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betsy-art

Some of my art

I cannot shake this feeling that what’s happening tomorrow is apocalyptic.

Throughout my 42 years many world events have caused me to worry that the world as I knew and loved it would somehow end, but all those scenarios began with bad guys from some other part of the world coming in and taking over, attacking us, poisoning our air or water, and taking away our freedoms.

I never imagined that an orange-haired guy from Queens and his idiotic henchmen would be the culprits.

I can no longer listen to NPR on weekdays because anything I hear about the incoming regime makes my stomach clench. I can’t read the paper. My news is nicely distilled for me on Facebook, which gathers a wide variety of sources, and every time I check my feed my chest tightens and I have to squeeze my eyes shut and turn it off.

I am making calls to legislators when I can, although I’m still not clear about whether that’s effective, especially since I am fortunate to have a Congressman and Senators who hold the same views as I do. I’m giving to organizations that I know are fighting to protect people who need protection and safeguard our rights. I am committed to my church’s movement to live the pledge to end racism and I am facilitating reflection sessions. And of course I’m going to march on Saturday.

But still.

And yet.

I keep thinking about Elizabeth Gilbert’s post the day after the election encouraging us to choose who we want to be, even and especially in the most challenging situations we face. I know she’s right. But it is so hard to feel open-minded and curious and loving and calm and hopeful when these tsunami-sized waves of dread crash over you again and again and again.

Lately I’ve been making a lot of art. I am not an artist, really. I like to glue things together. My kids and I bring home bags overflowing with recycled materials from UpCycle Creative Reuse Center and we create. When I am gluing small things onto other things, no bad thoughts can penetrate my brain. Making art creates a force field around my spirit. I am running out of space to put my art.

Tomorrow I’m going to celebrate kindness with friends and family. We’re going to make art and eat delicious food and listen to music and focus on how we can offer kindness to the world. At least for tomorrow I will put up that little force field around my family and friends. And they will give me strength. We will be kind and we will survive. And the next day we will wake up and march. And those hundreds of thousands of people who will be marching with us, in DC or in other cities, or in spirit, they will give me strength. Maybe I will give them strength too. Maybe our presence and our voices will be art, and all that beauty will sustain us over the next four years.

Maybe we will learn how to live and be brave in a post-apocalyptic world.

2015-03-10 13.15.22It’s disconcerting to see something moving across the floor in your peripheral vision when you’re in your living room and your kids are in bed asleep. Nothing should be scurrying about on your rug. No one should be darting under your furniture or hiding under your son’s toys.

Despite the fact that we have removed three mice in various states of incapacitation from our house, and I found another mouse–dead–in front of our front door yesterday, we do not seem to be rid of our mouse problem. Following Randy’s suggestion (see left), I have not had the courage to remove the dead mouse from in front of our house yet, but I suspect his fellow mice have not seen his current unfortunate state because they are inside and he is outside.

We had a repairperson here yesterday fixing a variety of things that have broken over the past months (maybe years?) and he filled some suspected mice holes. So either there are many more holes we have not yet identified, or a bunch of mice were already inside. Don’t they know it’s nice outside now? The weather has warmed up! They can go back outside and frolic! There’s no reason to stay in here, protected from the snow and ice. The snow has mostly melted! It’s not even raining. Go ahead, mice, go outside to the playground! Have a picnic in the park! If your holes are filled, I will gladly open the front (or back door) and let you out. Enjoy the spring, mice.

Unfortunately this is NOT the mouse I saw in my bathroom at 3am.

Unfortunately this is NOT the mouse I saw in my bathroom at 3am.

