Tag: Coping

15Apr

To Shake a Predator

March came strangely to us this year, in like a lion, out like a sharknado. Our usual exhale of joy when the yellow mimosa trees bloom and our gloves are swapped for sunglasses was overshadowed this time by a huge upheaval in our local community. I will write about it one day, once time has smoothed out the creases in my perspective. For now, I’ll simply say that we’re in recovery mode as a family.

I’m still engaged in my odd tango with anxiety, sashaying close and dipping apart to a tune I’m unable to hear. I started taking supplements a month ago after I realized it wasn’t normal to associate worst-case scenarios with every object in my line of vision. I could hardly bear to drive; every other car was on a collision course with me, the engine thrumming through my grip on the steering wheel was a half-second away from explosion at all times, and what if I suddenly developed narcolepsy on the freeway? It was a funny kind of horrible. It still is sometimes. Like I wrote last month, I’m no good at identifying cause and effect—what causes anxiety to swoop toward me on its slick shoes or what spins me, however temporarily, from its grip.

I do know one thing: that writing for me is intricately connected to the dance. This makes me want to spontaneously combust. When I’m writing regularly, I feel strong, easy in my skin, and fundamentally okay. Anxiety can snatch away my ability to write in a hot second though. It tells me that I have nothing of value to offer, that all the opportunities of my life are behind me, that I am incapable, lacking, and so pathetic that I should curl up in bed wearing a burqa for the rest of my days as a favor to the world. It turns writing into torture and not-writing into a slow death.

This is where I’ve been this year, dancing with a predator. It’s why my blog has been so quiet and my email inbox so full. This is not the 2015 that I wanted for myself, and I keep butting up against the impulse to bazooka this whole mess to smithereens. I don’t want to be in recovery mode. I don’t want the ebb and flow of process. Drastic decisions sound so much more appealing: Convince the family to move to Bali. Start a new career in data entry. Say yes to crack. (Kidding, of course, kind of.) Fake invincibility until I convince even myself.

Staying human—that is, staying vulnerable to the learning experiences of life—is always the harder choice, but I’ve tried shortcuts enough times to know for certain that they don’t lead to peace. Inevitably, I’d end up again and again at the choice to slow down, face my limitations, and work through anxiety until I took it. I suppose then that this qualifies as a dispatch from the dance floor. I’ve written this, with actual words, which is the kind of victory worth celebrating with gelato. Tomorrow, however, I might be back to gripping the steering wheel with bone-white knuckles and imagining a large red F scribbled on every last aspect of my life.

It’s okay.

I mean, it’s not okay-okay; I have no intention of spending my life in partnership with anxiety. It’s okay to be working through it right now though. I’m reminding myself day by day that I’m allowed to focus on the tango, even at the expense of normal routines and productivity, because predators aren’t shaken off on their own. It takes two. And also celebratory gelato. And the kind of grace that turns small steps and staying power into eventual recovery.

20Mar

Snapshot From the Tangle

I’ve written before about my inability to grasp cause and effect, due in particular to my early view of God as a cross between Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Jabba the Hutt. If you grow up under the jurisdiction of an almighty micromanaging gangster, of course you’re going to have trouble correlating your decisions with their outcomes. (“What flavor of ice cream would you like?” “God only knows…”) I’ve been considering another factor in my powerless-but-responsible mindset lately though, and if “overwhelm” were a noun, that’s what it would be.

I’ve been going through a rough personal patch for several months now—unexplained health issues, mental and emotional shut-downs, never enough internal resources to go around. Dan keeps assuring me that I don’t have to apologize for the efforts we’ve put into finding a solution, that my wellness is a priority. Here’s where the overwhelm comes in, however. When I try to puzzle out the calibration of mind, body, and soul, all I see is a tangle of interconnected Christmas lights. Miles of them. They loop around every facet of my daily life, stretch far into the past, and disappear above the rafters of my consciousness, and you might as well ask me to solve differential equations in my head as to find the one burned-out bulb.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the possible culprits I’ve come up with:

  • Undiagnosed food sensitivities or allergies (If you say “coffee,” I will hurt you)
  • Airborne pollution
  • Stress for All The Reasons
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • A curse from the stoplight gypsy
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • An undiscovered source of mold
  • Disturbances in The Force
  • Thin-skinned-ness
  • Spiritual dysfunctions of all kinds
  • Those unpronounceable chemicals on cereal boxes
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Delayed onset culture shock
  • Recurring trauma from events in the past
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Some medical mystery solvable only by House, M.D.
  • Chronic worrywart syndrome
  • GMOs
  • Lack of gumption
  • Karmic retribution
  • Mental decline due to compulsive Facebook scrolling
  • Unresolved relational issues
  • Secondhand smoke
  • Not enough exercise/sleep/security/time/confidence/fun/self-discipline/sunlight/peanut butter cups/[basically just insert anything here]
  • General inadequacy of being

More mornings than I’d like to admit, I look at myself in the mirror, think “Oh no, not her again,” and then slump through my day as if I’ve been sentenced to an eternal three-legged-race with Jar Jar Binks.

