(Content Note: This essay depicts the visceral experience of a panic attack, dissociative experiences, and discusses incidents of suicide and self-harm in the movie Inception, which may be disturbing for some readers.)
It is 2 a.m. and the dragon says my marriage is ending.
It’s right. I know it with a certainty. Like the shuddering heartbeat rabbiting behind my ribs when I wake up. It all makes perfect, logical sense, and I line things up as he snores lightly beside me. We will disagree, we will have a fight, and page by page, the book of my life will turn to ash. I can taste it in my mouth.
My breath hitches. The sheets stick to my clammy chest. It takes that to notice the feeling of ball of ants behind my eyes, twitching, biting thoughts. Perhaps not ants. Something with bigger claws and fire. Dragons. Everything feels certain, so absolute.
That’s another sign.
I want to act, need to act. I want to wake him up. Cry, fight, fuck, do something. But instead I close my eyes and bargain with the certainty of the dragon-thoughts in my head. So, my marriage is ending. Okay. If it’s true, if it’s so absolutely true, it’ll be true in the morning. Truth does not expire, and a real fire can burn me any time. The dragon-thoughts are not happy, but they satisfy themselves by gnawing on my bones.
Morning comes. My marriage is not ending, of course. I can’t see any fire, but I still taste ash.
I need an anchor.
Cobb, the reality-plagued idea-thief in Inception, had an anchor. He had what he called, in a bit of Hollywood appropriation, a totem. Cobb’s totem was a small metal top that he could spin to confirm whether the world he perceived was real or a constructed dream. Only he knew the weight of it, the feel of it. Spin the totem, watch it go around. If it wobbles and falls, you’re experiencing the truth. If it spins forever, round and round, you have forgotten what the truth is. You’re in a dream.
Sometimes I wish I had such a thing, a way to find certainty. The dragon-thoughts of Generalized Anxiety Disorder mean the reality I perceive, the conclusions my observations come to, are not necessarily true. Conversations do not go as I remember them. I am among friends, not threats. I’m standing on steady ground, not open air. I am my own sci-fi hero, trapped in a malicious virtual reality, a dream run amok inside my head.
If this were a story, I would be able to realize that, and realizing that would be all it took. I could break free in a dramatic act of heroic will, never to be ensnared again. I would have my Neo moment. There is no spoon. Bullet time. Awareness of the matrix means it can’t hold you.
Inception, at least, understands that much. If Cobb spins his totem and it never falls, he knows he’s in a constructed dream world. But knowing it isn’t real doesn’t collapse the world. Cobb is still there, forced to deal with the world as he experiences it. In fact, if he tries to act against the false world, it turns malicious. Like a bad AI, dragon-thoughts protect themselves. Knowing something isn’t power, not here outside the story. Knowing it’s not true does not free you from the construct.
(Cobb escapes his false realities by killing himself. That logic also sits there, a shadow behind the dragon. We know it’s there. Focus on your totem.)
It’s a different 2 a.m. and a different dragon. We are on vacation, on a cruise ship that creaks and groans in every disaster-movie-iceberg kind of way. The sound is inescapable. I’m dying. I know I’m not dying. I’m dying anyway.
The totem spins and I bargain with the faulty dragon-AI in my head.
Sometimes the dragon is quiet. The totem wobbles like it should. I grow comfortable with the world. Errant thoughts are easily put down. I stop checking my totem in the first place. It stays in my pocket. It isn’t easy to continuously question your own mind. The dragon counts on that, sneaking up when my spinning top has gathered dust. When the bargain comes hard.
I have my dragon. Cobb had Mal. The projection of his self-sabotage, his doubts. The dragon-thoughts he could not control. As much as I cringe at another mentally ill woman in cinema trope, Mal makes sense to me, both as a person and a projection. Mal the person struggled with an idea she couldn’t control. Mal the projection is Cobb’s way of coping with that.
It’s not a bad way to cope. Othering distances yourself from the thoughts. We’re making our own Mal here, you and me. We say anxiety is dragon-thoughts. A malfunctioning AI. A gibbering line of code muttering doom in your head. Because those things can be observed instead of felt, bargained with instead of succumbed to. If not defeated, at least not absorbed. Difficult problems, not internal failures.
