Fight or Flight
CW: mental illness
It was Plath who said there was stasis in darkness. But I’ve always seen it as the opposite. There’s darkness in stasis. Change, growth, and novelty have the ability to comfort me, and provide excitement to a pool of mostly stagnant perspective. Novelty brings us a kind of transcendence; it breathes curiosity into the fundamental quicksand of sameness that faces each of us at some point.
When the fight-or-flight instinct is activated in the brain, the body releases endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Hunger, stress, and panic induce this response, causing a rush that is ironically addictive. Being constantly active allows you a degree of super-charged awareness you hadn’t otherwise thought you could find in yourself. On this chemical wave, you can think better, you can be better, you can ‘live’ better. As a straight-laced near-teetotaler, the idea of mind-altering substances consumed against one’s better judgment felt abhorrent. But this was a pill I was swallowing over and over again.
I had felt that desire for urgency building for a while. In between polishing schooner glasses, I wrote on the back of soggy coasters nihilistic platitudes that meant something to me in that time. I drove to empty parking lots late at night, craving a solitude that seemed to only breed more of the same aching feeling. Yet I did it again. It was something I couldn’t quite explain, but was beginning to permeate my entire life. I felt swollen, my concentration waned, my energy declined, and I carried a vague apathy for things I once cared about. Because nobody appeared to understand, I didn’t bother bringing it up. All I knew was that I wanted to get out.
I boarded a plane, began writing in school books in foreign languages and living under a gentler sun. I was out. I was flying. I was changing. Beaches became mountains. Heat waves became snow days, and I felt transformed. New surroundings purified me of a cynicism that had racked by mind. I ate less, I moved more, I worked harder, I strived. I had worked it out. I had calculated myself a cure:
Ambition + Achievement + Excitement = Happy
More Ambition + More Achievement + More Excitement = More Happy
This equation was infinitesimal. Constantly fighting and flying was a noble pursuit. Being a ‘better’ human being was subscribing to never-ending industry, and allowed each day to become an art form. I was able to construct and control every way that my life turned. This was the pyrrhic plight of the perfectionist. It was also a slow burn toward feeling absolutely frantic.
Cumulatively, this movement started becoming too fast. Flights were booked and then flights were cancelled, jobs were applied for and then abandoned, relationships dramatically ended and then rekindled. The rush of sustaining this frenetic pace wasn’t working anymore. Avoiding friends, I walked in woods alone and wept inexplicably, filled with a terror I hadn’t experienced before, and couldn’t quite name.
I sat in front of my hostel bunk on a Greek island and forlornly clutched a crushed eucalyptus leaf in my hand. All I had associated with that leaf was the feeling of wanting to get out. The glare, the sadness, the cicadas, the pang of relief I felt every time I left a party with the same faces. Returning to that place meant returning to a feeling I desperately wanted to avoid. And I would do everything within my power to stop it.
“Do you think you might be depressed?”
I immediately rebuffed the idea. I was following my equation! I had literally moved away from the eucalypts and scorching sun. I was achieving, I was fit, I was healthy, I was in a relationship. Therefore, I wasn’t depressed. Therefore, nothing could be wrong.
Halloween. I was seventeen, resisting the underage sucking down of Bacardi Breezers while the rest of my friends rolled around crying and spewing into plastic pumpkins. I had asked to be invited to this party and was now struggling to understand why. I was frightened. I had no desire to participate in the rite of passage that having a drink gave my friends. I wanted to get out.
Halloween. I was twenty-one, no longer resisting the ceremonious sucking down of vodka and house parties that carried the stench of bong water and unwashed clothes. I wanted to get out.
Halloween. I was twenty-two, having the sinking realisation I had felt this way before. There were crying spells and moments of panic increasingly marking my day. But this time there was a boy that I loved with an accent, there was independence and achievement and excitement. There was everything I thought I had ever wanted. Yet at the same time, there was a compounding realisation that my equation, which had been maintained to combat this ever-present feeling, might not be working. I had nothing external to relate this cyclical fear and dread to. I wanted to get out.
I could no longer be still. I could no longer sleep. I was starved. Back-ending each day with a certain list of things to do prevented me from confronting this idea. Small moments in which there was nothing to do were sucked away. But that was okay — the more I could do, the more I could move, the better I would feel. According to my body’s indications, I needed to fight. Or I needed to fly.
The emergency ward had tinsel strung along its front desk. A Christmas tree was placed haphazardly on the blue linoleum floor. Explaining my symptoms of panic in another language felt exhilarating. Surely my vital signs would indicate something was physically wrong. Psychosomatic distress could not solely account for the simultaneous terror and exhaustion I was experiencing. In other words, this couldn’t be me. I was ambitious. I was achieving. I was moving. I was following my equation. And yet I was in a psychiatric waiting room. I was getting out, but from what I wasn’t exactly sure.
Recognising you have a mental illness is like having the metrics for what determines your mood or happiness flipped around. When you understand that which has given you the drive to keep going can sometimes push you to limits that aren’t mentally or physically possible, you come to see things differently. The lens with which you access your past, predict your future, and understand yourself becomes tarnished. In hindsight, my equation was evidently wrong.
My relationship to that instinctual response seems different now. It is sometimes strained, in wake of the understanding that rush itself cannot be a panacea. I swim laps, and feel my body’s reluctance for exertion now that dogma is gone. Although outwardly nothing in the circumstances rationally rendered what happened, my mind’s warped image of those moments feel indelible. I am still trying to place some kind of significance on that time.
The red-brick semis line the same streets I drive to the same beach. I’ll probably book another trip in a year or two, just like everyone else. But perhaps the meaning of it won’t render quite the same significance. Because I don’t have to fight or fly. At least not all of the time.