Waiting for the bombs to drop
Dear Former Self,
Sometimes you have apocalyptic nightmares about enemy warplanes flying over Brisbane, ready to open fire into the streets. These nightmares seem strange to you, because the only times you’ve ever witnessed warplanes in action is during a Riverfire event—and they were undoubtedly ‘friendly’ jets. There were no bombs, no intent to destroy, just a rousing ‘flyby’ and a celebratory ‘dump and burn’ of fuel to light up the night sky.
You often remind yourself how fortunate you are to live in a country where the sight of a warplane is synonymous with family entertainment, not terror and war. But in your nightmares you live out darker scenarios: you look up into the sky and see a plane that fills you with a sense of doom, a plane that signals the imminent explosion of something other than fireworks. You even imagine what it would have been like to live in a real warzone, like Darwin during World War II, or London during The Blitz: nightly air-raid sirens, wide-spread panic, followed by a bombing raid. It’s a completely foreign experience to you—yet there’s something oddly familiar about it, isn’t there?
In a warzone you’d have to prepare yourself for the worst every single night—and be ready to act at any moment. You’d face silent enemies like trepidation and dread. Sometimes these would be even worse than the sound of the siren and the certainty that something bad was about to happen. In a warzone, every night would start in the same way: your fight-or-flight response would be activated, your anxiety would rise to a panic … and you would wait for the bombs to drop. The ‘waiting’ was the perfect opportunity for your mind to torture you. It would replay little movies in your head of bombs dropping the night before, the week before, the month before. And to you, it would feel like it was happening all over again in that moment. It would be like your very own horrific television rerun in surround sound. Even if no real bombs exploded on those nights, the bombs in your memories would be almost as bad. What I’m getting at, Former Self—and the reason why this all sounds so familiar—is that the experience of waiting for the bombs to drop isn’t just true of life in a warzone, it can also be true of life.
Of course, your nightmares aren’t really about war—dreams are rarely that literal— they’re about your fears and anxieties. You’ve never lived in a warzone, but you certainly know what it feels like to ‘wait for the bombs to drop’ in your life: to be constantly anticipating and bracing for the worst. The problem with living this way is that waiting for something to go wrong feels eerily similar to something actually going wrong—the way you experience them inside your head is basically the same. As you’ve learned with anxiety, nothing has to actually happen in the present moment—the here and now—to make you feel anxious. Your memory of an anxious event and your fear of it happening again in the future are enough to set you off. Because when this kind of memory is triggered, your body mimics its former responses and—voilà—a past anxiety is brought to life in the present.
I know that the idiom ‘once bitten, twice shy’ has always struck you as a bit obvious and simplistic—childish even. But if you dig beyond the surface, you may find that it points to deeper levels of human behaviour. The phrase infers that once you’ve experienced something painful, you’re wary of it happening again: you’re less likely to trust when faced with the same scenario. Initially this just seems like a basic lesson in self-preservation. Like the time you attempted to do some repairs on your first ever guitar amp. It had blown a fuse, so you started testing it: unplugging it, plugging it back in again. Except when you finally went to change the fuse you forgot to turn the power back off, and you gave yourself an electric shock. Fortunately, it was only a split second before the newly-installed circuit breaker in your West End share house kicked in and saved your life. The experience scared you—enough that you decided it was best to let a professional do all your repairs from then on. And it was an important lesson in, you know, not dying. But the thing about lessons in self-preservation is that you have to be careful not to allow the fear that created the lesson to stay with you—you have to let the fear go. You see, ‘once bitten, twice shy’, as well as probably being what True Blood fans call foreplay, also points to the dangerous way that people can, once afraid, begin to interpret a series of difficult life events as a pattern. And if you identify and label something as a negative pattern in your life, without even realising it, you can start expecting things to go wrong.
You and your wife, Meg, went through this recently. She was heavily pregnant with your first child—and the countdown was on. Meg’s back issues meant that the only safe way your daughter could come into the world was by Caesarean section—with Meg under a general anaesthetic. As the two of you waited for the big day to arrive, the tension started mounting. Little movies played in your heads, reminding you of the patterns of the past: there’d been years of failed IUI and IVF attempts, a relatively routine ‘egg collection’ that led to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) and a week in hospital, a positive pregnancy test and then a negative test on the same day, and then when Meg finally fell pregnant, she slipped a disc at six weeks and needed back surgery at thirteen weeks. With the finish line in sight, it began to dawn on you both just how much was now at stake. Throughout the final months of the pregnancy neither of you felt confident that everything would go smoothly, because—after all—where was the evidence? What did history tell you? You were both so used to things ‘going wrong’ that you started to expect it. You’d been bitten like ten times, and now you were way beyond shy. You were terrified. Something ‘going right’ in this area of your lives didn’t seem to fit the pattern. So you started waiting for the bombs to drop. And your fear of something going wrong—at first of imagined scenarios—turned into something palpable: anxiety and panic. When this happened, you were no longer living in the present: not the real present; not the actual present. You were living in a false present paralysed by fear of the future. Out of fear of something going wrong, something had gone wrong.
