Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Serenity and Other Unnatural Conditions

I’m not sure which is harder:  being me or being married to me.

(We won’t let my husband comment on this one.)

I’m not so bad, really.  In some ways I’m a fantastic person to spend day-in-and-day-out, til-death-do-we-part with.  I communicate, and usually not by screaming.  I have hobbies, talents, helpful habits, etc.  I’m interested in the world around me.  Sometimes I even act like a responsible grown-up, in fact, I do laundry every single time my children run out of clean clothes.

It’s just that.  Well, you know how none of us is perfect?  And have you had times when it seems that all your weaknesses are seeping out of your pores?  Times when you are just a wreck, and then you realize that you were just a wreck last month too?  And January wasn’t so great either?

Remember Christmas?  That was a long time ago.

There are two things that make me hit the wall.  One, not getting enough sleep.  Two, the anticipation of physical pain.  Lately, these two things have gone hand in hand, and this past week was no exception.  My reoccurring cyst–my reoccurring nightmare cyst that doctors insist on sticking needles and knives into–flared up again.  At night, the pain woke me up every time I changed positions, but the agony in my head was much worse.

“No, I can’t,” I sobbed to my husband one morning.  “I just can’t have it lanced again.  I don’t care.  I would rather die than go through all that again.”

My husband, who is very good at fixing many problems, was just listening to me.  This is because he knows (from experience) not to try and fix anything while I’m crying.  Eventually I finished, and a child called from downstairs.   “Honey,” I needed to say just one more thing, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know why everything has to be such a big deal for me.”

My words hung in the air.  What I said was accurate, and we both knew it.   Things are a bigger deal for me than for my husband.  If it was his cyst, he would grit his teeth and get it lanced.

But I’m not sure that my teeth know how to grit.  Whatever in the world that means.

****

The morning that I finally called the doctor’s office I had two dollars and two hours to myself.   It was just enough for a cafe au lait at a quiet coffee shop.  My mind was unsettled.  For a week and a half, I had tried every natural remedy I could google.  I had cornered herbalists in the aisles of health food stores.  I had prayed and asked my whole church to pray.  And here I was, considering the very situation I was desperate to avoid.  I needed distraction.  I looked at the coffee shop’s bookshelves.  There were forensic thrillers, thick romance novels, and Chicken Soup for the Women’s Soul.

Chicken soup it was.  I hide the cover behind my bag so that none of the other coffee shop patrons could see what I was reading, and the book fell open to the Serenity Prayer.  Really?  I almost closed the book, embarrassed by the level of cliche to which I had fallen.  But since I was more desperate than prideful at that moment, I read through the familiar words.

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

The prayer pressed down on me like the mass of my cyst.  The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.  Serenity.  What does that look like when I’m so scared?  Am I just supposed to pretend?  But I had already tried to ‘change the things I can.’  I was out of options.  More words came to mind: There are some things that you can’t go over, under or around.  There are some things that you just have to go through.  Oh Lord, I breathed silently, if there is no other way, walk me through it.

And through it we went.

The thing about going through something is that all you really have to do is just keep moving forward.  One step, repeat.  I walked into the doctor’s office.  I told them I was scared.  I told them the story of the traumas I had already endured related to this cyst.  They referred me to a new surgeon, one who would take the time to go slowly.  I called her office.   I took some anti-panic medication.  I walked into the exam room.  I told my story again.  They listened.  They gave me extra numbing medication.  I insisted that my husband stay with me during the procedure.  I squeezed his hand, and the surgeon talked me though it.  One step at a time.  And then it was over.

I have decided that this is as close to serenity that I’m going to get.  And that’s okay.  For some of us, serenity is a hard thing to come by.  My prayer was answered, bit by bit, as I found just enough courage and just enough help to take the next step.  Just enough courage and just enough help to go through, and then, to come out on the other side.

And thank you, God, for the other side.

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Life at 30,000 Feet

I have developed a fear of flying over the past decade or so.  It is quite annoying, and has not always been this way.

When I began flying in college, I was amazed by the miracle that lifted tons of steel into the air.  I would press my nose against the window and marvel at the miniature world below.   I took photographs from the sky, and in the days before digital photography, built up a collection of blurry sunset and cloud pictures that inevitably included the flash’s glare.  One year I rode in a small plane at the Butler Farm Show and was disappointed when I had to sit in the back.  I even briefly considered learning to fly, but was put off by the cost of lessons.

My husband, who has only known me for eight years, is astonished by these recollections.  This is not the Jen he knows.

A lot can change in a decade.  And it has.  Something has happened inside me in the years since college, since 9-11, and since children.  The fear crept in slowly, beginning with slight trepidation, fed by terrorist tales and endlessly retold crash sequences (yes, even Lost episodes), strengthened by new concerns related to flying with children, growing with every spot of turbulence and bumpy descent, and culminating in a panic attack in the New Orleans airport.

