Saturday, December 28, 2013

Zeit für Geld

Anxiety is an extremely difficult topic for me to talk about. Over the six months lapsed since my last post, I must have picked up my laptop dozens of times. I would open up the browser, and I would stare at the blank page for 15 horrid minutes before succumbing to nervous breakdown. I would put the computer away and sigh in defeat, acknowledging that the whole routine had become just a rehearsal for a heart attack.

Last July, I was attending a workshop in Los Angeles. I had jumped through hoops to make ends meet and to be able to attend without taking leave off from work in New York, and I hadn't slept the night before my flight because I was busy packing and getting everything in order at the office before my departure. I landed in Los Angeles after having gone 26 hours without sleep, spent another two hours queuing and filling out forms in order to pick up my rental car, and finally made it to the hotel past 2:00am.

At that point, all I could think of was going to bed and passing out. A few hours later, the four Spartan alarms I had set on my phone, 3 minutes apart from each other, started going off one by one. I needed all four of them to finally push myself in an upright sitting position on the edge of the bed. After making a mental note about where the script writers of Inception must have got some of their ideas from, I dragged my feet across the floor, got into the shower, got dressed, and off I was again... to the convention center.

I met some amazing people there. Some of them I had interacted with before, but had never met in person, and it felt amazing to finally put a face to the name. Others I had collaborated with for a while, and it felt good to finally get to see them again. It was an effervescent day on the overall, but towards the end of it, I felt that I was running on fumes, and that the only thing that kept me standing on my feet was willpower.

And then something gave: all of a sudden, I got this overwhelming feeling of being completely alone in the middle of a bustling crowd of hundreds of familiar, as well as not-so-familiar people. It's amazing how your entire subjective awareness of the surroundings can be changed by a moment's realization. All that chatter which my ears had been carefully filtering from the background the whole day suddenly felt like it was piercing through my brain. And within seconds, the physical proximity of others became suffocating. I tried to calm down as I picked my way through the crowd towards the nearest exit, gasping for air, but the more I forced myself to breathe normally, the more I felt an upsetting tightness in my chest, as if I were twisting in a straitjacket. I just... needed... to... get... away...

*  *  *

I was dropping things on my way to the car. It took me four attempts to put the key in the ignition, and I was shaking so badly that I couldn't even realize when I'd managed. I first stopped shaking when I finally heard the radio running. I took a moment to lie back in the seat, buckled up, put the car in reverse, and left the parking lot. Ten minutes later, I was on the highway, driving towards the desert, and breathing normally again.

I took this picture with my phone as a way to remind me of that day.

There is something about driving that calms me down, and brings out the best in me. It always has. It's a trance-like experience, almost like I am on autopilot: my mind quietens down, all of the panic and intrusive thoughts fall beside me, and my wrists and feet surrender to reflex. Within fifteen minutes, the pounding in my ears subsided, and the stiffness in my ribcage mellowed away. I turned the radio up, kept driving East for what must have been almost two hours, and then took a random exit to a village somewhere along the way to Palm Springs.

Though it was 6:00pm, the place seemed completely deserted; there was no movement at any of the windows I drove by, or in any of the front yards. There was a somewhat run-down pub at the main street junction, and a Starbucks just opposite it, with an old woman sitting on a chair in front of the place, behind an empty olive can turned improvised donation box. I left the car on a side road, walked into the Starbucks to get an iced latte, and then came out and sat down on a crooked bench in front of the café. I leaned back, stretched my legs half way across the sidewalk, closed my eyes, and just kept breathing. Dry, warm gales of desert wind would slowly drag litter along the road. There was a decidedly calm and peaceful vibe about that place, and time seemed to just stand still. While I was sipping on my iced coffee with my eyes still closed, the woman stood up from her donation box, leaned on her cane, and slowly came over to sit on the bench next to me.

I opened my eyes when I felt her weight shift the otherwise shrewdly-balanced bench. I looked right, her eyes met mine, and we both smiled. She was African-American, and her white hair contrasted vividly with the color of her wrinkled skin. She had beautiful eyes, and a serene air about her. She pointed to the donation box.

   "One more hour of sitting here, and then I'm going home..."

I couldn't tell whether she was thinking out loud, or whether she was trying to make conversation.

