Scabs

I picked a hole in my forehead last night: leaned into the mirror and pinched my skin between index fingernails until something came out, sebum at first, then the red blossom of blood. First one pore, then two, then three spilled its contents, leaving a triangle pattern just above my left eyebrow that I knew would scab. And I almost moved onto another spot before catching my own eyes in the mirror and saying firmly, “stop.”

It’s the only thing that works. And mostly, I listen.

I backed away from the mirror. Swabbed the blood away with a cotton ball. But my heart was still pounding, my head still felt like a balloon about to burst.

***

My therapist explained my anxiety like this:

Your brain is hardwired to perceive everything as a threat because it’s safer – because then, when something happens, it’s braced for it. But that causes overall anxiety because you’re always waiting for something bad to happen. That’s when things like your catastrophic thinking happen – your mind has to create terrible thoughts just in case something goes wrong.”

She’s walked me through this before, but last session I asked to record because I kept forgetting. At the end of the tape, you can hear me ask, “But why?”

It cuts off before she answers, but apparently my doomsday predictions happen thanks to a combination of two things: genetic predisposition and lived experience. The first part makes sense – my mother couldn’t sleep at night unless my sister and I were safely under her roof. The second is more difficult to explain because nothing truly bad has ever happened to me. All five of my grandparents are still alive. My parents are divorced, but doting. My sister is lively and successful. I’m lively and successful. We grew up in suburbia, for fuck’s sake. Anxiety belongs to others – mine is foolish, groundless, absurd. And yet.

***

I remember being very young, six or seven at most, and convincing myself that my mother would die in a plane crash. (I almost couldn’t type that sentence because, well, what if it’s still true – an aside I have to make because, if I don’t, I’m certain it will be.) She was on a trip somewhere. And I don’t know how a six-year-old child even knew about plane crashes, but there she was in my mind’s eye spiraling downward. I remember curling up in hysterics, half convinced the vision was real, terrified I’d never see her again.

Last weekend, driving back from the middle of nowhere Massachusetts, I became convinced that the person behind the wheel would steer us into a lake. She’d been driving without incident for years, but we passed a body of water on the left, and I could see the wheel slipping through her fingers, plunging us into it with only a few seconds to react. I’d recently watched an online video about how to survive in a sinking car – had come across it on the Facebook page of some innocuous Washington Post-like source – so I knew what I’d do: scream at her to roll down her window just before we hit the water, while jamming my finger onto my own control. We’d swim out as the car hit the lake, losing all our belongings but still – remarkably – alive.

Failing that, I’d grab one of our Swell water bottles and ram it with all my strength into the top corner of my passenger-side window. She’d do the same on the driver’s side, the windows would shatter, and, well, same story. I spun this narrative out in my head for minutes, tweaking it in places until it was a parallel reality. When I finally snapped out of it and told the driver where my mind had gone, we both laughed.

***

In a recent essay, Katie Heany interviewed Andrea Petersen, the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety. “When [my anxiety] is really at its height, I call it an isolation chamber,” Petersen told her. “The worry and the visions of catastrophe and the unending monologue of doom can really block out the experience of being with another person.”

At times this rings true, but more often my anxiety is focused on the other person – on what they’re saying or doing that might subtly betray that they don’t really want to be here, don’t really want to be spending time with me. It’s an isolation chamber of a different sort, because voicing these thoughts would mean asking for constant reassurance that they’re not true. And who wants to have to reassure a crying child that her mother is not plunging toward the ocean along with thousands of pounds of fiery jet debris? Who wants to take seriously the possibility of driving into an icy lake, and to seriously convince the passenger it won’t happen? Who wants to tell a lover or a friend that they do like hanging out with her and Jesus fucking Christ will you please stop asking?

Heany’s anxiety, she says, manifests in the weird, frantic way she clutches her hands together. Mine comes out in the soothing, ritual reassurance of ridding my face of imagined dirt, and the tiny scabs on my forehead and cheeks that I dutifully hide with concealer.

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Scabs

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 2

ICYMI: last month I joined my first-ever writer’s group, which we dubbed — somewhat unoriginally — the lonely writer’s club. We meet every other week, so every two weeks I’ll post my free-writes from the group on here.

This week’s snippet isn’t from a prompt; it’s the story of something that happened to me that I’d been itching to write about all week. 

