Sometimes Your Anxiety Needs More Than Peaceful Thoughts
When you go to get food allergy tested a nurse will prick you with over 40 different samples. They start on your forearm with the 10-needle equivalent of a stamp and if you’re like me you stare in awe. In under 10 seconds, my arm was labeled “Food” and the letters A-D helped separate each of the groupings.
I had been thinking about that moment for a few days and whether my anxiety would peak as I waited to be told what I was and wasn’t allergic to. Instead, I found myself feeling incredibly empowered because there I was voluntarily offering up my arm for a nurse to prick and write all over. If growth needed to be defined by any one moment it would be this one, hands down. I didn’t have a doctor referring me here — I was brought here by my own volition and my own understanding of my anxiety.
Half of the experience made me feel empowered and half of the experience made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t think anyone ever feels entirely comfortable proclaiming — hey, I know my anxiety so well. At least, I didn’t, still don’t. I struggle with the fact that I know my anxiety because it doesn’t feel like the kind of thing you want to be friends with. If it were a person it’d be the kind of person that would elicit my grandmother’s go-to phrase, “dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres”, which translates to “tell me who you keep company with and I’ll tell you who you are,” and, well, bluntly, I’ve worked really hard to not “be” my anxiety. The fact that knowing it brought me to a sterile patient room at a Midtown West allergy clinic was the Universe’s reminder that the path to will almost always be through.
I was sitting with an arm that was as unbothered as it was before the pricks, a coat of shame that no longer fit me as well as it did when I walked through the door, and my acceptance that being humbled and empowered by my self-awareness was no longer a choice, it just was. I could keep my process quiet if I wanted to, but it seemed I no longer wanted to.
All the shoulds that had piled up in my mind were still there. I should feel more troubled, I thought. I stacked — I should feel more weighed down by the complexities my anxiety brought to my life — atop it. I should feel ashamed that I wasn’t like someone else who maybe didn’t need an allergy test before eating shrimp for the first time, went right above the rest. Right next to the stack of shoulds was a taller pile that I had failed to notice before — what a treasure when we’re able to notice where our own voice needs to stop answering and when we need to ask the world for action to get us across the bridge. The need for perfection comes up short when stacked against what it means to actually be human.
I had forty pricks on my left arm and as they stared back at me I was anything but anxious. I’d done something that maybe no one else would have to do, but that made sense to who I am and who I wanted to become. We navigate the world thinking that we’re all meant to jump off the same cliff in the same way because stepping outside of the norm and doing it your way would make others question your why and judge your process.
I have a complicated and layered relationship with food and one of those layers included a fear of being allergic to things like seafood. I understand my anxiety well enough to know that what stood between me and shrimp was an allergist telling me I was or wasn’t allergic to seafood. You don’t end up with the life you want by making decisions that would fit everyone else’s life but your own. You end up with the life you want by getting the information you need to propel you forward and not judging the self-awareness that empowers you to search for it. You end up with the life you want by taking action to build it.
Knowing what gets you from point a to point c isn’t something to be ashamed by or haunted by — it’s your out to a better life. Whether you take your point b process is up to you though. I’ve come up against too many people, at times myself included, who are willing and able to know themselves and still sit quietly because conforming and comfort are more enticing friends than the unpredictability of things going wrong (of things going right) and people judging you in the process.
I have a deep-seated fear of death that won’t go away with an allergy test. It’s rooted in how I grew up and it is present in odd moments — when I get on planes, when I try new foods, when someone I love comes up against something I deem risky — but I wasn’t trying to tackle my fear of death, I was simply trying to pat myself on the back and tell myself that having calamari wouldn’t kill me.
You can’t, you won’t, take the breath away from your biggest umbrella of a fear with one simple action. You need to give the small actions, the small truths, the chance to pile up and poke holes in the overwhelming, sinking feeling that your anxiety tells you you’re always right under.
I had calamari for the first time that night. After taking my first bite, I had to ground myself in my breathing because the remnants of the fear weren’t remnants yet, that would be too audacious of an ask. My bigger question of what freedom from that fear would taste like at first bite was answered though — it tasted like calamari.