Dark clouds form on the horizon that I’m looking towards, then move quickly towards me; they are getting ever so near. Terror is threatening to take over my evening, because I face a task tomorrow which promises to remove me from my comfort zone. I agreed to help one of our home support teams at the hospital on Fridays for the next six weeks, because I was running out of things to do in my day job, my manager suggested the idea since they really needed the help there, and it seemed good for my career development. As I might have mentioned, it’s not the first thing I’d want to do for work, and as the day has approached, my doubts about this new aspect to my role have gathered steadily. I don’t know what they’re going to ask me to do tomorrow, but it seems likely I’ll be assisting pensioners who’ve just come out of hospital, settling them back into their homes as that’s essentially what the service does. I don’t see them just asking me to help with admin work in the office. There’s a crisis in the NHS and they need as much as help as they can get with moving people from hospitals, back into the community. When I agreed to the idea of doing this once a week, it was easy to focus my mind on the positives – I’ll be doing a great service, if I get it right. With the first day looming, I’m getting sucked into visions of all that could go wrong. The idea of going into these people’s homes, actually trying to help them, seems quite alien to me. I don’t see myself as an adult with common sense in this situation, I see myself as a child that will stumble and fail and end up humiliated. Right now, the childish part of me, the part I’ve spent the past few years trying to coax some self belief into, is shaking with fear at what I’m being asked to do.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I get into these states about once or twice a week. There’s the chilling vision of a terrorised life unfolding in front of me, one where the cycle of worry about a situation followed by relief when it’s over repeats forever. Devil’s advocate may think it will be better after I retire, when I’m no longer challenged by the general responsibilities of having a job. But knowing myself as well as I do, I’d say my mind will continue to find something to worry about on a weekly basis when I’m not working. It did last year when I was on my ‘mini-retirement’. This isn’t just worrying, it’s an addiction to stress. One gets sick of it after a while. I don’t want to be this way for the rest of my life – why should I be?
Freud saw hysteria – his term for anxiety among many other mental health complications that could present to therapy – in terms of regression. Under pressure we regress to stages in our lives that we didn’t successfully evolve from. Although many of Freud’s theories have been debunked, I see a lot of sense in this general interpretation of what he said. Situations that involve a responsibility – work being the most common of these – reliably bring about a type of regression, with the same anxious reaction in me.
- I’m asked to do something I don’t know how or don’t want to do
- A button is pressed somewhere and I revert to the outlook of a three year old
- I see nothing but failure and punishment ahead of me
- My whole experience of the world is clouded by doom, I lose myself and struggle to get back
I got stuck in that thinking due to a trauma that I couldn’t help, when I was thrust out into the world of nursery as a three year old. Somehow an emotional strength failed to develop in me at that point, which would allow me to see myself as capable of coping under social pressure.
For a long time, the natural response from the part of me that knows this isn’t right has been to debate, argue and reason with the fear. It’s like trying to use adult reason with a child that’s very upset: it never works. Even though as an adult I may be fully aware of my ability to handle responsibility, once the button is pressed and I’ve regressed emotionally, I have split into two, and no logical argument can shift that sense of doom. It may come and go as I distract myself with different activities, but it’s never entirely gone.
Meditation has been the only thing that seems to slowly, gradually get through to my terrorised inner core. Years of steady practise has just about convinced me that accepting the terror is the only answer. As I start to meditate and deliberately ‘let go’ of the fight against my troubled thoughts, the regress button that’s been pressed seems to lose its power. In giving up the fight against the fear, the urgent sense of doom falters and fades.
This act of surrendering is something that needs to be practised constantly – literally every minute of the day. The cynical streak in me finds it hard to trust that something so simple can be the answer to my problems, so I keep tripping myself up and returning to the problem. I have such a powerful tendency to fall back into fighting mode, which leads to more tension and anxiety. This tendency is one that’s been allowed to run riot since I was a child. At the moment, having meditated on a regular basis for the past few years, it still feels like I’m wrestling for control of a steering wheel that has a mind of its own when I try to step back from my thinking.
When I wake up tomorrow I’ll remember after a few seconds that I have a day of challenges ahead of me, and the fear will jolt into action. I’ll need to be very vigilant about keeping hold of the steering wheel for the rest of the morning. In the present, separate from the past and the dark stream of thoughts leading to it, I can do nothing but sit next to the crying child and be loving, patient, empathic. In counselling classes I have learned about showing empathy to clients – not advising or rescuing or arguing with them, simply being there alongside them, surrounding them with care as they find their own way of healing. I need to do the same with myself. As I show empathy for my traumatised inner child, as I stop analysing and arguing and start to accept its pain and suffering, it heals.