It was a dark and stormy night. Imagine getting to use that much maligned sentence but it was and here’s the story behind this sidebar.
I drove out in the dark rain one night in February, 2016 – around 9 PM. Yasik had called to say he needed a ride home. He had spent a night in jail for what we later learned had to do with being caught with tools for breaking and entering, tools he is not supposed to carry based on previous criminal charges. All I knew that evening was that Yasik needed a ride back to the homeless shelter where he has a bed. I had worked out three things I wanted to say and memorized them as I drove to the bridge where he said he would be watching out for me. I waited in the dark and after a time he showed up out of nowhere. He reached over and gave me a one-arm hug. In all these years of sadness I have had one hug that seemed truly a communication of love. Sometimes I have hugged him while he remains unresponsive; other times he has given me this one armed hug that does not allow me to hug in return. It feels imbalanced, perfunctory. I don’t like it but I take what I can get. Before I started the truck, I said there are three things I want to say. No dialog, just me spouting my prepared speech- an objective observer might have called it guilt tripping. With minimally thought out ignorance, I likely had only his acknowledgement that listening was the price of this ride. And no surprise to Yasik, I accompanied this little speech with my usual unrestrained tears. But I could see Yasik did actually look sad, staring out into the middle distance. Was I offering him a hand out of hell or just pushing him further into the muck?
The three things which I thought I communicated in a wonderfully simple and sincere format were: 1) you are beautiful, 2) in a more hopeful time a few years ago, you promised to be there for me if something ever happened to Dad, and FYI, Dad is right now seriously ill and wants my life and your life to be together in case something goes wrong with his pending operation, and 3) you have to get help; we will help you. Are you up for that? It seemed to me in the moment that he looked truly down and vulnerable as he said, “Sure”. I had him repeat it to be certain I had heard right. These things I said to a young man who was facing charges and possible jail time, may have just realized he’d fathered a daughter with a young woman also struggling with addiction, was a drug addict who, the months ahead would show, was definitely resistant to rehab. Or he felt powerless against his addiction for reasons he does not feel are our right to understand. Yasik has adopted a ‘need to know’ policy in his communications with us since he no longer lives with us.
But I blustered on about him taking the next step by letting us know when he wanted our help because without his motivation nothing could work. At that point, in his head, he likely affirmed, “Exactly.”
Before I dropped him off he asked me for a ride to court on a date coming up in a few weeks. Of course I would do that for him. All he had to do was call and set things up with me. The ball was in his court and we were off the guilt trip hook. After dropping Yasik off I do remember I drove home kind of smiling with some hope (self-satisfied?) that now the change would be coming.
It’s 2017 and that change I was a little bit hopeful of that night hasn’t come.
But other changes had come. Dave was scheduled for open heart surgery March 7. Waiting for the surgery date, Dave was on a daily roller coaster of uncertain heart valve function and an accompanying aortic aneurysm. The mentally challenged fellow in our care was beginning to act out a disturbance within himself that we did not at the time understand. We thought he was simply upset that Dave was not being his immediate caregiver during Dave’s time in the hospital and recovery at home. It was frustrating not to be able to help him mellow out. My mother was beginning to show the vulnerability of aging. I was a recent retiree just finding my way in a new lifestyle. The daily barrage from the 2015-16 American election process didn’t help either. And whether my conscious mind was able to recognize it or not, I was concerned about Yasik’s court case. I had begun a regimen of meditation and exercise and sensible living, but I was a novice at dealing with the fear that would not be restrained.
I have gone through an 18 month course with an anti-depressant twice since Yasik turned 14. Since then, I have read about several studies that question long term use of anti-depressants. I did not want to go back there for I felt confident that if this new regimen of exercise and meditation was given time, another 18 months on an antidepressant was at the very least unnecessary. But here I was, needing to be strong for Dave, needing to take principal care of our client and yet dissolving in blubbering, sodden tears at often inconvenient moments. One sloppy moment, I remember myself lying in bed mid morning trying to help Dave of the weakened heart understand what was the matter with me. I told him it wasn’t really about his condition or Yasik’s ongoing nightmare though each were definitely contributing factors; I was afraid of the fear that comes with anxiety. I didn’t at the time know that being afraid of the fear was actually the title of a book.
With days to go before his surgery, Dave took charge, taking me to a clinic for a supply of Ativan to ward off the most obtrusive expressions of anxiety. Ativan does not promise to be a helpful little support for more than a month. Beyond that it may start to be more assertive, effectively or not so much. But for the period of Dave’s operation and recovery, Ativan was up to the challenge, giving me some control over each day.
The direction I am going with this side bar, however, came through a recommendation by my brother-in-law who has had his own issues with anxiety and depression. He gave me a copy of the book, Hope And Help For Your Nerves, written in 1969 by Dr. Claire Weekes, an Australian general practitioner who is considered by some the pioneer of modern anxiety treatment. Speaking directly to the issue of fear itself in any given situation, her suggestion is to face the fear, accept the fear, ‘float’ past the fear and let time pass (24, 25). The book was so helpful in those days when anxiety seemed uncontrollable without medication that I got curious about what was being said in current literature. Because it’s all just a tap of the finger away on an Ipad, I ordered 30 to 36 books on anxiety, essentially anything our regional library had. And in the months to come, I read roughly 30 books and a surprising array of magazine articles.
