Where does your shadow live?

About a decade ago, I went through several years riddled with the bitter burnt holes of panic attacks. They’d begin with a little cramp in my stomach, a flush along my neck, my hands becoming colder and number, and my mind spinning far out of control. Under their influence, I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t reason, I couldn’t even properly explain why I was so frightened that it felt like my heart would burst out of my chest. Sure some of it could be traced to traveling through the Whittier Tunnel, some of it could traced to a highly stressful job, but really most of it lived in the folds of my brain.

My mother suffered from crippling anxiety and panic attacks. When I was a kid, she almost never left the house. At church, we had to sit in the last pew by the door so that she could escape if she needed to. At home, she would lock herself in the bedroom with the television turned up loud. I’m quite sure that her thought process consisted of a constant loop of all the things that might happen to her, or her children, or her husband. She kept her outside world in a continual state of immaculate order because her inner world was so chaotic.

Her anxiety manifested in my life as a child. She wouldn’t let me run. Wouldn’t let me stray too far from the house. Wouldn’t let me get dirty. Her conversation with me was mostly a litany of all the things that could happen to me if I wasn’t careful. So, I grew up to be careful. I internalized that continual catastrophizing. I used to joke that my mother could come into any room and tell you what in the room was going to kill you. I don’t joke about that anymore.

And yet, in my twenties and thirties, I went on to live in dangerous places, walk down dangerous streets, hang out with dangerous people. I traveled alone with little preparation. I experimented in ways that could have easily turned out badly. It’s only later that anxiety came home to roost so powerfully.

This is what I’ve learned about living with it – it’s like the tide, it comes and goes. You can not resist it. It will come as it wills, and if you don’t suppress it, it will subside. You can live your life to provide some inner bedrock. Get enough sleep. Drink a lot of water. Get outside under the big sky. Take a lot of deep breaths.

When I am not in the throes of it, fear is an interesting subject. What are we as a culture afraid of? What am I, personally, afraid of? How does that shadow manifest? How have cultures throughout time excised what was feared sometimes to their detriment? I am writing poems about shadows. I’m reading a lot of work by writers whose shadows consumed them, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath. I’m looking at the ways light works as well. Because there is no shadow without light, and no light without shadow.

Of what are you afraid on Halloween, an American spectacle of our shadow sides? How does that shadow live in your writing or art? How can you let it breath a little more? Remember, what we suppress grows, and what we let out into the air can dissipate. And like the tide, nothing truly goes away, but returns again and again.



2 Replies to “Where does your shadow live?”

  1. Erin, this seems timely, especially as the news JUST hit the wires here about the driver in Manhattan plowing through bicyclists, killing some, wounding others, before coming to a crash-landing against a school bus. It seems more and more, the places we often regard as “safe” become the very places we travel blindly through, unable to see the possibility of danger. A bike ride. A school bus ride home at the end of the day. Light and shadow, as you say. CHIARASCURO, as the painters say: the “play of light against shadow” on a canvas.

    Thank you for this timely post. Oh, and Happy Hallowe’en.


  2. The news from NY, where I lived for six years, is just horrible. Fear wants us to stay out of sight, but how will we be part of the world that way? How will we see the beauty as well? Chiaroscuro is one of my favorite words. Thank you for reminding me of it!

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