des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, Iowa, life, mental health, obesity, People, Unemployment

A throughly restless spring break

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

One day, hopefully soon, I will write an update and it will be lovely.

I’ll talk about my new teaching job and how I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll go on about how well my arthritic knees are responding to aquatic therapy.

I might have even lost a few pounds.

Surely my mental health will have improved.

One day.

I hope.

This isn’t that day.

I hoped spring break, which ends Monday, would be a time for rejuvination.

I picked up a chest cold at school the last week before break. My doctor diagnosed it as an inflammation of my asthma. She prescribed a steroid inhaler.

The inhaler works great except for one side effect: It plays hell on my anxiety.

Such a side effect normally tortures me enough in more steady times.

These aren’t steady times.

I’m trying to finish graduate school, earn my teaching license, and survive on the thinnest of financial margins.

I made it through midterm. I received my report. I talked it over with my mentor teacher and my supervising teacher. It seemed a fair assessment. 

I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but my mentor teacher and the Drake professor overseeing student teaching assured me that my development was on par with where they expect novice teachers to be at this point in student teaching.

Alas, a brain affected by acute anxiety rejects positive information. I’ve written before that most problems occur in the space between emotional reaction and intellectual understanding. Feelings overrun facts and thoughts run haywire.

I took the midterm and my wild thoughts decided I had already failed as a teacher and that I was going to die broke and alone and my nest dispatch would be from temporary housing at a YMCA.

I didn’t do this on purpose. It’s just a bad thinking pattern developed as a survival method to deal with childhood trauma. It’s the same bad thinking that leads me to overeat to morbid obesity.

So when the steroids hit the bloodstream with already jangled nerves, that was cherry bomb in the toilet. Everybody I’m in close contact with knew I was depressed and tried to assure me I was going to be OK. My teachers tried. Parents 2.0 tried. Friends tried.

The trouble is they used intellectual reasoning and the chemical malfunction I was dealing with mucks up emotional reactions.

The combination of physical illness and mental health struggles put me to sleep for the first four days of spring break.

My therapist finally helped me reason out the situation and come down from the rush of negative emotions.

Then I got my vaccine booster shot. That made me sick with fever and chills for about three days. I suppose a few miserable days are a good trade for avoiding the full force of a potentially lethal virus infection, particularly with my comorbidities, but it’s still no fun.

So spring break week has come and gone and all the books I was going to read for fun and all the schoolwork I was going to accomplish remain in the same state they were before break began.

There’s a possibility that would have happened even if I had been healthy, but I want to believe my better intentions would have prevailed if I wasn’t fighting a double- or sometimes triple-whammy of health problems.

There is a bit of good news. A friend of mine, a fellow former paragraph stacker, left the trade to become a lawyer. He reviewed the administrative law judge’s rejection of my appeal for a special benefits program that would extend my unemployment.

He and his boss offered some suggestions for an appeal, but my friend told me the appeals judges almost always side with the administrative law judges.

But an appeal costs me nothing but time. I appealed. The state is moving in its usually speedy way. The form says it could take up to 75 days. I would guess that figure will be doubled and add five more days for that.

I did my taxes. That was a brutal bummer. I’m due a refund from the feds that will be completely wiped out by my tax bill in Iowa. So the hope that a tax refund would keep me in rent, groceries, and gas for a month or so dwindles.

Some hope rests in some federal government deciding what income might be declared tax exempt because of the pandemic disaster. My tax software company says the feds haven’t decided this yet. No rush. Taxes are due in less than a month. 

Why would we expect the federal government to serve the people in any speedier fashion than any other government?

Ah, but why bother with politics at a time like this.

As my friend Todd often reminds me, the only way through troubles is straight through them.

I hate to trouble all of you again with my tales of woe. I hope you know how much each of you has helped me. These contributions have kept afloat during one of the most challenging times in my life. 

I’m learning to be a teacher while I’m also learning to live with the disability from my arthritic knees and facing financial struggle. It’s a lot of stuff to worry about all at once and, frankly, sometimes it gets to me.

But you people, you floor me. I don’t know many of you personally. I dare say I don’t know most of you personally. Yet you give and give. You send positive messages.

I hear the negative ones, both in my own thoughts and from others. 

I want you to know how much your letters have touched me, how much your faith in me becoming a good teacher keeps me going when the doubts mount.

And, yes, money is important. I wish I never had to talk about money, but we live in the real world. The electric bill is due every month, just like the rent, insurance, and other bills.

I’m hanging in there. I live frugally. I clip coupons now. OK, an app does it for me, but I never did before. 

So, this is a day I wish never comes, a day in which again I ask for your help. I need your support. Don’t overextend yourself for me; your first duty is always to yourself. 

