The Dark & Sticky Web of Living

It is all connected.

At first, you don’t see it, and the hurt seems so senseless. How many times have you broken down behind the wheel of your car, unable to go home? You asked yourself, then, why this was happening. Why do I feel this way?

I go to the gym to try and cause myself pain in a way that means progress — but my mind won’t quiet. I push harder and only barely stave off falling under that thing again, that inky black soup that turns my head into white noise.

It starts here: in the dining room, heaving furniture miraculously up the narrow, tall staircase of the Victorian home. It starts with “I know it will be hard, but I can handle it.” It starts with the first day of training, breaking down in tears in front of everyone.

I was brave.

I came somewhere new, again.

Lately, I can’t stop thinking of my mother’s friend in Arizona, the one who was a space of comfort during my first year in Phoenix, who died a month before she planned to attend my graduation. I don’t know why she won’t leave my mind. Her house was so cool in the mornings, and I remember sitting under the shaking fan on the covered patio, watching the quail and jackrabbit in the backyard.

I can’t stop thinking about work: the girl who follows me around at the end of the school day, the boy who promised to mail me a live squid when he visits China (someday). The teacher who said, “If you need time off, ask for it. You can’t let a job destroy your mental health.”

But I’m okay. It’s not this–this job, you know, it’s not the thing. It’s something else, it’s the weight of something else. It’s not this job.

But it’s all connected.

When I go home, my roommate and I make dinner. We talk and wash the dishes together. We watch television. Sometimes I go to the gym. I go to dance class. I visit the library. I go to sleep at 10:30, unless I have put off something important.

This is not right: the world should not take on this dimension — or rather, this dimensionlessness. This “is this it?”-ness. I know what it means to lose interest in the things you love to do.

I am lucky. I have friends (three, four on a good day). I have people to see and places to talk to. I have students who promise to mail me cephalopods. They talk to me at the school dances and ask if I will eat lunch with them.

But it is 9 p.m. and I am alone in this three-bedroom house. In the gym I could not get my brain to quiet. It tells me stories I know are lies. I am not sure how to silence them.

I stayed at my mother’s friend’s house before college. When I visited the school, I slept on the couch with her two geriatric dogs. I miss her, but I am not sure what I am missing, or why it hurts so much now, almost a year since she has been gone.

Sometimes, my days at school are lonely. Sometimes, it feels like the whole world is against me. There are days when every single person at the school is off, and you can feel it, the cloud humming in the air — and it turns out it is not just my school but others too, and maybe all of this town, this town that is haunted by something with deep, historic roots, something that started in the steel mills and still lives in the downtown buildings.

Living on the empty force of my convictions alone is not always enough. This work wears you down. Some days, it is not enough to bring all the verve and quirkiness and love I can muster. Some days, I cannot muster. It’s not this job, I say to myself. It’s just how much it hurts to feel alone.

My mother’s friend lived in Sun City, Arizona. Now my friends laugh at me when I tell them I stayed there and that I like it. It is a community primarily made up of wealthy retirees. But the air was still cool as the sun was coming up, and it was so quiet and still, and you could just see the jackrabbit perched behind the big rock in the backyard. It was peaceful there.

In the Winter Storm

“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries.” – Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

This afternoon it’s raining as I am driving home from the dealership where my car was under repair. I leave the music off, listen for the ticking and whirring of the motor to tell me that the heart of my vehicle is running smoothly. This is the second time I have picked it up in a month.

My left eyebrow is still twitching. It has been since Friday, four days ago. I press things to it — my fingertips, the back of a spoon, the rounded bottom of a cold water bottle — to make it stop. It does not stop.

My left eyebrow is twitching as I walk through the front door of my friend’s house around lunchtime.

“This is the ghost house,” he says, gesturing to the left half of the home. It looks like a model home someone forgot about: a round wooden dining table laden with purposefully stacked plates; empty mugs atop wooden coasters carved from segments of tree branch; two sofas on either side of a silent fireplace; no appliances in the kitchen. “No one goes over here,” he says. The only bedroom I see other than his is empty, a mattress on a bedframe with no sheets.

