Web Camel Transport 39

Joyful Sadness:  The Happiness of Both/And

Friday, January 27, 2017

As my mother lay dying, my three sisters and I moved into her house for the twelve days between her cancer diagnosis and taking her last breath.  She grew sleepier by the day, finally confined to her bed, no food for over a week and then she refused even the sips of water we offered every hour or so with a straw.  Her oral medications were switched from pills to liquid forms.  But when she opened her eyes or focused for some moments, she knew we were there.  Several times she said, with a slight smile, “I hope you are enjoying getting to know one another.”

We human beings have multiple capabilities, including the ability to feel several emotions at the same time.  Sometimes that seems confusing, chaotic, contradictory, or inconvenient.  But this is the gift of a large and complex brain, and a largely complex set of abilities to analyze and appreciate the different aspects of the human situations we co-create.  According to the famous autistic expert on animal behavior, Temple Grandin, most animals feel only a single predominating emotion at a time.  Your dog wags his tail when you come in—happy.  Or fears you in the moment when you express disappointment in his toileting accident.

On a daily basis we might experience moments similar to these:  “I am so relieved to get my tooth crowned now but the sound of the drill terrifies me;” or “I was ecstatic to see my sister but annoyed that she took her sweet time getting here.”  Or, “I felt so grateful that my boss gave me the raise, but I got impatient when he yacked my ear off about his new vacation home.”  Or, “I really didn’t want to invite her, she’s an attention hog, but I felt too guilty not to.”  Or, “I was ecstatic that my daughter got invited to the prom, but so tired I didn’t love picking her up at 1 AM.”

Participating intimately in my mother’s later stage illness, dying and death, opened an appreciation for the beauty and the difficulty that our mixed emotions can produce.  My mother, herself, offered prime examples. Even prior to her diagnosis she struggled with the mixed feelings that arise in the aging process, when the roles and responsibilities with which one’s identity is so bound up, have to be relinquished to the younger generation.

A woman of great independence—and widowed since the age of 42 when our father died—she had had some difficulty passing on the baton for many things, like hosting family occasions.  Finally, after several years of complaining about the exhaustion of entertaining, while on the other hand finding it impossible to give up the matriarchal role, she yielded the ladle and roasting pan to us.

Instead of cooking, she offered advisement, recipes, and family stories to spice up our homes as we segued, as subtly as possible, into our collective new role as the hosting generation.  The handing over of tasks and roles one has played dutifully and with great ceremony does not come easily to everyone, and to our mother it did not. These roles and tasks defined a large part of her self-identification.  Along with the roles of host and matriarch, come other aspects of identification such as physical strength and stamina.  The loss of any function is difficult for most people, including the need to treat one’s body as more delicate and breakable, as slower and less graceful than in one’s younger years.

When my mother felt too ill to fend for herself, she said she would accept our care, even deserved it. In a strange way, her illness became an occasion of sorts. We gathered together.  On her generosity, we relished a Chinese meal at her dining table while she lay in her bedroom enjoying the sounds of our talking and laughter. We let her know of our appreciation and she smiled, then went back to sleep.  My sisters and I slept over there in twos, or three of us, and finally all four, helping to clean our mother, wipe her mouth and her brow, change her diapers, reposition her, and refresh the sheets and blankets. Rub her hands and arms and upper back when she could still enjoy the “love.”

A couple of times she said, while reaching for my hand, “I’m not ready.”  That was all.  As if there were something I could do to alter the burden of this ending chapter.  All I could say was, “I know.” And witness her leaving–unfinished, unprepared, in disagreement with her cancer’s terms.  But I wanted, so desperately, to change her outcome, and felt so powerless to do so.

“I thought I had a few more years,” she had said earlier, when she learned of her pancreatic cancer. In moments of denial the word, “pancreatic” eluded her, even with the mnemonic of “something in which you fry eggs.” Still, she could not get beyond, “pan.” But said she would one day like to write an essay about such denial.  Her own experience of the cancer interesting to her, peaking her curiosity, as she continued to express her voluminous curiosity about our personal worlds and the world at large.

We did not feel ready for her to leave us.  But we also hoped she would go soon when the cancer made a mess of her body—edemic, leaking, purpling, blocking, paralyzing, and punctuating with pain–and determined to shut down all the miraculous organs that for 88 years had supported each of her eagerly waking days.

Finally, only the brain and the heart and the ferocious lungs powered on, attached to their beautiful living body, even as that body washed off the human shore toward the vast sea of nothingness and, for us, such heart wrenching grief.

