The Roots of My Worry Run Deep

The ubiquitous question: “Why do you worry so much?”

I am a worrier. I freak.the.F.out about almost everything; present, past, and future. This is the opposite of living in the moment, as they say; a travesty to be unable to appreciate the “gift” of right now.

I find it fascinating that I only discovered that I have high anxiety in the past few years, after realizing not everyone ruminates the way I do and that perhaps anxiety/panic presents differently in different people. Upon this epiphany, I was shocked to think that despite 30+ years of therapy and institutionalization, no one ever cared to inquire if my depression happened to co-present with generalized existential terror.

A short list of things that I am scared of:

-Being in a car, which could at any moment collide with another (surely larger, and most assuredly deadly) vehicle; flip over; cross the median in a fiery head-on wreck; explode spontaneously into flames (like many of my fears, this one is sadly not alleviated by a modicum of understanding of physics or combustion engines)… Never mind the idea of operating the car myself, which engenders entirely new fantasy scenarios involving involuntary manslaughter…

-Walking over metal grates covering holes in the sidewalk; I once had a boyfriend who fell 8 feet into one. That the majority of them are extremely well-secured matters not at all. They are death traps to be avoided at all costs regardless of how ridiculous one looks tiptoeing to their side…

-That everyone I love a) doesn’t love me b) is going to leave c) if they don’t leave, they’re going to die prematurely, i.e. leave

-Crossing bridges. They’re going to break. I’m going to fall to a prolonged, watery death. (I probably should have studied physics, but I doubt it would help; I am also afraid of tall buildings toppling over… hence:

-Heights in general. I’m going to fall. I’m going to die. I’m going to leave behind the people who depend on me.

…and it’s not just potentially dangerous/deadly situations that raise my anxiety.

Long after moments have passed in which I felt humiliated, I allow the ensuing self-loathing to occupy me. In relationships, I often overthink and project and make mountains out of molehills. I have to constantly fight a deep and abiding tendency toward fatalism.

What does it feel like? I don’t often get the breath constriction or heart-attack-like panic others describe. I do– more often than I’d like to admit– become hysterical, unable to stop myself from sobbing or regulate my frantic breathing, often spiraling into utter despair. Or I feel sick, unable to eat, heart beating like I’m on a coke binge. This is my panic. I am seized with the unassailable conviction that it’s all utterly hopeless, that I am devoid of worth, that there’s just no.fucking.point. …And that’s where the anxiety and the depression begin to boil, boil, toil and trouble together.

But WHY? They still want to know, and I do, too.

I can only surmise that it’s rooted almost entirely in my childhood and the way my attachment developed; I don’t buy that it all happens within the first year. When I was two, my parents divorced and my father took off for his home state in a pickup truck, telling me when I asked to come with him that he didn’t have enough food for both of us. I didn’t see him again until he was on his deathbed twenty-five years later.

When I turned four, my mother died of cancer and my brother and I were shipped off to the other side of the country to a strange new “mom”, who– while large of heart– was temperamentally unable to provide the sort of loving comfort a four-year-old who has lost both parents needs. Hysterics, a sadly frequent occurrence, were met with a slap across the face, a recommendation provided to her by a (clearly sadistic) therapist for “snapping her out of it.”

I was bullied. I faced emotional and at times other types of abuse. I learned (subconsciously) that there was no one to protect me, that I was alone; and yet, since there were people who ostensibly cared, I had to take care to remain alive lest I hurt them…

Every moment could be your last! For some this engenders a “joie de vivre!” – live it up today because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow! – but for me, everything becomes a potential danger; in a mind you can’t shut off, everything has the potential to terrify.

No one has ever diagnosed me, and I haven’t sought treatment, the most effective of which (benzos) are hardly benign. I do my best to drive the darkest thoughts away; I self-medicate; I try to live with it and keep the effects away from my loved ones as best I can. I try to practice mindfulness and gratitude. I have attempted meditation (a total joke for me), and work at yoga, but I may be unable to master turning my goddamn brain off, ever, for even one second.

