Stitch Meditations: Don’t Box Me In

For years, I have been searching for a form of mediation that really works for me. As someone with a busy brain, sitting still and trying to think of nothing borders on torture. I do a little better with guided meditation, unless I’m asked to make decisions. Visualizing my favorite place or the last time I was deeply happy stop me cold — I spend so much time trying to figure out the answer I miss the instructions that follow.

One thing that does work for me is moving meditation. Anything that requires me to focus in and stay on task can help quiet the rest of my mind if I let it. Combine it with an activity I love like sewing, and I’m in. Hence, my interest in Liz Kettle‘s daily stitch meditations.

I’d seen examples of Liz’s stitch meditations on Facebook but it was only after she posted a video on how and why she does them that I was inspired to try it myself. I took notes on the few simple rules she follows and made plans to put together a box of supplies so that I could sit down and sew-meditate without interruptions.

The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out what I should put in the box. I have a room full of sewing supplies. How to get down to just the essentials when I couldn’t be sure what I would need? Clearly, I needed basic tools: needle, scissors, thread, thimble. But what color thread? What size needle?

I also needed something to use as a base. Liz uses flannel, but I don’t have any right now so I cut up some felt. My fabric scraps are already in a clear plastic jug where it’s easy to see them. It didn’t make sense to transfer them to the box.

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My scraps (in a handy see-through jug)

One thing went in the box without any thought: my entire (tiny) collection of perle cotton. Decorative stitching looks much better with nice fat thread.

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My incomplete stitch meditation “kit” (L to R): Finished meditations, sewing thread, needles, felt bases,  and perle cotton.

Even though my kit wasn’t ready, I decided to start in on stitch meditations. I would learn what I needed as I went, and after a while, I would be able to fill my meditation box with confidence.

I’ve only been at it for a week, but I’ve learned two things already. First, I quickly developed a step-by-step process for my meditations.

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Second, I found out I like having access to my entire studio. It’s not overwhelming, like I thought it would be. I look at the piece and think: “I need red thread” and I go get some. Or “I need something spiky” and I dig through a drawer of found metal objects until I find just the right thing. I have an idea of what I want and can quickly find what I need, or something very much like it.

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From pretty to gritty: as I got used to stitch meditation, I started letting the pieces reflect my mood.

The colors and materials that appeal to me change a lot from day to day, especially now that I am starting to actually settle into the moment and express my emotions instead of just making something pretty. I’m using colors and materials that are not my usual choices. I may be able to make myself a travel kit at some point, but right now, I’m still learning what sort of things I need. I imagine they will change with time.

The best part of stitch meditation is that I am devoted to it. It’s fun. There’s no thought of skipping it. The half hour (or less) that it takes doesn’t feel like a waste of time. My first meditations weren’t very restful because I was figuring things out, but by the end of the week, that had changed.

I make all my choices based on gut feeling, then think about why I made them while I sew. What does this color mean? What does that remind me of? How am I feeling today and why? I am still playing around, trying to be as relaxed and easy going as I can with every stage of the process, but already it’s starting to talk to me and tell me things I didn’t know.

Only time will tell if this is truly the meditation method for me, but right now I’m thinking: this is it!

What about you? Do you find sewing meditative?

Drawing: One Way To Stay in the Moment

When I tell my friends I need to relax more, they often suggest that I should meditate. I’ve tried off an on for years to meditate, with mixed success. Trying to sit and think of nothing doesn’t work for me. Mantras and counting are a little better, but I confess I don’t meditate regularly because it’s just too hard. Then I came across Danny Gregory, an artist who says that drawing is a form of meditation because it keeps us in the moment. I recently put his idea to the test when my husband was having mysterious belly pains on a Sunday.

As soon as I knew we were on our way to urgent care, I began debating with myself. I knew we would have to wait, possibly for hours. Should I take my Kindle or my sketchbook along? I chose the sketchbook, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to read. I’m Anxiety Girl. The minute anything looks off, or there’s a hint of trouble, I’m leaping to horrific conclusions far beyond the facts of the moment. A racing mind has a hard time following even the best story. So I took the sketchbook, which turned out to be the perfect companion for our long day.

