It was 11:32pm on a Thursday, and I had just ended my relationship over FaceTime. I had an early morning flight to Barcelona the next day to spend Valentine’s Day weekend with my best friend, and I hadn’t packed anything yet. Walking down Boulevard Saint-Germain, cigarette in hand, I should have been lost in my own little world of heartbreak. But in that moment, all I could do was laugh softly to myself and think “God, isn’t this just so cinematic?”
The next morning, no one at the Paris Orly Airport knew or cared about what had happened. But sitting at the gate with my puffy eyes and hastily packed carry-on, listening to “Avant Gardener” by Courtney Barnett, I was the star of my own A24 film. “Life’s getting hard in here so I do some gardening. Anything to take my mind away from where it’s supposed to be,” she sings. Inventing a script, acting the part, and performing for an audience of one was a beautiful distraction from dealing with my feelings. It was a profoundly selfish endeavor, but a coping mechanism nonetheless.
In physics, the observer effect refers to the notion that by observing something, we often end up changing it. A common example is checking tire pressure — measuring it requires letting out some of the air, which in turn changes the result. Even if the difference is small, it’s never a wholly accurate representation of reality. In the same way, the presence of a camera changes the way a subject behaves. Reality television is no more real than a scripted sitcom.
But what happens when the subject is yourself? I often catch myself making little montages of my life in my head, replaying a scene over and over from different angles. Sure enough, after repeating the narrative enough times, my perspective changes. My greatest strength (or perhaps weakness) is that I can honestly gaslight myself into believing a heavily romanticized version of any situation, even while it’s happening. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag, I turn to an invisible camera to give my unsolicited commentary. Some people talk to God — I talk to an audience that isn’t there.
Perhaps it was the years I spent singing off-key in high school auditoriums that caused me to become a chronic performance artist. Being on stage from such a young age gave me an overactive imagination and the warped perception that everyone is always observing me like a zoo animal, even when I’m completely alone. It’s a wonderful way to escape the mundane when living in the moment is too difficult, but after a while it becomes exhausting to resist being seen in truth.
Barnett knows this better than anyone. While she’s busy cultivating her garden, the world keeps turning around her at an alarming rate. When the anxiety kicks in, I know that I’ve been caught up in pretending for too long — “All of a sudden, I’m having trouble breathing in.” Fleabag, too, monologues because she is terrified to be alone, but even more afraid of being understood. It took a long time to realize that tongue-in-cheek self-awareness doesn’t actually help anyone, let alone myself. To smirk knowingly at the camera means surviving by consuming the gaze of others, using intellectual detachment to numb yourself to pain.
There is discomfort in accepting that there is no fourth wall to break, but there is also freedom in deconstructing the stage I’ve made for myself. I’ve spent too long navel-gazing and wallowing in self-indulgent misery that I’ve missed out on a lot. The urge to craft a narrative and subsequently obsess over it hasn’t gone away, but the only way to avoid the observer effect is to stop measuring at every turn and simply experience reality as it is. Watching yourself from a bird’s eye view is no way to live.
So I continue to tend to the garden in my mind, imagining dandelions into daffodils, when all my neighbors see is a patch of weeds. But I’ve learned that the only way to process difficult emotions is by getting out of my head and fully inhabiting my body. Gardening is a nice pastime, but the key is knowing when it’s time to leave the camera behind.