Back Here

A woman in a green visor and apron asks me what she can get for me. I tell her a six-inch tuna on wheat. She assembles my sandwich automatically—bread, cheese, meat—but I am anything but automatic. I am trying something new; I am breaking old habits. I am following advice.

“Easy on the lettuce, please,” I say with an exaggerated smile. I’m trying too hard, but she doesn’t look up. “I’m a bit of a delicate flower.” I laugh at my words. Her head remains aimed at the bins of vegetables in front of her.

Great. Now she thinks I’m hitting on her. Maybe this is the wrong place to do it. Maybe I should try it with a co-worker first.

The sandwich artist’s eyes are suddenly on me, her eyebrows raised in question. Shit. Okay. She must have asked me what condiments I want.

“Extra extra extra mustard.” I cue her again with a smile. “Can’t have too much.” Yellow splatters the thin layer of lettuce. It’s too much mustard.

This is work for her. Listening to me is her job. Making me engage with someone who seems miserable at her job is unfair. It’s setting me up for failure. No. You’re going “back there” again. Be present. Listen to her.

“What’s that?”

“Anything else?”

I shake my head and she rings me up. Something on the other side of the cash register catches my eye. I stick my bottom lip out. “Those look good,” I say, pointing sheepishly to a display of cookies. “Could I get one, please? No, no, two. Two chocolate chip cookies!” I say it like the Count on Sesame Street.

She gives me a little laugh. I wonder if it’s pity.

“Back here” is the place I go during most conversations. On the rare occasion I tell someone about it, I point to a place behind my right ear and make a small circle. It’s the place I mull everything I’ve ever said to anyone ever. Ten minutes ago, fifteen years ago, it doesn’t matter. It’s my body language analysis chamber, my “What-I-Shoulda-Said” think tank, my “social faux pas” panic room.

My therapist, Esteban, reassures me that everyone has a Back Here, but some people stay locked back there longer than others. Or that’s what I read as his subtext at least because I’m pretty sure I’m the only person I know whose therapist recommends purposefully getting everyone they talk to in a day laugh.

“You do understand that I already put enough pressure on myself in social situations, right?” I asked Esteban when he suggested it. My scapulas prickled with sweat at the idea.

“Yes, but the logical  solution isn’t to never speak again, is it?” Esteban has a bit of an attitude. Usually, I like it.

“Well, no. But this seems like adding kindling to the fire.”

“Let me ask you this: How well are you listening to the person you’re talking to when you’re ‘back there’?”

I’d never thought about it. I am usually so anxious about what I say that I can’t process the other person’s words. “Not very well?”

“I think making someone laugh will force you to be present in the moment, really listening to what is being said and relating to it.”

“But what if laughter isn’t appropriate?”

“Then I want you to consciously be kind to them. If you’re walking away from people after making them laugh or giving them a compliment, then it will be harder for you to fixate on any perceived mistakes. We need to associate conversations with good things, not punishment.”

“But it sounds exhausting. I’m not a comedian.”

“More exhausting than making yourself feel bad about something you said a decade ago? I’m not asking you to do stand-up. I’m asking you to stay in the moment. Have some fun.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“You’ve made me laugh three times so far this session. Of course, you can.”

Three weeks later, my co-worker, Andrew, greets me with a Good morning.

“Hi, Andrew. Can you show me your feet, please?”

“My feet?”

“Yeah, just checking something.”

He swivels in his chair and raises one penny-loafered foot, then the other.

“Good. No chains. You were sitting there when I left last night and you’re here now. I wanted to make sure you aren’t shackled to your desk.”

He fills the room with his chuckling. His laugh is a trophy.

*Names changed to protect the innocent.

What Rob Lowe Taught Me About Fear

TW: pet death

I watched a show a few weeks ago called The Lowe Files in which the actor Rob Lowe and his sons visited an old “haunted” prison at midnight. There they met up with a scientist who studied the effects of fear in humans. Rob and his youngest son, John Owen, volunteered to wear heart monitors and other sensors and spend time in terrifying places. John Owen cowered at the bottom of the prison’s former gallows in the dark next to the hole in the ground that allowed the deads’ bodily fluids to drain. With the aid of night vision cameras, we could see every jump and twitch and facial expression he made. He remained terrified throughout the experiment because he was psyching himself out. His voice grew more shrill as he spiraled deeper into fear.

