Anxiety & Coming Unmoored
For the first time in an exceptionally long time, a sense of clarity washes over me as I navigate the twists and turns of Oregon Coast Highway 101 alone.
Slowly at first—and then suddenly—over the course of the last three years, the things that have kept me tethered to what I have called my life for well over a decade came undone. Throughout this untethering process, I felt like a boat moored at a ramshackle dock during a storm. I swear at times I could hear the high-pitched groan of thick, aging ropes stretching, straining and then snapping as I was launched side to side, and up and down by angry waves that were both unpredictable and unforgiving. When the last mooring line finally released, there was an instant but temporary sense of peace as I slipped out to sea.
The Cost of Breaking Free
This isn’t the first time I’ve broken away from “my life” and indulged in the impression of freedom and the momentary belief that I could do and become anything I wanted. One of the first times was about two years into community college. I was working a shit job in the shit town I had spent my adolescence in. I was doing poorly in school and exceptionally well at staying inebriated in my free time. After visiting a friend who was going to school at Berkeley, I summoned the courage to quit my job and tell my very displeased parents that I was heading to California.
Snap! Snap! Snap!
And just like that, I drifted out to sea. It was exhilarating at first. I was full of hope and on my own with only the most minimal of support. But it wasn’t long before things got rough. Being in murky, unfamiliar waters without a floatation device woke a new kind of fear in me that would continue to grow. One that I couldn’t contain. I began waking at night with tingling limbs. I’d quietly wander the dark rooms of the house I was staying in, trying to shake off an unsettling question that whispered on repeat in the back of my mind: “Am I alive?”
It sounds insane, I know. I started to wonder if I was in fact going crazy. During the day my chest was alive with butterflies that wanted nothing more than to be set free. Their wings beat against my ribcage demanding to be released as I interviewed for jobs with sweaty palms and answers plucked from the confusion of a racing mind. In the evening, my parents would call oftentimes asking me to come home. They offered financial and emotional support, but only if I would come back to the very things I desperately wanted to escape.
One day, only a couple of months after arriving in Berkeley, I waited until my household was empty, packed all of my belongings into my car, and headed back towards the shithole town I had come from. I didn’t tell anyone—even those who were closest to me. I was sure if I could just get back to the familiar; that predictable, awful life would put the butterflies and frightening thoughts to rest. But somewhere along the never-ending stretch of I-5 that runs from California to Oregon, things took a turn for the worse.
I had my first panic attack.
The Beginning of a Long-Term Relationship
Actors and actresses never portray panic attacks right in the movies. The go-to reenactment always includes hyperventilating, a paper bag, and curling into a tiny ball. But real panic attacks aren’t like that at all. At least not in my case. In my case, the butterflies that had only filled my chest up until that moment…well, they moved into every cell of my body until my skin and bones, and even the folds of my brain vibrated with the desperate pulse of their wings. Billions of them trying to break away in every direction, taking me in pieces with them.
My skin buzzed. My mind filled with the roar of thrumming wings. I flew off the highway and almost ran my car into a gas station. There, a fireman and police officer checked both me and my car (to make sure I wasn’t on drugs), gave me a clean bill of health and sent me on my way with worried looks. That first attack and the long ride home began a cycle that would keep me in its grips for most of the rest of my adult life.
The Cycle of Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is a beast to break free from. Some doctors even say it is impossible. Marked by recurrent attacks that give way only to stretches of time spent fearing the next episode, panic disorder is a cycle that shrinks one’s world significantly. My first attack happened on a long stretch of highway all by myself. I experienced several more before I would make it home. By the time I reached my parents’ house, I had developed an intense phobia of driving on anything other than neighborhood streets. Suddenly I was completely dependent on the very people, places, and things I wanted nothing more than to leave behind.
It took many years to regain my ability to drive long distances on my own. As did doing anything without a bottle of Xanax within reach in case of an emergency. In the two decades that followed, I learned how to find a “safe dock” to tie myself to as I moved from one phase of life to the next. Each just a slightly different version of the one I had left it for. From my parent’s house, I went to a University in a tiny college town where I barely had to drive at all. The two-hour road trip home for holidays was always accomplished with a friend.
In college, I found a predictable routine and a boyfriend who checked all the right “decent boyfriend” boxes. Decent…but emotionally unavailable and not someone who had even half of the traits I had longed for in a partner. Always settling and securely moored to him, I went wherever he wanted. From there, my life is a string of fighting to get away from, but always returning to, the same type of people, places, and situations that kept me small and insecure, but panic-attack-free and stable in the eyes of others.
