I have this recurring dream during periods of high stress in my life. I feel this painful, pressurized lump somewhere on my body, often on a shoulder, hip, or behind my ear. I try to squeeze it to no avail. Messing with it hurts, but I have to get it out of there. I pick at it. I scratch it. No luck whatsoever.
Then one day, I’m clawing away at it without much hope of success, and, pop! Suddenly it bursts through the skin. It’s still attached, still intact, but at least it’s outside my body, so the pressure is reduced. Even so, I want it gone. So I take a deep breath, brace myself, and cut it out. It detaches with a sickening, watery, ripping squelch. But it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I anticipated. What was I so worried about?
Now I’m holding it in my hand. It’s warm. It’s actually kind of pretty, now that I’m free of it. It’s a perfect sphere. The most perfect one I’ve ever seen. It’s shiny and white, like a pearl. (That is, if a pearl were the size of a golf ball.)
I’m kind of in love with this thing, because I realize that it’s all my problems, beautifully encapsulated. I can control it. I can handle it. Best of all, I can get rid of it. So I do.
I always wake up smiling after that dream. I often go to sleep wishing that I’ll have it. I take comfort from the fact that it exists somewhere deep inside me.
Recently, on a cruise in Alaska, I had my very first massage. At age 54. There are several reasons for this.
First and foremost, of course, is the expense. Massages are not for poor people, who usually need them the most. It’s hard to budget for this type of luxury when you are struggling to keep a roof over your head. It is only very recently that I’ve stopped counting myself amongst that number, and even now, it’s hard to get out of the habit of avoiding unnecessary expenses.
Second is the fact that I really don’t like being touched by strangers. It takes me a while to feel comfortable with that level of intimacy. Sure, once you’ve broken down that barrier, I’m all about the affection. I just couldn’t imagine having someone’s hands all over me, invading my personal space, five seconds after meeting, you know?
Third, as I described at length in my post Cruise Ship Feudalism, I don’t do well with the whole class division thing. The thought of someone laboring over me in order to make a living kind of makes me squirm. I hate being catered to. I hate being served.
Fourth is that I’ve always struggled with the concept of being pampered. I was not brought up to believe I deserved such treatment. And I’m not a girly girl. I’ve never been to a spa. I’ve never had a facial or a manicure or a pedicure. I don’t use lotions or creams or gels. I come from a background that’s all about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and getting on with the business of living. My idea of luxury is a hot bath in a nice deep tub, followed by an afternoon nap. Now, that, I’d do 4 times a week if given the chance. I’m worthy of that, I feel, because it’s free, and it doesn’t involve strangers or servitude.
So you can imagine how much extra tension I was carrying when I went for this massage, which, by the way, I did not book myself. I didn’t know how to act or what to think. I couldn’t look the massage therapist in the eye. My first impression of her was that she was very tiny and that English wasn’t her first language. I thought that she must be lonely so far from home, and her little hands must ache at the end of the day. But that was probably me projecting my unease upon her.
In the end, she was very courteous, dignified and professional. She certainly knew what she was doing. And she used a salt scrub and hot rocks, too. When she finished working on one leg, I could do a physical comparison of the other leg, and I was absolutely shocked at the difference. I had no idea how much my stress manifests itself in physical form. Maybe I do need this. Maybe I deserve it.
In the end, I felt like I had no skeletal system at all. I was just relaxed mush. It was heavenly. They could have taken me out of there in a plastic bucket. My brain was mush, too. I was grateful that the tip is included in the fee, because at that point I wouldn’t have been able to work out what to add on.
So, yeah, that first massage won’t be my last. Maybe. Probably. We’ll see.
The entire two weeks of my Alaskan vacation, I did not access the news. Not once. No newspapers, no radio, no streaming media. Nothing. Aliens could have invaded the planet and I wouldn’t have known. Cheeto-head had to fend for himself. The human moral compass no doubt continued to spin erratically in search of true North. I was not subjected to the vertigo that that can cause.
It was pure bliss.
Oh, I was already aware of the stress that news causes me. I knew that not a day goes by without my feeling frustrated, helpless, and outraged because of the things going on in the world. I knew I needed a break.
But as they say, a fish doesn’t know the quality of the water it is in until it jumps out of it. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t expect to feel my blood pressure drop. I felt physically better. More rested. My attitude improved. People didn’t seem to suck nearly as much as they normally do. (Well, most of them, anyway.) It was cleansing.
I’m not saying that we should bury our heads in the sand as a general rule. Our leaders must be held accountable. We must bear witness. We have to strive for change or else society will sink to its lowest common denominator.
