My dear friend fear

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I will return to more lighthearted topics like leggings and monkey-mind soon, but I’m going to New Orleans on business next week, and it reminded me of a piece I wrote for a magazine contest (that I didn’t win). It reminded me how far I’ve come in the last 8 years, and since the magazine won’t publish it I figured I might as well share it somewhere.

It’s a drill-down of an episode I’ve recounted several times on here and through other venues – a fateful trip to Cabo San Lucas from Barcelona for my best friend’s wedding.

It was one of the turning points in my battle against anxiety, and a moment I go to often when I’m presented with the uncomfortable prospect of getting on an airplane (an activity I still intensely dislike).

I hope you all enjoy.

My Dear Friend Fear

Claustrophobia. It’s been with me for as long as I can remember, taunting me on airplanes and elevators, in bathroom stalls and fitting rooms, and on occasion on trains and in windowless ferry cabins crossing the Adriatic Sea.

Among all the symptoms of anxiety, my stubborn claustrophobia is the one that haunts me the most. I’ve been living untroubled by anxiety for eight years now, after having battled and overcome a crippling episode of panic disorder in my early thirties.

The days and nights of constant watchfulness, the fear of normal, everyday things like eating (for fear of choking), sleeping (for fear of waking to find intruders in my home) and traveling (for fear of becoming deathly ill on the road and not being able to get to a hospital in time), seem like a blur to me from the comfort of my current reality.

I’m not the same person I was 2,900 days ago, when anxiety had reduced me to a shell of my former self, and even as I write these words it’s almost as if I’m telling the story of what happened to somebody else.

But my claustrophobia occasionally serves as a reminder that the seeds of another crisis are always inside me, waiting for me to drop my guard to push their way to the surface.

Fortunately for me, it was also my claustrophobia – that very palpable evidence of the dysfunction of my mental processes – that allowed me to break through the vicious cycle of evasion that kept me from fully conquering my anxiety.

I’d been working with a therapist on a short, six-week intervention aimed at helping me develop the coping skills I’d need to stop anxiety from interfering with my everyday life. A cornerstone of the therapy was to get me to stop avoiding situations that caused me discomfort. To feel the fear and do it anyway, as it were, as a way to trick my brain into no longer going into a fight-or-flight response in scenarios it perceived to be risky.

And I was obediently going through the motions of it. I was getting in elevators. I wasn’t cracking the door open in enclosed spaces like bathroom stalls, and I was following my prescribed exercise of thinking about what it would feel like to get stuck somewhere tight for fifteen minutes a week.

And for every situation, I always had a plan – some way of fighting the feeling I knew would come over me as soon as the space around me shrank (in either my physical or my mental world).

“And if I get stuck in the elevator?” I’d ask my therapist, terrified of her response.

“Then you’ll be late for your next meeting,” she’d say. And I’d smile, recognizing the truth in her words, but feeling my chest tighten anyway at merely the thought of it.

Until the day my best friend’s wedding forced me to hop on a very full airplane to travel from my home in Barcelona to Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, where the celebration would be held. I sat in the window seat, no less, carefully hatching a plot to stop the cold sweat, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and the desperate need to get up, climb over my two neighbors and run screaming off the plane to the safety of the airport.

I’d been toying with ideas for days, but I really started plotting on the jetway, dragging my feet as every step took me closer to my imaginary death sentence.

“I’ll distract myself by reading,” I thought. “I’ll close my eyes and take deep, controlled breaths,” I told myself. “I’ll think only positive thoughts and visualize a wide open field full of butterflies and puppies,” I decided once I sat.

And then the airplane door closed with a thud, and the panic started rising inside me before I could fully concoct the idea that was going to carry me anxiety-free across the next nine hours of my life.

In a panicked, adrenaline-fueled state, I asked myself – “how do I stop this?” while gripping the arm-rests and hanging on for dear life.

The answer, staring me in the face from the second I stepped onto the jetway, came back to me in my own voice. “You don’t,” she said, in the no nonsense tone I now use with my six-year-old son. There may even have been an eyeroll in there – the kind I reserve only for my husband.

“But it feels awful,” I responded, perplexed at my own advice.

“Yes. It feels awful,” she said. “But it’s just a feeling. And feelings can’t hurt you.”

In all the time I’d been trying to find an answer for my anxiety, diligently completing exercises and desperately searching both books and the internet to help me find a solution, it never occurred to me that the solution might be to NOT try so desperately to find a solution after all.

My therapist knew it. She gave me a hearty laugh when I told her after I’d completed my journey. But until it came to me on that airplane, my therapy had been nothing more than another futile attempt at getting my fear to go away.

From that moment forward, claustrophobia and I came to an uneasy truce that has translated into an integral part of my identity.

You can’t control how your life unfolds, and as wonderful as living can be, unpleasant things happen sometimes. Terrible things happen sometimes. But they happen whether you try to avoid them or not, and you can’t stop living because you’re afraid of your feelings.

So, now fear and I simply coexist.

When I get on airplanes, I have anxiety. When I fit myself into enclosed places, I have anxiety. When I find myself in the middle of a particularly dense crowd, I have anxiety. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unpleasant, but it’s also temporary, and it’s a fact of my existence that, as long as I’m brave enough to plunge forward, has absolutely no bearing on my happiness or the quality of my life.

I’m not the same person I was 2,900 days ago when my dear friend fear reduced me to a shell of my former self. But accepting her companionship has made me so much better!

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