death

High Anxiety

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A year ago I thought I was dying. I know what you’re thinking, “But Amy, we’re all dying,” and trust me, I’m the first to agree with you on that one. But this was different. This wasn’t some vague but tragic certainty that all living things must eventually perish. No, it was a stone cold in my face Grim Reaper ready to whisk me away to a netherworld I don’t believe in. I’d be driving down the 101 in my 1999 Z3 and whoosh, there he was on the shoulder, a hulking semi ready to crush me. I’d be jogging through Hancock Park when suddenly he’d seize my legs and I’d collapse, numb from the waist down. Even falling asleep became a nightmare – he was in my closet, under the bed, outside my window, daring me to shut my eyes. What I couldn’t recognize at the time was that this bony apparition staring me down was not in fact the embodiment of death, but of an even greater threat to my life: anxiety.

The great thing about death is it’s final. You don’t wake up after a heart stopping cardiac attack or a decapitating car accident and think, “God, I’m in so much pain, I feel like I’m dying.” Nope, you are in fact just dead. Now what that means – DEAD – has filled libraries with books and churches with parishioners for centuries. I’d love to get into a whole philosophical debate about my own personal (terrifying) feelings on what the big sleep really means, but this is my blog, my agnostic thoughts, and thus: death = not living.

By contrast, anxiety is very much living. I’m still breathing, my aortas are still pumping, my fingers are still punching little black squares on a MacBook Pro. The problem is, anxiety of death actually causes deathlike symptoms, and so the sufferer becomes trapped in a M.C. Escher-like staircase of doom. Couple the physical manifestations of anxiety – difficulty breathing, dizziness, numbness in extremities, heart palpitations, sweats – with a moderate lifelong case of hypochondria, and you can begin to imagine the world of shit I had stepped in.

My first inclination was that I had a brain tumor. It didn’t help that I had recently finished Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, in which the lead character’s father dies quite abruptly in the prologue from said illness. Even the slightest pulsation in my prefrontal cortex and I would begin putting my affairs in order: call mom, tell her I love her; write will; throw away underwear with holes and stains. A CT scan eventually settled the tumor / headache debate, but I still couldn’t let go of the possibility my brain might be bleeding from a treadmill accident from the previous summer.

Luckily for my hypochondria, webMD reassured me that there were a whole host of other horrifying conditions which I could be suffering from. Meniere’s disease, meningitis, COPD, BPPV – nothing was off the table. Except maybe AIDS. (When I was 5 years old, I remember getting out of bed in the middle of the night and finding my mom downstairs working on an order for her flower company. I collapsed in a fit of sobs, knowing I had contracted AIDS that day from playing on the jungle gym. My mom had been planning to tell me about sex and drugs much later, but this episode forced the talk at a tender age. Needless to say, I’ve been very careful to avoid intravenous drug use and unprotected orgies.)

While the googling of my symptoms led several times to discussions of anxiety, it wasn’t until I began seeing a therapist that I was finally able to accept the correct diagnosis. I wasn’t suffering from a physical ailment after all, rather this disease of the mind: anxiety. I felt like my conscience had been suspended in a pool of fear, drowning in its perception of life and death. How had it come to this? For 27 years I had lived in relative ease, going through the motions of everyday life: wake up, eat breakfast, read the paper, look at Facebook, work out, go to class, get drunk, repeat. Sure, there’d been upsets along the way – dark nights of the soul, break ups with lovers, deaths of family members, a near fatal car accident – that had rattled me. But for the most part, I’d been content to live my life the way it seemed I should.

Seemed I should. What does that even mean? What should I be doing? What should you be doing? What on this tiny little planet in this gigantic mind boggling universe should any of us be doing? That is one helluva question. And it is my mission to answer it. My life depends on it.

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Flying Lessons

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I hate flying. If my love for travel weren’t as deep as it is, I may be one of those trains, ships, and automobile girls. But alas, my heart breaks if I don’t touch down in a foreign country at least once a year (and quite frankly, who has time to participate in trans-oceanic cruises aside from the elderly and my parents?) Thus, in order to strengthen my 28 year marriage to traveling – yes, I began my adventures as an infant in Thailand – I have had to overcome my dreaded fear of airplanes. And oh, what a trip it’s been.

