What Happens Next: When The Specters Of Mental And Physical Illness Collide
by Emily Yin
Now I believe that everything will somehow be okay, that the world will carry me along instead of passing me by.
I have a recurring dream that goes like this: first shot, the absence of light. Cut to hospital corridors tinted peach at dusk, abandoned wards, the sun’s last rays flickering like a dying flame. Pan left along the windowed expanse: Manhattan’s inky skyline, the Hudson River, cherry trees unfurled and shaking. Cut. I enter with only my hands, outstretched, to guide me. Walk for years. Long shot: a bed-bound man. I can never see his face because he’s too far away, or because my eyes are closed. Maybe those reasons are one and the same. Monitors beep in the distance. Zoom out. The scene is filtered in the glow of evening light.
Here’s the funny thing about myopia: it obscures in more ways than one. When I put on glasses for the first time, what stunned me wasn’t my sudden clarity of vision but the past ignorance this implied. How had I gone so many years without discovering my nearsightedness? Habituation no doubt played a role. I came to squint reflexively, accept blurred lines on the chalkboard as a matter of course — in short, I normalized an unclear world.
I’ve struggled with social anxiety for as long as I can remember. Most people experience it at some point in their lives, but mine was debilitating. While pleasantries slipped off others’ tongues, I always seemed to botch them with my glassy smile and cluttered speech. My awkwardness turned me into a slightly robotic figure, skittish, the sort of person who only drew attention through absence.
Why? It’s become a well-worn exercise — probing my past in search of understanding. To this day, I have no satisfying answer. And in any case, an answer hardly would have changed my reality. It’s exhausting to live the way I did, perpetually on the lookout for exits, unable to uncage myself from overanalysis and self-recrimination. The problem with misery is that you think it’ll never end. This myopia is paradoxically the source of its power: it builds you up even as it wears you down, situating your feelings and impressions at the center of everything and erasing what lies on the periphery. It’s one of the many cruel tricks of mental illness.
The problem with misery is that you think it’ll never end.
To self-pity is to condition your sense of self on suffering, is to smash the best parts of yourself and clutch at the pieces. A friend of mine, speaking of his problems, once said: I’m not special. I’ll get through it like everyone else. And though I was incredulous at the time, he’s right.
I don’t mean to suggest that your troubles are insignificant if someone else has it worse. Unhappiness isn’t zero-sum, but the danger lies precisely in misery’s lack of bounds, its recursive nature. To justify its existence, you necessarily replay past humiliations and excavate old wounds. As a high school student, I’d think — almost as a mantra — I’m so, so alone. I thought about sitting alone at lunch day in and day out, emerging from the most trivial social situations flushed and overwhelmed, overinterpreting even the smallest acts of kindness. I thought about unironically googling “how to be less awkward.” I thought about these indignities and grew increasingly ashamed. Misery thinks only of itself. Misery wages a war of attrition, and the enemy is yourself.
Shortly after my 18th birthday, the doctors said there might be something wrong with my heart. I don’t remember ever having been so afraid. Well, that’s not entirely right. There was one other time. Eight years old, visiting my great-grandfather in a nursing facility for the chronically ill. I still remember the welcome sign: COLER-GOLDWATER, block letters separated by a garish red heart. How my great-grandfather’s room had overlooked the Hudson River, Manhattan’s outline straining through the fog. There were elderly people, which was to be expected in a place like that, but some were only children. And it was the children from whom I averted my eyes. I’d understood, even then, that they would live out the rest of their days among the aged and the dying and the unbearably beautiful cherry trees. So it wasn’t the patients I feared, but the flimsiness of the human body. How it breaks down and ultimately betrays you.
Ten years after setting foot in Coler-Goldwater, I faced a health scare of my own. To have social anxiety is to be continually let down by the body. Certain tics — twitching hands, a propensity to cut myself off in the middle of sentences — reveal my discomfort. But when the root cause is psychological, there’s always some way to make it stop.
Controlling the body is a question of controlling the mind, however difficult that may be; convince yourself it’s fine, you’re safe, and you can still the tremor in your voice.
