Archives for posts with tag: anxiety

Next Monday is my 49th birthday. My husband asked me what I wanted. I told him, “I don’t want anything. I just want to have dinner with you or something.”

I didn’t really have the emotional energy to think about what I wanted. It’s been a stressful few weeks with lots of worries on top of my normal worries. Sometimes, I worry that I think too much. I think about cancer every day. I think about my husband and daughter every day. I think about the obligations I have to my family, my friends, my job, and to myself. When I am really stressed, as I am at this moment, I worry that I am burdening my friends and family by asking for support, even the support of knowing what I am going through so I don’t have to do it by myself. I am worrying about this right now by sharing this with you. But I also know that when I feel most alone and burdened is the time I need to call on my resources and this means friends.

My friend, Nancy, sent me an email with a parenting resource. Actually, the email was to a bunch of people. Nancy is a dear and she always prefaces any email with, “I hope you are well.” I replied just to her. “I am hanging in there. Things are not going well but I hope you and your family are well.”

I’d never done that before. I got a phone call from her within the hour. I felt a great deal better after we talked. I am very lucky to have such wonderful support in my life.

I’ve been wishing very much to go on a vacation. Then I realize that I’ve just had two vacations, which were wonderful. What I really want is to be away from the stress of the current complications of my life.

Yesterday, I thought to myself, “For my birthday, I want a simple life.”

Immediately, I reflected that this was a fantasy. There are people who have simpler lives than mine, but their lives are complicated. More importantly, I can’t be anyone else, anyway. My life is complicated.

I also started thinking about the fact that I am ending another decade of my life, my forties. I thought, “Wow, a lot has gone on during my 40’s.” But then I started thinking about all of the other decades in my life. Just thinking about all of the changes that occurred for me just as a natural part of growing up during the first two decades made my head spin. A lot happens between the time we are born and the time we hit 20 years old. Holy Cow!

But I still want a vacation and I want a simple life.

And then it dawned on me. Although I am working on Monday, my birthday, I will not go into the office for the rest of the week. I host Thanksgiving every year and to do so, I need cooking time. So I’ve made a habit of only seeing patients on the Monday of Thanksgiving week.

My job after Monday will be to cook and spend time with my family. My husband is taking off the entire week.

I think I will get my birthday wish for a few days and this makes me very happy.

I remember the beginning of my face to face relationship with my daughter. The nurse put her in my arms. “Welcome to the world,” I said as I placed a tender kiss on her forehead. She was an utterly perfect clean slate full of infinite possibility.

As she grew, she changed and so did our relationship. By the time she was a four year old, she was lively, happy, brilliant, confident, independent but connected, and as sweet as could be. “This little girl is going to change the world someday,” I found myself thinking. She was a slate full of infinite happy and healthy positives.

Many parents of challenging teens rhapsodize about their children when they were younger and perhaps even exaggerate. But I can tell you, I was not alone in being in awe of this child and no, I’m not just talking about her loving father, my husband, John.

A major parenting challenge is when the slate of possibilities changes, for some children earlier than others but for most it certainly changes in adolescence. Teens create consequences, short and long-term than they can’t really fully appreciate as they are putting actions in motion. In other words, a common part of growing up is making foolish decisions that could make adulthood much different.

The slate gets dirty. There are still good possibilities but some scary painful possibilities join them. When we love our children and hold their happiness and dreams in our hearts, it can be all too easy to focus on the dirty parts of the slate. Plus, since adolescence is even harder for the teen than the parent, we get the punched in the gut feeling as we watch them struggle through tumultuous times.

I love my girl. She is still brilliant and lively. She is not always happy. She has highs and lows of confidence. She is still super sweet deep down and it is not rare for it to bubble back up to the surface. But to be honest, it is sometimes anxiety-provoking to introduce her to my friends. There is that worry that she will be obnoxious, provocative, anxious, or lacking in manners. She doesn’t really adjust her behavior much based on whether she is with adults or peers. You could be the Queen of England and there would be a chance that she would greet you with a brain rattling belch.

But the truth is that as unpredictable as she can be, adults actually tend to like her. I know that part of the embarrassment on my part, is the common sense that one’s child is the product of parenting. But that’s not all of it. I think that another piece is that she is different than she used to be and as she moves forward, her fate is less and less subject to my influence and protection.

The slate I see when I view my daughter is no longer clean. It is full of known positives, known negatives, and much gray that has not yet been elucidated by time. I look at her and I just don’t know. She is not like the joyful curious 4 year-old for whom my husband and I were the center of the universe. Time can take her away from her wishes and dreams. It can take her away from her own compass of right and wrong. It can take her away from us. It is very scary.

As a breast cancer patient, I have often felt like an adolescent. I have oft written about how the integration of cancer into my identity calls back to the original phase of my identity development during adolescence and early adulthood.

