Fear and Footsie on Metro North

I don’t have a fear of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

– Woody Allen

Every time I board the Metro North, I ritualistically choose the window in the two passenger aisle.   Inevitably, a Talmadge Hill or Glenbrook commuter crosses my 38th Parallel invading my personal space. We sit, silent sardines packed in the belly of an iron beast rattling toward the city.

As I drift between my blackberry and a depressing NY Times, his leg shifts and brushes mine.  He mumbles “sorry”, not wanting me to think he did this on purpose. I retract my leg quickly as if electrocuted.  Later,  he falls asleep and his foot is touching mine.  I must shift my shoe but not so quickly that he wakes and thinks I have some sort of “problem”.  So I wait for the proper moment and then, ever-so-slightly, break contact off with his interloping foot.  My new window seat position has my back slightly turned to the aisle and my legs are now bent to the window.   By the time we arrive in Grand Central, I am hunched over like Golem protecting his “precious” ring.  Yes, it’s just another exhausting morning for this mild neurotic.

I am certain I am not alone in my garden of odd peccadilloes. In fact, it is every psychotherapist’s raison d’etri to crawl like entomologists through the jungles of our minds catching and examining the strange paramecium that wriggle in the darkness of our subconscious.  The Metro North seat mate contact thing is just one of the many odd little habits that I carry around with me like a tattered blankie. The root cause of my personal defects may never be diagnosed.  Did my mother inhale too much foot powder during her pregnancy.  Perhaps it is a more deeply metastasized problem arising out of my childhood. Perhaps it was the infamous 1971 Brussels Sprout Affair where my no-nonsense father made my brother eat dog-saliva coated sprouts after he caught Tom shoving them into the maw of our normally dependable canine disposal.  Was it having a Democrat and a Republican for parents?  Whatever the reason, each of us occasionally dredges our dark mental swamp where weird little ideas and notions swim in seclusion.

Things get interesting when peccadilloes morph into phobias. It is also the DNA of human comedy.  Some irrational fears that I have encountered among friends and relatives include: an anxiety over hot liquids, distress about drains, dread of dark windows, concern over clowns (it is real and called coulrophobia), or just a freaking strange obsession when someone with socks touches your feet when you are also wearing socks. There are others I can personally relate to:  a fear of the basement, fear of elevators, aversions to taking one’s pulse or even so much as having a vein under surveillance.

My father has lived for years with Bolshephobia ( fear of Bolsheviks ).  The aversion resulted in an intense dislike of Democrats, or anyone who ever uses the terms ” redistribution”, “fair” or “equal”. He is terrified of politicians from Northern California.  Growing up, we oftened accused my mother of having intensely irrational fears.  She had a visceral aversion to sleep overs at friend’s homes when only a teenaged sibling was babysitting.  She had hives over our attending rock concerts, riding motorcycles, hitchhiking or coming home with a girl with body tats and an ex-boyfriend who had the mailing address – Prisoner No. 95435, San Quentin, CA. How paranoid can a parent be ?

Phobias often plague the rich and famous.  Most are familiar with the chronically misophobic billionaire Howard Hughes who spent the last several years of his life locked naked in a Las Vegas penthouse apartment that was sanitized hourly and meticulously monitored. Less known, is the famous hexakosioihexekontahexaphobic – artist Marc Chagall who feared goats until, on the advice of his therapist, he confronted his demons by painting his horned tormentors floating harmlessly while being subdued by cherubs.

Yes, many suffer from a strange brew of irrational fears:  Soceraphobia : the fear of parent in laws.  The fear of Germans?Teutophobia.  Tuetophobes tend to also fear personal trainers and engineers.  Pogonophobes have a great fear of people with beards.  Bearded ladies are often used to treat this condition as this mental double negative can snap someone out of their anxieties or in a few rare cases, make them jump out of a third story window.   Lachanophobics are normally under the age of 12 and fear vegetables.  Selenophobics possess a deep fear of the moon.  I do recall a selenophobic event after a college frat party where I was absolutely certain the moon was following me.  No matter which way I turned, it was after me.

I have actually invented a few clinical terms for my own private peeves: kareokaphobia – the fear of singing in public.  Teshaphobia – fear of John Tesh music and purgaphobia – the fear of shopping with one’s spouse.  Many men suffer from Stamaphobia  – the fear of being asked to carpool to a birthday party in Stamford.

Angst, paranoia, needling fear — are all merely symptoms of being human.  Psychotherapists and psychologists have financed many a ski trip to San Moritz mining the diamonds of anxiety that are littered across the acres of our subconscious minds. In the end, Woody Allen, Monk, Jack Nicholson and a more open society have made it ok to be a tad neurotic.  Everyone sees the world through their own unique looking glass.  My kaleidoscope sees beautiful colors, odd shapes and the occasional shadow created by fractured perspective.

