The women in my family have passed down many wonderful character traits and qualities, but the most prominent is making sure there is more than enough food on our holiday tables.
Dozens of baked potatoes; the sweetest sweet potatoes drizzled in a sugary, marshmallow sauce; relish trays overflowing with black and green olives, carrots, pickles and celery with peanut butter; both turkey and ham broiling in roasters that have seen many, many Thanksgiving and Christmas meals; and mountains of homemade, hand-frosted and decorated sugar cookies, individually wrapped in perfectly-sized plastic wrap.
No one ever went without. And there were always leftovers for the days to come.
The mentality of preparing more than you need so there will always be plenty has stuck with me. When you come into my home, into my life, I want you to feel like you belong here, that you are wanted here. But there was a season of my life where I couldn’t.
In college, doctors diagnosed me with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I didn’t understand anxiety or what it meant for me. But, over time, I learned tools to help me cope with things that frustrated or angered me. I learned how to turn my anxiety and stress into openness and conversation. I learned that breathing properly, and fully, could help me respond to the fight or flight response I felt in uncomfortable situations. I learned that being honest at all times was the key to managing my anxiety.
But I still didn’t really understand anxiety.
I managed my life (and with it, my anxiety, I suppose) for several years without incident. And then I hit a season of my life that took the wind out of my sails.
My first panic attack woke me in the middle of the night, throwing me into utter despair. The fear of imminent death was tangible, but I couldn’t identify how or why I was going to die. I just knew I would. I sobbed. I couldn’t control my breathing.
Words are inadequate to describe it, but it was the most terrifying 10 minutes of my life. Something deep inside me whispered: “You’re having a panic attack. Google how to fix it.” So I picked up my phone, hands trembling fiercely, and punched out the words “fix panic attack.” I had resources at my fingertips. Most of them said: “This will pass. Usually only lasts 10 minutes. Keep breathing.”
“OK,” I told myself, “Ten minutes. I can handle ten minutes. Breathing. Yeah, I can do that. I’ll breathe. Good idea.” And as I breathed and watched the clock, I could feel my pulse slowing, the tears residing, the fear fading into the background.
I continued Googling tips: “Name things around you. This is called grounding. Say them out loud.” So I did: “The wall is white. My sheets are gray. I have long hair. My eyes are blue. I’m wearing pants. This blanket is soft. My name is Ashley. My mom loves me. Two and two is four.”
And I survived.
But panic attacks don’t just hit at night. They hit when you least expect, like during work, or while you’re driving on the highway, or when you’re all alone to sit in your thoughts. I had three that first week. I called my doctor and told her this had to stop. I couldn’t live like this. None of my coping skills were working. She handed me a prescription for Xanax as needed and Citalopram, taken daily.
And for about two years, I battled my anxiety. Early on, I withdrew. I took an apathetic approach to many things because I knew apathy would keep the anxiety at bay. And I spent my time alone, deceiving myself into thinking that alone, I was happy and safe and protected.
I wasn’t having panic attacks any more, but I was lonely.
I pushed myself to get off the couch, out of the door and into the lives of people in my community. I found like-minded friends who empathized with my anxiety journey. They were there on the good days and the bad. Their constant presence in my life transformed my thinking. Just me showing up was enough for them. I was enough, just the way I was . . . anxiety and all.
This new perspective was a gift I could bring to the relationships around me. I invested in my community, my family, my friends, new friends. I invited people into my life again, and that was the best decision I could have made.
I try to make my space a welcoming space, whether I’m in a coffee shop, my home, or wandering through the grocery store. I try to look pleasant, instead of pissed off. I try to create more room, even if the table is over-crowded. I try to use the overabundance of empathy that comes along with my anxiety to make people feel welcome.
If you are sad, I will cry with you. If you are overwhelmed, I’ll ache with you. If you are happy, I’ll celebrate with you. I want the space you share with me to be sacred, welcoming, safe.
And the tools in my self-care tool box grew: prescription medications, coping skills of breathing, honesty, open communication and grounding, supportive family and understanding friends. I invested my time in others, my tender-hearted boyfriend and an online community of people who “got it.” But most importantly, I invested in myself. I did soul-filling things: like taking that nap, watching too much NCIS on Netflix, developing my photography skills, cuddling friends’ babies and saying “no” to something that caused anxiety or wasn’t soul-filling.
Talking about my anxiety, making my journey public, has been therapeutic. It’s not just about me—it’s about other people on this journey who may not have the same access to appropriate tools to care for themselves. That’s why my Instagram post that’s less than picture-perfect goes up, or why I’m fine walking out of the house in sweats and no bra to run to the store. It’s an honest view into what my life with anxiety really, truly looks like.
There are so many good days now. There is so much time and distance between me and my last panic attack. My tool box is working. And I decided to do one more brave thing: go off my anxiety medications. As of October 31, 2016, I have been anxiety medication-free. And I’m leaning heavily on my support system. I experience discontinuation symptoms daily, including “brain zaps” and “internal tremors,” fatigue and tensions headaches. But I have a team of people on my side, cheering for me, encouraging me, telling me they’re proud of me.
I still have a long way to go on my own healing journey. But, I have a retro-styled kitchen table and a bright red couch with your name on it. There are plenty of mismatched mugs in all shapes and sizes and colors stashed away in my kitchen cabinets. And there is always coffee or tea or something to eat. It’s not the holiday tables of my mother, grandmother and great grandmother, but it’s what I have to offer.
There will always be space for you because I have learned that “enough” looks like showing up and being present, even if it’s in pajamas and you haven’t showered recently.
You are welcome here.
Ashley Wright is a bilingual legal assistant by day and a photographer whenever she can squeeze in another shoot. She is relearning how to chase her big dreams and continues to practice loving people in everyday life.
You can check out her photography on Facebook and Instagram.