A House Makeover

As to be expected, Mom’s grasp about us moving has proven to be spotty. She knows we’re heading out of state next year, but multiple times she has shared quixotic views about the situation. Last night, as I tucked her and Princess into bed, she asked about moving to Washington state where one of her brothers lives. To keep her spirits up I reminded her that we will be moving several hours north, much closer to him but not in the same state.

Yesterday morning I caught her mildly forlorn. After asking what was wrong she responded with, “We have nowhere to go.” I scanned my brain quickly to translate what she was alluding to. A few questions later I realized she was referring to us moving, but I had no clue as to what she meant by us not having a place to go to. A few follow up questions did nothing to clear up the context of her worry. Ah, the world of Alzheimer’s. I reminded her that there is still a lot to do before moving so it won’t be happening until sometime next year.

Her concept of time has faded considerably, so the “big moving day” is fluid, taking place both tomorrow and months from now. Sometimes I wonder what exactly her thoughts are like and how she sees the world, both philosophically and physically.

I started fixing up Mom’s house ages ago, first starting with sanding and repainting her kitchen cabinets. (Thank you Cathy and Ling for helping out that first day!) Determined to prove that I am capable of adult tasks, I aimed to take care of a majority of the work myself. Thankfully Dad stepped in after a few months and offered to help. Honestly, I would not have gotten as much done as I have without his assistance and guidance. I’m a hands-on learner so YouTube and advice don’t always suffice.

Our latest project is to repair and paint the exterior of the house. There are a couple areas of siding that need to be replaced and the paint colors, buttermilk with a rust trim, are outdated and not exactly complementary. We were supposed to begin the exterior work on Labor Day weekend, but Dad’s legs have been acting up so he’s unable to do any physical labor right now. Itching to update a major portion of the house, I opted to start painting the sections that didn’t need repairs on my own. Here’s a sneak peak of what I’ve done so far:

Being creative, I am enamored with color palettes at paint stores. The names, like “Pool Party” and “Moon Dust”, tickle me. I can’t help but imagine what I could do with them, accent walls and ceilings slathered with intentional vibes. Molding and doors alluding to Cuban sunrises or the iron-rich soil of the Southwest. I easily am swept away by the possibilities of it all.

Picking a color, or two, can be agonizing for me. For months I have gawked at houses online and in neighborhoods around my town. On many occasions I have proclaimed to have found “the one”, only to change my mind again. Finally I narrowed it down to gray with a white trim, but of course that’s not a straightforward decision. What shades should I choose? How dark or light should I lean? Cool or warm tones?

I exhausted myself and committed to a choice only once I had arrived at the paint counter at my local hardware store.

“London Fog” and “Chalk”.

These colors may be bland to some, but you have to remember that we’ll be selling this house. It needs to be modern and universally appealing. Neutral colors tend to avoid controversy by satiating contemporary tastes, or they can be like a “blank” canvas for homeowners with more eclectic style choices.  As much as I’d like to play around with colors and personalized aesthetics, I think the outer limits of my creativity should be saved for when I purchase my own home.

So far I’ve finished painting about 80% of the front portion of the house. I can’t stop staring at it. A few times I pop outside just so I can revere the transformation. There’s still much to be done before we move, but I am already really anxious for when I’ll have proper before and after photos to share.  

Postponing the Truth

I like to think I know Mom better than most anyone because of the amount of time I have spent with her over the years. Despite this she still manages to surprise me on occasion. Most recently she found out about a very impactful secret and her reaction caught me off guard.

Often I don’t share certain pieces of information with her until the eleventh hour. For one, she will either forget whatever it is I told her. Or she will obsess about the details of it, asking me the same questions over and over and over and over again.

“What time is that going to be at?”

“Is Princess going with us? I don’t want her to be all alone.”

“What are we doing?”

“And so what time are we leaving?”

Instead of setting myself up for an inevitably frustrating scenario I try to choose a more opportune moment to fill her in on plans. Preferably this will be the week of, or day before, an activity or errand or change to our routine.

For awhile now I’ve had my heart set on moving to Oregon. I have lived in California for the entirety of my life. I love it here. The diversity of people, food, music, and landscapes will always tether my heart to this state.

The reasons for moving to Oregon are fairly straight forward. I cannot afford to buy my first home in the Bay Area. It is abhorrently expensive and completely out of my price range. In order to purchase a home in California I would need to move to a more rural area, several hours away from friends and family. So I would have my very own home, but many aspect of my life would be negatively impacted.

I can’t stand the idea of being incredibly far from the ocean. The salted air and whooosh whooosh of waves is the cathedral for my soul. I very much would like to be able to take drives to the coast without having to make it a complicated or timely ordeal.

Where I live now is just five minutes from a river, twenty from a couple of lakes, and under an hour from the coast. It’s a water mecca. Anywhere I move not only needs to be relatively close to the Pacific Ocean, but I’d prefer for there to be other bodies of water nearby. I also need plenty of opportunities for hiking. If the ocean is my church, then hiking is my form of prayer. Moving my body along miles of trails, seeking self-reflection and gratitude, and appreciating the blink of my life in the universe, is the kind of mediation that betters me. Being in nature keeps me grounded and growing.

I have intentions to move to a particular city in Oregon. A few close friends live there and I’ve really loved the vibe every time I visited. There seem to be a lot of people in my age demographic, and most are very interested in outdoor activities. Actually, it reminds me of a combination of some of the towns in my current county, but in a mountain-esque setting.

I’ve spent many, many months saving money and keeping an eye on the real estate market. I love looking at photo galleries online, perusing through photograph after photograph of quaint backyards and outdated kitchens. With eyes closed I imagine planting a garden and painting cabinets. I can smell the arid pine air and taste the buzzing of young dreams.  

The other reason for moving north involves plans for Mom. I cannot take care of her indefinitely. The more she declines, the more my life is impacted. My work hours continue to be reduced with each stage of Alzheimer’s she descends into. My ability to self-care, start a family of my own, socialize with friends, go on vacation, etc. becomes more and more challenging. I cannot foresee how it’s possible to be her end-of-life caregiver and maintain my own life in a healthy way, especially when there’s no guaranteed timeline as to how many more years she’ll be around. So there will eventually come a time when Mom will need to live somewhere comfortable and receive an amount of care that I cannot give her on my own. As far as I can tell, assisted living facilities in California are pricier than most other places, so her bleak financial situation alone makes it necessary for a move out-of-state.

You can see why I have been avoiding tell her my plan.

Earlier this week I saw a house listed online that was priced much lower than comparable properties. It seemed too good to be true, but just to be sure I opted to ask the real estate agent. Ten minutes later a man called to chat about the house. I was right. The listing price was off by a decimal. The house wasn’t $174,000. It was $1,740,000. Definitely out of my price range. He chatted me up for a few minutes, asking what I type of place I was looking for. I gave him my preferences and told him he could email me weekly listings. I didn’t think much of the phone call and continued on with my day.

An hour later I went to find Mom and ask her if she was ready for lunch. I found her sitting in the front room on the couch. Her puzzle was laid out before her but she was sitting very still and looking at her hands. I knew she was stressed because the click click of a fingernail picking at another nail was jarring, a familiar symptom of anxiety.  

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She wouldn’t look at me.

“Well, obviously something is wrong because you seem really upset. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?

She choked out the words, “You’re leaving.”

I didn’t want to assume what she was referring to, so I prodded, “What do you mean I’m leaving?”

