Shadow Monsters (Rescuing the Muse, Part 7)

When I wake, I have the sense that it is morning, though I can’t see much light beyond the distant canopy of trees. Everything is covered in that twilight gloom that makes it difficult to gather much detail from your surroundings. I peer awkwardly around me as I sit by the cold embers of my fire and wait for the world to grow brighter as I nibble on a measly breakfast. I am already hungry, but I know I must be careful with my supplies.

The longer I wait, the more the heavy realization sinks in that the world won’t be getting much brighter today. I sigh and sling my pack over my shoulder as I carefully make my way farther down the dirt path. This will have to do for today. I set a decent pace as I wander along the trail, forcing my mind to stay on the task at hand. It isn’t until late morning when the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand on end and I get that needling feeling that someone is watching me. I cast my eyes into the woods surrounding me, hoping I can catch a glimpse of my hidden companion. But the trees remain still, and my stalker stays hidden in the shadows.

There is a whisper about me, though when I stop to listen I cannot make out any words. Is it the wind? Is my mind playing tricks on me? I have only been away from the village for a short time, surely I am not already imagining things. Is that the secret of these treacherous woods that the locals would not tell me: does everyone who steps foot in here go mad?

“What makes you think the woods have anything to do with it? Surely all those people were mad before they set foot in these lands,” a voice whispered in my ear, stretching out the s’s like a snake. I nearly jumped out of my skin as I turned in a quick circle, arm outstretched to catch my foe. But nothing was there, my fingers passed through mere air. A soft chuckle met my ears as I stood frozen in place.

“Oh, my dear child, tut, tut, there is no catching what you cannot see. Surely you know that by now,” it crowed from my left. I stared intently at the spot, waiting for something, anything- a flash of movement. But there was only a shadow across the path, a dark and murky splotch of air in the empty void between myself and the distant trees.

My blood turned to ice with dawning realization. I had heard of these phantoms before, these dangerous creatures that pass through the world unseen. They were the Shadows that sang songs of despair and disdain int our ears. They reveled in self-loathing, luxuriated in anxiety and hate. They were the monsters that were impossible to fight, the ones that found a crumb of weakness within the soul and held tightly to it. They were the worst nightmares and the most hidden of fears.

The shadow cackled softly, a low growling sound, “Ah, so I see you have heard of me,” he responded, though I had never uttered a word. These creatures were dangerous for this very fact: you could not fool them because they could instinctively feel the nature of your thoughts, could read the quickening pulse of your heart. They could taste your fear, and knew your sadness. They could become as much a part of you as your big toe.

“You, my sweet adventurer are an apple ripe for the picking. So brave of you to wander willingly into my home. Tell me, young fly, what is it like to finally meet a spider? Can you feel my web ensnaring you?” Every syllable dripped with barely concealed mirth as he gloated.

How do you fight a monster that can see inside your soul? How do you combat something that knows every secret you harbor in your heart? How do you move forward when the fear they inspire leaves your muscles rigid and unmoving? “You can’t,” the shadow whispered, closer now.

They say that for a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must wrap itself up tightly in a cocoon and come completely undone. It dissolves it’s very cells so that it can reorganize them into a new form. This transformation cannot be easy, and it certainly doesn’t sound pain free. It is not the quiet little nap we envision; but change never is. There is action roiling below the surface that many could never even fathom with a cursory glance. I often wonder if the caterpillar knows what is in store for it when it feels that urge to wrap itself up tightly in the safe confines of its cocoon. When it enters that darkness, does it know what it will being undoing? Does it know what it will become?

Every single one of us carries a shadow self: the darkness within our cocoon that we must learn to embrace and work through if we ever wish to grow into something more than what we are. It is one of the hardest battles we will ever wage, primarily because we often don’t recognize what we are fighting. These shadow voices are so deeply ingrained in who we are that we often can’t differentiate their voices from our own. To fight these shadows we must recognize them and pull them into the light. We must scrape away at the years of detritus until we are able to unearth the core of their existence. At the heart of every shadow is a seed, a core belief that we have struggled with repeatedly over the years until they grew far too complex for us to simply manage.

It is far easier to recognize the symptoms of our monster than to acknowledge what it truly is. For me, my monster tended to present itself in stuttering steps and lack of follow-through. It was found in good intentions that were never acted upon or not fully invested in. It was the big dreams that I shied away from when action was required. It was the career I feel into thirteen years ago and never left, even though the passion started to ebb. It was the promotions I applied for and got, even though I knew they were a mistake- but I thought I was supposed to want them. It was the schooling I put on pause when I was dealing with medical issue, but never returned to after they resolved. It’s the novels I never sent to publishers, the way I still hide my computer screen from my partner, even though I’ll send these words out into the ether. It’s the way I cling to a 9 to 5 job because it feels secure, even though my heart pulls me somewhere else. It’s in the way I shrug my shoulders and say “I’ll go back to school when I know what I want to do with my life,” when the truth is: I’ve known my direction for a long time, I just never feel comfortable saying it out loud. Over and over again I have battled with these inner demons without realized that they are all the same monster, just wearing different masks.

The core of my shadow is a lack of confidence in my own abilities, it is a fear of failing. I have never once taken the risk of betting on myself, even though I will go all-in for anyone else. I care too much what other people think, and I always have. I question my instincts and my dreams over and over again until I talk myself out of them. I was a girl with goals and hopes that were larger than life. And in theory I believed in them; at least, I thought I believed in them. But when it came to action, I shied away. I turned down a different road that was paved and well-lit even though I could feel the winds calling me across that other field and through the brambles. I knew I wasn’t living my authentic life, I was settling for a safe life. I convinced myself that the life I was living was good enough; and on those days when it wasn’t, I told myself that it was okay- this was only temporary, and I would figure it out. But I knew all along that those were just words with no backbone.

