night terrors

bat-27I pulled the blanket tighter until I was cocooned. Checking for gaps, I turned my head this way and that, my eyelashes brushing against the Jennifer Lopez-brand cotton sheet. I had never imagined that the green sheet we bought last year when the mattress was new might ever serve as my protection, a thin, cotton membrane between me and the bat I could hear swooping around the room.

The sound of it thudding against our bedroom door had woken me up. I’d tried willing it into non-being. When that didn’t work, I tapped Chris awake with that question you never want to hear from your partner at 2 AM:  “You awake?” He grumbled, but once it was clear that the bat wasn’t giving up – it was going to keep head butting our door indefinitely – he went downstairs to find a bucket.

When he opened the bedroom door, a brown figure past me — a flash of Voldemort, a dash of Wild Kingdom. As it started its madcap dance overhead, I battened down the 400-threadcount hatches and tried not to panic. It was like that moment after you find an odd lump under your skin. I tried to slow my breath as I thought: It’s ok, everything is fine. Remember how much worse this could be; your house could be burning right now, your kid could be sick. It’s just a small animal that happens to have wings. They’re good for the environment.

Even after Chris chased it around the house and finally captured and released it, I stayed awake with super sonic ears, waiting. Waiting for the scary, bad thing that might come. It’s like we know it’s going to come – the sound of the car crash, the diagnosis. And we spend all of this time waiting for it to come. In dread and anticipation. How not useful is that?

When I was a kid, I was certain that Charles Manson was coming to my house. A not very sage teenage babysitter had let me watch the television movie Helter Skelter, from which I knew that Manson had been discovered hiding in a cabinet under a sink, a space not initially searched because it seemed too small until a highway patrolman noticed a hunk of hair sticking out from the door. This terrified me – the seemingly too small space, the sign that nearly went undetected. Of course, I knew he was in prison, but anyone capable of the utter crazy terror that Charles Manson had masterminded was capable of finding his way to my house.

For years, the fear of Manson and later Ted Bundy persisted. I’d take a shower and actually jump when I opened my eyes — there was always that part in the shampooing process when I pretty much had to close them — and no one was there. I’m not sure exactly when these fears relaxed, when I counted it as highly unlikely that anything so extreme would be in my path. Perhaps it was when there seemed to be more mundane and yet very real life things worthy of my fears – financial collapse, say.

Most of us expect to be scared these days. Movies and books are all about crazy military-produced vampires that live under highway underpasses or kids killing each other for the entertainment of televised masses. It’s become so mundane, this deep-seated cultural awareness that the fear is right there under the skin.  Which is also why it’s easy to believe ourselves immune or just numb to it.

We are not unlike the California populace of Joan Didion’s The White Album who were both terrorized by Manson and somehow not surprised:

This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’—this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969…The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remembered all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

But it’s closer than some of us might admit. Try sleeping under fluttering wings — or whatever your “bat” may be — and fear is right there, quite alive. Living with bats this week (we’ve captured 15 of them as of this writing) has helped me to realize how much my fear is living just below the the surface. My Manson nightmares may be long gone, but it turns out that a bat is like a haiku version of the bloody epoch that was August 1969. Fear arises in milliseconds. Know that. And know that it’s what we do with it that is far more interesting than the reality of it.

I went through a period of being afraid to fly. When I was working on a book that took me to Los Angeles regularly, I was forced to observe it. For four hours at a time, sometimes several times a month, I got to buckle myself into a small seat and notice where the fear moved in my body, how it began, and what soothed it – even a bit. I got to see how each and every flight, it calmed and then ended totally when the wheels hit the ground. By the end of the book writing process, I could get on that LAX-bound plane and read or carry on a conversation without letting the fear yank me around. It was still there; a good-sized air pocket will still make me gasp. I was much better able to remind it that we’d done this before, though. We would land. The bat would fly away. Manson was a bizarre blip, and he’s still very much alive. Ironically, everything is more ok when I know that each of these things is real, its own improbable possibility.




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