Happy Birthday to me
I am COVID-free
I don’t have the virus
It did not kill me
Three months ago I made a wish, that I could please live to see my birthday. I made it!
Trying to focus on this rather than the fact that I woke up to a still-untreated rampant respiratory infection of some kind. I’ve been sick all week and this was the earliest day I could get a phone appointment to find out, okay, if it isn’t COVID, what is it?
Old kitchen sponge
Wet sock from alley behind the laundromat
Decaying canned ham
There is a weird streak of bummer events that have happened on my birthday, to the point that several years ago I started celebrating all of July and avoiding high expectations on the actual day. On past birthdays I have stepped barefoot in warm puppy poo, discovered stinging nettles the hard way, organized a party at the amusement park only for it to close due to power failure just as we walked up... Last year we went to Scotland, and wandered around Aberdeen for half a day finding only closed restaurants and a park with a bare patch of dirt where an elaborate floral display was supposed to be.
I’ve learned to laugh it off and try to have more fun the rest of the year instead.
Try to see the irony in a diagnosis of bacterial pneumonia. Gratitude!
Happy birthday to me, and time to open my gifts:
Pills for cough
Pulse ox I bought myself, because self-care! You deserve it honey
This is where I remind everyone of how great it is to live in the 21st century. I just 1. Talked to a doctor by phone who 2. Pulled up my medical records on a computer and 3. Ordered modern drugs for me to 4. Pick up the same day which I can do because 5. There are some in stock three miles away. And 6. They will probably be cheaper than a large pizza because 7. I have health insurance.
[Total cost to me: $6.06]
If I had the same respiratory infection in, say, 1798... I’d probably just continue to have it three years later (if I lived) and I’d just be some sad toothless wretch coughing on a straw pallet.
The natural way!
In the future, I think our phones are going to be a lot more like medical devices than communication units. They can already check our pulse (put your finger over the camera) and track how active we are, how fast we walk, etc. It seems easily within reach for a smartphone to listen to someone’s heartbeat and/or check their cough. Not too far in the future, they might indeed be able to analyze swabs for bacteria and viruses too.
Earlier this week, I went across town for a COVID test. It was just like the last time I went to the COVID hospital, in and out. Last time it was for some blood samples and a chest x-ray. Neither time did anyone check my pulse, take my temperature, put the pulse ox on my finger, listen to my chest with a stethoscope, or even weigh me in. It would have been technologically possible to take some kind of culture to answer the question, “Just what IS in your lungs right now??” ...rather than focus narrowly on, “Is it COVID: Y/N.”
Obviously I understand that the goal is to avoid infecting our treasured medical professionals. That’s why I think robots will be doing all the icky stuff not too far into the future.
This is an exciting time to be alive!
Since last year, I moved from a bad apartment to a pretty great apartment, became a Distinguished Toastmaster, survived COVID-19, and got my dream job.
I try to focus on these things rather than their corollaries, which are being isolated, seeing the indefinite end to the types of public speaking and event planning that I trained to do, and missing a week of my new job because I still haven’t made it back to 100% healthy. All of those things are probably temporary. There’s no point in wasting mental and emotional effort on transitory obstacles.
What’s in the future?
What will I do with my next year of life?
Not everyone has cause to make a formal wish for another year of life, but I did, and recently. It’s fresh enough in my mind that the same 365 days issued to me will probably be more valuable than the 365 given to anyone else.
Hint: Now is your moment to feel your next year as a precious gift
Now I’m going to model my next year off The Princess Bride. Legit, right? [spoilers, skip this section]:
Westley’s story of meeting the Dread Pirate Roberts.
“He simply said, “Please. Please, I need to live.” ...and then he got to be a valet, and every night the Dread Pirate Roberts said, “Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” Three years went by and Westley learned to live that way, in what I call the Place of Uncertainty, learning everything he could and just going with it. Then he got a massive promotion, a title bump, and a new wardrobe!
Oh, and he always wore his mask. “It’s just that they’re terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.”
So that’s my plan. I have no idea how long this phase of life will go on. I have no idea what my state of health will be like by this time next year, or the year after, or the year after that. Usually I like to make grand plans about things like running a marathon or publishing a book. Right now my only grand plan is to live, to keep waking up every morning, and in the meantime try to be a good valet.
The good news is, my COVID-19 test came back negative. Hooray!
The bad news is, something is still wrong with me and now I don’t know what.
I’ve been feeling worse every day for a week, starting with chills that woke me out of a sound sleep. Whatever is going on, I’m short of breath, my chest and upper back hurt constantly, and I have heart palpitations after walking across the room. I also had a weird episode of mysterious symptoms which I am not sure were neurological or circulatory.
Was I infected with something, or not?
Is this related to my experience with COVID back in April, or is it something else?
If I got infected with something, like influenza or the common cold, then who did I get it from? How did I get it through both a mask and a face shield? Why did I get it and my husband apparently didn’t? (We both got the flu after I took him to the ER in February, and we literally started coughing the same minute).
Worse, if this is the common cold, then why does my chest hurt so bad? Is it just a really gnarly version of the cold, or do I have lung damage?
If I didn’t get exposed to anything contagious, then what is wrong with me?
Why did it creep up on me gradually?
If this is related to COVID, but it doesn’t show up on a test, then what’s going on? What kind of damage did it do? How long will it last? Why did it take two months to start up? How do I get rid of it? Or if I can’t get rid of it, how do I treat it?
