In November of 2015, I paced my driveway as my anxiety beast crawled from its lair, down hallways of fear, lighting my adrenal fires along the way.
The beast was familiar. I’ve lived with it since my earliest memories. It disguised itself behind masks. Sometimes nervousness. Sometimes depression. Sometimes joy. But the feeling beneath those masks was the same. Electric fire that would make it difficult for me to breathe, or sit still, or rest my eyes in one place. The beast woke for strange reasons that seemed unconnected. Talking on phones made me squirm. Crowds brought on panic. Taking a bus paralyzed me. I could hike alone for days in the wilderness with only normal fears, but once alone in my tent at night my only thoughts were about bears stalking me.
In the fall of 2004 both my mom and my 18-month-old son, Vasu, were diagnosed with cancer, and the anxiety beast became my full-time companion. The ordinary world was suddenly filled with enemies. Unknown forces punished me for the crime of thinking my own thoughts. I rearranged my beliefs daily trying to find the one that would guarantee my family would not die. But in 2005, after Vasu was declared in remission, Mom died anyway and for the next three years I detached from the world.
And then everything changed in one day. The kitchen counter had pressed into the small of my back as my dad explained why he couldn’t shake Mom’s death after so many years. He hushed his voice so that Vasu’s daddy couldn’t hear the words in the next room where he played with Vasu.
“I just don’t want to be here anymore,” Dad said. “I want to be with your mother. I want to be dead.”
I gazed at him in amazement as his words resonated with something inside me.
“I know this sounds strange, Dad, but I think I already am,” I replied.
That afternoon my words caught me up in a whirlwind. I played with Vasu in the yard; we went for a walk. I saw my son from the perspective of one who had already died, and I realized that I did not want to be dead anymore. In one moment I felt my entire life change. I wanted to watch my son grow up, I wanted to feel, I wanted to live. Each day after that became easier, and anxiety no longer ruled my days.
And yet, years later, as I paced my driveway, I was once again helpless against the prowling beast. It had already lighted the fires. My veins burned with them. I held my cell phone in my palm, but the only person I desired to speak to didn’t leave me her new number when she died. I doubt Mom would have been able to talk me down from this one anyway. This wasn’t life throwing obstacles at me from out of nowhere. I was trapped in a world of my own making. I had chosen this life six years before, just after Vasu died. I had chosen this so that I could feel safe. I had been choosing safety ever since until I was wrapped in a straight jacket of security.
And the constriction had woken the beast.
It had been awake for more than a year, but somehow I’d been able to pacify it by lying to myself about my reality. Until I could no longer be blinded by my own lies. I couldn’t think beyond the panic. Couldn’t get away from my own thoughts. Until I found one idea that led me to something akin to relief. If I couldn’t make the beast sleep, then perhaps I could take away its pathway to me. I could kill the body it inhabited.
I paused mid-step. Was I really thinking suicide?
I had never seriously considered it before. Not during the years unable to feel my life after Mom’s death, not during the nine-months of quarantine during Vasu’s second treatment. Not even during the timeless months desperately reinventing my identity after Vasu died. For the first time in my life I didn’t trust my own thoughts. However, I did know someone I could trust. A friend who had popped into my life a year before. A friend with knowledge. A friend with tools.
I scrolled through my contacts and punched her name hard with my thumb.
She could hear the tones of panic in my voice instantly. “I want you to focus on your breath,” she said. “Not the inhale. You have too much inhale right now. Focus on exhaling completely, and let the inhale take care of itself.”
I paced again, exhaling deliberately, and took in the fullness of being empty. My nerves cooled. My breath calmed. My beast slunk back to its lair.
And later that day I made the decisions that I had been pretending I didn’t have to make for over a year. I broke up with my boyfriend and the safety he offered. I quit my job and the security of a paycheck. I left my home and the family it came with that I had wanted to love. And I leapt into an unknown future.
I’ve never been comfortable with leaps of faith. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it exploded in my face. Always it transformed me. A leap of faith is exploring “what if,” and often begins with an expansive exhale. It is focusing on the step today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.
My leap into the unknown began two months ago. For the first month I existed in the exhale, refusing to breathe purpose in. Before I could imagine the road ahead I had to learn how to ask for help in the present moment. I called a friend in Seattle and asked for a place to sleep. I wandered the city looking for crowds to get lost in. I learned how to ride the bus. I was slowly taking back pieces of my life, but if I attempted to plan farther than the next day I could sense the beast stirring. The future could not yet take form. But within that formlessness there was possibility. The hope of something new beyond what I could imagine. The desire to want a life I did not yet know how to see.
It was a time to live in the full emptiness of my exhale.
Over the last month, I began to breath purpose in again. I decided to treat my life as my job, and ever since my anxiety beast has fallen into a deep slumber. Every weekday, whether I felt purpose or not, I was at my computer by 9:00, writing my thoughts, and telling my stories. I bought cycling maps of the routes that criss-cross the country, and planned out my dream to circumnavigate the USA on my bicycle, even though I hadn’t a clue how to go about raising the money it would require. In the afternoon I got on my mountain bike, Old Blue, and I cycled the hills of Queen Anne just north of Seattle.
My strength grew, my writing improved, and my crowdfunding campaigns took form. I also started dating a friend from my childhood. He inspires me daily now, filling my heart with hope and companionship.
Tomorrow is my last day in Seattle before I head down to Portland where the route over the Rockies begins. My equipment is ready, my legs are strong, and with every breath I draw in new purpose.