For a long time I have been working on a book that would allow me to share what I know and help people on a larger scale. As time goes by, and I work as I do, either virtually, one on one or even in groups, I see the need for people to have a resource that they can take with them. Something they can refer to again and again, whenever they are looking to have a supportive and positive voice in their heads.
Given that, I will attempt to put down what I have learned, in more than 25 years of working with patients day in and in out, about helping people, especially anxious people, learn to function successfully in today’s every-changing world.
What makes a person anxious? These will not be textbook descriptions, but rather what I have seen in my patients and what I have put together both from those experiences, my education and some of the very smart people I have known. These are the ideas I keep in my head as I work with people. They are distillations, if you will, of all that has gone before in my “not-a-few” years in this field and my “more-than-a-few” years living.
Anxiety, my graduate advisor once told me, stems from a psychic conflict. That is, it derives from two conflicting ideas or feelings within a person. It also is a kind of “scare”, like the feeling of fear or trepidation in the face of something unexpected or with the awareness that life is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Beyond anxiety, there are a number of iterations under the names of disorders like agoraphobia, panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. They are all variations of anxiety.
If you are plagued by feelings of dread, worry (aka. the “what-ifs”), then this blog is for you.
Before I start talking like a psychologist (which I am), let me tell you about my own walk with anxiety, which started long before I knew the word. It was...a nameless fear. I think my own first obvious experience with anxiety began when I was about 18 years old. I remember going on double dates with another couple and my then future husband, Al. I remember all of us in the car on our way out and my fear that if I had to talk, I would run out of breath and then everyone would know there was something wrong with me. How pleasantly surprised I was, how relieved to realize that everyone else liked to talk and my quietness was barely noticed! This turned out to be true in all kinds of social situations. Still, for several years I dreaded being in the company of others lest they hear me gasping for air if I tried to speak. My husband to be was gregarious and told lots of jokes, and, as if that weren’t enough,our social circle was full of what we called “Little Theater people,” like us. Well, mostly like him, although on-stage I found I was more at ease than when I had to use my own words, a far riskier business.
If I were to squint my eyes and look back even further into my past, the adult I am now, the psychologist, can piece together that the intimations of nervousness to come had already shown up when I was maybe eight or nine years of age. What I am about to describe may sound like simple superstition. That’s what I thought it was then and for many years. Actually, that superstitious behavior was my first acquaintanceship with obsessive compulsive disorder, a very common form of anxiety. Those moves to ward off danger were the beginnings of a ritual that I came to have to do every day, and in a particular order, mind you, to keep bad things from happening. Sometimes, if things seemed shaky (or rather if I felt shaky), I’d go up to the bathroom and devotedly (I was devoted to the sacred ritual) either put on the makeup again or touch and make sure that each item was left in exactly the same position I had found them in that first day when no ill befell. As far as I could tell, my Mother didn’t seem to be using the make up herself, so I had complete control over these secret tools. I had a way to control what would happen and no-one else knew it but me. Looking back, I don’t know what I was afraid of, or why, but I see a scared little girl who grew up to be a scared, anxious young woman.
I would go into the medicine cabinet in the only bathroom in the house (not unusual back then), and would take out, one by one, my mother’s lipsticks, her mascara which in those days came in its own little red box with an accompanying little red brush, and a small pot of red rouge. There was also a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, which I somehow knew was used to lighten hair. Of course, I tried it all out.
I mused at the way my Mother had worn down the lipsticks, all of them, in exactly the same way. They were flat on top, not angled the way I saw lipstick tubes brand new in the drug store. I tried to put on my lipstick just the way my Mom did...partly to not be discovered by “wearing” it down differently than how my Mom left it, but also wondering what it felt like to be her...to hold the lipstick just so. Maybe through using her makeup I was somehow channeling her strength, her power, which I used as a shield, of sorts. I tried to apply it just the way my Mom did. I remember that it was a summer day and so very hot out. No-one, least of all my mother, knew what I was up to. I tried on the mascara, the rouge, the lipstick, even some of the hydrogen peroxide on my hair in the hopes it would bleach it. By the end of summer, the hair surrounding my face had been bleached by the sun, or so it was thought.
I don’t know how my painted face made it past my mother’s scrutiny (infractions did not go unpunished in my house) that first day, but I recall feeling emboldened by my brazen...no it was rather timid,really, use of her make up. I may have tried to wipe the lipstick off so as not to be seen, I may have really rubbed the rouge in also to not be discovered for entering into my mother’s secret grown up world. Whatever happened that first day (or didn’t, more to the point) after I opened the medicine cabinet and went through what would become my ritual of applying the mascara carefully with the little red brush, rubbing the rouge onto and into my cheeks and painting (then blotting out) the color on my lips, ..I had an excellent day! It was a great day, in fact! Most importantly, Rather, nothing bad had happened.
I must have feared or expected that something bad could have happened...because every day that summer from then on, I went into the bathroom, into the medicine cabinet and applied...in the form of lipstick, rouge, mascara (and occasionally hydrogen peroxide applied to a few strands of hair) my daily portion of magical protection that I believed the application of that make-up, in a just-so manner, would confer on me. Thereafter, I had to go in every day to make sure I did everything exactly the same way, lest something bad happened. Something about the doing of that ask was to me, like a secret of the universe. If I did it exactly the same way each day I could control whether or not something awful would happen. While I was compelled to follow through with this ritual each day, the daily devotion was always accompanied by worry that my mother might catch on to my petty thievery, not to mention what I had intuited was an intrusion into her world, a world that was then, and in some ways even now, forbidden to me.
Sometimes, throughout the day, I would go upstairs just to look in that cabinet to be sure that the makeup that was still there. I wonder sometimes if, even today, I have imbued my makeup with a sort of protective magic that will somehow make the world smile on me and keep bad things from happening. I am happy to report that when I realized that I was chained to this activity, I made a concerted effort to stop it--and I did. I simply refused to depend on it as it was like an admission of my perceived powerlessness.
But even now, these many years later, it dawns on me that although I don’t really believe that correctly applied make up will keep me safe (of course, I see that it hasn’t), I have at times suspected, nay hoped, that just the right shoes or hand bag might.