Maybe it’s the current pandemic climate, a strange combination of massive change overall against a backdrop of ongoing “no change” day-to-day. Maybe it’s the fact that it is 1:30 a.m. in the morning and I’m still awake, and I’m choosing to type instead of drifting off to sleep. Maybe it’s that I’m sitting in a basement full of boxes around my new office setup, and I haven’t quite organized everything yet. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that I just finished watching S2 of Jessica Jones where much of her backstory was about feeling untethered in her world.
But untethered seems like a great word to me tonight. It isn’t about being unconnected, although there is an element of that. It is about being adrift, untethered to a True North sense of direction.
There is a phrase from the US Declaration of Independence about holding certain truths to be self-evident. And in our current pandemic world, some of those truths are not quite as firm as they might have been. Foundations are not quite as stable as we perhaps thought they were, or we live in more shades of grey than we originally thought.
And yet, as I hit the half-way point of the year, and thinking about things like goals and what I want to be doing with my time, I feel like much of it is about choice. As it always is, of course, with an act of choice, an act of free will even, being the most fundamental element of creating a new reality.
That each day we wake, we rise, and we start making more choices that shape our reality. And perhaps that’s the source of my unease. That my sense of “choice” has been missing from my repertoire.
I feel like life, in all its colours, is happening TO me these days rather than life being something I create with my choices.
And I need to reclaim it.
More importantly, I CHOOSE to reclaim it. I will choose which anchor points I to consider tethering myself to, even if only for a day.
And so, with that thought, I am going to commit myself to a daily choice. A daily affirmation of a life chosen, not life simply lived. And perhaps my choice is as simple as that…
Today I choose to choose.
Let’s see what I choose tomorrow. What are you choosing?
I have been thinking about friends, death and goals this past week, albeit not necessarily in that order. Our friend Jeremy passed away two weeks ago, a sudden death. An aortic aneurysm. One of those potentially “here one minute, gone the next” type medical events that can occur with no warning whatsoever. Inexplicable. It happened during the night while he was asleep. And today, June 24th, would have been his 50th birthday. This is not a pseudo eulogy or tribute to Jeremy, his story is not my story to tell, nor even attempt. I can only ever tell my story, and here are some of my thoughts and experiences from the last two weeks.
I don’t feel like I knew Jeremy as well as I should have or would have liked. I have been close friends with his wife for over 20 years, we met through work, I took a course from her father. I’m not the extroverted type to make and keep hundreds of friends, yet her and I have shared many a long night talking over the years. When Jeremy moved back to Ottawa, I was organizing the occasional “guys” nights for wings and ribs, and I got to know him better, as he would come out from time to time. We’d have a few laughs, talk about life, work, just some light fun for the night. We’ve also got together a few times as couples, etc.
But probably not often enough, apparently. Like most modern families, we all lead busy lives. Sometimes the schedule seems too full and you don’t make the time, thinking maybe we’ll get together one night next month. We would trade comments here and there on FaceBook, stay connected virtually, etc. And yet, even without having known him for much of his life, even without being best buds or anything, I find myself strongly impacted by the passing of a friend.
Since I feel no shame attached to tears, I readily admit that I cried when I heard the news. It didn’t seem like it could possibly be true. Jeremy died? Wait…that makes no sense, must be another Jeremy? Obviously not Aliza’s husband, that can’t be, they’ve been doing Lego together while in lockdown. They just went to Dow’s Lake to see tulips. It must be some cruel miscommunication. He wasn’t sick, was he? I saw nothing about him being sick, did I? The strange hops that brains make to deny unwelcome news.
But, no, it was terribly, horribly true. Nothing Covid-related, which people might “accept” as a random hand of fate but understandable, or a car accident, or a host of other things where your brain wants to somehow connect a rational explanation to the event and thereby help it process the news. Sudden inexplicable deaths of healthy 50-year-old men do not offer a pattern for my brain to easily accept. It probably also seemed even less real to me given that he was two years younger than me. Older is easier to fake-process; younger is not.
I was working the day I heard the news, an email from a mutual friend, and I had a lot of trouble concentrating afterwards. I was easily distracted, and often not even for things I could remember when I snapped back to the task at hand. Just with my mind gone for a moment. Or several moments.
After a death, I know most of us rely on rituals for both celebration and comfort. For everyone who knew him, the week after the news likely followed the normal patterns of shock, notifications, more shock. Of course, the rituals were, like everything else in our lives these days, transformed in a Covid world. A mutual friend summed it up nicely…”f***ing Covid”. We couldn’t all rush to our friend, his wife, and comfort her in person, no hugs could we offer, even knowing that nothing we offered would ease the pain, merely let her know we were pained by his loss and by her pain at his loss too.
The funeral by Zoom / Go Pro was odd but normal, unreal yet real at the same time, and I felt relatively fine during the service until my friend did her eulogy to mark his passing. Overall, I probably held it together less well than her, and when her voice wobbled near the end, I cracked and the tears came forth. I have done eulogies for my father and mother, lost it completely during my father’s and barely held it together for my mother’s. How she did it, I don’t know.
It also made me wonder horrible thoughts. Could I do one for my wife? Could I do one for my son? Would I even LET anyone else do that instead of me or would I feel it was my duty? I don’t know. There is a popular theory that doing the eulogy is a coping mechanism in and of itself, forcing your brain to accept the truth as you say the words out loud, as well as giving you something concrete to focus on. I understand the theory, and based on having done my parents’ eulogies, I think the theory was written by idiots who have never tried to eulogize someone.
My friend’s eulogy was brief, honest, raw, and brilliantly delivered. I felt honoured to hear it, to witness it, to see it, even if only virtually.
After the funeral, I took the rest of the day off work. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get any work done, as I had struggled the first day, and I wonder if it was partly an added “stress” on top of the Covid isolation that helped “break” me. Well, bend me I guess is a better term. I knew I needed to take the time and I did. Time to breathe. Time to think. Time to grieve a little.
