I’m so anxious I can’t think straight

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 4, 2007

 

I know what the issues are, but I can’t really deal with them.


Dear Cary,

Lately I’ve been very anxious about my father. I’ve been anxious about mortality and life goals, or how to live in general, but particularly as it concerns my father.

I’ll back up. I’m 31. For the first time in my life, I have a good relationship with a man I really love. It’s a lot of fun, and such a relief, and I think maybe not having relationship anxiety has cleared the way for some older and possibly greater anxieties. For the first time in years, I’ve been having the mortal terrors again at night. I contemplate death and scream out loud. (When my man is around for that he tries to comfort me, and it does help a little.)

I assume most other people don’t feel the way I do. I never hear them screaming. But how could they fail to? In particular I worry about my father. He’s in his 60s. We get cancer in my family. I have this worry. I don’t know how I’ll cope. And: I’ve been having some low-level longings for a baby, these past years, and when it occurs to me that my father might not get to be a grandfather to my child, it breaks my heart.

If I were a shrink I might wonder if that’s a transposed longing to do my childhood over again. Maybe so. I think my childhood was actually wonderful (and it was a time when I was much closer to my father). My young adulthood was more a series of lost years from which I am only now emerging. So some of this might not be about mortality so much as it is just about my relationship with my father, of course. I feel that I have special things expected of me. I am the one who takes after him; I am cerebral and stonewalling, while my brother is affable and socially gifted. But we have ways of interacting, my father and I, that are not really interacting. He retells something he read and I listen. I tell a story from my life, but I end up addressing the other people in the room more. I don’t know why, but he’s hard to talk to. Or I have a hard time of it. We are rarely somewhere talking, just the two of us. Lately, though, he seems a little to be reaching out to me.

I am scared to talk about all this with him because it is much more than I ever talk about with him — and because I feel that all my worries are rooted in my fear of mortality, which I don’t want to mention to him, as a way of protecting him from it. I don’t know if that’s silly or not. A couple of his friends have died lately and I think it’s been hard. At some level I guess I am really scared that he is as helpless as I am. And I guess he is?

I feel that he has been having a hard time. Maybe reaching out to me has nothing to do with it or maybe it does. Alcohol has been brought up as an issue too. I’m worried he needs a refuge, and if I talked to him I’d have to know of one. I drink most every day myself. If I didn’t (incidentally), would all these feelings be stronger?

I am pretty sure the right answer is: Go to him. Learn to talk to him. But I don’t know how and where to start. Other things are easier. Other patterns are in the way, including the pattern of aimless anxiety and the pattern of talking to my mother instead. I’m worried I won’t do it. I’m worried I’ll fail. I’m worried I’ll try and it’ll be banal, or not enough, or that everything I say will come out wrong. I don’t know what I have to say. I don’t know how to invent a new way of relating. I don’t know where I’m feeling responsibilities that aren’t mine and where I’m recognizing what is truly and only mine. I’m even scared of the prospect of raising a child who takes after me and yet ends up distant from me.

Cary, can you tell me what you think?

Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

Yes, I can tell you what I think. But there are far too many phenomena occurring in your thought-sphere, and they are occurring too quickly, for me to take any one of them and unravel it, to say, “Voilà!”

But I can pass on to you something that has helped me, at times, to stop the whirlwind of anxious thoughts that sometimes starts up and will not stop: Try thinking of the anxiety not as the product, or result, of some other thought process, but as a strategy, a method, that you are using to avoid feeling these other things. I found this insight useful in my own life — that anxiety is a form of emotional avoidance. So then when I am anxious I think to myself, what am I avoiding? What I am usually avoiding, being the way I am, is feelings. There are some feelings about, say, my father, that I do not want to feel. So instead I flit about the house, anxious, nervous, unable to settle into my work, unable to complete a task.

