Frumpy to Fabulous in Three Parts

I once read that there is a reason Queen Elizabeth II of England follows her own fashion dictates – pastel skirt suits, with matching overcoats and hats – rather than current trends or even classic fashion guidelines. It’s because she (or whoever decides such things on her behalf) believes that fashion is inherently mean – judgmental – and that the monarch must remain outside that.

In many ways, she’s right. The fashion industry thrives on us feeling off balance, insecure. With every new season they convince us that the things we own and wear are hopelessly out of style, and we can be saved by the next thing – but woe betide you if you carry curves, or if you’re aging.

I’m a Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde when it comes to clothing. Sometimes I get it really right; I feel confident, everything just works. Other times I feel hopelessly frumpy, especially as I get older; but until recently I haven’t been successful in figuring out why things work for me or don’t.

A colleague of mine told me she gets a lot of inspiration from the TV show What Not to Wear, but I found the makeover element of it – telling the featured victim guest everything they’re doing wrong – more than I could bear. All of us could be perfectly stylish with two experts and thousands of dollars at our disposal. How many guests maintain their new look after they go back home to their everyday challenges?  I’m after feeling good about myself within the limits of the money and time I have to spend.

I know two things: first, that there are actual principles to fashion (even if I don’t know what they are) – not one size fits all rules, but reasons things look good or don’t, or why what you’re wearing might look great on you but not on me. And I also know that I’m teachable; I can learn and apply stuff. I just wanted to find a way to learn that wasn’t based on judgment, and that didn’t trigger the perfectionism and self-loathing monsters.

Enter Imogen Lamport. Imogen is an Australian image consultant who writes at www.insideoutstyleblog.com. It is the most extensive collection of information on every aspect of fashion that I have ever seen. More importantly, it comes from a place of kindness and support, not shame. The information is so comprehensive that I am having to take it slowly. Otherwise I fall into the perfectionist trap, using the gaps in my knowledge or the fact that I don’t yet know everything, as reasons to give myself a hard time.

I am only getting started, and I have a way to go before I look and feel the way I’d like to every day. But understanding just three things has added up to one big impact:

Body shape. Imogen uses letters to represent the general shapes women’s bodies tend to fall into. For example, H (similar measurements at bust and hip without a defined waist); V (larger on the top than on the bottom); A (larger on the bottom than the top), and many others. Your shape is not a problem to be solved; rather, it’s a guide, with specific principles that can help you dress your body in the way that is most comfortable and most flattering. I’m a combination of V and H: wide shoulders, narrow hips, without a defined waist. Learning about how to dress my shape is both freeing and fun. I’ve learned I can balance my V by doing things like wearing jeans with details on the pockets that draw the eye. And learning about my H shape gave me permission to just STOP trying to make wearing a belt work for me. Figure out your shape here.

Proportion. The way your clothes fit you, the pleasing (or not pleasing) way they fit together and draw the eye, whether they enhance or overwhelm you – is the foundation of dressing well and the thing I need the most help with. Our eye is most pleased by the ‘golden mean’ that occurs in nature (remember the Fibonacci Sequence in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code?). We don’t like to see things cut in half; instead we like proportions of 1:2, 2:3, etc. In rough terms, dressing this way in an outfit of two or more pieces means we’re putting one rectangle on top of the other – and one should be longer.

Volume. When we’re not feeling good about ourselves, we want to hide. If we don’t like how we look, we tend to hide in lots of fabric. Feeling heavy or old? Bigger clothes. We swamp ourselves in fabric thinking we’re hiding our perceived flaws, and only succeed in making ourselves look older, heavier, overwhelmed, and often accentuate the very ‘flaws’ we hoped to conceal. This was a huge one for me – I was actually wearing a lot of my clothes at least a size too big. It’s OK to wear voluminous items – but one at a time. Now if I want to wear a flowy shirt, I pair it with skinny jeans; trouser-cut pants mean a more form fitting top or jacket

A word to my short sisters. I’m a petite (under 5’4”, no matter your weight). When you’re short, you have less wiggle-room in which to create the right proportion, and the volume principle becomes even more important, as it’s easy to look like our clothes are wearing us, instead of the other way around. A butt or thigh-length shirt with pants cuts me exactly in half and makes me look even shorter; I have to end all my tops at the high hip. And the most important thing to have with me when I shop, is the camera on my phone. When I’m considering buying something, I take a full length picture while I’m trying it on (I know, but if I can do it, so can you). Many times something I thought worked when I looked in the mirror was revealed by the photo to be the wrong proportion, wrong size, or wrong color. Always believe the photo, not the mirror.

The more I learn, the less fashion feels like a frustrating search for something that will make me OK, and the more it becomes a way I care for myself.

What Every Woman Should Know About Perimenopause

The period is having a media moment. We’re starting to talk about it, and everything surrounding it, as though it’s normal – because it is. It should not be a source of embarrassment or shame. Maybe, to badly paraphrase Gloria Steinem, we should take a page from men – because if they menstruated, you know they’d brag about it. They’d live-tweet that shit.

As the period is having her moment, let’s also turn the spotlight toward her older, wiser sisters: menopause and perimenopause.