We both wished her to live, and then to die as her suffering, and ours, increased. As the inevitability of her dying soaked the sheets and our hands and our lives with tears, we gathered around her bed, as her eyelids lifted open for a moment, to witness her last breaths, and to gently place her limbs in a comfortable position.  We watched as silence permeated every cell of her body, this body in which each of us had grown toward birth, attached and unknowing.

The extraordinary hospice nurse who visited, counseled and helped us in these last weeks, spoke of experiencing these moments as a joyful sadness.  Really, a one word experience—“joyfulsadness,” the both/and of it inseparable.  To be lovingly of service in these most intimate ways, to help usher our mother from this life into stillness, honored her.

And then, my mooring gone, I felt lost and uncertain in this world without my mother.  Sad and disoriented, I felt like a stranger in my own life. Even though I have my own family, the experience of belonging dislodged like a foundation crumbling in an earthquake.

Our urgent or extreme human situations are rarely black-and-white.  Often chaotic, with multiple aspects, we feel pulled in different directions emotionally.  Caretakers of ill loved ones frequently find themselves worried, under-slept, hypervigilant, zealous, and also angry, resentful, needy and so forth.  This is a completely typical emotional mess!

Nowhere will we find more both/and’s than with regard to parenting.  We feel both elated and exasperated when Johnny runs into the house with his soccer victory trophy in one raised hand and his muddy cleats on the white rug.  When Suzy gets too shy to continue dancing in her end of year recital we feel deep empathy and raging embarrassment as well as guilt for having raised a genetically shy child, or not having coached her enough in thinking of her audience in their undergarments while onstage.  We feel angry with our adolescent son or daughter for undermining our authority by getting into a disrespectful dispute with the school principal but we admire and feel proud of their grit and passion.

In a 2014 Psychology Today article online, Leon Seltzer, PhD, writes: “All feelings–vs. thoughts–have a certain physiology to them. You cannot experience an emotion without at the same time experiencing a corresponding bodily sensation (or sensations). And each of your emotions reside in a particular place(s) in your body–their “native home,” as it were. Unless, that is, you feel an emotion so intense and overpowering that it’s all over your body–perhaps like a heavy, almost suffocating, wool blanket, or an electrical surge, or a violent internal earthquake.”

I woke up one night to go to the bathroom and as I passed the windows I thought, Mom is missing the moon.  Spectral, pale, the ghostly white moonlight seemed not to move.  It did not flow or sweep or swim or stream into the room.  Suspended, as if between breaths or in some undecided state the light, simply there, accompanied me as I walked, somewhere between sleeping and waking fully, across the floor boards and the Persian prayer rug and then between the two closets and past the mirror on the door.  It did not follow me nor take shape.  It did not weigh me down.  The light seemed, more like a primer, an undercoat, the anonymous preparatory, diligent emptiness before the first words of a poem, or the brush of a painting.

I missed my mother as she would miss this and many other moons; and felt glad for the quiet aching.

Camel Saddle:  What is a both/and moment for you with a partner, a child, a parent, a work situation, how you balance your life?  How does it work for you to honor each of these sometimes colliding or competing emotions?


Web Camel Transport 38

Anxiety’s Golden Key

Friday January 6, 2017

We don’t want to experience anxiety.  We want to get rid of it.  We speak about anxiety, or depression for that matter, as if it were a thing, an albatross, which has perched on our shoulders, occupied the pits of our bellies or frenetically taken over the bellows of our lungs.

We imagine anxiety as something fundamentally disconnected from us.  Like an evil alien from another planet it wants to occupy our psyches and our bodies.  When, as is the way with the medical model, we consider anxiety pathological, or like a disease entity, then, logically, we pursue means to get rid of it.

We might meditate, take a walk, do yoga, make love, drink, or punch pillows.  We can also distract ourselves with a movie or a book if we have the concentration, or get prescription medication.  After all, our brains have gone loco, gotten hijacked, dislodged.  We walk the tightrope of too much adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our veins, threatening to throw us off balance, make us sweat, palpitate our hearts, and cause hyperventilation and even fainting at worst.  Sometimes anxiety, like a drum beat that won’t quit, just expresses itself in pacing, wringing hands, or just plain jittering.

