Jun 24, 2015

15 to 15: Stress

So here's the rundown.  Wednesday, April 29, 2015 was exactly 15 weeks until our 15th anniversary.  So in a countdown to the big day, I decided to start a weekly series of anecdotes from our 15 years of marriage.  I am calling it 15 Weeks to 15 Years.  Since everything needs a hashtag, it would be #15to15.  I am utilizing the blog because I have a propensity to yammer a lot when I'm writing and no one would want to read a long status update.  So be looking for these weekly entries.

We had an interesting conversation with our almost 14 year old the other day.  We were telling him how he needed to take on more responsibility because he is getting older.  We recently had set him up with a cell phone on the understanding that he would be willing to do more chores to offset the added cost to us.  Shockingly (not), he did not follow through on his end of the bargain.  So now he has to earn the cost of the phone by doing chores based on a pricing list that we have developed.  He was not pleased with the new arrangement.  He kept arguing about how this wasn't necessary and how he didn't want to do it.  He finally made this statement: "I don't need this added stress in my life!"

The thing is, I remember saying stuff like that as a kid.  STRESS.  It is such an ugly word and carries such horrible connotations.  I, like my son, believed that it was something to be avoided.  It is a monster.  Life would be better without it.  The thing that I did not realize at the time was that stress is a part of life.  It is just something that goes along with living.  Things bring us stress.  They don't even have to be bad things.  A new job could be stressful.  A new child is stressful.  A move, a holiday, a party, a wedding, a big football game.  Those all can bring stress.  To try to avoid stress is to try to avoid living.  My teenager is unconsciously doing that by wanting to lay on the couch all day playing Minecraft and Marvel Puzzle Quest.  But that is not healthy because he isn't experiencing anything other that minor virtual victories.

We got annual passes to Carowinds - the "amusement park" up here on the border of the Carolinas.  [Growing up in Florida, I am used to amusement parks that are jammed to the gills all the time.  Carowinds is pleasantly empty, even when they believe they are busy.]  There is a pretty cool waterpark within Carowinds.  So we go there regularly for the kids to burn energy and play.  It is a fun time, but it is immensely stressful to me.  I have to drive an hour there and back.  I have to keep track of three kids in an amusement park.  I have to juggle the desires of a seven year old, who still loves wading pools and playgrounds, with two middle schoolers, who want to do more daring things.  I have to fend off dozens of requests for Dippin Dots.  I have to worry about sunscreen, thunderstorms, crowds, lines, parking lots, locker rentals, keeping track of our stuff.  It is stressful ... to me.  To them, it is fun.  I'm not going to say we aren't going any more because it stresses me out.  That would be ridiculous.  The kids don't think trips to Carowinds (or Disney, Universal Studios, the zoo) are stressful because they are there to have fun.  I take all that other stress on me.  It is part of the event.

I think we go through different phases with stress. When we are young and immature, we try to avoid stress.  We see it as a villain and spend our lives coming up with ways to not have to deal with it.  Eventually, we understand that it is a necessity, but we don't want to have to deal with too much of it.  We have enough in our own lives; we don't want to take on anyone else's.  Think about teens and college students and how they handle stress.  They will worry about their own mess - their classes, financial aid, bank accounts, laundry - but they are not going to take on more.  They ditch friends and significant others when those relationships become too stressful.  It isn't worth it.  Eventually, they understand that taking on stress from another person is part of living with other people.  So it also becomes an accepted part of life.