Two days later, we attended his Shiva service by Zoom again, and I felt more or less “fine” until after the service, when people in the chat room started sharing little stories and remembrances. The rawness in their voices was hard to hear, but an important ritual, I felt, to share and be part of for our friend, for his wife, for his parents, and for us too. Up until my friend’s aunt spoke and her raw emotion wiped me out. I felt almost claustrophobic and had to leave the room, leaving Andrea to finish the chat portion. I was just completely overwhelmed.
A few days later, we did a Shiva dinner by Facetime with Aliza and our mutual friend Vivian, and we chatted amiably for two hours. An almost “fun time”, except for the cause, and a reminder that there is nothing stopping us from doing that with anyone anytime. Virtual dinner parties and chatting, even if you can’t be together in person. To be honest, I’ve thought about that a lot…we could have done those WITH Jeremy beforehand, we all had 12 weeks of isolation where we could have done those types of dinners. We did them with family, why not more with friends? But we didn’t. Busy lives, I guess, and we weren’t being “innovative” enough on the social side the same way we are with family and work. F***ing COVID, indeed.
As I said above, I am not trying to tell Jeremy’s story, but if anyone wants to read Jeremy’s obituary, it is published online:
Obviously, I have been thinking a lot in the last couple of weeks about death and “what it all means”, as they say. One thing that keeps resonating with me is the idea that all deaths are personal. It’s such a multi-faceted phrase. Of course, for the deceased, it was uniquely personal…we all face death and experience death in our own way. Our own experiences and beliefs, our own rituals, our own circumstances.
I feel it is also uniquely personal for family and friends in that Jeremy represented something different to all of us.
And while it seems selfish, I feel most of us experience the death of others in uniquely personal ways too…not just our own beliefs and rituals, but in that we often think not simply of the loss of life, or the impact on his loved ones, but also selfishly, self-centredly, of the impact on ourselves.
It’s ironic, but shortly after learning of his death, I happened to catch a rerun of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s from the first season where Tasha Yar (one of the main characters) is killed during an away mission and Data (the android without emotion) hosts/organizes the memorial service. At its end, he asks the Captain if he “got it wrong” as he has never experienced the loss of a friend before and while he thought he would be thinking of her during the service, he found himself thinking of everything he would miss for him. So he wonders if he “got it wrong” somehow, while the Captain reassures him he got it “exactly right”.
I miss Jeremy’s laugh, knowing I won’t hear it again. His sense of humour, his obvious love for Aliza, his concern for others. He’s one of those guys you think of when someone talks about an “all-around, good guy”, the ones who improve your life just by being part of it. A mensch, as they said during the service.
And part of what affected me most, as it frequently does, is the narrative arc of someone’s life. For Jeremy and Aliza, it is a compelling story of early love, separation through time and distance, rediscovery, new beginnings, being together “at last”, getting married, getting his “new life” on track with work too, and the time they have enjoyed together in recent months while working from home.
It’s a strange way to think about it, a strange phrase unique to me and my own thoughts, but almost like “At last, he has his life where he wants it to be with most of the pieces figured out”. If it was a movie, Billy Crystal could play the lead and talk about either finding his “one thing” (after Jack Palance teaches him to herd cattle) or a co-lead with Meg Ryan where he gets to tell her that “when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
A compelling narrative arc that resonates with me strongly. One analogy I saw online is like earlier investments are now paying rewards into retirement and hopefully old age.
I feel like Jeremy didn’t get to reap enough of what he sowed. And that saddens me beyond belief. Maybe it’s the personal side again, not just his loss or missed “opportunity” to grow old with Aliza, but thoughts of my own mortality.
So my thoughts turn to the “personal side” for me. Selfishly, naturally, strangely, realistically. If I step back for a moment, I see a larger arc at play. I feel like I too have been on a journey of discovery in my life. Finding a groove with my father (around 23 or so), figuring out what I wanted to do for work (around 24 or so), finding out who I wanted to be around age 29-34, figuring out the basis for an adult relationship with my mom (around age 32 or so), figuring out what I wanted in a relationship around age 33, getting married at age 40, becoming a dad at age 41.
Equally, I try to live my life with what I consider a “no regret mentality”. For example, with my dad, I knew when I went away to law school that there was a not-insignificant chance that I would end up coming home for a funeral. My father’s health was not necessarily sustainable, and things happen even when you’re in good health. So before I left, I made sure to tell both my parents that I loved them so there would be no chance of not having said it and then having one of them die on me. Each week, for both parents, I would say it before I hung up the phone. And while it was easy for my mom to hear and say, it took a while for my dad to be able to respond too. But he got there. So when he passed, while it was sad, I had no regrets. We “ended” on the best terms I had ever had with him.
It was different but similar for my relationship with my mother. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye on stuff, but I made sure that I loved her for who she was, not who I might have wanted her to be at any given time. And I didn’t alter who I was to please her or spite her or anything else. I worked hard to treat her not only as my mother, but as the woman who was born before the Great Depression, who lived through it, who helped raise her siblings, who lived through WWII and lost siblings overseas. The woman who worked retail early on, had eight pregnancies and six kids, who buried her grandparents and parents, and most of her siblings, who outlived her husband by 17 years and found her own way. I have no regrets about how we got along, and there is nothing I would change. Maybe little things here and there, sure, but those are “rounding errors” on a relationship.
And with most of those “elements” in place, I have a pretty good life and I like where it is headed. If I had a magic wand, I might play with certain things, sure, but overall, I’m pretty fortunate with everything. I have more blessings than I can count, and yet, I don’t feel like I’m done reaping the rewards either.
I’ve often wondered with my son if I should record “just in case” videos, and Jeremy’s death makes me wonder again. Something to leave for Jacob, an extra legacy to leave behind if I should die before he’s old enough to understand most of it. To pass along anything of wisdom or thoughts that might help him in difficult moments in his life. To download everything I possibly could from my brain to give to him. Except that isn’t what he needs.
He needs memories of us doing things together. Like Lego. Or video games. Or puzzles. Or simply talking.
But with the passing of Jeremy, there are other things on my “to do” list that seem to be yearning. Heck, some weren’t even on my to-do list.