The aperture of the guy now seated next to me on the Metro North? I am not sure what he sees.  I only wish his foot would stop touching mine.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

 

I am a chronic worrier.  I even get worried when there is nothing to worry about.  At age eight, after reading a pamphlet at the local pharmacy, I was convinced I had venereal disease.  I think it is genetic.  My father is convinced if the Bird flu does not get him, the Chinese economy will brings us to our knees and he will be dishing fast food in a Mandarin restaurant within ten years.  My brothers and other men I know suffer from a similar chronic anxiety syndrome.  It does not matter that 99.9% of the time, the most dramatically catastrophic scenario that we have built up in our head does not occur.  It could happen.  And if it could happen, I must do everything I can to hedge against this possibility. 

 

Once I have settled on my anxiety du jour, I have this little movie theatre in my head.  It seats one person.  When things go bad at work or one of the children gets sick, the little man in the projection room goes down to the archive room and pulls out a metal canister with a label on it – Horror Films.  The titles are familiar – How I Lost Everything, The Great Plague of 2006 and my favorite, From The Top of The Mountain to Under a Bridge in a Box.  The flickering film always plays out the same way – – I lose whatever it is I hold most dear to me and end up walking around Central park clutching a bag of string asking anyone if they have seen my car. 

 

I guess the panic reflex is nature’s way of getting your attention.  You end up doing extraordinary things when you are fearful.  You overachieve.  You cram 10 lbs into a 2lb sack. You work until all hours getting something just right.  You go for days without much sleep – – you focus on the task at hand.  You also become pretty selfish.  It’s all about you.  Perhaps if your buttons are really pushed, you might lie, cheat or steal.  In our town, that does not mean you would knock off a convenience store but perhaps you might finesse the edges of the truth or not be the kindest or most thoughtful person. You know, the person you see yourself as when you sit in church ? 

 

It’s interesting to me that a society that has so much seems so fearful ?  Is it because the media pipes us daily images of the chaos that reigns in certain regions around the world ?  Is it that many of us were children of a generation that dug bomb shelters in their backyards waiting for the big one and are still waiting for the Reds to fulfill their master plan ? 

 

In Organizational Psychology, I remember being educated on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The basic levels of the hierarchy – food, shelter, clothing were the building blocks of a behavioral and socio-economic pyramid that eventually led to an apex where one became “ self actualized “. In being self actualized, a person was essentially free of the worries associated with finding food and shelter and was free to ponder the deeper issues in life and the cosmos.  The self actualized person seemed to me to be a sort of cross between Hugh Heffner, replete with robe and slippers, and William F Buckley with Barrons at his left hand and Tolstoy’s War and Peace at the right.  A self actualized person was independent, all knowing and of course, affluent. 

 

My professor never really mentioned fear and affluence being bedfellows.   It is strange seeing those so seemingly immune to the vagaries of a life that happens only to other people, not acting like emancipated pillars of society but instead capable of petty, selfish and highly self interested behavior.   It seems so interesting that affluence turns out not to be an enabler of self esteem, character, or courage, it just obscures the lack of it.

 

Most men do not refer to these issues as causing “fear”.  We were brought up by a generation of dads to pound through fear like a fullback sniffing out the goal-line.  We call it “anxiety”, “stress” or “dog-eat-dog “.  In a society that judges the ends more than the means, the more you accumulate, the more one feels the need to patrol your borders to ensure you protect it.  Ironically, when we are too busy patrolling we are cut off from the real world that desperately needs us – – our kids, our community, our world.   

 

We consider ourselves “blessed” as we survey the beleaguered citizens of Iraq, the destitute in the gutters of Bangladesh and the crucified in Darfur.  We assume that abundance is a sign of divine approval.  Yet, I wonder if affluence also makes one more afraid and as such, makes it that much harder to see the forest of mankind through the trees of self preservation.  

 

Happiness is wanting what you get instead of getting what you want.  Joy is watching those you love find happiness.  It doesn’t say much in that quote book about affluence other than to be careful as it may become the snare that snags the foot of one’s soul. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the house over the cardboard box every day of the week – – my lead soldiers won’t fit in the cardboard box.  Yet, to those that much has been given, much is expected. 

 

My good friend and mentor once said to me, “Mike, the day you realize it is not about you, is the day you start changing the films in your projection room.”   My pastor Gary Wilburn reminds us that through serving others, we can find ourselves and be free from fear. 

 

I have to keep remembering that because they are about to start the movie Saw IV and I am one of the stars…

 

Chronic

2D structure of eszopiclone (Lunesta)
Image via Wikipedia

 

Chronic

 

You take the blue pill, the story ends.  You wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.  You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland.  And, I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  ~ Lawrence Fishburne, The Matrix 

Thirty years ago, chronic conditions were attributed to a much smaller subset of society.  People who had anxious limbs were encouraged to cut down on chocolate and caffeine, get more exercise and perhaps drink more water.  Drivers who became apoplectic at the reckless maneuvers of other drivers were “hot heads.”  People who experienced the occasional down day were considered to be feeling “blue.”  Older men needed to use the bathroom more frequently and people in high stress jobs often found themselves reading books at night, unable to fall asleep.    

