The day I enrolled in Fork U was a bad day. I was in a bad mood, a really bad mood. I might, to you, seem like a nice-enough person who is incapable of channeling Beelzebub or any other lower-level deities that might or might not inhabit Dante’s Inferno, however, on this day that I speak of I was a flat out bitch. Why, you ask? Well, it was a combination of PMS, Christmas stress, exhaustion, disappointment about having to cancel a trip to Hawaii and infertility grief that all came together and made me an irritable and unhappy person who should have had a sign around her neck, “Stay 500-feet away from this woman unless you want to get your head bit off.” Sadly, I didn’t have such a sign on and my good friend made the mistake of going to lunch with me. As I picked at my Cheesecake Factory salmon, I tried to smile and hide my acrimonious attitude and ornery and somewhat hormonal inner-life from my friend, only I couldn’t. I was, you see, a two-year old trapped in the body of a 40-something. And the two-year old me was in the midst of the kind of tantrum that would draw a crowd, that is if I actually threw myself to the ground and started kicking and screaming the way I wanted to do.
Even as I tried to maintain the persona of an adult, all I could think of was how pissed off I was and how unfair life was. And when I wasn’t thinking that then an intrusive thought would enter my mind, it was the subtitle of a book that kept interfering with my inner-tantrum. The unwanted and unwelcome thought was, “How to finally, really grow up.” “Grrrrr…”, Beelzebub growled at that line. Once we paid the check and I tipped the waitress inspire of how annoyingly chipper and chirpy she was ( remember, I was in quite the state), I asked my friend if she minded if we stopped at Barnes and Noble.
I was sure they wouldn’t have the book, after all who would want to read a book about how to grow up? I certainly didn’t. And yet there I was in the self-help section looking for a book that I didn’t want to read. On that day especially, the last thing I wanted to do was to grow up and be responsible for my life. I wanted to throw myself on the ground and have a temper tantrum and for someone else to be the adult for me for a while. I was tired of being an adult. I was tired of responsibility. I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else, and certainly NOT for myself. And yet, with mixed emotions, I picked up the book and walked to the cashier.
Strangely, I was embarrassed to buy the book, Finding the Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up. You see, I knew that I looked like an adult. I even, on that day, likely looked like a professional adult who knew how to dress themselves and present like they knew what they were doing. Yet, on that day, it all felt like an enormous ruse. Only I didn’t want the cashier to know that I was in fact faking it. I would have only been a little more embarrassed if I had been buying a book about sex. I distracted the cashier from looking at the title by engaging her in chit-chat, and happily it worked. I don’t think she had any idea that I was buying a book on how to grow up. And, if she did, I would have told her that I was buying it for my brother (and there is no way for her to know that I don’t actually have a brother).
Let me explain something here, I didn’t at the time know why I was buying the book. I wasn’t feeling especially immature, I was feeling bitchy. And under the surface of the bitchy I was feeling like collapsing and even, strangely, feeling like I might want to collapse into a depression. I know that sounds strange, but there is a familiar comfort zone to depression for me. When I am in a depression I don’t feel that I have to be responsible or have a persona or do anything I don’t want to do. I could climb into bed and surrender to the feelings and not have to do anything about them. And, on that day, that is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go home and I didn’t know where home was, it certainly wasn’t where I lived and it more certainly was not the house that my mother lives in as that is not my home.
When I got home from the bookstore I crawled into bed with James Hollis. I attempted to surrender to my sadness as I read his wise words, “When the desire to “go home” prevails, we will choose not to choose, rest easy in the saddle, remain amid the familiar and comfortable, even when its stultifying and soul-denying. Each morning the twin gremlins of fear and lethargy sit at the foot of our bed and smirk. Fear of further departure, fear of the unknown, fear of the challenge of largeness intimidates us back into our conventional rituals, conventional thinking, and familiar surroundings. To be recurrently intimidated by the task of life is a form of spiritual annihilation. On the other front, lethargy seduces us with sibilant whispers: kick back, chill out, numb out, take it easy for a while…sometimes for a long while, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes a spiritual oblivion. Yet the way forward threatens death—at the very least, the death of what has been familiar, the death of whomever we have been.” All that was well and good but as I read it I found that I didn’t want to read it and my thoughts began to wonder back to the Cheesecake Factory and wonder why I didn’t get dessert. But something in me required me to read on:
“The daily confrontation with these gremlins of fear and lethargy oblige us to choose between anxiety and depression, for each is aroused by the dilemma of daily choice. Anxiety will be our companion if we risk.., and depression our companion if we do not.” Okay, this was starting to make sense. I was not wanting to make choices, I was surrendering to what was and seeing myself as a victim of circumstances. There had been such much change and choice in the last two-years that I was wanting to crawl back into what had been even though there was absolutely nothing good about feeling dependent and helpless. However, something about the longing to be dependent and helpless was familiar and comfortable and sort of childlike, like I was wanting to regress.
It was the following line that caused me to fully enroll and invest in Fork-in-the-road University, ” Not to consciously chose a path guarantees that our psyche will choose for us, and depression or illness of one form or another will result. Yet to move into unfamiliar territory activates anxiety as our constant comrade. Clearly, psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity in is for the toleration of anxiety and ambiguity. The capacity to accept this troubled state, abide it, and commit to life, is the moral measure of our maturity.”
That last paragraph is why I needed the book. When I came to a fork in the road I didn’t always take it. Old territory, and even depression, were more comfortable than the unknown and the ambiguity that came with choosing uncertainty. Only not really. Hollis continues, “In every decisive moment of personal life, faced with such a choices, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive. Anxiety is an elixir, and depression is a sedative. The former keeps us on edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.” Reading that last line I couldn’t’ stay in bed another minute; I felt a bolt of energy that usually only comes after drinking a triple espresso. I felt like I had been given an emotional GPS, when choosing if there is fear then I need to move forward, and not backwards, and experience the fear as a challenge. Something about Hollis’ emphatic instruction allowed me to embrace the anxiety as a normal sign of development.
It is normal, Hollis’ words, assured me that at crossroad moments to feel a regressive pull to home, depression, helplessness and despair. Yet, he advises me and you and anyone who struggles with facing the fork in the road to take the action that makes us anxious. Let me repeat Hollis again: ”In every decisive moment of personal life, faced with such a choices, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive. Anxiety is an elixir, and depression is a sedative. The former keeps us on edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.”
Once a friend was trying to teach me to drive a stick shift car and I was terrified. I was almost hyperventilating as she instructed me on the feel of the clutch. I panicked. I breathlessly told her, “I CANNOT DO THIS!!!”. My friend looked at me totally puzzled and she said to me calmly, “Your mother never taught you that bad things pass and that scary feelings don’t last.” She didn’t pose it as a question, she saw it in my behavior—-and she was right. My mother did not teach me that. I learned that anxiety was something to avoid and that if I felt something now that I would always feel it and that I should avoid any action that might activate anxiety.
My friend, a gifted psychotherapist, gave me in that moment a huge gift, even though she didn’t manage to teach me to drive a stick. I learned from her that I had missed an important life lesson, anxiety passes. You may have learned that from your mother or your therapist, but I didn’t know it until my friend taught me that. And until I read Hollis I didn’t learn to expect anxiety at any fork in the road that I might face. Now, thanks to Hollis, I have learned to expect it and thanks to my friend, I can remind myself that even if it doesn’t feel like it now— and even if I am totally scared as I make the choice that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”