Humility is meted out in interesting ways over time. For example, if you spend years openly shit talking things like therapy, alternative treatments for physical and mental health, or smoothies, you will find yourself frantically and pathetically availing yourself of all of those things all at once. The final tap to the nuts is discovering the fucking things are actually beneficial.
I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty but this has easily been one of the most putrid summers of my life. Professional failures, personal disappointments, insomnia, major housing issues, chronic pain- top that all off with days that consistently vaulted over 90 degrees that left me in a sort of brine of anxiety- by the start of September I shook constantly and couldn’t eat more than a few mouthfuls. Sleeping was right out since sleeping required staying still, staying still meant hours of laying in the dark while my heart tried to beat out of my chest. The thoughts and lists of things to do, people to appease never stopped. I panicked at random moments. Any anomalous feeling in my body was the immediate onset of cancer. Just going down a flight of stairs was an exercise in fantasy where my legs would fail and I’d split my skull open on the bannister.
Terror is a bone in my throat I can’t cough up.
The only time I could catch a break was knocking back wine like it was medicine to give me a couple hours of stillness so I could complete some work. That’s not just putting a bandaid on it. That’s having a vagrant lick the bandaid, slapping it on your open wound, then flashing a thumbs up to horrified onlookers. Nothing gave me pleasure, everything was just a conquering of minutes for a reason I couldn’t find between passing out.
I think the therapy came first. I picked out PK because she has a dog. Once a week I sit in her office and she picks apart my coping mechanisms. Her tone of voice suggests there were things I didn’t deserve. It’s deeply uncomfortable. She asks useless questions like: “If you could talk to yourself when you were a child, when that was happening to you, what would you say?” When I refused to answer she proceeded to tell me what she would say. I instantly blocked that shit out. I still go every week.
Massage therapy came next. Every two weeks a friend of mine cuts me a discount and tries to undo a lifetime of damage 90 minutes at a time. It’s probably the first time in my life anyone has handled my body with anything resembling ongoing concern in a medical context. Andrew knew I’d been in a car accident in my late teens, that I carry the most tension in my left shoulder, and that working in the vicinity of my kidneys triggers what he calls ‘guarding’. That’s when the body reacts immediately to protect itself despite your best intentions.
It’s a slow, irritating process trying to heal yourself. More irritating is that once people find out you are doing it they set a timeline for you on when you should be acceptably fixed.
The shaking didn’t let up, and the pain in my chest was like a hot metal splinter in my sternum. I was walking around with a stomach full of iron slag. After waking up one morning feeling, again, like I was experiencing the final moments of death while not just dying, for the love of god, I went: ‘Fuck it. Let’s get woo woo.’
And I called the immersion tank place for the next available appointment, to pay money to lay in a really dark tank half full of salt water for an hour and a half. I don’t like to be touched for very long, I got over that. I don’t like to talk about the things that hurt me in any genuine way, but I- okay I’m not over that one yet but get off my case. So really, I could probably get over my aversion to hippie shit.
That was my rock bottom. Feeling so fucked up that if a young white guy with dreads told me that a kale enema would provide me relief from this mental and physical agony I would have turned and presented my butthole with a quickness. Ninety minutes in a tank? No problem.
I stumbled into Float On unwashed, barely dressed, and really early. (I ran out of fanfictions to read so I just headed out.) I crammed myself into the furthest corner of the lounge after paying to wait my turn.
“We like to have you pay at the beginning so that when you’re done with your float you can just come out and have some tea, hang out...really enjoy your post float glow without having to worry about anything!” I was told by the clerk who took my card, the most placid goddamned woman I have ever encountered. At this juncture I am absolutely certain that I will not be hanging out, glowing, with or without tea.
There are six private rooms in this joint, each with a shower and the big ass float tank. The lady that led me to explain how it all works was very, very...kind. She seemed genuinely dismayed when I told her I was in to see if I could do something about my panic attacks. She had like, 7 separate suggestions on how I could manage any anxiety. I don’t trust kindness and sympathy, not without trying to find the angle. You have to really anticipate as much as possible about other people so you can’t be caught unawares when they turn vicious.
