I’ve come a long way in my anxiety journey.
Not too long ago, my anxiety strangled the living out of my life. My anxiety around other people and crowds of any size made it hard to leave the house; even going to school felt like an enormous task every single day. And yet, my anxiety around perfectionism and performing well academically forced me to go no matter how I was feeling, leaving me with the inability to either fully face the root of my anxieties or ever feel fully at peace. At night, my health anxiety keep me up well into the night, worried that if I closed my eyes they might never open again.
Today, I sleep soundly after long days filled with things that never used to be on the menu: things like travel, college, teaching, and adventuring. My panic attacks are now few and far-between, with far better coping mechanisms than I used to have (which were none at all). If you didn’t know me or my story personally, you might never know just how big of a role anxiety has played in my life.
But I would be lying if I said I was no longer dealing – and sometimes struggling- with my anxiety.
One of my biggest anxieties has always been of death.
I can’t honestly tell you the first time I feared death, but it’s been something that’s loomed over me since I was a small child. At first, I feared the way I might die. I feared drowning after falling into a pool as a small child and almost not being noticed by my parents in time to be pulled back out. I feared getting sick after developing pneumonia in the fourth grade and having no one believe me when I said I felt ill until I pestered them enough to take me to the doctor. I feared getting in a car or plane accident, and struggled to enjoy traveling with my family.
My preoccupation with death was unrelenting. I thought about it day and night as a kid, constantly checking to make sure my heart was still beating and my lungs were still breathing. I can remember vividly sitting in class in elementary school, counting my breaths as though it was the only reassurance I had that I was still breathing.
When my mom (a stay-at-home-mom for all ten years of my life at this point) went back to work, my fears began to be projected onto those around me. What would happen if my mom died while she was away? What if she got in a car accident? What if someone waited for her outside her office at night when she was alone and did something terrible to her? I lay awake at night, waiting until I’d hear the front door open and shut with her return.
As I got older, people around me began dying. Watching the pain in either their slow passings or the loved ones that were left behind was like watching my greatest fears come into reality.
My grandfather passed before I could truly get to know him, but seeing the way it affected my parents yanked my heart up into my throat. One of my mom’s closest friends lost a battle to leukemia, leaving behind two children who had been forced to watch the slow fading of their once vibrant mother. My preschool best friend’s father was also lost to cancer, eventually becoming only a faded memory of a water balloon fight one Fourth of July in my mind. My junior year of high school, one of the students in the grade below me was lost to suicide, and the mourning of the campus was so heavy it was suffocating.
Unlike most people around me, I wasn’t raised particularly religiously. I had some idea of heaven or an afterlife, but no particular attachment to it. I felt left with more questions than answers: where do we go after we die? Do the people we love most simply disappear? I heard people speak of feeling the presence of their lost loved ones, but had never personally experienced it. Did no one love me enough to come back and say goodbye?
For a long time, I’ve continued to carry many of these fears with me. Unlike most of the anxieties I’ve dealt with, this one appears to become more tangible as I age. My friends are beginning to lose their parents, and many of them have no grandparents anymore. I’m watching people around me get older, watching them develop different health problems or concerns. Death, which once felt like a foreign enemy, now feels like it’s encroaching in on my space a little more with every passing day.
It doesn’t overwhelm me as often anymore, but I’d be lying if I said it never does. Sometimes, it feels so overwhelming that I feel like that small child again, lying awake in bed wondering if I’ll wake up in the morning.
Something that has been very comforting to me in battling anxiety has been exploring its oftentimes inherent irrationality. The likelihood of my fears around having a heart attack in the fourth grade were irrational. My fears of being an academic failure and being rejected by my supportive family were irrational. But as I grow older, is the anxiety around the death of my parents, my boyfriend, my friends, so irrational? It seems as though every day I see the news of another school shooting, car accident, or public health crisis.
It’s as though I’ve met the anxiety that’s impervious to one of the best weapons I had.
But it’s not just a fear of those I love leaving this Earth- it’s my own exit from it. What will happen when I die? I went from having a life so miserable by my own brain’s creation that death almost felt desirable in comparison to now having one I love so much that the inevitability of death feels incredibly unfair. I’m only 19 years into this lifetime, and already I can’t imagine having enough time on this Earth with the magnificent people I’ve been lucky enough to meet.
