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On Vulnerability and Vaccination Rates

Over the years, I’ve developed quite the appreciation for yoga. This makes more or less perfect sense if you consider my life as a progression through quirky-white-girl-clichés, but no sense at all given that I’m probably the least coordinated person I know. 

I usually go, though, less with any hopes of getting “good” at it than to calm my natural jitteriness and coffee-jangled nerves, to loosen up the muscles that have tightened in stillness during the long hours of solitary writing that define most of my days. 

I also gravitate towards yoga as a form of exercise that’s as mentally stimulating as physically challenging, and one that focuses on healing and strengthening as opposed to any particular visual results.

This holistic viewpoint makes it harder to get compulsive about than cardio on machines with calorie counters or even walking with a tracker app, less triggering to the matrix of diet-culture delirium that I know is lurking in my head.

Since the practice was actually originally developed by Buddhist monks to help them stay still during lengthy periods of meditation, I may not even be that far off base in using yoga to help enable my body to withstand my playwriting marathons, especially considering that theatre has long served an almost sacred purpose in my life. 

As one of those spiritual-but-not-religious loonies, someone who believes in no organized anything but almost certainly in some kind of order-to-it-all, I find the comfort of yoga’s open-ended philosophy a welcome balm during the times when theatrical fulfillment remains, as it has much of this past year, out of reach. 

So, sporadically since the pandemic’s advent, I’ve queued up some Youtube yoga sessions, following haphazardly along. I was far more consistent towards the beginning, when I was flush with start-of-quarantine-adrenaline and eager to keep up with the progress I’d made in-person at my Boca studio. And though my resolve inevitably slipped, sometimes for months at a time, eventually my relentlessly restless legs would always lead me back towards my mat.

It was harder to make myself start a workout without a pre-appointed class time, but starting was often the most difficult step. Now that I had no witnesses, I would also sometimes resort to yelping and cursing at my pre-recorded instructor as I pretzeled into the more uncomfortable positions. Still, it’s rarely that I ever skipped a pose, enduring them for the relief I knew would be waiting if I stayed strong.

Yet, for all of its surface stings, yoga’s physical component, has never been nearly so agonizing to me as the mental one. I would eagerly engage in any amount of downward dogging, but brush off commands to focus on my breath, even skipping whole sections of my videos to avoid the tedious exercises.

I could say that it’s boredom that I’m so opposed to, or the unnecessary squandering of time, but perhaps the thing that I’m more accurately fearful of is the more painful and more vulnerable emotions that fully surrendering to yoga’s soul-opening pull might bring to the surface.  

Now and then, I’ve already caught a glimpse. I remember, after one meditation-heavy pre-pandemic class that aimed to help us open our “third eyes,” that I could scarcely walk through a supermarket without feeling overwhelmed by everyone’s energy, more exposed than I was ever meant to be. 

At another, one taught by an expert who explained that the Western focus on yoga’s exerciseish aspects was actually at odds with its meditative roots, most of the motions we were asked to do were torturously repetitive, frustratingly slow and exactingly precise. 

The enhanced concentration and lack of physical “distraction” that this purer practice entailed was far more of an anathema to me than any amount of lunges or planks. I remember viscerally how averse I was to “opening” my shoulders, how vital it had felt to keep them firmly closed. To keep my boundaries high, and heart thoroughly out of reach. 

How often the few things I have let myself care about have burned me to my core. 

I am one of the most guarded, closed off, and introverted people I know.

Yet: I am also one of the most absurdly open people I know. I eagerly confess some of my deepest insecurities to near-strangers; I routinely bare my soul to the masses in my angsty “instapoems,” semi-autobiographical scripts, and heartfelt blog posts; and, occasionally, I find the courage to use my own vulnerabilities to illuminate a character’s onstage.

Like I did in my last pre-pandemic acting project, a reading of new plays at West Palm Beach’s Actor’s Rep, which has been something of my theatrical home base ever since I took my first acting classes there as a wayward preteen. 

I was playing a character called Jess in an excerpt of a new play called lifers. There was a lot I had in common with Jess, like our shared neurotic tendencies, activist leanings, and spiky, sarcastic attitudes. But there was also a lot I didn’t, like that they identified as non-binary and now went by they/them pronouns, and that they were in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. In fact, Jess actually begins the play at an Alcoholics Anonymous or “AA” meeting, admitting to this identity and telling their story to the crowd.

The reading’s director was also a former theatre camp counselor of mine, one I remembered most vividly for his constant suggestions that we should run “into the fire” and make bold choices during our acting pieces rather than surrendering to fear and playing it safe.

“Acting is like rubbing your face in broken glass and finding joy in it,” I recall him saying, passing on advice from one of his own mentors. 

And: “I like playing characters with thorny insides.”

His attraction to the thornier side of life, though, hadn’t been without its pitfalls. He told us early on in the rehearsal process about his own battle with substance abuse, and about how twelve-step programs had helped him find his way to a now-solid sobriety. Thus, as part of my character research, he sent me to go and check out an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for myself.