The worst part of last night, at least for me, was not Zeke’s persistent crying and refusal to sleep horizontally (although that was quite unpleasant) but rather the fact that after I plopped a weepy Zeke on our bed with his dogs Kirby and Uh Oh Dog and woke up Randy to keep an eye on him while I used the bathroom, when I turned on the bathroom light I saw a mouse dash out of the bathroom, across the hall, and into my office (also our guest room), which caused me to pee in my pants. I am not typically one of those people who is terrified of mice (although I don’t love them cohabiting with my family) but seeing a mouse vacate the bathroom in our bedroom and relocate to another bedroom, all on the upper floor of our house, where we sleep, does not sit well with me. Suddenly my mind switched from exasperation over Zeke’s restlessness to fear that the mouse (and perhaps his whole family) would be crawling over our faces if we ever did get back to sleep. tiny slug

A few weeks ago when our family was suffering from round after round of stomach viruses, twice during wakeful, messy nights, I spotted a tiny slug in the corner of the kitchen. The slug’s presence was disconcerting, but not alarming. First of all, it was tiny. Second, it was as slugs are wont to do, moving quite slowly, so I didn’t feel like I had to attend to it immediately. Slugs are notoriously easy to apprehend and Randy removed both slugs to the backyard without incident. This happened in the kitchen and I never once worried that slugs would crawl over our faces as we slept, leaving poisonous trails of slime. But a mouse. Those things are dangerous. Our exterminator told us to use gloves and masks when he reminded us many times to remove the mouse poop from the utility shed behind our house. You’re not going to want to come over for dinner now, are you?

Not that we can have anyone over for dinner these days anyway, because we are always sick or trapped inside by snow and ice. Not really trapped, Boston-style, but stuck inside because where are we going to go when it’s snowy and icy anyway? Our weeks of isolation began on January 29 when Zeke was first struck with norovirus, which he generously shared with all of us in turn. We were supposed to have friends over for dinner a few days later but had to cancel. And every weekend since then, someone has been puking or feverish or something yucky. School has been closed or delayed. I have postponed and rescheduled work meetings and personal appointments and social events over and over again.

When my mind is forced to spend those days (and nights) home with sick kids, or sick husband, or sick me, it tends to wander off toward dark and dismal destinations. I was fairly convinced throughout February that I was a terrible parent, incapable of compassion or patience, and also to blame for everyone’s illnesses. I was sure I didn’t have any real friends and somehow my children and I were being excluded from all fun things that were happening everywhere. I spend a lot of time worrying about all the things anyone could possibly worry about, and then I create some new things to worry about. I embrace my tendency toward worst-case-scenario thinking. Meaning, I am always on some level planning what to do if I need to take someone to the ER or what if someone never comes back from that errand or that trip, or what if we lose power and so many other what ifs that actual reality has no room to exist in my brain. I’ve struggled to figure out how to extract myself from this hole. Everyone I know seems to have crap they’re dealing with, much of it significantly more challenging than mine. Or everyone is just sick. During one of my doctor visits in February, my doctor said there were three groups of people in this area: people who’ve recently been sick, people who are sick now, and people who are going to get sick soon. He said the virus season this winter is the worst he’s seen in a decade. Still, knowing other people are sick does not at all make me feel any better, or even absolve me of responsibility for our germs. We wash our hands all the freaking time. While toddlers are not known for their hygeine habits, even Zeke loves to wash his hands, wipe up spills, and bring out the dustbuster when there’s a spill. We bleach, we wipe down, we spray. And yet the germs circulate and attack us again and again and my mental and emotional state deteriorates. So it’s been hard for me to reach out. I don’t like to complain (maybe you can’t tell that from this post) and I don’t like negativity. I am an optimist. I don’t like whiners. But the past five weeks, which feel more like five months, my sense of hope and positive attitude have diminished. My creativity and confidence have crumbled. I’ve felt increasingly lonely and isolated. I am an extrovert (or to be more accurate, according to my reading of Susan Cain’s work, I’m an ambivert, but still I need some outside stimulation). It’s not been good.

