Memory is a mysterious force. Today I was cooking some cheese-stuffed pasta shells for dinner. It’s a dish I haven’t made as an adult, but one I did eat now and again growing up. I was always glad to get a dinner entree that I genuinely enjoyed, but I was routinely dismayed by the judgment that my dad and step-mom passed on my eating habits. I always wanted to eat more. Sometimes they told me no, others they would say, “Do you really need to have another one?”
Teenage boys are assumed to be constantly hungry. This incessant drive for caloric intake is not frowned upon, as it is in girls, but encouraged. Growing bodies need nutrition, of course. Teenage girls receive another message. The female adolescent body is ever at risk of being fat. As we all know, fat is the worst thing a young woman can be. If you’re fat, men won’t like you and that’s the worst thing of all.
I was always hungry when I was young. Actually, I am always hungry as an adult, but I am learning how better to manage my nutritional needs. A little knowledge and experience can make a huge difference. I’ve been reflecting a lot on diet, eating habits, and how to best eat for my body and level of activity. With these thoughts in mind when this memory of dinners past surfaced, I discovered a new perspective on myself.
I was always hungry because I never had the right food. I never went hungry. We weren’t impoverished and there was always food in the house. However, I lacked the practical knowledge of how to feed myself effectively. Left to my own devices, I’d cook a grilled cheese sandwich or get a pizza. I ate crackers as an after-school snack. Granola bars were a large part of my diet. This might sound obvious, but to me it feels like a revelation to discover that I was always hungry because I didn’t get enough protein or enough of the food I needed to recover from my daily life.
I wasn’t fat. Well, I was overweight but I wasn’t fat in the way we think of fat people, in the loaded sense of the word. But I wasn’t getting what I needed. If you’re told that nearly every food is “bad” for you, then everything becomes equal. Like when every email you get is “urgent,” then there are no urgent issues—it’s all equally important. My step-mom, for example, would see me eating cashews and say “Nuts are fattening.” Well, if nuts are bad and cake is bad, then, why not eat a cake? It all has the same conclusion: food is bad and you’re fat.
There was a year that my step-mom, her daughter, my sister and I lived in the UK. We regularly bought packages of cookies (gotta sample the local cuisine) and we’d all have a cookie or two after dinner. That was great except for when I started to sneak cookies after school when I was the only one yet home. Eventually this escalated to eating multiple cookies. The evidence of my crimes would be unveiled and my step-mom would ask “Who ate all these cookies?” while looking pointedly at me. I was too frozen with shame to respond.
I gained a lot of weight that year (whether it was a lot objectively or not is a question that I cannot answer, but I think I would have fared better if someone had told me it was normal for teenage girls to gain some weight). When we moved back home, my dad made us tacos for dinner. I had keenly missed eating Mexican food so I was excited to eat some homemade tacos. Of course, after eating two tacos and angling for a third I was met with “Are you sure you need another taco?” from my dad. I said I was and then he decided this was the right time to tell me I had gained weight and should stop. Thanks for the support.
From an adult perspective, I question why no one saw this weight gain, saw my eating habits, my emotions, and asked how I felt or if I was hungry or what I needed. Why the fuck would you tell a teenage girl she is fat. Why would you tell your step-daughter that, when returning home from a year abroad, all her friends will see how much she “ballooned out.” I can’t imagine ever saying something like that to anyone, let alone a child. I wish someone had seen what was happening and realized that I needed emotional support instead of judgment and shame.
When you’re fat, you assume it’s because you lack the self-control that thin people have. Or you’re lazy. Maybe you are too stupid to know that you’re supposed to eat right. These are the stories our culture tells us. If you’re fat, it’s your fault. Of course, this narrative ignores the billions that corporations spend to market nutritionally useless foods like breakfast cereal, sugary beverages, and snack cakes. It ignores the hundreds of conflicting diets (low-fat, low-carb, only juice, the tears of one’s enemies) that are backed by little more than the testimony of a thin white woman.
I am fat. I say that without judgment; it’s just a fact of my body. Recognizing some of the factors that have influenced a lifetime’s eating habits is helping me accept myself and accept that it’s possible to live healthfully in my own terms. I know I will never be thin, which is something I am fine with. However, I can be strong, active and confident all while being fat. I can choose what I need to fuel my life. I don’t have to be forever hungry or forever guilty. I can just be myself.
There’s something about choosing an inanimate object as a Halloween costume that simultaneously amuses and unnerves people. When I was a kid I was fond of painting boxes to resemble this or that. One year, a packet of gum, another, a teapot. This year, every person who I have told I plan to be a tree has abruptly burst with laughter. There’s something unexpected about being a thing instead of being a someone. But I struggle to embody someone else when I hardly can embody myself. How can I be someone else when some days, it seems like I am barely myself?
I remember taking a disposable camera with me on a fourth-grade field trip to Sacramento. After developing the roll of film, my parents discovered that the majority of my photos were of squirrels I’d witnessed in and around the capitol. In the eighth grade, when I went to Washington D.C., I used 8 rolls of film taking pictures of monuments, buildings from abstruse angles, and clouds. My parents were mad at the cost of developing all my photos, then puzzled by their contents. “There are no people in these pictures,” my step-mom observed, anguished, “Where are your friends?” Do people have friends in eighth grade? I’m not convinced I did.
Days into my student teaching assignment, my mentor (and now friend) Shannon asked me if I felt like I was observing my life from a distance, like watching a movie of my existence rather than experiencing it firsthand. I narrowed my eyes. Maybe? How would you know to ask something like that? Well, if you know what autism looks like, it’s really not hard to spot in the wild.
My father-in-law is not a man of faith in the typical sense but he has unrelenting faith in the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. Your path laid out before you in a four-letter sequence as tidy as your DNA. a-t, c-g, INTJ, ENFP. Destiny. Because my father-in-law and I share a type, INTJ, he believes he knows a lot about me. He doesn’t bother to ask my opinion or hear about my experiences. He knows me like he knows himself. He acts like we’re part of an elite club, leaning in conspiratorially to share a universal truth about the long-suffering life sentence of the INTJ. “You and me,” he begins, “we’re not compassionate. You don’t know how to be a nice person.” One time I said I was, in fact, a pretty alright person and he didn’t know my life, to which he informed me that my response was not indicative of a compassionate person. Apparently, the truly compassionate would have the forbearance and wisdom to take this character assassination in stride and merely smile into the middle distance, secure in the knowledge of themselves.
I want to not be bothered by the stupid shit my father-in-law thinks he knows about me. But when parental figures wade into sensitive subjects it’s difficult to remain steady and trust my sense of self. Why is it a sensitive subject anyway? Why have I spent years thinking I’m some kind of arrogant jerk when, I’m pretty sure, I’m not that at all? Why have I made such efforts to improve my people skills over time? Oh, right, that other father figure: my dad.
My dad has left me with some stupid ideas about myself. Intellectually, I know it’s not true and probably an act of projection, more than one of judgment, but intellectual understanding doesn’t always lead to emotional truth. My dad has said that I’m arrogant, I can’t relate to people. I’m a smart-ass, I’m rude, I’m too loud. But also, that I’m too sensitive, that I’m defensive and collapse under the slightest criticism. It’s taxing, being a living contradiction.
I spent a lot of time in my 20s working on my perceived faults, if they were ever really faults in the first place. Even if my worst traits weren’t as egregious as they were made out to be, I am still glad I was able to improve something about myself. That’s the nature of adulthood: you can choose who to be. I don’t have to be a compassionless jerk if I don’t want to be. So I developed better qualities. I worked on myself. I feel good about the person I am.
Unfortunately, it takes so little to strip me of my sense of self and leave me bare, crying in the bathroom at my in-laws’ house, hoping no one can hear my muffled sobs. My mantra isn’t “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me,” but that’s not too far from what I hold onto when I’m hiding in the restroom. It’s too easy to peel back years of self-sufficient, emotionally mature adulthood to reveal the friendless eighth grader taking pictures of clouds on a field trip to Washington.
Ultimately these patriarchal take-downs hurt me because they reveal my fears about myself. I often feel disconnected from myself and others. Maybe I’m even less connected to people than I thought. Maybe my friends aren’t really my friends and everyone is just tolerating me. Maybe I really am just a tree or a teapot, a passenger in my own life.
I know none of those things are true, but sometimes, they feel very real.
Of course, me, too. I struggle to imagine what sort of woman has never been harassed or assaulted. This theoretical woman would probably be the type to live under some mantle of patrilineal protection: I can only imagine a woman free of harassment if she lives according to the patriarchy’s ever-shifting rules. Even then, is she really free of harassment? If you second-guess yourself into oblivion, contort your whole life to conform to the rules and expectations of the men who surround you, have you really lived a life free of harassment? Or have you merely applied it to yourself, sparing the need for patriarchal sanction?
