03 Jan

2015 Bucket list

This is the time of year when we make resolutions. I’ve stopped making NYE resolutions because after so many years of making them, I’ve realized (as I’m sure you have too), that they don’t work. By the end of the year we feel guilty about what we didn’t accomplish, so we set lofty unattainable goals for the following year—lose XX pounds, eat healthy, get a new job, live a happier life, etc. These goals are abstract and lack a concrete plan.

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I enjoy how much Isabella likes to set definitive goals for herself, “Mama, I’m going to read a long chapter book by the end of the week.” She lights up with excitement and writes down her accomplished goal when she finishes the book, “I read ‘Lulu’s Mysterious Mission.’ Next I’m going to write my own book.” And she does, a mystery about a cat, written and illustrated by her.

Inspired by my soon to be 7 year old daughter (her birthday is this week), I decided to write 12 bucket list things that I am going to accomplish in 2015. When I told Isabella, she was excited to join me (although she wanted to write 100 items on her list!) and by default, that meant Terrence also had to join us. We were visiting some good friends in Washington DC for NYE, so of course, they had to write their attainable 12 items as well.

Most of us easily wrote down 3 things, but then we put serious thought into 12 things that were important enough to be considered “bucket list” worthy but also doable within a year. When we shared the list with the group, we called each other out on items that were too lofty and needed to be broken down into achievable steps, something we could actually mark off. So that instead of “living a happier life,” I had, “go roller-skating and do other fun activities with Isabella, Terrence, & friends.” I know I can make myself do these activities and they, in turn, will make me happy.

Here’s to a fabulous 2015, and may you accomplish all of your bucket list dreams (aka achievable plans) this year.

19 Dec

Coping With Embarrassment

No one likes to be embarrassed. Isabella, my six-year-old daughter, tries to downplay any humiliating event she has. As adults, I don’t think we do that much better. I certainly hid while I was recovering from the brain injury because of all of the mistakes that I made, my drooling, facial drooping, aphasia (forgetting words or saying the wrong word). I would get dressed and forget to put on my pants or my shoes. I showered and would forget to rinse out the shampoo and conditioner (I would apply one on top of the other). I still get flustered when I can’t recall a word or someone’s name (a daily occurrence for me).

Feeling embarrassed is a normal part of life. I try to remind Isabella that everyone feels ashamed of something, but that those feelings pass. I used to be much better at handling my humiliating moments when I was younger. I remember my mother taking me to get my hair done on my 12th birthday. She offered to come in, but I insisted that I didn’t need her help. I went into the salon with 2 of my closest friends. It was a Saturday and the place was packed. When I was asked what I wanted done, I belted out in my typical loud voice, “a blow job.” The entire salon stopped, stared at me (at least that’s how it felt), and busted out laughing, including my 2 friends. I wanted to run out, I was so ashamed, but instead, I laughed along with everyone else and corrected my mistake, “brow dry, please.” Although Isabella is too young for me to share this example (she’ll want to know what a blow job is), I do reassure her that mami has had plenty of embarrassing moments in her life, even as a kid.

To help set an example for Isabella and to help me embrace my imperfections again, I have had to return to my childhood mentality of going with the flow when I embarrass myself. What I found most helps Isabella (and me) is to remind her that the embarrassing event is already in the past. I remind her of other humiliating moments and how we both survived them. We try to laugh at our mistakes. And I remind her that we can’t be perfect; all we can do is try our best and apologize when we’ve made a mistake.

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04 Dec

Gratitude

I was trying to decide what to cover in my blog, and what’s been on my mind for the last few weeks is the role of gratitude in my life. Admittedly I’ve been thinking about gratitude because it’s the time of year when we gather used clothes, books, and toys to donate. Of course, there’s also thanksgiving, the time of year when we count our blessings and give thanks.

For me gratitude isn’t a seasonal thing. Every morning when I awake, I say a prayer and mention all the things for which I’m thankful. During the day, when I’m not too busy, I give thanks to God again for my health (with all it’s ups and down), for the people in my life, for the opportunities S/He gives me, for allowing me to live another day, for permitting me to be a

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a mother, a wife, an independent minded womyn who can’t seem to keep her opinions to herself. And again at bedtime, I try to remember to give thanks for the present day, for my blessings, and I ask for another day.

I used to only be grateful for the good things in my life. When bad things happened, I wondered, “Why did this happen to me?” A couple of years after the injury, one of my college friends said to me, “You’ve got to change how you look at things. Think about it as, “Things happening for you, not to you. Take ownership of the outcome of the events, turn them into positive results.” This piece of advice has helped me tremendously. When I have a seizure, a medical setback, I don’t bemoan my circumstances. I remember to be grateful to be alive, to have the support I have in place, and I try to learn something from the event. I know it could be so much worse; it once was.

Being grateful has helped my outlook on life. It has helped me keep a smile on my face, and hope in my heart. The things that happen in my life, the difficult and arduous medical problems I have to confront, all happen for me. I am stronger, wiser, and more grateful when I survive the setbacks.

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28 Oct

Importance of the Medical Resume

When I go see new doctors, I come prepared with a “medical resume.” It has my name, date of birth, address; I list all my medical conditions, medications, and known allergies. I guess you can say I want to impress the new doctor. I want them to know I am an expert on my health and a fully informed patient.

Most doctors appreciate the resume but are still put off by the overwhelming amount of illnesses listed on my resume. I would think an informed patient is better than the alternative. I have found that doctors can get defensive; they question my knowledge or want to exert their superiority as the medical professional in the room. Why is that?

I think back to when I was working as a criminal defense attorney, sometimes clients came to their meetings with briefs or copies of cases they thought would help their legal case. I never took offense. I was happy to see them taking ownership over their case, their destiny—after all, their freedom was at stake. Perhaps all of the information they provided wasn’t pertinent, but I didn’t become defensive or feel the need to put them down. I would summarize the pertinent facts, law, and information, write it down for them so they were armed with a legal brief/resume of sorts.

What the medical resume represents is taking control of your health, of doing your due diligence and knowing your full medical story. You become the expert on your health. This empowers you in the patient-doctor relationship. Hopefully it will help you feel emboldened to ask questions, speak up, voice concerns, and if necessary, change doctors if you don’t feel heard or understood. It can be the first step to helping you be a “professional (or expert) patient.”

I am including a copy of what the medical resume can look like below. It will also appear in my book, which I hope to have done by next year.

I hope this helps you if you have a medical condition(s) or are the caretaker of anyone. And please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments.

Name

DOB

Address

 Medical Condition             Year it began

Example: Lupus                    1997

(Repeat for all Medical Conditions)

 

Medications

Name of Medication         Dosage           For what Medical Condition

Example: Plaquenil           200 mg           Lupus

(Repeat for all Medications)

 

Allergies

Name of Medication/Substance (e.g., latex)       Type of reaction

Example: Lamictal                                                       I get a rash

(Repeat for all Allergies)

 

*If you have more than one page, put your Name and DOB on every page and number the pages

 

21 Aug

Lessons Learned from Adversity

Here’s the blog I wrote for Terri L. Clay’s Accomplish Your Dreams for Entrepreneurs. I thought I would also share it with my readers.

I have lived with asthma since I was a baby. When I was 16, the doctors found a pituitary adenoma (small tumor in the pituitary gland in my brain). It causes hormone imbalances and illnesses for which I have to take medicine. I opted to not have the tumor removed and take advantage of a scholarship and financial aid award to Cornell University. I then went to Georgetown University Law School, also on a partial scholarship.

While I was practicing as a criminal defense attorney, my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (cancer in the bone marrow). As an only child, I became her primary care taker. In the midst of preparing for her first bone marrow transplant, I was diagnosed with lupus, and soon thereafter, raynaud’s and sjogren’s syndromes. Years later they found I also have scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. These are all illnesses that attack the immune system in different ways.

In August of 2000, while I was a public defender in the Bronx, I ate jerk chicken from a food cart. I got food poisoning and had to be hospitalized for dehydration. The doctors gave me too much sodium and my brain swelled; I was left in a coma. I suffered a debilitating brain injury, losing the use of a big portion of my brain. I had to learn how to walk, talk, and do most things for myself again. It took 6 years of rehabilitation. I still have a seizure disorder, balance problems, and some ocular issues.

