That had always been a chilling thought for me, but for some reason it started to feel empowering instead. Not this is my life, not this is my life: this is my life. Mine to enjoy — or not.
Slowly, so slowly that I didn’t notice it at first, something began to fall away from me, something I couldn’t identify. Every day somehow seemed a little less … fraught. Christmas at my parents’ was easy and fun, despite a broken toe and a sprained back. (I find it significant that this all started before the solstice.)
Yet it bothered me not to know why things were better. I need to be able to put things down in words. Since I couldn’t define what was happening, I didn’t want to talk about it —as if trying to describe it without the precise words might make things go back to the way they had been. It felt as if some malevolent presence that had always been in the room with me had stood up and walked away. (Yes, it was definitely a he.) I was afraid he would return, and needed to know what to say if he did.
Fast forward to Valentine’s Day. We went to visit my (good) in-laws, and it somehow worked out that they took HB for the whole day, and TH and I ran/biked and got to see a movie and have dinner out. And here’s where the Avatar part comes in, because that’s the movie we saw.
In my new state, I was able to plunge into the movie in all its gorgeous, silly, romantic, 3D glory. It felt fabulous. I haven’t felt that absorbed by a movie since the first Matrix (which had the same plot, come to think of it). No worries, I have no desire to run off and romp around a forest in a G-string.* But in analyzing the movie’s flaws (I never said I didn’t remain a critic, just that I could love it despite its silliness), I stumbled across the words to describe what was happening with me.
I’m perfectly happy to accept an utterly ridiculous premise for a movie—it’s not a documentary, right? But there were plenty of other things in the movie I would have done differently, if I were a director with hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around. Take the lead character’s awful hairdo. If only they’d put him in a Mohawk earlier! (If you’re reading, James Cameron, could you do that for the director’s cut DVD, please? It’s all computer-generated anyway, how hard can it be?) Then there was the cheesy dialogue. One of the lines I took issue with was when Jake asks Neytiri why she saved him, and she says, “You have a strong heart. No fear.” I’m thinking, first, puh-lease! Second, it’s a lie. She saved him on account of the little floaty thing that gave her a sign. Third, he seemed pretty afraid to me. If she’d said it later, it would have made more sense, because when he was learning all that warrior stuff he was pretty game; he definitely wasn’t afraid to make a complete idiot of himself …
… unlike me.
The realization crept over me like a cold chill: That’s it. I have been afraid. Practically every minute of every day.
I can’t properly describe how earthshaking this was to me. Until that moment, I’d thought I was a fearless person. And most of those who know me would have agreed. I’m known for speaking truth to power, giving my honest opinion, not backing down when I know I’m right. But I now realize that I had been courageous, not fearless.
Fear of what? So much. That this pleasant moment will vanish soon. That if I say everything is going well, someone will think I don’t have enough to do or will take me for granted. That if I enjoy this, I won’t find something better. That people will be angry. That someone will think I’m stupid if I don’t know what to do or say even in trivial situations, like standing in line to buy something and not noticing the lane has closed. That someone will notice my pimple. That if I say I like something silly people will think (know!) I’m not cool. That HB will behave badly at the restaurant. That I will be late. That the cat will pee someplace I can’t find. That I haven’t packed the right things. That something is going to annoy me.
I suppose I was being afraid as a defense mechanism. If I worry that something bad is going to happen, I won’t be taken by surprise when it does. The absurdity of this is apparent to me now.
Angst is probably the best word for it. The future had always rolled out in my mind like a line of dominoes poised to click-clack a path to disasters small and large.
It crystallized in me down to my very core: I must give up angst. That was what I had been doing, bit by bit, but once I could articulate it, it was as if a screen that had been separating me from the world was lifted. And everything became so much simpler. I am here now, present, appreciative, aware. The difference this makes is incredible. I can relax. I can enjoy. I can like things or not like them without that horrid overlay of whether I should feel a certain way. I can talk to people and smile at them genuinely (and I found out that I’d had no idea how many people will respond to that — it’s as if there is a whole secret society I just discovered). I realize that anything can happen at any moment. The world is beautiful; heartbreaking, and beautiful, and fascinating.
I should say I am not talking about the opposite of depression. My episodes of depression have been distinct; qualitatively different from the rest of my life outlook. Nor is this mania — my new feeling is peaceful, not hyper. No profligate spending, promiscuity, or delusions of grandeur. And I doubt I’m done with depression forever; I know it’s a chronic, periodic disorder that may well visit me again. I’m not about to go off my meds.
