Anxious Outcomes

I recently had a conversation in which I learned about the degree to which my anxiety affected at least one of my adult children.

Parenting is an ironic business. Having been a chronically anxious child myself, always feeling unsafe and afraid, I strove mightily to protect my own children from any sort of fear or insecurity. Of course, I did this by assuring them all was well, all the while fearing all was not and never would be well. Being no less intelligent than I am, they heard the words but knew the truth of my feelings, and thus their trust in me was damaged, an exact replay of what happened between me and my own mother. You know, that thing I was never going to do when I was a parent!

Well, I’m humbled. I’m also sad, because I didn’t want either of my kids to battle with the burden of anxiety. It’s a hard way to live.

However, I understand that parenting, at best, is an imperfect process, and I try to hold my mother and myself with gentle arms regarding our choices as mothers. Parenting less than perfectly does not imply a lack of love. I know we both did the best we could with what we had at any particular point in time. No parent can do more.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Still, this kind of revelation is a far cry from my hopes, dreams and intentions when I held my newborns. On the other hand, it speaks to the strength of my relationship with my adult children that they can tell me the truth about their experience and I can hear it.

After our conversation, I’ve thought a lot about fear and anxiety. I can’t go back and reparent, but I wonder if I might, even at this late stage, find a way to extricate myself from the insidious tentacles of anxiety. I’ve been thinking about my life and trying to understand exactly what the roots of my anxiety are.

According to an internet search, fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear is considered real, in that it’s right there in front of us, and elicits an immediate response.

Anxiety is an “emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of turmoil; a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically regarding an imminent event or something with uncertain outcome; a nervous disorder.” Anxiety is differentiated from fear by being more diffuse and generalized and focusing on imaginary outcomes and possibilities. Physiologically, it elicits the same response, and therein lies part of the problem.

Both are unpleasant emotions or feelings that affect us physically, intellectually and emotionally. We evolved to respond to fear in certain specific physiological ways, returning to baseline as the fear passes. Fear is a valuable feeling, helping us discern and avoid danger. I certainly don’t want to disable mine. I know the feeling of fear, but it’s not a frequent experience.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a chronic state for me. I can’t remember ever being free of it. I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms over the years, some more effective and appropriate than others, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. As far as I can tell, the feeling of anxiety provides no benefits whatsoever to me or anyone around me. It’s highly contagious and negatively impacts others in my life, to say nothing of the damage it does to me. We are not constructed to tolerate the chronic level of physiological arousal produced by anxiety.

I never before actually looked up these words, and I’ve never had the above distinctions between fear and anxiety until this week. I conclude that I have no problem with my relationship to fear, but I’m a slave to anxiety.

I find a kind of mordant humor in having a chronic unpleasant feeling regarding uncertain outcomes. Excuse me? All outcomes are uncertain for everyone until they happen! Most of us operate most of the time as though we know exactly what will happen next, but we don’t. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s all an illusion. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next on any level. For some reason, I’ve given that fact the power to make me miserable.

I have a powerful imagination, which makes me a good writer and creator. However, it also occasionally makes me captive to my own stories. I forget that my stories are just that–stories. I make them up, tell them to myself over and over, and behave as though they’re true, never really noticing when they diverge from reality. In my head, it’s all so real. I do know the difference between a story and what’s real, but I have to remind myself to keep the two separated.

Some stories are so old and deeply ingrained it takes a cataclysm to make us realize they’re not true, and then we have to deal with being wrong and all the consequences that follow, an uncomfortable, humbling and messy process.

If my anxiety is rooted in uncertain and imaginary outcomes and possibilities, it seems obvious that I can disable it with a little discipline, a dash of surrender to uncertainty, a lot of presence and the will to change. I’m chagrined by the possibility my anxiety is a lifelong bad habit as much as anything else. Could that be true? Yikes.

I wish with all my heart I’d been a better equipped and less distressed parent, but I remind myself I can’t go back. I can’t begin parenting again from ground zero. I can’t go back to the young woman I was and explain all this and give her the support and safety to actively choose to turn away from anxiety before starting a family. There’s only today, so many years later, as I sit with my laptop in my lap and the sun coming in the windows, glancing at my notes, thinking and writing.

I know all I’ve ever wanted for my own mother is health and happiness. I want the same for my kids. I suspect Mom and my sons also want that for me. Perhaps it’s time for me to shape an anxiety-free life now, not only for my own sake, but for those closest to me as well.

We build our lives on outcomes, one after another, more than we ever notice. We remember the spectacularly good and spectacularly bad outcomes, but what about the countless others? Outcomes are complex, not black and white. Outcomes can create visible and invisible ripples that last a lifetime. I can hardly think of a more fruitless endeavor than worrying about or trying to control outcomes. I’ve survived every outcome to date. What makes me think I won’t continue to do so–until I don’t, of course? But the outcome of death is largely out of my control, too. Why worry?

