Insomnia stories…

Insomnia stories…


The men in my family were easy sleepers. It wasn’t uncommon to see my father and his six brothers lie down on the floor after a big meal and just nod out. Of course, that left my aunts to clean up, after they had also cooked the meal, and I bet they could have used a nap too. At the time, I figured that taking a post-meal snooze was the “way things were” for the men in the family. But gradually, as I developed a feminist consciousness, I resented these lazy guys. As my age gradually crept up to where theirs were back then, I have begun to appreciate their supreme capacity to sleep just about anywhere, anytime. My father was also one of those people who could nod out for five minutes – taking a so-called “power nap” – only to emerge refreshed and able to fully re-enter the conversation when he awoke. 

Later, when he was in his 90s, he began to experience serious insomnia, lying awake for hours and hours throughout the night, going crazy with boredom and frustration. While I sympathized with his dilemma at the time, it wasn’t until I experienced my own sustained insomnia – after a back injury – that I understood how horrible it is to not be able to sleep night after night. I discovered that sleep deprivation steals one’s energy, one’s optimism, and sometimes even one’s sanity. With increasing lack of sleep, the exhaustion compounds and the world becomes slightly, if not majorly, off-kilter. 

baby and cat

Insomnia is a lot of things, which includes having a hard time getting to sleep, as well as waking up early and having a difficult time getting back to sleep. Not surprisingly, it isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. No, we in the so-called modern world didn’t invent it. Insomnia goes way, way back. The term “insomnia” first appeared in 1623, and means “want of sleep”. One of the biggest causes of insomnia, stress, is something that people have been struggling with for eons. It’s just the nature of stress that looks slightly different these days, compared to a few centuries ago. But if you think about it, there are a lot of similarities. 

We’re stressed because we work hard or we don’t have enough work. We’re stressed because we live in a violent world that is unpredictable. We’re stressed if we experience social isolation or prejudice. We’re stressed when we don’t have enough to eat, and don’t know where the next meal is coming from. We’re stressed because our jobs are too demanding or not challenging enough. We’re stressed because we worry about paying our bills. We’re stressed because we don’t feel loved enough, or because we have tension with our partners or our friends. One might call these universal problems, and these stressers will vary based on your economic situation as well as your race, gender and sexual identity. And maybe a few centuries ago, we might have also worried about predators or major diseases that wiped out entire swaths of people. All of these stressors can lead to loss of sleep. 

sleeping pills

A lot of famous people are recorded as having suffered from insomnia. Sir Isaac Newton suffered from depression and had difficulty sleeping. Winston Churchill had two beds because if he couldn’t sleep in one, he would try the other. Thomas Edison, like my father, was a cat-napper, because he couldn’t sleep at night. Some insomniacs turned to drugs. Marcel Proust and Marilyn Monroe took barbiturates to help them sleep. English writer, Evelyn Waugh, took bromides to induce sleep. As we know, Michael Jackson died because of a lethal cocktail of medications to help him sleep, including propofal, used for sedation before surgeries, lorazepam, used for anxiety, and a host of other meds, including midazolam, diazepam, lidocaine and ephedrine. He was obviously so desperate to sleep that he was willing to try them all. 

hot milk

Author and columnist Arianna Huffington calls insomnia a “feminist issue”, and has written columns in Huffington Post lamenting her lack of sleep from jet lag. Another Huff Post columnist, Dora Levy Mossanen, calls insomnia a “smart, devious virus that mutates and changes form every season like the flu virus. Except that this tricky bugger is tuned to our circadian rhythm and is able to change and disguise itself at whim to confuse the heck out of us”. Mossanen does all the “right things”: She doesn’t drink caffeine, goes to bed at a decent hour, drinks hot milk before bedtime, takes warm baths, reads non-stimulating books, listens to guided meditation on her i-pod, and imagines serene seashores. And yet she says, “I toss and turn at the beginning of the night, counting backwards and forwards so many times that if my mind was prone to mathematics, I’d have solved all the mathematical problems of the world by now”. 

