Sociological Observations of a Chronic Migraine Sufferer: Pain, Stigma and Superpowers

When I was a child, I wished for one superpower. Magically and instantaneously, I would be able to make other individuals experience my migraine. Just for, like, five minutes — and then I would take it right back, promise! I was sure that those five minutes would give anyone a sufficient taste of what hellfire inside one’s brain and eyeballs feels like, so that they would never, EVER be cruel to people with migraines again.

I made a stern oath to myself that I would not abuse my power and only unleash it on meanies who actively taunted others in pain and needed a lesson in compassion. Granted, that was a lot of people… But it would be a win-win for all involved: my targets would benefit from the humbling experience of learning what real pain felt like and I would get a tiny bit of satisfaction in seeing empathy advance in the world. Also, presumably, those people would stop bullying me over my migraines and let me suffer in peace. Those were my fantasies in grade school.

Alas, despite wishing super extra hard, I never manifested the ability to will others to learn compassion (this dream went out the window right alongside my childhood conviction that learning to fly is only a matter of practice…)

As an adult consolation prize of sorts, I did develop the much less miraculous skill to critically analyze and discuss migraines as a sociological phenomenon. That is: to see migraines not just as my personal hell but as a serious medical condition afflicting many, many others that is overlooked by social policy, understudied in pharmaceutical research and given a bad reputation in public opinion.

As such, it has become plainly obvious to me that the social hostility and lack of support surrounding migraines is more pervasive and more debilitating than most people realize. Anyone suffering from chronic migraines will tell you that, in addition to the punishing physical agony, there is also the crushing indignity of having to convince others that it is, indeed, real pain and it does, actually, hurt real bad.

So, I want to talk about migraine stigma. But not just as a victim of it. Between bearing the actual pain and facing endless scrutiny and ridicule about it, migraine sufferers pick up advanced physical and mental sensibilities and coping skills they might not even be aware of — and this needs to be acknowledged.

To contextualize my personal experiences, I asked Dr. Joanna Kempner, the author of Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health (Public Library), a major authority on the sociology of migraines and a fellow migraine sufferer herself, to comment on my observations and to fill in the socio-historical gaps.

Observation #1: Social Stigma toward Migraines Adds Huge Insult to Injury

I developed migraines at the age of five and, despite my best efforts, they have been with me ever since. I have a very intense memory of my first migraine too. It was at a summer rental at the countryside, where I stayed with my Grandma and Mom. I remember being overcome by crippling pain but it was so new and overwhelming that I could not pinpoint or articulate its location at all. I recall my Mom looking very worried gently shaking me by the shoulders, repeatedly asking what’s wrong. I didn’t know. My entire being was engulfed in a kind of agony I didn’t have words for. I just kept screaming “My soul hurts!!!!! My soul is on fire!!!!” over and over to the complete shock and confusion of the adults.

Months later, with the help of sympathetic doctors, my condition was diagnosed as migraines. I was extremely fortunate that, from the start, my immediate family were very supportive and did all they could to help and comfort me. But the rest of society was not understanding in the slightest. And I am not just talking about school bullying, which was substantial and came not only from students but from teachers as well…

In the Soviet Union where I spent my childhood, there existed a pervasive belief that migraines are the imagined disease of the disgraced aristocracy. The proletarian folk wisdom held it that fancy nobility invented and faked migraines in order to lie around, do nothing, get out of confrontations and just be melodramatic about themselves. There was even a little rhyme about it in Russian, “Мигрень — работать лень,” which translates to “Migraine: too lazy to work”. I heard this little ditty more than a few times before I was old enough to even know what “work” means. I still vividly recall the sweaty pig-like face of a far-removed adult relative gleefully chanting those words in my face. I just kept on massaging my temples and pictured my superpower kicking in right about now.

When I told Dr. Kempner of this experience, she wistfully reassured me that the United States has a similar history of connecting migraines with the truancy of the privileged classes. Since the 18th century, migraines have been associated with the intelligencia and with upper-class people who use their mind too much,” she told me, “And people who have sensitive nervous systems.”

Isn’t it interesting that migraines is one of those health disorders that people link with specific “personality trait” stereotypes? Migraines have been, basically, seen as the “lifestyle disorder” of “bluebloods” and “eggheads”, i.e. highly privileged individuals with weak nervous constitutions who could afford this whole “taking the day off to curl up in a dark quiet room with a migraine” shtick. A simple online search for “athletes with migraines” ought to dispel these stereotypes in a pinch.

But the migraine stigma does not stop at the misguided conflation of psychological and socio-economic myths. It goes on to sexist delegitimation. Human females are afflicted by migraines disproportionately more than males, making up approximately three quarters of the migraine-affected population. And, historically, women’s aches and pains have been given lower priority compared with male-centered medical conditions. Just as the “mysteries” of feminine pleasure go “unsolved” while erectile dysfunction gets all the attention, funding and insurance coverage, so have women’s ailments been historically under-researched, misdiagnosed and half-treated.

So, it is “on brand”, so to speak, that women’s complaints and descriptions of their brutal migraine symptoms have been questioned and re-interpreted by the medical community and dismissed by regular folks. In my experience, patriarchal reasoning behind the delegitimation of migraines in women goes along the lines of:

  • Women are dramatic about everything, so why not ignore migraines along with all their other overblown imaginary problems? (Amirite ladies?)
  • Women are ‘designed’ for pain (because childbirth!) so, you know, tough nooogies, God’s will, deal with it. And since they have to suffer anyways, they should make sure to do it lady-like: modestly and discretely. Actually, make that silently.

Dr. Kempner’s research shows that sexism plays a large part in the stigma toward migraines, as male migraine sufferers have been socially ascribed much more favorable character stereotypes than their female counterparts:

“For a long time, for men, [migraine] was associated with people who work too hard and are stressed. But for women, when they have migraines, the discussion was different. Women who had migraines were thought to be using their minds — but using their minds wrongly. Women were thought to have a lower capacity to use their minds and were [considered] more prone to things like hysteria and so forth.

By the mid-20th century, any physiological explanation of the migraine has disappeared. And, in its stead, what we got was a very strong argument that migraine was associated with personality characteristics. Men and women with migraines were thought to have a type-A personality. For men, it was all about being a very hard worker who never took breaks and who stressed a lot about being the breadwinner. And for women in the 1950’s it was about worrying too much about being a homemaker.”

To spell out the double standard: a man’s [paid] work stress was serious business, therefore the migraines brought on by that stress were accepted as serious business; in contrast, a woman’s [unpaid] housewife duties were considered uncomplicated and manageable, so any stress she incurred in life was seen as easily fixable and probably preventable in the first place. That is, if she didn’t worry her pretty little head so much over silly and inconsequential housewife crap.

