Monday, October 27, 2014

30/30 Bucket List: A week without television or internet

Life and business are about human connection. And computers are about trying to kill you in a lake. To me the choice is easy.
-Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin Manager, The Office

Initially, I was excited about the weeklong no internet/no TV challenge. Sometimes I feel tied down by the internet and online communication. Sometimes I feel completely burnt out on television. I thought this week would be one of freedom from technology, when I could explore my inner depths and get in tune with the world around me. I intentionally planned to do this challenge in the late fall so I could spend a lot of time outside admiring the unique beauty around us this time of year.

That’s not what really happened. 

As is often the case, things kept coming up to push out my technology fast. Finally I decided if I was going to do it during peak foliage season, I would have to do it this week even though it wasn’t necessarily ideal. 

I had originally planned to start on Sunday, but pushed it out a day when I babysat some sweet nieces who are easily entertained by shows on Netflix.

I tried to get the online banking and bill pay in order so I could not log in for a week. I tried to think ahead to all the activities I might do during the week and look up the information I thought I would need. When we went to bed Sunday night I made sure to set the timer on the TV to shut off before midnight.

My normal routine involves checking my email when I first wake up. Actually on nights that I can’t sleep I use my cell phone to check the time and I also check any emails that come through.

The little icon on the lock screen of my phone told me a dozen emails had arrived in my inbox overnight. I told myself these were most likely spam or junk. It became much more difficult when emails filtered in throughout the day to a folder reserved for friends and family.

That first day the hardest thing to manage was my fear of messing up. I was so afraid I’d fall into my normal internet and TV routine and not realize it until it was too late. I was so scared that as I sat chatting with a friend that day, she turned her laptop around at one point to show me a flier on her screen. My face became so stricken she thought I had fallen suddenly ill until I told her I couldn’t look at the webpage because of my challenge. We had a good laugh.

I was surprised (though my husband was not) at how long it took me to fall asleep that first night. I use the television show Friends to fall asleep. Sometimes I can’t make it through the opening credits. Usually I don’t even finish one show. I’ve developed a full repertoire of sleep techniques so I figured they would be my fall-backs this week. But even resorting to an Advil PM one night or becoming physically exhausted after a day of rock climbing didn’t help. On average it took two to three hours to fall asleep and I usually woke up throughout the night and struggled to fall back to sleep.

By the second day I was starting to feel like the challenge was a bust. It wasn’t extremely difficult, impactful or enlightening. It just was a thing I was doing for a week. I surmised that it was possible that I just wasn’t very attached to technology. (I am notorious for keeping my cell phone on silent and ignoring or not returning phone calls.)

I had wanted to spend the week outdoors, but my health and my schedule seemed to be preventing me from much hiking or exploring. I felt like Tuesday might be my only day to go out on my own. There were several trails and areas I had hoped to visit during this week and struggled to pick just one, but decided on Natural Bridge. I felt comfortable (though this is not advisable) going there by myself. It is my favorite place on earth AND I hadn’t visited yet this year. To go a full calendar year without visiting Natural Bridge is a travesty I hope I never endure.

As a side note, I saw a lady who had taken the sky lift up being helped by two men accompanying her. She was obviously elderly and in poor physical condition. But she was walking slowly, with help, to see the bridge. Later in the hike, I stopped to take pictures for an elderly couple visiting from California who were attempting a full trail even though the lady had knee replacement surgery. Both of those women determined, despite their physical ailments, to explore this place gave me hope and encouragement for my own life. Despite being ill, you just always keep climbing.

On day three, when my phone icons told me I had more than 100 emails waiting, Johnie mentioned he could turn data completely off and remove the icons altogether. I allowed him to do this and worried I might be even more tempted to check my email not knowing anything at all about how many messages I might be receiving. Not seeing the icons actually ended up helping though, because I just kept telling myself that I probably wasn’t getting any important emails anyway.

I also had a moment of clarity that day that seemed to add some reason to the whole challenge. I don’t want to talk too much about my health. I don’t want everyone to think “Oh it’s just Amy talking about being sick again.” But my life has been changed and as I’m trying to process those changes things come up and out that I feel compelled to write about and share with others. And one thing I have been recently struggling with is embracing (or more accurately, discovering) my new identity. I am not capable of everything I used to be capable of. And I am still adjusting to that.

