Fear Part 1: Things That Were

This is the first instalment of a three-part series about fear. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to break fear down using the past, present, and future. I want to explore how fear affects our lives and what strategies we can use to cope with it. Also, which strategies suuuuuuuuuuck and are super unhelpful, because that’s important to know too. So enjoy! (Or don’t? I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but like, I hope you like it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!)



LOTR for life! Also, a frighteningly accurate depiction of anxiety.

Fear is a bitch.

It’s true! Fear is the worst.

I suspect that fear is the culprit behind the vast majority of the struggles people have with just about everything. Anger, sadness, embarrassment, resentment, judgement, ego, narcissism—you name it, I think fear is the root cause.

Fear has been and continues to be a big part of my own life, playing a starring role in the abuse I experienced and feeding into the mental health struggles I continue to have.

So I want to break fear down; I want to dissect it into parts and try to look at the different ways fear plays into my life and the lives of others. Today, I’m starting by looking at fear in the past. And also fear of the past, which I think is an important distinction.

Little bit of a story time:

I vividly remember moments of intense fear in my childhood. Moments like being three years old and waking up in the hospital post-tonsil removal surgery, likely drugged up, and completely terrified because I had no idea where I was, I was freezing cold, and I had no one with me.

I remember at age five, waking up from a nightmare where I imagined that my mother’s head fell off, which was a terrifying and visceral experience for me at that age!

I remember being ten and hiking in the mountains with my family on a trip to the west coast of Canada. I decided to walk atop the raised barrier guiding us along the path and protecting us from literally falling off the edge of a mountain. I tripped and fell, only to be caught in one of those slow-motion-like moments where it’s as if you can watch yourself in a weird, suspended reality but are actually helpless to stop whatever bad thing is happening. As a child, that fall seemed terrifying; I’m not sure if it actually was, but I do remember the intense relief I felt when a woman on the path below caught me and stopped my descent down the mountainside.

So clearly fear has been a companion for most of my life. I’m sure all of you could also think of fearful experiences from your childhood. These would be moments that stand out in your life, either reminding you to be grateful for your health or your loved ones, or leaving you with physical or emotional scars as a testament to the scary shit you went through.

Research tells us that young children need moments of failure, risk, and yes, fear, in order to develop skills like resilience, self-awareness, coordination, problem solving, and grit. It makes sense, right? But in a healthy, typical upbringing, fear should sit at a level where it offers at most a strong warning about the dangers of not being careful, or brings home  the reality of the “real” world so that we learn to be smarter.

To me, anxiety is really just a manifestation of fear; it’s a prolonged sense of being afraid that ebbs and flows to an extent, but can also become a part of daily living.

As I grew out of my kid-years, fear became a stronger presence in my life. I coped by turning against myself inwardly, while pushing myself to appear confident and strong outwardly. I’m not saying that fear was the only thing present in my life as I grew up—not at all! I felt joy and excitement and all kinds of other feelings! But fear was always lurking in the background, sometimes taking centre stage, and ultimately leading me into bad relationships with hurtful people that set me up with the life I now find myself in.

The scary moments in my childhood did little to prepare me for what it would be like to live in fear on a daily basis. In fact, those experiences I just described, and the other, similar ones I had as a kid, say nothing of the anxiety that became my companion over those childhood years and truly manifested in my adolescence and young adulthood.

To me, anxiety is really just a manifestation of fear; it’s a prolonged sense of being afraid that ebbs and flows to an extent, but has ultimately become a part of daily living.

I think fear is what allowed me to be victimized. Fear kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken up. Fear let me be vulnerable to the wrong people. Fear made me a perfectionist. It told me I wasn’t good enough. It said that I was ugly. Stupid. Too sensitive. Too emotional. Fear stole my self-confidence and pushed me to strain against it and keep pushing until I burned myself out.

Pretty much, fear made me it’s bitch.

Sound relatable?