When John Owen’s experiment was over, the scientist sent Rob to the prison’s basement, the place that had been solitary confinement. Rob was also terrified…at first. But the longer he sat there the more comfortable he grew. His fear levels tapered off almost immediately, rising slightly when he heard a noise or when a draught blew over him. His reaction was the complete opposite of his son’s.

After the experiments, when both men were safe again in the room with the scientific equipment, the scientist told the pair that they demonstrated the two main reactions to fear. I don’t remember her exact words, but I have been thinking about it as “the churner” and “the taperer.” John Owen’s fear levels remained high throughout the experiment. He is a churner. Rob’s fear levels spiked at the beginning of the experiment and then tapered off to almost the same level as before he walked into the basement. Rob is the taperer.

I learned from that episode that, when it comes to fear, I am a John-Owen churner.

**

My orange tabby cat Dobyns was devoted to me. He had been my first pet after moving out of my parents’ house. He followed me around and insisted on being on my lap whenever I sat down. He demanded food all the time and would freak out if he could see a centimeter of the bottom of his food dish. I didn’t have the patience to fight with him, so I kept filling his bowl. At his largest, he was 23 lbs. That isn’t a typo. He was humungous.

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In the fall of 2010, he dropped a significant amount of weight over about 2 months. I took him to the vet, who said there was a lump in Dobyns’s abdomen. From that moment on, I had little rest. I couldn’t sleep; I’d wake up to any small noise in the apartment. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t done enough to help him, my Dobbs. I had overfed him. I hadn’t played with him enough. I had gotten mad when he demanded too much of my attention. I tried to make it up to him. I started brushing his teeth and giving him catnip-infused toys. I cleaned his litter box twice a day and bought him the most expensive food. I carried him to the vet’s office every other week for chemo.

I don’t know why I was surprised when he continued to lose weight, when he’d mewl after using the litter box because of the pain, when he stopped eating altogether. I guess I thought I could cure him with responsibility. His rehabilitation consumed me. I also lost weight. I’d get up in the middle of the night and sit next to his cat bed. I’d sniff the top of his head and whisper to him. “I wish you’d tell me what you need,” I’d say. “I can try to make it better.”

Dobyns died in February 2011. In his last minutes, at the vet, I reassured him that he wouldn’t be in pain any longer. Then the vet injected the drug into his arm. And the next morning, I woke up feeling so guilty that it had been the best night’s sleep I’d gotten in five months.

**

It’s happening again. My gray tabby Daphne dropped half of her weight over the summer. She is 19 years old, and her illness is coupled with arthritis and a bad thyroid, but she has more good days than bad. Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 2.58.34 PM

Last night after dinner, she joined me on the couch like she used to. She lay down on the blanket and stretched her paws to touch my leg. She wheezed, which rattled her purr, but she was genuinely happy. I bent over her and sniffed the top of her head. I whispered, “You are my sweet girl. You always have been my sweet girl.”

Our serenity in that moment reminded me of the differences between that time with Dobyns and now. I had been so terrified with Dobyns, not knowing what was going to happen or what was expected of me. I was John Owen in the gallows. And now, six years later, I am Rob Lowe in solitary confinement. In a good way. I am not worried that I’m not doing enough for her. She has had a long life, and I am secure in the fact that I have cared for her well. I do feel guilty about the should-haves and the could-haves of our relationship over the years, but I can remind myself that if, at the very end of her life, she is both horribly ill and purring ferociously from my gentle cooing, then I am exactly what she needs.

The Songs We Sing

Sometime in the middle of May, in the blinking daylight hours between rolling fog and thunderstorms, the buildings along Lincoln Avenue inhale. The restaurant workers in their white aprons have thrown open the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that line the fronts of their buildings. You have to fight against the draw of their breath as you walk by them, and the gift shop, and that store on the corner that sells running shoes, because the sidewalk could pull you inside to a waiting wood-trimmed bar or cash register. But it doesn’t. Instead it pushes you farther up the street past a Bierstube (once upon a time your neighborhood was German Town) where a young man stops talking to his date long enough to appreciate a tendril of her hair blowing onto his wrist.

And you feel an unfolding inside you.

The doors of the gift shop are propped open with heavy chairs. The greeting cards in the spinning racks at the front of the store whistle as the wind vibrates between them. They are reed instruments accompanying the bass of traffic noise rising from the busy street. They play a tune you find yourself wanting to sing.

