Tag Archives: Anxiety

My Study Abroad Overview: The Roads Not Taken

I’ve always been the kind of person that, whenever I commit to a path, am irresistibly drawn to imagining myself taking the other option. The road not taken. My student exchange to America’s Dairyland was one of the best experiences of my life. But as I’ve stated in my recent posts, it was by no means perfect. For a while now, I’ve wanted to do a post where I share with you my regrets regarding my semester abroad. They’re not necessarily things I agonize over now (it’s been 6 years after all!) but they are things that caused me a great deal of anxiety at the time, and for a while after I left. It’s interesting to imagine how things could have happened differently.

  • I’m an awful decision-maker, and on my first weekend on campus I was presented with a choice that made my anxiety run wild: attend the Blugolds’ season opener in what would have been my first American football game, or play soccer with Akbar and his mates. I chose the latter, and it was fun, but at the time I was paranoid that I’d missed a great opportunity. After all, I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, so by choosing to go with Akbar, I wasn’t really challenging myself or engaging in a cultural experience. I went because I liked Akbar and wanted to get in with his friendship group- which is what ultimately happened. But I still lamented the road not taken, because I knew that the season opener was not an experience I could ever do again. I imagined a crowd full of excited freshmen and myself among them, meeting new people, living as Americans did. The image pained me, and I never ended up going to see a Blugold game that semester.
  • As you know, I’ve always been a big believer of “When in Rome…yada yada” and assimilating to a local culture. But as the above point shows, I don’t always do that. Sometimes I panic and pick the easier, more familiar option. I’ve always hated the way time can slip like sand through your fingers and without even realizing it, opportunities will become closed off. During my exchange, I was told that while the weather was still warm in the first two weeks of September, a lot of Blugolds liked to go “Tubing” on the Chippewa River. It was almost like a rite of passage for students at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. I didn’t find likeminded people that wanted to go tubing and I wasn’t assertive enough to persuade my new friends to do so, so I never did. It felt like a missed opportunity at the time. However, this is one regret I am proud to say that I rectified upon my return to Eau Claire in 2014. When I came back to the city two years later, I told Aaron and Anne-Marie that I wished I had gone tubing during my exchange, and so they took me several times, and now I’m really glad with the way it turned out.
  • Perhaps my biggest regret of the semester (and this is one that still bothers me now) is that I didn’t join any clubs. It was something I knew I wanted to do before I even arrived in the USA and I just wasn’t brave enough or proactive enough to do it. I was dictated by laziness and fear. My friend Jimmy from down the hall was a member of a fraternity, and at the time I did want to join him. It seemed like such a staple of the American collegiate experience, as well as a great way to meet friends. Jimmy told me that the fraternities and the sororities organized events together in order for boys and girls to meet each other. For example, a boy and a girl would be matched together and go on a date to a bowling alley or something. I was utterly fascinated by his stories, but I knew at the same time that I was just not confident enough to try it out. I was also terrified of hazing rituals. Members of fraternities were not allowed to divulge any secrets, and I did not like the idea of going in blind. I can’t even chug a beer or a take a shot, and that’s not even considered mildly adventurous by most people. Goodness knows what sort of challenges they would have come up with. At Winchester (my British university) there was a rumor that to join the soccer team you had to eat a candy bar out of a guy’s arsehole. Seriously, fuck that noise.
  • There were one or two times during my exchange where I felt that I let my friends down. Too often I try to please everyone, and in so doing, end up pissing off everyone. My experiences of being bullied at school, and then being friendless and alone during my time in Bristol and Winchester, have made me into a people-pleaser. But the problem with obsessing over politeness and being liked is that sometimes you don’t take a moment to be honest about what you truly want, and in American culture this does not go down well. Americans like you to be straightforward. They hate any kind of deceit, even if it is well-intentioned. There was one time during my exchange where Jimmy and Zeke wanted to take the bus to the mall and hang out there for an afternoon. They asked Aaron, and because Aaron is American, he told them straight-up that he didn’t want to go. He wasn’t rude about it, but he was clear, and they respected that. I was torn. I felt that I ought to, but I also worried that I wouldn’t get any homework done, I was too lazy to move, and I also had a tendency to follow Aaron and do whatever he did at all times. I could tell Jimmy and Zeke were upset, because it seemed like I didn’t want to hang out with them. As soon as they left, I felt awful about not going. I regretted it instantly. And during that afternoon, all I did was make myself suffer for not going. I didn’t do any homework, I didn’t hang out with Aaron, I just sat in my room and tortured myself psychologically. If I could go back in time now, I would definitely go. Jimmy and Zeke were wonderful friends to me during my semester, and deserved more of my time.
  • In that same vein, I wish I had made more of an effort to be friends with my roommate Brad. We might not have had the same interests, but I could have made a better effort to talk to him more, even if just to make our dorm room a more comfortable place. The problem was I was too wrapped up in my own issues back then. I couldn’t see anything beyond my own failures, and I didn’t have the strength to take the initiative in a social situation. I would have liked to get lunch with him now and then, or chat with his parents when they visited. When the semester was over, I did feel a pang of regret.
  • Later on in the semester, I took a liking to a girl in one of my Literature classes who just happened to be an R.A in Towers North. I never did anything about it, and I’m not sure that I would be able to if I went back in time with the mind I have now. But at the end of the semester, I was disappointed that I didn’t even make the slightest bit of effort. Every American I met told me that American girls were obsessed with British accents. I had a lot of guys come up to me and say they were jealous of the “advantage” I had by speaking with “that Oxford voice”. My host family told me the reason for the obsession was a movie called Love Actually in which there’s a British guy that’s really smooth or something. So having girls want to talk to me (or any British guy) was known as the “Love Actually Effect”. I think the constant reminders of this supposed advantage and the insistence that I use it made me feel very anxious and I collapsed under the pressure. Having just come off the back of 3 years of hiding and living like a recluse, devoid of even the slightest bit of self-esteem, I was in no fighting shape for courting whatsoever. So in that sense, I don’t blame myself as much now as I did when my semester ended, for not letting that girl know I was interested in her. I just wish I had had enough courage to talk to her more often.

