Category Archives: mental illness

Shoguns and Squats

I’ve already written a bit about Nikko, how I arrived there on my fourth day in Japan and it was there that the anxiety that had trailed me from the US ebbed away.  As I wrote in my last post I am feeling a lot of anxiety of late, but I know it comes … and goes.  I’ve never had a full-blown panic attack and ended up in the ER like some people I know.  I get out and do things despite feeling anxious about them.  Ninety-nine percent of the time everything turns out okay.

And sometimes, like in Nikko, physical exertion, attraction distraction, and serenity of a place help the anxiety disappear.

Nikko’s claim to fame is that it hosts tombs of the early shoguns.  The shoguns were hereditary military commanders who ruled Japan for nearly 700 years, until Emperor Meiji was given real powers during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  “Shogun” is Japanese shorthand for “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force against the Barbarians.”

Now here I came, a barbarian wandering among their tombs.

The structures are unique because they are Japanese interpretations of Chinese shrines.  This means that, unlike the simple, spare style seen elsewhere in Japan, the shrines in Nikko are over-the-top ornate.

Guidebooks and online advisories will say you can “do” Nikko in a day. Maybe that’s technically true—if you arrived by tour bus and had a guide barking, “hurry, hurry, on to the next shrine!”

But why would you want to hurry?  Nikko is so much more than the shrines, as I discovered.  I spent three nights there and could have easily spent a fourth.  Or the rest of my life.  Nikko is in the mountains and the soothing sound of water coursing along little streams and springs is ever present.

I found the pedestrian entrance to the shrine complex, which encompasses half a dozen shrines, each of which encompasses a dozen structures. Every shrine charges an admission fee of $2 to $12.

I climbed and climbed the irregular stone steps, in the rain, to the main square, then wandered around trying to decide which shrine to visit first.  I could just catch glimpses of golden rooftops.

I decided on the mausoleum of Iemitsu, grandson of the first shogun, Ieyasu. The shoguns often have a birth name, a warrior name, and military titles that makes keeping them straight challenging.  So I didn’t try.

I figured I should use the toilet before entering, where I encountered my first Japanese-style toilet.  No, not the ones with lots of electronic features, but a squat.

Pivot: Iemitsu designed his own mausoleum to be “subtle” so as not to outshine his grandpa’s.  This is just the hand washing station at the entrance.

Ladle up some water, wash your left hand, then your right, then have a drink out of your cupped palm.

I remember this as “the quiet shrine.”  It is set in ancient woods and the only sound was birds calling back and forth.  I was one of only three people there that day.

Near the handwashing station there was a jumble of mountain scenery, with two stone statues that I only noticed because I stopped to contemplate the forest.

More steps, and through an ornate gate with fabulous protectors on either side, borrowed from Hinduism.

This structure was basically a storage unit for giant bells and drums used during special events.

There were a thousand stone lanterns, all “donated” by feudal lords to the shogun. I liked the moss and fern hat on this one.

I stopped at each landing to look out over the tree tops and listen to the birds.  At last I arrived at the top and the inner shrine, where photos were not allowed.  There wasn’t really anything to do there, so I slowly walked back down.

I guess most of the lanterns can be lighted, and I would see this later in my trip.

From somewhere, I heard the music from the Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies wafting through the forest.  What it signified, I had no idea, but I chose to take it as my dinner bell.

There—just writing this remembrance has brought me a sense of calm.

My Name is Anne, and I’m Anxious

I need to write an honest post about anxiety.

I could tell myself it’s not logical to be anxious.  I should be grateful, even.

I don’t have to commute or work full time. I haven’t touched my savings since quitting my full-time job in December.  I’m healthy enough that I feel safe forgoing health insurance—which would cost me over $800 a month for a lousy plan—and instead use a healthcare sharing program, which costs $220 a month.  I enjoy my contract work with my former employer, working on million dollar proposals to the UN and US government.  I enjoy my very-part-time job at the YMCA minding little kids.  It’s summer, and I’ve got free time to go berry foraging or biking the wild paths along the Mississippi.  I live in a charming and affordable duplex.

Vince, who less than three years ago emerged from prison with nothing, owns a home, is a dad, and is getting married in 10 days.

Yeah, I know I have it good.

Then why do I get ice-cold stabbing pangs of fear in my solar plexus?  It’s not every day, or all day, but it can last for hours and it’s extremely unpleasant.

I think it is thanks to my nemeses, the what ifs.

