More Pondering

The great thing about a blog is that no one is obliged to read it. These past few weeks I seem to have spoken about nothing but my own personal journey and I risk boring everyone I know. And at the same time, it’s all I seem able to think about. This is happening, now, and the only way to deal with it is to push on through. So many of you wrote to me so movingly in solidarity that I hope some of the things I am uncovering will be of help, and for all the people to whom I owe an email or a call, this is at least some account of what I’ve been doing and why I’ve been quiet.

One thing I notice is how much I worry about not fulfilling my obligations towards other people – those emails and phone calls prey on my mind (not to mention replies to comments on this blog and a few posts that aren’t pure navel-gazing). I find that I don’t judge my situation to be more important than the comfort and satisfaction of others. And this is a place where I have had to stop and consider. Why do I find it so very hard to put myself first? I have a sense almost of criminality when I do so. Inevitably tied to this is, then, a heavy burden of responsibility and its concomitant guilt. I have always been the kind of person to meet all my deadlines and keep all my promises and produce whatever is required from me, whenever necessary. This sounds like a good thing, right? Except that there turns out to be no space for me in this arrangement, no flexibility, no kindness towards my own feelings and concerns. I meet my commitments, but almost on pain of death, as it were, rather than joyfully and freely as it ought to be.

As I look back, I can see how this attitude became ingrained when I had a small child and was working very hard at the university. Every moment of my day (and night) was accounted for, I took on far more work than was sensible and did it all, and for people with children, well, you know how overwhelming the responsibility of parenthood is. There are no days off for mothers. I was stressed out of my tiny mind for years, and given I felt there was no other option than to make good all my promises, implicit and explicit, I quashed and buried my own inconvenient feelings. Those of you who pointed out that they were coming back to bite me were spot on. When we choose the stoic route, we rarely do so happily. More often than not it is an act of self-brutality, and one based in fear. Who are we when we are sad, miserable, unlovable? It seems dangerous to try and find out. Better to stay cheerful and upbeat, to resolutely show only the coping, competent mechanisms we have learned, not the distress and terror over which they provide a thin veneer.

This isn’t purely an altruistic act, because I find that experiencing negative emotions is alarming in itself. What has happened to us that we have learned to demonise the darker side of our characters? Because at some point there has to come a time of reckoning; it is in our nature and in our bodies to let those painful emotions out. I can see that I have never been very good at tolerating my own distress, or at soothing myself. My whole being is geared up towards problem solving, rushing headlong into any dilemma and trying to fix it. Which is why I end up putting myself behind other people and their needs, I guess. It has always seemed easier to fix them than to sit quietly with my own distress. But in this area, I have not been a good parent. I always rushed to solve my son’s needs, thinking to save him pain, and now I notice how difficult he finds it to tolerate discontent. I see now there would have been better ways of doing it. But he is still growing and there is plenty of time ahead for him to learn.

What I think I see, after this unaccustomed period of listening to myself is that anxiety produces another whole world, one of darkness and shadows in which fate is malignant and catastrophe lurks. It’s a world in which we are cut off from our resources and those of other people, and we feel very alone and insecure. From behind a glass, we look out at the real world where the sun shines and nature produces its cyclical renewal, where help is available and people’s intentions and motivations are good as often as they are not. Anxiety produces a world of paranoia, separated off from the ordinary world where the benefit of the doubt rules. In the anxious world things are bad, unless we can conjure a miracle out of thin air; in the ordinary world things are good unless something happens, and for the most part we have faith that the difficulty will pass. We can afford to sit with our distress because the likelihood is that we won’t have to wait long for help or reassurance to come.

I think about these two worlds a lot at the moment, waiting for the moment to come when I am brave enough to embrace the ordinary world and its easy hope. There is no reason to suppose this will happen quickly, but I’m also thinking there is no reason to suppose I am incapable of it. I would like to put myself first, not in a dark, selfish way, but in a normal, sunshiny human way, and know that the sky won’t fall. I’d like to make mistakes and be messy and unreliable from time to time, and that it would be okay, just what people do. I can’t make other people change their attitudes or expectations, so all I can do is be me and see who is prepared to put up with that, right? Well, I can give it a go, and if the sky falls in over Cambridge, we’ll at least be able to explain one natural disaster.


17 thoughts on “More Pondering

  1. Hugs to you…not that they will make what you feel any lighter…I too suffer from anxiety issues and sometimes crippling anxiety. My children also have inherited this wonderful trait from me (in various ways) so I’ll join you in the race for the “I have not been a good parent” award 😉

    What I am doing is what you are doing, calling it what it is, claiming it and meeting it head on…some days better than others…but still making it and TALKING about it. I have found through my own journey that there are so many others (a LOT of women) who have the same types of issues and are scared or embarrassed to talk about them…they suffer in silence bc of stereotypical expectations and/or society’s opinions about mental health.

