Remember the 1980’s Steve Martin/John Candy movie about a businessman trying to get somewhere? Kind of like what yesterday was like for the Kales/Gibson family. But before we get to that, let’s rewind to Thursday. That is when Tasia, my perfectionist, highly-organized, 16 year-old daughter entered the kitchen looking like the weight of the world was showing on her beautiful face. “I read online that the terrible snowstorms out East are wreaking havoc on flights! I am so worried that we will not be able to get down to Florida for mid-winter break!” Motherly reassurance and restructuring powers activate!! “Tasia, worrying about it now is not going to help. We can’t control the weather with our thoughts. We will take it as it comes and we will be in it together”. She wrinkled her pretty brows “You don’t understand!! What if we can’t get there? Everything will be ruined!!”. Huff, huff, stomp, stomp, (teenage) exit stage left.
In previous posts, I have talked a lot about mindfulness as a way for older adults to cope with the challenges that life throws us. Research shows that using mindfulness techniques to stay in the present help to reduce stress, depression and anxiety. In talking with writer Julie Halpert the other day about our Program’s training in mindfulness helping older adults to cope, she observed something to the effect of “but isn’t this what we all should be doing?”. Indeed.
However, here I will come clean. My daughter Tasia comes by worrying naturally. I preach it, but I don’t always live it. By my nature, I am a world-class worrier. At Tasia’s age, I remember the gut-twisting anxiety that would come over me before a cross-country race. In college, that same anxiety would pounce before parties. And in medical school, it morphed into worries about performance on my rotations; in residency, I would feel that sick anticipatory anxiety before a night on-call in the hospital. Early in my career, it popped up as I went to give presentations at research conferences–my husband recalls me sitting in a hotel bathroom practicing a talk for hours before I had to give it. Over the years, I have fought hard against my anxiety, and largely, I have conquered it. But the reality is, it is a never-ending, life-long, daily battle, constantly training and re-training the naturally anxious mind. Using cognitive-behavioral strategies has helped a lot, as did having therapy and better understanding the roots of my anxiety. But oddly? Most life changing? Having an episode of post-partum depression. Somehow, going “that low” made me more fearless. Subsequently stumbling into a yoga class 6 years ago also began my fascination with how truly focusing on the present helps you to master rumination about the past and anxiety about the future. Later, I started thinking about how we could use these same techniques with older people, who like me, were skilled champion “worrywarts”.
Back to the trip. I often tell Tasia “what you worry about most, usually doesn’t happen. In this case—WRONG. After boarding the plane in Detroit and beginning our taxi on the runway, the pilot came on the intercom “Air traffic control has currently stopped all flights coming into La Guardia because of weather. We are heading back to the gate.” After sitting at the gate for ½ an hour, they told us to deplane. It was unclear what would be happening. Passengers around us started to panic. “I hear they closed La Guardia!!” “Can we rebook?” “The next available flight is Tuesday!”. After thinking through our limited options, we decided to wait it out. Finally, 2 hours later, we reboarded and were at La Guardia in less than an hour and a half. But now, the fun really started! More snowstorms and bad weather delayed our next flight to Fort Lauderdale. We ended up sitting in La Guardia for hours, unsure of our connection to Florida with hundreds of people in the same boat.
Stressful? Yes. But, strangely, we started to enjoy the moment. Getting some snacks, we noticed the people-watching was unparalled. Tasia spotted the Russian family camped out on our left with mom and daughter in matching purple Juicy Couture sweatsuits. Sophia spied the interesting man with dreadlocks not only going down his back but piled on top of his head under a knit hat. A Latino man bouncing to the music as he was listening to on his Ipod fascinated Theo. Pat and I expressed empathy for the family with 3 little kids who were starting to implode. Time passed and hours later, we boarded our flight to Fort Lauderdale. The travel indignities continued sitting in our cramped spaces including me being kneed intermittently and most frequently by the freckled-faced kid sitting behind me. But, we got through it and when we arrived at 3 AM (12 hours after we left Ann Arbor), we were exhilarated. The kids recounted all of the day’s stories to my parents who had waited up for us.
Today, as we walked around the beautiful park in 75 degree weather, Tasia turned to me and said “You know what I am worried about now?……” Like I said, a daily battle. And we soldier on, a life of training and retraining.