I’m headed to Ireland and Italy by myself in less than 2 weeks, and while many people in my life know of the excitement and joy surrounding this trip for me, few understand the larger and deeper import of it in my life’s trajectory. I actually had planned and paid for an almost identical trip six years ago. I had purchased the tickets on a whim over the summer of my 27th year, in celebration of starting a new job and letting go of a few painful relationships.
Most people don’t know that this trip existed, because I never took it.
A few months after starting my new job, experiencing a break up, losing other key relationships in my life and beginning therapy (again) I went through a debilitating break down, one that, at the time, I didn’t think I would make it through. It began with heart jolting panic attacks, highlighted primarily by the paralyzing certainty that I was losing my mind. “I’m going crazy. Oh my God, I’m going insane,” the words would race through my head, building to a deafening crescendo. And as the panic attacks progressed, even when I wasn’t knee deep in its grip, I felt my connection to reality was weakening. I began to disassociate from my body, feeling that I was only inhabiting the upper-most part of my forehead. I remember looking at a spoon and thinking to myself “this is a spoon?” and feeling no actual connection to that as a concept. It’s actually rather impossible to describe.
As I battled these panic attacks, I struggled to keep it together at work, to perform at the extreme pace that I was used to pushing myself to meet. I felt isolated and alone, as the only employee of a small program at a large university. My world until that point had always consisted of a primary relationship with a man, a best friend and my family. I was operating without all three, as the first two had exited my life and, through some really bad therapy, I lost my connection to my childhood. I couldn’t shore up my therapist’s judgment of my life against the reality I felt I had experienced. My brain felt scrambled and a “does not compute” malfunction finally severed my connection to everything I thought I knew to be true.
I stopped eating. I couldn’t sleep. And within a few weeks, a debilitating depression hit. I can’t quite describe what it’s like to go from being the kind of person that can run an entire organization, knit a scarf before noon, drive her sisters back and forth to school every day AND get dinner on the table, to being someone that literally could not run a brush through her hair. When I say getting out of bed was impossible, I can’t mean that any more literally. The will it took to swing my legs over the side of the bed sent me into tears, and my hand would lifelessly hold the hairbrush as I considered what it would take for me to raise it to my head and run it even once through my hair.
I felt broken, ripped apart in pieces. I walked around feeling the weight of 10 x-ray blankets bolting me to the floor. I remember one of my sisters, a nurse, sitting with me at Krakatoa in Golden Hill trying to coax me to eat avocado smashed on toast. I looked at it and said “there’s no way I can eat all of that.” She took one slice away and said, “try just one.” And somehow that felt easier. She later told me she did that with her patients because for some reason smaller pieces felt more doable. And so we did smaller pieces of everything.
My dad flew out from Virginia during the worst of it and stayed with me for two weeks as I went on disability leave. His voice was my tether back to reality. I found a passable psychiatrist, got on anti-depressants and the weight started to lift. Sleep was still difficult, and the lack of connection to things I loved was still tenuous. At one point my sister and I sat down and wrote a list of all the things and people I once loved. We would look at the list together often and she would reassure me “You’ll love them again one day, I promise.”
So I held onto that. One of the items on the list was my upcoming trip. I would imagine myself walking along the windswept shores of Ireland, or eating an enormous plate of pasta in a bustling Italian city. The panic and depression would subside and I knew if I could just make it through the next few months, I would be there.
This breakdown, which I’ve come to now call a “break away” – a break away from old parts of myself, from an old reality of my life, from an old identity that was entirely based on other people – happened six years ago this month. My trip was scheduled for January. But on the day of my trip, instead of rolling my suitcase out the door to an airport cab, I sank to the floor of my bedroom, crawled into my closet, and rocked myself as I watched the minutes tick by until I knew the flight had taken off. Plain and simple, I was just too overcome by panic and fear to go.
And so the last six years of my life have been a journey of learning to live my life for me. And that often took some rather nasty turns, and in some ways I still lived the life I thought others wanted me to through my career and caring for my family. I also rebelled against it in other ways, blowing through a rash of often damaging encounters with men and generally punishing my body through a lifestyle not meant to nurture and cherish it.
When I booked my trip this time around, I wasn’t actually aware that I would be embarking on it on the anniversary of my break away. And as my departure date has gotten closer, I’ve truly begun to feel this cycle in my life coming to a close and I realize how absolutely perfect the timing is. I’m taking the trip now I couldn’t take six years ago because I was so bound by fear.
And now, for the first time in my life that I can really ever remember, I’m not afraid.
So on this trip I’m letting go of so many things, but at the root of it is fear: I’m letting go of the fear that I’ll break away again, letting go of the fear that I am somehow intrinsically broken, letting go of the fear that someday I’ll be back in that nightmare again, desperately trying to crawl my way out. I know it will not. I’m letting go of the fear of being myself; of the fear of not being enough, which somehow existed at the same time as the fear of being too much. I’m letting go of the fear of letting love in. I’m letting go of the fear that I will hurt others the way that I’ve been hurt. I’m letting go of the fear that life will be too painful to live.
At its core, I guess I’m letting go of the fear of actually living.
And in all the space carved out like a deep basin by this pain, I am creating love. I’m creating a deep, burnishing pool of warm, glowing light. I’m invoking grace with a touch of wonder and awe. I’m igniting a torch, and extending it to share the light and to pass on the spark to whoever’s eyes meet mine.