Having anxiety means I’m always worrying about 20 steps ahead or romanticizing 20 steps behind me. Like a lot of people, it can be hard for me to disconnect from that defense mechanism to truly enjoy the moment I’m in. I feel like I’m constantly preparing for catastrophe or remembering “the good old days,” so I miss the chance to appreciate what’s going on around me right now. It’s also a way to protect myself from getting too vulnerable because if I never fully surrender myself to the joy of the present, I don’t risk losing anything if and when it passes. I don’t get attached because I’m living a life of planned obsolescence in moments that expire before they’ve even come to pass.
Grounding myself in the present has become an important aspect of recovery because it helps me fight Mean Anorexia Voice one battle at a time, instead of trying to fight the whole war all at once. But holy shit is that hard sometimes. I’m so used to living in tomorrow (or yesterday) that even seeing the present is challenging — like trying to focus on something far away right after I take off my glasses. Balancing the present with the right amount of planning and perspective is hard, too. How much do I need to look back to learn? How far do I look ahead to continue to grow? (Serious questions, friends. If you know the answers, help a girl out.)
Experiencing all of the change I have over the past couple of months has been a good practice in avoiding the trap of nostalgia, because the past often looks so much better with the enameled polish of hindsight. What I’m learning to understand is that no matter how perfect a piece of the past seems when I reflect on it, if it’s not part of my present there’s probably a reason why. It’s hard some days, especially when that song comes on or that smell washes over you or that memory hits you like jumping into a freezing cold lake. It’s just like experiencing an anorexic impulse — the pull of nostalgia will always ebb and flow back into my life, and all I can do is tell it “no” in each individual moment. There is no way to tell it “no” for forever.
Just like nostalgia, the maybes of the future pull me across to the other side beyond the present. Worrying into my tomorrows can feel like preparation, but really it’s just another mechanism for avoiding the time when I am. I often catastrophize a version of the future to pretend I’m “preparing” for what may come, when in reality it just gives me an excuse to wall myself off from the joys of the present because I’ve bought into the lie that it’s “doomed to fail” anyway. And then, a few days or months or years down the road, that then-present moment can become a mechanism of nostalgia that I can ruminate on as I wonder why I’m not as happy as I want to be. Avoiding the traps of my maybes is the same as avoiding nostalgia — saying “no,” one imagined future catastrophe at a time.
Pulling out from the forces of nostalgia and maybes is something that only works when tackled moment by moment. I’m getting better at recognizing when I’m starting to swing either backwards or forwards, and eventually I hope it will become a natural reaction to guide myself back to center. For now, it’s a lot of work. Conscious, exhausting work to catch my brain as it tries to move outside of the time when it is. It’s just as much work to remember that I only have to pull out one moment at a time — I don’t need to find a permanent solution for forever. All I have to do is be willing to fight for the present when I feel a lie of nostalgia or lie of catastrophe try to steal it away.
I’m learning that instead of asking myself if the grass is greener behind me or ahead of me, I should be asking if the grass beneath my feet is the color I want it to be. There will always be opportunities and relationships and experiences we won’t have that could have maybe made our lives richer or happier or fuller in some way. There will always be relationships and experiences and failures that, if avoided, could have maybe made our lives more comfortable or happier on the surface. But maybe isn’t reality, and wasting energy on those maybes only serves to prevent connection with the richness, happiness, and fullness of reality.
Every moment of my past has helped me create the present I’m in, and the future doesn’t exist until my present becomes a piece of the past to create that new present. If I want to experience the fullness and richness and happiness that my life can hold, I need to let go of the fear that somewhere, some patch of grass might be better manicured or more vibrantly colored. I need to let go of the idea that I some how don’t deserve to feel the joy of the now because there’s pain in my past or might be pain in my future. I need to understand that it’s okay to embrace the moment I’m in and truly let myself feel it. I need to be willing to embrace the reality of my present and let go of the anxiety of the future and nostalgia of the past. I am now, and that is the only “when” I can be.