I don’t know where this fear came from. I’m sure a really good therapist could help me figure it out, but alas- that is another step that I have always hesitated to take (even though I strongly encourage everyone to see one because mental health is important). It’s like I’m afraid of confirming my worst fears. If don’t try, then I can keep dreaming and I don’t have to face the fact that I’m not good enough. I don’t have to worry that I quit a great job to follow a dream that died and left me…where? What is the worst that could happen? What am I afraid of?

For once let’s be honest. I am not weak. No, every time my back has been pushed to the wall, I have proven that I could fight. I am capable of pushing myself beyond the limits I thought I had. When my world cracked and swallowed me whole, I climbed back out all on my own. I kept living when every fiber inside of me demanded to know why I should even bother. I walked through my own personal hell and came out the other side carrying buckets of water for those still engulfed in the flames. I am afraid of failing, and yet every time I was forced to give it my all: I succeeded. When my world crumbled below my feet, I rebuilt beautiful things in that rubble. This fear that I have: this fear of not being good enough, of not being strong enough: it’s unfounded. It’s a lie. It’s a whisper that the shadows desperately want me to believe because it’s the only foothold they have.

To confront your shadow, you must name it. You must stare it straight in the eyes and do whatever it is warning you against. If it’s telling you not to create because you might not be any good- do it anyway. And even if it is awful: stick that work in a frame and place it on your desk with pride. Because it is not just your lopsided attempt of a hedgehog drawing: no, it’s the proverbial sword that you used to slay your monster.

The shadow will not go away overnight. It will be with you for days, weeks, perhaps years. But it will not always control you if you continue to push back against every inch of ground it tries to take. Sometimes all you will gain are tiny steps: actually, it is pretty much always tiny steps. You are going to fight the shadow with a matchstick and not a flamethrower, but my dear, you will win if you are persistent. You will shine that light on every square inch of the monster until he has no where else he can hide.

My matches? They’re small- but they’re working. I started my silly art challenge last week. I am drawing not-so-stellar pictures that I am sharing with you right here on the internet where literally anyone can find them for the rest of eternity. And as cavalier as I like I to act when doing this- it is absolutely terrifying to share a vulnerability, to give you a piece of me that feels weak and unprepared. But it makes me stronger. It erases that fear. Because what is the worst that has happened since I started sharing them? Nothing. No one has even said an unkind word. And even if they did- so what? That speaks more about them than it does about me. Who cares when I’ve found something I enjoy doing in my spare time? And hey- I can always get better. This is just a start.

My other matches? This blog, for one. I’ve started and restarted it for years, but this feels different somehow. My mentality towards my work has shifted. And it feels so damn good to be writing again, and to be so brutally honest with myself while doing so. And even if no one else reads another word I write: that’s okay. Because this is something I’ve always done for me, and this is something I will continue to do simply because I want to.

I’ve spent time refocusing on the things that I enjoy. I’ve reevaluated what I like and don’t like about my job. I’ve researched new learning opportunities and degree programs that could help me move forward with my life. I’ve begun making the financial arrangements required for a future shift. I’ve admitted my fears and my lack of direction. I’ve opened up with those close to me about the things I really want to do with my life and my fears surrounding them. And I’m finally doing something about it. My scrappy side is coming out, and she is one tough little cookie. I’m working on changing my inner dialog so that I stop telling myself I can’t do the things that I love. Perhaps these dreams won’t turn out exactly as I hoped, but that doesn’t mean they won’t lead me somewhere even better; that doesn’t mean they don’t still have a place in my story.

This week I’ll continue on that path. I’ll write awkward sentences and draw some abstract art. I’ll drink plenty of water and eat healthy foods to feed my brain. I’ll spend more time with my motivational self-help books and career guides, and I’ll consider new paths that I never truly let myself examine before. I’ll light one little matchstick after another until the shadow is a memory. That’s the only way to fight this little war.

I could feel the icy grip of tentacles closing around me, hear the whispered shouts and screams of his former victims as he pulled at me, trying to suck me into his realm, to sap the life right out of me. There was no one here to rescue me, not a soul who would know where to look. My Muse would stay locked in that tower forever, thinking I had given up on her.

No, this couldn’t be how it ended. The good guys are supposed to win, they are supposed to climb the mountain, reach the summit, be the hero of their own story. They aren’t supposed to die on an anonymous path in the middle of the woods. This is not how the story goes. I slowly reached for my pack, fighting against the fog that was clouding my brain. The shadow was too focused on his imminent success to even notice the subtle shift in my thoughts, the hardening edge of determination creeping into my mind. I reached for the tiny splinter of wood and struck the match.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

From Pandora’s Box Came Hope (committing to creativity in an unsteady world)

If I’m honest with myself, I know I’ve been striking out on almost every single one of my goals lately. I haven’t posted in ages, I ended Camp Nano thousands of words behind, I got a whole extra month to read my book club book and I’ve barely cracked it open. My sink is full of dishes, I have an overflowing hamper in my laundry room, and my front yard looks like Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs took over. Although, to be fair, the silver lining on that last one is that Rusty, my favorite red-coated neighborhood raccoon, has fallen hopelessly in love with the yard’s wildness. I have caught him standing on my porch staring at it in unrivaled adoration several times.

