Oh, the irony of getting what you wanted

What I’ll remember most about this coronavirus ordeal (I mean, besides the thrum of imminent disease and death) is not the bother of looking like an old-timey bandit every time I ventured out of the house or how my husband and I managed to survive three months (thus far) stuck with each other 24-7 without going homicidal. No, what I’ll remember about this chapter is: irony.

Alanis Morisette, I must add to your iconic, ironic list of black flies in your chardonnay:  achieving your lifelong dream and then being unable to access it. My dream? Living in pajama pants and coffee-stained T-shirts, writing, writing, writing until cocktail hour, and then whittling away the remainder of the day on the patio under the shady albizia, with a fine glass of Napa Cab (dark, can’t see the flies), daydreaming about where the next day’s writing adventures will take me.

Turns out, I botched my “all the time in the world to write” fantasy because I was focusing on opportunity and neglected to include ability. And there it is. The irony.

Two things happened on my way to living my dream, one physical, the other psychological. First, just before the official Shelter in Place orders came down in California, I had shoulder surgery. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would take this much time and this much torture (physical therapy) to heal. And your body’s gonna take its damn sweet time to do so, and any time you challenge that timeline, it will remind you who’s in charge with stabbing, searing pain. While the fibers and nerves knit back together, you have no choice but to downgrade your expectations. My current big accomplishment this week was putting my own ponytail holder on all by myself.

Yay, me. You go, grrrrrl.

So, although our Shelter in Place lifestyle provides an abundance of time to do the things I’ve always wanted to around the house, like organizing my book shelves or planting rose bushes or digging through the layers of junk sediment I’ve squirreled away in the garage (it’s not hoarding if it’s in the garage) and clearing out some space for new stuff I don’t need, my shoulder vetoes everything. All the time in the world to do all the things I never had time for, and now I can’t do any of it.

Isn’t it ironic?

Don’tcha think?

But wait, you say, if you can’t do all those projects and tasks, that means you have even more time to devote to writing, yes?

Turns out, nope.

While I’m physically able to sit at the keyboard and type… my words are gone. For weeks, the well was just dry. I recently wrote a couple columns (I still can’t bring myself to call them blogs… it feels so… dirty), and managed to disgorge one little feature story for Witches & Pagans magazine. After 26 years in journalism, I have an abundance of experience producing publishable writing, no matter what’s going on in my life, be it divorces, or teenagers, or funerals, or PMS. Because, in journalism, not writing isn’t an option.

The Deadline Dominatrix.

She Who Must Be Obeyed.

So, yes, I wrote some stuff. But columns and feature stories are one thing. Writing books is an entirely different experience. Columns and stories are crafted. Writing for books emerges. Ideas and words and sentences burble up from a magical well in my brain and flow through my fingers. But suddenly it’s as if a brick wall has gone up around the well, and the gate to that garden has been slammed shut and padlocked. And I don’t have the key.

Well, hello, writer’s block. I thought we’d already met, but apparently I was mistaken. You’re much uglier than you looked in the photos.

And, there’s the second irony. All this time to write, and I just… can’t. I am creatively paralyzed. A verbaplegic.

Alanis, this is so, so, so much worse than ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

I see other writers on social media turning this pandemic plight into stunning productivity, churning out finished manuscripts like word machines, and I look at them like I would an Olympic gymnast flying and tumbling through the air on the parallel bars. I watch wide-eyed and think, “Fuck! I can’t do that!!” And at that precise moment, my old pal Anxiety steps in to confirm my fears.

Just give up. Stay in place. If you never try, you’ll never have to fail. Stay here with me and let the entropy and decay do its work.

Anxiety has been my lifelong nemesis. It freezes you in place like the proverbial deer in the headlights, but the oncoming vehicle never actually gets there. You just stand there, frozen, immobile, while your mind runs an endless tape “what if, what if, what if” that all lead to doom and disaster.

But… when I was writing my last book, I felt like I’d left anxiety in the rearview mirror! I was unstoppable. The Queen Fucking Bee of my own life. Nothing ahead but bright light and success. I was writing like a beast. What the hell happened!

Coronavirus, that’s what.

And institutionalized agoraphobia as a way of life: Leave the house and DIE.

These are fat times for my buddy Anxiety. There’s a brand new universe of fear to exploit, from touching another human to forgetting to wash your hands to venturing out to buy a loaf of bread. The entire world has become treacherous. Lethal even. It’s too overwhelming to think about. How ’bout we shove it all aside and pretend it’s not there.

It’s what Candy Crush was invented for.

I’m on, like, level 7,000.