“Why do you worry so much?” It’s just who I am.

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Heavy Thoughts

 

 

I learned that “fat” was a terrible thing for a woman to be when I was six.

My adoptive mother, five-foot-four and somewhat endomorphic, succumbed to that peculiarly eighties obsession with thinness and signed herself up for an intervention at The Diet Center, tiny me in tow. A graphic poster on the wall cautioned against the horror of coating the “normal” female form with fat. The blue, hour-glassy inner part was “OK”; the extraneous yellow layer surrounding it, “not OK.” Brochures and pamphlets packed with colored charts, the only reading material to browse while I waited for her consultations to be over, told me that it was “good” to eat plain dry toast and half grapefruits sans sugar, and “sinful” to eat chocolate.

Snacking between meals was verboten even before the dieting, and meals themselves were often fraught with difficulty due to the intersection of my mother’s rigidity and my stubborn pickiness. A glass of milk, for instance, meant to round out a bowl of oatmeal, had to be poured over the oatmeal to create a sickening gruel, rather than sipped alongside the otherwise-slimy-but-bearable mush. A serving of octopus or beef tongue, despite my horror and regardless of my pleading, was to be finished no matter how many hours it sat getting ever-colder on the plate. First world problems, to be sure, but traumatizing nonetheless.

I began to sneak food: anything I could get my hands on; often hot cocoa powder mixed with maple syrup and chocolate chips: baking items were always on hand, if not real snacks. I ate sugar straight; licked seasoned salt off my palms.

By age ten I had reached my adult height of five-foot-two and had “blossomed” early…. and I was decidedly chubby. Certainly not enormous, but by no means slender. Uncoordinated and the opposite of athletic or graceful, I fell into a shame /no exercise/ever fatter spiral. My best friend’s preschool-aged brother pronounced me “Chumpy Checker” and taunted me daily in a sing-song voice; an older boyfriend mentioned his friend had commented on my “thick thighs.” I was devastated.

My older brother, the epitome of athleticism himself, constantly mocked my plump frame and burgeoning womanliness. I recall the nickname “Hippo” being tossed around among my lithe, blonde cousins, with whom I spent summers on Cape Cod, me swimming in an enormous men’s T-shirt and sweatpants, more often than not.

At my all-girls’ school, where being thin and especially being good at sports was essentially synonymous with being popular, I dreamed of someday, somehow, scoring a goal or hitting a home run or doing anything to earn my peers’ admiration. I believed that if I was just thin, I would be OK. By the time I was thirteen I was dieting constantly, often attending meetings, counting calories, and tracking our half-dry-english-muffin breakfasts as a mother-daughter team (one of our only activities of mutual interest).

I ate myself into obesity during my time as a stay-at-home mom in an unhappy marriage (which I dove into right after high school, convinced that I was lucky that anyone wanted my size-eighteen ass). I drowned the sorrow of my reality in whole batches of Bisquick muffins slathered with butter; in family-sized bags of potato chips eaten alternating with value packs of peanut butter cups.

When I finally left my husband I lost twenty or thirty pounds (along with the additional two hundred thirty or so) almost effortlessly, but still I struggled with hating my body. I straddled the line between “plus” and “regular”-sized and left fitting rooms in tears more often than not. When I found yoga and discovered that there was other exercise I did enjoy (!), I managed to drop down to a societally-respectable size eight, but still I hated my body. Because when you’re short, a size eight is still decidedly chubby by today’s standards (just ask Amy Schumer!).

Never mind that this body brought a beautiful, compassionate young man into the world. Never mind that it’s held friends’ hands in times of darkness and brought love through music to the ears of the dying and joy to the living. Never mind all of its capacity for love and its warmth; this is what I concern myself with, its fatness? Is that really the measure of my worth?