For the most part, my insomnia has cleared, but every so often it rears its ugly head. While in the midst of a minor insomniac “relapse”, I asked my friends and colleagues for their insomnia narratives. I wanted to know how long their insomnia lasted, why they thought they were struggling with sleep; what they did when they were awake; how it affected them the next day. I learned that the main causes of insomnia are: 

* Anxiety, the everyday kind like preparing to teach a class, and larger anxieties, like worrying about keeping a job; 
* Depression, which impedes relaxation necessary to fall and stay asleep; 
* Medications, because some meds like decongestants and pain meds keep us awake. Antihistamines might initially make us groggy, but they can cause excess urination which gets us up a lot during the night; 
* Alcohol, which may make you more relaxed, but prevents deeper stages of sleep and can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night; 
* Chronic pain, which is distracting and worrisome and can lead to anxiety, which prevents sleep; 
* Medical conditions, like arthritis, cancer, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease, which are linked with insomnia; 
* Poor sleep habits, like weird sleep schedules, or an uncomfortable sleep environment; 
* “Learned insomnia” – which is worrying too much about not being able to sleep, which makes it hard to get to sleep; and 
* Eating too much before sleeping or eating the wrong snack, which can give you heartburn and make it uncomfortable to fall sleep. 

In response to my call for insomnia stories, only women replied. I know that isn’t because men don’t experience insomnia; but perhaps men don’t want to reveal their sleeping problems publicly, even though I promised confidentiality. (It’s not too late, for my male readers!)

One woman said, “You do realize you’ve opened the floodgates, yes? Amazing topic. Of course, I’m too sleep-deprived and deep into end-of-semester madness to respond right now! Maybe during my next bout of insomnia (perhaps tonite). ;-)” 

Here are a few responses from other insomniacs: 

One woman says, “Funny you should ask, as I am suffering from insomnia just now, maybe a week long bout this time, but by far not the longest ever. I wake up about 4am and cannot fall back asleep if my life depended on it. Not sure why I have such a hard time staying asleep, maybe it’s hormonal (menopause) or maybe it’s all the craziness at the office (new department chair, no office support as the old secretary retired, research lagging, …). Often I am not the only one awake, as my spouse is also a stressed-out insomniac. I typically try to fall back asleep, but if it doesn’t happen, I get up and read in the living room until I feel exhausted from being up at 4 am. What sometimes works is counting backwards from 100 in another language. Needless to say, the next day I feel a bit out of it, but nothing like the “zombieness” I did when my child used to wake me up. I am not desperate yet, but may try to find my melatonin from the previous bout to get me back on track. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t”. 

Another woman says, “My insomnia stories are boring. I get up and clean the house, read, catch up and/or get ahead on my work. That makes me feel like I am not wasting my time trying to fall asleep. Usually that day I am racing, energetic and feel good about all I have accomplished. By that night I am crashing and I pay the next day in bodily aches/pain. Not very exciting…”

Another says, “I have had quite a few episodes of insomnia. There were times when I would go days or even a week without adequate sleep. I would either fall asleep and then wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to bed, or I would just simply stare at the ceiling until I finally fell asleep, only to wake up about every half an hour for the rest of the night. Either way, insomnia sucks! I eventually couldn’t take it any longer and sought medical help. Come to find out, I have general anxiety disorder and that was greatly affecting my sleep. Even now – I am on medication- I still have bouts of insomnia when I am highly stressed. My mind is constantly going, so when something important is coming up I find myself having trouble sleeping. In the middle of the night I have tried a number of things: read a book, go to the gym (thank you, 24 hour fitness), eat, watch TV, and try and go back to sleep. As a student, during the day I am pretty much reading, writing, researching, or preparing for a class I TA for. 

