There’s no two ways about it. I’m in a spot, and I’m not enjoying it.
I am experiencing a moment of paralysis in my life. I find myself afraid to breathe and afraid to move for fear of breaking. My anxiety and dread sit between my shoulders at the top of my spine like an invisible parasite waiting to cut my lifeline if I try anything stupid.
I’ve been here before. Approximately eight and half years ago, I was in exactly the same spot and it eventually led me to starting this blog. The problem then, and now, is one of aimlessness and stalled momentum. The feeling is one of unseen forces waiting to pounce, just like the imaginary parasite mentioned above. It is a strange and unpleasant conviction of having wandered so far from a zone of competence and control, that it is only a matter of time before I tumble headlong into an abyss of abject collapse and helplessness.
Yay! It’s Monday folks, and the demons are up and at ’em bright and early! Phew! It ain’t easy being me, I tells ya.
But maybe they’re not demons at all. Maybe they are simply very recognisable sensations of fear and anxiety. Generally speaking, and I’ve covered this territory before, we are living in anxious times. Accompanying, and let’s be honest, pre-existing the Coronavirus, has been a pandemic of devastating wealth inequality, health and education inaccessibility, housing insecurity, and environmental calamity. If that lot doesn’t make one nervous, I’m not sure what will.
That’s the general backdrop.
The specific is always a bit more pointy, a bit more bitey, a bit less abstract-y.
I haven’t worked in over a year.
I find that very difficult to write. I can assure you that I am not sitting here at my keyboard exhaling a sigh of relief, going “There! I said it! I’ve put it right out there in the public domain – I am a useless, lazy b****rd!” No, there’s nothing cathartic about it. It is, as you might expect, demoralising and unnerving. And it is a source of extreme tension and unease in my marriage. But that’s probably to be expected, too. I’ve outlined above how that tension and unease is informing my headspace, which is also a living space, is it not?
We’re talking atmosphere here. Every space is suddenly occupied by a palpable element of distortion. Everything has gradually become a bit discoloured, a touch tainted, and the result is an insidious corrosiveness that eats away at the other areas of my life that have no reason to be disturbed. In other words, the areas of my life that are not work-related, and which therefore should be easier to enjoy and derive fulfilment from, are not offering up their pleasures as freely. A fraying of the edges has taken place. A thrum of discontent can be detected throughout each day, regardless of where or with whom I find myself.
So that is how I am experiencing anxiety. A seeping encroachment of unease that strikes at the building blocks of my wellness – namely, control and routine. The challenge for me is to push the destabilising elements back to the edges of the frame without allowing the success of keeping them at arm’s length morph into denial.
Denial is the enemy. It is the mechanism by which we avoid the things that make us most uncomfortable. And it is inextricably linked to fear. But fear of what?
First let’s go back to the idea of keeping something at arm’s length. If I think of that in a self-defence context, it means I look at a potential attacker and try to manage the space between us so that they are always just beyond their optimum striking distance. And that is a perfectly acceptable non-aggressive response to a potential threat. However, it has a shelf life. If the attacker is not dissuaded and remains intent on inflicting bodily harm, managing distance becomes too one-dimensional a survival tactic. At a certain point, I have to accept that a fight is unavoidable. The source of my discomfort and stress – the attacker – has to be faced head on. And that becomes the point of reckoning. Will my skills and experience hold up? Will I keep a lid on my fear and adrenaline and successfully negate the threat? That’s a two-fold challenge – one external, and one internal.
Fear is emotional and psychological. It resides within us. It is the product of a powerful complex equation that fuels something in our imagination that informs feelings of vulnerability and defencelessness. When we allow that fear to override other, more balancing aspects of both our personality and our analytical skills, it is easy to tip into a catastrophising mindset. If we fail to control that feeling, we are compromising our ability to respond effectively with the tools available to us.
One of the most effective ways of controlling fear is to try and reduce its power. Before I can do that, I need to identify specifically what the fear is. In the self-defence scenario, the fear is typically the fear of getting hit – the fear of physical pain or the fear of sustaining a serious injury. It might be the fear of losing the fight and the attendant loss of face or status. We can reduce the impact of that fear by dialling down the stakes. We can look at the projected pain objectively and try to accept that it will be a short term experience followed by recovery. We can look at how our chances of survival improve if we front up and face the attacker with confidence. A demonstrated ability to defend even a single attack is recognised to be an effective deterrent.
Another strategy to turn down the fear dial is to focus on reacting to the immediate moment. I can’t defend myself from an imagined attack five minutes from now, I can only deal with precisely what is in front of me this second. The combat will play out how it plays out – projecting my fears into a defeat that hasn’t happened yet is an unhelpful use of my brainpower. That work can be done academically or in training, but not when there’s a clear and present danger (I can’t see that phrase without thinking of the 1994 Tom Clancy movie of the same name – I went to see it with a friend and because of the sandwich I ate while watching it, she thereafter referred to the movie as ‘Clear and Present Onions’).
Naming the fear also helps the process of elimination. It narrows it down to a specific thing, which means it is possible to identify the many things it is not. I find it very helpful to conceptualise this as a tiny segment of a large circle of possibilities or experiences. This helps put the fear into its relative significance compared to other areas of your life where fear is not present. So then the fear can be regarded as comparatively ‘less than’, thereby taking another edge off its potency. That circle can then represent an inventory of strengths and positives.
Personally, my own fear does not relate to feelings of inability or inadequacy. It is more a fear of getting locked into something I hate. It is a fear of starting something that moves me further from what I want. It is a fear of choosing to put myself into an environment that is self-abnegating, self-annihilating, self-torturing. My fear is not finding my sweet spot. My fear is failing to solve the puzzle of harnessing what I’ve got into a weapon of economic excavation!
The issue is not one of indolence or idleness. The last 13 months have been filled with activity. My wife and daughter and I relocated to Ireland at the start of the pandemic after a decade in Melbourne. We have lived in three different homes since. One of those homes involved us undertaking a major facelift job, including extensive work on its substantial gardens. I have been kept busy with parenting and husbanding. I have continued to write here as well as working on other writing projects. I have been prepping a soon-to-be launched podcast to accompany this site. I have maintained a disciplined exercise regime that has involved ongoing karate and tai chi training, body conditioning, sea swimming and walking. I have done one extended stint of homeschooling. I have negotiated the complex challenges of being geographically close to my complex family for the first time in over ten years. I have maintained and been proactive in several vital relationships, none more so than with my wife and daughter (
and cat and guinea pigs). I’ve even enjoyed a brief return to a therapeutic profession in which I immersed myself many years ago upon leaving acting school – demolition! There have also been bereavements, the grieving of which has been compromised by pandemic restrictions.
So it has not been a quiet time. Far from it. There has been plenty of stimulation, plenty of forces at play. But until this significant piece of the puzzle falls into place, anxiety and fear will continue to shadow box around the outskirts of my sang froid and my equilibrium will continue to be aware of the disturbance. My task will be to keep faith with what I’ve shown myself to work – control and routine. I will keep up my healthy habits. I will lean into the things that keep me well. I will write and articulate because I believe understanding is a weapon of wellness. I will keep faith with my mantra of Declutter, Clarify and Connect. I will continue to invest in the relationships that keep me well. I will invite that positivity into my life.
I will not be dishonest about my fears. I will not be dishonest about my vulnerability. But I will not lose sight of the other things in the circle. I will be grateful for all the areas where fear has not made itself known. And when I need to fight, I will do that too.
Is it just me? Are you having a moment too? Can you name your fear?