Breathe Freely

I take a breath in, and then a breath out. It’s so strange that what should bring me life is slowly killing me.

The smoke tumbles through the air into the humid summer sunlight, escaping my body and entering the world—a new bird finally in flight, lying dormant so long in a stick filled with little leaves. I breathe again, and again, and again. Each time, I feel my body destress—untense—and my mind comes to rest. With each breath, however, I reflect on my self-hatred for loving the smoke so dearly. It has become like a friend to me, in addiction. Every smoky exhale brings me peace and respite from the harsh realities of day-to-day monotony.

I hate myself for smoking, and if you’d ask me one thing I regret doing is starting smoking. In my entire life, I’ve never made a mistake that loomed so large. Each day that I wake up, exit my apartment to sit on my balcony and breathe my body-destroying, meditative breaths is another day that I can’t be satisfied with who I am as a person. I’ve tried to quit so many times, but each time I come running back to the gas station counter, begging for more.

In total fairness, I’m the epitome of a targeted individual for tobacco companies. I’m a mentally-ill 20-something-year-old with low income but just enough to afford just the next pack. In a paper entitled “’We Mentally Ill Smoke a Lot’: Identity, Smoking, and Mental Illness in America,” the author, Laura Hirschbein, examines the history of mental illness consumers and tobacco companies. She examines many letters sent from mentally ill citizens in America (and a few internationally), who write to tobacco companies, often siding with them amidst the legal battle for and against smoking regulations. However, she also writes, “From the internal documents, it is clear that the tobacco industry was quite aware of the connection between smoking and mental illness (and probably knew more About it than most psychiatrists).” And lest we forget, tobacco companies are companies, which means that they largely care about profit, and not their consumer’s well-being. I think that can be doubly stated for tobacco, as the health risks are immense.

So many of the consumers who wrote for support from the tobacco industry felt the same strong attachment that I do to my cigarettes—it brings them stillness amidst the chaos of their minds. She writes, “Further, while we might expect that a vulnerable population such as the mentally ill would be at significant risk from the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry, individuals who acknowledged their mental illness instead felt supported by cigarette companies.” I think, however, that so many people forget that the industry cares not for the emotional benefit of smoking, but rather utilize it to prey on those with internal, emotional weaknesses. Smoking may help our thinking, but so does methodical, clinical treatment in the form of therapies. It’s just that smoking is such a quick fix for something that otherwise takes a long time and a hell of a lot of practice. As Hirschbein writes, “The difference for them was that they viewed the emotional benefit to be more important than the risk of physical harm.”

Fact is, I can’t speak for others. All I know is that I was an easy target, and I fell for the bait—hook, line, and sinker. Every day that I continue smoking is another reminder of my failure to forgo the easy way out and take my time to rewire my brain through therapy and treatment so that I can live a fulfilling life in between smoke breaks, not just during them.

It’s over for them, now. I’ve slapped on the patch that has become the life-ring in my next big attempt to quit smoking. I’d say “the last big attempt,” but what if I fail? I can’t afford to think like that.

I breathe in, and I breathe out. For once there’s no smoke and therefore I’m free.


Hirschbein, Laura. “‘WE MENTALLY ILL SMOKE A LOT’: IDENTITY, SMOKING, AND MENTAL ILLNESS IN AMERICA.” Journal of Social History, vol. 44, no. 1, 2010, pp. 7–21. JSTOR [JSTOR].


Lessons of Loneliness: Kyoto

From Osaka, I went to Nara for a day, taking the slowest and most wandering train I’ve ever been on. Locals using the train to get from their job to their home in some small town watched me carefully, wearing their curiosity on their faces. While in Nara I explored shrines and temples very quietly, watching where I stepped and sneaking in on a couple English-speaking tour groups at times.

Kyoto was next on my destinations, the last destination before returning to Tokyo for departure. I don’t recall the train ride to Kyoto, but I recall the train station being very large, a central hub as a result of most transportation in Kyoto being undertaken by bus.

Kyoto is where I learned to walk and ignore stares. On the first day, I went to two temples, one being the very famous kinkakuji—the golden temple. While there, I found myself behind some tour groups once again, and I took full advantage of eaves-dropping on the history of the place. I remember very little of the lesson now, of course, I was too busy enjoying the sights and smell of nature after the stale smells of the train to Kyoto had gotten into my nose and my brain.

On the following day, I decided to simply walk around one market area I had seen, and I did so until I found a massive movie theatre, and the new Studio Ghibli film, Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) was playing. I immediately went inside, ordered a ticket, and sat amongst a massive crowd. There were—obviously—no subtitles, and yet I found myself understanding the majority of the content, between the love story and the engineer’s career I followed, laughing and crying with the rest of the audience.

At this point in time, I had learned a lesson about loneliness that involved me embracing it as a freedom, independence. Loneliness no longer meant no safety net—I still had people who loved and cared about me—but rather I had no one but myself with whom to battle fears and anxieties, and through each turn of every street and covered market area, I found myself embracing not only independence, but a curiosity that forwent fear and upheld new experiences as the new desirable.

