Good writers seem to know a lot about neuroses. Anne Lamott, for example, is so exactly right when she describes her students’ fears about being writers because she is smart, observant, and has experienced them all herself: “[They] want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout—the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias. And especially, the paranoia” (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life).
But you don’t have to be a writer to suspect that there is an undercurrent of neurosis that runs just below the surface of the day-to-day work of feeling normal in the world for a lot of us. Call it fear, self-doubt or just basic background worrying; the suspicion that something may be dreadfully wrong or is about to be dreadfully wrong is always just there, lurking in the shadows.
And in her encouraging way, Anne Lamott reminds us,“You can be defeated and disoriented by all these feelings…or you can see [it] as wonderful material.” I certainly hope so. I hope that if we invite our worst fears, those huge paralyzing ones and the small niggly ones, out into the open air, maybe they will begin to reveal themselves for what they are: self-created monsters that may have a place in our lives somewhere, but definitely not looming over us, crowding out our vision of what is real and true.
This post is my attempt to give that a try; it’s an invitation to hear what my personal voice of misery has to say, because it has by speaking rather loudly in the past few days, in the hopes that it will have its day and then QUIET DOWN! (I’m telling you this now so you can choose to stop reading here). Here goes.
“I, who am that shadowy presence with whom you try to bargain when you are afraid that things are going to go terribly wrong in your life, am here to tell you, finally, that yes, it’s true. Those headaches you get, and the dizziness you sometimes have, and that tremor in your hands? No, it’s not just stress and anxiety. It’s the beginnings of a degenerative nerve disorder that will slowly destroy your life and force you into a situation that you must accept with dignity and stoicism despite the gnawing adversity your life has become. And yes, if you had been diagnosed sooner, you would have had a better chance at early treatment, but everyone ignored your deeply-felt conviction that something was dreadfully wrong, just as you always feared they would.
Yes, your husband is either going to leave you for someone who has all the qualities you lack, and he will be fulfilled and happy while you will go bankrupt because of your long-standing financial irresponsibility, and be eaten up with bitterness, jealousy and resentment. Or, he will contract a horrible illness which will either require you to become his full-time caregiver, a role you will have to take on gracefully and without complaint lest you seem mean of spirit, or will cause him to drop dead, leaving you with the task of raising your grief-stricken children alone.
And your son’s habit of lining things up in neat rows, and refusing to leave any task unfinished once he’s started? No, it’s not just typical childhood quirkiness. It’s the beginnings of OCD, triggered by some anxiety that he feels about his home life, meaning your mothering behavior, which is never as good as it should be. The OCD will go along nicely with the latent bipolar disorder that is the real cause of your other son’s mood swings and obnoxious attitude. Yes it’s true that if you had raised him on macrobiotic food and limited his intake of sugar, his life would be problem-free, and he would be a calm, happy person with a future of glowing health before him, instead of the inevitable mental health crises that will thwart his chances at a fulfilling life. And yes, it is your fault.
Your credit card debt is never going to be paid off, you won’t have enough money to live on after you retire, and you’ll have to work at Wal-Mart when you’re 78, perhaps wearing a demeaning hat. After a lifetime of drudgery, people will forget about you after you retire, your children will avoid you, and you’ll spend the last years of your life incapacitated, senile, and hostage to a health-care system that makes you feel disempowered and feeble. And no, you’ll never be sure that you’ve done something meaningful with your life.
Of course, it’s a real possibility that whatever your worries may be, they will pale before the inevitable global crises of world war, terrorism, this year’s flu epidemic, Sarah Palin, and/or the effects of global warming. One morning you may wake up to find that your city has been plunged into some stark morning-after type of reality where nothing is the same as it was, and the stockpiled cans of ravioli and paraffin in your basement will be pitiful protection.
And by the way, you won’t ever lose that last ten pounds, and you’re never going to feel good about your body. When you finally realize that you’re never actually going to look any better than you do now, you’ll hate yourself for spending all your good years worrying about the size of your ass, or that you had a terrible disease. You’re always going to wonder if you should have made different choices in your life, and no, things aren’t ever going to get easier. Thank you for your attention.”
I feel better already. Now you try it.
This type of writing, while ridiculous on some level, is, in its very ridiculousness, a therapeutic act that helps us order our thoughts and to see when our perspective has really gone off the rails. Of course, getting it back ON is another story, and, another writing assignment. But you may consider giving this one a try; or at least, as Anne Lamott advises, seeing the worst of your fears as some kind of material that you can turn into an act of creative courage.
Here’s today’s lovely, crafty and trickily reassuring poem by the contemporary Irish poet Derek Mahon. It’s called “Everything is Going to be Alright.”
Everything is Going to Be Alright
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
Derek Mahon, Collected Poems
The sneakiest lines of this poem are, “There will be dying, there will be dying/but there is no need to go into that.” The rest of the poem doesn’t work without these lines–he is saying that life will happen (and this always includes the inevitability of death), no matter what. And this makes the rest of the poem even more true, more important. How should we not be glad? How indeed, for that would be a kind of sacrilege. No matter what happens, and everything is going to happen, everything is going to be alright.