I’ve kept the momentum going for a long, long time. After graduate school, I moved to Seattle. Then I moved three hours south, to Portland. In both cities, I filled my weekends with exciting hikes and camping trips, tried to start a baking company, worked multiple jobs, biked loads, and started learning Spanish. Thank goodness, because after Portland, I moved home for three months to save up money, and then moved 3,000 miles south to Guayaquil, Ecuador. While living, working, and volunteering in this tiny little Latin American country, I traveled up and down the coast, through the mountains, and into the Amazon (twice!), and even spent three weeks traveling alone around Colombia. I met and made friends with people from all over the world, worked with precious children, lived with my Ecuadorian boyfriend for a while, had seriously unpleasant fights in español, learned to surf, and learned to accept and love a country that was not my own. It was life-changing, to say the least. And there was little time to stop and think: What is all of this for? Where is this leading to? What do I really want? (And how lucky I am to live a life that allows me to ask such luxurious questions!)
At the time, I thought I just needed to experience something “different” than what I’d always known: Western New York. I had expected that the pacific northwest would be different enough, but it wasn’t. Why, though, did I need to do this? Well, I expect if I hadn’t, I’d still be sitting around with those crazy urges pulsing behind my eyeballs, but then–why those urges at all? In my many, and messy, journals kept throughout my years away, I again and again cited a “need” to experience “everything”, even the worst kinds of things. I wouldn’t be a complete human without such a vibrant rainbow of experiences! A memory of that “need” came rushing back to me, yesterday, when I was sitting in a state of terror, wishing “this” would end.
And what’s “this”? This is anxiety. At times, almost unbearable. At times, it’s the kind that leaves me feeling like the only thing left to do is jump out of my skin and run as if my feet work to spin our planet faster, faster. Since I was 8 years old, I’ve been visited and revisited by rather paralyzing cycles of anxiety–and it always comes as such a surprise! Ninety percent of the time I’m assertive, daring, hopeful (and a little cynical), engaged, responsible, resourceful, and resilient (not to brag, or anything). But, all of that, ALL of that, disappears when anxiety pays her visits. Luckily, for my rather procrastinating self, it was always pretty simple before: I’d have a scary intrusive thought, and then more, and then more, but the cure was always one of two things: a clean bill of health from the doctor, or time, choosing to wait it out, to sit through the storm until anxiety packed her bags and left. She always did, and I’d always breathe a sigh of relief at her going. But, on a deeper level, I’d also always wonder when she’d be coming back.
My mother always points to my past experiences, especially living alone, abroad, and reminding me that if I could do those things, I can do anything. I wish I could agree–but it’s always easier to overcome adversity when you choose it, when you invite it in. Living in the northwest and in Ecuador was not easy, but I sought out those experiences, I wanted to feel that kind of anxiety, that particular breed of uncertainty and difficulty. But I do not want this kind of anxiety.
And I’ve never wanted it. Perhaps that’s why she keeps coming back, barging in through the front door, unannounced, noisily, and with excess baggage, making me feel like there’s not enough room for me in my own house. Perhaps my life-long habit of locking myself in my room and huffing and puffing angrily until anxiety leaves is what has made her so insistent upon returning. Maybe it’s time to go downstairs and sit with her in the living room. Read magazines with her. Watch TV with her. Listen to her. Look at her. Acknowledge her presence. Don’t worry. I know I sound like a total nutjob. But I do think it’s true–until you pay someone proper attention, they’re going to keep pestering you for it. And that can get REALLY annoying.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to feed my anxiety what it needs to grow larger. Exactly the opposite, really. I’m trying, a little bit every day, to pay mindful attention to it: how it makes me feel and where I feel it, how it changes my thinking patterns, my emotions, and my body, how it affects the lens through which I examine life. But it isn’t easy. There are moments, many of them, when I feel infinitely smaller than all of this, certainly incapable of rising to the occasion, or riding out this wave without getting caught up in the storm. But then, there are also moments when I feel like it is possible to actually go through this (as unpleasant as it might be, at times), and that indeed, it is the only way.
I am reminded, suddenly, of a time when I was learning to surf in Ecuador. We were at a beach called Las Tunas, and it was raining. For whatever reason, the waves were breaking far away from shore, so we had to swim out quite a ways to sit and wait for opportunities to attempt surfing (I was terrible, by the way). I remember at one point, the waves got bigger. I was on my belly, on the surfboard, facing the shore. Huge swells of green seawater rose up beneath me and then plunged forward, robbing me of my vision: I saw nothing but walls of dark water all around me, shrouded by a grey sky and falling rain. They were always terrifying: those little moments in between waves, when I sunk below the line of sight, unable to see land, or any of my friends. Even though I knew it to be false, I felt completely alone between the waves. And that’s all these moments are, really: those little dips down into the depth of the wave cycle. They are not endless. It was never long before the water was under me again, pitching me forward, bringing my friends, and solid land, into view.