   "Are you out here all day?", I asked. For some reason, I didn't feel claustrophobic talking to her.
   "These days, yes... I don't do much any more... I just sit around here and wait for people to drop a dollar in that can over there.... it's not for me... the money... I'm doing it for charity... we raise a couple of hundred every month, and we help that Hernandez family with the bills... Maria is her name... the mother... she is raising her children alone, in that house over there... her husband is in prison now, got what he deserved... but the woman and her children, they're good people..."

I had already reclined on our bench, and closed my eyes to feel the wind on my face, but she just kept talking on. I wondered if she had noticed my lack of interaction, but I kept listening anyway. She had an amazingly warm and soothing voice. She continued to talk about random events in her life. How she got mugged when she was 45, how she ended up in hospital, how she got involved with charity as a reason to live for. She said all that in such a peaceful tone, that she had me under a spell. I opened my eyes, sat upright, turned towards her and asked her if she likes cinnamon. She was so surprised by my question, that she had to stop and think about it.

   "I love cinnamon!", she said.
   "Wait here, I'm coming back..."

I got up, went inside for a moment, and then reemerged through the doors holding an iced decaffeinated tea, and two cinnamon rolls. I gave her the tea, and then I sat back down in my former seat and put down the rolls on the bench between us. I invited her to take one of them, and I picked up the other. We both kept eating and sipping on our drinks quietly.

Over the next hour, we continued having a midsummer evening's long and drawn-out countryside conversation. She told me many things about her. That she was born in Texas, and that she had moved to California when she was in her 20s, looking for a better life. That she had married, and both she and her husband had worked on an orange grove. That her husband had died. That she finds solace in faith. That she was... lonely...

After saying that, she suddenly stopped. I could sense that she felt uncomfortable, perhaps even embarrassed. She thanked me for the tea and for the roll, got up, and caned her way back to the donation box, where she sat down on her camping chair and turned on a cheap pocket radio to some really loud and dusty-sounding local station. I remained on the bench for another 20 minutes or so, and then got up and walked past her on my way to the car. I stopped in front of the donation box, and wanted to drop a $5 bill in. Much to my surprise, she pushed my hand away. I was confused.

   "No.", she said stubbornly. "No. If you drop that bill in, you'll never know whether I talked to you for the sake of it, or for getting a dollar out of you. No, you go on your way. God bless you..."

I was left speechless. I wanted to tell her that I, too, had felt lonely that day, and that I understand. But her logic defeated me, and I stuffed the bill back in my pocket. I bid her to take care, smiled, and said good-bye. She smiled, but didn't want to look at me. I walked back to the car, started the engine, and drove back West to Los Angeles. I felt less anxious that evening. I was grateful for having experienced someone else's reality in such an unexpected manner. I felt... human.

*  *  *

I think the main reason why I find anxiety completely unapproachable in writing is because I have trouble admitting to it, and because I subconsciously associate it with a measure of stigma. How do you start solving a problem, if you won't even talk about it?

We go to great lengths trying to suppress our racing pulse and our impending feelings of doom, because we've been brainwashed from an early age about the importance of being stoic. We are being systematically, yet never explicitly, taught that not feeling in control is a sign of weakness. Which is ideally not a bad lesson in itself, except that I have yet to meet a human who is both not dead, and in control.

If you don't believe me, try and come up with a different explanation as to why the casual "Hi, how are you?"-question is only ever answered with "Fine, thank you.". People rarely acknowledge that they are scared, lonely, or insecure until it's too late and they break down altogether. For example, that time when my otherwise OK-seeming friend got drunk, sat down on the curb outside the pub, affectionately hugged some stranger's dog, and insisted with teary eyes that the dog has come to be the only soul in the world who understands and can be close to him. I could almost read the heavy emotional discomfort and silent confusion on the dog's face, as I was talking my friend out of sobbing in his native Croatian, and trying to pry his arms open to release the poor canine soul. The sad thing is that the older I get, the more often these things seem to happen.

We've either become, or always have been a society of scared people, who can't sleep at night because of anxiety. I've met people -- quite a few of them, actually -- who tell me that they are afraid to go to sleep because they are afraid of losing control of their consciousness. I ask them why they are so consumed by this need to always be on their guard, and I get blank stares back. They don't even know what they are afraid of any more, and they are afraid to open up and share the reason for their perpetual fight-or-flight.

And the irony of it all is that everyone is scared of talking about anxiety, and that right now, we all live in a comfortably numb isolation, surrounded by our own bubbles painted with fear on the inside, and blown-up social images on the outside, which prevent us from seeing each other and growing as people.

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