Monthly Archives: February 2021

The Boo Voice

The travieso trying to wiggle away from my big sister Barbara around 1967

In my last post, I wrote about the obstacles that make life extra challenging in 2021. Coronavirus, isolation, family Covid fatigue, and every day problems make for a seemingly unbearable existence. I posed a question: Are the things that make us feel awful real or is suffering all in our minds? I wrote that the mind is a major cause of our pain and that there has to be something more than temporary distractions to help us deal with sorrow. 

You can read the last post by going to this link: https://esereport.com/2021/02/08/its-all-in-your-mind/ 

Seventeen years ago, I had my first exposure to the possibility that “it’s all my mind.”  I was running up the stairs at the Long Beach Convention Center and suddenly felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. The weird sensation went away in about 10 minutes. It happened again a few weeks later. I was on a flight that was making a smooth descent into San Antonio International Airport when, out of nowhere, I had a hard time breathing. 

I was only 40 years old at the time and in fairly good shape. I made an appointment with my doctor anyway because of family history of heart disease. In the clinic, the doctor covered all of the bases – extensive blood work at the lab, an EKG, echocardiogram, and cardiac stress test. He chuckled because I was on the treadmill jogging and chatting at the same time without losing my breath. Someone with heart disease wouldn’t be able do that.

Tests confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my heart. The doctor speculated that something else could be causing the feeling of being out of breath and referred me to a psychologist. The thought of going to a therapist didn’t register in my east side Mexican American working-class brain. We didn’t do therapy. Like Dave Chappele once joked, “psychologists were for upper middle-class white people. The rest of us had liquor stores.” 

My dad used to say that putting all your energy into work when life gets hard was the answer to the blues. That’s what I did after my mom died, but it wasn’t working so well for me. I went along with my doctor’s recommendation. I figured that I had nothing to lose. During our first meeting, the therapist described how heart attack symptoms are similar to those of a panic attack caused by anxiety. 

Rather than actually losing oxygen, the mind tricks the body into thinking that it’s out of breath. It was hard to wrap my mind around what I heard, but I kept going with it. Several sessions later, the therapist’s diagnosis was generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) triggered by my mom’s passing a year earlier. The condition impacts only 3.1% of Americans. Depression can go hand in hand with anxiety.

According to mental health advocates, GAD is “chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience.” The Mayo Clinic says that GAD is caused by a “complex interaction of biological and environmental factors.” What that means is that anxiety is partly caused by chemicals in the body that aren’t working correctly and partly caused by something negative that happens to us. 

I was a happy-go-lucky kid, There wasn’t a tree I wouldn’t climb or a fence I wouldn’t jump over. My mom used to say that I could be a little bit travieso (loosely translated as “naughty”). When I was about 10 years old, I wrecked my bike and scratched myself up pretty good riding downhill on a trail I wasn’t allowed to be on. My mom didn’t know about the details of that accident until 25 years later when my brothers, sisters, and I were sharing stories about youthful shenanigans .

Despite being somewhat of a daredevil, I had a tendency to worry, overthink, and overreact. It could be anything. I would lose sleep the night before a spelling test in elementary school worried about flunking. In high school, I couldn’t concentrate in class on gameday because I worried about making a mistake that would embarrass the team and school. Those bad things never happened. Nothing triggered those thoughts.

When mom passed away, I felt like a helium balloon floating aimlessly and untethered to the real world. She was my safe harbor when the winds of life’s storms howled. She was my biggest cheerleader. With mom gone, I worried incessantly about everything. This perfect storm of biological and environmental factors led to the therapist’s diagnosis. 

He recommended a combination of medication, therapy, and group mindfulness classes designed to address the chemical and triggering elements of anxiety. Given everything I understood about what the doctor told me, it made sense to me. I decided to give the proposed treatment my all. Within a few months, I was back on track building a life with my family and working on a career. I graduated from mocking psychology to being a therapy advocate.

The more I understood about anxiety’s causes, effects, and solutions, the more I wanted to learn how to manage it. The short story about unreasonable worry is fear of the unknown. An anxious mind comes to conclusions (usually doom and gloom) in the absence of verified information. As the old saying goes, anxiety makes mountains out of molehills. I refer to unwarranted thoughts that swirl in my mind as the “Boo Voice.” 

The therapist and mindfulness classes from 2004 prepared me for the most turbulent decade of my life. For 10 years, unknown life and death health situations hovered over me like a black cloud. Staying in the moment and consistent dialogue with doctors prevented my mind from escaping to unhelpful places. After heart transplant, my Boo Voice and I engaged in brutal battles. Using the same formula from 2004 has played a major role in my recovery.  

At some level, whether diagnosed with anxiety or not, we all have a Boo Voice. Everyone has different triggers. During these uncertain times, worry consumes most of our days. Will family members get sick and die? Will our kids lose out in their education? Will the vaccine work? When will life get back to normal? On top of all that, we still have to deal with the little daily annoyances that can ruin our days. 

How can we keep our Boo Voices from getting the best of us? Try this 3-part strategy. It helps me get through the toughest of times.

  1. Communication

The best option is a therapist, support group, spiritual advisor, or journal (all 4 is most effective). If these don’t fit your budget or comfort level, your significant other or bestie will work. The downside is that those close to you have skin in the game, so they’re not optimal. The most important thing is to talk it out.

  1. Meditation – Mindfulness

This is another concept that didn’t fit into my boyhood worldview. Taking mindfulness classes in 2004 and studying Buddhist principles for 10 years changed my mind. Meditation is really hard to do, but worth it. It helps you focus and calm the mind. A great tool is the Calm App. It’s about $70 a year to subscribe. The first year is free for Kaiser members.

  1. Pursue a Healthy Passion

Alcohol, drugs, food, sex, parties, and other guilty pleasures are quick, but temporary bandaids for the Boo Voice. When you remove the bandage, the cut is usually deeper. I’m not preaching. I get it. I’ve never been threatened by a good time. Healthy is the key word. I love writing, reading, and mentoring others. Find your healthy passion and do it.

Like everything worthwhile in life, what I just laid out is not easy. It takes hard work and dedicated commitment. I wish I could say that I’ve conquered my Boo Voice once and for all. Of course, I haven’t. Most likely I will battle it for the rest of my life because of biology. Medication helps with that part.

Fortunately, you most likely don’t have generalized anxiety disorder. Events and circumstances are the cause of worry and depression. I work hard on my 3-part strategy to manage the environmental causes of anxiety everyday and it makes my life so much better. You can do it too. Give it a try. It takes time. Be patient. I’m on year 17 working with this strategy and life continues to get better every day.

It’s All in Your Mind

Mom and Dad circa 1966

“You have power over your mind – not outside events.” – Marcus Aurelius, 1st-Century Roman Emperor and Philosopher

***

Imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to the mid to late 1960s. Standing at an elegant bar is a handsome, well-groomed man with the subtle scent of English Leather cologne on him. He’s wearing a slim-cut black suit, crisp white shirt, dark tie, and black shoes polished to a soft sheen. He casually leans against the bar with his right forearm on the varnished oak countertop with a drink in his right hand.

Deep in thought, the gentleman takes a slow drag of a cigarette held between his left index and middle fingers as it softly sits on his pursed lips. He squints through the smoke looking into an empty space while he’s deep in thought. Any number of things that complicate his life could be swirling in his mind. Frank Sinatra, you say? Dean Martin, perhaps? Or could it be Don Draper? 

The answer is none of the above. The image is how I remember my dad when I was about 4 or 5 years old. He looked like the quintessential man of the 60s, especially when he dressed up. My dad worked at the post office, so he didn’t usually wear a suit and tie. I think he owned 2 suits, 1 black and 1 charcoal, for special occasions. His normal dress code was a pair of slacks, a button up long sleeve shirt, and always shined dress shoes.

Family and close friends called my dad Lico. He was smart and read regularly, even though I’m not quite sure he ever graduated from high school. He served on an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy during WWII. He was articulate and charming, armed with a quick wit and a smile that could light up a room. He was also stubborn, sarcastic, and uncompromising. His condescending words and facial expressions of disapproval cut deeper than any spanking.

In many ways, my dad was a man of his times. He worked hard to provide for his family and unabashedly believed in traditional gender and parent/child roles. In his world, the man was king of his castle. Dad’s word was final, no discussion, no debate, no nonsense. He was a classic rugged-individualist who believed that no one – NO ONE – was responsible for his own success or failure other than himself. 

