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  • Jennifer Widemire Smith

Anxiety—The Rope That Hangs Itself, With Me In It

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

There is nothing easy about being an adult dyslexic in the world of non dyslexics. You walk into invisible walls constantly. Many friends recently have talked about how debilitating anxiety and dyslexia can be. I've had a lot to say, but have actually found myself having a hard time formulating my thoughts. I've experienced more than my fair share of anxiety, so I get it. I really do. Albert Einstein is one of my favorite dyslexics to study in history—that's right. He was dyslexic!

Einstein is largely regarded as one of THE greatest minds of all time. Did you know that in his early years he was often made to feel stupid for how his mind worked? He was such a "bad" student in school that he was denied college entrance due to poor grades----the dean of admissions was a dumbass!

When talking about poor math skills to his students he said, "Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater." His dyslexia effected his ability to write numbers and letters in correct sequence—arguably a necessary skill set for a physicist. In regards to limitations Einstein said, "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them."

If you’ve followed me recently you know that I’m a fan of the US Navy SEALs. Technically I’m a fan of our military as a whole. BUT, the SEALs? They hold a special place.

To be clear, I’ve never actually met a frogman to my knowledge. I have no personal connection to the teams, but they’ve changed my life.

It all started because a writing exercise formed that turned into something more. Then some enormous life events rocked my little family. Over the past 13 months my life and everything I thought I knew about myself changed.

Everyday we could feel the strain of stress and anxiety, and not just your run of the mill garden variety. "Would the bank seize our home? How would we be able to keep food on the table? How do we survive?"

These were questions we never thought we’d ask ourselves. My husband's workplace closed. We were denied unemployement. We couldn’t find a new job. We were allotted $350 a month for four people in food stamps. Finding the money for gas to take the kids to school was a struggle. Everything that could break, freeze, flood, spark, crack, did so, including the cars. On top of it we had two little dyslexics struggling to overcome their own daily anxiety.

Our parents helped. Our friends helped. We found odd jobs—jobs no one wanted to do, like haul trash to the city dump. We did whatever we had too. We survived. But it took its toll. There’s nothing more crushing on the soul than not being able to provide for your family and having to rely on handouts—no matter how kindly or freely they are given. Your self respect take’s a nose dive.

During this same time I also became very ill with a very rare bacterial infection. I had an 87% chance of dying from it. I didn’t. However, when I went home my doctor put me on house arrest. For several months my kids had to come home from school, take their shoes off at the door, strip out of their clothes, throw them in the wash machine and shower before they could even hug me. No school germs for mommy!

During one of my first outings back in public someone came up to me and said, “Yay you’re all better. So are you going to try to find a job now to help support Josh while he continues to look for one?” I bit my tongue and deflected. While I was willing, the only job I qualified for was minimum wage that would cost me double the hourly wage in childcare. Yeah. That was a win-win! Not to mention I had multiple full time jobs encouraging my husband, encouraging my kids, and teaching their teachers about dyslexia. I think people forget how big a deal the nurturing roll of a mother and wife are to a family, esp one going through hell.

A few weeks later I would again be facing down a life threatening infection that had me writing letters to my kids apologizing for not being there to teach them to drive, see them graduate, get married, start a family... A friend once described our lives as a tornado of cataclysmic events rolling in as a wave—one issue recends as another rushes in.

So no shit, there we were facing real life, real death, and war on every front. I think a lot of people can relate but I can assure you the things we faced on a daily basis were not your normal amounts of civilian life adversities. It wasn't raining. It wasn't pouring. It stopped being a monsoon about 5 months ago.

So what do you do in times like that? Hide under the covers? Shut the world out? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Some days I did just that.

Do you cry? A lot.

Do you give up?

Give up?

If I gave up, my kids would go hungry.

If I gave up, the bank would take the house and we’d be homeless.

If I gave up, my husband might give up too and I'd lose my marriage—I actually like my husband.

If I gave up my children would most certainly learn to give up. Children do what they see their parents doing. My children are dyslexic. If I teach them to give up, they’ll never graduate.