I was never the person I was before, but I was grateful for the life lessons I learned. Here are some things I took away from my life’s experiences and strategies that I employed:

1-Have a positive mindset

  • While I was depressed and had a negative mindset about the brain injury and all of the chronic illnesses I have, I wasn’t recovering.
  • When I accepted what had happened and believed that I could and would get better, I saw immediate improvements.
  • I had to take responsibility for my mindset and the energy I was bringing to my rehabilitation.
  • When I failed at something, fell, had a seizure and started getting down on myself, I had to catch the negative voice in my head and shut it down.
  • Your frame of mind affects your success not just in business but also in life.
  • Don’t let that negative voice stop you from pursuing your dreams; adopt a positive mindset.

2-See excuses for what they really are—obstacles to achieving your dreams or your goals—make no excuses

  • The brain injury left me with severe balance and ocular problems. Rides in the train or walking down a busy aisle in a supermarket were overwhelming; I would feel extremely nauseous.
  • When my therapists suggested taking me to the train, bus, or on a shopping outing to a store, I would say, “No, I can’t do it; it’s too much!”
  • I was doing all the necessary rehabilitation at the hospital, but I was afraid to take the risk, to do what seemed impossible.
  • Of course, I finally saw my “no’s” as the excuses they were, and I completed all of these challenges because they were necessary to get better and resume my life.
  • After the injury, I wondered whether my brain could withstand a rigorous academic program. I’m a nerd and I longed to push myself with school again.
  • I kept putting it off, with excuses, until I saw my excuses for what they were—I was just afraid to fail, but I had nothing to lose.
  • I applied and was admitted to the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. I finished this Master’s in Science program in February 2014. I went to school as a fulltime working mother and graduated with honors.
  • You’re always going to find an excuse for why you can’t start now, why you’re not ready, but you need to see the excuses for what they are—fear of failing, of doing the work, of something that is definitely surmountable. Just face those excuses!

3-Follow your dreams and do what you’re passionate about

  • That doesn’t mean leave your current job but start doing what really moves you on the side, part-time, while you hopefully have a steady source of income until you are ready to make the move to do your dream career fulltime.
  • After the injury, I returned to the practice of law but realized I wasn’t passionate about it.
  • I was moved to share my story, help others learn from what happened to me but I did both (law and speaking) for a long time until I was ready to do just speaking and writing fulltime.

4-Write down your plans, your goals and tell somebody about them

  • Make sure the people you tell are positive supportive people.
  • The action of writing and telling makes you accountable, it makes it real and firm as opposed to a wish or a thought; it’s almost like a promise.
  • When I said, I’m going to walk without a cane despite all of my balance problems and I sent out emails to all of my friends, it became real; I didn’t want to fail. Same thing with applying to school, especially when I asked for recommendations of people I admired.
  • Write your plans, tell people, and follow through.

5-Don’t compare yourself to others and don’t be envious of others

  • For me it was health—I wanted to be just as healthy as my friends, my boyfriend, as the people I saw walking on the streets.
  • I had to let that go and be the best me I could be: I was funny, I have positive energy, I inspire others, and yes, I have some health limitations.
  • For entrepreneurs, don’t worry about what others are doing, do you, be authentic to your plan, your story, your strategy.
  • If you don’t and just copy what you see others are doing, then you’re just offering what others already have on the market and who wants that?

6-Be well prepared and well informed

  • I had to find out about all of my illnesses, what should I expect, what were the best medicines and their expected side effects, what doctors should I see, etc.
  • I was my best advocate.
  • In business, you have to do your due diligence, find out about the deal, who are you working with, is this good for you; if you don’t investigate and come prepared, it could cost you.
  • You want your clients to have confidence in you, to recommend you to others, and that begins with you coming prepared to the job.

7-In terms of being prepared—know when to ask for help

  • This may be from a friend, like when I’m having a procedure done at the hospital, I ask my husband or a friend to accompany me.
  • Or from an expert, like when I had someone do my website or wanted to start doing public speaking, I found a coach
  • BTW make sure that it’s convenient for you, near you, so you can attend meetings, seminars, etc.
  • If you choose a coach that isn’t near you, make sure that person is accessible and responds to your emails, questions, etc.
  • I saw these things as investments in myself.
  • When you are an entrepreneur, you don’t have the luxury of winging it and wasting your money, so follow strategy #6 above, and ask for help and invest wisely in yourself.