One bright spot during this time has been the sermons by Rev. Aaron McEmrys at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. I’ve been a member of All Souls Unitarian for nearly a decade, but for a variety of reasons it’s become untenable to attend services there. Recently a friend invited Zoe to participate in the sex ed (appropriate for second-graders) segment of the Sunday morning religious education class, so I figured I would go to services while Zoe was in class. I’d been to UUCA a couple times before in years past and found it pleasant but not powerful. This time, though, I was surprised and moved by Rev. Aaron’s preaching. I find his sermons to be thoughtful, challenging, exquisitely written, and passionately delivered. And this week he challenged the congregation to do something fun or frivolous or whatever it was they needed to do to be more resilient–to live more and work less. By example he told physicians in the room to work five fewer hours this week and do something entertaining or fulfilling instead. But he said he didn’t know what we all needed–we did. And what I needed to do was write this. It is embarrassing to say you’ve felt lonely and sad. I was raised not to feel sorry for myself. But sometimes you just need to say how you feel. I also, as a writer, constantly struggle with reluctance to put words out into the world unless they are fully formed and somehow worthy. Unfortunately, I just don’t always feel worthy. But I still need to put words out there before they burn a hole inside me, as they sometimes threaten to do.

So I am praying for spring. For health. For sleep. For the mouse that is upstairs in our house to move out. For a new show to materialize that makes me laugh as much as Parks and Recreation did. For more books like Wonder, which I read in a day sometime in February and would recommend to everyone. And for you, if you are in a hole, to find your way out as well.

04277121_zi_blue_silverLast night around 6, when I was waiting for a friend to pick Zoe up for tae kwan do because I didn’t want to bring Zeke because he was coughing and his shoes were soaking wet because I let him stomp in a puddle when we were picking up Zoe from school and when we got home I discovered the dryer, which we just paid $400 to get repaired, was screeching mercilessly whenever I turned it on, I started feeling panicky. I was upstairs waiting by the window with Zoe to spot her ride when it arrived while downstairs Zeke had found a tray of Christmas treats Zoe had left out, and was stuffing chocolate covered peanuts in his mouth. When I ran downstairs to find him, there was a blend of saliva and chocolate seeping all over his face and clothes and his mouth was full of unchewed peanuts because he still doesn’t have that many teeth. He had also managed to open Zoe’s Finding Nemo DVD that she received for Hanukkah the night before and had somehow smeared it with chocolate as well. I wiped off his face and yanked off his shirt and fleece and went to put them in the bucket that we soak stained things in but discovered I had left it outside on the patio and it needed to be washed. And I couldn’t wash it because the sink was full of dirty dishes and bottle parts because even though Zeke will drink water from a cup he still refuses to drink milk unless it’s in a bottle.

I was short of breath, my chest was tight, I felt nauseated and dizzy. I have a friend just a few years older than me who had a heart attack last year. Someone else my age with whom I graduated from college died this year from one. And one of Randy’s grad school classmates just died from a possible heart attack. I was increasingly panicked. I looked up the signs of a heart attack and a panic attack and found several websites that said the symptoms are remarkably similar. How helpful!

When Randy got home he dropped me off at urgent care. I should have just gone to the ER. The people at urgent care did not demonstrate any sense of urgency whatsoever. The receptionists and the physician’s assistant all seemed bored and completely uninterested in their jobs or the fact that people they were helping might have some sort of problem. They acted like they had been hired for jobs at lackadaisical care. The PA greeted me with, “So are you having a heart attack?” I told her I didn’t know what was wrong, that’s why I was there. Later when she was doing the EKG and tears were streaming down my face she repeatedly told me to relax. Oh ok. Thanks for the advice. The doctor, who was at least friendly, said I was fine and there wasn’t really anything he could do for me, as my heart and lungs and blood pressure were normal. He asked if there was anything stressful going on in my life. I didn’t even know where to start. I offered, “I have two young kids…” He said something like, is that all? I didn’t go into the running my own business thing or the fact that it’s Christmas and Hanukkah and so many things are undone or the fact that tragedies local and global are constantly breaking my heart and assaulting my soul. He asked if I wanted anything to calm me down, like a Xanax. I declined, as I have attempted to use Xanax in the past and even in small doses it makes me feel drunk and unable to function. Calm, sure, but not really worth it.

