Panic! At The Grocery Store

It happens fast.   One minute Emmeline is pushing a grocery cart, turning the corner from the international foods aisle into the canned vegetable aisle, and her world slams sideways. It’s like a scene in a movie where the characters are riding in a car and then BAM!, a truck slams into their peaceful world, turning it into one of broken glass and twisted metal.

When Emmeline pushes her cart into the canned vegetable aisle, the force that hits feels as big as a truck, but there is nothing there, and nobody except Emmeline feels the force of the impact. The crash is in her brain, and the truck is a spot of red on the grocery aisle floor.

Emmeline sees the red blotch on the floor in front of her and her reaction is sudden and instinctive. In the nanosecond that it takes her to see and register the red her brain delivers a message straight to her brainstem, bypassing all rational thought: red-puddle-probably-blood-check-for-drops-must-be-blood-could-be-infected-with-aids-no-way-to-know-must-assume-it-is-might-get-on-your-shoe-when-you-take-off-your-shoe-your-hand-might-brush-it-hangnail-on-your-finger-conduit-to-your-bloodstream-you-will-DIE”.   The thought explodes in her amygdala, sending out a surge of adrenaline so strong she starts to shake.

Emmeline’s response is not to fight or flee, but to freeze. She stops so fast the cart jerks. Her vision narrows to pinpoint focus on the puddle of red on the checked linoleum floor. Everything else is blurry white noise. Her rational brain checks out — scattered into broken pieces like the glass of a broken windshield. Icy cold starts in her fingers and moves through her body. Her breathing is shallow and fast.   Her thoughts spin and spiral: BLOOD. What do I do. BLOOD . What do I do. BLOOD . The same thought circles around and around, tighter and tighter, squeezing the air from her lungs.

She stands there, unable to move, until another cart turning the corner runs into her, making her jump .

“Sorry,” the woman says, giving her a strange look as she maneuvers her cart around Emmeline’s. The woman continues on down the aisle, not even glancing at the spot on the floor that has taken Emmeline hostage.

What must she be thinking? Emmeline hears her mother’s words in her head. Social anxiety kicks in and Emmeline starts to sweat. She goes from icy cold to sweat dripping down the backs of her legs. She backs up her cart and parks to the side, buying time for her mind. The woman has shaken her thoughts loose from the spiral, but her brain is still scattered, thought pieces jiggling like little toads. Her knuckles are white where her hands grip the cart. She pries her hands loose and pulls a wet wipe out of her purse. She scrubs her hands, front and back. She takes a slow breath. Do something. Her thoughts are still too scattered. She can’t think.

Emmeline has no idea how much time has gone by. She is exhausted. The normal activity of the grocery store continues around her. She wipes the handle of her cart with her wet wipe out of habit. Her ears feel like they are filled with cotton; she can hear “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks coming through the store speakers as if from miles away. But her sense of sight and smell remain strong and focused on the source of her fear. She stares at the linoleum gleaming beneath her feet, and her vision tunnels to see every scratch, crumb, and mark dotting its surface. The smell of the wet wipe — alcohol and disinfectant — is like a weapon that she carries against the monster fear. The OCD monster.

Her rational brain has finally caught up and intellectually she understands that it is the OCD monster that is causing her panic, sending her false messages of danger. Her rational brain knows that even if it is blood on the floor in the next aisle, her chances of getting HIV are less than her chances of getting into a car accident as she drives home.   But her rational mind is too late to the panic party. The tornado of anxiety has already been triggered, released from the Pandora’s box in her mind. Now all she can do is try to pack it back in as best she can.

The ritual is the key

The ritual is the key


Writer’s block.  Sitting down at your computer and having ZERO thoughts.  It’s not a new problem, or even a particularly interesting question, unless it applies to you.  There is no “right” answer to the question “how do I defeat writer’s block”.  There are many, many answers.  The challenge is discovering the method that works for you.

