There is Never an After

This week my therapist asked me what I would say to a younger me. I referenced the blog post I wrote a few years back, the letter I wrote to my 14-year-old Xanga photo, the way I pitied her in a warm, friendly way. ‘But what did you feel towards her,’ my therapist asked, reaching for more in the way she always does. ‘What is your relationship to her? Have you accepted her?’ Yes, I wanted to say, yes of course. But the truth was, I’m not sure if I had or if I have. The lighthearted pity in that letter wasn’t a tone of acceptance; in fact, it was barely a tone of empathy. That young girl was not someone I accepted or even respected. She’s someone I barely know. I can only recognize her in her report cards and obsessively-organized school planners, in old time cards from her multiple jobs and in her oddly-angled myspace photos.

I’m working on a move to Los Angeles. I suffer from bouts of extreme anxiety about this move, bouts that have been quiet recently but flared up again this week. I was waiting to hear back from a hopeful job opportunity (which I didn’t get) and something about the waiting triggered the spiral. What ifs piled up and overflowed, each panicked thought drowning itself over and over again for more space in my brainwaves. ‘Where is the anxiety about the move coming from?’ Fuck if I know, therapist.

But I’m trying to know. And the therapist’s push to get me to dive deeper into the girl I used to be might be a part of the answer. I grew up in a low-income family in the rural Midwest, a first-generation college student who would have laughed at the thought of living in California. I simultaneously pushed to distance myself away from this town and pressured myself to abide by its rules, its limitations, its stereotypes. High school existed as a starter to my real life, as a preparatory period that didn’t matter. I excelled in my coursework, in my solo preparation for college, in anything that would push me beyond 44707. ‘Can you tell me about a day you remember in detail from high school?’ No, I can’t. I remember studying. I remember waking up at 4AM thinking I was late for school and panicking, getting dressed and heading out to the bus stop before I realized it wasn’t time. I remember the loneliness I felt at football games, the existential thoughts I had as my friends painted my face red for Friday nights (what’s the fucking point? when will any of this matter?). I remember a brief day of mindfulness- I won an award, a scholarship, and finally exhaled at the realization that I had worked hard to be what I now was. I stared at that award a lot that day, and it’s one of the only times I can remember being present during those four years. I had paused and reflected and congratulated myself. I allowed myself to feel pride, a notion I hadn’t indulged in due to an inexplicable fear that if I acknowledged my success, it’d somehow be taken away from me. I’m still not over this superstitious notion. It’s what wakes me up at 4AM some nights still, what leads me to the insane ultimatums I sometimes give myself- if a bird flies overhead within the next minute, you’ll be OK. These superstitions forego control, alleviate the pressure I put on myself to make things work. But they’re not the truth.

I had this notion in high school that if I worked hard enough, if I lived with this constant pressure and tight-chestedness, there would come a day when it paid off. I’d forfeited mindfulness throughout my teenage years because I thought it would lead to a long exhale, a tranquil life in which I’d be far away from my hometown, in love with a partner I believed in, pursuing education, writing (check, check, check, and check). But perhaps the biggest thing I’d thought such hardwork would get me, the inspiration for As and college applications? ‘What about that girl haven’t you accepted yet?’ I expected there’d come an after. I expected I’d reach all the goals and a sigh of relief would filter out the drowning thoughts in my mind. I thought that because I’d danced with anxiety so much in high school, a graceful partner, it’d vacate once I’d achieved.

But- and here’s the sad, epic truth- the bucket list has been reconciled. The goals have been met, have been exceeded. I’ve been to 15 countries. I’ve gotten a master’s degree. I’ve lived out of state. I’ve published a work of fiction. I’ve fallen in love with someone I’m confident in. But that sigh of relief never comes. And it never will. The high school girl still knows the pattern of the dance, still opts out of mindfulness, still wonders what the fucking catch is to all the goodness that doesn’t feel like hers to take.

There are no signs. A bird flying overhead is just a fucking bird. It can’t decide for you. You can decide, even when your thoughts tell you you cannot. The truth is there. What you want, what you truly truly want, is there, sometimes buried in the deep and protective and annoying membrane of anxiety. A friend told me yesterday- “this isn’t a house of cards. It’s a house with an actual foundation. You built this. Over time. With lots of work and screwing up some corners and rebuilding them. But it’s here and you’re working on things. Painting, maybe. The point is, it isn’t going to blow over or shatter or disappear. It’s here. So step into it. Live there. Trust it’s going to keep you dry when it rains. You don’t have to ask the house if there is a hole in the roof. You’ll find out and you fix it when there is.”

There is never an after. There’s only a now, and a now after that. And now is good. Now is good because I made it that way.

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