A waste of imagination or a career opportunity? (ERIN O’MARA PHOTO)
Watching “Stranger Things” made me question some of my life choices and I’m worried that I managed myself out of a lucrative career.
“Stranger Things” hits all the fear buttons: slimy, crawly things; a dystopian dimension; Cold War intrigue; and supernatural predators consuming minds and bodies. Kids and misfits are the heroes. It’s gory, terrifying, and redemptive.
I have a long list of movies that left me sleepless for weeks, so I banned horror from my viewing diet. But when the traffic overload for “Stranger Things” broke Netflix, I broke my rule and watched all four seasons. I wanted to be part of the in-group. I wanted to understand the draw and as I watched, I wondered if I could have been uniquely qualified for creating even stranger things than this.
I’ve gone a few rounds with anxiety, and I figured out early in life that my brain works in a way some other brains don’t. I’m wired for worry, so I had to find ways to cope.
In elementary school, we had regular nuclear attack drills. Sirens blared as we scrambled into the hall and lined up with our backs against the brick wall before sliding down to the floor. The teacher always explained that in a real attack, the classroom windows would blow out and the hall would protect us from flying shards of glass. I’d seen black-and-white video of a mushroom cloud and I was skeptical that any hallway was adequate protection.
I sat in position, face smooshed in bent knees, my heart pounding against my thighs. My classmates passed notes, asked for hints on interrupted quizzes, giggled and punched their neighbors. They took recess while I worried.
If only the nuclear war drills had interrupted one teacher’s obsession with ancient predictions of the end of the world. We spent the school year talking about Armageddon. He dissected all the destruction myths, including one predicting the end of the world that very year.
I anguished about if or how to tell my parents that our days were numbered. Would they want to know the day they’d die or is it better to be blissfully unaware? I don’t remember studying math that year because we weren’t going to need it. Even our spelling bees were crafted on theme: “Erin, you’re up. Spell ‘premonition.'”
My kitten calendar became a countdown to doom and I had to take it off my bedroom wall.
So, I learned to take cues from my friends, read the temperature in the room and consider my options. When I was in music class, did it need to bother me that nobody asked the old lady why she swallowed a fly? I still think it’s a twisted song. Was she starving? Why are we celebrating someone’s grandmother meeting a supernatural and super grisly end? But our gentle socks-and-sandals-clad music teacher was all in as he pounded the piano keys for “I guess she’ll die!” Everyone sang with gusto, so I sang too.
I’ve learned that brains are lazy, and they prefer to let familiar thought patterns, even harmful ones, run free and multiply. My brain leans in to lazy. Worry could have been my specialty.
But free-range anxiety exhausts me, so when I feel the first signs, a gentle strumming beneath my middle ribs, my brain and I have a confab and decide what will turn off the vibrations. Sometimes just acknowledging anxiety zaps its power. Sometimes I go through a decision tree and when I prove the dread in my core is just anxiety looking for a place to go, I give it an outlet and knock something off my to-do list.
Or I might add to my partner’s to-do list, because mental health is a family affair.
I have always thought these mental gymnastics showed highly honed coping and exceptional emotional intelligence that would smooth my path in life.
But “Stranger Things” made me think that if properly nurtured, my rabbit hole of worry could have been gilded in gold.
Lots of people make careers out of turning fright into entertainment, and with my innate talent for finding things to worry about, maybe I missed my calling? Stephen King has written umpteen horror books and movies and by all accounts he’s a well-adjusted, affable guy. I’ve watched bits and pieces of “Carrie,” enough to know there are brutal bullies and a tragic end, and the only Stephen King book I’ve read is the one he wrote about the process of creative writing. If I could go to dinner with him, I’d ask him how he creates scary things without being sucked into the fear within the worlds he creates.
Could I have nurtured that talent? My closet could have been a portal to another dimension, but when the door was ajar and my hanging clothes looked like willowy ghouls, I got up and closed the door on that possibility. I learned not to catastrophize when maybe I should have been learning to catastrophize creatively.
I made it through “Stranger Things” without losing sleep, so maybe I’m ready to make the leap?
Or maybe not.
I saw a trailer for a TV show. A man was riding up an escalator to meet his girlfriend waiting a floor above. He had love in his eyes and flowers in his hands. He was surely going to propose! He rose and his eyes locked with hers. She was radiant. They were almost close enough to touch and then — swoosh — the floor dropped from under him and he fell from sight, into the crushing bowels of the still-moving stair he was riding. The actress let out a piercing scream and my friend cackled and snorted, “That happens NEVER.”
A 15-second clip of the thing that will never happen hit me with a hint of the soul-crushing pain of losing a loved one and I wondered if escalator maintenance records are made public.
I’m not sure how I’d fare if I were in elementary school today, when active shooter drills and lockdowns have replaced Cold War drills. I didn’t notice back then, but now I understand that worry isn’t unique to me. The good news is, someone’s anxiety about anxiety led them to create a solution: 988 is the newly rolled-out dialing code to support those in crisis. Three quick digits to help; you can call or text.
Learning to cope is invaluable and I accept there’s no alternate universe where mining my worry yields television magic. For me, worry is a waste of imagination and not a well for creativity. My vision of creating even stranger things is behind me and my brain is free to ponder important things: dogs’ boopable noses, the wonder of Harpswell sunsets, and how amazing this house will look when my partner tackles his entire to-do list.
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.