At almost forty, with a grown child; dear friends; fulfilling pursuits; love… can I not learn to stop self-criticizing, to stop believing that somehow life would be better if I were thinner? Can I not learn to love myself no matter my size? Can I learn to forgive those who contributed to this obsession, however unwittingly… most notably, can I forgive myself? Can I teach myself to believe that I am OK even with this subcutaneous layer obstructing the perfection of my hourglass? Would that I could go back to be in that room with that six-year-old to show her on that poster the two parts of a woman’s body that actually matter:

Her mind and her heart.

Learning To Be Good Enough

cenotes

The Yucutan cenotes: one of my happy places.

Whether kin of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or media-bandwagon-hopping, I am seeing it discussed everywhere lately, from the Times parenting blog to Fast Company. . .  it’s apparently Winter 2015’s “introverts and lumbersexuals”:

Perfectionism.

I wish I could say I am a reformed perfectionist. Unfortunately I am an active perfectionist. I know that it’s “not necessarily a personality trait to aspire to” as Terri Cole points out in last week’s HuffPost Canada article. I am working on it.

A former boss of mine had a sign that read “perfect is the enemy of done.”

This, too, I know (though can any writer or editor ever truly reconcile the two?)

I grew up with a parent who never even asked what my grades were, although diligence in all things was certainly expected. I was the one who felt absolutely crushed at not attaining the A. Truth be told, anything less than A+ is disappointing (which made college’s omission of this option rather tragic for me). Interestingly, I often expect, require, and desire the accolades even if I haven’t worked particularly hard for something. My mother will tell you that this is because everything “came easily to me.” (Which is certainly not true of sports, which I dreamed day and night of being a star in).

Perfectionism creates a deep fear of trying things we might not be good at, or alternatively a deep conviction that we’re just not good enough at what we’re trying. Either condition is ripe for creating crippling anxiety. (And in the case of sports, an additional vicious cycle of inactivity and weight gain).

I can trace some of my perfectionism to having an older brother who was practically worshipped in my family, who was good at literally everything he ever tried. He won a creative writing prize at college with his first short story. His art was entered into shows in school. His poetry was good. As a teenager. In his second language. He was an athletic star in every sport but basketball (he being only five foot three), a talented musician, a brilliant orator and debater.

I am still not sure how I am supposed to live up to that.

Especially, you see, as he died young. And everyone knows that the pedestal grows even higher for those we have lost.

I felt for a long time that since he was my mother’s favorite it would have been so much better were I the one to go. Which is a heavy burden for a child, I suppose. Part of me thought that if I was smart enough and talented enough I could somehow make her as proud and heal some part of that devastating wound. But I rebelled and rejected her, too, perhaps so fearful of not being perfect that I might as well go ahead and be the worst.

When I finally graduated from BU after sixteen years of night school, although I’m not one for gowns and caps and all of that jazz, I was excited to walk across that stage and have them say “magna cum laude.” So my mother could hear it. Two B’s in my entire college career, Ma! At a renowned university! (Where, may I toot my horn, it is apparently harder to get an A than most places!)

The Dean stumbled over my difficult name and missed the honors section of the card, apparently. There was no announcement. My boyfriend, knowing how much I’d been looking forward to my mother hearing the news, turned to her and explained what had happened.

“Well, of course Desiree got honors,” she scoffed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I cannot identify myself by how excellent my grades are, or how many accolades I get at work for a job well done, right now. I have to find other ways to measure my own success, and perhaps this has given me the freedom to be good enough. I promised myself I would volunteer when I got laid off, and I did, for over a year for a local parks organization I love. I was proud of myself for following through, for doing something meaningful, for working to improve my skills during the lay-off period. Then my boss retired, and I had to spend several weeks caring for my (other) brother who had been in a bad accident and then helping my mother who had her hip replaced, so I resigned. I accomplished what I set out to do, and I will find another organization to donate my efforts to, but it was enough for now.