“After a night of insomnia, I usually feel terrible the next day. Even if I am tired, I don’t try and nap because if I do, the likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep decreases. If I go a few days or even a week without sleep, my brain has pretty much checked out. I go through the motions but I don’t feel like I am really all there. Hopefully that makes sense. Insights? I would say that everyone is different and should try different things to help them sleep. I hate taking medicine, even when I am sick, so seeing a doctor was the last thing on my list. I tried doing yoga, eating better, not watching TV or reading at night…but nothing helped me. Being put on medication was a great relief because I sleep really well, for the most part”. 

And finally, one of my neighbors says, “Sometimes I look out the window to see who else might be up in the neighborhood. I am tempted to text them or call and get together, maybe we should start an insomniac club”. 

That sounds tempting… I suppose that one strategy I’m employing is writing this post. Maybe “outing myself” as an insomniac will help diffuse the potency of this insidious problem. If I were to characterize my current “brand” of insomnia, it’s “learned insomnia”, meaning that I begin to fall asleep and then just as I’m fading into a hazy fog, my brain says “you’re falling asleep”, at which point I’m awake! Luckily, the problem has lessened since I first put out the call for insomnia stories. May it fade away! 

Tell me your insomnia story! What has helped you overcome your sleeplessness? 

sleep couple

An Act of Love

My father’s hair had grown wild and unruly, and I told him, “You look like the mad Professor”, hoping for a smile from this working class guy from Buffalo turned local revolutionary hero. His strands of thin, white hair lingered in mid-air with nowhere to go, suspended in time and place, as his body recuperated from hip surgery that was probably a bad idea at age 94. Instead of feeling hopeful, he was despairing, wondering whether he had made the right decision, all the while trying to convince himself that he had. I couldn’t help but join him in this sentiment. I tried to be positive, reminding him that you can’t gauge improvement on a daily basis. It would take weeks, maybe months. But at his age, that’s playing with fire. Why the hell he insisted on having the surgery was beyond me. And why the hell his doctor didn’t say no just made me mad.

Over the years, I had become his make-shift hairdresser, a role that I relished. It was a way to connect with him in a contained window with a dollop of distance. For my atheist father, getting a haircut from me was a little like going to church, a solemn occasion filled with contemplation and calm. For me? I felt purposeful, able to help this man who had been such a stalwart support for so many years. The truth was that there was very little actual cutting of hair involved, but the ritual called for a slow pace and gentle hands. Using my scissors gingerly, I always started on the sides where the hairs were most prominent. The top hairs were next; they were sparse and the task of cutting was only a prelude to what would come later. I lingered at the back of his head because he knew it was almost over. And for the finale, I finished the job with an electronic razor to smooth it all out.

As I look back on this simple act of love, I relish in the peace I was able to bring to him. A firebrand in his day, he was losing steam, at times wondering if life was worth living. That was the hardest part for me. But this pure connection momentarily stripped away his cares and mine, and allowed us to be in the room together. When I stepped back to assess my work, I would always find wild hairs I missed. There is no perfection here. Only a work in progress. In the end, my father was quietly grateful. Not a man given to ‘thank you’s’, even in the best of times.

Social science research matters…

The American Enterprise Institute just published a speech by G.O.P. darling and House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, in which he calls for cutting all federal funds for social science research, insisting that the money would be better spent finding cures to diseases. He uses the story of a child named Katie who battled cancer, and who “just happened” to be sitting in the front row of his audience. Katie became a part of my congressional office’s family and even interned with us”, he is quoted as saying. “We rooted for her, and prayed for her. Today, she is a bright 12-year-old that is making her own life work despite ongoing challenges…Katie, thank you for being here with us”.  

