Coronatine & anxiety

This is week eight of social distancing and working remotely full-time. I keep hearing people say some version this phrase “I have always had low-grade anxiety…” and I’m not sure why exactly it stays stuck under my skin. I fully understand the affliction, however, I think I bristle at the notion that this phrase to describe it has somehow become the conversational version of a hashtag. Is it now cool to have had an underlying condition of anxiety? Cool maybe isn’t the right word and, again, I cannot pinpoint why it bothers me. The faces of the people who have said it to me, how it was delivered, the tone and the context, as well as what I know of them as individuals — there aren’t a lot of commonalities. But it has bothered me every time and I’ve ruminated on it relentlessly, among a multitude of other things during the days and nights of this pandemic situation.

The truth is, I got myself off on a tangent already because that’s how I was going to start this post myself today. I have been feeling (off and on, waxing and waning, without a trigger or pattern) anxious since this whole thing began. What I was going to preface this post with though is that, despite my reluctance to embrace it as truth, I was kind of an anxious person in the “Before.” It’s not clear if I have always been this way but I think it’s most likely that I have.

On days like today, gloomy, melancholic and too quiet, it’s hard for me to remember feelings, moments or experiences in my life where I wasn’t overthinking. In my last role as a counselor in a high school, I had a colleague on my small, four-person team who was unequivocally and pathologically anxious. To the point where it rubbed off on and affected everyone around her to some degree, to the point of frustration or annoyance of those who frequently experienced her perpetual buzzing. Listen. I loved that girl but it was profoundly irritating at times. I keep thinking “I’m not that bad,” but I think I may have become that person on my current work team even though I don’t worry to that extreme. It’s all relative though and I can admit that I am anxious more than any of my current colleagues, at least verbally expressed. I do overthink. And on my “new” work team of one, in my living room while using the tv stand as a makeshift desk, I am definitely that person. That said, I’m also the strongest, smartest, cleverest, funniest, most likeable … and prettiest too! This new one-woman team isn’t all bad.

Joking aside though, I do feel anxious. At the beginning of these eight weeks, there was a lot of time spent relishing the freedom, the ability to “sleep in,” freedom from distractions during the work day, not having to wear noise-cancelling headphones all the time to block out cubby chatter, having time to cook multiple, healthy meals a day, freedom to be a hermit and not have to continually think of the excuses you want to give for not wanting to hang out or make plans with people (although you didn’t dare use them because you simultaneously hate excuses and flakes), and just generally relax. I still relish every single one of those positive things. I also love the concerted effort by many to share the positive each day, live for the greater good, and the incredibly unique and powerful feeling of literally everyone experiencing this crisis together, albeit differently. In the early days, I wanted to consume as much information as I could but I was also pretty disappointed in and terrified by the spectacle of our national leadership and his daily press conferences. I would frequently call my parents so we could watch together, not even commenting, just being together in some way while taking it in. While I was laughing and raging about the incredible nonsense spread over this very real and overwhelming global crisis, I was also growing increasingly more anxious.

From the very beginning, I have worried about the people in this world that are most susceptible to this virus, for all of the published scientific and socio-economic factors. I’ve also been worried about my family because, without question, that’s the thing I care about the most at my core. Initially, I discounted my parents’ suggestion for me to come home as just that, a suggestion that was mostly an expression of love and compassion. It is still that but at some point, I remember talking to my brother about how it was starting to feel like a guilt trip. I guess this was about the time that the DC mayor extended our stay at home guidelines through May 15 near the end of April. From that point on, it’s become kind of an ever-present internal battle in my head and my heart. I hate it.

I want to be with my parents. And my brother. I think about every other time since leaving home for college where I have cried at having to leave them to go back to wherever I was … college, MD, DC. Partially, it is going back to being alone, an environment that I enjoy and cherish on many levels but mostly, it is about change. Specifically, it is about never knowing what will happen before the next time you see them or if you will get that chance. Lord knows, I have experienced enough loss in my life to recognize where that fear and dread and terrible sadness and longing comes from. It seems I would be embracing the opportunity to go to their home, when it is not only sanctioned but required that I work remotely, at least through the end of next week.