When our periods began, most of us had mothers, grandmothers, or other experienced older women to show us the way. To tell us how to make it easier. But when we greet perimenopause and then menopause, we often do so without guidance; not because our foremothers didn’t want to show us the way, but because they didn’t know.

The year I turned 39, I started having weird, irregular periods. I’d have one every month, but would spot after it was supposed to be over for another ten or twelve days. I had a D&C – dilation and curettage; a scraping of the lining of the uterus, fortunately done under anesthetic. The bleeding returned. An exam showed nothing structurally wrong. (The nurse who examined my uterus memorably told me it was “cute and perfect, like a little golf ball in there.” Who knew a uterus could be cute? I felt weirdly accomplished – I have a cute-erus!) Ultrasound revealed a small cyst on my ovary.

I brought up other symptoms with my OB-GYN. I was having what felt like two weeks of the worst PMS of my life every month, complete with breast pain, bloating, food/carb cravings, and irritable moods. My libido was in the crapper. I was either spotting, on my period, or having PMS – there was no ‘normal’ anymore.  This was seriously affecting my quality of life. My doctor was a woman my own age; I expected her to be, if not sympathetic, at least understanding.

Wrong.

She offered me anti-anxiety drugs for what she referred to as my “mental symptoms,” recommended ibuprofen for the breast pain and suggested we take out the ovary with the cyst on it. Without any explanation (even when asked) of why that might be necessary, or how I would benefit from having the ovary removed.

I went home. Cried. Asked Google a lot of questions. And found another fucking doctor. I have done so much reading and research on perimenopause in the intervening years, and eventually had guidance from a great doctor. We shouldn’t have to work this hard to find out what’s going on at this stage of life. I’m sharing my experience here, in the hope of making the journey to knowledge and help a little shorter for someone else.

What is perimenopause?

My ‘new’ OB-GYN is an absolutely lovely woman. Going to see her is like going to see your mother, if your mother is comforting, encouraging and super supportive and knows everything there is to know about how your lady bits work. We’ll just call her Dr. Mom for short. She explained to me that menopause – the cessation of the menstrual cycle, which usually happens around age 50 – has a really long on-ramp, sometimes ten or fifteen years. This is what we now call perimenopause.

The things that were happening to me were natural and normal and part of the evolutionary plan. They were not “mental symptoms.” In most of our long human history, at 35 or so we became much more likely to die in childbirth, and/or bear a child with serious health problems. So Mother Nature doesn’t want me pregnant after that age – for my own good, and the good of the species. My collection of symptoms were designed to prevent that from happening. But ‘natural’ didn’t mean I had to live with it. There were options:

Hormone therapy: HRT and bioidentical hormones. Hormone Replacement Therapy, or HRT, is the name for something that used to be standard therapy for women entering menopause fifteen or twenty years ago. These are synthetic hormones, medications with names like Premarin or Provera. Subsequent research indicated women on HRT had poor health outcomes, and HRT was dropped as the standard of care. But there was nothing to replace it with.

Enter bioidentical hormones (thank God).

Bioidentical means the same-shaped molecules as the native hormones our bodies make. There is a lot of confusion and it can be really hard to tell which is which (the pharma companies want it that way). Dr. Christiane Northrup, MD and menopause expert, offers straight-up advice on how to tell the difference. If you’re going to try bioidentical hormones, she’s a great place to start.

Dr. Mom explained that for a long time, it was assumed that perimenopause symptoms like mine were due to reductions in estrogen levels. But it turns out that’s a myth – and the opposite is true. Levels of estrogen during perimenopause are high, out of proportion to its balancing hormone, progesterone. Estrogen dominance is the cause of many perimenopause symptoms (especially now, with environmental estrogens everywhere); and they can be addressed by progesterone supplementation.

Bioidentical progesterone cream is available over the counter, and for a bit I experimented with that. I saw mild relief of some symptoms, but it felt clunky and inexact. I wanted more relief, and more precision. Dr. Mom put me on a prescription called Prometrium. This is bioidentical progesterone in pill form, approved by the FDA and paid for by my insurance company. I took it for about ten days every month, during the PMS portion of my cycle.

Oh, sweet relief.

Progesterone is the ‘mother hormone,’ from which all others are made. When we’re young, we’re all swimming in it. It is incredibly calming, and when taken at bedtime, eliminates the insomnia that often comes with perimenopause – and good sleep alone will change your life.

The breast pain, irregular bleeding, painful breasts and murderous moods were all gone.

Hormones for low libido. Remember that part about how Mother Nature doesn’t want me pregnant after 35? Low libido is a big weapon in her arsenal. Hard to get pregnant if you can’t stand the thought of the male of the species within five feet of you. The good news, doc said, was that my libido fluctuates during my cycle – high right after my period, progressively lower as my period approaches. That means my low libido is related to my hormone fluctuations and not something else, and can be addressed – and also that it will return to normal (and perhaps even be increased) after my menopause is complete.

