March 30, 2015
On a February morning six years ago, as a packed Q train shrieked into the Union Square subway station, I realized I was going to throw up in front of an audience. It wasn’t the first time. The doors parted and I made it past the commuters to the big black trashcan before I was contorted over it on my tiptoes, retching into the abyss.
I tried to vomit demurely, to convey through body language and the ingratiating bright red bow on my hat, that I was not the sort of person who puked in public. To whom I was trying to defend myself, and why, did not matter: I was not in my right mind any more than I was in my right stomach. I was in the throes of an anxiety attack.
People pushed by on either side as I lurched over the trashcan, emptying my wretchedness into it. The trashcan seemed resigned, like, Someone throwing up in me? Must be Tuesday. Guilt bubbled up with the bile, since I try not to be a nuisance, even to objects. Suddenly, a guy in a blue button-down shirt broke free from the pack and came toward me. Over my roiling gut, my heart fluttered with equal parts fear and hope. His eyes reflected his own mix of disgust and boredom. He reached the trashcan. He tossed his coffee cup into the same black hole I was filling with my breakfast. He walked on.
Now that, I thought as he disappeared, is a New Yorker.
By some definitions, a New Yorker is anyone who was born or has lived here at least ten years, but that does not capture the existential nature of the identity. When I moved to this city a decade ago and recognized the city for what it was—a smoke-belching, horn-honking, tear-it-down-build-it-up-bigger, only-sentimental-about-itself Monster Island—a New Yorker was anyone who knew more than I did, like the banker who scolded me when I said I lived in “the Village” rather than “the East Village,” because how would anyone be able to give me restaurant recommendations unless I was sufficiently precise, or the six-foot-tall transsexual cat lady in army boots who had been squatting in the same Avenue C tenement since the 1980s and who showed me with equal enthusiasm her rescues and her scars.
I spent my first weeks in the city in tears, dodging people, trying not to provoke their ire, though sometimes I could not help it. Once, in a hurry, I got lost in Times Square. I flagged down the first stranger I saw and asked how to get back to Seventh Avenue. He looked me up and down, and then cocked his head with an expression of amused disdain. We would still be standing on Broadway and 43rd Street, him twisting the knife, me dying slowly, if the woman with him had not intervened. “Seventh and Broadway criss-cross in Times Square,” she said. “See? So Seventh Avenue is one block over that way.”
As I scurried away, I thought better of bothering strangers in Times Square, and going to job interviews where HR people asked if I was stupid (one head of HR told me she was “tired of hiring people who turn out to be stupid,” by way of a segue). I was supposed to be tucked away in a safe MFA program in Boston. Because my boyfriend got into NYU Law, I turned down the ivory tower and instead agreed to seek employment on Monster Island. Soon I had a job working for one native New Yorker and a room to live in within the walk-up apartment of another. Both situations occasionally gave me “the shakes,” which is how my family referred to the condition that made me, throughout childhood, tremble like Pompeii and then erupt: in flowerbeds and airports, in school and on the bus, in front of a church once and all along the route to summer camp.
The shakes are how I learned that God doesn’t exist, or at least doesn’t care about us any more than toilets do, because no one has ever prayed harder to feel better than I prayed as a 9-year-old, knees chattering against the tile. Nothing changed. I still threw up at friends’ houses, in hotel rooms, in my own bathroom at 4 a.m. for no reason. My parents hoped I would grow out of this particular quirk, and because I did too, I was 24 years old and engaged to be married before I sought help.
Various psychiatrists explained my shakes as panic and anxiety attacks, since, as it turned out, I suffered from both. One doctor tried to cure me by scrawling “I am an adult and can handle whatever comes along” on a prescription notepad and handing the torn off sheet to me with a satisfied smile. He gave me Xanax too but told me I wouldn’t need the pills; the placebo effect of carrying them around with me would suffice. A month later, I returned, because the pills were a start but the mantra a waste. Changing gears, he recommended Effexor with such hearty, repetitive tone-deafness that I asked, at last, if the company paid him. He acknowledged that it did.
Determined to avoid him, I took my mental health into my own hands, searching my childhood for patterns and the internet for coping strategies. Try eliminating refined sugar, suggested one website. Huh. Late-night birthday cake at childhood sleepovers did often precede a 3 a.m. attack, as did orange juice at breakfast if I had a stressful test or car trip ahead of me. In case it would help, I gave up alcohol and put myself on a low glycemic index diet. Exercise, counseled another site. I took up running and yoga, although I was never able to ignore the idea that I must look ridiculous doing both. Take control. I bought a workbook called Mastering Your Anxiety and Panic. I tried massage, mindfulness, everything except hypnosis and only because no one seemed to believe that would work. It all helped—some. Perhaps living anywhere except New York City, lifestyle changes would have been enough.