8-You have to believe in a higher power & give back

  • I broke up with God when my brain injury happened; I thought He had abandoned me.
  • When I made peace with God, mended my relationship, I felt my life come back in alignment with its purpose.
  • I was ultimately able to see that I wasn’t meant to practice law any longer, at least not in this time.
  • Also it was important to me to give back in some way; God has given me life twice.
  • I think it’s important that as you receive, you should give back.
  • I was grateful for what I had, so I gave back in donations of clothes and belongings, by volunteering of my time, giving tidings.
  • At first it can be small but ultimately, if you choose an organization that you feel passionate about, you can form a relationship with it and publicize this on your website.
  • It can be a non-profit that’s in alignment with your business or just something that moves you.
  • It looks good when people visit your website, and it’s good for business.

9-Don’t give up or take no for an answer

  • I failed so many times at every thing I had to do in therapy, and even though I kept up with my rehab, there were times that I thought I just could never improve on this or that one thing. I wanted to give up.
  • This type of attitude didn’t serve me and won’t serve an entrepreneur.
  • When my husband and I told the doctors that we wanted to have a child, they all said “no.” We got so much resistance. It took almost a year to convince them, but we didn’t give up and now we have a healthy 6 and a half-year-old daughter, who I gave birth to.
  • I recently learned that Jack Canfield, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul Series got 144 rejections before they found a publisher. He didn’t take no for an answer.
  • So don’t give up and don’t take no for an answer; rethink your strategy, your proposal, but don’t give up. That’s what Jack Canfield did—he hired an expert on marketing, they re-pitched the book in a different manner and finally found a company to publish the book. And now it’s a humongous success.

10-Don’t wait to live your best life, do it now

  • When I worked as a public defender, I thought, when I retire, I’ll have the time to do the things I really want to do.
  • What I learned from the brain injury is that you have to live your best life now.
  • Do what you want to do now; don’t postpone it.
  • Start doing the things that bring you joy now: spend quality time with your family, go for a walk or bike-ride with that special someone, enjoy your children while they are growing up, go on that vacation.
  • Reward yourself with small meaningful things that bring you happiness because if you keep putting it off, you may never get to live out those big plans.
  • Don’t wait for God forbid, a terminal diagnosis, or like what happened to me, a life-altering injury
  • Doing these small or big rewards will make your entrepreneur dreams even more meaningful because living your best life will allow you to replenish, focus, and be confident that you are really following your passion.
17 Aug

Live Your Best Life

August 24th marks the 14th anniversary of the day I went into the coma. My family was told I couldn’t survive the type of injury inflicted to my brain. If I did wake up, I’d be a vegetable. So why did I survive? From where did I summon the energy to care for my dying mother, myself, and make it to where I am today, despite my pre-existing chronic illnesses?

As a person of faith, of course I can say it was because of God. It was the endless prayers in every imaginable religion asking for my recovery. But why me, why would God save me? What could I do with the experience of almost dying, of being humbled through years of arduous rehabilitation, having to relearn almost everything, having my beloved career taken away?

The answer didn’t appear right away. At first I thought it was to show others that you shouldn’t give up on your dreams. You can achieve even the most difficult of things: yes, it took 6 years, but I completed rehabilitation; learned to walk without a wheelchair, walker, or cane; I returned to the practice of law (but not to criminal defense law); I managed my mother’s and my own medical care; I nurtured the relationship with the man that was by my side during the injury and eventually married him.

Then I thought it was to tell people that they should see excuses for what they were—obstacles to obtaining their goals, their dreams, obstacles they can choose to, or at least try to overcome. After the injury, I longed to be healthy, to be athletic, but I bemoaned that I couldn’t do those things because of my balance problems. I finally saw those excuses for what they were. I took up running, even using the kind assistance of guides when I participated in races. I tried roller-skating thanks to my daughter, and my husband helped get back on a bicycle. I wanted to return to school to see if I was still the nerd I used to be, to challenge my brain. But I put off applying to school for fear of not being accepted, of failing out. As most of you know, I just recently completed my degree with honors.

