Panicked in Rome

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Cary’s classic column from

Should I give up my career and live the life of an Italian housewife?


Dear Cary,

I graduated from college nearly two years ago and moved to Italy, where I have fallen in love with a wonderful man I have known since April and dated seriously since June. On all fronts the relationship is sound: communication is clear and honest; sex is good, frequent, joyful; we have similar levels of education and opportunity and are both fluent in the other person’s mother tongue. I am happier than I ever have been and entertain thoughts on the bus and the elevator of marrying this guy, having children, and becoming an Italian housewife. I do like to cook. While living in Rome, I have been editing publications for the U.N., which sounds like an interesting job but is actually very boring and unsatisfying. It is also unstable. I ignore my problematic work life because everything else is so pleasurable.

Before I met him, I wanted to accumulate designer degrees and pursue an ambitious career at the United Nations or some international agency. I was also anxious and prone to panic attacks. In order to pursue the old dream, I need to go back to school, but there are no schools in Italy that interest me. Since being with this man I have been noticeably calmer, more energetic, and I don’t panic when I’m in the house alone or while waiting for the train. I wonder if this means I am too dependent on him, but my friends and family enthusiastically affirm that he is a great influence on me. I feel secure. In addition, I like my life here irrespective of him. Nice weather, good food, a handful of people I care about.

I find that my desire to apply to school is dwindling, and the housewife option looks snuggly, warm and happy. I have always defined myself as an avid student, a liberated woman, someone with ambition. Now I’m just turning into a oozy cuddly dwarf rabbit. I have discussed this with my boyfriend. who says I should apply for the degree as if I have no love story and decide after the results come. All the same, I am blocked when I sit down to fill out the forms. I just can’t do it. Organizing my sock drawer looks more interesting.

Do I sound like a shriveled woman from the 1950s, instead of the college-educated, active women I believe myself to be, if I decide to stay with him instead of going back to school? Or does it perhaps take more strength to chose contentment and satisfaction with simple things? I can’t tell how much my thinking is clouded by being in love and the general complacency of my surroundings, but I know that I am more relaxed than I was when living in New York, city of perpetual self-dissatisfaction.

It would be an easier decision if he wasn’t such a good boyfriend. The problem is, if I leave next year I feel I would be nipping the relationship in the bud, meaning, we wouldn’t have had enough time to know if this could really work out. I hate the thought of a long-distance relationship. Do they ever work out? Should I risk losing him anyway?

You see, I’m panicking again.

Dear Panicking,

You know, I have become fairly good at analyzing a situation where one choice is clearly better. But in other situations, such as yours, it seems that one has been very lucky, that one is in paradise, facing two equally wonderful opportunities, and that one is suffering not because the choices are unpleasant but because the act of thinking about them is fraught with fear and anxiety. In such cases, one wants to say something trite like “Just enjoy yourself!” But one knows that the person asking the question is far too intelligent to take such trite advice, that, in fact, it is her intelligence that is contributing to the problem — a dumb person would just lie in the sun, screw the boyfriend, cook veal and lord it over all her friends back in New York, sending them postcards from Tuscany and little notes scribbled in the stern of a gondola, with a little water stain from where you dragged your fingers in the cool water and thought of your dear friends riding the subway at rush hour in July.

You’re too smart to do that. But I sometimes think intelligence is misused out of perversity, that it becomes not a route to ever more intense and refined pleasure in this magnificent world but instead, because of some unacknowledged slight or long-held resentment, because of some fear that we will never measure up or never accomplish anything, some belief in an image of who it is we must become, that because of these things intelligence becomes instead a knife with which we tear ourselves open and watch ourselves bleed. We humans love to suffer — in different ways, quietly or loudly, through intricate subterfuge or broad physicality — just the same, we humans love to suffer. And one of the ways we suffer is by pretending that there is some cultural ideal we must worship and dedicate our lives to achieving.