These discussions surrounding abuse always get me because I have been subject to the leering and dangerous attentions of men, but then I think, well, I’ve never been raped. I’ve never been assaulted. I’ve never not made it home safe. Yet, what I have experienced has stayed with me:
14 and walking home from school, a man pulls his car up to the curb where I’m walking. Two tittering women in the backseat. He invites me in. I can’t remember what he said only that terror overtook me and through the shroud of my naiveté I at least knew to stride purposefully (don’t run, don’t show fear) to my door, lock myself inside.
17 and working a high school job as a caterer. A male patron asks me, “Aren’t you out past your bedtime?” The threat, of course, lurking in the subtext.
19 and working in a mall bookshop. A male customer tells me that it’s cool that I like “reading and stuff.” He follows this statement up with, “How old are you?” and attempts to ask me out.
21 and a man on a bus won’t stop talking to me. He tells me I have a “smile like Malcolm X.” Perhaps this isn’t a true instance of harassment, but it stayed with me. I felt powerless to disengage from this commuter conversation. I still don’t know what about my smile put him in mind of Malcolm X. This mystery lingers.
24 and riding my bike home from work. A man (a youth, more likely) shouts at me from a passing vehicle, “Go eat hamburger, bitch.” Is there truly anything more offensive than a fat woman on a bicycle?
It’s interesting to me that I struggle to recall particular instances of harassment as an adult. Did people stop harassing me? I don’t think so. As I matured and grew confident, shedding my ignorance, I learned how to tell men to leave well enough alone. My male peers started calling me “intimidating.” But something else happened too. I stopped being young. I lost the casual fuckability that men ascribe to young women. I put on weight, shaved my head, became strong. That’s still a woman that men harass, but not the “hey baby” kind of harassment. It’s the “You’re too fat to fuck but I still would and that makes me hate myself and you by extension” brand, which I stopped caring about many years ago.
#MeToo is about sexualized harassment and violence, but I can’t help considering all sex-based oppression. Do I get sexually harassed at work anymore? No. But in my last job, I spent years being seen as some kind of untrustworthy bitch because I refused to do the things women are supposed to do to make men feel comfortable. I am unflinchingly confident. I stopped apologizing for having ideas. I no longer hesitate to correct a man when he talks over me or repeats my suggestions. And you know what? Men fucking hate that. So no, not me too, not lately. Yet, men still hang their expectations on me, and on women everywhere, and behave badly when we refuse to meet them.
Harassment, as #MeToo demonstrates, is not isolated. All women (and some men, sure) experience it. To me though, my experiences seem petty in contrast not only to those of my fellow women, but to those inflicted on us by this system of patriarchal, capitalistic oppression.
Men feel entitled to women. They think they have the right to punish women for not conforming to their “standards” of sexuality. They think they have the right to punish other men for encroaching upon what’s “theirs.”
When I thought about this “me, too” discussion, one of the first things that I recalled was not something that happened to me, per se, but something that happened to my dad.
At eight years old, I witnessed a man smash the side of my dad’s skull with a baseball bat.
My dad had come to retrieve my sister and I from my mom and her boyfriend’s (husband’s? who remembers) house. Some kind of argument ensued. The details I’ve forgotten or perhaps never knew, but can there be any doubt that the nature of this dispute was over who held the rights to my mother?
Dad’s face was covered in blood. We spent the night with my Aunt Ruth and my cousins. I don’t think I understood what was going on but I knew there was a lot of blood involved. My dad lost most of his hearing in one ear.
I know my dad wouldn’t be on team #MeToo, but maybe he should be. This incident wasn’t exactly harassment of me, my sister, or my mom, but it feels like we should think of it that way. What was this other than an act to threaten my mom, to get her in line, to remove a potential suitor and male competitor? Patriarchy is about the violent custody of women as property. Any act to further that system is a part of me, too, in my opinion. So, of course, me too.
After the response I received to last week’s post, I feel I am obligated to pen some form of update.
First, I want to say that my network of friends/acquaintances/people who read my internet ramblings is pretty chill. When you post a piece that is emotionally honest like that, a lot of people respond to it. I know there are a lot of us who are in this job-seekers’ purgatory. I feel for all of you. I hope that we can collectively get out of this one day.