But… how, and why, did all this coronavirus anxiety express itself in writer’s block? I have no fucking idea. So I presented the issue to the source of all knowledge: Facebook. I asked other writers if their fingers are flying over their keyboards or, like me, are they dead in the creative water. Turns out… I’m not alone. Others are stuck too. And some offered some really valuable insight, in particular, that anxiety neutralizes creativity. And also, that maybe I should give myself a break for having feelings about an actual crisis, rather than perpetually flogging myself for being a failure.

From this, I got clarity. First off, maybe I should turn some of that kindness and compassion I’m always yammering on about toward myself. What a concept. Second, stop fleeing from my worries and take some time to just look at them there, swirling round and round like leaves stuck in a swimming pool drain. See what’s actually there. See them for what they are, not what I imagine them to be.

As opposed to the anxiety that I self-generate about stupid, obscure shit, like the drive shaft on the steering wheel breaking off while I’m driving and hitting the asphalt and impaling me, the corona virus anxieties are actually possible:  “Will I ever see my children again?” “Will people I love die?” or “Will my life end alone, on a respirator, with no one there?”  I don’t even have to use my imagination to envision gruesome, horrifying scenarios anymore. They’re happening all over the world, to tens of thousands of people.

“Will I be one of them???”

It’s too overwhelming to think about, and it all came upon us so suddenly, we didn’t even have time to process it beyond “Be afraid! Be very, very afraid!” Me, I couldn’t deal. So I Scarlet O’Hara’ed it: I’ll think about that tomorrow. Shoved it all into the back of my brain and tried to convince myself that this is just a long, weird holiday.

But my brain is not so easily fooled by the likes of me.

“Ha! You think you’re not thinking about those things, but I’m gonna run those little motherfuckers on a subconscious endless loop in the back of your mind like too many programs running in the background on your computer, and use up all your RAM, and shut you down.” And, there you have it: writer’s block. Anxiety, albeit subconscious, hijacked my brain.

“Outta the way, bitch, I’m driving now!”

However, funny thing about subconscious stuff. Shining a light on it and examining what’s festering and fermenting there is what helps you to conquer it, and anxiety too. Awareness is the mental Raid you can spray on all those cockroaches.

So, what’s there, really.

Yes, I could catch the coronavirus. I could die. However, I could also die in a car crash, and I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that when I get in the car.  Ditto for riding my horse. I know that every time I ride, I could be hurt or killed. But the joy of riding my horse overrides the threat. So, I mentally slided the coronavirus fear into the driving and riding category, and that made it conquerable. I can acknowledge the fear and continue to live my life anyway, whether it’s cars or horses or viruses.

That little epiphany was the key to that locked gate. Click! I can step inside again. I can hear the babbling well. Words and sentences are bubbling up again. I just need to capture them on the keyboard.

I’m back!

I’m not giving my creativity to anxiety anymore. I’ll spend my mental capital on things I actually can control, and coronavirus ain’t one of them. Yes, it’s there, and yes, I must do everything I can to stay safe, and honor the safety of others. But I’m not going to let it consume all my creative bandwidth.

But I’ll probably still worry about the drive shaft from time to time. Because, virus or no virus, I’m still me.

 

Don’t think about the cow… or Trump

It has been more than 20 years since I had a full-on panic attack — airline travel notwithstanding. Of course, flying is a phobia and the anxiety has an obvious immediate reason — HOLY SHIT I’M ABOUT TO GET ON AN AIRPLANE — but a panic attack is a different animal. It comes on for no exact, obvious reason. You can feel it building, and building, and building…. and then there’s a tipping point. And then — it’s on: heart pounding, shortness of breath, a dizzy, whirling feeling in your brain, and difficulty speaking because your mind is absorbed with escape.

I need to FLEE and I need to flee right NOW.

Yesterday evening, I wasn’t in an airport, or thinking about airplanes. It had been a fairly typical day, however, with the country poised to fall into the hands of a sociopathic, narcissistic megalomaniac with the maturity and self-control of an overtired toddler, the definition of “typical” has been thrown out the window. This is the new typical, the new “normal”: Every single day… possibly every single hour… we are going to be bombarded with Donald Trump’s latest outrageous word or action. Every time we think he can’t possibly do something more alarming and terrifying, he does. And it appears that with a Republican Congressional majority, he will have free rein to do whatever his greedy heart desires, because historically, Republicans have never, ever disagreed with a Republican president and have worked vigorously to oppose anything a Democratic president attempts to do. That’s how they roll. Will they roll differently with Trump? Well, that depends. Will their agreement or disagreement have an effect on their chances of re-election? Because that’s all they really care about, the self-serving fucks.

So, this is our set point. Our lives are about to fall into a tiny-minded tyrant’s hands, and I don’t believe the Congressional Republicans will do anything to stop him. Say hello to our next Supreme Court Justice, David Duke.

