“The more I do this deal called life, the more I realize that it isn’t about the things that happen to you, the good things or the bad things, but rather how you show up and react in the world that counts.”
– Insight of an old-timer shared at a 12-step meeting
Great teachers and spiritual guides come in all shapes, sizes and packages. My greatest teacher is my 10-month-old daughter. She has yet to utter her first word but possesses an uncanny ability to speak directly to my soul – that untouchable place where true understanding resides. How is it that this child, through her mere existence, can teach me more about myself and the nature of being than I ever hoped to know?
Worry has been a constant companion in my life and an inherited trait as far as I’m concerned. My mother and her father can worry with the best of them – falsely predicting life’s unpredictables with remarkable steadfastness. At its core, anxiety is the paralyzing combination of an intolerance for uncertainty and a fear that one lacks the capacity to face uncertain events. Worry is the sick way we fool ourselves into thinking we are somehow doing something about uncertainty or manipulating the uncontrollable nature of our destinies. Worry typically begins with a thought, “what if….” What if I am dying of an incurable disease? What if I lose my job? What if my husband dies? What if I lose my baby? The snowballing of these thoughts can lead to some pretty twisted thinking and emotional anguish. I consider myself to be an expert worrier.
There was the brain tumor scare of 2001. I would stare at my pupils in my college dorm room mirror for hours on end, convinced that one was larger than the other, which obviously indicated my death was imminent. In 2003, I was convinced I had a heart disorder and wore a halter monitor for 48 hours, only to be told by my general physician that I was anxious. After I gave birth to my daughter, I actually had an MRI of my brain because I was convinced, beyond a doubt, that I had multiple sclerosis. Turns out I was extremely sleep deprived and therefore twitching, fatigued and forgetful. The kind and patient neurologist did a side-by-side comparison of the 2001 and the 2011 brain scans to put my fears at ease.
When my husband meets his friends for a drink on a Friday night, I inevitably begin to worry that he won’t make his way home safely. Keep in mind that he is a very responsible father and husband and has not given me reason to doubt his ability to manage his own life. The “what if” thinking begins and pretty soon I envision myself at his funeral with our small daughter, I begin writing his eulogy in my head and imagine I am too heartbroken to deliver it when the time comes, I see Lulu reaching out for him and myself running to the bathroom to hide my despair from her, I tell her stories of her father and wrap myself in the smells of his clothes at night. I will never remarry. I will never move on. I wonder if I can extract sperm from his body at the scene of the accident so that Lulu can have a sibling and won’t have to be alone in her grief.
My worries are too numerous and many of them too insignificant to list. I am driven by a thousand forms of fear. At the top of this list are fears about my daughter’s health and well-being. Perhaps my gaga-goo-goo guru knew that to teach me about the futility of worry, the lesson plan would have to incorporate a kinesthetic teaching approach. I have always been a hands-on learner.
This past Sunday night, Lulu started behaving strangely. Around 7:00 pm, she became fussy and was drooling A LOT. I thought she must be cutting a new tooth. By 8:00 pm, she was becomingly increasingly stressed and was having a hard time lying face-up on her changing table. She kept trying to sit up and was making a weird gulping noise. By 9:00 pm, she was inconsolably crying and trying to cough which was obviously painful. Her cry was alarming because it was as though someone pushed a mute button. She was hoarse and no sound escaped when she screamed. I called my husband to come home from work and we stood with her in a steamy bathroom. She eventually calmed down and fell asleep on my chest in her rocker, but her breathing sounded labored and kind of wheezy. We called the pediatrician and ended up in the ER by 10:30 pm. By 1:30 am, my daughter had a breathing tube inserted and by 3:30 am, she was being transported via ambulance to the University of Iowa Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Lulu was diagnosed with Epiglottitis, a very rare condition in which a virus attacks the Epiglottis and can cause such severe swelling in the neck that the airway closes.
We spent four days in the ICU and are now home with a happy and healthy baby. How, you may ask, could this experience make me less anxious? Watching our daughter struggle to breathe and having to let her go with strangers into an operating room to be intubated was the most terrifying moment of my life and shattered any illusions I have about being in control in this world. Powerlessness defined.
To think of the time and energy I have spent worrying about what might go wrong. Never in a million years could I have predicted Epiglottitis. I had never heard of it before Sunday! Similarly, I could not predict that my Aunt would die of ALS or that my sweet niece would be diagnosed with Type I diabetes at 7-years-old. I have no control over what is going to happen to me or to the people I love most in this world. I do have control over how I show up in this world.
I have spent a large part of my adult life ruminating over the wreckage of the past or projecting tragedy into a future that has yet to unfold. When everything happened with Lulu, I saw myself walking a road. In a moment of clarity, I realized that I have walked my path always straining to see the ever-changing horizon, mentally absorbed in the danger that might await me there. Regret, anxiety, worry, fear – these emotions remove me from the present and prohibit me from both enjoying the path at my feet and dealing with immediate certainties with true awareness and serenity.
I am powerless. I have no power to predict the future. Worrying about the future only serves to distract me from the present. When I am not present, I am actually more vulnerable to life’s uncertainties because I am so wrapped up in my melodramatic thinking that I can’t see what’s right in front of my face. Be present. Be still. Enjoy life. Play. Have faith that in the moment of uncertainty, you will have the necessary tools to face life on life’s terms. These are the lessons that my daughter taught me this week.
My first sponsor used to say, “wait until the miracle happens.” Sunday was my miracle. The gifts of a 12-step program, both sobriety from alcohol and the slow alteration of years of fear-based thinking, are the reason I was able to be present with my daughter on Sunday. I was keenly aware of her distress and able to respond to her calmly and quickly. In the emergency room and at the hospital, I was strangely peaceful and collected and focused on her needs. I shudder to think of how this could have turned out had I been actively drinking. I fear I would have put her in bed and not responded to her muted cries. I have an overwhelming sense that my sobriety saved her life.
God, I fucking love her. Thank you, my tiny little teacher. I promise Mommy heard you loud and clear. I will stay in the day with you. I will not let fear drive my life and remove me from the beauty and splendor of the present moment.
I look forward to a lifetime of learning from you. I would appreciate it very much if ventilators and feeding tubes are not part of future lesson plans.