“You said that you’re moving away.”

“Oh, did you hear me on the phone a bit ago?”

She nodded.

I laughed to lighten the mood, “Mom, don’t be silly. I’m not leaving you behind. You’re coming with me.”

Her tear-laden eyes looked up finally. “I am?”

“Yes, of course! I can’t just leave you here by yourself.”

Pitifully, she replied, “Yes you can. I want you to have your own life.”

“Oh Mama, don’t you worry about that. It’s just that I can’t afford to buy my first house here. As much as I would love to stay, I need to be able to afford my own place. Besides, I think I need a change of scenery for a bit. What do you think about that?”

Her deflated body perked up, straightening itself out as it processed the news.

We talked a while longer about the logistics of moving, why the city I chose is special to me, and the time frame for the move. A lot of things need to be put in place before we leave, so our migration north won’t happen until sometime next year.

At that point her demeanor had transformed.

More surprisingly, the following day she remembered. In fact, the first thing she said when I saw her in the morning was, “When are we moving?” She was like a little kid looking forward to a holiday, giddy at the thought of something new and adventurous. At one point she mentioned looking forward to living near “the candy shop”. I had no idea what she was talking about. Apparently, she believes that she’s been to this city before and it has a huge candy store. I could be wrong, but as far as I know neither is true.

I explained to her that we would likely have our own places. She would have her “apartment” with people there to assist her with whatever she needs, and I would have my first house. I assured her that we would live near one another so that I can visit her all of the time. She seemed completely on board with the idea, though I doubt she fully understands. I assume at some point later on she will get upset when I have to reiterate that I won’t be living with her. I know when the day actually comes around and I have to drop her off it is going to be one of the hardest choices I’ll ever have to face. I dread it with every fiber of my being and feel guilt for opting to re-claim some of my freedoms again.

But for now I am clutching on to this surprising gesture of excitement from her. For over a year I have been imagining Mom fighting me tooth and nail about the decision, assumed that uprooting her from everything and everyone she knows will be devastating. That could very well be the case when it comes down to it, but all I can do is follow her lead and make this an opportunity for betterment instead of what it feels like: a parting of two. One starting a chapter, the other writing her last.

Teaching the Language of Caregiving

To not be believed is a heartbreak that cannot be fully patched without the aid of validation. I know this because advocating for Mom has been one of the toughest battles throughout the noticeable span of her Alzheimer’s. And this isn’t even in regard to the medical and government agencies I have to try to work with to get Mom assistance. As with many heavy situations involving grief and morbid outcomes, there are spectators, some who have opinions but do little to step in and help.

Sometimes I am not heard until I’m crying or wailing uncontrollably. Even then, when ears are finally receiving my message, I am still dismissed. Sometimes the dismissal is subtle. Other times it is so obvious that I can feel the tingling burn of it on my face, a fresh hand slap across one cheek. The shock of it reverberating each time it surfaces in memory. A phantom limb of offense. There are only a few people who I have really struggled with regarding this situation, but their influence is heavy.

Many people I connect with have offered a knowing look as they offer condolences or share their own experience with watching someone suffer from dementia. I’ve noticed a few eyes glazing over a bit as they struggle to have the capacity to listen to me vent yet again, but for the most part there seems to be a general basic understanding of what Mom and I are suffering through.

I don’t blame most for these reactions. Not everyone in my life or who I come in contact with is meant to have the same role. Some are listeners and healers and empathetic sounding boards, others are lovely distractors and cheerleaders. A few challenge me and my perspective. A handful catalyze my heels to be rooted deeper in the ground. Everyone has a unique set of traumas and experiences that make up their opinions.

Over time I have received some validation, most notably from a person close to me who I butted heads with repeatedly. For awhile we would fiercely clash every few months. We couldn’t see eye to eye on what caregiving for Mom should look like. They didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to get things done on my task list, specifically things that they thought were more important than what I was focusing my attention on. This took place a couple years ago, pre-COVID.

They were hyper focused on selling her house so that she could continue to have a roof over her head because she is low-income and her expenses were piling up. This of course is extremely important, but as the sole caregiver who is in charge everything (medical, food prep and shopping, managing bills, paying for expenses out of pocket, supervising, driving, advocating, cleaning and fixing up her house, etc.) it is consistently overwhelming to deal with everything. Even when I’m able to complete a task on my to-do list, I know there are several dozen other equally as important things that need to be addressed. This constant pressure to get things done, and then sometimes having to jump through hoops when dealing with various agencies, is onerous.

I tried to explain that selling her house and placing her somewhere else didn’t solve a lot of issues. In fact, it complicated them further. If we got her a cheap, small house to live in somewhere (which likely wouldn’t be near where she lives currently because the housing market here is insanely expensive), who would take care of her? Who would get her groceries and make her meals? Who would check in frequently to take note of any further decline? Physical activity is important to delaying her Alzheimer’s progression. Where and how would she lap swim and do yoga five days a week? What kind of social network would she have without seeing all of her friends and the staff at the gym nearly every day?

After all of my efforts to explain how complicated this decision was my words fell repeatedly on deaf ears, so I gave in.

Eventually I had her house taken off the market. It was a tumultuous time, but I’m glad it happened the way it did. Selling her house would have been a poor choice. The timing wasn’t right and there were too many other factors that weren’t being seriously taken into consideration.  

I can’t tell you how many people have stepped up with words of encouragement and little acts of kindness for Mom and me over the years. I tried to make a list once, although it easily filled an entire page I knew there were many names left off it, lost in the fog of my subconsciousness. Countless hugs and emails, phone calls and small gestures to say, “I can’t understand what your situation is like, but I know enough to offer support.” Just a check in or the intention behind a wordless hug has meant so much. With COVID it’s been especially hard because we are fairly isolated from others, but friends and acquaintances alike have still taken the time to step up with support and love.

It’s funny how the abrasive opposites of these kindnesses sometimes stick with me more clearly. There have been a few specific moments that I can’t seem to forget, even when I have forgiven.

Early on into my mom’s progression at about stage three of the disease, before her official diagnosis, there was a noticeable change to her personality. This was when she started being a little more childlike, often not picking up on social cues or adhering to social rules. I remember clearly having a group discussion about her and one person saying, “I think she’s faking it.” My response? “If she’s faking it then she’s Meryl Streep because she’s been keeping it up day in and day out for months.”

At one point her sobriety was questioned briefly until she was able to spend time with the person who couldn’t fathom another explaination. Within fifteen minutes they could see for themselves, and believe, why I was sure she had Alzheimer’s.

In regard to my approach to caregiving and the decisions I’ve made, I’ve been called “a kid who doesn’t know anything.” I’ve been accused of ignorance and immaturity when I knew it was untrue. If it was true, how could I be shouldering 99% of the responsibility myself? How could I be keeping my mom safe and untangling problem after problem all while trying to navigate my own life? How is it that I could see the big picture and how many, many factors are involved in her care and the decisions that need to be made?

I get it though. The possibility that a person close to you may have a fatal disease is not something that can be easily and readily processed. It takes time. Unfortunately it takes longer for some, and often this can cause immeasurable strain on relationships, sometimes even breaking loved ones apart in ways that feel irreparable.

