How to Keep Calm and Carry On

By

When you hear the subway doors open—the ones panhandlers use to get from car to car—you get a sick feeling in your stomach. You hear the noise of the subway wheels grinding against the metal tracks, but you are thinking about something else: a man with a gun who will spray you and everyone else on the subway with bullets. If it is not someone with a gun, it is someone coming up behind you and slicing your throat. Or knocking you out cold with a sucker punch as you walk to the office in Midtown Manhattan when you get off the subway forty minutes later. For no particular reason. Just because. Except for the few Krav Maga classes you took years ago, you are not a trained fighter, although you fantasize that you are. It is not a coincidence then that once a week you get sucked into a YouTube vortex and watch the best bullies-fighting-back videos until 2 a.m.

But a gunman doesn’t walk through the door. Never does. Neither does someone slice your throat or punch you in the face. You feel ashamed and stupid for thinking such thoughts. You don’t think so morbidly because Trump and the Republicans can’t stop talking about how ISIS and foreign terrorism is on the rise, or because Trump winning the election has emboldened anti-Semitic sentiments (although that certainly doesn’t help). You think that way because, as a child, if doors weren’t being slammed or you weren’t being yelled at by your enraged father, you were worried that God was going to kill you for not performing all six hundred and thirteen commandments.

You were raised ultra-Orthodox Jewish in Monsey, New York, and given a blessing at your bris to become the next great rabbi of your generation. You left the fold when you were sixteen and became a writer instead. But even though it’s been fourteen years since you transferred to public school, ate your first non-kosher meal, and adapted to the secular world, you still can’t seem to shake the fear, anxiety, and paranoia.

When you were a child, you dreamed at night about monsters coming into your room and cutting your feet off, so you made sure your feet were entirely covered by the blanket. In retrospect, you realize that a blanket is not the best defense mechanism for a chopping device. Friday nights you worried that you would die in a house fire. Your bedroom was above the dinette table where the Sabbath candles burned. You couldn’t understand why God would allow your parents to let their child sleep above open flames. Sometimes you waited until everyone was asleep to sneak downstairs to blow the candles out.

In school, your rabbis taught you to fear anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Especially the Nazis. You’ve watched Schindler’s ListEscape from SobiborThe Diary of Anne Frank, and The Great Escape numerous times. It was a school requirement in your community. Your father told you as a child that your grandfather—who survived Auschwitz—would peek out his window in Flushing, Queens to see if the Nazis were coming. So you expected the Nazis to march down your street in Monsey, New York and round up you and your neighbors for the gas chambers. You still do. Any day now you expect them to arrive in Brooklyn where you currently live. You hope that someone will tweet you a warning. You wonder if Facebook will add a new option to their emergency check-in feature: Hiding in the attic. Not safe. Maybe that is why you get so nervous on subways and in public, you think.

Your mind doesn’t play tricks on you. You play tricks on your mind. You try so hard to stop, but you can’t seem to shut off the horror show that you visualize every day. Then you obsess about not being able to stop, which leads to more anxiety because you never thought you were so disturbed that you couldn’t prevent the piling on of gloom. This depresses you. You consider going on medication. You remind yourself to ask your therapist about this when you see him next.

 

The F train is packed that morning resulting in an overheated subway car. A group of children boards at Carroll Street, adding obnoxious gratuitous noise. You don’t like noise. There must be a pill you can take for that, right? An older gentleman sitting next to you won’t stop sniffling. Not like he has a cold sniffle, but sniffles that make it seem like he has too many damn nostril hairs and they are tickling the fuck out of his nose. You want to punch him in the face, then offer him tweezers.

 

When you were five years old, you had a terrible earache. Grandma Elaine was visiting. You writhed on the floor in pain. You didn’t understand why your ear hurt so much. Your mother put cotton balls in your ear, and for a moment the pain subsided. It made you feel like the world wasn’t out to get you. It felt quiet. You went outside to play on the swing set, but moments later you ran back inside after a gust of wind shot straight into your ear, and the pain rushed back. It got noisy again.

The old man won’t stop sniffling. The children won’t stop yelling. You think about moving to another car, but you know that someone in that car will be talking on the phone or watching a video on their phone without headphones. Without fucking headphones. So you stay put. You think about how enraged you got the other day when a guy in the coffee shop sitting next to you slurped his latte. You are convinced you suffer from misophonia. You remind yourself to ask your therapist about this when you see him next.

 

When you are overwhelmed by noise, you get anxious. Anxiety leads to depression. When you are depressed, you turn to food as it’s the only thing that replaces the love and affection you wish you’d been privy to as a child. You feel like an addict with drugs who needs a fix.

When you were in high school, overwhelmed by facing the rabbis you feared every day, you occasionally faked being sick to stay home. Your mother allowed you to order General Tso’s Chicken, knowing that food would make you feel better. It did. You realized this was your mother’s way of giving you a hug or saying I love you. Something you never experienced with either parent.

