Thursday, January 12, 2006


I woke up this morning about 10 minutes before the alarm and just lay in bed, wide awake, my mind racing. It's rare that I wake up before the alarm, and anymore, rarer still that I can't get back to sleep once I wake in the middle of the night. But getting to sleep has always been a task for me, and lately it's been almost impossible. I lie awake in bed, in the dark and my heart starts racing and my mind soon matches its pace. My stomach starts gurgling too. And of course, it doesn't help that I have two cats crawling all over me. Some nights I sit up in bed, and just want to cry, but I can't cry properly and instead I just tremble with dry sob in the dark.

It's anxiety, pure and simple, that's preventing me from sleeping. It comes in waves and cycles. I hate it. I hate that I'm probably not dealing effectively with what is causing me stress. (work, faith, school, life, etc.) But I'm not sure how to, or if I can. The other night, as I was sitting up in bed, angry and all acid refluxed out, my honey stroked my back and said, "It's because of living here." I was a little confused. Was he talking about our house - specifically the stomach churning process of trying to buy it in this inflated market? I love our house and suggested that wasn't it. "No," he said, "I mean living in this area." This kind of surprised me. He and I have bounced our frustrations with this area off of each other, but it was the first time (that I can remember) that he directly attributed mental health issues to living here.

I love living in a major metro area on the East Coast, but I can't do it forever, and it doesn't come without a cost. While I have always something of a worry wart, I can't remember ever living with a constant dread, a constant necessity to hold my breath. I'm sure a lot of that comes with being a "grown up," but I wouldn't really know for sure as most of my post-college life has been lived out here. The same fast paced energy that makes the metro-East so exciting can also end up being suffocating. It moves too fast, sometimes. And you're judged by your career or your career choices - even more so, I think than you are in general America. A friend of mine on the West Coast who did business in New York on occasion once told me he felt like on the East Coast society judges you by your marketability. This, he further opined, might be why motherhood before age 35 or 36, in the East, is kind of quietly disdained. If you crank out a screamer before 35, you're damaging your marketability, so why would anyone deliberately do that? I really couldn't agree more with him.

Strangers don't really look you in the eye here. Growing up in the Southwest, passing a pleasant smile to a stranger on the street was pretty much the norm. If you didn't exchange a smile, you at least looked the person in the eye. And banter with strangers was common. When we moved here, it was immediately apparent - pretty much the first day we pulled into town - that there is essentially no hospitality to or among strangers here. I learned later that people here are as nice as they are in the west, but it took several months to learn that. People don't extend themselves as readily. You wouldn't know that the person on the subway, across from you who looks like a miserable zombie and who always averts their eyes when you look at him could really be an awesomely warm person. (Ironically, I have found that there is a sort of city bus hospitality in this area. I think it comes from people being on routine schedules. Unless someone thinks they'll see you again in the same area at the same time, the chance of them extending a smile or sharing a joke is rare.)

Forget about strangers holding the door open for you, or thanking you for holding it open for them. The chance of either case occuring is probably one in ten. If you're lucky enough for a stranger to hold the door open for you, it's most likely that he/she kind of "accidentally" kept it open: ie, they let the door catch on their elbow for you because you were half a pace behind them. That's always what I love most about returning home for a visit. People - and granted, not every person you see - hold doors open for you, and they thank you, deliberately, not oh crap, I guess I have to say 'thank you'. The very first day we were in my home state - in a metro area whos population rivals that of many East Coast areas - a young gentleman held open a door for us, even though we were a good 10 - 15 paces from the door. It's such a little thing. But it's a dignity given.

I didn't know how much I loved the little dignities shared with strangers until I moved East, and didn't get them on a regular basis. It's like not knowing how much you appreciate the sun until you move to Nome, Alaska and don't get to see the sun for 6 months, and even then you're under 10 feet of snow. Little dignities, like sunshine, sustain you more than you know. The locals here aren't as affected of it, I think. Just like a native Nomer probably doesn't miss the sun, because she really doesn't know it, or thinks it's a seasonal abberation. A Nomer visiting Arizona may really like the sun while she's there and she's aware of the sun's lack, when she goes home, but she doesn't complain about it. Native or deeply implanted East Coasters are aware of the lack of little indignities, but they don't complain about it. (The little indignities being so important reminds me of "Divorce Song" by Liz Phair. It's not the big things that kill us.)

