Since before I can remember, I’ve been afraid.
I’ve been afraid of nearly everything yet somehow I learned how to function without everyone noticing I was being controlled by my fears.
I started a “fear journal” recently where I’ve been writing all the things I can remember being afraid of since I was a kid. Most of my specific fears can be boiled down to the same general fear; feeling out of control.
I’ve come to realize I have a low tolerance for uncertainty; predictability is my ultimate goal and unexpected problems my worst nightmare.
If you had met me a few years ago you would have heard about my job which I’d been doing for seven years and considered my “calling,” the great apartment where I’d been living for over three years just a short walk from my office in my favorite neighborhood, the girl I was dating and expected to spend the rest of my life with, and I’m guessing you would have assumed I was in relatively good health and had my stuff together.
That is who I was…above the surface.
What you wouldn’t have seen – and what I never would have shown you (even if I had been aware of it) – was the storm of insecurity building inside of me.
The first waves crashed against the shores of my life early that summer, when the following things happened in the same week…
I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression on Tuesday.
I learned my position was being eliminated on Thursday.
My girlfriend and I broke up over the weekend.
Throughout the week I was facing the reality that my apartment was going to be torn down.
My life became dark as the clouds of shock, pain, loss and uncertainty rolled in.
I experienced the full range of emotions, often within minutes, enduring many difficult days and even darker nights as I struggled to make sense of what was happening.
Like many people, I had come to know myself based on what I did, where I lived and who I was connected to; so when all three were taken away in a short period of time, it felt like I had lost my identity. Add in to the mix that I’d been living with untreated anxiety and depression and I lacked the mental and emotional capacity to handle what I was going through.
I hadn’t faced many difficult things in my life before it fell apart, so I had no experience with the emotions I was feeling and wasn’t sure how to handle them.
Based on the stories I had heard of people getting knocked down, I thought the right thing to do – the brave way to respond – was to get right back up, but there was something inside me saying that wasn’t a good idea.
I’m a sensitive person, but I didn’t show any emotion in the beginning. I didn’t know how; I was numb. When I finally felt emotions coming it took several days for them to reach the surface.
I remember talking to a friend at the time who had recently gone through a divorce and he described being scared of his emotions because he worried that once they started they would never stop, as if he was falling into a well without a bottom. That’s a good description of how I felt.
There was a park near my apartment and in the evenings I would walk there and try to clear my head. In the middle of a grassy valley there was a big droopy tree and one night I found myself climbing into its branches where I found a place to sit and think. Ironically, I was scared of heights and rarely climbed trees as a kid, but I discovered a sense of safety in that tree and returned there many times during those difficult days because it was a place where I could hide from the world…although I realize now that I was also hiding from myself (especially my feelings).
When I finally sensed that my emotions were ready to boil over, I decided to watch a sad movie in hopes that it would help get my tears started.
I chose a movie that seemed like it would do the trick and set aside a Friday night when I didn’t have anything planned the next morning, so I’d have plenty of time to recover from whatever happened. When the night came I found all sorts of excuses not to start the movie but finally sat down on my couch and pressed play. It was a sad story about a family coming together after the loss of a parent and at most times in my life it probably would have made me weep, but my defenses were still up and I didn’t shed a tear.
While getting ready for bed that night I looked at myself in bathroom mirror and didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. He looked sad, and in the same way I feel empathy for someone when they’re telling me about their painful feeling – when I notice their eyes start to shine and sense a tear is making its way from the back of their eye to the corner where it will finally fall and slide down their cheek – in that same way I could see the emotion in the eyes of the person looking back at me and I felt his pain. So the first tears I shed after all of that shit happened in my life didn’t actually come from my own pain but from the sense of empathy I felt when seeing the pain in the face of a stranger who happened to be me.
Once the tears started, they flowed uncontrollably and I wound up on my living room floor, rolling around and gasping for breath as the sobbing came from a place deep in my soul. I experienced these dark nights of the soul many times during the first few months and would come to call it “vomit crying” or “puking emotion,” and although they were scary, I began to realize they were cleaning out pain that had been buried in the deepest, darkest corners of my past.
After becoming more familiar with these intense experiences of grief, I decided that when I felt ready to talk about all of this I would tell my whole story; including my struggle with mental health, my fears and insecurities and even the nights crying on the floor.
My therapist and spiritual director were incredibly supportive throughout the whole process, but especially in the beginning when I was struggling to make sense of what I was going through. I began taking medication for my anxiety and depression, tried to exercise or at least go outside and breathe fresh air regularly, I meditated (or at least breathed) and slept…a lot. I read books and watched movies, talked the ears off my family and close friends and listened to the same music on repeat because it felt comforting to have melodies accompany my emotions.
Near the end of the summer, just before my apartment building was torn down, I rented a storage unit and put most of what I owned in a 10′ x 10′ closet, locked the door and drove to my family’s cabin. I spent a lot of time in the woods of Northern Wisconsin that fall thinking, reading, walking, napping, praying and pleading with God to get me through the hell I was living.
