Saturday, November 15, 2014

On Stress

When I was eight or nine, I called the Kids Help Line because I was feeling scared and nervous all the time. I had two younger siblings who ate up most of my parent's time. I had few friends. I spent a lot of time alone. I was afraid of pretty much everything: certain commercials on TV, my parents dying, drugs (educating fifth-graders about heroin....why?), losing library books, getting yelled at. Everything an elementary schooler could plausibly fear, I feared it. The Kids Help Line ads were pretty much ubiquitous at the time, and their message was "If you need help, just call!"

So I called, and I spilled my guts to the nice lady on the other end of the phone. She listened to me talk to what felt like a long time, as I tried to figure out why I felt so bad all the time. Finally, after I had run out of steam, she said gently, "Sounds like you're pretty stressed out."

Sounds like you're pretty stressed out. It was a gift: a name for the feelings that swirled inside me. It was a real thing. I was not, as I feared, totally crazy.

I promptly burst into tears.

Many years later, I realized that the Kids Help Line was for kids in actual trouble—the ones getting touched by their stepfathers and the ones who had to sleep on the streets—and I was probably the cause of an unseen and amused smile on her end. I felt embarrassed, but then her words came back to me. Sounds like you're pretty stressed out. That was important to me then, and it's still important to me now.

I'm a person who takes on a lot. Nearly everything in my life signifies something bigger that itself: my job becomes who I am. Every fight with my partner signals the beginning of the end. Weird rashes are symptoms of horrible diseases. I still lose my effing library books, for god's sake. My baseline stress has always been high, and adding the regular business of life on top of that can make it intolerable. I'm a person who takes on a lot; consequently, I'm a person who melts down on the regular.

Over the years, this has manifested in different ways. Denial, food, drinking, smoking pot, making out with horribly chosen strangers, bulimia, rage tantrums, sleeping until 4 PM, skipping school. The list continues from there in the most predictable way possible. It will not shock you to hear that none of those strategies worked.

I read somewhere that the secret—the "secret," if you will—to dealing with stress and its various expressions is pretty simple: diet, exercise, talk therapy. If you're in the depths of a horrible chemical depression or an anxiety psychosis, there are obviously other things you need to add to that toolbox, but those're the basics. Eat well, move around, and talk it out.

And you know what? Since reading that, I've done my best to embody that. I eat fairly well (although I have a weakness for Chicago-mix popcorn and maple-bacon chips), I try to move as much as I can (given that I work in an office), and I talk it out (when I can afford it, and get the time off).

Hmm. Maybe I need to recalibrate a little. Maybe I need to remember that, if I have high baseline stress, then I need to have a big fat self-care routine, too.

When I was unemployed, I didn't have any money, but I did have free time. So I cooked, and I went to exercise classes, and I found a cheap therapist who could see me in the middle of the day. And you know what? I still felt stressed out! But I didn't feel like I was going crazy. I worried about money, my work identity, and the future of my relationship, but I didn't worry that I was a bad person or that my boss's words were going make me throw up.

Stress will do that to a person.

And stress also comes from pretending that things are fine, that boundaries aren't being crossed, that I'm holding up the bargain I made with myself to eat, move, and talk on a regular basis. When I'm not taking care of myself properly—when I haven't given myself permission to say, "Nope, that doesn't work for me," either to myself or the people around me, then I'm only adding to the baseline. Stress is also shame-creating: I feel bad for feeling so bad. Everyone else seems to managing their stress-loads pretty well, so what the hell is wrong with me?

I enough to go into self-care mode. I pour out a soothing tea, I hop into a hot bath, I take a walk with my husband, and things feel okay for a while. But over the last few months, I can feel my stress levels rising. It's slippery under my feet, and I know I'm headed for a fall. Those little moments aren't mitigating the bigger problems. I know I need to make a change, and you know what? I'm scared.

I sometimes wonder how many kids like me called that nice lady up and spilled their guts. I wonder how many times she said to them, "Sounds like you're pretty stressed out," and how many times she heard that silence on the other end of the phone. The silence that says, yeah, I am pretty stressed out. Thank you for seeing that. Thank you for helping