Now I know that what I most enjoy sharing with others is that they should live their best life now, not when they retire, or have more money, or God forbid, get a terminal illness or a tragedy befalls them. In fact, living your best life doesn’t have anything to do with having a lot of money. For me it means honestly assessing whether the life you are living is the life you want to be living. If not, where do you want to be? What small changes can you make to be happier, to get you closer to your best life?

It starts with changing your mindset, writing your goals, then slowly putting things into place. It can be one small change at first then things will fall into place. Life is too short to have regrets when you are on your deathbed. When I thought I was dying, I was glad I had experienced all the crazy fun things in my life, but I knew there was so much more I wished to have done, things I had said, my priorities would have been different. So take those trips, enjoy spending time with your kids, do the things that bring you pleasure, and ask yourself: is this your best life or are you just going through the motions. When I die, I want people to say, “She lived a great life.” What will people say about you?

21 Jul

Believe in Yourself

IMG_20140712_140644282_HDR I never used to be happy in my own skin. I always wanted to be thinner, prettier, have longer hair. Like so many people, I struggled with my weight. But I was confident with my intelligence, with my writing and advocacy skills as a litigator.

After the brain injury, I put on a lot of weight because I was so sedentary. Yes, I wanted to lose that extra weight, but more than anything, I longed to feel smart again. I wanted to feel confident in my brain. I also wished to be physically active and exercise, not for weight loss, but because I now recognized how precious my body was, how lucky was to be alive.

Despite my balance problems after the brain injury, I took up running and I strength training. I have run a couple of half marathons and several races. I have scars from the seizures I have had during my runs, but I keep running. Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis have slowed me done a bit, but if I am physically able to, I plan on running the NYC marathon this November. I didn’t let my fear of failure or hurting myself stop me from pursuing something that brings me pleasure and pride.

Another goal of mine was to return to school and challenge my brain. I found a program that sounded interesting and recently graduated with an MS in narrative medicine from Columbia University. Returning to school terrified me, but I was honest with myself about my brain’s limitations. I planned my schedule around when my brain was most functional. I loved being a student again and fulfilling that challenge with high honors. My husband and daughter, Isabella, attended my graduation. It felt good to be a role model for Isabella.

I am following my dreams and not letting my health, the fact that I’m a mother, or whatever other excuse I can think of, stop me from doing what I want to do. My advice–don’t use excuses! You can accomplish your dreams, just choose to pursue them, have a positive mindset, start by make small changes, and believe in yourself.

31 May

Life as a public defender (video attached)

People ask me if I miss being a full-time attorney. I don’t. I miss being a public defender. I had a passion for representing my clients, seeing the impact we could potentially have on their lives. The rivalry between the district attorneys and the public defenders was always fun; fun in a, “I’ve got scab that hurts and is getting infected but I can’t stop picking at it” kind of way.

 

I definitely don’t miss the pro-forma motions; frantically trying to keep up with the deadlines because we had so many cases, so many clients, it was nearly impossible to meet all of the demands of the job. Now that I’ve had some distance from the work, I realize we made a difference with our pre-sentencing letters, using our social workers to back up our arguments (and often persuaded the judge and the ADA to see things in favor of our clients); we made a strong case to suppress a gun that was in a trunk or in a backpack in the back seat of a car with four occupants (we were less successful with this tool but did occasionally convince the judge on the law). Many people questioned me, “Why represent criminals?” And my answer was always along the lines of, “I represent people who have been accused of crimes. It is not my job to decide their guilt or innocence. The person arrested could be you or your brother one day. If you happen to be Black or Latino, your chances of being arrested are heightened. The criminal injustice system is stacked against the poor person of color, and I fight against that system.”

My clients told me their story. I listened because their story always helped me figure out how we were going to defend their case. While I was finishing my newest degree last year (yes, I love school), I participated in a storytelling program through a company called Narativ. We had to tell a story. I decided to tell my story of being a young litigator in court where I learned from my clients. I think I should warn, the performance has a few curse words. I hope you enjoy it.

Olga Lucia Torres Story from Narativ Circle on Vimeo.

