Content warning: mental illness
“Are you okay?” My friend asked.
I knew this crude type of emotional vertigo well. The tightness in my chest, as if my heart was about to be sucked out of my body through a straw, coupled with the sudden sensation that gravity was inadequate and no matter how hard I clawed with my fingernails, I was about to slip off the face of the earth.
This again. I thought I’d left this on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet here, with the hills of Lugano bursting into an early spring riot of color as my backdrop, I was about to have my first and only panic attack since moving to Switzerland. It was the day before Easter 2015.
It was embarrassing, really. I thought about how it must have looked from the outside. My usually relaxed face tight and drawn – straining for oxygen. How blindsiding it must have been for somebody who had never seen me this way. Me, Little Miss Adventure, reacting to the cafés and cobblestones of Southern Switzerland like a petrified kitten being shoehorned from a pet carrier on a visit to the vet. I wondered for a moment if my friend felt cheated — “You thought you were day-tripping with a kick-ass go getter, turns out you’re just babysitting a neurotic sideshow.”
That’s panic and anxiety for you, the ultimate unwanted party guest – like Steve Urkel ringing the doorbell and inviting himself inside when you’re about to get busy with a hot date. “Did I do thaaaat?” anxiety asks from behind thick coke bottle glasses as it carelessly pratfalls through your life, shattering everything you thought was solid in its wake.
“Just stay near me until it’s over,” was all I could manage to say flatly.
Fortunately, I knew just the type of emotional first aid I needed to perform on myself at that moment – slow and steady ujjayi breaths, pausing at the top of each one to steady myself before embarking on the next exhale. The pause was essential. Without it, the jagged fear that my breath, and everything else, may never be steady again threatened to creep in and shove me back into hyperventilation.
Breathing. How was it that I could manage moving to another continent but I couldn’t manage breathing?
What was the trigger that day? Was it knowing that I was about to spend the following day, Easter Sunday, by myself while my loved ones coalesced without me on the other side of the planet? But I’d chosen that, hadn’t I? Was it the fact that I could see my first year in Switzerland drawing to a close and while I’d grown leaps and bounds from the girl who crash landed here nine months earlier with two suitcases and half a clue, I was still so far from where I’d pictured myself being by now?
The irony was that I was living my dream and forging my own path to a destination that was constantly changing. A place I wasn’t sure even existed but felt certain I’d recognize when I arrived. I’d discovered so much, created a place for myself in a foreign country, developed true friendships, but there was still so much of me that felt epically lost – the human equivalent of pocket change discarded in the cosmic couch cushions of the universe. And here was anxiety, holding up a mirror to all of this when what I wanted most desperately was a signpost. Something to tell me that my true home was just around the bend.
Fast-forward a year ahead. I’m with another friend, this time one visiting from home, exploring yet another gobsmackingly gorgeous Swiss location on the first warm day of spring. Luzern. We’d decided to head uphill from old town, to a destination I’d never been to before, the medieval fortifications above the city. As on so many walks one can take in Switzerland, every pause we took on our way to the top of the hill unfolded into a gorgeous panorama, each one more exquisite than the last.
We walked, savoring the views, commiserating the apartment we’d shared half a lifetime ago. The off-key Duran Duran dance parties, big dreams, bad jobs and hopeless crushes that make up your twenties. Since then she’d published two books and I’d become an expat.
Our thirties felt so much more different than we’d expected them to feel. Scary sometimes, yeah, but much bigger, more expansive and full of freedom. Neither of us had taken a turn down a road we couldn’t come back from. We weren’t living cookie-cutter lives filled with somebody else’s’ hand-me-downs anymore. The notion that either of us could be lost between the couch cushions was absurd. We weren’t lost. We were Courageous Women Leading Extraordinary Lives!
No matter how many times I’d repeated that sentence to myself, it hadn’t felt true until somebody else held a mirror up to me, to show me the life that I was living. A life that was messy and uncertain at times, but that I was completely in charge of. A life that had moments of intense solitude but that was even fuller of fierce love stretching across multiple continents. A life that was meant to be wandered through with curiosity, each step on the path more than just a meaningless bypass on the slog to the top. Each was its own panorama, a destination in and of itself.
Finally, we reached the stone walls of the fortress. The narrow vertigo-inducing steps that would take me to the ramparts promised more impressive views of Luzern and the Alps beyond, but this was where my fear of heights usually kicked in. Today though, I wanted to see what was beyond that fear. I took my first step and my heart remained steady in my chest, gravity did its thing, my breathing was soft and unfettered. So I took another step, trusting my feet to carry me forward.