Balloons and the real secret to calming anxiety

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Chicago balloon sculptor and artist Willy Chyr with the label he designed for Beck's beer.

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Collectively we are a neurotic, anxiety-ridden mess. But each of us handles it differently and fortunately, we typically don't go off the deep end at the same time. One of us is always advising the other to slow down and take a deep breath.

When apprehension rears its ugly head, Sue springs into overdrive. While obsessing about a situation, she'll work herself into a sleep-deprived foodless frenzy until all control is restored.

On the last night of a trip to Munich there was a terrible snowstorm and our flight was slated to leave super early. Typically, Sue obsessed about not missing the flight. We went to bed later than was wise after a midnight snack of vending machine beer, Almond Joy bars and watching a three-hour equivalent of Dynasty in German.

We easily could have slept five to six hours but we ended up with a one-hour catnap. No sooner had Jen fallen asleep when Sue popped up ordering they start preparing for the airport. That's what nine-hour transatlantic flights home are for.

Jen also has a tendency to be obsessive - mainly over appliances being left on in her empty house. Countless times, we've had to turn around - already late for a meeting - to make sure the iron, coffee pot or dryer was off. Auto-shutoffs on appliances have only shifted her focus. Now she worries that the garage door is open or a faucet is running. Jen also tends to misplace her keys and wallet in her purse. In a fit of frustration she'll turn it over to Sue to find them for her.

And we both suffer from panic attacks. That's the trouble with generalized anxiety, it can rear its ugly head when you least expect it.

On a warm summer evening, we headed downtown to a launch event for Chicago sculptor Willy Chyr, handpicked by Beck's, along with five other artists, to craft a beer bottle label that would be displayed on a series of limited-edition 12-ounce bottles this summer and celebrate independent thinking.

Chyr is a 24-year-old quirky, free spirit who sports flannel shirts in 90-degree weather.

While pursuing degrees in physics and economics from the University of Chicago, he discovered Le Vorris & Vox Circus, a student-led group on the school's campus committed to the circus arts through performances, practices, and workshops. He juggled, rode a unicycle, did magic tricks, and even toyed with the notion of performance art post-graduation.

It was there a passion for twisting balloons was born eventually leading to his niche: science-influenced creations of amazing inflated balloon sculptures that replicate processes found in nature.

"Although I hadn't taken a formal art class since the eighth grade, I was always looking for creative outlets to express myself," Chyr said. Balloon art and sculpture offered the right medium.

Chyr drew inspiration for his label's design, "A Glimpse of Something Ephemeral," from photos of the microscopic world seen in science schoolbooks. The shapes are made from actual balloons - a combination of science and art in an original and abstract way.

"I'm inspired," he said, "by people who are honest and unapologetic about themselves, and their flaws."

Forty-five minutes into the event Jen experienced a full throttle panic attack. She doesn't know what prompted her to break out into hives and a cold sweat - perhaps it was the mime, or the large, semi-eccentric crowd. She bolted for the exit and got her breath and composure back. Later, feeling foolish, she passionately apologized. Sue listened and talked her down. Soon all was right in the world again.

Until Jen took a wrong turn out-of-the-gate and wound up circling the city for two hours.

One thing we have learned is that anxiety, panic and neurosis ebb and flow to varying degrees within all of us. Thank heavens (and science) for progressive pharmacology that helps those of us who need it.

But the real antidote? The people who inspire Chyr: trusted friends who let us be honest and unapologetic about ourselves and our flaws.

Jennifer Mifflin and Suzanne Witt are two Chicago-area writers on hiatus from daily assignments. When they aren't chasing terriers and a two-year-old or playing chauffeur to pre-teens, they throw caution to the wind and chronicle their journey as moms, friends and fellow neurotics on