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Cricket’s Anxiety Disorder

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Cricket’s anxiety has increased tenfold since Miss Butterfly died this summer. It’s been five years since we’ve seen Cricket quite this clingy and over the top; not that she was calm and pleasant during Butterfly’s tenure, but she was at least demonstrably better. She’s at a level ten now (or an eleven, really), but for a few years she managed to get down to a seven, or even a six on occasion, with Miss B’s help. Now, Cricket is bullying her Grandma more than ever: physically pushing Grandma around, instead of just moping, and leaning on her, and making puppy dog eyes. If Grandma dares to eat something, Cricket will sit in front of her and yell – “Where’s mine!” – endlessly, until she gets her share. She doesn’t do this with me, partly because she knows I’m a harder nut to crack, but also because I know how to deploy “the look,” persistently, until she loses hope and hides under her couch in frustration. But giving that look wears me out, and the effect is only temporary.

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“Harrumph.”

 

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Cricket has her own version of “the look.”

 

The fact is, Miss Butterfly was the best medicine for all of us. She brought happiness and peace with her everywhere she went. Cricket was pretty sure Butterfly radiated calm from her butt, and therefore sniffed it regularly. Butterfly could even get in Cricket’s face, in a non-threatening way, and interrupt a tantrum.

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It seems obvious that my only option, for the sake of Cricket’s sanity, and Mom’s, is to go out and look for another dog, someone mature and generous and compassionate, to act as Cricket’s therapy dog when needed, and her friend the rest of the time. But I’m not ready. When I try to think about finding a replacement for Miss B, I fall apart. I know I‘m being selfish. I feel cruel leaving Cricket in her current state, just because I’m not ready to let go of Butterfly, and the illusion that she could come back, somehow.

butterfly hair askew

In the near future, we will be pet sitting for an old friend of Cricket’s, a nice old gentleman who used to be my therapy dog, and will now make an effort to bark Cricket into shape, if he can. And then we’ll see. Hopefully having Teddy around will also help me become ready for a new dog, but his Mom made me promise that I won’t try to keep him.

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We’ll see.

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I Hate Driving on Highways

 

I will have to drive on a lot of highways this year for school, and I’m not happy about it. I hate the short entrance ramps, and being squished between two trucks, and having no stop signs to rest at. My ability to read road signs and drive at the same time is very limited.

I did a practice drive for an interview a few weeks ago, with Cricket in the car. I had already done one practice drive and I kind of thought it would be good to practice again, with some distractions. I did not realize that Cricket’s car anxiety had ratcheted up quite so high that she would try to climb behind my neck while I was driving and screech at the top of her lungs. She clearly thinks she can drive better than I can. I’m not sure she’s wrong.

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Don’t worry, neither one of us is driving in this picture.

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“I would be so good at this.”

I’m overwhelmed by the number of highways that even exist on Long Island: the Northern State, the Southern State, the Meadowbrook, the Long Island Expressway, the Cross Island parkway. There are more highways further out on the island, but I don’t know their names, and hopefully will not be required to drive on them any time in the near future.

The worst, for me, are the exits that are so curvy and loopy that they turn you more than 360 degrees around, and some guy behind me always thinks I should be taking this roller-coaster at high speed. Not gonna happen.

I have to stay very present while I’m driving and make sure not to drift off into thoughts, of any kind, because I have a tendency to lose track of lane lines when I’m distracted. And if I get too comfortable, I’ll forget when I need to shift lanes in order to avoid hidden exits that will take me out to the Hamptons (though, that could be nice).

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Cricket loves the beach

Driving has never been my favorite thing in the world. It took me a long time to even attempt highway driving because of the speed and the feeling of being pushed along by peer pressure. I can almost hear the other drivers complaining about me from inside of their cars. What’s with this freak only going the speed limit? I want to get home!

In order to manage my anxiety, I do at least one practice drive (preferably two or three) before I have to drive somewhere new for an appointment, so that at least the anxiety of the drive itself can be reduced, and I don’t have to think too much about which lane to be in, or read too many signs to find my exit. Ideally, every place I ever had to go would have a route by the side streets and never require highway driving, but this has not been the case. And, recently, when I’ve found alternate routes that avoided the highways, I found that street names like to change with each town boundary, and three streets in a single town will decide to have the same name, except that one will be a Road, one will be an Avenue, and one will be a Place, as if that makes all the difference and no one will ever get confused.

I am looking forward to the day when we all learn how to Apparate from one place to another. I don’t care if it’s magic, like Harry Potter, or science, like Star Trek. I’m ready. Cricket might need some convincing.

