This blog category is the journaling and journey-ing of my quest to say (with cautious sincerity) “Hello, Anxiety” and to take a look at the condition from my “me-andering” views.
My sometimes tumultuous relationship with anxiety is not an easy subject for me to write about. I certainly don’t like experiencing anxiety. And I don’t even like thinking about anxiety, much less writing about it.
It makes me anxious.
I consider myself an optimist at heart and am generally viewed as a positive, upbeat sort of fellow. At least that’s what people tell me. (Has everyone been lying to me all my life?!)
And holidays can be for me (for most folks, I suppose) both joyful and somewhat anxiety ridden. I SO want ALL to be well, including (INCLUDING!) the decorations, my sweater and the Christmas cookies—or this year, the fruitcakes. If you don’t struggle with anxiety at the General Anxiety Disorder level, you may not understand what I mean when I say that the candlestick’s placement, as well as others’ reactions/responses to the candlestick’s placement, is so paramount.
Last week, a few days before Christmas, Robert drove me an hour north of our home in Savannah to Statesboro, for my weekly visit to my therapist. No, not physical therapist, though I’ve gone to those. Robert does most of the driving on these (and nearly all) car trips, and I usually read aloud to him (we just finished our 139th book together!—Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food).
On this short trip, I read Truman Capote’s wondrous autobiographical-ish short story, A Christmas Memory. I LOVE this story, featuring seven-year old Buddy and “special” sixty-ish Cousin and their best friendly shenanigans, culminating in their homemade fruitcake gifting to a wide catalog of folks, including President Roosevelt (!).
Soon after I began the story, and long before a single fruitcake had been baked and soaked in whisky (the partaking of which might have helped me considerably), Anxiety decided to pay me an unwelcome visit. Some folks would suggest that I allowed it, or even invited it, or simply didn’t manage it very effectively. And maybe, they are right. I’m still trying to “understand” my anxiety, to “negotiate” my walking-on-eggshells steps through its territory. (I usually crush the eggshells to smithereens.)
If you’ve read A Christmas Memory, you may recall that narrator Buddy understands and helps the reader understand that even though Cousin is in her sixties, “She is still a child.” And I don’t know how your mind works, but characters and events in stories often remind me of people and situations in my own life. And most of the time, that is perfectly fine. Even fun, or funny. But not on this drive to the Boro.
For on this day Buddy’s Cousin immediately and painfully reminded me of my Aunt Charcie, one of my favorite relatives growing up, who was a little “special” as well. She was my mother’s youngest aunt who lived just up the hill from us. “She wasn’t right in the head,” according to my Granny, her sister.
But Aunt Charcie was able to get married and lived with her alcoholic and abusive husband. As a boy around Buddy’s age (maybe a little older), I hated and couldn’t really understand those times when Mama and I (yes, I was a mama’s boy), would be down the hill at Granny’s and my aunt would walk slowly through the door with a bruised face.
“I’d like to kill that S.O.B,” Granny would roar. I thought that I’d like to kill him too. But nobody did anything except give Aunt Charcie an ice pack and a warm shoulder. Several years and too many similar episodes later, that uncle suddenly died. I can’t remember how … or, weirdly, even his name. But I do remember, with only a little embarrassment today, how perhaps inappropriately happy we all were at his death. Bruises met their end as well.
Before he died, Mama wouldn’t let me go up the hill by myself to visit my aunt. And I knew it had something to do with how sour the uncle always smelled.
As I continued to read the quickly souring A Christmas Memory to Robert, simultaneously recalling the story of my dysfunctional family history, Neal’s Anxiety Dual Symptoms quickly made their presence known: teary eyes and breathing problems. I realize that breath is always with us as long as we are alive, of course it is, it IS us, but that’s just the issue with me and anxiety: in the anxious moment, I don’t believe there is enough oxygen, enough air, to keep me going, to keep me alive. To keep my “Is-ness” “Is-ing.”
With the teary and frustratingly labored breathing came a rush of mental (emotional?) reasons to be anxious: “Life isn’t fair. Why has alcoholism and its deadly consequences woven their way through my family? Will if affect the next generation, the grandchildren? Why are people so cruel? Will Covid ever end. Etc. Etc. Etc.”
Robert (poor loving Robert, aka Therapist #1): “Neal, make room for it.”
I hate and love that advice. I know, at least I academically know, that anxiety is just a part of my experience at this moment, not my entire experience. But how can I remember ANYTHING when I “can’t” breathe?
But I took Robert’s words to heart (if not to my lungs immediately), grabbed my albuterol inhaler, and had a second remembering. After Aunt Charcie’s husband died, she moved into a tiny trailer by herself (blessedly). My mother, Granny and I would visit often. For several Christmases I would take along a wire coat hanger on our visits, walk into the slash pine woods behind the trailer, break off some pine boughs and holly if I could find it and fashion a cheap, scrawny and probably ridiculous looking Christmas wreath for my aunt’s trailer door.
“Neal, that is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And I believed her, for in that moment, it was. And all was well. And I’m almost certain that, as Aunt Charcie, Mama, Granny and I looked at the wiry wonder, all our breathing issued forth smooth, steady and clear.
Part Two will introduce Therapist #2, the one with the credentials waiting for me to finish A Christmas Memory and show up for my appointment.