St. Mary’s Tower, Oxford, England

If someone had told me that as a severely anxious person with tendencies toward OCD I would travel to England alone, I would have laughed in their face. If they had told me that I would travel to England alone and love it, I would have seriously considered punching them in the face. But that is exactly what happened. 

As anyone dealing with anxiety knows, the severe worry, the obsession with routine, and all the body symptoms that go along with panic become a debilitating presence in a sufferer’s life. This debilitation can reach such an extreme level that it seems to control the person’s whole life without any possible relief or respite in sight, where the sufferer desperately longs for contentment, a break from the fear, but never finds it. Consequently, life becomes a stuck cycle of never escaping comfort zones and never pursuing dreams, even heart-wrenchingly intense ones, an extremely accurate description of my life for 23 years. I had desires and goals, may of them, and I think I pushed myself to pursue some of them more than a lot of people with my level of anxiety ever would, but the major ones still felt impossibly out of reach. Then, my senior year of college at UT, I walked into an informational meeting for a study abroad trip geared towards English majors, which I was. 

As an English major, I had read many novels set in England, and as a hopeless bibliophile, I had been fascinated with Oxford, with its rich history and awe-inspiring Bodleian Library (consisting of miles and miles of bookstacks). However, I never considered going there because of, well, irrational fear. Fear of a long flight. Fear of being so far from anything comforting. Fear of anything and everything that could go wrong but probably never would. Yet, something made me stay on campus later than usual and go to that meeting. Something made me listen to others experiences. And something made me fill out an application and turn it in as soon as I left the room, well, that might be because there were only 39 spots and priority was given to the first to turn in forms, but still. 

However, something also kept me from telling anyone that I was set to spend 6 weeks in Oxford for my last summer session of college. I bottled my excitement up like a packet of Pillsbury biscuits and won’t pop and didn’t even tell my parents. Ok, not entirely the truth. I eventually had to tell my dad in order to receive financial help. But, seeing as how my parents are divorced, the word never got back around to my mom. Now, I have come to understand that I chose not to tell her until the last minute because, until that moment, I still didn’t believe I would be able to handle the trip, and I didn’t want to see confirmation of that or concern on her face. That would make the fear too real. 

Yet, I did it. I eventually told everyone, completed all the forms and necessities of traveling to a foreign country, and, on July 3rd 2012, got on a plane in San Antonio. And, yes, things did go wrong. The flight lasted all night, during which time I did not sleep for more that a five minute stretch, therefore, I was incredibly jet lagged, cue heightened levels of anxiety. Also, my bags were put on the wrong flight, and I had to wait hours for them to be brought to me, hours I spent panicking like an insane person regardless of any reassurances that the airline gave me. But, I will also say, I wouldn’t trade that trip for the world. Once a few weeks passed, and I had made friends with some amazing people, I began to experience the comfort and ease that I had always desperately wanted for my life. The weeks became an amazing blur intellectual and cultural enjoyment. Then a weekend came where everyone I was friends with was going to a weekend trip to Wales that had been booked before the trip and of which I had known nothing about. 

My first thought went straight back to my typical anxiety mode, panic at the thought of being alone for a weekend in a foreign city where I knew hardly anyone. Of course, these thoughts plagued me for the whole week before they left. But then the actual weekend came, and a slight miracle might have occurred, a moment where the universe tried to reassure me. I was walking along Parks Road, trying to fill my mind with sights and sounds to ignore any budding loneliness, and I eventually made it to Catte Street, the walkway that Parks Road becomes in the center of the city. Up ahead, I saw the tower of St. Mary’s, a tower that rises from the church of the same name that is part of the Oxford college of the same name. The tower was under some construction, but people could still climb to the top through a mixture of scaffolding and tiny stairwells. Some of the other students on the trip had done this trek and expressed that they view of Oxford was the best that they had seen. 

I decided to give it a try. Screw it. Who cared if I was alone? So, I went to the line, paid about 5 pounds, and began the climb, first on scaffolding, an experience that slightly ruined the ambiance. Then, I made it to the stairwell. imageThe process of maneuvering up these stairs while others were climbing back down was daunting, and there wasn’t much room on the outside balcony that encircled the tower either, but I made it. My reward came in the form of this spectacular view of All Souls College, the only invitation only, fellows only college in Oxford that is rumored to have the the best wine cellar in England and that visitors are not even allowed to tour. 

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And this view of Radcliffe Camera, a section of the famous Bodleian Library. 

