The Often Ignored Consequences of Being Gifted: On Misunderstanding Being Smart

Although routinely misunderstood as well, many people do acknowledge that standardized test scores by students are more strongly a marker for socioeconomic conditions of students and their parents than for student achievement or effort.

Despite efforts to create unbiased tests and to control for factors not related to achievement, standardized tests and similar measure of IQ remain weak indicators of what they claim to measure.

Giftedness, however, receives far less scrutiny for what it represents and how it is identified.

In both cases, we tend to jumble what we consider “smart.” For example, when students are tested for beginning algebra early, those students identified are usually directly and indirectly considered the smart group in a class.

These students are not necessarily smarter (whatever that is), but have developed abstract reasoning (brain development) sooner than some peers (see this as a consideration of being ready to do algebra, abstract mathematical reasoning). Biological age corresponds loosely with abstract reasoning development, but some people do not reach that level until late adolescence or even early adulthood.

While a teacher, I received training in gifted and talented education, but I really didn’t understand the label in a critical way until I was introduced through social media to Webb’s Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults.

What is very important here is that this discovery was a key step of my own struggles with anxiety.

Reading Webb’s analysis was a moment I will never forget. I cried throughout the article, tears of relief prompted by a recognition I had never experienced before. One of the most profound elements of that reading is this chart:

dabrowskis 1.jpg

I returned to this article and chart recently because my virtual colleague and fellow critical pedagogue Angela Dye raised a question about giftedness:

This time working back through Webb’s examination of Dabrowski has coincided with my own renewed journey to address my anxiety and life-long struggle with chronic pain.

The chart above, I think, is incredibly important since it balances and complicates identifying students and adults as “gifted.”

As I replied to Dye’s question, I am not necessarily against the label of “gifted” (although I do balk at most labeling), but:

I have noted above that many measures claiming to identify student achievement and intelligence (being “smart”) are misleading so I want to spend some time here unpacking the negative consequences.

First, giftedness in formal education often feeds into tracking. While tracking is popular, it is overwhelmingly not effective for any students, even those who receive the boost of being advanced. As the analysis of algebra readiness explains, students identified as “advanced” are biologically advanced; this is not about merit but an accident of human development.

Therefore, when giftedness is used for tracking, it is harmful and should be avoided—especially since it often signals incorrectly that some students are smarter (better, more deserving) than other students.

Next, identifying students as gifted has a great deal of potential if it is used for counseling instead of primarily for academics. I have often joked that OCD and ADHD helped me achieved a doctorate (and most of my successes in life, actually), but the really unfunny part of that is my life-long anxiety has robbed me of a great deal of pleasure that every person deserves.

Anxious people rarely live in the moment and even when successful are unable to enjoy that success, or even see it is as success.

Tracking children and teens as gifted in their academics often works to further mask the negative consequences outlined in the right-hand column above—intolerance of others, self-loathing, social awkwardness and isolation.

Since I teach at a highly selective university, my students tend to respond strongly when I discuss these dynamics. By misunderstanding and mislabeling “gifted” and “smart,” formal education perpetuates deeply unhealthy behaviors in young people who would be better served if they recognized early and began to address the profound struggles associated with crisis thinking, anxiety, and depression.

To some, recognizing giftedness as a positive (“smart,” “advanced”) may seem a welcomed alternative to deficit ideology and our cultural urge to pathologize and medicate; however, in this case, I am calling for expanding our recognition and response to giftedness to include the negative consequences so that children, teens, and adults can accentuate their strengths while also addressing the mental and physical toll of anxiety and depression—especially when those conditions are ignored, repressed in the sufferer.

For me, recognition and awareness have been liberating, an important first step to finding ways to heal. Most of my life, I have repressed my anxiety since it has caused me a great deal of physical pain as well as social stress since I am routinely misunderstood (my behavior is misinterpreted as negative personality traits instead of anxiety responses).

Since I did not have any real understanding of these mental challenges until I was 38, and then I didn’t discover Webb’s analysis of Dabrowski until a few years ago when I was in my early 50s, I have a tremendous mountain to climb—decades of self-harming habits that feel normal even as they cause me physical pain and diminish the quality of my life.

All of that, of course, exists in a professional and social context whereby people view me as highly successful, extremely smart, and profoundly overachieving—while also viewing me as impatient, bossy, domineering, arrogant, aloof, etc.

