I’ve been silent for a long time. But, I have been healing and regaining my sense of self, and with it, authority over my own life and the courage to LIVE and to share my thoughts, experiences and stories once again. And the belief that good exists and I am worthy of it.
It’d been years since I really opened up in a personal way in the “public” sphere (aka – online, on social media or on my blog, much less hosting my podcast), but a few weeks ago, I participated in my friend Reid’s podcast – and I once again felt the familiar GOOD feelings of believing my ideas and experiences have value and could be interesting or valuable to others (which had been the original inspiration for my blogging years ago). But, you see, that belief had been pushed away by something powerful, pernicious and dangerous: anxiety (sometimes paired with it’s bff – a hint of depression).
While I have likely been struggling with anxiety in its various forms throughout my life, I had never known what it meant or that the word applied to me. That was, until about 3-4 years ago, when I was sitting with my then therapist. She pointed out something like, “it sounds like you’re feeling anxious.” From that conversation, along with the other countless times she used the word anxious, or anxiety, the ball of discovery and inquiry began to roll.
From that point, I began to learn about this internal monster called “anxiety” and many of the ways that it was impacting my life (and it was pervasive). I started to ask all the questions. Do the research. Do the reflection. Look for the source. I started to notice my triggers. But this was just the beginning of my journey of healing. One that is still a work in progress, years later, and I suspect may be that way indefinitely – because like those habits required to build and maintain physical health, healing and achieving emotional and mental well-being are a practice and about an ongoing relationship with ourselves. The same way you don’t have ripped abs from one weight-lifting session or lose 10 lbs from 1 day of calorie deficit, healing and managing your internal state is not about 1 therapy session, 1 yoga class, 1 meditation session, 1 journal entry, 1 creative expression, 1 conversation with a friend, etc. It’s a process. And that process is hard work. And… it’s continual.
For me, certainly, part of that process has been learning to “cope with anxiety”, including such things as building an awareness of my triggers, understanding some of the sources for them, understanding my past, learning about my behavior patterns, learning healthy coping strategies (aka actions for self-regulation) such as mindfulness techniques, yoga, journaling, talking to a friend (shout out to those of you, you know who you are, thanks), therapy, calming music, art, internal validation/empathy and positive “self-talk”/”words of affirmation”. Obviously, it might be best if things didn’t continue to trigger me, but until the magical day when there are never any stressors in life (hint we wouldn’t really want that anyway because overcoming challenges is part of what make life worth living) and all people treat me perfectly well, part of healing is having some better ways to deal with hard stuff when it comes up, so as to not be crippled by negative emotions.
But, is simply “managing” anxiety the goal? What might it mean to “overcome anxiety” – and is that even possible? What exactly does healing mean? What does “achieving mental well-being” look like? It seems to me that the meaning of healing, counterintuitively, is not about trying to decrease/eliminate anxiety completely, or simply increasing your tactics for dealing with it, but rather, to replace much, most or all of the crippling negative emotion with with increased positive emotion. I believe that this is achieved by building our relationships with our selves, increasing self-worth, self-compassion, self-awareness, courage, strength and gratitude – over time. Hear me out. Have you ever had thoughts that bothered you and you told yourself to “stop thinking them”, or feelings you didn’t want and you told yourself to “stop feeling them” and then they just came back? But, when you started focusing elsewhere and filling your mind/heart with other things, well those thoughts/feelings went away – at least temporarily – not just distractions, but meaningful / purposeful things. If anxiety is overwhelming negative emotion that infects our perceptions, and doctors prescribe SSRIs – which increase serotonin, i.e. increase positive emotion – well, it seems that the objective is not just “coping”, but replacing negative with positive (emotion and meaning).
So, you see, I don’t think the goal of “healing” is actually the complete elimination of “anxiety” – because I don’t believe “anxiety” in itself is evil or that it can even simply disappear. The feelings associated with anxiety are sometimes a natural and healthy response to perceived danger – i.e. necessary, such as in an actual life/death situation. Anxiety becomes a problem is either when we don’t have the skills to self-regulate (calm ourselves down) OR when the amount of anxiety is out of proportion with the ACTUAL threat level at hand, such as when there is little to no actual danger, or when the danger is actually manageable/not life threatening, but our bodies have been trigged into a life/death experience, into the fight, flight or freeze experience – and we are our anxiety symptoms (such as overwhelming negative thoughts, brooding, racing mind, racing heart, feeling frozen, feeling hopeless, black/white thinking, catastrophic thinking, low self-worth, overwhelm, repetitive/circular thinking, etc.) manifest themselves and, without “coping techniques” can spiral and become self-perpetuating. Then, comes the rabbit hole: a complete negative outlook, which can appear paranoid to outsiders. When it gets really bad, it affects not only our perception of external situations, but our internal, self-perception and self-worth – and it can be paralyzing.
