Anxiety

The kids went home yesterday afternoon. In the morning, The Boy was sick–he had been vomiting the previous night and not told me. So he didn’t want to go to football, and The Girl says there are no girls to play with. It’s only boys. I think they are both actually frustrated not to experience immediate success. They don’t have the emotion-regulation skills or the self-compassion to persist.

It made for an interesting morning, because they were both home and we had nothing in particular to do. Without the schedule, things are free-form, but I don’t have great ideas about what teenagers ought to do with their spare time. Tuesday, I had to go to school to do some work, and they went downstrairs to the neighbour’s house and watched violent movies on television for hours. That was clearly not a good idea. So I had the Girl work in the garden for about an hour and a half and the Boy stayed inside and read books and drew pictures.

It was very interesting, because The Boy is sometimes naturally very interesting to talk to and to be with. At other times, he makes unfunny jokes and plays up to get attention and I end up feeling sort of mechanical. (That’s nice dear….) But at other times, the back and forth flows very naturally.

This is interesting, because The Girl cannot do this. She cannot do something of her own and bring it back to show me or be looking at something and point out something that interests me. When she tries to do this, she imitates The Boy and does whatever he did last that interested me. She does not have her own ideas. When she is looking at something and points it out to me, I usually have a hard time understanding why it has any interest for her. Yesterday, she was pointing out that some boys seemed to be on their way to go swimming. (Swimming during the monsoon is quite dangerous.) I agreed that the river was their destination. They are not students at our school, although they used to be. I had a hard time understanding why she cared if they went swimming or not or why I should care. I recall one day when some boys were walking down the road–I think it may have been the same boys–and she said, “Look, there is X walking with his friends.” Indeed, there he was, walking with his friends.

Why does she care that he is walking with his friends?

So she strikes out with me much of the time, and it was sad to see this. It was sad for me to see how naturally the boy could interest me in his activities and how hard it is for her to do the same thing. I felt sad that she was losing out on this kind of interaction.

The thing about being anxious is that it leaves her unable to develop her own interests very fully. She is very good at helping me when I need help, but she does not know how to have her own interests and then share them with me. It may be that she’s simply wrong about imagining my mind and in time she will improve. But I think it may also be the anxiety–she can’t leave me and my interests long enough to explore the world.

Of course, in Country X, where people don’t go to the shop alone, exploring the world is less done, but I still think everyone needs some of this. Everyone needs to have things that they like to do and that they get some satisfaction and joy out of doing.

I was watching a video about anxious-ambivalent attachment–it’s a strange situation clip. In it, the mother starts off playing with her baby. He’s found a phone and he offers her the receiver to pretend to talk. She says, “Is this the best toy you could find?” and offers him a different toy. Now, it’s hard for me to understand why a mother playing with her baby would reject the toy she offers him. They are, after all, baby toys.

But I can imagine something like this playing into the Girl’s make-up. You can’t develop your own interests with a parent who seems bent on destroying them.

The thing is that, although I have trouble imagining the mother’s motives, I don’t think she is bent on destroying him as a separate person from her. I don’t think she probably realizes this is the likely outcome.

Anxiety usually makes you present-focused and concerned with short-term results. It also makes you self-focused, because your own survival seems to be at stake. Given that I believe this about anxiety and I am guessing an anxious baby results from an anxious mother, then the mother’s reasons for rejecting her child seem to me to be more likely to have something to do with her feelings in this moment.

What would they be?

Because my own mother interfered with me quite often. I don’t think this began at 7 or 10 or 11, or only in the years when I was old enough to make note of it and remember it later. It began with my saying, “Mommy, bird,” and my mom not understanding why I might want to look at a bird, just as I don’t understand why I might want to look at some boys walking down a road.

 

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The right to feel fear (and other unpleasant emotions)

I felt like killing myself last night.

I was a little surprised, as I hadn’t felt that way since I’d arrived in Country X. I’ve been here a month now.

So, I went to bed thinking, “Now what set that off?”

I don’t know what did even now. I had some strange dreams, but nothing answered the question. I’m not even sure that trying to sort through my day and my thoughts for what set off my reaction is an effective approach. I have started to think it just keeps my focus on everything that might be wrong, including problems I hadn’t noticed before, and I end up with much more to be anxious about.

But I do feel anxious today. Almost debilitatingly so. I mean, I got through the day, but I didn’t buy cilantro today at the vegetable market because I’d never done that before, and each new thing I need to do makes me even more anxious.