Like many sufferers of pteromerhanophobia, I didn’t always picture horrific scenes of airplane shrapnel piercing my liver while my left arm was on fire the second I stepped into the aisle. No, there was a time back in the early 90s when I actually enjoyed being up in the clouds, viewing the world as a red-tailed hawk or Superman. “Daddy, daddy, look! There’s a McDonald’s!” my excited 7 year-old self would proclaim from 2,000 feet as we ascended into the heavens. Back then, I somehow could trust that the wheels would always touch down on the other side of the planet, that our odds of winning the airplane crash lottery were a slim 11 million to one. My greatest fear as we crossed the ocean in a Cathay Pacific 747 was a dearth of honey roasted peanuts. Those were the days.

I still remember the flight where everything changed. It was a dark and stormy night in Southeast Portland, the perfect night (pregnant pause) for a plane crash! That’s actually not true at all. It was a sunny morning in Northeast Portland, and I was awoken at 6 am by a camera crew, ready to escort me to PDX. At 16 years old, I had been cast in a reality show for ABC Family (one of the first of its kind), and I was being shuttled across the country to switch lives with a girl in Pennsylvania. I kissed my mom and dad goodbye on cable TV, and boarded that flight alone. That’s right, you heard me, ALONE. It was the first time I’d ever done such a thing, and the second we took off my mind could thing of nothing else except dying in the comfort of two hundred strangers.

Reflecting on it now, I find it quite ridiculous that this solitary flight birthed my crippling fear of flying. For one thing, how selfish of me to want my friends and family to die with me in a fiery crash. Isn’t it actually better if I go down with strangers, my loved ones spared the horrific demise? I guess not; misery loves familiar company, as they say. Secondly, and this is getting a bit more philosophical, we all technically die alone, so with or without my mother present, the fear should have been the same. Again, the irrational wins the day, and even now my fear of flying is exponentially increased when I’m traveling solo.

But enough of all that psychobabble, I know what you’re really wondering – “Amy, how have you been able to overcome such a dehabilitating condition as pteromerhanophobia?” Well, I’ll tell you, dear reader, and it’s really very simple: Xanax.

I came across this miracle airplane drug a blessed three years ago, on a return flight from Dusseldorf. Until this point, my tried and true weapon of defense were those mini wine bottles they serve free of charge on international flights. Lots and lots of them. For several years, I had found that a drunken stupor greatly decreased my sense of panic, and also significantly improved the quality of film programming (I don’t know what rottentomatoes was talking about, “Good Luck Chuck” was hilarious!) But as any alcoholic can tell you, the buzz eventually wears off, and on my flight to Paris a month B.X. (Before Xanax), I had succumbed to a full blown panic attack halfway through The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. What makes this incident all the more surprising is the fact that I had also consumed a Tylenol PM, and the combination of the two had caused me to conk out. But do not underestimate my sensitivity to turbulence, because the second that plane started to tremble, I came to with a jolt, and my pulse went off the charts. (In retrospect, I wonder if the red wine and sleeping aid may have been the real cause of the panic attack. Who will ever know.)

Needless to say, after that terrifying experience over the Atlantic, I knew I required something much more potent than the poison of Dionysus to return me safely to Los Angeles. Luckily, my friend Zoe, an ex-pat living in that oh-so seedy arrondisement of Montmartre, prescribed just the thing. She gave me three little white tablets, and suggested I take one based on my slender frame. Knowing she was incapable of truly grasping the gravity of my condition, I took two before boarding AirBerlin Flight 790 to LAX. As I settled into my seat next to a 20-something Brit, I crossed my fingers and said a short prayer – “God save us.”

Twenty minutes later, suspended in a 400 ton piece of metal 10,000 feet above sea level, I was in heaven. I’d never felt so weightless, so content! The Brit could have told me he was secretly Al Qaeda and I would have smiled- “Bloody wonderful, good chap!” Every fear I’d ever had – spiders, ghosts, those pink flamingo yard ornaments – just evaporated into the oxygen deprived air of the stratosphere. “Life is beautiful! I’m on Xanax!” I proclaimed joyfully to my seatmate. “Do you have anymore?” he inquired, and I handed him my final pill. Wonderful! I thought, if this plane is to fall out of the sky, I will not be alone!

As chance would have it, a mere 12 hours later we arrived at the Tom Bradley terminal, as intact as two Xanax induced travelers could be. I retrieved my luggage from the baggage claim, phoned my friend who was circling the airport, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I’d found my cure.

(Now off to London!!!)