Jar Jar

I’m simply not up to troubleshooting the infinitesimal connections that make up a holistic self. How do others do it? Where do they find the internal wherewithal to dive into the tangle and emerge with a clear map of their wiring? I’m always left slightly utterly in awe when a friend tells me she’s suffering from adrenal fatigue or mold poisoning or (if she’s Italian) ailment of the liver. I couldn’t even tell you for sure if I have a liver much less how it’s affecting my overall sense of self.

This is the kind of post that I struggle to finish because I want to tuck the ends neatly in on themselves and say That’s that. I like solutions and “once upon a time”s and big-picture perspectives with proper story arcs in place. At the same time, I know how much of life takes place in the tangled betweens, how staking a claim in uncertainty helps us live it with intention. I know that writing this aloud may very well mean the difference between fearing overwhelm or greeting it as plot development. I know that an in-process self is one of the most generous gifts a person can give the world.

I’m trying to remember that it can be a gift to myself as well.

I’m taking life much more slowly these days, partly out of necessity and partly because I trust the loved ones who keep waving stop signs in my face. I’ve been putting green stuff into my breakfast smoothies and grinning my cheeks off (take that as you will) at Zumba and experimenting with anti-anxiety supplements. I’m veeerrrry slowly unclenching my grip on expectations for productivity, and even though letting goals slip through my fingers looks like the opposite of progress, it feels like sanity. None of this is helping me identify the burned out light bulb, mind you. I’m still eyeball-deep in snarls of theory and inconclusive medical tests, and I sort of wonder if I’m doomed to spend my life as a delicate wilting blossom of bafflement. I’m here though, in the heart of the tangle, learning and growing and claiming each small choice and effect as a badge of honor. As a gift.

image source

28Nov

The Waiting Room

Patience is a virtue, I know, but it’s not my virtue.

I would tell you that the problem is my current schedule, that if time weren’t such a commodity I’d happily lean back in my raft and let the hours carry me downstream, but I can remember this sense of urgency dogging me even on childhood afternoons when I had nothing to do but roost in my favorite tree reading Nancy Drew. I’ve always been a wind-up doll, whirling into my own momentum when I’m in motion, tense with expectation when I’m at rest.

I know better than to take it personally when the traffic turns to sludge or the customer in front of me brandishes fifty-seven coupons or the office is now closed, please come back tomorrow. But folks… the struggle is real. I need no reminders to rage, rage against the dying of the light. What I do need is practice at peeling my one eye away from the clock and my other eye from the lady in front of me who is describing her lunch in microscopic detail to the cashier even though I just need to pay for the one pair of socks. I need practice at taking the pace of the real world in stride.

And I am here today to attest that there is no better opportunity to practice this than when your calendar becomes polka-dotted with doctor’s appointments. I’ve been to eleven in the last three weeks. Eleven, which are about ten and a half more doctor’s appointments than we have in an average month. Some of them have been routine visits for the girls, but the rest have been for me, and I can’t tell you how far outside my comfort zone this catapults me, how poorly I deal with medical limbo.

Something is wrong with my body—maybe my heart, maybe my thyroid, maybe something else entirely. We don’t know yet, and this is the kind of wait that feels like it might just wind me a click past my stretchability.

There are the hours spent in waiting rooms… Yellow chairs, blue chairs, clinical beige, institutional gray. Signs on every door saying “Don’t Knock.” A solitary signal bar on my phone that comes and goes as if riding the tide of my thoughts.

And then there are the hours spent in my mind, a waiting room that never closes… Deep maroon worry, fluorescent blinks of irritation, blank putty-colored stretches of unknowing. All possible outcomes waiting behind those closed doors on which I’m not allowed to knock. An off-tempo pendulum swinging between anxiety and chagrin.

Because what it it’s nothing? What if I continue to ace these medical tests until the only explanation left is that I’m a psychosomatic phony? I honestly couldn’t tell you if the outcome I dread most is a diagnosis or the lack of one. Either way, I wait.

