Anxiety is deceptive. It creates a reality that isn’t true. It makes you believe that this constructed reality is, indeed, true. It paralyzes. My anxiety throws me into the future: events to come will be catastrophic; I either am in danger or will be soon. For some people, anxiety throws them into the past: they go over and over and over past events and rework them in panic-inducing ways. This is why meditation and breathing exercises are often recommended for people with anxiety: these things draw you to the present, to what’s actually happening, to what is around you and concrete and real.
Anxiety also creates patterns. It responds to what people call “triggers.” An example: My mom called me at 1:44 in the morning to tell me that my uncle Shaun had died by suicide. I couldn’t breathe. My apartment felt close and constricting and hot. I went onto the screened-in porch, and the air was so sweet, so beautiful. It was early morning, May 26. Spring was just starting to show up. It was that fresh, crisp air that arrives and lets you know winter has passed and new growth is coming. It took me several years of having a panic attack or two in spring to realize that I was reacting to that air, that smell. An association, a pattern, had been created. I no longer have the same panic when spring arrives, but you can bet your last dollar that I do notice that air and it gives me pause. Every year. The reaction is in my sinews. It’s not going anywhere.
Since Shaun’s death, anxiety has been a constant companion. Sometimes she’s right up against me, inside me. Other times, she’s in the same room, just to let me know she’s there. Still other times, blessedly glorious times, she’s elsewhere in the house, taking a nap. Rarely does she step out to run errands or garden. I’ve grown used to her in many respects. I don’t expect her to move out anytime soon. And that’s okay. I’ve learned to work with her and around her.
Last month we joined the YMCA. I work from home and therefore tend to be fairly sedentary, my metabolism has done exactly what my mother told me it would do, and I’ve finally decided to listen to all the people who suggest exercise as a good remedy for anxiety. As it turns out, I have found something to do there that I really enjoy: the rowing machine. I love it. It’s challenging and meditative and productive. If we decided to drop our Y membership, I’d go online immediately and buy myself a machine. That’s how much it has shifted my thinking in just three weeks. But because Anxiety doesn’t let me have nice things, she decided to show up last weekend after I had, to date, my best day on the rowing machine. Seventeen and half minutes, 2,541 meters.
There was a reason anxiety appeared: I’d eaten only some toast (four hours before we went to the Y) and a banana (thirty minutes before). I needed food. I bonked. I panicked. Bad. It was the worst attack I’d had in years. By this point, I can have some anxiety, and my day can get back on track, back to normal. Not last Saturday. I pretty much just existed until bedtime. Sunday was much better—and did not involve the rowing machine.
But Monday did. Because I refuse to let anxiety win. I refused to let that association between panic and rowing and food get created. On Tuesday, I realized that I have changed. I am not the person I used to be. Several years ago, heck, even last year, I probably would have said goodbye to the rowing machine. It was good while it lasted, but no more. Leave that to people who actually know how to work out and eat. I am not that person.
As it turns out, I’m not that person anymore. And here’s how I know: Those seventeen and half minutes, those 2,541 meters became my new boundary. They were the numbers to beat. I took it pretty easy on Monday and Friday when we went to the Y. Slow and steady. Gentle. Establishing patterns of strength and resilience. Reminding myself of what’s possible.
But today I smashed it. I had a good snack. I went in prepared and ready and wary. But when fifteen minutes hit, I kept going. When I got to sixteen minutes, I couldn’t stop smiling. I made it to seventeen and a half minutes. I did 2,727 meters. I’m still smiling just thinking about it, and I got off the rowing machine—somewhat shaky, very proud, resisting a tear—about three hours ago.
It’s so easy to think that the way things are is how they will always be. It’s so tempting to think we don’t grow or change or become something else. As I’ve entered this year of Shaun’s tenth anniversary, I’ve reminded myself several times that I’m not who I was then. Nor am I who I will become.
But today, I did something I’d not have thought possible: I looked at Anxiety, winked, and kept on rowing. I grew.