La Alma

From the summer of 2016 to the summer of 2019, I lived in La Alma-Lincoln Park, in Denver. My 600-square-foot postage-stamp apartment appeared to hover at the third floor, within the corner of a new building in this storied, old Colorado neighborhood. A few minutes’ walk took me to the light-rail station by Denver’s oldest restaurant, The Buckhorn Exchange. Urban living.

Beyond my living-room window, the green of a single ash tree filled the view. It was the only mature tree on the block, decades older than the building in which I lived, and it anchored a street of concrete, asphalt, and steel.

Those were difficult years, at La Alma: the election of Donald Trump, the death of David Bowie, Brexit. In 2015, as well, I had ended almost twenty years of work in academia, and I’d hoped in 2016 to transition my career to… something else. By late 2016, I’d come to understand that whatever the “something else” would be, it’d be harder to find, and harder to accomplish, than I’d believed.

Shortly after my arrival at La Alma, on a rainy night, a resident’s angry girlfriend emptied the building’s fire extinguishers into the hallways, tore every work of art from the walls,1 and pulled the fire alarms. Residents emerged into hallways clouded by potassium bicarbonate, unprepared to stand in the cold, wondering whether our building was burning down. It took hours for the firefighters to readmit us, weeks to clean the mess, and the landlord never replaced the art.

Near La Alma, dealers sold pot, mostly to kids not old enough to buy it legally, or they sold other drugs. In the park, homeless encampments might persist a few days before scattering (or being scattered). Across the street, an assisted-living facility drew first responders, sirens blaring, sometimes multiple times per day, sometimes in the middle of the night.

One night, 1am: Beneath the ash tree, a distraught woman shouted and cried—her husband had died. From my window, I listened as an officer attempted to console her, listened while she keened. Keening. Its tone is specific, unmistakably rich, and gut wrenching. For two hours, she keened and keened and keened.

Another night, 3am: A man screamed up and down the street.

“I’m gonna fuck you up! I’m gonna fuck you up! I’m gonna fuck you up!

Within minutes, a half dozen police vehicles lit the street in red and blue, flashing across a hundred residential windows, sirens howling. On that night I feared I’d be witness to a police shooting, but the officers chose patience even as the man resisted arrest, kicking officers from where he lay, on the grass, over the ash tree’s roots. The EMTs administered ketamine,2 and an ambulance carried him away.

Another night, 2am: Pop, pop. Pop, pop, pop! Gunshots don’t sound like much from a distance, especially from the other side of the nearby train tracks. Bullets struck several buildings.

The prevalence of trauma, and of crime, was high at La Alma. So was the population density, and wherever there is a density of people there is a concomitant density of crime. Crime density and crime rates are easily confused, but because of La Alma’s density, I became particularly aware of its crime and trauma.3 Curbside arguments were frequent, many beneath my window and under the ash tree’s boughs. During the months before my departure, I witnessed a gun battle, and three separate murders occurred within a block radius, one in my building.

From La Alma, I miss The Molecule Effect, I miss First Fridays on Santa Fe, I miss the Golden Triangle, I miss El Taco de Mexico, and I miss that damn ash tree. That one tree rooted me in something other than the dysfunction of that place, providing an anchor into a natural world richer, slower, and more fundamental than the everyday, generational traumas of a difficult, neglected, and historically poor neighborhood. That tree stood over an angry man, a keening woman, a gun battle, and countless residents’ arguments, but it also attracted friendly discussion, dog walkers, informal gatherings, neighborly conversations, and people simply seeking shade or shelter from the rain. Never let anyone say trees aren’t magical.

For me the murders were too much, and I left the ash tree behind. Without notice I canceled my lease and cajoled my landlord into paying me to leave. What a gift, to have the resources to flee an unhealthy place. I appreciate the reality that, for so many who live each day in traumatic places all around the world, fleeing is not an option.

Washington Park

If the ash tree of La Alma had been an anchor, a calm point around which trauma roiled, then my home in Washington Park was a secret garden, a respite from everyday conflicts. A short walk away, the Park contained many hundreds of trees (hundreds of anchors?), representing seventy-six species, bracketed by middle-upper-class and exclusive neighborhoods.

My tiny carriage house existed out of sight, sharing a small yard, a few blocks from South Broadway. The proximity to Broadway meant the adjacent alley provided a thoroughfare for the homeless or other wanderers, but they never caused me trouble, and for months the carriage house was a quaint, century-old writer’s paradise. If work, or life, ever seemed too much to handle, a walk through Washington Park soothed the nerves.

So much better than life at La Alma, right?

One afternoon, 2pm: Shortness of breath. Tunnel vision. Pounding heart. Sheer panic. Social anxiety. Terror of most interactions.

The first anxiety attack caught me by surprise. Only a few days later, another followed it, then another, and walks through the trees didn’t stop them. I’d experienced such episodes before, at most one or two per year, but by autumn 2019 they were hitting at least weekly.

