The Mind-Killer

“Fear is the mind-killer” said the Atreides. But they were wrong.

Fear is mostly useless, but on occasion it can inspire necessary action or avoidance. For instance, most phobias people have are not practical whatsoever. Spiders, clowns, public speaking, open or closed spaces: these things have a negligible chance of causing real harm, yet many people are terrified of them. Of course, fear does have some benefits. After learning that an action causes pain or discomfort of some kind, fear of that pain will usually be sufficient incentive to avoid the harmful action. This can be small or large, simple or complex, temporal or abstract. It’s a very basic principle which all living beings seem to typically follow and thus improve their chance of survival and success.

What plagues me is not fear. I’m actually about as fearless as they come. Sure, spiders give me the creeps and so did that huge waterbug on top of my car tonight, but I certainly don’t go through an excessive amount of suffering because of my heeby-jeebies. I even lack reasonable fear for many dangerous activities such as travelling alone in a foreign country known for sex crimes, switching careers, and meeting online strangers in real life.

Fear is not the problem I want to address: anxiety is.

Anxiety is often mistaken for fear by those who are less familiar with it firsthand. The crippling effects of anxiety can plague every second of every day in particularly dire situations. It has a physical effect, much like fear, that is intensely unpleasant. Thus, fear of anxiety is a perfectly logical fear. The similarities between anxiety and fear cause lots of problems for people suffering from anxiety. Mainly, if you tell someone you’re feeling anxious, a common response is “what are you anxious about?” However, anxiety does not have an about. Anxiety’s worst aspect is its utter lack of direction. It is an overwhelming emotion somewhat like fear, but in my case, it is also accompanied by extreme restlessness, like your skin is confining you too much. There is often a daze accompanied with it in my case, distancing me from reality. This is the feeling that causes me to neurotically cause sensation to myself: like grinding my finger into a rough wooden railing so that I can feel physical pain to distract me from the senseless wave of emotion. Anxiety makes me understand why some people cut themselves or engage in other acts of self-harm. Physical pain is far less terrible than extreme anxiety. My mind races when I’m anxious. I couldn’t even talk fast enough to keep up with the thoughts that come and go. I have no control over it. It usually causes manic urges for me due to my bipolar tendencies. It almost always makes me want to run away, move, or make some drastic change. At least, those are some of the things that race through my head during an anxiety attack.

I have a couple of known triggers for my anxiety or panic attacks. However, once a trigger is realized, it is quite possible to train yourself to react differently and overcome the trigger, or at least avoid it. When there is a cause, anxiety is just fear accompanied by panic and it is possible to overcome it. The problem is, most of the time the trigger isn’t recognizable if it even exists. Most of the time it’s a mood that gradually grows inside me until it’s too late and I am in its grasp. The frustration of not knowing why you’re anxious along with your loved ones’ confusion as to what you’re afraid of compound into a really terrible situation. Voicing what you need is hard enough when you know what that is: it is exponentially overwhelming when you have no idea what a person can do to help besides STOP ASKING WHAT THEY CAN DO. I feel guilty when I’m anxious or having a panic attack. I know my loved one doesn’t understand and wants to help and my problem is causing them to feel frustrated and helpless. I hate it. It makes me feel worse which feeds the anxiety.

I’m bipolar, so I get to experience frequent periods of extreme depression and mania. Both of these feelings can be really, really bad but I can see good in them as well. That’s for another blog post. The point is this: I’d take on more depression or mania if I could just never feel anxious again.

Sorry, Dune fans. Fear is not the mind-killer. Anxiety is.

(I’m leaving this song here because it almost begins to capture the mood of anxiety. Just multiply it by a million and add some guilt.)

(And unfortunately, since everyone is so different, the only advice I can offer the people who love someone suffering from anxiety is to not leave them alone when they are going through a panic attack. Be there and see it through. Do not bother them incessantly offering help. Just be there. And thank you so much for loving us.)

How I deal with beggars

“For I was hungry, but you thought I would spend money on drugs so that’s ok, come into the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

Every affluent Christian’s favorite verse, it seems.

And I understand the wariness of giving money to strangers. It’s the same sort of worry I get when I read about the problems inherent in “voluntourism.”Am I really helping or am I making things worse? Am I doing this for them or for me?

