Through all the years I spent in L.A., until this very last one, I was a mirage. I looked accessible, relaxed, and confident; inside, I was completely unavailable.
It began when I ran here. I ran from New Jersey, where my mom and sister had almost died of the same minor ailment. I ran from 18 months of will-they-or-won’t-they, living at home and feeling stuck, freelancing in New York a few days a month and playing dress-up with people who all seemed to have their lives in order. I ran from my parents’ house, which was supposed to have been my refuge after a bad breakup but had become an ongoing nightmare. I’d had enough feelings, raw and exposed and sobbing, to last me for years. Seeing your little sister on a ventilator with a blood pressure of 40/20 will do that to you. So I completely shut down.
I didn’t tell anyone, of course. I didn’t call any of my friends in the middle of the night to say, “By the way, I’m not really going to be here for a while. I’m just playing, okay?” They didn’t know, for the most part, what had happened, and I didn’t fill in the blanks beyond a brief sketch. They knew the me I wanted to be again, the one from before, the one who had never experienced anything jolting, the one who was going to take over the world someday, the one who could laugh and crack jokes and dance with the best of them. And I willingly assumed the role.
I had a great time in L.A. I got to party, and I got to play, and I got to be a 24-year-old. No one seemed to notice that I had shut down emotionally, intent on making myself happy by avoiding entanglements and complications.
I’m sad to report that it worked. I almost never felt unhappy in that first 10 months. Inside, I was numb, but I hardly noticed. I was independent, getting promoted at work, going on dates, living alone and loving it. What I wasn’t doing was sharing my life — with anyone. I lost boyfriends and damaged friendships because, contrary to initial appearances, I wasn’t really there.
The universe tried to shake me awake several times, but I wasn’t having any of it. There were a couple of times when I thought I was ready to take off the armor, but I panicked at the last minute and pulled away. I didn’t want to feel, because I didn’t want to cry, didn’t want to end up in a sobbing heap on the floor ever again, didn’t want to make myself vulnerable in any way, at all. While I was in control, I could be happy.
I think the first chink in the armor was tai chi. When you’re moving through the forms of tai chi, you have to let go — it’s impossible to stay closed up in a tight, hard shell, even one that is hidden from other people. Tai chi is all about reaching out, flowing through motion, feeling. I was so not ready for it, and so surprised by it, and so amazed that I could be drenched in sweat and completely relaxed after thirty minutes of moving at a snail’s pace. I will forever be indebted to the friend who suggested I go to a class — even if he is a Republican. It was imperceptible, but I started to open up.
This year I took off the armor and let myself care about everything — the election, getting into grad school, other people. And I got hurt, mainly because I was rusty at the whole feeling thing and let things affect me too much. I sort of feel like a frog opened up for dissection. People walk by and poke and prod and it makes me feel uncomfortable and I wonder if I should just get off the table. It would be easy to close myself up, because I’m not pinned down, no one is making me do this. I could fit together the flaps of skin and go back to partying and distracting myself and shutting myself off.
But I don’t want to. I don’t think that’s what life is about. I think that if I close up I lose something irreplaceable. I think the challenge is to stay open, in the face of all the bad shit that happens, to say, I am a human being and I want to experience whatever life has to offer me. I want to feel to my fullest capacity, even when that means getting upset, because I am alive and, hey, my heart does work after all, and my brain works too and there are lots of things I could do with it that maybe would be helpful, so I think I should try to help. I care. I want to believe. And I’m not giving up.