My financial future is uncertain.  What if my contract isn’t renewed next year?  Should I get another full-time job?  What if no one wants to hire a 59 year old?  I recently read that the average job hunt for someone my age is 12 months. Maybe I should have started looking months ago!

Could I try to live off my savings?  It’s not my regular monthly expenses that are a problem; they’re very modest.  There are always things like new tires ($$), a new phone ($$), and a crown on my molar ($$$$). What if my engine gasket blows, or I need two crowns next month?

I have a plane ticket to Panama for December but haven’t booked accommodations.  What if Panama turns out to be super expensive?

Those are the semi-rational what ifs.

If I allow it free reign, my mind conjures up additional scary possibilities that are unlikely to ever happen.

I saw a sign warning of coyotes at the river today.  What if I was attacked by one on my walk and couldn’t work?  I would lose everything and end up one of those homeless people on the freeway exit holding a sign that says, “Sick.  Can’t work.  Anything helps.  God Bless.”

I swore at another driver on my way home from the river as we both fought our way through a traffic jam. What if I lost it, rammed someone with my car, and ended up in prison?  How humiliating would that be?

Images of these things happening actually flash through my mind.  Usually I am barely aware of them, and I can laugh them off.  But they probably contribute to the anxiety

And those are just the neurotic thoughts about me and mine.  I despair that my country can put a man on the moon, find a cure for Hepatitis C, and produce all sorts of genius inventors and entertainers and artists but we cannot come up with a single solution to gun violence.  One of my neighbors was killed in a mass shooting in 2012.  Will I, or someone I care about, be next?

Then there’s climate change.  Contrary to what millennials seem to believe, not all of us baby boomers have been callously disregarding the environment all our lives.  My first environmental protest was in 1974.  We were calling on the government to clean up the Mississippi River.  And it got done.  But as I sit in my car writing this—at the river, on the latest of a series of unusually hot days—I fear we are all doomed.

When I travel I do feel nervous about finding train stations and such. But mostly I am in the moment every moment and my anxiety is fleeting and mild.

I’m went to the Mississippi today to hike uneven terrain, to throw myself off kilter so I would have to focus on each step or I’d pitch headlong into the dark, swift current.

There I go again!

Grateful

Today, February 4, is the 59th anniversary of my birth.  59?!  How did that happen?

Ten years ago, when I was in the grip of a decades-long depression, I heard about some research that found older people are happier.  I remember scoffing: “No way!  How could you be happier, when you’re decrepit and inching closer to death, and can’t do anything you used to do?”

But in my case, at least, it’s proving to be true—the “happier” part, not the “can’t do anything” part.

Since leaving my job in mid-December, I’ve caught myself thinking on a regular basis, “Today was a good day,” and “Life is good,” and even, “I’m happy.”  These weren’t “if you believe it, it will be” exercises.  These thoughts come unbidden.  And it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever thought them.

And why shouldn’t I be content?

I am working on contract for my former employer.  This month I will submit something like $2.7 million worth of funding applications for Ethiopia and Jordan to the UN and US Government. It’s interesting, challenging, and meaningful work.

Somehow, doing the same work but from home is far less stressful and I am more productive.  I don’t get into office chit chat—which I enjoyed but which ate up time.  I don’t attend meetings except via Zoom and I’m not reading all the corporate communiques.

I no longer commute.  My drive was about 25 minutes each way, and by the time I got through rush hour I had usually yelled “you moron!,” at another driver.  I would arrive at work shaking from being cutting off or just listening to the news of the world on NPR.  I feel agitated writing those sentences.  Now I only drive before and after rush hours.

I am working two short shifts a week at the YMCA.  I love it.  I make 1/10th at the Y as I do writing proposals, but it is something different and it gets me out of the house, very important during the recent polar vortex.  I work in the childcare center.  I can see some of you grimacing at that—your worst nightmare.  But I love little kids, and being around them puts me in a zone—I don’t have to teach them anything; I am just there to play with them and keep them from biting each other.  I am now certified to provide CPR and if you knock out a tooth I’ll know what to do.   I get a free Y membership, so I am enjoying trying out all the different locations and classes.  The sauna was a godsend last month when I had a cold.

Maybe part of my contentedness is my keen awareness of how fortunate I am.  When I had that cold, I was propped up in bed one night feeling sorry for myself and I thought, “Somewhere there is a woman my age in a refugee camp who has a cold.  She can’t prop herself up to breath because she’s in a fucking tent and doesn’t have four pillows.  It’s dusty.  She doesn’t have Breathe Right Nasal Strips or eucalyptus essential oil in her humidifier.   She probably doesn’t even have Kleenex to blow her nose.

