Quieting the Tyrant Within

A version of this piece was first published on the Genius Recovery website in December 2018. I am posting an updated version here because it addresses a topic that will always be relevant to my emotional growth.

Over the past five years, I’ve come to see my life as an ongoing project. I launched this blog, ditched my corporate marketing job, quit drinking, started moving my body more, spent a summer trying new things from my bucket list, and started writing a book.

Then, I decided to take on a different kind of challenge. Digging deep, I realized that what I could really use is more compassion for and acceptance of others. But how does one go about getting that? And why is it so hard to resist criticizing people, especially those closest to us? As I began exploring my motives, a surprising inspiration surfaced: an unforgettable biopic.

Back in the 1980s, the Jessica Lange movie Frances made a profound and lasting impact on me. Recently I watched it again, and three decades later it still has the power to reach in and prod at one of my tender spots.

Frances Farmer was an actress who rose to fame in the 1930s. The film depicts her as an independent thinker who doesn’t care much for authority or convention. Farmer appeared in a number of movies, but she chafed against the Hollywood studio system, eventually running into trouble with the law and spending time in multiple psychiatric hospitals.

There is little doubt that Farmer suffered from mental health and substance use issues, but the intervening actions taken by her family and medical professionals come across as severe and designed to break her nonconformist spirit.

In two different scenes in the movie, Frances is dragged into police custody kicking and screaming. Her eyes and hair are wild, her anger and fear palpable. I was only about 20 years old when I first saw the movie, and Farmer’s desperation and utter abandon in those scenes terrified me. I was afraid that one day I might lose control like that, but at the same time, I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

Image of Jessica Lange from the movie Frances.

*****

When a child puts their hand on a hot stove, they learn quickly not to do it again. That was me. Always the observant and obedient child. I was raised to be a good girl, to be nice and agreeable, and to follow the rules. Hell awaited me if I sinned, and on Earth there was shame to keep me in line. I wouldn’t have had the guts to write an essay like the one Farmer penned in high school, entitled “God Dies” — though I shared her early skepticism of religion and an all-powerful god.

At the age of 16, I finally broke loose, rebelling in the ways of many teenagers. I played stupid pranks with my friends and shoplifted. I got drunk and messed around with lots of boys.

Yet something was always holding me back. An alert system had been planted inside my psyche that kept me a safe distance from the edge. I learned to be my own mini-parent, with internalized restrictions and punishments.

I flirted with eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drugs, promiscuity, and self-harm. Still, I never fell down the rabbit hole into any of them. I came the closest with drinking, but I did not hit what could be considered a typical rock bottom. When I finally quit, there was no big crash and burn. Just my sensible innate guardian kicking in and telling me to get sober.

*****

Depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors have whispered to me throughout my life. Weird, morbid impulses hum softly inside me. Sometimes I think about shouting something horribly offensive in a public place. At random times, I envision how awful it would be to get stabbed in my eyes or my throat in some freak accident. This leads me to wonder if I would ever stab myself intentionally. Of course, I wouldn’t — I’m confident of that.

When I hear a suspicious sound in the middle of the night, I panic that someone could be breaking into the house to kill us. Maybe I want a crazed killer to burst into my bedroom, so I would be justified in screaming out in terror and fighting for my survival.

Years ago, I wrote a short story called “Wednesdays” about a woman in an abusive marriage. Every Wednesday she would risk her husband’s wrath by taking his classic car out for a drive by herself while he was at work. At the end, she takes the car out one last time and intentionally wrecks it, walking away to start a new life.

I find it telling that I put my own character through violence, humiliation, and potential self injury in order to give her permission to choose herself.

*****

We’ve all encountered people who can hold their hand on a version of that hot stove for what seems like forever. You wonder how they do it, why they do it.

When I see a friend or family member headed down a hazardous path, I can be, as someone once accused me, “judgmental, pious, hypocritical.”

In preparation for cultivating my compassionate side, I began analyzing why I’m so judgy. I was drawn to Holly Glenn Whitaker’s piece for SELF, “Ask a Sober Person: Why Do I Judge People Who Still Drink?” In it she talks about the Jungian theory of a “shadow” self — all those unpleasant traits that we have trouble facing in ourselves but can see clearly in others.

The notion that I’ve been judging a reflection of my shadow resonates with me. But I suspected that there was even more to it. That’s when I recalled Frances, and it occurred to me that I might be envious of these people as well.

I sat down and wrote out a list of how I could possibly be jealous of people experiencing serious mental health issues like depression or addiction. First, I listed my foolish belief that these disorders are a badge of honor and a sign of depth. I’ve always wanted to be perceived as effortlessly “cool” (whatever that is), and I don’t like being reminded that I lean in the direction of being ordinary. Basic. Vanilla.

Next, I considered that perhaps I’ve been longing to send out a cry for help by surrendering to my bleakest impulses. That one had a slight ring of truth to it, but it still didn’t sound quite right.

When I got to the third reason, I exposed fertile ground: The concept of “letting go” sounds enticing to me — a welcome relief from both the societal expectations of adult life and the self-imposed pressures that keep me in check.

The mini-parent inside me can be more like a tyrant than a kind caretaker. This dictator berates me to pay the bills on time, weigh myself every morning, replay conversations over and over, and do just one more thing, one more thing, one more thing before I can relax.

My desire to be in control at all times makes life so stressful that a downward spiral starts to look like a vacation. The problem is, mental health issues are not voluntary — we don’t buy a ticket and schedule time off for a breakdown. Even if we could, being depressed or in the grip of addiction is not a holiday from responsibility. It is brutal and confining.

If I want to be less judgmental and more compassionate toward others, I need to start with the one person I can best influence — me. I must give myself a break so that the idea of being institutionalized like Frances Farmer doesn’t seem so absurdly appealing.

And as I practice quieting my internal tyrant, hopefully I’ll grow increasingly grateful that I’m so darn stable.

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