I’ve been trying for a while to figure out the best way to write this.
Lately I have been worrying about things I hadn’t worried about for months. Since I’ve been on my own I’ve had a couple nights that I refused to leave my bed to buy dinner, preferring hunger to another social interaction after a long day of interactions.
I’ve worried what people think of me—people whom I’ll never see again who probably don’t think anything of me: receptionists, cashiers, and restaurant employees. Strangers on trains. I wonder often if British people dislike me as much as I dislike most American tourists, whom I tend to judge mercilessly. I worry that I look crazy walking down residential streets with my enormous backpack and hiking boots, not quite fitting in and feeling slightly homeless even though I always have a place to sleep at night. I wonder if the loud French girls staying across from me are talking about me, and I realize how weird and paranoid that is. Unfortunately, rationality doesn’t stop the thoughts from flowing.
Lately I’ve convinced myself that my actual friends don’t even like me. My friends that I love and care about and miss like crazy, who I FINALLY realized must at least tolerate me to a certain degree because they kept showing up for things at my apartment.
The most frustrating part is that all this is normal for me. I spent most of my life fearing things that aren’t scary. I remember in high school I rode a Greyhound bus to visit my sister in Portland and worried so much about who might sit next to me. I was lucky on my way there and got the row to myself, but on the trip back an average-looking thirty-something woman sat next to me and I spent the remainder of the trip worried I was somehow being a nuisance.
I hated living like that. It wasn’t until I came across social anxiety posts on the internet that I realized there was a name for all this. I learned that I wasn’t the only person incapable of leaving my chair to throw something away in the middle of a meeting. I’m not the only one who gets mini anxiety attacks before making phone calls, coming up with ridiculous excuses about the time of day to avoid contacting someone I’ve never met (4 PM? They’re probably at work. 6PM? They might be eating dinner. 8PM? That’s too late to make a phone call!).
I’d avoid interacting with people I thought were cooler than me because I wanted friends who weren’t intimidating (honestly, not a bad method for surviving high school). But in college it kept me from reaching out to anyone who didn’t live with me—when conversation was necessary, as it is in roommate situations, I was fine. It was all the spontaneous things that worried me so much. I didn’t make friends in my ward or my classes, and I didn’t want to. I was too nervous about everything all the time.
Don’t even get me started with church, authority figures, or imposter syndrome. The first two were impossible on my best days, the third was terminal.
I suppose the reason I’m so frustrated now is that I thought I had made real improvement. I became great friends with people who were cooler than me! I went to social events! I connected with authority figures and participated in classes and went to office hours! I didn’t fear running into random acquaintances at the grocery store and I was even fine using the telephone. Church still felt a little impossible, but I found ways to make it slightly more possible.
I became so comfortable. Things were mostly going my way. I was feeling so good about myself. I’d found confidence, passion, and unexpected success, planning my future and looking forward to it. Loving myself in these new ways allowed me to let down my guard and love others. I was no longer concerned with comparisons or jealousy. I had friends who were better than me at almost everything and I didn’t hate them for it. I was happy and sharing that happiness. I felt empowered and developed some seriously unpopular opinions. I wrote things I wanted to write and found out that other people found value in them. I taught the kickass relief society lesson I’d always hoped someone would teach.
And then I left all those things to go to my favorite place in the world and walk for miles and miles. The UK welcomed me back with open arms. The first few days were euphoric—I felt like I could do anything. I was uncharacteristically bubbly and social. I loved everything and everyone. Of course I had ups and downs, but the ups were so high and the downs so comparatively shallow.
And then one night just under a month later I explained to the three girls I was rooming with that I was feeling malaise. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, since I was only having one of those periodic down days that happen . . . periodically. It was the first time on the trip I felt that oh-too-familiar self-loathing creeping in, but wrote it off as nothing to worry about. How could I be emotionally unstable in such a fantastic place, doing such fantastic things every single day? Anything less than feeling constantly delighted seemed inappropriate, like I wasn’t aware of how lucky I was.
“Do you feel a sense of impending doom?” one of my roommates asked. It was a common question in the medical field and she was in the nursing program. She did not want have to deal with psychosis that night.
“No,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
As I scrolled through Facebook, just as we were tucking ourselves in for the night, I came across a BBC article about something happening in Manchester. Since we happened to be IN Manchester I took immediate interest.
“They’re saying something happened at a concert here—they think there might have been an attack.”
My roommates asked questions I couldn’t answer with the small amount of information published at the time. After looking through the comments section I decided there was nothing to worry about. Other sources were claiming a busted amp or exploding balloons were to blame—that it was all due to mass hysteria and that if there were any deaths, they must have been caused by trampling.
I said it was probably nothing and we started falling asleep.
Just as we were drifting off the girl in the bunk across from me sat straight up in her bed and cried, “Get me out of here! I need to get out of here!” and promptly laid back down.
“Was she talking in her sleep?” someone asked.
