Hanging On: the Ugly Truth about Stress

Image Credit: 118010914 © Alexey Poprotskiy | Dreamstime.com

I have this bad habit of internalizing stress. Last year I got shingles after dislocating my shoulder. I had acute abdominal pain I swore was cancer. (All the tests came back fine). When I’ve had a lot of stress, my immune system takes a hit, and I end up with blisters on my eye. Sexy, right? This is the image I don’t usually share on my blog.

These psychosomatic issues make me feel like I’m crazy. It is literally my body tearing itself apart over worries in my head. I’ve been listening to the audiobook “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, and it scares the shit out of me. I know I need to work on my mindset, so the piranhas in my genetic pool don’t eat me alive.

Balance is hard for me. I see sunshine and rainbows or fire and brimstone, with not much in-between. I’ve often coped with my brimstone days by using alcohol or sex or exercise or eating. Now that I’m abstaining from both sex and alcohol, I turn to food. It is disordered on both ends of the scale. Either I’m vigilantly controlling myself by inhaling nothing but veggies, or I’m in bed, binging netflix along with my chips and cookies.

It is new territory for me, to cope with intense feelings in a healthy way. The Taurus in me longs to be balanced and grounded. I know the steps needed to get there, but it is fucking hard. Challenges have never stopped me before, but telling my body that is a different story. I struggle to do things I know will empower me like making phone calls, taking time to meditate, go for a run, making time for friends.

I recently saw a meme about the butterfly effect. You know, how people will go back in time and change one little thing that impacts the future. The point was that what we do NOW impacts our future. 2025 Keri needs me to take steps towards that balanced life she deserves. She wants have joy and love and to be able to face intense emotions, good or bad, head-on. Hell, 2021 Keri wants those things too.

There is another meme circulating about starting a new life in a new place. We tend to think of starting over as a clean slate. The thing is, when you move, you have to rummage around the old apartment and figure out what to keep and what to discard. It’s not really a fresh start if you transport unopened boxes from one basement to another.

Last week at the gym, I climbed to the top of the rope a few times. I had the upper body strength to do it, but keeping the rope in the right place between my feet was the hard part. I had learned it differently. It felt weird to try it a new way. My feet kept automatically going into a place where the rope would easily slip. I wore myself out practicing it the right way. It is incredibly hard to do something right when you’ve been doing it wrong for years. Lucky are the people who learn it right the first time. I have a new start, but I have to unlearn a few things. Unpack all the boxes. Take time to practice doing things right. If I don’t, I’ll never slap the beam at the top. I’ll never declutter my basement.

I’ve been dreaming about Mike lately. It’s probably because we just passed another of his birthdays without him. I distracted myself from it. Didn’t think about it. Normally I make a carrot cake in his honor, but with my kitchen under construction, I could not. I didn’t deal with the grief. I stayed in bed. I felt numb. In the most recent dream, Mike came home after a long deployment. It was awkward because we both knew we’d had problems. He was across the room, and there was so much I wanted to say to him, but all I said was a sheepish, “Hey.” He hugged me and smiled and told me what I had said was perfect. Keep it simple. Secure the rope between your feet and climb. Open the box you’ve moved five times.

My new kitchen makes me very happy

Despite my brain fog, I’ve been trying to do things I know should make me happy. I had an awesome game of Monopoly with the kids, and for the first time in my life, I won. I also reached out to friends I knew had emotional space for me. I laughed through the pain on a video chat with one of my best friends from high school. I messaged another who has her own soul-eating stress going on. I arranged a phone call with another friend, and when I flaked, he called me. I truly value these frienships. Friends who have been through some shit. Friends who know that “leave me alone I’m lonely” feeling (to quote Pink). Friends who make good on their open-invitations to my life.

A historic event: winning Monopoly!

It feels nearly impossible to banish the negative self-talk when I’m battling an eye infection. I look at my swollen lid in the mirror and think, “Where’s the rockstar? Where did she go?” I lose motivation to do anything. Showering. Cooking. Exercising. Posting happy pictures on social media. I can’t feel anything other than a warm blanket of malaise. I repeat the positives like mantras, hoping they will sink in. Hoping I’ll reignite the spark that lights my soul.

It will happen. This feeling is temporary — I know that from history.

As I edit this post a day after writing, the fog is lifting. I thought to delete this entire thing. People like success stories, after all. Who wants to see me when I’m down? I feel like a failure when I’m weak. An attention seeker. It bothers me that when I’m in that noxious cloud, I can’t share anything on social media. I try, but I can never hit “post.”

Maybe some of you can identify. Life, especially life in 2020, is a nightmare. We are continually picking ourselves up by the bootstraps, and it’s fucking exhausting. It almost feels wrong to seek happiness in such times. But always in my mind is the fact that Mike died at age 53. If I only had six years left on this planet, how would I want to spend it? For me, the answer is simple: happy.

And that’s what I’m reaching for.

It’s hard, but to build the life I want, I have to do things outside my comfort zone. Tonight I’m joining a group of people I’ve never met, so I can practice my German. (2025 Keri is fluent). I’m awkward in social situations. It’s even worse if I don’t have a glass of wine in hand. I have to practice being myself without liquid courage. I’m joining random meetups in my new town. To put myself out there, despite my swollen eye. It’s a big step for me, but it’s the right way to get to where I want to be.

Eventually, I won’t have to think so hard about where my feet go. The rope will slide into place, and I can climb.

American expat in Germany, formerly conservative homeschool mom now navigating widowhood; runner, writer, Crossfitter, trying to figure **it out