Steeling Myself

Forget it, nothing I change changes anything

“Walk It Back,” The National

Just come outside and leave with me

“The Day I Die,” The National

Yesterday I met with my four classes for the last time this semester. The classes include about 75% first-year students, something I very much enjoy about teaching at the college level.

As I have started doing more purposefully, I ended these last class sessions by telling the students I feel very fortunate to have taught them, that I love them, and that I am always here to help if they need anything since once they have been my students, they are always my students.

While I was telling the first class of the day, my foundations education course, all of this, I felt myself flushed with cold chills, the urge to cry rising up through my chest toward my eyes.

This is nothing unusual because I am a world-class crier, but except for people very close to me, my crying is usually reserved for times when I am alone—often in the car listening to music and being very melodramatically maudlin.

I toyed with that this morning, in fact, as I sang along to The National’s Sleep Well Beast; the rising music of the opening of the album, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” always pulls at my chest and then by “Hey baby,” the wonderful sadness of wanting to cry.

It’s a hobby of mine, sadness and crying; the type of hobby that is a purging and starting over.

But it isn’t something I have chosen to do or the person I have decided to be.

I am simply the victim of hyper-awareness. I am perpetually aware of everything, and I feel the entirety of the universe far too deeply and incessantly.

When I told my education class I love them, they moaned with genuine affection. I could see each one of them, and all of them, and I felt it all far too deeply. My unscientific hypothesis is that when humans become overfull with feelings, the body must purge something, and that something is usually tears.

We humans are biologically and genetically predisposed to equilibrium, I think.

Stasis, calm, and maybe even peace.

These are conditions I understand at only an intellectual level. I suspect there are conditions like peace, and happiness. But my hyper-awareness, my proclivity for depression, my (likely) ADHD and OCD, among many other labels I am sure—these have an intersection called “anxiety.”

I live, then, in a constant state of impending doom, or more rightly explained, in a constant state of anticipating impending doom.

Living is a perpetual series of mild to severe electrical shocks to my emotional self. Therefore, as a coping mechanism, I steel myself, intellectually and physically, pushing my frail and exhausted emotional self well below the surface, far away from others and with any luck myself.

As a consequence, many people find me stoic, reserved, uncaring, distant, arrogant, aloof—I could go on.

I practiced the art of steeling myself for about 40 years before it all fell apart. And then briefly, I was a participant in prescription pharmaceuticals until I decided:

The more level they have me
The more I cannot stand me
I have helpless friendships
And bad taste in liquids (“I’ll Still Destroy You,” The National)

After about four years of a peach-colored pill that had me level and gaining weight, I have since then self-medicated. I have somewhat low-brow but nevertheless discerning taste in beer.

Of course, the problem with self-medicating is proper dosage, and I suspect as with prescription drugs, over time, our medications come to do us more harm than good.

I stood there feeling the urge to cry after telling my class I love them, in part, because the end of fall semester always comes between Thanksgiving and Christmas—by far my worst time of the year.

I feel a tug of fear at Summer Solstice each June. By Halloween and the end of daylight savings time, I am deeply aware of the most inevitable impending doom, the contracting of daylight around me at both morning and evening.

Thanksgiving signals for me the downward spiral toward Christmas, which corresponds with the Winter Solstice, the shortest daylight of the year. Darkness, cold weather, dead leaves cover over everything.

I really hate the holidays, especially Christmas, but it took me many years after naming my hyper-awareness, anxiety, and Sundowner’s syndrome to really understand why.

Three of us sat together this past Saturday afternoon at a local taphouse. We share varying spectrums of anxiety and depression; most importantly we have some community in our shared outlier qualities.

One friend noted this is the closest he comes to being happy; we have joked about our goal being just not being depressed or sad. The absence of sadness is quite enough. No need to push it.

Later, after the exhaustion had set in from a hard cycling ride earlier in the day and the creeping weight of a few beers, we found ourselves watching Elf. We are not religious, not the types who will be found watching Christmas movies.

