Imagine you are eight years old.
You are at a community pool in Akron, Ohio, with your entire extended family — uncles, cousins, grandparents, and your older brother, whose opinion you hold in high regard because he can make realistic fart noises using his hand and armpit.
You have made the egregious mistake of climbing to the top of the high dive.
You are now standing at the edge of the diving board, looking down into the blue abyss miles below you.
Okay, like, 16 feet below you.
It feels like you’re about to jump out of a plane. Or off a bridge. Or into the ocean in Jaws after you’ve already seen that one unfortunate teenager get pulled under.
The fear feels insurmountable, but so does the ire of the five kids in line, including four on the ladder and one standing behind you at the other end of the board, glaring, his sun-kissed arms akimbo.
“Just go!” he whines.
His plea is one of dozens you’ve heard for the past 10 minutes while staring into what, to everyone else, is a calm pool of welcoming blue water.
Finally, the tension becomes too much for your knocking knees, and you sit down at the end of the board, triggering frustrated sighs and expletives from every diver in line.
“You can do it, sweetie!” your mother yells, her hand poised in a blocking-the-sun salute. “It’ll be over in a second. Just jump.”
But you know something she doesn’t.
It’s too late.
You already know you can’t do it, and now instead of working up the courage to jump, you’re working up the courage to walk the gauntlet of searing side-eyes you’ll endure on the Climb of Shame down to the scorching pavement.
This is where you learned it: You are not the leaping type.
This story is both a true account of the first time I disappointed the crap out of my older brother in public and an encapsulation of how I lived my life up until a couple years ago.
I was a toe-dipper. A cringer. A wait-and-see-er.
People wouldn’t necessarily have known this, because through a heroic feat of white-knuckling, I managed to pass myself off as a regular, sometimes-relaxed, initiative-taking adult. And a high-functioning one, at that.
I had a cool job.
I hosted Live Wire!, a nationally syndicated public radio show wherein I interviewed fascinating people like Gus Van Sant, Tig Notaro, Mike Birbiglia, and Carrie Brownstein…and tried to keep from fear-puking while on air.
I was lucky, but I was also terrified. Every week I hosted the show, I looked like I was leaping, but I was still on that diving board and I hadn’t moved an inch.
It wasn’t just my job that caused me anxiety. Everything did.
Phone calls to strangers were miserable. Parties where I didn’t know anyone were like the seventh circle of hell but with better snacks. And making an unprotected left turn triggered the same fight-or-flight response most people experience when running from a small- to medium-size bear.
You can imagine how all of this affected my romantic life. One side effect of my sometimes crippling anxiety: I didn’t have an actual adult relationship until I was 34. Not surprisingly, this turned out to create its own set of issues.
It wasn’t until the poop hit the propellers at work in an epic, slow-motion, action-movie kind of way that I went to a counselor, who informed me that, in addition to the OCD I already knew about, I’d been struggling with generalized anxiety disorder for most of my life.
That meant that I had full-on OCD attacks pretty rarely, but my daily level of anxiety about things like work, relationships, finances (y’know, life?) was disproportionately high compared to that of other people.
And suddenly it all made sense: I wasn’t a giant fucking wuss; I had a disease.
I had a disease that not only made me afraid to take chances but also turned me into an Eeyore in a world seemingly filled with Tiggers. Anxiety makes you think that nothing is going to go well, and eventually, that becomes a habit. Eventually, it’s not just jumping out of a plane that might have disastrous consequences, it’s also talking to the checker at the grocery store or just leaving the house. (In my defense, 13 people are killed every year by vending machines, so you never know what peril awaits you when you walk out that door.)
Anxious people are braver than the unanxious, because we do it anyway, every single day.
Knowing all this made me wonder: Is it possible to retrain an adult brain? So I decided to try an experiment to see if I could climb out of the ruts in my neural pathways that said everything was going to suck. To rewire the negative connections that quashed any effort to change. To try things that scared me in order to teach my brain that everything was going to be okay. It was my version of exposure therapy — to the entire world.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t jump out of planes.
