On anxiety and tattoos and Neil Gaiman.

Huddled in the dim, carpeted corner between wall and water fountain, I forced myself to take another bite of my chocolate and peanut butter granola bar and wondered how I got to be so fucked up. I wondered if I would pass out. I hoped not. I had driven a long way, across state lines, in a car without air conditioning, just to pass out now.

I pulled out my phone. My security blanket. My link to humanity. My shaking fingers tapped out a tweet.

ImageI corked the bottle and threw it out to sea. I took another bite of my granola bar.

I was an anxious child and I am an anxious adult. My anxiety happens in phases, in episodes, in an impact chain like Shoemaker-Levy plowing into Jupiter: bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, blackening the cloudtops, visible through even small ground-based telescopes. Then long periods of relative normalcy, even outright bravery. I was at my worst in 2007, 2008, a debilitated, frightened hypochondriac with stratospheric hospital bills for maladies both imagined and real. A job lost. My relationship threatened. You’ve heard this story before.

A very good therapist helped me get my shit more or less under control, and for the last several years I have been, while perhaps not a model of psychological stability, much, much better. I can’t always control when panic attacks hit, but I’ve learned how to keep them from feeding themselves, from spawning new and ravenous little brain-eating panicklings. Which is good. Pretty much I feel good. Even when I’m feeling afraid, fear itself is not sufficient to deter me from doing whatever the hell it was I’d planned on doing. I’ve basically demoted fear to the level of really bad gas: painful and inconvenient, but usually not fatal.

The last week, I’ve been farting. A lot. And it’s not even like I’ve been gorging on beans and broccoli.

The first cracks showed on the penultimate day of a beach trip that had gone without a hitch. A complete anomaly. An orphaned hiccup. The second, somewhat more dramatic break was at work. That merited an apologetic Facebook post to all concerned, and all concerned were so ubiquitously supportive that I was left feeling foolish and a little guilty. Everything was obviously fine. Should have been fine.

But my structural integrity had been compromised. Metal fatigue. Invisible fissures spiderwebbing over my fuselage. The teakettle hiss of escaping air.

On Friday morning I jumped into my Focus hatchback—it’s older than most of my friends’ children, but mostly roadworthy—and began the trek from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. It’s a four and a half hour drive, optimistically; add an hour if traffic starts to suck. Around Quantico, traffic started to suck. And that would have been okay if I hadn’t needed to keep moving to stay cool. But my air conditioning hasn’t behaved for three summers running, which is one thing when you’re tooling around inside the same pocket-sized city for months on end, skipping over highways like a flat stone. In June, in Virginia, in a hurry, it’s misery. My fuselage groaned.

But I arrived without incident and, as planned, sold my extra ticket to Michelle, a perfect stranger whose own plight—she had accidentally bought a ticket for the event in San Francisco, and needed not only to sell her ticket but buy one for the right city and timezone—Neil had broadcast across the Twitterverse. I rescued Michelle, petite and dark-haired and in a green dress, and envied her standard-issue nervous energy. A fangirl about to meet her hero, friend in tow, excited and unsure of what to expect, but knowing beyond a doubt that the wait will be worth it.

I led Michelle and her friend to the will call line, and hoped they didn’t notice the ghost of a swoon that shook me as I gave my name, took my book and tickets. We parted amiably, and I drifted to a seat in the already crowded auditorium. My head began to pound. I floated.

A phobia is an irrational fear of some specific thing, situation, or stimulus. Most phobics know their fear to be irrational, but at least have the benefit of knowing what it is that scares them: spiders, clowns, the number thirteen. Many phobics are anxious, but not all of us with anxiety are phobic.

Anxiety is the exact opposite of a phobia. It deliberately does not give two shits what you are or should be afraid of. It shows up when it wants to. Anxiety is a semi-literate old roommate you only just tolerate, who keeps showing up to your parties even when you don’t remember inviting him. It arrives first and is the last to leave. It brings shitty, watered-down beer and one friend, a person you’ve never seen before and will never see again. It shows up goddamn everywhere. The grocery store. Your favorite cafe. Sitting in traffic. It ruins places you had previously enjoyed. And it’s like it has no fucking clue it’s having this effect on you. Your anxiety is just here to party, man. No matter how much of a dick you are to it, your anxiety is always super-stoked to see you.

So it’s not like I had the benefit of a trigger. I wasn’t freaked to meet Neil Gaiman. I am not, in general, intimidated to meet other people, even famous ones, because I, too, am a person. I like people, most of the time. I like to meet new ones.

That was not why I was freaked. I was freaked because I was hot and tired and hungry and in a new place, and I was freaked because I didn’t know if being freaked was going to make me lose control of my body in some way.

So I hid by a water fountain and ate a granola bar and waited for it to pass. I stared into the middle distance while two long minutes went by.

A cheery notification bubble informed me I had a Twitter mention. I knew before I tapped it what I would see:

ImageRelief and embarrassment crashed in my chest. My thumbs flew over the little screen.

ImageSilence greeted me. That was okay. I had expected that. I sat a few more minutes, collecting my thoughts, and then made my way back to the auditorium.

I listened to Neil read, and I closed my eyes and pretended it was a bedtime story. He answered audience questions and made us all laugh. He read some more. It was a fast hour. My heart slowed, though the headache persisted, though I felt weary and ready for home.

