Fight or Flight, Roots and Wings

Yesterday Other Half and I took a day trip. Not far, in case we got another transplant call (spoiler alert: we didn’t). We rode up to Asheville to go back to the pen store I like so much (Origami Ink. Go there. You won’t be sorry), had some lunch at a bakery that I loved and he tolerated, and then back down highway 25 to Greenville for a walk around downtown to check out the River Walk.

Lately the only time I’m even marginally content is when I’m not at home. Not home as in my house, but home as in the vicinity of my community. While we were in the car I was thinking about why that happens. I mean, if you look at my life on the surface, it makes no sense. I wanted to get married, I got married. I didn’t know if I wanted to have kids or not but here we are 11 years later and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We bought the house I wanted. He suffered through 7 years of education with me so that I could have the career that I wanted. I have supportive friends, and and all of our needs are met. So why is it that I constantly feel the need to run from my life? And before you tell me it’s because of some spiritual issue on my part, I assure you I’ve considered that. The fact of the matter is, sometimes you can be right in the middle of God’s will for your life, and it just so happens that where He wants you is the middle of nowhere. Wandering. Sometimes He puts you places you hate, and you just have to stay there for a while. Ask Joseph, or even Jesus. Sometimes life just is what it is.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Because I’m a nerd and because of my profession, I can’t help but invite science into the mix, and so I thought about the fight or flight response. This is what our bodies are wired to do when faced with stressful situations. The scenario that is always used to explain fight vs. flight in anatomy and physiology or nursing classes I’ve taken is the idea of a prehistoric human who needs to run from a bear. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, striking rocks together to make fire, and all of the sudden a bear comes out of nowhere. You have two choices in terms of survival. You can stay and fight the bear, or you can run from the bear. 

While you’re thinking through the lesser of the two evils, the automatic parts of your brain and nervous system are already preparing you. This whole hormone cascade happens that shifts your body into gear. Your blood pressure and heart rate go up. Your liver (unless it’s broken like my dad’s) gives you more blood sugar to work with. Your digestion slows. Your pupils dilate and you get this tunnel vision effect. Your blood becomes more likely to clot in the event you are injured and start to bleed. Now you are as prepared as you could be for whichever scenario you choose. Your body is ready, your mind just has to decide. 

The fact of the matter is, though, that rarely are we running from bears now. Our stress response instead kicks into gear when faced with financial ruin, or professional conflict, or family issues, or health problems. Before, when it was all about running from bears, the stress response could turn off when the danger had passed. Now, we can’t turn off the danger. We are constantly inundated with threatening situations. I am in the middle of raising kids, being married, changing jobs, waiting for my dad to get a transplant, grieving the loss of my mother and numerous other relatives who haven’t made it through the past 2 years, grieving the consequences of work decisions made by others with the fallout rolling down hill until it hits me in the face. The bears coming out of the woods and circling me, one by one.

I started to notice it more in January, this unstoppable restlessness. I thought it was because I was grieving my mom and it was Christmas and New Years, and her birthday, all of which were celebrated without her. So Other Half took me to Asheville for New Year’s to stay at the Grove Park. It was a good trip, and I did a lot of reading, writing, praying, thinking, and I thought I was recharged. That whatever I was struggling against had been settled. But then, on the way down the mountain to come back home when I would normally be recharged and ready to go to work, ready to see my kids, ready to sleep in my own bed, the only thing I felt was dread. My chest was tight, my mind was racing, and I felt cornered. 

After I got home I made some big changes. I thought that would be enough to settle things down. But here I am, 3 months later, and I still fight the urge to run away from home nearly every day. Yesterday I was still anxious, but felt slightly more at peace. This morning, waking up here, I was immediately disappointed that I had to stay. It occurred to me that the life I am living, one largely comprised of decisions of my own making, has become a life that is attacking me. Every single day, I approach my life as if it is the prehistoric bear and I am the prehistoric man, and because I don’t feel strong enough to fight, I would rather choose flight. Staying still feels unnatural. It feels like sacrificing myself to the bear. And so, at every opportunity, I run as far and as fast as I can. 

