When I was interviewed by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show about my memoir, he asked if I was more excited about making The New York Times bestseller list or being interviewed by Oprah. I answered that I knew who Oprah was before I knew what it meant to be a New York Times bestseller, so Oprah wins. Then we laughed, and moved on. When I posted about the interview on my various social media platforms, using the images issued to me by the lovely producers of the show, my sister informed me that Trevor and I had matching small afros. I couldn’t deny this, and so I laughed. Very little about the three weeks prior to The Daily Show interview felt real, but laughing with my sister brought me back down into myself. I held onto that feeling, and by the time I went to bed, I was a puddle. All at once, it all felt real, and I wept. But why had it taken so long to cry?
I’m good in an emergency, or time of high stress, which is to say, my panic button is broken. There are a lot of reasons why that’s the case, and plenty of blame to go around as to who broke it in the first place, but those are all long stories for far away days to come. When someone is suddenly hurt, when something breaks, when I am lost, trapped, or rapidly sinking, I will not only remain calm, I can’t help but remain calm. It’s not that I don’t want to scream. The scream won’t come. My brain says, “Scream later. Fix this now.” I do what my brain tells me to do. I comfort, I bandage, I correct, and I try hard, very hard, to feel nothing about myself for as long it takes.
How is it that a person with a history of panic attacks is also the best person to have around in an actual emergency? I have suspicions, but no real answer. Maybe it’s because of how long I lived without feeling safe. Maybe it’s too many disaster films. It could be because when the outsized primary goal of my life is survival, I feel best equipped to do what needs to be done. In that moment, the answers for what to do next seem clear even when they’re not. I’ve helped pull a man out of an overturned car on the side of the highway with little to no hesitation, using the knife they gave me in the Boy Scouts to cut his seatbelt and free him from the deathtrap, but avoided sending an email I wanted to send about a project I wanted to do because I couldn’t figure out what to write in the subject line.
When I am in an emergency, the anxiety I experience in the general calm of my everyday life lessens, I feel completely capable, and I exude a confidence that comforts those around me. Sometimes people notice and congratulate me on this...skill? Their affirmations used to make me feel really good. Being able to hit pause on my feeling-self felt like a superpower. Which is probably why I’ve only ever identified with the superheroes who lament the abilities they didn’t ask for, and struggle to control. There is a difference between being able to remain calm, and not having the ability to panic. One is about what you choose. The other is about the choices you’re given. Or at least, that’s the best way I know to explain my understanding of it.
For me, Panic and Excitement are cousins who live on the same street. My brain doesn’t really want me to walk down the street Panic lives on, and so it is rare for me to pass Excitement’s house. It sucks because I really want to ring that bell, and I see all the lights on through the windows. I’ve been there before, and remember how good it feels to be welcomed inside. I never stay long, but I’m always so glad I stopped. I leave wondering what I was ever afraid of in the first place, and why it’s been so long since I’ve come back. Over the last few years, with love and support, I’ve learned Panic is not a monster, but even if it was, those small visits with Excitement are worth the potential confrontation. I’ve also learned it’s okay how long it takes me to remember that, no matter how long it takes.
When I laughed with my sister, then cried myself to sleep, it was from the joy of finding my way back to a familiar doorstep, and past the fear of disappointment and chaos. My bedtime tears were not brought on by my gratitude for Trevor’s interview or Oprah’s kindness or the New York Times Bestseller list or any other dream event that came to life. They were brought on by the recognition that I’d trusted myself to find my feelings again, and I did. There was Excitement, waiting for me to drop in and say hello. I’m attempting to continue to allow myself excitement for whatever else this current time could become. Because the potential is real, and lying to myself about that doesn’t feel like my safest option anymore. It hasn’t for a long time. Three weeks to cry about my good fortune is nothing. It used to take years. And being good in an emergency isn’t the worst thing to be. It just isn’t all I can be.
If you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to know, what are you afraid to be excited about?
Ashley C. Ford is the author of Somebody’s Daughter, a podcast host, and general maker of things.