But every now and then, it’s nice to be reminded that the earth is going to continue to revolve around the sun with or without my help. It’s good to take time to reassess and revitalize. It’s important to live to fight another day.
My whole life, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. That feeling intensifies when things are going well. Because I can’t have the nice things. I’ve never had the nice things. At least, not for long.
Sooner or later, everything seems to turn to sh**. If I’m braced for it, I can usually handle it, and come out the other side. I’m nothing if not a survivor. But if that darned shoe takes me by surprise, then that would be bad. Really, really bad.
I remind myself of Nelly, a wonderful dog, who flinches every time you reach out to pet her sweet head. She knows all about what having it bad used to be like. She learned early that flinching can soften the blow. How do I explain to her that I love her, and I’ll always love her, and I’ll never hurt her? She deserves to be petted and cuddled and adored. I want her to be able to own it.
I deserve the good stuff, too. I know it. And here lately I have been experiencing it. And I enjoy it. Mostly. But I can’t seem to get out from under that mental shoe of mine. It’s always there, stinking up the place.
I think there are a lot of people out there, walking around with a shoe in their heads. Please be patient with us. We may not show it well, but your goodness really is appreciated. Probably even more than it would be if we were one of those lucky shoeless people.
Unless you have no pulse at all, you are carrying stress within you, even as you read this. We all do. It’s part of modern life. It comes from a feeling of being overwhelmed, and thinking that you can’t cope with a situation.
According to Wikipedia, that font of all human knowledge, stress can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, ulcers, and mental illnesses such as depression. So needless to say, stress is bad for you.
What I find particularly scary is how easily I fool myself into thinking I’ve gotten used to a certain level of anxiety. It’s as if I am coping simply because I’ve come to expect that I will have to wade through some crap, and that’s just the cost of doing business.
That doesn’t mean the stress, with all its toxic side effects, has disappeared. It just means that I’ve resigned myself to it. That’s problematic, because it also means that I’m no longer trying to do anything to relieve that stress. I’ve concluded that there’s no solution, so I just bathe in it, regardless of the pollution this brings into my world. After a while, I seem to forget it’s happening.
But every once in a while, some fortuitous thing occurs that removes a stressor from my life. That happened just this month. And the change within me has been profound. I started off by feeling slightly sick from the sheer release. Then I felt as though 500 pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. Freedom! Sweet relief.
And then there was the inevitable shock that I had been carrying that weight for so long without even realizing it. (Actually, I knew of about 50 pounds of it, but not the full 500.) It makes me wonder what other burdens I’m carrying. No wonder I’m so tired much of the time.
I think I need to work on being more aware of what my body is trying to tell me. I need to address issues whenever possible, even though I hate confrontation. I need to stop walking around with my head in the clouds and take better care of me.
In the meantime, I’m going to go do a happy dance to celebrate my newfound freedom. Woot!
The other day, I was lonely, angry, exhausted, hurt, and generally disgusted with life. So I did what I often do: I went straight for the cupcakes. (I have found that pizza and ice cream are viable substitutes as well.)
For a split second, I felt much better. But then I felt much worse. It’s a self-defeating habit. It’s not healthy. It makes me feel bad about myself. And the problem is still there.
But self-soothing is vital. When you are under stress, it’s good to come up with coping skills. But it’s also important not to be self-destructive. Turning to drugs or alcohol or out of control spending or red velvet cake is not the way to go if you really want to feel better in the long run.
When you’re experiencing stress, try to be kind to yourself rather than doing something that will ultimately feel more like torture. Here are some suggestions that I’m going to try to take instead of consuming sugar and/or grease:
Take a bath.
Take a walk.
Talk to a friend. Ask for a pep talk.
Elevate your feet.
Relax in a hammock.
Read a good book.
Hug your dog.
Netflix and chill.
Listen to music.
Get a massage.
Journal it out.
Work in your garden.
Create some art.
Do something nice for someone else.
Feed the birds.
Do your favorite hobby.
Ride your bike.
Wrap yourself in something soft and warm.
Light a candle.
Walk barefoot in your yard.
Go swimming. Float.
I think the trick is to identify when you need to be soothed, and then take charge of what that soothing looks like. Yeah, coffee ice cream may seem like the easy way out of your mood, but in the end, it’s not the best celebration of you. Choose a healthier path to calm your nerves so that you can be present and capable of finding a solution to your stress.
I think this is great advice. Now I need to take it. Wish me luck!
(Barring all of the above, maybe I should force the cupcakes upon the source of my stress instead of eating them myself. That would be satisfying. Maybe I’m on to something, here!)