Memorial Day

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Pearl Harbor was not a great movie. I know this because it scored a 25% on rottentomatoes. I also know this because it was directed by Michael Bay, who brought us such gems as the Transformers and Bad Boys franchises. But that did not stop me from seeing it 5 times in the theaters, a personal record that still holds to this day.

The first time I saw Pearl Harbor was in Bend, Oregon with my one of my best friends Stephanie. It was Memorial Day weekend, and we were staying at her family’s beautiful vacation home. If you’ve ever been to Bend, you know it’s great for outdoor activities, especially during the winter, but for two hormonal 15 years olds looking for a beach and cute boys, this was a less than ideal getaway. However, we loved being in each other’s company, and knew we’d make the best of it. That first night, we barbecued at the house, then headed over to the Cineplex to catch one of the big blockbuster movies opening for the holiday. Pearl Harbor had the most mass appeal in our group of 8, managing to win out over Shrek and The Mummy Returns.

I’ve always cried a lot in movies, but until that Friday night I’d never really understood the expression “choke on your tears.” Stephanie and I could barely control our sobs for the last third of the film (a solid hour, for those who’ve forgotten that movie’s epic runtime). We were devastated. When we walked out and saw all of the indifferent faces and dry eyes, we could hardly believe it. Had they not seen the same movie we had? Had they not been shaken to their core by Capts. Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker’s story?

The reality was we had both fallen madly in love with Josh Hartnett over the course of the film. His soft eyes, his sensitive demeanor, the way he looked in dog tags with sweat and blood on his wife beater. He was the reason we went back the next day, walking three miles in the hot sun to see the film again. He was the reason I ended up with 5 Pearl Harbor ticket stubs on the cork board above my dresser. But our love for him wasn’t the reason we stayed up that night until 4am crying and sharing our most intimate feelings with each other. What had affected us so deeply, what neither of us could grasp or make sense of us, was the sacrifice that had been made by Danny for his friend. It was so powerful, so selfless, so courageous, giving oneself up to save another human being. We sat their in each other’s arm, our hearts ripped open, trying to understand why he had died.

The simple answer is Danny died because it’s a movie, and that’s what happens in movies. But the actual Pearl Harbor was not a movie. Neither was World War Two, nor World War One, nor the Civil War, nor Iraq. Even though we were crying over a fictional character, we both knew in our hearts the truth of it. It was the first time our 15 year old selves had encountered the deeply personal within a war- the numbers have faces. Those little headstones neatly spaced for miles were sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, friends. They were human beings, with lives and loves and hopes and dreams and courage. My God, the courage. It’s unfathomable.

The other day I read Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” Once again I found myself choking on tears. Chris’s discussion about his company in the war- the kid who gave him his last pair of dry socks, the men who “killed themselves for each other”- brought me right back to that night so many years ago. It’s almost too devastating to think about, too crushing. Why do wars happen? Why do we kill each other? There are a million answers and no answers. But it happens and it’s happening and these people deserve to be remembered. Men and women sacrificed themselves for this country, for me, so I can live the way I live now. How can I even begin to understand the depth of that?

I’m sure I’ll end up at some pool parties and barbecues this weekend, and I’ll probably have a few drinks and enjoy the sun. After all, Malibu’s a pretty great beach with a lot of cute boys. But instead of just using Memorial Day as an excuse to get shit-faced, as I’ve been guilty of in the past, I’m going to tap back in to that part of me opened up by Pearl Harbor as a teenager, and reflect on why these people died.

Alexis White

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“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on…” Irving Berlin

There was a girl in my high school named Alexis White. She had mousy brown hair, pudgy cheeks, and wore clothes of our grandmother’s era. She smiled a lot, and hung out with the theater kids. If it hadn’t been for the play I was in senior year, I might not even remember her at all- she was shy and quiet, I was self absorbed. But now I think about her often. She died two summers ago.

 

High school was a tumultuous time in my life. I vacillated wildly between being a straight A honors student and a Hollywood club rat in training. I loved mirrors, but hated my body. I read Tolstoy and Eliot with rapt fascination, then sang Britney Spears songs while pounding cheap beer on the weekends. I fancied myself to be a young Angelina Jolie, destined for super stardom, but found myself in sobbing hysterics on my closet floor, overcome by the unbearable lightness of simply being. I was, in short, manic depressive.

