Tag Archives: Anxiety

Live every day like it’s your birthday

Everyone has a favorite version of the old adage: “Live every every moment (or every day) like it’s your last.” I get it, I do. Life is precious and fragile, and if we knew we were dying (which when you really think about it, we all basically are), what would our souls yearn to do with such urgency that we’d once and for all let go of the meaningless stuff that weighs us down? I absolutely get this, particularly when it comes to loving, and letting our beloveds know they are cherished. (I sit here writing this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.)

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I also find the idea of death as a motivator kind of dark though. Some of us take urgency a little too seriously, and this sort of message makes us susceptible to feelings of anxiety and defeat. Because if it’s all about, “quick, you’re running out of time, go go go!” well shit, I just can’t take that kind of pressure.

This is how I felt on my forty-first birthday last week. For me it was a little harder than forty, actually. Forty felt special, a big milestone birthday. I used it to look at life on a grand scale, to ask big questions. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea. So I didn’t ask big “life” questions this time. Instead, I decided to focus on how I would behave, what I would do differently, to mark this one birthday day as peacefully as possible.

1. The first thing I did in the morning, more consciously than usual, was to give thanks for being alive. Because it’s true that life is precious and fragile. I know how fortunate I’ve been, and I happen to like it here quite a lot. And each new day really is a gift.

2. As someone who doesn’t like being the center of attention and struggles with feelings of unworthiness, birthdays feel a little awkward. So in the morning, I also made a conscious decision to remain open to the love I’d receive during the day. To not try to minimize it with the tired deflective “oh I don’t deserve it!” reflex. But to receive it fully, because who am I to stop the flow of love, all because of some stupid (untrue) script stuck in my head since childhood? I read somewhere recently that any love we deny ourselves is love we deny the world. The older I get, the truer this feels.

So I let my husband David and our son Eric, and my parents, spoil me. And it was freaking awesome.

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Sweet surprises I got to wake up to.

3. I also tried to stay centered on what matters, again, not big-picture thinking, but in the small things that arose throughout the day. Eric got into a bit of trouble at school that day. Sometimes I get kind of fixated on these things. You know, like I can control them? I thought about it and asked a little bit about it. Then I was happy, very happy, to just let it go.

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A bouquet of my favorite flowers.

4. I deliberately commented with a thank-you message to each and every Facebook friend who wished me a happy birthday. Since I’m not super popular, it wasn’t a huge number of people, but it felt deeply special. And with responding to each of them, I remember each of them still, with enormous gratitude. I’d invite you to consciously write ‘thank you’ a few dozen times one day and see how you feel!

And finally, 5. This one’s connected to 2 because it’s all about love. In this case, self-love and truth-telling, and discerning when something is, and is not, about me. A loved one called and I missed their call. I was briefly tempted to worry this had made them mad, then I … didn’t. We spoke later, no one was mad, and that was the end of it.

Another loved one whom I’d have liked to hear from on the phone sent me only a text message. <Shrug.> I was disappointed; then I accepted it, very importantly, without reading into it any messages about me.

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Here comes the ice cream cake!

My family and I tried watching a movie we’d recently loaned to a friend, and the DVD was so badly damaged that half the movie was simply unwatchable. I reached out to the friend, part of me fearing she’d be insulted at the insinuation that she’d ruined our DVD. She didn’t recall anything happening to our movie while it was in her possession, which I wholly believe, but she still insisted on taking responsibility for it, and replaced it with a new one. I’ve always highly respected this friend; now I respect her even more. Obviously I needn’t have worried. And to think I almost didn’t ask!

Focusing on what matters. Gratitude. Knowing when something is about me and the enormous, glorious freedom that so much actually isn’t. LOVE. I had a perfect birthday. Not because every single circumstance of the day was perfect  –though it was pretty darn nice–  but because I remained conscious about how I responded to everything that arose.

Again, I didn’t set out to ask big life questions at my birthday this year. But in asking how I wanted to spend the one day, I actually stumbled on some practices that could serve me pretty well every day. And since we’ve established that I’m not a fan of undertaking each moment like I’m about to kick the proverbial bucket, I figure that using lessons from a day spent celebrating life is a good approach for me. I probably shouldn’t eat every day like I ate on my birthday though…

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Churros con chocolate happy dance.

