When the little angel was a baby, we lived in This Old House. If you're new here, you may not know that This Old House was a beautiful Arts & Crafts with a screened-in porch in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City. It was built in 1921. It had push-button light switches that sometimes threw sparks, it was not ducted for air conditioning (making my home office nearly unbearable in the summer) and it had decorative metal grates with holes big enough to pass my fist through, lovely as they were.
While in the throes of postpartum something, I became convinced that snakes could climb up through from the leaky, Silence-of-the-Lambs basement through the ductwork and slither out the very large grate holes into my daughter's bedroom. Every time I looked at those grates, I had to push the thoughts away, but it was hard. It was so hard. These thoughts, I now know, are called intrusive thoughts, and they are closely associated with anxiety disorder, OCD, eating disorders, and psychosis. I still have them from time to time, but they are much lessened after medication and meditation and all manner of my managing-my-anxiety-disorder daily rituals.
I feel a kinship with Stephen King. Here is a man who must suffer, as I do, from intrusive thoughts.
I first read PET SEMETARY in high school, and then I thought it was a horror novel. I've been rereading it this week, and I now understand it is a book about grief. A parent's grief.
I got the ebook copy, and there is a foreward in this version written by King in 2000, in which he admits something very similar to what happened to Gage in the book happened to his own son (almost) when his own son was two. He wrote:
"But a part of my mind has never escaped from that gruesome what if: Suppose I hadn't caught him? Or suppose he had fallen in the middle of the road instead of on the edge of it? I think you can see why I found the book which rose out of these incidents so distressing. I simply took existing elements and threw in that one terrible what if. Put another way, I found myself not just thinking the unthinkable, but writing it down."
What would King have done with my grate snakes?
And what is a parent to do with the fear that comes of losing a child through any manner of preventable horrors? What would we do, what lengths would we be willing to go, if we thought we could (fix them) protect them from everything?
When my girl was two, a co-worker told me about a little girl he knew who swallowed a great deal of water while learning to swim and dry-drowned. I didn't know such a thing existed, and I immediately suffered a solid week of nightmares and became terrified of letting my daughter in the water, even as I was insisting she learn to swim. This week, she's at horse camp learning to walk and trot and canter, even bareback, and each night as I lie in bed next to her as she drifts off to sleep, my mind tries to send pictures of all the awful accidents that happen in barns, even though I myself owned a horse for three years in my childhood and took almost exclusive rights to the hard and personal care of him, picking his hooves and brushing him without tying him up and walking carefully around his back away from the hooves that could go misplaced even though that dear, sweet horse would never hurt anyone intentionally. As much as I loved my horse, and as much as I love to swim, I've never lost a healthy respect for either large animals or water, as my brain easily produces full-on, Scorcese-directed mind movies of all the horrible ways to die dealing with either.
I've learned at 40 that the best way to deal with intrusive thoughts is to bat them away like horseflies. Letting them rest even a minute allows them to bite and gather until the only way to break free is to flail in the most embarrassing and overwrought way when I can't take it for one more minute. I've had minor breakdowns from my intrusive thoughts probably a dozen times over the course of my life, and it's never been pretty. I'm not proud of how I've turned my fear into anger and stabbed out at those around me. I'm trying to learn to handle them better. My intrusive thoughts are merely the worst possible course of what if, and a life well lived is a life spent in the now, breathing deeply and remembering that no matter what, I can get through it, and it probably won't even happen. I can't worry about the bad thing happening until it does. The ironic thing is that sometimes when the bad thing happens, it's a relief, because there's no more anticipation of the bad thing; there's only dealing with it.
I think that I can make these decisions, because I have to in order to manage my anxiety disorder. The truth, though, is that our subsconscious minds decide things, and then our frontal lobes take credit for them. A study done in 2000 found:
Participants in the study were asked to make a decision about whether they would use their left hand or their right hand to press a lever. By using fMRI scans of the brain’s activity, the researchers knew the participant’s decision by analysing the activity in the frontopolar cortex of the brain. This information about the participant’s decision was available up to seven seconds before the participant had “made” a conscious decision. The researchers used the information from the scans, to predict with success, the 36 participant’s decisions before they had consciously made them!
What does that mean for someone with intrusive thoughts? What is really more frightening than imagining you've lost the ability to control your own mind? In PET SEMETARY, as Louis Creed drives to his son's grave to do you-know-what, he thinks:
"He supposed he had known that he would do that, but what harm? None."
Because, of course, subconsciously he'd already decided to hop on the Micmac Indian train and ride it to the end of the line.
Brain research is fascinating, but it also brings into question the moral compass, free will and how easy it would be to slip into distressing thought patterns. I know, in my rational mind, and I'm sure I knew then, that it would be really hard if not impossible for a snake to climb up two stories of slick ductwork, and quite frankly, if a snake wanted to eat my baby, all it would have to do is climb the stairs. Heaven knows the basement door didn't really shut. That my brain conjured this elaborate lie out of turn-of-the-century grates still amazes me.
But then it doesn't.
Writers observe things, details. Details make the story interesting. But they also lead to the what ifs, and sometimes those thoughts are better off dead.