self-care


In the vast majority of cases, sleeping is like peeing. You stop when you’re done.

I say this to almost anyone I hear complain about oversleeping. I’m not a sleep expert, but I have read a fair amount of sleep research in my study of psychology and psychotherapy. That research suggests that except in conditions like severe depression or narcolepsy, “oversleeping” should be reserved to mean sleeping past an appointment, like “overpeeing” can really only mean overfilling your urine sample cup.

It’s important to sleep until you are done sleeping and when you can’t avoid restricting sleep, to make up for it later. This is true for how your body functions, how your brain functions, and your overall well-being. If you don’t believe this, you are either ignorant of or ignoring the evidence. Try searching “sleep restriction” and “metabolism,” “cognition,” or “well-being.” There is a good-sized mountain of evidence. (If you don’t like reading academic writing, try searching “sleep” at TED.com or reading Sleep Thieves by Stanley Coren.)

And yet, I wake up to an alarm every weekday, and have done so for many years. This is clearly incongruent with my beliefs about sleep. Waking up to an alarm clock is just another way of purposefully restricting sleep.

So here’s the plan: I’m giving myself 10.5 hours in bed every night, from 9:30pm until my alarm goes off at 8am, until I start waking up naturally before my alarm. It means giving up an hour or two of socializing, exercising, reading or writing each evening, which feels like a lot. It feels like giving my life completely to work, getting ready for work, and sleep. On the other hand, I could end up feeling better and being healthier, and I could stop being such a hypocrite. My wife is on board with the project, so it has some chance of success.

I’ll post again about it in a few weeks.

Advertisements

This is a long post, so first the short version. In the last year: I started working full time and am adjusting to that. I’m glad to be working towards my MFT licensure, but uncomfortable about how it pushes my relationships and other projects onto the back burner. My marriage gets better and better, despite this. The company I work for goes out of business so I get part of the summer off, and I get the exact same job (family therapist for US Marines & their families) with a new company.

And for the year ahead: I plan to continue this work, taking good care of myself, dance with Reanna every night, as promised to my friend, Tilke, in her “How to be a Real Artist” workshop, get in best shape in 5 years, and learn how to treat myself and Reanna really really well while working full time.

October: I started my year out at Farm & Wilderness, VT, staffing and teaching a really fun psychology project at Not Back to School Camp. As is traditional, I got really sick, but this time it was from a waitress in Rutland, not someone at NBTSC. I recuperated while visiting Ethan & Susannah, also in Vermont. Back in Joshua Tree, I started working out again (SERIOUS style), planted my first winter garden, fixed some electrical and plumbing problems in my trailer, and started setting up a private practice. In the process of hiring a supervisor, I found out that in California, unlike in Oregon, I cannot do my internship in a private practice. So I started looking for work in a local clinic.

Looking out over Woodward Reservoir from my cabin at Farm & Wilderness

Ethan, cataloging NBTSC lost & found in his library

The famous Quodlibetarian tub

Reanna

Reanna at Playa Del Rey

Ollie, a year ago

Ollie & Pap

Gabe, Damian & Maya on the Hwy 62 Art Tour

Trailer at sunset, looking south

November: I move into a new computer, archive my years of audio journal entries, and learn Sketchup while applying for and getting a job at Morongo Basin Mental Health: providing free, confidential therapy for US Marines, veterans, and their families. In what would become a series of small-town coincidences, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in decades worked there, saw my name on the interview list and sat in on my interview, interjecting stuff like, “Oh, yeah, good answer!” Nice way to interview. The manager of the military program assured me that the our contract was solid for at least two years. That’s about how long I need to get my hours for licensure, so the job sounded good–no chance of having to ditch my clients like I had to in grad school! I spent the rest of the month getting in as much time with Reanna and my family before starting full time work.

Rainbow over the Bartlet Mts

Maya & Ollie in hammock

Ollie helps Nana Honey cook

Me & Reanna

December:  My 93 year old Grandpa Bob gets really sick, and I get really sick taking care of him. I was pretty sure he was going to die. He had pneumonia and had to go on antibiotics for the first time in his life. It took me weeks to fully recover. He eventually recovered, too, but I’m not sure he’ll ever fully recover. He’s been on antibiotics off and on ever since and is progressively less mobile. It’s got me thinking a lot about dying–how I can support the people I love when they start having a hard time taking care of themselves, and how I want to die when my time comes.

I start at MBMH, reading 40 hours a week of protocols. I have Christmas with family in Joshua Tree. My brother Damian starts a weekly evening with family, listening to an integral Christianity lecture and meditation that turns out to be a presentation of integral theory to Christians, rather than Christianity to integral thinkers, but valuable nonetheless.

