I was shy as a kid, but once I got comfortable in a situation I become effervescent, telling jokes and putting on plays and grappling to be the center of whatever group I was in. But underneath the bobbing blonde ponytail and freckled smile, anxiety coursed through my veins.
I panicked when my Mom was late to pick me up from school. I was certain she had been in a car crash and died. When my Dad traveled for work, I waited for the phone on the wall to ring, letting us know he’d landed safely. As the minutes ticked by, images of airplanes hurling towards the ground flashed in my mind. I didn’t worry too much about my little sister. Her death didn’t seem feasible - she was usually tagging along with me and my friends, more a source of annoyance than anxiety.
My shyness disappeared, replaced by a friendly and warm persona, but my anxiety didn’t. I now stare at my smart phone when my husband travels, waiting for that text bubble that lets me know his plane landed. My anxiety makes me side-eye the guy at the movie theater wearing a long dark jacket. It makes me get halfway down the stairs from my fifth floor apartment then run back to make sure I turned off the stove, which I hadn’t even used that day. Anxiety makes it hard to listen to those invaluable gut instincts, clouding what to trust and what to ignore. It masks that sacred inner voice.
Anxiety can warp your world view. It can cause you to become paranoid and disoriented. It can consume you, like when I’m standing in the subway station watching the train come roaring towards me, and I think about someone pushing me in front of it. Or me jumping. Or scariest of all, pushing the person next to me. How quick and easy that would be. The only thing that separates me from a catastrophic life-altering event is a one second impulse – a single movement made by me or someone around me. We have so much power to change everything in a breath. The power and possibilities are overwhelming. They spread out in front of me, the millions of paths all leading to different outcomes and emotions and experiences. And then the train comes to a halt and I step inside, leaving my fears on the subway platform.
I know deep down I’m not going to jump, push, or be pushed in front of a moving train and that my stove is not on, but a big part of the phenomenon of anxiety is the power we possess and the power we don’t possess. Every thought and every action yields something. With every movement and choice, we alter our life in one way or another. Are we on a predetermined path, or does every split second decision alter our final destination? Does praying make a cosmic difference? Are we masters of the universe, its puppets, or its partners?
Most of us ask these questions at points throughout our lives. But they are so huge, so overwhelming, and so terrifying and humbling to consider, that it’s often easier to silence them and focus on our day-to-day lives. How we are doing at work. If our friends like us enough. If we are good enough parents, spouses, employees, and dog-owners. What we are going to wear to our cousin’s wedding. And then something happens to bring this questions back to the surface.
And often that thing is a life-shattering, world-upheaving, gut-wrenching event.