Here’s a thing you may not know about me if you’ve never met me before, or read anything I’ve written, or indeed heard of me in passing.
I’m a big ball of stress.
It’s not an attractive quality, and I own that. I worry, I fret, I take every negative thing inward and wrap myself around it, obsessing over how I can make it better, or how I could have prevented it in the first place. A lot of my energy goes toward prevention; looking at every possible situation, all the ways in which it can go wrong, and how I can prevent it. When I was 11, I was worried about my father’s health. Looking back, I’m not sure why, but I remember making him buy tunafish, thinking that would save him. He died suddenly of a heart attack three weeks after my 12th birthday. Somehow, instead of sending home the healthy and realistic message that I do not, in fact, control the universe, it made me more determined than ever to see the bad things coming and head them off at the pass.
Kind of like Gandalf.
I think part of my twisted psychology read the relatively tragedy-free existence that followed* as a result of my diligence, rather than just the odds working in my favor. In a country like America, especially when I was growing up, life for the most part tended to be relatively safe. The rash of school shootings, the terrorism, the economic collapse, Sarah Palin’s rise to national political figure… all of this stuff happened after I’d made it into adulthood and the patently ridiculous idea that I could prevent anything if I just had the foresight to worry about it first had already cemented into my head.
So, you can see how, with the entire weight of all the Bad Things in the universe on my shoulders, I would maybe get a little stressed out.
The irony is, of course, that I was incredibly stressed for all of my childhood and most of my adulthood, when nothing really terribly bad happened. I mean, yes, my brother was an addict and he was usually either in jail or in the hospital, recovering from another run-in with drunk driving. But I left home at eighteen, and moved across the country by twenty-two. I protected myself, as well as I could, and aside from my tragic, toxic family which I avoided, life was pretty kind to me. I had jobs when I needed them, never went without a place to live, had no major health issues, had good friends and fun times, and through it all I was still just waiting for everything to explode on me.
Finally, it did.
After years of functional denial, I admitted the fact that my marriage had gone bad on me. I had no real day job, just the writing, but I couldn’t live with my husband anymore. The only way to get out of my head enough to see if I could save my marriage was to separate from my husband, which meant taking my kids and go to the only safe space I had available; my best friend’s attic apartment. I applied for jobs during the worst economic downturn since the Depression, and failed to get anything that made more than the writing and the online teaching, so… I started a business during the worse economic downturn since the Depression. Finally, I realized my marriage was not going to work, and I asked my husband for a divorce.
It wasn’t a great time. For years, it felt like I was treading water, just barely keeping my head above the surface. Month to month, I wondered how I would make it through, and finally, things got a little easier. The business started bringing in more income; I had a romance with and married a wonderful man, who makes me happier than I ever thought possible; and living with Jenny switched from necessity to joy, something we did because it was good, not because there were no other choices.
So now after thirty-seven years of fake stress about nothing that was real, then three years of real stress, I find myself constantly vibrating with it. If there’s a sudden sound, I jump. If a call comes in the middle of the day while the kids are at school, I freak out that something horrible has happened to them. Every ache or pain is because I’m DYING, not because I’m on this constant stress cocktail which is, by the way, not good for you. The body makes adrenaline so you can outrun a tiger should that become necessary; for those fifteen minutes until you find safety, adrenaline just saved your life. Live with adrenaline pumping through your system on a constant drip for years, it’s gonna take its toll on your body.
For me, that results in the Gastrointestinal Distress which Shall Not Be Named. Just trust me that it’s uncomfortable, gross and annoying, and has been revisiting me from time to time since my mid-twenties. It is associated with stress, and I will go years without having a bout. Then, whomp, there it is. And it’s been whomping me off and on for the last six months, by far the longest bout I’ve had.** Certain foods are triggers; can’t have dairy, coffee, all fast food and some restaurant food, or anything processed. Oatmeal is great; I’ve been eating it by the truckload. I avoided the bad foods, and things got better, but not all better. I had fewer episodes, but as soon as a stress attack was triggered, it was back.
Then, I started two practices.
One was meditation. I’ve done meditation before and it’s really good, especially for me because it breaks that release of constant adrenaline from my brain. However, I always stop making time for the daily practice as soon as I start feeling better; I’m better, time to go back to the way things have always been! Because, you know, that works. Over time, my inner calm erodes, and then I’m back where I started. Finding the time to sit quietly alone when I was raising two small kids just wasn’t in the cards. Now, if I need that time, Alastair makes sure I get it, so that helps.
The other practice is naptime. I recently wrote a blog post about the benefits of daily napping over on LucyMarch.com, and siesta had always seemed like a good idea to me, so I started. Between 1 and 3 on most days (it hasn’t been a perfect record, some days just won’t stand for it) I take thirty minutes to an hour to just forget everything else and nap. I’m always shocked at how much better I feel when I wake up, what a tremendous difference 20 minutes of REM can make.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but it’s been about two weeks, and I haven’t had a real stress attack, and I haven’t had a bad episode. I ate french fries twice in a week, once from a fast food place, and while my stomach complained, I didn’t have a full attack. As time goes by, I see the connection; I’ve been slowly poisoning myself, day by day, through much of my adult life, and meditation and napping cut that cycle of stress. They give my brain a break, and my brain, in turn, stops dripping poison into my veins.
I say, it’s a deal.
Next Week’s L’sTiF: Homemade dryer sheets. 🙂
*I say that meaning that there were very few sudden tragic events, unexpected deaths, that sort of thing; there was plenty of trauma, but it was all of the boiling frog variety, easy to deny using my standard, “LA LA LA I DON’T SEE YOU,” coping mechanism.
**I know. I know. Go to the doctor, be sure it’s okay. I can’t. I don’t have health insurance, and I can’t afford it. If this exact thing hadn’t happened to me multiple times in my life, I’d be less comfortable with it, but because I’ve been here a few times over the last twenty years, I’m rolling the dice that it’s exactly what I think it is, and a doctor is only going to tell me to do what I’m doing after running a lot of tests I can’t afford to pay for.