Reanna & Christina, Xmas

Reanna & Maya, Xmas

Ely, Christina, Pap, Ben, Rebeca, Xmas

Gabe, Ely, Ollie, Christina, Xmas

Reanna, ukulele, heater

Ollie, bundled up

January: I get my first paid vacation ever–one week off, fully paid by MBMH. Weird, pretty nice. I write my first attempt at a comprehensive political statement. Reanna and I start a three-month experiment with a strict “paleo” diet, which mostly means we cut out sugar and grains from our diet. The theory is that human adaptation to grains and refined anything is shallow at best. I also start cooking Mexican food (the paleo-friendly recipes) from Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican. I love it. And Reanna loves eating it. I start learning to play Reanna’s ukulele. I play and sing “Amazing Grace” most nights for a month. Fun!

I’m working full time, which I’ve never done. It’s not my favorite schedule. I had to let go of most of my projects. I started building a solar batch water heater in the fall, for example, that is still not finished. The schedule has simplified my life quite a bit. Work all day, spend the evening with Reanna. I gained more respect for my friends who’ve been working full time for decades and still manage to write some music or read books. I’m ramping into a caseload, though, and am seeing seven clients a week by the end of the month.

My endurance training is going great by this point. Mid month I got my heart rate up to 179 bpm without hurting myself. Very exciting.

Smiley and Gallant visit

Reanna in our clean, cold kitchen

Dinner’s almost ready. (Photo by Reanna.)

Grandpa Bob turns 94

Me in therapist costume, with Ollie. (Photo by Reanna.)

February: Full time work continues. I get trained in the Trauma Resiliency Model, which I find very cool and useful. I re-up the trademark on Abandon Ship. I feel sad that I can’t write music with my brothers right now, but have plenty of optimistic plans to do so… Reanna starts designing our future house, another exciting project that I have to watch from the sidelines. I love watching her get super deep into a topic like this, though. She is now the resident expert in passive-solar-optimized-very-small-house design. We start car shopping, too. We need to be independently mobile in Joshua Tree.

Trench. Hose feeding trailer finally to be buried.

Reanna & treehouse near the Mexican border

Ollie, Damian

March: I’m up to 16 clients at MBMH and I’m fighting for mastery of the intense paperwork load. The clinical work is going great. My supervisor is good, I am fully engaged by my clients, and I get to see a good variety of folks–kids, adults, families, couples. The paperwork is fairly unpleasant, though. Mental health providers that get government funding spend a huge amount of time and energy creating and maintaining a paper trail for their work. These clinics get paid based on the work they claim to have done and then various agencies can audit their files and take that money back if a box wasn’t checked or a T wasn’t crossed. I spend my first very late day at work in March, trying to catch up on paperwork. Reanna is not happy.

Highlights: A great lecture by Bruce Perry, planting my first spring/summer garden, endurance training going great (I work out during my lunches at MBMH), meeting the Transition Joshua Tree folks. And Reanna. Reanna is wonderful.

Lowlights: My truck fails smog and I begin what becomes an expensive debacle trying to get it to pass.  I start having sync problems with my Mac that I am still dealing with as I write. I start working on our taxes on weekends. Reanna is Canadian and that makes our taxes super complicated and somehow even though we hired a professional we ended up owing big fines.

Abandon Ship cover art, for the TM folks. Art by Tilke.

Damian & Ollie in old billy goat pen, future garden

Me, just having sunk the garden beds. (Photo by Reanna)

Reanna planting pepper starts

Ollie

Ollie & Reanna take the trash out

Ollie & Reanna rest in the hammock

April: I find out that Morongo Basin Mental Health has decided to go out of business after more than 40 years, at the end of June. That’s quite a shock and less for me than for the many decade-plus employees I work with. At home, our three months of paleo is up and I feel fine, as I have on just about every diet I’ve tried, but it clearly had not solved any of the problems we’d been tracking for the experiment. And I am sick in bed for a week for a third time this year. Reanna’s parents arrive for a month long visit. I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like, but we get in some fun events (like the Morongo Basin Conservation Association’s “Desertwise Landscape Tour” and Transition Joshua Tree’s Water Catchment Workshop), good talks, good swimming.  I get trained in sand-tray therapy by my supervisor, Richard Gray, which I find quite useful.

Reanna preps cholla buds for dinner

Family dinner at Damian & Maya’s (Damian with Bugzooka)

Doug & Kathryn up San Jacinto

May: We get a great little car, a gift from Reanna’s parents. It gets 38 mpg unless we use the AC.  At work, emotions are high and rumors are flying around. I try to avoid it as much as possible. My coworkers are mostly looking for work with great intensity. I decide that I will chill instead, concentrate on my clients, and do what I can to get my job back with whatever company picks up the military contract in the summer.  Meanwhile,  something is eating my garden. My weekends and after work time is often spent critter-proofing.

The highlight of the month by far is meeting my new nephew, Julian.

Julian in sling

Ollie in work gloves

First scorpion of a scorpion-rich year

June: I’m at 21 clients at the beginning of my last month at MBMH. The management has had me continue taking new clients but I’m starting to get nervous about it. It’s starting to look like my clients will have a significant lapse in services, and it pisses me off. I write people in charge at the county and local journalists but no-one can say how long it will take to get the military program back up and running. I know I’m fine. I can look forward to a full season working at NBTSC if things go badly. It sucks, though, that my clients are just getting dumped. It’s screwed up. I just have to set them up as best I can for the lapse and do the tons of paperwork to close their charts. Meanwhile, my co-worker, Jackie, introduces me to Candy Crush, which starts sucking up the cracks in my schedule.

Highlights: Jonathan & Ayako’s wedding in Idaho. Motorcycle safety class with Reanna. And being married to Reanna, of course.

Living room pano: Ely, Christina, Julian, Ben, Rebeca visit

Ben & Julian

North end pano from on top of Reanna’s sewing RV

Ayako & Jonathan, getting married

July: I’m unemployed again, but within two weeks I get interviewed by Pacific Clinics, the company who got the military contract that I’d been working for at MBMH. It looks like I’ll get the job based on the reputation I’d made for myself in that position. That feels good! It means I’ll miss most of NBTSC this year, too, for the first time in 14 years.

Reanna leaves for OR to do prep work for NBTSC and I delete Candy Crush from my phone so I can get some things done: install AC in our trailer, create an outside pantry, build a greywater cistern, make a front step for the trailer, get my motorcycle license, and a few other things. Satisfying. Then I fly up to OR to work the Camp Latgawa session of NBTSC.

Reanna hangs our laundry while I goof off with the camera

Cistern in progress

Julian & me

August: Finish at NBTSC (wonderful, as usual), and spend a few short days in Eugene at an NBTSC leadership summit, then back to Joshua Tree for my last week of unemployment. I completed some last-minute landscaping and plumbing projects, built a dry toilet and installed a weather station, then started training at Pacific Clinics in Arcadia.

At the end of August, Reanna got back from her travels, and we started shutting down all lights and electronics at 8pm and just hanging out until going to bed. This was lovely. We usually laid in the hammock outside, talking and looking at stars. The desert summer evenings are really, really nice. Especially with Reanna.

My advisee group, NBTSC Camp Latgawa

Ely & Julian before dinner

Reanna & Ollie, downtown Joshua Tree

September: I start making contact with clients and by the end of the month I’m back up to 7 clients. This is exciting, and it’s nice to be working with some of my old co-workers from MBMH, and the new crew at Pacific Clinics is an entertaining bunch. Working full time again limits what I can do in terms of projects, but I manage to put a new roof on the old goat pen/the new outside pantry, go visit Quail Springs permaculture farm, and start building a new composter with my 2-year-old nephew, Ollie.

At the end of the month, I have my first birthday at home in many years. Usually I’m at camp. It’s nice. My family threw me a little party and I’m glad to be here, even though I miss my people at Farm & Wilderness.

Yes, Ollie wants to help build the composter!

Rain Event, 29 Palms

With Reanna & ocotillo, on my 42nd birthday.

Not Back to School Camp comes right before my birthday, so I often use our closing intention circles to make public goals for my personal new year. In 2010, I announced that I would sit and meditate for 30 minutes each day, every day, all year. I chose this goal for two reasons, one completely practical, and one speculative.

The practical reason was diligent self-care during my last year of grad school. I knew I would be working long hours, and wanted to remain as clear-headed and stress-free as possible, so that I could learn, write, and support my clients at the best of my ability. There is a sizable body of evidence that a regular mindfulness meditation practice could help. I also imagined that succeeding at this goal would help make this kind of self-care a permanent part of my lifestyle.

The more speculative reason came from reading meditation advocates like Ken Wilber, who claim that a mindfulness practice can be an engine of personal development. They conceptualize growing up as a process of continually refining one’s sense of self, becoming less egocentric and more compassionate. While practicing a mindfulness meditation you are learning to make objects of observation out of the contents of your consciousness that you normally inhabit with your identity. The sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you are become objects that you notice, distinct from your self. You can move, for example, from being anger about a certain injustice to having and observing that anger. This increase in perspective should be extremely helpful for family therapists like me–we need to be able to see all sides of the story: How does each person’s perspective on this problem make sense?

