Thursday, October 25, 2012

no longer riding on the merry-go-round

Do you know that John Lennon song?  It's a good one.  He talks about how people think he's crazy, because he decided to step off the "merry-go-round" of constant striving for success.

I like the metaphor, because I made a decision to stop riding a different merry-go-round several years ago. 

Let me start with a theory.

I believe there is a time for most of us, somewhere in young adulthood, when we stop feeling like Superman.  Bad things start to happen in our lives - maybe someone we know is hurt or killed, maybe we lose a dear family member, maybe we get broken into in our first apartment or house.  We start to realize that not only do these bad things happen, but that sometime in our lives, they are going to happen to us

My mom died when I was 19.  It wasn't a surprise.  She had been sick for a long, long time.  I was sad - unimaginably sad.  It was hard to re-frame reality without her.  I still think about her every day.  After a few months, the outward appearance of my life was pretty "nomal."  But you can't escape grief, and the strange things it does to your spirit. 

My mom's illness and death had a twofold echo in my life.  First:  I became convinced, on some subconscious level, that life was not as long and sprawling as I had once thought it was.  If I was going to accomplish all this stuff I wanted to do, I needed to get into gear!  Yesterday!  Professionally, relationally, in every dimension.  I needed to get those degrees, to get a good job, to get married, to have some kids.  No point waiting - what if I died when I was 53, as Mom did?  Those imaginary kids needed to be at least partially self-sufficient by that point.  If I lived to be 103, as my great-great grandmother did (who was still alive when I was born!!), all the better - more time to enjoy all that stuff. 

Second, I became fearful.  Prior to this point, I would never have described myself as scared of anything.  Not the dark, not being hurt, not crazy adventures.  I was game.  But now, I found myself scared.  Scared of car wrecks.  Scared of chemicals in my food.  Most of my fear centered on having my house broken into and being assaulted by someone.  Now I didn't like staying home alone.  I really didn't like when my housemates were gone and I had to stay all night by myself.  I couldn't sleep in that case.  This cycle of fear and bad thoughts started and I found it irresistible and impossible to stop.  In hindsight, I see I was narrowly missing a full-blown anxiety attack.

I was in therapy.  I told my therapist about these issues.  We talked through it all.  After a few sessions, she asked me a series of questions that changed my life.  She asked me to walk through the scenario of my worst fear, in regard to the home invasion.

"Someone would break in while I was sleeping, and be standing at the foot of the bed, and I would wake up to them being there, and I would be defenseless, and then they would either beat or rape me."

She nodded and affirmed:  "That would be awful."

Then she asked, "What would happen after that?"

I paused.  I had honestly never considered this.  My thoughts had centered and swirled in vivid detail around the bad thing happening, and I had never pondered the aftermath.

"I would either go the hospital or I would die."

She asked, "Are you afraid of death?"

I said, "No.  I'm just afraid of hurting."

She asked, "So, if you died, that's the end of our exercise.  But if you lived, then what?"

I searched my brain.  I slowly said, "I guess I would get better."

And that was it.  That was the moment that I pitched myself off the merry-go-round.

A smile spread softly across her face.  "You are a very strong person.  You have survived what is typically one of the most painful episodes in a person's life:  losing one of their parents.  If this horrible thing happened to you, that you are so scared of, and you lived?  You would come through that, too.  You would survive."

Boom.  It wasn't like the fear immediately lifted, but I had a way out.  I could stop the spiral of negativity and anxiety.  I didn't get pulled into orbit by my thoughts.  I had found the exit from the endless levels of the parking garage.  This therapist had given me one of the biggest gifts I've received in my life:  a tool for harnessing my big emotions.

I use this tool still, all the time.  When I get sucked into a cycle of thoughts that only lead me down, I think to myself "What's the worst that happens?"  I have no problem visualizing the worst-case scenario.  I allow myself to fully delve into the details.  But then I ask, "And then what happens?"  It always gets better from there.

Did you experience a dawn of fear in your life in the transition to adulthood?  How do you position it within your life?


even one sparrow said...

What a beautifully inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it, Emily.

I can't say that I've had a similar experience. Having a baby has definitely put my life into perspective. For a while, I was convinced the world was going to end very soon (not in a scary or bad way, just in a "Wow- Jesus COULD come back really soon" way) and that put life into perspective -- ie. making sure my priorities lie in the Lord and my family.

Erin said...

I want to thank you for being brave enough to share this story. I think the majority of adults have experienced some period of anxiety or depression in their lives, and I think it is especially common between the ages of 16-24. I see so many of my students struggling through big life changes, and so few of them are willing to admit that they need help (try counseling, etc...)

There is still such a big stigma around mental health issues, and very few people speak openly about it even though "An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year." (

I suffer from a major recurring depression, yet I am always hesitant to speak up about my own experience, especially in front of my students. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your openness. Thank you for sharing your story.

Emily said...

Thanks ladies. I just wanted to share this tool/gift that my therapist gave me because it is SO useful in my life, for situations both big and small. I struggle with overanalyzing, being unable to stop my brain, etc. Using this thought process, I can usually redirect my thoughts, which I honestly did not think was possible for most of my life.