The Logic of Fear

I’ve been a bit quiet lately and a big part of that is that I’ve been in the midst of a move to Cork, Ireland. I’m finally starting to get settled (I’ve been here for 3 days) and process this fairly large decision. Part of this has been a great deal of panic, anxiety, and worry. I’m feeling the beginning of a serious depressive episode creeping into my mind, and I’ve been fairly vocal to friends and family about my worry that this was not a good decision for me. Many of them have responded (quite logically) with sentiments like “you’re more than your emotions”, “you don’t have to let feelings dictate how you behave”, and “feelings will pass”.

These things are all true, but they haven’t helped me to feel any less afraid and they don’t get to the heart of why I’m afraid, or even address what I believe is a very real and logical worry that is at the heart of the anxiety and distress. For most people there is a limit to the harm that emotions can do. You might feel something unpleasant for a while, and then it will pass. However I have very real evidence that my emotions are not something to be taken lightly, and that “just emotions” can make things a living hell and seriously endanger my life.

There is something very logical about being wary of anything that might disturb your emotions when you have a history of severe depression. I have had active depression for nearly five years now, and only just started to move into recovery in the last six months or so. I once spent a full semester in the midst of complete suicidal ideation, isolation, lack of pleasure in anything, and utterly overwhelming anxiety. I remember almost no moments of even contentment or neutrality: it was all overwhelming emotional pain. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I have friends who were there and know just how nasty it was. It was bad.

So while it might seem irrational to let anxiety or worry dissuade me from an amazing opportunity like this, I am risking a great deal more than most people would who try something new. I can feel myself falling into depression, and I know just how bad it can get and how long it can last. Beyond the emotional toll, there are also very physical results to my depression: while I have more skills now than I did in the past, I don’t trust myself to weather a full depressive episode without hurting myself or restricting my food and putting my body in serious danger.

When I see the potential for my mental health to fall apart, I see the risk of repeating the worst depression I’ve experienced. It is quite literally what would be termed unconscionable torture were it to be enacted on another human being. There is a great deal of logic in being deeply afraid of this possibility and in wanting to hold on to the things that have kept it at bay.

To get very dark for a minute (and let’s be honest, a lot of the things in my past have been fairly dark so I guess this is just being straightforward), when you have sat with a razor blade poised against your wrist for hours at a time, replaying the scenario of what it would be like and how hard you’d have to press over and over, and only dropping the blade when you think of the one friend who would inevitably find your body, the stakes of having some level of comfort and safety, having people you know and love around you, become much higher. This is not even an extreme possibility: this is a regular part of my history.

For some people with mental illness who have reached a stage of recovery, individual coping skills and tactics are a lifesaver. For those people, being on their own in a new place might not be as big of a deal because they know what is helpful for them and how to manage their emotions effectively. For me, the best buffer I have against the nasties is having a good support crew: friends who keep me grounded, people who challenge my ridiculous pessimism, people who know me well enough to call me out when I’m being cruel to myself, and people who I am comfortable enough to simply be around without feeling pressure or anxiety, people I can feel safe with. I do have other skills that are helpful, but so far this is the single most helpful thing that I have found: it gives me a reason to bother with caring for myself.

Removing myself from this support system gives my depression and anxiety an opening. The fear and worry and desperate desire to go home that I feel right now is not simply loneliness or the discomfort of a new place. It is at least partly the recognition that I could be in serious danger and the strong desire to go back to where I am safer. There is nothing illogical about that. That is not just an emotion, and it is something that should be taken into account when I act because it is truly important information. While I have not let this information dictate my behavior (I am still here and accomplishing all the tasks I’ll need to be able to stay), it isn’t something that I’m simply going to try to put aside. It’s something I want to remain acutely aware of, because ignoring it is putting myself in danger. Taking your emotions seriously as a force to be reckoned with is fully logical and truly important when you have a history of mental illness, and it’s a privilege to be able to set emotions aside or take actions without making certain you take them into account.

