Thoughts on Ice Dance Nationals

I don’t think this is news: I have an obsessive love for ice dance. Ice dance takes jumps and failed landings out of the picture. This may mean a lack of suspense and interest for some (aren’t jumps the point?!) but for me it means that skaters have time to build a coherent routine, one that expresses an emotion or an idea. I value qualities that are specific to good skating like speed and strong edge quality, but I haven’t skated since I was a kid and I’m not an expert on these things. So I am most interested in overall artistic impression: the theme, the vision, the emotional expressiveness. This is what is often referred to as artistry.

In ice dance, as in the other forms of figure skating, there is a tension between artistry and technique. Technical elements like twizzles, lifts, step sequences need to be executed cleanly and properly. This can take so much concentration that the artistry gets left behind. On the other hand, a powerful, artistic routine can be so passionate that it gets sloppy technically and then skaters lose points. I gravitate to the more creative routines and am less invested in the “perfection” of the execution. It’s great to try to have good technique, and it looks awesome out there, but “perfection” can kill off what is interesting and unusual about a routine and an ice dance couple.

This puts me at odds with the judges who value execution more. Scoring changes have led to more emphasis on judging technique. The claim is that this is “objective” since the subjectivity around what constitutes good artistic expression doesn’t necessarily produce a fair winner. This is supposed to be the safe route. Except it doesn’t reward the best ice dance and nothing is really “objective” anyway.

What happens too easily in this system is that cold precision creates higher scores (and more medals) than passionate artistry. In other words, this is what allows the robotic Shibutani siblings (or “ShibSibs”) to win (or at least medal) so much. They do the right steps at the right time and they get far this way. They know that they are supposed to be expressive, so they get overwrought Coldplay songs to do all the work. The cloying over-sentimentality of lyrics like “I try to fix you” (which, by the way, is enabling) is supposed to compensate for the absolute lack of expression of these skaters. Since they have no other strategy than this, they keep skating to Coldplay songs and claim they are doing a “trilogy.” It’s a little sad. But they are giving artistic expression enough of a nod that the judges are comfortable rewarding them for their technique. (And they are very good at twizzles in unison, which is one of the joys of ice dance).

Then there’s Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. They strike me as the opposite of the ShibSibs in that their artistry is off the charts — they smolder in everything they do together — but sometimes they make technical errors at the worst moments. Considering the judges’ “objective” focus on technique, Hubbell and Donohue lose much more than the Shibs in podium standing. They are more vulnerable because their mistakes are more easily quantifiable than a sense of “this is bland and I’m bored.” Which I feel during every Shib performance that has ever happened. (I’m sure they’re nice people, but I’ve come to find their skating deeply, deeply irritating.)

Hubbell and Donohue have been known to have potential — after all, they train in Montreal at the relatively new Centre Gadbois or “champion factory” where former elite dance pair Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon train the top two teams in the world. (Those teams are the French, Papadakis and Cizeron, and the comeback Canadians, Virtue and Moir, who, frankly, probably deserved the gold medal in 2014 in Sochi over Americans Davis and White. I suppose there could be another post for that.) They’re the “almost but not quite” couple.

This was especially painful at the World Championships in Helsinki last spring. Madi and Zach were poised for a bronze medal after a great short program, but in their achingly beautiful long program, which included some melancholy Sam Smith and Ingrid Michelson music, Zach fell during several sets of twizzles. They were not able to get credit for any of the twizzles and dropped to 9th place in the standings. You’ll never guess who got third place behind the top French and Canadian teams. That’s right. The Shibutanis.

But I decided that day that even if the judging had to punish Madi and Zach, I did not. It may be corny, but they won in my heart. (So did Zach Donohue’s tight blue shirt.) They didn’t have to be perfect in technical execution or standing on the podium to be perfect to me.

It is the perfect vindication, then, that at U.S. Nationals this year, Hubbell and Donohue managed to pull it all together. Their execution was nearly flawless and showed off their artistry, as unparalleled as ever. This year they did an edgier free dance to music by Rag n Bone and Beth Hart. Their theme, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion in an illicit affair, even overcomes the slightly tacky saxophone music at the beginning and turns it into something forbidden and exciting. With that, and a wonderful cha cha rumba samba short dance, they won Nationals and are heading to the Olympics next month. Naturally, the ShibSibs got second place and are also on their way to the Olympics, too. So is the excellent third place couple, the superbly flexible Madison Chock and her blond curly-haired beau, Evan Bates. They are right in the mix and can beat their American rivals at any time.

The ice dance field is so strong right now that, despite this triumph, I’m really unsure Madi and Zach will be able to medal in PyongChang. Besides the French champions I mentioned, there are the amazing, theatrical Italians, Cappellini and Lanotte, Russians Bobrova and Soloviev, and the Canadian field is absurdly strong. There are the indomitable Virtue and Moir who already have two Olympic medals, the revamped and always beautiful Weaver and Poje, nicknamed “Weapo,” and the wonderfully quirky and sadly underrated Gilles and Poirier. Making the top 5 in this mess is an accomplishment.

But for now, Hubbell and Donohue actually managed to get what they deserve, and they’re going into the Olympics on a high note.