In conclusion, I’m happy with how my life has turned out since my semester abroad at UW-Eau Claire. It’s been 6 years now, and I am able to see that the long term consequences of my student exchange have all been amazing. But I wanted to write this post because I think it’s important to remember that however happy I am now, I didn’t necessarily feel this way at the time. These are all regrets that I felt during my exchange and for a while afterwards. It’s important to me that I remember that at the time my exchange ended, I did feel a strong sense of failure. I think the value in documenting that kind of information is that it’s telling about my state of mind, my changing sense of perspective, and my mental health. I still suffer from trying to please people, and I still torture myself over the paths I don’t take. I’ve discovered that I attach overwhelming significance to even the slightest everyday choices, like not going to the mall or whatever. It’s the sort of situation that could happen again, and indeed still does, where I obsess over the social ramifications of making one choice or another. And that’s why I think it’s important to share experiences such as these, because I’ve found that a lot of people have described having similar struggles. There is a comfort in knowing that what once seemed like a problem intrinsic to my character might very well be a common pitfall of the human condition.

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My Study Abroad Overview: The Indian Summer

I can remember the first few weeks of my semester abroad as having a particular feeling. I think September is the best time to be on an American campus. It’s a dreamy, hopeful kind of place. There’s a palpable excitement that you can almost hear, a nearness of laughter and footsteps and backpack zippers. It was sunny all the time, and my host family told me that this was called an Indian Summer. I shared upper campus with thousands of American freshmen, and it seemed that all of them had no desire other than to make friends. Anything seemed possible. Everything I saw and heard seemed to encourage me.

People left their doors open and music filled the dorms. I distinctly remember that the radio always played a song called Blow Me One Last Kiss by Pink, and I could hear it every time I went to the showers. The song Call Me Maybe, which had dominated the summer of that year, still lingered in everyone’s favor, but in a few weeks it vanished with the sunshine.

During this hot September the volleyball courts were always full. It seemed like a way to meet people. I went down a couple times with Jimmy and Zeke.

“You mean, we’re just gonna walk right up to them?” I said, lingering behind. My particular brand of British anxiety meant that I saw myself as a burden to others. The whole idea seemed crazy to me, even rude. I had never asked anyone to include me in something ever. It just wasn’t in my programming.

Jimmy turned back to me and smiled.

“Yeah, we’ll just ask them,” he said. In his mind, it was a simple as that.

We joined a game and I had a lot of fun. Sports was a good way for me to integrate myself in a social group, because when you’re playing a game you’ve always got something to do. And if you like sports, as I do, you end up forgetting you’re in a social situation at all. Adrenaline and competitive instincts kick in.

As we left the court, Jimmy said “Did you see me chatting to that blonde? She was pretty hot.”

I was happy. It seemed that there were opportunities around every corner. Each new face was a box of secrets waiting to be opened. If I could go back to any one part of my exchange, it would surely be those opening weeks. It was all noise and color and action. At that point, my plan for my student exchange to completely transform me into this super-confident Byronic rogue looked feasible. But I was still afraid. I didn’t trust the tools I had at my disposal. I wanted it to be a passive process, where America would act as this big wave that would sweep me up and carry me to the shore.

Of course, I learned that no such change is possible. I could only change as much as I let myself. If I truly wanted it, I had to face my fears and be proactive. I think that is the biggest lesson I learned from those months I spent in Eau Claire, WI. That is the one defining takeaway from my student exchange. It just wasn’t enough to have the opportunities and the encouragement there on the outside- I had to transform myself from within.

