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Emails to my Therapist

My New Year’s Theme: It May Be Too Big For One Year

new year's themeDear Nicholas, The once-a-month lunch group of spiritual seekers I’ve met with for the last twenty years had its annual New Year’s Theme discussion today, each of us talking about the theme we’ve chosen for ourselves for the new year.

We fondly call ourselves Mystic Pizza, though we eat at the K&W cafeteria. The idea of a theme rather than a resolution evolved several years ago. I’ve never felt any strong need to come up with a theme. But today, I arrived thinking I knew what mine would be.

Mystic Pizza Always Delivers

But then in the course of the conversation, or maybe it was walking in the door, I realized that there was another focus for me now that’s more important.

I was briefly torn, then decided that 2020 is a two-theme year for me.

My first idea was that my focus this year is on health, living healthy. Lord knows, I need to cut back on sugar.  A bit more aerobics would also be a good thing.

The Plan That Won’t Work

Then, I realized that this focus on health is a mostly-unconscious effort to live forever–and magically to keep my loved ones alive forever. While my developing healthier habits would be a good thing, my doing more exercises faster is not going to accomplish either one of these worthy goals.

So my second chosen theme, the big one, is: come to terms with the human condition, which currently includes physical death. My use of the word “currently” gives you some idea of how far I have to go on this project.

What Might Help

I’m not sure how to approach this goal, except by continuing to deal with the threats to life that keep cropping up. For example, in the last few months, three of my nearest and dearest have had scary heart procedures with three hospitalizations in addition. The picture above is the view of Duke Chapel from the hospital’s cardio-thoracic floor.

All those who were patients are now fine. I should be grateful and nothing but grateful.

And, Yes, I’m Grateful!

However, I fell into a two-day somewhat-more-than-mild depression Saturday and Sunday, the first full weekend since the last hospital trip. And, as you may recall, I’m already taking an anti-depressant!

Weekday work is a reliable distraction for me, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to dodge bad feelings by working all the time.

I fell into the same state every weekend for six months after my mother died. That period ended a year ago.  I’ve been feeling fine, until these recent days. In a way, I take this recurrence as a sign that I’m convinced the danger is over for now and I’m free to react.

I tried out saying the Mr. Rogers style reassurance I came up with recently for difficult days: “Day, I like you just the way you are.” It may have helped a little.

The Ingredients of Depression

This particular bad-feeling experience seemed to me a mix of grief and anger, and the absence of much interest in anything.

Anger because there is so much I can’t control.

Grief because what I love I can’t protect.

Reluctance to do much of anything– I’m guessing that’s because neither doing a load of laundry nor enjoying the beautiful day will solve the mortality problem. (I wasted two nice days I could have been playing outside!)

Now I’m back at my desk and feeling (mostly) good. My hope is that the two days of lethargy and misery served some purpose, that they’re part of making peace with physical mortality.

I’d really like to make that peace and not need to spend a lot more days of my finite earthly  life moping because it doesn’t go on forever.





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  • January 27, 2020 at 11:23 pm Reply

    I really don’t like letting go of loved ones or of life either. One of the ways I cope is constant ly remembering death, and that it’s coming whenever it wants to, not on any schedule of mine. It helps me focus on the present, whatever’s happening now, being grateful for the good things which are always there, & being sure I arrange enough good stuff. Exercise is another critical practice for me, tho my various physical conditions’ve prevented my usual routines for a couple of months.
    Thursday marks the end of my medically prescribed 2 weeks of No exercise, No work, and I’m looking forward to that. The other things I do to avoid thinking nothing matters cz it’ll all be over eventually are keeping up as much personal contact with my intimates as reasonable, Conscious Breathing, daily self-hypnosis/meditation, and seizing as much personal pleasure as reasonable.
    I intend to enjoy all I can with my friends, till I can’t.

    • Peggy Payne
      January 28, 2020 at 1:07 am Reply

      Wonderful list of things that work, Bob. And your combo does seem to work for you.

      • bob
        January 30, 2020 at 4:24 am Reply

        I meant to & forgot to include Oliver Sacks’ last 4 very short essays collected as “Gratitude”, written as he was finishing dying – profoundly simple and deeply touching. And see below.

  • kenju
    January 28, 2020 at 12:03 am Reply

    I agree….it is such a waste….especially when you are thinking about things over which you have no control. I try not to do that, but I realize how difficult it is. One must be firm with herself!

    I recognize that photo view above….when Jim was in Duke hospital this summer, I saw it every day for 6 weeks. 🙁

    • Peggy Payne
      January 28, 2020 at 1:06 am Reply

      Six weeks is way too long, kenju! You’ve had a lot of practice dealing with this stuff.

  • Robert Braxton
    January 28, 2020 at 1:01 am Reply

    In my case I may need less, not mo, -ping

    • Peggy Payne
      January 28, 2020 at 1:05 am Reply

      Well, that’s a chuckle, Bob!

  • Rebecca
    January 29, 2020 at 1:02 pm Reply

    Last night I was celebrating our February birthdays with some friends. No one in my family is sick and my mom at 93 is still with us. I’m brushing my teeth after a delightful evening when out of the blue death shouts from somewhere beyond the grave reminding me, as if I didn’t know, that I can’t out run him, exercise or eat enough veggies, no one will, not my family, friends, no living thing. As a note, I did have the lamb chops last night at Stanbury so I helped him along. But, when I step back, use some Mindfulness and observe I’m LIVING my life right in this moment and will into the next he is no longer in the room reminding me he’s catching up. Margaret Mitchell said it this way, Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them…….”I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

    • Peggy Payne
      January 29, 2020 at 3:14 pm Reply

      Happy Birthday, Rebecca! And I’m impressed first that you were conscious of what was doing the shouting instead of just feeling a wave of badness. Also, you sure took the effective stay-in-the-present action. I’m working on developing those muscles.

  • Rebecca Dnistran
    January 29, 2020 at 3:52 pm Reply

    I have to work on it too Peggy because there are plenty of opportunities! Some I am successful with and I do end up in a puddle from time to time. Your blog hit me on a good day!

    • Peggy Payne
      January 29, 2020 at 6:10 pm Reply

      May we both have mainly/mostly/all good days, Rebecca!

  • January 29, 2020 at 6:22 pm Reply

    I can offer some suggestions, tho indirect and roundabout. The fact of death ends us, but the idea/concept of death saves us. Death is deeply addressed in: Irv Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, and if you’re an ambitious researcher, Rollo May’s Existential Psychology, which contains excerpts from the philosophical roots of this approach. More practical is Yalom’s Staring Into The Sun : Overcoming The Terror of Death.
    At last report, Yalom, one of the great luminaries of psychotherapy, is in his 80s, still writing and seeing a few patients for single session therapy consults. His revised and updated Theory & Practice of Group Therapy is in it’s 5th edition, quite rare in my field. Because interpersonal processes importantly influence any approach to group therapy, no professional can competently lead a therapy group without reaading this seminal book.

    My decades ago dinner with him and his wife was far more influential on my developing therapeutic/group therapeutic style than I’d realized at the time.

    • Peggy Payne
      January 29, 2020 at 6:27 pm Reply

      Thanks for the book list, Bob, and I’m interested in more about how dinner with the Yaloms influenced your practice. WHO DIES? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying is also good. By Stephen and Andrea Levine.

  • January 29, 2020 at 6:35 pm Reply

    Yes, Who Dies is wonderful unless one is put off by the Buddhist perspective – I usually recommend it to anyone concerned about death, their own or another’s.

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