I’m so frustrated right now - I know it’s because I’m sick and illness always makes me weepy and emotional - but it’s really annoying that now I show up in the statistics as nothing more than two negative tests. A month of illness, feeling like I was dying, all the uncertainty and misery, now this relapse or whatever - and it doesn’t officially count for anything?
How many other people out there are like me, who were sick as can be but weren’t able to get a test at the right time? How many of us are now living a medical mystery?
My birthday is on Friday and I’m really happy about that. Back in April I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it this long. I have more reason to celebrate this year than I ever have. My family are all, as far as I know, safe and sound. (Hopefully my story is making them be that extra little bit careful - right??) My husband never got sick. We both have jobs and we’re financially in the best shape of our marriage.
How can I complain when several of my friends have lost someone to COVID?
How can I complain when I have relatives and friends who’ve lost their jobs, or whose educations are on pause?
I talk so much about being in the Place of Uncertainty, and how it’s supposed to be good for building character. I talk about overcoming chronic health problems. Now is the time to draw on that.
I just started a new job. I’m so new I’m still on probation, haven’t even had my first one-on-one yet. We’re supposed to do a whole on-boarding interview where we set up our goals for our first annual performance review. It’s pretty heavy on my mind right now. The elephant in the room. Is this... going to happen a lot?
I had to notify my boss and two separate departments that I had COVID symptoms. It’s a security incident. Everyone in my entire subdivision knows. Which is great! I’m for it! It’s really important to me for my experience to serve others in some way, mostly so that they can avoid what befell me and keep their families safe. Tell everyone, take a video clip and play it in the lobby, put me on a billboard.
Still. I’d rather that if I had a reputation in my first two months on a new job, it was for solving a problem or really showing up for someone in a big way.
Next week I’m supposed to give a presentation. I’m super excited about it. In so many ways it’s what I’ve been preparing for for the last four years, developing my speaking skills and getting over my stage fright. Now all I can think is, at least my face won’t be on camera so I can mute myself coughing.
That is, assuming I’m well enough to finish my slides between now and then.
You know what I was going to be doing this week? I was going to be calling the four grad schools on my list, getting details about application dates and admissions requirements.
Now I wonder if it’s really wise to be making plans for over a year from now. Grad school is a very expensive proposition to be making commitments on a timeline.
My best guess for what’s going on with me right now is a bacterial infection in my lungs. This is how my experience ended in April - I tested negative for COVID just in time to pick up a secondary infection. I’ve learned to associate ‘burning’ with bacteria. If this is what happened, then it wouldn’t necessarily be something I got from another person. There can be a bunch of different kinds of bacteria that cause lung infections, but at least one of them just loiters around in the respiratory tract full-time without incident. If that’s it, then why did it suddenly activate?
Why does anything happen? Ever? To anyone?
Answer: who knows
What I want people to know is that COVID-19 is a serious bummer even for the mild and moderate cases. When I found out I was exposed, I thought I’d have a rough five days and be done with it. Here I am, four months to the day after I was exposed, and it’s still causing me pain, stress, confusion, annoyance, and distraction from things I’d rather be doing. Also weight gain and acne like I haven’t had in 25 years - I include that for the young ones - you say you’re not scared of coronavirus, but are you scared of breakouts?? Are you??
The upshot is that I emailed my doctor, because I still have symptoms that they say to watch out for. I am guessing he will order more antibiotics, maybe a chest x-ray. If I’m right that it’s a bacterial infection, then I should be fine within a week. If not?
I tested negative, but alas, my character is still positive. I’ll keep believing I can beat this thing and go on with my life. Maybe I just won’t put candles on my birthday cake this year.
Place your bets. Do I have it or don’t I?
I had the phone appointment with my doctor this morning. Apparently a test had already been ordered for me. He asked me a few questions about my symptoms and said to assume I have it. He said he hasn’t had any patients be reinfected so far, so it would be “interesting to find out.”
I couldn’t get a test the first time around. Now I’ve gotten a promotion. I am clinically interesting. This should open a few doors for me as I become a “data donor.”
How am I doing?
Yesterday morning, I got up for work, got dressed, took my pills, ate breakfast, signed in... and immediately felt like I was going to pass out. I was sorta thinking I could work for at least a few days, maybe ride this thing out. It took about two minutes to realize this was not going to happen. I emailed my boss and the others on my team and signed out. Then I emailed my doctor.
As soon as I put my phone down, I had an extremely weird new symptom:
A wave of prickly heat ran from my elbows through my hands. My skin flushed red. My hands and wrists felt slightly swollen, and when I tried to bend my wrists, it stung all through the backs of my hands. At the same time, waves of this prickly heat rash feeling pulsed in and around the tip of my nose.
I had a lot of very strange symptoms when I was sick in April, feelings I had never felt before, and this was not one of them. It went on for about five minutes. So far, that’s been it.
I lay in bed most of the day and had a three-hour nap. My lungs burned all day, unrelated to my breathing - it just felt like someone had blasted through my chest and upper back with a cannonball.
Slept fairly well, woke up feeling marginally better, but now I’m short of breath.
I had to go across town to get the COVID test, what turned out to be a two-hour round trip. I wore a surgical mask with a heavy-duty cloth mask over it and a plastic face shield over that.
The process didn’t seem as organized as it was when I had to get my chest x-ray back in April. They were confounded by the fact that I was dropped off and did not have a car. I was sent back and forth to both sides of the building, and a big security guard walked with me part of the way - not distancing! Aren’t you scared of me? You should be!
