The crackle of forbidden Twizzler wrappers bounced off the underside of the balcony and scratched my eardrums like a rake on a sidewalk. On my right, the teenaged girl whispering into her boyfriend’s shoulder pulled my eyes like its own dance. A chair squeaked closer to the stage. All these tiny sonic booms crept under my skin, grinding like an electric sander against the inside of my body, and gaining speed with each rotation. I couldn’t turn them off. As the second act of Les Miserables unfolded, I darted around inside my head for an escape from the ambient noise before one of my favorite and the most tender songs began: “Bring Him Home.”
Lately, some sense of being stalked by a clattering ghost frequently leaves me on edge. I’d almost given up watching movies in the theater for the constant kicking of chairs, chattering patrons and chomping of popcorn as films’ climax, and crying inappropriate-aged children in mature films.
I love the movies. The cushioned seats. The treats. The game of timing the last bathroom visit just before the opening credits. Even hiding my eyes to avoid the previews. I’ve always loved the movies.
But the internal tornado from the talking-kicking-chomping-wailing customers destroys my downy glow. I stuff each interruption into the corners of my belly until it’s full of venom. Then, transformed into the evil witch from the fairy tale, I glare over my shoulder at the family behind me, my wicked eyebrows lowered. With each swivel, I bottle up tighter the eventual “shush” that I hope won’t drown out the film by the time it escapes my lips.
Yet living with my binoculars so easily distracted, I’m the one who suffers. If I hope to change—to develop a deeper empathy than a character like Les Mis’ Javert, who sees the rules in black-and-white—I need to greet people more kindly without expectations, to easily forgive minor transgressions like noisy, prohibited candy wrappers and whispering movie-goers. And not simply because it’s right or wrong, but because it will make me happier. By lowering my expectations, I open myself to a new level of vulnerability in my relationships with my family and friends. But until I recently attended Les Mis, I hadn’t thought about how lowering my expectations might apply to strangers who impeded my concentration and enjoyment of the moment.
After several months sitting across the room from a therapist, I had seen a pattern. Because of past relationships I had too many guards up, often worrying that if I’m kind, people may not be kind in return. Walking around with daggers aimed, ready for the smallest injustice to joust back in “self-defense”—even when far from necessary—I’ve continued this climate of fight or flight in my life far too long.
I’ve had a hard time with trust. Some issues date back to a childhood where I often felt isolated and without voice, power, or recognition of my passage through adolescence into womanhood.
Then in college, while travelling alone in France, a man followed me into a, narrow, outdoor hotel foyer I had entered to check the price list. When I turned to let him pass, he repeatedly grabbed my breasts.
Trapped and momentarily frozen, I told him in my limited French vocabulary, “Arretez! Arretez!”—Stop! But I probably used the polite, formal tense in my twisted state of shock.
“Oh . . . ” he nodded. “You like it!” Laughing and snarling, he pinned me up against the wall, reaching at my breasts around my hands that slapped at him.
Under the weight of so much powerlessness, my brain emptied of escape plans like a sudden trap door. Heavier even than when my boyfriend back at home would trap me in his apartment or his car as he swerved angrily through the streets, refusing to let me out the door. At least I knew my boyfriend’s weaknesses, how to wait him out, or talk him down.
After the man grabbed me so many times I lost count, I finally thought to sling the huge backpack from my shoulder and heave it at him over and over, suddenly panting as if drained. I’d been carrying this backpack for three weeks. Where was that adrenaline rush the scientists promise in an emergency?
He cackled. “Is that the best you can do?”
I finally thought to scream. By the time the owners of the hotel, an older couple, came to the door, the man had rushed away. The couple invited me inside to sit for a moment, where in my panicked and cock-eyed French I babbled until they nodded, exchanging glances of at least mock understanding. When I was ready to move on I quickly found a church—European cathedrals the only symbol of safety I knew—where I collapsed in tears until I could catch the next train out of town.
I came home from Paris at the end of the semester, finished college, and entered a brief, but unhealthy marriage a year later. At that point, I certainly wasn’t programmed to expect kindness.
But I look around me now at the people whose relationships I admire, the people who have the kind of trust I want, the people who are happy. The common theme: they are extraordinarily kind. They give freely of themselves in every situation without expectation of reciprocation.
I’ve come to recognize that, short of a few situations in my life involving strangers and loved ones, no one has actually physically or emotionally harmed me, nor do many people have the desire or power to do so. Certainly not the noisy crowd in the theaters. I’m a grown up now. There’s no reason to light up my fight or flight instinct.
As a long time yoga practitioner and instructor, my go-to anti-anxiety mechanism is deep breathing—some call it the relaxation response or ujjayi breathing. So, when the first notes of “Take Him Home” began to plink on the strings, I inhaled the notes, letting the air flow in and out my ears. My brows released and my eyes softened following the spotlight to center stage where I soon lost not only the sense of everyone around me, but myself as well until tears fell down my cheeks.
A few weeks ago my husband attended his first yoga class with me after getting “too much in his head” during a recent Ironman competition. While I thought he was just there to stretch his crazy tight hips and back, he said, “I think I actually might need some of the woo-woo stuff, so that when I’m worrying too much about my time, I can stop thinking about all that and just run.”
I know exactly what he means. I didn’t start running until I met him twenty years ago. And so often, I find myself caught up in how many more blocks to go, listening to my dog-like panting. “I wonder how fast I’m going. How much longer until I get home?”
A chiropractor introduced me to Chi running to shift my form, address my wonky knee. But like yoga, the physical benefits transcend to the mind and spirit. A rudimentary description: lean forward into the stance like a skier ready to embrace the downside of the mountain, run on my toes, and let everything else go. Shake out my arms, my shoulders, my neck. Fall into the rhythm of my breath and enjoy the peace. It’s yoga with the trees, soaking up whatever breeze stirs among the foliage, becoming a part of it.
It’s all about detaching from any thoughts or physical tensions I don’t need in that moment. So suddenly I can see the gifts of blue sky and trees around me, hear the voices and images in front of me without any expectation.
At my core, anxiety has been blocking me from fully embracing life at every angle, from work to my family to watching a movie. Each time I meet the world with expectations, fully dressed in my suit of protective armor, I throw a spear when something other than what I expect arises. So now, when something uncomfortable or undesirable triggers me, I aim to breathe in my talons, settle my innards, and find a focus: the beauty of the film, my run, the potential connection with my beloved underneath the tension, Jean Valjean singing under a transformative spotlight and ethereal cloudlike backdrop that transports me beyond my seat, floating within the song.
Photo credit: “breathe” by hilectric is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.