We are standing in the Greyhound hotel – me and Jeremy and Trelawney and Amit and some other people who’s names I don’t remember and a thousand other gay people or Drag Race fans, sweaty bodies pumping to the music (some house Kylie remix with the bass pumped up to full) – as we wait (hour one of two approaching completion) for the drag queens to take to the stage. My skin crawls with bugs, bugs with pincers and flaming skin wreaking havoc over the topography of my body, as one, two, three, five, ten drunk people stagger past me, cruelly elbowing me and grabbing onto my shoulders as they attempt in vain not to spill their hot pink “special” cocktails on the other party-goers around them. To my left, a fat, black machine pumps out wave after wave of smoke. To my right, an incessant rainbow strobe of coloured laser cutting through the smoke and highlighting the waxed hair of the gays surrounding me. With a shudder, one of the lasers – green, as green as the grass of my childhood home, or perhaps as green as sick I feel – shoots me in the iris of my one good eye. I step back involuntarily, my body lurching despite myself and stomach twisting in gleeful, terrible knots as I attempt to find my balance.
“Hey,” a man behind me says. “Watch it.”
So, I think. When my neurologist said not to put myself into situations where my brain was likely to get over stimulated, this was probably what he was talking about.
It is mid-February, perhaps, some time in the veritable thick of my rehabilitation towards a normal life. I am on a tram, off to meet a friend at the State Library, when the tram stops, sudden and shrill as its wheels squeal to a stop.
A beat, and the doors slam ominously open. I pause, for a second, looking despite myself out of the doors. Before me I see like a zombie horde of a good sixty plus commuters, dressed to the nines in suits and ties and general formal attire not particularly appropriate for the act they’re currently engaged in: shoving their fellow commuters out of the way as they relentlessly pound the pavement, all in an attempt to be the first one on the tram. My heart is paused in the dull half-light of the evening, on the verge of something big, it’d seem, shuddering in a manner slightly reminiscent of that famous glass of water in the first Jurassic Park film, right before the T-Rex enters and tears them all to pieces.
The commuters enter the tram, hustling, bustling and all engrossed in inane conversation so that I only catch snippets here and there – “so then, like, I didn’t even make it, l mean, I couldn’t”, “well that’s what she said to me”, “I just don’t want him to die but it’d be great if he’d find employment elsewhere, y’know? – and my arms and shoulders are slammed as each business-goer hustles past, apparently capable of a high-powered CBD job but incapable of respecting boundaries or personal space. As each one enters, they seem to take away a little more of my air, so that all I can see is a forest of suited legs and belts and shirts and body odours, and I think to myself – you’re only two stops away, only two stops away, you can do this, you can DO this – and I stare out of the window into the dying light of the afternoon and imagine that I’m out there, that I’m in the world and not caught on this tram where my throat, it’d seem, is closing over and my face is sweating and I’m incapable of regular respiration. Fuck it.
The tram doors slam shut after the driver screams a healthy “PLEASE GET OUT OF THE WAY OF THE DOORS, PLEASE”, but I stand up and shove, push, pull and elbow the offending bodies in between me and the outside world where things are calm, not claustrophobic and completely and hopefully unthreatening. I can feel someone’s stinking hot breath and body heat on the nape of my neck. We’re still at the stop; we haven’t moved.
“Excuse me!” I yell, my voice coming out far higher and more childish than I’d intended. “Could you let me out please?!”
And we’re in Abbotsford now, after a reading of a play I’ve written and directed, and the world around me is raw and bright and white.
“What’d you think?” a friend asks me. “Did it go how you wanted it to?”
A beat, and it feels as though my skull’s about to crack open and unleash a buzzing swarm of worrying wasps upon my surroundings.
“Huh?” I ask.
“The play,” my friend says. “The one we just saw the reading of. The one you’ve been rehearsing all day. The one you wrote. Was it what you wanted?”
I pause and try hard to think, think, how it went – how my friends who’d agreed to read for this play had gone, how my direction had gone, how it’d been received. My mind is blank.
“Oh,” I say.
“Yeah,” I say.
All around me is white mist and a scream, it’d seem, building relentlessly up – not inside me, specifically, but like the mist, around me.
“It was… good?” I say. Truth told, I don’t remember. I haven’t enjoyed one second of the night, not for lack of trying.
It’s later, now, and I’m home and sitting at the kitchen table and my heart rate is finally slowing and the mist around me is clearing and I can see and feel the truth of my surroundings.
Hey, I think to myself with sudden clarity. It doesn’t really matter whether they liked it or not, does it? So long as you’re happy with it, who gives a fuck? You put in more than a year’s worth of work, so if someone doesn’t like it, that’s not your problem.
Yeah? I think, mildly aware that I’m responding to myself like a legitimate crazy person. Yeah. Who, indeed, gives a fuck?
THINGS I’VE SAID THAT HAVE COME BACK WITH CRUEL IRONY TO BITE ME ON THE ARSE #137:
“Oh, just shut the fuck up,” I say. It is a few years ago, and I am in my undergraduate course, and probably inebriated, given the pugnacity with which I speak. “Just shut UP. Like, ‘oh noooooooo, I’m anxious, oh my godddd, I’m triggered, please help!’ Try actually living life. Life won’t give you a free pass no matter how much you think you’ll be triggered without it. Just get your shit done and fucking deal with it.”
A friend of my mother’s had open-heart surgery some ten or fifteen years back. Little did he know, as we do now, that that length of time spent under anesthetic – some three to six hours in total, Google informs me – can cause a violent and sudden increase in the body’s “fight or flight” responses, producing, in turn, an intense amount of cerebral overstimulation, and causing the body to, for lack of a better term, freak the fuck out.
