I think I stole the title from the advertising genius Jerry Della Femina. Genius? No lie, he really is.
In any case, this is about chronic fear. If you suffer from it, you know what I’m talking about: not just the “little formless fears” Eugene O’Neill wrote about in The Emperor Jones, the nameless horrors that pursue the former Pullman porter turned Caribbean island dictator, Brutus Jones, and that drive him to his death by suicide. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, thank whatever God you worship that you don’t.
But permit me to play schoolteacher and educate you.
First, okay–something makes you afraid. Something specific. You can name it. “This guy coming along can beat the fuck out of me, I’m gonna cross the street before he sees me.” “Oh shit, my paycheck’s a day late and the landlord’s already up my ass for his money. This is scary.” Something specific has you on edge and afraid. It makes sense.
But then there may be people in situations where sometimes fear becomes overwhelming. It breeds uncontrollable anxiety which in turn may produce panic attacks. Remember those? The fear may not have a specific object. It comes from somewhere deep inside you but there may not be a name for it, or a cause you can identify. What is the cause? Why is this happening? What am I afraid of?
Yours to figure out. I can only point at my experience and hope you find your own path.
“It’s All My Mother’s Fault”: A Memory of Abandonment as Death
Hey, isn’t everything? Blame Mommy, that bitch. Ruined my life. If I can’t get an erection, it’s her fault for symbolically castrating me.
In my case, it really was her fault. I don’t know if you believe in recovered memories. Some shrinks think recovered memories are bullshit. Others think they’re very real. I’m lucky: the ones I’ve dealt with since 1995 believe they’re quite a doorway into personal hells.
When I was a baby, we lived in a one bedroom apartment. I slept in a crib across the room from my parents’ bed. Is this sufficiently perverse? Sharing a bedroom with your parents? Hang on, it gets crazier yet.
My mother put me down for my afternoon nap. How old was I? A year at most. She figured it was okay to do this, and she went out to do the wash. The laundromat was up the block. I was out cold. But I was completely alone in the apartment.
And I woke up before she returned.
What does a baby do when it wakes up? It calls for its parent. So I called for Mommy. And she did not answer and she did not come. I was in a crib I could not escape, and where was Mommy?
I began to become afraid. Very afraid. I want my Mommy!
This is a level of fear that corrodes the insides. It has its own geography. It has its own coordinates. It speaks in a terrible voice.
You have been abandoned. There is no one under the sun who is there for you. There is no one who can help you. You are helpless and you are entirely alone,. And so it will be forever.
I began to cry. Then I began to scream from a horror I still cannot describe. The nearest I could come was the afternoon my mother actually died: February 26, 1992, when I had just turned 48. Permit me to quote from myself:
The line on the monitor:
no longer an upheaval of Nature,
but now a plain, vast and unpathed,
leading to what we know and do not.
Put another way: you are in a huge room, and it is totally dark. There is nothing to hold onto, no internal GPS by which to locate yourself. You can’t find your way home, and for a very good reason: from that moment on, you no longer have a home. It’s gone forever.
Thereafter, you can love men or women, but without your soul. You can have children. But you have no home in which to situate them or yourself. You’ve become homeless long before that particular horror descends on you as it did on me early in 2013.
And because you are homeless, you give yourself implicit “permission” to be cruel and random, to slash your way through the world like it’s your enemy. And that’s what it is.
My particular fear was abandonment. Winston Smith in 1984 has rats as his “worst thing in the world.” In my case, it was my feeling of being abandoned. The universe radiated from a trip to the laundromat when I was a year old. You don’t love me! You just want from me what you can take. And when there’s nothing to take, when I need help, you’re not there. So fuck you. Fuck you! Now I will take from you!
So I backed away. So I damaged every relationship I had. “Oh what a lonely boy.”
Once I was freed of alimony as the finale to my divorce, I felt anxious and empty. My body, which is always a pain center, hurt worse than usual. Hatred had fueled me for years. Now it was gone, and it had left a huge void filled with foul air and an inability to think about most anything. What do I do now? I did not know. I was a free man for the first time in 17 years. I didn’t know what freedom meant. But I knew I felt miserable and in pain. I had to discover the horror I’d invited to fall on me.
I began to learn it only a month ago, in a therapist’s office. I had to see how I had made myself over in the image I projected onto the older of my two sons. The shrink asked me a simple question when I complained about him. “Does he remind you of someone?” No, I can’t say he does. Then he asked me another question.
“Do you know Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle'”?
Out of nowhere, I burst into tears. That question had done it. It broke the spell of sleeplessness, anxiety, and panic attacks that had driven me into trips to the emergency room, into misusing prescription drugs, and fearing I’d truly gone mad. What I saw was that I’d given birth to my own son, a son very much like his father.
That revelation broke the back of my clutching fear, the fear that’s pervaded everything, but everything, in my life forever. What I regret now is that it took me until I was 71 to figure it out. Yes, I was abandoned once by a well-intentioned but profoundly foolish woman; but I learned in my turn to abandon others and lash out at the people nearest to me–that same mother, wife, lovers, children, friends–to avoid being hurt. No, damn you, I will hurt you first. And I suppose I did.
This kind of fear can be diffused into a nameless non-specific fear that is something monstrous. It is no longer entirely within your control. It is your motivator, your lover, your millstone, and a curse you can throw off only with recognition that it’s there.
I don’t know what your trigger is. Mine was a Harry Chapin song I’d heard 100 times before. What’s yours? Don’t be afraid to look for it. As mawkish as this may sound, you’re trying to save your own life, so anything goes.