I spent 25 minutes lurking like a predator behind a potted plant while a man repaired the only vending machine with the chips I like. I stood there, just out of his line of sight, waiting for the moment when his work was done, when I could move in, when I could finally have lunch. I watched as he pulled his phone from a fraying pocket in his jeans. He called someone, sounded like he was asking for help, said thank you in a high-pitched genuine appreciation sort of way, and hung up. I had 15 minutes left before I had to teach. Then 10. Then 7.
I left without my delicious, excusably low-calorie chips. There were other vending machines, but all they sold were candy and things I’d berate myself over later. I resisted and went to work. I’d had a salad earlier. I’d be fine without this little morsel of instant gratification. I told myself that as I pined after even the smell of something made entirely out of chocolate and–probably–sawdust.
I am not a person who has traditionally had what anyone–therapists included!–would call “healthy” coping mechanisms. In fact, I’d argue that for a very long time, I didn’t have any coping mechanisms at all. I’d just react. Feeling worthless? Have a cocktail. Feeling empty? Visit friends and criticize our peers. Experiencing the resurgence of thoughts and feelings that might indicate something too big and too painful and too loud to deal with right now? Crush that shit, bury it like a body.
I used to go through a lot of trouble just to avoid the potential of being around too many people. “Too many people” apparently constituted grocery stores in the day, bars at night, and seeing more than one of my neighbors at once. Instead of learning how to deal with these stressful situations, I became an artist in terms of avoiding them. Too anxious around people to shop in the day? Become nocturnal and never speak to anyone. Don’t like how loud and angry the bar crowd gets at night? Day drink! Don’t want to see your neighbors because they’re very chatty and I’m always stuck right on the edge of my apartment like halfway through the door and they just keep talking and one of them wants me to stream video games with him and I just don’t have the energy to talk to someone for three minutes at my doorway let alone for three hours for an audience I can’t see. Learn to break into your apartment through the side window, the one that just falls out of its frame and probably has allowed countless burglars into your apartment who then could find nothing worth stealing. I was pretty sure keeping myself from being anxious had solved my anxiety. Unfortunately, avoiding a problem does not mean it is solved.
Eventually, I had to start going out in the day again. I saw people, and they talked to me, and it was awful. I was always anxious but hadn’t really developed any ways of dealing with that beyond avoiding it, so things were bad. Apparently, when you have no coping mechanisms, you can’t cope. Weird.
Eventually, I developed some bad habits that made the anxiety go away. I could talk to people, but there had to be a way for me to escape whenever I wanted to. Homework. I’d just tell them I had homework, or my cat was hungry, or I was hungry, or I hadn’t showered in three weeks. Lying was my way out.
When I was anxious for other reasons–impending doom, loneliness, problems I wasn’t ready to deal with–I’d eat trash. I wasn’t always the Iron Chef caliber culinary prodigy I am today. I used to eat, like, a lot of bread. Just bread. Not as a meal though, that was what instant mashed potatoes were for. The bread would just be something I’d have nearby while existing. There are probably legends about me at some grocery store: is that the one who fears not the carbs? Indeed, twas I.
I’ve never had good ways of dealing with stress or anxiety or just with things not going well. I was a super unhealthy person for a really long time, and I offer all this background, all this deeply personal information that puts me in this moment of weird vulnerability because 1) We really have to get on getting rid of the stigma against talking about mental health and 2) because I want it to be so fucking clear why me prowling around that health-food vending machine like a puma stalking a wounded deer is really fucking neato. I could go for the bullshit and lick the oil from the shimmering walls of a bag of chips, but I didn’t do that. Instead, I waited as long as I could, licking my lips and waiting for my moment, and even when it looked like it wouldn’t come, I didn’t go for some already-dead deer. This puma has standards.