ANXIETY AND FEAR: "I WAS ALWAYS WAITING FOR SOMETHING BAD TO HAPPEN."
“The mortifying experience of shame and the dread of reexposure inform one of the primary defensive functions of being self-conscious—the
constant vigil of watching over oneself perfectionistically to make sure one does not make a fool of oneself again.”
(Shabad, 2006, p. 421)
Anxiety and fear played a huge role in Steve’s childhood depression:
Well I was always afraid, I feel like I I’ve always been afraid. I couldn’t tell you exactly what I’m afraid of, of what I was afraid of. But I was always afraid of something I was always waiting for something bad to happen, you know?
This ever-present free-floating anticipation of something ominous and nefarious in the backdrop of Steve’s life is reminiscent of Bion’s (1959) conceptualization of nameless dread. Steve felt that something terribly malignant—some force or circumstance or event—was lurking around every corner, usually within the context of social situations. He elaborated,
When I think about myself and what I’ve felt, uhm . . . fear I think is the is the one thing that I remember most about . . . about being young. . . . Always having to to be on my on my guard and to be . . . sharp enough that I could kind of deflect . . . you know uh, deflect situations that made me uncomfortable.
Vanheule and Hauser describe one of the possible origins of depression as being rooted in the failure to predict the behavior of others. The “unbearable riddle of the other” can lead to feelings of helplessness and, eventually, depression when it becomes evident that there is no consistent way of predicting the desires and expectations of others (2008, p. 1316). The meaninglessness of chaotic interactions leaves the individual feeling perplexed by his or her role in relation to other people and powerless to agentically improve those socially bound circumstances. Although Steve could not specifically pinpoint the source of his anxiety and fear, the “situations that made (him) uncomfortable” tended to be social in nature. The narration that took place in his head clearly elucidates this conflict:
I was always really careful. Very careful not to get in the situation, don’t get in that situation. Because you may not be able to handle it you may- you know it may make you may do something that makes you look stupid, somebody might pick on you, somebody might take advantage of you. So I would I was forever, trying to m- manipulate . . . my situation . . . to cause myself the least amount of anxiety that I could. Uhm, and it just became second nature.
Whether it was some social faux pas that Steve feared he would inadvertently make or a hypercritical peer who was bound to humiliate him, the possibility for catastrophe was constantly imminent. As a result, it became very important for Steve to have as much information about a given situation beforehand so that he could predict whether or not there was an increased likelihood of being the target of hostility.
If a bunch of kids were gonna go bowling or something, I would, you know I’d, I would it would be very important that I knew who was going. You know ‘cause ‘cause if if they were you know if they were guys there that were tended to be aggressive, then I didn’t want to be around them, because I didn’t want to be . . . you know I wasn’t aggressive, I wasn’t an aggressive kid, so I was . . . terrified of being made to look foolish or or you know being the butt of jokes.
So I would find a reason why I couldn’t go.
Steve was similarly cautious in school. He took every possible precaution so as to not draw attention to himself, and he preferred to go undetected in any situation where there was the potential for him to become embarrassed. Steve described how he handled his anxiety in school by saying:
I never volunteered for anything in school. Uhm, I didn’t want to be uhm you know I didn’t want to stand out. I didn’t- you know I wanted to just kind of fade into the (laughs) background, so that I would be left alone. Uhm, I guess it was ah you know it was pretty much the fear of n- never knowing what was going to happen. And in my mind, you know what what could happen was usually something bad. Usually something that was going to really upset me . . . or make me feel bad about myself.