Second, I want to tell the rest of the story. As I had stated, it seemed that my workplace was jerking me around in regards to the matter of a full-time job. Their apparent lack of communicative acumen was too much for me. I almost didn’t even interview for the position, just out of disdain for the system. After I was done feeling miserable, I decided to go to war over it. I was mad that I was being treated this way. I studied up on some of the aspects of the new position. I decided I would give a damn good interview. I wanted to make it difficult for whomever they had decided to hire.
I interviewed on Friday morning. I thought I did a good job. I’ve probably been on more interviews in the last three years than most people have in their entire lives, so I do have a significant amount of practice and at this point. I typically give good interview. I closed my interview by asking if they had any concerns about my ability to fill the position. The response was a “no” delivered with zero hesitation. I found that odd, since I don’t really have any experience with the work of the position. I thought there would be some concern (there is always something). I left the interview unsure of how to interpret things. I knew I had done well, but I thought the final comment could either indicate that they had no reservations and intended to hire me, or they had no reservations and it didn’t matter because they were hiring someone else.
Well, with an almost predictable sense of dramatic irony, they offered me the full-time position that afternoon. Although, not until after telling me that it was a stressful position and that I would have a big learning curve. I’m not daunted by that. I accepted.
This is good because I’ll be making a little more money (I can pay off my student loans faster. Yay?) and I’ll be getting benefits (finally).
But as with basically any development that would be construed as positive by a normal human, I have some mixed feelings. I am glad I got the job because that means I can be a bit less stressed about my life. I question whether I really want to become entrenched in the State bureaucracy (spoiler alert: I don’t). A lot of people at work have been congratulating me on the new position, but that feels awkward to me. I don’t feel like I actually accomplished anything. I am still in the same classification. I convinced people they should let me work full-time, but a few of the administrators there had already been pulling for that anyway. In any case, it is more money and it is an opportunity to evaluate how I intend to move forward with the job search.
So, in the ongoing quest to find a job that I actually like and that fulfills me in some way, here’s the current plan. I’m still applying to library jobs (obviously) and pursuing professional development opportunities when I find them. I’ve stopped applying to writing jobs, since they don’t seem to be taking me anywhere. However, this week I started classes for a technical writing certificate, which I am taking through the University of California, Riverside extension. I had been planning to do this since the beginning of the year. As my Plan C, I am still working at the State, and I’m planning to move up as rapidly as possible, assuming I stay there. After another six months, I can ascend to the next classification and make more money. I guess working for the State wouldn’t be the worst thing, assuming that I can get into something that is research- and writing-focused.
I know there are people who see moving up in my job as unequivocally a Good Thing. I get where they are coming from and I wish I could just let my brain calm down and see things that way too. I have this deep and abiding need to be true to my own sense of self. Anything less makes me feel like a sell-out. I really just want to be in a job where I can research and hook people up with information. I think that would be awesome.
So, there it is. I hope the fact that I got a full-time job does not diminish the righteous anger of the last post. My feelings were genuine and my exhaustion was real. In fact, I would say that I still feel that way about the job search in general, but those feelings have been somewhat mitigated for now.
My first Spanish class in college was during the fall. It was my second year at Brigham Young University (a year which was unexpectedly abbreviated due to having my “ecclesiastical endorsement” revoked for lack appropriate levels of Mormonality). I had taken some placement test that seemed remarkably easy, but it turned out that without taking a much more intense test, the best I could place was in the high-intermediate class. I had taken three years of Spanish in high school, but decided to roll with it.
At this time in my stint at BYU I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore, but I was telling people I was “taking time off” to evaluate my positions. Participation in Mormonism is not measured on a spectrum, but uses a binary. You are Mormon or not. Something is of God or of Satan. So, things were not going that well in terms of interpersonal relations. The problem with being halfway out of Mormonism at BYU is that there are so many ultra-Mormon things happening that everything begins to grate.
And so it was that I was in this Spanish class. It was, naturally, taught by a returned missionary and one of the requirements for the class was to get a hymn book in Spanish. I seem to recall buying a tiny one. It probably matched my scripture set. In BYU language classes, it’s customary to pray at the top of the class in the target language (as we did in my intermediate Arabic class, much to my annoyance—Arabic is not the language of Mormon god, in my view) and sometimes there are hymns. What better way to immerse yourself than with church? It really engages the students, I’m sure.
