What I Learned About Myself While Traveling

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View From The Back Seat

The view from the back seat. Hard to get mountain pics from there! Mostly you get Mom. Note: I LLLLOVED this vehicle. Chrysler Pacifica, possibly a hybrid.

I learned something about myself in traveling these past two weeks. When I’m in charge of travel, I’m susceptible to some pretty strong anxiety.

I like traveling. I like experiencing the world, seeing new places. I like it a lot, in fact. But until last weekend, I didn’t realize how stressful I would find it to be The Responsible Party for a major trip—you know, airport security, anxious child, rental car, driving in a remote mountain area. Until last weekend, I hadn’t really sympathized with the stress Christian feels when we travel as a family. You know how it is—in a marriage, one person takes lead in certain areas (mine are kid logistics, meals, and family scheduling) and the other takes the lead in another. One of Christian’s areas has always been travel arrangements; I’ve always been the support personnel.

Halloween Olympics

We didn’t win these Halloween Olympic golds by ourselves, but since I didn’t warn the other 10 people on our team that I blog, I figured I wouldn’t post pics of them. 🙂

Last weekend it was just me and Nicholas. It was supposed to be a 3-hour road trip from the airport to our destination, but it ended up taking nearly five. Services signage on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is basically nonexistent. We had to just pick an exit and hope there would be food and gas there, and we ended up in a traffic snarl. Then there was the chocolate factory stop—we saw it on the Philadelphia map and since one of my goals for Nicholas on this trip was teaching him to navigate by a real map (gasp!), I had him give me directions. I was smart enough to study in advance and get a general idea of where I was going, but the map was not exactly…complete.

We found our way, but we asked a local for directions on the way out.

And lest anyone be thinking, “If you’d just follow Google”…. We had a classic Google Maps fail, too. The kind where the directions said, “Continue straight onto No-Name Road,” which didn’t exist, though there was some other road there. One-lane. Like a private drive. Turning to gravel. And then dirt. With road construction vehicles, and forest pressing in on both sides. We had to backtrack 8 miles of 25 mph mountain roads to find another route.

And of course, I don’t have a smart phone, so I couldn’t default to following the GPS. (The resort recommended not relying on GPS anyway, but I am perfectly willing to admit when it’s time for me to bow to reality; I remain a smart phone conscientious objector, but following this trip I am willing to admit that I need a phone that will allow me to buy internet minutes in order to access GPS if I get lost.)

But it’s always the getting there that causes the stress. Actually being there was…wonderful. We could not have enjoyed ourselves more. The pool, the paddleboat, the kayak, the shuffleboard, the Halloween Olympics, the food, the bumper boats…there was nothing not to like about this place. We settled in and didn’t budge all weekend. We even attended Mass virtually so we wouldn’t have to leave the property.

Poconos 2

At the end of the weekend, I wanted to spend a couple hours at Valley Forge on the way back to the airport, partly for my own sake, but mostly to add a veneer of education to taking Nicholas out of school. We made it, but we had signage issues on the Turnpike again—another Google maps fail, as they don’t give you exit numbers, only mileage amounts, and so I was looking for I-476, not the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and when the sign said “Penna Turnpike—Scranton-Harrisburg”—and NOT Philadelphia (how can they NOT HAVE PHILADELPHIA ON THAT SIGN????)—well, suffice it to say I missed the exit and blew 15 minutes getting turned around.

Somewhere on that last 30 miles down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with traffic backing up and stopping and the minutes we had for visiting the national park ticking away, I realized that my blood pressure was sky-high and all my venting was adding considerably to my son’s anxiety levels. After that I toned it down a lot, but it made me realize how much impact my own anxiety has on other members of my family.

It also made me reconsider our approach to family trips in general. Upon coming home and hearing my stories, Christian laughed and said, “I’m kind of glad you had this experience, because now you know how I feel on trips.” We decided it was time to rethink the way we split up the duties on these trips. He has to give up some control and I have to take some responsibility—and we both have to be willing not to get mad at each other when things go wrong, as they inevitably will.

