My Anxiety’s Unlikely Kryptonite: Living My Biggest Fear
As a kid, I was pretty brave. When I was 11, I went to Busch Gardens with my grandparents and my older brother, Matthew. There was this intense, new, grown-up roller coaster called the Montu. Matthew and I didn’t just ride it, we got off the ride and got straight back in line about 20 times. Cut to two weeks ago when I was at Busch Gardens with my nephews and niece: I saw that roller coaster from a distance and I was flirting with a panic attack.
When I was little, I had to get a lot of needles poked into me for a health thing. One time I had an IV of antibiotics in my arm for a week and I handled it like a champ. I always just flung my arm toward the doctor like, Oh another one? No big. Then recently, my best friend who is a pharmacist gave me my flu shot and…I…cried.
I used to bring weird creatures into the house and jump off cliffs into oceans with my brothers and walk around in the salt marsh (read: snakes). And guess what? I wouldn’t do any of that shit now!
I don’t think it’s terribly uncommon that we become wussier as we get older, because the world is scary and there are a lot of dangers that we couldn’t understand when we were kids. My oldest nephew reminds me regularly, “I’m not afraid of alligators, Aunt Megan!” I think that is a conversation we should revisit as he lives in Florida, but you get it. Kids are brave.
My fear has escalated in the last few years into what we refined adults and the mental health community have branded anxiety. I have a bit of a propensity toward worried thinking and a pretty troublesome noise anxiety called misophonia. And then a couple of years ago, my chaotic relationship with my ex started to really hammer on these various little strains of anxious thinking. What developed was an endless chain of fears capped off by the Big One: the fear of losing this person who was making me so unhappy. For years, I allowed all of my tiny little streams of anxiety to pool into this one central, ever-present fear.
I recently discussed this particular situation while driving through the insanely beautiful island of Hawaii with my writing partner, Laura. She had invited me on a somewhat impromptu trip, knowing that I was in a post-breakup state and in the market for an Eat, Pray, Love moment.
As we drove down the lava rock-lined roads of the center of the island, we tried to break down (for the second time since my break-up) how weirdly fearful I had always been of losing my ex. Laura found this fact utterly unbelievable, as she is an earth angel who sees me for the fierce, powerful creature that I briefly forgot I am. With good friends like her, and with a newly broader perspective of how big the world is and how many amazing people inhabit the place, I understand that the thing I was afraid of losing wasn’t great enough to merit the fear.
So why be so scared? Why does the fear of losing someone (not to mention the giant, icky fear of being alone) dominate so much of our thinking when, in many cases, the person we are scared to let go of is…arguably not that good for us? With the sun on my face and the Pacific air in my lungs, I developed a theory born of the kind of post-breakup enlightenment that only a trip to paradise can provide (I tell myself as an excuse to book several more tropical vacations).
While on this magical trip, I got a particularly poignant message about a friend (we’ll call her Jamie) who, after vowing to leave after another affair, had decided to go back to her serial cheater partner. In feeling disappointed about Jamie’s choice, I felt a mirror being pointed directly back at me. Hadn’t I also been treated less-than-desirably for way too long? Hadn’t I also ignored a history with a lying partner and hoped for the best?
When I got this message, Laura and I were driving to go snorkeling, leaving a magical hippie B&B in the south part of the island. The Dragonfly Ranch Healing Arts Center (can you even?) was a truly special and weird place with a rainbow-colored yoga pavillion and only screens between our beds and the outside world. I particularly loved the stone floor of the outdoor shower and the herd of friendly chihuahuas running around the property. One of them, Rumi, slept with me the night that we stayed there. I miss him and love him deeply.
So we were departing the transcendent experience of the Dragonfly Ranch when I found out that Jamie was, after all of the bullshit, going back to this guy. Immediately, driving up the scenic coast of the island, I recognized what this woman was experiencing. It wasn’t deep love and devotion that withstands all manner of sins. It was — truly and simply — fear. And I knew it because I had felt it, honestly, for most of my last relationship.
