Flats where many of these townships are located. It’s cheap to buy the concrete mix and the bags for the sand, and with some community involvement and a little planning, a building can be built relatively quickly and very cheaply. Even better? It’s not flammable like the other houses, offering protection in case of a rapidly spreading fire.

Below is the article that I wrote while I was there, that was published in the Cape Chameleon, the publication of the Projects Abroad journalism project. I think it’s important to highlight sustainable building because it can help draw attention to solutions for problems that badly need solving.

Houses of Sand

THE FUTURE OF ECO-BUILDING

Issue No.52010

Words: Katherine Barry

A pile of charred wood is all that’s left of the shacks. The sand where they sat is littered with burned belongings: a blackened Bible, an office chair, clothes no longer usable. The metal sheets that had once been walls have been salvaged, taken for use in new shacks, the obviously burnt edges blending in amongst the rust.

The first fire broke out three weeks before in the same shack that would be the ignition point of the second fire, which would tear through the informal settlement of Village Heights in Cape Town, depriving 15 families of their homes.

Fires in informal settlements – like Village Heights – represent one of the biggest dangers of living in such a community. Even with attempts to build with space on all sides, fires such as the one that destroyed those 15 shacks can spread quickly since the materials used to construct the homes are highly flammable and unregulated.

‘It was better under apartheid,’ says Bernadine, the community leader who has created and maintained the Village Heights library, and who is the recipient of the first Projects Abroad sandbag house in South Africa. ‘At least then we all had our own homes and jobs. Now we have nothing.’

Government response

According to residents, after the first fire the government offered four wooden posts, five pieces of metal and some grounding plastic as a replacement. However, the metal went to the construction of a roof and the residents were left to use plastic to create walls. During the second fire, a woman was badly burned when the plastic melted onto her skin.

Proper housing is something that many people living in South Africa lack, for a multitude of reasons, including long waiting times after application for government housing. ‘I’ve been on a waiting list for twenty-one years,’ says one woman who lost her home in the fire. ‘My daughter is 20 now.’ She went on to detail her experience, saying that she makes regular visits to go check on the status of her application, only to be told that she is indeed still on the list, but that no further information can be released about the status of the application.

While debates rage about governmental involvement and personal contribution for houses, the issue remains that people lack proper living quarters. Residents of the informal settlements around Cape Town and throughout South Africa are forced to create homes using materials that they can find, salvage, or buy, resulting in homes that often lack even basic features such as a floor. Security measures are an afterthought as well, allowing for criminal activity to flourish in the crowded neighbourhoods. Where to go from here?

Sand is nearly ubiquitous in Cape Town and the surrounding areas. It also might present a feasible solution to the problem of the shack homes in the ever-expanding informal settlements. Filling bags with sand and then stacking them within a frame can create a solid structure that is built both efficiently and quickly.

Beginning with materials, construction with sandbags can be a cheap alternative to traditional building methods. Since all that is needed to build a sandbag structure are bags, sand, cement and wooden and metal framing, the cost drops significantly due to the lack of construction equipment needed. No cranes, no stacks of bricks and no heavy vehicles entering or leaving the construction site.

20% of the materials need to be allocated for the construction of the frame of the sandbag building, but there is a certain amount of flexibility as to what those might be – including the use of wood or tin. Bricks can be used as well, but in order to maintain the eco-friendly atmosphere, they should only be implemented if they are within reach to avoid the entrance of trucks and other machinery in to the site.

Benefits of sand building

This cost-effective creation is incredibly ecofriendly. Since most of the building can be done with materials found on-site, the need for waste is nearly eliminated. This waste elimination plays a large factor in the ecofriendly nature of the sandbag buildings.

Builders who choose to use sandbag building as an alternative to conventional construction methods also stand to gain carbon credits for their choices. Carbon credit programmes offer financial incentives for companies to build in keeping with the ‘green’ trends and for waste elimination and recycling of materials.

This waste elimination and recycling process, presents an opportunity for those who are economically disadvantaged. By being able to build effectively and also save money, they can increase community bonds and safety.

Structural soundness

Besides being fireproof, the sand structures also present an element of soundproofing not found in the corrugated iron structures, which currently make up most of the homes in the townships and informal settlements in the Cape Town area.