One of the things they say about travel is that it’s educational. I always knew that—I guess I just didn’t realize they meant you’d be learning about yourself.

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Anxiety 2.0

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The Alluvial Fan at Rocky Mountain National Park

Years ago, when I was in my first bout of full-blown anxiety, Christian passed on to me a book he’d been given called Telling Yourself the Truth. The point of it was that the words we use in describing to ourselves our reality have the power to shape our emotional state for good for for worse.

I realized anew how important this is this past week in Colorado. Just for a single illustration, let’s take Nicholas’ and Christian’s reaction to a sign posted at the Alluvial Fan in Rocky Mountain National Park. It said something like Warning: Swift Water, dangerous. And Christian was telling Nicholas to stay out of the water because it could sweep him away and he could be killed.

Well, the thing is, NIcholas wanted to put his feet in the water. He said, “I can be killed even if I put a pinky in?”

And this is the thing: putting a pinky…or a hand…

…in the lower parts of the Alluvial Fan stream isn’t going to get you killed. In fact, Alex and I tried hard to cross that stream on exposed rocks and were thwarted at several spots, and the last time in turning back, I lost my balance and landed both hiking boots in the stream up to my ankles. Clearly, I’m still here to tell the harrowing (cough-cough) tale. In fact, I didn’t even notice the current.

And see, this is the thing: anxiety takes healthy caution and turns it into certainty of death. The sign doesn’t say “if you touch this water you will DIE!” It says, in essence, “Be careful and respect the power of nature.”

A few weeks ago, we all went for a short hike and cookout at a state park. Alex was the only one who didn’t put on bug spray. He went digging in the foliage for ripe wild blackberries, and he came home with two dozen ticks. (Seriously. Two dozen.) We were still finding them three days later, crawling around his room, presumably from the clothes he didn’t wash as ordered when we got home. It was incredibly traumatic for him, all the more so because for the first two days he tried to deal with it himself, without telling us.

He spent the entire week in Estes Park complaining and resisting going hiking, because that experience left such a scar. I totally get it, but he loves rock climbing, and he loves stargazing, and he’s always been a nature lover until this. So we’ve been having to really talk about the truth of the matter—the actual scope of the risk, and the need to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Yet I know his anxiety around the idea of ticks is branded onto his psyche forever. If I needed proof, it came when, ten hours into the twelve-hour trip home, he found a single tick crawling on his hair and fell apart. It breaks my heart that he will be fighting anxiety around the idea of the outdoors for years to come.

And of course, the obsession with safety in kids is another example of how we, culturally, have inflated reasonable prudence to six-alarm paranoia.

I am really conscious of this tendency to allow anxiety to inflate real causes for caution into guarantees of annihilation, because it is something both Christian and I struggle with. (His anxieties are about temporal things, mine tend to be emotional. Both of them can be crippling.) If we can do one thing for our children, it will be to teach them to be clear-eyed about danger, to recognize which ones are causes for concern and which ones actually call for an all-hands-on-deck anxiety response.

Note: If you want photos of our Colorado trip, they’re here. I was going to do a photo post but I already did the photo essay on Facebook.

Learning To Deal

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Image via Wiki Commons

One of the blessings prayed over the couple at a Catholic wedding says, “May the cares of life never cause you undue anxiety.” I had to chuckle at a presider who recently flubbed it up, saying, “May the cares of life never cease to cause you undue anxiety.”

I have had at least three bouts of anxiety in the past nine months. I’m still too busy to be paralyzed by it, but I am beginning to realize that this is a cross I will bear my entire life. It surges from the deep in times of stress, of course, and in particular when I’m stepping out in new and unfamiliar directions.

I am a type-A German, more than overly fond of being in control. And I hate the idea that anyone might ever think badly of me–or worse, have reason to think badly of me. If I stayed in my tiny, safe circle, where everything and everyone is a known quantity, I would spare myself the risk of screwing up or getting on people’s bad side. But then a lot of the gifts I’ve been given to share would atrophy. You know that parable about burying the talents.

