The Power of Asking

Colton Underwood, sixth-string tight end for the Oakland Raiders, was “just asking a girl on a date.” He had no idea that his video invitation to Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman would go viral. More importantly, he had no idea whether she’d say yes.

But you know what? He knows now. Because he asked.

Asking is powerful. It can also be terrifying. I briefly tried to start my own business with one of those skincare companies that mostly market their products through intimate house parties. The products were good and the company was good, but I was not good, because I hated asking (and I especially hated follow-up asking – when does it cross the line into nagging?).

In an effort to be kind, people who knew me personally would kick the can down the road, promising to reorder next month or to host a party in the spring. I learned to translate these responses the same way I interpret a “Maybe” RSVP to a Facebook event:

Yeah, that ain’t happening.

And yet, unbelievably, some of the biggest asks of my life have been answered, and even exceeded, by people who had no obligation to give me the time of day. I went out for drinks with my favorite author, and you know how I did it? By asking him on Twitter.

It was the day before the Boston Book Festival. While I planned to attend the full event, there was really only one person there who I wanted to see, one reason I had cordoned off an entire Saturday to, essentially, go to class: Scott Westerfeld, author of Uglies, Afterworlds, Midnighters, Peeps, and Leviathan, and my idol since, oh, probably 2005 or so, when I’d bought a copy of his book So Yesterday on vacation with my family and swallowed it whole on the car ride home.

Scott was slated to take part in a panel discussion with two or three other young adult fantasy authors sometime in the afternoon, and there was going to be a book signing after that. So the day was going to be a win no matter what. But I had been to enough meet-and-greets with bands to know that, at that sort of thing, you basically get your autograph (or your photograph – rarely both) and then you leave.

I had so much to say to Scott. I had so much to ask about. Which one question would I have time to ask as he scribbled his name on the title page of my copy of Goliath? You can’t really start with, “So you’re the greatest and I want to be you when I grow up can you tell me how to do that?”

No, I needed more time. I needed to talk to him at length. So I sent him a message.

And for some reason, he responded.

And that’s how, less than twenty-four hours later, I wound up at an exclusive, authors-only cocktail hour with my idol.

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That cocktail hour honestly might have saved my writing career. It had been an absolutely harrowing morning, during which a panel of agents, who were supposed to give me advice on the first page of my manuscript, instead laughed at my submission and made me feel like I should just forget about that whole being-a-writer thing.

Scott put an end to that thinking real fast. “You have to find your people,” he said. “Those weren’t your people.”

He was right. My submission had showed an argument between a demon and his host just after the demon forced the host to kill somebody against his will. Gripping, right? Not to this panel. Their favorite piece had something to do with a crack in a wall. But like, that crack had seen shit, you know?

They weren’t my people. I am not ever going to write a story about a crack in a wall, unless Narnia or something is on the other side of it, and that panel would’ve liked the crack-in-the-wall piece a lot less if it had ended with the characters finding Narnia.

That’s fine. There are deeply passionate readers and writers of literary fiction. They love the genre and do good work. But I’m not one of them, and if Scott Westerfeld hadn’t pointed it out to me that day, I might have just given up instead.

Thank God I’d been brazen enough to ask.

Asking has gotten me through the door with other favorite authors and musicians. It has turned networking events into paying gigs. As a journalist, it has gotten me interviews with people I never would have met and opened doors I never would have thought to knock at.

In 2013, when I asked my church if I could paint over the depressing beige walls in our basement with lime green and invite a bunch of teenagers to play music and board games there, I had no idea that the community we started would survive three years and continue growing bigger than ever, with new people in new places and new ideas taking shape all the time.

Sometimes it feels like I have no right to ask for these things. Believe me, I can hear how crazy I sound. Do I deserve the good things that come to me any more than the next person? Absolutely not. We all deserve good things. We all deserve to see at least one of our crazy fantasies become, against all odds, reality.

The only difference is that I asked.


This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.

Inside Pandora’s Box

I didn’t used to have anxiety, so talking about it now, just six months after my first panic attack ever, makes me feel like a bit of a poseur. Who am I to talk about something I have only known for six months when others have dealt with it for a lifetime – when others need a pill just to get out of bed in the morning – when others suffer daily the racing heart, tremors, and nausea that strike me only in waves?

Anxiety snuck up on me. Until this year, I would have said I was “intense,” “high-strung,” or “stressed out,” never “anxious.” I would have chalked it up to being an empath and a perfectionist; I take everything too seriously and feel everything too deeply.