I have had a serious, long-term problem with sitting down at my computer and starting to write.  I get caught up in all the decisions. What do I write about?  Should I work on my novel, my blog, or free-write something that I might be able to use in either?  If I can decide what type of writing I will do, then I can’t decide what to write about.  My head swirls with thoughts like: do I just keep writing where I left off last time?  what is a good topic for a blog post? should I just work on my character’s background?

So instead of writing, I look around for inspiration to answer my questions.  I start reading blogs, listening to podcasts, or looking up information online about writers that I admire, as if reading about creative people will somehow give me ideas on what to write about.  I search out an “Ah -ha” moment that will propel me into my writing like a skier landing a downhill jump.  What I really need to do is just sit down and get to work.  I know this in my rational brain.  But my creative brain is still constipated.   I can’t squeeze an idea or even a few pretty words out onto the page no matter how hard I try.

Some say “just write anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you are writing.”  Well, I have done that, and I have thousands and thousands of words sitting on my hard drive that don’t make up anything readable.  There is no theme, no cohesion, and no thought process.  It is just writing.  There is no purpose or thought beyond getting words on a page.

I recently started reading a book by Twlyla Tharp called The Creative Habit, and the first chapter makes an important point.  She explains how important it is to have a ritual that comes before whatever creative exercise you are attempting.  This was a kind of “aha” moment for me.  It makes so much sense.   I immediately thought about the fact that I am a runner, and how many tiny little rituals that I have that lead up to each and every run.

I run every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  I aways set out for my run in the late afternoon, around five pm.  So around four thirty, I start thinking about the upcoming run.  Then I change into my running clothes.  I even have a certain order to how I put on my clothes, an order not developed on purpose, just out of habit, routine.  Then I stretch.  It is at this point that the run is really a done deal for me.  Once I have my running clothes on, I am committed to the run, no matter how I feel or what comes up.   I put on my watch, queue up my playlist, and attach my headphones.  Lastly, I put on my running shoes.  I makes sure the laces are tight around my foot but not too tight at the top.  I double knot them so they won’t come unlaced during my run.  Once my shoes are on, there is nothing else to do but go out the door.  And once I am out in my driveway, there is really nothing else to do but start running.  Each of those small routines leads me to my run, like a five lane road gradually narrowing down to one lane.  One choice.  And the fact that I have done that same routine over and over for years makes it easier to get the exercise done on a regular basis.

Now the challenge for me is to find a group of small rituals similar to my running ones, that will lead me to my computer and get my fingers moving on the keyboard.  Easier said than done.  Writing and running are very different activities.   Currently, I have a general time in the afternoon when I want to get some writing done.  That’s it.  I don’t have a specific time, or specific clothes, and I don’t need to go outside to write.   I need to find rituals that will help push past the swirling thoughts to a place of focus and creative thinking.  Specific activities that will gradually narrow those lanes, step by easy step,  so that when I am sitting in front of my computer screen, I have nothing else on my mind but writing.

As I write this, nothing specific comes to mind right away.  I can think of things that I SHOULDN’T do as I am preparing to write.  Those would be social media, YouTube, and the ever-tempting google search.  I need to remove those things from the space where I write.  Currently, my laptop sits on my desk in my study.  I use my laptop for all of my computer work — both writing and all of those other things.  Somehow, I need to make that space sacred for writing.  So how do I do that?  I don’t have another room and I can’t afford another laptop just for social media and email.  I could disconnect from the internet during writing time.  That would prevent me from going on social media, but it still wouldn’t make the space sacred for writing.  I could cut out social media and YouTube entirely, but that would mean also cutting out some things that are valuable resources for my writing.  (As well as cut me off from many of my friends who are only accessible to me through social media.)  My husband suggested that I only use social media and YouTube on my iPad or my phone.  Even though I don’t like it (I like the bigger screen), it is probably the best suggestion.  It would keep those mind-consuming activities out of my study and away from my writing space.

