Last night, Ryan and I rolled our mats out onto the carpeted 2nd floor of a freshly stuccoed behavioral health clinic near our house. The lights overhead are fluorescent and there is a constant rumble of air conditioning—it is always too cold, as it tends to be in these types of buildings. On one wall, there are several poster-sized photos of the clinic’s employees, under the phrase “Teamwork.” The employees wear toothy, gleaming, teamwork-y smiles and bright, solid polo shirts. These overly happy, middle-aged white people are posed in an assortment of humorous positions—back to back with arms crossed, and even in a pyramid. When I look at the photos, I imagine the details of the pyramid formation, knees digging into quivering, doughy backs, a photographer nervously clicking. The idea seemed hilarious and harmless, but there’s been a violation; the intimacy is forced. It is uncomfortable to think about.
Hugh, our leader, a tiny Irishman with a heavy brogue, a receding hairline, and exaggerated, almost cartoonish, facial features, tells us to lie down. He leads us through a series of movements, simple yoga poses and stretches, and tells us to breathe and feel our abdomens rise and fall and not to release so far that we are no longer being mindful. Mindful. That is the word of these last few weeks in this class. “Breathe,” he reminds us, constantly, and then he inhales so deeply and exhales so dramatically that I am a tiny bit jealous. I want to breathe like Hugh.
Ryan and I are fascinated with him. In our weekly meetings, he drops hints about what his life used to be like before he discovered mindfulness. “I used to live on Weetabix and adrenaline,” he says, and god I want to know what that means. He used to drink excessively. He was a journalist. He’s seen war. But he never elaborates. “What do you think?” he always asks. After we practice our yoga, we sit in a circle and Hugh talks to us about the past week. I feel an irrational urge to please him. He asks me if I did my yoga and quizzes us about the body’s reaction to stress and I want to tell him the right answer. When he looks at you, he twists his mouth and furrows his forehead and stares intently. He is listening in a way that people rarely do and it is unnerving, and almost exhilarating. The meetings take place every Wednesday between 6pm and 8pm, so we are always hungry, but we can tell that Hugh frowns upon eating during his class, even though snacks are made available. He allows us a five-minute break, during which I quickly gulp down an oatmeal cookie and some green tea, returning to the circle empty-handed. I do not want to disappoint him.
We are in week 4 of an 8-week autism study about stress and parents of children with special needs. Parenting is a stressful job for anyone, we were told by the doctor conducting the study, but parents of children with special needs have much higher levels of stress and therefore suffer increased health problems, including higher mortality rates. I know that I have a problem with stress, and I can’t blame my children for that. It’s always been this way. Of course, as I have gotten older and my responsibilities have grown, my levels of stress have increased. I have so many obligations to so many people and much of the time I feel as though I’m disappointing everyone, doing a sub-par job in every area of my life. I do not need to be told that this manifests physically—I get sick and can’t sleep. I feel knots of pressure in my shoulders and neck. Worse, I get irritable with the people who love me the most. I run regularly, which helps, but not enough. So when I heard about this study in January, I signed us up.
The first night of the study, we went around the room, introducing ourselves and explaining why we were there. Many of the parents are dealing with the same sorts of problems Ryan and I deal with—balancing our obligations, managing the particular uncertainty that comes with raising a child with special needs, feeling as though we are failing. One of the women started crying, which made several of us cry. We recognized something in each other. Hugh stared back at us and listened. Then he told us to lie on the ground, our calves propped up on our chairs. The room was hot and crowded. My arms rubbed up against the stranger next to me. Hugh instructed us to close our eyes and spent several minutes asking us to think about our bodies while we “noticed” our breath. I wanted to get the hell out of there. Panic started to rise up into my chest. I began formulating a to-do list. The trunk of my car needs to be cleaned. I need to put my clothes away. I need to pack Ben’s lunch. I do not have time for this. I do not have time.
We were given a notebook and a cd with Hugh’s voice on it and told to do this “body scan” every night. In the past weeks, he has given us many other exercises to help us be mindful, or aware, of what we are doing, what we are thinking, the sensations in our bodies. I have struggled with my own resistance against this. I do not like to dwell. I do not like to sit in a circle with other people and talk about it. I like to push it away and move forward and knock down whatever is in front of me. Even though it can be exhausting, a part of me likes to be in “fight” mode, even when I don’t need to be. There’s that Avett Brothers song that says “Ever since I learned to speak/ I used all my words to fight/ with him and her and you and me/ but it was just a waste of time.” Ryan says that reminds him of me. I am starting to realize that while this has served me well in many ways, while this has helped me to survive, it is not good for me and it is time to stop, or at least to try.
It is easier to be cynical and to make fun of the photos on the wall or to be annoyed with that one parent who wears boots with her sweatpants and talks about how her diabetes makes her have to pee all of the time. But that doesn’t get me anywhere. It helps that Hugh can be funny and that I can tell he’s been through some dark places. So I am lying down as many nights as I can, and I am listening to Hugh’s voice telling me to notice my toes and the spaces in between, to feel the sensation of my breath as it enters my body, to notice my thoughts and allow them to pass. I am giving it a chance, and I think it is beginning to help.