Monday, April 28, 2014

A Life Wasted: Anxiety, Regret, And Learning To Live Again

I don't know what I'm doing. Of course, most people don't. Others just seem to have the good fortune of delusional conviction. Or they're just good at faking it. When a cat demands to be let outside, it always seems to have a definite purpose in mind. Cats at the door seem so driven. They stand arrogantly and stare at you until you open the damn thing already! Then, when you open the door for them, they run outside like they're on a mission from God. They run across the threshold, out into the world... then they get halfway across the lawn or down the sidewalk and they stop, sit down, and lick themselves. They had no idea what they wanted to go outside for. All they knew was that they wanted outside. I envy their ignorant conviction. Hell, at least they have conviction.

I don't know what I'm doing. So I'm writing. I'm writing out what I'm going through. Maybe someone will be able to relate and it will help them. Maybe I'm just desperate for expression (well... the latter is definitely true since my music hasn't taken off just yet. Stilling taxiing, as it were).

It was almost exactly a year ago when my life turned on its head. I realized, honestly and without a hint of irony or exaggeration for dramatic effect, that I had no reason to live. None. The only people who wanted me around were my friends and family, and they'd be fine if I left. Oh, it would hurt because they'd miss me, but over time they'd heal, and they wouldn't have my bitching to deal with as often as they always have (Then again, they might miss the bitching. I'm told I'm a very entertaining speaker even when I'm miserable. Russians, eh?) I acknowledged that there were people who'd be sad were I to shuffle off the ol' mortal coil, but none of them truly need me. They have their own families, their own loved ones, their own lives. And as much as I know my family loves me, none of them need me.

I'd spent years making music. I'd spent years academically and experientially studying religion and spirituality. For what? To be ignored. The numbers of people who acknowledged my music were in the dozens at best, and the people who cared what I thought about the things I actually studied, even fewer. Now in hindsight, I realize that this was largely because I knew nothing about marketing or strategy, which is something I'm trying to learn now. But at the time, it hit me - I had no love life. No children. No career. No direction. Nothing. In fact, my friends and family were all I had. They immediately came to the forefront as my list of reasons not to give up. When I was feeling like Death would be a welcome visitor, I had to pull out mental flashcards of people who would be devastated if I walked off screen. And it helped. I never had a razor to my wrist or a gun to my head, but there were many days when constantly running down that list of people was very necessary. Still, that wasn't enough. As much as I appreciate them and how much I know they love me and I love them, I needed a reason to live that came from within me. What did I have to offer the world? Did anyone need me?

The choice came down to two things I've already mentioned: religion or music. I went through the process of applying to grad school for a Ph.D. program in the Philosophy of Religion. I got accepted. But while I was waiting for the acceptance letter, I had time to step back from the process and ask myself why I was doing it. And what answer came to me? I was doing it because of a future that lay far off in the distance. It was a vague hope and a dream I desired would happen were I to pursue this path. Specifically, I was aiming to become a professor of religious studies at a secular university for the income, job security, and very little else. Then I realized that half of the reason why I wanted to get a Ph.D. was to merely prove I could do it, and then turn my back on the pretentious world of academia. Half of my motivation was adolescent rage. That's not a very good reason to pursue 6 to 8 years of miserable, hard work. Besides, if I wanted to prove to the intellectual elite that I was better than them, I could do so without playing it their way.

My motivation was 50% my own cartoonishly immature ego, and 50% working toward a home and a future which may never come my way. I could work hard, I could buy a home, but that's not going to miraculously conjure up the love of my life or children. And so it dawned on me that I was pursuing a myth. I was living my life for something that was so far out of my reach that I could no longer fool myself. It wasn't tangible. It wasn't real enough. I saw through my own delusions. What was I left with? Music. Music was literally the only thing I had left to live for. So, naturally, as any animal does in a similar situation, I chose the thing that would keep me alive. I chose music. Adolescent rage wouldn't serve me well in academia, but it would serve me damn well in writing relatable songs.

At last, this pre-mid-life crisis had given me the direction I'd always needed. I finally decided it was time to face the demons who had been stopping me from pursuing what I'm actually best at. The fear of the industry, the fear of my own failures, and, worst of all, the fear of rejection had completely crippled me. I never allowed myself to make a move. I stagnated and settled for wasting time. I recorded albums, and I'd let them sit there collecting dust, heard by only a handful of people nearest to me. I had clipped my own wings.

