Ponytail Panic

Anxiety has been my friend as far back as I can remember. Even as a kid, my default state was nervous at best, full-blown dread at worst. In some ways, not much has changed in 20 years: it’s not hard to make my blood pressure spike and brainwaves stutter incoherently, though now I’m more terrified of things like job security and creative accomplishments and less scared of German Shepherds and ponytail bumps.

Ponytail bumps were serious business. At age eight or nine, I was obsessed with having a perfectly smooth scalp. I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror for up to an hour, brushing straight back, watery eyes locked on my own reflection. Slowly, hesitantly, I’d pull the rubber band around my fine, dirty blonde hair, tentatively looping the tight elastic once, twice. I held my breath, praying for perfection and the salvation from my racing heart I was sure doing it right would bring. If my hair was perfect, my new classmates would like me, my parents would stop yelling at each other, my life would be a pleasant Lisa Frank-Sanrio dream. There would be teal unicorns, and a cute frog with preternaturally large, round eyes, and maybe a real friend. Turning my head, I’d inspect each side carefully. Inevitably there was a bump, a lump, some ridge throwing everything out of place. I had cowlicks and wasn’t great at doing my own hair, but all that registered was failure. I was ugly and I’d screwed up, and ugly screw-ups got made fun of more than I already did. Frustrated rage and despair quickly followed, usually in the form of tears but sometimes more. Once I broke a hairbrush. Another time, a mirror.

I’m really glad to be a grown-up. Even though I’m still not great at doing my own hair.

Anxiety remains a constant, permeating everything from daily interactions to long-term plans and goals. Or put more simply, I freak the fuck out about a lot of relatively minor daily things. Mostly in my head, sometimes in epic meltdowns around people I trust, and every once in awhile in public, which is pretty much the greatest. Maybe it’s family dysfunction, maybe it’s how I’m naturally wired, maybe some super villain with mind control wastes their powers on making me cry when I don’t bring enough cash for guacamole. I don’t care at this point. I just want it to be better.

And after years of trial and error and more error, it is better. Even manageable. There is still a part of me that believes beyond the shadow of a doubt that I’m going to screw everything up, or that everything is going to go wrong — that things will inevitably be terrible and there’s nothing I can to do stop it, and that doubting everything good makes me safe. But that part is smaller and less convincing (if not gone entirely). I’m better at gently telling myself I’m being ridiculous, or that I need to shut the hell up. And in case this doesn’t sound self-helpy enough, there are things I’ve changed in my daily routine that make a big difference. Stretching every morning. Regular bedtimes. Talking myself through it when my thoughts start spinning. Not drinking to the point of blackout. Revolutionary stuff.

Believing life is going to go to hell with no notice feels natural, a preset that I can’t switch. But I’m trying. It doesn’t always go well. I’ve come a long way from breaking mirrors when I can’t get my hair right, which is good because I regularly get owned by 16-year-olds from La Jolla on YouTube. I go to bed on time, most of the time. I do my homegrown yoga. I have a good man, I have good friends, I have a huge terror that they’re going to disappear and it’ll be all my fault. But it’s less powerful, and I’m getting better at dealing with it. Someday, it might shrink even more.

I keep telling myself that everything is going to be okay. Some days, I believe it.

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