Two days after I found out I was accepted into the program, Mario had to go to the doctor. He'd been having a pain in his arm for several months and it had gotten much much worse the day after he went to the dentist. He needed to see someone to try to fix it.
Part of my anxiety problem revolves around doctors. I was never afraid of doctors or dentists when I was younger. I went to all my check-ups. Got all the exams I needed. Then one day I couldn't do it any more. The idea of going to a doctor sent my blood pressure soaring. I was wracked with fear and loathing. I got this anxiety even if someone else had to go to a doctor.
On Thursday, the day Mario had to go to the doctor, I felt like a basket case. I hadn't been able to sleep the night before. In the morning, I couldn't keep still, couldn't relax. I thought I was going to go insane before he actually went to the doctor.
Only someone who has intense fear can understand what this was like. It wasn't anxiousness. It wasn't butterflies. This was terror. My rational mind said one thing, "This is silly. Everything's all right. They'll figure out something simple to help him." But my body was registering terror with all the accompanying symptoms: Racing heart, nausea, restlessness, sweating. Imagine the most afraid you've ever been, unreasonable or reasonable fear, and then you might know what it felt like. What if always feels like. If you've ever been assaulted, you understand what this fear was like.
Trying to meditate didn't help. It never does. Trying to breathe calmly didn't help. It never does. I had this urge to run away. This is a common instinct when I'm feeling terrorized. I believe it's a primal urge. I want to get away from the danger. Most of the time when I want to run away, I tell myself that my reaction is the problem, and I can't run away from me. That has kept me from spending thousands of dollars on hotels and gasoline as I tried to run away from the problem. If the problem is you, there ain't nowhere to go.
But this time, I felt like I was going to explode. I understand that expression. I used to think, how could someone feel like they were going to explode? But it does feel as though something is going to give if I don't take action.
It wasn't raining so I decided to get in the car and drive the two hundred plus miles to Seattle to look around my new campus. I asked Mario if he wanted me to go to the doctor's with him. He said no. I still don't know if he was trying to spare me or if he didn't really want the company.
I got in the car and drove west on Highway 14. I'd only gotten a few miles when I started to feel better. All the chemicals and hormones pulsing through my body must have started to calm down. I felt like myself again. I began to cry. Was the rest of my life going to be spent like this?
I felt like Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront. "I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it." This anxiety--this mind terror--was my Rod Steiger, my brother Charley who sold me out.
And I wanted to kill him dead.
I pulled off the road and went into the nearby Doestch Ranch park to call Mario. I sobbed as I told him how much better I felt. All of this reminded me of when I'd gone to visit my dad in Arizona recently.
I'd taken a train for the first leg of the trip to get to my dad. I spent the night in Santa Barbara after I got off the train, and then I rented a car. I drove from Santa Barbara to Phoenix. As I drove along the coast with the radio on, I was happy. I was ecstatic, actually. Joyful. And I was alone. I knew that everyone I loved was safe but far away, so I couldn't see them or sense anything about them. I didn't have to try and fix anything. I hadn't been that happy for decades.
I wondered then if I was only going to be happy and relaxed alone driving in a car. I wondered again this day.
As I sat in the car in that park, the anxiety began to come back. I told Mario I was going to keep going.
When I closed the phone, I stared out at the gorge cliffs across the field and the river from me. They were gorgeous in the morning light, the dark green trees highlighted with the sweet light of morning.
I used to live just a few miles from here. After I'd had to quit my job, we'd moved to Skamania Landing. When we first got there, I was so dizzy and ill, I could barely walk across the room. Gradually I began to get better. I could walk across the room and do laundry. Then I could walk to the bottom of the stairs. Then I could walk to the bridge. Then across the bridge. Then to the turtle pond on the Doetsch property. Finally I was able to walk to these fields, where I now sat in the car in a parking lot.
That was before it was a park. Back then, I walked on a path through the field. To the south, cottonwoods grew along the Columbia River. Across the river, the gorge cliffs rose. Sometimes when I looked at these cliffs, they seemed to be receding, continually moving away without actually going anywhere. I never figured out what caused this optical allusion but other people saw it when they walked with me.
I remembered the first time I made it to this field, I felt like I was getting my life back. After being confined and constrained by illness, I felt free again.
