I reach for the top of my hand, and without noticing begin to itch. A few scratches in and my hand wakes up, beginning to burn, and now my fingers are calling for my attention. One quick twist around the knuckle to soothe them and they begin to swell and turn red.
The tingling starts up my forearms, creeping past my elbow up to my bicep. It wraps its way around my shoulder and up the sides of my neck where it pauses its painful procession momentarily. I move and wiggle and try to resist touching anything at all but nothing makes it better.
Nothing. No thoughts, no breathing, no distractions. It’s all consuming. It’s all I can think about, all I can feel, all that is present for me.
Eventually, as the fire on my skin moves down and back up again, over, and over and over, I give in and scratch it against anything nearby — a hand towel, the steering wheel of my car, a blanket, the seam of my shirt, even just my wedding ring pushing up against the sides of my fingers might suffice, for now. I itch, and itch, and itch until I’ve scratched so much I’ve blistered and am bleeding, again.
Now I need a rinse of apple cider vinegar, layers and layers of coconut oil, some antibiotic cream, and probably some steroid cream just to calm the inflammation down.
All of that, when I could have just interrupted that first scratch, done something else instead, and let that itch pass me by as quietly as it came.
It’s the same with my thoughts. With my anxiety. It works in exactly the same way. One small subconscious thought grows and grows and grows until it is no longer a simple wondering but instead a behemoth of fear.
I see the studio door propped open, and my toddler playing nearby it. He might run out and down the sidewalk. Or into the street. He could get hit by a car. Or get lost. Someone will see him and not know who he is. He can’t really talk, it’s not like he could say our names and give our phone numbers. How would we find him? Oh God, he might get picked up by someone involved in human trafficking and taken far far away from me. I might never see him again and, and, and. . . OH MY GOD NOW I AM JUST GOING TO STAND IN FRONT OF THIS DOOR AND BLOCK IT UNTIL IT IS TIME TO GO.
Or – I could just close the door and keep an eye on him. I could redirect him to do something closer to me. I could breathe and trust that he is safe and will continue to stay safe. I could repeat to myself: all is well, and let that thought and that energy grow.
I get an email from my administrator asking me about a student. I probably did something wrong, again. Crap. I still haven’t mastered everything I’m supposed to know by now. Why is it so hard to learn this many new things at once? I used to be way faster at this kind of thing. I am efficient and smart and I learn really quickly. Well, I used to. I used to be those things. Now I just keep making mistakes. Fuck. What mistake did I make this time? How many mistakes is that now? Too many probably. There is just so much to know and do at the same time and I’m so fucking overwhelmed. I’m probably on the list of people they need to talk to about productivity. I’m probably in trouble. Shit. It’s an at-will job, so they don’t have to keep me if I’m not doing well enough.
Or- I could just open the e-mail and see what it is that’s being asked of me. I could put the request into perspective, take note of all the things I’m doing really well, and acknowledge my efforts to keep learning and doing hard things. I could accept that I am beginner in this role, and that making mistakes is part of the process. I could remind myself that I was hired not for perfection but because of what I offer to my students and families. I could repeat to myself: all is well, and let that thought and that energy grow.
Do you see it? Do you see how that very first response to the first thought or impulse makes all the difference?
I can set off a chain reaction of intense, painful, obsessive thoughts, or I can simply allow the thought to pass, and redirect my energy into something useful and positive.
It’s so simple. But it is also, not so fucking simple.
We are hard wired this way, products of our biology and rapid fire lifestyles. We need fear, because it keeps us and our offspring alive. It kept us from being eaten by a bear and now it keeps us from walking into traffic, sometimes.
Once I became a mother my worry exploded. Like a sudden and violent stomach flu, fear projectile vomited out of my mind and into my life. Being 100% responsible for the life and well being of another human is not a small adjustment and for me, it was near crippling.
As a parent, I’m supposed to recognize danger and protect my kids from it. And in today’s world, there is just so much danger. Some of that danger is hypothetical, fires grown from the sparks of real loss. But some of it is based on experience. I fear losing my kids in a crowds, for example, because I have! Three times for the same kid, actually! I fear losing a job because I’ve been fired once before.
Fear has a purpose. It is a teacher, a lesson, an invitation to dance with failure.
But — when fear interrupts, when it steals from the present, when it fast forwards the brain into a dizzying picture of frightening possibilities, when it consumes us, paralyzes us, and keeps us trapped on the dance floor — it becomes destructive.
In recognizing this, however, I’m granted the opportunity do something differently. I can see and reject the toxic thoughts when they come, label them as nothing more than intrusive, give them no attachment or energy, and consciously choose not to scratch the itch.
It won’t be easy, it won’t work every time, and it will take real work to flush out the generations of fear I carry in my cells, but I will.
Slowly, daily, one step at a time, I’m calming the fuck down.
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