My Life With Anxiety: When the Lion Is in the Room

20 Jun

My grandmother used to say, “You were the most nervous baby I’ve ever seen.” My grandmother (who was a ferocious and elegant 90-pound lady, like Lillian Hellman and Lauren Bacall had a baby and dressed it in tasteful separates and a hair helmet, and oh God, I miss her so much) looked concerned when she said this, which never failed to aggravate my mother.

“You were a little undercooked,” she’d say. “You had a startle reflex. It had nothing to do with being ‘nervous.’ It was your actual nerves, trying to figure out what the hell was going on out here in the cold.”

I have a lot of faith in Ma Smash’s opinion on everything, but her medical advice is always spookily sound. (“It’s appendicitis,” she told the doctors, long before she had her nursing license and just before my appendix ruptured. “It’s thyroid disease,” she pronounced firmly, thirty years later, when my hair was thinning and I couldn’t lose weight.) Here, though, I wonder if it matters all that much. As a baby, I was either nervous or undercooked. The same could be said for me now. I’m still trying to figure out what the hell is going on, out here in the cold.

Anxious people and depressives are kindred spirits. Everyone secretly believes that if we’d just grow some stones, we could get over it. The truth, of course, is more complex: we can and we can’t, we want to and we don’t, we’re definitely biologically, physically ill, but on the other hand, it’s all in our heads. The doctors and therapists I like best don’t make a distinction: if I feel ill, then I’m ill.

For the most part, I prefer to endure my Victorian lady-nerves without the help of tonics. I feel very brave about this, even though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with better living through chemistry. I am, however, terrified of benzodiazepines. People who say they couldn’t get hooked on these are fooling themselves. Any time I’ve taken them for anything, about twenty minutes after swallowing the pill, I think, “Oh, that’s right: this is AWESOME.” And then I renew my pledge to a) not start taking benzos on a regular basis, and b) be kind to drug addicts, who obviously are the only people on earth with their priorities straight.

I’m so scared of getting hooked on something like this that the few times I’ve been prescribed anti-anxiety medication, I make my doctors promise they won’t give a million refills.

“Just give me a few,” I say. “Whatever you think. And if I call up and ask for more, tell me NO. Pretend we’re in a ’90s era movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and you’re the firm but kindly doctor who saves her from a fate worse than death.”

And then, I presume, they start feeling around on the floor for the silent alarm. But they’re always both kind and firm, which I appreciate.

All of this background information is important, because it’ll help you to visualize how odd I felt, when I found myself fighting over a prescription for one single Valium with my doctor. I have to go for an MRI next week, to make sure that my ever-present back situation isn’t secretly my spinal cord trying to break free and scale the alps on its own, presumably while singing and brandishing a walking staff.

You see, I cannot get into an MRI without chemical assistance. It’s not that I don’t want to. The MRI machine and I are like ends of a magnet, or, if you like, a Looney Tunes character being stuffed into a shoe. It’s not going to work without me losing a lot of feathers and the hospital staff winding up with a lot of cross-hatched wear marks on their suddenly tattered lab coats.

“The thing is,” my doctor said. “If I give you a Valium, someone will have to come with you.”

“That’s no problem,” I assured her. “Adam has to come with me. It’s in the fine print of our marriage contract. ‘Will attend all medical procedures with wife, for wife’s safety and that of the populace.'”

“Also,” she said reluctantly. “You can’t drive.”

“I never drive. I don’t even operate a cotton gin.”

She sighed. “And you’re sure the insurance company won’t cover an open MRI? Or you just didn’t want to ask?”

“I don’t dare ask, honestly. Getting them to authorize the procedure was hard enough. I had to talk to maybe twenty people on the phone. At one point, they transferred me back to the first person I talked to. I’m pretty sure the clocks in my house ran backward for a minute and a rift opened in the space-time continuum. Also, I don’t want to make things complicated, because I don’t have however much money they’d want to charge for an MRI, if my insurance company decides they didn’t authorize that variation on that particular procedure. I’m guessing a lot.”