Thinking about friendship and goals
I am an analytical introvert by nature, and over the last few years and with the impact of Covid, I have let myself self-isolate somewhat socially. I modified some online tests and advice to create a “social connectivity” test, which I wrote about earlier this week. (https://polywogg.ca/a-social-connectivity-test/)
I was surprised that my “nodal” number was 8-9 nodes. I thought it would be about 5. My wife maintains about 30, not including family. All of them I have seen more than once in the last two years, and I have actually done things with them at least once. Sure, most of the time it was meal-related. I was also a bit “relieved” to see that all of those friendships are ones that will survive my retirement in a few years. A friend noted that they can also be nurtured too through reconnection to expand the list, which is totally true, but it was meant more as a snapshot in time.
So whether it is Covid or the passing of Jeremy, I feel like I need to make more effort than I have. I don’t know what it looks like, but I need to get away from being on the computer by myself and “reach out” more.
I also find myself wanting to make sure I reap the rewards more while I can. Maybe that’s more time with Jacob, I still need to figure that out a bit more perhaps for the summer. I know it isn’t more time at work, that’s for sure. But I have three active siblings that I need to reach out more to as well.
I don’t know if that’s the lesson I should be learning, there are lots to choose from I suppose. But it is what I have been thinking about for the last two weeks. I don’t believe in regrets, but I wish I had learned the rest of Jeremy’s story from him before he died.
When my parents died, I comforted myself with an image of them doing something, a virtual “heaven” if you will where you get to repeat a moment in time seemingly endlessly or which simply doesn’t repeat but never ends either. For my dad, it was getting ready for a busy summer at the lake. For my mother, it was looking forward to having family around. For Jeremy? I suspect it would be something related to his relationship “at last” with Aliza. An almost John Keats-ish “Ode on a Grecian Urn” moment like the one captured on the Urn, a moment in time of two lovers about to kiss but not yet there:
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Keats went darker, I know Jeremy would go lighter. The gaiety, the expectation about to be realized. The reward for his life finally being about to be “complete” beside Aliza. For many, people would see that as a groom waiting for a bride at the end of an aisle, but to me, it comes way before that, before the planning, before the decisions and options, before even an engagement. A point when you both know, “This is it. This is the plan. This is really going to happen now.” That moment when the brain explodes at all the possibilities to come.
I don’t know that anyone else shares my view of a possible afterlife, but for me, I find those images strangely comforting. Hopeful even.
I miss you Jeremy. Happy birthday, mensch. I hope I can learn from your example and honour your memory.
I am an analytical introvert by nature, and over the last few years, I have let myself become somewhat socially isolated, partly by choice, partly by laziness, partly by circumstance. The pandemic, of course, exacerbates that condition. Even without it, though, I tend not to reach out to people to go out and do things. I do my own thing, often online, or with my family. It’s “easy” to do nothing to arrange social events when you’re an analytical introvert. It’s my default mode.
With the impact of Covid, I’ve been reading a few posts online about social connectivity, and how for many people, their network has changed over the years as they aged. At one point, it was likely their class list at school. Or a sports team they were on. Maybe later it was an address book, or perhaps an email list or contact list. But in the same vein that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook and saw it expand, many people use their social media contacts as their “network” for friends. It is often a “social calendar” tool by default.
On one site, they had the equivalent of a “social connectivity” test and while it didn’t seem very scientific, and was just as likely to lead to spamming, I liked some of the ideas built into it and decided to use my FaceBook friends list as my data set to look back at my social “connectedness” in the last two years.
This isn’t a big data set as I am, as I said, an analytical introvert. I rarely “add” people as friends on Facebook lightly, and I’ve usually kept it to around 100 for most of the years I’ve used it. Recently, I’ve “let” it creep up a bit more and it nows stand at a whopping 126 people. Now, for the test of “social connectedness”, let’s triage those numbers.
If you want to play along, I recommend going to FB, clicking on your own profile, looking at your long list of FB friends, highlighting the whole list, and pasting it into an editor or email or notepad. Then, search and replace the word FRIENDS with “” (i.e., nothing) to get rid of it, and then do the same with the word “FRIEND” (they both show up twice for every entry, this just cleans things a bit). If you want to get really aggressive, you could eliminate multiple spaces and hard returns too, but not really worth it. When you’re done, you’ll have a long list of your FB friends with a bunch of extra spacing and formatting around them, but that’s okay, you’ll be editing soon enough. Alternatively, you could just go through the categories below to see the types of people you “eliminate”, and then just count the ones who still fit, just a lot harder to do that mentally.
A. Eliminate family members
Your family may be wonderful people, you may even be friends with them, but they are not “friends” in the normal sense. So they don’t “count” towards your social node total.
For me, twenty-eight people on the FB list are family. I see them sporadically, stay in touch, but for “my side” of the family, I usually see them once or maybe twice a year. I have a brother who I actually like (not all family members like each other, you know, it’s not a law) and he lives in town, but I still only see him maybe once or twice a year. I do better on Andrea’s side of the family, but there is a family cottage that everyone goes to regularly so it’s easier to see them then. Regardless, I have to take them off the potential “nodes” list.
B. Eliminate work-only friends
The research is mixed on this area, as many people’s identity is tied to their workplace and the people who are part of their crew. Teammates. Except it is a giant red flag for most social psychologists, not as definitively bad, but as an area that has to be triaged ruthlessly.
If they are “work friends” and you don’t do anything outside of work with them (no common hobbies, get-togethers, outings, online gaming, whatever), then they don’t count. Going for beers after work doesn’t count either if it was the whole team. And just to be really BRUTAL, you have to also eliminate anyone where you only see them in an “activity” context like church or volunteering, and you never do anything with them outside that context (it is just replacing work with non-paid work or a community friend). Same with sports teams. If you don’t socialize with them separately, and after game drinks doesn’t count, then they’re off. The one exception is if it is a friend who you joined that activity with i.e. you and a friend joined a book club, or a sports team, and so that is your “outing” together. You can still count them.
For me, this is a brutal purge. Thirty-five people on my list are “work friends” or “community friends” and while I like them enough to overcome my normal desire to keep my FB list small (hehehe), I’ve never done anything outside of work or that community with them. Maybe lunch at work. At most, we’ve chatted online occasionally. Just no real connection to trigger getting together except work or the community event, I suppose.
