2020 Jenga & The Piece That Almost Toppled Me

2020 featured a lot of pink hair, so far 2021 is ash blonde.

I know, I know – it’s March 2021, and we all need to just get over it and stop dumping on 2020 … or do we? About a year ago this week is when life went from “normal” to “our new normal.” If you lived through 2020, you know what I mean: there’s no sugarcoating the hellscape that was the past year.

All of us who reside on Planet Earth were impacted in one way or another by the novel COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic: jobs lost, income diminished, social lives put on hold, masks hiding our smiles, fear seeping into our subconscious, and in some cases, losing our own health, our collective sense of safety and security, or, sadly, even the lives of acquaintances and loved ones. Hugs, travel, concerts, outings with friends, gatherings with family – some of my favorite things: poof, gone.

Just like that.

I don’t have to summarize it; we all know how bad it was. We’re over 500,000 dead in this country and we still have folks arguing over masks, or saying it’s only the flu. (Side note: it simply isn’t. I could write 20 posts debating covid-deniers and anti-maskers, but, there’s no point.)

But I digress. (My Mensa group recently discussed how the brains of liberals vs. conservatives are literally wired differently, so, even trying to argue points or change minds is sometimes moot.)

What I do want to talk about, however, isn’t REALLY any of that: it’s is the impossible mental-emotional toll that last year – and, who knows, maybe this year too – has taken on us as a society. How can a barrage of one event after another deplete us mentally? How does it impact our bandwidth, our capacity for empathy, our ability to cope, or capacity for self-comfort?

People can deny any semblance of collective trauma but it’s there, insidious, lingering in our unconscious mind. I know I’ve felt it. There’s just no way that the collective “we” makes it through all of this totally emotionally unscathed. I mean … some folks might: people who lack empathy, people who live in their own little bubble of privilege, people who just don’t get it. Maybe people who live in isolation on a deserted island. But, for most of us, there is simply no way that the year 2020 didn’t leave a mark. It had to. Whether you acknowledge any inkling of trauma or anxiety, it did. Even if you didn’t notice it.

It’s weird how taboo and stigmatized mental health is. A colleague recently described therapy as a “feelings doctor,” and I liked that: there’s no reason why anyone SHOULDN’T see a feelings doctor (after all, mental health is still a part of your health, and your mind is still a part of your body.)

Our society here in the United States is quite stunted in terms of social-emotional intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and empathy (not to mention rife with outdated, toxic, and archaic notions about feelings and gender roles, etc.) so it doesn’t surprise me that most people are closed off about or afraid to discuss their feelings or their mental-emotional health, but I’m not.

Most of you know by now that I’m an open book; I’m authentic; and I am not governed by fear of what others think.

So: I’m going to tell you about what I’m now thinking of as my Jenga year.

Jenga – you all know the game, right? Simply put, you stack blocks until, finally, the last one makes it all fall down. If you’re like me, the whole game is anxiety-inducing, but, that isn’t the point.

The point is that sometimes life is like a game of Jenga. So often, we stack things, compartmentalizing, denying, holding our breath with each new turn, hoping it won’t all fall down, until one day, it does. We collapse on into ourselves. And yeah, within that heaping pile lay some “first-world problems” mixed in with the real stuff, but, it all equates to something tough — something that we have to be tougher than in order to overcome.

For me, the last year was the Jenga game and something REALLY SILLY and comparatively minor was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The icing on the cake. The final Jenga piece that made it all crumble so that I had to rebuild. The breaking point, the “it’s-too-much,” the thing that made me the grumpiest of all grumps.

I’ll get there.

2020 began with my first Jenga block, me having what I believe, in hindsight, was covid. ER trips, sleepless nights, unable to breathe. Fast-forward to the end of February. Things were looking up! I went on a work trip to Washington DC. I visited family in Vegas and go to go to a Bush concert and hang out with the band. (And – the lead singer Gavin Rossdale and I established a friendly connection on Instagram.) I spotted a rare-for-this-area painted bunting. I began work on another fiction novel.