All but a few of the people who I’ve mentioned or alluded to have checked their doubts and egos at the door and stepped up in truly significant ways. I don’t know what I would do without them and am forever indebted to their willingness to grow and understand. They each have found avenues for which they can offer support and settled into roles that needed filling. Just recently one person in particular said, “Lauren, you know I really am starting to understand what you’ve been going through. Even just spending a few days with your mom is exhausting. I’m wiped out. I can see what you mean when you say that this is hard, especially since you do this every day. It’s not easy.” I will never forget that moment. The relief of that validation filled me up and spilled over. It took years to get there, but it happened nonetheless. I let them know how much it meant to hear how their eyes have been opened, but I don’t think they truly understand the significance of the nonchalant confession. To them it was thinking out loud, a realization born into breath in a moment of casual conversation. To me, it was truth and justice and love. It was finally knowing that I didn’t have to shout “Fire! FIRE!!” over and over again to be heard. They could now see the flames that had always been in front of us all along, licking the sky and feeding on everything in sight.

And when finally the inferno is sated they won’t be standing in the inky, crumbling rubble to ask me, “What happened here?” They’ll know.

This Is Not A Drill

Photo of wildfire smoke over my hometown
by Prem Moktan

I’d invite you to peek into my mind right now, pull back the curtains just enough to get a slivered view, but there isn’t much to witness. If anything, all you’d come upon is a blizzard of static. Shades of gray and white manic snow buzzing about without purpose, crowding anything of substance from fully forming. Simply, I am tired. Body and mind are running on reserves of energy whose origin I don’t question. But I am not unique in this fatigue.

I evacuated two days ago, along with my mom and her dog. An unusual summer lightning storm sparked hundreds of fires up and down the state of California. There are large wildfires threatening my hometown and thousands of residents in the surrounding area. The one closest to us covers 50,000 acres. Another nearby, the Hennessy Fire, is more than three times the size. The city proper has been issued an “evacuation warning”, but by the time you read this there may be another round of lightning and residents could be directed to follow a mandatory evacuation.

People I know, people who I have worked with or gone to school with or nod to at the grocery store, have lost their homes. Some are still in wildfire purgatory, waiting to hear news about whether their generational family properties have burned to their soil foundations. Most of us are experiencing some level of PTSD. Three major instances of wildfires in four years is traumatic, and cruelly routine.

The last time Mom and I left our house under such circumstances, the Kincade Fire specifically, was only about ten months ago in the fall of 2019. During that chaos we evacuated twice within twenty-four hours, the second time in the moments just before dawn when it feels most unnatural to be awake.

And of course the COVID virus is still finding ample human hosts around the globe, most especially in the United States where I live.

This is why I am on day 159 of caregiving without a full day off. During these one hundred and fifty-nine days I have experienced depression, anxiety, a panic attack, grief, resentment, jealousy, fear, loneliness, and dread. It has also been peppered with moments of quiet, laughter, connection, support, resilience, strength, perseverance, creativity, motivation, and gratitude. Too many emotions to process at once and often. Every other week there is a new challenge, a forced pivot to avoid taking on the brunt of the next matter-of-fact disaster.

This broad stroke doesn’t even mention the other issues specific to this country, many of which are systematic and despicable, bubbling to the surface as nerves become more frayed under pressure.

But I am safe. I am with family. I have a place to stay for the time being. My other work is on pause again, but I am able to continue my writing remotely. I am COVID free. I have been able to protect my mom through all of this.

Others are not as “lucky”.

And yet, it does not detract from the validation of my exhaustion.

Mom has nearly no short term memory left, so she does not understand that there are wildfires or that we are natural disaster refugees again. She did nothing to help get things in order before we left, not that I exactly expected her to. She watched me pack her things into boxes and a suitcase, sweating in the summer heat that had crept into the house. Many times she asked where I was going. Once, when I reminded her that there was a wildfire encroaching, she giggled.

Giggled.

My disgust was quick and furious, most difficult to suppress. I didn’t have time to choke down the venom of my hatred for dementia, nor feel the shame of my reaction. I at least had the wherewithal to leave the room before catching jagged words between gritted teeth.

When it was time to finally leave under the threat of an apocalyptic smoke blanket of sky, she took her time putting on her shoes. Before we reached the front door she casually asked if it was too late to go to the bathroom. She had no awareness of the car being packed to the brim with our most beloved and necessary possessions.

This is why I decided to leave town before a mandatory evacuation was issued. The idea of staying in the house a moment longer with a person whose cognition made emergencies more dangerous, nearly broke me. Her trivial nature and ignorance of reality can be wholly offensive at times, most especially during heightened events such as this. Beyond flinging her over my shoulder and walking out the door, there is no foreseeable way to swiftly direct a person with dementia through a dizzying and urgent, middle-of-the-night evacuation. I can’t even bring myself to imagine what it would be like if the flames were lapping at our porch. How in the world does anyone deal with these things? I suppose this is rhetorical, because in any moment of grit we just do. Understanding the how is to be studied in the aftermath, but really, what’s the point?

Marking Time with a Birthday Request

It’s not uncommon for adults to dread getting older. Over the last year or so I have noticed that both of my parents have made sporadic, off-hand remarks regarding their age. Mom will be seventy in just a few weeks, and Dad will celebrate the same milestone a few months following her. I think the idea of being in their seventies, understandably, makes them anxious and worried. No one is guaranteed any length of lifetime, but in general we like to think we’ll live until our eighties or nineties. This leads me to reasonably believe that my parents are perturbed about the reality that they are getting closer to the end of their lifespan, whenever that may actually be.

Mom has no idea what year it is, let alone what month or day of the week. For her, time is a foggy construct that bears little use. Well, at least in any way that the rest of us are familiar with. The only instance she really looks at a clock is when I ask her if she’s hungry. Her instinct is to see if the glowing numbers indicate a meal time, instead of listening to her body. If it weren’t for me prompting about her hunger I’m certain she wouldn’t notice if I covered or removed all of the clocks indefinitely.

Whenever I have enthusiastically mentioned that her seventieth is approaching Mom will moan, “Noooooo.” Her face will slump into a pouty face and she’ll look at me with an accusing brow. I’ve tried to remind her that it should be something special to celebrate, but she hates the idea of being old. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have any idea how hold she is, or I am, until I bring up her birthday.

As the pandemic has been categorically the worst event to affect her health and speed up her cognitive decline thus far, I would like to do something to let her know she’s loved. Snail mail is something I think everyone treasures, especially since personalized mail is a rarity today. A couple friends of mine generously sent her mail toward the start of quarantine and she loved it. She teared up when realizing that people were thinking of her and had taken the time to send her mail. She’s a very social creature so being stuck at home all of the time is very, very hard on her.

I don’t doubt that she’ll be completely over the moon to receive more mail for her birthday. So, if you would like to be involved with this little birthday surprise and send my mom an email, a postcard, or a note in the mail please contact me at: littlesparkofmadnessblog@gmail.com. Her birthday is in early October so the deadline will be September 21st. That will give me time to gather all of the notes together to present them to her and also allow for an ample time frame for the messages to arrive.

With gratitude,

Lauren

Like Settling Dust

I could feel it rolling in, a series of swift and whispering waves in the center of my chest that grew stronger with each pulse. Soon there was no pause between the tightening intervals. The grip on my heart stole my breath away. My body felt weightless, similar to the blink of a moment just before you fully drop from the first steep slope of a roller coaster. The body unnaturally suspended, yours and also, not yours. Yet unlike with the roller coaster there is no giddiness tied to this particular weightlessness. It is a warning, a signal flare. Your body has been through trauma. This is violence of an aftershock.