I once said to Ryan in a panic, “But I only know what it’s like to be alive!”
I don’t know what it’s like to be dead. I don’t know what it’s like to not be here, feeling the sun on my face and the ocean on my skin. I don’t know what it’s like to not live in this galaxy, on this planet. I don’t know what it’s like to not be in this body and harness this spirit I’ve been given.
To which, as calmly as ever, Ryan replied, “Well, you probably don’t remember what it was like before you were born, and you’re not scared of that, are you?”
He was right (of course). I don’t recall what life was like before I was even a thought in my parents’ minds. And yet, that unknowing feels so much warmer and more comforting than the unknowing of death. Viewing my- hopefully far in the distant future- death as a return to this warm state of ether helps, in a way. Makes it seem not like my first journey into the unknown anymore.
This past month, a family friend, mother to two of my peers, and a remarkably supportive soul of myself and my mission, passed away. It was sudden and painful for everyone who had ever met her even in passing. It hit me harder than probably any other death has. Perhaps it was because I had just seen her a month or two before, and she had seemed so alive. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t expected it in the slightest, having only ever lost people to things like long and slow illnesses. Perhaps it was because she had thanked me so deeply and fully for the work I’ve been doing through my writing and teaching, in a way that made me feel like I had a duty to her to make a difference on this planet.
To be quite honest, I had hardly spoken to this woman over the past few years, and the way her death affected me came as a shock.
But I didn’t cry. Instead I sunk back into my wallows of anxiety for a few weeks. It was easier this way, to feel fear deeply enough to drown out the sadness I felt for her and her family. I’m embarrassed to say that my anxiety surrounding her death kept me from attending her funeral- something I’ve never been able to do, despite knowing it’s an important way to honor one’s life and begin the process of healing for those left behind.
A day after I learned of her death, I found myself on my therapist’s couch, crying about death again.
“There’s just no answers.” I said, “I don’t know what happens after I die, all I know is that someday I will, and it could happen at any moment.”
“How do you deal with your anxiety around death?” She asked me.
I thought about it for a moment, and then said, “I don’t.”
I don’t. I brush it under the rug, avoid talking about it, allow myself to worry because I feel as though if I worry enough, it will stay at bay. If I call my mother a million times to make sure she gets home from work okay, nothing will happen to her. If I worry enough about Ryan dying in a car accident when he comes to visit me, he’ll get here safely. If I worry enough about someone I love developing a terrible illness, all of them will remain healthy.
It’s illogical, irrational, and unhealthy. But it makes me feel in control.
In control. There’s that phrase again. The root of my eating disorder. The root of so many of my struggles over the years. And perhaps, it’s in this phrase that I can find my answer to healing and overcoming: there is no way to control this part of life. There is no way for me to wedge myself between my loved ones and death. There is no way to control what happens to me or anyone else after we die. There is no way to find the key to immortality through worrying.
In fact, in trying to control death, I’m only allowing it to control me. I’m certainly not practicing asteya, the yogic practice of non-stealing, as I rob myself of my own joy by taking up so much of the space in my heart with fear. And while we’re turning our backs to yogic principles, I might as well admit that I’m clinging so tightly to my narrow definition of living that the word aparigraha (non-possesiveness) would probably be unable to escape my lips at this point.
Maybe, then, the answer is to stop controlling, and to instead let go.
Perhaps the answer is to embrace. To live while I am still leaving and leave death for when I am dead. To allow myself to be sad instead of scared. To appreciate the beauty of the lives of those who are now gone instead of feeling tortured by their death. To surrender myself to the ways of the Universe and understand that the plan for me is more nuanced and perfect than anything I can plan in a worried, anxious manner.
I’d be lying if I said I had it all figured out. I will still carry these fears, and it will take time to fully come into the idea of letting go of them. But all I know for certain is something I’ve thought time and time again over the course of my life:
I’m tired of being scared.
It is time to be greater than my fears.
Photos by Roberto Martinez, shared with gratitude.