Do you know how you show your stress? Here are some things I do when I get upset, anxious, stressed, or scared:
- Clean things. Like when I am done vacuuming and spot cleaning the carpet, I will clean the toaster oven with steel wool and a toothbrush, or the microwave with bleach and a scraper in case there are any food particles hiding. Or reorganizing the cabinet where I keep all the plasticware – bowls, lids, “free containers” from empty jam jars. This morning I thought about finishing the powerwashing of my deck, but I settled for picking dead leaves off my houseplants.
- Eat. My friend sent me a fabulous birthday gift this past week. It was fresh rhubarb! I made a rhubarb sticky pudding cake thing, and rhubarb sauce. I ate the last of it this morning. After breakfast. I also had a piece of banana chocoloate chip bread I took out of the freezer. And this afternoon I finished off a bag of Wiley Wallaby black licorice my brother sent me for my birthday.
- Cry. Last night I called my older son and talked to him while crying for about 25 minutes. I don’t know about you, but in my experience, not many guys like to talk long on the phone, especially to a crying woman, and very especially not his crying mother. I was on the way to my friend’s house to “spontaneously” spend the night. I talked to her and her husband for about an hour, during which time my daughter called to check on me. I cried some more. This morning I called one of my sisters, and we talked for 1-1/2 hours, during which I finally ran out of my current supply of tears.
- Shop. Retail therapy, yes I did. It’s a good thing that only a few stores are open due to the pandemic. I once broke up with someone and spent a few hundred dollars at a consignment shop buying clothes I never wore. Today I went to the Premium Outlet Mall about a mile from my house. I got hiking shoes, hiking socks (6 pair), three moisture-wicking tops, and a sweat-activated, cooling, lightweight, and wicking “Great For All Things Active” sports towel. You wet it down and wrap it around your neck to lower your temperature and cool down. I forgot to look for the Kula Cloth I mentioned in my last post; dang it!
I know these stress behaviors intimately because I have been in my fair share of stress-inducing situations before. It’s how I cope. Here are some examples of stressful, and really stressful, situations I have encountered.
- My daughter ran into a barbed-wire fence and cut her eyelid, in the dark, when we lived 17 miles out of town. My older son “clothes-lined” himself running under bleachers in the school gym. Same son broke his knee wiping out on a bicycle on a gravel road. The other son jumped off a swing and broke his wrist. Same son swung an axe while chopping firewood but missed the log and hit his foot instead. While we were camping, in another state. And there are more stories like those. All scary, no matter how many times they happen. I had to be strong, so crying was not an option. I kept an excess supply of Girl Scout Cookies in my freezer for years.
- My mother got a cancer diagnosis for the second time, and I was with her when the doctor told her that a month of radiation had no positive effect. I bought diamond earrings after she died. I was with my father when he got his cancer diagnosis and two-month life sentence. I took a cruise to Cuba. My sister got a breast cancer diagnosis, and I wasn’t there. I cried for 200 miles driving there, and 200 miles coming home. I am not sure which was worse – being there or being helpless and hundreds of miles away. And then there was the night my husband died, lying in bed next to me, suddenly and unexpectedly. A different kind of scary watching EMTs try to revive him and sitting in the waiting room, waiting. I lost 17 pounds in the next month, but then I found them and invited all their friends to come stay on my hips for a few years.
- There is another kind of scary, too: driving your truck, pulling a camper, on a dark Sunday night in the middle of Nowhere, Tennessee, and having the check engine light brighten up the dashboard. Or the Low Fuel light flash when you are in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. Or having the trailer brakes stop working when it’s raining out and it’s Sunday morning and you are seven states away from home with mountains in between where you are and where you are going. Or knowing you are going to scrape the side of your camper on that flatbed trailer you can’t swing wider around. I have the cleanest toaster in my camper; in fact, it is so clean, I hate to use it now!
- Having to confront your husband and tell him you know what he did, preparing for a fight, and having him calmly admit it. I cried for about three years after the divorce.
- Having the ladder fall out from under you while you are trying to descend the garage attic, and hanging on with your forearms on the ceiling flashing until you dropped to the concrete floor ten feet below. I was home alone, and the garage door was closed. I got the cutest peep-toe heels after that one.
