Tag Archives: anxiety

New Tricks: on extinction and not finishing things

Some day (soon, hopefully) I’ll get better at updating again. It’s been tough to remember that regardless of whether or not anything I have to say is “important” or “worthwhile” … This is my own damn blog and my own damn website and I can say whatever I want.

Yesterday I had to make a very difficult and unfamiliar decision: I deliberately chose to stop reading the book I had been (trying) to read. Generally any book which gets shunted into the “unfinished” pile is there as a result of my tendency to get distracted, so it’s theoretically “In Progress” rather than “Abandoned”. However, this time, I got the book out of the library, so I can’t just quietly leave it lying around while I get back to something else and “accidentally” “forget” about it. It has to return to the library before the end of the month.

I rarely actually abandon a book after I’ve started it. It’s a mix of things: a sense of obligation to the author, to the book, to the story, to my integrity as a critic, as a well-rounded human being, and so on. I feel that “I’m not enjoying it” is an insufficient excuse or explanation for leaving something unfinished or undone. Maybe because not all things are meant to be “enjoyed,” maybe because there’s something wrong with me and unless I can say (and providing supporting evidence) that something is causing me actual harm, I consider any other negative emotion insufficient justification to “give up” or “throw in the towel.”

But it seems that I need to reexamine my categories. I’ll read a book that I really hate all the way through to the end. Perhaps because it’s totally engaging to hate something. I tell myself that it’s because I’m trying to give the author the chance, the opportunity, to turn it around; I don’t want to hate something because I didn’t see it all the way through to the end, where it justified itself. All too often I see reviews or comments about movies or books that I really enjoyed where the person says “I gave up half-way through” and I think to myself, “What authority have you, then, to pass judgement on this work?”

In art we are given the chance to do that which is impossible in life: we can see the story in its totality, and we can judge it, weigh its heart against a feather after all is said and done and decide whether or not the story is true and good, or whether its heavy with malice. It is, no doubt, telling that I view the art critic as having the same responsibilities as the moral philosopher. But stories make up the world, and we must do everything we can to understand what our stories really say and do in the world, how else are we supposed to do the work of telling and learning and repeating responsible stories about ourselves and about history if we haven’t done the work in the laboratory of fiction?

The truth is, however, that Jeff Vandermeer’s Hummingbird Salamander was getting in the way. I was toting it around because I felt that obligation to see the journey through, and yet… My current excuse is that I do believe that it is a thriller (if the blurbs on the back are to be believed) rather than almost any other genre, which is one which has never really gotten its hooks in me. It’s always nice to encounter the exceptions to the rule: the book, the movie, the song which proves that there can be an instantiation of a given genre or style which does, actually, appeal to you. Unfortunately for me, we do not seem to have managed that in this particular instance.

Moreover, there is a degree to which the book’s particular subject matter—species extinction in the Anthropocene, and the ravages of humanity upon the natural world—illustrated as they are—through a person who is becoming aware of them intimately, for the first time, rather than merely a theoretical fact about life—is not a lesson I need, nor which I can sustain for the length of a novel. I don’t know if it’s the result of what a psych evaluation some time ago described as “features of OCD?” but I walk the knife’s edge of pervasive anxiety about my impact on the world. A few too many classes in university about the politics of food and its production and I have at many times felt the noose around my neck tighten as I think of all the ways my entire existence is predicated on the exploitation and destruction of every living thing on this planet. (See: I told you I would need to provide evidence of harm to justify putting the book down.)

I did a report about salmon in my seventh grade science class. I still find myself asking if salmon I purchase has been farmed, and if so which ocean it was farmed in. We only farm Atlantic salmon, which all belong to one species, however, people also farm Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean, and it is quite common for them to break containment and end up breeding with the locals, which has had a significant impact on the biodiversity among Pacific salmon, of which there are seven separate species. (And from my junior year in college, I think the less we say about feeding farmed fish corn because we overproduce it and as a result have decided to use it for literally everything the better.)

A book which wants me to care about its protagonist’s inability to be a responsible steward of her interpersonal relationships (she cheats on her husband), while we’re discussing the extinction of entire life forms might be asking for a greater range of feeling than I am capable of maintaining in a single context. She may be able to contain multitudes, but unfortunately, when it comes to the unimaginable scale of human and animal and ecological suffering which we face as we look into the future, I have room only for impotent rage, unbearable grief, and an overwhelming, gibbering terror.

Rats on a sinking ship made out of rats, crewed by rats.

All this to say: I think we owe it to others to give them space to say their piece and to listen and pay attention all the way through, but I’m learning that maybe I’m allowed to give myself space, and not-do things for the simple reason of “not wanting to,” which still feels very new.

Dreaming of all the endings

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.