So when I contemplate a new experience, I do a ton of research, and then I take a deep breath, remind myself that I am a strong, competent woman, and I step out in faith. And still, because I’m human, I screw up. Say something stupid. Forget something I should have remembered.

So I undertake a tug of war. On one side is the desire to chase down unreasonable amounts of reassurance. On the other is living with crippling fear because I don’t want to be a pest to others by asking for that reassurance.

Even writing about it makes the anxiety stir.

And therein lies the lesson for the day. Anxiety, at least the crippling kind I’m talking about, is characterized by lack of reason. It is irrational, and thus sometimes the cure is to talk yourself through it in rational terms.

But–and this is a big but–everyone’s tried to reason with an irrational person, and you know how well that works: not at all. Most of the time, trying to reason with anxiety just teaches it that it’s getting to you. It gives it power. Like I said when anxiety cropped up nine months ago, it’s like a dandelion: it roots hard and fast and sprouts babies by the legion. In other words, it morphs into a monster.

That’s what happened to me last week. The initial trigger birthed a dozen additional ones completely unrelated to it. And there was fallout: in my marriage, in my productivity, in my ability to be a good human being. At last, I had to give up attempts to reason and instead meet every onslaught of WHAT IF’s with a refusal to engage in battle. JUST SHUT UP. THIS IS NOT A REASONABLE FEAR. After about two days of that, the anxiety began to recede.

It’s been a week since then. Anxiety is still hanging around, a low rumble at the edge of my consciousness. But I can ignore it now, at least when I’m not writing a blog post about it.

I’m learning to deal with this nemesis, this cross. Like Paul, I want God to remove the thorn in my flesh, but I keep hearing, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And so I will struggle on.

An Old Nemesis Pokes Its Head Up

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Dandelion clock Français : Fleur de pissenlit ...

Dandelion clock Français : Fleur de pissenlit en gros plan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been wrestling anxiety the last few days. The trigger is less important than the fact that it’s happening at all. One thing about juggling a writing career and four kids (and special needs advocacy, and NFP teaching, and choir leadership) is that there’s really not time for the kind of self-indulgent obsessing that leads to anxiety.

I’ve often felt the wispy edges of my old nemesis brush at my spirit, but a firm mental shove always seemed to make it retreat. Anxiety is manageable until you give it a foothold, and then, like a dandelion, it roots hard and fast and sprouts babies by the legion.

Last Sunday I spent three hours in the car with the little boys, headed for a family wedding. Nicholas had the portable DVD player for the first hour and a half, kept low enough for Michael to nap, and thus low enough that I could neither hear it nor turn on the radio or a CD.

How long has it been since you spent an hour and a half in quiet thought, with nothing but road to occupy you? I said a rosary and appreciated the peak colors flashing by, but mostly I made friends with the tender spot in my soul. Had conversations with the Holy Spirit.

A decade and a half ago, when terror beset me day and night for months on end, I learned that, given some quiet space, it is usually possible to quiet the brain or release the shackles on the heart–but not both at once. As I struggled in vain to do so, I came to believe that if I could ever achieve the complete stillness of spirit–peace in mind and heart simultaneously–that it would be a sign that I was healed. I never really reached that point.

Nor did I on Sunday. The festering rawness in my chest stubbornly resisted loosening its grip. And yet in the hollow spot at the core of all that worry, there was a cool stillness. Thomas Merton came back to me in those hours, his repeated reminders that the path to God most often traverses the rocky ground of spiritual sterility and aridity, of confusion and pain, rather than exalted mountaintop experiences.

And I realize that this rumbling of an old spiritual enemy is a gift–just as many of the most difficult things we face do in the end turn out to be gifts. Because facing it peels off all the layers of me-me-me’ing I slap down between me and the source of everything that is good about me. I think of a line from a song I never did finish writing: In my weakness, Your strength; in my shadow, Your glory.

