Nadi International Airport. It's four in the morning and I'm waiting to board the plane to New Zealand. I can feel pressure building inside my chest. I'm a long way from home, and I'm tired. It's been a long damn day. It's been a long damn week, a long damn month. There's something in me that needs to get out, and I'm a big kid, now, I know how to handle myself, so I go to the bathroom, lock myself in the handicapped stall and cry silently for about five minutes, the sort of wracking, borderline-uncontrollable sobbing that leaves a person breathless, messed up and senseless.
Then I wash my face and go back out to the gate.
I'm scared. Scared of what, I don't know, but I'm used to the feeling. I have a panic disorder: I get the fight or flight response at the drop of a hat, the real deal, the whole raised heartrate, prickly-scalp short-breath pressure-head fuck-my-life-I'm-gonna-die enchilada. I'm scared of...what? That I'll never be able to go home? That I'll end up destitute and helpless in a foreign country? That Diane will come all the way to the airport just to tell me she doesn't want me anymore? These aren't real fears, they aren't real things, they aren't even real possibilities, but still my brain interprets them the same as if I were to turn around and see a Bengal tiger cooling out in the seat next to me.
I get this way all the time. All I can do is sit with it.
It's easier on the plane. It's an airplane. I've been on dozens of airplanes in my life, they're familiar, they're compact, enclosed, simple and straightforward. They haven't changed the seatbelt technology since humans started using tools, and even in Hindi, the pre-flight safety lecture sounds the same as it always does. I calm down. I look out the window as we take off and watch Fiji recede into the dawn. I fall asleep.
And wake up as the guy next to me finishes his meal. His daughter is asleep on the seat between us, curled up in a way that can only be comfortable if you weigh less than fifty pounds. She's maybe six years old, and she's got her foot jammed into my thigh. This isn't what woke me up, though. I'm starving. Ravenous. The flight attendant gives me food. It's your average British breakfast: flavorless eggs, bulletproof sausage, something approximating a potato and some tomatoes. I chow down, secure in the knowledge that the food is safe and calories are calories. Somehow, the potato is chewy, but thanks to a combination of air pressure and engine noise, the tomatoes are divine.
I'm starting to feel better. Then I look out the window and think of home, and feel that same sharp, wrenching pain as before, the pain of an ambiguous loss, a loss that smarts like death, even though no one has died. And then I think of New Zealand. I'm going to New Zealand to be with Diane, and because Diane loves New Zealand, and because I trust Diane. I trust her that New Zealand is a good place.
But I know nothing about New Zealand. I know it's about the size of the east coast of the United States. I know they drive on the other side of the road, and there are two main islands, and I know it's summer in January. But really, I know nothing about New Zealand. The little pilot light inside me gets some gas, and I start to panic.
A word on panic: People associate the word 'panic' with 'jump around, jump around, freak out freak out and get down.' Animated, uncontrollable movement, the immediate ability to rip up a telephone pole and beat a Bengal tiger to death. Fight, or flight.
Me, I panic if my neighbors wake me up at night. I panic if, halfway through a month's wages, I don't have enough money to pay my bills, which will come at the end of the month, after two more weeks of wages, which I know will cover my bills. I panic all the time. After a while, you get used to it. You learn how to handle it. You learn not to move, because physical exertion of any kind compounds the effect. You learn what kinds of questions to ask yourself, what kind of thoughts to allow into your head. You learn how to be calm in the face of a cardiovascular activity that feels like it'll kill you young.
So I sit there, breathing deep against a gale-force wind, telling myself things I know are true, using weapons I've built up over years of practice.
I'm a bartender. I'm a damn good bartender. I can get a job in just about any civilized nation on the planet, because civilized people like to get fucked up and feel classy while they're doing it.
I have five grand saved up for this move. If I can't get myself settled and saving money before that runs out...wait, that's wrong. Five grand is a long time. I can get settled and saving money before that runs out. Probably by a long shot. I'll be fine.
I've been in love, seriously in love, twice before this, and I've learned a lot from those experiences. I've fucked up relationships, and had relationships yanked out from under me, and had people do fucked-up things to end relationships with me. I know myself all right. I know Diane all right. I trust me, and I trust her, and based on that, I trust what we're doing together.
These are truths I've built for myself. I wouldn't be here if they weren't realities I could live in. I'm here because those truths are valid. So whatever other teeth are gnashing on my lizard brain, exhorting me to movement, they aren't real. This isn't a Bengal tiger next to me. This is a little girl, asleep with her head on her daddy's lap, with her neck bent at such an angle it really looks like...ok, she's breathing, she's definitely still alive. Jesus, kids are weird.
My heart rate slows. My breathing becomes natural, not forced. I can handle doing something, now. Which is good, because I've got work to do.
I've written two books. I published them myself. They aren't selling well yet, because they're smack in the middle of a market flooded with vanity projects and misogynistic erotica. I have to sell. I have to market. I have to write more. I have to find a way to stand out among the idiots and the onanists and the assholes who write because they think writing is a game.
But I'm on a plane heading to a new phase in my life, and I just had another panic attack. Chalk it up on the board. If I tallied panic attacks on my skin, cross-strike for every five, I'd look like Victor Zsasz. I don't need to work, right now. I can listen to music and relish my fleeting calm.