I had become comfortable. My time in Kyoto I remember as a blur amongst my wanderings, and it was not long before I was on a bus (that took two hours, no kidding) to my one planned stay at a fancy hotel. The hotel was supposed to be a modern take on a ryokan (traditional inn), and I wasn’t sure what to expect outside the fact that they’d have onsen (hot springs) and a meal provided. Once I arrived, however, I was blown away. Taking off my shoes and putting them in my locker, I chose a yukata that would fit me, and went up to my room.

I had scheduled dinner for a very specific time, as the staff had to be prepared to serve what turned out to be the most elaborate meal I’ve ever had. They served me tempura, soba, cooked fish and crab, and so many things I couldn’t name. On multiple occasions, I had to ask my server how exactly to eat the objects presented to me and she, not knowing much English, struggled to explain, both of us dissolving into awkward giggles at miscommunications.

I stumbled upstairs to bed, where I planned to change into my yukata and head downstairs to the onsen for a luxury experience—one last time in the baths. I’ll admit I was fairly afraid at this time about the stares, but more so about perturbing the people who had come to enjoy a relaxing vacation with my foreignness. I sat on the bed, yukata in hand, and 14 hours later I woke up, phone ringing wildly.

I answered and was reminded that I had scheduled my breakfast for this hour—I was late!

I never had a chance to go to the onsen at that hotel—something I truly regret not overcoming, but the sleep was much-needed and, I think, well-deserved.

Outside, I waited for the bus to return to my stop. It was well over 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the sweat trickled down my brow, my spirits slowly bludgeoned into submission by the incessant heat. An older man came and sat next to me, waiting as well for a bus. He didn’t speak any English and I was much too shy to try my Japanese—as I have been most of my life.

After a few minutes of silent smiling glances towards one another, I turned and watched as he went over to a nearby vending machine, put money inside, each coin clinking into whatever abyss coins go into when they’re put in vending machines, and punched buttons. He returned to his seat, and turned to me, holding out a red bean ice cream pop in rough paper packaging. I took it, smiling and thanking him.

He tore his open as I warily opened mine—I hate red bean flavored things, but I didn’t want to be rude—and slowly gnawed on the treat. There we sat, in the blazing Japanese summer sun, sharing not only a dessert, but a moment.

Osaka Day Two: Umeda Sky Building

When I learned that going up the Umeda Sky Building involved getting on a glass elevator, I definitely paused. I paused for three hours, waiting for the courage to brave the most intimidating version of heights I had yet faced. That’s actually probably a lie, I braved the highest point in the Tokyo Skytree while with friends, but for some reason it felt so much less intimidating than a glass elevator to the top of Osaka. Maybe it was the loneliness—the need to convince myself to do something alone rather than rely on the pull of others to take me where I needed to go.

While in Tokyo, my friends and I had also gone to Tokyo Disney Sea, and while there I had ridden the Tower of Terror. I was a mixed bag of emotions, and I reflect on the event oddly often. It’s strange how something so commercial had such a big impact on my understanding of self. We waited in lines for quite some time, winding around the ‘lobby’ of the mansion. Fake artifacts from distant lands told the narrative of the cruel imperialist who took from other cultures what he wanted as his own, and he did so without asking. Nerves grew in me, but I repeated my mantra: “Does it scare me? Yes. Will it kill me? No. Then I have to do it.” I had already missed one rollercoaster that day due to anxiety, and this ride with the mother of all anxiety-inducers.

When we finally arrived in the narrative room, where the spooky thing happens with the ghost, but you aren’t quite on the ride yet, I began to feel the gravity of my mistake; I was absolutely positive this experience wasn’t for me. However, at this time we were almost to the doors of the ride, and the line moved quickly. Shuffled and shoved along, I couldn’t muster the words in Japanese to ask for the exit, so the crowd took me with it like an undertow into the sea.

There is no fear like the fear I experienced while watching the Japanese woman dressed up as a housekeeper locking the doors to the ride, the words, “MATTE KUDASAI” stuck in my throat, eating it away like stomach acid. Or maybe it was stomach acid.

We were trapped. The walls closed in around me as we began to rise, and I remember the feeling of suddenly being outside of my body after the terror became unimaginably intense. The photo taken at the top of the tower reflects b ack a calm and nonchalant me, barely present anymore.

Then we plummeted, and I screamed like I had never screamed before, letting the blood-curdling cries escape my lungs with ultimate force. At the bottom, unharmed, (I couldn’t say the same for my friends whose arm I grabbed in panic when we began, who was quickly developing light bruises from where my fingers had been), and filled with adrenaline, I giggled wildly, high off of not only the natural brain chemicals pumping through my body but also with a confidence at having defeated a great beast of fear.

Now I stood, gazing at the doors to the Umeda Sky Building’s elevator to the top. I stalled, heading to the basement where the entire place was made to look like earlier, recently American-occupied Japan. The lights there were dim and the ceilings painted black to look like you stood on the streets in front of restaurants and shops under the open night sky. Stepping through the doorways to this basement level was like stepping into another world, ushering up images of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. I wandered the ‘streets’ while air conditioning made me shiver as if a light nigh breeze pushed through each narrow alleyway.

