Anxiety and Isolation in Los Angeles 008/016
WORDS: Max Huang
PHOTOS: Joyce Ding

My hope with this piece is to create a series of disjointed vignettes using fragments of journal entries that detail the very real, but often ignored, anxiety and isolation I’ve experienced since moving to Los Angeles. My goal is to write with complete sincerity in order to face these emotions head-on. This piece is both self-serving and communal; I hope that my attempt at facing these dark, murky emotions can provide some sort of internal coping while simultaneously acting as a relatable, shared experience.

ONE: 7/27/17

Every morning, I wake up sweating through my bedsheets in the claustrophobic LA heat listening to the sound of my roommate ritualistically torching his dab rig in the living room. I can’t help picturing myself in a Los Angeles dystopia, an Orwellian nightmare that’s clawing its gnarled hands out of the recesses of my imagination. As I brush my teeth, I envision jagged skyscrapers piercing the smog- filled sky in all their drab neon majesty, royal kings and princely knights of a hellish landscape. Sheltered below these towering monoliths, seedy back-alleys squeeze together grimy, sweating bodies worming their way to the next source of entertainment, like laboratory rats scurrying through a maze, addicted to the short-lived euphoric thrill of the drugs that lay in wait at the end.

There’s something so attractive about misery. Nothing can compare to those cathartic rushes of depressing thoughts and heartaches listening as the silence in the dark, musty room comes alive—breathing, buzzing, and whispering the dejected murmurs of the loners of the world. It’s why I take great solace in conjuring up these fantastical nightmares of mine. They present me with a convenient little pill of misery every morning, which I greedily take with shaking hands.

For some unknown, horribly naïve reason, I’ve always carried a heartfelt longing for a profound sadness, wishing for a tragic origin story. My daydreams as a child consisted of phantasmal visions of my parents dying in an inexplicable accident or visions that I’ve contracted a deadly disease with no more than six months to live. My fantasies today are much more elaborate and indulgent. I lay out all the details of my funeral, from the quirky exequies to the flowers to the music accompanying the funeral procession. I cherish every trip to these imaginary lives of mine, sinking into the bliss of self-pity and the euphoric release of control. What I secretly crave for in these fantasies is an excuse to stop trying, to relinquish all responsibility, to be able to waste away. Somehow I find a tragic origin story more comforting than knowing the chemicals in my brain are all screwed up and my synapses are snapping and splintering into a desiccated pile of sensory ooze. At least then I can justify these black thoughts swimming in my head like a fish helplessly circling around in its shit-filled bowl, praying for death.

TWO: 1/7/18

I’m sitting cross-legged on the hardwood boards at the Hammer Museum, glancing at the whirlwind of event preparations swirling around me. I think what drives most people to LA is the endless virility of the city, but for me, LA has become a torrential onslaught of lifeless events, a flick- ering of forgettable places and fading faces, a whirlwind of ephemeral ecstasy. I’ve become disillusioned with this false image of the LA lifestyle. It seems as if the value of one’s life here is solely determined by the sheer quantity of events you go to rather than the actual experiences themselves. It’s all a flashy display of peacock feathers–each person eager to prove that they are having more fun than the rest. On too many occasions, I’ve fallen under that same trap, rushing out of my apartment with the hope that the events will somehow manifest themselves into a better, more complete version of myself, but I end up just equally as empty and shallow at a con- cert as I do when I stay home dissolving my brain with YouTube clips of hippos fight- ing crocodiles.

A few feet past the event prepa- rations, shrieks of delight ring out from the kids twist- ing and swirling away on the spinning circu- lar chairs that dot the Hammer Museum pavil- ion. Everyone loves these chairs for their novelty, but I loathe them. They sit there crooked and mischievous, beckoning the rider to take a short and pleasant spin. But all they remind me of is the tumultuous, nauseating ride through the turbid, river-rapids of depression where the insidious knots in my stomach constrict the very life out of me until I can do nothing but try not to puke. I hate those chairs because they offer a false hope of an escape. “All you have to do is stand up and everything will be fine” they maliciously snicker. I’ve heard that mantra before: “Just snap out of it, Max. You’re being too sensitive.” I wish it was that simple. Every morning, I have to wake up to the reverberating roar of that despicable river and take a deep breath before plunging into the emotionally draining whirlpool, like a ragdoll without a safety line.

It’s oppressively hot in LA like it is every single day. I can feel myself sweating through my black Levis, the sweat like hot liquid ooze dripping onto the black tar pavement. It’s all too much. The black tar, the black stench, the black coffee, the black bowl of the bong, the black outfits. My mom insists that I should be proud of my jet-black hair, but it just reminds me of the black thoughts crowding my head. My black hair is growing proportional to how shitty I feel in this city, like I’m living in a pitiful Pinocchio comedy where the more I feel the gut-gnawing anxiety, the longer my hair grows. The funny thing is that I’ve been carefully cultivating my hair just like I’ve carefully cultivated this bleak outlook on life. It seems as if I’ve somehow roman- ticized depression and sadness to a point where I’ve actually tricked myself into feeling this way, like a Pavlovian dog attuned to the resonating bell toll of death, salivating at the thought of impending pity and sadness. There’s nothing romantic at all about the depres- sion and anxiety, but my longing for tragedy rears its ugly head and demands to be satiated.

