Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Drive: some thoughts on anxiety

Photo Credit: Morguefile

Today, the only thing I can find to write about is fear. And I don't want to write about fear.

I am sick of fear. I don't want sympathy. Instead, I want to hear the strike of metal against another person's truth so that the room fills up with the hum of Tibetan bowls. Fear, I've found, tends to elicit something else: a desire to comfort, along with its attendant Hallmark cards and pep talks and "you're-too-hard-on-yourself"s. I have a had time with these acts of kindness. They make me

But fear it is.

I am scared to death, really, to be a real writer. I was once told (and I think I have said this here before) that if you want to look at what you are committed to, look at what you already have. This is true. I have exactly what I can handle. I want to write and, in the solace of my living room, I want to think that what I have written may be meaningful and good. I want to imagine that I could be successful, am about to be successful.

The list of things I do not want to do associated with being a writer is somewhat longer and it involves any kind of public embarrassment and openness to criticism and rejection, any kind of standing in front of people looking prettied-up and confident, any kind of telling people all about what I can do.

Because—at my core of cores—I don't think I can do anything.

This is what this is really about. Perhaps most of you will not know what I mean, because perhaps most of you are not sexual abuse survivors who are recovering from alcoholism and bulimia* and have spent most of your lives out of the work force raising kids. But—maybe, maybe, some of you, despite not being all the same kinds of messed up, will still know what I mean.

I don't think I can do anything. I am surprised I can cut apples. I am thrilled I can sweep floors. When I applied for my job as an instructional assistant at the local schools six years ago, I was terrified. I had run a daycare, twice, taken child development classes, and had been raised by a mother who worked almost all my life in the schools, but I still didn't really think I could do the job. I couldn't make copies, I thought. I didn't know how to use the die cut machine, I thought. I was sure I would not be picked.

After I expressed all this, my husband looked at me like I had spouted several additional heads.

"You're worried that you're not qualified to be an IA?" he asked. I was.

They hired me anyway.

Now, I tutor and I don't think I can do that either. The parents of my students think I can. I act like I can. And I seem to be able to go through the motions of planning and teaching an individualized lesson for each child, and they seem to learn, and everyone seems to be pleased, but I'm still, on some level, utterly sure that I can't really do the work, or that someone else could do it better than I do.

In my solar plexus—I know.

One of the things I wrote about in my book is that I didn't learn to drive until I was 26. I just felt safer letting other people do it. When I finally learned, I took only a month and I had to learn to do it while having full panic attacks. Once I'd been driving several months, the panic attacks went away (except for when I drive in heavy freeway traffic, or in high winds, or late at night, or on the side of very high cliffs).

I think writing, for me, is a bit like that right now. I have my foot on the gas, but I am tapping the brakes constantly and trying to keep from crying as my adrenalin surges, telling me I need to get off the road RIGHT NOW. And I seem to be off in all directions: updating my LinkedIn profile, trying to get freelance work, researching magazines to submit to, getting help to update my blog and create an author page, ordering books on queries and agents. Trying to figure out what I should do with beta readers. I cannot focus. I just get up and do something every day. Take some action. Drive somewhere. Take notes. Tap brakes. Breathe deeply. Start again.

Before—I was just writing. I know how to write. I do not know how to be a writer.

I did learn to drive, and perhaps I will learn to be a professional writer, too. Perhaps something will yield. Perhaps all this garbage in my head about platforms and business plans and writer's groups and publishing will form itself into something actionable.


But for right now, again, fear is my teacher. I have the opportunity not to run but to stay and confront it, to put my feet on the pedals. Or to take a break and ask what I am doing and why I am doing it. Or to ask for help. Most of all—to show up and tell the truth. It's all I have: the Truth. It's why I like writing. It's why I am doing this. It's why I am telling you. Not because it's sad (it's not) or because it's interesting (it isn't really). Because it's true.

Not just for me, but in some way, for someone else.

Life was never the same after I learned to drive. Suddenly, I could go where I wanted to, when I wanted to, drive as fast or as slow as I wanted to go. I could choose the grocery store I shopped at. I could drive my kids out to the beach. I was in control of something that before I was just the recipient of.

I don't feel ready, but I'm ready. I'm ready to drive my career. Where, and how, I do not know.

And it may take months  before the panic subsides, during which I will have to take action anyway. That seems to be how it goes. Yes, I've done therapy and yes, I once took anti-depressants for a long time (and I still panicked while driving) and yes, now I meditate virtually every morning. But none of this gets me out of being who I am, which seems to include a certain amount of panic and hysteria to which most people are just not prone.

The other side of this coin is that I kind of like myself: panicky, over-wrought, tense, and complicated. I know that seems impossible, given what I've said, but it isn't. I've spent a year writing my whole life down and I am now intimately acquainted with Me.

I kind of admire her. She has guts.

My youngest son, who has auditory processing disorder, has not yet been able to earn his first belt in Tae Kwon Do. When called to the front to do his forms, he tends to forget them. He tends not to notice he's been called to the front. He tends to be doing the wrong thing. He tries very hard and so he feels bad about all this.

"Listen," I told him one day, "You are working harder than anybody else."

"I am?" he asked me.

"Yes," I said. "Your brain has to work just to hear them calling your name, to hear them call out the count. You have to work harder and it is going to take longer than others to do the same thing because of that. It's not because you're not as good. It's because your job is harder than theirs."

"Oh," he said, relieved. "Ohhhh."

