It’s 11:15 at night and I am snug in my bed. I’m wrapped up in a cozy quilt surrounded by books, there’s lavender oil in my diffuser and soft music on the iPad. The dog is curled up by my side, softly snoring and warm.
And I am totally freaking out.
I should be slipping into sleep. Instead, I am trying to figure out how the next election and Armageddon are surely connected and how it’s time to clean and reorganize the second floor of the house, starting with everything. All of it. Everywhere. Also, I am pretty sure I have a tumor (or maybe something less serious, but still deadly).
This is how the monster named Anxiety works. It keeps leaking into my life, late at night, with little warning and no manners. Sometimes it is a general malaise that traps my mind in an endless cycle of “I must fix all the things.” Other times it’s more serious and wants to convince me that my life is worthless and that nothing is working. A heavy blanket of doom falls over me and I am immobilized.
The last time Anxiety called on me was just last week: the boys were home from school and I had just begun the daily drudgery that is making dinner, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the cold floor and crying. No warning, no tangible triggers—just me and my dirty kitchen floor. I recall having one clear thought during all this shaking and dread: “Why am I still dealing with all of this? I have been sober now for years. WHY am I sitting here on this floor in total despair?”
It turns out, I had decided that sobriety was a destination. It is the Land of Wellness, which is full of good sleep, wonderful thoughts, a tiny waistline and bonus (totally free!) degrees in psychology. This is goofy thinking and we all know that psychologists aren’t really known for goofy thinking. So it seems there were some serious flaws in my travel plans on the way to being Perfect and Sober.
So, Anxiety still happens in my life—even in sobriety. It happens less frequently and is a little less potent than before I quit drinking, but it still tangles up my brain. And for a while now, I have been regarding it as a mental mosquito—an incessant pest that is best dealt with by running inside and hiding under the covers.
However, my Recovery had another thing to say about all of this, as it usually does. Recovery doesn’t like to sit quietly, allowing the chaos in my head to tap dance around. Instead, it decides to watch the performance impassively until Anxiety starts to get embarrassed and shuffles off. My normal behavior after a kitchen floor episode would be to just survive; stay on the floor, behave badly with the kids, burn dinner and just barely get through.
Recovery said, “Survival is not enough. That’s why I’m here.”
The solution is simple but painful: I need to sit with Anxiety. I need to be still, look it over, sit next to it and breathe with it—a different type of reaction than just sliding to the floor. The key is my focus and facing the monster in the closet, because once I see him in the daylight, he is not so terrifying. I go outside to where there is a sky above—maybe some trees. I sit on the steps and breathe and look up at the clouds, or stare down a squirrel. This can be tough to do when you’re at Walgreens or in church or in an airport—and sometimes it’s raining. Very often, it’s 3 am and getting out of bed feels weird and tiresome. But 3 am on the back stoop is a marvelously still and serene place.
The first time I attempted to face the Anxiety monster, I had hoped that it would be a cute, fuzzy Pixar character and we would resolve our differences and all live happily ever after. But even though Anxiety is not fuzzy or cute, every time it starts to terrorize me I now know I have options. The new method of reacting to Anxiety might not fit with my plan every day, but I can adjust—and I realize that Recovery benefits from this too. There are times where self-care needs to shut the whole schedule down.
I fought self-care when I first got sober. It was selfish, right? I had a LOT of self-improving to do and with all that work I couldn’t be frozen in bed, watching the ceiling fan and counting my breath. Recovery needed to be much busier than that, right? But as it turns out, a lot of recovery is stationary. It’s hunkering down and waiting for the next right thing. To cop a quote from the bible, “It’s being still and knowing that someone ELSE is God.”
Eventually, Recovery says, “Now move.” If one side of recovery is stillness, the other side of the coin involves all sorts of action and trying new things. It’s changing, refining and scratching at things that need to be scratched. It’s fixing. Recovery bounces back and forth like that, between just sitting on a bed and staring, to doing One New Thing.
Finding my One New Thing left me feeling raw and vulnerable to the elements, a feeling that I experienced a lot in my first few weeks of getting sober—when I was so frail that one wrong comment from a friend could knock me over. Doing One New Thing took some time and a lot of failing as well as some really bad days when Anxiety won the round, and I retreated.
These days, I don’t have to read 10 books at once about Anxiety or sobriety, or sign up for CrossFit, or quit white flour or up my meetings by 200% all in one week. (Sure, I can do all those things if I want, but who really wants to quit white flour?) Anxiety and Recovery can be uneasy, nervous bedfellows, after all. All I need to do is try One New Thing with them both, shed yet another layer of skin and be still.
And in that stillness, I am moving forward.