C. Eliminate accounts that are inactive, celebrities, commercial accounts, or internet-only friends
I thought this one seemed like a strange category until I started to read through some of the examples. And realized that I do have some.
Three of them are legacy FB accounts for friends who have died. Just the other day, I posted on one for her birthday, just noting for her family that I miss my friend. I didn’t know her real well, we met online a long time ago playing trivia. I never met her in person although I did meet her daughter once. Still miss her.
Ten more are various kinds of internet friends or friends of friends who I’ve met online for various personal and professional reasons, but I’ve never “done” anything with them. Most of them I’ve never even met. Another fourteen are people I met in person and whom I regularly interact with online, but I probably won’t see them anytime soon. We’re basically internet buddies, but that is about it, perhaps by mutual neglect. We’re friendly, hard to say we’re the type who do things together. Another three or so were commercial-style accounts of writers that I follow.
D. Eliminate any accounts of friends who do not live in the same city
Before you freak out to say, “But they’re my best friends!”, you are allowed to keep them in your “social bubble” for the test, but only if they can pass an extra test. Have you seen them in-person in the last two years? Doesn’t matter why not, doesn’t matter if they moved to Timbuktu, they are basically people you cannot call up on a moment’s notice and do something with, nor have you scheduled anything with them recently. You may reconnect, you may connect every four years, you may see them at reunions or funerals, but they don’t count for the test.
Well, crap. I have twenty-one people that we used to do stuff with who have all moved out of Ottawa in recent years, either temporarily or permanent, or they just simply live in other cities already. Some of them I would see if they lived in town, they were close enough friends that they were at our small wedding, but I haven’t seen them in person in the last two years. Sigh.
E. Triage what remains
The theory is that what remains is your “core” group of friends. They are not ALL automatically in your social connectedness bubble, they’re just your core group of likely nodes.
The second last triage is to first group any of them who are “couples”. If you regularly see them separately, you can count them separately, but if you almost always see them together, it is a single “social node”.
And the final triage? Similarly to D above, you eliminate ANYONE that you haven’t done something social with in the last two years. In-person. Not just a phone call, you actually have to have seen them in-person. If you want to adjust for COVID, go back 27 months. And sorry, major group events like weddings and funerals DO NOT COUNT. Group parties where you saw 20 people DO NOT COUNT. Or at least, they count, but only for 1 node (perhaps a couple).
F. Count how many nodes you have left
For me, it leaves about nine people in total, not including a few spouses that I’m not friends with on FB, and about 7-8 nodes. All of them I have seen in the last two years and actually did something with them. Most of the time it was meal-related, admittedly, but I’ll lie to myself and say that is purely to ease scheduling, everyone has to eat.
But you know what? I’m surprised it is that high. My original estimate was about four to five. When I analyse it more closely, I see why. 4-5 of the nodes are “me” nodes, and 4-5 are “inherited” nodes from my wife’s nodes. I get an extra little “bump” in my numbers by being married to someone more social than I.
If I am converting categories correctly, the normal scale is:
Analytical introverts (“blues”) –> 1-5 nodes;
Intuitive introverts (“greens”) –> 5-10 nodes (although if they count family, it often goes to 15, and longer duration interactions);
Analytical extroverts (“reds”) –> 10-20 nodes (they lose a lot in the work/community-only friends list);
Intuitive extroverts (“yellows”) –> 25+ per year (although many encounters are short, like coffee dates);
I have no idea if that list has any accuracy whatsoever. It’s using several sources together, not any one “pure” test. But I like the fact it is giving ranges for the types, not saying “everyone should have 22 nodes”. It recognizes that blues tend to have few, but that’s okay. If they have too many, they might get stressed, if they have too few, they’re isolated. Greens might be stressed if they only have 2-3 or more than 10; similarly for reds. Yellows can get depressed if they drop below 20. They just don’t get the positive energy to keep going, apparently. There is obviously more to it than that, since you could have 3 nodes that you have seen 20 times each this year or you could have 3 nodes you only saw once each in the last two years, averaging 8 months between interactions…a very different dynamic. I do tend to hibernate over the winter.
But I find the idea interesting as I near retirement, and that is often the source of the articles (helping people plan for retirement). Because many of those other categories will fall away, leaving your immediate social nodes.
I’m happy to see that all of my “core nodes” will indeed survive retirement. But I also need to nurture them too, to be grateful they are in my life, and the time we share.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you would know that one of the latest pushes in all management circles — public, private, C-suites, academia — is to figure out how to improve workplaces so that they are supportive of good mental health. But part of that push is recognizing that we are not there yet, and even if we were, life happens outside of the workplace too, and eventually, even the most awesome place to work is going to deal with mental health issues with its employees.
Analysis without resolution
Earlier today, our branch held a half-day management discussion on mental health issues and included a desire for us all as managers to make a personal commitment to what we would “undertake” to improve our support on mental health issues. Some of them range from the obvious (don’t look at your phone while you’re talking to someone) while others are more complex (how to manage performance when there is an undiagnosed but suspected mental health issue on display). As I look at them, I start to feel like I’m doing a simple analysis without resolution. But these are the thoughts that tickle my brain.
One of our conversations was around the type of mental health issue. For example, something that is a one-off is often easier to respond to, as it is clear what the cause is, and even what some of the options are to help. At least insofar as you are helping as a manager with the “incident”/”episode”. By contrast, it is often more difficult when it is either not obvious what the issue is or where it is ongoing. So, a death in the family might prompt obvious responses for sympathy, leave, etc., while prolonged grief presents more challenges for the manager to know how to help, or even in some cases, whether to help at all.
But even the episodic can prove challenging. At one point in my career, one of our young staff was travelling for work here in Canada, and had an allergic reaction to something she ate, ending up in the hospital. To me, everything seemed stable, and she was an adult…the situation sucked, but I didn’t think we had any role to play other than staying in touch with her. For me, it was only marginally different than if she had gotten sick in Ottawa. Yet my director was going out of her way (in my view) to help her mother figure out how to get there to be with her, etc. Even looking into whether or not we could pay for the trip. By instinct, I would have done none of that. For me, it seemed like we were actively intervening in her life, in her business, and I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that. Yet tragedy struck. The young woman had a seizure and died. Suddenly it didn’t seem like our involvement was enough.