They are also not easy to deconstruct or demolish, in essence creating a lasting home that won’t be victim to natural disasters such as flooding or tornadoes. The solidity of the sand as it is packed and stacked neatly to create walls allows for an element of indoor climate control that supersedes that provided by the corrugated structures as well. The sand essentially insulates the home, keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Spreading the word

The surmountable caveat to sand building is that it is not well known as a possible method for creating homes. The newly homeless fire victims had never heard of sandbag building when asked about it, yet were curious as to how it might work. They eagerly agreed that the community would want to be involved in such a building plan, given the right materials.

Based on the readily available materials and the community mentality that many of the neighbourhoods have, it seems that if sandbag structures could catch on, they might make a wonderful improvement for communities who are underfunded and under protected.

Projects Abroad began constructing their first sandbag house at the site of the Village Heights Library in August of 2010. While normally the construction of such a building (one room) would take less than a month, due to staggered volunteer arrivals, the project has continued for more than three months. Nevertheless, the house is beginning to take shape.

Bernadine hopes to show off the building project as a model of sustainable building. As of the beginning of December, the structure was complete and the roof had been added and finalisation of the exterior decoration was beginning. The hope is that the building will remain a long-standing testament to the possibility of creation from local materials and community involvement.

The project supervisor – Deen Singh – remains optimistic that the sandbag building will be used for the betterment of the community. He explained that everything must be done to help the children. The building has been designated for use in a crèche, or a childcare centre, one that will hopefully create a safe haven for children from all over Village Heights. Currently there are five volunteers working on the building. Rick, a German volunteer, feels that the building he is helping to construct will last, showing immediate change in the place that he came to volunteer. ‘It’s nice to leave something behind,’ he said.

Perhaps this sandbag building can be a model of change for a community that is desperate for change, but lacking the resources with which to create it.

On Resetting

He used a metaphor of outstretched palms trying to hold an ever-increasing load of books. Every single book is a source of stress in your life. At some point, you can no longer hold onto the books, and the lot of them will come tumbling down to land at your feet. That’s what this last weekend was for me. Desperately trying to maintain some semblance of normal in the face of being overwhelmed, I overdid it, and the result was disastrous.

It’s now Thursday; I am sicker than I’ve been in a while, and thoroughly worn out. But on the plus side, the worst of it all seems to have passed and my mood seems to have brightened as my energy has returned.

I was worried about how silly I looked this weekend (exhaustion, emotional panic, and whiskey are a potent combination), but my mom was quick to reassure me that this is all uncharacteristic and that the people who know and love me know that. “How are you supposed to explain everything to someone who has no idea?” she asked. “You can’t. And you can’t be expected to.” I felt better.

You can never make certain things go away, but you can change them. You can turn them into something positive, if you try hard enough. You can work to move past them so instead of them ruling you, you rule them.

Now that the worst of it has passed, I am still not sure how I’m going to stop working 60 hours a week. I am still not sure what I’m going to do next. But I do know that these past few days have been the reprieve that I needed to reset myself and find my balance.

I always tease my friend Britt about Marines being such babies, because whenever he gets sick, he needs me to take care of him. I once asked him why he never takes care of me when I’m sick, and he responded that I never get sick. He’s right. I have the immune system of a horse (not sure that’s an applicable metaphor or not, but going with it), but when I get sick, I’m laid out. He came over with soup and a cupcake, both of which were delicious, and then held me while we caught up on Game of Thrones episodes that we’d missed.

Carlos is going to be very grumpy when I have to go back to work tomorrow; he’s been spoiled with eighteen hours of snuggling per day and I know that my absence will annoy him.

I love his beast face.

And above all, I am so grateful for Tobias.

“I’m serious,” he said. “I’ve met tens of thousands of people in my life. You are one of the most positive people I know. Your energy is infectious.”

“You’re one of those rare lights in the universe,” he told me. “I only wish you could see how bright your light is.”

I smiled.

“I’ll keep repeating it until you believe it,” he said. I finally laughed.