It feels like trying to sprint underwater, urgency trapped in slow motion. I often find myself thinking that I just want resolution so I can get on with my life, and that’s a normal response, right? I’m sure I’ve heard that sentiment expressed by at least a dozen characters on House and something like two hundred on Grey’s Anatomy (which is impressive considering I’ve only seen a handful of episodes). I realize though that when I think this way, it shows I’ve let the parameters of my world shrink to the size of a waiting room. I’ve let one small arena of unknowing press pause on my entire life.

Well then. You’ve heard the Thomas à Kempis quote, “The acknowledgement of our weakness is the first step in repairing our loss”? In this, at least, I can feel like I’m making progress. The last few weeks have failed to turn me into a breezy and beatific version of myself, but I have felt the headlong staccato of my mind relaxing a bit as I’ve reminded myself (and re-reminded myself… and re-re-reminded myself) that life goes on.

Which it does, of course, in all its beautiful, maddening, un-streamlined glory. My days continue to fill like overstuffed gift baskets. The traffic is in there, but so are story times with the girls and coffee dates with the husband and three-hour dinner conversations with friends. The doctor’s appointments are in there, but so are leftover apple pies and Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas. There’s reassurance, actually, in knowing that life is absolutely unruffled by my impatience with it. I’m glad to remain a minor character if it means that in my pauses just as in my fast-forwards, life will go on going on.

It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s my cliché.

7Oct

Confessions of a Terrible Texter

This past Saturday evening, I found myself standing in the middle of the kitchen with a stick of butter in my hand and absolutely no idea what I’d intended to do with it. This was concerning to me, given that not thirty seconds before, I had opened the fridge with no clue what I was trying to retrieve from it. Apparently, I had remembered—butter!—and then forgotten again in the time it would take a competent adult human to spell a-m-n-e-s-i-a. “What am I trying to do?” I wailed to Dan, who was busy preparing dinner. He looked at me the way one might regard a self-cannibalizing pet*, equal parts concern and WTF?!

*We once had a hamster named Pickle who gnawed his own leg to smithereens. Better, I suppose, than our mouse Minnie who, despite her chummy name, ate her two little terrarium-mates one weekend when we were out of town. We don’t have the best track record with rodents.

Brownies. I was making brownies. I couldn’t seem to hold that thought still in my focus for longer than twenty seconds though. After re-finding my place in the recipe, I deposited the butter in a double boiler and then looked around the kitchen feeling lost and fragmented. All I really wanted to do in that moment was pull my smartphone out of my pocket and retreat into the lull of social media streams. The impulse was so strong, so insistent and sudden and reactive, that it startled me more than my memory lapses had done. Was I really about to soothe my disengaged mind by disengaging further?

I finished baking in a kind of unsatisfied stupor.

/ / /

On Sunday afternoon, a friend texted me saying she’d noticed we weren’t at church that morning, and was everyone well? I read her text and then mentally added it to the long list of messages awaiting my reply. Of course I should have written back immediately. It would have taken a single minute of my time and then been off my mind, plus it would have communicated my very real gratitude for her concern. Texting for me, however, has always taken on a form of Gestalt psychology in which my reply is weightier than the sum of its parts—the minute of time it takes, the choice of wording, the motion of my finger on the touchscreen. Entering a conversation requires my presence.

[Cue the overwhelm.]

Text messaging. WhatsApp. Voxer. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Instagram. Each one a little universe full of people I care about, people to whom I want to give my full energy, attention, and emotional engagement. It’s not possible though, at least not considering my personality** and the creaking slowness with which my brain changes direction. I want to be present for all, but I can’t, and my extremely unhelpful coping strategy is to check out. Use social media to escape rather than engage. Let the faint interactive buzz of clicking “Like” substitute for the warmth of hard-won connection.

** ISTJ for you Myers-Briggs folks, Type 4 for you Enneagrammers. Basically, I’m an introvert who overthinks everything, including which personality test highlights this the best.

Tucking all these potential conversations away into spare pockets of my brain for later retrieval only serves to make me more fragmented, but the more fragmented I become, the more compulsively I scroll through social media in search of distraction. It’s the worst kind of loop, the kind that leaves me guilty and tired and replaces a section of my brain with Swiss cheese every time I pass “Go.”

I still haven’t replied to that text.

