In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, I have been doing some thinking about fear.
I am no stranger to anxiety. When I was a kid, between the ages of about 8 and 12, I suffered terrible anxiety attacks whenever I had to be separated from my mother. I worried something would happen to her, and although I had a loving father, brother and extended family, I felt like I would be totally unable to cope with losing her.
When she would go out for the evening, I would get a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation, nausea and panic. It wouldn’t subside until she was back home safe, and it was not rational—there was nothing she or anyone else could say to calm me down. I just had to live through it, over and over, until finally, as I moved into puberty, the fear dissipated and went away.
Sometimes I have wondered whether this was related to a past-life experience. Did I lose my mother in a previous life? Was I left alone and unprotected?
Is it possible, as Linda Hogan and others have suggested, that we can be haunted by ancestral legacies of violence?
Both of my sons also suffered from irrational fear during their childhoods.
My older son went through a period of terrible night terrors, where he would sleep-walk under the influence of gut-wrenching anxiety and sobbing fear, not calming down until we managed, with great difficulty, to wake him up from whatever nightmare was possessing him.
He would not remember the episode in the morning, and would be sheepish when we’d tell him what had happened; in his waking life, he was calm and unencumbered by fear. He hasn’t had one of these night terror attacks for about five years now.
My younger son developed a stutter and a nervous twitch in his early childhood, and would cry and talk about being almost paralyzed with what he called “worry.” No amount of rational talking-through made any difference; he could not explain what he was afraid of, he was just deeply, inchoately fearful.
One day, when he was about five, I decided to take him on a long hike up a tall mountain, and we picked up small rocks along the way. When we got to the top, I told him we were going to throw his worries over the edge of the mountain cliff, and they would be gone and leave him alone. A smile lit up his face, and he began chucking the rocks off the cliff with intensity. That day he was happy, and slowly, over the next couple of years, his unexplained anxiety did lift.
What’s perplexing to me about this “family anxiety” is that none of it has any basis in actual trauma.
Each of us did experience a minor trigger, it’s true.
I was separated from my mother when I was seven, for about two weeks, after a car accident landed her in the hospital; but then she came home and was fine.
My older son attributes his night terrors to an incident where he accidentally locked his younger brother, an infant, in the car on a very hot day, and the police had to come and break into the car to get the baby out. But we were all fine, and of course we absolved the older child of any blame, it was just an innocent mistake.
My younger son developed asthma after an incident of severe pneumonia at seven months, and he was always afraid of the hospital, with the dark x-ray room, the menacing machines, and the possibility of separation from his parents.
But these are such minor precipitating incidents, compared to, say, the shock of bearing witness to a massacre, or living through a rape or domestic violence.
I can’t claim to have any inside knowledge of the kind of traumatic stress that survivors of serious violence must deal with, but having been taken for a ride by severe, irrational anxiety, I can sympathize deeply.
The truth is that all of us, in today’s hyper-linked media age, are living with the scars of bearing repeated witness to violence.
One of our greatest strengths as human beings is our imagination. Put our active imaginations together with our empathy, and it should be no surprise to find that so many of us are feeling in our own bodies the fear and anxiety that are properly part of others’ experience, not our own.
How many murders and massacres, real and fictional, have we witnessed through the news and entertainment media? How many times have we watched homes being bombed, people being shot, crazy predators on the loose?
The presence of 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. does not make me feel safe. It makes me feel afraid—and this time, the fear is rational.