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We spent nine hours getting medical help, and for more than half of it, we didn’t actually know what was wrong. Nurses asked questions. Doctors asked more questions. They poked and prodded Kurt. He described his last 24 hours, where it hurt, how it hurt, again and again. They drew blood, and we waited for results.

When my thoughts started to race — what if he needs surgery? what if they put him in the hospital? what if it’s something hidden and big, like cancer no one knew was there? — I would pick up my sketchbook and draw. Making notes of the progress we were making, even that we were just waiting, brought me back to where I was and helped me to avoid being afraid about the unknown.

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I started just doodling, guessing I would get interrupted and we would be relocated fairly often.
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I started drawing Kurt’s hand. They took him away before I could finish.

When we got the blood tests back, the doctor was clearly puzzled. Except for a slightly elevated white blood count, everything was normal. He was a good doctor, not giving anything away, but I sensed he wasn’t sure what was going on, and that was scary. He said the next step was a CT scan, so they did the scan, and we waited for those results.

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I drew this while waiting for the CT scan results, then added the diagnosis when we got it.

At last, we had a diagnosis — appendicitis — and a plan of action — surgery, right away.

Everything went smoothly, and we were back home that night, looking at one another in amazement at the way our day had gone. I was especially proud of how calm I was, even when we were waiting for test results with no idea what was wrong. I learned that Danny Gregory was right. My drawing and doodling kept me in the moment and kept Anxiety Girl from busting out all over the place and freaking everyone out.

Strange Habits I’m Learning From My Activity Tracker

Back in November, I bought myself an activity tracker. I’ve been trying to get more regular exercise and I read in Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits that tracking an activity helps us to improve our performance. I bought a Garmin Vivofit 2 because it was the simplest model that had the features I was really interested in (a water proof device that counts steps and tracks sleep quality).

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The Garmin Vivofit 2. Note the prominent Red Bar of Death.

The Vivofit 2 also has a feature that I was sure would help me be much more aware of my daily patterns: the Red Bar of Death. (It’s actually not called that. The manual calls it the “Move Bar” which is accurate but boring. I toyed with calling it the “Move Your Ass” bar, but that wasn’t dramatic enough for my tastes.) The Red Bar of Death tells me I’ve been still too long. Time to get moving! And it doesn’t go away until I’ve moved enough to counteract the time I spent stationary.*

While the step tracking and the Red Bar of Death have both helped to increase the amount of exercise I get on a daily basis, there are some unexpected side effects. I’ve been forming some new and surprising habits in order to meet my step count goal and get rid of that nasty red bar.

First off, I look at my daily activity in a whole new way. Everything counts. Everything. Stroll to the mailbox? Counts. Walking from the car to the store? Counts. Pacing while on the phone? Counts! I now walk to the farthest available stall in public bathrooms in order to get some extra steps.

The next surprising change is that I am less efficient than I used to be. Two trips means twice the steps, so instead of lugging all the groceries in at once, I go back to the car a few times. Why kill myself trying to carry everything in at once? I get credit for the steps I take, not how much weight I carry or time I save. I’ve also stopped piling things at the top or bottom of the stairs and then taking them with me when I need to change levels in the house. Instead, I put things away at once, even when they belong on a different floor.

The third change is an unexpected benefit: moving more is resulting in a cleaner house. When the Red Bar of Death shows up, I do a quick chore like sweeping or starting a load of laundry. If I’m not careful, the chore might not be active enough to dismiss the red bar, so I have to work briskly and keep moving.

The last lesson I’ve learned is that standing still is optional. I’ve always paced while talking on the phone, but now I pace while listening to phone messages and brushing my teeth. Since I work at a standing desk, I can side step while reading Facebook or watching videos.

We just got back from a 1600-mile driving trip, and my odd behavior continued even while we were on the road. At one stop, I walked circles around our car to get rid of the Red Bar of Death. Another time, I paced four steps in a bathroom, back and forth, until that nagging red bar disappeared.

I keep looking for opportunities to get more exercise, so my activity tracker hasn’t just made me more active: it’s made me more observant and more creative, too.

Do you have an activity tracker? Has it changed your habits in surprising ways?

*It’s not as bad as it sounds. The first bar appears after one hour and pacing around the house for a minute or two will get rid of it again.

