R is for Reality Checks and Relationships

Anxious readers and partners, pay attention to this post. Get some decaf coffee. Settle in. We’ll be following up and expanding on this post when we reach the letter T.

I have mentioned that Amy G. Dala is pretty much a serial liar. That’s because she always exaggerates in order to get you to pay attention to her.  We all know people who do this. There is the guy who always claims his boat sails 15 knots in a 10 knot breeze.  There is the person who seems perfectly healthy but always claims that death is right around the corner.  These people are attention-seekers. They are exhausting and energy sucking. And that describes an overly active Amy G. Dala very well. She can create tension that registers like this:

The problem is that sometimes Amy is right! Let me give you an example of how my inner Amy creates a problem where there usually isn’t one. Mostly, my inner Amy prefers to focus on distance and other measuring… as in:

Is there enough room to get into our slip without crushing that other boat?
Is there enough room to back out of our slip without crushing that other boat?
How far are we from those boat-crushing rocks?
How far are we from the boat-crushing bottom in this water? (Amy likes it to be over 100 feet.)
How close is that boat anchored to us and will we crush him? (Which he will totally deserve if he anchors too close to us because that is just rude.)

These are the kinds of things that drive Mike a little mad. I’m sorry, baby. I just want you to live. It doesn’t help that on occasion, Amy has been correct. We have been too close or in water too shallow. This summer we were exploring a bay up in Canada and I just didn’t trust the chart for some reason, so I was going dead slow. Dead slow is my very favorite speed when we are in a new place. Suddenly we had less than 1 foot under the keel and I was screaming into reverse and revving the engine to keep us off the ground. According to the chart (Yes, I was scrolled in tight. I told you I only had to learn that once.) we should have had over 10 feet of water. Amy was already on high alert because it was less than 100 feet.  It was a soft bottom but still. Better not to go aground no matter how soft the bottom is. Yeah. Amy was right that time. When Amy is right, it only encourages her.

The Astoria Marina entrance always felt so small to me when it is actually plenty big.

The Astoria Marina entrance always felt so small to me when it is actually plenty big.

The fact that sometimes your anxiety is going to bear ripe fruit can be confusing and irritating. Wouldn’t it just be easier if you could simply ignore that internal voice of fear and allow your partner to ignore it as well? Living with someone who struggles with anxiety is a pain in the ass. Take a minute to thank your partner, if you have one, for sticking it out with you because there are some days when, I guarantee you, it would be easier for them to simply go it alone.

Loving partners want to help keep you calm, and that’s fine. But it’s a fine line to walk to allow your partner to contribute to calming you down without making them responsible your internal state of tension. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Over the years I have worked with many people whose partners suffered from profound anxiety, way worse than my own (knock on wood). As a rule, those people came to see me because they felt worn out and their relationship was at risk. The felt nothing they did was enough for their partner. They wanted nothing more than to see their partner be happy, and they did everything they could to accommodate their partner’s belief system. They folded laundry a certain way. They never went to bed without giving the cats that third daily feeding. They put their shoes in a certain place without fail. They changed social plans at the very last minute, on command. Anxiety drives a lot of weird expectations when people are trying to control their outer world in order to keep their inner world in some kind of peaceful state.

But it was never enough. The partners were critical and sometimes downright abusive, blaming my clients for their own general unhappiness. In each case the mutual belief system was that if my clients would only try harder then the partner would be happy. But the partner never WAS happy. Usually by the time my clients finally came to see me, they were pretty broken, convinced that something was terribly wrong with themselves, that they were somehow just not worthy of a good relationship. Somehow they were doing it wrong.

And you know what? They WERE doing it wrong. They were taking ownership of a problem that they had no control over. And every time they tried to rescue their mate from the mate’s own inner suffering,  it encouraged a level of emotional dependency that left them drained and discouraged. Their partners had become a living, breathing, Amy G. Dala in the flesh; horror incarnate. Unbeknownst to them, they were holding their partner back from examining their own suffering and developing coping skills, and even, in some cases, getting treatment. Take my word for it: anxiety can break up a marriage. I could write an entire book, just on this topic.

Reality check:  if you have anxiety, it’s YOUR problem. Not your partner’s. Sure, it affects them, but they can’t fix it for you. They may be able to help in specific situations, but they can’t fix it and they are not responsible for it. How do you decide where the buck stops? How can you tell if your inner Amy needs a time out in her room, or whether you should be listening to her? That is the million dollar question.

Staying well off Race Rocks. What looks like fog is actually smoke from forest fires last summer. Very sad, indeed.

