Is Life a Lopsided Tennis Match?

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

In my last blog post, I proposed that life is like a card game. I used this analogy to separate the things in life that we can’t control from the things that we can.

Briefly: We cannot control when or where or to whom we are born—those are the cards we’re dealt. Society’s laws and conventions are outside of our control as well—these are the rules of the game. With time and collaborative effort any set of rules can be changed, but we are subject to the existing regulations until and unless we can rewrite them. In the meantime, we can make a multitude of changes every day in our own lives—that is the skill and mindset we bring to playing the game.

So, please humor me because I’m about to add another metaphor to the mix…

What if life is also like a lopsided tennis match? (Or pickleball for you picklers.) Each of us is on one side of the net, and the entire world is on the other side, hitting a barrage of balls straight at us from all angles.

These tennis balls represent all the many events and influences we have to contend with starting at a young age:

  • A mother struggling with mental health issues
  • An absent or detached father
  • A learning disability that emerges in childhood
  • A hurricane damaging our home
  • A bully at school
  • A lengthy illness
  • A parent losing a job
  • A traumatic car accident
  • An unexpected death in the family
  • A violent stranger
  • An inhumane law or practice

A family member, friend, or neighbor might step in to help with hitting these balls, but most of the time we feel as if we’re on our own.

As a kid, I experienced some of the things listed above. I tried hitting back these balls as best I could. But I was flailing about because I lacked the proper technique. And even if I had developed the appropriate skills early on, a flurry of balls was coming at me fast and furious.

So, as I hit the balls back, the strokes I used were avoidance, distraction, anger, numbing, and procrastination. The mindset I brought to the game often included defensiveness, jealousy, self-pity, and fear.

I believe that our society poorly prepares children for dealing with life’s ups and particularly its downs. We shove our kids out onto the court with a racket and tell them to have at it. Oh, and try not to be a whiner—you’re not the only one playing this exhausting game, you know.

In place of more productive skills, we utilize alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, screens, gambling, lies, stealing, manipulative behavior, and so on. These tactics are like swinging wildly at the torrent of tennis balls. We do make contact with some of them, thereby protecting ourselves from getting hit by every single ball. But swinging wildly is not a long-term solution.

In middle age, I realized that I am responsible for building the skills that can help me play the game of life more effectively. I have since tried meditation, exercise, time spent in nature, journaling, learning, human connection, self-coaching, habit shifting, and more. These types of methods take some getting used to, and they don’t always deliver the immediate bang of buying an expensive pair of shoes. But they are almost always more powerful in the long run.

As I noted before, we players can band together to change the rules to the chaotic and often unjust game known as “the rat race.” (We call it that for a reason.) While reform is in progress, it is up to individuals to acquire the tools and hone the techniques that can sustain us.

As we do this, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has equal access or ability to improve their game. Some people might not be able to afford the same equipment or training as others. And the rules that are in place often favor some players over others.

Remember, we are all that scared, unprepared kid, swinging as best we can at a deluge of tennis balls.

Quieting the Tyrant Within

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in December 2018. I am posting an updated version here because it addresses a topic that will always be relevant to my emotional growth.

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I launched this blog, ditched my corporate marketing job, quit drinking, started moving my body more, spent a summer trying new things from my bucket list, and started writing a book.

Then, I decided to take on a different kind of challenge. Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.

Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.

Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.

There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.

In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

Image of Jessica Lange from the movie Frances.

*****

When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.

At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.

Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.

I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.

*****

Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have whispered to me throughout my life. Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.

When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.

Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.

I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation, and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.

*****

We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.

When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”

In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side, I began analyzing why I’m so judgy. I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.

The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.

I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.

Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it still didn’t sound quite right.

When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.

The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.

My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility. It is brutal and confining.

If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.

And as I practice quieting my internal tyrant, hopefully I’ll grow increasingly grateful that I’m so darn stable.

Lake of Tears

Image of geese flying over Lake Linganore in Maryland (photo effects from Nexmuse.com).

Recently I was reading through the memoir I’ve written, giving it one more light edit before sending it off to the proofreader. About halfway through, something occurred to me: I am a big crybaby.

My manuscript covers the full scope of my life, with a strong focus on my childhood, teens, and early adulthood. Apparently, those years featured a lot of bawling. Out of curiosity, I searched my document for the use of words like “cry,” “tears,” “sob,” “weep,” etc.

