THOUGHTS BITE. I took a deep breath, steadied myself. I counted to ten, and then stared at my phone again. Then I reached out my hand and picked it up slowly. I always did this whenever my phone rang, in the hope that if I stalled long enough, the caller would get discouraged and go away. Sometimes I wondered, did this happen to anyone else too?
Do other people plan “impromptu” outings for three days just to hang out for a few hours? Do other people turn their knuckles into a weird sort of stress ball, cracking and cracking until they hurt? Without looking at the phone in my hand, I knew who was calling.
Two days ago, I had met up with an old friend. Her name was Beverly, and she wanted me to take up a job as a teacher in her newly established school. I knew I should be grateful that someone was willing to hire me, especially after hearing about the shambles I made of my last job.
I am a graduate of mass communication, and a pretty good one at that. At least I was, until I had a major panic attack two weeks ago, during the recording of a program called “How To”. I was the anchor, and my only job consisted of making witty little comments, introducing segments and all that. It was a good gig as long as I was able to keep my anxiety in check, and avoid panic attacks. I had even mastered the art of dodging into the bathroom to count to ten, squeezing my fingers so my smile doesn’t crack, and deleting thoughts of hitherto unknown speech impediments popping up on air. My favorite fear at the mike was the thought of suddenly developing a lisp and turning the letter “r” into an “l”.
I have lived with anxiety since I was an adolescent. For me, it represents overthinking everything, missing parties because I might freeze in the middle of the room, with all those eyes watching me. I have never been shy; I grew up in a loving family, sheltered and protected. The problem with me began as a tendency to rationalize everything, which led to hectic thoughts and an intense pressure to speak right, act right. And then I would analyze other people’s reactions towards me, and become breathless with tension.
The day I got fired however, everything was going wrong. In fact, it was one of my worst days, and I can honestly say that I wasn’t entirely to blame for once. I woke up to a break up text from my boyfriend of four months.
It read: Dear Elsie, we have been together all this time and you are truly a lovely person. Thank you for the constant attention and love. But that’s just the problem. You are too clingy. You depend on me for everything, and I can’t breathe sometimes. I have thought about this for a while, and I am sure we can’t be together on a long-term basis. You need to develop more self-worth and I want you to be able to live without anyone. So I’m doing you a favor. I love you. Cole.
The nerve of him, that smug arrogant man. I wasn’t exactly clingy, was I? Sure, I needed his help- anyone’s help really- to cross the road. I get confused when driving and on two occasions I had to ask him to come pick me up. Things overwhelm me easily because I always feel like I really can’t handle anything. I really thought Cole would be different though. He has held my hand through a few panic attacks, cancelled hangout invites at the last minute so that we could chill out with the curtains drawn. We had quarrels endlessly though, because Cole just couldn’t believe that anxiety was a real thing.
Anxiety to Cole was a temporary feeling that everyone felt from time to time. Nobody could be crippled by fears that didn’t even exist, was his favorite argument. When he was in a good mood he called it a form of hypochondria, and when he was feeling less than happy he called me delusional and unrealistic. According to him, there was too much suffering in the world to pay attention to, as opposed to a twenty-something year old woman with a luxurious middle class background. Sitting there on my couch with my now silent phone beside me, I thought about the last time he covered up for me. Well, remembered can be used loosely because it was barely a week ago; the evening my new neighbor invited us to eat dinner with him.
His apartment faces mine and it would have been a total faux pas if I had said no. It would have set the tone for future unfriendliness, and what if I needed his help eventually? So we went over, Cole and I. Unfortunately he had invited several people over too. That neighbor of mine sure has a lot of friends. So, the introductions began. They were alright at first, although I was too busy trying to appear poised to actually listen to anyone’s name.Then we had sandwiches and they had lettuce in them. So whenever someone asked me a question, I couldn’t really answer because I was convinced that there was lettuce stuck between my teeth.
The evening would have been perfect if it hadn’t lasted for so long. By the time we were ready to leave, we had to give handshakes and say goodbye. I managed to smile with my mouth closed, and to nod instead of speak. No mean feat, I assure you. We would have scaled through with little problem- apart from maybe one or two guests who will remember me forever as that weird, close lipped woman in the corner- if my neighbor’s mother had not insisted on a goodbye hug. Now, I said earlier that we shouldn’t have stayed that late. Here’s why: I was totally sure by then that I was sweating. And that my deodorant had expired. Add that to four hours’ worth of closed mouthed lettuce and fish and tea (you have no idea how badly milk can sour up your breath. I have spent minutes at a stretch measuring how tea changes your breath by the hour), and you’d understand why I didn’t want any close physical contact.
I know I was overthinking it, but hey. Anyway, mama neighbor reached in for a hug. I stood awkwardly, and we both tipped, over, over, and into a bowl of punch on the table. I was covered in the stuff, and so was she. She cried out really loudly, there was so much commotion and it confused me so I just couldn’t get off the floor. Cole had to lift me up, apologizing profusely the entire time as we walked to my door. Well he walked. I half flopped, half limped. I was mortified. Of course, I acknowledge that coping with my anxiety could be a bit much for anybody. But what about my good parts? I’m super smart, loyal and very hardworking. I am very kind, very calm and giving. At the risk of sounding less than humble, I can even say I’m pretty and in good shape physically.
