Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Act two

For some years now, I've been aware of a growing fear of getting older. I realise that it's quite an embarrassingly ordinary fear, but I think I understand why it's there. I've felt for most of my life as if I had been interrupted, that the "natural" course of my life was derailed when I was fifteen and suddenly found myself alone in the world, a ward of the state. I was, simply, unable to recover anything resembling a normal life and ended up spending the next 17 years drifting rather aimlessly, occupied, mainly, with just trying to figure out how to survive, how to live in a world that had suddenly become unutterably hostile, cold and dangerous, and what I was supposed to do next.

The feeling of being unsafe, of having no one to turn to and having to struggle just to survive, perhaps greatly exacerbated by living in one of the most notoriously difficult places in the world, has become habitual after many years of constant use. After I left home, I simply never felt safe, and though it is objectively not true, that feeling of nameless dread has stayed with me, and contributed mightily to my ongoing struggle with clinical depression and anxiety.

I also think that the presumption of being perpetually in danger, apart from believing I was essentially alone, was also a product of my time. I grew up in a time when we were told every day by the nearly hysterical leftists who ruled the culture in that part of the world, that any given 15-minute period could be our last. I have written about this before several times, but I think it is greatly underestimated how much psychological damage it did to the children of that period to be raised with this terrifying, nihilistic outlook. We were being told this by all the adults in our lives, by teachers, movies, television news reports and in many cases by our parents and their whole social milleu. In other words, by every authority figure we knew. But because we were children, we had no perspective.

We simply took it as the truth that the world was liable to come to an end at any moment, a prospect precisely calculated to undercut any feeling of security our parents might have otherwise been able to give us. To this day, I still have terrifying nightmares about natural catastrophes, nuclear wars and unspecified world-shattering cataclysms. (It's funny that my favourite genre of films is disaster movies). I think this fear is going to remain with me for the rest of my life, in one form or another. If you grow up fearful, which we all did, you will remain fearful, but neurotically, without a real cause.

Before leaving home, I had been quite sheltered, and though we were more or less at the bottom of the economic classes, I was never worried about it, or even noticed it much. I was always too busy in my own little world of books and beach exploration. But, although she was brilliant, and she did manage to keep us above water one way or another, my mother also never really learned how to thrive in the world. She had managed to survive, but it always felt as if she was barely hanging on, always on the edge of some kind of irrecoverable disaster, which I'm certain is how she felt about it. She also left home very young, at 18, and also really never managed to pick herself up again. Certainly financial stability and security was something that she was totally incapable of creating, so it was a skill she couldn't pass on to me.

I know now, however, with the front, rational, thinky part of my brain, that most of my fears are ungrounded. However close it feels, the time in my life of floundering helplessly around, of being terrified at the appearance of every electricity bill, of having to look for a new "shared accom" in the newspaper every eight months, is long gone for me. The objective fact is that I've managed somehow to learn how to run my life perfectly adequately. I've held the same job (or variations on the same job) for 13 years and have no fear of losing it. And if the outfit folded tomorrow, which it certainly isn't going to do, I get offers quite regularly which I've turned down because I like my life the way it is.

I have a nice flat, and nice things in it, nice friends, nice hobbies and even a few nice hats. I've even managed to keep the same cat alive for five years. Indeed, I've managed to keep myself alive, despite having had a cancer diagnosis in a weird and often frightening foreign country. Looked at objectively, I'm doing fine, and have learned to handle crises and difficulties pretty well, and a great deal better than my mother ever did. I'm never going to be rich, but mostly because it seems like too much effort for too little return. Trying to get "rich" seems a little pointless when you already have most of what you want in life.

But whatever my level of acquired material competence, it will never offset the deep and undisturbed layer of anxiety my life was founded on and most of which is unconscious. And that tangled mass of fear is inextricably caught up with the thought that my life went the wrong way 31 years ago and can now never be recovered. The things that were supposed to happen, the things I think of, rightly or not, as "normal" will never happen. I will never be able to turn it around and get things back to the way they were supposed to be. The result of my parents rejecting me, and leaving me to raise myself, has been that I will forever believe I have done it wrong and irreparably damaged myself. And that whatever I accomplish now in any field, it will still necessarily be the wrong things. I doubt I will ever be able to shake the feeling that I am living a kind of consolation prize life.

And of course, this feeling is cemented stronger and stronger with every year that passes. There was still, somewhere lurking in the shadowy regions of my half-conscious mind, the idea that I could still, somehow, turn things around, fix the mistakes, and make things go the way they were supposed to. The fear of getting older is less about wrinkles and white hair (which I think will look pretty good, actually) and more about those doors closing forever behind me, shutting off the way back home, and I will be lost out here alone in the awful wasteland of the world forever. I told someone recently that the one thing I've wanted that I can't ever have is simply to go home.

