Mama’s Boy: The Anxious Are Poor Comfort for the Anxious

Mamma’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Mamma’s gonna put all of her fears into you
Mamma’s gonna keep you right here, under her wing
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing

“Mother,” Pink Floyd

I’d rather walk all the way home right now than to spend one more second in this place
I’m exactly like you Valentine, just come outside and leave with me

“Day I Die,” The National

Like my life, my anxiety and hypochondria began with my mother; she and I have shared for over 50 years now a morbid fear of her death.

Yesterday morning, I answered my phone despite no ID for the number. The voice on the other end was the doctor who has been treating my mother since she was admitted to the hospital, again, over the weekend while I was out of town.

Since my mother’s stroke in early June of this year, she has experienced a seemingly endless series of health issue, and worst of all, her lifelong battle with anxiety has nearly enveloped her—now a much reduced person with almost no ability to communicate.

The doctor’s message: My mother likely has lung cancer.

This is the sort of message people confront all the time, but of course, for each of us, these moments are individual. I finished the phone call calmly, and then, I cried one hard burst of sadness.

That crying had been waiting since the day before when I visited her. A week or so ago, my mother had a brief few days of near calmness and much improved talking.

Her franticness and wild-eyed mumbling have been nearly unbearable over the past five months; the anxious are poor comfort for the anxious—especially, I think, when there is some intimacy between them.

I have had to ration my time with my mother because everything about her depletes my batteries—until I am on the verge of tears, until I have to convince myself not to run—I mean run—as far as possible from this reduced woman buried under her anxiety and inadequate brain.

For the anxious, for the hypochondriacs, bad news comes in a perverse duality—the terror of the news laced with the relief of the news, always, always expected, and almost never true.

My middle nephew and I visited her yesterday after a second procedure to relieve her of fluid on her lungs, she was asleep, and never woke fully so I am not sure if she knows we were there.

The doctor said that my mother wasn’t told the expected diagnosis that hasn’t been medically confirmed, but the “likely” is a technicality.

We have all agreed my mother’s anxiety is simply too much for her, this weight of the world is too much already without adding what I imagine is her greatest life’s fear and expectation, cancer.

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I did not have a name for it until I was 38, but my anxiety, in retrospect, began with my mother—certainly in some combination of genetics and the environment of a home including her pervasive anxiety.

As a child, I lay in bed unable to sleep as I fretted about my mother dying. The first time occurred when I was probably no more than 5 or 6, and my mother went into the hospital to have a lump removed from her breast.

It was benign, but the entire experience introduced me to the mortality of my parents and the fear I saw in my father’s face, a man who had always seemed unable of such fear.

Over the next fifty or so years, few moments of my life have been absent some impending illness related to my mother.

Before my father died this summer, just a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, he had been in declining health for a long time. But when I talked to him on the phone—as he had been doing for decades—he worried aloud about my mother’s health.

She was always, always not doing well.

Any time I visited, especially in the last months, however, my father was visibly a very sick man, and my mother remained relatively vibrant.

Theses interactions with my parents were preparation for the new world of my father deceased and my mother reduced, practice with interactions that drain me to the point that I am simply no use to anyone.

In that state, of course, I begin a cycle of self-loathing, wishing I could rise above this and knowing there is really nothing I can do except steel myself against the exhaustion and wait it out.

Silence and disassociation as defense mechanisms are profoundly inadequate.

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My last class before the Thanksgiving break asked what I was doing for the holiday. When I told them I hate Thanksgiving, I hate holidays, they wanted to know what I do like.

I routinely exaggerate my professor persona with students, but that persona remains grounded in who I really am. I do hate all holidays—everything about holidays instills suffering in those who are anxious, introverts.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are uniquely awful since they fall in the contracting of daylight leading to the winter solstice.

The human condition also includes by necessity that the deaths of people we love too often fall on or near holidays, dark clouds for space intended to be vacations from the weight of living.

It is Thanksgiving and I am haunted by my mother’s exhaustion, her frailty.

I find her suffering unbearable because I am disturbingly aware that no one should suffer this way.

I am disturbingly aware that many people throughout history and now do suffer this way—although we have the capacity for reducing human suffering.

Anxiety. Hyperawareness about everything. I mean. Every. Thing.

