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No longer able to push aside a case of mental exhaustion, the Stress Doc takes an incubation vacation. Discover how present rejuvenation and, even, past rehabilitation can occur when "Stress Braking Away" in the city or the country. You don't need to be a wizard to know how to make the mind flow.

Healing a Case of the Brain Strain:
From "No Place Like Home" to Follow the Yellowstone Road

Well, the brain strain definitely hit recently. Actually, it had been building over the last few months: an increasingly paced mental treadmill of writing articles, answering email, workshops, out of state consultations (the travel was a relief, the regret was playing catch upon return), online chat groups, a few therapy clients…Stress Doc heal thyself!

So why do I allow this runaway stress? Ah, once a depressive Type A trying to erase a core sense of not being good enough...When you are egoal-driven, the bar of success, fantasized achievement or glory always gets raised just a little bit higher than your grasp. So these periodic micro burnouts help keep the grandiosity in check. The process becomes a retreat providing quiet reflection, humility, perspective and, even, biochemical readjustment. Sometimes I even learn to scale back on the self-imposed demands and expectations. Mark, remember "The Basic Law of Safe Stress": Do know your limits and don't limit your "No"s!

Food for Thought

So for father's day weekend, I AMTRAKed up to the summer family haven in Queens, NYC. Upon my evening arrival, mom, bless her heart, made a chicken sandwich with her cranberry and fruit mold special on real rye bread. Yum! Only topped by Sunday evening's homemade chicken soup with a potato knish. Talk about returning to one's cultural and culinary roots. Regression in the service of a weary and hungry ego!

After about ten hours of sleep, and a garlic bagel, lox and cream cheese with tomato Saturday breakfast, I was definitely ready for a little tennis with my old man. Considering he's had a fairly traumatic year, a significant stroke and several mini strokes, that he can still move at all on a tennis court is pretty mind boggling and inspiring. Most impressive was how this classic aggressive, impatient Type A ex-salesman has begun to accept his condition. The mini-strokes finally made him realize he can't do heavy lifting, must rest between even moderately strenuous activities and (the biggest challenge) he has to avoid stressful encounters with people.

Of course, after tennis, he seemed headed for a confrontation with a fellow senior whose car was partially blocking an entranceway to the parking area behind the building. With his perceptual field mildly impaired, dad wasn't sure he could clear the other car. When the guy impatiently told him, "You got plenty of room," testy words were exchanged. My father even mentioned his visual impairment. This other character snaps back with a sneer, "Well maybe you shouldn't be driving." Oh, oh…here comes the blowup. (This reflexive assumption was also based on my roots.) In years past, dad would have jumped out of the car and been in the guy's face. Now he mumbled, "You asshole," negotiated the squeeze and drove on. I agreed: "The guy wasn't worth one degree of raised blood pressure."

Then I went from family drama to dramatic musical, with a stop in between at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nothing like gazing at Cezanne's and Van Gogh's (especially while having time over the weekend to read about the latter) to ebb and flow between the serene and the passionate. More psychic rejuvenation! (One of these days I'm going to get back into painting. I just loved applying oils on a virginal canvas. I still like applying those oils; just haven't found many virgins…No, I'm just being a smart mouth ;-)

Oh yes, the musical. My folks convinced me the Broadway show to see was the bawdy revival of "Cabaret." And despite knowing the performance was "sold out," I trekked from W. 81st through Central Park, on a glorious cool blue sky summer day, to the theater on 54th between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Started an "if someone doesn't show, ha, ha, fat chance" ticket line in the lobby. Well, the muses were with me. A woman on a senior center theater excursion had an extra ticket. The price was HIGH, but we quickly negotiated a 40% discount. Incredulously, I was literally front row; two feet from the stage. Boy did I enjoy the view when the Kit At Girls, dressed in alluring, 30s, Berlin cabaret costumes started flirting with front row patrons. (Where were those oils when I needed them, damn?) So this brief incubation vacation stimulated all kinds of hormones and juices.

And, fortunately, this was just the beginning of a double-barreled, therapeutic process. Next getaway was sandwiched between two consulting gigs, the first with a National Weather Service Office in Cheyenne, WY. Visions of Wyoming Mountains danced in my head. But also some painful memories of being burned (okay, setting myself up to be) by a former flame. Sometimes one must journey back in time and stir the emotional wellspring to launch a new adventure.

Follow the Yellowstone Road

Who says you can't go home again? Or at least revisit the place you vacationed ten years before. Back then, I was a pretty codependent traveler, my sense of self and latent depression precariously tied to a woman who was to disentangle and split shortly after our return home. (A woman who was as bountiful as she was memorable. I've written about her before in a wickedly witty vignette called, "His Moans, Her Moans, Hormones," and in my country codependency lyric -- forgive the redundancy -- "The Love Trade." (Email if interested: stressdoc@aol.com .)

