The cost of what we’re afraid to ask
She says she’s heading for a breakdown and she’s terrified. I ask her why it’s so scary to cry and to be alone? She won’t look at me. There’s something more to this – something unspoken. I explain the adage that we’re only as sick as our secrets. She’s mad at me – which is good because she’s a recovering addict and her anger is only a mask to hide her true feelings. She lashes out and tells me I’d be afraid too if I knew what she was up against. I know she’s up to her ass in alligators. I also know it’s time to clean out the swamp.
She explains what a panic attack is like for her and how each time she has one she fears losing her sanity. She envisions a moment in which something just snaps and she won’t be coming back. She tells me about everyone who depends on her and how disappointed they’ll be. I ask her how many attacks she’s had. She’s had hundreds. I point out that if she was going to break it would probably have happened by now. She’s pissed. She explains that severe mental illness runs on one side of her family. This is the real fear. She’s afraid that she’s going to develop psychosis and not know what’s real and what isn’t.
I have nothing but good news for her. She’s way too old to be at risk for the type of psychotic break she fears. She listens but she’s afraid to believe. She demands proof. I offer her a number of books, studies, and accepted medical findings – all of which show conclusively that she’s not at risk. It’s too good – she’s trying to take it all in and she can’t. She’s been afraid every day of something that hasn’t been possible for over ten years. I see this as cause for enormous relief. She sees this as a reason to be pissed at herself that she didn’t ask years ago. This is how we perpetuate our shame – we don’t experience relief – if we lose a reason to feel bad about ourselves we immediately and subconsciously choose another failure to focus on.
In his memoir on recovery from alcoholism, (“Dry”) Augusten Burroughs wrote, “I don’t want to talk about it. Talking makes it real.” The cost of not speaking is too great. Whatever we cannot share holds power over us. We fear so many things. Most of all we fear loss of control, doing things we have no desire to do, and we fear breaking.
We fear that we will do to others that which was done to us. Countless times I have spoken with people about intrusive thoughts. Their subconscious mind generates ways in which they could hurt others. They never act on these thoughts but their presence keeps them afraid and ashamed. They ask me what kind of person would even think of such things? I assure them that a person who survived those things will often have such fleeting thoughts. I point toward the enormous amount of evidence that they have never acted on these thoughts and that they have no desire to do so. Still they distance themselves from loved ones to ensure their safety and well being. They do not trust themselves not to do what they don’t want to do and the connection to alcoholism and addiction is clear – even when we know we don’t want to drink or drug we’re still afraid that we will.
There are healthy fears and unhealthy fears. Our fear of heights is adaptive – our ancestors learned that bad things can happen when we’re too high. Unfortunately, “chasing the dragon” is based in the belief that we can’t get too high. Our fear of dark alleyways is adaptive, but we also maintain dark places in our minds where we dare not go and we hold dark secrets in our hearts. We want to know and we’re afraid to know. Fear runs us and shame ensures that we run alone.
One of the weird things about being a counselor is that people often come to see you as an expert on morality. We’re forever being asked if something is “okay.” It makes sense since folks confide in us that they also seek reassurance from us. I have passed along the adage, “And ye harm none, do what ye will” more times than I can count. Too many of us are unsure what’s ok and what isn’t because we were not taught by example or by any direct learning experience. This is largely why we don’t know what “normal” is and we assume that if something is wrong than it must be us. Whatever is done by consenting adults is probably okay. Whatever a person enjoys that hurts no one seems like a safe bet.
I think perhaps that morality is highly overrated. Instead of worrying about what’s right and wrong I suspect we’d do better to consider what’s healthy and what isn’t. Many of us are still unsure what we believe in spiritually but are left with past teachings of religion, which often carried the message that we must be very, very good or we will burn in Hell. Often this fear has everything to do with our concern about what’s ok – because doing the wrong thing might just leave us screwed in the afterlife. People like us like to hedge our bets.
There’s an important line to be drawn between secrecy and privacy. No one has the right or necessity to know your secrets. We have seen more than a few well meaning folks pour out their hearts in their first week of being sponsored or in other new relationships only to feel shamed, shut down, or unheard. At the other extreme, too many of us are ashamed that we have not told our friends, our families, our partners or our sponsors. We say that we’re holding out for others to prove to us that we can trust them but I suspect more often we are waiting until we feel comfortable sharing our secrets and that day never comes. It’s never going to be comfortable but it is liberating. I am mindful of the 5th step that advises we admit to ourselves, to God (HP), and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. This is enough to break free of shame but this is not a once and for all process. Shame and fear and pain return, remerging when we feel lost or alone. We must resign ourselves to a lifetime of asking embarrassing questions, seeking reassurance, and allowing ourselves to be taught by more knowledgeable others. Only in this way to we become truly free.