My middle nephew and I have coordinated when we will visit my mother today around the expectations of Thanksgiving.

It is mid-morning. I begin to steel myself for the day of Thanksgiving with family.

I do not want to talk, especially about my mother.

I do not want to be anywhere I have to be.

I will be in a continuous conversation with myself, trying not to run—I mean run—as far as possible from all of this.


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“I’m not sure all these people understand”

It’s only been four days since the official concession—the end of Daylight Savings Time (DST) that shifts the world backward an hour, that throws up our collective hands to the cosmic reality that daylight is contracting around us.

Sure, time is arbitrary, and today’s 5 o’clock being yesterday’s 6 o’clock means little except in the bureaucracy of it all. But for some of us, this is catastrophic and overwhelming.

As I have recently written, I am equal parts unhappy and sad—and it is significantly connected to the time change, the waning daylight, and the coincidental multiple days of clouds, rain, and chillier temperatures.

Anxiety, depression, introversion—these I can keep at bay a bit better when the sun is warm and still just above the horizon at 8 and 9 pm. By November and the godawful month of December, however, I am reduced to this—equal parts unhappy and sad.

I am moving closer to the one-year anniversary of an accident also, one that has qualitatively changed my life, and I fear, somehow triggered a frailty in me that lingers, that is permanently who I am.

I am now living, it seems, in the midst of that life I have been fearing and anticipating, a life I have dreaded and that most people call “old age.”

And some of it is simply the accumulation of life—the weight of family and obligations at polar ends of my existence, from an infirm mother to grandchildren as well as everyone in between. To be poetic and to paraphrase, The world is too much with me; late and soon.

The 25th anniversary release of R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People haunts me now, especially “Nightswimming”:

You, I thought I knew you
You I cannot judge
You, I thought you knew me
This one laughing quietly underneath my breath

More personal, I think, and ultimately more beautiful, “Nighhtswimming” wades into familiar ground, confessing similar pain to the personae witnessed in “That’s me in the corner/That’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion.”

We who are anxious and introverted have a refrain:

I’d rather walk all the way home right now than to spend one more second in this place
I’m exactly like you Valentine, just come outside and leave with me

As I watched the extended video for “Nightswimming,” I had to resist crying as I sat in my office; this is what we do, we who feel ourselves and the world around us too deeply, too vividly.

I am doing the best I can between how I feel and knowing that the world is watching me.

So daylight contracts toward the Winter Solstice, and Stipe’s voice echoes in my mind: “I’m not sure all these people understand.”


A Love Letter to the Anxious

I’m sorry, and I love you.

I’m sorry. I love you.

I’m sorry I love you.

October of 1999—I was forced to confront that I have lived nearly four decades with anxiety and had been suffering panic attacks in silence, closeted, that entire time.

Living inside the protective silence I had manufactured was a sense of extreme alienation from almost everyone and a persistent feeling of being an imposter.

After the panic attacks of that October, I then went on a four-year journey with anxiety medication, gaining weight and begining to understand my anxiety and its relationship to my world, people I had hurt and experiences I inevitably either avoided or ruined for myself and others.

Not long into those four years, I was with a dear friend cycling who experienced a panic attack, which I missed entirely and failed miserably to support because her panic attacks were nothing like mine.

Sitting here now almost 20 years into awareness about anxiety, I am nearly expert about my anxiety; I am off medication, but I managed the anxiety in a variety of healthy and not-so-healthy ways—and I still routinely fail myself and others, especially the people I care most deeply about.

We manage anxiety—I suppose like alcoholism—but I think we are never cured of anxiety. That, I fear, would require a full removal of our bones, or at least a thorough cleaning of those skeletons.

But here are some things I do know—although these are not promises.

Anxiety is mostly when our inner selves are out of joint with the outer world. Often because we perceive there is an outer world of expectations, judgment; and thus, we are haunted with “Am I doing the right thing?”

Won’t someone please tell us we are doing the right thing.

This will not help, but let me assure you there is no right thing and there is no one except you who can confirm if you are being the you that you should be.

And that makes me anxious—to acknowledge that we are ultimately alone in all this; that is the human condition people without anxiety can ignore and the anxious cannot set aside.

Even for a second.

