Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Thursday, January 12, 2017

We're All Not in It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 14

14: Night terrors

The Nightmare (1781), Henry Fuseli

I’m an anxiety-prone guy, and people have been telling me this about myself all my life. I say “people have been telling me this about myself” because I haven’t been particularly aware of my own nervousness until fairly recently, late in my life. Now that I am aware of it, I guess it was for me like soft static, a background noise that I took for granted and tuned out. I might have thought about all kinds of things more intently than a lot of people around me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t feel happy. In short, I wasn’t nervous about my nervousness.

But now, alas, I am. And, like many things, once felt, the feeling cannot be unfelt.

I started to be aware of my own persistent anxiety, I think, when I stopped sleeping soundly all night. I’m a guy, and all middle-aged guys have steadily enlarged prostate glands, and with that comes the need to get up and urinate at least once a night (yes, sorry, TMI). Women, particularly women who have had children, tend not to be very sympathetic about this little bit of urological reality, but for many of us guys who are otherwise sound sleepers, this is a real life changer. When you wake up in the early hours of the morning, especially when you are not accustomed to waking up in the early hours of the morning, you have trouble getting back to sleep. But while you lie there half awake, your brain, still largely disabled by sleep behaves a lot like a kid whose parent (the normal conscious brain) is bad at practicing discipline, and the mind does the darndest things. I don’t know about other people, but mine focuses on its anxieties – work, children, death, taxes… whatever. And that really keeps me from sleeping.

This started, I guess, about a decade ago, and at first it annoyed me but didn’t really bother me too much. As the things that I typically did obsessive worrying about tended to be boring and silly – deadlines I had to meet, house maintenance I needed to do, something stupid I’d recently said to someone and regretted – all I had to do to make the worries go away was get up, go to the sofa and read a book for five minutes until the silly worry went away.

That all works fine, when the worries are trivial, but when they are not… well the nighttime obsessions become far less trivial when there is actually something serious there that you can’t simply distract yourself from. My first experience of this was when my two younger children were in high school and having a hard time of it. Life has its familiar moments of trial, and having teenage children is one of those moments… For about four years, I had extended periods of middle-of-the-night worrying, really, really serious anxiety. Of course, because I love my children and because teenagerhood is a time of unmitigated hell in almost everyone’s life, there were actually real, not existential, things to worry about.

But, as wise people say, this too shall (and did) pass. Though I had occasional after-shocks of PTSD-like fear, I eventually lapsed back into a life of occasional, trivial sleeplessness with minor worries. I even learned, like Dr. Strangelove, to live with my prostate and kind of love being middle-aged and, well, um, quirky.

But when my youngest child moved home to live with us after college, things changed again. She came home for a year to work and save money before entering graduate school. She found, and we found, that life had inexplicably changed since high school – we were suddenly older people, somewhat set in our way of life, and she was… no longer a child. It was an adjustment: she was used to living the life of a twenty-something young adult; we were boring old people and liked living that way. She took a job working as a political operative for a campaign, a crazy, 24-hour a day life for crazy young professional people. We kept going to work, coming home, eating dinner, doing more work or watching an hour or two of TV and going to bed.

Different lives. So what was the problem? Well, none, really. Our youngest daughter is one of those kids who came to maturity pretty quickly, and by her early twenties was sensible, reliable and clearly responsible. I knew she could take care of herself… but she lived the life of a normal young adult on a political campaign – work until 1 or 2 am, go out to a bar with friends, have a beer or two and drive home, sleep a few hours, and get up and do it all again. I didn’t worry about her, much… until I woke up in the middle of the night. I would wake up at 3 in the morning, somehow be aware that I hadn’t heard her come home yet, and start to worry. Worry insanely. Had she had too much to drink? (In reality, she really was careful about this)? Was she in the process of being arrested for DWI? What would this do to her young career? Was she dead, having run into a tree? Had some other drunk, leaving the bar at 3 in the morning, run into her? Had she been attacked, raped and murdered, walking to her car on a dark street by the sexual predators that throng the night? My mind would go, on and on and on and on like that, my heart pounding, until I had to get up and read a book waiting for her to come home, which she always did, safely. Nonetheless, this went on three, four, five times a week. She thought I was nuts, and I was.

When I would examine myself during the daytime hours, this seemed crazy. She had been away in college for four years, a younger, stupider version of herself, and had clearly managed to stay alive then, not having any horrible tragedy occur. She could handle herself, and I knew it. My wife knew it, and she slept soundly all night. Why couldn’t I just tell myself to calm down?

Well, I know now that it was really a different thing from worrying about my daughter when she was in high school, when there really was something to worry about, though in both cases I was worrying because my imagination was out-of-control, uninhibited by my conscious, waking brain. This second period of middle-of-the-night-terrifying-child-worry was really existential – a fundamental fear about the hard and harsh realities of life, the uncertainty of existence, all that good stuff. The truth is that, though generally unlikely, something could have happened to her, as something could happen to any one of us at any moment. When I was twenty (when any of us were twenty) and on my own, staying out late, something could have happened to me. It may be stretching it a bit, but I now think that my fundamental fear was the fear of the dangers she faced (and would face) leading her life. It was a I life I had already lived and managed, somehow, unaccountably, to have survived. Essentially, having someone I really cared about in close proximity to me, in a stage of her life that I was no longer accustomed to, really shook up my hold on reality. When the vivid imagining of this took hold of my mind in the dark, dark middle of the night it was terrifying.