Dr. Mom prescribed bioidentical testosterone cream. Yep, ladies make testosterone too, and we need it. It’s not only responsible for our libido, but it has a hand in mood, metabolism and energy, and helps us maintain muscle mass and definition as we age. I applied the cream every day about two hours before bedtime, enough to keep my testosterone levels at the high end of normal for a female. I had to get it through a compounding pharmacy, and my insurance did not cover it. It helped; on a scale of one to ten, it took my libido from a zero to a five. Great progress, but not yet where I want it to be.

I recently stopped the testosterone cream to try a less messy and less expensive option called DHEA. It’s the precursor to testosterone, and I take one every morning, in combination with an herb called maca. It’s only been a couple weeks, but I feel it’s delivering a steadier boost, and I’m hopeful about continued progress.

Ovarian cysts. Our ovaries, I learned, are not useless to us once we’re done having children. These things are our lady-balls, and even after their reproductive function is over, they produce hormones that are central to our well-being. Removal should be a last resort – not, as in the case of my original OB-GYN, the very first suggestion. Women who have had their ovaries removed are at risk of a cascade of cardiovascular, cognitive, sexual and quality of life effects.

And making cysts is sort of what they do. If your cysts aren’t cancerous (and a biopsy can tell you this), the major risk is torsion – where the cyst makes the ovary become so heavy it falls over and twists on itself. I elected to live with this risk. It’s painful enough that I’ll know if it happens, and deal with it then.

Surgical options. Endometrial ablation is the destruction, with heat, of the lining of the uterus. It’s an office procedure or outpatient surgery. While it was originally meant for women with uncontrolled bleeding as an alternative to hysterectomy, many women who’ve had one say it helped with their PMS-like perimenopause symptoms as well.

Hysterectomy is still an option, especially for women with very heavy bleeding. Now most surgeons preserve the ovaries (and thus our health) and remove only the uterus unless there’s a definitive reason to take the ovaries too.

It’s all up to you. How we handle this time is very personal and personalized; it impacts us all differently, and there is no wrong way. It also changes over time, the closer we come to menopause. My cyclic progesterone recently stopped controlling my symptoms and I felt like I was back to square one. Dr. Mom changed my progesterone so I am taking it every day. It’s too early to tell if it works.

If it’s possible to be ‘tempted’ by surgery, then I am tempted by endometrial ablation. I know six women who have had it, many of them for symptoms just like mine; they were all turned off by the tinkering involved in working with bioidentical hormones. And they each say the ablation is the best thing to happen to them in years. But I’m freaked out by the thought that I’d be ‘destroying’ a part of myself, a part heavily symbolic of my femininity and wisdom. Which sounds totally woo-woo but there it is.

As always, these are my experiences only, and not medical advice. Let’s surface these issues, talk freely about them and share our knowledge, so when our daughters arrive at this point in their lives they will greet it with confidence, knowing how to care for themselves.

Maybe they’ll even brag about it.

Maybe they’ll live-tweet that shit.

 

A(n) Unfit Mother’s Take on Parenting

The October that Adrienne was ten months old, I pulled into a gas station with her asleep in her car seat. I filled the car…she didn’t wake. Rather than wake her, I locked the car doors and went inside to pay. I was parked at the pump nearest the building – when I was at the checkout counter, I was about ten feet from my car, able to see Adri through the glass door, keys in my hand. I laid my $20 bill on the counter, turned to go, and a woman burst through the door, shoving me aside.

She looked like she’d had a hard life. She had grizzled shoulder-length grey hair, and one of her front teeth was missing. At the top of her voice, she yelled, THERE IS A BABY ALONE IN THE CAR OUT THERE! WHOSE BABY IS THAT!?

Mine, I said, hand on the door.

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, LEAVING A BABY ALONE LIKE THAT? YOU ARE A UNFIT MOTHER!

I said something like, “She’s fine. And what you’re actually doing right now is keeping me from her,” and walked out the door.

“YOU ARE A UNFIT MOTHER,” she yelled again, at my retreating back.

This is when I knew that mom-shaming is really a thing. It was funny, but it also left me shaken. It was suddenly clear that just about anyone would feel free to judge my choices, and that as a mother, I was going to be held to a standard different than Anthony. (I doubt the same woman would have yelled at him this way.)

There are many similar experiences (don’t get me started on the time I forgot it was picture night at dance), but they all point to the same thing: parenting in the current culture means knowing that every decision can open you up to judgment.

Why? Why are we so into judgment and shame right now?

Because we’re scared. People who are comfortable with their own choices don’t need to judge the choices of others. In 1979, the mom next door didn’t give a shit what you were doing with your kids; she’d just made hers go outside and was about to light up a Virginia Slim and watch General Hospital.

But now none of us can be truly at ease with our choices – the world feels different, like the stakes are so high we can’t afford to be wrong. These high stakes, along with cultural pressure and the constant threat of judgment, drive us toward overparenting. We know this new intensive, competitive parenting isn’t good for us, and robs our kids of self-reliance and resilience. Still we can’t seem to stop.

This impacts every aspect of our kids’ lives, in school and out. It’s no secret that many of our kids are overscheduled. But in addition to doing more, the doing feels different. A generation or two ago, a kid who spent twenty hours a week at a single non-school activity was a rare bird – a musical prodigy, an ice skater with Olympic dreams. That’s not so unusual now; every activity seems to come with pressure attached to achieve, perform. Now you have to be an elite dancer, you have to be a gymnast or a martial artist or first chair – you can’t just be a kid who takes dance or tumbling or karate or noodles around on the oboe.

