I wrote this in 1997. Reading it again today almost makes my heart palpitate: what a wreck I was! What a lot of energy I wasted! But it also reminds me of how very far I’ve come:
I’m climbing the stairs, a teacup and some bills to pay in one hand, an empty laundry basket in the other. The dogs are with me, the two big ones excitedly racing back and forth, ahead of me, then behind again, as if the command “Let’s Go Up!” means something quite thrilling like a car ride or a romp in the park and not either bedtime or the opportunity to nap at my feet while I work in my office. I’ve got the puppy on a leash, so she can be in the house with me and the other dogs, but I can keep her in sight, away from stray socks and interesting places to piddle, and still concentrate on my work.
At the first landing, the puppy crosses in front of me, chasing one of the big dogs, and the leash trips me up. Down I go, teacup, bills, laundry basket, puppy, dog, dog. I land hard on my knees and one hand, hanging onto everything as best I can, and sprawl on the landing in a spreading puddle of Earl Gray. A button pops off my green dress, too nice for housework but the only one clean this morning. A dog licks my face, another tries to drink what’s left in the cup, and the puppy heads right for the lost button. I’ve got my period, fresh this morning, which means my PMS is not entirely gone but cramps have arrived with fanfare. “Oh, no,” I think. “Here it comes.”
“It” is anxiety, my companion since childhood, brought on by some complicated combination of temperament, brain chemicals, and upbringing. Anxiety is a constant in my life, my stalker. It means that I worry endlessly about ordinary daily things, like washing the dishes and getting the oil changed and giving the cats their dinner and cleaning the gerbil cage and making sure the community college where I teach knows I want one class in the fall semester and vacuuming the living room rug and installing doorstops on the bedroom doors and paying the plumber and lowering our heating bills and calling my friend Adrianne so she’ll know that, even though she’s been neglecting us for a new lover, we still think of her.
Anxiety means I also worry about the improbable, like my friend Eli and I being killed in a derailment during our train trip to a writers’ conference in Boston. Or my lover dying in a fire at the library where she works before she has a chance to change her will so I end up in a court battle with her ex-lover over the stocks and bonds. Or the economy collapsing so that the stocks and bonds are worthless and we have to turn our home and yard into an armed compound and our friendly pups into a snarling pack of hellhounds to protect ourselves from roaming gangs.
Most days I balance on a wobbly fulcrum between comfort and fear. I make endless lists to relieve my mind of details. I drink a homeopathic remedy for fear three times a day in a glass of juice. I talk to myself all day long, setting priorities and limits aloud: “OK, Su, let’s get the mail in and fix a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Mail, grilled cheese, that’s all there is to think about.” I try not to count as lost the time I spend each day in crying jags, or doing relaxation exercises, or saying my affirmations over and over, or calling friends to talk me through a crisis: the crisis of the overflowing toilet, the crisis of the bill that should have been mailed yesterday, the crisis of the hairball on the rug. I do count my accomplishments. At the end of the day, I tell my lover, “I took a shower today. I braided my hair. I loaded the dishwasher and opened the mail. I wrote one paragraph,” and she understands that I have triumphed in these small things, that I was frightened of the dirty kitchen, frightened of my tangled hair, frightened of the mail, frightened to write, because each of those tasks reminds me of all the other tasks that await my attention and will await my attention for the rest of my long life and which I will never, not for one still clean moment, finish.
On my most anxious days, I can be defeated by the smallest obstacle: a hard-to-open jar, a puppy accident on the rug, a dead battery in my car, a request for five minutes of my time from a community organization I support. I retreat into sleep, 10, 11, 12 hours at a time. Or I can’t sleep at all, spending my nights flipping the TV channel from infomercial to televangelist to grainy 1970s cop drama, or visiting on-line with other hamster owners, other Quakers, other people who know what it’s like to be afraid. I read 600-page science-fiction epics day after day after day. I distract my mind and wait for the fear to pass.
On my best days I am imperturbable. I drop a lightbulb from the top of a ladder and tiny bright shards scatter through two rooms; I close the cats safely in another room, sweep up the glass with broom and vacuum, carry another bulb up the ladder. I lift beaters, still spinning, from a bowl of batter and only shake my head and grin at myself as the kitchen cabinets and I are spattered with chocolate. My car breaks down and I walk two miles home in record-setting sub-zero temperatures, and all I think about the whole long walk is how snug I feel inside my down parka, how the warm hat my lover gave me for Solstice has turned out to be the best of my gifts, what great foresight I had when I put on long underwear, how I wish the dogs could be with me enjoying the walk.
I would like to live that with that clarity and good humor for a month at a time, a year, the entire decade of my thirties, but I won’t. Today, sprawled on the landing, I try to remember equanimity, try to conjure it to get me through. I stand up, gather dogs, puppy, laundry basket, bills, teacup, climb the stairs. I leave the bills and tea on my desk, gather another load of laundry, resist the temptation to crawl into my welcoming and safe bed, and head back downstairs, stopping to mop up tea with a dirty towel. I let the dogs out into their pen and start filling the washer with cold water and dark clothes. The dryer is piled with dog leads, flea combs, and half-chewed bones; leftover hardware and tools from the installation of the new dog gate; an old blanket that needs to be washed. None of it belongs on top of the dryer, but I know if I start putting things away I will spend my whole day carting small objects from room to room and end the day frantic that there are still more to be carted. I am near tears. I want to be having a good day, be in a laughing mood when the puppy, running in from the yard and jumping on me in an ecstasy of reunion, leaves mud-and-dog-shit paw prints on my already tea-stained green dress. I hold the skirt of the dress gingerly away from me. “This is not too much for me,” I say firmly, aloud. But some days it is.Posted by Su Penn at May 11, 2004 03:33 PM | TrackBack