For as long as I can remember, my mind has been preoccupied with disaster. I fear that someone I love is dead or I have some terminal illness or financial ruin is just around the corner. I can’t tell if it’s my genetic predisposition to anxiety, an active imagination, or some bizarre need to inject drama into a pretty standard life.
Ironically enough, I think that thinking of worst-case scenarios is actually a coping mechanism. By thinking about the absolute worst thing, I’m either going to be prepared for it or pleasantly surprised by the actual outcome.
If I have a headache, I’m preparing for the diagnosis of a brain tumor. If I have a cough, it’s lung cancer. Maybe I’m leaving a steady job. That’s the first step on my journey to homelessness. If my girlfriend is being kind of quiet it’s probably because she can’t find the words to tell me that she’s leaving me for her lover Manuel.
My disaster fantasies often veer off into the realm of absurd fiction. When I left my last job, I imagined the old stand-by – homelessness – but I also let my mind wander like a runaway train into other scenarios. Here’s a typical one: after months away from web development, I am never able to find work again so, naturally, I turn to selling drugs. Weed at first but then I would work my way into crack, opiates, and a new street drug that exists only in this fantasy called “mineral water” that makes innocent, experimenting teenagers eat their own feet. So, obviously, I get caught and sentenced to life in prison. To avoid the death penalty, I ratted on my Russian drug kingpin supplier, so, life on the inside as a snitch is a living hell.
The really crazy disaster fantasies are the minor, merely inconvenient ones.
A month or two ago I got a hangnail. It was bothering me for a couple of days and I thought should it hurt like this? What if it gets infected or what if this is like some new kind of finger cancer and I have to have my finger amputated? What if they don’t catch it in time and it spreads?
That one was special. That took some mental gymnastics and suspension of any rational thought concerning the human body and modern medicine.
I’ve gotten better. I’ve been to therapy but also putting in a few solid decades of not dying has shown me I can’t possibly get cancer as often as I think I will. I can see that there are clearly patterns to my worry, mainly around health, finance and employment, which speaks more to what I’m afraid of losing rather than what will actually happen.
Unfortunately fear remains to be a hell of a motivator for me. Being content is actually the worst thing for my productivity. Happy, calm me likes watching Netflix while eating Cheese Fix Munchies Mix (the one with pretzels, Doritos, Sun Chips, AND Cheetos) and drinking beer. Fearful me is at his computer after running five miles, worried about mounting bills and the negative effects of processed sugar.
In addition to my own solipsistic worries, there are real disasters in the world. Refugee crises, wars, terrorist attacks. My mind never wanders with actual disasters. That’s also a coping mechanism. Actual disaster reminds me that the other stuff was luxury fear because, on some level deep down, I know that, for me, the worst thing rarely comes.
I feel like every day, since January 20th or, hell, November 9th, everyone I know has been quoting Hannah Arendt and saying that the sky is falling. As I’ve said, it’s mostly on social media. I have yet to find the balance between staying informed and turning off the extraneous noise. There’s fake media, corporate media, biased media, and media interviewing people saying they don’t trust the media. If some article predicts a war, is that real? Or is it just something to provoke anxiety and get clicks?
The only thing I know is that I don’t know what’s coming next.
When I’m truly scared – in a nuclear war kind of way, not in a “do I have herpes?” kind of way – my mind doesn’t wander into the future. I stay present, not because I read about it in some book on Buddhism that I didn’t finish, but because it’s the only way to keep me from having a panic attack. It’s also this kind of fear that makes me look around at my life and realize that I like it. A lot. And I don’t want it taken away.
Last week I went running in Prospect Park. It had just snowed, so the bare tree limbs were coated white. I love it when that happens. I’m lucky to live where I do. I have a lovely girlfriend. I have friends that I’ve had for decades. I get to do improv comedy. I get to get in front of a microphone and tell stories. I get to write this blog. I get to worry if I am artistically fulfilled. If I need to, I can go pay a therapist to listen to me complain. (Spoiler alert: it’s a lot like what you’re reading now. Sorry, I won’t be paying you.) I’m healthy. I live in an apartment in a city that I love. It’s warm and it has electricity. My neighborhood is nice. Tanks don’t roll through it. I don’t live in fear of getting bombed. I have food. I have water. I have coffee. Did you know that during and after World War II coffee was rationed? It was a luxury. People had to do without. I’ve never had to do that. I have coffee in my house at all times. I have a coffee grinder. If I run out, I can go to Whole Foods or Starbucks to get more.
Christ, if I were reading this instead of writing it, I would want to kick this bougie writer in the face. That’s how good my life is. So, I don’t want to wake up in a couple of months in The Road.
When I was in therapy, I used to talk out all of my worst-case scenarios and my therapist would say, “So, you’ve already written the script, then.” I always had to admit, “No, I don’t know the future.” I always thought that I had a good idea of what would happen, though. I don’t think that anymore.
The imagined future is a nightmare of a place. All disasters are out there somewhere on the horizon. The only question is will any of them come or not?