Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wisdom Tooth

Facing the inevitable can be difficult. Especially when the inevitable is a wisdom tooth that finally—after 50 years—requires extraction.

   I've been fortunate about my teeth in general. I am one of those obnoxious people who did not have a cavity—until now. Although I could have benefited from braces, my teeth came in straight enough to not require them. Suffice to say, I also haven't had a lot of experience with oral surgery, so the prognosis of the wisdom tooth's ultimate departure left me feeling quite anxious. Of course there's an answer to anxiety in the medical world—and it's not meditation. It's called anesthesia.
   While setting up the appointment I discovered my options, or lack thereof. Insurance doesn't cover general anethesia for a simple, single wisdom tooth extraction. Either I needed to have more teeth taken out, or I could pay an additional $500 out of pocket to be rendered unconscious for the procedure. My referring dentist didn't think general anesthesia would be necessary. So I made the appointment and opted for nitrous (happy gas!) but no general.
   The night before my appointment, I was scared. I knew it was senseless to worry about the procedure before hand, but like my 11-year old son Jack, I suffer from fear of the unknown.

Earlier this month, Jack had to have four baby teeth extracted in preparation for his braces. When his orthodontist told him that the teeth had to go,  the poor kid turned a lighter shade of Casper.
  "But I don't want to have these teeth pulled!" he cried.
   "I'm sorry son, you don't have a choice in this," I said.
   "Is it gonna hurt?" he asked.
   "Honestly? Yes, it will," I said. "But just for a few seconds and then it will be over."
   These were not exactly the words he wanted to hear, but I decided to go with the truth. And sometimes we have to do things that are unpleasant. We do difficult tasks because they are the right thing to do and in our best interest. That's an important lesson to learn. It's part of growing up. Still, I didn't like the thought of my son suffering.
   "Jack, thinking about it is the worst part," I said. "Remember when you first got braces? You were really scared about that, but it turned out to be not so bad, right?"
   "Yeah," Jack said grudgingly. "That was no big deal."
   "And remember how scared you were about getting your immunizations for school this year?"
   "Yeah," Jack said, a little less grudgingly this time. "It wasn't bad. And I got four stickers!"
   "This will be the same way," I said. "You'll see. Just try not to obsess over it, okay?"
   I let this sink in and Jack returned to playing Hay Day on his Kindle.
  "Hmmm. Wonder what the tooth fairy pays for four teeth at once?" I said. "This might bankrupt her."
   Jack hadn't thought of this. The idea of a windfall brightened his mood.
   "Really?" he said. "How much do ya think she'll pay?"

  Now it was my turn. I tried tame my monkey mind, but as the hours ticked down towards my appointment, I could feel my anxiety levels rising. I was grateful Jason was off work and could drive me to the doctor's office. Even if I wasn't having general anesthesia, which would require a ride home afterwards, having him with me was a comfort. Plus, he made me laugh.
   After what seemed like hours, I was finally called back to the procedure room. The doctor reviewed my x-rays and confirmed that the extraction was a simple one.
   "A lot of people choose to have general because they don't want to remember what happened," he said. "With nitrous and local, you won't feel anything but you'll remember it."
    With that he left the room and the nurse proceeded to prep me by starting the flow of nitrous oxide. In moments a warm feeling crept into my chest. I breathed in deeply and breathed out, trying to employ some of my meditative methods. Frankly, I was stoned without much effort.
  Then something rather unexpected happened. The nurse, who I just met, launched into a story about her boyfriend. She told me about her trust issues and how every other guy she dated had cheated on her. She hoped this guy was different. But what if he wasn't? They'd been friends for years. She really wanted things to work out between them, but she couldn't stop obsessing over whether or not he was being honest with her. She went on and on as I sat helpless and stoned in the dentist's chair.
   When the doctor came back to administer the local anestetic, the nurse stopped her chatter. After he left the room, she picked up the story where she left off.
   While the numbing agents kicked in, she continued her story. I offered my opinion a few times but my tongue was so thick and heavy that my words came out garbled and funny. I closed my eyes and listened to the nurse prattle on.
   Under a different circumstance, this outpouring of TMI would have been annoying but today I welcomed her drama. Focusing on her misguided romances helped keep my mind off the needles and surgical instruments. And even in my nitrous-induced euphoria I was reminded how often I'm inclined to focus on someone else's problems to ignore my own. But today was an example of how taking the focus off my own thoughts was the perfect way to get through a difficult situation.
   When the doctor returned to extract the tooth, the nurse stopped her chatter again. He asked me to open my mouth and I felt him applying pressure to the ailing tooth. He pulled and I felt a slight release and it was over.
  The doctor left the room again and the chatty nurse took me for a second x-ray to make sure they got the entire tooth.
   "Thank you," I said, through my gauze-stuffed, numb mouth. "You really helped me get through this. I hope everything works out with your guy."
   "Thanks for your perspective," she said. "It's good to get outside your own head, you know?"
    "Yes," I said. "You're right, sometimes it helps a lot."


Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Custodian

The long humid days are beginning to fade. The promise of fall is in the air. The change in the weather reminds me of my first tentative steps into Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center around this time three years ago. Yes, I was uncomfortable as the people around me touched their foreheads to the ground in a full prostration ... three times. And I felt downright foolish reading a prayer that included the phrase "Ho Ha Ha Ha Ha Hum." But for some reason I returned each week. 

So how does a Catholic girl from Little Rock, Arkansas become a Tibetan Buddhist? I'm not sure. There is something about Buddhism that's familiar and comfortingMaybe the warm, earthy aroma of incense reminds me of attending midnight mass at Marylake Carmelite Monastery outside Little Rock. It could be the candles. Or maybe the Tibetan chants remind me of the Catholic priests who chanted in Latin on special occasions. Catholicism and Buddhism do have similar philosophies (such as "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself."). But unlike Catholicism, Buddhism doesn't have a deity and isn't an organized religion. It's a practice, a way of living life. The Buddha (who was not God) taught his followers to question everything, to take nothing for granted—and this appealed to me since I had a lot of questions.

My interest in finding a spiritual practice began back in 1992 when I was still employed at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. I hadn't been to church in years but I felt the tug (guilt?) to have some sense of a spiritual life. So I did what I always do when I want to make a change: I shopped. 

I bought copies of the "Tao te Ching" and "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" and "The Celestine Prophecy." I was intrigued by what I read, but I was too wrapped up in my corporate career and all the perks of being part of the media biz to do the required inner work. I liked drinking and smoking and partying with my friends. I was 30 years old and invincible. And yet, I knew there was that illusive "something" missing. The missing thing tugged at my heart, but I looked outside myself for the answer. At first I thought it might be my biological clock ticking, but I didn't particularly long for round-the-clock feedings and diaper changes. It did occur to me that if I could just find the right guy, everything in my life would fall into place. And yet when it came to men, I was the Goldilocks of dating. They were too much of this or not enough that. No one was "just right."
You know when you work with the best in the biz (as I did at
TNT—from left, Tom Wages, me, Scot Safon and Laura Dames)
and you still feel "something is missing," then that something
isn't going to be found in an office.

I kinda, sorta wanted to believe in God, or at least have faith in a divine power who could be held accountable in this world. "All I know is that I don't know," I said in a most Taoist way. I read "The Road Less Traveled," and "Soulmates," and "Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet," and "The Gospels According to Jesus," but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was missing.

One evening I sat in my office cubbie, trying to determine how many 1/2 page and 1/4 page ads I could buy in TV Guide to promote the latest TNT's Original Movie. It was VERY important that the numbers add up and I was determined to stay at my desk until I had it figured out. Other people were hard at work in the office too. It wasn't unusual for employees to work late into the evening. But the glow of florescent lights began to dim as one and then another coworker said good-night.

After a while, I thought I was alone. I kicked off my little black pumps and stretched my legs. For some reason I brought my copy of the Tao te Ching to work that day. I had a few friends who were also into spiritual pursuits and we often discussed our beliefs or lack there ofs. I picked up the book and began to read. I was so engrossed that I didn't register the sound of someone coming down the hall.
  "Working late?" a male voice inquired.
  I looked up with a start and saw the smiling face of one of the building's custodians. He was a big man, at least six-foot tall and older, maybe in his 60s. He might have been menacing save for his grin, which was broad and genuine, like that of a child's. I didn't know his name, but I saw him from time to time when I worked late. He pushed a large trashcan on wheels in which he collected the yogurt containers, candy bar wrappers, wadded up memos and various office flotsam.
   "Hi!" I said. "Yes. Working late again."
    I reached beneath my desk to retrieve my small trash can and handed it over to the janitor.
   "What are you reading?" he asked.
   "Oh, this? It's a book on eastern philosophy."
   "The Tao te Ching?" the janitor said. "That's a good one. I just finished reading a really good book about Buddhism."
   "Yep, I got into it a few years back,"he said.
   We talked for a while about the books we were reading and our thoughts on Buddhism and Taoism and life in general. 
   "Well, I better let you get back to work," he said. "Why don't I bring you that book? I think you'll like it."
   "Sure," I said. "That would be great."
   Then the custodian pushed his trashcan down the aisle, continuing his rounds.
   "Who knew?" I thought.

