High Alert

I met with a therapist today. Not a psychiatrist – a therapist, and specifically one specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy. What CBT is, essentially: an intensive, results-geared 12-18 week course of therapy during which you learn specific techniques that you can use to better cope with your anxiety (or depression, or whatever it is that brought you in).

I sat down on the therapist’s couch next to a little machine bubbling lavender-scented steam into the air and gave him my best “Look at how happy and okay I am!” smile (because, as everyone knows, the most important part of therapy is convincing your therapist you totally don’t need it. …Right?). He asked me why I was there, and even though I knew this was a pretty unhelpful way to begin the session, I told him the truth: that I didn’t know.

It really was true; these days, I feel more or less…fine. Great, actually. My anxiety is under control; my insomnia has virtually disappeared. I’m stressed about various things, of course, but they feel like things I probably “should” be stressed about, like travel and mortgage payments and such. I only booked the appointment in the first place because the psychiatrist who I see about once a month to check in on my medication suggested it, and so while I paid for that day’s appointment at the reception desk I also scheduled a new one with his colleague. And then all of a sudden it was a month later and there I was: sitting in a therapist’s office and talking about feelings.

Look, I’ve obviously been meaning to explore the idea of therapy for a long time. And I should have been doing it for far longer than that.

I was six months pregnant with Goldie when I started pushing back against the belief system that I grew up with – the one that saw therapy as, essentially, medically legitimized whining – and started thinking that I might not just benefit from it…I might actually, really, seriously need it. There were years of buildup to this, of course – years of sleepless nights during which I spent endless hours wandering the rooms of my house, hunting for a magic something to silence the noise in my brain – but it was a single incident that finally pushed me over the edge.

What happened was that my first book came out. And with it came a deluge – and I mean an actual hailstorm – of this-is-the-worst-book-ever reviews posted to my Amazon page. A couple of days earlier, as it turned out, Amazon’s moderators had taken down a couple of reviews that they had deemed personal attacks (which apparently they don’t permit as a matter of policy; you can say “this book sucks,” but you can’t say things like “Author X is a huge slut” – basically, you’re totally allowed to hate the book, but you have to stay on-topic about it). I expected my share of crappy reviews, of course, but when I saw that a couple of them had been taken down I started to panic…because that’s like Lesson 1 in Life On The Internet: do not try to prevent people from writing whatever they want to write about you, because all this does is piss them off in a major way, and then they will make it their life’s mission to prove that they CANNOT BE SILENCED.

Basically: don’t feed the trolls.

When these reviews were taken down – the day before I turned 33 – that’s exactly what happened. I spent my birthday in a state of absolute hysteria, believing that my life as an author (or as a writer, period) was over. Every time I clicked over to my book’s page (which of course I couldn’t stop myself from doing) I saw a new diatribe or ten about just how terrible of a writer (and a person) I was. Let me be clear: I get how the Internet works and by now have developed what I think is a relatively sane attitude towards “haters” and such, but writing a book had been my dream since I was four years old, and this particular incident hurt more than…well, more than almost anything I’d ever experienced.

I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep, not even for a minute. I felt like there was a huge crowd of people standing in a circle around me screaming FUCK YOU into my face over and over and over. So I called Yale (where we were insured while Kendrick attended business school) and booked an emergency mental health appointment for the very next day.

The next morning, I dropped my son off at daycare and then drove two hours to New Haven to meet with a psychiatrist. She suggested CBT, but a weekly trip to New Haven didn’t seem possible to add to the trips I was already taking for prenatal appointments. I stopped looking at Amazon (mostly), the incident faded into the past, and my anxiety went back down to its regular (not-so-phenomenal, but at least not completely paralyzing) level. And then I gave birth and went on medication, and have been stunningly (well, stunningly for me) even-keeled ever since.

So earlier today, when my therapist asked me why I was sitting in his office, I really didn’t know. Then we started talking, and he asked me what I was scared of.

The idea that my career might fall apart and I won’t be able to support my kids the way I want to, I told him. The fact that the people I love might die tomorrow, and will die one day. The fact that my children are getting older every second, and here I am missing moment after moment after moment.

“Why are you living in the future if it’s such a negative place?” he asked me.

That one I know the answer to. I’ve known it since I was in high school, when I developed the belief that the only way I would do well on a test would be to convince myself that I had absolutely bombed it. And I mean depths-of-my-soul convinced myself; we’re talking tears and wailing and oh-god-my-life-is-over. That, I thought, was the only way to ensure that I would get a good grade. And get into a good college. And have a good life.

This is obviously crazy, and yet I believe it still: that if I relax my vigilance for even a second, forget to identify every potential tragedy that might come my way…boom. That one slip-up will blindside me, and everything I’ve worked to build – everything I love – will fall apart. So I worry. I worry because it feels like a penance I can pre-pay to ensure my family’s safe passage into wherever it is that we’re going.

I know that I can have a healthier, calmer mind. I know I deserve that, and that my family deserves it. And I also know how to take further steps towards achieving this: I have to learn to meditate. To be mindful. To exist in the present not because I’m being willfully ignorant about the harsh realities of life but simply because it is a brighter, more beautiful place to live.

I know all this, and yet I’ve avoided therapy for years. And today, I discovered the reason why: I don’t want to learn how to do these things. I don’t want to get better. Because way deep down in the part of me that was built before I even took my first step in this world lies the certainty that if I stop being afraid, I leave the door open for disaster.

“I really am fine,” I told the therapist. “I honestly don’t know why I’m here.”

Except I do.

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