Social Insecurity

Photomontage: Titled & EntitledThe US has had a Social Security Administration for eight whole decades now, a government agency aimed at assisting the aged, the disabled, and those with limited income capabilities. Highly admirable stuff, that, however imperfectly executed. The fact that many of my generation and younger have had reason to question whether the monies we ourselves have set aside and invested (through this very agency, in hopes of securing our own places if and when we reach the point of need in any of those categories) will still be there waiting for us gives the lie to the amiably well-intentioned name of said organization. But if there were to be an agency with the opposite name, I have a feeling it would be devoted to something a bit different, or at least much broader, than the opposite of supporting the aged, the disabled, and those with limited income capabilities.

If you ask me, insecurity—especially of the social variety—is pretty darned near universal. It strikes at the hearts of the poor and the rich equally, at those with profound physiological barriers to their earning potential and those who make their mind-bogglingly large incomes by being spectacularly physically gifted (here’s looking at you, pro athletes!), at those with limited income capabilities, say, because they are [ahem! Starving] artists and those whose income potential seems utterly unlimited (you know, artists of the bankable-actor type or the rockstar variety and their cohorts). I know from long observation that the seemingly most potent and gifted, powerful and well-established, famous and accomplished, are also among the least socially secure people on the planet. It has a little to do, I’m sure, with the idea that the more one has, the more one has to lose. But it’s really not so logic-based as all that. It’s an inborn, often reinforced, sense that what one does have not only can vanish in the blink of an eye but is highly likely to do so. A belief that if anybody else on earth has any such gifts and privileges and earned honors, then the ones that one has, oneself, are diminished by an equal amount, or just plain eclipsed. The zero-sum game in a terribly emotional, wildly self-destructive form. How pitiful.

What I would like might be to create the Social Insecurity Administration, and let everybody who feels a need to join, or is nominated for the dubious honor by others who know what fears lie in their secret hearts,

Tough as Nails

Photo: A Little Rusty, Maybe

I may be getting a little rusty and weathered, but I’m just happy to be aging.

I’m managing to age. I’m glad. Though I’ve never had such a deep fall into my depressive and anxious episodes as to become suicidal, I’ve had times when I feared it might be hard to keep living, instead retreating into agoraphobic hiding in perpetuity. Those times, I am so very thankful, have been rare. They’re long past, too.

A couple of months ago, though, I had the first of some subtle indications that my longtime sense of shining wellness might have some tiny cracks forming in its foundations. A creeping unease entered into my confident good cheer. When I was first diagnosed and treated back then for my anxiety and depression, I had the strange sensation of learning what it felt like for my symptoms to recede, one by one, and as they did, I realized that the way I’d felt and the whole way I’d understood myself for all of my life before then, was in large part a collection of symptoms. Underneath it all was a different, happier and healthier self I have relished getting to know as I was unmasked by this progress.

I won’t lose that self again readily. I made tracks for the doctor’s office to talk about my options, because I don’t ever want to be held prisoner in that not-me state again. We’re checking my general health, the doctor and I, and plotting a course for reinforcement of the new-and-improved me while combating those things that threaten in any small way.

My greatest reassurance comes from living with the life partner who never ceases to love and support me for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. Backing him up in the task are the many relatives and friends upon whom I also depend. But I’ve come to realize that I have another resource on which I’ll be depending in this adventure. Surprisingly, that defender is me.

See, I understand now what I didn’t and couldn’t back in the day: I could never have made it to my first depressive crash and subsequent healing if I weren’t pretty tough inside. I have always thought of myself as shy, timid and easily cowed, but the truth is that if everything that seems ordinary and normal to other people in the everyday scheme of things—meeting a new person, answering the phone, taking a class—seems infinitely harder to a person with anxiety disorder or the chemical imbalance that causes chronic depression, then I must be stronger than I thought.

I’m planning to win. I don’t expect it’ll happen overnight, let alone permanently, but with my personal army at my back and the right attitude and resources of my own, I think I have a good shot at it.