The point I’m trying to make: failures happen. They can be miniscule or spectacular in scale. Some days you will roll right through them while barely slowing down, and other days they will knock you to the ground and send you crawling to the closest blanket to cuddle under. It can be hard to admit when you are struggling, when you’ve broken that internal compass and lost your way. It can be demoralizing and it can erode your perspective of who you are and what your future will look like. There is no need to beat around the proverbial bush: failure sucks. It opens up an internal Pandora’s box; we are left grappling with all of the large and scary creatures that came flying out, while desperately searching for those tiny fluttering wings of hope.

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Perhaps it is the world we are currently living in, but I’ll be the first to admit: my mental health has taken a bit of a hit the past few months. I find myself grappling with concepts far bigger than myself, trying to wrestle with the idea that the future I had always planned in my head might wind up being a phantom image that never comes true. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way; with so many people lost in the limbo the pandemic created, we often find ourselves grieving for what we are currently missing and what may be lost to us in future. My nephew is a high school senior who is missing his final months, prom, graduation- the milestones that mean so much to us as we figure out how to carry ourselves into the next stage of life. My sister is the hardest worker I have ever known- suddenly forced into unemployment because the school she teaches at couldn’t support distance learning for her young students. She has been caught on lockdown at home while waiting for her first unemployment check to arrive after six weeks (and counting). My coworkers and I find ourselves pushed to the breaking point trying to institute new technologies into archaic systems that can’t easily support the sudden jump to virtual court hearings. And when I’m on my own time, I find myself trying to come to terms with the fact that my dream of having kids one day might actually be at an end. After two miscarriages, my partner and I were already a little nervous about trying one last time. And then when the virus hit, that little glimmer of hope faded into the dust.

So what do you do when your new normal breaks your heart? You mourn, perhaps you sink into it for a little while, maybe you bake a lot of bread and finally start scribbling into the journal that’s been sitting on your nightstand for the past two years. You learn to cope and you pray that tomorrow will be a little bit easier. And at some point, you just might be ready to take a deep breath and ask yourself one of the most terrifying questions you can posit: what now?

For me, personally, the entire landscape of my future might wind up being very different than what I had carefully planned. The idea terrifies me- that sometimes ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t translate to the real world. It is crucial that I find a way to still be okay in my new normal, to still find a reason to be the happy girl I’ve always aimed to inhabit. What makes me happy, what keeps be fulfilled, what gives me the energy to get out of bed every morning? Hope- hope for new experiences, new ideas, new stories, new skills, new adventures. I still have hope that I can create a life I will be happy with, even in spite of the losses. A few days ago I didn’t have that same hope as I lay curled up on the couch with a drink in my hand and tears in my eyes while watching Rogue One (I’m not sure why, but it’s suddenly replaced all Disney movies as my new medium of comfort). And yet, time has a funny way of slowly eroding the rough edges until you can pick up your troubles and carry them again.

If I don’t commit to myself and the things that bring joy, then the only alternative is to slip back into that dark place I climbed out of. I refuse to live like that. So here I am, committing to myself once again- committing to new dreams, new hopes, new goals. Or perhaps it’s more that I’m dusting off the ones I dropped a few months ago when I curled up into my shell and hid away from the world for a while. This new month is going to be a bit of an experiment for me: I don’t guarantee that there will be successes, just that there will at least be an attempt. I’m worn out with my autopilot, and I’m ready to reinvest in my sparks: the things that bring joy to my soul and keep me moving forward. I am ready to open the door and rediscover the adventure.

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Squiggly feelings and sleepless nights (hello anxiety, my old friend)

Have you ever leaned back in your chair too far and felt that jolt when it seemed like you were falling? Have you ever missed a step when you were walking down the stairs and suddenly your stomach was in your throat and your heart was pounding in your ears? It feels like that. But it doesn’t go away.

Have you ever watched a scary movie and felt your body tense waiting for something to jump out at you? Only it doesn’t, so you just keep peeking through your fingers and holding your breath? It’s like that, but without the giddy excitement of knowing that the monsters on the screen can’t hurt you.

Have you ever been driving down the road when your seatbelt locks up for no reason, as though it thinks you are about to crash even though everything is fine? And you have to sit there, locked in for a while, unable to really move? That’s what it’s like.

You are fighting phantom enemies with a smile on your face because no one else will understand. You are calm as a cucumber on the outside while your stomach is full of squiggly jumbled lines, your heart is pounding, hands sweaty, and you just can’t catch your breath. It is a strange moment when you find yourself trying to convince your own brain that you are okay, that everything will be fine, that you will survive this false alarm it has raised.

What people don’t realize about anxiety- I know when I’m being irrational. I know when my brain is looking at shadows and screaming ‘monster.’ But I can’t stop it. It’s not just a thought process; it’s a physical response. It’s like a migraine; I can feel it coming, but I have no power to change it. It is a tidal wave that rolls over me, washing me out to sea. And it’s so damn exhausting trying to paddle back to shore against the current.

I am not always like this. I can be the girl who (outwardly) rolls with the punches. I can be the girl who kicks ass, takes names, and dances backwards in high heels. I can be the girl who argues the intent of Nochlin’s essays on institutional powers, debate the merits of Ravenclaw vs Hufflepuff. I am the girl who can be serious, or funny, sarcastic or plain annoying. I am the girl who can be a lot of different things.

