Living with Uncertainty

It’s almost comical, the way Al and I made a two-year plan for when he retired. He really had it nailed–or most of it. Then came coronavirus. Is there any area of our lives have not been affected by this disease? No. There is not. It is the same for you. The “stay home” part of the plan to beat this virus is not difficult for me. Writers already know how to spend long periods of time in isolation. Time collapses when we write.

I’m not writing now. Well, yes, I blog and scribble morning pages, but I’m not starting my next novel. I’m not yet editing the novel to be published this year. I WILL do the edits and all the other book actions when they come. Writers are the original work-from-home people. We’re used to it and we like it. Except it’s all different now, isn’t it?

My anxiety about a loved one catching the virus is not unique. That every one of my soothing and pleasurable routines in the world has been minimized to what I can do inside this little condo is the same for everyone the world over. I’ve almost adjusted my anxiety to going with whatever comes next. The parts of life where I can’t make any plans with certainty. Still we talk about our retirement, how we can reconfigure it this way and that. We both know none of it is up to us. It is all up to the virus.

The only control anyone really has is over their mind, their speech, and their actions. My mind can feel wild as a jungle. My speech, well, I could do better sometimes. Some of my actions are questionable at best. The Buddha says “First, do no harm.” So I stay home, wear a mask when I must go out, wash my hands when I return. Those are all right actions. I try hard to do no harm.

But what about my the harm I do my own self? I have been an emotional eater since I quit smoking 35 years ago. I’ve made many attempts at controlling this behavior that feels so good but has done a fair amount of harm to my body. Also, I often choose to read rather than go on a walk with Al. Even though there are 23 other hours in the day when I can read to my heart’s content. Reading comforts me, but I go too far. My body needs fresh air and a walk every day weather permits. I feel guilty about how I have overlooked it.

This morning I cued up “Here Comes the Sun” and did a series of sun salutations. That’s treating my body right.

Al has been so patient and kind with me. He also painted the kitchen. My words to him are kind…most of the time. But my actions reject his attempts to help me help myself. And my anxious mind is so out of control even daily meditation doesn’t remove the need for medication. I bet walking would help. And eating more vegetables. Some scientists recently discovered eating vegetables make you happy. They kick up the endorphins. They feed the mind and the body.

So, when it feels like everything is out of control, take a breath. Are your thoughts, speech and actions in alignment with what you know in your soul is right? When you can’t control anything else, remember, you can, with practice and patience, control your speech, thoughts, and actions. Take an internal inventory. For example, I’m not buying any more dairy free ice cream. I thought I needed and deserved sugar in these impossible times. But I didn’t. I just wanted a quick fix. Better to work on the best action, which is helping my body turn away from diabetes and to take that daily walk.

Anxiety is Annoying

I read that “anxiety is annoying” in dismay a few weeks ago in a book about anxiety. My dismay was real. I am often anxious and so, what, then, people often find me annoying? What a bummer.

Cotton Exchange in Savannah

This weekend we went on a long-planned trip to Savannah, Georgia. It was planned for three couples and one couple, very good friends, opted out due to Covid-19 anxiety. I did not find them annoying. Before we left Friday, I saw the weekend as a time out from all the bad news. Later that same day Trump declared a national emergency. The next day, the governor of Georgia did the same.

Our group did not know that on March 17, St Patty’s Day, Savannah has a huge party. It was a weekend that worked for all of us, that was it. We’d planned an off/on trolley tour to see the entire city in a day. Which we did. As the day wore on, more and more drunk young people in green tutus and t-shirts partied in the squares. One lady in a Porche yelled at a bystander “Where can I get a shitload of beads?”

I saw some beads in Walgreens, but no hand sanitizer. As an anxious person, I always have my own. Downtown Savannah wasn’t a mad crush as it usually would be on this special weekend. The city was busy, the bars and restaurants were packed, and even the trolley was full or almost full. OTOH, there were no lines. For restaurants, in stores or for seats on the trolley.

My feet behaved with my new shoes and CBD balm for about five hours. We walked a lot. Still at the end of the day, I was happy to get in the car for the motel and some well-earned cocktails. That’s when it happened. I was triggered. Three times. By my husband, who stared down at his phone on an upward curve of freeway.

Our friends were in the back seat, so it probably didn’t look like a panic attack to them when I said “Al! Please watch the road and not your phone!” He did look at the road, still curving, still going up, for about two seconds. Then he looked down at his phone again.

