Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
I recently moved to a new city, and I’ve noticed that a new anxiety has surfaced in me. As a single woman who often likes to hit the streets and explore on my own, I have become increasingly afraid of being attacked, robbed, or even raped.
I know to a degree my fear is irrational — my neighborhood is safe, as is the city itself. But as someone who has struggled with anxiety, I want to honor its truth and presence. What will help me live better, and be more calm?
First, let me thank you for writing such a letter. People in our culture are constantly treating fear as a form of weakness, and therefore as something illicit, something to be hidden away. And that’s a big part of the problem. Because when we hide such elemental feelings, they fester rather than being exposed to possible cures.
So the first step, which you’ve taken, is to recognize that you’re lugging around certain fears that are keeping you from living the life you deserve. That life, by the way, is not one completely absent of fear and anxiety. It is merely a life not ruled by fear and anxiety, one in which happiness and hope get their due.
Your letter suggests that moving to this new city was the trigger for elevated anxieties. And I’m not surprised by this. Moving is one of the most common triggers for anxiety, even just moving from one living space to another in the same city.
Moving to an entirely new city is even more stressful. You’re suddenly dislocated from a whole bunch of stabilizing factors: your home, your social network, your workplace, your favorite restaurants and bars, your streets and neighborhoods. That can be exciting. But if you’re prone to anxiety, it can be terrifying. And this anxiety can lead to persistent fears (i.e. phobias).
In your case, it sounds like your fears are also, to some extent, an affront to your self-image. You think of yourself as “a single woman who often likes to hit the streets and explore on my own.” So why are you sitting there, clenched with fear?
the essential struggle here sounds psychic and emotional in nature. And I’d treat it like what it is: a mental health condition that requires treatment.
It may be that these specific fears — of violent crime — are subconsciously designed as a form of punishment. They rob you of one of the central joys of your life: the sense of strength and independence and self-reliance that allowed you to explore your world without terror.
But just so we’re clear about this: your fear of violent crime, and specifically rape, is a lot more common than people realize. The fact is that we live in a culture where certain populations (women, people of color, poor people) are routinely attacked, and are thus made to feel perpetually vulnerable. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, "Between the World and Me" is a brilliant exploration of this idea, in relation to men of color.
It’s also sad and true that we live in a culture that worships and fetishizes violence, in particular violence against women. The modern media also knows that playing to these terrors makes for good ratings, so more than ever we see images of violence and mayhem not just in our multiplexes, but on our TVs and in our news feeds. To the extent possible, I would disconnect from this bombardment of images.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you turn a blind eye to potential dangers in the world around you. But the essential struggle here sounds psychic and emotional in nature. And I’d treat it like what it is: a mental health condition that requires treatment.
That begins with finding a professional, or a set of professionals, who you can talk to about these persistent fears, and how to manage them. It may involve some talk therapy and/or cognitive behavioral therapy and/or a support group and/or anti-anxiety medication. You should be open to whatever helps you grapple with the deeper meaning of these fears.
Seeking this kind of help sounds like common sense. But it can be hard to accept, especially for someone, like yourself, who prides herself on her independence. But it’s the only path to leading a life in which you are protected by fear, not held hostage by it.
I wish you courage and good fortune,
Author's note: This letter writer is articulating what millions of women (and men) feel, but are afraid to admit. Bless her. And maybe you’re one of those people. Or have some useful advice. If so, feel free to offer counsel in the comments section below. And by all means send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.