It’s September 1st and you know what that means! Time to board the Hogwarts Express for another year at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Every year on this date, I reflect a bit on what the HP series means to me and why it holds such a special space in my heart (kids fighting injustice, the power of love to triumph over evil, the value of friendship and your chosen family, learning to not fear death, and the realities of facing the disappointment of realizing that adults don’t always have their shit together).* I hope that one day I’m able to share this beautiful story of the boy who lived with my own boy, and that he might also find meaning and wisdom in Harry’s journey. For now, I’d like to share with you the day I got to visit the place where some of the magic was created — in two parts!
Facing My Dementor: Anxiety
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Anxiety is my dementor.
Anyone who suffers from anxiety or depression will likely understand the way it can prey on your energy and fortitude, the way it sucks the life out of you, reducing you to a hobbled version of yourself. I’m lucky in that my anxiety is not as crippling as others’, but I also don’t want to diminish the work I’ve put in to manage it. Half a dozen therapists over a decade, pharmaceuticals and natural plant-based solutions, yoga and physical exercise, journaling and breathing techniques — they’ve all helped in their own ways in various capacities. But honestly, the thing that has helped me the most? Just talking about it. Being open and honest about my experiences. When I try to hide my anxiety and how it affects me, its effects only worsen. So even though it sometimes fills me with shame to share my personal experiences, I continue to embrace transparency and encourage open dialogue between all of those with mental health issues.
Because together we are stronger.
While I have generalized anxiety, over the last five or so years, I’ve developed a crippling anxiety around public transit, small spaces, and crowds. The lack of control, being trapped in a small space with a lot of people, not being near a bathroom… I don’t like any of it. I don’t really like riding passenger in other people’s cars and sometimes have anxious flareups in small spaces like boats, airplanes, or elevators, especially if other people are with us. Even though I relied on the subway when I studied abroad in Paris and have no trouble navigating most metro systems, I hadn’t been able to successfully ride a subway after a panic attack in a Barcelona metro station in 2016. During that same trip, Iwe skipped the Paris metro entirely and I was barely able to ride the above-ground trams in the Hague. When we visited New York in 2017 and Toronto in 2018, we walked until our feet felt like they were going to fall off, only taking cabs or Lyfts when absolutely necessary.
Every single time that I travel, I have to prepare to fight off potential anxiety attacks. When I have an anxiety attack, my stomach goes insane, often making me need to dash to the nearest restroom ASAP, so as you can imagine, not being near one only adds stress, induces panic, making everything much worse. It feels like a bunch of dementors crowding in around me, and becomes a feedback of loop of hell. I have built an arsenal of techniques that help manage these symptoms, like EFT tapping, 8-count breaths with a mantra, avoiding most food or beverage until I feel calm, and I keep prescribed beta blockers on my person to use in the moment of panic. Nothing works 100% but it *has* become manageable.
Two years ago, while I was pregnant with our little Mooch, my dad was planning a trip to London to attend a conference, and asked if I wanted to go with him. Knowing that my international travel days would soon be coming to a necessary pause as I became more pregnant, I had to say yes. It had been over a decade since my last (and terrible) visit to London, and I wanted to re-experience the city, replacing that stressful memory with better ones. So I took a week off of work (I didn’t even check my email once!) and accompanied my father across the pond. One of these days I’ll actually get around to writing up a post about how AMAZING the trip was, despite my constant morning sickness.
For now, I just want to tell you about one specific day: the day we journeyed out to Leavesden to take the Harry Potter Studio Tour and how I had to fight off dementors to do it.
In case you don’t know, to get to Leavesden, you have to ride the tube from wherever you are to London Euston Station, from where you’ll take a short train ride to Watford Junction, and then load onto a double decker bus that takes you to the studios. That’s a lot of small spaces, crowds, and riding passenger without an ounce of control.
The very thought of getting on not just a train and then a bus but also a subway car was freaking me out. In the weeks leading up to the trip, my therapist advised me to practice by getting into small spaces, such as elevators or riding in a car that I’m not driving. I did, practicing breathing exercises and repeating my mantra. And I was starting to feel more confident. But what really helped boost my esteem was that even though I was still in the very early days of my pregnancy, I began to notice an unexpected silver lining to growing a human inside of me: my anxiety was fading away.
Situations in my daily life that could usually be a trigger were no longer affecting me the same way. As the weeks went on, my head felt clearer, and that pressing hum of minor terror that was always on the verge of encroaching just….wasn’t there. The day I flew to London, without that butterfly feeling or tickle of nerves, was one of the best travel days I’ve ever had — and I even threw up twice in the airplane lavatory.
Fast forward to the day we were finally going to get to see Hogwarts in real life. I woke up earlier than usual, nervous of course since the daunting subway was still in front me, and nauseated because pregnancy is a bitch, but also optimistic and excited. I was 34 at the time, and Harry Potter and his magical world had been a part of my life longer than it hadn’t been. I began reading the books freshman year of high school, at first assuming they were stupid kids books and quickly falling in love with the characters, the world, and the themes; since then, that love has only grown. While I am not a fan of the movies as standalone pieces, they do make for gorgeous visual addendums and supplemental material to the books. As a longtime fan of filmmaking and movie magic, getting to see behind the scenes of these CG-tastic movies filled me with so much glee I wanted to squeal! It was better than waking up on Christmas.
I was going to Hogwarts.
