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Javier Zarracina/Vox

How I became afraid

There was the flight from Seattle to Los Angeles when the power went out and we fell a hundred feet before the backup generators kicked in. Ten-second drop. My Coke hung in the air for a second before catching up with my glass. Lights flickered. Any mouth not busy gasping shouted out for — whom? The captain? God?

Ordinarily, and even in heavy turbulence, you only swing so far before another hard kick sends you back the other way. But this time, sometime in grade school when we still flew Alaskan Airlines to Seattle each Christmas, the kick didn't come when our bodies expected it. The plane tilted and dropped for a few seconds longer, long enough to be a proper fall. Long enough to throw flight attendants into rows, to scream, to let you think we could just keep falling, we might be falling all the way before a jerk and lift could contradict you.

I loved that. It was fun.

It was still 10 years before I would begin to panic on airplanes. Fifteen until the terror extended itself into the days before boarding, became a kind of long-lede dread, less fear itself than the gospel of its coming.

Real fear comes with takeoff. Some things are certain. I will be unable to eat or drink. I will not watch the in-flight movie. I won't talk or write or sleep, because sleeping means waking just seconds above the ground.

I developed certain mitigating rituals. Rituals such as: positive visualizations of landing, such as a mantra for tense moments (planes never crash), such as buying a new magazine at every Hudson's between the curbside and the gate and with each purchase becoming more bullish about the possibility of distraction.

But then taxi. But then takeoff. But then short breath and my hands in my hair and the moment the pilot eases off the throttle so the rumble and thrust of the engines stop, so you lose that sense of really pushing forward, so the body says to you, I fall backward now. And the sight of the ground — how so high already? — the sight of dirt and grass and trees between houses, at least a thousand houses visible at once now. They tell you what a long, sickening free fall that would be.

All those magazines, and I never finished more than a few stories, read in paragraph-length bursts between glances out the window, taking long, slow breaths when I could manage, waiting to fall, hands tightening, hands white and pulling apart another issue of Harper's Security Blanket.


We feel more imperiled when we feel physically vulnerable. People who think they are in poor health, regardless of whether they actually are, also feel like they are more likely to be victimized by criminals. The fear-mongering around Ebola on cable news is especially damaging because anxiety tends to breed more anxiety: The threat of contamination can lead to "mass psychogenic illness" in which people avoid things like gluten, vaccines, or windmills, simply because others do.

–Olga Khazan, the Atlantic, October 31, 2014


Years ago, when I still lived on the South Side of Chicago, I was admitted to an emergency room with fatigue and an incredible headache. The cause could not be immediately determined, but I responded to painkillers and was therefore released with an appointment for a CT scan if symptoms persisted.

They did persist, first in the form of a seizure. I was diagnosed with encephalitis, a rare condition for young people with intact immune systems. Doctors suspected that my immune system was therefore not what I believed it to be, and had nearly convinced me of this fact when tests revealed that aside from the viral infection in my brain, I was healthy.

An alternative theory was advanced: Months earlier, a blind date had a few drinks and put out a cigarette on my neck. I dressed the wound poorly; a small staph infection came and went. This, it was speculated, had briefly compromised my immune system. From there I had only been lucky.

I was warned that the medication often caused unpleasant side effects and that I ought to be prepared, beyond general aches and pains, for nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. But if I felt even the mildest of these symptoms, they were indistinguishable from the physiological variations of ordinary life.

On medical advice, I stopped drinking. I quit smoking. I felt, actually, fantastic. I would later dwell on the incongruity of feeling so healthy amid what was my first encounter with doctors driven beyond their usual smug confidence, but at the time I did not believe, really, that I was ill. The only planes that crash are those with other people in them.

I was declared healthy and went back to my life, a life that had never really paused, despite IVs and hospital lights, to consider its own limits anyway.


A report published by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the university reveals that about 15 percent of those surveyed had thought about the prospect of terrorism in the United States during the preceding week, significantly more than those who thought about the possibility of hospitalization (10 percent) or violent crime victimization (10 percent). ...

A large majority of respondents said the U.S. government has been very effective (33 percent) or somewhat effective (54 percent) at preventing terrorism, despite the fact that 69 percent endorsed the view that "terrorists will always find a way to carry out major attacks no matter what the U.S. government does."

–The Washington Times, April 15, 2013


I had a friend in Los Angeles who lived by himself in an apartment building that's a lot more expensive these days.

He'd dropped out of high school. He'd left home. He stole from our friend's mother's restaurant. He got fired.

He passed out on his radiator one morning, came to, and got all the way to his new gig in the Valley before he came out of shock and noticed the burns on his back.

We'd all been doing heroin, but he did a lot of heroin, you know?