This class had one of those people in it, as all classes do. So self-important and self-assured, she would act the expert and make claims about things like always using the subjunctive mood at the appropriate times in English. Predictably, I found myself contradicting this girl with frequency. What can I say, it was a rough time and there was little to lash out at. My anti-prescriptive grammarian nature obligated me to that I tell her that it was highly unlikely that, were she to even use the subjunctive in English, she would always apply it where prescribed. She didn’t like that.
The worst of her pronouncements, and the one that I remembered today which spurred this post, was the time we had a chapter’s worth of vocabulary about banking. I won’t defend banking vocabulary as interesting. It’s hard to make much out of terms like ‘checking account’ or ‘mortgage’, but I will defend the importance of such terminology. If you want to be fluent in a language, well, you better know how to get money to and from the bank.
So when she indolently raised her hand and asked “Why do we need to know words about banks? I mean, seriously?” I obviously could not ignore it. “Are you serious?” I called from my back-of-the-classroom perch at the very moment the thought entered my mind. With my now much-improved swearing skills I might have said “Are you fucking serious?” because that’s the level of ridiculous it was. I probably also would have rolled my eyes and mentally appended “This bitch,” but I still had a lot of catching up to do with the vulgarisms of English.
This Bitch (I wish I remembered her name, but for narrative purposes, we’ll go with the aforementioned) was stunned. She turned around to look at she who would dare issue a challenge to someone righteous enough to sit in the front row. I, probably really assholishly, said, “Do you think you won’t ever need to go to a bank?” We engaged in mutual scoffing and class continued. I think our instructor ended with a scripture about Joseph Smith’s first vision. Typical BYU.
What I like about this story (other than everyone, myself included, being a bitch) is that even though I had only just started studying linguistics, I feel like I had a pretty good attitude about fluency. In fact, my basic attitude still hasn’t changed. For me, the goal is to know as many words as possible. Duh, that’s being fluent. However, I will say that I have added some depth and contour to my opinions in the intervening eight years. Banking terminology is pretty essential if you want to be a functioning adult in a society. If you ever moved to Ecuador, you would probably have to deal with money and the bank at least once in a while. I mean, if you wanted to be able to eat and stuff.
But here’s the thing about fluency that a lot of people miss: you don’t know every word in your native language. If someone asked you to explain how the brain works, you might not have the terminology to do it, unless you’re a neuroscientist, psychologist, etc. That’s okay because you can live your life without ever having to understand your brain (if you like to live ironically). The same is true when you learn another language. You probably won’t have to discuss the intricacies generative grammar or economics. So you can be fluent and still not have all that terminology. The goal is to have a general lexicon on which you can build. As such, if you want to learn how to talk economic theory, you have the words in your brain that let you understand the definitions. You don’t have to know everything.
But banking? Every bitch is going to need to bank.
I think that I normally have shitty dreams. I don’t know this for certain. I cycle through phases of dream-remembering and dream-forgetting. Perhaps it is connected to the waxing and waning moon, for arcane reasons beyond my understanding. I think I have shitty dreams for two reasons. One: I wake up with no memory of my dream self’s actions, but a distinct feeling of emotional shittiness. Two: Kirk tells me that I cry out in the middle of the night. He reported that several nights ago he heard me—while he was in a different room and wearing headphones—shout “I don’t want it!” I can’t imagine that was the function of a dream in which I was suddenly granted my most sincere wishes (unless the genie added ironic consequences, which genies like to do).
This morning I woke up with an unusual sensation: I recalled having a good dream. It was interesting. I was enjoying the dream and I knew that it was a dream at the same time. My brain was telling my sleepy self a story as it ventured out into the dreaming. I felt like I was making friends maybe, but also like I wanted to know the rest of the story.
I am going to describe this dream, but know that I partially don’t want to. You know how dreams are. The image renders beautifully in the mind, but comes out of the mouth like pictures shoved through a speaker.
The other thing you have to know about this dream is that I dreamed I was in the world of a book I recently finished reading. Last week, I read A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. It’s the second work in the Zones of Thought trilogy. I was engrossed with it last week, probably more so than the first one. It’s a space opera that focuses on two groups of people. There are the Qeng Ho—traders who go spacefaring for the sake of commerce and maintaining relationships with customer civilizations. There are also the aliens of Arachna. Vinge is an amazing sci-fi author because he humanizes his aliens so effectively. He manages to give a slow burn introduction on them, gradually throwing in details that would not make sense were humans being discussed (like referring to a character’s ‘eating hands’). When the true nature of what otherwise might be a monstrosity is revealed, you already love the characters and you don’t care that they are giant spider people. Yes, a race of giant spiders (duh, their planet is Arachna).
