I’m afraid, almost all the time. Although I have phobias regarding certain things, spiders for example, this is not that kind of fear. This is a fear or nothing and everything and it’s with me all the time; it’s in my bones, written into my operating system. It impedes my ability to do almost everything. It makes me want to stay in my house, in my room, where I know it’s safe. Where I won’t have to deal with people. It makes me not want to deviate from my routine to try and control it and keep it at bay. Because the fear is awful, and I want more than anything to feel safe, and in order to do so, I keep my world small.
When I go out, I talk to myself constantly. “You’re okay, you don’t have to feel afraid, there’s nothing to fear, you’re okay” over and over. It’s not terribly effective. I’m still tensed, still braced, still ready for an attack, personal or physical, that is realistically unlikely to come.
I talked about it with my therapist this week and she suggested another line of self-talk. “I can take care of myself.” It’s a much better mantra. It’s a positive statement, for one. It gives me agency. And it seems to be working.
I went grocery shopping the other day, right after counselling in fact. Grocery shopping is difficult for me. To start with, there’s food. I’m working on recovering from an eating disorder and there are a lot of binge-triggering foods lining the shelves at my local mega-mart. My eating disorder talks to me as I pass by them. “Purchase me. It’ll be fine. You can eat only one. What kind of person can’t have a box of cookies in the house? Buy the gummies. It’ll be fine. You won’t binge this time, I promise.”
It lies, of course, but the constant barrage is exhausting. I fear I’ll give in, and fail in recovery once again by ignoring the steps I need to take in recovery. I fear being seen as a failure; being seen by others the way I see myself.
There are also people there and I find people problematic. They are the other, and a threatening other at that. When I’m out, I imagine they’re all watching, judging, and finding fault. I’m braced against comments and attacks. It doesn’t help that my brain believes there are many faults to be found.
Plus, some of those I encounter when I’m out are men, and I have a bone-deep fear of men in general. Too much harm has occurred to react instinctively in a positive way. I know, logically, that they’re unlikely to hurt me. What could reasonably happen, after all, in the pasta aisle? But the fear is there nonetheless, so I walk quickly, head down, not making eye contact, and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. By the end, I’m exhausted by all the fear-fighting and eating-disordered-thoughts-countering and faking fine.
But as I entered the store, I decided to use the new mantra. “I can take care of myself.” The more I repeated it, the more I realized it was true.
I started in the parking lot as I walked toward the door, slightly in front of a man also headed inside, a situation I find difficult. I imagine him judging me and finding me wanting. I imagine him preparing to attack. I started with “I’m not afraid” and it helped not a bit, however, once I switched to “I can take care of myself”, I realized it was true and felt my shoulders relax.
I carried on repeating that the whole time I was there, whenever I started to tense up, whenever I started to believe I was under threat. I repeated it as I walked among the people in the produce section and the bread aisle. I repeated it when I had to pass by a couple near the freezers. I repeated it when I had to reach around a woman for the yogurt I wanted. I repeated it in line when I started to react badly to the press of people surrounding me.
I realized as I headed out the door once the shopping was complete that I felt calm. I felt easy. I didn’t feel tense and wrung out which is normally the case. I realized, or remembered, over the course of the expedition that what I was repeating was true; I can take care of myself. I can talk. I can talk back. I can even fight. Two of those three leave me shaking and nauseous but those conditions are neither permanent nor fatal. I have survived them in the past and I will survive them again.
Restructured self-talk to the rescue and I’m going to try to remember to keep using it.
I can take care of myself.