I Have Been Afraid to Stand Still
I don't do a ton of traveling anymore, not compared to what I used to do. I was the sort of person who never let grass grow under her feet, as they say. I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties zooming all over the place. There were some good reasons, and also some not-great ones, too.
I grew up dealing with agoraphobia, and when I finally started to figure out the right treatment plan in my early twenties, it felt like a miracle. I had accumulated a couple decades' worth of fear of planes, trains, and - yes, honey - automobiles (plus boats! Don't get me started on watercraft!) But thanks to cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, meditation, regular ol' talk therapy, different books, and just growing and changing, life began to open up bigger than I could've imagined.
It's common addict behavior to go from 0 to 60 in under a second, and in some ways, that's how I operated for years.
I went from being a college dropout to actually finishing school (eventually) and getting a degree from a little school in gorgeous Asheville, NC. I'll love those Blue Ridge Mountains forever, because I first connected with them when I needed the kind of healing that nature can provide.
I moved right to the Southwest, where I knew nobody, to teach school for a year. It was hard and sometimes lonely, but so incredibly formative. I don't suppose I'll ever forget those mountains, either, jagged and majestic as they were. They said there was a hermit who used to live up in the mountains, an ascetic of the ancient school, a priest who chose the life of the desert mystic. Down in the valley where a town had sprung up, they'd know he was safe because they'd see his campfire after sunset. One night, the firelight never appeared. After that, neither did he.
Where I had once been frightened to leave my bedroom, I couldn't get enough of winging around the country. I eventually became a stand-up comic, so there was an always an excuse to go out on the road.
I love (clean) hotels and motels. The fancy ones are a luxurious thrill, but I can tell you for a fact there's nothing more satisfying when you're tired than a nice, tidy, reasonably quiet budget motel with a comfy bed and sheets that at least FEEL freshly laundered.
Does the room smell slightly of cleaning supplies? I love it! Do I have blackout curtains or a reasonable facsimile? Thank you! Do I have a rental car that can take me to a pretty state park and a convenient Target? Luxury! If there's a cute coffee shop in town where some local celesbian has made framed art on an oversize Post-It with macaroni and glitter and is selling it for $40, I will at least CONSIDER buying it.
For various reasons, the stand-up comedy lifestyle didn't suit me. I started dialing way back on stand-up right around the time I became a published author. But the travel sure wasn't the issue. I didn't suddenly give up my taste for the unmoored life. I just found new ways to it.
When a book comes out, it's usually considered beneficial to do in-person readings at bookshops and, sometimes, the back of somebody's dad's convenience store or inside a barber shop after-hours. I loved it.
At this point, you might say to yourself, "Well, that doesn't sound so wild or stressful. She hit the road sometimes for work stuff. So what? Plenty of people do that. Sounds like her Prozac was working." And indeed, it was.
What I haven't told you yet is how often I moved my residence during my young (and not-so-young) adult life. In fact, I didn't even know, until I sat down and crunched some numbers for this little letter to you.
From when I began college to when I was 40, I moved 29 times and lived in, by my count, 26 abodes of various shapes and sizes. That's 26 bedrooms in various apartments, houses, and/or dormitories (including one small but picturesque Dutch castle). Several states, a couple countries, and probably a few mental trips to outer space.
Sometimes I struggled with crushing depression and suicidal ideation, or horrible panic attacks. I was fortunate to have parents who welcomed me home and took care of me in those times of need. My uncle and aunt and grandparents helped, too. I was very lucky.
Why was I seemingly allergic to settling down? I could use the excuse that I grew up in six or seven different houses, but my younger brother had the same parents as me and didn't develop my restlessness. Two kids can have the same parents and live in the same house and go to the same schools and take away very different messages, of course.
I have often felt that my younger brother grew up faster than I did. Perhaps we just reacted differently to the same situations. I know we were treated differently, though our parents strove to keep things equal in some ways.
I don't know that I really felt like an adult until I quit drinking in 2018. That's when I began to learn about what's commonly called re-parenting. I know it's a trendy term, and maybe it's annoying to you - I get embarrassed even saying it, though when other people work on it I think it's good. Weird how we make rules for ourselves that are different from those we have for others, right?
Anyway. I grew up with a family that helped me in what ways they could, but I finally realized I needed to focus a lot on growing an inner parent who could take care of shit. I'd had an extended adolescence in various ways for so long. When I removed alcohol, I had to feel more of my feelings, and that took a lot of quiet time and alone time.
I've lived in my current place for longer than I ever stayed anywhere else since I was 18. In fact, I've been there for over two years now. I've had the same cat for over three years. I haven't had a drink in over five years. I've had the same full-time job for over six years.
The other day, when anticipating a brief vacation, I had my first panic attack in awhile. I don't see it as backtracking - I used to beat myself up when I'd have one, especially after a long period of relative calm.
You and I both know that yelling at oneself for being human doesn't help anything, right? Right. Well, I have to remind myself of that often (and maybe I'm reminding you of it, too.)
I guess I got scared because I was stepping out of my careful, quiet routine. I got scared because I was allowing myself to try something new. I even got scared that I would have too many emails to respond to when I got back, and that I would miss out on talking about some detail of an upcoming work project. In truth, I think I also knew I was going to miss talking to my coworkers (it's fine, I texted them from vacation, I'm weird but I like them and they put up with me.)
How strange that what once seemed commonplace is now so different. What once might not have seemed very exciting is, in fact, a big draw.
I feel better now, a few days later. In a charity shop, I heard a volunteer say the name of the town where I'd once lived, the one near the mountains with the vanished priest. I went over and asked if he was from the town. He wasn't, but he wants to visit. He's been to 38 countries, but travel is expensive, and he wants to see more of our own country.
I told him I was so impressed he'd been to all those places. I told him I used to live and work in that town he'd been discussing with another patron, and that it is full of interesting people (and as a bonus, more affordable than other, more popular destinations in the same region). I told him that when I first moved there, I wasn't used to seeing so much sky, and it freaked me out. But it was a good place. And the mountains, I said, were beautiful.
"This is so weird," he said. "I just posted this 22 hours ago." He showed me a photo of the mountains where the priest lived. It was like seeing an old friend whom I remember fondly but don't need to keep up with day-to-day. I still love them. They still love me. Things unfold as they do.
"You should go," I said. I had a few panic attacks in sight of those mountains, but not many. I was already starting to speed up back then, in my mid-twenties, to run away from what had ailed me to new troubles and new good things.
I understand why I got freaked out the other day, and why my sympathetic nervous system tried to keep me safe by pinning me in place with an old-fashioned panic attack. I still took the trip.
I continue to change, deep down, and the churning sometimes reaches the surface like that, and in other ways. But beneath the waves, and even beneath the hidden place of internal activity and reactivity, there's a quiet, blissfully dark, cool and comforting spot where it's always still and safe. The soul does not drown, and it is never frightened.
I believe you have that place too, whether you locate it in water, fire, sky, or the soft dark loam in which everything grows. For you, perhaps, it is a cave inside a mountain. I do not know if it exists beyond this lifetime. I'll admit, I'm fuzzy on the details. I am not trying to sell folklore as fact, though there can be truth and fiction in both.
We are not meant to understand such things intellectually, but to feel into them, gradually, as life opens itself up to us and gently asks us to stay.