I can’t turn off my thoughts

I get really nervous on dates

Topics: Since You Asked, Anxiety, Anxiety Disorder, dating, Herpes, HIV, safe sex,

I can't turn off my thoughts (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I’m not really sure how to parse the stream of thoughts that got me to “I can’t turn off my thoughts” … that’s probably because they’re anxious thoughts, and they’re running around all over the place. I guess I’ll start by saying that I recently started online dating.

I don’t think that I’m a good “dater.” I’d much rather skip ahead and either be branded girlfriend or left alone. The in-between is not fun for me. I get anxious, paranoid and insecure. I’ve had a lot of false starts lately, so online dating seemed more deliberate — a better way to get to the point. And in fact, I’ve met someone I like. We’ve been seeing each other for over a month now. My problem is that I can’t let go from there.

Once I decided it was him I wanted (after a few really not good dates with other men, for clarity and juxtaposition), I found myself going back to my old pattern with new men entering my life. Before I had decided I wanted him, I felt good. Level-headed. Like I was on a fun mission to find someone worthy of me, someone that could be a good husband and father (did I mention I’m 30? I’m 30). Now that I’ve pinpointed this particular person as someone I want to call boyfriend (though I’m not jumping ahead to father and husband just yet), I’m paranoid that he’s playing me, that the sweet things he says to me are being said to other women, that he’s going to infect me with HIV and herpes and then leave me for someone more appealing. That when he says he wants kids he’s only saying it because it sounds good. He’s “sexy.” I’ve never dated anyone that’s sexy in the way that he’s sexy. He’s confident. He’s got a great face. A strong body. A voice that melts. He looks like trouble. So, I’ve gone from being breezy about it to being a wide-eyed, paranoid worrier. I read too much into text messages. I replay conversations for signs of cracks. I can’t just chill the fuck out and let whatever’s going to happen, happen. I feel like he’s going to see this all over my face, feel it in my touch, freak out and run. I don’t want to feel needy or clingy or paranoid. I want to relax and let this be a fun experience. How do I do that?

Trying to Find the Calm

Dear Trying to Find the Calm,

You sound like a person who is orderly, thoughtful and fond of making decisions. The desire for clarity can make romance tough.

But you can live with this feeling of being unsettled. Nervousness means you’re alive and something good is about to happen. That’s how I think about it, anyway.

If you think about it, this feeling of being unsettled is a truer reflection of reality than the feeling that everything is nailed down. The feeling that everything is nailed down is an illusion. Everything is, in fact, fluid and in transition, from the molecular state on up to coffee and muffins.

We are decaying animals. Nothing is truer than this. And nothing heightens sexual desire more than our deep sense that life is fleeting: Let’s sanctify this moment, right now, you and me. Let’s find a warm, soft place and repopulate.

Opposed to this urge is of course the possibility that he has herpes and HIV and is going to leave you gasping for air in a strange hotel.

One must live with certain risks.

One can also take precautions! You can do both. You can contain this magnificent lust and manage the risks it entails.

But this lust is no joke. It is holy. It is the voice of your species and all your ancestors and potential descendants expressing their longing for being and immortality. The history of our species speaks in the language of genetics. Humanity, expressed as unique genetic formulation, yearns to be reborn in endless succession of recombination.

That’s pretty heady. All that world-historical longing going on in each of us. It is amazing and profound. But so is being human. We balance all that with irony and denial. And why not? Who can walk around knowing the entirety of this gobsmacking truth all the time and not trip over the dog? Or the curb? Or a blind woman leaving the bakery? This is what we do, we remarkably intelligent yet fragile creatures: We work daily to reconcile our knowledge of miracle and mystery with necessity. We walk around knowing how amazing this all is and try not to knock over the salt. We keep our clothes in good repair and try not to sing too loudly on the train.

Now, on a more prosaic note, there is such a thing as anxiety disorder and it’s no joke.

I went  for years with symptoms of an anxiety disorder. I had a panic attack in 2004 in which I thought I was having a heart attack. I called 911 and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

So, you’d think that, having had a panic attack, I would be treated for anxiety disorder. But that kind of didn’t happen, probably because I had an anxiety disorder. That is, the disease prevented me, for a while, from getting treated. That’s a cute paradox: The diseases prevent us from getting treated. They don’t want to die! They’re like parasitic demons that want to live on in us!

Well, OK, that’s a little fanciful. But part of the pact I have made in writing this column is to try to be honest about my own experience — saying not just what I know to be true and verifiable but also what it feels like to me.

Let’s temper it this way: Lots of people get nervous when they can’t control things or know the outcome of future events. Lots of people carry on conversations in their heads. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder. On the other hand, it’s good to keep in mind that anxiety disorders are a real thing, and anybody can get them, and they can be treated. So it couldn’t hurt to see somebody about your nervousness. If it is an anxiety disorder, it can be treated. And if it is just nervousness about life, meditation and yoga and sleep and exercise and prayer and walking and long baths and chamomile tea and more vacations and petting dogs and laughing at movies can all help.

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