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.