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I was mesmerized, in awe, amazing, even though I was being jostled by others to move around the circumference of the ledge. A perfect breeze whipped around the intricate carvings of the tower and lent a refreshing air to the cramped surroundings. All of this began to soothe me. And then, it happened. Wafting along on that breeze, the first strains of Hedwig’s Theme from the Harry Potter movies reached my ears. Now, anyone who knows me knows that Harry Potter is my obsession. Those books saved me as I navigated from childhood to adolescence amid family strife and severe anxiety. Also, Harry Potter was my secret reason for wanted to go to England in the first place, plus many of the scenes of the first movies were filmed in Oxford. Therefore, to my mind, that song was a sign, a sign from the universe saying, “this is exactly where you are supposed to be at this exact moment.” Every worry fell away. In that moment, I felt the contentment that I had longed for since the age of 6, and I experienced it alone, in a foreign control, a small miracle for the life-long anxiety sufferer. Contentment is obtainable, it just might occur in the last place you would ever expect, and you may have to fight your hardest for it and bust out of your comfort zone, but it’s there, waiting. 

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino

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This book. This book. What can I possibly say to adequately convey its genius, or, I should say, the genius of its author. Calvino has managed a novel unlike any other and has pulled it off with impeccable skill. 

Anyone who loves books, reading, writing, or simply a phenomenally structured story who hasn’t read Calvino’s book needs to go get it now and spend the next 10 hours, or however long it takes, reading it until it’s mind-blowing end. 

Calvino has managed to write a story with so many point of view shifts and direct addresses to the reader, even involving the reader as a character, that it should be extremely confusing. He defies many of the rules of what writing instructors say constitute good novelistic structure. Yet, he does it with authority and an understanding of the rules he is breaking. I found my jaw dropping and my head shaking at its brilliance, not to mention the joyous experience of reading writing that simply bleeds a love for literature. 

More people need to read this book. It should be talked about more. It should be mandatory for any bookish student or literature lover. Read it.

The Personification of Anxiety

Anxiety has always been a part of my life. I honestly can’t remember a time before the debilitating panic attacks and nervous sickness. By high school, I understood that this would always be a part of my life, which isn’t to say that I wasn’t fighting and tearing against the hold it held on me. What I failed to understand was how much worse it could get, and that my dog would become a part of the insanity. 

My parents are divorced and, when I was in high school, had unevenly shared custody, a term that causes any child of divorce to unconsciously shudder. My dad was the lucky recipient of every other weekend and one night a week custody. I cannot express to you the annoyance of this type of arrangement for an anxious, borderline OCD, high schooler. The thought of having to plan ahead, bring clothes and necessities between houses, and never feeling settled added an inordinate amount of unnecessary stress to my already anxiety-riddled days. 

In the middle of junior year, I decided to switch to my dad having majority custody because my mom was dating an awful man from Beaumont, Texas, the state’s version of a hellhole. Worst decision of my life. Around the same time, my dad bought me a designer dog (trust me this is pertinent), a puggle, a pug and beagle mix where the mom is a beagle and the dad is a pug, for some reason, that seems to matter. I named her Chloe, and she began to travel between houses with me, and I started to notice something strange.

Now, let me explain a few things about my dad. He has an unpredictable temper, capable of going off with unjustified intensity at any little thing, and there is no pattern to this sudden rage. He also has no patience for mental issues, a major disadvantage in my case, along with the fact that he thinks all woman are crazy, another hit against me, not to mention the fact that I look like my mom, who he hates. You now have a picture of why the decision to spend more time at his house was a terrible choice. And Chloe, as an innocent participant, was forced to deal with the consequences of that choice along with me. That’s when I started to notice strange behaviors. 

Chloe and I would spend a weekend at my mom’s house, and as Sunday afternoon began to fade into evening, my anxiety would increase along with the increments of failing light. In my muddled state of stress, I tended to ignore most things occurring around me, but I was able to pull myself far enough out of my fog to notice one thing. Chloe was becoming panicked at the same time. Somehow, she could sense that we were returning to my dad’s soon, and she would start to run away from me, spin in circles, and pant to the point that, if she was a human, she would have hyperventilated. She essentially became the personification of my anxiety and fear. While I was holding everything in, she physically showed me the chaos of my mind in those worried moments. Watching her was one of the first times when I consciously acknowledged that, “damn, this is worse that I thought.” She was a stepping stone to self awareness and the beginning of healing. She was my anxious companion during a difficult time. 