(Please note that the graphic visualizations in this post illustrate the importance of information generated through social science research which have critical implications for policy, e.g., the disproportionate impact of poverty on health outcomes by race/ethnicity)

I can imagine the emotions in that room, as the audience learns that Katie’s disease is now in remission. Some people of faith in the crowd might be thinking that prayers led to the improvement in her health. But Cantor does not invoke divine intervention. Nor does he totally discount the role that publicly funded resources may have played in helping restore Katie’s health. On the contrary, he cannily declares that there is “an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people like Katie should be a priority. We can and must do better”. 

But investing more public funds in research on medical cures, says Cantor, would require cuts in funding for social science research. Presumably, his argument is in the interests of budgetary discipline, because it makes no sense if the goal is to improve people’s health. Less social science research dollars will only weaken our capacity to understand the critical link between the social determinants of disease and health outcomes. We need to ask: Why did Katie get sick? Was she living near a power plant or did she go to a “sick school”? What kinds of services did she have access to? What is Katie’s ethnic/racial background? What is her class background? Because chances are, if Katie is white and middle-class, her access to services are better than if she’s black or Latino and poor. 

Cantor trots out the familiar conservative template: We need policies that are based on “self-reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family and accountability in government”. He declares that the House Majority – aka Republicans – “will pursue an agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness, and prosperity for more Americans and their families. And to restrain Washington from interfering in those pursuits”. 

But while Cantor frames this as a message of empowerment, his solutions will only reproduce and expand poverty and inequality. Self-reliance is code for slashing government funding. Restraining Washington from interfering with health and prosperity will mean reducing taxes for the rich. And cutting social science research will eliminate needed publicly-funded analyses that provide an essential critique of social and economic policies and their impact. 

Cantor’s stance is calculated to appeal to people who are struggling in a tough economy. In his speech, he argues that in America, where two bicycle mechanics, the Wright Brothers, “gave mankind the gift of flight”, we have the power to overcome adversity. “That’s who we are”, he says. Moreover, he argues that throughout history, “children were largely consigned to the same station in life as their parents. But not here. In America, the son of a shoe salesman can grow up to be president. In America, the daughter of a poor single mother can grow up to own her own television network. In America, the grandson of poor immigrants who fled religious persecution in Russia can become the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives”. 

All I can say is, sign me up, Eric! I’m the grand-daughter of a Russian immigrant, and maybe I’d like to become the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives! Honestly? I get weary when I hear about the American dream from another rich, white guy who points to exceptions to the rule, and cynically tries to generalize them. 

I just came back from a four-day feminist sociology meeting, sponsored by the organization, Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), in which 250 scholars from around the U.S. and beyond, shared their research about how gender, race and class affect power and status, and how these determinants affect the realities of people’s lives – including their access to quality health care, decent jobs with benefits, high quality education, freedom from discrimination, and safe environments. These are the conditions that Cantor claims should be the right of all Americans, and yet his agenda makes them all less achievable. If Eric Cantor had been at that conference for just one hour, he would have heard about the importance of social science research in understanding systems that reproduce disadvantage for low-income people, immigrants, people of color, same-sex couples and more… But maybe if you preach self-reliance, limited government involvement, and the power of prayer, even a group of brilliant social scientists won’t change your mind.

Anatomy of a black eye…

Last night I took a major tumble in the parking lot of one of my favorite grocery stores. I’ll set the stage: First of all, it was a winter’s dark, around 5:30 p.m., and the parking lot was poorly lit. This last fact is ironic, since the lot is owned by the high-brow lighting store next to the grocery store. Secondly, the pavement in the lot is uneven, something I had noticed in the past, but not quite in the same visceral way as I did last night. So what happened? Pretty simple. My cart, full of bags of groceries, got caught in a depression in the pavement – basically a two inch hole that is one foot wide – and keeled over. Since I was pushing the cart, I went with it. Now here’s where my mind gets obsessive, as I try to envision the physics of a shopping cart falling over. Where does it land? And which contact points on my body are evidence of its motion? In that split second or seconds, as I went forward, my mind registered an “oh no”, until the final hit when my nose slammed into a metal bar on the cart. I still cannot figure out which bar came into contact with my nose, although I also realize that there truly is no point in knowing. 

Alone in the parking lot, I stood up and disentangled from the various metal pieces of the cart and walked away, searching for some help. For anyone who has been in an accident, you know that our bodies go into shock, adrenaline creating the capacity to function, to seek out safety or help. I yelled to a woman who looked at me in horror and she asked me if I wanted her to call an ambulance. Sure, I said. Then I ambled back towards the store and was met by another woman, who said she was a nurse and sat me down by the side of the road. Other people began to gather, and I realized that I was bleeding a lot. I was oblivious to how I looked, but judging by their responses, it looked bad. Someone got me tissues, and within five or so minutes, the fire department was there, and I was surrounded by around six burly guys, until a moment later, when a policeman broke through the line of firefighters and began asking me questions. “What’s your name, your address, your phone number? Did you lose consciousness at any time? Did you hit your head on the ground, or just the shopping cart? Is there anyone you need to call?” I was mighty pleased that I could answer his questions and that my mind was functioning.

Meanwhile, the fire truck and police car lights were swirling, as I sat quietly with my new friend, this anonymous nurse who sat by my side, a constant source of support. Somewhere in the midst of the chaos, a couple of employees from the store joined us, and left. Another shopper came up to me to say he had the very same accident a few moments before. I can’t remember if I asked him if he was okay. Oddly enough, I appreciated that I wasn’t alone. The ambulance arrived, and two EMT workers began to question me. “Did I want to get in the ambulance or drive myself to the hospital?” I couldn’t fathom driving at that point. “Was I sure?” YES, I was sure. I kept trying to reach my husband, whose phone was out-of-reach, but finally got hold of my daughter as I was getting into the ambulance, and she joined the action from afar. After I hung up with her, the EMT worker, the only dour person I encountered through this “adventure”, told me that I shouldn’t swear when I get into the emergency room, or they wouldn’t treat me as quickly. What? I wasn’t even aware I was swearing, but then I can imagine that I said a few choice words when I talked to my daughter, and then my husband. Isn’t swearing the norm when someone has been in an accident? What odd advice…

At the emergency room, things moved quickly, then slowly, then quickly. A practitioner examined me, my husband arrived, I got x-rays for various body parts, and the conclusion was that I possibly broke my nose. Not surprisingly, a few people at the hospital asked me if I “feel safe”; code for, “are you a victim of domestic violence?” I’m glad that the awareness of these issues has translated to policy and hospital practice. And truthfully, I do look like someone punched me in the face. One day later, and the grocery store personnel are being kind and responsible. They have reported both accidents to their corporate office, and expressed tremendous regret to me. Apparently some workers arrived later last night to fill the hole where two of us tripped and fell. I am grateful that there are so many people who rise to the occasion and share their kindness in an emergency. And I wish I knew how to contact the nurse, for example, just to say thanks again, although I discovered that we live in the same neighborhood so maybe we’ll run into each other. She may not recognize me though. I’d also like to know how the other guy who fell is doing. Neither of us are spring chickens…

Which brings me to my final point… Falls for older people can be the beginning of the end. Falls are one of the precipitating factors that land older people in nursing homes. I’ve seen the impact of a fall on my own father, and the mother of a friend just died after a nasty fall. Luckily, I’m not in that category of “old” yet, but it does make you think. As an aging woman, I’m still strong and healthy, working full-time, engaged in life and ready for more. I don’t feel like slowing down, as I hear from some of my friends who are inching up to “older”. But how DO you juxtapose moving fast through the world, which I am wont to do, while having an eye towards balancing risk and caution? I still haven’t figured it out. Meanwhile, I will nurse my swollen face and black eye, and reassure anyone who asks that I haven’t been abused, other than by a nasty shopping cart. 