But I am also the girl whose heart was hammering so loud in her chest that I thought it might break the skin. I am the girl who discreetly made her way to the bathroom to fall apart in the middle of the workday. I locked the door, slid down the wall and sat with my head in my hands, eyes shut, gasping while trying to remember how to breath as the panic rushed through my veins, leaving me weak and terrified. Then I stood up, brushed myself off and went back out with a forced smile. I made coffee, joked with coworkers and answered the phone that just wouldn’t stop ringing. No one knew. Not a single soul realized that I was broken and terrified inside. Not one person noticed the way my eyes darted, the way I continually tapped my fingers and toes to expel the excess energy, not one person noticed the cracks showing through my carefully placed facade. No one knew that it wasn’t the first time. No one knew that it wouldn’t be the last.

I’ve had anxiety for a long time; it ebbs and flows, some moments in life are much harder than others. Some days I face my ‘normal levels,’ usually surrounding social situations. And then there are times where I spend months in a constant battle of wills with my own brain, phrases like ‘self-care’ and ‘I’m just tired’ forever on the tip of my tongue. As I write this, I can feel the squiggles inside squirming. I am jumbled up and desperately hoping I can keep my head above water. I’m writing this in hopes that I can bleed some of these emotions away; if I can capture them with words and release them into the world, diluted and harmless- then perhaps I may find a moment of peace. Perhaps I will be able to sleep for just one night.

If you don’t know what it feels like to see your own worst enemy in your eyes; then I am thankful. I hope you never do. But I sincerely hope that you remember those like me who do their best, even when it isn’t good enough. It is exhausting to spend your day hiding your monsters and your nights trying to slay your demons. It is exhausting when you lose power over your own thoughts, over the very things that make you who you are. It is exhausting to always say ‘I’m sorry’ over things you can’t control.

I had many reasons today to be anxious; I have been feeling that shadow creeping over me for some time now. I knew that today would be difficult. And yet, do you want to know what pushed me over the edge into a full blown attack? Keep in mind that I know it will sound silly; as I said, I am well aware when my fears and anxieties aren’t rational. But I can’t stop them. The little barb that managed to rip open the storm clouds overhead was a tiny thing- I finished my book and didn’t have another one to start.

At face value, it’s comical really. But the truth behind it is a bit deeper. My books are my escape hatch out of a world that I can’t control and into a realm that makes sense. There is order in my books, I feel grounded in them. They give me something to cling to in a world that sometimes appears far too foreign to me. They are my touchstone. They distract my brain when it wants to scream and wail; silencing these damned thoughts and giving me a respite from the anxiety that plagues me. When I feel the pressure that foreshadows an anxiety attack, I dive into the pages of another story to keep my brain from focusing on those imaginary little demons it conjures. When that life preserver was ripped away, I found myself drowning again without the hint of land in sight. My brain started screaming, and I was brought down to my knees.

That’s what it’s like; that’s how frustrating and irrational it is. I am normally a strong person who can carry the weight of my own little world, and yet when anxiety strikes all rationality goes out the window. I can be knocked to the ground by a missing book, by a ringing phone, by an oddly-phrased compliment. Anxiety and panic can be debilitating; though many don’t fully grasp what it means for those of us who continually struggle day after day. For those of you who do not face this battle, be thankful. I am so glad you will not find yourself in these trenches. But please, have compassion for those of us you find here struggling. To my brothers and sisters in arms; you are brave, you are strong, and you are not alone. We are in this together, allies in this war against ourselves.

When the water rises, you swim (finding beauty where you didn’t look)

You must find beauty where you would least expect it if you want to survive in this world. It’s okay to fall under the heartache, the pain, the anger, the frustrations- but you must always find the strength to search out your reason to stand again. You must open your eyes and search for the beauty that will inspire you to move forward. It will always be there, though you might not always be ready to see it. 

It doesn’t happen very often that the world tosses a perfect analogy into your lap. When the fortuitous hands of fate decide to gift you with a little ironic gem, it is best to grin and say thank you. This past weekend- I found my figurative self in literal nature.

There’s a park by my house that I don’t go to all that often. It’s called Cottonwood Beach because it has a small sandy shore right along the river. During summer, this is where everyone pretends they are lounging alongside the ocean, though we are several hours from it. There’s history along this river; Lewis and Clark traveled through here, and you will see statues and monuments peppered all along their trail. In fact, they even wrote about this particular little beach after spending six days camping there during March and April of 1806. It was in the running to be the winter camp for the group of explorers, but eventually it lost to Fort Clatsop. To commemorate their stay here, we have a park named in their honor, as well as beautiful monuments and statues placed in memory of their fearless pursuit into the unknown. Large cement canoes sit along the upper shore, there’s the outline of an old post, and beautiful walkways to enjoy.





Now, it’s no secret that I’ve been struggling with my anxiety issues lately, and if I’m honest, I’ve been feeling that persistent burn in virtually all areas of my life. On Saturday, I was starting to feel like I was drowning, slipping under the frustration that I was letting envelope my life. So I did the one thing I know to do in those situations. I called my sister and we went to the park.

What I find so ironic, is that I reached out because I felt that I was figuratively slipping underwater. And then we ventured off to this little park on a beautiful 90 degree day- and this little spot was literally underwater. That’s right- after a few weeks with very little rain, we still managed to flood. Nature has an odd sense of humor, but for once- the irony to be found in this analogy hit me right between the eyes. There was no missing this nudge. 


At first I was a bit annoyed- what were we going to do now? Of course, it was just my luck that the one time I try to go here, there really is no ‘here’ to go to. Well, my dear friends, if there is any lesson you should take from me it is this: if you can’t beat them, join them.


