Notes From an Anxious Mind, p.2: Illness/journey/illness/journey

Party idea: we all get together and figure out what this gnawing, awful dybbuk inside of me wants so that we can help it and it can go on its way.

Sophia has not, in fact, come home, which I am trying not to let alarm me (anxiety/panic is a feedback loop, asserts this Australian doctor whose audiobook I’m now listening to). However, I did pick up a copy of O Magazine at JFK and it gave me the strength to get on the jet. She appears on the cover with a lion. I wish I could just Photoshop my fears, too.


I shook so badly on the way to the airport Wednesday morning that I would have canceled my flight (and gone with Nat the next day), but the thought of being in NYC feeling like that for one more hour got me out of the car.

Fun fact about my flight anxiety: For many of us, it’s not about the plane; it’s about going crazy on the plane. This time I was near-catatonic with exhaustion from the three days of anxiety, so I was kind of like, “Fuck it. Crash then.” Turbulence felt like a mother’s gentle rocking.

Winter is not Austin’s best look. We land in the rural flatlands outside the city, damp and ochre. I feel the first signs of lift in my shoulders, radiating through my neck. Home, I think. Even when I’m well, I get the same feeling when we hover over the sprawling suburbia of Southern California, lined by its forever-sparkling blue ocean, coming back to the land in which I was born and raised. So I have made myself two homes. Like the wealthy overachiever who grew up in poverty.

Could New York ever feel like home? I’m not ready for that thought yet. With its blue buildings and blue nights and grey skies, with its monuments. The memory of going crazy in the NYPL—how that architectural triumph is sullied for me, at least until I get my sense of humor back. All those high rooftops and balconies. The wheels touch down and I think I will run for miles without seeing a single skyscraper. They open the cabin door and the humidity wraps around me, even in its winter grey, the airport is filled with the languid and the 10-gallon-hatted.

I eat my first meal in days, a P. Terry’s veggie burger. Is this me getting better? At dinner that night, where I barely choke down some salad and cheese, everyone talks to me about medication. Am I needlessly hurting myself? Or am I being patient and waiting to be shown something? Wine helps. I am careful not to get drunk: who knows where that will swing me.

I snuggle in bed with my close friend. We talk about each other’s lives. We play Farmville side by side and watch 30 Rock. If I weren’t busy fixating on the small relief I feel, and noticing every shiver that still passes through me, I’d be thinking, I will stay right here. This is what my soul is telling me to do. Okay, I do think it.

Nat arrives the next day, and after a traumatic 90-minute experience with Dollar (I’ll spare you the Yelp review. Just never do business with them. They hate you.) we go to see our friends’ new baby. Their new house is awesome; it’s everything my Brooklyn apartment is not—spacious, bright, airy. His parents, with whom I spent a delightful Thanksgiving in New Orleans, are there and they are the most parenty parents who ever parented. My friends cook and fuss and fret over their new family, their new purpose in life. When no one is looking, I go in the bathroom to cry.

The next day, Nat and I drive out west past the hills and juniper of Central Texas, cross into the Edwards Plateau where it’s horizon-to-horizon mesquite and short-cotton fields. I’ve been crying the whole drive. I want to come back, I tell him. Please don’t make me do that, he says. We are quiet for most of the three-hour drive so we can each see if we have the strength to do what the other one needs.

The cotton is bundled and capped with bright pink plastic. It looks like we’ve merged into some Pop artist’s painting of a yellow Texas farm in the winter, dotted with giant nigiri. I have a flash through my heart that I love this idea, may paint it when I get home. This, I think to myself, this is what Normal Erin feels like. This impulse to create, to express, is still in there somewhere. I have been so unkind to myself to ignore it. Will it come back if I promise to honor it? Please, will it?

We must allow ourselves to be devastated, driven to the edge, shown the long fall, the shredding rocks on the way down, if we are to get serious about change. I’ve been lazy, I’ve neglected myself, I’ve remembered only how to survive. I shut down all my creative impulses. Any swelling of desire to write, to draw, I immediately pricked with a pin. My parents enrolled me in ballet at six because my cousin and my best friend were going—it seemed the thing to do. But someone stopped taking me someday and I never threw a fit. Not that I remember. I never said, But I love it and everyone else gets to do it. Same with the violin. With afterschool drama.

Accepting what happens to us and just going with the flow is how the child survives. Accepting what happens to us is how, as an adult, you end up looking at the life you wanted as if it is on a parallel track, above or beside you, never crossing paths with the one you’re on.

