When Anxiety Makes Me Fear The Future

“I hate that I had to force myself to go,” I told my therapist. As I sat in my usual leather chair in the corner of her office, she noted my comments on her iPad.

I had returned from a writer’s conference three weeks earlier. From our last session a month ago, she knew this trip had been planned. Did you go, she had asked me as soon as I entered the room. Despite having many other clients and only seeing me on a monthly basis, she remembered this would be a big deal for me. And therefore, it was a big deal for her.

My anxiety has been a player from the beginning. Early memories from when I was three put me in relatives’ homes where I felt too intimidated to speak. She’s so bashful, they would say. It was the first of an endless string of times people would call me ‘shy’ or ‘quiet’ or something equivalent. I never thought of myself as any of those. I was scared I would screw up, embarrass myself, or that people would not like me. But others never saw that. I learned to keep those fears inside. I knew myself differently than the world did. It was not that I had nothing to say. It was never about not wanting to meet new friends. I never felt okay with wanting to avoid parties and social gatherings. It was that I could not calm down my reactive brain enough to do any of those things comfortably.

Anxiety has always lingered by my side. It wears the half broken heart pendant of a ‘best friends forever’ necklace to which I begrudgingly hold the other half. Anxiety makes me fear the benign and causes my body to overreact. As a child, my heart would race as I pondered if I could really raise my hand in class to ask a question. My palms sweat if I had to talk to someone unknown to me. First days of a new school year sent me into such a tailspin at bedtime that sleep was elusive but tears were plentiful. Now, I wake at 2am and stay up for hours. Generalize Anxiety Disorder does not pinpoint a specific cause for the anxiety–rather, it causes me to fear irrational things daily.

Out of all my anxieties, the worst is my compulsion to worry about future events. I have always wanted to pre-plan, even those things that would take a soothsayer’s power that I did not possess. While my rational brain understands the impossibility of knowing what will happen to me next year, next month, next week, tomorrow, or even one minute from now, my anxiety never gets that memo.

Figure out all the details, it whispers to me. I’ll calm down once you know exactly who will be there, how the place will look, what you will say, what people will say back to you, all the car problems you may have, if you will get sick, if you do get sick where is a doctor you can see, what food will you eat, how you will be sure food is not stuck in your teeth. Do all this, anxiety says, and I promise to calm down.

As a young adult, I found my drive was a fair match for anxiety. Whenever I met a doorway that was electric with fear–a portal to a new phase in life or challenge that claimed to be exciting–I found a way to dig deep and push through the mental anguish. Before I left for college, I had recurring thoughts: I can’t do this, I will fail, I’ll have no friends. Yet, I went. I graduated. I made great friends who still come around from time-to-time despite our busy lives.

In my junior year, I wanted to study abroad in Spain. My high school Spanish teacher had done it and told us magnificent stories of her adventures. I dreamt of my own stories. I applied despite my anxiety chiding me: Where would I live? What would I eat? How well would I really understand the language? Who would I meet? How would I get money? How would I travel without a car? What would I pack? Yet, I got my plane ticket and went. It turned out to be the most influential year of my life–I met good people, got to know a beautiful country, ate new foods, and met my future husband.

At each juncture, there is a duel. My drive, knowing what I want, faces off with my anxiety. Fortunately, my drive often wins. Despite anxiety, I have lived in several states, fought through a lost pregnancy and two more miscarriages, and have changed jobs more times than I would like to count. I made it through graduate school, and fought to see my premature daughter graduate from the NICU. Through each experience, all my fears came out at once, and only once I got to the other side did I see the importance of each battle.

So when I had a sobbing breakdown the night before leaving for the writer’s conference, I knew it was just another doorway to break down. Anxiety reiterated its old rhetoric: I did not match up in writing skill. I’ll be all alone. My drive told me to just go.

I cried on my husband’s shoulder. I knew I had to go.

I described all of this to my therapist.

What if you didn’t look at it as you ‘forced’ yourself? she asked. What if you said you made the choice to go in spite of your anxiety?

It was then I saw my life in a new light. All these years, I felt like I was forcing myself to jump when really I was feeling my way to bravery. I always had a choice. And often, I chose what felt so uncomfortable.

While it does not make the anxiety easier to deal with, and it certainly does not make it go away, I left her office with a new appreciation for myself. I gave myself more compassion and grace. After all, I have been winning the battle this whole time.

 

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