When You’re Off Balance

My prescription arrived, finally, five days ago. It’ll be a few months before it fully takes effect, but I’ve already begun to notice a difference, a fog lifting. When you’ve been living off balance for a while, it’s easy to forget what normal feels like until it is, normal, again.

A couple of years ago, I started to feel “off.” In the wake of learning about my mom’s cancer diagnosis, moving, and taking a new job, the circumstances of life finally felt like they were leveling out, and yet I wasn’t. For as optimistic and hopeful as I usually feel, I felt gloomy most days. I started to experience weird, small changes in my body that were frustrating given the attention I gave to diet that should have made me the healthiest version of myself. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, my body kept on behaving strangely. I felt anxious and depressed.

I brought up all of these minor symptoms with my doctor in January a few years back. Thankfully, he listened to my complaints and didn’t write them off as just entering mid-life, just gaining weight, just breaking out. 

It turns out that my adrenal gland over-produces the hormone androgen. Symptoms of hyperandrogenism include acne, inflamed skin, male pattern balding, hair growth in places women typically don’t want hair, weight gain, and other unpleasant things a person doesn’t really want to happen to them. Not surprisingly, hyperandrogenism also comes with a side dish of anxiety and depression. My doctor referred me to an endocrinologist, who prescribed Flutamide, a drug that is typically used to treat men with prostate cancer, and other than having to take a cancer drug twice daily for the last three years, things have been pretty great.

Until I thought, maybe I’ll try to wean myself off of this drug and see if I’m better now.

It wasn’t that hasty, really. This summer, my endocrinologist moved practices. Before she relocated, she had suggested trying to drop down to one pill a day to see how my body handled it. I figured since I had to find a new doctor anyway, I’d go ahead and drop to one pill a day, and then no pills once my prescription ran out. I thought maybe the stress of the season of life I had been in previously might have caused my adrenal gland to misbehave, and maybe now, things would be normal without needing to take a medication to balance out. 

This turned out to be a bad idea.

When you’re off balance, it isn’t just the physical symptoms – the hair loss, the acne, the sweating, the weight gain – that surges again; the entire lens through which you perceive the world shifts and blurs. Normal, everyday events spin into potential catastrophes. When your husband is late from a meeting you worry that maybe he got into an accident, maybe the police didn’t know to call you, maybe you’re a widow now and you don’t even know it yet. When your daughter doesn’t answer her phone after school you think maybe this is the day she’s been abducted by a sex trafficker. You imagine your son falling off his bike into oncoming traffic and your heart skips a few beats in fear. These are all processed with the cool logic of an irrational mind that needs to figure out what it will do if this highly unlikely scenario becomes your reality.

Maybe worse, the weight of every-single-thing-that-happens drags you into sadness, weariness, and loneliness. You are on edge. Your off-balanced brain and body tells your heart lies. Maybe your husband’s focused attention on his phone isn’t attention to a news article or a friend’s comments on a football game, maybe he is texting someone else, someone he loves more, even though your husband has never given you any reason to consider such a thing; he is honest and trustworthy and loyal, more loyal on the enneagram tests than you are, even. 

But you think it anyway. 

You might leave a women’s book club meeting realizing how everyone else has their person – everyone else has someone they trust that knows them so well and they all must feel fulfilled and loved all the time but not you, not you. You know that isn’t true, either, but in the moment it feels so true

At the height of imbalance, a weekend your friends spend together without you might trigger absolute loneliness, which might spiral into feelings of worthlessness, which happens to spiral when everyone else is occupied, everyone else that might be able to shake you free of this spiral. It feels like you’d be an interruption, a problem, a burden with all of your burdened worthlessness. 

It makes you wonder whether anyone would notice—. What if you were to just—. 

This stream of wide-eyed sobbing might scare you enough to send your despairing self into the cold, winter air where the Spirit snaps you back, and you breathe, and you breathe, and you try to remember that this is probably hormones. This is probably not reality. Probably not, but you are still so sad and so broken and so hurt, and this imbalance magnifies the hurt. This off-kilter, off-balance, unhinged, raw version of Sarah can’t see beyond normal hurt and hormone-inflamed hurt. 