“They’re expensive,” she agreed. She tried a different tack: “I really think that if you can have someone come with you, you won’t need the Valium.”

“Trust me, it won’t matter who comes with me. Adam could come, my mom could come, Billie Holiday could come back from the dead and sing ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.’ None of that would stop me from going crazy.”

“Because of the claustrophobia.”

“As I’ve said” — through gritted teeth — “I don’t have claustrophobia. What I have is PTSD. Remember how I told you about my second appendix surgery, the one where they didn’t give me anesthesia and they just strapped me down and unzipped my stomach like a tauntaun?”

“Oh, yes, I remember now.”

She didn’t, but whatever. “Well, now whenever I have to be immobilized for a test, my mind knows that no one is going to slice me open, but my brain and body are pretty sure we should run for it, just in case. So really, the Valium isn’t for me. It’s for the staff.”

“I’ll give you two,” she said.

“I don’t need two.”

“In case you lose one. Or, you know … need more.”

Goddammit, I’m taking both. If you need me next Tuesday evening, good luck to you all. I’m sure I’ll be very happy to talk to you, but I won’t remember a word we say to each other. It is, however, a rare opportunity for anyone who wants to see me calm for a change. The reason these drugs are dangerous is because them shits is good.

anxiety

Image: electronicxx/Flickr

Freelancing Tips: When to Get up in the Morning, How Much to Charge

29 May

When I first started freelancing, many of my friends predicted that I’d get tired of it sooner rather than later, and go back to looking for a full-time job. Anything is possible, I suppose, but after a year and a half of being a full-time freelancer, I feel safe in saying the experiment is a success, even if someone offers me a benefited 30 hour a week position as a cheese taster, and I decide to pack it in.

For this round of advice you didn’t ask for, but might need, I thought I’d concentrate on the stuff that I didn’t know until I’d been freelancing for a while. Such as…

1. You probably need to get up earlier than you think. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: it’s easier to get stuff done in the morning, especially if your clients are in New York and aren’t rolling in til 10 a.m. I have mornings where the only real work I get done all day is before 11. The rest of the day gets eaten by meetings and impromptu phone discussions.

2. Speaking of meetings, charge for those.
I still have one or two legacy clients who get freebie meetings, but they tend to be a) really good, steady clients who pay well, b) not folks who’ll try to get me to agree to a twice-weekly seminar with their whole marketing department. Everyone else gets an hourly rate, as much to discourage unnecessary, unpaid chitchat as to make actual moneys.

3. But don’t be afraid to do some things for free.
I know, I said before that you shouldn’t ever work for free, and I still stick by that most of the time. However, for good clients, I do tend to do a little extra, and I would still write the occasional free piece for a small blog network or site that I really, really loved. But that’s something you should do sparingly. I still wouldn’t write for free for a big, money-making site. If they have money to pay the sales staff, they have money to pay you, my friend.

4. How much should you charge? More than you think. I low-balled myself when I was first starting out, and it was a big mistake. If you’re going from a full-time job to freelancing, use your old salary as a rough guide. Figure out what your hourly rate would have been if you worked 40 hours a week (I know, I know) and use that as a starting point. Don’t forget that you also had things like benefits that didn’t show up on your check, but were part of your compensation. Charge more for things that are more complicated. Straight proofreading, for example, might be the cheapest thing on your list, but copyediting with photo research and SEO work would cost more.

5. Make your contract as precise as possible. Spell out exactly what your duties are, as much as you can, so that you don’t have to have an argument about whether proofreading includes keyword research or whether phone meetings are free, etc. Build in notice for either party to back out of the deal, and specify when and how you’ll get paid.

6. Get business cards. To be totally honest with you, I haven’t exactly gotten around to doing that yet. I thought of it this morning, because I have networking event tonight, and I know I’ll wish I had them. Learn from my mistakes, people!