It was during that Indian Summer that I was introduced to Macklemore by my new best friend Aaron. We listened endlessly to his album The Heist. I remember Aaron sitting cross-legged on the rug, wearing a high school soccer t-shirt that he had cut the sleeves off of, dancing to the song Thrift Shop. It was very popular at that time. I sat watching him sing along and folding laundry from my usual spot- a detached computer chair propped up against the wall. It was at that moment our friend Akbar entered the room and threw a condom at my face. The corner of the wrapper scratched my forehead above the eye and I picked it up and stared at it. It took me a while to realize what it was. I looked back up at the Malaysian’s toothy grin.

“You’ve got until Christmas to use it. That’s plenty of time, bro-la,” he said, winking at me.

Blushing, I put the condom in the front pocket of the Green Bay Packers coat my host family had given to me.

My plane left the Minneapolis airport on December 22nd. As I waited in the departure lounge, messing around on one of the free iPads, I got a call from Akbar. I was sad and emotional, but the fact that he was both the first and last person I spoke to during my exchange pleased me. I like things to be neat and cyclical. Most of the time he’s teasing me, but on this occasion he spoke softly. He wanted to make sure I was alright at the airport and he wanted to say goodbye.

I reached down into my coat pocket and laughed.

“You know, I still have that condom you gave me at the start of the semester,” I said, putting it away quickly in case anyone around me caught sight of it.

“Well, you’ve still got twenty-five minutes to use it. Any hotties around?”

“Oh, um, I’ll have to check,” I said.

“There’s still time, la. You’ll only need fifteen seconds!”

I tend to celebrate my 2012 student exchange as being this wonderful thing that happened that changed my life forever. And that’s true. It did. But it wasn’t perfect. And my naïve idea that it would be this golden experience from which I would emerge a new man did not come to fruition. There were highs and lows from my time in Eau Claire. And it was during that semester that I realized for the first time that when it comes to me, the highs are very high and the lows are very low.

The Storytelling of the Everyday

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I like having a date in the future that I can both look forward to and work towards. I try to avoid having a blank calendar. I’m not a planner, but I find that having a proverbial jackrabbit to chase after gives me a sense of forward momentum in life. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to attach narratives to life, to think of its events as forming a greater story. I don’t want to give you the impression I’m religious or anything like that- I don’t believe in things like destiny, or that life has any grandiose meaning for all of us. I’m a believer in individuals creating their own meanings. I’m aware that my tendency to perceive events as stories is an act of creation on my part, and I’m aware of why I do it. I’ll target one or two events on my calendar and think of the time between them as being a distinct “chapter of my life”. That’s why I like having something in the near future- whatever it may be, a trip, a wedding, anything– that signifies the end of one chapter and the start of a new one.

For example, last year I had three such events that ended up dividing my 2017 into quarters. I had my best friend’s wedding in March, my departure for Texas in May, and my return to the U.K in August. I compartmentalized the time before and after each one into four distinct chapters that formed the narrative of 2017, because I knew that each event was going to be an emotional experience. At the end of each chapter, I would have learned something. One way or another, I’d have something to look back on. I’d carry something with me from the previous chapter into the next.

I don’t think I’m alone in doing this. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Wow, these must be the ramblings of a serial killer” and if that’s the case I wholeheartedly apologize for not getting through to you. But I’m thinking that many of you have similar thoughts. You might look upon an internship, a gap year, a semester abroad, a maternity leave, as having its own story, as affecting you in some way so that when it ends, you are a different person. I’m sure a lot of people don’t necessarily think of a certain period of time as a distinct narrative until it has long since passed, until they find themselves reminiscing about it. I have difficulty just living in the present, so I’m not really such a person. But life throws all kinds of surprises at you, and if you’ve watched as many movies or read as many books as I have, you’ll find you can’t resist isolating emotional memories as the bookends to a particular segment of your life.

Maybe it’s something as small as you saying “Hey, remember when, for a week, the three of us sat together in math and every day we made power rankings of our celebrity crushes? We were like the Three Musketeers that week”. Or perhaps it’s something as big as losing a loved one, and you find yourself during the months after taking long walks in the evenings. It’s an event that bleeds into the rest of your life until the next thing happens. A new job, a new partner, the discovery of something new, or the recovery of something lost.