It is exactly how I feel and so not me at the very same time.

There are people in this world who don’t feel like themselves. Something is off and it makes them acutely aware of their bodies, self-conscious and anxious and depressed. It manifests itself in a million different ways, mental health, sexual health, physical health, and more. Sometimes the right thing is medication. Sometimes there is a physical abnormality that triggers your body to be other than its best, most balanced self. 

The body is so complex. We are wired for relationships – when those relationships are healthy, we glow with physical health, and when those relationships are toxic, that toxicity can manifest itself in physical symptoms. When work stresses us out, our immune system reacts. And when something is diseased, abnormal, or imbalanced in our physical bodies, our mental and spiritual and emotional health is bound to be impacted. 

I am grateful for modern medicine. I am grateful for the gift of cold, crisp fall air that shocked my soul back from a ledge I never imagined myself standing on. I have never felt so low. It was frightening. I don’t want to feel so low again.

It has been five days back on Flutamide. It will take months to revert some of the symptoms of hyperandrogenism that spiked this fall and winter, but even in these first few days, I’ve noticed a significant clearing in the fog. 

The sunrise is beautiful.

Light and Heat

For Christmas, a friend of ours gave us his 55-gallon fish tank and stand after I mentioned on Facebook that we were considering an aquarium for Henry. It was one of many delightful surprises on Christmas morning.

Before we can add fish, we need to make the environment right. Our city water needs to be dechlorinated. A filter has been installed, the rocks have been added, the artificial plants sway next to the rock castle and bridge and tiki hut fish home. All that’s left to do before we buy the fish is install a new lightbulb and make the water warmer. This afternoon at the top of my grocery list is a lightbulb and a submersible heater for our soon-to-be newest residents.

All I need too, really, is a little light and heat.

Warmth and light have defined the last week and a half around here. It’s the in-between period in which most everyone feels a little disoriented after so many weeks of anticipating Christmas and eating all the carbs. We celebrated with family in multiple gatherings with gifts given and received, and it was warm, and it was light. We extended our Christmas celebration with a trip to Kalahari’s indoor waterpark, and it was warm, and it was light. Our friends celebrated a white elephant Christmas with us combined with laughter and drinks on the 27th, and it was warm, and it was light. Yesterday, with our children’s friends over, I played games and read a book and mostly rested, and it was warm, and it was light.

And now, we’re all turning toward a new decade. In the waning minutes of 2019, I’ve sensed with some anxiety a quiet, nudging voice suggesting that maybe I should prepare myself to make space.

For what, I don’t know. Maybe just more space to be warm, more space to be light. More space to do laundry (which I’ve neglected these past few days). Maybe more space to write. Maybe space to breathe. Space to exercise. Space to stare at fish in a tank and reflect on what it means to stop being so busy and just be, just keep swimming (thank you, Dory).

Simultaneously I wonder whether the whole idea of space is a luxury of the privileged, which I am, surrounded by plenty and able to even consider the idea of space, instead of being entirely occupied with meeting my immediate, basic needs. Maybe those are the concerns I need to make more space for, more space for bearing witness beyond these walls.

Maybe “make space” is just the Spirit’s calling to be quieter amidst all the noise, to clear out the clutter of senseless worry. Maybe make space for more hope, less doubt, more confidence, less fear.

Well, anyway, the point is, I don’t know what I’m supposed to make space for, but these are the words I’m hearing these days, make space, make space, make space.

The only space I know to make right now is space to listen and wait on the Lord to make whatever that space is known.

And to make space for fish.

Photo by Gabriel P from Pexels

Things Fall

Henry and I splashed up and down the creek with a dozen other wilderness explorers searching for things worthy of being found. He had a net and a bucket and competitive drive; I had flip flops, a smartphone, and creek walking experience.