That’s what I think.
You shower before sliding into the tank. The shower scared the shit out of me. Do you know they make shower heads that like...fucking glow and change colors?! Because they do make them and I guess float tack places are big buyers. I’m washing my depression filth off under a goddamned aura detecting showerhead! When that sucker came on, the work part of my brain, (which is actually the whole thing and never, ever shuts off), was like ‘remember to write about this showerhead later. Holy shit.’.
I tried going in with my glasses. That was a bad idea.
The lady said that due to the amount of epsom salt in the water it would be slippery. That’s an understatement. I went sliding into that bitch like a shaved hamster through a layer of warm KY jelly, sloshing around in this tank and getting the water all over my glasses. The first couple of minutes were also when I found out any open cut or irritated skin was gonna sting like a motherfucker.
(I want to pause in my essay to thank whatever loving god gifted me with mental issues so crippling that I couldn’t find the energy to shave my pussy lately. Good looking out, big guy. I owe ya one.)
The first ten minutes were not the soothing journey into consciousness the website had sold me. I have a nervous habit of ripping the skin off of my fingers until they bleed, so soaking them in a huge pool of salt water wasn’t putting me on the road to serenity. My glasses sat weird on my face and dripped the salt water into my eyes. In very short order I called mulligan. On my way out of the tank I smashed the Jim Christ out of my head on the entrance. Naked, clutching my head, blind as shit, and you betcha, crying like a baby. I slathered vaseline over my fingers, showered the salt off of my face and took my glasses off.
Because here’s the thing: I spent 65 american dollars to lay in that dark bucket and find some inner fucking peace and so help me, inner fucking peace would be found. I was not going to call it quits at ten. Back in the tank, still crying. Feel free to assume the crying is an intermittent but frequent staple of this experience for the rest of the essay.
I pulled the door shut and laid down. I was aware that buoyancy was one of the core points of floating but damn my ass was buoyant. I just floated in there, not really trusting that I was actually being held by anything. A few minutes of sniveling and I started paying attention.
In the total dark, away from my phone and email, questions, other people, in a tank of salted chill juice, I was alone where no one could see me. For a little while I wasn’t answerable to anyone but myself. The thought was clear before any actual action upon it took place; whatever fresh hell might be waiting for me when I got out was going to have to wait. Nothing was coming to get me for a little while. No one was going to be able to measure me up and find me too small.
The body came first. I knew I tensed but I didn’t know precisely to what degree. Without the pressure of gravity, other hands, clothes, anything, I was still rigid.
‘You aren’t going to fall.’ I told myself. ‘It’s fine. There isn’t anything to hold yourself against.’
An immersion tank is structured to remove the impression of time. Even without and thing to mark it by, it took a cool minute to relax one piece at a time. Left calf, right thigh, clenched hands, shoulders too high. A muscle in my back spasmed rebelliously, but whatever. I’ll deal with that asshole later.
I learned something really young, and that’s that you need to watch your tells, especially your flinches. Flinching is a sign of weakness. If a rabbit flinches in front of the dog it’s the signals for the dog to snatch it up and shake it to pieces. Flinching is just a way of saying to a bigger animal, “Your yelling is scaring me, yanking my hair while I’m trying to eat hurts me. Your hand coming towards me terrifies me.” And it’s saying to the bigger animal “I can do as much of this as I want and I’ll never get bored of it.” Catch a flinch, smother an expression and you can save yourself some trouble.
It took some coaxing and focus but I managed to unwind bit by bit. Then the rest of it came. There was nothing wrong with my heart. It’s just a heart. It’s only doing it’s job like it always has. The other organs follow and stopped being a source of fear. There are my lungs, nothing suspect. My stomach, empty but not full of lead ingot, or tumors, or parasites, or any other weird shit. It’s not my enemy. It’s just what I’ve been given to work with.