One time I reached this field and I began having trouble breathing. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get back home. I took my inhaler, but I was still having problems.
I walked over to a copse of tall slender evergreens near one end of the field. Something about these little woods always captivated me. I was certain leprechauns romped through it. I don't know why I thought of leprechauns. But on the day when I was having trouble breathing, I asked the leprechauns--or the spirits of that place--if they could help me.
After this plea, I began to breathe more easily, and I made it safely back home.
This field, this place, these trees, these rocks, these beings had been a part of my life for so many years. I was grateful today to have found this place again.
I started the car up and continued on my way to Seattle.
The drive through the Columbia River Gorge was spectacular. It always is. I had lived here since 1987 and I never grew tired of it. But the drive up and down I-5 is an exceedingly boring drive. My permaculture instructor suggested that I look at the landscape differently during my commute so that it would become interesting to me.
I was hoping I could eventually do that. Today I didn't want to think about anything. I listened to XM radio, and I drove. My mind relaxed. My body relaxed. It was the best medicine for me. I acknowledged that this medicine was not very sustainable. I was burning up fossil fuels. At least I was driving a supposedly fuel efficient car.
An hour and a half later I pulled into at a rest stop. As I walked up toward the rest rooms, I felt strangely happy. I already had that road pulse. My body and vision throbbed a bit, as it always did during a long road trip. This felt so familiar. Driving and then stopping, driving and then stopping. Nothing else mattered. I wondered again if I was going to have to spend my life on the road, never at home, in order to be happy.
I thought of all the novels I had written that ended with the word "home." I rarely felt at home and neither did my characters. Many of my books are, at least in part, road trips.
About four hours after I left home, I came over the hill and saw Seattle in the distance. It always looked cozy to me, and a bit elegant, tall buildings rising up from the land, almost like a copse of silvery trees--like the leprechaun evergreens in the field at the Doetsch park.
As soon as I went over the hill, I landed in Seattle traffic, one of the reasons we rarely come up to Seattle. It may be better now, but years ago, it could take four hours or seven hours to drive from our house to Seattle or from Seattle to our house.
I hoped in the next year I would get to know and like Seattle better. Mario and I had great affection for Portland. We didn't know Seattle well enough to like or loathe it, but we were wary of it. We couldn't discern a center to Seattle. In Portland, you can drive downtown, park, and walk around and find lots of things. Often downtown Seattle felt deserted, at least where we went.
And the drivers seemed crazy. Especially at rush hour. One time we were trying to leave Seattle and a semi-truck came close to crushing us. He knew he was doing it. I looked right into his eyes. He was furious and trying to hurt us.
The people we did see in Seattle always looked dressed to the nines. The Pacific Northwest was known for its grunge look. I've always appreciated it. I appreciated that out here you could dress anyway you wanted and people would barely notice your clothes. They noticed you. People were judged by the content of their character, not the content of their pocketbooks and how much moula they could spend on clothes. But the way people dressed in Seattle seemed more like Sex and the City lite than Pacific Northwest casual.
Lately I've noticed some of that in Portland. I'll see some woman dressed like she was on the streets of New York City and I want to yell, "Hey, we don't cotton to your kind here. Dress down or go home." I recognize even as I have these impulses that I am judging someone by the content of her clothes, and I nudge myself toward compassion and tolerance.
It's just that I don't want to live in a place where people are deemed worthy or unworthy based on their clothing. That seems so high school. Who wants to live perpetually in high school?
When my youngest sister moved from Michigan down to Santa Cruz, she was stunned by the way people dressed. She'd call home to her friends and say, "These people leave the house without make-up! They wear sweats!" She had always been known for her style and fashion sense. She felt like she was losing part of her identity in Santa Cruz. She started dressing more casually and not focusing so much on how she looked.
I said, "Isn't that freeing?"
She said, "No! It's awful."
She left Santa Cruz and moved to Scottsdale.
The traffic wasn't too bad today. I got off the expressway and drove downtown Seattle. I noticed the people on the streets seemed to be very well-dressed. I could feel butterflies in my stomach. I was not going to fit in here.
I kept driving until I saw the campus building. Across the street was an empty lot. I took a right and parked alongside the building. I saw a group of people milling around nearby a coffee-shack. Homeless? This was definitely not the most well-heeled part of Seattle. My stomach fluttered again.
Then I laughed at myself.
Homeless or rich. Which do you want, Kim?
Neither. I'd like everyone to have what they need and I'd like no one to be judged.
Like I was judging everyone.
I wanted to go into this educational experience with a clean slate. I wasn't going to withdraw from everything if people didn't act exactly like I wanted them to. I wanted to overcome some of my own character defects and communication flaws.
I told myself to buck up and get with the picture--and a whole bunch of other cliches.
I got out of the car and got a parking ticket and stuck it on the driver side window. I closed the door and locked the car. I glanced all around me--I was in the big city now. Then I walked down the sidewalk and around the building. It was a bright sunny day.
I walked into the building. I saw the front desk immediately, to my right. Next to the door was a statue of a pig. A mosiac pig, all shiny with pieces of colored glass. I wanted to put my hand on her and say hello, but I felt a bit overwhelmed and overstimulated at that moment. (I later learned she is called Pig of the Future formally and Ms. Coco, for Commitment to Change, informally.)
The person at the desk was obviously busy. People lined up to ask her questions, plus she was answering the phone. She looked harried. She looked at me expectantly when it was my turn.
"The sign on the door said to register at the front desk," I said, "so I'm registering. I'm going to be a new student in July."
She still looked at me.
I breathed deeply. What question did I want to ask her? I hadn't made an appointment with anyone.
"I just wanted to walk around," I said. "Get my bearings. Go to the library."
She pointed to her right. "The library is that way."
She pointed again.
I walked away. I felt disoriented. Why was I here? Oh yes, to escape myself. Darn it. Here I am.
Just past the pig and the front desk was a kind of gathering place. I noticed chairs. And the light was dim and relaxing. I wanted to take in every details, but I didn't. I didn't ground or relax or look around. I felt like a stranger in a strange land who had already had a stressful day. I went into the rest room.
When I got out, I walked down the corridor past the library until I saw people in an office. I went in and introduced myself. The woman at the desk was very kind. She encouraged me to walk around and go to the library. The admission's adviser was gone for several days. I thanked the woman at the desk.
I went back into the hallway and looked up and down the corridor.
I didn't know where to go or what to do.
Should have had a plan, man.
I went to the library and asked if someone could show me how to use sakai, the online program I'd be using for my classes. I glanced around. It was a small library, probably half the size of the first library I worked at, the one my library mentor at the University of Arizona called a dinky. I think she meant it pejoratively, but I've always had great affection for small libraries.
The librarian came out and introduced herself. We sat together at the computer. The program looked fairly straight-forward. I began to start to feel comfortable again. After she was finished, I left the library and began wandering again. I must have gone past the admission's office again, because the kind woman at the desk leaned out the door and asked me if I'd been upstairs yet.
I said no, I didn't know there was an upstairs. She said, "Well come on, I'll show you!"
She took me up the stairs by Ms. Coco. At the top of the stairs, all the hustle and bustle of downstairs seemed to disappear. I felt myself instantly relax. We walked by an area where several people sat at tables and chairs near a skylight. The light pouring down from the sky felt refreshing and soothing, almost like water coming down to create falls.
I told the kind woman at the desk that I was studying at the Center for Creative Change.
"You've got your own place down here," she said. "Where you can come any time."
We walked down a hallway and she opened a door and we went into the Center for Creative Change. Right near the door were couches and chairs where several people sat talking to one another. The kind woman at the desk showed me where the assistant usually sat, although she was gone today.
Then she asked me if I wanted to meet anyone. I said sure! She introduced me to the director, the one who had interviewed me. Then the kind woman left and I had a nice talk with the director. She then introduced me to the permaculture instructor who sat in his darkened office. She told him that I hadn't decided firmly yet on which certificate I was going to get.
"Yes, I'm fascinated with food," I said. I searched for something intelligent to say. "I'm interested in getting healthy organic food and I love to eat."
I wanted to put my head in my hands. That's all I could think of to say, "I love to eat?" Oh my. It wasn't even true. I didn't think I particularly loved to eat. Any love of food had been whipped out of me over the years by experts telling me what I should and shouldn't be eating. (Remember, you're allergic to the world, kid, and all her bounty.)
I was embarrassed by my inane remark. My only hope was that he would completely forget this conversation.