But yet, I still find myself with writing constipation when I sit down in my chair and try to write.  I need steps that will bring me to the chair, so that I can quiet and still my brain in preparation for sitting down and facing the screen.  I could set aside a specific time during my day when I write.  If I schedule my writing time “from 2:30pm to 3:30pm”, then I will start preparing mentally around 2 pm, knowing that I have to be ready.   I could make coffee or tea for a caffeine boost, and put on a specific piece of clothing in preparation for my writing.  I could have a “writing cardigan”, or “writing slippers”.  Twyla Tharp recommends that I “sit alone in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will”.  She suggests trying this “mental wandering”, or daydreaming for one minute, and work up to ten minutes, or however long it takes to ensure that something interesting will come to mind.  It will increase my tolerance for solitude and help me transition to my writing mind.  These are all things that I plan to try.

If you have any rituals, steps, or practices that you use to accomplish something that is difficult for you to do on a regular basis, please share in the comments below. I would love other creative input.

I’m Afraid I’m Going To _____

Die.  That is how I would finish my sentence.  Most of my obsessive thoughts have to do with avoiding or averting a perceived threat to my life.  I have an irrational fear that the choices that I make will inadvertently lead to my death.  Therefore I must be vigilant and careful with my choices and surroundings.

I have searched my memory in an attempt to understand how my thinking got to where it is now.  Most kids are fearless, and have little understanding of death, and I was like most kids.  Yes, I was always a cautious child, a typical first born, but I wasn’t worried about dying.  But then in elementary school, my classmate and his family were in a car accident and his mother and sister were killed. They were just on a family drive to their grandparents and the wind blew the car into a guardrail.  That is when I discovered death as a real and scary thing that didn’t just happen to old people.   

I also remember an incident a few years later that probably cemented the way that my young brain interpreted those deaths.  I was swimming on a small lake with two friends, and I got stuck under water for what was probably about thirty seconds, but felt like minutes.  I panicked.  I thought I was going to drown because I hadn’t been careful.  A friend helped me, get out, but I was left with an overwhelming fear that one moment of impetuousness had almost killed me.  At least that is how my young mind saw it.  It wasn’t an accident, it was my fault.

From then on I found myself drawn to stories about people surviving  unimaginable tragedies, both in my reading and in media.  I think I believed that somehow I could learn how to either avoid, or at least develop a strategy for dealing with the inevitable disaster that I was sure was hurtling toward me like a freight train.  I couldn’t count on my continued vigilance.  The other shoe was going to drop.  Sometime.

I didn’t discover a plan or a strategy.  Instead, I only fed my worrying, fretting, monkey mind.  There were so many possibilities, so many choices to be made all day, every day.   Should I choose for others or for me?  For long-term or short-term?  To get through or go forward? And on and on and on and on it went, spiraling all the way down.   The Germans even have a word for this : Zerrissenheit.  

Anxiety writer Sarah Wilson, in explaining the philosopher Kierkergaard’s take on choice and anxiety writes: “…even the smallest decisions open us up to the realization the the possibilities are limitless.  When we see this limitlessness, we must also face, well, that it all ends soon enough in death.”

What I crave is a still point, a space away from the choices that define me.   A space between the chaos and yet among it that is blissful and oh so rewarding.  I seek a path for my days that does not spiral, but instead ripples.  The stress and anxiety will always be there, but I seek a way to make those battles matter, to feel like they move me forward in my understanding of myself, and ultimately inform better and better choices.  And my hope is that along with those better choices comes less anxiety about making choices.

Until then I sit here in a spiral of anxiety, fretting and wondering if one of the choices that I made has finally made that other shoe drop.

Transparency and Mental Health Day

What does it mean to be transparent? Transparency is a word that is frequently used these day to imply an hones, “share my truth” kind of mindset.  The hope is that it will  bring better and deeper connections with others. The question of what to share and how much plagues both my writing and my everyday life.

The internet, and more specifically, social media, is filled with people being honest about what they think via hateful and angry words. I don’t want to add to the ugliness out there. In those cases, it seems better to follow my mother’s rule for me as a child: “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it”.   But does that mean I only write the nice things?  I don’t believe that is the answer either. The answer lies somewhere in the gray area between “nice” and “mean”.  I am not a fan of the gray area. There are no definite rules to follow, and everything is subjective.  Which means that if I am going to be honest, I am also going make myself vulnerable to misunderstanding and rejection.  That scares me.