I try not to regret the things I’ve done in my life (who has room for such feelings – deal and move on), but I wish I could have done those first three years of high school differently. Instead of being so enamored with beauty and popularity and boys, I wish I had fallen in love with my classes, my teachers, art and history and literature. I did, finally, wake up my senior year, but before that I spent my time in high school in a haze of ego and insecurity.

When speaking about it now (and in my USC application essay), I attribute my “awakening” to my junior year English teacher, Mark Halpern, and his teaching of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” I still consider that novella one of the most profound I have ever read (the phrase “most ordinary, most conformed, and therefore most terrible” keeps me up some nights), but giving all of the credit to those two men is not entirely fair. After all, the drama kids share a part of that responsibility.

 

I’d been an actress for years, but I’d also been a competent athlete, and at Lincoln High School the latter certainly carried more weight. Thus, it took three years for me to finally audition for the fall play, and I landed the lead role of a Russian spy in Idiot’s Delight. It’s a bit scary for me to think about it now, because I honestly remember so little about the whole experience. Sure, I’ll never forget my terrible fake Russian accent (intentionally so), or the fabulous ritzy 40s costumes I donned. But entire passages of dialogue once boldly delivered night after night have completely disappeared, lost in the ether of my mind. So much for memorization.

What I can say about the experience, with utter confidence, was how taken aback I was by the people I worked with. These kids were genuine, not afraid of themselves, their sexuality, their eccentricities. You don’t like my blue hair? So what, I do. My homosexuality makes you uncomfortable? Then look away while I kiss my boyfriend. These teenagers had nothing to hide. They knew who they were, they accepted who you were, and that was that. I barely knew how to react to such openness and empathy. I was so used to trying to impress people (ie football players) with my looks, my clothes, my flirtiness, that I turned inward before I could turn outward.

I spent most of the duration of the play observing my fellow thespians, not allowing myself to get too close. I longed to be a part of them (and who among them would say I wasn’t?) but I could never fully shake the feeling that I was a fraud. They were too real for me at 17 years old. I had spent too long in the conformed world of our school’s “royalty” to feel like I truly deserved their friendship. But they offered it anyway. Eben, Dashiell, Milo, Ella, Rebecca, Colin, Martha, Alexis.

 

Two summers ago, I went through one of the most trying periods of my life. In the course of one weekend, my grandmother passed away, my aunt committed suicide, and a friend of mine was raped in my then boyfriend’s driveway. While all of these things impacted me deeply, I was acutely aware of the fact that they were happening to others. Although I shared in the pain, it was not mine. I could think of nothing else for weeks – the suffering of my aunt, the horror experienced by my friend – but I also kept hearing this small voice reassuring myself “but it wasn’t you.”

About a month after this infamous weekend, I received a Facebook message from a drama kid, Alyssa Essman. “Hey Amy, do you remember Alexis White?” My heart immediately sunk. I felt the same terrible feeling wash over me the same night my mom asked “if I was in an okay place.” “Yes,” I responded, hoping my intuition was wrong. I watched the screen nervously. Alyssa is typing “She passed away yesterday.”

I started sobbing. I hadn’t thought about her since high school, but the news hit me like a semi. It had been some sort of freak accident, Alyssa informed me. Why her? Why Alexis? My mind raced. Though I couldn’t remember much about her, I knew she had been a kind-hearted person, the kind of girl that would never say a mean thing about anyone. I started googling her, looking at her Myspace page (she’d never joined Facebook). She had gotten a Master’s in Literature, taught special ed, and was an aspiring poet. There was a picture of her with her dog. I searched in vain for some of her poetry, hoping for one last communion with this girl I’d known only briefly so many years ago. But my search turned up nothing.

 

Everyone dies eventually. It’s one of the few truths we all must live with. But it’s so easy to take it for granted when we are young. In high school, we think we are invincible. We look at our peers and assume this’ll go on for a long time. Decades. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it stops at 50, like for my aunt. Or 26, like Alexis. I hate that it took her death for me to finally take so much notice of her. I regret not remembering the conversations we had, or keeping in touch with her after we graduated. But then I think of all the people that have come in and out of my life through the years. People I laughed with, cried with, connected with, loved.

It’s hard for me to express it in a way that doesn’t sound selfish, but Alexis’ death really helped me to see people again. In the same way the drama kids helped change my perspective on community and friendship my senior year, her passing served as a wake up call. Do not take any day for granted. Do not take any person for granted. Do not take your life for granted. It’s too precious to let it slip by.