I have put up a couple of posts about Anticipatory Anxiety recently. Today’s post is an example of what Anticipatory Anxiety (and the avoidance of dealing with what is making us anxious/afraid) can do to our lives. As I’ve talked about in those earlier posts, Anticipatory Anxiety is the stage of the Chronic Anxiety Cycle where we’re SICK of being afraid of something (consciously or otherwise), and we just want to have that fear leave us alone.

We’re tired of the tiger in our heads – and so we start avoiding that thinking at all costs. One of the ways we start that avoidance is some form of medicating ourselves. (See the blog posts on October 9th and October 18th for a detailed discussion.)

We medicate because we can’t really run away from the scary thing we’ve conjured – it is in our heads. As a result we begin to push it away, or at least attempt to mitigate the fear and worry we’re feeling.

What we are NOT doing is addressing the fearful thinking in the first place – not unplugging WHY we’re afraid, NOT doing the work of converting this crisis in our thinking back into what it really is, a problem.

As I also said in that earlier post the ways we commonly think of as medicating are the standard dependency methods of alcohol and drugs. There’s no question this is one way to medicate fear. I would argue however that there are many, many more people looking to medicate their fear with two other ways – food and money.

Two People I Know…

There’s a couple that I’ve known for a long time that make for a good example of this. For the record they are both gentle, compassionate, smart people. They have both held steady jobs for a long time, paid their bills, vacationed in Hawaii now and again, have raised a couple of kids – in other words, they are just decent, good-natured folks.

They are also two people who are severely limited by their fears. I’m going to argue in this post that there is for them a strong base fear, then some secondary but powerfully deterrent fears on top of that base fear. The list of their fears starts with a very real fear of money management.

(I would argue their fear about money management is really very similar to a fear of mine I blogged about some months back – literally, money in general frightens them. Sounds odd, but I have grown convinced that many people are very afraid of money and the responsibility it brings.)

Make no mistake – they have made money in their lives. They have been professionals for decades in their vocations. They have had steady paychecks, have actually made pretty decent money in those vocations, and are both senior managers.

In addition they will have steady retirement income when they step away, and in addition she came into a fair amount of money, including a paid-for house, when her father was lost to them because of illness some time ago. Sounds good, yes?

So They’re Rolling in Dough?

So you might be surprised to learn that they have almost nothing to show for all their income and resources. Outside of the money their work has put into their retirement they have no savings to speak of, and if asked will tell you they have no money to put into savings – that they have to live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet.

But if you watch what they do with their income it becomes clear why they feel they have no money. In the last month alone he put $1,300 into accessories for his truck, as well as purchased two new tech toys that cost together almost $500.

He insists that he has to possess the latest smart phone, computer, MP3 player, etc., and gets defensive and angry if questioned on this point. He gets defensive, I would argue, because it makes him scratchy/nervous/afraid to think about having to 1) limit his spending to a budget, and 2) actually look at what he/they spend money on in the average month.

Not tracking their money means not having to face their fears about money – what if they don’t have enough, what if they can’t get something – and it means they can’t medicate those fears any more by spending what they wish.

And speaking of spending, you’d be amazed at what they spend on food. They average two meals away from the house on a daily basis, and in addition to themselves often pay for dinner for a grown son and family friends.

A rough guess of their dining out costs in a month is around $1,400. That doesn’t at all account for the food they buy for home as well, which added in takes their monthly food bill to well over $2,000.

But That’s Only Half the Story…

Which takes us to their second great source of medicating – food. As I said, these are really good people – folks you’d like to know. And they are also horribly over-weight. This isn’t a personal criticism of them – not at all. They are not lazy, and their weight troubles them way more than it troubles the people around them.

No, their weight doesn’t reflect some sort of personal lack of self-discipline. It reflects a desperate effort to medicate away the fears and worries they carry in their thinking. Just watching them eat tells you how rarely they are present for the meal, but instead are eating to comfort themselves, to provide some temporary relief from the anxiety that gnaws at them.