In other ways, he was way ahead of his time, especially for a Mexican American father in those days. He didn’t want his children to work in “traditional” Latino jobs. He encouraged us to read, explore, and get a college education. He thought deeply and could be philosophical about the ways of the universe. Understanding that life was unpredictable and unforgiving, he always had a thoughtful response in any situation. He expressed these thoughts through what I call Licoisms

He had a treasure trove of these sayings. Some of my favorites include: “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” (be patient), “it’s easier said than done” (don’t take anything for granted), and “get off of your high horse” (show humility). “It’s all in your mind” was my least favorite Licoism when I was a kid. Every time I thought life was unfair and looked for sympathy, that was his response.

When I was about 12 years old, I remember getting ready for a backyard party. It was a blistering hot day, and I was expected to wear slacks and a button up shirt because my dad’s relatives were going to be there. I complained endlessly to my mom about the heat. I wanted to wear shorts and a t-shirt. She empathized with me, but still told me I would have to take it up with my dad. Well, I knew that wasn’t going to fly.

Nevertheless, before guests started to arrive, I worked up the courage to ask him if he felt hot wearing long sleeves and dress pants. He turned and looked at me with his trademark sarcastic smirk. I braced myself for what I expected would be a flurry of cutting Licoisms flying my way. He asked if I knew what the temperature was outside. At least 100, I guessed. He followed up by saying, “it doesn’t matter what I wear, it’s still 100 degrees. The heat is all in your mind, mijo.”

As the years passed by, I began to appreciate the saying. After spending a summer in the ICU, it came in handy. My body lost all muscle function from being in a coma and lying on a bed for about 70 days. I couldn’t even lift a finger. Doctors said strength would return with rehabilitation. It sounded impossible. Although he had been gone for 15 years, I heard Lico’s voice telling me, “it’s all in your mind, mijo.”

Let’s face it. Let’s be real. Life isn’t easy. The past year serves to remind us of that. The pandemic, political division, isolation, the summer fires, smokey skies, and on and on. Added to all of that was the grind of daily life. Throughout my personal life, I’ve had my share of struggles. There was that hot summer day in 1975, the passing of my mom, dad, and a sister, a health crisis, and yeah, that every day stuff. 

Did those things not happen? Yes, they did. Was it all in my and our minds? Of course not. It’s life’s way of saying that nature is in charge. We all experience unfortunate events and phenomena. They’re circumstances that aren’t within anyone’s power to control. Can they harm us? The short answer is it depends. Marcus Aurelius tells us that we have power over our own minds and not much more. That’s what my dad meant by, “it’s all in your mind.”

I don’t know where he came up with that pearl of wisdom. I’m sure life experiences, his intellectual curiosity, and catchphrases from his Depression Era generation all contributed to his thinking. Did he read the ancient philosophers? Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. One thing for sure is that he understood that suffering is mostly caused by our own thoughts, not by the chaos that surrounds us.

Although my dad was a wise man, he didn’t have the answer on how to tame the anguish that churns in our minds. His solution? There wasn’t much that a cigarette and a highball glass full of V.O whiskey and water on the rocks couldn’t resolve. I don’t think that worked for him. I’m pretty sure he suffered from depression and anxiety. I’ve followed a similar path, also with little success. Other people use the same strategy with food, shopping, sex, drugs, etc.

Whether it’s fear of an uncertain future or the inconvenience of kids learning from home because of a pandemic, life sucks if we allow the craziness around us to find a home in our consciousness. A plan to achieve long-term inner peace and some kind of happiness shouldn’t have to depend on any of the sensually pleasing distractions that temporarily relieve our pain. There has to be a better way to deal with nature’s whims. 

Now imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to a time in the very near future. Covid is still here making family and friends sick, your kids are driving you up the wall because they’re bored at home, your spouse is on your nerves more than usual, and California is in full-blown drought. That’s not even the worst of it. Your company is going belly up and you don’t know from one day to the next if you’ll have a job.

Despite all of that, you don’t feel stressed, sad, frustrated, or angry. You’re not thinking of giving up or murdering your entire family. While driving home in dreadful traffic, you whistle to your favorite song on the radio, rather than flipping the bird to some idiot on the road. You can’t control what’s happening outside of your car. It’s all in your mind. So, you feel calm as you inch through the freeway. 

Is it even possible to feel at peace in this situation? I think it is and I’m intent on discovering the secret. Please keep reading ESEReport.com in the coming weeks and months. I’m going on an adventure to find the answer to inner peace and happiness. I plan to be brutally honest with myself and readers. I’m not sure I’ll get there, but the ride should be fun. I hope you find a few minutes in your hectic day to come along with me.