Anxiety

Me, holding onto my old ways of being.

Me, holding onto my old ways of being. Alternatively, Charlton Heston in his NRA glory days.

So, is it just me, or is the whole wide world just filled to the brim with anxiety these days? Or, you know, at least us Americans. And here is the other thing – am I the only one who has a problem with this? Because I have a problem with it. And furthermore, I have an even bigger problem with the fact that it seems to no longer be considered a problem.

Certainly, life can be stressful and anxiety producing. Serious health problems, getting laid off from work, living through a tragedy of some kind. Anxiety during or in the wake of an anxiety-producing event is natural and to be expected. What I am referring to is anxiety that hums along as background noise in daily life.

I know so many people who self-identify as living with anxiety. This concerns me. A lot. Especially because it seems to me that the solution to living with anxiety these days is to simply live with anxiety. Historically speaking, this is a new event. And I don’t think it’s a good thing.  (The fact that I don’t feel particularly comfortable levying this criticism speaks to a larger issue I have, which is that everybody is so freaking fragile these days that we go around in large bubbles, scared anybody might come along and pop it.)

But back to anxiety. I don’t think we were designed to live this way. This is not who we are. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, my friends. We were made better than this. So why have we allowed fear to enslave us?

I know there is the rush to blame biology and biochemistry, but make no mistake–there is a mind/body connection that is undeniably powerful. The recent discovery of the lymph system that feeds the central nervous system is new proof of this long known fact. More disturbing, the finding the fearfulness can be inherited, that we can in fact burn our fear into own DNA and pass it on to our children, should motivate us to find a way to unlearn this habit of anxiety.

So why are we so anxious? I make it a habit of being honest here on my blog, so I will tell you that I believe the answer is going to have a spiritual component. (For those who don’t know, I am a big fan of Jesus.) But I also endeavor to speak to everyone, and I think there is another level to this equation that is universal regardless of your beliefs, and that’s the one I’d like to discuss. It strikes me that the root of much anxiety in this world is an overarching lack of authenticity.

The people I know with the least amount of anxiety in their lives are also the ones who live the most authentically. I know something about this, having spent a lot of my life in anxiety and also, correspondingly, in denial of my true self. It is possible that my own personal experience with this issue leads me to view anxiety through a false paradigm, but I don’t think so. I think I am right. I think every time we squeeze ourselves into a box that doesn’t fit – be it in our job, our marriage, our family, our friends, our community – we layer on the anxiety. Working with one box that doesn’t fit is manageable, but you try two or three on for size and you’re going to be in a miserable state of affairs. At that point, you’re looking at one of two scenarios – you’re in an unsustainable situation and something is going to break catastrophically, or you’re going to die miserable.

Unfortunately, you can’t change until you’re ready to change. I know I clung to all my old ways with a Charlton Heston cold-dead-hands level grip. Embracing change is probably something that can only be learned the hard way. However, there are moments when the right person comes along and says the right thing at the right time. For me, that person was Mary Tannery, who realized before I did that my situation was dire. She told me, “Everything is going to be okay.” I said, “What if it isn’t?” Meaning, what if I did wind up getting a divorce. And she said, “That’s what I am talking about. If that happens, it is still going to be okay.” I drove home considering this whole new world. It was another year and a half before I actually entered into that whole new world, but Mary cracked open the door that day to my own emotional survival.

For me, the root of my chronic anxiety was my inability to be genuinely honest with myself and with others. I wasn’t trying to be dishonest, I was trying to survive inside boxes I felt I had to live in, but that didn’t fit me at all. I wish I had known how to get brave and honest, but I didn’t. “Shoulds” ruled my life. I lived the life I I believed I should be living and convinced myself it was great – but it wasn’t, and the resulting anxiety was my number one symptom of my lack of authenticity.

Here’s the thing, though – it isn’t necessary. We needn’t live in anxiety. Our problems are solvable. We can live authentically. It is a choice we can make. It is unbelievably difficult, but it is doable. Finally – if you need a judgment-free person to listen, I am here. You can email me at carolynleeadams at gmail.com, or better yet, find me on Facebook. (I prefer messenger to email.)

[It just occurred to me I failed to make a distinction between good stress and anxiety. The stress that comes from dealing with pressure situations isn’t bad at all. It’s actually awesome. It’s what your body should be doing with pressure situations. Oh well. Hopefully I won’t be misunderstood.]

