Nancy Tells Me Stories
Part One: Activating Event
The group counseling room was small. There were no windows, but there were two or three paintings showcasing bears, mountains, and bears near mountains. Maybe there was one of a fish. If there was, it was probably a trout.
I was the first one to the room. I was thirty minutes early, but when my last class of the day ended, I couldn’t think of where else to go.
I was five when my parents created a disaster kit. They filled it with face masks, medical supplies, and a ladder that could drop down from a window frame onto a deck or the ground outdoors. They put it all in a clear, plastic box and slid it under their bed. After a move from New Jersey to New York, and a move from one bedroom in the house to another, the box ended up under my bed. I made a rule to not look inside, to try to forget that it existed even as it collected dust each night that I slept.
My mom recently sent me an article that she’d clipped out of the local newspaper. The author of the article tried to coin a new name for Gen Z, calling us Gen “World War Z”—The Preppers, because of the way we are also prepping for disasters. I don’t think that’s true, though. We’re not preparing for school shootings or recessions or pandemics or climate change. They just keep happening to us. We aren’t prepping. We’re just trying to cope.
Nancy sleeps with me most nights. She likes the color purple, the right side of the bed, and telling stories in the dark after the last lamp of the night is turned off. Sometimes she tells ghost stories. Other times the stories are about the green eye of the monster that always lurks on the ceiling near my bedroom door. Last night, though, we laid in bed quietly, looking at the parking lot lights through our eyelids.
Part Two: Negative Thoughts
Out of the last twenty-four years, ten of them have been the hottest on record. Close to a sixth of my parents’ lives have been during those ten hottest years on record. It’s been nearly half of mine.
What was once anomaly feels commonplace. I’ve come to expect the warm spell that arrives in early February. The switch from winter boots to hiking boots. The changing of coats.
Perhaps it isn’t so much an anomaly as the norm now. The climate is changing rapidly. The Earth of my childhood is not the Earth of my twenties. It will not be the Earth of my adulthood.
I settled into a routine with group counseling. I brought something to snack on while I was waiting for the session to start, filled my mug with hot water and a free tea bag provided by the counseling center, and sat in the corner of the room playing sudoku on my phone. Other people would filter in and go to the seats they’d assigned to themselves. Sometimes we talked. Most times, we didn’t. Eventually Angie, the counselor, and her grad student observer would come in and start the session off with some sort of relaxation or stress management technique.
I was nineteen when I was diagnosed with anxiety. It came at the urging of friends, a month long wait on the school counselor’s list, and several events that felt like heart attacks except for the fact that I didn’t die and that the clenching of my chest went away after breathing in slowly and out even slower.
The disaster kit was because of 9/11. We lived in a town where people commuted to New York City, and my parents worked at a hospital that went on lockdown in case survivors needed urgent care.
My school locked down too. I don’t remember it. I know I was only a few weeks into Kindergarten. I’ve been told that my mom snuck out of the hospital to pick me up. What I remember is an episode of Arthur, called “April 9th,” where the school caught fire and the alarms blared over the television as the students filed out through the front doors. I learned later that it was made to help kids cope with the events of 9/11 and the emotional fallout after. At the time though, I just remembered how I’d felt scared and that show made me feel better.
Most mornings, dawn creeps into my apartment with the sound of news podcasts, which were started by the press of Nancy’s finger to the phone. The routine is to listen to The New York Times’s The Daily, then NPR News Now, then NPR’s Morning Update, then The NPR Politics Podcast, and sometimes the Wall Street Journal’s The Journal. It’s obsessive. It’s interesting. I no longer question if it’s good for my mental health, because it’s the routine that gets me out of bed, onto morning walks, to the kitchen sink to wash dishes, and into the shower.
My family picked a tree to meet at in case of an emergency. An old maple with red-purple leaves and a tall trunk. If the house were ever to set fire, that’s where our family would gather, huddled in its shade in the front yard.
“We’ll be fine, if the monster is quiet,” Nancy tells me one night. She says it out of the blue. I’d been elsewhere in my thoughts, but I drop them to listen to her soft voice, somewhere between scared and hoping for confidence. “If it yells, though, if you hear it scream in the dead of night, then you have to run for your life.”
“I know,” I say.
“You have to promise me,” she says. “Because the scream of the monster is followed quickly by fire and smoke. It obscures the room. It could choke you to death.”
“I know.” We’d been over this before.
“And it blocks the exits, heats doorknobs—”
“All while the shrill cry of the monster continues.” I finished for her. “I know.”
We’re quiet for a while.
“Maybe all you can do is hope someone will come to rescue you.” Nancy says. She shifts under the sheets, fidgeting.
