I hiked alone today. Not alone alone. There were the people who threw a stick in the river and the dog who jumped in after it. The woven-poncho wearing twenty-somethings who were disappointed they couldn’t actually enter the old abandoned mine. The grandma, the granddaughter, and the little girl’s young mother who never stopped talking. The girls carrying fluorescent hula hoops. The couple in galoshes. The man with the country music blaring from his backpack. I wasn’t exactly alone.
But I was.
Today was the second day of my solo retreat at Turkey Run State Park, a retreat I’d planned in an attempt to get a bunch of writing done on my novel, and to, you know, fix my life and stuff. I’m not exactly sure what wisdom or clarity I expected to gain in a day and a half, but whatever it was, I wasn’t getting it. I didn’t feel any better at all. In fact, I felt the same. Or maybe even worse. And if I wasn’t feeling better here, if getting away from regular life wasn’t fixing my problems, then what was the point in staying? I should probably just pack my stuff and leave early, like first thing tomorrow morning.
I called Tony and explained the situation. I told him how I was coming home and how we’d see each other two whole days early and how great that would be.
Without missing a beat, he asked me why it was so hard for me to be alone.
This might have been a probing question for some people. But I knew exactly why. When I get quieter, the voice gets louder—sometimes unbearably loud. And spending the next two days alone with the voice, trying to figure out how to quiet it down for good, felt like more than I could handle.
Forget about getting better, Tony told me. Just do something for you. Something you enjoy.
I think I literally said, “Pshaa” and rolled my eyes. First of all, what would I do? And second of all, how would that possibly help anything?
He said to try—just to stay here and try.
I’m all in favor of women (or anyone for that matter) not listening to their partners or parents or friends or the world when those external messages don’t align with their own values and desires. But when you get to a point in your life where anxiety is so pervasive the first words out of your mouth in the morning are: oh crap, another day, you learn to recognize that maybe your inclinations are not always the healthiest.
So I agreed to stay. I sat there on the bed, alone. And terrified.
I know I’m not the only person who finds being alone difficult. Over three centuries ago, Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and theologian (of triangle and wager fame), supposedly said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
It did make sense. Being able to sit quietly in a room alone (without stuffing your face with family size bag of Doritos or starting a Netflix marathon or ending up under the covers, sobbing) does seem to indicate the ability to accept things as they are. And the act of acceptance can diffuse problems (or make them feel less like problems at all). But recognizing a truth like this is a whole lot easier than actually putting it into practice.
How am I supposed to accept things as they are when everything feels so scary? How did wise old Pascal do it? Maybe his life in seventeenth century France was perfect.
I skim down through his Wikipedia article and discover that no, his life wasn’t perfect. Far from it. In fact, my wise old friend died at 39, which is only a year and a half older than me. I scroll back up, passing over the math and religion sections, in search of the more important stuff—did he have a partner, someone he shared his life with? Did he have children? A faithful dog? Who loved this man? Who did Blaise Pascal leave behind?
Sadly, from what I can tell, it seems the answer is no one. Pascal, in fact, was the one who got left.
I think about death a lot, probably more than most thirty-seven and a half year olds. When my phone rings, my first thought is usually: who died? Maybe that’s my anxiety. Or maybe my reaction stems from the fact that my dad and grandma are both sick.
I moved home six months ago. I’m now living in the same house I grew up in, spending a good part of every day taking care of people who can no longer take care of themselves. No one forced me to come. No one even asked me to. But I knew my mom couldn’t care for everyone all on her own, so I made the choice—Tony and I made the choice—and came.
You never really know what something is going to be like until you’re doing it. It’s like college or a career or marriage. It’s impossible to grasp the full scope of a situation until you’re smack dab in the middle of it, and by then, it’s usually too late to bail.
I had a friend once who said that we’re not supposed to know how hard things are going to be ahead of time—if we did, no one would ever do anything. But I don’t have to worry about accidentally glancing into a crystal ball and seeing all the difficult days ahead.
When you have anxiety, you don’t need a crystal ball.