Ten Worries To Drop in Order to Relax in 2016

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I like to set goals for myself and don’t see the point in waiting until January 1st to get started. However, New Year’s is always a reminder to pause and see how I’m doing with my many plans for myself.

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While I’m not up for resolutions, I started thinking I could set an intention for the year. You know, that thing where you pick a single word and make it a goal for the next 365 days? It’s been hot with artists and other creative people for a number of years now. In the past, I haven’t done it because I figured it would take a lot of thinking to choose my word. I was wrong. It was easy. The word came to me at once.

Relax.

I need to get better at relaxing. I need to plan more breaks and vacations, get to more yoga classes, meditate more, and take time to watch paint dry. (Sounds a little stressful when I put it like that…)

An easy first step is to cut down on how much time and energy I spend worrying about things. Here are ten things I’ve been known to stress about that I am not going to worry about this year*.

Ten Things I Am Not Going To Worry About Anymore

1) A comet hitting the earth
2) That no one reads anymore (and here I am, spending all my time writing books and blog posts)
3) That the exercise I can do without hurting myself isn’t intense enough
4) The zombie apocalypse
5) That the throw quilt I’m making doesn’t match a single thing in our living room
6) That I’m only correct about which way is left 50% of the time
7) Who is going to win the presidential election
8) That whichever volcano I’m closest to right now is going to explode
9) That other dogs are laughing at my poodle’s home haircut
10) That my idea of style isn’t actually stylish

I can think of more things to add to this list, but I better start with ten. I wouldn’t want to overwhelm myself and completely undermine my goal to relax.

*Assuming I remember not to.

What is your plan for the New Year? Are there any worries you would like to give up?

Accepting My Down Days

 

It helps to resign as controller of your fate. —Anne Lamott

It happened again. I had a “Down” Day.

Back in 2006, nearly all my days were Down Days. I wound up on disability because I couldn’t work more than two days in a row. I was lucky if I had enough energy to take a bath — showers were too exhausting. Finding the energy to walk the dog was my daily challenge. The big outing for the week was a trip to the therapist and the rest of my time was spent trying to take care of the basics like laundry and groceries.

My health has improved a lot over the years, especially since June 2013, when I made a radical change to my diet. Now, many of my days are Up Days. I not only have the energy to shower, but I workout at the gym, get some house chores done, write at the cafe with my friends, AND walk the dog. These days seem like miracles to me.

Despite the fact that they are happening more and more often, they still feel strange. As I go through them, I am constantly looking around, wondering what is happening, if everything is really OK. When I have a string of them, I get hopeful. I think “Maybe I’m finally cured. Maybe I’m going to be an energetic, productive adult from now on.” And I start making plans.

That’s usually when it happens. I wake up one morning with a day full of golden plans and realize that all the energy has disappeared. I have to let go of my goals for the day — AGAIN. It’s a Down Day whether I like it or not.

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“The Tired One” collage by Kit Dunsmore

I’ve been fighting this problem for nearly a decade, so I guess it’s not surprising that my reaction to a Down Day is resentment and frustration. I think, “I was fine yesterday but today I’m not. What did I do wrong?” I’m always looking at my food, my exercise, my activities, trying to figure out what the magic thing is that gives me an Up Day instead of a Down Day.

I have to face the facts. There is no one magic thing. They are all magic things, and even when everything is in place, the magic doesn’t always work. That’s the ugly truth of it.

When I went to bed Tuesday night, I was excited about Wednesday. It was one of those wonderful days when I had nothing scheduled and could fill my day as I chose. I could plan longer sessions working on my novel than usual and still have time to knit or sew. I couldn’t wait. Wednesday morning I woke up feeling awful and was soon stuck with the truth: I felt ill with fatigue. It was a Down Day.

I’m tired of Down Days, but I’m even more tired of being disappointed with myself. I decided it was time to try something different. I would accept that I couldn’t do what I’d planned and instead do everything I could with what I had. I let go of the idea that I was in control and gave acceptance a try.

It was tough. I didn’t like it very much. I still felt that my day was not what I had hoped for, and certainly not what I planned. However, looking back on it, I think I got more done than I might have. I wasn’t good for much more than reading and watching TV, so I read a book about the Salem witchcraft trials and I watched videos of people grooming poodles. I spent the day learning about things that I want to know more about and now I feel like that day wasn’t as wasted as it might have been.

