Categories
humor mental health

Crankxiety

Dry means dry, I think to myself, as I watch a big metal cylinder flip my clothes around and around. I’m frowning, arms crossed, in a July-hot laundromat in Chesterton, Indiana. The husband thinks that dry means done, which means he takes clothes out of the dryer when he’s tired of waiting for them, even if the necks of my t-shirts and the toes of my socks are still damp. How wrong he is to not understand that dry means dry! How frustrating when he does things wrong! I watch myself agitate, feel my shoulders and jaw turn to gravel. At that moment, dear reader, the husband is six hundred miles away. His laundry misdemeanor occurred a week earlier.

Cranxiety: the crunchy combination of grumpiness and worry.

Everywhere I go, cranky mixes with anxious into a new kind of miserable. On a hushed mountain morning, the husband walks by as I write, on his way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. His footsteps and the kettle’s hissing jolt me into worry that I can’t write, not now, probably not ever again. Why can’t he just be in the other room until I’m done? And why must I be so ill-tempered?

Crankxiety is what happens in my head when the wifi goes out. Where does the wifi go when it goes out? When will it come back? I ruminate on how wrong I am wrong to focus on what is wrong. I am supposed to be sweet, happy, and productive. I am not supposed to flip out when the husband makes tea or the wifi goes for a walk.

Cranxiety is part of what led me to re-start therapy last spring. A few weeks in, I got into an argument with my therapist. Jenny-Lynn, he said to me, so kindly that you would have thought he was a nice person. Hot tears were streaming down my face. Damp tissues were wadded in my left hand. Jenny-Lynn, he said, it is all right to feel. My objection was immediate and visceral—opposition from my toe joints all the way to the hardest part of my skull. I only wanted know why I was crying so I could stop. But I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t stop, and for some reason, I hated that he told me it was okay.

For me, anxiety is a despairing and physical need for everything to be different, inside and outside myself. It is a belly churning worry over the past and the future, including how much worse the anxiety might get, and how much crankier it might make me.

A few days after my laundromat diatribe, I tell my doctor, Crankxiety is a new circle of hell. She nods sympathetically as she fills my first-ever prescription for an anti-depressant. I’m not depressed, I report, I am just miserably irritable. Eight weeks after starting a low dose anti-depressant, crankxiety still rears its ugly head, but its talons don’t grip my belly for hours or days at a time. I can shrug and go on with my next, more helpful thought. I don’t have to be different, and neither does anyone else. These days, I say to myself, Jenny-Lynn, it’s all right to feel sad. It’s all right to feel anxious. More than anything, I feel more like myself, complaining and sweet in turn, and just exactly good enough.

Categories
mental health Skiing

More Bumps, More Beauty

As an anxious adventurer, I have to play tricks with my nervous system, use shortcuts to get down mogul runs free of halting fright.

Recently, riding up the Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin, I confessed to my unflappable ski buddy Carl just how nervous I had been, how downright shaky, on a run we had just finished. He was surprised when I reminded him how anxious I felt on the slopes. You don’t seem scared. Just very determined. A typically kind response.

When I ski down to Carl and exclaim, Beautiful! I am not just catching my breath. I say beautiful because acknowledging beauty burns off my crackle of anxiety and turns down my self-criticism.  

When I say beautiful, I mean that I’m scared out of my mind, but I can calm myself by looking at the trees, at the sky. I say it knowing that if I face my torso downhill and plant my left pole firmly, my legs will have to swing my skis around into a turn.

I say beautiful, feeling the semi-wilderness around me and the eternal blue above, knowing that the mountain and I are connected.

Beauty is why I ski, why I ride my bike in the mountains, why I want to be in this messed up world. Hearts break every day. Wars rage. The human family appears beyond dysfunctional, downright broken.

And as part of this world, far too often, I forget beauty, forget generosity and grace. I fret about the busted pipe in our cabin. Sheltered and warm, I worry about the weather. I look at the news, and look away again. Then, out of nowhere, magic happens.

Last night, for the first time in a quarter century of looking out at these woods, the husband said, Bobcat! I have heard him say deer, elk, moose. One memorable morning, he even said bear. But never, until last night, bobcat.

She was graceful and still, square face lined in elegant geometrics, black ear tips twitching. We watched her in the early spring dusk as she sat stock still, perfectly camouflaged in her white and brown coat. After listening intently, she made a quick pounce for a mouse tunneling underneath the snow—a near miss. With the confident serenity of a predator, she watched us for a few minutes, as we watched her. She made a few strides toward us, took a showy turn or two, then stepped gracefully over the hard packed snow into the silent woods. Beautiful.

Categories
humor mental health Skiing

Subzero

This is the kind of cold that kills people. Astronaut wear:  Gore-Tex layered over down, over wool. Neck gaiters under helmet. And still a shiver. Eight thousand feet above the far-away sea, searing wind has pushed snow into wave-like patterns. The chair lift rises through a bleak gust. Taos ski valley. Birthday number next.

