If you have all the wrong fears, listen to Ned Stark

CS 58 (13/10/10)

When I sit down at my kitchen table in the morning and open up my feed, letting the news roll in, they’re always there waiting: the self-help articles. How to handle stress without looking like you are on the brink of a mental breakdown46 habits of the most successful and rich people in the world who earned their first million at the same age you half-assed your internship.

Actually, they’re more than self-help articles: they’re charitable hands, they are get-your-shit-together handbooks. I look at myself in the mirror and I catch sight of my new crow’s feet and I remember I am nearing 27 and I should start reading those articles. I am most likely in need of some self-help. Of some adult-looking apartment and job and appearance. So I click on the click bait and immediately I am told several things. Important things.

I am guided through my own self on a journey to grab the holy grail: courage! Success! Being awesome and fearless.

I am told I should not be scared of the future. I should not be afraid of switching careers, not even at 35, not even at 67, not even at 99! Go get ’em, girl. I am told I should not eat meat, carbs, bad carbs, fats, also good carbs, cheese, milk — I stick to vegetables then? No, also some vegetables are not great because of FODMAPs — yes, even vegetables have betrayed you. Just like those one of two toxic friends you have been hating secretly for years, just like your employer who forgets about that raise — by the way, you should not be afraid of asking that employer, what about my raise? You should not be scared. Here is how: look him or her in the eye, and simply do not be scared. Another technique: fake it until you make it. Pretend to be a power house while your guts churn at the idea of a public speech. Smile! It is scientifically proven that smiling makes you happier. If that public speech really has to happen, then here’s another trick: lock yourself in the toilet, stand with your feet wide apart, put your hands up, and breathe. Or cry! But whatever you do, never-ever be scared!

Here is what’s up: I look at these articles and I don’t recognize myself. Bad thing: I am afraid of all of these menacing elements of adulthood, but (good thing:) I was never afraid enough to actually think I need tips and tricks to overcome them. My personal technique: breathe deeply, pretend you are cool, go; you’ll turn cool on the way there. I am sure half of the writers of articles like above would be lukewarmly and vaguely proud.

But there is another, bigger ‘but’: what do you do if your gut-churning, palpitation-inducing fears are of another kind?

I have a full-blown anxiety disorder, and while I am not afraid of switching careers throwing years of hard work to get there in the shark tank, or packing everything up and moving to another country when I am tired of the current, I am completely paralyzed by, not in order: having allergic reactions (I am not allergic to anything), having a deadly disease, choking on stuff I am eating, having panic attacks in front of strangers, finding myself in the middle of a mass-shooting, and in general that something is very, very wrong with me, on a hourly basis. A lot of people are like me.

There is no article on the World Wide Web to tell me what to do about that. I have a great therapist, but tons of people don’t, because therapy without meds is not covered by insurance, at least in my country. As a result, there are no top 5 ways to take your body back to normal when you are having a full-blown panic attack in the middle of the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon. There is no list of safe foods to avoid paranoid thoughts about whether or not they will kill you. There are no secrets to fake sanity until you make it out of here sane.

Technically, we are the wrong ones. We have all the wrong fears: while we should be scared of what the future holds, we are scared of childish things, like the dark, or of unrealistic things, like having allergic reactions while having no allergies, or being shot by an invisible stranger, or spiders.

And the world keeps screaming at us: you should have no fear! Never, ever be scared! Or take meds, that helps; and then, do not be afraid.

Sometimes, you think there is no way in hell you can make it. What is the point of being unafraid of some normal life stuff, if you can’t leave the apartment because you are suddenly convinced something terrible will happen at 10:30 AM? What is the point of scoring the adult job, if you cannot leave your bed because you are afraid of your own shadow? We have all the wrong fears, and no weapons given to us to defeat them.

They are telling us not to be afraid, and the whole point is that we are. All the time. We are always scared.

Here is the only tip you might need, and it comes from Ned Stark. Yes, Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark.

“The only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid.”

This is not much material to put in-between quote marks, but it is a major point. When I read it the first time, I jumped from my chair (I am very emotional). Ned Stark is telling you something here. He is telling you: you know what? Whatever. I will be afraid. I will be scared. And then, I will do it anyway.

I am inspired by Ned’s words. I am afraid of planes, because what else could happen, if not an airplane disaster every time I board one? I make myself board about 10 planes a year. I force myself to eat food I am sure will be lethal, and it normally is not. Some days I am afraid of just going outside. Every fiber of my body shakes in terror with each step. Obviously, I must do it anyway. It’s the whole point.

Here is another quote by Georgia O’Keeffe:

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.

