50 Stories, Week 9: Things That I’m Unreasonably Afraid Of (aka Anxiety 101)

How I’m coping during the pandemic…

This week of pandemic was rough. Maybe I needed a glass of wine to get those words down, but so be it. I’m not sleeping much. My dreams, like many of yours, have been absolute batshit crazy – like last night’s combo of befriending Kelly Clarkson while working at a dress shop and never being able to catch a sunset, no matter how fast I ran toward the horizon. I could analyze these dreams but most of them make zero sense other than to say my general free-floating anxiety has been amped up past 1000% and needed an outlet, so dreams it is.

In the spirit of staying vulnerable and meeting myself where I am – my story this week is more of a present tense unpolished brain dump…

I usually take pride in facing my fears. A welling up of crippling anxiety would be just the thing to get me going on my next adventure, my next bit of growth. But lately, I’ve felt paralyzed. Oh sure, I keep busy trying to make sourdough bread (four recipes down, a bajillion to go!) but when I get like this, I don’t recognize myself.

When I was a teenager, I had massive panic attacks, convinced that I would die every night. I could feel my heart beating and racing and was convinced it would stop. Just stop because how could it keep pumping so hard and fast while I was laying still? As an adult, all through my 20’s and early 30’s, I taught myself some coping mechanisms. I can say with clarity that finding yoga saved my literal life. Things became slightly more manageable. When I was convinced that stepping on a crack would, in fact, break my mother’s back, I would take a long, slow inhale and tell myself “Don’t be a crazy person. That is not based in truth.” Now, I know, we shouldn’t say that anymore – ‘crazy person’ – but back then, and even now at times, it is the difference between me being paralyzed on a sidewalk until someone bumps into me and being able to keep walking.

So, I felt some level of progress. But that didn’t always work and my racing heart or monkey mind would compel me to head to the closest hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack. I cannot accurately convey how many times I went to the ER in the middle of the night – when everyone is sleeping and I couldn’t possibly wake up a friend or lover or child (!) to tell them what was going on. I was almost always dehydrated, had a racing heart and diarrhea. The nurses would dismissively tell me I’m just stressed out and usher me off, since they could be treating someone with a real emergency. At one point, a doctor just gave me a handful of Valium. I didn’t want to take it but I hadn’t slept in days. When I did, I thought “Ohhhhhh this is why people do drugs.” I wanted that feeling forever. And ever. So I’ve never done it again.

In my mid-30’s, long after my Dad died and I left my son’s father, I found a therapist who gave me words for what I was experiencing. Anxiety, OCD, possibly brought on from some trauma as a child (oh right, my brother died right before I was born!) or funky brain chemistry. I’m guessing we all have a combo but it manifests differently. Some better than others.

Here’s how my anxiety still shows up, on the daily:

I’m in Hawaii in a beautiful location, with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the waves, the breeze, the perfect temperature, fully fed and clothed and having the love of an incredible man, and still thinking ‘Well, when I go volunteer with at the horse shed, maybe a power tool is going to fly off the shelf and stab me in the leg, right where there is a main artery and since we’re on a tiny island with only clinics, I won’t be able to get help in time and I’ll bleed out alone on a farm. Or that the water I’m drinking from the water purifier is actually poison since they probably don’t change the filters and it’s so humid here I’m sure some crazy ass bacteria has been sitting around waiting to manifest in my stomach and kill me.’

I’m not afraid of things like kayaking or hiking anymore because I’ve already assumed I’ll be capsized and the kayak will hit my head and drown or I’ll be blown off a cliff when hiking. I’ve thought those scenarios through a million times in the past, while simultaneously doing those activities. When it’s something I haven’t done before, I get to be bombarded with a thousand new, tiny and enormous worries. 

Most of the time, it’s like having a constant fear that all the fire escapes in Manhattan are going to fall on my head the second I walk under them. That someone will have sneezed in my salad and they have tuberculosis and my immunity is gone and well, TB. That if I don’t touch the outside of the plane and write during takeoff and landing, we will fall from the sky. That if I don’t count to an even number while I put on my mascara or while the water is running, I will cease to exist.

Other things I’m unreasonably afraid of in no particular order: Caves. Bats. Snakes. Hiking very high, like Kilimanjaro. Did I mention caves? The Amazon. Antarctica. Helicopters. Flying inter India and inter African flights. Plane crashes in general. Heart attacks and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and ALS. The color yellow.

Being underground. Being understood. Being buried alive. Being accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Being pushed out of a car but then caught on something and just dragged along the road for miles. 

What else? Oh right, I sneezed earlier and thought I had a mini stroke. 

