On Sadness

On Sadness

First, listen.

Here’s the thing: sadness is crippling.

It doesn’t matter what kind of sadness you’ve got. It could be clinical depression, it could have come in with a colder season, it could be because of a nasty break-up. Whatever shape or size it comes in, it has the ability to cripple you, to force you onto a crutch, to curl you up into the shape of a fetus. Sadness has this insane ability to change everything about you; the way you hold yourself while riding the subway, whether or not you hug your jacket to your body, if you stare down at your feet, if you scowl or frown or pout or do nothing with your mouth. It brings down the number of true, genuine laughs in your day. Sometimes it can make the sound of your own amusement sound foreign, when it finally creeps out from the shadows.

Sadness has this way of hiding tears right there at the surface of your eyelids, skimming the top of your tear ducts, waiting to pour down the slope of your cheeks, to the chin, and (sometimes) onto the collar of a perfectly clean shirt. There’s that choking feeling in the back of the throat, that one that almost feels like a burn because the body is trying to fight off that crying yelp that one might be familiar with due to drunken nights in college, after that boy never texted or called and ignored you in the dining hall. You know the one. You know it exactly. And you fight it. You fight it because you’re sitting at your desk at work and someone says that one little thing, even if it’s comforting like ‘I want to call you and hear your voice, I miss you,’ but it’s that thing that’s going to make you cry. But you’re in public and none of these people have ever seen you cry. And they probably never should because your cry face is quite an ugly fucking thing. So you save it all. You stock it on the highest shelves in your mind, all that crying, all that sadness. You hide it behind your smile and the self-deprecating jokes and you file it away to remind yourself to figure out why you’re feeling sad in the first place. What that aching space in your chest is all about.

You go for more than 12 hours pushing the sadness to the back burner, even through the sad song on the subway that has you staring down at your folded hands, willing the tears to go away. But you’re almost home! Just a few minutes away! And you finally get in and it’s like you’ve got a full bladder, the way your foot is tapping, the way your hand fights to get the keys into the lock. Except, when you get inside and you drop your bag on the floor and you throw your jacket off to the side, you’re not releasing your pee. The tears start flowing, the breathing is labored. It’s more an hysterical hyperventilation than anything else.

You’ve held it in for so long that it’s almost hard to just let them all go, all those tears. They had become such permanent fixtures, gathering cobwebs on those high shelves somewhere in your mind. But they’re leaving, now. And the sobs are shaking you. And you hide under your covers and feel the eye make-up burning but you can’t stop. All while asking yourself why: Why am I sad? Why am I crying? Why do I want to stay under these covers for at least the next week? And maybe you don’t know the exact answer, maybe you are keenly aware that things aren’t terrible. Of course they’re not terrible! You have a job, you have a roof to live under, you have a bank account that (sort of!!!) has money in it. You could probably write a longer list of the things that are going well. Plenty to be happy about. The air in your lungs, an able body. Yes, you are equipped with all of your senses. But there’s a cloud. You don’t want to relate yourself to Eeyore so maybe it’s a fog.

You’ve been through this before feeling that nagging, terrible word: lonely. And with a little closer examination: Alone.  And you don’t want to go back there.

Suddenly, the intercom rings – a delivery guy – and you realize your roommate has been home the entire time you’ve had a panic attack by yourself in your room.

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Why I’m Not In Brussels and It’s Okay

Why I’m Not In Brussels and It’s Okay

First, listen.

The plan was to go to Brussels in December, right after my 28th birthday. It was supposed to be momentous, it was supposed to be inspiring. A fresh new year on this earth and a bold new perspective just waiting to be taken on. I was going to the burial place of Saint Dymphna, who you’ve definitely, definitely never heard of unless you’re one of my best friends still making fun of me for consciously choosing Dymphna as my confirmation name. She had a shamrock in her picture and I was pretty into being Irish when I was 13. Years later, my dad would inform me that she is the patron saint of the mentally ill, giving me a new-found pride and interest in my strange, Irish name.

I began doing research and found her patron city, a place called Geel in the Belgian countryside, not only had a church in her honor, but also had an unorthodox (not to mention fascinating and effective) way of treating their mentally ill. Rather than shutting them away in some sterile hospital, they live as boarders among the people of the town, in their homes. In this way, they contribute to the househould, interact with adults and children alike, and are not treated as pariahs simply because they have a mental illness. This had blown me away, I’d never heard of anything like this. And I was inspired by the simple fact that my random little confirmation namesake had been the inspiration behind it. But maybe it wasn’t all that random, what about that whole fate thing? Needless to say, I had been inspired to learn more, to research, to visit her burial site, find some inspiration for a future novel (I know, I know), it has become my Mecca.

