This story is part of our exploration into the theme of Aging. Follow along through the rest of July for more stories on the theme.
When I was 7 years old, I came home from school one day and my mom had gotten a new toaster. Our old one was gone, replaced suddenly and without warning. This new toaster had faculties that I had never seen before. There was a defrost button, a reheat button — even a button you could push to toast a bagel specifically. Our old toaster just had a black knob on it that you twisted in order to time your toasting. I had a plethora of memories with that old toaster. I had learned that the perfect toasting time for a piece of toast was 2 and a half minutes, while an Eggo Waffle was 2 minutes. I had learned that you had to push its cord into the nearest outlet as hard as you could because otherwise, the prongs would fall out, the toaster would turn off, and you would mess up your entire toasting process. This toaster had provided me with delicious, starchy treats for years and it was the sole kitchen appliance that I knew how to use by myself. I had established a heartfelt connection with this machine. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that I loved it. I was not ready to move on to a new toaster. I was not ready at all. I wanted no part of this new era of toasting in our house. The old one was a part of me. With it gone, so was a piece of my own being. I wasn’t happy about it, but I needed my toast, so reluctantly, I learned all of the new toaster’s different settings and uses. I established a strictly business-only relationship with this new toaster; I never allowed myself to feel any connection with it. In the back of my mind, I thought about our old toaster. It was cozy to me because it was a part of my past. I would dwell in these feelings and memories about our old toaster and find solace in them — the old toaster was in my heart.
As far as I can remember, this was my first encounter with nostalgia. Toaster nostalgia. As absurd as that sounds, my toaster nostalgia is a microcosm of how I have handled somewhat debilitating nostalgia in my adult life. I know, but bear with me here. I think this makes sense.
I WAS DEATHLY AFRAID OF MY PARENTS LOSING ME IN A CROWD, GETTING IN A CAR WRECK ON THE WAY TO PICK ME UP, OR EVEN DYING AT THE HANDS OF SOME CARDIO MACHINE IN A FREAK ACCIDENT AT THE GYM.
As a kid, I had severe separation anxiety. I went to therapy multiple times a week from the time I was 4 years old until I was about 13 or 14. I wasn’t afraid that my parents would willingly abandon me; rather, the fear lied in the idea of some external circumstance making them unable to ever see me again, thus leaving me suddenly and completely alone. I was deathly afraid of my parents losing me in a crowd, getting in a car wreck on the way to pick me up, or even dying at the hands of some cardio machine in a freak accident at the gym. I would have panic attacks if my parents were just a few minutes late to pick me up from school or if I turned around and they weren't right behind me when we were at a baseball game.
In those moments, I would freeze. I would become totally paralyzed by separation anxiety-induced panic. My palms would sweat and stomach would ache as if I had just been bitten by a poisonous snake. I would start to experience a slight ringing in my ears that gnawed at me like nails on a chalkboard. With my mouth dry and my mind moving at a million miles a minute, I felt entirely helpless and desperate. What would I do if my parents were gone? Where would I live? How would I eat? These kinds of survivalist questions would bombard my mind and overwhelm my thoughts with a ferocity that I would never wish on anyone. It’s painful to write about even today.
Once I had entered my teens, the panic attacks had become much fewer and further between until they stopped completely by the time I was 13 or 14. What replaced them was this constant, subtle, drawn-out anxiety that affected me slightly everyday, as opposed to an intense, bi-monthly anxiety blitz. I’m not really sure what caused this change. I sometimes think my brain just wasn’t able to take these acute pangs of anxiety anymore. It had reached a breaking point. But I couldn’t just simply change my brain chemistry and lessen the net amount of the anxiety. Instead, my brain had to find a way to redistribute it. So, my anxiety mutated. It went from being acute and sporadic to being obtuse, consistent and mild. I had the same quantity of anxiety, but it was stretched out over time instead of being bunched up into a handful of attacks per year. This flattened-out form is how my anxiety takes shape to this day and it’s also what allows nostalgia to play a dominant role in my emotional landscape.
When I would have my panic attacks as a young kid, the moment of panic itself was compounded by fear of the moments that would follow if my irrational thoughts of my parents dying came true. In other words, both the present and the future triggered my panic. They were this tag-team of imminent and looming monsters in my brain. In fact, that’s what I nicknamed the panicky feelings — I called them my “monster feelings.” Now, as an adult, that “monster” fear of the present and future still exists and as a carryover from my childhood, I instinctively disengage from them. But, instead of panicking in a fit of anxiety as I used to, now, I reach into my deep well of nostalgia. That is my new coping mechanism. I think about my past, I dwell in it, I sit in it.
I am incredibly nostalgic for even the smallest things. I miss everything. There is a warmness to my nostalgia. It feels like a perfectly toasted and buttered english muffin — the pinnacle of cozy. I know that it’s unhealthy for me if I have too much, but sometimes I can’t stay away. There is too much comfort in it, too much peace. It is a brother to me. It is there when I am alone and it is there when I’m around others. It hurts, but it’s like the kind of hurt you experience when you watch an old movie. It makes you feel alive. You feel it in your gut. It does not, however, move you forward. It keeps you in the past like a pit of molasses. That’s where nostalgia really started to become a problem for me.
LOOKING BACK ON THIS TIME IN MY LIFE, I KNOW THAT I USED NOSTALGIA AS A CRUTCH IN ORDER NOT TO CONFRONT MY PRESENT AND FUTURE.
After I graduated from college, I broke up my college band. For almost a year after, I was completely paralyzed in the same way that I would have been if I couldn't find my mom and dad as a kid. I didn't play a single live show and barely wrote any new music, which was unlike me — I’m usually writing constantly. All I did was think about my memories with my old band. I didn’t want to move on. Looking back on this time in my life, I know that I used nostalgia as a crutch in order not to confront my present and future. I thought about my memories with my bandmates instead of making new ones as a solo artist.
Music is as big a part of me as my anxiety. It’s a feeling that exists within me in the same way — it is a part of who I am and has been for as long as I can possibly remember. It has warped and transformed and shifted just like my anxiety. Sometimes I have acute creative energy to devote to it and other times I’ll go months without writing anything except for a few chord progressions here and there. It is there for me when I’m happy, sad, grieving, mad, energized, tired — music is fully malleable for me. Even my nostalgic tendencies manifest themselves in how I listen to music. I’ll find one or two songs by a band that I like and listen to those songs hundreds of times because of the memories that I form around them. I dwell on the songs just like I do things in my past. When someone tells me that I should listen to the rest of the band’s album, I’m often reluctant to do so; I’m stuck in the memory of these songs and I want it to last forever. I don’t want a new toaster. This old one is just perfect for me.
I SLOWLY BEGAN TO REALIZE THAT THERE WAS A WAY TO POTENTIALLY SYNTHESIZE THESE THREE ELEMENTS OF MY EMOTIONAL MAKEUP – MY ANXIETY, MY NOSTALGIA, AND MY MUSIC – THAT WERE TAKING UP SO MUCH OF MY EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE.
Eventually, I broke the cycle and began playing solo shows and writing again. I wish I could say that I was walking down the street in New York one day (where I lived at the time) and I saw a toaster and had some epiphany that tied this whole self-analysis and emotional growth together, but I didn’t. Sorry about that. Instead, as the days went on and I thought more and more about my old band while still not playing live shows or writing new songs, I slowly began to realize that there was a way to potentially synthesize these three elements of my emotional makeup — my anxiety, my nostalgia, and my music — that were occupying so much of my headspace. Just like the transformation of my separation anxiety was slow and seemed like it lasted forever, this took time too.
I realized that there was a way to harness my nostalgia and yearning into new music: I could write about my past and the memories that I miss so much, turning them into something that I am proud of and love. It took an immense amount of self-motivation, but eventually I was able to write and perform new music again. I booked a show at a club in the City. One of the new songs I had written and that we played at that show was “Company.” The song is all about coping with the past and realizing that you're a part of the present at all times. There’s a sense of humor and self-deprecation to it that made me feel like I had gleaned perspective on how I handled my nostalgia. Ironically enough, I was able to use my nostalgia to create something that enhanced and brightened my present — the very thing for which I had harbored so much fear in my life.
I still struggle with nostalgia overwhelming my mind, but I know that music can be an outlet for me and that is a critical comfort. I can control these feelings of nostalgia-dwelling-rigor-mortis and funnel them into something creative, giving them shape and voice outside of the confines of my mind. At that show a few years ago, I wasn't sitting in the past or fretting about the future. I was in the present. I was loving the new toaster.