/ / /

Everyone and his Great Aunt Ruth knows that to make it in the online world these days, one needs to be both proficient and prolific in social media. This has a way of freezing my fingers cold on the keys.

If I can’t generate frequent snack packs of content throughout each day in addition to these slow-cooked posts, then am I in the wrong field? How are other writers able to be “on” for so long and in so many places each day without flying into a billion brittle bits?

I know the answer, of course, or at least some of its nuances. I know that personality and temperament have more of an impact on us than we often realize (more on this in an upcoming post) and that some good folks derive energy from the very things that sap mine. I know that a tremendous amount of work is often tucked into the archives of success, that diligence has its reward and its cost. I know that the sacrifices behind the scenes of others’ art might put my small concessions to shame. I also know that one size was never meant to fit all, no matter what the business experts claim.

Still, opening Twitter feels like smacking myself repeatedly in the face with a flunk card.

/ / /

I confess that while part of me feels snubbed every time a friend announces that he or she is sick of social media and wishes to get rid of it forever, another part of me completely understands. It’s not from the social media itself that I want freedom but from my own responses to it, the stress and disconnect and addiction and guilt, the impulse to self-soothe by scrolling through contacts’ photo streams, the wild-eyed withdrawal from conversation. I’d like to think that this is what my friends have meant as well—that we’re sick of the versions of ourselves we encounter when we reach for our smartphones.

This confession doesn’t come with a moral or with a list of tidy solutions. I will still be a terrible texter and a flaky Facebooker when the sun comes up tomorrow. (If you’re one of the ones waiting on a reply from me, I am sorry and can offer you contrition brownies if you come over.) Rather, this is my way of looking the beast in the eye and owning the reflection of myself I find there. It’s a truth-telling exercise. It’s a return to engagement, slow-cooker style.

16Jun

A Vanilla Lime State of Mind

I just about cried from happiness when we found a store here in Milan with an entire Yankee Candle department. In fact, Dan snapped this Instagram of me looking suspiciously misty-eyed the moment we stepped off the escalator:

Spotting the Yankee Candle display

[Not pictured: The actual Yankee Candle display. Possibly because within seconds, I was thrusting Citrus Tango and Coconut Bay under my husband’s nose saying charming things like, “Have you smelled this one yet? What about THIS? Oo, I don’t think you’ve gotten to try Fluffy Towels yet…”

I bought a tiny tart-sized Vanilla Lime in honor of my favorite chapter of Dandelion Wine* and only after unwrapping it at home realized it wasn’t a candle at all but a “wax melt,” presumably requiring some form of proprietary decorative Bunsen burner to use. Ah well. I’m keeping it at my desk and treating it as a Bradbury-themed scratch-and-sniff. Just call me Pollyanna. (And maybe keep it between ourselves that I’ve taken to huffing wax melts while I write.)

*Do you know it? If not, get yourself a copy no later than Saturday so you can spend every day of this summer in the magic of 1920s Illinois.

I’m finding it harder than I’d expected to get into a summery frame of mind this year. Granted, summer is technically still five days away, but considering that the temperature here soared to 100° last week and people have been using the #summer hashtag for something like four months now, I think we can agree that the season is here in spirit if not in person.

I’m trying, truly. I’ve been buying popsicles and napping under the ceiling fan and playing the 2014 World Cup album while I work out, but something in me seems reluctant to switch into holiday mode. Maybe it’s the workaholic troll in my brain that never, ever thinks I’ve accomplished enough to earn myself a break. Perhaps, instead, it’s the grumpy old geezer in my perspective that always takes forever to adjust to a new setting. It could just as easily be the scaredy cat in my soul that shies away from the whoosh of passing time, or maybe it’s something else altogether, something I haven’t yet identified or learned to face.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how I was going to work on feeling my feelings this summer instead of disconnecting from myself, but that’s proving easier said than done. Everything seems so complicated once I start peeling away the layers. Something as small as a Vanilla Lime wax melt leaves me sifting through the character files of my psyche, and that’s one of the easy ones, one of the emotive cause-and-effects that I feel capable of sharing right now. Can’t I just be… I dunno, simpler? More Buddy the Elf and less Lisbeth Salander?

I suspect that one cannot become less complicated simply by wishing herself so—and more’s the pity—but I do know that meeting every complicated facet head-on is a healthier response than ignoring it and hoping it goes away. That’s why I’m here today, feeling my feels and huffing the scent of summer and guiding my perspective with plenty of hand-holding and eye contact into the present.

