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My all-time favourite film is The Terminator. I watched it again on the weekend and it set my mind thinking. Why are all my favourite films/video games on the theme of survival or apocalyptic destruction? Why do I find it so hard to find a comedy programme that I don’t find banal and that can really entertain me? Why do the comedies I like always seem to be tinged with at least a hint of disaster?
Then it hit me. It’s because survival is what I relate to, that’s what anxiety and depression have carved a large portion of my world into. And then my brain took it a step further; The Terminator, The Walking Dead or any other film/series which depicts a post-apocalyptic world is one way to explain living with an anxiety ridden brain; well, at least my experience of it.
The Fear Is Constant
In The Terminator there is a machine trying to kill the main character (Sarah Connor). A lot of the time she doesn’t know when, where or how it will come after her, only that she isn’t safe.
Anxiety can be like that machine, you don’t know when, where or how it will get you but you know that you aren’t safe from it. It lingers persistently in the background and you know that it will resurface; you wait for it to happen, tension mounting.
By the end of The Terminator, Sarah Connor knows when the end of the world will happen, but she also knows that no-one will believe her if she talks about it after the way the police and criminal psychologist reacted to the story from Kyle Reese, the soldier sent from the future to protect her (they call him a ‘loon’).
Sometimes it can feel like you can’t speak about anxiety for fear of the reactions from other people. It can feel like a burden or a weight to carry, like Sarah’s secret, because sometimes it’s easier to carry on in silence than to explain and find yourself having to justify an illness, that you know to exist, to people who believe it’s a myth or worse may mock you for it. Even friends can make it difficult to open up if they talk about people with mental illnesses as ‘crazy’ or ‘psycho’ because they think their symptoms seem far-fetched or are an excuse due to a lack of understanding of their conditions. It can make you feel like you won’t be believed and therefore have few people or perhaps no-one to talk to about your illness.
Whilst the machine (a terminator) is hunting Sarah in The Terminator, she lives in a state of high alert and is constantly expecting the next onslaught. Consequently, she gets little sleep and by the time she destroys the machine at the end of the film she is exhausted.
There are times when anxiety gets you stuck in a loop of surviving; you can’t sleep because you’re anxious and you’re anxious because you can’t sleep so you go into survival mode. Your body is on the look-out for any and all threats at all times, which is exhausting in itself, but then when it’s time to sleep your mind just can’t stand down. You lie awake buzzing with thoughts; tense muscles stop you from relaxing, still ready to flee at a moment’s notice. If/when you do doze your dreams are filled with confusing scenarios that make you feel like you’ve been awake all night, pursued by the fear of whatever’s coming. It’s an elusive, low-level terror that melts away to lurk intangibly at the back of your mind as you wake up. Then later, when triggered, it grabs at your chest, sending your heart pounding and your lungs flapping for air. You move from trigger to trigger, limiting damage, getting through, and becoming more exhausted until you can finally crash, sleep and reset the loop; hoping all the while for it finally to stop.
Just When You Think You’ve Beaten It…
Near the end of the film, Sarah thinks that she has defeated the machine twice before she succeeds. It looks almost impossible that it could survive, but it comes back each time; relentlessly pursuing her. Even once it has been destroyed the danger has not abated, she knows that in the future there will be an apocalyptic event and deals with the fear of this each day.
Anxiety tricks you like this, you think you’ve mastered it, only to find that it never went away at all. It comes at you in wave after wave, without pause to regroup and you live knowing that even when all seems calm and quiet, it’s out there waiting for you in the future and you live with the fear of the next trigger every hour of each day.
When I watch a film/series or read a book that’s all about some kind of apocalyptic world or dystopian future where you survive by your instincts, oddly enough I don’t find it stressful; I find it familiar and I can relate to it. I find an outlet for my overthinking; I think through what I’d do in those scenarios and I find that in this case the thoughts stop, rather than becoming a negative cycle as they do when it relates to my real life. It gives me a break from feeling pent up anxiety with nowhere to go since here’s a situation that my brain excels at; spotting all the dangers and working out how best to deal with them. The bonus is that I don’t actually have to be in a dangerous situation (and that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to survive a zombie apocalypse, just in case).
Maybe you relate to my experience, maybe you don’t but it’s good to talk about the ways that anxiety affects us because no two stories are exactly the same. Thanks for reading if you got this far.