 

Trump

When I first moved to LA, I was prejudiced against the Hispanic community. I was 18 and stupid, and I am not even sure exactly what the heart of my racism was, other than just a vague sort of discomfort about “the other.” I remember coming home for Christmas and complaining about hearing so much Spanish. My dad let me know just how wrong I was to have such a complaint. By the time I graduated, I’d forgotten my bias and my first job out of college was working at an equestrian center. I was the only white woman in a large, all male, all Hispanic workforce. They treated me with respect. They treated me like family. We bartered for lunch – I’d bring coca-cola and they’d serve me carnitas cooked over a little grill in an unused horse stall. To this day, the best lunches of my life and the best job I ever had.
Years later, in North Carolina, I went to a religious conference as a representative of my church. We had round table discussions. I sat at a table of about 12 people, all white, all wealthy. The last question of the day was, “Discuss the challenges of the growing Hispanic population.” I was all set to talk about how great it was to have these bi-cultural churches. To my naive shock, what I heard instead were endless complaints and some examples of outright racism. Adrenaline flooded my body, my heart raced. I was the last to speak. I talked about my experiences in Los Angeles and I started to cry. I didn’t tell them what I thought about what they had said, I just told them how I’d been treated by the Hispanic community. And cried. The session ended for the day and several of the people came up to me and told me they weren’t racist. Some of them grabbed my hand while they did it, like I was a priest who could absolve them of their sins.
 
Right now, I feel the same way as I did sitting at that round table as I watch our country embrace a man who has said far worse things about Mexicans than what I heard at that church conference. A man who is running on bigotry as policy. A man whose security has escorted out peaceful Muslims, Blacks, and Hispanics from his rallies. A man who has retweeted white supremacists.
 
It is easy to veer toward racism if you don’t have people like my father in your life to set you straight. And I’d suggest that everyone is racist to a degree. But we must constantly strive toward the better angels of our nature. Trump appeals to the worst of us, to our fears and our greed. But here is the thing, my friends – with Trump, you do not know which way the ball will bounce. Are you a creationist? An atheist? Any shade of brown? Do you homeschool? Pro-life or pro-choice? Does your company work with Central or Latin America? Do not assume you’re safe from fascism just because you’re not Black or brown. Will you be the one escorted from rallies for what you believe? Trust me when I tell you – you do not know who will be safe and who will not, for expediency is the currency in which Trump deals, and in only that is he truly wealthy.

Carrie and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

I’ve had some rough years. It might surprise people to learn that this last year was one of the roughest. It doesn’t make much sense, does it? My first novel came out, I did a ton of comedy, I started new comedy rooms, I traveled. On paper, it sounds like a bang up year. And also on Facebook, always on Facebook, it is a bang up year always. But here on the blog, my friends, we can be real with one another.

Firstly, a note about Facebook. Self-pity sucks and you see a lot of it on FB. Even if I wasn’t a comic and an author, I’d try not to be too self-indulgent with the woe-is-me posts. But I am a comic and an author, and I am constantly selling. Selling books, selling shows, selling myself as a fun go-getter. It’s not hard. I am a fun go-getter. Facebook is a wonderful social tool for keeping in touch with old friends, and it’s a sales tool. It is a sales tool for everyone. They are selling you on their perception of the world, on how they want to be perceived, and if nothing else, on what they think is interesting. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation, but I always find it curious when people find the supposed success of others on Facebook a source of sadness. Facebook walls are like display windows at Pottery Barn – everything you see is for sale. Do not compare your actual living space to the artifice.

In any case, while I am a fun go-getter, I am a lot of other things, too. Like a lot of comedians, the Swamp of Sadness is well known territory for me. It had been creeping in around the edges for awhile, but then it reached Artax-drowning levels last winter. (These are Neverending Story references, in case you’re wondering.) Here was the tipping point. October of 2014, I was hanging out with my ex-husband. Our divorce took a very long time to become final, but the court date was about six weeks out at the time. He had bought a bear-shaped container of honey and mentioned that it made him sad and/or nostalgic to buy it, because I have always loved honey bears.

And that is when I had a very, very terrible thought. Why are we even getting divorced, I thought. If you like me enough to become vagely sort of sad when purchasing a honey bear.

That, my friends, is where my sense of self-worth actually stood in October of 2014. The thought had come along in a lighthearted, joking manner, but when I saw it, and absorbed it, anxiety settled in. Settled in deeply. I realized I had been separated for two years but had failed to improve as a person in some fundamental ways, ways that very much needed fixing. This is when things started to go off the rails. I’d been separated for two years. By all appearances, my life had dramatically improved in that time. I’d sold a novel. I’d created a new life for myself. This was thanks in large part to the massive influx of support that came my way after my ex left. New and wonderful friends taught me a new and wonderful way to live, family and old friends gave me love and support galore. All of it was needed and appreciated and wildly helpful.

