January 30, 2019
Any parent of young children has heard that phrase often enough in the car. (One day when I was driving my kids somewhere, and they were driving me nuts asking that question, I simply said “Yes.” That silenced them momentarily, perhaps because it made them consider the concept of an existential ‘there’, but more likely because they thought I was crazy, but either way it bought me a few moments of blessed relief!) And although my kids are now in their 20s, the phrase keeps popping up in other situations – I’m in an online course for musicians learning to market their music, and we have a Facebook group to share ideas/questions/feedback/frustrations/etc., and most of us are operating on total overwhelm as we wrestle with installing Facebook pixels, writing good email funnels, or finding the time to do any of this. We keep wondering when we’ll get a handle on all the material, when we’ll ‘be there’. And of course the phrase pops up on cable news just about every day when we find yet another instance of bizarre interactions between the Trump administration and Russia . . . .
At any rate, I wrote this essay back when I was early in my recovery from a serious illness (I had pneumonia-induced sepsis, which completely cured me of the ludicrous idea I used have, like many overworked self-employed folks, that ‘geez, the only way I’m going to get a break is to be hospitalized, but a couple of days of being unable to work & being taken care of sure sounds good . . . but I digress). So here’s another take on ‘are we there yet’, including advising the exact opposite of the traditional admonition that when we’re mired in something difficult, we should ‘look to the future’ . . . .
“Are We There Yet?” (or, Plateaus, Patience, and V-8 Moments)
I’m about 2 months into the approximately 6-months-to-recover-from-serious-pneumonia-not-to-mention-sepsis phase, and I’ve hit the dreaded ‘plateau’ (familiar to anyone who’s ever dieted, or resolved to work out every day, no this time I really mean it!, or tried to start meditating/cooking from scratch/improve ‘sleep hygiene’/insert healthy habit of your choice). For several weeks I was seeing small-but-noticeable improvements on a regular basis – “I only had to stop six times on the way upstairs!” “I only had to stop once!” “I made it up without stopping or gasping for breath too terribly!”, and so on. I was brimming over with the corny ‘life-is-wonderful’ bliss I used to associate with Hallmark Channel movies about formerly heartless executives who survive a health scare or an accident and are transformed into a serene, gracious saint, usually played by Jane Seymour. For weeks I’ve been truly taking joy in simple pleasures like walking my dog, driving on a sunny day, and being able to sleep without IVs in my arms and nurses taking my blood pressure every 2 hours.
But lately I seem to be stuck in an almost-there phase, where I’m sort of back to normal (I can work, I can exercise a little, food tastes good again) but not quite, and it’s really, really frustrating. And oh, I remember this feeling when I’ve gone on diets, or vowed to be better about cleaning out my email regularly, and for awhile it would go beautifully and then . . . . no progress. And let’s just say, patience has never been one of my strong suits, especially when I can sort of see the finish line.
However, my goal here has been to share any lessons I’ve learned through this experience with anyone who’d prefer not to have to get critically ill to learn them. And I’ve figured out that sometimes it helps to defy conventional wisdom:
1) Look behind, not ahead
Most motivational speakers, diet gurus, etc., say to focus on your goal, imagine how great it will be. Hello, I KNOW it will be great, that’s why being stuck here is so frustrating! But when I look in my existential rear-view mirror, I remember how lousy it felt being in the hospital and struggling to breathe, and wow, I realize I’m doing way better now. I can see applying this reversal might help in all sorts of situations – instead of focussing on how much more money I want to save/weight I want to lose/closets I need to clean out, I can get out my (metaphoric) pompoms to cheer the progress I’ve made so far. (Or my real ones . . . no, I wasn’t a high school cheerleader, but I used to do a lot of corporate theatre, and cheerleading skits were so much fun I bought a bunch of pompons and . . . never mind)
I also love any time I can contradict self-help gurus. My husband Scott is a huge fan of Eckhart Tolle, who I know has some wise advice but is so annoyingly smug and humorless. Scott’s impressions tend to meld together (he used to do ScoobyDoo for the boys when they were young, only it sounded more like Yoda); anyway, when he quotes Eckhart on ‘accept zis as if you’ve chosen it’ or ‘focus on the road ahead’, he sounds like Ahnold Schwarzenegger, and I have to resist the urge to say, I’ll be ba-a-a-ack . . . . .
2) Tantrums aren’t just for kids
We all know that people out of their ‘terrible twos’ manage to find more appropriate ways to express frustration than lying down on the floor of Safeway, kicking and screaming. On the other hand, sometimes you just need to get stuff off your chest, and the more you try to stuff it, the more it acts like the washing machine in the Brady Bunch episode where the kids try to do the laundry and put in way too much detergent – it will eventually explode all over the place. When I first noticed this plateau in my progress and started feeling sorry for myself, I thought, Oh, Lauren, grow up, this is going to take time. But ignoring frustration doesn’t make it go away, it just festers & stews, like a whiny toddler in the back seat complaining, “Aren’t we there YET?”
Anyway, once I let myself vent and have a good cry, I felt surprisingly better.
Incidentally, for the sake of our adult reputations, not to mention our backs, I recommend having a ‘tantrum’ through journalling in private or talking to a friend, not lying on the floor at Safeway kicking and screaming. But whatever floats your boat . . .
3) Maybe You Couldn’t Have Really Had A V8
Those flashes of realization that therapists often call ‘lightbulb moments’ tend to pop up when we plateau – you know, when you hit yourself on the forehead with your hand and say, “I could have had a V-8!” (I don’t even LIKE V-8 juice, it’s too salty, and I’m not advocating product placement in personal essays, but man, those commercials are just so iconic and such a perfect symbol of that ‘I’m an idiot’ epiphany . . . ) Only instead of wishing we’d drunk a salty vegetable cocktail, we think, “I could’ve brought carrots to the office potluck so I wouldn’t have eaten the donuts”, or “I could’ve avoided this financial stress if I’d saved more money earlier”, or “I could’ve paid more attention to my body and taken better care of it so that it didn’t finally say, Okay, you’ve ignored me long enough, I’m going to FORCE you to pay attention by making you so sick you have no choice”. (I promise, I don’t usually have imaginary conversations with my body, but 3 weeks in the hospital will do a number on anyone’s head!) (Or maybe it’s just me, as I’ve written before, my mind can be a strange place . . .)
But maybe we simply weren’t capable of those healthier decisions at the time we wished we’d made them. Or, to stretch a metaphor, maybe there wasn’t a V-8 in the pantry at the time we thought we should’ve had one. So instead of beating myself up for what I didn’t do, I can learn from those bad decisions and not make them again. Or as scientists like to say (and apparently Theodore Roosevelt wrote), “There is no such thing as failure, only early attempts at success.” At least in science, the idea is that every experiment is a learning experience, and how else can you achieve the result you want without learning from those ‘early attempts’? That seems much saner, and much more self-forgiving, than the V-8 ‘duh’ idea.
So now I can tell my inner toddler – we AREN’T there yet, so go ahead and have a tantrum instead of a V-8, get it off your chest, and then look in the rear window, see how far we’ve already come, and get out some pompoms just for the hell of it!