The positive side of realizing this: I found a reason to live and the motivation to get my music moving again. The negative side: I dragged the river bed and turned up infinitely more junk than I'd bargained for. Alongside realizing that my fears had stopped me from pursuing my desire to write and perform music, they had also stopped me from pursuing love. I was brilliant, so brilliant, at writing about love, wallowing in bleeding-heart, poetic misery, but did I ever actually talk to girls or show interest in them? Oh no. That would've required courage. I flirted, but I did so in such a way that made damn sure that they would take it as a joke. I wanted them, but I kept them all at bay. Now, let me explain a little bit as to why that is. Or at least the parts I know.

From the age of 4 years old and on, I was skinny. Very skinny. You think I'm skinny now? You should've seen me then! I have muscles on my body now. They're lean and long. But they're there. I used to have only skin and ligaments. For literally as a long as I can remember, everyone, including most of my family and our family friends, would comment on my weight. My mother and one aunt are the only ones I don't recall giving me much shit (thank God for them). But from everyone else there was a constant influx of "Do you eat enough?"; "Boy, you need to get some meat on your bones!"; "You need to eat some red meat!"; etc., etc. and so forth. People in this country seem to be under the delusion that it's only impolite to mention someone's weight if they're fat. Wrong. People also seem to be under the impression that you can only damage someone's self-image if they're female. Wrong again. I didn't realize it at the time, but I'd developed quite a complex by middle school. The irony of course was that I wasn't unhealthy. I played sports, I was very active, and I ate plenty. I wasn't a sickly child, I was just skinny. I often didn't want to eat what I was given, but that's called being a picky and stubborn child, something that has very little to do with weight and more to do with... being a picky and stubborn child. And no adult in my life, again aside from my mother and aunt, seemed to think that perhaps constantly telling a child that there's something wrong with his appearance was going to cause problems. 

Middle school came and chiseled that complex right into my brain. The other boys' voices started dropping and then hair started sprouting on their faces. Not me. I still looked like a little boy for a year or two after most other guys were shaving and grunting like oafs. Result? Girls wanted nothing to do with me. When I was in middle school I had still had some foolhardy courage in me. The kind you're supposed to have as an adolescent. But I was rejected enough times that I started to believe I must be hideous. And after a lifetime of being told that there was something wrong with my appearance and that I should try to fix it, what the fuck else was I to believe? The game was rigged from the git-go, and, big surprise, I lost.

In high school, I had a chance to grow beyond those things. I could've conquered those demons and said, "Fuck you!" to the body haters. At a certain point I found a subculture that could roll with my physical deformities and psychological peculiarities. Goth was seemingly a good place for a guy like me. Goth girls liked me. But by that point I'd grown to so hate myself that I dismissed any girl who would be stupid enough to be attracted to me. Clearly there had to be something wrong with a woman who was into me. Fate rigged the game, and then I took over and ensured that Fate's plan was carried out.

I'd had anxiety since I was a child. It was around the age of 7 that I started having a panic attacks. They came and went over the years. In high school I never had any major panic attacks until junior year. But the anxiety came in other, subtler forms. Take the normal fear that every guy has when he's trying to ask a woman out and combine it with social anxiety and self-loathing from a lifetime of body-shaming. I was quite simply fucked. (Or rather, not fucked at all). Still, I had chances to beat it. I had outs. I had opportunities. But I, bleeding-heart martyr that I always wanted to be, instead chose to succumb to my fear and doubt. Step aside Fate, you ain't got nothin' on what I was about to do to myself!

All those years I should've been practicing doing what humans do: fighting, fucking, confronting, alleviating, peacemaking, interacting, practicing, learning, learning, learning, and what was I doing? Building up a wall between myself and the rest of the world (strange to think how much I loved Pink Floyd's "The Wall" in high school and I never once saw the connection). Once in awhile I'd try to break the chains. But it was so hard to come out of my little world in the first place that when I did and subsequently experienced failure, rather than taking that as a learning experience and toughening up, I'd run back in and rebuild the wall. By that point I'd started becoming very good at justifying my issues by masking them with other things (i.e. I was terrified of intimacy. So rather than own up to the fears and face them, I just convinced myself that I was choosing celibacy from some vague religious conviction that I didn't actually believe in).

I have lived my whole life too terrified to actually, well... live it. Over the last 6 months, so many of these things have come to light, so many people, so many times, so many places... regrets. I've always despised people who shout like damn hippies "Live without regrets!" as if they're completely enlightened Buddhas who truly see the wisdom and virtue of all pain and misfortune. Yeah, my ass you do. But I've also never been the kind of person who over-focused on regrets and past mistakes. I was hard on myself. But it wasn't the past I was always lamenting. Well, I'm sure feeling the past now.

