TOUR Day 15 - Chicago and Nowness
I am back on the road after a work week in New Orleans. I had no idea the rapid transitions would be so difficult. This all started thusly: I purchased tickets last month to fly from Kansas City to New Orleans on August 16, and to return to the road on August 20 in Minneapolis, so I could go to the beginning-of-the-year training required by the arts organization I work for. The night before my flight, I curled up to go to sleep in a swank hotel in Oklahoma City, and decided I would check in a little early (better safe than sorry). It took me until then to realize that I was five hours away from the airport I was supposed to fly out of.
The anatomy of a panic attack has characteristics of a slow build: there’s a seed of Something Wrong, and at first, you believe you can squash it before anything escalates. OK. It’s OK. It’s no big deal. I’ll just buy another ticket out of Oklahoma City. It’ll work out. So you buy another ticket out of Oklahoma City. Now I just have to call the airline and tell them I need to cancel the first leg of my trip. Maybe they will even issue me a refund of sorts! So you call the airline.
American Airlines: Hello, this is American Airlines. How can I help you?
Self: Hello! Hi. I have to cancel the first leg of my trip tomorrow. There was an emergency, so I need to cancel it.
American Airlines: What is your confirmation number?
American Airlines: Let’s see. CBEEGG?
Self: Like… E as in… um… E as in Egg, C as in Cat, B as in Bashful, B as in Beautiful, C as in Cash, E as in Everybody.
American Airlines: …
Self: E as in East, C as in Cake, C as in Courage, B as in Bountiful, B as in Balloon, C as in Crib, E as in Edward.
American Airlines: You could just say the same words for the letters you have to repeat. That would make it easier for me.
Self: Oh. Sorry.
American Airlines: Sophia Johnson?
Self: Yes. I need to cancel the first leg of the trip. The Kansas City to New Orleans part?
American Airlines: Let’s see. That will cost $800.
Self: Wait. Just to cancel it?
American Airlines: Yes.
Self: But… I’m just… not going to sit on the plane. Why is that more money?
American Airlines: Ms. Johnson, it is the night before your flight. YOU booked this reservation. It’s not really my problem that you need to change your flight. You are changing your flight THE NIGHT BEFORE. That will be $800.
Self: I don’t have $800.
American Airlines: Well, I don’t see how that is my problem, either.
Self: OK. Um. Then I guess I will just cancel the whole flight.
American Airlines: That will cost $300. For the flight change.
Self: … I have to call you back.
I have been trying to find the words to describe a panic attack for a long time. Being very much in the writer’s mind when this one crept up on me, I did my best to chart its progress as it made its way through my body, for journalistic reasons. The thing that I want to make abundantly clear is that I did not want to have one. I was in a public hotel room with three adult men who do not cry, and who do not seem to have any interest in crying. It was not a place I felt safe having a panic attack. There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if I might have more psychological control over my panic attacks than I have always given myself credit for. I have entertained the idea that it’s not entirely impossible that I have been purposefully melodramatic to emotionally manipulate people. But that was not what was happening here. There was nothing I wanted less than to have a huge meltdown in this moment. This was genuine.
I couldn’t not cry. I couldn’t really breathe, either. I couldn’t talk. I left the hotel room to avoid a spectacle. I sat in the stairwell and tried to sob as quietly as I possibly could. It was NOT quiet, however, and I am sure I alarmed plenty of perfectly calm, otherwise relaxed people in the Oklahoma City Comfort Inn. I tried to breathe and focus on my breath. I remembered all the meditation books I’d read, and I earnestly gave it my all to be in the moment. But ultimately, that was no use. My mind had a life of its own.
It feels like this: You are crouched there, exactly the person you are. You are surrounded by twenty other versions of yourself — all of whom are angry and annoyed. They are standing above you, shouting at you. Their voices overlap, but you’re getting the gist: “Why aren’t you more careful? How many times does something have to go wrong before you figure out how to manage your finances better? How will you afford this, huh? What are you thinking, being on tour when you’re broke and you need to be working? Why don’t you get off that high horse that says you can do comedy and focus on your nine-to-five like everyone else on earth who isn’t completely self-absorbed? You’re fat. You’re REALLY fat. You’re sitting there, just a fat glob. You have no self-control. No one loves you. The people who think they love you are wrong. You know they’re wrong, I know they’re wrong, and they’re gonna figure it out eventually and you’ll just cry about it AGAIN and lose your footing. Let’s talk about [boy]. [Boy] left you! You know what the pathetic thing about that is? It’s that for EVEN A SECOND you believed [Boy] would not leave you. But it’s you, Sophie! Of COURSE [Boy] left you; that’s what boys DO with you. They like you and then they see THIS version of you, crying in the fucking stairwell, and they realize you’re more than they bargained for." I get that this is all irrational. It's just that I am so convincing in the moment.
I called my sister Alexis, who patiently sat and listened to me, before gently reminding me that I needed to redouble my efforts to seek more extensive mental health services, and I knew she was right.
The strangest part of this, to me, is being able to recognize in a difficult moment that you will not always feel this way. You can know with all the sinews of your brain that this unbearable-seeming “now” will fade and change; but in the moment, the moment itself is unstoppable and merciless. You understand without understanding.
A few days back in New Orleans were grounded and orderly. Yesterday I flew into Chicago, which is easily the most significant city in my life. Chicago was where I realized for the first time the kind of activism I wanted to engage with (race, class, education). Chicago was where I decided I wanted to be a comedian. Chicago was where I first fell in love with a girl, and began to see the lines around sexuality and love begin to distort and blur.
Going back to a personally significant place is a patently strange experience. Going down the escalator at O’Hare, I remembered waiting at the bottom of that same escalator for my college boyfriend when he visited me in Chicago. I had tucked my first pair of skinny jeans into my first pair of knee-high boots. I had never tried a fashion-look like that before, and I felt stylish and intriguing. The boyfriend told me I looked ridiculous. “What is the point of tucking your pants into your boots? It just makes everything harder to take off!” I never wore that outfit again.
Returning to the show felt good. The audience last night was full of sex-positive, smart, pseudo-edgy types. I felt comfortable. The adrenaline from being on stage was intoxicating. Then we drove until 3 in the morning.
Rob has gone back to work now, and Jonathan has joined us. Jonathan is brilliant and occasionally quiet, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him. A lot of the same fear and a lot of the same excitement is persistent. Overarching is the sense that all of this “now”ness will someday be “then”ness. Someday I will go down the O’Hare escalator again, and I’ll remember this trip.
After the show, we went to Millennium Park. On a hot night in Chicago, there is no better place for a kid than Crown Fountain. Composed of two 50-foot glass brick towers that display digital videos of giant blinking faces that spit actual water onto a black granite reflecting pool, Crown Fountain features enough space and random-seeming fountain spasms to entertain anyone for hours. We showed up at 10 p.m.; a few dozen children in sopping bathing suits lingered around the sculpture, although you could tell they’d been there all day and were starting to get tired. The park was quietly alive. On a blue stage near the famous “Cloud Gate” steel bean sculpture, a violinist eccentrically ripped at the strings of his instrument to the waning affections of a tepid crowd.
Looking in the mirrors of the sculpture, I privately remembered taking a disposable camera photograph right there with a man I loved. It was the day before Barack Obama got elected the 44th president of the United States. I was lost in that when Chris said, “When I was studying improv here, I would spend what little money I had on train tickets to come and sit at this park.” The timeline of ghosts I held in that space tore open for a moment, if only to let in someone else’s.