For me, saying no was safe—it gave me the control I lacked in many other aspects of my life.
For most of my life, I was uncomfortable with saying “no.” I had to train myself and practice to utter this one syllable word. Never wanting to rock the boat, I said yes so that everyone would be happy. My feelings didn’t matter, so long as everyone was appeased. Reflecting back, I believe that my difficulty was, in large part, due to the fact that I am a woman raised in a patriarchal society.
My whole life I have struggled with anxiety. When I was a child, anxiety manifested itself as stomach aches and “nerves,” but when I was 25, I received a formal diagnosis of General Anxiety Disorder comorbid with Panic Disorder. Mild stomach aches transformed into tunnel vision, shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, and crippling nausea. I battled panic attacks for years, too afraid to try medication until a panic attack so severe landed me in the hospital for the first time. And then again for a second time.
Since that first hospital visit, I decided to go on medication. I was sick and tired of fighting my anxiety on a daily basis and I admitted to myself that my brain was hardwired differently and I needed a chemical adjustment to reboot my brain. The daily medication takes off the edge and I have a “just in case” medication for the panic attacks. Though the medication has helped, I still experience anxiety everyday and because of this I exercise, meditate, practice yoga, and go to therapy once a month. Medication is not a cure-all.
This past summer I got married and my wife and I decided that we wanted to treat ourselves to a honeymoon. I have always had a desire to travel to Costa Rica and so the destination was determined. I had traveled outside of the country once in high school, but not since then, and that was 15 years ago.
Not surprisingly, the biggest trigger for my anxiety is the presence of the anxiety itself, so I often have a way of freaking myself out simply because I may become anxious about the infinite amount of possibilities that could or could not happen. The thought of being in a foreign country in which everything was foreign or unknown to me, created so much anxiety that I asked my psychiatrist for an extra prescription of Xanax to have “just in case.”
Turns out, I didn’t need that extra prescription. I didn’t even need the first one I had already. The week we spent in Costa Rica was easily the best week of my life. Aside from the amazing scenery, epic zip-lining, gorgeous snorkeling, delicious food, kind locals, and relaxing week alone with my wife, the biggest takeaway for me that week was the liberation from my anxiety that resulted from simply saying “yes.”
I cannot recount how many times I have said “no” due to fear or anxiety. The thought of experiencing a panic attack outweighed the potential for fun too many times. Anxiety and Panic were demons lurking in the shadows that could appear at any time without warning and because of this, I chose to stay in the comfort of the known. The known was safe, secure, and comfortable, no matter how boring or repetitive it was. For years I ate the same meals after a food poisoning incident so severe I ended up in the hospital—in my mind, I would rather eat the same “safe” food rather than chance a new food that could end up making me sick again. Anxiety had a vice grip on my brain that controlled all of my choices, routines, and habits. And aside from my anxiety, I am a typical Type A American who thrives off of checklists, and once one task is complete, well then it’s off to the next.
There is a saying in Costa Rica, “Pura Vida” or “Pure Life,” which means everything is wonderful, magical, and fine. Living the Pura Vida lifestyle changed my outlook on life as well as on my anxiety. While in Costa Rica, I spoke Spanish with the locals, asked to try local dishes, and agreed to go snorkeling even though I don’t like water or swimming. Cost Rica reminded me of the opportunities that come with saying “yes” even in the face of the unknown.
Even though I have found strength and courage from being able to say no, I have also discovered how saying no has limited me. There is importance in saying no just as there is importance in saying yes. For me, saying no was safe—it gave me the control I lacked in many other aspects of my life.
Like Jim Carey’s character in Yes Man, when I started to say yes, I found a whole new world. Yes, anxiety is still present in this world; but, there is also adventure, as well as courage. For a time, I was only able to find strength in saying no; but now, I am learning that there is strength in saying yes as well. Strength I never knew I had.
After returning from Costa Rica, an opportunity presented itself to me that I have decided to say yes to. My next adventure is to return to Costa Rica this summer for three weeks to teach and though I am terrified, I know that I can handle it, even if I can’t.
By day Mia Furtado is a High School Special Education teacher in Denver Colorado and by night, Mia is a writer, reader, aspiring restaurateur and foodie. Committed to both fun as well as social justice, Mia enjoys human interaction as well changing the world.