Steve’s identification with the negative feelings that he had toward his father was aligned with the negative things that he was constantly being told about himself, and this likely contributed to his feelings of anxiety and fear. Steve described his anxiety as if it were a diffuse, generalized fear of some impending doom. Therefore, he felt the need to be hyper-vigilant so that he could protect himself from this constant unidentifiable threat. When I asked Steve whether he had any idea of what those bad things he feared might be, he replied:
I don’t have a conscious memory of it. I suspect it was probably the- what my father was telling me (laughing) all the time. You know ‘Why- why can’t you do this?’ ‘Why can’t you do that?’ You know. ‘Why don’t- why do I have to tell you everything this many times and why-?’ you know. Always questioning why you know basically saying ‘Why are you just not as good as everyone else?’ Uhm, so I think that was probably the overriding uhm, probably the soundtrack in my in my (laughing) brain at the time. . . . And my father never just . . . scolded, he yelled . . . it was like emotional ah abuse. You know instead of . . . just being upset, it would be . . . yelling at the top of his voice. And he was always big with the . . . sticking his finger like that in my chest. . . . (Chuckles)
So uhm that colored everything I’m sure. You know tha- that had- was kind of the basis for every for all the uhm the self-doubt that I had for so long.
Despite the conflict in their relationship, it is important not to overlook the bond that Steve shared with his father. Throughout his narrative, it was very clear that Steve loved his father. He repeatedly referred to his childhood as happy and although he could recognize the roots of many of his depressed feelings in his strained relationship with his dad, he stated adamantly that he did not hold a grudge against him:
But it’s all good now. I mean it still hurts when I think about it but it’s but I, I,
I don’t resent my father at all. I forgive him completely ‘cause I, I you know. ‘Cause I know he loves me and I know he’s always loved me. And now ironically, you know I, I’m in a position where I’m able to help him now because he’s begi- he’s beginning down the the road of dementia. So he’s uhm he’s you know, kind of in in need of my help now. So . . . yeah but that had a big impact.
In many respects, Steve described his father as an imperfect human being who was struggling with his own issues and was doing the best he could given his unique upbringing and limited resources. A lot of the time, Steve framed his father’s treatment of him in terms of his father’s own psychological issues. As he said, his father “ultimately got help”
for whatever psychological problem he had uh that was making him treat me the way he did. I n- I don’t know what the specifics were I never uh- I I don’t really care either. Because I I recognize that he was doing things that were be- that were really out of his control. Uhm . . . and he was doing things based on on uhm you know he was parenting based on the- how he was parented. And his father was that kind of person. You know very jud- probably depressed. You know very judgmental. Very quick to anger. Very explosive, my father’s uhm you know my father’s an actor, he’s been on the stage . . . for fifty years. So when—not anymore now but—back then, my father yelled man, you could hear it down the block.
The intergenerational transmission of depression in Steve’s case can, thus, be traced back to historical parent-child relationships within his family. Steve’s father was shaped by his relationship with his father, which was equally strained. And when the time came to interact with his own children, Steve found himself unintentionally re-creating similar dynamics that he had as a child with them. “I learned it. I did it with my kids when I got older too. Uh before I (laughing) realized.” Steve stated that over the years he was better able to recognize when he was being too critical of himself. He often looked for signs in his own children that they were struggling with similar issues he faced, and he stated that the advice he gave them could often be applied to himself.
It’s funny I find it- the advice that I give my kids, helps me. In almost maybe more than it helps them. You know, wh- when my daughter for instance is like me she’s very critical. I mean she’s a straight A student, always has literally has always been a straight A student. She’s in her her you know her third year of college she’s never been you know she’s always had a 4.0 average. And yet, she’ll find things that ar- you know that aren’t up to par. And I say- and I and I explain to her, I say look . . . If you were holding somebody else to that standard that you hold yourself to . . . it wouldn’t be fair. Would it? She agrees. No it wouldn’t be fair. It would be it would be too harsh I I I think. I said so you have to you know you have to afford yourself that same. You know, that same uhm . . . right or whatever. And and and so that’s the kind of thing I think about when I when I think about you know my deficiencies, I say take a step back, put ‘em in perspective, and uhm and uhm you know be reasonable. Basically. So that’s how I do that.