strength n.
1. The state, property, or quality of being strong.
2. The power to resist attack.

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My mother (with me) at 19 — the age I would be before my anxiety was diagnosed.

I have my mother’s hands. Long nail beds with elegant, piano playing fingers. Skin soft enough for soothing and caressing, but thick enough to let you know life hasn’t been easy.

A stranger at a party “read” my hands once. He studied them for several moments then told me what he learned. Of all the words he said, I only remember one thing: “your pinky finger doesn’t reach to the joint of your ring finger,” he said. It’s true. The tip of my pinky stops nearly half an inch before the line of the joint on my ring finger.

I asked him what it meant. I wasn’t expecting what came next.

“It means you never quite reach your goals.”

I had my first anxiety attack at age five. My parents had erupted into yet another fight. My mother sat crumpled in tears in our overstuffed brown, velvet chair. My tiny frame was at her feet on the living room floor, crying, desperately begging: “please don’t leave my daddy.”

This is the first time I remember hyperventilating.

Thankfully, my mother stayed. I say “thankfully” because I am a daddy’s girl through and through, but also because my little brother and future best friend was born two years later. Twelve years after that, my parents separated. Eight years after that, they reconciled. And for most of the time in between, I battled anxiety (undiagnosed until I was 19).

As a kid, I had teachers who taught me I could do anything. So I did. I edited the school paper, I was a cheerleader, I earned an honors’ scholarship to college. While riding the subway one day, a woman approached me and gave me her business card — she ran a beauty pageant with a cash prize. Skepticism waned as quickly as my finances as a college student had. I entered the pageant and won (my talent: performing Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, dedicated to my mother).

Suddenly, at 19-years-old, a whole other world opened up. I signed with a talent agent. I hosted a TV show, was on a magazine cover, modeled in national campaigns, had my face on posters, acted in commercials and music videos, and even danced on an international tour. By 21, I also became a published photographer and journalist.

The last accomplishment on this list has always made me most proud: I’ve been a performer at heart since childhood, but I’ve been a writer since birth.

However, sometime around age 23, anxiety overcame my youthful exuberance. I could no longer ignore the restless urgency racing in my mind. I decided that I needed to get a “real” job and have a “real” life because being a creative and a performer felt too unstable. I was buried under an avalanche of bills that had collapsed on me after years of mismanaging my funds (that free candy bar at the credit card application table took me decades to pay off). My personal life was also a string of disappointments as I found myself in one ill-advised relationship after the next.

So, a real job I got. And quit. And got another. And quit. And got another. And quit. When I had health insurance, I’d see a doctor for the anxiety. And quit. And see another. And quit. And see another. And quit. It became quite a familiar pattern — doing just enough to survive, but not enough to excel. Stability simply wasn’t a prominent feature of my life. I didn’t see how it ever could be.

During a time when I felt particularly lost and alone, I went to see a spiritual counselor. She informed me that the reason I had changed jobs so frequently was not because I couldn’t commit to anything (as I feared). She said it was simply because I needed to be challenged. Not everyone is meant to work 9 to 5 in an office. She said I needed variety and creativity. I could hardly stomach how obvious it was. At the end of the session, I happily gave her $30 and walked away feeling like I had been introduced to myself. And for the first time in years, I gave myself permission to not do what was “safe.”

Still, a few nights later, I stared at my hands while lying awake in bed at 5am. It had been like that for at least three weeks. Insomnia always gets the better of me when I’m unsettled. I lay there — anxiety swelling in my chest — and I made wishes… over and over… wishing.

I wished that my dad didn’t have to visit a junkyard so he could piece together a car to help him get to work. I wished that my little brother could afford to buy his books for college. I wished that I had a way to consistently pay my own bills each month.

And then, as always, my thoughts went back to my core — I found myself wishing I could afford to fix my beautiful mother’s front tooth. She had chipped it when I was in elementary school and it remained that way ever since. I’m certain she had more than one opportunity to get the dental work done, but chose not to spend the money on doing so. Because for her, everything always went back to her own core: family.

While I lay there in bed that morning, studying my hands, I began to irrationally curse my pinky fingers for not being longer. If only they could reach… too many things in my life were unfinished and incomplete and abandoned. So many things.

As I started to cry from the hurt and anxiety mounting inside, I noticed something. One thing that I am convinced forever changed my life: I made a fist with my right hand. And when I made that fist, the tip of my pinky finger not only reached the joint, it passed it. So I made a fist with my left hand.

And in that moment, I realized that I could reach my goals. The length of my fingers obviously didn’t determine the quality of my life. That imaginary defect was part of a fable I needed to abandon along with all the other false stories I’d conjured up for myself. I decided not to let anxiety be my restriction. To do whatever was necessary to gain control of my life. To dig for the exuberance I once — and still — had inside. To turn wishes into goals and goals into realities.

To fight.

Now I sit, grateful for my mother’s hands. Long nail beds with elegant, piano playing fingers. Skin soft enough for soothing and caressing, but thick enough to let you know life hasn’t been easy.

And each day, I unclench my fists just long enough to write.

Below: On April 29, 2018, my mother (and her hands) sent me a selfie of her newly repaired smile.

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(It really is.)

Written by

Storyteller. Producer. Writer. Editor. NYU faculty. Traveling selfie taker. Auntie. •

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