We can’t help but look for stories in our lives. But sometimes it’s not such a good thing. I’ve mentioned how I tend to do it because I have a romantic outlook on things, and sometimes it helps to motivate me to enrich the time I have, to work harder with the hope that I can attain something lasting and important from a particular phase of life. However, too much creation on my part can sometimes result in a nasty bout of anxiety. What we take with us isn’t necessarily good. We have bad experiences. We’re all troubled by the human condition like Holden Caulfield. We all suffer. And I have found that creating a narrative out of everything gets me in trouble sometimes. Perhaps you wake up with a headache, and as you’re getting ready you accidentally step on your 8-year old’s art project. Just as you’re rushing to glue it back together, you get a letter in the mail telling you that your bank account is overdrawn. A lot of people- myself included- would then say “It’s just not my day” and subconsciously create this narrative of a bad day. But really, it’s just a coincidence that these things all happened on the same morning. There’s no conspiracy against you, but you’re drawn into believing that everything’s just going wrong. It colors the rest of your day, and things like taking the little brats to school, going to work, making them supper, doing the laundry, seem all the more daunting. You’re crushed by the immensity of it and it all ends in tears and a cheap bottle of wine.

It can be hard to take yourself out of time, to remove yourself at that point from the narrative you have created and realize “Hey, this day can still be good if I want it to be”. As you know, I’m not at all an expert on being happy. Happiness is a tricky business. But if I am feeling swamped or anxious, I find that the best way of ending the “It’s all going to shit” narrative is to go on a walk (preferably at night or when it’s cool) and follow it up with some Yoga Nidra meditation.

So I’m careful when I feel myself making a story out of everything. I have to remind myself to be aware I’m doing it. 2018 is still in its infancy. In April I’m heading off to Eastern Europe for a short solo adventure. I’m pretty excited for it, and I’m looking forward to seeing how I traveling alone affects me. But, as my wise roommate cautioned me, expectations often live in the extremes. There’s the best case scenario where I come back a champion of self-confidence and knowledge, stepping off the plane with a finished novel in one hand and a shapely Carpathian bride on the other. And there’s the worst case scenario where I get lost at night and in my desperation accept the directions of a Transylvanian serial killer intent on leading me back to his windowless rape dungeon. Most of the time, neither scenario comes true, and your experience lands somewhere in the middle.

I’ll provide more updates on my trip pretty soon, but for now I just wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about the way I perceive things. Let me know in the comments if you can relate!

“Just Another Mental Health Post”

I never planned to blog about my mental health issues as much as I have. It was only when I started writing my series of memoir-posts about my 2012 student exchange that I realized there was no way around it. To leave out my struggles with anxiety and depression would have been to tell a hollow narrative. It would have been a sequence of pointless events not really worth writing about. It wasn’t until that first post that I realized that to tell the story of my study abroad would mean telling the story of my mental health. I realized through writing about the events of that semester that every moment seemed to be tied in some way to the imbalance in my brain chemistry. Every social situation, from intramural soccer to my first day at class had to be told through the lens of my anxiety, because that’s how I experienced it. Sometimes I felt a little nervous about discussing these issues, because I’ve always been emotionally fragile and hyper-sensitive about what others think of me, but I decided to write them anyway. Part of me felt guilty about blogging about it, and worried at the kind of reaction I’d get. Ultimately I knew I would, because I knew the writing demanded it, and the quality of my writing is more important to me than pretty much anything else- certainly more than fear of embarrassment. But up until now I’ve only ever blogged about mental health insofar as it relates to my experiences and memories. I haven’t done a piece specifically addressing my issues, because I feared that doing so would be stepping into a realm beyond my expertise. I might suffer from these issues, but I’m no medical professional, and that’s my reason for not wanting to discuss mental health in a general sense. I’m uncomfortable offering advice or discussing the experiences of others. I’m nervous about trying to contribute something useful to an issue so destructive for so many people.

However, I’m in an angry mood this afternoon. And it’s this anger that’s prompted this blog post. It’s not a post I have scheduled and it’s not one I’ve planned. I was actually scheduled to release an entirely different post today, but that can wait. I need to get this off my chest while I’m still fired up about it. So think of this as a kind of spontaneous rant. I’m not sure where it’s going, or whether it will amount to anything worthwhile, but here goes.

A little while ago I saw a post on Facebook that caught my eye. For the past two years I’ve been taking an antidepressant called Citalopram. I was in a phase in 2015 where I didn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. I didn’t want to try anything. I loathed myself and I consciously wished that I would fall asleep and never wake up. The pills have helped eschew those dark thoughts and now I’m in a phase where I find myself very unwilling to part with the medication. Anyway, the post on Facebook that I saw contained a picture of these pills, and I was naturally drawn to it. It was a long Facebook post in which the user was discussing the side effects of the medication on her health. It was very interesting to read about someone else’s experience with the same drug I was using. However, the first paragraph of the post was filled with defensive and self-conscious statements such as “I don’t want this to be just another mental health post but…” and that got me thinking. At first I was annoyed because she seemed to be disparaging other mental health related posts even though she herself was clearly trying to write the same thing. But then, I started wondering why she was so self-conscious about writing about mental health. She was obviously worried about the kind of reaction her post would get. She seemed to be echoing a fear that social media is oversaturated with mental health posts, that because more and more people are sharing their stories, the supposed “real issues” were becoming clouded. It hinted at widespread suspicions of anxiety not being a real medical problem, or the sentiment that “everyone’s diagnosed with something now”, a sentiment which (to me) suggests that because so many people are opening up about their suffering, that the issue’s seriousness is therefore diminished.