No more than two hours before I had been standing in the kitchen of a modest home tucked in the wooded mountains of Northern California. As I diced plump garden tomatoes and sweet yellow onions he asked, “Lauren, have you heard of CBD?” We discussed briefly of how it can be useful. He was looking for pain relief without a high. I was already using it sparingly to help manage my anxiety. He was intrigued that I had already been using it, though I’m sure I had mentioned it before.

“Yeah, I use it here and there when I’m having a particularly awful spike in anxiety, so that I can try to avoid taking my prescription meds. Surprisingly I haven’t had a panic attack since before the pandemic hit us in mid-March, which is weird because my stress levels have been through the roof.”

Sweeping the contents of the salsa from the cutting board to a bowl, I brightly announced I would be heading outside to read in the hammock.

In my sacred space, the utmost of comfort between towering pine trees, I lay engrossed in a book until the sunlight crept away. Without enough visibility to read I switched to playing a game on my phone. I wasn’t ready yet to leave the cocoon.

It was then, after twenty minutes of mindless gaming I felt the first wave roll in, a squeezing around my heart. Taking casual note of the unpleasant sensation, I inhaled a few deep, purposeful breaths in the hopes it was the mild beginnings of heartburn. Within moments I knew all too well that the pain was something equally as familiar, but sinister in origin. The hope of heartburn was a foolish wish to lean on.

When the pressure became too strong to ignore I lowered myself from the nylon cradle and walked swiftly to the house. Right away Dad could tell something was not right.

“Are you okay Lauren? What’s wrong?”

All I could muster was a quick, “I’m having a panic attack.”

“Can I get you something? Do you want to sit down? Do you need me to do anything?” he questioned with slight urgency.

I reached into the bowels of my purse with one hand as I shook my head. With fingers locked around the bottle I was looking for, I could hear the promising shake of its contents as I lifted it to meet my other hand. I freed a single diminutive pill, washed it down with a swig of chocolate milk, and plopped into the reclining chair next to Dad.

I don’t remember the specifics of what he said, but I do know that he did his best to distract me from my own body, improving jokes and commentary regarding whatever was playing on the television.

I reciprocated with a truthful gesture of comfort of my own. “I don’t think this one’s going to last very long. It feels like it will be over soon.”

My mind didn’t feel panicked. I wasn’t worried or frightened by what was taking place. This was the fourth panic attack to date and they had all played out the same. The only difference between them was their unpredictability in timing and the length of the episodes.

I wondered silently if I had jinxed myself, taunted the pain from it’s hiding place by claiming that it had left me unscathed during these last several months of peculiar hardship.

No. I quickly knew that to be untrue.

It was much more likely that everything, body and soul and emotions, had finally eased up from working in overdrive. This short vacation in the woods had acted as a slamming of the brakes after the weeks upon weeks of survival mode I had been enduring. And with the momentum abruptly stopped I had slammed face first into the windshield. The woods, the hammock, the air scented with pine and iron-rich dirt, had acted as my safety belt. But even with this I still felt the impact of the halting crash.

If you’ve been a reader for awhile you may remember that my parents and I snuck away to this very same property a few months prior. At first I wondered why I didn’t experience a panic attack during that trip, but thinking back it makes sense. You see, I spent most days of that trip helping Dad with projects. I emptied out an entire shed, cleaned it, and re-organized all of its contents. I made meals and helped my Mom sporadically throughout each day. Yes, I did read in the hammock periodically, but I know that I was subtly tense. It was the first time we had travelled together, just the three of us. As with all new experiences that include Mom I was anxious for it not to go well. Thus, I never fully and truly relaxed, nor let go of the tension I had been gripping during the previous weeks of instability regarding the state of the world and of my own.

The day after the panic attack in the hammock I was bogged down with drowsiness and lethargy. I napped several times but never felt rested. My body was still in the process of letting go, releasing the anger and fear, uncertainty and loss of control that comes with a global health emergency.

I didn’t hike or take pictures on this trip. I didn’t do the traditional float down the river in an inner tube or even play card games with Dad under the glow of a waning moon. Instead I, we, all melted in place. The outdoor table and chairs are still untouched, covered by the protective tarp I had placed on them months ago. My hiking shoes haven’t left the reusable shopping bag I brought them in. The 103 degree heatwave only added to our sluggishness.

Time has not been wasted though. In fact, I’d say the opposite. We have coddled our time here most appreciatively, settling into the earth and our bodies like dust after a windstorm.

Self Care and Dating as a Millennial Caregiver: Part Three

In my experience dating apps have made a majority of participants more avoidant of all levels of vulnerability. Dates aren’t labeled as dates, they’re nonchalant get togethers or hang outs. By calling a date something more casual, even though it doesn’t do a damn thing to change the context of the interaction, men can tell themselves they’re not responsible for bringing any sincerity, effort, or intention to the table. It’s just a “hang out”, so they can feel like they have avoided a situation in which they’d get rejected. If the woman isn’t interested it doesn’t matter because “it wasn’t a date anyway.”

Even if there was a decent connection or spark it doesn’t seem enough to curtail the modern siren song of the constant ding! from his cell phone, notifying him that he has a new match on one of his dating apps. Quantity over quality. Really I should say: Quantity over vulnerability and true connections, growth and genuine satisfaction.   

It’s been scientifically proven that getting matched with someone online provides a hit of dopamine to our nervous system. The moment we know that someone finds us attractive, without us having to face them in person, is the reason many get stuck as dating app bachelors. Like lapping up cocaine dust one particle at a time, egos will never be satiated by the small satisfactions of a thousand virtual winks from women. These type of bachelors stay behind their self-constructed dating firewall. They’re unwilling to submit themselves to any level of vulnerability, thus setting themselves up for perpetually shallow interactions that never lead anywhere meaningful.

Over the years I’ve learned to be upfront about what I’m looking for at the beginning of my interactions with a dating prospect. I’ve found that it has helped to weed out the people who are not on the same page as me, but it still hasn’t eliminated the issue entirely. In fact the people that I do spend time getting to know online and in person are more often than not unsure of what they actually want or are lying about their motives. I can’t control other people and how they choose to approach things, but I can at least control myself and start off with honesty in the hopes that we don’t waste each other’s time.

If I’m looking to casually date, I’ll say so. If I’m in a place where I’d prefer a relationship, I’ll be state as such. Usually early on in our conversations I’ll ask, “So, what are you looking for on this app/site?” The most frequent answer I get is: “Oh, I’m open to anything really. If I connect with someone and we get into a serious relationship, great. If it’s something lowkey, that’s cool as well.”

Lately my response has been: “I’m looking for a relationship, but I’m in no rush to make that happen because I don’t believe that’s something that should be forced. I’m content, independent, and happy being single in the meantime.” I like to clarify in this way so that I can relay that I’m not needy or desperate for affection from just anyone. I’m not looking to get married tomorrow just for the sake of being married. I have patience and am willing to put in the work for someone special, give people a chance to open up and be real with me so that we can see if we can grow together and have fun along the way.

This next dating conundrum can potentially be considered rude to any number of degrees, or not at all, depending on the individuals involved. I’m of course referring to who pays for the first date. I’ve experienced a whole range of variation when it comes to this situation. Men have asked to split the check, some have insisted on paying for me, and one let me pay for both of us. I’ve talked to many people about what they think is the “correct” approach to this dating scenario and I’ve heard a variety of answers. When it comes down to it I think it really depends on the preferences of the two people on the date.