Even the General says…

I don’t know about you, but for a few days – well maybe a week – I was obsessed with the soap opera that unfolded with General Petraeus, Paula Broadwell, and the Kardashian-look-alike twins who throw champagne-infused parties for the military elite. Who knew that this world even existed?! It was temporarily intoxicating. That said, this is not a James Bond story, where seduction and hot sex are intertwined with power and our country’s national security. This is the everyday horror of people making terrible personal mistakes. And I’m not surprised that as readers try to make sense of the un-reality of “the facts”, a number of narratives about who to blame have been dusted off and brought to bear once again. 

According to one narrative, the blame goes to the evil temptress, a Harvard-trained intellectual and top-of-the-line athlete (read: good in the sack) who brings down the CIA chief. Think Fatal Attraction, where the woman is in charge and the man is uncontrollably gripped by her charm and power, with no alternative but to succumb. In another narrative, the blame goes to the high-level spy who takes advantage of – no, seduces – the lower-level acolyte, and just cannot keep it zipped up, despite all his medals to the contrary. Think Bill Clinton, driven by self-destruction, someone who acts first and thinks later. Hardly the image one wants to conjure up for the head of the CIA. Less prominent, but implicit among these narratives, is the role of the spy guy’s wife, who is subtly blamed for not satisfying her man. This narrative blames her because she’s middle-aged (read, unattractive), with the assumption is that she no longer has the goods. Narrative three then morphs into narrative two, which combines with narrative one, in which said high-level spy has no alternative but to explore younger, more supple, women, and one of them just happens to be out to get him. A perfect storm… 

While there might be some bitter truth in all of these narratives, I’d like to focus on that last one, which capitalizes on the notion that older guys get more sexy, in contrast to older women, who get more dowdy, wrinkly and saggy as we age. This narrative has it that as women get older, we lose our appeal; we no longer shine; we fade; we become less attractive. And barring heavy use of botox and liposuction, that so-called “fact” is justification for our men to rove. 

Now back to the Petraeus “affair”. Thankfully, the media is not exploiting Holly Petreaus’ story, only to say that she is furious. (Wouldn’t you be if you happened to be married to this adulterous four-star General? Okay, maybe you find it hard to imagine that you’d marry this dude…) But according to military spouse and marriage consultant, Jacey Eckhart, this telenovella (melodramatic soap opera in Spanish) has fired up fears among other military spouses, who are worried that their marriages will follow suit.

While Eckhart, a competent, articulate military spouse, knows rationally that she has nothing to worry about in her own relationship, she says the scandal has “reduced me to a wet towel and tears”. Why? Because she says that men, as they age, become more like Cary Grant, and women become more like the older “Tony Curtis”, meaning old (and kinda gay). Granted (no pun intended), military families endure enormous strains because they move frequently, and often it is the spouse who helps their family settle in a new area while the military “member” is off fighting a war (or hopefully keeping peace somewhere in the world!). 

Moreover, repeat deployments place even more strain on the family, both when the military member is gone, as well as when s/he comes back, after having been traumatized by the experience of war. But separation of military spouses and their families – and ensuing loneliness – is the issue, not whether a woman can stay hot enough to hold onto her man. 

Eckert laments that “history isn’t enough to keep a long military marriage together”. At the same time, she notes that military marriages end at the same rate as so-called civilian marriages. So what’s the big deal?! The problem isn’t that men will be men, and women should quiver in their boots for fear they will be cast off for a better model. The problem is that we gals sometimes internalize the societal notions that our shelf lives have expired once we hit 40 or 50 or 60. Instead of buying into – or internalizing – these lethal notions, we need to embrace the woman we are becoming, our all-inclusive selves, including our wisdom about people and life, and even the tell-tale wrinkles and sags and possibly even the dowdiness. Let’s not compare ourselves to younger women and feel self-critical. The reality is that we are all the ages we have been, and so much more. Of course, it’s important that we take care of ourselves – that we eat well, and remain active intellectually and physically; those lifestyle choices are critical if we want to live a long life. But ultimately, our worth should not be measured by our youthfulness. Even the General is now saying it was a big mistake… 