Well, it simply isn’t true. Our lives belong to us. There is no cultural ideal you have to live up to. And the paradoxical thing is, those very people who have now become cultural ideals that you think you have to live up to were the ones who achieved what they achieved by flouting the very idea of living up to some received cultural ideal. You feel me, sister? The feminists whom you think you’re supposed to emulate got where they got by saying fuck you to whatever the world said they were supposed to do. And now you’re cowering before some received notion of how you’re supposed to be, which is not what they would have wanted. So I suggest you truly do as they did and say fuck you to these warmed-over notions of female heroism: If anything, their gift to you is that you get to live your life any way you want; the last thing your feminist heroes would want is for you to feel obligated to strive for some powerful position in government when what you really want to do is perfect your veal piccata and count the thousand different shades of a Roman dusk.

You are here to enjoy your life. If you don’t want to be a highly placed U.N. official in a smart black suit and chestnut hair taking Concorde to a top-level negotiation with Zambian rebels in a villa outside Paris, you don’t have to be. You don’t owe anything to anybody. All you have to do is be happy. Try looking around you. Cook a nice meal. Just live this one day.

And, hey, at the same time, don’t sell yourself short. Fill out the application. It can’t hurt. Your boyfriend sounds like a smart guy. You don’t have to do it, but it’s nice to have the option. Have a good life. Don’t panic. It’ll work out.

Overwhelmed!!!

 

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Hi Cary,

I love your column. I hope you can help me. I have a multitude of problems all happening at the same time in my life.

Well, some started years ago, but as long as they happened one at a time, I managed to get through them. Right now they seem to be taking place simultaneously. Without going into too much detail, I’ll tell you that my family members have or are suffering from blindness, degenerative disease, cancer, serious emotional problems, and alcoholism. I have a care-taking personality, and am physically healthy, so I take care of (constantly worry about) all of my loved ones. I am one of those “HSPs” (Highly Sensitive People) so all of these things make me suffer greatly. I feel like my heart is perpetually breaking. I feel that I can’t be happy unless all of my loved ones are fixed and happy themselves.

I work in an office with a lot of people and marvel at how easy their lives seem, and how they react after the death of a parent, for example. Some of them are back at work in a couple of days, laughing by the water cooler with their coworkers.

I guess what I’m asking is: Do I have a problem with how I perceive life, or is my family really cursed and am I reacting normally to horrible situations?

Overwhelmed

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Dear Overwhelmed,

Please realize that for right now, you are OK. You are safe and protected. Things may be a little crazy around you. You are in a situation with a lot of emotionally volatile, draining people and challenging problems. But at this moment, as far as I can tell, you yourself are OK.

So, right now, wherever you are, take stock of your location and what is going on in your physical environment, in your own body. That is the first step to feeling better and getting out of this feeling of overwhelm. Take a look around you. Are you in danger, physical danger? Probably not. Do you have enough to eat today? Do you have shelter and clothing and a safe place to sleep? Seriously. I want you to orient yourself in your physical environment as a first step to feeling better.

It is possible that your mind is playing over and over certain scenarios: What if this happens? What if that happens? My mind does that, too. It’s just my mind going on and on. So focus on where you are and what is going on around you. If you know how to meditate, do some meditation.

After you take stock of where you are and what is happening around you, take out some paper and pen or use your computer or however you write, and just make a list of all the things you can be grateful for in this moment. Do you like the sky? It’s not too crazy or trivial to mention the sky as a gift. What if you were in solitary confinement in a prison? You would not have the sky. You have the sky. It is like a gift to you. You can walk out and look at it now, or any time you want to. And you have your family. Members of your family may have challenges but they are alive and in your life. So you are not alone. That is a good thing. Put that down on your list. And I think it’s safe to say you are not in great physical pain right now. You could put that down on your list. As you do this, you may find you feel a little calmer.  That’s good.

Just concentrate on how you feel now, in the moment. You can draw a good, deep breath. You could go for a walk if you like. You could get into the rhythm of walking for a while and forget whatever is tormenting your mind. Just take some time to let these things sink in. These things can help you get out of the overwhelm.

Next, make a list of all the places you know you can go where you will feel safe and protected. You might have friends’ houses, a cafe, a park, your car, a classroom. Just make a list of all the places where you know you can go to feel safe and protected.

Then pick one of those places, and set a time today to go there. Or if not today, then tomorrow.

Also make a list of the people you know that make you feel good. Pick one of those people and call that person, or get in touch somehow. Go see that person. Spend some time with him or her. Make eye contact. Enjoy some laughs. These are things you can do right now to get out of that antsy feeling of overwhelm.

