By C. Streetlights
My mother had an avocado green Toyota Corolla when I was a small girl. The seats were a rusty orange and stuck to your bare legs in the hot summer sun, the plasticky vinyl coating your skin with what felt like slick mildew that only grew between you and the car seat in the California sun. For some reason all cars smelled the same, just like the 70s and 80s do.
I wish I had a specific name for that smell, but dusty shag carpeting, brittle Tupperware, grandparents, and Avon all come to mind at once when I try to identify the distinct odor for this time period.
When it came to sitting in the backseat of the Corolla, though, it always smelled like fear. I want to say we only had lap belts, but I don’t really remember. I only remember feeling afraid of everything.
I felt scared of how the rain sounded on the top of the car. I was afraid of how loud the road sounded around us. But what I especially was frightened of was an optical illusion.
If anyone has ever been on the popular Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland, they would be quite familiar with the same optical illusion that terrified me as a small child. It appears at the moment when your jeep seems to be stuck in gear just as a boulder is about to release and smash your jeep to bits. Your jeep begins to drive backwards and of course gets into gear at the exact right moment and you are able to drive off to safety.
It’s a terrific moment in the ride, everyone’s adrenaline is rushing, and most people I talk to will say it’s their favorite part of the ride. The only problem is that the jeep never drives backwards; this was a problem the Imagineers faced, too, when they were designing the ride. Attractions such as these aren’t capable of going backwards because of the way they are designed and how that would interfere with the mechanics of the cars behind them. So instead, they relied on an optical illusion to give the appearance of driving backwards. The jeep actually stays still, rumbling, and the Imagineers designed the walls to move.
When I was little, I didn’t understand things like physical laws of motion or the stroboscopic effect. All I knew is that I felt very tiny in the backseat in comparison to the large semi-trucks that would surround us on the 405 and 605 Freeways. Once these trucks would start rolling forward, it felt like we would be left behind as nothing but Corolla dust. I would shrink back against the vinyl seat, shut my eyes so incredibly tight, and wait for the first truck to collapse our car.
I made the mistake of telling my mother once, as I hid my head in my arms in the back seat. She scolded me for being silly, and I felt silly. But I still also felt scared.
I think of this childhood memory a lot in terms of my mental illness. What terrifies me the most about my depression and anxiety, especially my bipolar, is the concept of sliding backwards. I think if most people who struggle with the same mental illnesses were honest, they’d say something similar.
There is not a day that goes by that we are not thinking about our mental illness in some capacity. Is today the day I slip into mania? Can I leave the house today? Is this normal sadness or worse?
These questions are endless. The self-hate and loathing is a constant battle. The feeling of discouragement when, once again, I can’t do something “normal”, is debilitating. The terror that I will wake up not able to manage my crazy anymore is my reality.
And so I constantly try to push it aside.
“I can do this,” I tell myself. I set small goals. I do all the things and all the coping strategies. I remind myself that it’s only the walls that are moving, not the illnesses. Regardless of it being an illusion, one of my biggest fears is that if I were to stay still, if I were in any way to be that Toyota Corolla on the 405 Freeway, my mental illnesses will mow me down. This is how anxiety hijacks your thought processes
My fear is real. It is tangible, and I can feel it breathing beside me. The movement it swirls around me is overwhelming at times. What if I did move backwards? What if I crashed? Worse? What if for all my hard work in forming a new life for my family and me is all for nothing because it could be destroyed once again?
What if… What if… What if…
I wish I could say that I rarely think this way, but I do. When I became open about my mental illnesses, I promised myself that I would always be honest with my readers. I don’t want to present myself in one way to an audience and be another in my private life.
In truth, I second-guess myself far too often and I wish I could say that kicked fear in the shins and conquered it. But I can’t. I laugh hysterically when I am asked to write about fear. What I can say, however, is that I now understand that this phenomenon around me is what it is: an illusion.
I only appear to be moving backward. I may be standing still; I may not be moving forward. I may just be taking a moment to take a breath — but I won’t fall back to where I was before.
I won’t crash. It’s an illusion.
And all illusions, once studied and understood, are no longer something to be afraid of. The smoke is removed from the mirrors and all that is left, once again, is reflection. I can handle that.
C. Streetlights is OTV’s Voice of Reason
Buy her book, Black Sheep, Rising here