Your overactive mind takes your body hostage, warding off sleep. Your passive counterattack consists of lying still and trying to relax one muscle at a time like you learned in gym class. You place imaginary weights on the eyelids that threaten to snap up like a window shade at a moment’s notice. You know that sleep will come if you can impose a mental blackout, but instead you conjure unholy visions. Your heart pumps harder. What do you see?
When I was younger, I saw sharks. I watched Jaws for the first time on a family vacation when I was in 4th grade. We were staying with friends of my parents whose kids were older and had unrestricted access to their big screen TV. This was way before HD, but the fear inspired by this movie was more about psychology than special effects. I spent night after night in my landlocked bedroom terrorized by the idea of bloodthirsty sharks lurking beneath me in unspecified waters.
Sharks were superseded a few years later by murderous, unhinged strangers who preyed on babysitters [side note: who decided that a 12-year-old was the perfect stand-in for two adults?]. This was in response to a few different movies, including Halloween and When a Stranger Calls. I was convinced that as soon as I put the kids to bed I’d get a phone call telling me to “check the children”, who I would discover slaughtered in their beds before realizing the call came from inside the house. I started turning down babysitting jobs so I wouldn’t have to worry about that particular scenario anymore.
The next logical offshoot was serial killers. It started with Silence of the Lambs, grew when I learned about local serial killers Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy, and flourished when I enthusiastically signed up for a criminology class in high school. There is a special, damaged part of my brain dedicated entirely to Ted Bundy. I lay awake at night worrying about whether I’d have the presence of mind to jump out a second-story window or fight my way out of a car trunk to escape one of these sickos.
Now that I’ve aged out of the serial killer’s target demographic (phew!), my fears have become more mundane. Unfortunately, the excitement level is inversely proportionate to the likelihood that they will happen. Not much literally keeps me up at night anymore on account of GRF (Grown-up Responsibilities Fatigue), but here is the depressingly real list: car accidents, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, carcinogens, divorce statistics, social injustices, failing infrastructure, school shootings, obsolescence, out-living my loved ones. There is one interesting twist, that my fear of carbon monoxide poisoning makes me want to stay awake worrying.
I miss the days of spectacular villains like sharks and serial killers. They were easily identifiable and remote. Even as a kid some part of me must have known that they probably wouldn’t get to me, because I continued to swim in the ocean and walk places alone. Fear back then was a luxury, something to elicit a thrill before eventually falling safely asleep in my bed.
I wish that my insomniac preoccupations today were still sparked by cinematic scenarios, indulgent games of “what if” after watching movies like 28 Days Later, Alien, and Jurassic Park. Then again, isn’t all of our worrying somewhat indulgent, even irrational, if the threats are not immediate? I consider myself astoundingly lucky to be able to write that even my most mundane fears have not become reality. Some, like death, are inevitable, but there are some that I will probably never have to face. I suspect this is true for a lot of people. So why torture ourselves with worry, dwelling on the possibilities? Why not cross that bridge when we come to it? Maybe, especially at night when we know we should be asleep, it makes some of us feel more alive.