7. And speaking of networking, you don’t have to do stuff you hate. The thing I’m going to tonight is basically a bunch of old friends and coworkers talking over beer, which is one of my favorite things anyway. If you hate leaving your house, though, you totally don’t have to, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Buff up your LinkedIn account, and stay home. I got four gigs when I started out freelancing without ever leaving my desk.

8. Ask for help. The way I got those gigs, mentioned above, was by announcing to my Facebook network that I was looking for writing and editing work. If you’re the sort of person who would rather get gangrene that tell everyone else on a hiking trip that you seem to have injured your leg (a.k.a. No. 8 on my list of Ways I Might Actually Die) this will seem like begging. It’s not. (I promise.) You’re just letting people know you want to work. If they have stuff that needs doing, they’ll be happy to hear about it.

9. Take weekends. Another one I’m bad at. But in general, I’d advise people not to take so much work that they regularly work on the weekends. If you can’t afford to take less, look at your rates again or look at your time management. Sometimes, life intervenes, of course. Right now, I’ve got physical therapy twice a week, and because it’s in another borough, I lose about six hours of work time. So I often work weekends. One thing I don’t do, though, is accept gigs where I’m expected to work on the weekend. Unless you need an off shift, because of child care, for example, I’d really recommend not getting into the habit of working on Saturday and Sunday. You’ll be more productive if you get time off.

10. Don’t threaten to sue, especially if you’re not going to follow through. I know a few freelancers who’ve gotten stiffed on a job, and have immediately gone to lawyer land. Avoid this as much as possible. Although getting actual, legal advice is never a bad idea, you want to avoid escalating things by threatening legal action, at least until you have no other choice. This is partly because it annoys people, and sometimes slows things down further, and partly because, in reality, you’re probably not going to sue unless someone owes you a ton (like, an actual metric ton) of money. Big companies know that they have a legal department and you, at best, have a lawyer. Try everything you can to resolve the issue without letting it get to that point. It’ll feel like the cold war, but it’s worth it, just to keep your profits from getting eaten up by legal fees. So far, fingers crossed, I’ve managed to get paid for every gig. (Albeit, sometimes very, very late.)

What I'll be looking at every day, when I become an Official Cheese Taster.

What I’ll be looking at every day, when I become an Official Cheese Taster.

Image: Refracted Moments/Flickr

My Fasting Blood Sugar Was 105 in the Middle of a Diet and Someone Is Going to Pay

24 May

Not the lovely, talented creator of said diet, and not the nice Russian man who took my blood sample at the lab. Not even my thyroid doctor, who is the person who wrote the prescription for the blood work (and is therefore obviously responsible for the results). Obviously not me, because I was eating nothing but leaves and organic meat during the phase when I had blood drawn. But someone is going to pay, somewhere, and when I find out who it is, I’ll let you know.

I’m thinking that eastern Europe is responsible, or at least the version of it that existed hundreds of years ago, since conditions then were such that a person with a very slow metabolism and a low tolerance for sugary foods would do well. My ancestors were basically bred for starvation, not plenty. We were the last people standing once the food died and the government had driven everyone away from their land and everyone else had starved to death. I picture us, hungry but still chubby, rooting around in the earth and finding one last turnip with delight: “A turnip! Our family can last two weeks on that. Look, Dorota, it’s Christmas dinner!”

But enough of the ancestors. My problem right now is trying to get a straight answer out of someone, in terms of what to do next. My regular doctor says my A1-C is fine, and that I don’t have diabetes. My thyroid doctor says, well, let me see if I can remember the quote. It went something like, “You’re fine … today. I mean, you’re not going to keel over next year, or anything.” He wasn’t thrilled with consistent fasting sugars around the 100 mark, though, and neither am I.

The problem is, once you’re losing weight and monitoring your labs and trying, as Monty Python once advised us, to get some walking in, there’s not much you can do with a slightly too-high sugar. Eat cinnamon, I guess. My thyroid doc advised that, and I’ve heard it can help. Also, cinnamon is delicious. I bet my ancestors would be delighted at that prescription, if they could get their hands on it.

diabeetus

Image: ICanHasCheezburger

Ma Smash Doesn’t Care About Your Silly Laws

22 May

Last week, Adam and I went on a day trip to the Cape with my folks. This time of year, that means looking at the ocean, eating fried things, and breaking into people’s houses. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.