Friends and lovers came and went over time, each quickly replaced with different versions of the same thing. It was as if I couldn’t help but be drawn right back into the very situations and relationships that kept that whisper in the back of my mind audible: “Am I alive?”
The Devil You know
I have always known deep down that I have to sacrifice what feels safe and comfortable in order to escape the vicious cycles I’m caught in and finally Become.
Become what? I have no idea. A better version of myself? My best self? My truest self? My happiest and most fulfilled self? Who the fuck knows? But what I am sure of is that it is fear that has kept me from truly living my life in many ways, and I have worked like hell to overcome it.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve done the hard work. I have gone to therapy and have an arsenal of tactics that help me head off panic attacks before they hit. If one should catch me off guard, I’m armed to the teeth with ways to deal with it all by myself.
I’ve driven that stretch of I-5 that marked the beginning of my battle with anxiety more than once without feeling a single flutter of panic. I’ve flown across the country and overseas countless times. I have zip lined through forests and over lakes repeatedly, and even went hang gliding over Georgia and Tennessee without the need for more than a shot of tequila to calm my nerves after.
All of these things I’ve done to prove to myself that I am capable and in control of my life, and that I can do, be, and have anything I’ve ever wanted. Yet here I am white-knuckled with the whisper of wings growing louder in my mind as I sail the twists and turns of 101 just a couple of months into my latest great escape when I’m suddenly struck by how fucking familiar everything feels. That’s when I realize, I’ve done all of this hard work but the truth is, these were simply singular situations that my anxiety and I devised to trick myself into believing that it was I who was captaining my own ship—not my fear.
The Devil that Might Be
Panic and anxiety are tricky little Bitches. They will take the devil you know over the devil that might be lurking out there any day. In fact, they hate the unknown so much that they do their best to convince you that you’ve made progress in your journey to be rid of them when you’ve gone exactly nowhere. They’ll replace your old neglectful boyfriend with a new lover who looks very different but makes you feel just as insignificant. You’ll end a toxic friendship only to find yourself hanging out with another bestie who is just as unreliable, backstabby, and quick with those cutting comments. As for jobs and social and spiritual communities—you’ll never be able to prove yourself enough to feel like you truly belong as you hop from one situation to the next. The Bitches will bring you back to the exact same place again and again.
In truth, I’m not unlike the unsatisfied housewife who finally leaves her misogynistic husband to experience life as something more than a lunchbox packer and dinner maker…only to find herself in yet another domesticated relationship preparing supper for five. And I’ve got more in common with the domestic abuse victim who returns to her abuser and the teenage girl who just can’t fucking help but hang with the mean girls—than I do with the image of the badass, free-spirited, take-no-shit and accept-no-less-than-the-best woman I long to be. After each of my anxiety-crushing adventures, I had simply returned to a life that looked the same as the versions that had existed before. Nothing gained from my experience other than a make-me-look-good story to share.
As it turns out, it’s neither panic nor anxiety that I need to overcome, it’s the root of the fear that feeds them that has to be confronted if I ever truly want to be free.
Thus, begins the thrumming of the wings.
What Lies Beneath
Since that drive along Hwy 101, I’ve spent time identifying my personal cycles and considering why I keep engaging in them. I’ve done a lot of soul searching and have had long talks with close friends. It was during one such conversation that a light went off for me. After sharing my moment of clarity with a dear friend of mine, she responded by saying, “Our traumas lead us back down the same fucking road if we’re not aware of them. Our traumas are insidious. And a lot of the time, for women traumas play out in their relationships.”
For the last 20-plus years, my battle with anxiety and panic has remained in the shallows. I’ve learned to still the water’s surface, while what lies beneath roils unnoticed. Panic and anxiety are merely symptoms of our traumas. They light fires that threaten to burn down our life, stealing our attention away from that which needs most to be dealt with. Whether they are the result of assault, abandonment, neglect, or any number of atrocities—confronting traumas is terrifying work. It wakes the butterflies and encourages the whispers. But neither will ever truly go away until that which has wounded us most deeply has been discovered, acknowledged, and made peace with.
I don’t know how the peace-making is done. I don’t know what it takes to be able to finally believe you deserve those things you want most; whether it is reciprocal love, loyal friendships, or authentic communities. I’m still in the discovery and acknowledgment phases of this journey and learning to change my relationship with those familiar symptoms that want to knock me off track.
What if the pounding of those wings against my ribcage is just a reminder that my heart is still beating? And that whisper…when I awoke last night―limbs tingling and lungs gasping for air—I could have sworn I heard it say, “Now, you are living.”