OCD on Valentine’s Day

For as long as I can remember, I have always hated Valentine’s Day. The awful colors (who would ever willingly combine pink and red?), the flowers, chocolates, and sappy cards, consumerism at its worst, telling those of us unfortunate enough to be single that we are unworthy and telling those in relationships that they need cheap material goods to prove their love. However, those are all typical reasons to hate the holiday, reasons that millions of people use to justify their loathing. As a child, I had a very different reason to dread the day or, I should say, the night before. 

Everyone has seen those flimsy, disposable packs of paper valentines geared to children with their images of cartoons and cheesy sayings. it’s a right of passage in elementary school to see how many you can rack up by the end of the day. Most kids enjoy picking out their favorite ones, complete with images of there favorite cartoon characters, and spending an evening choosing who to give them to and which one would be best for each friend. I, on the other hand, dreaded the day that  those colorful boxes flood the stores. The reason for the dread was because of my OCD-suffering mother. She might not seem to have any connection to my aversion to Valentine’s Day, but, I assure you, she was the cause. As soon as I heard her ask when I wanted to shop for valentines, i would start to sweat and my stomach would ache with the anticipation of what was to come. 

First, the ridiculously long trip to the store. We would stand in the ever-changing holiday aisle of Wal-Mart, and my mom would ask me, over and over again, if I was sure about which ones I wanted, if that would be enough, and didn’t I like the Lion King more than Mulan? Once I was able to convince her that our purchase was correct and we made it home, the real difficulties began. We would sit down at the table with all the valentines spread out around us, and my mom would make me meticulously pick out the ones that would go to each friend, no one in the class was allowed to be left out. Once, that was accomplished, something that make take over an hour, she would monitor me as I wrote each person’s name in the “to” section and my own in the “from” section. Every time that I would think I was done with a card, I would hear, “the loop of that ‘y’ doesn’t go down far enough,” “make the dot on that ‘i’ bigger,” “make sure the cross on that ‘t’ is long enough,” or “you just need to completely redo that one.” 

After 30 minutes of this (that would eventually become 2 or 3 hours), all the fun that was supposed to be a part of that activity was gone. I would become so anxious to please my mother’s sense of perfection and so tense from focusing on perfect penmanship, that my body would hurt and tears would push there way to the corners of my eyes. In the midst of this, I would wonder, over and over, why I was being subjected to this form of torture for a holiday that was supposed to be about love. By the time everything was finally completed to my mom’s standards, it would be way past my bedtime, and I would be exhausted. The next day would  pass in a red and pink blur, and none of my classmates would care how well their name was written, only caring about getting a valentine at all. Everything about this seemed like a complete waste of time, the time I had spent the night before, and the time spent passing out candy and cards, hoping to prove a certain level of popularity. The holiday became intertwined in my mind with stress and an unnecessary level of anxiety (in an already self-proclaimed severely anxious person). Consequently, I wrote the whole occasion off as the waste of time that it was for me. 

So, you could say that OCD ruined Valentine’s Day for me, tainted it with mental illness and irritation, something the disease is very good at doing. And it’s not truly a form of child abuse because the sufferer is well-meaning and thinks what he or she is doing is for the best. If that seems tragic, don’t even get me started on the ordeal of completing my weekly vocabulary sentence homework assignments with OCD hanging around.  

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I would like to start this review out by saying that I have some major issues with the way that books get obsessively labeled and put into restrictive genres. This is especially prominent in the Young Adult genre. I think that there are many problems with labeling a book as Young Adult, and John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” highlights them. By calling a book “young adult”, you inherently alienate a large portion of the reading public that feels that they cannot read something that is meant for that age group, when in reality, many books put into this category are full of deep themes and issues that adults could benefit from just as much as “young adults”. Not to mention that fact that many of them (“Twilight” aside) actually contain very good writing. “The Fault in Our Stars” is one such book. Not only is the subject matter moving and deep, but the dialogue is punchy and immensely impressive. As an aspiring writer myself, I know how difficult it can be to write believable dialogue. And while some might argue that the dialogue is too smart and clever to be real, all one needs to do is watch some of John Green’s YouTube videos to know that he actually speaks like that himself. Therefore, it is believable. And even if it wasn’t, in this book I honestly did not care because it was just so fun and entertaining to read. If anyone out there has yet to read this great book due to embarrassment about the Young Adult label, you should try to push aside the over-labeled American mindset of the present and treat yourselves to a well-written, entertaining, and deeply moving read. Maybe it will even change your mind about the value of books that have had the unfortunate luck to be put into this overly restrictive “young adult” category.

infinityandbooks
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle-Earth.

George R.R. Martin (via x-akurei)

seriously, this is so perfect.

(via infinityandbooks)