Anxiety demands our attention in a powerful way.  But we have the capacity to listen, to watch and to reflect on what our anxieties ask us to consider. In effect, anxiety offers us a golden key to rooms of possibility we might consider.  When we commit to paying attention to the sometimes provocative sensations of anxiety, instead of trying so darned hard to get rid of them, we might learn more about the ways in which our perceptions of possibility have locked us into one room full of rocks and hard places. Whatever our anxious perspective on life and on our own particular life, this drives the ways in which we respond to, or react to the situations which we find problematic. We, the heroes and heroines of our own scripts, can benefit from listening to our prompters in the wings–like anxiety–holding out its golden key.

Clients often mention that they wake up feeling stressed, even before anything has happened that day.  And lo and behold, I feel glad to share with them that their CAR (cortisol awakening response) is functioning as it was meant to; to help ready them for the oncoming stressors of the day.  The CAR, bolstered by several areas of the brain, functions to remind and rev us for the requirements of our day, and this readying, this servicing, while initially uncomfortable—like mom waking you when you were thirteen and wanted to sleep-in rather than make the bus for the first period’s test in geometry—remains doggedly, and ultimately helpful.

There are many kinds of anxious experiences, of course, and many sources to stimulate anxious reactions, but the CAR reminds us of our programming, our wetware, our inherently benevolent and protective modus operandi.  

When we experience our moments of anxiety as only moments to avoid, then we miss the golden keys offered to us.  Anxiety’s golden keys open windows and doors onto landscapes and skyscapes of beauty in which our bearings in the world reside. Our willingness to hold onto these proffered keys, and to employ them in processes of opening, of following, and of exploring can lead us to understand what matters to us most.  And to how we might address those highly prized concerns that currently stand at risk.

Here is one small example:  Jane could never make up her mind about which restaurant to go to.  Her partner complained of always having to decide.  Jane felt an almost excruciating nausea when called upon to choose.  Chinese?  Thai?  Italian?  Even telephoning a restaurant triggered a cascade of bodily sensations and anxious feelings.

When Jane and I explored what lay in the room beyond her anxiety about making a decision on cuisine, it turned out that her real horror concerned waste, or wasting.  As a conservationist at heart, it mattered a great deal to her that she like the food she ordered so that she would eat it.  Food going to waste, furniture going to waste, landfills growing exponentially, concerned her and she recycled everything possible with intense religiosity.  Jane had grown up poor, with a striving single mother, and nothing could go to waste.

Through Jane’s willingness to use anxiety’s golden key to open up her real fear—that of wasting—and her serious conservationism, we were able to see her anxiety in a positive context.  This immediately lessened Jane’s anxiety—no longer a pathological villain—and to help her think through ways to increase mindfulness and thoughtfulness about conservation without a punishing self-narrative that said she was incapable of making decisions.

Anxiety, depression and other mood states don’t arise in a vacuum but in a context of environmental stressors and triggers.  Anxiety actually connects us to our living world.  Otherwise, impervious, we would not feel anything, nor would we feel connected to what goes on around us, both in our own worlds and in the larger world beyond our own families, friends, coworkers and communities.

Milos grew up with a very strict and impatient father who frequently criticized Milos’ efforts.  If Milos hammered a board onto the deck incorrectly, dropped a bag of nails, or got deck stain on his jeans, he got harshly reminded of his imperfect behavior.  As a married adult Milos continued to berate himself, frequently and vociferously, whenever he forgot his wallet, or his computer froze, or he ran late to a job.

He extended this anxiety about imperfection to his wife, and this often resulted in angry explosions which seriously threatened their marriage.  In therapy, he felt both saddened and mystified by his wife’s intolerance of his outbursts.  His narrative was, “That’s just who I am.”  In his self-narrative, if he were to muzzle his explosiveness, he would not be himself.

Over the course of several conversations, he was able to identify that he had anxiety, on one hand, about not being allowed to be himself, and on the other hand about losing his wife because she thought he was a bad person.

After several more conversations we opened a door that helped Milos to tell his story differently.  He was a man who valued hard and expert work.  He held himself to high standards.  It mattered to him to leave his customers, and his wife, pleased with his efforts.  He realized that he had left no room for imperfection along the way; no detours, no second chances.  He realized, most importantly, that he was not just “an angry person,” or a bad person, but a man whose angry outbursts expressed his strong desire to do things well and to please people important to him, professionally as well as personally.  He could respect himself for those values.  And he began a chapter in which he afforded himself a bit more latitude to accommodate the roadblocks, unanticipated breakdowns, and moments of miscalculation that influence all of our lives.

