"A" is for Anxiety

Although I am awesome at depression, I still stink at anxiety.

I have accepted that my depression is really misfiring neurons that result in erratic levels of norepinephrine and dopamine in my brain. I don't feel guilty about having this issue and I openly discuss it with people so they will know how to treat me and also feel better about their own stuff.

It will often take me a couple of days to see the slide in my mood, but once I recognize it, I actually feel a little better. I still say, "Oh! I'm just depressed again" every time in my head and then I laugh and then I cry and take a nap. Then I confide in my husband that I'm feeling "low" and he smiles his beautiful smile that says, "Duh." And I feel so loved as I wade through the gray days and the even grayer days.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is still just awful. 

Mommy on Anxiety

I despise the snappy barking voice it has and the restless feeling that something is not right. Rarely does my anxiety devolve into panic anymore. I am lucky and I am prepared. I get to do what I love (write, be a homemaker, watch my kids grow up). I get to do these things in a controlled, comfortable environment. On purpose.

Yet I have not accepted this mild level of recurring anxiety. Sometimes I still try to force myself not to be anxious... which is hilarious when you think about it. Especially since I have spent so much time cultivating my message about depression: you can't just get over it. You can look at it, be okay with it, treat it and be kind to yourself, but you can't magically make it go away.

Two things have brought me clarity:

1.  It isn't always possible to identify what stressor has triggered my anxiety in the moment and that's okay. 

2.  I trust myself to handle this. Dealing with anxiety properly boils down to not being afraid of it. It will end.

Here is my personal protocol for dealing with racing thoughts, unwanted sweatiness, and tightness in my chest in the moment:

FIRST - Long deep breathing. I sit with my spine straight and fill my lungs starting from the bottom. I empty them from the top down, aiming for the whole breath to take 60 seconds.

SECOND - I repeat the mantra "I am. I AM. The entire universe is within me." as many times as I need to remember that I am infinitely bigger than my anxiety.



Have you ever had a person in your life who sees right through any masks, b.s., or little white lies you use to make yourself seem more socially palatable? These people make you uncomfortable, of course. When they talk your eyebrows raise involuntarily and you fidget because you feel stripped and exposed, but also a little relieved that someone has seen you.

Imagine that person showing up in your life as a 12-year-old student in your first real teaching job.  First period, first day. She is sitting two feet from where you stand, sizing you up, arms folded.

You can tell she is a good indicator of how you’ll be viewed and treated as a teacher. You decide that you’d better leave all the normal pleasantries, threats, and how-do-you-dos aside. She will see right past them and call you out as a fraud. That is her job.

You start by revealing things about yourself that kids are always dying to know about a teacher.  “How old are you?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Are you going to pretend to have more authority than you really do?” “Are you a good cop or a bad cop?” “Are you going to grade us on whether or not we like the subject you teach?”

25. Yes. Nope. 98% Good cop, 2% seriously cranky cop. No, I expect that few of you actually enjoy French class as much as I do, so let’s make this as fun as possible.

Then I added the clincher:  I think most adults are kind of stupid and society sucks.

I hadn’t planned to reveal all that. I couldn’t have anticipated that this honesty and clarity would be so wildly received. To a group of gifted kids in a small independent school, I was something unexpected. I appealed to their budding sense of injustice in the world. I truly wasn’t like the other adults in their lives. I was too green to be jaded or weary. I represented the idea that they wouldn’t have to give up being idealistic and authentic as they got older. They could still be energetic and fun, take risks and dare to try new things.

Aleya was the student who kept me on my toes. She was into choir and drama and not at all into French. She loved to remind me that French wasn’t her favorite subject, but it was endearing. She was just fine being her. She represented the underdeveloped parts of me, then and still today.

If I had walked into that classroom at this point in my life (as a mother of 3, nearly 40 years old), things would have been so much different. I would have cracked jokes and the students would have kindly laughed, but it would have been forced. The rapport with my students today would be built solely on the fact that I held their grades hostage. The beauty of the situation as it happened was that I didn’t know any better.

I didn’t know I was bipolar yet. (Mood disorders can manifest in the mid-late 20s for some people.)  I didn’t have kids, nor did I want kids of my own. I didn’t yet know the anxiety of watching your little people walk out the door with an oversized backpack into a public school. I hadn’t set aside any expectations for my life yet. I was 25. I did not question the idea that anything was still possible for me. 