The truth is that I miss the cold, brisk air back home. I miss those early mornings tinged with frost where every breath is a cloud of fog, a constant, visible reminder that you are still alive. I miss absolutely everything about the cold: the frigid water that punches my gut and sheds the last remnants of sleep away, the crisp air that burns my nostrils and eases the flame of anxiety, the stupidly hilarious conversations in the cold where there’s nothing to do but shuffle your feet and come up with the next witty joke. Every night, I sit on my bed in my A/C-less apartment, staring up at the crumbling, sweating ceiling praying for the blissful cold.

THREE: 1/14/18

It’s the golden hour of the day. The sun streams through the wispy clouds and the sea salt spray swirls in the breeze, emanating the perfume of life. My friends and I are sitting cross-legged on a blue, tattered Islamic prayer mat with a forest-studded hill on the left and the blinking pier to the right. In front of us is the gargantuan ocean, undulating like murky lava languidly meandering across the landscape. It’s all so perfect. We’re sitting in the same spot on Redondo Beach that I used to sit with my parents twelve years ago. The waves of nostalgia mirror the waves of the ocean as I contemplate how each moment of the past twelve years has led up to who I am now.

Huddled on the beach staring into the distance, I begin dreaming of my childhood, as if the mist from the sea had created a translucent veil into the past. I’m imagining myself running in and out of the warm, foamy water with the sun directly beating down on my sunburnt neck while my parents softly converse in Mandarin underneath a rainbow umbrella. My sister marshalls my brother and I into a scavenging unit intent on finding the perfect seashell to decorate our already crumbling sandcastle. Those days were filled with red, cheesy Dorito fingers and imploding watermelon cubes that dribbled sticky juice down our chins. I always look back on these childhood memories with fondness. They were times when I hadn’t yet discovered this insipid plague inside me; when I could be a regular kid squinting in the sun and digging my feet into the cold, wet sand.

We leave the beach as the sun sets, exploding the sky in oranges and purples, as if Zeus had thrust gasoline from a canister and Apollo had lit the flames with his chariot. All the while, I feel the heaviness that comes with the finality of youthful innocence and enthusiasm–a funeral march for the oblivious little child I once was.

After the sunset, we drive down to Newport Beach, watching perfectly lit mansions and quaint restaurants serving sophisticated dinners at three times the price they should be. We’re slugging Mango Ciroc in the back of the car, trying to create the perfect concoction of chemical toxins that usually signal the start of a great night. But I’m drinking for a completely different reason tonight. As I feel the alcohol slide down my throat, I’m hoping that it rids myself of the gloomy streak etched in my soul that I think everyone’s noticed but doesn’t have the courage to bring to light.

Instead of this imaginary dreamscape of Newport Beach, we approach downtown and see hordes of people streaming in and out of bars and late night taco shops like a giant carnivorous slug worming its way along the coast, consuming everything in its path. Suddenly, I’m transported back into that dystopian vision of LA, oppressively hot LA, where individuality dies in the crowd of bodies, leaving a hot, sweaty human mess. Fearing that terrible memory, I convince my friends to skip the crowd and head to the pier, which had peeked its face out of the fog-enshrouded beach. On the pier, the fog is so dense that we can barely see ten feet in front of us. The people walking toward us appear as ghostly apparitions, increasing in detail as they approach. I preferred them as ghostly apparitions rather than the red-faced, bumbling drunks they turned out to be. Looking out from the creaking boardwalk into the vast ocean, I immediately imagine myself entering an enormously large picture palace with a blank, ominous screen filling up my entire field of vision. The fog is so heavy that we can’t accurately place a horizontal line in our field of vision to establish where the sea meets the sky, so it looks as if we’ve stumbled in front of a blank screen that extends as far as the eye can see. It’s hauntingly beautiful and reminds me of that Buddhist truth that everything is nothing and the mind creates the false reality we see, like an empty movie screen being illuminated by our imagination. It’s as if I’m being held by the umbilical cord of the universe, staring down into a blank void that traverses the entire surface of the Earth.

Repulsed by the wave of drunkards, we decide to return from our psychedelic excursion into the pier and hop back into the car. The cocktail of drugs is wearing off and now my body and mind are protesting the toxic abuse. That’s what life is anyways: just a chemical onslaught perfectly coordinated by the body and evolution. As I sink into the unconscious void, I imagine myself as a sloshing vessel of chemicals punished with consciousness, a primordial being that was never supposed to become sentient.