punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Fear of Free Falling

I used to have a job, a long time ago, where I learned about the sewer system in DC. Part of my job involved measuring vibrations in structures, and one of the lesser-known facts about DC (to those of you who don't live here) is that it's built on a swamp. At one time, it was envisioned to be "the Venice of America," but before the canals really took off, the rail arrived, and that was a lot better than canals, so that was the end of that. You still see a lot of the old canal systems here and there, like the historic C&O Canal, but most of the old canals were buried, redirected with pipes, or just drained. Might have been nice if someone kept a "master map" of all these pipes and tubes, and correlated them with the more modern sewer and water systems, but they didn't really do a good job. It's been estimated that 20% of all the pipes under DC haven't been mapped properly. Sometimes, some poor construction contractor will follow the official maps and try and avoid some lines, but then his backhoe will hit some old brick wall, and suddenly, his foundation is flooding with Potomac seepage. "Well, looker there," says a Metro native, "we done stuck somethin'." On top of all this, you have old buildings slowly sighing back into spongy soil, and once in a while, a foundation timber rests atop some old tunnel or pipe, so when it rains, the pipe vibrates at a certain frequency that is far too subtle to the human eye or touch, but if you have a shelf with some delicate items hung on a wall connected to that timber, over time (and we're talking weeks), it will shimmy in one direction ever so slightly. Sometimes that direction is off the edge of the shelf, and if you are too stupid to move these delicate items after the first few fell, you might scream, "My house is haunted by Pilgrim ghosts!" because you were an ignorant yuppie who paid close to a million dollars for an old house barely wider that the front door, and failed the part of history where Pilgrims were from about a few hundred miles up north. Not that I've met any of those annoying people with yappy Bichon Frises whose ill tempers are matched by the ill manners of the master's overbred children. Or the annoying diplomats who only got the job because their own country didn't want them hanging around and soiling their country's reputation of educated rich people. Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that DC has such a complicated plumbing system that has such far-flung bad effects that it makes you just want to push all the buildings aside, dig everything up with a huge rototiller, sift out all the rubble, and put everything back in neat and organized rows. Of course, in reality, you could never do that. Not that it's not technically feasible, but the diplomats would balk and be forced to live in their own countries for a while, whereupon they know they'd be lynched by angry mobs of their own people for being so obnoxious.

No, not bitter, why do you ask? :)

I have always considered myself a "broken" person. There are some fatal flaws in my personality design which I try and patch with redirecting feelings and thoughts, just like the plumbing in DC. Sometimes, a major flawed pipeline with lots of leaks runs through my thought processes, and as much as I try to redirect the load, major events still flow through them, and sometimes I worry the whole system will overload and burst into a huge, uncontrollable mess. Or at least some major valve will blow, and be unable to be recapped. Sometimes the stress of daily living is a troublesome exercise, and I'm not talking major bad luck things here, I'm talking about normal stuff that 99% of the rest of the humans out there accomplish day-to-day without thought or fear of any kind. I wish I could just yank it all out and straighten everything.

One of the major flaws I have is the "fear of free-falling." I am assuming this is because nothing in my childhood was ever stable for very long, and I used to get so angry I had been "tricked" that things would work out, or everything would be all right. I live life like there's no safety net of any kind. Hell, I don't even trust gravity. Some people blissfully go through their lives, assuming that things are okay, or at least will work out. I envy these people with a sucking between my teeth because they will always know a safety I cannot have. When I was younger, I was frequently told I was "too smart for my age," because by age 8, I was certain nuclear war was not only inevitable, but likely before I became an adult. I "had proof" based on my inexperienced flawed nature. I wasn't going to "be tricked" like a lot of "those fools" I saw everywhere else. I always felt death was right around the corner in every way. Part of why I became suicidal at a young age was for control; I wanted to stop my life before something else did. Life and death were mutually exchangeable, and I saw my death not only as something that wouldn't matter, but would actually improve the lives of others. I only attempted suicide about 5 times, but I thought about it a lot more, and cursed my cowardice when I never got around to another attempt. My fear was always in free fall, out into nothing, as Tom Petty said. Things could always get worse, and if you thought they couldn't get worse, well, you were just an idiot and fate would make your life worse to teach you a lesson, or maybe just out of contempt that you exist at all. Life was a shit sandwich: eat it or starve. I practiced pessimism with the cutting edge of anger, and the twisted ball of hate in the pit of my stomach drew tighter and tighter, in an attempt to become so impervious that nothing could ever hurt me.

