One of my favorite filters through which to make choices is the question: Who benefits if I do this? Who benefits if I don’t do this?
It’s a deceptively simple question on the surface. Most of the choices we make in an hour, a day, are unconscious. We don’t take the time to think about them. We go with our instinct or impulse, we take the path of least resistance, we default to our familiar routine, we choose the most comfortable thing. Pausing to think our choices through slows us down and makes us uncomfortable.
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Unconsciousness is so much easier!
Last week I wrote about making choices, paths and no-paths, trying to navigate my life journey according to what works best for me, makes me happiest, and creates a life true to my particular values rather than doing what everyone else seems to be doing and following the most trampled trails. You know a lot of trash gets left beside the most heavily used roads, right?
I make many choices out of fear. I suspect we all do, but I won’t presume to speak for anyone but myself. In fact, I’ve posted about fear-driven choices before on this blog, years ago. Interesting, how we can spiral around and around in life, going a little deeper with each iteration.
Let’s take, for an example of a fearful choice, our own personal economic situation, whatever it is. If we are afraid to keep our accounts balanced, budget, open our bills, call a plumber, or commit to some kind of savings account, who benefits? Seriously. It’s a real question. Who benefits when we avoid dealing with our financial situation?
Any lender or business entity who charges interest or late fees benefits. Our bank benefits in overdraft or returned payment charges. Capitalism benefits if we don’t manage our spending habits and can’t resist advertising. Nameless, faceless institutions and corporations benefit from our fear. It’s in their best interests to complicate, obfuscate, create pitfalls and loopholes, offer “deals” and “sales.”
Who benefits when we put off dealing with a frightening physical sign or symptom, or facing an addiction? Both situations have the potential to get much worse, more frightening, more deadly, more expensive. So who benefits when we choose to deny, avoid, ignore what’s happening?
Who benefits when we sabotage ourselves, when we don’t choose to live according to the highest expression of who we are? Who benefits when we silence ourselves or allow others to silence us? Who benefits when we refuse risk, vulnerability, passionate creativity, joy?
I have never made a fear-based choice that didn’t eventually come back around and bite me in the ass. Most of us know the feeling of “what was I thinking?” Making the easiest or most seductive choice in the moment can mean years of cleaning up consequences and eventually having to revisit the original choice point and try again, hopefully with more wisdom.
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And if we do circle back around, fear is still there. What if I get it wrong again? What if I fail? What if I can’t do this one thing I want to do more than anything else? What if the other kids laugh at me? What if I miss out on what everyone else is doing? What if this is my last chance?
“What if …” is nearly always the voice of fear, and it frequently stops me in my tracks. I can think of ten ways every choice might be the wrong one. All my demons throw a party and I’m stuck, locked in the bathroom without a friend or a way home while listening to them smash up the furniture..
Why do I make choices that benefit my fear? According to Oxford Online Dictionary, fear is a feeling arising from the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
A feeling arising from a belief. Contrary to the increasing fanaticism and extremism infecting our culture, a belief is not necessarily true. We can and do change our beliefs.
Belief is a choice.
As for the feeling of fear, we are psychobiologically wired to feel it because it’s a survival mechanism. Our ancestors felt it and effectively responded to it; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.
Feeling fear is not the tricky part. What we choose to do with the feeling is. Do we use it as the good tool it is, or do we let it stop us, take away our power, keep us imprisoned?
More than that, do we feed it? Do we choose to benefit it?
If we allow our fear to take over our lives, as opposed to harnessing it to keep ourselves whole and healthy, who benefits?
No one and nothing but our fear.
Do we want to benefit a feeling based on a belief?
When I look at the world around me, that seems like a dark, well-trodden path with a lot of trash left beside it. I don’t see that particular path leading to any true connection, opportunity, or healing.
It’s not what I want. It’s not what I choose to do.
There’s enough fear in the world without me adding to it or enabling it, even in my small sphere.