I can tell this acceptance thing is going to take some practice. I’m not sure I’ll ever great a Down Day as a good thing. But maybe, by letting go of the idea I’m in control of this stuff, I can experience a little more peace.

MTHFR Mutation: A New Piece In My Health Puzzle

Thanks to my many physiological quirks, I’ve had to build my own health plan. I’ve learned that things that are healthy for others, like a vegetarian diet, are not healthy for me. Over the years, with the help of professionals and friends, I’ve discovered that I have a thyroid problem, various food sensitivities, and some special dietary needs. Just this week, I got another piece to the puzzle, and I am examining it carefully, wondering what changes addressing this new issue might bring.

A few of the vitamins I need to take.
A few of the vitamins I need to take.

My struggle with severe bouts of fatigue, which have been diagnosed as depression in the past, has gone on for almost ten years now. Many of the changes I’ve made, from cutting out sugar and gluten to returning to eating meat, have helped me feel better and have more energy. But the rollercoaster continues. My test results from my annual physical put me in the normal range most of the time, so according to my doctor, I’m perfectly healthy. But I haven’t felt perfectly healthy for ages.

Fortunately, I am blessed with friends who are walking this same road of self-discovery. One of them listened to me talking about my low energy and occasional anxiety and suggested I get a genetic test for MTHFR (which stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase and is not an abbreviation for a nasty swear word).

MTHFR is both a gene and the enzyme it produces. The enzyme is part of the methylation cycle that occurs in every cell in our body and is responsible for cell repair, detoxification, neurotransmitter production, and a healthy immune system. One mutation can reduce enzyme efficiency to 60% of a normal person’s. Two mutations can result in 10 – 20% efficiency.

When I went to see my nutritionist about my latest energy issues, she suggested some testing of various vitamins and minerals. Part of the panel she wanted to run included an MTHFR test, so I signed up to get it done. (It’s just a blood test, and you don’t even have to fast for it.)

The results came back and I definitely have problems. I have a B-2 deficiency, along with low B vitamin results across the board. I’m also low on vitamin C, zinc, copper, magnesium, and a few other things. But the most important result? I tested positive for the gene mutation.

There are two MTHFR gene locations: C677T which is associated with cardiovascular issues, and A1298C which affects mood and behavior more. I was negative for C677T but heterozygous for A1289C (i.e., I have one mutated copy and one regular copy).

The solution is apparently really simple. I need to take methyl-B12 (methylcobalamine) and methyl-folate to make sure my body can absorb these nutrients. Without them, I am more likely to have deficiencies in my B vitamins (just as my test results showed). I’m also taking a B-vitamin complex and some other minerals to help address all my borderline results.

Because I suffered a B-12 deficiency in the 90s, I’ve been taking B-12 ever since. But I didn’t know that there was more than one kind out there so I never paid attention to what I was buying. My latest bottle at least was the cyano-form. I should be angry about how many B-12 pills I’ve taken in the last 20 years and how little I was probably benefiting from them, but mostly I’m just grateful to know what I now know about this.

I’ve started my new supplements and for the first few days, I felt just fine. Not over the moon wonderful, but energetic enough to have a productive and full day of the kind I imagine most adults have. The last two days I’ve been feeling tired again. The nutritionist told me to schedule my check-up with her in six weeks, so I know it will be a while before we can really tell how well I’m responding to the supplements.

In the meantime, I have plenty to think about. When I read the list of major health issues linked to the MTHFR mutation, I wondered how many of my issues are caused by this single mutated gene. How big of a factor is this in my depressive episodes? How much has it enhanced my nervous nature? Is this why sugar gives me so much trouble? Is this the root cause of the fatigue issues I’ve been struggling with for all theses years? Or will there be little to no noticeable improvement in my energy levels despite knowing about this mutation?

I have a new piece to add to my puzzle, but it will be a while before I can tell just how big this piece is.

Do you struggle just to be a healthy “normal” person? What challenges have you faced? What have you learned?

Light Therapy Improves My Sleep, My Mood, and My Sensitivity to Caffeine

This weekend, I decided not to go to a movie because it wouldn’t get out until after 9:30 PM. This has me feeling very old, although it’s not an accurate assessment of the situation. It isn’t because I don’t want to be out after dark. The real problem is it will mean getting to bed late, and these days, one of my highest priorities is making sure I get enough sleep.