I thought of the sunlight, the late afternoon sun on my skin through the giant glass windows of the great glass elevator, and I only shivered more violently, fear creeping up and down my spine. I passed tourists and couples and families in the ‘streets,’ walking by a few restaurants, wondering if I was hungry enough to stall the inevitable with a meal. The anxiety, however, kept my appetite subdued.
It was evening when I managed to force myself through the doorway to the elevator, the sun low in the sky but not quite setting. Standing awkwardly between couples, I watched, making sure to steady my breathing with every foot climbed. From the elevator, I bought my ticket and ascended up a glass escalator—much more terrifying than the elevator but unexpected and necessary, so I ceased hesitation. I thought during the ride up about how heavy all the machinery must be and how weak glass could be. The sounds of shattering echoed in my mind as if I were possessed by the very idea of tumbling to my death amidst the sparkle of crumbling glass in the soon-setting sun.

I arrived safely, of course, there had been absolutely no reports of giant glass breakages at the Umeda Sky Building either before or after my trip. It’s distinct how anxiety allows statistics to become completely irrelevant in one’s mind, thinking only of the slight possibility and locking onto it as a future certainty.

I ordered some sort of sweet matcha drink, allowing myself to find a seat by one of the windows overlooking the landscape.

Then the sun hit the horizon, and the breath in my lungs vanished in an act of sheer magic. There are few words that can describe the beauty of the sun setting over the Osaka bay on a partially cloudy day. The colors of the sky reflect onto the vast, wandering waters and the clouds freckle the whole landscape with darker tinges of blues and purples, topped with fluffy white brush strokes. One by one the lights in the buildings and on the streets flickered on, reflecting now back at the sky the stars they so desperately long to mimic. All amongst this beauty is bustling, vibrant lives, and that makes it so much more beautiful—coexisting between the sometimes-devastating nature of the ocean, the city stands vigilant, welcoming each night.

I have no memory of descending the tower that night. I have no memory of leaving that place or catching the train back to my shabby hotel. I have no memories of any residual anxieties that could have hampered my experience of all that heart-wrenching beauty.

Osaka Day One

There I was, at the train station, ready to board my train to Osaka. It didn’t bustle the way most train stations do. In fact, the shinkansen (bullet train) platform was quiet and uninhabited but for a few of us waiting on the late afternoon departure. I had bought the ticket the night before to make sure I would have a seat, and everything had gone smoothly.

Loneliness had begun to become comfortable after two days without my program in Tokyo. During those days, I traveled with tourist groups on buses to Mt. Fuji where I wandered—an anomaly amidst groups of friends and families on vacations. I had eaten alone and explored and located hotels in districts to which I’d never been. Things were beginning to feel possible. Yet, here I was, getting on a train to a place I didn’t know in the slightest. Even so, I got on.

Exiting the bullet train in Osaka was stressful. I ended up in a train station that had very few signs in English and I didn’t recognize the characters for the district to which I was trying to arrive by the end of the evening in order to check into my hotel. Luckily, my phone served as a hotspot, and I used my little mobile device to turn on google maps and, bless that app, it showed different platforms and departure times for each train station. In the dimly lit concrete structure, I waited, sweltering with my entire luggage, for the train.

The ride was short and daunting as I looked out over the foreign landscape. Everything, to me, seemed a bit dingier than it had in Tokyo, as if the sun didn’t shine quite as brightly. Every station at which we stopped didn’t make sense to me, unlike the stops in Tokyo which had all become very familiar. I began to feel homesick again—homesick and afraid. When my stop finally arrived, I was the only one to get off on it. The walls of the station were a wild pink shade and adorned with some kind of soccer mascot. I don’t remember the animal. Echoes of a crowd cheered in the distance, bouncing off the streets of the neighborhood in the quickly oncoming darkness of night.

When I found my hotel (I went the wrong way at first and caught the many stares of elderly people watching over their open-air shops), I went inside and found it intimidating in its dilapidated state. The floral wallpaper peeled from the walls and water stains marked the ceilings. The woman at the counter smiled warily at me as I approached. I asked for my key and she informed me that when I left the hotel I needed to give it back every time, and pick it back up on my way in, every time.

The elevator did nothing to raise my spirits. Lit only with a flickering light, I felt myself tense, recalling almost every horror film that feature buildings with elevators. It jolted upwards in a sudden upstart of life, carried me two and a half floors upwards, stopped, jolted down half a floor, and clanked open. The hallway was empty and the raggedly carpet beneath my feet was unwelcoming and foreboding. I struggled with the key in the knob until it clicked, and the door swung open. The room was huge—a really strange thing to see in Japan—but sparse. An old air conditioning unit screeched in the window, but I was grateful for the cool air.

A television sat atop a desk situated in the corner, and I flicked it on only to receive static and strange shadows of figures on every channel available. I thought to myself, “If any place were haunted, it’s this place.” I retrieved food from a convenience store, and ate it quietly by myself in my room, hiding from the world.

