As you’ve gathered by now, I have always suffered from anxiety.
I remember being a small child and, after hearing my parents argue that my dad would have no money while on the road for another low paying carpentry job, I put a five dollar bill that he had given me back into his duffle bag because I worried that he wouldn’t get to eat.
As a seven year old, I watched the news religiously during Desert Storm out of constant fear that my dad would be deployed, even though he hadn’t been on active duty for years.
Yet, oxymoron that I’ve always been, I was also really adventurous. In high school, when none of my other friends dared do it, I was the first to dive off a 25 foot cliff into the lake, not once considering the string of possible injuries. Of course, upon reaching the riverbank afterward, I fretted for half an hour about how “icky” my hair would be from the lake water. That was and is my M.O.: Jump now. Worry about it forever.
Then, three years ago, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Thailand and Vietnam with other educators, and when the acceptance letter came in the mail, I began mentally packing for the trip of a lifetime. To say that the trip was life-changing is an understatement: If you met me an hour before the plane took off and then an hour after I returned, you would have sworn you’d made a mistake. Although I had hopped on the plane without a doubt in my mind, when I got there I was riddled with doubt. Will this fruit make me sick? Did I hit the wrong note while singing “I Will Survive” on karaoke? Will this tuk tuk car turn over taking that curve? My brain would not be quiet.
Near the end of our time in Thailand, we went to an elephant conservation camp in Lampang. As usual, when they asked who wanted to ride one through a river, I was the first to volunteer. I climbed the ladder (yes, ladder) up the side and slid onto his back like a professional mahout. I laughed when others feared falling into the rocky water and being trampled to death. When we reached the other side, the elephants mingled with us. They bathed in the water and splashed around. They strolled up to people and took off their hats or tugged at their shirts. I found all of this amusing at first, but then out of nowhere, my old friend anxiety reared his ugly head. When one of the elephants offered kisses by sucking the cheeks and necks of the my friends, I stood back, quietly alarmed. I couldn’t tell you why.
Then, Marilyn, a feisty sixty-something English teacher from North Carolina, pushed me closer and said, “Let go. Let it happen.” Not the first nugget of wisdom Marilyn had shed that trip, but my personal favorite. So I walked up to that elephant, a little bell on his neck tinkling like a shop keep’s door, and it was like he had been waiting for me the whole time. He wrapped his trunk around my shoulder, pulled me closer, and sucked up the skin from my cheek like a wet, furry vacuum cleaner.
Hands down the best kiss of my life.
And I’ve tried to remember Marilyn’s advice every day since: Sometimes you just gotta let go and let it happen. It’s the only thing that will ever really quiet the worrying mind.