We left him and I met another instructor. He had lived on the coast of Washington. We commiserated with one another about how tough it was to doing any work on the Washington or Oregon coast. When Mario and I lived in Bandon, we had been called "peace mongers." As if wanting peace was a bad thing.
I looked around. It felt cozy in here. My new place. I could probably fit in here.
Soon after I left and went back outside. I checked my phone. Mario hadn't called yet. It was rush hour, but I decided I wanted to see where I was going to stay during my sojourns to Seattle. I had found a reasonably priced place at a religious establishment that catered to travelers as part of their charity work. It didn't matter that I wasn't religious. It was a kindness on their part.
It took me four tries before I got going on the right road. Everyone was zooming by me at 300 mph. At least. The lanes were so narrow. I couldn't figure out how everyone could go so fast on these narrow lanes.
Soon enough I got off that road and drove under another freeway. When I looked at the huge cement pillars that held up the highway, I was reminded of a dream I had had recently about the end of the world. I had seen a pillar just like this one.
I found the house. It looked like it was in a decent part of town, somewhat isolated, but I hoped it would be safe. I next drove to a nearby vegetarian restaurant, Chaco Canyon, but it was so busy and noisy, I decided to skip it. I had had enough excitement for the day.
I found I-5 and drove into the rush hour fray. Mario called. I did what I usually don't do. I answered the phone. (I had an earplug in so it was hands free.) He was fine. The doctor said he was having trouble with his rotator cuff. She was sending him to physical therapy.
I was relieved. Physical therapy meant he could get some help.
All that anxiety for nothing.
I drove on.
Later I called my father. I tried calling my sister, the one in Scottsdale, but she didn't answer. I wanted to talk to someone. Tell them about my day. I missed my best friend. She had died four (or five?) years ago, and I still didn't have anyone I could call a best friend. No one I could commiserate with. No one I could share my deepest darkest secrets with. My youngest sister was the closest I had to that and she wasn't answering her phone lately. She was going back to school, too, plus working two jobs while trying to adjust to life in a concrete city where it was 100 degrees out.
So I called my dad.
I don't even remember what we talked about. I sat in a gas station parking lot just listening to his voice. Hearing about his physical therapy. About the flowers in his garden. About the dinner he would make for company that weekend.
I wished I lived closer.
But it wasn't easy being around people I cared about. Too much anxiety.
I continued homeward. I stopped the Olympia food co-op. We always stopped there on our way to or from Seattle. We stopped at food co-ops and libraries wherever we could find them. I couldn't find anything to eat for dinner there, so I bought gluten-free dairy-free chocolate chip cookies. They weren't sugar-free. Sugar plays havoc with my depression, but I wanted some cookies. If I was a drinker, I probably would have wanted a beer. I bought the cookies.
I ate the quinoa and vegetables I'd brought in the cooler. Then I ate the cookies.
I got on the expressway again. As I was driving, I realized that I had essentially cured myself of the anxiety, at least temporarily, with this expedition to Seattle. Whatever part of my brain that was ill must get occupied when I drive. I had tried other ways of distracting myself over the years and they hadn't worked. But this did. Was it because most of my attention was diverted with driving? Or was it because driving is a mental and a physical process?
This felt huge. Could I figure out what part of my brain was causing me trouble and then work to fix it? I had tried mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for my depression and it had helped a great deal. But it had not assuaged the anxiety. And just trying to distract myself with busy work had never alleviated my anxiety.
Sometimes I wondered if I was just someone who should have a full-time job away from home that occupied my mind most of the time.
But this driving thing. Today. It had worked.
I got more and more excited. Maybe I could get fixed. Maybe I wouldn't be stuck with this demon the rest of my life. I could do research or something. Ask my old therapists. My naturopath.
I looked around at the landscape. Why had I always thought this drive was boring? Deciduous and evergreen trees grew up all around me. I was essentially driving through a forest. The road curved, I curved with it.
Go with the flow...
I remembered Dorothy in the land of Oz, in the Emerald City. All she wanted to do there was find home. That, apparently, was my life's work: to find home on this planet and in my body.
Maybe my travels to Oz would help me find my way home, too, eventually.
For now, I was on my way back to the Columbia River Gorge where I would find my sweetheart waiting for me.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010