Community libraries do not offer a lot of research material. Most of these books were self-help books or memoirs. But there are several that provide the lay person a less formal presentation of research.
I hope what I have discovered and personally tested will be of help to others who struggle to make a family via adoption.
Google offers the following definition for anxiety:
A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
Medical News Today adds:
These disorders affect how we feel and behave, and they can manifest real physical symptoms. Mild anxiety is vague and unsettling, while severe anxiety can be extremely debilitating, having a serious impact on daily life. Anxiety is considered a problem when symptoms interfere with a person’s ability to sleep or otherwise function. Generally speaking, anxiety occurs when a reaction is out of proportion with what might be normally expected in a situation. www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/anxiety
Mayo Clinic offers the following definition for depression:
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/basics/definition/con-20032977
Several of the books I read make the point that anxiety and depression should be kept separate from the concept of sadness for in sadness a person does not feel trapped but with depression it is difficult to see a way out. (i.e. I Want to Change My Life: How to Overcome Anxiety, Depression and Addiction by Steven Melemis, P. 192). The book Overcoming the Fear of Fear: How to Reduce Anxiety Sensitivity by Sherry Stewart PhD, Steven Taylor PhD, and Margo Watt PhD also wants a distinction made as they point out that anxiety may not be about the sadness of a situation but the fear of the sensations of that sadness.
The July 2014 issue of Oprah offers an explanation of the mechanics of anxiety pointing out
that these symptoms arise when the two areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, the hippocampus and frontal cortex, are flooded with hormones called glucocorticoids, which help our body prioritize what’s most important in a crisis. These hormones maximize our strength and energy- in case we need to flee a predator, while temporarily shutting down less essential functions, such as maintaining connections between neurons in our brain. (You don’t want to spend precious mental energy consolidating memories when you’re trying to outrun a saber-toothed tiger.) P 62
This quote is repeated in essentially the same form in most writings about anxiety and/ or depression.
Not only do most suggest that a tiger was everyone’s biggest fear back in the day, I doubt I read anyone who did not also focus on the following 3 F words: fear, flight or fight. There was also a lot of mention made of igniting the sympathetic nervous system in times of stress, and the need to balance this with putting the parasympathetic nervous system back in control.
There is a problem; your brain registers and responds to the problem in fear and proceeds to set up the body for flight or fight. How we engage in fight or flight ranges from the healthy to the pathological.
We can lay down, a ready banquet for said tiger, we can run to get out of the way, we can put up our dukes, or we can spend the needed time dealing with the prospect of the approaching tiger – this ‘fear of the fear’ thing.
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, the character Bailey Johnson Jr. says that in times of stress his soul got up and hid behind his heart and curled up and went to sleep. I guess he chose flight from fear. When I read his sister’s recounting of his reaction, I thought the kid understood stress and how it registers in the body even though his sensations were not ones I have felt. This is to say there is a substantial list of symptoms for anxiety and depression.
Again, according to Google general symptoms include:
• Trembling or feet/finger twitching
• Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
• Problems sleeping
• Hair loss
• Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
• Shortness of breath or holding breath with intermittent heavy sighing
• Cold or sweaty hands or feet
• Having difficulty controlling worry
• Not being able to be still and calm
• Dry mouth
• Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, or even around the lips
• Pounding heart beats-from which all assure, you won’t die
• Feeling weak and tired
• Muscle tension
• Experiencing gastrointestinal ( GI) problems, or sensations of tension in that area
• Loss/increase of appetite, with attendant weight loss or gain
• Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
• Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness – often strongest in the morning
All of these symptoms are enough to sustain the fear that keeps anxiety/depression alive and well.
For further description, Chapter 4 in Hope And Help For Your Nerves by Dr. Claire Weekes is useful. Don’t be put off by dated tone and language.
Thirty plus books on anxiety/depression can actually be collapsed to a sentence recommending
diet, exercise, sleep, therapies and meditation – read mindfulness meditation in a wide variety
of forms here.
There is no magic hidden behind any of these recommendations.
When I walk, I am doing so to counter daily build ups of stress. I need to walk until my body
feels release, and that is rarely before about 6, 000 Fitbit steps or about 45 minutes each day.
Getting a morning hit of anxiety most mornings, and given how quickly my mind slips away
from the grasp of focus, I personally need a daily 20 minute time span for meditation to ensure
that sufficient mind quiet happens.
And yes, I can find these times. I am retired.
When I was working, I struggled just to walk several times a week. I had not yet experienced
the value of meditating. But I also think as I pushed my anxiety to the side in those days, or
smothered it with anti-depressants, I was banking it for a bigger payout in the years to come.
And now the words “daily” and “need” are part of the payout.