In the early 2000s during my first (and mostly failed) effort at therapy, I declared that I would gladly give up the positives from my anxiety for some relief. My therapist argued that the positives were a gift, although I was hard pressed to see that.

Now I recognize this was a nuanced conversation about giftedness that I was simply uninformed about. I also recognize that no one has to choose as I was willing to do because with awareness and help, those of us who suffer because we have qualities some see as gifts can alleviate the negative consequences if and when we come to recognize the full picture of who we are.

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The Pain Closet

In retrospect, that I gravitated toward and then chose recreational cycling as one of the primary avocations of my adult life isn’t really that surprising because I have been trafficking in pain my entire life.

To be a cyclist is to manage pain; to be an elite cyclist is to embrace, even scoff at, pain.

Although I did not make the association for the vast majority of my life, I have been navigating chronic pain and anxiety since my earliest memories as a child.

About 20 years ago, I was forced to admit my clinical anxiety, and depression. But the chronic pelvic pain that the anxiety has cultivated for all of my life has never been adequately addressed—mostly because the medical community has failed me.

I am currently rededicating myself to self-care, to addressing my anxiety and chronic pain. Part of that has been in recent years trying to manage on my own what has been identified by Wise and Anderson (and others) as pelvic pain commonly, and in my case, misdiagnosed as prostatitis (singularly as an infection requiring antibiotics).

As part of my journey, I have discovered that the awareness of anxiety and pelvic pain has greatly expanded in recent years, Wise and Anderson publishing a definitive volume of their work as well as many sufferers now sharing their stories and self-care online.

One set of videos (see this one as an entry point), in fact, includes comments from sufferers, mostly men and many in their 20s, that nearly pushed me to tears; their stories are my story repeated over and over, filled with pain, depression, and hopelessness—and embarrassment.

In my 20s, newly married and starting a life that included plans to have a child, I experienced groin pain one day while sitting in the barber shop. The pain was acute and triggered my anxiousness, my tendency toward hypochondria.

This pain led me to my family doctor, and then a urologist.

For several years, after being diagnosed with prostatitis, I regularly visited that urologist and experienced the same pattern of debilitating pain associated with my lower back, groin and pelvis, and all of my bodily functions (including sexual discomfort).

Each visit to the urologist also followed the same pattern: The urologist would acknowledge my pain and symptoms, admit that the repeated screenings revealed no sign of infection in my prostate, explain (again and again) that prostatitis often is hard to diagnose or treat because the infection routinely cannot be identified, and then prescribe (again and again) extended doses of antibiotics, which never impacted the pain or symptoms in any way but had side effects.

Finally, as I approached my late 20s, I discussed this futility with the urologist, and we decided that simply living with the pain posed no real threat to me since he could never find any real sign of infection. So I simply quit going to the urologist and suffered [1].

Silently.

Closeted in pain that was embarrassing because it impacted necessary bodily functions and cloaked my ability to have normal sexual pleasure.

It would be a decade before I realized I had clinical anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, but it was a couple decades before I discovered the work of Dr. David Wise, who had come to treat his own pelvic pain.

The work and book published by Wise and Dr. Rodney Anderson are a damning indictment of the medical profession, seemingly blinded by assumptions about disease (a physical phenomenon) and treatment (bound by pharmaceutical constraints) [2].

Anxiety, in fact, creates a wide range of pelvic pain that has been misdiagnosed and treated incorrectly for decades (see Symptoms & Treatments links, for example).

Since the Wise/Anderson diagnosis and treatments are rare in the field of urology and even within mental health treatment and physical therapy (I have brought the information to a PT, in fact, who had never heard of the condition or the treatments), however, being aware of my conditions and the relationship between anxiety and chronic pain has not really led to any sort of better quality of life.

To my resignation in my late 20s I have simply added some new knowledge.

Wise/Anderson practice on the West coast and require an extended and expensive commitment of time (and probably will not be covered by traditional insurance).

This tiny ray of hope has turned, for me, always into yet more depression and greater fatalism.

A doubling and tripling down on what I know best—leaning into and living with and through chronic pain, and the concurrent embarrassment.

Being skeptical by nature, and prone to cynicism, I must admit that discovering the 2018 edition of the Wise/Anderson book and what seems to be a growing online community of sufferers, many who are having success with self-care, has spurred a new sense of hope.

