“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength—carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
― Corrie ten Boom
They say hypertension is “the silent killer.” If hypertension is a silent killer attacking your heart, anxiety is another non-verbal assassin attacking your mind. Its hissing is loud inside your head—a threat no one else can hear. It will force you into hiding from yourself and everyone you love, and more than likely into bad habits of self-medication if you cannot find safe pharmaceutical help or, better yet, divine intervention. Anxiety and fear is what drove me to drink in my past. It is a battle every day that needs to be fought and won.
Anxiety may have always been with me from my childhood but it exponentially increased when I became the single parent of a child with disabilities. My son was born blind and later diagnosed with autism as a five-year-old. Blindness can be dealt with fairly easily and blind children grow up to be successful adults with gainful employment and incredible coping strategies. Autism, on the other hand, is mind-bending for both parent and child and the future of the autistic adult is uncertain. As a parent, I am plagued by anxious thoughts about my son’s future as often as my own.
I read an article in the New York Times by Eli Gottlieb who has an autistic brother titled “Adult, Autistic and Ignored,” where he described the anxiety his own mother had felt as she lay dying.
“Two months before she died of pancreatic cancer…my normally strong, stoical mother broke down weeping in my arms over the fate of my autistic older brother.
“Institutionalized for over 40 years, Joshua, then 55, was in a stable situation and seemed relatively happy. But my mother was undone by that fear that haunts all parents of disabled children: What will happen to them when I’m gone? Though I hastened to assure her that I would become his guardian and watch over him after her death, she was inconsolable.
“In reality, given the nature of the bond between them, I shouldn’t have been surprised. As is often the case between mother and disabled child, the two early on formed a deep, exclusionary attachment that relegated the other members of our family to the outer boroughs of maternal attention. My brother’s marathon tantrums, his gory public (and private) displays of self-mutilation and his regular physical assaults on our mother left me balancing as a boy on a narrow emotional catwalk between instinctual love for my sibling and blind rage. But none of that altered the depth of her feeling for him in the least. He was her main passion in life, and would remain so till the very end.”
I know this place of passion and disquiet well. My son is coming to visit me and I worry about his future.
My first month in Naples, Florida has been filled with a mélange of excitement, new discoveries and aesthetic wonder, along with increased anxiety, fear, loneliness, nighttime teeth grinding and other physical gallimaufries. Everyone thought I was so brave to relinquish my house, all my earthly belongings, my ties to everything and everyone, and pack up and move 1700 miles away to start a new life. “You’re fearless!” they exclaimed. They might have more accurately said, “You’re ignorant!” In truth, I have been rather terrified. I feel alone here, truly alone, a castaway on an island of humid beauty, unattainable wealth, invasive species and everything unfamiliar.
It’s certainly not the location that causes me angst. It’s the isolation and the loss of imprinted routine; the separation from people I love, and the fear of the unknown. My cousin’s lovely condo where I am staying is in a complex of units mainly owned by snowbirds and vacationers so there are not many “neighbors” to connect with this time of year. And there are so many “little” things to get used to. Naples is not a huge city but it is sprawling with a dizzying array of stores, all built in “clusters,” to a code that requires they maintain a certain look and structure to match the city—which makes every store look the same. It is hard to find Walgreens because it doesn’t look like a Walgreens. Target doesn’t look like Target, and Walmart really doesn’t look like Walmart. In Minneapolis, they are stand-alone stores or in malls with vast blacktop parking lots. Here, they are clustered in blocks, usually one main store like Publix (grocery store) adjoined to smaller ones like nail salons, day spas, tanning salons, jewelry stores, Chinese restaurants and marine boating supply stores—throw in an insurance agent or two—all with the same facade. If I drive a mile and a half south or north of that shopping complex, I’ll find another cluster filled with nearly identical stores and identical construction. How many Publix grocery stores does one need in a four-mile radius? Apparently three.
