My eyes closed.
The room behind my lids darkened to a shade of murky red. The woman’s hushed voice said words like “calm”, and “breathe”, and “slowly.” The cool air tickled my nostrils, filled my lungs, and eventually expanded my belly into a rounded mound of muscular tissue and not much else. As my muscles begged to fall into a heap of relaxation, I found it impossible to release them all at once. While my arm went limp, my temple scrunched so hard my eye squinted even in its closed state.
Shoot, I thought.
Focused attention battled around my mind, bullet points of ideas fighting each other for the spotlight. Just as they do all day and all night, visions of people I know, places I need to be, work projects that hung unfinished, dinners to be made, groceries that needed buying, and the pile of laundry that grew to new heights in our hamper all screamed for my attention. Far worse, they solicited a place in my worries, filling my supposedly calming thoughts with new anxieties. New “what-ifs” swirled like a tornado within my skull, ripping apart the small stake of harmonious land I had managed to secure. With it, the muscles that had gone soft once again stiffened.
Breathe, I thought.
Re-stacking the wooden fence that become my mental boundary, I carefully placed the vertical boards. With deliberation, each thought that remained in the corral was plucked, lifted, and deposited safely on the outside. Never far away, and definitely not invisible through the wooden slats, my mind slowly cleared the square plot of mental real estate again. A worry about my daughter’s upcoming physical therapy went out, but a fear of teaching my next class snuck back in through a widened space between boards. With a patience reserved for small puppies and infants, I put each thought on the outside over and over again. Never completely cleared, my space was finally more decluttered than at any other point of the day.
No judgment, I thought.
The hushed female voice spoke of following the breath, and so I did. I trailed it from the start of each inhale, to its peak, and all the way out to the end. As the last bit of air trickled out, the tiny hairs tickled the end of my nose once again. I wanted to scratch, but remembered the hushed woman’s voice guiding me to simply take notice–not to react. Practicing this discipline with the persistent nose tickle eventually translated into my everyday life. Where anxiety once forced my brain into an automatic, exaggerated response to a situation, I find now I do not always react in such disproportion. Sometimes, I still do. But showing grace for when my mind wanders during my calming sessions has also taught me that grace is allowed in life.
High five, I thought.
For a few beautiful seconds, the calm descended upon my penned mind. Lining the edges of my white picket fence were the anxious-filled thoughts. Mixed amongst these attention-starved, look-at-me kind of thoughts, their more serene counterparts mingled: my husband’s smiling face, the nap I likely would fit in later that day, the new episode of my favorite show waiting for me on Netflix.
No, I thought. This space is not for you either.
My eyes twitched under my lids, unsure of where to look when there was nothing to see. They rolled, probably back toward my forehead and then down against my cheekbones. With no sense of sight, I could not be sure just where they traveled. But it did not matter. I noticed their movement tracking around my eye socket, and I did nothing. Nothing to control them. Nothing to change their natural pull. When my day went on, I noted situations of which I also had no authority–a copier machine broken at work, a daughter who woke up vomiting, an unexpected medical bill–and waited for my anxiety to boil. Sometimes, it never raged. It stayed at bay, curled up in its time-out corner.
It’s working, I thought. Even when I feel it is not.
Starting a new job teaching a college class, I often felt out of place. A new office, in a hall with new people–all strangers to me–I sat on the edge of my chair in an uncomfortable posture. Keeping my door open to indulge my friendly side while secretly hoping no one walked by to offer an awkward greeting, anxiety clouded the thoughts that should have been devoted to making my lecture slides. On days I spent ten minutes in my meditative solace, my heart rate did not rise as footsteps approached. While sweat droplets wetted my palms when people poked their heads in, I noted how there was barely enough moisture to leave the faintest of palm prints on my denim pants. My hands dried so quickly that if I had not been hyper vigilant in that moment, I would have missed it entirely.
My eyes opened.
Worries remained, spilling back over the white fencing that did its job for the past several minutes. But now, I had a choice. It was one I had to make several times, in quick succession, just to ensure it stuck. I chose not to worry about even an hour into the future. Time spent thinking of upcoming events is a waste of my present life. This mantra sits on repeat every day, and I started to believe it more with each echo of the words. I walked upstairs and turned on the hot water. Only tranquil thoughts of my shower lingered amid the plumes of steam; a quiet, peaceful time just for me as the toddler was sent safely off to school an hour ago.
Enjoy this moment, I thought.
It was not easy, but I did. The water, almost too hot for my pale skin, brought to the surface of my awareness that in this moment, I was okay. I was safe. I was healthy. I could stand, and walk, and communicate with others. I could eat my favorites foods and enjoy a healthy heart, kidneys, lungs, and brain. Sloshed in the wet warmth, I found a gratefulness that often disappeared when anxiety flooded my every cell.
Happiness adjoins these moments. Happiness has permeated more moments of my days, as I have learned that sustained contentment does not come from the environment, nor our surrounding world and events, but rather from within our own brain. And for a brain like mine, one diseased with anxiety, sustaining this joy was illusive until now.
Everyday is a battle, I thought.
But I am doing it. I am winning.