Category Archives: anxiety

Scattering Ashes, Forgetting He’s Dead, and Intense Anxiety at 18 Months Out

I have been traveling for the past month. One stop in my travels was to Ushuaia, Argentina, where I scattered some of my late husband’s ashes. Ushuaia is the southern-most point of the Pan-American Highway. My husband loved riding motorcycles and read a lot of online forum postings by people who had ridden the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Ushuaia. He wanted to do the ride when he retired. He didn’t get to retire or do the ride, so for me, scattering some of his ashes in Ushuaia was a way to symbolically honor those wishes of his.

The night before scattering his ashes, my anxiety kicked in hard. I’ve been able to manage it pretty well for several months, but I wondered if it would show up on my trip. The first part of the trip went smoothly, but as the ash-scattering day got closer and closer, I could feel the restlessness building up inside me, especially at night when I went to bed. I started dreaming about my husband being unhappy with where I scattered the ashes or not being able to find a suitable spot.

I wasn’t too worried about the anxiety because I have a good list on my phone of strategies to use to help me when it gets bad. I figured if it got very intense, I would just methodically work my way through the list until I found a strategy that helped.

The night it really hit me, my first go-to strategy, walking or working out, wasn’t available to me because of where I was in my travels, so I moved on to my second strategy: tapping. Tapping uses the same principles as acupuncture to channel energy to the body’s meridian points. I think it also helps by bringing my awareness out of my mind and into my body. Unfortunately, that night, tapping didn’t seem to have any effect. No problem, I thought, I’ll listen to some meditations on Insight Timer.

That night I was in a remote part of the world and didn’t have internet access. I had planned ahead for that possibility by downloading several of my favorite Insight Timer meditations within the app, but when I tried to find them, they weren’t there. That’s when my anxiety really started to escalate. My hands were shaking as I tried to navigate my phone. I checked and rechecked the app. I closed the app and re-opened it. I turned my phone off and back on. None of it helped. The downloads weren’t there. I could only listen to meditations if I had an internet connection and that wasn’t possible. My mind went blank and I could no longer even find my list of strategies.

I finally took a Lorazepam, which is kind of my last resort option. It felt like admitting defeat, which made my anxiety even more intense. By then, my hands were shaking so much that I spilled the pills all over my bed, leading to the kind of low-contrast situation in which I’m pretty much functionally blind: white pills on white sheets. I had to use my shaky hands to find all the little pills strewn about in the sheets. Even after I swallowed a pill, there was no relief. By that time, I had gotten too worked up for it to have a noticeable effect.

At that point, I went to a strategy I’m surprised I remembered without my list: reminding myself that everything is temporary. That the anxiety will eventually pass. That I will eventually fall asleep. That the world will carry on. And I did eventually fall asleep for a couple of hours.

I ended up finding an excellent place to scatter the ashes: at the base of a gorgeous and regal tree in the forest off the Pan-American Highway. The tree had lichens on it that only grow in places where the air is exceptionally pure.

My anxiety continued through my husband’s birthday, a few days later. but after a few days I at least had Internet access again and re-downloaded my meditations. Until then, I took a Lorazepam each night when I went to bed (it seems to work best when I take it before my anxiety kicks in, which becomes a mind-bending prediction game in itself). Once I was able to listen to my meditations again, the anxiety became much easier to deal with, although it still lingered for a few more nights.

My lack of sleep probably contributed to a mind blip while in Chile. I saw a sculptural door made out of old metal farm implements and said to my friend, “I need to take a picture of that for Tom.” It’s the first time in a year that I forgot he was dead. Somehow, for a moment my brain thought he wasn’t with me in Chile because he was back home, waiting for me. For that moment, I wasn’t a widow. For that moment, I was excited to share stories and pictures from my epic trip with him. I could see the look of wonder and appreciation he would have on his face, feel his hand on the small of my back, hear him saying, “That’s amazing, Babe.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I had the crushing memory that he was dead. It felt like all the heartbreak I’ve experienced since he died was compressed into a single massive wave that flattened me. Luckily, I was with a dear friend who knew to immediately pull me into a hug and didn’t mind that I got snot all over her shoulder.

It was a tough time, and it was temporary.

Stop Shaming People Who Use Accommodations to Work Remotely

“Please make an effort.” “It would mean a lot to me if you were there in person.” “Make every effort to be there in person.” These are a few examples of the ablest and shaming rhetoric I’ve heard lately on campus about using accommodations to attend meetings remotely. My colleagues and I who have accommodations to attend meetings remotely are regularly asked to “make an effort” to attend face-to-face. The implication is clear: if you use your accommodation, you are not making an effort.

Campus leaders routinely engage in ableism, framing accommodations as attempts to not put in effort. I was recently in a meeting in which a colleague showed a video; as it began without subtitles, an attendee asked, “Can you turn the subtitles on?” The colleague said, “Can you just make an effort?”

