Forward Motion, Looking Back

Over the last two and a half years, I have struggled with anxiety.

I wrote that in past tense, but anxiety is anything but in the past for me.

Despite knowing I have no reason to be ashamed of these admissions, I rewrote the beginning of this post multiple times. I worried how my honesty on this issue would be perceived. I’m a private person when it comes to what I post online. I worry that talking about these issues will be judged as attention-seeking when truthfully, I’d rather talk and think about literally anything but my anxiety.

But I think that’s why sometimes it’s important to allow others to see the struggle. Not for attention for myself but because I want to let others who may be feeling the same way know that they are not alone.

Throughout my life, I’ve always been an optimistic person, with my eye on the future and focusing on the positive. I think most people who know me well can attest to that. I make an effort to encourage others and celebrate their successes. I look for the good in people, sometimes to a fault. I was the girl voted “Most Smiley.” If I failed at something, I paused briefly to learn from the experience and then moved on to the next thing, setting new goals without letting the past weigh me down. I had one year, three year, five year, and ten year plans for achieving those goals. I knew where I was heading and I was determined to get there.

And then 2020 happened.

Well, my anxiety had been nipping at my heels for three or four years before that, but I powered through with sheer force of will, believing hard work and determination would get me through.

And THEN 2020 happened.

Deep Breath.

I know I am not unique.

I know other people have far more reason for fear and overwhelm.

I know in many ways I am lucky.

Acknowledging those facts does not diminish the awful effects the last two and a half years have had on me.

During 2020:

  • My father went on hospice, with an expected six months to live due to pulmonary fibrosis, a debilitating, progressive lung condition that left his mind intact but his body failing slowly, inexorably. He was terrified. I was designated his round-the-clock care provider.
  • Because of his condition and because my mother is also aging with multiple serious health issues, we went on the strictest of COVID-19 lockdowns.
    • Other than my father’s hospice nurses, no one could come to the house.
    • I ordered groceries online, and when we brought them home, I washed them all down with bleach spray in the driveway before bringing them inside because we still didn’t know exactly how the virus was spread.
    • I left the house only a handful of times from March of 2020 until he died in May of 2021. I didn’t go inside anyone else’s home. I didn’t go into any businesses other than a pharmacy. Other than doctors and nurses, I didn’t see any other people except to visit with them outdoors in the driveway.
    • My hands were raw for over a year from how often I washed and sanitized them.
    • When there were shortages of things in the store, I had to explain to my dying father why he couldn’t have a certain item he’d asked for.
  • I withdrew entirely from Facebook because it made my anxiety so much worse.
  • I stopped talking to much of anyone, online and off, for the longest time. I didn’t know how to be the positive person everyone knew. I didn’t have any news to share that wasn’t grim, and as a result I withdrew. I didn’t want to add to the suffering I knew everyone else was feeling, so I went silent.

When I did pop online to read about what my friends and colleagues were up to, I saw so many of them talking about “using this time” to write that book or fling themselves into a new endeavor. Somehow, I thought I could do that too. I wanted to stay involved in my work. I signed up for some online writing courses to improve my skills. I attended professional Zoom meetings to keep in touch with the industry and to learn strategies for adapting to changing trends. I invested in books on craft I had every intention of reading. And I even made a schedule for myself, using Pomodoro timers to do writing sprints and squeeze in some “creative time” to make some progress on my projects.

But for all my serious intentions, I just couldn’t focus on creative work at all.

At first, while my dad was more able to manage for a few hours a day without direct attention, I focused on ensuring we had enough of our basic needs met. I stockpiled food in case supply chain issues got worse and we had to muddle along.

I occupied my mind with making lists and working on projects around the house.

I shoveled snow.

I bought multiple kits for raised bed gardening, hauling dirt and ordering seeds online for an immense expansion of our backyard vegetable garden. It felt good to be doing something physical, to be busy.

I bought a fire pit for our patio and had a friend help me put it together so dad could sit outside when he had good days.

I meditated.

I cooked extravagant meals as often as I could, trying to celebrate each day with my dad and to find reasons for gratitude.

I walked the dogs.

I listened to audiobooks.

I journaled, often as a way to plan for the future, what we would do once this was over, while dad was still able to be with us.

Autumn came. Dad got worse. Lockdown continued.

