258. somaticize


Isolation, by http://jessica-art.deviantart.com/

It is June 7. How did it get to be June 7 already? This year is moving way too fast, although not fast enough for the American electoral season to be done. That nonsense seems to be inhabiting its own putrid timestream.

School is finally over. It wrapped up just eighteen days ago, though as a group of us agreed last night, it’s seemed longer than that.

Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to figure out why this semester felt so much more difficult than others. Objectively, this was actually one of the easier terms I’ve had as a master’s student. A final paper for one class was literally a 4-5 page narrative reflection on an internship, which felt almost obscenely light. In the other class, we spent the first month trying to overcome technical glitches to get the platform we were using for a digital library to work.

In retrospect, this was a difficult semester due to several things:

  1. It really didn’t feel like that much was actually demanded of me (as per the 5-page final paper in the one class).
  2. There was a marked lack of structure and clear expectations in both classes.

Now, to the latter, I get that this whole graduate experience is, in some ways, the antithesis of the undergraduate degree. There’s a lot less hand-holding, and especially in a career-focused program like mine, one is expected to start thinking and behaving like a professional. I like this about graduate study because it’s less about the grade and more about proving that you know what you’re doing.

Of course, professors still need to lay out clear expectations for their students and communicate things like due dates, and changes to due dates and course content. Still, a major aspect of graduate-level study is directing one’s self and becoming more of a stakeholder in your education and career. In essence, graduate study asks students to set their own schedules based on what is demanded of them.

As Millennials would say, this is “adulting.”

The day after classes ended, I submitted my final paper and hopped in a car with a friend of mine to embark on a five-day camping trip. This is something I’d been looking forward to for weeks leading up to it, and to finally get away from the city and my job and school, and just be in nature, was lovely.

I did encounter one brief meltdown on the trip, which was followed by a rare breakthrough moment—rare in that it occurred in close proximity to the emotional event, which is a new thing for me.

It happened over the course of one hike that involved several river and stream crossings. I’ll say in advance that I experience serious anxiety over cleanliness and hygiene issues, so just going into the hike knowing about the crossings was hackles-raising enough. My friend went first each time as he wasn’t as bothered by either getting wet or muddy, but even he was a bit surprised by some of the stream crossings.

In brief, after getting stuck briefly during the third stream crossing, I was in the grips of a full-blown anxiety attack. It might not have been so bad had the water been clear, but it was muddy and somewhat deep, and I got stuck in the muck several times.

Here are a few symptoms from AnxietyCentre.com that I experienced that afternoon:

  • A feeling of overwhelming fear
  • Feeling you are in grave danger
  • An urgency to escape
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pressure or pain
  • Inability to calm yourself down
  • Nausea
  • Pounding, racing heart

For the next forty minutes or so, as we continued the hike, I just focused on breathing and bringing my heart rate down. Eventually, the calmer parts of my mind were able to start deconstructing that reaction, and the realization I had is that that anxiety attack was a concentrated version of how I feel all the time.


The view on one part of the hike.

Basically, I’m afraid all the time. Not consciously, in a phobic sense. More an undercurrent of constant anxiety and fear. I’m afraid I’m a complete failure, that I’m never going to amount to anything, that I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life, that I’m a mediocrity, that I’m fundamentally worthless and unlovable…

The usual.

What I was gradually able to unpack was that this feeling stems from early childhood, where my fundamentalist Christian parents over-reacted to what otherwise normal child behavior as if it were signs of moral depravity (which, in hindsight, is likely exactly what they thought).

A few months after I became an atheist, I was having lunch with my family, including my nephew who was less than a year old and kept dropping food from his high chair onto the floor. My sister (his mother), exasperated, commented: “There’s his sin nature showing.”

That was essentially how my sisters and I were raised.

Along with this was a reluctance on my parents’ part to allow me to fail. If I struggled or faltered in a pursuit, they generally stepped in to help. Since we were homeschooled, I never developed the coping mechanisms most children do for handling failure or dealing with normal challenges. So I panic, have an anxiety attack, feel like the world’s ending.

Being cognizant of this, however, I also feel stupid for feeling so out of control, for being so irrational. I also felt like a bad friend for ruining an otherwise pleasant hike.

I also realized that this fear and anxiety was holding me back—from my career, from dating, from achieving goals, etc.

About an hour into the hike, during all of this emotional unpacking, I had a moment of clarity. An inner voice said: You have a choice. You don’t have to let this fear control you.

