Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Day eight hundred and eighty two ... Stress test.

I suppose I should feel safe but I don't.

Every few days in the town where I live there are fighter jets that fly overhead from the Westover Air Force base in Chicopee, MA. They fly in low and they fly in loud. There's usually two or three at a time, then a couple of stragglers, and then one or two just for good measure. Jodi can't stand the damn things. I just kind of raise my shoulders closer to my head out of nervousness and kind of peek out the window in a lame exhibit of worried acceptance.

They're up there in the air, I realize, for the protection of the United States of America. But instead of picturing the front page of the paper reading "Fighter Jets Save the Day Fending Off Terrorist Attack", all I can picture is "Malfunctioning Fighter Jet Destroys Local Musician's House. No Survivors. Town Stunned, Saddened. Most Of U.S. Still Safe."

But these are the balancing acts that we have to endure in life in order to get by. These are the inconsistencies and incongruities that pepper our day to day existence making the world so rich with possibilities.

These are the things that stress me out to no end.

When I look back on the lives that my mom and aunt and grandmother had I see three lives--though beautiful, robust, and pure--filled with stress. I see a mill worker who gave up her demanding and thankless job to babysit a little hellion for her daughter. And I see two teachers who had to put up with kids who don't care being made to sit in a room they don't like, learning things they don't care about. And I'm sure they weren't always like that--the kids, I mean. I'm sure that there were many who did care and made an effort to do well. I have letters and small gifts, even, given to my mom and aunt from the students they affected positively. And I know for a fact that the way children treated teachers and authority figures in general has changed significantly over the last 40 years.

And I know that stress was one of the causes of their early demise.

How do I know? I know because I saw it in their faces and I heard it in their voices. I felt their frustration and I listened to their stories of kids who were so out of control that they had to have police patrol the hallways. I know because ... well, I just know.

Three women who never made it out of their sixties who had jobs that drove them crazy.

My Uncle Alex was in the Navy for forty-odd years and he died when he was 68.

It's enough to make a freshly forty year old guy a little nervous.

But I have things figured out, right? I just keep my little world rotating on its axis just so. I make sure I get enough sleep and try not to eat too much junk. I stay far away from the people who affect me negatively. And I ... well ... I work at staying stress free.

Right now, as I'm writing this, the sound of a jackhammer is blasting away outside my window no more than 50 yards from here. They started at 7 a.m. and will continue on for god knows how long.

The bank on the corner sees fit to have a landscaper crew come almost every other day with leaf blowers and lawn mowers to tidy up the painfully plain but perfect perimeter of the parking lot. I'm a heavy sleeper, and so, many times it just blends in with my dreams. Other people aren't so lucky--the noise from their gas powered engines rousing them from their dreams for the day.

The bar around the corner has a patio that faces my house. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night it fills with drunken, obnoxious people who scream and fight and rev their engines in the parking lot. Sometimes the cops come around 1 am, and the noise subsides for a moment or two. Last week, around closing time, they showed up right in the middle of a massive brawl and hauled several revelers downtown. It was an exciting time in my little village.


I just got back from my shrink. We haven't made any huge advancements in my understanding of the world together. I usually just take the 50 minutes to talk out loud to another human being who isn't Jodi or Paul. I've been able to work through some situations while sitting in the chair (I wish she had a big couch like you see in the movies, but no, it's just a crappy chair) and that keeps me coming back. I like to think of it as one of those things I do which I can't prove beneficial but which I know isn't bad for me.

We got to talking about how certain events have recently transpired in my life that tend to bring about adult responsibilities but don't necessarily mean much in the end.

For instance, I just took out a lease on a safe deposit box. It's one of those things that until now I only had seen in movies. To my dramatic side it smacks of espionage or high society. But really, it's just a well protected bus locker. And I got it for a couple of reasons, both of which have come about over the last few years. Both of which are of an adult nature--that is to say, it's not to hide my chocolate away from my girlfriend.

But it doesn't make me an adult.

It's just a box in a bank.

And it's in there with two hundred or so other boxes filled with items that someone else has deemed important enough to be protected to the max. Just being in there surrounded by all of that potential significance gave me chills.

But 200 other people having a box like mine doesn't make them an adult. It just means they have a bank account and a few extra dollars a year to pay for it's use.

I have friends who have babies now. All this is new stuff. I suppose that that would encourage some people to mature in a hurry. I'm sure it's happened and I'm sure it will never end. But there are constantly stories of people who have children who act like they're 18 or worse.

All it means on the shiny surface of literality is that you didn't decide not to.

I have tattoos on my arms, but it doesn't make me tough. I almost thought it would when I got them, or at least I thought that it would give the illusion that I was a tough customer. And part of me even came to the understanding that I probably got them to keep uptight people away from me. I'm going to hazard a guess that for the most part it's worked. But it doesn't make me tough. It just means I paid a guy to put a needle to my skin for a few hours.

My mother told me years ago not to confuse activity with achievement.

This was a huge understanding. This changed my world. I started to realize so much when I understood how this worked. See, years ago I used to quit drinking for a day or two--sometimes a whole week or more. But I didn't learn anything from it; it was just time spent differently. Had I sat down and really understood what I was trying to do or even why, I might have gleamed some insight from it. Maybe I could have even made the decision to seek real help before things got really bad. But I was just doing it to do anything.