And then: the second Jenga piece: a deadly global pandemic. The novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, strikes. The world shuts down. Anxiety. Fear. Depression. But I am fine. We do okay. We take daily walks, I take up several instruments (piano, ukulele, guitar!) and begin writing poetry. Hiking and birdwatching become solace. No more Jenga blocks for awhile other than the whole everything-is-closed-and-masks-suck-and-people-are-ignorant stuff that we ALL dealt with.

Other not-super-wonderful things happened; but nothing warranting a new Jenga block: Brutus had an emergency vet visit, I got passed over for a promotion, my fiction writing stalled out. Whatevs. Life went on. I dyed my hair pink, and it was for fun, not because of a mental breakdown, so that was a plus.

Eventually, the Jenga blocks began to stack up more rapidly. Too rapidly, with no time to process or decompress.

Rest in Peace, Granny.
1939-2020.

My beautiful grandmother Joan died. We couldn’t hold a viewing and her funeral was socially-distant. I’m grateful I got to see her in February, but it was obviously still difficult.

My beloved pug Maggie died. I cannot even talk about it because it still hurts.

I had to rehome my cats, Jack-Jack and Theo. One of the hardest decisions of my life & another thing that is tough to talk about.

Then I was going to adopt a brindle runt pug with special needs (I was going to name her Olive, Penny, or Birdie) – she died before she was old enough for me to take her.

My best friend Kristen moved out of state.

Another friend’s significant other began trolling me — and he admitted it was on purpose. So did others (family, etc.) … all due to politics.

Sigh. It hurts; I pretend that it doesn’t.

I got several flat tires and drove my sweet little Kia Soul through wet paint.

I broke a bone in my hand. I unknowingly walked around with it broken for weeks.

The civil, political, socioeconomic unrest, racial problems, and violence escalated in this country. As an HSP and empath, it all stressed and upset me beyond belief. And there are sadly many folks out there who would have no problem mocking or belittling me for that, which is a part of the problem!

A grown man harassed me — I’ll go so far as to use the word “accosted” — at a coffee shop, to the point I literally had to call the police! He got in my high-risk face without a mask on, was vaguely threatening, yelled at me, swore at me, and called me stupid and fat: “you need to lose weight!” (Like, okay, dude, I know, but we’re in a freaking pandemic and I’m focused on my Jenga game not falling apart.)

Work got busier than ever, which is a GOOD problem to have; but not at all easy during an intense & problematic game of Jenga, even if I love my job and am grateful to have been able to work through all of this chaos.

I began to lose my voice and develop vocal cord problems. We’ll circle back to this one.

I got bit by a random dog — I don’t necessarily want to use the word attacked because it wasn’t, like gory or anything — but, yes, I got bitten (in the butt!) by a stranger’s off-leash dog in the woods and required several rabies shots. (Eek.)

My sweet Pip lost his eyes. It may sound silly to some, but it was honestly one of the most traumatic things to happen to me, like ever. This happened around Halloween 2020. My heart, my teeny tiny rescue dog, Pip, went blind very suddenly and out of nowhere …. and had to have both of his eyeballs removed. Yes, he is not only blind, he’s also eyeless.

It happened so quickly, and so unexpectedly. He was only 5.5 years old and went from lively and active and athletic to sad and depressed and without vision or eyes. It was so sad, (but I’m grateful he’s still here with us and adjusting well.)

Pip: No eyes, full heart, can’t lose.
#99ProblemsButNoEyesAintOne.

Still, the Jenga blocks kept piling. I’m probably forgetting some ‘bad’ blocks.