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I’m not an expert, so I don’t know, nor do I pretend to know, how widespread the issue of anxiety is. But even if it is so common, that doesn’t make it any less toxic. I’m angry today because it’s apparent that we’ve got a long way to go toward making our society more sensitive to these issues. What really set me off today was reading through the comment section of an article on Bleacher Report about Johnny Manziel’s Bipolar diagnosis. I loved watching Johnny Football when he was in college. I wouldn’t say he’s a hero of mine or anything, but he was an exciting athlete doing some pretty flashy things. Reading through the comments beneath the article, I was appalled at the idea that because this guy has made some mistakes in his life, that he is somehow not entitled to our sympathy. In a recent interview with Good Morning America, Manziel was forthcoming about his Bipolar diagnosis, depression, and his commitment to sobriety and therapy. If there’s one thing I admire it’s an individual that tries to better him or herself. We don’t have to like Johnny Manziel, and that’s not my point here. My point is that the reaction I observed to the news of his mental health issues was symptomatic of a wider societal problem regarding the perception of depression and anxiety. Sympathy is never a finite resource; we don’t have to choose between feeling concerned about Syrian refugees and a college football star’s search for a healthy state of mind. Every form of suffering is worth our attention, and in order to create a more sympathetic world, we have to stop categorizing suffering.

I know that sounds preachy, but fuck it. My blood’s up now. I have to express my rage and do what rage demands, what it’s good for; to turn it into a written statement. I was chatting with a friend recently who was describing a “rut” he’s been in. During our chat, he said something that really stuck with me. “I don’t want to use the word depression” he said. It made me think he felt guilty about adopting that word, that his issues weren’t as important as mine. The fact that I take pills doesn’t make my anxiety any more real, or any more important than his or anyone else’s. We should be encouraging people to share, and getting to the root of our problems, so I told my pal to use whatever word he felt best described his experience. It comes back to the idea that because mental health issues are suddenly more widespread, that not every claim is as valid as the next. Are people tired of anxiety related posts? Are they annoyed by them? I’m not. Nothing pleases me more than seeing people share their experiences, be it orally or in a written piece. I love reading the blogs of some of my fellow Creative Writing graduates that touch on issues such as depression or social anxiety. Nothing makes a person so interesting to me as their openness, their self-awareness and self-reflection. I don’t enjoy hearing that other people suffer, but it is comforting to know that my issues are shared by so many, and I seek out these brave accounts of suffering. But you don’t need a degree in Creative Writing or a Citalopram prescription to share your story. Don’t ever be afraid to express your own experiences, and don’t be made to feel that what you are going through does not warrant our attention, because to share is to contribute the continuum of human experience and our understanding of these issues.

I’mma get me some ice cream. Nothing cools me off like a bowl of Neapolitan. Vowles out.

Dressing the Part

When I entered the USA for the first time, I was very much intent on absorbing as much as I could from the local culture. In some ways I arrived a tabula rasa– a blank slate. A land that could only exist in movies was suddenly real and tangible. I was so curious about how these Americans lived and how they thought, and I wanted to get as close to that experience as I could. I wasn’t really sure how I would ingratiate myself in this land of s’mores and denim, but before I even set foot on its mythical shores, I had a deliberate commitment to “When in Rome…something something…”

I say I was a blank slate because at the time I had none of the elements in my life that now seem so important. I was lacking in life experience and social exposure. I was naïve, and I even told the student exchange coordinators in Winchester that my reason for going was, quite frankly, to become more worldly. I was also wayward and uncertain in my own homeland, living as the campus recluse and wondering if I was missing out on things key to a person’s social development. Honestly, I was like Quasimodo, only venturing out my room when I was sure I had no chance of seeing anyone. In that respect, I felt different to the other exchange students who traveled with me from Winchester to Eau Claire. They seemed like complete persons, people with distinct identities. I imagined that they would bring the U.K with them to Eau Claire, teaching their new American friends interesting nuggets about their life across the ocean. I imagined them challenging Americans on “Proper English” and introducing them to British drinking culture. They were, in my mind, exciting prospects for waiting Americans, bringing the exotic British experience to their lives. Their interactions with the locals looked like a two-part exchange.

