November 3, 2017

My soulmate is the city, she gets me like no other. Chaos on a grid, beauty in lines, hard surfaces with chipped edges, she never divulges too much of herself to me but she will gladly reveal to me all of my own bullshit.

Walking on the edge of invisibility, anonymous, alone, and disconnected from people going about their business with no notice of me, is where I feel most at home. The city is my safe place. This is where I feel most alive and connected to myself. I feed off of her energy like a vampire filling up on new life, catching glimpses of her history with every draw. Watching the people, exploring where the streets lead, keeping pace with the rhythm of her soundtrack, I absorb her, and in doing so, see my own humanity reflected back at me. I am both apart from her and a part of her.

FullSizeRender 39It’s two o’clock on Friday afternoon and I’m sitting on a bench in the middle of Simon Bolívar park. I have two hours all to myself and a single mission: pull my shit together. How did I come to be here, with this extra time on my hands? I’m ditching Spanish class. I walked down here with the intention of going but in the end, I just couldn’t. I’m having an anxiety attack. I can’t talk or make eye contact with anyone without sobbing and my muscles are contracting in an aggressive attempt to pull me into the fetal position. Being fully aware that having an episode of this magnitude in my current location will likely invite questions from concerned onlookers, which would then force me to try to respond in a language that I just can’t seem to learn, I manage to stand up.

‘Now walk!’, demands a drill sergeant-like voice in my head. That is definitely not my voice giving the commands. I don’t listen to me when I’m lost in this state of mind. Why should I? I’m weak, ineffectual, and useless, after all. Being pathetic is a full-time job with no room for multitasking.

My survival instinct is taking matters into its own hands by conjuring up an alpha-goddess to take charge of the situation. I have relinquished control of my being to Sigourney Weaver, reprising her role as Ripley, who is now operating my body like a dock loader. Feeling my feet plant on the sidewalk with heavy thuds, one in front of the other, I can almost hear the hydraulics behind the movement. I’m now a passenger in my own body. My emotions have been powered down to a dull hum as if hit with a tranquilizer dart. I am free to look out the portals of my eyes with impunity as I am piloted down a street.

All I can see is my feet. My head is pointed at the ground. Ripley pilots me left to get off the main drag. We cross an intersection and head up a street that is clearly not a popular thoroughfare. Both the noise and the volume of people decrease. Determined in the study of my own shoes, I continue up the street not taking it in. A sob convulsion hits me hard and I nearly wretch trying to hold it in. I feel my knees get wobbly and Ripley stamps my foot against the ground hard. It feels like she kicked me in the shin with her dock loader. I’m acutely aware of how much my body hurts. My muscles are still contracting in direct opposition to being upright and walking. My heart is thumping in my ears and I can hear the squeak of my teeth grinding against each other. ‘MOTHER FUCKER!’, I scream from the confines of my cerebral prison cell but my screams go unnoticed because my jaw is clamped shut and Ripley has my volume on mute. I wish Ripley would punch me in the face. If I could just get her to kick the shit out of me, then maybe my pain would make more sense to me. But Ripley isn’t here to kick my ass. She’s here to protect me from myself. I don’t know if rendering me completely ineffectual is going help me feel better about myself but I guess not hurting myself is ok.


Eyes still fixed on the sidewalk, I realize the gate I’m standing next to opens on a ramp that leads down to a sunken courtyard that is completely incongruent with the neighborhood. It’s deserted. My body wanders in, taking me along for the ride. I’m struck by the solitude of this place. I feel like I accidentally walked into someone’s backyard, you know, the kind with a pub in it. It occurs to me that a shot of tequila with a beer chaser would be delightfully dangerous in a manic, ‘sure, I’d love another’ kind of way. I wonder if I can order a drink without talking? I have my Spanish notes in my backpack, surely I could craft a note to the bartender.

As I’m standing there mute, starring at the bar and pondering my ability to silently order multiple drinks, a person walks out of the bar and looks right at me. Shit. The person is now talking to me. She’s smiling. My hand twitches spastically into the air in a sad attempt at a casual wave as I mouth the words ‘Buenas tardes’ and make a quiet frog-like croaking sound. Clearly, the note thing isn’t going to work. Ripley turns me around and points me towards the opposite end of the courtyard. I’m motivated to help with the movement of my legs this time.

I reemerge onto a street I know. I’ve just come through a gate that I have looked through from the other side more than once, always wondering what was down there and then forgetting how to find it again. I examine every detail of the street in an attempt to commit its location to memory but my thoughts are falling out of my head like water through a sieve.

