Friday, May 13, 2011

A Jar of Hidden Things and Secret Thoughts

This is the story of my coming home, but more than that, it's the story of me coming to terms with myself.  The time has come to share. I brought out the jar and have poured it out on this page.  It's the heaviest, most serious post I've ever written, so if you only come to this blog for laughs and recipes, please skip to other entries. 

Let me start with the obvious: 1) I'm home from Switzerland 2) I haven't been writing about it.  I've been going along with the thought that I owe you (the reader) nothing and therefore no reason to lay it out there. And then I read my dear friend Julie's post about ziploc bag honesty and it cut me to the core. This is why I stopped writing.  I can't write what I'm not feeling. There hasn't been a Things I Love This Week post in ages, because I'm not in a place where I can stop to smell the flowers and appreciate the little things.  The words are forced and fake, so I don't write them. But at the same time, I'm terrified of being honest in my blog, because I can't even be honest with myself.

I've been hemming and hawing, nervously guarding this experience, keeping it trapped in the swirling mass of all the everyday stream-of-consciousness thoughts of being:

"I think there's a Goodwill on the way to the grocery store.....if I am merely the sum of all my day-to-day choices, who am I today?.....must remember to call Grammie back...I love that turquoise sweater....what am I going to do with the rest of my life?......ah perfect, adding vinegar to regular milk will substitute for buttermilk....was Switzerland a dream? did it change me at all?....why aren't pet foxes a thing? must marry someone rich/smart to make this happen." 

For a very long time, there's been a heaviness to my thoughts.  A dark cloud, full of stinging rain that threatens to burst in my mind at any point.  I used to love long drives. Not just 45 minutes through the countryside, but 10, 11 hour roadtrips to the East Coast. "Don't you get bored?" people would ask. But no, I could just become so utterly absorbed in my thoughts that the hours and the miles would fly by.  Something about just me, my music, and the rhythm of the wheels, that appealed to my unburdened, idealistic mind.  Such clarity that comes from hours of letting my mind wander uninhibited!

Last week, I took a trip to Massachusetts with my sister, and it was clear my love affair with the open road was no more. I got into the driver's seat, adjusted the mirrors, and let my mind wander as Eva drifted off to sleep next to me. There's a certain point in between the miles where the usual brain chatter fades away and the memories and deep musings begin.  The thoughts of gas prices and where we would stop next faded away, to be replaced by a happy memory of an evening with all the family in the living room of our cottage in England. I paused in my mind to walk around the memory, picking up and examining the pleasant little details. Watching my cousin open her wedding gifts. Someone was braiding my hair, the sense memory of fingers next to my scalp.  The sound of spoons clinking against teacups. A general sense of togetherness and being loved. But of course, the evening didn't last forever. We got up and filtered out of the room and the memory began to pass, the warm golden ribbon of good feeling melting away. 

It's funny how memory works; things dash across our mind at the speed of light but sometimes it stops to savor a specific event, moment by moment. But then it's over and the faces of my various family members slipped out of my mind's eye as quickly they left the room that night. It picked up speed, the rest of that English vacation, flashing by, leaping forward through that summer, and all the things and choices that led me to that moment of leaving for Switzerland.  That terrible, gut-wrenching instant when my family's faces disappeared beyond the security gate and I was alone in the airport, facing the biggest experience of my life. When I slumped down into the blue plastic chairs of the terminal and cried so hard I thought my boots would fill with tears and float away.  
 In that moment, a cold fear gripped my heart. There I was standing on the brink of the unknown, not ready to jump but with nothing left to hold onto.  Everything familiar was moments from being left behind, tiny shapes disappearing into the blue as the plane carried me away.

As I was reminiscing in the car, the same feelings crept back over me.  Because I'm in that exact same place right now.  I'm home from Switzerland, earlier than planned, and the world is a huge white canvas.  Somewhere in my mind I know that I should be excited by the wide world of possibilities before me but I'm terrified.  I'm unemployed and living at home, with no idea what the future holds in store.  What if I don't have the right tools?  What if I fail?  What if the best I'll ever be in this life is already behind me?  These are the things I think about if I let my mind wander.  The icy fingers of doubt sneak in and take over.  I was suddenly afraid to be at the wheel, as though on top of everything else, I would lose control of the car too.  Eva had to drive the rest of the way that day. I wanted to run home and crawl under the covers.

That's the difference between me then and me now.  It never occurred to me to gather my bags and run out of that airport, back in the direction I came.  I knew there were two little Swiss children 4500 miles in front of me, waiting for their new nanny.  I knew there were lands and people and things and moments that I would come to love just as much as the ones I was leaving.  So I sloshed off to the bathroom, mopped up and actually slapped myself in the face. I looked hard in the mirror at my watery eyes and told myself that I could do this. "Get a grip. Go tackle this, like you tackled college. Like you tackled that terrible job at the dog kennel. Like you know enough about football to be using such words as 'tackled'. And if anyone asks, that growing red mark on your cheek is rosacea."  

