The Accidental Thumb Experiment

Yup, that’s my hand. I used Nexmuse to make the X-ray look even cooler.

Six years ago, I injured myself in a gardening-shears incident. No, I didn’t nearly cut a finger off or anything that dramatic. I just clipped with such vigorous force that the tendon in my left thumb became inflamed.

In the following weeks, I put additional pressure on the sore spot by going kayaking. Eventually, my thumb became locked in a straight position, something known as trigger finger. Forcing it to bend created a popping sensation inside that made me shudder.

You might already know this, but our “opposable” thumbs are really important. You appreciate this once your thumb becomes nonfunctional, even if it’s the one on your non-dominant hand. You can’t turn doorknobs with that hand, open jars, or do anything that requires a firm yet flexible grip.

My doctor referred me to a specialist, who gave me three shots of corticosteroids in my thumb over the course of 16 months. The shots failed to work, leaving surgery as the last option. By the time I completed post-op physical therapy, my thumb had been messed up for at least two and a half years.

During this time, I happened upon a podcast interview with Dr. Neha Sangwan, the author of a book called Talk Rx: Five Steps to Honest Conversation that Create Connections, Health and Happiness. Dr. Sangwan explained that before her patients are discharged from the hospital, she asks them five questions designed to help them avoid returning to the hospital with the same ailment. The questions include: Why this? Why now? What else in your life needs to be healed?

I asked myself these questions, and they led me to conclude that I was working so hard on our yard, all the while ignoring the pain that was developing in my thumb, because I was still feeling out of place in our new home and neighborhood. I didn’t think I was worthy of living in a house that was so nice compared to my previous residences, and I thought I needed to prove to my neighbors that I belonged.

Problem solved, right?

Fast forward to last fall, when I injured my right thumb. I was using kitchen shears in a similarly obsessive fashion, trimming fat from meat. Again, I followed this up by paddle-boarding a couple days later, further irritating the same area.

The soreness started to transition into stiffness, and I could tell that the popping was coming soon. The same doctor administered a shot, and this time it worked. I was so relieved!

I asked myself Dr. Sangwan’s questions again. Perhaps I was preoccupied with how much fat was in my food because I am fearful of gaining weight—an issue that has troubled me since adolescence. Plus, my perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for me to know when to quit.

This past month, some friends were coming over one Saturday. With both thumbs in working order, I indulged my itch and did a little trimming in the yard, promising myself that the minute I felt any discomfort I would stop. Well, I went a hair or two beyond that threshold. And then, a couple days later I aggressively used the kitchen shears.

So, here I am, my thumb is sore and getting worse, and I have an appointment with the doctor later this week.

What was I thinking?! Well, clearly I am still insecure about my home and my weight (among many other things).

Addressing my self-doubt is a lifelong process, but in the meantime, there are things I can do to minimize the damage I cause to myself.

I am now well aware what actions I need to steer clear of—I know that once I get a pair of hedge clippers or shears in my hands, I will go overboard. And once I hurt myself, I don’t let up on other activities that I know will make the issue worse.

This situation reminds me of my drinking. I had to finally admit that my dreams of being a take-it-or-leave-it drinker were just that—dreams. Some nights I could stop after two glasses of wine. But other nights, there was no off switch.  

Thus, I chose to say good-bye to alcohol. I could have kept trying to make moderation a reality, all the while hurting myself and wasting precious time. Or, I could quit and start reclaiming all that time, health, and peace of mind.

Some (maybe all) of us have behaviors and impulses that we struggle to regulate. We might fear that ditching them entirely says something unsavory about us—that we are weak, that we didn’t try hard enough to find the right balance, that the object of our preoccupation is running the show. I don’t think that anymore.

In an interview with Kathy Caprino, Dr. Sangwan says: “Your body is talking. Are you listening?”

I’ve decided to listen to my body and to reject those actions that produce negative results. I have more than enough data from this six-year experiment with my thumbs, and I’m going to use it to set healthy new boundaries for myself.

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!

My Fleeting Flirtation with TikTok

Like many people, I fell in love with comedian Sarah Cooper earlier this year. I wanted to easily find all her Donald Trump lip-syncing videos, and I heard she was posting them on TikTok, so I downloaded the app onto my phone.

Coincidentally, I had put myself in a social media “time-out” right before taking the plunge into TikTok. In quick succession, I had removed Facebook, then Instagram, and then Twitter from my phone. Each time I deleted an app, I found myself spending more time scrolling on whatever remained. I even took to scrolling on LinkedIn for a brief period! So, I’m sure you can guess what happened next.

First, when you download TikTok, the app asks you to check off what topics interest you. The subjects I selected seemed innocent enough, but the outcome was an endless stream of girls in bikinis doing identical dance routines.

This should have scared me off, and yet it didn’t. Fascinated, I scrolled and scrolled through videos of young women with seemingly perfect bodies, beautiful hair, and not half-bad dance moves. I started to feel bad about my own appearance, which is pretty stupid given the vast age difference between me and these video stars. Even the moms showing off their youthful good looks were at least a decade younger than me.

Disconcerting thoughts popped up: I’m pretty sure we didn’t have butts like that when I was a teenager! Was I ever that flexible or sexy? Could I get away with wearing an outfit like that at my age? And how come everyone lives in such a fancy, pristine house?

I had to remind myself that I was seeing these specific videos because they were among the most popular content on TikTok. Not everyone posting on the app looks or moves like that or has a closet full of trendy clothes.

The videos started playing in my head even when I wasn’t scrolling. Thus, after only a few weeks, I banished TikTok from my phone. Perhaps it was just a weird phase I went through in a relentlessly awful year.

Still, I’m mad at myself for falling prey once again to the idea that being “hot” is the ultimate achievement for women of all ages. For goodness’ sake, I worked at a feminist organization for 18 years and helped create content for a campaign promoting positive body images. Maybe that’s why I loved working on that project—because I was intimately familiar with the how the media exploit and even cultivate our personal insecurities.

Well into middle age, I haven’t really recovered from the sense that life would be better if I were more attractive. Instead, my fixations have simply shifted. Rather than hating on my big nose, my stubby legs, or my frizzy hair, now I’m more obsessed with my saggy neck, my stomach cellulite, or the gray in my hair.

As I try to escape this feeling of beauty inadequacy, the practices that work the best are spending less time looking in the mirror and waaaay less time scrolling through social media. When I’m moving my body as opposed to focusing on its reflection, I forget about my self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on social media—and Instagram is back on my phone. But these days I consciously concentrate on the accounts I have deemed worthy of my attention, and I do my best to avoid the content served up through ads or the search function.

My recommendation: Identify why and how you want to use social media and stay within those margins!