Soooo, that was my plan. Birthday, Belgium, book research, etc.

Then, on November 13th, I was having dinner at a pub somewhere along the Hudson when the news cut across every television set to report that a terror attack had occurred in a concert venue in Paris. And as we watched in sadness and horror and pain for most of the weekend, the word “Belgium” kept popping up and “Brussels” too. I kept watching in a sort of numbed state, feeling conflicted for many, many reasons, but mostly hoping no one else had noticed how often the city I was planning to visit kept being mentioned in connection with a terrorist cell.

For weeks after, my family and friends repeatedly asked me, So, what are you going to do? And I kept responding that I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure. And then, one night, perhaps after an especially long day, my mother asked me once more what I was going to do about my trip and I started feeling panicked. My throat started to tighten up. I was walking down Metropolitan Avenue when heat started to spread across my cheeks at the idea that I might not go on this trip. I started yelling, not necessarily at my mom but moreso at the situation and at these monsters who attacked a crowd of music fans, that it wasn’t fair that they had this sick power, that this was exactly what they wanted, putting fear into the hearts of innocent people, scaring travelers away from beautiful cities like Paris and Brussels. And I shouldn’t let them win, I couldn’t! And I burst into tears on the street, overwhelmed with anguish over the predicament I was put in. Could I comfortably travel alone to this country? Would I be scared the whole time? Was that a wimpy thing to consider?

I’ll let you in on an ill-kept secret: I’m anxious. I worry. I think too far ahead, sometimes I scare myself out of things.

I cancelled my trip and rebooked it, not without a heinous change fee, and planned to head to Brussels (and Bruges! And Geel! Such plans!) in May. Everything happens for a reason, they say. And I kept running with this idea. I got very intensely drunk on my birthday in the absence of Belgian waffles and beer and woke up the following morning thinking, Luckily that trip got cancelled because this hangover would not have flown well. I also would have missed New Year’s in Brooklyn, and instead I had a party with some of my best and closest friends, danced the night away at my favorite bar, and I shared a first kiss with someone new. Silver linings, right?  Right.

I take you now to March 22nd, where I woke up to the news that Brussels airport had been the target of a terror attack. Following the news, a number of text messages came through, checking in: Did you see the news? Yes, I saw the news. What are you going to do? I don’t know.

I know this sounds like Groundhog Day, and it didn’t feel far off. I had the same cycle of confused feelings. I should just go! I’m going!… Maybe I shouldn’t go! Along with these feelings, the airport had been shut down for nearly a month for forensic investigations. I mean, it was the site of a terror attack. My brain was going bonkers and I just didn’t quite know what to do with it all. When I called the airline to see what my options were for once again postponing my trip, the customer service rep made a comment like, Maybe you shouldn’t travel anywhere if this keeps happening. Making the suggestion I might be the jinx causing all of these catastrophic events which sounds terrible, probably, but I had considered the same thing.

So it took several weeks of talking to the airline, spending hours in the kitchen at work looking so distraught my coworkers asked if I was okay. And I was okay, in the general sense, but I was beginning to feel defeated, too. I considered alternatives; changing my flight to some other far-flung country and hoping this jinx I might have (or be?) wouldn’t hurt whichever destination I chose.

But here is where I will remind you of that secret: I’m anxious. I worry about terrorism (insofar as on a regular LIRR train ride I’ll stare at an “abandoned” bag in my car and spend the entire ride considering how I can save myself and this train full of people from this very clear and obvious bomb, only to realize it is very much a non-bomb gym bag and the dude it belongs to just got off the train with it) and I worry about the money in my bank account, I worry about things beyond my control more often than I should, for prolonged periods of time. Everyone who told me I should go anyway was right. More right than I care to admit, because we are only young once and if I were to die on this soul-inspiring trek to Belgium then so be it, right? What’s the sense in living in fear? There isn’t any sense in it at all. And yet…

I had been scheduled to depart for Brussels on the evening of May 11th, and my Google calendar made no attempt to hide me from this sad reality, mostly because I had failed to delete my travel plans once they had been changed. Instead of an evening flight out of JFK, on May 11th, I was halfway through my two weeks notice, on the precipice of a new adventure. I was halfway through saying my goodbyes to all of the people I’ve worked with for the last two years so that I could move on to the next great step in my life.