I have been reflecting a lot about my long time relationships and how breast cancer, and how I have changed in response to it, has impacted them. I am not the same person as I was before. And the slate of possibilities for my life has been dirtied by breast cancer. I realize that some have responded to me like a changeable teen. It is not a constant, but there is strain on some of my relationships and it is palpable. With some people I can feel it in my gut, even over two years past diagnosis. I am engendering fear through my association with cancer.

I have made a number of new friends through my breast cancer blogging. Sometimes these friendships seem like a vacation away. There is ease to them at times that is rare in most of my close relationships. I have been very grateful for this but at the same time, it’s seemed a little odd. And I think given how much writing there is in the breast cancer community about the perceived realness of cyber friendships, I believe I am not alone.

One of the reasons that it feels odd is that I feel small but perceptible twinges of disloyalty to my long time friends. Whee! Cyber-friends all the way!! Mostly, I have tried to appreciate and nurture friendships regardless of their origin and focus my efforts on those that are mutually supportive.

It occurred to me today that one of the reasons that new friendships have been so important to me is that none of them knew me before cancer. None of them have had to incorporate this into a pre-existing concept of me. So even though cancer is on my slate, I started with a dirty slate.

During most of my adult life, I have introduced myself to others with a smile and a handshake. I may talk about the weather or about casual pleasantries. As a blogger, I introduce myself to others with my illness. “Hi, I am a cancer patient. I write about personal and painful things. To relieve my anxiety about this, I sometimes make boob jokes.” Despite the the fact that I lead with my disease in this way, I have become part of an amazing community of people, which has led to other connections outside of the community. What a wonderful gift indeed.

I have an MRI next week. I have them once a year as a routine follow up. In six months, I’ll have my annual diagnostic mammogram. Welcome to Breast Cancer Land. When they aren’t loading you into a noisy, rattling tube, they are smashing your boobs while having you hold the rest of your body in positions reserved for the less commonly read sections of the Kama Sutra.

I actually don’t mind the actual procedures so much. It’s the worrying and waiting for results. I don’t want to do this! I have all kinds of fun things planned for October! So I find myself thinking, “Maybe I should just reschedule my MRI for AFTER I do my fun things. Then if I have a recurrence, it won’t spoil my fun.”

This is a ridiculous kind of thought. I mean I could reschedule for November but then it would be, “What if I have a recurrence? It will spoil Thanksgiving.” Then Christmas may be spoiled, etc.

The fact of the matter is that there is no good time to have cancer. Right before scans, I find myself scheduling patients with the thought, “Hmm, I wonder if I will be able to finish that report if I find out I have a recurrence?”

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I can’t say that my life came to a screeching halt, because it didn’t. But major changes and upheaval occurred in order for me to get the assessments and treatments I needed. On the day I was diagnosed, it was a work at home day and I ended up cancelling two phone consultations with other healthcare providers. I worked on my reports the next day. It was a three day weekend and we were expecting my father-in-law to come stay with us. It was actually nice to have him there. He gave us a lot of support.

My life will stop when I die. A cancer diagnosis didn’t make it stop. I can’t juggle my schedule around the possibility that I will be worried and stressed. I am a planner but this is not one of the things to plan for, at least in the short term. I mean, I do think about the long-term. That’s why I exercise regularly, try to eat well, meditate, and go to psychotherapy. I am taking care of myself for the long term. I am preparing for the possibility of  a long life. And those things I do for the long term, make me feel better right now.

This is my gratitude week. I had an idea in mind when I planned this but I have not quite followed it. Instead, I have gone according to what I wanted or needed each day. Today, I feel like I want to do something different with my anxiety.

I trust myself to do what I need to do if my cancer has returned.
I appreciate and feel deep gratitude to my friends and family for holding my health in their warm wishes and prayers.
I appreciate my access to excellent cancer treatment.
I am grateful that although my breast cancer surgeon has retired, that there are a number of excellent remaining surgeons at my cancer center.
I appreciate my healthcare insurance.
I am grateful to my husband because I know he will drop everything and come to my MRI appointment next week if I ask him to do so.
I appreciate my daughter’s resilience in the face of my health problems and her tenacity in life.

I love living.
I am alive until I am not.
I will do my best to live accordingly.

One of the things I like about my camera, is that I don’t have to change lenses. It is a point-and-shoot, not a fancy camera. I find that I take the best photos when I am actually carrying a camera. This sounds silly but my little point-and-shoot fits into my purse as well as into the zippered pocket of my hiking shirt. (Yes, there is such a thing and I wear it over a t-shirt or around my waist.)

My camera has one lens and because of this it is much lighter. But I can’t see as much with it.

In my daily life, I feel that I am constantly changing lenses, the way I see the world. Sometimes, it changes so quickly that I can’t get a good view of anything, just constant changes, blurs of different colors and no definite shapes. These are very difficult days, among the most difficult. It is on these days that I feel frozen for anywhere from a few minutes to a day or two.

I added a cancer lens to my bag a couple of years back. Before the diagnosis, it was a general purpose lens, called, “bad medical stuff that is unlikely to happen but I get it checked out just in case”. And yes, I knew about the one out of eight figure for breast cancer in U.S. women. That’s still the minority and that’s a lifetime incidence, too. The percentage of cancer diagnosed at age 46 is considerably lower.