And it's no different with me—with people like me—I suppose. If it takes me fifteen nervous emails to friends and a thousand scatter-shot web searches and thirty mornings of meditation and that many days of feeling like I am crawling out from being crushed under a rock—all to figure out one thing I really need to do next for my writing—then that is what it takes, and it is not because I am not as good. It is because my job is harder than the people who woke up this morning confident in who they are and what they do. It is because I have put in the work of a PhD in order to get an associates**.

I am not less because I struggle. I am more.

So, today, in honor of every woman I know who has stayed up late with flashcards well past when she knew the material for her test, and every teenager who has dressed and primped for a party and then realized at the last minute that she's too ugly to go, and every woman who doesn't even apply for the job because she can't bear to hear the words "You are unqualified." I say:

You did good work today. Carry on, and fight another day. Breathe in, breathe out, foot on pedal, inhale again. Exhale.

Now drive.

* I am grateful to say 20 years of recovery now.
* *This is a metaphor. I don't even have an associate's and I am not dissing anyone who's earned a PhD.


  1. "Kind of liking" yourself goes a long way, I think.

    I'm scared a lot, and I'm not particularly good at anything, but I'm happier than it seems I ought to be, so I try not to question it.

    I think I like being me, so I keep breathing and I smile and wave.

    It doesn't seem bad. Maybe I'm just not dreaming big enough.

  2. Yes. I'm not qualified to do much, I don't think. Certainly not to be an adult. Not to stand in front of a room full of new hires and teach them how to do their job. Not to be friends with the amazing people who let me call them friends. Not to write my own blog or to comment in places like this.

    I see you. I recognize pieces of me in you. I hold no sympathy or pity for you. Just recognition and a whole lotta respect. Maybe at least a handful of admiration too. I'm glad you're ready to drive.

  3. Truth is complicated. After all these years, I still wish I knew the truth. I may have a real job, and I might even have college degrees, and I might own a house, but I can't say for sure that I know the truth.
    To me the most important thing here is "I kind of like myself" - holy shit. That is huge. Liking that panicky, tense , complicated person - now that is magnificent. If only I could get there.... I can go to work, and I can get college degrees, and blah blah blah. But I'm not sure I can say that I kind of like myself.
    Awesome post.

  4. You said at the beginning that you don't want "Hallmark cards and pep talks," and I will just confess I'm not good at coming up with inspirational, uplifting messages, so maybe I'm the one to talk to you. I never had any of the bad experiences in life that you mention, so maybe I can't relate fully, but I do know one thing that I've told you before: Tara, you're an excellent writer. Now that doesn't mean you won't have to put up with "public embarrassment and openness to criticism and rejection," because there are always going to be people who don't like what you've written. People's tastes are so different; some won't like your style, or they'll say you're too long-winded or boring or too vague or too much of a navel-gazer or unfocussed ... the possibilities are endless. But you have to develop a thick skin - you do have to believe that what you write is worth writing. I haven't read your memoir, so I can't judge it, but reading your posts has shown me you have this wonderful lyrical ability to think in metaphors and combine disparate elements into something new. That's kind of unusual - it's not just a narrative story-telling skill but something akin to poetry.
    And I would say, definitely, you'll be exposed to more disturbing things if you try to go the professional route, because publishers and agents will always be looking at your book from the perspective of, "Is it going to sell - make money?" I'm not saying you should self-publish; I'm just saying it's much less stressful. You can control what happens to your book a lot more easily. So just remember that you have learned to like who you are, and just keep going!
    (Parenthetically, I always hated to drive, too - my mother and I lived together my whole life and she loved to drive, so the line of least resistance was to let her drive. Therefore, I never became a really good driver. I never drove on a freeway but once in my life, I think - I avoided them like the plague. Now I've gotten rid of my car, and I'm so happy to be free of it! LOL)

  5. I can barely stand how much I love this post. I can identify with soooo much here. A brief-ish slice of my own variety of crazy:

    In mid-July, two people close to me sent me a call for entries for a writing contest sponsored by our regional library system. First prize was $300 and the writers who placed 1st, 2nd & 3rd as well as some honorable mentions would be invited to read their entries aloud at an event in Corning, NY where the library is headquartered. I must've read the rules and guidelines 80 times between when I first got the link and the entry deadline. I thought about whether to enter or not. I fluctuated between, "What's the point? I'll never win." and being so sure I WOULD win or at least place that I was afraid to enter because then I would be expected to show up somewhere. I have long loved the Anne Lamott quote: "Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere." but it turns out not to be entirely true. I didn't start working on the essay until 2 hours before the deadline to submit. When I finished the piece and attached it to the email, my finger hovered over the mouse button with the little arrow on "send" for a cartoonishly long time. I would start to press it and think again. It was absurd and would have been hilarious were it not so nearly painful.

    I sent it. I won. First place. I panicked for weeks before the event. I will probably write about the depth and complexity of that panic at greater length somewhere else. My daughter, who is miraculously socially adept given that she is my progeny, picked my clothing for me and literally brushed and fixed my hair. We went to Corning. I listened to all the readers before me--or what I could hear of them above the static in my own brain--and then I read, or I think I did because I couldn't really hear myself over the static in my own brain. And it was fine. And I was happy that I'd done it and proud of myself for doing it and I never, ever wanted to do it again.

    I personally believe that one of the worst flavors of pep talk is the "If I can do it, so can you" variety. This is not that. I'm not sure what it is, but it's definitely not that.


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Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License