Category Archives: anxiety

Shame Me Never

Once a man stopped my mother and me as we walked from a grocery store to her parking spot.  “What’s your disability?” He asked, pointing to the handicap accessible parking permit hanging from her minivan’s rearview. I don’t remember what my mother said back to him, but it was probably something like “Mind your business.” We both knew he was calling her a liar in an indirect way. His question was an attempt to shame her. This is how people who lack a sense of power exert control. They make a weapon out of shame.

She was 39 when the handicapped permit arrived in our lives, just three years older than I am now. She had no visible wrinkles, no grey hair. She never left the house without bright pink lipstick and Jackie-O sunglasses. She wore red nail polish on her toes. She did not look like a woman who was dying, at least if you think a dying person cannot be young or able bodied or capable of running an errand with her daughter.

But she was dying. Just a year before the parking lot encounter, my mother nearly died from a diabetic insulin reaction in front of me. She would have died had my sister and I not rubbed cake icing on her gums and dialed 9-1-1. We kept her alive while the paramedics made their eternally long drive to our house. We were nine at the time. This was not the first time we saved her life, but that’s another story.

***

When my mother was sick, when she was dying, I never used those words. Sick. Dying. This is not because I was afraid or in denial. It is because I was ashamed. Shame tunneled to the core of my being. Shame policed my language. Shame erased my self esteem. If I ignored shame, I thought I could make it go away. Instead of confronting my shame, I hid in my bedroom and read books about the Holocaust. I read every book about the Holocaust that our tiny library owned. I craved stories of other people’s suffering. I needed to know I was not alone. I needed to know suffering could happen to anyone.

Indiscriminate suffering became the theme of my writing. I wrote stories about girls whose mothers died or disappeared. I wrote these stories until a middle school teacher pulled me into the hallway one day and asked me if I was a masochist. She did not give me time to answer before she told me to stop writing these stories. They were freaking her out. I didn’t stop. I just stopped showing this teacher what I wrote.

Years later one of these stories won a national award that helped me get scholarships for college. My sister saved the story for me. She has always believed in my writing. A few months ago, she found the story and called me to tell me my life’s work is to write novels. But I can’t write fiction anymore. I don’t know why, or what happened to me, only that my inability to write fiction is directly connected to my mother’s death. I wrote one short story the year after she died. It was about a girl who tried to kill herself but survived.

I was the suicidal girl.

I was the girl who did not die.

***

No matter what my mother ate or how many times she tested her blood sugar, she would have an insulin reaction. She could not control her disease. Her disease would not be controlled.

She felt at fault for this dynamic, and she was made to feel this way inside a culture whose dominant narrative of illness employs words like “battle” and “fight” to erase the reality that control is usually the first thing to go when a person is sick. My mother did not battle her disease. She lived it for 35 years. She endured organ damage, organ loss, organ rejection, surgeries, hospitalizations, fractured bones, daily needle injections and blood draws, depression, and anxiety.

When she went to sleep at night, she never knew if she’d wake up in the morning. She wore an insulin pump. It did not save her.

The night after she died, I slept in the bed where she’d taken her last breaths. Her insulin pump beeped in the middle of the night. I threw it across the room. I wanted to break it open. After it hit a wall, the pump fell onto the carpet, completely intact.

­­My mother didn’t get to live in a time when women spoke openly about how shame silenced and policed us. The expression “body shame” was not part of her lexicon. She bought into the myth that her disease could be cured, and she believed her organ transplant was a cure. When her organs rejected seven years after the surgery, she gave up hope. She accepted her death. I do not know if she felt anger or if she blamed herself. During the last month of her life, she was the saddest I had ever seen her. She was sad to the core of her being.

Only a few close friends knew about my mother’s transplant or her organ rejection. Shame kept me silent. Shame kept me from reaching out. Shame kept me isolated. Shame fed my own depression.

***

I’ve had to speak up about my own illness this week. I’ve had to tell a friend and mentor –– and leader on my campus –– that I need to take breaks in order to protect my body from immune system attack. This need may mean that I miss out on opportunities. This need means I am not “leaning in.” This need means that I have to say the word “can’t” even though I’ve been taught never to say this word.

I am an overachiever. I am good at what I do. I am ashamed of myself when I say the word “can’t.”

I feel lazy. I feel like a quitter. I feel like a person who wants to squeak by doing the minimum. I am none of these things, but that’s the power of the word “can’t.” It evokes suspicion and disdain, especially when women use this word to set boundaries. You see, when a woman sets a boundary, there is often a professional cost. We are either shamed by others for setting the boundary, or we shame ourselves.

I’ve decided to stop giving a shit about shame. I’ve decided to take away shame’s power to control me. “Can’t” is not a bad word. Sometimes it’s the word I need to say, the only one that can save me.

On Living with Anxiety

My first semester in college, I came back from Thanksgiving break terrified that I would fail my developmental math class. No one called it developmental math back then. But I received no credit for this class, which met in an ivy covered Carnegie library.

I do not remember the value of X for any equation. I do not remember anything we did in that drafty classroom. I do not remember the students who sat around me.

I remember that my professor had a fang. I remember I rarely received a grade higher than a “C” on anything he marked. Sometimes I see and write numbers backward. I found it easier to skip my few required math classes than attend them. I was so afraid.

When I called my mother to tell her that I might get a D in math –– I was hoping for a D –– she told me I could come home if I wanted to. I could live with her and re-evaluate my goals.

I had so much anxiety I could only eat small salads with tofu in my dormitory’s dining hall. I did not sleep more than a few hours a night. I longed for the safety net of my mother’s house, a place where all the pressure I felt would collapse. But I knew going home was not the answer. I knew that if I left my dream school, I’d always regret it. I’d leave other places, jobs, or relationships, when they felt too hard.

I told her I’d stick it out. I studied fanatically for my final exam. I did extra credit. I hoped for a D.

Grades came in the mail back then. And my hands actually shook as I opened the envelope when it arrived. I screamed when I saw a B- next to the course.

I do not know how I earned that grade. My mother always thought it was because I was smart, but underestimated my abilities.

She was probably right.

­­________

I still have performance anxiety. I work in academia, so everyone I know is super smart. But a good number of my colleagues have backgrounds like mine. We have parents who did not go to college, or parents who had associate degrees, or parents who attended state schools. But I still sometimes feel like I don’t belong. Like I’m not smart enough to be here.

This week, the first week of my teaching semester, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Each morning, I woke up wide awake somewhere around 3 a.m. I said the metta prayer. I counted my breaths. I took melatonin. But I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

I thought about my classrooms, about the students who are potentially as afraid as I once was. I worried about their worry, and whether I could get them through.

Like me, they might be the first people in their immediate families to go to college. I know how easy it can be to give up when you can’t see a model of what’s possible or when a family crisis erupts. My mother died toward the end of my junior year of college. To this day, I don’t know how I finished my degree on time. I do know it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

After my parent’s divorce, my mother attended community college. But she had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She failed two classes and didn’t try again for ten more years. She was so afraid.

Today, her associate degree hangs in my office, to the right of my desk. I have three degrees. But my mother’s is the only degree I’ve ever hung for anyone to see.

She never knew me as a college graduate, much less a professor. But I try to carry her sprit with me into all my classrooms. I try to be the person she was for me.

This does not mean I mother my students –– because I don’t. But, if they need it, I want to be the one person who believes they are smarter than they think they are. I want to be the one person who does not underestimate their abilities.

Still, I can’t erase the anxiety they carry. Just as I cannot erase my own.

________

It saddens me that I cannot call my mother at the end of the day to tell her about everything that happened. If I’m worried, I cannot call her. In my entire professional life, I have never been able to call my mother.

My insomnia started the night she died. That was the first night of my life when I did not get a single second of sleep. I lost my safety net. I lost the belief that things would be okay. I’d seen the other side, the worst case scenario that came to fruition.

One of my friends who also struggles with anxiety told me he thinks anxious people have higher degrees of intelligence. We don’t fool ourselves about the world or probability. We look our fears in the face.

To a certain extent, I agree with him. But I also know other factors, such as hormones and genetics, play a large role in my anxiety.

I have accepted anxiety as part of my nature, and I work with it in my meditation practice. When I awaken at 3 a.m., I imagine my anxiety as a version of myself. I bow to her.

What are you here to teach me?  I ask.

I breathe. I remember I am capable and smart. I try to see myself the way my mother once saw me.