In fact, as a first year teacher in the middle school I asked, “What else can I do? Maybe take the entire 7th grade class on an international field trip? I will organize a fundraiser to pay for the trip. Can I educate myself and then head up the student advisory program, too?” I totally did those things. I had no throttle.

Fast-forward 10 years.

I was a stay-at-home mom in Arizona. Long stretches of hot days were punctuated by the odd visitor from our old life in Chicago. When Aleya called to say that she’d be in town and proposed that she come to stay for a couple of days, I was thrilled.

When she arrived, I was delighted and grateful that she’d made the journey to meet my family and reminisce. But, do you remember that person in your life who sees right through any masks, b.s., or little white lies you use to make yourself seem more socially palatable? Imagine that person showing up in your life as a 22-year-old former student. She is standing two feet from where you sit, sizing you up, arms folded.

It was as surreal as you might expect to see a grown up person who would have remained forever an adolescent in your mind. Aleya was smart lovely and made me feel incredibly proud – as if I had played a tiny role in this growth. She blew bubbles with my kids in the backyard and we laughed about old stories. I went to pour myself a glass of wine and caught myself feeling as though I shouldn’t be drinking in front of a student. We laughed about that, too.

When her mom came to pick her up the next day, I wanted to find a reason for her to stay. I didn’t bother trying to hold back my emotions when I walked her out to the car. I shed tears. She made fun of me and all was right in the world.

After grown-up Aleya left there was a fresh hurt. I couldn’t have put words to it at the time, but now I realize she was a reminder of who I had been before I stopped teaching -- before children of my own, the Great Recession, anti-depressants, and finding myself with so much to lose that I was afraid to make any choices at all. Her enthusiasm and bright smile shined a light on the cement blocks on my legs. 

That's why adults don't make any sense to kids. They appear to have given up play, passion, and art. They are stupid and society sucks.

I am happy to report that Aleya has visited me several times now over the years, and each time we find ourselves converging. We talk about kids, education, spiritual things, love, middle school, art, and our futures. I am eternally grateful to have someone like Aleya in my world. Adults are not quite as stupid and society sucks a little less.

Much love to you Aley.

Author Bio

I'm working on an author bio for both of the books I'm writing. It has been a strange thing to describe myself. This is one version:

I am part hillbilly*, part Russian Mennonite, part fallen angel, part spirit child, part naiad, and full of hope. This means I can endure a hard winter, tolerate a surprising amount of whiskey, and I have strong opinions. Some might say I'm "overly sensitive," but I think I'm just right.
One of the first lessons I learned in this body was that if you hold the garbage in, it will eventually seep out, so you might as well express it and learn from it. I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it gushes and guffaws right out in public.
I have a master's degree in French. I am a reader and writer of fiction and non-fiction. I love 90's hip hop, country gospel, and the occasional song where the singer (named Randy, George, Waylon, or Hank) wears faded jeans and a cowboy hat.
I love to discuss religion and feminism and read aloud to my kids. When people talk with me and look me in the eyes I feel rejuvenated and honored. I practice meditation and kundalini yoga to grow my power and quell my urge to use force. 
I'm spiritual and intense and super messy on the inside, but neat and tidy on the outside. I make great desserts and you always know where you stand with me. 
In addition to being awesome at depression, I am also an intellectual who laughs at her own farts, a back-country She-wolf** who carries a French dictionary around in her purse. I like to keep people on their toes and I have never doubted that I was part of a grand and beautiful human collective. My job is to balance the finite and the infinite and then go tell the story.

*I don't think hillbilly is a disparaging term. You have to be tough as nails to grow up like that. You either find Jesus, or get kilt', or leave the area entirely and tell people you're from "all over" when they ask.

**My husband insists I mention that I don't actually like humidity or spiders. I maintain that my savage nature is internal and mirrors the wilderness I read about from my overstuffed chair.

Great Books to Read Now

I'm immersed in another of Brene Brown's books: Daring Greatly. It's one of the best books I've ever read.