To the extent I can separate out the tragedy from the work side of things, some of it still bothers me in the abstract. Does the age of the person factor into my role as a manager? Should I be more aggressive intervening for a younger employee than an older employee? Would I decide on my role on the basis of whether or not they were married? Surely if it is right to intervene for one employee, it can’t be their age or marital status that determines my role? And while this was a physical health issue, would it make a difference if it was a mental health one?
Way back when I was starting in government, I had a co-worker who was about the same age. She was bright, articulate, good interpersonal skills, a work friend and a good colleague. Her dwelling was struck by lightning while she was having a shower, and she was jolted. In short, it messed her up. What seemed at first like it was a simple physical recovery problem became evident that it was more than that, a combination of concussion-like symptoms mixed with paranoia. I noticed she seemed more pessimistic than normal, but that’s all I noticed. But her supervisor noticed the paranoia and called her parents who took her back home to help her heal. Would I have intervened enough to call her parents? Was it because she was single that our role as coworkers and friends changed? If she had been married, would our role have been simply to ask the spouse, perhaps, if they had noticed something?
I find myself often thinking about this role as manager in helping staff who are off on extended sick leave. In the Government of Canada, our benefits and rules basically give you up to 2 years of medical leave if needed, without pay. At the end of two years, you have to “resolve your leave situation”. This means one of four things:
Return to work, with a doctor signing off you’re not only okay to come back but with any accommodation issues that need to be addressed;
Retire, if you have enough years in to do so;
Medical retirement, which usually requires you to have a different amount of years of service plus a medical evaluation that says you are still unable to work currently with an indeterminate time remaining for recovery, if at all (i.e., in other words, you aren’t well enough to work and they have no timeline to suggest when you might be);
Now take, for example, an employee who is off for leave because of a head injury or mental health concerns. They can’t work because they can’t concentrate, maybe their judgement is impaired, they are dealing with health issues plus the extra emotional and psychological burden of doing so, and one of their key “grounding” networks and routines i.e. work and the workplace is no longer part of their life. Yet as a manager, at the first instance of being on sick leave, and again at 12m, 18m, and 23m, I have to write to the employee and say, “Hey, by the way, while you’re dealing with all of that, here are 20 pages of dense documents to read and then decide what you’re doing with your life”.
On multiple occasions, I have had employees that I was managing come to me and say, “What should I do?”. Except my role is both to manage them and represent the organization. If I lead them through the decision points, and they aren’t able to return to work, aren’t old enough/haven’t served enough to take regular retirement, and don’t qualify for medical retirement, then their last choice is to quit, yet I could be accused of trying to get rid of them by helping them figure that out.
This is why labour relations will quickly tell you not to do that, and instead point them to their union, the Employee Assistance Program, their family, etc., instead of helping directly. I can explain the options, tell them what they CAN do, but avoid any semblance where I am telling them what TO do. And yet, I am their manager. Part of that job is helping them understand their options, making informed decisions, whether that be training, applying for or accepting new jobs, etc. Yet in this situation, there’s an inherent conflict of interest in roles. Equally, referring them to the union or EAP isn’t exactly a slam dunk that they will get the help they need.
If that sounds too abstract, let me give you an example, which I will combine aspects from different experiences into a single case. Suppose you have an employee who is on extended sick leave. They come to you at one point, they have all their medical forms with them, and they’re trying to figure out which work forms plus which medical forms need to be submitted. Equally, you also know, because they told you, that a friend is going to take them on a vacation to get away from the stress at home, and they’re going to go down south for a week. And they want to know if that’s a problem for their leave benefits. So they’re asking you (a) which medical forms need to go with which work forms and so they’re sharing medical forms that you don’t need to see and probably shouldn’t and (b) asking if they should tell the insurance company they’re going down south or will that create an impression they’re not really sick. As a manager, you now have more information than you need to or should have; an employee is asking you to help them file for their sick benefits, which if you get wrong, will no doubt come back and bite you because the “manager told them to file it that way”; and, they’re asking you for ethical guidance on how to manage information with their insurance company, which would also bite you whether you tell them to tell or not tell the insurance company.
At times, it can feel like the movie War Games. The only way to win the game is not to play.
On top of that, I as a manager, have never had any training to help deal with someone in that situation. Sure, I reached out to Labour Relations for assistance and they walked me through what I needed to do, but there is a large gap between the formal guidance in the abstract and the specific management on the ground when the employee that you manage is sitting in front of you.
One thing that I do believe in quite strongly as a manager is my “duty” to you if you’re my employee. It starts when I’m interviewing or recruiting you, long before you’re hired, and it even continues past when you stop working for me. Our journey together starts before you report to me and it continues after you stop reporting to me. It starts with seeing if working for me is even the right fit for both of us, and it continues with helping you with career decisions after you leave, if desired.
Yet I struggle with knowing where the line is between my role as manager to you as an employee, and my role as manager to you as simply a human who needs help. Where the line between work relationship and almost personal relationship is blurred by issues of your personal health. At the very least, the premise of “First do no harm” has to guide all actions, but that is not enough. But I’m not sure it’s simply an empowerment model either.
After I go through all those little prickly threads, while still not knowing where my full duty or boundaries lie, it doesn’t change the fact that I still have to “act”. Oddly enough, I don’t find that decision particularly hard, as we frequently have to implement decision models with imperfect information. Canada Life has supported a simple guide for acting as manager, and I really liked a few aspects of it, partly as they articulated some of my thoughts far better than I had imagined. Their page is here: https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/managing-workplace-issues/supportive-performance-management
The first element to me as a manager is to LISTEN. To be open to hearing what they have to say. The link above has this captured as COMMUNICATE WITHOUT JUDGEMENT, which is a nice way of viewing it. But I feel there is a small piece missing. In order for that communication or discussion to happen, the employee has to be willing to open up and share their situation. Often, the focus in these management discussions is on the importance of de-stigmatizing the issue of mental health. “Let’s Talk”, “Break the Silence”, “Don’t Judge”, “Welcome Diversity”. All of which are great. But I find myself looking at the hesitancy and I am not convinced the stigma is the main reason that some remain silent.
