I used to wake up in a blind panic in the middle of the night, nerves alight with the horror not of dying but of watching the rest of the world die, and be swept away by forces too strong and too organic, too natural, to ever withstand.
When I was 13, they showed the movie Slither at the 24 Hour Boston Science Fiction film marathon. I didn’t want to watch it, all too aware of my fragile psycho-emotional capacity, but my friends, being boys of a certain age, knew that watching me scream and flinch would only make the experience that much better for them. I can still remember the way the movie was supposed to be funny, but even now, with the hindsight of a decade and a half of experience and a hard won love of horror movies, those moments are still burned into my brain with revulsion and abject, animal fear.
The next year, I went with friends to see Cloverfield, another film I knew I would regret, but I was unwilling to be left out of the social experience of going to see the big sci-fi flick of the summer, the R-rated horror movie everyone was talking about. The jokes are funnier this time around, but everyone told me that I looked like the friend with the curly hair who exits the narrative by exploding in silhouette behind a tarp in a flurry of screaming and pushy army National guardsmen.
The nightmares woke me up and kept me from sleeping. I would lie, paralyzed in the dark, my heart pounding, sweating, terrified, occasionally creeping across the hall to listen at my parents’ door to their snoring, the reminder that no one had yet died, and that my loneliness was an inevitability from which I was separated by time, the clutch of terror being that of not knowing what time that would be.
This was when I started sleeping with the lights on.
For many years I slept in a tent in my bedroom, futon on the floor, while the floor lamp illuminated the space around it, a desperate attempt to the keep the nightmares and the panic attacks at bay.
My sleep was disordered, from ADHD (undiagnosed and untreated) and depression (untreated) and anxiety (undiagnosed and untreated), but sleeping with the lights off became a priority. It couldn’t be good for my circadian rhythm. Staying up all night on the computer couldn’t be good for my circadian rhythm, no matter how good insomnia and the internet are for keeping the nightmares at bay.
These are the years where I dream of barricading myself on the top floor of our house while the ravenous living dead shuffle and groan their way through my neighborhood. No matter how successful my planning is within these dreams, I know that nothing can save me. Survival is not contingent, because death is (and always has been) inevitable. Once my mother and my father and my friends and neighbors have been overtaken by this calamity, there is nothing left except the breath in my lungs, the blood in my veins, and the brains in my head, and I’m not sure I’ll still want them.
This is when I try to tell myself that bodies which no longer have hearts that beat or neurons that fire will inevitably succumb to rigor Morris, and in time to the natural process of decay. 28 Days Later ruins any hopes we have that this threat comes from the supernatural logics which govern the undead and can safely be overcome by healthy skepticism and adequate information regarding the death and decomposition process.
This is when I tell myself that I am already undead. When I was 4 months old, I went in for open heart surgery to fix my total anomalous pulmonary venus return, a birth defect where the cardiac plumbing is incorrectly hooked up, and so oxygenated blood returns directly to the heart and then to the lungs, without passing to the rest of the body. The defect had gone unnoticed because I had been born with another, fairly common, heart defect, which amounts to a hole between the chambers of the heart. That hole had been allowing blood to get to the rest of my body, but as I grew, the hole started to heal and close (a natural process which would have made the whole thing a non-issue in a properly put together infant). This caused the blood flow to the rest of my body to become interrupted.
To perform this open heart surgery, they had to lower my body temperature into the safe zone where decay and decomposition won’t set in and stop my heart while they made the adjustments which would allow the organ to properly pump blood throughout my body.
My heart had stopped, my body had been rendered “dead” for some in- or significant amount of time. By this logic, in some metaphysical sense, I was not just a living body, but a body rendered living and alive through unnatural means, a zombie, a walking corpse.
To be clear, I didn’t believe myself to be, actually, literally, dead. There were moments where I wished for Cotard’s Syndrome, imagined that delusion would save me from my existential dread. No, I was well aware that I was bargaining with the universe on technicalities, well aware that there was no Devil, no Satan for me to go against wit-for-wit like some kind of sniveling Daniel Webster.
But trying to plug the broken airlock of terror when we look into the abyss with the pathetic tissue paper of logic has never worked well for anyone, and I am no exception.
Maybe this was when I dreamed the dream where rather than fighting to live as I once had, I dreamt myself given over to the mercy of un-death, a new phantasmagoria where the parents of my childhood friends became herders of elephantine domesticated human livestock. This dream, when I described it to a friend of mine, made him agree that perhaps I should stay away from psychedelic or other psychoactive substances. By this time I had learned that the beauty of nightmares is that we wake up from them.
Ecological cataclysm and the crushing weight of capitalism have both driven me to the edge (and then, ultimately, over) of nervous breakdown. There were weeks in my freshman year of college where I couldn’t stand to participate in conversations about the weather because heart pounding, sweaty panic that would descend over my consciousness when I thought about our sudden and overwhelming snowfall or unseasonably balmy afternoons.
Chicken wings and, later, classes on the industry of meat production and the eco hazard of corn and soy monocultures and the yoking of farmers to poverty through genetic intellectual property made it impossible for me to eat first meat, and then anything at all without the sick feeling of guilt taking us residence inside me with each bite.
I used to worry about the end of the world.
And then it happened.
I tell the story with a laugh, but inside me something has yet to fully unclench from its position braced for impact.
“I used to have nightmares and lose sleep to panic attacks at the thought of a global pandemic,” I told my therapist and later my friends. “And now it’s happening. It’s so much more boring than I thought it would be.”
I always imagined the apocalypse would be a cataclysm. Too many years of atomic age science fiction, where the world ends in an instant.
I used to be afraid of the speed at which the world might change.
This year, I went from never having seen a corpse to having seen two. A mercy would be for Death to come unexpectedly, from behind. Not like the way night falls, slowly, by increments, an inevitability we must anticipate for hours or days, waiting for the moment when we can finally say, “That was the last bit of light,” as the darkness presses in from all sides.