Making Friends with Anxiety

In the middle of battling anxiety on a daily basis – morning, noon, and night – it occurs to me that this is an anniversary thing – the anniversary of us moving into our current home two years ago when we had such a hard wind-and-rain autumn in our porous log cabin that had a loose, squawking metal thing on the chimney outside our bedroom and a loose, banging roof tin on the porch of the cottage twenty yards from our bedroom; with black mold living and thriving unbeknownst to us in the center of our home, creating a felt sense for me that our house was haunted.

So, OK, yeah. I think the anxiety coming up for me these days could be anticipatory grief and worry that autumn in this house will have her way with me again. And it won’t be a pretty sight. What do I do about that? Well, I greet and welcome this nervous and apprehensive energy vibrating inside me and settle in for a good conversation.  It goes something like this.

Hello, Anticipatory Anxiety. I love you for protecting me. Let’s look at this thing of anticipating something bad happening this fall. So, it’s two years later. Let’s begin with the black mold. It was remediated. That’s what they call it when they tear out all the ruined wood and bathe the remaining walls and floors in a powerful anti-fungal product. The leak and poor craftsmanship that created the environment for the mold to thrive in was fixed. New plumbing, wood, and stone were put in place by an expert craftswoman and expert craftsmen. The beautiful bathroom is a daily reminder that all is well now. And last year the chimney sweep found what was wrong with the chimney, got rid of the loose, squawking metal thing, and put in a new wood stove and chimney that are reliable, safe, and quiet. And Ben, while painting the cottage to get it ready for our first Airbnb guests, climbed on the porch roof and nailed down the loose piece of tin. All of those things got fixed!

Oh, but then there was last autumn, right? The forest fires in the mountains between our mountains here and Lake Lure. Firefighters from several counties fighting the fires, those women and men were like soldiers, so courageous and self-sacrificing. We kept hearing how one of the biggest problems causing the fires to spread were the mountain laurel, which act like kindling with their brittle, wiry trunks and branches and waxy leaves. Not only are our woods full of mountain laurel, our log cabin, surrounded on two sides by rhododendrons, the mountain laurel’s fancy cousin, made me feel like we lived in a tinderbox. We had to travel during that time, making arrangements for our cats and dog in case the fires reached our neighborhood while we were away. But the fires never got closer than 12 miles away, put out by all those brave firefighters who saved countless homes and people from destruction.No teenagers lit fires this year. And we no longer have Rhododendrons growing right next to our home. Remember? First of all, a previous owner planted them too close to the house. They couldn’t grow properly. They’d become leggy and were not healthy or happy. They, along with our log cabin, were directly affected by the powder post beetle that invaded our home. One of the first things Terminix told us while explaining the process of tenting our house in order to gas it with a fumigant that would kill the powder post beetles that had feasted on our log cabin, depositing their larvae in the tiny caves they made, was that we’d likely lose the Rhododendrons to the gas. And we did. As a result, our home is better protected from forest fires than it was before. And our home is free of powder post beetles.

You know, even though the tenting drama occurred during the final days of summer, I’d say if anything bad was going to happen this autumn, it already has and is behind us now.

So, dear Anticipatory Anxiety, as the 2nd year anniversary of our entry into our present home (which is actually our third autumn here) approaches, I suggest we move forward with the notion that we’re fine. (I stop talking and writing at this point, tuning in even more closely to the anxiety.)The anxiety has calmed down very much as I’ve written this. “She” calmed down dramatically with the acknowledgment of how challenging our first autumn here was for me. Her argument was that I needed to be afraid – very afraid – because it’s autumn in these mountains! It looks as though all I did was apply logic to her argument. But that isn’t what I did.

