Have I mentioned that chronic low-grade anxiety has been a long-time traveling buddy of mine?
It has manifested its toxic little self such-like: I often talk really fast and tend to interrupt people; I move around fast and tend to run into and injure myself upon sharp corners of immoveable objects; I’m neurotic about being on time and get pissy when something interferes with that; I try to multitask and end up forgetting half of what I set out to do; I worry about not being a good enough therapist; I worry that I’m not creative enough; I worry that my worrying will make me sick. Shall I go on?
Although I’ve been consciously aware of most of this stuff for a long time, it was only recently that my awareness finally seeped from my left brain over to my right. This resulted in a rare moment of amazing clarity: I don’t have to be this way.
For one thing, I’ve already had cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), which made itself known during a time of intense and self-inflicted busy-ness and stress. Coincidence? I think not. Don’t get me wrong. I am unequivocally not one of those people who ascribes illnesses and ill fortune to divine or karmic punishment for past mistakes and personal failings. When my cancer was diagnosed, a distant cousin of mine made it a point to admonish me for my rebellious youth (sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll), and advise me that I needed to repent for my sins, at which point God would see fit to forgive my wretchedness. (He even offered to pray for me.) However, I strongly believe that anxiety, depression, feelings of unresolved grief and loss, and chronic stress can and do wreak havoc with one’s physical health.
So I should’ve known better. And I did. But the storyline I’d created to explain me to myself had long included the erroneous belief that I was a naturally high-strung kind of person, the product of somewhat anxious parents (God love’em, and may they rest in peace). My sister and brother are the same way. But that storyline or narrative–my mental construct of who I was–had been long overdue for revision. Since I created it, I was the one who had to edit it.
It wasn’t until after I took a vacation a few weeks ago and returned to work that I Got It. My outdated “self” was someone who worried a lot about achievement, being successful at running her own business, impressing others with her intelligence, empathy, creativity, depth, and so on. Last year I made a real effort to increase the size of my therapy practice, saw more clients, and tried to earn more money. What I discovered was that being a private therapist (with no support staff) takes a lot of energy and time. I had this notion that I needed to make more money to be satisfied with my career, and I’d never considered how big a bite my overhead costs, along with taxes, would take out of my income. By the end of last year, I was carrying an adequate caseload. I was also fried. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. I worked on most holidays, saw a few clients on Saturdays, and rarely had time to finish my paperwork at the office.
So a week away from all of that–time to breathe, time to be lazy, time to read and paint and co-hibernate with my cat–helped me step back and look at what I’d been doing to myself. I’m 52 years old, and though my health is generally good, I have to remind myself to pay attention to my body, something I stopped doing before my cancer diagnosis in 1994. My goal is to live many more years with as much vigor and enthusiasm as I can muster. I don’t think I’ll be filled with regret on my deathbed about not scheduling eight or nine clients a day, five and a half days a week.
What matters to me now more than ever before is not the length but the quality of my life. I’m tired of being anxious and stressed, and I don’t want to do that to myself anymore.
What I am going to do is put my left brain on notice, show myself the same empathy and compassion I try to show each of my clients, and accept myself exactly as I am. That may sound trite and clichéd, but genuine self-acceptance is ground zero if you want a happier and more peaceful life.
I already knew this stuff; it’s what I tell my clients all the time. And it has been oh-so-easy for me to preach it to everybody else. Now it’s time for the road-test.
Though I’m not a Buddhist, I love the concept of radical acceptance. It simply requires accepting things as the occur, acting appropriately on those about which we feel personally, morally and/or socially responsible, and letting go of the rest. My very limited understanding of Buddhism (and someone please correct me if I’m way off base) can be distilled down to these two things: All you can count on in life are (1) suffering, and (2) the impermanent and transitory nature of everything (including suffering).
To grossly oversimplify:
ACCEPT → (CHANGE) → LET GO
So the sun, long-lost in my neighborhood this time of year, emerged from the clouds for an hour or so this afternoon, and my spirit brightened a little. Later it disappeared into the usual high gray January sky. This has probably happened thousands of times of times since I was born. Same as it ever was.
And I’m cool with that.