A family taxonomy of anxiety

I grew up in a family divided by attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors and united by anxiety.

My father was constantly afraid that something horrible would happen to us, to the point of being controlling, unreasonable, and occasionally violent. I don’t know for sure what made him that way, but I have an some thoughts about it; let’s call it the “fear of flying” hypothesis.

Let’s start with a supernatural event that happened when my father was a child. I don’t remember all the details (the place, the people, or the exact time); my brain has decided to save the story that my father told us so many times in the form of a few clear images.

I see a child, perhaps three or four, standing on an unprotected sundeck on top of a building. On the deck there are two chaises lounges with faded blue and orange stripes. It’s summer, and it’s a hot sunny day with a beautiful blue sky. The child faces south and the sun blinds him. He steps forward, stumbles, and suddenly the familiar sense of standing on solid ground is replaced by a new sensation: he is flying.

His terrorized parents found him on the ground unscathed but somewhat delirious. He told his mother that a beautiful angel made of light held him in his arms and delivered him safely on the ground. The doctor who later examined him found nothing wrong with him. I wonder if he absorbed some of his mother’s terror after this event and decided that relying on angels for his survival was not necessarily a wise choice.

A later event might have reinforced this belief. My father had an older brother. He was a cool guy who flew helicopters and looked really handsome in his uniform. He had survived the war and seemed untouchable. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. One day—my father was a teenager—he did not come back from one of his routine flights. No angel showed up to save him.

My father never took an airplane. He made a practice of choosing safe, familiar routes over daring and exciting ones. He tried to teach us the same, with fairly poor results. I still crave very much for my freedom of choice and for daring and exciting experiences. Except that I live them with this nagging feeling that if something can go wrong it will and that I’m risking my life at each step.

My mother’s anxiety was of a different kind. She was afraid of dreaming something good for herself and her family, because she learned early in life that desiring beautiful things (like spending a vacation her father or marrying the man she loved) can turn into devastating losses and long-term suffering. So, she never wished anything good for us, and actively fought our dreams. But really, she was just trying to protect us.

Although I’ve absorbed quite a bit of my parents anxiety, my own anxiety is different and much more American: it’s about having to make every moment of my life productive and valuable at all costs. The result is that I waste a substantial amount of time and resources because I can’t just take time off and relax. If I relax, it has to be productive relaxation or else it would feel as I’m wasting my life. Most of the times, my rebellious other self takes over and decides that it would be a good idea to just waste time: playing a useless video game for hours perhaps, or doing some useless but complicated research online. Anything but relaxing productively or going through my to do list.

I have been out of work for almost a week, and I’m just starting to feel that relaxing may be a really good idea. For example, I could take a walk: no, not an exercise power walk or a walk to the store to buy grocery. Just a walk, for no reason whatsoever except that walking is pleasant, it’s a gorgeous Fall day, and I want to.

And while I’m just walking, I realize why it’s so important for me to do things that don’t have a predefined purpose. I’m taking time to explore what’s happening to me. I give time to my brain to process the latest events rather than thinking of (obsessing over) them. I do what feels interesting at the moment and let myself be aware of how it feels. Does it feel good? Exciting? Boring? Is it enough? Should I move to something else? I realize that I rarely use my own internal signals to drive my decisions.

So, I take some of this hectic time with so many things to do to relax, and spend some quality time with myself. And now that I’m not bossing me around with errands to do, places to be, things to worry about, I even start to enjoy my company.

Time to leave, again…

I resigned from my job today. It took a long time, but what did it was the sense of being trapped, like in a dream where I am moving through a high viscosity fluid and each movement forward is too many times harder than it should be. At work, success meant being able to do my job in spite of the obstacles. I’m sure many people like that type of challenge. I personally prefer to do work, solve new problems, and being able to see and touch the results of what I have done every day. Having authority figures always say no and having to convince them over and over again it’s not my type of challenge. Been there, done that, hated it.

Wai-O-Tapu boiling mud on Flicker

I truly enjoyed most of the people I worked with. The ethics of the organization are outstanding. The benefits are to die for. My company is a very good company. Yet it suffers from the corporate disease of excessive bureaucracy, overorganization, and overprocessing that happens when you put too many people working together with a reward systems that doesn’t understand human psychology.

The natural reward is to be able to see what you have accomplished and feel proud of it. But in this environment rules and habits win over the pragmatic drive of getting the job done; anxiety and fear of failure win over the excitement for new and better solutions; politics win over collaborative synergies that create exceptional results. So people take pride in holding tight to their own territory and their job roles; they get some nourishment and recognition from the small control they can exert on their environment and on the work of others (which usually means stopping others from doing something or resisting doing something). I understand it; I’ve done it. It doesn’t work.

Moving from the fluid satisfaction of being happy because of your accomplishments to the frozen sense of security that comes from exercising control on others is endearing and deadly. Endearing, because it’s so human and so desperate. Deadly, because it’s the early symptom of the crystallization process that transforms an organization from a vibrant living and growing organism to a paralyzed bureaucracy. In the end, it becomes inefficient, wasteful of talent and resources, and soul starving. In the end, the tiny amount of nourishment that comes from control over others is not enough to keep you alive.

Train from Pyin-u-lwin to Hsipaw (Flicker)

I’m talking for myself. I’m sure other people see and feel things differently. People thrive on different things. The barriers that suffocate me can be reassuring for others. Rules and bureaucracy that draw my energy and enthusiasm away are felt as necessary checks and balanced by others. I respect that, it’s just not for me.

So today it was like saying good-bye to my friends and family at a train station. I said goodbye and I was sad because I will miss the people; it’s a big piece of my life I’m leaving behind, as many times before. But I can feel the future and the road ahead of me and it’s a powerful, irresistible call.

A lion in the house

Tim and Marietha Woods in A lion in the houseI didn’t have any intention to watch Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary A lion in the house that aired on PBS last Wednesday and Thursday. Who in their right mind would want to watch a documentary on very sick kids going through cancer treatment? Especially with no reassurance that, as it usually happens in TV, they will survive and get better.

And yet last Wednesday, flipping through channels, I could not resist going back time and time again to PBS. Even if it was painful to watch, there was something in that documentary that made it impossible for me to avoid.

For once, it was true life and therefore thoroughly engrossing. No fake reality TV, no boring celebrity stories, no stupid and wasteful challenges to win and competitors to eliminate. It was real people dealing with real life-and-death events and decisions. And differently from other TV shows, these events and decisions are relevant to my life and instructive.

It was also a necessary look at what we constantly try to escape but we want to know everything about: sickness, pain, death. In a seldom visited but always awake region of our mind, lies the awareness that at some point we will have to confront these less glamorous aspects of being alive; and yet we live in absolute denial. We have so many questions about death and they scare us, because death is so unknown and yet never talked about. How is it to get sick and die? How does it feel? How does it smell? And the unthinkable: what happens to our life when our child get very sick?

(Sometimes I think that the reason why people are so attracted to car accidents is not just sick curiosity. Perhaps it’s the fundamental need to get a glimpse of injury and death, because they are so close to us but so mysterious. We may meet them one day, and we won’t be prepared.)

As painful as it was to watch Bognar and Reichert’s documentary (at some point I was sobbing so loudly that I worried people in the next house would hear me and call the police), it was also surprisingly reassuring. To witness the stories of those children and their families was a step closer to admit that death is part of my life and that I might be able to get through it as I got through other difficult events. Stopping to think about death was nurturing, because to be reassured about death is such a profound and denied need. We feel so lonely in the face of death, because death is not part of our social experience. And yet, watching A lion in the house it became clear to me that dying in the presence of people who love you makes it sweet and almost bearable. Finally, it gave me permission to think that if kids can handle sickness and death with such dignity and grace, maybe I will be able to.

There were many surprises and lessons in A lion in the house. For example, the only thing those parents seemed to regret was continuing treatment even when it was clear that it was not helping (which suggests that losing dignity and suffering in vain is worst than just getting sick and dying). How the most heartbreaking stories were the ones of the older kids, not of the younger ones, because the awareness of death and sickness was more painful than just death and sickness. (Buddhism teaches us the difference between pain and suffering, but seeing it in real life is all another matter). How parents broke down not while they were dealing with their kids’ sickness and death but after it. Because when they were struggling for their kid they had hope and they were doing something, but afterwards they were just surviving.

Some of the medical staff at the Cincinnati Children Hospital were amazing. By the end of the documentary, I wanted to have Dr. Robert Arceci as my doctor, friend, father, and president of this country.

In the end, the lesson is that death is an inevitable and painful but natural physical event, even when it happens to children. As hard as it is to look at death in the face, it’s much less scary than pushing our fear of death away, and dealing with the dark unconscious panic that comes from constantly having to hide from her.

Chronicle of an unplanned trip – Part I: We interrupt our normal programming…

March 15, 6:00 PM – SM calls me at work. He had some problems at work in the last few days, so I assume he is calling to talk about it

"My mother called," he says. SM always talks to his mom or to his sister about things that upset him. His mother probably had some reassuring piece of wisdom to share with him.
"What did your mom say?" I ask.
"My Grandma died. They found her today in her home."
"I am so sorry," is all I can say.