It’s taken years for me to realize that I grew up chronically ill.  I had a short attention span, wiggled like a worm on a hook and wheezed when I ran, especially if I hadn’t exercised for weeks.  My penchant to eat too many cookies, tell lies when confronted with a punishment, forget to do my homework, chase girls, suffer the occasional nightmare and routinely punch my little brother when he bugged me – were all chronic conditions that went undiagnosed for years.  I do not have the heart to tell my parents that the punishments they meted out were visited upon a hopelessly sick child.  Thanks to Mike Adams of Natural News and the pharmaceutical industry, I now understand that I suffered from restless leg syndrome, attention deficit disorder, exercise-induced asthma, low blood sugar, chronic denial, irrational attraction, recurring hallucinogenesis, and periodic anger.  It’s a miracle I made it through elementary school.

The medieval treatment for many of these non-progressive conditions involved a leather strap around 36” long, applied vigorously to the afflicted child’s gluteus maximus until the symptoms ceased.  Other therapies were administered with open hands or common household implements.  Supplemental cures included total quarantine or gardening and the sanitation therapy of cleaning latrines. 

Physicians today are generally appalled at these methods, as we now know each of these conditions can be resolved with a prescription drug.  We now understand that our DNA strands are virtual Rosetta stones, revealing myriad predispositions to illness.  As we further explore this final frontier of divine programming, we rapidly develop drug therapies to arrest these genetic troublemakers in their tracks.  You can now travel to Canyon Ranch and, for a small fortune, identify genetic markers that indicate how you might metabolically respond to certain diets or drug therapies.  You can answer such nagging questions as “Am I more likely to respond to a low-fat or a low-carb diet?” and “On which psychotropic drug am I less inclined to gain weight?”  It’s all very uplifting.

While it is exciting to watch the evolution of genetic therapies lead to a next generation of “designer” drugs, we are also descending into an era of increased self-diagnosis – and an expanded definition of what it means to be “chronically ill.”

I can’t watch television anymore without seeing a luminescent butterfly gently raining pixie dust on an entire city of sleep deprived type A personalities.  They awaken after a fresh Lunesta induced sleep, rested and ready to operate heavy machinery.  The Flomax commercial makes me have to go to the bathroom.  I am jealous of these fishing, biking, and rafting crazies who spray each other with water and have not used the rest room in four days.  Going to the bathroom never seemed so fun.  High cholesterol and acid reflux ads show people eating pizza, cookie dough and possibly dirt while dropping their LDL lower than a Marin County vegetarian.  And there are the ads dealing with, well, how should I say, erectile dysfunction.  Everyone looks really, really…really happy.  The men are mischievous and the women are playfully coy.  The mood music is playing when suddenly, 50 of your closest friends drop in.  But don’t worry; you will be on your game, potentially for the next 20 hours.

As we enter the 21st century, we must not let up.  We must push for new therapies.  Research is already underway for the following progressive conditions:

• Combat Disassociation Disorder – CDC affects millions.  It is characterized by a complete disregard for the fact that your nation is at war.  Symptoms include lack of concentration on issues relating to foreign policy, energy or deficit spending.  In extreme cases, a CDC sufferer may attempt Richard Nixon impersonations.

• Situational Narcolepsy Syndrome – The drug industry hopes to eradicate this crippling condition that impacts one in two adult males worldwide.  To quote an industry insider, “The market for an SNS cure is huge!”  The condition is characterized by men absorbing less than 50% of information conveyed to them by their spouse or significant other.  In clinical trials, a combination of drug therapy and super amplified hearing aids has shown remarkable success.  A typical SNS sufferer might hear, “Honey, I need you to…Stamford…Johnny and Timmy…don’t forget…5 p.m.”  After clinical trials, the same respondent was able to absorb the following: “Honey, I need you to get to Stamford by 4:30 to pick up Johnny and Timmy.  Be sure to tell Carol that Timmy does not need a ride to soccer and call Sarah and tell her to walk to Starbucks at 5 p.m.  I will pick her up there.”

• Vicarious Delusion Syndrome – The Fairfield County Athletic Association has recently contributed venture capital to JSU (Just Shut Up) Biosolutions, a biotech research lab focusing on therapies to treat individuals who attempt to live vicariously through the athletic careers of their children.  VDS is characterized by fits of anger and limited peripheral vision.  Hearing is often impaired and public outbursts may be followed by periods of profound social and personal alienation.  Clinical trials have shown the experimental drug Justagame to work on the most advanced cases of VDS – parents who hang out at the local fields even when they have no children playing. 

Thankfully, our friends in the biotech and pharma industries are hard at work to attack these and other illnesses.  Imagine a future of malleable teenagers, attentive spouses, cooperative coaches and civilized spectators.  Consider a life where you can sit through an entire episode of The Hills with your teenager without feeling nauseated. 

It’s just around the corner, and I can’t wait.  In the meantime, I will have to deal with anxiety, uncertainty, stress and anger the old fashioned way – through exercise, traditional medications and eating right.  Tomorrow can’t get here soon enough for me.  Actually, I’ve been told my constant preoccupation with the future is an undiagnosed case of Random Anticipatory Anxiety Syndrome; soon it, too, will be treated. 

Better living through modern chemistry. Thank heavens!