Photo: Tough as Nails

For a marshmallow, I’m actually tough as nails.

Huntin’ ‘n’ Fission

I’m told that it’s both fun and useful to have hobbies. There are certainly plenty of books, magazines, news articles, classes, clubs and social organizations devoted to leisure-time pursuits, all of them trumpeting the value of such avocations. Some of them are decidedly age-specific: I haven’t seen a large number of free solo rock climbing promotions aimed at senior citizens, for example. There are hobbies considered preferable to persons of certain economic strata, fitness levels, sexes, nationalities and any number of other identifying categories, some active and some quite passive or spectatorial, some of them expensive to learn and requiring extensive training and practice and others free and simple to master. Regional favorites abound, like, say, noodling (catching catfish by hand), which would be hard to enjoy in desert climates unless you happened to be both a big fan of the sport and dedicated enough to stock your own evaporation-protected pond. Some of the more intellectually stimulating hobbies, like competitively designing robotics for cage fights or nuclear plants for home use, are highly entertaining to their practitioners but utterly escape the attentions of us more modest-brained folk as either too highfalutin or just plain incomprehensible. Sudoku, popular with millions of people cleverer than I am, falls into that too-challenging category for me since I’m so mathematically unfit, but I do like some kinds of word puzzles reasonably well if I’m in that rare mood.

Should I take up golf, having decided to move (when my spouse gets around to retiring) to a place on a golf course partly for its–surprise!–affordability and its location in a great town in a great part of the country, and in no small part as well for its great view into the green and leafy first fairway of the course? That would require my learning which end of the club is the grip and which the head, not to mention a whole bunch of other stuff, and on top of that, paying dearly for the privilege.photoWhile I’m still living in Texas I’d certainly be in a logical place to take up hunting, but that doesn’t appeal to me at all, unless it’s with a camera. For that matter, I’m more inclined to practice target shooting with a longbow, something I’ve enjoyed briefly in the distant past, than with a gun as well, being mighty skittish about those things. Being on the fast track to old age, I could probably pick up something more sedentary like knitting and crocheting if I had the patience. My single brief fishing moment post-childhood actually garnered me a cute little throw-back bass (as a kid I never caught anything but one big scary looking White Sucker that even my older boy cousins wouldn’t touch) and was enjoyed in good company while sipping a fine Texas brew; maybe that should inspire me to get busy with fishing.photoThat’s the thing, though: I just don’t enjoy games and sports, puzzles and pastimes much at all. Whether this arose or was reinforced by my longtime social phobias, perfectionistic fear of being seen as incompetent, dyslexic inability to keep anything I’m doing on a standard track, hilariously hideous sporting skills or any combination thereof is probably irrelevant. You see, there’s no separation of church and state in my life. I spend my days and evenings doing the very things that lots of folk can only do on an occasional basis and to fill their free time.

If I took up drawing, concert-going, reading and writing, cooking, DIY projects, gardening, photography or collecting weird bits of Stuff as a so-called hobby, what would I do with my day job? The truth is simply that I’m a fully fledged frivolous person. If eccentric creative activities and ways of thinking are on the periphery of real life, then I am a bona fide fiction, an imaginary character myself. If on the other hand art is, as I’m convinced it should be, central to existence and well-being, why then I’m just ahead of the curve; I won’t need to retire to any old rocking chair or go in a desperate search for something to keep me occupied, because I already have too many fun and pleasing things to do. Either way, I’m keeping busy.

From the Bottom of a Well

digital illustrationThere are wells whose bottommost dark can hardly be imagined, let alone reached, abysses hidden in all of us that emit no light and rarely give up answers. There are parts of each of us that we can scarcely understand ourselves. Places in which no one else seems able to make sense of us. It does not diminish us, singly or as a species, but it makes living life a greater and more delicately convoluted adventure at every turn.

