Sunday started out as a good day. We had people coming over later in the afternoon for a barbecue…some of the folks I met in Wisconsin and some of our local friends too. I had a feast planned – ribs, smoked chicken wings, a grilled-green chile-buffalo-meatloaf (yeah, you read that right). It was a lot of shopping on Saturday and all day prep, cooking and cleaning on Sunday.
In the back of my head I knew I needed to be disciplined about getting all the cooking done, getting people fed and restoring the house back to order at a reasonable hour because I was leaving the house at 5am Monday morning and would be gone for most of the week. It wasn’t going to be an easy work week either. My trips were about serious meetings and I needed to be in good form for them. My nerves were humming a little already because I hadn’t spent enough time over the weekend getting ready for the week. So in addition to getting the food and house together and then socializing…I knew I needed to keep a close inventory on by libation intake; going into the week with a hangover would be disastrous.
Things went fine – I thought. People had fun and then they left and we went to bed. But somewhere in the middle of the night I started to unravel. My mind never turned off, even after I’d fallen asleep. Daytime thoughts broke free from their nighttime storage place and raced through my brain while I tossed and turned. Around 2am I woke up and realized I was alone in bed. Rhonda had moved into the girls room and was sleeping without covers in the bottom bunk with Lily. I checked on them and and retreated back to our room where I laid in bed and never shut my eyes again. At 5am I got up and got ready to leave for most of the week. My nerves were bundled. The experience was so intense I thought I’d get nauseous.
There was reason to be stressed about work; I’ve got a series of sensitive meetings and things that I am responsible for this week. It’s not usual for me to have so many big ticket items in a five day period, but that was the case. The exhaustion only made it worse. As I rocketed through the dark countryside en route to the Columbus Airport I realized that my coping skills – call them self-defense from myself – had been dismantled, leaving me fully vulnerable to every worry my brain could muster, legitimate or illogical. And though that hour and a half was done in complete silence, the chaos inside my head was deafening. My breathing was accelerated, my heart rate racing. My stomach knotted itself in nerves and pulsed.
As I have grown older, I have found that I have become increasingly anxious. About what? Anything. Everything. The level of preoccupation my brain applies towards ‘things’ – big and small – would be curious and hard to understand for most people. It’s both accurate and insufficient to say that I am always thinking. It’s true, but it’s not because I want to. It’s that I feel unsettled – always, as if there is something else going on that is preeminently more important than whatever I am doing, no matter what that may be. And the result of me not tending to that mystery task will be dire…except there is no mystery task.
My response to feeling – at best – unsettled and – at its peak – like I want to leap out of my skin is varied. Sometimes it elevates my productivity; I focus on what I need to get done one-by-one, systematically clicking things off the list. But other times, no such luck. What seems to determine how I will respond to my internal process is how layered my experience is. That is to say, if I have more layers piled on that I feel stressed about, I am less likely to respond in a good way. If it’s just one thing, like say a work project…I can usually do fine, translating the extra energy where I can use it. Maybe that means going to the gym. Maybe it means writing or getting a few extra tasks done so I can relax. All productive. However, when there is a compounding of issues, like multiple layers of stress, that’s when I really start to fall apart. Instead of making a linear, step by step plan, I implode; I start grinding my teeth; I can’t prioritize one thing over another; my stomach starts to churn and – like this week – my defenses fold over and let wild thoughts attack without any resistance whatsoever. When storms like that hit, I tend to drink. Having a few beers usually lessens the anxiety. But one of the challenges I face is not having an ‘off’ switch; as I start to feel better, I don’t stop drinking. Then, later…’after’, the summary result is that I feel physically bad and am still anxious; once my clenched thoughts loosened, I recall never doing anything productive with them. I still have anxiety about the same things…and then it’s worse.
Tonight I am in a two bedroom suite somewhere in Madison, WI. Just talked to the girls – all three of them. We said goodnight and I am going to bed, optimistic that I’ll sleep tonight. I’m exhausted and feeling guilty, still anxious. Still feeling like several windows in my life have been knocked out in the last 24 hours.
I’m long overdue for a change…