Grappling with my anxiety

I keep seeing this article from The Mighty about “high-functioning anxiety.”  I dislike the term “high-functioning” in general; I think it’s pretty loaded (especially in my line of work).  There’s also something that rubs me the wrong way about the way it was written.  Nonetheless, I found it pretty resonant.

I am a ball of nerves right now.  My anxiety is largely focused on work (and work is legitimately very stressful right now), but in the background, I’m having dreams about having to bury my dad and mom at the same time, or I’m feeling physically panicked about political information on my newsfeed.  A few weeks ago I had pretty intense GI symptoms (reflux and what may have been an ulcer or gastritis), which could be related to stress or just unfortunate timing, I don’t know.  I have been struggling with sleep for years, but there are definitely peak insomnia times, and June was one of those.

I have a clinical social work license, and I think that I understand my anxiety and depression pretty well.  I know what it feels like in my body (stomach distress, trouble sleeping, elevated heart rate, moments of trouble breathing, general physical hypervigilance).  I know–whether I can prevent it or not–how it impacts my behavior (anxious, impulsive communication; feverish overwork; not sitting still).  I even know a little about from whence it comes (various traumas; being treated as the only responsible, sober person in my family when I was too young to assume that role).  And I even know what helps (unplugging from Facebook and work email, reaching out, distracting myself, bullet journaling, taking medication that will help me sleep, eating regularly, physical activity, positive self talk, the usual).  But it’s hard to be rational and disciplined when you are experiencing irrational desperation.

Fortunately, I do have a life with some built-in routines that help.  I feel some responsibility to get home from work at a normal time of day so that I can attend to my family.  We walk the dogs and talk about our days.  We make dinner and watch television.  We usually try to get to bed at a reasonable hour.  Being a part of a family is a good thing for me.  And having a partner who can hear and acknowledge the moment I’m in is also helpful.  I’m thankful that I can say “I’m feeling really anxious right now” and know that he will validate and love me through it.  It is a strange feeling to be the one who struggles; I have so often moved out of the way to make room for other people to struggle.  Sometimes this is anxiety-provoking in and of itself, but it is nice to trust that we will be okay if I fall apart a little.

So, anyway:  I’m working on figuring this out.  Coming soon: my thoughts on Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and reflections on family vacation.

Anticipating amends

A friend from work brought me a copy of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to borrow, and I read it over the weekend.  Curiously, my partner and I also started watching Six Feet Under, so I spent the weekend in fictional funeral homes with suddenly dead fathers.  Any proximity to reality is entirely coincidental.

Fun Home was a lovely little book without being hagiography.  Bechdel doesn’t idealize her father, but she loves him.  Even as she discovers the dark parts of him and recognizes ways that he was abusive, she also recognizes the ways that he has formed her–both as a conscious queer person and as an intellectual.  When I returned the book to my coworker today, we had a brief exchange about the complexity of the author’s feelings for her father.  My coworker, whose father died when she was a younger woman,  reflected on this as honest and resonant for her.  Although I might have shared more of my thoughts with this coworker over coffee or beer, today I just nodded and thanked her for the loan.

I am thankful for the time I have to spend with my dad, however long that turns out to be.  I love my dad a lot, and (not but) I have a complicated, painful history with him.  I don’t know how much of that we will talk about before he dies.  I don’t know how much I even need to.  In the past year or so, he has really embraced his twelve-step program and begun to identify as an addict.  I don’t know where he is with his steps or if he’s still actively working on them.  I was dreading the amends part, fearful of the conversation that may ensue when he makes a list of people he has harmed and becomes willing to make amends.

I think that I have forgiven him, that I’m ready to be present to that conversation if he needs to do that.  But it is also scary to consider cracking open old hurt, because maybe I have just sealed it up tightly enough that it isn’t so bothersome anymore.  Maybe openness to my father’s amends is openness to re-living trauma even in the midst of the pain of losing him.

Two things that I keep coming back to, though:  1) I trust my own resilience, and 2) I love my father.  I can be ready, if I need to be.

Finding my way through the grief and the grace

An old friend of mine denounced Facebook for paragraphs and a different kind of online presence from the sort we carefully (if subconsciously) curate for family and friends.  He and I were friends from the internet before this one, where we wrote long journal entries that grappled with our emerging adulthoods. I marvel sometimes at just how much I wrote back then–and though we are always performing our identities, whether at work, in bed, on Facebook, or in these other quieter pockets of the internet, I also marvel at how candid I was.  I wrote about my identity, my heartbreaks, my financial fears, my mother’s mental illness, my difficult relationship with my dad.  Not a lot was off limits, and in retrospect I’ve thought that perhaps I could have been a little less vulnerable.  Still–it seems remarkable, the record I kept of that time.

