You think the thought “my family is going to be murdered” and you can’t stop thinking it. Your brain will not stop circling the itch, delivered to you as if from out of nowhere, casually, as commonly occurring in your mindframe as thoughts like “I am hungry” or “it is cold.” The impression never seems to have been generated by any impetus in particular, despite the nonstop onslaught of terrible events that fill the news, available on continuous feed from any number of sources; instead, the thought seems always already there, already in you, broiling up on the edges of so many other kinds of thoughts you would prefer not to have to have, like who might be lurking in the dark where your spouse walks leaving her place of work to find her car, or how any car might suddenly veer across the yellow lines of any road and bang into them headfirst, on their way home, leaving behind a blur of metal, blood, and fire that will be cleaned up, of course, as if it never happened.
Sometimes you even allow yourself to entertain the thought of those you love ending up dead in full projections of the sorts of scenes that flash upon you like a disease: you forget to lock the front door before bed, for instance, and someone slips in while you’re sleeping, armed with rope and knives and needles, all the rest. You can never imagine any of the details of their face, somehow, only the shape of their body hovering above you both there in the bedroom where you have made a life to live together, forever after then, following the atrocity, if you survive it, a place of pain, no longer yours. It doesn’t matter as much what they might do to you as to your most beloved; so much worse would be the burden of having to live without them forever after, their blood as well on your hands for not having seen it coming, made it stop. It doesn’t matter what is true and what is possible; it only matters that it could happen, and so it might. And if it might, then when? How long before your whole world becomes shattered, unrecognizable; before your understanding of what pain is and could be must be renewed?
Other times it’s not you or your spouse who are the victims, but your mother, or your sister, or her child; or a friend, or their close loved ones, but because you see those people less and less these days, the forms of pain that come upon them are less specific, more like fog; a kind of warning shot that fills your bones fresh upon waking, for instance, reminding you to wonder all the other forms of hellish ways you could never quite see coming no matter how incessantly your imagination wants to try. Every time the phone rings, you expect that it is with the bearing of bad news: someone got T-boned pulling out of their driveway or fell down in the shower; someone has had a heart attack, or learned they have cancer; someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It’s not that you want to think about such things—quite the opposite; you’d give anything to not feel pressured with such phantasms, which you’ve been assured over and over that’s what they are. Even thinking “I’d give anything” makes you feel off, though, as if there’s some agent out there waiting for the tagline that then allows them to greenlight the worst as yet to come. It all feels so ridiculous, so petty, to be so wound up by things that haven’t happened and probably won’t, despite their possibility even at long odds. Other people don’t seem to have such issues, judging by the way you see others crossing busy streets without a second look in either way—how did they survive so long without having been anticipating the very worst at any second? What would it take to make you learn to do the same?
It’s been a hard year, of course: your father’s passing, your mother’s illness, the sudden sharp pain that fills your lower back, the problems with your teeth, the halted progress of your career. All of the years are hard in their own way, though, even in good times—it’s just a fact of human life. This, even given the obvious truth of how lucky that you’ve been to have so much—a home, a job and even savings, a happy marriage, pets, plenty of friends; even your health is above average, despite your paranoias, which some might describe, including your wife, as a kind of hypochondria, a shade of what your grandmother had before you, though she really had been sick a lot of the time, too. How to tell the difference between what is true and what’s a game? Everybody seems to know this, except you—you who have at no point in your life seen yourself as quite so foolish, so susceptible, as you’ve begun to.
* * *
At therapy, which you’ve agreed to try now, with misgivings, you hear the person in the chair seated across from you tell you that it makes sense that you’d be having these feelings. How hard it must be to continue to have to deal with them, she says, to go on beating yourself up. Over the last few weeks, she’s talked you through ways of looking at your past and how it’s shaped you, often in ways you hadn’t realized, until now; it always seems to come back, for her, to seeking love, to wanting to be loveable, to want to feel safe, and to be “good.” The logic all makes sense, of course—you’re only human—though you can’t help going into even that with a sensation of disbelief in your own grief, as if you should still be able to approach it all the way you had when you were younger, still under the apparition of invincibility of youth. That you have lost that form of poise seems somehow, to you, only another shift to be ashamed of, or at least hamstrung by: that you are getting old now, that it’s too late, and there is no way getting back. Of course, you know this is an inevitability of being, aging, dying, part of the arc of everybody ever, a trick of time, but seeing it as from an aside now makes you feel like but a passenger in your own life, as if nothing could be done to change the path that you’d allowed yourself to settle into, long before you could have ever seen it for yourself.