The parking lots in these clusters are actually attractive; lined with rows of palm trees which offer shade from the steaming Florida sun, but they also make it difficult to see the names of the stores on the buildings when cruising by on the main drag, Hwy. 41. There are big monument signs on the corners listing the stores but you better be quick at reading small lettering at 45 mph. I usually have to check Google maps from my house to pinpoint the street location of a store before I head out the door.
And out the door, it’s 94 degrees with 67% humidity making a heat index of 104. Since I arrived here, I’ve mostly stayed inside all day because, like the Wicked Witch of the West, I’m afraid of melting. (Ohhhh, what a world; what a world!) I’ve been thankful for plenty of graphic design work to do but I still have anxiety about the fact that the ocean is a half mile away and it’s too hot to go to it. Patience, Sheryl. October is coming.
Since it’s too hot to go for walks, for exercise I try to go for morning swims. There’s another anxiety “begetter” right there. The pool is centrally located in this complex with several of the buildings overlooking it. I have this strange sensation that I am being watched as I swim. As one who is seldom comfortable in my own skin and even less in a bathing suit, I hurry through my water aerobics routine and hustle out as fast as I can. Hardly relaxing.
And I worry about where I will live. Will I find enough work down here? Can I afford a place? My income was not enough to support me and my home in Minneapolis. Will that be any different here? Will I find friends to have deep soul connections with? What does the future hold? My tendonitis has been flaring up—a work-related injury that could hamper me from even taking on more needed work.
So, although I think I’m not complaining, I really am. Should I be surprised? No. There has been a BIG CHANGE in my life. Everything is new. I have to relearn everything from traffic patterns to self care in the subtropics. No wonder it feels close to overwhelming! I’ve been tired, in serious pain, not sleeping well, feeling anxious and, worst of all, lonely. My shoulders have been painfully hunched, my eyebrows permanently furrowed.
But be of good cheer! Labor Day weekend and reinforcements have arrived from the north and southwest, bringing much needed relief and courage à la guerre. My son, Garrett flew in on Saturday from Arizona for a one-week visit! I haven’t seen him in two years and my heart has pined for him something fierce.
It’s always fun preparing for a visit from him. He’s so simple to entertain. He loves to try new foods he’s never had before, especially if they’re from other countries so I roam the aisles of World Market, grocery stores and specialty shops to find unique food items. I don’t normally shop at Walmart but food is so expensive down here, I’ve been forced to. This time, I loaded up my cart with as many unrecognizable items as I could find: LaCubanita Dulce de Leche (milk cream), Madame Gougousse Pikliz-Repollo (Haitian Pickled Salad), cans of succotash and ‘hoppin john’, Turkish Delight, pepperoncini-flavored potato chips, Irish butter and Amish Potato Salad (which tastes exactly like Lutheran potato salad, if you ask me). I even found Jet Puffed Toasted Coconut Marshmallows!
Still, that Saturday as I was making preparations for Garrett’s arrival, I was worried about finding my way to the Ft. Myers airport, getting a gate pass to meet him at the plane and I was getting more agitated by the minute. More new things! I shot up another arrow prayer and asked God to send me his angels because I was really at my limit for anxiety. Within an hour of that prayer, my phone rang. It was my brother and sister-in-law, Mitch & Holly saying they were in town from Minneapolis and wanting to meet me for lunch! Yay! People! MY people! I nearly jumped on them when they arrived at my door.
They took me to lunch at a seaside restaurant called The Dock where we sat out on the lanai overlooking the marina by the Naples City Dock. I gobbled up conch fritters, chatted happily with them and watched the boats bobbing gently in the water. A very small inboard/outboard boat completely dwarfed by the other boats started up with such a roar that everyone in the restaurant jumped. A small dog with a big bark!
We wandered around some fun shops, one laden with pirate booty, T-shirts, gator heads and thrift store finds. There was a large mounted shark on the wall where you could feel the gazillion rows of razor sharp teeth. Brrr. Mitch doesn’t like sharks. I don’t either. Holly went through the entire store and finally announced, “Well, try as I might, I cannot find one thing I want or need!” I found a tank top and pirate do-rag for Garrett. I miss shopping for my boy.
