I am doing nothing. I am doing so much nothing that I have wrapped a cocoon of nothing around myself so as to make the doing of nothing easier and less stressful. I am at a writers’ and artists’ colony and have two weeks in which to do nothing — except my work, which is not nothing, but is the kind of nothing that I haven’t had much time to do in the past nine months because I have had a lot of stress. I have been able to keep up with my writing-for-hire, but not with my own work.
I am not a good “doing nothing person,” and so this kind of doing nothing is just my cup of tea. And I really am doing nothing in the best sense of the word — excelling in this nothing doing — because this nothing will include reading and sleeping and actually some real doing nothing. Like sitting and thinking. Which isn’t doing nothing, but comes close. I am doing this partially to try and let go of some of my stress so this period of time of doing nothing will also include, along with my writing, as much of a news blackout as I can muster, although the outrage over the government shutdown creeps in and an article did just slip through the blackout. A recent article compelled me to write about my doing nothing.
According to a piece in The Atlantic, a recent study shows that stress has been found to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This is no small thing, especially for a woman who has the history of memory loss in her family, not to mention the accompanying stress for those of us who take care of family with memory loss.
The study states that: “Over the years, researchers looked at whether the women experienced any periods of distress, and noted changes in their behavior and intellect. For those who developed dementia, they noted the age of onset, and how the disease progressed. They also made sure to control for other factors, ranging from socioeconomic background to family history of mental illness to smoking.” The results were that “between the initial assessment in 1968 and 2006, 19.1 percent of the women developed dementia. The number of stressors women reported experiencing in 1968 was associated with long-lasting distress over the years, as well as higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia later in life.”
It looks like I picked a time to do nothing just in time, although there is no evidence that if one stops the stressors in one’s life, one can lessen the chance of dementia. It is rather, I suppose, like stopping smoking doesn’t return lungs to their pre-damaged state — at least not for years and years. By the time my body reacts to this hopeful decrease in the lack of stressors, I will most likely already be in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Not to mention that living a stress-free life seems nearly impossible these days. There is always divorce (or its equivalent), disease, death, pain, sorry, worry.
In addition, the article quotes the study as revealing that “Increased distress could not completely explain the association between midlife stressors and dementia. … One reason for this is that individuals respond differently to psychosocial stressors. Thus, biological responses may develop as a reaction to psychosocial stressors also in individuals who do not experience or report increased distress in association to the stressor.”
The study already factored in mental illness, which also runs in my family. In other words, I am screwed.
When I have looked back on the women in my family who developed Alzheimer’s (my grandmother and mother), I have never factored in stress. But in hindsight, there was plenty of it. My grandmother brought her own mother home from a mental institution to live with her and her husband — a condition of her marriage to my grandfather — and then spent the next 50 years of her life trying to prevent my great-grandmother from committing suicide (which she did successfully, as my great-grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 88). My grandfather died at 62 and left my grandmother with almost nothing. At 60, she trained as a real estate agent and went to work. When she developed Alzheimer’s, my mother and aunt had to pay for her care:more than 15 years in varying stages in varying institutions.
My mother, struggling with her own sadness, self-medicated with wine, experienced a stressful divorce, a move, a new full-time job and the continued (although unlikely) fear that she would be a bag lady in her later years. At 78, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and completely surrendered herself to the disease. Each time I see her it has whittled another bit of her away.
Who am I to think I can escape this trajectory? Even as I escape from the past year’s stress by trying to do nothing for a least a little while, my past is littered with divorces, nursing my best friend through 10 years of cancer, watching my father sicken and die over seven years, pulling my son out of a terrible abyss (he is fine now, but I remain watchful) and most recently, dealing with my daughter moving in with me after leaving college, with all the trauma that has entailed. And those are just the high spots. I also had a three-year long-distance relationship which finally resolved itself when my boyfriend moved close to me, financial turmoil and news of the death of two long-time lovers. I have moved twice in the past six years. I have remade my life in a new city. And I am growing older and finally admitting it. I suspect that even a tiny respite or two will do nothing concrete to alleviate the stressors that have already accumulated.
It is hard to imagine a life without any stress, as the authors of the study readily admit. I know no women among my intimates who live a life even remotely stress-free. We are all little hamsters on a wheel, wheezing and running as fast as we can. We are all fighting stress with the love of each other, yoga, wine, walks, and the contemplation of the beautiful, when we get a moment. Even as we hurtle toward our inevitable ends none of us has given up. We really don’t do nothing for very long, if at all, but there is nothing to be done about it. We have obligations. We have stressors.
Nonetheless, I am going to try harder to do less, if not actually nothing, for longer periods of time. I am going to try and balance the troubles and worries I cannot avoid with those I actually can; and take less and less upon myself for the twenty or so good years — if I am lucky — I have left. Doing nothing for a while may not stop me from coming down with Alzheimer’s, as the markers are forbidding. but it, at the very least, gives me a chance to mediate the irritants and pressures in my life and realize the damage they are doing. And to admit, as hard as it is, that someday I won’t remember any of them.