I personally prefer a guy to pay for a first date, especially if they’re the one who asked me out (and not vice versa). Though it’s not a deal-breaker if they don’t. I’m not a high-maintenance woman, nor do I want or expect someone to splurge on a first date, but I take the gesture of covering the cost of the date as a sign of basic intent, respect, and courtesy. In general, I feel like I need this initial reassurance so I can have somewhat of an idea about the character of the person in front of me. Getting to know one another over a couple of lattes at a local coffee shop is a lovely, low-pressure first date option, but having my date treat me to my four-dollar beverage is a way for me to gauge whether or not they’re serious about their intentions and can make a point of distinguishing the difference between a date and a hang out.

I do feel a tiny bit conflicted though. I am extremely independent and pride myself on working hard to pay my own way. I can afford to splurge on a four-dollar coffee. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I want a partner who can recognize and respect that I am self-sufficient, yet wants to treat me here and there anyway. To be fair, I am the type of person who likes to reciprocate. In fact, once a steady relationship is established I like my significant other and I to take turns treating one another. Even though we’re technically still splitting the costs, it feels more fun that way. This type of framework may not be what works for everyone else, and that’s okay.

Before continuing, let me further clarify that I’m not saying that straight men are the only ones who exhibit poor dating behaviors. Again, I’m only speaking from my experience as a hetero female. I’m calling everyone out. Almost all of us could use some work on how to be better at dating in general (me included). It takes practice, self-reflection, and mindfulness. The kind of lazy, narcissistic, insincere approach to dating I’m dedicating this essay to is not acceptable behavior from anyone. I don’t care if you’re looking for hookups, marriage, a steady partner, a polyamorous relationship, or something in between. Be honest.

Despite my attempts to only connect with people who are at least looking for the same thing as me, I still find myself consistently navigating through bullshit very early on into our interactions. The following are the archetypes I’ve frequently come across. Let it be noted that the men I used as examples are only one of many I’ve encountered who fit into these condensed labels I’ve constructed.

Neanderthal

  1. Doesn’t engage in thoughtful conversation or texts. Gives one word answers and relies heavily on chat acronyms (TTYL, EOD, IMHO, etc). Doesn’t keep the conversation flowing. Doesn’t ask reciprocating questions.
  2. Quickly directs the conversation to a sexual tone.
  3. Sends dick picks.
  4. Mysogynistic.
  5. Immature.

Example: At one point last year I was looking for something very casual, easy, and straightforward. I connected with someone who said they wanted the same thing. We agreed to meet up. He changed the plans twice over one weekend. On the third, and last, attempt to meet he texted me less than two hours before the pre-determined time to say he didn’t think he was going to make it. When I confronted his behavior and asked if he was a catfish, he finally confessed that he has a girlfriend. I let him know that between his relationship status (he was not in an open relationship) and his flakey behavior I was definitely not interested in pursuing anything with him. He begged for me to meet him, saying he’d get in his car to drive to me right then and there. I repeatedly told him “No” and reiterated why. His response? Send dick picks to convince me to change my mind. I blocked him on my phone. The next morning I opened up the dating app I was using at the time to find that he had sent me more messages. He still wouldn’t take “No” for an answer and saw nothing wrong with his behavior. It was borderline alarming. I blocked him on there as well and reported him to the app’s admin. Customer service did absolutely nothing, didn’t even bother to respond to my complaint. I deleted the app entirely.

The Lazy Casanova

  1. Charming.
  2. All talk and no intention.
  3. Uses texting as a crutch to avoid being vulnerable.
  4. May go on first dates, and they may even go well, but has no intention of developing a relationship. It’s a fabricated “spark” that is used to lure the woman into a sexual encounter.
  5. Prone to ghosting.

Example: A few years back I went on a coffee date with a yoga instructor who was new to the area. Things went well enough that he segued our date from coffee in the park into brunch at a nearby café. After heading to our respective homes after the date he texted to say that he enjoyed our time together and was interested in seeing me again. He was about to head out of town on a trip for a week but wanted to meet up again upon his return. I let him know I was up for it. I never heard from him again.

Long Distance Catfish

  1. Very engaging with initial communication (text/email/phone calls).
  2. Lighthearted and fun personality, has shared interests.
  3. Enjoys “the chase”. Goes out of their way to keep in contact on a regular basis.
  4. Lives outside of my immediate area.
  5. States intention to meet in person, but ghosts.

Example: In my early twenties I connected with a guy online who was from a city two hours away from me, though at the time we “met” he was finishing up his last semester at college on the East Coast. We emailed extensively for over two months and made plans for a date once he was back home in California. I had coordinated our date to take place over a weekend when I would already be in his city, as I had pre-existing plans to visit a good friend of mine that lived in the same area. I sent him a text when I was leaving my friend’s house and heading to the restaurant where we were set to meet. He didn’t respond right away so I figured he was in the car driving. I arrived at the restaurant and parked. I texted him again to let him know I had arrived. I waited in the car for awhile so I could give him time to respond. Ten minutes passed. I tried calling him. It went to voicemail. I waited another twenty minutes and left one more voicemail before driving the two hours home. I was naïve, confused, worried and dejected. I never heard from him again.

The Lonely Dreamer

  1. Enthusiastic about the idea of me, but not an active listener. Puts me on a pedestal and doesn’t really get to know me.
  2. Eager to get into a relationship.
  3. Exaggerates their interests and attributes so that they seemingly line up with my own.
  4. Wants to move things along quickly. Ready to fall in love, right now, regardless of reality.
  5. Has major underlying issues that they cannot/will not address, and uses relationships as a way to cope with their insecurities and past traumas.

Example: I wrote a whole long paragraph about this but deleted it because I don’t want to re-hash in detail my grievances regarding the person I was in a relationship with last. To put it simply, he was a good person, but very lost ad used me as a Band-Aid for the troubles he couldn’t face. Thankfully I figured out the facade fairly quickly and avoided a situation that could have gotten much, much messier.

Catch and Release Fisherman

  1. Able to carry on normal, get-to-know-you conversations.
  2. Asks me out on a date within a week or so of meeting online. Likes to see if we click in person as opposed to gauging our chemistry on several prolonged weeks of texting.
  3. The first few dates go really well, and it is easily apparent that they’re into me. They make the first moves (initiate the first kiss, hold my hand, compliment me, say they want to see me again, etc).
  4. Dislikes vulnerability; emotionally stunted. Often hasn’t been in a relationship in a long time, or recently ended a long-term relationship.
  5. Derails any potential for us by abruptly breaking things off via poor communication or baseless excuses, all in an effort to avoid vulnerability or the potential for rejection, despite the obvious mutual attraction we share.

Example: The last person I went on an in-person date with really impressed me initially. They were engaging and easy going, seemingly well-rounded and quietly confident. I liked that they were independent, financially stable, and seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me. I arrived at our first date early and bought myself a coffee so I could avoid the dreaded and awkward “who pays for what” situation. Immediately after our introduction he noticed the coffee in my hand and said, “You bought your coffee already? I would have gotten that for you.” I smiled and replied, “That’s sweet of you. You can just get my next one.”

Time flew by and the date lasted for four hours. When we walked back to our cars he asked if I’d be up for getting together again. I loved that he was visibly a little nervous when he asked because it led me to assume he liked me as much as I liked him so far. Our second date went even better. When I walked up to him at the start of the date we hugged and then he kissed me on the cheek. I was surprised at the gesture but delighted that he was confident enough to show his interest in a straightforward, sweet way. It’s not something I can recall anyone else ever doing early on in the dating process. The second date lasted about five hours and ended with an electric make out session. He walked me to my car at the end of the night and texted me later to make sure I got home okay.

