The Authenticity Experiment, the mostly anxiety anniversary edition. My friend Lesbiana Profundis, aka my secret weapon, laughs at my Rainman-like ability with dates. Take July 20th, for instance. A year and two days ago, I began the Authenticity Experiment. AE was a writing challenge for myself—to see if I could be authentic and tell the truth on social media. Here’s the lead from that very first post: “I’m posting this to kick off my own personal FB Balance Month. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use the FB to post our good news (book), our fun times (Cycle Oregon), our amusing insights (photos of grammar errors at the DMV), and cute cat videos. But we don’t really talk about the dark. And a culture that consistently ignores its dark winds up like…well, like us, where we are hap, hap, HAPPY all the time and we get our dark out by watching reality TV (or violent movies) and snarking on grammar signs at the DMV (not that good grammar isn’t important). But, often in the afternoon when it’s hot and I’m lagging, I find myself wanting to post how I really feel. But I don’t. Because I don’t want to be *that* person who complains on social media. This is stupid on my part, though. Then, my friend, the poet Fleda Brown, asked how her community feels when they log on to FB after a hiatus and see nothing but “Hail, fellow, well met!” And I thought, yes, if social media truly is to replace our back fence like my friend and mentor, Judith Kitchen, said, then we must start being more honest. Life is nothing but duality, both/and, light/dark, good/bad.”
So I started writing. And I did it every day for 30 days, even as my mom suffered multiple strokes and began actively dying. Even as my sister Sue and I were forced by the administration at my mother’s assisted living facility to move her to a new home just 10 days before she died because the first place didn’t want a death on its books. (Even as the summer literally heated up to weeks of 90+ degrees, I kept writing in my un-air conditioned condo. Each night I’d sit on the couch and type out a post, unusual for me because I do my creative work longhand. In fact, all of Objects was written in Moleskine journals with fountain pens. But AE has always been written electronically.)
Now, I am a Rainman with dates even without Facebook. But I can tell you that the “On This Day” feature of Facebook reminds me of even more things—things I’d often sooner forget. I would have said it was four years ago last week that I was in a similar inferno, wracked with anxiety, left just a few weeks earlier by the Opera Singer, driving to California to rest in the circle of my oldest friends, to stay a few days with my former in-laws (as if we could still maintain a relationship—I’ve learned a bit about boundaries since then). But apparently, it was actually a year ago this week that I posted “Hello, Redding. Dear gods yer hot.”
Two hours after that, I was in a rest stop, outside of Dunnigan, California (Bill and Kathy’s sadly closed, for those of you familiar with the I-5 and 505 interchange), in my packed Kia Soul, ruined with anxiety. When I say ruined, I mean in a car, in 100 degree weather, with all the windows rolled up, sobbing, crouched in the passenger’s seat rocking like, well Rainman, waiting for the Ativan to take effect. I had—I still have—a handbook for sanity that I’d created. One of the things in it was a list of people I could call when I freaked out. I called nine people on that list and nine voicemails answered my call. Clearly, self-rescue was the only option here.
Before I tell you what happened next, let me say I’d spent most of my adult life smug that I’d never needed anti-anxiety meds—especially because I come from nervous people. My grandmother took the earliest of anti-anxiety meds, Phenobarbitol, and then when Valium came out in the 60s, she started taking that. Her oldest sister, Bobby, first snapped—anxiously speaking—at 20, which would have been in 1915. I’m not sure if there was anything other than Lydia Pinkham’s Elixir to help Bobby, so instead, her parents put her on a slow boat to Europe as a “cure.” (I’m pretty sure I would never need another Ativan if someone put me on a slow boat to Europe as a cure. I’m just sayin’…) My mother and father both needed anti-anxiety meds. Like I said, my people are nervous.
For me, not taking Ativan or Xanax or Valium or Klonipin was like earning a reverse Girl Scout badge—the Coping Through Hard Times by Your Own Wits Badge. The Suck it Up Buttercup Badge. The Fuck You I Don’t Need Any of You People or Your Pity Badge. I thought not using these meds made me tough, tougher, more of a survivor. Even though my ex-wife and my friend Jerry love to tell the story about me fainting in a mop closet in the back of a coffee shop in the Clackamas Town Center, knees buckling, edges of the world going black because I felt certain there wasn’t enough oxygen in the tiny space. (I was 23.) Or fainting on a Pan Am 747 flying from Sea-Tac to SFO, a little easier because the seat cradled me as my head lolled back, then fell forward to my chest. (Again, a “lack” of oxygen.)
If you meet me in the real world, you know that I talk a lot about anxiety and Ativan. I talk about it because I think many more of us are anxious than not. Many more of us are assaulted by the digital information overload than not. Many of us worry—about oxygen (or the lack thereof), about money (or the lack thereof), about crime, about the orange Jesus, about antibiotic resistant bacteria, about our weight, our fame (or lack thereof), our legacy (you know what I’m going to say here), about, about, about. I think we need a more public conversation about our fears and the physical responses we have to them, and I’m happy to be the one doing it. But, apparently, I talk so much about anxiety and Ativan that a woman with whom I went on three dates accused me of being addicted to it.
Lest you worry, too, you should know, I need Ativan maybe once a month. Now, I have learned that huge public speaking events (like the OBAs or the Lammys) require me to take .25mg of Ativan, half of the smallest dose they make, so that I don’t lisp if I have to speak and so that I stay firmly grounded in my body. If you watch the videos from the OBAs and Lammys, you’ll see that in each, at the beginning, there is a moment when I grab the podium with my right hand because I am unsteady. Not quite on the verge of fainting, but starting to spin up. Who knows what would happen without that pill melting under my tongue? You know, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is known to be a low oxygen environment. But at parties or casual reading events? I’m typically fine without the chip of calm.
What Ativan did for me in that hot car in the rest area, four years ago yesterday, was let me take a step back from my fears and anxieties. It allowed me to see the incongruity in the words and behavior of the Opera Singer and realize that I was not actually crazy, I was just feeling crazy. By calming down my nervous system, it let my executive function take over and reason with myself. That reasoning included getting out of the car and walking until I felt grounded, then driving myself to the nearest nice hotel, cranking the AC, stretching out under clean sheets and watching 6 hours of cable television, thinking virtually nothing. The next morning, I got up, found a gym, worked out, and then drove on to the Russian River where I met my oldest friends. No Ativan required.
I started this post thinking about dates and my Rainman-like ability to remember what happened when and—before perimenopause—who said what and where they were standing in the room when they said it. I think my ability to remember when, where, and what are directly connected to feeling a need for control—and isn’t that just what anxiety is, too? At least mine? Feeling like the world is out of control? Or I’m out of control in the world? Or both. Especially now with all the ways we have to get information and contact each other.
That’s what my emergency handbook is: a way to be in contact with the world. Real live contact with real live people. And I think that’s why the Authenticity Experiment still works a year and two days later (got that timeline, LP?). It’s about the foibles and struggles of a real live person learning what she can and cannot control. It’s not pictures of risotto and sunsets augmented by Pixlr. It’s not a live video of me riding my bike through the Willamette Valley. (Okay, well there was a FB post of this, but come on, that was a good use of bandwidth and damn funny.) It’s not curated. It’s unexpurgated, in fact. There’s anxiety, and grief, and love, and heartache, and all of it happening each and every day, multiple times a day, all at once. Because this is life people. Let’s live it completely. Life is nothing but duality, both/and, light/dark, good/bad.
Like this? Want more? Order Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear directly from me. I’ll sign the book and send it your way. Easy peasy.