Becoming Bethany

Observations on becoming and being

Trying Not to Laugh

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When my therapist first asked, “Can you picture yourself married again sometime in the future?” my immediate response was to laugh. My signature was barely dry on the divorce documents. I had been told every reason imaginable why I was terrible to be married to and miserable to live with. I was still transitioning my love for my now ex-husband from that of a spouse to something else. I had had my heart broken, seen every dream crushed, and every hope dashed. It sounded impossible and probably foolish to ever consider marriage or even a romantic relationship again.

But my therapist was not being insensitive. He was asking me how broad and deep my vision of healing was. He was asking me to consider what seemed impossible now, being possible some day in the future. He was asking me to stay open to options that seemed risky or foolish because they looked scary and uncontrollable. He was asking me not to close myself off to possibilities just because redemption of parts of my story seemed too far-fetched at that point.

I am thankful for the question. It is one I have returned to often in the last year since he asked. Honestly, I still do not have an answer. I have a hard time imagining falling in love like that again. I do not believe in soul mates but I also do not know how many people you can love as deeply as I loved him. I cannot picture moving through the relationship stages that take someone from dating to engaged to married with someone else. I know how that happened for me last time but I imagine it would be different with a different person. I do not think this is a situation where having previous experience really helps all that much. (In fact, sometimes I worry it could be a hindrance.)

I want to be open to whatever and wherever my life might lead next. My journey has already looked drastically different than I had expected it to (more than once) in my short 30 years. I did not expect to get married and then getting divorced was never even a possibility for me. Love and hope and healing have come to me in packages I have not always recognized as gifts. In some ways, my dreams have been too small and in other ways, there are things I wish for that I will probably never see.

I am an advocate for sharing stories while you are in the middle and not waiting until you know the end. This is a chapter that I am just at the beginning. These past few months since I have been open to dating again, I have been reminded what a humbling process it is. For me, it takes skills that do not come naturally and reveals aspects of society I would rather not confront. It is also stretching my heart and mind and soul in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable.

The stretching can re-open wounds that have only just healed and reveal places that are still raw. I am willing to go through whatever discomfort is necessary for greater healing but I also want to be wise and gentle with myself. So I am taking baby steps. I am aware that I am re-learning how to walk certain paths and hope in certain outcomes. I am giving myself time to get used to this world again and giving myself permission to pull back when it feels like too much or too soon.

When I am sitting across from someone new, as interested as I am in him and his experiences, there is still sometimes an ache for the depth that comes with the familiar. Sometimes it is difficult not to just wish for the story I thought I knew – the story I would have written for myself. Dating and getting to know new people pushes me to be open to a new path that is full of risk and uncertainty. I know that with that risk also comes the potential for something really wonderful and beautiful and life-giving which is the only reason I am willing to try at all.

If you asked me today, “Can you picture yourself married again sometime in the future?” I think my answer would still be, “It seems unlikely.” But I will not say it is impossible and I will not laugh. My story is unfolding in ways I would have never imagined and all I hope for every day is that it will be a good story – whatever that may mean for me.

A Wrinkled Moment in Time

In the shaded curved driveway of a grand hotel, a young woman in orange silk steps out of her car, hands her keys to the valet, and makes her way to the large door. She has only ever been here once before but her stride is confident and her heart beat is soft. She is happy. Not with the giddy euphoria of youth but in a much quieter harder won way. Distracted by finding a place for her valet card when the doorman opens the door, she looks up just in time to smile and say thank you before turning to look into the room. Then like being ushered through a magical portal, suddenly time wrinkles and without permission she is transported back to that vivid moment from the past – six years ago almost to the day. Her heart picks up speed and the room swirls as she loses track of the date and time and why she is even standing on plush Persian rugs in a hotel lobby.

Her beating heart, her excited step, his strong arm, his adoring face all come back like an augmented reality experience. She watches again as the uniformed doorman opens the imposing door and they step into the historic hotel lobby. She sees her smile sweep up to the corners of her eyes, crinkling her nose. Her hand squeezes the young man’s forearm tightly just to make sure it is all real. His eyes are proud and his hand is firmly clasped over hers. She is carrying her sparkly heels in her free hand but still standing tall and lovely in her ivory gown. Her breath catches as she takes in the expansive room – the chandeliers, the 1930s furniture, the wall-sized mural behind the reception desk. He feels her startle a little and looks down at her beaming face. He is grinning, pleased with his grand surprise. They are king and queen, if only for today, and this evening the whole world is their kingdom. It feels like just the beginning of a long and fortuitous reign.