Some people like to look at real estate. They’re the type who spot a sign that says, “Open House,” and say, “Oh, how lovely! Perhaps we’ll stop by, if we’re not too busy.”

My mother makes a dossier of potential houses for sale, and brings it with her on casual trips. Now that she has a Kindle Fire, I’m pretty sure she’ll just have the satellites send her notifications of houses that go on the market. That’s if she’s feeling nice. The fact is, if she likes your house, she doesn’t care whether you’re thinking of moving or not. If she can peek in your windows, she will. If you see a lady dressed like a 1950s cat burglar skulking around your garbage cans, don’t worry, you’re not being robbed. It’s just my mom indulging in her favorite hobby, which is your house and its contents.

Anyway, I’d been away for a while, so I forgot about Mom’s house-hunting madness. I was momentarily taken aback, then, when she demanded that my dad pull the call over so that she could look in someone’s windows.

“There’s, uh, no For Sale sign,” I said.

“It was on the market last week,” she said, consulting her dossier. “And they’ve pulled up the yard. It’s probably being renovated.”

“So, if it’s not for sale, wouldn’t we be trespassing?” By this time, we were in the driveway, and I was looking around for the police.

She flapped her hand at me, “It’s still fair game until the new people move in. Everyone knows that if there’s no lawn, it’s not trespassing.”

Before I could ask her where she’d gotten that arcane bit of legal information, she’d jumped out of the car and was racing, on her tiny little pins, up the front walk to look in through the front door. Through parted fingers, I watched her do a full perimeter of the property, looking in each window and examining the utilities.

“That’s good,” Dad said. “In this day and age, they’re fools if they have oil heat.”

“Can we go visit your mom in prison?” Adam asked.

I dropped my hands slightly. “Is she stacking up garbage so that she can stand on it and look into the second floor?”

“I think there’s a landing,” Dad said. “Sometimes these houses have those, and you can use them for an office.”

“Oh, good, she can write her appeals there.” I got out of the car and went over to where she was standing — on a stoop, concealed by garbage, not actual garbage itself.

“Look at that kitchen,” she said, pointing.

“Oh my God. Is that a fireplace?” Our apartment had a fireplace in about 1890. Now it’s a bricked up wall with a television in front of it.

“Yup. It goes right through to the living room on the other side. You can see it from that window.”

Short version: if Mom gets arrested, it’s likely that I’ll be with her when it happens. Possibly holding the bottom of a ladder.

Pictured: the lady who's looking in your windows right now. Also, my more law-abiding sister.

Pictured: the lady who’s looking in your windows right now. Also, my more law-abiding sister.

Vacation and the Freelancer

21 May

I’ve spent the past two weeks at my folks’ house, and it’s been super relaxing, despite the fact that I worked most of the time. I get more done at my parents’ place, in part because of all the appliances: at home, I have to wash dishes by hand, take clothes to the laundromat*, order food from our local delivery service or haul bags up the four flights of stairs myself. In the suburbs, all you have to do is get into your car, throw the laundry in your washing machine, put the dishes in the dishwasher.

Even so, the big thing that my semi-vacation made me realize is how much I need a real vacation. I’ve been pretty bad about that since I went freelance. Last year, I took two weeks off, but I still worked two days during the break. I have freelancer friends who haven’t taken more than a few days off in years. One of my friends hasn’t had more than a long weekend since she started freelancing eight years ago.

This makes perfect sense, because trying to take real time off when you’re a freelancer is a pain in the ass. It literally costs you money, and many clients don’t expect you to take vacation, so they get irritated if you’re not available. The emotional stress of managing expectations and finances can make it seem like taking time off isn’t worth it.