I have so great and so many regrets that these last few weeks (I turned 30 this month) have been spent trying to just breathe normally. Sometimes it feels like my own life has me in a choke-hold and I can't get enough air. Half of the time I want to break free and fight back, the other half I want to collapse and let it kill me. Tension can't remain forever. Something has to give.

I want to go back and punch my 17-year-old self in the throat, either to wake him the hell up or kill him. Either way would probably lead to a better place than where I'm at right now. But part of being a coward is being too afraid to initiate change, and were God Himself to give me the chance to change my past, I'd probably even be too afraid to do that. But maybe not. My anger and desire for change is finally beginning to overwhelm my fear.

I can't know that for certain that my life would've been any better had I done things differently. It doesn't matter anyway, because it's all fantasy and illusion. There is no past. It doesn't exist. There's a Russian expression: Из песни слов не выкинешь - "You can't pull the words out of a song" - Meaning, everything in the past has led to this moment, and you either accept all of it, or you accept  none of it. At the moment, I'm having a hard time accepting all of it.

I'm plagued by thoughts of, "You should've have talked to this girl, you should have slept with that girl, you should've played that show, you should've listened to your dad," etc., etc. And those thoughts are useful only in that they haunt me and make me so miserable that I don't honestly believe I can ever go back to the cowardly complacency in which I'd lived in for so long. The kicker, then, is how to make the change happen. I've started to confront the fears of the music industry, and I'm doing it slowly because I want to do it right. Women are a whole different ball game of terror for me. There I feel like I have to move even slower because people are easier to scare away than business opportunities. I feel the same anxiety with women as I do with music industry problems, but it's easier for me to be charismatic and take rejection in professional forums because, although my music is very personal, the rejection is less personal. Of course, no rejection is actually personal unless someone actually knows you very well. But I still have rushes of "She said no because you're an ugly, pale twig." Those thoughts are not as frequent as they used to be. But they're still there. And they're there often enough to cripple me when I'm attempting to convince myself that I am in fact a man of value, and that a woman would be in good hands in my hands. Oh, sure, my friends will tell you that. But my friends have never hated me as I have hated me.

The only thing I've won at in life are my friends. I have some pretty amazing friends. But they didn't know or understand what I was going through. How could they? I didn't even know myself. Nevertheless, they remain at the top of my list of reasons to live. They're all I've got. For my music I am finally working toward earnestly making things happen, and that keeps me going. But my friends and family are the only things I already have that can sustain me in the present moment. Now the real bitch is trying to figure out how to navigate romantic relationships like a human.

I started to break the egg shell, which is good because I'm running out of yolk, and if I stay in here much longer I'll either starve to death or get too cramped and snap my neck. But I can only do so slowly. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing, because I should've learned these things when I was a stupid teenager, foolhardy and carefree. Of course, I was never really foolhardy or carefree. I was born an old man, and a cynical one at that. Only now am I finding any semblance of youthful energy in me. And now I have to learn to harness it as a "normal" person does; "normal" meaning people who went through delicate and terribly emotional changes during the crucial formative years one should go through those things. (How I long for the good ol' days when I would've been married to a stranger at 13. Okay, no, but at least then I would've been made to experience a lot of important things during adolescence like Nature intended).

It's fucking daunting, and sometimes I hate myself all the more for what I did to myself and what I didn't do for myself. But that's okay (well, it's not okay, but I have to be okay with it). The key is to balance acting like an adult while secretly dealing with shit that most people learned as teenagers. Much as I'd love to go crazy and be a complete dill-hole, I know that's not going to help. I didn't like reckless people when I was a teenager, and I wouldn't like myself as one now. I don't drink or use any such substances anymore, because my anxiety is so bad that I overuse anything that remotely alleviates it and then I become a blundering idiot. You can't perform a good set, talk to a DJ, or pick up a woman if you're hammered. But still, there are things I can learn from fools.

I have to learn to live. I have to uncage this beast inside me before he rips me apart from within. Except I can't just let him wreak havoc like I would've, or rather should've, 15 years ago.

Those with social anxiety will probably understand some of this. Those without may not understand how in God's Name I could have wound myself into such a tight knot. Nevertheless, I think we can all understand the experience of past mistakes, regrets (if you don't, you're probably on drugs or a fucking liar), and how when they finally hit you with their full weight, you're left with two choices: live or die. I'm not comfortable making affirmative declarations, but I will tentatively say that at the moment, although I cannot even describe to you how much it hurts some days to wake up, and how often I want to disappear and fade into oblivion... I choose to live.