- Watching the flood waters rise in your backyard, knowing the 8 sump pumps can’t keep up, and having to call the fire department to let them equalize the pressure on your walls by preemptively flooding your basement with clean water, and not knowing if the insurance company will cover the damages. I stripped the hallway wallpaper and painted my foyer and bathroom.
And there are more stories like that, too. I have had plenty of chances in my life to build my skills in resiliency and change management. Sometimes I think that I haven’t gotten out of the experience what I needed, so that is why I have had to “rinse and repeat” a few cycles.
But then this past weekend happened. George Floyd was killed by a cop, for all the world to see, in my home state of Minnesota, in the city of Minneapolis which I have happy memories of but which have now been irreparably tainted. Nothing is the same now. Not for George Floyd nor his family, not for residents of Minneapolis or Minnesota or any of the other 49 states. Certainly not for me. Can’t unring that bell, as the saying goes. Can’t stop seeing what I saw. It was sickening, but yet it was 1300 miles away. Until the long arm of the law (ha!) reached all the way to my small town in Virginia, where a civil protest yesterday afternoon was followed by whisperings last night of a potential riot at a mall a mile from my house. And more: the white neighborhoods within a mile of the mall. Yes, my neighborhood. This sh*% quickly got more real, fast.
I was blissfully unaware of this threat until one friend sent me a warning to stay inside. That was immediately followed by a neighbor asking me if I had heard anything. And then another person messaged me, in my capacity as president of my homeowners association, asking for confirmation and guidance. I started seeing all kinds of Facebook posts. Another friend confirmed that the fire department personnel and other First Responders were all called in to duty. I called my local cop shop to ask about it and was quickly given confirmation that the threats were credible and serious. But all they could tell me was that there was already an increased police presence and they would do all they could.
I asked myself exactly what was I feeling? My heart was pounding against my chest, my heart rate increased, my breathing was quickening, my hands were clammy, and I was sweating. I was full of fear. My resistance to this being surreal was short-lived; my sense of safety, of the confidence that I was just fine living alone, evaporated. I was anxious, I was confused about what to do, couldn’t think straight, was overwhelmed. I had this image of myself as a put-together, calm, responsive woman, and that went AWOL because I didn’t know what to do.
So I ran. I threw a nightgown,a toothbrush, and dog food into an overnight bag, and then called a friend who lives about 5 miles away. I asked if I could come over for the night but I don’t think I gave her a chance to say no. I locked the doors, pulled the shades, and turned on all the lights. I forgot to set the alarm system, but maybe that was a Freudian slip of some kind. Did I really want to know?? I was on my way in less than 10 minutes. Hey, Google, call Tino, I told my phone. He is my son, a voice of reason, and we had recently talked of the protests. He is much better informed about Antifa and other racial issues than I. And he has the unfortunate experience of being faculty who has faced fear borne of school shootings…including one not far from the college where he teaches. He is a deeply caring, deeply feeling, deeply expressive man.
I blubbered and told him I felt like a coward and a fraud. Here I been posting on Facebook, conveying my outrage. exclaiming that Black Lives Matter and expressing sympathy for George Floyd’s family and the other families who have lost loved ones to the senseless, shameful, dishonorable, deplorable way of the world. It’s been bad, gotten worse, til it all seemed out of control. I am generally an optimist, but I was hyper aware that I was alone and in a free fall. I have been giving myself a crash course, in a Cliff’s Notes kind of way, on white privilege, racism, radicalism, prejudice, fascism, terrorism, rioting, protesting. Trying to understand, wanting to understand, knowing I will not..cannot.. ever fully understand.
But I got a taste-testing opportunity last night. A taste of the fear, unlike any other fear I have ever known. And I did my damnedest to outrun it, to avoid it, to hide from it. I was ashamed, and that very shame further shamed me, because this whole mess wasn’t even about me, but I was making it about me. I was a failure, and I felt so guilty about that, too.
This is another situation where being solo really sucks. No one to hold my hand, brace me up, share my worry, massage my distress. The dogs can only do so much in the way of providing comfort. If something had happened, if some renegades did enter our neighborhood hell bent on damaging our properties, what could I do? I didn’t want to be by myself. In that short span of time, I was angry that I was on my own.
My neighbors were gathering on the street and talking about firepower and defense tactics. I was alarmed; could it get worse? I wanted no part of that – even though once upon a time I earned a Marksman’s badge for shooting an M15 weapon when I was in the Army. I don’t carry, and I don’t plan to. Or at least, I didn’t plan to…now I’m not so sure about anything.