When I went to take a shower, there was only a bath mat, no towel, and so I air-dried in the cool air conditioning and felt myself sink into a sorrow so deep I couldn’t fathom going outside. I wondered if it had all been a mistake, to try this larger, solo trip and not simply stay in Tokyo for the remainder of my days before my flight home. I couldn’t imagine navigating those confusing trains again, with each platform changing destinations with the departure times. The following day I had planned to see the aquarium and Umeda Sky Building, but it all seemed so daunting and hopeless in this moment.

Living with bipolar is like this scene, where one minute I have the strength to persevere a few hours longer, and the next day, especially after a trigger like exhaustion or plans not going the right way, I feel so low I can hardly move. At least, that was the beginning of living with bipolar, and the symptoms can always seem so new even when you’ve experienced them time and time again.

When I called my mom, she answered with an expectant voice, hoping to hear only good things. I lied to her, told her that I was doing well and made it to my hotel. I told her that the hotel itself was a bit creepy but ultimately comfortable. I didn’t confess that I hadn’t even had a towel with which to dry off after a shower. The air conditioning continued to squeal in the background, and I wondered how much sleep I’d get if I wanted things to stay comfortably cool. I promised her I’d have a good day the following day, and that I’d tell her all about it when I could.

I hung up and went to bed, cats yowling in the alley outside my window.


“Mom, please, I want to come home,” I could hear my voice tremble as I spoke into my tiny, rented phone. I had never felt so low. It was the end of my time during my program, but I—in a phase of manic ambition—had scheduled nine days alone to travel across the country to visit, Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto before returning to Tokyo and catching a flight home.

“Honey,” she replied, her voice dripping with worry, “I can’t get another plane ticket. At the very least you have to stay in Tokyo for a few days.”

“I can’t, Momma, I can’t,” I blubbered, tears running in rivulets down my cheeks. This experience, with all its beauty, all the days in the sweltering sun, all the trips to Harajuku, Shibuya, Disney, and Nikko, and I couldn’t fathom staying one more night. The country closed around me, enveloping and suffocating me. Between the friendships and the delicious food and eye-opening experiences, there were the stares, loneliness, and isolation. It can become very difficult to live in a country and feel at home when you struggle with the language as ferociously as I have always struggled with learning any language, but especially Japanese. I found that when reading I could do just fine, but once asked to speak, a bubble would well up in my throat, blocking off any hopes of uttering a single coherent sentence.

At the beginning of my program I had failed the placement test—I still attribute it to the program using the textbook that most universities in America use while mine used an entirely different, much older book—and had to argue to be placed in the level in which I thought I belonged. It involved an interview, which I had tried to complete in Japanese, and become utterly horrified at my lack of capabilities. I was eventually put in the class as a result of outperforming in the level in which I was originally placed, however I couldn’t shake the feeling of overwhelming incompetency. Every time I would try to speak in Japanese, I recalled how I had run from the interview room at the end. Face reddening and tears coming quickly, I found a restroom, jolted into one of the stalls, sat on the floor, and bawled.

The world felt like it was coming down around me at that time. Bathing was terrifying, food was difficult to get (I still don’t know why I had trouble at first, I love most foods and am by no means picky), I couldn’t even speak to a professor without crying, and I was homesick. Being on the island while my family and friends awaited my victorious return at the end of the summer felt like suffocation.

Returning to the phone call with my mother, we sat in silence. I could feel her sadness and her wishes to make things easier for me when she knew she couldn’t. I gazed out of my bedroom window, cracked open in the dusk. The smell of vibrant summer grass wafted in and the birds chirped in the trees. I reflected on the beauty of it all, the way that at least this room felt like home, at the end of things, and I began to wonder. I began to remember the promise I made to myself on my birthday.

Was I afraid of this time alone in Japan? Yes.

Then I had to do it.

“Okay, mom,” I sniffled, “I’m okay. I’m going to figure this out.”

At Home with Strangers

The cicadas buzzed in the trees, humming along with the pulse of the summer morning air. Bees loathed about in the air, hovering as if danged from the clouds by invisible threads, swaying to-and-fro like little toys on a jostled mobile. We boarded our bus, waving goodbye to those who hadn’t signed up for a weekend homestay experience. It was also my birthday; I had just turned 20.

I was (once again) mortified—meeting strangers once again, except this time I was supposed to practice my Japanese and be a perfect guest so that this Japanese family wouldn’t regret letting some American girl into their home for the weekend. The family that had been selected for me was beautiful: a mother, father, son, and daughter. The children were both very young, the brother maybe in primary school and his sister even younger. I had received a picture of them, printed onto plain stock paper, and the entire family smiled politely into the camera in front of their picturesque home.

We arrived an hour or so later at a community center building, in which we were arranged into rows on one side of an aisle while the host families slowly filed in and sat on the other. Both sides craned their necks, heads bobbing up and down above others, to see if they could find their assigned match. After a short presentation, students were one-by-one called up and handed off to their families, a photo opportunity at every moment as grins burst across everyone’s faces. Yet, at the end, there I was, sitting alone on one side of the aisle, family completely missing.