But first: I had to ride the subway.
I didn’t partake in my one allowed cup of coffee that morning, since limiting caffeine helps in anxious situations. I loaded up on my midwife-approved CBD oil, which I’d been taking daily for awhile in preparation. And I listened to my anti-anxiety playlist, which soothes my nerves in a Pavlovian way.
But, most unexpectedly, as we entered the Covent Garden tube station, I noticed a distinct lack of terror. That buzzing hum that so often settles at the back of my neck, getting louder and making my skin hot whenever I start to freak out, was absent. The anticipatory butterfly feeling in my stomach waned as we descended below ground since it had no creeping worries to fuel it. We boarded the tube, and I sat down fully expecting the anxiety to settle in. But it didn’t, and as my dad rambled about whatever science talks he was going to be attending the next day at his conference, I felt oddly, surprisingly, thankfully fine. We switched to one of the rapid trains at Euston station, chatted about what we were most excited to see on the tour, and twenty minutes later exited at Watford Junction, where we followed the signs (and the crowds, eek) to stand in line to wait for the bus.
Surely, this would be when the familiar anxious beast would return, looming over my shoulders, clouding my vision. But no. I glanced around, shocked that I felt totally calm even trapped in the middle of this line of people. I continued to feel fine as we boarded the bus, and took our seats, and listened to the bus driver drone on about the area during the 15-minute ride.
And then we were there.
I had survived! Without freaking out. Without succumbing.
There are not words to describe what that felt like. Compared to how awful I often feel while traveling or attempting to partake in a greatly anticipated event, this was like being on Cloud 9. I’ve often thought about this day — and the one later in the week when I successfully rode the subway again, alone, just to prove to myself that I could — as a motivating reminder of what is possible. Throughout my pregnancy, I experienced the lowest levels of anxiety of my entire adult life. I joked around that “this is what normal people must feel like.” Liberated. Light. Effervescent.
In the books, Harry learns of chocolate’s restorative powers from Professor Lupin before learning how to cast a Patronus charm to fight back against dementors. Anytime someone needs mental or physical healing, they are handed chocolate. In this muggle world, Zoloft is my chocolate. In the past, when I’ve tried to nix the anti-depressants, the buzzing hum of anxiety became loud and pressed in around me everywhere I was, even when I was alone. I didn’t sleep well, had many nightmares, became irritable quickly, didn’t manage my stress well, and definitely could not stop the sort of panicked anxiety attacks that had become so familiar to me while traveling. But a low dose of an SSRI keeps me at a stable, steady level. I will likely need to be on some form of medication for the rest of my life, and that’s okay.
Because when I am restored and functioning at that stable, steady level, then I can successfully employ the many techniques I’ve learned to manage my stress and calm my nerves. I can wield my Patronus as needed to combat the intense, rushing feelings that anxiety often produces. Being pregnant was a much needed respite from all of that terribleness, and showed me what it was like to breathe and live easily, without worrying about how my body might react to a situation. For those 40 weeks, my little Mooch was my Patronus, my light in the dark.
Now, 18 months post-partum, my anxiety levels have creeped back up. They are nowhere near where they were pre-pregnancy (thankfully!) but they also are not as blissfully low as they were while I was cooking a human. It was such an incredible feeling of freedom that it’s almost enough to make me consider getting pregnant again. (I AM JOKING. Mostly.) Like a drug addict chasing after an unattainable high, I will forever be seeking out that liberating sensation of unexpected lightness, of not being anxious. I will forever be practicing my own versions of the Patronus charm, making it and myself stronger, more adept at fighting off the Dementors.
Part of that practice involves sharing my experiences and talking with others who suffer from mental health issues. Many have it way worse than I do, and I count my blessings for having a very manageable, if sometimes disheartening and frustrating, condition. I’m grateful for my friends and family, especially my very patient and understanding husband, who have all accommodated my issues while traveling, taking the longer way to get somewhere because I needed to walk or delaying a departure so I could calm down.
Some days, my anxiety gets me down. I feel sad and sorry for myself, ashamed that I can’t better control these sensations. Sometimes, it’s just a huge bummer. This day, though, this day in September of 2018 when my dad and I got to visit the Leavesden Studios, I was high as a kite and feeling freer than I had in a long time. Which made the next four hours that much more memorable.
Stay tuned for Part Two, where we step foot in the Great Hall, visit Snape’s potions classroom and Dumbledore’s Office, walk through the Forbidden Forest, explore Diagon Alley, examine props up close, and learn all of the behind-the-scenes secrets of the Harry Potter movies.
*This year, a general dumpster fire of a year, I have found myself thinking about Harry and the magical world even more often than usual, partially because its creator has been in the news for digging her heels in on insensitive and transphobic commentary. Everyone is complicated and no one is perfect, but her willful ignorance is infuriating given the legacy of her work which has always been so inclusive and welcoming and condemning of evil narrow-mindedness. Aside from her narrative and creative genius, JKR is not a present part of my HP experience. Art is separate from the artist. And this series is a particularly important piece of art to me. It is something that helped forge friendships and that has been a major guiding light in my life for over two decades. I respect the creative work JKR did but am very very disappointed by her recent choices. As a great man once said, it is our choices that show what we truly are. I choose the art over the artist because when the artist is done with the work, releasing it into the world, it is no longer theirs. It belongs to the viewers of that art. It belongs to me.