Long term, you will want to make some plans for how to structure a life that suits your sensitivities. If you haven’t already, you might read Elain Aron’s book on highly sensitive people, too. But for right now, you need to be able to cope with a difficult situation by lessening the effect of your own panicky feelings of overwhelm.

Life is long.Things change. Situations come and go. You can handle this. For now, pay attention to where you are physically, and how you are breathing, and this will help. Long term, you will need to make some plans. But you can’t plan when you’re panicked and feeling overwhelmed. So don’t worry about the future now. Just take a few weeks doing these simple things and then, when you’re ready, start making some plans.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Thank you for rejecting me. I feel a whole lot better now!

 

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: RE: [Fence] Wading in Shallow Water with Architects
From: “Fence” <notifications@email.submittable.com>
Date: Tue, July 01, 2014 12:43 pm
To: “Cary Tennis” <cary@carytennis.com>

Dear Cary Tennis,

Thank you for sending us “Wading in Shallow Water with Architects.” We appreciated having the chance to read the work, but we feel that it is not for us.

Thanks again.

Sincerely,

Fence Editors

======

Thanks. OK. That’s cool. I can handle it. It’s not a big deal. It’s not like I’m going to go out and cut myself or anything. I just thought after all these years writing things I should start sending them out. Not that I thought you would publish it. Or anybody would. But just to, you know, like participate. Like because of a certain felt connection. Not that I care. Not really. Should I? Why would I? Why would I care if somebody published or did not publish a piece of writing I sent them? What difference would it make? Would it change anything? So why would I get upset — not that I am upset, mind you; I’m perfectly content — but why would I, just because I put some words into the computer and my the miracle of the Internet caused them to go somewhere and be read by someone else and then caused that person to make a decision, perhaps a quick but nonetheless sure and final decision, not to try to find a place in the magazine for those words. Why would that matter? Why would I get upset? Not, like I say, that I am getting upset. Just hypothetically. Because I’ve heard that some people do. Some people put such stock in these things, acceptance, recognition.

