Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, forthcoming from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives with her husband and daughter in St. Louis and teaches writing at Fontbonne University. Visit her at http://www.thebirdsisters.com
Leaning Roses & Giving Thanks
By Rebecca Rasmussen
“Visualize yourself as a tree,” Dr. Gilman used to tell me. “Your grand old roots are reaching toward the center of the earth. They’re strong, and so are you.”
“But my branches are blowing in the wind,” I used to say back.
I would be sitting on Dr. Gilman’s couch, trying not to hear the wind chimes beyond her office window, a soothing sound to many people, but a chaotic sound to me. She would be leaning forward in her chair, trying to pull me back from the edge of panic, which she recognized in my glazed-over eyes, in my inability to do what she was asking of me. “That’s perfectly fine. You’re rooted. Let go. You’ll see.”
I don’t often tell people about the first twenty-five years of my life that I spent trying to cope with anxiety attacks, first as a child by doing things like going to bed at six o’clock in the evening or putting my hands over my ears to block out the noise of the stereo or later staying home because I was afraid to go wherever my friends were going, afraid they’d see what I was so desperately trying to hide because it wasn’t normal and because I knew nobody could help me.
That, I have learned, is the fundamental trouble with fear. It keeps you roped off from everybody else who wants to understand, who wants to help you.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” my mother often asks.
The adult me knows that my mother would have tried to help me and the child me knew that, too, but I didn’t believe a life without these attacks was possible. I simply didn’t believe in anything but fear.
For years, I resolved myself to the fact that I would have to live my life a little bit differently than everyone else. I’d never hang wind chimes from my porch. I’d never swing at a playground. I’d never arrive at a track meet and not wonder if the bleachers rattling would frighten me. I’d never…I’d never.
In my experience, once you batten down the hatches against fear, you are stuck with it.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter Ava, when my anxiety attacks grew fiercer than they ever had before, that I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Gilman, a lovely psychologist in Northampton, Massachusetts, because I felt I owed it to my unborn daughter. The first thing Dr. Gilman asked me that day was, “What’s so bad about fear?”
And I thought: I’m obviously in the wrong place. But I stayed anyway.
Over the course of my pregnancy, Dr. Gilman worked with me twice a week. She taught me how to breathe deeply, how to remain in the present moment, how to be kinder to myself, gentler. She also taught me to start sharing my panic, which I wasn’t eager to do. She was right though.
One day, I tried it out on my husband.
“I’m scared,” I said, and he turned off the music or whatever I believed was triggering my panic, came over to me, and did this magical head rub thing to bring me back from wherever I was heading…
“Stay here with me,” he said. “You’re safe here, honey.”
Fast-forward four years.
My daughter is a lively little love bug, who goes to pre-school three days a week. My husband is in graduate school. And I have a novel coming out in April. It’s Thanksgiving. Pies are in the oven. Roasts are roasting.
This fall has been tough. We lost my Aunt Donna to cancer. Uncle John, too. One of my cousins, a thirty-two year old mother of two wonderful kids, is in the middle of chemotherapy treatments for stage-IV ovarian cancer. People are leaving us in what feels a little like a mass exodus this holiday season, and sometimes I feel that old fear bubbling up again—It’s so unfair. It’s too much. What would I do if it were me? What would Ava do without her mother? What would I do without my mother?—but I’m more connected to the moment now instead of being boarded up against it, which means the fear is free to come but it’s also free to go.
Aunt Donna had a hard life. She had a disease that took her leg when she was a girl. She survived cancer several times and this last time didn’t. She loved roses.
After her death, something a little bit miraculous happened.
In the bed of tiger lilies just beyond the front door of our apartment, a beautiful red rose bud appeared on the otherwise bare rogue rose bush that has grown up instead of outward. It’s late November in St. Louis. We’ve had a frost already. We’ve worn our coats. And this little flower just keeps leaning toward our front door, its stem over six feet tall, opening itself up more and more each day. We’re all marveling at it—our neighbors, my husband, my daughter, me.
So each time I come and go I stop to smell the rose even though I didn’t think I believed in literal signs. I didn’t used to believe in a lot of things.
That’s what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving. Belief in something other than fear. Belief in safety. Grace. Hope.
Dr. Gilman would be proud of me, I think. She’s one of those old-growth people you keep in your heart forever.
Am I still afraid? Yes. But I’m not so afraid of being afraid anymore.