For those who do help, I will remind you of the promise I’ve made many times before: I will become a teacher and eventually a very good one. I will pass on all that I have learned about writing and creativity and passion for a craft. I will be honest, tender my truths with kindness, and be the person you believe me to be.

And one day, soon, I hope, this will be a different kind of message.

Blessings to you all.

Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.
Meal Train: https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/5ek08z/updates/


Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

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des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, Iowa, life, mental health, obesity

How I learned the real meaning of generosity

My friend Tyler is faithful Lutheran. He became my friend out of a Christian act of kindness in March 1991 and we have remained so despite the different paths our lives have taken. He is married to his sweetheart, Sarah. They have two daughters.

Tyler and I differ on a great many things, but we both believe in moderation, grace, and kindness. His grace toward me has been an especially great gift during my recent struggles with health, school, money, and so on.

Tyler happened to text me on a particularly stressful day a few weeks back. My unemployment had run out and there was a problem with my student loans at the university — one that could have prevented me from registering for student teaching and potentially derailed the long plan to finish my transition from journalist to teacher.

Tyler agreed that was stressful.

He offered to come by for a chat.

I asked if he was in Des Moines. He works here, but he lives in Ames.

No, he said. He was at home. But it’s not that far of a drive.

The time was late evening after dark. He was willing to drive 45 minutes to comfort his friend and, after a time, drive back. That’s 90 minutes on the road for an act of kindness.

As most longtime readers know, I suffer the affliction of depression and anxiety. Sometimes I see only shadows on sunny days. I feel trapped with no way out.

Then I am reminded of people like Tyler, whom God sends to me in the darkest moments and says, “You’ll be OK. You will survive.”

Tyler is a blessing of 31 years.

But he is not the only one.

There are always Parents 2.0, whose love is the kind of strong that you can lean your back against it and know it won’t fall no matter how hard the winds of change blow.

There is my friend Sara, who helped me reorganize all three of my closets to accommodate my bad knees. In the front closet alone, I can do something quite spectacular because of her work: Hang up my coat. She made two visits to my home and made my closets so organized that I am afraid to take something out for fear I will mess it up.

There’s my friend Don, a retired vice president from Drake University. Sometimes I call him just to hear the undiluted enthusiasm for living in his voice. We chatted for about 45 minutes one recent day. By the end of the talk, I felt like Lazarus. Don’s belief in people, their resilience, and their potential to do good is unwavering.

He helps me believe in me, and that is no small feat.

There is my friend Mimi, with whom I have dinner once a week. I often call her when I’m despondent. She offers that motherly shoulder for my burdens. I always feel lighter after a chat with Mimi. Most of the time, we talk about the state of the world, her three sons, or her late husband Steve, a mentor and friend to me and a loving husband to her.

Then there are the 199 people who made 248 donations, first to help pay for my knee surgery in August, and again to help me cover expenses now that unemployment has run out.

(You can still donate if you’re so inclined. Visit this link or any of the links below this column.)

I know some of the names: family, friends, readers, classmates, acquaintances, and so on.

But most of the names are strangers. Many are anonymous.

When I think about these acts of generosity, I tear up.

What have I done to deserve this kindness?

Lord knows, I’ve lived a flawed and sometimes foolhardy life. I don’t deserve this kindness.

But that kind of thinking disrespects the faith those people have placed in me.

They’re pushing me to keep moving forward, to finish school, and become the teacher I promised I would be.

What did I do to deserve their faith?

Nothing.

Yet.

My job now is to live up to the promise that they see. I have work to do. I don’t wish to become a good teacher. I want to be a great one.

I want to take every experience I’ve endured since I lost my job at the local newspaper — unemployment, struggles with government benefits, financial instability, physical health challenges, poor insurance, and many more — and turn them into empathy for what students and their families face.

I will find a way to help students learn, be the light that Don is in my life, to go the extra mile the way Tyler does, be the ear they need like Mimi, or the helper that Sara is.

The message of this charity is not about what I deserve.

These are the examples of the kind of person I want to be in my new career and in the next part of my life.

That makes it a little easier to swing my swollen legs over the side of the bed, rub them down with lidocaine, pull on compression socks and strap on two knee braces before I take a first step in the morning.

Because I need to keep moving forward, not just for me, but for all those who’ve put their faith in me.

I promise all of you: I am humbled. I am honored.

And, most of all, I am motivated.


Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

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des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, Iowa, life, mental health, obesity, People

I’m not a dad, but I make dad noises

Morning begins with curse words. I slide myself to the edge of the bed. I draw circles around both knees with prescription lidocaine gel. I rub it into both knees until the skin is warm.

Next, the girding begins.

I pull on compression socks up to the knees.

I strap on a brace on the left knee, still recovering from surgery to remove two bits of torn meniscus last month.