I have modified the stretching routine one PT developed for me by looking at the Wise/Anderson book, added new stretching and trigger point massages based on the online videos by sufferers who also have been inspired by Wise/Anderson’s work, and begun to think more intentionally about how to move beyond the chronic pain instead of simply embracing and suffering with it.

Chronic pelvic pain and anxiety are evil twins because they create and are fed by the fretting and embarrassment that they foster in those of us prone to anxiety.

But having mental and physical conditions recognized and treatable only outside mainstream medicine is a really cruel reality.

I watch and hear, for example, dozens of commercials for anxiety/depression medications, ED medications, and the never-ending promises of herbal solutions to prostate dysfunction.

For me, and many others I have discovered online, these are all tremendous wastes of time and money.

Since anxiety/depression, sexual dysfunction, and prostatitis are big money for the pharmaceutical and medical professions, those of us outside this mainstream approach are left in our closet of pain while grey-haired but smiling men on TV lounge in bath tubs outdoors beside their not-so-subtly younger women partners lounging beside them in their bath tubs, hands joined for the TV audience being promised sexual paradise in a pill.

So I am left here in middle age, a small ray of hope sitting beside some anger, anger I will need to work through as I seek ways to move beyond anxiety and chronic pain instead of resigning myself to this as my life as I did in my 20s.


[1] See this blog post:

Added to an individual’s anxiety is the puzzlement of the doctors. The doctor is often frustrated about his inability to help the problem and is not infrequently worried that perhaps he has missed something. Doctors are problem solvers. As we have discussed in our book and other essays, certain doctors do not respond well to their own helplessness to solve the problem of chronic pelvic pain syndromes. Any anxiety, uncertainty or helplessness felt by the doctor is almost always communicated to the patient – a communication whose impact can be overwhelmingly upsetting to the patient.

[2] See this blog post:

Unfortunately, the historical treatment of pelvic pain has almost entirely been a misdirected physical treatment of the organs of the pelvis such as the prostate or bladder. Indeed, the conventional medical establishment unfortunately continues to place most of the blame for pelvic pain on the pelvic organs, and attempts to throw various pharmaceuticals at the condition, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, botox, and other classes of medications, as well as procedures such as nerve blocks and even surgery, all of which have had, at best, mixed results. And, when physical therapy for the pelvic muscles is prescribed, it is almost always prescribed alone, that is, with no accompanying psychological/cognitive support, relaxation training, or self-treatment training.

The Anxiety Chronicles: Travel Edition

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

“The Day I Die,” The National

In November 2007, I flew to Iowa from South Carolina for some work I did with ACT and then a couple weeks later to New York City for the annual NCTE convention.

I had flown only once before that, the first time at 42 for the NCTE convention in San Francisco.

My particular fear of flying is a subset of my life-long battle with anxiety—mine a pervasive anxiety that is very difficult to explain to other people, even those also suffering from situational anxiety because anxiety is not a simple or singular monster.

My trip to Iowa in 2007 and San Francisco in 2003 were alone, but the flights to NYC were with my then-colleague and dear friend Nita.

Because our university allows an unrealistically low allowance for housing on trips, Nita and I booked our flight and hotel together to save money, and since Nita knew I was a less-than eager traveller (and flyer), she was convinced she could make the trip better for me.

However, when we returned to SC, Nita admitted she had not fully understood my problems with traveling and flying, that she had a much greater appreciation for the hell that those are for me—even when I have compassionate traveling companions.

Having just returned from a summer trip for cycling to Fayetteville, Arkansas, prompted by two good friends who are professors at the University of Arkansas, I have had once again to confront the burden that my anxiety is for me and others when I travel (even by car on this particular trip).

As I have written about before, my “I don’t fly” plea is always rebutted with some very brief explanation that I just need some meds or a few drinks on the flight; in other words, the vast majority of people (even those who do not like to fly) just brush aside my very real obstacles with many activities grounded in my pervasive anxiety.

My panic attacks in October of 1999 were the first manifestations of my anxiety that were immediately debilitating. I have lived with anxiety and suffered under the weight of anxiety my entire life, but mostly, I was never really aware that I had a condition since it just seemed normal, what it means to be a human.

