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June 6, 2008

To daydream or not to daydream, that is the question.

A few days ago I was chattering on about my daydreaming and how I'm trying real hard to be less "far away on the desert island of my mind" and more plugged into my real day-to-day life. It's not easy. I am a lifelong daydreamer and it's my default operating system -- get stressed? Go immediately to daydream, do not pass go, do not collect $200!

Like when I did something(s) stupid on the first day at the book convention and I came home that night and it started playing in an endless loop, all the dorky stuff I'd said or awkward things I'd done, so I automatically defaulted to daydreaming -- imagining how next year at the book expo in my fantasy I could somehow morph into a human with social graces who is coincidentally skinnier and wearing great clothes. In my fantasy I am all about the shoes and the jeans which miraculously fit better than any jeans I have ever worn in life.

Also, in my fantasy I don't tell another author at a party how great the bartender is and how he'll actually pour you two glasses of wine at the same time and then later find out the author you were sharing this wisdom with is Dr. Scott Davis, the Addiction Medicine Physician at the BETTY FORD CLINIC. An author who is at the convention promoting his book on recovery and the story of losing his twin brother to addiction ... and you don't know any of this until later, after you have chattered on about the rockin' bartender.

What I am saying here is that I elevate social awkwardness to an art form. Also that sometimes I am a dumbass.

I used to obsess about my missteps all night but as I've gotten older it's less interesting to beat myself up over stuff I can't go backwards and fix. So after a long and embarrassing day, I tend to escape from my anxiety by slipping into Autopilot Fantasy Mode. It's way more fun than the Loop Of Self-Loathing. But because I've been trying to be more "live in the now!" etc. etc., I caught myself just a few minutes into my fantasy. I was doing it again -- I was escaping my uncomfortable Present Moment by slipping away into a time that doesn't exist (the fantasy future) where I am evolved, and not awkward, and skinnier, and perfect-er, and happier. In the future -- yeah, that's where I'm happy. Always just a day away.

It's perplexing, all this new stuff. I understand implicitly the logic behind mindfulness, living in the present moment, connecting, plugging in. But I wasn't sure what to do with my anxiety if I didn't daydream it away. What do you do with stress and worry if you don't drop out and start spinning a mental movie about a day off in the future when life is better? I worried that if I didn't go away to My Fantasy, I'd just sit around being stressed about my social anxiety. And I had to get up in about 4.5 hours and start a whole 'nother day of social awkwardness.

So what do people do when they want to plug into the moment, but the moment stresses them out and makes them want to eat a whole pie?

- - -

When I first wrote about my little struggle to stay focused on the present moment, I got a great comment from reader Mergle, who wrote:

The one fatal flaw with always attempting to live in the moment, be mindful, etc. is that so many moments in day to day life are just plain boring and/or tedious. I see no point in feeling every moment of a grinding commute or folding that 5th load of laundry or shoveling cat litter. This is where a little bit of going somewhere else in your mind is a good thing. Daydreams can lead you to thoughts of what you want in life - now and later.

It's like you were reading my mind!!

This is exactly what I've been thinking about a lot lately. Traffic is the perfect example. I mean, I HAVE to be in traffic, right? I need this job, I live where I can afford to live and they have a big slice of city in between. End of story, right? So all this time I thought I was just doing the best I could with what I had to deal with. Same with dentist appointment, waiting in line, all of it.

And in a lot of ways it works, plus it's what I've always done. Dream it away. When I was a kid and stuff wasn't great or I was alone or sad or scared or whatever, I'd just go inside my head and invent a whole story that wrapped me up in it -- a fantasy life. As I got older I got better at daydreaming, fantasizing, visualizing, whatever you want to call it.

It was an awesome coping mechanism as a kid, but as an adult do I really need to daydream away my life?

We spend so much time when we're growing up feeling like we don't have any control over our lives -- there's a whole list of things you are required to do, things that are expected of you, and you never really feel like you can just go your own way and be your own, independent person. Or at least I never did. So I would tell myself, "One day when I'm grown/graduated/married/living on my own I can do anything I want..." and I'd fantasize my days away, knowing it would be better "one day."

I got so good at it I never stopped thinking about "one day," even when I was a grown adult with my own life.