Anxiety attacks are no joke. There’s no depression in them, no feelings of pointlessness—one can experience crippling anxiety and also have plenty to live for—but for me the extreme attacks are excruciating, debilitating, and exhausting.

I’ve been hospitalized for kidney stones—a degree of pain widely regarded as bad—and twice needed surgery for them. A full-on anxiety attack is as painful.

The effect is not of wanting to kill oneself, but of thinking of death as a relief. In those moments, a stray meteor zeroed into the skull would seem a blessing.

From September 2019 to January 2020, I experienced between a dozen and twenty attacks, some so intense they left me exhausted for days. By November I’d found a therapist—everyone should be so lucky—but therapy is no quick fix, and well into January 2020 I was struggling. One of my worst attacks hit on 11 January—

Toward the end of hosting a public event in Denver.

I’ve come to understand that the anxiety has a few triggers:

  • Financial uncertainty.
  • Group dynamics.
  • Conflict.4
  • Sometimes, any human interaction whatsoever.

At its worst, the idea of speaking with anyone causes nausea, like being punched, whether in person or on the phone. Once, after a call related to an editing project, I barely managed to make it to the toilet before throwing up. Even now, calls are difficult, and a ringing phone will create a moment of high alert—imagine a deer which hears the footstep of a lion, somewhere in the woods around it.

To the anxious, every call is bad news, every group environment is a trap, every moment of conflict is the precursor to a life-and-death fight. Yet anxiety is a liar, a paranoiac deceiver. In that paranoia, everything you do is a failure and everyone you know is out to get you. The end result of this is, almost inevitably, a retreat from public life.

I’m sure that, from others’ points of view, I was dropping responsibilities. To many, I ceased to exist.

By March 2020, I was still in no mood to talk with anyone, but the therapy was doing its job—may my therapist enjoy a glorious hereafter in Valhalla—right in time for COVID. As global worry, economic shutdowns, and politic turmoil spread, I discovered something peculiar:

My anxiety level was exactly as high, and as low, as it had been before. Several billion people had arrived at a level of anxiety closer to my constant. Welcome, everyone. My anxiety attacks peaked between September 2019 and February 2020, with not one coming since lockdown. Whatever coronavirus meant for global anxieties, I couldn’t blame it for my own.

So why the peak anxiety?

  • The accumulated effects of childhood bullying in an alcohol-washed, stealthily white-trash ZIP code?
  • Caring but emotionally challenged parents?
  • Unaddressed trauma from a toxic academic career?
  • Disappointments in the career meant to follow it?
  • Global fears over Trump, nationalism, or other evils?

The effects of bullying and the impacts of my parents were with me all along. The academic career? It added straws to the camel’s back, but not the straw.

Also not the straw: Losing Washington Park to COVID.

Wishing to insulate themselves during lockdown, the carriage house’s owners ended the lease, to reclaim their space in a karmic mirror of my ending the lease at La Alma. From March until July, the owners never missed an opportunity for passive-aggressions, for complaints, or for petty gestures intended to make me move and move quickly. At the same time, my bandwidth for seeking new housing—a necessarily social activity—remained near zero. The uncertainty around housing, during a pandemic, raised the everyday stress more than any other factor.

Yet still, no anxiety attacks since February, and everything COVID happened after that last monster of an episode on 11 January.

Washington State

By the second week of July, I’d packed everything into a truck, en route from Colorado to Washington. Whereas my block at La Alma had anchored singularly to that one old ash tree, coastal Washington is an endless green. A strip of development runs contiguously from Burlington in the north to Olympia in the south, but even in this ribbon of sprawl, one may disappear into forests. An estimated nine billion trees grow in Washington state, most west of the mountains. Fewer than Colorado’s eleven billion, but Washington’s biomass is greater: larger trees, taller crowns, deeper roots, more green, more life. Green confronts me everywhere, sometimes so much that it hurts to look at it.

I live now not beside a lonely anchor of green or a park of intermittent green, but amidst a fortress of green, behind parapets of green. In this fortress, I perch upon a steep hillside, veiled by walnut trees against the valley, the ivy-carpeted earth more than twenty feet beneath my balcony, the facing residences more than eighty feet away and farther downslope.

No one argues below my windows, the likelihood that I might witness a gun battle has become exceedingly low,5 and whenever I feel stressed, I may take refuge within any number of forests.

My anxiety remains, a constant companion, but the anxiety attacks have subsided. Therapy has provided coping mechanisms, particularly for social anxiety. I can only handle so much engagement, and I reserve my powers to cope for dealing with clients—earning a living, keeping myself in my fortress of green.

Around the world, it’s been a difficult time for billions. Multitudes are worse off than I am. The anxiety is background noise and, so long as I keep to myself as much as possible, it stays background noise.

