Two things that are mutually related: I did stand-up comedy last week, and I haven’t had a panic attack in fifteen days.
Both are events worthy of note, I think. Talking panic attacks, I still have the usual build to the point of pure terror every so often, but then the bottom of it turns into something else. Instead of a freefall into nothing, it’s like I look down and I’m standing on a mound of chocolate pudding: Not bad, just very strange. It wasn’t what I expected.
Comedy feels the same way. I want to do it, I feel like I have to do. I've become one of those actresses in a peasant skirt who talks about how she just HAS to do it. See? I can't take what I want seriously. Ever. I make jokes to my friends about deciding to get up on stage. “I’ll be fine,” I say, “I love being the center of attention.” It's true and it's not. Inside, my guts samba. They are indelicately trying to flee. You know, like whatever bug makes a Mexican jumping bean shake. But I'm not running away. I want to feel what it’s like to lean into the terror and stay perfectly still.
I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I reel, and flail and then instead of losing my bearings I inch back from the edge. It’s like standing on a building and feeling overwhelmingly certain that you’re going to jump off. Then, you remember you’re a human being with a will of your own, and you don’t. You leave the roof. You go eat a taco, maybe some cake. But you sit with your back to the window when you do. You shiver as a shadow flashes on the wall in front of you and try not to think it was your own body falling from a great height. You focus on the taco and the cake and the fact that you’re here, not splintered into gooey bits on the ground. Tacos are delicious and not one dog has pissed on the bloody, gurgling pile of busted melon that used to be your face.
It’s like I can’t get used to normal. I don’t bolt upright screaming. I don’t slap myself in the face because I can’t escape my body. Instead, I’ve grown wary. I glower at my muted T.V. screen until sleep sneaks up on me. I fight slipping under, dirty fingernails digging into my palms. I don’t know what I expect to battle, exactly, but I’m ready to do it every night. I almost feel cheated when nothing happens. It makes me feel like picking a fight.
In college I'd get drunk and asked my friends to hit me. Sure, that was alcohol talking, but I sometimes think I was more genuine when I was eighteen. I was such a mess and I didn’t know. I was so totally not self-aware that I didn’t even think about hiding all the gorier aspects of myself. “It was like watching Animal Planet,” someone said when I apologized to them for being out of control one night. The shame burned a hole right through me. I could have starred in Death Becomes Her, my guts were gone. You could see the sun setting behind me.
I cried all the time, then, in college. One friend died, and then another. I fell to my knees outside the Tennessee Williams Center at Sewanee and waited to throw up. Ants on the rocks. One ant looked pregnant. Do ants get pregnant? I was an asshole for not knowing. I was an asshole for thinking about this when my friend was dead. It felt like I should throw up. But I didn’t. I dry-heaved and nothing. My stomach gurgled. I was actually hungry. Realizing that made me cried. I really cried, like, really lost my mind sobbed until I could hear the sharp, broken, edgy pieces of me scrape against each other.
I don’t do that now. Instead I walk around with that feeling that comes after the crying, that nervous relief and understanding of sorrow, waiting to become my default state of being. Portable, permanent sadness. Even when you’re happy, it sticks around, ready to help pull you down if you need to feel something real.
It’s feeling threatened. Constant sadness isn’t quite my default now. There are days I forget it’s there altogether. Lately I’ve been walking around demanding “normal people” experiences. I want to go to sleep easily. I want to order coffee. I want to say 'hit' to a co-worker. I want to call a tailor. I want to hold hands with someone and feel nervous in my junk about it.
Wanting that feels more real to me than the darker, sicker bits of myself that I lug around. But those bits aren’t going gently. The shadows still flash on the wall before me. I still worry I’m falling. The ugliness is standing watch. It’s hyper-vigilant. I imagine it all dressed up like a member of the Roman Legion and just as dangerous. It tries to get back the land it has lost. Its sneak attacks happen at night. The person I worry I really am comes out in my dream life.
I’ve been having nightmares pretty steadily these days. I dreamed that I tried to turn my cat into a parrot by shoving him in a super-small birdcage and leaving him there. I went back to check on his progress and his skull had split down the middle. He was crying and I knew he was dying but I also knew I couldn’t get him help -- because I’d be found out as his murderer. I woke up and he was still alive (and farting) beside me. I half-rolled over onto him. He opened his eyes and purred in response. I squeezed him and loudly proclaimed “I solemnly vow never to shrink you and kill you by turning you into a parrot.” The cat shifted and so did the dark. The weight of the dream left the moment I said those words out loud. Dreams are like that.
I am, as the dream would indicate, still thinking about death quite a bit. But not in an end-it-all kind of way. I don’t want to die. It scares the shit out of me. I’ll take immortality, thank you kindly, and also the promise of never having to experience pain ever again. I don’t think the world would be better off if I weren’t here. I don’t necessarily think it would be very much different, but I mean that with as few histrionics as are possible given who’s speaking.
When I think about death, I am thinking of all things I have waited too long to do. I think about the person I have wasted so much time not being. I've cheated myself, in ways. I wake up, realize I’m going to die and then that night I do standup at a club in Bushwick. It’s my second time ever. I love it. It’s not like I was immediately, movie-magic awesome. But there’s something really human about a joke falling resoundingly flat, and you standing there in a light with a mic guilty of having thrown it. They are looking you and you are looking at them, and you are saying, “Well that didn’t work, I guess I’ll try something else,” and they are looking back at you, free of malice, and saying, “You’d better. One more shot."