Even if I haven’t found a new job yet, the right one is out there for me and I will keep looking. I’m not worthless because I don’t have full-time work. I have found my own “worth” again, in being a better mother and sister and daughter and partner, in making music and in writing, and I will find a way to balance those things and cobble together some kind of income. I am learning that I don’t have to be perfect. I can be good enough, which is a much happier place to be.

Sisterhood Of The Cluttered Vanity

I am a naturally messy person. I diligently intend to cultivate the habits of neat people, and when they are as simple as making the bed, sometimes I even succeed with some regularity:

(Painting by Nathalie Mermet-Grandfille)

(Painting by Nathalie Mermet-Grandfille)

Being a Virgo (and I do go in for that sort of thing), I really prefer organization. I actually love organization. I could marry it. Perfectly aligned outlines, and color-coordinated Post-It flags, lists and containers with labels, and generous amounts of clear space for the eye to rest. . .

. . . So I am constantly at odds with myself. (It’s an excellent internal environment for breeding anxiety, in case you are interested in the mechanics of that sort of thing.)

While I wouldn’t say I “enjoy” cleaning like the (possibly questionably sane) folks who say it’s “therapeutic,” but finding a place for everything and putting the things in those places does provide me deep satisfaction. It also provides me deep guilt. (Hey, there’s a great new dartboard movie title; maybe a Catholic Church piece?)

When I have successfully arranged my possessions into like groups in a frenzy of de-cluttering, I am confronted with some profound questions:

-How does a person own two tu-tus and not know about it? How could it be it that both of those tu-tus are purple?

-Why have I wasted a zillion and a half dollars buying twenty-seven sparkly eyeshadow palettes in the same color range, no fewer than sixteen “miracle” foundations which provided nary a benefit never mind act of God, and enough razor cartridges to make bare as a baby’s bottom an entire rugby team?

-How many trial-size shampoos can a person possibly own? The answer is correlated to the number of tiny refillable travel shampoo bottles that person has purchased (in order to avoid buying more disposable trial size shampoos) that can never be found on the frantic eve of a trip.

-Why do I even own a curling iron?

Maybe these things proliferate when we’re not looking, like reverse shoemaker’s elves running around making a horrible, regret-inducing mess.

Just as soon as I tackled the clutter recently and promised myself I’d buy no more hair products until the gajillion I have are gone, my new hairdresser, a curly hair expert, goes and tells me I should eliminate dimethicone from my styling regime because it’s drying my curls out. Guess what every single hair product in my arsenal contains? So now I have to buy all new products. It’s a never-ending cycle. (First world problems,  as they say!)

In my quest to live a life guided by grace, one of the simplest things I keep nudging myself in the direction of doing (with varying degrees of success) is just buying less. Bring less into the house and there are fewer opportunities for my inner Tasmanian devil to wreak havoc and thus for my anxiety and guilt to arise. Everyone wins! Except capitalism!

Sometimes that doesn’t mean buying nothing. . . I’ve come to the realization that it can mean splurging on one nice leather handbag instead of repeatedly buying inferior plastic ones that have to be thrown out. That crazy lady digging around in those dress tiers to find the fabric content label is me. . . I no longer buy things just because I am attracted to them: I almost always put down the polyester.

I am at least cognizant that four crystal balls is really enough for a gadje.

crystal

If I manage to keep all of the things together in their thing places, flaunting their too-much-thingyness, the visual reminder may someday be enough for me to remember that enough is enough.

Buy what you love. Keep what brings you joy. Savor its beauty by treating it with care.

“Use it up, wear it out;

Make it do, or do without!”

Grace Me Guide

Several years ago, after a weak moment in Barnes & Noble, I read Eat, Pray, Love. It was obviously a time of great soul-searching, as I then checked out The Artist’s Way and Wild Mind and that one about “morning pages” (?), and started a new journal dedicated to my new principles of self-actualization.

Like most writers, I am sure (and most Virgos, I suspect), there is little I adore more than a fresh, clean, beautiful, unsullied blank book. (Lined, please, because as artistic as I may hope to be, I shall never master the art of writing a straight line across a plain page.) I wonder how many others too, like me, leave the first leaf virgin, always.