Instead of turning back around like everyone else, we waded in and headed for the little patch of dry ground on the other side. There is something thrilling when you follow an underwater trail (even a gravel one that is only headed straight). We enjoyed the fact that for once the place was calm and quiet. We sat in the partially sunken cement canoes and listened to the calming melody of the river. We watched three different families of geese paddling around right beside us. It turned out to be completely and utterly beautiful. This misadventure that I nearly chalked up to another moment of bad timing and rotten luck wound up being the salve I needed to soothe the panicked voice inside. When I climbed into that cement boat, I was climbing into my own personal life preserver. I found solace in the beauty of a nature that cannot be contained by human elements. I found a moment of clarity in a world that is always running so damn fast.





Sometimes when it seems like the world is turning it’s back on you, when nothing is going right and all you can do is throw up your hands and yell ‘of course!’ Perhaps you should take a moment to stop and really look around. The world could be holding out your saving grace- you just don’t recognize it. There is beauty in every moment, there is an adventure in every story- you just have to find it my friends. I found mine sitting in the bottom of a cement canoe in the middle of a flooded park- the last place I would have thought to look. Imagine how many gifts the world has offered you, and you just walked by without recognizing them. We are guilty of this, but we do not to be. I must always remind myself to slow down and tilt my head so I can see the world from a new angle. It’s all about perspective, my friends. Don’t be afraid to look- you will be disappointed.

Crossed-Wires: Anxiety in Overdrive

Sometimes I think that whoever wired my brain used the wrong schematic. They took the plans and flipped them upside down. They crossed the red wire with the blue wire, and thus I was born- an odd little duck in a world full of geese. I am a collection of juxtaposed ideals tied together with a pretty bow of contradiction. I am an enigma, even to myself some days.

For a long time I didn’t know that there were different types of anxiety. I saw one of my best friends fight every day to simply function the way that many of us take for granted. I knew what a battle it was for her to just get out of bed, get dressed, and make it through a day at the office. I still remember the last time she willingly engaged in a conversation with me- where she was convinced that I was only speaking to her out of pity, she refused to believe that I genuinely cared. I know what a battle with debilitating, soul-crushing anxiety looks like. But I did not fit that description. It felt disingenuous to claim a seat within those ranks. So there I was, struggling with an enemy that had no face, no name; a phantom that perhaps existed only for me. 

I’ve always known that I reacted a bit differently to the world than other people. The older I got, the more insistent my internal dialogue became. A small part of me was aware that I was being overly-critical, that I was looking too deeply, that I was causing problems where none existed. But I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t self-correct my thoughts and my fears. I was a runaway train slipping off the rails. And truthfully, that’s a feeling that has never completely gone away.

I was always envious of those people who appeared to flit through life so effortlessly; the ones who could make random conversations with perfect strangers. I was jealous of the people who were good at making friends, the ones who didn’t turn bright red at the drop of a hat. I wanted to be like them; I wanted to crack a joke without getting tongue-tied over the punch line. I wanted to be able to order something in the drive-thru without rehearsing it to myself before the person’s voice broke out over the speaker asking me what I would like today. I wanted to simply not feel a rise of panic inside when I saw someone approach me. Truthfully, I think it’s a bit of a wonder that I have managed to maintain friendships at this point. After all, it took me an entire year to really even start speaking to people where I worked. They politely say I was just shy; but that’s a rather simplified answer. It takes me a long time to get to know people because I can’t get out of my own head.

I can put on a smiling face, I can make conversation when it’s required of me; you might not even notice the way I nervously tap my fingers together as we talk, or the way my toes bop in my shoes. Perhaps you think I’m trying to flirt when I play with my hair- not realizing that it’s just another outlet for that fight-or-flight energy that takes over my body. Since my rapidly firing neurons can’t seem to distinguish a pleasant conversation from a life-threatening lion attack; I have to find these inconspicuous outlets for my energy.

I will berate myself for days if I stutter or stumble on a word. I will replay a conversation over and over again in vivid detail if your reaction to my comments wasnt what I had anticipated. I will dissect every word and every gesture, I will tear myself apart trying to find the deficiency in our interaction. Because I know it’s not you- it has to be me. And next time we speak, you may wonder why I appear more guarded, why I look to the ground so often- it’s because inside I’m insecure and, honestly, terrified that I will mess up again.

You’ll probably see me on my phone during down time; sitting in my car before work listening to an audiobook while playing a game, or reading my kindle while waiting for dinner to cook. Perhaps you’ll catch me scrolling through social media while I wait at the doctor’s office. You may dismiss it as the actions of a millennial who simply can’t unplug from the technology she wears on her hip. But if I were honest- I would tell you that my reasons are a bit different than you would expect. I don’t do it because I’m incapable of unplugging; I do it because I’m trying to tether my anxieties to the ground so they can’t carry my away. Idleness is dangerous for me; when my brain has too much free time, it starts going down dark alleys and jumping on trick staircases. When I have too much time on my hands, then the internal panic is able to catch up with me. I’ll suffocate on the fear if I’m not careful. So I stay busy, I tread water because I’m afraid I’ll drown if I slow down. I am constantly moving because I know what it’s like to fall down that rabbit hole; and it terrifies me. 

When life starts to overwhelm me, then I start to lose myself in more tasks and random occupations. For example, since January of this year I have read over 115 books. That isn’t because I’m an avid reader with a personal challenge- it’s because reading is one of my outlets; when the world goes wild I get lost in a book.