    I think everyone has to find the personal strategies that work best for them…my daughters and I work with an incredible therapist learning various cognitive behavior strategies to deal with the anxiety and OCD. Each of us has different needs even though our issues are related.

    My oldest daughter and I also are on medication. I seem to remember you mentioning in your last post feeling ambivalent about the meds. Mental health issues that are serious enough to affect you physically should be taken as seriously as other chronic health issues. If your doctor is encouraging you to take meds, you should take them and take them consistent with the way they have been prescribed. There are tons of them out there, and he/she can help you find the one that works best for you.

    Hang in there and keep writing…my blog has been a lifeline for me…just as an outlet where I can be myself creatively through reading and writing, which have always brought me joy. I’m assuming your blogging for the same reasons, so just keep on keeping on :):)

    More hugs…:)

  2. I can relate to this, Litlove, and you put so beautifully the world of anxiety and the ordinary world and how they both exist simultaneously. The movement from one to the other is nothing more than thought, so in that sense easy, but also in that sense hard. It can’t be forced, but can be learned and done. It’s wonderful to read your thoughts and progress here.

  3. You are so right about anxiety producing that “other world”. I’ve never heard these things described as beautifully as you do here and I find your ponderings on these topics immensely helpful. It is hard for people who don’t have anxiety to understand what it feels like when you do. My number one goal this year is to practice more self-compassion. I need to be as kind and loving to myself as I am to others. For me it is a journey that I take one step at a time.

  4. I also used to think that keeping all deadlines, making promises to other people out of kindness and so on was a good thing. In fact, I used to be proud that I always did things on time. Now, not so much. At this point, I’m asking myself “Where has that got me? The people closest to me don’t value my punctuality in everyday things all that much. And what if, in my drive to always be on time, always keep other people’s promises, I’m neglect to satisfy the deeper and unspoken requirements of people that I really care about. Also, at work, even though everyone values a “good citizen” who does things on time, what they really expect an employee to deliver is the next big ground-breaking thing, and sometimes good citizenship just takes away from that self-advancement.” This is the thing that I feel very anxious about, to the point where it affects sleep, productivity and sometimes health. The only way one could possibly deal with this (I think) is to just allow oneself to be sloppy in the things that don’t matter much. I can understand that one should be kinder to oneself, but this is nearly impossible for me to do on account of guilt.

    Reading this post was not fun, but it is illuminating to find that there are people who are facing down similar (if not the same) worries. I hope you find your strength, litlove. At all costs, please do your best to keep your physical health intact.

  5. Learning to embrace mistakes is hard, but I think it’s a great thing, and something I’m working on myself. (I had a good one this past weekend: I joined a walk/study group, which is led by two guys who are artists who are interested in walking, and the idea is that the group reads about walking/art and then we go on walks and talk about what we’ve read. This past Sunday was the second meeting, and I thought oh, great, I’ll walk to the meeting-place then go on the walk and walking there plus the walk with the group will add up to a nice 12-mile walk, total, and it’ll be lovely. Except I didn’t pay attention when I wrote down my directions, turned on a Park Place when I was meant to turn on a Park Avenue, and ignored my niggling doubts about where I was until I was way past where I should have made another turn. By then, I had an hour left to get to the meeting-place and there was no way that walking or taking the bus and/or subway was going to get me there on time, so I had to call one of the leaders and tell him, “oops, I got really lost, I can’t make it today.” But I managed to laugh about it, and he was nice about it, and I ended up having a nice 12-mile walk on my own, though it wasn’t at all the 12-mile walk I’d planned.)

    Also, what you say about anxiety/not being able to sit with distress/problem-solving is really interesting for me right now. Lately a point of stress in my relationship has been my boyfriend’s tendency to problem-solve in a way that feels, to me, excessive. Sometimes the problem-solving impulse is great, because sometimes there’s this flash for me of “oh, you’re right, if I just do X, things will be easier.” But sometimes I feel like: “I just wanted to express my annoyance at something, it’s not a big deal, it doesn’t need to be solved because now I’m over it – so why are you trying to solve it still?”

  6. Once I was anxiously regretting aloud to an older, distinguished male colleague that my CV was not all it should be. I have two small children, and it had prevented me from doing the amount of research and the number of conferences I thought proper. He said, “My CV looks just like yours if you look back to when my children were small. It’s a season in your life. You can only have one priority — that’s what the word means, that only one thing can really come first. Everything else comes after. This will change, and later you’ll have more time to do the research. Don’t be so anxious about it.” It was so generous and kind, tears came to my eyes (and I was mortified.) But he was right. If you put yourself first, it’s a season in your life when that must be right, when you’re working it out. Later, when you’re healthy, perhaps something else will need to take center stage (or not.) Everything changes; we should write it over all our doors in letters of gold. This too shall pass. Be well, Litlove.