Am I the only one for whom vacations with a partner can be troublesome? Ideally, as they say in the bayou, it should be, "Laissez les bon temps roulez." But just because there are no habitual distractions, because you've stripped yourself of the daily routine and responsibilities armor, you're confronted by an emotional nakedness. The depth and intimacy, or lack thereof, is staring you in the face and boring into your heart and soul. And you're coming up empty. And even a vacation escapade as wondrous as Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks can't transfer compensatory energy and excitement to your motel room: pillows are mute and sheets remain properly tucked under the corners.

Actually, this was my partner's chance to go home again; G. was born just outside the parks. She hadn't been home in twenty years. The trip had symbolic meaning for me as well, related to the early, lusty stages of our romance and her bawdy and bountiful ways. The first night of knowing one another in the biblical sense, while taking off her tee shirt, G. must have seen my eyes widen. Without missing a beat, she declared: "I brought the Grand Tetons down with me!" I've been a mountain man ever since. ;-)

So with this historical, if not hysterical, baggage my recent solo return to these parks was a chance to rewrite, if not relive, history. And in 2 ˝ days, I made the most of it.

Go with the Flow

One thing this vacation affirmed: trust my instincts. Having finished the consulting work in Cheyenne, WY in the early afternoon, I was planning to drive about 2/3 of the way to Yellowstone to a town called Lander. The town is nestled just outside the Wind River Mountain Range and the Shoshone National Forest. I had decided against going to the national parks because of the distance and because I was due in Indiana for my next consultation in 3 ˝ days. So I made reservations in town for one night and then two nights in a rustic B & B just outside of Lander.

Thank goodness for those 75mph speed limits on the interstates in Wyoming. As an aside, I can see why there are avid auto racing fans: the on the edge thrill of speed along with one point focus. All the stressors and hassles become blurred into oblivion: schedule pressures, elusive book publishers, uncertain speaking contracts and income sources, challenging writer's deadlines (can there be life after deadlines?), a father's tenuous post-stroke/post-cancer recovery, mysteriously disappearing women, etc., all fade from my stress radar screen. Now there's nothing but a compelling, undifferentiated gestalt: the wheel-the road-the flying scenery-the blast of wind on arm and face-the next car to pass-the POWER! And then off the interstate, on the two lanes, there's the challenge of passing with the possibility of oncoming traffic. Invariably, teeth clench and the heart pounds when over the horizon there's a car or truck coming at you and you haven't quite passed the vehicle on your right. (And, hopefully, you only have one to pass.)

While I was only averaging between 85 and 90mph, still it's fascinating how intense motion, like emotion, can be addictive -- the adrenaline high, the natural, if not so legal, speed. As with the abuse of emotions and substances, often one has to keep upping the dosage to get that pure, non-habituated rush. See, Washingtonians, there are some benefits to the Beltway. Here, we're just addicted to power; certainly not speed in the Congress!)

Anyway…making it to Lander in four hours, with a couple of hours of daylight in front of me, I canceled the in town reservation (and lost my deposit). I then called ahead for reservations in a little stopgap mountain town named Dubois, about ninety miles down the road. I was going where my heart desired: to Yellowstone and the Tetons.

My gut also told me not to push straight through to the great parks. I knew the upcoming scenery deserved my peak perceptual capacities. It's similar to writing. Often times I will lay down my pen though I can still squeeze out a few more paragraphs. Better to sleep than strain. Better to greet mighty Mother Nature with fresh eyes and mind. So I grabbed some grub from the Cowboy Café, jumped into my bed in a small wood-paneled motel room that had an ersatz cabin feel. Despite a Christmas eve-like excitement and impatience, I crashed. Must have been all that intense team consultant and high speed focus. I awoke just as the sun, surrounded by a grayish-pink celestial veil, was peeking over the foothills.

Not so Mellow Yellow

The looming, snow-covered piebald behemoths -- brown and white (okay, a loose metaphor, sometimes forest green, as well) -- signal the presence of the Rocky Mountains. I've decided to save and savor the Tetons. So it's north on 89, along the blue-green shoreline of Jackson Lake with those not so distant spellbinding jagged peaks making the drive just a bit risky. Who can keep eyes strictly on this road? (A more "adult' copilot was probably needed to rein in my visual hunger; but this trip it's dinner for one.)

Once inside Yellowstone, I followed the Northeast route toward the Canyon area and Artist and Inspiration Points. G., the aforementioned partner, a visual artist, had made this our first stop. But now road construction meant two-way traffic was confined to one lane. And one lane had to wait and wait as the construction vehicles and opposite traffic moved through. (Exiting the park, the wait was twenty minutes.) At this point, serenity had not enveloped me. I had driven too long and too fast to just sit. So I promptly did a 180 out of the line and headed in a clockwise direction for the Old Faithful Inn. And like a charm, just as I pulled into the parking lot, with hundreds of the faithful gathered around, the geyser or hot water spring, progressively pulsating and building up to its emission...full blast eruption of water and steam, reaching known heights as high as 180 feet.