This book, I decided (purple leather, made in India, with hot pink edging), would house a journal of the principles I hope to live by, summed up by the phrase on my family crest:

Forbes_aGrace Me Guide.

To me Grace is not a religious concept so much as a way of conducting oneself in the world. To be guided by Grace is to live mindfully and with kindness, and being impelled to fulfill one’s potential. In order to work toward living a life guided by Grace, I set some slightly-less-vague action principles:

Live mindfully: Be present in the moment; eat whole foods and remember to savor; spend time in nature and move the body

Show love: Be a more appreciative partner; keep up with correspondence; make time for friends

Organize: Keep physical clutter to a minimum, which keeps psychic clutter down, too

Create!

. . .And there were three more. Three more, because I would have chosen seven, of course. But I can’t remember them, and when I  later came upon the scarcely-started book, I was so embarrassed to be so far behind on progressing toward the goals that I ripped the section out of the book without looking.

For many years I was headed down a path where fulfilment seemed out of reach, though I longed for a change. A crisis both financial and psychological– losing my job and with it my identity as a hard worker — sent me through two years of self-searching and brainstorming and desperate reading and crippling anxiety and the hopes-dashed rollercoaster, to a point where I believe I am ready to have Grace guide me where I need to be. I need to make music, and write, and make the world a better place even in some small way by giving love, and keep a smaller number of possessions: those that bring me joy. I want to live more simply, with more purpose, and with appreciation for every moment on this beautiful planet with its wonderful creatures.

On Drinking Wine in Yoga Pants

I rather rudely plagiarized this blog title from a T-shirt I saw advertised recently. I am not the sort of person who wears a T-shirt with a funny saying across the chest. I am the sort of person who enjoys an outlet for yammering on a bit, though, and so here we are. With thanks and apologies to the clever person whose joke I am so ungracefully pilfering:

“I do yoga to relax.

…Just kidding.

I drink wine in yoga pants.”

I actually do practice yoga, with a frequency somewhere in between flossing and dusting the television. Which is to say, vacillating between ‘frenzied obsession’ and ‘utter lack of concern for the days and weeks zooming by.’ The drinking of wine in the yoga pants is an equally reliable, and much more frequently employed, method of relaxation.

Fashion digression: Never having shopped at Lululemon, I can’t say whether spending $120 to have your rear end cupped in high-end, magically-engineered Lycra is worthwhile. I can tell you that on one occasion I tried on no fewer than fifteen pairs of black yoga pants in Marshalls, and every one of them was see-through in the arse parts. Once, my brother was absolutely mortified when his young daughter was on stage and another parent locked eyes with him and mouthed “oops!”: You could see through her leggings completely. Beware the frumious sheerness, ladies and parents of girls! (Also, in a related discussion, tightsarenotpants.)

For fifteen years I’ve contorted my (actually-relatively-flexible-but-not-fit) body through yoga classes. Hatha yoga, yin yoga, power yoga, vinyasa flow, and the highly masochistic hot “bro-ga” as I call it (think military-style with man-meat grunting and sweating profusely in a room blowing such hot air you are convinced you’ll have a heart attack or die of heatstroke or both).

. . . And I still practice the same way after all of those years. I still can’t do an arm balance. I still can’t get my hip to open up on the one side for a decent pigeon. I still can’t even get my foot in tree any higher than my other calf. I did get my plow toes-to-the-floor thanks to amazing Dharma yoga instructor Larisa Forman. So. . . I have improved, but I doubt I’ll ever practice with the regularity (or cross-train with the intensity) I’d need to become a master. And that’s OK.

I can always drink wine in my yoga pants instead. . .

A nice Oregon Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley or a Washington State red blend from the Columbia Valley perhaps? Or an Argentinian Malbec? What is your favorite?

Welcome to the new blog. I hope you’ll get into your comfy pants, pour a glass of wine, and stay for a read.