Sometimes I think that’s why I love writing so much; it’s a sense of control I can feel when so little in life makes sense. I can edit and rewrite my character’s words until they shine. I can choose their flaws and their reactions. I can decide what battles they will face. I can write the story I want to read, I can create the people I want to know. For just a few fleeting pages I can become someone else. I don’t have to be my own worst enemy. And for once, all of those worst case scenarios that dance through my brain and torment me- they come in handy. Because worst case scenarios are a writer’s best fodder. I can take my own fears and construct something dangerous and enthralling. I can take the worst of me and force it to serve a beautiful purpose.

Anxiety is not romantic, my neurotic moments are not charming or adorable, contrary to what the movies would like you to believe. I look for the silver lining because I have to; because if I thought this internal pain and struggle was completely pointless- I would probably lose my mind completely. Telling myself that it might somehow assist my creative process is how I have learned to accept it. I can’t change the way that my brain is wired. I cannot convince my innate responses that I am not in life-threatening danger when I am ordering a burger at Red Robin. I am who I am. Some days I am okay with this, and some days it makes me want to pound the ground with my fists and cry.

For some people anxiety is a palpable shroud that hangs around their shoulders. For others, it is hidden behind smiles and avid productivity. Some people can’t get out of bed in the morning, and others can’t slow down in fear that they will fall apart. I move constantly; I stay busy and focused from the moment I wake up until I drop to sleep in the middle of a page. Its bittersweet to always be moving; and yet I miss the days when I would just sit there and breathe deeply, focusing only on myself and the way my body moved in the world. I miss viewing downtime as a luxury, not something to be afraid of. I constantly make to-do lists to get me through the day; because I find comfort in having a plan. It will consist of little things; read the paper, check emails, read ten pages, ten minutes on Facebook, research, write for 30 minutes. I intentionally put more on the page than I can accomplish because that means I won’t risk having extra time at the end of the day. 

You will never know the struggles a person is facing, or the reasons they act the way that they do- not unless you really watch what they are doing, not just listening to what they are saying. We need more compassion in the world, we need to remind ourselves that we are all doing the best that we can with the tools that we have available. Just because a person does not respond to the world the way that you would expect doesn’t mean that they aren’t still going through more than you can see on the surface. Sometimes we can’t help our eccentricities. For those who suffer through the various forms of anxiety, simple daily activities can seem like insurmountable obstacles. Just because a person isn’t falling apart on the outside doesn’t mean that they aren’t still fighting those same demons. I look like I have it all together- but my big secret is that I don’t. I have to focus on one day at a time, I have to fight for every step. My anxiety and I are inextricably intertwined. As much as I like to pretend it is some other entity that influences me- I know that it is just another facet of the woman I am. I was wired differently; but hopefully I will be a better person for it.

Why am I Hiding?

Last spring I accidentally sent my fiancé’s brother a picture that was meant for my fiancé. Now, before your eyes grow too wide at the thought of it- let me preface this conversation by saying that it wasn’t a ‘bad’ picture or anything like that. It wasn’t something that I would be embarrassed for people to see. I had decided on a whim to get back out and start running again with the dog, and I was proud of myself. So I did what any self respecting 20-something would do, and I took a selfie.

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He jokingly responded that at least it wasn’t something more risqué, and in my usual fashion I made a half-serious, half-jesting comment that the reason I was working out was so that I would feel comfortable sending one like that. Now, I have known Josh since I was about fifteen years old- well over ten years, although there were a few in the middle where we didn’t really have anything to do with one another. We’ve always had a lot of the same friends, but we were never particularly close. We’ve always just joked with each other. But this time was different, instead of taking my comment as a half-hearted joke, he looked past to the underlying meaning and made a comment. From there we had an actual conversation: we were both in the process of trying to get ourselves in good shape and find a place where we were comfortable in our own skin. We both had our insecurities, but neither of us really realized them about the other. For once we both understood that we were feeling exactly the same, underneath all of the jokes. At the end of the conversation he said something that struck me: he said that was probably the first time I had ever opened up to him about anything. I was shocked at the truth of it- how was it possible that I had known him over ten years and we had never really had a conversation of substance?

I’ve always been a private person, but I never realized how truly guarded I am. There are only a few people in my life who know me inside and out, who can tell what I’m thinking before I ever say a word. It wasn’t always like this. I used to be such an open book, but somewhere along the way I closed the pages and tied the cover down so no one could see the content. I remember in high school- once people really started talking to me they would always say ‘you are nothing like I expected.’ I used to pride myself on that; I always knew that my reputation didn’t match the girl inside. Outside I was a ‘good girl,’ one of those quiet straight-A types that don’t have any sharp edges. Inside I was tougher, a rocker chick who was vastly misunderstood. As I grew up my different sides started to merge, and now I’d like to think that I am a more well-rounded person.

This conversation bothered me enough that today I am still thinking about it, months later. Mainly because I see how true it is. I’ve always prided myself on being honest; but is there true honesty when you are constantly hiding? I don’t mean to, I guess I just assume that people wont really care what I have to say. I guess after all is said and done, I am still like that little girl who is afraid of rejection. It is easier to be rejected for a public persona when I know that isn’t actually me than it is to be rejected for the person underneath. How many times do I share little anecdotal stories instead of spilling the truth?

If I were to die tomorrow, how many people would know who I really was, and how many people would know the face that I put on in the morning? It’s not that I’m being fake, I am who I am. But I’m not being deep. I’m not sharing all of who I am or what I do. Take my writing for example: it is a huge part of my life, it is my heart and soul, it is the thing that drives me. But I can probably count on one hand the number of people who know that it is even a hobby of mine.

