Saturday, July 10, 2021

Notes from Limbo: Serenity Now

     Honesty is easy when the sun is shining.  When you're abstractly picking apart the challenges facing others in between sips of tea. A different matter when the storm grabs you yourself and won't let go. I'll be honest too: when I read Caren Jeskey's essay for today, I phoned her and asked: Do you really want to say this? Because I was worried, as a friend. But she's a hard ass, and she does indeed knows what she's writing, and wants it read by others, because it expresses where she's at and might, we both hope, help others in the same storm-tossed boat. It probably will. Her Saturday report:

    Family can be intense. Interactions might range from a bit stressful to (spoiler alert for the Stuart Smalley 1995 movie) a family member accidentally shooting another in the Al Franken movie "Stuart Saves His Family."
     Now that I am back home after seven years away, I have managed to regress to the maturity level of a 12 year old more than once. I am not proud of this, and it saddens me. I thought I’d be able to show up, enjoy them, and part after magical, long overdue visits after a bellyful of laughs. Thankfully, we’ve had many laughs, but the little girl in me has acting up. She wants to be seen with unconditional positive regard! Heard! Understood! In other words she wants the impossible.
     Oftentimes, family members inherently lack the ability to see each other clearly instead of seeing them as abstractions we’ve created in our minds about who each other is. We don’t give each other room to evolve. The moments where we step out of painting each other into boxes, and enjoy cultural events and passionate discussions about things we agree about are the salve, but not the norm. As my therapist says, we tend to project all over each other. We take things personally that have nothing to do with us and argue from the back seat of the car like George Costanza.
     One of my missions in life is to see my parents and siblings as people outside of the role that includes me. To see their wit, intelligence, and talent and to move away from the triggers that perpetuate endless, tiring loops. It’s called individuation. ( It’s much easier when life is good, when I am happy and peaceful.
     These days I have a handful of peaceful hours each day—with clients, when walking, at the beach immersed in the impossible blue and the sound of waves of Chicago’s ocean, Lake Michigan. Fear and frustration melt away standing before frothy peaks and pink sunsets. My goal is to bring that inner peace into all of my interactions. I’ve succeeded at times, but with multiple challenges that seem comedic at this point, my resistance is down.
     I’ve bloodied my knee and scratched my glasses in a fall. I have yet to sleep since I am living under the Final Approach Fix of the O’Hare flight path. A decent, reasonably priced rental in the expensive city is a needle in a haystack. The suitcase full of my best clothes and perhaps a family heirloom (not sure yet) was stolen from my car. I smashed my finger and might lose the nail. I think my fall clothes are in the storage unit and it’s getting chilly. My broken toe is still healing. This on top of a tragic year where I felt terrified and alone at times, and was isolated from my loved ones. Now that I am back in Chicago where I wanted to be I am too stressed out to enjoy this gorgeous summer.
     Today I listened to Glennon Doyle’s podcast We Can Do Hard Things. ( Her sister was her guest, and the topic was “ANXIETY: Is it just love holding its breath?” I was struck at the grace Doyle’s sister gives to her. Doyle experiences debilitating, clinical anxiety that she is doing an impressive job of taking care of. Her sister holds her when she’s falling apart, and speaks lovingly and tenderly about Doyle. She doesn’t judge her sister when she melts down due to being neuro-atypical. The podcast brought tears to my eyes, and made me long for a world where we treated our vulnerable family members and friends with support rather than judgment. Where we treated everyone that way.
     It makes sense to shun a difficult family member or friend. They can be a lot of work. I think the biggest problem is that we don’t know how to deal with them, and so we become frustrated and angry. We want them to be different. But they can’t be. Doyle so beautifully describes her clinical anxiety as a deficit that will never be cured, and instead something that she’ll have to learn to cope with one step at a time. She describes her anxiety as preventing her from looking at her life one day at a time, since days can seem endless. Instead she uses techniques to eke out one hour at a time some days, doing her best to survive her inner turmoil.
     Her children can also see when she’s falling apart, and have learned to empathize in those moments. Is that ideal? No. Ideally a parent is balanced and giving and the roles are not reversed. How many of us in this world have an ideal life?
     You will not find it surprising that I have dealt—with varying degrees of success—with debilitating anxiety and depression in my life, since I was a child. I wish this was not so, but wishing it away will not make it disappear. I am not as courageous as Neil or Glennon. I am scared to share the real story. That’s OK though. I am fine keeping it under wraps for now, though I hope one day I can stand tall and proud even with my dark corners exposed. For now I’ll rely on them to speak their truth so I feel less alone.
Podcasts like Glennon’s and The Hilarious World of Depression ( keep me company. Mike Birbiglia, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Chris Gethard (the host of the podcast Beautiful Stories by Anonymous People), Neko Case (one of my favorite musicians who I get to see in Evanston in September), Jeff Tweedy, Aimee Mann, Margaret Cho, Peter Sagal, Billy Joel, Dick Cavett and others share their survival stories there. Some of the most talented folks who show us their best in their public faces have to overcome one demon at a time in their personal lives.
     I am fortunate to have a great therapist, I keep myself pretty fit, eat well, do not have an active substance use problem (I take a medication to stave off cravings), I have a lot of love and support in my life (even though sometimes my mind tells me I don’t), and I have a lot to live for. Still, some days feel like everything is broken and nothing will be ok again.
     As I sit here on a patio on Wilson and Ravenswood eating curry fries and basking in the dusk of the day, life feels just right. For now I will take the good moments when I can and cope as well as possible. I’ll hold on to what my friends keep telling me, and my inner self knows: a brighter day is coming. I hope you are living in the light of a good day, and if not I hope you can find the help that you need.


