I am standing at the top of an escalator in heeled boots, convinced that if I get on, I will immediately lose my balance and land somewhere at the bottom. I’m so certain that I backtrack, and instead walk down the stairs, one hand on the railing. The next day, and all of the days after that for almost a month, I wear flat shoes. I should point out that this is an unprecedented reaction. I have never toppled over in my heels, and no real reason to believe that I will. It’s not really the escalator, or the height of my heels, that I’m afraid of.
This aversion might not seem strange, were it not so sudden. I was always the girl in the highest, most neon, most ridiculous shoes on a night out. I was always the girl in the highest, most neon, most ridiculous shoes for a night in, even. I’m reminded of the friend who called me, crying with laughter, that a girl on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding had worn a pair of heels to go out partying that I’d worn at work the week before. High heels are a symbol, whether you like it or not. They dress you up, make you stand, walk, and act differently. They’re you at your most put-together. They’re the barefoot walk home. They’re the relief at taking them off at the front door and hearing every bone in your foot crack as you walk up the stairs.
But there are Night Out Heels, and there are Everyday Heels, and suddenly, it is the latter that are causing problems. I am not worried about blisters or bunions, or ruining my Achilles tendons. I am worried about — and only about — how I am going to get down the escalator on my new commute. It is like a physical representation of the feeling that the rug is about to be pulled out from under me. Because that’s the crux of the matter. Having overhauled my life, I’m living in a new city, working at a new job, making new friends, and it feels too good to be true. Surely, surely, things can’t carry on going this well.
Displaced anxiety is a coping mechanism. It’s a trick your mind plays on you to protect you from something else. In Freudian terms, displacement redirects emotion toward something that’s easier to deal with. The unconscious mind manipulates reality to defend itself from anxiety, and to protect the self-schema. In other words, if you are not a person who suffers from anxiety, you might develop a sudden irrational fear of wearing heels on an escalator. You might do this so that you can keep telling yourself that you are not a person who suffers from anxiety, and so that you can ignore how anxious an irrational fear of doing well makes you feel.
Knowing this doesn’t make it less real. An anxiety response is something that happens when you sense a threat, even if it’s only a perceived one. Brain chemicals are tricksy, and self-deception is an easy short-term way of dealing with something else that makes me feel antsy, but at some point, I’m going to get to a tube station that doesn’t have the option of stairs.
Terri-Jane Dow is a writer and the founding editor of Severine Literary Journal. Recently, she’s written for Oh Comely, For Books’ Sake, and Polyester. She lives in London with her three-legged cat, and can usually be found drinking gin and retweeting memes @terrijane