I haven't felt like that in a long time. The scars are still there, though. They are like dry riverbeds that occasionally have flash floods, but the locals always say, "It's bad, but not like it used to be ... back in the summer of 82, the banks swept everything from here to way up yonder those hills. See that house on top of that mountain? Used to be a riverfront casino ... the steamboat it was attached to is up further still." Sometimes, if I want a touch of the free-falling fear, I just watch some trailer of some apocalypse movie, like the recent one, The Day After Tomorrow, and the fear in my belly swells with that unique, "We're all gonna die!" feeling of hopeless despair. And I hate that. It's just a movie. Special effects done in a studio with superimposed actors against a green screen. It's not even a good movie, or even very convincing because it breaks like a thousand scientific rules and whatnot. But my heart races, my stomach clenches, the sirens of panic blare in my ears, my face gets hot while my body gets cold ... it's a complete reaction to fear and shock. I can turn it on at will by watching things like that. The fear floods into different things, and things begin to short circuit, things like memories that I thought had long died. It's like those old fear circuits turn back on, and you see text and thoughts you have forgotten for so long, they look almost like they happened to someone else, but you know it was you.

My parents did nothing to quell the fear. My father encouraged it, even used it to tease me. When I was about 5, he told me soldiers in Vietnam were dying because I was a bad kid. Sometimes he'd take me out to the antiwar protests around Palo Alto, where we lived, and all that shouting scared me. I'd see people getting shot or carried out by stretchers into helicopters on the TV news, and he'd make those kinds of comments that if those people lived, they'd come and get me. Those kinds of "jokes" will fuck with a 5 year old brain. My mother eventually stopped him, giving him a smarmy grin while I was crying, and say, "Arv, stop teasing him, you are upsetting him," where my father would laugh and laugh... Many years later, a therapist once asked me, "Did it ever bother you that your mother only said to stop because you were getting upset, and not because it wasn't true?" I had never thought about that, and when I think of the Vietnam thing, I think of that question. But never found an answer. But here's the massively fucked up thing: I cannot go to the Vietnam memorial to this day.

Really. I have been there twice, once with my father around the time it opened, and another time during a school trip. Both times, I was in abject terror. To me, the memorial is cut into the hill like a gaping scar of a mouth, ready to devour me because I am so evil and killed all those people. It's like a raging river of guilt and horror that will wash over me if I get near it. The first time my father took me, I didn't have that fear that I recall, but I recall feeling the shock of seeing all those names and all those weeping people. The second time I could barely stand, I was so scared. I kept picturing touching the wall, and getting sucked into the blackness, where the haunted souls of thousands of dead soldiers would tear me apart and have their way with me. Many years ago, I took my son around the Mall there, and while wandering around with him, I "came across" the memorial by accident. The second I knew what it was, my knees became weak, and I stumbled. Luckily, it was still pretty far away, so I crossed the street to avoid it. I was surprised it still had that effect on me, and even now when I think about it, my skin becomes clammy and my throat tightens. It's not real, and I know it's the stupidest thing most of you have ever heard, but it's so real to me, it's as real as any physical barrier might be. I think to most people, logic and common sense is a good safety net. I think that's why they go on roller coasters, make dares, or take all kinds of risks that would leave me passed out with my eyes still wide open. There is always that subliminal thought they must have of, "It can't really hurt me," and mine is, "I have experience and proof I can be hurt and how truly easy it is to meet an untimely end."

I know this can be overcome. Luckily the "real world" has never been as bad as everyone kept telling me it would be. If only there was some way I could convey in words how my post-teen life was such a superior improvement over how the first 18 years was. I am a writer, and still all I can think of is images and feelings that are really hard to put into words. Light, heaven, freedom, weightlessness, possibility, hope, and the sounds of birds and stuff is about the best I can do. Before I was on my own, I genuinely saw the term "hope" synonymous with the word "fool." I used to see hope as nothing more than a tool used to manipulate other people by taking advantage of their stupidity. But I no longer believe that, and I have broken fears. For a while, I was terrified to go to the dentist. About 8 years ago, I had to have a pulpectomy without anesthesia (it was an emergency and the anesthesiologist didn't show up, and we couldn't wait because it had abscessed into the jaw). Before that, I never really felt one way or another about dentists except they were expensive. The pain during that procedure was so great, I tore the armrest right out of the rivets in the dentist's chair and bit through two mouth guards. I had never experienced such a pain, and it left me shaken for months. Thankfully, a few years ago, I found a good dentist who was really skilled at his work with little to no pain. I got over that fear. So that taught me I can get over fear. But it's not easy. Often I need a hard push of some kind, which I also fear.

But you know, as bad as the last few months have been, it never got as bad as childhood. It always puts it into perspective. That is a poor safety net, but it will have to do for now. I doubt all this faulty plumbing will ever get fixed, I don't know if I'll ever be able to stomach a disaster movie, or even visit the Wall without fainting ... but at least I am not free-falling.

This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000507.html
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