There were good things, though, too. Not every Jenga block was bad; some were just monumental in a good way. In fact, there were SO MANY good things: the birth of my perfect and so-very-loved nephew Ryder, the birth of my adorable long-distance goddaughter Gianna, the adoption of my black rescue pug, Olive Mangolia, the adoption of my blue Pacific Parrolet, Pancake, a wonderful and memorable trip to Block Island (one of my favorite trips ever alongside Italy and Hawaii), kayaking with Pip, lots of “lifers” (that’s a birdwatching term,) a new guitar that I’m obsessed with (a Fender Alkaline Trio Malibu Acoustic,) boating with my family, got involved with Diversity Equity & Inclusion projects at work, began Music Industry classes via NYU, got a new Peloton bike, a ‘side hustle’ with Healthline, some beautiful new 14K gold and diamond daith and helix piercings, expanded my healing crystal and Rae Dunn collections, discovered the Crime Junkie podcast, got more involved with the #FreeBritney movement, enjoyed lots of great quality time with my husband Mike, and so on. I’m sure I’m forgetting some ‘good’ blocks, just as I may have “blocked” out some bad.

So, yeah … the good things … they were the FOUNDATION allowing me to stay steady even when you might expect me to sway. (Yes, I’m still trying with the Jenga metaphor — I know it isn’t perfect.)

The holidays were great and I welcomed a new year without hesitation. Pancake is learning lots of words and tricks; I got the COVID vaccine; I started diamond painting; I began writing again; Mike is training for an Ironman; I got a lot of new houseplants; I added some new decor in my home office; work rocks; Trump lost; and save for the occasional migraine, or RA flare, or troll starting drama online, all is well.

Love, love, love.
#AuntLife

But then. The Jenga block that knocked it all down, the Jenga block that almost broke me, the Jenga block that toppled my wellbeing and nearly sent me into an emotional spiral:

a toothache.

Oh – but hear me out.

First, it’s way, way, worse than that, and I’m still dealing with it … and … well, I’ll get there.

But, here’s the thing: even if it WASN’T way worse than a toothache, you never know what is going to be the Jenga piece that sends someone’s carefully-structured, carefully-cultivated blocks careening over the edge of the table, and it isn’t your place to judge. It could be an unexpected bill. It could be someone forgetting your birthday. It could be at snotty or passive-aggressive text. It could be someone picking a fight when you are already having “a day.” It could be the store being out of the one thing you went for, or someone cutting you off in traffic, or your favorite jeans not fitting.

The more things pile up, the harder it is to cope. Even for those of us with a growth mindset, there’s only so much a person can handle. We all have a finite bandwidth of how much we can tolerate. I made it through a lot of pandemic-related fear and uncertainty because I live with chronic illness; uncertainty is my status quo.

I’m strong, resilient, adaptable – I have to be. So, that wasn’t nearly the ordeal that I thought it would be going into it (we didn’t hoard toilet paper but we did have a giant ‘covid box’ that was something out of a doomsday-prepper reality show including emergency goods and freeze-dried food. Ya know, just in case.)

Sure, I had periods of sadness, as I’m sure most people did … sadness about trips being canceled (Sedona! Florida! Hilton Head! etc.) … concerts being canceled or postponed (Harry Styles! The Rolling Stones! Rage Against the Machine! Janet Jackson!) … Christmas and Thanksgiving being different … missing my friends, and so on. I had periods of anxiety about loved ones getting sick, about the fact I was ‘high-risk,’ etc.

But no, that wasn’t the final straw, the last piece that broke me.

My own mouth was my undoing. (which, is actually kind of fitting lol.)

Longest-story-ever but: remember last year when I said I was pretty sure I had covid? No one knew what the heck was wrong with me, because it was before it was commonplace or being tested for here in the States. I was prescribed a steroid inhaler that is typically used for COPD or Emphysema, but I was told sometimes it is used for asthma. Okay, whatever. I would have tried anything at that point.

Fast-forward to the fall, when I begin having chronic hoarseness, vocal fry, vocal cord irritation, and general sore throats. I get an esophageal CT, a thyroid ultrasound, lots of allergy tests, and a few trips to the ENT. Yes, I have thyroid nodules but those aren’t the cause: no one knows what’s wrong with me. They throw me on some antibiotics and told me to go to vocal therapy.

I’m used to being a medical anomaly; I’ve written two books about it and that just is how my life goes.

So when my mouth began being crazy dry, like, intolerably dry, I chalked it up to autoimmune stuff, or a random “me” thing. I nagged my husband about our humidifier for days, I solicited advice on Facebook (which…ew. Facebook is where good moods go to die.) I thought, okay, this stinks, but I’ll figure it out. I bought every lozenge and mouthwash and whatever to try to help. And I figured, it is what it is: just a new thing to deal with.