I found no fewer than 14 descriptions of me wailing, gasping for breath, whimpering, or blubbering. Despite my embarrassment at all this lamentation, I decided to keep each and every reference to tears in my book. Though I come across as dramatic and self-indulgent…well, that’s who I am to a certain degree.

Over the past five years, I’ve tried to interrupt this inclination to lean into my emotions, particularly the self-pitying and indignant ones. I hear a lot these days about the importance of sitting with your feelings: We are meant to feel our feelings, not run or distract from them. At the same time, it can be unhealthy to get lost in our emotions—to let them sweep us away.

Last week, I was in a yoga class, and we did a number of hip-opener poses, which can help release stored-up stress and emotion. Toward the end of class, in our next-to-last pose, I found my eyes filling up with tears. It freaked me out at first. I held back, and then when I got out to my car, I had a good little cry and got in touch with what was stirring inside me.

As I sat there, I thought about how our emotions are like water. They are important, but their power must be respected. They can overwhelm us if we aren’t careful.

The lake where I live is beautiful; it serves as a water source for our county, as a home for countless creatures, and as a place for recreation and connecting with nature. But it can also be dangerous if you don’t practice appropriate safety measures. People have died in boating, swimming, and diving accidents in this lake.

Emotions don’t often kill us, but they can swallow us up. In addition to all the crying scenes in my manuscript, I also write about my issues with anger. I have been known to let my temper get the best of me, to fight tooth and nail to win an argument. This fury can lead me to say terrible things to others, to push the most sensitive buttons of the people I love, and to act in a way that seems out of sync with my values.

So, I’ve been working on locating that fine line between exploring my feelings and drowning in them. Meditation has assisted in this effort. Spending time outdoors helps put things in perspective. And sometimes simply thinking about the impact of our emotions, as I did in the car last week, and as I’m doing right now, helps bring everything together in a lesson that’s hard to forget.

What Scary Things Can Teach Us

For the past 14 months I’ve been writing and editing a book about my life. This memoir tells the story of how self-doubt, drinking, and anxiety kept me from chasing my dreams. I am 56 years old, and this is my first full-length manuscript.

The young woman who chose creative writing as her major in college, and who relished the praise she received from her professors, would be dejected to learn that it took her more than three decades to finally write book number one.

Don’t get me wrong—I am proud of many of the things I’ve done over the years. During my most recent read-through of the manuscript, I noticed a number of times when I didn’t let fear get the best of me, when I took on challenges that were outside my comfort zone.

But those scattered moments of pluck were not enough to build a solid foundation of confidence that could sustain a writing career. It took years of self-exploration, sobriety, the death of a dear friend, and a worldwide pandemic to finally get me to draft this book.

After the writing came the endless editing. Just when I thought the revisions were done, they were not (and possibly still aren’t). Once my work was in good enough shape, I recruited people to read my manuscript to make sure I wasn’t deluded in my belief that it is worth publishing.

And, because I’ve written a book that recalls real scenes with real people whom I love and respect, I decided to reach out to some of the more prominent people to give them a chance to read the passages that involve them.

Sending your book out into the world before it’s perfect (is it ever?) is terrifying. At least it has been for me. I still have several more steps in the creative part of this process, and one of them is the most difficult step yet: talking with my mom about the chapters devoted to our complex relationship. I’ve been putting this off, and I cannot procrastinate much longer.

I know from the earlier steps I’ve already taken that I can do things that scare me. When I do scary things, I usually learn something about myself. One of the things I learn (almost every single time) is that I am brave and strong—braver and stronger than I could have imagined.

And when you keep doing things that intimidate you, you get to discover over and over how brave and strong you are. And who wouldn’t want to confirm that fact over and over? I think maybe this is a lesson we are meant to learn.

Over the past several years, I’ve taught myself that it’s ok to be frightened of doing certain things. I don’t have to pretend that I’m not scared in order to do these things—I can acknowledge my fear or discomfort and then do them anyway. An open and willing mind can lead me to take desired actions, and taking those actions produces an increasingly positive mindset.

In other words, the more I do this, the easier it gets. I only have to look back to yesterday or last week for proof that my heart can pound and my stomach can twist itself in knots and I might lose some sleep, but I will not fall apart.