“And you can see that reflected in some of the old pharmaceutical advertisements about migraines, where you always have these white women who are really well-dressed and their make-up is perfect and they look like they are from an upper-middle class family; and when they are in pain, they are usually depicted as not being able to take care of their children or not being able to do their white-collar work. And when they take a pill, the pain magically goes away and they can return to whatever nurturing position it is they are supposed to go back to, or they can return to their heterosexual partner. It’s a really common trope in headache advertisements.”

headache pill advertisement woman concerned with household duties

Anacin Ad: 1968 Ted Bates Agency © Whitehall Laboratories

To put it in modern terms: migraines are socially perceived as a “first world problem” affecting “one-percenter” types. For the amount of annoyed eyerolls you get for complaining about migraine pain, you might as well pen an angry editorial in the New York Post lamenting the lack of same-day Keurig pod delivery. Being viewed as a “hysterical female” compounds the problem of not being taken seriously exponentially. The general attitude, as the following medicine ad suggests, has been: just take a pill already and quit playing the victim!

Thomas Beecham’s [laxative] Pills ad from 1893

Additionally, Dr. Kempner says, migraines have made their way into popular humor: “It’s like a punchline to a joke: it’s all about avoidance of sex, avoidance of duties. And so, it’s really easy not to take migraine seriously. It’s really easy, even though we have all kinds of evidence that migraine is neurobiological, genetic and, for all intents and purposes, real.”

Speaking of medical science… Migraine studies only picked up when pharmaceutical companies realized that major moolah can be squeezed out of the sufferers. But, as far as I’m concerned, that did not so much precipitate medical gender equality as it brought on aggressive drug ads hounding us through multiple media platforms (I’ve been getting the sense that if I don’t give in to Botox soon, it might jump me in a dark alley…)

When it comes to the advancement of the medical understanding of migraines, Dr. Kempner calls the pharmaceutical industry a “mixed blessing”. She notes that the National Institute of Health (NIH) systematically under-funds migraine research relative to its burden with a mere $20 million allocation, while the pharmaceutical industry invests significantly more than that into migraine studies. But then, pharmaceutical funding is much less transparent and trackable than federal funding and is primarily beholden to corporate interests. And that means that patients are not the top priority.

“[This is] because the pharmaceutical industry is in the business of creating novel drugs, not necessarily in the business of expanding access to more populations,” explains Dr. Kempner, “And one of the things that we know about headache medicine is that many patients are grossly under-served.” At the end of the day, according to Dr. Kempner, only 4.5 percent (!!!) of patients with chronic migraines are receiving appropriate treatment. And, in critical studies 50 percent of patients treated see up to 50 percent reduction in their chronic migraines.  In other words, the absolute best case scenario for migraine patients for the time being is to cut their episodes down by half — and to continue living with the other half. That’s the abysmal “gold standard” of migraine treatment success, as Dr. Kempner mournfully put it.

“So what’s the hold up???” I asked, grinding my teeth in frustration. Part of the problem, Dr. Kempner suggests, is that migraine education for physicians is poor and that migraine is a very low-status diagnosis because the federal funding is minimal. Simply put, there is not a lot of money in headache medicine.

But it’s not all about the dividends. “It has a lot to do with stigma associated with headache patients,” says Dr. Kempner, “Physicians don’t want to treat headache patients. I have heard so many doctors tell me that people with migraine were whiny and neurotic. [They say:] ‘They never die, they just pile up in your office and you can’t give them anything to treat them.'”

Ouch!! How hypocritically un-Hippocratic.

I hadn’t thought about it before but I can see how migraine sufferers could make for a frustrating type of patient, precisely because of the above-mentioned tepid and anticlimactic success outcomes. I imagine doctors feel accomplishment from curing patients or at least helping them improve their condition. But migraine sufferers — we just keep coming back saying that things are the same or worse. We ourselves would prefer to return with better news, but still, our existence challenges the God complex in some medical professionals, which explains the lack of enthusiasm.

So, how bad is migraine stigma, really? The answer from Dr. Kempner indicated that things were even worse than I assumed:

“From what we know about migraine and stigma, migraine is highly stigmatized… People with chronic migraines report feeling stigmatized at levels much greater than people with epilepsy. And that’s remarkable because epilepsy, at least in the sociological literature, had always been held up as one of the considerably more stigmatized diseases: epilepsy has been understood as a disease of possession and sin!”

Now, it can be fairly pointed out that just because people report feeling stigma, it does not mean that they are objectively being stigmatized. However, in this case, there is ample evidence that migraine stigma (much like the pain itself) is not a figment of imagination. For instance, Dr. Kempner brought up research by Robert E. Shapiro, MD, PhD, which demonstrated that many people do indeed think less of migraine sufferers and, consequently, treat them differently. Culturally perpetuated negative stereotypes about migraines permeate people’s psyches and turn into a preconceived bias.

Observation #2: Talk of Migraines Puts People Off

In my experience, talking about migraines in public settings is, if not outright taboo, then at least highly socially discouraged. Nothing clears a room faster than the mention of severe chronic pain or dire illness, not even talking about death. At least death is ineffable and carries all kinds of mystery, drama and finality with it. Active suffering from recurring pain, on the other hand, is a topic that summons much less romantic imagery (ghastly moans, bodily fluids, bad smells, medical bills, etc.) and makes most Americans uncomfortable as hell. It is ironic that a low-status ailment like migraines that has a reputation for being fake and all-around “not a big deal” would be so off-putting to people, when you start describing it in detail. The uneasy reactions have their own  sociological logic, though.

For one, other people’s pain and illness reminds us of our own fragility and mortality and not everyone is a fan of these reality checks. In his book Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Public Library), sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote at length about how modern western society coddles our false sense of  security. He called it “sequestration of experience”: the institutional separation of daily life from social experiences that may shatter the veneer of “ok-ness” and summon anxiety.

When we witness sickness, mental illness, criminality, sexuality and death, we are reminded of all the awful and scary things that could happen to us at any time. And being confronted with the uncertainties of life gives modern westerners major existential dread. So, in today’s “civilized” world, all of these offensive and threatening things are forced behind closed doors: into hospitals, asylums, penitentiaries, bedrooms and funeral homes, so that the rest of us don’t have to cope with the traumatic realities of human nature. Predictably, the more we isolate and distance ourselves from these events and conditions, the less we are prepared to handle them when they are [inevitably] thrust into our lives. As such, we resent whomever is responsible for exposing us to them. And that includes hating on people who complain about chronic suffering.

