By Anne Stanton
With anxious thoughts jabbing their minds awake each morning, some
people dont need alarm clocks any longer. Just ask Mary Sue Feldman,
a Traverse City woman who has hit bottom with $50 in her checking
account, no car, and no job.
Its very difficult to even get to sleep and its frightening when
you wake up and realize, Oh my gosh, I wasnt dreaming. This is
reality, she said.
After completing an associates degree in computer technology at
Northwestern Michigan College last spring, Feldman, 46, has worked on
and off for a temporary agency. Unable to find a full-time job, shes
three months behind rent and must move out of her four-room house near
the Civic Center. She is surrounded by heaps of stuff around her
houseremainders of a rummage sale she held in August.
I took my stuff over to Goodwill, and they said theyd take my phone,
but none of the household stuff. Father Fred is full of furniture from
people, like me, losing their homes and wont take more.
JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS
The funny thing is that Feldman thought she knew how to navigate the
ins and outs of social service agencies, in part, because she has
volunteered for the Poverty Reduction Initiative. But the landscape
has changed. Medicaid told her its refusing new applicants and
subsidized public housing has a huge waiting list. One agency refused
to help her with rent without proof of a court eviction, which she
doesnt have because shes voluntarily moving. She said shes jumped
through hoops, filled out forms, and will still lose her home.
She doesnt want to seem ungrateful, but she cant get the help she needs.
What I need most of all is a job and a job at a living wage, she
said. What do you do when youre at your wits end?
Fear and anxiety have spread throughout jobless-stricken Michigan
like a contagion. Its not uncommon to hear people confiding to
perfect strangers how they were foreclosed upon, lost a promised
pension, saw their job move to China, or were permanently sidelined by
illness or an accident.
WORRY, WORRY, WORRY
Michael Sullivan, a Traverse City-based marriage and family counselor,
has watched anxiety sweep across Northern Michigan and frequently
speaks about the issue in national and international psychology
seminarsoften with a heavy dose of his Irish Catholic humor.
He said there are two types of anxiety. One is temporary and abates
when a terribly difficult situation is resolved, such as getting a
job. But his surprising conclusion is that many people worry all the
time no matter whats going on in their lives.
With chronic anxiety, youre in a state of high worry all the time,
and you just find a new object to direct it at, Sullivan said. The
anxiety is with you during your whole life. Youre worried in high
school, college, and then its wholl you marry. And then youre
worried about your kids, paying for college, the empty nest years, and
then retirement. Hows that for hope? But the idea is you can see the
patterns of anxiety and you can fix it, usually with therapy.
If you grew up with highly anxious parents, there is a very good
likelihood that you, too, have an anxious temperament, and will pass
it onto your children. An older child is more likely to be anxious
because parents usually fret over their firstborn, said Sullivan, who
bases his comments on the ideas of Michael Kerr, director of the
Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.
The one with the worry-prone parents will have a more difficult time
becoming an independent self. Theyre the ones you see out on the
playground looking over their shoulder to see where their parents are,
while the less anxious kids are hanging upside down from the monkey
bars, he said.
Anxiety drains your energy because it takes up a lot of room in your
head, body and social life. Anxiety-prone folks are more sensitive
about gaining the approval of others, less self confident, and more
likely to get involved in a fight or a family drama. On the opposite
end of the spectrum, serene folks are more likely to be curious,
explore the world, trust relationships, and are less bothered by what
people think of them.
Although some people do suffer chronic anxiety, the levels of anxiety
seem higher than they once were because people have lost a great deal
of control over their lives, said Mary Gruman of Traverse City, a
graduate student whose mental health counseling work includes helping
families touched by addiction, mostly heroin, and grief.
Im sure that people in caves worried about where the next meal came
from, but to some degree, they had a lot more control than we have
today. Cavemen, in those days, were very close to the issue. But
today, with the forces on our lives so distant, and so much going on
in cyberspace, its very hard to feel in control, Gruman said. From
a professional standpoint, Im seeing lots of people, who in a
different time and place, wouldnt be suffering to the extent they
are, and thats because the stakes have changed.