Don’t get me wrong, I think extracurriculars have great value. Setting and going after goals, working as a team, developing resilience in the face of failure, are all skills critical to adulthood that kids can develop through athletics and the arts. But once they became tied to the college application, some of these lessons were lost in service to achievement and performance. Activities ceased being ‘extras’ – and too often ceased being fun. Now we stack up our kids’ activities like gold bars, bring them out for those college applications as proof that a child excels in all areas, is ‘well-rounded.’ When in fact, the relentless pressure to achieve is creating kids that are the opposite of that.

Competitive parenting shows up in our bank accounts, too. This recent article in The Atlantic explores why so many people who have middle-class incomes are secretly in financial distress, to the point of being unable to come up with $400 in an emergency: because we spend to the brink for the kids’ education (most often paid for by where we buy our homes). It’s our kids’ shot at life. We judge, we overparent, we overschedule, all for the same reason we overspend: because “in a deeply unequal society, the gains to be made by being among the elite are enormous, and the consequences of not being among them are dire.”

Frankly, I was glad to know we’re not all just spendthrift assholes. I mean, aren’t you relieved? High five! Thanks, Atlantic!

But this is still the environment we have to parent in. How do we gain perspective, walk it back to something just a little more sensible in the short time we have to parent our children?

This pressure to be the perfect parent, to overextend yourself in every way possible in service to your children, is so pervasive that it’s hard to see outside it, hard to get any distance – like a fish can’t see the water. But over time, I’m learning to recognize signs of overparenting in myself, and sometimes, to catch them in time to change course:

Resentment. If I feel resentful, angry, or taken for granted, it’s a sure sign I’m either not communicating with my parenting partner, or I’m overdoing it on Adri’s behalf (usually on stuff she never even asked for). Most likely both. And that’s the point at which I need to back off what I’m driving myself to do for others, ask myself what I need, and try to give it. Martyrdom only serves the martyr; it doesn’t serve our kids. Nobody wants to be the person their parent “sacrificed everything” for. Don’t ask me how I know.

Invisibility. Our positions on the sidelines, as permanent cheerleaders, maids and chauffeurs for our kids, do a double disservice. First to our own lives, as we give up many of the things that make us whole. And also for our children. Everything I do models for my daughter how it is to be an adult woman – and not just the stuff I want her to see. I hope to show her that, while it means being there for your people, it sometimes also means they are there for you – that you too are seen, recognized and appreciated, and sometimes even take center stage.

Here’s what I know for sure. The things Anthony and I do, the limits we set that save our sanity and make everyday life worth living, are also the things most likely to make Adri a balanced, functioning human that others can stand to be around. That was true in early childhood (yes you must go to bed; no you do not get a present when it’s someone else’s birthday), it’s true now (sometimes mom and dad do stuff that doesn’t include you; it’s what grownups do), and I expect it to hold true in the future (our retirement account takes precedence over your college fund; you can thank us later). That knowledge is my life-ring in the sea of pressure and judgment – even if I sometimes lose my grip.

Distress

At lunch yesterday, one of my coworkers was sharing her grief over a friend’s teenage son, who was being treated for depression and died by suicide over the weekend. His parents, recognizing a mental health crisis, took him to the emergency room where a resident evaluated him, found him calm and harmless, and released him. The boy killed himself within 48 hours of the release.

Another colleague – ordinarily a kind, sensitive and well-informed soul – let loose a stream of tone-deaf remarks that took my breath away.

Oh, they should have taken him to Hospital X instead.

Didn’t the therapist give the family a plan so they’d know what to do in case this happened?

I guess if you don’t understand the system or know how to advocate for yourself…

I had to excuse myself. And it wasn’t even my friend.

I was saddened that with all the recent awareness around mental health, all the progress, a well-meaning and educated person would say things like this. I’m sure she’d never dream of suggesting to a family whose son died of a sudden cardiac arrest that his death could have been prevented if they had taken him to a different hospital. Or had a foolproof, ‘What To Do In Case of Unexpected Heart Attack’ plan stuck to their fridge. Or known exactly the right words to say so that The System would not let their child die.

We don’t expect the parents of a child in cardiac distress to be able to diagnose him on the spot, pull out a scalpel and perform open-heart surgery in the living room. But we expect the parents of a child in mental distress to be able to do the psychiatric equivalent.

These parents did what they should have done, all they could have done – they got him to the professionals when they saw he was in trouble. Given the current state of mental healthcare, I can only imagine the effort and insight required to even get him that far. There is no ‘system’ for people trying to get help for a loved one with a mental illness, no solid support. Instead there is a tightrope over the abyss – and the winds are high.

The professionals could not save their boy either. Whether something was missed by those professionals can change nothing now, and is for nobody but the parents to decide and act on.

One of my favorite authors, Michael Neill, candidly talks about his experience with clinical depression as a teen. He describes a brush with suicide in college as an overpowering feeling that he was being sucked out his dorm room window by an enormous vacuum. No ‘attempt,’ no note; all he would have had to do…is let go.

