I remember I was 4 years old. Or 5.
I remember my best friend Emily was visiting me.
We were in the living room. Toys were scattered on the floor. My doll house. My fire truck. My Barbies and a few stuffed animals.
And I was crying inconsolably.
I sputtered out my reason between the sputtering sobs: “Emily doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t like me. She isn’t having fun.”
My mother told me it wasn’t true. She even point blank asked Emily if she was having fun, to which she graciously, and perhaps falesly, replied “Yes.”
Later on, we went to the playground at the school where Mom worked, right across the street from our apartment.
Emily climbed the jungle gym. I stayed on the ground, once again weeping.
“She doesn’t want to be here.”
“She doesn’t like me.”
“She isn’t having fun.”
“That’s not true.”
“She does like you.”
“She is having fun.”
And the big one: “The only reason she wouldn’t be having fun is because you’re so upset.”
Which inadvertently caused me to feel more upset.
Emily played. I wept.
(Emily and Mom, if you’re reading this and remember that day, I am so sorry.)
It’s been 23 years since this first anxious moment, and I’ve seen it play out so many times.
In friendships, classrooms, romances, my interactions with my family, the workplace, and church.
In every close relationship I’ve had, there comes a time when the song inevitably plays, and it often gets stuck on repeat.
“My best friend hates me.”
“My teacher doesn’t think I’m smart enough.”
“My husband is mad at me.”
“My parents are judging me for not being like them.”
“My colleagues don’t think I’m as good as them.”
“My fellow Christians look down on me.”
It’s a song I hate, yet it plays on and on, rarely ceasing.
That’s not to say things haven’t improved.
Yes, the thoughts ring in my head, but most days, the volume is low. The annoying sound becomes background noise, and some days, I can even hear a lighter, sweeter, calmer melody instead. Most days, I have some degree of control over the sound, so even when I notice the noise drifting to an uncomfortable level, I am conscious enough to turn it down.
That’s the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work.
And then there are days I lose control of the dial, and it’s cranked to 11, and the speakers threaten to blow out.
That’s also the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work, but instead they are losing to my mind, which has gone into dumpster-fire-mode. (It’s like normal mode, only over-caffeinated and with fangs).
When I find myself in these moments, I start to wonder.
I wonder what my childhood might have been like if I had actually felt like a child, not someone carrying the weight and worries of the world on her small shoulders. I wonder what my adolescence could have been like if the anxiety had not paralyzed me from pursuing my dreams of theater, athletics, and writing. I wonder how much less strain and baggage my friendships, family relationships, and marriage would contain if I could actually trust that all of these people loved me for me.
I wonder what is it like to be truly free from this burden, to not wait for the next panic attack, or to not beat yourself up when you say the wrong thing, or to not question if your dearest loved ones are out to get you.
I only catch glimpses of that Promised Land of No-Second-Guesses once in a while, and they are freeing and wonderful.
But to live a whole life like that? I doubt I’ll ever know what that’s like.
It’s hard to accept that the fears you had at age 4 are still the ones you carry in your heart in your late 20s, and maybe even will carry your whole life.
And the only way out I know is through struggle: the daily struggle to keep my thoughts from consuming me, to consciously remind myself that I am loved when I only feel worthy of hate, to battle with my mind on a regular basis.
I struggle, alone and with others on my journey, so I may rest again at the feet of contentment.
And each time, I hope the respite lasts longer than the previous one.