Alchemizing Those Icky Feelings: Samantha Irby on Turning Anxiety Into Laughter
In 1989 my pals and I got dropped off at the Evanston I Movie Theater (there was no Evanston II, weird), with enough money to get matinee tickets to see The Little Mermaid. I was nine years old and had decided it was my favorite movie of all time. We got a large popcorn, with instructions to call my mom from the pay phone (Do you even know what that is?) in the lobby as soon as the credits rolled.
We rushed into the hallway, breathless with joy and excitement from the movie, and as I fished in my pocket for a quarter, one of my giggling, chattering preteen friends conspiratorially whispered, “Should we sneak into another movie?”
My hands went clammy, and I started to sweat as I shook my head no (I shook it so aggressively that it wasn’t just no, it was ABSOLUTELY NOT), but it was too late: my friends were already tiptoeing down the hall toward another darkened theater to see my favorite cult classic horror flick, I Have No Idea Because I Sat on a Bench near the Women’s Bathroom for Two Hours Nervously Grinding My Teeth into Stumps. Have you seen that one before? Look for it next time you’re at Blockbuster.
Something inside me knew they were going to get caught. I just knew they were gonna be dragged out by their braids and ponytails, kicking and screaming through a trail of spilled soda and popcorn, shrieking that they needed just five more minutes to see who the killer was, as the beleaguered theater manager signaled to the Sno-Caps dealer on duty to call the police.
As I sat there silently for an hour watching the door—my stomach roiling and churning with fear, sweat-slick palms restless inside my corduroy pockets—I watched as an usher finally hustled those red-faced, embarrassed criminals out into the light of the lobby and told them to either buy a ticket or leave. I felt triumphant because I was a little asshole weasel who loved being good and right, but also because I was too terrified of punishment or public humiliation to break even one arbitrary rule.I have been anxious since the moment I understood that being alive—that the act of living—is dangerous, that everything on this planet is conspiring at all hours of the day to hurt or maim or kill you.
As I watched them each call their mothers to come pick them up (and take them to prison), I felt less bad about being neither fun nor cool and more resolute about my position as a strict law abider than ever. But what saved me from embarking on a life of racketeering that day? Was it intuition, or was it anxiety?
LOL it was anxiety. I have been anxious since the moment I understood that being alive—that the act of living—is dangerous, that everything on this planet is conspiring at all hours of the day to hurt or maim or kill you. I taught myself that the only way to move through the world unscathed is to recognize every interaction as a potential threat and every inanimate object as your worst enemy. So, I guess, since kindergarten? First grade???
I’m not sure when my anxiety prompted me to start unnecessarily taking the long way in life, like literally going way out of my way to avoid terrible potholes on a street that I know all too well might fuck up my car tires. (WHO DOES THIS?! I do.) Or getting to the airport three hours early to pee, then sit, then pee some more, then rest, then flip through all the magazines at Hudson News, then pee again, then watch the two other flights leaving from my gate board and leave, then pee one more time, just in case.
My anxiety has always kept me prepared for any possible outcome. Take into consideration, for instance, the contents of my bag: a wallet, a book in case I get bored, a charger in case my phone dies, a backup charger in case my original charger wasn’t charged as much as it should’ve been, a variety of medicines (something for allergies, something for pain, something for diarrhea, something for painful diarrhea), an extra pair of glasses ( just in case the ones currently on my face evaporate while I’m wearing them???), hand sanitizer, a ChapStick, a second ChapStick, a third ChapStick (I promise I need this many), and should I maybe bring an extra book in case I get stuck somewhere for long enough that I finish the first one? I’m not a doomsday prepper, I just get, oh, I don’t know, extremely uneasy and like to take precautions.
It is this uneasiness that helped me nurture such a wild and fucked-up imagination—an imagination that can be great for writing, when it gets its shit together, but also an imagination that can imagine the fuck out of any possible scenario in any given situation, many of which are doomful. I don’t know why I didn’t get in the car after that party. Did I instinctively know there were a lot of drunk drivers out there just waiting to paint the highway with my entrails? Or do I just not like to be behind the wheel after 4:00 p.m. during the winter months when it gets pitch-black by dinnertime? We’ll never know! Did a little voice inside save me from wasting an entire paycheck on scratch-off lottery tickets, or was that caution a product of an over- protective mother who spent hours on end warning me of the myriad horrors that could befall me anytime? Hmm, I’m not sure I can say!It is this uneasiness that helped me nurture such a wild and fucked-up imagination—an imagination that can be great for writing, when it gets its shit together.