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Three S’s for 2016

Okay. Yes. I made New Year’s “resolutions.” But no, they are not aimed at losing weight or making money. Instead, I set intentions for myself in the new year. The idea came after a bout of anxiety in the final months of 2015. Folks who, like me, are prone to periods of anxiety never know when they’re going to strike. But it’s captured quite well in this internet meme.

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My initial sneaky trigger last fall was a worry about my son Eric and illness. Think the usual worries most moms feel, multiplied by … a lot. Soon, the Paris attacks happened, and the negativity and anger that surfaced afterwards were deeply upsetting. I started a blog post about it and simply couldn’t finish it. My husband David was also travelling overseas a lot in those weeks, and I was in a state of constant fear for his safety. It was all just a little too much.

I went into a bit of a personal hibernation (despite the abnormally mild start to the winter) in which I was just productive and present enough in the daily wife & mom grind, but rendered pretty powerless in most other respects. I rallied and cheered up for the holidays, yet the start of the new year still found me feeling more than a little bit vulnerable.

So I set three intentions for 2016. Coincidentally, they all start with the letter S.

The first one is self-care. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: It’s often hard for moms to take time for ourselves. Even when you’re at home, like me, the time your kid is in school can easily be spent dealing with family and household stuff. Add to that a lot of stressful stress, and toward the end of the year, I wasn’t writing or seeing friends or going to yoga class. I was barely exercising, and wasn’t even reading much. I thought of returning to New York City, a hugely re-energizing solo trip I’ve made every February since 2012, but then wondered if I could justify it, since I’ve finished my novel set in the City. I usually know better than to be a martyr mom or to draw all identity or worth from parenting, but it’s such an easy place to hide when feeling emotionally lousy, that I found myself using family as the excuse for everything I simply had to or couldn’t do.

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On the second day of 2016, David and I watched the sunset off the West coast of Puerto Rico, and talked about what self-care means to me.

Thankfully, my knowing better caught up with me, as it usually does. And I realized I was in woeful need of some serious self-care. For me, it starts with taking time for myself without feeling guilty about it, or trying not to … baby steps, you know. Time for my writing, for reading, for exercise, for personal space and quietude. It’s eating right, and while I’m on the subject of what I take in, also learning to discern amongst the many —many— thoughts that enter my head. I mean, I can be discriminating about food but then accept every wild and crazy thought (and I have some real doozies) that assaults my mind like it carries a truth about me and my world? Uh, no. Right?

My self-care also entails saying no to things I’ve been accepting, which compromise who I am and my values. When I was in the throes of some internal struggles right around New Year’s, I came across this beautiful article. The highlight:

“The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light … it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.”

It can be hard to say no, but sometimes there’s too much at stake not to. I’m talking here about no as a complete sentence, without apologizing for it. And oh — yes, I am going back to New York City this month!

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Clichéd but true.

My second intention with the letter S has to do with my relationship with the concept of should. Because come on, think about it. If you’re anything like me, you obsess over what you should be like. And over how someone else should be behaving (usually someone who’s pissing you off). Or exactly what a given scenario should be, look, and feel like. Frankly, I am exhausted! The thing about should is, it conjures expectations. Obviously, right? And I don’t know about you, but I could seriously use a reality check on expectations, and a firm, honest sense of what I can and can’t control.

Which brings me to my third and final S, the Serenity Prayer.

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I think of the term change in this prayer as closely paralleling control. Iyanla Vanzant says that the greatest human addiction is the addiction to control. That we fear what we can’t control, and since we don’t want to be in fear, we try to control, control, control. Something like that. Though I may not be in a 12-step program for substance abuse, I must honestly confess that I have been addicted to control, in one form or another, my entire adult life. And it has been at the heart of So! Much! Needless! Suffering! I suspect I’m not alone in this. Enough, please.

Among the many reflections I’ve made on aging and life since turning 40 recently, maybe the most important lesson learned is, growing pains never really end. And at the same time, growth is always worth it. So, time to grow up, like the sapling, toward the light. Time to say no when it matters. Time to seek wisdom about what I can and can’t control. To embrace acceptance when something’s out of my hands, and courage when I do have power over it. Most times, the only thing I’ll be able to control is the story I choose to tell myself about what’s happening within and around me. And maybe, that’s power enough.

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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Honestly? I think you’re crazy. That’s okay–so am I.