Fear is for taking immediate, life-saving action. Or for weighing the pros and cons of a risky activity or choice. Or for directing our attention to a potential threat, a real threat, like the stranger peering in our window, not a belief.
We can benefit from our appropriate response to fear. Let’s not allow fear, or anyone manufacturing it, to benefit from us.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
One of my greatest unconscious defaults in life is avoidance. I know now, thanks to Peter Walker and his work, avoidance is a natural trauma response.
Nothing makes me crazier than people who avoid unpleasant things.
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Is there a pattern here? (Laughter in the wings.)
I’m thinking about this because I’m steadily publishing my fiction in serial form on Substack, week by week, about 10 pages by 10 pages, and it’s a challenge.
Something in me wants to avoid revealing my own creativity. My writing takes me to some dark, and some people would say inappropriate, places. Every week (I just posted for the 8th week), I push myself through whatever the content of my post happens to be. More than that, I deliberately take it on in an accompanying essay.
I’m an expert in self-sabotage. I’ve been doing it my whole life, largely through simple avoidance. At the same time, it appears my previously intermittent and now increasing tendency to call a spade a spade and be honest about my experience is one of the characteristics others struggle with most when they deal with me.
It’s a strange paradox, and it creates ongoing internal tension.
The avoidant part of me is childish and disempowered. The direct, take-the-bull-by-the-horns part of me is powerful and hangs out with Baba Yaga.
I love the direct part of myself, but I don’t think anyone else can. I think others want the avoidant woman, because she’s so damn “nice.”
When I first began writing creatively, I thought it would all be sweetness and light, love and romance, happily ever after.
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As the years passed, and I expanded out of (mostly bad) poetry, played with writing oral stories, and then started seriously writing fiction, my output took a darker turn. The sweetness and light included bitter and dark. The love and romance became raw sensuality and included detailed sexual content. I took old fairy tales, cleansed by the brothers Grimm and others, and excavated the darker, dirtier, more violent roots. My characters graphically tore out eyes and watched them change into marbles. They killed people. They ate people. Shapeshifters had sex. Towers fell. People went to war and practiced genocide.
My writing wasn’t dark on every page, but it wasn’t sweetness and light on every page, either. It made me cry. It made me cringe. It made me uncomfortable because of its emotional power. I wondered at myself. Yet never have I been so captured, so challenged, so confident, so happy as I am when writing.
After all, in those days almost nobody read it! I wrote for myself, and held nothing back.
Now I’ve deliberately changed that. Now anyone can read it. And some people are.
For a while I considered cutting the parts I judged as being too … what? Too honest? Too sexy? Too potentially offensive? Too violent? Too real?
Yes. All those things.
My impulse was to avoid revealing myself. Stay safely hidden. Stay small. Refrain from making myself or anyone else uncomfortable.
Even as I considered that, I knew I wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t betray myself that way. If I’m to be judged as not good enough, I want the judgement based on the deepest, most complex, most powerful and honest work I’m capable of.
Because that’s the only way my writing is good enough for me.
My Substack post last week included explicit sexual content. There will be more, but that was the first. I wrote an essay to go with it titled “Creating the Webbd Wheel: Sex.” I’ve been worrying about that post for weeks. In the end, I kept it simple and direct. I was writing about sexual content. The title was clear. Why prevaricate?
Substack provides writers with statistics 24 hours after they post, and I was informed my essay got the most reads of anything I’ve posted so far.
I’ve been giggling ever since. So far, nobody’s given me a bad time about my sexual content, but even if they do, I know I was right in what I wrote in that essay. Nobody wants to talk about sex, and we all have a lot of judgement and fear around it, but that doesn’t mean it occupies none of our private attention. We can’t amputate ourselves from our sexual nature, no matter how much we wish we could or others tell us we should.
I will probably unconsciously default to avoidance for the rest of my life. It’s a deeply-rooted pattern. I’m socially rewarded for being “nice.” On the other hand, I personally value authenticity and honesty far more than I do niceness. I want to grow up to be direct and clear. Not mean, but not avoidant or arguing with what is, either. It’s a fine line, one I don’t walk steadily or gracefully.
