High Anxiety

 It is good to be back in the city. We will stay here for the next few months, snow is already promised and looked forward to, at least the first few iterations. I am quick to turn off the radio when the dire warnings on Covid are repeated; most people I know are doing the same, more or less, attempting to turn the negativity of 2020 into something more positive, to cherish the Christmas period and hibernating in front of the television or with a good book. Winter has to be the most beautiful time of year to be in Manhattan, it’s a city of multiple identities and of all its dissociative challenges it is its Nordic persona that I relish most, when the nights draw in and it’s already dark before five o’clock. I’m reminded of a perfect time some years ago, in Denmark, Mary and I would have late afternoon tea and cake in candlelight, I felt and still feel that nothing is more intimate and romantic than early darkness in a foreign city, who knows why, perhaps it simply elevates our protective and caring instincts.

During my morning walk to Central Park I have been thinking about the nature and purpose of worry in my life, thoughts triggered by a book recommended to me during the course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I have been undertaking these last few months. The walk takes me through busy midtown streets, lost in my own thoughts and thankful for the anonymity the city offers, an almost migratory instinct takes me to same entry gate and an identical route through the park. Before I exit at the south end I take in the sheer wall of buildings on 59th street, always an awe inspiring sight and almost medieval, a town fortress, dominant and formidable. I love the ornate, enviable large windowed pre-war apartment buildings facing the park and behind them the art deco modern day cathedrals; the Empire State, the Chrysler landmarks seem to exist like their twelfth century counterparts to project authority and power. And later each day, my evening walk along the East River path where you can see the cities interior life in full display; the high rise buildings, offices and hospitals are fully lite and at their most dazzling, the highly stylized Pepsi Cola sign burning red on the other side, it is New York’s most majestic self, most handsome when seen through a monochrome lens, of Gershwin and Charlie Parker, Warhol and Basquiat, lives full of promise, teaming with ambition, talent and energy, it’s impossible not to think of it as being the center of the world, at least at this moment.    

The book left me with mixed feelings. On one side I confess to slight irritation with the need to have a seven step program, the language and mundane aesthetic of sales presentations; big ideas distilled into simple blocks without nuance or ambiguity. Equally the preponderance of questionnaires where degrees of feeling and anxieties are self-rated; the hunger for data is understood but I cannot help left with an inkling that this reductionism is one of the most counterproductive aspects of contemporary life. I spend so much of my professional life looking at data I don’t believe in frequently with good cause.

On the other side I was surprised almost from the first paragraph, which I returned to several times as I progressed through the book. The author asked us to imagine explaining worry to someone raised in the jungle and had no experience of modern life. It is an intriguing question designed to illustrate that such an individual would only need worry to manage his or her own survival, to fight or run, and have no other need for it. But it also caused me unease for reasons I didn’t understand at first and I tried without success to visualize this native for days.

Then it came to me, a late autumn day walking up the hillside by my house in Upstate New York, the first chill in the air, a metallic scent in the nose and my hands deep in my pockets, the ground carpeted in multiple rustic shades of fallen leaves and the sadness of newly denuded trees all around, I looked towards a favorite Oak tree on my neighbors land and thought for an irrational second that I saw a Native American disappear behind it. I approached with trepidation only to see the familiar jaunty leap and flash of the white tail of young deer, it wasn’t a Native American but I had found my subject, someone unfamiliar with the modern world to explain worry to. The notion that worry isn’t just a homogenous grey cloud but can be split between that which is useful, or productive and that which is worthless and harmful, was fresh for me. However how much of this distinction was foreign to my Native American was the cause of my doubts. Humans have always been social creatures, emotional, loving and envious, and a common thread across the emerging developing world is that they all created communities and leadership hierarchies. Do I really need to explain unproductive worry to my newly visualized friend? I suspect his worries could be not so far from my own; a sense of never being good enough, belief that there is something wrong. It occurred to me that it is particularly apt that he is a Native American, unpreoccupied with possessions, part of a nation that left only the slightest, most ephemeral touch on our landscape, so perhaps we can eliminate so many things associated with the modern day experience as being a cause of their worries. But he might be fearful of being a bad hunter or un-respected, his partner might have concerns about being an uncaring mother, an unskilled housekeeper; can I conclude from this imaginary encounter that whenever there are communities of people it is not unreasonable to predict social anxiety? People are both the problem and the solution.

Then my attention turned to the oak tree and specifically how interesting it would be to use it as a metaphor for my own anxieties. Firstly tree’s last generations and so I suspect does anxiety. My parents were worriers and my vague recollection of my grandparents suggest the same. I saw the core anxiety, my main negative beliefs like the tender center of the tree which is heavily protected by rough outer protective bark. It is hard to get to the center of things both because you struggle to identify it – to cut through the firm outer surface, and also to say the painful words that may give you shame. Trees have deep roots and are sustained by the earth, they have multiple branches which I visualized as the outcome of the core belief, one branch for example could be panic attacks, another social awkwardness and aversion to certain situations, another public speaking. But as I also recognized, there could be positive results from worry, one of the branches could be success in a career and a smaller twig could be always getting to a plane on time. And the tree changes as do my anxiety levels, at some time’s it is full bloom, in others bare. Finally, trees are much more complex than we think, they sustain their own eco-systems and micro climates, they warn each other of danger approaching, we are learning new things about them all the time; I sense the same about our understanding about the workings of our brain and the nature of our anxieties. I began to recognize that we need to be a skilled arborist, to take down the harmful branches, not to cut down the tree itself. 