The friend figured this out on a trip to Rome, when a passing parade (for some festival or other; I’m clearly fantastic and Very Good at listening) came blasting down the street they were standing on.
FUCK. HELP, his brain had screamed, and with his wife had quickly retreated to a tiny nearby alleyway as the parade vociferously passed and tourists and locals alike scurried by like terrified and dirty rats crawling over each other. Help, his brain had bleated again, weakly.
It took, apparently, a good two years for his brain to learn to not overstimulate and just take in the world surrounding him like a normal human’d do. If we take that as an indicator for my situation, hopefully by the time I’m 28 I’ll be able to crowd-surf with reckless abandon.
He had fallen to his knees, heart racing, temperature rising, and prayed, in that moment. Prayed to a god he did not believe in to let him know what the fuck was going on. Prayed for a clear heart, a clear head, and a pulse that paid attention to the rest of his body. Prayed for freedom. For mental clarity.
I haven’t prayed yet, but I’m getting closer with every passing day.
Fuck, I think, the bile in my throat and head rising hot and hard up high, higher, towards my temples as I begin that all-familiar process of sweating from the face and feeling on the verge of big, fat, dumb tears. I get off the bus, now fairly certain I’ve gotten on the wrong one (or the right one going the wrong way) and as I get off I open up Google Maps.
In the depths of the computerized map, sitting plain and clear in Arial Bold or somesuch, is: ANNANDALE. And some nine or ten inches below it, off the scale of my iPhone map and good ten kilometres away in actuality, is a small red pin dot, and next to it: NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF DRAMATIC ART.
I have lived in this city for the better part of a year, certainly for enough time to get my damn bearings and not be making stupid mistakes like the one I’ve just made.
But there we go, I think. I’ve just made it. And I don’t know what the fuck to do.
Hands shaking, I extricate my phone from my pocket and open a text-message window. I type:
Help. A few seconds, a reply:
My hands and fingers spasm with fear and shame and idiocy as I wrestle out a reply. I got on the wrong bus or the one in the wrong direction and only just realised and I have no idea what to do and oh my god I feel so fucking stupid. Hit send. Then: I’m an idiot. I think I’ll have to get a cab ‘cos I have no fucking clue how to get back.
Just get the bus in the opposite direction?
My brain spasms and starts to melt. Hyperventilation is imminent. I wipe my eyes as they continue to leak tears across my face.
I can’t do that. I’ll just fuck it up again.
I call the cab. Half an hour later, it’s all okay – minus my bank account – and I’m on my way back to safe ground.
I feel like such a dickhead.
The reply: You’re safe and okay and where you need to be. I mean, sure it cost a bit of extra money, but you’re fine. Stop beating yourself up.
“It’s not amenable,” my psychiatrist says after I’ve told her of the above incidents, my heart speeding up with the reality of the terrible memories. “You can’t control it."
“Is there anything I can do?” I ask.
“There’s something called Sensoral and Social Desensitisation,” she says. I imagine brain-injured me in a dark room with a hostage-victim black hood over my face, and shudder involuntarily.
“It’s par for the course for people with brain injuries to just not go out at all. I mean, yes, you’ve been going well, but if you’re going to go somewhere and hyperventilate and stress because you can’t handle it, maybe it’s time to stop going to things.”
A dull moment, and the reality of what she's saying – and all it means for my social life, which has never been particularly burgeoning – sinks in.
“Or, if you know you’re going somewhere where there’s a large group of people – particularly people you don’t know, or an important situation that you’re going into – shut your eyes and breathe deep and try to release all those thoughts,” she says. “It’s kinda wanky but it helps. Not as much as removing yourself from the situation, but more than doing nothing.”
Yep, I think.
“I suppose it’s about being present in the moment; not letting these thoughts control you.”
Easier said than done.
I’ve always felt social anxiety on some level – afraid of people I don’t know, of connecting, properly, human to human, in person, even actively pursuing friendships or people I want to be friends with, for fear of looking like an idiot, or desperate, or lonely, or like a desperate, lonely, idiot – but it has unequivocally gotten worse since the events of last year. If before I felt a slight pang of fear, confusion or concern, now I feel a definite knife stabbing at the heart of me and twisting, blood pumping, heart racing. If someone doesn’t choose to spend time with me, the combination of my overactive imagination and overactive anxiety makes it into a personal slight, fuelled by hatred and disdain for my person.
“Hi,” someone might say to me.
“Hi,” I might reply. Well done, my brain’ll spit. Good job, dumbfuck. And that old familiar heartbeat racing, with it, grabbing my pulse and twisting, turning me every which way it pleases.
I’m not sure where to go from here, but I feel like this is a start.
“Naming the monster,” my friend Kristina and I have talked about in rehearsals for a play I've written, of a character deep in denial; a character also with a brain injury (because apparently when I write plays, I'm psychic, or at least cruelly ironic). I guess that this is my attempt to do so. To those whom I was sarcastic towards in the earlier iteration of my brain – if you actually had anxiety, I’m very sorry. If you didn’t, now, doubly fuck you, because some people DO have anxiety and it’s not fun. Like, seriously. To those who’ve bandied about the phrase “I’m so glad you’re okay now!”, thank you for the vote of confidence, and I’m better than I was, but I’m also not okay. And to those – friends and family and so on – who’ve kept it in the forefront of their minds and attempted as best they could to cushion my apparent insanity as best they can? Thank you.