Then I found myself at age 46, diagnosed with breast cancer and having what would be revealed as four small invasive tumors, of low grade, meaning that tests estimated them to be relatively slow growing.

The cancer lens puts cancer at the center of view when it needs to be there. For me, it was the time of active treatment, which also coincided with continued assessment through scans and pathology reports, the latter occurring after each of my three cancer surgeries.

Now I am considered a “survivor” and  my cancer lens keeps the possibility of cancer in the periphery. I have been told that I have excellent peripheral vision, both literally and figuratively.

My energy continues to return. There are so many legitimate reasons that reduce the energy of a breast cancer patient, chemo, oral medications, repeated surgeries, stress, working to make loved ones feel better, etc.

The cancer lens is also one of those things that can wear us down. Thinking about cancer, every day, even if only for a moment. I see many women worn down by the fatigue of cancer and I believe that this is a very real part of the burden.

The cancer lens can also bring things into finer focus, though. The preciousness of life, the motivation to treasure moments and to appreciate them. This is where people get into this whole, “cancer is a gift” thing. And yes, I agree that it is not a gift. But having a life threatening illness forced my hand to cope with my life and take care of myself better. The way I have dealt with cancer, by and large, has been a gift I have given to myself.

This week, I’ve had a hard time with anxiety, despite the fact that I am on vacation.  I am somewhat disappointed with myself, to be totally truthful, but I am working toward acceptance of the fact that I am a very anxious woman at times and this is one of the times, right before the beginning of a near school year and my daughter’s birthday, when the business of my life can overwhelm me.

My friend, Nancy, also a psychologist and a breast cancer survivor, spent a few hours together earlier this week. We spoke of our friendship. Nancy remarked that even though I have dealt with some heavy problems as a parent and a person, she does not worry about me the way she might worry about her other friends. I actually feel the same way about her. Nancy is very smart, very kind, and very real. She is a very clear thinker. Most of the time, I think I think very clearly, too.

Clarity is a powerful tool.  Clarity means seeing things head on, the possibilities and the certainties. It is at times frightening, at other times just the tool needed to dig through a very deep problem, and at other times, absolutely liberating.

I am real. Sometimes that is hard for people, including me.

We all move forward through time because that is the nature of time; it progresses. Due to our brain structure, we are also able to travel back in time through memory. And based on our memories, whether they are biased, fading, or correct, we think about them as well as our current experience to make predictions about the future. These predictions often inform our current behavior.

Thus, we live in the past, the present, and the future. This makes life rich, but it also makes it complicated. We get all kinds of messages about which time is the best. “Live in the moment!” “Keep your eye on the prize!”

Getting stuck in any one time can cause a lot of problems, though. For example, depressed thoughts and feelings, for example, come in part from viewing today’s misery as being a constant. The past was always bad and the future will be bad. Past joys and the possibility of joy in the future are buried under the weight of today’s despair. Impulsive behavior comes from living too much in the moment. I want this now. I feel this now. The past doesn’t matter and the future only matters in like of getting the goal I want right now, accomplished.Later, after the negative consequences come crashing down, impulsive behaviors result in regret and guilt about the past. And anxiety often comes from living in the future of “what-if’s” and “what might be”.

One of the things I have noticed in my mindfulness practice, is that I am better able to integrate my past, present, and future. I observe the present and recollect the past. I use information from both of these times to inform the plans for my future. Being able to travel through the time of my own life is a fascination to me. I don’t always travel at the right time or to the right place. But I think I am getting better at it, more frequently feeling in more of some kind of balance.

Memory makes life complicated. But without it, we would always live in the present moment. And that, my friends, would be although a simple way to live, a very dependent, sometimes incredibly distressing way to live. There’s no sophisticated learning without memory. There are no moments of beautiful nostalgia. No dreams for the future and no appreciation for the way that people and their relationships unfold over time. I could go on and on.

A life with just one time is like a story without a beginning or an end, just the middle. And the middle is the crisis, as I recall, the problem that needs to be solved. I want to continue understanding the grand narrative of my life. It has many beginnings, middles, and ends. My life has many stories, some unfolding as we speak, and they are all part of who I am and how I connect with the rest of life.

One of the requirements for my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology was completing a one year long internship at one of many sites around the country. The application process is a very stressful rite of passage for students. I often say, “You can have time or money but not both.” Well, in grad school, most of us had neither. But we managed to fill out internship applications and travel for interviews to the sites that were most promising. I remember traveling from North Carolina to Oklahoma City, Seattle, Chicago, and Gainesville, Florida.

Internship offers were made by phone back then on “Match Day”, which started at 10:00 am Eastern Standard Time and I believe was on a day in March in 1996. Prospective interns would wait by the home phone (no cell phones back then), hoping that it would ring right at 10:00 am and that we would hear the sound of the voice of the director of the desired internship. We were allowed to say, “yes” or “no” on the spot. There was no, “I’ll think about it after I’ve considered all of my offers.”