But my teeth … at least, I could always count on my teeth being healthy. A good report from the dentist has always been the norm for me. And, okay, not going to lie. My teeth are the primary thing — maybe the only thing — I’m vain about. My hair is usually messy, unwashed, and in a topknot. I wear makeup, like, twice a month. I like how it looks; I don’t like how it feels. I haven’t had my nails or toenails done since before the pandemic. I’m lazy about eyebrow waxing. I like nice clothes and handbags; normally I wear sweats or workout clothes. I’m not into fancy jewelry.

But. My. Teeth.

A few days before my teeth
and mouth became a source of unending, “Jenga-pieces-crashing-down” misery.

Here’s a confession: my teeth are my crown jewels. I didn’t love them when I was teased in elementary school and called “Ashley Beaver Bucktooth Boynes,” but I love them now. We all have things we like and hate about ourselves, our appearances, our bodies. (If you love everything about yourself, congrats; I wish I had your confidence.) My list of dislikes is, unfortunately, rather long. (Especially since I live with chronic illnesses.) But, I like my boobs. I like my eyes (most of the time), and I like my smile.

So, when my last dental appointment ended with him saying I needed prescription toothpaste to help with some softening enamel, I was a bit taken aback.

My ego, in denial. My pride, wounded. My enamel…soft?

… Huh?

I couldn’t figure out why this would be; I have a decent diet and great oral hygiene. What the heck?!?

I started thinking about it … my vocal cord issues … dry mouth … issues with back teeth. Could it all be related?

Alas, I didn’t have much time to think about it because a few days later, I was at urgent care, in tears, ready to go to the emergency room. My mouth and tongue were beet red. Fire engine red. It hurt to talk, to smile, to eat, to drink.

I was (and still am) miserable.

I was immediately diagnosed with an infection caused by … my asthma inhaler. And then another one on top of that. And an inflammatory autoimmune reaction on top of THAT.

The wheels began to turn. I began to Google.

Lo and behold … aside from the painful infection (that led to other problems,) … vocal cord issues … dry mouth … softening of tooth enamel … can also be caused by said asthma inhaler. An inhaler, mind you, that isn’t even typically given for run-of-the-mill asthma (which, by the way, I don’t even have. I do not have exercise-induced asthma or ‘asthma attacks.’ I have seasonal asthma from sinus issues, allergies, etc. and later was told by my pulmonologist, after all of this, that I could just get by with albuterol or ventolin rescue inhaler. This info would have helped about 12 months ago.)

Here’s what stinks: this was 2 weeks ago, and I have been put on 4 prescriptions. It has morphed from one issue into another, involving several urgent care visits, IV fluids, two virtual doctors appointments, multiple emails with multiple specialists, a PCP appointment, bloodwork, and another dental appointment.

UGH. BLAH. ICK. YUCK.

And it’s still not better. I consider going to the hospital about every other day.

Every morning, I wake up, thinking it improved, but as the day goes on it worsens. By nighttime, I have turned from Glinda to Elphaba. (If you get the reference, you get it; if not, I’m too tired to explain.)

I’ve been existing on ice cream, tea, greek yogurt, water, aloe juice, and pudding, with soup and pasta thrown in for good measure. And a ton of supplements, juices, smoothies, chai. Maybe a baked potato here and there. I guess I could try rice. Last night I attempted taco salad, which WAS NOT wise for someone who, as mentioned above, is in Mensa.

Some nights, it’s so bad I can’t sleep. I’ve canceled plans with family, missed 2.5 days of work, and been overall feeling pretty yucky.

No, it’s definitely not the worst thing I’ve gone through in my life, physical or otherwise. However — it is ONE OF the most painful and miserable things I’ve EVER dealt with, and that’s saying a lot. (I mean, I’ve had brain surgery, a total knee replacement, a bone marrow biopsy, 8 tattoos, Bell’s Palsy, etc. Yet, this is certainly up there!)

