“Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them…”
I thought I’d share something of a breakthrough today…
“An odd thing happens to Samwise Gamgee on the journey toward Mordor. Defending his wounded master, Frodo, from the attack of the giant spider Shelob, Sam is all but certain that he is going to die. Then a thought comes to him “as if some remote voice had spoken,”
“And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know:
”A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!1”
So, here’s a scary admission: I have some kind of crippling anxiety disorder. (This feels like the opening of an AA meeting… “Hi, Hilary! We’re all anxious too!”)
When I Tweeted earlier today:
… I was trying consciously to do something that is supposed to be the only thing that really helps. I was identifying and confronting what that was attacking me, a string of Evil Thoughts. I was turning and facing the monster. And it helped.
It would seem to be a combination or an accumulation of a lot of things, all amounting to PTSD. I resisted this idea for a long time, but the signs are really undeniable. I talked about it with an expert, describing the weird attacks of anxiety that come out of the blue and the “earthquake freeze” that happens when I hear a loud noise or rumbling sound. (Trucks, trains, a strong wind… all trigger the fight-or-flight thing everybody picked up in Norcia in the two months between the first earthquake in August and the one that ended the town in October) and the guy said, “Yep, that’s PTSD all right.” I’ve taken the standard diagnostic test several times, and always come out with “High” to “Severe.” Sigh.
But at least this makes things make more sense. Knowing the parameters of something makes it less scary. And knowing gives you a set of tools to work with. It helps you step back and assess things more clearly, even in the midst of an attack. Instead of just being seized by some confusing, unknown awfulness, you can take a mental step back and say, “Ah, an anxiety attack. That’s what this is.” You can create enough mental space to do some objective assessing, to tease out the reality from the unreal freaking-out thoughts: “I’M INCAPABLE OF DEALING WITH ADULT LIFE! I’M A HOPELESS CRIPLE! I’M A FRAUD! NOTHING I DO EVER WORKS! I’M ALL ALONE IN THE WORLD!”
Having an objective point of view - “I have an anxiety disorder, and it often flares up and tells me untrue things” - lets you kind of split your brain into two people, one that’s freaking out, and the other a calm and helpful adult: “You have dealt with adult life longer than most people, and you’ve done pretty well. You’re also not alone and people around you will continue to help you.”
That’s the part that you can encourage if you work at it. As Jordan Peterson advises: treat yourself like someone who needs your help. It is the core of the whole psychotherapeutic process AND the struggle in the spiritual life, the “combat of the desert”. Confronting the Bad Suggestions from the demon, that Evagrius called the “Eight Evil Thoughts,” with irrefutably true counter-arguments:
It is OK to feel anxiety, even extreme anxiety. You don’t need to be anxious about being anxious. This has happened before, and then it went away and you felt better.
You are certainly not a fraud. And you are not hopeless. Most of the things you’ve tried in life have succeeded pretty well.
You have been meeting the responsibilities of adult life for ages. The crippling anxiety makes it harder. That you can function as an adult despite crippling anxiety is evidence of how good you actually are at it.
You've repented of really really terrible things. You don't deserve anything good in and of yourself, but insofar as Christ lives in you - and restores you! - you deserve good things in your own right through participation in Him - and this precisely because He can make you depend for everything on Him, and still be a free actor with your own agency.
(The above was actually the gist of a set of texts today from my friend who’s been looking after me since cancer and is very used to batting this tennis ball back and forth. But he’s been so steadily doing this that I can almost write the script myself by now.)
Talking back: confront evil with the light of Truth
This is all a summary of the process that is starting to be popular for psychotherapists dealing with tough psychological issues like generalised anxiety and depression (problems that are notoriously resistant to drug therapies) called “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” or “Dialectical Therapy”. The afflicted person is taught to identify and confront the thought processes that generate anxiety and depression.
Its interesting how closely it mirrors the writing of the Desert Fathers on how to confront the Evagrian Logismoi that we’ve been talking about. Evagrius helped develop a kind of methodology that came to be called “antirrhetikos” in Greek: literally “talking back.” It’s funny, isn’t it, that modern secular psychologists are just now figuring out something that monks have known about and used for nearly 2000 years.
What it all boils down to, I think, is that our task must be a dedication at any cost to the Real. And the Ultimate Real, the source of all realness, is God Himself. So it makes sense that if we are plagued by any kind of temptation to un-realness - including unrealistic, habitual anxieties or evil thoughts - the most useful response would be with the Word of God. Both our anxiety and the actual for-reals demons will lie; confront them with the truth.
Be devoted to Truth at any cost, because only The Real counts. Only The Real matters at all.
