Calling Off the Fight: Anxiety Redux

Anxiety Face
Anxiety Face

A boxing match is about to start. As I step into the ring with my biggest fear, I size it up and see that it is nebulous, which will make it a tricky opponent. Its form is not well-defined. It looks impenetrable yet ready to engulf me at the same time. I step back and study this thing, and I realize that its nature is to shape-shift into a dark cloud over any circumstance. Its strategy is to cast shadows and hide the light, distorting things. As I consider my plan for doing battle with this being, I decide I will give it a name to disarm the ambiguity it wields as a weapon.

My biggest fear goes by Dali (Disaster And Loss Imminent). He sits at the periphery of my mind, trying to poke holes in my happiness. He has a knack for creating a pall over a perfectly good situation, although I hardly ever pay attention to him. But, there are moments when he morphs himself into a thought or feeling that grips me and throws me down on the ground in a panic. In these times I feel terrified that I am on the verge of losing everything that is good in my life. I can see myself alone, living in abject poverty with a crippling broken heart that will eat me alive. When these moments descend on me, I let Dali have his way with me for a little while; I whimper and whine and curl up in a ball. Then, I dust off the essence of me, which is rational and optimistic, and I put up my dukes.

Standing toe to toe with this mean-spirited joy thief, I come to understand that I am well-equipped to handle him. It turns out that defeating him is not really my aim. What I need to continue to do is to acknowledge his existence, and maintain the same approach to life that has gotten me where I am now. I am exceedingly grateful to be leading such a charmed and luxurious life, and I give due credit to dumb luck for its part in sparing me any real suffering thus far in life. Alongside that luck, though, I see in myself a particular combination of ingenuity, endurance, creativity, and courage that have served me well in constructing a life that I love. I believe that if old Dali were ever to coalesce into some concrete shit-hitting-the-fan threats to my well-being, I have the balls and strength to handle it.

I contemplate the most nightmarish scenario I can conjure (the death of one of my children), and I know that if something that painful ever happened, it would not destroy me. It would wound me profoundly, and I would stand at the edge of complete disintegration. I would flail and rail and suffer. But I would survive and learn to flourish again with those wounds. Looking at Dali across the ring with this knowledge in mind, I realize that we have made a mistake in choosing a fight scenario to work out our differences. We are not adversaries. He is part of me, and I need him. He fosters gratitude in me for the amazingly wonderful life I am living. He keeps me constructively humble. He is fundamental in helping me act in line with my values. Without him I would have a blind spot and I would be incomplete.

The fight paradigm supposes that fears are best handled by defeating them. There is a school of thought that says we should banish them from our consciousness, because to engage them is to perpetuate negativity. I don’t buy this. There can be a healthy balance between denying the reality that these fears exist and dwelling on them. I believe they are best handled with self-inquiry, patience, and acceptance. I have decided to call off the fight. Dali is part of who I am, and I appreciate his contributions to my wholeness.

Iron Musings

In August 2014 I completed an Ironman Triathlon in Boulder, Colorado. That is 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles cycling, and 26.2 miles of running. This accomplishment is a big deal to me. When I feel insecure, afraid, or weak, I remember that I did this and I feel reassured at my ability to deal. I wrote this a couple of days after the event. It still gives me goosebumps to think about finishing.

Awake at 2 AM on the big day, people I love filled my house. I felt a strange combination of confidence and a sense that I couldn’t do it.  The swim start was surreal.  This emotions reminded me of childbirth.  I was standing on the shore of the Boulder Reservoir about to start an Ironman, my water broke and I was about to become a mother.  Similar feelings.  In the water, I swam slow and steady, daunted by the large number of buoys marking the course…I told myself “Just swim from one to the next, don’t worry about anything beyond that.” A crowd surrounded me, but I was alone in the water.  Suddenly I was at the end.  People stood on the shore with genuine smiles and congratulations.

Out of the wetsuit, into the changing tent.  I had a moment of panic when I could not locate my underwear in my changing bag. A 112 mile bike ride going commando…Uh oh.  But, after I finished dressing, I found them in my helmet.  I had to pee so bad; I put my undies on in the port-o-john.  The “real” cyclists of the world later informed me that you are SUPPOSED to go commando in cycling shorts, but, whatever….  Between bathroom and bike I saw Britt (my sister) and Jim (my love). I was so happy they were there, holding me up, pushing me forward with their love, pride and smiles.  I felt a little embarrassed at how lonely my bike looked when I got to it; I was way in the back of the pack.

Swim to Bike Transition
Swim to Bike Transition

On the bike course, I just let the miles tick away, and I focused on a steady pace, but not pushing too hard, drinking water and electrolyte every six minutes.  I knew that after the halfway point, the ride would get tough, both physically and mentally.  The hellish, hot, windy, meltdown-inducing rides I had done out there informed my attitude of slight dread for what was coming, and I was so pleasantly surprised that there was not such horror out there that day.  At mile 90 when I realized I was not actually riding face first into winds blowing straight from the gates of hell as I had experienced while training, I celebrated a bit.  The turn up the hill to the Three Bitches (a series of three short but steep hills at mile 99) took me by surprise – I didn’t realize I was already there… and there were my loves, at the top of the hill.  I had to stop for hugs and kisses from my daughters. Then I was going downhill!!!  With only 11 miles left, I felt like I was just about done with the bike.  That was the longest 45 minutes of the whole ride.  It felt tedious and hard, and never-ending.   When I got to transition, I started to feel fear.

Gulp.  A marathon.  I had never run that far before.  What business did I think I had out here trying to run a MARATHON today, after all that I had already done with my body for the past few hours?  Who was I kidding?  Who did I think I was? The crowd was overwhelming and beautiful and happy as I came out to the trail.  It was again surreal.  On one hand, I felt annoyed at their cheer – how could they be so happy when I had 26 miles of suffering ahead of me? On the other hand, they kept those dark voices somewhat at bay.  I “faked it” for three miles, with no strategy or idea about how to get through this.  I wasn’t in a groove.  After the third mile, I realized that I was going to have to stop thinking about the big distance and get very “in the moment” with this thing.  I chose to focus on now. I would run between aid stations (there was one every mile) and walk through them.  If running felt too hard, it simply meant I needed to run a little slower.  No more counting the miles. I focused on the walk/run pattern, and settled in to enjoy this place I love with all of my heart, my home.

After that, the time and the distance went by pretty quickly.  I had some rumblings of stomach upset, but nothing serious.  At mile 20 I realized I was now running beyond any distance I had done before.  Fatigue set in.  Time to dig deep.  And I kept it up.  I’d resign to walk longer durations to help with the fatigue, but after a couple of minutes of walking my impatience reared up and I started running again, just to get it the fuck OVER.  By mile 23 I was unable to interact with the external world at all.  I was focusing entirely within.  I saw Jim on the path, and while it was a real boost, I could barely acknowledge him.

As I turned the final corner and saw the first arch entering the finishing stretch, the tears came.  I sobbed and ran.  I cry now as I remember those last couple of minutes.  My beautiful daughters were there, pride in their mom showing on their faces as they saw me coming.  This finish was another form of proof of my strength, and proof that I have “fixed” my life.  I threw off the chains of alcoholism and self-destruction and cultivated my vitality to the point of doing this life affirming thing.  After 14 hours and 24 minutes of celebrating my heart, spirit, and body, I crossed the Ironman Finish Line.

Ironman-Finish-Line

 

Dog Years

Zoey Dufresne
Zoey Dufresne

The other day I was cleaning out a junk drawer, and I came across the ID tag from a beloved former pet, Zoey, the sweetest yellow lab in the world. I couldn’t believe how this little piece of metal with no remaining practical purpose in my life elicited such a sudden and strong emotional reaction from me. One minute I was sitting on the floor matter-of-factly sorting through a pile of broken pens, thumbtacks, random keys and paperclips. The next minute tears were running down my face as this symbolic trinket brought a rush of memories and feelings for which I was really not prepared.

Zoey was our first “child”. We adopted her from the humane society, and Zoey was her original name. We decided to keep it so as not to add to the trauma of transition, but we did add the middle name “Dufresne”, after Andy Dufresne, the main character in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption”. She had exhibited such a calm dignity and a quiet sweetness (much like the character in the movie) among the yelping chaos around her at the humane society that this addition to her name was natural. The day we brought this beautiful sweet being into our lives, we went from “couple” to “family”.

Zoey was with us for six years, through all of the joys and heartbreak that came with the births of our two children, the death of my mother, and our own growing into middle adulthood. We moved across the country with her, twice. We nursed her back to health from a spinal injury that left her paralyzed in her hind end for several weeks. She went camping with us, she patiently let our toddlers climb all over her and slobber on her ears (Lily even poked her in the butt with a little toddler finger once, and she just stepped away without drama), she snuggled with us when we were sad. She spent the last two years of her life with the top of her head perpetually encrusted in dried baby food, yogurt, and oatmeal as she never missed sitting at her post under the high chair at meal time. During those years, it would have been hard to imagine life without Zoey. And then, one day, rather unexpectedly, she was gone, and there was a hole in our family, and our hearts broke and the sadness was almost unbearable.

image

It has been eight years since Zoey died, and in that time the family that she left behind has become almost unrecognizable compared to what it looked like when she left us. We are divorced and live two thousand miles apart. The perfect family with the white picket fence, two beautiful children, and the family dog disintegrated into oblivion. We are all happy and healthy, and life is good. But, seeing that dog tag, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of loss and failure, because it represented the road we thought we were on when Zoey was with us. If you had told me the day we brought her home and started that little family what it would eventually become, I would not have believed you. And it makes me wonder what other unexpected twists and turns are in store. And it thrills me, and it scares the shit out of me.