“And maybe we can rescue ourselves.” I don’t commit to the statement, just leave it hanging in the air.
She stops fidgeting and slows her breathing. Barely moving her lips to speak, she says “Maybe.”
Part Three: Distortions
I’ve considered making an emergency kit, but I’m not sure what to put into it. What am I supposed to prepare for? Should I switch out my backpack with a bulletproof one and stash medical supplies in it, in case there’s a shooting and I’m unlucky enough to be there? Should I stock up on food and water in case I have to stay home for two weeks? What do I pack for a disaster that unfolds over the course of decades? At that point, would I be making an emergency kit or a lifestyle?
I moved from one coast to the other. Or almost another—Montana isn’t coastal, but it’s so far from New York that I have trouble imagining there’s land further west of here. I moved for grad school. I might have also moved to try something new, or perhaps to get away from something old. I’m not so sure anymore. What I do know is that I moved here and the anxiety followed.
One evening, as the fall afternoons were settling into winter nights, Angie passed a stack of papers around the room. I thanked the person who passed the pile to me, took one sheet, and passed it to the next person in the circle.
I looked at the paper. The top said “ABCD Method for Managing Unhealthy Thinking (aka negative thinking).” The worksheet outlined the steps for a disruptive method to reroute unhealthy thinking patterns. The outcome was to change negative thoughts into an action plan, something to help us move beyond the daily issues, get us out of bed, and help us feel better.
Nancy and I met in elementary school. We would take breaks from class to go to the bathroom. We’d walk down the hallway and take our time washing our hands. For some reason, we were always in the bathroom when the fire alarms went off.
Nancy always said that we should hide in place in the stalls. Her reasoning was that there was water in the bathroom, so we’d be fine.
But we always opted to leave instead, to join the music teacher and his class outside. It happened often enough that we fell into a routine of pausing before entering the bathroom, just to make sure the alarm wasn’t about to ring. Eventually we started avoiding the bathroom at school altogether.
My family moved to upstate New York in 2004. It was mostly because of better job offers and to be closer to family. I think it was also so we could be farther away from New York City in case something tragic happened there again.
Nancy is petrified of fire. The thought of it paralyzes her, and, when the fire alarm goes off because the toaster burnt my toast, her response is to freeze.
My response is to move our feet. To grab a towel from the kitchen drawer and flap it by the alarm until it stops screaming.
Once the papers had been passed around and our group’s attention was back on Angie, she asked us, “Has anyone heard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy before?”
When no one said anything, she added, “You might have heard of it referred to as CBT.”
There were some nods. We were all here because we had bad anxiety and wanted to learn to manage it better. Many of us had at least heard of CBT, if not tried it with our own therapists.
“Okay.” Angie had a calming voice, and she moved deliberately to the white board to write down definitions for us. “The basis of CBT is the assumption that our emotions and thoughts are related to each other, and that these relationships influence our behaviors.”
Anxiety is not necessarily bad. It’s meant to be a helpful trigger, the brain telling the body: Please be careful. Please protect yourself. Please remember that your actions will have future consequences.
Anxiety disorders morph this impulse into something more sinister. You’re in danger. You might die. Your actions will fuck up the future. At best, it’s exhausting. At worst, it’s paralyzing. Not physically paralyzing, most of the time, but the type of paralysis that makes getting out of bed difficult. The type where nothing feels worth doing if it’s done imperfectly.
Part Four: Disrupt the Thought
The monster that lurks on the ceiling isn’t all that scary in and of itself. It just perches, sleeping with an eye open.
If the story of its glowing eye were told by someone else, perhaps it wouldn’t be a monster. Maybe that eye would belong to an angel or a quiet protector who floats near the ceiling. But Nancy told me this story, and she said that it’s a monster. So that’s what it is.
Whenever I tell someone I’m in an environmental studies program, the conversation always goes to climate change. Sometimes it goes to a question. “Why should I care if I won’t feel the effects of climate change in my lifetime?” I hate that question.
People on the planet feel the effects of climate change in each hurricane that forms further east and further north than ever recorded before. We feel it in the droughts and the wildfires that are happening more frequently each year.
But even then, why should someone care if the future will be worse and they won’t be around to see it? Maybe they shouldn’t care? But I’ll still be around. My generation will be around. We’ll be the ones navigating whatever the future turns out to be.
I brought cloth tote bags to the grocery store one day, maybe in the fall shortly after moving. Maybe the following spring. The cashier, who packed my bags, had green hair and a friendly personality. We were around the same age. She complimented my bags, talked about her worries for the planet, and then told me she probably wouldn’t have kids. She thought it wouldn’t be responsible to bring life into the world we’re heading toward. I didn’t disagree, but I also wasn’t sure what to say. I wanted to reassure her. I wasn’t sure how to.