You know how there are some people who, you know, spend a lot of drunk time reminiscing fondly on their wild and carefree youths? I do not have any of those recollections. My brain is crowded with scary-seeming playground activities I walked away from and low-stakes risks I refused to take. I think I was always afraid of really letting go and looking stupid or getting into the kind of trouble my mom didn’t have enough money to get me out of. I think when you come from a family that centers problems as its narrative rather than solutions as its mission (these are designations I just made up because We were broke and uninsured doesn’t have a zippy ring to it), extreme caution is just sorta baked into the cake of who you are.
I grew up believing risk was only for the rich. I understood very early that there was no bank account or credit card available to me to get me out of a jam, or fix something I’d broken, or supply any kind of rescue I might need, which resulted in the kind of person who fixates on the consequence of the consequence of the consequence of every single decision I am faced with, either high stakes or low. It’s so I can game out whether or not I’ll be able to save my own ass if things go haywire. I’ve made a ton of shitty choices, of course, but even those were never the shittiest choices I could have made. There are so many doors I never peeked behind and unlocked phones I never scrolled through!
At first, channeling all of my existential anxieties into writing jokes on the internet was a good and cheap substitute for the therapy I couldn’t afford and absolutely could have used while trying to navigate the choppy waters of trying to find strangers on the internet to have sex with. In the olden days, venturing out on a date looked like me meeting up in a dark bar near my apartment with some dude I messaged for a week on eHarmony, only to register his disappointment when he saw me, just as he registered mine. We would suffer together through polite small talk and bad cocktails until parting ways, mutually pretending we might see each other again. We wouldn’t, and I would then head home, feeling like the loneliest girl in the world, to smoke some weed and listen to an Amy Winehouse song on repeat until I fell asleep. (For the record, “Wake Up Alone” is the perfect accompaniment for a post-date sulk alone in your room, should you ever need one.)At first, channeling all of my existential anxieties into writing jokes on the internet was a good and cheap substitute for the therapy I couldn’t afford.
I was very hard on myself and ruthless when it came to picking at my scabs and berating myself for my flaws. I’d sit there in the dark like, “You’re stupid, you’re ugly, why did you wear that shirt? Did he think your jokes were dumb? Is he texting his friends right now about all the loser shit you said?” and on and on, while some forlorn chanteuse (sometimes it was Tori Amos or Beth Gibbons or Aimee Mann) warbled in the background as I cried.
But when I started blogging (Do you even know what that is anymore?), I realized that I could take all that humiliated angst, take all of my prickly uncertainty and fear of the outside world, and pour it into my battered old laptop, alchemizing those icky, skin-crawly feelings into words that made me laugh and that I hoped would make my stupid friends laugh, too. There’s something medicative about taking something that makes me feel like garbage and churning it through my interior joke machine until it becomes something I can laugh at. In a way, this is how I learned to use all my childhood anxiety as something useful: a terrible feeling that starts out in my gut repurposed on the page to make people laugh their own guts out.
Intuition isn’t a word that would’ve naturally occurred to me to use (it feels woo-woo and fruity, a word that someone who is more spiritual and tuned into complex emotions than I am gets to use) to describe this process of getting these stories out of my body and into the eyes and ears of other people where they can’t hurt me, but that’s what it is, right? No one ever told me to start working my stuff out on the page. I didn’t know anyone personally who had figured out that repurposing their trauma in this specific way was beneficial to them and advised me to try it; I didn’t have an example of a writer for whom the public vomiting of their innermost thoughts had proven to be a healthy coping mechanism, but something made me borrow a laptop and see what kind of magic I could make.
And, after a while, doing so felt really good. My knee-jerk response is to snark that I started squeezing jokes out of my pain because I wanted attention, or I wanted to show off, but maybe my gut knew that it was deeper than that. I have an instinct for what will make people laugh or, at the very least, what will make people laugh at me. Intuition is part of my interior joke machine; it’s second nature that, as I feel my skin crawling due to some hell of my own creation, my brain says, This absolutely sucks, but it’s gonna make an incredible story.
Excerpted from LISTENING IN THE DARK: Women Reclaiming the Power of Intuition, edited by Amber Tamblyn © 2022 by Amber Tamblyn. Used with permission from HarperCollins/Park Row Books.