Rotting: A Day in the Life of a Functional Alcoholic

The alarm clock sounds, and immediately I begin to compile the daily mental inventory of regrets from the night before. What horrible, hurtful things did I say? What embarrassing, inappropriate, ugly things did I do? How many drinks did I have? Once I finish the assessment of external damages, the self diagnostics start. Headache, horrific taste in my mouth, eyes grainy like someone threw sand in my face, nausea and heartburn; it’s all there, and the day is starting like every other. I get up, walk past the mirror, and see the puffy, red, shame filled eyes that greet me every morning. Familiar self-loathing joins forces with the physical symptoms of my hangover to make my misery complete. I shower and wash off as much of the regret as possible, and as I wake up I resolve to stop this depressing grim cycle. Starting today it will be different. This time I mean it.

I fortify myself with coffee and push myself into the day, telling myself that the suffering of this hangover is what I deserve for behaving the way I did last night. As I settle into the workday, the illness I feel gnaws at me. It takes a real effort to ignore the demonic voices screaming hateful epithets at me from the caverns in my brain where I keep them boxed up. Interacting with “normal” people helps me shore up the bullshit illusion I portray to the world that I, too, am normal. I get through the day, and quitting time is drawing near. The closer I get to the end of work, the stronger my yearning for my liquid regret-eraser becomes. It is calling to me, and the allure of it becomes so forceful that I can’t focus on anything else. Time to call it a day; something special is waiting for me.

By the time I get to my car, the need for it is so strong that I don’t even make it out of the parking lot before I pop the top off a beer. I always have a paper bag with a six-pack resting on the passenger seat, reliably at the ready to soothe me. Yes, it’s been sitting in my car all day, and yes, it’s piss warm. But with every delectable swallow, elation and relief spread through my being. Everything about the experience of this first beer of the day – the taste, the relaxation, the suspension of worry and anxiety – seduces me back to the same place at this time every afternoon. I look back disdainfully on the drama queen I had been just this morning, making such a big deal out of a few beers. I deserve this, and I am living a good life, doing all the things I’m supposed to do. Coloring outside the lines a bit feels good; I do not want to live the goody-two-shoes life of a straight-laced mommy. Fuck that! I’m a bad-ass rebel, road soda in hand. I’m drinking and driving down the road, thumbing my nose at the stifling obligations of motherhood, my job, and my marriage. I get another six-pack, because running out of this wonderful elixir is about the worst thing I can imagine.

I aimlessly drive the familiar rural roads, drinking my beer and setting myself free. I drink another warm beer, and then, reluctantly, I pause my little party because it’s time to pick up my child at daycare. I stuff the empties under the seat and chew a piece of gum. I walk into the play-dough and diaper scented preschool with the other mommies at the end of their days. I pretend I am just like them. I pretend that I am wholesome like them, and the furthest thing from anybody’s mind is that I might be buzzing with alcohol in my veins or that I might be jonesing for more. It’s kind of urgent that I get my kid in the car so I can get back to the business of washing myself away.

I always buckle my daughter into the car in the seat directly behind me rather than behind the passenger seat, because this way she will not be able to see what I am doing. This way I can hide the beer in my lap and the fact that I’m drinking it as I drive my child home. I have several tried and true strategies to hide the evidence that I’ve consumed three beers in the past hour; a great deal of mental energy goes into my hiding in plain sight. My husband and children never seem to notice anything. I know that he knows, he knows I know he knows, and we tiptoe around our mutual knowledge because neither of us has any idea how to fix this desperately broken situation. We have unwittingly choreographed this dance, the continuation of which requires that we don’t acknowledge much of anything outside of the mechanics of moving through these days.

We get the kids to bed, I continue to drink, and by the end of the night I have consumed between six and eight beers. I am good and numb; I stumble, I say cruel things, and I pass out. My husband and I have passed the evening working together in a familial way, but we haven’t really SEEN each other at all. We have carried out our shared parental responsibilities together, but we have shared nothing of ourselves with each other. There is fondness between us, and love, but no intimacy, and no understanding. With every day that passes like this, the distance between us gets a little wider. We are becoming increasingly bitter at each other and at our own inability to stop the failures we are creating with each passing day. It is like a slow motion disaster happening before our eyes. We want to stop it, but we don’t know where to start. If we think about it too much, we panic at how devastatingly broken we are, so we ignore it and continue because we do not know what else to do. We are living a wonderful life filled with all the trappings of the upper middle class, but it feels like a distorted nightmare. I am hoping that one day the morning resolve to end this diseased existence will be stronger than the sirens of oblivion and release that champion it. And I hope this happens soon, because I am rotting from the inside out.