For a little over a year, I did things that were frightening in more of a “Can embarrassment turn into a permanent condition?” way than an “I’m going to end up as a heap of bones at the bottom of the Grand Canyon” way. I spent 90 minutes in a sensory deprivation tank and mostly thought about song lyrics (“How is a room without a roof happy? It’s missing a hugely important component.”) but also worried about tiny eels entering my brain through my ear canal. I took a fellatio class wherein my practice dildo lightly grazed the thigh of a fellow classmate attempting to squeeze by and I wanted to crawl under my chair. And, of course, I attended Build-Your-Own-Burrito Night at a sex club and was disappointed both by public sex and the lack of tortillas.
I didn’t exempt dating from my project. I went on more dates in a year than I’d been on in my entire life, which, to be honest, wasn’t that difficult to do. I essentially lived my twenties in my forties, learning what I liked sexually, what my deal breakers were, the bars with the best happy hours in Portland—and eventually I met someone who made me want to stop experimenting.
I dubbed this my Okay Fine Whatever Project because okay, fine, whatever are the words we anxious people utter when embarking on adventures that Tiggers might be excited about, like being dragged to a concert or on a trip or to our own Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony.
I wasn’t kidding myself that I could magically turn into a brave person, but I hoped that, just maybe, I could become a not-constantly-scared person. A person who was less lonely, less gloomy, and who didn’t feel like such a liar when she told herself that everything was going to be okay.
When I look back on my year of living (relatively) dangerously, I’m half shocked that it was me who did those things and half shocked that I’d been so afraid to do them.
Things I did that I’ll never do again: get a Brazilian, go to a strip club and allow a stranger to put her vagina on my freshly washed clothing, have public sex, get stoned at work (what was I thinking?), and rate human beings like they’re shitty brunch spots on Yelp. (I had a dating spreadsheet. It wasn’t my best moment.)
Things I did that I might do again: leave a job when it causes a constant stream of cortisol to flow through my veins, go to a professional cuddler if I go for a long period without being touched, and attend a water aerobics class when I need encouragement from the elderly.
As for how my year-and-a-half-long adventure affected me, it didn’t magically change my entire life. I’m not a whole new me. I’m not fearless.
But I did learn that when it comes to increasing one’s general level of pluck, you don’t have to bungee-jump off a bridge — or even jump off the high dive, for that matter.
It turns out grand gestures aren’t necessary. Because every time you dip your toe outside your comfort zone, you nudge its border just a little. And a little is enough to change things a lot.
My life isn’t enormously different, but in addition to finally being okay with leaving Live Wire!, I found that one small, important thing did change for me. Just one word.
When someone suggests I try something new, something that sounds like it could lead to awkwardness or discomfort or risk, instead of That sounds terrifying, my brain now says, Well. That sounds interesting.
It doesn’t say, Let’s fucking do it! We are totally gonna turn this [mildly adventurous experience] into our bitch! But it does offer up a surprisingly judgment-neutral response, which is kind of a big deal.
I wanted to make myself more optimistic, and I feel like my one shiny new word absolutely counts. It’s tiny, but it counts. And I spent a whole year doing weird shit without having made that infinitesimal shift, so it turns out you don’t have to be optimistic to live an interesting life.
So if I came away from this whole thing with a lesson, I guess it’s this: Fuck optimism. I mean, I love optimism, and if you have it naturally, that’s wonderful. Go with that, always and forever. You’re lucky and I hate you a little.
If you don’t have it naturally yet you go ahead and do the thing that’s going to make your life — and, by extension, you — more interesting, well, you’re still doing it, aren’t you? You’re still doing it with your Okay Fine Whatever attitude, which is a lot more of an accomplishment, if you ask me.
If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, I offer this: Anxious people are braver than the unanxious, because we do it anyway, every single day. We’re faced with fear on a regular basis, and we push through it in order to simply live our lives. And that’s something to be proud of.
Also, we’re kind of lucky, we anxious few. Because when you’re scared of everything, everything is an adventure.