And then, in seconds, the wormhole closes up as suddenly as it opened, and she is back in Los Angeles today. The effervescent young bride and groom only a memory. A peek back into that alternate reality that was once her life but no longer is. Her mind casts speculations over how that other life might have played out differently but it is only a game. She does not know if that life would have been happier or healthier or brighter or in any way better than this one. She is living here and now, alone, but peaceful and grateful for everything that is her real life. So she just keeps walking through the luxurious lobby to the other side. Her shoulders squarer and strides longer. Always wondering but seldom worrying how this reality will play out. It will be whatever it will be.

Loud Voices and Little Altars

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Loud voices ring out in a crowded stadium of cheering people. The words reverberate with fear and hate and smug entitlement. I cringe from where I sit 2,500 miles away. Is this my country? Are these my people? Red, white, and blue confetti rain down on faces who look like mine but I could not feel more different from. Is this a celebration? It feels more like a trial where we are forced to examine an ugly truth from all angles. It feels like starring at a gaping wound that we do not know how to treat.

In another country, many miles away, loud voices, gun shots, and fighter planes whir in the air. I squint over my cellphone screen to watch the news come in through Twitter and WhatsApp and grainy cellphone video footage. Is this my country? Ugly, violent threats against people I know and love pasted up in public places. Kind, generous school teachers, doctors, professors, and aid workers labeled enemies of the state. The country they have helped to build turned against them. Divorced from society, they can only watch as in one fell swoop, their life’s work is dismantled and destroyed.

I remember a dinner conversation several years ago where my father remarked, “It is so much easier to destroy than to build.” Buildings that took years to erect, can be destroyed in a minute with a bomb. Societies that have taken decades to progress can be dismantled in a few weeks with a few new policies. Relationships that have been growing for a lifetime, can be destroyed in a day by a harsh word or revelation. Creation and building and growth are such a long processes. It seems unfair that un-doing them can be so fast.

My soul is weary of ugliness and destruction. The world feels too violent and harsh. I think about running away. Maybe I can find a nice man and a nice piece of land and raise some children and chickens and green beans and squash. Maybe I can hide away somewhere and just build something – however small – so I do not have to see any more things destroyed. But the still small part of me knows that running away for me would be listening to the fear I find so ugly. And would I be destroyed myself if I allowed fear of pain and destruction to dictate my future?

So I stay and I look for life where I can find it. In the exquisite face of a friend lit up by the dusky summer sunset. In the hands of my sister as she gathers the seaweed pooling around our feet and expertly twists it into a mermaid crown. In the smile and form of a dear one glorying in her youthful beauty. In the way my sea-wet hair is caught and curled and tangled by the wind. I capture these moments with my cellphone to remember these images. These glimpses of beauty and life. To replace the images of destruction that have been filling my screen for too many days.

I am asked to create. Make something from trash and discarded items. I am told it will be worship. All I can do is stare at the mess on the table. Beauty from plastic forks and leftover coffee lids? I am overwhelmed and step back from the table. I look on as those with more vision than I twist sporks into roses and fold chopsticks wrappers into birds in flight. I am humbled and I am awed. They saw something there that I could not. They reached in through the chaos and the discarded and found beauty and order. We are capable of so much destruction but also so much creation.

The cool air meets me as soon as I walk in the door. Releasing me from the oppressive heat of the week and inviting me to exhale and cease struggling – at least for a little while. I am looking for life and relief in an unlikely place – a museum dedicated to the broken. And in the stories of strangers, I find what I am seeking. Making my pilgrimage to these miniature altars, I find strength and encouragement from those who have looked pain and loss and destruction in the face and said, “There is still something here. There is still life here. There is still meaning here. And I will keep living and sharing my life with others.”

A Conversation by the Lake

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I sat on the edge of the shore fighting back tears asking myself, “Why am I so upset about this?” I could feel myself about to spin out. About to just let the disappointments and frustrations of the day take me for a ride that I knew would be difficult to come back from.