29May

A Summer Without Sequels

I want to blame it all on the allergies—the way my head rolls bowling-ball heavy atop my neck, the thick woolly fog obscuring my vision, the struggle to make myself see even journal entries through to the end. It would be a justified accusation too. May and June are my Kryptonite, a radiant green that sucks the energy right out of me. I could write a poem in the pollen swirled across the surface of our car.

Allergies alone, however, do not explain why I’ve spent this week clutching a to-do list like it’s a Get Out Of Writing Free card. They don’t explain my almost desperate search for distraction when I sit down at my computer (“Why hasn’t anyone shared a BuzzFeed article in the last three minutes??”) or my avoidance of quiet alone time. Allergies may have everything to do with the Visigoth rave going on in my sinuses right now, but they’re not to blame for this creative paralysis. Not solely, at least. Maybe not even at all.

Last summer, I lost myself. More accurately, I let go of my own hand, choosing soul-disconnect over the more painful parts of my reality. I didn’t know any other way to cope.

To be honest, I still don’t really know how to talk about that time. I barely wrote anything during those three months, and what I did scratch down in my journal is as jagged as broken glass. I skim the entries as lightly as I can before drawing back, cut to the quick. I’d like to blot it all out of my mind, let last summer accomplish what it started and erase me from its memory.

The fear of it is still fresh though, or rather, a fear of its sequel. We leave in less than two weeks for a vagabond-style summer, and this is enough to send my mind into a self-protective tizzy. What if time charges away from me again this year? What if I look around and can’t see a place for myself? What if I feel too much? What if the joys of ice cream and swimsuits and late starry walks aren’t enough to hold me in place?

If I lose myself again, will I be able to find my way back?

My head feels heavier than it should, over-packed with histamines and fears alike. I’ve been trying to distract myself the hell out of Dodge, but it’s not working… which, duh. In what universe is running away from heart, mind, and soul a safeguard against losing them? That’s why I’m writing this, by the way, out of a determination that this summer isn’t going to be a sequel. Shut-down isn’t an option I’m allowing myself this time around. I’m going to feel the things I feel—feel them head-on without rushing over to Facebook for a quick numbing fix. I’m going to inhabit my life, the hard parts as well as the good. I’ll do my damndest to lean into painful changes instead of resisting them (easier said than done by a power of three bajillion, but still) and to be a scientist of my own spiritual journey, and it’s just possible that I can end the summer more alive than when I started it. Allergies notwithstanding.

29Nov

Tea and Sympathy

I’m feeling a little fragile here on the other side of Thanksgiving, the kitchen still piled with mixing bowls even after three dishwasher loads (which my longsuffering and all-around-awesome husband did when I wasn’t looking) and Christmas flurrying in the 30-day forecast.

I shouldn’t feel fragile. We were gifted yesterday with a gorgeous, full-volume American Thanksgiving at a friend’s house, complete with rare-to-us delicacies like green bean casserole and (be still my heart) pecan-crusted sweet potatoes, after which we played Balderdash. No game does my word-nerdy expat heart quite as much good as Balderdash. Full of good food and laugh lines, I came home and queued up the Sufjan Christmas playlist, and I should be glowing every bit as brightly as the snowflake lights strung up around town.

Should doesn’t have much sway over my emotional life though, and I’m trusting wise women like Anne Lamott and Glennon Melton who say that it is in fact possible to sit with uncomfortable emotions, offer them tea and sympathy, and live to tell about the encounter. It’s a tough challenge, this. I prefer the Freakout And Then Disengage approach, subjecting my fragile illogical feelings to a tirade and then opening Facebook so I can stop interacting with them for a while. I’m not sure that this is the healthiest approach, however, and it is exactly as effective as covering my own eyes to prevent a monster from seeing me. It doesn’t make the thing go away.

Today’s fragility is a mixed bag, really. It’s sadness that we won’t be with family for the holidays mixed with sparkling anticipation of time with friends and of our own little open-ended Christmas. It’s abundant gratefulness for the people in our lives contrasting with good old-fashioned introvert exhaustion. It’s nausea of body and soul over a confrontation that I find myself obligated to pursue tempered with the assurance that everything most important to me is okay regardless of how it turns out. I’m hopeful and anxious and tired and enthused all at once, and I suppose, looking at it in those terms, that a little breakability is only to be expected.

Have some tea, self. You’re doing just fine.

Your turn now. How are you holding up here in these unpredictable holiday waters? If you could use a little tea and sympathy for your own fragile illogical feelings, come on over; I have plenty to share.

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