But that comes with a caveat.  I recognize this from when Heather and I first got married.  I knew that the things that were stressful to Heather would become stressful to me.  And I accepted that.  So I would try to minimize her stress - just like I used to minimize my own when I was younger.  It wasn't because I cared if it stressed her.  It was because it stressed me to have her stressed.  That may seem very shallow and immature.  You're right!  It was.  I remember having conversations with Heather, where she would say something was stressing her out.  My solution was immediately to come up with ways to stop that stress.  It may be me trying to fix it for her or to take on the stressing event myself.  Or it may be me trying to explain to her how she should not be stressed by said event.  As you can imagine, this worked extremely poorly.  If Heather didn't buy into my pep talk, I would get angry and try harder to convince her - or throw my hands up in the air and say something caring like, "Well I don't know what to do then."  My efforts to take on the stressing events would usually end in disaster as well.  If it was something that came up frequently, I would get upset at the fact that my patch job didn't fix the issue for good.  Which then led me to the pep talk, which I already explained didn't work.  Or I was really bad at the task, which just made everything more stressful.  Like bill paying.  We have switched who was responsible for paying the bills several times in our marriage, and for several reasons.  At first, it was me.  But I sucked at it and frequently forgot to do things.  I did it because it was stressful and I didn't want Heather stressed because that was more stressful.  But not as stressful as being late on payments.  So Heather took over to eliminate my stress and the late fees.  Later I took back over, because she was so busy.  Then she took over because I was busy.  Now I do them again.

After that initial immature way we handled stress, we adopted a new strategy.  I think it can best be described as "Not my circus; not my monkeys."  This is a great way to deal with things when talking about people in your world, but not your house.  A friend keeps posting all kinds of dramatic posts on Facebook?  Just say, "Not my circus; not my monkeys."  Someone at work starts complaining about the boss and how they hate corporate policy?  "Not my circus; not my monkeys."  But that is a very bad way to handle things in a marriage.  You worry about your crap; I'll worry about mine.  Yeah, that is healthy.  That is doing life together.  Not at all. I think I'm so excited about our 15th anniversary because during this NMC;NMM phase, I seriously wondered if we would get to 15.  I think a lot of marriages crumble during this phase of life.  And I do think most marriages go through a time like this.

We got past that and are now in a different phase.  It looks similar to an earlier phase, but with a completely different mindset.  There are times when I take on stuff that stresses Heather out, and she takes on stressful things for me.  But it isn't because of trying to help myself.  It is because I love her and don't want her to have to deal with another thing on her plate.  (And vice versa.)  I am taking on that stress for her sake.  She is taking it on for mine.  The bill paying? I do that because my wife has more than enough to worry about without having to keep track of bills.  I try to keep up the house (we will keep my actual abilities out of this) because I don't want her to have to worry about it.  I have the time; she doesn't.  This is such a different way to look at stress.  It is going to be there, but I am going to take some of it away because I can.  Does it make it harder for me?  Yes.  And sometimes it makes it harder for her.  But it is worth it.  There have been times where I have had one of those days and I have said to her, "I just cannot make this phone call.  Can you please do it?"  And she will.  Or there are days when she has just worked an overnight and she will ask me to take her car to get gas.  So even if I just worked a shift for Kaplan, I'll go get her gas.

I find this way much superior.  Stress is now just a part of life.  We deal with it.  We even will laugh sometimes at just how much stuff we are dealing with.  You know those online stress tests?  Something like this or this.  We routinely test into the "danger zone" or "highly likely to have stress-induced health trouble."  I just took them both again and same results.  I am not worried though, because that ALWAYS HAPPENS.  Health problems?  Yup.  Changes at work?  Both of us, all the time.  Moved recently?  Yes.  Moving soon?  Yes.  It just keeps on going.  And compared to some people, we recognize that our lives are very calm.  So we just deal and move on.  Here's an example.

Monday was a crazy day. We had just gotten back from a weekend trip to Jacksonville.  We drove five and a half hours down on Friday and back up five and a half hours on Sunday.  After that, I ran over to my friend Greg's house to pick up a sofa.  Greg and Christina are our two best friends her in Columbia.  We were friends in Orlando and moved here at the same time.  Greg is my best friend here.  Well, now he lives in Manchester, England.  He flew there on Monday and Christina flies there next Monday.  So our best friends just moved to a different continent.  Monday I woke up with my RA flaring up, probably due to the 11 hours of driving and moving said sofa.  I dealt with the kids, did three hours of Kaplan work, then had a stress test at the heart clinic.  HAHA.  Stress test.  It was a precaution because I am getting older.  I kept telling the tech he didn't need to strap me up and put me on a treadmill.  Just whisper stuff to me like, "Your son will be driving in sixteen months.  You owe six figured in med school loans.   College is just five years away.  You have to move in a year."  He laughed and then stuck me on the treadmill anyway.