I didn’t talk anxiety down with logic. Instead, I fully entered into my relationship with her, became present with her, and engaged her in conversation that allowed the anxiety to be seen, heard, and felt in regard to how bad it was for me to endure the deeply unsettling things associated with our home that happened to occur three autumns in a row. I was able to drop into a natural conversation with her because at this point Anxiety and I are well acquainted. The first time I addressed her in conversation I told her who I was, gave her my age, and some details about my adult life so that she could become acquainted with me as an adult. In other words, she needed to know I was no longer a child she needed to protect. She needed to know that I am a mature adult capable of taking excellent care of myself.

At this point the anxiety is calm. She’s still present. She’s watchful, observant. But there’s space between her and me now. I’m comfortable in my body. I am relaxed and calm and curious. Laying it out like this and having my curiosity about it aroused, I can see that the past three autumns here have been interesting, wild even! Wild like the forest just outside our door! Living in a log cabin in a forest is an adventure. Apparently, it is an adventure I’m up for because my husband and I have handled all the wildness very well.It wasn’t in a vacuum that I learned how to recognize anxiety, treat it like a viable part of me with which to have a relationship and conversations in order to allow it to heal. I’ve been in psychotherapy for a year with a gifted psychologist who is an expert in the field of Internal Family Systems. He and IFS are a perfect fit for me. That’s where I learned and am still learning how to interact with the ego parts that fight so hard and so blindly to protect me that they wind up hurting me instead of helping me. That’s the background for this conversation with anxiety over this autumn anniversary idea that something-bad-is-going-to-happen, allowing me to change my reality from being beat up by anxiety to being able to be calm, quiet, and effective in my life by participating in my own healing. Internal Family Systems is an awesome way to be present – to practice presence – for the sake of greater compassion, self-knowledge and healing.

Good stuff, that!  

 

 

I Dropped My Basket

“Well, that happened.” I got down on my hands and knees and picked up all the buttons, because that’s all there was to do. I’d picked up the tin of buttons off my desk to put them away where they belonged. As soon as I had the closed tin in my hand the thing leapt out of my hand, into the air, flipped over, and the lid flew open; buttons fell to the floor scampering in every direction, followed by the tin crashing on wood before it finally stopped moving. This happens a lot – things flying out of my hands. I don’t understand it. I don’t know if it’s part of osteoarthritis or if I’ve got some kind of energetic, kinetic, psychic gift. But when it’s a bowl of cereal that seems to leap from my grasp, turns upside down in mid-air, spilling all its contents before also reaching the ground, it’s irritating.

As, on hands and knees, I picked up the buttons I thought about how not that long ago such an accident could have resulted in me feeling and expressing rage. But this day I didn’t go into a rage. As such, while I worked to pick up every button, I realized I felt humble. Not humiliated, just humble – the task was a humble task. Comparing this experience to rages in the past, it occurred to me that when I rage I feel bigger than everything. Feeling bigger only lasts seconds, however, because the rage is followed by feelings of humiliation and shame for having lost control in a way that repels others. In fact, raging makes me feel as though I’ve lost my mind. I titled this essay “I Dropped My Basket” because it is an old southern way of saying I lost my marbles, I lost my mind, or in today’s parlance, I went bat shit crazy. All those terms are often used in humor, but my experience of raging – of dropping my basket or going bat shit crazy – doesn’t feel funny.

This different experience with the buttons – this being present to the humble task and how I felt humble felt kind of good. I didn’t feel shame. I had nothing to feel remorse about when it was over. And I rediscovered some pretty buttons I forgot I had.

It seems to me that being present to the current moment – whatever the moment – is an experience of openness and vulnerability – even if the moment is filled with happiness or joy instead of humbleness or sadness or even guilt and regret.

This morning I had an interesting moment in which to be present. Joseph was away for the day so, having the luxury of time, I extended my grooming ritual. Halfway through my shower, Daisy, my dog, settled herself on a mat outside the shower door. She didn’t look too happy so I realized it must be raining – even storming. I glanced up through the shower door to the window in the ceiling and caught sight of the downpour. Then I remembered I’d left every window in my (new) car rolled down after Daisy’s and my walk earlier in the morning. In the past the sudden realization that the inside of my car had gotten soaked would have filled me with feelings of embarrassment and guilt. My inner judge would’ve had a field day raking me over the coals. I might’ve even felt shaky racing to the car to fix the problem I’d caused. Not so this a.m.