My signing number was 734, out of maybe 1500. They called us up in groups of 50. I tried to read the book while I waited, but it’s a book about doubt and frayed realities and childhood fears that are not just fears, but real, and hungry, and older and bigger than you are. It’s a beautiful book (I have since finished it, and wept as I read), but it was not comforting.

I thought about the night before. My friend Megan had overnighted at my apartment on her way to Delaware, where friends were waiting to whisk her off to the beach and the Firefly Music Festival. Megan is dimpled, brown-eyed, and freckled, with soft, waist-long golden red hair I have paid thousands of dollars to emulate. A friend of Neil’s through his daughter, she is also a fan and admirer. I haven’t seen her in five—no, six—years, not since New Year’s Eve 2006/7, when I brought a pizza home for the party and then had a panic attack on my living room floor. Happy New Year.

Sitting cross-legged on my bed, a few minutes to 1 a.m., Megan told me stories about Neil, occasionally slipping into the round-edged, Americanized softness of his British accent. I asked her if I should say hello on her behalf. “Yes,” she said, “but he probably won’t recognize my name. He calls me Sky. Or Little Sky.”

“You,” I said, “are now my coolest friend.”

The line in the auditorium shortened faster than I think any of us were quite prepared for. And yet, as the nervous energy built around me, my own began to ebb. Faced with inevitability, anxiety diminishes. There are no more what-ifs. Even a scary certainty is preferable to the alternative. I passed my phone off to the woman behind me, gave her a quick lesson on how to use the camera. I slid my open book in front of Neil.

“Hullo,” he said.

“Hello. Holly’s friend Sky sends her love.”

He looked up. “Oh! Yes! How do you know Sky? And why isn’t she here?”

“She’s a friend. She crashed at my place last night. She’s on her way to Delaware, not seeing Amanda.” Amanda Palmer, Neil’s wife, played Firefly on Sunday night, but Megan—Sky—would have to skip town just before the performance. Later, I would wonder if my remark sounded flippant, as if I were suggesting Megan was deliberately avoiding the show. Neil didn’t seem to notice. He finished signing and, not seeing a second book to be autographed, looked at me with an expectant smile, as if this was the end of our interaction. I took a breath.

“My second item,” I said, “is me.” I held out my right forearm, knowing full well that another girl had beaten me to the punch at the New York signing. I didn’t care. I had made my decision before I knew she existed.

Neil, perfectly amenable to this, readied his Sharpie. We maneuvered my arm sideways, so that the text would stack towards my elbow, a scrawled Note to Self. He paused, and I knew the prompt for what it was.

“‘Make good art‘?”

There were hundreds of people waiting. But Neil Gaiman was patient as he printed each letter, with A-R-T in emphatic caps. I heard fans down the line murmuring appreciatively, and one person said, “Of course ART has to be in capital letters.”

Real writers don't have clean hands.

I looked at my wrist under his fingers, warm and ink-peppered. My fingers, jogged into a strange angle, trembled, and I hoped he didn’t notice or think it was because I was scared. I wasn’t. Our bowed heads were close, and into that space I murmured, “Thank you for tweeting about my anxiety earlier.”

He stopped writing. He looked at me, and his voice was warm with sympathy as he said, “That was was you?” Four hours and hundreds of fans, thousands of words later, he remembered. “How are you feeling now?”

“Much better, thank you. I didn’t throw up or pass out at your reading. So that’s good.”

He bracketed his signature with a few flourishes. “Thank you,” I said again. For the signing. For the kindness. For all of it. “This is perfect. Thank you so much.”

The woman behind me handed me my phone. “I took lots of pictures,” she said, and she had, and they were wonderful. “I wanted to make sure you got it all.” Kindness on kindness. I cradled my arm, perfectly focused, perfectly awake.

The journey back to Raleigh the next day was even harder than the journey north. D.C. traffic did not want to let me leave, and as I roasted on the highway, unmoving, I poured bottled water onto my jeans, face, and throat. I gulped Gatorade. Heart pounding, I watched the shadows shrink from the high June sun, and I tried not to sweat my prize out of existence.

Later, a jovial, stalwart, gloriously bearded man named Rob pulled on his blue latex gloves, took my upturned wrist in one paw. I got my first tattoo in October, a back piece that took two and a half hours of painstaking, three-needle etching, and I knew this would be a breeze by comparison. The apparatus buzzed its high, enthusiastic whine, and as the needle sank into my arm I closed my eyes. I felt myself smile, full of triumph as the pain sang in my arm, persistent and intimate and very very real, and there at the end of my journey, I knew I had nothing to fear.

The tattoo at the end of the road trip.



  1. Such a beautiful story. Thank you for being vulnerable enough to share it with us all – I’m sure there are many people who find comfort and strength in sharing your victories. Congratulations on a *fantastic* tattoo, as well!

  2. This is totally stunning. Shameful that I’d almost forgotten just how brilliant a writer you are! Thank you so much for sharing it.

  3. Have I ever mentioned how proud I am of you?

  4. This was beautiful. I want to hug you, stranger. <3


  1. […] ready and I am 150% convinced that everybody hates me and will laugh me out of Atlanta forever, or when I’m stuck in a hot car for five hours to see a favorite author and I forgot to do things like eat. They don’t happen because I did something stupid like wake […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: