We’re on a beach. The purple-gray belly of the sky drapes low against the water in the distance, pregnant with the notion of rain. Worlds away, enough light still shines above us to throw hints of the kids’ shadows on the sand while the two of them kick through the surf, strings of their hair blowing wildly behind them. It’s just the three of us, a few seagulls who’ve caught enough wind to float, and the waves rolling in like reliable promises over and over again.
I’m unsettled, though. A place like this is never deserted under normal circumstances, so I look to see what I must be missing: A red flag, a no trespassing sign, anything. All I see is one long horizon drawing a full circle around us. By the time I turn back to my starting point, the kids aren’t there anymore. I catch their giggles in my right ear and shift to watch them racing each other down the beach. I follow, because they’re already getting too far, and the pit in my stomach is getting deeper for some reason I still can’t pinpoint.
I pick up my pace, and just when I’m close enough that my fingertips could graze my son’s back, he’s swallowed whole in an instant by the sand at his feet. My daughter, still oblivious, keeps running as I release a guttural and wild scream that sounds like a stranger belting out my son’s name. I don’t remember dropping to my hands and knees, but here I am, crouched low and clawing vigorously at the sand. My heart beats further outside my chest with each gritty scoop I push behind me. He can’t breathe. He can’t see. I can feel his fear choking its way up through the sand, and I know I only have a little bit of time before he’s gone for good. I plunge my arm down deep to feel for any piece of him I might reach.
That’s where it ends. I wake up, realize it’s a nightmare, and shake it off to start another day.
For me, anxiety comes packaged as little nightmares like this one, as perfectionism, as an intense need for control, as physical illness, or as a gaping emotional distance from the people I love. It’s a splinter in my life that, for the most part, I’ve slowly learned to live alongside more fully with the help of self care, therapy, and/or meds (thank you, Fluoxetine). While I still acknowledge my anxiety as a passenger in my car, this way of living has helped to keep it from taking the wheel from me.
I’ll admit, though, that sometimes the circumstances are bigger than my greatest efforts, and the skin around my anxiety splinter burns enough to demand more of my undivided attention. I’d say that a global pandemic easily falls into this category. Are you familiar with the law of inertia? It says that an object moving at a constant speed in a straight line will keep moving until it’s acted upon by an outside force. It’s the reason people get brain injuries when they’re jerked to a sudden stop in car accidents. The brain keeps going inside your body, until it hits the front of your skull. That’s what is happening to me this week. My brain has finally hit a wall and been forced to a full stop with the rest of my body, and it’s painful. In this stillness, my anxiety is now free to move about the cabin, and while I’m sticking to my usual self care regimen, I’m having to work on being okay with not being okay on the daily.
Here I am—here we all are—frozen in the upside-down, if you will. But this isn’t forever. I know it will get better. I believe this to my core. But I want to be honest that staying optimistic about our circumstances doesn’t mean turning my back on my very real anxiety around it. The two are not mutually exclusive. If I do that, my anxiety doesn’t disappear—it just slips back into the driver’s seat like a teenager stealing her parents’ car in the middle of the night while they asleep. Instead, I need to stay aware of it, and most of all, find new ways to continue living as fully as possible alongside it in this stillness.