Befriending the Fearful Parts

Today is barrels of fun as I’m dealing with the potential for severe weather as well as the ongoing pandemic. Right after learning about the upcoming weather events, someone posted “tips” for dealing with anxiety on a social media site I visited. What they wrote immediately irritated me as their message was basically “think positive” and “distract yourself.” That approach may work for some people, but, to me, it dishonors the role that parts of myself–the ones with strong emotions–play.

Anxiety is often relegated to the role of a deceptive betrayer, a cowardly enemy or a feminized hysteric in modern culture and modern psychotherapy. I find it unfunny but ironic that many of the exposure and response prevention tasks that people with contamination OCD have had to endure, such as touching a doorknob and not washing one’s hands, fly directly in the face of declarations from the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. in terms of dealing with the pandemic. We have been told to fight our fears, to quell the whispers of obsessive thoughts and to “calm the f*ck” down” when, in reality, the world presents dangers. I find myself deeply questioning the years of training I received in graduate school, wondering how much the “treatment” of anxiety is really a tutelage in social norming in order to not disturb the sheltered peace of the privileged optimists among us.

What relationship can we have, then, with our anxiety that does not trade fighting for subservience and terror? I view it as one of acknowledgment, honorance and the formation of an alliance. If this framing doesn’t work for you, ignore it! I first encountered in during Buddhist practice and immediately knew it was for me, but it may not be the story you need to tell.

To me, getting to know the scared parts of myself is first a practice in realizing there have been and continue to be things that are frightening in the world. I’m not “stupid” or “over-reacting” when I worry. I concentrate on the process of how I worry and thank the parts of self that bring worries to my mind for their care for me. There is a way to worry well or at least to negotiate with worry. I take action based on my fears, action aimed at reducing the likelihood that they will come true as well as methods of building resources if they do. Sometimes, my fears fuel panic-buying, but I’ve grown to trust myself more deeply than I did in the past, so this happens here and there, not with consistency. In short, I prepare for danger, and, in doing so, often fear it less.

I also check in with myself and with my fear to watch the extent to which it is based on concrete reality and the extent to which it is a physical reaction to stress. I find that I actually have the most difficulty with anxiety after a stressor has occurred, when I’ve taken all the practical steps possible and simply am in a state of waiting for resolution. For me, behaviors such as not sleeping or eating poorly can create their own spin-offs of fear that have to be managed by self-care.

Perhaps because I’ve been invalidated for my fears on a non-stop basis, told not to worry, that my worries are unreasonable or that they don’t deserve attention, I’m not good at remembering that, even if the worst happens, I’m not alone. There may or may not be people willing to help or sufficient resources to recover, but, even if safeguards fail me, we are interconnected and each of our lives, in my worldview, are more than a beginning and an end. What would it mean to tell the next person you hear panicking that you will be there for them in whatever way you can if their worries come to fruition, rather than telling them not worry? To have that said to you? I try to do this for my anxious parts, to let them know they aren’t going to be abandoned to fear, that the rest of me will consolidate and bring the resources I have to bear to manage the situation.

Anxiety, even at the “pathological” level I possess of it, isn’t my enemy. It does not deceive me. It isn’t hysterical. It is a biological response that has been preserved in pretty much all animals by the process of evolution to warn us of danger. Humans have the gift of foresight, of anticipating threats before they occur. We can rage against this capacity, deny its presence, numb it or attempt to silence it through invented worlds of positivity, or we can come to know the inner monsters we hold and realize they are frightened children who need love. We can come to know it as a part of us, steady in its reliable angst, and, like all parts, only made whole when it is welcomed into the family of our being.

One More Bite (Today’s Moment of Gratitude)

Today I’m grateful for having the time and available resources to mindfully eat an abundance of fresh, healthy foods. Yesterday, I received a shipment of fresh vegetables from a farmer a few states away, and combined several of them with a chicken and pasta dish I made that included a kumquat sauce. I’d ordered avocados straight from California, and, although they are still ripening, the farmer there packed them with an overflowing amount of kumquats still on the branch! It was a delightful treat and, mixed with the carrots, microgreens and spinach of yesterday’s haul, my lunch today was one of the most satisfying I’ve had all year.

My relationship with food has been the source of both pleasure and pain. I have struggled with anorexia as well as food addictions, so eating a moderate amount of healthy foods is something to which I end up aspiring rather than achieving more days than not. Most likely because of these mental health conditions, few things in life bring me the excitement and joy that food does. I stare at dishes being brought to other diners at a restaurant the way other people stare at people they find attractive. I recall meeting someone several years ago who told me he ate because he needed to eat, not because it made him happy, and I’ve never had such a “who are you?” moment as that one.

All of this to say, living through a lockdown where traversing a grocery store feels akin to potentially being taken out by a sniper in the form of a virus-carrier, my issues with food have only gotten worse. I’m starting to eat beyond the point of hunger and have spent far too much money trying to ensure I don’t have to go without in any capacity during this time. One practice that I am hoping will cut through the anxiety-fueled excess is mindfulness. Taking time to enjoy each bite as well as to honor its origins will hopefully help me to focus more fully on gratitude, and, in slowing down, I will be better able to hear what my body is communicating to me in terms of what it needs. What’s your relationship like with food? How is it being affected by the pandemic?

Attuning to Nature Sounds as a Slow Living Practice

If you have access to a sense of hearing, what sounds come to mind when you think of busyness? What do words like hectic, stressful and crowded bring to mind? I hear cars engines running, a cacophony of harried voices, the smell (wrong sense, I know) of pollution and footsteps stomping down the sidewalk or hallway in a clipped pace.

What do phrases like slowing down, living the simple life, relaxing and spacious stir up? My mind conjures notes of grass blowing in the wind, birds chirping, a stream softly flowing and insects at play on a summer night. I continue to watch live streams of nature scenes from around the world, and, more than the peaceful visuals, I’ve become accustomed to the instant feeling of calm that permeates my body as soon as I hear the accompanying sounds. In particular, the night-time noises from various animal parks in African countries and the rush of waves coming in on Hawaii’s beaches are the most soothing I’ve found.

It is a privilege to be able to enjoy slow living. What we often conceptualize as a simple lifestyle depends on pre-existing wealth or access to funds. I detest tourism to poor areas of the world that revels in the condition of life there as the “cure” to busyness, when, in fact, abject poverty brings its own forms of (often physical) suffering. To be able to be still and to be able to relax into the sounds of that stillness are gifts for which I hope I can be grateful and moments I desire not to squander.

There is nothing that needs to be done or accomplished with the quietness of the natural world. It is ephemeral, broken most often where I live by the machines humans have made. It cannot be stored in quantities and does not hold over from one day to the next. All we can do with it is attend it, open to it, and be in it as fully as the presence it offers us. The pandemic is stripping from me any vestiges of a belief in raw capitalism as a way of life; today I find myself pondering how many billions of dollars humans have spent on products designed to mimic, at maximum expense and minimum function, the enormous wealth that can be found in acts as simple as pacing my breath to the contour of the ocean’s rhythm?

Inner Complexity (In the Cards)

I brainstormed questions to my parts for a card for my In an Open Hand deck today; I have several left to create for the spring season. Today’s focus was about showing all sides of who I am. In reflecting on this theme, I was struck by the contradictions and nuances I’m finding in the unexpected expansiveness of being able to work from home.

From last August till this March, my mental health condition (PTSD) had been getting significantly worse, and I was struggling to find hope as I faced a seemingly unending series of triggers. Being able to disengage from face-to-face contact with people entirely has been a godsend to me, an experiment I never would have contemplated life would have enabled me to undertake. I’m “supposed” to be feeling lonely and anxious, but I feel calmer and happier than I have since last summer. My daily thought isn’t “when can I get back to normal life” but rather “oh shit, what am I going to do when I have to get back to normal life?”

I keep reminding myself that I’ve had more phone calls and text conversations and Zoom sessions than ever, so the feelings of peaceful relaxation may not be due solely to the change in the frequency of in-person interaction I’m having. I don’t know what it would be like if my internet and phone went out and I was truly alone with my thoughts, but I’m not convinced it would cause me immense suffering. Having to interact with people, especially in tense situations, causes me immense suffering.

The image that comes to mind is a broad path to the top of a mountain. I’ve managed to wander off of it and now the bridge across the stream it crosses has washed out, so climbing it is out of the question. I’ve meandered into a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies and tall grasses and a healing sun, and the shouts and commotion of “other people’s presence” are growing more and more distant. I’m no longer remotely convinced climbing the mountain of success through relationships and money holds any proximal or distant joy for me. I still require a sense of community, a sense of being a part of humanity, but what if I live it in my own garden and share my bounty in ways that work for me, rather than in a rigidly-defined and prescribed form?

