Reflections, Retirement

Lasts, and the road ahead

In August I publicly announced that I would be retiring at the end of June, 2018 when my current contract with my employer comes to an end.  Ten months is a long notice period, and June still feels like a very long way away, but as autumn slides into winter I can feel the time getting shorter and the “lasts” mounting up.

I’ve had my last performance evaluation, and experienced my last audit.  I just got back from what is probably my last professional conference, or at least the last that I will attend as a working professional.   I’ve been through  my last election cycle for my publicly elected governing board, and my last of a variety of recurring programs and activities. I am now replying to invitations to many work-related holiday parties and events that have become traditions over the past 14 years knowing they too will be my last.

Each of these lasts marks another step on the journey to a future that I have planned for, and dreamed, of for many years, so they are in that sense happy occasions.  But these lasts are also associated with people who I have come to know well and care about deeply but  may rarely (if ever) see once I retire, so each is also bittersweet.

I have many plans for the next phase of my life’s journey and long lists of projects I want to complete, trips I want to take, activities I want to explore, and books I want to read. After many years where my social life was inextricably intertwined with my work and professional live, I have successfully created a life outside of work, with friends who are not tied to my profession or my job.  I have worked hard to make sure our finances are in order, and am confident that we can sustain our lifestyle even when the inevitable economic downturns come.  In short,  as much as I think I can be, I am ready.

At the same time, I am acutely aware that there is much that I do not know about the road ahead…from “little” things like the specifics of how our days will unfold without the structure of my job, to how our relationship will fare with so much togetherness, to the big uncertainties about Don’s health (and mine!) and how the aging process will affect our lives.  I would be lying if I said that I was not more than a little anxious about these things.

A few weeks ago one of my favorite blogs, Rob Firchau’s The Hammock Papers, had a poem by David Whyte that I keep reading and re-reading –

The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you brought
and light their illumined corners, and to read
them as they drifted through the western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you could still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.

David Whyte

At this time of “sorting this and leaving that” I am finding that David Whyte’s beautiful words are a great comfort…
Gratitude, Reflections, Therapy

Expectations…again

William Shakespeare wrote that “Expectation is the root of all heartache” – a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn.

Just two short weeks ago I wrote about expectations and gratitude, citing Ray Wylie Hubbard’s statement that “The days that I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”

Yesterday Don and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and I managed to keep my expectations way higher than my gratitude, making for a miserable day for both of us.

Following our therapist’s advice we’ve been working on understanding and acting on one another’s “love languages” based on The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.  An overly simplified explanation is that people differ in how we express and receive love, and that these differences can be broadly categorized into five “love languages”.   If someone expresses love to us in a way that does not align with our love language we might not even interpret the behavior as loving, leading to misunderstandings, confusion, and heartache.

My primary love language is “receiving gifts.”  To quote from the Five Love Languages website “If you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that you are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. A missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty, thoughtless gift would be disastrous – so would the absence of everyday gestures. Gifts are visual representations of love and are treasured greatly.”

Don’s primary love languages are “acts of service” (which is pretty much what it sounds like – having someone do things that ease their burden of responsibilities) and “words of affirmation.  According to the website “If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. Hearing the words, “I love you,” are important – hearing the reasons behind that love sends your spirits skyward. Insults can leave you shattered and are not easily forgotten. Kind, encouraging, and positive words are truly life-giving.”

The challenge for us comes with the understanding that, while “acts of service” are pretty important to me, “words of affirmation” is way down my list of preferences, while for Don “receiving gifts” is at the bottom of his list.  I have to make a conscious effort to remember to affirm him and his actions to reinforce that I love him, while he really struggles (and has throughout our marriage) with gift giving which has been the source of much tension and meltdowns throughout our marriage.

It doesn’t help that  because of childhood experiences with words that were never backed by action or real demonstrations of love, for me “words of affirmation” ring false and usually trigger anger and a profound sense of loss.  And I have my own theories about childhood traumas that make giving gifts so very hard for him…

We’d actually read The Five Love Languages a few years ago on our own and didn’t really follow through on applying the concepts, but have been making an effort to put the ideas into practice over the past couple of weeks as our therapist suggested in the hopes that we could move past the hurt and start to show each other the love we each feel in ways that are meaningful to the other person.

Which brings us to yesterday, our 30th wedding anniversary…

I’m not going to go into all of the gory details (we do have a personal life after all!) but suffice it to say that I had put some effort into picking out a card that really expressed my love in his “words of affirmation” love language, and included a small gift because that is my preferred way of expressing love.

I had left him a reminder about my preferred love language on his daily “honey do” list, and while I wasn’t expecting anything extravagant I was expecting a gift of some kind.  What I got was a “card” that he had printed on the computer with a single line of text saying he loved me.

I tried to say thank you but my disappointment was obvious, and when he noticed and realized that he had hurt me I dissolved into tears that turned into sobs.  He really can’t cope when I get upset, so he panics and shuts down…and that is what happened.  What I wanted was for him to try to make it right – to go out and buy a gift or take some other action that would let me know that he understood why I was hurt.  What I got was  verbal apologies and hand-wringing…but no action.

This was a huge trigger and the longer it went on the more hurt and upset I got, and the more upset I got the less capable he became of taking action…all because of my expectations that Don didn’t, and probably wasn’t able to, meet.

