“Worrying is praying for stuff you don’t want.”
Bargains with God
When I was little, I used to make little bargains with God. Especially on long car rides. I’d ask God to introduce himself in a way that I could understand but nothing so dramatic as to blow his cover or make it so that others wouldn’t have to have faith in order to keep believing in him. Because I knew that was important to him, that people have faith in him.
“If you exist, God,” I’d say, “give me a sign.”
And then I’d scan my surroundings for any abnormalities. A cloud that looked like a halo or an angel. A religious bumper sticker or license plate on passing cars. Anything.
Any sign at all.
The idea was to comfort myself. To find a way to test and really know that there was something out there watching me. That everything I was hearing at church wasn’t just lip service. That it was grounded in something.
I knew better than to voice my doubts to the adults surrounding me and ask them for reassurance. I’d learned from the grownups in my life that being skeptical, even in question form, was akin to light blasphemy.
So I didn’t ask them for reassurance.
Instead, I made bargains with God, ways he could prove to me that he was there — if he existed.
And because I was looking for it, I normally did see a sign. Or at least something I could easily stretch into one, with a few leaps of logic.
In some ways, it was a form of prayer, one that provided a lot of comfort on days when it seemed like no one was really in charge of the world. Days when it seemed like we were all on a giant ship lost at sea with no captain behind the wheel to steer it.
Outliving the Pain and Not Blinking Out of Existence
While I was a fairly happy-go-lucky child, my adolescence was rough. I was hit with a series of major traumas and an unstable home life and found that I grew into a troubled young adult. A haunted one. Everywhere I went, I was always pursued by a nagging sense that something was wrong. I frequently had nightmares that seemed real. Sometimes I had these bad dreams while I was wide awake, scaring everyone around me — and of course no picnic for me either, as I feared I’d completely lose my grip on reality any day and never come back.
I was worked up medically, ruled out for epilepsy, quickly diagnosed with a sleep disorder that jumped out on EEG, and much later on informed that I also had a pretty bad case of PTSD (although by the time I got the diagnosis, it was after I’d been self-treating for years, sometimes coping healthily, other times not so much).
I tried to stay positive through all of this, following my grandma’s advice, who told me that if you’re sad you should just put on bright lipstick and smile. But every time I turned around, I was in danger of being swallowed by my own despair. I cried every day multiple times a day. Would frequently throw up from stress.
And the smallest things terrified me. I will filled with self-doubt, self-loathing. A wish that I’d never existed and a sense that everything I did harmed the world in ways small or large.
A close friend at the time put it this way, “Page, the only thing that’s wrong with you is that you think there’s something wrong with you. But you think it so much that it becomes a giant problem.”
There were no bargains for me to make then. No prayers. Only a begrudging survival and the task of simply outliving the pain and fear that threatened to dissolve my soul.
I was motivated in those days less by self-love but more by stubbornness — I clung tightly to the idea that my life’s only purpose was to exact revenge on those who abused or doubted me and to prove them wrong by recovering.
I didn’t honestly believe in those days that I would ever become anything. But I was gonna be damned if I blinked out of existence, if I destroyed myself, if I gave my abuser what she wanted.
Those were the hardest years of my life, hands down. Completely un-glamorous. I did a lot that I’m not proud of, looking back.
But hey, I made it.
Bargains with the Devil
It took a while, but eventually life not only got okay, it actually got pretty darn good.
When this first happened, when life got good, I was initially very suspicious. Sensed that there must be danger lurking just around the corner. Everything was, as they say, a little too good to be true.
So I braced myself for an impact I knew was coming.
But it didn’t come.
And instead things got even better.
I wish I could end this essay here. But I can’t.
Because a funny thing happened as I eased into this new life, one that felt too good for me, one that I didn’t feel worthy of. I never adjusted. Never became fully comfortable with it. And part of me didn’t know what to do, how to function, without the background level of pain and distress that I was used to tolerating as a matter of course.
So I began to make bargains again — but this time I made bargains with the devil. I started to pray for things I didn’t want, find ways to test and affirm that demise was in fact coming, in spite of all the reassuring signs to the contrary. That everyone secretly hated me. That I’d soon be alone.
If my partner were out for the night, I’d say things to myself like, “If he doesn’t head home in 10 minutes, he doesn’t really love you.”
I’d tell myself, “If she doesn’t text you back within the next two hours, she doesn’t actually care about you.”
“If they cancel again, you know they’re not really your friend.”
I would set up situations where the only possible outcome was losing — for everyone involved. Tests that could only provide confirmation that no one really cared about me. That they were all pretending. And they’d soon be gone from my life.
And just like my bargains with God, I easily found signs of the devil when I was looking for them. Even if there weren’t direct confirmation of my test, then I could easily stretch what happened instead into a sign of my own unworthiness.
If he headed home within 7 minutes, I could focus on the fact that the time he walked through the door was at 12 minutes.
If she texted back soon, then I could analyze the content and find a hidden message that showed she was tired of me.
Even if they canceled with a good reason, I’d tell myself that the excuse was a lie, covering over a disdain for me.
I never told anyone about these head games I was playing. For years, I didn’t even realize I was making these bargains. And then as I was responding to a reader letter that asked about the difference between masochism and self-harm, I caught myself making such a bargain.
“Uh oh, Page,” I said, having a moment of clarity. “This is emotional self-harm. What are you doing? This isn’t good.”
And in that moment, I also realized I’d been doing this for years, unchecked, telling no one. Not even fully admitting it to myself.
No More Bargains
“You need to stop this,” I told myself, feeling sick.
But I didn’t know how. All I knew how to do then was confess. But I was good at that, having been raised Catholic.
So that’s what I did. I confessed.
I took my partner aside. Told them about the bargains I’d make as a little kid on long car rides. And the ones I was making now. The sorts of double binds I was setting up in my head. The way I feared it was conditioning me to always be insecure, always feel a little unsafe.
“I’m not sure how to stop,” I admitted.
“What does the research say?” they asked. Because they knew me and that I’d either know or have looked it up.
“Well, there’s not a lot on this exact behavior. But adjacent problems are all treated with self-talk strategies,” I told them. “CBT, DBT, REBT. Ideally, you try not to even do it in the first place, but if you catch yourself doing it, you just interrupt yourself mid-sentence and start arguing with whatever that impulse is telling you.”
“So it’s stuff you know how to do already,” they said.
I nodded. “Guess I just gotta do it. Or do it better. Harder. Or something.” I felt exhausted and overwhelmed thinking about it.
“Well, and it’s important that you told me,” they said. “That’s a big step. Always has been for you. Helps you with accountability.”
I nodded. There’s always been an element of social pressure for me. If I promise someone I love that I’ll stop doing something, I stick to it. Maybe they won’t know whether I’m doing it or not, but I’ll know. And I can’t bear that kind of guilt.
“You’ll get this,” they said. “You’ve dealt with so much more than this. You’re a bad ass.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“And I’ll be there for you,” they said.
I smiled. Resisted the urge to argue with them within my head. To tell them that I’m not worth sticking by.
“No more bargains though,” they said.
“No more bargains,” I promised.
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