Aging and human connection in the conference room…

I walk into the sterile conference room, realizing that everyone there is “of a certain age”. If I had to choose a demographic descriptor for this crowd, I’d just say “old”, and they’d probably kill me if they could read my mind. A young, as in twenty-something, woman approaches me with a clip board and we exchange forms. She assigns me number three, which I hope means a short wait, and tells me I can find a seat at the rectangular table. My fellow brethren look up at me, each new arrival becoming momentary entertainment until embarrassment or distraction takes over and they go back to their own little worlds, reading a magazine or looking at their phones. I rummage through my briefcase and discover that the piece of work I meant to bring with me is still sitting in my printer at home. Darn! This is not good! And then I remember that I, too, can plunge into my iphone universe. Oh, the glories of technology, shielding us from boredom and communication with others. 

We’re all here to get a vaccination for shingles, which is a painful and horrific thing, according to my sister and my father who both contracted this virus-driven skin rash. I watched them suffer, so I’ll do anything to dodge that one. I smile at the couple sitting kitty-corner to me, and mindlessly say “how’s it going?” Expecting little in return in this sea of silent waiting people, I’m surprised that they want to chat, telling me that they had their shot and are waiting the prescribed 15-minute window to make sure they don’t have a reaction, which ranges from nothing to headaches, fever, diarrhea and a stuffy nose. “You look fine to me”, I quip, as they smile, a few minutes later picking up their bags and happily leaving this ad hoc club. 

The shot itself is uneventful, and the guy giving it – the second young person in this cohort – is pleasant, sweet and maybe even a little handsome. For the same reason I am here – my age – I had a flu vaccine last week and that was also no big deal. In fact, I’m pretty good at this, I think, as I indulge in feeling proud of myself for something that requires little skill. Just as I am about to settle into my 15-minute window, an agitated man enters the conference room and when I tune in, I hear him arguing with the young woman, telling her that he doesn’t understand what she’s saying about insurance coverage. I have time to kill – at least another 11 minutes – so I listen, and then realize that I actually understand his problem and can help him. And so I do. The young woman seems relieved that someone else is handling him and walks away. 

As soon as I step into the conversation, the man stops shouting and listens to me, his body visibly relaxing. Soon, armed with a couple of questions I have supplied him, he goes out into the hallway to call the benefits gatekeeper at his insurance company. He is decidedly less agitated and more focused, and I think about how anxiety is a horrible thing when it makes it hard to think clearly, and that this man’s confusion and upset was clearly getting him nowhere. He returns to the conference room in about five minutes and seems relieved. “Did you get the information you needed?”, I ask him from my seat at the head of the conference room table. The space between us is beyond the cultural norm for communicating with a stranger in a sea of unknowns. But I ignore the norms that define this space as a silent waiting room. He shouts back to me, joining this normatively rebellious moment, saying, “I’m all set, but they’re crazy over there!” I nod in agreement. Most institutions – including health insurance companies – produce crazy rules and the employees who have to follow them often lose perspective, so he’s lucky that this call was an easy one. 

Once my 15-minute period is over, I get up to leave, passing this guy on the way out. He thanks me again for the helpful advice, but I know that it was the human connection that made the difference. Then, with a touch of worry in his voice, he asks if I had any reaction to the vaccination. Anxiety is a painful thing. And as I’m about to reply, he looks at me with a smirk and says, “Look how big your hair got!” I realize he’s joking, and I reply in kind, “Before the vaccine, it was this short”, gesturing a quarter-inch measurement with my thumb and pointer finger. We both laugh, and I think about the importance of being seen, of breaking through anonymity in social circumstances and ignoring the norms that mitigate against human connection. And I think about the saving grace of humor, as it slices through anxiety to produce a shared experience. And I have a feeling that as I age, that all of this will become even more important.