10 Apr

Getting honest with myself

I love taking vacations with my family (comprised of my husband and daughter), but vacations are also a source of stress for me. I want Terrence to have an opportunity to relax and play golf, and I want Isabella to have fun and be a kid. We recently returned from Isabella’s spring break vacation. It wasn’t until this trip that I realized that I never think about myself—what do I want out of our vacations?

We spend so much time trying to please others that we forget to please ourselves. I know Terrence wanted Isabella and I to have a great time, but we failed to communicate our desires and when we tried, I could tell we were unnecessarily feeling selfish. Isabella wanted to go to amusement parks or the pool, Terrence wanted to play golf, and I just tried to figure out when things opened and closed, made reservations, and reminded people when we had to be up in the morning.

Why don’t families speak frankly about what they want to do, about how to spend quality time together so that both adults and children are in conversation and are included in making the plans? I’m not suggesting we let a 6 or a 15 year old dictate the day, but plan a day for the kid(s), a day for each parent, etc. Or better yet, break up the day’s activities so that it’s not so exhausting on everyone.

But this brings me back to me. When I think about what I want to do, I get stuck. The things that jump to my mind are the things that I think I should say, like “go to the gym,” “get a massage,” “go for a nature walk.” Yes, those things sound good, but do I really want to do them? Maybe a little. But what I really want is to feel alive, learn new things, dance and move my body, laugh out loud, explore something or somewhere new.

My health can stagnate my life. I feel like I am using the excuse that I am a chronically ill person to stop myself from trying new things or following my interests. Taking medicine every day throughout the day and dealing with multiple medical problems is what consumes most of my life (please see the rest of the website). I am often exhausted from a routine day’s activities, so the idea of traveling is daunting. Plus, traveling can be a nightmare because I have to call both the pharmacy and my health insurance carriers to get prior approval to obtain my medicines early, so I travel as little as possible.

So how can a vacation help get me out of this funk? Vacations are a perfect place to start exploring and seeking those adventures, plus they help break my daily routine. First, I will have be honest with myself about what I want to do (self-exploration), and secondly, I must convey those wishes to my family (good communication).

Are you putting yourself first? What does that mean for you? Are you communicating those wishes to your loved ones?

10 Mar

Gaining perspective

My life has been consumed by illness for so long that I didn’t know what to expect when I was blessed to become a mother. On January 8, 2008, I gave birth to Isabella Maria, and she transformed Terrence’s and my life. Up until then, Terrence helped to take care of me and worried about my health. I went to more than half of my medical appointments (I used to have 3 or 4 appointments per week) and depending on what the doctors’ had prescribed, I took most of my medicines (I used to be prescribed over 16 medicines at one time).

When Isabella entered our lives, we became consumed with her, her health and well being. Despite being born at 32 weeks, she was remarkably healthy, thank God. Still, she ended up having acid reflux; being allergic to milk; she had eczema; and she fractured her wrist at 18 months. All of these things worked themselves out–lots of babies have acid reflux; she outgrew her milk allergy; millions of people have eczema; and her wrist healed nicely.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would worry whether she would inherit one of my auto-immune disorders. I constantly check her hands to see whether they are too cold or whether her fingers are purple. I worry about what it’s like for her to see me experience a seizure or the after-effects of a seizure, like when I have a bruise or a black-and-blue on my face from a fall. She worries about me and about herself. I am supposed to be her caretaker, but sometimes she ends up being my source of strength, giving me healing hugs and kisses, praying for my health.

Isabella has not only been a source of inspiration to me, but she has changed the dynamics of my life. I listen to my doctors. I take my medicines. I make all of my appointments. I have a different investment in the longevity of my life. Isabella changed my life forever, and I am eternally grateful to God for the opportunity to be a mother.

People comment all the time, “it must be tough to be so sick,” “to have so many illnesses to deal with.” There certainly have been instances in my life that felt that way. But having Isabella gave me perspective. When it was just Terrence and I, I was extremely happy (I do love you T!). Isabella helped me to see that whatever trouble I may be going through, things aren’t that bad; miracles happen.

You have to take stock of the small and large blessings you have in your life. It may be God, your child, your family, your job, etc. It’s important to not let the circumstances you are living through overwhelm you to the point where they consume you and you lose perspective of the blessings in your life.

What are you grateful for in your life?