From Fear to Acceptance And Back Again And Again And Again
I feel like my entire life has prepared me for this exact moment. I feel the need to preface this writing by saying I don’t presume that I am an expert on anxiety, or on YOUR anxiety. I have spent many years doing self work and work with a therapist to better understand this part of myself (can I get an Amen? Thank you baby Jesus! for mental health workers). This work has led me to a place where I feel confident to say I am an expert on MY ANXIETY. I am writing about MY journey and MY work during this universally scary time. It is my hope that this honest expression of my experience just may help someone! I feel like my entire life has prepared me for this exact moment. I have struggled and lived in fear MY ENTIRE LIFE. Not just your general everyday anxiety but a more specific kind. I have been afraid and anxious of disease and death my entire life. This anxiety lived deep in my marrow, in my mind and body and would take control at any given moment: a birthday party, at home on a Tuesday night, on a super sexy date. It really didn't really matter where I was or what I was doing. I would have thoughts of some of the most horrible things that can and sometimes do happen to people. I then ran wild with these thoughts and imagined what it would be like to be in that situation; what it might feel like. I would then dwell in a space of what I would describe as overwhelming empathy. I could viscerally feel in my body what the pain and suffering of others might feel like. My body would have me convinced that I was the one suffering--as if their experience was my experience.
My mind would convince my body. My body would convince my mind.
And because I don't half-ass anything,
this little roller coaster I flung myself on would sometimes lead to a full blown panic attack. Racing heart, tough to swallow, hands shaking, crying for no damn reason, and the inevitable thought, "I am dying" on repeat like my favorite childhood cds. This way of living was a pattern for me so old and ancient that I really didn’t know that it was unhealthy. In fact, at times the fear and panic felt comforting. Like an old friend that is always by your side. I don’t let go of the good friends #Loyal (I’ve just finished watching, The Circle, on Netflix, so if you’re looking for a guilty pleasure I highly recommend it). I’m still rocking with friends I’ve had since middle and high school so the letting go of anxiety has been a long and often turbulent journey to say the least. I was well into my 20’s before I realized that this friend was kinda ruining my life. She’d show up at all the events to take me away from them and send me swirling on the shadiest of carnival rides ...
“The Vortex of Despair”
Step 1: I remembered that I don't even like or trust Carnivals! Why am I here? Why was I on this ride? I had to decide to unhook that raggedy seatbelt that provided a false sense of safety, get out of the seat and run for the exit. Like going to the carnival, I have learned that I can choose to play in anxiety or I can choose to run in the other direction. Okay, I’m not a runner at all. It hurts my knees and ankles and OMG! I can’t breathe, Is this what a heart attack feels like!?! I’m too young for a heart attack, right!?!?!??? Fear then panic and well…. you get the point. I have learned that when I feel fear, I can choose to go play in “Anxiety Arcade." Or…. I can walk away at a quick pace (but not too quickly) so that I can manage a slow, steady, non panic inducing breath. I made the choice that I wanted to reduce the intensity and frequency that I felt anxiety. Cue, one of my childhood and adulthood favorites, Total Eclipse of The Heart by Bonnie Tyler. Step 2: I had to explore the warning signs of my anxiety. Where did I feel my anxiety in my body? What thoughts was I having that fed the fear that grew into anxiety? I have learned that in order for anxiety to stick around she has to be fed and she is a hungry mother fucker. Here’s a positive that I’ve come to believe: if I don’t feed her she can’t grow.
Step 3: I learned the difference between fear and anxiety; fear keeps us safe and anxiety keeps us stuck. Like many others with anxiety, I don’t like the thought of being stuck with no control over my life. I want to have the freedom of choice to go to the Carnival or not. The good news is, when it comes to anxiety I have more control than I had ever given myself credit for. In my mind I was forced to get on the ride when in reality I was the one operating the whole thing.
Step 4: I began to focus on the things that I CAN control. I can barely control my own thoughts in my own brain so the idea that I have control of things outside of my mind and body is very ironic (starts to hum a tune from one of my favorite childhood cd’s, Jagged Little Pill by the one and only Ms. Alanis Morrisette).
