The Paxil thing, cont’d

August 5th, 2010

So as I mentioned a while back, I went on Paxil about six months ago as part of the whole mind-body thing. Clearly, my gut was not going to calm down until my brain told it to, no matter how much yogurt and bananas I ate. (Yes, after about a month of no substantive posting, I figured I’d jump right into the deep end. Come on, you’re with me, right?)

Going on the Paxil coincided with cutting way back on drinking, and the two together did a real number on my dreams. Drinking alcohol before bed — even a seemingly modest glass or two of wine, if it’s a regular habit — can suppress dream sleep, which means that when you quit, you may get a bounceback effect. Add to that the fact that SSRIs intensify dreams, and things got quite exciting for a while.

After graduate school, I worked for a while with Alan Hobson on the psychology of dreams. As I’ve written about before, one of Alan’s ideas is that we solve problems in our dreams much as we do in real life, we simply don’t question the bizarre. Alan also believed that Freud and psychoanalysis had led people to focus too much on the symbolism of dreams. When you stop trying to figure that out, and instead focus on the story and the emotions, what the dream “means” will usually become quite clear.

The power of a dream lies in its story, and in how that story affects you. The set and props are just whatever your unconscious mind could most quickly grab: images from the day’s business; random memories that floated up in response to this color or that smell; faces or places you watched on television before bed. This is why there’s no point to “dream dictionaries” that purport to tell you what the various symbols in your dreams mean. Dream symbols are at once universal (ever go through a computer training with co-workers, and discover afterward that many of you dreamed of the program you were learning that night?) and idiosyncratic (a cigar may be merely a cigar to Sigmund, but it might symbolize the Cuban embargo to Rosalita, or her father’s cancer to Dora, or even a penis to James).

Anyway, about a month or so after I’d been on the medication, I had a dream that nicely illustrated both the principles above and the effect that Paxil had had on on my problem-solving style.

I’d been over to a friend’s house that night to catch up on some Tivo’ed episodes of “Big Love.” (It’s a fun show to watch in batches — when you watch several episodes back-to-back, you realize that every time someone smiles, something horrible happens within 10 seconds.) Unsurprisingly, that night, I had the classic Actor’s Nightmare: I’d been cast as Bill Henrickson’s fourth wife, but no one had bothered to give me a script.

Was I anxious or worried? Oh, heck no. I have a fair amount I’d like to say to those characters, so until the directors put a script in my hand, I was going to say what I thought. (I recall telling first wife Barb, “Listen to how Bill yells orders at you! My boss doesn’t talk to me that way, and he’s my boss! A person’s spouse certainly shouldn’t bark at them like that.”) And if the director or other actors didn’t like what I had to say, well, give me the script, already, and I’ll stop improvising and say what you want.

Have you ever had a dream that used to make you anxious, but doesn’t anymore? Or a kind of dream you stopped having once certain problems in your waking life got resolved? Or a dream that makes more sense to you now that I’ve talked about the “story, not symbolism” principle?

So, the Paxil thing

June 8th, 2010

As I mentioned last week, I went on Paxil in December. My digestive system had not been working well for a couple of years, and what had once been an occasional annoyance turned into a full-time debilitation by last fall. As it turned out, I have the trifecta: IBS, gastritis, and esophageal reflux disease. This was going to require not only medication, time, and rest, but significant changes to my diet and cutting out alcohol. And as my gastroenterologist is one of the good ones who realizes that I am not a bunch of interconnected malfunctioning tubes, but a person, she suggested I go to behavioral health and get myself on, as she put it, “something that will help you cope without dissolving your esophagus.”

Now, here’s the thing. Every time I had gone to this doctor before with a bout of gut misery, she would ask, “Are you under any particular stress?” And I would say, “No.”

And, having seen the incredible difference that Paxil has made in my life, I was obviously wrong. Why didn’t I answer the question correctly?

Because of how it was asked, that’s why. People are notoriously susceptible to answering a question based on how it’s worded: for example, a recent study showed that more people agreed that “gay men and lesbians” should be able to serve in the military than that “homosexuals” should be able to serve in the military. Same question, obviously, but “homosexuals” sounds clinical and perverted, while “gay men and lesbians” sounds like people you know.

The question “Are you under stress?” or “Are there particular stressors in your life?” is a question that leads me to look outward, away from my emotions and to the objective circumstances of my life. And every time I did, I simply couldn’t see anything that could be, almost literally, twisting my gut into knots. My husband and I get along well. We are both in relatively good health, physically and financially. Yes, sometimes it can be difficult to juggle multiple jobs and projects, but I’ve always preferred to have a lot going on (and in this economy, having multiple sources of income seems like a good thing). I have good friends to confide in. What did I have to be stressed about?

