A little less than a year ago my new lease on my apartment was lost in the mail, the person who intercepted it stole $10,000 earmarked for taxes by doctoring the check inside, and I was let go from my job as a freelance contributor at Jezebel.
I decided to re-sign my lease on my studio apartment based on my projected income, but it wasn’t protected income. Even in places with organized unions, there’s a tier of freelancers who support the company with their work—work that doesn’t have a contract, benefits, or a severance package. I suddenly had to make some decisions about what I wanted my life to look like at a much lower price point. It was disorienting. It almost felt like a lucky break that my landlord never received my new lease; the stolen money was returned by my bank. The universe is a random and careless place, but it does send messages.
Suddenly, my old dreams seemed stale; my plans futile. They had to go. So did my stuff. I threw out all my crappy furniture. I dropped my cats off at my mom’s house (temporarily!). I bought a shitty refurbished laptop and a train ticket to Montréal. And I left. I barely told anyone. Even my best friend thought I was just going on a long trip until a few days before my departure.
“You’re leaving, leaving?” she asked in disbelief, as she dropped me off after our goodbye breakfast. It was kind of bullshit, on my part; I didn’t want to tell anyone I was leaving because I thought I’d be back, but as the distance from my hometown increased, so did my certainty that I wouldn’t return.
The thing about letting go of my old life and trying to start a new one was that I envisioned it as a brightly colored montage set to snappy music: Here I am tossing out that old mattress. Here I am packing a bag. There goes the train. Wow, what a view. I would magically be a brand new me.
Six months later, I am the same old me, except now I wear hats. It’s sunny in Los Angeles.
As someone who tends towards obsessive thinking, I have collected events like a crow hoarding metallic detritus in its nest. They’re treasures of hurt, loss, disappointment, missed opportunities, snubs, regrets. Useless, but still luring and attractive. I turned out the nest of my home and left it behind, but years of accumulated treasures stayed nestled in my brain as I went from one city to another—12 in all—before landing on the West Coast about a month later.
Whatever the measurable formula for letting go of the past is, I hadn’t found it traveling. I gravitated to L.A. when I was ready to admit that I was out of ideas. In New York, strangers will openly mock you for admitting you like crystals, but in L.A. everyone has a piece of magicke rocke in their pockets. I went to places with whimsical names like House of Intuition and earnestly read all the tiny cards explaining how citrine never holds negative energy. I took the Expo Line and a dozen buses to Venice and saw a tarot card reader. Over and over again I pulled the Hermit, the Devil, the Hanged Man. Cards that mean introspection, obsessive thoughts, and being suspended in time. The reader told me that I was protecting myself “too much because of past pain.” “You need to let it go,” she added.
She recommended I buy a vape and go to a meditation class. So I did that. I used CBD oil for a while and then escalated to mushrooms. It seemed like the obvious next step to alter one’s brain with chemicals. No doctor has ever told me I need medication for what my brain does, but maybe illegal drugs would work.
“Gift me your ancient wisdom, you old plant!” I thought, as it got stuck in my teeth. Perhaps this would move my wheels out of my thought rut and set me on a new path, one I couldn’t yet imagine. In a sense that was true; during my mushroom trip, I went on an extended journey circling the Ace Hotel, humming and staring at the line where the mountains met the sky until it wore off. Then I ate a banana muffin.
That wasn’t quite right, but maybe I could induce a change more naturally. I thought breathwork was something like a hatha yoga class with even less movement, but it’s actually a group of full adults screaming like babies while wrapped in blankets on the floor. I also screamed and laughed and cried and imagined the cacophony was rising from the pit of hell in my trance-like state. I felt the usual catharsis one does after a good cry-scream, but not much else.
Of course, I tried therapy. My first attempt was with a cognitive behavioral therapist. On a piece of paper, she drew a triangle, labeling each corner as “thoughts,” “feeling,” and “behavior.” One leads to the next she said. Somewhere in there, you have to disrupt the feedback loop.
“Yes,” I said. “And I have disrupted the behaviors. I moved across the country. But I still feel the same.”
She recommended I sign up on Meetup.com for events in my area.
I wavered, wondering if I needed to continue my quest. Were things really that bad? No. I hadn’t been on the battlefield. I wasn’t destitute. My sense of self wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but whose is? I’m just some white lady doing a budget version of Eat Pray Love. Let it go and move on with your life, I told myself again. You shouldn’t even be thinking about what you need. Everyone else needs more.
Then I experienced dissociation for the first time. It felt like I was operating my body from a distance, as though a puppeteer was pulling enormous levers to make sure I laughed and spoke and breathed at all the right moments. It was sort of like being high, except, I wasn’t, for once. It was just the feeling of letting go in completely the wrong way.
I ended up on another therapist’s couch wearing headphones and holding two handles, called tactile pulsers. They buzzed in my palms while a tone rang in my ears. This is EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The buzzing was supposed to help me dissolve the chronic physical or emotional reactions to memories of past trauma. Someone once described it to me as real-life Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, mapping memories and slowly erasing their significance.
That sounded great. Erase me.
Some EMDR practitioners don’t use the tactile pulsers or beeps; instead, they instruct their patients to move their eyes back and forth, following the doctor’s finger, as they recount their personal history. Its effectiveness is up for debate, but the idea that I could walk down old roads in my mind and see them differently was extremely appealing. But when I was wearing the setup, I felt ridiculous, largely because I invested so much hope into a few palm vibrations.
During that first session of EMDR, the therapist was reluctant to let me put the headphones on and grab the tappers, saying she wanted to get to know me first. She eventually agreed to do some processing, which meant we’d explore pleasant memories to begin. She asked me to think of a peaceful place and describe it. I picked the balcony of my former sublet, which looked out over Silverlake towards the Hollywood sign and the wide open sky, surrounded by twisted cypress trees and birds going about their business.
She asked for the names of several figures in my life: nurturing ones, protective ones, wise ones. It was hard. I was too cranky to remember the good stuff after 30 minutes of barfing up all my woes to a sympathetic professional. She said I could choose fictional characters if that helped, but I was unwilling to include Goliath from Gargoyles in whatever was about to happen. When she was satisfied, the headphones came out.
The therapist asked me to imagine myself out on this balcony, looking at the view. Next, she said to picture my nurturing figures, my protective ones, my wise ones, coming out to join me there. I tried to take the whole thing as seriously as possible, especially because I’d paid for the session. As my mental balcony got more and more crowded, I wanted to giggle. Instead, I imagined what it would be like to be surrounded by love, safety, and guidance.
My hands buzzed as she talked; tones sounded in my ears. After a minute, I forgot how silly I probably looked. I wasn’t thinking about letting go, but about holding on, filling the space with so many good things that there was no room for the bad. Holding on to a sense of peace, to a sense of self-worth, to history, to gratitude for all the work I’ve done, whatever it adds up to, even if it’s nothing.
It’s so easy to drop memories and moments along the way, not even noticing. I shed so many things while I’m focusing on what I wish I could get or get rid of. It all disappears when I’m not even paying attention. The buzzing stopped, but I kept my eyes closed, holding on a little bit tighter.
Aimée Lutkin is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and is the author of The Lonely Hunter, forthcoming from the Dial Press/ Random House.