Shift+Del STRESS

‘Your mother!’ Thus began several of Amma’s stories. The recipient was the son, in various stages of growth from toddler to surprisingly-not-angsty teenager to calm-and-collected adult, the family anxiety genes having got misplaced somewhere in biological transit.

This time the story was: ‘Your mother! When the neighbourhood kids came to call her to play, she would hide under the bed and make me tell them she wasn’t at home. As if they would believe me!’

Well, they didn’t. Not too often in the beginning anyway. One particularly sharp memory is of being dragged along by an older girl, my hand tightly clutched in hers (as per Amma’s strictures) along with the string of a kite – you know, the part with the powdered glass stuck to it. My hand was in shreds by the time I got home. Amma was more convincing in her ‘She’s doing her homework’ act after that. Amma’s nice like that. Then again, maybe, that’s why I never did learn to ride a bicycle after that first fall.

And I did hide under the bed. Till I discovered the underside of the bed was not quite the safe haven I thought it to be. There were creatures there, spiders and – OMG! – even cockroaches sometimes. Also, the fan’s breeze did not find its way down there.

I’ve always thought anxiety was born with me, issuing out simultaneously from my mother’s womb, angry and red at the indignity of having been forced out with this! It stalked me at every turn, constant companion, albeit a companion I could have done without.

The years passed and anxiety found a new friend to help it along. Stress. Well, it was a fashionable thing to tote around. And I was not too displeased with it tagging along. Really. At 10.30 pm, faced with a news editor telling me to try once more for that elusive headline for a page that was to have been sent off two hours ago, I was stressed. And glad to have a descriptor that fit, even if the headline didn’t.

And so we chugged along, the three of us. A high point was when the son left for college. We really lived it up then.

Earlier this year, I turned 50. I don’t think that was why really, but, hey, who needs an excuse to party? Certainly not my two friends. They painted my mind red. And I finally saw red.

After a lifetime of being anxious and stressed, in July, I decided to do something about it. ‘I shall attend a Stress Alleviation and Mindfulness workshop,’ I announced to the husband. Who grunted, fingers clicking ceaselessly over the Kakuro board on his laptop. Then, ‘Whaaat?! I’m not coming with you.’

‘I can go on my own, you know!’ I said, sniffing self-righteously. As D-day arrived, we compromised. He dropped me at the workshop place and promised to be waiting when I got out. ‘It’ll be all right,’ he said, patting my hand through the car window as he prepared to reverse. I took a deep breath and prepared to enter a room full of strangers, already hyperventilating at the prospect.

As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad, really. The girls conducting the workshop seemed quite nice and most of what they said was being projected on a large screen behind them. [This was more important than you might think. While I always write ‘English’ when asked what my first language is, the UK vies favourably with India in terms of incomprehensible local accents.]

Plus the girls promised there would be no interaction. I sighed in relief at the thought that all I needed to do was listen. For the next two hours. For the next two weeks.

That was before Daphne entered our lives. The lead trainer was called Peggy, the second one, Liz. So who was Daphne and why was she all over the place? It took me till Day 3 to realise Peggy was saying ‘Definitely’ every time I heard Daphne. Gosh, that was stressful!

Several of the examples of stress the girls talked about had people who were afraid to go to the supermarket. I was frankly amazed. Supermarket was major therapy area for me. In fact, it was one of the areas I had come to be mindful about. I could spend weeks in a Tesco Extra. If the family would let me.

The only place I could think of as stressful to go to was the hairdresser. You don’t believe it? Try walking into a salon with my hair! But that stress point, too, had been taken care of in Swansea. I had a hair stylist who cooed over how my skull-hugging hair would suddenly wake up with a no-nonsense curl as the moisture left it.

Back at the workshop, it was time to enter Mindfulness territory. ‘Your mind tells you hurtful things about yourself,’ I was told. True, it did. Then, ‘Ignore what your mind is telling you. Don’t listen to your mind!’ Excuse me, but I thought this was a mindFULness workshop. I hadn’t realised I had to leave my mind back at home. What if I lost it? Stress would be small coin then.

The slides showed various people who were in acute need of mindfulness therapy – Pete, Dave, Sam, Judy, Ellen, all of them laughing at the camera. Why did all these happy, smiling people need mindfulness? It bothered me. In fact, it stressed me.

Then we got a mindfulness CD to take home. And the husband stood over my head and said through gritted teeth: ‘Try it! Now!’ So I did. Whereupon it all kind of fell into place. ‘Cool!’ I said, ‘so that’s what they meant!’ The husband gnashed his teeth. It kind of felt at that moment that the stress had swapped partners. For the moment at least.

The rest of the workshop passed without incident. Some amount of grumbling was offered as token resistance by my two companions, but now I was learning to ignore my mind. I was feeling lighter, and it was a heady feeling. The husband gratefully noted the change and said when I got home on the last day, ‘So it does work!’

He spoke too soon.

The next day, I got an email from AVG Antivirus protection, which I had once downloaded for the tablet, which had since been bequeathed to the son. ‘Was it something we said?’ the email asked me sadly.

‘Now, look, you made them feel bad! How would you feel if someone did that to you?’ scolded Anxiety. Really, it was just like having Amma around.

‘Suppose they refuse to let their app download for you next time?’ asked Stress.

I shuddered.

 Note: The purpose of this article is not to knock mindfulness, which has helped countless people. This is merely the writer’s attempt to help you stave off stress!

First published in Democratic World in September 2015