Trusting It

Thank you for visiting the blog again. Trying to stay a bit more reliably up and running! 🙂

This afternoon, I’m giving a lecture-performance about my book To Love A Stranger. Before I started having major anxiety struggles this summer, this kind of performance was a little nerve-racking, but mostly no sweat. Today, I’m considerably more nervous than usual. It’s a familiar format, and the kind of gig I’ve done many times before, but I’m having to trust that my performance chops are still there, and will do what they need to do.

It feels like a risk. Part of me wants to run from it, but I’ve learned that the worst thing you can do with anxiety is let it win. When the panic starts telling you that something isn’t safe, or isn’t possible, that’s the time to push back and show it how you know better. Over the summer, when I was really struggling, I had a few days where I let the panic dictate. I canceled my commitments (not many, fortunately) and holed up in bed, listening to music for hours on end. The music was great, but overall, taking this approach to panic was definitely not the right thing to do. It taught me that the only way I could respond to fear was by digging myself a burrow and crawling in.

It’s much harder to push yourself to do things when you’re scared, but it’s also the best way to re-wire your brain and learn that the fear reflex isn’t telling you the truth. Anxiety is an interesting phenomenon. Your hindbrain thinks you’re going into danger, and it wants to protect you, so it kicks in your fight-or-flight response, sometimes so intensely that you feel incapacitated. (If you’ve had the kind of panic attack that involves chest pain, nausea, shaking, dizziness, and the other kinds of symptoms that make you believe you’re in the middle of a heart attack, you know exactly what I mean.) All of this fuss on your hindbrain’s part because it wants to keep you safe from what it sees as danger. Meanwhile, though, its perception of that danger is a little skewed: it doesn’t need to protect you from working, or driving, or staying home alone, or any of the once-ordinary things that might be triggering it. You have to teach it this by doing those things that it doesn’t want you to do.

For me, today’s lecture-performance falls into that category of things. My hindbrain tells me it’s very scary, I won’t be able to get through it, it would be safer not to try. But I know I’ve done exactly this kind of performance before and will do it again, maybe many times. I can get through it, I will get through it, and in so doing, I’ll teach myself and my over-reactive anxiety a valuable lesson. I will trust myself instead of the fear messages.

The video below is a taste of what I’ll be playing this afternoon: the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 90. (Apologies for my somewhat out-of-tune piano. Also, yes, that is a Christmas penguin in the background. 😉 ) Beethoven is one of the composers whose music helped inspire To Love A Stranger, and I’ll be reading an excerpt from the book in which his music features, and talking about why he’s perhaps my ultimate musical hero if I could only pick one. As I write this, I tap into the familiar pattern of these performances, and I get a taste back of my own excitement and enjoyment at the idea of giving one. Take that, anxiety. 😉

Hope you enjoy the music. As always, thanks for visiting the blog. See you next time!

“How Long Will You Let Them…”

As promised, new content on the blog today.

Last week, my husband and I went on vacation to north-central Pennsylvania. We were in an area known for its beautiful night skies: we rented a cabin close to Cherry Springs State Park, which is actually an international dark-sky park where amateur stargazers can take in their fill, and professional astronomers can set up telescopes for all-night viewing. While my husband and I didn’t join the stargazers at the park, we had a gorgeous view of the night sky from the backyard of our cabin. More stars than you can imagine, points of clear light spread out dazzlingly across a perfectly black sky. Some were so small and faint that they disappeared if you tried to look straight at them, but when you glanced away to the side, the spread reappeared magnificently.

Ideal stargazing means no light pollution, so by definition you have to get away from civilization. Our cabin was on a dirt road away from the highway, and the highway itself was a two-lane strip across the top of the mountain, where a passing car meant excitement. We could sit out on our porch and hear nothing but bird calls and distant sounds of sheep, cattle, and chickens from a couple of farms farther along the dirt road. On our last couple of nights, we heard coyotes calling in the woods not far away: first the eerie wolflike howl of a single adult, then another joining, and then the high excited yapping of what we guessed were puppies just learning the communication ropes. I had never experienced coyote calls in the wild before, and I have to admit they spooked me, especially when we heard them at midnight as we sat beside a campfire with the dark all around us and the stars overhead.