Unfortunately, at that time, it is necessary to simply have the feeling. I do not like some of these feelings. They are dark, somber, helpless feelings; they are old feelings, some of them, old feelings full of regret and longing. But they are shot throughout, also, with bright, sunny memories of childhood innocence: the Sunday morning I must have been 6, walking down the clay driveway hill at our house in Tallahassee, Fla., him carrying a shovel to clear the drainage ditches at the sides of the drive, his hand on my shoulder. He called me “old-timer.” He said, “Good job, old-timer.” I did not know what an old-timer was. I knew he had a timer that he used in his darkroom when developing black-and-white prints. It was a black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer. And I was not old. An “old-timer,” I thought. I liked it but I did not know what it was. It simply opened up into the mystery of words.

So when I am feeling things about my father, now and then something happy will come back — but tinged, of course, with the knowledge that the hill is gone, the clay driveway is gone, the strong hand on the shoulder of the child is gone. (I wonder if somewhere among his things that black, spring-wound photographic darkroom timer might still be ticking.)

So you see where this goes — it goes into time, and sadness, and loss. But it goes to the feeling of those things, not to our ideas about them, or our brittle attempts at separation from them.

Once one stops using the anxiety to avoid these things and instead begins to feel these things in their full richness and power, it is not so important to figure out whether our thinking is right or not, whether we are hiding this or that. We are simply feeling things of great heaviness and age. They come of their own accord, and sometimes they delight us, and sometimes they level us with their somber weight, but we are not charged with thinking our way through it. It is just the stuff of life: you and your father, facing together mortality and fate.

I get the feeling you are fully capable of this. You are holding these things at bay but you know what they are. So here is something to consider: This route is not the smart route. That is, it is not a thinking route. It is not clever, or revelatory. It is more something in the chest, a deep, heavy thing you carry around for a while. For this reason, I do not know why we do it or why it is important or what its evolutionary advantage is, this simply feeling the heaviness of age. Here is a thought: Maybe it slows us down so we can be around the old folks, so we can stop flitting about so much. But that is pure childish speculation. I do not know why this is so.

Here is something else: When the anxiety machine really gets running, it can be self-perpetuating. You have to stop it somehow: You have to stop it in order to stop it, which sounds circular. So you have to stop it by changing externalities. The drinking, for instance. The drinking allows you to continue with your anxiety, your anxious avoidance. So … oh, let me find the paragraph where I went into that (I actually tried to answer this letter a few weeks ago but got sidetracked, and then came back and liked part of what I wrote). Ah, here, this is it:

You have a lot of different things going on in your head at once. Too many things, in fact. So how does one slow down? What is the drinking part of it? Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so if you are using it every day, your nervous system is depressed for that portion of the day. So it may be a little out of whack. Think of your daily psychic and emotional economy. Say you have X amount of psychic and emotional stuff to process, and you have X processing power. Say that’s pretty much in balance, all other things being equal. But say then you eliminate four hours of processing time because the central nervous system depressant has put you on standby for those hours. You’re not processing. So what is happening? Stuff is building up. Little questions aren’t getting answered and they’re turning into bigger questions. Things that need to be felt aren’t being felt. You’re not doing the necessary daily work. You’re not cleaning house and assessing your needs and practicing, practicing, practicing. Things will pile up. You need to deal with this stuff every day.

So I think you are probably out of whack with all these emotional issues competing for your time. How do you get back in whack? That is where the “externalities” come in. Maybe, if you can find a very wise person to advise you, you get into some form of therapy. But that may not be necessary. Try some things first and see if the night terrors recede. Undertake some life changes to calm the nervous system. Just do simple things, like on the weekend clear the entire weekend and just do the things you need to do around the house. This will be grounding. Just take care of simple things. Take a bath, do the dishes, don’t answer the phone. And for a few days don’t drink. Sleep a lot. Take naps. Get lots of rest and exercise. And pay attention to what you are feeling about your father. Don’t run from it. You see what happens when you run from it. You can’t settle. You are like a nervous bird. You need to settle and accept what it is. It won’t happen overnight. It is a long process. But slowly you may begin to see these things not as complex riddles to solve but simply as situations, emotional situations, feelings, the stuff of life, simply to be felt and honored. If that does not work, you may need some extra help, a therapist to guide you through some of it. But give it a chance, first, to work on its own.

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