I think most employees know enough about their diagnosis and their problems to find a way to explain it in a way they will be comfortable doing so. They know they have a problem. They may not know the words for it, or how to describe it exactly, but they know they are having a problem and they know their own symptoms. And if they are in the mindset that they should “be a man!” or just “suck it up, buttercup”, that’s them feeling like their problems should be manageable and they’re feeling weak if they ask for help. Stigma, sure. But to have a conversation, they have to overcome two other barriers.
If they can overcome their sense of stigma, the second element is that they have to be willing to have a difficult conversation. Yet nobody likes them, there’s a reason why people put them off in their personal or professional lives. It’s uncomfortable. There are courses on “how to have a difficult conversation.” There are marriage counsellors whose practice consists extensively in helping people do that. So they need to be able to not just break the silence but also break the ice. Doing that with someone “above” you at work, who has power over you, or at least with a power imbalance between you, is even more difficult. Some of that is just uncertainty…they don’t know what to expect. Even calling a support network like the EAP program is beyond some people. Because they don’t know what to expect, they won’t call.
A friend of mine was in that situation. She didn’t really know what they did, how it worked, etc., even though she had heard of it lots of times. She felt she wasn’t in crisis so it likely wasn’t appropriate, etc. Once I explained my experience calling them, and how it had worked, she was like, “Oh, that’s easy enough.” And she called. Would she have called otherwise? I don’t know. But there are not only tons of employees who don’t know, but there are also a large number of MANAGERS who don’t know either, and yet as a manager, they’re encouraged to refer people there for help. How can you effectively refer people if you don’t know what they’ll do to help?
Third, even if you accept that you can get past the stigma and are willing to have a difficult conversation, you still have to overcome the issue that you are about to have a conversation with someone at work about something that is extremely personal. There is nothing I can think of more personal than what is happening inside your body. Yet here you are about to discuss it all with your boss.
Let’s ignore mental health for a moment. Instead, let’s make it a bit simpler. Let’s say it is simply a genetic health issue, maybe a heart murmur. You have had it all your life, but it’s been “murmuring” more than usual of late, and your doctor recommends surgery. Yet you work a high-paced job and you have to go tell your boss that you have a heart condition that requires surgery. No stigma, it’s genetic not a lifestyle, not serious, not terminal, but suddenly you have to tell your boss that you have this genetic thing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just tell your boss the minimum they need to know, don’t overshare, all good. Except here’s the thing. If you don’t share details with the boss, they don’t know how to help you, or if they even need to do so. And their response is likely to be different if you tell them you’re having wisdom teeth out, treating hemorrhoids, or having heart surgery.
Yet let’s now make it that you’re dealing with grief over the loss of your parent. Most people would respond with sympathy and support, because of your obvious loss. But you’re really emotional, and you overshare that it’s more complicated than that because he sexually abused you as a kid. Holy Hannah, yes, that’s going to mess you up. And your boss probably doesn’t need to know that, but they do now, and they realize it’s not just bereavement grief. It may not even be grief at all. And their “role” in supporting you shifts from normal platitudes about a loss to realizing they have no clue how to help you. But they DO know you’re going through some stuff, and it’s not light crap either. So they are going to be more supportive when you come to them on a day’s notice and say you can’t cover some event you were supposed to cover. If your boss doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s harder for them to know how to react. They have no barometer to know how serious the storm is for you, and if you aren’t comfortable telling them, it’s hard for them to manage.
Let me move away from that emotionally charged world. When my son was born, my wife’s water partially broke at 26w. All our plans for a so-called normal birth went out the window, and we were in the world of “hang on, delay delivery until as long as possible”, which turned out to be 36w, 5d because my wife is a rockstar and kept him safe with bed rest. One difficult birth later, NICU for two weeks, lots of issues around feeding, etc. Short version? I didn’t work more than 3d straight for almost six months. Emergencies, appointments, something pulled me out of the office. I felt like the most unreliable employee ever, and I derive a lot of self-identity from being good at my job. But I told my boss what was going on and why. And he got it. It was understandable, easy to see, and thus easy to be as supportive as possible. If I hadn’t told him what was going on, he would have just seen me being completely unreliable for six months. Missing a lot of work on short notice. Leaving in the middle of the day for appointments. Having mood swings and being less tolerant of normal levels of BS in the office. Hard for him to be supportive if he doesn’t know what is going on. Hard for him to manage around too.
And every time I have shared my reasons with my bosses, and what is going on, how I’m trying to cope and still get work done, they have been awesome. They understand and can figure out how to help, or at least show they understand. Work still has to get done, but they get it.
So for me, the first commitment is to LISTEN, ENCOURAGE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS, and be WILLING TO SHARE MY OWN EXPERIENCES. So they know that I’m not some automaton.
Another key component that I sometimes struggle with articulating when dealing with employees, even if just about performance, is the difference between listening and validating. While I want to listen, I don’t want to necessarily reinforce their thinking about something if it doesn’t seem reasonable. I may not have a role in their interpretation in their personal life, but I do have a role when it comes to working.
I have listened to people vent, and I sometimes liken it to the difference between symptoms and diagnosis. For example, I have seen people witness a rather innocuous behaviour from their boss, misinterpret it, wrap it in some grand conspiracy theory with all the bells and whistles, and suddenly the boss must think they are the worst employee ever, not capable of anything. And what was the transgression? The director said good morning to someone else and not them as they passed by. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.
Often the “evidence” is warped to confirm a bias they already think is true, and yet while I listen, I often will say I agree with certain “evidentiary facts”, but not the interpretation of them, nor the conclusion as to motivation. I can validate that they are feeling a certain way, but I try not to validate their reasoning if I think it is “off”. The link above has this captured perfectly — “separate acknowledging from agreeing“. Exactly.
But for me, even after LISTENING and ACKNOWLEDGING, that just makes me good at interpersonal relations. I still have to do the next step which is MANAGE.
What do I have at my disposal to manage?
The go-to solution for most managers is often to offer/approve leave. To my mind, that’s a valuable tool, but it is not the only one in the toolbox. I also manage my relationship with the employee and those around them. Maybe it is as simple as checking in with them regularly to see how they’re doing; maybe it is just asking them how they would like me to check in with them (i.e., for employees on leave, the guidance from Labour Relations is to set up a protocol with the absent employee about how often and in what form they want to communicate with their boss to manage the leave situation).