A few days passed before I checked in with him to see if he was interested in going on a third date. “Of course,” he replied. I told him I’d leave our third date plans up to him since I sort of chose the first two dates. Over the next few days he wasn’t as engaging with his texts to me, knew that we both had the upcoming weekend off, yet he didn’t initiate any plans for a third date. Deducing from how the first two dates went, and his reply to my question about a third date, I decided to call him and get the ball rolling. Maybe his nerves were showing again.

He was thrown off by the call. Apparently he doesn’t like talking on the phone. We made plans to get together toward the end of the weekend, but he stated that they were “tentative”. Immediately I took this as a red flag. The enthusiasm and directness he had during our initial interactions was apparently waning. Sure enough, on the morning of what was to be our third date he texted to say he was having second thoughts about dating. I tried calling him right after he texted, but he refused to talk on the phone. It turned into a three-day, sporadic text conversation that felt like pulling teeth to get him to communicate. I assumed he was backing out of dating me, for whatever reason, but he further confused me by saying that it wasn’t his intention to end things with me. Huh? After a little more back and forth I finally told him that although I really and truly enjoyed our first two dates, I am looking to date someone that is an excellent communicator and knows what they want. He never responded and I haven’t heard from him since.

Divorcee Rebounder

  1. Excellent communicator.
  2. Open about their situation: single father looking to get back into the dating scene.
  3. Mature and responsible.
  4. Outgoing and kind.
  5. Not actually ready to date, which only becomes apparent after several weeks of dating.

Example: Recently I spent about a month messaging and texting a man who has sole custody of his kids. I was attracted to his outlook on life, his morals, his willingness to work hard to achieve his goals, and his passion for enjoying life through exploring and learning. I have a wordy texting style (I prefer to spell out words and use complete sentences instead of relying on memes and abbreviated wording), and appreciated that he does as well. We didn’t communicate every day of the week, but most evenings we’d spend an hour or two getting to know each other before nodding off to sleep. With the pandemic causing both of us to be mostly stuck at home taking care of our respective families (i.e. my mom/his kids), we looked forward to eventually arranging for a day to meet up for a socially distanced date outdoors. After four or five weeks of our routine texting courtship there was a several-day lull in communication. I reached out to him finally to check in and he confessed that he decided he wasn’t actually ready for anything serious yet. I appreciated his honesty, and told him as such, but made sure to re-clarify that although I’m looking for a relationship I’m not in a rush. We hadn’t gone on a date yet so we didn’t even know if our connection would translate in person. He was set in his decision. Understanding, but disappointed, I expressed that although it doesn’t do anything to change the situation, I wished that he had figured this out about himself before meeting me on a dating app, and especially since very early on we had discussed what each of us were hoping to get out of using the app. He apologized and we ended things amicably.

I could write an entire book solely on my dating experiences, clearly I have bountiful material on the subject. (Don’t we all?) For now though I have decided to delete the dating apps on my phone, again, and put romance on the back burner once more. It takes a lot of energy to navigate and interpret other adults, especially when the results of my efforts are consistently fruitless very early on in the process. My honesty and intentions feel of little value when the men I meet don’t reciprocate the same from the get-go. I don’t want to give up hope that I’ll come across people who align with what I’m looking for, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not discouraged.

I’ll put myself out there again eventually, but for now it’s time to step away and re-direct some of my focus on other aspects of my life. I only have so much energy to spare these days and I’m not willing to waste it on people who don’t value me. I want to grow with someone, have them positively challenge me to be better, and vice versa. I do not want to be in a position of having to mentor someone through how to conduct themselves when dating. So during this self-appointed break I might as well keep getting to know myself. Goodness knows there’s always self-improvement to be had.

I’ll leave you with this sentiment: Know what you want and what you’re looking for, be honest about it, be respectful, and have fun. Oh, and for all of our sake, don’t lie or ghost people. It does no one any favors, including perpetrators.

Self Care and Dating as a Millenial Caregiver: Part Two

I finished season nine of “Married at First Sight” with a fervor. Aside from the small, superficial satisfaction of television drama, I was most struck by Matt and all he encompasses. He was the villain I could recognize fully in a past romance of my own. It was baffling to see on the screen a parallel version of someone I once knew. It was eerie, yet fascinating. Being an audience member to this particular demeanor and behavior, instead of a victim to it, allowed me to dissect the situation, the red flags, and the characteristics subtly presented.

Although I have grown a lot in recent years, and most of the following less desirable characteristics are not as prominent for me, I saw a lot of myself in Amber:

  1. Hates and avoids confrontation.
  2. Wants love and is willing to forgive/move past issues too easily.
  3. Sensitive.
  4. Eager to trust a new love interest, but also guarded because of previous mistreatments.
  5. Responsible.
  6. Strives to grow.
  7. Quirky.

And here’s my conclusion of Matt’s characteristics:

  1. Great at telling people what they want to hear.
  2. Fun and easy going.
  3. Actions don’t back up words or promises.
  4. Not ready for commitment, but won’t say as such.
  5. Quick to apologize with conviction, but it’s disingenuous.
  6. Poor communicator.
  7. Selfish and self-serving, manipulative.
  8. Avoidant regarding feelings, personal details, and the past.
  9. Secretive about romantic involvement with other women.

The guy I was involved with, who is a dead ringer for Matt and the above traits, was someone I spent time with about a decade ago. Our friendship and romance was sporadic for a couple years. Let’s call him Jon. He was tall, handsome, athletic, fun to be around, goofy, subtly charming, and mysterious. Embarrassingly I admit that the nickname I used for him was “TDH”, which stood for Tall, Dark, and Handsome. We started off as flirtatious buddies, often hanging out while with a group of mutual friends. The first time he made a move on me I was ecstatic. I leaned into the sparks eagerly. I was too naïve and smitten to speak up when, in the weeks and months afterward, he started showing signs of dishonesty and egotistical tendencies. His charm was intoxicating, but at least I had the wherewithal to start keeping a list of the instances he would flake on me. That’s right…a tangible list. It was a feeble attempt to untangle emotion from reality. We’d make plans to go for drinks or grab a bite or attend a professional sporting event, and then at the last minute he’d cancel. I’d be heartbroken, but I still held out hope.

The first time I cut ties with him was hard. I had enough of his say “one thing but do another” approach, but I badly wanted him. Our break lasted for a few months until one day out of the blue he texted me. We wanted to see me, and to apologize. I resisted at first, but eventually gave in. I met up with him. He was drunk at a party on the other side of town. He met me outside and profusely apologized for treating me the way he did. Jon went on and on about how kind and wonderful I am, and how I didn’t deserve the things he did. I accepted his apology and melted. And again we began the cycle of him abusing my forgiveness and attraction to him, and him repeating all of the same nonsense from before. The M.O. was: Apologize with false sincerity. Praise me for being a good person. Shower me with attention and physical connection. Flake on plans. Have secret relationships with other women. Avoid commitment of any kind. Lie. And then I would have a breakdown and distance myself from him when my heart couldn’t bear the romantic gaslighting.