On Taking Time, Thoughtfully

I woke up Friday morning crying. I sobbed the whole way into work. It was ridiculously uncharacteristic, and it was in that moment that I knew something was wrong. On Saturday, I saw my therapist for an equally uncharacteristic Saturday session. As it turns out, there is a perfectly rational explanation for what happened: One of the blog posts I read last week upset me and triggered an emotional storm. I had no idea that was even possible. Obviously, I’ve read a lot about triggers through the course of my studies, but I’d never experienced it firsthand.

He explained that the first few times this happens, you have no idea what is going to set you off, but something brings all of those emotions back to the surface. He reassured me that this is all normal, and that eventually, I’ll be able to recognize triggers before they sneak up on me.

It’s a wake-up call in a few different ways, but mostly it’s a reminder for me that I need to make time in my life for relaxation and recovery. I’ve been pushing myself so hard for so long, and something has to give. I have too many jobs, I work too many hours, and I don’t have enough time to reset. Instead, I find myself wound up, pushed to the limits, and exhausted.

Someone told me that I’m high-strung on Friday night, and to a certain extent, they’re right. But I do think that my inability to find time to relax is contributing to a higher level of high-strung Katie. My phrase for 2013 is “do less.” I”m trying to find a better sense of balance between work and relaxation, and  my hope is that I can find a happy medium soon that includes less work and more life.

I am lucky enough to have some of the most lovely and supportive friends on this planet. My gratitude for them is unending and impossible to quantify. I may be high-strung, but I have moments of calm, I swear, and I feel that with their support, the past few months have been far easier than they would have been otherwise. I am looking forward to a bright summer full of days playing frisbee in parks, eating cheese and drinking wine sitting on a picnic blanket. It will be wonderful.

I told work that I was going to take a few days off to relax. People asked me what I was going to do. I wasn’t sure. I giggled today, suddenly shy about an entire unplanned day, and said that I might lay on the couch and watch some Real Housewives. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. Today, I woke up, I had brunch, I ran errands with a friend, I saw a movie, I had soup. It was very magical.

This weekend was an adventure, and today, I woke up sick. Of course. I take time off of work to reset and I end up sick. I have a doctor’s appointment scheduled for tomorrow morning, so I’ll be up early braving the snow. After, I’m going to get coffee, come home, and lounge.

On Quarter-Life Crises, Existentially

It’s happened like clockwork. Every five or six months since I joined the working world, I start to panic. I find myself burned out, thoroughly exhausted, and inconsolable because it seems like everything I work so hard for is ultimately unattainable.

This month, I looked at my bank account after I paid my bills, sorted my savings, and so on. For the month of April, I have $15 a day. This includes gas for my car, food, and anything else I need. (Let me put this in perspective for you: It costs me around $40 – two and a half days of life – to fill up Simon’s gas tank. I do this every seven to ten days. Budgeting for four fill-ups during the month of April, we’ve already lost a quarter of my funds.)

***

According to new studies, about 11% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD. I lost the link to the article, but apparently the people with the highest percentage of prescription drug abuse are people born between 1981 and 1990. And then there’s this horrifyingly sad op-ed piece from a father who lost his son to a drug overdose.

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was twenty-three. It was a hellish two-day testing, during which all learning disabilities were ruled out. I’m grateful for that – I always wondered if I was just bad at math or if it was something more than that. (As it turns out, I’m actually average to above average at math, so I’m wondering how much learned helplessness is playing a role in my inability to do calculus. I also wonder how necessary calculus is for a long and happy life.)

In the year and a half since my diagnosis, I’ve embraced my Adderall and all of its drawbacks. Honestly, I’m eternally grateful for the drug. It’s changed the way I work. It’s allowed me to focus, something that I can’t do. I now have the ability to be productive. I often wonder what my grades in high school or college would have been like had I been properly diagnosed around the time I started wondering if I had a focus issue. I wonder if my inability to concentrate – which was honestly so bad that I never read a textbook – negatively affected my grade point average and my chances at success in life.

My manager when I was 16 always used to tell me that I had the attention span of a golden retriever. Now, I’m still not the best at impulse-control or listening, but I’m at least getting better at being patient, at doing work,
[edit: I came back to read this paragraph and realized I’d totally trailed off, leaving it unfinished. I’m leaving it this way.]