I keep walking.

The street art in this town is amazing. Urban architecture in Ecuador is incomplete without tall walls and ornate gates. There is no shortage of canvas for taggers and muralist alike.

What I am now starring at is unlike anything I have experienced before. I’m impressed by the art but what’s more, I’m struck by the uncanniness of me finding this now, at this moment. I am mesmerized. If the turmoil of my inner being drew a self-portrait, I’m sure it would look like this. I want to find the artist and buy them ice cream.

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Tearing my gaze from the manifestation of my dark side, I begin taking in the rest of the art along the block. I’m walking what appears to be a graffiti gauntlet and Ripley’s letting me drive a little. I’m noticing more of my surroundings. It’s raining. I don’t think I care.

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I keep walking.

Paying no attention to where I’m going, other than to stay off the beaten path, I surprise myself by wondering into Plaza de Ponchos from a side street that I had never noticed before. I don’t have to worry about people noticing me because everyone is busy getting out of the rain which is now falling in earnest. I have my Gortex rain jacket in my backpack but I’m not interested in getting it out. Instead, I sit on a bench at a covered bus stop. Folding my legs and tucking my feet under me on the bench, I feel like a kindergartner settling in for story time.

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The story of a world-famous artisan market on an off day in a light rainstorm begins to unfold in front of me. I am struck by the mundanity of it all. Some people are hurrying out of the rain while others dump the collecting water off of their canopies and drape plastic over their hand-crafted treasures. People wait for the bus and stranded shoppers hail cabs. It’s all just so ordinary. I’m watching regular people do regular things and I’m reminded that if all we have in common is that we are human beings, that’s still a lot of common ground. There is room for a connection here. I like that. It makes me feel a glimmer of hope for humans.

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I have an hour before Sasha is done with class. I wonder what lies on the west side of town? Standing up I feel my knees pop. My legs are stiff and ache a little. My adrenaline is spent and it’s making me feel kind of shitty. Walking helps. I’m delighted to discover that my body is back in my control. My raw panic has dissipated leaving me with a mixed bag of emotions to unpack. Something to occupy my brain as I wander into the residential side of town.

I have a lot to examine. I know that the frustration I’m experiencing with my learning disabilities thwarting my effort to learn Spanish was the trigger today but there is more to it than that. I’m scratching at the surface of old wounds long buried in the bento boxes of my brain and it’s triggering emotional responses that I intellectually know to be irrelevant in my present life. My hope is that exhuming these old but not forgotten behaviors will allow me to purge them once and for all. I would love to repurpose the bento boxes in a more functional way. Pencil lead and eraser storage perhaps. I love bento boxes.

In the meantime, an observation has floated to the front of my brain which, in hindsight, seems incredibly obvious. The metaphors I use to consciously depict my inner struggles and anxiety are the literal, physical actions of my catharsis.

Walking that edge of invisibility, I begin to fade from view, feeling small, disconnected, and replaceable. I’m just another wounded soul screaming silently into the void while street hustlers, preachers, and politicians pimp a limited variety of happy masks for prices that seem reasonable, just my self-worth, paid in increments over time, forever, like student loans.

This is definitely going to bake my noodle for a bit.

One thought on “Catharsis

  1. Jen…. I am so moved by (and deeply grateful for) this story of using pure grit and great effort to cross the chasm between panic-brain and thinking-brain. Being able to do that physiologically in that moment and then in language afterwards, is something few are able to do at all. And you have done it with incredible grace and beautiful articulation (though no doubt it doesn’t feel like that from the inside).

    We humans are literally wired to shunt all body-mind functions into our emergency systems in situations that feel like an emergency. The biology of that fight-or-flight no-holds-barred survival mechanism is well established and one of the most powerful biological things we as humans ever experience. It is *exceedingly* hard to resist the overwhelming desperate need to scream or collapse or run away in any way possible. And you managed, with the help of a channeled Ripley in your head (which I love), to CHOOSE healthy coping mechanisms to get you through. That is SO impressive. YOU are so impressive. Truly.

    Your courage in choosing to share these raw and core-level-challenging moments with at least the 89 (!!) souls who are subscribed to this blog, is a testament to the caliber of who you are. Practically all of us, no matter how put together we might look on the outside, have experienced a panic attack (or many). You are not alone in the experience, but you stand as a role model in what came next. Chew on that noodle for a while, my friend. 🙂 You go girl!


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