Step 5: I learned about mindfulness and quite literally all I have in this life is the exact moment that I am living in. I can’t go back and I can’t go forward. Wait! You mean I’m not a Gypsy fortune teller reincarnated …No! I’m not. I’m a human whose mind enjoys traveling to the future. However when I go on that quest it’s always gloom, doom and death. That future does not serve me so I decided to leave the future in the guiding force of a power greater than myself. The wind, the trees, the sun, and the force that has guided me to be exactly where I am today. Today, I believe that the answers I seek are literally in the moment that I am living.
Step 6: I decided to practice radical acceptance. I use the word practice because I am constantly in a state of practicing skills like mindfulness and acceptance. Fear is inevitable, anxiety comes to sing You’re Still The One from Shania Twain's greatest Album, Come on Over.
Step 7: I have to recognize when I am feeling anxiety and make the conscious choice to pull a tool out of my tool belt. I typically start with deep breathing. In through my nose out through my nose. I breathe in for 2 breathe out for 4, in for 3 out for 6, in for 4 out for 8. Inevitably my mind interrupts this and I have to practice mindfulness and acceptance over and over and over again. Fun-- Ha!! Okay, it’s not that fun but it does make us feel better and I am in the business of feeling better. Whewwwwww, just outlining that was a bit exhausting. In writing this, I realize how much work I have done and will continuously have to do because anxiety is a part of me. I have been using my tools like never before the past month. When I heard about the Virus (I’m deciding not to name it because I believe the name gives it power and naturally brings up fear then anxiety and honestly, I think we have had enough of that) back in February my natural ancient response was, "Well we are all going to get this!!!"
OMG! Look at China!
Look at all those beds in makeshift hospitals! Look at the empty roads and highways……. What are they feeling???? Feel what you think they are feeling!!!!!!! Instinctively my body felt so much fear, sadness, dread and doom it was palpable. I read all the stories and felt all the feelings. When I tried to talk to others about my fear it was met with “Ashley it’s not here,” “Ashley you will be fine,” “ I’m not worried,” etc. In my full blown panicked state, those comments left me feeling alone. I felt a fear and deep concern that I was alone in. I went inward and pulled a tool from my tool box. I went for Mindfulness. Focus on this moment in time. It's not here, it’s not impacting me at this moment, so proceed with life. That worked really well until it WAS here! What happens when the moment you try not to think about is right in front of you, staring at you? What happens when the moment you’ve been running/ walking at a quick pace away from IS the moment you are living in?
You PANIC. I PANIC. I PANICKED.
I wanted to hole up and not leave my house. For weeks, I was living in full anxiety. I had gone to Carnival, bought an unlimited wristband and was spinning and spinning on ALL the rides. Then something really horrible happened, right down the street from where I was spiraling on my coaster. My great city of Nashville was struck with massive loss, death and devastation as storms turned to tornadoes. Those tornadoes demolished lives, homes, streets, neighborhoods and communities. This natural disaster, which came so suddenly, propelled me out of the Carnival and into the Land of the Present. In this present moment people had lost everything. This experience pulled me out of my head and into my body. In my body, I felt a strong tug towards connection and serving others. I cried. I checked on every person I’ve ever known. Then I helped. I went to Costco to stock up on supplies for the folks who had just lost everything and was met with limits on water because of the Virus…. I thought, “The Virus!” How are we thinking about the Virus (the future) when our city is wounded and broken (the present)!?! Clearly I was feeling like the “presence police” that day 🙄 and was still experiencing some fear that was buried deep under my anger and frustration. As I lived in this space of acceptance in the here and now, I saw thousands of people helping. I saw a connectedness and I felt peace. I felt peace as I began to see the embodiment of “I can only do what I can." No one can control a storm but we can control our response to it. My toolbox was living for this opportunity to open up for me. I learned that if something bad happens people will care and help. Cue the piano and choir entrance for the Theme song of Free Willy, Will You be There. So, two days later, I’m at work holding space for others in my cozy and beautiful office that I miss so much….Whoops! Focus, Ashley… So, two days later, I’m in my office seeing rainbows, loving the rainbows, smelling the flowers, feeling the fuzzies and I learn that Nashville has its first case of the Virus!!!! The news flash popped up on my screen and boom! I was right back on that ride! “The Vortex of Despair” had reached its highest point and was about to free fall. I felt the drop. Literally felt my stomach drop. Then my mind took off and was soaring at G-force levels. “I should not be here, I should be at home,” was on repeat like I used to sing Jewel’s Foolish Games every morning of 7th grade in the bathroom getting ready for school. Again my friend came back. And again, I went to my tool belt (starts singing It’s All Coming Back To Me Now by the always emotionally expressive Celine Dion). Acceptance was the tool that I grabbed. Like the storm, I can not control the things in the world that scare me. I can not control the fear my body feels. I do believe that I can control what I decide to do when I feel the feelings. As soon as I picked up acceptance my body calmed. My mind felt peace.