While my education in post-modernism, identity formation, critical theory, and all the other liberal arts mental gymnastics is great fun to write about, what matters more to me is this: I am a Christian and I want to do it right.

I’ve studied the Bible a good bit, especially all the stuff Jesus said while he was here. That stuff, in my opinion, is the most important. Honestly, I truly believe that if you focus only on the red letters and live your life to mirror them, you’ll be doing a fine job of representing Christ to the world. Sure, the rest of the Bible gives you a lot to think about and contextualize and study and consider and debate and theorize about. But Jesus didn’t ask you to be smart or wise or educated in order to come into His Kingdom. In fact, Jesus spent most of his time talking about “the least of these:”

James 1:27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Matthew 25:40: The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Mark 10:21: Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Matthew 18: 1-5: At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

Matthew 19:13-15: Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

A few recent conversations have brought this subject to mind for me: a lady begging for money on the street, and a debate over what is required of an individual as a Christian. I think I will limit this post to discussing the street beggar phenomenon although it is closely related to the subject of what is required of Christians.

The question I’m addressing, then, is “what should you do when a person asks you for money?”

The problem most people seem to have with giving money to strangers is the suspicion of what that money will be used for. Drugs and alcohol are typically the assumption and often money is withheld with this being the cited reason. What I find ironic, however, is when I witness a person withholding money because they fear the beggar will spend it on such things, yet that person has no apparent moral objection to partaking in those same activities and buying drugs and alcohol for their own personal use. To be a bit brazen, I wonder if it is moral superiority about the perceived level of addiction, simple selfishness, or some kind of sick sense of justice (i.e. this person doesn’t deserve to enjoy mind-altering substances but I do). This is hypocrisy for Christians and non-Christians alike.

The other problem with denying money to beggars because of suspicions about what they will use it for is that Jesus didn’t say “sell all you have and give it to the poor so long as they have a really good reason for being poor and don’t look like drug addicts.” I think Jesus was more concerned about the hearts of those who claim to follow him than the blood alcohol level of those they helped. Paul seemed to agree with me when he said in 1 Corinthians 13:3 “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Apparently, attitude matters.

And that brings me to my answer to “what should you do when a person asks you for money?”

The answer is short but it is not simple.

You should love them. If you have a couple dollars to spare, spare it. But better yet, and this is a trick I learned growing up in the Salvation Army, take that person to the closest restaurant. Sit down with them. Buy them food. Ask what their name is. Ask what they need, what they want, who they are and who they want to be. Make a friend. Cultivate a relationship. Respect the human life that is sitting across from you. Offer what you can to help them: find them a shelter or a job agency or offer to help them put together a resume. A lot of people just want someone to listen to them. By offering friendship and love out of empathy and respect, you are providing them really valuable support, the kind maybe you were hoping to give instead of just the next bottle of Jack.

Okay, so you’re a teenaged girl or a busy college student or a wealthy lawyer. You’d be risking your safety, wasting your time, spending money you can’t afford, hurting your image, etc. Yes, there are thousands of good reasons not to make friends with a stranger on the street who has gotten to a point in their life that asking for money from passersby is the best idea they’ve got. Yes, they probably are mentally ill (so are lots of rich people, pretty people, clean people…). Yes, they might very well engage in immoral acts (Jesus said “let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” John 8:7 and “judge not, that ye be not judged” Matthew 7:1). I suppose they might kill you or rob you, but in my experience most people who get offered to have lunch and someone to talk to are quite happy to take you up on it and be pretty appreciative and not homicidal.

And if I get to heaven after bleeding out in an alleyway because I offered the wrong homeless guy a sandwich, I truly believe that I won’t mind too much and neither will Jesus.

(This is one of those lovely theories I can vouch for because I’ve practiced it myself and seen others do it. It isn’t easy or simple. It isn’t going to magically transform a homeless person into a contributing member of society. They might never be in the position to give you anything in return. They might never change their actions. They might never love you back or understand that you’re doing this because of your love for Christ. They might take from you over and over again until you are frustrated and angry that they are taking advantage of your charity. Your friends and family might resent that you have a smelly crazy person as a friend. But here’s the truth as I see it: Christianity isn’t pretty, it isn’t clean, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t fun. But with the love of Jesus working through you, it is joyful and beautiful and worth every burden it puts upon you.)

Classification: Virgin.

I was a virgin when I got married.

I was a virgin when I got divorced.