Unpacking the Spoons

Most of you have already heard the spoon metaphor by now. It was originally coined to describe what it’s like to have a chronic illness, although since then it has been used to describe mental illness as well. It’s an incredibly helpful tool, but I’d like to take a minute to expand on why those of us who have illness of one kind or another use up our spoons so quickly. There is an invisible aspect to illness that most of us don’t talk about. It’s oddly taboo, particularly for mental illness. Let’s shed some light on it shall we (I’m going to confine this discussion to my particular mental illness because that’s what I have experience with, but I know that this type of thing is applicable to all sorts of different illnesses).

When you’re mentally ill you have to think about more things. Let’s look at some examples of things that I have to think about on a regular basis that most people are blissfully unaware of: (trigger warnings for ED and self harm)

1.Are my hands shaking? Will someone notice? How will I explain it if they do?

2.Will the clothes that I’m wearing expose any of my scars or current cuts? Am I going to be somewhere that I care?

3.Will someone use the word “purge” today? How will I deal with this trigger if it comes up?

4.Will someone talk about my body or eating habits today and how will I quickly escape the situation if that happens?

5.If I eat something, will my stomach be able to keep it down or will it get uppity because it’s not very good at digesting anymore?

6.Will it look suspicious to my family or friends if I go to the bathroom immediately after a meal?

7.If I stay at someone’s house, do I have my meds? I cannot stay at someone’s house unless I have my meds.

8.If others want to do a physical activity, will I be able to keep up? Will I start feeling faint?

9.Did I bleed on my sheets or my pajamas after I cut last night? Can I get that stain out? Did it get on my computer, and will other people notice if I bring my computer out? Also gross.

10.Can I leave the house today without overwhelming self-hatred based on how I look in these clothes?

11.How distracted will I be today by my body? If my thighs rub together while walking, will I still be able to keep it together, or will I start having some really bad thoughts?

12.Will there be calorie counts listed somewhere that I go today?

13.How do I get all my hours in at work and get to 5-10 hours of therapy a week? How do I explain to my boss and coworkers that I’m not lazy it’s just really hard to find good times for appointments?

14.I usually get tired at around 9:00 (probably from nutritional deprivation among other things). Can I go out and socialize tonight? How can I see my friends when I have a full time job and I can’t stay awake past 11?

15.Was that slight chest pain just some anxiety or other minor something, or am I finally getting the irregular heartbeat that is supposed to come with my eating habits?

16.What do I say if people bring up food habits? Fasting? (yes this has happened, e.g. how long have you gone without food). How do I keep myself from blurting out “yeah, I ate once a week for a couple months once”?

17.How much do I tell people?

18.If someone hugs me, will they be able to feel my fat? Will I be ok with it, or will I want to pull away (most of the time it’s pull away. Then I have to be polite)?

19.If I purge, will I smell like puke? Will I be able to get those nasty stains out of my clothes (yes, it gets everywhere. yes it is gross)? What happens if my boyfriend tries to kiss me?

20.How much of my day will I waste thinking about food and debating whether or not to eat and how much to eat? This varies from about 1 hour to my whole day, depending.

21.Sometimes I even waste my brain space wondering if what I expel from my body is the same as what I put into it (yes I am talking about poo).

22.How many layers should I wear? I’m always cold, but I can’t regulate my body temperature at all so I swing to really hot if I’m under blankets or layers.

23.Can I handle looking at myself in the mirror today? Will I look like a complete idiot if I get dressed and leave the house without a quick mirror check?

24.Will someone notice if I start poking at my wrists or my hips to feel the bones? Can I feel my bones? Am I too fat if I can’t feel my bones?

25.Have a fasted/restricted today? How long has it been since I last ate? How much did I eat? If someone tries to give me breakfast, how can I say no?

This was just a list I came up with off the top of my head. Imagine trying to get out of bed while thinking about all these things, plan your day while thinking about all these things, accomplish work while thinking about all these things. THIS is where the spoons go. The reason that doing simple tasks requires so much more energy and effort is not just the physiological difficulties of depression or illness (and yeah, those things often do come with some serious fatigue or pain), but also the fact that everything is inherently more complicated. You are constantly trying to protect yourself from whatever threat your illness brings. You have to plan ahead like nobody’s business. You have to be assessing what’s going on around you and what’s going on internally to make sure you’ll be ok.

