In a game of tag, you are either pursuing your scattering prey, or fleeing a menacing child predator. Remember that? The rush of adrenaline when you’d just barely skirt by your pursuer, narrowly escaping what surely felt like certain doom? The sinking feeling of being “it” because (not AGAIN) you have the responsibility of chasing someone down so you don’t have to be “it” anymore?
In hindsight, were either of those roles really fun?
Kids are amazing. They can take the most harrowing or dull aspects of adult life, and turn them into joyful games. As adults, there is a new player in this game that was absent in our carefree innocence: pain.
Like most kids, I’d hover around the rock or pole or patch of grass we’d all designate as the “safe zone”- occasionally venturing out to tease whomever was “it” but always within a reachable distance from it. As an adult, I learned that there are similar safe zones when confronted with pain, and I came to lean on them more and more over the years.
In his approach to raising me, my father realized later that he went too far in the opposite direction of his own childhood. His own father had used a belt as a disciplinarian tool, and from what he told me, there was a good bit of emotional neglect in that relationship. In order to save me from the suffering he experienced growing up, he took a very hands-off, open-minded and understanding approach. We had a very loving and communicative father/daughter relationship, and I shared all my thoughts and feelings with him, but I was mostly left to my own devices after mom left home when I was 15. I managed to snag a DWI at 16 on top of a couple other arrests later, only attended enough classes in order to graduate after being accepted to colleges, slept through my art school finals... this list actually continues for a freakishly long time. My freedom allowed me plenty of space for experimentation, which to a point is healthy, but having that space became normal to me, and didn’t force me to develop any tools of self-discipline. So giving myself permission became habit.
Dad died in 2004 of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had chronic anxiety as I do- he helped me when I first experienced it as a teenager. He was good with fixing things as only the chronically anxiety ridden are capable of- he had many solutions for many ailments. Those were often easy solutions to swallow, quite literally. He had been prescribed benzodiazepines for decades, and when my anxiety attacks began shaking me to the core at the age of 14, he occasionally gave me one when other methods failed. But when he tried to teach me the real tools, the ones that were harder, they required turning the mirror on myself and doing the self-investigation I had been avoiding. By then it was too late. I had found my own safe zone- escape, and it worked. For the moment.
I recently found a note from him to me from 2002. I was twenty one that year, and had just had an emotional breakdown- my living situation was in complete chaos. I didn’t know where to go or what I was doing. I had begun visiting bars nightly, and alcohol was beginning to fill that void of belonging. Dad’s note filled with important bits of wisdom regarding my tendency to run from pain that I’m only now learning and really taking in, fourteen years later.
If we perceive life like a game of tag, always chasing or being chased, addiction is the agreed upon safe zone. The bottle was my safety. “I feel uncomfortable in social situations.” Drink! Safe! “This is too much, I can’t handle it.” Drink! Safe! “I’m so depressed.” Drink! Safe!
My self imposed freedoms ultimately led me to a life of perpetual crisis. It started off with giving myself permission to roam and experience all of life, but further down the line permission became a lifestyle. Eventually booze was deeply involved in that lifestyle, and I ultimately couldn’t break out of it. In my avoidance of suffering, I never learned how to deal with it in any helpful way. I never did the hard work that was necessary.
I didn’t have the chance to do that work because I was almost constantly numbing, avoiding, running from pain- playing the game of tag. There’s a fine line between the pursuit of pleasure and the fleeing from pain. One is clinging, the other avoidance. Both are destructive. But in stopping the game, turning around and finally facing pain, I am only now realizing this act alone begins to shine a light on the monster in the closet. It begins to lessen the fear, the potency, the intensity of suffering. Being able to sit with pain has made it somehow less daunting, and my confidence in being able to live with it grows daily.
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said, “pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Our avoidance is a cause of our suffering. My father was trying to protect me from the emotional and physical abuse of his childhood, but I ended up experiencing an entirely different kind of suffering because of my insistence on running from pain. I often wonder if it would have been any different for me in a stricter household. I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have sneaked out either way; found ways around it. I wonder how much is environmental, and how much is simply my stubborn ass. Either way, lesson learned. Fourteen years of escaping pain and hard work finally caught up to me, and it was finally time to turn toward it. To let it in.
In a game of tag, you are either pursuing or fleeing- what is healthy is to remove yourself from the chase.