Hugs and Health – the struggle is real!

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We’ve all heard cute little poems over the years about hugs, what they do, how they make us feel, and that they must be the “reason that God gave us arms”.

We know that babies and children thrive and bond through body contact.  I watched a program recently where a doctor held a a very sick premature baby all night and her vitals completely improved by morning. I remember a story being told about an orphanage where the night shift cleaning lady would take her break at the end of the row of bassinets, stopping to pick up the baby in the last one for a few minutes of cuddling before continuing on her way: over time it was noticed that babies who spent time in that end bassinet were the first to be adopted because they were the best natured.

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Anyone who has used the internet the past few years has surely seen the sharing of videos showing the dramatic responses when random people somewhere in the world hold up signs offering free hugs.

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If you do a google search for the effects of hugs on mental health (I could quote articles here, but I will assume you’re capable of searching for yourselves if you don’t believe me!) you will find loads of information about the release of hormones that calm our stress, fears and anxieties, and contribute to our general well being and happiness.

You will also find information about the effects of a lack of body contact – touching, hugging – and how the behaviour problems of disturbed children can be changed when given enough hugs.

imagesI grew up in a house full of hugs.  My mom is famous even in our extended family for her great hugs, and I’ve been told that mine are pretty good.  Her whole family hugged.  My dad’s side of the family weren’t big huggers, but that seemed to change when my mom came along, or so I’m told!  They all hug now. I’ve shared numerous hugs within my own family, and with relatives and close friends.  I love hugs. I need hugs.

 

But again, if you do a google search on the topic, you will find that people in other countries are getting hugged far more than we are here, because unfortunately our culture has turned physical contact into something overly sexual with fears and discomfort attached, and many people no longer feel the freedom to just give someone a hug, touch their arm, rub their back or just have body contact in some way.  The givers are afraid to be accused and the recipients are afraid it means something more than just a hug.  **my perspective here is clearly about normal human contact and not meant to offend anyone who has legitimate reason to be concerned.

A few years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a massage therapist working on my back. I was working for a seniors’ outreach program and at the time the Alberta health care program for seniors had just approved coverage for physio therapy treatments. We were discussing the fact that massage therapy treatments were still not being covered and that many seniors, especially those who had lost spouses, no longer received as much body contact as they were used to and that because massage therapy involved a lot of touching and stimulation of healthy hormones, it was an important part of their healthcare. I hadn’t considered it in that way before, but it made a lot of sense. I went back to my office and wrote a letter to advocate for seniors to receive this kind of coverage, giving my perspective based on the mental health benefits in addition to the increased mobility benefits.

I didn’t expect to find myself, at my age, in a place where a lack of hugs and body contact would have a negative effect on my well being.  I’m not a senior living alone.  I didn’t even recognize it right away.  But if you think about it, it’s pretty obvious.  In general, married couples share a lot of physical contact (in addition to the obvious), sometimes in many little ways without even thinking too much about it as it happens – a short rub on the back in passing, a teasing poke, hand holding, and of course, hugs.

It didn’t show itself clearly in the midst of so many other things, but one day it hit me and I realized I was hug deprived!  I thought back to my conversation with the massage therapist, about the hormones and the importance of our skin – a living organ – being touched, of body contact with other humans, and it dawned on me that of course I wasn’t getting nearly as many hugs in a day as I was used to getting.  It explained the sometimes aching feeling just to be held.  Of course there are no hugs like the ones you get from your spouse, but there is much that a good hug can do even if it comes from a mere acquaintance.  We NEED human contact and it does affect our mental state.

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I’m not going to stand on a street corner with a sign, that’s just not me.  But if I see one, I will definitely respond now, where I probably wouldn’t have before: that person might simply be offering a gift to others out of love, but they might also be hug deprived themselves and finding a creative solution.  My hug circle has grown much wider over the past two years with the situations I’ve been in and the people I’ve encountered, and it’s all been positive.  Nonetheless, in the day to day, the lack of hugs really hurts and I never would have known until I felt it myself.