 

Instead, I took a moment to decide what to do. I turned off the water and left the shower without drying off. I walked through the house and got my keys. Then, without a stich on, I walked out the front door and up the path through the pouring rain to my car. I never ran or jogged because I didn’t want to fall. Besides, if one is already soaking wet, what’s the point of running through the rain (unless running is pleasurable)?  I hadn’t bothered to take the time to put clothes on when I left the shower because our house and yard have enough privacy not to.

When I got to the car I reached in and turned it on but the windows wouldn’t roll up so I pressed on the brake with one hand and hit the switch a second time with my other hand whereupon I successfully rolled up the windows. Then I turned off the ignition, closed the driver’s door, and left whatever was wet inside for about an hour later when I’d take a towel to it. Having a little familiarity with plumbing problems, I know that stopping the flow of water is the first step and goes a long way to solving the problem of too much wet. I figured it could wait till I was dressed. Then I calmly walked back to the house and my shower.

 

It was when I made the choice to save toweling off the inside of the car for later and felt how calm I felt inside that I realized I was proud of this new and different and better response to a stressful, potentially self-shaming event. The smile on my face and the rain on my skin felt wonderful!  

It seems to me that when, as adults, we learn to release self-rejection, self-recrimination, self-neglect, and self-harm – states of mind and emotion that can lead to things like raging – we go a long way toward inviting more self-nurturance and love into our lives – which can lead to things like presence, happiness, and contentment. Love is the only safe place to hang out in life. It includes respect, unconditional positive regard, and compassion, as well as fully seeing and hearing our own selves as well as others. In that place, instead of dropping our baskets, we can bask in the glow of a calm and peaceful mind and heart.

 

The Work of Relationship is a Privilege

In healthy relationships partners view their lives together and the energy required to maintain these bonds as a privilege and challenge – not as an obligation or struggle. ~ Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

I forgot this. I forgot that being in a relationship – especially a romantic partnership, a marriage – is a privilege. That it comes with challenges that are opportunities for growth – not only growth for the relationship but that help me continue to grow up into the adult and whole person I want to be in the process of becoming!

Joseph and I fell in love nineteen years ago. I was thirty-eight, he was fifty-five, and we were both single-again, becoming friends through our participation in a self-growth school. As such we didn’t date our way into our relationship. Rather, in the winter of 1998 we turned around and realized our bodies and hearts had already fallen for each other and that the rest of us might want to get on board! In the years that followed our affection for one another and the chemistry we shared was profound for both of us and apparently on display. Though one person in our life often teased us, looking for the honeymoon to end, the way others noticed our bond was delightful. I felt as though our love was a gift that created a space for love, happiness, and contentment to sort of hum and thrum and thrive. It was as though, without teaching, preaching, or being intentional about it, the space we filled made some kind of difference for those within our sphere of influence. It certainly made a difference for us.

So how did I forget that our relationship is a privilege? How did I lose touch with us? In the last year, bewildering to me, feelings of obligation and struggle seemed to tug at the outer edges of our relationship. It showed up inside me in internal conversations that went something like this, “We sound like some old married couples I’ve seen – me harping on him and him placating me too much of the time. Maybe this is just what happens the longer you’re together and it’ll never get better.” Too many conversations between us felt effortful and I wondered, “Are we falling out of love? Are we falling out of liking each other? How can he maintain his love for me if we keep this my anger/his mollifying thing going?” I did not like this and I did not want to talk about it out loud with him. I didn’t want to admit it. As it turns out that wasn’t Joseph’s experience at all. He knew I was unhappy, doing his best to help, but he felt no sense of threat to our relationship. I appreciate that because, on one hand, it’s an example of the differences between men’s and women’s brains and how they perceive the world differently from one another. For instance, if we don’t judge me for over thinking it and we don’t judge him for being oblivious; our different ways of perceiving our shared life don’t have to become a disagreement to iron out. And, on the other hand, it’s easier to sort out tension if both people in a couple are not afraid the ship is sinking! 

