Fear and Denial

About a week ago I woke up with a sore throat. Nothing outrageous – what felt like a little back drip, maybe from allergies, but I felt slightly achey, too. I’d been through periods of feeling somewhat unwell already over the course of the past four months, so I didn’t wonder too much about it, although I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind: what if it was COVID-19?

I’m not usually given to paranoia, which can at times be a strength, but the opposite can lead to denial, which is just as dangerous. For a week now, I’ve been living in denial about the possibility of having contracted COVID-19, going about my day, stuck at home, working and sleeping and all of that good stuff. But the feelings of slight unwellness didn’t go away, and this morning after my shower I thought I might be feeling slightly feverish, too.

So I made an appointment for tomorrow at a local urgent care, and … well, we’ll soon find out. But the thought processes in my head over the past week have, I think, taught me something about fear and denial.

I wouldn’t say that there’s much in this world that truly frightens me. I’m not scared to walk through a parking lot at night; I’m not scared of dying in a car crash; I don’t feel afraid of potentially threatening people most of the time. At most, I feel uneasy, perhaps afraid to act at times, but I don’t live in fear, for the most part, most of the time.

But I have to ask, of course, why I don’t live in fear. I mean, there are a lot of scary things out there in the world, and logically it makes sense – even from just a self-preservation perspective – to be afraid of them. Be afraid of alligators, be afraid of men with guns, be afraid of drunk drivers. These are real things, and they can really cause you harm. And I think the answer is that I largely deny these things entrance to my thoughts – I just don’t think about them, or consider the full extent of consequences of coming across them.

To an extent, I think this form of denial can be healthy; after all, if all of us worried all the time about all the things that can hurt us, we’d all be completely paranoid, and society would crumble. But taken to an extreme, and it can be almost as dangerous as thinking too much about things. On a personal level, my denial of the possibility of having COVID-19 could lead to a delay in treatment, which could lead to much worse complications. On a social level, it could be argued as outright irresponsible to my family and those I forcibly interact with (say, at the supermarket) to not have been tested sooner, as I walk through the world infecting all those around me (maybe).

And sometimes, we need to confront our denial the greater good of humanity. Denial is a strong coping mechanism to trauma, but it has its limitations. For example, there is a great deal of fear in the world right now around racism. Black communities fear, as they always have, that the protests and voices being raised now in the wake of George Floyd’s death will eventually be silenced, and they will continue to exist in a place where they fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

But there are white people who are afraid, too. Afraid of the consequences. And I don’t mean in the sense that there are white people who are afraid black people will take their jobs, or steal their wives; I mean, there might be some, but no – the worse consequence of facing the racism in this country is that it is forcing people who would have otherwise lived in denial to see reality for what it is. White people who are afraid that, if they are forced to confront racism on their front lawn, it might reveal them to be racist themselves.

Think about it – the easiest way to deal with racism is to ignore it. Deny its existence; spout ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric and claim to be ‘colorblind’. Pretty much everyone, I think, is in agreement that racism is bad; but very few people are willing to admit that they might be bad themselves. Very few people have the courage to face their own racism, and to acknowledge that they are a part of the problem. But we have to – we have to, or we can’t be part of the solution.

So listen; if I can overcome my own denial about COVID-19 and accept that I need to get tested, then surely as a community, as a country, we can overcome our own denial of prejudice and racism and accept that we aren’t just part of the problem – we are the problem. And it’s a fixable one, too. It won’t be easy or quick, and will take check-ins every day to see how we’re doing in being allies to oppressed minorities. Some days we’ll do better than others. But if we can at the very least recognize our part – each one of us – in the systemic oppression of black and minority communities across the country, then perhaps things can slowly change for the better.

It’s okay to be afraid that you might have racist thoughts; it’s okay to be afraid of conflict, especially internal conflict. But the worse option is to continue living in denial.

Don’t live in fear; but don’t live in denial. There’s a happy medium.

Imagine dying from traumatic asphyxiation. No, actually imagine it.

Cause of death: Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Press Release Report on the death of George Floyd

I want you to do an exercise with me. Trust me, it’ll be fun.

First, find your carotid artery. It should be easy – it’s where your gym teacher used to tell you to check your pulse after running around the track five times (you know, on the side of your neck just below your chin). Make sure you can feel your heartbeat. What you’re actually feeling is the carotid sinus, just before the artery branches to supply blood separately to the brain and the face.

Now, press gently into this nodule. You should feel your heartbeat a little stronger; you might feel a little uncomfortable. You’re starting to restrict blood flow to the brain and face now.

Try pressing a little harder; see how deep you’re willing to press into this artery before you can’t take it anymore. You might start to feel a pain in your chin as you affect nerves; you might start to feel a little light-headed, even.

Personally, I couldn’t take it for more than a few seconds.

Now imagine not a finger, but a knee, in that same spot. Imagine not a gentle pressure, but the weight of an adult male pressing into that artery. Try, if you can, imagining that this pressure is sustained for eight minutes. Imagine, if you can, the panic you might feel, the desperation, the utter despair as you realize that something is deeply, terribly wrong inside your body, as your sight narrows to a tunnel and eventually fades out, and yet you can still hear the people screaming around you to let you go.

