My hips led me around a Montauk boutique. My jean skirt was too short, my acrylic nails too long, and my shirt too tight. I drank too much, smoked too many cigarettes and cursed more than a “young lady should.” I was too wild, too antsy, too dishonest, too sexy. I was monitoring my movement around the store, looking for mirrors so I could watch myself sway by. Deeply immersed in the passion of self-obsession, I could hear my mother’s muted voice trying to pull me out of my too-cool-for-you attitude, “Jack, jack, this is cute, isn’t it?” She held up a beige shirt, “Ugh, no mom,” immediately dismissing her excitement, “I don’t like it.” “Well, it’s not for you, it’s for me,” she said annoyed. “Oh. Well then sure.” I was 15. My mother and I were vacationing in Montauk and we were killing time shopping. At the register, I spotted a brown leather bracelet. I picked it up to see what was inscribed in it and read, “feel the fear and do it anyway,” written in italic script. I was cosmically drawn to the saying. It made me feel like the badass I was determined to be. My life had been so overtaken by mood altering substances and experiences that I was numb to my childhood, numb to my passions, numb to love. SO, when I saw that bracelet, I thought, “yeah, feel the fear of overdosing and take all of the drugs anyway, yeah feel like you’re going to die from the insane adventure and do it anyway, be afraid of drunk driving and do it anyway, feel the fear of mixing all of the booze, of fucking the wrong guy, and DO IT ANYWAY.” It was with that M.O that I begged my mother to buy me the bracelet. Because she was in denial of my M.O, she agreed. I wore it everyday, I followed its direction, and it got me into trouble. That is, until I learned how to use that saying to my life’s benefit.
By 17, just two years later, crack addiction had devoured my father, my parents divorced, my mother was horribly depressed, my brother was absent in mind and body, and I was… numb—a passionless shell of myself. Brene Brown brilliantly says, “you can’t selectively numb.” All of the things I used drugs, sex and fantasy to mute—like my anxiety—were muted. But so was everything else. In an effort to feel alive again and have the future I always imagined for myself, I quit. I quit drinking and doing drugs and I was left with a surge of confusing emotions. I still had that bracelet, but it had no meaning to me if I wasn’t getting high. I tucked it away in a drawer, and a new wave of panic attacks commenced.
It was the summer of 2006, I had just quit my waitressing job without the safety net of a new job. I thought it would be nice to just “have some time off.” That was a big mistake. My main coping mechanism for anxiety and depression had always been to stay busy, distracted,and/or self-medicated so quitting a job to “just chill”—when I had never once had the experience of “just chilling”—was a recipe for disaster. New York City was hit with a nasty heat wave that summer. It felt like hell was sitting directly below the sidewalk shooting fireballs up to cause a suffocating, torturous heat (Disclaimer: I’m also very dramatic). It’s hot. And sticky. And dirty. Sticky with your own smelly sweat and with the sweat of strangers who keep bumping into you while unpacking both their bodily toxins and the days pollution. The air is so thick it’s like moving through quicksand—quicksand crowded with people. There were some manageable blackouts happening around the city. Nothing too major. But in the same way that I ran with “Mama Cass choking on a ham sandwich,” I ran with the blackouts. WHAT IF, while I’m on the subway, in the tunnel, there’s a blackout, and we get stuck,and I potentially die, I thought. That did it. That one thought resulted in months of unbearable panic attacks.
First, I couldn’t get on the subway so I opted for long and inconvenient bus rides. Before I knew it, I couldn’t get on the bus. So I walked. And soon enough I didn’t want to go outside. I couldn’t take the elevator either because my brilliant anxiety- based -mind was smart enough to know “a blackout would fuck with elevators, too!” I was edging on being agoraphobic. Fortunately, due to my earlier experience with panic, I knew not to give in to the fear. I kept trudging. I cried every time I had to go outside, but I went. I listened to soothing music on the subway when that was my only option for transportation. I even got a job during this time. A good job. I was late to the interview because I took the bus and got stuck in traffic, but I got the job. It didn’t really help— all of the contrary action didn’t serve the same way it had seven years earlier. It wasn’t as simple and rewarding as my seventh grade field day when I faced my fear and my fear evaporated magically. Nope. This time, the fear was hanging around like a monkey attacking me that I kept trying to fling off.
It was repeatedly suggested that I get on a small dose of a pharmaceutical (SSRI) to help ease the suffering. I rejected the idea until—after many months of useless torture— I realized that I was missing out on my life. I was in so much inner strife that I was missing all of the invitations to joy and freedom that my life had to offer. I wanted to feel alive; I didn’t want to simply survive. After much thought, I decided to get on a small dose of an SSRI with the intention of using it as a tool. Not as a way out, but as a way IN. I needed just a little bit of emotional freedom in order to explore the other more holistic options at my disposal: meditation, therapy, exercise, joyful work, diet, etc. And I did exactly that. And my life opened up completely.
I explored different jobs, paid my way through school, traveled, developed new friendships, played around with romance, and I met every opportunity to learn and grow with passion. I felt fear with every new change. I actually felt fear everyday. It just didn’t control me. In 2010, when I was packing to move 6,000 miles away from home (yup!), I came across that bracelet, “feel the fear and do it anyway.” I chuckled at my younger self’s interpretation of that saying. I sat down on my floor and reflected on all of life’s scary moments: moving, marriage, following dreams, traveling, loving, having children, taking the big jobs, saying no to the wrong jobs, saying no in general, saying yes in general, and, you know, telling the truth/being vulnerable. And I realized that I possessed such freedom. I COULD do anything BECAUSE I could tolerate fear. In fact, I came to realize that “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” was a core value of mine.
And it’s a good thing, because I needed to be extremely brave in order to heal from Lyme disease.
…to be continued.
Fun and love,