Greatsong Tangent – The Jesus Lizard

A friend and fellow blogger recently wrote a post about Anxiety. She also linked this long and harrowing article about it. I thought “Hey, I used to have debilitating panic attacks, I was in my early-to-mid 20’s and I thought my life was over. Great times!” It made me dust off a Greatsong Tangent that I had planned on writing, but shelved because I didn’t want to rehash the old horrors. I’ve been re-spurred, but be warned, this is less of a “Greatsong” Tangent than a “Very good song that brings up painful feelings and memories of anxiety” Tangent.

Picture, if you will, a young FormerConformer – still just plain Conformer at this point – sitting at his fourbicle (a giant size cubicle with four desk spaces at its corners – more productivity, less privacy!) in a downtown Chicago high-rise. He is fresh out of college at his first real job. In college, Conformer used to listen to weird songs that none of his friends did. One of these songs was “Trephination” by the Jesus Lizard. Conformer enjoys the driving drums and groovy bassline. The guitar lines are haunting and delicate – bearing ragged sharp edges of menace in the verses and surfy tones redolent of the 90’s in the choruses.

But what Conformer is fascinated by and in fact, morbidly geeked about, is the vocals. They consist of a phone conversation between a man in the midst of EXTREME anxious distress, and his friend, offering some comfort, a ride and a place to stay (until a dark turn at the end). In college, Conformer plays this song for a girl he is dating, who makes a sour face and says “It’s the sound of a guy having a nervous breakdown.”

Little did Conformer know that the song “Trephination” would be prophetic (though not in the skull-drilling sense), and that a couple short years later he would find himself at the fourbicle, trapped and desperate, mind racing as it catalogued physiological warning signs, escape routes and contingencies, methods of getting to the hospital without paying the likely hundreds of dollars it would cost for an ambulance…

I almost became the man on the phone. Although it’s been some years since I’ve had any acute symptoms, listening to “Trephination” is now more bitter than sweet. Every detail of the lyrical blow-by-blow hits painfully close to home.

A breakdown (PUN INTENDED!!!):

1) “I, you know I… You know, I really don’t feel so well”

This speaks volumes. That’s what anxiety is, not feeling well, and not knowing just why. Imagine if you will, a cross between a bad drinking hangover, and that hyped-up, chest-pounding, limb-tingling feeling you get when a car swerves into your lane and you barely dodge it. Your body goes haywire, feeling both awfully sick and wobbly, and yet terrifically aware and ready to deal with threats. With no fight or flight for that energy to go to, the mind turns inward, calculating every possible sudden illness that could be occurring within.

I used to wonder if I was having a heart attack. I used to lie in bed and feel pressure in my temples, terrified I would suffer a stroke – but only if I kept thinking about it. I used to worry that I would either throw up or faint at work. Vomiting would be humiliating, but fainting would be a CATASTROPHE. I used to imagine what would happen. Everyone in the office would rush over. Someone would call an ambulance and I’d be forced to wait in the center of the circle, made a spectacle, a water cooler subject for weeks to come, and with no real illness, no sympathy-worthy explanation to speak of. I thought anxiety was a failure on my part, that my panic attacks were some inherent weakness in my body, and in my character.

And that first croak really sets the tone for the song. It’s another emanation from that lodestone of the dark 90’s, a time of an American bleakness that only certain people could really see and express…

2) “I should get out of town… I think a change of scenery would do a lot”

In my panic days, I used to think quite seriously about hopping on the Metra’s Union Pacific North line and riding it all the way to Kenosha. I never did, but the city really used to get me down. I would daydream, quite desperately, of some sun-dappled meadow, far from Chicago, where I could just lie down and relax – forever. City parks were no good. The surrounding buildings always seemed to loom and constrict. I felt so desperately trapped, like a deer in a house, or a cat in a car. I craved space and privacy.

My monstrous commute was one inspiration for these feelings – being packed daily into a dark and dirty tube with strangers, with no place to go, practically no air to breathe. I used to struggle to unfold a book and read for 11-13 minutes in the hilariously packed conditions. I read most of Infinite Jest that way (the anxio-depression bible, a 900-page suicide note – great choice Conformer!). My anxiety used to start on the Blue Line before work and continue when I sat down in the fourbicle. Working in the loop, there was nowhere to go that wasn’t crawling with people. There was no escape and no solitude.

My next job was in the suburbs, and as much as the commute was a bummer, being surrounded by space and greenery was an amenity that was not lost on me.

And how about that crisp drumming? Those little hi hat open-close accents are so smooth and accentuate the occasional guitar stabs in the verses quite nicely.

3) “I hate to impose… The last thing I want to be is – is be an imposition”

This part of the song seemed funny to me, until anxiety struck. Why would this man, in full meltdown, worry about imposing? Well now I know. Anxiety and panic are deeply internal phenomena. What shows outside depends on the person and the severity. There were times when I was in the deep inner turmoil, but I was able to communicate and carry on with my duties at the office. Most times, nobody could tell anything was wrong. This was important to me. I needed to present an image of normalcy, because I was embarrassed, embarrassed to be made the helpless victim of irrational fear. I also didn’t want to provoke the sympathies of others, to have them try and help, because realistically, there was nothing for them to do. I’d just be putting them out emotionally for nothing.

