It only happened once

November 16, 2020

I was recently given one of those really simple yet profoundly changing metaphors for the handling of gnarly crap.

“It only happened once,” this person I’ve never met, who creates content based on listener requests, was inexplicably inspired to say in response to my horrific tale of feeling like the world’s worst human as a beautiful but disproportionate, in terms of antler-to-body development, button buck was nudged to his knees, and then to his belly, and then back to his feet on which he ran trembling back into the woods from whence he’d just appeared.

I was right by the Kinzua Dam when it happened. It’s a road I’m familiar with. I’d avoided scads of the creatures in the hours preceding this terrible event. But this one dude just had a date with my car and it sucked. For both of us, it sucked. Once the deer was up and running back to the safety of the brush beyond the roadside, I’m sure he didn’t spend the rest of his night brooding over the cruel nature of our shared world.

I did. I churned the events leading up to, and during, and immediately following, over and over in my mind like a roiling batch of cognitive poison. I imagined alternate realities, such as the one in which I jerked the wheel to the right abruptly, saving the life of the deer but delivering my vehicle, with me inside, directly to the bottom of the water abutting the rear of the dam. Then the one where I was able to hit the brakes just in time, and the gods of Physics smiled on me, as I drifted slowly to a graceful stop within centimeters of the beast’s rib cage. And then an unknown defect in the make and model of my vehicle became immediately apparent as the whole thing just spontaneously combusted with me inside due to the mechanical stress of it all.

The deer roasted marshmallows over my body in that one. For the sake of scene setting. A couple of other forest miscreants actually joined him and by their powers combined managed to procure the sticks and mallows needed to enjoy a heartwarming evening of fellowship and simple carbs until the state police arrived to investigate my cause of death.

I must have pitched and developed a dozen such choose-your-own-adventure narratives. Well. I didn’t. My brain did.

This listener-inspired moment of zen awareness dovetailed nicely with a PBS limited series I’ve been watching on the brain. On the mechanics of it. On how neuro-electrical impulses developed over decades of experiences, emotions, interactions, events, and traumas creates the reality that we know so richly as beings but which, to our brains, are just a series of chemical reactions in a sealed environment of darkness and warmth.

My brain has never had an emotional reaction to having unintentionally harmed one of the most benevolent – if not one of the most feckless – creatures on the face of this earth. But it crafted one for me to have.

This creator, he went on to indulge in a story aimed at the self-disclosure necessary to leave a listener truly identified with the audio enough to absorb the lessons, like little charms of wisdom and insight baked into a loaf of the fortune-telling harvest bread that is apparently a staple among his people.

He, it turns out, had hit a dog. Or the character through which he delivered the monologue had, at least. He hit a dog. One time. Then he hit the dog a thousand times again, in his own head, by giving in to his brain’s attempt to make logical sense of the event.

Our brains, man. They are all about that logical sense-making.

And they’re amazing. The human brain is a three-pound hunk of pure magic. How the depths of individual realities can be crafted through the chemical interactions that happen there will blow my own mind until the end of time. We as a species, the brains that produce and live inside of us, are nothing short of divine technology.

But we are so, so bad at using them. What we kick hiney at – myself perhaps most sinisterly implicated – is letting these amazing chunks of organic alchemy use us.

I’d been replaying the event – the film my brain so thoughtfully recorded and directed and cast me to star in with neither consent nor forewarning – for weeks at this point. I’d been torturing myself without even realizing it. I’m so good at being in my brain. When poop hits fans my default setting is to climb above the fan and investigate how it happened and how I can make it not happen again. I’m so good at hypothetical and abstract thinking, it feels amazing to be able to evaluate my own experiences as if doing so gives me one iota of what I’d ultimately need to stop being subject to the fickle, flailing dance of fate: control.

I cannot control my environment. I could not prevent the placing of this large ruminant mammal in front of my car that night. I am not Miss Cleo. And since I could not have predicted it, I couldn’t have much prevented it either. You can’t just drive every mile you travel at a steady pace of 16 miles an hour in case something happens.

Unless you’re over eighty and have some kind of special stamp on your license.

I think it’s an actual law that you can totally drive everywhere at 16 miles an hour if you qualify.

Even then, though, who’s to say that an 86-year-old granddaddy deer isn’t going to just waddle out onto the road in front of you and, all things being equal, you’d hit him anyway. Because you’re both eighty. And the actual impact will be the most speed or force either of you was probably likely to ever experience again.

I have anxiety. In most contexts. To a greater or lesser degree based on how much or how little I care whether the people around me find me acceptable. It’s pretty unlikely, regardless of where or when or how you run across me, if you ever do, that I am anxious about it to one degree or another.

And I usually recoil in horror at rhetoric that asks me to assume responsibility for the level of anxiety I’m feeling at any given point. The current temperature in mental health is that we place no expectations on people to assume responsibility for an organic condition of their brain which causes them to experience and live within the world in a particular way.

Some people are just more able to navigate their issues and hangups than others. And that’s okay.

But when the ruminative loop I’d been engaged in for weeks was picked up like the tantruming toddler it was and placed neatly within a tangible metaphor – that of a film – it was like the house lights came up and the orchestra pit went dark and I looked down and realized that I’d had the remote control in my hot little hands this whole time.

Look, trauma is real. Sensitivity is real. We can’t extract those things from ourselves and live a natural life. They’re present within us. But we can learn how to operate them. I’ve been told my whole life, culturally, that the level of sensitivity that leads me to worry about a deer I may have harmed – but may not have too, since he got up and ran away flipping his little white stub tail at me like what I have to assume it was; an expressive middle finger in deer language – is a handicap. Something to be controlled.

Which is kinda lame. Because I have no more power to control it than I did to control the movement of the deer who really bummed me out by walking out in front of me instead of just grazing picturesquely on what remained of the late-autumn grass at the roadside. But I can control how much attention I give to the intrusive memory of it, which is really nothing more than a vignette thrust upon me by my brain’s unslakable thirst for meaning and reason.

I only hit the deer once. I guarantee I felt worst about it, unnecessarily, for a lot longer than I had to, and definitely worse than he did. And I have to wonder how many other overwhelming intrusive memories I can apply to the big screen and shut off with the same remote. So thank you, random audio man, for choosing my idea. Because now I’m involved in a complete neuroscience experiment on myself based on your one seemingly simple reframing of an experience.

Null hypothesis: I’d do a lot better by taking the energy I waste trying to control the world around me and apply it instead to pre-screening my own mind movies.

I’m about to become my very own Roger Ebert.

Pretty wound up to give it a try.

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