(Song Dedication: Things Happen by Dawes)
One week shy of an entire year ago, I left my classroom teaching position; essentially tapping out of the life I had created for myself over the past 30 plus years. It was a slow climb that masqueraded as a life well lived on Facebook. As I finally settled into a permanent contract teaching intermediate students, regularly running 10 K’s (more than I ever imagined I was capable of), starting my day with early morning meditation and dealing with all the messy bits in between like being a Mom to my then 5 year old and partner to my Husband, I would collapse in a useless heap at the end of
my our day. In this state of idleness, I took solace from the “good work” I was doing with my students, the minutes I could shave off my run, and the sporadic moments of patience and presence I could sometimes muster in my home life.
In this hurried reality in which I existed, I felt (or unfelt) two things; anxiety or nothingness. The anxiety had become my crutch, what some people might even refer to as “good stress”. It made me highly productive and creative in my career. It allowed me to ignore all the others parts of the proverbial sweater that were coming apart at the seams and unravelling from the bottom up. From early on in my life, since childhood, my anxiety response was as much a survival tool as it was an addiction; my brain accustomed to the bath of constant cortisol. I lived in a prolonged state of Chronic Stress, seemingly using it to my advantage, only to discover nearly a year ago this was not only a disadvantage, I was going into debt with my own health. In this article about chronic stress you can read all about the negative effects of chronic stress on the body such as: brain atrophy, memory disorder, reduction in cognition, hormonal imbalance, malfunctioning immune system, cardiovascular complications, GI tract inflammation and digestive malfunctions. For me, I checked all the boxes.
With the constant presence of anxiety came more specific emotions like fear, worry, obsession, sadness, exhaustion, and inadequacy. But when I wasn’t trying to catch my breath in this rainbow of lovely tidal wave agitation, I was left feeling empty…so full of nothingness that just looking into the blackhole in my chest triggered my fear response even more. This was because I materially had everything I needed. A home, a family, clothing and food, plus, plus, plus. Surrounded by abundance and not knowing how to feel it. No more distractions left; in busying myself with working to get what I wanted or needed…it was all there and I was still empty. That is some seriously scary, disturbing shit!
On October 16th of last year, I stopped teaching, at the time thinking I needed a few weeks to recalibrate. I had started having migraines a few weeks earlier, sometimes 2 a day, up to 6 in a week. This got my attention; but not enough to make me physically or mentally stop, as I continued to teach through them. I know now why I wouldn’t stop teaching. It was my one identifier that made me feel worthy, like I was making a positive impact on the world. If I subtracted my career from my life’s equation, what would be left but a broken body and brain left to sort itself out, no more diversions. I wasn’t ready to take that on. Too bad for my analytical mind, because my body and spirit were saying otherwise; I was outnumbered.
The two week break from the classroom turned into months and this rolled into term 2 and then 3, suddenly bringing us all to summer holidays. I didn’t make it back into my classroom because I had too much other work to do, it was still teaching but now I had to teach myself, relearn how to be whole and worthy without labels, monetary gain and accolades.
And here I am, 51 weeks later and what I am most struck by is no longer the absence of joy and gratitude, but the absence of my hyper-aroused central nervous system, the constant state of fight/flight/freeze, the worry and fear of things being beyond “my control”. And the anger. Oh the anger.
I slipped in and out of the rage sometimes feeling like resentment and other times feeling like full-blown infuriation for what my past tense was. I had windows of acceptance, extinguishing some of my pain for fleeting moments that never stuck. Every time the anger resurfacing, inducing a sense of failure; some petulant child who couldn’t overcome life’s adversity. But with the space my illness had created, I began to witness these strong emotions without need. Need to do something about it. Growing up as a victim of abuse, I had become a stark opposition to injustice; even the littlest inconsideration was taken as an assault on my being which I needed to come to my own rescue and bring the wrath of the anger which was no longer serving me (my fight response). It was unhealthy and taxing me down to a cellular level. I believe this form of fury is behind me, or at the very least, has taken an extended break from hovering over me (or in me-tainting a majority of my experiences). I am no longer angry with my childhood caregivers, I no longer mourn for the childhood I believed should have been my right.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I stole away for my regular walk with Lucy Dog, but we were in Penticton and so I hiked up to one of my favourite lookouts where the only drawback of this spot is the giant black garbage can next to the cement barriers I like to sit on while overlooking the valley from Skaha to Okanagan Lake.
This time I stepped over the barriers and easily found my footing on the rocks and moss that sloped down towards the valley bottom. Lucy trailing behind, I hiked down the steep slope and found a little spot to nestle my seat into (moss makes a great cushion by the way). Lucy and I sat comfortably and it was then that I noted how close I had situated myself to the edge of the slope’s face, feeling surprised. You see, up until, well forever, I have been fearful of heights and cliffs and drop offs. As I sat with the intention to meditate, I was shocked to see how I had made my way to this spot without a single twinge of apprehension or fortune-teller fears of me falling to my death. This absence of fear (my flight or freeze response) had never happened within me before. It felt amazing and with this freedom I felt alive with joy and gratitude, my heart beating clearly with intention, rather than anxiety driven palpitations.
As my perspective continues to shift, I note more absences. The vacancy of anxiety, despair, hopelessness, inadequacy, anger and most of all the absence of nothingness that plagued me with panic and guilt; guess that’s not so nothing afterall either. In the words of (what I believe to be one of the great bands of our time) Dawes,
Let’s make a list of all the things the world has put you through
Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to
I don’t know what else you wanted me to say to you
Things happen, that’s all they ever do
In a different time, on a different floor
I might mourn the loss of who I’m not anymore…
Moving on, moving forward with hope, anticipation and gratitude for this moment, but also the moments yet to unfold in this life I’ve been gifted.