“But I was trying so hard,” I emotionally argued with myself. “I was trying to be positive and have a good attitude but it feels like everything is stacked against me.”

“Everything?” The more sensible me asked incredulously.

“Well, not EVERYTHING, I guess. But really a lot. And I was already at low emotional reserves. And you know how hard this day of all days is. Really? Couldn’t I just get a break TODAY?”

I was hoping sensible me would just hand irrational me a free ticket to the emotional railroad and tell me to ride it. But sensible me knew that would not really help me feel better or salvage what was left of the day.

“Yes, it is a lot. It really is. And you have every right to be worn out today. And frustrated and disappointed too. But there is more than that.” How is it that reason is always so comforting to me?

“Sigh. I know. There are good things. There are really incredible things. This place is beautiful and the people I am with are wonderful.” Less rational me usually gives up pretty quickly but this time even I was surprised at how quickly she relinquished the fight.

“But there’s something else?” Sensible me often knows when there is a little more digging to do.

“Yes.” My lip quivered again and I could feel hot tears starting to sting my eyes again.

“What is it?” Sensible me gently asked. So gently that is surprised me. “What do you need right now?”

“I need to feel like all my hard work is worth it. I need to feel like all the energy I am putting into healing and hoping is paying off somehow. You know how hard I am trying to live hopefully. You know how intentional I am about creating new positive memories on days that carry heavy memories. It’s been two and a half years! I have now had as many anniversaries without him as with him. I would really hope that I am past the point that a stupid clogged toilet would send me into an emotional tailspin.” I think I wailed this little speech.

Sensible me nodded. “Yes, you are healing and yes, you are intentional about it. And also, life is just shitty sometimes (in this case literally) and you are handling it the best you can. Life is ugly and beautiful and annoying and satisfying and surprising in good ways and bad and you want to live all of it. You know you do. And you know the only truly tragic thing about today is if you let all these mounting disappointments hijack any of the potentially good things the rest of this day might bring.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I was right. (Or at least part of me was right while the other part of me was still trying to decide if pouting like a petulant teenager was allowed.)

“And I’m sad. There I said it.”

“Yes, you are sad. And that’s ok and honestly to be expected. Your ache is a long one to heal and today is just harder than most days.”

“Yes, I know.” I said and start to feel a teeny-tiny bit better.

“Just don’t blame what is happening right now on a deeper ache. Respect the deeper pain for what it is and care for it appropriately. You know it is not about the clogged toilets or too many trips to find the right plumbing tools or missed kayak rides. You know it is about a deep grief that you are still processing. It takes time and you are working hard at it.”

I nod and brush off any lingering tears from the tops of my cheeks. I just needed to be reminded it is a process and what happens today is only a small part of it.

“And who knows what else might happen today to lessen the grief and further the healing and hope if you stay open to it? Never let a day be ruined to possibility.”

I reached for my phone to finish dealing with the rental owner/plumber/maintenance company and the clogged toilet. And told myself that I would come back some other time to kayak.

This Should Not Be Normal

This should not be normal.

It should not be routine or common to read a news headline and reach for my phone to WhatsApp my parents or my siblings or my friends to make sure they are all safe. To make sure that they were not in the wrong place at the wrong time this time. And by wrong place I mean that they were not at the grocery store or on the bus or metro coming home from work or in the airport waiting for a flight or visiting with friends at a cafe somewhere.

Can you feel it in your gut? That hot angry feeling that just comes bubbling up until your cheeks are warm and forehead is flushed and your eyes are teary. That feeling that says, “No! Not again. This is not right.”

That’s the feeling I get every time “BREAKING NEWS” appears in a tweet or the voice of the news announcer that drifts through the restaurant I am eating at or the headline that appears at the top of my homepage. When I hear the news, my first hope is that it is not a city I know, a city I love.

And then I feel guilty because I know there are families in those cities too whose loved ones are not coming home from the grocery store or from work or from school or from traveling abroad. And I mourn for those families too.

But when it is a city that I know, a city that I love, the pain cuts all the deeper. I have stood on that corner where a desperate young man just took his life and the life of 7 others next to him. I have taken a bus from that depot where someone left a carbomb timed to explode right at rush hour. I have waited for so many flights in that terminal that is now covered in the blood of perpetrator and victims.