True, I immediately lost 15 pounds and have struggled to maintain my four-pounds-underweight weight ever since. I pick at my skin, unconsciously. I was having trouble sleeping for a while. They tried to prescribe me pills for that, but I declined them. I don’t want more pills.

Regardless, I’ve never abused it. Nor have I sold it. Nor would I ever dream of doing that. I believe that too much Dateline as a child has led me to lead the mostly drug-free life I lead today. I am disappointed to hear so much about the struggles that so many people are having with drug abuse, particularly my beloved Adderall. I never took it recreationally before being diagnosed, so I never understood the allure of it. I hate the vilification of Adderall-users. I hate how I feel like a criminal with my pharmacy and my doctors. I hate how hard I had to fight to get my insurance company to cover it, initially. I don’t take it on the weekends. I don’t take it so I can stay up and party. I don’t understand why you would.

***

I work sixty hours a week, and have for much of the last two years. I supplement my income from my full-time job with income from a regular babysitting gig and then a part-time job at a Dairy Queen. I am exhausted. There is no time for balance. There is no time for moderation. I see my family and friends when I can, working them in between the triple-work schedules that I juggle.

I hope that one day, I will make more than $xx an hour. I hope that eventually, I won’t have to work three jobs so that I can make ends meet. But for now, this is what I have to do. I try to love my job, and generally I do, but there are times when things start to get so impossible that I start to drown in the negative.

These past few weeks have been that cesspool of hell, the undercurrent threatening to pull me under. I go from being confident in what I do to cut down and weak. It’s frustrating. The environment, which can be so collaborative and positive, can quickly turn threatening and hyper-competitive, leading to unnecessary drama and unanswered questions. Instead of being able to stay afloat and above the chaos, I find myself questioning my own abilities.

***

People ask me why I work so hard. I don’t know how to tell them that I know what it’s like to wear damp pants to school because your dryer broke and your parents can’t afford to fix it right now.

I am so grateful for everything I’ve been given. I am grateful that I have been blessed with the ultimate gift of education. I am blessed because I  understand the value of a dollar, the value of simple indulgences like a drink with your meal. I understand what it’s like to make sacrifices; I understand how to cut out the unnecessary. (Seriously, if you want to save money, don’t buy liquid. Don’t buy juice, don’t buy soda, just drink water. One of my favorite indulgences is fruit and veggie juices. It pleases me on some core level.)

I don’t ever want to worry about money. (Which is why the sad irony here is that I spend every day worrying about it.) I don’t ever want to have to ask for help. I don’t need a gold-plated bathtub – I need to know that I can pay the water bill. I won’t stop until I know I’m okay. I can’t. If something bad happens, I need to know that I can hold on for a few months, that I won’t lose my house, or not be able to afford a car, or whatever else.

***

I’ve been struggling lately. It’s a life crisis of the worst kind. The “why do I work so much when it’s not really getting me anywhere?” struggle. The “maybe I’ll just live off ramen and be done trying so hard” train of thought.

I’ve been wondering if it’s that I’m materialistic or too greedy. But then I think, that can’t possibly be the case, can it? Sure, I take pleasure in my material comforts, but I truly believe I’m reasonable about them. I haven’t gotten my car fixed (long live the duct taped bumper!) because I believe it’s an unnecessary expense.

***

In the middle of this disjointed spewing of thoughts, I renewed my prescription online. Then I got a message saying that I’m due for a blood pressure check. I will gladly go and do the blood pressure check so that I can get my prescription renewed. I’m responsible. I’m on top of it. I renew, I submit to the examinations of the mind and body whenever they tell me to, I pay. I don’t abuse. I take my dose, no more, no less. I hate that people want to make the drug the problem, when in fact, there are other factors to consider. I will say, though, that I’m glad it happened at 23 and not at 10, or younger. I am grateful that medication was my choice.

***

I hate to say it, but have we considered the fact that our society is slowly building a set of standards that are possibly unattainable? I hear all of these complaints, including that op-ed piece in Wall Street Journal by a very whiny high school senior who didn’t get into her chosen schools, from people who aren’t measuring up. But are the standards too high? Am I one of those who worries I’ll never be good enough simply because I could be good enough? Or perhaps I’m already good enough but can’t see it because I’m constantly being told I should push harder, run faster, be better. (For the record, I’ll never run faster than last place, and I’m cool with that.)