But I was also running on adrenaline. And when that adrenaline ran out, I appeared to be doing great. So much so that people didn’t really believe me when I told them otherwise. I told people close to me I was struggling. One replied, “But the great thing about you is, I never have to worry about you.” It was a sincere compliment, but it only served to reinforce a feeling of isolation.

I decided to go to a counselor. He gave me a diagnosis of, “Being a girl got you hurt.” And honestly, that really did work for me. Still does. So I thought, Cool, I’ll work on embracing my femininity. But every time I went there I’d have some happy news to report of what I thought was progress and he’d shoot it down. The message I received was, “Being a girl got you hurt. That’s your attempt at trying to be a girl? You’re not very good at it.” And you know, it really got to the point where I wanted to punch that son of a bitch in the mouth.

Although I was struggling and depressed, I am nothing if not a fun go-getter, so I decided to fix my problem another way and spent six weeks in Charleston, writing. I got a ton of writing done, made several wonderful friends, and did a six week strength training class. And you know what? The strength gains I made in that class were insane. It occurred to me, you can’t gain this much muscle and strength without a lot of testosterone. I am who I am. And thinking those things really made me want to go back and punch that counselor in the mouth.

It was during this time in Charleston that I discovered Conor McGregor, my in-some-ways spirit animal. Conor’s absolute self-belief and joie de vivre were a tonic for my soul when I desperately needed one. Because let us be honest here – I cried a lot when I was in Charleston. Like, a lot. I felt alone and broken and left behind, my current self did not compare favorably with where I felt I should be in life. Now,  I was still doing a lot better than I had been back in October of 2014. I was in the process of healing. It’s just that these things take time.

The day after I got back from Charleston I found out that Simon & Schuster had decided to reject the two novels I’d submitted to them. I’d had a decent amount of low lying anxiety about those books, so I wasn’t surprised. I learned this news at an Underwear Comedy Party Show, a show where comics perform in their undies. I got an email from my agent, absorbed the bad news, got on stage, and did really well, actually. Driving home, however, I felt devastated. I remember hearing God tell me, “Your next book must be Ezra.” I didn’t doubt Him, but rejection at that moment in time was just what the doctor ordered – if you wanted a sadness relapse! (And yes, sometimes somebody talks to me. It’s rare but it happens and the voice is never wrong and I believe it’s God, to summarize the experience.)

The next day I was hit with a pretty massive depression, centered on my house. I was still living in the house I’d shared with Evan for ten years. I called my mom and told her what was going on. She told me to move. I told her it wasn’t that easy. She said, “Well, I’ve given you the solution.” In what felt like a genuine miracle, a buyer immediately appeared out of the woodwork. So I moved. It’s three words, “So I moved,” but it was months of work. That house and shed were loaded with ten years of memories and crap. It was hard. But maybe not in the way you’d expect. Evan’s stuff wasn’t emotionally triggering for me at all, which was kind of great. But the older stuff was hard. The things of childhood, especially things from my grandparents, that was hard. The sheer amount of work was hard.

When I finally moved I learned something very important–those golden years of friendship in Clemson were rare and wonderful, and while I treasured them at the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how unique that experience was. I became very isolated in Greenville. However, I’d continued to heal, getting stronger all the time, and I was able to turn that isolation into writing. Ruthless came out, I got a manager, I wrote the screenplay adaptation, I went to LA, thinking all kinds of great things were going to happen, and they totally didn’t.

I left LA feeling that Ezra was the only thing I had in the whole wide world. Finally, I surrendered and did what God had told me to do on Feb 13th of 2015 – work on freaking Ezra. I’d essentially been procrastinating since 2010, only working on it intermittently and halfheartedly. I’d put it off because I dreaded how terrible it would be to truly fix the book, and it was exactly as bad as I expected. For weeks I worked for several hours a day and made no progress. It was brutal.

By the end of December, I’d gotten a handle on Ezra, and started to feel a lot better. January 12th, I sent Ezra to my agent. Even though she said she wouldn’t be able to read it until the end of the week, I received notes from her that same day. It was close to midnight when I got the email. It was several paragraphs long, but it had one message – You did it. It is the best letter I’ve ever received. I cried while I read it. And that is where I stand today, a year to the day after Simon & Schuster rejected those other books, a year to the day that I knew I needed to make Ezra my next book.