We’ve been in the fight of our lives. No I wasn’t fighting an enemy with bullets flying around me, this time, even though the hubs has—once. I was fighting infection. I was fighting the sinking feeling in my gut when I looked in my empty fridge and couldn’t think of what to cook that night. I was fighting the effects of anxiety and dyslexia in both myself and my children. I was fighting off feelings of worthlessness. Feelings of frustrations that made me actually scream.

That phrase, "I got so mad I wanted to scream!" Well forget wanting too, I was actually locking myself in the car and doing it. I was fighting my own body that was revolting under the stress and adding on pounds. I was fighting to maintain love and grace for my husband when the selfish desire to assign blame reared its head. I was fighting panic attacks while driving down the road. I was fighting the adrenaline rush that came whenever a bill showed up in the mailbox.

The last 13 months have been a sustained, ongoing, relentless fight—not a single day was easy. I couldn’t give up. Yes I most certainly wanted too! But I couldn’t. Giving up meant death. Literally.

Maybe that’s why I’ve latched onto the SEALs. Giving up for them means death too.

In between, and sometimes during, the hits I’ve been writing a fictional novel the hero is a Navy SEAL. It’s a long story of how I got to the idea. An even longer story of why I decided to write it. But originally it was just an exercise. A way to unload my thoughts and feelings over the past few years about some heavy concepts—grief, loss, overcoming, love, sacrifice, honor, and commitment. When my husband found my little exercise, he caught me off guard with how much he liked it. He encouraged me to turn it into a book—more like wrestled and wore me down. It took me several days to concede, I mean it’s a romance book about a Navy SEAL—could I be any more cliche???

But that was kind of the point. My husband hates reading romances. I know because I've asked him to read a few with me. "Pass." But this one he said, "You hooked me Jen and I hate romance shit." Okay technically it crosses genres into military suspense. The male comradery is pretty awesome. But it’s still got romance amongst the 4 or so combat scenes. It also has a Harley Davidson, and not just any harley, a knucklehead. And the most awesome car ever—a 1968 Ford Shelby Mustang, Fast Back, named Lucile…but I digress.

When I decided to make it a book I set out to read and study the SEALs. Who are they? What are they truly like? How can I make my character more realistic? In fact the question I wrote out for myself to answer was this: “If a SEAL picked up my book and read it would he say, ‘she got it right’?"

That’s an ambitious tall order to fill—not to mention a tad bit arrogant. After all, I am a civilian chick. What the hell do I know about military or special operations life? I’m not connected enough to know if I was making a mistake or not. However, this idea I had would not let me go. If I didn't study or write that day I would dream about it. More than once my subconscious has beat the crap out of me for not doing something consistent in my task. So I stayed undeterred. I gathered every book, every article, every forum I could get to and studied. I found the SWCC forums to be delightfully entertaining, but I suspect that's because I have a slightly twisted, dark sense of humor too. What I found incredibly interesting was when I found dyslexia amongst the Damn Few. My worlds collided. And the "research" took on a more personal aspect and began to spill over...

I read "The Power of Thought" by Brandon Webb. In his book he challenged me to use my thoughts to propel me to achieve whatever I was needing to achieve despite any setbacks. After reading it I decided I would clean my house.

Now maybe to you that’s a weird thing to juxtapose—a Navy SEAL talking about honing your thoughts, to, stay at home wife chores—I thought it was hilariously ironic. But it worked for me. I thought it would take me a week tops to do. I needed to give stuff away, minimize, and streamline—one corner at a time.

What I thought would take me a week took me 46 days, 22 trips to goodwill, and a whole lotta of self discipline and internal dialogue. Something incredible happened. I found out how to conquer the “I’m really sore and I don’t want to do this again” attitude.

While I was cleaning out closets and boxes I found something that I’m going to treasure for years to come. Seriously it's going next to the family photo album with prominence. It was a book. A hardbound book. I couldn't remember where it had come from.

I thought maybe it had been given to us when we were dealing with "issues" from when Josh, my husband, had been shot during a failed attempt at armed robbery—the robbers failed and even though Josh was ultimately hurt he'd stood his ground even after he was bleeding. He's kind of a stud and he's all mine. But can I just tell you, being jobless for 13 months was sooo much harder than the emotional, physical, and traumatic event of having bullet wounds in your husband, a 9 month old little boy, and finding out your pregnant two weeks later. Fun times.