For me, this means that I need to find the positive in an assortment of inner oddities and personal distinctions that most often remind me of their presence in random, unpredictable and even annoying ways. The unusual synaptical dances that cause me to read upside down, backwards and sideways instead of the particular direction in which my peers and comrades read make me a very slow reader since texts around here are designed with the literate majority in mind. But I think that reading things four times through just to make sense of them does sometimes immerse me more thoroughly in the text if I let it, and it can help turn a mere reading requirement into a commitment. Drawing, when my hand tremors are being pesky, demands that I become more than ordinarily focused and deliberate as well. There are lots of frustrating nuisances that can be turned into usable stuff with enough thought and effort and patience and, well, acceptance.

I still have a mighty tough time scraping up that attitude, though, when it comes to getting a handle on anxiety. That, my friends, is my bête noire. Most of the time I work around it fairly well. My medication and years of learning coping skills and the support of family, friends and health professionals have made much of my anxiety mostly manageable, especially the social anxiety that long made it a near impossibility to meet new people or have conversations with any. But there’s this lousy aspect that keeps on lounging around in my psyche and popping out like a jack-in-the-box at the most inopportune times without so much as a how-d’ye-do, and I have yet to discover a single upbeat way to dress it up and take control of this fiendish pop-up and its ghoulish torments.

The particularly loathsome aspect, to me, is how utterly ridiculous and tiny my personal bane appears to my rational mind, yet how entirely paralyzing its power remains over me whenever it rears its nasty clownish head. It’s not especially complicated to explain, just seems impossible to me to solve; the parts of social anxiety that I’ve never been able to undo or conquer thus far have to do with any kind of business or personal transaction that seems to me to have any chance of including a need for me to request or require help of any sort. Add to that my continuing pointless yet persistent horror of using a telephone or communication forum of any kind for those needy purposes, and it’s a peculiarly potent combination of fears that can keep me from getting the littlest and quickest things done for days or weeks on end while I try to summon the nerve to move forward with them.

Sometimes I can persuade myself over a long enough period to make the call or write the email or knock on the door to ask for information, make a transaction, or schedule an event, and sometimes I just remain stuck in the grip of that inertia that neither solves the problem nor lets me forget that I am in its power. And believe me, I know how abysmally foolish any attempt to explain my terrified reluctance to any sane person sounds: it sounds beyond childish and outlandish to me. But that rational part of me has very little sway over my phobias, so only once in a wildly long while do I get up the courage to do that unbelievably little thing that others can, and I should be able to, do without batting an eye.

The good news, and yes there is plenty of it to get me through the day, is that I have lived a good long time visiting the bottom of this particular and soggy well without losing my ability to see the light up at the top end of it or even to experience a truly happy life by keeping my trips down there as separate from the rest of my existence as I know how to do. And strangely, I have found that the same rain of frustrations, frights and fears that occasionally pelt down the well around me can also lie at my feet like a watery mirror, reflecting enough of my better self to remind me to come back up into the brighter world and leave my fears behind. Even if I have to wait for the rising tide of it to carry me back up and out of there for respite.digital illustrationMeanwhile, I can remember that having Spasmodic Dysphonia tends to make me not merely a prisoner of my halting speech but also more conscientious about conserving, preserving and rehabilitating my voice. More importantly, it gives me yet greater admiration for those who use their voices in extraordinary ways, both those with SD or other speech anomalies (i.e., Diane Rehm and James Earl Jones) and those without (Angela Meade, Colin Balzer, Morgan Freeman). And while I may not have perfect pitch or infallible hearing, there’s nothing notably wrong with my ears. Sometimes I even suspect that being at the bottom of a well gives me a better appreciation for good acoustics!

Be It Ever So Humble

I had such a grand week at the conference. The 11th through 15th of March was my spouse’s purported Spring Break from the university, but as so often happens, most of the week was filled up with work. In this instance, the work was exceedingly pleasurable, but as it was the conference of the American Choral Directors Association, it was, as are most tremendously enjoyable activities, exhausting. Two, three or four concerts a day, master classes, seminars and sessions of all sorts, wandering the exhibitors’ booths, networking and lots of socializing and late, late nights are all piled into the ACDA conferences. By the end of the week, going home sounded beautifully and truly welcome.photoIt might surprise some people to hear it, but by nature I’m an introvert, shy, and I used to have a fairly nasty perpetual case of social anxiety. Yeah, all that fun stuff. I spent a lot of years feeling scared and sick over every new meeting, every unfamiliar place or event. Luckily for me, there are such things as therapists, medications, and lots of family support and training. As a result, going to the various conventions, festivals and conferences that bring together the choral world from time to time has gone from what was, the first time I attended one with my then new husband, quite overwhelming and nerve-wracking to this last, which like its latest predecessors was a much-anticipated ‘family reunion’ with a great number of beloved friends and colleagues from all over the world.photoSo I certainly had a grand week. Meeting with longtime friends from various places we’ve lived, choirs my husband’s conducted, and from our school days, and with ever so many outstanding colleagues, we got to celebrate with them all over music, lunches and dinners, receptions, walks-about-town, drinks and quiet conversations. We laughed and hugged and chattered with current and former students, with composers and conductors and publishers and singers and players, so many friends, and it was all tremendous fun. It made for long days and for short sleeps, for incredibly dry eyes from staying up way too late and for teary eyes from amazingly sweet meetings, no matter how fleeting, with our long-absent dear ones. Stellar music performed by both friends and strangers moved me to both sniffling and silly grins (sometimes simultaneously). It made me as happy and full of love for music and friends and life as I can get, and it made me so tired I could hardly move ten of my cells at a time. And it made me look forward with great intensity to the splendors of home. There, I can relish in retrospect all the sweetness of the multitude of marvels granted by a superb week. And I can revel in Just. Plain. Being. Home.

The One Person More Lost than Me

photoMom has taught me a whole lot of things. One of the most useful is how to turn one of my most frustrating shortcomings into a strength.  It’s a skill I’ll still spend the rest of my life polishing, but having been taught the basics, I know what I need to practice, and that is a tremendous boost.

My lifelong shyness and social anxiety rose to a not-at-all-surprising high level when I started college. The small university I attended was hardly an unknown element to me, as my parents and a couple of other relatives, as well as some friends, had attended there and my older sister was already starting her junior year there when I arrived. But being predisposed to fear and intimidation as my responses to all social situations, I was guaranteed to struggle with extra doses of my old hauntings by the terrors of interpersonal experience in the new to me surroundings, with a roommate I met the day we moved in to our shared dormitory space, all new classmates, new teachers and administrators and a neighborhood where I’d never more than visited briefly before.

For the most part, I muddled through just as I’d done since I was old enough to know how to be afraid of new people and situations, and even had, as always, plenty of the enjoyment I was capable of having. I did acquire a number of grand new friends, including my roommate, who turned out to be a fantastic companion and like-minded girl. I took classes that challenged and intrigued me and I dragged up enough courage to participate in some events and extracurricular activities that broadened my scope significantly. I was surrounded in my living quarters in an all-female dorm by a cadre of terrific young women who bolstered my puny sense of self and cheered me on like the best of good neighbors.

But one day, as the first year progressed, I was visiting informally with a handful of those girls and we got into a discussion (as college coeds still often do, from what I’ve seen) about First Impressions. One of the girls, to whom I will be eternally grateful, let it slip that on first meeting me she had thought, and had since learned that others had too, that I was Stuck Up. That’s the simple classification among my tribe of someone who thinks herself superior to others and disdains and dismisses them. I was dumbstruck.