And for a moment, I had a vision of myself crossing the river and actually enjoying the experience without freaking out.

That’s the direction I need to head.


9 thoughts on “258. somaticize

  1. Paul Douglas

    Love that term “adulting”. Since I’m effectively cloistered from millennials, I appreciate hearing that!
    Sounds like a hugely insightful experience. You are paying attention to yourself and your world….. people go to therapists for a long time to develop that skill.
    Although I was not raised in a fundagelical household, I too have experienced a fairly significant lack of self confidence, and a generalized fearfulness/ anxiety about my own competency and ability to succeed in the world throughout my life. My younger siblings do not seem to share this trait and my guess is that some of us are simply hard-wired for anxiety, just as the personality traits of shyness and extroversion appear to have elements of hardwiring. If you were born with this predisposition, with the overlay of parental über-religiosity that you describe, it would be a double whammy.
    You have clearly come a long way David! Thanks for sharing.

    • Those feelings aren’t uncommon in gay men. Especially those of us born during certain periods of time. If one was born in the late 70’s for example, one saw the rise of televangelism and unabashed hostility to gays. Jerry Falwell founded his Moral Majority group in 79. His early fundraising appeal was a “Declaration of War” on homosexuality. Then the Aids crisis happened and the discourse became even more virulent. Wanting to or not, religious or not, we internalize all that information. It’s catalogued in the back of our minds.
      The realization that one is gay is/was also the realization that some people really hate us. And the way the mind reads that is: if they hate us, they must have a reason i.e. there’s something wrong with me. I’m defective, I’m less than.

    • David

      I wonder how much of it is being a firstborn child, and the expectations that go along with being the eldest. I’ve always thought of firstborns as the “pilot” child, with whom parents make their more egregious mistakes due to lack of experience. Perhaps that has something to do with our heightened anxiety.

      • Charity

        I can so relate to that sentiment. I’m the oldest of seven daughters. There was way too much pressure to be pure, holy and submissive. The obsession with virginity and being a good future wife someday was over the top. Being the oldest, I constantly had to be a fathering and mothering type to both of my parents and younger siblings. That’s all way too much pressure for one person. I constantly fear being judged for even the smallest things that I do and don’t do.

  2. I can’t remember if you are or aren’t taking medication? If you’re not it’s worth asking your doctor about it. To deal with this sort of panic/anxiety I was put on citalopram and encouraged to, little by little, do the things that caused me panic.
    The medication made me stay just on the right side of rational. The panic would come, but I was able to confront it, to question it. Seven months was enough to stop what in my case were utterly ridiculous *quirks*- like panicking if the phone rang, and not answering because I was sure it was terrible news coming… absurd right?

    • David

      I am not on any medications. I’m actually a little reluctant to pursue that route because of the reported side effects. However, there is a history of mood disorders in my family – my younger sister has bipolar II and we think my grandmother had it as well – so there are legitimate reasons for my taking some kind of medication.

  3. Charity

    David, I’m proud of you for being so observant and aware of who you are and what’s going on around you.

    I’m 43 and I’m just now beginning to see a therapist. It took me years to find a secular therapist here in west Tennessee. We’ve only had two sessions. She is in no rush to get into the EMDR therapy. Jennifer understands that we have to lay out the ground work of my religious and childhood trauma first. She also knows how important it is to allow some time to pass in order for me to build my trust in her and the process.

    That sin nature is such bull shit. It’s almost as though some Christians resent their kids as soon as they’re born. It feels as though they’re automatically in battle mode to beat out that little one’s character, personality and little quirks. How sad to be so heavily indoctrinated that you can’t see the true amazing honor it is to raise children. It’s no wonder that my RTS and childhood trauma is just about one and the same.

    Keep on growing. Keep on believing in yourself. Keep on replacing all of that negative self talk with personal growth realizations. You’re smart. You’re aware. You’re accomplishing the most important thing of all, detoxing from religion and getting to know the real David. Wow!

  4. Violet

    “…my nephew who was less than a year old and kept dropping food from his high chair onto the floor. My sister (his mother), exasperated, commented: “There’s his sin nature showing.”

    OMFG. That’s a flashback to my own childhood, and to that of my own son. When my kid was a baby and having many problems, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and the priest told me he was likely “demon possessed.” Later he was diagnosed with autism and that’s when I dumped my faith. There is no room in my life for a religion that can mistake a neurologically disabled child for a demon. Fuck religion and all the damage it wreaks on children.

    I glad you went hiking and faced your own “demons”…and came out victorious!

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