If I have a motto, it’s: “expect the worst”. My brain, anxious and overactive, is always scanning the horizon for disasters, dwelling on worst-case scenarios. Even when things are going well, there’s always that little voice in my head telling me not to get too excited because it could all go horribly wrong, and I should be ready.
It’s not doing it to be malicious. It’s trying to protect me. For me, anxiety is all about being prepared and in control. I’m constantly working to stop the bad things from happening, but if I don’t, at least I’ll be in the brace position – and maybe I’ll come away in slightly better shape for it.
At work, as production manager for the Newcastle writers’ festival, my constant catastrophising comes in use: I put together our risk management plans. What if the marquee collapses? What if there are too many people on the footpath and someone falls into oncoming traffic? What if the wind catches one of our banners and sends it flying and it hits a passerby? By identifying the risks and looking at ways to minimise them, I claw back a sense of control in a world that seems so impossibly uncertain.
I’m far from the only one who thinks like this. I’ve found the more I’ve talked openly about it, the more people have told me about their own experiences with anxiety. While researching my novel The Morbids I realised that death anxiety specifically is more common than I could have imagined, and while a certain level of fear around death is normal, past a certain point it can be crippling.
Recent research suggests that death anxiety is a transdiagnostic construct, linked to and possibly underpinning a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Death is the one certainty in life, and so many of us spend a lot of time thinking about it.
But for all the time I’ve spent worrying about everything from tsunamis to trip hazards, I did not see Covid-19 coming. Like almost everybody, everything about this year has been a complete blindside.
That’s not to say I didn’t try. When word first came out of a strange virus in China, my brain went to work. The anxiety hit in tiny waves. The first one was: “What if I get it?” Early on, even to me, that was more a logistical problem than a health one. What if I can’t leave the house for two weeks? How much food will we need? What about the kids? What about work?
The second one was: “What if they cancel things?” I sat in meetings about the festival only half-switched on because a growing part of my brain just knew it wasn’t going to happen.
Lockdowns. Home-schooling. Border closures. Each wave felt completely impossible, completely unexpected. For all my catastrophising, I saw none of this coming.
Months on, I have a whole new playbook of things to be anxious about. I’m relatively lucky to live in regional New South Wales, so far avoiding the worst of a second wave, but still I look at every event I have in my diary for the next few months with a sceptical eye, not actually expecting them to happen.
I have a stash of masks, a drawer full of stationery for an inevitable return to home-learning, two weeks worth of staples in the pantry, probably more gin than strictly required. I doomscroll too much, impatiently waiting on the day’s numbers. My thermometer has never seen so much use. I see my psychologist and we work through these worries – but not well, because I’m constantly wondering if he and I will be the start of what will become known as “the Newcastle cluster”, and I can’t focus.
But sometimes the sheer scale of this thing we’re all dealing with makes me feel something completely different. I’ve spent so much time anticipating the worst, and yet when it came I’d completely missed it. Part of my brain wants to double down on anxiety, to be even more prepared – but another part is realising that no matter how hard I look I’ll never be ready for everything. I can’t be.
It’s terrifying, but it’s also freeing. I feel like I can let go, grip the wheel a little less tightly, let my fingers and my jaw and my shoulders relax. What will be, will be, and chances are I won’t see it coming – so maybe I can spend a little bit less time looking, and a little bit more time enjoying the good things that do make it through.
It’s fleeting, lasts only a second, because there’s so much doomscrolling to do: Melbourne is still at stage four and NSW is on a never-ending knife edge, there’s another set of numbers due, another presser to watch, another thing to be anxious about. But it’s there: the dimmest, faintest silver lining in the stormiest, scariest sky most of us have ever faced.
• The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey is out now via Allen and Unwin