So it’s not Belgium, it’s exit interviews. It’s not Dymphna, it’s funemployment. It’s momentous and inspiring in its own way, as new jobs tend to be, and there’s a good chance it might have never happened if I were in Belgium right now. Silver linings, right? Right.

(I’ll get there. It’s my Mecca.)

“I have so much I want to tell you, and nowhere to begin.”

“I have so much I want to tell you, and nowhere to begin.”

First, listen.

I woke up on January 27, 2010 to learn that J.D. Salinger had died. I was 22 years old.

Throughout the course of the day, I received messages from family and friends checking in to see how I was doing, if I was okay. I guess you can say I was the walking cliche who had read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and felt forever changed by it. But it wasn’t because I connected with Holden Caulfield. In fact, a lot of his ideas of the world bored me and made me roll my eyes. I have my cynical moments but I’d like to think I see the world with even just the thinnest veil of optimism. It was deeper than the main character, deeper than this beautiful setting of New York City, a place I hadn’t truly tapped into yet as a teenager in the suburbs of Long Island. There was something in the way that Salinger wrote that grabbed me by the metaphoric lapels and shook me. Perhaps it was the conversational way that he told his story through Holden’s narrating that made me feel like maybe he was talking directly to me. Or, to be less dreamy-eyed and naive about it, maybe I felt as if we might have a nice chat, J.D. and I, if ever he stopped being a recluse in Cornish, New Hampshire. (I held out hope for this very scenario until the day he died.)

I constantly wondered what it might be like to live inside his head, to have written these characters who are just a step or two outside of being mentally and/or emotionally stable. I liked it, loved it as a young person dealing with her own imperfect mind and emotions, with a family that was coming apart at the seams. The Caulfields weren’t perfect. And, with further reading, I learned that the Glass family was even less perfect than them.

I have this story I always tell of when I was 11 years old and my parents had just begun their trial separation. One of my teachers asked the class if our parents were divorced and I don’t know why she did this, I really do not. Maybe she was making some point about statistics? She was a math teacher. Or… maybe she was going through her own stuff? She was a bit weird. But I saw a number of kids raise their hands. Two, at first. Then three, four, five. I sat there with my hands under my thighs, as if to fight the inherent urge my 6th grade body had to be honest about my life. These jokers were all lying. There was no way the most popular girl in our grade had divorced parents! How could she have ever gotten to be so cool? You know? Because my parents fought and I didn’t sleep very well and I was nervous around boys and sometimes I cried for no real reason. Those were not the makings of a popular girl. Not that my lack of popularity was the fault of my parents’ impending divorce, but I assumed, at the time, that it certainly would not help. And so I had no other choice but to assume everyone else was lying and looking to embarrass the sole person (me) who really did have divorced parents and admitted it in front of the class.

The point is, it took me a long time to realize that the strange badness that I dealt with wasn’t just mine. It wasn’t just me. And figures like Salinger were able to help me realize it.

Plus, his writing. His writing. It’s so good in that it’s not overwrought with pretension and yet you feel like you’ve gained something new; perspective, amusement, sadness, introspection.

Senior year of high school, I was writing college admission essays and one of the schools asked for the applicant to write an extra chapter for the book of the applicant’s choosing. It could have been anything in the world. I chose, of course, to tack a chapter on to the end of The Catcher in the Rye. Post-revelation that Holden had been in a mental hospital since Page One. (I digress here but I feel I have to tell you about the chapter: Holden sitting on a bench in the hospital’s courtyard beside Jane Gallagher who had surprised him with a visit. They talked about Allie and Phoebe and their old days of playing chess, and then a light rain started to fall, and everyone else scattered inside, but not Holden, and not Jane. They sat in the rain with Holden’s hand clamped onto hers and he closed his eyes and leaned his head back and felt a little sliver of peace for once in his goddamn life.) This was an ungraded assignment but I went to my AP English teacher and asked for feedback. It was over ten years ago but I’m assuming I’ll never forget her lilting cursive in red ink telling me that my extra chapter sounded eerily identical to something Salinger himself could have written.

(Though, I imagine Salinger might have ended it with a suicide attempt, if you want to know the truth.)

Maybe that’s the proof of how he helped me. He didn’t grow up with this book like I had. I saw Holden finding peace, much like the way I, at seventeen years old, was hoping I would find it. And somehow, between the lines of phonies and prostitutes and children running through a field of rye, I was able to see the glimmer of possibility.

Anyway… Thank you.