I am left with a feeling of tremendous gratitude. Although the last fourteen months have been emotionally and spiritually difficult, they have been necessary. Growth and change can be painful, and I am totally okay with that. Life is so short, I hate to lose any more of it to stagnation. I have a wonderful life and I have been blessed with an incredible amount of freedom. Although my work isn’t always easy, I am passionate about the work that I do. I believe I am doing the things God made me to do, and in that I am remarkably fortunate. All of that said, super hoping the next period of growth and change is marked by happiness–and I believe that it will.

 

 

The Best Gift I’ve Ever Given

Fledge, née Strawberry, with Polly and Digory

Fledge, née Strawberry, with Polly and Digory

Last June, I met my friend Tamara for dinner at The Blue Heron, a restaurant in Clemson. She returned to me my box set of The Chronicles of Narnia, my favorite books of all time. The table was small, and I set them down on the floor. We mentioned to each other several times that I shouldn’t forget them, but I forgot them.

I’d had that box set for more than twenty years.

I remembered before I arrived home that I’d forgotten them.

But I was strangely okay with it.

My hope was that it would make its way to a Lost & Found box and, after awhile, somebody would declare it unrecovered and take it home. Maybe it would be a cook with kids the right age, or maybe it would be a server who always meant to read those books but never had.

Outside of my parents, no one has had more influence over the way I think than C.S. Lewis. As an adult, I’ve loved and appreciated his nonfiction works very much, but nothing will ever compare to reading The Chronicles of Narnia as a child. They taught me about the kind of person I want to be and I’ve never outgrown them. C.S. Lewis was shamelessly traditional and sincere, espousing noble conduct, bravery, honesty, and valor. His stories were strong on redemption and forgiveness, good humor and adventure. His characters lived out in the world, lived in bright color, and fought for justice with cheerful hearts. What could be better than that? I wish I could write such things. I can’t though. If I could, I would, but I’ve been given other things to write.

Lately I’ve been feeling the itch to go back through the wardrobe door. It’s been too long since I’ve visited Narnia. I’m going to get myself a new set of the Chronicles of Narnia, hoping that the old has found its way to its new home. Whoever that new owner is, they received the best gift I’ve ever given. I have faith it wound up were it was supposed to go.

 

Body & Soul

A still from Force of Evil, which Polonsky wrote and directed. This film was part of the birth of noir.

A still from Force of Evil, which Polonsky wrote and directed. This film was part of the birth of noir.

Abraham Polonsky has been on my mind lately. A lot. So much so it’s kind of weird.

Polonsky was one of the great gifts of my education at USC Film School. He taught a class called Content & Consciousness, but the class was really, “Come Absorb Hollywood History.” Polonsky was a pioneering writer and director. You know the look of film noir, with the one key light and the sharp contrasting shadows? You have Polonsky to thank for that. Polonsky inspired generations of filmmakers after him, including Scorcese, who made a documentary about the man.

Just like his signature lighting, Polonsky was a study in contrasts. A tough guy from the Bronx, he taught himself French by reading Proust with a French to English guide by his side. His heroes were like himself, bruisers with brains. A great hero who served in the OSS during WWII, Polonsky later became a blacklisted screenwriter. He loved to tell the story about how he was grilled before the House UnAmerican Activities kangaroo court. One senator asked questions pertaining to Polonsky’s secret service in WWII. Polonsky, knowing better than the senator that such information was still classified, refused to answer. A man appeared from the wings, whispered in the senator’s ear to tell him he was an idiot and needed to shut up, and the senator angrily declared that Polonsky was the most dangerous man in America. Polonsky loved it.

Polonsky as I knew him, in the mid-90's.

Polonsky as I knew him, in the mid-90’s.

But his stories that meant the most to me were the ones about his wife, Sylvia Marrow. They were married for 56 years before she passed away in ’93. She was the kid sister of his best friend and perceived as a pest until suddenly he realized she’d become a beautiful young woman. One day they decided to get married and did so promptly at local courthouse – no muss, no fuss. While Polonsky was writing great films like Body and Soul, Sylvia was pursuing her own artistry as a ballerina. She later added archeology to the mix, studying Native American ruins in Central America.

Polonsky said that the happiest times in his life were following her through the jungle.

I loved that image, and the fact these two wonderfully vibrant, dynamic people created a life of adventure together. He talked a lot about her in the classroom. So much so it felt as if she was still alive. Polonsky and I were very different politically and religiously. He came from Jewish-Russian stock, but was a proud atheist. That said, he talked movingly about the conversation he had with Sylvia on her death bed. He told her that we are all made of star matter and to the stars we would one day return, and that at some point in the future he would find her there and they would be reunited. Polonsky died in October of ’99 at age 88, not long after I graduated college. I hope he and Sylvia have had the reunion he hoped for.