Yes we’ve been through more than our fair share of shitty things.

The curious thing is upon writing this story I went back and checked. The book wasn't written back then. So I still have no idea how this book ended up in a box, in the top of my closet, with the bullet frag the docs pulled out of Josh's leg.

Either way we never read it. Now I am dyslexic. Reading a physical hardbound book is very difficult and time consuming for me. Kindles make it easier. Audible makes it a cinch. A hard bound? Ugh. Shoot me. But I was heavily invested into studying the SEAL world, and the title had a curious siren's song calling my name—"Unbreakable."

I opened it and began to read the introduction. Now at this point in my life. I’ve become a writer—clearly. I am sensitive to things like flow, style, flow, word use, flow, grammar, FLOW...REDUNDANCY.

In the introduction author Thom Shea used the words “Internal Dialogue” 14 times in 3 pages of text. Normally, this would have been a death sentence for this book. Not that day though. I stayed the course determined to read every word I could. In chapter one he continued using those same two words. I remember saying out loud, “I swear if you say those words one more time...” He said them again. Exacerbated, I again talked back, “Good Lord Thom stop telling me you’re going to tell me what Internal Dialogue means and just tell me so we can move on!”

This makes me chuckle just thinking about it especially now that I finished the book as of yesterday.

For me, a dyslexic, flow is the MOST important part of a book. If the flow is off I'll get a headache and I will need to put the book down. I know this about myself so I’m pretty good at working around it. Redundancy breaks the flow. After 20 minutes I closed the book, took a break, and did more work on my house. Something very intriguing happened. I was instantly aware of my internal dialogue. "Internal Dialogue" was on repeat like a freaking broken record.

“Gah there’s so much to do with this house. How am I ever going to finish? What was I thinking? Maybe I should stop and just shove it back into the closet. The house looks better than it has in years already. I've done enough.”

“I want you to listen to how you speak to yourself. When you feel like quitting tell yourself to do the opposite and get on with it. Internal Dialogue matters. Internal Dialogue runs the show.” —Thom, with Jen paraphrase.

“Yes Sir!” I saluted in my head. I kept at it until it got late. I stopped where I was and knew the next day I’d pick it back up again, for as long as it took to finish.

Huh—internal dialogue he says?

I still found myself hating how often he used it until it hit me. I’d learned this technique in psych 101. Hell, Sheldon Cooper did it to Penny on the Big Bang Theory. It’s called psychological conditioning. By overusing the words he was conditioning the reader to become aware of their own internal dialogue—the guys a freaking genius! I think it was also a little bit of a test. If you can't stay determined to read through chapter one you're probably not going to get very much out of his book.

I poured a finger of honey bourbon, crawled into bed and opened the book again. It got very good very fast and had me snorting, laughing, and spewing my drink. My husband was wondering what was so funny so I read it aloud and when one of the team guys threatened the French adventure racers my laughter could not be contained. I had to stop reading to catch my breath. Told you, dark sense of humor.

I got to the challenges of exercising daily, repelling off a 100 foot cliff, and walking for 24 hours with only taking 10 minute breaks. I couldn’t believe it. That sounded so hard to me. I went to sleep thinking about what it would be like to walk for 24 hours straight.

I dreamed about it.

I dreamed I’d done it.

I woke up wanting to do it.

Now, background on me, I was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis when I was 10 years old. But before that diagnosis I was told I’d torn something in my knee and was instructed to stop ALL activity. I became a couch potato for a year. Then I was told. “Oops we made a mistake. Best thing you can do now is move." I remember thinking, “Do you have any idea how much it hurts to be active now?”

Eventually the arthritis went into remission but not before it left its parting gift—an 80 year old left knee, a pretty messed up back, and a massive penchant for swelling. After giving birth to my two kids in rapid succession and never doing much of anything to get my core strong again, I woke up one morning sick with RSV. My whole body was coiled tight as a snake and inflamed. I coughed (coughed, people!!!). L4 went one way. S1 went the other way and L5 went “holy hell stop!” (to all you non medical people that's the bottom of your back and hips area).