This brings me to thinking about my fear of the past. I’m sincerely afraid to delve into my past because I fear being brought back to the deep, dark chapters of my life, when despair and hopelessness were the most pervasive feelings I had. As someone who has been suicidal, manic, and everything in between, there are just too many times that I shudder to bring up. It’s physically painful to think about these memories; I’m not kidding! Every time I post something here about my past, every time I talk with a counsellor, every time I see a baby photo of my kids, or I come across something that reminds me of my marriage or my wedding, or even things like high school or that ridiculous childhood dream about my mother’s head falling off, I have an emphatic response that zooms me right back to that moment and I feel it as if it’s happening all over again. It takes hours, or more often days, to move beyond those feelings.

So what do I do about it? What can you do about it when you start down that rabbit hole of reliving your worst moments and memories?

Well, oftentimes the best strategy I have is to distract myself from it. Short-term, distraction is a great tool for preventing you from following that White Rabbit into Wonderland. But it’s not a great long-term solution. Long-term, I’ve learned that I need to devote more energy and time into acknowledging those moments of struggle so that they become easier to face. I’ve had counsellors describe this approach as “turning towards” your feelings, or “looking at them with detachment.” You could even suggest it’s a type of exposure therapy. However you want to describe it, turning to look your fears in the face can be a powerful strategy in learning to manage them and move past them in order to lessen their grip on your life.

Sometimes, we can choose to look back at painful things and this can be an empowering way to re-frame the experience of reliving difficult or scary moments from our memories. But sometimes our fears from the past get triggered unexpectedly. Someone says or does something, or you see a movie or hear a song, or smell or taste something familiar and it brings you right back to that awful, terrifying moment. These are the hardest occurrences of fear to manage. They jump out at you like high school kids at a tacky Halloween haunted house fundraiser. It doesn’t matter that they are ridiculous; what matters is that they still scare the shit out of you!

Why is it so damn hard to face our fears of the past?!

Because fear is a strong, mother-fucking beast! That’s why it’s so hard! And that’s why I can’t say everything I want to say about it in just one post. So I’ll stop here for today and ask you to look for another instalment next week. Until then, I’m going to try and imagine that you’re out there, kicking fear in the ass and, if even only for a moment, or only in a very small way, you’re recognizing your strength and your resilience and continuing through the fear. Remember, the scary stuff in that haunted house is all just smoke, mirrors, and a gawky teenaged kid in a Jason mask.

xxJ

Is Fixing the World the Ultimate Therapy?

Watching or hearing the news is very difficult for me. So much so, that I go through long periods of time where I dissociate completely from what’s going on in the world. In those times, I tell myself that it’s okay to not listen and to turn away; that I’m doing it because I have my own shit to deal with and can’t bear the burden of worrying about anyone outside my intimate circle. I say to myself that in meeting my own needs and working on being a better, healthier person, I’m contributing to society in a positive way and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

And at the same time, I long for connection beyond my own four walls. Beyond the scope of my emotional landscape, and beyond the needs and wants of my own circle of family and friends. I want to care about more than just me.

So I go through waves, of pulling back, then diving in, then pulling back, then dipping my toes again. I enact this cycle between willful ignorance and determined understanding. I dance a dance of pushing myself to face my triggers and then I try to manage when they inevitably trigger me.

I think the world is in crisis. And I’m not the only one who believes this. Most recently, 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg has received widespread attention for her no bullshit conversations about climate change and the crises humanity faces. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has come into the limelight, proposing the radical New Green Deal and using her position in American politics to call out the bigoted scum that currently make up much of the Oval Office and the elite class in the US in general. And what about Michael Moore? Naomi Klein? David Suzuki? Bill McKibben? Al Gore? Tarana Burke? Indigenous pipeline warriors? Black Lives Matter? #metoo? #timesup? So many people are speaking up for humanity!

Today I came across this scathing article by Holly Truhlar, “Mainstream Psychology Can Go Fuck Itself”, which essentially calls out the upper class/white/cis community for its blatant disregard of the issues humanity at large is facing, its misappropriation of “self-care” practices like yoga, and its willful ignorance surrounding both the climate crisis and our collective crisis of understanding and lack of community.

