What Are You Afraid Of?

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Maybe you’re like me, anxious more often than not. Maybe you’ve read about that pair of panic buttons in the brain called the amygdalae. Troublesome though they may be, we’d be lost without them, unable to perceive and react to danger. The amygdalae are the gatekeepers of the limbic system, the brain’s most primitive region. Ever on guard, they make continual connections with other parts of the brain, and when sufficiently aroused, they alert the hypothalamus to initiate the “flight or fight” response; within seconds our hearts pound, our mouths go dry and our bodies are flooded with stress hormones.

It’s an impressive chain of command. All information taken in by the senses is first sent to the thalamus, which then relays this information to the appropriate sensory cortex. The cortex involved then evaluates the stimuli and assigns a meaning. If the meaning is perceived as a threat, the amygdala is engaged and produces the corresponding emotional reactions.

But a new feature of the process has recently been discovered. The cortex does not receive the entire message from the thalamus; a portion is sent directly to the amygdala, a shorter route that results in instantaneous alarm. This is the reason we see a coiled rope and think snake! An inability to react quickly could have dire consequences, so this shortcut confers a biological advantage. It is also the reason we have such difficulty overcoming phobias and anxiety attacks. The quiet messages sent by the rational cortex cannot be heard above the roar of our emotions.

There’s more. Scientists have also learned that the amygdalae can actually grow. Enlarged amygdalae have been found in children repeatedly exposed to trauma. Not only do these structures increase in size, they become more efficient at transmitting fear responses, the neurons involved developing more synapses to accommodate the volume of messages received. By the time we are adults, we are hardwired for the anxiety we were destined for.

Who can say where it starts, though it seems probable that anxious parents, particularly mothers, give birth to anxious offspring. A mother consumed with fear will pass these feelings onto her baby, right along with the effects of her diet and sleeping habits. How many babies are born to mothers who are serene, capable and financially secure?

Like many people—most people?—I did not have an easy childhood; in fact, I was routinely abused, a prisoner in my own home. That is the curse of childhood: adults can hold you hostage and get away with it. The only place I felt safe was outside, where I made forts out of pine boughs and lost myself in the marvels and mysteries of nature.

I grew up anyway, like we all do, not knowing how ill-equipped I was. When the panic attacks started, in my early twenties, I managed them with the only means I had—Jack Daniel’s-laced coffee and the Valium I received from a friend who dated doctors, just enough to get me on the subway so I could keep my job. Who else was going to pay my bills? Walking from the subway stop to my workplace, I would stop several times and study my image in plate glass windows, making sure I was there.

Eventually this free-floating anxiety crystallized into a fear of doctors and clinical settings—I must have felt a loss of control in these situations. This led to a skyrocketing of my blood pressure, which led to a fear of having it taken. I have yet to overcome this phobia. Fortunately, I have an understanding doctor who accepts the readings I take at home. I’ve actually come a long way—there was a time I couldn’t even look at a hospital, or a blood pressure cuff. Beyond this phobia, I am also prone to obsessive thoughts, a hallmark of anyone intimate with anxiety.

Therapists? I’ve tried a couple. Can’t say they helped me. I’d look at them and wonder what to divulge, and when, and how any of it mattered now. I wanted to believe in their power to cure me, but I couldn’t. I feel the same way about religion.

Exposure therapy, flooding, CBT, EFT, ACT—I’ve ventured most everything. I’ve also read every how-to manual I could find on the subject of anxiety and dutifully filled out the accompanying worksheets. I can’t say that any one avenue or book has been particularly useful, though cumulatively I suppose I’ve benefited from the effort.

Three years ago my doctor suggested Paxil. I gave it a go, not expecting much, but that little white caplet has made all the difference. Paxil offers a measure of objectivity by making me feel as if I am observing my fear instead of being pummeled by it. There are several SSRIs on the market and some are more effective than others depending on the user—we are all different.

We work with what we have. If genetics and trauma have given us a larger than normal pair of amygdalae, there are ways to mitigate the effects. I’d like to think that a drug is not the answer, but in fact it is. For me. As a good friend says, “Whatever it takes, Jean. Whatever it takes.”

Wow. I have just told the world, or at least anyone reading this, about my phobia (there are close friends of mine who don’t know I have one). I feel a little less burdened, a little more connected. We will ask people what they like or dislike, but rarely do we ask them what they’re afraid of. We need to talk about these things so that we can find each other in the dark and let compassion bring us together. The most frightening secrets of all are the ones we keep to ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Lessons I Learned From The South Napa Earthquake

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While the South Napa Earthquake was a meh compared to grand scale disasters, Hurricane Harvey has reminded me of the lessons I learned that day, which I am re-posting now. My deep sympathy to the victims and survivors of this catastrophic storm. In its wake, may love and good will continue to bloom.

1) You will never look at your home the same way again.

Homes are wounded, some more deeply than others; in fifteen seconds they have aged two decades. Most will need long-term care, the sort of attention that involves forgiveness. With enough money and patience, you can battle the mounting flaws. Alternatively, you can turn tender and live in peace with the wear and tear. You can accept your aging home the same way you accept your imperfect body.

2) Nature will win.

You know this now. Nature’s blows are indiscriminate and nonnegotiable. You have seen photos of the Mount St. Helens eruption, footage from Hurricane Katrina, but until you have been caught inside the roar yourself, flung like a rag doll inside your splintering house, you are not intimate with Mother Nature. Having survived one of her surges, you will love her no less and trust her no more.

3) You are not safe.

Security is an impossible ideal. This does not mean that you should go running full-speed down the knife edge of your life. Neglecting your belongings; falling into drink, debt or despair—these are not answers to your vulnerable condition. Instead, you must shore up what you can and live with what you love: people, plants, animals, objects. However fragile or fleeting, whatever you hold dear graces your days and justifies its place in your life.

 

 

 

 

 

What is a Writer Worth?


What if writers were paid for their effort instead of their product? Many skilled professions involve more labor than financial reward, but writers seem particularly short-changed. Inventions, fine pieces of art, these can still command appropriate prices. Authors cannot negotiate book sales, cannot hold out for the highest bidder. Not only are print editions on the wane, digital copies are continuing to lose value. Ninety-nine cents has become a common price tag, and authors are often compelled to promote their books by giving them away for free.

What are writers worth? What would be a fair wage? A landscaper friend of mine told me last week that he always charges by the hour, not the job, as unforeseen problems can cause delays. This makes sense, and I admire him for his business acumen, for insisting that he be treated fairly. SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, my short story collections, include stories that were written over several years, and some of these pieces took months to write. One of the stories actually started out as a novel that grew flabby; I wound up scrapping about forty thousand words. Untold hours went into the making of these two books. Even if authors earned minimum wages, most would be rich beyond measure. Writers would rule the world.

Hard labor, that’s what good writing is. A dedicated writer is a slave to herself. Unlike inventors, who achieve their goals by fixing failures, writers continue on faith, not knowing if their revisions are improvements. No one can help them. Sentences are paths, and writers must blunder down one after another, hoping they have made the right turns and will not wind up lost. The journey is loaded with trip hazards, and writers must avoid them all: the pitfalls of clichés, the slopes of sentimentality, the sloughs of despair, the dreaded stasis of writer’s block. If an author is lucky enough to arrive at her goal, to finish a story she is pleased with, she must then work to acquire readers. For authors, who are generally introverted, marketing is far more onerous than writing. It is not a labor of love, and there is no end to it.

Writing is a three-step process: seizing an idea, putting this idea into words, and then into the right words. Of course, the right words for one author may be, will be, the wrong words for another—there are any number of ways to write, and mediocre writing can result in stunning sales. Writers must work to please themselves, knowing their stories may never be appreciated or even read.

I will work on one sentence for hours if need be, shuffling the words around and around until they click into place. As I wrangle words, I often think of Raymond Carver, who considered himself not a minimalist but a “precisionist”—what an apt term to describe the love he brought to his craft. Carver knew he’d never achieve perfection, but he kept reaching for it anyway, struggling year after year to bring out his best.