What We Fear

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Photo credit: LWPrencipe, via Flickr

I’m beginning to think I take the easy way out in blogging. It’s more comfortable to share about experiences past and conflicts resolved, but the truth is, there is much in my life, as in yours, that is deeply broken and flawed and causes pain. But it’s raw to touch those subjects, to lay them bare before a public audience. Not because I think I have to look like I have it all put together, but because when you’re working things out, the thought process is incomplete. It hasn’t matured to a point where I can say: yes, this, here is the whole story, as fairly as I can present it. And when you lay something you’re still wrestling with before the multitudes, it invites judgment and confusion, because people have to weigh in without the full story.

I have been debating all week what to share for a motherhood moment. One of Mama Kat’s writing prompts today touches a subject I have wanted to address ever since my series on anxiety…although I keep putting it off. There’s so much cuter and cuddlier a moment, something I could present with the warmth and humor that I love about the Thursday reflections. Except that considering how I’m feeling this morning, it would be also be fake and plastic.

My biggest mama fail hasn’t happened yet. And pray God, never will.

It began while we were driving across a bridge. We cross a fair number of bridges around here. Basically there’s a big river on the way to almost anywhere. Why on this particular day the image came to mind, I will never know. I saw myself, alone in the van with the kids, careening into the river. Being a mother, I immediately began problem-solving how to get everyone to safety. I realized instantly that I couldn’t. If that happens, at least one or two of my children are going to die. If not all of them.

I tried to tell myself that thousands of cars cross these bridges every day, and a bridge fail is nearly unthinkable. I tried to tell myself it was unlikely I could even swim myself to shore in a current that strong and deep, much less hauling any of my children, so if the bridge does ever fail, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway; why worry?

But the image was so real. Maybe because I spend much energy trying to conjure dramatic scenarios in such vivid detail that I can carry others along through words. But I flashed back to times in my life when I have seen improbable images in my imagination, only to find that suddenly one day, I’m seeing them in truth. Okay, so I can only think of one right now, but it was a biggie.

For three nights, that waking nightmare kept me up. No amount of letting go or praying made any impression on it. My search for a solution started involving the installation of flotation devices in my van. It was patently obvious I was headed for another irrational, prolonged freak-out.

Perhaps the prayers did have an effect, because reason has had a better grip on reality in the last few months. But I realize that there are some fears you simply can’t lay to rest.

It got me to thinking about safety, the desire to protect our children. The oft-repeated mantra is prevent what you can: thus, car seats, childproof latches and covers, etc.

But we can prevent an awful lot by refusing our children the freedom to grow—by hovering, not giving them the space to fail on their own. At what point do we begin to protect them from one set of danger while condemning them to another? At what point do they begin to absorb our fears and approach life with timidity and terror instead of reasonable caution? To carry around their parents’ baggage, simply because we’re too frail to carry it ourselves?

I can’t help thinking that many, perhaps most, of our fears for our children—even things like how we will support our families—have more to do with us and our own insecurities than they do with reality. We regard fear for our children as something beyond our control, and by extension (ironically), something over which we try to exert absolute control. But how many of our fears do we go courting? Are they actually grounded in fact? And if they’re not, then beyond a reasonable education in caution, don’t we owe it to our children to keep those fears to ourselves?

The fear of going over a bridge and having to choose which of my children to try to save—however irrational a fear it is—is one that I may well carry the rest of my days. My fear of Julianna wandering off might only last until she finally learns to talk and tell people who her parents are, but the fear of her being taken advantage of when she reaches maturity I know I will bear as long as she (or I) lives. But I’m not going to keep her under my roof, treating her like a child in a misguided attempt to protect her from it. She deserves the same freedom to grow, fall down, and learn that my parents gave me. I will not burden my children with my emotional baggage. They’ll pick up enough on their own.

