The Machine

IMG_20160115_163003018.jpgWhen I was in the late single-digits—sometime during third grade—I developed an intense fear of choking. We had brought home some excellent sandwiches from Carrs’ deli and I was really excited to eat, because at that point I loved plain turkey with shredded lettuce and mayo and black pepper on white or wheat bread, and Carrs’ deli made excellent turkey with shredded lettuce and mayo with black pepper on white or wheat bread. And I remember taking a bite and just not knowing what to do. Where does it go? What do I do with it? Where do I put my tongue, how do I push the food back? What if I do it wrong, and I choke? Was I choking? How could I tell I was choking?

We were sitting in our first house. Dad had already moved to an apartment in the city and it was just me and Jari and Mom out in Eagle River, in the house that Dad built. I looked around the dining room with faraway eyes, masticating a tiny tiny bite of turkey sandwich into oblivion. My mind was buzzing with methods and tactics to protect myself. Every time I chanced a swallow, I ran to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror and coughed. I turned red because I was making myself cough so much. I didn’t finish the sandwich.

The next morning we had Honey Comb cereal for breakfast, which was unusual, because there was never and I mean never ever any kind of sugared cereal in the house—there was the muesliesque Just Right, which I also loved for the chunks of date and raisin, but of course any cereal made with seven tons of hydrolated sugar crystals and corn dust was going to be way higher on any red-blooded American kid’s list.*  That morning, excited as usual to eat, I couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. I ate a few of the ‘combs, and glumly pushed the floating pieces around in the bowl of milk, growing more despondent as they got soggier and soggier.

Within the next few days Dad was driving us to school (a long commute from his apartment on 11th and Barrow) in his bright blue Ford F-150 pickup and I swallowed a lump of toast all at once, way faster than the measured way I’d been swallowing things as of late, and the shock of it sent me into a coughing fit because it was too much too fast and I couldn’t tell whether I was choking or not so I coughed a lot to be sure. Dad was alarmed but saw that it was nothing and told me to calm down. We thought it’d boil over.

Over the next few months I stopped eating most foods and it became A Thing. I sat on the brown brass heating vent in our cold cold house in winter, drinking protein shakes or smoothies for breakfast, as liquid was easier to think about than solid food. I decided I was vegetarian because meat was too chewy and therefore too complicated to eat. (Hot dogs were given exception). I had a strange and noticeable way of chewing, according to Mom, which involved chewing only with my front teeth. At big dinners with Butch and Mom and Libby and Licia and Jari (which for years it seemed the menu was roasted chicken breasts or hamburgers with Costco salad and rice)** I would eat food and just keep chewing it without swallowing, until my cheeks were bulging like a chipmunk’s, at which point I would excuse myself to the bathroom and drop the chewed food into the toilet. I was scrupulous about flushing it all down cleanly so that nobody could discover I was not really eating. During these days I also had breathing issues—where I was convinced I would faint, so I had to take deeper breaths, or fewer breaths, and I breathed so deeply and so into my stomach that I got dizzy, which convinced me further that I would faint, so I kept breathing like a gasping monkfish. I started shaking uncontrollably at night before I went to sleep, maybe once or twice a week, something like shivering, and I had no idea what was causing it and so I went to the bathroom and shook and promised God that I’d pray every day and also stop masturbating if He made the shaking stop (which He eventually did, and I publicly apologize to God that I have neither prayed every day since nor given up wanking).

My parents, undoubtedly baffled and a little frightened by this behavior, took me to a child psychologist named [Betty or Barbara or Beth] who lived in an old Anchorage house near the JC Penny Parking Garage on 6th. She was nice and had a whole bunch of board games that we didn’t have, like Operation. I liked Operation a lot. It was $80 an hour to play Operation with [Barbara or Betty or Beth]. “He has anxiety about the divorce,” [Barbara or Betty or Beth] said to my parents, and my parents said, “no shit.”

They summarily took me to Charter North Star Behavioral Hospital, where I met with the ponytailed Dr. Nyman exactly one time. His office was darker, like a crypt or a movie studio, and detailed models (not toys!!) of X-Wings and the Death Star hung from the ceiling, and action figures decorated every shelf. [Who lets a child psychologist decorate his room with goddamn action figures and spaceship models and then doesn’t let kids play with them? Anyways.] He and I talked for an hour. I later learned that he had diagnosed me with Tourette’s Syndrome. This wasn’t totally out of left field: I had a variety of curious tics. I hummed without pause, sometimes a real song, sometimes just atonally. I itched the sides of my nose every thirty seconds or so. I cleared my throat every minute. I fidgeted with anything and everything within reach. But my parents, incredulous, looked at Dr. Nyman and told him he was full of it. I was mortified by the whole encounter because Charter was a mental hospital, and when Jari by accident revealed at a sleepover at our place that I’d been, I started crying and said it was supposed to be a family secret, and his friend Matt Davis*** was like hey it’s okay we’re all crazy and didn’t make a big deal of it, and that made me feel better.

