Recently I was discussing my upcoming trip to London with my coworkers. While I assured them that I was excited, I spent the majority of the conversation trying to explain to them how anxious I was about all the actual travel involved. After my detailed monologue, one girl looked at me and asked, “If traveling gives you such bad anxiety, why even bother?”
We were interrupted by, well, work at that point, and it was a good thing, too. As if the perplexed look on my coworker’s face weren’t enough, her words felt like a slap upside the head. I was shocked, angry, and a yes, a little hurt at her audacity.
Over the next few minutes, I thought about how to answer her question without further verifying her obvious suspicion that I was, in fact, psycho.
As we were finishing up for the day, I took a minute to answer my coworker’s question in the most compact way possible — I told her that if I avoided doing all the things that gave me anxiety, I’d be a hermit living in my parents’ basement.
At first I thought that maybe my response was a bit of an exaggeration. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how true it was.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had heightened fears about, well, everything. I was an overly cautious child with an overactive imagination that made me cling to my mother’s side all the time. For years, everyone thought I was just dramatic, overly sensitive, or a big scaredy cat. It wasn’t until I was sixteen or seventeen that anyone realized I was dealing with anxiety. As I slowly transitioned from child to adult during my teenage years, every milestone I encountered was wrought with crippling fear and agonizing self doubt.
For example, when I was a fourteen-year-old freshman starting marching band, I told my parents I wanted to quit after only a few days of camp. I insisted I hated all parts of it — the intimidating music and drills, the mean upperclassmen, sweating like a pig everyday, and plain old hard work. While I claimed that my hatred for band was because of the things listed above, the unfamiliarity was only part of the problem. The bigger problem was the excessive fear of not being good enough — of failing, of trying to fit in with hundreds of people I didn’t know and perform with them in front of thousands of people I didn’t know.
Thankfully my parents held their ground and told me that I could only quit if I tried it for a full year and still hated it. And what had started out as a daunting, anxiety-induced activity turned into four years of amazing memories and self-discovery. This was probably the first time in my life I pushed through my anxiety and was rewarded with an incredibly positive experience.
Since then, I’ve been forced to face my anxiety head on every single time I took a step forward in life —
- Learning to drive was absolutely terrifying for me. Most lessons ended up with me in tears and I was 18 before I got my license.
- I almost didn’t go to my senior prom because the guy I was casually dating had a super over protective mother who didn’t want us going together. I was terrified of asking her permission but I did it anyway — and she said yes! Now I have sweet memories of that night.
- When I got my first part time job after high school, I cried almost every day before my shift for several weeks because I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to handle some aspect of the position.
- When I started working full time at age twenty-two, I spent a week being sick to my stomach and having headaches because I kept thinking that I’d fail at that too.
- It took me between five and ten years to work up enough nerve to get a tattoo – something I’d wanted since I was about sixteen. Now I have three and I love them!
- After a somewhat traumatizing breakup as a teenager, I was terrified of dating anyone ever again. But luckily I agreed to a blind date back in 2008 — with the guy who became my husband.
- In 2012, I took a bus from Pittsburgh to NYC on my own to visit my sister who was going to school at NYU. I was petrified. I had never traveled anywhere alone before and haven’t since. It turned out to be a pretty cool trip!
- At around age twenty, I developed a serious fear of sharks, even though I love the ocean. Last year, I got into the water at the Outer Banks and swam out as deep as my shoulders so I could enjoy the waves for the first time in years.
- The above mentioned trip almost didn’t happen because Hurricane Irma almost hit the Outer Banks the week of our vacation. I almost backed out at the last minute because I was terrified of getting stranded in dangerous weather. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my fears because we had a great time – and the weather wasn’t bad either!
- I braved allergy testing so I could get my frequent sinus infections and bronchitis under control. And even though I was terrified that the pain would be unbearable (thank you, internet), it was less painful than getting my damn ears pierced. Now I have my symptoms under control.
- Buying our house seemed like an impossible task that made me nauseous. Moving in and being in the new place by myself almost all the time while my husband worked second shift was downright terrifying. I used to come home from work and sob because the thought of making dinner, taking care of the house, the dog, and everything else alone was so overwhelming.
- When I had my first cavity last spring, I barely slept or ate for 24 hours because I was so worried about having the tooth extracted. Going through that experience kind of cured me of my fear of the dentist and now I get regular cleanings without the help of Xanax.
These are just a few of the examples of ways I’ve pushed through my anxiety over the years. While many of the seem stupid now, at the time, the fear was absolutely one hundred percent real.
Just like now — I am absolutely terrified of going to London. I’m afraid our bus from Pittsburgh to New York will break down, get lost, or get in an accident. I’m afraid we’ll get left at a rest stop. I’m afraid we’ll end up at La Guardia instead of JFK. I’m terrified we’ll miss our flight or something awful will happen while we’re in the air. I’m worried that our hotel reservations will be wrong. I’m worried about going through customs, about using the tube, getting lost, terrorist attacks, getting mugged — I could go on and on.
And for someone who doesn’t understand anxiety, I could see how they might wonder why in the world I’m even going to London. But the answer is because it’s been a lifelong dream of mine. The desire to stroll along the Thames, visit Elizabeth the I’s tomb, and set foot on another continent outweighs the fears I associate with a seven hour bus trip and an eight hour flight over the Atlantic. Yes, sometimes the fear is all encompassing. Sometimes it is downright paralyzing. Yes, I’ve thought about backing out. But the only thing worse than everything I’m afraid of is living with the regret of not going at all.
The past two years have been all about conquering my fears and overcoming my anxiety. I’ve made a lot of progress, but I still have a lot of work to do. I still can’t drive on the highway, the thought of having children makes me want to become a nun, and I still don’t think I’ll ever do something totally crazy like go skydiving. But if I can push through my fear enough to do things like submit my writing to strangers and travel across an ocean, I’d like to think that I’m leaps and bounds from where I used to be.
And so what if not everyone sees it? I do. And that’s the most important part.