Since before I can remember, I’ve been afraid.
I’ve been afraid of nearly everything yet I somehow learned to live without everyone noticing I was being controlled by my fears.
I started a “fear journal” recently where I’ve been writing down 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.
And throughout the week I was facing the reality that my apartment was going to be torn down soon.
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 had happened.
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.
Before it fell apart, I hadn’t faced many difficult things in my life, 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 just numb, and when I finally began feeling my emotions 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 home and in the evenings I would walk there and try to clear my head. In the middle of the park 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 had been scared of heights and rarely climbed trees as a kid, but I discovered a sense of safety in that tree and returned there several times during those first few weeks 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 cry, 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 the bathroom mirror and didn’t recognize the person looking back at me. He looked sad, and in the same way I feel for someone else when they’re telling me about something difficult they’re going through and I notice a tear making its way from the back of their eye to the corner where it might fall out and slide down their cheek. I could see pain 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 in my living room, rolling around on the floor while 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 came to know it as “vomit crying” or “puking emotion,” and although it was a scary feeling, I began to realize it was cleaning out some of the pain that had been buried in the deepest and darkest corners of my past.
After becoming more familiar with these intense experiences of grief, I decided that when I eventually felt ready to talk about all of this I would tell my whole story; including my struggle with anxiety and depression, my fears and insecurities and even those nights of vomiting tears on my living room floor.
My therapist and spiritual director were both incredibly supportive throughout the whole process, especially in the beginning when I was struggling to make sense of things. I began taking medication for my anxiety and depression and tried to exercise or at least get outside and breathe fresh air regularly. I slept a lot and meditated/prayed when I felt up to it. 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 locked most of what I owned in a 10 foot x 10 foot closet 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 and trying to live a normal adult 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 almost a year and it was a mostly positive experience, especially the parts where I got to hang out with my niece who was four years old at the time.
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 take risks without having to worry about work or other “adult responsibilities.” I hadn’t asked for it, but I had a chance to reclaim my life.
At some point during all of this I read about a study connecting gratitude and joy. Apparently, some psychologist had discovered “the pathway to joy begins with gratitude.”
I didn’t think much of it at first, but I eventually learned that this discovery was not based on just one, but actually hundreds of studies, all of which suggested that practicing gratitude has many positive e/affects, like:
+ increased positive emotions
+ reduced depression
+ strengthened relationships
+ and it helps people face stressful life events
It was like reading a list of my own 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 spend time traveling but wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, I just knew there were adventures in my future and I didn’t want to have them all by myself, so I came up with a plan that would help me express gratitude to my family and friends and have memorable experiences.
On a warm July night at my cabin, sitting around the table after having dinner with my family, surrounded by dirty plates and a couple 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 all took me seriously, and for the next year it was my mission to make my family and friends’ dreams come true. I called it “make a wish” and it was a rewarding job that filled my days with researching places to go and stay, looking for fun things to do, planning surprises, hunting for travel deals and more than anything, planning experiences that honored 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 physically (no one can eat, drink and live like that for a long period of time!).
The best part was being able to give the best of myself to the people who mean the most to me and being right next to someone I love when they were doing something they’d always wanted to do. The experiences we shared helped me remember how good life can be while facing some of my fears along the way.
Between adventures, I continued meeting with my therapist and spent time at my cabin, where I could recover and plan my next 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 and control, but as Brene Brown says “The universe isn’t short on wake-up calls, we’re just quick to hit the snooze button.” Looking back on my life, I can see that was the case with me because until it was derailed I was working ridiculously hard to avoid dealing with my issues.
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 am proud of the person I’m becoming, but I’m also 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 him could be born. I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll be forced to change but I’ll 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 other 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 in the 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 and support that allowed me to take a break from my regular life and focus 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.
Here are some highlights of our adventures: