If I had moved to New York last fall as intended, you would be surely be referring to me in the past tense today.
I wasn’t ready, mentally, financially or emotionally to give up my chill yet scatterbrained and spiraling life in Panama to write and power-walk for a living in the City That Never Covers Its Mouth When It Sneezes. But that didn’t stop me from telling myself, my family, and the world that they should deck the halls and bring forth their finest celebratory hams and splurge on the jackiest of pepper jacks for thy macaroni and cheeses and prepare to chicken like they’ve never chickened before when I touched down later that year, which was the best possible move to make and was certainly for sure going to happen. Absolutely. Of course.
Nonstop mental shitshow be damned.
Last spring, when I realized that life in Panama wasn’t quite working for me the second time around, getting to New York to “reeeally get my writing career going” became my North Star of sorts as things went to shit and the self care avoidance got out of hand.
And so it was decided:
I shall relocate to New York in September.
Why September? It felt far enough away for me to possibly maybe perhaps scrape it the fuck together enough to transition back stateside semi-gracefully, without having to swan dive into a snake-filled pit of anxiety and worry and attacks of the panic variety in the process. In New York, I could do more than write for the Internet from afar. I could have guacamole and Zimas with the people who edit and read and fund my work. I could teach and be stimulated, eat delicious french fries with homies old and new, and be on hand for random chicken-based outings. Living abroad, I missed 30th and 40th birthday bonanzas, broom jumpings, the births of many tiny humans and countless live ass parties. I looked on Facebook one day, and somehow, my nieces were women. When the fuck did that happen?
What was my first step in the homegoing process, you ask? Naturally, I swan-dove face first into that pit of snakes and worry and attacks of the panic variety, having duct-taped all of my writerly hopes and dreams to this arbitrarily set autumnal goal.
And I commenced beating myself down for not being able to remain above water long enough to make any progress – mentally, financially, emotionally or otherwise – towards that goal.
It was the best of times.
In 2013, when I moved back to Panama, my mother’s homeland, after five months in New Orleans, things never really came together, professionally or financially, as they had the first time around. Within days of my initial arrival back in 2011, I had a handful of clients for my private business English classes, thanks to some ads in La Prensa, aggressively distributed flyers and a robust word-of-mouth campaign. And that was when I wasn’t teaching my poppin’-ass hippity-hop/salsa/dancehall/aerobic cardiodance situation to groups of classy and exuberant-at-seven-in-the-morning ladies in a handful of gyms and studios around Panama City.
After a while, I hired a handful of American and Canadian teachers and formed Panamerican Languages, specializing in helping Spanish-speaking professionals feel comfortable living, working, and conducting business in English. Ya tú sabes. My squad and I taught Copa Airlines pilots, Spanish architects at Acciona, Chilean engineers working on the Panama Canal expansion, Citibank and Scotiabank and HSBC executives, bored housewives and even the CEO of one of Panama’s biggest phone companies. I choreographed, performed and taught workshops with a dance company and learning to instruct and direct in Spanish. I occasionally doubted my abilities throughout my Panamanian life of firsts, but since nearly dying from lupus a decade ago, I vowed to never let my fear trump my curiosity. Amid all the trial and error, I made some lifelong friends and helped a few dozen people on their journey to English fluency. And the food. Shit was lovely.
The second time around, nothing really stuck. My clientele didn’t blossom like before. I showed up to oft-regretted early-morning classes late, exhausted, or unsober. I struggled to balance freelance writing and dazzling verbally for a living with being a dynamic, planning, focused teacher. I stopped dancing. Teaching became a chore and a source of misery. I had lots of wonderful meals and sex, though. I gained weight. I just couldn’t make the magic happen again. After working way too hard and paying bills, I felt like I was starting from zero each month. The joy was missing the second time around. The passion had fizzled.
Thankfully, I picked up the phone one humid Panamanian July morning when shit got really real and confessed through sobs to my parents, after assuring them daily for months that I was cool: “I’m not OK. I need to leave Panama.” I left two weeks later.
The last year and change has been a fight to rekindle the fire and regain the fearlessness that propelled me to leave VCU at 17 to dance, choreograph and compete and win awards with the dance company I had created or to New York to dance at 21 or to Los Angeles at 25 or Panama at 27. I was in bad shape when I arrived in Virginia from Panama in August 2014. Last November, I couldn’t see past the end of the week.
Thanksgiving was the bottom. What should have been my time to shine, calorically, was my most emotionally ashy, the height of sleeping-is-easier-than-doingness.
When my Black ass family gathers to eat on holidays, birthdays and other Blackpeoplegatherings, a few things are guaranteed:
One: When we assembles for collective grubbing, we leave no cackles uncackled, catching up and fellowshipping through collective overindulgence. We mount up like a hungry ass AfroPanamanian Voltron and ceremoniously attack my grandmother's legendary food: arroz con pollo, ribs, fresh bread, stew chicken, empanadas (that nice, gold-teeth-wearing Panamanian ladies regularly drive to Hampton from Maryland to acquire by the metric fucktonne), and whatever else she lays out. Sure, eating is a priority, but so, too, is the noise. So much joyful noise. And so much rice. My sister, aunt and cousin form their Loud Black Woman Trifecta and engage in an unspoken battle to out-loud and out-cackle one another. It's magical.
Two: I am the family glutton. Whereas most of us eat to live, I live to eat and officially have more pictures of past nacho conquests and chicken victories than of dicks and Janet Jackson in my phone. Finally. Thirty years in, and everyone now grasps that "Are you hungry, Alex?" is a stupid question. When I’m coming to visit, my mother has been known to make “some extra mac and cheese” in anticipation of my arrival. I'm the guy who'll smash three plates of everything-and-then-some, plus some pie, then clean the kitchen and pass out, Itis-stricken and stupefied, only to awake an hour later, hungry and ready to do it all again. It’s not a game.
But this past Thanksgiving, surrounded my beautiful, loud, Blackety Black ass familia and more food than I could ever want or need, I was eating alone.
I barely finished one unimpressively piled plate and nibbled silently. I drove home immediately after eating – uninterested in Grandma’s pie for the first and last time in my life – as my family stayed behind, grubbing like a motherfucker, cackling Blackfully.
This was the fun part of adjusting to antidepressants that feels like log rolling through the mud. Nothing mattered. This time last year, leading up to Thanksgiving, I spent most of my days under the covers, powering through The Wire, mumbling through interactions with my family, masturbating and aggressively napping. The first few weeks of my courtship with Zoloft was made up of vicious jaw clenching, fidgeting and king-sized anxiety. Being tightly wound wasn’t new. It’s nearly impossible for me to relax, but during that first month, my anxiety hit puberty and spiked at the faintest whiff of impending strife or frustration. Occasionally, while driving, I’d have to pull off the road and just breathe. I spent weeks wrapped up in trying to determine how much of the fuckedupness and zombiehood was drug-related and how much was due to my personal wretchitude.
It fucking sucked. Not doing became easier.
And who’s going to hold the bed in place and wish spontaneous combustion upon Wee-Bey’s wife if not me?
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my Nice White Lady and I came up with daily checklist of Daily Must Dos that I carved into a notecard placed conspicuously so I couldn't ever forget to brush my teeth, wash my face, shower, leave the house during the daytime and speak to someone, anyone.
Some days, I didn't make it through the list. Shit happens.
I had been warned of a period of intense suckiness while adjusting to Zoloft. But motherfuck, the flatness and the emotional ashiness and the apathy are soul crushing for a writer who loves to talk about feelings and needs to be able to write colorfully for a living. It was hell to write anything that I didn't hate, scraping the bottom of my creative barrel, Madonnafully. But that didn't stop me from chugging and struggling through a string of TV recaps and such for Gawker's Morning After blog.
A friend told me months later that I appeared “kind of robotic and definitely not really there” when we hung out during the fall. All I wanted was to feel “normal,” and not as if I was standing at the center of a 462-car pileup, engulfed in flames, hungry, as the sound of an Ashanti a capella concert blares forever and ever from all 462 cars. The horror. When I got wrapped up in a wonderful Somebody, just like with my family, I found myself faking emotional connections, prethinking and reconsidering my words and forced smiles in the absence of a regular fucking range of human emotions. Movies that would normally have me laughing maniacally now fell flat. Sure, the lows mellowed out, but now there weren’t highs either, Ciaracareeringly.
The clouds began to recede before Christmas when I karate chopped my antidepressant dosage in half and could finally get up from the mud. Hello there, Creativity. Shit, Nigga, I forgot what you felt like. Welcome back, fool.
I've been stirring this question around in the crockpot for a while: How do I know if I'm still depressed? And how do I gauge where I am on the Fuckedupness Scale? How does normal look and feel? Is there a test? How much progress have I made towards Better Personhood?
One clear sign that I'm doing much better is that I'm functioning more. I still have shitty days. But I am leaving the house and blasting Janet in my headphones pumping down the sidewalk, Doing, as opposed to letting the day's shittiness strap me to the couch with nachos and sweet tea.
Some days, it’s still hard to see the good in any of what I’m doing, but I am super damn glad to be here, alive and free to eat like hell and take risks and learn and leap and fuck up and flourish. This time last year. I. Was. At. The. Motherfucking. Bottom and I struggled each damn day to feel. Something. Anything. I wanted more than anything to feel like myself and not like a worthless shitbag, the Homeboys In Outer Space of humans.
As much as I bash lame ass Hampton and its passé easytogetrappedness, it was the best place in the world for me to be. Had I continued barreling through the fuckshit in Panama as if everything were lovely, I would have surely come home in a casket. Going back to Hampton, where I normally begin itching after the seventh day home, to sit the fuck down? Best decision ever. Being still and getting my mind right surrounded by family and Chick-Fil-A chicken biscuits was the best possible move. And I got to watch my nieces be goofy teenagers before they venture out into the world (and college).
