My pandemic fears are controlled by a more fundamental primal fear: I am controlled by my fear of losing control.
Fear. I’ve been paralyzed by my real and imagined fears about the COVID-19 pandemic and all that will be asked of me and all of us to keep ourselves and our communities safe… for weeks? For months? And when I wake up in the middle of the night panicked? It feels like forever.
Oh sure, I am stocking up on the recommended four weeks’ worth of groceries (though honestly, more chocolate than canned corn), shifting to online work (while simultaneously downshifting), practicing restraint in my toilet paper use (just enough but not too much!), video chatting with family and friends (sending virtual hugs and kisses), and fending off out-of-the COVID-blue text messages (past boyfriends who ghosted me and are now looking to relieve their stay-at-home boredom). I’m also watching the news, scrolling through Twitter, and keeping diligent count of rising infection numbers and my simultaneously plummeting optimism.
But my pandemic fears are controlled by a more fundamental primal fear: I am controlled by my fear of losing control. A “no win-no win” oxymoron. This fear of losing control is inextricably linked to my hubris: while I am fully aware that I am human (so fallible and shortsighted), I sometimes believe I am a god (goddess) in disguise, so in control of my addiction, my karma, my 24 hours at all times. Also, this hubris is linked to my ridiculous belief that I can control how others feel and act, the speed of the world’s rotation, the alignment of stars in the sky, and the sun rising and setting according to my whims and needs.
Consequently, in this pandemic, I believe that if I stock up on exactly the right number of canned vegetables, frozen pizzas, bags of rice, hand sanitizer products, and rolls of toilet paper, if I stay bunkered at home and keep others at least 6 feet (better 12) away (my dog excepted), if I remain productive, sticking to a strict work-and-play-and-clean-and-exercise at-home regimen? Then I will be safe.
My frenzied attempt at control during this national crisis and under real duress mirrors my other long-ago attempt to control my drinking and eating, all the while I was still guzzling wine, cutting my arms, parsing out my daily allotment of 500 calories, and running precisely five miles every day to burn off those calories. That manic micromanagement? An absolute failure that landed me in the psychiatric unit and in residential recovery programs more than 20 times.
So, in this pandemic, I’m trying to regroup, to practice my principles and regain balance. As anxiety’s vise tightens, I can get caught up in the doing, doing, doing instead of breathing and being. Time to revisit Step 1 of the 12 Steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Nine years ago, I took my first 1st Step when I walked into my first meeting. I was bereft, emptied out, and close to my end (but certain that I was in control even if only in control of my end). This group helped me to stay alive, to get sober, and to reclaim my life.
“Just do the next right thing,” they said.
“Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness,” they said.
“Trust us to help you see how you can transform your life and find purpose and joy again,” they said.
Also, nine years ago, my therapist asked me to push back my long sleeves.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Scars upon scars,” I said. Dozens of scars criss-crossed my forearms from my years of self-injury.
“What’s missing?” he asked.
I looked away in shame.
“What’s missing?” he asked again.
“Oh,” I said. “Words.”
Words. He insisted I write words up and down my forearms with a Sharpie: Hope, Loved, Forgiven, Resilient, Beautiful, Compassionate, Worthy. Visible perseverance.
“Wear your words,” he said.
I started with Hope. Courage might seem the obvious counterweight to Fear, but before I could summon courage, I needed hope.
This morning, watching the news and counting my cans of garbanzo beans, I picked up a Sharpie and on one arm wrote Hope, and on the other Courage. I am not in control of this pandemic and I am powerful nonetheless. Both/And. So are you.
Two choices are within our sphere of control:
(1) Give in to fear or hold fast to hope (2) Proceed with extreme caution or with radical courage. Hope and courage offer directional integrity.
Isn’t the world always uncertain? Aren’t our lives always provisional? One day at a time, across time. Many years ago, I took riding lessons at a stable that fostered rescue horses, many of whom had suffered neglect and abuse. For a few months, I rode Chandi, a horse that spooked at everything. One morning, rain pounded the arena ceiling, wind howled outside, and barn sparrows flitted and darted every which way. Chandi was paralyzed and disorganized by fear: he snorted and hopped away from the jumps and shifted haphazardly from trot to canter to a halting stop. My own first fear-filled instinct: If I could control the environment, I could control Chandi’s fears (and mine!). So I kept us to a guarded tentative walk and studiously avoided the jumps. Why court trouble? Just bypass them!
My instructor put a quick end to that. “Of course it’s easier,” she said. “But you haven’t tried to go over the jumps yet, so you don’t know how he’ll react. Remember: calm line and pace.”
Calm line and pace: prepare to proceed with hope and courage. I gathered myself, steadied my breathing, relaxed deep in my seat, and applied firm but light pressure with my legs and reins. Onward in a trot. We approached the jump and as expected, Chandi snorted and tried to sidestep it. I flapped my calves to keep him moving and centered, and then, as if he could see where I wanted us to go, he flew over the jump and through his fear–over and through, again and again.
“Smart riding,” my instructor said. “You kept your cool. Really good there.”
Balanced seat. Balanced riding. We jumped the obstacles together.
Similarly, in recovery haven’t we been practicing this principle in all our affairs? Might we be uniquely equipped to help others proceed with hope and courage in these perilous times? We’ve been learning how to gather ourselves through fellowship and right action, proceeding forward one day at a time, one step at a time.