When I became despondent enough to remove myself from him for good, I did so with great internal struggle. It was one of my lowest points. The combination of a residual, years-long struggle with depression and my relationship with him caused me to give in to self-harm. It was a desperate attempt to escape my emotions and the pain of believing I’m “not good enough” for him, or for anyone. At the time I only told one person about my dangerous cry for help. Within a few months though I picked myself up and felt relieved (and proud) that I had finally drawn a clear boundary for myself. I had walked away willingly and accepted the self-respect I had been missing for far too long.

This relationship changed me.

It had been such a cathartic experience to expunge Jon from my life that I was strong enough to handle what came next. Later that same year I learned that he was in a committed relationship with the woman I had confided to regarding the half-hearted suicide attempt. It was a double betrayal. His girlfriend tried on multiple occasions to force me into attending social events where they’d be present. I refused to participate in their drama, egos, and any twisted attempts to insert me into unhealthy and unstable situations. I wasn’t angry. I was disappointed, tired of bullshit.

It was the first time I really stood up for myself. It was empowering.

It’s interesting to know what will happen when you find yourself in a corner, tired from repeating the same mistake again and again. Thankfully the silver lining of Jon was that he was the first chapter of my journey toward emboldening my true self.

Years later when I found myself in another relationship with a man who couldn’t commit, even just to saying that we were a couple (after five months of dating), I ripped off the band aid swiftly. There was no back and forth, on and off stalling of the inevitable. I could have ended things sooner, but I’m prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt. The important thing is that I chose to demand decency and respect instead of accepting sub-part treatment in a disillusioned hope of turning things around.

Soon after the end of this second empowering relationship I met a man who was kind and thoughtful, and reciprocated my feelings of interest. We fell in love. And when we broke up after two-and-a-half years I was of course devastated. But instead of choosing dangerous coping mechanisms I channeled my heartbreak into planning and executing a 48 state road trip. It was the third chapter of growth into adulthood and learning more about myself, how to curate healthier relationships, and paying attention more quickly to red flags.

With the most recent boyfriend a couple years ago I broke things off only three months into the relationship. A sweet, well-intended man, he hid his traumas and pain by overcompensating. He aimed to please by lying with detail about having similar interests and hobbies (cooking, camping, traveling, rock climbing, etc). He downplayed his religious ideologies so that he outwardly aligned with my own style of moral compass and personal guidance. More than once he tried to bribe me with sushi so that I’d visit him, even after I explained that he didn’t need to buy me dinner in order for me to want to see him. I was dating him, so therefor I wanted to spend time with him. All he had to do was invite me over.

Just about a month after we were “official” he started bringing up marriage, kids, and how he was going to propose to me. He asked if I loved him. I told him, honestly, I wasn’t there yet but appreciated his vulnerability in telling me how he cared about me. I asked for patience so that I could develop the same feelings in time.

Our whirlwind romance ended soon after an incident where he ditched me repeatedly at his sibling’s wedding and then drunkenly crashed his car on a rural road post-reception. Thankfully I was not in the car because we drove separately to the event, nor did I realize how much he had been drinking beforehand…because I spent a majority of the event by myself trying to make small talk with his family and the other wedding guests. The more time that went that on, the more blatantly I could see his pain manifesting in manipulative and unhealthy ways. These hints and allegations made me see that he was trying to fix his life and unhappiness with marriage and a new baby, as if they were cure-alls instead of things to be manifested with care and deep consideration. The early-days grace period of patience and giving the benefit of the doubt had clearly expired, so I let him go.

These men are all important mile markers during the last two decades. They’ve helped teach me how to date and what kind of people I should deem worth my attention and time.

Since becoming a caregiver I’ve found that dating hasn’t gotten any better, but enforcing boundaries and basic expectations had gotten much easier. Navigating stress, grief, and the constant care of my mom has further helped me develop relationship maturity. Now red flags are like flares at midnight instead of traffic signs I know are there but chose to ignore.

Here I am today, more sure of myself than ever, and dating is still generally and consistently disappointing, exhausting even. In my opinion online dating has only made things worse. Yes, I am aware that some people have found great success with this approach to finding love, but here and now I’m speaking in terms of my own experiences. Between Jon and present day I have always preferred to meet potential partners organically, in person, but I’ve also put efforts into trying several dating apps and sites (not simultaneously). OKCupid, JDate, Match.com, E-Harmony, Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. These virtual grounds for potential romance have become more clutch since the unfortunate trifecta of a small town, caregiving responsibilities, and the pandemic has come into play. All of these apps and sites have resulted in a lot of the same exhausting dead-ends. After years of connecting with several dozen men I’ve found there to be behavioral patterns and archetypes across the board.

To be continued…

Navigating Self Care and Dating as a Millennial Caregiver

Let me begin by giving you some background about where I’ve grown from. I love dark subject matter, always have. I find things like true crime, scary movies, adversity, abnormal psychology, and emotional footwork fascinating. Over the years though I’ve become much more sensitive to the heaviness of such avenues of human turbulence. As a young adult I rarely cried. I compartmentalized my emotions and kept them buried deep. Sometimes I wanted to experience a physical release, badly, but I couldn’t squeeze a single drop of briny melancholy from either tear duct. Hiding my true self was a sort of torture I don’t wish to self-inflict again.

Now it’s entirely unsurprising for me to tear up for even the smallest of triggers, sad movie previews and kind gestures alike. I still use art as a prominent form of self-expression. The only difference is that I am much more comfortable with being publicly vulnerable as opposed to drowning in angst. No surprise here, as you’re reading my journal right now.

But when I reach the crest of a stress wave I now know that it’s much more healthy to balance out the anxiety with activities that aren’t also emotionally grim. As much as I love immersing in human grit during my down time I understand that paying attention to the tension in my body is key to knowing when it might be better to step away from saturating myself further with that which is cumbersome.

This is a new skill I’m still developing, but I find it wonderfully helpful to take note of how my body and mind feel on any given day. What is my instinct telling me? What do I crave? What do I need that I’m suppressing?

During this pandemic and the journey of caregiving I’ve understood that hiking, travelling, personal space, venting to/validation from trusted friends, creating art, love, and spending time unwinding with other positive outlets are key to keeping me sane. So instead of watching the newest deep dive documentaries about Jeffrey Epstein or the Golden State Killer when I’m struggling with anxiety, I’m trying to choose lighter avenues of relaxation. Shows like “The Floor is Lava” on Netflix, Instagram accounts like that of @urbanfarmstead, and podcasts such as “RadioLab”, are all examples of “productive down time”. This doesn’t necessarily mean physically productive (like cleaning and organizing are), but emotionally productive. It’s a way to create space for recharging and processing, taking a step back so I can more quickly move forward again. It can be equally as important as the physically productive stuff, so don’t let anyone shame you into believing otherwise.

You’re probably thinking, “Okay Lauren, so how does this all tie into dating?”

If you haven’t figured it out by now I tend to take the backroads when it comes to narratives. I’m sure my friends will easily vouch for this as well. I value details and backstory, so bear with me.

The other day I searched Netflix for something easy going and mindless to watch. I’m not into many reality tv shows a-la “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or “The Real Housewives”, but for some reason I was drawn to the advertisement for “Married at First Sight”. There are eleven seasons, but I’ve only ever seen an episode or two a few years back. The premise of the show is that a team of matchmakers set up four couples for marriage. The pairs meet for the first time on their wedding day. Obviously the concept of arranged marriage isn’t new, but it is culturally foreign for a majority of Americans. The show is an intriguing social experiment, packaged and produced to keep audiences interested though there is plenty of material for the creators to work with.

