We interrupt this usual travel blog for a detailed retelling of an anxiety attack.
Lobsters, to oversimplify things, do not age. Thanks to the ability to constantly produce telemerase, a substance that caps chromosomes and allows cells to divide without a decline in quality; the lobster just keeps growing and growing. When a lobster grows too large for her shell, she finds a space to hide and sheds that hard protective layer, freeing her up to keep growing. This process is very risky for her, not only because it takes huge amount of energy but because it leaves her completely defenceless without her armour. It’s theorised that this is what kills lobsters in the end- lack of energy to shed their carapace leaves them trapped in clothes too small. Parasites and bacteria accumulate under the tight shell, and this along with the pressure kills them. If lobsters could always muster the energy to cast off their old outfit, it’s possible that they could live forever. Or at least until someone ate them.
Like the lobster, humans have the potential to keep growing their entire lives, not physically but mentally. We expose ourselves to new information, changes and psychological challenges, and in an act of true vulnerability; cast off our old selves and emerge ready to grow new armour. Those who don’t change and grow are sure to stagnate and rot.
In my own personal development, right now I am a moulted lobster. After an intense period of growth I retreated to my cove in Wales, cast off my old shell, and now I worry I have returned to the world too soon. Just when I thought I was ready to fly, I have the sense that I have fallen into a pit. Everything is underlined with a ticking fatalistic mentality, and I am defenceless against the world.
A maelstrom of different fronts blew over me in Tokyo and at one point I began to drown. From the moment I had woken up, late in the day after another bad night’s sleep and struggled to get out of my pod before noon, I knew it was going to happen, the same way one can feel a migraine on the horizon. The day before I had gone book shopping and become massively overwhelmed with the realisation that my Japanese was essentially non-existent and I was an illiterate adult surrounded by information I could not access. It had left me feeling the same way maths classes at school did; where everyone told me I should understand but I was never sure I really got it.
It had started with a lunch, tinned mackerel on rice noodles and vegetables. I’d convinced myself that this feeling of dread was just low blood sugar, easily remedied, until in one pinch of the chopsticks I drew out a flopping fish spine and suddenly I was overtaken with a wave of anxious nausea that punched me across the room.
You are a disgrace, yelled a voice suddenly inside me. You are a corpse cruncher, you are a graveyard, you are full of death, you have failed at compassion.
A thousand messages from myself and years of vegan propaganda and the world started to fly at me. My heart began to pound and the food in my mouth turned rotten.
You are an idiot. You are a loser. You did not deserve to come to Japan. You are wasting this opportunity. You are not studying Japanese and have not been talking to anyone. You will not make friends on this trip. You are not making the most of this trip. You are not rich enough for this trip. You were given money by your parents so you’re just another trustifarian on a pathetic gap year. You have no reason to be here. You are just wasting another year of your life.
I pushed my lunch aside and left.
The choice for the day seemed to be shutting myself in my pod and slowly descending into frantic upset, or trying to ride out the wave in the open air. I set a route for the Imperial Gardens, hoping some cherry blossoms would calm me and the walk would distract me. It failed to work.
Sick feeling after sick feeling smacked against my little boat and tried to capsize me. I wanted to peel off my skin and collapse to the floor in a puddle. I wanted to fold myself up into a tiny cube and then disappear. I wanted to not exist anywhere or in any sense, to not have to deal with the physical or the mental or any of this whole damn thing and just be a piece of leaf litter in a ditch being eaten by woodlice. My throat kept tightening and I did my best not to cry.
You started to make money from your art, and you abandoned it. When you get home and start again no one will want to buy it. If you even bother to start again. You’ve never stuck with anything. You will never get anywhere.
You will always, always, always self sabotage.
I am self sabotaging now.
The thought of this anxiety is making you anxious.
Ah. That old story.
Creativity is a curse. I can literally make myself feel bad about absolutely anything. On the road to the imperial gardens I passed a used bookshop, the perfect example of what Terry Pratchett meant when he described “L-space”. Books sprawled across every available space, held up on shelves made of other books in an impossible display of hubris against gravity. It was the kind of establishment that would have made a fire safety officer cry. I looked at it and made myself feel bad, first for buying books full price the day before, and second for not bothering to read all of Pratchett’s work, and thirdly for making myself feel bad staring at a bookshop that would have brought so many other people joy.
You are such such such such a failure and you have spent your entire life trying to run away from that because they only way to hide it is to constantly meet new people who are easily impressed by your pathetic skills you picked up from a lazy entitled life of leisure.
Maybe you are right. But people tell me they like my writing. People have always told me they liked my writing.
And did you do anything with that? No. You have wasted years of your life when you could have been working on this skill. You stupid stupid stupid girl.
We should be nicer to us.
Pah, you can’t even do that.
The loudest voice of all kept saying: You have betrayed yourself.
In so many ways, I could not deny that. I had gone from being almost vegan, growing all my own vegetables, as non-consumerist and environmentalist as I could be; to flying across the world, eating animals almost daily, producing huge amounts of plastic, and, in what felt like possibly the strongest saddest betrayal, wearing make up every day. Part of me told myself that it was an attempt to blend in with the beautiful put together women of Tokyo, but it wasn’t a very convincing excuse. More likely I felt like I needed some armour on against the world, like I didn’t want them to see what I really was; this sad little baby faced creature with greying hair at the top and spotty cheeks, somehow both marching forwards in age and stuck in perpetual mortifying adolescence.
The voice in my head would not shut up. I stopped and snapped selfies with some camellias, only to be told I was simultaneously ugly, vain, a tacky tourist, and faking mental illness because I was smiling in the photos. The landscape of the city morphed around me into the slick corporate lines of central Tokyo. My phone bleeped and told me there was no chance I’d get to the imperial gardens before closing, so I cracked out my guide book to see what else was in the vicinity. Not far from me was Fukutoku Shrine, an ancient relic clinging on like a limpet on a rock while waves of modernity crashed all around it. This thing is old; there are records of it already existing in the Jogan period of 860AD. It was a popular spot for our good friends the Tokugawa shogunate, because the name can be read as “luck for Toku”. Famously when the son of Tokugawa Ieyasu visited the shrine, he noticed new growth sprouting from the wooden beams of the shrine gate, which was then hailed as a miracle.
The shrine itself is a small neat little building, with a sweet little garden around it where bad fortunes had been hung up on blossoming cherry branches. I settled in on a bench opposite the red tori gate, and watched the world exist around me for a quarter of an hour until I realised that here was finally a good spot to draw uninterrupted, and cracked out my large craft paper sketchbook, getting to work in red crayon and black pen. With each scribble and flick the voice in my head began to fade, then lull, a baby pacified. Cold from the stone seat crept into my bones as I drew. I had tempered anxiety into chilled collected numbness again.
Over in the square beside the shrine, a huge art installation of a plastic tree throbbed and changed colour hypnotically. Standing in soft awe I watched it, and thought of the fake tree in the town square of my hometown. Maybe this is where we were headed as humans, towards a world where we pretended to have improved on nature and every square had a sculptural tribute to the world we’d destroyed. I couldn’t deny it was soothing, watching the leaves cycle through their colours as if I was a monk deep in meditation as the seasons changed around me.
Before I left, I opened up my sketchbook again and stared my drawing; inaccurate and wrong and totally, utterly fine.
In so many ways, just like the artist.