"Home. The dictionary defines it as both a place of origin and a goal or destination. And the storm? The storm was all in my mind. Or as the poet Dante put it: In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, for I had lost the right path. Eventually I would find the right path, but in the most unlikely place."--Patch Adams 1998
The months leading up to the pandemic felt like the usual wind tunnel. I had come off of months of a pit of depression that occasionally broke into me speed walking down a street on the brink of screaming. I like the brink of screaming moments. It means I have some fight left in me.
I started the new year working on 'The Artist's Way.' A guide to self-discovery by Julia Cameron which consists of Morning Pages and creative exercises. This decision was made after my dad told me over the holidays, 'You look very sad all the time. I'm worried.' My dad sees me once a year due to the distance, but we both knew that what he said was true. My dad is my go to phone call when I'm having a panic attack. He tells me to sit with the cat, get an ice pack and he proceeds to list his favorite movies that I need to watch. He's surprised that I haven't seen Apollo 13. He tells me he'll stay on the phone until the panic attack is over, not a moment sooner.
I knew I was sad all the time. I knew it because I avoided looking in mirrors. I avoided looking into people's eyes.
How long had I been sad? How long had I stopped listening to my heart? How long ago did I stop wearing clothes that made me happy or being around people who made me happy? When did I give up on my dreams? Why the hell am I moving every two years?
Home is not a destination. It is a state of mind. Plain and simple. But I cannot convince my brain otherwise. I grew up in California and lived in all the counties. San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, Orange County. I lived in Boise, Idaho. I lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. And now I live in Chicago. It hasn't even been 2 years and already I'm scratching at the door to be let out. To find home. Because home is not anywhere inside the turbulence that I navigate daily.
Sometimes, when I can't find home in a city, I try to find 'home' in people. I'm lucky to have the partner that I have. He is home. When I see my family, they are home. When I see his family, they are home. Friends scattered across the country are home.
Before the pandemic, I didn't leave the house. I left for work. I left for groceries. And that was it. I don't have friends in Chicago. I would have to hide it from them. I don't leave the house more than I have to, because it is too exhausting. I don't stay in jobs too long, because they will eventually find out that I struggle with basic tasks.
During the pandemic, I sought virtual therapy and received the diagnosis that I knew was coming. I have OCD and PTSD. It's a term that gets thrown around often. 'I'm a little OCD, sorry!' OCD takes many forms, and it is in no way 'a little.' PTSD is not just a thing you could get when you go to war.
OCD kicked in for me when I was in junior high. PTSD kicked in from a single incident living in New York. I was on a train late at night, and everyone on the train at the same time thought that they heard gun shots. So everyone on the train mass panicked and ran through the entirety of the train, ending on the platform and staring at the tracks. Our only exit. Did you know that OCD has helped me with my PTSD? Our brains are funny.
Here is what my OCD looks like:
It takes me at least 30 minutes to leave the house. I have to walk around the house in a counter clock-wise circle. I have to look at every light bulb in every room because bulbs start fires. I have to touch every door because doors trap things in like medication and if the medication spills on the floor its dangerous. I have to check every appliance in the kitchen. I have to check each knob on the stove 3 times and check every oven button 3 more times. I have to check every lock on the door when I leave and stretch out my arm and say "Stop, in the name of love" in my head so that I remember that I completed the task. I wear a ring on this hand so that I have something to focus on when I say the lyrics so that I don't forget that I've checked the door.
This is just leaving the house. When I open my purse, I have to touch and recite out loud every item in the purse. When I send an email I have to check every icon on the screen and recite the email out loud. When I eat dinner, I have to check all the doors and locate each cat in the house. When I open a fridge or dishwasher, I have to check that a pet didn't jump in.
These are just some examples, not all. When I was in junior high, it all started. I started checking doors and stoves. Counting was huge for me. I would break up sentences the teacher was saying, and count the number of words and tap the number on my fingers. I got straight A's in school, and had a friend group. And when I got home, I was exhausted.
This is what my PTSD looks like:
If I hear a sudden loud sound, I jump. When I step on a train or bus, I feel like I'm holding my breath. When I hold my breath for too long, I might randomly pick a stop and get off the train and walk the rest of the way. The last time I was on a train, a drunk group of guys dropped a bottle. I jumped out of my seat. The guy said, "Ha! You thought it was a gun shot! She thought it was a gun shot!"
I got off the train and started sobbing. It was too exhausting.
I get depression, anxiety and panic attacks from the daily onslaught of existing. Every single day is a battle in which I scream at myself for not being able to stop doing these pointless rituals.
Cut to the pandemic. The pandemic made me realize one crucial thing. My life didn't really change. I worked from home more often, which I found incredibly comforting. I gained 30 minutes back by not having to leave the house. I suddenly didn't feel the guilt and sadness of not having friends, because for a couple months no one had anyone. I had time to write. I had space to completely hide the things I hate about myself within the walls of my apartment.
And then the world started to open up again. People walked outside with masks on. Businesses started to slowly reopen. People were excited to go back to normal. What does normal look like when you never fit the simple mode of casually walking out your front door and seeing a friend?
These were my biggest fears: I was afraid that the checking and counting would leak into the new normal of wearing masks. I was afraid that my rituals would become even more overwhelming with extra elements to consider. I was afraid that the months I spent literally dodging the mask-less on the streets would lead to me dodging years after this has subsided. I was afraid that the Erika that I have been trying to contain would no longer be containable.
And I was right. She wasn't containable anymore.
I went to a couple businesses wearing a mask to buy groceries, or pickup hair bleach. And I immediately noticed a pattern. I was looking people in the eye. I had to. When I ride a bike, I make eye contact with the driver of the nearby car to make sure that they see me. Its a safety issue. And it's the same concept. I look people in the eye so that they see me. So that we can take care of each other.
I stopped looking at people in the eye years ago. I would hide behind sunglasses. Huge sunglasses. I would slump over. I would make myself invisible. Because when you expose what you're living with, you're also exposing people's opinions of it. I had stopped looking at people for so long that I had isolated myself. I had stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I was afraid to see the pain. To truly see it.
Have you seen someone's pain before? Just laid out like that? I sat on the train once and the woman sitting across from me had so much pain in her eyes. In my mind, I begged her to look at me. Look at me so that I could tell her with my eyes that it was ok. That I could see her. That she was not alone. And I sat and cried in my seat because I could feel her pain. And because she wouldn't look up. And because I couldn't help her.
I haven't let people see me. I haven't given myself the same acceptance that I gave a total stranger. In this new world, we have to see each other. For our safety and for our well-being. No one's pain is invisible anymore. We can no longer hide into our screens as we walk around. We have to see each other. We have to look up. Look up to give space if need be. Look up to let someone know we are there. Look up, because there are people around you. There is a community. And you will be seen in it.