The last couple of years have been crazyass growthy for me and I was not always a willing participant. Sometimes I did not want Another Effing Growth Opportunity. But until these past couple of years, I didn't see that I was totally in the driver's seat of my own life. I was still hanging on to some rulebook I'd had since I was a kid. Grow up, do this, do that, act this way, be nice so people like you, meet a nice boy, be responsible, etc. And some things -- like traffic and my commute and debt and weight and my entire lifestyle -- still seemed like they were outside my control. So I daydreamed away all the parts that sucked.

But it has become very clear that if I don't control the circumstances of my life, WHO DOES? And if I don't plug in and see what's happening and work to make undesirable things more harmonious (so I don't have to avoid huge areas of my life by going away to fantasyland) who WILL? Who will come and fix it all for me?

One word: Nobody. It's the flip side of being grown.

So these days I am actively trying to plug into each moment of my day, which is much harder than I expected. And what I'm realizing is that I've been living in a dreamworld, still waiting for the magical One Day When.

One Day When I have enough money to work from home. One Day When I am thin. One Day When I have accomplished the projects I want to do, or learned to cook, or figured out who I am, or don't have to be in traffic. One Day When I don't say stupid stuff at parties.

And because it seems overwhelming to actively work on changing my real day-to-day circumstances, just like when I was a kid I defaulted to the "I have no control over this" operating system in my brain and click -- cue daydream!

Maybe plugging in, being present, choosing NOT to drift off is the only way to really SEE my real life, the only one I have. What's real -- the traffic or the dream? Even if I am daydreaming... MY BUTT IS STILL IN TRAFFIC. The daydream doesn't make the reality go away, it just makes reality more bearable by pretending it isn't happening.

So then, this is the real question:

Are we put here to make reality more bearable by dreaming it away, or are we meant to live better by being plugged into reality and not defaulting to "one day...." to make us happy?

If I just daydream away my stress, it never changes the root of the stress. My solution to all the endless chatter of self-criticism (socially awkward!) or dissatisfaction (traffic!) is to escape. But what if I don't escape? What if I sit with it?

And is there some other way to let go of the crappy stuff without drifting away into a movie of the future? The future is always "one day." One day never comes.

- - -

Oh -- and about that night, when I came home after the Book Expo, sweaty and slightly tipsy and starting the long list of things I'd done wrong, said wrong and people I'd hugged inappropriately. My mind was chattering away as I changed clothes and washed my face and sat on the sofa and when my list of Awkward Stuff I'd Done became too stressful, I started daydreaming how next year I'd do everything better, down to the shoes I was wearing.

Good daydreamers always picture their outfits down to the very shoes they're wearing.

Then I caught myself doing it, drifting off. I didn't want to return to the litany of stuff I'd done wrong, since that was just too stressful and anyway, I had to get up in a few hours and start it all over again.

So I looked down at my hands, which were petting my cat, Bob. He was just laying there, half on me and half on the sofa. I remembered how when I first met Bob he was feral and scared of everyone and hissed at people. And how he grew up to be Roy's cat, and when Roy died he started to be my cat and here he was now, laying on my sofa right next to me with his back legs on the sofa cushion and his front paws on my pajama-covered leg. He likes being scratched right between the ears. One of my friends once told me she wasn't sure if her dog really loved her or just loved her because she fed him all his meals. But Bob loves me. He hides from the cat sitter, hides from everyone but me. Bob sometimes makes little chirping noises of appreciation when I pet him.

What a great animal. He used to never purr, but this last year he's started purring when I pet him.

I just sat there and petted my little orange gingersnap of a cat until we were both sleepy and calm and ready for bed. It wasn't dramatic, it didn't involve more wine or bellydancing or therapy. It was just breathing in and out, trying to get my rhythm to match the cat's breathing, watching his little cat-smile, sitting still and quiet for seventeen minutes.

The chatter stopped. I didn't have to drift off and pretend to be happy one day in the future. I didn't have to pretend that one day, one day far away, I might be calm and perfect and content. I just sat on my same old sofa, in my same old pajamas, in my same old house and watched my cat smile.

It's not enlightenment but it's a start.

Posted by laurie at June 6, 2008 10:32 AM