I wish there were a general answer to that question but there isn’t. However, I think part of the answer lies in results and reason. If something your partner does out of love for you (and maybe out of wanting to reduce their own suffering because of you) results in an actual decrease in anxious thinking, then why not? If it’s a small thing and they don’t resent doing it, or it benefits the two of your together, then by all means give it a go.  Again, I illustrate through examples:

I’ve written here that due to a series of unfortunate experiences, I’m generally anxious about leaving the dock, just the pulling out of the slip part. It’s my own problem and I know that it is unreasonable. Even though it belongs to me, it affects Mike because he can always tell when I’m stressed. So as a couple, we have some choices in how to handle that. First, we could never leave the dock. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?  So that’s not happening.

Second, Mike, who is the captain of the ship, could accept that there is a possibility that we will hit the boat next to us. That’s HIS reality check about my anxiety.  I mean, people hit other boats all the time in marinas. Just because I have anxiety doesn’t mean it’s not possible that our boat will hit the one next to us. Unlikely, yes, but not impossible. See how that works?  It’s an actual possibility, even if it’s less likely to happen than I think it is.

Here’s the interesting thing: if he accepts that it is possible we could hit that boat, then my anxiety suddenly goes way down because I know that he acknowledges the problem, even if I make it bigger than it needs to be. He could take a little time to explain to me how we are going to get out without crushing the big-assed boat next to us. He could learn with me how to control the bow using lines rather than just saying, in effect, ‘Stop worrying. It will be fine.’ Because if I believed that then there would be no problem and that kind of answer makes it sound like he’s just throwing caution to the wind.  These things would be good for both of us and would go a long way toward making me feel more confident as we pull out of the slip. He might actually learn something too.

Here’s a reality check about couples: when both people agree that something COULD happen, even if their emotional state about that problem differs, suddenly the energy shifts. Suddenly you are working as a team again and back into problem solving mode. Try it sometime. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

Now rewind to that panic attack I was having on the way to Tofino last summer.  I lay down in the cockpit. There was no danger anywhere, the weather was calm, the water serene. But I was having anxiety. In this case, there was literally nothing he could do to help me. I told him I would handle it and that he shouldn’t concern himself. That may not make him less worried about me, but it does allow him to know that I’m not holding him responsible for what my body is doing.

In another instance this summer, we were anchored off a small island close to Tofino. It seemed fine to both of us, but when we got up the next morning, I checked the depth sounder and began worrying we were going to hit bottom. I hollered down to Mike, who thought I could be right (thanks, Honey) and out of curiosity got out the lead line. He measured the depth at the bow and it seemed we had plenty of room. He went below, checking oil and other manly stuff. I was not actually satisfied and kept watch.

When I continue to be on alert, even when faced with actual numbers, then I tend to listen to myself. There are intangible feelings at play that have to do with intuition. At this point, I was not feeling ‘anxious’, only alert. It’s different.  I looked at the stern of the boat and low and behold, I could see mud very close to our stern. Too close for me. This time I just didn’t bother to ask him. I walked forward and brought in some chain, pulling us out into deeper water. About this time, he wanted to start the engine anyhow, so he did, and the prop kicked up a lot of mud. Thanks, Amy. You were right, again. Sometimes you just have to listen to your gut.

Reality check: just because someone has anxiety doesn’t mean they are always wrong. When you begin paying attention, you can differentiate between being anxious, and alert intuition. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

See the mud? Yes, you’ve also seen this photo before. It’s not your imagination.

I know that I’m likely to get spun up over distances and in the past I’ve had to rely on Mike to convince me that we were not too close to that other boat, or that rock wall, or whatever. He gets tired of that, and so do I because on some level I don’t think he’s any better at estimating distance than I am. Next time we go out I’ll have a reality check in my hot little hand now. It’s called a Laser Range Finder and Mike was gifted one for Christmas. It’s similar to this one.  We are very excited to use it because it’s going to be a quick and easy way to measure distance without having to figure it out on the GPS.   I’m pretty sure that it will go a long way towards solving any arguments we could have about whether we are ‘too close’ before they even happen. Hey, maybe by the time it either breaks or wears out, I won’t have this problem anymore because I’ll be more experienced! A girl can dream.

I can’t finish this post without talking for a minute about the difference, again, between anxiety and fear, this time in the context of the relationship. I’ve made the statement that your partner is not responsible for your anxiety. But what if they are responsible for making you afraid? I’ve noticed a couple of questions posted on a private FB forum for women where the woman is posting that she wants help controlling her anxiety, then goes on to describe behaviors that her mate exhibits that make her anxious. In the posts I’m thinking of, I’ve replied that the problem appears to be one of choice of mates, not one of anxiety. Don’t mistake chronic anxiety for fear of real things. If you consider if for a minute, you’ll know the difference unless you are already in a state of panic as you read this.