Prior to Match Day, we had the option to send an internship site a “first choice” letter. The communication was, “If you call and offer me an internship, I will accept it.” There were a number of rules around this. Sites weren’t allowed to ask us if we were going to “first choice” them and if we “first-choiced” a site and didn’t take it, it was considered a very uncool thing to do. We were also not allowed to “first choice” more than one site.

After my visits to sites, I made a rankings list, weighing professional and personal variables. My first choice for professional reasons was the University of Florida. However, getting back to Seattle was a high priority so the University of Washington made it to the top of my list. Both sites were prestigious and offered excellent training. I sent a “first choice” letter to the University of Washington. A few days later, I received a call from the internship director there. She told me that I was a “very strong candidate” but that it was not in my best interest to give U.W. my first choice letter. She recommended that I withdraw it, which I did. This was a painful phone conversation, but even at the time I knew that it was very kind of her to let me know I was not one of their top candidates. I sent off a new “first choice” letter to the University of Florida.

Meanwhile, John and I were nervous wrecks. John was researching job markets for all of the potential cities in which we might live. Fortunately, since Gainesville was a drivable distance from where we lived, we had gone together and he’d gotten an opportunity to check out the area, which he liked a lot. The job market there was terrible for him, though.

There was nothing for us to do at that point but wait for 10:00 am on Match Day and hope that the phone would ring. I was well trained, having completed some ridiculous number of supervised clinical hours during my years at UNC. (If memory serves, I’d logged 2700 hours when the requirement was 500.) Oh, the other stressful thing was that sometimes, no one called a student. There was usually one student each year from our program who despite their excellent application and the strength of the reputation of our program, did not get an offer. Those students had the chance to go through the “clearinghouse” process and be placed in one of the leftover spots. (These days, incidentally, there are no “leftover” spots. There are more applicants than there are spots at accredited internship sites.)

Match Day came. All of the worry about where we would live, what I would do, and would I be able to work anywhere would hopefully be reduced. 10:00 am came and went. I willed the phone to ring. At 10:02, the phone range and I answered it. It was the University of Florida and they made me an offer, which I accepted. It was really quick so quick that I said, “You just made me an offer and I accepted it, right?” The director chuckled and said, “yes.” We said our goodbyes. The first one I called was my husband. He was happy. The second call was to my parents. My mom was happy. My dad was happy though said, “Florida? You are moving even FARTHER away from home.”

Exactly two years ago, I found myself waiting by the phone again. The call that I would receive would say a lot about my future. I was waiting on a call from the Swedish Cancer Institute with the results of my core biopsy, which had been performed two days before. I knew that a call would arrive at any time. As fate would have it, I was called at 10:00 am, just like Match Day. The diagnostic radiologist told me that I had an invasive ductal carcinoma tumor of approximate size of 1 cm. She said, “This is the most common breast cancer. A surgeon will call you within the hour. I’m sorry. We will take good care of you.”

The first person I called was my husband. He told me that he was taking the bus from work to be at home with me. Then I called my parents. My mom answered and I told her, “Mom, I have cancer. Mom, I am scared.” She was comforting and I was able to stop crying so that I could get information and make decisions. (Not everyone copes this way. I like to work fast and get things in place.) I called my friend, Nancy, a 12 year breast cancer survivor and psychologist who works with breast cancer patients. I got her voicemail so I left her a  message. I had not even previously told her that I’d had a biopsy. Then I left a voice mail for my friend, Jennie, who had known about the biopsy. As soon as I finished my message to Jennie, Nancy called.

Nancy was reassuring and also gave me a list of surgeons who had excellent technical skills but also good people skills. Dr. Beatty was on the list. His office called while I was talking to Nancy. I got off of the phone with Nancy and picked up the call from Rhea, who was the scheduler at his office back then. I made an appointment for the next day. I was not required to accept the first surgeon who called. I could have met with another surgeon after I met with Dr. Beatty. But I immediately adored him and didn’t feel like I needed to see anyone else. Nancy, who had accompanied us to the appointment, and John agreed.

My family has been through a great deal in the last several years and not all of it was related to my cancer. If you’d asked me even as recently as five years ago, how I would cope with all of the life events that were in store for me, I would have guessed that I would go into an anxiety spin, followed by depression, and some kind of severe mental breakdown. I certainly would not have guessed that along with the anxiety, anger, and pain, I would also find more joy and peace than ever before in my life.

I feel a mixture of feelings and thoughts today. And maybe that’s part of what these “anniversaries” are about. Experiencing a year or several years’ ups and downs in the span of a few days.

I will never say, “Cancer, you have met your match.” I know that cancer can kill. But I can say that right now, I am a match for its aftermath.

My brothers and I used to play with tops as children. There were the big metal ones with stripes and the little wooden ones. They never spun in one place and the fastest spins would send the top traveling far across the unfinished concrete basement of our house. (We did not feel deprived. We used to roller skate, shoot pool, and play table tennis down there. It was a kids’ paradise.)

