In early sobriety, I would roll out of bed before the sun came up and root around in the dark for whatever outfit was leftover from the night before. I'd eventually find an all black ensemble crumpled up in the corner of my bedroom floor, covered with a bit of dog hair. I'd throw it on while shuffling to our one and only bathroom. I'd do the basics and then quietly leave the comfort of my home and head towards a church in town, 20 minutes away, knowing I would drink bad coffee and hear strangers tell the truth for the next 55 minutes. Nothing could keep me away from the siren call of these early morning meetings.
Not even my anxiety.
Even though I felt called to attend, it still took everything I had to stay in my seat at these 12-step meetings. Armed with my Moleskine notebook and my favorite pen, I would channel Ally Sheedy's character from The Breakfast Club, purposely keeping my eyes focused on the linoleum floor, chin pointed towards my chest, hair hanging down and obscuring my face. When my anxiety would flare-up, I would feverishly scribble hundreds of tick marks onto the blank pages of my notebook to help quiet the tsunami of emotions building up inside of me.
The way my body tells the truth is through my anxiety.
When I was five years old, I would ask my mom if I could go next door and clean my friend's bedroom and walk-in closet. I would continue to do this for my friends over the next decade. Putting order to chaos helped me to feel "good" and bring a sense of calm over me. It brought me loads of praise from adults and made me feel special. Praise would become my first drug of choice.
When I was almost seven years old, I was sexually molested. After that incident, I took to hiding under my bed for long periods of time. I liked knowing people were looking for me, concerned and focused on my whereabouts. It felt like retribution for the awful way I felt after that fateful sleepover, the one I didn't even want to attend, where half a dozen young boys poked and prodded me, terrifying me so much that I couldn't even make a sound. Hiding under my bed helped me to feel like I was in charge of the situation. Shortly thereafter, control would become my next drug of choice.
I figured out pretty early on that getting good grades in school would be my one-way ticket to feeling worthy. I would chase the A+, the 4.0 GPA and tally up as many gold stars as humanly possible, all in a concerted effort to be the best, to be enough, to be perfect. Perfection has been my drug of choice ever since.
All the while, anxiety fueling each quest for praise, fake power and perfection.
I started counting 11-letter words in my early twenties and never told anyone about it. Counting was something I'd done for years. It was part of me. It felt personal. It felt soothing. It felt necessary. One day, as my boyfriend (now husband) and I were driving north on the 101 just south of San Francisco, I spotted an exit sign that read "Embarcadero - next exit" and I casually mentioned that the word Embarcadero really bugged me. When he asked me why, I responded very matter of factly, because it has 11 letters in it and 11-letter words really bother me. I'll never forget the look on his face. He ended up finding this quirk of mine to be very charming and, of course, being the praise-seeker I had always been, I started telling him about all the 11-letter words that really bugged me, like promulgated, fascinating and prerogative, to name a few. The more I shared, the more interested he became. Revealing (out loud) my 11-letter word preoccupation would scratch the itch I sought in the Praise Department. It made me feel special.
It would take me another 20 years to finally understand that I counted letters in words when I felt anxious.
It would take me getting sober to realize that I drank to excess to try and quell my overwhelming desire to constantly seek praise and give up the illusion that I had any type of control over people, places and things. It would take me getting sober to realize that perfect is totally fucking overrated. It would also take me getting sober to realize that alcohol was the medicine I used to treat my adult anxiety and it worked, until it didn't.
After having five panic attacks in the short span of three months earlier this summer, I have done nothing but try to listen as hard as I can to the prophet of my anxiety. I've slowed things way down in an effort to figure out why my body is revolting against me. I've tried acupuncture, a sensory deprivation float tank and meditation. I've changed my diet, taken daily afternoon naps and decided to forego all travel this summer. I've done yoga, taken scenic drives up Highway One and had my blood drawn to check my hormone levels.
On August 11, 2018, I removed the Instagram app from my phone. I removed myself from 16 Facebook groups. I started reading How to Break Up With Your Phone and took inspiration from a few friends who were also detoxing from social media. And you know what? Something amazing happened. My anxiety started to quiet down. It felt like my mind was on vacation. My days felt like they consisted of 36 hours instead of 24. I read three books in one week. I started a spreadsheet to catalog memories from my childhood and it felt good to deposit them there instead of warehousing them in my mind. I took my email inbox down to zero. My to-do lists shrunk. I was getting more done, with less stress. I felt better than I had in years.
Hitting the pause button on social media has helped me to pause the frenetic pursuit. I haven't had a panic attack in over three weeks. I think that's Grace. I feel expansive and well rested. I know there is a correlation between how I've been feeling and my phone.
On Saturday, I turned 48. I received over 100 messages from loved ones, friends and internet friends. It felt a bit overwhelming to receive these nice notes and birthday wishes. Why? I'm not exactly sure. I guess my soul somehow felt conflicted by the outpouring of kindness and, if I'm being honest, it's hard to receive. Yesterday, I re-installed Instagram and have started to slowly dip my toes back into my online communities. My throat has been constricted ever since. My nervous system is wound up tight.
I'm not sure how this is going to go, but I do know that I'll listen to what my physical body is telling me and then respond accordingly. It's all I can do.
I really need to start embracing my anxiety as something that points me to the parts of my life that need attention and deep, loving care. I think my anxiety can be likened to a compass. A compass that demands that I listen to the prophets of my anxiety and do something about them, rather than operating out of fear or choosing to self-medicate. A compass that puts me on the path to look inward at my patterns and behaviors as if my life depends on it, because I finally believe it really does.
A compass that helps me measure the distance I am from myself, so that I can return when I stray too far and tend to my inner wants and needs and knowings and callings without guilt or shame. And to do this without reservation because I have nothing to be afraid of and I finally believe I am enough.
Instead of silencing my anxiety by cleaning out a closet, hiding under a bed or self-medicating with an ice cold vodka martini, I now have the unique opportunity to partner with it and see what it has to say. I believe my anxiety has always been my compass, I just didn't know how to decipher it or trust myself enough to know what I already knew. I got lost along the way from time-to-time and disoriented. My intuition was discounted, ignored and neglected...until now. Since I quit drinking, I can clearly see that my anxiety has been pointing me in the direction of home, back to myself, my entire life.
It turns out that I am my true north.
I just didn't know how to read my own compass and now, I do.