So, I have to laugh at myself because otherwise, I will drive myself, and everyone around me, totally crazy. (Can I reclaim the word crazy? Please?) 

For the most part, my anxiety is generally unfounded. I’m not being chased by a damned bear, after all. Except right now… maybe I am. And I don’t have bear spray, I only have a mask and hand sanitizer and the hope that my fellow hikers believe in community over self. 

So, I shaved my head.

Head ShavedIt’s not alopecia (but good for you, Ricki Lake!)

I’m not having a breakdown (remember Britney’s bald moment?)

 I’m not ill (fingers crossed, though cancer may get us all eventually.) 

And I’m not trying to make a political or power statement. 

What I am is a 49 year old woman working in the advertising industry in NYC. I am a woman who started dying my roots before I had gray hair and had no idea what my ‘real’ hair looked like. I am a woman who spends thousands of dollars each year to look younger, better, and different than I am. 

A few years ago, I started to see and feel the real signs of aging – sagging neck and jowls, constant dry skin, waking up in the middle of the night feeling like someone turned the oven on, and an inability to power through even the slightest hangover or exercise injury. But still people would say, “I can’t believe you’re 40+ years old! I can’t believe you have a son in college!” And my little ego would perk up and it would validate the work I was putting into looking young. 

My industry, like many, is not kind to aging women, in particular. And in our society, you’re forgotten, dismissed, literally not paid attention to once you are no longer aspiring to be a beautiful young thing with tits up to here and an ass you can bounce a quarter on. Though, to be fair, I do still have a fine ass. (Thanks yoga and genetics!) So I get it – we work hard to stay relevant, or at least look like we’re trying to. Not to mention all the work we do to our faces to stay ‘youthful’! But there’s a difference between a nice hydrated dewy face and spending thousands to literally keep your chin up.

Listen, I fully support anyone who dyes and decorates their hair, wears wigs, cuts it all sorts of ways. I just hope they’re doing it because they want to – not because they think they need to. 

For me, though, I’m tired. And curious. What would it look like if I was just myself for a while? If I came to love the extra five pounds I’ve been carrying around my gut? If I accepted my graying hair and loss of collagen in my neck? What could I do with the energy spent trying to be someone else?

I know it can be difficult to live a life where people question your decisions, when the things you know are right for you aren’t right for most. Especially for the people who love you. But I’ve been doing this since I was a child. The decisions that feel right in my gut, in my soul, have rarely been traditional. I’m not saying they’re interesting. They’re just different. 

And I don’t want an ordinary life. I don’t want to look like or be like anyone else. And for maybe the first time in my life, I give zero fucks (ok, maybe I give a little fuck, but I am pushing that voice down,) about what others think. Of course I care about what my husband and son think but all I can do is hope they love me, as I am.

This act feels rebellious, yes, but it also feels natural. Right. For now. For me. I can see my gray! I can see my misshapen head. I can feel my scalp. And my curiosity is satiated, for now. When I look at the mass of hair in my trash bin, I don’t know that person any more. That isn’t me. 

This is me.

Or maybe I’m just bored.

Writing life

Wow, it’s been a while. Much has happened in my life since I returned from my last big trip to India (and Italy and London,) but most important news is that I’ve doubled down on writing. I’m working on a tv script, a short film script, and then maybe a book of essays (or a memoir… haven’t figured it out yet.) Ooh and I’m back to daily meditation and yoga, and even some regular exercise. Doctor says 150 minutes a week so I’m getting at it! (Ugh, grunt, woe is me and my flabby arms.)

I’m not sure why it took me this long to commit to this level of consistency all around. I’m not jinxing myself by saying it, I know that life comes in waves, but I am glad to be here, at this point in my life. I think taking a trip to see some of the worst poverty in the world (hello, India) combined with having a birthday just shy of 50 has made me realize there is nothing else I’d rather be doing than this. I realize how privileged that makes me, and I am grateful.

I can’t say ‘I love writing!’ because that would be a bold faced lie. What I can say is that I know it is the work I need to be doing, right now. Stories to be told, truths to be unearthed, imagination running wild. That part I love.

One part I don’t love is trying to ignore everything I read or have read about breaking into writing as a profession. For example:

You will never sell your first pilot (script, novel, essay.)

If you don’t do x, you won’t have y.

No one ever starts their script with z.

The television industry will tear you apart. You will not survive!

You see where I’m going. I was discussing this rhetoric recently with another writer. We concluded that it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and anyone who takes all of that to heart and leaves the craft wasn’t meant for it in the first place. It IS difficult to separate oneself from the work, but a necessary exercise to let go and move on.

