I tend to go with the flow. Say I'm out with some friends, they can't decide where to eat and they ask me. I say, "wherever you want, I'm easy," because it's true. Food is good all over and I'm relatively omnivorous.
When I was younger, I often struggled in those circumstances. I couldn't communicate my thoughts and further prompting would only make it worse, flooding my thinking entirely with indecision. So my parents would whisk me along whatever path they thought I might want, and that was that.
I suppose the one habit developed from the other, though calling childhood anxiety a habit would be misstating it, but I'm only now seeing things this way, thirty years on. At the time, I didn't know how to tell someone what I was feeling in those moments, and others saw a quiet kid that didn't seem to mind when others made decisions for him. So I went with the flow.
Eventually, it became obvious that something was different about me. My father saw my behavior as taking "the path of least resistance." Accepting fate without a fight. But for me it was a fight to speak, to voice any of my desires. It was so challenging, and others never really understood that. I kept up until I didn't really want to fight any more.
I grew up. I performed well in school. It was a place where expectations were clearly communicated, where I could follow directions and get rewarded. I would feel good when teachers noticed my capabilities, but there were still signs that I was not quite present in the same way as other children. During recess periods I looked for others to direct my interests. I remember making a series of friends in the grades above me and then following them dutifully around the playground, grateful for the direction, until they realized I wasn't really contributing in the way their other friends might be, and they'd distance themselves from me.
This continued into high school, where I was on the periphery of many different friend groups, but never essential to any of them. Sure, I'd get invited to hang outs, but I never felt comfortable. It was so easy for others in those settings, giving their opinions, voicing their concerns, while I would be focused on managing all of the social interactions that were threatening to overwhelm me.
I graduated high school and I moved out. I went to college, but without the ability to specifically communicate my direction, or any direction really, I ended up paying a lot of money for a mish-mash of classes I barely went to. Somehow I only failed one class but I still had to meet with an advisor. "We" talked for five minutes and then "we" decided that I could retake the class over the summer quarter.
I told my parents that I would need to stay at school over the summer. My father decided it couldn't work. That I needed to come back home and then transfer to a different school. I didn't know what to say. It was more of the same, my head was swimming, so I went with the flow.
That summer was miserable. I limped through another college application, to the school my parents graduated from and that my brother was currently attending, where he was thriving. I was accepted and the admissions people seemed very excited. I felt lost, flotsam at sea, hoping to reach land.
The school was much smaller than my previous one, the town where it resided notable only for the university. I felt little pressure and zero motivation. I enjoyed spending time with my brother, but it felt like I was melting, that everything was moving except me.
I started going to the library, a drab, blocky building, all brown stone work and dark glass. Inside it was always cool, with a hushed, humming chorus of HVAC and fluorescent lights that I rather liked.
I tend to peruse libraries randomly, feeling them out by the texture of their volumes, the lighting and auditory changes as one passes through the rows of shelves. Here I was immediately drawn to the second floor.
The stairway was closed off from the rest of the structure for fire safety. Opening the door into the second floor felt like coming up for air.
I saw it as I stepped past the first shelf, wrapped in a faded red cover, stamped with the words Either / Or in crisp black letters on its gently rounded spine.
I had heard of Kierkegaard but I knew nothing of his writing. I took the book down from the shelf, felt the fine grain of the cover's cloth. The smooth, acid proof paper gave off a stale, perfumed scent as I opened to the first section, entitled Diapsalmata:
What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music.
I felt known, discovered, seen, and I read on, and whether those words reflected my current situation accurately was inconsequential. My heart's anguish was not being heard. Kierkegaard could see it plainly from a century away but here he was dead in my hands.
I want to continue but could then only think of a particular expression I would get on my face as a child, for example when my father would push me up to a fast food counter, saying nothing but requiring everything, and I would be slowly overcome with a dizzying anxiety. An expression that I knew from the inside—muscles contorting as my best representation of thought and emotion—but that was never enough to convey what was happening to me to those outside.
I was seventy percent water poured into a slender glass, liable to shatter but still desperately in need of molding. It didn't matter what I thought about it because water settles into its container, and you don't get to choose your glass. But here, on the second floor, a weight of words in my hands, I was slowly realizing how disassociated I had become.
Also, I wanted to add that this is my first post here and it kind of became...a lot more than I was expecting, but in all the best ways. Hopefully I'll be able to continue this soon and I'd appreciate any and all comments and critiques y'all may have!
Header photo by Steven John Pascua from Pexels