Sunday, March 27, 2011

Seeking Calm

I slipped out of the science fair at Oscar and Ruby’s school the other night and hesitantly walked across the street to the Buddhist monastery that sits on the opposite corner.  The sounds of children playing on the blacktop in a brief moment of respite from the unrelenting rain followed me up the steps, fading only slightly as the monastery door closed softly behind me.  I slipped off my rain-soaked silver flats and walked barefoot into the crowded meditation hall.  Most of the chairs in the back were filled with blanket-wrapped figures sitting erect and gazing calmly toward the front of the temple. Some were already deep into their breathing, eyes closed, face muscles relaxed. A few cushions remained on the floor at the front of the hall but I opted for a more inconspicuous pew up in the balcony and settled onto a round brown cushion for the forty-minute sit. I straightened my spine, relaxed my shoulders, and let my eyelids close. I focused on my breathing, following my breath in through my nostrils, feeling it fill my chest. But long before I got to exhale, thought after thought popped into my head. I returned to my breath and tried again. And again.

This was my first experience with meditation.

The most recent bout of anxiety that led me to this meditation hall started in Hawaii last month.  It crashed through the soothing sounds of breaking waves and trade wind breezes and woke me in the wee hours with jittery legs and diarrhea.  It did not subside when we returned home to California.  It did not subside after our mediation meeting with the school district.  It only worsened when the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and increased again when speculation about radiation possibly reaching the west coast hit the blogs of trusted medical professionals.  And when I noticed the black crumbly debris covering our bush after last week’s epic hailstorm I feared it was tainted with toxic fibers from our dilapidated asbestos-shingled roof.  And then I really panicked. 

I know my reaction to all of these events was excessive, unwarranted, crazy even, but there was nothing I could do to stop the circling thoughts and the early morning retching.  There just seem to be times, I’m realizing, when I am unable to ward off the fears that fuel my anxiety.

I am reminded in these vulnerable periods of a presentation slide I’ve seen at Prader-Willi conferences. Dr. Gourash and Dr. Forster of the Pittsburgh Partnership talk about how people with Prader-Willi syndrome lack a sufficient “environmental buffer” to cope with daily life stresses and this leads to increased anxiety and behavioral outbursts. The slide shows a typical person’s environmental buffer as a wide ring around a smiley face.  Lightning bolts of stress are hitting, but not permeating, the ring, and the face in the middle is still smiling. In the drawing representing a person with PWS, the lightning bolts easily permeate the narrow environmental buffer and the figure in the middle is frowning in distress. 

I talk about this slide all the time with people who work with Oscar. We help Oscar compensate for his narrow environmental buffer by reducing the stressors in his life as much as possible.  We follow a consistent food routine so he can count on meals at certain times and has no hope of getting any more food. We don’t talk about events (trips, grandparent visits, blood draws) too far in advance because the anticipatory excitement or dread, it doesn’t matter which, is highly stressful.  We rarely give details about anything, just in case things change and expectations cannot be met.  So many of Oscar’s questions are fielded with the same familiar response: “Mommy and Daddy have a ‘plan’. No need to worry about that O-man.”  When Oscar is particularly stress-sensitive we spend a lot of time in pre-emptive stress reduction mode. 

But I’m a supposedly typical person with a supposedly wider environmental buffer.  Somehow, though, those lightning bolts are getting in. I used to have far more internal resources to manage fears and cope with stress but right now those resources are low.  I think years and years of parenting and advocating for a child with a disability has worn holes in my protective band.  I think always anticipating and diffusing stressors for Oscar has alerted me to stress in new ways.  I think the fear of even more medical circumstances entering our daily lives has me on the lookout for any hint of disaster I might be able to fend off.  And of course I’m no longer naïve to the ways in which life can change in an instant. 

Whatever the cause of my heightened anxiety, I do know I don’t want to live this way.  I can’t live this way. I’m off anti-depressants now but I do take a tiny bit of anti-anxiety medication before bed. I’ve returned to yoga. And now I'm trying meditation.  But as I left the crowded monastery after the sit and the dharma talk, I was doubtful that I would return.  I couldn’t focus on my breathing for more than two breaths. The hall was crowded. My bare feet, chilled from the rain when I arrived, were now numb. My throat tickled from the incense. And the whole event took two precious hours I thought I couldn’t spare.

But when I arrived home my head was clearer. I was still aware of the piles of paperwork, unanswered emails, upcoming medical appointments, and stressful education decisions ahead, but instead of becoming anxious I was focused, and calm.


I sat for a moment and breathed in that precious calm and decided that perhaps I will return to the meditation group next week after all. This time I’ll bring socks.


Mary blogs about raising Oscar, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, and two other awesome kids over at Finding Joy in Simple Things.