Because my parents were (and still are) fabulous cooks, and because you can’t go through your life just like not eating food, I eventually started eating normally again. It took two years to develop trust in the unconscious mechanisms of swallowing and breathing. I remember just an agonizing and mostly invisible process of learning little by little to eat normally. (Oh jesus I just remembered this, I stole a cookie from Olivia’s pot in the Tonight Show. I did the first trick, my very famous and patented card-in-the-shoe trick, and Olivia had the second trick, a misery of showmanship, entirely dependent on a store-bought prop to make Safeway brand chocolate chip cookies appear in a cooking pot, and I stole one cookie in dress rehearsal to be cheeky and the stage manager told me to do it on the real show, and I remember going through the panic OH SHIT I’VE GOT TO CHEW AND SWALLOW THIS SHIT ON LIVE TV HOLY FUCK. Think I just took one bite and put the rest in my trouser pocket, hiding the cookie mulch in my lip like chewing tobacco. Jay Leno called me a little weasel, to my delight. Those were interesting days.)

At about thirteen or fourteen years old, I began branching out and trying all the wonderful foods I’d previously avoided. By the time high school ended, I’d still lean forward and grip the table and feel an impending panic if a lump of food went down a little more solidly or slowly than anticipated, but I was voraciously eating whatever was put before me.

But those two strange years where I was afraid of eating installed within me something I came to call The Machine: a whirring hand-cranked device which chained together benign phenomena until they became something huge, fearful, dangerous. It built in my mind gargantuan wireframe monsters, clickety-clacking shambling dinosaurs which stalked like silhouettes. I needed The Machine to screen out things that could hurt me, to create plans for protecting myself, to knit a net to catch my fall. Sometimes the thing at the bottom of the pit was death, sometimes it was failure, sometimes it was being rejected, sometimes it was change, and the Machine always caught me. But it never shut off.

Of course I have always been a compulsive reader—I read the back of the shampoo bottle while pooping because it’s better than not reading anything—but the patterns of thought I developed have a lot to do with me becoming a writer. I take one look at anything and start connecting it to every other thing in the whole universe with furious energy, the and-then, and-then, and-then which anxiety gave me. It wore a groove in my brain and thoughts still travel that route. It’s no longer driven by fear, thankfully. It’s an itch. Writing became one of the only ways to deposit—no, that’s not the right word. The things I write didn’t and still don’t like exist all crystalline in my mind before I decide to scrawl or type them out at blitzkrieg speed. It spins the wheels I feel compelled to spin.

I started writing in old composition notebooks in fourth grade, and then Laura encouraged me to keep a journal when I was a sophomore in college. Those early notebooks were about love and girls and death and crises in only the way a nervous adolescent’s notebooks can be. I wish I still had them. They marked a time when I was first becoming conscious of The Machine and first finding outlets for its frenzy. Over the years I learned a lot of ways to cope or coexist. It’s had a lot to do with who I am and how I got here—overthinking things had a hand in me studying philosophy, in moving abroad, in pushing me towards some of my zanier projects. (Though a gigantic ego has a hand in all of those, too, as well as a hunger for adventure and an active imagination.) I could continue this story, going through the history of when and where anxiety irrupted up into my life and how I learned to deal, but it’s also important to learn how to just shut up and find and ending once in a while and let the frenetic and-then and-then and-then choke and sputter and stall out, so I can go on with my life.


Not The Machine, but a funny cat

*Honey Comb, for those of you who didn’t grow up in a place with Honey Comb, is made up of inchlong yellow hexagons theoretically shaped like honey combs, and theoretically flavored like honey. It had a cartoon mascot analogue to the Loony Toons Tasmanian Devil in that it was a furball dervish who would spiral into a frenzy upon eating (or upon being denied) Honey Comb cereal. Which I’m sure sent a pretty clear message to most of the parents: this product will send your kid into sugar catalepsy, DO NOT BUY.

** In the mornings of course it was oatmeal with brown sugar, raisins, and milk. Every morning for between three and six years, we were given oatmeal for breakfast. Libby blames this on our mom, Jari and I blame this on Butch. I can no longer eat oatmeal without wanting to gag. My ability to enjoy oatmeal was entirely exhausted at a young age.

***These days, Matt Davis can be found on the hit TV show Deadliest Catch.


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