I worked for about thirty minutes more and then decided to head home and finish my report in the morning. The next day when I walked into my office, I pulled out my desk chair and found a copy of a thin paperback entitled, "Buddha in the Palm of Your Hand."

I thought I would read the book and then return it to my new friend, but I had a hard time comprehending the text. I found it confusing, as though it were written in another language. Buddhism can be explained in simple terms, such as "the science of the mind," or "the practice of loving kindness in everyday life," and I understood those ideals. But each time I picked up the slender text and opened its yellowing pages, I could not wrap my mind around its words. The black type jumbled before my eyes as though it were written in Sanskrit rather than English. Finally, I put the book on my bookshelf ... and forgot about it. 

When I saw the Buddhist janitor again,  he asked me what I thought of the book. I shrugged and said something like, "It's good but really deep," and left it at that. I didn't want to admit that I didn't understand it. After a while, I stopped seeing him in the evenings when I worked late. Maybe I avoided him, or he was cleaning another building or perhaps he left Turner to become a guru. Our paths just didn't cross again. A few months later, I quit my job to pursue my bliss, which was to become a writer.

Months past. And I realized ... I had no idea how to become a writer. I began to doubt myself. What if I didn't have the talent to write professionally? I felt I was alone and I feared I would always be alone. Again I looked outside myself for answers. 

Soon I met a man. He was an artist. I fell in love with the way he painted light. He asked me to marry him. We started planning our life together. We rented a bungalow and settled into our life. I thought I had everything I wanted. But years went by and I began to feel dissatisfied. We had a beautiful baby. For a time I was very happy. But then years went by, and the dissatisfied feeling, that nagging tug, began to surface again ... 

That was three years ago.

In August 2010, a 47-year-old lapsed Catholic (me) walked into a Buddhist Center in Birmingham, Alabama in search of answers. I was still looking for those Big Answers. You know the ones. The answers to the questions that mankind has sought since we first gained consciousness. "Why am I here?" "What is the meaning of life?" "What is my purpose?" "What happens when I die?" "If my life is so good, why can't I just be happy?" "Why do I feel so f---ed up?" "Am I grasping for something that doesn't exist?"

As I parked my car in the lot of the non-descript strip mall where the Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center was unceremoniously located, I considered turning around and driving to TJ Maxx for shopping therapy instead. But I took a leap of faith and walked inside. Although I had no idea what I was doing there, I realized I was asking the right questions at last.

After three years, I still attend Losel Maitri's services and discussion groups every week. I've become one of those people who prostrates and chants. Buddha's teachings have encouraged me to become more mindful of my actions. I have learned that my thoughts can be the source of dissatisfaction — or happiness. I accept that all things change and I try not to label those changes as good or bad. Today, I'm more present with my family, friends and colleagues. I'm learning to appreciate the journey of life and the beauty in the world. Buddhism has taught me that my perceptions are limited, and that there is always a positive side. Yes, I'm still asking questions, but—20 years later—the custodian's book is finally starting to make sense.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Starts and Stops

After more than 30 years, my college pals and I still get together once a year.
Last week, my college girlfriends held our annual reunion. This year was special. We traveled to Cabo San Lucas to celebrate our collective 50th birthdays. The first night we sat out on the balcony of the seaside condo getting caught up on our lives. Wine flowed and laughter filled the warm evening air. After a while, one of the girls fished into her purse and produced a pack of Virginia Slims. Everyone laughed and groaned and began to reminisce about our college days.
    The exact moment I first lit up a cigarette still plays like a little movie in my head. I wasn't at a beer bust at the SAE house or drinking coffee in my dorm room to pull an all-nighter. I was alone, sitting on a scratchy, tweed Salvation Army sofa in the living room of my off-campus apartment. I moved off campus to save money on room and board. My roommate, Susan,  graduated the previous spring and secured a job managing the campus grill. We met during our work study assignment the previous year. I was a member of Chi Omega sorority, styled my hair with hot rollers and wore Polo shirts and too much eye make-up. She was a hippy chick with long blonde hair, who preferred the natural look and wore faded blue jeans and long cotton skirts. She said things like, "That's cool, man." She smoked pot and cigarettes and loved the Grateful Dead. I admired Susan's easy-going style and when it became evident that we were both looking for a roomy to share expenses, we decided our differences were a good fit. We moved in together the fall of my sophomore year.
   My Mom helped me move into the apartment. Her face clouded when she saw Susan's cigarettes and sniffed the odor of tobacco smoke that already hung in the air.  
   "I wish your roommate didn't smoke," she said quietly. 
   "Oh Mom!" I said in that awful defensive tone that teenagers use when they are trying to deflate parental concerns while knowing damn well that their parents are right.
   "It's a bad habit," she said. 
    "Yeah," I said. "But just because she smokes doesn't mean I'll take it up."