And that’s almost exactly what happened. On the rueful day of a severe panic attack, I called the Employee Assistance Program and set up a session. Hardly feeling better, I struggled through as much of the day as possible, but eventually called the girl I was dating from work, in the midst of my freakout. She did a very kind thing and drove all the way downtown in afternoon traffic to pick me up. As I sat outside the building waiting for her, the panic mysteriously dissipated. Color came back into the world. My personality returned. By the time she got there I was fine. I felt like a horse’s ass – I had shrilly cried wolf until she came all the way downtown, then there was no wolf. Still, I knew I was not out of the woods. She took me back to her place, and when she left for Frisbee practice later that evening, I felt abandoned. I didn’t know when the anxiety would come back, and I didn’t want to face it alone. I don’t think that girl ever understood my problems with anxiety (she was, and is, a self-assured, brave person). I once suffered through a very unpleasant panic attack while sitting beside her for an entire improv show. She didn’t even notice.

What is that weird sigh that the non-breakdown guy lets out at the end of one of the choruses?

4) “I’m sorry things are going so bad… It’s not really up to me to be there – when you want me to be there. How can I make myself, more clear?”

I used to think this ending was sort of mean-spirited (like that Shary Bobbins ending). And yet, it makes sense. Each person must face down their own demons. Anxiety is built of stress, excessive worry and irrational fear. No one is going to reach into your brain and fix your thought patterns.

Fortunately, my anxiety did not run too deep. I truly hated my job. My feelings of being trapped stemmed in part from having to perform repetitive, literally useless work, again and again (like literally the same piping models, in a rotating cycle, needing updates according to the latest procedural edicts), in order to show progress on my beached whale of an engineering project. I chafed at this make-work ideal, and often goofed off on the internet instead of going through the torturous machinations of changing the Stress Intensification Factors on my small-bore pipe elbows for the hundredth fucking time. However, I knew that being seen goofing off would damage my stature as a budding engineer. There was a lot of guilt and stress involved, being trapped between detrimental distraction and almost satirically futile labor.

I also felt like I was neglecting my true passions, and in that sense, falling behind. My creative hobbies competed with my girlfriend for my free time, leaving none in the triangle truly satisfied.

I fully believe that the bullshit nature of my work (and dim outlook on my career) actually brought on my panic attacks. My evidence? I was eventually laid off from the job, right as I was in the midst of searching for treatment for my anxiety beyond the EAP. Usually, being laid off is portrayed as a traumatic or, at minimum, stressful event. However, in my case. I felt a lightness, a relief. I knew I was supposed to feel dread and make a long face when my desk phone rang, but in reality, I was dancing inside. I was laid off in late March, and my anxiety quickly evaporated. I felt whole again. It was a good summer.

So in my case, it wasn’t clinical help that solved my problems, nor the love and support of friends, lovers and family, but rather a lifestyle change. I was literally getting sick from the forced tedium and boredom of my stinkjob. Yes, I later took another engineering job, but happily, I never suffered more than very mild anxiety there (It was a moderately better job).

The keening of the guitar in the verses, continually rising as it does, mimics the rising adrenaline and climactic feeling of doom and disaster that come with a panic episode.

End breakdown

There must be some story behind “Trephination”. It doesn’t sound like any of the Jesus Lizard’s other songs. It’s hard to tell whether one, both, or none of the men in the phone conversation are lead singer David Yow. Was this song inspired by a friend of the band? Who wrote the lines these guys are speaking, and how long did they spend developing the characters? Are the band mocking the guy having the breakdown, or is he supposed to come off as sympathetic?

FormerConformer sits in his rented house in Rhode Island. He hasn’t worked since August, and is not looking for a job. He has no health insurance and lives alone. He wonders how long it would take anyone to find him if he suddenly expired. He runs his tongue over a damaged filling on his left molar. Expensive dental work. He thinks about his car – 227,000 miles. The next repair could be a doozy. He realizes he will have to refill the house’s oil tank soon, and that it will be E$$$pen$ive. He also realizes his creative career prospects are not terrifically improved since he quit his job, and worries that he might find himself either going broke, or crawling back to the anxiety-inducing world of the engineering cubicle.

Two nights ago FormerConformer opened his front door at 2am to collect a mysterious bag of wood that was there when he returned from Ann Arbor, and heard a distinctly ambulatory rustling in the leaves next to his driveway. He cut the lights inside and prepared to deal with a possible home invader. In his surveillance he saw that it was a deer, but the incident still freaked him out. Tonight, he made his customary fire in the woodburning stove, but cold air from the chimney pushed down, sending smoke into the lower level and setting off the shrill, terrifying smoke alarm. He is jittery and a little bummed as he listens to “Trephination” on repeat, in order to write a blog post. Although FormerConformer enjoys the song musically, he knows that anxiety is always close, lurking. He has spent too much time in the breakdown guy’s shoes to take his anguish lightly.

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