I sat on a folding chair in a little pop-up tent, baking in the sun and feeling quite uncomfortable under my masks. A woman young enough to be my daughter came over to take my sample. She said that people find it uncomfortable but it would only be ten seconds. She had me lift my shield and lower my masks, tip my head back, and
NOW I UNDERSTAND WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN ALIEN ABDUCTIONS
I will simply leave you with the code word “swirling” and say that my vision turned completely red for a while. I had a hurt dog’s instinct to find a bed and crawl under it.
“Okay, you can go now” - directly to therapy??
I came home and asked my husband to speculate. Let’s game it out. Place your bets: Positive or negative?
Negative, he said.
Care to elaborate?
These are basically the options. Either I had COVID-19 in April and now I have something else; or I did not have COVID and now I do; or I did not have COVID either time; or I was positive before and now I’m positive again. We can draw those out as:
Any of you who chose N/N should pause and realize that that is the scariest of the four options. This would mean that there is a non-COVID thing out there that *also* causes loss of taste and smell, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and an x-ray indicating peribronchial thickening. And either it’s possible to get *that* thing twice, or there are *two* distinct non-COVID things, the second of which can be contracted through both an N95 mask and a face shield.
Nobody is ever going to know what happened to me in April, because I couldn’t get a test while I was still sick. I also didn’t get an antibody test. In that sense, a skeptic would consider anything that happens to me to be anecdotal. Which is fine, and good for you; by all means please double down on your belief in objective data. All I can really offer you for evidence is that chest x-ray with the peribronchial thickening.
My husband thinks I had COVID-19 in April and that now I have something else, like the common cold. My immune system is probably still a little weak, my lungs may be damaged, and now maybe any little thing will be enough to lay me out. Call this [Y/N(a)].
I think I had it in April and now I have a separate strain, indicated by the rush of weird new symptoms on Monday morning. [Y/Y(a)].
There are a bunch of other formulations, all of which are worth exploring:
I had COVID-19 in April, developed antibodies, cleared the infection, and was exposed again. What I am experiencing now is my body mounting an effective antibody response, and I’ll be fine in a few days. [Y/Y(b)]. This formulation would not necessarily be invalidated by a negative test result; if I was exposed before Wednesday then I may have had enough time to clear it already.
I had COVID-19 in April, never cleared the infection, and got a false negative test because the cheek swab test was not as accurate. [Y/Y(c1)]. Another version of this formulation would be that I beat back the infection enough that it was undetectable, resumed normal activities and started working out, but then the infection surged again. [Y/Y(c2)].
Whatever my anecdotal narrative may be good for, it should serve as a test of reasoning. Mine and anyone else’s who reads this. This is your chance. Take a little sticky note or an old envelope and physically write down what you think is going on.
Do I or don’t I? Do you believe it’s Y/N, N/Y, N/N, or Y/Y?
How will this affect your evaluation of your own reasoning abilities when the test results come in? Will it change your behavior?
Personally, I have a lot to think about. If I test positive, I have to reevaluate my PPE and my sanitizing procedures. If I test negative, I have to reconsider my physical vulnerabilities in a whole different way. Either way, I can only be more cautious going forward.
Here we go again. I’m writing this a couple days ahead, feeling cruddy but with no idea what it is or how long it will last. All I know is that if I do have COVID-19 for a second time, I’m better off preparing ahead of time.
Why do I think I might have it again? 1. I feel tired and ill; 2. There are cases popping up in the news of reinfections, as well as people feeling better and then relapsing weeks later; 3. People don’t become immune to other members of the coronavirus family, so why assume we would from this one?
If I’m wrong, then I’ll have extra supplies. I can either use them for some other respiratory bug or share them with someone else. I can laugh at myself for being a worrywart. If I’m right... well, so far I have failed to over-prepare for a single thing during this pandemic.
The first thing I did was to take inventory of our medicine cabinet. I would not want to go through this the natural way, without modern pharmaceuticals, like some medieval person in a hut. I want Mucinex and Tylenol. Assuming it’s just me, I need enough supplies for 2x/day for at least three weeks. Last time, we ran out and there were shipping delays, but we got lucky and I managed not to miss any doses.
Next, I decided to order a pulse ox, a finger pulse oximeter. During my second week, I was gulping air and having a lot of trouble breathing. If that happens again, I’m not waiting, I’m going to try to get myself admitted to the hospital for at least a few hours with an oxygen mask. I figure I have a better chance advocating for myself if I have metrics.
The last time we went through all this, back in April, all this stuff was sold out. You couldn’t get a pulse ox - they were all marked up in price and back-ordered - in the same way that you couldn’t get masks or face shields or cleaning wipes or hand sanitizer. You could find Tylenol and Mucinex if you looked hard, just like paper towels and toilet paper. In some ways, it’s less scary to buy something like this and see a ship time of under a week.
These are the easy steps. Retail therapy. Let’s buy a consumer item and then everything will be all better, right?
The harder parts are playing through my memories of this illness and thinking back to what I need to do. Three months ago, I was deathly ill and pretty sure I would not live to see my birthday. Still not there yet. This is not fun to think about.
I should probably re-pack my hospital bag and leave it packed.
I should probably re-think my advance care directive. I was pretty adamant about the “do not resuscitate” part when I filled it out ten years ago. Now it seems fairly ordinary for a COVID patient to be in a coma for days or weeks, and then walk themselves out of the hospital. I’ll be 45 this week (*hope*) and I have as reasonable a chance as anyone else my age.
Last time, one of the many little annoyances was that I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t follow a plot, either in a novel or a movie. I’m prepared for this now. I realized I could have been listening to music and looking at streaming nature cams. I have a folder of those just in case.
