I am struggling to cope under the weight of worry. I’m convinced the global economic crisis is going to cause such unrest that our lives will be changed beyond my imagination. I’m terrified that something like civil war will break out, and I’m in floods of tears worrying about it. I have strong mental images of people smashing into our home and the terror of knowing I would be incapable of protecting my husband. It feels as if it is going to happen any second now. Then my mind switches to fears about climate change and global war as resources dry up. There’s no respite from the feelings of panic and total doom. I can’t see a future any more, and it is crushing. If I start to relax I feel I will feel punished for flippancy, because it always seems to go that way. Doctors think I’m a time waster and view me with suspicion. I was given a number of a counsellor, but that means taking time off and I’m afraid I’ll lose my job or people will view me as a failure. I could never leave my husband alone in a world about to go completely wrong. I don’t know what to do.
This problem appeared first in The Observer
The first thing that is important here is that you are certainly not wasting the doctor’s time. The fact that you mention leaving your husband alone means that you are having suicidal thoughts and you must say this directly to the doctor. You are aware that your suffering is an illness since you have approached the doctor and all this is a good sign, but it is important that you let her or him know the seriousness of the problem.
The difficulty for you in conveying how awful you feel is that you are caught up in the fantasy content of your anxious thoughts rather than in the reality of the emotional content. If you told the doctor about the ‘weight of worry’, that you are ‘terrified’, ‘in floods of tears’, that you are feeling ‘panic and total doom’ that you ‘can’t see a future’ and could never leave your husband alone, you would be taken very seriously indeed.
The fact is that you have transferred your very real fears and panic onto the outside world, chosen genuine issues of concern to us all and attached your inner demons to them. I imagine that the doctor, instead of hearing the words I have picked out, hears ‘climate change’ and ‘global economic crisis’ and feels that your problems are more political than medical. However, I would disagree in the strongest terms. You have taken worrying about the state of the world to an extreme which is, in fact, about the internal workings of your mind and the residues of trauma.
You seem particularly concerned with protecting your husband. This is interesting in various ways. Firstly, you are quite castrating of him, showing him in a passive role, in need of your protection and totally without resources himself. It seems that you feel in no way protected by him or helped by him. This must leave you very isolated. But I wonder whether you might be projecting your child-like self into him, whether you perhaps feel desperate to protect some innocent part of yourself from the terrifying evils of the world. I strongly suspect that you were exposed to some utterly petrifying and incomprehensible, unpredictable aspect of the adult world when you were a child. You were not developed enough to be able to cope with this at the time and perhaps packed it away, but the trauma (and you do sound traumatised) has stayed with you. Obviously, this is pure conjecture, but it seems possible.
Your husband has now taken on this role of the helpless creature you are powerless to protect. You were powerless to protect yourself as a child and it sounds as though those who should perhaps have protected you failed to do so. To a small child, problems within the family – violence, abuse, neglect – seem just as traumatic as the kind of global apocalypse you fear. It is significant that what you fear is just about to happen, could happen at any moment and is entirely unpredictable. That throws up the image of a very frightened little girl living with volatile people.
The kind of complete catastrophe you fear, essentially the end of the world as we know it, is really a reference to what is going on in your mind, to what has happened to you. You talk about civil war and I would suggest that this is a real war that goes on in your mind, perhaps between your internal objects (the internalised view you have of your mother and father, taken in as a small child and perhaps left unmodified) and that is utterly catastrophic. It leaves you depleted and without any coping resources left. You have translated all this into adult language such that the fantasy war leaves the whole world (and as a child you and your mind are the whole world) with nothing, no food or water, unable to survive. This is where you end up feeling suicidal.
You say that if you relax you fear punishment. This suggests that you force yourself to be hypervigilant because if you let your guard down for a moment you will not be ready for what is sure to come. In reality the worst has already happened. Whatever trauma you suffered is now over, but its after-effects are destroying your world/mind, just as the after effects of this war/crisis will destroy what’s left of the planet. Anticipatory anxiety is always fear of something that has already happened otherwise how would you know to fear it?
You say you have images of people smashing into your home and leaving you powerless to protect your husband. I wonder then whether you have experienced severe psychological bullying – someone smashing into your mind and destroying what was in there. This could also be a reference to something sexual or fears of something sexual, but it is not clear enough to speculate. In any case, you are suffering some of the symptoms of post traumatic stress and you are suicidal – these are the symptoms you must present to the doctor. The medication works and you will feel greatly relieved. You could and should have some psychotherapeutic intervention either instead of or alongside medication.
[There is an extent to which this kind of worry is universal in a much milder form. Everyone believes as they age that the younger generation is doomed, that the world is about to end. People have thought this at the very least since writing began. Really, of course, this is a defence against admitting that it is the older generation that is doomed and will soon be superceded. It’s a defence against mortality. Worrying about there being enough resources to go round is often about sibling rivalry and mother’s love, but in your case I believe something more serious is going on.]
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