I have written over 550 posts since beginning this blog in May of 2012. There are recurrent themes. Recently, I actually used the same title for a post that I’d used near the beginning of my writing. The other day I thought to myself, “I am really writing about the same things over and over.” But because I try to practice mindfulness, I tried to let that observation set for a bit before coming to quick conclusions like, “Wow, people must be getting bored.” Or, “I am in a creative rut.”

Eventually, I realized something that I’ve realized before, which is that our lives are full of re-experiences and re-examinations. I spin on these themes and as I travel through my life, instead of losing momentum like a top, I find myself finding deeper meanings. I also find myself able to better integrate the aspects of my life, which leads to a greater sense of integrity and connection.

I have long known that I am a naturally anxious person and that most of my anxiety in the past has been around fearing not being “good enough” as well as social anxiety. And I have also had anxiety about my physical safety, which led to years of avoiding real or simulated danger (ex., roller coasters). As I’ve just scratched the surface of mindfulness, I find myself still aware of my natural inclination to be stressed by unknowns, to worry about my friends and family, and to sometimes act like a less than entirely confident person.

The difference now is that I have gotten to the point in accepting my anxiety, when I am actually started to stop myself from apologizing to other people for the fact that I can fret a bit. Because really, I cope pretty well. I am a pretty resilient. Plus, apologizing for a little bit of excess anxiety just makes other people anxious, I have found. Yesterday, instead of thinking to myself that I was a somewhat high maintenance friend for requesting reassurance, I thought to myself, “I could tell myself not to get worried about people but that solution hasn’t worked. I think I can reveal the fact that I am a bit of a worrier and is not going to be a deal breaker for this friend.”

I concluded my post “mess” with, “I may be a mess, but I am a mess with potential.” Similarly, I may spin and whirl and come back to the same lessons over and over in my life. I may be a dervish, but I’m a dervish with a purpose. I am getting somewhere.

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My husband and I spent two weeks in Egypt in the summer of 1990. We were on our honeymoon. My husband grew up in a family that did a fair bit of foreign travel. Prior to that summer, I had never been to a non-English speaking country and the only other country I’d visited outside of the U.S. was Canada. (Yes, Canada is bilingual but we only visited the English speaking provinces.) In fact, prior to this trip, I think I’d only traveled by airplane on two prior occasions, at age 18 for a high school trip to New York and at age 22 to accompany John to his father’s funeral in California.

So this was a big adventure. I love art, culture, and travel. I hate, however, not knowing where I am or how to communicate. So going to an Arabic country was a bit of a formidable challenge for me. Also, this was before the Internet so hotel reservations could only be made ahead of time for the expensive hotels, which we could not afford.

We muddled our way through and had a terrific time. Going to Egypt was a risk to me in that it was outside of my comfort zone. We made additional risks in the country. Crossing the street, for example, was a risky adventure. One street was designed for four lanes but was used as if it had eight lanes. And the cars did not put on their headlights at night. And we encountered a number of cab drivers who obviously needed glasses and did not have any. So crossing eight lanes of traffic at night was more than scary.

In that case, the risk turned out okay though it was not a situation we would have planned to have gotten ourselves into. We also found ourselves in situations without transportation a couple of times since we were traveling during the off season when taxis and buses were not as available. We got a ride on the back of a pick up truck in Abu Sur, on the road to Saqqara, the site of the oldest pyramid in the world, designed by the earliest known architect, Imhotep. From Saqqara, we planned to travel to Memphis. However, when we arrived at Saqqara, there were no mini-buses and only one taxi, which was already hired for the day. But the cab driver was nice and asked around to see if someone could give us a ride.

A group of three young Saudi Arabians agreed to take us to Memphis even though it was out of their way. There was a man and two women. I have no idea whether they were related to one another or not. But what John and I immediately gathered is that these young people were treating their vacation to Egypt like American college students who go to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Woo! Young people gone wild!!!!!!

Now they weren’t drinking or anything but the women were kind of hanging their uncovered heads and torsos out of the windows of a speeding video. They were also singing along to some pop music that was playing in the card. The woman sitting in the front passenger seat turned around to us, pointed at the driver and said, “That is his voice.” I didn’t believe her but tried not to let on but my facial expression must have given me away. So she handed me the cassette tape case and low and behold, the driver’s photo was on the front. At the end of the ride, he gave us the tape and autographed it. The next day, we walked by a music store and a copy of his tape was displayed at the front of the window. We had hitched a ride with a Saudi Arabian pop star!!

Some of our other risks did not turn out so well, however. We met this man, Magad (pronounced “maggot”) who was probably in his late 20’s. He offered to take us around Cairo. John is typically open to these kinds of things and we had already had a good experience on the other part of our honeymoon in Italy, when we met Lorenzo Lampignano, a Canadian who had been born in Italy. Traveling around with Lorenzo was fun and he knew his way around the country. Magad seemed nice and it was WAY harder to get around in Egypt than Italy. (I could speak Italian competently at that time.) So we agreed to have him take us to some mosques the next day.