  7. It’s like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz, you are already strong and brave and have the power to do what you need to to become well. You just need to trust and believe. I know, easier said than done. But not impossible.

  8. Patti – it’s been amazing me, since I’ve been writing these posts, to find out just how many people suffer from the same sorts of issues. There’s a psychotherapist I really like, D. W. Winnicott and he has a saying that good health can contain a little illness. I think it’s the same with mental health – it always contains a little craziness. I love reading about your family in your blog and have often thought what beautiful daughters you have – I’m really sorry to hear that they have to put up with anxiety (and you, too!) but I’m beginning to wonder whether it isn’t inevitable in people who care very much about what they do, and want to do well and have a certain degree of self-awareness. I am in fact taking some medication now, just a very small dose, although I’m not thrilled about that. My experience is that anxiety is a message and it just makes its way around whatever obstacles I put in its place. But we’ll see – I shouldn’t condemn it before trying it out properly! My blog is most certainly a lifeline, and a place where I can admit to how I feel. I’ve always done my best to hide it, but it’s clear THAT isn’t working. 🙂 In fact, it is much better to come out with it and find how much solidarity is available in the world. Big hugs to you, too.

    Lilian – thank you. Isn’t it strange how what feels so small and insignificant – a thought – can have such an impact for good or bad? We think we control our thoughts, but all too often they control us. But I do believe that it is possible to alter one’s mindset a bit, and I’m definitely working on that.

    Kathleen – that sounds like a fabulous commitment to make to yourself. As far as I can see, sympathy, compassion and kindness are really where our self-soothing strategies lie. It’s a shame it’s so hard to be kind to ourselves, but it is, isn’t it? Still, we can keep chipping away at that. Do let me know how it goes; I’ll be thinking of you.

    Polaris – Guilt is a bummer, isn’t it? Although I do remember reading once that guilt, like all emotions, has a purpose, which is to make us act differently and/or to offer recompense to people we’ve wronged. When guilt makes us do that, it’s worth having, but when it only serves as a form of ongoing self-punishment then it is of no use whatsoever. Mind you, all these things are easy to say and not so easy to do! It is SO hard to work out what people really value; the problem is it changes like the wind. I’m thinking that the only thing I can do is what I value, and if that coincides with what people want, great, but if not, that’s just too bad. This feels terrifying! But I still think it’s the only logical approach.

    Heather – oh thank you for telling me about your mistake and putting a smile on my face. It was mission accomplished in a way, though, because you got your walk and probably had plenty of time for philosophical contemplation of life en route! Your boyfriend’s urge to fix is definitely a way of reducing his anxiety in the face of problems, I’d say. I did it to my son, just the other day. He had a bug, and in the interests of trying to be helpful and make him more comfortable, I offered him a string of things I could bring/do. He just looked at me and said ‘Stop it. You’re making it worse.’ I had to laugh – and be relieved he’s of an age to tell me straight now! But really I wanted him to hurry up and get better so I could stop worrying.

    Jenny – what a wonderful thing for your colleague to say. I would have welled up too! And he’s perfectly right. You can only prioritise one thing at a time, and it’s a more surefire route to change and variety. My husband says to me, put yourself first and then you might want to choose to give yourself away. But put yourself first and then make the decision, don’t do it as a compulsion. Oh and I feel for you, working with small children in academia. There is immense pressure on women to perform and looking back I think how unfair and unreasonable this was. There should be more attitudes around like your colleague’s!

    Stefanie – oh I love that thought! You will always be my Dorothy – and I believe you come with your own Toto, no? 🙂

  9. I think that blogging like this, instead of a book post, is a great step towards putting yourself first. You are writing about you, not your reading, your thoughts or the outcome of the two when they meet. You’re not performing in any way, but being yourself, who you are right at the moment of writing. So brave, Litlove. I struggle to confess when things are grim for me, though I’m okay with writing about it in the past tense. But you are being present tense honest – about YOU – and that is just amazing.

  10. A friend of mine told me she was recently (!) hospitalized for three days because she thought she was having a heart attack; it was anxiety over her husband’s assumption of too many family duties at once (sick mother and uncle) and his anxiety. I just returned from the worst two weeks of my life (and I’ve had some really shitty weeks!) putting my mother, at 76, into a nursing home, blabablablalabla.

    I was such a wreck from all the anxiety and stress I stood in the airport sobbing. Not my style, at all. Pure exhaustion.
    I am, yes very selfishly, very glad to now be home, a six-hour flight away from all the insanity, much of it resolved and the rest now in the capable hands of my lawyer.