For the most part, you say what you think the therapist would want to hear you say in return for what she says; and though she reminds you there are no easy answers or instructions for changing your behavior—that we are here, instead, to be aware of them—you can’t help wondering why. A bullet to the brain would change it all, for instance, or a leap off a building, or any of the many other ways of taking action in such form, though you would never do that, you imagine; you aren’t able, which in accepting only reminds you that you have no choice but to continue riding on the ride, and trying, in the meantime, to enjoy it as best you can, because soon enough it will be over.
After the session, meeting for dinner, you sit across the table from your spouse, thankful to be looking once again into her eyes. It’s enough to make the bad thoughts disappear, for the most part, while in their presence; what could go wrong no longer seeming so emphatic as it does when you’re alone. Of course there’s little difference between now and any other time, in relation to the unforeseeable aspects of tragedy taking place; it is just as likely that some improbable event occurs here in the restaurant as any other place, including the drive home, during which all it would take is a flick of the wrist from any of the countless passing strangers to change your lives. Somehow the possibility of having an accident seems less daunting when it’s both of you at once, leaving neither to be subjected to the absence of the other, all that pain. But you don’t want to die now, or at least certainly you don’t want them to—and so everything that could happen only fails to become what does happen by its having been avoided in preparation, one might say. Thus, you overcorrect for intersecting traffic, expecting no one to stop when they’re supposed to, in some way making the ride more dangerous yourself—a fact your spouse does not fail to point out, making you wonder if they’ve begun believing that your motor skills are fading, or your logic, or worse, that they actually are. And are they? Your father has just passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s, after all, and your mother is already showing early to middle signs of just the same. How long before you too are being rightfully doubted, counted up in all the ways you can no longer care for your own self? How far ahead of such concessions is far enough to begin wondering if it’s even worth it to go on trying?
The last thing you’d want is to have to make your partner have to care for you as had your mother for your father, and more and more now, you for her—taking away the access to driving would be only the first step of many others, after all, eventually including changing diapers, spoon-feeding all meals, keeping tabs on where you are at all times, and so on, all occurring alongside the disappearance of recognition, in the subject, so that they would no longer know your name, or why you’re there. You’d rather die before subjecting them to that, wouldn’t you? How couldn’t you?
For the most part, though, you are able to suspend your disbelief in what some days seems like an inevitable fate. First, you have to get there, if you’re able. You have to want to. And most days, thankfully, you do. You get up and do the things that you’re supposed to so that the turning wheel of time will carry on. There’s never enough time to do it all, but you are trying, and that’s supposedly enough. That it never feels like enough suggests you want to be better, that you can see yourself, which is more than many others ever do, or so it seems—though is that true, or just another form of self-defense, a way to gather at least enough esteem to go on trying, staying alive by any means?
For the most part, when you imagine others, you feel worse for having offered yourself the benefit of any doubt at all. The world is overrun with so much pain and anguish, so much monstrosity, and here you are, sitting at your desk, well-fed, well-clothed, granted the benefit of enough free time to let your paranoias go bananas without any direct stimulus supporting their manifestation but your own ongoing pessimism, your lack of belief in the watchful eye of anything like God. Who are you to fear the worst, when the fear itself is all the threat you ever really seem to have? Aren’t you embarrassed to lay it out there, to feel anything but fortunate?
The answer is: yes, you are embarrassed. You can’t help but to compare yourself to those who’ve had it so much worse; those for whom the thought of their family being murdered is much more of a reality than it could ever be for someone who looks like you. Even admitting to the worry feels like a privilege, rather than a problem; something you should have to suffer, if for no other reason than to be reminded how it feels. Anyone you would ever say this to would tell you that’s not how pain works, that it is no less real a feeling in your body, but you don’t believe it, nor will you ever. The last thing you want to be is someone who fails to acknowledge how much harder it could always be, how fortunate you are to have this life.
You’d never tell anyone about a lick of this, to be honest, for fear of sounding cloying, which is why you’re writing it all down. Then it feels even stupider, like a joke that could make no person ever laugh.
Let us know when something really happens.