I know a lot more this time around, because I’ve already been through this illness and because I’ve been avidly reading everything I could find about it for the last four months. I quit checking the daily statistics. I don’t feel like I need to read every single article about symptoms or transmission anymore.
I know I need to set alarms to remind me to take my pills on time, because last time, every time I slipped up by a couple hours, my symptoms would be worse for days.
I know I need to spend as much time as I can lying on my stomach, even though it makes my back stiff.
I also understand that if I do have COVID-19 again, I probably won’t skip through it in a few days. I’m psychologically preparing myself for a minimum of six weeks. I’m going to assume that I won’t be able to exercise for the rest of the year, or at least until Halloween.
Few things in my life have been as depressing, frustrating, and boring as having COVID-19. Trying to avoid lying on my back for at least twelve hours a day was really hard, exhausting, and demoralizing. I am not thrilled AT ALL to be facing this thing again.
Not thrilled to have to contemplate dying young either.
Worst of all is knowing that roughly 40% of my fellow Americans don’t think this thing is real. Either it’s a hoax or it’s no big deal. Even the person who originally infected me thinks it’s no big deal. I guess if I have three wishes right now, one of them would be that someone (who knows who she is) would go to her and say, “You really need to start taking this seriously now.” It’s not that I blame her for getting me sick; she couldn’t have known. It’s just important to me that if I die young, around my birthday, and pointlessly from this catastrophically managed pandemic... it’s important that it mattered to someone.
My other two wishes would be that everyone in my family is careful and stays safe, and that my husband finds love again and remarries. I hope he can use the life insurance money to buy a nice house and eventually be happy there, with a smiling woman by his side.
Of course I’d rather it be me, but what do you do?
I’m trying to be a good Stoic about this. There’s no reason for me to be untouched by plague when millions of other humans throughout history have died in this manner. I have no right to complain about it. Once I’ve made my preparations, it’s time to get on with life, patiently, pacing myself for the next three years or more that this thing will be with us.
Shortly after this posts, I have a phone appointment with a doctor. I’m definitely sick and my lungs are burning. Wish me luck.
Obviously I hope I’m being paranoid, but it’s better to share the information. One of the many lingering effects of this disease is that... it has lingering effects. It hangs on. Going through COVID-19 changed my life and I will never think the same way again.
What’s going on? Why do I think I might be sick again?
It crossed my mind to worry a few days ago. I’ve been cold a lot lately even though our temperatures here have been in the high 70s. On Wednesday night, I got out my winter pajamas again because I’d been chilly the last few nights and felt even colder.
I woke up in the middle of the night so cold I was shaking all over. Under a duvet, wearing pajamas. The nighttime low was 68F. I had to turn on the heated mattress pad.
I told my husband and he looked at me intently. “I was broiling all night.” He spent the same night three feet away from me, wearing shorts with just a sheet over him.
I coughed a bit that day. One of the effects of COVID is that if anyone, anywhere, coughs or sneezes - even in a movie - you freak out a little and start looking from side to side. I froze and thought, Uhoh, why am I coughing?
Then I was fine. We work a 9/80 schedule, and we get a lot of three-day weekends. I was pretty tired on Thursday, but I got through the day and did my workout. I did wonder why I’m still having all these problems regulating my temperature, but I figured maybe it was my thyroid. I basically spent two months lying around, and while I’ve been rebuilding my base fitness level, it does take time to get the system back to normal.
When I woke up Sunday morning, I felt cruddy and ill. Tired. Distinct feeling of chest congestion. Now it’s evening and I still feel that way, even after taking Mucinex and Tylenol and having a two-hour nap.
Yesterday we were supposed to go on a bike ride, and instead I... had a two-hour nap. Same time of day. I felt low energy all day and didn’t work out.
Friday I procrastinated on my workout for half the day. Just not feeling it.
As I look back, with this feeling in my lungs that can really only be described as a mild burning and ache, I can recognize the clear pattern. For the past four days I have been experiencing mild symptoms including chills, lethargy, malaise, and some respiratory stuff.
Something a bit more alarming caught my attention as well. Heart palpitations. They’re back.
Last week we went out together, masks on of course, and walked four miles. A few hours after we got home, we were hanging out on the couch when suddenly my heart started pounding. Just a few hard beats, but enough to catch my attention.
It happened again yesterday. I got up off the couch to get my bird out of her crate. This involves walking into the other room and back, carrying her to her perch, getting her fresh water and filling her food bowl, and coming back again. Takes about two minutes. Shortly after I sat back down, my heart started palpitating again.
I thought I was in the clear on this. After getting better from COVID, I started working out on the elliptical. I was back up to an hour at a time, five miles a day, an average of five days a week. I hadn’t had heart palpitations in months.
Now I can add: light hand tremors and... was that... a bit of vertigo? Ugh
When I first got COVID, I didn’t know I had been exposed for 15 days. Looking back, I could tell which suspicious symptoms I’d had and when, but I didn’t really start feeling sick until after I went out for a run. I think I might have beat the virus without realizing I had it if I had just continued to sit around thinking I was “stressed out” and “paranoid.”
Now I have no reason to push my limits and every reason to trust my “paranoia.” I’m not doing anything that counts as a workout until I can describe myself as feeling “perky” and “energetic.”
There’s another reason I think I might have COVID-19 again, and that’s: news reports.
But, what about herd immunity?? I hear people wailing. Yeah, what about it? There were never any guarantees with this novel coronavirus, just as there is no herd immunity for the common cold. People can get chicken pox twice, even though it’s rare. We don’t know much about this thing. All we really know is that it’s worse than we thought it was back in March.
