For most of my life, I assumed I was simply screwed up and let that explain many of my problems. I reasoned that I’d been through some tough stuff and that I’d always be okay because I’d always been okay. And it worked alright.
My first semester away at college had been tough, but the second semester was worse. I had a family member dying hundreds of miles away, I still wasn’t fitting in, and I felt trapped on campus. Truthfully, my first meeting with my counselor happened because I wanted to take a semester off to be home with that dying family member, to work to save money for a car, and in order to do that, there were hoops: it had to be cleared by my academic advisor(s) and a counselor. Just leaving would have meant forfeiting my scholarship and my spot. So I went. She obliged and signed the form, but told me to sleep on it.
And I stayed, with the contingency that I began counseling sessions each week. We discussed everything in my life – family members, friendships, budding romance, stresses of college life, how terrible the cafeteria food could be, wanting to get away, and anything that popped up.
My big breakthrough?
I have anxiety.
It’s why I only like social situations in which I know every person. It’s why my friend groups are so closely-knit. It’s why I don’t like calling house phones – the person I want to talk to might not be the one to pick up. It’s why I stay in a lot.
It’s why I proudly declare that my cat is my best friend. It’s why I feel pressured more easily than other people might. It’s why I pull away. Among other things.
And so we talked about how to manage my stress, reduce my anxiety, and stay on track without derailing into further issues. We discussed medications to help, but I ultimately decided they weren’t for me. My counselor’s big advice?
Be in the moment. I hate that it’s so freakin’ cheesey, but it helps.
I will never forget my first anxiety attack. I had gone up to my dorm room to eat lunch in peace. Nothing particularly interesting was going on – I was under a lot of stress with my job and work load, but I thought I was okay. I was just standing there and suddenly, I was struggling for breath. It was like an asthma attack, but way more bizarre and far more terrifying. I stared at myself in the mirror and tried to talk myself into calmness. I texted my best friend – who happens to have been a psychology major – so that someone would know to check on me. I called the counselor’s office to leave a message and made an emergency appointment for the next day. She called me a bit later and helped me through the end of it. I walked to the offices of the professors whose classes I had later in the day and explained the situation. I couldn’t speak properly and was mixing up names, catching words on my short breaths, and trying to not cry. I felt humiliated and sad.
Because I wasn’t okay. I had failed at always being okay. Now they knew I wasn’t perfect.
The next day, my counselor had me close my eyes and tell her three things I heard, three things I felt, open my eyes, and tell her three things I saw.
I was noticeably calmer. Being grounded in reality – not the reality that might be or has been – calms me down.
Lately For the past couple years, I’ve been doing a terrible job of being in the moment. We got engaged and married quickly, moved, and I was always planning the next step. For the next several months, I was constantly planning the wedding – and when I wasn’t, people were asking me about it. On top of that, our apartment went to hell. And the past year has been no different. I haven’t been mindful. This year has passed quickly, but not the fun kind of quickly – the kind that inches by even as you watch the calendar pages flip from month to month. And I wonder – how? How is it possibly October? We’ve had the dog for how long? How soon after deciding to remodel a bus did we buy ours?
Unfortunately, mindfulness doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve always been a few steps ahead, working to figure things out before the next guy. I’ve outwitted the competition, thought ahead, and planned out my course of action. But it’s made me jumpy.
I’m fighting with myself right now – we have a lot of juggling balls up in the air and I don’t know how to catch them all or how they’ll fall to the ground. I feel tremendously anxious. Perhaps the most frustrating facet of anxiety is that you recognize that it’s irrational and you still can’t help feeling it. So I find myself thinking about how to prepare, strategizing for any outcome, and praying hard. Tom and I bounce back and forth with the, “Everything will be alright” and “It’ll all work out” messages of comfort and hope.
But do you know what helps more than anything?
Making pie. I suppose it could be the promise of the taste to come, expecting Tom’s gratitude, or the knowledge that I’m not letting this year’s apples rot, but I suspect it’s mostly due to my concentration on the task – to focus solely on the moment.
And that is just what I need.