My body and . bones felt . prepared.
The moment I have dreaded my whole life is here. There is NOTHING I can do about it but be here in this moment and live it. I get to live in the world that I’ve created over and over again in my mind. About 2 weeks ago we began to see the need for “social distancing”. Only going out for essentials and staying away from others. I wrestled with this idea of skipping out on my normal yoga practice. For the past 2 years yoga has been a huge part of my self care and it has become a place where I go for a sense of community and connection. Yoga is a part of my everyday life and routine. As I started to read more about other parts of the world it became evident to me that this practice would have to change--if not today it would in the upcoming weeks. Once I recognized the inevitability of a FULL-ON systemic change I felt as though, internally, I had to make that change too. I decided that I would no longer go to my studio, see my friends, make funny faces at them in the mirrors when I should be focusing... a huge part of my social structure would be different. My movement would be different but I STILL can move. By the grace of all that is good I have a body that can and wants to move. I can't help but hear Footloose. I can still cut loose and, to be honest, I have and it’s felt so damn good. I am remembering what listening to music feels like. Not just hearing it, but FEELING it. This feeling has led to a deeper connection with my body and with the things that make me FEEL alive. Yes, I am still doing yoga but I’m also walking, dancing, hiking, and playing in a way that I haven’t since I was a kid. In the flow of life that we live in I had forgotten what it’s like to walk in the rain. It’s nice, it’s refreshing, it’s comforting. I recommend it. I’ve been calling, texting and FaceTiming my friends. There is a collective feeling that we all are in this together and that is so very joining. I love seeing their faces. Obviously, nothing feels as good as a warm hug, a kiss on cheek, a tap on the ass but for now these moments, looking at each other on a screen, will have to be enough. The next big decision I had was what to do with my business. I made the choice last week to go to all Telehealth sessions. It’s pretty much FaceTime but with Hippa regulations. I was scared of this change (surprised....Nope! me either at this point). I absolutely love my work. I have worked so hard to build the space that I am in. I love it and I am very aware that it all could end. Here’s where I feel extremely lucky. I’ve been telling myself that message since I started my practice 7 years ago. For the past 7 years I have held the belief that while I love what I do and I truly feel it is what I am meant to do, something could go wrong and it all could end. Things change, people change and isn’t that ultimately the goal? Aren’t we all seeking, on some basic level, growth? A huge part of growing for me has been accepting life just as it is. In my work, I hope to help people focus on what they can control and to peacefully accept this beautiful roller coaster that IS life. On this ride, we have NEVER known what will happen next. Never have we ever. We may have hoped, planned, and worked towards, but we have never known. For years I have lived in that space. A place where I have no clue what will happen so I try my best to enjoy what is happening. It may be morbid, but I often ask myself
if I died right . now, how . would I feel?
Would I be proud of myself and the choices that I am making? Would I feel like I’ve loved to my fullest potential? Did I give more than I took? Mindfulness, living aware that all I have is this moment typing on my iPad listening to the birds sing to me. Of course, I sing back. In no way am I an expert on anxiety. I am an expert on mine and today I am thanking this part of myself for preparing me for this moment. I am thankful for the fear of the future that has kept me humble and propelled me into planning. I am thankful for the fear of death that has made me live and love with a full, rich embodiment. I am thankful for my fear of germs that has made me hyper-aware of hygiene. Washing my hands with soap and water for 20 seconds has been a highlight of my day for years. Most of all I am thankful that my fear has led me to a place where I can hold space, understand, love and care for so many others as they are soaring high with anxiety. Life is a roller coaster ride. It can either be the “Vortex of Dispair” or the "Mindful Mystery.” The choice Is YOURS.
Fade out: “life is a mystery; everyone must stand alone; I hear you call my name and it feels like home” -Just like a Prayer by Madonna