The mosques were really spectacular. We had a fun day. And he took us to some places we wouldn’t have visited otherwise like the October 1973 War Museum (this war is known elsewhere as the Yom Kippur War). Not only was the name of the war different but the outcome was presented as a victory for Egypt, which is not the prevailing interpretation. It’s kind of a surreal place. There’s a film, “The Road to Victory”. There’s also this huge diorama where the war is re-enacted with plastic planes on fishing line. The final war experience is provided in a 360 degree panoramic painting accompanied by music and rotating seats. It is very similar to the Cyclorama in Atlanta.

Magad told us that he was going to take us to an “Egyptian circus” later that night. And for some reason, the thing didn’t start until some ungodly hour. But hey, an Egyptian circus sounded cool. We didn’t know what to expect but we were sure that it would be delightful experience to remember.

Well it certainly was a night to remember! Due to some translation issues, the circus turned out to be an amusement park with rides one might find at the county fair. Number one, I have a long history of being very uncomfortable with amusement park rides. The fact that these rides were in Cairo made me terror stricken. I can’t speak for now but in 1990 Cairo, let’s just say that it was very clear that safety standards were much different. For example, we were staying at a hotel that had those European style elevator doors that pull out like the door to a house. There were two elevators. One day, we opened one of the doors and were greeted with the sight of an empty elevator shaft. There was no sign on the door or any attempt to secure it so that no one would open it and fall in.

So now do you get my terror? On top of this, the galleon ride (the ride that where the ship swings back and forth in an increasingly wide arc) had been renamed in keeping with the region. And it was labeled in English. I believe it was supposed to be called, “The Flying Carpet,” but it was labeled, “The Flaying Carpet.”

We were in a very awkward situation. Magad had been so excited to bring us there and had even insisted on paying our way. It was also clear given the fact that there were a few couples there still in their wedding clothes that going to this place was a really special treat. And it was the middle of the night. And Magad was our ride. So we went on the Flaying Carpet and prayed. And we went on the octopus. My husband dealt with his own anxiety by making very helpful jokes about how he hoped the hardware on the ride was secure and that the screws were tight.

Okay, there’s another thread of this story that I have neglected to tell you. Magad had been creeping me out some. While we were at the mosques, he’d put his arm around me, for example. This was very confusing to me as (1) men and women did not make physical contact in public and (2) I was a married woman with her husband. I thought maybe we were just having a cultural misunderstanding because I was young and dumb. And John was too busy taking photos to notice that this man was standing right next to me ALL OF THE TIME.

Prior to the “circus” we had visited Magad’s house. He lived with his mother who served us a bunch of stuff that we weren’t supposed to eat. (Another bad risk as we both got sick a few days later.) Magad had also changed into these thin lounge pants and told me that he wanted to read my palm. He asked me to sit on the floor. Then instead of sitting in front of me, he sat behind me, straddling me with his legs. I don’t know how to be delicate about this but it only took me a second to realize that he was going commando and I jumped up like a shot into a standing position saying, “It’s time to go to the circus!” As I’m writing this, I can’t believe we didn’t leave right then and there. We were living in that surreal world of bad decision making. And again, we were young and dumb.

Back to the amusement park. While Magad was paying for the tickets, I took John aside and said, “Hey, I don’t care why this guy is touching me but I don’t want him doing it. Please stay right at my side and between he and I at all times.” In addition to our terror on the rides, there was Magad’s mounting and very visible annoyance at not being able to get his hands on me. John finally insisted that Magad bring us back to our hotel, which he did. And we never saw him again. We learned a valuable lesson, which is that there are creepy people in every culture. We were acting much more trusting there than in our own country due to their incredibly low violent crime rate and the extreme helpfulness and friendliness of the vast majority of Eygptians who we encountered.

So what got me thinking about this trip with its risks some that paid off and others that didn’t? Yesterday, I went to a theme park as part of my daughter’s birthday celebration. It is a water park combined with an amusement park. My daughter loves swimming and is a total thrill seeker. She loves this place. We have taken her there probably five or six times in her life.

I dislike amusement parks. I’ve disliked them even before the Egyptian circus fiasco. They are noisy, chaotic, and the rides are scary. Even parks like Disney Land are somewhat of a trial for me. Although I loved it the first time I was there at age 19 (the craftsmanship of the old rides is awe worthy), the subsequent trips have been decreasingly fun. But as you know, being in a family means doing things that other people like to do, from time to time.

About a week ago, I decided that this trip would be different. I decided to face a couple of fears. I’m just going to write about one of them today and that is my fear of going on roller coasters that are not surrounded by Disney animatronic figures singing cute songs. I’m talking about traditional roller coasters, the ones that are open on both sides. I had never been on one of those, ever.