Mama's Losin' It

A History of Anxiety: Conclusion

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Part 1: Origins
Part 2: The Onset of Freaking Out
Part 3: Engagement

9/4/99

I was pretty low-key about graduating with my master of music degree. I knew that now, I was going home to dive into the last three months’ worth of wedding preparations. And that was a much, much bigger deal than a master’s degree. Because now it was crunch time. If I wasn’t going through with this wedding, it was time to decide.

At times like this, you pray for some incredible moment of clarity, but then, if you had clarity, you wouldn’t really need faith, would you?

In retrospect, it seems clear that I needed professional help. I had allowed normal doubt to turn into a monster of mythic proportions. But if I asked to go see a counselor three months—two months—one month—before my wedding, would not my parents think we needed to postpone the wedding? My rational brain told me that there was no reason to be freaking out; that postponing the wedding would likely destroy my relationship with Christian (who could put up with something like that?); and besides, what would everyone think?

So I didn’t go for help. I expressed a hesitant doubt to my mother on the way home from picking up the wedding dress, about three days out, and she asked, “Is it about a wedding or is it about Christian?” I could answer honestly that I had no doubts about Christian.

By this time…I’m not sure what Christian thought of all this. He was pretty thoroughly sick of it, but I don’t remember him laying down ultimatums. (You want unconditional love? You need to meet my husband.)

Don’t misunderstand: there was a great deal of joy in my life those last few months. Many moments of peace and certainty, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of wedding planning.

Still, the fear always returned, usually when I reflected on the words of the marriage ceremony: Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? I could hardly claim having no reservations, could I?

Then one day during Mass, I heard something I’d never heard before. Oddly enough, I can’t remember the exact placement anymore. I think it was in the Eucharistic Prayer. It said something like, “Jesus gave Himself without reservation.”

I sat thunderstruck. Jesus spent hours in the Garden of Gethsemane, begging God to spare him his Passion. This is not what I would call “without reservation”! He was definitely expressing reservations. The fear and doubt aren’t the point. The point is that he did God’s will in spite of them.

This revelation burst like a dazzling flash of light on my psyche. For the first time in my life, I had a glimpse of Jesus as a human being—divine, yes, but surely he stared down the specter of Crucifixion with sheer terror in defiance of all he knew to be true, and wondered, What if I’m wrong? And although it didn’t rid me of fear, anxiety or freaking out, this insight was a point to cling to in those last weeks, a message I knew had been aimed at me as surely as the billboard I’d been hoping for.

The morning of my wedding, I woke very early in my bedroom in my parents’ house, with the same paper cranes turning lazy circles above me that had hung there for years. This was it. Lord, I prayed, I really hoped I’d be through with doubt by this time. But I have to believe that you’ve gotten me this far for a reason. Please protect me from freaking out today.

The practicalities of a wedding day kept me too busy to freak out. I could feel it hanging around back there, probing for openings, but I kept letting go, and I rode on a buffer of the Spirit until I was standing at outside the church with my dad in the Labor Day weekend heat, with football fans walking past calling congratulations on their long walk to the stadium. The door opened, and cool air washed out, and when I entered the church and saw Christian standing at the front, a great spring of joy erupted inside my soul and bubbled out of my mouth in a giggle that lasted almost all the way up the aisle.

**

I cannot claim that the fear never returned after that blessed moment that was our wedding day. On our honeymoon, in the first weeks and months of our marriage, the fear lingered. It had lost a great deal of its venom, but it was still there. Two years later, it made a valiant effort when infertility reared its ugly head: Maybe this was God frowning on me for marrying a man after I’d been told not to.

Still, time does heal much, if not all, and having made the commitment, I gradually found myself able to stop wrestling with the fear and let it dissipate into the tapestry of a beautiful life. And of course, becoming a parent meant I ran out of time to worship at the altar of irrational fear.

We are the sum of our experiences. I value this one, because through it I learned the value of quieting my soul, of seeking God in stillness. I learned lessons about love that paved the way for more advanced lessons still to come.

