Written by Gabriel Nathan
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, perhaps the most popular operetta ever written in the English language, the comic baritone Ko-Ko and the ugly, aging contralto Katisha have a delightful duet right near the end of the show called, “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast” in which they celebrate their uneasy, newfound love for each other.
As I rehearsed this number with our Katisha, the choreographer gave me a piece of advice to keep myself centered during the dance’s excessive spinning and twirling. “Pick a spot out in the theatre and focus on that,” the choreographer advised, “that way, when you turn around onstage or twirl, you can return your eyes to that spot and keep grounded.”
I use this helpful technique offstage, too.
Spinning, twirling, dancing, freaking, flying, obsessing, fantasizing, delving and dodging my way through life’s terrifying moments, I pick a thing—something—on which to focus to keep me stable, to keep me together, to keep me from disintegrating: a little pile of cat litter, in a jar, on the mantle. No—don’t want that. Not yet. So I stare. Intently. At a café out for breakfast with a friend, it’s her left eyebrow. At dinner with my family, it’s a freckle on my gorgeous son’s face. The eyes are too painful, because they’re my eyes. In bed at 3:31 a.m. it’s the dust on the third ceiling fan blade that I am too immobilized to clean.
In my therapist’s office, I have a couple favorite focal objects. The Swiss Army logo on the zipper of my therapist’s messenger bag. The surge protector under his desk. The key-lock on the large, six-drawer, metal filing cabinet that contains all—no, some— of my secrets, and those of so many others. I stare at these things so I can remain calm and seated firmly on the slippery leather couch, tray-tables in their upright position, while the plane hits an air pocket at 37,000 feet and shudders and shakes and rolls. Nose pitches upward, banks hard to the left.
We’re going to crash. I know it. I just have to keep staring at the surge protector. I can’t look at his face. He has been my co-pilot for seven years. For seven years, every week, he has sat beside me, at the controls, but he doesn’t touch them—he lets me be the pilot— but, if I turn to the right and look at him in the eyes, I will lose my balance, I will lose control, the choreography will fall apart, my feet will get tangled with Katisha’s, the audience will gasp, the passengers will scream, the oxygen masks will drop, the altitude will drop, and we will all fall. Ashes to ashes. Put me in the jar. Glance at the jar as you grab your keys and your lunch to leave for work. I love you.
So I stare at things in my therapist’s office, as I talk about trauma. Anxiety. Shame. Undisturbed for thirty years, I talk, haltingly and breathlessly. Vomit creeps up—peristalsis reversus. But I talk. And he looks at me. And I look at the logo on his bag. And the healing begins.
There is beauty in the bellow of the blast. There is grandeur in the growling of the gale. There is eloquent outpouring.
You just have to know where to look.
Gabriel Nathan is Editor in Chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, an online publication telling stories of mental health, empowerment, and change. Say hi to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.