Yesterday, I faced my fears headfirst: I rode roller coasters with my eyes wide open and my hands stretched forward, screaming without abandon at every twist and turn. This might seem completely mundane and un-extraordinary to you, but to me, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. One where I would ride my fear and adrenaline headfirst, no matter the consequences.
Here’s the thing.
Growing up, I was fearless. I wore my t-ball cap with the brim faced backward, a careful tuft of my dark hair poking out. I dressed for nobody but myself, my world created by decisions I made and carried out. Life was just an adventure, and the next obstacle was simply something I’d clamber over.
It didn’t matter to me what someone said or thought or did about me, because it only mattered what I felt about myself – and I felt good about myself.
I rode coasters with wild abandon, eagerly getting in line over and over and over again, to the point where the park aides would laugh at seeing me again. I was the loudest one on the rides, sitting in the front row with no care for what might happen next. The world was mine to take, and it didn’t matter what stood in my way.
I don’t know when the tipping point happened.
It was gradual.
Words from parents, biting away at me. Words from friends, who left me for one reason or another. I tried to brush the words away, but the actions and words piled up and because they came from people I trusted, people I loved, people I thought believed in me, I couldn’t keep myself safe.
Day by day, it built up until there I was years later, back again at the amusement park, unable to ride any of the roller coasters.
I made one excuse or another as my sister and brothers tried to push me to ride the rides with them. Inwardly, I grappled with the anxiety that now bubbled up from my stomach, venom that kept me from jumping headfirst into the next challenge. It was a panic that pushed me into almost throwing up on a children’s ride that whirled around and around, my head down between my knees, just trying to make it through the whirl of words and pain that seeped up from within.
I hated going to amusement parks. What’s the point? I’d ask my family when they proposed our going to a park. There’s nothing fun there.
They refused to listen, dragging me alongside them to the place I now loathed. I’d hang back, standing at the railing as my siblings ran to get in line, looking up at the loops of the coaster with a churning mix of envy, fear and self-loathing. The anxiety within was now a full-blown beast, filling my head with every possible thing that could happen if I got on a ride.
It leaked into my real life.
I rode on loops of panic attacks and fears, growing to expect them, welcome them, considering myself to be accomplished only if I felt a pit of anxious nerves grow when I looked at my list of things to do.
I had become my own worst enemy. I fed myself moments of anxiety to feel alive. I was a failure if I had nothing to do. Relaxation soon became triggering, because what was life if I wasn’t freaking out about my next thing to do?
I thought that if I rode the waves of anxiety, that I could somehow manage it. That somehow it would stop growing, stop overtaking my decisions, stop ruling my life.
It was a ridiculous wish. The more I let my anxiety rule my life, the bigger it grew.
I found respite in the few friends who let me be myself, gave me space and understanding when I just needed to curl up and cry, the thoughts spiraling and deteriorating as the anxiety ruled my life more and more.
It was only when the thoughts had almost fully paralyzed me at work, cut me off from most of my friends, and robbed my life of the colors and vibrancy that I used to breathe in when I stepped outside that I finally sought professional help. Even with the exercises that my therapist gave me, I felt helpless.
When she suggested anxiety medication, I felt like crying. I had become a shadow of everything that I used to stand for, a walking lie.
On the outside, people found me to be seemingly on top of everything.
On the inside, I was the girl who couldn’t even ride roller coasters.
The day I started taking medication, my head and heart felt clear – for the first time in forever. I could finally breathe without coughing from the anxiety attack that would inevitably bubble into my lungs.
Anxiety no longer ruled my life.
Months passed, and we reached the day I headed back to the amusement park. I stared up at the largest coaster in the park, the drop so steep that you knew you’d lose your breath if you tried it, I felt fearless, dragging my reluctant friend behind me.
For all the years I’d dealt with the hellhole of anxiety, this was nothing.
I am finally fearless again.