I could make a list of all the things I think went into creating this me-harping-and him-placating thing but it would make this essay too long and tedious. More significant than those details is that it happened at the ages we are now. I believed that because of our ages this development was natural and expected, which was an invitation to let it continue. Aging squeezes the juice out of people unless they choose to be intentional about staying juicy. Juicy in all ways: sexually, mentally, physically, socially, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally – all that good stuff that came so easily when we were young and full of hormones that did the work of juiciness for us takes effort when those hormones dissipate. But it is worth the effort!

Getting a grip on griping and deciding I wasn’t having it, I wasn’t going to continue through the years being an easily angered person, gave me the oomph to get in touch with the part of me that still desires the juicy relationship I recently took for granted. I reread books about the differences in the way men’s and women’s brains operate and what that means on a practical level of living, loving, and working together. As a result I began being 100% present to Joseph again whenever he spoke to me. For instance, as the result of a move and lifestyle change a year and a half ago, I’ve had reason enough to often run lists, plans, desires, and needs in my mind while listening to him. It’s a way to multi-task but no way to connect with another person! Simply giving him my full attention does wonderful things for me and good things for him too. My eyes widen at the sound of his voice, my body feels more relaxed and open as I genuinely receive whatever he has to say, and I get to practice listening with no agenda and no interruptions. Listening in this present, receptive way is a lovely way to relax and bathe in my femininity as well as genuinely connect with him. It feeds my soul and nourishes my relationship with my fella. This way of listening serves his masculinity as well. Men tend to be streamlined thinkers. When women give them the kind of active listening women love to give each other, replete with lots of questions and interruptions, men tend to zone out because their brains are not wired that way. Keeping up with a woman’s active listening can be exhausting – especially when active listening leads to hijacking the conversation. When I save the active listening for my girlfriends and, with Joseph, listen receptively to him, I experience myself as a woman in a way that brings pleasure to both of us. It’s juicy!

For the record, I have stopped harping on him and he has stopped mollifying me. For me, we feel like our old selves again, in love and loving each other in a relationship that is a privilege and worth the energy expended when challenges arise. For him, he knows I’m happier and more content and that makes him happy. When I’m OK, he gets to be with me in ways that are more fun and satisfying for both of us. My goodness, the effort to get back to juicy is worth it! I very much recommend it.

Resources:

If you would like more information on the differences in the way men’s and women’s brains operate for the purpose of living, loving, and working better together, I highly recommend the work of Patricia Love, Ed.D., especially the book that she co-wrote with Steven Stosny, Ph.D., How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. You can find Pat Love online at http://www.patlove.com.

I also recommend the work of Alison Armstrong. She has been studying men for twenty-six years, sharing everything men have taught her about how they relate to themselves, each other, the world, their families, and the women in their lives. You can find Alison online at http://www.understandmen.com.

The quote from Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. with which I began this essay comes from his book Overdoing It. Bryan is a licensed psychotherapist and author of many nonfiction books and is also an award winning novelist. His psychological suspense novel, Limestone Gumption, is now out in paperback. You can find Bryan at http://www.bryanrobinsononline.com.

