“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Author debated
My third child, Robby, is insatiably curious, bright and often anxious. One weekend as we were driving to his friend’s birthday party he offered without preamble: “Daddy, I’d rather have Mamma take me to the party. I get nervous when you take me.” The comment flummoxed me until I realized that Amy’s still and steady presence helps Robby in much the same way it helps me, which makes her like a big, human Xanax for our family. Robby just frets, a form of the “special DNA cocktail of crippling malaise” (said my oldest son) I seem to pass along to my children.
So it didn’t surprise me when, just as I was done tucking the boys in at night, Robby asked; “Daddy, what if a spider drops on me at night?” Before I could answer, Richey from the bottom bunk noted that tarantulas could, worst case, be about the size of his hand. I quickly offered (trying to sound authoritative) that tarantulas don’t hang out in Issaquah; it’s too cold and wet. Without missing a beat Richey chimed in that he is afraid of mean people too. Both quickly agreed that it would be better if there were fewer (or no) mean people in the world. Helpfully, Richey went on to suggest that we couldn’t kill mean people, even though we wish they didn’t exist. “Yea,” Robby concurred. From there, apparently in the “things we wish didn’t exist” frame of mind, Robby noted what an unfortunate development atomic bombs were, and then concluded this anxiety-riff with the observation that death was a bummer. 90 seconds flat; not a word or transition made up.
To say anxiety is a thing for my family is a bit like saying water is thing for fish. It’s just the way we move in the world, and it became acute for me with a slow-onset flight phobia. I fly for work and did so for years without hiccup. Until one evening while flying in one of those tiny propeller planes to San Diego, we hit a bit of turbulence and the plane moved sideways. I remember thinking, “Planes stop flying if they move sideways,” and my heart started thumping while my sweaty palms gripped the handrest, hard. A fearful moment was born and slowly, over the course of five years, this fear insinuated itself into every moment and every stage of flight until my amygdala was convinced that a plane in the air was one small bump away from plummeting. From wheels up to touchdown that tiny organ deep in my brain pumped cortisol into my bloodstream triggering, for hours, the “fight or flight” response. No fun would be a colossal understatement.
And my oh my there is no easy cure for a phobia once it’s hard wired into your synapses. I tried meditation tapes and hypnosis and prayer and everything short of someone hitting me in the head with a two by four just before takeoff. Benzodiazepines just made me goofy, floppy and SUPER friendly to fellow passengers once we landed. (I learned, quickly, to never, ever, ever answer e-mails after washing down 2 mg of Xanax with a gin-n-tonic.) I was all set to apply for a barista position when a young therapist (really, he looked like just north of puberty) said; “Stop trying to cure it. All your efforts are just ‘feeding the beast.’ Sit in a window seat. Look out the window. Accept the anxiety and let time pass. Be still.” That was new. But it made intuitive sense and was worth a try. So I stopped all the little ticks and tricks that had become a part of my pre-flight routine and “bracketed” the fear, visualized it as a chemical deep in my brain, was sorta still and let time pass. And it was, without question, the hardest thing I’ve ever done; being still and abject terror don’t mix well. So it stuns me still that incrementally, flight by agonizing flight, my amygdala stopped furiously pumping and started merely fluttering, a small whisper rather than a constant scream. Flying still “costs” me a bit more than the average bear, but thankfully, blessedly and amazingly, it is no longer my least favorite thing in the world. (That slot has been filled by any self-styled “small group” with the expectation of spontaneous, personal sharing – hate those.)
In the midst of this battle with aviophobia, I realized one day – I was standing in my living room, looking out the front window at my boys playing with friends, not a care in the world – that anxiety is a merciless god and if I bowed to it, if I sought out the comfortable, the mundane, the safe, then it would insinuate itself into every thought and decision and my world would shrink and my life would become a sad, pallid thing. I remembered the tragedian in Lewis’s Great Divorce, a soul lost to reality by becoming nothing other than a capitulator to fear, so that in the end there was nothing left of him, just a wisp of his true self, scampering for safety behind a non-being, a farce. I saw that path clearly and it terrified me. So I fought. And I still fight. And while there is no Hallmark moment to this story, no swelling music that marks completion and victory, I know that if I move into the spooky thing, and am quiet and still long enough, sometimes peace does come. Sometimes.
My story is hardly unique. There are other, grimmer tales of brains run ragged, unable to get a sure footing. There are individuals, perhaps very many, for whom the simple tasks of life require an almost Herculean effort because each day is awash with numbing despair or the constant thrum of anxiety. I know stanzas to that song, some of the lyrics quite well. I also know people who are crippled by this insistent god, bent in on themselves, defeated, too tired to fight. I wonder if brains, like bodies, just get beat up over time, creaky and un-limber, calcified by life’s challenges. Predispositions left unchecked become habits and habits become hard-wired personalities. The tick or eccentricity becomes identity becomes ontology, leaving no room for even the possibility a clear eyed, full hearted hope that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” I want this biggest of hopes for my little guys (for my olders, for myself) to fight the deadening effect of fears both real and imaged, to provide solid ground when confronted with spiders, mean people and life’s big questions.
“Be still and know that I am God.” The tragedian missed that message. There wasn’t enough of him left to hear it; he had become only his defenses, unmoored, insubstantial. And truth be told I strain sometimes to hear the chords to that good song too. But I am learning, slowly, so slowly, to be still.
The tumultuous movements of the soul,
can be rendered quiet by stillness. (Abba Philemon)