However, as I previously stated, ultimately healing is actually about increasing positive emotion – i.e. having a more positive state in general. But, since pervasive negative emotion influences our internal self-worth and self-perception/identity, healing is actually about a deeper question than momentary triggers, temporary pain/danger, and fleeting joy or a perpetually (perhaps fake, but well-intentioned) positive mindset… It’s actually about believing that we deserve life and are capable of handling whatever life throws at us. Really. Believing. Down to our primal core… that we deserve to be alive, and that we deserve to ENJOY (take advantage of) being alive – in spite of the challenges, and in spite of the fact that there are a lot of problems in the world. In spite of the fact that at some point, WE WILL DIE, WE DESERVE to feel positively about the fact of our existence and believe that our existence is worth something, and that what we have to offer the world is actually valuable – right now. And that we actually are capable of handling things and dealing with hard situations – without dying. That we can make mistakes and be fine. That we can take risks and survive, maybe even thrive. That we deserve to live and experience ALL that life has to offer – the good, the less good and all. That we deserve love. And that we have a right to our own experiences, opinions, choices, desires, beliefs and way of life. We deserve to feel good about ourselves and about life – itself. That we can feel grateful to be alive and for everything that is out there.
Like I said, this is a journey that doesn’t happen overnight – and it is still ongoing, for me. But, I know, not only from that experience with my friend’s podcast, that I am much further along on the path of healing, building a stronger self and feeling gratitude for “mere” existence than I often give myself credit for. How do I know?
Do you know that bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan, “Life is Good”? I’ve seen it all over, I’ve seen it on spare tire covers on Jeeps, too. It always has this cute type of illustration with it. I’d always seen it, and heard the phrase, but I never really “felt” or believed in the message. It wasn’t that I believed the opposite, but I suppose, I couldn’t quite accept the assessment that life, itself, is, without question, good. Until… one day this past December.
It may very well be my favorite day from my 3-week adventure in Hawaii – which is saying a lot, because every single day was noteworthy. This particular day, I was on the island of Kauai. I started the day, probably like most other days, with some personal hygiene and making breakfast in my Airbnb. I was staying in someone’s home, a couple comprised of a native Hawaiian guy and a German woman, along with another young American guy that they were renting a room to. It was a unique arrangement, for sure. On the list of plans for the day – go for a hike to see an incredible view over a valley on the Napali Coast, then, see where the day brings me. I was in Kapa’a, and my planned hike was on the other side of the island, in Koke’e State Park. Where I was, the weather was sketchy – cloudy, wet, but not raining. I hoped it would be better on the other side of the island. I learned that weather on the Hawaiian islands can be drastically different in different places, and at different elevations, and can change at a moment’s notice. It can be quite unpredictable. Anyway, I prepared for the day and then left on my drive to the park – about 50 miles, or an hour and a half in Hawaiian driving time. The first part of the drive was not so interesting, compared to other drives I had done – it was my first full day on Kauai, but 11 days in and the third island on my tour (first Oahu, second Maui). It was mainly inland and “highways” – or as “highway” as it could be on an island like Kauai. But then, I made it to the bottom of Waimea, to begin my ascent into the mountains, and I started to be overcome by beauty, once again. At first, there was a lot of fog, but I could still see the red rock and dirt. And turning around, I was reminded that I was, indeed, on an island. Like I said, much of the drive was inland, but on the other islands, it was near impossible to forget you’re on an island, what with the road being on the edge of a cliff leading to the ocean – causing you to wonder, who in their right mind decided it was a good idea to build a road there.