My heart hurts and my head is heavy and arms are leaden because I do not know what I can do. But I want to make it stop. Who can I talk to? Who can I listen to? Who can I offer a helping hand to? Who can I love? What can I do?

But I do not want my heart to stop hurting when it does happen. I do not want my anger at the injustice to become anger at the people involved. I do not want to stop being shocked because I keep hoping and praying that each time is the last time. I do not want this to be normal or expected.

Beginning to Forget

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I am beginning to forget.

I am beginning to forget the gut level pain that kept me up at night and the way it felt to walk around with my heart so constricted that I could not breathe too deeply without getting sick. I am beginning to forget all the tears and how my eyes were dry from crying too much by the end of the day. I am beginning to forget the confusion and anger that would suddenly hijack my sight so I would have to intentionally and carefully breathe to be present again. I am beginning to forget the feeling of being so lost and so directionless that even physically walking in circles felt like going somewhere.

I am thankful to the authors I read and the wise people I spoke to who suggested chronicling my process of healing because now I have a way to look back on all that and maybe someday it will make more sense that it does today. Because it already makes more sense now than it did when I was living through it.

I am also beginning to forget what it felt like to be in love. The way it felt to love someone that wholly and completely and to know how deeply I was loved and desired in return. I am beginning to forget what it felt like to have a spouse. The comfort that comes from knowing there is someone so interested in you that he will answer any phone call or text you send. I am beginning to forget what it felt like to spend everyday with someone so that you end up with a shorthand for conversations. What it felt like to be with someone you can start mid-story with and he knows exactly what you are talking about. I am even beginning to forget the silly things like what it was like to have an automatic +1 to every social gathering and not walk in alone.

Sometimes there is a reminder and everything comes flooding back. I am out late with a friend and her husband texts to make sure she is ok. “Oh yeah, that’s right. Spouses check-in with each other.” I read a poem that captures the way that being in love felt for me. “How could I have forgotten that? It’s so all-encompassing.” And sometimes the painful memories come back too. I am still working on getting my maiden name back and when I have to pick up that ugly stack of papers called “Divorce Settlement”, my heart can start constricting and it can start feeling difficult to take a breath.

I wish I could decide which things I forget and which things remain close. But I guess maybe it is better for moving forward that it all becomes a little hazy and distant. One of the best pieces of advice I read about healing came from a Rumi poem:

Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.
Flies collect on a wound.
They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.

Let a Teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don’t turn your head.
Keep looking
at the bandaged place.

That’s where
the Light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment
that you’re healing yourself.

The poem feels like a challenge to hold my memories and the healing process loosely. To stand with open palms instead of closed fists and trust the surgery and the bandages to be effective. So I have tried and sometimes been more successful than others. But when I realize that maybe some of my happy memories are leaving my hands instead of just the pain, it can be tempting to close my fists (and heart) up tight again.

But I am not healing myself. I am trying to trust the Surgeon. And maybe part of healing is forgiving and forgetting – even the really lovely things.

This Is What Healing Looks Like

This is what healing looks like. It comes in fits and starts.

* * *

I know I am asleep. I know I am dreaming. But it feels so real and I let myself just sink into it. Sink into him. I have not dreamt about him in a long time but I still know his embrace by heart. I had memorized each muscle in his arms and the way each one felt holding me close to him and in my sleep it all comes back so clearly. Instead of pulling away, I just want to rest. So I do. I breathe him in and let him hold me and bury my body deeper into his chest until I can feel all the strength there too. His hand comes up to stroke my hair on the top of my head in just the spot I love and I exhale peacefully.

Then he starts speaking and he is saying the words I know are not true but are only too real. The words it took me a long time and a lot of work to untangle myself from. But he is speaking them so gently and sweetly. They are almost like a bedtime story. And I start to feel that feeling my therapist called “dissonance” – where the way things appear and the way I feel are not matching up and warning bells are going off. “No, no,” I say. “That’s not the way it was. Please, darling, just tell me the truth. I can stay here if you just tell me what really happened.” But he continues telling me the stories I cannot hear again and I pull away and wake up. In my groggy first wakefulness I am aware of two competing but equally strong emotions – a deep sense of loss and a deep sense of relief and I sit in the realness of the tension.