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Cricket prefers to travel by foot.

My Nephew is Going to Israel

 

My nephew is going to Israel for his gap year between high school and college. It has become de rigeur for kids from orthodox Jewish schools to spend a gap year in a yeshiva or seminary (for girls) in Jerusalem, immersing themselves in Jewish studies, Hebrew language, and maybe even the political realities of the Middle East. I wouldn’t want to spend a year in Israel, though, even now. I’m kind of addicted to familiar things. I could manage a week away, maybe ten days, tops. Though even that would strain Cricket’s anxiety disorder to the breaking point. Mine too. I’m impressed by all of these eighteen and nineteen year old kids who have the self-confidence to go to another country for a whole school year.

And the state of peace in Israel is always shaky; flair ups can come at any time. The recent violence at the holy sites could be forgotten by the time my nephew even gets on the plane, or it could grow into a conflagration. Many parents will send their kids to Israel during wars or uprisings. I don’t know why they feel so confident that their children will be safe, but they do.

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This is how I’d feel about it.

 

My nephew probably won’t be visiting a kibbutz, because there aren’t many left. Israel is a tech crazy country with some of the best medical research facilities in the world; it’s not a country of people living on collective farms, picking oranges, anymore. Will the boys get to meet the Palestinians who live on the other side of Jerusalem? Or visit the Knesset (the parliament) to hear arguments from politicians from the many different sides? Or will they spend all of their time studying Talmud and meeting other Jews? Maybe even only other American teens like the ones they grew up with, instead of the Russian or Ethiopian or French or Indian Jews who have found their home in Israel.

It took me a long time to even dip my toe into the waters of modern Israeli history, and I still can’t say that I fully understand the conflicts and points of view of everyone involved. I know that my support for Israel is tribal rather than logical, but then, I think that’s probably true of everyone, on either side.

I have seen and heard a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric recently, and some of it goes over the line into the anti-Semitic language used during the Holocaust. But I have also heard prejudiced arguments and comments from some Jews that are not only unconvincing but disturbingly racist in nature. Smarter and better informed people than me will have to figure it all out and find the compromises that will work. I don’t have answers, or ease, on this issue.

But what I do have is a deep understanding of the need to live somewhere surrounded by people who are like you. I grew up going to Jewish schools where we could each be who we were – the athlete, the musician, the artist, the brain, the druggy – and not be defined by everyone around us as “the Jew.”

I am an American Jew, though. America is my country, my home. This is where my family is, where my dogs are, living and dead. It would be nice to visit Israel, though, and see how it feels to be one among many, and no longer in a minority, surrounded by my people’s history, deep in the ground under my feet.

Unfortunately for me, the Jewish state is in the Middle East, in the desert, where it is too freaking hot. Maybe if the Jewish state were somewhere like Vancouver, I’d be more eager to go. I wonder how Cricket would take to traveling in a plastic crate under my feet.

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I mean, she has fit herself into smaller places.

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When she was a puppy.

The Research Class

 

The administration at my online Social Work program decided to change the hosting format, right before the new school year began. The previous format for our classes was a bit stodgy, yes, but you could find everything you needed. The new format is not just new to the students, but also new to the teachers, and there hasn’t been any time to work through the bugs and figure out how to manage the new layout. So it’s a mess.

And maybe that would have been okay, if I were taking a less stressful class to start the semester, but I’m in Research One, and each assignment involves group collaboration and has to be finished in less than a week. I have bad memories of working in groups in high school and college, and having to either do all of the work myself, or spend all of my time gently, nicely, pushing my classmates to do their share of the work, or editing their attempts before the rapidly looming deadline. Some people think that ten o’clock the night before it’s due is the perfect time to start working on a project. I don’t. I really, really, really, don’t.

I want to use my insight and imagination and empathy and creativity, and none of those are allowed for a research class. It’s all about formatting and organizing other people’s work. I feel like a marathon runner forced to do finger exercises for hours on end, in a seated position. Every once in a while I may be allowed to move my whole hand, but rarely.

I want to scream. I want to throw things. I resent that it feels like the online faculty at my school is running a secret experiment on us – testing the impact of unpredictable stressors on student work quality and psychological wellbeing (I wrote that to my teacher in an email, and he seemed to take me seriously instead of getting that I was, sort of, joking).

My anxiety about the Research class and the new online format is making me obsessive. I’m overworking and under-coping. I feel a desperate need to control everything that feels chaotic to me. I can’t find restful or fun books to read. I can’t find anything decent to watch on TV. My mind just keeps filling the gaps with more work.