It is doubly heartbreaking that this young man lost his grip, just as so many people were reaching for him.

Fog Warning

 

I’ve never said I have depression.

I’ve been taking an antidepressant, true. And amino acids. For years. I can feel the grey fog start to swirl around my ankles when I haven’t been taking care of myself. When I don’t sleep. When I eat poorly. When I have a run-in with my past. The fog obscures everyone and everything good in my life, until I just can’t see any of it, and I feel alone. Marooned. I sit on the edge of my bed, drawing on all my reserves just to get up. To speak. To shower.

I’ve never said I have depression.

Why?

Maybe it’s the stigma that still surrounds anything that touches our mental health. But that doesn’t feel true to me; it feels too easy, too simple by half. Why don’t I feel like I have depression?

Part of it is because it feels like my moods are physiological; but depending on your perspective, that could be said of nearly everyone diagnosed with clinical depression. But mostly I cannot say it, because people with clinical depression have fought (and won, and lost) desperate, bloody battles. I have only toured the battlefield. The difference is vast.

Diabetes is often used as an analogy to depression, when it comes to the importance of self-care and trying to bring an end to the stigma surrounding a mental health diagnosis. If you had diabetes instead of depression, would you still feel you should get along without medication?

 The medical world can now identify people who have pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance – collections of symptoms and risk factors that mean that, while you don’t have an official diagnosis of diabetes right now, you’re damn sure on the way if you don’t do anything to stop it. I feel like there is a depression version of that. What should we call it? A spiritual syndrome? Serotonin resistance? A fog warning?

I am just coming to terms with the fact that fog-prevention is in my hands. Many times self-care or taking any kind of time to acknowledge and give space to the fog has seemed like a luxury to me. Or like weakness. I can gut this out – I need to get up and get my ass to work.

Last week, I did something different. I took some time.

Over the weekend, I’d had one of those run-ins with my past. I think the world of mental health calls it a trigger. It felt more like a detonation. By Monday, I was leveled. With the alarm clock came the feeling of constriction, of a weight on my chest so heavy I could not draw a deep breath.

I pushed myself into the shower. Couldn’t quite meet my own eyes in the mirror. Dragged on my clothes. This isn’t a reason to stay home from work. Is it?

And then Anthony asked me, “Is there anything at your office today that’s truly pressing?

No.

“Then maybe you should get back into bed.”

I did. I slept for three hours, read, cried, watched Netflix, and generally did not expect anything of myself until I got dressed about 30 minutes before Adri came home from school. By that time, I was steady enough to be a mom. And as the week passed, I felt better. Not immediately, not in a linear fashion, but faster, I think, than if I had tried to just push through.

And I learned something.

Even as I decline to claim something I don’t feel belongs to me (I have depression), I can acknowledge what does. I can listen to the fog warning, and alter my course accordingly. I can care for myself as tenderly as I would one of my loved ones.

I can steer around that iceberg. And so can you.

 

 

 

 

Nothing: Am I Doing it Wrong?

Flotation therapy is an experience that used to be called sensory deprivation (but that sounds scary, so they don’t call it that anymore). The idea is that if you eliminate sensory stimuli, your brain relaxes, and so do you. As an introvert, this makes intuitive sense to me, and I wanted to try it.

Being overwhelmed with sensory input is exhausting, and blocking it out can be incredibly restful. It’s why I sleep with earplugs and an eye-pillow. Proponents claim flotation therapy promotes relaxation and reduces stress; can enable you to quickly reach brain states otherwise only found in deep meditation; can help reduce pain or heal injuries; and can increase focus and creativity.

I went to a local flotation spa and was shown into a lovely, private, soothingly-lit suite that included both a shower and the flotation tank. By the time I entered the suite I was starting to get a little anxious about this experiment, so atmosphere was everything. A glimpse of darkness or mildew, a whiff of junior-high-locker-room or mental-hospital-showers and I would’ve been gone. This said ‘spa’ in every detail.

I was given instructions and left on my own. Once I’d showered and put in earplugs as directed, there was nothing left to do but get in. I opened the tank door and slid feet-first into eight or ten inches of water exactly the temperature of my skin, so I was neither warm nor cold. I reached behind me, pulled the door closed, and stretched out. The water was infused with concentrated Epsom salt, so despite the low level of the water, I was floating – suspended.

For the first five minutes, I could see a little light around the edges of the tank door. This was a good transition; immediate total darkness would have been overwhelming. After five minutes, the motion-sensor lights in the room turned off, and all was dark. I am not at all claustrophobic, and I expected an ahhhh at this point. That never came; I really had to talk myself through staying in there once the lights went out.

I was anxious, so all kinds of chatter was happening in my brain. As I do when I’m nervous (and sometimes when I’m not), I began writing about this experience in my head. Once I realized I was doing that, I stopped and tried to focus on my heartbeat, or my breathing. I tried to meditate, which looked a lot like this. Since I didn’t feel relaxed, my inner perfectionist started in about how I was probably doing this wrong.