Although the comment box has been quiet, I can see that you all have been reading, and for that I thank you. This is tougher to write about than infertility, because paralyzing fear still lies dormant within me, waiting for an opportunity to attach to another subject and tear me to pieces.

This much I know, however. If it does resurface, this time I won’t hesitate to seek help. My life is too beautiful, to blessed, to sacrifice to years of pain again.

A History of Anxiety, Part 3: Engagement

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Anxious?

Image by gingerbeardman via Flickr

Part 1: Origins

Part 2: The Onset of Freaking Out

I was on cloud nine when I returned to Iowa for my second year of grad school. Early that September, as I sat with eating lunch with music geek friends in between wind ensemble rehearsal and an afternoon homage to the practice room, I realized something. “Guys, guess what?” I said. “Today is my pre-anniversary!”

My roommate laughed: “How many ways can we come up with to celebrate our love and unity?”

Very shortly after that, I met a new student, and felt attracted to him.

Now, one of the things that carried me through the first three years of anxiety about whether I was supposed to be with Christian was the fact that I never, ever found anyone else remotely interesting. Not even movie stars. That singular attraction had given me some fragment of confidence that I was, indeed, where I was supposed to be. And now, three hundred miles away from my fiancé—I didn’t even own a car to be able to go visit—that confidence was gone.

Cloud Nine dissipated instantly; I plunged headlong into sheer terror again. Only this time, the stakes were way higher. Marriage is forever. This is not a commitment you enter with even the remotest possibility that you’re making a mistake.

And how on earth could I talk to anyone about it? In the first three years, I’d had a very good friend who practiced across the hall from me, and we spent hours talking while she made reeds (she’s an oboe player). I had a couple of people in the church choir at Newman that I trusted. But now, I didn’t have any of that. You’re not supposed to freak out once you’re engaged! If I told anyone, it would feel like I was betraying Christian, and besides, I had learned that talking about it all the time gave the fear more power.

So I kept it to myself, and I felt alone, and horribly fake as I had to keep answering questions about wedding plans, asked by people who cared about me. Because I wasn’t even sure I was going to go through with it.

And yet, if I didn’t, what was the reason? It wasn’t that I didn’t want Christian. I wanted to be with him so badly, it hurt. But that irrational voice kept poking me in the sensitive part of my brain: What if you’re not supposed to?

I had snapshots of me in my wedding dress, which I laid on my music stand while I did tone studies and scales and arpeggios every day. So for that hour of practicing every day, I had it before me. Usually, that helped—because it was concrete, visible sign of what I was really preparing for, something that stood in direct opposition to the ephemeral, darting, irrational fear.

Yes, I knew by now that it was irrational. But doubt is insidious, even and perhaps especially when there’s no reason behind it. After all, if there’s a reason, you can wrestle with it and make a decision. When there’s no reason, it’s just this screaming voice of panic.

I kept hearing stories of people who got signs. Why hadn’t I gotten any signs? God, I could really use a clear sign!
Of course, even then I knew no sign would have been enough for me. If God put a billboard in my path that said “YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO MARRY CHRISTIAN!” I would doubt whether I was misinterpreting it. Ridiculous. Irrational. And unfortunately, true.

The only way through this was forward. I had to step out in faith that the journey I had been on for the past several years was indeed the journey I was supposed to be on. It felt wrong to me—stories of faith are always about people who do irrational things, like quit their jobs without knowing why, only to have their faith rewarded by the opportunity they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Like Abraham, taking a knife to his son before God stops him. These are the stories of faith we hold up: acting on faith when the action seems irrational.

My act of faith was to cling to something that made sense in the face of doubt that didn’t. It made me question whether I was wrong to cling. Finally I just had to say, “God, if this isn’t what you want me to do, don’t let me go through with it.”

Even in retrospect, it seems like a ridiculous prayer.

I’ve written another 500 words, and I simply can’t foist the whole works on you in one day. So I’ll continue tomorrow.

For the conclusion, click here.