You know what? You are not the portrait the media makes of you. You are not an avocado toast statistic (what in the hell, by the way). You are not even supposed to be buying a house right now, if you like renting. Do whatever the fuck! Be scared! Be afraid! And then do it anyway.

Originally published on Medium


Five years ago today

Five years ago today, I crossed the yard flooded with dirty snow carrying a person-sized suitcase that missed a wheel. As you can imagine, it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t fun to go up a few flights of stairs, wheel-less luggage in hand (I wasn’t strong then, not even a little bit), either. I would have learned the Finnish word for lift, hissi, written on the little doors on the right on every floor, just a couple days later. Later that day, I locked myself out of my newly-rented apartment which overlooked a little garden sparkling in snow like it was frosting. My friendly Dutch neighbor welcomed me then, a big guy with a knowing smile, and handed me beers as we waited for the housing service to provide me with a new set of keys. You were there as well, sitting on a chair too small for you (you were tall). You were wearing a blue t-shirt and a skinny light-blue scarf which you later told me was a man scarf. I wasn’t sure scarves had genders, but I shut up about it.

The first night on the town was also five years ago today, if I recall correctly. We all went to a random bar and spoke nothingness. Studies, jobs, plans. As I said, nothingness. I went out to smoke a cigarette and you came as well, wearing only your blue t-shirt and blue man scarf. I asked you, aren’t you fucking freezing? You said, actually, yes. Five years ago tomorrow we would be friends already. Five years ago and a few days, I was out on the balcony smoking a cigarette in the middle of the night. I couldn’t sleep; life abroad for the first time was too exciting. I was looking at the snow outside, falling, stopping, building new landscapes in the dark. There really wasn’t much else to look at. Some snow fell on my head and I looked up to see it was you, on your balcony. Sorry, you said. Later I would learn you did it on purpose, so that I would look up and see you. Why don’t we smoke on the same balcony?, I said. You said, actually, it makes way more sense.

It might sound as if cigarettes united us, and I can’t deny it. They united us like terrible things loaded with possibilities. Chances to ask for lighters, drags, smoking together, the whole lot. Chances to puff white clouds of smoke side by side in the middle of the night, in silence, while everybody else was fast asleep and we were awake, so awake, jolted awake by the palpable thrill that was being far far away, surrounded by snow, surrounded by strangers and foreign beers and man scarves, and cold air like knives on our cheeks. In those moments, we were so invincible. The moment when we were most invincible, I think, was when we walked on a frozen lake all the way to the little wooded island in the middle of it. I was so afraid the ice would crack and I would fall into the cold-ass water and drown. I almost wished we went back. But then we reached the little island and walked up the hill, and sat there looking at — you guessed it — more snow, but also ice, and stars. The city glowed in the background. It was beautiful. We probably smoked side by side in silence. Should we go back now?, you said after a while. And I said, not yet.


Non-expert Advice

The art of talking to yourself when you are alone

There are a few personal behaviours that are often stigmatized: eating dinner alone in a fancy restaurant without looking at your phone, crying in public, peeing in the streets when you really have got to go, and many others. But among the ones that are stigmatized more unjustly, I find, is talking to yourself.

And I don’t mean talking to yourself in a spiritual way. I mean literally having conversations with yourself. This is the reason why we back off slightly when we see someone having a conversation with the air on the subway, before noticing with a certain relief that he or she is actually wearing headphones. Pfiu, we think, he/she is talking to someone after all. But why, I ask, is this uncomfortableness a thing?

Some could say it’s because the ones who talk to themselves are often the crazy ones. Ok, fine. At the same time, whoever lives alone will understand this: talking to yourself happens. The need to express yourself is there, but there is no one to share it with. And this is not a bad thing: it’s a simple human/animal instinct, I guess. Like singing in the shower or while folding the laundry. Why do we do that? To entertain ourselves, to give ourselves a background music, whatever.

In the silence of my home, I talk to myself all the time. I talk to my oven when it won’t turn on properly; I insult my computer when it crashes because it’s from 2002 and doesn’t know better. I say sorry to my chair when I bump into it. Ok, the last one is a little weird; I am sure my chair doesn’t mind. But the rest?

In the silence of an empty home, I find it just natural to make some remarks. Sometimes it comes spontaneously. Just about half an hour ago, I told myself the chicken and peas cooking in the oven smelled delicious, and then I felt stupid. Why should I? They do smell delicious, and my own self is aware of this fact. I am congratulating myself for not burning my evening meal.

So, lone-speakers of the world, unite. Speaking to yourself is cool, and it doesn’t mean you are crazy. And I haven’t googled it yet, but I am fairly sure that some scientist agrees that it is, in fact, the opposite of a symptom of craziness. It keeps you sane, and it helps when you really need to know your meal is going to be fine.