   A month later I sat alone in the apartment listening to Sting's "Every Breath You Take" playing for the 2-billionth time on Susan's stereo. My eyes were red and puffy from crying over the boy who didn't call, or the D+ I received on my French test, or something equally as tragic. Susan's Merit menthols were on the coffee table along with her lighter and an ceramic ash tray that was already half-full of butts. Many of my friends smoked, but I abhorred cigarettes. Had never even tried one in high school. I thought they were smelly and gross. I downright hated the things until the moment I slipped a Merit from the pack, placed it between my lips, lit it and inhaled.
   I sputtered and chocked and spit out smoke. Did people really enjoy this? I inhaled again tentatively. This time I didn't pull the smoke so deeply into my lungs. I held the minty smoke in my mouth and exhaled quickly. My head felt fuzzy and I lay back on the sofa and continued to puff at the thing, watching the glow wink and fade, occasionally flicking the ash into the ash tray. My stomach felt a little queasy. Why did people think smoking was so great?
   I inhaled too quickly and the smoke burned my throat and lungs. I coughed, expelling a noxious cloud. In a moment I inhaled again. I finished the cigarette, stubbed out the butt in the tray, lay down and closed my eyes. When I woke up, the room was dark, the apartment, quite. Susan was out with friends after her shift at the grill. I reached for her Merits and shook the pack until another cigarette tumbled out. I lay back and lit it, watching the tip's glow. I was alone. That's how it started.
   Soon I smoked at beer busts with along my friends, and I smoked over late-night cups of coffee and morning coffees too. I smoked after finishing a meal. I smoked after finishing a cigarette. For a long time I didn't buy my own. As long as I didn't buy them for myself, I wasn't a smoker, right?  I stole them from my roommate or bummed them from friends, and begged them from strangers. On holidays and other occasions when I went back to Little Rock to visit my family, I'd make up excuses to get out of the house. I'd take a walk or drive to the grocery store so I could have my fix. When I had to buy a pack, I nervously saddled up to the checkout counter and prayed that no one I knew saw me while I ordered up a pack and made the transaction. One day I bought a carton of cigarettes at Montesi's grocery store  and the cashier looked at me and said, "That's funny, you don't look like a smoker." 
   "I'm not!" I laughed. "I just ... smoke ... sometimes." 
   Deep down I knew the truth: I was hooked.