That was the beginning of a week-long interruption of our fairly uneventful life. In the following days we flew to a place I’ve never been before, for the death of a woman I’ve never met in person. It turned out to be a longer and more adventurous trip than I expected. Traveling through space was just a small portion of the experience (although it took two days to get to our destination). We moved across time and cultures. I witnessed the emotional journey of people I love trying to cope with Sarah’s death (the ups and the downs; laughing to tears at the memories; crying at the sudden awareness that she is not here any longer for us and she won’t come back). I learned about the procedures we use to sanitize death, making it at the same time much cleaner and much more disturbing. I had to face the paradox of human death: it’s so certain and yet finds us so thoroughly unprepared.

If it lacked the raw pain and devastation associated with the death of a loved one, Sarah’s death was a powerful reminder that there is more to life than our incessant running around stressed out and out of breath. Questions that are usually left at the bottom of our consciousness, ran rushing to the surface: what is the meaning of our existence, what should we do with our life, what is the experience of dying, what death does to the people who survive, what is left of our existence after death. Death is the most extreme and terrifying experience of irreversibility. The awareness that our own death awaits us at the end of the road shapes our lives even if we deny it and try to forget.

When people die, those who knew them keep them alive by telling stories. For a short period, the rushing and background noise of worries and thoughts subside and we allow ourselves to listen. Stories are triggered by a word, an object, a picture, a document, a newspaper clipping, a chain of shared memories in which each story leads to the next. Forgotten events and secrets are discovered in a scrapbook or in a letter. Time warps and leaps back and forth.

This is how I learned about Sarah: by listening to the continuous narration of people who knew her. Sarah was not there in person but she was taking up residence in our mind: our constant conversation about her filled the absence with a surprisingly vivid representation of her. People talked about her and at the same time they talked about themselves: about the pieces of her forever stuck in their soul. The Sarah we were experiencing was not the same person who was here in the flesh a few days earlier, but was not less real.

All the stories about Sarah and her family play as an accelerated course of popular American history and create a complex a network of events, relationships, causes and effects. By looking at the life of another person is easier to realize how our lives are shaped by our time, family history, and external events we don’t control. Perhaps our own choices make a difference in our life. But when we look back at our past, things are just as they are: an organized series of irreversible events leading to us on this day.

Later, the same Wednesday

6:10 PM – SM hangs up. I think how we never got around to visit Sarah. SM had not seen her in more than 20 years and I’ve never met her. Our life had been too narrow to include her: in the last 10 years we had either too little money or too few vacation days to travel to Michigan, or so we told ourselves. Deep inside, we both know that the true reason has little to do with money or time. SM’s family moved progressively away from small town Alpena, first to Ann Arbor, then all the way west to the San Juan Islands, near Seattle. They moved away from their past and their family history; Sarah–fierce, independent, hard, and passionately attached to her place–was left behind. Sarah visited them West a few times, then the contacts became fewer and farther apart. Except for Emma, who traveled to Michigan every year during the summer to stay with her mother.

9:30 PM – Back home, we start planning for the trip. K, from the Bay Area has already reserved a rental car at the Detroit airport. We find tickets on Southwest to fly to Detroit in the morning and SM makes a reservation for an hotel by the airport. In Seattle, Emma has already bought her Seattle-Detroit plane ticket. SM sends an e-mail to Brent: we won’t make it to his New York City wedding on Saturday. SM is sad about it, even more than I am. A lot of people from our University of Oregon days that we have not seen in years would be there. I check my work schedule for next few days, cancel meetings, and send e-mails. SM does the same. In about 1 hour we have made all the necessary arrangements for the trip. In different circumstances, inertia, procrastination, and excruciating planning would get in the way and our day-to-day duties and routines would trap us. But today, everything seems almost too easy.

11:00 PM – SM and I talk more about Sarah. Last time SM went to Alpena he was 23 years old. He is 45 now. SM asks: "What does it mean to visit her only now that she is dead?" What make us lose contact with significant people in our life? Why don’t we pick up the phone any time we think about someone we haven’t seen in some time? I know so well that feeling of paralysis that sometimes gets over us when we think about somebody we miss. I play in my mind all the actions required to call them (go to the computer, open up Address Book, look up their number, pick up the receiver …), then something stops me, I turn back and get to the next thing. It’s almost to preserve the memory of them without tainting it with the reality of a new contact, the fear or laziness to have to recreate a connection that has not be there for a while. Stupid, I know. Worse: mean, because it denies others the recognition that they still exist for us, we miss them, and we enjoy their presence.

(More to come)

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