* * *

I take a chance on myself and on someone else and really on “dating in the age of Tindr” and go on a first date. My first first date in a long time and I wonder if I am ready or if I remember how to do this and then laugh because well, I was not very good at it the first time around either. So I decide not to have any expectations (good or bad) and I am pleasantly surprised by the human (though not romantic) connection we find by talking about our passions (mutual and separate) and my faith in humanity is restored a little more.

* * *

I have the same dream again but I do not linger this time because I know I will not truly find rest here. I wake up a little angry and a little sad and a little proud of myself for resisting the desire for a false sense of peace and security however brief and fleeting. I am also really curious. One of the things I have discovered in the last couple years is that I work out most of my emotions in pictures. Why does this picture keep returning to me? What am I processing through this image? Where am I? Do I feel tall and strong or weak and hunched over? What do I need? Where is God in this picture? I sit down to write but no words come so I put the picture aside and just lean into the questions.

* * *

One of my dear friends – who embodies life and vitality like few people I know – invites me to her showcase. I already had plans but something about this felt really important and was glad when I was able to find space to attend. Her beauty and vulnerability (along with the rest of the performers) lights up the stage and screen as she boldly and fearlessly shares her truth. I am energized and moved and a little bit in awe. There is something about the human soul when so transparently revealed that cannot help but humble me. I think we can get a glimpse of the Divine in the revealing of a fellow human’s soul. There is so much real and so much true and so much human. It feels holy.

* * *

I thought I had dealt with all the ghosts in this part of town. Slowly, gently, but intentionally I had met them all like “bosses” in a video game. Each new ghost I dealt with was a level up. I do not know if I had forgotten this one or if it had seemed too large to confront before now. Somehow I had managed to not drive down this part of this road for over two years and suddenly without warning I am forced to deal with the largest and most intimidating ghost of them all. The one that still has the power to send shivers up my back and call into question so much I thought I knew about me and us and love and life.

On the outside it looks like an on-trend furniture store. I try to reassure myself it is just a commercial space. It does not have the power to keep my heart chained to the past but my mind flashes back to the sweet but deadly words and the tender touch of my dream and I feel sick. Questions that will probably never be answered rush to the surface. There was a time when these questions would have overwhelmed me. This time I cry. I let myself feel all the fear and all the sadness and all the anger and all the pain and all the loss. I reveal my soul to me and to God as nakedly as I can. Then I breathe and leave the big, bad ghost behind reciting Rilke almost like a mantra.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

* * *

I sit down to write and the words and pictures of the past week come tumbling out. One after another. I do not know if I see meaning but I see healing. It comes in fits and starts. Some days I feel miles along in the journey and other days I feel like I have barely taken a few steps. But everyday feels purposeful and everyday feels real so I just keep walking.

Depression – From the Outside

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month and the dear ones I love who have struggled and those who still struggle with clinical depression.

I do not know what depression feels like. I know how it feels to be very sad. I know how it feels to be very tired. I know what it is like to be discouraged. I have wanted to give up so I know what that feels like too. But I have not had to live with day-in and day-out depression so I do not know what it feels like.

I know what depression looks like. It looks exhausting. It looks overwhelming. It looks really, really hard. Sometimes it looks really brave. And sometimes it looks really sad.

I know what it feels like to love someone fighting hard against depression. I know what it feels like to love someone who is overcome by depression. I know what it feels like to want to hug away all the bad feelings. I know what it feels like to want to do absolutely anything to make you feel happy and loved and encouraged and strong.

In my attempt to love my dear ones with depression, I have smothered. I have retreated. I have been scared. I have been pushy. I have listened. I have shouted. I have given up. And I have come back again.

I do not know what depression feels like but I love you. I do not want to fix you but I do want to understand you better. If there is anything I can do to help ease the pain or help carry the burden, let me know. I want you to feel loved and seen and valued because you so are. 

Anxiety – From the Inside Looking Out

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am sharing a little bit of my story. I am not a mental health professional so please read this only as my personal experience. It is not meant to be prescriptive in any way.

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I did not know for most of my life that I suffered from chronic anxiety. I thought everyone felt nervous. I thought everyone trembled a little when they first walked into a room of strangers. I thought we all had to intentionally breathe slowly and deeply when on stage or in front of a group of people to keep from hyperventilating.

