Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stressfully Paranoid

So despite the fact that I finished this week's book on Sunday, and mentioned it in last week's post, I never actually talked about it (although that is where the chaos part of last week's title came from). And Falling Under is one of those books that taps into my neuroses in a way that makes me feel normal.

See, when I hit a certain level of stress, I get anxious. Like insanely so. It's somewhat of a vicious cycle; the more stressed I get, the more I freak out about things that have very little likelihood of happening. The worst was last summer. We launched a major project in May. The week before it launched, I worked 70-80 hours, and was so incoherently exhausted it routinely took me several minutes to answer basic questions. All coworkers not so involved in the project avoided those of us who were, and I've been told we were particularly mean. I honestly barely remember that week, which was not surprising since I'd worked 17 straight days and god knows how many hours. After launch, we went to a happy hour with the consultants who worked with us on it, and I'm pretty sure I misunderstood half of what everyone said, because I didn't have the capacity to understand context or make logical connections. (Particularly awesome, since I hadn't met a lot of the team before in person. Yay for good first impressions!)

What was worse was that the launch wasn't really the end of the project; in many ways, it was the beginning for us. My coworker took a much-needed week off a couple of weeks later, and the work load plus the stress led to me having one of the most random breakdowns of my life, in which I made it home (at like 9) before I started crying, but then just couldn't stop. It's not like one of those sessions when you are thinking sad things, so you keep crying. I was sitting there, deciding what to make for dinner, with tears streaming down my face.

Then we had several other mini-launches that lasted the rest of the summer. My coworker E and I (two of the people most involved in the launches) both had physical effects from the stress levels that for me lasted until I went on a 10-day, out-of-the-country vacation in August. (This is also a warning for all of you. Stress is bad. You should try and work somewhere that will prevent stress levels that mean three days into a week off, you're getting random bursts of adrenaline flooding through you. That's no fun and makes you cranky for no good reason.)

Before my August vacation, I freaked out. First I was convinced that I was going to forget something. then I was convinced that something horrible would happen to my cat. Then I was convinced that I was going to die of an embolism on the plane, or that the plane would crash, or that something would happen to one of my family members while I was gone and no one would be able to reach me. Walking to the metro to go to the airport, I checked for my passport, my sunglasses, my wallet, my passport again, my sunglasses again, my wallet again, my chapstick, my umbrella, cycling through until I got to the train.

And my paranoia is not only tied to things like planning trips. When I'm that stressed, I lie in bed, thinking about how the floor of my bedroom is slanted and wondering if that part of the house could just fall off, and if so, should I move the stuff I love into a different room, and would my cat know in time to get out. I avoid grates on sidewalks, because what if they broke? I worry about tripping and falling onto the metro tracks, about a light pole falling and hitting me, a gas leak, my couch being too close to the radiator and catching on fire. I worry about others, too, frequently focusing on my cat, because I am responsible for her, but also family members, friends, and people just around me. "What if that person fell right now?" I wonder, and think about how quickly I'd be able to call 911, and if there is someone else around who looks like they might be better than me in an emergency.

Which leads me back to the book. The main character in Falling Under has some major psychological issues mostly stemming from a traumatic childhood. On a normal day, she is even more paranoid than I am on my worst. She too avoids grates, but she also is so paralyzed by fear that she can barely drive, barely cross the street, barely leave her apartment. Since the book is narrated from her viewpoint, though, such fears start to seem not necessarily ordinary, but understandable. I liked the narrator. I'd want to be friends with her. It kind of reminded me of how I felt reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. We all have instincts that lead us to look for patterns, to think that something beyond our control is a sign, just like we all worry about irrational things from time to time. But the beauty of books is that we can see these impulses from another angle, and understand another person's viewpoint. And maybe feel a little more normal.

And for myself? I think I'll go do some yoga and take a bath and just not worry about anything for a while.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Living, Literature, and Chaos

Between Friday night and Sunday night, I finished both my book for last week, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and this week's, Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman. Because I am just that awesome.

It was a compacted week, not because I didn't plan ahead, but because I'm not enjoying the book I was reading, Illusion by Paula Volksy, despite the ringing endorsement by Anne McCaffrey. It's a little too much of a political commentary buried under fantasy; I like some of that and think playing out possible scenarios in a fantasy world can be fascinating, but I feel like I'm being hit on the head with it. Plus I don't like any of the characters, and it's over 600 pages. I may or may not finish.

But Reading Lolita in Tehran... it was everything that I liked about being an English major. It had social commentary, literary analysis, the examination of power structures, all wrapped up in a beautifully written text. I remember having read an article on how liberal Iran had been. It's hard to imagine, both from the viewpoint of our current political climate, in which Iran is constantly posturing against the West and working toward gaining more power through developing a nuclear weapon, and from the humanistic standpoint of putting myself in the place of those who lived through the transition. How does one go from living in an atmosphere where you are free to think, to opine, to teach what you want, say want you want, write what you want, to one in which merely having been associated with the wrong person at any point in your life means that you can be arrested, or blacklisted, or killed?

One of Nafisi's points was that by fighting so hard to control women, the Iranian regime was in fact admitting that those women had the power to destroy the regime: "Does she realize how dangerous she can be when her every stray gesture is a disturbance to public safety? Does she think how vulnerable the Revolutionary Guards are who for over eighteen years have patrolled the streets of Tehran  and have had to endure young women like herself  and those of other generations, walking, talking, showing a strand of hair just to remind them that they have not converted?" (pg 27)

The fact that many of these battles, these fights for power, occur over control of the female body shows how powerful that body can be, something that despite having written my thesis on it, I still feel needs more exploration. Possibly because I don't quite understand it in this day and age. I mean, as far as ensuring the continuation of the species, having more women than men is important, since one man can. But we are no longer threatened. In fact there are too many of us. Why are women who can dress and think and act however they want so terrifying?

The women in Iran are defined by the state, a state that refuses to see them as individuals with hopes and dreams. Nafisi, in her discussion of Lolita, discusses how Humbert uses Lolita as a prop, a fantasy for him, but never seems to see her as an actual living, thinking human being. While Nafisi refuses to simplify the complicated power structure in Iran by strictly comparing the government to Humbert, she does point the reader to the similarities, as the women struggle to define themselves within a system that has taken away their voices.

But beyond that, the book shows the power of literature. The Iranian population is so tightly controlled; the government censors movies, book, art. But the people in this book escape that. They explore what it means to empathize, how to define morality, how to connect with those who seem to have nothing in common with you. Literature becomes the way that the characters can escape the strict confines of their current life. A weekly book discussion becomes far more than it may seem; it is in fact a rebellion.