There are so many things I’d rather do than struggle with anxiety!

There are so many stories to imagine, share and write, rather than keep in my head and hurt myself with!

Anxiety is too expensive. I’m not interested in maintaining it anymore.

Better late than never.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

In Plain Sight

It’s hunting season in Maine. Several days ago a woman was accidentally shot and killed on her own property at 10:30 in the morning by a hunter. We frequently hear shots in the neighborhood, and although we don’t allow hunting on our land, there’s nothing to prevent a hunter wandering in, attracted by the deer, game birds and waterfowl on our 26 acres.

I bought a cheap orange vest I can wear over my coat for my morning walks.

Wearing orange during hunting season is such a simple and obvious safety tactic that I didn’t think twice about doing it, but the first morning I went out with the vest on I discovered a lot of complex feelings about being so visible in the world.

Photo by Andrew Spencer on Unsplash

The first thing I noted was how dangerously exposed I felt. I do not want to be seen by human eyes. I don’t mind if the wildlife sees me, but if they do I’m less likely to see them, so I do my best to move quietly and unobtrusively through the landscape, wearing neutral, natural colors. I stop and sit or lean against a tree for long stretches, hardly moving, watching the river and listening to the woods around me.

The orange vest shrieks, “Look at me! I’m here!” and I hate it. It’s more than just my preference to blend in to backgrounds and maintain protective camouflage. It seems a life-and-death necessity to avoid being seen.

I’ve been aware of my hypervigilance for some time now, and I also know that I’ve never been comfortable in crowds. If I’m not able to position myself in a corner or with my back to something solid and watch, listen and evaluate, anxiety quickly disables me. I need to know where the exits are in any indoor space.

This is interesting, as I’m fascinated by people, and people watching is one of my favorite activities. I’ve frequently longed to be invisible, to watch and listen freely and leave no trace of my presence. If I could be invisible, I imagine I’d still get overstimulated by noise, activity and technologically-generated energy, but I’d feel safer.

The strength of my feelings as I donned the orange vest begged the question: What happens if somebody sees me? What’s so terrible?

That’s easy. Criticism happens. Judgement, abuse (verbal, emotional, physical), negative feedback happen. If I’m seen doing anything, I’m sure to be doing it wrong (according to the observer, anyway). I’m sure to disappoint. I’m sure to be inadequate or inappropriate. My clothes are wrong. I’m clearly behaving like a slut, going out on my own land in my men’s Carhartt jeans and old boots. My hair is wrong. My choices are wrong. If I’m heading for the northern boundary of our land, I should be walking the southern border. I’m too noisy. I’m in someone’s way. I’m too slow. I’m wasting my time and should be doing something more productive. I’m irresponsible. I’m lazy. I’m selfish. I’m scaring the fish. I’m scaring the birds. I’m scaring the animals. I should be ashamed of myself.

Wow. No wonder I don’t want to be seen. Who knew the perils?

I didn’t know, until my ugly orange vest dredged all this up from my swampy subconscious.

On subsequent mornings, as I’ve walked in my orange vest, I’ve thought about the tension between being seen and avoiding being seen. How can anyone be in the world without being seen, even the most self-effacing of us? Refusing to be seen is refusing any healthy human connection. How do we get hired without being seen, or accepted for college? How do we follow our creativity or passion if we’re afraid to be seen? How do we engage in face-to-face conversation or discussion, or participate in politics or as a volunteer?

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

On the other hand, how much exposure is too much? How can we avoid being seen by the shooter at the concert, in church or in the movie theater? We seem to be gradually becoming more and more captive to the Matrix, which makes us increasingly vulnerable to identity theft, technological sabotage and cyber-based terrorism.

I sometimes feel I carry protecting my privacy too far. I can’t say I regret not being on Facebook and other social media, as I’ve yet to hear about anything there that I need. On the other hand, not having a cell phone in today’s world creates a lot of problems for me. My personal issues with being seen are in the context of much wider social issues about exposure and safety. I don’t have any answers for the wider social problems. I wish I did.

For myself, though, it’s clear I need to address some of my subconscious beliefs about what will inevitably happen if I am seen. I’ve also developed a thicker skin about being criticized and judged. At this point in my life I’m really not much interested in the criticism and judgement of others. What interests me is how I feel about myself. My list of terrors about what happens if I’m seen is decades out of date, and I’ve already survived those consequences many times over. More of the same is boring rather than terrifying.

I’m stuck with my orange vest for several more weeks, and that’s OK. I’ve come to terms with it. In fact, I’m grateful to it, because it exposed some old wounds that needed attention. I’m stepping into plain sight In many ways in my life, this blog being one of the most prominent and challenging. Now I’ll practice walking this land in plain sight as well.