He was a drag. He'd ramble at you about nothing for hours, a whole string of adjectives and a dozen tangential stories about a subject he forgot to include at the beginning of the sentence. He carried a knife. He liked taking it out and joking around with it, especially when he was too drunk to know what was funny anymore.

We avoided him more and more. A few of us said we'd call him on New Years but we didn't. I flew back to Chicago on January 2, and on January 3 he was dead.

I took heroin, too, but all I ever had to suffer was a long stint in the woods and missing a bit of senior year.


I now feel uneasy in all public spaces. When my girlfriend and I went to see Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation on opening day we were running a little late, so we had to sit in the front row. It had only been a week since a gunman shot two women in a Louisiana movie theater. I felt exposed, and cast a quick glance at any person who walked in late, anyone who got up to pee. I told myself that if it looked like anyone was reaching for a gun, I'd bum rush him before he had a chance to get a shot off. I stopped holding my girlfriend's hand because my palms were so sweaty.

–Steve Neumann, Vox, October 2, 2015


In Chicago, the Jackson Park Express runs between the Loop and the South Side. The route is popular, and at peak hours the city runs double-length buses on it, two carriages with a gray plastic scrunchie between them.  When the front carriage takes a turn, the scrunchie bends 90 degrees and then bends back as the second carriage levels out in the new direction of travel.

I left the South Side when I left the University of Chicago, but for years after I visited nearly every week. I rode the Express often. I typically sat in the back, and when we came to one of the big turns onto a busy street, Roosevelt or Columbus or Lake Shore Drive, I saw the front carriage suddenly blown away, another bus or a train or something else striking it with spectacular force, the scrunchie snapping back straight just in time to bring my half around for a clear view, the front of the compartment gaping open now, exposed to the exploding seats and metal and glass just ahead.


Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday asked the State Guard to monitor a U.S. military training exercise dubbed "Jade Helm 15" amid Internet-fueled suspicions that the war simulation is really a hostile military takeover.

The request comes a day after more than 200 people packed a meeting in rural Bastrop County and questioned a U.S. Army commander about whether the government was planning to confiscate guns or implement martial law.

–Talking Points Memo, April 29, 2015


On February 4, 1977, during rush hour, a CTA elevated train rear-ended another on the northeast corner of Wabash Avenue and Lake Street, forcing the first four cars of the rear train off the tracks, killing 11 people and injuring 180 as the cars fell onto the street below.

Sometimes on the Northeast Regional there is all of a sudden another train on the opposite track, passing you so fast you don't even notice until it's halfway by. Metal extremities clicking, the thunderous mutual echo of two locomotives in close proximity. It's just upon you all of a sudden, but a few inches off, and that's how fast annihilation comes.

At 30,000 feet, at least, the earth cannot sneak up on you.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

I wonder if that's what really happened. Like I wonder when I cross the street on foot and a car passes behind me, and I think how I was hit and how my brain has used the last of its oxygen to let me imagine reaching the other side.

"The conditions in the passenger cabin are not known," writes William Langewiesche on the 2009 loss of Air France Flight 447. "Though the unusual motions must have been noticed by some, and the passengers seated in front may have heard the cockpit alarms, there is no evidence that panic broke out, and no screams were recorded."


"Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning," Georgia Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey, a medical doctor, wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gingrey and other Republicans have claimed that Latino immigrants are carriers for Ebola, particularly via the U.S.-Mexico border.

"One of the reasons why I've been so adamant about closing our border, because if people are coming through normal channels — can you imagine what they can do through our porous borders?" former Massachusetts senator and now New Hampshire Senate candidate, Scott Brown said in a radio interview.

–CNN, October 18, 2014


For two years after I was told that my brain was no longer sick, I feel fine. The scar on my neck heals. I begin to drink and smoke again.

I work at home and rarely leave Chicago. I abandon my car, I don't renew my subway pass, and I walk in as distracted a state as I can muster.

On a clear afternoon in October, I am convinced I'm having a heart attack. I stand. I go up and down the long, narrow kitchen of my apartment. I am dizzy, so I go out on the nearest major street and walk back and forth between the grocery store and the McDonald's, so that if I collapse, someone will see me. This happens every day for a week.

I accept on the third day that I am not having a heart attack, I suppose because heart attacks don't happen in two-hour intervals over the course of several days. But still: I feel something like a shot of vertigo. My heart rate climbs. I have trouble breathing, and my head threatens to follow any motion through its logical course toward the ground. I experience what I would later see described in a diagnostic manual as "overwhelming feelings of impending demise."

So it's a series of strokes, I decide. Or multiple sclerosis. It's lupus. It's AIDS. I dig my fingers into my throat and discover a lump beneath the scar tissue on my neck. It's cancer, then, this is paraneoplastic syndrome.

