Monday, November 21, 2016

But What Do You DO?

You guys.

As of this writing, nearly 600 people have read my last blog post, My Friend Mark.

Six hundred of you large-hearted beauties. It blows my mind.

Four people - strangers!- emailed me, sharing their stories of anxiety. Friends texted me all day. I got so many paper airplanes of affection. 

I went back to my gym, Left Coast CrossFit, the very next day. Everyone was kind and very polite as they asked how I was, or how I was doing. One member approached me and shared their experience with anxiety. Then, this person asked a big question.

"How do you cope with that? Like, what do you DO?"

I checked my body language, sensing that this question was more for them than for me. "I come here, every damn day. That's what I do."

And then I did the workout. And I felt better.  A lot better.

Yes, yes. Of course you're right. There are lots of other things I do, many of them so ingrained I no longer notice them. I cannot wear high necked tops, or collared t-shirts. I must have the doors and windows open. I cannot stand people behind my back. And I am the one that knows where the emergency exits are on planes. I hope you never get the chance to thank me for knowing where they are. 

As a writer, it took me a long time to not be embarrassed about my athleticism. Writers are supposed to be dreamy, sedentary little things. We wear all black and mope with our cats. We smoke and drink heavily, stay up late frantically scribbling and wake up the next morning groping for water near our headboards. Right?

Yes, sure. Okay, okay, yes sometimes I DO do all those things. I do. But mostly I get up very early, before the rest of the house needs me. Before there are a thousand things to distract me, to demand my attention, big alarms calling out for me to COMPLETE THIS NOW. I read, and write, and revise. I sit in that time when my mind is still as sleepy as the house and I let it do its thing.

Then, after the kids are off to school and everyone is fed and clothed to the best of my ability, I go to gym. Six days a week. I do not skip days. I do not.

I spend the rest of my day, in my head, or in books, or amongst manuscript pages and made up friends. Students rush in and out of my-not mine- office. When we talk about books we are talking about BIG IMPORTANT THINGS. And that? That demands all of my attention. Literature deserves all of my attention. So do my students. So do my own stories. Because they are all that important.

But when you spend that much time in your head, you need to actively work to maintain holistic sensibility. What I mean by that is this- that I go a little bit crazy if I don't work out, if I don't use my body to the best of my abilities, just like I use my mind the best way I know how. Two days is the longest I have gone on purpose and I was fit to be tied.

Fit to be TIED.

I call it, "feeling stabby" and sometimes that happens even if I miss just one workout. I'm not just saying it when I say that I hate rest days. I really really really hate rest days.

But, see? See, here is the thing. When you look at it from a different light, the dedication and commitment required of an athlete is the same that is required of an artist. You must get up early. You must do the work, even when no one is looking. Especially when no one is looking. You have to find those that know what you don't know, and ask them to teach you. Study them. Emulate them. You must not get discouraged when you fail. You will do more work outside of the gym then you ever will inside the gym, just like your "overnight success" of a novel will actually have consumed ten mostly unnoticed years of your life.

You will keep fucking going.

And that, my large-hearted friends, is why I show up every day, panic attack or not.

Friday, November 18, 2016

My Friend Mark

This morning I had a panic attack at the gym, right there in front of everyone. Chest heaving and my mouth gulp gulp gulping for air, I had to stop what I was doing and go straight outside. Away. Where it was calm and quiet and not crowded.

Except that did not work.

I could not breath. My lungs shook and rattled. The tears came on, hot and fast. I could not stay upright. My heart beat between my eyes, throbbing it's own song around in my head.

My coach followed me outside.

I was a goner. 

I was disappointed that I had such an attack, because it has been "so long." I've been doing "so good." I had to call my husband and tell him. I had to take all the steps I knew to "calm down" and try to function for the remainder of this typical run of the mill average Friday, a Friday in which things are still expected of me. Me, who should be a functioning human being. An adult no less.

Listen. Here's the thing.

If anxiety were rational, I'd have figured it out by now.

Hours later my hands were still shaking and I still couldn't quite catch my breath. It's a funny thing, breathing. One realllllly takes it for granted, you know? Until you can't do it, despite the part of your brain screaming at your body to BREATHE BREATHE BREATHE. Your lungs just say, nope. Not today. Sorry, they say, as they shrug dismissively.

I had had enough. I went to get my nails done. Because, you know, that will TOTALLY help. Lets pile gobs of chemicals on my fingers and then LITERALLY cure them under the same rays I hide from everyday. (I chose Asphalt Grey though. The best shade of grey. I love it.)

On my way back to my car, outside in the beige-ness of Irvine, I met Mark.

Mark changed my life today.

He was walking, creeping, inching, across the parking lot. I walked by him to my own car, but noticed a fresh abrasion on his right temple and cheek. He was holding his jacket in one hand, three layers of fleece still covering him. Black Ray Bans struggled to hang on, the side with the abrasion had a broken hinge.

What I'm trying to say it, Mark had just taken a spill.

I stopped and asked him, "Hey. How we doing today?"

"Oh. Not that good." He reached for my arm.

We knew each other, but we had just forgotten until that moment.

I asked him where he was headed and he said he didn't know. When I commented on how he seemed to be on a dedicated path he said, "Oh yes, over to my truck." And so, we shuffled, together, two-stepping across the parking lot to Mark's truck.

It took us twenty-two minutes. It was maybe six car spaces.

Mark told me all. He told me how it felt to be eighty two (eight two!) and how he can't believe we got stuck with Trump. And that he is scared for America. And for women like me.

"What do you mean, women like me?" I asked Mark, our arms interlocked like lovebirds taking a little stroll.

"Women like you," he said again, "that are kind and intelligent. Smart. You're gonna have one hell of a time reminding yourself that most men don't have any idea what the hell they're talking about."

I thanked him for saying I was kind and intelligent, not just defaulting to pretty.

"The trouble with my legs is," he stopped and rested on a Land Rover. Fuck the price tag on this Land Rover, I thought. We are resting. "The trouble with my legs is they have minds of their own."

"And they're not parallel minds, are they Mark?"

"No. No they are not."

Once we got to his truck, a little grey Toyota with a shopping cart next to it, I was shocked to see that it was a stick shift. I told him excitedly my oldest boy has almost the exact same truck! So as Mark climbed into his truck, one stubborn leg at a time, taking breathers in between bouts of positioning, I told him about my kids, about those red-headed, loud, little loves and about Tomas at school, and about my students - how much I care for them, and how many hours outside of class I think about them, how sometimes when I see them making poor choices I want to scream at them, Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!

Mark was tired. We got him in his truck and I leaned on the door. I wasn't sure he would be able to drive home. (Stick shift! I still cant believe it was a stick shift!)

"You know, Jessica, I feel bad about not taking that shopping cart back. Once I leave, will you please take it back for me?"

I told him, yes of course, I will return the shopping cart for you.

"It's not even mine," he said. "But that's the thing, sometimes you just have to do a thing to do it. It doesn't make any sense, but you still do it. What else can you do?"

I told Mark I was going to follow him home. He said, okay, but only if I promised to come back for the cart.

I promised.

"I hope you make it to 82," Mark said as he tested his left leg's ability to press the clutch. "You'd be great at 82."

I followed Mark home.

I went back for the cart.

I hope I make it to 82 also, Mark. I hope I do.