There is still immense grief for others and the potential for my own losses in all of this; I’m not rose-colored in my meadow. I feel that finding my own place and pace is allowing me access to expressions of community and solidarity, instead of isolating me from them. Perhaps the best way I can say it is, more days than not (there was a notable exception), in the past two weeks I think I’ve come closer than I ever have to experiencing what it would be like to live without PTSD triggers constantly at the ready, and I love it and I don’t want to leave it. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to experience this side of things. I hope who I am inside can bundle the memories of this in a way that informs choices I make for myself in the future. What are you learning? What inner needs are making themselves known to you?

A Change of Pace (Today's Moment of Gratitude)

I’m struggling through a migraine today and nearly forgot to make a daily post! Although taking time to appreciate the good I have in my life has been an intentional practice that’s enriched my day-to-day experience, focusing on it lately has felt at times like a way to escape grim reality or to brag about privilege more than a genuine stance. I am truly grateful, though, for the change of pace my life has undergone.

I’ve worked for the last three or four years to cut as many obligations out of my life as I could, after coming to terms with the fact that I have both physical and mental health conditions that are disabling. In some ways, the triggers that remain have become more destabilizing, as though I’m in shallower waters and therefore feel each ripple more acutely. I haven’t been able to arrive at a place of feeling secure and balanced.

Being allowed to work from home and having it be socially acceptable to minimize my contact with other people has felt like a prescription for good health, not a burden. People, especially when they are angry, are my main trigger, so having more control over the circumstances in which I encounter them has physically slowed my heart rate and lowered my blood pressure. I’m calmer and more grounded.

February was busier than normal for me, and the reset of my life through which I’m living right now is welcome, even if the circumstances leading to it are devastating and terrifying. Things will pick up again soon for about two months, and then I will have three months off of work entirely. This experience is teaching me that I might need a lot more physical distance from others than I thought I did. I’ve dreamed of moving to a remote area and living off the land. I figured it was one of those things that sounds good until you actually try it, now, I’m not as certain it’s a bad idea for many reasons. And, best of all, I have some space to try it out in small ways to see how it sits with me. What has happened to the pace of your life as of late? How has it affected you? For what are you grateful today?

Witnessing the Cold Waters of Grief and Loss (Today's Daily Remembrance)

I don’t “suffer” from the optimism bias that most non-depressed people enjoy. This means I don’t tend to look the bright side or attend to the positives in tragedy. I spend a good deal of time on this blog making space for my efforts to find that for which I’m grateful; for me, it has to be an intentional and deliberate process or it won’t happen. I firmly believe, though, that finding reasons for joy and laughter need to exist alongside, not in replacement, of the ability to feel sadness as it happens.

My grief at this moment is a witnessed grief more than a personal one; I am not in mourning for the ways in which I’ve been personally impacted by the pandemic, but more for the global losses that have happened and the havoc it is beginning to cause in the lives of people for whom I care. What I lack in “be hopeful” I replace with “be prepared;” I tend to lean too heavily into the idea that, as long as all contingencies are measured and mitigated, true tragedy can be averted.

I’m living in a moment, however, where this can-do attitude is failing as my national leaders prioritize the wealthiest among us over the rest. Horrible, unfathomable and potentially preventable things are starting to happen to good people on a scale I didn’t know could occur, coupled with with no one in leadership providing comfort and guidance. This is both the oldest story of my life and also the one that feels freshly terrifying; I knew this could happen to me (childhood trauma), but I didn’t know it could happen to everyone (save the moneyed).

All I know to do when loss occurs is to make space for it, to honor what is being missed and to mourn with those from whom treasures of love are being pilfered. Grief, in my mind’s eye, is a well of cold water, into which that which we deem precious can sink but from which no reflection gleams. I know that, in due time, some will find renewal there as they reconstruct their lives. Maybe bearing witness to grief is nothing more than keeping a fire going by the depths, allowing for the awareness that rage and fear and all the strong feelings that make us want to flee that place of loss are allowed here and matter here. What are you grieving today? What is fanning the flames of your emotions? What is slipping into the bleakness?

Skill-Building for Self-Sufficiency (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

To what extent do you rely on global supply chains to provide for your daily needs? A question most of us would have probably viewed as superfluous a few months ago, and which now feels like one to which I actually need answers. I’ve started having visions of myself sneaking into corn fields to borrow an ear if all the grocery stores run out of food (did I mentioned I have some problems with “what if” questions?). To attempt to balance between digging a bunker and assuming everything will be business as normal, I’ve decided to try some indoor gardening.