I don’t need to go on roller coasters to live. And that’s what I have been telling myself all of these years. But it is an irrational fear. In contrast to the amusement park in Cairo, I don’t really worry about the safety of roller coasters. That’s not why I had never been on one. The reason that I’d avoided them for over 40 years is that I hate the idea of feeling scared and out of control on purpose.

I’m not one of those people who won’t go anywhere or experience anything. Naturally, I think I am fairly adventurous. And our family does a lot together. But there has been a slowly but surely growing list of things that I have come to refuse to do because they are out of my comfort zone. I had a chance to swim with manatees. I skipped it. (I was so disappointed with myself that when the park ranger was bringing a snake around for people to touch, I made myself do it even though I am afraid of snakes.) I tried skiing once and quit right away because I was afraid of falling. (Also, seeing the little kid whiz by me who was so young that he had a pacifier in his mouth, was downright demoralizing.) I stopped snorkeling after I had a vertigo sensation while swimming off of the coast of Miami in 1998.

People, this is missing out on fun and I am tired of living like this! I told John my plan to ride the rides and to go on the water park rides. We started off with the easy rides and worked our way up. I told John that I wanted to go on the wooden roller coaster. He said, “Really, it’s pretty scary?” I told him nicely to try to be more supportive so he was. I did it, I went on the roller coaster. And it wasn’t all that bad. In fact, some parts were enjoyable.

Every since I first learned of the existence of the loop de loop roller coaster, I have been adamant that I would NEVER EVER GO ON ONE. And I was pretty satisfied with this decision. But after my traditional roller coaster success, I found myself eying the loop de loop coaster, which at this park is called, “Wild Thing.”

I told John my thoughts. He was incredulous partly because he has avoided ever going on that particular ride. But he was trying really hard to be supportive and had told me how very proud of me he was because he knew how hard it was for me to go on that open roller coaster. I said, “Let’s go on that galleon ride to see if I can handle the arc and if I can do that, I want to go on the roller coaster again to see if I can do it with my eyes open this time.”

We went on the galleon ride, which I thought was pretty easy. But easy for me was queasy for my hubby. The first thing I noticed was that the part of my arm that had rested against his was totally wet with his sweat. He told me that he felt sick. I decided to go on the roller coaster myself and see how he felt afterwards. By this time, I had my plan and I was going through the steps. (In psychology land, this strategy is called “systematic desensitization”, by the way, as I have noted in past posts.)

I was able to go on the roller coaster with my eyes open, no sweat. And it was fun. John felt better so we walked over to “Wild Thing”. It did not make my heart sing or make everything groovy. It put my heart in my throat. No singing was going to occur unless screaming is someone’s idea of singing. But I was determined as was my husband who later told me that he overcame his own fear for me. (Actually, what he said was that he would never be able to live it down if I went on that ride and he didn’t but I prefer the more heroic version of the story because John was so very sweet to me yesterday.)

I did it! I did it! I went on that loop de loop roller coaster, all six loops! And yes, I screamed pretty much non stop. And yes, my eyes were closed most of the time. But I did it! I conquered that fear and it felt awesome!

One of the hardest things about being a naturally anxious person is worrying about the right things. I worried too much about being able to get around in a foreign country and about offending an Egyptian man that I dismissed my own gut feelings about real potential dangers. On the other hand, I have worried too much about getting scared in situations that I knew were actually safe.

I didn’t previously see the value in getting over my fears just to know that I could. I will probably never be a big fan of amusement parks but I had fun yesterday and that means something. But I suspect that this experience and the other ways in which I have been challenging myself, will help me do some of the things that I really have wanted to learn how to do but have been too careful to try.

Maybe you will see me on the slopes this winter with the people I love and in the mountains that fill me with peace and wonder.

Cairo. This boy was so friendly. He wanted his photo taken thinking that we had a polaroid camera and could give him a copy.

Cairo. This boy was so friendly. He wanted his photo taken thinking that we had a polaroid camera and could give him a copy.

Bazaar District, Cairo

Bazaar District, Cairo

Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo

Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo

Karnak

Karnak

Cairo

Cairo

View of the Nile. I think this was taken from our hotel room in Luxor, which was the setting for Agatha Cristie's, Death on the Nile. Alternatively, it could be the view from our hotel in Aswan.

View of the Nile. I think this was taken from our hotel room in Luxor, which was the setting for Agatha Cristie’s, Death on the Nile. Alternatively, it could be the view from our hotel in Aswan.

Abu Simbel. This is part of the Temple of Ramses II that was moved by UNESCO as it would have been submerged under water by the Aswan Dam. Abu Simbel is located near the Sudanese border. We were there in AUGUST. It was beyond incredibly hot but so beautiful.

Abu Simbel. This is part of the Temple of Ramses II that was moved by UNESCO as it would have been submerged under water by the Aswan Dam. Abu Simbel is located near the Sudanese border. We were there in AUGUST. It was beyond incredibly hot but so beautiful.

Road to Saqqara in Abu Sur.

Road to Saqqara in Abu Sur.

West Thebes. I think this is a detail from the Temple of Hatshepsut.