Further comments on bits I have found re:
Diet: Nothing surprising here – eating balanced, regular meals, drinking enough to keep the pee
clear, going easy on sugar and caffeine(or not) and alcohol, taking supplements like fish oil,
magnesium, B complex. Some books add less well known, and less researched suggestions, like
Exercise: What is surprising here is how much attention this one gets from media. Most focus
on the range of options. To guilt ourselves when we wander by the Triathaloners, is a waste of
energy. So is the assumption that for the anxious or depressed Yoga is the go-to exercise for it
offers the double whammy of meditation. Whatever our choice of exercise may be, for many, it
can be effectively coupled with mindfulness in a variety of ways. There is likely only one must –
to exercise at least several times a week.
Sleep: This one is also getting lots of attention. Most of the discussion is around the how-much-
is-enough question. Seven hours tends to win out as an average. In my working years, when
the day’s anxiety tightened my body and mind, I found it hard to get my 7 hour quota. So I
worried, with reason, that I would fall asleep while driving home after work if I didn’t get
enough sleep. And yes a few times I hit the edge of the road. I had to start telling myself that
most days I was fine and that I would catch up the next night. Worrying less about sleep has
helped to give me more of it- a case for Amy Carmichael’s ‘In acceptance, lies peace’, another
aspect of Mindfulness!
Therapies: Two issues dog this one – cost and questions of efficacy. Several writers, even while
authoring a book on their particular take on a therapy, somewhat abashedly also acknowledge
these two problems. Nonetheless, currently there seems to be consensus that CBT or cognitive
behavioural therapy or a newer one called Behavioural-Activation therapy and/or Positive
Psychology, while likely no less costly, do appear to be helping people. There are also many DIY
therapies to refocus your perspective on the problem, like journaling, retraining your brain to
be consciously grateful or working with apps.
And here is where I return to where this sidebar began – with Claire Weekes’ book, HOPE AND
HELP FOR YOUR NERVES. Her message helped and I found that essentially it was the message
of all the books I read.
Meditation: For me, it says something about the pervasiveness of this recommendation that I
got directed to my current mode of meditation by an article in Esquire (April, 2016 p.82). Suffice
it to say, meditation comes well recommended. The one question I currently have comes out of
concerns for some young family members now struggling with depression and for whom it is
reasonable to assume a doctor today might suggest meditation. How might they find ways to
calm their minds, given how hard it is to imagine them focusing on their breath even for a few
To this question, on page 99, Priscilla Warner writes in Learning to Breathe, “If you are focusing
your mind to the extent that other tangential things are excluded, if you are immersed in an
experience, that’s meditation” (I am not certain that this is a complete quote).
I do not need to go into detail about any of these techniques. Google, books, social media,
friends, and businesses all offer in depth direction. The August 2016 issue of Oprah offers lots
of advice about getting into meditation from a common mindfulness meditation routine to
repeating a calming word like ‘patience’ or ‘smile’ until you notice your emotions slip into
another gear to imagining a black dot on your navel and then visualizing it disappearing to ease
yourself out of jitters. Try it. You likely will actually sense physical relief.
Social connection and being kind to ourselves when we are not doing so wonderfully well at
diet, exercise, therapies or meditation are good too. Slip up, pick up and go at it again.
Dr. Claire Weekes connected with me when she pointed out that anxiety is fear of fear.
From Buddha to quantum physics we are learning that our thoughts generate our reality. Yes, we may continue to struggle with anxiety for much of our lives as Harry Chapin sings in “Circle”.
It seems like I’ve been here before, I can’t remember when
But I got this funny feelin’ that I’ll be back once again
There’s no straight lines make up my life and all my roads have bends
There’s no clear-cut beginnings and so far no dead-ends
That tiger may bound across our landscape time and again, but maybe it’s hopeful that ‘so far no dead-ends’.
I have learned ways to cope so that sometimes like the story of the Russian peasants that Gary Shteyngart mentions in Little Failure who were just glad they made it through the day, I too am thankful some days that I simply made it through the day. I love someone who is deeply troubled and I am not always able to look at my life positively though I know I am expected to find peace with that reality in my own life. I have tools that help. And I am comfortable with that because while I am not necessary stronger in the face of stress, I do see how my life experience is making me more compassionate for I am actually living human experience and learning from it. So often earlier in my life I felt I was an awkward bystander, perhaps more clearly able to see problems and solutions, but never quite knowing what was truly helpful. I have opportunity and resources now that I am personally testing out. `
In A Brief History of Anxiety Patricia Pearson leaves the reader with a challenge. She rephrases Pascal’s wager which says, “If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss).
She suggests “Dare to be irrational (because guess what, you already are) and wager that your life has a purpose, a meaning, an overarching story. And imagine within yourself a light or spark or Lord that will show you the way”(p. 172). Or maybe just some techniques to help you make it through the day.
Last night we watched Lion. Saroo’s mother tells him she adopted him and his brother because she saw it as her purpose in life. It seems by her sense of being blessed that she saw the attendant struggles as part of the package. She likely has learned some techniques.