A friend told me the other day to stop overthinking.
“Bah ha ha ha!”
That’s like telling the pope not to get on his knees, my daughter to stop craving sweets, or a teenage boy not to think about sex.
I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who didn’t need a second longer with a menu. The truth is, I don’t even read the whole menu because I get so overwhelmed. I go to the salads section, where I only have to choose between five items. And I hope that it comes with dressing, because that decision could involve up to 10 candidates.
Decisions have always pained me. Because the inability to make them is a symptom of depression, which I’ve had my whole life.
Every month or so when I see my doc, I fill out a depression questionnaire, so that she can scribble a nice number in her notes to indicate the severity of my symptoms. I have to rate 20 or so questions from zero (never) to four (always)—torture for the average depressive. Two questions ALWAYS get rated FIVE: “feelings of guilt” and “inability to make a decision.”
The more depressed I am, the more excruciating the decision process is.
Last summer, I flipped a coin for every decision I made. Go to the grocery or start the laundry? Call my mom or make dinner? Go to church tonight or get the kids up in the morning? I was simply incapable of making any call. Even after I saw that the coin was heads or tails, the anxiety didn’t go away. So I ended up saying “two out of three,” then “three out of five,” then “50 out of 99.”
On this one particular afternoon, my husband came home from work early to take our daughter to swim practice because I was trying to write in the afternoons. For weeks, though, setting aside that time to write was causing panic attacks, because I would sit in front of my computer for two hours not being able to compose one sentence. So sometimes I would take her to practice myself and swim laps again, for the second time in a day, because swimming was the only thing that could calm me down.
“Am I taking her or are you?” he asked me.
This is not a hard dilemma, right?
I was completely incapable of choosing one plan.
Back and forth, pros and cons.
“If I swim, I will probably sleep better tonight. But I’ve already swam today, and I don’t want to blow out my shoulder … I can’t afford an injury.”
“If I stay and am unable to write anything, I will hate myself more …”
I flipped the coin. Heads, I’m going. Then again, tails, I’m staying. One more time, heads, I’m going. I got up to five and would have flipped that bloody coin all night, except that I had both my daughter and husband yelling at me.
“What the heck are you doing? You’re going to be late!”
It didn’t end there. Oh no.
I circled around the block and then came back and asked my husband to take her.
I sat at the computer for two hours, trying to squeeze something, anything of substance, out of my brain, but it didn’t come. Instead I spent the whole 120 minutes obsessing about my making the wrong decision.
Indian mystic Jaggi Vasudev once wrote, “The sign of intelligence is that you are constantly wondering. Idiots are always dead sure about every damn thing they are doing in their life.”
That’s true in the case of my best friend from college. I still remember the horror of her having to choose a major. Night after night at the dining hall, we’d go over the pros of a sociology major versus a psychology major. An overachiever (and the valedictorian of our class even as English was her second language!) she was already majoring in French.
“But Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in the movie ‘Basic Instinct’ was a French and psychology major. What if I turn out to be a psycho like her?” she asked me.
“Are you serious?”
“This decision is going to affect the rest of my life.” She was genuinely scared, and I could appreciate that panic.
“You can always go back to school,” I said. Turns out that she went on to get an M.B.A. and an M.A. in Business Psychology from Columbia University, working on Wall Street for several years.
We bonded over that decision because it was about more than choosing a major. It was about coping with the anxiety of choosing a path, as inconsequential as whether to eat chicken or pizza for dinner or as important as choosing a mate. It was about embracing the unknown, grieving possibilities, and moving forward despite feeling as though everything in our lives were so out of control.
I don’t think it’s possible for some people to stop overthinking. The only times I’ve succeeded have been when I was drunk or high, because those substances led me to the “quiet car” in my brain, which is why I overindulged and had to give them up for good.
What helps, though, from getting to “500 out of 999” or something crazy like that is surrounding myself with fellow overthinkers who can remind me that the anxiety I’m feeling isn’t so much about Thing One and Thing Two. It’s about the overexcited reptilian part of my brain, including the amygdala, and the power outage in the left frontal lobe. More than anything, it’s about the chemistry of depression and panic.
The message tucked away in my anxiety is erroneous. Even if I choose the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, I will, in fact, be okay. If I pass out Kit Kats at Halloween instead of Snickers, the night will still be fun and the greedy teenagers will come at the end of the evening without costumes. If I skip the school auction to have a quiet night at home, the school will continue to have its annoying magazine drive. And if I decide to work for two hours instead of take my daughter to swim practice, but can’t produce a word, there will always be another chance to try again.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.