When my mental chatter finally quieted down, my body seemed to become very busy, even though I was not moving. Goosebumps rippling across the surface of my skin. Muscle twitches in my fingers, then in each arm and leg – even one of those whole-body startles that sometimes happens when you’re on the edge of sleep.

After a certain amount of time without input, the visual cortex starts to do funny things. I saw bright after-images, like you do when you close your eyes after a flash – except, of course, there had been no flash. Lights (which did not exist) blinked in the edges of my vision. I could not be sure if my eyes were open or closed.

While it seemed as though I had been aware the whole time, when the dim interior lights and gentle ocean sounds came on in the tank signaling the end of my hour, I felt as though I had just been awakened. Strangely, I was achy afterward; I had not been when I got in. Normally, Epsom salt baths are what I do for achiness; so this spoke to me of some kind of detox effect.

I felt good for the rest of the evening, alert, maybe a little keyed up. I slept well and felt fine the day after, but nothing out of the ordinary, either good or bad. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know that I’ll do it again; it’s the same price as an hour of massage, which I seem to benefit from more directly.

And once again I’ve served my purpose: doing weird shit so you don’t have to!

Wait…Jell-O is a Superfood?

I recently attempted to add bone broth to my diet, after hearing about its many health benefits. And by ‘attempted,’ I mean ‘did it exactly ONE time.’ Turns out I hate it. I hate drinking it, hate making it, hate figuring out what in the hell to do with all of the meat you get the bones from. All of it.

Gelatin is made from the same kinds of animal connective tissue that makes bone broth so good for us, and that we’re sorely lacking in the modern Western diet, now that most of us no longer practice traditional ‘snout to tail’ cooking. These are just some of the more well-known benefits of gelatin:

  • Reducing joint pain
  • Improving skin elasticity
  • Improving symptoms of gastric conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Improving sleep
  • Suppressing appetite

There is some science, especially for skin elasticity and joint pain; but there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence of a variety of benefits.

At first I tried simply eating sugar free Jell-O in my favorite raspberry flavor, but, while delicious, there is really only so much of that you can consume in a day. I then moved on to stirring Knox unflavored gelatin into my tea, but couldn’t get past the texture.

I finally settled on Great Lakes collagen hydrolysate. It’s more highly absorbable, cold water soluble, has no taste, and does not thicken anything you put it in. Anthony and I drink it in coffee or tea twice every day. I also bought a canister for my mother. She has painful osteoarthritis, but due to other health problems, cannot take anything but Tylenol for the pain.

A month in, we’re seeing enough results to want to continue. Anthony and I are both enjoying the strange sense of calm well-being that washes over us after we drink it, and seeing some relief of what we refer to as ‘the old;’ that random achy stiffness that accompanies previous injuries, middle age, parenthood. Neither of us have noticed any gastric impact, but we didn’t have any digestive symptoms we were hoping to address. My mom has seen a great improvement in her digestion (slow because of the medications she takes), and a small but noticeable lessening in her pain. We’re hoping she’ll see more as time goes by.

Please pass the raspberry Jell-O….

 

Thank you, Easter Bunny

There’s nothing quite like a holiday to trigger all your perfectionist demons.

I love the reasons we celebrate Easter: the resurrection of Jesus, if you’re a Jesus person, or the coming of spring if you’re not. But like many holidays, it comes with a ton of cultural pressure that mostly lands on Mamas. And whether I can meet a holiday with joy or dread mostly depends on whether I’ve been taking good care of myself emotionally or not. If my needs are met – joy. If the well is dry – dread.

The pressure to make a holiday is unique, because it comes at a set and arbitrary time – whether you feel like holidaying or not. During Easter I feel pressure to make sure everyone has an outfit that’s appropriately springlike but in which they will not freeze to death, since it’s still 30 degrees where we live. To host a big dinner and/or a family gathering with all the attendant cleaning, shopping and cooking and which, like most holidays, will fall short of the expectations for at least one, and possibly more, of the people present. And do that ON A SUNDAY, when I have to go to work the next day. Oh, and don’t forget to make it look effortless and be sure you look good doing it.

This year, the well is dry, and I was filled with dread. I started a conversation with Anthony about this with my usual subtlety: “How can we make Easter not SUCK?”

The critical part of what we came up with was his idea: a) decide what our little family is doing; and b) invite anyone else to join us IN WHAT WE ARE DOING. Or not. Those are the only choices. What we’re doing is not up for debate.

This short-circuits the people pleasing, hustling-for-approval thing that happens when, instead of making definite plans for our family, I try to come up with something that everyone is happy with. All of that is lifted when I can say we are doing X, and leave everyone else with the choice to join us or not. If it’s not what anyone else wanted to be doing with their holiday, it’s on them to decline, and if they do join us, it was their choice and they are responsible for their own good time. It seems like a small change, but it created a big internal shift for me.

Full disclosure: Anthony has tried to lead me to this before, with mixed results. Clearly I’m a bit of a slow learner when it comes to this kind of thing. The pressure I put on myself makes so much noise, it can be hard to think clearly in its presence.

So what are we doing?

Easter baskets and coffee.

Church.