  1. Thank you, Caren, for your brave and self-perceptive revelations. They help even me, the least sensitive of chauvinistic dolts I know. The reference to Wilson and Ravenswood reminds me of the years I lived in the Uptown area and played basketball at the Ravenswood YMCA, a time I worried about absolutely nothing, but in retrospect was not a very worthy human being, selfish and self absorbed. Thank you for your courage and perception. They act like the flip button on my phone.


  2. I can relate to this; I think we all can. Thanks Caren and Neil, for caring, and sharing.

  3. Thank you Caren, for again giving light to the struggles those of us suffering from anxiety and depression deal with. You hit on so many points I deal with, especially family members who treat me as the "crazy one". Fortunately I have an excellent support system of therapists, doctors, support groups and a supportive wife and two teenagers who are learning it's ok for men to express their feelings and seek help. There will always be bumps in the road, but with coping strategies and support we can get through those moments. Again, thanks for giving light to this issue and I hope that those in need get the support and help they deserve.

    1. It means a lot to hear your words. Thank you—

  4. Wow. That took guts. I don't think I could write about my family dynamics the way you have about yours. I came from a large extended family. One sibling and many cousins. All of us were messed-up in one way or another, thanks to unstable fathers...all seven of them. Someone was always pissed about something. Or was mad at somebody. Or was bitching. We're scattered all over the country now, and I don't think too many of us are all that close to one another. And sibling estrangement is the norm. I haven't seen my kid sister in nine years.

    Wilson and Ravenswood? That was the site of the old Zephyr ice cream parlor in the Seventies and Eighties. Wonderful shakes and sundaes. I loved the Art Deco decor, and the trains that roared by. Can't recall whether they had an outdoor patio. My first wife and I sat by those big windows many times.

    1. I remember Zephyr’s! Good ice cream.

    2. I adored Zephyr! Thanks for reading & for sharing.

  5. I’ve been fortunate enough (so far) to stave off the anxiety and depression that has run rampant through my family, but I’m well aware that the situation could turn at any time. I so admire the many tactics you deploy to contend with those demons. I know that the conditions themselves work to prevent the self-care you’ve so assiduously pursued.

    I was actually very close to you geographically last night and this morning when I visited my sister at her Airbnb in Lincoln Square. The weather and the neighborhood were buoying to me; I hope the effect on you is similar, strong, and lasting. You have brought so much to those of us who appreciate your Saturday contributions; I wish our appreciation could do the same for you.

    1. Many thanks. Today was a better today— high anxiety but spending most of the day at the lake with an old friend in from Maine, then a big (enjoyable) family dinner in the open air helped. Wishing you a good day—

  6. You choose your friends. You don't choose your family. As you know, people only change if they want to.
    Regarding good days, bad days, we all experience depression. Those who say they don't aren't paying attention. Certainly some have it worse than others.
    What keeps me going during the darker days is I know it won't last. Sooner or later things will get better. Usually sooner when you keep that it mind.
    Elvis gets credit for the saying, "To be happy you have to have someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to." It seems you have those.

  7. Caren,

    Your intricate and searing vulnerability felt like oxygen. Thank you!

    I teach undergrad and grad students, and coach executives. What you bravely shared is what I'm hearing quietly in both private conversations, and increasingly in the classroom. Your transperancy is a canary in the coalmine for the world that will be demanded by the trauma and crisis of the pandemic, and racial Injustice. Thanks for leading the way.

    Kevin Murnane


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