When I was first exposed, we thought it only really killed elderly people. Now we know that it can kill babies, children, teenagers, and adults of every age. Medical authorities didn’t think it was airborne, although I did as soon as I knew I had it, because that’s how I got it, from someone talking to me from over eight feet away. When I was exposed, nothing was shut down and nobody was wearing masks. A lot has changed since then.
How do I think I got it, if I do have it again?
The last time we saw our quaranteam buddy was exactly two weeks ago. It’s plausible we were exposed then, even though she feels fine, because last time I made it sixteen days without feeling sick. We had two meal deliveries and a grocery drop-off that day at her place. I don’t think it was then, though.
Ten days ago, I went to the periodontist. I had to take my mask off, obviously, so they could look in my mouth. That is a very sanitary place (their office, not my mouth), but it’s possible I could have been exposed in the lobby while they were taking my temperature? Or in one of the rideshare vehicles?
The day after that, we rode the city bus. This is the most likely exposure point. We were masked up, but due to passenger load we were sitting within two feet of a few other people for 20 minutes, both directions. I’d like to believe that N95 mask + face shield is pretty solid protection, but.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I need to stay inside and avoid exposing other people. I’m going to continue to try to get a test, although the place we went last time now only serves people over age 65. I’m going to be very physically cautious and pace myself.
Most of all, I’m going to hope that my husband stays safe from me and that I really do get a birthday this year in spite of it all.
Eat Sleep Work Repeat is a pretty solid description of a lot of our workdays, even during stay-at-home orders. The only correction I would make is that I’m probably not alone in often eating while I work. When I quit my day job in 2010, I lost 15 pounds the first year just from not snacking at my desk. Anyway. Bruce Daisley is here to show us all how to replace the negative factors of our work lives with something nice. Yes, all of them!
Personally, I have it made. I can work from home, barefoot, next to an open window. This was literally my dream when I was 24. All the things that used to bother me about work are, at least temporarily, gone: The commute, getting up early to fuss with my hair, the dress code, wearing a badge, the burnt popcorn in the break room, and, worst of all, freezing all day most days. Now I can wrap up in a blanket when I need to and nobody even knows.
Isn’t it weird how the things we dislike about “work” usually aren’t related to the work itself? It’s the conditions that get us - that, or the friction of human interactions.
This book is arranged in short sections that are focused on specific, easily manageable changes. Some examples would be taking an actual lunch break, or banning phones from meetings. Much of the book deals with ways that colleagues can help each other create a better work environment that is both more efficient and more fun. Eat Sleep Work Repeat is the rare sort of business book that can be shared at work and embraced by anyone who picks it up. Let’s all try to spread the word about some of these cultural changes so they become the norm... whenever we go back to having a norm.
Is it reasonable to expect to enjoy your job?
We’re overwhelmed with demands and expectations placed on us by others, but we have come to accept it all because we assume that’s the way it is and has to be.
Quite simply, when we laugh we’re willing to show our truest selves to others and be more open to the quirkiness of others.
I may be one of the only Mensans on Earth who scored in the 55th percentile in math. It’s unusual for a smart person to be that bad at something - usually people’s abilities are pretty level across the board. I’m starting to want to challenge my image of myself as someone who Is Bad At Math. This means confronting my math anxiety.
Does math make me anxious because I’m bad at it, or am I bad about it because I psych myself out?
A woman engineer math-splained to me once that I must have formally decided, as a middle school girl, to quit being good at math in order to impress boys. This was not her opinion, it was FACT. We had known each other for 15 minutes.
On the contrary, I wanted to tell her, I had always assumed I was good at math and always would be. I thought it just went along with being a kid in the talented and gifted program. My mom was good at math and her mom was a bookkeeper. Why would I not follow in their footsteps?
I started having issues in Intro to Algebra in 7th grade. By Geometry in 9th grade, I knew I was in trouble.
The problem was that I might do well in one section that I understood, and then do poorly in another section that was over my head. As long as my grades were Bs and Cs, I kept getting moved along. Then a new section would come along that built on something else, usually something that I had not mastered, and of course I would get even more confused. The further along I got, the worse it got, and the harder it would be to identify the source of the problem.
My emotional reactions to struggling with this material were probably pretty standard. Shame, guilt, frustration, dread.
Someone who is good at doing something, but not good at teaching, will often react in disbelief. WHY are you not getting this? What’s your problem? But of course you don’t know what you don’t know. If you could explain what it was that you didn’t understand, you would understand it.
I did extra work. I did the practice tests. I tried the extra credit problems. I stayed after with my kind-hearted Santa of a math teacher, who gave up many an afternoon to try to teach me proofs. I asked my friends. I even got my high school boyfriend to tutor me. (He now has a PhD and academic publications to his name).
None of this got me far. Grit, unfortunately, is not always the answer to every problem.
One of my issues was making minor arithmetic errors while solving the main problem. I would often write down numerals in the wrong order, something that still confounds me as an adult when I’m tired. I have no idea how to resolve this or whether it will always be a stumbling block.
As an adult, I think the structure of math classes is fundamentally damaging for the majority. Each student should simply keep working on one section until it’s easy. We should never be pushed along the continuum without mastering something. This could easily be done with software, or a self-paced course with a workbook. In a traditional classroom setting, students like me are always going to be left further and further behind.