And I did. Deepest of breaths, stepping onto the plane and again the memory slides out, whizzing forward to the present day. It became true: there are lands and people and things and moments from those seven months that I love so dearly.  Experiences I would not replace for all the tea in China. But I changed. The cold fall wind blew in and stayed; it seemed to hollow out a space inside me.  It was like a hole appeared in the fabric of my being. Small enough to go unnoticed for awhile but big enough for all the sunshine and self-confidence to slowly leak out.  And the most maddening thing: I don't know why or how the hole got there.  

And then one day I was standing in a crowded museum in Paris, in a crush of people admiring a Vincent Van Gogh collection when it seemed like all the oxygen left the room.  For no reason at all, that cold fear from the airport was back. And it brought a friend: pure, unadulterated panic.  Waves and waves of it, as though I'd been thrown into the ocean and had forgotten how to swim.  It caught me completely off-guard.  I took the train back to Switzerland early Monday morning, a thousand questions plaguing me. And then it kept happening, regardless of time and place. Out of nowhere, fear and panic would encircle me and link arms. The more I struggled, the tighter the grip until suddenly, release. And I'm on the floor, sweating and gasping for air.  

I began to fear the feeling.  There was no way to predict it or prevent it.  Sleep eluded me and I lost all desire to eat.  I didn't want to leave the house. And then I didn't want to leave my bed.  I was locked in an endless loop of fearing the fear.  It was starkly clear that this was more than I could handle alone.  I needed to leave Switzerland.  And thus, the reason I came home, with no fanfare or forewarning, and four months early. 

So here we are, a little over a month past the day my feet were back on American soil.  I'd like to say I bring you this story from the other side of the valley, but I would be lying.  Obviously, I've taken the proper steps to getting on the road to right, but I'm not there yet. It would be naive to think I could shake this off like a bad head cold.  
The fear is still there, lurking always. It comes over me but feels more familiar, predictable even. I'm learning how to deal with it. I wish so urgently to understand it, why it's there. Perhaps one day I will. Not to mention the regrets: so many regrets about leaving early. So many people I never got to say goodbye to, leaving in such a fashion.  So many people I miss so achingly each and every day! I know even though it feels like a mountain, from the other side this will look like a speed bump. For now, I'm trying to get back into a rhythm, distracting my mind to get through the day; baking, organizing, shopping, cleaning even.  In the name of progress though, I'm trying my hardest to get back to that place where I can look in the mirror at my watery eyes and be completely honest with myself.

Of course I could do this privately and not on the Internet, but I need it out there staring at me in black and white to acknowledge its presence.  I am very good at avoiding dealing with things when they are kept secret in my mind.  And perhaps that is the root of the problem in the first place. So please don't disparage me for sharing, this is not for attention or some sort of sympathy vote. In fact, I hid it because I was afraid it would change the way people would act around me.
What I ask now of you, reader, is that the next time you see me, no matter what sort of relationship we have, don't let this be an elephant in the room. Don't feel like you need to walk on eggshells or pat me delicately on the hand.  I have been altered, but will not be defined, by this experience. 

Well then, let's all have a smile and a hug. I'm all weird and emotional and not sure how to end this so  for goodness' sake, stop reading and go watch the video of the kitty riding the turtle's back.


  1. "Out of nowhere, fear and panic would encircle me and link arms. The more I struggled, the tighter the grip until suddenly, release. And I'm on the floor, sweating and gasping for air.
    I began to fear the feeling. There was no way to predict it or prevent it."

    You are so eloquent, my Ellie dear. You have perfectly described something that is very difficult to explain to people who have not been through it. Just know that it will get much better, even though it will never go away. It feels like you are sinking now in the vast ocean of anxiety, but even though you will always be in that ocean, at least soon you will be able to swim.

    I love you! And miss you dearly all the time!

  2. Not sure what to say, other than you're a really good writer. Seriously good. And it's OK to not know what you want to might be better than acting all confident and assured all through high school and college because "I know I want to be a nurse"....and then getting a few years into your career and realizing something's gotta change because you definitely can't see yourself doing this forever. (Not that I've ever felt that way...hence my pursuit of an administration degree)
    Your honesty is refreshing.

  3. We, the readers of your blog, love ALL of you, whether you're feeling funny, whimsical, serious, sad (there are a million adjectives I could use here). thank you for your honesty and bravery, and thanks for being YOU! xoxoxo

  4. Oh sweet Ellie... I can't say it better than Eva. xoxo Come see me soon. :-)

  5. I love this and I love you, all of you! Thank you for your honesty, your bravery and for posting this. What you did ... leave your home, your family, your friends, your country, your familiarities, your comfort zone was HUGE. And, quite frankly, I think you're amazing for doing it. And, I'm not at all surprised that it had an impact, I think that's normal. Panic attacks are not fun, I know! You described them so well! But, as I'm sure you are aware, you have an amazing support group. You are not alone in this. I think you are a brilliant, fun, funny, talented [I love reading your blog], loving, ambitious, compassionate woman [I could go on and on here :)]. My point is, please don't beat yourself up over this, or feel ashamed, or whatever negative thing you may be feeling. Let it go. You will get through this, with time. Give yourself time. And remember, behind every cloud, is the sun. I love you!