But if she’d said, “Do you feel anxious?” — oh, I would have given a very different answer to that. Because that’s a question that would lead me to look inside, to how I felt. And I am an anxious person. Not because of my life circumstances, but because of how my brain chemicals are mixed. My flight-or-fight response threshold is ridiculously low.

And it isn’t anymore. I don’t have the off-the-chain startle reflex that I used to. I find it easier to read e-mails criticizing my work, even when they’re completely hateful, without my heartbeat going into overdrive. To my great surprise, even Milo has picked up on this. Before, if he was sitting on my lap at night while I watched TV or movies, he’d leap out of the chair and run to the window barking at the slightest noise. Now, he’s more likely to lift his head, growl, and settle back down immediately when I say “It’s just the wind, little guy.”

I’m amazed that the way a question was worded kept me from getting the help I needed for several years. I study this kind of thing: I know about cognitive biases, and the power of language and framing, and even a fair bit about temperament and brain chemistry. It’s a good lesson in staying humble and always, always, remembering to look at a situation from more than one perspective.

Going on Paxil really did a job on my dream life, too, in some fairly amusing ways. But I’ll save that for another post.

Conversation of the week

May 27th, 2010

Yesterday I had an appointment with the psychiatric nurse who writes my Paxil prescriptions. (I went on Paxil in December when my health problems were properly diagnosed, and I’ll write more about my thoughts on that later. Right now we’re not going for the deep personal/sociological insight, we’re going for cheap laughs, ‘kay?) After our conversation, I noticed, as I always do, the sign pointing to the waiting room, and I stuck my head back in her office:

Me: I love the sign out there that says “Mental Health Reception.” I’d love to attend one someday.

Nurse: I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed that before.

Me: Well, you’ve never had an etiquette columnist as a patient before.

Out of emergency mode

May 4th, 2010

All of my Great Big Projects at Harvard wrapped up last week, and I’ve been catching up on the rest of my life, including sleep, ever since.

When you’re in the throes of a major project — at home or at the office — do you like to immerse yourself in it completely, or maintain some semblance of balance? In graduate school, when working on final papers or take-home exams, I would let papers pile up in my study, live on snack food and coffee, and generally get very wild-eyed about things. Gradually, I came to prefer a more balanced approach. Even when I was working on my dissertation, I would put away the papers at the end of the day and straighten up. And even on days when I’d be writing at home all day, I still bothered to brush my hair.

How are you? Do you like to plunge full in and re-emerge some days or weeks later, covered with insight, exhaustion, and Doritos crumbs? Or do you prefer, even when working hard, to try to live a somewhat balanced life?

Ineffective techniques

April 2nd, 2010

I love how whenever Milo chases a squirrel up a tree (and he’s not allowed to chase squirrels unless there is a tree, fence, or pole they can get to) he runs around the base of the tree, barking and barking as though that is going to make the squirrel come back down.

It’s like those guys who will yell at you on the street, “Hey, baby, wanna take a ride in my car?” and when you ignore them, shout, “Bitch, you ain’t that fine anyway!”

The squirrels never fall for it. Neither do the women.

Happy Passover, part II

March 30th, 2010

Here’s a more serious Passover question for you. Passover celebrates the journey from slavery to freedom, and marks the cost of that journey, as well. (This is why we deny ourselves certain foods during the holiday, and eat matzoh — “the bread of affliction” — instead.)

I posted this on Facebook a day or two ago, and liked the responses I got, so I thought I’d take it public: What have you been freed from in this past year, and what has the price of that freedom been?

I have been freed from my self-imposed pressure to become rich and famous. That joke I used to make about “All I want is my own talk show and my face on a bus”? It wasn’t a joke. I’d still be happy to have those things, but I’ve come to realize that what is valuable about the work I do — doesn’t necessarily depend on how many people I can reach, or on the way American society keeps track of success. I write things I’m proud of, I start conversations that I think help people learn from each other, I get and give some good laughs. That really is enough. The price of that freedom was a little bit of post-publication madness, and giving up certain illusions about myself.

I have been freed from a friendship that had gone very sour, and that was leading me to censor myself in both my private and public life. The price of that freedom has been realizing that not everyone is going to think I’m one of the Good Guys. For some folks, I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution.

What about you? What have you been freed from, and what price have you paid?

Strangers on a train

March 25th, 2010

So earlier this week I went down to New Haven to give a reading. I was paired with Susan Barr-Toman, whose debut novel, When Love Was Clean Underwear, is absolutely wonderful. It’s like an Anne Tyler novel, only not horribly, horribly annoying.