With mental illness, many of these thoughts are intrusive, paranoid, and irrational. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean you can turn them off and that doesn’t mean that you’re expending less emotional energy by having them. These thoughts are intrusive, distracting, and oftentimes pervasive, which means you’re taking a lot of your executive function to refocus your brain on the task at hand. All the time. Over and over.

For many of us who are dealing with a low spoon count, we don’t even realize that this is where the spoons are going: all we know is that things feel hard. They feel exhausting. We’re more worn out than other people even when we’re doing what appears to be less. Again, the key appears to be patience with yourself and with others, as well as clear communication about what you’re feeling. Many of us don’t want to speak up about the things that are hard for us, whether because we don’t want to appear weak or because there is a strong taboo against them (most of the things listed above fall into this second category). If we can get better at telling others what we’re really feeling, maybe this whole spoons thing will start making more sense to everyone.

 

Metaphors: Privilege and Spoons

There’s a thing in the disabled community called the spoon metaphor. This was developed by a woman with lupus as a way to explain how her disease affects her, even when it’s not visible. While I don’t have a physical disability, I do have mental illness to deal with, and so sometimes I feel more comfortable explaining things to people through this kind of metaphor.

There are other metaphors like this, for privilege and for being able. Metaphors about difficulty setting, smoke, and even My Little Pony. The most basic is a bases metaphor: when you have privilege you start at first or second base, and when you don’t have privilege you start at home and have to work harder to get all the way around. I’ve found metaphors can be extremely helpful, both for explaining things to other people and for reframing things in my own life. One of the most important things that metaphors can do for us is to help us move away from charged language (like privilege) and move into a place where we can start to assess the parallels of situations instead.

In general, we think in metaphors, often unconsciously. Most of the abstract language we use began as metaphor. The metaphors we use can change how we approach things (those who view time as linear often approach their lives differently than those who view it as cyclical), and metaphors can help us lay down different paths in our mind that are almost like intellectual shortcuts.

Each of these metaphors gives us different aspects of privilege. They highlight different things, whether it be starting with less resources as someone who is not privileged, or having something to help you along when you do have privilege, or the fact that you don’t notice privilege when you have it. That’s one of the things I love about metaphors: each one brings something new to the table. Of course things means that we always need to incorporate a variety of metaphors in order to have a well rounded understanding of any concept.

I feel that privilege is a place where intersubjectivity is extremely important, and all of these metaphors together highlight it. I’m a skeptical type person and run in many atheist and skeptical circles. Often in these circles I hear cries of “objectivity!” shouted out about how we should approach the world. If something can’t be objectively verified, then it’s useless. These have always rubbed me the wrong way, since true objectivity is pretty damn impossible (you’ll never escape your own perspective, or the distortion your own senses create: we’re always trapped in our own subjectivity), and I generally prefer intersubjectivity, which is the process of incorporating as many subjective viewpoints as possible to come closer and closer to objectivity.

Privilege is a beautiful place to do this. Privilege is an experiential thing, just like discrimination. These metaphors point towards the experience of being aware of someone else’s privilege and your own lack of privilege. This is not something you can measure, or objectively point to, but rather we can build up a picture of it through intersubjectivity. If we each try to take a stab at defining how we see and experience privilege, then we can add more and more pieces to how we view it, build it up into a more cohesive whole that has dimension and depth. Metaphors are a beautiful way to do this because narratives can’t give us concrete elements to focus on. Metaphors pull certain pieces of the experience and highlight them. So each individual might have a preferred metaphor that rings true to them, and whose particular elements embody and sum up their experience. These give us more discrete elements to combine.

I think that the importance of metaphorical thinking is lost in many other places. We forget that it allows us to view our knowledge in a different way and allows us to highlight certain things that can be brought together. The importance of multiple metaphors is certainly not highlighted. I think that these could be important tools in science, in politics, or even in pop culture. I wish more people would use their metaphors.