Afraid he might fall, I bought everything we needed to turn our 125 year old house into a smart home with Alexa in every room, acting as an intercom, streaming music and news, and turning on/off lights for my father as he became less and less able to do things for himself. I used the devices to set timers for his medication times and to remind myself of basic tasks I normally would have had no trouble remembering. Sunday nights, take out the trash. Water the plants every morning.

I bought a robot vacuum to help me keep up with cleaning.

I signed up for every possible streaming service so he had all the options for things to watch.

I ordered tickets to online concerts so he could listen to musicians play Bach and Mozart and Chopin from his seat in the living room.

I stopped reading. Entirely. I didn’t have time or the energy to focus on reading at all.

Instead, I bought a Kindle Unlimited subscription and chose books for my father to read.

My sister and brother-in-law came after quarantining for two weeks and they helped with projects around the house.

I made sure our gas powered generator was tuned up and worked so it was ready for winter.

I arranged for us to vote from home.

I stopped trying to work on any of my projects. My mind was constantly racing, and I couldn’t strap myself down to my writing desk and make anything happen there.

I stopped listening to music except with my dad.

When my dad started going to bed earlier and earlier, my mom and I started spending an hour together in my office, drinking wine each night and reminding ourselves of the things that were good each day.

I began each day writing down things that were good as a lifeline to cling to when things felt overwhelming.

The typical lists went something like this:

  • Our house is paid for.
  • Dad is still here with us.
  • The nurses who come twice a week are wonderful.
  • Our robot vacuum is my favorite new thing.
  • We have enough food to eat.
  • There was coffee and toilet paper at the grocery store.
  • Talking to my sister made me smile.
  • Dad liked the astronomy book I bought him.
  • The Swiss chard from our garden was delicious in our breakfast eggs.
  • We all enjoyed streaming All Creatures Great and Small.

Winter came. Dad was much worse. The insurrection happened. I started giving him morphine four times a day.

I woke up at 8am. Let the dogs out. Gave Dad his medicine. Fed the dogs. Made breakfast. Mom did dishes. I went out to my office. Did twenty minutes of meditation. Made a gratitude list. Went back into the house. Washed clothes. Fixed the TV or updated software on phones, iPads, or streaming devices. Cooked lunch. Gave Dad his medicine. Mom and I helped him settle in for a nap. I went out to my office and sat for half an hour with a cup of coffee and patted a dog. Ordered groceries or supplies. Scanned the news on my phone. Checked my task list for the week and arranged for grocery/supply/medicine pickup or delivery. Talked to the nurses or doctors about the next visit. Went back inside. Gave Dad his medicine. Cooked dinner. Found something we could all agree to watch on TV for a few hours. Gave Dad his medicine. Put him to bed. Sat up with Mom for an hour to talk and unwind. Went up to bed.

Rinse. Repeat.

That went on for…three months? Four? I don’t remember those days.

Dad asked for a birthday party with all his friends and family. I had to tell him no one could come because of the pandemic. I made him a cake and a fancy meal, and we Skyped with people. It was the best I could do, and it felt inadequate and awful.

Most days I was numb.

The electricity went out twice because of winter storms. Somehow, I got him through that, but just barely. I remember my terror he might die before I could get him switched from his oxygen machine to a tank in the dark. I remember struggling to get the generator started and calling the police in a panic. An officer came and helped me. Our neighbor stretched a power cord between our houses to ensure I never had to be afraid like that again.

Both of our 11 year old dogs died within days of one another.

One month later, we got a new puppy at Dad’s insistence.

Spring came. Dad was very frail. He needed more morphine. It made him reckless, and I was constantly afraid he would fall.

Our new puppy was one more responsibility added to the long list of daily tasks, but we needed her. Her antics made Dad smile constantly. She gave good snuggles.

I’d paid for online access to a concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and we watched them perform Handel’s Messiah. Dad cried, it was so good.

He had one last car ride with one of the nurses helping me, and we looked at the flowers that were just starting to appear. He was so excited just to be outside the house, even though it was less than an hour. He was still wearing his bedroom slippers and pajama pants.

After that, he was too weak to go.

We got our vaccines. Finally some family members could visit.

My sister and brother-in-law came for Easter, and I took a rare trip to the local greenhouse with my brother-in-law to buy some plants for the garden. Things Dad wanted us to grow. Meanwhile, my sister helped Dad sort through his clothes to donate things to charity.

