How Do I Trust My Gut When My Gut is Untrustworthy?

I am thirteen years old and am pacing around an empty living room holding a cup of hot water in my shaking hands. We are on a family vacation and have rented a house for a week. I am jet-lagged and having a panic attack, though I do not know those words yet. The clock is turned around so I do not continue to panic about how late it is. I am convinced that I will never sleep again, that I will die in this drafty unfamiliar house, that my body will never be calm again. My mom sends me back to the room I am sharing with my sister, where I read a boring book with a flashlight and hold my body tense until it is exhausted enough to sleep. My body is screaming: take me home. After this, I do not travel further than my grandmother’s house for 6 years.

I am fifteen years old and feel nauseous. I have learned about anxiety and panic and the importance of soothing evening routines, but am not very good at identifying and implementing. It is a school day tomorrow and I quickly become convinced that I am going to throw up. My dad tells me to drink water out of a glass instead of a straw and reminds me that I have felt like this the past 100 nights. I haven’t thrown up then and I probably won’t now either. I keep a bucket next to my bed just in case and read old-fashioned comic books while trying to breathe deeply. What is my gut telling me? I should drop out, be homeschooled, go vegan, drink more water, go to sleep earlier, switch out of my AP classes? The message is lost in a muddle of exhaustion and dry mouth. Regardless, I have to go to school tomorrow.

I am seventeen and am trying to decide where to go to college. I have read many an Oprah magazine about listening to your intuition and trusting your gut, and though I am not sure I should go to college at all, I am trying to do that now. I am at accepted students day at Wellesley, the school I am proud to have gotten in to and feel that I should want to attend. I even have plans to meet up with someone I’ve been chatting with online. After a few panels and info sessions, I step outside. My stomach is tight and I cannot breathe normally. My dad and I take a walk around the lake as I cry silently. This is my gut telling me that I’m not meant to go here, I think. I eat too many oatmeal chocolate chip cookies as we drive home early, my overnight stay with a student cancelled. I feel glad I listened to my gut, but disappointed by what my gut was saying.

I am nineteen and the college I chose is not working out. I have listened to my intuition after a semester of broken friendships and boring classes and am applying to transfer. I am high this time, taking a long time to finesse my essays for Barnard. I am accepted over Thanksgiving break. My family goes into the city on Friday morning, and I ask my dad to drive uptown so I can see the campus one last time before I have to make my decision. He slows down as we pass the gates and I want to be excited but instead feel a sense of doom. We make a series of quick turns to get back on the highway and I remember every Thought Catalog listicle about listening to yourself. I decide to go somewhere else.

I am twenty-one and have finally finished college at a school where I only sometimes felt like throwing up when I walked on campus. I am back at my parents’ house applying for jobs, though each description for a position as research assistant or financial analyst initiates a sense of doom. I spend them mornings procrastinating and the afternoons trying to make myself write cover letters. I cannot scroll through the jobs sites for long before I want to cry and exit out of a half-finished application.

What is my intuition trying to tell me? That I have spent three and a half years studying the wrong thing, that I need to totally change the focus of my search? Is it telling me that I need to look for jobs far away from my sad city, that I’m afraid I might get stuck here forever? Do I need to just drink a glass of water and go for a run, maybe get out of the house for the first time this week? Does everyone feel like this when they look for their first job out of college? Or is my body just reminding me that I have not done nearly enough to deal with the anxiety twitching in every muscle?  Dear God/Oprah, what am I supposed to listen to?

It is the end of May, and my closest friend from college #2 is having a birthday dinner in her home town. I read the Facebook message and try to take a deep breath. My gut screams not to go, not to leave the comfort of my living room couch, not to risk food poisoning at an unfamiliar restaurant, not to drive 3 hours to sit with a group of people I don’t know well. Oprah and God and every Buzzfeed community writer was not talking about listening to their gut, they were talking about listening to their truth. Part of my truth is that I hate risks and restaurants. Another part of my truth is that I love my friends and part of being a good friend is showing up.

Instead of listening to my anxious queasy unreliable gut I am trying to listen to my truths, both the ones screaming through my tense muscles and the ones gently reminding me of the person I am and want to be. Guts can get food poisoning and dry mouth and send false signals. Truths remind me that my intuition is merely sending me suggested directions, while I am the navigatrix in chief. I am in charge of where we are going.



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