I love to cook. Aside from slapping turkey pepperoni and low-fat cheese on wheat bread and telling Bug it is “pizza,” I do not cook anymore. I love to garden, but I planted nothing more than one patch of shriveled beans last year. I love to read, knit, camp in the mountains, write meandering letters to friends, wander through museums, and learn the names of the trees. Nevertheless, for two years, I have barely brushed the edges of any of these pleasures.
With bittersweet relief, I have watched dozens of activities recede into the horizon. By bidding them farewell, I am able to welcome the simple joys of the few pursuits proven to sustain me. Long walks, dancing, writing, and a smattering of friends fill the scarce pockets of time around the duties of work and home. The things I do for fun are easy. They require little planning and even less effort.
My objective is to wean myself from stress.
This may not sound revolutionary. The same repeating loop of advice comes at all of us from multiple fronts every day: sleep more, eat less, take the stairs, reduce stress. The last one is the toughest for me. I have lived on a steady diet of drive and self-improvement for my entire adult life. It is hard to imagine what a more serene existence might look like. The first thought is “dull.” I have equated minimal stress with laziness and low motivation for so long that I do not know how to disentangle these concepts from one another.
The knot is beginning to fall loose. The ghost hunters have helped.
Over the years, lovers of the paranormal have explored the high incidence of hauntings in Victorian homes during the turn of the century. Entire families would descend into a kind of eerie madness, hearing noises and seeing poltergeists. For the skeptics among us, it is easy to assume the family members shared a tendency towards suggestibility or psychosis. Strangely enough, though, visitors to the homes would begin to report frightening, other-worldy sensations after a few nights. This tended to happen during the dark winter months, and it was common enough to catch our attention more than a century later.
Was it a mass insanity? The power of suggestion? Opium?
Tightly sealed homes, fireplaces, gas light, and an overactive imagination can brew into a deadly cocktail. Curious historians and scientists are now beginning to zero in on carbon monoxide. We all absorb a dusting of CO along with the oft-maligned mercury, arsenic and lead as we plod along the surface of the earth. In miniscule doses, these naturally occurring chemicals are harmless. It takes a barely measurable increase in any of these to initiate bizarre neurological effects. A flood is not necessary to tip the balance into madness. A steady, overabundant trickle will do the trick.
It is called poisoning.
I consider stress equally malicious. Stress, or more accurately, cortisol, seeps into the body when the panicking brain activates a fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is useful when you turn the corner and see a saber-toothed tiger. That burst of energy taps instincts and helps prepare you to respond. After that initial surge, however, the ongoing flow becomes problematic. Besides the delightful health effects of overdosing on cortisol (high blood pressure, weight gain, brittle bones, weak immunity), cognitive function deteriorates. The mind suffers.
Cortisol’s effect on sleep is only marginally understood, but I can tell you from personal experience that stress-saturated dreams can look like a joint project between Salvador Dali and Edward Gorey. In waking hours, paranoia becomes a constant companion. Hypersensitivity crashes the party, dragging along self-destructive thoughts, flashes of rage and sorrow, and distorted social perception. A person can get lost in the funhouse, walking at angles, conversing with ghosts.
This joy ride is the result of a primal mechanism whose purpose is to protect us from becoming tiger kibble. I suppose it makes sense. The ones who outran the big cats are the ones who passed on this genetic legacy. As with so many other instincts, this does not serve us well in an industrial society full of self-imposed “threats.” The brain cannot differentiate between a predator and rush hour traffic. It responds to both as if survival is at stake. A few too many hours or years of low-level panic, and some of us begin to fray at the edges.
While my bone-rattling descent into single motherhood is a significant factor in my cortisol dependence, neither parents nor divorcees have a corner on the stress market. Most anyone works, pays bills, or lands in the checkout line behind the dude with the bad credit card knows the upending power of stress. However, too many of us walk around bathed in cortisol from sunup to sundown. Some continue to marinate in it all through the night.
I, for one, have reached my quota. I quit. If that Victorian mama found out that her family had been breathing deadly doses of an invisible toxin for two years, you can bet she would have called a time out, opened the windows, and gotten her charges to a soft place to recover.
It may be impossible to control pressures at work and with the kiddo, but I can make a determined effort to regulate my responses to them. Another thing I can do is turn the pencil over and start erasing. Remove that extra class from the calendar. Say “no” to the next invitation, no matter how much I like the friend making the offer. Forget about the bin of yarn under the bed, the library of cookbooks on my kitchen shelf, and the next round of birthdays. My only job now is to handle the few things required of me with grace, and release my grip on the rest.
As for those few precious hours I call my own? I may head to Glen Echo then leave before the second dance. I may decide to sleep in until noon then rise at dawn to for a quiet run. I may draw a bath then drain it so I can eat strawberries on the back porch. Anything I do in the next few months will be because it feels good. I have never tried this radical approach before. I figure it beats spiraling further into an epic battle with phantoms.
To heal from any overdose, the only option is to purify the system. Stretch out beneath the cleansing breeze and let it chase the demons from the blood. The air has been there all along. The only thing left is the choice to breathe it.