Maybe your partner is really doing something that makes you afraid, and because you have anxiety it’s easier to blame you for being anxious than to take their own responsibility for being foolish. I am reminded of the many women whose men make them terrified in the car because they drive way too fast, wait too long to apply brakes when traffic ahead is already stopped, tailgate the car in front of them, zip in and out of traffic, and in general drive like the rules don’t apply to them. (Sure, I’m stereotyping. But there’s a reason why that stereotype exists in this case.) If you are the partner of someone who has anxiety, the single worst thing you can do is betray their trust by blaming their anxiety when you are doing something that actually is actually making them afraid.  That’s completely on you, my friend.

Do you do speed through no-wake zones? Anchor on top of other boats? Fail to check tide and current charts? Go up on deck without a life vest and tether at night when your partner should be resting? Climb the mast without proper safety equipment? Constantly sail with the rail in the water, even though your partner has asked you to lighten up? If you do stuff like that, then consider yourself lucky you have a partner at all. If you have a partner that has anxiety (or any partner at all, come to think of it) it’s part of your job as 1/2 of the equation to ask yourself if there is anything you are doing that is contributing to the problem. If so, then stop doing it. Maybe your anxious partner is right.

A day with zero anxiety.

Likewise anxious people can blame themselves for having anxiety when what they are really experiencing is good old fashioned fear, like the women who I’ve seen post in that private group.  I’m reminded of the woman who came to see me because she was afraid at home all the time. She thought she must have anxiety. She couldn’t relax in her own home, and she couldn’t sleep. Turns out she lived in a gang infested neighborhood where people actually got shot and there was, in general, a high level of all kinds of crime. Every night she would hear gunshots. The solution? Move the hell out of that neighborhood. She did. Problem solved. Sometimes it really is just that simple. I’ll never really understand why she had to come to me to figure that out. But I was glad to have been of service to her.

Be responsible for your own anxious feelings. Look at them. Examine them. On some level, you are going to know it if Amy is being overly dramatic, even if there is little you can do about it. Just say it out loud, ” Amy is being overly dramatic just now. It will go away.”  It can be a relief of a sort when you realize that even though your body has these feelings we call anxiety, no one is actually to blame. If your partner is not doing anything to create fear, take your partner off the hook. If your partner IS doing something that creates true fear, and they won’t stop, well, that’s probably another kind of conversation.

This was a long post. If you want to read from the beginning of the series, here’s your link to the letter A. Stay tuned for the follow up when we publish the letter T.


23 thoughts on “R is for Reality Checks and Relationships

  1. OMG did this hit home with me or what! We have been sailing for about 20 years. Recently, we moved our boat from MA to FL. I find that I am less anxious after having traversed the ICW from MA down to Amelia Island, but ….

    This season we moved from Amelia Island down south. First night out we ran aground (high tide was in the middle of the night so no sleeping that night). Second night out we ran aground. Same circumstance except that this time when we relocated we ended up slamming into a channel marker in the middle of the night and taking out one of the shrouds on the mizzen. I am still trying to stay positive after all of this, but then we anchor outside of a marina and all night we are slipping and so no sleep that night either. We finally get underway and head south. One night of relative calm seas at anchor. Next day we are motoring down and he gets distracted and ends up hitting a channel marker head on. Took out the bow pulpit and tore the back wheel off the bicycle that was attached to the safety rails. How am I supposed to feel confident on this boat after that whole scenario?

    I am trying, really I am! We end up on a mooring (which also presents problems in itself as we move from outside to inside). I really begin to doubt myself after a while. Am I just totally afraid of everything, or do I have real fears about this life we are trying to lead?

    We are home now, safe and sound and grounded. In a couple of months though we will be facing the same issues as we have in the past.

    This post has made me see that maybe there is a possibility of a happy medium. My captain is not a totally unreasonable person. Sometimes he just seems to think there is no danger when I feel there is imminent danger. Hopefully we can find that happy medium. We are not spring chickens – he is 72 and I am 65 – so there will not be too very many seasons ahead of us. Thank you for helping me understand that there is a way that we can make these final years of sailing happy ones for both of us.


    • Oh my goodness you have really been through the ringer! I’m so sorry to hear it, but so happy you posted here and that this post helped you think things through. It sounds to me like you have some honest to goodness fears that is grounded in reality. I hope you and your captain can have a frank conversation about what needs to happen in order to make cruising safer for BOTH of you, and for your boat as well. Please stay tuned for the letter T, which may give you further fruit for discussion. Thank you very much for posting your experience. It’s my fervent hope that these blog posts about anxiety will help other people.

