Traveling to see the total eclipse of the sun this week meant spending time with extended family. Now I love the members of my family. We get along well with each other, probably better than the average American family. But spending time with family still is stressful. It includes sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, eating on a different schedule, eating different foods, and being exposed to television programs I prefer to avoid. I am an introvert, a highly sensitive person, and am subject to bouts of anxiety. Not every member of the family understands my situation or has any sympathy for my problems.
The first problem was travel. Over the past five years, I have endured increasing dread over road trips. I wake up the morning of a road trip anticipating that something will go wrong with the car, leaving us stranded on the side of the road. In this case, the dread began building two days before the time of departure. I responded by praying that we would be kept safe throughout the trip. We were in fact kept safe, but not in the way I had hoped.
About halfway into the trip, stopping at a gas station, we heard a noise from the front of the car. To me it sounded as if something was scraping against the tire. We first heard it only while steering through turns. As we approached our destination, we also heard the sound when stopping, even without turning. I got out of the car and inspected the wheel well, and nothing was even close to touching the tire. We arrived at the house without further incident, but we knew that someone would have to look at the car before we did any more driving.
Our host knows more about cars than I do, so he went out and looked at the car. He noticed rust on the brake rotors, an indication that the brake pads were not coming in contact with the rotors as they should. He suggested that we visit a local mechanic to have the brakes checked. He also noticed that the front tires were badly worn and indicated that the mechanic would probably want to replace those as well.
The next morning I took the car to the recommended mechanic. He had a lot of customers and said the repair would not happen until the next day. He did say that he would look at the car the same day and let me know what work needed to be done. That meant that I spent the entire day waiting for a telephone call—not a good situation for someone prone to anxiety and in someone else’s house. When the call finally came at the end of the day, the news was not good. Front and rear brakes needed to be replaced—not only brake pads, but rotors and drums as well. All four tires needed to be replaced—the front pair were worn, and the back pair had been cut by failing shock absorbers. The noise we had heard was not from the brakes, though. That noise was from a ball joint in the front of the car. The total repair amounted to hundreds of dollars, although they threw in every discount they could find, including a one hundred dollar reduction given by financing the repair through a credit card supplied by their company.
In short, my feelings of anxiety about the car excursion were accurate. We were in danger of brake failure, which would have been worse than being stranded at the side of the road. My prayers for safety were answered; it may well have been miraculous that the brakes did not fail at any point of the trip.
Meanwhile, we had a second day without the car, a day that had been set aside for a visit to another city. We ended up making that trip in a borrowed car—one more unfamiliar situation to aggravate stress and anxiety.
Then came the actual day of the eclipse. My daughter and I were already energized in anticipation for the event, a feeling not far from the usual anxiety of life. Fortunately, the moon and the sun were not affected by our feelings, and we all enjoyed the show.
The final stage of the tour was driving home in a newly-repaired car. The night before that scheduled drive found me very unsettled. To make matters worse, the dinner menu that evening contained several foods that irritate my digestive system. I tried to limit my intake to small servings of those foods, but the combination of all of them—along with the building stress over the long drive—left me in severe discomfort. This experience is a vicious cycle—anxiety makes digestion worse, while bad digestion makes anxiety worse. The unexpected noise of a vacuum cleaner sent me over the edge. Our host tried to make things better by saying, “J., calm down, we don’t need this drama.” Of course that did not help at all. I needed to get away to another room, be alone for a while, focus on my breathing, and regain control of myself.
It would help if more family members understood what anxiety means. Too often they do act as if anxiety is a choice, something that can be controlled, and therefore a cause for blame. I know that if I showed up with my leg in a cast, they would not ask me to walk normally and blame me for being different. Because anxiety is not visible, it does not gather the same sympathy and understanding as a broken leg, or even a common cold. Even though that makes family events more challenging, I still love the members of my extended family and am glad for the time we are able to spend together. J.