We talked about sleep-talking for a bit until the sleep-talker herself awoke and asked what was going on. We told her what happened and she apologized. We said there was nothing to apologize for. We laughed it off started falling asleep again.
And then there was a knock on our door. We hoped it wasn’t a drunk hostel guest. It was past 1am and no one wanted to get up to figure out who was bothering us.
“Is anyone in there?”
Someone got up to answer the door; the voice on the other side belonged to our professor.
I stayed still and silent in my bed as he explained that there’d been a suspected terrorist attack a mile away from us, at a concert. One of my roommates’ mom’s called him in hysterics when she heard the news, wondering if her daughter was safe. He passed off his phone to her and told us to notify our families.
Seconds after he left I got a text from my Mom saying she knew I was probably safe but was just making sure. I told her I was fine, just a little shaken up. I told my roommates that yes, it was scary, but we couldn’t let at attack scare us. The likelihood of getting killed by a terrorist is practically zero. We would be fine. They thanked me for keeping a level head. We looked out the windows and saw helicopters flying above us. So many helicopters.
The next morning felt broken. That subtle feeling of emotional discomfort exploded into dread. Young girls were among the victims. ISIS claimed responsibility. I couldn’t stop reading news articles and op-eds trying to analyze what had happened. All just one mile away from us.
I wasn’t hungry but ate my breakfast anyway, in silence. I didn’t feel like pretending to be happy. When classmates carried on like normal, as if nothing had happened, I was angry at them. How were they not feeling this? Why didn’t they appear to be hurting for those poor souls who’d been hurt or killed? How could they dare to laugh on a morning like this? I remembered Christ’s message to mourn with those that mourn and wondered if He expected it to ever be a choice.
We left Manchester and visited a Victorian cotton mill where young children, mostly girls, spent their lives working 12-hour days in dangerous conditions. We toured their dorm room, tiny and unhygienic, a broken sanctuary for those unwanted, and I barely held myself together.
A friend asked if I was doing okay. I couldn’t answer her honestly without breaking down in tears so I told her maybe we could talk about it later. I bit down hard on my tongue.
Things didn’t get easier after the initial shock. The insecurities I was so delighted to cast away began creeping back until I found myself disliking myself—and everyone else—once again. I can’t explain how it happened, and I’m not certain it’s PTSD. It just sort of happened.
The world I had crafted, in which I believed every human soul was of worth, didn’t feel real any longer. I feared for my life and that insecurity trickled down to those familiar, frustrating social anxieties. The London Bridge attack weeks later hardly phased me, though now I fear white vans while crossing bridges.
I realize that what happened that night in Manchester isn’t about me. I wasn’t killed that night. No one I’d ever met was killed that night. Am I even allowed to be hurt? Am I allowed to feel the impact of that night six weeks later?
I feel guilty for not being as enraptured as I did my first stint in England. From my attic room in Kensington this country felt perfect. Two years ago I wasn’t jaded like I am now, well into the Trump era and steadfast in my passions for feminism and civil rights.
Everything was easier and far more exciting back then. I hadn’t been seriously challenged and everything about this beautiful world felt new and fresh, an escape from difficulties back home and a welcome break from working my first ever job. London started bringing me out of my shell for the first time and—to my horror—a single night in Manchester was building that shell back up, layer by layer.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the hikes on this trip. I loved feeling the peace of the mountains and coasts, that strange euphoria that comes with reaching a peak and the thud-thud rhythm of my feet in the dirt and rock and grass. Nature brought me comfort on days when nothing else could, and still does. My perceptions of England-as-paradise have been challenged, but my love of this country has only grown in deeper ways.
I’m also all right admitting that something in me remains a little bit broken. I’m learning to be kind to myself as I figure out what that means for me and whatever progress I thought I had made. I’m learning to just keep on going even during those moments I want to give it all up and return home to squeeze my cat. Staying here and being brave and leaving my bed to get food is my own small way of resisting; of telling evil men with bombs that I’m still here and they’ll never keep me from living my life, even if that life is marked with insecurity.
When I visited St. Julian’s church in Norwich today I felt peace I haven’t known for a long time. Julian’s time, too, was ravaged with uncertainty. She actually knew the people dying and nearly died herself. The plague, of course, isn’t terrorism, but helplessness is helplessness. She had every reason to trap herself in mourning, and maybe her decades confined in a cell as an anchoress were part of that healing process. Regardless of what her life choices meant, her answers were always rooted in love. Her connection with God as a mystic was bound by revelation after revelation of divine love as she communed with God on her deathbed:
In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a Hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”
No matter how fragile, how broken, or how scared, it is love that allows us to go on existing. Today I feel small, but I also feel brave. I have questions I don’t know how to answer and I worry for my future. But I won’t let my littleness sink into nothing. For the sake of allowing goodness to thrive in this ever-complicated place, I choose to take what comes and make the most of it. God help me.