    • Well, it’s a good question with a number of answers. First, read my post entitled D is for Death by Docking. That gives you some background history. Second, we cannot always go slow in a marina. The current and wind pushes us around, meaning we must use our engine to keep forward momentum in the direction we want to go. I would LOVE it if we could always go dead slow in a marina. I truly would. Third, our boat weighs 23 tons. That’s 46,000 pounds. You do not ‘push away’ anything using feet, poles, etc. It’s way too heavy for that. That belong to the many gifts that people with smaller boats have.

  2. Hi Melissa, very interesting post that really hit home for me in many different ways. Did you discuss intuition more in your earlier posts? I had read a little about Amy in your “poorhouse” post, and I’m slightly confused, as you have a sister, Amy, and here you are saying something about Mom being Amy. What I’ve come to believe is that the actual “Amy” is an alter ego anxious state that you are giving a name. Since I can’t seem to get myself back to “A”, this is what I am making an assumption. Anyway, speak if you would a little more about intuition. About two or three hours before the Loma Perita earthquake in the Bay Area, I believe in 1989, I was in my office in Santa Clara, CA, and an inner voice told me three times at least to “go home”. If I had listened to that inner voice I would have headed the opposite way from the epicenter instead of heading straight into it in my car, by telling myself, that my inner child was just wanting to be childish, by not taking responsibility for the rest f my adult day, which included going to my practicing site very close to all the damaged area, and having to drive under overpasses that I felt fear about, because I was hearing about the collapse of the Oakland bridge on the car radio. Luckily, I got to a safe area, eventually, as there were a lot of emergency vehicles on the way to safety. Just a share that sometimes that inner voice or intuition is coming from true reality! Blessings, Carole

    • I can see why you’d be confused about the name Amy! Yes, in these posts Amy refers to the amygdala, Amy. G. Dala. (There should be a link to the first post, letter A, at the bottom of each post. I’ll make sure it’s there on this one if you want to go back.) I have not talked much about intuition in these posts because it’s such a complex subject, and so personal, that it’s hard to find words without writing an actual book. But yes, sometimes you have to just listen to that inner voice and understand that action is better than no action. I continue to learn that over and over, even with small things such as taking a jacket with me when I leave, even though I know I won’t need it. If that inner voice says, ‘better take a jacket’, I better listen.

  3. Do you remember the whole pet rock fad? That was all part of the evil boat-crushing rocks’ PR campaign to appear more mild-mannered and benign to the public. The idea was that we would all think rocks are cute and cuddly and then we’d vote for their party nominee in the next election. My Amy was on top of thing and I never fell for it. I always knew that it was political maneuvering worthy of a House of Cards episode and that the rocks were really out to get us and crush our boats. Like you say, that’s the problem with Amy – sometimes, she’s right.

  4. Eileen Quinn always puts a little levity into our boating concerns, she lets me laugh at situations. This is her song about docking:

    Sometimes I just want to stay at the dock, to avoid the comings, and goings. This is really silly, because I know once we get out there, I will enjoy it. We also have a very heavy boat, and I am not skilled enough to handle the starboard prop-walk in reverse.

    Once when we were getting into a slip in Nanaimo, the engine quit…I’m running for fenders, so we will not hit all of the expensive boats around us, Bill is telling me to re-start the engine, (the key is below), he leaves the helm to dash below, I am fending off the huge power boat in front, people are running for their fenders on their boats…chaos. This happens THREE times before we get into the slip. People on the dock grab lines, as they could, and haul us in, and secure us…whew. Bill will say that it wasn’t that bad…(I’m pretty sure that Amy G. Dala is mute in his head), and he fixed the problem by turning up the idle on the diesel engine. It’s never done it since.

    • Wait, wasn’t he down in the boat getting the key for part of the time? It sounds awful to me and I’m glad it all turned out well. You’ll be interested to know that women actually do have anxiety way more than men do, about 2:1 if I remember my statistics correctly. There are lots of reasons for that I assume. But yes, those are the kinds of events that lead one to want to just enjoy being on a boat, tied to the dock for sure. Good job fending off! And thanks for the song. Very funny! Last summer I was just ‘this close’ to thinking I could dock our girl when boating season ended. I don’t think I’ll have to completely start over this year, but we’ll see. Perhaps if Bill would just admit that it was a fiasco, you’d feel better about it.

      • When we first got the boat, I did ALL of the docking right off the bat, even after putting the first scratch in her new paint job at Port Townsend. I can put her in the slip we have now too, but I can’t back her in, or do that spin in place thing. (yet) 😉

        I’ve driven her in to seeing LeConte glacier twice, dodging ice bergs, and growlers. That’s fun!