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Hugs, people!  We all need them.  Hug your family, hug your friends, think of people you know who live alone and hug them once in a while too.  And if you see me somewhere in public and I look upset, you don’t even have to ask me what’s wrong.  Just hug me. It’s easier than explaining, and it’s probably exactly what I need.

 

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No Idle Mind Here

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Just finished this sign for my craft room

It’s good to keep busy, especially when trying to overcome fear, anxiety, depression, grief, or whatever your particular challenge of the moment happens to be; I often face at least one or more on any given day.  Too much quiet time can give your brain more opportunity than it needs to focus on whatever hurts, at least that’s my experience.  There’s something very satisfying about making things with my hands, whether I’m stamping, quilting, or working with wood, and it must encourage the release of some good hormones.  Either that or I’m just addicted…

I have projects going inside and outside my house so I can go back and forth depending on weather, energy level, or preference.  However, while I’m certainly getting a lot done, enjoying myself, and learning new things along the way, I do sometimes wonder if I’m really learning to cope or if I’m just filling my brain up so much that I’m fooling myself into thinking I have a good process going here, and sooner or later I will crash and burn.

Those questions occur to me when I’m near the end of a project and feeling the need – well, it might even be a compulsion – to plan something else (or two or three more things) so that there is no chance of down time in between.  Down time kind of scares me because it’s in my down times, even short ones, that I get hit with proverbial bricks and have to grab onto something close by to catch my breath while I sob because I recognize that everything I’m doing is an attempt to stuff a hole that has no bottom.  It only takes a small thing – a word, a memory, a picture, a conversation, a moment – to burst my busy and energetic bubble and remind me just how thin and fragile it is.

I believe staying busy is better than not, but I question whether or not I’m having trouble finding the balance.  I can’t sit still very long unless there’s something keeping me focussed – a tv show, a good conversation, an intense internet search for new ideas – and I tend to work past the point where my body is aching and my brain is exhausted.  I don’t like bedtime because it’s quiet and reflective, and Pat isn’t there.  I need to go to bed with new ideas to plan for the next day so that I can fall asleep with something other than loneliness on my mind and tears on my face.  I wake up early and am ready to get started right away on my list for the day, knowing that I have many hours ahead of me to accomplish whatever I want to do.

Perhaps it’s easier to deal with physical pain and exhaustion than to face the mental anguish resulting from the situation that has at the same time left me with many possible years of new experiences and an empty space in my heart everywhere I go, knowing how much more it would all mean if he were able to share it with me.  I can’t escape it, the broken heart, I can’t package it up and leave it behind once in a while to go do something else.  Everywhere I go and in everything I do, I’m broken.

There are people in general who tell me this will get better; there are other widows who remind me it won’t.  In the past week I’ve had two encounters with recently widowed ladies, each with a bit more learning behind them than I’ve had yet, one whose husband was also brain injured, and both said they wished they could tell me it gets better inside, but it doesn’t.  They didn’t have magic words to assure me that time will heal a broken heart.  They both said what I’ve been told before and what I’ve felt myself in my limited time since losing Pat, that we get better at coping with what’s broken in us, but it’s never healed or fixed or filled with anything else.  They just get up each morning and decide to live that day, to get through it, make the most of it, and start all over again the next day, which sounds to me like what I’m trying to do.

So I guess we all have to do that in whatever ways we can, and maybe right now it doesn’t matter if I know for sure that I’m learning to cope or if I’m filling my brain up so full that at least when I crawl into bed alone each night after a long day of busyness, I’m good and tired and haven’t just been sitting around feeling sorry for myself for long periods of time.  I don’t fall asleep easily because I can’t always make the painful thoughts and memories go away, but I do my best because I know I have to sleep sometime and that when I wake up I’ll have things I need to do, and I’ll get through another day.

