A few years ago I spent six months living in Los Angeles, the city I came of age in, the city I had been trying to get back to for more than two decades. I was there to finish a novel, a project that had been in the works for years, and a dear friend arranged for a small one-bedroom at a reasonable price just one block from Fairfax and Santa Monica, a great neighborhood, near all sorts of lovely restaurants and hip urban life stuff. I should have been happier than a pig in shit. And I was absolutely miserable. Because it never got dark, and it never ever got quiet.
I had just settled into my new space when demolition began on the house two doors down. From early morning to mid-afternoon, the whine of saws, the clatter and bang of jackhammers, the incessant maddening beeep beeep beeep of industrial vehicles in reverse assaulted my ears, my brain, my process. If I’d had a real job, it might not have been such a big deal. But I was at home all day long, committed to writing eight hours a day. And I’m not the kind of writer who can work happily in a coffee shop or a library, who can block out the soft babble of nearby conversations, the flitting movement of passersby. Believe me, I tried. Oh, how I tried. But I really, really like to be my own creative space, in my jammies with unwashed hair, free to pace and talk aloud, trying out lines of dialogue. This just doesn’t fly in public spaces.
Even after the workers had gone home, the cacophony continued. Music from the building next door. Snatches of conversation as my neighbors walked the sidewalk that led right under my bedroom window at all hours. The wail of sirens and car alarms. The slow churn of helicopters overhead.
And don’t even get me started on the lights. Not just streetlights, but security lights on every building, that blazed all night long, slipping slivers of intrusion through window blinds and even the heaviest of curtains.
Sleep — never my strong suit to begin with — became more and more elusive and, as they say, “unrefreshing.” As the insomnia got worse, so did my physical pain and brain fog — two key symptoms of the fibromyalgia that had stalked me for years. Normally an extroverted introvert, I began to withdraw. Driving the streets of Los Angeles fueled intense anxiety; if I couldn’t walk somewhere, I didn’t want to go. It became difficult to understand the words people spoke to me. I began to think I was going mad.
Of course, I sought medical help, though I had lost my faith in conventional medicine years ago, and that loss of faith, combined with the exorbitant cost of prescriptions on my expensive but crappy health insurance, led me to try to power through on my own. Because what, really, was I being offered except more of a drug that hadn’t really helped me in the first place?
A part of me knew I was in trouble but I didn’t know how to stop the downward spiral. And I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening to me, not really. I dropped hints or I tried to, hoping someone would pick up on my pain. But there’s something about having a chronic illness, about spending years sucking it up and keeping a stiff upper lip because nobody really understands what you’re going through and thinks you’re a whiny hypochondriac. You lose trust, in yourself as well as others.
And the worse things got, the more invested I became in my performance of wellness and normality. I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me, thinking there was anything wrong with me. I was strong and self-reliant. One tough cookie. I just needed to hunker down, finish my book, everything would be fine.
I clung to the writing, putting in my eight hours a day, producing an amazing number of pages. Many of them actually quite good…. Though I often felt I was writing in circles, unable to commit to an opening, a scene, a plot line, the routine — the commitment to the work — was important to me, possibly what saved me. But I was running out of money. And the prospect of getting a job, of driving to work every day in Los Angeles? Just not possible. So I swung back and forth on a pendulum from “I’m losing my mind” one day to “I’ve got this under control” the next, not really sure how things were going to turn out, whether I would be able to pull out a happy ending.
And then Robin Williams committed suicide. That was my wake-up call. That made me admit to myself what was in the back of my mind, gnawing at the edges of my tough cookie stance. And it scared the shit out of me.
I ended up leaving Los Angeles soon afterward. Back in the dark green quiet of the Sierra foothills, I found the peace and healing that I needed. It’s been a slow road back and I still haven’t finished that damn novel, but I’m here. And that counts as a happy ending in my book.
So I’ll close with this, from Mary Oliver:
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”
It helps to know that I’m not the only one. Here’s a great piece on sound sensitivity and its impact on our bodies and psyches.
“Electronics beep and buzz, music blares, traffic zooms. Everyday noise is more than just irritating — it can have a nasty impact on our health. Here’s what you can do to quiet the clamor.”