My heart was pounding, my breathing restricted, my hands sweaty.
My instinct screamed at me, “You’re too young to die. Turn back now.”
My rational brain said, “That’s just your anxiety talking. You’re only going up the stairs of a lighthouse.”
My rational brain also said, “Lean forward as you climb the stairs, because if your panic makes you pass out, you don’t want to fall backward into the spiral of doom.”
I did my grounding exercises — stared at the green plastic paint and noted that it was smooth and shiny. I did my self-soothing — intentionally counted five seconds for each exhale and five seconds for each inhale. I did my rational thinking — “The stairs are strong; the structure is strong. Thousands of people have done this without plummeting to their deaths, and you will too.”
I was still terrified, and if I had been my own psychologist, suggesting “grounding, calming, and cognitive exercises” as the solution, I would have punched her in the face.
When it was all over, and I had climbed all the way up and all the way back down, I cried. Tears to expel all of the fear I had been suppressing just to get through each and every one of those 214 steps. Tears of relief that my husband had successfully carried my 2-year-old the entire time without him wiggling out of his grip. Tears of relief that my 4-year-old and 6-year-old weren’t scaredycats like Mommy.
My husband said I could sit this one out, so why did I choose to put myself through this torture? Because I want my kids to know, I want to know, and I want my patients with anxiety to know that we can do brave things.
When I role-play a peer conversation with a girl with severe social anxiety or give her homework to order a pizza over the phone, I also want to know what that is like for her to be so afraid but to do it anyway.
I want to be able to empathize and tell her that I know self-soothing and rational thinking doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it possible. And after this experience, I get to tell my kids that “Mommy was so scared, but I did it anyway. Sometimes we are terrified to do things, but we can do them anyway.”
I want to be able to tell my kids:
- “I know you are shy, but you can order your own food anyway.”
- “I know you are afraid, but you can tell the truth anyway.”
- “I know your heart pounds when you tell the bully he is wrong, but you can do it anyway.”
- “I know it is hard to be vulnerable and ask for what you need, but you can do it anyway.”
- “I know you are afraid to fail, but you can try anyway.”
- “I know it is unfathomably terrifying to leave an abusive relationship or work on a good relationship, but you can do it anyway.”
- “I know you shake when you hand your resume to the college admissions advisor, but you can do it anyway.”
- “I know it is scary to admit you were wrong, but you can do it anyway.”
- “I know everything in you tells you not to leave your comfort zone, but you can do it.”
We can do brave things.