I do not like bugs or weeds, so tending a backyard garden is 100% in the category of “chore” for me. I have had coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons and deer in my backyard, so chances of an easy path to success, were I to try gardening outside, feel rather slim. I am instead going to be growing indoor microgreens and herbs. I have also considered mushrooms!

I sometimes start new habits, such as writing this blog, and am highly consistent in tending to them. Other times, I begin a project and give up almost immediately. I feel in this case that there is a non-zero chance I will actually need the food I grow for sustenance, so I’m hoping that will motivate me to follow through and put in the effort needed to produce a result. Hopefully there are some gratitude posts forthcoming where I get to harvest what I grow. Do you have any skills you are building right now? Do you value self-sufficiency? If so, in what ways are you able to be self-sufficient?

Answering the “What Ifs” (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

After several days of non-stop work, today has been a bit slower. And, predictably, my mind now has a few seconds to spare to race towards “what if” scenarios. The area where I live is already in a state where bars, restaurants and schools are closed, and I’m afraid that even more stringent requirements may be enacted. My primary concern is about whether I’ll be able to keep my job and keep my house in functioning order. I’m mentally (not in reality) racing to the place on the path where I’m at the end of myself and have no idea how to proceed.

About a decade ago, when I began my current job, I moved across several states and had barely settled in when my then supervisor (thankfully not working at my job anymore) threatened to try to get me fired. I honestly believe her motivation was jealousy more than anything else; it is a long story. That experience was the closest I’ve come to “I’m lost without direction.” I dissociated to the point where I kept thinking I was dreaming and would snap in and out of glimpses of reality. I worked the way I’ve worked the past few days for months on end, doing everything I could to prove myself worthy (I also kindled a flame of burning hatred I carry to this day towards her). The experience scarred and traumatized me; the feeling of having put in decades of work and finally “arriving” and then being told it could all be taken from me without cause hasn’t left me. I didn’t learn anything from it because I did truly lose myself when the crisis hit; I became suicidal and a workaholic rather than comforting or being with myself through it.

I want to say to the terrified small parts of self who chorus their “what ifs” to me: I’ll be here with you in it if it comes again. I may lose my job, my house, my pup and my health (my four biggest worries), but I do not have to discard who I am if any of those losses occur. I have resources and I have coping skills that I did not have in the past. What do the little or young parts of self need to hear from you today? To which events in your life does your mind unconsciously cycle if you are feeling anxious, helpless or hopeless? What’s different about your life now than it was then?

Listening to Jazz (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

I am working so much more than I normally would right now and needed background noise that wasn’t distracting or too relaxing. I found a jazz station that fit the bill perfectly. Listening to it helped keep my focus and energy at a level where I was calm as well as engaged. I was very productive! It also made me think of happier times at coffee shops and jazz festivals. What’s help you stay motivated today?

All Together Now (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

Things are shutting down left and right where I live as daily cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 are doubling within a few days. As my coworkers, friends and neighbors and I deal with the situation, a singular experience is rising to the surface for me. This crisis isn’t personal, it’s global.

I cannot tell you how many times in my life I’ve dealt with a personal crisis and felt completely alienated from the happy, calm people around me whose lives seemed to be humming along perfectly while mine fell apart. There is such a lie at the heart of trauma–that. because our experience was unique, we alone have been ruined and bring ruin into our lives. I feel more energized and empowered than I have in months. It is because I can move away from a place of “I suffer alone” to “we’ve got this, how can I help.” I was made for this type of situation, and, because it has not yet involved an overwhelming amount of interpersonal conflict, I am not triggered by it.

The realness of the fact that I have a mental disorder, PTSD, rather than a personality flaw is becoming crystallized in my mind. Sure, I’m not coping perfectly and have had mood swings and trouble sleeping. But, I am not feeling helpless or hopeless. I am attacking the challenges that face me instead of crumbling underneath of them, and it is happening in large part because almost everyone around me is validating that this is a crisis and that we are here to support each other in it. How different would my everyday life be if people responded to my PTSD with support and care and took my triggers as legitimate?

Underneath of all of this is a feeling of being a real human for once, rather than a cobbled-together set of traumatized parts trying to masquerade as a real person. I feel more adult, more helpful, more reassuring and more kind than…I don’t know when. Apparently all it takes is absolute chaos, danger and a global pandemic to realign my interior into an optimally-functioning collaborative. If you are a trauma survivor, especially one who deals with dissociation, how are your parts holding up right now? What reorganization is occurring? What inner truths are rising to the surface?