you learn to survive, then you learn to come back alive

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I started my adolescence with all this fire and verve. All these goals and plans and dreams, and oh my god, I laughed at adults who told me "I hope you make it."

Hope? I would.

I memorized New York City street maps, because someday, I'd leave Minnesota. I told adults who asked me if I wanted to be a mother that I only wanted to "after I was old and done living," because I was too greedy for the world to imagine tethering myself. I installed a computer with only one working program (a word processor) and typed 250 pages about a girl who wanted to lead. I carried notebooks with me, and asked for books on writing for my thirteenth birthday. I registered for classes that I was technically too young for, and just didn't tell anyone my age (until my classmates asked me join them for a post-class drink, and I had to say catch you in five years). I was going to be a writer someday. I knew this is how I'd get there.

I've written so much about thes omething that happened. Depression and anxiety caught up with me, and carved me from the inside out. Even after I got the help you get (meds, talk therapy, coping mechanisms, etc.), I wasn't quite unstuck. Like silt in a river, I drifted and settled beneath the current. I stayed like this for years.

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Movies and memoirs tell us there's one big moment for us to change ourselves, but I have a theory that we'll all do this many times over the course of our lives. Rise from a waking sleep, and realize that this life is partially, if not wholly, our own.

I spoke with a woman who is reaching the end of her career, and still preparing for her next act. She told me that she's never regretted her choice to pursue what she was passionate about, not even when the money didn't follow, not even when the dream jobs became untenable. When I told her I was still trying to figure out how I will pursue, she said, "If I could give you two pieces of advice, you need enough drive to understand your passion and how to follow it. And don't ever, ever, ever delay your goals for a man."

Elsewhere, I read an essay by a brilliant writer I admire, "I used to be a woman who did things. I was a doer, a maker, a builder." I read that, and remembered the younger version of myself who assumed, at twenty five, that that's who I'd be by now.

This isn't about regret (although, to sing Sinatra, I've had a few) or some misplaced "I thought I'd have done x, y, and z by twenty-five" (we're not expected to deliver in our first act), but rather about what happens when you start to feel the weight of time slowly building.

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When I was a teenager, my favorite song was Bruce Springsteen's "The River." A beautiful, and terrifying song. I rolled one lyric over and over, trying to make sense of it. "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse." He's said that this album was his first attempt to hold both life and death in the palm of one hand. When you listened to this album at fourteen, you can't understand all that pain. I held that line so close to me, because even though I knew (they way you only can when you're fourteen, sixteen, eighteen) I'd never lose sight of my dreams, it haunted me.

About eighteen months ago, I laughed out loud when someone asked me what my dreams were. We're really still asking those questions like they matter? We haven't all given up and given in to the grind? Then someone else asked me the same question, a guy in a bar who I'll never see again, and I felt the way you feel when you drink champagne on an empty stomach -- all fizz and light and warmth in your fingers and your cheeks. Now, my boyfriend and I talk about dreams like they're worth holding on to. He talks about mine like they're worth fight for, and what's even crazier to me, is I'm starting to believe it again.

I've been coming out of the fog for well over a year now. Survival is only one part of recovery. Reclaiming hope, reclaiming possibility, reclaiming not just the ability to, but the courage to dream, reclaiming my right to want something out of my life. That's what comes after learning how to survive.

It's like driving through the night. The earth starts to roll towards the sun again, and there, where there was only black, is the horizon. All clean and endless and there again.

how you get through the hard days

 Urban Bean, Minneapolis

Urban Bean, Minneapolis

"As though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light where they seemed so misshapen and helpless. Oh, isn't that why shadows get longer and longer in the evening? They are reaching out for the night, this tidal wave of darkness that washes over the earth to fulfill for a few hours the shadows' innermost longings." Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Boyhood

I’m exhausted. Do you ever have weeks like that? Where each day feels, for no good reason, like a desert to cross?

We’re short on daylight, but really long on daytime.

February’s always been a hard month. Seven years ago, I was two weeks into the spring semester, and I begged my date to drive me to my parent’s house. I couldn’t return. A week later, I’d misread a bus schedule, and be deposited into a then-unfamiliar downtown. I’d cry on the transit station’s teal carpet, and call my mom, my dad and a doctor. I’d cry for three days straight.

I’ve had dark days, but none as dark as those. What I remember from my seasons of depression are that the days feel impossible, and there is no reason other than they are. Maybe my body is remember what my mind tries not to. Maybe a week of for-no-good-reason long days is my body’s way of reminding me that it’s okay to have days that aren’t okay.