I have definitely had periods of feeling down and depressed through all of this. The doctors say it could be another week before it totally heals… but I’m not yet seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. They keep telling me to be patient. A “patient-patient.”


I’m not.

That’s been the hard part…being patient, having faith, keeping hope, knowing it will subside. I felt like the weird game of Jenga was almost over, that my invisible opponent, whoever it was, was calling it quits. Forfeiting, perhaps. I saw a light at the end of the tunnel with all the covid stuff; I thought things were turning a corner.

Then, this.

So, no. It isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever dealt with; yes, I’m well aware that it could be worse.

I KNOW how ridiculous, trivial, and minuscule it sounds, especially considering that covid is still killing people every day and people of color are still consistently being targeted in the streets: “a dental infection? Your mouth hurts? Your teeth hurt? Your lips are dry? Your tongue is bothering you? But you have medical coverage and dental insurance and a roof over your head and a job that affords you paid time off? LOL! Wah! Cry me a river! People are dying! Kids are starving! Cancer’s a thing!”

I get it.

But gosh darn it…when I say it’s painful and miserable, well… I mean it.

And I can’t help it that this specific thing was the Jenga piece that almost toppled me. It could have been anything; when the tower gets too high it’s bound to fall. Just like when your cup gets too full it’s bound to overflow.

Sometimes, things will just simply test us.

There were a few days recently where I just left the pieces scattered about; rebuilding felt like too much effort. But, I realized the other day that, okay, the pieces fell, and maybe I fell too, but I will get back up. This is a chance for a fresh start, a new game. It’s a bit late, seeing as it’s March, but I’ll say the cliche ‘new year’ mantra, nonetheless: out with the old, in with the new.

My 2020 game of Jenga bled into 2021 but I think it just wanted a couple more rounds before calling it quits. And yes, I do understand that there’s a lot of metaphor-mixing going on and the Jenga thing doesn’t work perfectly.

The POINT is that life is always going to be a series of ups and downs. You have to take the bad with the good. But, with that in mind, you never know what someone is going through privately, or what they are feeling behind their smiles or their Zoom headshot.

Just be a nice human.

Be kind, don’t judge … one relatively-innocuous occurrence or minor inconvenience could be that last Jenga piece that sends their world — or their sense of wellbeing and psychological safety — toppling.

The thing that causes the pieces to fall might be profound; or it might be simple. We never know what feels manageable or not to other people, and when. We can all handle different things at different times. We all go through seasons. You don’t get to police how others feel or respond to any internal or external triggers. No one gets to tell another person how to feel or how to deal with trauma, whether you perceive it to be big or small, legit or unwarranted.

Extend kindness whenever possible, because while I’m personally always able to eventually pick up the pieces and rebuild, or start the game anew, not everyone is in the same situation. People have different circumstances, different levels of mental fortitude, differing levels of privilege, different resources, different ways of processing trauma, stress, or difficulty, different types of grit, different personalities, preferences, and priorities, different ways to cope, and different ends of their rope. We all have different tolerances for pain: physical and emotional, at different times.

We’re all unique and constantly evolving.

Someone might be one Jenga block away from toppling; or they may be in a space where they are still processing, looking at the pieces scattered around them and planning their next move. So, just be a nice human for crying out loud!

2020 sucked.

My mouth hurts. Bad.

Jenga is, honestly, a stressful game to play. And not THE easiest analogy to work with. (Hey, I tried. Wooden blocks aren’t very forgiving.)

But life is good. Always.

And while every day may not be good, there’s something good in every day. That’s cheesy, but I do believe it.

You know, there’s a saying: “it’s just a bad day, not a bad life.”

I reflect upon the past year — the pandemic began not much more than a year ago, after all — and I think to myself, “it was just a bad year; it’s not a bad life.”

Dog bites, broken bones, evil inhalers, and all.

Maggie May (left, fawn pug.) Crossed the Rainbow Bridge in June 2020.
Olive Magnolia, (right, black pug.) Rescued in July 2020.
My hero. We help each other through the tough days!


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