My friend, with whom I’d had a long and affectionate email correspondence for many years, stopped and rested at my home for a day or so in the summer of 2005 while he was driving across North America.  I was teaching then, and I had stopped writing so publicly online.  I wrote behind a locked Livejournal account from time to time, but I tried to obscure my old website and remove myself from Google searches.

While he was visiting me, my brother died.  This was certainly a defining moment in my life, one that has rippled into the work I do and the sense I make of a world that is nonsensical with both grief and grace.  He went on his way, and we buried my brother, and I only fell apart after all the visitors left my home.  My partner at the time gently suggested that I find my way the way I always had: by writing.  And so I did, for a bit.  I revived my old website (by then, perhaps, I called it a “blog”) and I wrote.

I wrote my way through it, and then I stopped.  It was what I needed to do.  My life changed, and the internet changed, and everything was Facebook (poor Livejournal still languishes!), and there wasn’t the same safe zone to be vulnerable.  Sometimes I still offer thoughts on Facebook, but I feel so exposed that I frequently delete them within the hour.  I briefly participated in some group blogging efforts with my beloved and his crowd, but we all got busy–and while I loved the chance to write again, it felt more performative than cathartic.

Lately, I have been thinking of coming back here to write, and my friend’s blog may have just given me the push that I needed.  Part of it is that my job has become blessedly less intense than it has been for the past few years, and writing is a joy of my life that I’ve just missed.

But the bigger reason is that I found out that my father has a terminal cancer diagnosis, and writing is how I find my way through the grief and the grace.  He told me about a month ago that the doctors have given him a prognosis of six to twelve months to live.  It has been easy and comfortable to be a social worker for my family, to draw up a case management plan, to start managing logistics, to check in on the holistic health picture, to keep the pulse on the Family System.  It has been harder for me to let go of that clinical role and be the eldest daughter of my dying father.  Maybe this is where I can do that.

Close to home

This entry is a response to this workshop prompt.

It took some time to get used to hearing other people’s hard stories; but in my MSW program, I learned to listen to them in such a way that I could be compassionate without falling apart myself.  I had the opportunity to hold very difficult stories of domestic violence, of discrimination, of abandonment, of breaks with reality—and although I could empathize, I could also hold myself at a distance.  But when a parent of a person with developmental disabilities shared her story with my Adolescent Mental Health class, I couldn’t keep the distance.  At the end of the class, I looked around for the exit before bursting into tears.


A stranger could tell from ten yards that my older brother had disabilities.  He didn’t use a wheel chair, but he had a funny gait; he always walked on tip-toes (a characteristic that I have since learned is sometimes called ‘equinus gait’ and can be a potential early sign of autism, though he was not formally diagnosed as such).  As a child, I was fairly unfazed by his differences—he was just my brother, my first friend.  It wasn’t until I was in school that I was aware he was different from me in any significant way, and it may be a coincidence of my constitution that my response to that new knowledge was to become a bulldog of a sister, ready to sink my teeth into anyone who crossed us.


In graduate school, I focused on severe mental illness, adolescents, school-based interventions, and family dynamics.  I had no expectation of working in the developmental disability field, although I did present to a first-year class on ableism and my experience as a family member of a person with disabilities.  And because MSW programs pretty universally require their students to do much personal reflection, I did do a fair amount of thinking on my own family’s story.  The two years I spent becoming a social worker were immensely important to me:  I learned a lot about us.


We were riding in the red station wagon, all of us, with my brother’s clothes packed in a suit case in the way back.  I was eleven and furious because he wasn’t going to be living with us anymore; he was moving into a group home.

He could be a handful, for sure. Sometimes we all got frustrated.  But I didn’t understand.  In retrospect, I understand that his disabilities were one part of a much larger picture that included poverty, trauma, and a number of other stressors that impacted my parents’ wellbeing and ability to take care of us.  A social worker had convinced them that this was in my brother’s best interest.

I sat in the middle seat between my brother and sister and could see my father’s face in the rear-view mirror.  “Why are you sending him away?” I asked them.  Beneath that question was, “Don’t you love him?”  Years later, when I was twenty-two, I’d ask the question of my father in reverse:  “Why are you taking him out of his safe and secure place?” with “Don’t you care about him?” undertones.


Every day, I talk to parents of people with developmental disabilities.  They are, most often, totally exhausted and fearful about the fate of their child.  They have spent decades being advocates, trying to figure out what the right questions are to ask, praying that their kid eventually makes it onto the Medicaid waiver so he’ll have the golden ticket that gets him the services that he needs, worrying about what will happen to their adult child when they die.  My job is to maintain a list of applicants who are interested in residential options that my agency provides, to develop relationships with families, and in the best-case scenarios for those families, to match applicants with homes in which they will thrive.  I really love the agency that I work for, and I love the work that I’m doing.  But it is heartbreaking sometimes to hear all these stories and often hard to keep my distance from them.


