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.


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.

What I’m Cleaning Out

The house I grew up in made me allergic to piles of paper that accumulate on tables, to dishes that crowd in the sink, to laundry that stacks up outside of the hamper or on the bathroom floor.  Clutter gives me hives.  Outward signs of inward crazy.  As a teenager, I would fly into a cleaning rage.  I mean rage without a trace of hyperbole.  While scrubbing the dysfunction off the walls, I would swear and slam doors.

This is not to say that I do not manage to gather my own piles and stacks now—I do.  When I’m busy, or when I’m depressed (or when I’m too busy to notice that I’m depressed), life has its way of cluttering up surfaces with books, unopened envelopes, dirty towels, shoes, jackets, and half-empty glasses of water.  Sometimes I stop going into rooms because I don’t want to see the mess. When it gets this way, I get itchy and self-judgmental.   I don’t feel the old rage—maybe I’ve grown out of it—but I definitely hear the echo of my own adolescent frustration.  There’s something about an orderly environment that feels like control to me.
Maybe I’m fifteen years late, but I’m starting to understand that girl and her bleach-filled furies (and, while we’re at it, this woman and her itchy self-judgment).  I am earnestly trying to learn to let go of the names I call myself (Control Freak, Tunnel-Visioned Hypocrite, Judgmental Asshole, A Mess, those things) and simply observe myself where I was, or am.  It’s not easy for me; judgment is a place I go quickly, whether it is a verdict on another or—much more likely—myself.  I am resisting the urge to say “and I really dislike that about myself.”  I will try something new, and attempt to not label myself as good or bad, likeable or unlikeable: Sometimes judgment is ineffective and gets in the way of my happiness or self-esteem.  I would like to try something else.
My automatic impulse is to look back at my 15 year-old self with flashing eyes and a bottle of Windex and say, “Dude, talk about outward signs of inward crazy.”  And as I gain more clinical language, the temptation to label that kid (and feel shame around those labels) is great.  So here’s something new:  When a person who has strong emotions grows up in an environment that is unpredictable, she might experience anger and desire control over her environment.  Full stop.  Sit with that.  Be gentle.
And right now, as I notice the disorderly pile of books on my desk, the jacket thrown across the sofa, the few dishes of mine in the sink, I will try something new:  It is understandable that, after a weekend of class and a long day of being present somewhere else, I might have a little housework to catch up on tomorrow.  And that’s doable.
Also doable? Forming new habits:  clearing out judgments, applying compassion, and polishing perspective.
The synchrobloggers are writing about a mess.

Letter to Sea Star

Little Sea,The summer after my second year of teaching, we took off in the Toyota Previa you bought from that friend of yours—with its 200,000 miles on it to start—and we drove west, leaving the men we’d loved behind and filling those aching holes with sky.
I was always the early riser, outcome-oriented and impatient.  You were the slow mover, the poster child for “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”  Sometimes we crowded one another, made one another crazy with waiting or rushing, but most of the time we just talked out of the well of our history the way sisters do.
We got to the Uintas, where I’d fallen in love three years before, and I teared up because he was moving his furniture out of our apartment that day.  You drove me into the Salt Flats, where we’d never been before—then the Sierra Nevadas, then the San Francisco Bay.  All the while, we spoke our histories and our hopes.

That summer, forward was a thrilling and terrifying mystery for me.  I didn’t know what there could be beyond here.  You were exactly the person I needed then, the one person who could put my future in context.  You invoked our family’s stories and emboldened me to push onward into the mystery.

Your sea

The synchrobloggers are asking (or answering)  the age-old question:  Are we there yet?


