Jolted awake by our dad with that exclamation, I would sit up and groggily look out the window. There was nothing there. What was I missing? The other cars on the highway? The city street that could have been anywhere? The dead trees? The empty farmland? The office buildings?
– “What? What are we missing?” I’d ask.
– “This!” He’d reply.
– “All of it!”
– “…umm….(insert sounds of crickets in my head here as I took a long look at the mundane scene outside my window)… ok, Dad.”
Whatever, Dad… Giving my head a little shake, I’d just rest my head back on the car door and drift off to sleep again.
We did tons of road trips as a family when we were kids. Not really sure what I was ever expecting to see exactly, but it never seemed to be what waited for me outside the window as we drove for hours on end.
My dad could have driven for days without stopping if we ‘d let him. And it seems I’ve inherited that gene – once I’m on the road, it’s hard to stop! Within the last 2.5 weeks, I’ve driven over 7000kms. The longest stretch was the last one from Des Moines to Toronto (a very long 13 hour day). But, all that time on the road has given me new perspective and understanding to what he was saying.
Finally getting it
For all intents and purposes, it was a pretty boring drive. There’s a reason very few people road trip the northern middle United States in March: there’s nothing there. And what is there, is still dead from the winter’s cold. But, if I hadn’t been awake to see it all… well, I guess I would have crashed and this would be a very different blog entry…
But, you know what I mean… if I hadn’t been completely mentally present (or ‘awake‘) to take everything in, including all that boring stuff, then I wouldn’t have fully appreciated the great and amazing things I would see along the way, even if only small and seemingly insignificant.
Things such as great random signs posted on the farmlands of Iowa like ‘Smile! Your parents chose life!’. Or, the awesome traffic signs over the highway in Michigan.
Or, the dozens of trucks carrying wind turbine blades – looking like something out of science fiction. Or, how storm clouds on the horizon turn various grapefruit hues as the sun makes its presence known at dawn. Or, the strange beauty of miles of golden fields polka-dotted with large wind turbines all moving at slightly different rhythms creating a strange circular ballet.
Yes, Dad, I took it all in…
Sleeping through life
The extended alone time while driving also means you have time to think. A lot. About all kinds of things. And sometimes some great realizations. For me, it was realizing that what my dad was saying applies so much to dealing with my anxiety. It has me ‘sleeping’ through life in a way. Never really paying attention to what’s happening in the moment right in front of you, I’m constantly worried about so much of what’s out of my control: other people’s perceptions of me or other people’s enjoyment of the experience.
Crazy. I know.
But with anxiety, my mind is constantly noisy with examining everything I’ve said (e.g. that was stupid or was it funny enough?) to anticipating what I’m going to say (e.g. will it be stupid or can I be funny?) to thinking about how my body is placed and what expressions my face is making to wondering if the experience being had is the best it can be or as meaningful to the other person as it is to me.
It often feels overwhelming with all the stuff swirling around in my head. For the most part, I’ve become so accustomed to it that it’s more like white noise. Something that I can put on a different layer, or frequency, in my thoughts and go about my day. I have become adept at multi-tasking the simple everyday scenarios. But, it can still be exhausting when I go home at the end of the day. In recent years, I’ve even gotten better at shutting it off altogether but it’s still what would be considered a rare occasion.
At its worst, though, the noise creates a thick mental fog that doesn’t let you focus on anything. You’re going through motions, and perhaps even being charming, but you’re missing the essence of the experience; that stuff that would become a memory.
My most severe anxiety comes when I think of being a burden on people, ruining their day somehow, not meaning anything to people or somehow disappointing them. Always uncertain if I’m ‘worth’ anything to the people around me or worthy of their time and attention. Hence, it is still at its worst around family. There’s an inherent pressure with family to make worthwhile memories and to be someone of meaning, or importance, in their lives – and most certainly not a burden or disappointment.
The anxiety is a sort of expectation to be perfect – or at least not screwed up. Which also means that life never feels like it’s ‘measuring up’. You somehow always feel like the experience you’re having is falling short. Of what? Well, who knows really… some expectation concocted in your head of what the ideal scenario is supposed to be (i.e. more fun, more meaningful, more romantic, more daring, etc); the ideal person you were supposed to be (i.e. funnier, wittier, smarter, faster, etc).
Clearing the fog
But when I really wake up and calm my anxieties, the moment I’m having (as simple as it may be) IS the best memory that can be created. Like just having a quiet afternoon colouring next to my niece and nephew. The kids were talking and telling me small things about their days and their friends. They were laughing at each other’s silliness and sharing compliments on the colours they’d chosen.
I came close to giving myself a hard time that I wasn’t being a very cool or fun aunt. We weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary for them and they were probably not going to remember this. But, I will certainly remember it. It was nothing flashy. And it was really good.
My anxieties also came close to ruining a fantastic ski day with my brother. I was so concerned with holding my brother back in the bowls or taking too much time going to get rental skis or not having enough to say on the chairlift and at lunch time, just to name a few. But, with his help and patience, I was able to shake away the overwhelming and stifling fog that had built up in my head, take a deep breath and wipe away the tears. (Just in time too since my goggles were starting to freeze to my face!) I relaxed and woke up to what was right in front of me. And, thankfully, it was not just a boring empty field this time. It was a day of awesome knee-deep fluffy powder and spectacular sunshine at Vail. It was amazing!
So, from now on when my anxiety rises, I will try to jolt myself awake – just like Dad used to: Wake up, Julie! You’re missing it!