I had a weird epiphany the other night while sitting up fretting over my sick cat, (Leo has an eye ulcer. It’s been horrible for him, rough for me.) and wondering why my anxiety levels seem to start at 8 and go to 11 these days. I don’t think I’ve always been an anxious person, but in the last couple of decades, it’s become almost a defining characteristic.
Part of it was learned from Mom who was weirdly anxious. She seemed serene about most things, but the strangest things could set her off into an endless loop of what-ifs, often connected to something she’d done. “What if the pesticide I used in the garden killed that poor robin I found out there?” was one of her favorites. It evolved into, “I heard her singing her last song before I killed her.” Not that it stopped her from using pesticide on her roses, so I suspect the guilt and drama was in some way fulfilling. And I get that because that’s how I use guilt. I am always much worse inside my own head than anyone imagines.
But another part of it has to do with my circumstances. I spent most of my life as a part of a small, virtually closed unit. My world was bounded by my parents and my home. I had friends, good ones, but none of them ever really became a visceral part of that unit. And then my world began to fall apart. My mother, who was insulin-dependent, began to show signs of dementia, my father of congestive heart failure and crippling arthritis. There were accidents, hospital stays, operations, and their health declined to the point where they were both virtual invalids who could leave the house only in a wheelchair. Both suffered from dementia by then. My mother’s was more advanced, and only late in the process diagnosed as Lewy-Body Dementia. (Leave it to Mom to get some kind of fancy dementia.) My father suffered from plain old Alzheimer’s, but then he was a plain man and didn’t hold with a lot of fru-fru diseases.
Mom hallucinated. A lot. One of my favorite stories has always been about the day she called me over and whispered, “Do you see those people on the couch?” Of course there was no one there, but that day I didn’t feel like arguing about it, so I said, “Yes.” Then she said, “I don’t mind them being here, I just wish they’d phoned first.” On the upside, I could tell her the same joke every damn day and it would still make her laugh like she’d never heard it before. You get your laughs where you can when you’re a caregiver.
Dad just suffered quietly, so quietly in fact that I didn’t even realize how far his cognitive powers had declined until one day he didn’t know how to use the ice dispenser in the fridge anymore. I still can’t find anything to laugh about in that. He was my rock and I was seeing it crumble into dust.
Eventually I was forced to put them in nursing care. When I would lie awake praying for a carbon-monoxide leak to kill us all, I knew I was pretty close to cracking. Dad only lasted a few months, Mom a couple of years. I redecorated the apartment, turned into a “prepper,” someone who preps for disaster, and blamed myself for killing them, like they’d still be alive at 113 and 112 if I hadn’t put them in a nursing home. Like they would have gotten better. Right.
When they died, and I sold their place for a whole lot of money — I freely confess that I was in a great position at that point, and wanted revenge on the buyers for reasons which I’m not going to go into here. They were good reasons though, trust me. And I bought a place of my own and used up most of that money fixing things that needed fixing. I was determined to make a new life.
So here’s the thing: I’ve done that. I have a nice home which I share with a dear friend and our wonderful cats, and while I don’t have much money, I do have a job I enjoy, and I’m getting by. So what’s the problem? I feel like I’m always standing outside this life thinking, “But it’s not MY life.” When we moved here, I wanted to clean everything. I was insane about cleaning. Once that was done, I pretty much just stopped. If asked, I’d say, “But that wasn’t MY dirt.” My dirt… actually my mess, is something I can live with. I’m not proud of that, but somehow it makes sense that it exists, this mess, because I don’t really feel like it matters. This isn’t my life. That’s gone.
Yes, I know it sounds crazy. You live your life, right? Maybe not. Maybe you go through so many changes and lose so much that nothing feels familiar anymore. Nothing feels safe anymore. I felt safe with my parents. No matter how awful things were outside, I could come home and there would be this little unit. The apartment was its physical boundary, and we were its emotional boundary. And the reading thing, which I’ve talked about before, that was my deeper comfort zone, and it was gone as well.
At this point I want to stop and say something directly to anyone who reads this and thinks, “What a whiny, privileged baby she is!” I am not asking for your sympathy, so fuck your judgement. What I’m doing here is explaining that sometimes you can feel like an outsider in the life you live. This has nothing to do with privilege, anyone can feel it, and the anxiety and depression that goes along with it. Understanding that there is a dissonance in the way you live may actually help you find your way to a more genuine life. I’m lucky to be able to divide the stages of my life so neatly that I can see where things got off track for me.
Now understand that I’m not hating the life I do live. I’m just not comfortable in it and I do so want to be. I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel as if I understand it. There’s nothing anyone else can do about this so no one needs to feel guilty, or feel any sort of need to help in any way. This is my problem to wrestle with, and now that I’ve verbalized it, I may have a leg up on making things better. I am reading again, after all. That’s something, right?
So if this helps anyone understand their own anxiety and depression, I will feel as if I have done a bit of good in this world, and sometimes that’s the best we can hope for. Good luck to all of you.