I did not know that panic attacks where your heart is beating too fast and you feel alternately dizzy and wanting to vomit were abnormal. I did not know that it is rare to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from some nameless illogical fear. I thought we all had to deal with that. I thought everyone lived with a strong internal pressure to perform well in order to feel liked and accepted. I thought everyone immediately imagined the worst possible outcome to every situation in vivid detail. I thought we all expected every good thing to end abruptly and live preparing ourselves for that outcome.

Most people who knew me, even those who knew me best, never realized the anxiety I was living with. I was really good at managing it. Somehow I taught myself all kinds of coping mechanisms so that I had very few external indicators of chronic anxiety. (Actually, many of the coping mechanisms were things that psychologists recommend for healthily managing symptoms.) I was just never dealing with the underlying problem because I did not know it was there. Since I thought this was everyone’s experience, I never even thought to mention it. To me, it would have been like discussing what it feels like to breathe.

I slowly became aware that maybe not everyone lives with anxiety when I was in college. I remember a conversation with a friend where she was describing a panic attack and talking about how bizarre and frightening the experience was. I was confused. Her description sounded fairly commonplace based on my experiences but being the empathetic listener that I am, I didn’t question or challenge her. I just filed it away as interesting that she experienced a panic attack as an unusual event.

Some people close to me started noticing that I would get tense or silent in certain situations and asked if I was afraid. I did not recognize anxiety as fear so I would say no, I was just feeling shy or nervous or something. A few people even closer started asking me about anxiety and “being high strung” but once again, I did not have anything to compare it to so I shrugged them off. And only a couple people very close to me asked me, “What’s wrong? Do you need help?”

But as I very slowly became aware that these feelings and way of living are not the norm or expected, I became more afraid. I was in denial about the anxiety I was living with because I did not know how to address it and I did not know what healthy felt like. For me, being a peaceful person meant being a person who did not fight. I did not realize that peace is something that can permeate your being from the inside out.

Finally, after a series of very personally traumatic events, including betrayal, divorce, abandonment, and many of my worst imagined fears actually becoming reality, my fear and anxiety reached such a high point that managing the external indicators was taking all of the emotional and much of the physical energy I had. I reached a point where I just could not live that way anymore. My years of learned coping mechanisms were not helping anymore.

I knew I needed help and found a therapist and a therapy method that is very effective for me and started working really hard at addressing both the symptoms AND the underlying anxiety and trauma. I brought it all to therapy sessions. I was intentional with the therapy homework every week and I was seeing results. I also spent a lot of time reading, praying, meditating, and introspecting.

But I also just let go. Of a lot of things.  I did the hard work but I also trusted God and my community to help me through the process instead of thinking I could handle it all on my own. I was tired of managing the constant anxiety and stress. I was tired of the internal pressure to perform. It was awful to live predicting every possible negative outcome to every situation. I could not keep muscling my way through every new uncomfortable situation ignoring all the warning bells going off in my head. I just could not feel responsible for everything all the time anymore. I lived 1 minute at a time and then 5 minutes and then 10 minutes until I worked my way up to being able to think about my life a month at a time and then a year at a time until I could start to imagine and plan and look forward to a future without fear and anxiety overwhelming me.

Here is the thing about living in anxiety management mode for that many years – you get strong. Some of that strength is good. You learn how to keep working and performing well even when you do not feel like it. You learn to be aware of potential problems and come up with solutions quickly. But much of that “strength” is really just a hardening or calcification of really important emotional needs and indicators. I was so used to being afraid and nervous that in situations where I actually needed to be wary and cautious, I just ignored those feelings. I was so used to being on edge that in situations where I actually could relax and just be present, I did not know how. Externally I appeared to be enjoying myself and often I actually was but almost always with anxiety lurking at the edges ready to spring into action at the slightest indication of problems.

So I let parts of me that were “strong” before, get weak. I let some of my attention to details go. I actually became surprised when problems arose. I stopped feeling personally responsible when people around me are hurting or upset.  And in doing that, other parts of me started to strengthen. I am getting better at solving problems in the moment instead of having a myriad of solutions already prepared going into a situation. I am able to be more emotionally present and aware to respond to people and situations. And my “warning bells” are becoming more reliable as I am learning to pay attention to situations and relationships that I may actually need to withdraw from for my own health and safety instead of just sucking it up and suffering through it.

