The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.

 

 

 

A Short Literary Trip in Boston

I was back briefly in my hometown of Boston a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to call up any friends except for my 76-year-old second grade teacher. We had a small family reunion and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in maybe twenty years. Next time I hope to be in town longer to see more friends!

One thing I did manage to squeeze in, between all the “family bonding” that my mother wanted to do, were several trips to bookstores. All those years I had lived in Boston I took for granted a historical literary world that was my backyard.

My first stop was Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, across the street from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States and the camping ground for British soldiers in preparation for the American Revolutionary War. Brattle Bookshop has been around since 1825 and is one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookshops in the country. My most memorable experience with the store was finding a copy of the biography Gable and Lombard during my Gone with the Wind obsession as a teen. Pre-internet, this was a huge feat, given that the book was out of print and I had to search two years for it.

I like the idea of their outdoor book racks, which you can see in the photo below. There are three floors of books inside the store including a floor of rare and antiquarian books. And outside they sell a diverse mix of bargain books, all priced from $1 to $5. There were a number of old editions (pre-1900 and turn of the century) as well. The only problem was that it was pretty cold that day – in the 30s/40s F - but fortunately I finished browsing as soon as I was coming near the end of my comfort zone standing in the cold for so long.

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Brattle Bookshop Mural

“20 Authors Upon the Wall Mural,” by local artist Jeffrey Hull

My next stop was Harvard Square. Whatever your feelings on Harvard the institution and the elitism it represents, you can’t deny the eclecticism and vibrancy of the town that was birthed by the country’s oldest university. I’d worked in the area a number of years and remember walking past the sets of The Firm (Tom Cruise movie, for those who weren’t around then) and With Honors (a forgettable Joe Pesci film) during lunch breaks. It was pretty neat, too, to see academic greats like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Howard Gardner in and around town.

And so that brings me to this gem of an indy bookstore, Harvard Book Store, which has been around for over 80 years. The store is open until 11 pm every day except Sunday (when it closes at 10), and every time I’m in there the place is bustling. They also have author events virtually every day of the week (and sometimes multiple times a day).

This is me, just window shopping this time.

This is me, just window shopping this time.

The Harvard Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882,  was also fun and lively with its crowded café and four floors of books connected by a winding staircase.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte's Villette here, that I haven't been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette here that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

When I got tired of book browsing we took a break at Café Algiers on historical Brattle Street (the street where George Washington established his first headquarters during the Revolutionary War). Café Algiers is a tranquil, grand (in my eyes), and bookish Middle Eastern coffee shop and eatery and one of the few businesses in the Square that have remained over the decades.

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The last time I was here was to meet an old classmate. He had kissed me at our reunion, igniting all kinds of dreamy hopes in me. After avoiding me for a couple of weeks, he offered to meet at the café, where he told me painfully and uncomfortably that he was still in a relationship. The tea tasted bitter that day, but this time I was with my husband, son, and brother, and I enjoyed the best (the only) mint chocolate coffee I’ve ever had.

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And then there were these shelves, the ones I spend the most time looking at whenever I am home.

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This was my bookshelf growing up, pretty much unchanged since I left home for college a whole lifetime ago. The stuffed animals are still on the very top shelf, now protected and wrapped in plastic thanks to my mom. My photos are still there, as are my trinkets from different trips, events, and friendships, costume jewelry, extra buttons that came with clothes I’ve long stopped wearing, and, of course, books. The shelves are a bit messy now as I’ve been raiding them over the years, either selling/donating or taking some books back with me. Since I left home I’ve lived in nine apartments/houses in five cities on two continents. The more my life has evolved the more meaning this bookcase holds for me, as an anchor in time, a tether to the self and life that exist now only in memories.

 

Have you been to Boston? What are your favorite literary cities? What are your favorite literary places where you live?

My Battles with Anxiety

I have to thank one of my readers/blogger friends for mentioning in a comment once that she suffers from anxiety. It was her honesty that emboldened me to acknowledge my own relationship with anxiety. Since then I’ve struggled whether to write about this personal issue but ultimately decided that if my words can bring comfort or validation to one more person – as this blogger friend did for me – then I am willing to do it.

I think that I’ve failed to acknowledge my anxiety until now because it has been a part of me for so long…so long, in fact, that it became my normal. As a child I suffered constantly from headaches and canker sores. I had trouble sleeping and eating, nearly falling off the growth charts, and I often dreaded school, gym class, doctors’ appointments, my father’s days off, swim lessons, the company of certain girlfriends, and the attention of boys.

Anxiety has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older, both increasing and decreasing in intensity and in ways that have baffled me. How did I once speak so comfortably before audiences of 200+ only to end up losing sleep over a dreaded Skype call with five people? Why was I once able to maneuver the maniacal streets of Boston but am now unwilling to drive further than five miles from my house in our small town? Equally perplexing, I was terrified of water my entire life and yet eagerly learned to swim just three years ago.