So who am I? And why aren’t I more open? Those are the true questions, and to be honest- I don’t know if I have a complete answer. When you brush past the superficial responses of what I do for a living and what my hobbies are- who is underneath? I’m just a girl who is always trying to be better. I’m a girl who can’t process the world without a pen in her hand. I’m a socially awkward goofball who can dad-joke and nerd talk with the best of them. I’m opinionated, but I don’t like making waves unless I know I can trust you with my thoughts. I don’t make friends easily, mainly because I’m painfully shy, but when I do I am fiercely loyal. I am the kind of girl who refuses to go to the movies unless I can get popcorn too. I would choose beer over wine any day of the week. I find solace in books, living a thousand lives through fictional characters. I am a hopeless romantic wrapped in the hard candy shell of a realist. I am an enduring optimist who will run over to refill your cup if it’s half empty. I’m a terrible liar. I smile even when I feel like crying. I do a lot of the wrong things for the right reasons, and occasionally stumble across the right things for all of the wrong reasons. I am an enigma, a world of contradictions wrapped up in a Harry Potter t-shirt. I am a girl who has found her happiness, even though she is completely clueless half of the time. I am a girl still figuring out who she is, and for tonight, that will be good enough. The key though? Learning to let others see what I have discovered on this adventure. No more hiding behind smiles and polite comments. Love me or hate me, I want people to know me.

I Will Never be ‘Normal’ (and how I inadvertently discovered ice cream tacos)

I have always had an idea in my head of the type of woman that I wanted to become. I pushed aside all of my personal phobias and eccentricities; I don’t know if I thought I would grow out of them, or if I believed that I could simply will them into nonexistence. If I stopped acknowledging my flaws, perhaps they would just disappear. I knew that the person I was didn’t align with the bold woman that I envisioned to grow into. I was going to be that shooting star; a bright, intelligent woman with style to boot. I was going to be clever, I wouldn’t be afraid to dance in a crowded room, I would jump at any and all opportunities. I would have a thousand stories for the hundreds of off-the-wall experiences I had. I was going to be fun, sparkly and spontaneous. Impromptu midnight drive to the coast so we can watch the sunrise? Bring it on. Skinny dipping at the lake- why the hell not. Learning a new dance in a room full of stranger? I thought you’d never ask.

I didn’t expect to be the way that I am, wrapped up in my own little shell like a turtle. I didn’t anticipate that my tongue would still tie at the most inconvenient moments, forcing my face to turn ketchup red as I scurried away to internally berate myself. I didn’t think that twenty-seven year-old me would still be intimately familiar with the flash of panic that raced through my nervous system at the mere prospect of being left alone in the room with another person to partake in that dreaded act known as small talk. I didn’t think my hands would still get clammy and my voice would get quiet when I made a comment and didn’t get immediate responses. I didn’t think that adult Katie would still be fighting the same demons that I raged against ten years ago. No, I did not think that these would be daily struggles in my life.

I am a master in the arts of self-sabotage. I am a creature deeply in love with her comforts. Tonight I knew exactly what my plans were going to be when I got home from work. I was just settling into the rare treat of a hot bubble bath coupled with a good book I’ve waited all day to read. And then a wrench came flying, smashing right through my meticulously well-laid plans. My fiancé knocked on the door and let me know that his friend reached out and invited us to meet them at a cool foodie place over in Portland. And we would have to leave right away. You see, his best friend got engaged last weekend, and today his fiancé got a promotion at work- they wanted to celebrate, and they wanted to share that moment with us. I am ashamed to admit that I actually hesitated. One part of me was bouncing up and down screaming, ‘yes, it’s Friday night, let’s go do this! Where are my boots?’

But then there is the other voice. It’s a quiet but persistent little creature. It twists my stomach in knots as it stand awkwardly in the corner, tugging on my sleeve and whispering to me that it’s not a good idea- I’ll just say something stupid, there will be those awful moments of complete silence and wouldn’t it be so much better to just ignore the entire world while I hide with my bubbles and book? This is the voice that takes my self-esteem, crumples it up into a little ball like it’s nothing ore than a piece of tarnished notebook paper, tosses it on the ground and then drives a Zamboni overtop of it. Twice. And then takes a match and lights it on fire for good measure- all with an apologetic little frown. If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Inside Out,’ I like to picture Sadness- turning everything she touches blue. That’s what my little voice is like, she is the unofficial face for all of my anxieties.

The rational part of me understands that my fears are generally unfounded, but emotions can easily overpower any and all rational thought. It is a battle that I am not always well equipped to fight. I had hoped that if I started pushing myself out of my comfort zone, that the fear would stop and I could learn how to function like a relatively well-adjusted adult. But alas, that is not how this war is won. It must be fought one battle at a time. I have to learn to push myself out that door no matter how many times that little voice inside tried to throw herself on the ground kicking and screaming at me to turn around and go put my pajamas back on like a good little girl.

And yet tonight, I took a deep breath and said okay. Because I knew it was the right thing to do, I knew that I would have fun once I got out of my own head, and I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t. You see, I have one fear that is actually bigger than my fear of all forms of social interaction- and that would be the fear of watching my anxieties slowly erode all of the relationships that mean anything to me. Because sadly, that has happened in the past. This is a tragic tale I am all too familiar with, a lesson I have learned too late- one that I do not wish to breathe fresh life into.

