Anxiety is like a strangling vine. Rooting it out feels perilous, because you’re afraid that all the wholesome, fruitful shoots will be uprooted along with it. If I stop fretting, will I stop caring? If I stop freaking out, will I stop making an effort? If I’m not suffering, is it really love?
This week, I’m driving up and down, up and down the same twenty-mile strip of road every day. I was getting terribly bored, even though the car is stocked with a CD flip folder of the complete works of Pavement (I dunno).
The other night, I was having a mild panic attack in the middle of the night, and I dealt with it this way: I breathed in while thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” and then breathed out while thinking, “But I place my trust in Jesus.” I accepted my ignorance and my uncertainty, and I reclaimed my knowledge of the one true thing that will always be true, which is Jesus Himself.
It got me through that one bad night. But there has not been a single second in my life when that was not an appropriate prayer.
Image via Max Pixel (Public Domain)
Sometimes, I have to take my therapist’s words with a grain of salt or filter them through a Catholic lens. More often, I discover that my lifelong spiritual failings are actually emotional wounds. And as they heal, it becomes easier to follow Christ.
Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”
How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.
This morning, I dropped off the high school kids and was slowly working my way around the building to get back on the road. I was headed to my therapy appointment next, so I mused as I coasted, plotting out what to say about the past week.
To my delight, I realized that I had mostly good things to report. Maybe it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but on the inside, I’m doing really well. A year ago, I reminded myself, I would have done unhealthy and useless such-and-such, but now I’m more likely to do sensible and productive thus-and-so. A year ago, I would have been all bogged down in nonsense X, but now I’m working my way steadily through manageable plan Z. Why! I marvelled in my head, I’m even getting better at that mindfulness stuff!
“BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPP-GGGNNNNNAAAAAAAAA-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh,” said the van.
A horrible, scraping, flapping, grinding sound from the front end, the kind of sound that makes your heart drop right out of your chest.
My initial diagnosis was that the engine had broken into two halves which were angrily trying to crush each other into rubble. Or possibly the transmission had fused and was fixing to explode. Not a healthy sound. I pulled over as quickly as I could, parked, and dragged myself out of my seat, cold with dread, preparing my eyeballs to find that the front end had spontaneously crumpled itself into a smoking, oily ruin.
I . . . had hit a pylon.
A big old fluorescent orange traffic pylon, about three feet high, and it was wedged under the front bumper, and was dragging on the pavement. That’s it. I have no idea where it came from because, duh, I didn’t see it. I was too busy thinking about how good I was at mindfulness.
I tried to pull the pylon it out, but it was pretty stuck. So I got back in the van, backed up a bit, got out, and yanked it out. I sheepishly threw it into the passenger seat, drove around front of the building, punched on the hazards, tossed the pylon out onto the grass, and got the hell out of there before anyone recognized me.
(Because no one recognizes the dented white 15-passenger van with the peeling blue racing stripes and the raggedy pro-life bumper stickers on it, no sir. Completely anonymous. No one will harass my kids about it, definitely not.)
Yeah. So. Mindfulness! I’m ever so good at it, on the inside.
I wasn’t really wrong. It has been a very productive year. I have lots of hope and even some confidence about the future, I feel at peace most of the time, and I have much more interior freedom than I’ve ever had.
Therapy has been literally a game-changer for me. So much of my life has been taken up with all-consuming mental and emotional games that I didn’t really want to play, but which I didn’t know how to quit. I knew I wasn’t happy, and I knew I was making other people unhappy, but I was afraid that getting healthier would mean losing my identity. I wasn’t crazy about my personality, but, well, it was me. It was what I had, all I knew. Even if the ground I was travelling was unpleasant and rocky, I didn’t really fancy jumping off a cliff into the blind mist.
Well, it hasn’t been like that. I’m still myself. I’m more myself than I used to be. The mental illness of lifelong anxiety and depression were not, are not the real me. I’m closer now to being the real me than I used to be. I still have ups and downs, and I still have plenty of work to do. I don’t always act the way I want to; but at least I feel like I have a choice in how I respond to the world.I’m not on any drugs, because I don’t need them right now. It’s been a very good year.
Does it seem this way from the outside, to people who know me and live with me? I have no idea. For all I know, the rest of the world still sees me driving around like an idiot with an orange pylon wedged under my bumper, and it’s only by good luck that it is just a pylon, and not a puppy dog or a crossing guard. I hope that my work with therapy has made life easier or better for people who have to live and work with me, but I am not sure.
Either way, it’s been worth it.
I’m telling you in case you need the encouragement to make that phone call (or several phone calls). Get a good therapist, be honest, do the work, be persistent, and your ride through life will get a lot smoother in the best possible way. You’ll still be in the driver’s seat, and even if you do have to drive off a cliff at some point, you won’t be in free fall forever, I promise. If you stick with it, you will still be yourself. More yourself.
On the inside, anyway. On the outside? Just keep an eye open for crossing guards, I guess. But you can do it! And it will be worth it.
A note about the photo: I am not saying that I would have hit this chick with my van on purpose, but I am saying that if I did hit her, it definitely would have been on purpose. That’s the magic of mindfulness!
Yesterday, I wanted to talk about the concept of “enabling,” and how we use the term to give ourselves permission to behave badly. But I ended up talking more about our duty toward transsexuals, and frankly, I bit off more than I can chew!
What I really meant to write about is pop psychology, and how its vocabulary leeches into our psyches and turns us into terrible Christians. We may not be in therapy ourselves, but we’ve read an article, or talked to someone whose niece is in therapy, or watched Dr. Phil, or seen a sitcom where one of the characters has watched Dr. Phil, and we latch onto these catchy phrases and take them into our bosoms and call them our own.