And then, the sense of ineffectualness and helplessness is another culprit. When faced with things they can’t control — like someone else’s pain — there are people who feel so awkward for not being able to offer a solution, they want to flee; others feel so powerless that they get annoyed and angry with the migraine sufferer, basically, for not having a more “fixable” defect (much like the above-mentioned doctors…)

It is also true that there are plenty of earnestly sympathetic people who simply don’t know how to properly respond to others’ pain, as they have no tangible experience with it. Personally, I announce my condition whenever it feels relevant but, according to Dr. Kempner, the majority of migraine sufferers are quite cautious about discussing their ailment with others as they frequently encounter unsolicited advice that is of no help but serves as a tiresome reminder of how misunderstood migraines are:

“When people hear that somebody is in chronic discomfort, they make suggestions that are sort of well-intentioned but also reveal a kind of ignorance. I don’t think it’s meant to be flippant, but it feels flippant when somebody who just learned about this very serious disabling problem that you’ve been dealing with for a very long time thinks that they can help you with a suggestion that they just thought of off the top of their head. And it adds to this sense that people believe that chronic illness, especially chronic pain, are easy to fix. It’s frustrating, it makes you feel like these people have absolutely no idea what your life is like, what it’s like to be in pain.”

Against the backdrop of dismissive and tonedeaf reactions, I must say, it makes me appreciate the people who have been helpful and empathetic about my migraines even more. We chronic pain sufferers sometimes forget that it takes courage, endurance, wisdom and resilience to be the person standing next to someone in nightmarish agony. It’s not easy to bear witness to suffering and it’s even harder to know the right thing to say and do to provide the best support. Let’s take a moment to recognize the people in our lives that are there for us and our friggin’ migraines!

Observation #3: Surviving and Functioning with Chronic Migraines Makes You a Badass

Like I said, I’ve never been shy about talking about my migraines. I have a lifetime of preparation for all the indifference, ignorance and hostility this topic can provoke, but to me, people’s reactions to pain are valuable as a litmus test of sorts. If I mention my migraines and the person’s eyes glaze over, we’re pretty much done here, as far as my interest in this individual is concerned. If they can’t spare an iota of empathy for a stranger’s pain, I’ll pass on them and their problems. I learned this way back in my childhood and it has served me better than most rules of thumb when sorting the good from the bad, the worthy from the empty.

And this brings me back to superpowers.

I never did get my wish to transfer migraine pain to others five minutes at a time for educational purposes. However, the life-long sharing of my headspace with migraines (aka “the worst head-mate in the world”) did force me to develop some highly useful coping skills and survival strategies that do come in handy in all sorts of life situations.

Which makes them sort of like superpowers. After all, many classical comic book superheroes did not ask for their supernatural abilities but were victims of industrial accidents, animal attacks, criminal assaults and villainous scientists, with their superpowers emerging as unintended consequences. At first, the hero tends to reject the “abnormal” gifts but eventually learns to control them, grows to take advantage of them and incorporates them into self-identity. I feel that way about migraines: I did not sign up for this misery, but since this is the hand of cards I’ve been dealt, I must embrace the special skills and insights that come attached. Indeed, there is a number of heightened / sharpened senses that I have observed in myself and other migraine sufferers throughout my life. Just to name a few:

Gratitude. Suffering makes one face, accept and, in best cases, embrace one’s limitations. Disability shows us how harsh, randomly cruel and brutally unfair society can be and how astonishingly insignificant we are, as far as Mother Nature is concerned. This same understanding also makes one super thankful when the rare kindness, respect and validation do come along. People who are intimately familiar with pain know and appreciate the value of caretakers.

Furthermore, there is at least one thing I’m pretty sure all migraine sufferers never take for granted and are perpetually grateful for: the heavenly feeling of not having a migraine. We learn to appreciate non-events tuned out by most people as life’s “negative space” and there is a kind of magic to it.

Compassion for others. In my personal experience, people who have suffered an abundance of pain tend to score pretty high on the compassion-o-meter towards others. This is by no means to suggest that every migraine sufferer is a humanitarian empath (if only!…) But it does make sense that women and men who have to arrange their lives around living with regular pain are more attuned in to others’ discomforts and challenges than the [surprising number of] “I-never-get-sick” people who can be quite oblivious in this respect.

At the very least, chronic sufferers aren’t as likely to be dismissive of other people’s complaints: they know that the only thing that can possibly hurt more than pain is the denial of pain. Seriously, each time someone tells me how there’s no way migraines are that bad and it’s probably all in my head, another small piece of my heart dedicated to faith in humanity atrophies off (good thing migraines taught me compassion, otherwise that space would be filling up with anger and vengefulness…)

A different relationship with what “feeling good” means. One bitter truth migraine sufferers learn is that there is actually no limit to how “bad” a headache can get: just when you think it cannot get any worse, it does. But that is precisely why, in contrast, being pain-free feels downright euphoric. For chronic migraine sufferers being “not in pain” is a temporary state and we know that it’s just a matter of time before the infernal fireball that burns with the power of a thousand quasars moves back into our heads. Hence, we are quite mindful and appreciative of the physical sensation of the absence of pain.

As I see it, it doesn’t matter what cool recreational drugs you’ve taken, you will never know the true meaning of BLISS until you’ve been in excruciating pain and then, it was gone. Frame of reference is everything: it takes plumbing the depths of sadness to know what genuine happiness feels like and it takes getting a taste of agony to truly appreciate how amazing “good” feels.

Oscar-worthy performances of “OK-ness”. Not at all surprisingly, migraine sufferers are also expert actors, at least when it comes to putting on a social facade of “wellness”. This comes not from disingenuousness but from the necessity to protect oneself. Society may be unapologetically indifferent to your pain, but don’t dare display it in public: suddenly, the cruel world clutches its pearls and faints from overexposure to realness.

So, to spare everyone the bother and ourselves the fallout, we untangle our convulsed bodies, iron out the twitches in our faces, put on extra nice duds and refreshing make-up and spend the day convincingly acting out “healthiness” and “effortlessness” for all y’all. Failure to do so carries unspoken punishments that threaten our careers, relationships and reputations. And so, the show must go on — and we kill it.

A higher threshold / endurance for pain. To clarify upfront: people with migraines experience pain just as intensely as everyone else. But I believe they are more accustomed to having to function in torment for long stretches of time, which requires superior stamina / acceptance of pain.

Most people, when they feel like they’re about to drop dead from something hurting, stop what they are doing and tend to their immediate needs. Which is a healthy reflex that should be encouraged. However, if chronic migraine sufferers quit each time it felt like they were about to give up the ghost, waaaay fewer things would get done. People living with chronic migraines are habitually bracing themselves for prolonged and escalating agony and have adapted to regularly powering through  the sensation of having their eyeballs slowly squeezed through one of those old-timey laundry wringers.