Breathing in, she puts her mittened hand over the small gap where wind blows through her goggles. The wind sucks warmth away from her thrice layered neck. Relentless. No one should be out in this weather.

A snowmobile bores its way uphill, small siren wailing, lights flashing into the white-out. Tugging a rescue sled. Please god, she murmurs, not today, not me. A group hikes skyward, skis shouldered, to launch down a couloir. They are crazy. This is crazy. This is killing cold. Raising a layer to cover her face, feeling only ice on the crusted fabric. Wind bites like fire at her nose-tip. Too cold to breath in, too scared to breath out.

At the top, in front of the ski patrol hut, and look! Everyone! Down she goes, left hip bouncing off hard scrape. Embarrassment bolts her vertical again, sliding onto the lip of a run called Honeysuckle.

Chair seven to Bob’s run to Walkyries Glade. Do not explore black trails alone. Do not enter the narrow track, or pass the sign with a pretty name for treed moguls. Do not be lulled by this hush of trees weighted with snow, by this spotlight of calm. Time falls away. Look down, turn once, turn again into perfect cushions of soft white between oval humps. Just a person, skiing.

Too fast! Trees narrow on the steep. Traverse! Angle against the hill. Knowing she will die this time. Launching into the air.

And both skis land firm. Heart pounding, looking back. Six inches off the ground, at most.

Adrenalin surges, recedes. Up to go down again. Down to go up. From death by wind chill. To a tea stop in a crowded lodge.

Legs ache for days. The slow-motion tumble? Too much thinking, too much pulsing fright? Or doing, as happens, a bit too much. Afternoons huddled on the blue couch, soothe reading Austen under hand-crocheted blankets. Pushing away, and into, this next middle year.

Categories
mental health

Yeerk Pool

When my boys were young, we read K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, about alien worms who crawled into people’s ears in order to take over their brains. These interstellar slugs were slowly conquering the world. At regular intervals, the alien worms, called yeerks, returned to their collective pool to regenerate. Human hosts, controlled by the aliens, would lean down at the edge of the goopy water as the slugs oozed out to do their yeerk thing and strategize about how best to control the universe, one slugged brain slug at a time. Luckily, a group of intrepid young humans had gained the ability (from good aliens, of course) to morph into animals. So, as soaring hawks or hive-brained ants, they waged covert battle with the yeerks.

When my son, now thirty, has bipolar depression, as he does today–immobilized by invisible neurostorms–I think of the Animorphs shouting to each other, as they prepare for yet another impossible mission, Time to kick yeerk butt! And off they go to save the world.

Screen shot of one of the first Animorphs book covers. “Some people never change. Some do.”

When I meet someone who might become a friend, I often take the risk of disclosing that my son carries a bipolar diagnosis. Then I brace myself for the harshness of the typical first question:  Is he taking meds? Or recently:  Is he taking drugs? “Drugs?”–that one stumped me. Were they asking if he also has addiction, as so many folks with bipolar do, or were they blending the term for prescribed medications and street drugs? In these conversations, I often hear about someone’s sibling, ex-partner, or parent who struggled with mental illness. But the medication question almost always comes first. As if medications are a fix, as if surrendering the brain to psychiatry makes bipolarity disappear.

The “take medication, be fixed” way of thinking is familiar. I thought that way myself a dozen years ago, when my son was an intellectually gifted teen with a rebellious streak. Before his first real manic episode bloomed like toxic algae, before our family’s genetic pattern was revealed. Before I visited my elderly mother in the psychiatric ward, and before two of her other grandchildren were also diagnosed. For so long, I didn’t know I was thinking, why don’t people just take their medications? But I was.

Every year that goes by, I am more and more grateful for the miracle of modern psychiatric medications, for the lives they improve and the lives they save. And still, more than once, more than twice, my son has been following every recommendation of a complex treatment plan—medication combinations, support groups, highly skilled on-going psychotherapy—and boom, he is hit, as if by a stray bullet. Up he goes like a shining, untethered balloon. Or down he goes into the dark pit of depression. These cycles leave him facing yet more lost opportunities, yet more go-rounds of self-blame. The yeerks are at it again.

How to be a mother on days like this? I want to morph into a bull elephant and drain the pond where the alien yeerks strengthen, where they strategize ways to rob humans of their freedom and self-command. I try instead to stick to my known super-powers, encouragement and food. Every day, I tell him I love him and ask if he’s eaten his vegetables. I text him funny memes, even when I know his phone is off. I buy organic spinach and kale, heaping it onto his plate at every opportunity. Of course, no amount of mother love can banish symptoms. I beat back my grief and helplessness. I battle my destructive impulse to make everything right by sheer force of will. Then, slowly sink into the hard-won understanding about my mother, my son, myself: all of us, always, are doing our best. Yes, it helps to take medication, and no, even the bravest heroes are not always cured. But on they go, day by day, season by season, kicking yeerk butt.