“Mom, did you know tortoises play? And dolphins laugh?”
I look away from my new friend, Elise, and gather an eyeful of images from my son’s Chromebook screen. I’m busy playing a game called, “Try to Do a Workout with Kids Around,” but I manage to sink into chair pose while responding with a nearly enthused, “I never would have guessed!”
Animals playing and laughing–somehow this highly useful information constitutes my son’s anti-pandemic Distance Learning today. I’m not complaining–it certainly holds his attention better than anything that requires him to answer questions.
In fact, the more questions he gets to ask me, the happier he is. Somewhere in his DNA is stamped a requirement that he utter my name at least 17,000 times every day.
In my DNA is a response to eventually blurt out, “Stop saying that! No one is allowed to say ‘mom’ for the rest of the day.”
My toddler now calls me Aunt Elissa.
Oh, and Elise, my new best friend, is not my alter ego. She is the workout instructor for a series called Barre Blend, which not only helps me burn off anxiety and doubt, but has been my go-to ever since Day One of our school closure in March (not that we’re in a new month yet–it’s at least March 59th). And yes, I just linked you to an advertisement. No shame.
I used to think that working out felt boring and pointless. While copying moves presented by a supermodel in a luxury spa, I would look around at my house and think, “There’s that stupid cobweb again! Why do I never remember that cobweb until I’m in table pose?” You notice I haven’t mentioned couch pose? Well I’m a natural at that one.
It turns out that boredom while exercising merely highlighted a key feature of my psyche. And it wasn’t that useless retort that “boring is a state of mind.”
Until my son mentioned animal playfulness, I had not made the connection between my newfound excitement at working out each weekday and…drum roll for this exciting news…finally feeling very little anxiety!!
I know, I know. I should be feeling anxious. Life as we know it has screeched to a halt. The future is more uncertain than ever. People are dying.
But I have lived the past thirty years as if the world really were about to end. For reasons I haven’t entirely unfolded, my feelings of self-doubt and fear skyrocketed in third grade. My stress response never flattened its curve and instead morphed into an unyielding plateau that kept me always on the lookout for threats to my belief that I was an intelligent, capable, and reliable person.
If not for friends drawing me out, I would have spent most of my adolescence in self-imposed gloom. Like sunshine hidden by clouds, my playful self emerged only long enough to give me hope that the rains on the plains had mainly left me unchained. But the clouds always returned before I could really get unsoggy.
[And in case she’s reading–Sabrena, your blend of spontaneity, kindness, and determination probably saved my life, or at least helped me live in full sunshine, during my worst year as a teen. Thank you for being you so I could feel a little bit more like me].
At least for now, the torment of constant anxiety has lifted.
In the past several weeks, my anxiety has dissipated to the point that I go around my (borrowed) home and yard singing and dancing with my children.
I also still yell and stomp sometimes, but how else am I supposed to incorporate their curriculum’s “Social-Emotional Learning” component? Mom losing her temper and then apologizing creates just one of the more exciting subjects at the OK MOM Learning Ranch (yes, for two days and for reasons not worth mentioning, I attempted to make stay-at-home school sound fun).
I had a few guesses as to why I no longer felt anxious–I don’t wake up to the daily futility of trying to get my kids to school before noon; I exercise regularly (like the kind of exercise that satisfies a questionnaire at the doctor’s office); my skills in breathing, being present, and offering myself grace have begun to catch on; or maybe I’m just excited because our home build is going so well that I see a light at the end of this tunnel called “living in limbo with in-laws.”
But honestly, when I experience anxiety, every one of those circumstances gets turned on its head into something negative (yoga headstand, anyone?). Sunshine is just the precursor to rain. Or the fleeting reprieve after a storm. What created my endless state of anxiety was not my circumstances.
The answer, according to me, is that my brain changed gears. Having anxiety is like being stuck in neutral while gunning the engine over and over again. Depression always rides shotgun when you are driven by anxiety. Just discovering that your best efforts repeatedly get you nowhere, and depressive brain chemistry–through “learned helplessness“–tends to follow.
And in case I never get around to a blog post for this Social Distortion song, remember these wise words:
Well I’ve searched and I’ve searchedBall and Chain by Singer/Songwriter Mike Ness, 1987
To find the perfect life-
A brand new car and a brand new suit
I even got me a little wife
But wherever I have gone,
I was sure to find myself there
You can run all your life
But not go anywhere.
Ever wondered what the punk rock version of Charlie Brown sounded like? Well, now you know.
Getting back on topic after that little round of playfulness…
Did you know that anxiety generally limits itself to animals with free time? In a brief introduction to that concept, neuroendocronologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky takes us to Africa and the uncharted wilds of our minds. I watched a full-length talk and question-answer session from his book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” which I highly recommend. Not the book, I never finish books. I mean the talk, which is an entire hour and a half long. I finally sat down and watched it last week after having it open in my Google tabs for a couple months. I guess I didn’t feel terribly anxious to find out how humans were somehow inferior to zebras.
[When my husband read this, he reminded me that the reason I had that hour and a half to myself is that I had locked myself in my room in the midst of a tirade. Time-outs. Another thing kids hate and parents crave.]
And PS–The subject matter, word choice, and examples he uses, though apt, might be a bit mature for younger audiences, just so ya know.
The main thrust of his talk for me, and I may be misquoting, is that “the opposite of depression (resulting from anxiety) is not happiness; it’s playfulness.”
Because who feels like playing when they’re worried, on-edge, tense, irritable, and busy defending themselves against invisible enemies? I think sarcasm is the closest any of us get to playfulness in such a state. And I have never known sarcasm to put anyone at ease. More of a “laugh with the sarcastic one or risk becoming their target.”
Well, I have laughed so much with my children lately that they no longer look at me with mortified, confused faces when I act silly. And I think the humorous approach to life is catching. The other day I decided to call all of the female children “Babe” and all of the male children “Dude” because, honestly, I cannot keep their names straight. My five-year-old, who knows I’m a babe but who is also prone to mixing up names, pipes up, “Mom, does that mean we can call you Boob?”
Yes, you can call me Boob.
I have been working with a psychiatrist and we may have found my sweet spot with anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds. Medication is probably a big part of why I am doing better. But if medication was the tipping point for my gear shift, then a whole lot of skills went into my smooth transition as I engaged the finicky clutch of my worn out mind.
I’m pretty sure I mentioned all of those skills in a recent post, so let’s just keep the forward momentum going.
I never knew how much I took it for granted that my children wanted to play with me. Especially my older son. He would even offer me one of his toys for safekeeping while he was at school “in case I got bored.” I would look at the added burden in my day, roll my mind’s eyes and think, “as if.”
Now I look at that invitation with wonder. If they want to play with me, then my presence doesn’t induce anxiety.
My children don’t see me as a threat to their survival? They trust me? They’ve forgiven the meltdowns and tantrums and my withdrawal from the world at times? You bet I’ll play! You be the deer, and I’ll be the antelope. We feel right at home in our free range now. What else can I say “yes” to? Because now a discouraging word seldom is heard.
[I challenged myself recently to find a genre of (non-explicit) music I didn’t like. The range of music I enjoy is quite expansive. Well, a tangential moment led to our builder mentioning Donny Osmond. There we have it. I don’t do folksy 1970s variety shows. Or barbershop or Broadway musicals, for that matter. Thanks, Jim. I guess my beloved John Denver’s folk rock, along with Jim Henson’s Muppets, is the closest I’ll get to Donny Osmond.]