Sweating the Small Stuff

My retired mom, who lives with me, came upstairs one day and told me she had had a very stressful morning. I asked her what happened, and she explained that she couldn’t find her cell phone. She looked and looked and finally realized that she had made the bed with her phone under the covers. So, she had to unmake the bed, retrieve the phone, and remake the bed. She wasn’t running late for anything, but she was huffing and puffing about what a setback this had been to her morning, and clearly it had affected her mood.

This was about 10 years ago, not long after my mom first moved in, and I remember at the time thinking that this sequence of events did not seem particularly stressful. It sounded exactly like that spilled milk we are told not to cry over. I even told this story to a co-worker and watched her eyes widen as she clearly agreed with me.

Over the past decade, I’ve thought a lot about my mom’s tendency to get flustered by life’s typical ups and downs. I reflected on how she often felt tired or unwell when I was a kid. It almost seemed like life itself was making her exhausted. Maybe because it was.

I’ve been trying to develop greater empathy for my mom, and my own current circumstances are helping me see things from a new point of view. After years of working at demanding jobs, I am currently unemployed. Now, when I get anxious, most of my stressors seem minor compared to my former work-related dilemmas.

When you’re an anxious person, like me and my mom, you often look for things to get stressed about. If you “require” a constant flow of tension in your life, your only choice is to find it among your daily experiences. The things that stress you out end up being proportionate to what you have going on in your life.

Some human beings are more sensitive when things going wrong. Even trivial mishaps and slights can mess with our day, and we want to say, “eff it.” Sometimes we do say eff it, and we give in to our worst habits and coping tools. These behaviors—like drinking, binge eating, scrolling on social media, or shopping—can be soothing in the short-term but not so efficient or healthy in the long-term.

I’m not saying we handwringers are a weak subset of people, but we react in extremes way to frustrating stuff. Some might call this a lack of resilience, but I think we’re actually a pretty resilient bunch. Maybe the issue is that we aren’t skilled at putting things in perspective, so everything feels like a good reason to throw up our arms. But I don’t think calling this a perspective problem is helpful, either, because it implies that we could get over ourselves if only we realized how insignificant our lives are in relation to others.

What if we decided, instead, that everyone’s emotional strain is valid? That stress is relative, and that’s ok. I think that’s a good start—by taking each of our anxiety levels seriously. By retiring the directive, “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Then, if we want to diminish our reactions to stress and stop leaning on those short-term coping behaviors, we can work on that. We can take deep breaths and remind ourselves that this, too, shall pass. But, in the meantime, if we want to vent like my mom did that morning, we should do so without fear of being labeled a drama queen.

Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.

Accepting New Things

There’s a saying that goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” According to the internet, this quote is a mash-up of writings by Mahatma Ghandi and a 1914 speech by union leader Nicholas Klein.

These men were referring to the gradual success of political movements, but I think the insight captures the spirit of how we humans respond to all kinds of new things.

Earlier this year, I went to pick up food at a Five Guys burger joint, and while I waited, I became fascinated with a sign that was attached to the side of their soda machine. I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with one of these touch-screen soda machines, but they’re pretty cool. You can choose from like a thousand options of soda, tea, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit flavorings. It makes the traditional soda fountain look quaint and insufficient.

The sign instructed customers that they could use their smart phone to scan a QR code from the screen of the soda machine. This would allow them to select from all of the same beverage options through their phone rather than having to touch a screen that other people may have touched.

At first, I rolled my eyes hard. I snapped a photo of the sign, looking forward to sharing this ridiculousness with my husband. He, too, chuckled when he saw it.

Months later, I was scrolling through my phone and happened upon that photo. With some distance, it didn’t seem quite so silly. Why not offer people an option that takes advantage of the powerful technology that so many of us carry around? Who was this sign hurting? OK, it might slow down the line a tad as people try to figure out the app, but what’s the problem with slowing down for a minute or two?

Things that are new and different scare us. Our minds haven’t yet figured out why we need them or how they work, so we reject them. Why is that? Maybe the primitive part of our brain worries that if we don’t understand something, if we have to incorporate new information in order to “get” it, that implies something is lacking in us.