In the meantime, I’m getting in lots of stretching and bending (and work!) every day, and another healthy upside of keeping so busy is that sometimes I even forget it’s snack time 🙂

It all started with a jelly roll …

Mom taught me to sew when I was about nine years old, and I sewed my own clothes all the way through high school and into adulthood when I also sewed for my own family until fabric finally became more expensive than buying the ready made clothes.  At the same time, the landscape of fabric stores was changing: it became harder to find dress goods as shelves began filling up with quilting supplies and I was happily moving from sewing to other crafts.  I kept my machine, of course, because there were always mending jobs to do and an occasional curtain that needed to be sewn (and it was a monumental purchase from my youth that was going to last a lifetime, but that was covered in an earlier post!) but in general, after over 25 years of making everything from tailored blazers to a wedding dress to baby clothes to home decor, I did very little sewing at all for almost 15 years.

My mom has been an avid quilter for a long time now and it was never something I was interested in doing myself – I didn’t see the point of buying fabric only to cut it up into little pieces to sew it all back together again, even though I eventually spent many days doing just that with paper after I became immersed in stamping and card making.  I pieced a couple of simple quilt tops together a number of years ago, but only so that my mom could quilt them for me because I had no desire to do all that work!  I liked having quilts, I just had no interest in making them.

Then one day last February I decided I needed a new floor mat for my kitchen and I wanted to make a braided rug like the ones people made in the olden days.  I went to my trusty idea site – Pinterest – to look for patterns, and came across a woven fabric mat that caught my attention.  It looked like a lot less work than a braided one; yes, I’m usually attracted to great ideas requiring little effort because I like to start and finish projects quickly.  Even in my youth, if a garment took longer than a day to make from cutting out the pattern to sewing up the hem, I lost interest and it sat unfinished on a shelf.

So I clicked on the woven mat and saw that the pattern called for a jelly roll.  I had no idea what this referred to but I knew they weren’t talking about a dessert (although I’ve since learned that many of the fabric precuts are named after bakery items, which makes me wonder if all quilters enjoy donuts as much as I do) so of course I then had to Google “jelly roll fabric”.  I could say at this point that the rest is history, but that wouldn’t make much of a blog post!

I browsed the many, many, MANY jelly rolls available and of course entered the world of jelly roll quilt ideas along my way.  People were sharing pictures of quilt tops made in less than an hour and I was enthralled – I could do that!  It was right up my start-to-finish in a day alley – at that rate I could do more than one a day – and I knew exactly where I could take them to be quilted at a store on a long arm machine, so I dove in and ordered a couple of rolls, along with the batting and backing I would need to complete the projects, and happily waited for my package to arrive.

In the meantime I decided that with all the ideas and tutorials out there for machine quilting, I really should at least try it myself to see how it worked and find out if I could actually enjoy doing it myself – this is important because knowing how to do something and enjoying doing it are two different things.  My crafts are therapy for me, and if something becomes frustrating or it isn’t fulfilling my need for relaxation and fun, I’m not going to do it.  So I put together some small pieces of fabric and batting, got my trusty old Pfaff onto the table, set it up for free motion quilting and off I went.

I’m not sure I have an addictive personality, at least not for dangerous things (unless you count frequent fabric orders and excitement over the lovely scents of Best Press spray as dangerous…) but I do believe that as soon as I started to free motion quilt on that sample piece I knew I was going to love it and I just wanted to keep going, which is pretty much what happened once my box arrived and I got those first two tops made.

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I should also mention here the wonder of spray basting adhesive.  It must have landed here from heaven.  I would NOT be quilting if I had to thread baste or pin every quilt sandwich I make.  It takes too long (thus it doesn’t fit into the start-to-finish quickly plan) and those nasty pins would interfere with my free motion rhythm and I would get frustrated (which means I wouldn’t finish and while putting a half finished blouse on a shelf once or twice might not have been serious, quilting fabric and supplies aren’t cheap so I’m darn well finishing every single quilt I start!).  This stuff is seriously amazing and once my sandwich is made I can fold it and flop it around as much as I need to while I’m working on it and it all stays together just the way I need it to.  But I digress …

I had a plan.  I didn’t want to calculate and plan quilt blocks, I just wanted to somewhat mindlessly sew tops easily and quilt them. Jelly rolls worked well because they sewed up quickly and left no scraps, so I didn’t have to worry about a pile of leftovers accumulating in my cupboard making me feel pressured to find ways to use them.  I wasn’t going to stash fabric; I was going to buy specific amounts for planned projects only and even at that I wouldn’t have extra project piles waiting, I would buy in small amounts that I could use up quickly before buying more.  My quilting friend with many years experience listened and smiled.