Yes, I’m crazy, but I’m not just saying all this to show you that. So here’s another story about night terrors:

A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and all the lights were out – the electricity was out. Sometimes here in the winter we get ice storms and this can be a serious thing – the lights can go out and stay out for a week or more… no heat, just dark and cold. But in this case, it was a warmish night – temperatures in the 50’s, and no snow or ice – nothing to worry about -- the lights were probably out because of a problem with a transformer someplace and would undoubtedly be off for only an hour or so. If I went back to sleep, they would be on when I woke up. But, as I’ve already explained, my mind doesn’t work like that in the middle of the night… I began wondering: why, when nothing is going on with the weather, are the lights out? Perhaps, just perhaps, Russian hackers have taken down the power grid!

Lights out!

Don’t laugh yet. I began thinking about what having the entire power grid down would mean. How long would it be down? I’d heard that the grid was a really complicated system, and if something happened to it things might never be completely restorable. How would we know, with cable, radio, phones, the internet down? How would local authorities know? How would society run, who would be in charge? (Not a trivial question in the age of Trump.) How would the authorities tell us? Would there be chaos and rioting? I have kids in two other big cities – would they be ok? How would I find out? And how would they find out if we were ok? Was this perhaps the end of civilization as we know it? ? This long, dark night could go on forever!

Ok, you can start laughing now. I really whipped myself up into really serious anxiety and then started trying to think how to calm myself down. How would I know, with all my electronics down, whether this was just a local outage or national Armageddon? My cell phone! If it was still showing bars, the cell towers were still working and the grid was still functioning… I debated for a few minutes whether I should give in to fear and get up, rummage for a flashlight (waking my wife up) to find my cell phone to check this out. But anxiety was in control, and yes, after a minute or two I got up and did this. I woke up my wife. “What’s going on?” she asked. I briefly explained that I was checking to see if the Russians had broken the power grid. Even in complete darkness, I could feel her giving me a huge eye-roll as she put her head back down to sleep. “Good grief, James!”

As it turned out, I woke us both up and neither one of us would fall back to sleep for a couple of hours – her (I’m guessing) because she was wondering why (and how) she had to live with a crazy person; me, because I was still worrying about the Russians just a little bit. After a while, the power came back on, and sometime after that I turned off the light and went to sleep.

Yes, #goodgriefJames. I’m almost 62, and one of the possibilities I consider here is that I am slowly losing my mind. I’ve thought about this a bit… but I’ve decided that’s not it. Like worrying about the risks implicit in my daughter’s young adult lifestyle, I think I again was experiencing a bit of (totally explicable) existential anxiety.

We’ve just been through a crazy presidential election, certainly the craziest in my lifetime, and we’ve elected someone to the most powerful position in the world that many of us think is absurdly and dangerously unfit for the job. That many others don’t think so is actually the opposite of re-assuring. Further, there is a lot of excellent evidence that the Russians helped him win, which, again to some of us (but not to others), seems insanely disturbing… and he totally denies all the evidence, which is, again, really strange and disconcerting. Nobody really knows anymore what is going to happen.

So, maybe being overcome by existential fear isn’t so strange after all. Am I crazy for letting extreme politics drive me over the edge, wake me up in the night in a hot sweat? If you think so… maybe you’re right… or maybe you’re the crazy person. I’m no person to judge, but I can (reasonably, I think) go either way on this one.

As I personally reel in the strangeness of this moment, one question that keeps going through my mind is how did we get into this? And how do we get out? Can we get out?

Critically part of these questions is the basic question why did the country elect Trump?? which I attempted to answer for myself in my last essay. We may be struggling with this one for a long time, but I think one basic answer is implicit in Trump’s (successful) campaign theme “Make America Great Again.” As huge numbers of commentators have already said, people voted for this because they are really uncomfortable with what America has become, where it currently is. They are upset with the death of American manufacturing and corporate global commerce that caused it. They mourn the steady (but now rapid) disappearance of triving small town, working class life. They are upset with the new acceptance of LGBT rights and gay marriage. They are upset (as has been a perennial theme in America) with immigrants and changing demographics. In short they feel… existential anxiety about rapid changes to our culture and they want to dial it back to a stable version that they imagine (because a stable past is a fiction) was here before – they want to see it again. Trump conjured their anxieties and promised an imaginary solution to the alarming changes of history and time.

It all doesn’t seem too different from the kind of anxieties I have in the middle of a broken night… in fact it’s all of a piece with those. If I wake and find myself in the throes of this kind of over-imaginative anguish, perhaps it’s because the entire country is having one version or another of the same fear hallucination.

So, to recap a bit. I’m delusional, and I kind of suspect that you are too. The entire country is pretty much delusional… which is making us all even crazier. A lot of this comes down to the basic fact that we live alone in our own heads, our own realities, and that inner reality has a hard time dealing with real reality out there, which goes its own way, inconsiderately, without us. We don’t like it, no, not one bit. Life shouldn’t change on us like this. As Robert Frost once wrote:
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
(“Reluctance” 1913)
This is an early poem of Frost’s though he was near middle age when he wrote it. He went on to see a lot more change – two world wars, the atomic bomb, the space age – and yet, somehow he kept it together and kept writing. Perhaps I – we – will somehow do the same.

I doubt much uninterrupted sleeping will be involved though. I’m still crazy after all these years.

No comments:

Post a Comment