It was just activity--not drinking. It was definitely not an achievement.

So now, when I get five things going at once and I wonder why I can't finish one of them, and I stand there pulling at my hair because it's already time for dinner, I have to think of this sentiment:

Don't confuse activity with achievement.

Stress will kill a person. That being the case I must learn techniques to deal with it and not just pull the covers over my head.

The landscapers who wake me up in the morning are making a living for themselves. I may not like the style of the work they do and I may think it's excessive, but I really only need to close the windows before I go to sleep to solve my problem.

The bar patrons are doing exactly what I used to do when I was in my twenties: getting wasted and screaming at the top of my lungs at whoever was closest. Perhaps this is karma coming back to me. Once again, all I need to do is close the windows and, on occasion, enjoy the sound of police cruisers and angry drunk people in the parking lot.

And as for the flyovers, I'll just be thankful that I have no idea how to fly one of those damn things. Because that would really stress me out like nobody's business.

It's a grand life I live. I can't complain about much. And the things that do annoy me tend to be things other people do. And if there's one thing I learned a long time ago is that if I can prevent other people's actions from affecting my mood then I am truly in control of my own happiness.

And that, my friends, is certainly an achievement.

I wish that you all find the happiness you seek.

I must admit, though, not too long ago if someone told me that, I would have wanted to smack them silly.

So I won't feel slighted if you feel the same.

It's just a blog after all.

Thanks for reading it.



Dave Hayes said...

Enjoyed this post, Al. The issue of stress resonates strongly with me at this time. I work over 50 hours a week, and a substantial portion of that time is selling stuff on the phone that I don't truly love to people who I don't really like. Having said that, I had a breakthrough recently, and realized that fostering COMPASSION for myself, for my co-workers, for the people I sell to, and people "out in the world" whose actions I dislike is helpful to me in managing and reducing stress. I have spent waaaaay too much energy getting upset with myself, and the actions of others, and like you said, stress kills people. As I step through my 40s, this has become clear in my mind. Love your writing, Al!!! Peace, Dave Hayes

Anonymous said...

Found your blog when searching, much like you once were, for info on the DUIL program in Tewksbury, and have bookmarked it and been reading your posts over the last couple weeks. Thank you for sharing your story.

I have one question - where in the heck do you find alcohol-free shampoo and conditioner in *sealed containers* as per DUIL admittance package instructions?!? It's not gonna be pretty if I have to go without washing my hair with a decent shampoo for 14 days.

F. Alex Johnson said...

Dear Anonymous,

Glad you found the blog and glad you're getting something out of it.

As far as the shampoo, I don't remember anything like that in the rules. It could be a new one (or an old one they didn't enforce). Alcohol-free mouthwash was the main issue. They can give you a breathalyzer if they want and regular mouthwash would read positive on it.

Good luck,


Anonymous said...

Hi Alex.
Well it does seem there are some rule changes since your stay at the program, though many are the same. The first post I found here was when you received your envelope in the mail and I laughed my butt off. My friends/neighbors sat at the table in the yard with me as I read the pages from my envelope aloud after the mailman (sorry, letter carrier) handed it to me a few weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon. I started searching online as soon as I returned inside. We had shared some of the same sentiments with you on how ridiculous some of the instructions were, like not to bring an air conditioner, or your vehicle. But you know some dolt drove himself there with a suspended license, or they wouldn't have had to put that in the instructions. And my downstairs neighbors have been teasing me for the last few weeks that they're gonna knock on my door at 6:30 in the morning and I best answer wearing a name tag and slippers. Ah, but if not for my wonderful friends and all their support and humor, I'd probably be a total mess right now, but at least a sober mess which is a little prettier.

Yes, I am very glad that alcohol free mouthwash is not a hard item to find now a days. And I found my no alcohol shampoo completely shrink wrap sealed, just no conditioner. I can live with that. I've never been to the point of that desperate for alcohol that I've considered chugging a bottle of shampoo, but I suppose there have been some in those shoes. The only real withdrawals I can see having is from my dog who is my faithful sidekick through most of my free time. She'll be in good hands with her grandpa for two weeks, but I tend to feel lost without her after a weekend away. Maybe my roommate will have a gentle snore similar to that of my dog's which might help me sleep.

All of my stuff is neatly organized along one wall of my bedroom, waiting for some laundry to dry and then I'll be ready for the final step of packing it all up. I leave tomorrow. I'm looking at this as, well, not exactly my first choice of vacations, but since I have the accrued time, it's two paid weeks out of my office - a much needed break from work, and I'll absorb all I can from the program and make the best of it, hopefully do some healing in the process. Rather like a very busy spiritual retreat. Your blog gave me the idea to buy myself a journal to bring along specifically to jot down notes of these own personal therapy program.

I enjoy reading your posts. Informative, entertaining, and in even a bit comforting. Though I know my journey has just recently begun and I have a long road ahead, I will eventually reach my desired destination.

Be well, and thank you again for sharing.

~ Crystal