Under the boot heel of a misfiring flight-or-flight response, I can neither fight nor fly. My body clamps down, unhappy and incapable. I become a quivering, sweaty mess unable to articulate ideas more complex than “Um” and “I’m sorry.” In a city that cannot abide passivity, that means that the very people I am scared of inconveniencing step in and help.
Being anxious on Monster Island for the past ten years has meant trying not to bother, or even draw the attention of, my important, confident fellow citizens; but ironically, because of my anxiety, I end up relying on the kindness of these terrifying strangers. That kindness, I have discovered, is as real and reliable as the Chrysler Building. I have never yet been abandoned by New York, not even at my most humiliated and disgusting. That February morning on the Union Square subway platform, after the man with the coffee cup confirmed my worst fears about the corrosive disdain that greets vulnerability in this city, a woman in comfortable shoes swerved over, put her hand on my back, and offered me a napkin. “Are you okay, honey?” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, gasping. “I’m pregnant.” This was not morning sickness, but she did not need to know. I hid behind my fetus, letting it shield me, hoping that even a monster would not go so far as to snarl at an unborn child.
Instead of snarling, however, she said, “It’s okay. Can I get you some water?”
After apologizing again I accepted. Soon she helped me onto a train and the shakes stopped and once again I could breathe.
“Anxiety is often misdirected anger,” my therapist said, when I secured one, roughly 15 years after my first panic attack. “What are you angry about?”
Over the course of my first decade as an adult, I lost several jobs, several apartments, my grandfather, my dog, my uncle, and, worst of all, my father. Strange men masturbated at me in public or, from nearby benches, at playgrounds full of kids. Strange women pushed me out of their way in crosswalks. Parents slapped children, children smacked parents. Nations blindfolded themselves in righteousness and went screaming off to war. But I was a woman in a society that believes women shouldn’t be angry, unless they have badass fantasy roles to play, like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Angry isn’t considered attractive for ordinary women. It had always been easier to be anxious and cute than angry and … otherwise.
When I first moved to the city and my bosses and housemate alike impressed me with their cruelty, my mother told me, If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to learn to drive like a New Yorker. Over time, I did. I negotiated a way out of that first job and that first living situation. I realized my boyfriend and I would be more comfortable with Monster Island at a slight remove and got us a new place across the river in Brooklyn. Making some accommodations, we stuck it out in the city, got new jobs, got married, got an apartment, begat a child, muddling through because the city was worth the stress. Apparently the city had been making me angry all that time, and I been repressing that anger, churning it from lemons into a poisonous but more socially acceptable form of lemonade.
Men lash out, someone told me once. Women lash in.
Our daughter, born in Brooklyn, rides the subway with us, and drinks the water, and frolics in the green spaces. She is more extroverted than both her father and me. At the playground, she is not above pushing a child who is blocking her way, and at dinner she might knock an unwanted piece of food out of my hand. Looking at her, I wonder whether monsters are born, drawn to their island, or made, from prolonged environmental exposure.
On November 4, 2008, when, overwhelmed with worry, I exploded on the curb north of Union Square, matchstick-figures tottered by me, giggling, unconcerned. I may be raising a native but I do not intend to raise a monster. Better someone made neurotic by inverted rage. And yet, I remind myself, those are not the only choices. The generosity of New York strangers has never failed me, not when I really needed it.
Squeezed into a Q train reading Caitlin Moran earlier this year, anxiety seized me again: My legs lost their solidity and my arms started to buzz from the elbows down. Blackness crept in on my vision. The doors opened at Union Square and I fled the car for the comparative safety of the platform. I crumpled, my back against a pillar, trying to breathe, and watched feet swerving by me. Heels, platforms, pinched-looking flats, more heels, all in rapid, flowing motion. Then a pair of comfortable shoes came to a halt as, once more, New York saved me.
“Are you okay?” she asked me, the lady in the comfortable shoes.
“I’m sorry,” I said, this time without even a pregnancy to blame.
“Would you like some water?” she asked, handing me her Pellegrino. “I’m sorry it’s fizzy.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, desperate with gratitude, giddy with the absurdity of trying to sip from oversize green plastic. Laughing at the anxiety made it recede, with a possible assist from the seltzer bubbles. The lady in the comfortable shoes, like her predecessor, smiled and melted away.
The woman with the seltzer remains my model of what a New Yorker can be. I am trying to raise my daughter in her image. To wear comfortable shoes. To hold her own with real monsters without becoming one. To stop for strangers in need and offer not just compassion but Pellegrino.
Note: The East Village apartment I used to live in was located half a block south of where last week's explosion tore through Second Avenue. I've been clenching Moishe's and Paul's and Gem Spa in my heart's fists, as though that could keep them, and my old neighbors, safe. I have cried, too, as I have seen picture after picture of New Yorkers running into fire to rescue each other, beholding the sight of what real New Yorkers do.
Photo credit: Flickr user martius