I can’t do what I do, work with fear and anxiety and people who want to shake free of both, and not have had some conversations with these friends about their fears. It is heart-breaking to listen to them, when their shields are down and they have some space in their heads to talk about what troubles them. They resent the limitations that their medicating places on their lives.

They would love to travel, but it is rare that they can pool enough money to go their preferred vacation spot, Hawaii. They have talked about Europe, but that seems completely out of reach to them.

And (as they are both in their late 50’s) their weight issues have also begun to constrict their lives. He fights constant back and leg pain, as well as heart distress. Neither one of them sleeps well or deeply, and when they try to start exercising the effort is so strenuous that they give up pretty quickly.

Movement in general is anywhere from tedious to challenging for them, so they tend to land and stay landed physically. Which means they don’t do much or get out much.

It Stinks To Be Afraid

Good, smart, gentle people, who are severely limited by their fear and worry – or, more precisely in this example, limited by the ways they medicate to cope with their fear and worry. They have tried diets, they have been to credit and finance counselors, they have sat with friends and other family members to get help, they have started savings plans – and none of it matters. Because money and food are not the problem. Money and food are medicating the problem.

It might be argued that at least these choices of self-medication beat the more traditional methods of drugs and alcohol, and the often self-destructive outcomes of those self-medicating choices. But that’s a long ways from saying that they are not suffering in their current situation either. And the point of their self-medicating isn’t the choices in self-medicating they’re making – it is the fact that they’re medicating at all, and how that is shutting down their lives.

Which takes me back to what I called their primary fear – and the fear, I would argue, that is a large part of what they’re medicating about. It is my belief that both of them are afraid to do what they want with their lives, afraid to listen to what they both might label the callings of their heart.

He has always wanted to be an academic. He has, on his own time, been an avid reader of all kinds of history, and has a love of anthropology. She is a wildly creative soul, with a gift for crafting works of art with paper and words. Both have let their passions be their hobbies.

Both have what they have often called sound reasons why they couldn’t pursue their actual career interests – raising a family at the start, never seemed like the right time, didn’t seem practical, what would happen if they really didn’t like what they wanted to do…

If You’re Still Alive, You Still Have Time…

The irony of these comments is that it STILL isn’t too late to do what they want to do! Sure, it would be a long road to tenure for the guy – but what he loves is the study and the teaching – who cares how long it would take?

And she just wants to escalate her craft and artwork to a business level – in some respects the next logical step. And given that they are both eligible for retirement just means they now have the income and support to do exactly what they want to do –

That is, if they face: 1) their secondary fears around money and food, getting control of those energy, finance and life-drains, and 2) face their primary fear of failing at what they want to do.

Here’s the bottom-line: you can either engage your life fully, take on your fears, and find yourself fully IN your life, successes and failures both on your path to doing what you want, or you can avoid your life, living it in the margins, never doing what you really want to do, and trading your life away. Or, in the words of the poem, giving your life away in coffee-spoons.

And is there anyone, really, who wants to deliberately do that? Of course not. We don’t consciously choose to not live our life – we simply stay away from the scary thing, run from the fears that activate Flight or Fight in us, and so we just never get around to it.

And suddenly we’re in our late 50’s (or however old we are), frozen in place, medicating the crap out of ourselves in an effort to bring some measure of comfort and reassurance to us, warding off the tigers of our fears in our heads, and resenting the heck out of where we are, and what we are.

Again, it is crucial to hear that there is no judgment on my part in this conversation. We are, each of us, free to do whatever we choose to do. But that’s the rub here – these dear, excellent friends are not choosing to do anything – they are avoiding the choice, avoiding it because they’ve turned a problem (how do I do what I want to do with my life?) into a crisis (holy crap, I can’t do that, it is too scary, what if I fail, I can’t face that), and in that way surrender their choice to their fears.

THAT’S what I’m addressing in this blog post. The hardest thing about this is that they have the power and the capacity to face their fears. It won’t be easy. It will sometimes be VERY challenging. But it is completely do-able. Scary, unnerving – but do-able.