I need to take a nap and rest and recover and focus on other things, but my brain keeps telling me to re-read research articles, and do more searches, and try more databases, and do the whole group assignment by myself. But I know myself, even if I managed all of that, I’d just start obsessing about the reading and possible assignments for next week. It would never end.

It’s frustrating to have to see all of my flaws so clearly – my impatience, and rigidity, my temper, and need for control. I don’t want to know that there is so much still to fix.

For relief, I’ve been watching for the feral cats in the yard, and communing with them as much as they will allow. Hershey actually let me within five feet of her the other night, but then she scooted under the maintenance shed (her palatial estate). I also had a chance meeting with the neighbor-dogs, George and Zoe, and it made me unreasonably happy for a few minutes. Zoe barked a lot, and Cricket stared at her, in silence, as if this behavior, this barking at nothing, was completely alien to her. Then George clapped his front paws at me and asked for pats and a hug, and I willingly obliged. Zoe stood in her perpetual ballet first position and allowed me to pet her too. I even got to walk with the baby next door – or with his nanny, who was holding him as he slept – for a few minutes, and breathe in the utter, unspeakable cuteness of him.

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Hershey, hiding out.

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“Are you taking my picture again?!”

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Zoe and George

But mostly I work. I read and summarize and research, and I attempt to keep my emails to my fellow group members polite and reasonable. I try to follow the conflicting instructions from the teacher, and the disorganized new formatting, but all I want is for the class to be over, and for all of this self-knowledge and hitting-my-limits to end.

Cricket is doing her best to distract me by barking at every moving thing, and Butterfly has doubled up her requests for scratchy sessions (for my sake, of course), but it’s not enough to calm me down. Clearly, I don’t have enough dogs.

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“I’m doing this for you, Mommy.”

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“I work so hard to protect you, Mommy, and you never adequately appreciate my efforts.”

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“We do not need another dog, thank you very much.”

 

 

A Prayer for Healing

 

I have been very anxious lately, about the start of my social work internship and my research class, both of which I’ve been dreading since before I applied to graduate school. I haven’t found much that helps with the anxiety. Anti-anxiety meds like Xanax and Valium just wipe me out, meditation makes me more anxious, exercise is good, but leaves me exhausted. I’ve gotten better at asking for help from the people around me, but there’s just so much they can do. When you have no control, what can you do but pray?

Part of me really does believe that prayers sent out to God do reach some energy in the universe. It’s an imperfect system, like tweeting out to the world at large and hoping that the right person, who may not even be on twitter, hears you. But there’s a chance, and it’s better than not sending the message at all. I don’t believe that God puts my request on a list and then decides whether or not I deserve the help I want. I believe that somehow my message ping pongs around the universe, and if I’m lucky, it snowballs and connects with other energies and comes back to me in some form, hopefully something helpful.

I pray for my dogs all the time. I used to pray for Cricket to find comfort and calm. I would put my prayers into her scratching sessions, hoping that the practical behaviors I could do for her would be transformed into something more. And I am always praying for Butterfly – that she will have a good life, that her heart will last a bit longer – and I believe that my prayers work for her. Butterfly is a very good vessel for prayer, because she absorbs energy into her body and spirit without much of a defense system, whereas Cricket is more circumspect and “rational.” It is harder for Cricket to hear the prayers said for her, and to absorb the love sent her way, because there is so much interference – so much static in her system. But she still needs the good energy to be sent her way, even if only one prayer out of a thousand gets through her tough hide.

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“Do prayers come with chicken treats?”

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“I refuse to be healed. Deal with it.”

The cantor at my synagogue was ill this summer (don’t worry, he’s better now) and had to take months off from work. He spent a great deal of time alone, but, he said, because of all of the people in the congregation who reached out to him, and all of the people he knew were thinking of him and praying for him, he never felt like he was alone. This is what prayer can do. Just knowing that someone is praying for you on a regular basis can be healing, and make you feel cared for and safe.

And reaching out to God ourselves can make us feel less alone, even when we are physically alone. It reminds us of the human beings who wrote the prayers, of the people who taught us those prayers, of the times we have prayed together, and of all of the people who may be saying those same prayers at the same time all around the world. There’s a humility to prayer, a recognition that we can’t solve everything on our own, and are not expected to. Reminding ourselves of that on a regular basis can be healing in itself.

