October 24, 2013. The alarm bells went off in my head again today. When that happens it gets very loud and the flashing emergency lights make it hard to see or think clearly.
This time it was about an old, beat up trash can.
I’ve had this trash can for about 17 years and it has served me well. There are now holes in the bottom of it from being dragged across the concrete driveway from the garage to the curb and back. One wheel has fallen off and the other one is all cock-eyed, as you can see in this picture.
I have come to understand through a professional, holistic counselor that when the alarm bells, as I’ve come to call them, go off in my head and there is no clear and present danger that is what I’m now going to start calling a false alarm.
And just like when a false alarm sounds in a public building, even though everyone knows it’s a false alarm, whether intentionally set off for training, a practical joke, or a malfunction, you must go through the safety procedures as a precaution.
The alarms in my head are malfunctioning ones. At one point in my life they may have served a legitimate purpose. However, these days there is no good reason for them. There is no clear and present danger about the things these alarm bells are warning me about.
Like I said, today it was about an old beat up trash can. I have known for a long time (years) that it had exceeded its usefulness when foul-smelling, mysterious liquids began seeping from the bottom and smelling up my garage and causing extra clean up work.
This past summer during my gardening frenzy, I bought two new trash cans for hauling wood chips, intending to replace the two old trash cans when I had gathered enough wood chips. (Can you ever have enough wood chips, Kata?)
You might already see where I’m going with this. It’s nearly wintertime, and the two old trash cans are still in my garage, alongside the two new ones.
Today it fell on me to take the trash to the curb and I decided once and for all, that at the very least the trash can with the holes in the bottom and a missing wheel was going to become trash, instead of just containing it, however badly it did the job. (Notice that I didn’t decide to rid my garage of both old trash cans, just the worst one.)
That’s when the alarm bells sounded. That’s when the alarm bells always sound: when I decide. As long as I’m procrastinating on the decision and “still thinking about it”, all is well. When I decide, well, that’s when things go a little sideways and all hell breaks loose (speaking literally, not figuratively).
My heart starts to pound.
My pulse races.
My base of my neck tightens.
My palms get sweaty.
My breathing becomes shallower.
My stomach clamps down.
My legs get wobbly and I start to feel light-headed as adrenaline courses through my veins.
All that happens within moments after I decide to get rid of something I no longer need.
The anxiety is real. It is palpable. It is very present. It is powerful. It is also not going to go away unless I change my mind and talk myself out of getting rid of… whatever it was… the thing that needs to go is no longer even important because the anxiety has taken over, taken control. The endless “what if’s” and all the potentially devastating crises that could happen in the future have started enumerating themselves in my head.
The people who know me well and have walked beside me on this journey, already know this about me. Now everyone else does too and I’m okay with that. I know I’m not the only one who deals with this.
Anxiety has controlled the decisions I make, and have made, with few exceptions, for most of my life.
It started at the tender age of seven, when my mom left me in Dallas with a family so she could go work in Denver. I began “collecting” (we now call it hoarding) pencils; lining them up in my locker at school from the newest, prettiest pencils with big erasers on the left side of the locker and moving to the right as they got older, more used, and chewed up; the smallest ones with no eraser left on the right.
I had a system worked out in my head about those pencils, too. I used them up, not like a normal kid would, best to worst, but the other way around. My small fingers would cramp up as I tried to write with the too-small pencils, ones that would often get stuck in the pencil sharpener. Finding lost and discarded pencils brought me a measure of joy and comfort as I would add them to the growing collection in my locker. It also helped me cope with the separation from my mom.
The day she left I was standing in the driveway sobbing my eyes out and begging for her not to go and, because she didn’t know any better (and had no real choice in the matter), her parting words to me were, “Anna Keturah, stop crying! Crying doesn’t do any good.” So I hoarded pencils instead. That was my first attempt to control something, anything, in a life where I had little control, even less security, and I didn’t feel “safe”. I didn’t know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. What I did know, deep down in my knower, was that adding another pencil to the row of pencils in my locker made me feel better. It was a small comfort in a seemingly comfortless world.
Because I lived a life characterized by fear, chaos, and insecurity, it’s no wonder that I developed habits and patterns of thinking that cut deep channels in my mind and heart, like too many tires over the soft earth after a severe thunderstorm.
“Save the best for last and don’t discard anything that might be useful someday” and “You never know what will happen and what you might need in the future” became a way of life for me. Those kinds of ideas controlled most of my decisions. When you’ve spent your entire life living through one crisis after another that kind of thinking makes really good sense! To this day I have backwards thinking about my stuff. My closest confidants could tell you many unflattering stories on me about this.
When the alarm bells sounded in my head that day, I finally recognized them for what they had become: a too-tired, overused, and malfunctioning warning system that had long since stopped being about protecting my mind and heart and helping me self-comfort.
On that October day, I purposely started taking in deep, heart-slowing breaths of the cool, fall air. That helped slow down the scrambling thoughts telling me that another crisis was surely on the horizon and I’d better be prepared for it this time (how much can an old, beat up old trash can really do for me in a crisis!?). The scrambling thoughts were slowed just enough that I was able to see that I was no longer the little girl that collects pencils to feel better. Little Anna Keturah is still alive and kicking inside me. That wounded part of my soul is still in need of more healing, which will come in time.
Because the alarm was sounding, I went through the safety procedures as a precaution. Instead of enumerating all the potentially devastating crises ahead, the “safety procedures” will now involve opening my eyes to my present surroundings, thinking about how far I’ve come, and enumerating the truth instead:
Today there is no crisis.
Today I have enough of everything I need.
Today my life is good.
Today I am loved, secure, and significant in His Kingdom.
Today my Abba Daddy has my back, just like He did when He stood beside me at the locker tenderly watching as I lined up my pencils.
I quickly went inside and scrawled a note on lined paper with a Sharpie,
“PLEASE TAKE THIS TRASH CAN. IT IS ALSO TRASH.”
I found some tape and ran back outside, hurriedly taping it to the old, beat up trash can before I could change my mind.