Free Fall

I’m almost at the top of the rock wall when the attendant calls up to me. “Ma’am? I’m gonna need you to come down now.” He sounds nervous. I start to descend, even though I don’t know why. I’m still about 15 feet above the mat when he adds, “Slowly.” It’s then that I realize that my belay, the only thing keeping me from plunging to the floor if I slip, is missing. I’d like to say that this was the closest I’d come to danger in a while; that, like most mothers my age, caution and discernment were the mantras of my life. But nothing could have been further from the truth. The fact was, I’d been free-falling for a very long time.

My mother’s proud motto for parenting was always: “Do what you want; you’ll end up doing it anyway.” Our home was creative and flowing– there were no curfews or groundings, no rules or consequences. So at age fifteen, I joined a cult-like church, whose hard-handed, patriarchal structure provided clear boundaries for a girl who’d been raised without many restrictions. The church’s intricate system of accountability left little room to stray or “fall into sin.” Daily reporting and confessing to assigned “discipling partners” harnessed me into a network of watchful strangers, who offered an instant, unexpected dosage of the parenting I’d been missing.

By the time I left the church in my late twenties, I’d been having panic attacks, countered with bouts of depression. An on-and-off regimen of anti-anxiety medication was enough to keep me comfortably numb for the next dozen-or-so years while I was busy raising children. I was no longer asked about my comings and goings or held to the strict standards of the Bible. Instead, the ties of motherhood anchored me to each day. And a steady current of pharmaceuticals kept me buoyed above the tides of loneliness and fear. Until, of course, the year I stopped taking them.

Getting off meds was like awakening from the long spiritual coma I’d fallen into as a teenager. Soon, that younger version of myself began to stretch her restless limbs. She needed to be recognized, to hear her name again, to find her place within the life that had been buzzing all around her while she’d slept. I found her in many places that year: on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle in Brooklyn at 2AM; blasting music from her pickup along lonely dirt roads; smoking cigarettes with friends who lived in trailer parks; drinking too much bourbon, too early in the day. Wherever I went, I was followed by the shadow of that aimless, thrill-seeking girl I thought I’d left behind.

Then, one weekend, as I was driving home from New York City, a sleet storm hit the Taconic, sending my SUV sliding across every lane and finally slamming into a speed limit sign that snapped in two. It was my first time crashing, and I hardly knew what to do. Who was going to ask if I was okay? call 911? collect the car parts that were strewn along the highway? I realized that there was nothing guaranteeing that things would be taken care of or that I’d be protected from whatever happened next. It was up to me alone to get back behind that wheel, turn on the headlights, and drive those last hundred miles home. What I didn’t know was that it would take another scary collision the following year before I finally stopped spinning out of control.

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