***

When I walked into the bathroom last Monday morning, I half-saw something flutter past my right cheek and land, with all the delicacy of a falling leaf, on the counter next to the sink bowl. It wasn’t a falling leaf, though. It was black and crumpled. It looked like a clump of dirty cobweb wound together into the shape of a lima bean. I had no idea where it had come from, but it seemed out of place against the marble. As I bent in to look closer, it began to move.

The chrysalis or sac or cocoon or whatever it was twitched, and out of it fell dozens of tiny worms. As I watched they wriggled forth like so many intestines, directionless and blind. They were about the length and width of the white crescent on my pinky fingernail and translucent, with pinpricks of darker pigment where the head should’ve been. They spread out, filling one corner of the counter, looking for dirt but finding only hard resistance. The sac sat still. My stomach turned, as though the skin of a corpse had been peeled back before my eyes to reveal a swarm of maggots underneath. A deep sense of dread washed over me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I wanted it to stop.

I’m used to killing bugs in our apartment. I’ve smushed spiders, stepped on centipedes, flattened roaches with my shoe, and even killed a bed bug I found crawling on my comforter, squeezing its flat shape between my fingers until it burst in a bubble of blood. (There’s still a stain on my sheets). The cat takes care of the horse flies. But the worms were different. I stood watching them, transfixed, not sure what to do.

The whole thing seemed so much like a dream that it took me a few minutes to come to the logical conclusion: I couldn’t let the worms grow to reach their final form in my bathroom. They had to die.

So I killed them. By that time they’d spread out across the countertop, so it was tough to find them all. But I pulled a tissue from the box on the back of the toilet and went after each of them, smashing them into the marble until the twitching stopped.

I wiped up the stains and threw the tissue in the trash. The pod I flicked into the sink and washed down the drain. Maybe I should’ve saved it. As soon as it had disappeared, the scene slipped from reality into fuzzy dream sequence — I became less and less convinced that what I’d seen and done had been real.

As the week went on and I read the news coming out of Baton Rouge and then out of Minnesota, I became less and less convinced that what I was seeing and hearing was real. It was someone’s sick idea of a joke. CNN was running repeats. I’d inadvertently switched from the news to a dystopian film. Anything, except that it had happened again.

I thought back to the burst chrysalis in my bathroom and the deep sense of foreboding that had accompanied it. Maybe omens only exist because we connected unrelated events in our minds. But maybe we notice the connection for a reason.

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 2

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 1

This Sunday I joined my first-ever writer’s group. We met at a coffee shop in Williamsburg, dubbed ourselves the Lonely Writer’s Club (I know, I know — pause for a moment to allow your eyes to return to a forward-facing position), and opened with five minutes to free-write. These days I almost never free-write, so it was a lovely release to pull up a word doc and just type. We meet every other Sunday, so afterward — should I deem it presentable — I’ll post my free-write here.

This week’s prompt was: Imagine the people who will live in your apartment after you. My response was: poor souls.

***

At first, they’re happy. They see the high ceilings and kick the crown molding to make sure it holds and marvel at the counter space, the big kitchen, the morning light in their bedroom with a tree — a real tree — outside their window. That’s late August. By November they begin to notice things they hadn’t before: the way the far right kitchen corner crumbles in on itself, each time making a tinkling sound like breaking glass. They begin to feel the drafts around the shoddy windows, and the heat hisses through the pipes like a haunting.

The stove hasn’t been replaced in years, and when either front burner is ignited, it all but explodes. New fissures in the ceiling appear, snaking toward the center with almost imperceptible slowness. When spring comes in March, so do the centipedes, sneaking out from beneath the bathroom sink and skittering across the floor. They’re big — two inches long — with the exoskeletons of creatures extinct since the Pleistocene. They take ages to die when Jill squishes them, their legs twitching long after their tiny heads (or tails, she can never be certain) are smashed in.

Then, in April, Cass wakes up with a bite. It’s small at first, but as the day goes on it spreads, leaving a blotchy red rash across her left thigh. It itches. And Cass, the level-headed one, starts to crack. And the Bushwick apartment they were so proud of — where she and Jill had thrown parties and stacked books cooked elaborate dinners — begins to collapse inward.

The Lonely Writer’s Club: 1