Flying, or not flying actually, is a really good example of what virtually everything I do in my life means in terms of navigating anxiety.

To admit I do not fly, or do not want to fly for a trip, is not about the flight itself. If I were just afraid of the flight, then, yes, meds or a few drinks would do the job and I probably would have already flown dozens of places.

My anxiety is about hyperawareness and the inability to manage the burden of the unknown, a series of new experiences.

If I booked a flight today for a trip to France in November, my entire life would then be consumed (off and on) by the uncertainty of that trip. The result is that I could not enjoy my life leading up to the initial flight, I would not enjoy the flight, and then I would not enjoy the trip itself because I would be fretting over the return trip.

That’s why—and friends are well aware of this—my weekly life is one of predictable patterns that include scheduled bicycle rides and nearly an unbroken routine of restaurants each week.

I cringe at “Let’s do this new thing!” in a way that I really am not sure most people can grasp.

Just as another example, when I returned to mountain biking about two years ago, I had a few really bad experiences with group rides that required me to walk across rocks in streams.

These always went badly because the moving water and precariousness of the crossing (carrying a heavy MTB and being a somewhat less stable 50+-year-old), I discovered, triggered my anxiety (I knew the crossings were coming up, so once again, I could never enjoy any of the cycling because of the need to cross the streams, usually twice).

Similar to the lack of understanding about my not flying, many of my friends find this funny, and joke about me being afraid of water—although this has almost nothing to do with water. (A parallel joke surfaced on my Arkansas trip because I balked as canoeing and sat on the bank while friends enjoyed a nearby lake day instead.)

It is about precariousness, a tad bit of vertigo and disorientation, and the overwhelming relationship between the unknown and anxiety.

So on my most recent trip to Arkansas, nearly everything was new—the town itself, the paved cycling trail, the mountain biking trails.

And then on trips, the exhaustion of traveling, the disrupted sleep patterns, and the stress of cycling every day (bad decision) all snowball into a sort of all-consuming exhaustion that renders me incapable of enjoying anything.

Confronted with this reality about midway through the trip, I just confessed in a bit of exasperation that the gauntlet of new experiences had depleted me the same way that being social depletes introverts (which I am).

In other words, the consequence of anxiety for me cast into new experiences is that I am just entirely drained—no psychic or even physical energy available.

None of this, of course, is fair to my friends and companions; none of this is fair to me.

For about 38 years, I lived in silence, actually ignorance, that I suffer from clinical anxiety, something that can be diagnosed and treated in the same way we all experience colds or the flu.

Then I took medication from about 1999 until 2003, eventually gaining some ability to manage the condition but then no longer seeing the side effects as worth the medication itself.

Over about the last 15 years, I have self-medicated (alcohol) and returned to a cycling routine that includes riding about 4-5 times a week. This self-management makes my anxiety nearly invisible to others except those closest to me (the closer, of course, the more severe the consequences for those people), but to be honest, it isn’t really effective for the quality of life I deserve.

As well, the companion to my anxiety is also chronic pelvic pain that also significantly diminished the quality of my life.

Currently, I don’t have a real persuasive way to distinguish for others (or myself) between those things I genuinely do not want to do (canoeing down a river) and those things I simply cannot do because of the weight of my anxiety, the burden of the unknown (flying and traveling).

If left to me, I would simply not do, or in a moment of weakness when I agree to do something new, I would just flee.

Because that is what I almost always want to do—leave the new space if I cannot avoid entering that new space.

I think as a grind toward 60, I am tired of being tired, exhausted by the burden of anxiety, so I am looking into professional help again.

And the paradox of this isn’t lost on me—a new therapist, yet another trip to try to explain to someone else for the umpteenth time my particular journey with a companion I would prefer to be without.

Mama’s Boy: Aftermath

I have never liked Mother’s Day—as I have never liked any holidays, special days. The burden of celebrations and gifts.

This sort of ceremony and tradition has always felt forced, insincere, superficial.

As I grew older and my mother grew older, buying her gifts became more and more difficult because what do people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond need given to them?

It is Mother’s Day 2018. My first since my mother died in December 2017 just a few months after my father died in June of the same year.

This Mother’s Day feels even more burdensome than normal, of course.

As I have examined, we left living have been sifting through all my parents’ stuff, throwing away most of it—presents rendered just more trash.

