If Not There, Then Here

My anxiety over the last couple of weeks has been fearsome. Fearsomely fierce. It has been a formidable and fearsome experience with fierceness.

It has been the kind of anxiety that traps you on the couch under your adult blanky (which you pretend is a regular old grown-up blanket for keeping your knees warm when it's cold in the house) watching CSI episodes just to divert your brain from thinking anything at all, taking muscle relaxants to beat down the burning tension at the base of your skull, and then throwing some red wine on top of it, because what the hell, why not.

This anxiety, though, when compared to the anxiety I experienced throughout my childhood, is nothing. This anxiety is based on a generalized fear of the unknown and can be slept and drunk and hot bath-ed away. As a child, as now, I spent long hours under blankets in my bedroom, but then I felt completely helpless in the face of a suburban isolation I was too young to effectively escape.

My options were few. Aside from my elementary school, there was a mall nearby, but the mall was small and had few stores, and I wasn't social enough to want to parade up and down it with the other girls. Those girls scared me with their tight jeans and black eyeliner and new breasts. I was small for my age, underdeveloped and hoping to stay that way, neatly tucked away from the complications my biology was threatening to present.

My neighbourhood was a five-minute bike ride from the edge of the city. I would pedal alone out to the low-brow golf course that had been sodded at the outskirts, but the interior of the city was off limits until I was older. If I wasn't going to a friend's house or being ferried to a church event, my options for seeing anything other than the flat-affect suburban nest of crescents and culs-de-sac were close to nil.

A rising sense of claustrophobia would engulf me when the winter sun would set at five o'clock, and the only place I could go was home. I would walk to my house past houses that all cost the same and cars that all looked the same and trees that were all the same age, and I would imagine the long hours ahead of me until bedtime.

My anxiety then often took the form of a voiceless horror. I knew little outside of my life in this suburban neighbourhood, but I still felt stifled, suffocated. My little ten-year-old heart strained against my chest some nights when I sat on the roof of my house, locating Venus in the night sky. Venus proved that there was something else, that this binding sameness perhaps did not apply everywhere. If Venus was far away, then I could be far away, too.

At school, most of the girls used the same hairspray and wore the same kind of brassier. The boys played on the same teams and had the same sneakers. You were cool if your parents took you six hours away to the West Edm0nton Mall. We defined ourselves by bright erasers in unconventional shapes, designer jeans, who forced who to chew tin foil at lunch, who picked who for teams in phys. ed. class, personal graffiti on brand name notebooks, slip-on sneakers, and who was allowed access to the big kids jungle jim at recess. It was all bullies and conspicuous consumption.

The whole thing felt forced, and it went against my sensitivities. There was a thin, brittle layer of celluloid between that construction of artificial sameness and the reality that burgeoned beneath, and I sometimes felt a wild and manic giddiness, the kind that has you grinning and rolling your eyes like speed freak, at the thought of the whole damn thing crumbling apart. I imagined everyone's skin would crackle open, revealing some kind of heaven-sent internal combustion that would reduce the whole mess to ash and clean everything away in one horrific swoop.

It was as though the desperate need in the 1950s to affect placidity after World War II were still alive and well in the early 1980s, wrapping us all up in the protective cellophane of wide empty streets, white faces, and a God who values prosperity and clean hands.

Raised to think of God as the kind, white, benefactor in the sky, I grew to have a keen sense that I was, at my base, universally unloved. A loving god would never put me in that girl's body; a loving god would never allow this hell of homogeneity that I had to call home; a loving god would have struck me down when he had the chance when I was nine. Even he had been made too orderly, too clean, too kind to be believable, and I resented the sweetness with which he was presented to me.

I was angry both because I was different and because that difference was continually being folded into the more acceptable shapes of "girl" and "christian" and "classy" and "thin" and "pretty", when what I wanted was to be "person" and "intellectual" and "quirky" and "smart" and "desirable". I wanted so badly to become this person that I could feel inside me, but I capitulated too often to the implicit demands of my culture. I did not know how to face down what felt like a tedious hegemony of uniformity.

So, I didn't, for the most part. I went to church (when I had no faith), I went to school and achieved adequate grades (even though the work was below my abilities), I eventually took to ironing my hair and wearing mascara (when it actually made me feel less desirable and embarrassed by my own efforts), and I even went to a religious boarding school (which was easier to float along with than it would have been to argue against).

I guess I'm still angry about all that. I am angry that I was so unhappy throughout my childhood. I am angry that no one listened to me. I am angry that I didn't make anyone listen to me. I am angry that I let myself float along the surface of things rather than stand my ground. I am angry about bullies and conspicuous consumption. I am angry that I was raised in a culture that pushed a version of God that was so bound up with the myth of the relationship between class, wealth, and moral superiority. I am angry that I might still have felt this way even without all these particular mitigating factors.

No, angry is not the right word. Indignant disappointment is closer. A part of me wants to believe that we are not so restrictive when it comes to our children and each other. I want to think that fear and the desire to escape it does not drive us to avoid anything outside an arbitrarily set norm. What I want to believe and what is actual, though, are two different things, and this idealist has a difficult time accepting that.

Curling up on the couch now, with red wine and the television, is an indulgence, and part of me revels in the excuses I use to wallow in self-pity. The anxiety I feel now still comes from feeling the world is an inherently inhospitable place, but it is not as overwhelming. I have more choice as an adult over where I will work and with whom I will socialize from day to day. I know myself better than when I was a child and am better equipped to deal with my reactions to things.

Do I have a constricted feeling in my throat when I go to a church? Yes. Do I have a kneejerk emotional response when I am in a decidedly suburban neighbourhood? You bet your ass. Does my heart ache when I see pictures of myself as a ten-year old? Absolutely. Aside from accruing a few issues, though, there was something I learned from slogging through the work of living two disparate existences, one internal and one external, throughout my growing up years: I learned to fuck it. I learned that if I stayed hidden within an externally acceptable shell, I became a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. I learned that I am not two things, one for you and one for me. I am one thing. I am a million things.

When I am crumbling with anxiety now, I at least understand that I am a worthwhile thing. I can sip my wine and cry into the blanket and whisper how sad I am to Oskar the cat, because I no longer live under the restrictions of my childhood. I no longer worry that my God does not love me or that I was somehow born wrong or that I was not popular because I was unlikable.

And so, I can do this. I can write about it and make it through. I remember that the child I was is not the adult I am. I don't have to look to Venus for proof of a place other than this. If I am sometimes a little shaky, a little crumbly in places, I am at the very least no longer there but here, where I am heard and loved and accepted in a way that I never thought I would realize.