Owning anxiety

(Fair warning, there may not be a whole lot of wisdom in this.)

If I could ever muster up the motivation to write a lengthy piece on my anxiety, I could probably bore someone to tears with all the intricacies of how it behaves in [x, y, z, q, r, p, w] etc scenarios, but I usually end up finding that I’ve run out of steam before I start. Even writing just two sentences about it is proving challenging. In some ways, that’s a decent indication that even describing it to faceless readers causes me anxiety, but I guess in other ways it’s not, because I also just really dislike talking about it. It’s complicated, messy, and it always leads to me thinking about all the things I hate about myself and the life I currently live. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been anxious and depressed (although, odds are, you wouldn’t know it unless you got me very, very drunk).

Several years ago, I set out to try to irrefutably demonstrate to myself something I believed was possible but felt impossible; I wanted to show myself that I was strong, capable, resilient, and enduring. I wanted to prove that I could overcome my fears, perhaps I even hoped I could in some ways outgrow my anxiety. I had been listening to a handful of songs by one artist on repeat, and the essence of those songs had permeated my consciousness so thoroughly I felt compelled to heed them. To me, they evinced a sense of deep existential longing and desire for change with the barest of overtones of hope and willfulness to see it done.

To put it in plainer terms, I had just graduated from college and was going through an early spiritual crisis, and I was inspired by equal parts uncertainty in what I wanted to do with my life and a sort of spiritual calling that made my conventional, Western self uneasy.

My solution to my problem came to me atypically suddenly. Over the course of forty-eight hours I decided to apply to a program that was going to enable me to travel abroad. I didn’t ask my boyfriend at the time about his thoughts on it, nor did I ask my family’s. I was going to go live in Israel for six months and travel, alone, further than I ever had before. Come to think of it, I don’t think I had ever even flown alone prior to that flight. For some reason, I knew it was the thing I needed to do.

In retrospect, I should have known that my approach wasn’t ideal, because it combined equal parts of unfounded bravado, a deep, intense sadness, and an overwhelming sense of fear. Somewhere deep down, I knew I hoped to live there for longer than the six months the internship program in which I enrolled provided, but I never took ownership of that desire until the last week or so of my trip. I was suspending, interrupting my conversion process to go get answers, but I didn’t know how to explain that need to my rabbis, who taught prospective converts as if there were no questions to be had. I also knew I desperately wanted to salvage my relationship with my boyfriend at the time, and I refused to let that desire go until the last quarter of my time spent abroad.

In essence, I went to Israel half-heartedly, despite my best intentions to the contrary, to undertake a spiritual awakening that required a full-hearted presence of mind. Unsurprisingly, my journey didn’t go as I intended.

The uncomfortable, painful reality for me is that fear often got the better of me while living abroad. Plagued with a language barrier and an intense fear of the unknown, I felt awkward and terrified to the point of avoiding speaking to strangers. I used to get exact change every month so that I didn’t have to say more than the maximum of five words I needed to say to the bus driver to refill my monthly pass. Early on, I would often go without eating lunch because I was too afraid to order food by myself. I found myself in an absurdly unhealthy relationship with someone I felt I couldn’t leave, mostly because I didn’t know how I’d function without him there to help me navigate day-to-day life. More often than not, I was on the verge of being suicidal in Israel. I felt beyond lost, alone, and I had no idea what I wanted to do.

I blamed it on where I was living, and I decided I wanted to move back to the States.

At first, coming back felt okay. It turns out people are generally pretty impressed Stateside if you tell them you just came back from living several time zones away from home, and their reception of my on-paper factoids buoyed my spirits. As I came up on a year, and then two from my return home, though, I started to feel regret and shame for my failure to accomplish much of what I had set out to do. My suffering had followed me back home.

Again, I blamed it on location, and I moved with my current boyfriend, twice, to the west coast.

It’s now been four years since I came back home from Israel. I dream about it at least a couple of times a month, and I long for it as if it had been happy days for me. Part of me knows that there were things there that I needed but wouldn’t allow myself to experience, and part of me I think just wishes I could return to those moments where I had just a little more courage and conviction than I do now.

To that end, there’s something I think I did then that I can stand to do more of, now.

The ugly reality of my existence is that I struggle with my anxiety every second of every day, from stepping out the door to walk my dogs to closing my eyes to fall asleep. As much as I would love to look at feel “normal” or carefree, I’m honestly quite the opposite. Everything I do alone has to be planned, calculated, and organized well in advance for me to feel like it’s safe, and the pressure to maintain control over everything to keep that sense of safety is overwhelming. I always feel ungrounded, fragile, and only a few steps shy of a meltdown.

For a brief period of time I took ownership, even if only in a fumbly, immature sort of way, of my anxiety. I was honest about its existence to my entire program of 100-odd individuals; I alerted my employers about it; and I shared it with the two boyfriends I had while living there. I didn’t try to hide it, and that’s important.

You can’t grow if you can’t make any progress, and you can’t make any progress if you don’t know or recognize the things in your way. Six years have passed since I made the decision to try to prove to myself that I could “outgrow” my anxiety, and I’ve suffered for not learning how to embrace what defines me and work with it, rather than against it. I don’t think I have any more answers — either for myself or for others suffering from anxiety — than I did at the start of writing this post, but I hope that maybe, if I write enough about it, I can create some along the way.

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