The Octopus In the Room

a year ago

My entire life I have had the unfortunate ability to convince myself that something, somewhere close to me is very wrong. An intruder. A gas leak. A rabid animal. Someone I love is getting into a car destined for an accident. <!--break-->Someone is walking too close to the ocean and an impending rogue wave.  My vivid imagination paired with a gift for storytelling and my compulsion to read the news means I can play those horror films in my head with painful clarity and detail.

And I can’t turn the movie reel off.

For all my educational and professional success, I am not very emotionally disciplined. I’m the girl who convinced herself that driving past her ex’s house to see…oh hell, I don’t even know what I was trying to see. I had a different rationalization every day of the week. But the part of the brain that is supposed to be able to deflect those thoughts and say, “You will NOT do the crazy ex-girlfriend thing” just wasn’t very strong.  And the same goes for the part of the brain that is supposed to say “you are in more danger every time you sit in a car than you will ever be in a plane even if you fly every day for the rest of your natural life.” Part of my brain is says it,  but it is overwhelmingly outshouted by the part that knows that my constant attention is the only thing keeping 250 passengers and a flight crew from crashing into the Pacific.

And so the part of my brain that knows there isn’t a murderer in the house,  or mountain lion in the park, and that knows that I  have the worst intuition in the history of women, never wins.

And the movie reel plays over and over.

There are times when it is so bad that I’m in bed trembling, trying to keep from crying as I watch the movie play unspeakable horrors to my children, my husband, my mother.  I sing to myself. I tell myself other stories. I tell myself that statistics predict us all living to an old age and dying of natural causes. But it’s always worse at night. I have jokingly called this phenomenon “Monsters Under the Bed,” in vain effort to make it sound like a harmless Pixar movie. But the monsters have teeth and they are brutally tenacious.

In recent months the ebb and flow has stopped ebbing. The new highlights of the film include the beautiful, towering redwoods that surround my house crashing down on us all. Despite knowing the profound unlikeliness that that will ever happen. Despite a professional inspection and a glowing redwood report card.  And it's different this time  - now, instead of acclimating or simply reaching fatigue with being able to keep up the pounding of fear, it just plays on and on.

At the point where it was causing my thinking to border on irrational, I knew it was time for help. Plus, it has been almost 40 years of this. I am tired of it.

I know, in the same way I know that rain falls down, that being human obligates me to a social contract that includes doing my everything to ensure that others’ lives are not made harder or smaller by my issues.  This includes not driving my husband insane with a need for constant reassurance, or financially undermining us with ridiculous measures to keep trees from falling when they have no intention of doing so. The bidirectional physics of love means that he helps me and is patient with me, and it also means I do what needs to be done to keep him (or me, or my children) from -  at best -  frustration, or -  at worst - co-dependence.

I am intimately acquainted with the consequence of bipolar disorder and addiction and I know that the familial reach of mental health issues is nearly as far as being Irish and having freckles. But I can also see the place deep inside…just there…where feelings of security and a sense of safety were supposed to develop, but could not. I can see the barren patch of earth  where they were should have grown, nurtured by my environment until they were strong enough to weather their own weather. But that is not what happened. So I have spackled that place and built over and around it with diligence and information seeking, trying to replace courage with attentiveness and irrational fears with facts.  But now, in this time where I have created the safest most secure life I could possibly have, that hole in my psyche has latched on to tall trees as its newest manifestation.

I have found a counselor of tremendous compassion and who seems, only a few weeks into the process, very skilled. There have been moments when her technique causes the movie to recede to the far back of my brain. So far I can’t even feel it, and can only see it by squinting. It makes me ache for that distance all the time, but I don’t have it yet.

At a recent session I was frustrated nearly to the point of tears that my brain had latched onto yet another thing to undermine my confidence in our trees. And I shared my anger with my hands clenched in fists on my lap. My counselor said calmly that that was one of the characteristics of anxiety – that it reaches for things to keep you in that state.

“It’s like an octopus,” I complained.

She smiled and said, “That’s a great analogy. Because  it decides that if this isn’t working,” holding up her right hand, “then try this!” and she swung her left hand forward and waved it front of my face.

The image of the desperate anxiety octopus frantically holding up thing after thing trying to see which of the fears was going generate the most panic in the moment was enough to make me laugh, and the image was powerful enough that I could, briefly, put the damn cephalopod in its proper context – cartoonish and two-dimensional. It didn’t stay that way permanently, but I have since been able to visualize it down from Godzilla size to campy shower-curtain size, and that, I believe, is progress.

I don’t know how many arms my octopus has, exactly. I’m hoping for not much more than eight. But my worst fear, the tentacle that taunts me most often, is that the best I can hope for is strategies to contain it. That the fact that the place where I was supposed to learn to assess what is truly worth being afraid of never grew for me means that the best outcome  I will ever get is being able to shrink the octopus, and that I will never be able to banish it back to the ocean where my counselor suggests I imagine it being eaten by a whale.

I don’t want an octopus, of any size, shape, color or artistic medium. But no one asked me if I wanted it, and there’s no magic to get rid of it.  My job now is to minimize its ability to tangle up me, or the people I love who count on me.  My octopus, my responsibility.  Responsibility, at least, is something that I do very well.

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