jumping into pools (or, my fear of new experiences)

Several years ago, in the summer after my second year of college, I told my friend that I’d never jumped into a pool. Not once, not ever.

We were at the pool outside our condo in Palm Springs, California, which sounds much more glamorous than the reality. We were unpaid interns at the city newspaper. I took out a personal loan to finance the three months I lived there. From June to August, the place was dead: The seasonal residents had gone north for the summer. It was 115 degrees the weekend we arrived; it would hit 120 several weeks later.

That summer is a blur. I quickly realized I hated news reporting, I turned 20, I had a panic attack outside a film festival where I interviewed various actors and filmmakers. We took trips to San Diego and Los Angeles and San Francisco, driving up Highway 1 and blasting Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City as we cruised through Santa Barbara. Wendy Davis did her famous filibuster, and we cried at the live broadcast in our living room. My friend got her purse stolen while on assignment. My other friend got bad news about her dad’s cancer diagnosis. I spent most of my free days and nights curled up in bed, hiding from the desert sun, watching New Girl on my laptop, or crying. In the airport on my way back home to Louisiana, I broke down because my suitcase was massively overweight and I had no money left to pay the airline fee.

It was a miserable summer. I don’t regret it.

In 2013, that internship was the bravest thing I’d ever done. I didn’t know it at the time, but I have a lifelong history of only taking risks if I think I’ll succeed. My California summer was the first time I had truly jumped headfirst into something foreign. I had no idea whether I’d do well or make it for two months without running out of money, or how I would deal with living in an unfamiliar environment for the first time.

When I told my friend about my lack of pool-jumping experience, I didn’t realize how strange it was, nor did I understand the full implications. We had only been friends for a few months, but they already saw my risk-aversion more clearly than I did — in my romantic relationships, my lifestyle choices, my hobbies. I was stunted, and it was no one’s fault but my own. “Jump in the pool, Erin!” that friend has said to me, metaphorically, several times in the years between then and now.

California was the catalyst for the changes I’d make over the next six years. Slowly but surely, I got braver and bolder. Each time I faced something that scared me, I pictured myself standing on the edge of the pool, looking down at the water, panicking at the thought of stepping off the ledge and inhaling chlorine. It might be uncomfortable, but what if it’s also really, really fun?

I’m still learning how to talk myself into new things that feel scary. Pitching a passion project for work? Done. Riding a bike in the city? Conquered. Applying for a job I wanted, even if I felt unsure of my qualifications? It didn’t work out the way I wanted, but I’m OK. Singing karaoke? Let me work up to it, please!

My life got brighter after that summer I turned 20, broke and unhappy, partly thanks to that poolside conversation. I’m hoping this blog will, in part, be a place where I document attempting the new things, small or large, that scare me. Maybe I’ll even jump into a real pool one day.

P.S. That friend who lit a fire under my ass is now a New York Times bestselling author. Go buy her book.

august anxiety + anniversaries

It’s the second-to-last week in August, and I’ve spent most of the month feeling unsettled. Anxiety is familiar to me — so much that without that discomfort, I sometimes feel too calm, too at ease, almost empty, and I start to look for things to bring back the racing heart and ruminations. But until now, this summer had been different. My therapist was even impressed with how at ease I seemed (“You really seem to be enjoying the summer,” she said to me in one session last month).

I’m not sure why this summer has felt so much more enjoyable than last — maybe it’s because I’m spending more time outside, gardening, walking to work, going to the farmers market each week (nobody tells you how Vitamin D-deficient you become when you move to Pittsburgh). I think that’s part of it, but I also think I’ve grown a lot in the past year, more than I’d even realized.

Much of that growth is tied to my relationships and career goals and lifestyle changes. I learned and am still learning what it takes to be a good partner, a good daughter and sister, and a good friend. I decided to go back to school for social work and realized how much I missed learning in a classroom and how good it feels to challenge myself mentally. I started eating and cooking and buying and living according to my values, and I care less about what people think of me (I still care a little, though — anxiety will do that).

All that’s to say that when this current anxiety crept up on me, I was pretty stunned by it. What’s wrong with me? What sparked this? What’s going on right now that I need to fix?

That’s the thing about anxiety. It screams at you: Something is wrong! There’s something you need to change, or else! Your life/well-being/happiness is at risk! And because an anxiety disorder is like a disembodied force hovering over you, like my therapist describes, it looks for something to make its home. For most of my life, there had been an easy target for my anxiety because growing up means dealing with near-constant unfamiliarity and new experiences. But right now life feels more familiar and comforting than ever. You would think this means that anxiety gets easier to deal with, like a pest I can just swat away. But instead, my anxiety gets disoriented and decides to just spread itself out over everything, making me feel generally unsettled and discontent. I don’t know where to turn to send it back into hiding.

At some point last week, when I was stuck on my couch, feeling trapped by my thoughts and inability to focus on anything, I googled “August anxiety” and realized — oh, yeah, duh, of course this is a thing. After the hottest weekend this summer, I suddenly felt the air get a little lighter, a little breezier. Our garden will be done giving us vegetables in a month, two if we’re lucky. Soon enough, the whole city will be bundled up and stuck inside more often than not, and everything will be gray. As much as I love and appreciate the changing seasons — coming from a place like Louisiana, where there are really only two of them — it doesn’t make Western Pennsylvania’s long, freezing winters any easier to handle.

So I’ll do what I’ve gotten so used to doing: I’ll wait until the feeling passes. I’ll feel OK again, and then one day I won’t feel OK for a while. And that will continue every day until I die. Some people look to religion to make sense of why life is the way it is, but I just look to the seasons. (Or, if you prefer the words of Rascal Flatts via Tom Cochrane, ~~~life is a highway~~~)

Now, a happier but no less mushy-gushy-feelings thing: Yesterday was Joe’s and my anniversary, and we had dinner at Onion Maiden, one of our favorite restaurants, and saw Young Frankenstein at Row House Cinema to celebrate two years since the night we met up a bar near my apartment, talked for 8 hours (literally) about life and music and Spider-Man and our respective mental illnesses and dead grandmothers. Now we share that apartment, our two cats, some A+ friends and other lovely things. Some days I am just truly, deliriously happy that I get to be his partner. Life is wild!