So the good news is I didn’t have a heart attack. The list of things to do remains long and the stacks of stuff to deal with are piled high. I am struggling to resist the urge to climb back into bed with my book–The Gravity of Birds–which is so good. In the meantime, I will listen to John Denver and the Muppets and try to get back to work, and be thankful that my heart is good.

marineopium05I should have changed the station when I heard Terry Gross say that her guest on Fresh Air was going to be the New York Times reporter covering Ukraine who was one of the first people on the scene of the wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines passenger plane that was shot down by some evil and selfish people over there. But somehow I didn’t, and so I listened while she described what it looked like when she was walking through the rubble and how some people’s bodies were completely intact, still buckled into their seats, because the plane had exploded in the air instead of just crashing into the ground. When she said, “especially the children,” I had to change the station. And it was too late, because now that image is in my brain and won’t go away.

Yesterday, immediately after hearing the fragment of that story on NPR, I conducted a phone interview with a medically retired Marine. As part of my contract work as a writer for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, it is a privilege for me to interview many former Marines and Sailors and their families about their involvement with the Society, as well as interviewing the staff members and volunteers who work with clients. I have no military background so these conversations are usually fascinating and revelatory to me.

Many of the retired Marines and Sailors I speak with were severely wounded while deployed. At a minimum, they have post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Many also have a variety of severe physical issues as well. Many have struggled with addiction since returning to civilian life and trying to deal with the mental and physical anguish they returned to in the States. Typically I ask about their service–when they joined, where they served, what caused the injury that sent them home. Typically they give me the highlights. “I was blown up during my second deployment in Afghanistan.” Or “I was on patrol in Fallujah when we hit an IED.”

Yesterday the Marine I spoke with took me almost minute by minute through the day when he was hit multiple times by Taliban attacks while on a rescue mission. He just kept talking and I kept listening and writing down everything he said. It seems like the least I can do to listen to his story. And my job is to share his story–chiefly the part where he gets connected with a Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society visiting combat casualty assistance nurse–so other servicemembers like him, or their spouses or moms or siblings can find out there’s another way to get help. So these guys feel less alone.

I am thankful that this is part of my work and it is an honor to do this very small thing to help. But it is hard to hear. It is hard to hear horrible things on the news. It is hard to hear tragedies that strike people I know or the friends or family members of people I know. It is hard to understand why our military is sent out to do unbelievably dangerous work that changes their lives not usually for the better, and for questionable reasons when you hear the news today and know that militants in Iraq are forcing innocent families to die by starvation and no one is able to stop it. Hearing these things just crushes my heart. But I cannot ignore them, and part of me feels responsible for being a witness to the suffering. Still, it crushes my heart.

 

When I’m driving and am powerless to harness them, the ideas and deliberations zoom in and out of my head. Sometimes I feel like my brain actually hurts because of the volume and velocity of thoughts. I had a conversation recently over milkshakes with a friend who is an excellent writer but that’s not what he does chiefly at his job. He is trying to figure out how much of a creative writer is in him, waiting to emerge. He said he doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s one of those people who is compelled to write.

I am one of those people, but so often I hold myself back. My overdeveloped sense of empathy serves as an effective censor. I am frozen by my concern for how others might feel about what I have to say, even strangers. This temperance toward my writing makes me feel like less of a writer. I’ve heard that the thing you love most about your significant other can also become the thing you most despise. I suspect this is also true about yourself.

swirlIt occurred to me recently that, at least among my closest family and friends, there seem to be two basic flavors of anxiety: past and future. Not to say that you can’t get a delicious, panic-inducing swirl of both if that’s your thing, but most people seem to relish one or the other.

A few people I can think of pore over every detail of past events and past decisions. What if I had done this differently? What if this other person had gone another direction? What if any number of things that happened had not happened? This manner of hindsight anxiety is highlighted in the spectacular musical If/Then, which I recently saw on Broadway. I recommend it highly. The play, not the anxiety.

I have little patience for this brand of anxiety. I am a practical person and I feel like what’s done is done and it serves no purpose to wonder what could have happened because it didn’t and it’s too late to turn back now and life goes on.