Or using accommodations is framed as ruining everyone else’s fun, as in this example: A colleague described an icebreaker they had planned for a meeting that involved attendees doing some silly activities with a tight time limit. I asked, “What if some folks have accommodations for anxiety? Wouldn’t this ice breaker cause anxiety?” My colleague argued that the icebreaker was just for fun. For me, being humiliated by having an anxiety attack in from of my peers is not my idea of fun.

When people do use their accommodations, the culture of shaming can show up in disgruntled whispers of colleagues who ask incredulously, “What’s their disability?!” or comment, “I wish I didn’t have to attend in person!” or “It’s inconvenient for me, too, but I manage it.” These whispers are encouraged when the leader begins the meeting by saying, “That you all for making the effort to be here,” implying that folks who aren’t there didn’t make an effort.

I’ve written before about the challenges of getting documentation of a disability so I can get accommodations  and about why I don’t always ask for accommodations I am entitled to. The entire process of justifying accommodations is disempowering, humiliating, and time-consuming. Then, once a person goes through that process, they are shamed for using the accommodations.

On my campus, leaders regularly shame people who use their accommodations to attend meetings remotely instead of in person. Here are some examples of the shaming language I have heard lately:

What leaders say: “people are tired of remote meetings” or “staring at a screen is exhausting”

Translation: it’s your fault that people still have to attend remote meetings and be exhausted

But here’s the truth: many people dislike meetings whether they are remote or in person.

Here’s another truth: many people prefer remote meetings and are better able to engage when they can be home with their pets and/or children or in an environment they can control.

What leaders say: “I expect you to be there in person”

Translation: If you are not there in person, you are not meeting expectations. This echoes the language of evaluation in which people who are evaluated as doing their jobs poorly are rated “does not meet expectations.” Not meeting expectations is bad and shameful.

The truth: The expectations of leaders are often unreasonable and not grounded in the reality of workloads, bandwidths, and structural inequities.

What leaders say: “This is a reasonable expectation”

Translation: I have not done any research into this, but I strongly prefer in-person meetings and this is how we did things in the before-times and everyone was fine with it.

The truth: No, everyone was not actually fine with it. You didn’t ask or you weren’t listening or people didn’t feel empowered to speak up. Parents and other caregivers, people with disabilities and/or unreasonable workloads were not fine with it. I have never been fine with most in-person meetings, which are typically run badly and take me away from doing the meaningful work of teaching and research.

What leaders say: “The benefit of face-to-face meetings outweigh the convenience of attending from home via Zoom”

Translation: attending via Zoom is a mere convenience for people who are lazy, unmotivated, disengaged, and/or not prioritizing the important work that will happen at this meeting.

The truth: Accommodations are not about convenience, laziness, motivation, engagement, or priorities. Accommodations acknowledge differences in bodies and neurology. My glasses are technically an accommodation, not something I use because they are convenient or I am lazy. Glasses are commonplace enough that we don’t typically recognize them as an accommodation. Surely, a supervisor wouldn’t ban people from wearing glasses to a meeting. But if I ask for special lighting, I am likely to be told that there are others who will be bothered by that lighting. Why not let me attend remotely, then, so that I can control the lighting in my workspace without impacting others?

An anti-ableist alternative to all of these examples is to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all mode for meetings. We might even begin by evaluating whether a meeting we are planning is necessary. Once the specific purposes of the meeting are identified, a reasonable judgment can be made about whether the purposes will be undermined by remote attendance.

Any time a leader questions the legitimacy of an accommodation, they create a culture of ableism in which disability is seen as evidence that someone is “broken.”

Why I am trying to make friends with my anxiety (and taking drugs in the meantime)

A tricky thing about anxiety is that once you experience it, you begin to have anxiety about anxiety. I found this happening almost immediately. After my first anxiety and panic attack, I began worrying, “Will it happen again?” Once I began having trouble sleeping because of anxiety, I began dreading bedtime, worrying about anxiety kicking in.

Anxiety and panic thrive on and create fear. The more fear they create, the more they thrive. It’s a self-serving cycle that is hard to break.

This reminds me of a famous quote attributed to the Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” What we hold onto, we become. Holding onto anger makes us angry and bitter. Holding on to fear about anxiety makes us fearful and anxious. In the case of anger, I have learned through experience that letting go of it enables me to move on and be happy. In the case of grief, I’ve learned to let it pass through me at its own pace. If I try to control that pace by pushing it away and telling it to come back later, it outsmarts me and shows up at the most inopportune time.

A year after my husband died, I am still liberally turning my camera off during remote meetings and crying during face-to-face interactions. When I feel my emotions coming on, I let them come on. That’s the #1 rule of “turning towards.” Turning towards means not allowing the instinctual tightening to happen and to instead relax.

Applying this idea to anxiety means making friends with anxiety. The idea behind befriending or embracing anxiety is that anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations, in my case, the loss of my husband, which stirred up my fears of being alone, of not being enough when he was dying, and of dying myself. Acknowledging my fears and my anxiety about them lessens their grip.