Okay, right now you are probably thinking something like get a grip, Lindsey, how did you have a good dream about giant spider people? That’s a valid question. The goodness or badness of dreams seems to be bound to the emotional feel much more than to what actually happens. This had pleasant emotional feel, and I don’t think I can explain it more than that.
Now that you’ve had sufficient preamble, I will relate the tale of my not-shitty dream.
I was hanging out with a spider/person. I knew it was one of the spider aliens and I was in the world of this novel (these spidery aliens are described as being about waist-high and having 10 legs in A Deepness in the Sky). I wasn’t freaked out, as one might expect to be in a world of spidery folk. We were chilling outside and there was a cool view of a mountain. I think my friend (I guess my friend?) was telling me about how to not be an idiot in a realm of spider folk. I imagine I would need a lot of schooling on this issue. This spider friend was wearing a dashing cloak with a fancy cloak pin. Do giant spiders wear cloaks? This one did. Even though I knew I was among spider folk, I was seeing everyone as human people. Why? Who knows. It is a thing of dreams. So, I was going somewhere with my spider buddy and he introduced me to someone he knew. I tried to shake hands, but it was awkward (duh, spiders don’t have hands). Then I realized I was seeing the spider folk as people, not as spiders, so I asked why that was. It turned out my spider buddy was using a device (of science or magic, it is not clear) to make me see human-y people and him see me as a spidery person. He turned it off and we both recoiled. I decided that I was going to need to ease into seeing spider folk as spiders.
Thus did I dream.
Why was this a good dream? I guess everything is relative. I was interested in the story I was apparently living. How did I end up there? Was I a a refugee or a prisoner of war? Was I stranded? Did I go insane? What was going to happen? How will I learn to live with the spider folk?
Maybe the promise of living some crazy, impossible story made this a good dream.
When I woke up, I spent the next few hours in a dreamy haze, pondering the dream that was. Hey, giant spider folk are more interesting than work.
I remember the first time I had a panic attack.
Of course, at the time, I wouldn’t have called it that.
I was four years old—maybe even three, who knows—and my parents, still married, drove me to my grandparents’ house in San Clemente to stay the night. I don’t think I had ever slept somewhere without my parents before then. Or if I had, I lacked the capacity to note the difference.
We came in through the garage, passing my grandfather’s workbench, and entered the house. We placed my duffel bag and stuffed animals in the spare bedroom. My parents made their farewells, probably looking forward to some time to do whatever it is parents do without children.
I walked into the living room, finding my grandparents sitting on the sofa. My grandfather looked at me and with a pinching hand motion said, “Bug, bug, bug.” It was something he always said to me (and my sister, later on) as kids, but I have no idea why. Just then, I started crying, screaming perhaps. It’s difficult to retroactively judge one’s level of volume.
I don’t think it was my grandfather’s bugs that provoked me, but to all observers that seemed to be the case. I knew that wasn’t it. It wasn’t that my parents were gone. It wasn’t being in San Clemente. I just panicked.
“Do you miss your mom and dad?” my grandma asked. I sobbed out a “no.” An interrogation followed. Was I hungry? Bored? Did grandpa bother me? No, no, no. None of those things. I couldn’t explain it, I was just upset.
I wish I could remember what eventually calmed me down. I suppose it was just time and possibly a popsicle. I think my parents came back to get me. It was not to be my first sleepover.
I was 26 when I was actually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Why it took that long, I have no idea. I had seen at least two therapists as an adult before I met the one who gave me a proper diagnosis. After my parents’ divorce, there was talk of therapy, but I insisted that I didn’t need it. Why anyone would listen to the opinion of a distraught seven year old, I can’t explain.
Anyone can have panic attacks, not just people with disorders. The human brain is equal opportunity that way. A true panic attack—not just stress or general anxiety—includes a series of biochemical reactions. The nervous system, trying to be helpful, I’m sure, leaps into action when someone feels stressed. In a normal, non-panicked brain, the parasympathetic system would then step in, take the nervous system’s keys and call a cab, but sometimes, the parasympathetic system is not a very responsible friend. In the case of a panic attack, no one is around to tell the nervous system, “Go home, you’re drunk,” and the brain is unable to calm down.