The author presented seven steps to help manage worry and several of these interested me more than others; the least interesting were the need to commit to change, to manage your time and turn failure into opportunity all of which I feel is common sense. However the categorization of useful versus useless worry was compelling, focusing on the core of my problem, challenging current thought process are much more difficult and finally using emotion, my bête noir, were the four things that gave me the most discomfort and hence the things that I need to address.

I recognized that I have used productive worry to my advantage for the whole of my professional career; internal audit (that unloved corporate police man) Compliance (the ethical conscience of the company) project sponsorship and leadership (being the one who thinks of what could go wrong and ensures all the contingency plans are in place). But I realized it goes back further. In my youth I had to change schools a lot due to my father’s work and each time I interviewed with the new school I predictably asked about the soccer team and got the same response; don’t be upset, it’s really hard to get into the team. Within weeks I was on the squad, my success was a formula that was one part talent, two parts industry and three parts enthusiasm, all helped by taking the position no one else wanted, full back, and the last line in defense.  Sunday afternoons in the flat Berkshire countryside could be very cold and wet or at least it was these conditions I remember the most. Strategizing and worrying at the back of the field, anticipating the movements of the opponents attack and more often than not stopping it without drama and with a determined, clinical precision was my aim. Our coach was a formidable and stern teacher and the players were always fearful of being rotated out of the squad, which he did regularly, but each Wednesday when the announcement appeared on the school notice board, one certainty was I would see my name included. On several occasions I would thwart an attack at the very edge of our goal and whack the ball up to our attackers with full force, surprising the opposition only for it to land close to our own player who would slip it into their net. While all our side leapt on him in celebration, I would be panting at the other side of the pitch only to catch the eye of our coach looking not at them but at me, nodding in appreciation and giving me a rare smile, affirmation that I perhaps craved, a fleeting substitute for the indifference that I would receive when I returned home, shivering and covered in mud.

One of the most valuable things I learned during the CBT process was the systematic way in which current thought patterns can be challenged. I saw an immediate parallel to my own methodology for reading compliance reports; questioning the credibility of the evidence, really considering an alternative view, deciding on the best and worst case, placing it all in proportion and working out how to tell my boss. For reasons that might be obvious by now, I was focused more on my own creditability when I approached each case, the ability to be fair and equitable, and as most of the incidents happened in other countries, predominantly in Latin America I dwelt heavily on cultural and societal drivers.     

The hardest part was recognizing the core of my problem, and here it was necessary to face up to the past, and my childhood and teenagers memories are always painful. It’s hard to place a finger on a convenient trauma or incident. Instead it was the violence of my parents arguments at night while I lay awake feeling like the world was falling around me. It was the silence at the dinner table, the sound of knife and fork on plates and the burning need to get to my room and my book, the corruption of thinking that quietness represents proper behavior. Could have been in their mind twisted evidence of the rise in status from their own upbringing? The social misadventure of traversing from the working class north of England to the more gentile, class obsessed south. Being uprooted from a tight community where everyone is comfortable in themselves to a more un-navigable, dysfunctional environment where class mobility was universally frowned upon. There was also the matter of my father losing his own when he was a teenager which might have disabled his own parenting skills and the reason that anger hovered around him like a black dog. But at the center is perhaps the last piece of the puzzle; managing emotions.

About thirty years ago I was recommended to try therapy as I had disabling panic attacks on planes. The therapist was in a London suburb and her office inside the rambling old house was furnished in high Edwardian style, purple fabric and brown furniture. You could hear her family sometimes on the floor above preparing the evening meal. She was a dour individual and I wasted many costly hours with her before I finally left fuming after a few months. What prompted the decision was that she seemed fixated on my mother’s pernicious role within the family and her behavior towards me in my early childhood. It was almost as if she was seeking some form of confrontation between mother and son now I was an adult, and it happened. I tested my anger and her reaction was animalistic fury, as a result we didn’t talk for very long time and I placed all the blame on the therapist. In retrospect I wonder if this was not the plan all along in the hope that I would see for myself the consequence of expressing emotions and that I would be reflective and intuitive enough to learn something. In thinking all about this now I’m back on my walk, this time going to the park in the evening to take photographs. It’s such a cinematic city, too much so sometimes, avoiding clichés is the key. I pass fancy buildings with Doormen looking out with the same combination of resentment and self-pity that you see in a zoo, I see other pedestrians rushing by on their own missions, carrying their own anxieties. I consider what I have learned; to not dwell on the past or try to control the future, these worthless worries. To interrogate my own thoughts; act as judge, jury and executioner.  Scrutinize the evidence, consider the alternative view, how would I coach my closet friend is they were going through the same worries? Accept that some worries have use, those which can spur on action and deny those which are out of your control. Don’t live in fear of emotions, the people around you are more forgiving than you think, they might even appreciate this more authentic, vulnerable you. Most of all recognize and challenge your negative core beliefs’, consider how they arose, try to forgive the perpetrators. But the greatest benefit of the CBT process was the opportunity to talk to someone smart, who has empathy and deep understanding, that was the most priceless gift and I suspect the conversations will live and grow within me for a long time. 

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