And then a midday dinner – not brunch or an Easter buffet, but one of our very favorites: Italian. There’s wine! And going out means it has a definitive end point at which I can go home and put on pajamas.

A day of enjoyment and rest for EVERYONE, including Mama.

That’s what I call a holiday.

8 things to do when your makeup doesn’t love you anymore

Once upon a time, I was under the impression that your skin remained the same throughout your life, right up until you got old and got wrinkles. And then I turned 40. And every single cosmetic I used stopped working. My skin didn’t look much different, but something was certainly changing.

Overnight, it seemed, my face became the place where makeup went to die. The mineral foundation I’d used for years? No trace of it by about 11 a.m. Eyeshadow? Mush. Mascara? Smudged. Eyeliner? EVERYWHERE. For nearly a year I ran through product after product – smudge-proof this, waterproof that, a fistful of different primers – before I realized that the problem was not just the products. My techniques also needed to change along with my skin, but hadn’t.

These are the products and techniques that really worked for me – and that I arrived at after trying a lot of things that didn’t. It would make me SO HAPPY if I could save you some of the money I wasted. My price point is ‘not spending any more than I have to,’ and I live in a rural area where there’s no Ulta or Sephora, so I like to be able to order my products from Amazon or buy them at the drugstore or the grocery. My year of experimentation taught me where I could go with drugstore products, and where I had to spend a little more.

  1. Use eye primer. My eye primer of choice is Laura Geller Eye Spackle. It brightens my eyes and keeps my eyeshadow in place, creaseless and defined, instead of a muddy, mushy mess. Other primers I tried brightened the lid but didn’t do anything for staying power, because my eyelids are hot and oily. If you have cool dry lids you might be able to spend far less. I have friends who swear by this inexpensive eye primer from Elf.
  2. Switch to matte eyeshadow. Unfortunately, one of the casualties of aging is sparkly eyeshadow. Now that the skin above my eyes is less smooth and elastic than it was, eyeshadow with any sparkle or shimmer just makes the skin look crepey, and matte shadows look much better. They’re not always easy to find. Physicians Formula matte shadows are my favorite, because they’re long-wearing and you can make the colors more intense if you apply them with a damp brush. I’ve also had good luck with these Cover girl neutrals, which can be found just about anywhere.
  3. Use REALLY good mascara. The only mascara I have found that doesn’t give me raccoon eyes is Estee Lauder’s Double Wear zero-smudge mascara. Even fixers or ‘raincoats’ over other mascaras don’t give me the results of the Estee Lauder. It’s a little more spendy, but worth it.
  4. Use brushes. If you haven’t started putting on your eye color with brushes instead of those rotten little sponge applicators that come with the products, definitely do that. Not only will you get better results and more control, there is something about dragging that tiny piece of foam over delicate skin that can make you hate life.
  5. Eyeliner: know when less is more. From the fabulous book Makeup Wakeup, I learned that for the bright, well-defined look I was looking for, that didn’t age me or look harsh, I should be “tight-lining” my eyes – putting eyeliner pencil only on the waterline and deep in my lashes, and for me, only on the top. (I have small eyes, and lining both top and bottom tends to make them look even smaller.) As a bonus, this also cut down on my eyeliner transfer.
  6. Eyeliner part 2: go smudge-proof. The hands-down best smudge-proof eyeliner I’ve found is Essence waterproof gel eye pencil. I understand a lot of theater performers use it for its ability to stay in place – and as a bonus, it’s SO affordable.
  7. Know your eye structure. Probably the most helpful insight was when I realized my eyes are ‘hooded.’ (This came after I had already burned through a bunch of money and products, naturally.) Hooded eyes are when not much of your eyelid and crease is visible. Many women are born with this structure, and many acquire it as they get older. Depending on your particular structure, your mascara or eyeliner may transfer onto your browbone. That was what was happening to me. While I’ve always had hooded eyes, something about my changing skin was now causing my eye makeup to transfer all over the place, where it hadn’t before. Enter this wonderful technique for applying makeup to the mature hooded eye.
  8. Use liquid or cream foundation. The mineral-powder foundation that gave me the fresh, minimally made-up look I loved ten years ago was now aging me, while at the same time not providing the coverage I needed. I was really hesitant to go back to liquid foundation. I associated it with a too-made-up look. But makeup has made a lot of progress in ten years. I tried a few, and settled on Revlon Colorstay for now. I like the way it looks, but I feel like it’s not great for my oily, easily-congested skin, so I’m still looking for my foundation soulmate.

Had similar experiences? Hit me up in the comments with your favorite products, techniques and lessons learned.

 

The Mood Cure: Amino Acid Therapy

In a previous post, I wrote about how learning that I have the MTHFR mutation (a genetic deficiency that impacts the processing of B vitamins), and subsequently treating it, brought me halfway back to life. This is the other half.

In addition to negatively impacting the processing and absorption of folate, the MTHFR mutation can impact how you process amino acids. Aminos can boost levels of certain neurotransmitters that are big players in mood and cognition, and there’s a solid body of research that backs using them to treat fatigue, depression, and anxiety.  The science resonated with me, and I rarely hesitate to use myself as a guinea pig when there’s something to be gained and not much to lose, so I bought a book and got started.