I need my Adderall to focus. But I need my focus to work. And I need my work to survive, to be happy, to be secure. Above all, I want security. Is that so much to ask for? Security should not be the result of a sixty-hour work week. It should not come at the expense of happiness.

***

Last week, someone asked me what I do to relax. I stared at them, my mind desperately searching for any answer besides “gin.” After a very long and uncomfortable pause, I weakly offered, “I take baths sometimes?”

“I expected that you wouldn’t have a lot of answers, but I didn’t expect nothing,” was the response I got. I’m determined to somehow find time to take care of me, to find my own relaxation somewhere in this madness. But perhaps, much like security and happiness, relaxation is another of the unattainables we were told we could have if only we worked hard enough.

On Luck, Unluckily

It has most certainly been a very eventful week. And not necessarily in a good way. It’s frustrating, because I subscribe to the “put good out into the world, get good back” philosophy. Usually, I seem to maintain a pretty level relationship with the rest of the universe.

Lately, that’s been a seemingly impossible task. This is odd – Mercury isn’t in retrograde; there isn’t a full moon; I’m not in any way overwhelmed by floods of strange hormones. It’s just like all of a sudden, my luck has run out.

Remember that Disney channel original movie, The Luck of the Irish? We got cable when my parents divorced, so I spent most of middle school totally obsessed with the Disney channel while trying to sneak views of MTV when no one knew I was looking – that was when TRL was cool and Eminem was upsetting middle-class parents across America. I can probably still spit most lines from a few of his albums. (Oh god, I didn’t just type that. Mostly, I wrote that because “rap” sounded crass and I believe I’m unqualified. But perhaps “spitting lines” implies a level of rap battle preparedness that I’ll never achieve? Because honestly, any amount of rap battle preparedness is more rap battle preparedness than I’ll ever have.)

I mean, maybe I’ve been looking at the situation all wrong: I do have elf-like features and I’m most likely at least part Irish, maybe I’m just a leprechaun. Perhaps this spell of bad luck is just because an evil Irish-dancing leprechaun has made off with my luck, and all I have to do to get it back is beat him in a basketball game (giving real meaning to “March Madness”). But in that case – losing – I’d probably have to spend the rest of my life without my luck (my jump shot is a tad rusty).

Just so we’re clear, I’m this guy:

 

and whatever force is currently harshing my buzz (on life) is this guy:

I mean, there are definitely some silver linings to some of the stuff that’s been going on in the form of compassionate souls, understanding, lessons learned, and general introspection, but on the whole, I am making a mess of everything I touch. Life in general is crumbling around me, all of a sudden. It’s like dominoes. It’s like straws on a camel’s back. It’s like floodgates. Pick your metaphor, whichever is the most disastrous. One thing fell, and everything is tumbling down.

So here I am, trying to weather the storm. (Hah, apparently I’m going for broke on the terrible metaphors today.) Here’s hoping that things calm down and go back to normal soon – I’m ready to go back to the stasis of optimism. This pessimistic peering at the bottom of things is really getting me down. Here’s to a swift return of my luck, of my hope, and of normal.

(Images stolen from the internet – they should link back to their original source.)

On Business Trips and Existential Crises, Millennially

(TL;DR: 24-year-old girl emotional word vomit. So basically, what follows is some seriously grumpiness. Don’t read if you’re in a great mood. Don’t read if you hate millennial complaints. Don’t read if you’re Bruce Wayne – I essentially insult your power by comparing my power suit to your bat suit.)

I have just returned from my first business trip to New York City. I attended a big legal tech convention with my company. I had an absolute blast. Of course, in typical Katie Barry fashion, I failed to set an alarm and woke up incredibly late on my first morning there. I ran around, printing additional materials, and finally arrived in our booth. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t kill me for the transgression, and I feel like an asshole, but other than that, I think the trip was a smashing success. I wandered the trade show floor, observing. I am far too timid and thus didn’t end up with any freebies (other than a football), but that may be for the best anyway. Who really needs a thousand pens and stuffed animals and flash drives?