I have plenty of time, however, to obsess about what might happen in the future, however remote the possibility may be. What if there’s an earthquake and the crack in the bricks outside our house makes the house collapse on my baby while he sleeps in his crib? What if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time and encounter a crazy shooter? What if we get a flat tire on the beltway? What if we run out of money? What if someone I love gets seriously ill? Or dies? The rewarding thing about this kind of anxiety is there are so many variations, layers, and nuances. Some of the worries are extremely unlikely and very much out of my control. Short of living inside a bubble, we assume the risks of living in the world and some of these are really scary these days. But still unlikely. And some are inevitable. Some people I know will get sick and someday will die. It’s already happened, for sure. But the prospect is still terrifying. Again, nothing I can do about it. I haven’t yet found a magic wand or fairy godmother or medical miracle to protect everyone I love and enable them to live forever. And then there are the worries that I could do something about, but are still hard to face. I could save money by going out to lunch less. But I love going out to lunch and it keeps me from going insane at home alone. I am frequently torn between the mantras of self-improvement and self-acceptance that are constantly swirling around me.

Instead of removing the possible causes of future-predicting anxiety, what I need to do is attack the anxiety itself. I have meditated, but not in a long time. I don’t know why meditation, which is so simple, can be so intimidating. I do yoga, but have not had a regular practice since my 13-year-month old was born. Even after he was born I enjoyed mommy-baby yoga with him for a while, but once he started crawling the jig was up. I’m trying to find a way to create a new practice for myself. I was going to go to a new class today, but didn’t count on the rush hour traffic and had to cancel at the last minute when I discovered I would get there 15 minutes late. Happily, the studio owner called me back right away to say I wouldn’t lose the class despite the late cancel and suggested some classes I could take that aren’t during rush hour. So I took a four-mile walk, and it’s a beautiful day, and that was good.

Mister Rogers said in the midst of tragedy to look for the heroes, and it’s easy when you’re anxious to turn minor annoyances into major catastrophes, because they might become larger scale annoyances or even genuine problems. But I try to look for the heroes, even the minor ones. Last Friday afternoon I had just picked up Zeke from day care and I was on my way to pick up Zoe from school, after which we were headed out of town for a weekend away with friends. I ran out of gas, which was dumb. I’ve never done that before. And likely I will never do it again. But I did, and it turns out in our minivan, the two gallons you can put in with the gas can that the nearby service station loaned me is not enough to get it started again. You need four gallons. So by the time I discovered this, Zeke and I had spent a while hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the house where our car had conked out. Hero number one was the guy whose house it was, who came out to ask if I could move the car because his wife was headed home and I was blocking the driveway. I explained my situation and he was totally understanding and asked if I needed anything. I desperately needed to pee, so he invited me in to use the bathroom. Hero number two was the AAA service guy who arrived to see if I needed a jump start. I didn’t, and he suggested I probably needed more gas. He asked if there was anything else he could do for me and I guess could see I was getting a little upset. He asked if I was thirsty and gave me a bottle of cold water he had in his truck. I’ve never had a AAA driver offer me water before. I’m sure that was his own supply of water for him to drink. I was grateful. Heroes number three and four: my parents, who immediately came when I called and split up to retrieve each of my children and bring them home while I waited for a tow truck or more gas (before I knew what the problem was). Hero number 5: my husband, who came and picked up the gas can and refilled it and came back to me with more gas, which enabled the car to start. And everyone was kind and patient and no one made fun of me for running out of gas. And we made it to West Virginia with our friends, even though we got there after 10pm. We missed all the traffic and drove in the cool darkness and Zeke slept and Zoe watched Frozen and all was well. All of my anxieties about what was wrong with the car, how much it would cost to fix, the prospect of Zoe freaking out that she hadn’t been picked up yet, the prospect of Zeke freaking out on the sidewalk, none of them came to fruition. It was a sunny day, everyone helped, and it was ok.

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