Nobody is watching

Engineering my summer, project one: Mental Health

I’ve gone back and forth about wanting to write this but I am going to go ahead and do it anyway. It’s going to probably cast me a in a bit of a bad light, but you know what? I probably deserve it.

I have always been a little bit paranoid. It’s not debilitating on a daily basis. It is something I live with pretty normally. It’s not a dangerous kind of “somebody is chasing me” kind of paranoid (although…when I was a kid there was a bit of that.) It’s more like “somebody is watching.”

Although it doesn’t cause me trouble, it certainly is unpleasant to constantly feel like I am being watched.

Candid Camera Forever

It is easy to pinpoint the origin of this paranoia: I remember being about six years old and a friend telling me that she had seen Santa Claus looking in her bedroom window. I told her that Santa Claus didn’t exist and she told me, “oh yes he does and he is always watching.”

Boom. Around that time I was trying to understand how God could be someone who knew everything about me, yet be someone I couldn’t see. Badaboom.

Also around that time there was a show called Candid Camera. Although I am not sure I ever watched it, I remember friends talking about it, how there were hidden cameras and people were tricked and the whole thing was caught on camera. Boom Badaboom.

Finally, when I was about seven, a kid I used to walk home from school with and I were followed home by an older kid from down the street. He said he had a knife and he harassed us, saying awful, terrible things that even now make me sick to my stomach. Boom. Badabadaboom.

All these pieces fell together to create in my heart and my brain a first-rate paranoia that someone was always watching me and I needed to be careful.

Upping the Ante

As if all this wasn’t enough: I also around that time starting acting in plays. So to add to my paranoia that even when I was alone someone was watching, now, there really were people watching.

Somehow, being on stage took some of the discomfort of the paranoia away: at least when I was on stage there was a reason for people to be looking at me. At least I could be relatively sure they really were, and that I wasn’t just imagining it.

The Truman Show Et Al

So seriously. TV and movies did not help. Just before I got married, the movie The Truman Show came out, and honestly, I felt like he was living my life. Reality TV versions of the same thing started shortly thereafter (Big Brother and its ilk), and while luckily my husband and I have never owned a television together, references in my Entertainment Weekly magazine to these people living in a house full of cameras did nothing to soothe my paranoia.

Living with it

Sometimes, living as though someone is always watching can be helpful. As a parent, when I am really really angry with my children, that nagging thought that someone is watching can keep me from doing anything I might regret.

What is frustrating about living with it is that it has built up an expectation inside of me that someone should be watching me. That somehow, I am interesting enough that someone should be paying attention to me.

The place this causes the most trouble is in my marriage.

Paranoia: the third person in our marriage

From the beginning, I have needed more attention than my husband could give. He is only one man, and as indulgent as he may be, he cannot take the place of a full theater full of people whose eyes on me make me feel less paranoid.

I truly did not understand any of this in the early days of our marriage: I didn’t understand that feeling like people were watching me was not normal. Given how voyeuristic our pop culture had become, I had no point of reference to understand that this wasn’t normal.

What it felt like to me, simply, was that I was unloved. I wasn’t getting the adoration I had expected to get from being married. So I got it into my head that he didn’t love me. Not, mind you, that my expectations were too high, or that there was something wrong with me. I just assumed he didn’t love me.

No, really. No one is watching.

It wasn’t until about six years ago that I started to realize that no one was watching. I got the first hint of it when I labored by myself for hours in a hospital room because the clinic staff had forgotten about me.

Then as I faced days and nights with a hyper-sensitive infant who literally could not have cared less about my paranoia, I began to understand that I truly was on my own. Because really, if someone were watching, they would have stepped in to help.

Nope. Actually, I was finding that I was invisible, a truth which was shockingly difficult to digest.

How talk of a dress has made this something I need to deal with

I have mentioned it before, but I got caught up in a community of ladies who are doing a 100 Day Dress challenge–wearing the same dress for 100 days in a row. It’s a special kind of dress, made of a special kind of material. The dress itself is not what I enjoy about this community.

What I love is how creative the ladies can be. They post a photo a day of their outfit, how they style the dress differently each day. I love how encouraging the ladies are with one another.

What I live for is to read their captions like, “I have worn this dress for forty-eight days straight and no one has noticed. Not even my family.”

Captions like this started scratching the surface of my paranoia, leaving me to think that perhaps I needed to have this experience for myself: I needed to lean-in to feeling invisible.

My first experiment in feeling invisible

It started when I commented on Lilee’s photo. She is a gorgeous redhead, the sister of Deana, with whom I share a passion for vintage things and who has become someone I treasure chatting with as often as I can. They live in Montana, a place I have never imagined going to, but that, because of a dress, I now really really want to visit!

Lilee looked particularly youthful in her photo, and I mentioned it. She said “It’s cause I am not wearing any makeup.” And honestly, my first reaction was, “If I didn’t wear any makeup, everyone would think I was sick. My kids would say I looked old.” So I commented something to that effect.

Everyone.

Everyone who? Who would think I was sick? Was it just my kids? Did I really think that anyone would notice?

I have said it before: I hate talking about makeup. I have a little routine that has gotten more and more elaborate as I age, but I went every single day of lockdown last year putting my face on, even though the only people I ever saw were my scalawags and my husband.

So. Everyone who? Would I be willing to try?

Just for a week

I decided that I would try something. For one week, I decided to not wear any makeup (Ihatetalkingaboutmakeup Ihatetalkingaboutmakeup). I didn’t do my complicated eyeliner smudged to perfection so that it would look like I wasn’t wearing any makeup. No. I wasn’t going to put on lipstick (which I did in spite of wearing a mask do not ask me why.)

And guess what? Literally no one noticed.

Not once. No one asked me if I was sick. No one mentioned a thing to me.

Now: Did they notice and just not say anything because they are too kind? Perhaps. I am just paranoid enough to wonder this.

However, guess what? My paranoia started to erode a little bit.

The Ideal Life Exercise

One of my Ideal Life themes is Mental Health. I genuinely, through the years I have been doing these exercises, have never thought that my paranoia was something that I could actually do anything about. It was never so debilitating that it got in the way of my life, so I never addressed it.

Suddenly, I saw how just one little week of leaning into being invisible could make a difference, and I was eager to see what a longer period could do. Doing the 100 Day Dress challenge, an idea floated by my sister and father, was one thing that I thought could help.

Engineering my summer

For years I have had either special summer knitting projects to do, writing projects to finish… These were always concrete goals with concrete outcomes. This year, however, I am going to try something a little different.

This summer, I am going to specifically work on this issue of paranoia. It might just start by wearing the same dress every day and dropping the makeup for every day use.

At the start of my Buy No Clothes in 2021 challenge, I set out to deal with the thoughts of covetousness by writing down every time the thoughts would surface. Instead of trying to ignore them, I considered them and let them complete their course. After seven weeks, I saw that the thoughts had begun to dissipate and that my mind was truly less occupied with what I didn’t have.

I am going to try to do the same with my paranoid thoughts, in the hopes that they also will dissipate. A summer seems just about the right length of time to make a dent in this.

So concretely, this summer I will:

  • Do a wear-the-same-dress challenge (more to come on this)
  • Write down my paranoid thoughts
  • Pare down my makeup (with specific exceptions)
  • Work on my negative self-talk
  • Pay attention to my hormonal mood swings

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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