10/12/2012 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

A Project a Day Saves My Sanity

People constantly ask me what I do to keep busy since I retired. It's simply this: I find myself a project to do each day.

When I first retired over two years ago, I just relished the ability to finally -- after working most of my life -- do anything I felt like doing. For the first time since I was 15, I didn't have some form of a job. I could sleep at late as I wanted which was to me the best treat I could give myself. The past 30-odd years, I had somehow dragged myself out of my bed at 5:45 a.m. each morning. I am not a morning person. I like to watch Letterman or Kimmell or Showtime on Demand if I've missed a program I've become attached to. Obviously I couldn't do that and get up when it was still dark outside. Now I can do that and no alarm clock is going to wake me up.

Do you know how wonderful it feels on a cold winter morning to realize you don't have to get up yet, and simply pull the comforter around yourself and go back to sleep? It's heaven.

The last two years of my employment were the hardest for me. I had worked far beyond the age that most people work, and although once I got to the office I was as sharp and efficient as I had ever been, it was simply torturous getting out of my bed each morning. I would hear the alarm, hit the button and keep saying to myself, "I can't do this anymore, I can't do this anymore." But of course I did, because I liked my job, and I liked that weekly salary. It had given me things I had been without for so many earlier years. I had been able to travel to all the countries I had dreamed of visiting, eaten in the best restaurants, been a loving and generous mother and grandmother, and was able to buy all the beautiful clothing that I so love -- and most importantly, I was debt-free.

I knew I wouldn't be able to do much of any of these things once I no longer received a salary. I had never belonged to any union that might provide a pension, all I had was the money I had taken out of my salary those working years and placed into a 401K. That would have to be carefully used for the rest of my life, and that could be a short stay or a long one, we all never have that answer in advance.

After the first year, which seemed to fly by more quickly than one my age cares to have happen, I began a descent into depression. I have lived through so many hardships in the earlier part of my life, and even through those awful times I never had time for what I conceived of as depression. I functioned, or appeared to function. I got dressed every day, kept my home and children immaculate, cooked dinner for my family every night, and managed to portray a vital and intelligent woman as I ran the Parents' Association of my children's elementary school.

Ironically, in those years I worked mornings for a local psychiatrist who told me I was one of the most well-adjusted persons he had ever met. I have no idea what he was basing his analysis on. So much for his opinion. Oh yes, I'd feel upset, I'd even felt physically ill from all that happened, but depression as I understood it never lasted more than a few days. It would pass and I'd go on with my life.

The newness of this malaise frightened me. I, who had out of through necessity built a wall of resistance whereby I never asked anyone for help, suddenly felt helpless. "I am strong," became my mantra. I had told myself this regardless of the times I found myself crying in the shower where no one would hear or see me. I was not going to go crying on my children's shoulders, or friends'.

I had, in the past, had people feeling sorry for me, and I hated that feeling. I hated knowing people referred to me as "poor Honey." I had felt proud of myself for creating a new life, and basically a new person from that "poor Honey" person.

I would figure out how to lick this thing that had overcome me. It started with almost a year of a variety of illnesses. I arrived at a much-anticipated trip to Los Angeles. I had barely landed when I started coughing with a bad case of bronchitis. I spent that week coughing so constantly that I couldn't hold a conversation with anyone. Yet, I neglected to go to a doctor until I returned to New York. I was told I had a bad case of bronchitis and to get into bed, and was prescribed heavy antibiotics. Two weeks after recovering, I had a relapse. By that time I had lost almost 10 pounds, which I could ill afford to lose. And then I got the worst case of shingles one could ever imagine. Mind you, I had had the shot to prevent this disease. Some much for inoculations. They don't always work. At first I thought I was having a brain aneurism as the pain in my head was horrific, then came the rash followed by pain and itching and two weeks of laying in bed unable to barely eat. This charming illness varies in length for all patients. Mine lasted almost six months.

At long last I thought I was finally on the way to recovery. I was so looking forward to a trip to New Orleans with my daughter. I had never been there, nor had she, and it was her trip, really. She had planned it and one day seeing the mom she was used to, the well one, she asked me if I wanted to join her. I was thrilled. At LaGuardia Airport checking in I didn't look down, and a young lady's duffle bag's handle lying on the floor caught my foot and I went flying. I landed with tremendous force on my right hip. My poor daughter rushed to my side and the martyr in me assured her I was just winded. I managed to get up so I knew I hadn't broken anything, and convinced her I could travel. I won't spend any more of your time on this, except to say I ruined our trip totally as I could barely walk and cobble stone streets made it impossible to walk without wanting to scream in pain. I spent the next six weeks in physical therapy, yet was grateful I had miraculously not broken my hip.

At long last my health -- which had always been excellent before all this mess -- returned, and I resolved that I would not let depression return, I would keep busy.

Keeping busy is the key to me for having a healthy productive life. I have always kept busy. When my doctor suggested I go to a gym, I explained to him that my exercise is getting down on my hands and knees and washing the floors. Call me sick, but I enjoy doing it, and it is good exercise. He just laughed and agreed.

I now give myself a project every day, and when it's over I relax. I don't have to report to anyone but myself. Sometimes my projects are simple, sometimes not so simple. Yesterday I found a folder high up in the closet that I was cleaning out. In it were emails from years ago from someone I once had a serious relationship with. I knew I would always have memories but I didn't need to read these -- it hurt, and I don't want to hurt. And so I spent an hour shredding a part of my life. It was a very hard thing to do, but I did it and when I get the courage I'll take out the folders I still have and do the same. As I said, I will do a project a day.

Today, my project is writing this. Enjoy.

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