In June I went to Toronto for a long-weekend trip. Although I had brunch with some old friends who live in Toronto on one of the days I was there, and I stayed at an AirBnB room hosted by a lovely and friendly lady, for the most part I was alone. I took a twelve hour bus to Toronto alone. I went to Bestival, a music fest with an incredible line-up, alone. The next day I wandered the city alone, taking photos, stopping by Kensington for coffee and lunch, and then I flew back to New York. I wasn’t only fine being alone, I was in fact, very happy. This is something that I couldn’t imagine feeling a year ago, two years ago. When the anxiety and panic attacks began and I couldn’t leave my house on most days, let alone travel to a different country just to attend a music festival.
My life changed drastically as a result of anxiety and panic attacks. Over the course of two years I went through cycles of depression, treatments, acquiring phobias, working through them, getting better and then hitting rock bottom again. Gradually though, very gradually, I got better. This trip to Toronto, like nothing else I’ve done in the past year, has demonstrated to me the progress I’ve made in, if not overcoming anxiety entirely, but becoming functional in a ways that I couldn’t envision I would ever be again.
And in an effort not to take my emotional stability for granted I decided to list all the things I can do now that I wasn’t able to before. Things that I lost due to the debilitating nature of anxiety. All of these might seem absolutely normal to everyone else. These are things that are effortless for a healthy adult. But they aren’t to me and I suspect to millions of others who suffer from anxiety and mental illness. To me, they represent an achievement; monumental progress that took months of work, treatments, relapses, patience, and willpower that I thought I didn’t have and will never have again.
So here it is. The List:
1) I can travel alone. I can travel alone to a foreign country. Okay, if Canada is not foreign enough to be an achievement, consider that I also flew to Mexico City alone, and even though I stayed with friends, I braved the city alone on several occasions.
2) I can go to a concert, be in a crowd for hours and feel fine.
3) I can get on an airplane, fly, and not freak out. At least not too much.
4) I can eat alone. The fear of choking or having a deadly allergic reaction no longer prevents me from eating meals alone.
5) I can swallow pills! I can swallow pills with no one around me! Which is convenient because I live alone and take vitamins/medication every morning.
6) I can take the subway. I can take our horribly, dirty NYC subway that goes through tunnels under water, and that generally makes you feel like life isn’t worth living.
7) I can drive on the highway. I can drive on the highway through tunnels. Tunnels, you guys.
8) I can get stuck in traffic. I can now get stuck in traffic for hours without suffering a single panic attack.
9) I can sit through a movie in a movie theater and actually be able to concentrate on it. I can watch TV shows. I can read books. I’m lumping this all in one category even though this is huge, but it’s the same symptom of “my mind is so crazy worried about non-existent things that I can’t concentrate on anything.”
10) I can go outside and I can look at strangers without feeling shudders of inexplicable fear and hopelessness.
Part of #10 was probably “all these people look so happy. They look so normal. I will never feel that way again.” Of course logically I knew that couldn’t be true. Everyone is fighting their own battles, their own illnesses, whether they’re visible or invisible. But there is nothing logical about anxiety or other mental illness. And the most insidious aspect of any mental illness is that it makes you feel like you will never get better. I was convinced I was completely crazy and that I was going to end up in a mental institution very soon. And that was really scary. It was one of the scariest things that ever happened to me. But it was all a lie. As Jenny Lawson explains in her brilliant book Furiously Happy, your depressed and/or anxious mind will tell you a lot of lies. Don’t believe them. You will get better. It might take months of suffering, treatments, experiences that will scare the shit out you, exercising will power that you think you don’t have, but it will happen. You’re going to get better. You might get worse again, but then, guess what? You’ll get better again. Life is a cycle of ups and downs, nothing is permanent, etc etc.
And on that cheerful note, I want to share some photos I took in Toronto.
Toronto is a such a beautiful, colorful city. So much graffiti! It reminded me a lot of New York City. Except cleaner. And with more French bakeries. And poutine. Why isn’t poutine a thing here?