Those people must have low self-esteem. They must have made some poor choices in life. To base their well-being on something so fragile and out of their control as the acceptance or non-acceptance of a piece of writing by a literary journal, even a literary journal with which they feel a strange kind of simpatico, even a very strong yet strange sense of simpatico. A person like that, you’ve gotta figure, must be kind of messed up. Like maybe they had a childhood in which there was not a lot of physical affection and straight-ahead emotional support. Maybe. Just hypothesizing why anyone would put too much store in such a high-risk/low-reward endeavor as the publishing of small pieces of admittedly disordered and not altogether well-thought-out or well-structured literary prose, and you can put literary in quotes as I don’t think it really means all that much now. So, I just wanted you to know, you know, that like I said it doesn’t really affect me. Well, OK, now, it does affect me, right, or I wouldn’t be writing this? Right? OK, so it affects me. But not that much. Like I’m not going to jump off a bridge or anything just because Fence magazine didn’t choose to print this strange little thing I wrote. I mean, OK, I’m not going to drink either. But I might just make a big Fuck You pot of strong black assam tea and drink two cups really fast with sugar and then feel all nervous and hyper for an hour! Just to make a statement! Just to say, OK, yes, I was bullshitting you, and actually it does affect me. A little. Not a lot but a little. Now maybe that has to do with years of unresolved feelings and certain memories of abject failure and insult at the hands of teachers and other figures of authority. And maybe, OK, maybe unresolved feelings about the purpose of writing and of literature, and feelings toward the kind of people who get involved in it, who sometimes tend to be kind of, well, I’m not saying weaselly necessarily, or overly intellectual and self-involved, but let’s just say, OK, as long as we’re being honest here, that I don’t really want to hang out with you, either, OK? I mean if you think just because you didn’t accept my piece of work that makes you somehow better than me well you just have another think coming, ok, Buster? You get what I’m saying? Because you are no better than me. You may have more money and intelligence and a better education and come from more stable, interesting, well-adjusted and successful parents, and you may have better social network and be better adjusted to the demands of today’s workplace and maybe you have great sex often, too, and maybe people see you and instinctively like you and want to be your friend, and maybe you genuinely have a pretty amazing talent in the world of creative writing. OK. That could be. You probably dress well and have funny things to say that other people would have thought of eventually but you think of them right away. That’s possible. I’m not saying it’s not. But that still doesn’t make you better than me. Because I am just fine. I’m not bothered in the least. I am, to tell you the truth, just happy to be here and to be able to put together a little piece and send it to you. In fact, I’d say it was a fortuitous event just that I did it. I’m just proud that I took the time to put that little piece together and send it to you. And that I had the good taste to send it to you instead of some other inferior publication that other people might think is cool but which we both know is just a pale imitation of some avant-garde notion that has already expired from overuse. So I’m feeling pretty good about that, actually. Even to be rejected by you is better than being rejected by some of those other folks. In fact, more I think about it, it’s not just better, it’s kind of cool! In fact, it’s great. In fact, come to think of it, it’s a frigging miracle that I was even able to write that little piece that you so quickly and offhandedly rejected. But I wonder if you even read it. I mean I wonder if you read it carefully and thought about what went into it, and recognized the subtle patterns in the words. They aren’t obvious patterns. I’m not one of those obvious people you see sending stories full of plot and character and consequence and ideas and social insight. That’s not the kind of thing you like anyway. There were more like little murmurs of pattern in there. I thought you might pick up on that. But no, you were probably thinking about some girl you’re going out with who comes from a good family and has a place up in Maine for the summertime. That’s what you were thinking. And all about the boat her dad has and how it’s so nice up there in the summertime. Like you maybe just weren’t thinking straight. That’s OK. That doesn’t bother me in the least. Because I know a thing or two. I know how things work. So don’t worry about me. I’m fine. You have more things to worry about than me. I’m just one little person out here, one person among many. Why would that matter to you? Why would you get all concerned about me when you have this girlfriend with the place up in Maine, and all that great educational background and stuff? You wouldn’t. And who would blame you? Certainly not me. I’m OK. I’m fine. I’m not at all affected by this rejection. Well, OK, like I say, a little bit. But not enough for you to concern yourself with. You just go ahead with your rejecting all the other little submissions until you find one you like, which is probably by a friend of yours, or a student of one of your former teachers who somebody said was really brilliant, or you met at a party or owe a favor to. Not that the whole thing is rigged. Not at all.
So you don’t worry about me one bit, young man, or young lady. I can handle it. I’ve been rejected by people a whole lot cooler than you. I’ve been rejected by Paris Review and the New Yorker, so you can just stop standing there with that proud smirk on your face. I’ve been rejected by people you’ve never even heard of. So there.
Just go on about your day. Don’t give it a second thought. You know you’ve got things to do. It isn’t even worth thinking about , is it?
Except … and this is not really a big deal … but what if I was to kill myself because of this rejection? How would you feel then, you heartless literary magazine rejecter? How would you feel then, if you learned that it was right after receiving this particular rejection, out of all the hundreds that one receives (doesn’t one?), that I decided this is enough, the jig is up, it’s time to cash it in? Think about it. I’ll bet you do think about it, in fact. I’ll bet you think about it all too often. In fact, I’ll bet that’s what’s been troubling you, and that’s why you rejected this piece: Because you are dealing with a deep contradiction in your own soul. Of course! And that’s what happened. This piece of mine, which actually, OK, since I wrote it, must actually be brilliant even though nobody really recognizes that brilliance except me, this piece must have triggered some awful psychological breakdown in you, so that you were unable to think clearly and see its brilliance, and had, instead, like a person who is repressing some awful but unavoidable truth, you had to reject it.

You had to reject it! You had to! Of course you had to. I understand now. I understand everything! Everything is forgiven, poor man!

Well. I guess that settles that. So I don’t hate you or want to come to your office and shove you up against the desk and slap your face. Why would I want such a thing? Who would even have such thoughts? Certainly not me. No, I’m fine. This is my little lot in life and I accept it. In fact, like I said, I’m kind of glad. In fact, it’s a frigging miracle. A miracle!
A miracle, I say! It’s a miracle! Thank you! Thank you for rejecting my piece! Thank you! It’s a miracle!

I don't mind! Why would I mind? It's fine! Everything's fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There's always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don't give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I'm OK. Really. I'm fine! It's a miracle!

I don’t mind! Why would I mind? It’s fine! Everything’s fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There’s always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don’t give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I’m OK. Really. I’m fine! It’s a miracle!