I think everyone experiences panic a little bit differently. For me, my brain feels loud. Not that my thoughts are loud, but whatever is happening in my head is drowning out other noise, other stimuli. My music will be on, but I’ll only halfway hear it. My boyfriend hugs me but I only halfway feel it. I get hot, like I’m on fire from the inside out and my skin will be the last thing to ignite. I feel at once like I want to sleep, or cry, or just start running and never turn back around.
These feelings are highly problematic for me. When I’m not absolutely losing my shit for no reason at all, I consider myself an intellectual person. I make a living based on my ability to use my head, to think critically. Since watching Star Trek: The Original Series, I like to pretend I’m a Vulcan (or maybe just half-Vulcan. Spock is only half and he does alright). When a panic attack hits, I lose all control. I feel like a goddamned idiot for freaking out. I usually have no idea what precipitated it, which makes it even harder to understand.
This happened to me again today. I woke up feeling okay, I guess. But within an hour, I felt myself feeling moody. I attributed it to general stress. I moved in with my boyfriend just a week ago and the intervening seven days had been quite full. My things weren’t totally organized, and I assumed that was stressing me out. Admittedly, this is a dumb reason to be stressed, but it’s better than no reason at all.
We started cleaning up. I was vacuuming and my boyfriend was moving things out of the way to make it easier for me. For some reason, this irritated me. I felt myself getting frustrated and then I chided myself for it. What a dumb reason to be upset. He was helping. We finished vacuuming. I headed to the closet where the last of the boxes were hiding. I started rearranging things, pulling out boxes and piling up blankets, but I was not okay. I was freaking out. I could feel it.
I sat down. I was burning up. I knew I was having a panic attack, but I wasn’t sure why. “I’m so stressed out right now,” I told my boyfriend. “How can I help?” was his response. I love him for it and I hate myself for being mad and telling him there was nothing he could do and that I just had to deal with it. I angrily went back to my piles.
I pulled some things out of a a box. I stopped. Why was I upset? I sat down, too hot. I leaned my head against some of my fingers and Kirk (the aforementioned boyfriend) kissed me, once again asking what he could do. “I feel like fire,” was all I could say. “Take one of your pills,” was his suggestion.
I have anxiety medication, but I hate it. One time I took a pill and I slept for five hours and felt like shit after. I reminded him of this. “Take a quarter,” he said. “I don’t have time to sleep all day!” I angrily returned to my box and my piles.
I can’t deal. I feel like crying, or maybe screaming. Anything. I go to the bedroom, strip and throw myself onto the bed. I hold a large pillow against my face, trying to smoother the rest of the world. In this state, I feel like I can’t deal with existence. I said this out loud once and people thought I meant to kill myself.
I don’t explain it that way anymore.
Kirk comes in and pretends to be one of the kitties, meowing and pushing his head against me. Normally, I think, this might make me laugh. Instead, I swat at him with the hand that isn’t securing the pillow against my face.
I cry a little.
I breathe and try to stop berating myself.
I start to cool down.
Eventually, I reposition myself so my head is only half under the pillow. I take deeper breaths.
I start to tune back in to the rest of the world. I hear the fan whirring quietly as it steadily sends cool air in my direction. I feel it collide with my skin. My bra feels uncomfortable because it’s so hot and because I’m lying on my side. I realize that I left music playing in the other room as my brain remembers how to decode sounds. Suddenly, the pillow feels heavy against my face. I don’t need it anymore.
My cat jumps onto the bed as I am coming back into myself. She meows and meows. She’s always meowing her little meows. She rubs against me and licks me. Cat things. I pet this entity of fluff a few minutes, taking deeper breaths and feeling generally like a human again.
I walked back into the other room, finding Kirk at his computer.
“I’m sorry.” I kissed him.
“You don’t need to apologize.” Whether or not I need to, I still feel like I should. Loosing control like this makes me feel embarrassed. When I come back around, I feel like an alcoholic sobering up for the first time, realizing what’s happened. Making amends is a critical step.
I wish I could say I know it won’t happen again so I could wrap things up with a “We’ll look back at this and laugh!” and be done with it. But I never know when I am going to have a panic attack. Even when I am managing my life reasonably well, these things just happen.
Earlier today, when I was coming to terms with being a member of humanity again, I thought about this. About how to explain it and about my history of freaking out. I’ve never really written about it before. I decided I should. I’m sure other people have written about this issue, and probably even more people have experienced it but lack the capacity or willingness to write. So here is mine.