I sympathized deeply with Jamie. For a time, losing my partner was the scariest concept imaginable, and that state of fear became pervasive. I was scared that he wasn’t attracted to me. I was worried about what I could do to make myself more attractive to him. I was scared that he was cheating on me because he so obviously wasn’t attracted to me. I was scared of a future with somebody I didn’t trust. I was scared of the future without him. I was scared of my family and friends finding out how truly awful this relationship was. I was scared of aliens. I’ve just always been scared of aliens.
Change in general is scary. Separating from the person with whom you share your whole life and moving out of the house that you shared together is a huge shift. I can imagine that a divorce adds another degree of severity. Unknown is scary, so leaving behind everything that feels immediately familiar is a rough prospect. But the cool thing about Unknown is it…could…be…anything?
Maybe I’m a little high on fresh independence and coconut water, but if I could tell this woman anything, it’s that letting go of all of that fear makes room for a lot of other great stuff. Like self-confidence and relaxation and bravery.
With Jamie’s story fresh in my mind, we arrived at our snorkeling spot. Standing on the precipice of a rock called Two Step, Laura and I were two New York writers with our bodies shoved awkwardly into wetsuits, trying to act cool about stepping off of the slippery rocks into the cold water at 8am. I have already revealed myself as an adult scaredy-cat, but something weird came over me on the edge of that bay. Laura looked a little bit freaked as the big waves sloshed against our flippers, and something inside of me said, “I gotta be the one who jumps in here.” So I pushed down the little voice that was talking about all of the things that could kill me in that water and I acted totally chill and I jumped in. And then Laura jumped in. And we snorkeled. And we saw amazing stuff. And I felt really brave.
We got out to the furthest point of our swim and the sun was shining through the water in these really magical, sharp, little beams. I became wrapped up in one of those poignant nature moments too beautiful not to be tied to some vital life lesson. With only the white noise of the water in my ears, my mind shot back to a couple days before when Laura had asked, “How has your anxiety been?” And I had looked up like she mentioned an acquaintance who I hadn’t thought about in a while. Oh right! My anxiety. How was she? It was weird, I said, but I hadn’t actually thought about her that much lately. She hadn’t been coming around as much.
While following around a school of yellow fish, I realized the weirdest thing about my anxiety’s recent inactivity. My former greatest fear, however misplaced, had happened. And nothing had fallen apart. And I was still alive. It was like living with a deathly fear of dogs, then meeting a dog and being like, Oh. This is actually fine. And actually petting this dog is better than not petting a dog was. And I wonder if I could smuggle this dog out of this B&B in my luggage somehow. (If you are reading this, Rumi the chihuahua, please call me.)
So not only was I still alive, I was really living. I was snorkeling over a coral reef. And standing, drenched, in a rainforest in front of an incredible waterfall. And watching a humpback whale breach from the shore at sunrise. And several other perfect-looking, Instagram-worthy travel clichés!
In looking back now, with an understanding of how unhappy I had been in that relationship and with the knowledge of how happy I am on the other side, that specific fear is really hard to understand. The only explanation I can surmise is this: maybe ending my relationship was the scariest thing for the reason that it was the thing I really needed to do? The prospect of having to move to a tent in Siberia with no way to watch this season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is a terrifying idea. But I don’t spend much time in my day being scared of that reality because, well…I don’t ever have to do that. What had been staring me in the face for years was an real, huge life change that I actually needed to make. And that is legitimately scary.
When we write film and TV scripts, our stories always start with an unexpected change that the main character doesn’t want. And to be honest, I understand that in a really fresh way. We have to be shaken outside of our box to go somewhere new. It’s different and different is scary and we don’t like scary. So that’s why sometimes these unwanted changes are necessary. To push us into a new phase. And when you think about it, nobody wants to be the guy stuck in his boring rut at the beginning of the movie. We want to be the guy who finally got the courage to leave the boring town. Or jump into the choppy water. Or run away with the chihuahua. Or whatever.