More than anything, Henry was on a mission to catch minnows. I served as his spotter. “Here’s some!” I’d shout and he’d run over and swoop his net down into the water, hoping to be faster than the darting fish.

I was looking for other interesting things, mostly—fossils in the creek bed, orange mushrooms, trees stretching tall and straight and climbing out of roots that cling to hillsides in spite of the dirt having been washed out from underneath them, good light to catch my littlest child growing more and more into himself with every passing hour.

As I stared into the water, a caterpillar plummeted to its not-death from some high leaf and landed in the stream right in front of me. It was one of those white caterpillars with a couple black dots on it.

“Henry! Check this out!” I called. We found one just like it a couple years ago on a pin oak in our backyard in Copley. We had never seen one like it, which isn’t saying much for him but is quite something for me, having inhabited these parts of the world all my life. That was probably three years ago already, when he was five and so much smaller, just beginning to love all of the wild things. And here we are now, every sentence from my explorer beginning, “Did you know…” or “Look!” or “Mom, come here!” followed by some fun fact I may or may not have already known about the world.

We watched our creature fallen from heaven crawl with impressive speed for his inch-long body and turned the stick over and around so he wouldn’t fall into the water again.

Sometimes things fall right into your lap. That wasn’t what you were looking for but here it is and it’s the perfect thing, just what you needed, just what you desired but never expected. You are doubly blessed, by the thing itself and the surprise of it, the grace and mercy of it.

Mornings, Revised

Just a few days ago, the mornings were ours, and with it the slow rising, the steaming cups of tea, the sky changing shades of red and orange and gold until the orb finally burst over the horizon.

And then we had two middle schoolers.

It’s day two of school. The dog and I are sitting in our usual spot. Our daughter is knocking on the bathroom door to enter (it isn’t me in there, I promise). Our son is not moving from his heap of blankets, previously unacquainted with what it means to wake up everyday at 6:30, so my husband is playing “Bang the Drum” by Todd Rungren on repeat until he gets out of bed. The tea is still steeping.

When they were young, the evenings were ours. Our two oldest were bathed at 7 and in bed by 7:30, leaving us at least 3 glorious hours together, alone, to watch tv or play scrabble, or if I was feeling inspired to write. As they’ve gotten older, bedtime has gotten later. And now they’re taking occupation in our mornings too, banging cabinets, not getting out of bed, making lunches, eating breakfast… it’s like they think they live here too or something!

This morning shift means either we get up even earlier or I have to accept the season for what it is: a new season of transitions. A season during which time transforms my small people into people who borrow my shoes and clothes and stand next to me to see whether they are as tall as me or taller yet. A season during which their fears and worries grow abundantly more complex and singular, and it takes time to navigate those concerns. A season that requires so much more of us than changing diapers ever did. And while it feels at times inconvenient and disruptive to our time right now, this time will be over with them in ten years. That’s it. And then the whole house will be ours, filled with empty spaces and no children’s alarms or cabinets slammed or trips to school.

It’s morning, and Brandon has to leave the office now to take the oldest to school, and if I don’t get up from the couch soon I’ll be running late, and our youngest will be rushed out the door, and then we will all be on our way to our independent jobs and responsibilities.

For every season, a time to give something of meaning to the day, a time to help something grow.

Local Stories

I love the companionship that is born when reading a book set in a familiar place. I’m currently reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. It’s a novel that takes place not only in a familiar geographic region but also a nostalgic era of my life, with characters the same age as myself during that season.

There is pleasure in shared spaces and shared history, even if this author’s story is fiction, there’s something that delights us to hold a place in common with others. It’s the same feeling I have when someone says, “Oh, we vacation at that beach too!” or names a far-off city I visited once, or “no kidding, you’re from _________?! Us too! Small world!”

The same sensation overwhelmed me standing outside of Westminster Abbey, walking the halls of the Tower of London, all the strings of history that have been woven to arrive at this present day.