Anxiety is my constant companion—never missing an opportunity to remind me of all the things that are wrong with me, all the ways I’ve failed and am going to fail, all the people who are mad at me, and all the horrible things that are about to happen to me and everyone I love. I try to back away, try to close my mind, try escape the slippery spiral that leads me down, down, down to a place where that inevitable final thought emerges.
I knew someone who reached that final thought and never came back. He was younger than Pascal. But unlike the French mathematician, there were a lot of us who loved him, a lot of us he left behind. When it happened, I didn’t understand how a person could do that.
Now I do.
Tony said I should stay. Tony said I should do something I enjoy.
For the past few months, I’ve been working on importing all my photos into one program and backing them up in the cloud. The morning of my retreat, the backup finally finished. Maybe I could start there. With my pictures. So, I took out my computer and began editing. Sunrises. Sunsets. The sky after a storm. Fall. Lots of fall.
Evening became night. Night became the wee hours of the morning. For a while, the voice grew quiet.
I’ve always been a worrier. I’ve always been aware of the worst things that could happen in any given situation, and with this awareness, I felt more prepared, more in control. Not that I was ever really in control—but somehow the worry made me feel safer. While I realize that worrying about everything isn’t an ideal way to go through life, when I was younger, I also managed to hold onto this unwavering optimism that even if the worst should occur, somehow everything would all be okay—somehow I would be okay.
Then, the worst did happen and I wasn’t.
That’s when everything changed. That’s when my comforting pal worry skipped town and her scary older brother anxiety began his calculated, multi-directional assault on my mind. Not only did he make sure I lived in constant fear of the next horrible thing, he also instilled in me this deep-seated belief that when the next horrible thing happened, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I tried to be strong, tried to fight back, tried to shut him out somehow. But his voice was too loud, his safety-in-smallness rhetoric—too convincing. So, anxiety was the one who marched forward.
And I was the one who retreated.
I’m coming upon my last night here. The time that stretched out before me on that second evening, the time that felt like an unbearable eternity, came and went without my conscious mind even registering its passing. I didn’t get a bunch of writing done on my novel, and I didn’t fix my life and stuff. But I did hike. I took pictures and naps. I worked with my photos. And I stayed up all night writing this piece.
Sitting here on this old leather couch, I stare out the third-story window at the leafless treetops and think about home. About how exhausting it is to be a care-taker. About how much I have left to do on my novel. About how paralyzed I feel when the people I love are hurting and there’s nothing I can do to help. As if on cue, anxiety begins yet another attack. But for some reason, this time, I don’t fight back. Or run away. I just keep looking at the trees.
Yes, you are here, I say to him. But I am here, too.
Maybe Pascal wasn’t right after all. Maybe the problem isn’t our inability to sit quietly in a room alone, maybe the problem is that we’re never actually alone. Or maybe Blaise Pascal said these words because he also lived with a voice like mine—a probable notion considering all the people he lost in his short life.
Losing people changes you.
It was after my first loss that anxiety set up camp. And with these next two losses looming on the horizon, anxiety is always there, always happy to take my hand and lead me down that dark spiral.
Actually, always might be a bit too strong a word. Because for most of my hike, especially when I needed to focus on not falling down the hill, anxiety wasn’t there. He wasn’t yapping my ear off when I was writing this essay either. He never comes around when I’m doing my photography or when I’m laughing. These things I love, these things that bring me so fully into the present moment, don’t leave any space for anxiety. And for a while, he’s the one who retreats.
Maybe, at some point in the future, I’ll figure out how to sit quietly in a room alone without anxiety waging an air strike on my mind. But for now, I need to do something a little more active. Like the people playing water fetch with their dog. Or the girls throwing hoops into the air as they hike. Or the guy listening to his music loud enough for everyone on trail four to hear it.
I realize that doing what I love doesn’t cure my anxiety. I know it doesn’t actually fix me. Instead, it does something much more powerful—it transforms me, at least for a little bit, into someone who doesn’t need fixing at all.