Much of my identity as a child was shaped by my older brother Matthew, who had a congenital heart defect and developmental disabilities.  My love for him was ferocious and complicated.  He was a place where I put my best and worst self, my most gentle face and my most angry.  Much of my identity as an adult has been shaped by his death seven years ago:  in his memory, I try to put forth my gentleness and my ferocious love (plagued as I am with regrets for not loving him well enough).
Tonight is the anniversary of his death, and I would like to remember him.
I was two years old when Matthew had open heart surgery.   I was twelve when—I think—he had stints put in.  I was twenty-two when he had his second open heart surgery, and twenty-three when his heart failed.
Matthew walked on his tip-toes all the time.
The evening he died, I drove to the hospital in Rocky Mount and I visited with him.  I walked into the room and he asked, “Why didn’t you bring me a Happy Meal?”  He wasn’t eating much at the time, so I told him if he’d eat one, I’d bring him ten Happy Meals.
Matthew loved doohickeys.  This was his word for any strangely-shaped (though usually cylindrical, for optimal holding) candy-related toy.  He had quite a collection.
Matthew had a pretty serious speech impediment.  He called me “Ah-yah” and Marti “Mah-ee,” but often enough, he’d just call me “Big Sissy” and her “Little Sissy.”
I remember the long hallway and Mom calling to us to get ready for dinner.  I was three, and he was five.  We raced down to the end of the long hallway, toward the bathroom to wash our hands.  I stopped, but he kept running.  He had to go to the emergency room to get stitches.
I was seven years old before I learned that the word “retard” (not uttered in our household) could be accurately, if crassly, applied to my brother.  A girl in my class was visiting our home, and I got into an argument with her about it.  The term we used at home to talk about Matthew’s differences was “special problems.”
When I was eleven years old, I was furious with my parents because they decided to put him in a group home.  It felt like abandonment.  I remember a moment in the red station wagon, criticizing my parents out loud, when my father made it clear that it was a hard decision for them and that they loved him too.  I wasn’t the only one who loved Matthew.
When I was twenty-two, I was very critical of my father for bringing him home from the group home.  I was wrong then, too.
Matthew tore the head off my Totally Hair Barbie—irreparably– not a week after I opened the box.  I was livid.  I probably exacted some vengeance, but I don’t remember what it was.
If you let him, Matthew would watch the same movie over and over again.
Matthew went through a difficult behavioral stage in his early twenties.  Once, he took all of the pictures on the wall out of their frames, and folded the pictures up, presumably to keep.  We came to understand sometime later that he may have been experiencing some depression then.
He was in a self-contained classroom at my middle school.  When I was in sixth grade, we ate lunch at the same time.  I said hello to him every day.
He had one blue eye and one green eye.  You wouldn’t notice unless you looked.
He loved R&B.  He’d change the radio to an R&B station whether you felt like listening to Usher or not.
When we were little—I was seven or so, so he was nine and Marti was four—we would play in what seemed like expansive woods behind our house.  He was Batman, and I was Batgirl, and Marti was Robin.
After he died, I dreamed that I had easy labor and gave birth to a boy, and in the dream I sobbed when I chose the name Matthew.
Once, we were playing in a MacDonald’s ball pit with one of Marti’s classmates, and the girl said, “Is that your brother?  He’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”  To my credit, I did not hit her, but I did hold a grudge against her well into high school.
I did chase a neighbor boy down the street, striking him hard on his back, for picking on my “retarded brother.”
He was so little and muscular—though when he died, he was rail-thin.
There is a picture of him and me—tiny us.  I was probably two, and he was four.  We were wearing sweat suits and my face was smushed into his shoulder.
The Christmas before Matthew died, I didn’t put up a tree.  None of us did—it was a hard, hectic year.  Matthew loved Christmas.  I wish we’d given him a tree.  I think of him every year when I put mine up now.  I do it for him.
The sunset sky on the evening that he died was gorgeous.  My friend Jeff and I watched it from the Rocky Mount Krispy Kreme after I saw him in the hospital.  The moon when I raced back to Rocky Mount that night, after Dad called to tell us that Matthew’s death was imminent, was big and low and orange.
I remember his voice.  I remember him singing “La bamba.”  I remember his whine, and I remember the crescendo of his excitement (never too loud—he was a pretty quiet soul).  It is a gift, this memory.And one more:  He wasn’t terribly huggy, but Matthew’s affection was very dear.  He’d lay his head on my shoulder or lead me by the hand somewhere.  Not long before he died–maybe a week–he had this one energetic afternoon where, when I showed up to visit him, he shot out of bed and got into a wheelchair and told me to wheel him to the soda machine.

I am not a good gardener

“No mockery in this world ever sounds so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness.  What does such advice mean?  Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mold and tilled with manure.”  –Lucy Snowe, in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

It happened off-season.  Before the ground was tilled or seeds scattered, this gorgeous weed popped up with her broad leaves sheltering her secret, preposterous abundance.  Any good gardener would yank it out, but I am not a good gardener.  I am an intuitive gardener, a reactive gardener, a hopeful waterer of an asymmetrical mess of green.  I love this weed and her ridiculous fruit; I love her crowding roots and reaching stems; I love the creatures that make their nests where stem and stem meet.
Funny plant, she shot up in a garden box—a place intended for intention.  She put out runners soon after the first green shoots burst through the rocky soil.  There is no training her; she wildly climbs outside and over into other boxes, through the chickenwire and the yard, into the untamed woods.
I have seen my neighbors curse her, chop at her infinite arms, fear for their delicate cultivations.  I understand (there’s barely room for the potato plants).  But she reached her spindly vine right into my heart and took root there, as fast as one sweet evening rainfall.  His, too.  We are part of this jungle of a garden box; we don’t dare pinch the stems and pull her out.  When it doesn’t rain, we water.
So this is what happiness is:  growth that laughs at cultivation but loves a good dousing of hope.
The synchrobloggers are pondering whether happiness is not a potato.