There’s so much more entangled in physical space. Memory presents its prickly burr and sticks, accumulating until a place is heavy with it. With Ng’s characters in Shaker I remember trips to Beachwood Place with friends and the collision of my very white upbringing with other ethnicities, I remember all the complications of being female and mother and teen girl. I was there. With Scott Russell Sanders I explore the wilderness of Northeastern Ohio. I was there too.

And on and on it goes, the local and personal turned into a sharp spark of connection that says we are not so alone in our experience here in this world. We are bound together in this humanity. These narratives draw meaning from the otherwise random chaos of experience. Me too. I was there too.

Morning Tea

Most mornings, our alarms go off simultaneously. Sometimes I hit snooze. Sometimes he rolls over for another ten minutes. One of us gets up and fills the kettle.

We have two pink chairs in the office that face the Southeastern side of our yard. These days the sun rises between two giant Norway spruce and casts long streaks of light on our freshly sown lawn of Kentucky bluegrass and some other mix of seed we thought was the same as the other bag.

Summer mornings are quietest during this stage of our lives. The children sleep. When the water kettle pops its distinctive click (it’s an electric kettle – no whistle), Brandon is usually the one to pour the water over waiting tea bags. We choose each other’s mugs carefully – these mugs mean something. When they’re ready, it’s a quick drip of honey in each cup and stir.

There was a time a decade or so ago when love was rougher, one or the other of us wouldn’t pour the other a cup. Aren’t you going to make me some tea? I think it was him who said it, maybe me – it doesn’t matter because we’ve both felt it – that sharp whip of need and neglect. When one of us is filled with hornets in the morning, we tease, aren’t you going to make me some tea?!

We meet in the office. I sit cross-legged on one pink chair. He sits in the other. The dog hears us settle in and her nails click on the hardwood floor to greet us. This is her favorite part of the day as well, when she gets to wake up for a minute and then fall back asleep in the cradle of my crossed legs.

This morning against the backdrop of our giant pin oak a hummingbird hovered and danced. Sometimes there are deer that wander through after bedding down in the woods behind our house. Other times a hawk, a whole chorus of birds, a scurry of squirrels.

These pink chairs were Brandon’s grandma’s chairs. They are particularly suitable for watching birds. We often catch cardinals in our framed view of the yard and say hello to Garnet, visiting us here so often. We sip our tea and watch the sun creep higher.

This is the perfect cup, my love.

Flocks Fly Together

Today on the way back from a work meeting in Northwest Ohio, we drove through farmland patterned with rows of corn and fallow fields. As we drove, I watched along the road a flock of common birds lift up and land and lift again in a wave, moving together as if performing some long choreographed dance.

I love to watch the way birds move, such harmony, such unity. I’ve become a watcher of birds, a bird spotter. Their music in the morning or afternoon or evening gives me pause as I listen for their returned call. But this dance is a different kind of language, the language of hundreds of bodies responding to each other’s every move, ever aware of the other, ever adjusting to make room and lift and land.

According to my colleague, only about 40% of the usual corn crop and 60% of the soybeans made it in the ground in Ohio this year. It’s one of the worst, and yet the farmers are still at it, dependent on the weather and the soil and the sun, the machinery, the seeds, the turn of the earth.

I listen from time to time to the morning Ohio AgNet Report and think about the ancestry record of farmers in my family tree—generations of men who made their way, for richer or poorer, off the land. This year, there’s far less corn than normal on the family farm but it’s still there, it’s still growing in the ground that has caught the sweat of my family for well over a century, at least five generations worth working the soil. Even in the midst of dearth, there’s hope for the next crop. It’s what they do, aunts and uncles, cousins and sisters and brothers, in a long-practiced and choreographed dance. It must be written into our DNA, the same way flocks fly together.

Not the same flock as today, of course, but wow, how ’bout them birds?

When Your Day Isn’t Interrupted by a Mass Shooting

This morning, you went to a church and sang about a Good, Good Father. The pastor preached about the in-between, this space we inhabit, so ordinary, working and walking, singing and sighing, navigating our way around the grieving, who have just been struck by the reality of what we keep at arm’s length or farther. They are the length of a WalMart away, the distance from you and the person sitting at the other end of the pew. No one walked in and shattered stained glass windows. No one took shelter under a pew. No one screamed.

