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Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.

-- Richard Carlson

'You've been at that for more than an hour. What's up?" David sounded more concerned than curious. I lowered the binoculars (one of his birthday presents to me) and turned away from the window. "I have a lot to do." The unspoken question hung in the air between us -- if I had so much to do, why had I planted myself in front of the window, where I'd been spending my time staring at birds in the air and people on the street? The truth was that I had been paralyzed with dread, the feeling I get whenever I forget how to take things one step at a time.

"What do you have to do?" I was hoping he wouldn't ask. Now I would have to justify my paralysis by somehow making my pressing responsibilities sound as overwhelming as they felt. I had reached a form of contentment beneath a familiar cloud, that imaginary gray mass in which nebulous, unnamed tasks passed by in a blur, taunting me with their existence and my inability to focus on any one of them. I didn't want to answer David's question for two reasons: (1) As though evoking a demon, I might bring a curse upon my head with the spoken immensity of what I must do; (2) David might offer to help me prioritize, and shortly thereafter I would feel stupid for having gotten so worked up and overwhelmed in the first place.

"Just a lot of stuff, okay?"

"Like what?" There was no getting around it. For a moment, I was angry with him for caring so much. Leave me alone; I like it here. Don't go spoiling things by making it all better. It was a ridiculous notion, this desire of mine to remain helpless and immobile, as if my refusal to acknowledge my chores was enough to make them vanish altogether. After a brief battle in which my emotions lost to logic, I started talking, draining my cloud as I spit the words like rain out of my mouth.

Relief surged through me as I listed my tasks aloud for David. I named the people who were expecting calls from me, the projects in need of my attention, the tasks specific to various groups for which I had recently volunteered, and the mother of all responsibilities -- preparing for the first HOA meeting I will be facilitating as president. Once my list was on the table, so to speak, I began organizing it.

"I guess I can make those phone calls right now and then reread our CC&Rs, and then I should have plenty of time to give at least two hours to each of those other projects before the end of the week. Whew! It feels good to go over these things. I wonder why I was so reticent? It's a lot of stuff, but it's stuff I know I can get done." As sensation reentered my body and my paralysis subsided, I reclaimed my quest to take on the world. Like a good therapist after posing the perfect question, David sat back and let me solve my own problems.

I have a love/hate relationship with stress. I work well under pressure, which is both a blessing and a curse -- sometimes I require a certain amount of stress (a deadline, expectant people to please, or fear of failure) to motivate myself. But there's a fine line between not enough pressure and more-than-I-can-physically-and-emotionally-handle stress.

Working full-time and taking a full class load? No problem. Fifty hours at a high-stress job and going to night school each week was the right amount of pressure to help me rise to the occasion and earn myself promotions and straight A' s. But throw in the drama of more than one conflict with a psycho classmate, coworker, friend, or family member, and I experienced sleepless nights, obsessive preoccupation, and the jaw-destroying habit of unconsciously grinding my teeth.

David operates the same way, though he is much less histrionic about it. For example, when we were preparing for our move (an undeniably stressful situation) and trying to close escrow (ditto), David thought it would be the ideal time to enter a contest sponsored by Travel + Leisure Magazine to design the Do Not Disturb sign for a chic new boutique hotel in Manhattan. With the mountain of boxes in our living room reminding us that our move was just days away, David busied himself by setting up a photo studio in our half-packed bedroom.

Despite the time constraints, or perhaps because of them, he not only found the time and inspiration to design, create, and FedEx his submission before the deadline, he also won the contest and will be featured in the magazine's November issue.

While he was creatively crunching, I was bitching about all the things we had to finish before our move. At the time, I had reached my stress limit and ceased to function for a few days; David ended up packing mostly everything. As I look back, I wish I'd been more understanding of David's choice to inter himself beneath yet another project -- sometimes the only way to get things done is to give yourself no time to think about doing them. My problem is, I think too much.

I have a lot going on this week. Not enough to grind my teeth, but plenty to keep me busy and preoccupied. We both work from home, but the only true downtime David and I have found lately is in those short moments after getting into bed and before falling asleep. Last night my mind was reeling. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I remembered dozens of things that I needed to get done, and lay there with my eyes open wide.

"You alright?" David asked.

"I'm stressing, babe. But I'll be fine. You know me, if I don't stress, I don't succeed." I gave him a pathetic smile in an attempt to convince him I was fine. Then, to my confusion and surprise, David did the weirdest thing I've seen him do in the three years I've known him. He touched the soles of his feet together and drew them close to his body, joined his hands over his head, and sighed a long, vocal sigh, similar to the noise one makes when settling into a hot bath.

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