On my previous Yellowstone adventure, G. and I had stayed one night at the Old Faithful Inn. It was as I remembered. The most incredible man-made wooden structure I've ever witnessed. Deeply hued tree trunks of varying lengths and widths abound as beams, railings and pillars in a wonder of architectural configurations. The inside feels like a towering, intricately and ingeniously layered maze. And my most vivid memory of our Old Faithful stay…You'd think with all that above mentioned pulsating phallic imagery it would be obvious what was most memorable. But, alas, no. It was this: late afternoon, a ruggedly good-looking cowboy/entertainer in colorful western shirt, bandana, leather pants with chaps, boots, is leaning on a rail two or three stories above the lobby. And he's singing the score of Oklahoma; one of the albums my folks repeatedly played as I was growing up. I still get goose bumps thinking of that.

A Grand Time: From the Mystical to the Magical

Onto the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Let's get one thing straight -- this is no Grand Canyon. That is, the view from the rim of the real Grand Canyon is so vast, so far beyond visual comprehension and verbal description…I was immediately humbled into an incredulous state and a reverential silence. (Though a memorable depiction of that initial view of The Grand Canyon by a working class looking and sounding guy with his family, fifty feet ahead of me, lingers. Upon his first visual encounter with the Canyon, he erupted: "Oh shit, those postcards don't tell you nothing!" That is the most succinct and cogent comment I've ever heard on the subject.

Still the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is spectacular, even awesome, just because of it's visually comprehensible and, thereby, compelling scale. One doesn't have to descend great depths and walk the canyon floor to grasp its natural beauty and idiosyncratic nature. A 300-foot waterfall symmetrically splits the V-shaped canyon. The sharply sloping canyon walls, dotted with pine trees, plunge into the Yellowstone River. With a canyon depth of 1,000 feet, the falls become the Grand Canyon vista point. The endless roar of the falls (just about at its peak with the melting snow waters) is only masked by a roaring, 50-mph wind as one goes down the switchback walkway. And unlike the view from the Grand Canyon rim where the Colorado River seems an elongated and emaciated faintly colored snake imperceptibly crawling along the floor, the Yellowstone River is restless clear blue-green everchurning white water, at points, close enough to feel the spray. And while the steep 3/8 mile climb back up had me breathing heavily (my ego was relieved when the guide book labeled the path strenuous and cautioned people with heart and lung problems) there was unexpected treasure at the lower falls: a double rainbow.

Of course, nature's symphony is not limited to the ear and skin, to visible and invisible motion and inspiring structure. What a feast for the pigment: those colors and textures. The yellow and golden, brown and cream canyon wall hues, with a texture alternately ragged and polished, rivals the beauty of the soft red, deep green and creamy layered rock formations of Sedona, AZ. The colors reveal that all of Yellowstone is an active volcanic area. Hot water mixes with the deep volcanic rock to yield minerals and bacteria that comprise the ultimate artist's palette.

Spectrum of color is omnipresent in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Snow and rain water seep underground, come in contact with the extremely hot rocks beneath the earth's outer crust and then resurface as boiling water -- either hot springs erupting skyward or as earthy fumaroles or steam vents. The most eerie sight was shocking turquoise threads of steam rising, more slithering, from a pool of water; like ethereal snakes being charmed by an invisible musical master. And even the pools that are just barely simmering can be an artistic display. The various subterranean chemicals mix with the water and with algae and other bacteria. Throw in sunlight and shade and…Voila! Gorgeous concentric hues of other worldly colors start at the pool's circumference and unfold toward the center creating, with just a little imagination, liquid Indian rug patterns or Mandala symbols. (Mandala is Sanskrit for "magic circle." And this symbolic, often intricate geometric configuration is a tool for inducing a state of deep meditation. For the quietly prepared mind, these geysers surely were reflecting pools.)

The only area I felt slightly cheated was the relatively few wildlife encounters: some grazing bison and a couple of young moose at a distance. My daytime travels were at odds with prime time animal watching -- dawn and dusk. So this trip, Yellowstone was a whirlwind pace, in and out of the car; spectacular picture postcard photo opportunities aplenty. Yellowstone was a feast for the senses and salve for a heart. Alone, this time, I experienced unadulterated joy. Yellowstone was now my own haven. From the bittersweet ashes of the past, I was able to sculpt a new reality along with some recovery.

But I was not quite ready to have nature speak to my soul. Perhaps the mountain serenity that John Denver sang about lay ahead. Look for a future piece on "Mind Over Mountains." (And if you haven't seen my classic lyric, "Mountain Vision," email right away.) Until then, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer, consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Check out his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - www.stressdoc.com  and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc

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