Choosing to be seen. My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Samhain Wind

In the Neopagan Wheel of the Year, Halloween is the modern secular version of Samhain (SOW-in), the last harvest festival, a time when the veil between the spirit and corporeal world is thin and we prepare for the peace and rest of winter. It’s a time to let go of that which no longer serves us.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

This year Samhain was ushered in by the remains of Hurricane Phillippe, which battered Maine and other parts of the Northeast with high wind and heavy rain.

Wind is an old familiar of mine, as the place I came from in Colorado was extremely windy. There, the wind blows relentlessly for days and nights on end sometimes, a steady roar from one direction that fills the air with sand, grit, trash and other debris, frequently exceeding 60 mph and occasionally 70 mph. It’s the kind of wind nobody wants to go out in and it ground away at our nerves, making us feel housebound and irritable enough to climb the walls. It sucked all the moisture out of the ground, the plants and our skin. It tore roofs off sheds, blew down fences and trees, closed vulnerable highways and sent trampolines into the air.

The gale we had here this week was a different kind of wind. It came from all directions in gusts rather than a one-way freight train. It made the house groan and the trees thrash. It tore shingles off the roof and downed hundreds of trees. More than five inches of rain fell in billowing curtains. As a result, many thousands of people lost power, roads are blocked and it may be the end of the week before all the repair work is finished.

The storm hit us in the wee hours. We were awakened by an exploding power transformer somewhere close by, probably because of a fallen tree.

When I went out for my morning walk, I found change.

Several large trees have snapped off and lay or lean, the exposed raw wood pale and jagged. One less tree in a patch of thick forest is a subtle change to my eyes, but to the life surrounding it for several feet in every direction it’s a dramatic turn of events. It changes the light. It changes the nutrient demand underground. It feeds the mycelium and other organisms that will break down the wood. It gives new opportunity to young trees and other plants.

All the trees that came down on our land looked unhealthy, and several were rotting in place and collapsed rather than sheared off. Lots of dead branches were torn away, too, and cones flung far and wide.

As I walked, I reflected on change. Millions of people are experiencing unprecedented storms now. In just a few hours, whole lives are swept away by powers we cannot control. But the wind of change can also be a breeze, a zephyr we hardly notice, even if we practice daily presence with ourselves and our surroundings. Change is always with us, as inevitable as death.

More often than not, I fight with change. I don’t mind the idea of change, per se, but I want it to be on my terms. I want to control it. In my own life, though, change has often come unexpectedly and catastrophically, sometimes in the form of a seemingly insignificant moment in which I suddenly see. I suddenly assimilate a vital piece of information. A veil tears and I discern what lies behind it. In an instant, everything changes, and at the same time it doesn’t, at least not more than usual.

Yet I am changed, and I can never go back.

In a few days, things will normalize in Maine, but the landscape is altered now. It will never quite be the same again, although our experience was trivial compared to Texas, Puerto Rico and many other places.

Walking our boggy fields alongside the river, my old boots leaking at a split seam, it seemed to me the greatest gift of Samhain is the opportunity to allow the wind and storm, to revel in them, to join power and energy with them, come what may in the aftermath. I stood watching the river, filled right to its brim, running muscular and turbid, filled with tree debris and occasional trash. Several tree skeletons that had leaned on its banks were gone.

There can be a glorious sort of power in letting go, in spite of fear and resistance. I discovered that in Colorado. As I walked, it was still quite windy and wet, the landscape waterlogged and disheveled. Halfway through my walk I discovered a tick crawling on my hand, and a quick inspection of my head-to-toe canvas army supply rain cape revealed several more. I scraped off what I could see with a stick while I paused at my second river overlook to watch the water and then navigated a large old white spruce that had fallen across the mowed path and went home to do a lengthy and soggy tick check. The final count was 13, by the way.

Collaborating with a storm like this is good work for Samhain. I’m content. The forest has been culled and renewal will follow. New life will come into every space that was emptied. Our streets and roads, blocked with fallen trees and sagging power lines, look devastated rather than graceful and elegant. Thousands of people are managing without power. Yet the wind cleansed us of dead and dying life, whether or not we were ready or consented.

Now there’s no choice but to go on, to step into the diminishing light of winter, to face whatever the future brings, to replace what no longer serves with something more powerful. I want to leave you this week with a poem I wrote in October, 2012.

Wind

Come, wild wind, sweep across the sky and loosen the world!
Rise, wind, blow! I summon you with breath and breath again!
Blow, wind, roar! I command you from the center of loss!
Roar, wind, howl! Fling me open. Tear all the pretty things away.
Peel my lips from my teeth and flay me to pieces.
Lend your voice to mine and scream me into clean bones.
Scream!
Let us sever and rend together!
Strew the tatters of my dreams across stubbled fields and in dusty streets!
Rage, wind, exult!
You think you bend me to your will?
You take nothing I do not surrender.
You weaken and end before I do.
And when tumult has passed I will call myself home from wherever I am scattered.
I shall gather the rags of what has been and shape them into a sail and you shall fill it and take me onward.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted