When I was six years old, my mother put me on a plane, by myself, to fly to JFK to visit my godmother (her sister) and my uncle. It was 1984 and well, things were different than they are today. The world was a safer place. Nonetheless, I was totally freaked out. I remember my mom boarding the plane with me and my begging her not to leave me alone, to fly to NYC with me. I remember her tearing up but resolutely telling me I would be fine. The nice flight attendant lady eventually had to come over and tell my mom it was time for her to go. (Imagine that - airlines allowing parents onto the plane to settle their kids in. File under: shit they would never allow today.)
Now, I was none too pleased about the mama bear departing the plane. The flight attendant, however, was a wily little fox and she knew how to calm me down. Bribery. Coca-Cola. Keep 'em coming. It's a short flight from Hartford to JFK, and she had nothing to lose.
I suspect this may be my earliest memory of anxiety. Luckily, it was a short flight and my new friend did not leave my side until we were off that plane and I was safely in the arms of my godmother.
My aunt lived in Queens in what I can only remember as a very tall building. I had never been in an apartment before and the novelty of having people below me and above me was very exciting. As was the near-constant sound of traffic. This was like being on another planet. My home in CT was in a quiet, suburban neighborhood surrounded by woods and the only cars on our street belonged to our neighbors.
In addition, I was informed that we would be having dinner that night in a place called China Town. I don't remember how we got to the restaurant but upon browsing the menu I was thrilled to see Shark Fin Soup.
I immediately requested that be my dinner. My aunt and uncle found this an odd choice but they indulged me and let me order it. (A first! Coming from a family with three kids there was no room for experimentation at dinner time back home.)
When it finally arrived, a lump immediately formed in my throat. My aunt and uncle looked on expectantly wondering what I was going to do with this unusual meal choice. I looked at their amused, patient faces and decided that surely there had been a mistake. Shark fin soup was supposed to have sharks in it. This was bullshit. This was broth! With weird shit in it! Not one single shark was swimming around Looney Tunes style in that damn bowl. I had been robbed! But Goddammit I was not going to look ungrateful or like a baby in front of my most adored aunt. I ate that soup. Maybe not all of it but I plunged in with all the gusto I could muster, determined that they would think I was a big kid and not some sucker.
After dinner they informed me we were going to see a show but that some parts of it might be a little scary. Oh God. I was SIX. I had just found out that the world's most exciting entree was, in fact, total bullshit. My world had been rocked. I informed them I was feeling a bit tired and would like to retire to my room and go to bed. They hesitated for a moment and I froze - disappoint the coolest people in the world or suck it up?
Suck it up Smith! I told myself. Don't be a baby!
I agreed we could go check it out and they promised if it got too scary we could leave.
The show was the first off-Broadway run of Little Shop of Horrors. We sat in balcony seats and from the moment the first note was sung to the amazing ending when green and red streamers poured down from the ceiling on to the crowd I was hooked. I cried when it was over because it was so good I didn't have the words to express my pure, unadulterated joy. They bought me a tee-shirt. I kept that shirt until I left for college. At that point it was little more than a rag but just seeing it in my drawer was something I enjoyed for years.
Since that day, live theater and live music have become some of the most life affirming, moving, and inspiring experiences of my life. The ability to completely detach, to willfully suspend disbelief and become a part of the living, breathing, organism of live performance is a gift I have been missing out on for far too long. Because of the anxiety and panic disorders that have plagued my existence for the past fourteen years, going to events in crowded theaters was simply too far out of my comfort zone.
This past May I went to a Florence + The Machine concert. It was the first concert I'd been to in three years. And it was awesome. It was a gift to myself and a giant Fuck You to panic and anxiety.
I went to see The Vagina Monologues tonight and, as I always do, I found myself wiping away tears at the beginning of the performance as well as the end. Tears of joy, of connection with other creatives and artists, feeling the energy of a room and knowing I am a part of this. I will never allow myself to be without this life force again. To allow that would be giving up on myself and there is too much joy in me to ever let that happen again.