I have spent a lot of years trying to find ways to soothe anxiety. Most of them have not made any noticeable difference. But I realized this afternoon that that is definitely the wrong approach. Trying to conquer anxiety is like trying not to think about white bears. The harder you try, the worse it gets. Anxiety is something else just to roll with. Now, maybe that isn’t the answer for everyone. But I think it’s the answer for me.

On the one hand, integration is about acceptance. Acceptance involves feeling what is there to feel—whether the feeling is pleasant or unpleasant.

And on the other, fear is something I could not afford to feel as a child. If I felt it, I might show it, and you can’t let a sociopath see your fear. Then he knows all the more clearly how to torture you. So fear is something that was taken away from me as a child: it is a part of the human experience I lost. Of course, I did feel fear, but that needed to be carefully shuttered off from my awareness. Part of being a person is being afraid sometimes, so today I feel afraid. It isn’t such a great feeling, but it’s mine.

Addendum: I wrote this the day before yesterday, and I do know now what set of my suicidal thoughts Fatigue, it turns out, is an important trigger for this kind of thinking for me. There are other triggers, but fatigue is a big one. It’s essentially a flashback to moments in my childhood when I just wanted to give up and let my father’s torture kill me.

Leeches and a flat earth

And evidently people are still doing this...
And evidently people are still doing this…

I woke up exhausted this morning. I was alert for a few hours after that and then returned to exhausted. I may or may not be ill in some kind of physical way, but nonetheless have spent the majority of the day in bed—not sleeping, but just wanting to rest my aching, heavy legs.

This has been a week of realizations, and that’s the natural outcome of all of that new stuff in my brain: fatigue.

My realizations were all centered on this fundamental notion: people are wrong a lot. I would guess, when it comes to complex matters, they are wrong about 50 to 60 percent of the time. Even experts are wrong in their field of expertise although perhaps somewhat less than the rest of us. If this weren’t the case, we would still be reading texts from the age of Gutenberg. There would have been no need to write anything new.

We have new knowledge because the old knowledge was wrong. It was incomplete, distorted, misunderstood, or sometimes utterly off-base. The world is not flat, we do not suffer from imbalances in humours, and leeches don’t cure any illnesses. Also, paraffin oil does not suffocate lice, but that’s a topic for another post.

Furthermore, it is not that we used to be wrong and have improved so that we are now right about everything. Being wrong is not a bad habit you mature out of with time and patience. We are less wrong, but still wrong. Wrong is the human condition.

Growing up in a madhouse, there are a lot of things about ordinary human life I did not know. That was one of them.

See, I got confused because so many people seem so convinced they are right about so many things. They know the right diet to eat, the right attitude to take to be happy and successful in life, and what causes other people to behave like jackasses.

I cannot even tell you how much I weighed the last time I went to the doctor. It was 55 kilos, but the scale may not be accurate. I think it isn’t. I think it’s off by about 2 kilos. But I’m not sure about that. That’s a guess. And I can’t remember if there seemed to be a directional trend to this, or it just kind of wobbles, as scales sometimes do.

I have some ideas sometimes. I speculate. There’s not much I’m really sure of.

You could say I have low self-esteem. But that misses the point. In my mind, my conjectures about the world—whether about my real weight or about more profound matters—aren’t about me. They are just ideas. Tomorrow, I will have new ones.

Ideas are like clothes. When they wear out or get holes, you get new ones—hopefully, ones you like. Still, they will all need replacing in the end. Their longevity has nothing to do with your worth and I like myself just the same whether or not my ideas turn out to be correct.

But it did create some confusion for me. I thought other people seem so confident in what they think because they had better evidence than I do. I assumed they were me, and I thought they must have the degree of evidence I would require before arriving at that kind of certainty.

And they don’t.

This is really about me and about my traumatic past. I’m sharing it because of that. Maybe this will mean something to you as well.

As a child, I could not afford to be wrong. Being wrong might kill me. Not just because someone might punish me in a murderous way for making a mistake, but because one of the possible outcomes of most situations was death.

If I misjudged a mood, I might end up dead.

If I miscalculated my response, I might end up dead.

If I mispredicted someone’s next move, I might end up dead.

If I did not correctly handle physical danger, I would most certainly end up dead.

I am alive mainly because a lot of the time I was right. Sometimes I was lucky, but most of the time I was right.

So, I keep coming back to this need to be right—not a need to believe I am right, but a need to really be right, a need to be so careful in the decision I make that I never make mistakes. It worries me that my need to be right is my box. Nandhini has her rules and I have my uncertainty. I worries me that it limits my willingness to take risks and I wonder if I would be more creative and less anxious if I could live with more wrong-ness in my life.