After some time of simply being forgotten, a program leader came up to me and reassured me that my family was coming; they had just been running late. In the moment they hadn’t appeared, a blossom of hope and relief had budded inside me, ready to bloom, waiting for a ray of sunshine or news to tell me I was free of the responsibility of meeting new people and trying to live with them as a guest for an entire weekend. When the program leader tried to reassure me, I felt that soon-to-blossom relief wither in my gut and begin to fester in proverbial mud. The fear returned.

My anxiety has always been crippling, which I say time and time again, I know. However, it must be emphasized that at every turn of life I try to get involved with new experiences, but the moment the hour approaches, I do my best to find a reason to remove myself from the obligation in order to maintain a picture-perfect comfort zone. Meeting this family was an exceptionally stressful concept to me, and I regretted every second of having signed up for it until I met them.

We were standing outside, people dressed in beautiful traditional clothing danced precisely in the setting sun. The air had cooled with the disappearance of the sun behind the horizon, and the once steamy air refreshed itself into the physical embodiment of relief. I knew them from the picture the moment I saw them—the mother and son.

The mother, Chiyo, came up to me, grinning, and introduced herself in beautifully correct English. I immediately felt my tension begin to break, simply knowing I’d be able to communicate with her. Her son, standing next to her, a little behind her legs, peered out at me as children tend to do when they first meet someone. After a few minutes, however, he decided to practice his English.

“Hello, my name is Koji, and I like to play the piano. What is your name?” he spoke rigidly, obviously rehearsed, but it made me smile nonetheless, to know that he’d also appreciate my English more than I had expected.

“I’m Ainsley, and I am happy to meet you.”

“I’m happy to meet you.”

And so on. When we returned to their home—as beautiful as the picture had led me to believe, with two stories and an expansive living room and kitchen—we were met by my friend Jackie’s host family as well as her, a surprise to both of us, and my host family’s daughter Yuki. She hid as far from me as possible, and I felt a pang of anxiety return as I wondered how Chiyo would have stress over making both me and her daughter happy. We ate a marvelous dinner of raw fish, white rice, and seaweed wrappers. In addition, bowls of fruit welcomed us home with their gentle sweetness, and I discovered a particular love for Japanese cherries.

It was after dinner that surprised me. I caught a glimpse of Chiyo peeking around the kitchen doorframe at me, and I made a silly face, crossing my eyes and sticking out my tongue. In that moment, she giggled and immediately flew towards me, landing in my lap and hugging me around my neck. That’s the moment when my heart changed, melting frigid terror into something indescribably tender.

Babysitting was always terrifying to me; kids and I never got along. One time—I think it was my first or second time babysitting—one child grew angry after losing a round in Monopoly and took off running up the street, and while I chased him down his older sister managed to call and disrupt her parent’s night away from the house. In the end, the couple came rushing home and apologized profusely to me, but I felt like the one who had let them down by losing control.

This girl, however, took to me as I took to her. That weekend I spent most of my time playing with the kids—watching them, playing with their toys, reading books (in English) to them, and even feeding Yuki little pieces of watermelon with chopsticks for breakfast while her mother had gotten up to prepare more food. We took a trip to Mother Farm, which is a place where a children’s theme park meets tourist farm life up in the mountains. The vistas overlooking the ridges with hydrangea bushes surrounding in bloom were breathtaking.

On that first night, however, I sat with Yuki in my lap. We spoke small words in Japanese and English, sharing little by way of verbal communication. The lights went out, and I looked up. Someone had turned out the lights! And then they turned the corner, all of them—my host family, my friend’s host family, and my friend. Chiyo was carrying a cake.

As the candlelight flickered before my eyes and Yuki sat in my lap, I smiled brightly at the candles and welcomed in a new year of life and promised myself something—a promise to keep for the remainder of my trip: that if something frightened me, I would try it, treating these words as a mantra. I blew out the candles.

Bath Time

You know things have gotten tricky when bathing becomes a challenge. So many of us with mental illnesses have experienced the lack of motivation to shower or brush our teeth, avoiding self-care for days at a time. It’s hard to explain to someone without a mental illness exactly why we avoid bathing, and how exactly we can tolerate the invasive thoughts wondering if we smell or if it’s noticeable how oily our hair looks. Even so, we do avoid it for days on end, only breaking after the intrusive thoughts outweigh the lack of motivation to take care of oneself.

All of these things aside, it’s another thing entirely to truly fear taking a shower every night for fear of vulnerability and exposure. On my first night in Japan, we trekked across the suburbs to a ryokan–a Japanese-style Inn. The hosts welcomed us graciously, leading most of the group into the dining area, from which an aroma arose, wafting through the air to meet my stomach in ugly disarray. The golden glow of the cheap bulbs screwed into beautiful lamps mixed with the soft tatami flooring that made me even woozier than I already was, my exhaustion hitting me like the train we had ridden on just moments before. After dinner we were supposed to take turns going in pairs into the baths–this instruction confused me at the time–to bathe and get ready for bed. We were to sleep in rooms in sets of five, separated by gender, on futons on the floor.