I didn’t even tell TH about this for a long time; instead I watched for differences in how he reacted when what he expected from me didn’t happen. What I saw made me ashamed. Was I really so hard to please, so prone to being thrown off kilter by the slightest problem? Did he really need to tiptoe around me so much? How awful.
One might think that all of this would make me less diligent at work, but it doesn’t seem to. With the angst gone, I can do things because I want or need to, not because I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t. I work more efficiently and with less resentment. For instance: about every six weeks, I have to cover the weekend. This means that I work 12 days in row, in the middle of which I’m rounding in the hospital (one of my least favorite places), admitting patients to nursing homes, and fielding pages from outpatients and nursing homes for 60 hours straight. In the past, during the first week of this stretch I was crabby because I knew I wouldn’t have the weekend off; during the actual weekend I was unbelievably stressed; and the final week I was burned out. But I’ve worked two weekends in the past three months, and they were — fine. Each day was just each day. One Saturday I was in the nursing home finishing up my last admission at 5:30 pm when a nurse informed me that there was a new patient they had forgotten to tell me about. In the past, my cortisol levels would have gone through the roof. This time, I thought: okay, need to get that done. How do I feel? I feel … hungry. Do I need a snack, or can I last until I’m done? Eh, I can wait. And I did the admission and that was that. The other day I had my “annual” (really first ever) evaluation with the Chief of Medicine, and I looked forward to it. I have actually found myself saying “It doesn’t hurt to ask!” — a sentiment I couldn’t come close to understanding before, because I used to find the very act of asking painful.
I am still shy in new surroundings and with new people. But I am no longer afraid of being shy, and I am a happy shy. Instead of berating myself I have compassion for myself: needing to warm up to a situation is no crime. This seems to have the effect of letting people see that I’m feeling shy rather than cold and mean — and then they’re more likely to take the initiative with me.
I am having to relearn some things. I can speak more bluntly, which surprises people and sometimes hurts them, something I most certainly don’t want. Perhaps this is balanced by feeling more free to say good things as well, but I’m not sure. I’ve had a few misunderstandings with TH where he thinks I’m being sarcastic and I’m just saying something nice — did I not say nice things before? Yikes. I also get frustrated when other people are grumpy and are bitching about things instead of being happy — especially TH — which is pretty funny, since I was on the other side of that line just a few short months ago.
Some of my habits have changed without any conscious effort. I used to turn the radio on whenever I was in the car alone, and now I almost never do. It interferes with my thoughts — something I used to like, and now I don’t. (This means I need to figure out an alternative source for news.) Yet I enjoy listening to music more — and louder — than I used to. I am reading fiction again, something I once loved but more recently couldn’t manage to concentrate well enough to really enjoy. And when I feel jumpy — which is often — I think, what shall I do with this energy? Rather than, I must be anxious. I used to try to think of things to be anxious about!
As with anger, the angst bubbles up every now and then. But it’s exactly like that: a bubble I can reach out and burst with the slightest of touches.
Alas, the question I cannot answer is how. A comment on my last post: “The flip side of anger is fear, always. … We get angry when we perceive that something we value is threatened, whether it’s respect, safety, way of doing things, sleep, health, sanity, etc. … So how in the world do you transform anger into emotions and sensations other than its root, which is fear?” The simple answer is, give up the fear too. But can this be a conscious decision? I was in a good place, thinking about the right things, but … how did I manage to convince my angst to get up and walk away? I don’t know. Writing about this feels like trying to describe how to ride a bicycle. How did I learn that fear, like anger, almost never helps in the privileged life I lead? And how did I let go of it before even understanding that? I don’t know. But I’d like people to know: this happens. It happened to me, and it can happen to you. Maybe I’m the only person who was entirely blind to a enormous part of my personality and motivations, but I kind of doubt it.
Will this last? It feels like riding a bicycle in this way as well: once you’ve learned … but I can’t be sure. I feel like I will recognize that malevolent presence if he does try to come back, and in recognizing him be able to keep him out, but I’m learning to be humble about my own self-awareness, so who knows. I do know that even if this all goes away, it’s been an amazing few months.*Though I would very much like to be a Toruk Mocto, so if anyone is selling an orange pterodactyl, drop me a line. Also I found the Tsutay character to be pretty hot, in a blue, hamster-eared kind of way.