Do you phantasize a lot? That’s how it used to be spelled, with a ph. It came from the same roots as phantom or phantasm…words for ghosts, spectres. Today, the modern version of the word tends to be associated with pleasurable imaginings, but the older word was neutral…a phantasy could be pleasant or unpleasant.
The phantasy world I live in can be pleasant, but often isn’t. That’s an understatement…one of my phantasies can read like the last act of Hamlet sometimes. Why do I do this to myself? Even when I set out to have a fun daydream, it can shift into some kind of nightmare scenario.
Sometimes it’s fueled by something going on in my life, and is just a particularly vivid and vicious type of future tripping. For instance, today I’m very anxious because we’re being jerked around about the lease on our new place. It’s supposed to get signed tomorrow, and I’m hoping all will go well and things will be less complicated soon…but by phantasizing all sorts of bad outcomes, I’ve worked myself into a highly agitated state.
Inside my head, we’re already facing tough decisions after being presented with some sort of deal-breaker. We’re already scrambling to renew the lease on our current place or desperately trying to find something else if they won’t let us. My spectral self is already feeling the frustration of starting all over and the stress about having to tell my daughter.
Not the healthiest way of dealing with uncertainty, but at least it’s understandable. The phantasies that really get to me are the negative ones that come with no particular cues. Disaster scenarios. Illness and accidents. Violence. Any horrible thing that could happen to me or my loved ones gets played out in various ways, not vague worries but complete scripts with dialogue, plot twists and secondary characters.
That huge earthquake that rips open the major faults in California? Already happened, multiple times. Biological warfare? Happened. Slow and agonizing deaths from radiation poisoning? Been there. Terminal cancer for me, for my family…done that. Violent assaults and their aftermath? Played out in a hundred ways. Post-apocalyptic treks across the desert, hostage dramas, dramatic confrontations of all kinds…all spun out by the middle levels of my consciousness. On the edge of sleep, or in quiet moments, or when I need to wait for something.
They are one reason I find it hard to sleep or meditate. A part of my mind needs to be focused on keeping them away or on substituting something less scary, and the activity of that part keeps me from falling over the edge time and time again.
I feel a need to understand this part of my psyche; to make sense of this. To come up with reasons–even weird ones–that explain some purpose they are serving, or some mysterious way they are helping me. I believe that the subconscious and unconscious have their own logic and are trying to adapt. So, what purpose might these kind of thought patterns serve?
Are they a way of turning vague existential anxiety into something with form and content? Or are they signs of some deep narcissistic need to be in a drama or be a hero? I could go on and on, getting into deeper and more archetypal ideas about this. There’s no way to know for sure, and my theories are all covering my deeper fear: that these are not meaningful at all but simply another manifestation of my mental health problems.
I fear this because, if I believe it’s psychological, there is hope that by continuing the work on myself I’ll lose the need to do this, and the scenarios will diminish in frequency and intensity. If it’s part of the mental disorder package, I may be dealing with it indefinitely. On the other hand, if I believe it’s a symptom I feel somehow less ashamed. I can tell myself that my messed-up inner landscape didn’t create all this out of thin air.
Of course, the truth is that it’s impossible to divide biology and psyche this way. Even if some of the impetus is neurological, my psyche is still influencing the way the response is played out. The more conscious I become of my internal process–the more I develop my “observing ego,” as the psychologists call it–the more I see it happening and how it relates to my anxieties, but that progress doesn’t extend to reducing any of it yet.
So here I am, watching these movies play in my head. My recovery requires me to practice both understanding and accepting myself, so whatever this is for me I need to accept it as well. Whatever it means about me; whatever it says about how strange or twisted I am, I can’t let it take me away from being present and living as well as I can. That’s my story today.