I went down for three solid weeks needing my husband’s very strong arms to pull me up just to go to the bathroom. It was a fight to walk without pain for well over a year. Two small bulging discs and a bum knee. Soo awesome.

When I awoke that morning wanting to do Thom Shea's challenges I heard myself mercilessly laughing, “You can’t even do the laundry without hurting your back. You can’t even do the lowest weight setting with the lowest reps possible on the gym machines without your knee swelling to three times it’s size. You? Repel down a cliff? You? Walk for 24 hrs straight? Ha!”

I tentatively began to talk to Josh about it. He too found it intriguing even though he has a bullet frag resting against the main nerve in his ankle and walking for that long could, in theory, prove very difficult for him. Neither of us actually committed, but both of us stood grinning wondering if we had what it took to do it.

I told my laughing internal dialogue to go to hell and wondered how I could get my knee and back in shape enough to pull the challenge off?

I knew what Jocko Willink would tell me to do but that guy’s a freak. But still. The collective SEAL voices and words that I had read for over a year had been creeping into my internal dialogue. Then on I found a marine named Alex Hollings. Every Sunday he writes a column called “Old Man Fitness.” Now granted, I’m not a military guy. I’m not an old man. I'm not even a dude. That notwithstanding, he had made a point several times that stuck in my head, “It’s about finding YOUR limits and finding ways to push past them.”

My limits?

My limits were so punny that a child was more capable. All the same, I decided to own them. I needed to do what the 80 year olds do. Ohhh the joys of owning your limits, I’m 35 years old and I needed to join the elderly adult aerobics classes. Can you say BOHICA? (Bend Over Here It Comes Again)

Now here’s the other deal. I had no money. No income. We were broke and suffering. How the hell am I going to get in shape? I mean I don’t even own a pair of decent tennis shoes. All my clothes were boutique bought because, well, I’m high maintenance like that.

What? I’m a sassy, blonde hair, blue eyed, southern chick. I like dressing nice! I might be broke now but I wasn’t before hell descended...

It didn’t matter. I was going to be committed to the task. I had no idea how I was going to pull it off—yet. All I knew was I would find a way. I was also really f-ing tired of letting financial issues rule my decisions. I began to think of things I could do at home.

I knew doing it at home would suck. I have an 80 lbs hound dog that moves faster than lightening, has often gotten underneath me while doing a plank, and flipped me over onto my back. All so he could lick my face. To him yoga mats are a game. Nonetheless, I remained committed to finding the solution. I could walk around the block. Sure it's 110 degrees outside with 90% humidity in the deep south for 90% of the year. But Shea could hike up hill, with a 150 million pounds rucksack, in temps of 120, with hot gatorade. I could handle the South.

Sure. Uh huh. Ok. Maybe I needed to make yoga more exciting and find a way to block the dog's assault. It's not a good idea to go from the extreme of sofa life to the hardest thing possible. "Build up to it Jen."

The next day my solution came out of the blue. My friend called and said, “I need a workout partner. I just got diagnosed with arthritis and I want someone who knows what it’s like. I thought of you. If I cover the expenses to the gym with a pool will you come swim and walk with me?”

“Hell yes!” I eagerly replied.

We joined the geriatrics in their water aerobics classes. Within one week I’d hit my first limit. I was ready to transition into something that demanded a little more effort.

Freestyle lap swimming.

Everything about it was perfect. The water offered the joints that were hurt the support they needed while I could push the 35 year old parts of me the way they needed.

I also had to laugh, once again, at the irony. I was swimming, finding my limits, and pushing past them all because a couple of SEAL books, a news outlet—created by a SEAL, for the SEAL communities, and a marine had gotten inside my head and challenged me. Let me explain: SEAL is an acronym it means SEa Air and Land. They swim. A lot...

For me swimming was about becoming unbreakable. If I didn't find a way to be unbreakable I was going to break in half and I just couldn't have that. I was not backing down from life that kept hitting as hard as it could. The lane offered me a place that life couldn't touch.

