Only once in my life had I felt completely paralyzed. I was living in an apartment on the aptly named Descanso Drive in Los Angeles, and upon someone’s recommendation I had taken a B vitamin—I don’t know which one, probably in a desperate attempt to regain some of the energy that had left me a decade earlier after a debilitating bout with mono. I collapsed on the red and white striped loveseat handed down from my childhood and then couldn’t move. I willed it, I instructed my limbs to respond to my commands, but they wouldn’t. I was awake, surely, but truly paralyzed. It scared the crap out of me, but fortunately lasted only a few terrifying minutes.
When I told my Beverly Hills psychiatrist about it a few days later, he chuckled and said, “A lot of people would pay good money for that experience.” My psychiatrist kept up his medical skills by working on the weekends at an emergency room in Burbank. I thought he would tell me something helpful, but instead, he made a joke about it.
Jet-lag is a mild form of paralysis. As is every morning I force myself awake before 11. I hate this feeling. I hate the mornings. I despise feeling like a hummingbird trapped in a snail’s body. I like clouds, but I don’t like the feeling that they have invaded my brain and nested there for the winter. And I don’t like being told or trying to convince myself that they have silver linings.
As my psychiatrist unempathically coaxed, there may be hidden benefits to being paralyzed. Here’s one: People who I worked with in Armenia thought I was really a mellow guy. Really, I was mostly sleep-walking. And while I can’t imagine myself paying a nickel to be frozen stiff on a couch, I confess that there may be a few other benefits to being jet-lagged. One of them, and this isn’t such a small thing, is that if you can arrange it so that no one expects you to show up for real work, it’s a good time to write.
For those of us who do it, writing can be quite painful. It’s a simple thing to do, one writer said. Just sit at a typewriter and stare at a blank page until blood leaks out of your forehead. But writing while jet-lagged can ease the strain. Words somehow can drop out of the clouds the way one can perform stunning feats of memory, such as remembering the name of the girl sitting in the third row from the teacher passing notes in third grade, without having to try. When one is too jet-lagged, strung out on Vitamin B-whatever, or muddied with morning mist to even try to do something, the something sometimes does itself.
“Jet-lag,” I wrote a year or two ago, “not unlike every morning in my life, is a dreamy, thought-meandering miasma, and reading about Finland in Vietnam, my mind wanders to Armenia, an adopted place I am missing after a long hiatus to tussle with the cancer that nearly killed me but through the graces of God and medicine has yet to reappear.” Somewhere in Iowa, I imagine, a gaggle of pretentious writers are handing out citations for “writing while jet-lagged.”
I wrote that sentence on my first trip back to Vietnam after a two year “cancer-break”. Perhaps it was easier to be grateful then, even for the jet-lag I was feeling, having made it back to work when so much of my time previously had been spent believing my body would never again be able to make it out of the house sans gurney. I went on in a rambling way reminiscing about Armenia, a place I visited regularly for over a decade, about the changes I had witnessed, and change in general. Though I never did anything with it, and that writing exists only in ones and zeroes embedded on silicon chips, it wasn’t half-bad, and for that, I suspect, I have jet-lag to credit.