As in Milos’ case, most of us have experienced painful interactions in our childhoods.  Often, the present circumstances of adulthood trigger off, not only present frustrations and responses, but also the more intense feelings, sensations, and even behaviors that took shape around those earlier experiences.  Present insults and injuries, like “all roads, lead to Rome.”  So we may find ourselves panicking or more despairing than would seem relevant to the incidences experienced in the present.  Sharon, when confronted with her boyfriend’s dismissive comment, as an example, suffered from feeling “not good enough.”  Her reaction, amplified by the triggered theme of feeling less-than, came across as out of proportion to what the present situation called for. Reengaging in our present, as if “refreshing the screen,” can function like a new room, once the golden key of anxiety or depression allows us to open it.

Sometimes anxiety bowls us over and we feel overwhelmed, crushed, beleaguered.  But anxiety, just like a great big shaggy dog that greets us with two paws barreling into our chest, means well.  Anxiety and depression can be dogged indeed, tenacious at reminding us of what we need to keep track of; what problems we need to solve;  what courageous actions we need to embrace in order to get out of a slump or over a hurdle or through a judgmental filter.  Our bodies, including our brains, do not rest easy when we have work to do, the work of living.

Mindfulness, the Zen-like way of acceptance, of loving what is, of abundant awareness within the present moment, requires us to exercise discipline.  It is an art form.  Mindfulness and awareness in the moment do not come naturally.  Our minds chatter, skip beats, point daggers, race to finish lines, confuse us with ambiguity, scare us with worries, or stun us with the beauty of poetry, architecture, music, or mathematical calculation.  When we feel enrapt in the present our minds do not fill with worry about the future or regrets about our past. But no one lives moment-to-moment that way.  The mind cannot be static.  It is vital, and responsive to the environment with more than simple awareness.  We have brilliant minds that imagine different scenarios, problem solve, rehearse, remember, and so forth.  We bring all of that to bear on the various situations in which we live, work and play.

We can think of anxiety as an example of how our bodies talk to us.  The sensations and feelings of anxiety can occur with speed and potency, but be preverbal or nonverbal.  Our bodies, on alert, tell us that something important is happening but it may take a while to translate this experience into a cohesive narrative.  People anxious about driving on a highway do not want to get killed or to kill someone else.  In a high volume, high speed, traffic situation, accidents seem more likely.  This is not, as some would say, irrational thinking.  But higher levels of anxiety make us think that a merely possible situation is the probable one.  There is a big difference between what is possible and what is probable.  People with less anxiety who drive on highways are willing to take the risk because they have calculated the risk as not that high, not that likely.

When speaking to a group of others, some people feel anxious because remembering what they want to say is important to them; presenting well and making it worth the audience’ time is important to them; and perhaps winning social approbation or validation feels important.

Anxiety before taking tests also has to do with what matters to someone.  He or she wants to do well, wants to succeed.  Someone who has insomnia might feel anxious about going to bed because getting a good night’s sleep seems important to going to work the next day and meeting one’s obligations in the world.

Caring about these things is endearingly human and engaged.  And if we want to feel less anxiety then we can allow ourselves to feel informed by it and choose to do the feared thing more often so that we build more confidence. Sometimes new contexts allow us to see things differently.  If we can downgrade the significance of social acceptance, for example, we may find ourselves more able to do something we believe in, even if it comes with the price of some popularity.

As a “bodymind,” of course anxiety and depression have an expression neuro-chemically.  Low serotonin, for example, tends to reduce the enjoyment we cull from our experiences, even when before these amplified mood states, those experiences enhanced our senses of wellbeing and gladness.  Stress, and its consequent chemical productions of adrenalin and cortisol, rule.  When we get stressed, particularly over a longer period of time, its chemistry dominates, and dampens mood, creates irritability, and fosters anxiety.

Some people may require medication to re-balance their neurochemistry enough to begin a process of unlocking new doors of thought and feeling. When we have narrated our lives in ways that renders us locked in—to a particular job or company, to a role within our family, to the way we spend our time, to servicing the needs of others at the frequent expense of ourselves—then we can begin to view anxiety as a knocking on the door, and as a key to places with breathing room to explore, to grow, and to nurture our lives.

Camel Saddle:  When do you experience most anxiety?  If you let it speak to you, what does it say?  What matters to you so much that anxiety offers you prompts to take it seriously?  Is there work to do on this matter that anxiety wants to unlock for you?