As I have examined, I am a churning mess of anxiety, in part, as a biological and environmental gift of my mother.

She died over the course of about six months, slowly and fitfully after a stroke and then stage 4 lung cancer. The stroke took her ability to communicate, but worst of all, it supercharged her anxiety.

It was horrible to witness.

It wasn’t a fair thing for anyone to endure on the way out.

I don’t have much left to say except I am more convinced than ever that these holidays, these designated moments to celebrate and give gifts—this is truly a real failure of human imagination.

For gifts, I had begun to give my mother plants, living plants in pots that could be transferred and maintained. I just could not buy her another shirt she didn’t really want and certainly didn’t need.

When my father-in-law died 7 years ago, his daughters found stacks of gifts, mostly shirts, if I recall correctly, never opened, never worn.

Just resting in his dresser.

Somehow I thought the plants were a best case approach to gift giving, to this damned circus of stuff that we have reduced our human condition to in the name of love.

But they weren’t.

What my mother needed, what my mother deserved, what everyone deserves, was her human dignity.

Especially in the last years and then final months, she needed and deserved high-quality and affordable health care.

Instead, her deteriorating body and my father’s even more dramatic decline were hellish burdens on them and everyone around them. And this wore heavily on my mother who believed her stroked killed my father at last (in a way, it did of course, but mostly, his life was at its end and she had kept him alive longer, if anything, than his frailness really supported).

My nephews and I are still trapped in the calloused and mind-numbing labyrinth of bureaucracy surrounding my parents’ living and dying, the most evil part being the insurance system designed more to deny healthcare, to deny human dignity, than anything else.

Dignity, I suspect, seems too abstract, and health care, too mundane.

But if all we can must are a few designated days, some really awful cards, and then an endless stream of things people really never wanted or needed, we may be better served to consider the real value of human dignity and the essential role something as mundane as high-quality and affordable healthcare for everyone plays in that dignity.

To live as if everyday were a holiday, to live for others as if we all deserve the full fruits of human dignity.


Recommended

I Ask My Mother to Sing, Li-Young Lee

Eating Together, Li-Young Lee

The Gift, Li-Young Lee

the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying)

my mother has returned to where she began

fragility (and then i realize)

“Out of Joint”: On Ideology and Anxiety

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, ll. 190-191

My high school English students in Upstate South Carolina throughout the 1980s and 1990s were mostly unmotivated by huge portions of the early American literature canon—notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The problem was reading those works, but many of the conversations that the assigned reading spawned were some of the best moments of my teaching career.

After plodding through Emerson and Thoreau, tackling the ideologies of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism, the darker vision of humanity offered by Hawthorne allowed me to pose a powerful and often unexamined question to students about the essential nature of humans: Are people basically good or evil?

These were 10th and 11th graders, most of whom attended fundamentalist Southern Baptist churches (specifically the large church that sat directly in the middle of the four schools that served the town, all within a few blocks of each other).

Students throughout the years enthusiastically responded that people were basically good, to which I would remind them of Emerson and Thoreau followed by asking them about their understanding of Original Sin and the Garden of Eden story.

For many of my students, this was one of the foundational moments when they had to confront that their ideology was “out of joint.” Their professed religious beliefs did not align with what they had determined about the universe on their own, or to put it another way, what they were coming to recognize about themselves.

This sort of personal disequilibrium is different than what I witness almost daily—and notably among my former students with whom I am social media friends—on Facebook: When a person’s ideology is “out of joint” with reality and facts.

These former students, I know, experienced repeatedly in my classroom the opportunity to investigate what they believed and understood while keeping that grounded in the evidence around them.

As a teacher for almost forty years now, I am regularly discouraged by how powerful unfounded beliefs are against evidence, and I am greatly disappointed when I watch that play out among my own former students.

From provably false memes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and gun control to hijacking other people’s posts with diatribes about the lazy poor (often thinly veiled racism) and rehashing lazy Libertarian lies, these moments on social media represent the larger problem with cultural myths—and the toll those myths take on both those who embrace them and those who suffer inequity and injustice because of them.

Just as my students had never interrogated that their religious beliefs (and religious training) often did not match their personal ideologies, white Americans and affluent Americas—who benefit from the lion’s share of privilege in the U.S.—rarely question the myths they both embrace and perpetuate—specifically the narratives that the poor are responsible for poverty and that black are responsible for racism.

I won’t spend time elaborating, but evidence quite overwhelmingly disputes these narratives:

But these ideologies that frame people in poverty and racial minorities as lazy, deserving of their inequity, are also logical fallacies since only those with power can maintain or dismantle systemic forces.

Whites are responsible for racism, and the wealthy are responsible for poverty; in fact, whites depend on racism, and the wealthy depend on poverty.

No one can assume a neutral pose on either classism or racism in the U.S. since both are enduring realities and since everyone either benefits from or suffers under classism and racism.

When ideology, cultural narratives and myths, are “out of joint” with reality, the consequences are devastating to everyone, creating an environment of anxiety.

In “The Neurotic Academic,” Vik Loveday examines this dynamic of academia, which is a subculture (as reflection and perpetuation) of the larger American Myths of meritocracy and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

“The experience of anxiety is also a fundamentally isolating one,” Loveday explains, adding, “whilst viscerally felt at the individual level, to admit to feeling anxious and stressed-out is also to risk being perceived as failing to cope with the demands of academic life.”

In the U.S. culture that renders poor, black, and brown people as lazy and deserving their inequity and injustice, they are also rendered marginalized, isolated as Loveday argues. Poor, black, and brown Americans, then, because of classism and racism are trapped not only in systemic inequity but also in personal anxiety—the prison of recognizing that “who I am” and “how I am portrayed” are “out of joint” but “I was born to set it right,” as Hamlet laments (himself the anxious scholar).

Loveday discovers “anxiety is quite clearly an effect of the conditions under which it is produced” because those who suffer this anxiety

felt as though they had very little control over their working lives apart from the possibility of “working on the self” – taking personal responsibility for productivity, success, and “excellence” through the pursuit of student satisfaction, publications, or external funding, which was often achieved through chronic over-work fuelled by anxiety, but with no financial security or guarantee of permanent work at the end of contracts.

Like Hamlet, then, the isolated (by class and race) are simultaneously aware of being “out of joint” and compelled to feel responsible for correcting those forces beyond their control.

As I have pondered on social media and about social media, I am not sure if Facebook and Twitter have created or merely exposes the zeal that many feel to post ideological memes and rants that are easily discredited; I am also deeply troubled that those who enjoy race and class privilege are the ones most eager to perpetuate ideological lies through social media.

Ultimately, however, everyone loses when either personal ideologies or cultural myths are “out of joint” with reality, with what we can show is true.

And this brings us back to one of the lazy Libertarian lies, the one that demands a false dichotomy, a manufactured war between the individual and the collective (society, government)—something that can be traced back to our Transcendental roots where Emerson and Thoreau themselves railed against Society as the enemy of the Individual.

O, Emerson: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

O, Thoreau: “Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

Yet, despite their Transcendental idealism about the Individual, there is no individual without community, and there is no community without the individual.

And as such, each of us has a moral obligation to investigate our personal and cultural ideologies as a first step to slaying the real dragon threatening us—the anxiety spawned when those ideologies are “out of joint.”

Peace, both individual and social, is an equilibrium, when what we believe is in balance with reality.

That peace relieves anxiety by eradicating the threats that false narratives and baseless myths create.

Again, more narrowly, “[w]hat I have termed as the ‘neurotic academic,'” Loveday concludes, “is an entrepreneurial figure who is governed through responses to the anxiety generated by employment uncertainty within an increasingly competitive sector, but who is simultaneously encouraged to then take responsibility for the self-management of those anxieties.”

When our personal and cultural ideologies are “out of joint,” we are in a restless state of competition, with ourselves and each other, that is the root cause of anxiety—a state of powerlessness combined with the compulsion to be the sole change agent for that which is beyond our control.

This is why racism is a poison to the racist (indirectly) and the oppressed (directly).

This is why classism is a poison to those who demonize the poor (indirectly) and to the poor (directly).

Like my students who were asked to confront what they truly believed about basic human nature, we all owe ourselves and everyone else the time spent interrogating our ideologies, personal and cultural.

And then, we must carry that into our real and virtual lives, resisting the baseless meme and promising not to hijack other people’s social media spaces in the name of calloused ideological football.

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.

#

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.

#

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.


“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.”