Can you see the absurdity and futility of it yet, Former Self? What a waste of time and energy it is being anxious about something that hasn’t even happened yet and may never happen! What a waste of life. It’s like living in a parallel hell-dimension worthy of inclusion in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the things you are afraid of happening at some point in the future are happening to you right now. They’re not, but they may as well be—because that’s how it feels. Living in fear of the past repeating itself is to live in a time machine; you miss the present entirely. You experience things that are not real. In fact, you’re not really living, you’re just existing. You’re ‘getting by’ until the future validates or disproves your fear; and when you’re crippled with fear, all you can do is exist.
So save your anxiety and fight-or-flight response for when they’re really needed: for emergencies, for survival. If you spend all your time just waiting for something to go wrong, you miss what is actually happening right now. You also miss the opportunity to break the pattern and for something new to happen. Instead, you perpetuate the cycle—it just loops around and around, over and over again in your life. And when this happens, you have to be very careful not to inadvertently will something negative into existence. You may end up convincing yourself that the negative pattern is going to continue, and conjure up a self-fulfilling prophecy with all your bad juju. That’s how powerful the mind can be.
Look at the way your cat, Holly Golightly, started acting after series of vicious fights. She’d taken on the biggest, most badass cat in the neighbourhood, which you’d affectionately labelled ‘the big black rapist cat’ because it liked to attack the genitals. Twice she’d been scratched, bitten and sliced open, leaving big ugly gashes that needed stitches and antibiotics from the vet. And twice she’d had to wear a plastic cone on her head for ten days so she wouldn’t pull the stitches out. Both times she couldn’t even clean or scratch herself. They were the kind of ordeals that would make most cats hide under the bed for the rest of their life. But not Holly—once she recovered, she spent every night sitting in the window ledge, scanning the neighbourhood for her attacker. And if she happened to see the cat, she’d start running around the house in a panicked state, meowing and flicking her tail around wildly as if she was in pain—as if it was sliced open again from a fight. She was reliving the fights.
On one of these nights you turned to Meg and said, ‘Why is she constantly looking for that cat? When she sees it she just gets freaked out. Surely she’d rather hide from it and not see it?’ Meg thought for a second and then replied, ‘Yeah, but if you’re scared of something, you’re always looking for it.’ And suddenly you understood why people get stuck in patterns of waiting for the bombs to drop: if we are traumatised by something, instead of avoiding it or never thinking about it again—or letting it go—we often do the exact opposite. We remain vigilant: constantly on the lookout for it, paranoid about it happening again. As if by spotting it on its approach we may be able to do something about it, even prevent it. But by constantly looking for the negative scenario to keep repeating, we—in essence—help create it; we manifest it. In Holly’s case she, sadly, found something even worse than the big black rapist cat. A few months after starting her creepy window routine she was in a third fight—the vet thinks with a dog this time, judging by the broken jaw and shredded back leg. On the night of this last fight, she crawled in your front door and collapsed—only just making it home. After a third trip to the vet—involving countless stitches, a wire in her jaw, a drug patch stuck to her skin, a Skrillex haircut, and having to be fed through a tube six times a day—Holly doesn’t sit in window ledges anymore; she’s finally stopped looking.
The important thing to remember, Former Self, is that if you are always looking for something, chances are you’ll find it. Even if it isn’t there, even if it isn’t real—that’s how the mind works. So instead of waiting for the bombs to drop—instead of constantly being on the lookout for something bad—a much better use of your time would be to actively bring yourself back to the present: the real present. Whenever you feel yourself stepping into the time machine and bracing for the worst, ask yourself: ‘What is actually happening right now? Is anything bad happening?’ Maybe five percent of the time you’ll be experiencing a painful life event or a real emergency, but ninety-five percent of the time the answer will be ‘no’. The only ‘bad’ thing happening will be in your head. It will either be the past returning through a memory, or it will be a projection of the future—it will be about time travelling, not the present moment.
And if you find you’re having trouble bringing yourself back to the present because the present seems bleak, then imagine a future scenario that breaks your existing fear patterns. Spend time imagining a new outcome. Picture it, feel it, in the same way you’ve replayed all the carpet bombings of the past. Because, remember, all warplanes look the same, it’s the context that makes them either terrifying or exciting: they can be used to drop bombs, or as part of frivolous entertainment. Your mind works in the exact same way: you can use it to perpetuate cycles of fear and anxiety, or you can use it to break patterns and create a new way forward. What kind of warplanes you experience in your life—friendly or enemy—is entirely up to you.
Yours forever in the here and now,