Brene’ Brown writes about how important love and acceptance is to every human being. She says, “if we want to fully experience love and belonging, then we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging. When we can let go of what other people think of our own story, we gain access to our worthiness. Our sense of worthiness lives inside our story. The greatest challenge for most of us, is believing we are worthy now. This minute.”

There are different truths that I could share today, but since it is mental health awareness week, I’ll talk about the truth of my mental illness.  The conversation around mental health has gotten easier and more prominent, but this was not the case when I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder twenty six years ago.  Back then depression was something people were just starting to understand, but OCD was (and still is) just plain weird.

We don’t want to talk about things we are ashamed of, but the only way to resolve shame is to talk about it.

The type of OCD that I have involves intrusive, obsessive thoughts about deadly germs, and therefore a compulsive need to wash — especially my hands.

Here is one shameful admittance about my early years with OCD:   There was a time when I went through eleven large bottles of rubbing alcohol a week. I used the alcohol to rinse my hands because I didn’t believe that just washing them got rid of all the germs. My young son hated the smell and wanted me to get rid of what he called “the white stuff”. Like an alcoholic medicates his anxiety with a drink, I erased my anxiety by pouring it on my hands. I told you it was weird. Show of hands — who out there thinks that drinking a shot of tequila is more normal than pouring rubbing alcohol on their hands? Thought so.  That’s why it is a mental illness. It is irrational. I don’t want to have the thought, the need to wash.  It is not something that I think other people should do.  It makes no sense, yet I am compelled to do it beyond any rational thought.

So many people look at OCD and think it is about control. You’re just a control freak. or, you need things to be just so. That is not OCD. There are people who are control freaks, but they don’t suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They simply have an obsessive personality. Their desire for order makes them happy. By contrast, people who suffer from OCD are miserable. They (I) live in mental torment.  They would give anything not to need to wash (or count, or move a certain way).

For me, when I start my day, I am not looking forward to all of the things I will clean. I start every day at one side of a minefield that I must cross to get through the day.  Each day I step carefully, tentatively, afraid of coming across a trigger that will blow my emotions apart and leave me, post blast, in the white noise of my brain, unable to see or hear anything except the pounding of blood in my head.  FIGHT.  FLIGHT.  FREEZE.  One of those three things happen when I trigger my obsessive thoughts.

Fight is the best of the three.  If I can fight the obsessive thoughts, I will come out the other side stronger for it.  I am most likely to fight if the explosion is a small one — something I encounter regularly, or something I have to do on a regular basis.

Flight is my most common response.  I rush home, if I can, and find relief in my safe environment.  I have a sink and a shower where I can wash away the anxiety and fear so that I can think again.

Freeze is the worst.  My brain just stops working properly.  I can’t think of what to do next.  My hands shake so hard I can’t hold a phone, my extremities go numb, my body sweats profusely, and I have trouble speaking more than a few words.  The longer I stay like this, the deeper the anxiety spirals.  I can’t stop it.  It just HAPPENS to me.  I usually need help from someone close to me to break through a spiral this bad.  I have to move slowly, breathe deeply, and just WAIT until some of the panic ebbs and rational thought is allowed back into my brain.

The bad freeze episodes don’t happen very often, but they are terrifying enough that I spend a lot of time and effort trying to avoid triggers that might lead to a freeze.  The things that I do to avoid the triggers, are the types of things that others see as controlling actions.  It doesn’t feel that way to me.  I feel like the world is this big messy place intent on crushing me, and I have no armor, no battle skills.  The most that I can do is put little flags up in the minefield of my day.  I put these flags by the triggers that I know, and sometimes by triggers that I just guess at.  And then I stay away from those flags.  Sometimes the explosions can be triggered by others in my life, so I ask them to stay away from those flags too.  It doesn’t make sense to them, because they don’t feel the explosion.  They don’t feel the mindless panic.  They just see a stupid flag.

