The Thoughts are Not (Always) Free, After All
Our private lives are never quite as private as we would like them to be.
I turned 56 last Monday. For my birthday, my children gave me a gift card. To a spa. A spa with a sensory deprivation tank. My birthday present is to spend one hour floating in water, disconnected from everything.
I had not asked for this present. Or at least, I hadn’t asked directly. Heloise, my 14-year-old, explained the obvious: “You’re stressed out all the time, papa. This will help you relax.” I thanked the children, but I admit I was annoyed. I want a baseball hat (I have too many, but I collect them). I want another coffee mug with their faces on it. I want tickets for us to all go to a rodeo. I don’t want massages, or spa treatments, and I most definitely do not relish the idea of floating for an hour, unable to see or hear, alone with my thoughts.
But my kids notice the same thing everyone else in my life notices. I am a veritable bundle of nerves. Always tightly wound, even in boyhood, I have grown more brittle with age. Since becoming a full-time freelancer in January, my already high anxiety has soared into the clouds. How will I pay for everything? What if no more work comes?
My wife took a very nice photo of me at my birthday dinner, and a friend who saw it commented, “God it’s so you. Look at your clenched fist!”
(It was a lovely dinner with Vic. The clenched fist is just standard tension, not a reflection of an unhappy date!)
A few weeks ago, while driving the children to school, I stopped at a yellow light. The driver behind me was accelerating as I slowed; she thought both of us could beat the signal. The gal had to slam on her brakes to avoid rear-ending me. She honked four times, and when I looked in the rear-view mirror, she gave me the finger, rolled down her window, and yelled, “Stupid asshole.”
A gentleman doesn’t show anger. (A gentleman says in his head, Madam, you could not possibly dislike me more than I dislike myself, so please feel free to do your worst and, oh, do have a nice day.) So, I, aspiring knight that I am, I gripped the wheel tighter yet, focused my eyes straight ahead, and apologized to my children for the foul language to which they had been exposed. I mused aloud as to whether I should have gunned the engine the way most drivers do and raced through the intersection. Was my caution worth it, when it caused such upset and rage?
The kids shrugged it off, but “stupid asshole” echoed in my head the rest of the way to David’s school. After dropping off the boy, I headed towards his sister’s school. Just before she climbed out, Heloise put her hand on my arm.
“You can breathe, papa.”
I gave her a tight smile. “Terribly sorry, old girl. Not to worry.”
“But I do worry, papa. Have a good day.”
I do not write to plead for advice about becoming less anxious. I do not write to blame anyone else (least of all my wife, kids, friends, family, or clients) for my stress. I write tonight because it hits me that something I think of as the most deeply private part of myself – the inner workings of my fretful, racing mind – directly impacts everyone around me.
It is as if I were still hooked on cigarettes, claiming that my addiction to Parliaments affected me alone, even as my children’s eyes watered from second-hand smoke. It is very clearly the same with anxiety.
My genial libertarian politics lead me to be suspicious of any attempt to regulate intimate human behavior. My family, like many families of a certain class and cultural background, operates on the principle that the most important moral binary isn’t Good or Evil, it’s Public or Private. If you get the public things right, (like “suiting up and showing up”) you get a lot of latitude in terms of how you conduct your private affairs. Longtime readers will remember my family’s “suitcase rule.” When I was 17, I brought my first serious girlfriend to spend the weekend at my grandmother’s ranch in the country. Before we left, my mother took me aside to remind me of her mother’s diktat: our luggage would be placed in separate rooms. “Nocturnal traffic,” as mama put it, between my room and my girlfriend’s quarters would be permitted, as long as we were quiet. The message was clear: pre-marital teen sex was acceptable, but those who were having it needed to be discreet. Get the external form right, and the internal processes are yours to enjoy as you choose.
I think the suitcase rule is charming, but like most libertarian principles, it leaves people to fend for themselves. That is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not. (Suppose a young lady in a family with a suitcase rule would rather not have her beau climb into her bed. Perhaps it is easier for her to say, “My parents would never allow us to sleep together” than it would be to explain, “My parents are okay with us going to bed together discreetly, but Howard, I’m just not ready.”)
Most of us need a bit of guidance to navigate through life. “Do whatever you think best, darling, we wouldn’t dream of reproaching you” is not very nourishing. It’s a tiny and exquisite hors d’oeuvre for a starving person: delightful, but insufficient.
I am getting the outer form right. I work very hard. I do not touch alcohol. I do not smoke cigarettes, or weed, or take any mind-altering substances (other than coffee.) I mind my weight. I work out. I support my family financially as best I can. I do not gamble. I do not have affairs. I’m even trying to deal with the hundreds of thousands I still owe the IRS. (Again, not a plea for advice on that exhausting front. I think they will give me a passport at last. Whee!)
The outer form is not enough.
I do not blame my culture for my predicament. I do not blame the suitcase rule for the spectacular unforced errors that define much of my life. I do not blame anyone or anything for the fact that I am an absolute ball of anxiety and stress these days. I simply realize that my stress is not my problem alone. It is not enough to say to my daughter, “Everything’s fine, darling, do have a lovely day” when the encounter with the road rage lady at the intersection of Olympic and Highland has spun me into a white-knuckled tizzy. My kid is a sensitive teen; she can tell when her papa’s eyes are glassed over and he’s a million miles away, lost in his fears and his pain and his doubts. Sure, I’m stone-cold sober and always on time, and I almost never raise my voice, but again, the outer form is not sufficient.
“The thoughts are free.” I like to quote that line from an old German folk song. I give my loved ones my time and my energy and my money, and in return, they let me have my own inner life. That sounds like a fair transaction, except that my flushed face and my sweaty palms and my haunted eyes are windows into that inner sanctum. What the kids see there worries them. That’s not fair to little ones.
Nothing is private. To admit that is not to invite state regulation of our intimate lives. At the same time, I concede that a code of gentlemanly conduct combined with “cowboy libertarianism” is not, it turns out, an adequate bulwark against obvious despair. I don’t know what is. I’ve already tried Jesus, the Torah, Vipassana, vodka, psilocybin, polyamory, psychoanalysis, DBT/CBT/AA/EMDR and a hundred other acronyms that promised epiphany, healing, and catharsis. (They did not deliver, and that may say more about me than about those faiths and disciplines. I know many of you have been transformed by these practices.)
Perhaps I will discover it at last while floating weightless in a tank of water.
One way or another, I owe it to my loved ones to try.