Then we drove along Gulf Shore Drive and Gordon Drive oohing and ah-h-ing at all the beautiful homes. Where do these people work?
We made plans to meet up in Ft. Myers for a boat ride the next day and they dropped me off at home so I could go get Garrett at the airport.
I was so happy to see my son, I hugged him—or rather tried to. Poor thing had been so nervous about flying that he hadn’t slept well the night before, hadn’t eaten much all day, and made a beeline for the restrooms when he got off the plane. My son has anxiety problems which are understandable because of his autism. What’s my excuse? Maybe I’m autistic, too. I had a ham and cheese sandwich packed for him in the car along with some nuts and a cookie to tide him over until we got home.
“Supper” was light: Dubliner cheese slices, hard salami, pepper jack cheese, potato chips, a bowl of fruit and some cherry tomatoes. That and gator jerky that was so spicy Garrett was huffing and puffing and blowing his nose between bites. He ate so much he was bulging. Then tired, he went to bed. He asked me, “Mom, is it normal when you have had very little sleep and sort of a stressful day with not much food to feel very weak?” Yep.
The next day we ate a breakfast of muesli and Kefir because Garrett had read about that in one of my earlier blogs and wanted to try it. We headed up to Ft. Myers to meet Mitch and Holly at the Sanibel Yacht Club and Marina. Garrett and I clumsily boarded their boat and were soon cruising out into the Gulf of Mexico, into the open sea.
Something happens to me when I am in a boat on the water, any body of water. All my stress melts out of me and I feel lighter, relaxed, free. It was a picture-perfect day, broad blue skies with big fluffy, cumulus clouds, calm waters, and very warm, humid subtropical ocean breezes…my happy place minus the humidity. I was riding in a boat with three people I love very much. Mitch had installed a monsoon stereo system on his boat so we rocked out to “Toca’s Miracle” by Fragma, “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, and some great 70s rock.
Ever the jokester, Uncle Mitch (or “Munkle Itch” as Garrett calls him) put Garrett in the driver’s seat of the boat as we sped across to Estero Island. The joy on Garrett’s face was indescribable. He was actually driving!! He’s always wanted to drive but knows that as a blind man, he probably will never experience that privilege. On this day, however, he…was…driving, grinning from ear to ear! Uncle Mitch sat next to him, occasionally grabbing the steering wheel to correct the boat’s trajectory. Once, Mitch slipped sneakily out of the Captain’s seat away from him and stepped behind where Garrett couldn’t feel his presence. Unaware, Garrett was all smiles, just driving away, having the time of his life. Then, slowly, his left hand reached out exploringly to look for Uncle Mitch…where was he?? The happy grin faded to concern as his hand felt the empty seat! We all laughed and laughed and Mitch quickly joined him in the Captain’s seat again. Priceless.
Mitch is a capable boater and Holly, an athletic first mate. They make a great team. After some effort in a powerful current, they anchored the boat a few feet off the beach at Lover’s Key and we all jumped into the water to wade to shore. The current was so swift we had to hang on to the anchor rope to keep from being swept out to sea. The water was dark and murky, filled with flotsam and jetsam belched out from the Caloosahatchee River as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Swimming was not much of an option but we had fun cooling off a little and finding sea shells.
After a lovely cruise around Estero Island and Ft. Myers Beach, we returned to the Sanibel Yacht Club for lunch where I had some of the best seared ahi with wasabi sauce I have ever had. What an amazing day. My spirit was revived, my soul refreshed, the loneliness lifted, and Garrett and I drove home happy and tired.
Monday was a rest day for Garrett. His tummy had still not settled down from the flight anxiety so he spent the day in his pajamas listening to audio books and carefully eating foods that would settle his stomach. I have learned to give him plenty of down time with his autism. Routine, down time, and plenty of advance warning for events to come are absolute essentials. I busied myself shopping for new clothes for him: a couple new shirts, some casual trousers, shorts and a new pair of shoes. As a mother, I still enjoy shopping for him. I like to see him shine up like a new penny.