I’ve never been one to resist a theatrical duty, however peculiar, and so off to an AA meeting I went. I felt, of course, rather out of place, but, then again, I am used to feeling out of place, having long felt out of place amidst the entire human race, and having once found myself, a true-blue democrat, amongst a sea of Trump supporters at a Conservative Public Action Conference. (What was I doing at the Conservative Public Action Conference? Short answer: questionable boyfriend choice.) Then again, I probably have more in common with the alcoholics than I did with the Republicans. 

It isn’t, exactly, that I thought or think that I have a “problem,” but the world is also not divided into “perfectly healthy drinkers” and “alcoholics.” It’s not that I “need” alcohol to function in any given situation, or feel the compulsion to drink with any specific frequency; It’s more like my baseline social anxiety is so high that it’s hard to resist anything that might temper it, vodka sodas very much included, and that the rare ration of liquor that I do allot myself to drink alone has a tendency to disappear just a little too quickly into the sinkhole of my oft-depressive evenings.

So it’s not that I think I’ve fallen into the same darkness that leads non-anthropologists to AA meetings on any given weekend night; it’s more like, especially lately, as I’ve struggled to regain structure and meaning in my life now that the most acute phase of the pandemic has passed, that I feel like I’ve glimpsed the contours of the chasm.

I ended up stumbling into a celebration meeting, which meant I got to hear many long-recovered alcoholics stand up to tell their stories, rock bottoms and all. They talked about being unemployed, homeless, and even close to death before they got on the wagon, and about how the support and community they’d found through AA had enabled them to turn everything around: to hold jobs, to get married and have children, and to live satisfying, full lives. 

My general instinct to rebel against most any social institution (authority figures, the School System, diet culture, organized religion, dress codes, Republicans…) means that I’m still a little skeptical of AA’s cultish nature and black and white mentality. But the human connection that lay behind the dogma is something that I was and am all for. As cliché as I found mantras like “one day at a time” or “you’re only as sick as your secrets,” I could still see how miraculous it was that these people had affected each other so deeply, just by being there for each other and by sharing their truths. How, as painful as such stories might be in the telling, whether that telling takes place on a podium or in a theatre, allowing yourself to be vulnerable can be critical to the way that others heal.

If acting is the pleasure of rubbing glass-in-face, writing is reveling in the sharp cuts to your hand as you busy them making a mosaic of the shards. And if, perchance, that time you almost accidentally exposed a handful of your friends to COVID by going to a party a few days before you found out that someone in your household was positive has inspired you to embark upon an odyssey into the heart of your darkest pandemic fears, those cuts might come from late night scrolls through the COVID-Positive subreddit, which you have undertaken so you might find the most melodic symptoms to add to your latest script’s strange symphony of despair. 

In whatever odd alchemy transfigures the vapors of an inciting truth into sufficiently flammable fiction, the-time-COVID-was-in-your-damn-house-and-you-still-got-off-scot-free has become the story of those who were not so lucky, the imagining of a few college kids who push limits they never should have been saddled with only a little too far. 

It was for research, then, at first, that I’d begun my frequent virtual pilgrimages to the message board, which exists for those afflicted with the virus to ask for guidance or share their experiences with others. Most recount relatively mild but still excruciating cases, simmering in anxiety about their illnesses’ potential escalation or wondering when they can expect their ailments might ease. 

“Should I go to the hospital?” less fortunate Redditors might ask, citing labored breathing or worryingly low oxygen levels. 

Others appear to report on relatives in the ICU, asking about their chances, desperate to hear some steadying stories of those who had survived severe COVID against all odds. And even more wrenching is the COVID Grief subreddit, where users grapple with the rage of losing loved ones so suddenly and brutally, wondering if they’ll ever be able to move on.

These days, many posters are reporting their experiences of Delta breakthrough cases, and some come from countries where the vaccine is not yet uniformly available. But for many others, or for their loved ones, not getting vaccinated was a choice, and their illnesses thus have the added indignity of having been avoidable.

Though my script is now mostly-finished, this glimpsing-into-the-infected-void has become a habit I can’t quite shake. Maybe it’s the morbid curiosity of a girl who spent her childhood eagerly consuming cancer book after cancer book, who digs over and over into her darkest moments for the sake of harnessing them into narrative, who is so entranced as she grasps at roses that she might pay no mind to the sharpest of their thorns. 

Or maybe I even feel some kind of bizarre duty to keep looking, to stay a weird witness to this anonymous despair, magical-thinking my attention to the tales into a talisman that will ensure the people I care about stay safe. Maybe it’s partially these excursions and imagining myself into the worst that make me feel so strangely vicariously traumatized by a disease I was never struck by, but then I remember how afraid I was even at the very start. For my entire generation, how could living through something so life-altering as a global pandemic not be formative? How might I ever learn to focus on my breath now that I am so painfully aware of that breath’s fragility? Like maybe I’ll always be. 