(https://www.facebook.com/MarkTwainAuthor)
Since last fall, I have spent most weekday mornings in the cafe section of a Whole Foods store near my 4-year-old son’s preschool, writing or reading while he’s in school. This is his last week at this school before starting PreK at a new school in a different neighborhood. That makes it my last week working in this setting on a regular basis. The cast of characters I have met there these many months includes two individuals, fellow “regulars,” who have given me a lot to think about. (Okay, I do a fair amount of staring. But that’s what makes me a noticer, and being a noticer is part of what makes me a writer. Right?)

First, there’s a gentleman who works somewhere in the neighborhood. He routinely comes in around mid-morning, buys a pastry with a pint of whole milk, and eats it in the cafe area. He likes to say hello. When we were still in the phase of simply nodding a greeting at one another, I thought he was Middle Eastern. Then one time, he stopped to talk to me, and spoke Spanish. Ah, so not Middle Eastern, then–things aren’t always as they seem. In hindsight, I thought that time that he’d gotten a little too close for my comfort zone when he talked to me. You could say that was a red flag.

Second, there’s the woman with the crossing guard vest. From where I sit at a bar-type space on a second-story mezzanine overlooking the store, I see people in the aisles, browsing and shopping. One day, months ago, I saw a blond woman wearing a crossing guard vest much like this one.
I thought, aw, must be a mom who just finished volunteering at drop-off at her child’s school–how nice! The woman bought her food, brought it up to the cafe area, and sat down just a few feet away from me. She got out one or two electronic devices, got on her phone, and proceeded to get into an argument with someone. Loudly. Even though I had my earphones in, I could see her gesturing pretty angrily, and she was being loud enough that I couldn’t help looking up from time to time. One time when I looked, she held her hand up to my face, the way I’ve seen celebrities do with paparazzi, and started waving it and blocking her face from my sight. She was saying things I couldn’t quite hear over my music, but she definitely wasn’t keen on me looking at her. I did one of those deals where you look over your shoulder to make sure the person is “talking” to you, you know? She definitely meant me. It startled me. I did my best to look away apologetically, while also feeling the burn of being unjustly scolded. I wasn’t the one making a scene! The image I’d created of her then shifted to, mom who just finished volunteering at her kid’s school, and who is likely going through a very bitter divorce. Her belligerence was jarring, but I decided to try compassion–we’ve all had rough times. A few minutes later, she’d turned her anger on different folks sitting near us, at which time I took her attack on me a bit less personally.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic (not Middle Eastern) man who likes to say hello to me continues to get a little too close each time. A few times, he has sneaked up behind me, and touched me in the middle of my back. It causes me to jump in my seat. I reeeeally don’t like that. Exchanging a few hellos doesn’t mean a person gets to touch me–maybe that’s just me–and certainly not in that way.Thank goodness the perch where I sit allows me to see who’s coming most of the time. I’ve recently taken to looking over my shoulder when he is paying for his food and approaching the cafe. Now I don’t even remove my earphones to say hello. I simply nod my head and mouth the word hola. Because boundaries. Yeah, back off, amigo.
The poor “angry” woman has continued to be a regular as well. She is impossible to miss, on account of the bright yellow vest, which she never removes. I’ve joked to myself–in moments when my kindness instinct is low–that she must even sleep in that vest. She makes her way up and down the aisles, confronting and berating strangers left and right. Is she a volunteer mom? I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve also realized, after seeing the way she’s laid into other people, that holding her hand up to my face the way she did that time was letting me off easy. In fact, she’s never bothered with me again, but of course, I’ve gotten good at avoiding eye contact. And she continues to be on her phone often, having some kind of agitated discussion with someone on the other end of the line …
A few Saturdays ago, I was at Washington’s Union Station, waiting to board a train to New York City. I bought a bagel and coffee at Au Bon Pain for breakfast, and hurried to my gate. As I passed the Au Bon Pain window, something caught my eye. Bright, neon yellow … The woman in the vest! She was sitting in a chair, surrounded by several bags very full of things (they did not look like the luggage of a typical traveler…), looking disheveled. Sleeping, in her vest. It stopped me in my tracks, took my breath away, broke my heart. She’s homeless?! But she shops at Whole Foods! Her hair looks well groomed! She sits with an ipad (or is it a laptop?) and talks on her cell phone for hours, and they always seem like very important conversations!
Nothing–nothing–is as it seems.You want to know what I think? I think we are all a little bit crazy. I think there is a “crazy” continuum, and we’re all on it. And just like there are functional alcoholics and addicts of different types, most of us are simply functional crazies.
From the beloved Disney movie Up. (Quotesandmovies.com)
In fact, most of the time I revel in my quirks. I mean, normal is boring, right? Who wants to be normal?And then, I remember my post partum depression four years ago. That wasn’t quirky. In fact, it put me much further along the continuum than I care to admit. And so do moments of anxiety and irrational fears, both of which are exacerbated by me being the type of mom who fiercely embraces worrying like it’s a measure of the caring. I know that worrying doesn’t equal caring. But hey, I only remember to know it on good days. Mercifully, good days far outnumber the not-so-awesome ones. But then I have lousy ones, too. And you know what those teach me? Patience, with myself and with others. Tolerance. Fewer instances of such self-absorption that I believe my woes are somehow more unique than someone else’s. Because I remember that everyone else struggles, too. Everyone experiences loneliness, fear, feelings of inadequacy.I talk about my depression all the time now, as though to prove that I am one hundred percent over it. The truth? Even four years later, I feel ashamed of it; even though I know better, I feel as though it was something I did wrong. That is the terrible power of the stigma.I think that the line separating me from someone who’s gone over the deep end is not only very thin and blurry, but it also moves all the damn time. There but for the grace of God go I–there but for the grace of God goes any one of us.
As sobering as the above statistic is, I wonder how many studies take mental health into account in this reality. I haven’t done any research, but I suspect that a lot of people–people we know–are not just one paycheck away, but possibly one deeply traumatic experience away from reaching a devastating point of emotional instability that is very difficult to come back from. One tragic illness or loss, and there’s no telling who could easily snap from functional to dysfunctional.
I’ve continued to see the woman in the vest–always in her vest–at Whole Foods after I saw her sleeping in the train station. She’s looked well put together, doesn’t have a bunch of ambiguously-homeless-looking bags with her, and is walking the aisles, shopping and confronting as she goes. So, is she homeless? No idea.
I do know she’s troubled. I’ve been troubled, too. Everyone has. So who are we to judge anyone, no matter how worse off they seem compared to us? It’s all an illusion.These days, I find myself in a bit of a(n internal) tizzy over my little boy starting a new school next month, and the sadness over saying goodbye to his first preschool and a teacher he loves. I know it’s only PreK, but it will be the first time that he’s in school all day, five days a week. And it feels a little bit as though he might as well be moving out of the house. I mean, it seems like only yesterday I found out I was pregnant! I look at him and still see my baby! Have I raised him properly enough to “release” him to the world on a full-time schedule? Without our afternoon quiet time, will I still get to cuddle with him? Oh God–PANIC–is this The End of the Cuddling?!See? This is me being over anxious. I bet some of you will think, “Tsk-tsk, the kid probably picks up on her anxiety; she shouldn’t feel this way!” That’s fine. I’m okay at not externalizing it when he’s around. And I would go insane right this minute if I had to control every damn thought I have, lest my child pick up on some of the bad ones. The best I can do is be aware and keep trying. Humor helps, too.