Here is something else that I know: Two people who are anxious and friends or intimates want desperately to be someone soothing for the other’s anxiety, and that makes each of you anxious, and then guarantees that you will not be soothing, cannot be soothing.

And that makes me anxious because in true existential reality, our passions are our sufferings. Nothing can make us more anxious than to care, to love, to desire.

Although feeling nothing comes pretty damn close—like being on anxiety medication.

Maybe the only thing we have is “I wish I could have done better by you because I love you in a way that makes me incapable of being the one who doesn’t need to apologize.”

I’m sorry, and I love you.

I’m sorry. I love you.

I’m sorry I love you.

Navigating Self-Worth through Middle Age: Every Single Moment

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas

As far as I can tell
I’m nothing like a princess…
Take these girly arms
And ever keep me

“Thirsty,” The National

The last thing my father said was a request for me to help him to the bathroom. He was wheelchair bound, and his breathing had been labored for months.

I suggested the bed pan, but he added he needed to have a bowel movement.

When the nurses came to help him, he became unresponsive there on the toilet of the rehabilitation center he had just moved into with my mother, and within a hour, he was declared dead at the nearby hospital.

What an awful way to slip from this earth, simply asking for help to have a bowel movement.

My father died in the bathroom like Elvis Presley, who my parents idolized throughout my childhood—a cultural phenomenon that should have signaled for me the horrifying leveling of death.

My father’s death, possibly as any man’s father’s death, has forced me to examine again how I have navigated self-worth my entire life, measuring my masculinity always against the unspoken monument of my father.

This summer of my 56th year, then, continues my battle with self-worth, a life of anxiety driven often by insecurity and low self-esteem.

When I first moved to higher education in 2002, I soon secured my first book contract with a respected academic publisher, Peter Lang USA, because of the kindness of a colleague and then a distant but treasured scholar-mentor, Joe Kincheloe.

When the hard copies of that book arrived at my office, the colleague came by to see what I was doing to celebrate. I was working frantically at the computer and hadn’t thought once about the book or celebrating.

“You never enjoy a single moment do you?” she said, matter-of-fact from my doorway.

Self-worth and low self-esteem intersect in ways that push us to ignore our accomplishments and dwell on our failures.

In a half-year scarred with a pelvic fracture, the end of my life as a road cyclist, my mother’s stroke, and my father’s death, I have been passed over for a new position, received a few rejections of submitted writing, and struggled mightily to become the sort of mountain bike cyclist I had accomplished as a road cyclist over 30+ years of intense riding.

Each of these has proven to me my deepest fears about my self-worth—as if my many accomplishments otherwise haven’t happened at all.

The hardest part has been the transition to mountain biking and leaving road cycling behind.

After a good 20 years of being a mediocre road cyclist, in my 40s and early 50s, I had finally established myself as a relatively elite local recreational cyclist, book-ended by breaking the 6-hour mark in the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in 2007 (at 46) and then having my highest placing, 58th, in 2014 (at 53).

Throughout my adventure in trying to be the macho athlete I believed my father represented, I adopted surrogate father-models among my cycling friends; I simultaneously admired them and used them as the bar I could never attain—to prove to myself I was right about my low self-worth.

But I was a ride leader and typically finished official rides and weekly training rides with the best cyclists, the front group.

Shifting to mountain biking certainly wasn’t helped by a six-week down-time for a broken pelvis, or being 56 while trying to recover from the fracture and regain fitness.

However, this new adventure in claiming my self-worth through athletics has been beyond humbling to humiliating.

Over three decades, I acquired both the fitness and road cycling skills needed to ride essentially effortlessly, even as I pushed myself to physical extremes in our attack zones, on mountainous centuries, or during the annual 200-mile-plus one-day ride across South Carolina.

Mountain biking has proved itself much more than fitness and the skill requirement has an added problem—many elements of cycling on trails trigger my anxiety. Rocks, boulders, roots, steep inclines, and creek crossings have more often than I like to admit flushed my system with anxiety and left me nearly incapable of riding.

In road cycling, I controlled my place in the pack; I pulled when I wanted and drifted to the back to monitor the ride as needed.

Mountain biking has shuffled me to the back, and off the back. And there is little I can do about it.

Before being hit by the car on Christmas Eve and before my father’s death, I lived with a lingering and awful fear of when my life as an avid athlete would end. It had to end, of course, simply because with age we lose our physical selves in increments.