I can also manage workloads, although sometimes it is the type of work more so than the level of work (some might want slower pace research projects, others might more task-oriented process items). Performance still has to be done, of course, but like with workloads, that could be about focusing on certain manageable precise outcomes that they feel they can address (perhaps quantitative over qualitative goals). For the work environment, it is often easier to try things like lower lights or quiet spaces, while work arrangements often look like flexible hours or working remotely.
In addition, I manage people and that includes, as I said above, before they start working for me until after they stop working for me, and how I manage them affects their mental health as much as other factors. Integrity, personal respect, communication styles, visioning, all are obvious elements. And finally, I can spend money on training, indirectly on the EAP services, or even a coach if it would help.
Lots of other things I can do besides simply approving leave.
For me, it isn’t really a unique challenge that requires unique tools. The tools are the same, and the job is the same, even if the combination of tools is different.
To me, I’m hired to manage, not to ignore things or just do what is easy. If one of my employees has a physical issue or a mental health issue or a technical issue, my job is still the same…to manage, to figure out how I can help, and to decide what is the proper role for me to do that.
Words. That’s mostly what my blog is. Just words. Once in awhile I include some photos, maybe a table or a graph, but mostly just words. And while words can have power, be given power, be powerless, or be used by powerful people, in the end, they are still just words. And words don’t scare me. Not really. They are my friends. They comfort me. Finding the right phrase or word is like falling in love.
While some topics or issues might scare me, I’ve found ways to deal with those fears, partly by using my words to take away their power. To identify them, to shine light on them, to drag the fear of change, the fear of success or failure, the fear of conflict, even the fear of fear into the bright light of a post. To say that the fear that hides in the shadows will not hold power over me, that it will no longer dictate my actions.
But, again, even the sharpest and most insightful post is just words. I have written five posts over the last five weeks talking about my weight loss plan, 16,662 words in total. And another 11,665 writing about Jeffrey Kottler’s book “Change” and what it meant to me in terms of my goal-setting, mostly informing my approach to being ready to commit. Twenty-eight thousand words. Just words.
Words that allowed me to feel like I was committing to weight loss while still letting the biggest scariest piece continue to lurk in the shadows. Words that I was afraid to openly write, but once having posted them, I could then pat myself on my head like a good little boy who was owning up to his fears, making a bold step forward into the light.
But they are just words, while the scariest part of the journey mocks me from the dark, laughing at my tears and struggles as if I have felt anything resembling the pain that it is capable of inflicting. A dead-cat bounce that lifts me up temporarily from the depths of being fat, but just as with stocks on the stock market, the rise of a dead cat bounce might be only a preface to dropping back into the darkness below.
Because I know that the battle is joined, and I wasn’t joking when I said it was an all-out war. My whole body is fighting back. Aches in places that shouldn’t ache, phantom pains in some cases. Cold and flu symptoms trying to settle in. Old depression-like symptoms trying to bring down my energies, reduce my will to keep fighting.
Even my mental processes are trying to trick me…suggesting, for example, that I should stay late in order to finish a project at the office, appealing to my sense of professionalism and dedication, suggesting a good Puritan work ethic approach. Except that isn’t the reason for my body making the suggestion. It is suggesting that I stay late to finish the project because it knows that if I stay late, I’ll probably stop for food on the way home. Comfort food after a long day. Fries maybe. A possibility of ice cream, my Kryptonite.
However, I knew those self-deceptions were coming, just as I knew that as my stress increased, my brain would suggest giving myself an evening off, maybe going out and just reading and relaxing. And fries wouldn’t be bad once in awhile, would they? It’s about moderation, not a maniacal pursuit of perfect deprivation, isn’t it? Except it wasn’t suggesting a night out to benefit me, it was a self-trick to go out and eat unhealthy things that are not on my diet.
Heck, even with my posts, I have known that at some point I would have to talk about today’s topic somewhere around week 4 or 5, and I delayed it until week 6. Yet my brain has been throwing up lots of other topics that, perhaps, I could write about BEFORE I write about the scary stuff. Get some more momentum, perhaps? My body is trying to delay and postpone because as long as I let today’s scary stuff hide, I never hit rock bottom.
My body’s latest trick is to overwhelm me with demanding I respond and cover lots of events all at once, in the hope that I’ll lose my commitment and simply relapse for a week or two. Pick it up after Xmas, maybe, hmm? A friend expressed the hope that perhaps I can make peace with my body, which I would like to believe is possible at some point. But any peace I made with it now would be like Neville Chamberlain stepping off a plane waving a signed piece of paper committing to peaceful co-existence, while my body secretly plots ways to raid every fast-food joint in Poland.
Some experts believe that people will and can only change when they hit rock bottom. In my case, that could have been a heart attack for example, but I didn’t have that traumatic “event”. It is just me getting to the point where my fear of not doing anything has overcome my fear of doing something.
But this is a series about weight loss. And you can’t just blog about weight loss without talking about the elephant in the room. Which isn’t just a pun, I’m literally the size of a small elephant. That’s right. I have to talk about my actual weight.
Numbers, not words. And if I truly want to scare the shit out of myself, I have to go one step further. Photos.
Even my therapist thinks that is probably a step too far. After all, most people don’t want to hit rock bottom. But the fear I feel, the emotions I have been feeling for the last few weeks in dread of this week’s post, they all tell me that the fear and the shame are still there. Hiding in the shadows, mocking me, laughing at me. Because not talking about my actual weight, not showing the evidence and the proof of my descent, allows me to hide behind the words.
It has been wreaking havoc on every aspect of my personality over the last two weeks. I met with my therapist last Wednesday, and we were mostly talking about other stressors in my life, a delaying tactic that helps me avoid talking about this. When we finally got to it, or more accurately, when *I* finally got to it, I lost my shit inside of 90 seconds. Tears, almost hyper-ventilating, having to use every calming technique I know to stop myself from panicking or becoming near hysterical. 90 seconds later, I was fine. 60 seconds after that, another emotional release. I couldn’t talk about it. I can blog about anything, apparently, but live discussion? No way in hell. Not about my ACTUAL weight. My body knows if I do, then it’s real, and I won’t be able to go back once openly discussed.
