October 8, 2012

{Memoir Monday} Improv

by Ella Wilson

  • The third time I took ecstasy.
  • The night I was walking through South London at 3am when I realized I was being followed by a man who was reporting my every move into his cell phone.
  • At hour 27 of my first daughter’s labor.
  • The moment when I realized I had cut my wrist and was about to pass out in front of my 18-month-old daughter.
  • When the surgeon said I had gangrene and they might have to amputate my hand.
  • The first time I smoked pot.
  • The time I went on a school trip to Paris and ended up in the hotel room of a man four times my age too drunk to speak.
  • The night my mother died.

These are the moments that I remember making deals with god. The deal being, in every case, that if he, god, that I had never believed in until I had to, that if he delivered me to the other side of this moment alive then I would promise to never put myself in that situation again. I would never drink, take drugs, get pregnant, go out alone, hurt myself, love someone again. I promise. Please god.

So what comes next makes no sense, though it is what passed so I cannot call it nonsense. Sense is not always there for the judging.

I was 20, which was the new 16, but felt like the new 44. All the responsibility of adulthood. All the stupidity of youth. I had a new boyfriend. He was older than me, cooler than me, better than me and four-thousand miles away. We had met over the summer in New York. I was an intern, he was the opposite. His name was Mikal, with a K. I was in love with him. He would be in love with me in a couple of years. But for now
we spoke on the phone from time to time and I missed him constantly. I wanted him. I loved him with the desperation of someone whose life is crumbling, and mine was crumbling. My father was dying, my mother was clinging, my sister was nowhere and I could already feel the English doom threatening to sink me. I wanted out.

The distance between us was painful in a way that only the negative can be. It is not the bullet that hurts, it’s the hole. My disappearing family tied me to England. In the name of love and resentment I stayed.

4,000 miles to the west, in New York, Mikal did improv comedy. He had always done theater. He was loud and dramatic, strange and funny. He stood up in rooms and didn’t care who knew it. He breathed in and out without a question of his right to do so - we did not see eye to eye on matters such as this. He felt wonderfully entitled to his life, it was one of the things I loved about him. He was here, he was supposed to be, he was exactly who he was. Fine. I had never felt quite so sure of my existence. Whether born or learned I did not take my right to life for granted. Never sure if I was supposed to be wherever I was.

The fact then that I took his advice to sign-up for an improv theater workshop speaks only to the chutzpah of love. I found a class in the newspaper, which was like the internet before computers.

The place where the class was held was not threatening at first glance. The newspaper clipping led me to a room above a pub on a busy London street. This was not in central London though so the streets were wider, there was more sky and a little less world. I took the side stairs. Narrow and high without windows, it seemed I was entering a secret. At the top were double doors that swung both ways making me feel
slightly seasick to touch. Inside was a large room that suggested school or P.E. or religion, the wooden floor was smooth and there was a smell of polish, paint and disinfectant.

The institutional smell bore my first hint of fear, up until then I had bowled towards the drama using momentum over thought. It was the only way I knew to arrive anywhere. Unthinking, under motor.

The windows in the room were high giving the impression that I could not escape even if I wanted to and the feeling was settling in my stomach that I might want to.

To clarify, I am a funny person. At school I was the class clown. I make people laugh, I make myself laugh. This is not a brag. It is what is. Not everyone thinks I’m funny. Sometimes I don’t even think I’m funny. Quite often, I’m not funny. But sometimes I am. I am just the sort of person that should take an improv class. Or so it would seem.

The doors behind me stopped swinging and I found myself in a room of maybe twelve people, young or young seeming. Quirky, odd, friendly, fun. I have rarely felt more threatened.

Something rose in me that day that I did not know was there. Though looking back I must have had an inkling since I had been nervous for approximately 18 and a half of my 20 years. But I did not know panic in the sense of panic attacks. This panic, this modern panic that we wrestle with nowadays since most of us are lucky enough not to have good old-fashioned panic to deal with - the panic of floods, saber-toothed tigers,
famine, war.

The panic of panic attacks is no less real, no less scary or sweaty. But it is less clear to those around you what is happening. The crisis that is occurring is invisible. It is of the mind and memory. It is existential rather than, well, real.

The sweat, however, is real, the sound your heart makes when it is getting ready for you to run away is real, the sharp taste at each side of your tongue as your stomach acid makes itself known is real.

We were standing in a circle, me and the other performers. The hour was almost over and I had escaped with the bare minimum of air time. There had been games: shout out a word, mirror an action, do one thing while saying another. I had sweated through my shirt, but I was still alive. And now, so close to the end of the class came what felt like the end of the world.

There was to be a performance. Pairs in front of the whole group. I desperately tried to make myself floor colored, I blurred my eyes with the hope of a three-year-old that if I couldn’t see them then they couldn’t see me. I moved a few inches back so as to not technically constitute part of the circle and therefore render myself ineligible for choosing.

“She hasn’t done anything yet!” an enthusiastic man whose face I have lost shouted, pointing at me. And this is when it happened, my ears buzzed with fear and I started to pray. God, if you let me out of this alive I promise I will never, ever do anything that involves other people again. I swear, I will never take another improv class, I will not even go to the theater to see a play. I will never stand up again. I will never raise my
hand. I will never make the assumption that I am supposed to exist. Please god, help me. Show yourself, hide me.

That doing a three-minute skit in front of a bunch of people that I never had to see again could induce the same reaction in me as being so high on drugs that I thought I was going to die, so much in pain that I did not think I would survive, so afraid that I was about to expire, or be expired, this fact does not speak well to my confidence levels/mental health/relationship with reality/self-worth.

The man I was paired with for the performance sat on the wooden floor, unafraid to be part of the room. My body somehow found its way next to him. I was not conscious of my legs moving, but assuming I did not glide, I must have walked. I sat next to him, criss-cross-apple-sauce. And I did the only thing I could given my mental state. I pretended to meditate. I placed my hands in a disingenuous pose of surrender and closed my eyes. All I had to do was wait for three-minutes. The man moved around me. I am assuming at some point he spoke, but I do not know what went on outside of my body. I could not go there.

It reminded me of the time that I smoked so much pot that I thought my bedroom was going to eat me. The only way I could see my way through the night was to close my eyes for the count of three and then open them for the count of three. And it was thus that I survived another moment near the edge of sanity.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to wait. Count. Close your eyes. Open your eyes. And know that whatever it is will end.

1 comment:

  1. Great story, Ella. I love how you describe the experience as surviving another moment near the edge of sanity. That's a fine place to live a creative life, instead of swirling to the inside of the spiral of insanity. It's pure chaos there. You are a wonderfully gifted writer.