She went on, hastily, to add that on getting to know me she had realized that the reason I often refused invitations, that I didn’t look people in the eye, and that I evaded interactions and conversations instead expressed a defensive retreat into my giant ossified shell of shyness and my fear of all things new and unknown and that, in fact, she and others really enjoyed my company. That was some consolation, but realizing through her honesty that I projected an image far less benign and far more distancing than I guessed, I knew I’d have to somehow wrest my way out of the armor I’d built around myself and at the very least learn to act the part of someone with social skills even if I didn’t have them.

Naturally, I went whimpering off to Mom. And she surprised me by going beyond the sympathetic and consoling mother needed in the conversation. I’d never imagined that this person I’d always known as having not only a mother’s authority but a certain status as both the recognized Favorite Mom among all of my friends over the years and a kind of built-in First Lady of all of the organizations in which she participated, not least of all as the pastor’s wife–that she had another side, one not so entirely different from my own. That she had been deeply intimidated by being expected to play the roles of guide, hostess, chief female church member, community do-gooder and cheerleader, and all of the other philanthropic and social leadership parts inherently assumed by others to be part of her place in the world. And that, when Dad was busy being the speaker, preacher, chairman, boss and whatever his role of the moment happened to be, she was stuck in meetings and receptions and services and classes full of strangers who expected her to carry not only her own weight but that of whatever they thought was required for the occasion.

I almost wilted, thinking of what it must have been like for her.

But then she imparted the piece of wisdom that ‘cracked the case’ for me. I got the MacGuffin: social anxiety and extreme shyness assume that I am the center of the universe. That the rest of the world is watching me and is dependent on my doing or being certain things for its success and happiness. And that I am suffering the most for the cause. She put it in much more tactful terms, I’m quite certain, given that I was a flimsy excuse for an ego, a fragile not yet twenty year old still unable to see my path in everyday life clearly.

I think what she really told me (from which I extrapolated the above) was the incredibly handy ‘trick’ she’d learned for coping with all of these unreasonable social and activist demands. When you arrive, immediately look for the one person in the room more uncomfortable and more out of place than you. Even when you’re absolutely sure it’s not possible, there’s always someone more scared, more intimidated, more inexperienced or at the very least, who thinks that they are. It’s true, by the way; I’ve seen it proven over and over since. Go and gently introduce yourself and ask this person about him- or herself. Make this person the most interesting part of your life while you’re there.

That’s it, really. Suddenly, it’s not my job to be perfect or achieve the goals of the event or even to be interesting or brave; it’s my job to make another scared person feel more welcome and at ease. I don’t have to spend any energy on worrying about how I look to others or whether I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because nobody with an ounce of sense is going to argue that taking care of someone in need isn’t what we’re all supposed to be doing, that recognizing that there’s someone whose need is greater than our own isn’t precisely the most attractive thing we can accomplish, and that a friendly smile isn’t the most fashionable item anyone can wear for any occasion.

I fall down on this effort often enough, still, and do my well practiced imitation of an additional pillar holding up the dimmest corner of the room. I haven’t Saved anyone else from the brink of doom through my heroic attempts to cheer them up for a half hour. I still have impressive dramatic skills in making faux pas and pratfalling my way through the day and then doing my best to make the earth swallow me whole.

But afterward, I remember to quit imagining myself the cynosure of Creation, let go of my need to be correct and impressive and likable and spend my energies on helping someone who doesn’t know Mom’s useful little technique to feel more correct and impressive and likable. I will put on my shiny smile and play the role of somebody better than me and hope that someday, if I practice it hard enough, it will become second nature and I won’t even have to work at it at all. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

If you happen to be headed to yet another office holiday party or first-of-the-year reception any time soon, you can test this theory yourself. Thank my mom. Or, if you happen to subscribe to a certain story that is commemorated on this very night, thank the Person who became most vulnerable of all in order to protect and rescue everybody weaker.

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Maybe I DID Hear You the First Time

mixed media drawing

Pardon my reverie . . . I was just mulling over my latest plans for ruling the world . . .