Everyone has their own struggle, and this is mine. Of course, the thing to ask is what are you doing to fight these unreal things? A person consciously dedicated to The Real cannot allow such a destructive Fantasy to undermine that dedication. I think that sorting out what is Real and what is Fantasy, is the basis of the psychotherapeutic technique called Cognitive Therapy. You have learned a set of habitual beliefs, thoughts that come so automatically that you can't distinguish them from reality, but which tell you things about yourself and your life that are simply untrue. To force these thoughts into your conscious mind, to bring them into the light of scrutiny, is the work of the therapy. When you semi-consciously think, "Everything's a disaster" you have to bring that thought into the open and challenge it consciously, don't let the whispers and insinuations continue to dominate the discussion. Respond clearly, "OK, exactly how is it a disaster?"

Coincidentally, it is also the basis for spiritual growth, according to all the great spiritual writers. Being crippled and paralysed by unnamed existential terrors is exactly the state of mind in which sin comes to look like a sensible option, a solution to problems. So a great deal of the work of the spiritual life is learning to be totally dedicated to what is objectively Real, and rejecting Fantasy. It makes sense, of course, that spiritual wellbeing and psychological health would come about the same way, and be achievable solely through a total, radical dedication to Truth at any cost.

All this is why I like this website. It is clear proof that the things I think, the frightening semi-conscious beliefs about how life goes, are just untrue. It is simply untrue that the "natural course" of things is to have your life stagnate and deteriorate after 45, whatever the anti-culture tells us. It's not even true that there is a logical, natural progression to life, that one figures out what to do by one's mid-20s and then gets on with doing it in an orderly way from then on. Life is simply never that tidy. Things happen, often out of any logical sequence. And here's a little secret that I'm just beginning to understand; life gets easier and less frightening as you get older. You get happier, you get less self-critical, you get more relaxed and less critical of others. You just plain get happier.

The cancer thing shook me badly, and the treatment, particularly the surgery, hit me like an asteroid right in the middle of those fears. It seemed as if it was the slamming of every door to happiness, the closing off of my future and any chance of happiness. The day I went in, I experienced an agonising moment of panic in the hospital when I very nearly packed up and went home, declaring that I didn't want the life I would be left with after the surgery. I didn't want to be the person it would force me to be. These were thoughts that might seem irrational from the outside, but had been stamped into my mind from an early age. It was, in truth, a confrontation between two totally opposed and irreconcilable worldviews, the one I had been raised with, and the one I had consciously adopted. One that said that some kinds of life aren't worth living and that we can decide which, and the other that says life is always its own end. And now I understand that these two systems of thought are at war, and always will be. (Well, I've always known that I was in a constant internal struggle, at war, but now I can pinpoint exactly what the war is about.)

It's notable that it wasn't thoughts of my own life or possible future that held me to the course. It wasn't even thoughts of God and His preferences; such things are too remote for me. It was the thought of my friends and what they needed from me, what I owed them. I can't put this down to any virtue of my own. It was not a religious decision that made me go forward, nor courage. Just the knowledge, that I could not deny, that there are people in the world who love me. Vicky was with me that day, and I found I couldn't abandon her.

I have a lot of sympathy for the people who have been frightened into supporting the euthanasia movement, something that is very popular among the aging Boomer generation, particularly in Britain. I understand that they have learned that life is supposed to go in a particular way, and that if it does not, that life itself is un-acceptable, literally, and that they have never had any other way of thinking proposed to them. In fact, the "pro-life" way of thought is so different from the way the world thinks that unless one is raised in it from early childhood, it will be constantly at war in each of us. We aren't used to thinking correctly about The Real, and making decisions based on our dedication to it. But that dedication is the only way out of the wasteland.



Anonymous said...

I totally understand what you are saying. I have had a shocking crisis in recent times with ongoing fall-out which has made me confront a lot of things, including fear of abandonment. My parents separated when I was 19 and things were never "the same" after that.

I am now a great fan of cognitive therapy! God the Father has proved Himself to be someone I really can trust, even in times which have been terrifying for me.

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, fo Thou art with me."

I look foward to checking out that link.

God bless you, Hilary!

Anonymous said...

Happily, my parents and grandparents are/were great examples to me of living a full life even in old age and even when things haven't gone according to plan.

It is certainly possible, I've discovered, to feel sad about the unfortunate things that have happened, while continuing to live a good and blessed ("happy") life.

Anonymous said...


This is a very enlightening blog post.


Anonymous said...

This is beautifully written, and profoundly insightful. As another of the walking wounded, still plotting the various debris trajectories of a childhood predicated on the IED of "Hey, the kids are okay!", I can't tell you what a consolation it is to hear that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Thank you for such a courageous witness.

- Brian