But I’m not going to avoid the attempt.
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Slowly, I’m finding online communities of writers. As I’ve shaped Our Daily Crime, I’ve connected with other bloggers. These connections mean I spend at least an hour a day reading the work of others. I’m inspired, touched, tickled and provoked, and I feel at home in these digital communities because we all share the need to write and be read. We also share self-doubt, confusion, vulnerability, loneliness, the need for connection and the problem of earning a living.
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Over and over again, I read about personal struggles with depression, fear and anxiety. Many a writer sits down to their daily writing practice with goals and intentions and finds him or herself unable to do anything but express the here and now of their experience of ambivalence, avoidance, distraction or block. To be a writer is to occasionally live with shame and guilt about what we meant to write, what we should have written and the quality and subject of what we actually did come up with. We all doubt our ability, our value, and whether anyone will care enough to read our words. Creative expression is a daily leap of faith.
I’ve struggled all my life with depression. In more recent years, I’ve come to understand anxiety and fear are also large parts of the feeling I recognize as depression. Over the years I’ve tried to manage depression in many ways. Some worked, at least temporarily, and some didn’t.
It hasn’t been until the last decade that I’ve finally found a way to effectively manage and even largely banish depression. It doesn’t play with me anymore. Fear and anxiety still show up regularly, but the same method works to manage them, and I no longer worry one day I’ll just give up, step over some unseen edge, and disappear into crazy, a fugue state, or death.
One day, for no reason in particular except I felt exhausted, despairing, and bored with both, I said to Depression, “You win. I give up. Why not come out of the shadows and show yourself?”
Fat and happy, secure in its power, it did just that.
The first thing that I realized was Depression is an experience, not an integral piece of me. It’s something draped around me. It can be separated from me.
The second thing I noticed was my depression is male. He walked with an arrogant male strut and swagger and he spoke in a male voice.
I didn’t name him because he wasn’t a pet, he wasn’t a friend, and he most definitely wasn’t invited to be a roommate. He was merely someone who showed up at more or less regular intervals and made a nuisance of himself. He didn’t have the manners to knock on the door, wait to be invited or give any notice of his arrival. He just appeared.
I wondered what it would take to discourage him from visiting. What made me so attractive?
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Clinical depression is like a grey cave filled with fog. It numbs the senses and fills head and heart with cold, sticky, lumpy oatmeal. One is entirely alone with no hope. The simplest action, like opening one’s eyes, takes enormous effort. Depression envelopes and consumes every spark of power.
The only reason I’m in the world today is because I’m an unbelievably stubborn butthead. I’m also very nice. One does not cancel out the other, but nearly everyone persists in missing that second important point, with the result that I’m constantly being underestimated. This is a wonderful advantage in life.
Depression was no exception to the rule. When invited, he disentangled himself from me, parked his butt in a chair I pulled out for him, and began to tell me how things were going to be from now on.
On that particular day, I hadn’t showered (or the day before that, or the day before that). Annoyed by his high-handedness, I interrupted to say I was going to shower. He told me not to. Who would care? What was the point? I wouldn’t see anyone. No one would see me.
That was all I needed. I went and took a long shower. Washed my hair. Shaved my legs. Put on clean clothes and some jewelry. Depression sat in the bathroom and muttered at me. I ignored him.
I felt better then, and my irrepressible creativity began to stir, along with a childlike streak of playfulness I usually keep well-hidden. One small act of rebellion had helped me regain a tiny sense of power.
One of the things that used to happen when depression struck was that I stopped eating. I’d go all day with nothing but a salad and a piece of toast. I hadn’t eaten a solid meal for several days on this occasion. I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry (this is common), but I knew I needed to eat.
Depression didn’t like it. He threatened and complained and trotted out all the usual points. I was too fat. I hadn’t been doing anything useful and didn’t need to eat. I didn’t make enough money to deserve to eat.