  6. Ellievator,

    Girl. You are so brave. And wonderful! And I just love you! ALL OF YOU, like what Eva said so well. And thank you for writing this blog that I felt like I was reading about myself. I can't say it's normal to feel this way about the future or anything (even though I want to), but this is coming from a girl that circled the block of her brand new House Church for fifteen minutes because I was too panicked to go inside and start a new chapter.

    I don't know what else to say except nod my head and be like, you said it so well. You really did.

    All I want to do is quote Mumford and sons and say, "You are not alone in this." (Lame?)

    I'm so glad you're home! SO GLAD. But that does make me selfish, I know it. Even though you're still two hours away....more on that in a text.

    AND I am SO UNDESERVING OF YOUR SHOUTOUT. SHOOT. Your blog blew my blog out of the water which is pretty much the story of our friendship.

    ELLIE. You are my hero. I'm so glad I get to be your friend. The end.

  7. Why Does Life Suck Sometime?

    Wouldn’t it be grand if we
    could pick and choose
    the very things that please us most
    that each endeavor we embrace
    would never slap our face
    in rude surprise
    for are we not an honor when
    we vie and tilt our lustrous lance
    at one challenge
    or the next?

    For we all see our lives ahead
    in a warm and fuzzy light
    where all is good and works out right
    when every piece falls into place
    as if by grace
    we never think to fear the worst
    that’s just not how
    it’s supposed to be
    when we rehearsed
    it in our heads

    How blessed we’d be (and wonderfully)
    if all who are unsavory
    never crossed our path
    whose bitter bile ne’er spewed
    upon our gleaming soul
    or crapped upon
    our wonderment -
    who’s hearts are cold
    and cannot stand
    warm, youthful, kind,

    How could ill will
    ever good one’s character imbue
    when you possess abundantly
    character enough to rise above
    such bitterness -
    let all the good and great in you,
    like soothing sunlight, drive away
    the darkest dolor that they bring
    possess with joy the highest ground
    in everything and treasure best
    the lesson learned

    I don’t know much, but do know this
    it isn’t when the sailing’s smooth
    and skies are blue and cloudless be
    that we discover what we are
    but it is when we’re tested sore
    we prove, to God and us,
    our worth and more
    there is no thrill of victory
    if we don’t vie and persevere
    oft wounded sore, but time will heal
    our scars attest
    to battles won

    So gather ye thoughts
    and memories to your breast
    both good and bad
    and hold them close
    they all defined what you are now
    and like a phoenix risen from ashes proud
    we write it down - exclaim it loud
    a balm to aching souls that hear
    a help to those who hurt like you
    who heal when steeped
    in healing words
    you pour upon your page

    Love you, Ellie... Thanks for coming to see us
    we’re all better for you being here...

  8. Bravo et merci pour ce post ! Gros gros becs, on pense fort fort à toi! Audrey

  9. This post deserves a comment but what can I add after all that's been written?! Don't beat yourself up for who you are Ellie because we all love you just the way you are.
    Big healing hugs from David, Rebecca, Kayla, Raph and Julie

  10. Love and hugs...because you can't ever have enough...Rach

  11. Okay so I totally missed this post in my graduation/moving haze/mad dash. But I guess a comment is better late than never just as everything else in life. :) I admire you SO much for talking about this to all of us...I know it probably wasn't easy, but then again in the time I've known you you've never backed down from the hard stuff...just tackled it one step at a time. And you'll do the same to this fear. I can understand being so scared all you want to do is go hide...I have my first day of work tomorrow morning and I am TERRIFIED! But I'll tackle my fear and go and it will turn out just fine. So keep working on it and we'll both tackle our fears. I'm living in Mishawaka now, so if you ever are up this way we can do lunch and commiserate together. :)

  12. Hello Dearie- I'm at a work project these days so have had this open on my desktop for days and not commented. Lots of hugs and love. I've had some of those feelings, too; had some terrifying stuff (in that I didn't know when it happened, lost sense of the passing of time) happen during similar attacks. Mine weren't as serious but they did happen and occasionally I get a hint of the feeling still. I think it's part of being a human in flux. Maybe part of being a woman? There is living and loving and happiness and color and feeling and sunshine ahead.
    Big Hugs!! xo

  13. Hi Ellie!

    I'm not sure we've met and I'm really not sure how I got to your blog (great memory I have, eh?)

    However I ended up here, I saw this post and felt compelled to tip my hat to your bravery in posting this. Shared troubles are often divided, I hope that's been the case for you. I have been/am going through similar things and it's wonderful to hear someone say it, though I don't wish it on anyone. Hopefully, as I said, things are better now and the sun is shining on your face.

    I'm out by Altamont, NY (convention this week!). Hope your conventions go well!

    A new friend,


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