Anxiety was not the full description of my existence. It was just there, like a strawberry birthmark covering half the face of an otherwise adorable baby. Anyway, the day I was fired, I was so distracted and rattled that I ended up making a total mess of the program, confusing correspondents’ names and then summing it all up by bursting into tears on a live broadcast. The video trended for a long time on social media channels. I was absolutely humiliated. The phone had stopped ringing, but then my doorbell rang. When it rains it pours, I thought sourly. I tried ignoring the sound, but the caller just wouldn’t go away. So I got off my couch and, stepping out of my warm cocoon of self-pity, I peeped out my key hole. And my heart just about stopped for a few seconds. Standing out there, on the other side of my door, was my neighbor. Perhaps he was here to press charges on behalf of his mother. At the very least, I expected to receive a laundry bill. So picture this; I’m standing there, biting my finger nails and wondering if I can get away with playing possum, pretending I’m not home. This guy is persistent though. He rang the bell again. And suddenly, I was filled with anger. Not at him, but at myself. Angry that I had entertained this deep seated fear which held me back every single time, killing my enjoyment of every single thing. I was suddenly tired of overthinking everything, even something as little as opening a door to someone who had been perfectly nice to me in the recent past.
I decided to be reckless for once and I yanked the door open. “Hi, good afternoon”. I must have sounded breathless because he took a step back and his expression became cautious. He really was gorgeous, and since I was being reckless now, I smiled wide at him. His return smile was breathtaking and surprising. And in that moment, I realized that I had actually gotten approval from grinning with my teeth, and I hadn’t even checked for particles of my breakfast. And I had achieved that by simply letting go for a minute. This is good, I told myself. Really good. With my new found courage I let him in. it turned out that he wasn’t going to insist that I pay for his mother’s ruined lace or be slapped with a restraining order. Justin even said that the whole deal amused him, and he certainly could do with some amusement once in a while. He is a human rights activist, mostly concerned with girl child education and equality, which really surprised me because he’s so burly and macho looking that you’d think he was the poster child for patriarchy, or how it’s supposed to look anyway. Yeah, you get my point.
Justin, (my neighbor’s name by the way) actually came over because he said he hadn’t seen me step out of my room for a while. Perhaps he didn’t want the hassle of living next to a potential psycho or even a dead body. I told him so and he laughed really loudly. On the sly he quipped, “Sooo, I haven’t seen your male friend around recently. I’d have liked to invite you both over once more”. And casually I responded that there was no longer going to be any Cole and me, even though I didn’t say why. And just like that, he set up a dinner date for the following weekend. I almost said no. I was already imagining everything that could go wrong. That reckless spirit that took over me that day shut the thoughts out for once. What if it didn’t go wrong? And so I said yes. That evening after Justin left, I felt different. I felt, for the first time in a long while that I had carried out a conversation without having to bite my suffering nails or smack my forehead over a remembered gaffe afterwards. And it wasn’t Justin either, although he truly made me feel good. No. it began in those few minutes by the door, when I decided to stop thinking for once.
Anxiety had paralyzed me since I could remember. It had made me dependent and lack luster. It had made me terrified of going out, scared that I would say and do the wrong things and make an absolute fool of myself. Several times, I had come home elated from a great outing, and then the thoughts would hit me. Did I sit right? What if my dress had been caught between my butt cheeks and I didn’t know? What if I had toothpaste at the corners of my mouth all the time in the glare of the lights? What if, what if, what if, until the words would run around inside my head and cause my stomach to knot and tears course down my face. Or when the tension would clot so deeply within that I must just let it out, biting my lower lip till it bled and my hands would pinch at each other, leaving deep scratches.
On that day that the door was answered instead of playing dead, I realized that I could get better. I could gain control and live, instead of just exist. I, Elsie would seek help. I would get professional therapy, and I would not ignore my friends anymore. I would not run whenever I heard voices coming towards me anymore. I decided on that day, that I did not care a whit about Rs and Ls. I would make my mistakes, and because I trust myself to do the right thing, I would not regret anything. Maybe I won’t heal all at once, but I will be fine eventually. I decided that evening to live one anxiety free minute at a time. That harmless time frame is a measure I can handle without feeling overwhelmed. One minute at a time, for twenty four hours. I picked up my phone and called Beverly. I didn’t stop to think about her reactions to my former hesitations.
On Monday, I would have a new job impacting on young lives. I would be interacting with children who would not care about their teacher’s accent or leftovers of lunch between her teeth. And as for Justin, our story was just beginning; of that I was sure. I would tell him about my anxiety. But I would not be apologetic about it. Starting over never felt more refreshing and change was just a minute away. END
Jesus’s favorite girl.
Content developer. Research maestro.
Creative guru. Book lover.
Words, speech, beautiful eyes make me feel warm inside.
People watching is my favorite hobby.
Ardent admirer of beautiful skylines, thought processes. Extroverted Introvert.