Something about this small moment haunts me, the way things have the past few days. He calls for the cat that lives outside but it does not come. I stand in the doorway. His mattress is on the floor.

I am haunted by other images, too. The headlights of cars blurred into softness by the haze of fog and snow, casting round beams through the barrier on the northbound highway. It’s Sunday night and my brother is driving me south, back to normal life. It’s so dark, all I can see is the snow in the headlights and a small stretch of road, and the fuzzy glow of lights on the opposite side of the freeway.

On his drive to pick me up on Friday evening, rolling along the same stretch of road, he detoured around a traffic jam causing a half-hour delay in southbound traffic. The collision blocking the road, we learned later, was fatal, killing one of the drivers. I found these clinical, broad details from reading the news report. My brother knew, from driving past, that one of the cars was blue. In some way, he said, knowing that detail felt wrong — too intimate — like carrying a piece of someone’s trauma without ever having earned a place in it.

So there is the theme of vehicles, road noise, softness, damage. Also things seen in passing, emptiness, and ghosts. I keep hearing the song in my head: “Heartbreak, you know, drives a big black car. I was in the backseat, just minding my own.”

On Thursday night we left the concert and walked to a diner two blocks away. The air was frigid. As soon as we sat down, I ordered hot tea and forgot to brew it, leaving the mug to grow cold before I remembered to put the tea bag in.

On Friday morning I sat backstage in our school auditorium and cried every time the lights went down, knowing that was when my students, seated on risers onstage, would not see or hear me. It felt like the end of the world then.

Now it feels like a dull ache, like a deep vase full of black ink inserted neatly into my ribcage. I think I’m all right, but my eyebrow won’t stop twitching.

On Thursday night we walked back to the parking garage in almost silence. We hugged in the doorway to the elevator and said goodbye. I regret that now — saying goodbye. As if anyone has a right to leave someone else for good. To get away without a scratch.

On Sunday, I walk with him around the memorials in the park in front of the capitol building in Phoenix. I hold his hand and I look at all the scars. The air is chilly, cuts past my sweater. My flight back to Denver is in three hours. I can feel the twitch in my left eyebrow. I look for it in the mirror when we get back to his house.

On Sunday night I pull the poster down off my wall. I’m not sure what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to hide. I ask a friend to get my records back.

There is nowhere to go, nothing to do but feel it living inside me, radiating out of me, like an insidious parasite — a black mantis shrimp buried behind my collarbone. The dark is so absolute, all that is left are headlights and the lines of bright snow against the windshield. I imagine I will not spin out from this collision, but I am not too sure. I am not sure at all.

The Deep Hurt

It is hard not to think, in any crowded place, how easy it could be for someone to hurt people there en masse if they wanted to.

It is painful to realize that the compulsion to think these things comes from a recent history in the United States of mass shootings and attacks that are so innumerable that they cannot be counted on one hand or even two. It is painful to realize these thoughts are spurred by a drive toward self-preservation, the desire to have an escape plan.

I read the news and find myself thinking, half or more of the time, that as a whole, it might be okay that humanity self-sabotages at every turn. Not for individuals, who I very actively and vehemently seek the best and the least pain for — but for us as a species.

This is not a perspective shaped by my sadness alone. I carry it in my heart on even my best days. It did begin with pain, a small global hurt that crept in the moment I shut the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Humans are odd. We are creative and brilliant, telling stories and inventing wild gadgets that allow us to do so much more than any other creature on this planet. And we destroy everything we touch.

I was sitting on the couch, watching television and scrolling through Twitter, luxuriating in a day off school thanks to last night’s heavy snow, when I saw the single mention — offhanded, almost, compared to everything else filling my feed — of the shooting today at Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. Five dead.

My reaction in light of these events is complex. Often the first reaction is to scroll past it. It is easy to deny terrible news on the face of it, or to actively choose not to engage with it. It is okay to choose not to engage with it when there is nothing you can do. But to disengage with these stories, or to feel that there is nothing we can do, in the long term — we say, over and over, that mass violence cannot be normalized. But for each time it happens, we cannot help but turn away and say to ourselves, “Here we go again.”

