October was the scariest month of my life even though I wasn’t even really watching any horror movies. The reason October was such an unprecedentedly terrifying month and the reason why I avoided horror movies was the same: because in September, I was attacked by a monster.
Now, this the second week of November, a new monster is making matters even worse.
More about my personal monster momentarily, but first, I think we should measure that damage. For all of my life, I have loved horror. I’ve loved being afraid. October, traditionally, has always been my favorite month largely because I love horror. Anyone paying attention knows that last year I watched or rewatched nearly 100 movies just to finish our [authoritative] list of the best horror movies of the current century.
But not this year. I had no need for it. Simulated fear is made completely value-less after a real monster attack. And, as something so vile and wicked continues to attack you, it becomes hard to think of even fictional death as a device or a narrative map point.
My mind couldn’t process that. Not when I was dying multiple times a day.
I promise there’s a point to all this.
I could not even bring myself to go watch Ouija 2, one of my most anticipated movies of the year, because how scary is onscreen possession really when you’re trying to shut yourself in your bedroom and deal with the certainty that there would be a pre-election biochemical attack? I still have not seen I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, but how powerful is a ghost compared to the overwhelming number of soviet nukes in an unstable political environment that are for sure being pre-emptively dropped tonight, and probably, no matter how illogical the reasoning, landing directly atop the Akron Cleveland area? Every day, a very real horror was happening—brain aneurysms, gamma rays, a home invasion—even if only in my mind. It was real. And it was every day.
That’s the thing about my monster. He had been waiting for quite some time, learning how to trick me into sharpening his claws and multiplying his teeth.
The calls were coming from inside my mind.
He knew me so well that the first time he attacked me was in a theater. He knew I would be there. He knew I would have my guard down. That son of a bitch. He’d been watching me.
I could not even see him. Or determine his species. I just felt his bite. I felt my spinning mind, my thudding chest, my dizziness and labored breathing, an onset of doom and hopelessness. Things I had never felt before. At least not inexplicably and all at once.
He attacked me again a few days later and I ended up in the emergency room. It wasn’t a heart attack. I thought it was a heart attack. That’s how real it was.
He attacked me yet again a few days later. Twice. The next day three times. He attacked me in every movie I went to over the next few weeks.
I tried resting at home instead, hiding in my room, and losing myself in TV. Among the things I was able to watch was the most recent season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. In Episode 9, Battle of the Bastards, there’s a battle sequence that provided for me the most empathetic, cathartic single frame that I have ever experienced from a television program, a shot so perfectly arranged and rich in character expression that I am forced to apologize for all of my previous snide comments toward the show’s slower, then-seemingly irrelevant seasons and episodes. You know the one. A resurrected and spiritually lost Jon Snow (Kit Harington) lifts himself from the mud in a hopeless scenario, and grips his sword while facing an oncoming army charging on horseback. It’s strange to articulate, but nonetheless true, I can’t recall a moment in my life in which I’ve ever felt more immediately represented on screen. That was me. That was how I felt every day.
Until finally I admitted I needed help.
I should correct my earlier point; I didn’t avoid all horror movies. There were three that I was very interested in revisiting but not for the purpose of being scared: Take Shelter, The Bababook, and They Look Like People. When each of these horror-peripheral films was released, I noted my satisfaction in finding that horror was addressing mental health issues earnestly and healthfully, in a way that did not demonize the condition. My investment now is exponentially deeper.
If you’ve seen one or two or all of these movies, what parts do you remember first? For me, even before it became something of a bias, the most prominent and memorable and nearly iconic moments bare striking similarities to one another: Samantha (Jessica Chastain) comforting and later shielding her unwell husband Curtis (Michael Shannon), Amelia (Essie Davis) desperately hugging her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) as if her sanity was salvageable only in his being close to her, and Christian (Evan Dumouchel) putting himself in the path of mortal harm to prove his affection and trueness to his schizophrenic best friend Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews). Each, a moment in which affection, love, and loyalty outweigh the damage and the monster and the apocalypse.
Honestly, there’s a point. Stay with me.
But let’s go back to that Game of Thrones scene for a moment. What makes Jon Snow’s stand even more powerful (and even more relatable for me, as it turns out) is what happens immediately after. Help shows up. (Spoilers in gif)
No one can fight alone. Not against monsters anyway. Horror movies teach us that. So does panic disorder.