Change is a big deal, man, and an anxiety factor for many of us. I tend to experience many of life’s milestones through the filter of very, very raw emotion. And I believe firmly that this can be a great strength, not just a weakness. (As I bragged told about in a previous blog post, I was taught this personally at a workshop with none other than Alanis Morissette!) The good news is, for all my griping and over-analyzing, I rarely stay stuck. Common sense, growth; they win most of the times. Thank God(dess).

So I’m not at my strongest right now. So what? I’ve been worse. I’ve also seen worse. Being hung up on the past … ? Geesh! Yes, I’ve seen much worse. See what else I just did there? I judged. Am I exempt from the impulse to judge? Pfft, hell no. And because I’m pretty much taking everyone else down with me in this blog post, I’m going to venture to say that neither are you. Listen, we can’t all be Wayne freaking Dyer.

I embrace my crazy self. I work through my anxieties with exercise, meditation and prayer, healthy eating, gratitude, love. I’ve been in therapy, and could be again one day. And did I mention humor? I try to educate my judgmental self. The good news about moments of weakness is they afford me the sort of compassion that keeps my judgy side in check. But make no mistake about it. If the the gentleman in question at Whole Foods manages to sneak up on me and touch my back again, I am not going to hesitate to channel the troubled mystery woman in the vest and let him have it, thus, in the course of one action, enforcing an important boundary with one individual while eliminating the illusion of separation from another. And the thin blurry line is on the move once again. I think that’s kind of interesting, don’t you?

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