Jelly Roll Race (or Fast & Furious) quilt

Jelly Roll Race (or Fast & Furious) quilt

Jelly Roll Race (or Fast & Furious) quilt

Jelly Roll Race (or Fast & Furious) quilt

And then I discovered layer cakes (there are also honey buns, maple cakes, and dessert rolls, oh my!) and how easy it was to make blocks that could be arranged into lovely designs with just a cut here and there and I could still sew a top easily in a day and have time leftover to build something out of wood (one of my other hobbies).  I was using what I had almost as soon as I got it home from wherever I found it, so I placed another fabric order to include a layer cake.  I had specific quilts in mind, sticking with the plan.

The list of quilts I wanted to make grew quickly and I needed to visit some fabric stores to see what was out there beyond my online source – and to actually feel the fabric before I bought it – so I picked up mom and made a couple of spontaneous trips to find pieces that I knew would be just right for certain people.  My ideas were expanding beyond the strips into various other configurations, and I came home with enough for a few more specific projects.  I was teased for calculating my yardage down to the tenth of a metre because I didn’t need leftovers, and it worked out well for me to use any possible scraps as part of the backings so they were decorative but also used up!  My quilting friend laughed and warned me that it was only a matter of time before I fell into the black hole.

 

Then it happened.  Just a little bit, but it happened.  I saw a piece of fabric in a store that was so beautiful I just had to buy some of it, even though it wasn’t for a particular quilt. In my own defense, it was neutral and usable for pretty much anything so it wasn’t really like stashing something just because I wanted it as it would match lots of stuff and already had embroidery all over it so would make really good borders and sashing … My quilting friend smiled and assured me that is how a stash starts: even just one piece of fabric not designated for a specific project but purchased because I had to have it does a stash make (just in case you weren’t aware of the rules).

The more I sewed and quilted, the more I started noticing ideas that went beyond the precuts I was finding so convenient to work with and before I knew it I was buying fat quarters and half metres and cutting them into pieces of various sizes so that I could put together my own quilt tops based on designs I liked.  I started watching tutorials and taking my free motion quilting to new levels, discovering my own favourite stitching patterns and combining them at will.  And then one day when I was about to throw away a scrap and found myself thinking “I might be able to use that for something”, I knew the plan had changed.  And I knew my quilting friend would shake her head because she knew all along that I wouldn’t be able to resist, but she patiently waited for me to succumb and admit that I was no different than any other quilter, and then she welcomed me to the “dark side”.  I think she even said “I told you so” – (are friends really supposed to say that??)

My first pieced quilt, no precuts!

My first pieced quilt, no precuts!

So now, three and a half months and fifteen quilts later (FIFTEEN? I had to go back and count…) I’m getting bold enough to try more challenging free motion designs and my favorite online fabric store in Chilliwack, B.C. knows me by name.  (I’ve filled at least two super stitcher cards…)  I have a small stash of really cool fabric and I’m on the verge of sharing an entire roll of batting so I don’t have to keep re-ordering it.  I’m always looking for new ideas and sometimes I’m actually giddy when I get my quilt sandwich all rolled up and sit down at my machine to start the fun part.

May 2015 - Kate

for my daughter

May 2015 - Michael

for my son

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for my mom

I used to be able to justify spending money on my craft supplies by reminding myself that my hobbies were cheaper therapy than drinking, smoking, or taking drugs.  When it comes to quilting, I’m not so sure that’s true!  But I’m not sure I care either because  there’s really no price to be put on something that keeps my brain active and provides me with so much enjoyment, especially given that I can share what I make with friends and family who are happy to receive handmade gifts from my heart (at least that’s what they tell me), and with others who might need a special quilt to comfort them in a time of need.

Needless to say my mom is happy about my new interest in quilting; I can now participate in and chat happily about the hobby that she found long ago, and whenever I finish a new quilt top I have to take it and show her what I’ve done so she can ooh and ahh and give me the mom-likes-everything-you-make stuff that starts to build our ego from the first time she put a crayon art piece on the fridge!  She even lets me dig into her stash once in a while too.