When I was home from college once, I sat on the stoop of the house where I grew up, staring across at a yellow house I admired and imagining that one day I might buy that house and have a family.  I considered my brother’s place in my life and realized that I would probably take care of him eventually, and I looked forward to him being an uncle to my children.  I looked forward to loving him into adulthood with me, maybe making up for the hard years of my adolescence when sometimes I was too angry to love him properly.

Just a few years after that, his heart started to fail.  We buried him in a cemetery where we rode bikes as children.  I suppose that my life is simpler than it might have been, but I deeply miss the ways he would have complicated it.  I still mourn the loss of a chance to love him better.  That loss follows me around, haunts my work, brings me closer to the rawness of these other families’ experiences.

Intuitive Construction (or how I came to live in a brightly-painted bird’s-nest)

The workshop prompt:  Describe your creative process in terms of the construction of a building / structure. 

I’m not what you’d call an architect.  I don’t use the protractor, level, or tape measure.  I eyeball it.  I drag one piece of wood up against another, squint a bit, call it good or not.  I rely on my gut and love a piece of warped wood for the floor if it warms the space.  I have one organic impression or another—a blooming bee balm flower, a head of garlic, a bird’s nest, a summer storm, but I never draw a blue print.  I just tilt my head and build from the inside out.

When the building is complete, I survey it—I tidy here, I push back a thing there, I switch this part for that part.  The finished product—somewhat a misnomer, truth be told, because I’m always rearranging the furniture or art objects—is not without reflection and evaluation, but the specifics aren’t often drawn and measured before I begin; I don’t pile bricks and lumber neatly or even always ensure that I have roughly enough material to finish a project.

There are certainly drawbacks to not having a plan—the door doesn’t shut quite right, the hallway is always a little drafty; sometimes I live without a roof in spots.  But I have found that the intuitive unwinding of the structures that I create from a pile of raw material I’ve collected over years often results in something rather elegant, something coherent beyond my own expectations.  This window echoes an interior passage way; the house itself spirals around its staircase and on up towards the sky.  Sometimes it’s startling: I find familiar jewels crammed into the gaps inherent to a process that rejects measurements.  It is a strange way to build a home, but I love discovering those unintentional stripes of mottled light.

Garden Dreams

My fantasy garden is a community affair. People will show up with shovels and ideas and opinions and agenda and questions and insecurities and ego.  It will be messy—gardens are messy—but it will be a process of struggling and listening, digging in.  Some people will stake out a corner of their own and plant their neat rows of herbs.  That’s okay.  Some others will decide that it sounds more fun to share a swath of dirt, talking over the humus, deciding what to interplant.  That’s okay too.  And some people might not know what they’re doing, and they’ll plant the potatoes next to the garlic, and it won’t work out too well this year, but that’s okay, really it is.  What will happen is abundance-despite.  There will be more tomatoes than any family could possibly eat in a season, and the guy with the neat rows of herbs will have sage and basil to spare.  In the middle of the garden, there will be a basket with a sign on it that says “SHARE.” And we will.

Someday we’ll get it right–it’ll be all organic and permaculture, all seeds saved, no GMO.  We’ll feed ourselves and the hungry. There won’t be locks on the gates, and we’ll all ride our bicycles there.

But first we’ll just give dreaming together a shot.



This was another Grow Write Guild post, though I’m late to the game this time around.  This time the topic is Dream Garden.


My First Plant (or How Everything Comes Back Over to Social Work)

My first plant was a lima bean planted in a paper cup in third grade.  I don’t remember the specifics of the assignment except that I was a disorganized eight-year-old in a disorganized family.  I forgot to tell my mom that I needed to soak the bean before planting it, but it didn’t much matter because my bean went into the dark closet, where I learned seeds were loathe to grow anyway.  So the plants on the sunny sill popped up, first peeking little green arches and then heart leaves.  The seeds in the closet stayed tucked beneath the dirt and dark.

In retrospect, while I see that there is value to control groups and third grade scientific inquiry, I feel defensive of my spacey and disorganized eight year-old self and her failure of a seedling. I sort of wish the teacher had taken on the burden of the control group, so that little girl (and her control cohort!) could have had that experience of her very own wonder and hope.

