I've Been Brainwashed and I Can't Escape

Sometimes knowledge isn't power.

Posted Sep 19, 2011

A wise spiritual friend once told me to observe my bad thoughts as if they were bubbles rising from the filter in a fishtank. He said not to seize them – bubbles can't be seized – but rather to watch them floating gently away. He said I could and should do this at the first sign of anger, bitterness, regret. He did not mention fear.

But fear controls my life. I've written about this before. I've written hundreds of thousands of words on it, on what I fear and why I fear and I know it is not legitimate, merely the legacy of a mother who loathed herself. Yet it persists. Sometimes I almost win. Sometimes I sublimate my terrors for a day or two, but they always sneak back.

For me, fear is a form of mental illness. I have cancer-phobia and paralysis-phobia. Cancer does not run in my family. My mother and her father ended their lives disabled, but doctors never diagnosed why, nor whether their conditions were connected. I am not afraid of the usual things people are afraid of: dogs, planes, public speaking, heights, or even heart attacks. Rather, like an expensive telephoto lens my mind fixes on any spot or twitch or unaccustomed pain that could possibly be interpreted as a symptom of cancer.

Little things that other people would laugh at. And which disappear after a few days or weeks. But I live through that torment and never learn. "This time, this one is real."

The instant this linkage coalesces in my mind, it is too late. For hours, days, weeks, I think of almost nothing else. I try – as taught in cognitive-behavioral therapy – to think of other things, positive things, merry happy jolly colored-balloon-type things. Or songs. Or tennis games. But my mind always jerks powerfully back to fear. The certainty that I will die: not suddenly, which would be easy by comparison, but gradually and painfully and publicly, with all those spasms of false hope that, dashed on the rocks, devastate my loved ones and embarrass me.

I was brought up this way. I'm not trying to make excuses for myself. I hate being this way. I hate knowing how simply it began: Mom was afraid of everything, because like most self-loathing people she believed she was incapable of overcoming any assault or insult or illness and must succumb. As her offspring, product and replica, I must be just as weak.

I marinated in her fears.

I had a birth defect. This caused Mom awful stress and fear and increased her self-loathing. (She had made a freak, a monster.) Even once my defect was corrected, she furnished my world with fear. Don't touch this, don't do that – you'll hurt yourself, you'll make someone mad, you'll fall, you'll get fat, you'll break something, you'll die. My friends found this funny and mimicked her behind her back. Don't go out in the rain. Don't eat hot dogs. Don't don't don't don't. Two hours into a sleepover, my friend Meg left. She whispered I can't take hearing Don't one more time.

I took it. Look at me. No, don't.

I am hesitant, frozen, stunted.

Two years ago, having done my best with therapy and spirituality, I designed an alternate Twelve Steps meant to address my "addiction" to fear. The results of my childhood brainwashing have similar effects to the effects of chemical dependency, I think. I tweaked the Steps. The original Fourth Step asks us to make "a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." I made a searching and as-fearless-as-possible moral inventory of my fear. And so on.

I was doing pretty well with this for most of last year. I was working, I thought. Would-be symptoms appeared, and I shrugged them off. This was... progress. I thought I was almost turning into a normal person.

My mother died in January. Within a few weeks, my raging fears started up again. Since her death, I have been obsessed with one "symptom" after another. While I'm supposed to be mourning her – and I am – I spend far too much time these days thinking I will die – before I get a chance to become sane, before I get my life under control, before I finally manage to live my own life.

You might say this recent resurgence of my madness is natural. You might say the weirdness of watching my mother die – literally observing her take her last breath – was a traumatic event that might naturally throw me off my healthy mental path. You might say grief screws with the mind, even the normal mind.

You might even say that this reaction would be more extreme in my particular case, because the person I watched die was also the deeply loved yet mentally unstable person who twisted my mind into a crazy little pretzel. So naturally if I've spent my adult life longing fruitlessly for autonomy, yearning to be unlike her... that once her physical self left this earth, my poor pretzel mind would race around in circles (at least for a while) clinging desperately to its sick old patterns because it knows (I know) that true freedom is almost within reach. You could say my madness is acting like a cornered cat, lashing out for all it's worth. You could say these are the death throes of my madness. I wish.

If I was a religious person, I would plead with my deity or clergyperson for guidance and strength. But when it comes down to it, I'm not. I have no one or nothing to beg.

So I try. I try and try and try and try to fix my head. To manage the simple cliché "Have a nice day." It's funny, isn't it, how knowledge isn't always power. I know exactly why I am like this. I know that cancer is more treatable than ever. I know I have already wasted most of my life on needless fears. (Thanks, Mom! But she wasted all her life on them, and hers was longer.) Every night as I fall asleep, I always want to wake up and be someone else, anyone else, who doesn't have this ridiculous problem, who is fearless, serene and mature. I have wanted this since 1983. Yet I always wake up still me.