Tuesday, we went to the beach and I don’t remember when I’ve seen Garrett relax so completely and get so lost in an activity. We swam, floated, splashed and dodged waves for so long I had to make him get out of the water so I could dry out a little bit. We laid happily on the beach and then swam some more. I asked Garrett if he was done and he said, “No, I’m just enjoying being here and listening to the ocean.” That’s my boy. After three hours and not enough sunscreen, he wanted to go home and swim in the pool which we did and swam for another 40 minutes. I was waterlogged. We both looked like red-faced monkeys and felt kind of sick. Lesson learned. Reapply sunscreen.
Wednesday, we had planned to go try gator meat and frog legs at Cracklin’ Jack’s. I don’t know how I feel about frog legs but I’m willing to try anything to participate in my son’s love of food adventure. However, I’ve been hearing a grinding noise from my car’s right rear wheel. Another arrow prayer went up. God? I have to take Garrett to the airport on Friday! What is wrong with my car? Is it dangerous to drive?
A couple weeks ago, my cousin had casually mentioned that there was a good garage nearby called Frank’s Pure Automotive if I ever needed. I was afraid if I brought it in the repairs would not be done in time to take Garrett to the airport and until then we would be stuck at home with no more beach runs. The answer was clear, Call Frank’s NOW. I called them. They had me bring it in right away, took a look at it and the brake pads, calipers and just about everything else was completely shot. I naively asked them, “Is it something I can drive safely on until after my son leaves and then bring it in?” The answer was a resounding, “NO!” Not a cheap fix but an absolutely necessary one. They could fix it overnight so I said, “Let’s do it.” No frog legs tonight. I may have dodged a bullet there.
Frank’s Pure Automotive is a classic car garage and old service station that has retained it’s vintage exterior, 50s signage and old full-service gas pumps. Outside is a shiny, restored, green and white 1950s Packard, a beautiful Monte Carlo and a 1970 Lincoln Continental. You can still drive in there and have an attendant come out to fill your tank while you wait. It’s kind of a fun place to hang out. While waiting for my car, I met a local business networking man which may turn into a productive lead for me. And I am thankful that God urged me to take my car in that day or it would have been too late to fix it before Garrett needed to leave. Whew.
That night, Garrett and I just enjoyed our own sunburned company. I have no more anxiety, at least for now. He’s home! I wonder if I will ever lose that feeling of wanting and needing him to be near me. We human beings are not created to be alone. We are connected to each other in ways we can’t even see or imagine. When I left Minneapolis, I could feel those connections being torn away. It was a very real bone and marrow experience.
At times, in the stressful weeks before Garrett’s arrival, I had been sorely tempted to seek out my old method of coping—self-medication with the bottle. God spoke to me very clearly from Deuteronomy 11:8,
Be careful to obey every command I am giving you today, so you may have strength (emphasis mine) to go in and take over the land you are about to enter.
He went further in verse 22:
Show love to the Lord your God by walking in his ways and holding tightly to him.
Show love. Hold tightly. That part went down deep into my soul. My very life depends on holding tightly to the God of my life, certainly every day, but most critically right now when I do not know what the future holds. If worrying empties today of its strength, obeying God dissipates worry and fills me with strength for today.
These are the new coping skills I’m learning. I’m learning to trust him…really trust him, as husband, friend, provider, counselor. You can’t trust someone you don’t know or love. Relief from anxiety and fear on this earth will come through holding tightly to that divine love, that perfect love.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18) The root of the word “cast” used here means “to hurl” out. It’s a violent thing. Perfect love hurls out fear. I think of a soldier who has a live grenade land near him. In a flash, he picks it up and violently hurls it as far as he can out, away from him and his company. That’s what love does.
So I hold tightly to love. It’s making me perfect. I will try not to cry tomorrow when I send my son back to Arizona. He loves me. God loves me. There is nothing to fear.