There’s a squatter living in my head and she doesn’t pay rent.
She picks at everything I write and says: “You’re not a real writer. You write blog posts and Facebook snippets and ten-minute freewrites and none of it amounts to anything.”
She hisses: “Your books aren’t real books.” (No matter that three very real books are on the shelf.) She growls and taunts: “You need to go underground and do nothing but write for a year, get off of social media, and come talk to me when you have a manuscript.”
My wife observes that this doesn’t sound like me — and she’s right. It’s not my voice. It’s the squatter’s.
Call her my inner critic. I’m pretty sure she has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as she will stop at nothing to cut me down, keep me off-balance, and make sure I don’t get too big for my britches.
* * *
Wednesday afternoon. We — my wife and I — go for a short walk by the river. “I feel like I’m this close” — holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart — “to having a panic attack.” I take a deep breath and she squeezes my hand. I feel a surge of shame. “I should know better,” I think to myself.
I describe to Mani how scared I feel.
“Is it fear — or anxiety?” she asks, ever so gently. We start talking about the difference.
Fear = clear and present danger. Someone has broken into your house. Your kid was supposed to call an hour and a half ago and won’t answer her cell phone. A bear is running in your direction. You are choking. Your are a person of color and a cop has been trailing you for the last two miles. You’re being followed.
Lives are at stake. Maybe even yours.
But in this moment, there is nothing to fear. It’s the last day of February and we’re walking along a stretch of the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. I’m taking a break in my work day to go with her to our local butcher.
* * *
Earlier in the day, I paid our March rent and gave thanks. Then I looked at our PayPal balance, and my mind — or rather, that squatter — started up with me.
“This might be the month when everything stops,” the squatter had said. “And you’re getting a puppy?! What are you going to do if you don’t make enough money?”
Really, lady? Do you never take a day off?
Then I remembered: She takes plenty of days off. Then she comes around, usually for just two or three days a month, and does everything in her power to freak me out completely. She convinces me that we are going to be destitute within weeks, that I missed some kind of magical window, and that my self-employment success has been a fluke for the past three years. My number’s up.
Oh, and by the way: Me even writing the word “success” is basically professional suicide, because I’m not supposed to be proud of my work or claim that it’s going well. (Maybe she’s a Jewish squatter and this is her superstitious edge coming through?)
* * *
“No,” I tell Mani as we walk. This isn’t fear that has me in its grips. This is good old-fashioned anxiety.
How can we be sure?
It’s entirely about the future and the past. None of the things coursing through my mind are grounded in real time. I’m jumping ahead and creating all kinds of dire scenarios, inventing stories, and going back over the places where I’d surely made fatal mistakes as a new business owner — ones that everyone can surely see but me. It’s only a matter of time until the whole thing comes crashing down.
I feel some relief, having told Mani what’s on my mind and weighing on my heart. So grateful for her presence and gentle reality checking.
You know what she tells me?
“You have a 100% success rate at surviving every single time you’ve ever felt anxious.”
She is right. One-hundred percent. I think back over so many of the most perilous passages of my life and can’t deny it: None of them have killed me.
* * *
It takes courage, so much courage, to keep going when there are no guarantees of anything.
The minute I return to the truth — that there is a guarantee of death — I come back to the solid ground of right now. The panic subsides, the tides go out and the full moon rises.
That night I have a dream where God tells me I’m working hard enough, doing enough, helping enough people. God tells me it’s ok to relax.
I wake up in the morning and decide to give the squatter a blanket and some lunch money. After all, she’s frightened. I’m the only home she’s got — and she keeps moving me closer towards the truth.