During your parents’ divorce (when you were thirteen) your father took you out to restaurants so you could watch him eat while you sat across from him, famished. Your mother went on food stamps. A local charity would drop off a box of food on your doorstep every Friday morning because your father stopped supporting your mother. So you got a job at a kosher pizzeria to support yourself and to eat. Food replaced love, but food also became scarce. You never seemed to be able to rectify that.

Perhaps it should be no surprise then that you are consistently inconsistent with your diet. It goes well for about a week, and then you order General Tso’s Chicken and feel bloated and disgusting. You know that the return on your General Tso’s investment isn’t lucrative, and yet, you still eat it. It’s not necessarily the act of eating that is satisfying, but the rituals that lead up to the eating. The salivating. Looking over the menu for way too long. Long enough that you have to recharge your phone. The ritual of knowing the exact moment the train will go above ground so you have service and can place an order on Seamless so when you get off at your stop and walk to the Chinese store, dinner will be waiting for you. The ritual of smelling the grease that you know will hurt your stomach later but is also comforting. The ritual of ripping open the take-out paper bag like it’s a gift. Some have rituals to lose weight. Others have rituals to lose a self.

Susan Cheever: Addiction isn’t about substance—you aren’t addicted to the substance; you are addicted to the alteration of mood that the substance brings.

Are you an addict?

Sometimes you pace outside restaurants, and grocery stores like you are a recovering alcoholic who is debating whether he should go to a bar and drink. One slice of pizza turns into three. One rugelach turns into a whole box. You will only have a few spoons of ice cream you promise yourself, but you end up devouring the pint. Your rabbis told you that you weren’t allowed to waste any food. You never do. You eat every last bite even when you are full. Overfull. You remind yourself to ask your therapist.

You don’t like your body. Shopping for clothing is a nightmare. You have the hips of a pregnant woman. Exercising wasn’t encouraged growing up. To ward off your insecurities, anxiety, depression, and the extra calories, you commit to two-hundred sit-ups and push-ups every day. You run more around Prospect Park. You train for a marathon. As you run you imagine that you are ridding yourself of all the dark thoughts in your head. But once you return home, you pore over menus on Seamless and Uber Eats and analyze which dish will ease your pain. Even though you know that food will never resolve what you hope it would.

When you were a kid you’d go to the lake with your family on Rosh Hashanah and throw bread into the water, a symbol of throwing away your sins. But you never really believed you had sins to get rid of, and that made you wonder if you’d ever do anything right. You still do. On Yom Kippur, you prayed to God not to kill you. To forgive you. You didn’t do it, you thought. You felt like you were on trial for crimes you didn’t commit. What else will God pin on you? Especially now that He’s pissed that you left the fold and embarrassed Him. Would you one day be the subject of a Dateline special fighting for your life? Would DNA exonerate you? You never even heard of DNA until you started secretly watching murder mystery shows when you were thirteen years old on a portable TV you bought from RadioShack.

Watching those shows taught you about the brutalities of the world—the monsters that inhabit it. It also informed you that love and kindness exist. You learned that a parent could love their child so much that they would cry if they were hurt or killed. You learned that some parents even love their child when they are responsible for perpetrating the crime. You can’t reconcile that. You wonder what it feels like to love like that.

 

On the way home from work, a large crowd of people gets off the F train at the Bergen stop. They rush towards the stairs. How stupid and pointless life is, you think. Everyone is rushing to get home to sleep, jerk off, fight with their spouse, yell at their children, what have you. It’s moments like these when you think, what’s the point? You feel the same when you are on an airplane, and you watch from the window as cars speed on the freeway, or you see offices and apartments lit up like a planetarium. You know you are not shedding new light on this subject or revealing something so enlightening, but these moments bring on the feeling of despair. It reminds you of the abyss we are all trying to navigate.

Darwin: If we expect to suffer, we are anxious.

You expect to suffer.

 

When you have an anxiety attack, you can’t catch your breath. You feel like there’s a power tool stuck in your chest. (You always hated Home Depot). Your body throbs. Your joints loosen. Your legs shake like a jackhammer. Your hands tremble when you eat like you have Parkinson’s. Then you start to believe that you do have Parkinson’s and you make an emergency appointment to see the doctor. Your shoulders start to ache. Then you get itchy. It feels like a swarm of ants and bugs are crawling all over your body. You try to shake them off but can’t. You dream about bugs and ants just like you dreamed about the monsters cutting off your feet as a child, but now that you are older you know that a blanket won’t protect you.

 

When your doctor tells you that you are okay, that you don’t have Parkinson’s and the plethora of other diseases you presented to him, you don’t believe him. You ask him as many questions as possible until he tells you he has other patients waiting to see him. No matter how many blood tests, doctor visits, or online medical blogs you read, you continue to think that you are dying of something terrible. You don’t know what it is. But it will be something, and very soon. You think a lot about your grandfather who survived Auschwitz, emigrated to the United States, and died in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. After all that suffering. Imagine.