I’m only three months in, but I know I would have made no progress, I may not even be alive, were it not for the small army that has gathered at my back. The top-level staff here at Audiences Everywhere covering me in my absence and doing more work than normal (and normal, as you can tell by our product, is already a lot of work) even though almost none of them, before reading this article, had any idea I was dealing with this. Friends filling my fearful moments with kind words. I told one of my best friends who works as an ICU nurse in New York City, and she’s checked in on me virtually every day since, splitting our conversations between forced formality and passionate encouragement and cold and clinical finger slaps about my symptom hunting. My mom and dad know by incident. I had an attack in front of them. And they have offered their prayers and every bit of their confused energy in making sure I do not feel ashamed or hopeless. And my amazing girlfriend, before this the dramatic complement to my even and laid-back personality, holding my hand while my monster attacks and I’m choking in a fetal position, trying to tell her goodbye as she fights me on every self-diagnosis, assuring me that I will not go into sudden cardiac arrest in my sleep, researching aloud the impracticality of believing that the Higgs Boson field will be disrupted in our lifetime (I’m serious, I thought this for a whole day [There’s an estimated 0.15% chance this will happen within a billion years if we assume that we have already discovered all particles in the universe]), promising me that human consciousness is not a simulated reality that can be turned off at any moment (I’m dead serious. I thought this too), making me list good things, making me say what I am thankful for, making me shout my belief in my good health.
No one beats a monster alone.
That, in and of itself, is a scary thought. It is reported that roughly twenty percent of Americans have an anxiety disorder. Women are reported to have them more than men at a 2:1 ratio, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that number is skewed by men’s mishandling of their own emotional instability and their willingness to self-report. Panic disorder, it is believed, has a higher rate of suicides than the rest.
One in five. And no one talks about anxiety until there’s a reason.
Last night, Donald Trump, somehow, went from being the nightmare candidate of the hateful fringe of our country to being our country’s President-Elect. I turned the coverage off because I did not want to be triggered, but I received a lot of messages through the night from fearful friends not knowing what to say or do, largely because, until September, I was someone who always spoke as if I knew what I was talking about (I admit now, I rarely did). Now I don’t know anything except for fear and monsters. So actually, maybe I can help. . .
To beat fear, one needs mindfulness, and that, you almost have to find on your own. I suggest using the 4-7-8 breathing technique—breathe in slow for four seconds, hold it for seven, release it gently and without force for eight. Repeat. Do it with your back on the floor and your legs up the wall. Meditate or pray, but find words. Turn off your screens in the evenings. Screens are the enemy to mindfulness and all the information hides your enemy’s teeth. Stare at a lit candle and battle the monster’s bad terms with your good ones, even if you don’t believe them in the moment. Essential oils help me, particularly lavender and bergamot. Eat less fatty foods, less red meats, more omega fats, and be aware of your electrolyte levels (particularly magnesium). Get rid of caffeine. Cut back on alcohol (it only helps in the present). Exercise. Basic yoga. Twenty two minutes of walking outside while being as mindful as you can. Therapy is good for everyone. When you have the energy, do the things you loved to do before the panic as often as you can bring yourself to do them.
This last one is important. Because, again, to beat the monster, we need each other. I know this. I wish I didn’t.
Based on the un-interpreted, unedited words of our next president, our human decency has at least a four year battle in front of us. It may not be okay. That’s a big part of panic disorder, too. Fear is important. It’s a survival tool, and it’s sometimes telling us the truth. Things could go wrong at any moment. We may, as a country and individuals, not all be okay. But we haven’t survived as a species by crawling under rocks and crying. We have to fight this monster together, and we have to lock our hands in love and make our loyalty to one another known. Many people are in danger. It would be more dangerous to believe we can will ourselves to a place of safety away from this cultural monster. If you’re afraid, rest, find comfort in another, let us fight for you. If you’re feeling courageous, even for a moment, find someone who’s afraid and express your allegiance, your love, let them know that you will fight for their freedom, their right to citizenship, their agency over their own body and identity, and their place in this world with every panicked breath you have when the monster comes for it. Hold each other’s hands. We have to be together in love for goodness to win. Join me in this. I know what I’m talking about.
I am afraid. I am afraid all the time. But I will fight for you . . .
Featured Image: HBO