life

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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One Night in Florence

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In the fall of 2008, I went on a three week trip to Europe. My best male friend Sammy had invited me to be his date for a Tuscan wedding, and it happened to coincide with my parents trip to Spain. Even though I was pretty broke at the time, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel, and booked the flight on credit. The journey proved to be incredible, a feast for the eyes, ears, tongue. I walked the cobbled streets of Toledo, experienced the serenity of the Islamic architecture in the Alhambra, marveled at the monstrous take over of the Cordoba mosque by the Catholic Church. In Italy I danced until 4 in the morning with the bride and groom, went wine tasting through the Tuscan countryside, had the most amazing seven course, five hour dinner in Florence. The trip was packed with culture, art, food, beauty, wine. But the most memorable experience actually came at the end of my vacation.

When I had booked the flight, I had misread the dates Sammy had sent me, and thus ended up with an two extra nights, one in Italy and one in Switzerland. I was nervous about this, as I had never been alone in another country before, but also thrilled by the possibility for adventure. I didn’t plan anything before leaving the United States, so on my last day with Sammy in Lucca I had no idea where I would end up. I took a train down to Florence, passing the hours simply staring out the window at the red, orange, and yellow leaves of the October trees.

As the train finally pulled into the station, my heart skipped. I was officially alone in a city with no idea where I was going, where I was staying. I reached up for the suitcase and struggled to pull it down. It had been wedged into the overhead cabinet, and I couldn’t get it out. Tears started forming in my eyes. What was I doing here all alone? Why did I think I was capable of this? “Can I help you with that?” a voice from behind me inquired. I turned to find a handsome, bespectacled young man, who looked about my age. I nearly hugged him I was so relieved to hear someone speak English. “That would be wonderful,” I replied. He easily lifted the suitcase down and smiled. “These are my parents,” he motioned to a kindly looking couple, “where are you from?”

As we departed the train, we unearthed a lot of common ground. We were both in college, both from the west coast, and he was currently attending the University of Portland, a campus I had grown up less than a mile from. We talked about traveling with our parents, and how much we enjoyed Italy. As his father stopped to hail a cab, a sense of sadness and panic overcame me. Without thinking, I blurted out “Do you think I could come with you guys and see if there’s an extra room in your hotel? I have nowhere to go.” They all smiled. There was so much warmth from this family, I didn’t want to leave it.

During the cab ride, I started to feel anxious about the hotel. What if it was really nice and I couldn’t afford it? I had less than 70 dollars left, and it needed to last me for the next two days. As I listened to the family talk, I became acutely aware of the father’s speech. He had an impediment of some sort. Not a stutter exactly, something else. I could sense his frustration. His wife was very patient, every so often finishing his sentences.

When we got to the hotel, my nerves calmed. Like my own family, they travelled frugally. The hotel was charming in its own storied way, but it lacked refinement. The wallpaper peeled slightly at the corners, the wooden banisters had long since lost their luster, the lift elevator groaned heavily. I was grateful for the absence of pretense; it felt comfortable. And the price was right – $35 for a tiny single with a twin bed. As we got off the elevator, I thanked the family for allowing me to come with them. “Would you like to come have dinner with us?” The boy asked. “Yes!” I responded too eagerly. I couldn’t help it – I wanted to stay enveloped in their affectionate energy. “Great, meet us in the lobby at 7.”

The room was no more than 10 feet squared, but as I unpacked my toiletries I felt an enormous sense of pride. It was the first time I’d ever rented my own hotel room. I felt distinctively adult. I was in another city, by myself, and I had found a place for myself within it. I laid on the bed and hugged myself. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, I thought.

That evening we roamed through the piazzas in search of a restaurant. We found one in a rather touristy part of the city and ordered pasta and pizza. It could have been The French Laundry or McDonald’s, it wasn’t important – what mattered was the company. We laughed, shared stories, drank wine, spoke about home and the Northwest. I could barely contain the joy I felt as we stopped for gelato on the walk back to the hotel. This was living.

Back in the hotel, the parents retired to bed and I sat with the boy in the lobby, each of us checking Facebook on our lap tops. We chatted for a bit, and then I finally asked the question I’d been pondering all night – “So, what’s going on with your dad?” The words felt poisonous exiting my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I quickly followed up, “I don’t mean to be rude.” He looked at me tenderly, “No, it’s alright. He has Lou Gehrig’s.” My mouth dropped. I didn’t know much about the disease, but I knew enough. My eyes welled. “He has about six months left, we took this trip because it was always his dream to come to Italy.” I hugged him and started to cry. I had no words. After a minute we pulled apart. “He’s had a really good life, and we have a really strong family,” he said, “life’s not always fair, but it’s what you make of it.” I nodded, moved. A moment passed. “Wanna head back upstairs?” he offered.

The next day I sat with the family at the complimentary breakfast. We ate bread and jam, drank orange juice, shared more laughter. They talked about the places they were going to visit that day, and I told them about my favorite pieces at the Uffizi – the Cimabue I adored, the magnificence of the Birth of Venus. The boy gave me his contact information, and we promised to keep up with each other on Facebook. After finishing our last sips of coffee, we exchanged hugs and goodbyes. I headed upstairs and packed my suitcase, alone again. I broke down. The last 24 hours had been too special, too sad, too sacred. Their acceptance and grace – it would never leave me.

I took one last look at the room, and then confidently grabbed my bag. I still had a night in Zurich to figure out, but this time the only nerves I felt were of excitement. There are seven billion of us on this planet, each doing our best to navigate this thing called life. Whose path would I cross today? Whose story would I be told? Who would change my perspective on things, great or small? I couldn’t wait to find out.

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.