I was at my best during those first several years that I was bold enough to move to and live in Asia. From being the sole woman manager in a foreign company to entering a permanent relationship to having a child overseas, I was reveling in that wide space outside my comfort zone. And then one day, without my realizing why, my world began to contract. Once ordinary events and tasks became a strain for me: driving, being in groups, having a busy schedule. Since I work from home, I have a fair amount of control over my day-to-day. And I’ve been coping by managing my surroundings to meet my comfort level.

But like taking Tylenol to control your fever, you can’t really know how sick or well you are. By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.

I finally began looking for a therapist when I realized I was single-handedly downsizing my life. I love this quote by Anaïs Nin, which came to me two weeks ago as if from an angel: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My therapist told me that the things we avoid eventually hold power over us.

I chuckled and cried when she complimented me for “functioning as well as [I am] – for having a job, for running a household.” What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving? But she was acknowledging the decades-old traumas that still have their grip on me. I cried for the majority of that session, in a catharsis that began to drain the stagnancy in my body. By the time I got home I felt a peace and lightness that was alien to me. I found myself breathing steadily and calmly, and looked forward to moving on with my day. Is this what normal people usually feel, I wondered. A few hours later Max and I went out for lunch and to run errands. We were on the freeway, with me in the passenger seat. I looked down the road that for once didn’t look so intimidating and said to him, “I would be able to drive today. If I can feel like this all the time, I can drive.”

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Madame Bovary Readalong

 

Alas, I didn’t get a chance until now to post about this Madame Bovary readalong that I’ve joined. The readalong started April 1 and it’s being hosted by CJ at ebookclassics (whom I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” through Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and Juliana at Cedar Station. I’d had this book hovering near the top of my to-read list for about a year, so this readalong is perfect.

As many of you know, Madame Bovary is French writer Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel about a young woman seeking happiness and fulfillment in her mundane life as the wife of an ordinary and devoted husband. She ends up having a number of affairs until her various choices lead to her downfall.

A couple of things have surprised me about the book so far. One: it is extremely readable, even easy to read, and two: it feels timeless. If you disregard the various references to transportation and dress, this book can easily feel as though it was written in and about the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

Before her marriage she had believed herself to be in love; but since the happiness which should have resulted from this love had not come to her, she felt that she must have been mistaken. And she tried to find out exactly what was meant in life by the words “bliss,” “passion” and “rapture,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. (page 34)

The quote made me think of a 43-year-old woman I worked with once who had left her husband despite her own description of him as “perfect” – kind, gentle, loyal, etc. She told me she had wanted more in the way of excitement. (Yes, I can hear the sad sighs of nice guys around the world…)

If you’d like to join the readalong, please check out the master post here at ebookclassics. It lists the reading/discussion dates and you can link up there as well.

For those of you who are following, I’ve put on hold my Grapes of Wrath readalong, which I had announced last month I would be doing (face cast downward in shame…). Madame Bovary is just more fun for me right now.

 

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The Zookeeper’s Wife

As some of you know, I’m part of an on-line book club called Literary Wives. Every two months we post a review on a designated book and April’s read is Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a non-fiction account of the heroic efforts of Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina to save 300 Jews during WWII.

The Żabińskis were respected owners of the high-profiled and thriving zoo. In 1939, however, when Germany invaded Poland, much of the zoo was bombed, and many of the animals were killed or taken away (the rare/special animals were sent to Germany).

At this point Jan and Antonina began using the zoo and its villa to temporarily house and hide Jews. Jan became an active member of the Polish Underground and later in the Warsaw uprising near the end of the war. Antonina, in the meantime, kept the entire operation at home running; she had, in addition to those in hiding, a young son, an infant daughter, animals in and out of cages, and staff. And she did so while working desperately to keep as upbeat of an atmosphere as she could during this horrific time.

The questions we are discussing in this series are:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

The main story really doesn’t focus on the Żabińskis’ relationship, but I did find some striking passages. During the height of the Żabińskis’ efforts, Jan became increasingly “short-tempered and uneasy.” Antonina wrote in her diary that Jan was “cold and expected more from me than from the rest of the people in our household” and that “nothing [she] did ever seemed good enough, nothing made him proud of [her], and perpetually disappointing him felt wretched.” (page 231)

It is, of course, hard to say if these dynamics were characteristic of what it meant to be Jan’s wife. After all, they were both living under extraordinary circumstances. As Ackerman writes, “To keep their life livable, [Jan] checked and rechecked every ritual and routine, a taxing responsibility, since the tiniest chaos, neglect, or impulse could unmask them. Small wonder that he rigidified from the strain and began addressing [the house guests] as his “soldiers” and Antonina as his ‘deputy.’” (page 231)

One day, Jan suddenly praised Antonina when he heard about her success warding off German soldiers in a narrow escape. Antonina wrote in her diary: “He was talking about my talents, praising me in the presence of other people. It never happened before! . . . He was serious?! He had called me ‘silly’ so often I’d started hearing it as a second name.” (page 235)

Near the end of the book, we learn from various interview excerpts after the war that Jan had always appreciated and admired his wife’s abilities and efforts. In one interview he said, ” . . . she was terrified the Nazis would seek revenge on us and our young son, terrified of death, and yet she kept it to herself, and helped me [with my Underground activities] and never ever asked me to stop.” (page 314) There were more acknowledgements like this about various aspects of Antonina’s character and strengths.