I have a condition known as “vaginismus.” You can get an idea of what this is on Wikipedia or a general Google search, but basically in my case I had so much (unexplainable) fear of vaginal penetration that I was unable to have sex on my honeymoon or any time after that due to excruciating pain from the attempt.

Of course, this was an immediate problem to our marriage. I mean, sex is a big part of marriage and a psychosomatic disorder putting my vagina off-limits was NOT what my poor husband signed up for. Naturally, we were both disappointed, angry, confused, and in my case, guilt-ridden. I never told anyone about our failed honeymoon except for my best friend. I’ve never been so ashamed of anything in my life.

On the bright side, this is considered a curable disorder. Great success has been had with rigorous dilation routines, in some cases augmented by Botox injections under deep anesthesia to paralyze the muscles at fault. The dilation therapy route consists of (and I apologize for the graphic nature of this description) forcefully inserting plastic rods of increasing diameter into the spasming vagina and keeping them there for a set time in order to condition the muscles to penetration. The first attempts usually take hours to achieve full insertion. In my case, I was never able to get into a mindset where I felt comfortable enough or in control enough to fully insert anything, even a Q-tip or finger, into my vagina. My attempt at a pelvic exam was unsuccessful to say the least.

Now, why on earth am I writing about this, least of all as my first post on what I hope will be an intellectual blog on various subjects with the common theme of an author interested in identity formation, critical theory, theology, religion, and gender issues?

Well, I thought you might want to know where I’m coming from, and this is a decent and personal anecdote to illustrate my ideas about identity, sex, relationships, gender, and myriad other issues.

The bright side isn’t that vaginismus is curable. The bright side isn’t that my husband ultimately left me as he found our marriage unfulfilling and disappointing (though he never, to his credit, cited my broken vagina as the cause). The bright side is that on my first anniversary, while my husband was meeting with a lawyer to draw up our divorce papers, I bought a car.

During college, when all this marriage and divorce and vagina business went down, I would receive around $5000 every semester in scholarships on top of my free tuition and books. I was one lucky duck, for sure. The plan was originally to use this money to travel to New Hampshire where there is a doctor approved by the FDA to administer Botox injections to women under anesthesia and insert a dilator into their vaginas, after which they undergo the less-painful version of dilation therapy and eventually, 98% of the time, are able to have intercourse with their partners without unbearable pain. But, without a husband wanting to have sex with me, I didn’t really need this procedure. Not only because I was the old-fashioned type who doesn’t think she ought to have sex with anyone but her husband, but also because I didn’t want to have sex. At all. I was terrified of it from the beginning, and now I had nobody requiring it of me. So I drove that car off the lot and never once considered saving up for vagina repair again.

The freedom I felt did not cancel out the abandonment and heartbreak and guilt of the impending divorce. However, it was a huge burden off my chest that now, maybe, I wouldn’t feel that my value as a human being, or even as a wife, was connected to the condition of my vagina. I had a new identity, albeit not one I ever desired, as a divorcee. My body was my own again and for me this was an incredibly positive feeling. I no longer had to feel shame as a failure in my role as a wife. But it wasn’t just an internal change: family and acquaintances no longer inquired about my fertility on a daily basis. Suddenly, what I do wasn’t followed up by what my husband does. I also had the name I was born with back on my documents. The name of my whole family. The name that associated me with that clan of weird unique humans who are the only people I’ve consistently known and loved and kept close through my nomadic childhood. The name I got tattooed on my skin later that year.

Well, what’s the point? That my identity was changed so radically by my altered marital status? That I am happier as a single person than I was on a team? Perhaps I just think all people should be allowed to not have sex if they don’t want to and they still deserve love. Well, I certainly do think that. I can’t blame my husband for wanting to have sex since I had indeed promised it to him. But he had promised his devotion without any clause about which parts of my body he could put his penis into, so I suppose we were both a little blindsided.

I think the most pertinent point I can make from this story is that even with specialized knowledge of how identity works, it still has real-life consequences. Even if you reject an identity, it will still affect you when outside sources project it onto you, or assume that because you are (A) you must certainly (B).

My interest in identity is more than mental gymnastics to keep my critical thinking skills in shape: it informs how I live and how I perceive others to live. Most importantly, my sensitivity to the fluidity of all identities puts me at an advantage to relating to other people and ultimately, to loving them as they are.