A gaggle—or is it called a Fitbit?—of joggers stand outside the shoe store. They stretch, popping one foot up on the free-newspaper racks and light posts. Or they lunge, the hems of their matching yellow shorts almost make contact with the pockmarked sidewalk. The runners silently form a rank and piston their way down the avenue. Your shoulders square as you watch them. Your spine straightens. Intersection after intersection, they stop traffic with their presence until they turn left and vanish.

You walk the four blocks to Lincoln Square. Las Lagunitas, a new cantina, is raucous with 20-somethings. Its patrons spill neatly out onto the grid of tables formed on the patio. Chartreuse margaritas beckon from every table. On the other side of the patio gate, couples sit on benches gripping the handle of a baby stroller the size of a Humvee in one hand and a paper cup the size of a golf ball in the other. Inside the cups, mini-glaciers of coconut, chocolate mousse, and roasted-banana gelato peek at you over the rim. The parents chastise their sons and daughters to sit still, then they dip the tiniest shovels you’ve ever seen into their cups. You smile as they take their first bite.

The Fitbit of joggers thunder past you. You join their most informal of parades. They breathe loudly and rhythmically, and you match them. It is not a surprise that they take you back to the shoe store and assume their scissor and jackknife positions up and down the sidewalk. It is not a surprise to you because this ritual takes place every year: the birdsong, the echoes of laughter coming from inside the pub, the guitar riffs only audible when the School of Folk Music door swings open. None of it is a surprise. You breathe, you swing your arms, you glide up the back steps of your apartment ready to begin again.

 

The Prince and the PEA

This isn’t easy to admit, but, on my nightstand underneath two books lies a folded-up piece of paper–a photocopy of pages 160-161 of a book called Living Fully with Shyness & Social Anxiety.

If you’ve never met me that admission may give you the wrong impression. I’m not a shy man. I say hello to strangers on sidewalks. I lead game nights and book groups regularly. I freely express opinions.

No, I am not shy. But I am most certainly socially anxious.

Not familiar? Here’s an example: Twenty years ago I played a practical joke on an acquaintance with whom I was trying to befriend. I wrapped a birthday present in a plastic bag, placed it in a box, and poured whatever I could think of on top—peanut butter, mayonnaise, coffee grounds, frozen peas, moisturizer. I left it out for three August days and then gave it to him. After mucking through layers of rancid gloop and dry heaving twice, he stormed off. I was never invited over to his house again.

Pretty typical high school trial-and-error stuff, right? What makes this an example of social anxiety is what the author of the book, Erika B. Hilliard, calls Post-Event Autopsies (PEA).

[A post-event autopsy] occurs when we go over and over a particular, past social event with a fine-tooth comb. We filter through bits and pieces of the event, picking out the bad parts and obsessing about them, sometimes for days and even weeks.

Yes. That. All of that. Only in my case the span of time is decades. Twenty years later and I still obsess about that birthday party. The guilt, shame, and embarrassment is as fresh as if it happened last week. It sometimes still keeps me up at night no matter how many mattresses I lay over top of it. That is how pervasive social anxiety is. (For a funnier example of my anxiety, click here.)

You can imagine that this kind of self-punishment doesn’t make socializing easy for me. It’s sometimes hard to leave my house. The dread of socializing has nothing to do with the nice people I will visit or the good time I know I’ll have. It’s about the panic that I’ll mess up and have yet another event in which to fret over for eons. Sometimes the stress I feel at the onset of a social interaction is so high I’ll preemptively blurt out something rude just to relieve it. A technique that often results in bad first impressions.

For a long time I thought everyone shared my fear. When I started telling people about it though, I started fearing I was the only one. Others would try to help me by saying things like Just don’t worry about it. (Non-worriers are an alien species to me. Don’t they know that ceasing to worry isn’t like closing floodgates on a dam? ) Worriers have to process through it. It’s similar to the routines people with OCD undertake to quell their anxiety. Worrying is my version of checking the stove exactly a dozen times.

Before I found Erika Hilliard’s words I’d make myself feel terrible over and over again. Now I just read through the paper on my nightstand when I start feeling the anxiety and it acknowledges my feelings. It reassures me that it’s natural and useful to regret things, but it should never damage my self-esteem. After all I would never harp on a friend for 20 years for an adolescent mistake. Why am I harping on myself?