My inclination after reading this, was to go curl up and hide. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say. I don’t want to hear about any of the devastating and difficult shit that’s going on in the world right now. But I also feel deep shame that I can’t handle this stuff. I feel a profound sense of responsibility to do more than just look after myself and my kids. I have an intense longing to connect with people beyond my community and feel like I’m contributing in a meaningful way.

I am acutely aware that I have privilege and that means I’m afforded daily luxuries and the ability to practice “self-care” and to “work on myself.” But the truth is that I don’t know how to balance dealing with my own, legitimate trauma, and the role I see myself as having with helping to alleviate the world’s collective trauma.

I was convinced for so long that my life didn’t have meaning. I felt worthless, ignored, used, and small. I learned to believe that my needs were inconsequential and that I didn’t have the capacity to do anything of consequence. This is the frame of mind I lived in at the hands of my abusers for well over a decade. I always have been and always will be a Highly Sensitive Person; I know that I feel and experience things more deeply than others. I know I was and would have been this kind of person even without being a victim of abuse. I know being an HSP is likely a key reason why I was such an easy target for narcissists and emotional abusers. And I know that it makes me a person uniquely positioned to recognize the struggles of others, which gives me the choice to take action, or not.

I’ve been struggling with this sense of knowing I “should” do more and not feeling capable of doing it for a very long time now. My efforts  to alleviate this struggle from my life have manifested in me trying things like what I now call “white woman spirituality”—using crystals, attending or hosting Red Tents, visiting mediums, using “daily affirmations,” reading Tarot cards, and so on. It’s also resulted in half-assed efforts at “going green” and being more “eco-conscious.” At shyly suggesting to others that they use “natural” remedies and spending more money on “green” alternatives to things without really taking the time to investigate their claims of being “eco-friendly.” I looked into co-housing and joined food basket programs, but never actually stuck it out. I’ve now moved myself out to a semi-rural location and am planting gardens and hoping to raise chickens and honeybees, or maybe some goats or a few ducks.

What the hell am I doing???

None of these things, past or present, has had a large-scale impact on the world. And it now feels increasingly hollow to say that the best I can do is look after myself and my kids; to model for my own two children the kinds of morals and behaviours that I think are right…

I feel like I can no longer separate things like caring for the environment and championing action that addresses emotional abuse. They’re really one in the same! To care about each other means caring about the world. Authentic wellbeing can only come from sincere connection to who you are and how you fit into a community. Disorders like narcissism can only be healed by changing the ways in which we engage with each other and with the world. If I’m going to take responsibility for helping others deal with emotional trauma, then part of that has to include going beyond instructing us to work on ourselves as individuals; we have to understand how are traumas are the product of the world’s collective state of crisis.

I know I sound dramatic, but I believe it’s fully warranted!

I can’t be “well” in a world that is broken and neither can anyone else. If we all continue to only focus on ourselves, then we can’t ever really be healthy. As Holly Truhlar points out in her article, if our psychologists and mental health professionals (not to mention politicians, media, educators, and all “personal wellness” professionals) are not talking about and addressing the oppressive systems of the world, the climate crisis, and social collapse, then they are ignoring a key source of trauma and fear that we are all living with!

In the words of the amazingly wise Greta Thunberg:

“Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money… It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few…You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes…”

There’s no sugar-coating that, but in general, our response is obstinate ignorance because we have the luxury of doing so.

I’m one step away from being a member of the ultimate privileged class. By virtue of being a woman, I face hardships that a white, cisgendered, upper-middle class man would never face. But my trauma scratches the surface of what other, less privileged people experience. My trauma, although it’s legitimate (as is the trauma that white, cisgendered, upper-middle class men may experience), can only be healed if I take responsibility for it and refuse to turn my back to those who face bigger hardships than I do.

