There was a terrorist attack in London a few days ago, and the NYT decided that the proper headline should be that England is still ‘reeling’ from the attack in Manchester a few weeks ago. It’s sensationalist and narrow-minded, and, frankly, embarrassing, but I don’t expect much more from a paper that hired a climate change denier as one of their op-eds. As to be expected, Brits had a great deal of fun at the NYT’s expense, starting the #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling hashtag. You gotta love the Brits and their dry wit. The NYT did eventually change their headline, but they never should have ran with it in the first place.
This post isn’t about the attacks or the media stupidity, however. It’s about the reaction of an anxious person (me) when the worst-case scenario actually happens. I’ve dealt with anxiety all my life. I didn’t realize it was a thing for me (along with severe depression) until I was in my late twenties, but once my therapist put a name to it, it made so much sense. It’s trite, but true that naming something takes away some of its power. That’s not to say that knowing I had anxiety issues made them go away, but at least I knew what I was dealing with.
I remember when I was in school (don’t remember the grade), my class was going to Valleyfair for the day of rides, games, bad fair food, and other delights. It was near the end of the school year, and it was supposed to be a fun day for all. I spent the whole night before the trip lying in my bed, worrying about who I was going to walk around with, what if nobody wanted to do what I wanted to do, and a various assortment of other minutiae that would never occur to anyone else. I was a loser in school, and I never had many friends. There were many reasons for it. I was a fat, awkward, intellectual, nerdy Asian girl in a very vanilla (in two meanings of the word) Minnesota suburb, and I didn’t fit in anywhere. I got along on a superficial level from people in many different groups, but I didn’t belong to any one group. I was intensely lonely as a kid, and it didn’t help that my mind was constantly worrying about every little thing.
I dreaded going to Valleyfair, and I would have skipped it if I could have found a plausible reason for not going. I also wanted to skip both my high school and college graduations, but I ended up going. As a person with anxiety issues, I can make a mountain out of any molehill. Ironically, though, the averse of that is also true. When a situation is dire, I’m at my calmest. I remember when 9/11 happened, I was living in the Bay Area and pursuing my MA in Writing & Consciousness*. I woke up because I had a phone session with my therapist back in St. Paul, and I had to use the bathroom prior to the session. My housemates were in the living room watching the TV, and it looked as if they were watching an action movie or something. It turned out they were watching the fall of the first tower, and I stopped to watch with them.
My memory is hazy, but I believe we watched as the second tower came down real time. Every channel covered it obsessively, and I watched the towers fall over and over and over again in the next hour until I forced myself to walk away. I was shocked and horrified, of course, but I wasn’t scared or terrified. It caused me to doubt myself and my humanity because I couldn’t get all freaked out as everyone else was. It’s partly because I understood why people across the world might be pushed to their limits by the behavior of America, but it’s mostly because I lived with terror every day of my life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that going to the grocery store used to cause me such severe anxiety, I would put it off for as long as I could.
I don’t know if this is how it works for other people with anxiety issues, but for me, the worse the actual situation is, the calmer I am. I think it’s because I’m always prepping for the worst-case scenario, when it actually happens, my brain is in its element. It’s fucked up, and I wish it weren’t so, but I can’t deny it helps when I have to deal with a crisis. I was in a minor car accident a year ago. I’ve written about it before, but what has stuck with me is how calm I was when it happened. I looked up, saw the car barreling towards me, and I thought, “I’m going to get hit.” Without thinking about it, I relaxed (I credit taiji) and accepted I couldn’t do anything about it. I firmly believe that’s why I walked away with deep bruises and nothing else, and they were from the seat belt/air bag.
That’s neither here nor there. My point is that I didn’t panic, and I didn’t freak out. I stayed calm, and it helped me deal with the situation. In fact, I had to calm down the young girl who hit me because she was freaking out about how her father was going to kill her. I patted her on the back and told her to take some slow, smooth breaths to calm down. She said her father had to go to work and now didn’t have a car. I told her he could get a taxi. The whole time I was comforting her, there was a voice in the back of my head saying, “I’m comforting her while she’s the one who hit me!” The voice wasn’t angry, however; it was just amusing to me.
Back to 9/11. The only thing that terrified me about it was the American reaction to the event. I stopped voicing my protest to the Iraq invasion because I felt unsafe in stating my opinion. I feared my fellow Americans much more than I did any Islamic terrorist. I came to loathe the American flag because it stood for a cheap, easy way to claim your patriotism without actually doing anything. I remember people putting out their flags and getting pissy if you chose not to do the same. I’m always uneasy with walking lockstep with, well, anyone, and I watched our country salute W.’s invasion with an enthusiasm that made me cringe.
I can’t help compare our collective reaction to that instance of terrorism** with how Britain is reacting to the Manchester/London attacks. We overreacted in a big way, and I think it’s because it’s the first time many of us have ever experienced an attack on our country from outside our own borders. Britain has been attacked before, and they know better how to deal with it. I think it’s one reason I am calmer in a moment of true crisis than perhaps other people would be. I’ve dealt with y terrors and horrible shit all my life, so I’m not going to crumble under a real threat. My cat, Shadow, is a skittish boy, much like I am. He starts at any noise, and he has nightmares just as I do. However, the vacuum cleaner that most cats hate? He’s not fazed by it. It’s simply not scary to him. He’s seen real horror, yo, and some silly machine isn’t going to get the best of him!
I wish I could be as calm in my day to day life as I am in a crisis. I’m less anxious than I was even five years ago, but I still can obsess over the stupidest things. Hopefully, with time, taiji, and maybe another therapist, I can change that.
*From an institution that lost its accreditation years later. Sigh.
**But not, interestingly, the same reaction we have to domestic terrorism committed by white men.