My worries about the exponential horrors that may transpire under the Trump Administration have my anxiety level at an all-time high set point. I have actually had nightmares about it, and here’s the thing — so have so very many others, because when I raised the topic, responses came flooding in that others are having nightmares too. Something is simmering in our collective unconscious, and it’s not good.

Yesterday, I started the day by writing a #NotMyPresident column, and all these thoughts and fears were swirling in my mind. By the time I was done, I had a mild headache and my heart was beating harder than it should. I attempted to walk it off, because physical activity in the past has calmed my heart when it races. I walked my horse (who is also a very grounding energy) round and round the barn, chatting, breathing deeply, trying to bring my energy level down a notch. It worked. While I was walking the horse. Unfortunately, I can’t walk Pendragon to work and round and round my desk while typing on my keyboard. I’m good, but I’m not that good.

The time had come to put Penn away and get back to the office. As soon as I got in the car, I could feel my tension rising again. I got to the office and decided to distract myself and think about this story I’m working on — mountain lions leaving tracks and killing animals in rural Winters (right next to where my horse lives!). I call one of the ladies who had a run-in with a mountain lion. A calf was killed. Bummer. I suppose nature happens, and I know meat doesn’t come from little styrofoam trays at the market, but still, the efforts of carnivores to stay alive do give me the willies, particularly when as far as a predator is concerned, I am food.

So, the woman begins to tell the tale of what happened: She had a young cow, giving birth her first time, and she wandered too far from the herd. She began giving birth in the middle of the night. She didn’t make it until morning. When the woman found her, the newborn calf had been stripped of every morsel of flesh on its tiny body… nothing left but bones. But the cow… that poor, poor cow… she’d had her body cavity eaten, beginning from the udders.

Eaten alive.

While giving birth.

The gush of empathy for this poor creature enduring such horrendous torture WHILE giving birth was my tipping point. Don’t ask me to make sense of this, because panic attacks don’t make sense. The image of that cow being in the throes of labor while being torn apart by a mountain lion swirled in my head, and swirled and swirled and swirled. My heart started pounding harder and faster, and none of my breathing techniques were working. My thoughts were spinning out of control, but not to anyplace in particular, just spinning in circles with random images of that poor cow.

I went to see my massage therapist, and after a bit, I felt calm. While I was on the table. And maybe for about 30 minutes afterwards. But, while pushing an ordinary shopping cart through an ordinary market buying ordinary things like I do on every other ordinary Friday… the panic attack switch flipped. By the time I got to the checkout line, my mind was almost whirling with incoherence and all I really wanted to do was leave the full cart there and run for my life. To where? I don’t know. As long as it was anywhere but here. Run, run, run until my lungs and legs collapse.

But of course, I couldn’t. I was in a public place, I had to keep it together, function as best as I could, be courteous, get my stuff in the car and go home. I did breathing exercises the whole way. Nothing. I unloaded the groceries and by the time I was done, I was so wound up, it was difficult to carry on a conversation with my husband, and even more so when I tried to explain that I got really upset by what happened to a cow.

It might sound comical to you, a dead cow triggering a panic attack after not having one for about two decades. But if it does — you’ve never had a panic attack. They aren’t pretty or fun, and when nothing else has worked to get control, I finally, reluctantly decided to take a Xanax, which I save for when I have to fly. Xanax is a funny drug. If you take it when you aren’t having anxiety, it might make you a little drowsy, but it doesn’t really do much. But when you are in the midst of full-blown anxiety, you can actually feel your brain begin to calm down to a normal place where you can control your thoughts and speak coherently again, and exhale.

After I’d gotten through this flood of panic, I spent the rest of the evening sitting with my cats and husband, with massage-y ambient music, a vanilla-scented candle and a cup of chamomile/lavender tea. He finally went to bed, and I sat there even longer, and eventually picked up my iPad and played Candy Crush for about two hours. Funny thing about Candy Crush — your right brain takes over and your anxiety-ridden left brain, with all its swirling words and fears, shuts off. It’s like taking a vacation from your own head.

Even so, several times during the night, the image of the cow being eaten alive by the mountain lion popped into my head and woke me up, because Xanax wears off after about five hours. I didn’t want to take more, and so every time the image appeared, I’d command myself, “Don’t think about the cow! Don’t think about the cow!”

And, of course… I still thought about the cow.

I don’t know where this story goes, exactly, which is why it’s a blog and not a column. But what I do know is that my set-point for anxiety is very high right now and upon Inauguration Day, will likely get even higher, and I have to wonder what will trigger then next panic attack. I guess I’d better keep my Xanax prescription filled.