It has certainly led me to misjudge a lot of the rest of the world.

To continue with my meditation on wrongness, but on a somewhat different tack, I was also pondering the choices I’ve made in the past as I lay exhausted in bed today. They haven’t always been great ones. In fact, at some points, it really has seemed that I made a right cracking mess of things.

That’s when I realized we all make mistakes. Big ones. Just like I have. Everyone makes good and bad choices in their lives. Just as I have. My mess is not any bigger or smaller than anyone else’s. In fact, it’s a perfectly average-sized mess of a life. How you want to see that is a matter of perspective.

You could say my traumatic childhood damaged me and consequently I made a series of poor choices based on the poor modeling I received at home, the maladaptive coping strategies I learned, and my low self-esteem. Until I’ve addressed the past and changed these patterns, I’ll most likely continue to repeat them. And that might be true.

You could also say, despite the odds, I turned out to be an empathetic, pro-social individual who has a number of supportive friendships, a caring romantic partner, and a promising career. And that might be true.

But I think those viewpoints are both wrong or at the very least incomplete. I made mistakes as other people do. The mistakes I made were uniquely my own and resulted from a combination of my personality, skills, and the forces in the past that shaped me. Just as other people make mistakes that are uniquely their own.

I am not going to stop making mistakes. As I remarked in an earlier post, most of them probably won’t kill me.

Fear God

hierarchy2I grew up with a God that found fault. We were in constant danger of having “the wrong spirit,” which could be evidenced in any number of ways, from wearing the wrong hairstyle to speaking one’s mind too assertively. Heaven help us if we were to die without having had time to repent every sin we might have committed. Even after repentance, forgiveness was never assured. The stakes were high. We needed to be that perfect lamb of God.

For us, “What would Jesus do?” was not just a figure of speech, or even a general guide for life. (Although it wasn’t a catch phrase then. Certainly, we didn’t use it.) It was a command.

The ways you could be punished for falling short were many: car accidents were a favourite, so were losing all of your friends, contracting HIV or becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. Of course, there was also always hell. But it was clear that hell could begin now—while you were still alive. And it was also clear that an early trip could be part of things too.

Our God was an angry god. Nothing much could be done about this.

So it’s really no wonder that at some deep level I feel I don’t deserve to live. I am not perfect. I am no Lamb of God. I am not even a Christian, but I’m not sure I was any more safe from judgment when I was one.

What you can't see is the fear.
What you can’t see is the fear.

That kind of perfection just isn’t possible. I’m not sure it’s even desirable. If I think that’s the way the world works, I’m really not fit to live. And I am in danger because of that. Terrible danger.

It also means, when the overcrowded bus careens dangerously around a sharp turn on a mountain road, there is no God to whisper a prayer to. In fact, God offers no consolation at all. He cannot be trusted to offer protection, much less mercy. He is simply someone else to be obeyed and to fear.

As children, we were told early and often to fear God. I have to admit I still may. Although I thought I turned all of these ideas on their heads years ago, it appears that the image of God and the fear that came with it are still there inside me.

The ideas are gone, but not the emotion, not the core belief. And it has been very effective at doing one thing in my life: making me anxious.

My niece, who is being raised in the same cult as I was, pulls out her hair and her eyelashes. I feel lucky I only pick at my cuticles and count things.

A God who demands so much from us—more than the creatures He created can do—is no god at all, but evil. We were raised to worship evil.

Priya says, about the white dog, that I will gain blessings from feeding her biscuits every day when I see her. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I know it says something about the God she believes in. It says her God believes in compassion. Mine should too.

Shedding Still

This will need to be short.

The plan for the day involves moving the furniture I intend to keep out of my place. Which is why I fell asleep at last some time around 1:30 in the morning. Sleep is something I don’t do before major changes.

I should, probably, be doing something useful and productive this morning like throw something away–I have come to the conclusion that I have too much stuff. Like a lot too much stuff.

I love getting rid of things. That’s why this is so hard. The parts don’t agree.

Because I’m also afraid I will have nothing left.

I don’t know why it’s so hard to let myself have fun.

Scrupulosity: When the Parts Bring a Suitcase

The core issue for me is trauma. The core process is integration.

Thanks for coming along on this road. I have a new dirt bike for you to try out.

As I integrate, I periodically discover new challenges. Katey had some problems with codependence. Sam* (not his real name) is transgendered. Lana has OCD.