It’s not a bad thing that people are comfortable talking about psychological problems in public. It can be very helpful to realize that we’re not the only ones who struggle, and it’s a relief to discover that our secret weirdness has a name. But the problem comes when we gather up these little bits of information and try to sculpt them into something grand and important — and when we use them as an excuse to be selfish, inflexible, lazy, or rude.
A young Catholic woman once told me, “Oh, I have a medical reason not to fast on Good Friday. I get light headed.” Mind you, she didn’t have some dangerous condition that would make her pass out while driving on the freeway. She just meant that, when she didn’t eat, she felt hungry. She had persuaded herself that she had a right to optimal comfort at all times, and that modern medicine backed her up, and excused her from self-discipline.
We do the same with our psyches: we persuade ourselves that we are entitled never to feel frustrated, uncomfortable, or put out — and looky here! There’s an official-sounding word that gives us permission not to fight against our inclinations. Not only does this abuse of terms let us off the hook, it trivializes the struggle of people who truly suffer from serious psychological conditions, as I explained in my post about triggers.
Some people suffer from genuine anxiety disorders; some of us just get worried sometimes. I can be an “introvert” and still force myself introduce myself to a stranger at a party. I’m not “addicted” to Facebook; I just have an extremely strong habit that is hard to break. Some people carry the cross of being bi-polar, but I’m don’t; I just need to work harder to control my emotions so I don’t make everyone miserable.
What other examples are there of modern people pathologizing everyday life?
Enabling. As I said in my other post,
Enabling is when you offer a shot of whiskey to someone who’s struggling to stop drinking, because hey, it’s his choice. Enabling is when you bail your no-good, DUI, vandal, rapist son out of jail because it might frighten him to spend a night in the tank with actual criminals. Enabling is when you lie to your buddy’s wife to cover up for his infidelity. Enabling is cleaning up the mess, sheltering a sinner from the consequences of his behavior, making it easy for someone to avoid facing the truth of what his life has become.
But it’s not “enabling” to treat someone with respect. It’s not “enabling” to treat someone as an equal. It’s not “enabling” to say, “Nah, I guess I don’t need to swat you down.” It’s not our place to treat everyone we meet as if they are in some way our patient, our spiritual underling, our disappointing ward.
And yet, lately, everyone with a keyboard and the ability to skim Wikipedia deems himself enough of a expert to dish out therapeutic protocols to everyone who crosses his path.
The concept of “enabling,” and the idea that we must avoid it at all costs, has permeated American culture. It’s so popular because it allows us to feel self-righteous about being selfish. I’d like to give you want you want, but it would be bad for you. So I refuse to help. You’re welcome! Why should my tax money go to giving an adequate meal to a kid who turns up without his lunch money again? We’ve given them three warnings; continuing to feed this child will just enable irresponsible parenting. This mindset allows us to bypass a panhandler, deny mercy to someone who screwed up (even though we know darn well that we’ve screwed up ourselves), and say no to just about anyone who needs our help, because if you look hard enough, you can discover some way that it’s their fault. And poof go the corporal works of mercy.
What are some other examples?
Setting boundaries. Sometimes setting boundaries makes life livable. Sometimes you really have to lay down the law and tell your mother-in-law, No, you may not make a key to our apartment so you can rearrange my cupboards while I’m having surgery, and no, you may not show my kid movies I’ve forbidden, and you may not feed her peanut butter to help her get over her allergies. It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry, I’m too busy to help you right now.” Some people need to learn how to stand up to outrageously pushy people, and some people need to learn how to say “no” without letting everyone down and being a worthless person.
However, it’s not “setting boundaries” when we simply refuse to do our part, or refuse to take our eyes off our own needs and desires and preferences. Yet I’ve heard it used this way: “I’m setting boundaries with my husband! From now on, I do my laundry, I cook my meals, I clean up my messes, I buy my food, I fetch my own coffee, I do what I want on the weekend, and I have my bank account . . . but him? He’s on his own.” Setting boundaries is to allow us to live our lives, not to thoroughly insulate us from other people. The ledger of the demands we make on other people, and the demands they make on us, will not always turn out even at the end of the day! Setting up partitions between us and other people is not a way of life; it’s for emergency situations, when we or another person are way out of line.
Toxic people. We can waste a lot of time trying to have healthy, pleasant, fruitful interactions with people who simply aren’t interested in any of that. Every time you spend time with a toxic person, you end up feeling like you’re the crazy one, because they can’t seem to function without rage, drama, bitterness, recriminations, emotional manipulations, accusations, treachery, and lies. So it’s a good idea to realize: This is just a toxic person, and unless there’s some miracle, I’m probably never going to have a normal relationship with him. It’s probably best for both of us if I just limit how much time I spend with him, or at least have very low expectations of our relationship. I can’t control who he is, but I can control how I will respond to him.
But we can’t just slap a “toxic” label on everyone who challenges us. Maybe he’s behaving badly because he’s suffering, and you should try to be extra kind. Maybe you’re the one who’s being unreasonable! Maybe he’s just kind of difficult, but you can just avoid bringing up certain topics of conversation, and you’ll have a peaceful relationship that way. It’s actually pretty rare to come across someone who is beyond hope, socially; so if we have a long list of “toxic people” whom we simply refuse to deal with, we might want to look in the mirror.
What else? What psychological terms have you seen abused? And . . . heh heh . . . are you kind of anal about it?