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I put a chair at the table for Depression (I lived alone at the time), invited him to sit, set the table for two with complete place settings, right down to two glasses of water, made myself a meal, and ate. I offered him some food, but he refused. I read while I ate and ignored Depression, who sat and sulked.
Well, you have the idea. The more he protested when I wanted to take a walk, sit in the sun or work in the garden, the more stubborn I became. I politely invited him to join me in my activities, but he refused, which meant the more I got out in the world and did things the less time I spent with him. He hated my movies and my audio books. He thought walking to Main Street for an ice cream cone was a criminal waste of money, along with feeding the birds. The only activity he approved of was my work, which involved sitting for hours in front of my computer with headphones on doing medical transcription as fast and accurately as possible for only slightly more than minimum wage.
He absolutely hated my music. I quickly developed the habit of turning on Pandora first thing every morning and listening to it most of the day.
We also conflicted over sleep. Depression said there was no point in getting up in the morning because no one would notice. No one would care. In fact, the only things really worth doing in life were working and sleeping. This attitude ensured I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. and walked every day at dawn.
I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t fight or struggle. I made sure he had plenty of space and a good pillow in my bed. I gave him a spot at the table and a seat in front of the TV. I took out a clean towel for him and invited him to browse in my personal library.
Every single time he told me not to do something I did it, no matter how much I didn’t want to. I was pleasant, noncompliant, resistant and stubborn as a mule.
You know what?
He went away.
One day, he was just gone.
I knew I’d found the key.
Externalized, Depression suddenly became more pathetic than terrifying. He was so predictable, and so limited. All he had to say were the same things he’d been saying all my life. He was boring. He was like a batty old uncle who must be invited to every family gathering and tells the same interminable stories year in and year out.
He came back, of course, but for shorter and shorter visits at wider and wider intervals.
“Back again, I see,” I’d say. I’d set a place at the table, take out a clean towel, make space in the bed and on the couch. I’d realize I was sliding again and concentrate on eating more regularly, exercising, playing music, putting flowers on the table or maybe scheduling a massage.
I tried to have conversations with him, but Depression had no conversation, just the same tired monologue, mumbling and whining. He was really quite sad. He stopped spending the night and then gradually stopped visiting altogether.
I guess he was no longer getting what he needed from me.
Fear and anxiety are still regular visitors. Things are different here in Maine. I don’t live alone, for one thing. I still play imaginary games, but only in my head. Still, when either fear or anxiety show up, I recognize them. (Anxiety bites her fingernails; I always recognize her hands.) I don’t try to keep them away and I don’t try to hide from them.
I focus on giving them no power. I don’t buy into their catastrophizing. I appreciate they’re trying to keep me safe, poor things. All they can do is make up terrible stories about what might happen and then sit, paralyzed by their imaginings. I know they’re wretched. I wish I could help. I try to be kind — at a distance. They usually don’t stay long.
This experience is the sort of thing I used to hide, but I realize now my struggles are not unique. I’m inspired by the creativity, honesty and vulnerability of other writers. Coping with depression, anxiety and fear is like figuring out how to eat. Every body is different. Everybody needs to find their own path to healing, health and sanity. At times, it’s difficult to break through social expectations and shoulds and make a complete left turn into something creative, intuitive or outside the current norms.
Still, nothing succeeds like success. Turning Depression into an externalized character helped me see I didn’t have to define myself by it. I could choose to set aside that label and all it implies. Once I truly believed I had the power to choose, everything changed.
Sometimes, running away from sudden or passing danger is appropriate. However, running from these chronic spectres dogging my heels has not worked. I can’t get away from them. I can’t avoid or evade. Being chased by anything is fearful. The moment when I stop running, turn around and deliberately go toward whatever threatens me is the moment in which I begin to regain power. Monsters suddenly become mice. My own fear and abdication of power are what made them monstrous. I don’t need to hide. I don’t need to defend. I only need to consistently and patiently demonstrate I will give them nothing they want so they choose to leave me.
It helps when they tell me what to do.
Don’t tell me what to do!
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