    I would suggest, however much it feels treasonable, to delegate as many of your “responsibilities” as you can possibly afford financially and professionally to a few smart people you trust. Then…rest. I hired two PT assistants six months ago to help me promote my new book and, now that both have wandered off, I’m quickly hitting burnout and about to hire someone new asap. Even $500 or $600, a small fortune to me, is worth every penny to get on with my life and stay focused while others deal with annoying, necessary and time-sucking minutiae.

    I could choose to be anxious and freak out over about 34 things all at once right now, or pay others to lighten my load. They do and it makes a huge difference.

    Good luck with all this…

  11. You are writing such wonderful posts lately, Litlove. I’ve tried a few times but I am not able to be nearly so eloquent about my own anxiety. You are so right about the anxiety world and the real world. I have never yet figured out how to make a mistake and not replay it over and over again in my head, imagining how I would do it better if I had a second chance. I find it so easy to forgive other people but I’m disproportionately hard on myself.

  12. That split world, inner and outer, is so clearly pictured here. Recognising it for what it is and the strains of the duality of living in it when the two are at odds is a way of clearing the ground I’m sure. I’ve found trying to clarify the difference has been of help to me. It’s a argument I often have between what that limiting self says is the case and what my externally viewing self reckons of the situations I’m in. Sometimes the winner is me who I want to be, sometimes not, but the more Ipursue it the more I seem to be edging in the right direction. What I am learning to avoid is thinking about the story I tell myself about who I have become and letting that tell me that is why I am the person I don’t want to be. I try to remember to say to myself, no that is just one version of what might have been the case that I’m concocting because of how I feel now. Instead dump that and look at now as now and me as me.

  13. Charlotte – what a wonderful way to reassure me and to encourage me! Bless you for that, my friend. I never used to write personal posts on this blog, and these days, when I put them up I always have an immediate longing to take them down again. But so many people have suffered or suffer still from anxiety, that it’s seemed worthwhile to keep going (and I haven’t read much lately!).

    Broadsideblog – I consider that to be very good advice. I am a happy delegator – no reason why other people can’t do what I can do. I would most certainly pay the money to to get my book promoted, and that without any additional (huge) stress of putting my mother in a home or similar strife. I am so sorry, btw, that you have been having to deal with that and can imagine how awful it must be. I do hope that now, you really can relax, and that you have a genuine sense of closure. Stress really does do dreadful things to us, doesn’t it?

    Squirrel – oh such wise words, and so true! But it is, as you say, a good trick to be able to pull off.

    Jenny – yup, exactly the same here. I do just that with mistake-making. As for writing about anxiety, well, that’s the payoff for thinking about it too much! And using some writerly curiosity on it can give me the illusion of traction, too, at times. 🙂

    Bookboxed – what you say about the story we tell ourselves about who we have become is beautiful and so very true. So many writers have used that partial perspective brilliantly in their work, and shown how narrative is such a powerful force it inevitably takes over our chaotic lives and turns them into something they never really were. It’s a big thing in Milton Erickson’s work, too, that fears need stories to persist, and only when we come out of left field at them and break up the narrative in radical ways, do we manage to loosen their stranglehold. Not easy to do for ourselves, however. But we can always challenge the causality of what’s in our heads. More power to you, my friend, as you do just that.

  14. What happens if we don’t try and be stoic, but try and articulate our feelings yet they’re thrown back in our faces? Or worse just cut off so as to make us feel that whatever we’re feeling is unimportant. Ack. Definitely horrible. I understand some of what you’re going through. You’re not alone. I hope you find a way out of it, because man that anxiety is horrible! Hoping for sunny skies in Cambridge!

  15. I appreciate all your personal posts, both because I want to hear how you are doing and because they always make me think about how I deal with things myself. I know what it means, at least a little, not to put yourself first and to live with constant anxiety. I applaud your efforts to put yourself first in a healthy way, and I will take you as a role model!

  16. Danielle – aw bless you – the skies are a bit sunnier now, I think (fingers crossed!). I have so appreciated the help and support of my blogging friends. It’s true that sometimes we don’t get heard when we really need to be – but that’s the fault of the interlocutor for not listening. If you’ve done your best to communicate, you’ve done all you can. No way is what you are feeling unimportant, in fact, if the person you’re speaking to is responding angrily or defensively, the chances are that s/he is quite aware of how important it is, and feels very guilty!

    Dorothy – I think it is so hard, when someone gets used to putting other people first, to turn around and remember they also have their own needs. It’s like a zero sum game at that point, and bound up with all sorts of insecurities and uncertainties. I can’t think of anything I’d like better than to know that we’re both going to have a go at this and cheer each other on in the virtual world. Hugs to you, my friend.

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