There were two independent autopsies performed on the corpse of George Floyd; one by the county medical examiner, and one privately commissioned by his family. The above quote is the lighter of the two findings; the independent report found he “sustained pressure on the right side of Floyd’s carotid artery impeded blood flow to the brain, and weight on his back impeded his ability to breathe.” It also found he died at the scene, and not in the ER as the official report suggests.

With all that has happened since the death of George Floyd, the protests, the riots, the sustained militaristic police brutality and the despair that is sweeping the country, the one thing I haven’t to any great extent is a sense of compassion, of understanding, of the last eight minutes of George Floyd’s life.

You see, it’s easy to understand a dead person. They’re a corpse, a body, a bunch of dead flesh. They’re a thing. It’s also easy to understand a living person – we interact with them, they can speak, talk, love and laugh and cry.

But the in-between is glossed over. Nobody likes to think about the process of death, what it must feel like, what thoughts go through your head as you fade from the world. It’s a difficult thing to imagine, of course, because most people who pass through that experience don’t come back to tell us about it.

George Floyd didn’t come back. He died on the streets of Minneapolis in handcuffs with another man on his back, a knee in his neck. I wonder what he was thinking as he died. I wonder if he thought about his family, and whether he would ever see them again. I wonder if he thought to himself, I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m dying.

But there’s one thing I don’t wonder about. I don’t wonder whether he saw himself dying with his face pressed into the pavement and his chest and throat crushed. I don’t wonder if he was at peace with his death. I don’t wonder if he would rather have died as an old man, in his bed, surrounded by his family and loved ones.

Please – I know it’s difficult, but try to imagine what his death must have felt like. Not to the bystanders – not to the living left. To him. He was a person, a human, a living life that was violently and slowly extinguished, and I can’t stop thinking about what his last moments in this world must have felt like.

No one deserves to die like that. No one should be treated so cruelly by another human being. But most of all, no black person should have to fear that this could happen to them for no other reason than because they are black. No black person should have these thoughts running through their heads simply because of the color of their skin.

George Floyd’s death is tragic, yes; but it is also a cruel, horrific, unimaginably painful way to die, and the person who caused his death might have been better served putting a bullet in his head. And the people responsible are far more than Derek Chauvin who killed him. They are the people who allowed this country to get to the point where such a thing could happen at all. They the leaders, the people in power who continuously turn a blind eye and tell us that they deserved to die, that they had it coming, that they shouldn’t have resisted … you know the story.

Not only did George Floyd not deserve to die, he most certainly did not deserve to die so horrifically. Please – celebrate his life, remember his death, and do anything and everything you can to ensure no black person ever suffers so cruel a death again.

Pouring Trauma Into Art

My wife watches a lot of TV. Not bad TV – proper shows like The Sinner, and Prodigal Son (a lot of crime dramas, actually). I don’t; and not because I don’t like TV. I watch a lot of bad TV – mostly reruns of Family Guy and South Park. But it’s just a huge commitment for me to start watching a show that asks me to get invested in the characters. I was also burned badly by Lost and Heroes, so I tend to just avoid TV altogether unless it’s something I can mindlessly zone out to.

But my wife loves getting invested in shows and characters, and particularly loves British TV dramas; I think they tend to be more realistic and showcase the human nature side of things more than most US television. One show she’s been particularly into recently is No Offence, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek police procedural set in Manchester. At one point whilst Googling the show during its playback (I was in the room and partially paying attention), I mentioned that the show’s creator and screenwriter had also worked on another renowned British show, Cracker, known for its realistic and often dark portrayal of police work and criminal psychology, and for its deeply flawed and broken characters.

What struck me, though, was that in researching this writer, Paul Abbott, I discovered that he himself suffered from an abusive and broken past. Amongst other things his mother and father both left them, leaving his pregnant seventeen-year-old sister to raise the family; he was raped when he was thirteen, ended up trying to kill himself, and was ultimately admitted to a mental hospital.

They say write what you know, and in Abbott’s case this certainly seems to hold true. Not necessarily the police part, although I’m sure he had plenty of exposure to the legal system growing up, but the repeated traumas of his youth.

I think many authors look for ways to express their pain through their work, and the same holds true of artists, and generally creators of all kinds. It can be a kind of catharsis, a way of exorcising demons that would otherwise take hold and control our lives. When I listen to Korn’s Jonathan Davis’ solo album Black Labyrinth, I’m struck by how personal the album is; whether he’s hinting at things or outright stating “I deal with things inside that would make anyone else go insane”, it’s an album full of pain.

All of us are molded and defined by the events of our lives, but often there are one or two key aspects that carry forward throughout our days. For me, it’s depression; even though I don’t always feel depressed these days, and my bipolar is largely kept at bay with medication, depression will always be a defining characteristic for me – something deeply integrated into my psyche and personality, and something that defines who I am.

When it comes to my creativity, this naturally comes out. In The Redemption of Erâth, the entire story is largely an analogy for depression, from the darkness of the world to the inescapability of fate that brings people together only to tear them apart again. It remains to be seen if depression can be conquered, or if it will win over the world of Erâth.

There are so many different traumas that we suffer through, and of course different people will react to the same type of trauma differently; what inconveniences some can destroy others, and where some will blank it from their minds to cope and survive, others can never escape the pain. Creativity – art – can be for those people a powerful way of dealing with that pain, a way of externalizing it so that it hurts – hopefully – just a little bit less.