If we engage fully with each tragedy, we waste away. The pain runs so hard and so deep that we are incapable of living our every day.

There is no thesis statement here, no argument to be made. I do not know how to walk the line between disengaging so much I become useless and engaging so much I become useless. Burnout is real, yet above almost all else I value not giving up.

I Googled some more about the shooting. Found out what I could. I thought back to waking up that July morning in Denver to the news that twelve had been killed at the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” a few miles away. I thought about how many times I’ve stood in airport security lines and felt like a sitting duck, waiting with so many others to get to the other side where I could feel safe. Then I put it down, and went back to watching television.

The story of humanity is one big messy saga of violence and pain and art and architecture and invention and love and joy and choosing to hurt each other because the hurt inside us is so intense we cannot help but enact it on someone else. I am watching television. I am watching the show “Community,” which I enjoy because I can put myself into the lives of these characters instead of my own. I savor every small piece of drama, every confused kiss between characters. Through them, I am allowed to feel safely. I am allowed to exist in a world where the real hurt of this one doesn’t penetrate. And at the times when it does, the hurt is deep, because these characters have somehow accessed the real-world hurt, the kind that comes from your best friend moving away and disappearing from your life, when it feels like it’s for good.

I have a boyfriend now and he lives in another state. He hasn’t texted me for several hours because he is at work, driving an ambulance. Almost every day he picks up patients who have attempted suicide. My roommate is leaving soon for most of the weekend and I will be alone in this house, alone in this small town I moved to so that I could try and make a difference to humanity as a whole which, as far as any of this goes, seems to just hover around a baseline amount of pain anyway that no one can really do anything on a large scale to change. It will always be hurting, this part of us that hurts. We will carry it no matter what the world looks like.

So it goes: the whole tapestry of the thing — the life lived and unlived — begins to tie itself in small knots and ravel up in ways that make sense and remain messy. It’s all cyclical, and the themes overlap and correlate, but not quite perfectly. Each moment of pain is a pinpoint of light that both lives by itself and exists as one point in a much larger plane.

I am a middle school teacher. I teach special education. I love my students so fiercely I would go to war for them if I had to. I carry these small pains every day when I watch one student get yelled at by a teacher who assumes that he is trying to be a troublemaker, or when another tells me he is terrified of getting kicked out of our school because he is struggling to maintain the 3.0 GPA the school requires to retain students. I know I cannot hold it all inside me, but I am not quite sure how not to. I scroll through Twitter and watch “Community” and try to let out the pain slowly, like releasing the air from a blood-pressure monitor.

In this whole strange interconnected web of pain, which runs thick and constant with the occasional point of good and lightness, I also think about the student who surprised me with a hug on the last day before winter break, or the student who turned to another and told her, “You can’t give up. Ms. Bilker won’t let you.” I do not know how to balance or measure these moments against the hard ones. I just carry them both and hope that in the long run, the good wins out.

Who are those who were killed today? What were their names? Were they young or old? Were they just getting ready to see their long-distance significant other, who they’d flown all that way to see? What about those who survived? Will they be terrified of airports? How many of them will consider themselves lucky? How many of them got to see the partner they’d flown across the country to visit?

It is like the Leonard Cohen song says: “There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you heard — the holy or the broken hallelujah.”

Music is a good note to end on. It carries our hurt and heartache in ways words alone will never quite be able to reach.

Grasping for Okay

For my whole life I’ve grappled with the intensity of my emotions, the frenetic nature of what I carry in my heart and my desperate need to process verbally in order to manage it. I grew up receiving the message that I was different from everyone around me because of my feelings.

Over time I’ve been in and out of the mess. I’ve had happy years, fairly inconsequential years, years of pain and heartache. I’m best when I have a good support system and friends around me.