Now I am faced with having much of that taken from me in a dramatic intrusive way, and then, in that space, having to re-evaluate what all that means anyway.

Before the pelvis fracture—and living always now with the sensation of being hit from behind and slamming into the pavement—I was already growing weary of the hyper-macho bullshit of road cycling. I was doing fewer large group rides, I had decided to stop entering the Assault (which I participated in about 20 times over thirty or so years), and I was less and less likely to bury myself in the pain of the zone rides.

But I was no better able to negotiate with myself about my father and our many contradictions, about my father and the imagined necessary requirements of my masculinity as the failed athlete.

By college I had abandoned athletic dreams and transitioned into being academic, a writer and poet in my bones and a teacher by profession. Yet in that transition I had also become a serious cyclist and continued the self-flagellation in pursuit of self-worth that had defined me throughout childhood and my teen years.

How do we know we matter to someone else? How do we know we matter to ourselves?

Increasingly, I come to realize how powerful my early adulthood fascination with existentialism has proven to be—my being draw to recognizing Being as a journey without a destination.

Nothing will click, and then I will know I matter to someone else.

Nothing will click, and then I will trust my self-worth.

My father haunted me while he was alive. His last words and moments aimed at simply going to the bathroom and leading him to the great beyond have done nothing to change that, except for the space left where he no longer exists.

My self-worth has never been about my father; it has always been about me.

I was mountain biking the other day with two friends who ride away from me on every ride. We were caught in a horrible thunderstorm.

One friend had a flat and the other rode further ahead, but I stopped to be sure the friend with a flat was ok.

There in the din of the rain through the trees and the periodic crack of lightning, I was about as alone as I have felt in a long time. I thought for a moment about people I love and reminded myself about my father being gone and my mother recovering still from her stroke.

I was terrified of the lightning as I stood with my left foot in the trail that looked more like a creek.

That moment in the storm triggered the morning of Christmas Eve as I lay in the road, stunned and staring at my swollen bloody left hand.

Again as I had there in the road, battered, with lightning cracking, I wanted to be safely back at the car, able to go about the rest of my day, the rest of my so-called normal life because there was so much to enjoy.

Every single moment.

Introversion in a Time of Loss

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

“The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot

June, not April, has been the cruellest month this year for me—my father’s death coming less than two weeks after my mother suffered a stroke.

While waded through this loss and near-loss, Facebook reminded me we lost our family labs in June a few years ago, only weeks apart.

My father’s funeral presented to me, then, in one hour most of the social and family interactions I have been avoiding for decades. I weathered the repeated “I bet you don’t recognize me” and hand shakes along with hugs that included extended holds.

When my two nephews and I drove away after the ceremony and receiving of friends, I explained that I would not be joining others for lunch; I was eagerly awaiting being alone in my car for the nearly hour-long drive to see my mother still in a rehabilitation center.

This was likely the first time I had confessed to them that I am an introvert, a twin companion to my lifelong adventures in anxiety. Neither confession—”I am an introvert” or “I suffered from anxiety and depression”—ever goes very well.

The response is mostly a well-meaning discounting of my sincere sharing. No one believes me because my masking techniques, my defense mechanisms are incredibly well honed.

Introverts must do the heavy lifting of adjusting to the world—yet even more stress heaped onto this predisposition no one would choose.

The drive alone and stopping to eat alone helped me begin to recharge; introversion, you see, is less about being shy or reclusive (although we can be and often are both) and more about what is emotionally draining and how we regain our energy, our peace and calm.

Then, when I arrived at my mother’s facility, her room was packed with her friends who had attended the funeral and her sister’s family members. The claustrophobia from the crowd and rising June heat of the funeral was replicated in this even more confined space.

The day was an incessant internal battle: the introvert’s primary response to the world is to flee, escape, seek solitude or possibly the safe proximity of one person (who would ideally not make eye contact, remain silent).

But I reprised my role from earlier in the day. I smiled, I spoke, I remained in the room dutifully—although with jaw clinched and muscles tense.

An introvert, nearly always paralyzed with anxiety, I am also not religious.

