Is there anything that you’re afraid of?
Who would have thought that answering this question (from an interview with my friend Karen) would completely change the mental landscape of my childhood and subsequent life up to this point? In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I began suffering from occasional panic attacks after I left my wife. Until last month, I would have told you that the first time that the world darkened and blurred around the edges and compressed my chest until drawing a breath was nigh-impossible was when I was sitting on Britt‘s porch talking about adopting a cat.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Let’s go back to when I was a kid. To the years when I had to go to speech therapy to learn to slow down to speak because there were so many words I wanted (needed) to get out of my head all at once. When I was so hungry for knowledge that I read every single book in my house, including my mother’s Physician Desk Reference, the entire set of encyclopedia, my sister’s Sweet Valley High books, and even everything written by Stephen King. That age when I processed information better than my parents realized, figuring out that there was no Santa at the age of five, learning how to forge my mother’s signature at seven, understanding how to manipulate adults by eight. I still remember fighting with my teacher about telling time. Logically, it made sense that 1:00 could also be 13:00, but I was told that I was wrong, and it bothered me until I found out later that there was such a thing as military time and I was right. I had (and still have) this need to understand the whys – this overpowering urge to see all of the angles and possibilities, to control the world around me.
At the small Christian school I attended for first through eighth grade, we would have a daily class dedicated to religion and Bible study. One day, we talked about the concepts of heaven and hell. I’m simplifying what we learned but, in essence, I was taught that heaven was a place of eternal bliss and hell was the place of eternal torment, and if I was a good person, I would go to heaven and enjoy happiness as my reward for all of eternity.
That night, my mind could not stop processing that concept. Eternity. Forever. Infinity. In bed, I stared at the ceiling, trying to grasp it. Eternity. Perpetual never-ending life. You die and if you’re a good person, you can go to heaven. You go to this beautiful white fluffy cloud place and see all the people you love and do happy things, and then you go to bed in heaven and wake up and do it all over again. And again. And again. And again. Forever. When you’re talking about eternity, there is no end in sight. No matter if your days are filled with joy and peace, they’re always going to be filled forever and ever and ever, with no end, at all. Infinite days of bliss.
It terrified (terrifies) me.
Laying there, my brain painted picture after picture of a perpetual cycle of mornings and evenings without ever being able to end or rest. Would it really never, ever be over? How do you even conceive of such a thing? My mind raced faster and faster until even trying to process the idea put the weight of the universe on my chest. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think of anything beyond this most terrifying of ideas.
My mother would hear me crying and come to my room. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she’d stroke my head and whisper to me. I still can hear her voice telling me to imagine my body relaxing and letting all of the tension flow out limb by limb, finger by finger, toe by toe, until I could breathe again and finally fall asleep. Even then, I would dream and cry out at the enormity of forever and the eerie similarity between complete nothingness and the whole of everything. When I died, I wanted to rest – no eternal bliss, no eternal punishment. Just. Rest. The end.
My entire life, I’ve needed to be in control. I try to plan for every eventuality and remain hyper observant and ever vigilant to changes in circumstances that may affect my control over a situation. This obsession with control, while having advantages, is my biggest weakness. It means that I never stop thinking and I’ve never had a second of my life where I was able to lose myself in the moment. I envy those who can let go, stop thinking, and enjoy what’s right in front of them without that need to control. Even during moments of intense passion, like when having the most amazing sex of my life, I’ll still be thinking about the time and that the fan looks dusty and that my hand hurts and that I know what I want to do next and next time and the next morning and if I changed the laundry and that picture looks crooked and I have to remember to tell her that story and did I pay that bill and, oh yeah, I’m really enjoying this but I need to change the sheets and make sure I wash the towels and call Faiqa and why do I only have one sock on and now that’s bothering me because I don’t want that sock on but I can’t take it off now.
These constant streams of thought result in imaginary scenarios that can take a million different forms. I paint entire worlds in my head based on the information available to me, and not enough data can lead to crippling anxiety. I can process bad news and negative responses without a problem – tell me that you have a problem with me and here is a list of explicit reasons, and I’ll be okay with it. But if you’re vague? If you decide to be passive-aggressive or immature or unavailable or anything else that results in no response and no details and no data, it will drive me down right down that rabbit hole of panic.
If you offered the ability to read minds and know what everyone was thinking all the time to most people, I think that the majority of the world would say no. They’d think that knowing the darkest and deepest thoughts of the people around you would only hurt you. Not me. It’s one of the reasons I have trouble with boundaries and privacy – if I know what you really think about me, I can work with that. It’s the not knowing that kills me over and over again. How can I trust anyone unless I know everything?
A girlfriend not responding to a call and text after a while means that maybe she got in a car accident or did I say something that upset her and what if I never see her again and will never be able to tell her how I felt about her and can I really live my life without ever having her be a part of it and she knows how I feel and that this must be hurting me emotionally so why is she doing this to me and what do I do without being able to know what’s going on and why hasn’t she called and is her phone dead and maybe I should buy her an extra battery just to help and what is going on and why can’t I just be omniscient so I won’t worry?
In July, I would have told you that my first panic attack was all about a cat and occurred in January 2010. Now, I can tell you that my first panic attack was all about an eternity in heaven when I was eight or nine. And it all comes down to control, and my inability to deal with my lack thereof.
Can I let go of control? Can I live in the moment? I don’t know. That’s a step that’s too big to consider. But maybe I can try to be okay with not always having control, and maybe I can have faith that I don’t need to know everything about everyone to be happy with how I live my own life.
So what am I afraid of?
That’s easy. I’m not afraid of snakes or spiders or water or heights or clowns or anything tangible in the world. Ghosts and aliens and monsters and things that go bump in the night don’t bring a shiver to my spine.
What scares me has never changed. Even today, as a 35-year old man, nothing – not the idea of never finding true love again, not the idea of dying alone, not the idea of being forgotten – nothing scares me more than that never-ending, perpetually existent, terrifying idea of eternity.