How could this be anything but a parable about privilege and risk and resilience?  I can’t help but draw the parallel between this little elementary experiment and the reality of institutional discrimination and disparity.  Some seeds are planted in good soil, get enough water, and sit on a sunny sill.  Some go into the closet–maybe soaked a bit the night before, maybe brought out for half the daylight.  The objective of the lesson was, of course, to point out that plants need a combination of circumstances to thrive.

That little girl was not herself a bean in the dark.  She was a bean in the partial shade, and sometimes the ground was a little too cool. But the soil was fertile and a slice of sun hit her just right, and she happened to be a particularly sprouty type, it turned out.

It’s interesting to do social work, with its strengths-based ethos, in the school setting.  I grew enough into the teacher role that I absorbed the language of “at risk,” but it wasn’t until my MSW program that I was able to fully contextualize that label.  A kid isn’t “at risk” because of her personality or bad parents or low ambitions or propensity to misbehavior but because of systemic realities that can amount to being sown in rocky soil or being put inside a closet with no light.  What schools often seem to miss out on is the other side of risk, which is resilience.  And when we label “at risk” kids without also digging around for the ways that they are sprouty and programmed to thrive, when we don’t assess for and emphasize and GROW those things, we often undermine the ability of children to soak up what is fertile or find their patch of sun.

This year, I am tending my first real class of seedlings.  When I chose the cucumber sprout who would continue on into the next round, I laid the rejected snipped stem aside, sadly, to a spot in the basin that had collected a little water.  A few days later, I noticed that she was reaching up toward the light and had rooted in the margins.  I couldn’t help myself–I planted her and put her in the window.

I’m participating in the Grow Write Guild with Gayla Trail and friends.  The subject at hand is “my first plant.


Taking my time–easier said than done!

Ah. Remember that taking my time intention? Yeah, about that. It feels like I own almost none of my own time. Lately, I’ve been living in this electric fog of anxiety and overwhelm. I abandoned my daily mandala meditation. I wake up in the middle of the night with low-grade  anxiety or sweaty moments of panic.  I swear that I am a little cognitively impaired for it all (I’m not even being flippant). I teach coping skills to teenagers but am not all that sure that I am even using them (that is hyperbole, probably. I think?).  I’m just trying not to fall off the edge of everything.

Automatic thought roll call: I can’t do this? (Here!) I should be doing more? (Yo, teach!) This is too much? (Hey!)  I am going to fail? (Present and accounted for!) It’s tough because the minimal requirements of finishing my degree are real and substantial. But there’s a lot of core-belief and low self-esteem action at work there, and when I’m not in full-blown emotion mind (can you tell that I think a lot about cognitive & dialectical behavior therapy?) I’m really trying to figure out how to give myself a break.

green thingsIt hasn’t been a total wash. Over the weekend, I connected with a couple of friends to share seeds and grilled cheese sandwiches with. It was good for the soul to take my time for that. It reminded me that I really miss my community and that, in spite of my introversion, I really love to gather a community.  I love to be together and do stuff. And on top of it all, it was this wonderful chance to attend to and share my garden dreams. With a huge pile of work to do, the two hours had seemed almost impossible to take–but I’m glad I did. I am exhausted, but it was a boost of delightful anticipation and a nice distraction from the grind that demands so much of my focus.

And the seeds I planted are coming up.  Ah, hope.  I look at them every day. It does help.

Oh, hey February.

ImageMy schedule is really a killer.  I don’t want to complain, and I know that it’s worth the temporary inconvenience (I’ll ultimately have two professional licenses instead of one), but since my semester has gotten underway, I have so little time for anything besides school.  Since February began, I’ve sat down to draw one mandala mindfully. I’ve drawn others, but those have been during class rather than as a meditative activity. But I’m trying to remain non-judgmental. It’s not a failure; it’s just not what I’d like.

I sleep well maybe three out of seven week nights. I am wracked with anxiety about the end of my program and my job search. It has been a real challenge to quiet my brain and be in this moment right now. My partner understands this crazy, points out the ways that it is crazy, and offers to be sane and hopeful for me when I struggle.  I am uncomfortable being the one who needs that kind of solid groundedness, but I’ll take it.

Mindfulness and the Eucharist

I was paging through Peace is Every Step  to see if I could find a good reading for mindfulness with my program kids today, and I came across this, which is not perfect to share with them but which I love.

The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, “Eat this. This is my flesh.” He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread with mindfulness, they would have real life. In their daily lives, they may have eaten their bread in forgetfulness, so the bread was not bread at all; it was a ghost. In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness. The practice of eating bread, a tangerine, or a cookie is the same.

When we breathe, when we are mindful, when we look deeply at our food, life becomes real at that very moment. To me, the rite of the Eucharist is a wonderful practice of mindfulness. In a drastic way, Jesus tried to wake up his disciples.

from Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life