On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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During the pandemic I’ve been taking walks around my neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin. There’s a spot that I pass on my circuit, shaded by trees and positioned behind a big, lovely field, and just about every time I pass it, I fantasize about bringing a book and a blanket and sitting down to read in the shade. Easily accomplished, you might think, but I know that fifteen minutes after I sit down, my stomach will grumble, my anxiety will send me into a panic, and I will have to set off back to my apartment at a fast march. The problem is, when I have to go to the bathroom, I have to go. And I have to go frequently. The doctors call it irritable bowel syndrome, I think because they don’t know what else to call it. I carry a Ziploc bag full of ginger candies, which are supposed to calm my stomach, but I think their psychosomatic benefits are more important. Which is not to say that I don’t really have to use the bathroom. It’s hard to tell: Am I anxious because my stomach is so unpredictable, or is my stomach unpredictable because I’m anxious? It’s both, really, and neither.
If I’m really starting to panic, I’ll pop in my earbuds and listen to an app I downloaded from iLovePanicAttacks.com. A very patient Swedish man will instruct me to relax.
My gastrointestinal issues and my anxiety surrounding them have circumscribed my life to a degree that I find uncomfortable even to think about. How do I explain? I enjoy hiking and the outdoors, sweating and getting lost, but the part of me that enjoys this is vastly overshadowed by the part of me that will worry and ruminate endlessly on the distance to the nearest bathroom, on accidents and shame and what people will think of me. Too often I decide that it just isn’t worth it. Better to embrace my love of reading and movies, because, really, what are my options here?
Growing up in Greenville, North Carolina, I was a nervous kid, prone to compulsive behavior. I washed my hands so thoroughly that my mom compared me to a surgeon scrubbing in before an operation. The relentless washing, in combination with the dry winter air, would cause my knuckles to crack and bleed, and I would have to go to bed with my hands slathered in Vaseline and stuffed into socks. Once, when I was around seven, I threw up after eating pizza at a party for my Boy Scout troop. For years after, just seeing pizza made me nauseous — and kids eat a lot of pizza.
But so what, right? Some people are nervous. Then, at eighteen, I contracted a bacterial infection that sent me running to the bathroom dozens of times a day and had me shedding pounds like a wrestler before a meet. It took the doctors many months to figure out what was wrong with me. I got my first colonoscopy, and afterward I was in such pain (no, colonoscopies are not supposed to hurt) that I couldn’t lie down, let alone sleep. I crawled into an armchair and listened to podcasts that I had already listened to a dozen times over while my father, who refused to leave me alone while I was suffering, slept on the floor beside me.
By the time I went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about two hours from my home, I was over the infection, but my stomach never fully recovered, and my anxiety bloomed. Before long it wasn’t just about proximity to bathrooms. It was about always taking the aisle seat in class and keeping my eye on the exits. It was about food, which made me nauseous, and breathing, which was more complicated than it used to be. It was about auditioning therapists, speaking to them over the phone when I was too anxious to make the trip to their office. It was about anti-anxiety medications that I was convinced would permanently change my personality but usually just made me tired. It was about being too far from my hometown, my street, my house, my room. It was about crying in cramped bathrooms in aging university buildings; eating solely in my dorm room because I was too anxious and nauseated to eat anywhere else; dropping out twice; scrounging for credits in summer school and part-time classes; failing to explain to my roommates why I was leaving — again — packing and unpacking and driving back and forth between Chapel Hill and Greenville, counting the miles between gas stations. Only Sheetz had decent bathrooms.
Those were the bad days, but I got through them. I learned strategies to rein in my anxiety. My therapist liked to talk about exercising “muscles” that I could use to calm myself, but what helped was pretty basic exposure therapy: I took walks around the block. I timed myself while I went on trips to Barnes & Noble, sitting in a chair and sweating, fighting the urge to run to the restroom until ten minutes had elapsed, then twenty, then an hour. It was excruciating, like my nerves were electrified, but slowly I expanded my circle. I drove to the other side of town. I walked a circuit around the neighborhood. I drove to therapist appointments more than an hour away, always keeping an eye out for Sheetz stations. I made progress.
Now, due to the pandemic, I’m stuck in my apartment again — in Madison this time. The muscles I built to wrestle with anxiety are atrophying. At least my wife is with me.
We got married for the usual reasons — love and health insurance. I enjoy saying that to older people, for the laugh and to see their faux, or real, indignation. It’s not a joke. It’s the world we inherited, and we have to pay for my physical and mental upkeep somehow. In my experience sliding scales are a myth, and my wife, bless her, is a graduate student at a school that provides graduate trainees with insurance.