Uh, what was the upside, again? Oh, right: not sweating the small stuff, pain-wise. Few non-chronic aches feel like “real” pain to me anymore in comparison to migraines (and I say that as an injury-prone person). Is dissociating from pain a good thing, really? I don’t know, probably not. Does it make me feel like a badass pain ninja? Maybe just a little…

When I shared my thoughts about migraines being a superpower of sorts with Dr. Kempner, she expressed surprise at my confident outlook. It turns out that I’m in the minority of migraine sufferers who feel empowered in some way by their disability, who feel that it gives them a certain edge in this game called “life”. On the contrary, according to Dr. Kempner’s research, migraine sufferers tend to feel overwhelmed by their “abnormality” and regularly second-guess their own strength and competence:

“I actually think that a lot of people with chronic migraines underestimate how well they are doing and how well they are managing their pain. So, I’m happy to hear you say what you’re saying because that’s exactly the kind of thinking that I really strongly encourage: that we could be thinking about people with migraine in terms of what it is they are accomplishing.

Instead, I think what’s happening is that people with migraine — because there is so much internalized stigma — feel guilty about all the things they are not able to do. That becomes really burdensome. And so, I actually think you have exactly the right attitude, which is embracing your inner-hero. And I’m hopeful that more people can see themselves in that light. But… I think a lot of people find it difficult; a lot of people, deep down, are not quite understanding why they are calling out sick and having trouble taking care of the family and so forth.”

Knowing what we know, it is not shocking that people are confused and embarrassed about their migraines. But it is heartbreaking how many of us don’t realize that living with something so challenging is actually an impressive feat worthy of praise and respect.

When, as a child, I was wishing to transfer my migraines to others, I was completely certain (as I am today) that a five minute excursion into my world of unbearable “brain inferno”, when light and sound are torture instruments and vertigo and nausea keep you from knowing what’s up and what’s down — that those moments would be more than enough to set any person straight about what hardcore badass warriors migraine sufferers actually are. On the regular, we trudge through hours / days / weeks of unspeakable pain, and still operate, succeed and excel on par with non-pain-ridden individuals who couldn’t begin to fathom our struggles. If you can relate, give yourself a hearty pat on the back right now — you don’t hear it enough but you’re pretty awesome for surviving and thriving alongside “the worst head-mate in the world”.

How do I cope with migraines? ^^ I meme…

*   *   *

Huge thanks to Dr. Kempner for shedding some much-needed scientific light on my anecdotal observations and for finally making it click in my mind that migraines are an actual bona fide disability, medically and politically. Between lacking information and facing social judgment, so many of us afflicted have learned to think of our migraines as an aggravating obstacle to surmount, a evil curse to endure, a humiliating secret to keep hidden — as anything but a legitimate medical condition with a possible cure.

Though I just spent a lot of time painting a bleak picture of migraine mistreatment in society, the horizon is not without hope. According to Dr. Kempner, the ongoing opioid epidemic is making pharmaceutical companies shift focus to non-addictive pain medication studies, which means things could be looking up for migraine research.

And while the cure is still in the works, we can focus on ameliorating the negativity surrounding this misunderstood disorder. As much as I appreciate my migraine-begotten “special abilities”, how great would it be if migraine sufferers didn’t have to super-heroically power through acute agony while keeping a straight face for everyone else’s benefit? How amazing would it be if having a migraine was considered a rightful, institutionally and socially approved reason to take time off from work and focus on getting better? What a relief would it be to speak freely about migraines and be received with sympathy and understanding instead of dismissive contempt!

This will begin to happen only when migraines are recognized and accepted on a cultural level as a challenging pain condition that hurts way more than it shows and, yet, does not take away from the individual’s social worth or professional value. And, of course, migraines are just the tip of the iceberg. Stigma toward any and all physical and mental disabilities continues to exist despite being a medieval concept that, like other superstitions, doesn’t make any sense in the 21st century. It needs to go.

But until we get there…

*reaches for cape*

For Background Extras in TV and Movies, High Heels Are Still a Sexist Double Standard

male female feet high heels shoes dance floor disco

There are unavoidable occupational hazards out there in the modern American workplace but having to wear high heels should not be one of them.

If this is not self-evident already, let’s recall that:

— Wearing high heels leads to significant long term damage to one’s orthopedic health, causing a lot of pain in the process.

— Other than stroking our dysmorphic sense of aesthetics, high heels are useless in the workplace. Wearing heels does not enhance productivity of any particular task. On the contrary, high heels impede most physical performance as they literally limit one’s ability to walk.

— Wearing high heels is expected only from women, making it a sexist requirement and I have a problem with that.

Being a freelance writer, I don’t even have to put pants on every day, never mind formal footwear. So, I have kind of forgotten that high heels were a “thing” out there, still forced on women as part of their professional uniform. That is until I started moonlighting in the show business which turned out to be a “shoe business” I cannot abide by.

New York City is basically a real-size movie set for many Hollywood productions. And so, to break up the isolated, sedentary work cycle of the home office, I occasionally sign up as a non-union “background extra” for TV shows and movies.

Even though the pay is nothing to write home about, there is no denying that it’s a fascinating scene. You get a behind-the-curtain look at how movie magic is made. The sets are amazing, the logistics of production are awe-inspiring and the background extras are a funky bunch of New York dwellers that are fun to get to know and to observe.

Sure, the hours are dismal: you can easily start at 6 a.m. and go for fourteen hours. And then need to come back at 7 a.m. the next day and do it all over again. Your time is divided between shooting the actual scenes and the be-ready-at-any-moment waiting outside the set to be called back in. Many hours of this can be quite grueling, without opportunity to sit down for long stretches of time and involving uncomfortably cold or hot temperatures.

But I can work with all that!! Because, frankly, the life of an NYC freelance writer / language translator is no less intense than the show biz — but with none of the ego dividends! My schedule can be erratic, gigs come in spurts and, when they do, I go on deadline-driven writing / researching binges for days and nights non-stop. During those peaks, I can get pretty underslept and malnourished, while the rest of the time is filled with mounting anxiety about what’s next. These are the occupational hazards of what I do.

In comparison, ten-plus hours on the movie set is not so bad! Being a background extra is all about physicality, energy, attitude and doing what one is told. I get to use my attention span for following instructions and getting into the spirit of the scene, not generating knowledge or catching subtle errors. This kind of work allows my overactive brain to rest and I gratefully welcome the relief.

But, you guys, I just can’t with the fucking high heels!

I realize it’s cinema and it’s all about things appearing exactly right. But is it fair to expect people (ahem women) to wreck their orthopedic health for an illusion? We shouldn’t risk it for anything, ideally, but definitely not for the sake of being a visually pleasing blur in the background of a 1-second shot. At near-minimum wage. With no benefits.

