In order to get onto the naval base where I work, I must pass through a security gate. This isn’t like the security guard post at your Nana’s gated community. At 7:00 a.m. when I arrive, there are usually eight guards on duty, frequently wearing bulletproof gear and with rifles slung over their backs. I try to make this experience pleasant and always smile broadly at the guard who checks my I.D. One guard likes to greet me with, “Have a blessed day.” I doubt that he and I are of the same religion (I’m Jewish), but I appreciate this small moment of grace as I start my day. It always leaves me with a sense of peace.
Fun fact: I recently read that the German word kummerspeck means excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally translated, it means “grief bacon.” I’m pleased that something bad for me has a funny, colorful name. When I can laugh at my worst habits, it helps me gain perspective and move through my malaise. This is one of the many tools I use to live well with chronic illness.
This blog was published on the HuffPost blog on March 20, 2017
In 1999, the year I moved from Boston to San Diego, a respected travel magazine rated The Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California, the best hotel of its size in the country. I love beautiful hotels, but on a social worker’s salary I rarely stay in them. Laguna Niguel is only about seventy minutes north of San Diego, so I decided to visit the hotel and see what made it special.
During my first year in California, I was returning from a one-day conference in Los Angeles when I took a detour to explore the hotel. At first glance, the lobby looked like an updated set of a 1930’s musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The hotel décor was lush and elegant without feeling overdone. I could imagine Fred and Ginger in lively repartee at the bar. The dining area overlooked the Pacific, the view both soothing and magnificent.
After my initial visit to The Ritz, I used it as a meeting place for friends who visited Los Angeles. I drove my parents up the coast for lunch there when they came to San Diego. Once in 2009, a friend got a deal that cut the usual $500.00 daily rate in half, and we spent one divine night in the hotel. The Ritz became my “happy place.”
Last Christmas Eve day, some friends who recently moved from the East Coast to the Los Angeles area decided to meet me at a restaurant on Highway One, near the hotel. We discussed two options and chose the one north of The Ritz. I hadn’t traveled to Highway One in years and became lost. As a mediocre driver, I found this especially stressful. My friends and I got our wires crossed and ended up at different restaurants. I waited for them for an hour before discovering our mistake. When I got back in my car to drive to meet them, I was cranky and worn out. I spent the fifteen-minute trip trying to relax and cheer up.
I enjoyed a lovely lunch with my friends but wanted a quiet moment alone before heading home to San Diego. I remembered having a great cup of coffee at the Ritz, presented, with a stick of crystalized sugar. In that moment, I longed for everything the Ritz could offer: elegance, courtesy, great coffee and a grand view of nature.
The Ritz offered only valet parking that day, but the valet waived the high parking fees because of my handicapped placard. I tipped him generously. Inside, several empty tables were available. I asked if I could be seated, saying I’d only have coffee and wouldn’t stay long. I told the hostess that I remembered the beautiful coffee presentation from years back. She directed me to the coffee shop and assured me I could have the same service there. At the coffee shop, the hot beverages were being served in paper cups. I returned to the restaurant and was immediately seated. My table faced the ocean, and as soon as I sat down, I felt calm and at peace. I requested the crystal sugar stick and a couple of cookies with my coffee. My server, Cameron, said he couldn’t provide cookies, but he’d see what he could do. He quickly returned with coffee and two kinds of sugar cubes, raw and white, and he’d placed two biscotti and three medallions of dark chocolate next to the cup. He explained that sugar sticks were no longer available. I sat at my table at the Ritz enjoying the ambiance, my mid-afternoon treats, and the ocean view.
When I asked for the check, Cameron said the coffee was on the house. I was floored. I asked him how he knew I needed this, but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. I tipped him generously and tipped the hostess for seating me, even though she insisted it wasn’t necessary. Then I tipped the valet who returned my car.
I’ll never know the reasons for Cameron’s generosity. His act of kindness was the single, most beautiful thing that happened to me during the holidays. The care and generosity he took with my coffee presentation touched me. It wasn’t the money—I paid more collectively in tips than I would have for the coffee with a tip. But I’d needed a few minutes of serenity, and adding kindness made it meaningful beyond my expectations. Rarely in life do we get exactly what we want. My half hour at the Ritz was that and much more.
When I visited my grandparents in Pennsylvania as a child, I often slept in their guest bedroom. This had been my mother’s bedroom before she left home for college and then later for marriage at nineteen. The closets in the room had a safe as well as several shelves of gifts my grandmother gave on myriad occasions throughout the year.
I buy gifts all year. Some of the gifts are earmarked for special events or the holiday season, but there are always gifts I can grab if I receive an unexpected invitation to a celebration.
I hadn’t planned on seeing my friends Jeff and Cherie during the holiday season. They live about three to four hours from me outside of Los Angeles. But when their Christmas vacation plans fell through, they wanted to get together during Christmas weekend.We decide to meet on the California coast halfway between our homes.
I didn’t have the time or energy to shop, but there were enough items in my gift box to put together small gift bags containing several items for each of them. As I prepared their presents, I thought to myself, this is a fine place. This is Joanna-Land, where there are always extra presents for others. I thought about my grandmother and felt happy.
When I asked a colleague about his plans for the three-day Christmas weekend, he replied that he’d be hanging out at home with his cat. I offered to have him over to my place for a meal, but he insisted he’d be happy home alone with the cat. The next day when I called my stepmother to wish her happy holidays, she said she felt exhausted after spending several days with visiting cousins and was too worn out to talk. She added that she was happily watching British mysteries on her computer with her cat. She’d call me the next day.