And if you’re wondering whatever happened with my kitchen mat, I’d be happy to post a picture but I haven’t actually made one yet!

The View From Here

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I’ve been thinking that for the first time in my life that I can remember, I don’t have the answers and I’m not sure where to look for them, as I’m not even really sure what the questions are … Far from the days when I was certain of life’s purpose and how one “should” fulfill it, according to a Catholic upbringing that fed my perfectionist personality and desire for tradition and rules, I now sit in my pew at church wondering what it’s all about, what I’m doing there, why I’m there in that particular place.  It isn’t anyone’s fault; I’m not expecting something I’m not getting, I’m not waiting for the people there to make anything better or for the church to give me something else.  I’m not the person who doesn’t feel “welcome”.

I’m just not the person I used to be and I no longer fit into the grooves I fit into before.  I can’t even squeeze myself into them because some of them are no longer desirable to me and some of them are just no longer there.  I live in a twilight zone of sorts, because while time moves on all around a grieving person and life appears to continue, the brain doesn’t compute everything it has to process when life changes suddenly.  One day at a time isn’t a cliche, it really does become the only way to manage the daunting task of learning to live with the loss of a spouse.  Getting through from morning to night with a sense of purpose, a feeling of productivity, enough relaxing to recoup energy but not so much that the mind begins to focus less on tasks and more on pain, is a challenge.

There are days that I’m happy to go out and run errands and smile and joke around with others I meet, and there are days that I just hope to get out of my car for the mail without actually seeing anyone.  I find it much easier to answer a question of “what have you been up to?” than I do the general “how are you doing?” even though I detect a note of sincere concern.  There’s no easy answer to that question because I probably couldn’t tell the truth without crying – it’s so much less challenging to chat about the projects and crafts that fill my days.

But one of the biggest challenges for me is sitting through Mass on Sunday.  I work hard to keep myself busy most days and plan things so I don’t have too much thinking time, but for this hour on Sunday I’m in a reflective space, doing and listening to things that sharply remind me of the empty seat beside me.  I spend my hour immersed in memories of many years of family worship, music that stirs emotions and brings about feelings I’ve worked hard to suppress in public, and trying to keep myself “together” as I watch other couples sharing fun and special moments I no longer have.  I am made there distinctly aware of my new state in life as a widow and I find it strange that of all places, church is the hardest for me to be.

I know that the depth of the pain of loss is directly related to the depth of the love that was shared. People learn to live without their beloved, day by day, taking small steps at first and then bigger ones, but the way a broken heart hurts and aches for what has been torn from it won’t ever go away.  I’ve seen it in the teary eyes and heard it in the choked up voice of a woman widowed seven years, now happily remarried and living an active life, while relating to me a story of her own loss as a show of support for me in mine.  I’ve seen it in an almost ninety year old woman widowed ten years previous, who was active, happy and lively visiting my office, but upon hearing some music, melted into a chair sobbing at the memory of dancing with her husband, and could hardly even speak.  I rubbed her arm trying to comfort her, telling her that I knew I didn’t understand but that I was very sorry for her and that it was OK for her to cry.

And now, sadly, I do understand.  I am her.  I have connections with women I hardly know, but we relate to each other on an emotional plane that no one wants to be familiar with, and where words are rarely necessary because it seems that pain is communicated from one heart to another just as clearly as love is.

My view has changed – there are some things that no longer shine as brightly as they did before, others that seem much more clear, and still others that I never even saw but now seem so obvious.  I couldn’t explain it even if I tried.  Some day I hope to attend Mass without crying.  Some day I hope to hear music and have only happy memories.  But sometimes we don’t get to pick our view, we just have to look at what’s in front of us and hope that eventually we’ll see something that enlightens us, or at least lightens our load.  I guess the main thing is to make sure I keep my eyes open.

