I’m often scared. A lot has changed for me in 21 years of sobriety, but serenity still comes and goes. Recently, it went. I don’t know if it’s because something pretty traumatic happened to me about a year ago or because some part of my brain just kicks in now and then to broadcast a low-level, relentless alarm: We’re in trouble. We’ve screwed up. Shit is NOT okay.
By definition, anxiety’s empty and formless, like someone invisible. Since our brains can’t get a handle on that ambiguous “arggghhh,” we tend to clothe it in various worries. Anxiety almost never appears in the nude.
For me, it’s most often dressed as finances: I don’t make enough money, so X will happen. But it can sport all kinds of other great outfits: I’m missing out, getting old, doing it wrong, gonna be alone, or have cancer again. Maybe ISIS will seize a nuke, the “biggie” earthquake will flatten Seattle, or global warming and ocean acids will collapse our ecosystem. What if a massive asteroid collides with Earth, wiping out life on our planet? Did I remember to turn off the stove?
This is not to say none of these issues merit concern. That’s why they look so damn foxy on anxiety! But concern about a particular issue is not the same as a distrust of life itself. My ego is trying to save me. It’s remembering past pains and rejections and anticipating more, trying to prep me to outsmart them so I can lessen the blow of impending disaster.
Except – there’s nothing wrong.
A major difference between addiction and sobriety lies in awareness. When I was drinking, I assumed all my thoughts held validity, so I needed a big gun like booze to blow them out of the water, never mind what else I destroyed. The greatest gift from the 12 Steps has been the detachment to recognize my thoughts and feelings – even intense ones – as brain activity (see Eckhart Tolle and Gabor Mate) and turn to god for help with them.
For instance, the other morning I recognized a feeling of alarm churning around in my guts like some satellite view of a hurricane, radiating dread. It was so intense that while my son was getting ready for school, I went back upstairs and prayed.
I prayed in frantic whispers: “You guys, you guys!” (how I address god and whoever else is out there) “I’m so scared! I can’t do it! I just can’t do it! It’s so hard!” I meant the job of being human, showing up for another day, earning a living – you name it. “I need you! I need to know you’re there!” I was bawling. Tears spilled down my cheeks, and in the instant of that sensation, a big packet of meaning downloaded. It said:
1) You get to be a spirit within a body, energy invested in matter. No, it’s not easy – we never said it was. Bodies are laden with weighty emotion. But that soul-incarnate splice is incredibly precious. What you’re feeling right now is a gift larger than you can realize.
2) You know we’re here! Don’t pretend you don’t!
3) You’ve been provided everything you need to stay close to us. We gave you a kit. It’s called Loving- but you have to assemble it! Love your life, love all there is – and we will pour through you into the world and you will know joy.
That “kit” idea brought up the image of someone shivering in the cold while beside them lay a disregarded supply of kindling, fuel, and matches. I have to COMBUST my love for life. That’s my job, and mine alone. So I started, right there in the chair. My flame felt tiny at first: I loved my son, my dog, our home. But throughout the day the feeling kindled and spread to include people who crossed my path, the sky, the trees. Pretty soon, I could feel love and gratitude for everything in my life. Anxiety shrank.
I began to envision a sister-me in a 3rd world country whose anxiety was far less because she had real needs to fill, basic essentials on Maslow’s Triangle. She knew she was okay because the values of her culture were steady: she was close to family, she had a role to play, and a spiritual tradition to follow. And she had a natural humility – no sense that she had to compete to prove her specialness.
I’ve always felt guilty for enjoying the luxuries of life in a 1st world country, but her image showed me that, really, life in the US amounts to unrelenting combat in a spiritual Colosseum. We’re constantly goaded and attacked by marketing ploys conveying the insidious message: YOU LACK something crucial~! Every day some highly acclaimed specialist informs us of a critical breakthrough in how to wipe our frickin’ noses. We’re never done. We’re never okay.
I found myself yearning for the self I become on solo long-distance hikes. After a few days and nights alone in the mountains I can recall that I’m just a critter, that I need only to live – and not in some hip, smarty-pants way. On the trail my defunct cell phone is unmasked as a ridiculously self-important slab of circuits; I want to chuck it in a lake. I make resolutions never to brain-lock with my computer – email, Facebook, videos, “we know best” articles – ever a-fucking-gain!
Then I come home, and urban culture subsumes all my resolve in its anxiety-inducing gridlock of doom and demand.
I’m realizing that I can’t uproot anxiety, but I can choose to detach and invest my attention elsewhere – into praying earnestly, loving actively, and living simply. Today, I don’t need a drink that will tweak my brain chemistry. I just need to remember that, powered by god, I’m far more, far greater than my poor, scared little thoughts.