I tried to make a joke out of it. Opened the center console and pulled out my mini bottles of emergency vodka and offered them one. They laughed. I did too, while I cracked one and emptied it into my throat. I got calmer, but I could tell, with my new knowledge, that my anxiety annoyed my friends. Also, it always annoys Al, even though he knows more than anyone I can’t do a damn thing to stop anxiety’s roll.

Good weekend, though. You would have never known there was a pandemic going on.

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What Might Have Been

I wake up by slow inches. My head pounds with a dull sickening weight. A relentless thirst makes it hard to swallow, impossible to sleep. My stomach roils and I pitch myself from the bed and to the toilet. I didn’t eat much yesterday, so I dry heave into the cool and clean porcelain bowl, once, twice, a third time. I rinse my mouth with water from the tap, then, exhausted, lie on the tile floor. Coolness kisses my cheek as I drift away. I like to be away. Away, all memory of last night is vast and blank. Away, I have nothing to regret, no secrets to hide. Away, I don’t wonder where I got the new bruise blooming on my inner thigh. 

“MOM!” I hear my older son yell. He’s outside the bedroom door, but it’s still too loud for this early in the morning. “MOM! Todd will not get up for school. I’m going to miss the bus if I don’t leave now.”

“Okay, honey,” my voice is rusty as I try to project it through the bedroom door. “I’m having a quick shower.” I stagger upright and turn on the water again. Will he know it’s just the sink and not the shower? Probably not. “Have a good day. I love you!”

“Love you,” he says. I know he will have his homework in his backpack and his lunch money in the pocket of his jeans. Mark is a good boy. He’s only ten, he shouldn’t be responsible for his little brother, who would sleep until afternoon if I let him. 

I lift the tank lid of the toilet bowl and pull out a fifth of vodka. Good. Half full. I take a long drink then another. Just enough to stop my hands shaking. Just enough to get everything into alignment. Eventually, I stash the vodka and brush my teeth. I drag a comb through my snarled hair, pull on sweat pants. They don’t match the t-shirt I slept in but I don’t change. I don’t care if the secretary in the main office judges me when I sign Todd in late again. I don’t care if she raises her eyebrows because I’m using the same thin excuse as yesterday. 

I think about the vodka still in the bottle in the bathroom. If I drank it, I’d care even less. But I don’t. Not yet. I need to get Todd to school and I am careful not to drink too much before I drive. I am a good mom. I love my kids. I’d never hurt them. 

I thrust my feet into sneakers. They’re bright pink and hurt my eyes. So don’t look down, I tell myself. Maybe today I won’t drink. Maybe today I’ll call my sponsor. Go to a meeting. I know I will be welcomed back without judgement. But then I think about how I have already had a drink today. My sponsor will know. She doesn’t take any shit off me. I might need a new sponsor. That’s fine. I can stop drinking tomorrow.

This piece of fiction came from the prompt “What Might Have Been.” There was a time in my 20s I felt sure I would become an alcoholic if I didn’t change my life. The first change led to other positive changes and a huge discovery–I’d been drinking to self-medicate in an effort to calm fear, anxiety and panic. I still don’t know how my subconscious knew I needed to make those changes, I’m just happy I listened.

The Startle Reflex

It happens at least once a day. Al creeps upon me unawares and I startle and scream. It’s embarrassing. I worry my neighbors will think he’s abusing me. This is not a new thing, I’ve had a strong startle response my entire life. People startle me in the grocery store. But it’s gotten worse since Al retired. At first, I thought, okay, well, I’ll get used to him being around and it will calm down. Also, he is doing things to help me now like walking a little louder or making some kind of noise to alert me to his presence before he’s right behind me. As of yesterday, it was not getting better.

I finally looked “startle response” up online yesterday, pretty sure this was going to be just another weird something I have to live with. As it turns out, some of us are born with stronger startle reflexes than others, and, with it, eventually, comes anxiety. Not sure why this surprised me. When I was teaching, I’d be alone after class, erasing the board and someone would stop by the door to say hi, and I’d be so taken aback the eraser would fly from my hand.

Turtles sunning themselves on the bayou

I still don’t have any good answers about what to do with this increasingly annoying reaction of mine, although Al is trying to help by being a little louder when approaching me from behind. I’m trying to be more mindful, meditate more, and I’m practicing yoga. Also, I’m taking my meds.

I got the mindfulness idea from an article in Psychology Today. Mindfulness is just being in the moment, having a single focus. I tried, yesterday on our walk around the bayou, to keep my mind from wandering. Mindfulness is exhausting! And I’m not sure how it helps calm a crazy amygdala. (The place mid-brain where the fight or flight response resides.) I think if I was totally tuned in to simply taking one step then the next, I’d be even more startled by an alligator crossing my path.