My son was able to help me calm down. He said that not everyone can do everything, or needs to try. In what I was facing, it sounded like my best course of action was to ensure my safety. We all have our gifts, our ways of serving, our own part to play. Mine often involves writing, as does his. My seeking refuge didn’t mean I was weak, he said. If there was going to be real danger, then I needed to take care of myself, so I could my part when my turn came. As I drove out of the neighborhood, I saw two cop cars half a block from my house, and then a firetruck with lights flashing and sirens blaring when I got on the highway headed north. I was relieved to have somewhere to go and felt better about my decision.
I gave myself permission to consider his advice. He wasn’t trying to simply appease or mollify me. He was sincerely supportive. Really, what was I going to be able to do if I stayed home and there was a skirmish – or worse? Yes, my weapon of choice is words. Could I reasonably expect to go outside, call a meeting of the rioters, and offer to brainstorm how to resolve the conflict in 1-2 minute answers? That might be more appropriate as our governmental officials take charge of this moving target (okay, and for sure more than 1-2 minutes of Table Topics) , and maybe there would be a way I could help harness the raw energy into something more productive than the Tulsa Race Massacre (see? I learned about this, too). IF I was safe and sane.
I ate a raspberry crepe and had a cup of coffee with my friends. Of course, I didn’t sleep much last night. I checked my home security cameras remotely and canvassed Facebook for any hint of trouble happening. There was none. I came home about 6:30 this morning and walked my dogs around the neighborhood. I was thankful to be back home, thankful for another opportunity to experience my best self. I don’t know what tonight might hold, or tomorrow, or next week. But I am different already, I know that. I will never forget that feeling I had, those moments of feeling terrorized.
So now I wait to see what happens next. As hard as that is, I know millions of others have waited for nights, months, years, and decades. In vain. And if nothing, or if not enough, I will have to figure out how else to help effect change. While I am waiting, I will learn. And I will listen. With the goal, as author Layla Saad says, of becoming a better ancestor. Just those words, even without context, are inspiring to this grandma of five. Never has the concept of what kind of world they are inheriting had this level of meaning.
It’s interesting how I’ve come full circle to the ideal I have long ascribed to. It’s Kahlil Gibran’s credo that we should not seek to make our children like us, but we should seek to be like them. Because life goes forward, not backward. Think about that. I have this symbolized in a tattoo on my wrist: an arrow going forth from a stable bow. Usually you hear of kids calling their parents for advice or support or sympathy or guidance. If my own parents were alive, I don’t know that I would have called them. Instead, I did not hesitate to call my son; he is our future. I listened. When my daughter called a while later, I listened to her, too. I’m not feeble or frail; I was stunned, fragile, vulnerable in that moment. I was reminded that it takes a strong person to ask for help.
So I’m already relinquishing my self-bestowed title of Scaredy-Cat. I think I’ll keep this hat on of Listener a while longer. I’d bet we could all benefit from hearing what the younger generation, and the marginalized, the protesters, the angry, the hurting ones have to say. For a change, let’s be afraid for them, not of them. They must be incredibly tired of carrying these burdens. I know what one night did to me.
*The title of this post comes from the Book Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. She is a New York Times bestselling author, podcast host, and founder of the Good Ancestor Academy. Find her book here . For information about the Good Ancestor Academy and her personal leadership and anti-racism classes, go here. I have only just started to read her book but am impressed even at Chapter 1 that this book is going to help me learn how to show up better in the world.
Your most recent post on George Floyd and the protestors really struct a chord with me. It demonstrates how easily we can be overcome by fear. How easily, the words that we hear from others can ramp up that fear. How easily, what we see on social media feeds into our fears. The question becomes, how do we handle our fears.
Initially, your approach was both to be expected and appropriate. Flight, either actual or psychological is what we do. We break away from the situation and hunker down and try not be be seen. We make ourselves small. More importantly, it is what you did the following morning. How you didn’t allow fear to overcome you and become a part of your narrative.
In this new era in which we find ourselves, talking and listening are the key ingredients to learning and combating fear. In your case, you made yourself vulnerable and spoke to us. Thank you for sharing, and hopefully, we shall learn from your fear to be better. We can all be better. We can all do better.