The only way I can present the results of my year-long experience in a clear-cut fashion is by the numbers, and in that way I failed in my goal. I meditated 30 minutes on 254 out of 365 days in that year. That’s 111 days of not meditating. Most of those days were during the summer that Reanna moved in with me. I found it hard to prioritize alone-time after two years of a long distance relationship.

The other way I failed by the numbers was that I did not sit for 125 of those 254 days. When I said I would sit and meditate every day, I meant it. Pretty soon, though, I had a day when I was so tired that I really, really did not want to sit up. I decided that on the rare days like these, I would lay down and do a relaxation-meditation called yoga nidra that my friend Guyatri Janine had recorded. It turned out that days like that were not rare at all. (When I did sit, by the way,  I sat Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka from my birthday in September to the new year (42 days), and then zazen (79 days) as taught by my friend Debra Seido).

The third failure is that I have not continued meditating after my year was over–less than 30 times in the last four months. It’s easy to imagine this says something about the results I experienced from meditating. I apparently did not value what I got from meditating enough to continue prioritizing it when I had my fiance’s attention available, starting last summer, and even less after my official commitment to meditating was up in September.

But what I got from my meditation practice is by far the most difficult thing to be clear about. I can say that without exception I felt better afterwards than I did before I sat down to meditate. Sometimes it also seemed like I was “getting better” at meditating, that I was indeed training my mind at this very difficult task. I can’t say, though, how much it lowered my stress or changed my ego-centrism or compassion levels. I have no control group to compare myself to. I can say that I was fairly stressed out in grad school and that I did a good job with it–the writing, the learning, and serving my clients. I think I can also say that I am more compassionate than I was before that year, but more I’m inclined to credit the connections I made with my clients than my meditation practice.

The problem with evaluating this kind of program is more than just not having a personal control group. It’s also that the program advocated by Wilber and meditation teachers is very long term. “Don’t just sit a year and expect to know what’s going on,” I imagine them saying. “Try 20 years. That’s more like it.”

The skeptic in me replies, “That’s a very convenient way to make testing all this out extremely expensive.” The researcher in me says, “Well, let’s get to it! This could be important. Who’s going to design a huge longitudinal experiment, fund it, and run it? You can still get it done before I die!” The idealist in me says, “20 years, huh? I am strongly considering it.”

Improving your posture is not an easy task once your body becomes set in its ways. The obvious reason is that your joints lose their range of motion, your muscles become long in the wrong places and short in the wrong places, and everything gets tight. In my case, for example, the ribs and thoracic spinal joints do not move as freely as they should, and especially the upper thoracic spine is habitually curved forward. This places my head too far forward, placing strain on the whole axial system. This is not easy to reverse at my age, and I have been spending just over two hours a day at it for more than six months. (See here and here for more.) I am prepared to work on it for several more years, if necessary. I plan to live at least into my 90s and want to have a strong, flexible, pain free body for as long as possible.

One less obvious way that improving your posture is not an easy task is that habitual body position seems to be activity-specific. I am pretty good and improving at good posture while standing, sitting, and walking, for example, but only while doing extremely simple versions of those activities. Sitting in my truck, driving straight on the highway, it’s easy to have good posture as long as I am thinking about it. Making a right turn, however, is a completely different deal, for two reasons. First, the attention that I use to remember posture tends to be taken up by the brain activity of making the turn. Second, it seems that my body has a way of making a right turn that is a gestalt: what I am looking at and for, what I am thinking about, how I move, and the position of my entire body is molded by the pattern and memory of 24 years of right-turn making.

So unravelling that and making right turns with good posture takes some doing. And that leaves left turns pretty much untouched, not to mention playing guitar, having an emotional conversation, or leading an underarm pass while partner dancing.

I was cutting up big pieces of plywood today, using a table saw. I tried to figure out how to do this series of motions while keeping my body in good alignment. I wished that I could have a construction-slash-posture coach there, helping me out. Then I started fantasizing about people who use table saws for a living getting trained like that. I have worked on construction crews, and if you are lucky you get trained how not to cut off your fingers, but you never get trained how not to have a painful back in ten or twenty years. If it was successful, I bet the extra cost would be more than made up for by the reduction in worker’s comp claims.