Jumping the track will hurt. It will hurt us to our bones. People will see you hurt and will want you to medicate. You seem ill, and maybe you are. You think maybe you’ve been a fool to be afraid of drugs, all along. You think if you were on drugs maybe you would have been on the track that is the life you wanted. You think, no, it is a journey. And then someone suggests a thyroid, or an ill-placed tumor. The mind spins. Illness/journey/illness/journey.

You told a friend, a week before the breakdown happened, New York is an asana. How cocky you were then. You went to yoga to remind yourself how to breathe through a difficult pose, how to be still and breathe when your thighs want to give out, when the tendon at your groin burns and makes your heart race, how to imagine you are breathing ease into an Achilles’ Heel you’ve known to be only this flexible your whole life. Transformation is a practice, you thought, almost happily. And a few days later, the nuclear bomb goes off. Transform this, sucker.

I am on his family’s couch, my eyes shut, soul-tired from the crying drive. I hear my husband talk about me in the other room. He praises my abilities as a writer, praises my strength. I sit there thinking, I’d like to be whoever this is he’s talking about. And then, Is this how fathers raise sane daughters?

He leaves Austin a day early, letting me be alone with it. The sun comes out when his plane takes off. I spend the day haunting. First, I go to Spiderhouse, the eclectic ramshackle house-turned-yard art café that sold me on the town back in 2003, when I first visited. When I finally made the move in 2005 and was attending a low-res MFA program, I wrote all my stories on this patio, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, or Dylan always playing, and Chloe straining at the leash to greet the other tables. I drank chamomile teas then, because I was having panic attacks at night, all alone in my new little house in this new little city. I took Xanax in those days, to sleep at night. I don’t remember when I felt okay enough to stop, but I know I was vigilant enough to stop as soon as I could. In those days, you could point to why I had panic: I found my mother murdered only a year ago. I left my codependent relationship, dearest friends, and the place of my birth for a state where I knew no one. It was a simple matter of taking care of my dog and getting a job, and becoming who I always wanted to be. Nine years ago, that was. I thought I’d slipped the noose forever.

After the café, I went to meet my pen pal, a poet and essayist. We got juices and walked around Town Lake and talked about how much things have changed; he’s been there since 1993. I told him I complained about change after only being there for 8 years; later, I’d meet up with another friend who lamented changes after being there for 2. I thought, maybe I don’t want to come back here. It’s the fastest-growing city in the country, according to CNN. I am not really a joiner, y’all.

You move to Austin under the illusion that time will stand still there. You think the heat, perhaps, will slow you down, ease your woes, encourage you to take up pottery. And it does, for a while. You take a job as a server at a nice restaurant, use your days off to clean the house, lay around Barton Springs, go plant shopping, work on your garden. But the mind starts to itch, and you begin to wonder if this is really all. Shouldn’t you be getting to work on that book? Oh, but it’s so warm and the hammock holds your weight like a mother, and that book is jagged and seizing, like an iron maiden. Maybe just call a friend instead and go for a hike in the Greenbelt… maybe just sew more pillows.

This is where I went wrong: I let the comfort of Austin overtake me—can you see now why? An anxious soul with PTSD, writing about the traumatic event, all the traumatic events that preceded it. Why would I do that when my friends are so wonderful to have dinner with and can do things on a moment’s notice?

It is from this place that I said, Let’s move to New York City. I need to write, and it’s too nice here for that.

I threw away the home and family I’d built, that I sorely needed. What made me think I would not be punished for that hubris?

It is possible for an act to be both supremely brave and supremely foolish.

A California girl who ran away to Texas then ran away to New York. A solar-powered being with a lifetime of barely dealt-with anxiety leaves everything she knows and trusts and loves—and everyone who loved her back—to go to a place so cold, so isolating, that it would re-traumatize her inward, where (she thought) the writing gets done. But she underestimates winter, four to five months of grey skies and heavy-coat chill. The claustrophobia of snow. Your insignificance is lit up by it.

Didn’t Joan Didion, the consummate California girl move here? She said she got homesick in 1988 and went back to L.A. She said, “It took a year to ‘get L.A.’ and once I got it, I didn’t want to be there anymore.” She said L.A. has no reason to be there, and neither do you.

And here I am in the inevitable city. The city built by chance, geography, and tragedy, like me. Why don’t we get along? This city does not care if I leave, but my husband does. And I can’t trust my impulses. Maybe it is a tumor. Or maybe I have simply had too much. But I am in this asana, and you know what they say: if I can get well here I’ll get well (clap clap) anywhere.

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