By contrast, I had very little to share. I was looking to make myself anew. Kind of like a phoenix, except not as graceful and majestic. I was to be born again in the chapel of “Howdy pardners” and “You betchas”. I used the word soccer instead of football and I put my hand on my heart during the Star-Spangled Banner. When asked to perform my own national anthem, I refused, saying I hated the Queen and that garbage song. I remember that lack of pride specifically shocking the Americans, and I wondered if in a dorm room on the other side of campus, the other Winchester students were proudly belting out “God Save the Queen” in front of their cheering American admirers.

Even though I would later adopt a lot of Americanisms, I don’t want to give the impression that I was somehow destined to be Americanized or anything. It wasn’t a smooth transition at all. As I got to know Aaron, Jimmy and Zeke better, I began to realize just how differently they thought to me. As I have stated in other posts, the traits that seemed to define my new friends were openness, direct language, decisiveness, and a lack of fear of embarrassment. What I mean by that last one is not that all Americans are flawless extroverts, but simply that they came across as not showing any outward signs of shyness. I couldn’t have been more different to them. I was self-conscious, passive, bumbling, and awkward. But I’ve covered that in previous episodes. Today I want to draw attention to more superficial changes.

Believe it or not, at the time I had a “no-denim” rule. I wasn’t quite sure what my fashion sense was, but since the age of 15 or so, I refused to wear jeans. All of my trousers were black office-style pants. I often wore button-down shirts tucked into a black belt. I guess I was trying to look old-fashioned or something. Anyway, in the U.K this never really stood out. At Winchester there’s kind of a hipster atmosphere anyway, and what I wore was never a point of conversation. But right off the bat in the USA, the locals seemed perplexed at my choices. Americans were shocked that I didn’t have any jeans. I was told that if an American were to dress this way, they’d be considered “preppy” and “a nerd”. That’s not to say that all Americans dress the same, but what the exceptions did was really own it. Their style was a way of expressing themselves and considered a part of their identity. They weren’t self-conscious about being the girl that always wears a beanie or the guy that always wears a trench coat. I was no such exception. I had no such ownership and confidence in the way I dressed. I was still figuring it all out, trying one item and then the next.

“It must be really formal in your country,” one person told me.

“This is normal for the English,” another person explained, as if defending me against accusations of being a dork.

I’d say most Americans at the time wore jeans when it was cool and athletic shorts when it was hot. I didn’t even own any shorts! But both girls and guys alike seemed to be stocked with them. Almost all Americans wore backpacks too. When I was 11 years old and I went from Primary School to Secondary School in the U.K, I was told immediately by older kids to adjust my straps to wear my bag as low as possible, or I’d get bullied. If you want a snapshot of life in a British school, then just picture every person’s backpack level with their ass, because that’s how it was. The kids that didn’t make the change quick enough were probably hounded into a discreet corner and given a good beating. Anyway, no such rule existed in the USA. Aaron took one look at my low bag and said “That’s just stupid,” before adjusting it to its proper height for the first time in a decade. I later logged into Facebook and saw a status from my friend and fellow writer who was studying in Oregon. She was saying how she couldn’t get over how high everyone’s backpack was in the USA, and recalled how kids with high backpacks would get bullied in school. And she was from Shropshire, so it’s clearly a nationwide insanity in U.K schools.

I got my first pair of jeans when I went deer hunting during Thanksgiving break. They were an old pair handed down to me from my host dad, and I had to wear a tight belt to keep them up, because I had no defined butt whatsoever. I was rail-thin. My host dad said “We just had to sort you out,” and gave me a brown leather belt to replace my black one. All of a sudden I felt like a cowboy. That day drinking beer in a tree stand seems like a turning point now, because when we got back from the hunt, I had lifted my decade-long ban on denim. I quite liked feeling rustic and unpretentious for a change, and within months I had completely shed the French philosopher look. I went to the student building on lower campus and bought myself a gray sweater. I rushed back to my dorm and tried it on with my new jeans. I then walked across the hall into Aaron and Akbar’s room and I remember Aaron looking up and going “Whoa! You look great”. My new style was already winning me compliments. People said I looked like “an American college boy”, and I wondered if I would possibly get mistaken for a frat bro.

My New Year’s Resolution

I have always been attracted to the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, because I love having a sense of direction in life. I love the idea of building something. It’s not enough just to earn money to stay alive. I love having a project. But I’m not entirely at ease with the concept of Resolutions. I don’t think people should be made to feel that they have to have one. If you’re happy, why change? A cynic might argue that having a Resolution is a sure way to make yourself disappointed in the future. When I listen to other people’s Resolutions, I find they’re most often based on eschewing perceived vices. Vowing to stop eating donuts, smoking cigarettes, or watching porn. But come Spring they have Type 2 Diabetes, a voice as rough as a cement mixer, and they’ve swiftly gone blind. And while I absolutely encourage efforts to live a more healthy lifestyle, it’s not quite the type of Resolution I’m drawn to. It’s what I think of as a Negative Resolution- aimed at resisting a temptation of some kind. It’s often seeing how many months you can go before you’re rushing out to the store for a box of Shipley’s, a packet of Camels, and presumably a fresh stack of tissues.

