Do you ever experience a cascade of stress?
(No. 102) Is your body like an old hard drive full of outdated reactions? Mine is. That's why I'm going to step out today. By Stephen P. Williams
Illustration by Stephen P. Williams
I was swarmed by yellowjackets on my terrace last week. The nest and I had been under a truce all summer, but for whatever reason, the yellowjackets broke it. The dozen or so stings I received were not dangerous, just very uncomfortable and long lasting. And removing the nest was emotionally draining for me — I’ve done this many times before at various houses, and I always feel like I’m violating the Geneva Convention. These insects are so important to our ecology. Yet, I need to be able to go in and out of my door without fear.
As I nursed my swollen arms, a brazen mouse skirted my dining table and kitchen, right in front of me, broad daylight. It was hard for me to picture it living in a little house in the baseboard, with chairs and a teapot, peeking out it’s arched doorway, as I saw in my picture books as a child. (The mice always seemed to be British, ready for a porcelain cup of tea with cream and sugar.) Mice are pretty common, but they can quickly take over. I had to deal with them. Stress.
Illustration by Stephen P. Williams
I went out for some coffee and discovered a new invasion at the bottom of our stoop. The day before, I’d refurbished the dirt around the tree in our sidewalk, and planted cinnamon ferns — a little bit of controlled beauty in the midst of general NYC chaos. I made sure the low fence was secure, to keep uncouth labradoodles and hudas (husky-dalmation mix) from tearing up the new ferns, as city dogs will do. It was so beautiful out, and the ferns were delicate icons of nature along the harsh curbside of my street. Yet instead of joy I felt my back tighten — there were new rat holes in the mulch. The yellow jackets, the mice, I could handle. But rats were one step too far.
I felt the stress rising inside me — whereas normally I can handle a lot of stress, chaos and discomfort, this felt different. My lower left back suddenly felt weak. I think the wasp stings had inflamed my body and mind, making me more susceptible to injury. I felt like the rats might get the better of me. But yet I handled them, with professional help, just as I had handled the other invaders.
That afternoon I went for the results of some eye tests I’d recently taken. I had resigned myself to having glaucoma, which is what the tests were probing. Yet when the doctor confirmed my suspicions, a penetrating stress flowed deep into my body. The doctor said the glaucoma was very early stage, most likely treatable with drops. If left untreated, it would lead to blindness.
This, more than any ailment I’ve experienced in the last decade, was, to me, a sign that I am aging. A fact of helplessness in the face of time. Despite my swimming, walking and weigh lifting, despite my vegetables, protein and fiber, and despite my spiritual practice and friendships and my love of art, biological decay was definitely going to get me. And then our internet went out for 48 hours, requiring numerous voice calls to AI assistants who did not make me fear the future supremacy of artificial intelligence — just the tediousness of poor AI design.
By chance I had recently matched with an interesting woman on a dating app. Yes, I’m 64 and yes I use these apps now and then. It is rare that I match up, and even rarer that I meet someone in person. This match was, in the modern censorious parlance, “age appropriate” (if that means ten years younger than me), and very interesting. My business with the doctors and invaders done, I went to meet her for coffee. We chatted happily for two hours, and talked about our shared love of swimming and the beach.
I few days later I invited her to go to the beach this weekend. After a 24 hour silence, she texted back that this was perhaps too complicated of a date so soon in our friendship. Might we meet for a walk or a meal? That made sense in several ways. I admired her ability to set boundaries. So I suggested a walk on Governor’s Island, which seemed equidistant between her home in Brooklyn, and mine in Manhattan, and also offered each one of us an escape, if needed, on separate ferries to our separate boroughs. I waited for her response.
Eventually she replied that Governor’s Island was too complicated. Since we’d only met once, she’d prefer to have dinner or go to a museum. My gut told me that this second rejection of my idea was a big red flag. But my intellect told me that it was great that she knew what she did and didn’t want. That’s unusual, in my experience, and it’s a good example. But my gut kept messaging me — do not continue this interaction, it said. Do not. Then my intellect butted in again with this: Sometimes, listening to your gut is just a way of avoiding something that might be challenging, but very rewarding. Sometimes the gut is just fear talking. Take the risk.
I don’t usually believe my intellect. I generally put more faith in my gut. But she had been such a great conversationalist that I followed my thoughts rather than my sensations. This was Thursday. I told her I understood where she was coming from, and suggested we meet at a Korean restaurant on Friday. She replied that she thought this would be wonderful, and she was glad I understood. Great! I thought this would be a good balance to the stresses I’d been feeling. And I also imagined that she and I might get along really well.
I woke up Friday morning with my back feeling worse than before. That told me I was not in alignment inside — my back is usually a barometer. I hoped I would be limber enough to meet up with her for dinner, but that proved unnecessary. Soon enough she sent a text saying I was “lovely,” but that after reflecting on our previous conversation a few days before, she’d decided that I wasn’t a good fit for her. Best wishes, goodbye. I was so surprised!
My first reaction was: shoulda followed your gut. My second was: you dodged a bullet. My third, and perhaps most damaging reaction was a package of shame, self-loathing and hopelessness in the face of rejection. I couldn’t blame her for my feelings — she was just following her own gut, or intellect. So I blamed myself. And then my back went out and I was on the floor for an hour, trying to resurrect it. I’ve had this kind of back pain before, but not in 20 years. I knew it would subside, but I also feared it wouldn’t.
This is what stress does to the body. This is why we all need to learn to manage our mind-body connection, especially as we get older. It is never too early to pay attention to this, but it’s possible that it can turn out to be too late. I hope I listen to my gut without fail in the future. The further I can get from my mind, the better.
I woke up today feeling in good spirits, and did something uncharacteristic. My back is still wonked out, but getting better. This morning I listened to the radio as I walked the dog. The radio said Burna Boy was headlining the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn this weekend. I like this Nigerian pop star, and I’ve always wanted to go Afropunk, so I on the spur of the moment I bought a ticket. My back will just have to be good enough to navigate a crowded park, I guess. No doubt I will be among the oldest people there. I’m thrilled. I’m content to go alone. I think it’s important to take care of myself, to have fun, and to get out into the world as much as possible before winter falls. That’s my prescription for happiness. If you’re feeling stressed, go to Afropunk today and see Burna Boy live.
Illustration of Burna Boy by Stephen P. Williams
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