The funny thing about being happy after being unhappy for so long is that you start to become afraid of the joy. Like it might run out. Like maybe you’ve only been given a short period of bright before you return to darkness. When the days stretch, and I get grumpy, and I want anesthesia for the waking hours, I get scared that maybe this has all just been a grace period. Maybe I’ll go back to being lonely and weak and tired and sad and scared. Maybe that’s who I actually am.

I know this isn’t true, but how often does fear care about truth?

I know I’m not returning to that black country. I sometimes wonder if I ever will. Right now, that depression feels like a house for which I’ve lost the keys. I can’t get in anymore.

Even on hard days, the joy of my life, the gratitude for it outstrips the undertow. My feet, as my grandpa always said, point towards the sunny side of street. A few hard days don’t make a depression, or even a dip, but they do remind me that joy is deeper than happiness. That happiness is good, but always fickle. That it’s okay to not always be megawatt.

Guys. We’re human. We’re not designed to live only in the light.

We live in an age where happiness is hocked. It’s a commodity we can buy, a challenge we can accept, a level we can unlock, a hack we can perform. I don’t want to hack my way into eternal sunshine. I don’t want to close-circuit myself to the range, to the all of it all. I like the symphony, the range of notes, the swell and the fade. Some days are hard because they are. Some days aren’t, and that is okay too.

How do you get through the hard days? You just do.

Light comes as steady as the dark.

how to undo fear

When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a party and not know what to do, that there would be a party and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a gun, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford a car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I've feared becomes the thing that's real, and takes its own seat at the table.

The Anxiety Files: This Land is Mine and I Can Choose What to Let In

For the last couple weeks, I’ve been moving at a velocity that frightens me.

Most of this activity has been necessary—work demands, groceries need restocking, and friends have birthdays that need celebration—which made it okay for a while. But then, this miniature season of vibrating stress started to feel more like a state of being, and all my protective walls began to draw themselves up.

At some point in the last few days the strong current of life-moving-a-little-too-fast intensified into a flood. I could feel it in my body. The stress took on a dangerous physicality. My heart beat had become a bang, even when I was still, and inside my rib cage, my lungs snagged on rib bones, sharp, painful breath. My fingers fluttered. A tight, heavy ache had set into my shoulders, and my pupils were constantly dilating. Stress had hijacked my body, and, to extend the metaphor, was about to hand the controls over to my illness.

Anxiety is a darkness that lives inside of me. It feeds on stress. It delights in my fraying. It is chemical and inhuman, and it is intent upon my undoing. I know this, because I’ve been undone by my anxiety, been ripped apart and left hollow by onrushing adrenaline and unchecked cortisol in my bloodstream. I’ve been left bared and scared and sobbing in a downtown transit station by the toxic chemical imbalances that do deadly things me.

When I was first diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I had no tools. I was given a vocabulary and a set of breathing exercises and a prescription for Zoloft. For a long time, that was enough. That was a compounding miracle, actually. That alone helped me. The medication steadied the neurological reactions that I still don’t fully understand. It allowed my body to become healthy again. It gave me the time to seek out the rescue I needed, and then, after I’d come back to the land of the living and the laughing, it gave me the safety to experiment with other weapons against my anxiety.

There are some tricks I’ve learned—apples and chamomile tea helps, as does deep pressure on the tops and sides of my shoulders—and some powerful coping mechanisms—deep breathing can reset the nervous system, and loud music distracts my thinking. There are a handful of other weapons I’ve gathered, that do more than just beat back the anxiety, but actually serve to feed my humanity. A phone call to a friend or to a parent can stop a panic attack in its tracks.

More than all of these things, though, I think I’m learning how important making choices—before I hit the point of panic—really are. I say “I think,” because this is such a new revelation (a baby of a thought), because maybe I’m totally full of shit. But maybe I’m not.

At least for me, panic and anxiety operate entirely outside of choice. If I slips into the really heart of anxiety or panic—that tenting of vague, oppressive, overwhelming fear and danger—I’m usually past the point of choice. I’m in survival mode, and I am hanging onto whatever edges of reality I can, hoping that when I emerge, the damage won’t be permanent. (I have to believe it never will be).

But that period beforehand—that time that I was in this week, where I could feel the flood of life intersecting dangerously with anxiety, but before I was caught up and swept away in it—I am still autonomous.

This life I have, this body that I’m in, this soul—they’re mine. They’re mine to be the gatekeepers for, and they’re mine to protect from the threats within and threats without.  (Those of you who are wiser, more experienced, less blind are saying what did you think they were, Torrie.)