Oh, yes, in my youth I was very much that kid all of you teachers have found so frustrating in your classes. It wasn’t that I was at all obstreperous (a little chatty at times, but then who isn’t), and I certainly wasn’t intentionally disruptive or uncooperative. But since I mostly hated being noticed, thanks to my shyness and social anxiety, and naturally I didn’t want to get in the way of the kids that weren’t perhaps getting enough of the attention anyway, I often found myself wandering the byzantine byways of my brain with the undoubtedly frequent appearance of not caring about the highly significant stuff being generously shared from the pulpit of the teachers’ desks.

Did it really matter that while the doyenne of the desk was teaching the spelling lesson I was counting the holes in the ceiling tiles to see if one tile matched another or perhaps each was hand-punctured by specially trained elfin craftsmen with sterling silver toothpicks instead of fingers? Actually, as a sometime teacher myself, I can answer that query with a resounding Yessirree, but truthfully only because no matter how stealthy the “inattentive” student thinks she’s being, and no matter if she gets a Hundred on the spelling test every time, the other students are bound to take their cue from the least participatory and cooperative seeming student in the room. It doesn’t matter that she did in fact hear the spelling practice being held in the background of her own mental meanderings (or already knew how to spell whatever exceedingly counterintuitive new words were being practiced), what mattered was that she wasn’t supporting the standard of classroom decorum. I get that. Now. But as a kid, I found it rather trying that I had to do whatever everybody else was doing even when I was certain in my heart that I would get the required job done in my own way. I was the poster child for the triumph of Mind over What Matters.

Did I have Attention Deficit Disorder? (Do I?) Would that make any difference? Not really. Despite my demurrals and admissions of inner sloth and self-indulgence, I have always had the ability to be fairly disciplined when it mattered, I just know I have to make a very serious commitment to exercising that particular skill, because it’s simply not my automatic bent. So along the years I’ve tried to train myself up into a slightly more presentable appearance of compliance and conformity when it seems important or expedient to do so.

Yet my mind still flits hither and yon with equally purposeful purposelessness, all the same. I’m simply learning how to be better at a sort of out-of-body transcendence that allows me to look like I’m fully involved in the present action (and I almost am, really, Boss) while a hunk of my inward self can continue its peregrinations in whatever flights of fancy it requires in the moment.

digital photocollage

Sugar and spice, sure, but don't forget the snails and pails and whatnot . . .

See, there’s just too much loveliness in this universe (and potential in all of the other imaginable ones) not to be exploring it when-and-however I can. The found castoff wing of a dragonfly simply begs to be examined in person and in memory and at great length for its extravagant glassine iridescence. Every minute or magnificent object that comes into my view or my thoughts deserves some serious attention. Shells, shoes, barking madmen and barking dogs, whales and whiskers and whistling trains–if I don’t give them their due, and hopefully in the process also unveil their previously undiscovered secret histories, why then who will? That boy in row six thoughtfully picking his nose with his pencil eraser while staring out the window? Probably, because clearly he (a) has a similarly vagrant brain, the sort from which fabulous inventions and discoveries do spring, and (b) his nose ought to be clear enough by now that his brain will get more oxygen than all of the rest of Row Six put together, so his thoughts will have the added lustre of brilliance that fresh air brings.

In the meantime, I feel it incumbent upon me to keep up my part of cross-pollinating the scientific and romantic approaches toward whatever imaginative ends might finally appear. So please don’t be offended if my attention seems to have drifted just a little off to port or starboard when you’re regaling me with the wit and charm and incomparable genius that I should undoubtedly be diving into with the fullest focus possible. Because I probably only look like I’m off in la-la land when in fact it’s located in me and at one and the same time I’m perfectly awash with what you have shared, O my teachers. I promise I will absorb it, too, subliminally, cutaneously, osmotically and, if necessary, orthotically–right along with all of the goodness I’m already absorbing in my far-off inner world.

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The waters of mystery and adventure are just waiting there to be swum . . .