Riding the Neon Waves of Anxiety in Tokyo
We were standing in the line at the konbini with our matcha ice-creams, now 30 minutes over our designated one-hour dinner break. “I don’t give a fuck if they fire me,” my colleague said. “I’ll go back to Australia, but my tail won’t be between my legs, it’ll be wagging.” Sometimes living and working in Tokyo got to you like that: you just wanted the fuck out.
On Friday nights after finishing work at 11pm, I would aimlessly wander my neighbourhood’s streets, gazing into restaurants and bars filled with Japanese people drinking, smoking and laughing. The people in the windows were having a good time, but alas, I was an outsider now unfamiliar with the concept, physically on the outside of all that was going on within the neon flashing buildings.
Since arriving in the most populated city in the world, I was surviving off the minimal social interaction I was having with my 93-year-old Airbnb host; a lovely lady, but not quite enough. Not speaking Japanese meant that everything around me was white noise. I was permanently stuck in my own head; there were no interruptions or distractions. I was very much alone and not oblivious to the fact.
Being a long time hypochondriac and WebMD dweller, it wasn’t uncommon for me to self-diagnose. With little to do at work, I would pass my hours in my quiet high-rise building in Tokyo’s bustling mid-town trawling the internet, giving me a perfect window of opportunity to indulge in this delightful pastime. When I began to have irrational and intrusive thoughts, I naturally jumped to the diagnosis of schizophrenia, which unsurprisingly is tough news to process; even when it’s not true. My intrusive thoughts arose every time I was near a balcony; I would feel an intense sense of worry that I would jump off it – this is not convenient when you both live and work in close proximity to balconies. Despite the fact that I had not even a remote intention of doing such a thing, my mind operated in a constant high state of alertness, and if a passing thought was somewhat alarming, my mind would jump on it and wrestle it for hours, refusing to allow it to harmlessly pass on by like it intended to.
It turns out the more you try not to think about an intrusive thought, the more you think about it. This is quite a bothersome predicament to be in. Only to intensify this dizzying internal fight club, lo and behold, my brain started to obsess and think about the act of thinking and questioning the content and frequency of every thought. Can you believe this fucking inception style web of anxiety I was entangled in? I was thinking about the fact that I was thinking too much, and maybe I should think of things that are not about thinking and probably stop thinking about the fact that I should do this. Yeah… let that sink in.
Anyway, when these waves of anxiety crashed into me in my first few months in Tokyo, it was like gravity lost its hold on me, causing me to float up into the sky past the LCD billboard-lined skyscrapers, unable to stay stable, incapable of reaching out to anything that would hold me down. The higher I went, the more I would lose sense of the reality that was now beneath me. It became harder to see how I could get back down and harder to see what I left below. I was worried that soon I’d be too far away and too far gone, and unable to ever feel the bitumen-covered earth beneath my feet in the way I once did.
But with much time and effort, I began to feel some sense of control. I began to feel like I knew what I needed to do when the backs of my heels started lifting upwards. I was able to stop the sudden upward pull and take time to react; put solutions into place, put my feet back into place. Eventually, I was responding better to the threat of unexpected flight and the sense of panic was easing. These episodes became minor hiccups, like how they once were before the waves started crashing into me. My problems were no longer mammoth, but minuscule when viewed within the ever-reaching expanse and deep breadth of the world. They no longer loomed and I was no longer left abstractly gazing back at the world. I was happy to be a part of my neon reality, grateful for my place in the beauty and excited to belong to it, to embrace it and to function as best I could within it. Whatever it may be, it was pretty damn great and I didn’t want to float away from it anymore. I was stronger, my feet were firmly on the ground and I wasn’t leaving these paved streets again soon.
As we walked back to work that evening in the land of the now setting sun, my colleague remarked that “maybe everything isn’t totally fucked up and depressingly horrible in Tokyo”. She saw a dog skateboarding in the park yesterday – that was pretty cool. Also, we were going on a road trip tomorrow to a beach a couple of hours south. The water is crystal clear there. It’s pristine and its beauty is unexpected, the shock of this making it all the more stunning. I’d plunge my head under the water tomorrow; there’d be no neon lights: just an expanse of bright natural light. I’d refresh and rejuvenate while I came back up for air, and when I was back in Tokyo I’d ride those neon waves of anxiety out, each day better and stronger than the one before.
Cover by Daryan Shamkhali