Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Lesson in Self-Talk

I recently learned a valuable lesson in how to talk to yourself. Rather, how not to talk to yourself. I turn 30 in September, which doesn't seem to alarm me as much as it alarms other people. (Why is it that at any mention of your age, people older than you--not everyone, but some of them--roll their eyes and attempt to make amends with the inevitable. "Thirty, already, wow, do you know how old that makes me?") Sorry, I got distracted. Age isn't the point of this post.

I was thinking about age because I like to think of myself as the kind of person who knowingly enters into whatever occasion, or phase of existence, or movie theater, or what have you. And I learned recently that, even now, even at thirty--which is old enough to know some things, and not old enough to know much--that I still don't do very well at talking to myself.

I'm good at freaking out. I'm the person you want to have around in a crisis--say, if you chop your fingers off, or the plane is maybe about to burst into flame, or the dog's ear medication dripped out onto your signed first edition of an early Didion novel. (True story, that last one.) Those "outer" crises I can handle. The smaller, internal things I have trouble with.

Take this, for example. I had two wisdom teeth extracted about three months ago. The dentist told me that it's not uncommon for tiny shards of tooth or bone, which are broken during the extraction process, to become embedded in the gums and, over time, work their way out naturally. "Sorry, I know it's painful," he said. It was indeed painful. A piece of bone about the size of a flea was enough to send the entire right side of my face into dull, painful tension, which worsened throughout the day. Don't get this, I kept telling everyone.

By the third day of pain, the night before the appointment to get this checked out, I had gone mad. I began considering that perhaps, since the tiny bit of bone was in such a strange place, nearly impossible to feel with your finger, and completely impossible to see in the mirror, I had convinced myself that the dentist would need to cut through the outside of my face to get to the jawbone inside. I really believed this was something I should worry about.

Then a friend called me this week and asked me to talk him down. He'd done something he regretted, and needed me to tell him it was okay. Or, perhaps more correctly, needed someone to tell him that what he'd done was indeed worth regretting. (It was.) Essentially he was dealing with a set of unknowns, and had inflated them to disastrous proportions. Here we are again, I kept thinking. Our inability to deal with the situation leads us to complicate and mountainize--is that a word?--something actually quite simple, particularly when the data is few, vague, or inexistent. We begin to doubt everything.

That's what I'm trying to get to here: how to talk to yourself in times of crisis. The thing is, I don't have any wisdom to impart. I don't know any techniques for curbing the insanity. I just had the opportunity to work myself up into a ridiculous lather only to learn that it was, well, ridiculous. I wrote a line once: "I don't know what I want, I only know what I don't want." I think it's true. I don't know how to fix it, I only know I don't want to do it again.


Howard Bannister said...

What a great post.

I've got the capacity to worry about things that will never happen in a million years. And still, I worried. You know, I kinda think that the ability to recognize the ridiculous quality of one's neurotic fits after the fact isn't really helpful. In fact, it's part of the problem.

Better to have some sort of cognitive therapeutic thing to do about it when you're in the midst of freaking horribly and uncontrollably out.

For me, two things take me off the ledge. (1) really deep breathing. Putting as much air into your lungs as you can get, really helps loosen your chest; and (2) keeping notes of worrying in a moleskine book--precise notes, including the time I started worrying, what exactly my mind was doing while I worried, and making notes about each and every aspect of what was under my skin.

That second one is genius, because once you've got notes of what you're worked up about, it frees up your mind. You know that you can always go back to the book and review the minute and excruciating detail of your obsessive worry.

Okay. Now I've just revealed what a freak I am. Pfft.

Anonymous said...

I understand the distinction you make between outer and inner crises. I'm the same way--able to hold things together in a crisis, but unravel quickly under the pressure of relatively small problems.

For me, there's also a difference between bad things having happened and anticipating problems. Carly Simon made anticipation seem like no big deal, but she was a big liar. I want to know so I can fend off the problem or, if that's not possible, I at least want to be able to brace myself.

So sorry you had problems with the extraction. Dental pain is about as bad as bad gets. I've imagined scenarios similar to what you did under much easier circumstances.

Thanks so much for posting this topic.