Budget as Story…as Relationship

Every January I pull together a budget based on the previous year’s earnings and expenses as well as projected changes in earnings and expenses for the current year. I hate it. Even though I’ve made it as simple as possible, I do not like writing the budget. Numbers make me nervous – always have since grade school where they were my weakest subject and would remain so through high school. (One of the many reasons I loved my college was because, back then, students chose between a language and math. We didn’t have to take both. Call me crazy but I signed up for Greek and said “bye-bye” to numbers in school!) Since I do the budget because it’s necessary, first of all I avoid it by practicing the art of procrastination with creative and productive projects that keep me out of my study. Then when I commit to it, I spend the time at my desk bubbling inside with impatience and insecurity while wanting to be somewhere else, doing something else. Going to the movies is never as enticing as it is while I sit here and get the work done. In fact, I have interrupted the task of writing up the 2017 budget with this very reflection. Several minutes ago I interrupted the task by buying an MP3 album at Amazon, which now keeps me company while I do the budget. Actually, the music is keeping me company in this very moment as I write this.

Why did I start writing this? Because it occurred to me that numbers can tell tales – stories – memoir, if you will, about how the previous year was spent as well as the hopes and expectations for the New Year. I thought if I looked at it this way, it would help. I actually feel a slight sense of relaxation around the budget. I’m going back to it. I’ll be back in a bit.

It helped! Going back to the budget I felt calm and relaxed. As a writer I was surprised by my impulse to look at the numbers as story and memoir because I knew I did not want to take the time to sort of tell the tale about each number in the budget. That wasn’t what I was going for at all. It was a clean cut idea that the numbers would speak for themselves. Together on the page of the budget, in relationship to one another, and in relationship to me they are a memoir of last year and a story about this year. And my mind relaxed around the task.

Within the context of looking at the numbers as story or memoir, they tell a boldly honest tale. Something memoirists talk about is that in memoir the writer practices selective memory. In writing memoir, selective memory isn’t less than the truth. Sometimes it points to bigger truths. It isn’t biography nor is it fiction. Mostly, selective memory means the writer shares what she needs to share and not everything needs to be shared. Dani Shapiro asks this about memoir, “What is the job of the memoirist?  Is it to tell all?  Or is it to carve a story out of memory?”

But a budget as memoir – the numbers are there representing exactly what was, anticipating what will likely be. It’s a bold truth indeed. And, for me, it is now complete. Rather than running away from the completed task or shaking it off, I’m basking in the glow of a tale well told. Till next year!  

(For the sake of this reflection, I added photographs of bells because they can be counted.)  🙂 

Grief is a Big Hipped Woman Inviting Me to Bigger Love!

I’ve reached that time in life, the middle point, when some of my beloveds have begun leaving this earth. On the basis of age alone, this will continue to happen until I one day join them. When I say “beloveds” I am referring to the people who made and make me feel loved and, who I hope, allowed me (and allow me) to make them feel loved as well. In the last three years I’ve lost three such people from my life here on earth.

Though grief has always been a companion of mine, these days she takes up more space. I bump into her more often, as if hers or my (or our) hips have gotten larger and we’re not used to taking up more space – so we jostle for it. This bumping into grief might occur from an obvious thing like a song on the radio, a scent in the air, a joke one of my beloveds and I would have shared, an opinion I’d like to have elicited. Or it can occur for no reason at all like the night recently when I finished cleaning the kitchen and, as I walked down the short hallway to the front room, I felt a need arise inside. I instinctively turned back to the kitchen to see if I could figure out what it was I needed. Had I left something unfinished? Was I hungry? Did I want food or drink just for the pleasure of it? What was needed? And then I got it. There it was – grief. I had no needs to fill, the ache inside was just grief showing up for no reason except a basic longing to be able to physically, mentally, and emotionally connect with my beloveds.

As a result of grief bumping hips with me, jostling for space, I notice I’ve been walking around feeling less loved. Preoccupied with death and dying. I think about it in the morning when I get up and at night when I get ready for bed. I think a lot about how I’m slowly losing the people who have loved me the most and that one day it could be true that no one will be left who truly, deeply loves me. It might unfold that no one will be left for whom my happiness really matters to them. I could wind up completely and utterly alone. As such I seem to have a yard stick in hand with which to measure how much love is now gone from my life.