Anywho, there I was, making my way up Waimea. I stopped at almost every lookout point, pausing to take in the amazing view and feel the awe. It definitely took me longer to do the drive than Google Maps suggested – between going slow out of fear of edges, and stopping… At one point, on one of the stops, I even saw some mountain goats in the canyon. Eventually, I made it to the parking area for my hike – literally at the place where the road ends (funnily enough, that’s the same directions for many places on the islands – simply drive until you can’t anymore and you’ll arrive in max 2 hours – something kind of funny for someone from the mainland). I got my hiking boots on and went to begin the hike. And wow, was it muddy! I thought I had known what mud on a hike was, but apparently… not. I was suddenly glad I had opted for the shorter “easier” hike of 2.5 miles, rather than being ambitious for a longer trek. As the hike began, I was slipping and sliding. For the second time on my trip, the route started with a descent – something I am not at all used to. On the typical hike in my home area of Orange County, NY and the Catskills… typically… you start going up, and continue going up for quite some time. There is no down until the way back. (Unless you’re doing multiple peaks.)
There I was. On these muddy rocks. Sliding and having a hard time maintaining my footing. I was starting to feel regret at not having purchased and brought trekking poles, but I was suddenly grateful the trail was not as isolated as I had hoped for. Nearby, 2 women and their dog where there, and I joined them – helping each other for support. Eventually, they decided it was too muddy for them and the dog, so they turned back. They were local to Hawaii, so coming back was an option. For me, well, part of why I chose Hawaii in general, and specifically Kauai, was for the hiking, especially the stunning views of the Napali Coast. I made the journey to get all the way here… turning around was not an option. This was literally what I was there to do, and I wasn’t going to let a little mud stop me. I continued on, once again, solo. Eventually, I found a large stick and that became my saving grace. The terrain changed from just descending slick rocks to a “flatter” area with mud. My walking stick made it SO much easier to get through all of it, the slippery, muddy rocks, and the sticky, goopey, puddley areas. I was making progress. There was an area with a view, but, it was covered in clouds, so I couldn’t see anything. And occasionally, there were some passersby heading back. And then… it changed again. Instead of going down the muddy rocks, or trudging through puddles, apparently it was time to ASCEND the muddy rocks… but not simply in a “staircase” type fashion – rather – climbing. Apparently, it was time for wet, muddy rock scrambling. I really, strongly considered turning back at this point. It wouldn’t have been the first hike I was on in Hawaii where I turned back. But, I looked at my map and saw that my progress was significant and there was not much left.
What was I really afraid of? Well, falling sure, but it wasn’t that I would fall off the edge of a cliff, I was not exposed that way. I was afraid of breaking camera equipment. And perhaps, I didn’t want to get MORE muddy than I already was. The scramble ahead, other than the slipperiness and the dirtiness, was not actually anything worse than other scrambles I had done back home. I put the camera inside my pack, and accepted the fact that I would soon be very dirty, all over, and began to size up a way up the rocks that would “make me feel secure”. This is a phrase I realized during another rock scramble a few months earlier, at Mohonk in New Paltz, NY, when I was at a particularly sketchy spot on a mountain of boulders. My hiking partner had already made it past this part, but I was frozen. I was afraid of going forward because I was afraid I would lose my balance and fall backwards down the hill – probably we were about 50-75 ft above the base of the hill. I stood there for some time. I handed him my bag. I stood with my back in the crevice, looking out. Again, there was no option but to continue forward. I breathed. I brought in my yoga training. My breathing, deeply accepting the situation at hand, becoming “one” with where I was. I SLOWLY, found new foot placements and pushed myself, backwards and up, one inch at a time, literally, through the crevice … doing what is now affectionately called, “the butt-skootch.” I had forgotten about the butt-skootch, but it’s a handy move, even if it is not as energy efficient as going forward. This is the move I now do when I am afraid to fall backwards, but there is a way for me to find some security by staying close to the rocks – probably something that has come to me through rock climbing. The idea is literally about feeling a sense of physical safety in a dangerous place, but letting go of any worry or feelings of being judged for how it would look. Not caring what others would think or what others would do to go up, because in that moment, ALL that matters is simply my OWN progress with as much safety as is possible in the situation. My own SECURITY, and I am in control of it in that moment. Well, the butt-skootch, as imperfect, silly looking and inefficient as it might be, is EFFECTIVE. Solutions don’t need to be perfect or elegant, they need to produce effective results. Effective results mean staying alive, and therefore boost confidence and security.