“Since our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are related, we can change our behaviors by altering our thoughts from something negative to something more useful.” Angie said, while drawing a chart on the board.
I noticed that she didn’t say “to something more positive.” People with anxiety don’t like to be told to think more positively. We want to think positive thoughts, but sometimes the sheer volume of our negative thoughts drowns everything else out. Other times, positive thoughts aren’t enough. Thinking about sunshine and vacationing on a beach isn’t helpful when you’re worrying about how you’ll find the energy to cook dinner that night.
“CBT,” Angie goes on to explain, “is how you learn to challenge the anxious thoughts. You can follow the five steps on the paper in front of you. First, identify what happened to make you anxious and then observe what negative thoughts you’re having in reaction to that event. Then you figure out how you’re distorting those thoughts. Things like: Am I making a lot of ‘should’ statements? Am I thinking in black and white terms? Am I assuming I know how other people think or feel?
“Then you challenge those thoughts. You find the root of your anxiety that was trying to be helpful, and you use that to dig yourself out of the distorted story you’ve created. Then you make a plan. To feel better. To get out of bed. To work on lessening that pattern of thinking.”
It’s morning and I oversleep the sunrise. As I pull on a hoodie, a podcast plays in the background, like it does most mornings. Nancy is trying to get me to go back to bed, also like most mornings.
Today, the podcast is an interview between a New York Times reporter and a young girl, Ella, who has OCD. I focus when the reporter starts asking the girl questions about the camp that she’d attended to help her manage her symptoms.
“I met my counselors and named my O.C.D. Ocie,” said Ella.
“Ocie? And why did you do that?” asked the reporter.
“I just like the name,” replied Ella.
Her mother piped in to tell the reporter that naming the illness helps differentiate it from the self. “You can start to ask, am I scared? Or is it Ocie?”
I visited my friend’s apartment for lunch on a day when my anxiety was particularly bad. I was trying to get down an allergy pill so I could pet her cat. My friend noticed the number of unsuccessful swallows I’d attempted. She knew that my anxiety could make my throat tighten up and cause me to worry about choking.
“Nancy’s being a real bitch today, huh?”
I nodded and finally managed to get the pill down.
“Yeah. She’s been acting up all day.”
“Yeah.” I wondered what was causing the flare-up this time.
“We can just watch Survivor instead of working today,” my friend offered.
“I’d like that,” I smiled. “Thanks.”
Part Five: Make an Action Plan
The American Psychological Association recommends a few things for individuals when it comes to supporting those whose mental health is exacerbated by issues of climate change and eco-anxiety:
- Build your own resiliency and self-efficacy.
- Be prepared by making emergency kits.
- Learn coping and self-regulation skills.
- Foster optimism.
- Maintain practices that help to provide a sense of meaning.
- Promote connectedness to family, place, culture, and community.
Over this past summer, the smell of wildfire smoke slipped through my car’s open window. It smelled like a barbecue and it stuck to the sides of my lungs, making me cough.
I went to sleep that night and didn’t wake up to glaring alarms or flames at my door. I mentioned the smell to my friend the next day, and she told me it was just a controlled burn down not too far away from where we were living.
And everything was okay.
And it wasn’t.
I keep the CBT paper from group counseling in the notebook that I carry around with me. Sometimes I need to pull it out. I identify the distortions: black and white thinking in my assumptions that I’m going to fail at my attempts to make something of myself. Filtering out the positive, when I compare myself to others and only see myself as worse than them. Catastrophizing when I assume an apocalyptic future that I can’t possibly know will come true.
And then I walk it back. Learn to talk gently, and to find that the root of my worry is more often than not a hope that the future will be okay.
I try to change fear into action and worry into safety nets. A hope becomes sustained effort toward a future that’s better than the present.
The parking lot lights filter through my curtains at night. They aren’t harsh, just a hum of yellow. Almost comforting.
Most nights I light a diffuser. The whirring of its internal mechanism and the mist that it makes mix with the thrum of the heater that warms my apartment, lulling me to sleep.
Nancy is still with me every night, but she’s gotten quieter. I’ve learned how to quiet her. The green eye of the monster that lives on my ceiling is mostly still there, but Nancy’s stories no longer make him a monster. Some nights, he’s not there at all. It’s just the light of the fire alarm, ready to alert me if it needs to.
E Pellegrino is a queer writer and science communicator with a passion for geology and the environment. They recently graduated with a Masters in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana, and now live in the Eastern Great Lakes region of New York around family. Their work can be found in Gandy Dancer.