 

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Campfire evening

I learned a couple of things about myself on this trip, as we were out there mostly on our own, running into very few people even on our hikes in the area’s many state parks. For one, I learned I’m more of a city slicker than I’d like to admit. As an introvert, I don’t necessarily want to interact with people, but it seems I like to know they’re around. And secondly, as someone with anxiety, I learned how much harder it can be to control dire imaginings in the context of solitude.

“What if?” Anyone with anxiety knows that question and the chain of sub-questions it can call up in your mind. “What if something happens? What if one of us gets sick or hurt? What if we have car trouble when we’re out on the back roads and we don’t have a cell phone signal? What if it rains enough to wash a road out?” If you’re like me, you’d run through all of these questions multiple times each, along with others, and you’d try to come up with answers for all of them. You’d assess distances and travel times to the nearest towns with facilities you might need, and you’d eyeball the roads and try to guess exactly how much rain damage they might sustain before it would cause a problem, and you’d monitor your cell phone signal, and you’d imagine various hazards (possible types of injury, possible sicknesses) and how you would deal with them…and then, after a while, you’d realize you were very, very tired. Unremitting fight-or-flight does that to you.

I got frustrated with myself on this trip, more than once, because of the way my anxiety went into overdrive. The line between taking sensible precautions and catastrophizing can be narrow indeed, but I know how often I come down on the wrong side of it. It’s tough when you feel like you can’t trust what your own mind is doing. It’s tough when you feel like it’s fighting you, and you always have to try to fight back.

At home, going through my usual routines, I can keep a lid on my over-the-top feelings, rationalize them, wave them away. Out of context and outside my comfort zone, I had them shoved starkly into my face. I saw, again, what a problem they really are, and how they carry over into every aspect of my life.

Every time I started to get scared, I told myself, “There’s no demons here except the ones you brought with you. The ones in your own head.” And I asked myself, “How long are you going to let them call the shots?”

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Pine Creek waterfall, at the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon

 

Anyone with anxiety and its corollary, depression, knows how crippling they can be. They can hold you back from doing things you want to do, things you’d like to try but aren’t sure you can succeed at, or things you normally enjoy but suddenly don’t seem as important or valuable anymore. If you do try to do something anyway, anxiety and depression can make your efforts half-baked, or they can make the whole experience so terrifying and/or miserable that you come out of it convinced you’ll never do it again. They’re the enemies inside your own head.

The funny thing is, though, I’ve come to believe that in a backwards way, those destructive messages are actually trying to keep you safe. Anxiety and depression make you honestly certain that the new things, the different things, the risky things, are much too dangerous. You shouldn’t stick your neck out that far. So the over-the-top messages come along to hold you back, wrap you up tight in what your mind accepts as a safety net.

This trip made me realize exactly how hard my mind will fight me if it thinks I’m stepping too far outside my comfort zone. It also made me confront the question I’ve sidestepped many times: “How long will you let those demons call the shots?”

In case it sounds like I didn’t have much of a vacation, I can tell you that in many ways, the trip was beautiful. I already miss the solitude of the cabin, the bird calls, the clear cool air of the mountains and the peace and strength of the woods. But I’m grateful, too, to have had such a wake-up call about what my mind will do to try to keep me safe, and I’m glad to have come home with a clearer plan for how to address that. Re-programming my mental messages, giving myself new thought patterns to hold onto, and taking medication are all parts of this plan. Now that I know exactly how far my inner “demons” will go, I’m more determined than ever not to let them keep calling the shots. There’s a way to make this better. I will make it happen.

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Hills Creek Lake, Hills Creek State Park, PA

 

Photos by Kris Faatz