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Facing Fierce Fears

As a medical social worker, I have witnessed both in my patients and clients. I saw my parents take a downhill slide as they aged, even though they did so with grace. I have a difficult time allowing myself to be taken care of, since my role has long been that of caregiver. As I face my fears, they become less fierce.
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I like to think of myself as a courageous person and although I don't climb mountains, dive off cliffs or jump out of perfectly good airplanes, I do what I call emotional bungee jumping on a daily basis. That means having from -- the -- heart, transparent relationships with the people in my life and taking a look at impediments to realizing my dreams and desires. Sometimes I coast along as if riding a bicycle down a gradual slope, with my hands in the air, enjoying the view. Other days, and they are blessedly rare, I lose myself in cavernous depths of self doubt.

In the past few years, since crossing the threshold from my 40s to my 50s, I have noticed the phenomenon that many in my generation are facing -- call it brain blip, middle-aged moments, menopause brain, or, as I prefer to think of it, wise-woman moments, since ideally, the older we get, the wiser we become. Lots of things have been slipping through the cracks of my cerebral container. I remember my mother bemoaning that her brain was like a sieve in her later years. I used to laugh as I imagined the blue and white colander that was a staple in our kitchen for all of my childhood with my mom's mind oozing out through the holes. I also reminded her that the more she said it, the more she reinforced it.

I was determined not to meet the same fate and was certain that I wouldn't, since I am a voracious reader, professional writer, and am constantly learning new things, thus increasing my neuroplasticity. The uh-oh factor has been creeping in when I noticed that I was forgetting where I left keys, important papers, cell phone, my mind. I would often walk into the front office of the counseling center where I work as an addictions therapist and could not recall what I went there to retrieve. I would then need to walk back to my office and stand where I was when I thought of what I wanted to get in the first place. It was at that moment when the uh-oh became an aha!

More troubling is having a completely blank slate when attempting to call up someone's name. I know that we have met and that they have introduced themselves to me. I may even have used their name in conversation and then, nothing. When I am with a friend and see someone approaching who I know I know, I quickly whisper, "Introduce yourself to them first, so I will hear their name."

I have used all kinds of tricks and tools, by imagining hearing their name said aloud, by recalling their identity by remembering their spouse or partner's name and then linking the two together. Picking up the phone and not recalling who I was calling, getting in my car, driving to a familiar intersection and then wondering which way I am supposed to turn, having conversations about profound subjects and then when describing this to another person, I can't retrieve the name of the original person with whom I shared the experience, have become common occurrences for me.

I have played on the Lumosity web site where there are games and tools to sharpen minds. I have begun to (sounding like my paternal grandmother minus the Russian voice inflection and the "Oy vey, I'm meshuggenah." which is Yiddish for "crazy") talk to myself, saying: "Okay, got my keys, got my purse, getting in the car, driving to the gym. After that, I'm coming home, writing articles, calling so and so, editing another article, cooking dinner, programming the GPS for my trip tomorrow." And so on, until it almost seems like I have completed the tasks and am waiting for my body to catch up with my pre-plans.

Back in the fall, I heard that a local university was doing a study for menopausal women with memory problems. Leaping at the chance to rewind my steel trap memory to its former state, I met with a team of dedicated researchers/clinicians who were testing an investigational medication. I was to be the final candidate after two years of the study. I had taken a series of cognitive tests over the last month or so and was disappointed that I didn't do as well as I imagined I would with recalling a series of words and relating back as close to word for word, two stories that were shared. I was pleased that I could do face recognition with ease. I knew that I was not likely to fare well with spatial relations-type tests.

I took a series of psycho-social tests and no surprise, I wasn't experiencing depression and rarely have anxiety. My Type A overachiever came out full force as I wanted to "do this right," look good, sound articulate and leave a positive impression. After all, as a therapist for more than 30 years, these women were my professional peers, in addition to being researchers in the study.

I was delighted that I did well with some of the numerical tests, since words and not numbers are my passion. I am a professional listener, so I thought for sure I would soar through the word-related tests. Felt myself tearing up a bit in frustration and wondered if I really was losing my marbles. The young psychologist administering the test was kind and patient with me -- far more than I was with myself. Naturally, the more flustered I felt, the less able I was to concentrate and the more mistakes I made and the more exasperated I became. I took lots of deep breaths in a valiant attempt to hold it together.

The next step was an MRI in which I would be doing more cognitive tests while lying in the machine. Changing into "elegant" hospital gowns, with matching tan slipper sox, walking through a metal detector to be sure I wouldn't upset the machinery, I assumed I was ready to roll. I've never been claustrophobic, so naturally I thought I would ace that part, too. Imagine my shock as I was all tucked in, earplugs in to muffle the thudding sound, when I went into no-exit terror, panic mode.

I started hyperventilating and it felt like I was being suffocated. I pushed a button to come out of the machine and collect myself. The tech asked if I needed a few minutes to see if I wanted to try again. I said I did and began breathing and coaching myself through it. I reminded myself that I was safe and that it would be done in an hour. No amount of encouraging self talk worked. I went back in and within moments, emerged again. I apologized to the tech who was reassuring that I hadn't totally lost it, the woman who had walked me over to the building in single digit, arctic chilly wind temps, and to the researcher who had been working with me through this study over the last month or so.

Once I was ensconced in my car, I felt like a huge weight had lifted. I feel disappointed that I won't be able to participate in the study and surprised to discover this about myself. On the way home, I was on the phone with my friend Jenny Perry who only knows me via FB and a few phone conversations. She is not directly familiar with my history or patterns. After hearing my tale of woe, she said that she was picking up on my M.O. of perfectionism and having to do it right and not wanting to let anyone down. She nailed it! Added to that idea is one that says it's not okay to change my mind. Silly, since it is one of the rules of Cuddle Party which I facilitate, about changing our minds, not only being acceptable, but encouraged.

I am wondering if some of this is past life stuff, since the sensation was like being suffocated or buried alive. I also had a thought that perhaps it was a flashback of being in hiding in a confined space during the Holocaust and then being burned in the ovens since the structure of the MRI could appear that way. I'm also glad that I made a self compassionate choice and hightailed it out of there, despite my mild self deprecation.

Today, I was driving on a snowy road, pondering what it might be like for people who are in a perpetual state of fear, either for their lives, their physical safety or that of family members from living in a literal or figurative war zone. How about folks who are trapped in cars following an accident, people who are facing end of life conditions, those who wonder if they will be able to feed themselves or their children from one day to the next. How silly it was, I initially thought, to be scared of a piece of medical equipment that I was in by choice, not of necessity as many are to diagnose serious health conditions. As I as speaking with a friend on the phone and relating this story to him, he snorted and laughed at my need to apologize to the team for preemptively ending my participation in the project. He said he was going to write a book called What the F*ck Do You Have to Apologize For?

My fears are my own and I have the right to feel whatever arises, without toughing it out as I am inclined to do or running from them. Some of them are around the area of physical and mental incapacity. As a medical social worker, I have witnessed both in my patients and clients. I saw my parents take a downhill slide as they aged, even though they did so with grace. I have a difficult time allowing myself to be taken care of, since my role has long been that of caregiver. As I face my fears, they become less fierce.