I am sitting in a small dorm room at Carroll College. The window overlooking downtown Helena and the Helena Mountains is to my right, and the sun has just broken out of a thunderstorm to break into a beautiful sunset at 9:20PM.
Earlier, when I was supposed to be writing this piece (though I confess, I had no idea what I was going to write about), I was sitting with my feet up on the windowsill as a lightning storm passed through. Thunder boomed, lightning shot across the sky, and the rain streaked down all the way to the range– long fingers of cloud-wisps reaching from the horizon towards the trees. I sat in the room, alone, listening to Jazz music, just… watching.
I am in Helena, Montana, for a seminar on nature and education. It seems fitting to try and paint the picture of my setting for this story.
I had an interesting realization earlier this week. While I’ll be studying with a cohort of 16 people, I don’t know anyone on this trip. I don’t know anyone in Montana. I got on the plane out here knowing that, frankly, I was going to be alone. No one to meet up with or reach out to, no one sitting on the plane next to me holding my hand and planning adventures. I was on my own.
As much as I am an introvert and love my alone time, I realized that I actually am very rarely alone. I’ll go through brief afternoons and evenings, but I haven’t really been on my own since I moved to Hawai’i five years ago. Ever since then, I’ve found people– friends and family– to call mine. If I’m really honest, I’m a serial monogamist who hasn’t been single in quite a while either. I function best, I think, when partnered.
Or, I assume. Of course, I am still (very happily) partnered, but there was no feasible way to get my guy out here to join me on this journey. So, for the next three weeks, I’m flying solo, and it’s completely new to me.
And, as much as I should have been excited, I’ve actually been terrified. What if I lost all my luggage on the trip? What if being apart like this destroys my relationship? What if someone I love dies while I’m gone and I wasn’t there? What if I hate everyone? What if everyone hates me?
These questions don’t just stay simple, easy-to-answer dilemmas in my head. Unless stopped, they will often weave their way into full-blown, worst-case-scenario stories. I will very vividly visualize the horrors each one would rain upon me. A pit forms in my stomach. I can’t stop seeing the worst.
As much as I love stories, as much as I’ve been focusing my life on storytelling, I see now that sometimes my own stories hold me hostage.
I used to see Panic as the monster who would come and get me. That’s an apt metaphor much of the time, and sometimes my panic attacks will come out of nowhere, with no decipherable trigger. The problem with that image, though, is that it means I have no agency with my anxiety. Sometimes I don’t– sometimes it just hits me like a ton of bricks, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Over the past few weeks, though, I’m beginning to see the ways I have, perhaps, let anxiety come to run parts of my life. I have become so accustomed to weaving tales that, sometimes, I’ll follow the yarn of a question all the way around and around until I weave myself into a web of despair, unable to claw my way out.
I am trying to get better at pulling myself out of the web. Instead of wriggling around, further entangling myself, I am trying to stop, breathe, and re-evaluate the situation. Often, though, I have someone who can help me start finding my way out.
Now, though, I am sitting in a dorm room thousands of miles away from the people who love me, with no one but the mountains and trails to help me find my way out.
So, at first, I was terrified by this.
But this morning, I woke up after very little sleep (Helena is currently in an unseasonable heat wave and our dorm room unexpectedly lost air conditioning, so little rest was had). I was tired and moody. I missed my partner. I missed air conditioning.
Then, I decided there was no one to cry to about it (literally, as I was the first person in the seminar to arrive), so I better just go out and do something else. I hiked up the 1906 trail to the summit of Mt. Helena. I saw nature like I never had before– endless sky and mountains covered in more evergreens than I could ever imagine. I was welcomed and helped by friendly strangers and their dogs. I ran down trails that looked like the ones I have dreamed of.
Then, I bought myself some chocolate milk, did some work, and watched the rain fall outside while listening to some Jazz music.
I’m currently going through a bit of a mind-shift, I think. As I’ve been asking myself what I really want, it also means coming to terms with the things I actually need– not just of other people, though, but of myself. What do I need to do to bring happiness into my life? How can I stop letting anxiety write the story that I should be writing myself?
I look out at the sunset, breathe, and remember the joy I felt this morning running along a lonely trail. Surrounded by trees, I felt so blessed just to exist, on my own, in such a beautiful space. It was a complete 360 from the despair I felt this morning. It was seeing that with each footfall I took, on my own, I was slowly stepping out of the web and back into myself.
And that’s where it begins, I think. As much as I love and need the support of people in my life to help me manage my anxiety, I need to be the one to break out of the narrative and back to the blessed reality that I am loved, supported, and incredibly blessed. People can tell me that as I further entangle myself in darkness, but ultimately I have to be the one to believe it. I have to be the one to set it down in ink on my heart so I don’t lose sight of it.
No one can write my story but me.