We are fond of writing mental illness as a failure. You know how the story goes, don’t you?
You have a picture in your head of me by now, the woman who clutches her pearls over her marriage, the wisp of a thing that is reduced to tears by the creak of a boat. I’ve seen those movies too. Worried, hesitant Neville in Harry Potter. Fretful, fluttering Threepio in Star Wars, the classic anxious android. The uptight, nervous Hermann Gottlieb in Pacific Rim, or the legion of anxious scientist characters like him, that exist in a story only to naysay and hold the protagonist back.
Anxiety, in these stories, is simply a personal flaw. Nervousness. Cowardice. The sidekick, the minion, the weasley traitor. We are never the hero. Or if we are, our nerves are abolished with a good ol’ dose of protagonist bravery.
Anxious characters, in these stories, are never the quiet, competent ones. That ones working through the night, holding their own massive doubts and private doom dragons between their gritted teeth. They are never the friends who avoid parties but will take on a revolution for a friend. The mothers who smother their own screaming breath for their children. The guides who will ferry you across the dark space between the stars because they’ve learned to look their own shadows in the eyes. The characters, haunted just behind the eyes, not by dead wives or compelling backstories, but by the fight they pretend not to fight every day. Not the nervousness but the control issues, the hyper self-awareness, the exhaustion.
No one ever warned me about the exhaustion. The days when everything is bad and everything is so certain that you wake up like a walking wound. The floating anxiety that has no thoughts but the steel-barbed understanding that something is wrong. You can’t stop for it, can’t soothe it, can’t put it down, but it goes with you. Tucked in your pocket along with your totem.
I want to see more interesting stories. Where the hero doesn’t punch their way out of the faulty holodeck, the VR run amok. I want to see the stories that complicate that, the way my own story is complicated. When the fault in your code is you, intractable but not invalidated. When the dragon isn’t to be slain but bargained with. The corrupted AI that is lived with, encountered again and again, even collaborated with, talked softly to.
What do those stories look like, when the construct isn’t something to escape? When the totem keeps spinning but, hell, you gotta get on with the story anyway? When the mentally ill person isn’t a pitiful foible, or a weak-willed sidekick, but the hero?
Keisha, the main character of the narrative podcast Alice Isn’t Dead, deals with anxiety disorder. It’s represented fairly well throughout the podcast, but the crowning moment comes at the end of the first season. Keisha is confronted with the inhuman Thistle Man, the monster who’s taunted and destroyed her hopes at every turn. It is the culmination of all her anxieties experienced in the show. She is trapped, she is overpowered, she is afraid.
It’s in that moment Keisha has a clarity about her anxiety. That when you stop denying it, it’s possible to turn it into something useful. An energy to be used. She uses it, the panic and the certain dread and the false doom to shudder through her like lightning and fight. “I’m not afraid of being afraid,” she screams, and tears, shaking, at the Thistle Man’s skin.
I’m still afraid of being afraid. I’m not certain how to make my anxiety a weapon against anything but myself. But I appreciate what comes after. Keisha isn’t cured of her anxiety after that. There’s no miracle revelation. She rises, bloody and victorious but still so afraid. But for a moment, just for one ragged breath, the fault in her code was a weapon. I like to think the next time the dragon-thoughts came, the bargain came a little easier.
It’s the only totem I’ve found, my dragon and I. That there’s no separating where the anxiety begins and I end. At the end of Inception, Cobb doesn’t kill Mal. Not even as the world is crashing down on his head. Instead, he is… kind. Kind to the part of his mind that lies.
Cobb and Mal. The dragon and me. What stories can we tell when the dragon, the faulty AI, the broken holodeck, is us? Stories that look complicated, afraid, furious, teeth snarled and bleeding lightning.
It’s 2 a.m., and the dragon is stirring. Weigh your totem and let it spin. Don’t look at it. The story doesn’t go away. You don’t either.
© 2018 by A. J. Hackwith