This land is mine to let in and let out, and if I am healthy enough, cognizant enough, tuned-in enough, I can chose to pull up my walls against the external factors that trigger my internal illness. This weekend, I took Friday off. I sat in a coffee shop, and I read. I wrote. I edited my novel manuscript. I stared out the window at passing cars. I watched individual leaves shake and stir in the wind. I had lunch with my dad, and I drove with a friend on errands errands. I moved slowly, and I breathed deeply, and I weighed every decision by the questions what will this let in? and what will this keep out?

And you know what? I feel like a whole person again.

My fraying edges have been bound up, and the internal shaking has been stilled. My anxiety has been beat back down, and for a little while at least, it should stay there.

Wildest Grace in February's Gray: Fighting Back a Crippling Anxiety

 Seattle skyline

Seattle skyline

It’s nearly the end of February, and I think most people agree that February is better behind us than in front of us. Too far past the first snow fall, a white Christmas, and the novelty of winter, and too close to the snow melt, the return of birds and open water and roadside flowers. It’s a month of gray—February gray. The gray of a city, state, an entire region, blanketed in snow, spattered with slush, dyed dull by the wind, and kept ironclad by the weak sun.

It’s a smack-you-upside-the-head-and-make-you-wonder-why-you-left-your-mother’s-womb gray.

February scares me, and not because of the cold or the wind or Valentine’s Day (who honestly likes this holiday), but because February once tried to tear me apart.

Or, more accurately, anxiety once tried to tear me apart in February.

During the winter of my freshman year of college, the ‘10-’11 winter, the winter it snowed so wet and heavy that the Metrodome collapsed underneath the weight of it all, I got smacked down.

I spent the first five months of college feeling increasingly not-quite-right, but also not-quite-wrong—more reserved, less passionate, much crankier—and then, on February 1st, the bottom fell away. I got turned around and lost on a Twin Cities bus line, and when I was dropped off in downtown Minneapolis instead of the northwest corner of St. Paul, I started to cry. And I didn’t stop for nearly fourteen hours. I cried while I wrote papers, cried while I read, cried while I talked to my friend and new roommate (who didn’t know any better than me what was happening), and then, after a full day of tears, my parents picked me up from my dormitory to take me home—their house was the only place that felt safe.

I was eighteen years old, barely half-way through my first year of college, and I felt like I had already failed.

It seemed like all that college had taught me was that I was not the person who I thought I was. That I was much less of a person, a scared shell of the girl I wanted to be. In those dark days of early February, crippled by something I could neither name nor describe, I convinced myself that that was all that I was ever going to be.

Everything scared me, but it wasn’t a fear that I recognized. I was alienated from the outside world, crippled by my own distortions, living very much on the outside of people and on the inside of myself. My dormitory seemed foreign, campus, though I really loved my classes, was overwhelming in size and scope. I thought I was a burden and an inconvenience in the friendships I was making—thank God that the sweet girls and women who were befriending me never let me push them away. I anchored myself to bad TV, and thought that I was without value and consequence, nothing worthy within me. Better to atrophy than try to make empty look full.

Scared at how I was shrinking away from the world, my parents rallied around me like a two-man army, and helped me find help. I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a minor panic condition. The chemical messengers in my brain, designed to keep fear and adrenaline in check, were short circuiting somewhere along the line, allowing my blood and my brain to be charged with false fears and paralyzing insecurity.

The diagnosis gave me a name and a language to put to the yawning chasm within me, but it did not stop the hole from trying to swallow me. I spent the rest of February, the rest of that spring, clawing through darkness to get at the light.

People who loved me planted themselves, like trees, alongside me, and let me use them as touchstones and as footholds. My parents, though they were as confused and as afraid of what was happening to me as I was, pressed back against my distorted reality. My friends, these sapling friendships that hadn’t been given time to bud, rose up like an old-growth forest, and gave me shelter.

My recovery, my fight back to the surface, followed the seasons. Through the dull gray of February, when I felt dark and cold at deep, deep levels, into the ugly, melting renewal of March, until all of a sudden, I found myself awake and alive—and glad to be it—watching Seattle light herself up from the observation deck of the Space Needle.

By the grace of god, with the help of family and friends and doctors, my anxiety—generalized anxiety and panic disorder—has fallen back. Not gone (I don’t think it will ever be gone), but what once was a wrecking ball is now a tapping, a reminder of what I need to be healthy, but no longer a thief coming to destroy. It’s been four Februaries since my illness tried to beat me down, and every year above that darkness is celebration and triumph.

A wildest, February grace caught me in my free-fall, and lifted me back up.