Anxiety Society: Finding Strength in Scents, Space, and Sounds
(This is the eighteenth post in a series called “Anxiety Society”, in which I interview everyday anxiety sufferers from all walks of life about their struggles, their triumphs, their coping methods, and more. I believe that the more we openly talk about our mental health, the less of a “thing” it becomes. Conversation can reduce stigma, and my interviewees want to be a part of that.)
Last week, we met Sveta, a young blind woman who grew up in an abusive home. Now diagnosed with complex PTSD and dysthymia, Sveta still struggles as an adult with the effects of her emotional abuse. In this final segment of our interview, we discuss her methods for coping and discover exactly how the Russian language reversed her suicidal thoughts.
SB: Tell me about how you use the four senses at your disposal to calm you down or improve your mental health.
S: Wow. Well, in my purse I have a pocket of things that are soothing. I have a velvet cushion, about the size of a pin cushion, an aluminum guitar that my father made, some perfumes that are solid, and some stones. I love listening to music, especially music in Russian. I have some tactile Russian letters that I use as well.
SB: I sometimes carry around peppermint oil because it helps me to reduce my perception of nausea when I’m anxious. I also really like the scent of Tiger Balm, too — for some reason, it’s grounding and it helps to calm me. What scents do you carry around?
S: There is a company up in New York called “Aromadoc”. They make perfumes that are solid, meaning they have a longer shelf-life than liquid ones and aren’t messy. I usually carry rose, lilac and lavender with me. The rose is to remind me of summertime, the lilac is to calm me, and the lavender is to ground me. I also carry hematite, rhodinite and rose quartz stones with me.
SB: Do the limitations of your disability affect your mental health at all? If so, in what way?
S: Yes. It is frustrating for me to not be able to do things the way someone else can. On top of that, it’s frustrating not being able to do things as fast or as efficiently as someone who can see, feeling stuck in my house because I can’t drive, having to deal with disorganization because my dad can see where everything is and doesn’t have any consideration for the fact that I can’t, and especially others’ refusal to learn and accept what works and what doesn’t for someone who can’t see.
SB: Can you tell me more about dealing with disorganization? How does your father want things to be organized?
S: My father doesn’t care about organization. He will put something in one place and then put it somewhere completely different the next time he moves it. My grandma taught me “a place for everything and everything in its place”, and this is what I strictly conform to. My mother, after realizing I wasn’t sighted, would drill organization into my head, even though she wasn’t organized herself. If a friend leaves something out, once, I put it away. Twice, I tell them where the place for it is.
SB: As a blind woman, if given ultimate freedom over your space, how would you organize the physical things in your world?
S: I can’t stand if someone leaves things on the floor that aren’t meant to be there. The floor is meant for walking, not putting things. That is what tables are for. If you put something top-heavy or liquid down on a table, push it closest to the wall if there is one, and put it furthest back if there isn’t. Make sure things aren’t right on the edge, of course. They will be knocked over as sure as I am of my name. I can’t stand clothes left on the floor. They go in the hamper. If I’m not organized because I don’t have the motivation to do it, eventually I get so fed up that I organize it again. When my mom threw me out and I moved in with Dad, boxes were my enemy. I couldn’t find things.
S: Well, honestly, I have a few. The top 3 would be listening to birds, cicadas, and frogs and identifying them; learning Russian; and reading.
SB: Out of all the languages that are out there, why Russian? Why did you choose to study that language?
S: There was a point in my life, after being kicked out of the boarding school, that I wanted to die. Bad enough to attempt suicide, which is why I was kicked out in the first place.
SB: Wait. So, you attempted suicide at the boarding school, got kicked out because of it, and then attempted suicide again?
S: I had told a friend of mine [at school] that I felt like dying, and had a plan to kill myself. She told one of the teachers, and they said the school couldn’t handle me anymore.
SB: That’s horrible to hear. Where does Russian come in?
S: I was with my grandma and she was watching something about Shaliapin, who is a Russian opera singer. I don’t like opera. At all. But it was a documentary where he was speaking in Russian. I was wrapped, for the first time, in soft warm letters and sounds. Surrounded by them as I sat in the chair listening to his deep voice uttering those syllables, I no longer wanted to die, but to stay right there listening to him.
SB: I’m so happy that the sound of a language was comforting enough to make you change your mind! Wow. What happened next?
S: After that, I asked my grandma if she would get me tapes to learn the language, since at this point I had loads of time on my hands. I wasn’t back in school yet. She did, and within the first run-through, I could say everything on the tape. Soon after, I switched my music to Russian and started listening to Nashe Radio, which is a Russian rock station. Heavens, I could go on about Russian rock for hours. I also met Russian people and conversed, though I am still very afraid of speaking it to strangers. A friend of mine who used to be my bus driver and I still talk in Russian even though I have graduated from high school and don’t take a bus anymore.
SB: Do you turn to Russian music (or even just Russian speech) nowadays for its comfort factor? If you find yourself stressed, what does listening to the Russian language do to your mind? And your body?
S: Yes, I turn heavily to Russian anything. If I get surrounded by the syllables, the words, the understanding such bands as Kino, Alisa, DDT, Kukryniksi, and Night Division give, I don’t feel alone. On another note: a friend of mine who is Russian told me an interesting panic distraction that has worked really well for me. Think of a word in the Russian language for each letter (there are 33 letters) and say it aloud.
SB: So, what now? What’s next for you in life? What do you want to do? Be? Change?
S: I am thinking about teaching Russian as a career.
SB: Do you have any advice for other anxiety, PTSD, or dysthmia sufferers, whether they’re sighted or non-sighted?
S: Make a list of self-soothing strategies, and a list of emotions. My therapist gave me an emotions list when I started therapy. Keep those with you and check in from time to time. How do you feel? In the beginning the why is not important as the “what emotion is this?” Then, see which strategy will work best for that feeling.
Beretsky, S. (2012). Anxiety Society: Finding Strength in Scents, Space, and Sounds. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/panic/2012/12/anxiety-society-finding-strength-in-scents-space-and-sounds/