I pull on a compression sleeve on the right knee, which just has the usual amount of arthritic pain.

Then I stand.

I am not a dad, but I make dad noises.

I’m uncertain at first, timid.

Sometimes the tendons in the left knee are so tight I can’t get full extension.

Sometimes I wobble and sit back down.

Eventually, I find enough support to walk to the bathroom.

I take small, mincing steps. There are no bold strides in these legs now.

I worry there never will be again.

I am in physical therapy.

I do exercises to loosen and strengthen the atrophied legs.

The cartilage tear in the left knee came in late June, but it only exacerbated the degenerative arthritis condition in both knees.

I can’t remember the last time I took a step with confidence.

I am obese.

That gives others cart blanche to judge me, to tell me what’s wrong, to offer their unsolicited solutions, or simply to scold.

I could explain that obesity is one of many symptoms of trauma. I work on it actively with my doctor and behavioral therapist.

But why bother?

Being fat is a sin in country where millions of people are fat. I have arthritis. I must deserve it.

It’s like going to the funeral of someone who died of cancer and asking, “Did she smoke?” If so, is the grief any less?

I wrote about my downtrodden mood a while back. A reader wrote in to say she didn’t contribute to my surgery fund to hear me say “I can’t.” Or it was something to that affect. I deleted the comment.

I never promised anyone who donated to my surgery that I wouldn’t struggle, that I wouldn’t have bad days, and that I wouldn’t write about them.

I only promised I would get their surgery and do my very best to become a good teacher in whatever community hires me. If the expression of pain and sadness is a disappointment, I apologize for nothing.

These paragraphs are always raw emotion.

If the message was meant to be a “ha, ha” poke, a lame attempt at inspiration, or some other uplifting note encased in sardonic wool, it hit me exactly the wrong way at precisely the wrong time.

The fact is I hurt.

I hurt a lot.

And it’s not just the knees.

I’m humbled by using a walker. I shouldn’t be. There’s no shame in using tools you need to get where you need to go. Where I need to go is class so I can finish my degree and become a teacher.

I struggle with my obesity.

I hate it. I hate that I didn’t recognize the connection between my psychology and my eating habits years earlier when it would have been easier to build new schema to negotiate the world.

The thing that frustrates me most often about obesity is the idea that people think it’s tough love when they tell me how fat I am.

Do they think I did not notice? Or perhaps they thought I was proud of my body that barely works and hurts all the time.

I don’t know.

All I ask of people is that they respect each other’s dignity. If I want to talk about my health, I will. I’ll reach out. I’ll confide. It’s my call.

I’ve got a doctor. I’ve got a therapist. If I am not progressing at a rate that satisfies others, well, how do you think I feel?

There are not magic solutions.

I get it. Some people try a diet and, boom, they lose a bunch of weight and they feel great. They want to pass it on.

A couple of things: No solution is universal. If it was, pharmaceutical and other medical companies would have bought up the rights to these programs decades ago and they’d be prescribed by doctors.

I tried a program recommended by friends. I gained weight. I dumped it and went back to what I was doing: cutting calories, eating better foods.

Secondly, these programs are often expensive. I’m living off unemployment and that ends this week. After that, who knows what I’ll do. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be signing up for an expensive commercial diet plan.

If this reads a little angry, it should. I am angry.

I’m angry with myself.

When struggling, the tendency is to look back and see every mistake we made and blame ourselves for not recognizing the dangers, not planning better, not having a back-up plan, and so on.

I know that’s fruitless. I do it anyway. I’m good at beating up myself.

I’m angry with others, too.

I share here. This is public. People can comment. Almost everyone is positive. But every now and then you get a sock to the jaw from someone you know — and even someone you don’t know — and it really stings.

I try to avoid assuming bad intentions. I learned this from my friend Ross Peterson, the radio host and relator.

I choose to believe these things are said to be inspirational or out of love. They’re just expressed imperfectly. That I understand. I’ve worked with letters most of my life and I still struggle to express myself precisely the way I want.

Here is what I want people to know:

I’m dealing with a lot of shit right now.

I’m taking some classes that aren’t easy for me.

I’m recovering from knee surgery.

My arthritis hurts bad.

When unemployment runs out, if I don’t get approved for an extension through the federal government, I must appeal to an administrative law judge. That’s a lot of stress.

But despite all the stuff I’m dealing with, I am trying to be better.

I don’t want to just be an adequate or good teacher. I want to be a great one. I want to be the teacher that students look forward to seeing each day. More than that, I want to be the teacher students learn stuff they can use from.

I’m actively working on my physical and mental health. I’m in physical therapy. I’m in behavioral therapy.

I may complain. I may groan. I may cry out. I may make dad noises.

But I promise all of you I’m doing the best I can.


Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com.
Venmo@newsmanone.
PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

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