So I put on my cute jacket and my new necklace. And I started typing this post in the car as my fiancé loudly sang his new favorite song ‘The Death of a Bachelor’ as we drove to Portland. And you knew what happened? We had a great time. We hung out, we talked, we laughed, we ate some awesome food (including an ice cream taco- what? Yes, you heard me right- a waffle cone ‘taco shell’ with ice cream inside, drizzled with magic shell chocolate sauce to keep the whole mess contained). Tonight we did what normal people do. And it felt fantastic. Because I forced myself to get out of my own way. Because I chose to control my anxiety instead of letting it dictate my life for me. And that little voice inside? She was too busy happily munching ice cream to poke at me.

Tonight I won a small battle in a war that I have to fight every single day. And you know what? I’m proud of myself. Because for one night I did what everyone else does, and I enjoyed myself. Growing up I always had an idea of the type of woman that I wanted to be. But it wasn’t realistic. I am not that perky picture-perfect spontaneous woman. I like to have at least a semblance of control over the situations that I put myself. But that doesn’t mean that I have to hide in my house and avoid the world. It just means that I have to try a little bit harder to get myself out that door. It means that I have to force a smile until I start to feel a real one forming. It means that I have to laugh and joke until I feel the tension ease from my shoulders, until the sickening knots in my stomach begin to untangle. It means that I have to be stronger than I ever imagined, it means that I have to fight. And you know what? I am so proud of the woman that I have become. I am not the woman that I had always envisioned, but I am stronger than she ever could have been. I am awkward and quirky, I am nerdy and passionate, I dance even though I have no rhythm. But I force myself to step out of my comfort zone to truly live my life every single day. So yes, I am proud of the neurotic mess that I am. I am unapologetically me- and that is the best battle I have ever won.

 

Don’t Let Fear Rule You (The Social Anxiety Win)

I came to the realization a long time ago that my social anxiety will never be ‘cured.’ It is as much a part of me as my freckles, the scar on my lip, or my affinity for Harry Potter. Much like my fear of heights, I can face it, I can find a work-around; but the fear itself does not change. There are no magical solutions that will make me forget to be anxious. There is nothing that will stop my heart from racing, nothing that will keep me from analyzing every word I say and every move they make. No, these things will not change. But I have to fight through them anyways. Some days I am prepared for the battle, and some days I am holding that white flag high above my head (or more appropriately- on the door that I have locked myself behind).

I can’t even begin to explain the frustration that starts to build up after a long week of uncomfortable moments with people that could be fantastic to get to know- if I could only get out of my own way. Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I would be without it; who would I have become if this wasn’t always following behind me like a damn shadow? I have never been a big fan of ‘normal,’ and in most situations I don’t even know what that word is supposed to mean. But there are days where I would give anything to just feel normal. I wish I could understand what it’s like to step into a room and feel genuinely excited about the prospect of meeting new people, not terrified that these new people might not like me. Is it kind of like walking into a library full of new books? Full of possibilities, and promises of new adventures? What is it like when fear doesn’t rule over you with an iron fist? What is it like when you can walk into a party and not feel like you are stepping into your own personal battlefield? Tell me friends, what does it feel like to be normal?

I’ve been feeling closed off the past few weeks, no matter how hard I’ve been trying at this ‘social’ thing. The distance has been palpable, and I haven’t really known what to do about it. I keep trying- I’ve been making plans, racking my brain to initiate conversations, smiled when I wanted to turn tail and run. I even made plans for an overnight trip with another couple. I have been avoiding all thoughts of this potential adventure, because otherwise I might just start having a panic attack right here where I sit. Surprisingly, my efforts have actually been paying off- I was even able to hold a few lengthy conversations with a superior at work who has traditionally made me feel notoriously awkward. That’s right my friends- full conversations with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But all week it felt like work, desperately grasping at conversation starters. So when Saturday hit, I had mixed feelings. We were invited to a BBQ by a friend. There were only going to be a couple of people that I knew, and, more importantly, I was going to be meeting the wife of one of my fiancé’s best friends for the first time. She is a master at the ‘girl thing,’ it’s what she does for a living, and I am a twenty seven year old who still hasn’t completely figured out eye liner. I know she’s nice, but would we really have anything in common? I wanted to make a good impression, but I was nervous- very nervous. As it turns out, my anxiety was unwarranted- she wasn’t able to make it, and therefore I was left to my own devices with the other strangers.

There are rare instances where you just hit it off with people and all of the awkwardness quickly goes out the window. BBQ night turned into one of those nights, and for the first time in a long time I got a taste of what it felt like to be a normal social person. There were seven of us total, which, as it turns out, is a pretty good number to keep conversations going without it getting too overwhelming. It was interesting- these were seven very different people with very different life stories and experiences. We had some military, all but two had undergone some major relocations throughout their lives. Everyone had stories, and everyone felt comfortable telling them. It was liberating (and the steady supply of beer didn’t exactly hurt my social game). I was able to talk without too much fear of what people thought, I told stories and people actually laughed. I felt like I was a part of something; a rare moment that I crave with all my soul.

Perhaps I am not as far gone as I thought I was. Perhaps its just a matter of finding people that you don’t have to force a conversation with. Perhaps its simply a matter of learning to relax and let go of those internal filters. Maybe the stars aligned just right or I was abducted by aliens and they implanted these really nice memories instead. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I went. And perhaps next adventure, the terrifyingovernight trip, wont be as scary as I have feared. There’s only one way to find out: take a deep breath and jump.