But as this time has gone on, that battle inside has only raged harder. One) even though the chance of infecting them, them showing signs of sickness or, I can barely even think it but, succumbing to the virus, is infinitesimally small, I cannot help but think about it. I would never, ever be able to forgive myself for not just staying put. And two) yes, if I am being truthful, I know that I am also giving up on a rare and unprecedented opportunity to spend this time alone as I have done for the past seven weeks. But three) I don’t want to listen to my mother read to me from Facebook, I don’t want to perpetually watch the local news (at deafening levels), I don’t want to feel guilty when I have to do work or, conversely, when I need to pretend to do work as I have done intermittently for the past couple of weeks since my budget was cut. And four) I have a man here that I care a lot about and like spending time with. We are both careful enough that we feel comfortable seeing each other during this interminable lockdown and I am deeply thankful for it. He says his roommates are hyper-vigilent to the extent that it’s annoying. One of them Chloroxes the dishes! I don’t have to deal with that but it’s kind of comforting to know he’s safe because they are so anal. The human contact is unexpectedly necessary for my mental health. His hugs feel like home. I had also selfishly hoped that I would actually see him more often than the average once a week since our schedules are finally both pretty open. That hasn’t happened as often As I would like though and, as I’ve lamented ad nauseum here, I’m not stupid enough to push with this guy. That hasn’t gone well in the past and he isn’t them.

Anyway, I know that the pros of going home to spend this time with my folks outweigh the cons and, if the stay at home orders are extended again, I will go. I know that I will. I won’t regret it and, once I get there and surely when I am leaving to come back here again, I will certainly regret not having gone sooner.

I just wish I could stop feeling so anxious about it. Unease and uncertainty has become my fairly constant state of being during this weird time. I do believe, like many other opinions expressed in various spaces of the interwebs, that the “new normal” is already here and that social distancing will continue for much longer. I hope my body and mind and heart learn to adjust to it better over time. I hope we all do.

Music for the Mood: Anxiety – Jason Isbell

Winter of my discontent?

I’m affected by the change in seasons, the shorter, darker days. I know this. In reality, I might have “the sads” more frequently than just the winter but I feel it more intensely or just perseverate on it’s never-far-awayness more in the dark, dreary days. I tend to hole up in my house and hibernate which, it could be argued, makes it worse. The solitude is both a security blanket and an excuse. I am irritable over nothing and everything. People that have done nothing wrong, sometimes people I care about, become targets of my frustration, avoidance and even loathing. Why? I have no idea. Like a bout of road rage, I can feel it, recognize when it’s happening even, but I am virtually powerless to be in the feeling and control it, lessen it, stop it or redirect it. Though I certainly do think it through later, when I am calm and have the space and quiet to do so.

One friend, in particular, and for no logical, tangible or concrete reason I can determine, is driving me crazy. Her texts cause me to roll my eyes, feel internally annoyed and exasperated, and immediately begin scrolling through the possible excuses or “outs” in my head to avoid responding or respond in the shortest, least expressive, least engaging way in order to discourage further conversation. Why?? I. don’t. bloody. know. It’s been that way with this friend for several weeks now, if not months. I cannot pinpoint when it started or why.  I also cannot determine any source of legitimate irritation, offense, jealousy, betrayal or any action, opinion or thought or perceived action, opinion or thought that got under my skin. I can’t. 

I do this sometimes with friends though and as much as I wish I were wired differently, I’m not sure how to change or move beyond it or if it’s even possible. I know myself. I’m just simply over it. I have the ick, so to speak. In my experience, once you have the ick, it does not go way.

Maybe I’m making too much of it.  Maybe I’m not making enough of it.  Would a therapist?

I’ve been to a therapist twice in my life; once in college, once as an adult.  In college, it was post Sept 11th, in the winter of course, and I was immersed in courses full of psycho-social-biblical-philosophical discussions, papers and research. The result of talking to this campus psychologist, whose name and countenance I cannot even vaguely remember, was merely being prescribed an SSRI (Paxil, I think). I had some dark thoughts. And I don’t know now if these were before, during or after the medication. I stopped taking it at some point as I didn’t feel like it was doing anything and I didn’t want to go back to talk to anyone in order to get a refill. Not surprisingly, no one prepared me for the withdrawal symptoms of stopping cold turkey. So nauseous. So sweaty. Miserable. Constantly. I remember days of just being in my bed in a ball wondering if I was lucid or not. And then it was over and you wondered if any of it even happened.

