For a few months now, I’ve been quietly losing my mind.
In talking about what has happened, I think the easiest personal reaction for this is for me to collapse into apologies about it all because I *shouldn’t* be having these problems, I *should* have know, done better (or at least, that’s what that crappy internal voice claims… but then again he’s an asshole). I recently had a dream where a gifted impressionist was going to do his ‘John’ impersonation, which amounted to laying down on the floor and repeating ‘I’m sorry’ for some minutes. Dream me found this hilarious, while waking me winces at the recognition.
By objective measures, I’ve been doing ok… or even better than ok: in the past few months I’ve gotten a raise and a bonus, published a collection of essays, got a bunch of work done, and spent some great times with friends & family. My home is clean and secure, my bank account more swollen than at any point in my life (save immediately post-kickstarter), everyone I love has food and shelter and generally the opportunity to self-actualize. My coworkers, my fans, and my friends & family all seem pretty happy with me. The downside is that even as this was happening, I was subjecting my family to some wholly unwarranted emotional volatility, an inability to actually see some problems through to their resolution, and I subjected myself to nigh-endless self-cruelty.
My particular flavor of madness (or the one for this season) mostly resembles anxiety. And I’ve been trying to out-masochist my anxiety, with predictable results.
My practices have helped a lot: the thick lines of habit to workout, to eat – the (incredibly accommodating) structure of my day job & the standard parental business kept me moving, kept me working. Structure and habit help minimize emotional damage which would be exacerbated by self-destructive binges or purges that I was more likely to engage with in the past. But even for all that little imbalances, little fracturing cracks kept adding to a larger sum. The tidelines of my anxiety kept creeping up even if they would regularly recede, when I bothered to pay attention I noticed that the high water mark was a bit further up the post then it had been in years.
I’ve always had anxiety about things, odd triggers to cascades of worry. So many of my ‘mistakes,’ my ‘problems’ I tend not to see in any realistic way, I see through a distorted lens. I learned to channel a bunch of this (I can occasionally punch through some blockages with an epic burst of ‘let’s do this!’) and I learned to avoid the things that set me off. And this was especially important in years past when my family veered above and below the poverty line and debts were ignored and the focus was just getting through the day. Avoidance, however temporarily useful, always costs more than it saves. It was also important when I was taxed, fully leveraged emotionally in tackling other things (the impending birth of my daughter say, or some other incredibly necessary personal development work). But neither is true nowadays.
In 2016 my personal income quadrupled compared to what my whole family made collectively in years past. Now that includes gross publishing income and not net, but I think it’s hard to communicate how quickly and severely my financial situation changed. Couple that with being contracted to produce the biggest, most complicated creative endeavor I’ve ever undertaken, and suddenly a lot of my avoidances (avoid looking at the bank account balance, avoid dealing with requests for clarification when I’m feeling anxious) start adding up in a hurry, go from ‘annoyance’ to ‘crippling’ in a hurry.
When I was in the grips of my anxiety at its worst, every moment was a stolen one. If I was with my family, then I felt like I *should* be writing. If I was writing, then I felt like I *should* be helping clean the house. Every dollar spent, was a dollar stolen from some other, more worthy endeavor; was a reminder that I probably misbudgeted and I wouldn’t be able to finish publishing all my books.
In my creative life, I have more attention, more funding than at any other point. A failure to produce would piss off a bunch of people. Moreover, in my life generally, and my writing work specifically I’m now pushing out the limits of forward planning; everything I do needs to (or at least should) fit together, and the work I do today requires several decisions about the work I intend to do months (or even years) from now. It’s so simple for me to become lost in the labyrinth of all the decisions I haven’t made (and thus be left unable to make any decisions).
I have a tendency to imagine that people are angry with me (because I’ve failed them you see) so I have to be careful to not invent stories in my head (and sometimes I am not careful). Coupled with my sometimes ‘overly optimistic’ guesses about what I’m capable of, what I’m able to get done in such and such time frame; and very quickly I can begin missing self-imposed ‘deadlines’ and then trying to hide from communication because if I’m freaking out about this and imagining how angry, how disappointed they all are. And the more anxiety I feel, the more ‘deadlines’ get missed (because as I’m emotionally taxed my production timelines diverge ever further from reality).
These sorts of thoughts are always with me, the knowing whisper of catastrophe. When things get bad, the whispers become a much louder chorus.
I think one of the secret cornerstones to my anxiety is guilt. Endless, gnawing, grinding, ludicrous guilt. Guilt that I have failed someone, guilt that I’ve got it wrong, guilt I should have known/done better. My guilt is patently absurd, and yet it’s constantly looking for something to latch onto. When there’s nothing much in actual reality to feel guilty about, there’s part of me that looks to imagined/possible futures and then I can start feeling guilty/anxious about that.
And because I feel guilty in my anxiousness and about my anxiousness, I start to act in accordance with the fairytale that if somehow I simply will myself to do better then this whole thing will get resolved. After several months of aggressively doubling down on that tactic, I can state that it doesn’t work. Self-patience, self-kindness & self-forgiveness with a dash of honesty, some general easing, and a hearty dose of actually facing the things I’m afraid of might.
I’ve begun to suspect that -in many areas of my life- this is as far as I can get alone (or, perhaps more accurately, this is far as I can get believing in the myth that I got this far, that I get through life alone). In order to do better, in order to become more whole my greatest work of the moment is learning how to ask for help, to treat myself as though I am deserving of help and aid. I should celebrate all the personal development work I’ve done, haphazard and cobbled together and idiosyncratic; but I should also make good on that vague intention that has lingered around me for so long and make this the year I get professional therapeutic help.
Because it’s not like everything is all better now, but it certainly *feels* like the tide is going the other direction… and I want it to keep going that way, I want to hit lower water marks than I dreamed were possible.
It’d be nice if this was something I realized I needed to do, for me. But, as is usually the case, this clarity was born of external cues. First and foremost from the (loving) comments of my wife and friends, who noticed something was wrong even if I was refusing to deal with it. But also, from a really shitty moment where, while I was having a panic attack, I was encouraged to look at my daughter who was miming my head clutching, pacing movements. She didn’t understand what was happening but then again she didn’t need to comprehend to begin noticing how human beings are ‘supposed’ to act; didn’t need to understand in order to imitate the movements.
Getting my shit together has meaning and value that transcends my petty personal dramas. And even if it didn’t, it would still be the right thing to do and high time to do it.