That – putting Alex first – is what saved me. After spending the winter and spring extracting myself from the mud, getting my mind right in therapy and embracing all signs of emotional life, I needed más. From a journal entry dated May 12, days before my Colored Boy and Friends event:
I am dwindling here. Spending time with [Mister] has helped pull me up out of the mud, but aside from him, I have no stimulation here. Most of my friends are elsewhere. The ones here have busy lives of their own. Therapy is the highlight of my week. I have probably done about forty minutes of nonsexual exercise this year. Writing is draining. These days, it’s me and my computer in Panera, scraping words together, battling distraction and sweet tea, attempting to figure and freelance my way out of the Fuckedupness. And then me and the computer at library in the horrible chairs. Then, me and my computer at home, feet from my family, doing the same. Sprinting in circles. And my family’s cool, but they don’t challenge or excite me. Not that they have to entertain me, but I feel myself getting comfortable in Hampton’s familiar quicksand. My spirit is ashy and I feel unimpressive and dry here.
One day, during an exceptionally fruitful journaling moment in July, it hit me, like Madonna to The Gong of Irrelevance: Mi cyant take it no more. I have to get the fuck out of 1998.
And so, hours after my final therapy appointment, I leapt for my life and landed in New York this summer. This time: less planning, more uncertainties, more urgency. And more anxiety. My prior moves to New York, Los Angeles and Panama each followed about six months of strategizing and vivid dreaming. This time? I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do, but New York struggle tops Virginia misery any day.
I officially touched down at the end of July with a few suitcases, a duffle bag, and a bookbag full of dreams, ready for whatever the city had in store. I go back and forth about the wisdom of the decision, but I axed my two antidepressants a few days after arriving. Initially, during a dearth of self care brought on by a small emotional valley, my daily dosages started slipping.
Soon, I stopped bothering altogether.
By then, I felt much better all around. Teleporting out of 1998 did wonders for moonwalking out of that valley. I was no longer log rolling through the mud, though I often battled to decipher how much of this progress, like last fall’s abject fuckedupness, was because of my own doing and daring and how much was drug-related. Wellbutrin had yet to make a difference, so the change was less impactful. After 10 months together, Zoloft, aided by my intensifying efforts at Living and my rediscovered ability to Do, served it’s purpose. Thankfully, I went into this chemical romance knowing that it would be a short-term one.
Ultimately, I wanted to try New York on my own, without that chemical aid. I felt strong enough to take off the life jacket. And, well, I haven’t back flipped into an oncoming D train, so I’d say I’m doing mighty motherfucking fantastic.
Shout-out to living and what-not.
Another way I know I’m doing much better is my increasingly positive look. Occasionally, I still feel like I’m walking around on fire, in search of momentary relief from the burn, but I have gotten better about not letting those moments of hysteria derail my days. I’m better at fighting off attacks of the panic variety. Even when shit sucks, I know that things will be okay. And I’m finally having more good days than bad ones. Fortunately, this horrific in-between phase I’m in (also known as “The Accounts Payable Waltz”) coincides with a convergence of goodness.
This summer, I taught a personal essay and memoir writing workshop at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Educational and Memorial Center in Harlem. I hosted three literary showcases and no longer hate all of my creative output. Since landing in New York this summer, I’ve written a trio of pieces for Courvoisier.com and just completed my first print assignment for EBONY, which was on my writerly bucket list. I curated and hosted both the Summer Edition of Colored Boy and Friends at the Bondfire Radio Audio Festival and, as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, an event at the Schomburg Center for Research In Black Culture called Resisting Limitations: AfroLatin@s and Radical Identities. I just got back from Chicago, where I taught a workshop called “Literary Therapy: Writing (For) Your Life” to grad students and admins in Adler University’s clinical mental health graduate program. The next day, I taught a creative writing workshop for some awesome girls at South Shore High School as part of Polished Pebbles’ afterschool program. I ate as if my life depended on it and I got to dance and sing for my life in the front row at the Saint Damita Jo Show.
It feels good to feel again.
It feels wonderful to have stimulation again, to be challenged and inspired to act, and to be overwhelmed with options.
On this journey towards better personhood, I have learned that getting well-intentioned friends and loved ones to really understand what you’re going through can be draining. Unfurling and articulating every nuance of your journey for people who’ll tell you to put some Jesus on it or just “get over it” can be a magnificent waste of energy. Rather than fighting for everyone to get you, your precious energy is much better spent with those who simply support you. I’d prefer that my people loved on me how I need them to and ate with me and gave me a shoulder or a tight hug or some space than to have them be acquainted with every nook and cranny of my woes.
The journey to now, despite the question marks and anxiety, has been muy gratifying and powerfully transformative. I’m so grateful for the lessons, even the hard-earned ones.
Most of my interactions in New York have been fruitful, affirming, calming, inspiring and right on time. I have cackled and eaten and reminisced and danced and eaten and rapped and plotted greatness and eaten with so many awesome folks who lifted my spirit, filled my belly, made me laugh until it hurt or hugged me when I needed it, even when they didn’t know I needed such uplifting.
Shit ain't all sunshine, sweet tea and cheese grits, but I’m grateful to be alive for the adventure. It feels dope as fuck to feel worthy and capable of the beautiful shit that’s happening in my life right now.
What a difference a year makes.