But as time goes on, and we acquire that knowledge without even trying, as we think about it some more and become familiar with the new thing, we start to warm up to it.

Sometimes, like the quote, we still fight against the new thing. And those who fight don’t always win. But slowly, the new thing becomes a part of our culture, and we grow to accept it. Can you think of an example of a practice that was shunned, even outlawed, which is now embraced? I bet you can. This has been happening for centuries in societies all over the world. The process can be long or short or anywhere in between.

This same principle is at work in our personal lives. We resist making changes. The new thing—think meditation, exercise, journaling—runs counter to the self that we know. Contemplating adding this new thing to our existence suggests that we are currently incomplete or deficient. And that makes us feel unsafe, so we puff ourselves up by snickering at the alien thing.

However, once you immerse yourself in something unusual, the process of acceptance speeds up—like stepping your foot on the gas. We can all override our instinct to ridicule the new and unusual, and the reward is a more expansive life and a more inclusive society.

Rooftops and Control Issues

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I used to visit friends in Brooklyn. This couple lived in an apartment building that was about five or six stories tall, and they had access to the roof. Hanging out on their roof offered a dramatic view of the Manhattan skyline.

Whenever we were up on that roof, taking in the towering skyscrapers, I kept my distance from the edge of the building. If I stood within a couple feet of the edge, I felt as if I might go flying right off.

I had no desire to jump, and my friends weren’t prone to violence or stupid stunts, so the chance of falling from their roof was remote. But it terrified me, nonetheless. If I did inch toward the edge, my heart started thumping and my stomach twisted, as if I were on a tightrope instead of a solid surface.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been afraid of my life spiraling out of control. For decades I struggled to feel secure about my safety, health, finances, friendships, relationships, even my mental stability.

My mind would go from zero to 60 in an instant. A sharp pain in my back was probably cancer, an overdrawn bank account would lead to financial ruin, a missed deadline meant I was about to get fired.

Clearly, I had issues with control. My brain always craved more.

No one wants less control over their lives, right? We expect a certain measure of control over the basics—where we live, what we eat, whom we love, how we dress, what we read, when or if we have a family, how or if we worship. When those options are blocked, we get our backs up, and rightly so.

But for some folks, a generally accepted level of control is inadequate. It’s too slippery, too treacherous.

Control is a funny thing. I could argue that we have way more control over our lives than we realize, and I would be right. I could also make a compelling argument that we have far less power than we think and be correct. Like a kaleidoscope, our ability to control our lives is constantly shifting due to all the moving parts.

How can we panicky people accept the randomness of human existence? I’ve decided to focus on the control that I do have. I am scouring my days, looking for parcels of time that I can affect. The simple act of pausing and choosing one thing over another instead of running on auto-pilot is surprisingly empowering.

Instead of watching cable news, I can read. In the first 62 days of 2021, I completed six books, which is the same number I read all last year.

Rather than getting lost in YouTube videos, I can write in my journal. I’ve never been much of a journal keeper, but this year I am using a book with prompts and have filled 40 typed pages thus far.

When I have 10 minutes here or there, instead of scrolling through social media, I can meditate.

Instead of doing busywork (like organizing my closet or writing out detailed to-do lists), I can take a walk or do yoga or brainstorm small business ideas.

Big actions can help clear the decks for the smaller stuff. I chose to quit drinking nearly four years ago, which was a huge power move. That decision opened up vast amounts of time in my life.

The results have been promising. The more control I exert over my days, the less I worry about my life blowing away from me.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: One Year Since Losing a Friend

Tami and my cat Gretchen

About 10 years ago my friend Tami and I were in the basement of my townhouse so that she could visit with my cat Gretchen. My other cat, Mo, was up on the main floor. The two cats had become incompatible, so my husband and I were rotating them every 24 hours, and it was Gretty’s turn to be in the basement (which I would like to point out was a finished and relatively pleasant basement).

Tami was holding Gretty, and she looked at me and said, “You know, this situation with the cats is more about you than it is about them.”

I was flabbergasted. My reply was weak and forgettable—probably something like, “Um, ok, whatever you say.” Then I changed the subject because I did not want to argue with her.

Over the years since that trivial incident, I have crafted sassier comebacks in my head—none particularly worth sharing. I’m not sure why that remark bothered me so much. Now that Tami is gone, having passed away a year ago today, it still lingers in my mind alongside weightier memories.