Let me pause to say that I am a Mensan who was identified as ‘talented and gifted’ at age 8. I can read six writing systems, including Japanese, Greek, and Cyrillic. I can write with my right hand while using chopsticks with my left hand. I’m... not average.
When someone like me, a smug little bookworm, a kid whom other kids called ‘Brainiac’ - when someone like me hits an academic wall by age 12, then it’s possible there might be an issue with the pedagogy and not just the student.
This is how I start to rebuild my fragile image as a math student. I pull on other parts of my identity that are stronger. I am a grind. I am good at parking my butt and hitting the books. I am willing to do practice tests over and over again until I improve my score.
The reason all this is coming up is that I decided I want to go to grad school, and grad school probably means taking the GRE. That’s the standardized test that gets you in. I knew enough to know that the GRE has a math section. Logically, then, if I want to go to grad school then I need to do some remedial math. I haven’t taken a math class since 1993 and it would be very surprising to just waltz in and get a passing score.
I did some basic web searching, and in a few minutes I had the basic facts put together. You can take the GRE any day of the year, either proctored or online. Yes, you can do practice exams, take prep courses, and/or hire a tutor. As a young student, the cost of this stuff would have made my eyes roll back in my head. As a mature business professional, I barely batted an eye.
Then I sat down and looked at some practice questions. I had no idea how to tackle any of them, not even the first one.
My eyes teared up. My husband asked me to read him one.
“I don’t want to.”
“I don’t want you to realize how much trouble I’m in because you would... pity me.”
Let me pause to say that my husband is an aerospace engineer who uses calculus every day in his work.
Another person would look at this scenario and wonder, what’s the problem? You mean you want to crush the GRE and you can just ask your husband to tutor you for free? It’ll be easy for him. His incentive would be for you to get an advanced degree and then increase your earning potential accordingly.
From inside the scenario, it feels like being in an arena with a man-eating lion and no spear. Just me and my shame down here. No big deal, it’s only me confronting my single largest self-esteem issue, one that seems arbitrarily placed between me and something I really really want.
Chances are, I may still be able to figure out a hack that gets me accepted into grad school without taking the GRE. I got my bachelor’s without taking a single math class. If anyone can figure out a way around this, if anyone has enough motivation to try, it’s me.
The question is really whether I intend to go through life letting this one single thing kick me around. Am I willing to let my math anxiety continue to control what I do and what I don’t do? Do I end my days letting it win? Or do I pick myself up and prepare to fight?
During our WDS weekend, we learned a bit more about chronotypes and how they affect our energy level. This information changed how we look at our sleep schedules and how we structure our days, especially now that we are in isolation for the foreseeable future.
The first thing we did was take a quiz: http://www.thepowerofwhenquiz.com/.
Before this, I would have said that I’m a night owl and my husband is a lark. It didn’t occur to me that there would be more than two types of sleepers. I always figured that most people don’t get enough sleep for situational reasons, such as long commutes or intervening opportunities like the internet.
It took just a couple of minutes to find out that my hubby and our friend, like the majority of people, are Bears, while I’m a Dolphin.
This basically means that they have consistent energy levels throughout the day and, if they didn’t get enough sleep one night, they’ll just go to sleep earlier the next.
Being a Dolphin - the rare 10% - basically means any little thing will mess with my sleep, and as a result I feel tired most of the time.
This all felt true enough. What was surprising, and what I don’t particularly agree with, is that these sleep animals are supposed to go to bed and wake up at particular times. They gave Bears 11 pm to 7 am, and Dolphins like me midnight to 6 am.
If I only slept six hours a night, I would be a walking disaster. I know because I’ve had to do it. The biggest issue I have always had with sleep is that I can’t necessarily fall asleep just because I’m tired. If I have a set schedule that involves being somewhere early in the morning most days of the week, it can take months to adjust.
I just started a new job, and since we work at home, I can roll out of bed at 7:30 and still be early for 8 am meetings. The first couple of weeks were exhausting. Now, in the third month, I can sometimes wake up naturally before my alarm goes off. There have been days, though, when I could barely make it and crawled off to take a nap immediately after clocking out.
Sleep is always the #1 factor in my mood and energy level. It also seems to have a huge effect on my immune system; when I’ve been sleeping poorly I seem to get every cold and flu that comes through.
Being a Dolphin married to a Bear is lucky for me and doesn’t seem to matter all that much to him. He sleeps so soundly that, over the years, it seems to have entrained me to sleep better too. Sometimes he even sleeps through my night terrors. One night I woke up screaming and he just reached over and patted me a few times and went back to sleep.
We’ve had two issues where my significant sleep problems have required his involvement.
One, the case of the loud upstairs neighbors. I asked him to intervene with the property manager a couple of times when I felt I wasn’t being heard. I asked him to help me figure out something for noise cancellation, an engineering solution perhaps? Finally we just relocated, which we wouldn’t have done for at least a few more years if my sleep problems hadn’t gotten completely out of control.
Sometimes the alarm would go off in the morning and I would burst into tears because I hadn’t slept all night.
The second issue was more personal. Just as we would be winding down for the night, my hubby would read something in the news that got him agitated, and he would want to talk to me about it. It was like tossing a ball. He would throw it and I would catch it. He would then peacefully drop off to sleep and I would like awake until 2 am.
I brought it up. I begged. I pleaded. I set a reminder on our shared list that went off every night at 9 pm. This was the “nothing but puppies, kittens, and rainbows” alarm.
Honestly it took about five years for this pattern to finally sink in.
It’s not that we can’t talk about current events, or have passionate discussions and disagreement about various philosophical points. It’s just that I have to hit pause at 9:00 if I want to be able to drop off to sleep.