That’s not true, of course. We all need time off. This time of year, every other article in your news feed is probably about how taking vacation improves your health, attitude, and productivity. We need vacations.

I’m starting by trying to really take my weekends off, and I’m going to try to take at least a week later in the summer. Maybe it’ll help with my ongoing quest to have a lower stress life.

* Note: I never do this. If Adam didn’t do the laundry, I would regularly be arrested for nudity.

beach

Image: ReneS/Flickr

It’s Amazing How Much Better I Feel When I Have a Real Weekend

20 May

I’m way more relaxed this morning than I usually am on a Monday morning. This is probably because I took most of the weekend off. (OK, my weekend was Friday and Saturday, but it still counts.)

I don’t always do that. Prior to my back giving out, I tended to work most of the weekend because I took on too many clients. Then my body sent up a distress signal, and I had to behave myself better, but unfortunately, I also had to go to physical therapy twice a week, which knocked six hours out of my regular work time. (Counting the commute.) This basically meant that two of my week days were only partial days, and I’d have to do extra at night and on the weekend to make up for it.

Working constantly does weird things to your brain. At first, you feel terribly put-upon, but then, you grow to depend on it. I’m so used to working whenever I’m sitting still that I have no idea how very odd it looks. I spent the past week or so at my parents’ house, and after a few days of me tap-tap-tapping away 12 and 13 hours a day, my mom finally asked if I ever took a break.

Now, granted, part of the reason I was working like crazy was so that I could take a weekend later on, but the observation still stands: I work way too much, and not always just because I have to or like to. I work too much because I’m more comfortable being busy. It’s such an anti-Zen mindset that I’m pretty sure Buddhist monks would disintegrate spontaneously if I walked by them.

Like most people in the modern world, I’m very fond of telling people how stressed out I am. My real weekend makes me realize that some of it is a put-on. I’m fooling myself into thinking I need to be busy, because being busy means that all of my work is essential, and so am I. It’s kind of sad, when you think about, especially since so much of my day is waiting for stories to come in, so that I can edit them. I’m literally waiting for someone to validate my existence.

Anyway, the point of all this is that I’ve been casting about for a new daily writing project now that the diet is over, and I think stress management — or at least, stress examination — will be it. I don’t have a clever name for it yet, or anything, but lord knows I have plenty of material.

stressstar

Image: sun dazed/Flickr

The Fast Metabolism Diet: After the Ball

17 May

Last night, I made chocolate chip cookies and only ate three. This is the first time this has ever happened. Usually, I eat them until they’re gone, shielding the plate with my arms like I’m guarding my dessert in a prison movie, and snapping at everyone’s hands as they try desperately to grab one or two.

I’m still not 100 percent sure how much I lost, but I think it’s around 15 pounds. Hopefully, it’ll stay off. I feel great, even after a day or so of not eating strictly on-plan. I’m a confirmed label-reader now, and I haven’t had fried food in so long, I don’t even crave it anymore. So maybe that’s more important than the actual weight loss. It’d be great if this diet made a healthier eater in the long-term. I still haven’t had any coffee or Diet Coke.

This morning, when I was making my breakfast, my dad said that it seemed to him that the best part of the diet was that it reined in my portion sizes.

“It’s easy to go from eating just a little bit of butter on your toast to eating ALL THE BUTTER on your toast,” he said. This is totally true.

Then, my mom got up and admitted, when I accused her of looking skinny, that she’d lost three pounds in the week I’ve been home. Which is great, except that she doesn’t need to lose weight and so we hate her, of course. (I mean, love … but hate, you know?)

Today, we’re all going on a day trip to the Cape and I’m still going to pack a million snacks. It’s good for my metabolism, but also, it keeps me from getting low blood sugar, which pretty much ruins my personality.

And now I will leave you with this amazing photo, courtesy of my friend Melissa and the site Retronaut.com. It is, according to the site, “an apparatus for measuring metabolism”:

I'm so glad they don't use this anymore.

I’m so glad they don’t use this anymore.

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