The last movie shoot I did involved a very high-energy dance scene that took several hours to wrap up. It required a prior fitting during which I was assigned a pair of 4.5 inch high heel boots that could have only been concocted by Satan himself on a day he was in a particularly foul mood.

But actually, those torture devices posing as shoes were made by a certain well-known New York fashion designer who shall not be named for purely comedic purposes. Instead, he will be referred to by an alias created from scrambling his first and last name: Space Zon.

And so, I wonder if Space Zon ever tried on his own creations. Mr. Zon is a fashionable man, known around town for wearing heeled footwear himself  — just nothing like the towering beartraps he crafts for women.

Mind you, 4.5 inch heels might not even be the end of the world, if they are remotely designed for human functionality. But these puppies were super unbalanced in the heel and if that weren’t barbaric enough, the toes were pointed up.

I invite everyone reading this right now to take a moment to do a mock recreation of this scenario with your own foot:

—  First, stand on your tiptoes where the foot is at about an 80-degree angle upwards from the toes.

— Now, try to stretch those all-your-weight-bearing toes UPWARDS.

A physical near-impossibility, no? But women wear crazy footwear like this all the time! Yet, I guarantee you, we wouldn’t do this to ourselves without social pressures or financial incentives. Even sexual masochists might want to keep away from shoes like these. Knee surgery is not sexy and neither are the bills.

Anyway, at the fitting, after trying on the abominable Space Zon boots, I asked the wardrobe people to please give me something more humane. But because the outfits had already been lined up and photographed, they were not keen to switch out the boots and assured me that I would be fine. “You look absolutely killer in them,” they said, as if that helped. Hearing the word “killer”, I actually imagined myself tumbling dramatically down the movie set stairs to my death, Space Zon smarmily smiling and waving buh-bye at me from the top of the staircase…

I’ve never had any beef with this particular designer but now that I’ve had the personal displeasure of wearing one of your creations, you’re on my radar, Space Zon. Consider yourself my **arch** nemesis…

I went home after that fitting session with major anxiety welling up. I knew for a fact that agony was coming my way on the day of the shoot — and that there would be hell to pay afterwards. I spent the next week buying up knee and ankle support sleeves and rubbing crazy amounts of castor oil into my joints.

Each day leading up to the shoot, the nervousness got worse. And the anger started creeping in too. How the hell is it even legal to expect people to sacrifice their bodies for this bullshit??

And this is where the gender inequality is apparent: male extras do not have to decide between working and injuring themselves or not working at all — but it’s a choice women in the same position have to make on the daily.

You be the judge. There are both men and women on the set of a movie shoot, alternating between acting and standing around for hours waiting to be called in. But one group is doing it in loafers and athletic flats, while most members of the other group are teetering on stilt-like foot contraptions. For at least ten hours straight. Can it really be said that the two groups are working the same job? Seems like one of them is laboring harder and, more importantly, in a hazardous environment.

They say American women make only 79 cents on a man’s dollar (well, that’s a statistic about white women, while African American, Native American and Latina women make even less than that…) But it’s not just the salary: it’s health compromises that figure into the wage gap equation too. In this particular job as a non-unionized background extra in the film / TV industry, while both men and women get paid the same [pittance], the women are doing lasting damage to their bodies that will, in no uncertain terms, cost them more money down the road!

Back to the movie set. My worry was completely confirmed on the day of the shoot: the boots did not get any more wearable since I tried them on during fitting. Everyone was directed to act wildly enthusiastic. The whole time I was hobble-hopping around that dance floor with an ecstatic smile plastered across my face, my mind was going:

…OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT

OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD

JUST PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

DON’T LET ME FALL

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT…

It wasn’t even about the pain, which was considerable but, like most women, I’m used to grinning and dissociating myself from whatever is going on “down yonder in the foot regions”. It was about the very real possibility of wiping out on that dance floor because either one or both of my ankles would eventually snap to the side and bring me down. Or I could very easily slip or be pushed by another dancer — and these leather foot binds were NOT made for regaining one’s balance, were they, Mr. Space Zon? Gravity is fake news and equilibrium is overrated anyway.

Could I have spoken up some more? Yes. And risk being branded a problematic presence on the set. The pressure to do what one is told on a mega-budget movie set cannot be overstated. It crackles through the air like electricity. If superstar leading actors like Uma Thurman can be bullied into doing a stunt she knew would get her injured, what chance is there for the rest of us?

Extras are really there to be animated furniture. Talking on or off the set is not in the job description. Complaining gums up the rapid-fire works of the filming dynamics. It is pretty understood that you just suck it up and do what you gotta do. It’s true: the crew has a lot to pay attention to and babysitting extras isn’t part of the plan (and most of the time they are quite gracious about it.)

And I am very down with cooperating and staying the hell out of everyone’s way. But the bottom line is that it was dangerous for me to spend hours dancing in the cruel Space Zon hellboots and though, by some miracle, I didn’t take a spill that night, I added more damage to my joints.

Since that time, I only sign up for the dowdier background roles, where I am allowed to bring my own shoes that are not high heels. As you can imagine, this cuts down my options significantly.

But, like I said, I just can’t with the high heels, not anymore. I spent over a decade of my physical prime running around in skyscraper pumps that would put RuPaul’s drag queen brigade to shame. I was that chick on the dance floor doing pirouettes in breakneck platforms. Because catering to the male gaze was the default behavior at the time and I was classically too immature to not be flattered by the attention and too shortsighted to care about future health fallout.

And then there is the fact that, until recent years, flats were not an available retail option for young women: ladies’ footwear almost always had some sort of unnatural elevation, it was just a question of degree of discomfort.

But now, we have sophisticated foams, gels and goos to cushion our overworked extremities!! And kick-ass athletic footwear. And I’m sure attractive “feminine” shoes could also be designed with better materials and health priorities in mind (are you listening, Space Zon & Co.?) No one should subject themselves to torture by bad footwear when memory foam technology exists. I love it so much, I even have a marketing slogan for them:

“It’s Memory Foam — or Go Hoam!”

Memory Foam, if you’re reading this, it’s my humble gift to you for enhancing my mobility.

For what it’s worth, even pampered celebrities are giving up high heels because the self-abuse is too much. Of all people, Victoria Beckham, the poster child for strappy stilettos, has tossed the pumps for flats and seems pretty unashamed about it. Is this the Apocalypse?? Or is it that, once women mature out of needing to please everyone, they can take a critical look at all the unhealthy, self-destructive vanity practices they engage in to impress men and “society at large” and decide that they are over it?

