How To Get Up When You Break Down
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“Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” ~T.S. Eliot
This a guest post by Diana Baur of A Certain Simplicity
I recently told a new friend that I suffered for years from anxiety and panic. She was shocked. “You? You who walked away from a normal life open a B&B in Italy? I thought you were fearless! You get scared?”
What a question.
Leaving corporate life with its feigned sense of security and moving to Italy to restore an old property was more of a challenge than I could have imagined.
It turns out that I chose this particular path not to live la dolce vita in the Italian countryside as I had originally thought, but rather to reckon with anxiety that had kept me from reaching my potential for way too long.
In spring of 2009, the fifth phase of our Italian restoration project was fraught with delays and cost overruns. The outbuilding in question, a two hundred year old barn with a wine cellar, was threatening to collapse. Delays meant we might have to cancel reservations and return deposits. Although I had been through similar disasters before, this time I snapped. By May, I stopped eating and sleeping, and within a week I wondered if going on at all was remotely worthwhile.
The Onslaught of Fear
Anxiety announces itself with physical symptoms: racing heart from unleashed adrenaline, exhaustion backlash, lack of appetite, inability to relax. When you finally calm yourself down, the fear raises its head again, restarting the adrenaline. Anxiety is a warning sign that you’ve pushed too hard, that your mind is tired, and that you have to step back to see what’s triggering it.
Respect Your Own Limits
I had violated this rule. I was already stretched to the limit before taking on this construction phase, but finishing the project had become higher priority to me than my health. I bulldozed through and put us under unbearable deadlines. Finally, I broke. I couldn’t wipe up one more speck of dust or absorb one more cost overrun.
My exhausted mind created endless what if scenarios, imagining the worst possible outcome for every variable. I was paralyzed. The thought of entertaining guests was out of the question. My anxiety had, in a matter of weeks, put our life’s work at risk. I was disoriented, lost and so afraid. With no English-speaking therapist in the area to talk to, I stopped leaving my bedroom.
I had no idea how to go on.
Through frantically combing the Internet and reading endless amounts of literature, I came upon a novel idea: to live next to fear in some sort of peace accord. I knew I would never be fearless, but I also knew that if I let my fears control my behavior, I might as well dig a hole in the rich terra di Italia and jump in. I owed it to myself, not to mention to my husband, whose heart was breaking, to try.
Live Along Side Fear
I decided that I would follow a normal daily routine. When the panic came, I allowed it to be there. I felt the adrenaline, the exhaustion afterward and affirmed the presence of the fear, but did not give into it by changing my behavior to suit it.
I drank water by the gallon (adrenaline overload makes you thirsty) and ate steamed spinach or yogurt with fruit (the only things I could stomach). I tried not to pay the fear any heed and went for walks to counterbalance the adrenaline. Two ten-minute meditations every day gave my tired mind a break from the endless chatter and fretting.
We halted construction immediately. We let the workers finish what was not secured and got them off property. We had a couple of weeks before guests arrived, and breathing room to check the validity of the extras charges from the construction company. I let myself rest, and when I had strength, I got things in the best order I could.
The initial days of carrying on a normal routine felt like walking in lead shoes. I made breakfast, cleaned rooms, shopped for groceries and entertained guests, even though I felt like dying inside. I gave myself permission to rest, but not to languish too much. I tried to avoid ruminating; it would cause the panic to spike. I felt like I was just going through the motions, but I didn’t give up.
By August, something changed. My fear started taking its cue from my behavior. The adrenaline rushes slowed and my appetite returned. I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel like dying anymore, either. I kept meditating because it gave me a sense of peace.
Bridge the Gap between Fear and Reality
The gap was between what I was feeling and reality was huge. My terror was the potential loss of our home and endless shame at what I saw as my own incompetence. But those feelings did not reflect real life. We had a solid business, and hadn’t overextended ourselves.
We had held on through the start of a crushing recession and the web of Italian bureaucracy. I repeated to myself that life would continue to take its course, and that we would be fine. At some point, I started to believe my own words.
Understanding the nature of your fear means accepting your own vulnerability. There is honor in taking care of yourself. In your vulnerability lies self-acceptance. Once you accept and care for all the components that make you human, including your fear, you’re ready to embrace who you really are instead of proliferating some version of who you’re supposed to be.
Move Past Your Fear
It was a long road from those initial days of terror to feeling well again. In retrospect, taking on this project has given me a far greater gift than just a residence and a lifestyle. I’ve discovered strength and resilience that I didn’t know I have.
Our B&B continues to thrive, but I see that there are other things to life than restoring old houses and booking the season. In 2010 we hired a new construction company and easily finished the remainder of the phase we had opened the year before. The property is not 100% yet, and if it stays the way it is, that’s just fine. It’s my home right now, and that’s all it needs to be.
I have my life back. I will never push myself to the brink again, especially not for a pile of rocks on a hill, no matter how beautiful.
Fearlessness is a Myth
Fearlessness is not a worthwhile goal, because it doesn’t exist. Fears are human and go with the territory. Pretending to be fearless distances you from yourself. Being vulnerable and resilient by accepting your fears celebrates your humanness.
Embrace Your Vulnerability
In the end, it’s up to you. Fear will take you down if you let it, but only if you let it. If you accept your fears as part of yourself and embrace your own sense of vulnerability, I promise that while you won’t be fearless, you will be on your way to the best possible you.
Diana Strinati Baur is an innkeeper, writer and potter living in the wine country of Northwestern Italy. When she’s not making breakfast or walking her dog, she’s blogging at A Certain Simplicity or working on her memoir about her journey as an innkeeper at Baur B&B.
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