Saturday, January 23, 2010

the anxiety of aging

Let's be clear from the beginning. I'm an anxious person. If I have one default mode I go to in times of stress, it's anxiety. My earliest memory, waking from a dream in which my parents weren't really my parents, they were strangers who were coming to kidnap me, was fraught with anxiety. New situations, people, projects? I have to get through anxiety before moving to a better place. A large part of the reason I practice yoga with such regularity is it helps me keep my anxiety under control.

I've gone through periods when I haven't been able to fly—my worst anxiety attack ever was in the back row of a plane that was weather delayed for 6 hours, and was then sitting on the runway for another two with "mechanical trouble." I was next to a woman suffering from the flu. Her temperature was 102.6 and she couldn't stop coughing, deep, throaty coughs. I wanted off and got so out of control the pilot had to come back and talk to me. Like that made me feel better. I made it through the flight, but it took years before I could get on a plane again. Medication helped. I spent 10 years living in NYC without being able to take the subway. Even now, I only take it when there's no other option and I could flip out at any time. Elevators were hard for awhile, which is preposterous as I live on the 10th floor. When the door pauses too long before it opens, my heart starts to pound. Some, like the one in my yoga studio, I avoid altogether.

After 9/11 it took over a year before a siren or an airplane flying overhead wouldn't send me into complete panic. To this day, if a plane seems to be too low, or helicopters are hovering close by, my jaw clenches.

And then, there are the personal ones. An unexplained pain or sickness is life threatening first, before I delve deeper and figure out what it is. Headaches immediately are precursers to strokes. Muscle aches are heart attacks, lung failure, some strange new disease no one's heard of yet. This applies to me and just about everyone I know, but when it's me, the internal spin gets insane. And here's where the aging part comes in.

My body is changing. It doesn't recover as fast as it used to. Mind-blowing headaches that last for 2 days that seem to be associated with hormone shifts. I think. Periods that are so bad the first day I am double over in pain, clutching a hot water bottle until advil kicks in. Fingers so stiff sometimes they hurt to move. Spots on my knees where it feels like all cartilage has worn away and I'm kneeling on bone. Then there are symptoms I can't explain. Sharp pains I can't figure out. Moments of dizziness. And to top it off, there's my mind. Word recall is going. I used to be an remarkable speller but it's slipping away.

I'm having trouble with all this. Not just because it's confusing, annoying, panic-inducing, but because one day it'll be something less trivial. Something tinged with a dire prognosis or untreatable laced with more unknowns than I think I can handle. I know too many people now, people my age, friends who are battling serious shit. It used to be grandparents. Then parents. Now it's my generation. Breast cancer? I know several remarkable women, women with young kids, fighting this monstrous fight while handling everything else mothers need to do. Another friend has brain cancer. Inoperable. I saw her on the street last night, first time since I found out, and she looks great. Exactly the same. And while we chatted away about Alvin and the Chipmunks, middle school, and birthdays (I'm the queen of light-hearted, distracting banter), I was aware of the overwhelming battle she's never without. Another friend has unexplained chest pain, dizziness, trouble breathing and has been to 3 doctors so far but no one can figure out what's wrong. His life is coming to a standstill in many ways, he's incapacitated but still needs to keep living his life while dealing and figuring out what's wrong.

My mom was just in the hospital with heart issues. Her sister is battling severe dementia. Their older brother's memory is quickly disappearing and he falls, often, legs not supporting him when he walks.


The longer I'm here, the more pain I see. I used to be so wrapped up in only myself—anxiety is great for that. On some level you torture yourself so much, there's no room for anyone else. But, as I get older and more aware, there's more suffering surrounding me. It's a part of life, yes, but I'm often overwhelmed, my heart aching for things I can't fix, can't avoid, can't change.

Day 6 is wishing it didn't have to be so hard.


Lisa Adams said...

I hear you. My body has aged in leaps and bounds since I endured surgical menopause at 39. Things I never expected or predicted,--that no one told me-- are happening.

Dealing with real things (cancer) and things that "could happen" (watching airplanes fly low in NYC) are all hard. In some ways it's been the real things, the big ones, that are easier... your course of action... of solving it... are grabbed with gusto, as it's your only choice.

Aging sucks, but it beats the alternative. After you've been through some of "the big stuff" personally you see it a bit differently, I think. I hope you don't have to learn this lesson anytime soon.

Izzy Muses said...

I understand how difficult it can be to deal with anxiety. I often have to remind myself to live in the moment and try to enjoy it, not to look too far ahead. Yoga is fantastic. Controlling diet can also help sometimes.

foodie ffanatic said...

I empathize and sympathize. So many things that I used to be able to do easily, both mentally and physically, are now so difficult, or even impossible. My anxieties come out in debilitating headaches. As Lisa said, though, aging sucks but it beats the alternative. And I'm finding that support is always there from my new Twitter friends. See you there. Dani ddh77