I have no problem setting this boundary with other people if we happen to be up that late. Everyone I know is guaranteed to be worn out from hearing about my parasomnia disorder, so it’s better for everyone if they agree to my demands quickly.
I have a contrarian opinion about stress and anxiety. I understand that this opinion is not mainstream, but the more I read and the longer I live, the more I think I’m right and everyone else has things upside down.
The prevailing opinion seems to be that “stress” causes almost all illness, and that factors of mood and attitude drive disease.
Okay, but why would “stress” branch out and cause a hundred thousand completely different types of illness?
Doesn’t it make more sense that illness arises in the physical body, and that the person then starts to feel stress *as a result*? That stress is a natural, universal reaction to maybe even a sub-clinical stage of any of a hundred thousand physical causes?
This is why I think my parasomnia problem is neurochemical. I bet better and more widespread brain scanning would reveal more patterns like this. It makes perfect sense to me that the 10% of “Dolphins” who have trouble sleeping have more in common than some kind of personality trait. Part of why I can say this is that my Bear husband has at least as much stress in his life as I do, and he seems to sleep just fine.
Assessments like these animal chronotypes are a good idea for helping people to be considerate and accommodating of each other’s needs. This is even more important when the people involved share a roof or, especially, a bed. Let’s all be kind to each other and try to help each other get enough rest every night.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m getting a bit bored, cooped up here in our 650-square-foot apartment. I’m dangerous when I’m bored. It gives me wild ideas, like Knife Fighting (2018) or Let’s Get Jobs in Antarctica (2016) or I’m Running a Marathon (2014) or My Telekinetic Powers Work on Slot Machines (2005). Track record: Not perfect.
This time, it’s: Grad School, Why Not?
The first thing I do is to start asking around. “I’m thinking about X project. Do you know anything about it?”
First I asked a colleague in the field where I want to study. She immediately replied with the top four schools in our field.
The nearest person I know who has been to grad school happens to be my husband. I asked him. He asked why I wanted to go. Then he told me I might as well go straight into a doctoral program: “A master’s degree is a side effect of getting a PhD.”
He also said I should 1. Try to get a fellowship; 2. See if I could get recommendation letters from professional colleagues, rather than professors; 3. Call the school and ask if they would admit me without having to take the GRE.
I haven’t been in the classroom since 2004, and I haven’t taken math since 1993, which makes me a non-traditional student. The rules may be different for a returning student like me than they are for a fresh-faced kid.
I take all these ideas under advisement. My starting assumption is that I will need to go the traditional route. Since it’s already July, I “won’t be going to school in academic year 2021.” If I need to study remedial math in order to pass the GRE, then I will probably need at least a year to prepare.
Hubby says, “Why? It might be easier to get in for winter term anyway.” He still doesn’t see why I think I’ll probably have to take the GRE, just because most people do.
Again, he might be right, and I have to keep readjusting my expectations.
When I started running, it was not with the goal of completing a marathon. It was with the goal of running a specific route, 2 1/4 miles with a 200’ elevation gain. I thought it would take me a full year, adding one sidewalk square at a time. My hubby was like, No way is that going to take you all year. I was like, Why are you pressuring me?? This is hard! He was right, of course; by the end of the year I could easily do 4x my original goal. It only took me four years to reach marathon distance.
I did it again when I decided to work on my fear of public speaking. I joined Toastmasters, not knowing anything about the program, and four years later I got my DTM.
My experience has consistently been that four years is long enough to accomplish most standard goals, even when I go in with a completely blank beginner’s mind. Even when I start with considerable obstacles, like a phobia or poor baseline fitness, four years is a pretty long time!
It’s hard to imagine going after a goal that can be completed in a shorter timeframe.
Wait, you mean I could be enrolled by (checks dates)... it’s a semester system so... I could be enrolled by January if I get my application in by September 1?
But that’s in like 5 minutes!
Now I have two projects that run on parallel tracks.
I have the default, usually known as Plan A. Working backward, I get a PhD by enrolling in grad school by passing the GRE by taking practice tests and improving my math competencies. Using this formulation, I have framed my math anxiety as the major obstacle between me and my stated goal. I work on my fixed mindset issue and I get some math apps.
Then I have an alternate path, Plan B, derived from conversation with a subject matter expert. What did this person actually do to reach the goal that I want?
In this case, his new boss at his first job out of college asked him, at his first one-on-one, When are you going to grad school? He was like, Uh, I don’t even want to do that because I just graduated and I could use a break. They were like DO EET and they paid him to go, but he had to do grad school while holding down a full-time job, working overtime, with a new baby.
He passed the GRE by flipping through a prep book before the exam.
Does my consulting subject matter expert’s experience map with mine?
Well, ah, yes and no. He went to grad school because his boss made him, because it was directly related to his work. I want to go just for the experience of being back in school. I just need an excuse.
There’s something I’ve noticed since I entered the rarefied world of aerospace. There are noticeable differences between people with advanced degrees and everyone else. They solve problems differently. This is what I’m after, the secret of whatever initiation rites they passed during post-grad. Whether it ever turns into a different job one day, or not, is somewhat irrelevant to my purposes.
I want to be where the action is. I want to satisfy this itch that I have to go back to school. I want a way to keep busy while we wait out the pandemic. I also have a deep curiosity about my field, and I see this as a chance not just to learn more, but to hang out with other people who share this interest.
I have the motivation and I have the time.
