Monday, October 27, 2014

Waving, Not Drowning

A little over five years ago I moved to Chicago all full of notions about finally exploring the great unchartered territory that was “being myself”.  I had no real plan except to do anything and everything that struck my fancy, emboldened by a favorite quote from Andre Gide, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight, for a very long time, of the shore.”

Since I set sail to figure out what floats my boat upon moving to Chicago in 2009, I've had three different residences, I’ve taken any number of writing and storytelling classes, I’ve written some pretty good stuff, I’ve written some complete shit. I volunteered at a bookstore and hated it, I was a lackluster camp counselor for a bunch of teenage girls, I was a flustered and ill prepared presenter the next year for a different bunch of teenage girls, I ran three half marathons, I dated some people, I hooked up with some other people, I fell apart at the seams emotionally on about 96 separate occasions, documenting some of that in this space.

After five plus years of floating towards my future so called life, I have to admit, I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing. The trial and error of it all is some exhausting shit. I keep thinking, “I know I consented to lose sight of the shore for a very long time, but some days I AM DROWNING OUT HERE.”

Mid July marked the tail end of a depressive period that seemed to last an eternity and made every day feel like an endless procession of thankless drudgery uphill in cement boots. I recognized that I was in bad shape; physically, emotionally, all around. After months of saying I could turn it around, but not doing much about it, I continued to limp along doing the mandatory minimum to keep the boat afloat, all the while applying copious amounts of booze on it all to quiet the constant screaming inside of my head. I stopped talking. I stopped listening. I was at my all time most irritable, culminating in a passenger at work attacking me personally after I barked him that it wasn’t safe for him to use the bathroom. I offered him a stone faced apology as he told me repeatedly what a despicable person I was. It was an unprecedented and excruciating encounter for me, professionally and personally. I took some time off, only to return to a hostile co-worker, a 2 am wake up call, and the news that Robin Williams had taken his own life.

I stayed up most of that night, distraught, in shock. I bought “Reality...What A Concept” on vinyl as a 13 year old and played it until I memorized every word. It was one of my first tutorials on how to be funny. I was floored, like so many of us, that someone so talented and beloved could feel so desperately alone. It was also a reminder that depression is a disease that can also be a death sentence.

I didn’t wake up in a pool of my own vomit, but it was rock bottom enough for me.

I knew things had to change. Immediately.

I started running again as much as my feet would allow. When I couldn’t run, I walked. I started waking up in the morning and immediately GETTING OUT OF BED AND DOING THINGS. I made sincere apologies. I forgave people. I changed my work schedule so it was more conducive to having a better attitude. I began writing about things that were difficult. I went to story shows with kind hearted friends. I started taking Uber cars instead of the El train to make getting around less of a drain on my precious time and energy.  I stopped drinking entirely for awhile. I now am far more mindful about it, recognizing that using it as a crutch is all too often a hobbling act of self sabotage.

I’m pleased to report that things began to sail right along once again. But still, no sign of land. And even with things being more positive, I still get overwhelmed and exhausted by the feeling that I'm endlessly adrift.

But there have been some signs of progress. After a few weeks of running, I was able to run five kilometers without a walk break. As my Nike Plus app cheerfully reported that I did it averaging a twelve and a half minute mile, I immediately thought, “Ugh. You used to be able to run four times that far at a ten minute mile pace.” But then I told that voice to Shut. The. Fuck. Up. I had just run further than I had in a long time, after only a few weeks. That was worth a few snaps.

And with my newfound clarity, I had to admit that the last five years I’ve spent at sea not knowing what the hell I’m doing have been infinitely more satisfying than the 43 years that came before them, where I just stood on the land thinking I had it all figured out, smugly judging everyone else’s efforts with my arms crossed. That deserved some thunderous applause.

These were realizations that provided much needed relief.

But I also needed a sign. Everyone could use a sign now and then, right? Just a little sign?

It came, unexpectedly, at work. I went up front to the cockpit as one of the pilots had to use the bathroom and it’s our procedure that a flight attendant needs to be in the cockpit with the pilot who is left flying the plane, assumedly so if the shit hits the fan, I can help land the plane like Halle Berry in Executive Decision.

(If that ever happens I promise to recount it here in the BEST BLOG POST EVER)

It was late, we were tired and oh so ready to be in Same Old City With A Different Name already.  The first officer and I stared out into the vast abyss that is the night sky at 40,000 feet in awkward silence until a blue flash came across the windshield. Then another. The pilot turned to me and asked, “Have you ever seen St. Elmo’s Fire before?”


“It’s plasma formed by electricity,” he told me.

“It looks cool,” I said. He nodded.

We enjoyed a few more minutes of the light show, then I went back to work.

As I am a supreme dork with a mind that refuses to stop processing useless information, I had to research St. Elmo’s Fire after seeing it. I knew it was more than a bad Brat Pack movie with a terrible theme song, I knew it was a weather phenomenon, but I didn’t know much else.  I learned that St. Elmo’s Fire was named for Saint Erasmus, the patron of saint of Mediterranean sailors. Although some sailors thought the colorful balls of fire were a bad omen, many thought it was a sign of salvation from their saint, particularly since St. Elmo’s Fire occurs most likely when the storm is nearing its end.  

I took it as a sign that I have weathered the worst of the storm and perhaps I should begin concentrating on the joy of sailing. That I should embrace being in transition, and all the wondrous opportunities that still await me. That I should steal from Anais Nin's vision of being a mermaid, having no fear of depths, just a great fear of shallow living.

I'll let you go before I break into the chorus of "Come Sail Away" by Styx. Because that would be fucked up.

Enjoy your autumn, all. Hope to see you somewhere soon.