Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Binding Anxiety on a Train Ride to Stockholm
Dominating my earliest memories, a pervasive feeling of anxiety has since haunted me throughout my life.
It is a nameless dread.
It never leaves the back of my mind.
Often, it animates my dreams.
Fear propels the powerful ambition also driving me, equally pushing me forward.
Vacations often free people like me from fearfulness.
For me, sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t.
Because I have relied so greatly upon work as a way of coping with the tremulous discomfort, it typically rises to the surface when I face unstructured time—like on a vacation.
The irony is thick.
On the one hand, I look forward to the break in routine, the escape from structure. Perhaps I annoy you with my white whine as I just now cross the border into Sweden (which looks the same as Norway)? On the other, I face days, like yesterday and this morning, when I deeply descend into the terror state.
No need to envy that!
This particular trip, covering Amsterdam, the Norwegian fjords, Oslo, and Stockholm, includes great swaths of free time. Usually, I teach when I travel. Sometimes I do research. This time, though, I devoted my Scandinavian adventure to resting, interspersed with some discussions with locals about public social services.
(More on that soon.)
I think the excessive freedom of time, sprawled out like an ocean before me, brought the shaky feeling to the surface.
Do you know the same feeling?
I understand the biology and psychology of my fearfulness: My family tree trembles with ancestral anxiety; my early childhood featured neglect, abuse, loneliness.
When I passed the hurdles required to practice clinical psychology, and my psychotherapy and forensic practice thrived, I found a grounding never before achieved. It felt precisely the opposite of my self-image as a frightened, elementary school kid.
I had arrived.
Not the worst coping style, but I clung to it with excessive vehemence.
We should all beware of rigidity in our ways of dealing with infinity. The safest animal in the forest is the one who adapts most quickly, dealing with encroachment by predators, brush fires, or other calamities. Although I have grown more flexible with age, I remain rather work-addicted.
(A brief tangent here on the over-use of the word, addiction. I reserve the word for a physiologically-measurable condition, usually tolerance and dependency. In other words, you become addicted to alcohol, or nicotine, or heroin, because you’ll become physically ill without it. I prefer the word compulsion to refer to my preference for structure and work. However, writing now during a period of tranquility, while the perfect, IKEA issued Nordic train races across Norway into Sweden, I am rethinking my position. More on this another time.)
A dream I had last night nicely summarizes my chronic fearfulness—which I liken to background radiation (proof of the Big Bang). I dreamt I was employed by a law firm, tasked with providing research for their litigation cases. I struggled to understand the assignments. I accepted an unrealistic number of them. I frantically searched for materials I needed without success. When I awoke, my pulse surged as I remembered looking for a special notebook I needed for the job.
I was almost certainly also influenced by reading the novel, Hunger, late last night. I selected it to prepare for Norway, specifically. It is considered a literary classic here, this tale of a hungry, homeless writer wandering about Oslo.
Here is an excerpt describing the starving author’s disturbed sleep:
I opened my eyes. How could I keep them closed anyway, when I wasn’t able to sleep! The same brooding darkness around me, the same unfathomable black eternity which my thoughts recoiled from and couldn’t grasp. What could I compare it to? I made the most desperate efforts to find a word black enough to signify this darkness for me, a word so horribly black that it would dirty my mouth when I uttered it. Good God, how dark it was! I am again put in mind of the harbor, the ships, those black monsters which lay waiting for me. They wanted to suck me up and hold me tight and sail with me by the sea and land, through dark kingdoms that no humans had ever seen.
He captures it!
Last night, anticipating the train ride to Stockholm, the anxiety started subsiding. It reminded me of the psychological concept of binding anxiety.
It took me years to understand it.
Perhaps the word, binding, threw me off?
I’m not sure.
But I understand it now, for sure. Think of binding as in the binding of a book. Anxiety looks for anchors. It wants tying down; it seeks ground. The train ride feels like a curb on a long, winding street, the bank surrounding a lake, or the white cliffs of Dover defining the edges of an infinite sea.
The train’s movement now offers further comfort. Back to biology again:
Perhaps the rocking of the train affects the central nervous system?
Or, perhaps, the visual of the outskirts of Oslo passing by bring peace?
When embraced by the feeling of peace, who cares?
I wonder about the universality of underlying anxiety.
Language, which some think developed entirely out of a need to gossip, binds through offering information.
Routines bind by providing structure. The contemporary CIA tortures by depriving its prisoners of any sense of it. The time of lighting cells is altered, loud metallic music blares, meals are served irregularly and sleep is prevented.
Most personalities melt within days.
The few city leaders still living after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima arranged for a small section of city’s rail system to operate later the same day. They figured citizens would feel calmed by its familiar sounds.
Work binds as well. Sadly, most in the world have little choice in their line of work, rendering them essentially work-slaves. They gaze at clocks regularly, hoping time passes quickly. They imagine how they will spend their evenings, weekends, or vacations.
Death binds too, in a terrifically dark way. No wonder opioids are such an international problem, growing ever closer to alcohol as a means of escape from death’s inevitable grasp.
Describing his experiences with opium, the poet Jean Cocteau writes:
Everything we do in life, including love, is done in an express train traveling towards death. To smoke opium is to leave the train while in motion; it is to be interested in something other than life and death.
Language, routines, work, death.
It all seems rather random, does it not?
Consider this train ride. I look out the window. A beautifully-engineered, gray bridge crosses a languid river. The scenery shifts from the urban to the suburban to the rural.The sky bursts with clouds, rain threatening the moment and the day ahead. Now it rains! Forests, meadows, country homes nestled in bucolic fields.
Is it the lack of any chance of escape, the being held by the great moving metal box?
Several, more positive escapes come to mind, possibly reflecting the train’s tranquilizing influence.
There’s love, of course. Love is timeless. It comes in many forms. In partnerships and in friendships, in the sensual and the sexual, in working life and playing life, in families and out.
It exists in the most absurd encounters:
Where might I find track 15?
It’s right over the staircase there, friend.
Whether consulting psychotherapists, practicing Yoga or meditation, or ingesting psychotropic medications, so much of facing life’s terror consists of,
Hamsun, who formally changed his name from Hamsund because an editor got it wrong, captures the universality of anxiety. Like Doestoyevsky before him, he became an overnight success when fragment of Hunger was first published in 1888. Why? Because he, like his contemporary, Nietzsche, had his finger on the intellectual pulse of his era, the interest in human subjectivity. The epigraph of one of Hamsun’s books reads:
Truth is distinterested subjectivity.
Because we are human subjects, we know too much.
Hence, our envy of our pets.
We know about death, responsibility, meaning, and aloneness.
Ah, yes, but we are alive;
Better subject than object, no?
Hamsun, K. (1998). Hunger. Trans. S. Lynystad. New York: Penguin. (Original work published in 1912).
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP