June 8, 2011
I know all the platitudes about anxiety being excitement that hasn’t taken a breath and all that, but when in the middle of days on end of anxiety attacks, it’s easy to hate such sayings. I have noticed that this transition time has at least two phases, with many shades of grey in between, but the major theme is: flowing and a sense of possibility and freaking out because of the uncertainty of feeling in transition at age 47 (about to be 48) and comparing myself to others my age and finding myself falling Way short.
In the freaking out moments, I think ending the theatre company was incredibly stupid and is the result of some kind of self-destructive tendency that no amount of therapy and recovery has managed to unearth. On the other end of the spectrum, when feeling a sense of possibility, every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life seems to make sense as I am happy to be where I am, feel secure that all will be well and can see some almost cosmic pattern in it all. When freaking out, it’s all fragments, hard-edged, senseless and sliding somewhere helplessly between dangerous and pathetic.
The other shift has to do with a sense of agency and helplessness. When feeling a sense of possibility and the ways in which this transition can lead to new ways of working, collaborations and exciting manifestations of the many kinds of work I have done, working between theatre, photography, writing, performing, directing and philosophy, there is a sense I can do it all and find a way to make it all work and somehow – crucially – find a way to make a living with all this.
When in the anxious-freaking end of the spectrum, every task seems daunting, I will die poor, alone, sad, pathetic and somewhere on the street, or even worse as a bitter person in some job I don’t really want resenting others who are more successful than me while keeping a smile stapled onto my face. This all takes on a kind of inevitability when I’m in the middle of the storm and I feel myself unable to breathe and with an acid stomach. The weird, sad part of this is that even worse than the circumstance of my fearful projections is the sense of How I Will Look to Others, that I will Appear to have Failed. And this fear, above all, rules me in the anxious times.
And as mentioned above the two poles have a lot of middling territory, and below all of that, in moments of meditation, I can feel an identification with the atmosphere rather than the weather, not absorbed too much in either the rain or sun, but a sense of a kind of infinite groundedness and basic OK-ness. This is a place of total freedom, and is where I would like to live all the time but do not. I visit most days at least for a few moments, and on some extraordinarily peaceful days I know more often than not this is the case.
A break for lunch and now back. We are now at the holiday ‘camp’ by ourselves, Bill and I and his Dad, as Andy and Rachel fled to a hotel in Port Patrick. The advantage is that we don’t have to be in a car all day and the disadvantage is we are without a car. However, we are on the water and took a long walk along the sea and back, had lunch and now there are naps being had and reading being done. I find myself in this kind of normal family situation feeling generally on edge, which I think may be exacerbating the anxiety. I find I want to ‘fit in’ and have a way to explain my life, which I find it hard to do under even the best of circumstances and right now it seems inscrutable even to me.
All of the Big identities are in flux: not doing a PhD anymore, not running a theatre company anymore, not even sure of my surname anymore, not British but not simply American anymore, not a New Yorker anymore, because I’ve been away for so many years. I still feel like a New Yorker, but would anyone but me consider me such? I am a Londoner because I live in London but don’t feel a complete identification with that. I do some lecturing as a ‘visiting lecturer’ – the British equivalent of ‘adjunct’ – but there is no security there. I am working on a writing project but am growing increasingly afraid of it. I am writing all this in the blog and thinking: you fool, you should sound more confident, witty and Be Entertaining. But I have committed to writing what is happening in this period of transition, so continue.
There are certain things I am not writing about, too, out of a sense of discretion, but in terms of my own experience, I am being about as ruthlessly honest as I can be without invading someone else’s privacy.
So, the question that remains on a philosophical-psychological level is: how much transition is possible before you just feel like you are an amorphous non-person. Is the level of anxiety I am experiencing normal or is it higher than the average person’s would be because I tend toward the control freak personality profile? Why is it that I persist, as a control freak by nature, in putting myself in precarious risk-enhanced positions? Is this some kind of masochism? A game of chicken with myself?
Why is it that before this holiday I was feeling OK about all this but now that I am in nature and out of internet/mobile range, the anxiety gets worse? Is it the being with in-laws family thing or the I’m not moving forward so can see where I am and it freaks me out thing?
I should add that I’m reading Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ which is about 40-somethings (primarily) getting to about my age and freaking out. So, that isn’t helping, like at all. Plus I’m having the oh-she’s-writing-fiction-so-should-I response. And every day I wake up I have another idea for a book and I think: but I Have to finish one, but the next one always seems like it’ll be better. And I’m really unsure about the format I’ve chosen for my grandmother book but feeling this insane loyalty to the original idea thing, so feel I can’t change that either.
I so don’t want to be writing this. I so want to be charming you with my wit and wisdom about well anything and not this…the insecurity diaries…how lame.
Hey, if you’re reading this, I’d love to know if you go through any of this, too. And if there’s any benefit to you in hearing another person’s spectrum from confident to freaking.
It’s times like this I realize how little security I’ve ever had, and I look back at my childhood and most of my adult life with a sense of vertigo. I know in the larger cosmic sense there is no security, but I also know lots of people have things like oh say financial security or one family with a discernable tree rather than multiples halved on staircases full of steps. I also know there are at least 5-6 billion people way worse off than me who would kill to have what I have: an education, a roof over my head, the ability to work, residency in a wealthy country with a social safety net, access to health care, the ability to vote (weirdly enough in a different country, but oh well) and on and on and on. I have spent my life at the bottom of the top in other words, aware always of the vertiginous drop between me and the many people who live below the poverty line and with no way out. I feel like there is a very thin line between them and me, but it’s there. And it’s more like a plate of glass than a line.
Would the grandmother book be best if it was collapsed into this writing? If in following them I am following myself or in following myself I am following them? The fact is I don’t know what they were thinking or feeling. I can guess but that’s all I’m doing and I wonder, is that enough? Really?
Is it going to turn into my version of Sherman’s March after all? A search for something historical that ends up a rumination on all that obsesses me now: class, the rules we live by, and how – just how really – to live?
I mean really, how to live? Am I the only one who refuses to put what tiny bit of money I have in the stock market because I think it is evil? I mean because profits from corporations are always made on the backs of others, usually in third world countries - many of who die? I was the only person at the law firm I worked at in New York that would not put my money in a 401K and was considered insane for not doing so.
Am I, as one person I met in Norway called himself - who also believed in communal ideals circa 1960s-70s - ‘the clown of the century’? Are all these ideals dead? That is how it feels, like the desire to live a certain way that does not involve money or prestige at the center is hopelessly nostalgic and stupid. And am I lying to myself anyway? Do I want these things as much as the next person but convinced myself otherwise? And now am regretting it?
Anyone else finding themselves here? I would love to know, because I have a suspicion about people in our ‘who the fuck are you generation’ (too young to be baby boomers and too old to be gen-Xers) – that many of us are in this strange space. Am I right about that?
June 9, 2011
Another day and another point of view. A photos of the sunset light yesterday where we are staying are below to give you an idea of the beauty of it when walking and it is sunny:
After writing the post yesterday, we were chatting away again with Uncle Harry and Betty in their caravan and something about their attitude and Harry’s ability to make a living in many circumstances and without any discernible ‘career’ made me see everything in my own life again in a more positive light.
The specific shift was remembering that I hadn’t yet sent out proposals to teach a workshop that I have taught at many universities in the past, which is based on work created in NYC and London in labs. This is a small thing, but was enough to remind me that I have a whole body of work behind me and experience working, teaching, writing, etc. that I can offer and make money doing. When in the throes of anxiety as described in the last post, I can forget all this.
However, the specifics, which seem so practical and obvious when they arrive in my head as an antidote to panic, come along I’ve noticed with a change first in perspective, not usually the other way around. This would be hard to prove of course as the two can come so close to one another, but I’m fairly sure it is true.
After that shift yesterday, I could enjoy the day again and talk with cousin John and his wife that showed up with Harry and Betty later on, and there was not the sense of a running commentary in my own head that kept me from hearing anyone else’s conversation.
It should be noted too that the shift occurred after writing about the anxiety, which is interesting because when I was writing, it was having the effect of making me more anxious and I was wondering if I was making it worse. Even writing about that brings about a tinge of the anxiety, like a shadow becoming visible that I want to run away from.
I remember the first time I had this anxiety awareness was when I was 17 after a summer program I had attended at Wesleyan University for young people in the arts, a wonderful program with a horrendous name: Center for Creative Youth. We all hated it, the name.
I had fallen in love, hard, for the first time, to a guy who was 5 years my senior who was teaching a class in media studies, where we also learned how to DJ a radio program. His name was Jim Boylan, and I say was, because he is now a she named Jenny Boylan. I mentioned in the first post that the first man I fell in love with turned him/herself into a woman, well this would be that person. She wrote a book about her transformation, She’s Not There. Really good stuff.
I hasten to add here, not because of the sex change, but simply to clarify for Jim/Jenny’s sake that my crush was unrequited, except in the gentle way of a slightly older young man (22) attempting not to hurt the feelings of a hopelessly in love 17 year old. However, as I was so crushed out on him, and it did not feel like a crush at the time, it felt the way one’s first love does feel, like the entire world depended on the outcome, that any movement towards me or any kind words were proof of his undying love towards me.
Yes, I was that stupid at 17. I know some of you were probably way more sophisticated at that age, but I was not. I was still a virgin, unbelievably naïve, especially considering my background and waiting for Jim to come along and sweep me off my feet, seriously.
The story of this crush is of course it’s own long mini-saga, but for the purposes of this post, the main thing is that when I left that summer program, having fallen in love with Jim and in the throes of the emotional up-ending that that (and my mother’s reunion with my now step-father Tom after Jani’s death – which angered me at the time as he had left her the winter before to go back to his then-wife after having said they would get married and I had been the one that had to helplessly witness my mother’s total disintegration after the event – including not being able to find her on the phone when in boarding school and worrying she would kill herself) brought along with it, I spent the rest of the year in high-school reeling between anxiety attacks, the inability to eat, overeating and something close to manias.
During the worst of the anxiety attacks, I would stare out at the picture postcard boarding school campus from my room in a house George Washington had slept in, wondering if I even existed, sweating and unable to move. I did not tell anyone about any of this as there was simply no one I trusted. Instead I directed plays, which seemed to keep the dragons at bay, painted abstract oils and freaked out about where to go to university.
I did try to go to therapy for a short time, but only after the worst of the anxiety attacks had passed, as I had heard my mother tell me horror stories about someone trying to have her put away when she was a teenager after she’d been molested and was afraid if I told anyone what was really going on, I too would be put away. I’d also watched two of my friends disappeared off the campus ‘for their own good’ but I knew they had been to the school shrinks who must have broken confidentiality. This was not a situation that bred trust.
However, when I did go see one of the therapists, I told her an incredibly watered-down version of my childhood, and her response was ‘well, if that’s all true, then you have a lot to deal with.’ The ‘if’ was my favorite and I realized this woman would not be able to handle even the tiniest bit of my reality. I saw her a couple more times and left it alone.
But what does any of this have to do with anxiety and transition? Well, a lot actually, because the biggest decision I had to make that year had to do with what university to attend. I had originally applied to Yale, which seemed logical given my grades and achievements, etc. but after falling in love with Jim and the Wesleyan campus during the summer (and probably in that order), I thought maybe I should consider Wesleyan.
I visited both campuses, and at Yale I visited the daughter of a famous playwright who had graduated from my boarding school the year before (she was one of the very cool kids who ran the literary magazine…mentioned in earlier posts), she was in love with the place and her roommates were quite nice to me, but I felt a certain darkness at Yale and I was not in love at the time with this idea of hallowed halls of learning and sitting at the feet of wise old men. I had an interview, which was a sparring match. I knew I had done well, but something was not sitting right.
When I visited Wesleyan, I was visiting another not-famous friend from drama at school. Her room seemed light, and I got stoned for the first time that day with her and her friends. The interview the next day felt more like a long conversation, and I liked the idea of the freedom that this place seemed to offer. I ignored, much to my later regret, what my high-school theater teacher, Mr. Ortwein, had told me about the weaknesses of the theater department, and decided instead to focus on the fact that there was a student run theater and independence was prized. This was also true, btw, and saved me.
The anxiety thing matters here because, when I was feeling anxious and not good about myself, I wanted to go to Yale, which clearly had all the credentials (it’s the equivalent in Britain of Cambridge or Oxford), but when I was feeling good and not so dependent on the outside world for my sense of achievement and well-being, I wanted to go to Wesleyan. This led me, after months of angst, to choose Wesleyan. Actually, thinking back on it, knowing the deadlines, it could have been only about 2 months, max, of angst. In memory it seems way longer.
And in the weird way that feelings have memory lines, just like smells and tastes, this anxiety, when it pops up periodically in my life, and again now, at a time of transition, brings me right back to there, to that decision, and if I’m in a particularly bad patch, can make me think: see, you fucked up way back then. If you’d gone to Yale, you’d be set right now, more secure, have all the right connections, etc., etc., ad nauseum.
I think living in a country that is run Exclusively by people who went to Oxford or Cambridge exacerbates this feeling. The entire cabinet of the Tories went to one of these schools and most of the leaders in any field – including the arts, easily 80-90%, went to these schools as well.
And this is the irony of love and falling in love, even if it is unrequited and you are 17 and dumb as a board emotionally. Because it was in falling in love, acting like an idiot but feeling something of my own self deeper than I ever had that I had the guts to act on my own behalf and defy a certain expectation of where my achievements should lead me. But, being female or perhaps more to the point being me, this falling in love was also an act of total abasement.
These days I reserve that feeling for what some may call God, but that I refer to as something larger than me that seems to defy naming. I made the mistake later in adult life to entrust another person with that feeling who accepted it, and this caused much misery. I learned finally not to give this feeling to any one person but to this sense of something larger, where it is more safely held. And more accurately as well. Meaning, no one person can be all that, nor should be.
However, these stepping stones, even if inaccurate are powerful. I have to wrap up this post now, as there is now activity back in the ‘chalet’, but just to close on the interesting fact that it was Jani, who had died only months before, who had said to my mother that I would need to fall in love at some point to bust out of what she saw as my ice queen shell. I think my mother told me this at some point when I was in the throes of unrequited love, waiting for letters and phone calls, perhaps as a way to soothe me.
I think however I took this to mean my pain was virtuous and this led me to a certain heritage of emotional masochism, which has taken many years to untangle.
And yes writing this post has brought about the anxiety again, but also a sense of what is underneath it.
Now time to walk a few miles to the town where I can post this…