The first time crippling anxiety assaulted my mind and body at age twenty-nine, I felt super-stimulated by everything going on around me. My mind raced. I could not follow a radio broadcast, it barreled along too quickly, too much information. No matter how I tried, I could not fall asleep. This continued for seven days before I sought medical care and was forced to take sick leave from my job. Struck by a deep-seated fear that my career was over, I felt bowled over by a sense of shame at my failure to cope. I was convinced my mind was irreparably broken. One evening I labelled the myriad of spices in the rack and organized them alphabetically. It was an attempt to make order out of the chaos I was experiencing inside.
And so I recognized something familiar in the nearly fifty boxes of shoes, labelled and organized by colour and style, I discovered in my mother’s apartment after she died. It was a work of art, arranged neatly on the shelf above her clothes closet. I understood, because my mother suffered from Alzheimer’s and this organized mass of shoes must have been one way she tried to cope with her own internal chaos as the illness progressed.
Navy sling backs. Red running shoes. Peach coloured sandals. My pertly dressed, not quite five-foot-tall mother always matched her shoes to the outfit she was wearing. Her modest pantsuits, skirts and dresses each had their own carefully chosen footwear. Mostly comfortable, few heels. All a diminutive size five.
What is this pursuit of order, especially when our thinking is disordered? Is it an effort to contain and command the wayward thinking that characterizes mental illness? In my anxious state, I conquered the celery salt, cinnamon and cumin. Classifying her shoes may have brought my mother some serenity, as she traversed a disturbed mental landscape. I certainly hope so.