Recently, I moved to a new city and started a new job. I’m working as a teacher at a middle school. As a brand new teacher with Teach for America, I’m coming in with a lot of raw energy and readiness, a quickness to learn and a passion and desire for this work. Nonetheless, it still feels sometimes — often — as though I’m slogging through a foot and a half of mud and quicksand, sinking and stagnating in my mess. That may not be true in reality, but when you take my new situation coupled with the nature of my emotions and the standards I hold myself to, it sure feels that way inside my head.

Out here, without my support systems in the city I came from and the city I grew up in, I get overwhelmed easily. November was an especially rough month. And the week before last, my anxiety shot through the roof badly enough that I could barely drive myself home in my emotional state.

The next day I did something I haven’t done in seven years: took a day off school to take care of my health. Instead of staying in bed all day and watching television, I got up early, made myself breakfast, and began to figure out all the things I needed to do to bring my anxiety under control.

Since then, I’ve been more proactive than I perhaps have ever been about managing my anxiety. I wanted to write this post because I am proud of myself, but also as a way of sharing out some of the strategies that have worked for me to bring myself peace after so many weeks of pain.

The day I stayed home, I made a decision to immediately handle anything that was stressing me out, no matter how small. If something contributed to raising my anxiety, I observed it and came up with a strategy for it.

The first thing I did was rearrange all the furniture in my room, so that my desk wasn’t in a claustrophobic spot facing a flat white wall right in the corner next to my door. Since then, my bedroom has felt like one I can work in, and breathe in.

I didn’t do any homework, but I went through everything I needed to do and organized myself. I made a list of when I could get it all done, but I separated it into small enough chunks that it didn’t feel overwhelming. (As of Friday, I was all caught up on my homework, though I was three weeks behind on the day I started organizing myself.)

I told someone when he had phrased something in a way that I realized had triggered my anxiety to raise even a small amount.

When a friend asked if I wanted to go to the gym the next day, I went with her, despite the fact that it was my first time going to a gym ever, which did raise my anxiety level. But I got it under control and had a good time.

I also started journaling, a strategy provided by the therapist I had finally gotten a chance to see. For a week, I’ve kept a journal of at least one good thing that’s happened every day. I also journal about the tough thoughts and feelings and things I’m processing, but I keep that section separate from my “Today’s Good Thing” section, which lives by itself with one or two good things from that day.

This week, I went to yoga on Monday night even though the person who was going to go with me canceled, so I had to go by myself. It was nonetheless lovely, though I did fall asleep on the floor during the rest portion of the class.

I had a really tough day on Tuesday, so I gave myself a gift I’ve never given myself: I left my work at work and went home and watched television all night without guilt about all the things I “should have” been doing.

Today, I’ve had a couple small victories in managing my anxiety, too. First, when I was feeling anxious that someone might be upset with me, I asked them directly, explaining that I was feeling that way as a result of anxiety. That way, instead of trying to assuage my anxiety by telling myself they weren’t upset, I was able to just put it to rest immediately.

Second, when my anxiety level remained high, I took to Google, realized it might be related to the fact that I hadn’t eaten dinner, and made myself a sandwich. This is a particular victory for me because I have a lot of difficulty preparing myself meals. I very, very often go without dinner because I get tired and/or anxious and don’t feel that I have the motivation or energy to prepare food for myself. This is the first time I’ve ever considered that my anxiety level might be tied to that behavior and made the effort to manage it.

All of this may feel very small, self-absorbed, or inconsequential. But this past week and even now, for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like my fear and pain and negative emotions are in charge of me. I know they’re there, and I know where they sit inside me, but the moment I feel them start, I’m there to handle them, instead of letting them build out of control.

More than anything I am truly learning what it means to allow myself to be. To cut myself slack, or give myself freedom to be okay. It means deciding — actively deciding, not passively deciding through inaction — that it’s okay to put the overachiever down for a day and just be quiet with myself. It means knowing that I can go to the people around me and explain the nature of my anxiety to them in order to deal with the things that might set it off. It means treating my own feelings as if they are real and valid.

For once I know that there is an okay out there for me somewhere. It does not come in magically fixing or changing myself. It is instead in learning to live with myself, and in that way, just learning to live.