Yesterday the running didn’t go far, but just far enough. I had never been to Greenville. Falls Park was Other Half’s idea. He knows I love water of any kind, and there are beautiful waterfalls and the winding peace of the Reedy River surrounded by flowers and musicians and restaurants. It was beautiful.

We didn’t know it ahead of time, but right now Greenville has an installation of sculptures by Jorge Marin, a Mexican sculptor who works primarily with bronze. The series is called Wings of the City. I was fascinated by them. So detailed and relatable, a man trying to be protector and keeper. A woman held by someone who was part angel. A set of wings to try on for yourself. Every piece a communication of balance and unity and safety. 

As we walked through the park and saw all of the sculptures, we came to the top of a staircase and there was a tree whose roots were observable from street level. The roots went nearly 4 to 5 feet deep into the ground, and I could see them winding and intricate, holding the tree firmly in place no matter what winds and storms it might face from the outside. 

Thinking about this tree in direct opposition to the idea of a bird or an angel taking flight, I decided that decisions of whether to choose fight or flight are directly tied to the idea of roots vs. wings. You know the old saying, right? “There are two things we should give our children: roots and wings.” 

Growing up, I was deathly afraid of the wings. They represented change and risk and all the things I wanted no part of. As a child I cried even if I was spending the night with my grandparents. I wanted to stay in my house, with my parents, in my bed. When it was time for college, I went to a local liberal arts university which was perfect for me, a decision I would never change, but I didn’t even move into a dorm. I commuted from home every day, not ready to leave. The summer before my junior year when I got married and moved into our first house with Other Half, I cried with homesickness off and on for nearly 2 months. I wanted to be what my family expected of me and what I had come to expect from them. Content with how things were. I wanted to live in my community with my people. I wanted to go the same places I’d always gone and do the same things I’d always done. I wanted stability. My childhood was happy and predictable and made me feel safe. I had been given excellent roots. 

It wasn’t until the past year or so that I started to run. After my mom died. I started these Jeep rides that last one hour or three hours depending on how anxious and sad I feel on a given day. I just drive until I don’t feel like I’m suffocating and my breathing has slowed down, and then I go home. As things started to heat up more at work, I felt a definite need for flight. As things have started to get worse with my dad, I feel a definite need for flight. All around me life seems to be crumbling and I don’t have any desire to fight. I told Other Half yesterday that if it wasn’t for him and the kids, I would get my dad through his sickness, and then I would pick up and leave and start over somewhere completely new. I wouldn’t have the same profession, I might not even keep the same name. The desire for flight is strong. 

And yet I stay. When it looks like staying to fight is overwhelming and there’s nothing I can change, what keeps me grounded here? 

It’s the roots. 

No matter what is happening all around me, I can’t leave. It would be a betrayal of everything my parents taught me. Roots matter. Staying when life is hard matters. Refusing to give up on your people matters. Loyalty matters. I could never live with myself if I took flight now, not while things are so chaotic. And so, although the only time I feel any level of contentment is when I’m running away, I keep coming back.

I told my therapist last time I saw her that I thought of myself as her non-compliant heart failure patient. The ones I see in clinic who continue to eat McDonalds 3 times a week and can’t keep their fluid and sodium restriction, or don’t take their medicines, so I just keep giving them IV lasix and switching them to torsemide and hoping for the balance between their salt intake and my diuretic prescribing to finally become one in the universe. “Soon I’m going to need to show you some forward motion or your job satisfaction is going to take a major hit,” I told her. “Every time I see you I have some new crisis or grief to talk about, like I can never just come in and say, ‘I’m doing better now. Thanks for helping me.’”

“But you have perseverance,” she said. “And that counts for something. You say you’re giving up, but you keep wrestling. That’s not nothing.” 

I might long for the freedom of wings, but right now, I have the steadiness of roots. I’m learning to fight. I’m learning to stay. And for better or worse, these roots run deep.

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