Session One. I find myself fingering the nubs on a saggy but presentable sofa across from my new therapist whom we shall herein call Deep Stare. My flaccid abdominals reluctantly begin a campaign to keep me upright against the sucking pit of the cushions while I do my best to look relaxed and comfortable. The feet are planted in a non-confrontational formation. The face is arranged in what I hope is a pleasantly neutral expression.
I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to dig into all the parts of my life previously sequestered in my personal Phantom Zone. Deep Stare settles into the chair opposite. I wait for the opening niceties. Surely there’ll be a reference to our phone call or some easy question to get things rolling. You call someone, they say hello first. You visit, you wait until you’re greeted before barging in. There are rules to these things so I wait. We sit across from each other, both wearing vapid toothless smiles, waiting for the other to go first. Jesus, I hate therapy. But whatever, here we go.
We covered the basics. Why had I come? What was my daily life about? Had I ever been on medication or hospitalized? You know, standard cocktail hour chitchat. Then I got straight to it. “I’m here because I’m stuck,” I said then dove into the cliché I’d been trying to outrun for some time: that I’d been “successful” in my twenties, had reached what I considered the pinnacle of a life in my forties, and was now nowhere and going nowhere else. I feel guilty for being where I am in life, ineffective as a part of society, not contributing to my communities, and generally wasting this time I am so fortunate to have when so many others have not.
“Privelige guilt” I call it. What else is it when you have everything a person could want or need — enough food, safe shelter, vigorous health, reciprocal love — yet feel so so so wrong about it? Shameful, that’s what. Loathesome. I know I worked hard and I know there was much luck. I also am keenly aware that I was born at least adjacent to opportunity where others have none. God, I annoy myself with this drivel.
Deep Stare didn’t fall into my pit of self-loathing. Instead, picking up the clues I’d strategically dropped, the word “vigilance” was thrown on the table.
Vigilance, Google tells me, in this context is a key part of trauma survival. It seems to be the persistent scanning of one’s environment for threats to one’s safety. It’s self-preservation.
In this instance, I’m taking it to mean the automatic and persistent assessment of faces, tone, and body language for signs that the person you’re engaging with might be harmful in some way. Now I’m not new to this therapy game and this is not my first spring formal. I’ve done my digging and I know my formative years weren’t all rainbows and unicorns. They were more padlocks and gruel. Me and trauma, we’re BFFs. We spoon. But vigilance? How had the idea escaped my introspective eye?
Set point goes to Deep Stare.
Sitting there, my mind fills with Lifetime Television reinactments of vigilance in my life. There’s me entering a lavish party at some dotcom cashout guy’s home on a vineyard (how in the hell did I get there?!) and, as I do in every.single.circumstance, I instantly catalogue the number of guests, how drunk they are, where the safety zones are created by sparse pockets of people, and the distance of every exit from where I stand. Vigilance.
Then there’s the review of our financial lives. Every receipt tracked. Every bank account balanced, even if it contains forty-eight cents total. Each of those forty-eight pennies were hard-won and will stay put unless told otherwise. I gather that most people do their hou$ekeeping monthly, if at all. Me? I’ve wrestled myself down to bi-weekly and even that’s an embarrassing struggle. If I’m not on top of it, nay ahead of it, tragedy might sneak up, right? Right?
I am the sentry.
Sure, it’s time-consuming and anxiety producing. Thing is, this type of thing is exactly what made me awesome back in the day. Staying ten steps ahead of everyone was impressive AF to most people and kept me in front of the opportunities I wanted. So now I’m supposed to be down with one of my superpowers being my Kryptonite? I was panicking there on the waterbed of a sofa, clearly, even though Deep Stare had said absolutely zip about giving up this part of myself. One concept was dropped and boom, I was sending probes out in every direction to ascertain the implications.
And, as if that isn’t enough, my vigilance comes with a travelling companion: avoidance. Holla if this sounds familiar. When the dangerous possibilities are too many or when the guard can’t hold the fort in the onslaught, I retreat. And I retreat hard.
Here are some of my go-to avoidance moves:
- Falling down an Internet hole.
I can prowl around for hours. Days sometimes. Doing nothing of any importance whatsoever that can’t be handled much more quickly if needed.
- Falling down a Netflix hole.
It may not be easy finding a series that requires just that minimial amount of emotional effort while remaining engaging but there’s nothing easier than autoplay. Sadly.
Maybe it’s finding the PERFECT theme to use on that website I’ve been meaning to launch or the PERFECT sneaks RIGHT NOW. Nothing else can happen until that thing is found. I grab onto the search like:
These behaviors distance me from … something … What, I’m not sure. I aim to find out. But without my defense mechanisms, it’s for damned sure that this forty-merpfh-year-old life would not still be being lived. So yeah, I’m grateful.
And if you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m also annoyed. Vigilance feels as if I’ve laid off an employee but they keep showing up for work every day because they know they’re needed regardless of what the boss says. But while I crouch behind the bar to shield myself from the hail of bullets, my life is slipping by. Is it really a choice between a quick death and a slow one?
What about life?
This post is a snapshot in time. It reflects what I understand about myself and the world at this moment. It contains zero medical advice. To repeat, this entire experiment is one person’s interpretation of events and reflects my opinion only. Do your own research. Draw your own conclusions.