dichotomy

I am a woman of many parts

Okay, that didn’t come out right.

I am a woman of multiple, um, uh…

Yeesh, this isn’t going well.

What I’m trying to say is that when it comes to living life, I have two polarizing impulses. The first of these is the “I wanna live life to the fullest” part and the second is the “Wait, I signed up to do WHAT?” part.

I have danced with both of these impulses for a very long time, and throughout my life have become more and more familiar with them. The first one showed up when I went on a group tour to China in 1985 for three weeks. Back then, China had just opened up to the west and everyone had to be a part of a state-run tour. There were forty Skidmore Alumni of varying ages on this tour. We were probably closely watched, but I wasn’t thinking in those terms yet. I had not yet spent 20 years within spitting distance of NSA and had friends and relatives who worked in the intelligence community. I was oblivious. And naïve. But I went and I have great memories. The Great Wall, the clay soldiers of Xian (it was awesome to see them being excavated), the Grand Palace, Tianmen Square (before it became world famous for having tanks pointed towards students) and many other sites. I met some cool people, learned the best way to walk down the Wall (it’s really steep in some places, it’s best to traverse from side to side) and ate lots of good food. I spent a lot of time missing my then boyfriend (who, two weeks later, became my husband). And I was so very glad to get home, all I could think of was getting a hug from R.

me on the Great Wall of China, 1985
me on the Great Wall of China, 1985

I was still young enough to not understand the role of anxiety in my life. I just thought it was a weakness of mine that I got scared, worried and freaked out at stuff beyond my control. I like to think I rolled with the punches more in my youth, but the reality is that I didn’t have the vocabulary to say what was wrong. I knew that I was pulled to do things that were out of the ordinary, to challenge myself and experience life in amazing ways. I did not know that I could have confronted and transformed that second impulse of mine…the one that says “whose idea was this?” or “Is it time to go home yet?”

And then there was the time I went into the mountains of New Mexico with 15 other women, strangers all, to conduct a “vision quest”. This was in the 80’s when Native American tchotchkes became de rigeur, kokopellis graced shelves across America, and Native American spirituality was the fad. My “life well-lived” side decided that going on a camping/hiking trip with a 50 lb. backpack and no prior experience was right up my alley. Hiking several miles a day, sleeping by myself in a brand new tent and spending three days with no food? NO PROBLEM!!!

Looking back, I see that panic attacks and anxiety attacks abounded. My heart rate and insomnia were sky high the first night…I remember sitting outside of my tent looking at the full moon and being wide awake. I also remember crying because I was so afraid getting wet when it rained. And yet, I have to say, it was magical. The experience was one of the most powerful of my life, my connection to the earth, to my life and to myself definitely went through a transformation. What did not go through a transformation yet was the knowledge that I was actually experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. I would not actually identify them for 25 more years. And before that identification happened, I had to go through a different kind of vision quest, one which involved involuntarily losing thirty pounds, seeing several medical doctors and walking down the agoraphobia pathway before finding a good mental health team and getting a diagnosis and a prescription.

Now I have a new relationship with both of these parts of me. I still find things that I think I HAVE to do, like go to Yellowstone this week and look for wolves. But I have more of an idea of what triggers my anxieties. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel them, it just means that I can work on lessening them. The panic attacks are 99% gone, and that is thrilling. I have learned that before every great adventure I am likely to have a moment (or a day) of thinking., “Maybe I should just stay home…” Then the departure day comes and I am packed and ready to go. I hate anxiety but I LOVE living life to the fullest of my personal abilities. No, I will not ever go on another backpacking trip to the middle of nowhere (unless accompanied by a llama) but I will experience things that take me out of my comfort zone just a little bit. And I will enjoy those moments when life is different. For if there is one thing I learned in my most recent vision quest, it is important to be present in the moment. If you are in the moment, then life is full of gifts.

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