It's panic attacks, really. All in my head. The lump is a lymph node; the original infection scarred it, and it has been there slightly elevated all along, I just hadn't noticed it before. Still: Tests are conducted in the interest of extra safety. They come back all clear. I am told that sometimes these things just happen.

Well, okay.

The Mayo Clinic defines hypochondria — illness anxiety disorder — as an illness best self-diagnosed.

Is this a joke?


In New York City, during a summer, I lived in an apartment with a black wrought-iron ladder outside my window. After weeks without incident, I climbed up it one night and discovered I could not climb back down. It was all of a sudden like the plane: My body told me that gravity was backward and irresistible and I would follow it down to death.

It was around this time that I became unable to look at a building of any real height, nor look out from inside one, without imagining the ways it might collapse. The skyscraper folds in on itself. It twists. All the concrete and glass scarcely able to support its own weight, needing only the displacement of my body toward a window to tilt until it heaves, head over trunk, top weight falling, pulling bottom weight up, steel snakes ripped up from the concrete and dust, and still somehow, when I imagine this, my body is intact and aware and falling.

By 24, I am afraid of so many things.

Buses, trains, cars, airplanes; heights and buildings and ladders; my own body — in other words any vehicle liable to sudden mechanical failure, to destruction by malice or by negligence, to breaking, either by wear or by defect or by sudden collision with another object.

The fears didn't all come on at once, and I tried to avoid the first few for a while. But I don't avoid anything anymore. What would be the point?

When I was 21 years old, I went to see a long show on Broadway. During the first intermission, I heard that Amy Winehouse was dead. During the second intermission, I learned that a cousin had hanged himself in California. He died a few days later. Three months after that, a blind date put a cigarette out on my neck, and the infection led to a seizure brought on by encephalitis, but I lived.


This is not quite like any other war; nor can it be fought with previous wars’ weapons. Ranged against Islamic State is the military might of the United States, the European states and, now, Russia. Surely, with the military and intelligence technology at their disposal, they can destroy a force which seeks to bring down 21st century civilization and substitute for it a mediaeval theocracy?

Yet working for the theocrats is the sluggish reluctance of the liberal, consumer societies of the West to gear up for war; to surround themselves with new security systems which will inhibit travel and entertainment; to lose or reduce the liberal safeguards which have been regarded as indispensable. Working for them, too, is a hatred so pure that young men can stride among the bodies of other young men, and women, and shoot those who moved — then blow themselves up. Working for them is the lack of our comprehension about how serious they appear to be.

This, I think, adds up to war: and an existential threat. A threat to our existence, our way of life.

–Reuters, November 18, 2015


Suskind describes the Cheney doctrine as follows: "Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It's not about 'our analysis,' as Cheney said. It's about 'our response.' ... Justified or not, fact-based or not, 'our response' is what matters. As to 'evidence,' the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn't apply."

–John Allen Paulos, ABC News, July 2, 2006


Conventional wisdom holds that children are more adaptable than their elders, that they are best-equipped to navigate a rapidly changing world. But childhood is the belief that history happened to grownups and ended at birth. Adulthood is the preoccupation with adaptability, concern about a rapidly changing world.

The main way the world changes is you notice you're in it, and then you notice that you won't be after a while.

I don't know why I developed a special sensitivity toward death. I don't know that it's special, although I suspect it is more acute than average. I know that for the first 20 or so years of my life, I was fine. Sometimes, usually in a car, I remembered the facts, but I remember also that they would become obscure to me again soon — the mind is proficient at that.

Then one day I remembered, and I didn't forget.

I know that a friend and a family member died. I know that I came close on two occasions. I know that in almost any other human generation this would be something lucky, because ordinarily doing anything at my age requires making it through a war or a pandemic at the age that I was just fucking around Los Angeles.

In an interview with New York magazine last year, Catherine Belling, an associate professor at Northwestern University, said that irrational fears like hypochondria represent an inability to give rational fear its proper context, a context "where you can continue to function normally rather than being paralyzed by it."

I don't know about that. For these past few years, irrational fear has been the only means by which I have been able to function normally at all. Without it, I would only have ordinary fear, the small, rational kind that I found myself unable to ignore. The fear of injury. The fear of dying. The fear that I will not get away with it next time, that I will not be the cousin who lives or the friend who lives or the one who emerges unscathed from every poor decision and in spite of every trial of probability.

I'm afraid, and I don't want to be.

When I could no longer ignore the small fact of my frailty, I puffed up my terrors as large as they could be so I could call them overblown. I have never thought my panic around airplanes was rational. I have never put faith in my fantasies about buses and trains crashing, or of buildings turning on themselves and collapsing. I have never believed that this was it, that the small pain in my side was really some cancer, but I still felt real fear. It was in this disconnect that I could identify a problem and not a threat.