Sammus has a new album out I still haven't listened to. I went to school with Enongo, and it is, quite frankly, cool as shit to see her becoming such an incredible artist. So I pull up Pieces in Space and settle in to watch the clouds pass. They're cool clouds. Southern polar, and something about the pressure, the temperature, the weather patterns this close to the pole makes them look like a snowpack. If I let my mind wander, I can imagine we're flying slow and low over a winter plain.
The album is good. Again. They always are. Eno is a funny, wonderful combination of whip-smart, well-educated, and sensitive, and her songs cover a lot of bases with remarkable aplomb. Her beats are great, alternating between quiet jams and bangers that make it hard not to wake up the kid sleeping next to me. I remember playing her first EP for a friend of mine, and right before I pressed play, he stopped me. "Wait," he said. "Is this really good? Or am I gonna be embarrassed for our friend?" I just pressed play. A few minutes later, we were nodding our heads like a couple of toy chihuahuas on a dashboard. Sammus does good work. Pieces in Space is no exception.
New Zealand comes into view. This is it. I'm on an airplane, thirty-thousand feet up, but still, it feels like I've suddenly passed the point of no return. I'm really doing this. I'm really here. I lean my head on the glass and watch the landscape pass beneath me as we descend. I'm most of the way through the album. Another song starts.
"I wish I wasn't so goddam crippled by anxiety."
My head comes off the glass. She's talking to her brain.
"I'm scared of all the thoughts you'll share with no more fat to chew. You're like, check your email, no more pouting, plan the details of your album. Get those presales, sell four thousand, ten bucks retail, though you're drowning."
And then the refrain starts. Izzy True, a local from back home with a beautiful, casual, rich voice.
"Nighttime sweats and the nighttime chills, the nighttime sucks. Yeah, the nighttime feels like I can't get my brain together. Will I feel insane forever?"
In university, when the anxiety hit, I used to have a panic attack every single night. When the sun went down, I got scared in a way I'd never been scared before.
Every. Single. Night.
Nighttime sweats. Nightime sucks. I couldn't stop it. I couldn't get my brain together.
Sammus was talking about my life.
I lost it, right there in seat thirty-eff. The same sort of wracking, horrific gouts of grief, turned into the window so I didn't freak out the kid next to me. Sammus was just as fucked as I was. She was just as stuck in herself. And she was telling it perfectly.
Will I feel insane forever?
When I was twenty, my father told me that I would feel better when I got some victories in my life. That when I felt more accomplished, the vicious side of me would quiet down. So I grew up. I got therapy. I learned about what was going on in my head. Learned how to handle myself. My heart started to skip, and I went to the doctor. They stuck me in a heart monitor and drew my blood and told me I have a chemical imbalance. I became a gym rat to boost my metabolism and clean myself out. I smoked more pot than I should have, got my shit straight, and dialed back my intake to the point where I was functional without having to own the stoner nomenclature or indulge in brainfucking chemicals like Xanax or Prozac*. I wrote a million and a half words in six years and published two books by the time I was thirty, and I know in my marrow that I'm just getting started.
Sammus' career is taking off. But still:
"I sent the emails. I curbed my pouting. I planned the details of my new album. I got some presales, about a thousand at ten bucks retail. But I'm still drowning."
It hasn't worked. I'm still drowning, even though I can swim like a fish. I can drop acid in a foreign nation and work my own way through a bad trip, and keep my shit together flying into a new life, mourning something that feels lost, even if it isn't. I'm stronger than most people walking. But I'm still drowning. It never stops. It will never stop.
When I was twenty-eight, twenty-nine, I got real sad for a while. I realized I wasn't getting better, I was just getting better at dealing with my shit. I was getting better at being sober. I want to be fucked up all the time, because I feel this way all the time. I don't need to be fucked up. I can weather this. But I'm going to be this way for the rest of my life. I'm almost thirty-one, and the nighttime still feels like I can't get my brain together. I don't wonder, anymore, if I'll feel insane forever. I know I will. No matter how strong I become, I'm always going to feel this way.
My face was wet. New Zealand was passing underneath me. It looked like something out of another world, pine trees and palms bordering English meadowland. It was beautiful. I was going to live in a beautiful place. I was on my way to be with a woman who is beautiful inside and out. I was going to write another book. Life was good. Life is good.
I still feel like a wreck.
Enongo, I'm sorry. This isn't fair. We're animals dealing with new-world stimuli through old-world channels. Apes in the future getting fucked by our own minds. But that's all poetic garbage. I've been working on this stuff long enough that people ask me, now, to help them with their own anxiety, because they figure I have a handle on this shit. My reaction is the same every single time: I'm sorry. No one should have to deal with this. It's not cancer. It's not schizophrenia. But it's awful just the same.
I'm sorry you have to deal with it, too.
The new album is tight, by the way. You do really great work. I'm glad I know you, and I'm excited to watch your career develop.
I just hope you get some peace.
Listen to Nighttime
Listen to Sammus
Listen to Izzy True
*There's nothing wrong with taking Xanax or Prozac or any of the other pharmaceuticals if they work for you and you aren't abusing them. I don't like how they made me feel. But if they work for you, good. Use them, carefully, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.