Well, that’s one part of it. The other, sadder, factor is that after many years of mistreatment our limbs just give out and refuse to function under stressful, unnatural conditions, leaving us no choice but to start wearing “comfort shoes”…

And so, it’s pretty much good-bye to being a film extra for me. Being that I am not even an actor, this is mercifully not a big deal, though I’m pretty bummed to have to give up work over sexist double-standards.

One upside: not having to suffer through any more bone-bending squeezewear by the likes of Space Zon and his sadistic fashionati colleagues.

If there is a Hell, I hope they spend an eternity there walking around on 4.5 inch iron spikes nailed directly into the bottoms of their feet and wearing sausage casing from actual sausages that is several sizes too small to breathe or move in… I mean, that’s actually still not as painful as what their models have to endure on the runway, but let’s be generous with our hell-wishing.

ELECTION 2016 H A N G O V E R: I’VE HAD WORSE

So… Maybe it’s because I anticipated this outcome for months and had time to freak out and, eventually, make some sort of peace with it — but I just don’t feel so crushed by Trump winning. Like so many others following the election countdown, I felt my brain overheat, couldn’t stop cursing and had the dissociative sensation of being transported into the Bizarro World. But it was not due to surprise that Trump was winning — it was more of a weary “groundhog day” effect of watching your gloomy predictions play out, as you idly stand by saying “yup”. Maybe if I scream “I told you so” at my TV a few more times…

The surprising part is that, a day later, things don’t feel as bad as I thought they would. For one, there is just the sense of relief that [this particular part of] the circus is finally over, for better or worse. *Exhale*

Then, the embittered cynic in me is kind of amused by all the shocked arm-wringing in my own “camp”. I get that people are traumatized. I am too. But none of what happened was unforeseeable or unpreventable. So, people who feel that Trump’s victory came out of nowhere, this is a wake-up call, and not to martyrdom but to ignorance. “We had no idea! Guess we live in our own world here in the North East / West Coast,” is being said a lot. Shouldn’t this revelation be more humbling? Elitist obliviousness is nothing to shrug off as no big deal. It played the key part in the outcome of this election.

Instead, social media is blowing up with  “OMG, I feel so disillusioned and betrayed that half of my compatriots are INHUMANE MORONS!” We are the 47-ish percent of the voting population that imagined themselves to be a shoo-in majority, and we’re calling them — the winning side — stupid?? Then again, they are a pushy majority who believe themselves to be the persecuted minority. Up is down, left is right. I won’t lie, the irony of it all has its own perverse beauty.

they're so stupid that i didn't see them coming

They’re SO stupid that I didn’t see them coming!

There is also a part of me that is kind of curious to see what happens next. We know all the terrible predictions — but what if there’s something positive there too? I mean, we are familiar with good progressive intentions leading to bad unintended consequences. Maybe in the Bizarro World, the narrow-minded, self-serving motivations of our leader will accidentally backfire with spectacular goodwill and prosperity for all?

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I’m just happy we didn’t get bombed. Concerns of explosions and active shooters have become a routine part of public commuting and space-sharing these days — and the election day was extra tense. Granted, the heightened anxiety does not stop New Yorkers from crawling all over the city like ants day and night, but I, for one, could do without the apocalyptic dread and the nagging anticipation that something is about to blow up beneath me. Talk about irony? As a child in the Soviet Union, I grew up expecting those damn Americans to drop the nukes on us any day. Lifetimes later, here I am, an American, waiting for those sneaky Russians to go off the deep end on us. And ISIS. And psycho locals. Great time to be alive, people.

Nonetheless, this fatalist is optimistic 🙂 There is room for unprecedented social unity and solidarity to grow from all this — though, perhaps not as a flower blossoming in a richly manicured garden, but as a wild mushroom materializing from the decomposing matter in cow dung. It might be random and kinda gnarly but also organic and maybe even magic.

ROCK 'N TROLL

CONSUMED WITH GUILT OVER OVER-CONSUMPTION

Garbage in Ipanema, one of the wealthiest neighborboods in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Does anyone else suffer from crippling sense of helplessness and guilt about being a pathetic hypocrite in a society of unapologetically wasteful over-consumers?

I try hard but I can’t help being wasteful and it’s looking more and more like a “damned if I do / damned if I don’t” type of situation. Everything that is mass produced comes in quadruple packaging, so even when you don’t buy many things, you still end up with a lot of non-perishable byproducts. So much of this packaging is beautiful and useful — but when you try to hold on to them for re-use or art projects, you end up with a bit of a “hoarding” situation — since the volume of incoming “parts” is never-ending.

Then, to throw away or even recycle a perfectly usable high-quality plastic container or glass vessel is the other option. Which is wasteful! To me, it feels like I did not “honor” this object enough — by ignoring its longevity and utility. Big props to Marx about the whole “alienation” observation. I have come to believe that “alienation” is a two-fold truth:

 — the laborer / farmer / craftsperson is no longer in touch with the fruits of their work, as well as appreciation from the buyers — and this disconnect (alienation) from their creations cause mental anguish and makes it an inhumane way to work;

the consumer is disconnected from the product’s originators / creators completely (with literally, several layers of packaging): temporally (when was this made?) geographically where was this made?), socially (who made this?) and morally, in the sense that the consumer feels no duty to value the labor and the material that went into the production of an object. Many times, machines assemble our wares and the parts that are assembled by humans, well, it’s best not to know the complete story, if you don’t want to feel like a monster for buying and using this stuff.

Well, I do feel like a friggin’ monster and it is not making me a better person, only making it hard to enjoy life. Despite painstaking reusing, recycling and distributing goods among friends and donation centers, I am still consuming a heck of a lot of stuff and resources: the food I end up wasting, the convenient wipes/towels/tissues/napkins of various kinds that make cleaning so much easier, the disposable bags / plates / cups – things I reuse but toss sooner rather than later, etc., etc., etc.

Things become more complicated when we zoom out from the singular wastefulness of one person or one item to the surrounding system of self-perpetuating wastefulness on a much larger scale. Every time I recycle a piece of glass or plastic, I use water (a precious resource) to clean it out and it takes fuel-powered transport (using up gasoline AND polluting the environment) to deliver it to the recycling plant which uses a godawful amount of electricity to process it. Obviously, there will be some kind of trade-off no matter what we do, but the current system in place is not efficient enough — and not thoroughly networked among corresponding industries — to be sustainable.

Overconsumption weights heavy on my heart and mind, to the point of causing OCD-like distress. Almost each time I throw something into the garbage that’s not organic matter, some recess of my mind summons the image of this thing rotting away in a landfill for centuries / thousands of years. I also can’t help but picture some poor creature hopelessly ensnared, dying a slow painful death inside some superfluous piece of plastic I carelessly tossed into the trash (forcing me to obsessively cut up and shred “tangly” garbage.) This type of thinking is paralyzing as there is no solution to alleviate the problem and my mind races in a loop, unquiet.