We laughed, justified the watching because it is a Will Ferrell movie (oddly, we had caught the end of Talladega Nights right before Elf).

Sometimes in our separateness we find a sort of solace by our proximity.

And laughing, I think, is very similar yet distinct from crying. A sudden laugh is a purging, like crying, but it is also a much different kind of oasis, itself a burst that is briefly static but fleeting.

The unselfconsciousness of laughing is quite peaceful for the anxious.

Until we return to life, to living, to the universe brilliantly around us.

I am quite glad I take the time to tell my students I love them. I regret I have not done that more intentionally and throughout my career.

It is a way to steel myself against the impending doom of things being over.

I really hate Christmas and the contracting daylight surrounding me, however, as another semester is also coming to a close.

“Nothing I do makes me feel different,” I sang alone driving to work this morning, considering a good cry to make up for steeling myself yesterday as I spoke to my students for the last time this semester.

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.

The Energy Cost and the Power of Empathy

empathynoun em·pa·thy \ˈem-pə-thē\

the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions

the ability to share someone else’s feelings

Some analogies seem credible, but fall apart when considered carefully: the mind as a blank slate or even as computer hard drive, for example.

But analogies work when they bridge one person’s understanding with another’s—such as how the iPhone battery life reveals the energy cost of anxiety or being an introvert [1].

Despite the popularity of the iPhone, battery life has plagued the device, prompting each time a new version is released dozens of posts on how to increase battery life.

Often, battery life is being drained unnecessarily by Apps running in the background, thus not apparent by simply looking at the screen.

And herein lies the analogy: anxiety (living in a constant state of impending doom, having a constant internal, and negative, conversation with yourself) and introversion are states in which even though the person may appear to be functioning well—or even extremely well—the stress of anxiety and introversion are draining that person’s psychic and even physical energy.

The consequences are often heavy: exhaustion but being unable to sleep soundly or at all, aches and pains in joints where the tension rests, and assorted seemingly unrelated health issues. As well, the response to environments hostile to the anxious or introverts is to flee—a flight that in fact is a running to a place where they can try to stabilize, to recharge.

The energy cost of anxiety and introversion also significantly reduce a person’s ability to concentrate, to focus.

For teachers, then, Michael Godsey’s When Schools Overlook Introverts is an important addition to carefully considering the many ways in which student engagement and achievement may be signs of anything except student effort or learning.

Just as living in poverty drains a person’s ability to think in ways similar to being sleep deprived, anxiety, stress, and introversion often impose energy costs on students that significantly impact their learning.

Godsey highlights that school functions overwhelmingly in ways detrimental to introverts:

The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts. In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.

Beyond the emphasis on collaboration, schools are generally noisy, and few opportunities or spaces exist for students to be alone. For introverts, a school day may often be something to endure, forcing those students to spend a great deal of time outside of school simply recharging instead of attending to homework or studying.

Introversion, like anxiety, can have cumulative and very negative consequences—especially when those predisposed to either do not have the support of family, friends, teachers, or co-workers who can empathize with experiences unlike their own.

As I have noted about anxiety [2], having to explain constantly ones introversion is yet another energy cost.

For teachers, especially, we must be aware and then willing to empathize with students whose measurable outcomes in the classroom may be windows into something quite different from their effort or learning.

For the anxious, the stressed, and introverts, the empathy of others not only avoids one energy cost but also allows the space some need to recharge.

See Also

How to Teach Introverts, Nancy Flanagan

[1] Alone in my office, my back to the door, the office mostly quiet, I write—I, an introvert, drained and fighting the internal-dialogue demon of anxiety. As many writers are, as many writers do, we write in quest of empathy.

There is the soft sound of rain on the leaves outside my office window. Rain asks nothing of anyone. For an anxious introvert, few gifts could be greater.

[2] More on analogies. Know the scene in Alien when the alien bursts through Kane’s chest? The moment right before that is the constant state of impending doom of anxiety. Anxiety is a physical manifestation of a psychological response to the world.