A woman in my grief group told us how her therapist often asks, “Why do you think that bothers you so much?”

So, I’ve asked myself that question. Why did her comment bother me so much that I still recall it clearly ten years later? The answer is that Tami was at least partly right. When the cats would fight, I couldn’t bear to hear Gretty’s cries—she sounded like she was seeing the very gates to hell. That sound made my bones ache. I did not have the guts to let the cats duke it out and settle their conflict.

A reunion did happen gradually and by accident, as people came over and left the basement door open. For a couple blissful months, the cats coexisted again. And then Mo startled Gretty one day, and the truce was over. Sometimes Gretty would pee on the floor when she was afraid of Mo, so I don’t think the decision to keep the cats apart was entirely about my own neurotic tendencies.

Tami’s remark to me that day echoes as I grieve her loss. Her death haunts me, as the unexpected death of a 54-year old woman is likely to do. I am sad. I feel guilt. Most of all, I am mad. Mad at a long list of people, including her. I hate being mad at someone who I loved and who is no longer on this earth. My anger feels righteous, earned—but as Tami might argue, it really does say more about me than it does about her.

My reactions to her life choices were largely due to my own insecurities and angst. I was afraid we would lose her, and we did, but my fear did nothing to stop that.

A part of me wants to dig through both of our failings, turning them up like soil, letting them sift through my fingers as I try to glean something of use. There will be plenty of time for that later.

For today, I will say that only a friend like Tami can challenge you in that way, and I miss her dearly. 

Coaching Myself through Fear and Discomfort

A constellation of ten acupuncture needles surrounded the knobby bone of my right wrist. After four or five acupuncture sessions, my shoulder pain was subsiding, but my wrist pain refused to budge. So, my practitioner had increased the number of needles he was using on my wrist and tweaked their placement.

This more aggressive configuration of needles was uncomfortable. As I moved my hand in search of a better position, I experienced a tiny lightning bolt inside my wrist.

Before the next session, I mentioned this jolt to the acupuncturist. My wrist had shown progress with the new needle placement, and neither of us wanted to mess with that, so he made only minor adjustments.

Each week, I would lie there face down on the table, with needles in my back, shoulders, and wrist, fearful of moving a fraction of an inch. What if the shock was worse next time?

I started coaching myself not to be so anxious. I noted that pain is our body’s way of alerting us that something may be wrong. In this case, my body didn’t understand that I was not under attack, so I reminded myself that I was voluntarily welcoming a small amount of discomfort to heal an injury.

While undergoing acupuncture treatments, I was also developing a daily meditation practice. One of the suggestions in the 30-day program I was following was to sit completely still during my ten minutes of meditation.

My first instinct was to write off this idea as impossible. I am a fidgety person who moves around a lot, and I’m always touching my hair or pushing up my sleeves or scratching an itch. How could I remain motionless for ten whole minutes?

I decided to take on the challenge anyway. Initially, I had to coach myself like I did with the acupuncture, noting that an itch or a slight sense of unease did not need to be addressed immediately. My body would not suffer great harm if I did not scratch that itch.

When I reported to my brain that I was not in real danger, during both acupuncture and meditation, the pain or itch would often recede into the background or disappear entirely. I might forget about it without realizing I had done so.

Big deal, right?! Well, yes, actually. As the weeks went on, it occurred to me that I was developing a skill that could be applied to all types of circumstances. Dealing with these little annoyances was allowing me to stare down bigger and bigger provocations.

Even my fear of death started to retreat. Since I was a child, this existential dread would grip me as I tried to fall asleep. Out of nowhere I would think, what if I died in my sleep? Then, it would feel like someone was clutching at me from inside my throat. I used to surrender to that fear—the thoughts and sensations feeding off each other. Now I focus on breathing slowly and deeply, usually interrupting the cycle within minutes.

At first, I was afraid to stop being afraid. My decades-long anxiety around discomfort, pain, and my own mortality felt like a part of me. I identified with it. Who would I be if I let it go? Would I still be me?

The answer is yes, I am still me. My fear is a bad habit, a security blanket studded with thorns. Once I recognized that my panic is not intrinsic to who I am, the work of letting it go could begin in earnest.