But then I self-correct and get busy thinking better thoughts, you know, like how lucky I was to have had these recently departed beloveds in my life. Like truly, outrageously fortunate. And how truly, outrageously fortunate to still have a number of beloveds alive and in my life and us loving each other! I mean – it’s awesome how many people there are to love and be loved by!

This back and forth thinking about death and emptiness then life and fullness is like jumping back and forth between two parallel tightropes. But the life and fullness tightrope is tied between two trees, whereas the death and emptiness tightrope is attached on both ends to something covered in mist and clouds. Naturally, the mystery of where the death and emptiness tightrope leads makes it the more appealing one to travel.

Today, though, I thunk a different thought. I did so because I ran across something Byron Katie said in her book, I Need Your Love – is That True? She writes, “Most people believe that love and need are synonymous. ‘I love you, I need you’ is the hook of a thousand love songs.” The title of the book plus those two sentences made me realize that I have been walking around as if I can’t comfortably exist if those who are among the few who love me most are no longer around to fulfill my need to be loved.

So I took that idea and held it close: I can’t comfortably exist if these three who are among those who love me most are not around to fulfill my need to be loved. As I did so, I could feel that this idea was greeted by all the love inside me. The love that exists inside me all the time stirred and greeted this thought that I am less loved because three of my beloveds are gone, along with the discomfort that thought creates.

I decided to greet the Love that stirred inside and realized it consists of the love of God, the love of my husband, the love of these three beloveds who left this earth during the past three years, the love of everyone still physically in my life who love me, all the love I’ve ever been given, and all the love I’ve ever expressed and given away – all that love met this idea that something was missing because three of my beloveds died. And you know what the idea did? It laughed! It laughed a great big belly laugh, before dissolving into all that LOVE.

I thought the love others gave me was something only they could give. Which meant death could take it away. Believing that thought means I am not in touch with the love that already resides within me. This is deeper than self-love. This is about being Love. This is about God’s love in an “inter-being,” tangible way. I’ve picked up this term “inter-being” from Richard Rohr and his new book, The Divine Dance. I think inter-being as Richard uses it means I am in God and God is in me, always, and so Love is always present. Love is always available. Love is always here – right here, inside me – inside, within, around, alongside all of life!

This doesn’t magically take away grief. What it does do is it makes life, my life, bigger than the grief I’m experiencing. I say above that I’m bumping into grief more these days. I feel sort of shoved out the way by her hips. But perhaps it’s a love tap. Maybe when I bump into her I can move closer, the way I would move closer to a friend with whom I bump hips while walking together. Perhaps I can abandon both those tight ropes I mentioned and, instead, walk alongside this friend I call Grief which, in fact, may be love personified. Relax into the total experience of it and let it expand my heart and feel the love more deeply.

Instead of, “I was loved. I lost those who loved me. Now I am bereft,” isn’t there a felt sense of I was loved – beautifully loved – and I still am loved? When I say ‘I still am loved’ I’m speaking about love given and received as well as the Presence of Love within me that is even or also me – the real me. The love that resides inside truly exists in me. It isn’t dependent on someone else giving it to me. And at the same time, all my beloveds’ love still resides in me in a full and tangible way.

I began writing this essay many days ago. I can say that I seem to have experienced genuine transformation around my companion whose hips like to brush up against mine, otherwise known as grief. I still can feel hurt, confusion, and longing in regard to my three beloveds who have left this earth. And those feelings still pop up in expected and unexpected places. But when I feel happiness, joy, delight, surprise, awe, contentment, curiosity, just any positive state, I now feel the presence of their love that still and ever will bless my life. I’d say I think of them even more often now, because there is no need to withhold or tamp down joy or laughter out of a sense of respect. Rather, they are still a part of life and living and sharing love. Even with grief as a companion, I now have a sense of wholeness back because I know that Love isn’t missing from my life. Love didn’t leave me. Love is right here inside me present to it all. When I show up and be present to Love, there is fullness, even a belly laugh that knits this mortal life together. And on the subject of mortality, I’ve been giving it less thought lately too.