I shouldn’t have to make myself feel better at the expense of a refugee, but there you go.

My son and I received our first royalty check last week for the book we published in November.  We’re not going to be able to quit working or make big donations to refugee charities with our proceeds, but hey, we did it—we wrote and published a book!

Finally, yesterday my sister-in-law and I bought four tickets to Japan for June in a big sale through a Chicago travel agency.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was $600 less than anything posted publicly.  So use a travel agent for big trips—they really can see things you can’t.

It’s my brother’s busiest season as a wedding videographer, so I will go with Akiko and my two nephews and chaperone the second one back home after a month.  I have no idea where I’ll stay or what I’ll do yet, but that will be the fun part.  Suggestions welcome!

Pigeons

Sometimes I get a notification from WordPress: “Your stats are booming!”  I used to get excited, thinking it must be a publisher in New York reading every post I’d ever written and reaching for the phone to call me with a book deal which would come with a huge advance.

I went to the stats page to investigate and for some reason my last post had attracted the attention of three dozen Canadians.  Why?  I looked at the tags and categories. Were they drawn by the word “England?”  I’ve written loads of posts about England.  The only words that were different were “shopping” and “charity shops.”  Who knows?

Maybe I have a Canadian stalker.  Or three dozen.

Everyone I know is talking about the powerful men in media and politics who are being outed for sexually harassing or assaulting women.  All I can say is: it’s about time.  And I’m not surprised.  It’s happened to me at least a dozen times.  No one famous, but plenty of regular men who had some kind of power over me by virtue of age, title, or size.  It stopped when I hit my 40s—one advantage of getting older.

I never reported any of the incidents because first, I was very naïve and often unsure what was even happening.  Maybe I was misinterpreting things?  I mean, the social worker who was helping me get my act together after I spent two months in a psych unit after trying to off myself when I was 16—when he said he’d like to see me in a lace nightie, he was just trying to help me feel like a woman again.  That’s what he told me.  And that 30-something guy who stopped his car at the bus stop and asked if I wanted to go party—I was 18 and eight months pregnant—he didn’t really want to …?  No!  That’s gross!  I must have misunderstood.

And surely that Greek Orthodox minister hadn’t meant to press his hard-on against my derriere in that crowd of people at the Justice for All rally, right?  Wrong.  When I turned around in shock, he smiled as if to dare me, “What are you going to do about it?”  It must have been my fault.  I had thought how handsome he was and maybe he had sensed that and thought I would like what he did.

Surely my boss’s boss had been fiddling with the coins in his pants pockets when he stood next to my desk talking about nothing and staring at my boobs, right?  I had just started that job and really needed it.  It was 1986 and I had never heard the term “sexual harassment.” It never occurred to me to report him.

A friend described how she tried to get her husband to understand what it’s like.

“Imagine there’s a third kind of human out there.  They’re a foot taller than you and 50 pounds heavier.  They own everything and run everything.  And they want to fuck you in the ass.  Every time you go for a job interview, you know they’re imagining you naked.  They walk past your cube and look at you sideways, and you know they would like to bend you over, pull down your pants, and fuck you in the ass.  They brush up against you and act like it was an accident, but you know they just wanted to cop a feel.  If you say anything, you’ll probably be out of a job and nothing will be done anyway because HR works for them.”           

Back to England, and a more uplifting note.  There are things about the UK with which I have a visceral association.  One is the little teaspoons.  Below are my American teaspoon and a British one, which is larger than many.  Every British home has loads of these.  Something to do with tea, I think. I bought a couple at the £ Store to remind me of the UK.

Then there are the wood pigeons.  When I asked Lynn’s husband, Richard, What’s that bird?” he replied, “What bird?”  He didn’t hear them anymore; their call is so ubiquitous.

It’s this call and these spoons that made me smile every morning.

Toxic Clouds, Toxic Smoke

I had been asked to say a few words of greeting from Center for Victims of Torture headquarters to a counseling group of 12-14-year-old Eritrean refugee boys.  This was daunting, not only because I had laryngitis but because, well, what could I say that could possibly be of interest to them?  I stood up and rasped out a few words about how we in Minnesota do our best to tell their stories to the world, and thanked for allowing me to sit in on their group because it would help me raise more funding so we can work with more refugees.  I hoped that last part would actually be true.