I’m more interested in what I call Positive Resolutions- an end goal that I work towards. However, I realize we live in an age that encourages dreams and the entitlement to individual achievement. And so it can sometimes be unhelpful to pressure others to feel like they need a dream or a target of their own. I certainly endorse the idea of striving to improve as a person, but you don’t need some grandiose, lofty Resolution to do that. I asked three people on New Year’s Eve what their Resolutions were. The first to answer was an old friend of mine, who declared he wanted a new job. A nice, solid goal to work towards. The next to respond was his cheerful girlfriend, who was less certain. After thinking about it for a bit, she then decided that if she were to have a target, it would be to compete again in a bodybuilding competition (she’s ripped). The last fellow to answer was the most caught off guard. We thought of Resolutions for him, but concluded that honestly he didn’t need one. Resolutions are like freckles. Sure, they look cute & pretty & distinctive, and you might want them- but you don’t need them. Similarly a Resolution is a fine thing to have, but you’re not missing anything by not having one.

I had the same conversation a day later with my family as we sat down for the first supper or 2018. My brother went first, and with wild-eyed excitement told us that he wanted to try a new hobby, something completely new, exotic, and challenging like Kendo, ballroom dancing, or amateur dramatics. My mom went second, and opted for the becoming less-reliant-on-chocolate-to-get-through-the-day route. When it was my dad’s turn, he answered with a stony face and a gruff voice “I don’t believe in Resolutions.”

Then it was my turn. As the eyes around the table fell on me, I thought about what I wanted from 2018. There were a bunch of areas in my life one might think ripe for a Resolution. This blog for example. What’s the next step for TumbleweedWrites? To reach 1000 subscribers? To blog full-time? The answer is I want this blog to steadily improve, to grow, but I don’t have a specific target in mind for it. I will most likely finish my Study Abroad series of personal essays pretty soon, and I have another big subject lined up for this Spring that will surely feature quite heavily in my writing for this site. More details on that will come very soon.

And what about other aspects of my life? Of course I intend to keep my job and perhaps even get a promotion, but it’s not my Resolution. The same can be said for fitness. I need to lose some of this chub and get my stamina back, but once again, that’s not my main ambition for the year. Those of you hoping for a Mrs Tumbleweed to emerge sometime soon will also be disappointed, because getting a girlfriend is not my focus either. If Mrs Right comes along then that’s swell, but I have decided that I’m not going to treat being single as some kind of problem. I need my energy for writing, and I’m not prepared to enter into a relationship that isn’t organic and natural. So I won’t be reinstalling Tinder or hitting the bars.

I would say that my main objective for the year is to find a literary agent for my novel, which (judging by my current rate) ought to be finished by February sometime. But I don’t think it’s helpful for a writer to worry about something beyond his or her control. Maybe it will get represented, maybe it will get published, maybe it will be on shelves at a bookstore near you- but none of those are things I can really control. At that point your manuscript is in the hands of other people. All a writer can do is write. I hope to write at least one other novel before the end of the year, so that’s a more interesting and worthwhile target I think. Finish the current novel and write a second one.

But truly, my New Year’s Resolution is much more personal than anything I have listed above. Mental health is my primary concern. I’ve spent the last 24 hours deep in thought. I’m reevaluating my progress as a person, and I’ve realized that I’m far from where I want to be. Anxiety is a part of me for better or for worse, and I know I want to manage that better. A panic attack is a wake-up call- a reminder that however much I might feel like I’m doing better, I can slip right down to rock bottom at a moment’s notice. I think my Resolution will be trying to become more self-sufficient, more mentally strong and to be able to handle things on my own. I’m still too much of a people-pleaser, I still compromise too much, I’m passive, and lacking in confidence in the moments when I need to back myself the most. This year I hope to be as thoroughly myself as I can possibly be. And this post here is where it starts. My blog has always been a way to hold myself accountable, and TumbleweedWrites will serve as a record of my progress. When I look back on this post in December, what will I think?

Turning 25

Last weekend I turned 25. I enjoyed a nice, steady birthday where my family and I went to see Blade Runner 2049 and eat at one of our favorite Siamese restaurants. The movie was a masterpiece and the Gaeng Phed Ped Yang always hits the spot. At various points during the day, my friends and family asked me “So how does it feel to be 25?”