Part of that adjustment is learning to find my worth and value outside of what I am able to do. I have been trying to identify ways I am inappropriately measuring my worth and to seek out healthy and correct gauges. (I may blog about this in the future.)

I realized that I expect or hope for some of my value or worth to come from online messages. I have received some great emails over the years. Johnie and I fell in love with each other through emails and instant messages. I think it is a powerful and useful tool we can use for good. But when I don’t get the response I was hoping for that should have no impact on my value or my worth. Sometimes I have let that be the case. The fact that someone didn’t reply to my email must mean they don’t love me. Or worse, that there is something wrong with me that makes me unlovable or less lovable. That is not correct. Even if my inbox is empty I am still worthwhile. My value is not tied to emails. Or communication from people. Even when we don’t hear what we need to hear (in any form) that doesn’t mean we aren't worth it.
It wasn’t until day four that I began missing television. My brain was fried that day and television is how I zone out. I felt no outlet to shut everything (internally) off completely. I ended up finding a mindless non-internet-using game I had downloaded on my phone a long time ago and hadn’t played in over a year. It was the closest thing I could find to fill the TV void.

On day five Johnie walked in on me crying and this was the conversation:
Johnie: What’s wrong, Amy?
Me: I’m just thinking about things. (It was understood these things were unrelated to the challenge.)
Johnie: When is your challenge over?
Me: Monday. Do you think I need the internet?
Johnie: I was just asking.

I haven’t decided yet if the diversion from thoughts provided by the internet and television is a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, I feel like we can avoid and numb our thoughts to an unhealthy level, completely ignoring things that need to be dealt with. On the other hand, it takes time to work through things and sometimes we need a break. I think it is hard to find the balance of when to engage in thoughts and when to rest from them. I fear that I sometimes try to tamp them down or ignore them a little too much.

By day six I was feeling more adjusted to being offline. There were many things that popped up throughout the week – weather forecasts, recipes, things people wanted to show me online – that were unexpected moments when I would have automatically turned to the internet. I felt like I had worked through most of the surprises. And we had a day of rock climbing planned. I figured it would be an easy day for the challenge.
But once more I was surprised as all my friends went home that night and uploaded pictures online. Pictures everyone else could look at and talk about, but I could not see. It was tough to watch my husband look through online pictures without peaking over his shoulder. But I refrained.

The final day of the challenge involved more averting of eyes and reminders I’d see everything the following day as friends continued to share and discuss things from the day before.

I was sure that last day would be easy. But, I must admit, by this point I was done learning and growing. I’m embarrassed to say I began counting down the hours to midnight and seriously questioned ending the challenge a few hours early. (Really, what would be the difference between checking my email at 8 pm versus 8 am?)

Also, Johnie and I decided to go out for dinner and were sat in an area surrounded by televisions. Sports were on and I wasn't interested at all, but it felt like cheating. With a red face, I asked to be seated in an area without televisions and thankfully the server graciously moved us.

As I’ve reflected on some of the positive aspects of this challenge, I do feel like I may try to remain more disconnected from online media and communication. I think that instead of being always online – always connected via a smart phone with messages streaming in, I may delegate a couple times each day as online time, or I may delegate one day a week as an internet-free day.

I also feel stronger to fast from other things in my life. I have always struggled with fasting in general (and especially fasting from food), but I feel like I can look back on this time and think about how I calmly went through a week without email or television.

I was texting the friend who issued this challenge to me and I admitted to her it has taken some discipline not to check my email – that has been the hardest thing. She reminded me of a time in college when our internet went down unexpectedly and she walked into our apartment to find me hunched over my desk weeping in the middle of the night. Thinking something tragic had happened, she rushed to my side and asked. Through heaving sobs I said, “I just want to check my email.”

The fact that I can now go an entire week without email and without a meltdown shows growth, right?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A year with the lupus.