I, with my stomach still upset from the dizzying descent from the clouds into the airport, couldn’t even fathom eating–the very thought sent my guts churning. The smell from the dining room alone was enough to make me want to press my face into my sleeve, letting the thing cotton filter out the rich scent. I begged our group leader–think of him as a residential advisor in college dorms–to let me simply go and rest. He was very accommodating and showed no signs of hesitation as he worked on getting me into my room before everyone else. Even so, I knew that what I had just done–refused a meal from a welcoming host–was impolite to say the least. Shame filled me, but it only served to fuel my desire to sleep and escape. As I drifted into the heaviest sleep I’ve ever experienced, my only thought was: “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

I awoke to a brightly lit dawn, the sun brazenly peering in through our room’s windows. Everyone from my room slept soundly onwards as I rose, checking the time to find that it was barely 5 in the morning. Everyone had bathed the night before, and I hadn’t had the pleasure of uncovering the terror that lied within the bathroom yet. I looked through my things, making sure I had a toothbrush and change of clothes prepared for when I was ready, but I had finally heard the news. We were to bathe next to one another, on stools, naked, and then the bath was communal for after we were clean. It’s a very Japanese way of doing things, classic for hot springs as well as nightly baths.

The anxiety was overwhelming; the very idea of being so vulnerable to judgment rocked my mind into a frenzy, wondering if and how I could avoid the situation entirely. Even so, the feeling of the oil and stale air of the airplane on my skin, mixed with the sweat that had surfaced as we walked with our bags through the dusk the night before made me uncomfortable. I needed to bathe.

It was after a young woman whose name I can’t remember–a beautiful nymph of a woman, petite but perfectly proportioned with a smile that would light up any room–asked me to go with her, promising that the experience was magical. I only mention her beauty to highlight my anxiety at exposing my imperfections. I went with the flow of the moment, acting as nonchalant about the experience as she seemed to be, but inside I was quaking with anxiety, waiting for the exposure and the potential for judgment.

I think there’s something to be said about children that grew up with high expectations for themselves. I dare not use the word ‘perfectionist’ itself, but it’s the general idea of the word I’m implying. Children that spend their young years striving for perfection, and who consistently do well in school, art, and athletics are the type I’m discussing. After childhood, then, the young adult begins to fear trying new things or exposing themselves to criticism lest their streak of approval and accolades be tarnished by even slight judgment or failure.

The steam from the spring bath weighed heavily but beautifully on the air, and I felt that fear of judgment for lack of perfection bubble up from the earth just like the water flowing into the tub. Undressing, I clenched my toes against the tile flooring, finding the grooves in between each ceramic square and let the soles of my foot trace their outline, the rough texture strange against my skin. Showering while sitting on a stool can be awkward at first, but in all honesty, it lends itself to a more thorough scrub. Sitting there, water off, I scrubbed away until I could rinse myself clean and deem myself ready to soak in the tub.

I can’t say much for my experience in the baths–it was awkward and uncomfortable, but I managed to stay calm and stay still long enough to know that I had accomplished the experience at least once.

It was on this day that I found out that our dormitories also had public baths, and felt overwhelmed with a fear of anxiety at having to repeat the experience again and again.

How fondly I look back on those days now! The anxiety washed away down the drains in the floor night after night as I scrubbed. On the first day in the dorms, no one spoke a word as they washed–eyes down and bashful. As the weeks progressed, however, each of us slowly began to speak, reflecting on our days, sharing ideas, and trading arguments back-and-forth. I remember so vividly the steam surrounding each of us in a comforting embrace, at long last feeling free with our bodies to treat them as our homes and be unafraid to expose them to experiences.

Bath time became the best time–bonding time. My friend group and I would all schedule our baths around one another, yelling, “Wait for me!” down the hallway as someone grabbed their towel and headed towards the bathroom door. Gossip became most suitable for when we all soaked together in the tub, the hot water easing our aches and pains from walking the city for the entire day.

The vulnerability of the baths must seem incredibly intimidating to most Americans who haven’t experienced it, and yet I can only purport the one thing I learned from it: sometimes the most vulnerable times physically can be some of the most freeing times spiritually, forging friendships and laughter that echoes against the tiles and mirrors as the bath water steams patiently, waiting for the next to bathe.

First-Class Fears

“Would you care for a mimosa?” were the first words I heard upon sitting down in my seat on the airplane.  The air from the open door—stale airport air—mixed with the stale airplane air, creating an altogether heady aroma of plastic and synthetic fabrics.  Here I was, nineteen years old, and being asked if I wanted orange juice and champagne mixed in a delicate little glass to sip on while I waited for the rest of the plane to be boarded.  My aunt and uncle had used their air miles to buy me a first-class seat on an international flight to Japan.

Before you stop reading, pause with me to reflect on how magnificent it is to be given such a luxurious gift when on a day-to-day basis you struggle to make rent for the upcoming months.  I had never and probably will never again fly first class in domestic or international flights, and so I strive to keep this memory of fleeting luxury alive for the reason of having had some extravagance amongst my daily monetary struggles.

I was on my way to Japan, where I would live for three months while intensively studying intermediate Japanese and living in a dormitory with other people in my program—all Americans.  I knew two of the boys my age going as well, although we weren’t anything more than passing acquaintances from Japanese classes.  I looked towards the months of learning about new people and, hopefully, making lasting attachments.