In a chapter entitled "Mind the Gap" Brown talks about the difference between what we say and what we do.  She says: 

In my experience, I can tell a lot about the culture and values of a group, family, or organization by asking these ten questions:
1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
4. Do people feel safe and supported taking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes mistakes?
8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
10. What's the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

I like researchers and writers who stir the pot. James A. Lindsay's Everybody is Wrong About God stirs the pot, kicks the hornet's nest, and slaps you in the face . . . in a thoughtful way. It not only challenged me to consider what social and psychological needs faith and religion have filled in my life. It forced me to categorize my beliefs and label them - something I'm generally not comfortable doing.

He looks at theists and atheists and explains why pitting the two against each other is futile. He describes his own beliefs as post-theistic ("where even atheism is irrelevant"). His argument is non-confrontational. He even points out that it is unwise to underestimate Christians. This was crucial to keeping my interest in the book. I don't give credence to an argument that demeans its opponent.

For example: "Christians are simple-minded and backwards." 

You lost me. People of all beliefs can make stunning and terrible choices. 

I'm still digesting this book and will be for some time. It will either forge your faith, or break through hollow beliefs.

The last book I read aloud to my kids was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I may be about 30 years late on this bandwagon, but I still loved this story. A young boy's plane crashes in the wilderness. He is the sole survivor and must find shelter, food, and keep himself from going crazy. 

I laughed and cried. Stories are powerful. This one cuts through the distractions of civilization leaving the reader in the woods with Brian Robeson, without any of the comforts we pile around ourselves so we don't get too hungry, too quiet, or feel dirt under our fingernails.

Pros: My kids gained a new appreciation for their home and their lifestyle. They also played "survival" for weeks after starting this book.

Cons: They peed in the backyard (because "it's part of the game, Mom!")

Still worth reading.

A New Look at Depression

I would not have expected that being depressed off and on for years would be a gift.  In my early thirties, when my doctor asked me if I had thoughts of hurting myself the dam broke. I had indeed thought of suicide. Yet there was a tiny something deep down that squeaked out, "Just keep going."  

After understanding that this perceived weakness was a chemical imbalance, I stopped feeling guilty for being depressed. When I would occasionally hit the bottom of the emotional roller coaster, that tiny voice began to offer alternatives: "Just go for a walk." or "Just write down what you want from today." "Just talk to someone honestly." "This won't last forever."

I tried medications until I found some that helped. I started sifting through all the parts of my life, eliminating unnecessary stress and making bold decisions. It felt like leaping off the high dive without knowing how much water was in the pool.

It turns out that I was already in the water and just didn't know it.

The tiny voice that once whispered encouragement has become much more present. It still doesn't bluster or shout, but it speaks thunderous truths nonetheless.

I still haven't magically cured the misfiring neurons in my brain either, but I have a long list of dependable solutions that the real me offers at the most desperate moments.  

The real me - the compassionate, intense, inquisitive, wild, wolf-like woman - knows she is worthy of joy and must use that thought as the driving force behind her actions.

People close to me have begun to ask if I'm okay. I love them for being vigilant and for speaking up.

My response has surprised people:

Yes, I have been depressed, but I am sitting with it and learning from it. I know it won't last forever. I have tools and protocols that I lean on when the lights dim and the chilly, bleak cloak of sadness curls itself around my shoulders.

it creeps in around you

it steals a little of your air

before you realize what's happening, you have been suffering for days

it can make you physically ill

you're exhausted, but can't necessarily sleep

Carbon monoxide is not the only "silent killer".  

About 98% of the time, I am something other than depressed, but when it happens, it can consume everything.

These are the things I say to myself when I'm in too deep:
  • You are Enough.
  • Joy will be here waiting on the other side of this obstacle.
  • You are deeply Loved.
  • Release the image of what you thought this was supposed to look like, because this is what it actually looks like.
  • Are you breathing?
  • Read a book.
  • Sit with yourself and do a body check. Are you holding stress anywhere?
  • Get outside.
  • Clean something.
  • Do something nice for someone else.
  • Write something.
  • Eat some greens.
  • Remember that you will pull out of this. It won't last forever.

How I Am so Awesome at Depression - Distilled

I looked up from writing my book and saw that I had neglected my blog for too long. Here is an infographic teaser for the autobiography, coming soon:

I made this!