  1. Oh, please keep going. I know this practice will help you. While one part of me was nodding at your post, nodding in recognition, the other part was admonishing -- admonishing myself that I haven't meditated of late and perhaps that's why things are going so haywire. This post resonated with me and inspires me. Thank you, Mary. And I wish you many fruitful, peaceful, mindful moments of meditation.

  2. Mary, this is such a beautifully written post. I am also trying to meditate more. I am comforted by the soothing and natural calming aspects of breathing deeply and clearing my mind. I have to try very hard to stop my racing thoughts and I am not always successful...but it's a start. Thank you again for such a heartfully written and lovely post.

  3. Dear Mary, thank you for this honest post. Meditation is always a struggle for me, but the more I read about it, the more normal I see that is. Everyone has thoughts, and they continue to arise and arrive. I think it's the way we learn to gently let them go which is part of the healing effect of meditation. But I don't "enjoy" it. Life is already full of such practice! Maybe that's why it's important.
    I also wonder if a lot of the world isn't suffering from heightened anxiety now. If you pay attention to any news media, the message is nearly always impending disaster. I don't believe that humans are made for that kind of constant, depressing message. In the old days, we would only know about what was happening right in our area - or at least, we wouldn't hear about the other things until they were long past. There was no feeling of "I should be able to help!" or pressure to fix what is going on way outside of my area of influence and expertise. I think this is part of our anxiety.
    Another part, I think, is that the media are selling "bad news" intentionallly to get us to watch, so they can make money. PURELY for money. That makes me angry, so I rarely watch the news anymore - I read, and I filter. But I feel anxious, too, more than I used to.
    Another thing I've heard is that heightened anxiety comes with menopause, which I'm in - but maybe you aren't. =) I hope you are encouraged and that you know you are not alone. Blessings to you!

  4. Reading this, I remember the anxiety when my son was hospitalized for months. I got to the point where I was so stressed and anxious I couldn't even draw a deep breath. A massage opened me up enough to breathe. Then I went to a yoga class. I had a similar experience, not feeling like the class was doing much for me, but I was amazed at how quiet my head was as I walked out. For the first time in weeks (month?), there was stillness, no thoughts and worries whirling, spinning, constantly turning. I hope meditation continues to help you quiet the anxiety.

  5. You don't have to go to a group to meditate. If it is too much, and too cold...a locked bedroom or bathroom,(or closet) will do! Headphones are good. Or a private study room at the library for five or twenty minutes. Any little bit helps. When we think we don't have time to do it, is usually when we can't afford not to.
    I'm still learning this.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement everyone. I have continued to practice (and boy does it feel like practicing!) on my own at home. I think I need both the group and the individual experience in order to embed this into my daily life.
    Elizabeth -- thank you! It took a whole lot of haywire to get me motivated to even try. I'm hoping I learned my lesson! My guess is though that this is a lesson I will have to continue to re-learn. I'd say not to admonish yourself, but I do the same. Working on it...
    Lisa -- thank you! Another friend of mine (mom of a kid with PWS) suggested we consider a session about meditation at our state conference. Given all the research around parental stress and PWS it might be a good idea. We so often concentrate on ways to manage our kids' stress but not our own. I'm glad you find it useful too!
    Karen -- I am encouraged to know I am not alone -- thank you! I agree with so much of what you say about another thing to practice and the role of the media. I've often had the thought that the ability to share info so easily does have some serious downsides for me (along with its many positives). And I don't watch TV news either for the same reasons.
    Sara -- thanks for sharing your experience from the hospital - I know that was a really difficult time. I didn't really know about the benefits of yoga or meditation when Oscar was born/diagnosed but I remember the incredible anxiety of those weeks in the hospital. The fact that yoga helped clear your mind further motivates me to think of it not as a luxury, as I have been, but a necessity.
    Michelle - You are so right that when we think we don't have time is exactly when we can't afford not to. Your reminder of that has motivated me a couple of times this week, so thank you!

  7. Oh Mary, I can relate to this anxiety so much, and now you've convinced me--I need to start meditating. Running has had that mind-clearing effect on me, but I haven't been able to run due to injuries, and I think it's taken a greater toll than I realized. I'll try meditation and see if I can get some of that balance back. Thank you, as always, for your beautiful, honest words. You make a huge difference in my life.

  8. Mary,
    So, sometimes things come to us for a reason. I needed this today. I was awake most of the night..thinking..mulling things over...meditating perhaps? Not the perfect time for it..and I am so exhausted today. I can't catch a moment during the day to think, I've got too much on my list to accomplish today (everyday). I am filled with anxiety, it's part of who I am. It was there before PWS entered the scene, now magnified a thousand times over. My son is almost eight, he also has PWS. His sub-type is UPD. I joke about this all the time, because the poor kid has too much of me!!! I must find a copy of the presentation from Dr. Gourash & Dr. Forster. I was just thinking this morning about my little guy, and how the real world collides with his world every minute of his day. Thanks for your post!