Cat people get a bad rap. But we love our animals, and they provide comfort and affection in good health and bad. So who cares what anyone else thinks?
On the psych wards where I work, we encourage our patients to reach out to their friends and family for support. I have a standard pep talk to urge reluctant patients to do this. When they take our advice, patients usually report they’re glad they did.
I never ask patients to do anything I wouldn’t do in my life. I hate asking for emotional support. I’m much more comfortable soldiering on by myself. But I don’t want to be a hypocrite, so when I’m feeling blue or struggling, I force myself to reach out to a loved one. Suffering alone isn’t good for humans. Most people are hard-wired to need each other, and science has proven we’re both happier and healthier if we have human support when we’re sick or distressed. It’s not easy to ask for help, but we usually feel better when we do.
If I’m not paying attention, I’ll read something incorrectly or not at all, even if it’s directly in front of me and written in large print. This is why I periodically walk into men’s rooms by mistake, and how I broke my knee four years ago. I struggle to explain to people how I often fail to see things that are plainly visible, and I don’t completely understand it myself. To the best of my knowledge, my dyslexia causes my selective vision. My brain focuses on what is necessary and often eliminates everything else. So if I’m walking toward a door and looking at the door handle, my peripheral vision doesn’t register the sign on the eight-by-eleven-inch piece of paper with letters in forty-eight point font that clearly say, Do Not Enter.
If I’m preoccupied with my own thoughts, I occasionally fail to discern the difference between the men’s and women’s room signs. On one memorable occasion, I exited a bathroom stall and noticed the room was filled with men. Indignant, I thought, what are all these men doing in the ladies’ room! (This was decades before society became sensitized to gender fluidity.) Then I realized there were no other women present, and once again I had done my thing in the wrong bathroom. My self-righteous judgment shamed me.
My selective perception is also the reason I broke my knee. As I entered a store, I didn’t register the huge sign directly in front of me that warned, “watch for step.” Instead I looked at the door on my left. When I tripped on the step at the entrance to the store and then onto the brick floor, landing on my left knee, the alarmed sales lady demanded, “Didn’t you see the sign?” There was no way to explain to her in the moment that no, I hadn’t seen her huge sign. With a combination of resignation and shame, I realized I’d just experienced my first dyslexic accident. It felt like the equivalent of wetting my bed.
Aside from the humiliation of repeatedly walking into men’s rooms (less of an issue in the current decade of the twenty-first century than in the past), you might think this problem would make the world a dangerous place for me. But to date, it hasn’t been. Most of the time I know when to pay attention and when to relax. I’m a bad driver, so I’m always extremely careful behind the wheel. In the last forty-one years, since I began driving, I’ve only had one moving violation, and the insurance company determined the other driver was at fault. I’m very cautious on stairs, not because of mobility issues, but because I know I’m at risk of not seeing the last step, or the landing.
Going through the world knowing I may not see everything around me is a little freaky. I don’t mind seeing things backwards occasionally, which is also an expression of my dyslexia. I usually catch those errors quickly and double check whatever I’ve misread or misperceived. But even with vision corrected by lenses, I know I’m not moving through the world as most others do. I reconcile this reality by accepting that the world is full of dangers, both those we know about and those beyond our control. So I’ll do what I’ve always done, which is to hope that my mistakes are more humorous than dangerous. They usually are.
Occasionally my pursuit of good health fails so thoroughly that all I can do is laugh at myself. Last fall I bought a half-gallon of chocolate chip ice cream. I needed an indulgence and convinced myself I’d eat the ice cream over the course of a week. I rarely buy ice cream because I struggle with portion control with sweets. I’m certain I’ve never bought an entire half-gallon of ice cream before.
Once home, I ate one serving, and then another. This was possibly the best chocolate chip ice cream I’d ever tasted. I continued with my evening, but I could hear the siren call from the freezer. By the end of the evening I’d eaten the entire half-gallon.
The next day at work, I confessed to my two wonderful officemates what I’d done. One of the women stated she’d done exactly the same thing. I felt better and convinced myself I’d never overindulge to that extreme again. Except I did exactly the same thing a few days later.
It’s been several months since I ate a gallon of ice cream in two separate evenings. I’m usually mindful in all my health practices, but I somehow got severely off track that week. It happens. It’s not the end of the world, and I still think it’s funny.
During a graduate class for social work, our professor stated clearly, “You don’t have to love your patients.” I’ve been a social worker for three decades, and this advice has been helpful. I’m obligated to do my job; however, I don’t have to love the people I’m trying to help. But occasionally I do, because I’m human, my patients are human, and some of them are hard not to love.
I recently passed by the office of a colleague in the Outpatient Mental Health Clinic and noticed a woman who’d been assigned to my treatment team during her hospitalization on the psychiatry ward. I’d worked with her a couple of times several years apart. This patient impressed everyone with her natural sweetness, evident even when she was most ill.
I poked my head into the office and said hello. She told me her psychiatrist had stepped out for a moment. I asked how she was doing, and she confessed, “Not well.” I reminded her that Inpatient and Outpatient Mental Health staff were available to support her, and that we cared about her. She began to cry, and then she hugged me. We’re discouraged from hugging patients, but there are occasional exceptions, especially when refraining would involve rejection. As we hugged, I hoped she could feel my love, and I felt gratitude that this kind, gentle, sick soul trusted me and reached out to me in a bad moment. My love for her and her trust of me made my day better.