I write of the reasoning nature [that fights] beneath heaven: first, what it battles against; second; what assists it in the battle; and [finally,]what the fighter keeping valiant watch must confront. Those who fight are human beings; those assisting them are the angels of God; and those opposing them are the evil demons.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who handed on to us everything [necessary] for salvation, bestowed on us [power] “to trample serpents and scorpions, and all the powers of evil.” (Lk 10:19) And together with all his teaching he handed on to us what he himself did when tempted by Satan. (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13)
And so in the moment of battle, when the demons attack and hurl weapons against us, we too [like Christ], must speak out against them from the sacred Scripture. In this way their foul [tempting-]thoughts will not persist in us, enslaving the soul through sin arising from action, staining it and casting it into the sin of death: as [scripture] says, “The soul that sins shall die”. (Ez 18:4)
Avoidance makes it worse
So, what set me off on the runaway Evil Thoughts Train today? I need to ask for help. I needed to write a post asking readers to help me financially, something I hate doing because it dredges up all my old feelings of worthlessness.
But here’s the kicker: I think it’s a smoke screen. I think my big flares of anxiety are really just another way to avoid things: “How can I possibly do anything now? Can’t you see I’m having an anxiety attack? Talk to me tomorrow!”
And there it is: putting things off, avoiding difficult, painful and unpleasant things. I think that might be the source of all my Acedia, depression and anxiety troubles - at least, it’s certainly doing nothing to make any of it better.
That’s boosted by Evagrius and the Desert Fathers too, and the psychologists; the more you run away from and try to avoid the immediate pain of doing the Scary Thing, confronting it, the worse it all becomes. “For when sin has not [yet entered] the mind it is still possible to speak out against the evil, vanquishing it easily and rapidly.” Dash the Evil Thoughts against a rock when they are still “infants” and before they grow into monstrous size.
St. Benedict, Prologue of the Rule: “To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.”
Bleg: It’s scary to ask for help
Here’s the truth: I’m fighting pretty severe depression and anxiety, and this makes it difficult for me to work- that is, to paint. I started this substack blog to try to at least give myself some work to do that is a little easier than the much more difficult painting work. I started doing the painting just before the Covid-Crisis struck, as a way to move my working life away from news writing - a new profession. I started with an iconography course in Rome for a month, November and December 2019. (I had already done four years of formal study of drawing and painting at a private atelier in Rome between 2009 and 2013.) I’ve worked at it pretty steadily, but it’s been very slow and I can admit to myself now that it’s been made a lot harder because of the larger internal problem. And when Covid and lockdowns and all that deeply terrifying stuff started the interior problems got a lot worse.
The good news is that I’ve got a good number of painting commissions set up - people seem to want my art - but just haven’t been able to be as steady working at them as I want to be. I am working on them, but because of this problem it’s not going fast enough yet. The blogging and writing is helping, but the expenses are getting ahead. As I work harder at confronting the Logismoi, and the more I talk about it here, it’s getting better inside my brain.
My middle-term aim is to be self-sustaining with painting and writing, and this Substack idea - with the potential for paid subscriptions - is a big part of that plan. It’s why I’ve fought furiously to get steady at least to produce two posts a week as promised. In good moments, I am confident that this will be possible once I get things sorted on the inside. And I know that’s possible because … well, because I’ve got this far, right?
But I need help right now. I had to borrow money to pay April’s rent, and May is late. And what really cut it today was finding something on Pippin’s ear that looks like it might be cancer. I have to take him to the vet, and will be looking at some hefty bills for surgery and treatment if this is what I fear it is…
Here’s the bleg: I need a couple thousand Euros to pay two month’s rent, pay out the electric
…and for what I hope won’t be more than a few hundred to the vet.
When I started this, I was working from a comment that Fr. Oblate Master made: “Try to figure out how you can help.” It’s a blow to pride (which is a good thing) to have to ask for help as well.
We’ve been going steadily up in subscribers, with 242 as of yesterday. Those who have subscribed have often donated, and I’m more grateful than I can say for it; not only for being able to pay gas and electric from it, but for … well… for the validation. For affirming that I’m providing value.
Sitting here in the middle of Umbria by myself, in a house I wasn’t supposed to live in more than three years, has been difficult. I landed here, “temporarily” after losing my home in the earthquake in 2016. I was supposed to be back in Norcia by now, or so I thought. And it’s easy for me to slide into thinking that I’m on my own. This blog has helped reconnect with a lot of people who are often feeling much the same way.
If you can, I hope you will consider donating through the link at my Ko-Fi support blog, Hilary White: Sacred Art to help me in this difficult spot I’ve painted myself into.
It’s set up for ten US dollars at a time, but allows you to write in another amount.
For the time being, PayPal is the only other way for me to receive donations.
I think it allows you to choose US currency as well as Canadian ($1.00 Cad = 0.68 Euros = $0.83 US).
I’ll be setting up the Stripe account to enable paid subscriptions as soon as I’ve confronted my terror of the Italian Banking System. One demon at a time, right?
“O Elbereth Starkindler, from heaven gazing afar, to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death! O look towards me, Everwhite!” An elvish hymn to Varda, the wife of Manwe the king of the Valar, who made the stars. Tolkien’s analogue to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven and “Star of the Sea”.