Last Saturday I woke with a trembling heart. The whiskey shots were still working through me. You’d think I would have learned by now, at 38, how these mornings go. Reuniting with old friends, going out like we used to, had felt so right in the moment. Part of me hoped the fear wouldn’t come this time. Maybe it would be different this time.
So I went for a run. We’d parked across town and needed to get back to the car. The sun was high, the air was hot and steamy. People filled the streets for the Pride celebrations. Music blared from every corner. It all felt so beautiful. I thought, maybe this time will be different.
Almost immediately my heart was pounding too hard. When we had to stop, I still couldn’t catch my breath. Somehow I made it more than a mile before the panic hit me - right in the middle of Dupont Circle.
I did the only thing I could: I sat down on the concrete, right there in the middle of everything. No one seemed to notice. I lay there, heart pounding, feeling I could faint or worse at any moment, and just waited. Waited for the fear to break, to loosen its grip.
I know that grip of fear so well, it’s been with me for 17 years. Somehow it still feels just as real every time. It’s not like a scary movie that I’ve seen before, because I don’t know how it’s going to end. It feels like this might be the time I don’t make it.
As we walked, the panic came in waves. Each time I thought, this could be the one that takes me down. But then it would recede. Only when we got back to the house where I had my anxiety medicine, only then did I know I would make it.
Still, I had to spend the next few hours lying in the grass. That’s not a normal thing to do at a backyard boogie, but I could not let myself care how weird it looked. One thing I’ve learned: if you do what you need to, no matter how weird it looks, people will often take it in stride. It probably doesn’t look half as strange as you think.
Of course, these were my closest friends and I felt perfectly safe to be weird with them. Their presence and love soothed me. Finally, I could eat and even laugh, while two friends freestyled to acoustic guitar. Again, it all felt so beautiful. Maybe this time would be different.
I had tickets to my favorite club that night. They’d reopened for the first time the night before, when DC lifted the final pandemic restrictions. Full capacity, no masks required. Like it all never happened.
When I say club, it’s probably not what you think. It’s small, has an awesome rooftop, and mostly features deep house DJs. It’s never too crowded and the people, the PEOPLE, are a beautiful, eclectic mix. And on the reopening weekend, everyone was giving only good vibes.
Honestly, I was scared to go. I didn’t think I could possibly enjoy it after the morning I’d had. But I didn’t realize this was a healing space. The joy around us was palpable. Everyone was so free to be who they truly wanted to be. Judgment was nowhere to be found.
The excitement of being together in this way after so long was gleaming on every face. Smiles met with smiles. Eyes locked longer than normal, as if to say, “I’ve missed you too.”
On the dance floor, I felt the music moving me. Sometimes, I’m an anxious dancer, unsure if I’m doing it right. But that night my body moved so naturally, as if on its own. I kissed women. I kissed men. I kissed both at once. I’d never done that before, but it felt right for the moment, and why not? Why not be that free, if we can?
I felt no fear in that space. The morning felt like a distant memory. Even now, a week later, I feel like something deep inside has healed. I’m not cured. Anxiety is still part of me. But this time, something is different.
Of course, DC and the U.S. are in a very privileged position compared to most other places. We still need to provide vaccines to billions of people before we can all feel this free again. I hope my country and others can step up and do what’s right for all humans. The freedom I felt Saturday night should be a birthright.
For all who feel fear like me, remember that there is also joy. Even when we are in the deepest hole, a wave could come anytime to lift us to freedom. All the things we do for ourselves — like therapy, meditation, exercise — help us catch those waves. And this experience reminded me how important our environment can be too. Find those spaces, and the people, that lift you up. Stay away from those that don’t.
I’m reminded all the time of what power people hold over our feelings. In an instant someone can open a new world of pain — or joy — for you. Find those that bring you joy. You deserve it. And keep doing all the things that help you bring joy to others. When you’re afraid, a space of freedom might be closer than you know. And when you’re strong, create that space for others. I’ll see you there.