How does it feel? British humor dictated that I reply “You know, it’s an awful lot like when I was 24,” and I obliged the waiting faces a chuckle- but I wasn’t done. I did feel something. I was suddenly morbid. The last 25 years seemed so vast, and I feared that the next 25 would go by in a flash. At some point I’d wake up, 50 years old, and remark “Where did the time go?”

I was at the biological peak of my life, I told myself. I was finally here. When we’re young our bodies bail us out of bad habits, quickly replenishing cells with fresher ones for optimum efficiency, priming us for our sole purpose- which is the same for all life- procreation. And once we get past these mating years- whether we make the beast with two backs or not- we start slowly dying. Everything deteriorates gradually, cells are replenished slower until they’re not replenished at all, and you start doing things like spending your mortgage savings on a Harley with aggressively steep ape-hangers, or trying to explain to your wife that the reason the laptop is overrun with malware totally isn’t because you were streaming Girls Gone Wild from a less-than-reputable source.

It might sound a bit hysterical, but it wouldn’t be a birthday without an existential crisis wrapped up with a pretty bow on top. I’ve never really been good at birthdays. Something about turning 25 makes me feel like I’ve completed something, like I can look back on everything behind me as a single volume in the story of my life. It might seem that I was plagued with visions of the future, but to be honest most of that was the tickle of my subconscious. I spent most of my first week of being 25 looking backwards, at the past.

I was definitely better at birthdays when I was a kid. Back then I’d invite all my friends from school to go tobogganing or to play laser tag and we’d top it off with chicken nuggets or something. It was something loud and colorful, and I didn’t feel self-conscious or weird about the fact that it was all about me. Birthdays weren’t bad after that, but once my teenage years came around they were never the same. I became bashful, almost guilty, that there was a day where social custom dictated that people celebrate me. And the idea that I was expected by everyone to be happy made me anxious. I’m not exactly the best at being happy. The wild-eyed, theatrical rogue that was my child-self was dead. He didn’t make it past the age of eleven, sadly. He was skipping along as in a 1940s cartoon when an anvil fell from the sky and flattened him. The Michael that emerged, once he popped back into 3D and resumed his journey, had an altogether different look to him.

Teenage years were a mire of hormones and bullying and the search for identity. I was extremely self-conscious. I remember extended family members remarking how quiet I’d gotten all of a sudden, trying to pin-point the moment the little devil they knew had become an awkward, gangly recluse forever blushing and apologizing. Birthdays came every year and each day they seemed to reflect in some small way the person I was becoming- the same way the birthdays of my childhood were indicative of the little adventure-seeking, bright-eyed brat that I was. They were still fun, but now I didn’t make too much of a fuss. I enjoyed a low-key meal with a few friends, before giving up the idea of inviting people to an event altogether.

I was going to make this post one of those “Letter to My Younger Self” things where I’d address the kind of person I was at 15 years old and how I’ve changed in the last 10 years. But to be honest I’m not sure what I would say to the Michael of my school years. I suppose the thing to do would be to warn myself not to overreact, stay positive, yada yada, but that would just read like a catalogue of my teenage angst. I’m not sure I want to send 15-year old Mike a telegram saying “WATCH THE FUCK OUT” for this upcoming pitfall or that. Not to try and sound philosophical, but you kinda need pitfalls in life. There’s a bunch of things I regret, that’s for damn sure. Like most people I have memories that make me shudder like someone emptied a jar of cold piss down my neck, ones that I wish I could erase. I hate hurting or disappointing people. It sucks, but assuming you have some level of self-awareness you do learn from it.

What I’ve always ultimately been interested in is how best to navigate the social sphere. Call it what you want- coexistence, perhaps? Being able to understand others and communicate effectively is what it’s all about. That’s how you succeed- whether you’re building business relationships or personal ones. In my teenage years I’d watch other people at school float on by with effortless skill. I focused on small things- the priceless knowledge they had- how to walk, what to do with your hands, how to joke around, how to speak, when to speak. It was like everyone else had the answer sheet to a project and I’d inexplicably missed out.

I watched other people, less skilled, trying out personalities that weren’t entirely their own. I was never so brave, but when an unexpected situation came my way I often found myself saying something that didn’t feel quite so natural to me, trying out different walks, thinking to myself how best to look relaxed when sitting in class. The big one was how the hell to talk to girls. You’d see other guys making them laugh and wonder how on Earth they did it. But at the time I was far too ignorant to realize that girls were people too, and that behind their laughing eyes and self-assured smiles there was a human being experiencing all flavors of confusion, doubt and fear. But it’s from that very ignorance that empathy is learned. I’m still searching for answers to all the questions of my youth, but I don’t feel quite so hopeless now. Part of that has to do with the fact that I’ve realized all along that so many others, perhaps more than I ever thought possible, were asking the same questions.