        • You are my hero! I tried putting Galapagos in her slip one time and took out the outboard engine of the guy behind us. He was there and fortunately caught it as it was going under water, no harm done but Mike gave the guy 100$ for his trouble. I ended up in the wrong slip and thanks be to God the slip was open. Were that kind of thing to happen now with almost 100% occupancy, it would certainly not end well for us. I used to dock Moonrise, our Cal 34, all the time. I miss that. But I will get it back. It’s hard to regain confidence over the winter when we are not on the boat. Likely we will hire someone to come and teach us both some techniques for docking our big full keeled girl. I have some ideas about who, but I really need reassurance that this person understands anxiety and doesn’t think that all I need is a little coaching. The last person I interviewed about possibly helping us is a guy who is a ferry captain. Nice guy and probably very well versed in docking maneuvers, but he commented to me that docking Galapagos was basically the same as docking our dinghy. HUH? Are you F***ing kidding me? Sorry, but no dice. I had to take him off the list, even though he is friendly enough. He just did not get it. At all. It would really probably help me a lot being comfortable if we had a slip on the end of the pier. These are more expensive and we can’t afford that right now, but once we live aboard maybe we can. Then I would be more comfortable getting on and off the dock, we’d take her out all the time, and I could practice getting the feel of docking without the anxiety of hitting other boats. It would be worth the extra money to me.

  5. I’m really enjoying your series, Melissa. I deal with some of the things you’ve written about and it’s good to know that I’m handling the situations in a healthy way and that I’m not alone in my fears and concerns. Thanks for putting yourself out there and sharing!

    • It really pleases me so much to know that your are benefiting from this series, Stephanie. No, you are certainly not along. My hope is that this series will open up a conversation for people, especially if they are cruisers/sailors. I messaged you privately on your S/V Cambria page.

  6. Measuring distance: we used our Furuno radar to measure distance (to shore, to other boats, etc) ALL the time. Highly recommend having a radar that does this (and learning how to use this function).


    • We do have radar on board and certainly use it to see distance between us and other targets on the radar, but I don’t know if it would be able to measure the distance between, say, our boat and rocks on shore. I’ll have to see if it does that. It’s an old unit, but we chose not to replace it because it still works fine.

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  9. Thanks for this post Melissa. My husband got absolutely furious with me when I asked him to put on his life jacket while up on deck raising the mainsail in very rolly seas. I tried to explain that this would make me feel much better (my biggest fear (anxiety?) is him falling overboard). He says it feels like I have no trust in his abilities, I feel it’s just a simple thing to ask. After reading your post I have a better understanding of his point of view, but I still want to read him your sentence – “when both people agree that something COULD happen, even if their emotional state about that problem differs, suddenly the energy shifts. Suddenly you are working as a team again and back into problem solving mode.” One step at a time….

    • It’s too bad that your husband thinks that wearing a life jacket somehow makes him less skilled. It’s not only a simple thing to ask, frankly you shouldn’t even HAVE to ask. It’s a healthy fear to have to be cautious about falling overboard. Perhaps he can ‘splain to you all the things he does to keep himself on board. If, at that point, he still refuses to wear a life jacket, and he still gets his ego in a twist because you’d prefer it, then you will need to just let it go. If he falls overboard, then he might hope you know how to get him back. And you should definitely decide if you can single hand your boat. I’m working on that one myself! We’re all in this together.

  10. I love this post, and will go back and read from A. Frankly it causes me a little anxiety just reading this, I took some deep breathes, and breaks. I don’t have anxiety about the same things you do. Crashing into other boats and running aground are not my fears. Mine involve big wind, big waves, demasting and monsters of the deep. I’ve faced some big waves and big winds, and heard the monsters of the deep speak to me through the hull during a terrible storm. For others more experienced what I went through was just a bad storm, but for me it was scary. This year I will return to the same area I faced that last storm, I’m more prepared, yet still fearful. I’m taking deep breaths and studying the weather and tides.

    • You capture perfectly the archetypal image of the great unknown, and the sheer power and terror of nature at its fullest. I would say to you that in your inner narrative, be sure that you always include the ending, that you got through it, that you survived and learned. That the monsters of the deep with their terrible appetites did not get you. You might want to read my post on almost being eaten by a sea cave. Perhaps it might give you some tools to use before going back to face your own monsters. Go here: http://littlecunningplan.com/2016/04/knowing-my-limits/ And also, a few sacrifices to the sea gods never go amiss! We have to cover all our bases.

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