It's been 11 weeks since I went from inactive, to swimming 5 days a week. At 10 weeks I found myself keeping pace with the triathletes. To give you a better idea of just how far I’ve come, the first week, I trained with an Ironman I know. She taught me to swim properly. The second week, I swam next to a guy in his 50’s. He told me he’d been swimming for 20 years and he loved it and was a triathlete. He lapped(!!!) me with his pace—which more than pissed me off. I had to remind myself:

“Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

I worked on my technique. Doing each move as correctly as I could. My only focus was on getting stronger.

At week 7 the same guy, by chance, joined me in the pool once again. We exchanged the normal pleasantries and I was sipping my water when he hit the lane. He was halfway to the opposite wall when I started my lap. I beat him back to the starting wall by 7 strokes. It was the same day my husband had his final interview for the company that would go on to give him a job and ending our financial drought. Finally, we were succeeding. It’s kind of remarkable what you can do when you decide to commit to a course of action without knowing the outcome or the how. We knew that if we just kept at it eventually hell would break and we would be left standing, and be stronger for it.

It’s funny. I’d set out to write a book. But the research for it had changed my whole world.

Yesterday was our last day of having a zero bank account balance. Yesterday I also finished Thom Shea’s, “Unbreakable A Navy SEAL's Way of Life.” I will tell you I cried.

I felt the weight of what we’ve gone through—more specifically I felt the weight of its absence. I’ve been in crisis mode for so long that not having it, at the same time as letting go of the book, was a hit I didn't see coming. I didn’t want the book to end. I thought maybe it would help my emotional angst if I turned on Shea’s podcast. It was on "consistency" and I cried harder as I tried to remain consistent amongst heavy laden emotions while folding the stupid ass laundry.

I’ve been patiently reading and practicing Shea's words for the better part of the last 4 months. Yep 4 months is what it took for this highly ambitious dyslexic to read this book. He had so much I wanted to assimilate that I had to go even slower than normal to take it all in.

Today we woke up to a deposit that simply read, “Source Payroll.” It was again an awesome feeling that I didn't know how to handle. You'd think I would have jumped for joy. Instead I stopped at the dollar general and bought paper towels. Do you have any idea what a luxury item paper towels are!? That's how I celebrated. Paper towels.

Overcoming. Determination. Conquering. Winning takes one thing to happen first—Adversity.

How you respond is your choice.

Dyslexia, likewise, comes with it's own set of adversity. There's no way around this. It's hard. And it comes with a horrible companion—anxiety. I've experienced it. My kids have experienced it. I've watched as other dyslexics have shared their stories with it. It is a very real, very difficult issue to deal with.

So I say to you, "Don’t let anxiety win. Don't let the weaknesses of dyslexia overpower the strengths."

Dyslexia is either a gift of amazing skills. Outside the box thinking. Creative problem solving. Multi perspective reasoning skills. And oh man don’t get me started on how well suited dyslexia can be on a battlefield. The whole left and right eye dominant trait means you can be taught to be an ambidextrous shooter. Being left and right brain means you can simultaneously understand your position and the enemies perspective and anticipate and out think your opponent. These are skills that serve well in the business world too.

However, if you give into the constant anxiety issues that plague dyslexics. Dyslexia will be your worst nightmare.

You choose!

Own your identity—I am dyslexic. #saydyslexia

Own your weaknesses, your limits—then find ways to demolish them! #dyslexicwarrior

There is no reason Dyslexia should prevent any of us from accomplishing anything we set out to do. The only way it stands in our way is if we let it. If we do not operate in the knowledge of our limitations and strengths. Remember Einstein figured it out: "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them."

Dyslexia yields to me. I do not yield to it.

Yes it’s difficult. Own it! Be bold. Don’t give up. If you're not dyslexic yet struggle with anxiety too I say again, be bold! Don't give into the fear.

Anxiety is a rope that hangs itself and you along with it. Don't let it.

If I can go through all the hell and shit I have and still be a loving wife, doting mom, loyal friend, passionate dyslexic advocate, get hit to the ground by life constantly, yet stand back up and say, "you hit like a bitch", so can you!

“Be Bold. Be brave. Be unbreakable” —Thom Shea





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