And as long as this particular dragon can hide in a cave, the last vestiges of pride and denial keeping it warm, mocking me, I have zero chance of success. I cannot do it without confronting the reality. No retreat, no surrender, nothing I won’t do to slay this dragon. I have to wrestle it in the harsh light of day, not let it distract me with whispers from the shadows.
There are three things I’m going to do to ensure that the dragon has nowhere left to hide, i.e., to ensure that all my known demons are on display.
A. First and foremost, I have to talk about my weight
The actual number. I mentioned previously that I vaguely remember breaking 200 pounds when I was in my teens. Mostly I remember consoling myself that I wasn’t “over 200” for awhile, and then when I broke it, it was easy to deny and ignore. Later I pushed up to around 250 pounds in the mid-90s. I dropped back down shortly to 230 when I was doing some martial arts, but slowly rose to 270-280 by the time I was married. And while I crept up during the next eight years, I was consoling myself that I wasn’t “over 300”.
Then two years ago, I switched to using a BIPAP machine for sleep apnea. I was kind of hoping for the standard reaction of most people to using such a machine — many of them lose 15-20 pounds. Sounded great. Except there is a small percentage that GAINS weight while using it. Guess which group I was in? Yep, I gained. Fast. Almost 45 pounds in eight weeks of using it. I didn’t mention the sudden gain before in the what changed post, but it was a contributing factor.
I suddenly started feeling my weight. Movements that were uncomfortable. More winded climbing stairs. Less active generally. More problems with my feet.
Then in June, I made the commitment. I would lose weight. I needed a plan, and over the summer, I crafted one. I did a few things to help myself, put in place a few pieces including meeting with the doctor to get a health assessment. And on September 15th, I decided it was time. I needed an official weigh-in. Holy f***, it is hard to believe I’m about to write it out and share it, but here goes.
My official starting point, and my highest weight ever:
If you want context, a baby elephant usually only weighs 200 pounds at birth. So I’m almost the size of two baby elephants.
Or in practical terms, the largest friend you have and have ever had. Maybe an exception or two, but not many.
And yes, I’m ashamed to say that (or type it).
In fact, I’ve never even shared that number with Andrea, my wife. The only people who knew it before today was my doctor and her nurse. And now anyone can see my pathetic starting point.
I was ashamed when I was close to 300, and then I jumped over it dramatically in what seemed like an overnight weight gain. I didn’t talk about the gain before because I couldn’t without talking about the actual numbers. 50 pounds higher than the previous weight that I already thought was too big, and at the time, that I thought was the largest I would ever be. Which means my first real goal is to get back under 300 pounds.
B. Photos don’t lie
If you’ve ever battled with any weight issues, you know that the camera is rarely your friend. Lots of photos are, in the nicest terms, less than flattering. When I got married in 2008, I knew there would be lots of photos taken of me. I was concerned about how I would look in them, and even though I had a nice suit to hide the flab, I was worried about my face being too pudgy or my double and triple chin showing up. So the photographer found a great spot for a photo, and by altering the pose a little so I was leaning forward and looking up, my face doesn’t show the pudginess in the official photo. Nor my neck.
At the time, I thought it was one of the few recent photos that I liked and one of the best I had ever had taken of me. But now that I have committed to weight loss, I don’t want photos that hide the way I look, I want them to show me in my worst possible light. Shame to help motivate me to change.
So I had Jacob take some really stark photos of me. I put on a pair of shorts that are less than flattering, and took off everything else. I let my body hang, not trying to stand up really straight or suck my gut in. Full frontal shot, both sides, and I already had a crappy photo of my face and neck. Maybe some day I’ll jokingly refer to these as the “BEFORE” photos, but regardless, they are me at my absolute worst. There is no dignity left in me when looking at these photos, and sharing them is absolute rock bottom for me. Short of a heart attack or death, I can’t see how I could go lower (well, without taking off the shorts and NOBODY needs to see that).
Well, that’s not quite true. I was already previously lower. I didn’t think about photos when I started, so I didn’t take the first photos until October 31st, week 20 of my new commitment and only a couple of weeks into my real commitment and attempts to improve. And by that time, I had good news. I had already lost just over 25 pounds. Which I was pretty happy about. I’ll talk more about that next week, but I don’t want to hide the fact that this is NOT me at my worst, this is me after I have had a bit of success.
I’ve made the full frontal one the lock screen on my phone and my tablet so that I’m confronted with them daily. Nowhere to hide. And when I’m done posting this, I’ll wait a day and then I’ll make the frontal photo my profile pic in FB. No hiding, no surrender until the goal is accomplished. The only way I get to change it is if I want to replace it with newer photos as I make progress.
C. Regular monitoring and reporting
Not only do I have to admit my starting point, I have to say how I’m doing on a bunch of metrics. Weight. Measurements. BMI. Activities. All of it. I have to show my work, so to speak, and not be afraid of it. Today is the first day for that. More stuff to follow next week. My goal is to update stuff every two weeks, and I’m hoping if I lag a bit, it will take a bit of the sting out of it.
Where does this leave me?
A week ago, it left me in tears. Just the thought of it. But something odd happened over the last week. I’ve been writing these blogs a bit in advance, basically over the course of the week from last Wednesday to today. And I finished the bulk of this one last Thursday when I was still quite raw about it.
So for me, in a sense, it’s like I posted it a week ago. It just wasn’t public. Not really, but it seems like it, if that makes any sense? Anyway, for me, it means I’ve been living with it for a week already. The scary shit of actually SHARING this stuff with the world. Giving up nearly the last vestiges of pride or self-respect I have for myself and my body. Like I said, nowhere to hide.
It sounds like a cliché to say it leaves me exposed. Vulnerable. On display and shameless.
Or maybe I’m just using that self-shame against itself. I can live with that, I guess. And I’ve realized this week that I can live with sharing the photos after all. It’s still scary AF, but numbers and photos do not hold power over me. They are what they are.
I hid for 50 years, 20 weeks. It’s time I learned to live in the light.