Now, if flying were an optional part of my life, the story might end there.  But when your husband’s entire family lives on the opposite coast of the Continental United States of America, it’s hard to avoid the airport.

Hard, but not impossible… for a time.  I did manage to avoid it for almost two years.  My husband’s family came to us, and we tried to pretend that the charms of Los Angeles (like the beach along Highway 1, the smell of flowers in the winter, and good Salvadorian food) didn’t exist.  It worked until two weeks before Christmas this past year.

For two years we fooled ourselves, but then the stars aligned and I was sunk.

My husband’s brother, whom we love, bought a spacious house but did not yet have housemates.  On the other coast, we had a full house and could no longer host his parents for their January visit.   They offered to pay for our flights instead.  I checked the computer, and (darn it) found reasonable fares.  We booked the tickets, and pulled the suitcases out from under the bed.

I tried to breathe.

I busied myself with packing and presents.  I went to the gym, and ran my nervousness into the ground.  I talked to friends.  I dug out a lonely bottle of anti-panic pills (prescribed by the world’s best psychiatrist a year earlier) and tucked them away just in case.  I ran and talked and packed some more.  And then, just before we left, I enlisted the prayers of every praying person that I knew.  And they did pray.  I know this because of the way things turned out.

Things turned out, as they often do when people pray, in a very hard-but-beautiful way.

I began by passing out.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I began by finding us a ride to the airport, and intentionally asked someone I was very comfortable with.  Someone friendly, funny, encouraging; someone who you would actually want to spend time with at 4:30 in the morning when you feel like you want to throw up.  He said yes to the 4:30 drive, and this was a miracle.

And so we were on our way.

Now, I am a bit stubborn about taking medicine for my mental health.  I think of it as a last resort, but never quite get to the point when I see myself as that desperate… well, until I am practically past the point of desperation.  On this particular morning, I put off taking the little blue pill until we were about 1 minute from the airport.  This was unwise.

Panic attacks are no joke, and I have found them to be somewhat different from anxiety.  Generally, anxiety is something that you cooperate or do not cooperate with.  It is usually possible to change the way you are thinking, change your environment, or distract yourself.  There are some choices along the way.  But when anxiety grows to the point of panic, your own control diminishes.  Here’s how it was for me as soon as we pulled off the highway to the airport… BAM.   I had been talking to our friend, I was doing okay… BAM.  Heat rushed through my body, dizziness spun me around and I passed out.  BAM.  It was like the green airport sign tackled me.

That part was quick, perhaps only a few seconds.  When I stumbled out of the van my husband didn’t even know that I had fainted.  I sat on the suitcases, gasping for breath.  “Are you okay?”  “No.”  “Honey?” “I don’t think I can do this.”  But then… but then… the blessed medicine kicked in.  I was still aware of everything, still a bit shaken up, but all of a sudden the panicking part of my brain dis-attached itself.  “Alright,” I stood up, “let’s do this.”

And we did.  The next part of the story is mercifully boring.  Tickets, security, waiting, boarding.  No panic, no problem.  We settled into the plane and smiled noncommittally to our seatmates.  The woman in our row returned my smile warmly.  After takeoff I commented on her book, and we began talking.  We discovered that we were both young mothers and committed Christians.  Somewhere over Illinois I mentioned that I had experienced some trepidation in regard to aviation (speaking in code because I didn’t want my daughter to understand… the last thing I want her to know is that someone could be afraid of flying), and she smiled even more broadly.

It turns out that my seatmate was a mental health counselor, currently studying anxiety and panic.  She was also from a family of pilots.

I am not making this up.

We talked in code for the rest of the flight.  She listened to my concerns, gave me some tips on calming down (some of which I used with success on our extremely bumpy return flight two weeks later), and shared some stories of flying in small planes with her family.  “Really,” she said with convincing sincerity, “I know that you’ve heard horror stories, but you have no idea how safe flying is.”

Maybe.  I don’t know.  It is hard to let go of fear that you have nurtured for so long, and the horror stories are rather, well,  horrible.  I don’t know what will happen during future flights.  Then again, I don’t know what will happen during future moments when I have my feet firmly planted on the ground.  Life at 30,000 feet is a risk.  Life at zero feet is a risk.  Ultimately, it’s not under my control.  I’m not a big fan of being out of control, and I probably never will be.

However…

Here is something that comforts me:  Though I do not have control, I have help.  Help from a darn good psychiatrist, help from friends who will get up at 4:30 a.m., help from friends who pray, and help from Somone who responded to these prayers by sending me a kind-Christian-young-mother-mental-health-professional-from-a-family-of-pilots.

Really.  We were flying on Southwest.  I could have sat anywhere.