Practicing being late

Girl yelling at pink alarm clock.

My panic attacks were frequently about being late. Tardiness worried me to no end. Whether it was for work or friends or family, to be late was to be an awful person. But as Murphy’s Law would have it, at the time I lived in an area served by only one bus, and said bus was never, ever on schedule. It didn’t matter how much I planned, or how many times I checked the schedule, I was always either just missing it, or waiting for ages and ages and ages. (It feels funny to note that this was before the day and age of internet-available-constantly-updating arrival times, not to mention before I owned a phone that had internet. I’m always behind the times. Believe me, when I was able to start checking on my computer, before I left the house, what time the bus would arrive, my life was changed). Confirmation bias was undoubtedly at play here, but don’t try telling that to someone with anxiety problems.

Basically, my day would run as follows: get up, run to the bus stop, fail to catch a bus either by just missing one or waiting for ages, have panic attack, go to work (or wherever) a wreck, or cancel. Tackle the next day. If I chose to go to work, the panic attack would stretch out along the way, ultimately alleviated by arrival. I was often on time. I hated public transit, specifically that bus route, with everything I had. I hated every morning. I hated life.

Enter CBT sessions. Eventually you will come to the point in therapy where some form of exposure is necessary. I thought this made a lot of sense. If you are afraid of spiders, exposure in a controlled and paced way may help to reduce your fear. Panic induced by going out with friends? By being in crowds or public spaces? Or how about interviews? These all make sense to expose. But being late? How could I expose myself to lateness? It’s a social taboo. I should show up late for work and suffer the awful consequences? Are you insane?

No, really, my CBT person wanted me to show up for work late, on purpose. To this day I still think that is a bit extreme. Of course I still put work before my mental health as though it were as normal as dipping toast in eggs-over-easy. Hmm…

Anyway, unable to face being late for work, I chose to be late for something else: my parents. I always call them when I’m going to be late. I never had a curfew as a kid, only the requirement that I call to let them know what my plans were, and my whereabouts at the time. It was a pretty sweet deal, parenting-style-wise. When I didn’t call, though – which was more often than I will ever let my future children know lest I lose the high ground when they do the same – the anxiety and pain in the voices of my parents was enough to crush my heart with guilt. One story I remember vividly was, when I was perhaps twelve, I walked my friend home. She lived around the block. I forget if I stayed and looked at something in her room, or talked to her parents for a bit. Then I took the long way home (which is only 2 minutes longer than the short way). When I got home, my father was apparently about the call the police he was so worried. That anger, that worry, I will never forget. I’m sorry, dad.

Fast-forward to the avoidance of being late. Being late on a time set with my parents was not a sin I looked forward to with relish.

I was careful to tell them when precisely Patrick and I would arrive one Sunday for lunch. I repeated it, as casually but insistently as possible, several times over the course of our phone conversation a day or two before. “11am, I’ll be there.”

But I would not be. On Sunday, I kept my cell phone close in the anticipation of angry and worried calls, and instead of going directly to my parents’ house, I went shopping not too far from their house. By the half hour, I expected a call.

I drove out to their neighbourhood the slow way, as circuitous a route as possible. I was fifteen minutes late by the time I reached the store. I checked my phone – nothing.

Patrick and I went into the store and wandered. The half hour came and went without a jingle or a buzz. I was confused. I was imagining their worry, their concern, preparing speeches to defend myself against my intentional tardiness.

The hour came. It passed. It was noon, and not a word had been transmitted in my direction. What was going on? Did they forget? Did they love me anymore? Why weren’t they calling?

At an hour and fifteen, I called. “Oh hey, I’m sorry we’re late. Patrick needed to pick something up at the store,” I said, as casually as possible.

“Oh no problem.”

“Yeah, sorry we’re so late.”

“No worries. We’re just getting lunch.”

“Okay. We’ll be there soon. Sorry we’re so, you know, late.”

“That’s okay. We figured you’re with Patrick.”

“Okay bye.”

You’re with Patrick? So he’s an almighty god that prevents any worry arising from lateness? What? Does he not count? What gives him these privileges? What black magic sway does he hold over you??

It took awhile for this revelation to sink in. They weren’t going to freak out. There was no hidden storm about to brew over with worry for my safety. It was okay. I was an hour and fifteen minutes late, and it was okay.

This little experiment broke down some of my confirmation bias. I began to see other people being five minutes late, or myself being late, without consequence. It was the beginning of effective understanding, of mindfulness towards my black-and-white thinking. It was, as they call it, a breakthrough.

via mindyourmind: reach out, give help, get help

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