On the other hand, it might not be successful. When I was first learning to dance, my teacher, Karly, spent some time emphasizing the importance of posture and moving my body into good posture. “Remember this,” she said. “This is what good posture feels like when you are dancing.” The problem was, I did not keep doing it. I think maybe I couldn’t. It was too much to think about at the same time–the feel of leading, the moves I was trying to lead, and posture. It was overwhelming. For that to have worked, I think I would have needed Karly to insist on perfect posture and never moving on before I could lead each move with perfect posture. That would have been very slow. On the other hand, I am going to have to do all of that work anyway, so that I can dance without hurting my body. That is my next project with dancing–start over, re-learning the simplest moves with perfect posture.

I turned 39 at 8:50 this morning. I’m on the cusp of middle age! As usual, I used my flights to and from Not Back to School Camp to brainstorm about my 40th year. Camp is a great end-of-year celebration and source of inspiration. I’m going to do a lot this year–finish my Master’s degree and see clients for at least 400 hours, for example–but I’ve decided not to put that stuff on my list. I want to concentrate on how I do it. I just watched the outgoing cohort finish up my program and they seemed really stressed out. I want to do it without overwhelming myself, in good health. I want to enjoy it. So I came up with one intention that sums it all up:

This year, I intend to take exquisitely good care of myself.

To me, that means that I think about myself like I do my best friends, with affection and optimism, with care. I am not a slave to being productive.

When I touch myself, I do so gently, with attention, not mechanically or absent-mindedly. Like I would someone I love.

I don’t eat crap.

I meditate 30 minutes every day.

I exercise 45 minutes every day.

I do my physiotherapy daily and get health care whenever I need it.

I get good attention, from friends, co-counselors, or a therapist, when I need it.

I take a day off every week.

I say yes to social invitations.

I sleep a bare minimum of 8 hours a night. That means giving myself an hour to chill out with nothing electric and no reading before bed, and an hour to lie in bed before I need to be asleep, so I don’t get worried about falling asleep quickly enough.

I keep my living space looking nice.

I have some ritual (yet to be designed) which helps me stop thinking about my clients when I leave the clinic.

I’ve also put a lot of thought into how I will prioritize my commitments. They will probably often conflict with each other and I’d like to be able to make choices about what to do and what to leave out with minimal stress. That part will be a work in progress for a while

Our check-out at the end of group supervision last night was naming our “guilty pleasures.” My cohort-mates mostly talked about TV shows they were watching, plus some fiction reading. When it was my turn, they shot down every single extracurricular activity I offered. Not one qualified as a guilty pleasure. Here’s the list:

Reading Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz

Listening to Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing on audiobook

Listening to This American Life, Radiolab, and a couple other podcasts

Recording Reanna a cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life”

Dancing every week

I think they might have given me dancing if I hadn’t tried their patience with the other stuff first. I didn’t think to say writing for my blog, which is probably the pleasure I feel the guiltiest about, but they probably wouldn’t have given me that either.

It doesn’t seem like I have time to watch TV. I don’t even have a TV, come to think of it, and I haven’t figured out how to get TV shows on the internet. I’m watching a little of the jazz doc each night as I brush my teeth, but it’s hard to imagine watching multiple seasons of TV shows, like my cohort-mates are. It would take a major shift in lifestyle. I did listen to Murakami’s (excellent) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last spring, but only while I was driving, so it took 15 weeks to finish.

I feel conflicted about my lack of guilty pleasures. I’d like to have that kind of laid-back lifestyle. I want to be more relaxed. This summer–this next four weeks of this summer–is my only even partly unstructured time before I graduate next June. And who knows after that? I’ll have loans to pay off.

On the other hand, it doesn’t sound relaxing to add something to my schedule! Plus, I like the stuff that I’m doing, and I’m working on wrapping my head around something with infinite depth. When I finished my two-year record-production program in the 1990s, my teacher Josh Hecht said, “This is a deep subject that you have scratched the surface of, but you now know what you need to be able to do. The next step is figuring out a way to do it for 14 hours a day, every day. In 20 years or so, you’ll be very good at it.” That was his lifestyle, and it made him an excellent record producer. He worked all day, had no time for non-audio entertainment, read only the two very best trade magazines, participated in only the two very best trade organizations. He slept five hours a night.

This is a path of mastery like Erickson’s 10,000 hour rule; to get good at any complex endeavor, you have to put in about 10,000 hours. Being a therapist certainly qualifies as a complex endeavor! The catch is, weeks after Josh told us how to become a good record producer, he got very ill and was forced to take a long vacation–his first vacation in decades, I believe. I think that was the point my supervisor was making about guilty pleasures; this is a demanding career in many ways. How do I master it while maintaining my health, motivation, and clarity?