I now understand that, from November to February, I experienced what some call a breakdown. I kept it barely disguised, from myself and others, where and when I needed to disguise it. I managed to keep my meltdowns “off camera.”

Despite that time, today I’m grateful for the focus it has given me on my wellness, on those few relationships too important to sacrifice, and on doing what has been necessary to keep the roof overhead and the lights on in what has become one of the greatest economic downturns in generations.

Sometimes it takes the world grinding to a halt before we can reassess what’s vital. In crisis, we can let the inessential go and reemphasize the meaningful.

I may be thinking of my own life. I may be thinking of the entire planet.

Anchors

The realities of lockdown have meant that, like so many, I’ve spent little time outside my own home and, beyond the necessities of earning money, I’ve interacted with few people. For an introvert suffering anxiety, social distancing has been a boon personally, even while it’s been a disaster collectively. With social distancing compounded by social anxieties and professional disappointments, I’ve found myself retreating further from the world, and in only the span of eighteen months I’ve transitioned from places loud and urban and angry to places quiet and rural.

I’m fairly certain that, right now, I couldn’t survive loud and urban and angry.6

I’ve also transitioned from being public to private, abandoning public roles, public interests, and public pursuits. Yet despite the emphasis on privacy and private time, for my writing this has been the worst year since 2012.

On this front, the best I can say is that two days ago I finished building a new desk, which faces a new window in a new town in a new state. Outside that window are my neighbors, and beyond those stand nothing but pines. The desk feels good, the kind of writing desk I’ve wanted for years. I shaped and drilled the steel myself, finished the wood myself, and fine-tuned the positioning myself. What’s the use of a good writing desk if one doesn’t write?7

Unintentionally, I find myself removed from the writing community I’d joined in 2014. Also unintentionally, I’ve enough objective separation from it to know it wasn’t serving me well; nor I, it. Perhaps in some future time, I’ll be of more use to it, and it’ll have something healthier to offer me.

So what was triggering those anxiety attacks?

My writing. Or, rather, the ways I thought my writing was supposed to fit into the expectations of the larger community of writers in Colorado, in the Southwest, and in SFWA overall.

Over time the contradictory advice of other writers, and of publishers and agents, drowned out my own thoughts—about writing, about publishing, about the kinds of books worth writing. More than any other industry with which I’ve ever engaged, I also discovered that most everyone’s advice about writing and publishing is wrong—often ignorantly wrong, sometimes deceitfully wrong, occasionally delusional.

To be sure, others’ experiences will be different from this. I can only report my own.

By January 2019, my writing relationships had become painful in the same way other relationships had become painful—even if underneath the anxiety I cared for the individuals. By late February, too, most of my hopes in writing had also faded. Then COVID hit and the pressure shifted to financial survival.

Of course some of what I’ve perceived about the industry, about my own writing, and especially about others is probably untrue. Anxiety is not only a liar, it’s irrational. It says the most absurd things yet makes you believe them, all the while making it extremely difficult to ask for objective feedback about the focus of anxiety because… anxiety. To feel crippling anxiety is to be trapped within it, a house of mirrors which makes every worry real.

Fortress of Green

Soon I’ll renew my writing. I’m uncertain what form it’ll take, but my approaches to publishing must make an innovative turn. In publishing, no one knows what they’re doing, and so charting new territory makes sense, doesn’t it?

In publishing, as in the production of so many arts, one of the worst paths to follow is the well-worn path.

I don’t know what’s coming next, but for now I can hole up in the fortress of green, keep my head down, and keep working. With any luck at all, no one will take this fortress away, and with only a little more luck there’ll be no gunfights outside these windows—

At least until the 2020 elections. But let’s not borrow any anxiety from the future.

  1. Maybe she was an art critic? The art was bad. Cheap prints stretched onto cheaper frames.
  2. Better than being shot with lead, but still an overused and often misused substance.
  3. It never ceases to surprise me how people fail to understand the difference between rate and density, or how often they perceive crime as ubiquitous based upon perception rather than data.
  4. A friend’s joking with a server at a restaurant crossed into what I construed as borderline harassment. I apologized on his behalf, but never told him clearly that I thought the behavior was unacceptable. When on another occasion he repeated the behavior, I began distancing myself from him. On my part, this is disappointing behavior, and in retrospect it’s a lifelong pattern. Too often, not only do I not tell others why I strongly disagree with them, but I do not tell them that I disagree with them at all. Far too seldom do I challenge them to change, or trust myself to hold my ground. Both the conflict, and the avoidance of it, are powerful sources of anxiety.
  5. Though one day after my arrival, Bothell did have its first police officer killed, in the line of duty, in more than a generation.
  6. To be fair, I’m detecting a lot of rural and white and angry in the underlying fabric of my new community. Washington is a largely liberal state, but there are some entitled, frightened, and disturbingly armed white residents in these areas.
  7. And why is a raven like a writing desk?