I got back home and had to sign on to help teach a Kaplan class that evening.  We also are watching some friends' dogs at their house and had to run over there twice.  In my class, I screwed up twice with a timer and it freaked out another time.  I got chewed out a little over that, which I hate.  It eats at me because I am good at my job and I hate getting a mark on me because of something like a timer. After that class, I did another hour of other Kaplan work.  I finally came down to watch a little TV with Heather around 10:15pm.  Less than an hour later, Heather asks, "Why does it smell like chlorine in here?"  I had been smelling something weird at the same time.  That is never good.  I know chlorine is a poisonous gas, so I got nervous.  We started going around the house, trying to find the source.  I couldn't smell it upstairs at all.  It seemed isolated to the center wall of the house. It could have been the air handler.  The filter was not due to be changed, but it was clearly covered with dust.  I shut off the A/C, but the smell didn't stop.  I could smell it our room, the kitchen, the living room, and the dining area.  I called my in-laws and woke them up. They didn't know, but were concerned it was a burning outlet.  Heather scoured Google and got a variety of answers, but nothing definitive.

On my in-laws' advice, I called 911. They told me they would send a truck.  Two minutes later they called back.  Apparently the chief was coming and wanted us to evacuate the house.  We raced around and woke the kids up, grabbed the dogs, and got everyone in the car.  FOUR fire trucks pulled up outside of our house: two big trucks, two suburbans.  All the neighbors started coming out.  Big burly firemen came up to the house. The head of the team was talking to us and then caught a whiff of my shirt. He turned to the firemen and said, "Put on your masks now. Let's get in there and find this."  He was sure there was a burning outlet.  For the next thirty minutes they went all around our house, checked every outlet, climbed into the attic and under the crawlspace.  They checked everything.  He finally called us back in and told us they found nothing, but thought maybe some lint had fallen into the A/C system and burned.  Then the mammoth firemen asked me why my smoke alarms had their battery doors open.  I honestly was more scared at that than anything else.  "They work," I squeaked, "But they squawk at us if the doors are closed."  They accepted that explanation and they told us we could go back in the house. The kids were (rightfully) terrified, so we stayed at a hotel instead.

 The next morning (Tuesday) I dropped our fluffy Minnie dog off at the groomers, which was right by the hotel, and we ran some errands and went home.  We later went and picked Minnie up and they had totally butchered her hair.  It isn't on the scope of a fire, but it was stressful nonetheless.

The point of all of those stories was to show how now stress has just become life.  As adults, we realize that.  I found it interesting that during my "stress test," I was actually most stressed about the kids sitting out in the waiting room.  I was most worried about them, not me.  When I was catching my breath, the nurse offered me a second bottle of water.  My response was that I was good, but my youngest son had said he was thirsty before I went in and I would take a bottle for him.  That is being an adult.  Marriage is about carrying each others' burdens out of love, not obligation or self-preservation.  I think about how we handled Monday night and how we would have handled it in each of the other stages of our life together.  We just worked like a team on Monday.  Heather went over to calm the neighbors and I calmed the kids.  We would swap back and forth to answer questions of the firemen.  And even the decision to stay in the hotel was because of the kids.  We were both exhausted enough to sleep anywhere at that point.  The whole thing just became another story. 

POST SCRIPT:  We figured out that the smell was from a lightbulb burning out.  Yes.  A lightbulb.  When I had been googling for causes of a chlorine smell, I saw one post about the newer lights putting off a horrible odor when the burn out - like chlorine gas.  I checked our lights, but didn't see any with issues.  I did not check one lamp in our bedroom.  Apparently, it was burning out that night and burned out when the firemen were inside.  The smell started to dissipate, except in our room.  During the day yesterday, I still found a faint trace of chlorine in our room.  When I went to turn that lamp on last night, I noticed the bulb was out.  It was scorched where the glass coils matched up with the base.  I sniffed it and verily I detected chlorine.  So it was all just a lightbulb. Keep that in mind if you ever are wondering why your entire downstairs smells like a combination of poisonous gas and burning outlets. 

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