Let’s take another break to discuss where I was coming from at the time.  I was a student at the University of South Carolina, studied Japanese for approximately two years—I could speak close to nothing, and I remain that way to this day—and I was terrified out of my mind.  I had recently been diagnosed as someone with bipolar disorder and high anxiety, and it is only upon reflection that I recognize that it was the high ambition of mania that brought me onto this airplane with plans to live, study, and travel alone in Japan for a quarter of a year.  Fear ruled my experiences for the entirety of my life, and I had absolutely no coping mechanisms ready for the days and days and days to come.

The plane ride was as decadent as imaginable: four meals, including a snack, chosen from a menu provided to me at my seat, and an assortment of items available to me for free—a blanket, a pillow, another blanket, slippers, pajamas, headphones, and a sleep mask.  The television screen came out from one of my two tables, alongside my three (three!) windows.  The chair reclined, and I—terrified of airplanes—passed the time in as much comfort as someone who is convinced they’re going to die any minute is able to manage.  I, to this day, have no idea what it’s like to do a twelve-hour flight without leg room, and that is a goddamn blessing.

Upon landing, our plane was forced to circle and circle the airport, waiting for an opening, and amidst the clouds, I felt my stomach grow dizzy.  I hadn’t slept more than an hour, and it was early evening in Tokyo.  I now felt sick, tired, and a little bit trapped.  Still, ask anyone afraid of flying and you’ll know that the promise of the ground beneath the wheels any minute is enough to keep us going for just a few minutes longer, hanging on through the certainty that the wheels probably won’t work anyway or the turbulence on our approach will tear us out of the sky.

Fear is a huge, looming giant in my life, and it always has been.  In order to achieve anything or have new experiences, I have to struggle against the terror that the worst will happen at all times.  I have terrible fears of flying, of heights, of cockroaches, of meeting new people, and just about anything else you can imagine.  I have never known if my terror led to high anxiety or if high anxiety spoon-fed my terror until it loomed large enough in my life to stop me from trying new things.  As a child, I had only begun to participate in events and activities as a way to avoid being teased for being afraid, not for their own enjoyment.  Don’t mistake me, I gained many valuable and precious memories as a result of these brave attempts at engaging in life, but I can’t honestly tell anyone that I would have tried anything if I hadn’t also had a terrible fear of judgment.

So that’s where it all began: circling an airport in Tokyo, terrified out of my mind for the future—will the plane land?  Will I make friends?  Will I be able to find food?

We landed without event, and, despite my horrible exhaustion and stomach upset by the belated landing, I was ready to get moving.  No matter how comfy the chair, after twelve hours your body craves freedom.

The terminal was bustling, as most terminals are during the early evening in one of the world’s largest cities.  I had to get to a meeting spot of which my program had notified me, and so I stared at the screenshot on my phone of the map to the location.  Pulling my horrifically heavy suitcase behind me and my—I honestly don’t know how—even heavier carry on my shoulder, I stumbled through the airport.  I nearly crashed into three people grouped in front of me, and was immediately bombarded with questions.  Sweating, tired, and queasy, I agreed to whatever it is they asked me without thinking.

It had been a T.V. interview that they had asked me to do.  So, I—in my red-faced, huffing-and-puffing, all-American glory—gave a short T.V. interview.  I answered questions like why I had come to Japan and if I was studying Japanese and how much I understood.  It wasn’t until sometime later that I reflected on just how embarrassed I’d be if I or anyone I knew ever happened across that awkward interaction while flipping through television channels.  In Any other state, fear would have kept me walking, not even responding to their requests, but in my beleaguered condition I had simply agreed to allow whatever happened to whisk me away.

I met with my program at the right spot after quite a bit of searching for the right location.  Immediately, I felt the awkward tension of meeting many new people all at once.  Some of the students had already met on their flights, and I sat by the wayside, waiting for the conversation to come to me rather than reaching out to anyone else.  Anxiety had sealed my lips and persistent thoughts of being unwanted parroted around and around in my head.

During my arrival to Japan, I faced my fear of flying.  I distinctly remember that everyone in first class kept their window shades strictly closed—creating a false night that permeated the very atmosphere.  However, after I finished watching my first film of the flight to pass the time, I dared a glimpse out of one of my windows.  Opening the shade a tiny amount, a shaft of sunlight darted in, and I felt the rest of the cabin groan inwardly at the visual disturbance.  However, my breath was wiped out of me in an instant, along with my cares and my fears.  We were above Alaska, and I stared down at the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen.  Their white peaks looked like great waves upon an ocean of ever-rippling glory.  I threw open the rest of the shade and pressed my face to the window, looking down with widened eyes.  How could I—in my reclining chair next to two tables and my menu of foods and wines from which to choose—be so blessed as to have seen this?