West Thebes. I think this is a detail from the Temple of Hatshepsut.

The Wild Thing. I rode it on 9/1/13 and my heart's still beating.

The Wild Thing. I rode it on 9/1/13 and my heart’s still beating.

20130901_120739

Last week I had one clinic day (Monday), followed by six days of painting and redecorating my private practice office. My daughter was also gone on a band trip during this time. So this week has been about transitioning back to my normal roles and routines. It was really hard, much harder than I expected. My brain was fragmented for several days.

Even more distressing was the fact that I felt really anxious and unsure of myself outside of work. This was particularly difficult socially, especially with my cyber friends. Cyber relationships do not have the same familiar codes and handshakes on which I gauge other social interactions. My cyber buddy, Greg Smith, wrote about the limitations that electronic communication put on his “Spidey Senses” in navigating his interactions with patients via Skype. He is an emergency department psychiatrist who practices telehealth in his job to provide consultation to patients who live far away from services. (As an aside, although my psychology practice is in Seattle, a “little big city”, the majority of my training was done in rural areas. Access to care is a major big deal.)

Earlier in the week, I found myself anxious that I’d written the wrong thing to one cyber friend or worrying that another cyber friend thought that I was a creepy stalker because a compliment I’d paid to her did not seem to go over in the way I had intended. I worried that I was being too flirtatious with cyber friends, male and female. I thought about what I might do to repair relationships that may have been damaged by my electronic awkwardness.

I have not felt that way for a VERY long time. What the heck is going on? I’ve had cyber buddies for awhile now and although I am sometimes frustrated by the limitations of this form of communication, there are benefits as well. When I write, I can communicate without interruption, for one. That is a major gift to me in this time of my life when some level of introspection is needed for health and healing. But I do miss the body language, tone of voice, or even hearing any of my cyber buddy voices. And I know in my own communications, the parts of me communicated beyond the words that I write or by my smile in the photos I post, are lost.

Last week, I dredged into some painful past experiences to write the post, Predator, about my own experiences with sexual harassment as a teen and how they relate to the sexualization of breast cancer.  If you’ve read the post, you know that the experiences I wrote about are very typical for women my age and most of the experiences still occur with girls and women today. The post resonated with a lot of women and I was very glad to have written it. I also suspected that it would help me integrate the vulnerability I have felt as a breast cancer patient to another time in my life when I felt scared and vulnerable.

I knew this would be a hard post to write and even waiting until my mother went on vacation to post it. I know that by the time she comes back home and reads it, I would have processed through the hard emotions and she would not have to worry about me so much. She had already suggested to me a couple of posts prior that I needed to take a break and write something light and/or funny. It’s hard to see one’s child in pain, even when she is 47 years-old.

Writing the post was harder than I expected and was like taking a time machine back to the worst parts of my adolescence with the extra layers of breast cancer and being a mother of a vulnerable teen girl.

Actually, let me put it this way. It was like being 16 again.

There are folks that rhapsodize about their youth and feel that they have lost something. Don’t get me wrong because I had a generally happy childhood and adolescence, but I am happy where I am. I have never had a stronger combination of individual, familial, and professional satisfaction than I have experienced in middle age. Emotionally, I feel so much more solid, as well. And this is not because my life has been easy in middle age. It is a benefit of maturity. My parents are very happy people who love their family, friends, and each other. They help me look forward to my future, should I be so lucky to live a long life.

Back to being 16 again. Do you all remember what your teens years were like with your peers? I don’t know about you, but although I had good friendships, they involved a frenzy of unnecessary activity. Worrying, “Did I say the right thing?” “Should I have said that?” (That was a popular one for me. I am loud and chatty.) “Should I have looked at him that way?” “Did I hurt her feelings?” Then I would go and try to repair things. Later in my life, a good friend would characterize my repair attempts as, “Elizabeth, you flail.” Now she has more of a passive, slug like coping style but in respect to the situation she was describing, I was totally and completely flailing when I should have been leaving things alone.

These days, I typically feel solid as a communicator. There are parts of me that can be perceived as being “too much” (see “loud and chatty”, above). This was particularly true in the past. I have learned to be myself with confidence and I think part of what bothered people about the big parts of my personality was the anxiety and lack of confidence that were sometimes underneath. Now I get a lot of compliments about my loud laugh and I can tell from patients and their parents that for the most part, they enjoy the fact that I am a happy person, eager to help, and a lover of my fellow human beings, especially the small ones. But I also know when I need to scale things back and tone them down. It’s a dance of a sort and in my profession, I am usually extremely good at it.

To be 16 again, was no fun. I saw Rebecca, my psychologist yesterday. The session may have only lasted an hour but by the time I left, I’d aged 31 years.

So cyber and face-to-face buddies, I am ready to play like a grown-up again.

Photo by Aaron Eidinger, 1983-ish. I am 17 or 18 in the photo.

Photo by Aaron Eidinger, 1983-ish. I am 17 or 18 in the photo.

 

 

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George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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