The boys watched me with curiosity as I spoke, probably wondering why I sounded like a chain-smoking man.  My words were translated into Tigrinya, then they nodded and smiled at me and turned their attention to the young counselor who would facilitate the group.  I had expected them to maybe feel self-conscious with me there, but I think they forgot all about me.

I love kids of all ages.  Each age has its adorable and unpleasant aspects, but I couldn’t find anything unpleasant about these kids.  Like boys this age anywhere, they were awkward and gangly.  Some were tall for their age and had deep voices while others were puny and squeaky voiced.  Some had peach fuzz on their upper lips.  They slouched, hunched over, spread their legs wide, and tipped their chairs back until I wanted to lunge forward and say, “Don’t do that—you’ll fall over!”  I thought how difficult it must be go through puberty in their situation.  Many if not all of these boys were on their own, without any family members.  They lived in groups with an adult caregiver in very small houses with no privacy.

When my son was 12, if anyone asked him how he was feeling he would have rolled his eyes, made a joke, and changed the subject.  These boys showed no reluctance to talk about feelings and how to manage them.  In fact, they took the group very seriously.  As I wrote in a previous post, this was the third of three groups designed as a kind of “coping bootcamp” for young Eritreans who were at risk of suicide or of leaving the camps in a futile search for a better life.

None of what was said was translated, but it didn’t have to be.  There were visual aids (complete with misspellings) and I was pretty familiar with the concepts being taught by now.

For instance: it’s normal to feel angry or hopeless considering what they’ve been through; feelings come and go, like clouds, so usually if you wait they will change; emotions can be managed by talking, exercise, meditation, etc.  The facilitator had already taught these concepts in the first two meetings and was drilling the boys about them.  They were totally engaged, almost all raised their hands enthusiastically to answer, spoke gravely, and discussed points of clarity with each other seriously and respectfully.  I may have imagined it or may be exaggerating, but it seemed to me as if they treated the information as if it was a matter of life and death.

I was a bit relieved when the group ended and the boys spilled outside to share some ambasha, a traditional bread.  You could say that branding is literally baked into everything CVT does.

People have asked me how the food was in Ethiopia.  It was really good.  CVT has a staff canteen where two cooks serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I paid about $11 for an entire week of meals.  There was just enough—no seconds, no gorging—you wouldn’t gain weight if you lived there for a long time.

Here is one of the cooks, heavily pregnant, baking ambasha over an open fire on the roof because the power was out (I always asked my coworkers if it was okay for me to take and use their photos).  She had used plastic bags to get the fire started, over my protests.  Note the can of paint nearby, probably highly flammable.  Employee health and safety have a long way to go in Ethiopia.

Losing My Voice

The day I was supposed to give the second half of my presentation, I awoke with no voice.  I couldn’t force out even one husky syllable.  I don’t know if I had a cold, or if it was all the smoke and chemicals, or both.  regardless, this was going to be awkward.

I wrote, “I Have Laryngitis” on a piece of paper.  Then I thought no, they might not know what that was, so I wrote another that said, “I Have Lost my Voice.”  Then I thought dang, we are always talking about giving refugees a voice to speak up for their rights.  What if they think I am making some kind of bizarre white western yuppie artistic statement?

People did give me strange looks when I showed them my sign, but what else could I do?  I slid a note over the breakfast table to Maki: “I can’t give a presentation with no voice.”  She nodded and shrugged.  Did she think I was faking it to get out of doing the second half because I had worried the first one hadn’t gone over well?

“You can go with Yonas to get your camp pass this morning,” she said.  Yonas, not his real name, is our loggie.  “Loggie” is shorthand for logistician.  I nodded and followed Yonas to the truck.

The power and the generator were both off, so the wireless router was going “BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP …” You get the picture.  It was loud and annoying and no one else seemed to notice it.

I had planned to force out some words but didn’t think I could make myself heard above the beeping.  I showed Yonas my note about having no voice and he smiled, nodded, and proceeded to talk to me very loudly.  Ethiopians are normally soft spoken.  I assumed he was trying to be heard over the beeping but he kept it up after we’d left the compound.  I’ve noticed this the other times I’ve had laryngitis; for some reason people seem to think you are hard of hearing.

We went into two camps and called on the administrators with the agency that manages them.  They don’t let just anyone into the camps, for good reason.  Refugees are vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of exploitation because they tend to be desperate for solutions to their uncertain plight.