It is a lonely world controlled by an unwell mind.






Why I’m Not Writing

When I was a little girl, I probably had a lot of dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up. The one that I remember the clearest, though, is the dream of being a writer. I was an avid reader at a young age. My mom tried to read books before me, but she eventually gave up and just let me read because she couldn’t keep up. We had something called the Scholastic Book Club at our school. We would get a thin, newsprint magazine of the books available for purchase that month, fill out the order form, and give it to the teacher with our money. One of the greatest things my mom did for me in my childhood was allow me to order as many books as I wanted. A week would go by, and the magical day would come when the Scholastic book order was in. I could always spot my order on the teacher’s desk, because my it was the only one that was a pile of books that had to be double rubber-banded together.

I read everything. And then I read A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and my love of reading became a desire to write. The book was unlike any I had read. It pushed the boundaries of imagination, it made me think that I could do wonderful and unimaginable things. I decided then that I wanted to write books like that when I grew up. Now here I am, some forty plus years later and I haven’t written a book, much less become an author like I dreamed. So I am asking myself — why am I not writing? It is not a new question, but one I hope to unpack a little further.

The first thing that comes to mind is 1. I don’t know what to write about. To the casual reader, this sounds lame. Just write about anything! I have done that in the past, and that kind of writing doesn’t really get you a book. It just gets you a bunch of free-form, journal type writing that nobody is every going to read. I have had some good ideas in the past, but I didn’t write them into existence in time for the story to be relevant. I heard someone say recently, “If you don’t do it, someone else will. And then you’ll be pissed.” This is true, and it has happened to me. Why? Because I had the idea and then I didn’t write it. Or I wrote part of it and stopped because it got hard.

The second reason that comes to mind is 2. I am wasting my time writing. There are already so many people out there writing, what makes me think that I will be any different? True, with the attitude that I have had so far, there is no reason to think that I will be any different. There is also a deeper element to this reason — the extreme self doubt. I don’t know exactly where it came from. I didn’t have it when I was eight years old, or even when I was fourteen years old. But somewhere after that the doubt in my abilities as a “creative mind” starting building. It built slowly, insidiously, until one day I had graduated from college and I no longer believed that being a writer was a viable option for me. It was a dream in the sky, like all of the guys who dream of someday being professional baseball players.

I have been reading a book by Rachel Hollis, and she poses a question that I am now asking myself: “Am I one of those people that wants an excuse for why I didn’t chase the thing I wanted?“. Maybe I am. I don’t want to be that kind of person, but I have definitely been behaving that way. To paraphrase Rachel, why do I keep telling myself that my life is so hard (because I have OCD, because my brain freezes up with anxiety, because I am on medication that dulls my brain) that I can’t write a novel or do anything productive for that matter? Why? Because it is true, yes. But if I listen to myself, I will do nothing, if I listen to Rachel, I am capable of more than I think I am capable of. Which is true? Does it matter?

Rachel Hollis says: It’s not about choosing what you want right now, it’s about choosing what you want most. My stomach drops when I read that. It sounds like she is going to ask me to do HARD THINGS. Hard things are exhausting and debilitating and, well, HARD. Like an-alcholoic-not-taking-a-drink hard. I don’t want that. Do I? Maybe I do. Maybe it gets easier, and maybe if I do hard things now I won’t be here next year and the next asking myself the same question that I have been asking myself for the past thirty plus years. Why am I not writing?

I’ll end this post with another paraphrased quote from Rachel Hollis. “Someone else doesn’t get to tell you who you can be (your spouse, your mom, your sisters, your community, statistics). Go all in. Take massive action. Anything I want, I have to do myself. I must set my mind and go ALL IN. I will only become the person I want when I take a huge leap of faith, flying through the air, not knowing if I have a parachute or where I will land. I must rise up from where you’ve been, scrub off the tears, and start again. Girl, wash your face.