I sensed that getting another job right away and trying to live a normal life would be a bad decision, so rather than signing another lease and moving into a new place before knowing when or where I’d work next, I moved in to my sister’s basement (the best of several bad options). I lived with her family for about a year and it was a mostly positive experience.
When I finally started to feel like I had regained some balance and was able to see beyond what was right in front of me, I began to realize that my situation was an opportunity; because without a job, a home or anyone whose needs or opinions had an influence on my decisions, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted…I could travel, go out for fancy dinners and even take risks without having to worry about work or other “adult responsibilities.” I hadn’t asked for it, but I had been given a chance to reclaim my life.
At some point during all of this I read about a study connecting gratitude and joy. Apparently, some psychologists had discovered “the pathway to joy begins with gratitude.”
It made sense but I was skeptical, yet I continued reading and learned that this claim was not based on just one, but actually hundreds of studies, all of which suggest that practicing gratitude…
+ increases positive emotions
+ reduces depression
+ strengthens relationships
+ and helps people face stressful life events
It was like reading a list of my issues and needs…
I was painfully aware that I hadn’t been experiencing “positive emotions” and it was becoming clear I couldn’t become a happier person just by wanting to be happy, so I decided to trust the research and try something big.
I had already decided I wanted to travel but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, but I knew there were adventures in my future and didn’t want to have them by myself, so I came up with a plan that would help me express gratitude to my family and friends and have memorable experiences.
So, on a mid-summer night at our cabin, sitting around the table after dinner with my family, surrounded by dirty plates and a few empty bottles of wine, I gave my pitch:
“Look at me as if I’m a foundation,” I began, “and I want each of you to submit an application for a grant to have an adventure with me. Something YOU have always wanted to do, that we’ll talk about forever!”
Thankfully, they took me seriously, and for the next year I made it my mission to make my family and friends’ dreams come true. I called it “make a wish” and it was a very rewarding job that filled my days with researching places to stay and things to do, planning surprises, hunting for deals on flights and generally planning trips and experiences to honor the love and support I had received throughout my life from the people who were most important to me.
It was fun and memorable, exhilarating and exhausting, incredibly life-giving while also completely unsustainable – both financially and medically (no one should eat, drink and live like that for a long period of time!).
The best parts were being able to give the best of myself to the people who mean the most to me, being right next to someone I love when they were doing something they’d always wanted to do, remembering how good life can be and facing some of my fears along the way.
Between my adventures I continued meeting with my therapist, took solo trips to my cabin where I could recover and plan my upcoming trips and during each adventure I was able to process my thoughts and feelings with the person I was with.
It was an incredible ride and it hardly felt real, because not only was I doing things so out of the ordinary for me, but I was living like a retired person in my 30s!
I had many profound moments of wisdom and inspiration along the way, and one that stands out was driving through the mountains outside of Banff with my friend Matt and hearing a song that described my journey, I was “learning to dance with the fear I’d been running from.”
I can’t believe how much destruction had to take place in my life to get my attention and make me aware of my issues with fear, control and insecurity. Brene Brown says “The universe isn’t short on wake-up calls, we’re just quick to hit the snooze button,” and looking back on my life I know that was the case with me because until it was derailed I was working ridiculously hard to avoid dealing with my stuff. [The word “stuff” is an incredibly insufficient way to represent all the pain and confusion and trauma from my life.]
I’ll probably never write thank you letters to the people whose decisions led me to go through any of this, but I’m grateful for all of it because the beauty that has grown out of the rubble has made it seem almost worth the difficult parts.
I’ve continued struggling down the road of reclaiming my life and identity and am proud of the person I’m becoming, but I’m not ashamed of who I was. The old Andy was a good guy but parts of him needed to die so the new version of me could be born. I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll be forced to change but will hopefully be more ready next time (and I pray it will be less painful).
I realize I’m not the only one who has gone through something difficult and I have a great deal of respect for the courage and strength people show in the face of their challenges.
Life, for each of us, is a combination of beautiful and painful experiences and between waking up each morning and going to bed at night we can never know where we’ll find ourselves on that spectrum.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from this is that the “hardest thing” you have ever faced is equal to the “hardest thing” anyone else has faced.
It’s a matter of perspective, not comparison.
Not everyone would have the option to do what I did in the wake of a major life disruption and I will be forever grateful for the time, money, freedom and support that allowed me to take a break from regular life and focus my energy on my well-being.
Grief is an all-consuming experience and when you’re in the middle of it you can’t see or hear much outside of yourself. It’s disorienting and debilitating, yet somehow you can feel love in the comforting touch of someone who cares or support in the tears of someone who seems to understand. I want to thank everyone who helped me during this difficult journey; it is for them and because of them that I now live and move and have my being in this beautiful and messy world.