The Claustrophobia of Fear


The first thing I do in the morning is wonder how I will fail today. There are so many ways to fail, but the one that I usually pick, after filing through my mental rolodex, is that I won’t get enough done. “Enough” is a recurring theme in my daily failures. So many other people have done what I consider enough — more than enough — and even though I know I shouldn’t compare my insides to their outsides, I do it and I wait for the feelings of inadequacy to settle in. It doesn’t take long.

The one thing I get right every morning is peanut butter toast and coffee. I’m optimistic while I eat the toast and drink the coffee, because the morning is the time of hope and I haven’t failed at anything yet in the day. Something has gone right, so maybe the next thing will go right, and the thing after that.

But when you’re worried about enough, it doesn’t matter how many things go right. It only matters that one thing goes wrong, or goes undone, or not done perfectly, or not on time, or that you weren’t specific enough in your last email, and the hopeful house of cards you had built over morning coffee falls over and can’t be resurrected until the next day. All things need sleep for resurrection. So you give up on the day ahead, you read what other people have written and wonder why you’re not them, even though you’re trying. You try to give yourself a break, but that’s a language you’ve never spoken. You criticize your husband, and that’s not kind, but if he only knew how you criticized yourself he might understand.

Sometimes going for a walk helps. Nature is nonjudgmental, and although nature is hard to come by in your part of San Francisco, you can walk for a couple miles and be at the top of Bernal Heights Hill, which is browning in the sun and the drought and features bright yellow sun cups, fuchsia shooting star, and purple needlegrass rustling in the breeze. The rock is radiolarian chert, pushed up from out of the Pacific ocean millions of years ago when the Pacific plate was converging with the North American plate, although now it just looks like a folded-over hilltop; nothing but some research would give you a clue to its age. The rock is mud red and crinkled, and I’m usually listening to a podcast when I walk by it, trying to catch my breath on the uphill portion of the climb, trying to remember that I left the house to leave my anxiety behind and wondering how it followed me here, past the sun cups and the needlegrass, past the McDonald’s on Mission Street and Philz Coffee on 24th, up the shoebox houses on Folsom, up the steep hill where I thought I’d get rid of any hangers-on.

The terrible anxiety that tells you you’ll fail at whatever you try also tells you that there’s not much you can do, which is why a walk, or a hike, or any kind of exercise is such a helpful and immediate corrective. You’re not producing anything, per se, but you’re doing something good and your dog is getting some exercise and, for stretches of maybe three minutes in a row, you don’t remember to think about what you’re failing at. You don’t bite your nails or half-write email responses, you just listen to the voices in your headphones and look at the sky or the sidewalk and smile at the other people with dogs you pass. You’re glad to be outside, because your house is a little too much like your mind — claustrophobic, impatient, demanding.

But you’ve got to go home. You can’t stay outside forever; first of all, you’ll get sunburned and second of all, you’ll get cold and finally, you’ll never get anything done. You want to give into the fear that says you’ll never get anything done, or at least anything worth doing, but you think of passing a flower or a community garden and you know you can write a hundred words, and then two hundred, and then maybe five hundred. You’re glad for what you can do, even though you’re terrified of what you won’t do. You write and you sleep and you wake up tomorrow afraid, check your phone first thing for a magic bullet that came to you in the night, but it never does. You have to make the magic on your own.


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