This is not a new dance for us…

Fortunately, we had scheduled an appointment for our therapist for yesterday afternoon, figuring our anniversary was as good a time as any to work on our relationship.  As we talked about what was happening I learned that Don had set out to buy me a gift, but got so anxious about finding just the right thing that he panicked and never made it out of the car.  While this gave me some empathy, it didn’t actually relieve the hurt and it meant a lot to me that our therapist acknowledged that feeling hurt was not an unreasonable response.  She also gave Don some ideas about managing his anxiety, and about gift giving…although between his emotional state and his mild cognitive impairment I don’t think he retained much of this.

After our session she (bless her) took her own time to go with Don to buy a gift for me while I went home.

The gift helped assuage some of the hurt, but unfortunately while I was home walking the dog I again built up expectations that this would be a turning point and that he would truly understand why I need him to “speak my love language” even though it is hard and not natural for him and even though his cognitive issues make it even harder.

We headed off to watch the sunset and have dinner, but I could not let go of those expectations and kept pressing him (drilling him, really) about my love language and what he could do to meet my needs and expectations.  Let’s just say the evening was full of tension and less than a success…again due to unrealistic expectations on my part.

I still wasn’t able to let go of these expectations this morning so I left for work on a sour note, but he actually came to my office and brought me a little gift, which went a long way towards making me feel heard, appreciated, and loved.  The fact remains, however,  that my expectations may have been understandable, but they were also unrealistic given our history (and our individual histories), how early we are on our therapy journey, and Don’s cognitive issues….and the result, as Shakespeare so wisely predicted all those centuries ago, was heartache.

As we move forward I am realizing that, fair or not, my ability to manage my expectations and my reactions to how those expectations are met is going to determine whether I/we are miserable or are able to navigate this journey through the next phases of our life with some semblance of grace.

The path ahead lies in finding ways to help Don give me the love I need in the way I crave it (and when he can’t, finding healthy ways to give it to myself), in giving him the love he deserves in his love languages, in making the investment in therapy even though it gives me budget anxiety, in carving out time to swim, meditate, and reflect, in staying connected with friends and maybe even being more honest with them about what is going on in our lives and, most of all, in keeping my gratitude higher than my expectations.  Given my personality I think it will be a pretty steep climb, but I’m lacing up my hiking boots and hoping I am ready to take it on.

 

 

Uncategorized

Getting help

One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me process all of the changes that I am navigating right now – my husband’s retirement last year and its impact on our lives, my upcoming retirement, and the challenges of having an older, and aging, spouse.

My husband, Don, is physically healthy and active, but last year started to show some signs of mild cognitive impairment – not major, and seemingly pretty stable over at least the past year – but enough to worry both of us.  The cause is unknown, although we suspect a concussion that he got at work in early 2016 has played a role.  He’s also long-struggled with anxiety, so there is a bit of a vicious cycle at play as the more anxious he is the worse his short-term memory and the more disorganized his thinking, which in turn makes him more anxious.

We’ve been working on creating systems and building habits to help overcome the memory glitches, but there is no doubt this has added a level of added responsibility, stress, and complexity to my life.

This stress is on top of the fact that my job is demanding and stressful with hours that are frequently long, and I carry pretty much all of the “planning” load at home – from short term, simple things like making appointments, creating our weekly schedules,  meal planning, and making shopping lists to longer term, more complex things like managing every aspect of our personal finances, planning every aspect of our travels, and keeping track of home maintenance needs.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I am stressed and weary most of the time, which in turn makes me cranky, short-tempered, and worse.  I can hide this part of me while I am at work or with friends, but my worst self comes out at home.   I find myself nagging, pointing out every little mistake Don makes, getting upset when something is not done the way I would have done it or to my standards, and having frequent meltdowns.  The more stressed I am the more I crave order, but my behavior increases his anxiety so he gets even more disorganized….another vicious cycle.

I’ve also come to realize that I have been experiencing a kind of mourning – for the professional work life that I am ready to leave but that has been a huge part of my identity, for the things that Don used to do easily but now struggles with,  for the things he has always struggled with (depression, anxiety, disorganization, difficulty demonstrating his love in the ways that I crave) that may not get better or may even get worse, for his diminished ability to support and nurture me while I try to support and nurture him, and for long-dreamed-of retirement activities and adventures that may not be possible as he ages.  All of this creates both sadness and fear.

We need help!  After dancing around this realization for several months I finally made an appointment with a therapist.  I met with her yesterday by myself, and Don and I will be seeing her together tomorrow.

For me that is a really big deal.  I grew up in a family that was reluctant to accept the reality of mental health issues and to get help from mental health professionals.  I was raised to tough it out and power through stress and anxiety even though our family dealt with major stresses and issues and even though (with hindsight) I showed clear signs of mental health distress in my childhood and adolescence.

The first session was hard. I struggled to articulate my thoughts and feelings, we pretty quickly touched on some raw nerves, and I know that I am still scared to reveal the darkest parts of me.  I also worry about the expense given our retirement budgets – a worry that is not helped by my familial legacy belief that therapy is self-indulgent and unnecessary.

At the same time it is a relief to have someone independent to give perspective, and the therapist gave me some homework that is providing a framework for processing some of what is going on and led to one of the most open and meaningful conversations Don and I have had in a long time.

I keep reminding myself that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.  I do know that we can’t keep going on this way, and am cautiously hopeful that I’ve found a way to get it…but we’ll see what tomorrow brings.