Kind of a Downer, If I’m Honest—Not to Me, So Much, But Your Mileage May Vary

First sent out via my newsletter on 1/21/2018.

CW: Self-harm, sort of, but also not really.

3:00 am
I've woken up around 2am, every night, for the past few nights. I never used to have insomnia, and when I say never, I mean it about as literally as possible: I slept soundly nearly every single night of my teens and twenties. But I haven't slept as well for the past few years, and I don't really know what to do with it. Usually I toss and turn for a while, then look at my phone for a longer while, and repeat until 3, 4, 6am. Sometimes, when I can't stand worrying any more, I get up to watch a show. I don't know what other people do in the middle of the night.  

For the past couple nights, though, I've been fidgeting with a visualization, which is a new-agey word that I am hypocritically uncomfortable with, given how much meditating I do these days. It goes like this: as in meditation, I start by trying to chart the way my anxiety moves in my body. I'll resist the urge to enumerate things I'm anxious about: that stuff is sticky, and everyone already has their own middle-of-the-night fears. You don't need mine. But I will tell you that my anxiety feels like a fire in my belly is sending sparks shooting up into my chest, and that it reminds me of a scripture from Job that I just read in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead: "Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." 

I wish I could externalize this feeling somehow, get it out of my torso, a little farther from my heart. Do you remember The Secret Life of Bees? There's a character in it, May, who can't stand sorrow of any kind. The only way she can survive in the world is to externalize it, so she builds a wall. Whenever she hears something sad, she writes it on a piece of paper and sticks the paper between the stones. That's what I want, too: somewhere to put my own sadness. Except instead of a wall, I imagine taking all my fears and shoving them into the extremities of my body: the pinky finger of my left hand, say. The minor things--the unanswered emails and things I need from the grocery store--can go into hair follicles, to be sloughed off in the shower in the morning. But the big stuff? The human suffering, the National Geographic photos of threatened animals, the unwritten dissertation pages, and the people I've hurt? All that shit goes straight into the flesh of my hand. All those fears, those worries and regrets, filling the space between the cells in my pinky.

This is extremely comforting, and I will try to explain why, although I'm not sure this will make any sense at all. I imagine that it might hurt, a little, but not too much, and that on balance it would be less bothersome than those endless, primitive sparks. And I'm comforted by this, even as I imagine my finger growing ashy and dead over the years, slowly rotting from all that fear and grief until it finally falls off, forever. I think about how much lighter I would feel then, and how proud for carrying that stuff all those years, the absent space where the digit had been a badge of empathetic honor. What a relief that would be, really; what a small sacrifice to make. And then, perhaps after a short recess, I'd have to chose another body part--a tooth, maybe, or a toe--because there will never be a shortage of sorrow. Then the process would repeat all over again, the slow saturation of bits of my body with grief amply accounted for by the miracle of, eventually, letting them go. 

Haylie Swenson