I don’t know yet how to avoid being a hypocrite. If I’m honest, which I always am, maintaining my current quality of life (and the quality of life my children have) remains the driving force in my life. I’m not prepared to, for example, cede my property to its rightful indigenous land owners. I’m not ready to stop buying my groceries at a chain store most of the time. It’s not feasible to walk away from fossil fuels. I can’t give up on mainstream life without making massive sacrifices that will affect not only me, but my children as well!

So I have to think. And I need to keep asking questions and keep saying “yes” to opportunities to learn more and do better. Most of all, I can’t turn away from the discomfort of watching the news, and neither can you. Those of us who struggle with our mental health or who are victims of abuse, must use our traumas to empathize with others and call for action for the betterment of society; fixing the world would be the ultimate therapy. But can we do it?

xxJ

I don’t know if I can save the world, but I know I can’t turn away and ignore what’s happening.

1,040 Days

I was told it would take two years. “Two years,” they said, “and you will feel better.”

“In two years, this will feel normal and you will have healed and you’ll be happy and it will all be okay.”

They were wrong.

Because it’s been almost three years; 35 months, or 1,040 days, give or take, and I still hurt and it’s still hard and it still doesn’t feel normal.

There is no timeline for emotions. Our feelings don’t adhere to expectations placed upon them. They don’t care if we want them to go away. They don’t listen if we try to shut them out. True, we may be able to distract ourselves for a time, but in the end, our emotions make themselves known. And, in fact, when we attempt to suppress them, they always reappear with vehemence.

I think this is why emotional abuse is so hard to recover from. Physical injuries heal. Our bodies have an astonishing ability to look after themselves and heal the scabs and bruises inflicted upon them. But our feelings are different. Once they get bruised, the tender ache has no set timeline for when it goes away.

I was told at the beginning of my separation that it would take two years for me to “get over” the devastation of my divorce. I suppose my lawyers and counsellors and friends and family were well-intentioned in their attempts to both temper my expectations (i.e. it takes a long time to get over something like this) and give me hope for the future (i.e. this won’t last forever). Unfortunately for them, and for me, I’m the kind of person who clings too strongly to promises like that. I grab hold of expectations and stick to them like super glue, allowing them to set me up for acute disappointment. No one could guarantee when things would get “easier” but that’s what they tried to do.

It’s not fair to promise someone that their grief, or anger, or sadness, or even their joy, will last for a finite amount of time. We each move through our emotions at our own pace and no matter what, we can’t be rushed to overcome how we feel.

The emotional wounds abusers inflict upon their victims are what really make us suffer. And in my case, where I have children with my most recent abusive partner, I continue to face that person every day and there is no timeline for when that will change. I still struggle with relationships from high school; how can I possibly get over my ex-husband after just two years, when I have to engage with him all the time??

I know last week I wrote about love; about setting an intention to proliferate, seek out, and practice love in my life. And so the way that I’m showing myself love today is to notice that I am depressed and to allow myself the space to rest, eat good food, write, and sometimes cry; I’m letting myself feel how I feel because forcing a smile onto my face makes everything harder. When I pretend I’m okay, but really I’m not, it’s not good self-care. And I think that an intention to bring more love into my life includes loving myself no matter how I feel.

My kids have been gone for five days. I still won’t see them for another three. Was this the stuff that was supposed to get easier after two years? Was this feeling of devastation supposed to go away in those 24 months? Because I’m still sitting here, 1,040 days later, crying while I miss my children. And I still feel angry. And I’m resentful. And I hate being here alone.

There is no timeline for how we feel. So can we please stop trying to put one on those people whose emotions make us uncomfortable? Or those who are still struggling even though “enough” time has past? Those who are perpetually and authentically happy, but “should” be feeling something other than that? Or anyone whose feelings don’t mesh with ours, or whose feelings we don’t understand?

We can’t force others to follow an emotional agenda; feelings just don’t work that way.

xxJ

Life feels heavy right now and noticing that is practicing good self-care.