Snapping, angry. Confused, lost. Frustrated, lashing out.
It’s been weeks, it’s been months, of this. This inability to focus, this feeling that there’s this weight, this hand of God, coming down from above and pushing me until I’m so squeezed I can hardly breathe.
Anxiety in my veins, like it’s part of me now. The people around me dealing with it, hurt by it. Not seeing it, not facing it, it’s just me, it’s just how I am now, I think.
Until she tells me it’s enough. She’s been facing it so long, how much longer do I think she can handle it, she tells me. This is no way to live. This is not normal.
She tells me, take time. Go. You don’t take time for yourself, do you realize that, she asks me. And I think about it and I try to remember I did something just for myself and I know it’s been longer than the weeks, the months, of squeezing. Is this really not normal? Is this really not just me?
The baby was born, the work piled up, the people I cared for in my community needed more and more. So I gave more. Why take a break when the moment I do, I’ll just have to do more later? What kind of life is that?
And inside of me there’s a voice, “You’re not doing enough. You never do. You’re lazy.”
Lazy, that’s the word. It says it like a snake: “Lazzzzzzy”.
Taking breaks takes me back to high school, back when I’d spend the middle of the night staying awake till my parents fell asleep so I could tip toe to my computer and play my online text game, back before World of Warcraft sucked the life out of others these games did that with the nerdiest of us, and I was a rogue, I was a thief, I was an elf, I was another person.
And as my grades slid because I couldn’t focus or care about anything else, I’d take naps in the nurse’s office almost daily, the snake was born.
So now, she’s asking me to take a break and my hidden heart, the one that doesn’t say words to me but hides underneath it all and affects me more than my mind ever will, is scared because it has the snake whispering to it.
But I look at her and I see her exhausted eyes, and her pained expression, and something in my hidden heart breaks and I think, my gosh, I am so anxious, I am so stressed, maybe this isn’t normal, maybe it’s not okay. Maybe I need to take a break.
“But you’ll be all alone, you’ll be all alone,” my voice of fear says, displaying care for her when what is controlling me is still the snake, making a last grasp for power.
“I’ll be fine. You need this. Please. For me.”
That Sunday, I’m off. Off to a movie. It’s what I did in college, every Saturday, before I was religious. I’d go all by myself to movies. I love being alone. It’s a beauty of an experience to be lost in a huge display of millions of dollars put into a movie all by myself. No voices to invade. No others to serve. Just me. Just art. Just darkness. The snake is quiet.
That’s what I remember, anyway, as I make my way to the movie. And I walk up to counter at the theater, my family all alone without me but she’s says she’ll be fine so I trust her and put it out of my mind, and the man tells me the movie is sold out. And now I remember what it was like in college even more, back when I didn’t even know what movies were playing, and I’d feel God on those Sabbaths because He’d always guide me to the right movie.
And so I ask him what the next movie is and he says, Manchester by the Sea and I say please can I go to that one, and then I’m making my way towards it, and I’m sitting down in the back of the room.
As I wait for it to start, I try to think of the last time this happened, and I don’t remember. I don’t remember. All alone? Not at home, watching Netflix, pretending it’s relaxing me? Not organizing an event that takes place of the time I need? Not helping, not serving, not creating. A being, a being that is purely, utterly selfish.
I can’t remember. I can’t remember.
I text her, I say, “Thank you so much. I think I really needed this.”
As the opening credits start, I feel my muscles. They’re… undoing themselves. Like knots that have learned to untie themselves without any help. Just, letting go of each other, like they were wrapped around each other for warmth because they were so scared and now they feel safe so they’re stepping away and looking at the world finally like it’s safe, like it’s okay.
And even though the movie is starting and my muscles are untying, I can feel the snake laying in wait, he’s not gone, he’s there, hissing, hissing.
I don’t mind. For two hours, I won’t let his presence hold me, even though I feel him around my heart, waiting for it to get vulnerable so he can squeeze and one day swallow.
I didn’t know anything about this movie when I walked in, all I knew was that it was the only movie playing and that it got good reviews, and so I try and embrace that experience, just get lost in the story.
And he’s depressed, he’s angry with himself. We don’t know why, and when we find out…
I see the character, and he’s holding this sort of pain inwards, he’s trying to contain it all within himself, and he can’t let it go, and even though I’ve never experienced anything even close to what he did, I see the way the actor is holding himself, like those muscles are wrapped around so tight for warmth just like the muscles in my body. And I see how he lashes out because of that tightness, the way I do. And I see how he has a voice, a snake’s voice, deep in his body.
And I am not thinking of any of that consciously, but I do know I deeply identify with him and I am lost, I am lost in Manchester by the Sea, and I’m alive, relaxed. I’m crying and I’m laughing and I’m doing all the things people do when their muscles aren’t suffocating them and their heart isn’t beating faster than a hummingbird.
Halfway through the movie, the snake is gone, the snake has let go, and it is just me. I am at peace, and it is Shabbat at the movies again, a spiritual existence that is not dependent on the things I have to do or the obligations I have or the voice inside me telling me what a failure I might be if I let go for a second.
And as I’m walking out of the theater and I’m going home and I’m hugging my wife and I’m thanking her again, telling her how amazing this all was, and I’m spending the rest of the day in this sort of contented clear-eyed world, I am suddenly doing all the things I did before, all that obligation, without a sense of dread, of pain, of fear. I can focus. I’m not lashing out. I’m not snapping. I’m just… being. Within the actions of obligation and chores and “work” somehow some part of me that was sitting in that movie theater has been snapped up and brought along for the ride.
And that week, as I’m going to work and dealing with angry commenters on my blog and helping out my community and taking care of my girls and helping my wife and doing all the things that married people with kids and work and who write have to do, I’ve still got that part along for the ride. My whole outlook has changed, my whole experience has evolved.
Of course, as the time passes I’m also feeling the muscles start to wrap a bit more, start to get tougher, feeling my breathing and heartbeat getting shallow every now and then. And behind it all is that snake, wrapping his scales around my heart as he whispers, “Lazzzzzzzy.”
But now that there is this other side of me, the side from the movie along for the ride, I finally start to see the snake for what he is: an invader. He is not attached to me. He is a parasite. He is living off of my fears and my video game playing days and my pain. And he secretes anxiety, deep into my veins, like poison.
He is not me. He is not part of me.
And the next week, when my wife says, “Go to a movie again. Didn’t you see how good it is for you?” and I want to fall at her feet I’m so thankful, and I go again, and I feel that selfish positivity enter me again, that unencumbered joy as I drink whiskey in a theater that lets you order drinks from waiters while you’re watching like you’re some kind of aristocrat, and I’m watching people try to converse with aliens in Arrival, I feel that same part of me return. He’s smiling warmly and he’s giving me a huge. And he has a message for me.
“I am you,” he says. He looks at the snake and shakes his head. “Why do you keep getting me confused with him? Why? You are not fear. You are not anxiety. You are not pain. You are joy, a soul of light. You are me.”
And as I watch the movie and the muscles loosen and the snake quiets and my heart flutters back to its original state and my breathing normalizes and the whiskey warms my icy veins I look at the screen and I see one of the characters crying and I’m crying too, and maybe it’s because I’m totally immersed, but maybe it’s because part of me heard myself whispering the truth: that I am good, that I matter, that anxiety is not life, and that all I needed was a bit of time to remember that.