In Julia Ross’s The Mood Cure, she relates her experience as a psychotherapist, using amino acids as treatment in the clinic she ran in partnership with a neuroscientist. This book is the first I’ve seen that doesn’t lump all kinds of low moods together. There’s a four-part assessment designed to get at what affects you personally: depression/anxiety; energy/focus; stress; or sensitivity. They are not mutually exclusive – it’s possible to be feeling any combination, and even all of them. How you score on the assessment points to which neurotransmitters you’re deficient in, and which amino acids you can try for relief.

My scores on the assessment indicated I had three deficiencies:

Serotonin. This is probably the most well-known neurotransmitter and the one worked on by many antidepressant medications. Lack of it famously causes low mood and carb cravings, but I was surprised by some of the other symptoms on the list, like hating hot weather, being a night owl, or being diagnosed with fibromyalgia or TMJ. To boost my serotonin, I began taking 5-HTP. I found it to have an immediate impact on my afternoon and evening carb cravings, and, strangely, it shut off the voice in my head that is always nattering on about what I should or shouldn’t eat. THAT was worth the price of the bottle all by itself. I take another serotonin booster, tryptophan, right before bed, to help me sleep through the night. For some reason, melatonin has never worked for me, and the herb valerian makes me feel groggy the next day. But with tryptophan, I have restful sleep with no morning hangover. I had hoped I could eliminate the 5-HTP and just go with the tryptophan, but the results were not good. Tryptophan is a mood-booster for many people, just not for me.

There’s a great deal of evidence for a link between mood and gut health, specifically surrounding serotonin. In my case, these supplements greatly improved my bloating and my snail-slow digestion, but I have a friend whose stomach issues were exacerbated by tryptophan (after I raved about it, naturally), so tread carefully if you try it.

Catecholamines. “Cats” are responsible for your oomph – your focus, motivation, enthusiasm, energy. All those things I didn’t have any of. There are several amino acids that serve as catecholamine boosters, and I tried L-tyrosine and L-phenylalanine before settling on the one that worked best for me, DLPA – which is a combination of both the D- and L- forms of phenylalanine. I knew these worked right away. Right. Away. No ‘take this and wait six weeks.’ This is the one I never forget to take in the morning, because 10-20 minutes after swallowing it on an empty stomach, it takes me from stumbling around my kitchen like Frankenstein’s monster on Ambien, to an alert and functional human able to answer questions, successfully push the button on the coffee machine, and smile at my family. This (along with L-methylfolate to treat my MTHFR) is the sunshine that rolls back my brain fog and makes work, and life, an easier and more productive experience.

GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, is one of our natural tranquilizers. When I took this assessment, I was about a year past a time in my life when I had experienced unrelenting stress for about 18 months, due to a difficult family situation. It was well in the past, and yet I didn’t feel recovered, or over it. At all. What I felt was that it had burned me out so badly that afterward I was never the same. Ross’s chapter on what she calls ‘adrenal burnout’ was a revelation – filled with an additional assessment to find where you are on the adrenal burnout continuum, and real strategies to support deep recovery. GABA supplementation is only one of these. Most often I will take GABA as a ‘rescue remedy’ if I feel stressed or anxious (its calming effects are felt in about an hour), but recently I’ve started to take it regularly when going through life’s stressful patches. As a bonus, the 5-HTP I take for low serotonin also helps with stress and adrenal burnout.

I didn’t score as being deficient in the fourth neurotransmitter, endorphins. People who do are often highly sensitive, feeling life’s pain a little deeper, a little longer, than most. But the supplement I take as a catecholamine booster, DLPA, is also recommended by Ross as a booster for endorphins. So, hey – a belt AND suspenders.

Ross’s book is encyclopedic. She provides the science behind her claims. She walks you through the dosage and timing of supplements (this is important, as they can cancel each other out, and some need to be taken with or without food to be effective), troubleshoots problems and lays out a nutritional plan to support your supplementation efforts. There are extra chapters on hormones and thyroid, as these can often cause symptoms very similar to neurotransmitter deficiency. If they are the culprits behind your blahs, the amino acids may not help much if you don’t address those issues too. On the up side – it’s everything I needed. On the down side…it’s a lot. I found myself getting off in the weeds trying to do everything perfectly, and getting overwhelmed.

Ultimately, improvement won out over perfection. I was able to imperfectly implement some of her lifestyle suggestions along with the supplementation. I already live by some of her nutrition advice, but certain things were just nonstarters. For example, I am not going to give up my treasured coffee or tea, or an evening glass of good whiskey; they bring me too much pleasure. I can, however, enjoy them all in moderation.

And then when everything is working really well and I feel good, I get spotty about taking the supplements and soon enough start to wonder how I ended up laid out flat under this big boulder. Fortunately, once I restart everything it doesn’t take long until the boulder rolls off and I’m on my feet again.

If you’re going to experiment with amino acid therapy, read Ross’s book and do it armed with the information you need (about yourself, and about the aminos) to do it successfully. If you’re on psych meds, check with your doctor before proceeding. Remember this represents only my experience, and your mileage may vary.