When you tell your therapist about your anxiety attacks and visits to the doctor, he suggests that you are a somatizer. You remind him that that’s what they said about Kafka, and then his throat closed up. You wonder out loud if you should be on medication, but you are frightened of exacerbating a chemical imbalance. There is schizophrenia in your family. You have heard numerous stories of people committing suicide while on antidepressants. You once dated a woman who liked to cook while on Ambien. You had to put out two kitchen fires; she forgot she was cooking and walked away from the stove. If you take antidepressants or anxiety medication, will you remember that you are living?

Your therapist suggests alternative methods, but you tell him that you don’t enjoy yoga, meditation, or holistic healing. You think that the people who write self-help books seem to have a super-powered strength that jolts them to a place where they feel okay. It looks like they’ve tapped into an alternate universe, one which you can’t comprehend. It’s like that friend of yours from college who frequently dropped acid and told you how he experienced the world in different colors. You always pretended to know what he meant, but you never confided in him that you only see the world in black and white.

You lament to your therapist that you don’t know how to swim. How you panicked in the Dead Sea on your Birthright trip and choked on water and got salt in your eyes. You thought you were drowning. You flapped your arms like a bird trying to fly for the first time. You tell him that you feel like you are always drowning. But you know that one day you will have to learn how to swim to survive, and that frightens you.

 

“Why are you so allergic to fun?,” your girlfriend asks when you constantly turn down her vacation ideas. But you think that what she really wants to ask is, “Why are you so allergic to life?” She says that you should challenge yourself, and get out of your comfort zone. You remind her that should sounds like shit. You tell her you are always uncomfortable no matter what you do or where you go. But deep down you know she’s right.

You think about taking antidepressants again.

You read The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead by David Shields thinking it will help comfort you about the fact of life that you will die. But no. It only exacerbates your anxiety that you will die without having enjoyed any of your time living.

You think about taking swimming lessons.

You think about exercising more hoping that will clear up your fuzzy thoughts. What Jacqueline Kennedy said when she was diagnosed with cancer in her early sixties: “If I had known this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have done all those sit-ups.”

You believe you have Celiac disease, so you try to be gluten-free.

You are allergic to walnuts.

You are allergic to oak, weeds, and grass.

You are lactose intolerant.

Perhaps you are allergic to life.

Your parents raised you on soy milk and soy cheese. Milk was considered as evil as Hitler. Your despot father cited a verse from the Talmud to support his banishment of milk.

The Talmud also said childhood is the cause of a great deal. Suck on that, father.

You read Patrimony by Philip Roth for the fourth time to feel closer to the father you wish was in your life. You want to cry every time you read the scene when Mr. Roth’s father is on his deathbed, and Philip holds his hand and whispers to him, “I have to let you go.” But no tears come.

You recently spoke to a friend who told you she once tried to kill herself. She sat in her car thinking about how life was pointless. She pushed her foot on the gas. The plan was to go full throttle and crash the car into a tree, which awaited only yards away. But as she was about to push down harder on the gas pedal, she stopped, put the car in park, and walked away.

“What made you get out of the car and walk away?” you asked her.

She told you that she thought of a happy memory from childhood.

You think about what your friend said and wonder if there are any happy moments from childhood you could think about to steer you away from your moments of despair, but none come to mind. The mind has a powerful way of pushing the negative thoughts to the front and letting them float there until you drown in them or have a breakthrough. You know there will be more subway rides. More noise. More loud talking. More thoughts of Nazis. More visions of horrible deaths. More battles with your weight. More people slurping in public. More insecurity about not knowing how to swim. More aching uncertainty about the proper antidotes to your foreboding disposition.

You know that the hardest thing about living with depression and anxiety is that if you publicly talk about your struggles, people will want to help and offer suggestions and advice. But it’s not help or advice that you want. You want quiet. You want your mind to catch its breath. You want your body to feel calm. You want to quell your hyperawareness to the world. You want to be a measured soul, not a chaotic one. But you believe that is something no one can help with. You know it is a waiting game. You know it is the negotiations between you and your mind. You know that you have to believe that the clouds will pass. You know that you have to believe that there are happy moments you can think of from the past and, perhaps more importantly, happy moments waiting for you now and for years to come.

And you try to.

Sometimes.

***

Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.


Moshe Schulman has written for The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Ravishly, The Forward, Tablet Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. He has been a featured storyteller on The Moth Radio Hour, The Moth Podcast, and NPR. His story "Then You Will Know" is featured in The Moth anthology, All These Wonders. He has received grants from numerous writer’s conferences including Tin House, Squaw Valley, and Bread Loaf. He recently completed a memoir about leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, NY. More from this author →