When I was in elementary school, I used to play tether ball with the other kids during recess. They would stand on one side of the pole and hit the ball to me, in hopes that I’d miss it, allowing the tether to wind tightly around the pole, immobilizing the ball and giving them the win. Nine times out of ten, this would happen. The remaining time, I’d get hit in the face. I wasn’t the most coordinated child, nor the most sporty. The ball–attached, anxious and frenzied–sped up on its mission, not caring who was in its way, and my giant melon head was more than happy to be a target. Perhaps this was why I was such a valuable opponent. Easy to beat, vulnerable–likely to produce a good laugh. Little kids can be cruel, can they not? Thankfully, I am a grownup now and get to choose more pleasurable activities for “recess.”
On occasion though, I still get a virtual slap in the face from the tether ball of life. It happens when the anxiety starts to get in my way and I’m forced to look at my train of thought, and the feelings that accompany it, so that paralysis doesn’t set in. Why am I tethered to a certain way of doing things? What can be lost when I interact with others who get themselves wrapped up around a proverbial pole? What happens to those around me when I’m the ball on the end of that string, moving towards the goal no matter what I encounter along the way?
These are valuable questions we can all ask ourselves.
Any setting–even my most cherished escapes–can be a trigger for this elementary school game.
A few months ago it was the beach–my solace–that became the latest venue for this fundamental match between me and my brain. You’d think I’d jump at any chance to smell the sea, feel the sand beneath my toes, and let my thoughts dissolve under the sound of waves crashing onshore. When my daughter asked me if we could go, instead of immediately giving her an enthusiastic yes, I felt myself turning quickly into a tethered ball…of jangled nerves.
A thousand thoughts rushed through, not just my head, but my entire body, activating all of my nerve endings–it’s too late, there will be traffic, the water is too cold, it’s too windy, we’ll get sandy, dirty, there are too many things to take, something, anything will go wrong, you name it–as if my body automatically calculated every possible negative outcome, spat them out into my brain…and on my lips the word “no” began to form.
This is my anxiety.
I’m an observer, and while I realize that there are many symptoms I share with others who deal with this affliction daily, it can also show up differently for everyone. This is the way it shows up for me.
I see much of this same behavior in my little girl…the unending amount of questions when she is unsure of something, running through all possible outcomes to try to calm herself. It is not a trait I wanted to pass down.
Not wanting to disappoint her, and having no valid reason to say no, I stopped myself. Don’t tell her no. Don’t let her see you wrap yourself around a pole, that would mean the anxiety wins, and she loses.
So instead, I said yes.
We went to the beach. Yes, there was traffic. Yes, the water was cold. Yes, it was windy, but it was beautiful.
After insisting upon dipping our toes in the icy water, an errant wave advanced farther up the shore than either of us anticipated, and my pants were wet from the knees down. She screamed with delight and I had to laugh because sand now covered both of us. The sand has often been one of my daughter’s triggers and as I thought she might, slowly she began to turn into the tethered ball. As much as I tried to distract her from her discomfort, she went from happily playing to being so bothered she wanted to go home. Just like the ball, she wrapped herself around the pole until her play quite literally stopped.
Thankfully, this doesn’t happen all the time. We are a work in progress. Every day, she reminds me that there often is no need to get wound up, no need to get tangled around the tether ball pole. After many years, I’ve come to realize I don’t need to do things the right way, or my way because neither guarantee a desirable outcome. She reminds me of what I can lose if I start foolishly thinking I can control how things go. On our not-so-good days, she reminds me of what we both can lose if she follows in my fretful footsteps. And on most days, she reminds me just how awesome things are if I allow myself to become untethered.
*Note: I wrote this post back in December of 2014 but for various reasons, haven’t shared it until now. It still holds true to me, and I hope it resonates with you.