I think where we are now as a society is fairly unprecedented. If you
look at the economics, the Depression was a terrible time. Joblessness
and homelessness were high, but families were kinder to each other.
Generally people hadnt left the general area where they were born.
They had some tie to a place.
THE LESSON OF ANXIETY
Teens are feeling especially anxious, not only because they see the
economic strife, but also because much of their social life takes
place on Facebook or similar faceless, soul-less social networking
We have practically bred a generation of people who are unfamiliar
with actual human contact and emotions because cyberspace is their
social life. Instead of learning that you wore the wrong dress while
youre at the prom, somebody is going to say something about it on the
Internet that literally millions of people could access, and you cant
do a damn thing about it.
Anxiety and hitting bottom are deeply unpleasant, but one would be
wise to be open up to the message of failure, Sullivan said.
Weve all made decisions of how things ought to be rather than how
they are, Sullivan said. Buying a house with no money down with the
belief that you will keep earning more money and can flip it. Buying
stuff on credit cards with the belief that you will get a good raise.
There was a belief going around during the dotcom buzz that our
population was blessed and would prosper doing exactly the job we
wanted to. People were making investments on the assumption of
unstoppable growth. Madoff was able to con people because they were
open to being conned. They wanted to buy the bridge that he was
And once youre faced with the facts, we Americans find we can adapt
pretty well. We say, Okay, well get busy. In some ways, the dive
down might be really useful. Reality has a way of confronting people
with the face of who they are. Its not always a pretty picture. But
you have to have a base to start with. If there is a reoccurring
problem in your life, what is the world telling you? Human nature is
to blame the world, not ourselves. But maybe our plan is based on an
illusion, and thats why we keep screwing up. Maybe there is something
we are doing over and over, a reason why no one wants to be around us.
You dont end up emotionally isolated by mistake.
THE UGLY TRUTH
A true friend will level with you about the patterns that keep
appearing in your life, he said.
But how do you face the ugly truth about yourself without going into
the deep abyss of depression? Sullivans advice is to reach out to
your family, friends, or a support group. Group dynamics help keep you
thinking rationally, he said.
There is something about social interaction we all need. When you are
isolated and anxious, you can get paranoid and think bizarre thoughts.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they tell the members, The time you need
to go to a meeting the most is when you dont feel like going. You
need a belief system thats outside of your own noggin.
Good advice, agreed Gruman. Human contact and especially human touch
have the capacity to ground a person.
Its not so much we crave it, but its a way of reassuring ourselves
that everything is all right. But to some extent the ways we would
draw comfort from contact have left us, not completely, but to a
degree. If I know Mr. Smith is going to take care of that package for
me, thats fine. But when it goes through a machine, I know a robot
doesnt care. Customer service is automated; on the phone, were not
asked to talk, but to punch in a number. We go to an ATM instead of a
teller. We scan our own groceries. We email a friend instead of pick
up a phone.
SEEK A NETWORK
And people who move or travel a lot dont have a network of friends.
Gruman is fully aware of this conundrum, having just arrived in
Traverse City in September after living in Southeast Asia for 30
People have been kind but I arrived without friends and I immediately
got pneumonia. Doctors arent seeing new patients. I can see that
networking in Traverse City is very strong, but Im not part of it. As
a newcomer, Im invisible on this horizon. I have every confidence
that I will find my way, but transitions are lonely times.
There are also two sides to the coin of networking or joining a club
or support group. Some groups thrive on anxiety, hatred, prejudice and
misplaced blame. Group dynamics can even result in violence, such as
beating someone from a minority that you blame for your misfortunes.
In this past mid-term election, people complained about hateful and
deceitful ads from both sides of the political aisle, yet they were
inevitably drawn to them, Sullivan said.