You can’t put a price on a good book, but you can buy one for under a buck. Most writers will never produce the stunning book they envisioned, nor will they reap the monetary rewards they have earned. As readers, we can at least offer them one dividend: the courtesy of a review. Reviews posted on Amazon or Goodreads cost nothing and require scant effort. Just a couple sentences is all it takes to let a writer know her words have not vanished.

Perfect Polly

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The other day, surfing Amazon, I came across Perfect Polly, a plastic bird that’s been around for a while. Polly is still selling well, rated #220 in Doll playsets. For $12.99 you can buy a pet that needs nothing from you but a pair of AAA batteries. No food or water, no fresh cage liners, no veterinary visits, no attention at all. Motion-activated, it will sing a small variety of songs when you come close, and its head will turn this way and that; even the tail twitches. Doubtless the next version of Perfect Polly—maybe they’ll call it Perfected Polly—will have additional pleasing features. Maybe the wings will flap; maybe the feet will move sideways an inch or two. Maybe it will sneeze, a symptom you can happily ignore.

I don’t know why this product dumbfounded me—we live in a world of illusion. Vinyl plants, rubber lawns, electric fireplaces, faux fur coats, replica handbags. Silicone breasts, Botox, Viagra, make-up, hair dye, plastic surgery, plastic fingernails–it’s as if we are trying to keep up with the androids we are building to take our places.

Las Vegas is a triumph of deception, luring hordes of people into its fairy-tale casinos. We eat fake food, wear fake leather, play fake games, and we do these things without a thought. Artifice is so ingrained in our culture that the dividing line is losing significance.

Fakery is not bad by definition. In food, for instance, it has a place. Artificial flavors are no different in molecular structure than the real versions, and not only do they save natural resources, they can make certain foods taste better, which is helpful considering how difficult it can be to get cancer patients and the aged to eat properly. Fake plants are also useful. People who habitually kill their houseplants do less damage with facsimiles, while saving a lot of money. Fake fur preserves wildlife, and plastic surgery can be invaluable, particularly for those who, on account of tragedy, actually need it. As for electric fireplaces, they’re pretty nifty. I bought one years ago. No smoke to bother my lungs or the neighborhood, and after a hard day, that silent fire behind the glass is soothing. The flames leap up with a click of the remote. They look real, though I know they are not. In order to buy an electric fireplace, you first have to forgive it.

From its packaging and appearance, one might assume that Perfect Polly is intended for children. It isn’t. Perfect Polly is not a toy, it is an alternative, a pet for people who don’t want pets.

There is a popular peanut butter with a label that boasts, No Stirring! How lazy have we become that stirring is so taxing? This is what came to mind when I saw the ad for Perfect Polly. Putting out pellets, a dish of water—that’s work? Pulling out the soiled cage liner and putting in a fresh one—that’s work? Shouldn’t there be at least some satisfaction in cleaning a bird cage, in bringing comfort to another creature? Practicalities aside, what about interaction? Don’t we acquire pets so that we can bond with them: look into their eyes, scratch their necks, stroke their feathers?

Of course the media has already had a field day with Perfect Polly and comedians have done some hilarious spoofs. Nonetheless, this bird has a large and earnest following. People are not only buying it, they’re posting reviews, dutifully sharing Polly’s pros and cons with the rest of their ilk.

It’s a niche market for sure. I picture three groups. One, the novelty buyers, folks who will purchase anything for a laugh. Two, there must be people who buy it for their children, hoping their kids will be find some amusement in a bogus bird, that their interest will last longer than the time it takes them to open the box. Then there is a third category, the elderly or mentally challenged, whose limitations have rendered them quiescent, compliant, accepting. Impairments such as blurred vision can actually be a help here, making the bird appear real. These people can scarcely manage their own needs, let alone a parakeet’s, and so they must be happy to adopt one that comes without conditions. To them, Perfect Polly is a wonder, something small and pretty that sings when they come in the room and quiets down when they leave.

God knows the world does not need another piece of plastic junk, but as long as we’re churning out legions of Barbie dolls and Lego sets, we might as well leave room for an artificial bird that brings pleasure to the lonely and bewildered. Maybe the parakeet trade will subside. If we’re going to keep birds in cages, isn’t Perfect Polly the perfect choice?