The train ride down was largely uneventful, until about 10 minutes before my stop. I’d finished the work-related reading I’d brought with me, and was reading a horror novel (Dan Simmon’s Carrion Comfort, which I am also enjoying greatly). I was wearing a grey turtleneck and tights, a red tweed skirt, an olive pashmina scarf, and black pearls. I am telling you this so you can get a visual image of me: an unaccompanied woman in early middle age, conservatively dressed and made up, reading a horror novel. I don’t know what it was about this combination that made the young man approach me.

He was in his early 20′s, appeared to be Latino, and was obviously gay. He came down the aisle and stopped by my seat.

“Excuse me, miss?”
“Yes?”
“Do you have any cover-up?”
“What?”
“Cover-up.” He turned and bared his neck to me — interesting choice, given that I was reading about vampires. “I just realized I have a hickey, and my parents are coming to pick me up at the train station, and they will kill me. Do you have any cover-up? I’ll pay you.”
I shook my head. “I have concealer, but that’s lighter than my skin, and look”–I pushed sleeve up and put my arm against his–”you’re darker than I am anyway.”
“Oh, it doesn’t have to be perfect, I’ll be sitting on the passenger side”–the hickey was on the right side of his neck–”just enough to hide until I get home.”
“Oh, wait! I have eyeshadow primer! That’s darker and it stays on longer anyway. Okay, get yourself over here.” I moved my bag and motioned to him to sit down. I dug through my cosmetics bag and pulled out the primer. “Here we go.”
I applied primer all over the hickey, dabbed it with my finger to blend it in, and put some powder on to set it. I turned on the overhead light and showed him the mirror of my compact. “There. How does that look?”
“Oh, that’s perfect! You’ve saved my life!”

We exchanged names and he offered to buy me a drink, and I’d have been so happy to have taken him up on it, were we not approaching my station. I wonder how amused he would have been to know that getting people out of sticky situations is my business, though rarely do I get to do so in such a concrete fashion?

Wherever you are, Eric, I hope you got home safely. And I hope that some day you can come out to your parents, or go far away from them, and live the life you need to live without concealment or concealer. And in the meantime, let us both cherish a moment of the kindness of strangers on a train.

UPDATE: Thank you for the love, you all, but I seriously did not write this as some kind of tribute to myself. It was just a moment that struck me as both profoundly human and profoundly odd — and, given the whole vampire angle, a bit amusing — and I wanted to share it. My deepest hope, actually, is that one of my creative-writing friends will use this little vignette as the inspiration for a short story!

Today’s letters

March 7th, 2010

The letters in today’s Globe magazine were an interesting lot. As you might imagine, plenty of them chose to take on “The Ms. Myth,” an article about how most women continue to take their husbands’ last names. The first one got at the thing that most bothered me about the article — the idea that if you take your husband’s last name, you are automatically a “Mrs.” Not so. I’m a “Ms.,” and have been through three last names.

There’s the usual “Last time I checked, my maiden name came from my father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc., so forgive me if I can’t see how keeping it and not taking my husband’s name is some feminist act” response, as well. This used to make sense to me, until some writer pointed out that this idea presumes that women don’t actually have last names, we are given them by men. No. All three of the last names I have been known by felt like me, and a good part of the reason that I took my first and second husbands’ last names was because I was ready for a change in identity, a new last name to mark a new phase in my life.

My birth name, incidentally, was “Lent.” The same issue that featured “The Ms. Myth” on the cover also featured an article on Lent that was highlighted on the cover as “Lent is for Everyone” or something like that. (Sorry, I don’t have a hard copy and can’t read the tiny cover script online.) As you can imagine, that amused me no end — the reason I took my first husband’s last name, Pearce, is some evidence that Lent is not for everyone.

And it didn’t have to do with any feeling that I ought to take my husband’s last name, or certainly any feeling against my parents or my father of blessed memory. It was Robin Lent I was tired of: tired of being a child, tired of my socially alienated self, ready to grow up and enter a new phase of my life. Which is why, when I got divorced, the notion of returning to my birth name wasn’t even an option. I was Robin Pearce. It didn’t matter where I “got” the name: it was mine. I don’t feel as though my clothing is any less my own because I don’t spin the wool, weave the fabric, and sew it myself — it’s mine because I wear it, and it expresses who I am. So too with my last names.

It felt so much like me that I hesitated a bit before taking “Abrahams” when Mr. Improbable and I married. But I did, because, again, it seemed that a major life transition was underway: not only was I getting married after a long time of being single, but I was getting my doctorate and already planning to convert to Judaism. I liked the idea of us both having the same last name; it made us seem more of a team somehow. And I wanted a Jewish last name to go with my new identity as a Jew. (Although, if he’d been named “Lipschitz,” I might have reconsidered. And I do go to a Reform temple so liberal that our current president’s last name is “McIntosh.”)