Being that I mostly consort with sane people of at-least average intelligence, the vaccine has significantly alleviated the risk that COVID poses both to myself and to my closest friends and loved ones. We still face the possibility of disease, but the threat of death or serious illness has lessened; COVID may still arrive to attack us, but it is unlike to forever take our breath. 

I dutifully got my own vaccine as soon as the health department called to offer me an appointment, but, to be honest, it was harder than I expected to take the step. Not because I believed any of the conspiracy theories positing that the shot posed me any significant danger; more of an instinctive reaction to the prospect of a sharp needle sliding into me, the uncomfortable side effects that would then likely  encroach. 

There is a rationality to being anxious about what’s unfamiliar, and there is certainly a vulnerability to opening up your skin. But I barely even felt the injection itself, and the stinging arm and fleeting fatigue that I experienced in the days that followed passed without incident as well. 

The second time, knowing that the shot itself was unlikely to be too painful, I went into things a little more calmly. And, as I’d expected, the side effects that ensued were a good deal worse, a sharp pain enveloping my arm only a few hours later. By nightfall, the achiness had spread throughout my body, burrowing deep into my lower back; I felt exhausted, inflamed, and feverish, a tingly rawness radiating through my skin. 

Instead of panicking, I surrendered to the sensation, allowing myself to spend the entire next day scarcely getting out of bed, falling in and out of sleep and lackadaisical binge-watching. I thought about everything I was looking forward to in the new, immune existence that lay ahead of me and about pain as a sign of process, the sore muscles after a workout that serve as a sign of the body’s building strength.

Yoga teaches us that pain is only a sensation, temporary and tolerable. To hurt now so you will not hurt later; to move now to protect against future pain. 

How many of the unvaccinated refused the shot because they are fearful of facing its mild and transitory side effects? How many others do not yield because they refuse to believe that their bodies are indeed breakable, that COVID could really be so toxic as is true? How many people out there remain tethered to an addiction because they cannot yet face the thorny feelings that might surface with their sobriety, because they fear the pain of their own unvarnished truths?

Whether it means tamping down our emotions with the seductive calm of substances or refusing to believe that a potentially fatal virus poses a threat to us, denying our vulnerability can often be far more dangerous than any amount of exposed skin. 

So, in the spirit of vulnerability, here’s another story; even after my soul-rending close call, I have been far from the paragon of social distancing. I’ve repeatedly ventured to the theatre, to restaurants, and to exercise classes even after the Delta variant drove Florida towards its most frightening numbers yet, less in some sort of denial about the risks of so-doing than fearful of the deeply felt risks to my mental health that seemed to come with continual confinement.

When there at least seemed to be an end in sight, staying endlessly inside felt tolerable; but the more that freedom from COVID feels out of reach, the more of my social circle that I see rejoining society fearlessly, the more I feel my resolve to stay solitary slip away.

Perhaps this is not in spite of but because of my almost-categorically introverted nature; because, with how tenuous my connections to the rest of humanity tend to feel, sometimes even something as simple as venturing out to see friends in a show feels like a necessary reminder that I am not, in fact, entirely alone in some existential void.

So maybe that’s what I really missed most about in-person yoga; the sense, however illusory and fleeting, of not being a singular being as you move in unison with the other peace-seekers who surround you; the beauty of a battalion of bodies, all bending themselves in the same way. The strange sensation of serenity I felt when, in the brief remission of terror between the vaccines becoming widely available and the latest flare-up of the Delta variant, I attended the first in-person yoga class I had been to since way back  before everything went mad. 

It was a pop-up beach session, to celebrate the new moon and its attendant new beginnings. I ended up arriving fairly late after getting lost on my way over and thus feeling pretty damn agitated, but once I got on the mat and started to relax into the moment, it was easy to let my irritation fade. Afterwards, our teacher offered us all shells to throw into the ocean, which were to represent something we wanted to let go of.

God, where would I begin? With the long months of quarantine behind me, the possibility that a simple genetic mutation might send the crisis reeling back to square one? With the then-unresolved trauma of the near-collapse of my theatre company or the foregone futility of my latest doomed crush?

It’s the kind of ritual I’d usually find cheesy, but sometimes cheesy is all we’ve bloody got. Sometimes silly symbols or desperate “one day at a time”s are all that we have to cling to; sometimes the contortions of our bodies are the only control we can exert over a collapsing universe; sometimes hope can be as simple as some shared story, or as smooth shell hurled towards sea. 

No matter how vulnerable you may be feeling while you are struggling with substance abuse, don’t hesitate to reach out to Reco Intensive. Our professional staff can help you learn the coping skills you need to face your negative emotions head on, and our network of experienced alumni can help you build the community connections you need to thrive in your recovery. Plus, our wide array of therapeutic styles even includes weekly yoga practice that can help you learn to regulate your emotions by regulating your body and expressive arts therapy that can teach you to use creativity to process your experiences. Call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future.

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