Was Jan condescending and did he assume a superior role in the marriage because of his gender? It is possible, given the times. I also wonder, though, how much was personality. I certainly know of couples in which the woman is the one who condescends or is sparing in praise. From Jan’s detailed acknowledgements of Antonina’s contributions and rare talents, it seems clear that he knew his wife well and appreciated her, but perhaps rarely showed his feelings to her during the war.

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

It seemed important to Antonina to win her husband’s approval. This could have been a function of her status as a wife, or it could have been a matter of personality. It seemed that Jan was rather stoic and sparing in his praise, whereas Antonina was more open with her feelings and wanted the same in return.

The above quote by Jan about how Antonina kept her fears to herself also shows Antonina’s loyalty to her husband. At the same time, I believe her willingness to put others’ needs before her fears speaks to her mindset as a rescuer. Antonina had unique strengths – an uncanny ability to relate to animals, the wherewithal to apply this ability to her interactions with enemy soldiers, and great compassion for fellow humans – and she used these as the perfect complement to Jan’s more analytical and physical work with the Polish Underground. I saw the Żabińskis’ marriage as a partnership with wife and husband sharing the same mission but offering complementary strengths.

. .  .

Overall I had mixed feelings about the book. It took me a long time to finish despite the fascinating (and important) subject matter. I think it was because the story didn’t really feel linear in a way that I wanted it to be in order to stay engaged; Ackerman interrupts Antonina’s story with lots of facts and musings about everything from Nazi ideology to animal behavior. All of it is relevant on some level I suppose, but I found myself confused a lot of the time, not able to really picture how the Żabińskis were actually hiding the Jews, for example, because the story felt so scattered. Every time a chapter went off on a tangent I found my mind wandering.

. . .

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Please check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

 Follow Literary Wives on Facebook!

See you next week!

We’ve been traveling and consistently suffering from some combination of sick and tired ;-) But we’re having a good time. As usual I brought along my laptop but totally overestimated my ability to keep up with blogging. I hope you’re having a good week and I’ll be back next week! :-)

My Literary Week

I have been all over the place this month in terms of my reading and I’m finally getting over a cold that has lasted forever, so this will be a smorgasbord kind of a post:

March Madness and Fickleness

The weather isn’t the only thing that’s been fickle for me this March. Despite the fact that it’s National Reading Month – and I had wanted to join the various reading versions of March Madness – I’ve been making very little progress in any actual reading. I started the month with a number of goals: Start NPR’s The Grapes of Wrath read-along; start and finish The Zookeeper’s Wife for our next Literary Wives discussion; start and finish Howard’s End for The Classics Club’s April post. Well, I started and stopped all three. I kept flitting back and forth, not sure which book to prioritize. Finally a growing desire to get back into Victorian literature took over and I began re-reading Jane Eyre, something I hadn’t planned on doing this year. And so that’s all I’ve been reading over the last week and now I am positively hooked on Jane Eyre.

Which character in literature are you?

Speaking of Jane Eyre, I found this pretty fun literary/psychological (my favorite combination!) quiz at Book Week Scotland where you can find out who “your” literary figure is. And I mention Jane Eyre because Jane Eyre is who I got (introverted, loyal once you get to know me, and self-critical)! If you’ve been spending time taking all those BuzzFeed quizzes, then you will find this one to be of higher quality. It only takes a few minutes and it asks you various questions about how you approach problems and how you prefer to interact with people (kind of like a shortened Myers Briggs test). I gave this quiz to Max (hubby) and Fred (son) as well and they got, respectively, Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird and Jean Valijean of Les Misérables.

Victorian Men Montage

I’ve never understood the fascination with YouTube but this week I couldn’t keep my eyes off of these video montages of Victorian men in literature. I like the ones with fast music, and this one in particular, set to a remake of The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men. Some (like my recently-turned 10-year-old) may question my tastes but I actually find the video quite erotic. I can’t imagine the sexual tension that builds up in a society where emotions are so restrained and the people so heavily clothed. Note the subtle heaving of chests, lingering glances, and gently rocking pelvic motions (horse riding scenes).

Addiction Feeding

Bless my husband’s dear heart for driving me two towns away to visit yet another library used book sale and for not questioning or judging me when I walked out with another canvas bag full of books (contents: Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, Crime and Punishment, and more). The books now sit on the floor at the foot of our bed until they find a new bookcase.

Here’s the thing: every few months I get restless, like something critical from my life is missing. No doubt my body clock has aligned with our various local libraries’ quarterly book sale schedules. I feel such joy and security just being in a room full of books and browsing through them. I have no other vices in life – I’ve even given up Doritos and beer at 10 p.m. – and I figure there are worse ways in life to be happy.

And if you, too, are addicted to acquiring books, read this post Is Owning Books as Good as Reading Them over at Book Riot. The author has 850 (!) unread books in her apartment but it is the many reader comments that are most encouraging and supportive.

What’s up in your literary life of late?