Lent, Pearce, Abrahams — different names, all mine, all denoting different phases of my life. I wonder if changing one’s name were more common in this culture, if it weren’t bound up with marriage traditions, but something that people could simply do or not do as they see fit, with no feminist/patriarchal/family baggage around it, who would? And when?

When in your life would you have changed your name, and what to, and why?

(There were also some letters about my February 7 response to the woman who was overcome with emotion — not repulsion, as the headline said, I didn’t write that — about her granddaughter’s amputated leg. More on that later, because I’ve already gone on much longer than I planned to with this name business!)

What’s going on

February 19th, 2010

As I posted on my boston.com blog, and as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, my blog presence has been stepping down of late. My absolute priorities in life are getting my health back on track, my column, my Harvard job, and my family, friends, and community. Last week’s Deadline from Hell sent me into a pretty bad relapse that I’m just now coming out of. So blogging has to take a back seat for a while.

I love this blog, and the way it enables me to share all the weird things I notice, to ruminate about theater or psychology or fashion or religion or just about anything. I love your thoughtful comments. And I do hope to get back to daily posting soon. But it’s not going to happen right now. Keep me in your RSS feed (and your hearts), and keep checking my Twitter feed (robinabrahams) for links to stuff I think you’d be interested in. And in the meantime, I thank you for your patience. Once I get off thruster power and back into full warp speed, the good times will resume in full force. I just need a little time to pull my resources — physical, emotional, mental — back together.

How I spent Valentine’s Day

February 15th, 2010

… the story is here.

Just another manic Monday …

February 8th, 2010

Oy. I have a marathon meeting this morning at the business school to work through book edits with my boss. And yes, my alarm didn’t go off, I probably ate some stuff I shouldn’t have at the Superb Owl party, and the edits aren’t fully done because another work-related emergency cropped up on Friday morning (and neither my boss nor I work on Saturdays) and it’s just … oy, that’s what it is!

I’ve been noticing through internet and face-to-face relationships that the past week or two has been weird for everyone. Blogs that I read are having comment drama. (Including a bit on my own, which I am just not dealing with right now.) People are having accidents. Washington D.C. is covered in snow while here there’s not a flake on the ground. Friends are fighting and breaking up. The Smoke Monster’s rival is inhabiting a re-animated Sayid. (That’s my theory.)

Tell me it’s not just me and my network. Has this been a weird time for you as well? What, if anything, do you attribute it to? Midwinter madness?

Let’s consider this an open thread, and also a requests thread. Anything you’d like me to blog about? Or follow up on from previous discussions?

… and in the other half of my life

February 4th, 2010

I’ve been working this week on editing the page proofs of my boss’s book for my Harvard Business School job. (Hence the lack of long, navel-gazing, rambling posts.) Whew! It’s a lot longer than my book was, I’ll tell you that. It’s a good one, though — and already up on Amazon. Check it out. Fundamentally, it is about what happens when people change jobs: Do they continue to succeed? How can you know if a job change is a good idea or not? If you are a manager, is it better to hire outside talent or invest the time and money to develop your own workers into superstars?

A childhood memory drifts up …

February 1st, 2010

Sunday’s column dealt with the rude questions and comments addressed to parents of only children. I got a letter today from the mother of another only child, who suggested this answer to the “When are you having another” question: “We’re waiting to see how this one turns out first. Ask us when he’s 18.”

I suppose the ConductMom has more or less decided how I’ve turned out, and it’s not as though anyone is pushing her to give me a little brother or sister at this point, finally. But it did remind me of another thing she used to say — when I was a child, people often asked, “But aren’t you afraid she’ll be spoiled?” upon learning I had no siblings. To which my mother would reply, “We were afraid she was, but it turns out she always smells that way.”

You know I had to get it from somewhere.

New glasses!

January 28th, 2010

They’re here! And they do actually look a bit like the ones on that “Miss Conduct” doll:

newglass

Mr. Improbable and I both like them, but Milo’s not so sure. He’s such a fashion conservative.

newglasmilo

In case you can’t tell, the frames* are black on top and green on the bottom. I wanted to blog this whole outfit, because I like it, but we didn’t get a good full shot. Do, though, check out my cool bib necklace. I picked this up for a mere $10 at Buffalo Exchange, a new used-clothing store in Davis Square (and elsewhere — they’re a chain). It looks a lot like this one. I love wearing it with this dress, because it hits right at the neckline and therefore looks like an embellishment on the dress itself. I bet making zipper jewelry would be a fun project — you get a lot of bang for some broken zippers, a piece of felt, and a hank of ribbon.

*Yes, given that Michelle Obama is my fashion muse and inspiration (some might say obsession), I did find it ironic that the make of frames I chose is called “Sarah,” thank you very much.