Reactivity sells. Who would people rather watch on TV? Jim Lehrer or
Glenn Beck? Its like the fight at recess. No one believes in
fighting, but everyone likes to watch one. Would you rather watch a
car going down a dirt road or see a car wreck? Were intrigued by
Taming Anxiety: What you can do
Anxiety, stress, and family fightsits a predictable and ugly bundle
when you lose your job or cant pay your bills. So how do you get
professional help when you need it most, but can least afford it?
Look for resources at the bottom of the article, but do get help.
Anyone who suffers from anxiety will likely benefit from professional
assistance in getting to the heart of the problem, said family
therapist Michael Sullivan.
In addition to counseling, its possible to find temporary relief in
what Sullivan calls placebos.
Placebos, in general, are a good thing. Id like to dispense
extra-strength placebos for these times, Sullivan said.
There are healthy placebos, such as exercise, talking to friends, and
writing out worries in a daily journal. The more destructive ones to
avoid include excessive drinking, gambling, drugging, and over-eating.
Youll also want to avoid becoming an intolerant fundamentalist,
whether its religion or the environment.
Youll have the green fundamentalist wholl complain about a
religious person knocking at their door, but then theyre intolerant
of people who eat meat. People become fundamentalists because it gives
them a sense of control, Sullivan said.
FEAR OF THE FUTURE
Sullivan said anxiety is fueled by constant obsessing about the
futureand the future is rarely as bad as people imagine.
Have you heard of the book, Why Zebras Dont Get Ulcers? They dont
have the imagination we do. Its our thinking about the future that
drives anxiety. Theres a difference in being plan-full, but not
obsessive, Sullivan said.
Besides reaching out to friends, Sullivan also recommends reading,
which he said is an extraordinary coping mechanism. Theres actually a
term for thisbibliotherapyand it takes many forms, from reading
Proust, Rilke and the Bible, to self-help books that outline coping
skills for your specific mental malady.
Its meditative, its an outside reference, Sullivan said. A book
attends to you a bit more than movies and its less anxiety-producing
than television. Media usually provokes an anxious response and the
hope of resolve. The house might be on fire, but, hey, its really
not, and in between the show Ill sell you something. And to do that,
I must first convince you in the commercials that youre not good
enough the way you are or you dont have enough things. Because if
youre already good enough, how can I get you to buy anything?
When a person reads a book, they immerse themselves in the words by
producing mental images and acting out the drama in their minds. In
contrast to visual media, a reader becomes more actively engaged in
OTHER WAYS TO COPE:
Here are Sullivans other suggestions to cope with your anxious moments:
Good sex, dark chocolate, and music that touches you.
Call up a relative youve been neglecting.
If youre broke for the holidays, write down a plan of free things
to do such as forming a caroling group or hosting a potluck.
Volunteer at a food bank and meet people who are even poorer than you are.
Walk outside in all kinds of weather, preferably with a friend.
Make time to calm your noisy brain with meditation, prayer or a
slow walk in the woods. This helps you learn how to be more in the
moment and less scared of the future.
Finally, put your lean days into perspective. In life, there are
phases when you are making lots of money and times when you dont. Be
patient. Problems arent solved as quickly as a 30-minute sitcom would
And ask yourself, are you any worse off than you were growing up?
People have this illusion things are worse, but how many bathrooms
did you have as a kid? said Sullivan, who is 59. When I grew up, we
had seven people sharing one bathroom. Now most homes have a TV in
every room. We had one to fight over. More people than ever are living
at a higher standard.
Here are starting points for free or low-cost counseling: Third Level
Crisis Intervention Center provides crisis services and counseling for
free to anyone in Northern Michigan who asks, regardless of ability to
pay. Catholic Human Services in Traverse City provides counseling at a
sliding scale fee. Theres help for the severely mentally ill at
state-funded community mental health centers, such as North Country
Community Health. If you dont meet their criteria, theyll give you
names of area therapists who can help. There is also counseling
available at womens shelters at a sliding scale fee.