I made Dad tater tots in the air fryer nearly every day because he loved them. I cooked whatever food he asked for, even if everyone else hated it. Whatever made him smile, he got.

Then one day he couldn’t get up from his chair. We had a hospital bed brought. The nurse upped his morphine dose. I called my sister and brother-in-law and told them they needed to come back as soon as they could. They arrived in time for him to know they were there. Our wonderful neighbors came to see him one last time. Family members called and spoke to him in turn.

I tucked him in and asked if he was comfortable. Through his pain and morphine, he shrugged and said, “Eh, I make a living” and winked. An old joke to make me laugh. And I did. That was the last thing he ever said.

He died the next day with all of us around him.

I spent the next month helping Mom prepare for his funeral and wrapping up his financial business.

When the funeral was over and everyone had gone home, Mom and I both felt lost. That month I started taking Paxil for anxiety. I ended up taking it for about a year.

The rest of 2021 is a blur.

We worked in the garden.

I twisted my knees badly and spent more than six months going for treatments and physical therapy.

I helped a close friend find a house near us and helped her move into it a month later.

We took a trip to North Carolina with some of Dad’s ashes.

Then it was Halloween. No kids came trick or treating so we ate all the candy ourselves.

Thanksgiving was at my aunt’s house, and we all drove down to spend the holiday together.

Our puppy turned one year old.

Christmas was just Mom and me and the doggo at home.

And then it was 2022.

I had seven writing projects in various stages, but nothing even close to completion, and I couldn’t make my brain work to write. At all. I sat at my desk and stared at the computer and drank coffee. I wrote words and then deleted them. I read over scenes I’d thought were good and found I hated every sentence.

I started feeling annoyed at my lack of progress. Then I was disappointed. Then I was angry.

Then I stopped going into my office at all.

Instead, I worked on my physical therapy and planted the garden and and avoided watching the news on television. Once every week or so, I spent time with a couple of close friends.

I tried to make plans for the future, but I couldn’t envision past a week at a time.

Then one day I started feeling better.

  • I could climb the stairs again without pain.
  • I stopped taking Paxil.
  • I started going out once in a while.
  • I didn’t need to make that gratitude list every day in order to make it through.
  • I started reading every night.
  • I was listening to music again.
  • I began work on a couple of new book projects. I finished one of them.
  • I signed on to some professional events.
  • I started slowly unfurling from the cocoon I’d wrapped myself into for so long.
  • I have things to look forward to.

I still can’t get my mind to plan anything beyond the end of this year. Not yet. But for the first time since 2020, I am confident I’m back on track again.

My mindset is different from what it was three years ago. I give myself the grace of needing a pause on all those expectations I set for myself. I allow myself to let go of goals that don’t fit me anymore. I open myself to new opportunities, knowing that I am stronger and more capable after going through what I experienced. I don’t have to foresee every potential problem that might arise because I am confident I can flex and flow and overcome whatever happens.

And on those bad days, I know how to cope.

Meditation.

Exercise.

Gratitude lists.

  • My family is loving and supportive.
  • My dog is a delight.
  • My friends are people who truly care.
  • My health is good and getting better every day.
  • Our house is comfortable.
  • We have our basic needs met.
  • The garden is a wonderful way to stay grounded and connected to nature.
  • We are safe.
  • There is coffee in the morning.
  • We have moments of laughter and joy to help us through the hard times.
  • There are books enough to fill our minds with wonder and knowledge.
  • There is kindness in the world if we choose to see it and create it.
  • Though we cannot change the world or solve its problems, we can make small positive changes that encourage change where we are with the power and tools we have.

A friend of mine reminded me that it’s actually a completely normal reaction to be anxious in anxious times.

I’m still finding my feet. Some days are harder than others. Sometimes the noise of the world feels overwhelming. But I’ve learned to be okay with not having it all together all the time. I’ve learned to be patient with myself and give myself the same grace I’d give to others.

So if, like me, you’re feeling anxious and unsettled and unsure, know that you’re not alone. Millions of people are experiencing those feelings, many of them in silence. We each have our own reasons for our reactions to what we’ve been through. Allow yourself to feel it. Be patient with yourself. And know you can get through it.

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