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Some mornings I wake up with butterflies flitting away in my stomach.
They are not the “oh goody, anticipatory” kind, but more often the “oh sh*t, what’s going to happen today?” kind. My days are fairly predictable, beginning with watching my three-year-old grandson and 10-months-old granddaughter. They are the lights of my life, the center of my Universe, and as I tell them often, my favorite people on the planet.
For those three hours each day, it is my responsibility to keep these incredibly active, tiny humans safe. That means being certain that the baby gate is latched on the stairs, the doors are closed that I don’t want my now fast-moving, walking granddaughter to traipse through unsupervised, and making sure that my grandson doesn’t stand on furniture, climb up on the kitchen counter, or let the water run in the bathroom after washing his hands, since it has overflowed before. Like any grandparent, I wonder (and worry) about their futures. Will they remain happy and healthy? Will they make their way in the world easily? My son and daughter-in-law model affirming and socially conscious values for them. These kiddos know they are loved.
Once the next shift comes in (the other grandparents or aunt), I’m off to my full-time job as a psychotherapist, sitting with clients, either in person or via telehealth, as they open the door to their inner sanctum and talk about their feelings of anxiety and depression. For some, their overwhelming emotions have been lifelong companions that have gotten in the way of happiness, romantic relationships, friendships, careers, and physical health. In our sessions, we work on developing strategies for coping with them, and ideally, obliterating them. Inwardly, I acknowledge my own sense of anxiety and wonder if this is what some of my clients feel.
For some people, the physiological precedes the psychological. For others, thoughts show up that then become physically debilitating. In my case, it is the former. In addition to the aforementioned butterflies, they are joined by palpitations and facial flushing. That’s when I ask myself what I am worried about. Usually it has to do with making sure that all of the items on my voluminous to-do list are checked off. In addition to the therapy job, I wear the hats of journalist, interfaith minister, speaker, and PR and marketing professional. The proverbial plates are spinning nearly all the time and I am afraid of dropping one or more. Anxiety is also fueled by workaholism that tells me I will never be enough or do enough and I need to “earn my keep” by being all things to all people and being spontaneously available. The first one was an unspoken (but modeled by my parents) internalized expectation and the second came from seminary and was shared by one of the deans. Appointments and deadlines have become the guardians at the gate of my life. I feel as if I need to meet them in order to be allowed in to the party.
Worrying seems to be encoded in my DNA, as both my father and grandmother practiced it as if it was a virtue. He used to tell me it was his job to worry and I reminded him that worrying wouldn’t keep me safe. It was one way he showed love. As a parent and grandparent, now I get it.
On the surface, no one would know that I am sometimes immersed in anxiety. I am high functioning and get stuff done. I am hyper-responsible. I am not organized by nature or nurture, so I need to create systems to prevent the ducks who I want to be in a row from scooping me up and running away with me, feathers flying and leaving a mess in their wake. Most people would say that I perform well under pressure and am a consummate multitasker. What they couldn’t tell is that I question much of what I do, confirming that I doing it all well, putting my heart soul into everything. I like to be counted on and then feel compelled to say yes when I want to say no. I want to be essential.
The best definition that I can think of for anxiety is nervousness about the uncertainties of life and what’s lurking just outside my comfort zone. It carries with it feeling unable to control everything…as if I ever could.
My health is a source of anxiety, having had a heart attack in 2014 and other medical conditions since then. My mind reverberates with the question, “What if I become incapacitated?
Financial doubts plague me off and on. That’s when I remind myself that I’m not alone in those fears and have supported myself most of my adult life. Since my husband died in 1998, my solid work ethic and guardian angels looking after me have helped me to stay in the same house in which I provided a home for my son.
The pandemic has been a source of anxiety, both immersing myself in seclusion, and now three years later, the re-entry. I had felt nervous about potentially contracting the virus since I am in a high risk group, but even more so, worried about people in my life becoming ill. When COVID-19 actually did come calling, the symptoms were mild and Paxlovid did the trick in kicking it out the door. I am vaxxed and boosted, which provides some sense of assurance.
The socio-political climate pulls me into a swirling vortex from which I struggle to extract myself. I have no control over what Right wing politicians do to hold onto the loyalty and votes of their base and what their base does at their behest. I endeavor to hold space for the myriad emotions this evokes. I don’t like fearing and judging those who share this planet with me, but fear and judge I do at times.
Anxiety rises when I notice more frequent “brain blips” and cognitive challenges. I could have a thought that a moment later escapes my grasp. Names of familiar people, what I walked into a room for, who I was supposed to call, and what I had planned to say all slip through the butterfly net. A few weeks ago, I looked up the symptoms of early onset dementia and was relieved to discover that these were not the whole picture. I still contend that after a while, the mental hard drive gets full and the problem isn’t storage, but retrieval. I am giving myself some grace around this since friends and family members who are younger than me have the same problems.
I use the term “spiritual amnesia” to describe blessedly brief moments of Forgetting that Everything is All Right, which is actually an acronym for the word FEAR. How does that work, I wonder? It seems that I (and maybe you too) get caught up in how I think things should be and how other people oughta act. When they aren’t that way, I have a few choices. I can wonder what’s wrong with this picture or what’s right about it. It’s so easy to find fault, but so much more pleasurable to find contentment and cooperation. When in doubt, go for a win-win. Times when I become spiritually amnesiac also look like worry that my needs won’t be taken care of. How silly is that? I remind myself that I have survived everything that has ever happened in my life, since I am here to tell about it. That includes loss, death, illness, injury, robbery, accidents, losing a home in Hurricane Andrew, raising a child solo after being widowed, and working for 12 years in a challenging and sometime dangerous setting—a psychiatric hospital. I would bet that if you look at your own life, you will shake your head in amazement at what you have made it through and wonder what got you through it all. For me, it was the three F’s of faith, family, and friends, and I’m grateful for them all.
This morning, I found my feelings of anxiety and worry drift away in the midst of a much-needed massage. For that period of time, I allowed myself to be nurtured, without the compulsion to take care of someone else. Thank you, Carol.
As a therapist, I face the paradox of wanting to present as having it all together and knowing that by acknowledging my vulnerability and normal human emotions, it makes me a more competent clinician who operates from a place of compassion and empathy.