Anxiety and Despair

I had a really crappy day today and I’m feeling really hopeless about my anxiety. I’m not convinced that it will substantially decrease. My husband is sure that my anxiety has diminished in the years we’ve been together (which is a lot, 6). I think it’s negligible. I don’t think that it is improving or will improve. I am very often suffering in situations that make me anxious. I relax a bit after one anxious episode and after enough hours or even minutes I enter the next one. Life like this is living the myth of Sisyphus. I push the anxiety boulder up the hill when doing a particular task, and then for the next thing, the boulder falls down and I start at the beginning again. Why would anyone want to live like this? It’s very bleak. I want some kind of improvement to look forward to. What can I hope for?

My husband feels that my biggest block to progress is me not realizing my own progress.

But if I’ve progressed over the years, what does it mean that I’m still miserable? That I go from anxious thing to anxious thing?

Anxiety and WA

Hey Crew. Nice to see you.

One of the programs I really enjoy that I’m involved in is WA or Workaholics Anonymous. I post for a WA listserve at the beginning of each month. (I keep forgetting and they have to remind me…oops…) I thought what I posted the other day would be great to post here. With some minor changes for anonymity.

I’m Ace of Anxiety and I’m a workaholic.

Today I would like to quote from page 2 in “Book of Recovery” Second Edition.

“Workaholism is not strictly about the amount or type of work we do. Instead, our disease impacts the emotional and spiritual relationship we have to work and activity. Such distortion can negatively impact us as well as those around us — often without our knowing it. Our health, happiness, and relationships suffer. Workaholism involves both a substance addiction (to adrenaline and other stress hormones) and a process addiction (compulsive doing or not doing), and its reach extends far beyond our paid work life. We have found that we have also exhibited workaholic tendencies when engaging in everything from household chores and exercise regimens to various hobbies, service/volunteer activities, and codependent attempts at saving the world. Most of these endeavors seemed admirable at first, but — as we lost ourselves to incessant doing — we fell prey to the compulsivity of addiction.”

(This is copyrighted material. After consultation with WA WSO, we have been granted permission to use up to 5 paragraphs from WA literature within the meeting at each weekly posting. All “conversations files” will be deleted from the group’s website after three months.)

My Share:

I like this paragraph because it encapsulates many of my issues. I have become more comfortable with the term “workaholic” even though I don’t think I work “enough” to count. I never really feel good enough or like I’ve done enough. The most accurate assessment of what I experience, I think, is the second sentence: I struggle with my emotional and spiritual relationship to work and activity. I’ve wanted that to be a great relationship but it usually feels broken and hopeless to fix.

Work is sort of my dysfunctional lover. The problem is the dysfunction, not if I do “too much” or “too little.” Though I both do and avoid compulsively at different times around different projects, and I’m relieved that WA talks about avoidance too because I have always been proud to be a hard worker and am ashamed of my anxiety and avoidance.

I grew up in a family where work is supposed to be everything that you are. My father is a scientist and my mother is a musician. They both approach their crafts or metiers (not mere jobs) as ways of investigating the world and expressing insight. Work “proves” our greatness and superiority as a family. I tried to do this, too, in my study of art and literature. These things were going to raise me out of the depressing muck of everyday life, be my passage from the mundane to the sacred.

I’m not sure how my parents made this work for them, though I don’t identify either of them as mentally well or as possessing much insight into their condition and I know they have a lot of frustrations. I could never make this work for me. I struggle with guilt about it. When I’ve made work my everything, I get way too nervous and feel inadequate a lot. I can get so anxious that getting to work on something feels like running into a burning building. That’s tender for me. I wouldn’t tell everyone that.

But it’s been shockingly hard taking work off the pedestal. I wish it were simple, that I could just say, “ok, bye, I’m going to be a normal person and not judge myself by my intellect anymore.” It is amazingly difficult. It is beyond my control and that’s why I’m here. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m ripping in half not being the “best” and most creative one. But I’ve also managed to live through those feelings.

For many years I’ve been noticing where I find the most value, peace, love, excitement, and it’s not in work. It’s in simple moments with my husband. It’s in us admiring the cats together or going to a movie. It’s things where I’m not evaluating and don’t feel evaluated myself, where I’m loving and loved. It has absolutely nothing to do with accomplishment. I have a lot of feelings about this. Sometimes I’m able to find it great, but it’s also led me to shock and disappointment. I guess it takes some time and recovery to actually notice and enjoy when things are non-pressured. I’m having to give up an ideal and it’s painful. Work is just not the pinnacle I was taught it was, that I fully believed it was. The fairy tale didn’t come true. But that doesn’t make life bad. Quite the contrary in fact. Work is okay when it is just an imperfect part of life and recovery and friendship are bigger parts of life. I’m still striving to realize, embody, life this fully.

In my best moments, I enjoy work for what it is. I love teaching and interacting with students. I like making material fun instead of some unattainable pinnacle. (Teaching has a healing component for me.) I taught Greek art today and I was really engaged. I feel happy with student participation and how I worked with things. I took a few hours on Friday to improve my lecture. Fortunately I’ve done enough work that my feelings of “not good enough” didn’t  bug me too much. I was able to do different things on the weekend instead of endlessly cramming material and feeling inferior. That is some progress for me!

Instead of doing more art history review on Sunday, for instance, I “goofed off” and went to the really fun medieval festival in my neighborhood. I got a temporary tattoo of an anchor on my arm with sparkles on it! I did feel guilty, especially when I went home and listened to my body’s desire for a long nap instead of studying Roman art. But I still had a good time. Teaching helps me a lot because I get to be generous, to make an offering to others and engage with them. My own writing is a much tougher thing for me because I feel inadequate and don’t trust my own voice. I really want to grow in that area. I’ve started a blog called Ace of Anxiety and I blog about my experiences living with an anxiety disorder. This is really helpful actually and I really enjoy the writing and self-expression. I want to develop more and more fluency with writing all kinds of different things.

Anxiety, Willingness, and Misery: Some Quotes and Thoughts

I’ve started reading an interesting New Harbinger Self Help Workbook. They publish great stuff. You can read the workbook on Kindle and I love reading on my phone. But you can also make a free account at the New Harbinger website and print out worksheets which I plan to do soon. I’ve been discovering all this in the last day. They have many workbooks geared toward anxiety which is perfect for me. So I’ve started reading the recently published “The CBT Anxiety Solution Workbook” by Matthew McKay, Michelle Skeen, and Patrick Fanning. McKay and Fanning do a lot of work together on anxiety, self-esteem, relationships, perfectionism, and I respect their work. (I’m sure Michelle Skeen is lovely, too! I am just less familiar with her name.) It is informative, straight to the point.

I value the murky work of diving into the past and sussing out past influence, trying to get some kind of handle on the subconscious, but that doesn’t always translate into my everyday life. Sometimes I want something more concrete, stuff to do that will help, ways I can speak to myself when I feel bad. So I’m struck by this passage about willingness:

“Willingness to feel everything associated with a feared situation, no matter how long or how strong, is the road to recovery and freedom. Willingness to accept the butterflies, willingness to accept the thought that you won’t survive, willingness to accept a sense of doom — all of this is the path to liberation from anxiety.” (location 622 in my kindle)

That sounds great. But I’m confused. I think I’ve done this. “But though I’ve wept and fasted wept and prayed.” I’ve put myself through the situations that scare me (usually academic writing, also teaching, have another observation coming up) many times. I’ve felt a huge amount of pain from this. The pain eventually subsides. Things often go well. In the latest case I ended up in agony when things didn’t go as I wanted (though that’s actually normal for what I was doing). And that subsided and left me questions and I fortunately got into 12 step recovery because I was getting suicidal before that. Recovery gave me a new place to focus my efforts, read excellent and accessible literature, get hope, and meet amazing new people. I’m very glad I have it and am developing it. My ACA Step Group is off to a fine start. We may be getting some new members. We’re early enough we can do that. My friend, Iona (not her real name to respect her privacy), is on the same page as I am about this group, and she says very generous things about me.

But the thing is: I have exposed myself to many of my fears, to most of them, to some of the deepest ones, and my fears just return. I’ve done the willingness thing only to be anxious again. I don’t understand. Am I doing something wrong? Is there something I’m missing? Does it just take decades? “And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker/ and, in short, I was afraid.”

Why would it recur? Is there another level of trauma I’m not attending to? Because I want to attend to everything. I feel like someone needs to answer this for me. I think I am owed an answer for all of my willing efforts. But somehow I haven’t been able to hear an answer. I want to talk to my regular shrink about this as soon as possible, but we get into fights around this. I don’t want to be agitated, but I do want clarity on this. What have I not done? Am I just a hopeless human? It is hard not to conclude that I am defective, that what should work has not worked on me due to my hopelessness, due to my grandmother’s suicide and my mother’s desperate rage-fueled narcissism and paranoid persecutory delusions. I feel like someone needs to explain this to me.

On top of this, I worry that I’m unfeeling. I’m not overcome with outrage or sorrow about the latest shootings. I was just reading someone’s  blog about how sickened she was to hear about Las Vegas. I’m not. I’m certainly not happy about innocent people losing their lives, and I agree with all my liberal friends about needing more gun control, but I’m not really emotional about it. Or I’m emotionally muted about it. I’m much more focused on the issues of my own life. Like enjoying the sunset I saw out the window. When I’m getting home. Constantly putting off having to go to the bathroom. The lectures I’m still tweaking. Meeting the person I’ll be doing some grading for and feeling incredibly awkward. When and how to organize group work — and departing from the traditional lecture format *does* bring me some anxiety and I need to express a certain calm authority and get them to do my tasks. I’ve always wondered why I’m not as miserable about political events as all my friends. It’s hard not to conclude that I’m just a selfish person. I did donate to hurricane relief, but I was just as excited to get rid of stuff from my house as I was to contribute to the cause. How bad am I? Is it time to throw tomatoes at me? Execute me in the liberal square among the people I typically agree with? For not agreeing hard enough?

There are certainly times, moments, ways that politics breaks through whatever little shell I have. I was and still am devastated by trump’s absurd win. I was heartbroken over the Pulse shootings. I’m angry when people are against equal rights for all gender orientations. My husband is pansexual and gender fluid and I have no patience for anyone who takes issue with that or who thinks he’s just being trendy. Those are simply the best words we have at the moment for him to express how he’s always felt. But more of the time I’m concerned about my own mental state, perhaps to the point of self-absorption, and I’m concerned about being kind and useful when I can to the people around me. Like with students, there are times I could be proud or dismiss the concerns of ones that I don’t teach who barge into the office (really), but I actually just try to clarify things and point them to some kind of help without feeling a lot of ego around this. I try to use each situation I’m in to do a little good or express some kindness, even if I’m strange or awkward or annoyed or annoying, even if it’s not actually my obligation, because I value extending generosity and not dismissing anybody. Maybe I’m just more local than global. I honestly hope that my good thoughts and actions are contributing positively to a “karmic bank account,” but even if not, I would still do all the same things.

I don’t have answers to these questions. While I would like some answers, and to discuss these matters with people I trust, I don’t want to live in a devastated way unless and until I have these answers. I think it is big progress for me to write and believe such a thing. Because Mom Mind harangues me about not having answers and insults me. Mom Mind is convinced I have to be completely miserable until other answers appear and pass some rigorous test. And I’m daring to feel okay — as kind of okay as I can — anyway. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like anxiety isn’t worth experiencing. But maybe I’ve been off a bit here. Maybe it’s misery that isn’t worth investing in. Anxiety may feel bad at varying levels, but there is a significant difference here. Maybe I can wait for or work towards my answers about anxiety without having to resort to misery, to that cowardly compulsion of self-punishment. 

This is honestly blowing my mind.

So long, sweet misery?

Anxiety and Mom Mind

My somatic shrink and I label my difficult thoughts “Mom Mind.” Why? Not every difficult thought I have sounds exactly like my mother. In fact, I don’t think I sound much like her in my head. It’s less about content and more about process. My mom and my mind are equally uncompromising. They easily and definitively settle on a version of reality where I am seen in a negative light for not being “perfect” and happy all the time. For doing something wrong that isn’t really a problem. For just being human. My mind acts the way my mom did when I was a kid. It refuses to entertain any other notion of reality. It yells at me for hours and makes me cry. It tells me why I’m bad and that I need to atone. It justifies itself by saying that it’s trying to be helpful or it’s not really so bad. I’m sure my mother would find nothing of herself in the description that I’m giving. But I’m working on trusting myself. I know what I experienced.

So when I get self-critical thoughts I’m trying not to entertain them or let them overwhelm me but to label them for what they are: Mom Mind. This technique comes from mindfulness or insight meditation. I’ve been on meditation retreats where you identify the “top tunes” or lies your mind is telling you. Sometimes you’re trained to just notice “the mind” impersonally. But I have my issues with American meditation practice. It’s a painful subject, but there are ways it doesn’t work for me. Just noticing the mind keeps me stuck in it. So I opt for my somatic shrink’s version. I label “Mom Mind” and I say some variation of “No.” “I’m not doing this” seems to work well lately. “I don’t feel like it.” “I don’t believe you.” “I don’t have to listen to you.” Even “fuck you.” I did a nice sarcastic one today that was something like “thank you for contributing — no.”

This is challenging because Mom Mind tells me that she is bringing up valid concerns that I need to address. She insists on being answered. But trying to answer her yields more of her wrath. That’s just being caught.

Not listening to her can be disorienting. I don’t always know what to do with the free space in my head. Or it feels like leaving a project unfinished, which I hate. It’s like playing music and not getting the resolution of the tonic note. You’re just hanging there. But I think that, too, is an illusion. Mom Mind does not “complete” anything. She is just misery because her mom died and that’s what she learned from her dad.

I’m realizing how important it is for me to object to Mom Mind, not just for my peace of mind, but for my Inner Child. As a kid I could never object to my mother. In fact, I still can’t without causing a massive fit and then pleading phone calls from my dad to apologize to her so she calms down. The pain has never been worth objecting to her. When I was a kid she would scream at me not to “talk back.” She would actually cut off my words and whine and shout. “Don’t talk back to me! I’m your mother!” She is invested in an archaic and harmful understanding of hierarchy between parent and child. It doesn’t end when childhood ends.

This is why my blogging and my writing, for any audience, at any level, are actually important. I even feel nervous writing that as if I’m overestimating myself. I used to brag about my opinions, like they were the greatest things in the world. I’ve had my years of doing the grandiosity thing. That faded into the insecurity thing. If I don’t have the “best,” most perfect, most deeply educated and well-reasoned and eloquent opinion, I’m not sure that what I have to say is worth writing down. It doesn’t always feel worth objecting to the Mom Mind that requires perfection. She tells me I don’t count. But when I write, it’s a way of telling them no, that with all my imperfections I still count. I felt my shoulders rise in tension as I wrote that. I lowered them and breathed in. It’s still a process for me to feel that what I have to offer is okay and that I don’t have to be paralyzed unless and until I come up with perfection. This is an aspect of Mom Mind I’m trying to soften in myself. I do get to “talk back.” Always. And I try to encourage others to do the same.


Another update from Anxiety Land. I finally met with my shrink whom I see once every few months. He is “the meds guy” and not my regular therapist. I was having a bad time and we decided to go for Lexapro which targets anxiety more specifically than Prozac. I’m still taking Prozac/Fluoxetine and Propranolol, a beta blocker. It’s been feeling good. I think it’s the right direction.

My Endless Self-Help series has had me reading a lot of memoirs lately. I read Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle after seeing the movie. This might be worth blogging about. I also just read Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It trilogy (and some related books). More to come.

Night Thoughts

Hey Everyone.

Today there was a Medieval Festival in my neighborhood. I’ve been going the last few years. I’m really happy that they had a tent where you could donate to Puerto Rico’s hurricane relief. I brought a blue box. My husband and I gave away many blankets that we don’t need. This is fantastic for us. My husband likes to hold on to possessions more than I do and we have an absurd number of blankets. Usually I struggle getting him to give things away. But we both feel strongly about hurricane relief and helping out, so this was a no brainer. We also gave some canned food. There are more blankets in the closet I’d like to donate. We’ll have to see what happens with that…

The festival was as fun as always and I got to run into friends (though I was out of it for one friend which I feel kind of bad about). I also had to face two anxiety-provoking elements: crowds and lines. I experienced mild irritation about the crowds, but little anxiety. Even when I got lost at the end (even in what is almost my own neighborhood I can easily get lost) I was just kind of annoyed I had to turn back but didn’t panic and got to the train. Little things like this are good for me and I don’t usually give myself credit for them.

I usually opt to avoid long lines, but I decided that I really wanted body paint. So I stood behind three to four kindergarten-age girls and their parents. Most of the non-henna body paint involved feminine, decorative designs on the face. Some of the girls had very cute outfits. A “medieval” festival seems to be an excuse to wear costumes from any era, TV show, and magical universe, so we had a very pretty Snow White. I was talking to her dad and he was like, “yeah, I’ve been going to this festival since I was a little kid, too.” I got a blue anchor on my right forearm. I complimented the macho look with some glitter. It mostly came off in my bath tonight, but I have pictures. I’m very satisfied with it.

My husband has the greatest set-up right now. He set up our monitor to show images of birds and squirrels in nature. We have four cats and they are all going nuts for this. They don’t understand televisual representation, so they take turns pawing at the screen and staring at it with rapt attention. Hubs and I are agreeing that birds and pretty.

I’m glad I can take a little time to enjoy nice things. This week I’m teaching Greek Art which I spent extra time going over on Friday. The idea behind this material is to be impressed by these “foundations” of what we have labeled Western civilization. Some of it is incredible in its sophistication and sensitivity. I love the emotional quality of Hellenistic sculpture. I like dramatic things, maybe because they’re like me. How can you deny the beauty of The Dying Gaul? I grew up thinking this type of thing would make me happy. Even as I value it, it doesn’t compare to my husband and cats staring at images of birds together. The older I get, the more lofty things fall away. This is both nice (maybe even a relief) and disappointing. Ideals haven’t come true. But Monkey the cat is staring at a squirrel and that’s pretty great.


Anxiety Diary: Catastrophizing Sneak Peak

I wrote this about what my anxiety was like today:

So. It’s Sunday afternoon and I want to write a quiz for my students. I’ve been putting it off during much of the week. Naturally, the more I’ve put it off, the scarier it gets. My main concern is not how to write the quiz – I’ve done similar things – but about Blackboard software. (This is how students and teachers communicate. I post quizzes on Blackboard for them to do at home, open note, because I’m nice.) I’m worried all my passwords will fail because I have had some bad experiences in the past. I’m worried I won’t be able to log in to Blackboard at all and then my students won’t get their quiz, which I already moved back a week, and then I’ll be completely remiss as a teacher and the semester will be ruined. I worry that there will be a problem that is unfixable.

I am scared to start, to look in to this matter, because my mind tells me that if I do, I will see for certain that the situation is unfixable and then I will be trapped or stuck forever. My teacher career could end on the spot. No one will respect me again. I’ll have uncontrollable physical symptoms like excessive crying and sweating. Everything will be ruined. Starting a project with this risk is like running into a burning building. It’s hard to get myself to do it, to get myself past my own wall of fear and catastrophic projections.

I try to call a friend but she isn’t there. I’m still somewhat comforted by knowing that she supports me with these things. So I move on. I log on to Blackboard. It turns out that I can change my password with ease. Then I write the quiz, deciding which images to put on it. The more I write, the more comfortable I am, because I’ve done this before and know what I want to accomplish. I have some self-doubt around parts being too easy or too hard, if certain questions are too similar, but I settle with something relatively fast.

The quiz is made. OK. But then I need to figure out how to copy it from one course into the other two. I dislike the instructions I see online because I recall having done it an easier way before. I get a similar, though slightly weaker nervousness as above. What if I can’t copy the quiz? What will I do then? What if I fail most of my students and have no quiz for them? I get emails about this. What if I can’t figure out what to do? I’m proficient with computer technology but not the greatest, not a Blackboard expert. My stomach is tense. The world seems compressed, smaller. Everything hinges on this question of if I can do this or not. I want to either solve it or flee or both. I want this tightening and sweaty sensation to go away.

I mess around on Blackboard. I feel some tension, but I am also in possession of my faculties. I look at how to import and export tests. I recall things I’ve done. I make some guesses. Then I think I’m almost done. “This is it,” my mind says. “Either you’ve accomplished it, and that’s awesome, or you can’t do it, you’re back at square one, and you have no idea what to do.” The fact that I can simply try again or keep looking at the internet or something doesn’t ease my pain. It just feels like a now or never all or nothing situation.

I see the images I’ve uploaded but not the quiz itself. I’m annoyed and tense but not completely panicking. After more clicking around I realize what I forgot. I re-do it properly. I do it successfully. Then I do it for the next class. All three quizzes are there, ready for me to “deploy” them (make them available to students) right after classes. I feel sort of like I saved my skin. But I’m also angry because I know I’m going to get this nervous next time at almost any future task. This is how I get around most things in my life.

I’ve been surprisingly calm around having had my wallet stolen on the subway. Maybe this is progress? I feel minor depression. The self-blame is not intense. I feel like I know what steps to take. I’m not sure I would have behaved like this a few years ago. I would have had a breakdown. I’m honestly surprised this isn’t a bigger issue for me. But does this make me “cured”? Of course not.

The more important the task is from an academic point of view, the worse and stronger these feelings are. I think it’s like I have to prove my worth. Like if I can’t achieve this relatively quickly – not necessarily with ease, but with command, like I know what I’m doing and can just get it done – I’m worthless and hopeless. As I said before, beginning an activity with these stakes feels like running into a wall of fire. This is why I put it off and or cry and get angry and call therapists and probably emotionally abuse therapists for not having helped me with this more or “fixed” this in me. I can tell myself “oh, that sense of stakes isn’t true” but that doesn’t change all my frightened feelings. I can tell myself “you’ve succeeded before.” That does nothing because I could always fail the next time.

I have a variety of similar fears when it comes to preparing a lecture. My mind gets caught in a maze of questions and so I back away from the activity. How much do I want to revise the lecture? Every slide or just one? What if changing one makes me want to change everything and then it takes up all my time? What if I see how wrong I’ve been with the current lecture? Somehow that’s a big fear for me, that I will see what is terrible about my current work, how I can’t possibly move on from it, and everything will be negated. Permanently. Or proclaim my terrible-ness permanently.

How many books would I need to read? What do I have time for? When I actually get in to it or choose a small task to do it tends to be ok and my fear will go down. For the time being. It always comes back as if I’ve never faced it before. It’s like living in the movie Groundhog Day – you always have to re-do the same situation but there is no getting it right. I also have fears that I will “drown” in my work – when I start, I can’t stop, and then I’ll never see my friends, go to 12 step meetings, or have any fun ever again. I’ll be trapped. Does it matter to my mind that this never happens and I can always take breaks and work on creating variety in my life? No. To my mind this feels impossible.

My mind can’t learn from the past. I don’t know why. I’m in education and I can’t learn from the past. I must really be a failure. How can I not get this? What is wrong with me? Why is so much wrong? Why can’t anyone fix it? I get angry, convinced I deserve punishment for these enduring issues, and feel tempted to cut myself. But I’m trying to be clean in all my 12 step programs. And I don’t want to make my husband cry. He’s sweet. He blames himself which he shouldn’t, but I know what that’s like.

Anxiety and Family: the Trip

Hubby and I have a big weekend trip. This trip involves seeing most of my living relatives, including my parents. One of my mother’s cousins is having a major birthday. I struggle with anticipation, so I worry about feeling terrible, bored, judged. But my family isn’t completely full of ogres and I don’t need to be with my mother the whole time or even most of the time. There are many other people to seek out. I’m excited to be in a lovely hotel in the middle of this city and that it has been generously paid for. Hubby and I want to spend some time taking in the sights. I’m especially excited about the indoor pool and made sure to pack our swim gear, including my Pusheen the Cat flip flops.

Now I’d like to go through some of my concerns about this family weekend and how I’m approaching them.

— My biggest concern is that my perfectionistic, judgmental, appearance-oriented mother will be judging my clothes. She reminded me on the phone a few weeks ago, “the event will be fancy. She said the word “fancy” like she was sticking daggers into my chest, like I better not get it the fuck wrong. I have many memories of drama around clothes. I have had to change out of striped shirts — they supposedly emphasize fat and fat is supposedly bad — to get her to calm down.

When I was ten, my mom picked out an off-white dress with a bolero jacket for me to wear at my uncle’s wedding. She was deeply attached to this dress, which I didn’t care for, and insisted I not stain it. Well, much of the wedding was outside and I played with other kids and got grass stains on the dress. She had a fit. And I don’t mean just any fit; I mean a “I said no wire hangers” type fit.

The more I think about it, the less sense this story makes. Why have me, a ten year old girl, wear white to somebody else’s wedding? Why not understand that I am bound to stain it? What is the problem with staining a dress I will never wear again? Was she saving it for something? I don’t think so. Just it was of the utmost importance to her and that was the end of it. My father then started yelling at my mother in his underwear in the hotel room. I remember finding this really odd. He wasn’t actually defending me though. Her yelling seemed to prompt him to yell at her about other things. He shouted something about how she puts her father on a pedestal. (He is dead now and was a complete asshole. Most of my family still idolizes him though.)

Plan: I have been reminding myself that, as my husband likes to say, my mother can eat a bag of dicks. Her judgments mean nothing to me. I chose clothes from my professional wardrobe (ie teaching stuff) that I think suit the occasion and are nice and comfortable to wear. I chose things I’m proud to wear instead of things I have to worry about or that please someone else. I packed them early so my anxiety about it wouldn’t mount during the week. She knows I am a “married lady” these days and tends to keep her judgments to herself. Whatever they are, they have no bearing on me. In conclusion, the bitch can go fuck herself. She also has to deal with my husband wearing a polo shirt. That is as formal as he’s getting.

Concern: I’m concerned that the party Saturday night will drag on and Hubs and I will have to wait forever to get a ride back to the hotel.

Plan: We won’t have a car and I recall the party venue being somewhat isolated. If I’m bored or frustrated I can chat with Hubby, call or text friends, and read on my phone’s Kindle. I’m not obligated to socialize every minute. My main concern is to make myself happy.

Concern: I’m concerned that my pompous, faux-intellectual family will ask me about my academic pursuits and writing. I don’t want to fucking deal with it.

Plan: I have a canned line. It is something like, “it’s going fine, but I would rather not talk about it. I’m off duty this weekend. Let’s talk about something else.”

Concern: What if there’s nothing to talk about?

Plan: Cat photos? The US Open? Also my husband is absurdly talkative. I don’t think he even understands how chatty he gets in groups.

Concern: I would love to just chat all night with a particular cousin, but I know from past events that she prefers to socialize a bit with everybody and not go deep.

Plan: She’s entitled to do socializing her way even if I like my way better. I won’t expect the world from her.

Concern: One of my cousins has teenage kids. How much are they going to irritate me?

This actually isn’t what you think. My irritation would stem from them not acting like “typical teenagers,” from them not having a rebellious streak. I’m worried their politeness is going to irritate me. There are all kinds of things we could get into around this, but I won’t. No time. So I’m sorry if that makes no sense to you.

Plan: Be open to what emerges and just go where I feel like going. If they trigger things in me about my own adolescence, I can go somewhere else.

That mostly covers it. I hope it doesn’t suck too much. Regardless, I’ll live. I always do. I don’t need to fear pain, irritation, boredom. I’ve been through them many times before. I am hoping to balance that truth with ways to cheer myself up a bit.

Anxiety Update: a Few Good Things

So, I’m having a bad confluence of things right now.

First, let’s cover some good things. Teaching has been good. Anxiety has been minimal around teaching for the most part. I’m more used to it. I know that before I do it I get feelings that suck, but those feelings are generally tolerable and go away pretty fast.

Another good thing is that my buddy/little bro in ACA introduced me to a mood disorders support group. They have several free groups twice a week and some of them are for young adults. It’s been really cool meeting people through that even though I think the facilitation is a bit too hands-off. My buddy C and I got into a really deep conversation in the rain near the train stop. Half of me got wet. I never expected to be so open about my anxiety with C and for him to relate instead of being disappointed or contemptuous of me. I’m not sure I can totally take it in. But at least it’s happening.

Somatic therapy is also going well. We’re focusing on anger work because he thinks a lot of my anxiety is pent up anger and a learned habit, from my mom, to clamp down on my aliveness (because I’m supposed to be happy and perfect, etc). I could spell out our work more in a different post. He thinks I “go to my head for reality” too much and need to be in the body. I hit pillows and yell and cry in therapy and at home. Then I comfort Little Ace, my Inner Child.

The Big Hit lately is that my sponsor told me that she cannot relate to the severity of my anxiety. For her, the 3rd and 7th step prayers basically fixed her anxiety and they are not enough for me. She’s not saying that we can’t work together, but that I should find someone to focus on anxiety with who has been through something closer to my experience. I do agree with that and hope to find such an anxiety sponsor in the upcoming months. I’m not sure why I didn’t think of this idea myself. (I always find a way to insult myself if the idea isn’t mine. I’m supposed to think of everything because I am supposedly as brilliant as the rest of my family, at least according to my Inner Critic. These are all lies. People are okay, but no one is half of what they pretend to be.)

My sponsor’s honesty has unleashed a cascade of negative thoughts and emotions about how no one can handle my anxiety level, how I don’t improve, how nothing makes it “go away,” how I’m the worst the world has ever seen, how I’ll never find anyone who can relate to me, how my life will never be happy, how this proves my shamefulness. There have been many tears. At the risk of sounding corny and self-pitying, I feel as though I have a Prufrock-like relationship to my anxiety: “but though I’ve wept and fasted, wept and prayed.” The verse ends, “and in short, I was afraid.”

Calling friends in my 12 step programs, and talking to my absurdly kind husband have been helpful. One of my 12 step buddies has made it clear that I can call or text at pretty much any time and she wants me to come up with three good qualities about myself on Saturday and three more on Sunday with no repeats. My friends don’t judge me as harshly as I judge myself. I just feel saner, with feet more firmly planted on the ground.


Anxiety and Clutter

Before I get to the profundity of “Anxiety and Despair Part 2” — which I’m putting off because I’m worried about how upset it will make me — I’d like to write about something more fun and, importantly, more immediate.

This holiday weekend I participated in my second Declutterthon. What is a Declutterthon? you may ask. Simply put, it is a phone marathon dedicated to decluttering. Many people call it a “Declutter-a-thon” which is incorrect, and then, grammar snob that I am, I get angry about how wrong they are and ask myself how they could possibly make such a stupid mistake. Then I reflect that “declutterthon” is not a real word anyway and so people may as well say what they want. It’s not as if they are pronouncing the word realtor as “real-a-tor” which is appallingly common.

Ah, my judgmental side, constant companion from language to death. They say that my grandmother would have corrected your grammar before she would have saved you from drowning. (Sadly she couldn’t save herself, but that’s for another post.) So these language issues are in my genes. I can’t fight it. But I can laugh about it and write about it. And count students down for grammar mistakes (though not too much because I don’t want to flunk them).

Anyway, the Declutterthon comes out of one of the amazing 12 Step Fellowships I’m in called CLA or Clutterers Anonymous. There are a few weekly meetings in my city and I love the one I usually go to. But beyond that, this Fellowship has a very active phone life. They have at least one phone meeting a day if not more and various check-in lines so you can share your goals, progress, and get encouragement about de-cluttering. On holiday weekends they have the line open from 12-7:30 for four days. It’s continuous meetings, progress reports, goals, discussion of focused actions, affirmations, quotes, reading from CLA and AA literature, and more. The first of these I ever did was July 4th weekend. It’s nice how these events give you community and camaraderie around the holidays when stuff is closed. I prefer this to holiday picnics because I am a nerd.

I am a messy person. I am either compulsively focused on a particular task or deeply avoidant. I gravitate to an “all or nothing” headspace. I have trouble understanding what’s in the middle. I feel that if I start a task I must finish it, so I get intimidated, overwhelmed, and, you guessed it, anxious. So if de-cluttering is not my task, I do other things and the mess really piles up. I’m annoyed, ashamed, and pretend to ignore it. My husband has a genetic condition so he can’t help out very much. The energy he has needs to be saved for work.

Eventually I got some clarity on this and realized that I could use more help. I hired a professional and for the most part she has been wonderful, above and beyond, and a great person and friend. I’m relieved to have this help, but also slightly guilty, because I feel that I should do everything myself and not spend the money. Really, though, I know this is money well-spent. Am I a privileged asshole? Sure. But I’m also using my resources to get help that I need and my hubby and I get friendship on top of it. At the same time, I don’t want to only rely on a helper. I also need to make decisions about my possessions and my space. CLA helps me do my part.

Over the summer I dived into de-cluttering with my typically obsessive nature. I had tubs and tubs (like five tubs) of books sitting in my kitchen. These were things I bought cheaply for past doctoral exams. I knew I wasn’t going to read most of those again. So I went through all of them, sorted what I’m keeping and what I’m not, and gradually took all my books in a suitcase to a used bookstore that resells and recycles used books. I made a nice amount of money and got rid of clutter, even after one of my suitcases broke, and the next one didn’t work, and I panicked to my husband. He helped me realize that I could exchange the faulty suitcase and I did. Crisis averted! Small things like this are crises in my life.

In addition, I’ve collected a lot of clothes that I don’t wear anymore. I packed up eight bags and took them to a local center that takes donations. I just cleared out another bag. Besides having more space, I feel relieved by the honesty of it. I’m clear about what I actually wear and what I don’t. I know my sizes, my preferences, the fact that I am always hot and can’t handle thick sweaters, and I don’t need to bullshit around any of it. I keep what I like and what I will use. I don’t play games like my mother who keeps clothes that are too small because she might lose weight and fit in to them. I don’t do bullshit yo yo diets. I just wear my shit. There’s less anxiety in the simplicity and a pride in finding things I like. (I have an unhealthy obsession with the plus size store Avenue.)

My favorite element of decluttering is summarized by the slogans “first things first” and “the next right step.” Instead of being totally overwhelmed, I can practice coming up with short, reasonable goals. Today I reported, “in the next half hour I’m doing some dishes.” I reported “I’m going to take food out of the fridge and throw it out.” This is a lot easier than expecting myself to take care of every cleaning task right away. I do a lot better with gentleness, with slow-ish and steady pacing. This is something I need to work on in every area of life. Instead of seeing de-cluttering as unimportant, in CLA we get to celebrate everyone’s small victories.

This doesn’t totally stop my struggles. What does? I turn on myself. When things are looking good, I get compulsive (surprise!) and look at everything that can be further improved. Then I decide I’ve done nothing and get angry at myself. I get anxious and overwhelmed and despairing. I’m trying to catch this pattern and actually care about the progress I make. I’m also keeping in mind that my husband and I are collectors in a small house and we don’t need to change our personalities to have a nice living space. We actually have clear floors now and other space are clearly delineated for certain collections. In CLA one of the pamphlets talks about envying showrooms and doing no work on your own space. I was stunned not to be alone in this! Sometimes I pass by an amazing, gorgeous office on my way to the performing arts library. I wish I lived there. But how can I compare myself to something so professional?

I had a little more luck with that today. I was reading a blog by an ice dancer, because ice dance is one of my obsessions, and she showed a picture of half of her face against a background that I took to be her livingroom. It looked showroom-perfect and even matched the fucking hues of her face and clothing, as if it were a scene from Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg where people’s drinks, outfits and wallpaper are all color-coordinated. Instead of being desperately jealous I was mildly peeved. “I de-cluttered all day and have to see this?” I thought to myself. “There’s no way my place is going to look like that. And I don’t want it to. I have my own place with my own things.”

De-cluttering helps reduce my anxiety. I feel more mastery over my space and rejoice in being able to do simple tasks. I’ve always felt dumb at simple, daily chores and rarely had to do them growing up. I was just expected to study, oh, and be effortlessly brilliant at whatever academic material I encountered. No biggie. Taking care of smaller things like cat litter, dishes, cleaning out the fridge makes me feel more grounded and more at home, not just in my apartment but in the world. Is my anxiety still an issue? Of course. Is it a bigger issue than I’d like it to be? Yes. But this is a new, fun tool I can do with friends, that gives results I can see, and adds some peace to my strange life.