Grasping for Okay

For my whole life I’ve grappled with the intensity of my emotions, the frenetic nature of what I carry in my heart and my desperate need to process verbally in order to manage it. I grew up receiving the message that I was different from everyone around me because of my feelings.

Over time I’ve been in and out of the mess. I’ve had happy years, fairly inconsequential years, years of pain and heartache. I’m best when I have a good support system and friends around me.

Recently, I moved to a new city and started a new job. I’m working as a teacher at a middle school. As a brand new teacher with Teach for America, I’m coming in with a lot of raw energy and readiness, a quickness to learn and a passion and desire for this work. Nonetheless, it still feels sometimes — often — as though I’m slogging through a foot and a half of mud and quicksand, sinking and stagnating in my mess. That may not be true in reality, but when you take my new situation coupled with the nature of my emotions and the standards I hold myself to, it sure feels that way inside my head.

Out here, without my support systems in the city I came from and the city I grew up in, I get overwhelmed easily. November was an especially rough month. And the week before last, my anxiety shot through the roof badly enough that I could barely drive myself home in my emotional state.

The next day I did something I haven’t done in seven years: took a day off school to take care of my health. Instead of staying in bed all day and watching television, I got up early, made myself breakfast, and began to figure out all the things I needed to do to bring my anxiety under control.

Since then, I’ve been more proactive than I perhaps have ever been about managing my anxiety. I wanted to write this post because I am proud of myself, but also as a way of sharing out some of the strategies that have worked for me to bring myself peace after so many weeks of pain.

The day I stayed home, I made a decision to immediately handle anything that was stressing me out, no matter how small. If something contributed to raising my anxiety, I observed it and came up with a strategy for it.

The first thing I did was rearrange all the furniture in my room, so that my desk wasn’t in a claustrophobic spot facing a flat white wall right in the corner next to my door. Since then, my bedroom has felt like one I can work in, and breathe in.

I didn’t do any homework, but I went through everything I needed to do and organized myself. I made a list of when I could get it all done, but I separated it into small enough chunks that it didn’t feel overwhelming. (As of Friday, I was all caught up on my homework, though I was three weeks behind on the day I started organizing myself.)

I told someone when he had phrased something in a way that I realized had triggered my anxiety to raise even a small amount.

When a friend asked if I wanted to go to the gym the next day, I went with her, despite the fact that it was my first time going to a gym ever, which did raise my anxiety level. But I got it under control and had a good time.

I also started journaling, a strategy provided by the therapist I had finally gotten a chance to see. For a week, I’ve kept a journal of at least one good thing that’s happened every day. I also journal about the tough thoughts and feelings and things I’m processing, but I keep that section separate from my “Today’s Good Thing” section, which lives by itself with one or two good things from that day.

This week, I went to yoga on Monday night even though the person who was going to go with me canceled, so I had to go by myself. It was nonetheless lovely, though I did fall asleep on the floor during the rest portion of the class.

I had a really tough day on Tuesday, so I gave myself a gift I’ve never given myself: I left my work at work and went home and watched television all night without guilt about all the things I “should have” been doing.

Today, I’ve had a couple small victories in managing my anxiety, too. First, when I was feeling anxious that someone might be upset with me, I asked them directly, explaining that I was feeling that way as a result of anxiety. That way, instead of trying to assuage my anxiety by telling myself they weren’t upset, I was able to just put it to rest immediately.

Second, when my anxiety level remained high, I took to Google, realized it might be related to the fact that I hadn’t eaten dinner, and made myself a sandwich. This is a particular victory for me because I have a lot of difficulty preparing myself meals. I very, very often go without dinner because I get tired and/or anxious and don’t feel that I have the motivation or energy to prepare food for myself. This is the first time I’ve ever considered that my anxiety level might be tied to that behavior and made the effort to manage it.

All of this may feel very small, self-absorbed, or inconsequential. But this past week and even now, for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like my fear and pain and negative emotions are in charge of me. I know they’re there, and I know where they sit inside me, but the moment I feel them start, I’m there to handle them, instead of letting them build out of control.

More than anything I am truly learning what it means to allow myself to be. To cut myself slack, or give myself freedom to be okay. It means deciding — actively deciding, not passively deciding through inaction — that it’s okay to put the overachiever down for a day and just be quiet with myself. It means knowing that I can go to the people around me and explain the nature of my anxiety to them in order to deal with the things that might set it off. It means treating my own feelings as if they are real and valid.

For once I know that there is an okay out there for me somewhere. It does not come in magically fixing or changing myself. It is instead in learning to live with myself, and in that way, just learning to live.

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A Personal Post, in the form of a poem

Wednesday.
It’s snowing.
You’re alone.

You fell for someone who lives
where you once did,
shares your history only by the
convenience of place.

You drove home through waves
of white confetti,
flickering headlights,
a sputtering engine.

Out there, anything could have happened.
The streetlights forget,
benevolently,
as do your tires
and your heart palpitations:

Cobwebs have already formed.
You are not waiting for rebirth,
but rather the moment
when you look out the window
and the bones of the trees feel like boxes,
and your heart forgives you.