To have social anxiety is to be continually let down by the body.
Physical health is a different matter altogether. If there was indeed a problem, I could hardly tell my heart to fix itself. My primary care physician had referred me to a cardiologist, who ran a battery of tests. For a three-week period, I could do nothing but wait. I was scared of my helplessness and appalled by how oblivious I’d been. In my relentless misery, I’d failed to see just how lucky I’d been to be physically healthy, surrounded by people who cared. I’d taken my health, my family and my friends for granted, tarnished what should have been the best years of my life.
While waiting for the results, I made vows on conditionals: if I’m okay, I’ll never be afraid again. Which is to say: I’d stop sending phone calls to voicemail, start looking people in the eye, listen to my therapist, subject myself to the mortifying process of understanding and being understood. I’d try, really try this time.
The hospital where I got my cardiac MRI was a worn, stately building with ivy creeping up its facade. Two technologists asked what I was there for, and I said a heart murmur, feeling strangely disconnected from the weight of those words. “It might be benign,” said the taller one: a laughably anodyne remark. I smiled, bobbed my head. They inserted an IV into my right arm, gave me earplugs and a set of headphones for music. “We’re going to take over your body,” they said. It was meant to be light-hearted, but there was an undeniable truth somewhere amid the levity. Inside a hospital, you forfeit all control: it’s the ultimate form of surrender, of letting go. And maybe that’s what spooked me at Coler-Goldwater all those years ago, even more than the prospect of frailty and decline. I’d never learned how to let go of anything. If given a choice between holding on and letting go, I invariably chose the former, even if that meant pain, even if that meant pyrrhic victory.
One of the technologists slid me into the tube, enclosed me in a semicircle of white, whiteness that just went on and on. I kept a tight rein on my thoughts, cleared my mind until it was blank as snow, because if I considered the possibilities I’d be going down a path from which I might never return. Breathe in, try not to worry, breathe out, hold your breath as directed. The technologists circled the machine like vultures. At some point I lost track of the eighties songs blaring through the headphones and let the clattering sounds from the MRI become white noise, signifying nothing.
A few weeks later, I returned to the cardiologist, hands folded nervously in my lap. When he entered the room, he smiled, and that’s all I could fixate on. He said something about a perfect heart, and I wanted to nod blithely, hold his patronizing kindness at arm’s length, but teared up instead. Until that moment, I’d put my life on hold. It had been — if not a still, at least slow-motion. I’d lost interest in concepts as tenuous as the future. Because what if I never got there? Why invest in uncertain days? Now I could hit play at last.
Coler-Goldwater Hospital, that specter of my childhood, exists no more. A college campus has risen in its place, and people who know nothing of its past will trod those tree-lined lanes. A photographer deemed the complex historically significant before its demolishment, captured photo after photo of those haunting halls. Sometimes I click through each image and wonder if there was a lesson to be learned.
I’d lost interest in concepts as tenuous as the future.
It really is easy to forget. I’m now a sophomore in college, and the fear of that summer — as well as the promises I made to myself — are but a memory. A lot has happened in the two years since then. I’ve switched majors, backpacked a part of the Appalachian trail, taken a liking to coffee, met people who care for me far more than I once cared for myself. I’m more open about my anxiety. I tell myself it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and some days, I almost believe it. There’s a line from a French documentary that goes something like this: I can’t see very clearly, but I see. And I do, I finally do. The sun rises and sets; the days grow shorter and longer and shorter again; the leaves change color, wither, and die. And through it all, I’m still here. What else is there to be grateful for?
Some things remain the same: I still worry too much, fume over petty slights, pretend not to see people in passing because I don’t quite know what to say. But I’m no longer as distrustful of sentiment, no longer as scornful of hope — now I believe that everything will somehow be okay, that the world will carry me along instead of passing me by. And so, when I want to do nothing but hole up in my room, I put on my sneakers and go to the gym, or reach out to a friend, or walk downtown and take in all the beauty there is to see. There’s no time to dwell.