Thus, the “big picture” only adds an element of futility and despair to the processes. I spend inordinate amount of breaking down and sorting waste — all with an acute awareness of the fact that my “contribution” is such a tiny drop in the bucket relative to negligent residential buildings, companies and factories funneling unimaginable amounts of waste into our soil, water and air every minute of every day. It is a special kind of torment to feel guilty for being a part of this wasteful culture but helpless to turn it around. Contemplating one’s feebleness in the face of a gloomy future is a major bummer for mental health. Living with the perpetual feeling of being an asshole is not good for morale.

And so, I feel disappointed with myself for not doing more and more and more to cut out the human, natural and resource exploitation from my consumption habits but it is not realistic!! Everything that I can afford is made by some quasi-indentured laborer – quite possibly underaged – “somewhere else” not in the U.S. I resent ad campaigns that capitalize on people’s sense of moral superiority by fooling them into thinking they are “saving the world one dollar at a time” with their consumer power. I do not need my shopping to make me feel like I am “rescuing” someone by “participating” in a “social cause”! How about I just want my shopping to be blood and tear and rape and pillage free!!!!

It is frustrating, being a captive of this lifestyle. As an urban person with neither much access to “nature”, nor appropriate skills with agriculture, I cannot simply quit going to the supermarket and subsist off the land, as some people will be quick to advise. In many parts of the U.S., you have to be quite rich to be a “conscientious consumer” (e.g. pay very high prices for organic / humanely harvested food, clothes made in USA or France or Italy, non-mass-produced home furnishings and wares, etc.). Or – you have to devote all your waking hours to managing this sustainable lifestyle: in addition to cultivating food, you’ll need to learn to sew your own clothes and synthesize your own antibiotics and develop all kinds of other specialized skills and knowledge nobody can be expected to just “pick up” as needed.

If all involved factions pulled together into a unified, synergized alliance, we could set up a super-streamlined infrastructure in which all recyclable materials would be collected, funneled to proper facilities and processed into new, also completely recyclable things. The best part is that it would be mutually profitable for all parties: the manufacturers, the government, the consumers, etc. It would, however, require the kind of cooperation and reorganization of priorities for the common good we cannot currently expect from our corrupt rulers and politicians. It would also mean that the rest of us have to suck it up and make an honest committment to reducing the production and consumption of useless and frivolous crap and start paying attention to finite natural resources we are pillaging as if there is no tomorrow. Also a tough sell…

Having thought about this a lot, I am willing to give up quite a few “luxuries” of modern living and have a simpler life. And I imagine there are things I will be more reluctant to relinquish from my life but, so what, I’ll adjust. But here is the thing: we may soon not have a choice in the matter anyway. In the not far off future, the problems of today will seem altogether blissfully manageable compared to snowballing issues of overpopulation coupled with exploding unrest over dramatically unequal distribution of simultaneously dwindling natural resources.

Seriously, our current petty societal dysfunctions and international disputes will seem really-really silly compared to the mondo turd that will hit the jumbo fan in a matter of decades! As things stand now, we are inching towards a FUBARed humanitarian crisis that will spill out into major global rebellion of the overpopulated, angry, starving masses. It would also be wise to prepare for disasters of unseen proportions dropped on us by Nature to remind us who is The Mother around here.

It is not fear-mongering if it is true and necessary: for now, we still have some semblance of a chance to salvage our planet and its life support system. Doom is not unavoidable but it is where we are headed if we stay the current course of arrogant sociological and ecological short-sightedness.

Even putting the complicated science of climate change aside and focusing solely on over-consumption and over-disposal of non-perishable goods, what we are doing right now is akin to spitting and tossing refuse into our own laps, blind of the space around us shrinking. The way this story ends is: the garbage piles rise and, eventually, close in over our heads, devouring us, making us indistinguishable from garbage. Drowning in one’s own waste is not a terribly dignified way to go, Humanity. Let’s not go down in the annals of the Universe as the species who crapped themselves into oblivion.

THE PITFALLS OF GOSSIP

OnGossip.ColorProps

Have you ever been surprised or horrified when you catch yourself publicly saying something completely out of character for yourself and wonder: Why did I fall for the obvious bait and get trapped into a political argument? Why did I brag and show off so obnoxiously to friends all night? Why did I reveal so much personal, private stuff to a stranger, or worse, someone from my own social network? Why did I say something so catty about so-and-so, when I really do not harbor any negative feelings towards that person? Why did I help pass around a rumor, though I quite consciously and as a matter of principle detest gossiping?

Sure, alcohol comes to mind, but let us not focus on it because it is a catalyst, not the cause of the phenomenon. It is true that the more relaxed and “loosened up” people are by alcohol, the more they tend to lower their filters and yak with wild abandon. But drunkenness is not a necessary condition for gossip and other TMI blunders: I would wager that people gossip just as much over tea!

The true culprit is the social climate created by the awkward combination of fun and anxiety. Even though we all like to think we are in complete control of ourselves, social contexts dramatically shape our behavior how we express ourselves.

Socio-economic necessities force us into unwanted interactions (having to talk to bosses, associates, family members) and social pressures dictate the topics we end up discussing publicly. One moment you’re having innocent lunchtime banter with a coworker, next thing you know, you’re talking about Johnson’s outfit and speculating about her sexuality….

I have always considered myself a keeper of secrets and not a passer-arounder of confidential information. Likewise, I have always felt uncomfortable around people talking negatively about others behind their backs and avoided fueling the fire.

And yet, on a number of occasions, I have caught myself saying something suggestive about people – with remarks that felt innocuous and funny and a propos at the time – but seem questionable or straight-up inappropriate in retrospect. I meant no harm, I swear, but this fact neither excuses the behavior nor lessens the resulting shadow of doubt cast upon another person’s character.

This problematic tendency to get carried away with unintentional mudslinging emerges when we get swept up in the group dynamic: everyone is “on a roll” of discussing others and one is instinctively drawn in, compelled to contribute something funny / interesting / intriguing to the lively conversation. If the tone of the gathering is to badmouth someone, badmouthing becomes easy and natural. These little acts of slander happen under the guise of humorous, friendly, playful chatter and seem to especially thrive in certain groupings, like those of colleagues, relatives, teammates and super-closely-knit friend cliques.

Certainly, some people are quite purposefully vindictive and actively stir up “drama” as a means of self-validation. But most gossipers are not being harsh or acting as a saboteur intentionally: they are simply in the habit of mindlessly recanting other people’s secrets and thoughtlessly criticizing and ridiculing others – to keep boredom at bay and to find something light-hearted to connect over with people.

