The Road to Anxiety and Back Again

January 2019

My plane descends into Detroit on a Thursday morning. One moment it’s sunshine and blue skies miles above the earth, and the next we slip under a thick blanket of clouds, into the dreary morning of a Michigan winter.

The airplane hums around me as I stare out the tiny window at the dismal Detroit River. It arches back and forth, with wild disregard for the miles and miles of neat, conforming squares of city blocks.

As the plane jolts onto the runway, the contradiction lingers with me: An inflexible grid of rules and systems interrupted by the unpredictable, defiant flow of nature.

It occurs to me that these miles of straight, unwavering roads reflect our innate desire to get from point A to point B as quickly, easily, and unhindered as possible. They reflect our efforts to control every element of our lives.


July 2014 (Four and a Half Years Ago)

These are the confessions of an anxious mama.

The first panic attack I’ve ever had happens driving west, 60 miles an hour down the highway at rush hour on a Monday night. Out of nowhere, all four lanes of traffic are forced to merge into one, creeping along on the left shoulder as red and blue lights flash up ahead.

The accident doesn’t look that bad. Another rear-end collision that happens all too often in the midst of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic.

But then I see her. A mama, clutching onto her tiny child, standing helplessly in the middle of the scene. I don’t know which car is hers. I only know that she is standing on the pavement, clinging onto precious life that could so easily have been lost in this mess.

Without warning, my breath becomes ragged and fast. My fingers and feet go numb, hands frozen to the steering wheel, foot pressing on the gas. My head is spinning and my face drips with sweat.

It takes everything in me to drive another half mile until I can pull off the road. I slam the car into park and shut my eyes, hyperventilating and shaking in a way that makes me think I am dying.

I am not dying. I am having a panic attack. By the time I finally calm down, I am a hot, sweaty mess, red in the face and tear-soaked.


November 2013 (Five Years, 3 Months Ago)

After Chris’s death, when everyone who ran to the rescue has gone back to their own rhythms of life, I find the daily burden of grief intolerable. I am a 26-year-old widowed single mom to a one-year-old little boy. And I can’t handle it.

The only way I can get past the urge to scream, to rip the stars out of the sky, to run away and start over, is to keep busy. I work nonstop, I go to dinners, and I arrange my schedule so I rarely have to go home to an empty house except to sleep.

If time heals all wounds, all I need to do is find the shortest, easiest way to get from point A (excruciating grief) to point B (sufficient healing) while time does its thing.

Predictably, with the usual transparency of hindsight, this doesn’t work.

My straight roads are met by rivers. Not idyllic Monet rivers with ripples and sunset reflections. But hurling white rapids and wild currents that crash into rocks, churn under roaring winds, eat away the river banks, and pull up saplings at the roots.

It is, in short, the road to anxiety. The effort to get from A to B in the easiest way possible leads to anxiety-fueled blindness, rage, and fear.

I don’t recognize it as anxiety at first. I believe the grief and the associated lack of sleep and loss of control has simply made me an angry person.

I roar at the dog when she eats food off the counter. I snap at my two-year old when he draws on the walls. I scream at the house itself when closet doors get stuck or blinds fall from windows when I yank them too hard. I spend a lot of time yelling. I spend a lot of evenings downing glasses of wine just so I can finally fall asleep and forget about the yelling and the tight ball of anger in my belly.

Anger is, after all, one of the famous stages of grief. And I have read every available book on the stages of grief, anxious to make my way through them all as efficiently as possible.

But the hyperventilating panic attack at 60 miles an hour down the highway changes everything. I recognize my anger for what it is: a symptom of anxiety. Suppressed anxiety that explodes into rage at a hair-trigger’s touch.

The anger and irritability come on the heels of tense, tight muscles, the cliched lump in my throat, shortness of breath, panicked restlessness, and lack of concentration.

This is a road that drags on for years.


February 2019

Time supposedly heals wounds but it doesn’t do so by itself.

The road out of anxiety has been fueled by daily medication that calmed the storm, my therapist Jamie who walked me through flashbacks and tears, pages and pages of journal entries rambling through the darkness, new running shoes that quickly racked up the miles, and bumbling, hesitant prayer.

And I have often doubled back, losing myself in sudden downpours of anxiety that leave me bewildered and angry. I recognize the tightness in my lungs and the clanging chaos in my head. But the further I push on, the more infrequently I turn back.

A view of my path from 30,000 feet would show it’s been anything but linear. I won’t say I found “point B,” because I don’t think it really exists. There is simply life, and it’s journey is often wayward.

However, even on the most wintry of mornings in the depths of the Midwest, hemmed in by aisle seats and frosty glass, I find peace.

Photo by Killian Pham on Unsplash

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