So over recent days, I have sat patiently and quietly while the hospital chaplain offered her solace, her prayers. I have sat patiently and quietly as one of my nephew’s father-in-law conducted the funeral service, slipping into his role as minister to invoke our all being sinners and calling us all to Jesus.

Clinching, folding into ourselves is the default pause of the introvert. The World advances as we retreat as intensely as possible, as quietly as possible.

And now I sit with the paradox of introversion in a time of loss.

I read over what I have written (begun while sitting with my mother) and see that everything becomes about me, although I long simply to walk out of anyone’s view—just simply not to be here.

Every fiber of my being (physical, emotional, psychological) clinched, I focus all of my energy on being what is expected of a normal person grieving the death of his father and fearing that his mother will remain a shadow or herself.

I have begun to covet the moments when I am sitting along with my now frustrated silent mother, pretending we are not in the quasi-hospital when we hope she will return to us.

When she closes her eyes and sleeps—after checking that I am sitting nearby—I am both being the dutiful son and completely released from anyone’s expectations.

June, not April, has been the cruellest month this year for me, my internal dialogue coaxing myself to remain in The World, at least in a time of loss when I am needed whole and connected.

Loss in an Era of Digital Music

…the blasted song in my head is receding but not leaving.

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

I came to popular music in an era of albums, 1960s and 1970s, what people now call “vinyl.”

Albums were glorious things. The Ohio Players issued fold out albums that were erotic and taboo for a teenager growing up in the redneck Deep South:


And few experiences equaled the rush of liner notes tucked away with the album sleeves or filling the spaces of those double albums folded out:

I have lived in and through the eras of making mix tapes, cassettes, and mix CDs—what now have become play lists.

My adolescence was defined by committing to 8-track tapes, rectangular things that produced loud “clunks” when changing tracks—even though their smaller size already hearkened the loss of the beauty that is an album cover.

I recall vividly when my best friend from high school bought a cassette player and announced the death of 8-tracks. I was angry and recalcitrant; although it would not be long before I included my 8-track collection lying in the back seat of my car in the deal when I sold my red and white 1973 Gran Torino in the days of Starsky and Hutch.

My next car had a cassette player.

I can count my years, and losses, like rings in a tree cut down near the base, by how music is packaged: album, 8-track, cassette, video, CD, digital.

These media and mechanisms of loss, and love.

A privileged survivor living beyond the curve of the dying earth, Christine, in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, dictates in the opening chapter, “Everyone’s last wish turned out to be love:”

may I be consumed by the simplicity and purity of a love story, any love, base love or heroic love or transgressive love or love that is a blind and lame and ridiculous lie—anything the opposite of alone and lonely and sexless, and the absence of someone to care about or talk to. The hunger for love replaced the hunger for god or science. The hunger for love became an opiate. In a world that had lost its ability to procreate, the story of love became paramount.

I began reading this new novel in the wake of a friend, a few generations younger than I, who texted me distraught; they seemed to have lost all their music, an iTunes fail—first the music gone from the cell phone and then the computer.

Loss in as era of digital music.

Stressed, anxious—this friend was unable to sleep since the realization had occurred late at night; and then my friend explained.

Some of the lost music was gifted music; this was a loss of connectedness; this was a symbolic loss of the affection we, regardless of generation, regardless of media or format, package in the music we share.

A mix tape or CD gifted is an act of love, like buying someone the novel you have just read—or giving blood.

But losing an iTunes library? When digital music doesn’t really seem to exist in any physical form anyway?

I have 1000s of songs, several 100s of albums, on an iPod smaller than a cassette tape I easily carry around all the time.

Easily carried is easily lost, a flicker, and then nothing, silence.

I have done the only thing I can do. I gathered two armfuls of CDs to take to the friend, an offering for this ritual of rebuilding a digital music library.

And there is also vinyl, sitting on a shelf, unplayed, collected like the comic books of my youth and the walls of books over my entire life.

The vinyl will be gifted as well because this is how we remain human against loss in era of digital music.

Day 2 Year 56: The Moment

I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.

This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.

Today is also day 2, year 56.

As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”

I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.

Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.

The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.

But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.

The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.

Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.

I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.

This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.

The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.

I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.

My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.

The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.

And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.

As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).

Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.

So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.

It began in the ER when family arrived.

Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.

Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.

Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.

The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.

After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.

The moment.

I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.

The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.