It might surprise you to know that I have panic attacks. They aren’t frequent or severe, but in the moment they take hold like a terrier with a rat, shaking my nerves and pushing my breath back into my lugs, held hostage in the moment. It is the reason I don’t like to fly. Over twenty years ago I had my first one at the start of a 13+ hour flight and I fear the return of that feeling should I be on a plane. The sensation starts in my feet and crawls its way up my body and all the while I keep thinking, “I don’t want this. I don’t want this. I don’t want to be that person or have this struggle or weakness. I don’t want to deal with something I can’t control.” Those thoughts don’t stop the attack from coming, by the way. My nervous system has taken over and there’s little I can do to hold back the wave that is coming.
I remember having a similar feeling as a child standing at the top of a snow-covered mountain, skis strapped to my feet and goggles tightly affixed to my face. The hill below me looked so steep and the skis felt so fast. “I don’t want to do this! I can’t do this! How do I get off this mountain some other way?” By the way, you can’t. Not really. You point your skis down the slope and pray that everything you’ve learned instinctively takes over.
And it did. I made it down the mountain and begged to go back up again and again. Once I knew I could do it, my fear lessened and was replaced by pride and confidence. Skiing is still one of the most liberating sensations I know.
Right now we find ourselves staring out at a reality we did not choose for ourselves. You might be sheltering in place or quarantined alone or with a house full of family members, neither of which you necessarily would have picked at this moment. We watch as the wave of COVID-19 continues to crash upon and consume the maps projected behind reporters and health experts.
“I don’t want this. I don’t want to go through this. I didn’t ask for this.”
We stand at the top of the great mountain with no place to go but down, not knowing how we will every make it. And though we all stand at the top of the same mountain, we feel isolated and alone. Other people seem to be managing just fine; or, at least, they’re struggling through with more grace than we. It becomes all too easy to stand at the top, looking down, and assume everyone else has gained some sort of special knowledge to help them navigate the threatening expanse ahead, meanwhile we don’t even know what day it is, what clothes to wear, how to teach our children and work from home, how to limit our kids’ screen time without losing our patience, how not to panic and buy all the toilet paper (big communal fail on this one), or how to wake up and breathe and smile and be ok.
Don’t tell yourself those lies and don’t believe them. Everyone is struggling. Everyone is trying to figure out how the hell we do this, how we manage through this season of international pandemic. No one has it figured out and most of us are laughing because we’re not too sure what else to do.
And don’t believe the lie that you’re alone. None of us are.
And there lies the truth that helps us move forward, to point our skis down the hill, and hold on tight.
“Don’t look all the way down the mountain. Just look at the ground ahead of your skis and take it a little at a time. I’ll be right here the whole time.” I hear my dad’s voice in my mind. The little girl on top of the mountain made those first movements because she was told she wasn’t alone. She didn’t have to do it by herself.
Individually we can make it through this, learn a new way of being, find strength in unexpected places, and not be overcome, because WE can do this. As a community we are strong. We’ve weathered worse before, we just don’t remember. My husband’s grandparents are still living, part of the “Greatest Generation” at 96 and 94 years of age. They just celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary last weekend. I look to them and think, “Oh, right. We’ve been through worse and for a lot longer. I just don’t remember. But they do.”
We have made it through the unknown and the uncertain before and lived to thrive again. WE have. All of us. It’s in our inherited memory bank should we choose to access it. We do it by putting our heads down and focusing on the immediate task in front of us. There are moments when we must look up to assess the wider ground ahead of us in order to plan and prepare, but if we freeze and only look at the whole view, we can’t take the first step.
About a month ago I felt the familiar and dreaded tingle in my feet. I was standing at the top of a wooden staircase three stories above the ground, waiting in line to ride a water slide with my kids. I had looked down and out around the giant water park around us and my poorly-timed and unnecessary mommy survival instinct kicked in. We were in no danger, whatsoever, but you couldn’t tell my primal self that. I stopped, gave myself a moment to panic (“I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be up here”) then started my square breathing and looked at my children. They were right in front of me, smiling and excited that Mommy was going down the slide with them. I needed only remember that I was not alone, that the next few steps in front of me were fine, and that WE would do it together.