So, the silence in this space is unintentional. It’s not personal. I love the blog format, especially when traveling. But right now, I am focusing on the hard work of getting shit done. On doing what’s important vs. doing what’s urgent. And on not giving up.

Ever.

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Just breathe.

I’m currently on a train from Haridwar to Faridabad, where I thought I’d be volunteering this week. Turns out my ‘cold’ was just my body’s reaction to this terrible air pollution. I broke out in a neck rash Thursday and it seems to be here to stay. When I’m not wearing my face mask, I’m coughing and sneezing. As Faridabad is the 2nd most polluted city in the country (next to Delhi,) I decided to change my plans. I’ve felt badly about this and struggled with the decision because a big part of why I came here, or at least what I told myself, is to volunteer. I had such a wonderful experience doing it in Brazil, I was hoping to do more.

However, without my physical health, I won’t be able to keep going on this adventure, so I gotta do what I gotta do. Hours have passed since I started this and now I’m driving to Agra to see the Taj Majal. It was not high on my list but you know, when in Rome. I’ll then do a couple of days at Ranthambore National Park before heading to Jaipur. This is all, of course, dependent on many things out of my control. I’ve always lived knowing that change is constant, but I’m reminded here daily that flexibility and adaptation are the keys to sanity.

“The whole world is inside of us”

The most significant reflection of my time in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, is the irony of what’s being communicated. That everything you need is already inside of you, and also please come to India to search for something outside of ourselves.

Why are we constantly forgetting this? I’m not going to blame it on the media or consumerism, and I’m also not saying that its human nature. I think for many, it is not even considered. What does that even mean, right?

Trust me when I tell you that you don’t need to come to India (or Brazil or Kripalu or Burning Man) to realize that everything you need is already inside. You can find it in your home, your garden, your car… wherever you’re able to take five minutes to breathe, and learn how to listen to your intuition. It will tell you everything you need to know. But they call it a practice for a reason! It takes time. There is no fast lane to self-awareness and peace of mind.

The questions that are becoming clearer to me on this trip are: how can I be of service? And what is my vocation, my calling? I’m good at many things but not great at one. The answer here is, as Rilke says, to ‘live the questions now,’

For me, traveling is the best time for me to get still with my thoughts, not be distracted by, oh, all the things, and be present enough to contemplate. In fact, I was saying this to my husband yesterday, here I have no choice to be present. I’m so present every day, its exhausting! Each moment, an opportunity for some new discovery or situation. I do understand how privileged and lucky I am to be able to travel. I’ve been a seeker and a traveler my whole life. I traveled when I had a baby and a job that paid me, um, well shit? My point is that it has always been a priority, so it happened for me. Your priorities may be different, if so great! Wherever you can find the downtime… just breathe.

Forgive yourself

When I began learning meditation, about 20+ years ago, the school of thought was that you could force your brain to be silent – that is how enlightenment would come. Stare at the flame of a candle, think blank thoughts… when I hear this now, it seems preposterous. Through decades of research, we have a better understanding of the human brain. Learning to achieve a cessation of mind chatter, a silencing, is like training a puppy. Which, anyone who has had a puppy knows, can be frustrating, annoying, and requires patience and consistency. And now that mediation, yoga, mindfulness, and any activity that is supposed to bring about a greater sense of self is all the rage in the Western world, the pressure to do so – especially here in our United States of Competition, is great and inevitably linked to failure. In that mindset, if you’re unable to achieve a pretzel body and a quiet mind, its more likely you’ll give up and go eat a bagel. At least, that’s what I do. Along with some general beating up on one’s self. ‘It’s not for me, I’m not good enough, I can’t do it,’ yada yada. What we don’t learn, what we can’t learn until someone has brought us up this way or taught us, is that it’s alright to forgive yourself. It’s imperative, actually.

I read an article recently about the founder of Spanx. When she was growing up, at the dinner table her father would ask what she had done to fail that week. He’d high-five her if she had a failure to share, defining failure as ‘not trying’ instead of ‘not succeeding’. We can’t grow or learn without struggle, and failures. And so, I forgive myself – for not meditating the last couple of days, for not making a blog entry yesterday, for overreacting to something my stepdaughter said last week, for not communicating to my man about my needs, for making a social faux pas with a friend. I used to hang on to all of these failures. Each and every one, and they would pile up and I’d feel that I couldn’t possibly achieve anything – good relationships, self-care, progress in my writing, or ever truly realizing what good I am to the world. It is a work in progress to let these things go, to realize I was lazy – which is a quality I abhor in others – and that everything is still going to be all right. But I’m trying.