From what I understand, the level of anxiety I was living with was quite minor compared to what many others live with. All I know is that even if it was minor, it was still overwhelming and sapped so much life from me. Sometimes I wish I had known sooner that I did not have to live that way. I wonder how much life I missed out on experiencing just because I was managing situations rather than being fully present in the moment. It is a sobering thought and one that keeps me moving forward toward health and wholeness. I do not want to go back.

About six months ago I experienced my first panic attack in more than a year. Even though the triggers that caused it were pretty predictable, it startled me and caught me off guard. I had become so used to not experiencing panic attacks regularly that as soon as it was over I started crying. (Something I very rarely did after panic attacks in the past.) It was an awful feeling but also an unfamiliar feeling. I was crying for the pain I had lived with for so long and also with relief that it was now an unfamiliar pain. But I was also worried that I had just been set back many months in my healing and recovery. I called my mom and she reassured me, “Don’t worry. You are stronger now. You will probably bounce back much more quickly than you used to.” She was right. The anxiety and fear that lingers after panic attacks receded much more quickly. I was concerned that it would trigger more regular panic attacks again, but thankfully, it has not.

I am thankful for the peace I have already found and I imagine that my healing and recovery from anxiety will continue for many more years. It may be something that I will need to be intentional about for the rest of my life. But I can imagine a future free of fear and anxiety and in all of the outcomes I spent so much time predicting, that is something I never did before.

Impermanent

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This was my home. I get on that same bus and the road I used to take every day feels so familiar that I forget to pay attention to what is new. So much is still the same. The places where the bus veers sharply to the left or the right. The spots where the traffic is always heavy and we crawl for a mile or two and I have memorized the font and wording of every sign for those blocks. I swear there are even mile markers for where the bus driver must honk his horn. Some things about the space are so familiar that I feel rather than look to find my way across streets and up hills.

But this is not my home anymore and there is something new and unfamiliar as well. Some of the shops are different. The train where I spent hours of my life is in a period of indefinite reconstruction. Newer restaurants have replaced the old new restaurants. The roads seem fuller. The energy in the street feels different too. There is an anxious feeling pervading the streets I never noticed before. The former energetic optimism seems replaced by something a little more insidious.

I am different too and I wonder how much it is the space that has changed and how much it is me that has changed. Maybe it feels like there are more people in the street because I have been living in a city where no one is ever on the street. Maybe I never noticed the anxiety before because I also used to live in a constantly anxious state. Maybe the optimism feels replaced because some of my own former wide-eyed excitement for the future has given way to a more knowledgeable and less innocent outlook.

But just being here again is good. It is an old city. Some historians date its settlement as far back as the 7th century BC. It has seen so many upheavals and settlements. So many dynasties come and go. So many families grow up and die out. You can feel it in the air. The quiet certainty that comes with that many years of just being. If you stop to think about it, you quickly become aware of your smallness. Just a blip on a long timeline. A drop of water in a great ocean. An ocean that never feels far from this city built on not one but two peninsulas. The city feels settled in a way that people never do.

There is one building in this great city that my heart and mind return to often even when I am on the other side of the world. It is one of the oldest buildings I have ever stood in and it feels like hallowed ground from the first step inside its large ancient doors. Early visitors in the 6th and 7th centuries AD described it as visiting heaven because they had never seen an earthly sight like it. Kings have been coronated, princes named, and queens married here. Once upon a time, I even added my own little dot to the history of the space by accepting the proposal and ring of a young lover on bended knee in a quiet conclave with light streaming through glass like a blessing down on us.

When I am far away, I wander through the space like a ghost trying to remember and feel the grandeur of the space. Being there in the flesh, I take in the height and breadth of the ceiling and it still takes my breath away. I study each stone that make up the 1,200 year old mosaics again and again trying to absorb the time and the patience of the craftsman and wondering if he had any idea how long his art would endure. How his images would continue to inspire and move visitors into the 21st century. How one young woman would gain strength and peace by re-visiting them over and over again.

I want to feel anchored and tethered to this world but so often I feel like at any moment I could just float away. I feel too light and connected by too few strings. I want to feel solid and rooted. Is that a decision I make or is that something that will come with more age and experience? Or will I always feel like a visitor? Like a looker-on of history and permanence?

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