Unfortunately, when you get enough gossip instigators together, it creates enough momentum to suck in the rest of us who, under other social circumstances, would not think to say something inflammatory about a peer. But when inside the rumor mill, we suddenly find ourselves blabbing away, surrendering to the impulse to fit in, to go with the flow. You really don’t have to be a mean-spirited person to gossip but it becomes a slippery slope, if you go there. The potential social fallout from publicly maligning a friend, colleague or relative can have unintended harmful consequences for the target of gossip as well as people who started and passed it around.

There are myriad explanations in the social sciences for why people gossip. For instance, we have an evolutionarily developed psychological propensity to crave social acceptance – and gossiping offers a temptingly fast ticket to popularity. Gossiping and sharing secrets also strengthen camaraderie and increase a sense of belonging to an exclusive club or community when we share intimate knowledge with the select few individuals. It makes us feel special to be a part of a “circle of trust”.  

Another major component of universal human psychology engaged in gossip is the rule of reciprocity: that magnetic sense of obligation we feel when people say or do “nice” things for us. Symmetrical, ritualistic exchanges of favors keeps the power dynamic balanced, which is why most of us do not like to feel indebted to someone, not for too long. So, when people around us are sharing bits of gossip, they entrap us into feeling that we, too, must now “contribute” some sort of insider information, in kind. We respond by sharing more gossip.

If one willingly surrounds oneself with thieves, thievery will eventually become the “new normal” and the person runs a pretty high risk of succumbing to it. Likewise, gossiping and other social vices, like casually throwing around sexist and racist language, can seep into our behaviors inconspicuously and organically. We see people we love, admire or fear saying and doing all kinds of things and we can’t help but want to emulate them.

So far, my conclusion is: if you don’t want to be a gossiper, avoid social scenes in which judgmental or mocking commentary about acquaintances is the main source of entertainment. Otherwise, sooner or later, you’ll likely find yourself caving to human nature and, if you are like me, feeling like a real jackass and kicking yourself for it later.

 JackAssKickingSelf.cc

Our peers carry huge potential in shaping our social habits and setting roles, norms and boundaries. It can be hard to recognize “toxic” environments if the venom is not directed at us personally and when everyone is laughing merrily and having a great time. Complicity in bullying thrives in the same environment, by the way. Gossip can certainly become an indirect tactic of bullying. It can even seem that we are all “getting away” with it. But, no, we are not. There is a golden tenet in social interaction and it goes as follows:

The way a person talks about others with you is the way this person will talk about you with others.

Period. No exceptions. And because this rule seems so elegantly fair, a small, idealistically moronic part of me keeps hoping that, by the same logic of justice, some social grief in life can be avoided by being a decent person. If I keep my karma cache clear by refraining from saying “iffy” things about others, I may be spared being put through the ringer when it is my name’s turn in the grapevine spotlight. Right?

AsDontBeAHater if!..

The pragmatic realist in me who has been alive (and actively so!) a number of decades among fellow humans knows this to be an unreasonable expectation, to put it mildly. No measure of cosmic justice will prevent haters from hating. The nectar of meanness is just too sweet for some to give up 🙂 The rest of us should try really hard to not feed the trolls.

OLD VISA PHOTOS WILL AWAKEN THE TRAVELER IN YOU

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Rummaging through my travel documents to double-check my passport’s expiration date, I came back up with a set of old unused visa photos. It may be self indulgent but I like to look at these photos. Because I tend to hit several countries at a time, many of these photos were taken already “on the road”. And, for that, the face that looks back at me from the little rectangles is the face of a person who is doing A-Okay.

It is important to reconnect with this version of myself on occasion – this person at the height of her self-esteem and mental and physical fitness. This is my most uninhibited and confident “me”. It does not have to mean the wildest / craziest “me” but it is me when I feel at my freest.

These snapshots are the faces of a person in perpetual motion. The super faded pictures were taken in Brazil for crossing into Paraguay: they are useless as visa photos but they summon forth the “me” from that day in time. Frozen in a photo, right there, I will always be that traveler with a mondo migraine who was sent on a wild goose chase around the city of Curitiba to hunt down a gazillion different stamps for a Paraguayan visa. The Paraguayan visa, let it be known, is rivaled only by the Russian visa in cost, bureaucracy, labor-intensiveness and dark magic involved in its conjuring.

The fact that I remember having a really bad headache is, actually, a very positive indicator of how great my life was at the moment, several months into my year-long backpacking trek around South America. Living in the American Northeast, my migraines are so regular that they all blur together into one long hellish game of “chicken” between me and searing  brain pain. If I remember that Brazilian migraine, it means it was a blessedly isolated incident at that time.

The four undamaged copies are of the picture taken in Thailand for a Lao visa. The old-fashioned photographer fetched me a man’s shirt to cover up my tank-topped shoulders for the shot. At that moment, bitterness and disappointment were weighing heavily on my heart and I was going through a “withdrawal” after some major emotional poison. I had ways to go before I would wake up relaxed, as opposed to exhausted from vivid, intense dreams that tormented me at night.

Withdrawal is the initiation of recovery and spending an emotionally difficult time on the road can really serve as salve for the hurting soul. On this trip, largely staying away from substances and parties, I got the exact communion with nature and with culture I knew I needed and had set out to find. I returned to the States excited about getting back to work. If that is not the mark of a miraculously transformative vacation, I don’t know what is. And so, I enjoy looking at stills of myself on that journey – it gives me a positive charge of spirit, transmitted through the memory, transformed into a renewed intention to be and feel like that again.

Looking at these pictures, I am also reminded that youthfulness and beauty are still within reach. After a couple of weeks of being on the road, I usually get a whole second wind of energy. My senses become uncorked from heavy mental grime, my skin tightens, my facial features relax, my back un-pretzels, my neck de-petrifies itself, etc., etc., etc. It’s nice to see a tan, strong, healthy version of myself in those photos – it gives me hope.

If you can carve out a few months on the road, you can work up to some serious traveler zen bliss! It gives you enough time and distance to look back at what you’ve left behind – as well as think forward to what is waiting for you – and re-evaluate those things in light of being more relaxed and in touch with yourself. Seriously, if you haven’t taken a prolonged solo trip yet, I cannot recommend it enough. Do it as soon as you can, really. It is good for anyone. And, for some of us, it is a straight-up vital necessity. Take yourself on a “walkabout” and, in weeks / months, you will re-emerge as a more confident, calm, wise, fit and all-around badass version of yourself.

And then, at times when your life has become a little too settled and static and you feel the ole Wanderlust tugging on your hems and scratching at your feet, you can dig up those visa pictures and start planning the next adventure.