When you need some black beans for a potluck later, you send your husband to the convenience store. His only questions before leaving are about the number and size of cans, salted or unsalted. He doesn’t even say “I love you” because he’ll be home so soon, so soon it’s silly to say such things in this quick passing. The convenience store is brightly lit. It sells toothpaste and deodorant. Someone walks into the store to buy pantyhose before a wedding. Someone walks into the store to buy a birthday card. Someone walks into the store to buy a pack of Band-Aids. No one walks in carrying a weapon.

Maybe later you’ll go downtown to the local favorite spot, have some drinks, listen to some music and laugh with friends who have no intention of dying tonight. You’ll discuss the annoying and beautiful things your kids do because they are still alive, having missed out on becoming someone’s favorite gun-related statistic.

No one (we know of) has bought into the propaganda, no one (we know of) is following extremist bloggers on social media, no one (we know of) is hoarding weapons and prepping. There are a few people you remember who said and thought and shared crazy things once, but they support causes you don’t, and you don’t follow them anymore. They are out of sight and out of mind and almost out of your life. It’s almost like those threats just don’t exist, just couldn’t explode the ordinary life you live.

It’s just another ordinary day, and if we’re among the lucky, it stays that way, the TV spinning silently through another round of news, thoughts and prayers on automatic, just pull the trigger and they’re there. It’s some other town, another city.

And then distant friends mark themselves safe on Facebook, and for a second, maybe it’s just a little closer, now. Just a little closer. A little close. A little too close. So close. Too close. WalMart and schools and bars and churches in every town. Thoughts and prayers a pile of spent shells, the pew not quite so long.

Michael Murphy, Gun Country, (2014).

Birthday Cards

Brandon took the boys to buy birthday cards for me yesterday. Lydia made me a card with a picture and quote of Dwight Schrute on it. Elvis’ card made me laugh, and Henry’s card was all warm and fuzzy about how special moms are (Henry said “I picked it because it has so many nice words in it”). They picked them out by themselves.

I often struggle to find cards that say exactly what I mean to say, and I should probably just take Lydia’s lead and make them myself. But this receiving of cards from each of my kids so perfectly captured their personalities and our relationship that I’ll gladly take Hallmark any birthday.

As much as I struggle to find the best card, I still love the habit of card-giving and receiving when it’s done with intention. So much of what we do and say and write, even, is virtual. But to pick out or make a tangible love note for a loved one, write in it, and mail or hand that note to someone has an added weight to it that leaves an impression above and beyond the everyday exchanges.

I wish I could have been another set of eyes in the room when the kids gave me their cards. In my peripheral vision there was hope and anticipation, waiting to see my reaction, a silent plea for Mom to “get it,” receive that unique gift of love they each had to offer, and return it with the same cup overflowing.

In the Spirit of What Are the Chances

Sometimes you sit down in a hospital or restaurant or airport, and when you take a moment to look around, you find yourself in the presence of someone who looks a little familiar. Okay, really familiar. Is that so-and-so’s doppelgänger, or is that actually them? What are they doing here? You tilt your head a little and feel kind of embarrassed for staring so long and as intently, until they catch you.

What happens next is a glorious coincidence of time and space pulling two life trajectories together. It’s just this instant, all this ricocheting energy and shifting plans and tragic randomness, when Love seems to bring about a collision.

Eyes light up.

How wonderful to see you here! Where are you headed? I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances. This is your first time in town in five years, and here I am, with my family, out to dinner because we just didn’t feel like cooking? It’s so good to see you.

What are the chances? We ask, shaking our heads and grinning.

We are delighted – de-lighted – when our “eyes light up.” It must be the presence of the Holy Spirit transferring much-needed joy, much-needed hope, much-needed faith, this de-light. This coincidence. This holy happenstance.

Because, really, what are the chances?