A couple of years later, as an adult, living on my own for the first time in Pittsburgh, I went back. To a doctor in my insurance network (I haven’t had a primary care doctor since childhood and urgent care clinics weren’t a thing yet). I told them all the same depressed and anxious and not-sleeping feelings I was having and that I had been on an SSRI before. That was it!? I walked out with a prescription again after maybe 10 minutes of talking to them. Truthfully though, I don’t even remember if or for how long I took it. Don’t even know if I got the script filled. I know that I probably should have been doing therapy along with the pills in order to see any kind of benefit. Grad school for counseling taught me all about that — I just never did it.

I tried therapy again as an adult, for one tear-filled, complete embarrassment of a session, when I had a boss who made me feel kind of terrible every day. I used to sit in my car at lunch and cry. I still have something like PTSD when I hear a certain DC NPR radio voice that used to play during that lunch time hour.

I remain genuinely unsure whether it was her, me or the combination of us. I began my professional career as a school counselor with her as my supervisor at the district office. She was impressed by me and championed me. She convinced me to take a job at the district level as part of a stimulus grant and I did, with the understanding that, when it was over in 18 months, I would go back to my same role in my same high school. I never got that in writing because, frankly, it never occurred to me that I’d need to. Within two weeks of the new role though, I knew it wasn’t for me. I had virtually no interaction with students, I couldn’t actually “fix” anything that was broken and couldn’t even touch most things that needed improvement or streamlining (or complete obliteration) with a ten-foot pole. I did get to work with 80 counselors at all levels across the district and it was nice to learn that they respected me, my opinion and my work. But I was profoundly bored. My boss turned from this sweet, encouraging person I admired and that I used to go on walks with at lunch, into this passive-aggressive, suspicious, accusatory person who never had anything for me to do but would be visibly put out when I appeared not to be working. She would actually come stand next to my cubicle, peer over the top at me with just her eyes, glasses and top of her head showing. WHY?? Creepy as hell. In truth, I spent about 3 months of my 16 months there earning a post-Masters certification in sports counseling … online … 12 credits worth! I felt guilty using company time for it but, honestly, I did not even remotely have enough to do. I would find ways create my own projects or work across divisions but that seemed to rankle her even more, as if I was somehow plotting against her or ingratiating myself with people that didn’t care for her. I never knew, really.  It was just an awful situation. 

At one point we had a discussion about it and I expressed that I felt underutilized, regretted leaving the school, recognized that our dynamic/relationship had changed, and suggested that it seemed like she was threatened by me. She laughed, no cackled, at the last part in the most condescending way. I’ll never forget how that felt and I’ve replayed that moment a million times; I’ll also never know what the real problem was if that wasn’t it. I finished the position two months early so I could return for the start of the school year only I wasn’t able to return to my old school and spent the next two years in a school that was fine but not challenging and never felt like home. It’s overwhelming and weird to regret losing nearly a year and a half of your life. It makes me second guess “opportunities” now, for sure. Unfortunate but it is what it is.

All of that to say, I tried therapy as part of our employee assistance program and after crying uncontrollably throughout the whole session and being challenged on things that didn’t seem relevant but that I still bear the scars from, I never went back. It was a truly awful experience.

I think there’s a lot to be said about talking to an impartial, unbiased, unconnected person about your problems, real or imagined. I just don’t know how you establish a rapport with a random someone and/or how you know that someone is the best someone for you. What if they are behavioral when you need cognitive? What if you don’t know what you need and end up with the wrong type? What if they are too religious? What if they aren’t religious at all? What if they are full of shit? What if they don’t give me advice? What if they do? I know they aren’t supposed to; they’re supposed to lead you to your own conclusions and plans. What if they help me to the conclusion that I’m crazy? That we all are?

I have a person in my life now though that also feels the heaviness of winter, like thick curtains that keep out the light but not the chill. It is nice to normalize the experience with someone that doesn’t seem crazy at all! It is refreshing to not have to talk about it to just know why the quiet is nice sometimes. But I also worry that it could pull us apart if we don’t try to make each other push through.

Maybe we can keep the light on between the two of us. That would be really nice. He’s pretty great.

I need to write more. It’s cathartic and I don’t make time for it enough.

Music for the Mood: Fell on Dark Days – Soundgarden (Chris Cornell acoustic)