Too soon? That’s fair. For the record, that wasn’t actually a joke. Anyone who’s met me and observed me for a substantial amount of time can see that I am a person with ticks. Not necessarily in terms of my being nervous, but instead how my communicative movements have developed in my adulthood. I communicate in big ways with my hands and face for what might be a myriad of reasons. Because my speaking voice doesn’t usually do the trick. Because I come from an expressive West Indian family. Because I made it a point to rebel against others’ abuse of my introverted nature in high school. However, I believe the facial ticks and the quick movements I make, especially when I am nervous, come from a less frivolous place.
I honestly do not believe my ticks were so pronounced before my chronic pain issues reached their peak about six years ago. Since the age of twelve and for a decade and a half afterwards, I lived in extreme physical pain. Without going into drawling detail, I suffered from foot pain so severe that I grew up walking with a limp, and because of family finances being dwarfed by urgent familial medical needs across the board, my body would remain that way well into my adulthood when things would culminate in about one year of navigating NYC on crutches and powerful prescription painkillers, two years of being bedridden with pain and surgeries, and finally, three years of attending Sloan Kettering’s cancer hospital.
Now, I don’t know if you may glean this, dear reader, but two years of being bound to one room because one’s body cannot act without severe pain tends to change people. Living with ceaseless pain from childhood into adulthood tends to mold the way a mind works. Those biological lessons may vary depending on the person, and upon isolation’s end, their views may be far different from the ones they held before… if there was a “before.” Additionally, and in my case as well, their body may perform or learn to habituate in very specific ways. Some of them turn out to be good. For instance, those first few pain-free days walking outside were some of the most incredible I’ve ever experienced. When you’ve been smelling and seeing old paint, hospital, and bed sheets for that long, fresh air is a miracle, the sky is bluer, and the entire world–even New York City–smells delicious. When pain you’ve always known suddenly stops, it’s almost like walking off of a busy street into pure peace. Like if someone had been laying on a car horn all your life, and then suddenly stopped. Unfortunately, the longer I went pain-free, the more mundane all these wondrous things about the world would begin to seem. Not that any of this would matter since my heightened anxiety from my years of isolation would not allow me to experience the world for the true extent of what it could offer my senses. In the beginning after getting out of that bed, everything outside of my room seemed far too much. In time, what was forced into grayness by my brain would somehow begin to dull even more.
Point is, introversion has just always been part of who I am. Both by choice and not. But I did stuff. I travelled, and drew, and taught myself to code and play guitar. You know. STUFF. The problem arose when that “stuff” included acting.
Acting, performance really, is mostly using our bodies as tools of communication and connection. For whatever reason, and often by no fault of our own and purely the fault of our personal lived experiences, that communication may become muddled. This then muddles the idea we are trying to express, which then muddles the connection we are trying to make with others. This, as you might imagine, is no bueno. As an actor I felt that this was a problem I had.
So, I attended my first Alexander Technique session this week with Belinda Mello at the AT Motion Studio. I didn’t know a damn thing about it except for how highly recommended it came for those who experience what they perceive to be indomitable nervousness, physical pain due to unreleased tension, or simply physical habits that they wish to gain control of. Here’s a piece of a piece of an explanation I grabbed off the web:
“The Alexander Technique is a way of learning to move mindfully through life. The Alexander process shines a light on inefficient habits of movement and patterns of accumulated tension, which interferes with our innate ability to move easily and according to how we are designed. It’s a simple yet powerful approach that offers the opportunity to take charge of one’s own learning and healing process, because it’s not a series of passive treatments but an active exploration that changes the way one thinks and responds in activity. It produces a skill set that can be applied in every situation. Lessons leave one feeling lighter, freer, and more grounded.”
As someone who has aimed their sights upon film and television acting, I felt that my bombastic body movements and facial ticks, especially when I was nervous, took away from my on-camera presence and the ideas I wished to express. Believe it or not, there is a plethora of power in stillness, which is an idea I’d always known but had never trusted. Now, however, I wanted it. Needed to take back control of my body.
There was a lot of accounting for the physical world around me during my session with Belinda, who had years of experience working with performers. The tablework was my favourite part, but there was also a lot of not-so-physical work including slowing down and paying attention to each of my senses. A lot of self-acceptance. Hell, the first thing she taught me was that Alexander Technique was not here to change who I am, but just to give me a better way of dealing with… me. I was disappointed to hear this at first, but admitted it made more sense that way. And, hey, as far as calming me down went, it seemed to work! If I, in layman’s terms, were to sum up my beginner’s experience, I would say that the technique calmed me by grounding me into hard reality and all of my senses as they experienced it. It soothed my nerves by making my situation more manageable by distracting me with awareness of the space I inhabited.
Super clear and simple to understand. I know.
My homework for the week (yes, there was homework), was to take time out of each of my days to complete an “observation” assignment and then a “sensing” assignment. In my naivete, I prepared myself for how boring and mundane my world was about to become for having studied it too closely. Thus, normalizing it too much.
Heading out into an uncharacteristically warm March evening, I decided to complete my first sensing assignment as I walked the few avenues toward the subway. One of my favourite specialty markets was on the way there, but I had not yet decided to make the stop.
I noted the hard concrete under my feet and how I could feel it through the squishy soles of my sneakers. The scent of countless street vendor grills wafted on cool air as a bicycler’s bell rang out behind me. The loose frizz around my forehead tickled my skin as a man slowly rode by. His hat was red. His jacket was blue. Made of windbreaker material but puffy. I was thinking about a call I would take with a career mentor that evening. Excited about the possibility of where I might find myself career-wise in a year. I called the feeling in my chest “fizzing bubbles.” Belinda told me it was perfectly fine to do such things. I felt like I was floating, and noted again the gray of the concrete. The blue of the sky. That great grill smell. My chest heaved. I wanted to cry. Not at all because I was sad. The opposite, really. My face burned hot. Vision blurred. Knees buckled inward.
Had I not been walking beside a building to catch myself I would have fallen. Fortunately, not too many people were around to notice as I picked myself up and continued on more wary than before.
My observations faded for a moment as I fell into my fears. What the hell was that? Was I getting sick? Oh god. What if it was that thing. The thing all over the news? The reason I often wore my leather work gloves outdoors nowadays? Nausea bubbled up into my chest until I thought I might have to cause a panic by puking into a public trashcan. I paused in the middle of the sidewalk. Took a deep breath.
Suddenly, all of these intense physical sensations faded as quickly as they had come. The notion struck me then that I had not been sick after all. In fact, for a moment I had simply been very well. Well and perhaps a bit too awake for someone who, for years, had taught herself to repress all the sound and smell and color for fear of sensory overload. For fear.
It all clicked in a gorgeous way as I decided upon visiting that market I loved. I walked slowly. Tried to focus on the firmness of the sidewalk changing to slick tile under my feet as I entered. I’d never seen apples so big and red. Never tasted red bean cakes so rich and sweet… I mean, of course I had. The point is I had never sensed them so well. And had never actively attached those senses to my emotions. I smiled as I paid for my goods, and headed down the last block toward my train. This was the connection I’d been looking for. The groundedness I wished I’d had as I was travelling about Asia a decade prior. I had wanted to not have to look back and wish I had been more aware of my surroundings in those moments. More awake in my present on those Bali highlands, and Thai white beaches. Some part of me feels like this is an effect Belinda might not have predicted when I relay it to her during my next session. The other part expects her to laugh knowingly.
“Shit,” I thought to myself. “I think I’ve just sorted myself out some more.”
…I still kept the gloves on until I got back home though. Just in case.