Yoyogi Summer

The summer heat and humidity stifled our every will to move, yet it was incomprehensible to let a single day go by without trying for an adventure, and so we, as a group, had set out for Yoyogi Park.  If Yoyogi could be famous for one thing, it should be its beauty.  If it could be famous for two, it should be its beauty and the mosquitos.  The massive landscape sprawled out before us, filled with people playing Frisbee, walking their dogs, and sitting by the fountains.  The fountains themselves flicked on and off at odd intervals, preserving the power it took to run them while still keeping the dreaded mosquitos from laying eggs in still water.

Our group consisted of four people: Jill, Annalise, Joanna, and me.  Three weeks ago, I hadn’t known a single one of these people that had become my constant companions.  We met on the first day of the study program in which I had enrolled.  This story isn’t the story of making great friends quickly and without a hitch.  At the time, I had been recently diagnosed with severe, chronic anxiety and bipolar disorder, but at the time, remained without any medication to help manage my constantly fluctuating stress levels.  Long story short, I was terrified every second of the beginning of this trip—and quite a few times after the beginning.

A huge occurrence in Japan is staring.  Everywhere we went, we’d catch either wary or interested eye as we tried our best to be polite and quiet on the train or at a restaurant.  We didn’t dress bizarrely, in fact, I remember that I had a very strict, minimalist packing scheme that involved black t-shirts and long denim shorts for every single day of the week—wash when all of the clothes were dirty, and repeat.  Jill usually took the brunt of the staring, as she was a tall woman, built up with plenty of muscle that allowed her to walk comfortably for miles while I, out of shape, would huff and puff along by the end of the day.  Her height and build got plenty of attention.

Joanna, too, was often watched, as she had dyed blonde hair, which fascinated some people to the point of wanting pictures with her.  Annalise was likely the least stared at—as I’m 5’9” and definitely had some glances for my height in the same manner as Jill.  Annalise was average to short in height with curly dark hair, styled into a very short pixie cut.

In short, we weren’t ignored as we entered and traversed the massive park.  The heat brought sweat from our brows into our eyes.  The mosquitos were most active at night, so in the humid summer’s day, we were mostly safe from the itching bites.  In Yoyogi Park, you can always hear crows cawing away, but in Japan, the crows, to me, always sounded a bit like old men laughing in the trees.

The old men laughed, the sun blazed on, and we walked determined forward toward Harajuku—a place to which we wouldn’t arrive on this day.  Music drifted through the air…

Okay that’s a lie, some drunken men’s screeching hung limply in the air, assaulting our ears.  We stopped to listen as a young man with a guitar, a cooler filled with mixed sake drinks sitting next to him, screamed the chorus to “Stand by Me” over and over again, growing more excited with every “SO DARLING, DARLING…” Feeling silly, we joined in, yelling tunelessly the words to just the chorus of the song.  The Young man and his friend began to laugh, thrilled that some American tourists had stopped to enjoy the revelry.  His friend handed each of us a drink, and we thanked him profusely for the liquid relief from the sweltering heat.

After the song finally decided to end—some twenty choruses later—we all laughed and hugged and began the arduous task of trying to communicate with our mediocre Japanese and their fairly decent English.

Meanwhile, Jill was being harassed by a man who just repeated the word “breasts, breasts, breasts” in Japanese at her, trying to give her a slobbery kiss.  The young singers intervened, moving the much-more-drunken man on to seek another victim elsewhere—hopefully, he wouldn’t find any.

We continued to ‘talk’ with our new friends—a smattering of English here, an attempt at Japanese there.  We spent the afternoon as a day of heat and conversation, mingling our conversation with intermittent Japanese songs to which we knew no words.  Joanna left, as did Jill, as evening approached, heading back to our dormitory for a quiet evening in front of the television, preparing for class the next day.  Annalise and I, however, exchanged glances when the two young men asked us to come with them to get beers with their friends at a bar in Shibuya.  In America, if two men I didn’t understand had invited me to the middle of the city on a late summer’s night, I would have run.  However, an hour later, we walked along the sidewalks approaching the bar, chatting away as best we could, learning that the men were in a band.

When we approached the bar, we halted for a moment, unsure, as the bar entrance descended into the basement of the building, dimly lit, and every ounce of our American experiences told us not to enter with two strangers into this place.  However, once again, we abandoned our instincts and prior knowledge and dove deeply into the chance to experience something unique.  I wouldn’t recommend doing such things to anyone in any country, but in our case, we were quite lucky.  Upon entering the bar, we found a brightly lit area, cozily divided by wooden booths, and a massive group of people waiting in the corner for… us.

The man had invited all of their friends to meet us.  Two dozen people waited under the warm, yellow, and naked bulbs that hung sporadically from the ceiling.  We took our seats, ordered beers, and the game of conversation hot-seat began as each friend took a turn sitting before us, practicing English, letting us practice our Japanese, and getting to know one another.  Late into the night, we left, walking safely home from downtown all the way to our dormitories in the black of the night under the city sky.

The striking memory of this event was never our conversations, as much of the interactions I don’t quite remember, but rather the safety with which we were greeted by complete strangers in a park on a hot summer’s day.  These people, whom we had never met, welcomed us not only with open arms, but open eyes, hearts, and perhaps even more astoundingly, an open city.  Tokyo slept as we walked home, passing people who had missed their trains sleeping outside, and we flinched from fear not once.