I experienced real insomnia for the first time at the age of 30, and ever since, I have been a bad sleeper, never getting a truly restful night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause depression and I’ve spent the last decade fighting to overcome depression and improve my health. In the last few years, I’ve focused on doing whatever I can to improve my sleeping conditions.

Dogs make sleeping look so EASY.
Dogs make sleeping look so EASY.

The list of things I do to help me sleep is a long one. Even though we have dark curtains on the bedroom windows, I wear an eye mask. I also wear ear plugs. Our bedroom is chilly because it’s over the garage, so I pre-heat my bed with microwaved rice bags and wear a knit cap if I’m really cold. I make an effort to exercise at least every other day and I follow a paleo diet pretty closely. I take melatonin and minerals as well. Each of these things has helped some, which is why I am still doing them.

The crazy thing is: all of this still wasn’t enough. I was waking multiple times a night and feeling groggy in the morning. I had restless nights that left me feeling like I hadn’t slept at all. Then someone suggested I try light therapy, and I found out what it feels like to sleep well.

Maybe I won't have to nap any more!
Maybe I won’t have to nap any more!

I started using a full-spectrum therapy light a few weeks ago. I’ve experienced a great improvement in my overall energy as well as in the quality of my sleep. The new me gets sleepy around nine. Some nights I turn out the lights without reading first, which is unheard of. In the past, relaxing by reading was a necessary part of my bedtime routine. Even more remarkable, I wake up without an alarm and I feel good. I have never been a morning person and thought I could never be one. Light therapy has made dramatic changes in my energy and mood.

(For those who want to know more, this is the lamp I’m using and here is an interesting post about light therapy and some of the lamps available. I use the low setting for 15 minutes on sunny days and 30 minutes on gray ones, and noticed the difference in just a few days.)

The lamp that's changed my life. (Go figure.)
The lamp that’s changed my life. (Go figure.)

One week after starting my light therapy, insomnia struck. I was awake for most of the night, the same kind of awake I am in the morning: alert with no trace of tiredness. It was unsettling. Despite my years of poor sleeping, I’d never had insomnia like this. I drank camomile tea, read, and knit, and finally slept for a few hours. The following day was miserable. I had a headache and felt ill. I spent the day watching movies and knitting. By evening I was feeling better and I slept well that night. The next day I was closer to my new normal.

Had I overdone it with the lamp? I’d been warned that too much can push you from depressed to manic. But my insomnia didn’t really feel like a manic state. I could feel my heart racing, but otherwise I was fairly calm. There were several possible triggers for the insomnia, so I decided to wait and see if I could figure out which one was the true culprit. In the meantime, I’d be sure to keep the lamp use to a minimum, just in case.

This week I discovered caffeine was the cause. I had another night of insomnia, not quite as bad as the first, and the common factor was a snack I ate. My treat consisted of a small piece of baker’s chocolate mixed with dried fruit and nuts. Before I started light therapy, I could tolerate this little bit of caffeine. In fact, I had no reaction to it at all. My seasonal lethargy was so great that the caffeine didn’t have any noticeable effect on me. But coupled with the light therapy, the caffeine pushed me into severe insomnia. The second time, I had my snack at 10 AM and was up until 2. Thank God for calming herbal teas or it might have been a night with no sleep at all.

My whole health journey seems to go like this. Add something that helps. Take away something that hurts. The weirdest part is when things that don’t seem like they should have any affect do. Where I live in Colorado, we get lots of sunlight. I can’t believe that I need even more to get my sleep cycle working properly, but apparently I do. In the same vein, my tiny bit of chocolate with its tiny dose of caffeine was just fine for a while. But it isn’t any more, so I will have to let it go.

I hate having to be militant about my sleep habits, but it’s worth it. My life continues to improve as my health and energy improve. Today I can do more than I could three weeks ago, and I know it’s because of the benefits I am getting from sleeping through the night. I have mornings where I am the one who is cheery and upbeat, something my husband and I are both still adjusting to. Getting enough sleep is proving key to my health. I can wait to see the movie next weekend. I think I’ll go to a matinee.