The body proving itself fine meant I could think about something else. So I thought about these things in no particular order:
How much jealousy and resentment I’ve had for people who openly, candidly share their feelings. I read autobiographical comics and journal posts with a harshly critical eye. Not judgement for the actual topics shared, but the execution thereof. Frank vulnerability is a dangerous thing.
Here is something else I learned when I was younger: Never show your flank. Sharing too much of yourself without a deft joke or a blase attitude to deflect is a bad idea. Being vulnerable around someone, even if you think you can trust them, is like sharpening a knife yourself then handing it off to that other person and saying, “When you decide to cut my throat this is what you can do it with.” If it doesn’t sound like you are actually upset then it can’t be used against you.
That resentment is just cheap sour grapes and cowardice on my part. I shied away from writing anything genuine about myself without making it into a buffoonish joke because being a buffoon has little cost to me. There are some people who I’m sure would be completely delighted to know that i’ve been making myself sick like this. To speak frankly on how it’s affected me is to show my flank.
But here is a thought now and it is stronger than the fear and resentment. It is:
I did not work this hard for this long to hone my craft only to curl my fingers away from the keys in consideration of people who do not love me.
At this point my eye itched like an unholy bastard and I thought I was going to get away with rubbing it. Nope. That just made it worse. In my desperation to really rub my eye without getting out of the tank I had the genius idea of sucking my fingers into my mouth to get the the salt water off of them which was duuuuuuumb. I should have saved myself the time and just taken a break from catharsis to open the damn door and scrub my face with a towel, but oh well. If wishes were fishes.
That hot iron splinter in my chest not gone, but dislodged slightly, I settled back in and thought about whatever pleased me. There wasn’t anyone to stop me. Not even myself.
I’m uncomfortable with the concept of forgiveness as applied to myself. Every time I had food thrown on me, or was grabbed and wrenched back on task for my mind wandering, attracting too much attention so a class full of peers could discuss in in detail, in front of a listening teacher, if I was fingering myself in the bathroom before 3rd period, was a test I failed. I should have played the game better, used a different word here or there. The deliberately thrown elbow I took to the eye trying to get around another kid who knocked me cold was a failure. I should have moved faster, ducked further left, not gotten so close. That was my fault, my mistake, and when it happened again I now knew how to get out of the way.
But I had to remember the specifics of the failure. Forgiving it would be forgetting it. Forgetting it is being caught unprepared when something like that happens again. I learned how to anticipate a trap and disarm it ahead of time when I was younger. It’s good that I learned not to flinch when I was spit on. I’m glad that happened, since now I’m ready as an adult if it happens.
I explained this logic to my therapist, PK early on. She sidestepped that bullshit and parried with a smooth thrust that sunk into a soft spot.
“Our trauma gives us gifts. It doesn’t make the trauma something that was deserved.” She said.
I didn’t have anything for that.
Then she started asking about the specifics, and I swallowed around the bone in my throat and started telling her.
In the dark, with no one to see me, I visited my own private country. It’s made up of fragments of things seen and half remembered or read about somewhere. Bits of rocky coast, a field in the summer full of sulfur butterflies, drowning cities, old mossy caves. This country isn’t populated by anything other than strange, quiet animals who prefer not to be seen and versions of myself at different ages.
“If you could talk to yourself when you were a child, when that was happening to you, what would you say?”
There is me, age 5. My first pair of glasses are huge and heavy on my face, I’m wearing my favorite black costume dress. People bigger than me are speculating about what's wrong with me, and what should be done about it.
As I’m passing by I’d say:
“Listen, you are gonna learn some hard shit in the next few years. You’re gonna learn the difference between ‘can’ and ‘should’. You are gonna learn that ‘can’ is an easy word and that ‘should’ is the hard one that takes work. Some people ‘can’ do things to you and they will. They will do it because it’s easy and satisfies them. It’s not going to be fair and no one is going to protect you from it.
When you are a little older there is going to be a boy in your grade who tortures you, you are gonna ask him what if he would do if he was in your place. All he going to say before he goes back to touching your face with his wet hand is: “Yeah, but I’m not.”
