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What it feels like in this moment

This story was originally published on Medium. Follow me on Medium: @kaitemckenna.

It rained all day. Everyone expected loss: cancelled buses, little access to the city, power outages. For a metropolis built around a harbour, Sydney doesn’t cope well with rain. Like Boston in the snow, you’d think they’d have it down by the year of our lord 2019, but I can assure you they do not.

It’s only appropriate that I’m living here in this moment of my life, then — I, too, feel comically unprepared. This new normal I’ve built for myself feels wonky to say the least. Each time the sunshines, I’m too scared to go to the beach, in case I get stuck in the storm.

In all of the hardship these last ten years has been, this is the time I always dreamt of having. I imagined waking up at the same time every day. I imagined having a fixed schedule. I imagined having the same money in every paycheck, being able to plan my finances ahead of time. I imagined having space to clear my head. I imagined all of this, in what felt like the bottom of a well without a rope, eager to start over. I imagined boring, ordinary, calm.

Regardless of this, I still find myself on edge. This is what we call hypervigilance. Constantly waiting for things to break. Able to spring into fight or flight at any moment. Heart racing when I’m walking down a street alone. Lights on full in the middle of the night. Pulling my headphones off to hear my surroundings.

The thing about hypervigilance is that staying in it for too long can be disastrous for your health. A recent study found that constant high stress can put you at risk of heart attacks. Anxiety ruins your sleep. Nightmares ruin your sleep. You’re running on empty. That’s when autopilot takes over, or even dissociation. Day to day, I pull myself back up to surface. Sometimes I forget where I am, that my body is moving, or that I’m awake. I drift back to looking up at the Mount Hope Bridge, praying to never see it again. Cleaning up blood. Throwing away the comforter in my DC apartment with my friend. Drowning in a cold sweat in my hospital room, surrounded by nurses until I fade into a dark fainting spell. Then I come back to my desk and remember that I’m not in danger anymore, but my hand is against my chest, steadying my breath.

Last week, I found myself in really deep. Work has been stressful lately. All of my deadlines are by the end of June. The days are shorter. People are constantly in conflict over nothing. My laundry hadn’t been done in over a week. I got to the end of my rope, walking into my apartment white in the face. I wrapped myself in Bryce’s big, smoke coloured bath robe. We watched Barry, and I tried to make it through the entire episode without bursting into tears. There was a humming in my ears and I could feel the anxiety mounting, climbing up my throat. When I broke down, I felt my legs buckle underneath me and pulled them closer to my chest. There I was — in a giant bathrobe, laying on a bright red shag rug, letting out a painfully needed cry.

When I woke up in the morning, I reflected on how I got to that point. On the train to work, I spent time thinking about other nights when I’ve felt that full of anxiety. I am a laughably stressed out person, probably because of my swift and ever-present perfectionism (see 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9), so being a little anxious is kind of my baseline. However, looking back, other times when I’ve gotten to that point have been for things much more traumatic than a few professional deadlines. The thing is, my body’s never adjusted to a normal level stress situation. I have to retrain my brain to know when it’s in danger, and when the situation is under control.

The day after my big cry, I focused in on getting my work back in order. I took my full lunch. I knocked procrastinated items off my to-do list. I kept myself grounded. I’ll be okay.

It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true: you can only do what you can do, nothing more. It needs to get done, so you will get it done. If it doesn’t get done, the world is not going to buckle in on itself (human activity is the one killing the world, not your project deadlines). If I’ve learned anything, there’s always a way to scale the walls back up to the opening of the well. There will continue to be rain in Sydney, and one day the city may catch up to that, too. For now, I’m making space for myself in the life I’ve worked toward. It’s been waiting for me.

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