   Over the years, I quit many times. In 1990, I took a job with Turner Broadcasting and retired my lighter for a while. Ted Turner's father died of lung cancer and the infamous cable maverick instituted a policy whereby employees had to sign a statement promising not to smoke. Of course, I'm sure there were insurance considerations involved, too. Some employees (like those who worked in New York, where everyone smoked in the office) ignored the policy altogether. I tried my best to keep to my promise to Ted, but working for Turner was often stressful and I found myself alone in my apartment waiting for the phone to ring, or some similar anxiety and would prompt me to don my sunglasses and walk into the local convenience store to score a pack of Marlboro Light 100s.
   Before I became pregnant with Jack, I quit again. I thought this time it would be "for good." Throughout my pregnancy the mere whiff of cigarette smoke made me want to puke. After Jack was born, I felt great and was proud of myself for ending a very bad habit. 
   But being a parent is stressful. Once Jack stopped breast feeding, I decided there wasn't much harm having a cigarette now and then. I'd wash my hands, even shower before rejoining my baby to avoid exposing him to second-hand smoke. At first I only smoked at night after he was tucked in his crib. Then I started smoking when I took breaks from writing. My husband smoked too and we'd sit up late at night having a cocktail, discussing the day and smoking. Soon I was smoking again in the morning with my coffee (the best cigarette of the day!) I smoked when I was overly tired from lack of sleep because Jack was sick or cranky or just happy and being a baby. I smoked because we were selling our house in one city and moving to another city. I smoked because I had too much work. I smoked because I wasn't busy enough. You get the idea.
   Years ticked by and I continued to hide my habit from my son, who was now old enough to catch me in the act. I found myself perched in a corner of the patio behind our house puffing away to get my fix. If I heard footsteps or the backdoor swing open, I startled and tossed the lit cigarette under the porch. Often I sat outside late at night, smoking and staring up at the stars, waiting for something to change.
   When my life did change well that was stressful too. Separating from my husband and filing for divorce triggered all those feelings of insecurity and anxiety that first drove me to pick up a Merit. I was alone again after 15 years. And I was right back on that scratchy, plaid sofa, isolated and feeling depressed and overwhelmed.
   I sought solace in Buddhism. I was drawn to its practices but for one little hang-up: the Buddhist Precepts (sorta like the Ten Commandments) specified no intoxicants. You don't have to give up all toxins to practice loving kindness (BTW alcohol, caffeine and porn are all considered toxic) but I felt like a hypocrite as I drove to the Buddhist center puffing away on my Marlboro Lights. Slowly, I began to accept reality. I'd smoked on and off (mostly on) for 30 years—and I still didn't think of myself as a smoker. And I wasn't a smoker. I was addicted to nicotine. I was an addict.
   With almost the same trepidation I felt when I bought my first pack of smokes, I edged up to the pharmacy counter at Walmart to purchase my first nicotine patches and gum. They were expensive, but cigarette prices had gone up too. The economics of smoking went against my thriftier instincts—another indication of how hooked I was on the stuff.  But it didn't take me long to realize I could smoke while wearing the patch. Likewise, chomping on nicotine gum was satisfying for a while, but it didn't preclude me from lighting one up after I spit out the foul tasting chew.
   I moved into my new house and felt this was surely the time to replace bad habits for good ones. Although I was alone much of the time, I was in a new environment and I promised myself I would make a fresh start in every aspect of my life. Buddhist practice is about becoming aware of ourselves, our thoughts and motivations. And as I continued to grow in my understanding of my anxieties and fears, I started to see that smoking was a problem for a very different reason above and beyond its health effects. I once read a definition of addiction which went something like this: "Addiction is anything that separates you from the people and things you love." When I smoked, I physically removed myself from the presence of my friends and family. When I smoked, I took time away from my writing and work. When I smoked, I separated myself from my convictions and my spiritual practice. Yes, I had a physical craving for nicotine but the greater habit to overcome was my compulsion to remove myself from all that I valued.
    I became desperate enough to try acupuncture, but the stress of being used as a human pin cushion only triggered my urge to smoke. At last, I resolved to seek medical help. A few weeks before my 49th birthday, I went to my doctor and asked her for a prescription for Welbutrin.
   I'd been on Welbutrin years before. The side effects made me feel woozy and deadened my libido, so I stopped using it even though it had been effective in removing my desire for cigarettes. In truth, I didn't want to admit to my doctor that I smoked. And I certainly didn't want my insurance provider to find out I was a smoker. Ironic. Quitting smoking is the No. 1 positive change I could make to immediately improve my health, decrease the chance of heart disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer—and yet I was reluctant to quit because I didn't want to be penalized financially or stigmatized by my insurance provider.
  The Welbutrin worked. Yes, I felt like my head was going to spin off into space during the first week, but once the medication was fully in my system, it was as though someone had flipped a switch and I no longer craved nicotine. Welbutrin is also an appetite suppressant, as well as being an anti-depressant, so I didn't morph my oral fixation into overeating.
   After my three month prescription ran its course, I felt confident that I no longer needed or wanted to smoke. I'm happy to report that I haven't smoked since November 22, 2011, but the triggers are still there. I still want to smoke when I'm stressed out, or tired or frustrated or just having a bad day; or when I'm driving a long distance, or drinking coffee, or sipping wine or sitting out on a star-filled night, or find myself home alone feeling a little left out. And the old cravings still kick in after a big, satisfying meal, or when I'm hungry and don't have time to eat. The only difference is this: Now I choose not to give into the urge because I no longer want to separate myself from Jack or Jason or my friends and family or anything else that I hold dear.

  I sat on the balcony with my friends. More than thirty years since we met in college, there we were back together again, falling into our former roles and patterns. My friend placed a cigarette between her lips and lit the end. Immediately I was surrounded by the warm aroma of tobacco and. I remembered how the pleasant sensation of lightness crept into my brain. I could have easily reached across the table and taken a cigarette for myself. I was a little buzzed from the wine. I wanted to smoke! I really did! But I did not want to return to that unhappy place. I didn't want to fall back into the habit. Besides I wasn't on that scratchy sofa feeling forlorn and alone. I was in a beautiful place. I was secure and happy and surrounded by lifelong friends.