I got to see Letterman taped! And Jason Bateman was on the show! I did the excited squeal that I make when I’m excited, and my co-worker looked at me like I was insane. Jason Bateman! Michael Bluth! Oh my god, so good. He had to retape his interview because they started talking about his daughter and it went to a very weird place – he sort of called her fat and it got super awkward. But I laughed so hard. It was so great.

I like being in front of the people. I like talking to people about what they need. I like talking to people in general. At one point yesterday, a man walked up to our booth and asked me what separates us from our competition. I blurted something out and he looked at my co-worker and said, “You should double her pay. That’s the quickest anyone’s been able to answer that question.” Even though he was not a serious potential client, I was thrilled. (It’s the little things. And don’t act like a little flattery doesn’t make your entire day some days.)

I spent the flight home in utter melancholy. Despondency. Severe emotional apathy. Thanks to my childhood, I have what I have termed a “mediocrity complex” in which my competency far outweighs my confidence. When I am confident and comfortable, I excel in whatever endeavor I choose to do. But for some reason, I’ve been hindered by the growing fears of my own inadequacy.

It’s holding me back – it’s stopping me from reaching my full potential. It’s miserable. I know this. I know that I am far more intelligent and capable than I could ever imagine, and yet, I stare at big projects, unwilling to start them because I’m terrified that something will go wrong. But I guess they’re not wrong when they say that everything worth happening happens outside your comfort zone.

I should just settle in and get comfortable with discomfort, because I am seriously determined not to be someone who just shows up. I want to be someone who kicks ass at what I do – and I want the people who I work for and with to be insanely impressed by my work and proud to have me as a team member.

I’ve been in this funk for a few months now. I can’t tell if the existential crisis I’m ensconced in is one that is the result of growing pains, or if it’s one that will lead me to seek growth. But either way, it’s brought my thoughts to a far more empty place than any of my previous quests for answers. It’s depressing, without depression, if that makes sense.

I no longer believe that I will find a person to truly love – that passionate idea of a soul mate has died and has been replaced by the reality that I find most men either incapable and boring or wildly pretentious and not life-experienced (they’re all such downers). I no longer have any idea what I’m passionate about (seriously. I mean, Game of Thrones counts, right?). I watch my friends as they do such great things – they volunteer, they work abroad, they are so much more whole people than I am – their accomplishments are starting to pile up, and yet, I don’t feel as though I can say the same. I no longer want children. That idea of that responsibility terrifies me. It’s this horrible stagnant circling – and the fear that I’m locked in a miserable holding pattern because I can’t think of one thing that I want. I do not want to internet date. I do not want to become a better snowboarder. I do not want to be tied to a cubicle for the rest of my life. (I mean, those “nots” are a start, right? Process of elimination? baby steps?)

It might be time to stop thinking about the future at all and start focusing – seriously focusing – on right now. I have a cat son who adores me, so there’s at least one thing I know I’m insanely good at it (snuggling and opening packets of wet cat food – okay, that’s two things). I am making new friends (whom I absolutely adore). I have managed to muddle along thus far, so perhaps I shall just keep on keepin’ on and see where I’m at in a month or so. Hopefully this panic that has been coursing through my veins and keeping me awake at night will settle soon. I’m tired. (Also, whiny never looks good on young ladies, so perhaps if I just shut up and think happy thoughts, happy things will follow.)

I also know that your twenties are at times terrifying and horrible – especially now that we’ve all coddled, terrified little people who want to think we’re young adults but are really just overgrown children – and perhaps this is one of those developmental milestones they write a thousand articles a year on. Perhaps this is the realization that eventually separates the “men from the boys,” so to speak in horrid gendered terms. But perhaps this is that kick in the pants where you have to realize that if you want something (oh god, what is that something? If only someone would just give me a freaking hint), you have to reach out and get it yourself. Ugh. Gumption. Courage. Candor. Capabilities. Potential. Here we go. (In case you can’t tell, I just typed words that feel good right now.)

On the plus side, I totally own a red business dress now. And it’s a damn good power dress. Maybe it’ll be like Batman and if you have the outfits, you’ll have the power. Hm. I’m going to stop now, obviously I’ve lost my mind and sleep will heal everything and I have some serious work to get done tomorrow.