But maybe that was the kernel of it. Maybe anxiety was always there, masquerading as righteous doubts and frustrations. Maybe I was drowning it out at concerts, smothering it with romantic affection, or speeding just out of its reach on a snowboard. Maybe I was giving it chase between the lines of my favorite books. Maybe I was dressing it up in new clothes, new glasses, pink hair and purple Chucks to make myself look – and feel – brighter.

Because I needed that brightness, however superficial. Because I was always afraid of the dark, and I could not accept that the dark was inside me. I would not allow it to be inside me.

But, maybe, it was.

In those days I had the leverage to pack it down, to shut the box and sit on the lid, fingers clutching at latches to lock it all away. What changed? Was it simply the combination of too many pressures, peeling Pandora’s fingers from the box one by one? Life is a lot, after all, and I only have ten fingers.

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[Photo credit: F.S. Church]

Whatever the cause, anxiety is here now. I’ve grown familiar with the vacuum that forms behind my brow before a panic attack. I recognize the way my shoulders curl in as if to shield my heart from what’s coming, the way my fingers grasp and clench – like if I hold rationality tight enough, it won’t get away from me this time. I have learned to remind myself not to hold my breath. But when tears burn hot on my eyes and demand to be let out, I don’t know how to stop it.

Do I “have anxiety,” or am I still just “stressed?” Can I count myself “one of them” when I am still (usually) getting out of bed and still (usually) eating okay and still (always, somehow) producing a newspaper at work every single week? I don’t look like “one of them,” so maybe my experience is less valid than theirs.

I have to shake that mentality. If it feels valid, then it is valid.

I never could do anything the way other people did it. I didn’t get acne as a teenager; I got it in my twenties. At twenty, I was the last of my friends to experiment with alcohol. When I graduated college, I still thought sex was “icky.” And at twenty-six, while some of my peers are popping out second and third children, I am still not even engaged.

It doesn’t negate the experience that it happened to me later or differently from how it happened to them. My acne is my acne, my sex is my sex, and my anxiety is my anxiety… complete with the appearance that I am confident and thriving in a life that actually feels like quicksand.

Here’s the funny thing about quicksand, which the movies never tell you: humans can float on it, if they lie on their back instead of standing. And people do this all the time with life. Everyone has stressors – expensive rent, healthcare, or car repairs; conflict with spouses, roommates, or friends; jobs or families that take too much, paychecks or partners that give too little. It’s not that floating people aren’t bothered by those things, but they don’t get sucked under by them, either.

People who “have anxiety” get sucked under. And I am, at least for now, “one of them.” This experience is valid.

The good news is, even though I’m not floating now, I still can. Quicksand will never suck you all the way under – that’s not how buoyancy works. Quicksand cannot, will not kill you.

So how do you get out?

For starters, don’t do things that make you more stuck. They say you shouldn’t flail around; it will only make you sink faster. I have burnt myself out trying frantically to act like everything is fine.

Last fall, I started a side career shortly after getting hired for my first full-time job; I dove into National Novel Writing Month; I could not stand a Saturday without social plans. And then I crashed. I thought I was coping by keeping busy, but I was just getting myself more stuck.

They also say that you shouldn’t have your friends try to pull you out of quicksand. Pull too hard, and they’ll sooner tear you in half than save you. That’s kind of how it feels when a friend who doesn’t have anxiety tells me to “just breathe” or rattles off my achievements to stop me from feeling like a failure.

Those friends mean well, but here’s they don’t understand: anxiety doesn’t answer to rationale. Rationale can actually make it worse. Rationale suggests that I have no right to feel the way I do, and I should be able to fight it. Then the guilt kicks in. Why can’t I fight it?

The fact that I “shouldn’t” feel this way doesn’t change the reality that I do. If you want to help, please, don’t try to talk me out of a panic attack.

Instead, feel free to say vaguely comforting things like “it’ll be okay” or “you can get through this.” Take me into another room, or outside. Bring me some water if it’s hot out, or herbal tea if it’s cold. Definitely find some tissues because I will feel awful if I get snot all over my clothes or yours. Bad jokes can help – the worse the pun, the better I’ll feel. But finally, understand that your company may be the best thing you can give me. I know you want to, but you cannot pull me out of the quicksand.

No, to escape quicksand, a person must save herself. She must make slow, calculated moves. Start with the legs. Wriggle around to loosen the sand. It will take time and work, but eventually she’ll be free.

That’s why I’m writing this. This is me, wriggling my legs first, trying to take one small step in the right direction. I had to commit to writing something that wasn’t for the newspaper. Maybe, soon, I’ll be able to look at my novel again without feeling the vacuum form behind my brow. I can already feel the sand starting to loosen, and I will continue to fight.

Take that, quicksand. You suck.

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This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.