I shouldn’t complain. I have a job I can do from home. Together she and I make enough. She mostly handles the nightmare that is grocery shopping during a pandemic. We are both worried about COVID-19 and very careful. Someone said online that if you’ve had a major health scare, you’re much more likely to take the pandemic seriously, and I agree. My wife and I were wearing masks long before it was required. When one of us gets home from a trip into the Outside World, we take a shower and put our clothes in a garbage bag until they’re safe to wash. We keep hand sanitizer in the car and use it liberally. We do all of this in the spring of 2020 while bars and restaurants reopen and case numbers soar in Wisconsin.
I’m worried about how bad my anxiety will be when I have to return to something like normal life. Quarantine reminds me too much of the bad old days. My current psychiatrist thinks we should tinker with my medications because I experience an “unacceptable level of anxiety.” My first psychiatrist, on the other hand, reminds me in an e-mail that when she first started to see me, I would barely leave the house. My wife, who is the most patient person I’ve ever met — direct, practical, and clearheaded — tells me she will support me no matter what I choose.
A month ago I heard a sharp pop in my leg while I was doing skip knees (don’t ask) in my bedroom. The pain was immediate. I was diagnosed over the phone (by a coalition of every person with a medical degree my mother and my mother-in-law had ever met) with the annoyingly named “tennis leg.” Some torn muscle I’d never heard of. Prognosis: it’ll hurt until it doesn’t — two to four weeks, maybe more.
At first I couldn’t walk on the leg at all, so my wife had to half carry me from the bed to the couch and, all too frequently, to the bathroom. After two weeks I was desperate to get out and exercise, but I couldn’t run, couldn’t even walk on an incline, and the gym was off-limits thanks to COVID-19. I needed something low-impact and pandemic-friendly. I needed a bike.
I hadn’t ridden a bike in sixteen years, and I suppressed approximately three panic attacks while I drove to the bike shop, breathing deeply and listening to the nice Swedish man. The shop had set up an outdoor tent for socially distanced shopping. I was wearing a turquoise neck gaiter pulled up over my nose for a mask — not ideal for someone prone to hyperventilating and fears of suffocation. (I once ran out of a barber shop because the paper strip the barber tied around my neck was too tight and led to a panic attack.)
The tent was unattended, so I stepped on a bike horn duct-taped to the ground: a jury-rigged front-desk bell. The employee who came out was kind and patient. In the right conditions, my anxiety can push me into a manic state, and I peppered him with obvious, pointless questions that I would remember later and cringe. I was so eager to complete this transaction and retreat to the safety of home that there was no chance of my being a smart shopper. I hopped on the first bike he brought me, tooled around the parking lot once, wobbling dangerously, and bought it, along with a dorky, expensive cherry-red helmet and a bike lock. I still applaud myself for not giving in on the $130 tire pump. I had a mini heart attack when I realized that I didn’t know how to flatten the backseat of my wife’s car — simple tasks become difficult when your hands are shaking — but the attendant waited with mostly concealed annoyance for me to figure it out.
Now I have a bike. My thighs burn in unexpected places when I ride it, but it doesn’t aggravate my tennis leg. I feel less anxious while burning energy going up one of Madison’s numerous hills. The bike lanes are generous, and I have the neighborhood largely to myself for a little while, but soon the lockdown eases, and I pass a brunch place near my house that’s packed with outdoor diners, a Dairy Queen that’s starting to let two customers in at a time.
I also pass the tennis courts where, at the height of the lockdown, police stayed parked nearby to make sure no one used them. Now the police are much busier shooting tear gas at racial-justice protesters downtown. My wife and I talk about participating in the protests, but there’s zero chance I can go from seeing almost no one except her for months to marching in a huge group without imploding from anxiety. I make guiltily large (by my standards) donations to social-justice groups until my wife makes a rule that we talk about any charitable giving over a hundred dollars.
My apartment is my home base, and I constantly circle it on my bike rides, gradually expanding the orbits farther and farther to encompass the eerily empty university buildings, my dream reading spot, and the adjacent field where, not long after the protests start, I pass at least forty hospital workers silently kneeling in scrubs and white coats. One day I pedal all the way downtown and pass an unmasked couple carrying bottled water to the protest. They’re white and laughing and look like they’re going to Coachella. That this all seems so easy for them makes me a little angry. I want to shout, “Don’t you know there’s a pandemic on?”
I ride my bike farther and faster, push myself up hills with increasing confidence. I steer in six-foot semicircles around any pedestrians and pedal to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the bookstore where I used to work part-time before COVID. It’s there that I have my first post-lockdown, in-person conversation with a non-wife, non-grocery-store-clerk human being. I talk and talk, sharing way too much, and it feels good.
