I was listening to a podcast the other day and it mentioned a term I’d never heard before: ontological insecurity. I googled it and, considering how spot on this term describes me, it’s surprising that I’d never heard it until that moment.
Ontology refers to the philosophical study of being. So, it would follow that one who is ontologically insecure would have a very unclear sense of self. As anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety knows (and likely many of you have, as anxiety it the most common type of mental illness with almost 20% of the population suffering from some form of anxiety), the anxious brain is constantly playing ontological tricks on us.
Without knowing what anxiety was until well into adulthood, I suffered from it for essentially my entire life. Several years ago my worrying, which is a constant companion of mine, seemed to be getting out of control. It was then that I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and so much of my life began to make sense to me for the first time.
Anxiety is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it, but an easy way to understand it is that our brains are constantly alerting us to any potential danger we might encounter in our every day lives. In normal doses, that survival instinct has kept humans alive since the beginning of time. But anxious brains are pretty much on HYPER alert and interpret almost EVERYTHING as a potential threat. My brain can turn running a few minutes late into a life or death scenario. It might go something like this…..”I’m running late to this dentist appointment….that means they might not be able to get me in to see the dentist…..maybe I have something seriously wrong with my teeth and I won’t know because I’ll miss my appointment….maybe it’s some sort of infection that might get into my bloodstream and I will DIE.” It seems ridiculous that I could go from being 5 minutes late to a dentist appointment to planning my funeral, but it’s a very real and a very common progression of thoughts for me and many others who live with anxiety. And, honestly, It’s downright exhausting to walk around that close to perceived death every waking moment.
Another crappy byproduct of anxiety is that our brains are complete assholes to us. My brain is constantly trying to convince me that I am a terrible person, that nobody likes me and that everyone currently in my life will eventually decide they hate me and I’ll die alone. I spend so much of my energy convincing my brain that just being 5 minutes late isn’t isn’t going to set me on a path of destruction, that I’m often just too physically and emotionally drained to keep up the arguments. So I believe my brain. I believe every cruel and (mostly) untrue thought that enters my head. My brain is certain that everyone will eventually leave me — “but, I’m protecting you so that you’ll be prepared for it when it actually happens,” is how my brain sees it. It also tells me that I will fail at everything I set out to do….”if you know this going in, you won’t be devastated when you do fail. See, I’m helping you,” says that brain again.
Most of the time I eventually find a way to believe that rational part of my brain and can cut off the anxious part before it gets too out of hand. But, sometimes terrible things DO actually happen and my anxious brain goes into overdrive. The event that set in motion my mental health spiral that eventually landed me in the hospital this summer was my divorce.
For more than 25 years, my anxious brain knew that it wasn’t the only one responsible for keeping me safe. My husband was on the job as well. He was there to talk my anxious brain off the ledge and to assure my rational brain that it was on the right track. My husband and my brain were in it together. So when he left, it felt like the small patch of earth I was standing on just broke away from the earth and sent me floating off alone on a vast and scary ocean. Nothing made sense and I was in a constant “fight, flight or freeze” state sensing danger around every corner. The ever-present worry went up to an 11 and I was certain I would end up poor, homeless and utterly alone.
Here’s where ontological insecurity comes into play: I hadn’t a clue who I was when my husband ended our marriage. For more than 25 years I was in a secure and loving partnership. I was a wife. I was a full-time mom to 3 kids. I lived in a big house in an affluent suburb. I didn’t have to worry about money or, if I did, I didn’t have to worry alone — my husband and I were in it together. “So,” my brain says, “let’s see here: you’re not part of that partnership anymore, you’re not someone’s wife. Two of those kids you’ve been taking care of are on the East Coast attending college and the youngest son is only around half the time or less. It doesn’t feel like you’re really a mother anymore since you’re mostly living in your house alone. You’re not in that big house anymore and if your money runs out you’re on your own.” Yep, that about covers it. Scary times.
Those times when I’m able to access the rational side of my brain, I know that there is so much good that’s come out of me being where I am today. I am more independent than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I have been able to do things that I never thought possible. I have an opportunity to find another relationship that might better suit this more independent version of me. I can use the time I have to write the next chapter in my life, and maybe that involves a different and more exciting career path. I can work on cultivating more adult relationships with my kids now that the day-to-day parenting is largely over. So why can’t I always see this to be true?
That asshole brain of mine that THINKS it’s trying to protect me swirls dire and negative thoughts around in my head. While my logical brain is very quiet and measured, my anxious brain YELLS at me. When my reality starts to overwhelm me, that’s when the yelling blocks out the quiet and measured tone of rationality. That yelling really mucks everything up. Makes everything topsy turvy and I lose myself and my identity. I lose sight of what’s wonderful in my life. I lose my desire to keep plugging away at putting my life back together. This is a dangerous place to be because with all that comes the idea that everyone would be better off if I were to disappear. That if I disappeared I could stop fighting. And when I stop fighting the yelling will end.
Thankfully, I only ended up in the hospital and realized that I DO want to keep fighting. I do want to keep writing this next chapter of my story. And, most of the time, I believe that this next chapter might just be the best one yet.