In each office, Yonas and I sat across from the official and the two of them made small talk.  Yonas did all the talking.  I smiled and nodded deferentially to everything.  Yonas explained how I was a CVT employee who was here to observe the programs, that I had come from the US, that I was a fundraiser  who was here for a week.  The official would nod slowly at each statement and then there would be a very long pause as he or she scrutinized the forms Yonas had submitted weeks earlier.  They appeared to relish the power of being able to keep you in suspense as to whether they would grant the pass or not.  Finally, just when I was sure they would stamp “REJECTED” on my pass, they stamped “APPROVED” and that was that.

If I make it sound like Ethiopia was dreadful, that’s not my intention.  So I had a sore throat and lost my voice.  So what?  The thousands of refugees in these camps had lost their homes, their families, their peace of mind, and their hope.  I was so grateful for the opportunity to experience where we work and what we do first hand.

I can’t and wouldn’t show photos of refugees.  You know, there’s that whole thing about treating people like they’re animals in a zoo.  And the thought of posting photos of people online—people who have no Internet access and so will never even know their photo is out there—feels wrong.

Here’s some CVT signage.  It may look depressing but it’s hard to keep it looking good with the mud and rain.  The good news is that CVT has planted a lot of trees, which makes our corner of the camps welcoming, and the fencing is to protect them from goats.  The illustrations are “before” and “after” counseling.

Feelings on a Stick

Day two of my work week in Ethiopia.  I was sitting in on the second day of a training for our staff.  It was interesting enough, but as I wrote it all had to be interpreted into Tigrinya, and the Eritrean staff’s questions had to be interpreted into English, then the answers back into Tigrinya, and on and on.  I was super impressed by our interpreter, who must have been exhausted by the end of the day.  He started every interpretation with a word that sounded like “selezzie,” which I assumed must mean, “he says.”  I also noticed there were certain words that must not have a Tigrinyan word because they jumped out at me in English when he was speaking Tigrinya.  I could understand why “name tag” and “photo copy” might not have a Tigrinyan translation, but “silence” or “responsibilities?”

We worked our way through the manual that counsellors would use to run the groups.  One exercise involved everyone drawing a face on a circle of white paper on a stick to show how he/she was feeling.  You can’t see the faces because everyone except one counsellor drew them very, very small.  Well, and because the iphone takes crappy photos in low light.  It was like the faces drawn by the counsellors were floating inside big white balloons.  When it was my turn to show my face, everyone laughed because it fit the white circle.  I will never know what that was about.

During one of the longer interpretations, my mind started to drift.  I was tired due to living through The Night of the Rat.  I began to do what I usually do in meetings to keep myself looking engaged; I counted how many men there were, then how many women, and calculated the percent that were women.  Then I looked around and guessed how old each person was.  Back home, I would normally calculate what percent of the group were overweight, had blue eyes, or were gay, but in Ethiopia those were non-existent or hidden attributes.

I looked down at my feet as though I was concentrating closely on what was being said and thought, “Dang, I need a pedicure.  I wonder if I’ll have time to give myself one later, or should work on my presentation more, or take a nap ….”

I had been asked at the last minute to train our staff in Ethiopia on proposal writing.  I would have one the one-hour after-lunch slots on Wednesday and Thursday.

This was a great opportunity but also a tall order because I felt I couldn’t train people on how to write proposals without backing up and explaining things like, how do you find donors to apply to?  Who gives away the most money? How do you choose among many different funding opportunities?  What kind of skills to you need to raise funds?  And so on.

I had created an outline offline, then spent hours trying to email it to Maki so she could review it.  I considered loading it onto a flash drive, printing it out, or just handing her my laptop before I finally got an internet connection.  We wasted so much time trying, and trying again and again to get a connection.

During our morning break, I finally got to offload the sweets I had brought all the way from Holland and Austria.  I had stroopwaffle and tiramisu cake and a strudel, all hermetically sealed in plastic and probably loaded with preservatives because they were none the worse for wear except for being a little smashed.

The cook cut them up into small pieces and they were circulated with the popcorn and coffee.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this treats, and one of the youngest counsellors came over and asked me what the tiramisu was.  When I told him, and said it was Italian, he looked at me skeptically.  “I thought I knew all the Italian words for foods,” he said.  “Lasagna, spaghetti, linguine,” he rattled off his Italian food vocabulary.  “Teer-ah-mee-soo,” he repeated a few times to himself, then wandered away to find more.