I was diagnosed with a bona fide panic disorder when I was 22, but I didn’t realize until I went to therapy that anxiety had been following me around my entire childhood.
I was highly anxious as a kid and a teenager, but I honestly thought I just read too many horror stories. My favorite author was Stephen King, and I positively devoured his books from age eleven onward. I wanted to write horror stories, so not only did I read every book of his I could get my hands on, but I wrote my own horror stories too. It was the most fun, and it’s a riot to look back at the stuff I wrote as a kid — but I paid a price for it. Almost every single night, after reading or writing scary stories, I would lie awake with all the lights on (like, all the lights on. In the entire house) and replay all these ghastly scenarios inside of my head: Killer clowns. Murder. Creepy-ass ghosts. Abduction. Plagues. King was the best storyteller, but also probably the reason I hardly slept from age eleven onward.
One of the most illuminating quotes about anxiety actually came from Stephen King himself. I can’t quote it verbatim, but he talks about having a vivid imagination, and how his wife and kids think it’s like having a nice little movie in your head to entertain yourself when you get bored (which it is). But, he says, it can also turn on you. It has fangs. And it bites.
Unlike my anxiety in adulthood, my kid anxiety never really interfered with my life. Sure, I stayed up sometimes the entire night because I thought if I closed my eyes a monster would crawl out from inside my closet and drag me out of the bed, but other than that, I functioned day-to-day. But I also slept with the lights on every night. I had nightmares. I would often crawl into bed with my parents or, when I was younger than eleven, one of my brothers. Believe it or not, this still affects me, even in adulthood. I binge-watched the entire first season of True Detective in like six hours (so, so good) and then went, okay, I’m off to bed, goodnight! Except sleep never came. Every time I closed my eyes I would replay one of many (many) creepy scenes and my eyes would pop back open.
In some ways, it’s even worse after you have children. Because I don’t really give a crap about killer clowns and swamp monsters anymore, but start talking about child abductions and home invasions? Remind me that any number of horrors could happen to my precious babies? I’m sleeping with all the lights on again. In my kids’ room. With a baseball bat.
Amazingly, finding the right medication does wonders for this kind of thing. But like all medications, you get the best results if you combine it with certain tools. I’m pretty sure, from my brief stint as a social work student, that this is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If I was writing this on Cracked.com, I would call it a “life hack.” But in my brain, it’s How to Train Your Anxiety. My brain might be a fanged monster that bites, but here’s how I put a leash and a muzzle on it:
1. Aaaand … CUT! – I learned this in Girl Scouts, of all places, and it’s been surprisingly very effective. When I disclosed to my Brownie troop that I had crazy anxiety brain and couldn’t sleep because of it, one of the girls suggested that I replay the scary scene in my head, but keep the scene going after the scary part had ended. That was revelatory.
So picture Pennywise stalking toward you with his yellow cat eyes (ughh…). Then picture a bell ringing, a director yelling “CUT!”, the boom mike drooping down, an assistant hurrying over with a tray of scones, makeup artists touching up the white clown makeup on his face, lighting technicians adjusting the lighting. More importantly, picture Pennywise talking, and preferably being a huge whiner, complaining about his working conditions, because that’s hilarious.
This humanizes the monster (which I’ll talk about in a minute), but it also interrupts the spookiness and surrealism of the surrounding scene. Kind of like picturing somebody in his underwear to make him less intimidating. And, I guess, picturing everything else in their underwear too.
2. Deconstruct and disassemble – For some reason I watched a lot of Are You Afraid of the Dark? when I was younger, and holy crap was that a bad idea. One of their favorite tropes was scary ghost children that just stare menacingly, and it terrified me; not only did I sleep with all the lights on, but I would jump at every strange noise or shadow, even in the middle of the day. (That was actually one of the least scary things on that show, come to think of it: there were also these aliens without faces that scared the life out of me — and side note, what the actual fuck, Nickelodeon?!)
One way to make this a little less scary is to look at the scene critically and deconstruct it. Okay, so there’s a ghost kid standing on your front lawn just staring through your windows (shudder). But why is he just standing there? I mean, he’s a ghost, so presumably he can be anywhere, can’t he? And why, if you’re a ghost and you have a really important message from the other side to deliver, would you be just standing and staring? Wouldn’t you be, like, knocking down doors and rattling chains or whatever? No? You’d just be wasting all your ghost-time standing and staring? THAT MAKES NO SENSE, GHOST.
Once you get past how scary the ghost is, you realize pretty much nothing they do makes logical sense. And then it’s kind of funny.
3. Humanize the horror. I read a fascinating memoir once about an ex-coroner who lived in New Orleans. (Okay, it’s becoming more obvious as I write this that maybe I need to stop reading so much scary stuff…maybe my anxiety will take care of itself, if I do…) Someone had asked him how he dealt with the smell of decomposing bodies — bodies that had died weeks or months before they got to his office. The author said he did his best to power through it, but it was much easier if he imagined them as still-human, with feelings and opinions. They probably didn’t want to smell so bad, he reasoned. In fact, they’d probably be incredibly embarrassed by how bad they smelled. How humiliating! So in the back of his mind, whenever he came across a particularly smelly body, he’d keep in the back of his mind that person’s probable embarrassment. I guess that helped him ignore the smell. Or at least forgive it.
In the same way, if your kid is scared of ghosts (or yourself, even? Not that I know any full-grown adults who get scared of ghosts and have to sleep with the lights on still, no sir), have him strike up a conversation with whatever scares him. What’s the ghost’s name? What kind of TV shows does he like to watch? Does he like being a ghost? What kind of fun things can he do? Float through walls and shit? Because that would be fun. Make up a dialogue between you and the ghost and see if he has any interests other than just being creepy as shit.
All of these have been tried successfully by yours truly, because I definitely wasn’t going to give up reading Dean Koontz or Stephen King. So if your kid (or yourself, who knows, whatever, I’m not judging) is still sleeping with the lights on after watching an episode of Cold Case Files, maybe try one of these techniques on for size. They just might help.
You’ll thank me after a good night’s sleep.