Trying to make friends with my anxiety is somewhat terrifying—it’s like seeing a tiger charging toward me and deciding to hold out my hand to see if it’s friendly. Trying to outrun it is pointless.

This means when I feel anxiety bubbling up inside of me, instead of steeling myself against it, which signals my brain’s fear response to ramp up, I try to think to myself, “Oh, there’s anxiety. I wonder what it wants.” The tiger sniffs my hand, strolls slowly around me, and then sometimes slinks off. Sometimes. Other times, it just keeps strolling around me, slowly, keeping me on edge for a bit. It eventually loses interest.

Making friends is not something that comes naturally to me—I am socially awkward and introverted. I don’t seek out opportunities to make new friends, and I feel similarly about making friends with anxiety: I’d rather not. But anxiety is a tiger that keeps stalking me.

I’ve been listening to guided meditations on the app Insight Timer with names like “Befriending Anxiety” and “Embracing Anxiety.” While traditional Buddhist/Zen meditation, which focuses on clearing the mind, simply makes space for my anxiety to take hold, guided meditation gives my mind a focal point so that space doesn’t get created.

Like everything else hard in life, it is a process and not a linear one. I am getting help along the way with therapy and drugs. The drugs help me relax, which allows me to get enough sleep to function, and to resist that instinctual tightening. I’m taking Escitalopram, an antidepressant that helps with Generalized Anxiety Disorder; Ativan, which I take at night to help me sleep; and hydroxyzine, which helps with acute anxiety during the day. Ideally, I will be able to ease off the medications within a few months, after I’ve made peace with my new pet tiger.

I had anxiety all wrong–and maybe you do, too

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I have started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. For about three weeks, I have had a near constant nervous feeling in my stomach and a tightness in my chest. This constant low-level anxiety spikes a few times a day and becomes a panic attack in which I start hyper-ventilating. Sometimes I burst into tears. As someone who has meditated for decades, I’ve been shocked to find that meditating right now makes things worse, especially at night when I am trying to sleep. Emptying my mind seems to create space for my brain to go directly to my darkest, scariest thoughts, and touching on those thoughts seems to plunge me directly into a feeling of dread and doom.

While meditating isn’t helping, other aspects of my Buddhist practice are helping a bit. Chanting works better than meditating because instead of focusing on clearing my mind, I can focus on the chant. My go-to chant is nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, which is shorthand for the concept of karma. Chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo allows me to focus on the order that does exist in the world. I also know that at the exact moment that I am chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, someone else somewhere else in the world is, too, so it helps me feel connected rather than disconnected. My late husband used to chant nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo when he felt overwhelmed by the challenges of his stroke, so the chant also makes me feel closer to him.

Another aspect that is helping a bit, which I will talk more about next week, is turning toward my anxiety rather than away. This means rather than trying to avoid anxiety, and push it away when I feel it bubbling up, I try to respond with curiosity and compassion. I actually talk to my anxiety; for example, when I feel it building in my chest, I’ll say, “Oh, hello, anxiety. There you are. I wonder what you are trying to protect me from right now.” It might seem cheesy, but it gives me some distance from it and helps me not identify with it.

I’ve also started reading a book recommended by a friend, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Bidwell Smith. As the title makes clear, Smith suggests that anxiety is a typical part of grief. My own grief therapist echoed this, saying many of her clients experience anxiety. In my case, my worsening vision coinciding with the anniversaries of my husband’s stroke and death may have been the perfect storm for anxiety and panic to manifest.

I had it all wrong

This new experience with anxiety is making me understand how ignorant I have been abut anxiety in the past. I have had countless students tell me they have anxiety. My daughter struggled hard with anxiety in high school and continues to be challenged by it. While I am not someone who ever questioned whether anxiety is “real,” I have minimized its impacts. I have misunderstood it as unmanaged stress. I have minimized their experiences as being about lack of good sleep hygiene or stress management skills.

That has led to me making misguided suggestions (unsolicited, too) about strategies to try. Yes, I have been that person who has said, “Have you tried yoga? Or meditation?” Yoga and meditation have helped me with stress throughout my entire adult life, and because I was equating anxiety with unmanaged stress, the suggestion made sense to me. But now that I understand that anxiety is something else altogether, I feel foolish about those suggestions—and I am embarrassed that I broke one of my own rules about not offering unsolicited advice.

If you are one of the people who has born the brunt of my ignorance, I am sorry. I will do better from here on out.  

Now that I understand the distinction and the actual experience of anxiety, I am filled with compassion and admiration for folks who live with it. It’s a reminder to me that if I haven’t experienced something myself, I need to listen, accept how others describe their experience, and ask clarifying questions.

Speak from your experience

Since I’ve been talking about experiencing anxiety and panic, several people have reached out to me to offer strategies and resources that have helped them. What I appreciate about this help is that it is coming from people who have experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks themselves. Right now, I want as many strategies as I can get, so please, keep them coming—as long as you are speaking from personal experience.