I think dogs pray too. First they ask directly for what they want: a walk, a treat, attention. But when the request is denied, or when they are left alone – when they feel powerless – I think they must pray the way we do. Like Butterfly picking up one of my socks when I was a way at the hospital, and carrying it in her mouth. The sock could be seen as a transitional object, as a way for her to hold onto me and feel close to me – or it could be seen as a prayer, that she would soon see me again.

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“Where’s Mommy?”

Cricket talks to God all the time with her barking. She isn’t so much telling me, or Mom, that danger is at the door, she is calling on God to protect her family. And most of the time, God seems to come through for her, so, it works!

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“Of course God listens to me. I am Cricket, and I am always right.”

Music is the best delivery system for prayer, because it reaches our hearts so much more quickly than words alone. It works especially well when we pray in groups, because it brings all of those heartbeats into the same rhythm, the same space, so that not only can you hear the words being spoken to you, you can feel everyone in the room coming together.

Ever since the cantor’s illness this summer, and the string of national and international disasters that have been overwhelming everyone, my synagogue has returned to the practice of singing a healing prayer at the end of Friday night services. People have found great comfort in singing it together, and saying the names of loved ones in need of healing, out loud or silently. I want it to work for me, but it doesn’t. Maybe the problem is that I don’t believe that my anxiety is worthy of a healing prayer, or maybe my hide is just as tough as Cricket’s and it will take a lot more prayer to get through. We are related, after all.

 

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“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

The Choir

 

I joined the choir at my synagogue a few years ago, when I was still a one-dog-woman, battling wills with Cricket, and needing somewhere else to be every once in a while, preferably with humans. At the first choir rehearsal of the summer, the cantor handed me a loose-leaf filled with the High Holiday music, and then he had to rush off to answer someone else’s questions. I didn’t even know where to sit.

I wandered around until the musical director introduced herself. As soon as she told me her name, I recognized her as my elementary school music teacher, and started to panic. She was a bit of a… let’s just say she had a tendency to be critical. She didn’t really remember me, but reminisced about other students she really liked over the years. When she asked if I was an alto or a soprano, I said, “somewhere in between,” and she sat me with the altos, because there were only two of them.

The rehearsal started inauspiciously, with a song I had never heard before that required the altos to sing something entirely unlike a melody. The next hour and a half was pure panic and confusion, for me, and boring repetition mixed with endless criticism for everyone else. When I tried to stand up at the end, I couldn’t balance and fell back down into my seat, and when the musical director came over and asked if I was okay, I started to sob.

Partly it was the adrenalin let down after my 90 minute panic attack, but also, I’d been having seizure-like episodes and walking problems for a while by then, so my balance was unreliable. Mom was there to drive me home, and as she walked me out of the sanctuary, the musical director walked out with us, talking non-stop. She said that I was brave to have tried, but choir isn’t for everyone, which made me cry harder. I tried to suck it up and smile and pretend I was fine, but she kept talking to me and the tears kept coming.

When I got home, I was determined to show her that I could stick it out. I put my new loose-leaf full of music on my bed and took out my guitar and picked out the first song in the book note by note. Cricket jumped up on the bed and pawed at the guitar strings. The sound stunned her, but she pawed again, and seemed to think she had discovered a monster hidden inside of the guitar. She is not a fan of monsters, other than herself, so she jumped off the bed in search of safer adventures.

Cricket's suspicious face.

Cricket’s suspicious face.

I practiced the High Holiday songs every day, with Cricket nearby but suspicious. None of the music was familiar to me, and I wasn’t used to four part harmony at all, but I pushed myself to go to the next rehearsal. The people who recognized me were surprised to see me again, and when the musical director came over, she looked at me like I was a fourth-grader who’d just peed on the floor. She said she was glad to see me, and I chose to believe her.

"You pee on the floor too, Mommy?"

“You pee on the floor too, Mommy?”

I thought I would be better prepared this time, but of course we only sang the songs I hadn’t practiced yet. I didn’t cry after the second rehearsal though, that was my big triumph.

I went to the next rehearsal, and the next, but I never seemed to catch up. There were different altos at each rehearsal, so I didn’t get to know anyone very well, and the row of bases behind me was completely filled, and loud, so I could barely hear my own voice to figure out what I was singing.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the bases behind me.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the other singers.

In between rehearsals, my neurologist was testing me for everything under the sun, but finding nothing. I was having a lot of trouble walking Cricket, even around the block, and the butterflies in my stomach during choir rehearsals were turning into pterodactyls and trying to rip me open from the inside.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me with her.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me behind her.