I dove right into season nine. Right away I was magnetically enthusiastic about one groom in particular: Matt. He checked a lot of boxes for me when it comes to men I easily gravitate toward: lowkey charming, quietly confident yet reserved, very tall, frequently smiling, verbally and physically affectionate, passionate about something, excited about travel and being outdoors.

His counterpart, Amber, seemed at first to be an excellent fit for him. She was understandably nervous, but excited to put herself out there with a Hail Mary for lifelong love. After a pattern of unhealthy and unsuccessful relationships she was tired of picking men who were emotionally unavailable, didn’t want to put in the work and who chose not to respect the generosity and loyalty she abundantly offers. Amber thought that perhaps entrusting the panel of experts (a sociologist/sexologist, pastor/marriage counselor, and a relationship therapist) would yield a more desirable result.

Her and Matt hit it off right away, brandishing exuberant smiles when first drinking in each other’s appearance. Amber gushed to the cameras and to Matt that she was really attracted to him and was more than pleased with who she was set up with. He reciprocated with leaning into her ardor and by confessing that her forwardness made her even more likeable. They quickly learned about several common interests between them, which of course intensified the immediate connection.

Throughout the first few episodes it seemed promising for them. The initial attraction made it apparent that the pairing was a great foundation for a potentially successful relationship. But in true reality tv fashion by episode eight some drama began smoldering and then quickly ignited into a downward spiral of relationship tumultuousness. Matt left one evening for a casual hang out with a friend, but left his wedding ring at home, didn’t answer his phone for several hours, and didn’t return home for the night. It eventually became apparent that Matt was not honest about his intentions with Amber. He portrayed himself as someone ready to commit, emotionally available, respectful and responsible, and serious about making big changes in his life. It was a facade.

In that last scene of this episode I was hit with a reality of my own: Amber is me.

to be continued…

Making A House A Home

I’ve mentioned before that Mom’s always been a go-getter, someone who often tries to fix or make things herself. She’s no Joanna Gaines, nor are her decorative choices usually on-trend, but Mom is a responsible homeowner. She took care of her house diligently, never afraid to use a little patience and elbow grease before calling in handy reinforcements.

But there came a time when she could no longer figure out how to operate her lawn mower. Appliances started to break unnecessarily. Knobs on the washer and dryer were broken off because she fiddled with them while attempting to remember how they operate. The dishwasher had a shallow pool of water inside it, rendering it out of commission for awhile. The microwave gave up. Her vacuum fell apart. The sliding glass door that separates the dining room from the backyard was stuck shut. The dog had peed on the carpet on a few occasions, but because her sense of smell is greatly diminished (due to Alzheimer’s) and her decreasing attention to detail, she didn’t always clean up the accidents correctly, if at all.

Most telling of all was the disorganization. I’ve always known Mom to be extremely clean and orderly, much more so than myself. When her house started to look a little cluttered and her counters were slowly accumulating dozens of post-it notes and knickknacks, I knew her cognitive abilities were really starting to decline.

In early 2019 I decided to take on a huge project: fix up, remodel, and redecorate Mom’s house.

I started with her kitchen cabinets. With some help from my best friend and her husband I removed all of the doors from the bases, sanded them down a bit, and then painted them a welcoming, homely white. It completely changed the feel of the kitchen, from outdated and disappointing to look at, to bright and cheerfully inviting. The room itself looked bigger. It was exactly the sort of result I was hoping to achieve for the whole house: make it more modern, but keep some personality, and also make each room less dungeon-like. Unfortunately the house is oddly designed and some of the rooms don’t get enough natural light.

I’ve never owned a house or taken on such an extensive project before, so it’s certainly been quite a process. I definitely romanticized it at first. I thought that I’d be spending every weekend at Mom’s so I could tackle the next phase of tasks. Ha. At least my optimism was charming.

Working multiple jobs, being Mom’s sole caregiver, and attempting to navigate (and enjoy) my own life were all huge factors in deflating my grandiose ideas of quick remodeling success. And of course there was the enormous mental health and emotional struggles of taking on more and more responsibilities.

Now that I live with Mom I’ve been able to tackle things around the house a bit more often, but time and patience are challenging when you’re living with a relative with declining health. With each passing month her health fades a little more and I have to take on another handful of tasks for her. Even daily, weekly, or monthly chores don’t always get done in a timely fashion. That’s okay of course because I’m doing my best to juggle it all, but it doesn’t usually feel relaxing to live in a home that I know needs constant managing and attention.

Here I am now in mid-2020 figuring out how to balance everything amidst another natural disaster of sorts. The challenges never end. Such is life I suppose, but damn, this shit is bananas.

Since I started focusing part of my energy toward fixing up and decorating Mom’s house I’ve completed the following:

  1. Repainted most of the kitchen cabinets.
  2. Switched the living room and the dining room.
  3. Had a new roof installed.
  4. Replaced about half of the fencing around her property’s perimeter.
  5. Painted several rooms.
  6. Cleaned walls.
  7. Shampooed carpets.
  8. Sold or donated furniture, clothes, kitchen utensils, etc.
  9. Removed broken blinds and replaced them with light-encouraging curtains.
  10. Landscaped the front and back yards so they look decent, though they need more work.
  11. Added lots of potted plants, indoors in both yards.
  12. Installed a small garden (with some assistance from Your Tiny Farm)
  13. Cleaned and upgraded the patio furniture with seat cushions, an umbrella, and a table cloth.
  14. Organized and de-cluttered Mom’s room.
  15. Organized the existing shelving contents in the garage.
  16. Built additional shelving in the garage.
  17. Added wallpaper to part of one room, as an accent wall, only for the wallpaper to fall off shortly afterward.
  18. Had an awful, illogical ceiling light fixture replaced.
  19. Hired people to fix the bathrooms (new caulking, showerheads, clear drains, etc)
  20. Hired a plumber to unclog the garbage disposal and the dishwasher.
  21. Replaced the microwave, washer, dryer, and oven/stove.

I’m sure I’m forgetting more of what’s been completed, but you get the gist. I tried to incorporate free or second hand items as much as possible. Many of the potted plants (real and artificial) were bought from Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace from people who were moving or downsizing. One lady sold me so many plants at a steep discount that my entire car was stuffed to the brim with various foliage and ceramics pots. I’ve driven all over the county picking up furniture and house décor. I scoured online for months and months, looking for deals on household items I couldn’t afford to buy brand new. I took advantage of free items from friends and work. The cute curtains we’re using currently are from one of the companies that employ me because they remodeled and replaced a lot of features around their facility.

I love learning new skills and trying to do as much work by myself as possible, but I also know my emotional and skill-level limits. I am incredibly grateful for the expertise and financing that was offered to me by my Dad. He has extensive knowledge about many aspects of construction (he’s worked in the industry for decades) which makes him an invaluable source for my never-ending questions and a great person to bounce my ideas off of. I’ve spent plenty of my own money over the years, and continue to without question, but without some help from family it would take me much longer to complete a lot of these to-do list items.

Despite all that’s been completed so far, there’s still much to get done. I’d like to swap the carpets for laminate wood flooring, repaint the exterior of the house, finish landscaping, replace the dishwasher, tackle redecorating and fixing Mom’s bathroom, and purge more unused or unnecessary items, among other things.

I love how things are coming together. It would be lovely to be able to host a housewarming party of sorts, once I finish all of the big changes to the house, but with COVID-19 that may be postponed for quite awhile. For the time being I’ll keep chipping away, doing what I can do learn, and grow, and shed old burdens for new.