Contact Lenses and PTSD: Surprising Connections

As part of my on-going Middle Age Immersion, I have been experimenting with bifocal contact lenses. I had little hope of them actually working and had preemptively begun the worrying-process about what I’d do when they failed me. There is no way these things should work for anyone, in my humble opinion.

I’ve had corrective lenses since I was in the fourth grade and have always gotten new lenses from the eye doctor when my eyes are not functioning as I expect. Despite this focus, ehem, on eyes, so much of how the body works comes back to the brain and so too with the eyes. Consider how a bifocal contact lens works: the near-focus and the and far-focus portions of the lens are in front of the pupil at the same time, meaning the brain has to determine which parts of the lens to use to get the best image resolution.

I was marveling at my brain and its tricky ways, enjoying the morning sunlight, as I headed to work on Monday. I maneuvered onto 880 during the morning rush (short-merge, road construction, freight-truck-wheels-at-eye-level to the left and a cement wall to the right, white knuckle-anxiety chaser to my morning cuppa joe), just as the California Report on KQED aired a story on the use of meditation with combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The part of the story that really captivated me was when the therapist leading the vets through a guided meditation kept repeating the phrase “…and they’re just like me…” So for example, “I’m walking out of a grocery store and the person behind me drops a jar of pickles that sounds like a bomb. He’s a guy getting his groceries and he’s just like me.”

The idea, if I understood it correctly, is that PTSD impacts the way the brain works, making the part that helps us experience compassion for others take a backseat to the fight/flight part of the brain. By gently leading the veterans through everyday challenging situations and providing them a different way of processing that information, guided meditation helps them re-build or restore the use of their brains’ compassion centers.

Although I am not a combat vet and do not, so far as I know, have PTSD, I have diagnosed myself with a condition I call Patience Deficit Disorder. I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one who has it. I think many people suffering this affliction are my blood relatives, but my research methods are not scientific. The condition, as manifested by me, is most pronounced when I am behind the wheel.

While listening to the PTSD meditation story, I realized that using the same mantra could be the antidote for my PDD. As I was already feeling tense from my perilous morning commute, I started using the mantra right away and it seems to have been very helpful this week. For example, when I’m merging onto an insane freeway during rush hour, I tell myself that the people in those cars are just like me. When someone changes lanes in front of me and stops quickly, “the person in that car is just like me.” When some lost driver sits through a green light, makes their turn at the end of the yellow, and leaves me at the red, I know the person in that car is just like me. When I am late, in the wrong lane, or lost, I appreciate a little compassion from my fellow drivers on the road we share.

Perhaps compassion is the antidote for many of the challenges that tax our minds and souls?

Mardi Gras

It feels like every day is Fat-One-Day-Or-Another around the office lately. First the holidays and then the Valentine’s Day dessert party, and today there are cookies. It’s like we can’t stop ourselves any more.

When the clock strikes 6, it’s time to transition to the evening vices. It’s beer o’clock! It’s the working person’s reward for cubicle cramp, mental malaise, the paltry palate of the live long work day. Beer, it’s not just for breakfast anymore, as the cute little refrigerator magnets say.

So here we are, Mardi Gras. Not being Catholic, not being from nor ever having been to New Orleans, I’ve never wholeheartedly celebrated either Mardi Gras or Lent. But this year, it feels like someone has to put her food down. Foot, I mean put her foot down. On something. Just one thing.

Either the sugar or the beer would hurt at one time of day or the other. Probably beer would hurt more, because it’s also a social activity, a reason to go out, an aid to conversation (up until a certain point, when it isn’t, of course). It provides an excuse to venture off to some new venue or neighborhood–an adventure!

Should “the giving up” be less painful, and therefore more likely to succeed? Or should the deprivation be more painful, making it more significant, and  perhaps more thought-provoking?

If you were me, what would you give up?

Do you know the trees in your neighborhood?

I woke up this morning to the sound of chainsaws and my first thought was, “Oh dear. I hope there’s not going to be an incident.”

I’ve given a lot of thought to Trees. I have a list of Writing Ideas and one topic is “The Trees in my Life.” Apparently, I have had some pretty strong ties to trees through the years.

There was a specific cluster of pine trees where I’d go & hide when I was little. They were so close together that in the center, the ground was bare, save a carpet of pine needles. It was the coziest imaginary home! There was a maple that I loved to climb, and I spent hours pretending that it was my sky rise apartment in some big city where my life was very cool, never mind I’d never been to a city nor in a really tall building!

When, at last, I did live in a real city studio apartment (just one floor up, though), there was a huge redwood tree growing in the tiny backyard. It felt like the solid long-term resident who kept everything cool in the ‘hood. Its hugeness turned down the volume of the honking soundtrack speeding by around us and was a thriving ecosystem to hummingbirds, sparrows, bees and the like. I don’t think I could have lived there, save for that calming presence.

Trees, specifically and generally, are important to me. Their souls speak to my soul, if you will. And while, for example, I presume my tree hugging friend John Dennis might feel the presence of these gentle giants in a personal way, I hadn’t extended that thinking out to the general public. I didn’t really consider that this type of love for trees might be present in the hearts of my neighbors.

Until the chainsaw incident last spring.

I was walking down the driveway, coming home from work, and could hear the busy work of a chainsaw in one of the several backyards adjoining ours. When I stood on our steps to go into the kitchen, I could see across the way a big bare area in the three-story high pine tree. I hadn’t known what the houses over there looked like until this moment. Now that they had a straight view to my kitchen, I presumed they’d be getting to know us pretty well, at least the versions of us in our pajamas with crazy bed head making coffee like zombies. Hope they wouldn’t mind if I didn’t wave to them or anything, I thought with a mental smirk & a sigh. Urban living; we’re all in this together, like it or not.

And then one of my other neighbors got home and began screaming at whoever was holding the chainsaw. Police were called. City government was called. Threats were made. Real tears were shed. I heard all of this from my backyard and I shared the sentiment, not knowing the people or who was lawfully on the right side of the situation.

Then there was the Halloween massacre.

Alameda is an island. It most closely resembles Mayberry RFD. I love this about it, not that it can’t be a little oppressive. It’s quaint. It’s a small community. We have tree-lined streets and small shops & restaurants. You can walk places.

Park Street, business and tree-lined, is where most commerce occurs. In places, the trees were very large and the sidewalks rather small for such a bustling area. The city government had public planning meetings a few years ago (before I lived there) and it was agreed that they would widen the sidewalks and re-plant urban-appropriate trees.

One day in October, without prior communication to the island-dwellers, they cut down every tree in the primary 3-block section of Park.  The island-dwellers cried out in horror. Police were called. City Hall was called. We spoke harshly and with disgust. Memorial candles and handwritten notes were placed on stumps, lamenting the lives that had been lost. On Halloween, ghosts of the trees of Alameda floated up and down the block, rattling their lifeless dried leaves.

I woke up this morning to the sound of chainsaws. It reminded me of how much we share, whether it be environment, quietude, landscape, or cherished friendships in unexpected places. Despite our separate little plots and acres, we really are in this together. And “we” is a lot more inclusive than you might think.