By the end of August, the Neurologist was convinced that my problems were all psychological, and that I should try anti-depressants because he saw no physiological cause for my symptoms. He wanted me to see a psychiatrist from his group, but my insurance refused to cover it. They would, on the other hand, cover a hospital stay.

At first I was adamant that I would not go into a hospital: because I didn’t want to be away from Mom and Cricket, because I didn’t want to be watched all day, and because I did not believe I was crazy. But the choir rehearsals were setting off long forgotten pockets of dread that I could not squash, so, when Mom asked me, for the 72nd time, if I would please go to the hospital, I looked at the looming dates of the High Holiday services, and finally said yes.

That was more than two and a half years ago, and my neurological problems are still undiagnosed, though the anti-depressants have made other things easier. Butterfly arrived after my attempt to join the choir had ended, and after the guitar was zipped in its case and hidden in the back of the closet, and I wonder sometimes if I would have handled things differently if I’d already had Butterfly at home. But the fact is, I don’t sing to Butterfly at all! I’ve always thought that the one kind of singing I’d be able to do is to sing to my children, and yet here she is, big floppy ears at the ready, and I don’t sing to her.

Butterfly's big ears.

Butterfly’s big floppy ears are ready.

I do sing, but only when everyone around me is singing too. I look forward to the special Friday night services at my synagogue, when a full band comes to play, because with all of the singing and clapping and drums and amps, I can sing full out and not worry that everyone will hear me.

And it feels wonderful. It really does.

"Don't worry, Mommy. We're ignoring you."

“Don’t worry, Mommy. We’re ignoring you.”

Thunder Shirt

            We bought Cricket a Thunder Shirt over the summer. We were having more guests over in the new apartment, and Cricket was making her (loud) feelings known. I felt bad for our guests because Cricket made them feel so unwelcome. We’d tried everything we could think of to calm her down, and then I kept seeing commercials for the Thunder Shirt and figured it was worth a try.

            Right out of the box, Cricket loved it. With the terrible reactions she’s had to sweaters, and jackets, and harnesses, over the years, I thought this would be a hard sell, but she was a fan. She jumped up and asked to wear it, and didn’t even bite me when I strapped the Velcro around her neck and belly. She looked quite attractive in it, actually. I never knew that gray was her color.

"I know I look good."

“I know I look good.”

            Cricket has no issue with thunder, actually. That’s her sister’s area. Butterfly is afraid of storms and car rides and loud noises and walking along public streets. Cricket’s fundamental issue is people. So, half an hour before a scheduled visit, I would put the shirt on her, and she looked cozy, svelte and stylish, with her hair puffing out at the edges.

"My butt looks big in this shirt."

“My butt looks big in this shirt.”

            But still, she barked. She needed to be held, and given plenty of treats, and even after she’d calmed down, any sudden noise or movement would start her up again. Eventually I worked out a mix of holding her in my lap, dangling her in the air, massaging her ears and tightening her Thunder Shirt, that kept her grumpiness at a low growl, for the most part.

            I wanted the Thunder Shirt to do magical things for Cricket, to calm her and make her feel safe enough to have no need to bark. I’m sure there’s a more proactive training method I should have put into play, instead of expecting the shirt to do all of the work, but I couldn’t figure it out.

            I kept trying the shirt, for visits, for outings, for random intervals during the day, and she still loved it, and kept barking.

Out visiting in her Thunder Shirt, in the rain. (Butterfly is modeling her plaid jacket and feeling beautiful.)

Out visiting in her Thunder Shirt, in the rain. (Butterfly is modeling her plaid jacket and feeling beautiful.)

            We tried Prozac too. Every morning Cricket had her pill with a piece of chicken (and Butterfly got to have a pill-free piece of chicken as well), but there was no improvement. If anything, Cricket was grumpier than before and more prone to isolating herself under the couch, between barking attacks at the front door.

            We haven’t bothered with the Thunder Shirt in a while. It has attached itself to the couch (with its Velcro straps) and is easily available, just in case.

The couch finds that Thunder Shirt very comforting.

The couch finds that Thunder Shirt very comforting.

            My hope is that, over time, Cricket will learn to tolerate guests. We’ve been handing out chicken treats to our visitors so they can bribe her, and she can associate them with good memories. And maybe I’ll give the Thunder Shirt another try, if only as a pretty outfit for Cricket to wear on special occasions.

Cricket finds comfort in her sister's tushy.

Cricket finds comfort in her sister’s tushy.

Peaceful.

Peaceful.