You will begin to understand what the word ‘should’ means when he says that. That’s going to be hard, but it’s going to define you.
It shouldn’t have happened, but it did.
It’s not fair, but it’s going to build you. “
Ah, here I am, age 15, surly, salty, and spoiling for a fight. I’m a little more clipped with her.
“Listen, You are doing too much ‘can’. Just because you suffered and you’re angry about it doesn’t mean you get to inflict more on whoever you please. Stop being such a shit to your parents. You asked them not to intercede on your behalf and they respected your wishes. You don’t get to punish them for that. Besides, they protected you as best they could out of your sight. Mom told a teacher to get bent when they suggested taking your books away to bring you
in line. Dad asked a teacher who called to drill him about your failing grades if she knew you were reading Paradise Lost. When she said no, he said, “You don’t know shit about my daughter.”
You don’t know about that now. You’ll find out much later and you are going to feel like a real dick when you do.
Also, have fun looking back on these years once the word Weeaboo comes into common usage.”
Here is me in my 20’s on my own, confused but ready to consume everything put in front of me. We saw each other recently so I can be to the point.
“Listen, what happened in that motel room wasn’t your fault. You were new to the city and you’d never been around people like that. Good thing that one guy stopped the other guy, but still what happened that night and how other people treated you afterwards was bullshit. You didn’t deserve it. It didn’t make you dirty. A dude you thought was hot because he wore a cologne you like is going to call you a whore in front of the whole dorm. No one is going to defend you. The word will hurt you then but it will be the last time it ever touches you. You are going to realize that people who use that word say more about themselves than they do you.
Also that motherfucker will die of a drug overdose about a year later so go on brush your shoulders off.
I gotta get going, but listen, you are going to say ‘yes’ to a lot of people who don’t deserve you because you didn’t get a lot of chances to say it earlier. You are gonna give a lot of men your body, time, and consideration who don’t deserve it. That’s fine. Every choice you make in love now is going to place you in the position to recognize what David is when you find him. The road leads to him and it’s going to be so worth it.
There are two of us now going forward, The me that ‘can’ and the me that ‘should’. We are a bit cagey about each other, not really friends at all, cruel and judgemental. But we are headed towards ourself at age 45 or so, the image is hazy but I’m sure I’ve aged gracefully into the kind of wardrobe my classy mother wears now. David is there, more handsome than the day we met him, the people who do love me, who I do owe consideration are there. Maybe somewhere is a shelf full of books I’ve written.
In my own private country on a trail that looks like one I used to hike in St Louis, I look at this bitch next to me, who might be my good face or my bad face, and nod. I underestimated your resilience for a minute. I’m sorry about that. This is just a minute to breathe before we put down the things that didn’t work and focus on refining things that do.
An unstoppable force in the universe.
I thought about having a talk with the staff at Float On about the music they played to signal my session was over. When the grinding dirge started I sat up out of that tub like, HAS THE WAR STARTED??? Did holistic people forget about Enya? I mean maybe don’t go with the blood pumping jam of Orinoco Flow but definitely get a good copy of Shepard Moon, you know?
I did hang out in the lounge and have tea. I texted with my mother for a while and then went to my favorite plant shop and talked with the owner for about an hour. Fascinating guy. I bought one of his terrariums and invited him to be on my show sometime. Then I called mom, wandered around the neighborhood for a while. It’s September now, so the heat’s broken. I went to have my head shaved over at Bishops. I drank the beer they gave me and didn’t feel the need to pour five more on top of it. I actually just enjoyed a beer.
Then I went home to David. The bone coughed up for the time being, the splinter in my chest not as sharp. Nothing fixed exactly, but less fearful, less noisy. I don’t know how I’ll feel later, but right this moment what I feel is good, stronger, and sure that I can do this.
And if I feel like I can’t then I know I can go spend 90 minutes in a dark bucket down the street to figure out how. I’ll go to therapy once a week, massage therapy every other week, and I’ll figure it out.
(Written September, 2015)