“Take my advice—I’m not using it.” I can tell you to keep calm. I might insist that you keep calm. But as someone who can introduce stress into the least stressful, sweetly innocuous, and even pleasant experiences in life, when I am confronted with the parts of life that others find truly stressful, I hunker down and find the effort deep inside myself to make them yet more stressful.
In one of my lesser achievements in the field of stress management, I gave myself a black eye while tying my shoes. These were boots with leather laces (I am not a cowboy) and such laces take a little effort to yank into position. While securing my “half-knot” on my right shoe, the length of lace in my left hand broke and I clocked myself in the right eye. At the time, I was 34 years old, not eleven.
One of my co-workers asked, “I’m not sure I ought to say anything, but are you okay?”
“You look like you were in a fight or something.”
“Heh. Funny story, I did this to myself this morning. Heh.” Embarrassed, I mumbled a series of words that had no real connections between them in order to sound like I was speaking a sentence or two: New laces. Not leather ones. Store tonight. Need some. Because I lived alone and was nominally an adult, my friend did not call child protective services against me on my behalf.
But I was perpetually stressed out by that job, a completely stress-less employment (technical writer) in a stressful environment (it was a job, and all jobs can be stressful). I was a contract employee who had been taught that, for us contractors, “The last one hired is the first one fired,” and I was the last one hired in this office. Twice, a contractor was hired in my department (the “New Guy”), which afforded me the comfort of being the Not Last One Hired, but both times, the individual quit within days, which restored me to my place as Most Worried. Further, the head of the department who had gone on the hiring spree that had led to my employment was fired in front of us less than a year after I moved to the job. Under these circumstances, in which every week at work was “grueling,” you’d give yourself a black eye tying your boots, too.
In RealityLand, it is usually the employee who can not relax who finds him or herself let go. It amazes me how much one can accomplish with almost no confidence in oneself. I held that job for four years, but it felt just like four.
In those years, I believe I was addicted to being in perpetual and slight fear all the time, because I had a method for relieving stress that I trusted above all others, which presented a feeling of relief that sat on the pleasant side of the scale far more heavily than any stress sat on its side of the scale. The method is called vodka, and it is no longer a part of my world.
I have friends who have served in the military, friends who fought in hand-to-hand combat with enemies, and they report that when a person leaps from one serotonin-soaked event to another, one acquires an either/or outlook on life. They describe post-war life as one in which the soldier will either perceive everyone as an enemy, including the guy taking too long pouring himself coffee at the Qwik-Stop-‘n’-Go, or one in which he loves everyone and sees every human being as a fellow traveler on this big blue marble of ours. That’s the vet who hands the half-and-half to you at the coffee counter and then lets you step in front of him at the register.
So I am a stress-filled person, certainly not a soldier returning from a war zone, except, perhaps, the one in myself, but life presents me with obstacles and challenges like work, life, relationships, life, long journeys, life, ongoing tests, life. And life. Life is the one situation we never come back from.
I am, as I am with much else in life, an uneasy flyer. I am the airline passenger across the aisle from you with white knuckles and a clenched jaw. The only plane trips that have been not stressful for me have been the ones in which I struck up a conversation with my seat mate. The ones I remember most fondly are those in which I made a temporary best friend: A flight to Chicago in which my seat was switched on the plane from a seat surrounded by a family with three kids (making me the fourth) to a seat next to a woman who was also doing a crossword puzzle. A flight after 9/11 in which the entire plane got involved in a conversation about coming home to upstate New York and what we missed about living there. This approach to life works well on planes, in waiting rooms, on the coffee line. This approach to life works well in life.
When I remember I am a human being, I do not need to do anything to unwind or remind myself that I am human or to feel human. When I don’t, life is a grueling week of work spent on a plane flying me to a final exam that I have not studied for. It’s one broken shoelace after another.
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Much of this appeared in a column from last summer, “Stress.”
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