The phrase “Do one thing every day that scares you,” lifted from Eleanor Roosevelt to populate the fancy boarders of Pinterest memes and personal quotes to live by on OKcupid, is almost laughable. It’s quite Buddhist in its intention, our emotions don’t need to rule us, we can walk through them and quietly observe them, and if applied properly you can make your life quite interesting
Of course, if you live with anxiety disorder just waking up and going to the shower to get ready for work can be a terrifying experience. “Do one thing a day that scares you?” Well, what the hell DOESN’T scare me? I’m scared of conversations at Subway, at the gruff people outside the mental clinic, by missing keys and Passports, by children, by movies that remind me of my childhood, by failure, by weight gain, by sideway glances.
I used to be terrified of those “write about yourself” projects in school because I couldn’t actually write about myself. I could only write about the fear surrounding writing about myself. “I’m terrified of people. I’m shy and awkward.” I feared that I was misrepresenting myself. Now, I don’t think I was. My early memories are ruled by fear – the chair thrown across the room, the hippo at the Oklahoma City zoo opening its mouth wide, the first day of school, a birthday party in which I had to smile and be social for more than a few hours.
Once I slept on a couch at my dad’s house and woke in the middle of the night. A second passed, and then a shadow-like being rushed past me in the hallway. Probably just a remnant of a dream, my brain not fully awake. But I couldn’t go to sleep after that. And for years afterward, I feared its return. I thought it watched me while I closed my eyes. I had sleeping problems for years. Fear of the dark. Fear of my own shadow. I’d seen it once and I didn’t want to see it again.
What is a shadow person? Depends on who you’re talking to. Some believe they’re beings from another dimension, glimpsed in brief glances. Either beings of pure evil from lower planes, or guardian spirits. The concept has been around for a while. According to Cherokee legend, a witch called the Raven Mocker comes to sick people as they sleep, transforming into a shadow-person like being and tormenting them until they die. And then they eat the hearts. Why? Because there’s a tradition to uphold, I suppose, or hearts are tasty.
Many meth addicts report seeing shadow people because of lack of deep sleep. So perhaps insomnia and sleep deprivation play a factor. Others say the shadow person is a result of hallucinations developed by sleep paralysis. There’s an archive of personal accounts of shadow people on the Internet you can browse through if you’re looking for a timesuck.
Lucid dreaming. I learned the technique young, from my dad, who was big into meeting up in dreams, dream manipulation, and keeping journals of the places we went when we slept. I had these horrible nightmares as a child, and he taught me how to beat up the monsters and stop running.
Lucid dreaming can be an exhausting process. Once you realize you’re dreaming, your brain will do anything it can to lull you back into ignorance – including forcing you to wake, “false awakenings”, and blackouts. It’s an ability that I still have yet to master, but if I want to lucid dream that night often all I’ll have to do is set a timer or reminder and ask myself every half hour, “Am I dreaming?” This will often carry over into the sleeping world and force me into a lucid dream.
Ever notice how the dream warps to your feelings and thoughts? If you get into a car with a strange man and the stray thought passes that he’s a serial killer, the car will swerve and he’ll start pointing a gun at your head. The external becomes a direct reflection of the internal. So when I found myself running through an abandoned warehouse, weeping in the darkness, unable to turn on a lightswitch (Lightswitches, they NEVER work in dreams. Try it out for yourself.) while demons from the netherworld chased and tormented me, I, well, I woke up.
It’s like bursting through a membrane.
I started laughing. Dancing. The monsters that were chasing me started dancing too. The darkness was no longer a terrifying place, but a beautiful one. As long as I kept dancing, as long as I kept making light of the situation, the monsters couldn’t hurt me. Because in my experience – no horrible apparition can survive laughter. Frivolity is our weapon against the darkness, against fear. Fear can only survive in a moment of dark consequence. When there is no consequence, the fear dissipates, and the monsters dance.
I’ve come across dinosaurs who breathed steam as I hid in ventilators. When they knocked down the grate I hooked my hands into their nostrils and breathed laughter back at them.
Shadow children have held hands and ran circles around me, growing teeth when I was afraid, and laughing when I smiled, their consequence shrinking as my fear of them dissipated.
I’ve come across women who threw me in front of a mirror and dared me to see how ugly I was. At the fake reflection I laughed, grabbed the woman, and kissed her. We rolled down together in red velvet.
There are dreams I have yet to conquer – dreams that are such reflections of real life I can’t yet wake myself up. I have a lot to learn. But I’ve pulled through some of the worst parts of me, and come out laughing.
What does this have to do with the writing life? We’re going to be faced with threats and doubt. The demons in dreams are a direct reflection of the kind of negative thoughts that can destroy us if we’re not careful. As a horror writer, you thrive in darkness, but you don’t allow yourself to become mired in it. (And do I have a problem with miring.) The monsters can only destroy those who are willing, and those who forget that the only destruction comes from not reminding yourself to laugh. Even someone with extreme anxiety disorder, in the days when the mundane seem terrifying, can go deep into the well of lucid dreaming and pull up humor to get through the day.
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