As you might know, this year I’m forcing myself – once a month – to do something that I am terrified of. But not just anything I’m terrified of; specifically something that most people wouldn’t think twice about. Those things that to many are perfectly normal, but scary to me. This month, I went for a walk.
“What?” I hear you cry, “how do you find that terrifying? Your agoraphobia isn’t that bad?”
You’d be right. But also wrong. You see, there is a key thing I haven’t told you about this walk: I didn’t wear my headphones. My headphones that have, for years, been my talisman against the anxiety I feel whenever I am around strangers. My headphones that, normally, I cannot leave the house for more than a minute or so without. The only exception is if I have another person with me.
So I can’t express strongly enough how scared of this I was.
But it was near the end of the month, and I hadn’t done anything. Nor did I feel up to doing something that involved actually directly interacting with a person (which many of my ideas require). And it was a nice evening – really nice. I went at about 6pm, and it was bright and clear and the perfect temperature.
For safety, I put earbuds in my pocket as a backup. I won’t use them unless it’s an absolute emergency, I told myself. There was no one at home to come and save me if I had a panic attack. It was my way of being careful.
This scary thing was very different to the others, because it didn’t involve booking it and then waiting for a few days. It just involved going and doing it. Which, ultimately, meant that I didn’t have a chance to get super anxious – and in fact, my first observations were that it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be.
But to be really sure I was easing myself into it, I took my kindle.
As I left the house and started meandering down to the riverside path I was aiming for, I opened NK Jemisin’s How Long Til’ Black Future Month and started reading. I’d gotten a few short stories in by that point, and started on the next one. This zoned me out pretty quickly.
Eventually I got away from the roads and onto the river. The traffic noise died away, and I realised that the primary thing that I could hear was birdsong. I finished the short story not long after I hit the path, so I had some time to notice and appreciate that auditory backdrop.
The more I heard it, and especially having just read one of my favourite authors, the more I wanted to write. It wasn’t that I had ideas swimming around in my head, even – I just had the urge to write something. The need to. It was a nice feeling to bask in.
Then a group of loud teenage boys passed me, and that was a bit intimidating.
Groups of people are universally scary for me, but loud or drunk ones are the ones I struggle with the most. I don’t think these kids were drunk, but they were definitely at teenager volume, and that was a bit hard. I tensed up and walked faster.
For a moment I got distracted then by trying to stop my brain from being an awful bigot. They were all wearing tracksuits. My middle-class privilege was screaming these people are other and they are dangerous to you. I hate this part of myself, and am trying my best these days to acknowledge and admit and control it. But it’s still there, and it still happens.
And, much like my fear of being without my headphones, it will keep happening unless I expose myself to the triggers more.
But this passed, and soon I had a new dilemma: what nice things do I miss because doing them is a risk?
Because I was back to hearing birdsong now, and only passing a few cyclists and joggers and dog walkers, which I could tolerate. I was thinking about that desire to write again, and getting excited about whatever the next short story in the book was, and amusing myself by watching the swans try to burrow into the sides of the river.
There are lots of things I don’t do because they’re too scary. And some of them, yeah, I can’t. But a lot of them I could if I tried, right? That must be true, because otherwise I wouldn’t be walking down a populated path without my headphones on.
I thought about this, and I thought about how hard walking down this path was now, of all times. When I’ve been dissociating so badly for the past few weeks. The difficulty is – I like just being in my head a lot. I really like it. But it can get too much. Daydreaming about fictional people, which is what I do most of the time I go into my head, is addictive.
To challenge myself further, I sat down by the riverside to read.
People passing was scary. Really scary. I’d semi-unconsciously hid myself behind a tree, but it was impossible for the people passing me not to look at the woman sitting on the wall with a kindle.
I managed to enjoy the story nonetheless, though I had to stop and start a few times because my anxiety levels were spiking. Soon I started to become very grateful for the cyclists, who were gone and past in a flash, compared to the walkers who would meander. I might’ve even enjoyed the story a bit more for how hard it was to get through, to be honest.
Once it was done I stood up from my wall and walked home, still feeling a bit anxious, but not feeling exhausted by it. I walked back up the path, onto the noisy road, and all the way home – feeling confident that I had challenged myself and that, though a lot of it was unpleasant, I’d also kind of enjoyed myself.
I didn’t put the earphones on once.
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