The next questions are a routine part of my inquiry flowchart. 1. What’s the least expensive way to do this? 2. How many of these requirements can I skip or test out of? 3. Can I actually get paid to do this?
I keep pushing the marble down the track. When tackling a big project, you don’t have to know all the steps, or even most of the steps. Just come up with a micro-step and then take action as quickly as possible. I’ve found out where I would go and what the annual deadlines are. I’ve found out about the GRE, where and when I could take it and how much it costs.
Next steps: Contact someone in the admissions office and ask for advice. Contact the department at my work that handles tuition reimbursement and ask them for advice, too. Find an online math placement test and figure out where I stand.
After all this, maybe I’ll wind up going, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll graduate, maybe I won’t. The only adverse outcomes would be boring myself or going into debt, which at least in this case I would be able to foresee in advance and avoid. Therefore the worst case scenario is that I learn a lot about the process of applying to grad school as a returning student, and I can then share that information with someone else.
There is never a wrong time for a great idea. The trouble is, great ideas usually come across as bad ideas. This is why most people will make incremental changes - or none at all - at crisis points, even when a radical change is the only real solution to the problem.
Example: evacuation. Nobody ever *wants* to evacuate. Even though we all know what wildfires and hurricanes and floods are, we don’t want to believe that this is our movie now. There are always stubborn holdouts, and then there are the last of the procrastinators who always think we have more time than we do. Groups with different motives and different emotional reactions can still wind up with the same sad outcomes.
Making decisions is hard. There are consequences for being wrong that tend to look more likely than the consequences of what probably feels unrealistic. (The category five storm, the ashes that used to be a house, the empty retirement account, the foreclosure, whatever is the name of the new living nightmare). Not me, nope! Not going to happen!
This is why it’s easier to plan for these eventualities, game them out and prepare. Then it doesn’t feel as much like a ‘decision’ as simply following a policy.
This is why we have go bags, and it’s why we have emergency savings, and it’s why we have advance care directives, and it’s why we occasionally do a bit of theoretical modeling of threat scenarios. Put a plan in place, and those couple of hours of forecasting can translate to peace of mind that lasts for years.
Ironically, we worry more when we have no plan than we do in the process of making a plan.
Some of the toughest plans to make are the financial plans. It’s not uncommon for a couple to know exactly who they would want to take their kids if something happened to both of them. That is an incredibly depressing scenario! Yet everyone involved feels better if there’s a plan, because those kids really, really matter.
Why and how would it be scarier or more depressing to talk about various financial outcomes than it would the prospect of orphaned children?
Simple: The orphan scenario will probably never happen, but the financial situation is happening right now.
Troubleshooting is a process of root cause analysis. Without professional training, it can feel like someone is looking for someone else to blame. Default reaction here is always going to be defensiveness. “Me?!? What about YOU?!?”
That’s the thing about radical change, though. It doesn’t matter what happened before. What matters is that from now on, the entire nature of the game is going to be different. We’re just starting fresh.
We’re going to sit together, and we’re going to learn what we don’t know, and we’re going to figure out a plan that actually works.
No matter what anybody else thinks.
My husband and I are living a radical lifestyle that is wildly divergent from the values we were both taught as kids, which are basically:
Live near where you grew up, where you know everyone and you have a network of people to trade favors. Buy a house there so it will grow in value. Have two cars for maximum freedom.
Neither of us has any plans to do any of these things, and we’ve had to explain ourselves to family, friends, and colleagues several times. My husband will even get out a calculator and go through the math to show that we’ve done our due diligence. Our financial policy is pretty unpopular.
Buying a house is a bad idea in many cities, and it’s always a bad idea if you live there less than five years. Owning one car (much less two or more) is unnecessary, expensive, and even dangerous. Relocate strategically for your career. Live on only half your income at most.
Granted, most couples are not going to do what we do, and that’s perfectly fine. Be normal, be happy. You do you.
Just because you don’t want to do what we’re doing, though, doesn’t mean that your current plan is working for you. It’s not an either/or choice. It’s a false dilemma to hold up something extreme as the only possible alternative to what you’re doing now.
The questions are:
Is your current plan working for everyone involved?
What does everyone involved want to be doing in five years, and do you have a plan to get there?
“Working” means that it’s sustainable indefinitely. The schedule is manageable, everyone involved carries a fair load and has high quality leisure time, everyone involved is living their most cherished values and working toward their purpose. Income is higher than expenses. If there is debt, it’s trending downward, not plateauing or increasing.
Note that this probably does not describe the majority of American households.
The way to initiate a radical reassessment conversation with your partner is to be willing to go first. Come to the table with some ideas of what you specifically want - that helps - but also try to outline something that your partner wants. If you lead with how making a change will help get them what they want, you can start the conversation on a high note and skip right past all the blame and recriminations.
It can really help to bring a story, an example of someone else who has done what you want to do. Fortunately, there are couples in the FIRE community of all ages who share their personal stories of financial independence. You can share ours:
We radically downsized to 1/4 the living space and got rid of over 80% of our stuff. Now we live in a nice apartment less than a mile from the beach, working our dream jobs, and we invest over half our income. We’re debt-free, of course - we don’t even have a mortgage. We haven’t argued about money for many years.
It’s a pretty basic formula. If you’re in financial trouble, you can either increase your income, cut your living expenses, or both. You can make a temporary change, like moving to a much cheaper home or selling a vehicle, and agree to reinflate your lifestyle at a designated point. You can choose to approach your situation with good humor and excitement at how relieved you will be when all this stress is gone.
Look each other in the eye and commit: We’re a team. We can do this together.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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