Friday, 24 January 2014

Hello, doubt. So nice to see you again, my old friend. Can I get you a cookie?

Yesterday was somewhat grisly for me. I felt tired and weepy and cranky, a big knot of yuck. I rode my bike, went to class, picked up what I needed from the library, met a couple of friends for a walk and a chat--all things that would usually make for a great day. Still, by the time I came home, I felt like giving up on everything. School, the not-drinking routine, anything I have usually thought of as good just seemed bad. I tried explaining it all to my partner, which ended up with me in a convoluted quagmire of doubt and despair. He held my hand and talked with me for an hour, after which I realized I could cope, though I still wasn't sure what exactly I was coping with. Then I tried to stand up and could barely do it, and I realized I had a headache and a fever and was exhausted. So I had been getting the flu, and I guess that wasn't exactly lifting my damp spirits any.

The malaise is kind of interesting, though. For me, quitting drinking means taking care of myself, and taking care of myself means questioning what I'm doing, asking whether it's really what's good for me or if it's just what I'm doing. That's fine, but too much questioning is paralyzing, and that's just as much of a time suck as drinking too much. No I'm not preparing an elaborate excuse to pick up drinking again. I'm really not doing that, at least for this stretch of time I've set myself. I'm just noticing a pattern, and I think it's down to that old chestnut, the black and white thinking. For me, it's been relatively easy to drink too much in the evenings and then barrel through the days. Yes, I had spells when I felt like living crap, and at times I was pretty darn anxious. But booze really is a helpful way of not thinking about your whole life if what you really want to to is put your head down and just get through things. Now that I don't have that, doubts lead to questions and questions lead to existential paralysis, and really I do have a whole lot to get done in the next few months.

I guess what I'll have to do is learn to balance attending to the doubt with setting it aside. Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely passage in one of his books, probably Peace is Every Step, where he talks about cultivating patience with anxiety. I just looked through the book to find the passage, and I can't, so maybe it'd in a different book after all. No matter, his sensibility infuses all his books, and I can remember it enough without an exact quote. He recommends, when you start to feel anxious, saying, "Hello, anxiety. Welcome." Sometimes you can sit with the anxiety and pay attention to it. But of you can't because you have to do other things, he says to welcome the anxiety, ask it to sit for you until you are ready, and then carry on with what you are doing until you can be more attentive. I have done this on and off for years, and I find it remarkably helpful. (Sometimes I get carried away, and I offer it a cookie and a comfy chair, and then I start to wonder why I am being so nice to my anxiety when I have to get on with things rather than sit in a comfy chair eating a cookie. But that's just a distraction, a little sibling rivalry with my old friend anxiety, and it passes.)

Anyway. I realize this is a helpful practice, and I need to do the same thing with other uncomfortable, disruptive emotions. I need to be hospitable, offer a them warm welcome, whatever they are. But I don't need to put down what I'm doing and engage in a marathon wrestling match with that emotion. No need to spend days and days in the grip of doubt, examining every aspect of my life thats uncertain. Some things are uncertain, and they will stay that way for a while at least. I'm not always sure about school, but I like a lot of it, and I have to finish writing a thesis, which takes time and concentration. I'm not sure about my plan once that's done, but I have sent my application and now there's little point thinking anything through unless I have a concrete offer to evaluate. I probably won't be able to keep working the same job a whole lot longer, as I know I find it too draining, but I don't have to solve that today, and deciding about that will likely be taken care of once I figure out what I'm doing with school next year. I am happy with my partner, my apartment, my city, and a whole lot of things about my life. I know deciding to quit drinking is a good decision for me, even though I'm not sure about it all the time. I'm not sure what to make of this whole discipline of psychology that I'm studying, and I won't be able to figure out my role in it any time soon. OK, that's some certainty, and a lot of doubt. So when the doubt comes, as it has this week, I am trying to take Thich Nhat Hanh's advice, and say, hello doubt. Welcome back. No time for wrestling now, I'm busy, but I promise I'll go for a walk with you later. First I have to do some schoolwork. And then, having settled my friend doubt comfortably in my favourite chair, maybe even with a cookie in her hand to keep her occupied, I can get back to work. Because paying attention to emotions doesn't mean letting them run the show all the time. Sometimes, you just have to get things done.

That's what I'm trying, anyway. I've been sleeping lots and taking slow walks every day, trying to keep myself calm in the face of this. I suppose I do need to get back to doing real meditation practice. But for now, I'll set the doubt aside, have some hot tea and get back to work.

If you're still reading, many thanks. Peace and joy to you. And a cookie for your own fears and doubts.



  1. That seems like a good plan. By the time you get back around to thinking about it you might not have to! It sounds like living in the moment, which has been really helpful for me. Also- detaching and letting go of the outcome of things. I stopped worrying so much about the future and what it holds because ... who really knows. That has lessened my anxiety a lot. I think it is totally normal to think about giving up when you are sick, too! Thanks for a thoughtful post that got me thinking. xx

    1. Aw, thanks Jen. I'm glad you've lightened up on your worrying. I do find it hard to strike the right balance on attachment: I'm ether holding on like a vice-grip, or I feel so detached I don't care at all. The middle way eludes me, but I'm trying. I'm really glad you're here reading and thinking along with me. xo