The other day Tony and I were talking about a woman he used to know who reminded him of Lorelei Gilmore (from the show Gilmore Girls). He described this woman as both looking a little like Lorelei and possessing her same breezy optimism.
“I wish I had breezy optimism,” I said.” You know, instead of…debilitating fear.”
We both burst out laughing. If you’ve ever thought much about humor, you know that juxtaposing two starkly contrasting ideas can be funny. So can being unexpectedly blunt—especially when what you’re saying is absolutely true.
A lot of the time, I feel overwhelmed and even paralyzed by anxiety. It feels sort of like living in a world of darkness when you’re really, really, really afraid of the dark. My specific brand of anxiety is mostly socially focused, which means the scariest times for me involve interacting with other people. Certain situations are fine when the expectations of the interaction are predetermined and very straightforward or when I feel really comfortable. Other situations are not so fine. I can spend an hour planning exactly what I want to say before picking up the phone to make a call. Then, after dialing, I hang up, too scared to actually speak. Other difficult situations arise when I find myself in any sort of spotlight, like when I have to say something in front of a group of people or make small talk at some sort of social gathering.
Or when I publish a book.
June 20, 2017. Superstar‘s publication date. It’s less than two weeks away now. The book that I’ve been working on for nearly a decade is going to be on shelves in actual stores. People will take it up to a cash register and pay money for it. UPS drivers will bring boxes to people’s doors and the book will be inside. I got a box like this the other day. I saw the publisher’s return address, and with hands shaking, I opened it up to find the first two copies of Superstar. This thing that began as nothing more than a fleeting idea was now real. And I was holding it.
When people hear that my book is coming out, they’re always so supportive. They congratulate me. They say how exciting it all is. I smile. I nod. “Oh yes. It’s so exciting,” I say. And I mean every word because of course I’m excited. And so very proud. And a bunch of other really positive emotions.
But I’m also terrified.
Of what exactly? Um…everything? What will it be like when I’m in a bookstore reading my book? Or talking to someone about my book? What if they ask me a question and I can’t think of anything to say? What will it be like when I’m signing the books? What if I mess up my signature or misspell a person’s name? Or even worse, what if someone I know comes up to me and wants the book personalized, but I’m so nervous I completely forget their name? Or something worse than that. What if there’s something way worse that I haven’t even thought of yet?
In the scope of the world’s problems, I know these fears may seem trivial. And if one or even all of them happened, I know I’d probably survive unscathed. But as soon as anxiety enters the room, my ability to reason flies right out the window. Anxiety isn’t rational—like the dream I had last night where I was doing a bookstore visit and forgot to wear pants. I have never forgotten to wear pants, not even once. But I woke up this morning in a heart-racing panic that even now, hours later, hasn’t completely subsided. Once anxiety has a firm grip, it’s next to impossible to pry it’s hot, sticky fingers from my mind. Thoughts race into other thoughts until I’m pretty much convinced that every bad thing that could possibly happen will happen. Or, if I could just make myself check my email, I’d find out that all the bad things have already happened.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
It’s a long road from debilitating fear to breezy optimism. In fact, I haven’t yet been able to find a path from one to the other. If I had, I’d already be living like a Lorelei. But I’m not. I’m living like a Mandy, who writes scripts before she attempts to make phone calls and who skips social events because she doesn’t know what to say to the people there and who sometimes (on the worst of the worst days) has trouble getting up in the morning. But despite how difficult things can be, I’ve grown to accept this anxiety as part of who I am. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it. That doesn’t mean I’m not getting help or working on ways to ease my anxiety, because goodness knows, life would be a whole lot easier without it. All that accepting my anxiety means is I acknowledge the fact that without this struggle, I would be a different person. It’s a part of me—a very affecting part.
But at the same time, it’s also just one part. Because along with all that darkness comes the rest of who I am.
None of us can be defined by any one thing. Not me. Not you. And especially not our characters. In a review of Superstar on Booklist Online, the reviewer Carolyn Phelan said: By the time the word autism appears, readers are accustomed to seeing the world from Lester’s point of view, a fine vantage point for getting to know anyone’s good points, foibles, and dreams.
Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. Our disorders and dreams. Our fears and triumphs. Our loves and losses. It’s ALL these things coming together that make us who we are.
It’s also these things that connect us to each other.
Because no matter where I am on this journey, no matter how hard and dark things are, I need only look up to see that I’m not the only one walking this path. I’m not alone here, and that makes everything (even forgetting to wear pants) a little less scary.