This I Know

marriage-quote-ecard I’m compelled to respond to certain comments that have become regular and flippant in our society when relationships go through difficulties or come to an end.  Often I see sarcastic pictures depicting the scorned woman whose man didn’t live up to her expectations, and either continues to make her life miserable or is no longer part of her life at all.  I’m no marriage expert, but I do know something of the dynamics between men and women, what works and what doesn’t work.  I’m not singling out women here to lay blame; it just happens that most of what I hear is from the women’s perspective, so that’s what I’ve chosen to address.

I’ve had people tell me that I was “lucky” to have such a good husband and be married for twenty-nine years, through thick and thin.  I had a very good thing, there’s no doubt, and I will be forever thankful for what I had, but I don’t believe it was lucky.  I think it had a lot more to do with character and commitment, and the fact that we knew each other well enough before we got married to know that we wanted the same things, that we shared goals and dreams together, and that we saw each other not only at our best before we married, but also went through times of trial and saw each other in our less than stellar moments.  We had an open and honest relationship before we decided to join our lives forever.

All relationships have irritations and annoyances because we’re all human.  There wasn’t anything that irritated me during our marriage that I didn’t notice before we got married, and I know Pat could say the same.  I wasn’t starry eyed and blinded by love, I knew I loved him and made the decision to be with him despite the human imperfections, and clearly he did the same with me because I was always much more of a handful than he ever was!

Yet, when I hear people talk today about things that went wrong, they often admit if questioned that they did notice things while dating – sometimes big things – but they dismissed them, thought the other person would change, thought that after the marriage things would be different.  How often does that really work out?  Yes, we sometimes mellow with age, but I’d just like to say that if the guy you’re dating is selfish, a drinker, inattentive, jealous, wastes money, disrespects you in any way, treats his family poorly or has family that treats you poorly, and any of these things – or numerous other possibilities – bother you, make sure they are things you’re willing to accept forever or don’t get married, and don’t make babies with him.  And if you do ignore them or the advice of others around you who try to help you see them, don’t be surprised when things don’t change and you’re left unhappy or divorced.

Yes, there can be something big that arises out of the blue that wasn’t foreseen by anyone, but I’m speaking here about the most frequent situations where people can identify something early on and look back later and know they saw it, or at least signs of it, but went ahead anyway, or rushed in before they had enough experience with each other in various situations to have a pretty good idea of how things were going to be. If women rush into relationships even despite advice from family and friends to the contrary – and they have many reasons for doing this that I don’t claim to understand – they often end up in marriages that aren’t fulfilling and they either feel trapped or they’re alone again after it ends.  The sad thing is that frequently they become bitter and resentful towards men, marriage, and relationships in general, without recognizing that perhaps it’s their own life and way of approaching dating and marriage that is causing their choices and resulting unhappiness.

I wasn’t perfect, but I did take the time to know my future husband, to know his strengths and weaknesses and how those meshed with my own, and nothing in those areas really changed for us in all the years we were married, except that we grew and matured and developed our relationship together and over time it became stronger.  The irritations didn’t disappear, but we learned how to better manage them and sometimes each of us was able to make changes in our attitudes and behaviours to please the other.  And we always understood that we would be together until the end, imperfect as we were, disagreeing here and there, arguing once in a while, and loving each other more and more as we aged.

I never complained to anyone but Pat about things he did that bothered or upset me and he gave me the same respect.  Even my own parents weren’t privy to information about our private relationship. Too often today this privacy isn’t respected and before there’s a chance to resolve an issue, family and friends are all aware of it, giving input and taking sides.  (As a side note, I was pretty sure that if I ever was inclined to complain to my parents they would take Pat’s side and send me home because they knew me well!)

So was I “lucky”?  Was I living some fairytale? No.  I lived in a real life marriage with ups and downs and hard work and many rewards and lots and lots of love.  And we know that even the characters in good stories don’t end up with happily ever after, because eventually one of us is gone forever and the other is left behind to mourn the loss.

I just find it sad to see how many people today don’t seem to get it.  They either rush in, or rush out, or repeat patterns of behaviour that give them disappointing results over and over again, and they miss out on what they seem to really want but never find. I think somewhere along the way maybe they need to change themselves and their way of doing things before they can expect their story to change.  Just my two cents.