Baby Snapper sunning in the bayou

Our alligators have their favorite spots to bask in the sun, but they are mostly well away from people. We did see an alligator on our walk yesterday. It stayed in the water, only eyes and snout on view as it floated along like a peaceful log. I call the huge resident alligator here on the bayou Big Snapper. Now, there’s a Baby Snapper, too. Al told me the one in the water next to us yesterday was Baby Snapper. He showed me a photo of Baby Snapper sunning he took last year. She’s bigger now.

Last year, I gave up nature walks entirely. I was just too fearful of ticks and also Big Snapper, despite it never getting near anyone in our large community. But yesterday, I was not afraid of the alligator in the bayou. Maybe because it was Baby Snapper. Maybe, could it possibly be, because I’d been practicing mindfulness? For whatever reason, I had a lovely walk in nature with my dear understanding husband. We even stopped awhile to observe the leisurely progress of Baby Snapper floating down the bayou.

Anxious Characters

modestas-urbonas-14752-unsplashAfter ten novels or so, I imagine writers begin to worry about repetition. Did I use this plot device before? Have I named a minor character this before? I have always been careful not to repeat myself. Or so I thought. Last week I found out different. I was listening to the audio file of Love and Death in Blue Lake. The main character suffers from anxiety. Really? I was mad at myself. Anxiety is too close to PTSD, which is what my current main character in Lily White in Detroit is in recovery from. There’s only one book between these two novels. I should have remembered.

Looking back, anxiety wasn’t even relevant to Courtney’s character. The plot didn’t need it, there was so much else going on. I could have taken it right out of the book; my editor even mentioned that. Smart woman. My editor is extremely kind. So she probably said something like “Does Courtney need to be anxious? Where is this coming from? Maybe delete it or fill it out more so the reader understands.” So I dug in deeper, at least enough to please my editor, but now, looking back I realize I gave Courtney anxiety because I was going through a terrible phase of acute anxiety and having regular panic attacks during the time I wrote that book.

I had a good source for Courtney’s profession–she was a psychologist. Yes, a mental health expert with a mental health problem. But this happens in real life. The first time I knew I had panic disorder, my husband had about gotten fed up with my weird behavior in the car. Basically I freaked out every time the road wasn’t straight and dry. Curves, cliffs, bad weather (snow or rain or the dreaded black ice) even sharp turns all made me so fearful I’d beg him to slow down or stop the car or whatever. We hadn’t been married much more than a year and it had been clear to him for a while that I had this problem. I had no idea why I was so afraid sometimes when he was driving. Why sometimes I couldn’t drive.

He wasn’t super patient with me as it rattled his nerves to have a nervous passenger. One time he said “What do you think is going to happen? Do you think we’re going to crash and die?” And I said “Yes! I do!” He suggested I go to a psychiatrist, actually he said “You’re nuts. You need to see someone.”  The psychiatrist knew right away what was wrong with me. I was having anxiety attacks, later upgraded to panic attacks, probably because I’d been in one too many very scary car accidents and then there was my family history in phobias and panic. Basically I inherited my illness and it was exacerbated by experience. Anyway, this psychiatrist put me on medication that gradually erased my symptoms. It was like a miracle.

No amount of talk therapy can cure what I have. But she had to see me once a month for an hour in order to dispense the drugs. We used to swap stories of driving while anxious. She admitted to me she was also afraid to drive in certain conditions. Her way of coping with snow was to turn on her emergency lights and drive very slowly despite people honking at her and passing her. She didn’t care. If driving 30 mph on the freeway would make her feel safe, that’s what she’d do. She seemed to enjoy telling me these stories, but they made me a little anxious. Then one day I was cured. We said our goodbyes and I went on my merry way.

What I didn’t know then was that I would probably never be cured. But at least I knew what I had and how to deal with it. I’ve had a lot of therapy but I am not willing to drive over the Ambassador Bridge several times a day every day or lock myself into a small space, so aversion therapy is not for me. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is of minimal help when anxiety mounts and turns into panic, but nothing stops panic in its tracks like my particular cocktail of prescription medications.

As it turns out the character of Courtney came from an experience with my real life therapist while also being a therapeutic tool for me at that time in my real life. Because writing (for me) is therapy and always has been. I’m not sure this is true for all writers, but for me, writing is a terrific coping mechanism. Still, note to self: no more fictional character who suffer from any type of anxiety disorder.