A chronic illness diagnosis is not a death sentence. It is a junction in your journey through life that takes you on a different direction than you desire or anticipated. There's no doubt that your chronic illness has wounded you. But a wounded warrior gets up, in spite of the wounds, and moves forward again, and again, and again.
-Richard Cheu, Living well with chronic illness: A practical and spiritual guide

It was one year ago when I was told I have lupus. It hasn't been the easiest. In fact, I am just starting to accept that I might actually have lupus, like lifelong lupus. Some days. Some days, I still can't help but think this is just a phase I'm going through. That I'll look back on this as those years I was really sick and we thought it was lupus. I have trouble imagining that I may feel this way for decades.

There are days when I feel so defeated. When I think my sickness stole my future. When I think of all I've given up, all that has been taken away. When I feel so crummy and don't even have anything to show for it.

But then there are days like October 4th. When I have the strength and the freedom to say yes to hiking with friends. And when those friends actually mean rock climbing when they say hiking.

See that mountain. I climbed it. Without any special equipment.

That's not as stupid as it sounds. Well, maybe it is. (But we didn't start at the bottom... If that makes it better.)

I've been on a hike coordinated by this friend before. It didn't involve clinging for my life to a rock several hundred feet above the actual ground. It's just that on this occasion I didn't figure out he expected us to scale a rockface until I was already on my way up. (Sometimes I'm slow and naive, you know.)

We stopped for lunch on the first (and easiest) ledge and my brain started putting some little details together: (1) The hike we were on was a loop. We weren't going to backtrack. (2) I saw no way off the ledge but to backtrack.

Already, I had been informed the hardest part of the hike was over. So I asked, "Jeff, you said we make a loop, so where do we go from here?"


I looked up but didn't see the top and wasn't going to lean out to try. There were a few more ledges between the top and where I was, and each time I was told: (1) This one is the hardest in whatever way. (2) It is easier to go up than down.

We passed people along the way who had reached their own summit. And our group ended up splitting into two. Some chose the harder way back down.

I stood on the last ledge before the top and didn't know if I could make it. But I didn't know when I'd get another chance to try. Foothold, then handhold. One after the other. Inch by inch I ascended. Or more specifically, crawled. And prayed. And at one point screamed for help. (That really got a response!)

And I made it to the top and I felt so accomplished. I felt even more accomplished when I looked back later in the hike to see what I had actually climbed. I never would have believed I was capable of that. If I would have known how big that mountain was before I started, I never would have even tried.

As I told my husband on the way home that night, I have felt defeated so many times this year that victories like that become even more meaningful.

And there was so much about climbing that mountain that metaphorically mirrors my own journey with sickness. I never would have thought I could handle it. I never would have thought I could be sick and mostly joyful. Grateful. Hopeful. By the grace of God, I have.

Within hours I started feeling the effects of the day's conquest. Ibuprofen, extra herbs, a soak in epsom salts and essential oils, a heating pad and at the beginning of those three days with painfully sore muscles I could only feel angry and frustrated.

I'm too young to feel this bad.

The old Amy could have recovered from that in less than a day. Ironically, the old Amy is a few years younger than the new Amy and is in much better health. I compare myself to her sometimes.

But the old Amy lived life with more fear. The old Amy took fewer chances. I knew the old Amy pretty well and I'm putting my money (well, you know, if I was actually earning money these days) on she wouldn't have even tried.

And long before the pain eased, the anger melted.

I am weaker now. But in ways I am getting stronger.

And how many people in the world never even get the chance to try something like that for fun? And how many people couldn't even do it at all even if they did try?

I am blessed. With health and strength and much larger margins to rest than most people. (And so much more.)

A few days after the climb I was reading a list I made shortly after my diagnosis of important things I wanted to hang on to. On it: Continue to hike the mountains of my home.

And so far -- thankfully -- I still am able to do that and almost everything else on the list.

I don't know what the next years hold for me, but I am so grateful for the blessings of this one. And I know whatever I may face ahead, I will make it triumphantly (praise the Lord!) to the top in the end.

There's a peace I've come to know
though my heart and flesh may fail.
There's an anchor for my soul.
I can say, "It is well."

-Chris Tomlin, I will rise