The rash on the back of my neck comes back within 48 hours of landing in Paris.
Noticing an itch, I feel the telltale raised bumps, a sure sign that my body has started going haywire. Whenever stress gets to borderline unmanageable levels, my body sends out signals to force me to slow down.
Unfortunately, these have become the new normal over the last few months. Nausea and no appetite are part of my daily life, insomnia shows no sign of abating, and anxiety squishes the air out of my lungs several times a day.
Stress is a sumo wrestler made of ice sitting on my chest.
Despite the thermos of hot water always by my side, the layers I wear, and the many cups of tea, I’m cold all the time. This means all my muscles are tight and everything hurts, no matter what I do. When I’m out and about, I have the impression of floating and not being quite here at all, a ghost in my own life.
Granted, mine are unusual circumstances. I just shelved my American life so I could go support my father in Paris as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for stage 4 cancer.
Although I’m trying to be as laid back as possible, my father is abuzz with anxiety and unable to relax. Instead, his preferred mode of communication is confrontation and constant complaining. Both are difficult to ignore as I’m not used to them, but my stepmom manages quite well although she concedes it wears her out.
So I try and mediate, a human buffer between two people terrified of the future.
I’m left holding my own hand, again. Still. Always.
Even though I’m seldom alone, loneliness is my constant companion.
Living with family while craving a little privacy is the source of much consternation. Much as I would like to give free rein to my emotions, I can’t, for to do so would invite further questioning. Instead, I try to be as inconspicuous as possible, a soothing presence in the background rather than a tight ball of raw nerves.
But there’s a permanent hockey puck in my throat. It makes eating difficult and swallowing unpleasant, a chore rather than the pleasure it always used to be. Thankfully, I keep the feeding torture to a once daily affair and sometimes skip a day to give my body a rest.
Those are not ideal parameters when you’re trying to rebuild a life from scratch, as I have been doing since the summer. Stress is also a constant threat to creativity. I remain fiercely committed to saving my own life, I work hard and will myself to push through any obstacle I encounter, but the muse is wobbly. Its presence is fleeting, coming in and out of focus, occasionally fading to black.
And although there’s nothing that would make me feel more complete and accomplished, I can never take the muse for granted.
The fear of losing my writing voice again is omnipresent and being back in Europe is dredging up old demons I’m ill-equipped to deal with. For example, every day I have to face the remnants of a childhood and adolescence mired in trauma and domestic abuse. I may be an adult now but my parents still see me as an impish baby mooning the world and looking at it askance with big blue-green eyes. To them, I’m less than the person I became, not quite grown, not quite capable, not quite of sound mind.
I am a stranger among my own.
Since I don’t know how to protect myself from total alienation I keep my head down and write on.
I’m a free electron existing in a liminal space between the present and a future that might just work out if the muse doesn’t bail on me. My body doesn’t know whether to embrace fight or flight so it does both at the same time.
When you care so very deeply about everything and everyone, stress is a standard autonomic response. And the only thing I can do about it is take to the page and try to articulate it.
My skin tingles and burns but my fingers are so cold they no longer dance on the keyboard.
I’ve been playing the same song on a loop for a while now and swallowing back the tears I can’t let myself shed. Earlier, I had to brief my mom about seeing my father and stepmom again tomorrow for the first time in many, many years. Dad has aged twenty years in five, and my stepmom always looks like she needs a hug. “Mom, I beg you, whatever you do, please don’t burst into tears,” I tell her, explaining that being as positive and upbeat as possible around my stepmom is key. My mother also tangles with depression and she’s sensitive to a fault. The potential for that meeting to go very wrong is huge, and if one of us bursts into tears, we all will.
In the absence of anyone I can talk to today, I stuff my brain with song and sound to keep going. Music is the strong arm pulling me back from the sinkhole every time I get too close to the edge. Aware that these are dangerous times, I’m never not on high alert as I try and balance family imperatives with my work. My hope is that if I show willing and deploy as much ingenuity as I can muster, the muse might just stick around.
The latter has led me to try and plug the hole in my heart, the part of me that fell asleep when I left my Atlantic island home several years ago. By then, I had become deeply integrated into local society, fluent in a language I learned on the street and which I used in a professional capacity for press work.
Against all odds, I’m picking it up again and cranking out text. And forcing my brain to think in a third language beside the two that make up my every day acts as an instant escape pod that I can board any time I’m overwhelmed.
While many people have the common sense to take a step back, isolate, rest, recharge, and regroup when the going gets tough, I need to do more of what gives me life. This is how I try and conjure up uncommon solutions to all my woes, trusting they will appear when I most need them.
Love always ripples out and reverberates so I’m hanging on to my heart for dear life and letting it lead the way as it’s the only compass I’ve got.
Love seeks and builds solutions as it constantly adapts to new parameters, it does not destroy.
Therefore inertia isn’t an option and stepping back means I could miss out on all the good that hasn’t happened yet. I trust it will because this is what I am building, and this unwavering faith in the future is what carries me.
In the end, what is stress but a mental battle between hope and fear?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.