It’s fun.

It’s not quite the same thing as all of me having the same problem. Only part of me does. It’s a part-time problem.

But as I integrate, then it’s a full-time problem. And that requires I deal with it and instead of, you know, just saying it’s not my problem. Like I have been the whole rest of my life. Because it wasn’t.

It was Katey’s problem that I kept getting my heart broken.

It was Sam’s problem I couldn’t figure out who I was.

It was Lana’s problem that I had to do everything right. All the time.

Descent to Hell. Duccio Buoninsegna.
Descent to Hell. Duccio Buoninsegna.

No, it isn’t. It’s my problem. They are all my problems. So, one by one, I have addressed them. I worked through the codependent workbooks. I explored my gender and came to terms with it. Now, it’s time to stop thinking that numbers are magic and that I need to be perfect.

You can see from my posts that I’ve been working up to this. First, comes admitting the problem. Then comes confronting the distorted thinking. And now it’s time.

It is very much time.

The OCD we’re dealing with is scrupulosity. The core fear is that I will burn in hell. Oh, and barring that, dying in a car crash, developing a terminal illness, or being struck by lightning. But basically it comes down to hell. They say it’s important to know this.

So that is step three.

The weirdness of this is that, of course, most of me does not even believe in hell. So I’m afraid of something I don’t believe in. But Lana does, and it is her problem. And Lana is me. So it is also my problem.

I know what triggered it all. When I was growing up, they told us to be careful of our thoughts, our ministers did. They may have, in fact, quoted Mahatma Gandhi without telling us they were. They did stuff like that a lot.

“Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.” Mahatma Gandhi.

They may have quoted Proverbs. They did that sometimes too.

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Proverbs 4:23.

They may have done both. And they also told us that God wanted us to keep our hearts pure, our minds pure. They told us again and again that our thoughts become reality.

And, as I told you last week, they don’t. Thoughts are just that: thoughts.

But I didn’t know that. They were in charge. They had a direct line to God. These people would know.

So I believed them. And I tried to keep my thoughts pure.

Meanwhile, I had flashbacks. I had all manner of disgusting, terrifying, violent intrusive thoughts. Because, you know, people were raping me regularly and throwing chairs. They were scaring the hell out of me. I may have been angry as well. It wouldn’t be uncommon, or difficult to understand, if I also had thoughts about these people dropping suddenly dead. You could understand if, from time to time, I did not wish them well.

So I did not have pure thoughts.

And they told us too that we should be perfect, that God demands a perfect sacrifice. That we should try to be without blemish, like Jesus. We should strive to emulate Jesus, our pattern, and be the perfect lamb of God.

I know this is crazy, but forgiveness did not come into it. They may have talked about washing away sins too. But logic was not a strong point.

They scared the hell out of me.

On Optimism, Phobias, and the Continued Presence of a Heartbeat

So the upside of having been severely abused as a kid is that the kinds of things I’m afraid of are pretty severe. Which makes them a little easier to manage.

Heaven help the person who worries about facing disapproval. If you’re worried about that, I can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel for you. Someone will disapprove of you. Pretty much all the time. For whatever you let someone disapprove of you over. There is no hope.

What I’m really worried about is death.

Still not flatlining...
Still not flatlining…

Every time I do something that scares me, I can look around afterwards and see that I continue to not be dead.

So, I was optimistic yesterday about a job interview. I don’t know if the interview went well or badly. I won’t know for a week and a half if I even made it through to the next stage of interviews, but I can see very clearly that I am very distinctly and definitely not dead. It’s quite a relief. And also rather invigorating.

And maybe, just maybe, that means I can try optimism again.

I think I might try it just for the fun of it. Just because. Just as a way of saying “screw you” to my parents and their weird little culty church. You know, kind of like thumbing my nose at them. Watch me think optimistic thoughts. Watch how “proud” I can be and how much I can “take my own way.” Just watch me…

I know people say positive thinking brings positive things into our lives. I’m not so sure. I tend to think that’s something we like to believe because it makes life seem more predictable and manageable for us. It gives us a pleasant sense of control when we think our thoughts can make things happen.

So, I’m suspicious. I’m actually suspicious of everything that makes us feel more comfortable, because I know the selling point for my parents about their weird little culty church was how comfortable and secure it made them feel to believe they knew the truth. Comfort is seductive. I don’t like that.

But whether it’s true or not, I can tell you that optimism is more fun.

And, so far, I haven’t died of it.