So there I am, at the base of these muddy rocks on Kauai. Sizing them up and slowly but surely, finding my way up. That stick, once again, was very helpful in finding stability. Eventually, a man and woman, probably old enough to be my young parents, arrived. They were having some difficulty with the mud as well. (I should note, even with proper hiking boots, finding traction was nearly impossible.) They took me under their supportive wing and we ended up doing the rest of the hike together – providing each other support – physical and emotional. We eventually made it to the view at the “end” of the hike. It really was incredible. This amazing, deep valley, between volcanic mountains, full of lush greenery, ending in the ocean. Literally breathtaking. We even saw a rainbow in the valley. We then headed back. We passed a few people heading in. And on the way back, we were able to see the view that was clouded over on my way out.
Once we had returned, I noticed just how dirty I was, and I wore it as a badge of honor. … until I exchanged my muddy boots for flip flops and changed my pants in the parking lot, so as to not get the rental car muddy. My legs, arms and shirt were still covered in grime. I went up to another lookout point. And, another rainbow appeared, this time extending from the ocean, over the valley and into the other side. It was such a magical moment. I spoke to another couple, somewhere around my age, at the lookout – the woman is also a photographer and social media content creator, and they live in Honolulu – this was a short getaway for them. We commented on the amazing prevalence of rainbows in Hawaii, and how neither of us would tire of photographing them. Then, eventually, I decided to continue on my way. Right after the hike, I talked with a guy on a motorcycle and asked for a recommendation for the best beach nearby to watch the sunset. He gave me some instructions, essentially, again, “drive until the road ends… then drive off-road some more.”
Being too late to do another hike, plus that was pretty intense already, even if shorter than I was planning or might normally do, I decided to take the advice for that beach. I began making my way down the mountain. The view in this direction… wow. I could see the canyon better now that the clouds had dissipated and sunlight was streaming in. Plus, the end of the view, which was behind me on the way up… well that was the the never ending ocean, and in the distance, volcanic peaks on other small islands, and the near golden hour sunlight. Literally unbelievable – yet a daily occurrence here on Kauai. And this was the moment I felt it.
“LIFE IS GOOD.”
After 11 days in paradise, without the stressors of “normal life” and accomplishing one of the absolutely most unique hikes in my life, seeing this view. I FELT IT down to my core. If this amount of beauty can exist. If I can do that muddy as hell hike and not get hurt. If all the plants can grow over what was once a volcano and be this lush. If I can survive all the challenges of my life and end up here, to witness all of this overwhelming beauty…. If beauty, not just anxiety, stress and suffering, can be overwhelming enough where literally NOTHING ELSE MATTERS besides being there in THAT moment to witness the beauty … LIFE, ITSELF, MUST BE GOOD. And I felt it in every fiber of my being. And I swear, I was not on drugs. I was high, on life, itself and beauty.
I continued down the mountain, and made my way to a nearly private beach. I drove until the road ended, and then turned onto a dirt road, and continued through the bush until I found the access to various beach campsites. I was glad I had rented an Outback – even if I saw some much sportier and fancier cars in the vicinity. That dirt road… a bit rough – but not as intense as one I would encounter on the Big Island in a week or so. I arrived at the beach. I stood in the water, ankle deep, wandering and appreciating the amazing view. The beginning of sunset, the end of the beach was the base of the mountains – but quite vertical, not slow grade at all. Shadows of volcanic peaks and small islands in the distance. Ocean as far as the eye can see. Waves crashing. The surf was strong and it wasn’t recommended to swim in this area, but some people did anyways. Tire tracks in the sand. A family nearby, a couple in the other direction, people further away. But definitely not crowded. As time passed, many people left. I continued to observe. I took photos and engaged the sunset. Feeling and capturing the moment. Another of many moments of beautiful solitude. Loving every moment of my short time in paradise and not wanting it to end, but it, as does every moment, passed.
I learned and had many lessons come to me while in Hawaii. I had many phenomenal and completely unbelievable experiences, and witnessed unfathomable beauty. And gratitude.
But to FEEL with all my body that life is good and I can do ANYTHING, that shows me that my healing process has been working. And while that is not always a daily occurrence for me, healing is most definitely a work in progress, but this is achievable, and simply eliminating anxiety is not the answer. Believing that I deserve more, that I deserve to feel the goodness that life has to offer, and then allowing it to fill me up. The fact of my trip to Hawaii, in itself, is a sign of progress, but this latter experience shows how far I have come in allowing the good to fill me up. I still have my bad moods, my triggers, stresses, insecurities, fears, challenges, and more healing to do, BUT, now, I also have my coping skills, my yoga, my friends, my personal “words of affirmation”, my journal, my art AND I have Hawaii.
If I can get this far, so can you… So, what is your Hawaii?