I told myself to stop being hysterical and moved on. I told myself this every time I thought there might be anything to fear at all. It's just in your head — to all of it.

And I was safe again. I could dismiss all my worries.

The plane is rocking and kicking and falling. But my dread is all my fear of flying — therefore, planes never crash.

Nor do cars or trains or buses.

People never fall from ladders, because I fear that I will fall from every ladder. Buildings don't collapse, either. Any sense of sickness is my hypochondria — therefore, I can never be ill.

I am so afraid of dying it follows that I will never really die.

We hide small fears inside of big ones. That's one way of coping.


"I feel the American Republic is in the deepest crisis of my lifetime," said the writer Jonathan Schell, fearing that though Arendt's "checklist" for totalitarianism is only partly satisfied by current conditions in the United States, 'we are on the edge of that abyss.

The philosopher Susan Neiman, the author of a subtle book, Evil in Modern Thought, interpolated her discussion of the crimes of Hitler and Stalin with wonder about whether more guilt should be ascribed to Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz for the war in Iraq.

The political scientist George Kateb, after giving a supple discussion of Arendt's views of morality, turned angry when applying her ideas to the current scene, seeing "the rudiments of a police state" here, and finding evidence of the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

–New York Times, October 9, 2006


The world won't get worse in an instant. Decline is never quite catastrophe. Our bodies will not fail us all at once. Buildings will not fold in on themselves. Airplanes will not fall from the sky, demanding explanation.

There will be illness — but just a little more. No nations left empty, no stacks of bodies burning, a signpost for apocalypse.

What does scripture say? The sun became black as sackcloth, and the moon became as blood. The heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together and every mountain and island were moved out of their place.

Yeah. It won't look like that.

"The glittering worlds lay there in space like a promise — the world was not the universe," writes Graham Greene. "He could not believe that to a watcher there this world could shine with such brilliance: it would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship."

That's closer.

The world was better suited to the terror of an explosion. Boom. Then boom. Boom. Boom.

By the time it got started, there would be nothing to do. So long as we were terrified, it wasn't yet happening at all.


Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was the first man killed by a plane he wasn't flying. September 1908; Orville Wright was the pilot. The propeller shattered on the fourth round above Fort Myer, and the plane fell 150 feet, much of it nearly perpendicular. Lt. Selfridge up to this time had not uttered a word, Orville later wrote his brother, But when the machine turned head first for the ground he exclaimed 'Oh! Oh!' in an almost inaudible voice.

The fatal plane crash had not yet been invented. Lieutenant Selfridge discovered, however briefly, a new kind of catastrophe to fear.


I smoked cigarettes for a long time, and when I quit I felt sicker. Even after the first months after the physical stuff had mostly gone and I had the distance necessary to begin rewriting the worst of my memories, I felt frail. I'd scraped the soot out from my lungs but left them raw to the world.

Most of the smokers I know joke about lying to their doctors. I never did. I liked when they told me to stop. This was the best part.

Different doctors employed different degrees of urgency. Have you thought about quitting?became, in another city and another exam room, You should quit. And then, Quit! It was eventually self-conscious: I suppose you know I have to tell you to quit. As in, I am a doctor after all, ha ha.

What they rarely did was make any recommendations otherwise.

Quit smoking was for a decade item one on my medical to-do list, and procrastinators will recognize the value of a difficult first task. So long as quitting was the single greatest step I could take toward better health, a necessary first step before better eating or exercise would make much difference anyway, I didn't yet need to worry about items two or three or 10.

So long as I was smoking I had nothing else to do.

Let me go further: So long as I was smoking, I would never reach the point where there would be nothing more to be done.

When I quit, I no longer had an emergency break; an obvious vice on which to pin every illness, something I could abandon if things ever got too bad and excise any ailment along with it. I quit smoking and remained mortal. I didn't cough every day, but I still coughed some days. I could breathe easier but will still stop breathing.

In the anti-smoking literature you can find on the internet, the message boards for quitters and the guides for getting through the first few days or months or hours, there's a common reminder that the only choice you've got is whether you are a smoker or you aren't one.

You can't negotiate, the lit says. You can't bargain. You think you can control the small things, but you can't. The problem gets so big that it must be dealt with entirely. There's no, "I'll just have one." There's no, "I'll just have a couple," or, "Just one more day," or, "Just on the weekends." You smoke or you don't.

But the only time I ever felt like I was bargaining, the only time I felt like I was making some kind of deal, was when I looked in the bathroom mirror at a friend's place in Ashland, a month after my last cigarette and the first time in a decade the quit didn't feel like a false start, and said, You did it, motherfucker. You quit smoking. Now you never have to die.

Emmett Rensin is deputy First Person editor at Vox.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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