But, unlike the sunshine, they can do something about it. We can choose to be more proactively friendly to strangers. We can choose to hold the door open for someone. We can choose to thank the person who holds the door open. We can choose to let the person in the crosswalk cross, as opposed to speeding up to mow him down. But few of us choose to do any of these things. Much as I've tried to maintain the manners taught me and modeled for me from my Southwest upbringing, I find myself becoming more East Coaster crumudgeonly. I dodge eye contact more often, I offer smiles to strangers no longer. My banter with strangers anymore is far more constrained than it used to be. I find myself second guessing everything.

And shadowing all these minor daily indignities is the specter of 9/11. If my daily anxiety is fueled by strangers ignoring eachother, then the furnace that processes that is the threat of terrorism. I think we feel it more out here than folks do anywhere else in the country. We were hit. We have two bruised cities on our shores, and we've probably had more closed tunnels, arrested neighbors and "strange backpack on the bus" threats than anyone else. One can argue that a lot of it is just hype perpetrated by a fear mongering administration, but the truth of the matter is, when your city has a hole its skyline, when your farm has a scar across its field and your fortress has a charred maw, it doesn't matter who is governing you, there is a whole different perspective you operate under. Victims of violent crimes are many times forever changed, forever more suspicious. The East Coast was the victim of a violent crime. We can't help but live with a sense of suspicion for the rest of our lives. I don't care how many times we tell ourselves, if we're afraid then the terrorists have won. Try telling a Gulf Coaster, a few years post-Katrina, not to fear thunderstorms or high winds or heavy rain. Try telling them that their fear of a simple tropical storm is irrational. They have scars. Those of us who were on the East Coast for the attacks have scars. Mine is the engine of my anxiety.

I love where we live. I do love the East Coast. I feel very much that this is exactly where we should be at this moment in our lives. I love the ethnic plurality of the area. It's my favorite part of living here. While most metro areas in the US are more ethnically diverse than they were even 15 years ago - I'm constantly surprised by how ethnically diverse Texas is becoming - most places don't have the ethnic equanimity (?) of the East Coast. While in most metro areas, there are two or three main ethnicities or nationalities peppered with other more "minority" minorities, the East Coast is almost nothing but a pepper mill. The kid in class next to you is just as likely to speak Kikuyu as Spanish. I LOVE that about living here.

When the time comes for us to move west again, I will miss the symphony of languages on the subway. But when we're west, I'll feel freer to smile at those having a foreign conversation in public.


Not with a bang but a whimper said...

[Preface: I didn't actually read this entire post, just the first couple paragraphs].

I made a comment in my blog this morning (which is protected, so only contacts on that system can see it) regarding almost an identical issue. I am similar: I have trouble going to sleep and once I get woken up I rarely fall back asleep.

I've become accustomed, however, to Katie getting up around six (usually only an hour or so after I've gone to bed) and am usually able to get a light sleep after that. This morning, however, I had really bad anxiety and wasn't able to make even a half-assed effort to go back to bed.

It is really peculiar because while I've had bad anxiety in the past and know how debilitating it can be, those were always times that related to some direct and obvious cause that more than justified the response (even if it wasn't healthy). Today, though, I have absolutely nothing in my life that might be seen as stressful so it really makes little sense.

Have you seen the movie Insomnia? (Either the original Swedish version or the new Robin Williams remake). Both are good movies; the remake was by Christopher Nolan and while I was skeptical of a remake so shortly following a nearly flawless film (apparently only to spare US audiences the pain of watching a film with foreign actors and subtitles) the new version ended up being true to the story and included an interesting twist that added too the movie without losing the concept in the process.

Molly Malone said...

I am sorry to report that I actually FELL ASLEEP watching Insomnia (the US version). But I'm one who loves reading subtitles. Perhaps some day I'll see the Swedish version and it'll keep me awake.

Not with a bang but a whimper said...

Oh, the irony...