« Busman's Holiday | Main | Minding the Store »

August 09, 2005

Learning to Breathe

Learning to Breathe

"I won’t worry my life away."–Jason Mraz, The Remedy

I can’t remember exactly what I was doing, something very control freaky obviously (it was probably around the time of the RT Booklovers Convention when I had eight other authors in-town whom I was responsible for as the "mystery captain"), but I do recall my mother looking at me and shaking her head. "You have to go with the flow sometimes," she told me. "Not everything’s in your hands."

Okay, I know, I know.

But there’s something inside me that wants to plan everything in excruciating detail. Then I worry about those details, whether anything will go wrong, and what I’ll do if it does. If I didn’t have anything to angst over, I’d make something up.

I asked my mom if I’d been like this forever–because it feels like it–or if I’d just gotten worse since becoming published six years ago, which gave me a whole new set of things to fret over.

She assured me I’d been a Type A my whole life. It wasn’t anything new. Was probably ingrained in my DNA, so I’d had no control over it. Dang it. Hate when that happens.

I even projected my perfectionism on others. If I were going to do things right, I figured they should do things right, too. Which meant I was a tad judgmental, very critical of myself and almost as critical of others, particularly those closest to me.

That’s a harsh way to live. Not very comfortable for myself or anyone around me.

Thank goodness, I turned 40. A very magical number, as it turned out. Something about it seemed to change everything inside me, piece by piece, and I’m not sure of how or why. I’m just glad it happened.

It didn’t seem magical at first, though. I kicked off the year by hitting the road to promote THE GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO MURDER. Only, before I left for the airport for my first out-of-town gig, I had chest pains. Really constricting and uncomfortable, like a vise around my rib cage, so I could only breathe shallowly (which made me want to breathe deeply all the more).

I managed to get through everything with a smile on my face, though I told a close friend I was having a heart attack. She was sure it was anxiety. "You always do too much," she told me. "You put so much pressure on yourself." I didn’t want to believe she was right. But I knew she was.

When I got home, I saw my doctor, who didn’t find anything physically wrong except an irregular heartbeat caused by stress, nothing that required medication. It was a wake-up call.

"You’re way too stressed, Susan," she said. "How about you start taking care of yourself? Get a massage now and then. Take a day off. Start drinking."

Start drinking?

After the visit, I did buy a six-pack of Sam Adams to fulfill that prescription, and I went over what we’d discussed. I realized I didn’t take time for myself. I worked like a maniac, never allowing myself the chance to slow down. I had no clue how to relax. So I decided I’d do things differently. I wouldn’t wear a watch unless I needed to be on time for an appointment. I set up a series of reflexology massages at a day spa. I slowly but surely developed a new mind-set that nothing was worth getting an ulcer over. I said "yes" to friends whom I’d put off because I was too busy. I began eating healthier and working out more. It was like starting over again.

"It’s never too late to be what you might have been."–George Eliot

Flash forward six months.

I feel fabulous. No more chest pains. I sleep like a baby whereas I’d never slept for more than four hours straight in years. I still worry about things I can’t control, but I’m so much calmer than I was. Had a flat tire on my car when I got back from four days away, and I hardly flinched. Had a room next-door to a suite of partying guests from a wedding during my East Coast trip, and I didn’t sleep a wink. Mentioned the problem to the front desk the next morning and got upgraded to the Club Level with free health club access, a couple mornings of free buffet breakfast, and a much larger room. Making lemonade out of lemons. Geez, it seems so easy. Before, I would’ve spent so much energy being upset that I couldn’t have enjoyed anything.

"You’re getting much better," my mom said yesterday. "You don’t freak out as much."

Maybe it’s growing up, or opening my eyes and finally seeing what’s important. Trying to put perspective on things and actually changing my priorities instead of just thinking about doing it. I’ve realized, too, who my friends are, and I’m lucky to have plenty of good ones. I want to look at the positive side of life, instead of fixating on the negative. I’m making progress. I feel freer, less knotted up inside.

I’m hoping, as my deadline for Book Four (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEB) looms closer, that I can remember to breathe when I’m writing. That I don’t let crunch-time give me chest pain.

I know I can’t rid my life of all the things that cause me stress. That’s impossible. But if I can pinpoint what makes me craziest and learn how to deal with that–or avoid it–I’m on the right track.

I’m re-reading THE FOUR AGREEMENTS by Don Miguel Ruiz, because it offers some great (and simple) insights into "self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering." One of those in particular, the second agreement, is hardest for me to follow. It’s about not taking things personally, realizing that when people say nasty things about you and they’re not close friends or family who really know who you are, then it’s not about you, it’s about them. If you take it personally, you’re basically agreeing with whatever was said and you’re allowing that poison to run through you. I love this passage:

"Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world."

Sure, it’s self-help gobbledygook, but it makes perfect sense. The only people whose opinions matter to me are those I care about.

I don’t know if any of us can ever really change who we are, but it’s nice to think we can tinker with ourselves–tweak parts of our lives the same way we tweak words to make our books as good as they can be--and end up better for it.

So I’m wondering if any of y’all have ways to de-stress that really work for you, mantras you repeat, quotes you love, or anything that helps you face life more positively.

The Book Tarts have been discussing healthy ways to handle negativity, whether from people or events out of our control. I suggested a voodoo doll that we can rename as necessary and pass around, complete with very sharp pins. Harley mentioned Krav Maga classes for everyone. Sarah skipped out of the country before she could answer. I think it was Nancy who wanted to use her Dyson as a weapon. Whacking things with an expensive vacuum definitely sounds like a stress-reliever to me.




Susan, I could tell you the guy's prescription for just about whatever ails you, especially stress. On the other hand, I don't know you well enough to tell you what I really would suggest (hint: it doesn't involve me), and I wouldn't post it here even if I did know you well enough.

Josh, you don't have to say a word. ;-)

I wonder what you two are talking about. Hmmmm...

I like that part about what others do/say is not about me but about them! I think we all tend to be self-centered and feel responsible if someone doesn't like us or seems standoffish (This happens alot in the NW) It's called Seattle N(ice) where people are friendly on the surface but that is as far as it ever gets. Having grown up in NJ, MI and Southern Cali I don't get the surface thing. It was not how I was raised. We knew all our neighbors and we all hung out at each other's houses. Even tho I know this is how people are up here sometimes my self doubt gets the best of me.

I have also had a time in my life where everything was outta control~~my son got sick and died, my grandma died same day, my hubby was unemployed, my mom died a year after my son, we had to declare bankruptcy and we had to move. After dealing with all this in my early to mid thirties I have a clear view of my priorities. It's not about the car, the clothes, the income, a perfect body. It's about family and friends and for me, God. When my kids, being teens, mess with my head I can ignore quite a bit of it because I know it's not a huge deal. They are doing things for themselves.

I still have alot of stress~dh just lost his job (4th time in 18 years, poor guy, all lay offs.), my 14yo and my 16yo are home from school, I was hoping to start college this fall but it will have to wait, I've been at home for 17 and have no clue who I want to be when I grow up. None of this worries me too much. I don't get massages but I do take time for me. I laugh at idiots in traffic because if they make me mad they win. So not worth it. My motto lately is appreciate what you have right now.

Oh I forgot an extremely important thing~~HUMOR! One must have humor!

Voodoo dolls sound really good!
No seriously I try to limit anything that stresses me out. Luckily I only have to see the ex four times a month--just kidding but humor is a definite must. As a single mom I do a lot for the kids so I make sure I do for me too like getting my haircut regular, the occasional pedicure or massage and treating myself to my fave places to eat when the kids aren't around. I prize my alone time because I don't get much.

I love sitting out in the back yard to write--its' very quiet and i can watch the cats birdchase and listen to the world go by. And of course, there's voodoo dolls.

Janice, geez! You've been through enough stressful situations for three people. Sense of humor is vital, for sure. I don't know how anyone survives without one. "Appreciate what you have right now" is a great motto. I might have to steal it from you.

Cece, I'm doing pedicures now instead of massages...but I think any way we can pamper ourselves every now and then is a good thing. Even seeking out peace and quiet to write gives us sanity. I know writing is cathartic for me. I exorcise a lot of demons and get rid of pent-up emotions in my books.

Susan~sometimes God needs to smack certain people upside the head.........LOL. I have a history of learning the hard way. No really, everyone goes through stuff I just did a bunch of it at the same time. I do know many people are worse off than I am or was. I have 2 healthy smart ass teens, a husband who supports me (most of the time), my health, a roof over my head and lots of support on and offline. Every now and again I look around me and say this is good. Now if I can survive the teenage years without losing all my brain cells there is hope for me.

I also have books. A great escape and learning tool. A great big thanks to Gutenberg!!!!!

So tell me, are pedicures really relaxing? That's my next thing to try. :)

Janice, YES, pedicures are relaxing. Well, the kind I get, which is called a "classic" at the Face & Day Spa. They soak your feet in a whirlpool while you sit in a comfy massage chair (aahhhhh!). It's not the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am pedicure you get in the mall. So check around at salons and see what they offer. This is half the price of a massage, though, and it feels damn good to have your feet rubbed, sloughed, lotioned and pampered. Plus, your toes look so danged purty by the time you leave! ;-)

I love that you said "I have a history of learning the hard way," because I feel like that's me, too! Which is why some of my posts here are often so "Susan Does Self-Improvement"--ah, well, better that than not wanting to fix things and make my life even more enjoyable than it already is, right? Hey, it keeps things interesting!

I have found that exercise in general, and my martial arts practice in particular, are enormously helpful -- both in keeping low-level stress in check and in dealing with the BIG stuff when it happens anyway. Working on kata is a kind of meditation and lends itself to several different styles of energy work. Kicking and punching are wonderful -- not for "taking out my aggression", but for demanding complete and total focus and concentration to the exclusion of everything else. At worst, I get a stress-free period and a good workout. At best, excluding the stressors for the duration of the drills makes them seem a lot less important (if they're not vanished altogether) when I'm done.

My most useful mantras have been the following...
Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.
(meaning that if something is worth doing, it doesn't matter if you aren't perfect at it)

Failure is not final. (meaning obvious)


Jeanne, that's a good mantra. I heard another one I'm going to adopt. I think it was Eunice Shriver who said, in their family, the rule was, "Do the best you can and then screw it." Well, it was close to that, but I love the idea that we can only control our part. The rest, we've gotta let go. I'm getting good at avoidance, too, taking poisonous people off my radar and pretending they don't exist. It really works.

The comments to this entry are closed.

The Breast Cancer Site