When I was a young mother with two small kids and a hectic work life, I had a secret fantasy that I would get into the car and just drive away. Of course, I am a good mother. I never acted on it. But still, there was something comforting in being able to retreat, every once in a while, into this harmless daydream that I actually had the choice to be in a quiet, nondescript motel in the middle of nowhere where I could just be by myself.
My husband, who has managed a stressful and demanding career for several decades, has a little sustaining escape ritual of his own. The very night we arrive home from a vacation, no matter how haphazard, drawn-out or draining the voyage, he takes off his coat and starts planning the next one.
Of course, everybody has their little private fantasy of what they would do if they just couldn't take it any more and dropped out of their fabulous yet stressful lives. Plan B was to move to the country and open a bed and breakfast, say, or sell everything and sail around the world. But as a recent New York Times story observed, the cultural fallout from this economic crisis is so all-encompassing that even our fantasy life is being adversely affected.
This unwelcome dash of cold water comes courtesy of the reduced circumstances of our respective nest eggs. "My Plan B was to sell or rent the house and run off to France for a year or two while our parents, kids and jobs were fine and could take care of themselves," one friend laments. "Now, we have all had to grow up and put our indulgences on the back burner. I still have hope for the future, but it's more in terms of a secure retirement and money for running our lives as best we can."
Another friend always thought that she and her husband might one day just sell everything and buy a fixer-upper somewhere in Italy, like in that movie Under the Tuscan Sun. "We would live more simply, slowly working on the crumbling house and the garden, making our own olive oil. Now it's become all too clear that to put our three children through college and have enough to live on we'll be working for the rest of our lives."
Instead of daydreaming about one day saying "Take this job and shove it," in other words, those of us whose once-busy workplaces are shrinking now have no choice but to put up and shut up.
This new reality is making itself felt in every demographic, as those not yet facing retirement or even launched in the work force are being discouraged from exploring their fantasies in favour of landing a secure position that pays cold hard cash. As a result, what is quickly spreading, hand-in-hand with this harsh new economic reality, is sadness.
Katy Burgess, a London-based psychotherapist, is getting accustomed to seeing more and more patients feeling overwhelmed and anxious - feelings that, in her view, can be directly attributed to a sense of mourning for the death of their Plan B.
"It's becoming clear that these little fantasies of escape or daydreams of an alternative are actually something we all use as a coping mechanism to deal with the everyday stresses of our lives," Burgess says. "Without them, there is a sense that we have no options and no control. And a feeling of at least some degree of control over own lives is essential to our well-being."
Toronto therapist Andrew Poulos agrees. "Without control, we feel trapped and helpless. Allowing ourselves to fantasize gives us a way to counterbalance this feeling. And particularly in these dark times, keeping our options open and alive can even be outlets for creativity."
Which is why I, in my now therapeutic role as style columnist, am hereby granting everyone the permission to start daydreaming again. As you may recall, it's free. And it certainly never hurt anyone. It might even help you come up with a really great idea. Just because the economy is depressed, it doesn't mean that you have to be.