My bike is so light I can easily pick it up with one hand. I hop curbs and push myself, the air rushing past so quickly that it steals the moisture from my mouth. My body feels healthy and strong where it used to feel like a malfunctioning annoyance at best. I think about bathrooms and panic attacks a lot instead of all the time. The nice Swedish man is there when I need him.
One day, though, I get lost, and the nice Swedish man isn’t helping much. I start to panic and try to reassure myself that I can’t be that far from our apartment, but all the university buildings look the same — big Brutalist rectangles — and I pedal harder, looking for something familiar, breathing too rapidly. I feel a draft of cool air, the type generated by nearby bodies of water, and follow it to a bike path I didn’t know about. After a while the trees and shrubbery thin, and I see that I’m riding next to one of Madison’s many lakes. It’s frozen over for at least a third of the year, but right now it’s big and blue and beautiful, covered with sailboats, motorboats, windsurfers. I pass a kayak landing where a family is preparing to launch onto the water.
And then I know where I am: this isn’t far from Picnic Point, which lies at the end of a spit of land jutting out into the lake.
When my wife and I first visited Madison to look at apartments in March 2019, we thought we might walk out to Picnic Point. I parked the rental car by the then-frozen lake, and we strolled a little ways down the path but not all the way to the point. My wife took a picture of me that’s still the background of her phone: I’m standing in a patch of trees and underbrush between the trail and the lake, wearing a heavy winter coat that was hard to find in North Carolina, and looking out over the frozen expanse. In the distance are small tent cities on the ice where fishermen shelter from the wind, their snowmobiles parked nearby.
Picnic Point is only a few miles from my apartment, but I’ve still never made it out to the end. Now I’ve put myself within striking distance without even meaning to, and my panic begins to slip away with the breeze off the lake, leaving glimmers of pride behind. Instead of turning toward home, I follow the path, smiling at the other bikers, who all look happy to be outside and free from quarantine. For a moment I feel like one of them.
I make it to the trailhead, next to a full parking lot. It will take me a few minutes at most to reach the Point. Even if I am too anxious to lie on the grass and enjoy the view, I will have made it. I will have done what I didn’t think I could do, expanded my horizons in a literal sense.
Then I see the sign at the trailhead: a picture of a bicycle with an X through it. To reach the point I would have to park my bike at a nearby rack and travel the rest of the way on foot. I just can’t do it. It’s too much of a risk. Even the thought makes me queasy. My phone tells me that I am .8 miles from the point, a fifteen-minute walk. That’s thirty minutes there and back, not including any time spent looking at the view. Home is 1.1 miles away, about a five-minute bike ride. I can feel the distance in my gut, like a rubber band with one end attached to my apartment and the other to my lower intestine. And it’s not just the distance: the trail to Picnic Point is full of young, toned joggers and power-walking grandmothers and wild-eyed parents urging their gaggle of kids to burn some energy. If anything happened, there would be no easy escape route. Even worse than the fear of having a panic attack is the fear of strangers seeing me have a panic attack, gasping like a lunatic, tearing off my mask and ejecting plumes of corona-thick air in every direction. I know this scenario isn’t likely. I wish that it mattered.
I consider for a moment how it would feel to walk out onto the peninsula, where the water would surround me on three sides — so far from the eight-hundred-square-foot apartment that I have barely left for almost four months, with its views of a busy road and the identical apartment complex next door.
That March day last year when my wife and I were here, although I was too afraid to walk down to Picnic Point, I still did something I had never done before: I stepped out onto the ice. My wife, nervous at first, soon followed, and we walked onto the blindingly white expanse, past tents full of bearded men fishing. From there we could see the gigantic capitol dome towering over downtown, where, during the pandemic, racial-justice protesters would be met with rubber bullets and batons.
I was live-wire anxious on the ice, my body buzzing with the animal instinct to fight or flee. My stomach churned, and I sweated through my clothes, even in the Wisconsin cold. But out there on the frozen lake something happened: the hum of anxiety subsided just enough for me to enjoy myself. For precious minutes I wasn’t thinking about escape routes. I just thought, God, this is all so beautiful. Elation crept up on me, that sweet recognition of “Here I am, doing something I didn’t think I could do.” I felt peaceful, calm. For a moment I could imagine what else might be possible.
Then I realized how far we had drifted from our car, and my anxiety surged back. I had to rely on my old tricks and my wife’s patient presence to keep from spinning out of control.
But I still remember how it felt to be out in the middle of the lake.
I think that’s how I would feel at Picnic Point, if I could just forget about bathrooms and the pandemic and push myself and remember everything I’ve learned and how far I’ve come. Maybe there’s a bench where I could sit and look at the lake, however briefly, and my future would stretch out in front of me as wide and calm as the water. I would need only a few minutes of that feeling, I think. Then I would walk back to my bike and pedal home.