HOW TO SURVIVE AN APOCALYPSE
April 6th, 2020
Words by Amber Anderson · Illustration by Elly Malone
I spent my whole childhood preparing for the end of the world.
It’s always been “the end of the world,” for me. I had a weird childhood, as many of us did, but I believe mine quite specifically set me up for coping with something like, say, a global pandemic. Ever since I can remember, my mum told me the end of life as we knew it was drawing ever closer. Specifically which apocalypse depended on the belief system she subscribed to that year. When I was four, we got wrapped up in a Mormon sect in Utah and had to escape with only our passports and the clothes on our backs.
When I was five, she said we had to prepare for the end of days; Jesus was coming back and that only 144,000 people would be saved. Terrified and determined to be one of the lucky ones, I quickly set about making a bed for Jesus on my bedroom floor using old blankets. I found him a bowl of fruit and a basin of water he could use to wash his feet. It sounds comical, but I was five. I believed in The End of the World as solemnly as I believed in my own name.
A year later, my mum became extremely fanatical about preparing for life without technology, medicine and food supply, upon the arrival of Y2K, or The Millennium Bug. We became semi famous as “The Millennium Bug Family,” for moving to a tiny farmhouse without central heating in the highlands of Scotland to escape the impending catastrophe. We appeared on the Richard & Judy show to discuss stockpiling. The press followed us to Scotland and shot us “surviving in situ,” surrounded by piles of wood for chopping and gigantic bags of rice. I remember going to sleep on New Year's Eve, emotionally prepared for the worst. I also remember waking up on New Year's Day, 2000, to the biggest existential anticlimax you could ever imagine.
It’s no surprise that I grew up with an anxious brain: one that automatically catastrophises, that hates surprises, that likes to be “prepared for anything" all the time, especially when there’s actually nothing to worry about.
My shadow has manifested psychically in the form of panic disorder, PTSD and depression (a fun mix), and, in my opinion, the most terrifying and crazy-making trauma symptom: derealisation and depersonalisation that can last for months at a time. I’ve been on a slow and imperfect journey over the past seven years to make peace with it, to learn what I need to feel safe and how to give it to myself. It’s not easy for any of us, but it’s just about the most worthwhile pursuit anyone can make, I think. To put your money where your mind is and learn the art of self-responsibility and of relinquishing victimhood. Of finding the meaning in the trauma and illuminating new purpose. And I’m pretty good now. I can sit still and not fixate on my heart beat or on the strange, constant pain in my left arm. This might sound basic, but it is one of my greatest achievements.
My mum, obviously, called this pandemic about two months before anybody else did. She stockpiled, she posted me a set of keys to her house in case I needed to “escape” London, and the night we celebrated my new film’s release, she gave me a “present” of a “Corona Virus Kit,” containing surgical gloves, masks, and colloidal silver.
I adore my mum (I really do), but my first thought was “Fuck you.” It was massively triggering. My shadow felt a little bit darker and heavier. I thought, “I won’t let you make me scared again.” The idea that she might be right this time was overwhelming and infuriating. I’ve lived through my fair share of ends-of-the-world and was determined that life would carry on as normal. I joked with my brother about Mum’s paranoia, tried to soothe my inner child and carried on drinking red wine in the pub with my friends.
But here we are: on lockdown and isolated. People are dying. And even those of us who are younger and lucky enough to be less at risk, including me, are suddenly extremely unemployed and living off what we can. It’s completely fucking terrifying for everybody, and our bustling, interwoven world has gone so quiet without all the noise and distraction. And I think that while we are all facing a global pandemic, we are also facing our own personal shadows—those sides of us we don’t like to reckon with. I painted a picture of my life only to draw parallels to the situation at hand but, in a way, none of it is relevant because everyone has their own subjective experience of being made to feel unsafe. Anyone with any kind of trauma (i.e., everyone) will be triggered right now.
It’s interesting though, what happens to us when we have to sit with ourselves. What is evoked and what presents itself to be either shed or held on to. Which is why I don’t believe that we should necessarily use this time to “be productive,” to bully ourselves into finally becoming a pastry chef or writing that book of poetry. If we want to, great, but if anything, I personally think the opportunity is in just being still.
I myself am trying to move my body every day if I can. My nervous system is primed for fear, and in a way, it’s where I feel the most comfortable: in that white hot space between discomfort and terror. But that’s not a healthy space to occupy, and I’ve noticed that, if I don’t at least stretch my body, the tension builds up, becomes physical. So I do yoga, cook, walk, read, have salt baths or stroke a cat. I’m taking every day as it comes. And that’s about enough.
I’ve been trying to think about how I can be of service and I feel that those of us who usually struggle badly with anxiety can provide a great one right now. Something I’ve learned is that, while anxiety and depression can have a tinge of narcissism and inward-facing energy, in the long term, an engagement with one’s mental health actually breeds more empathy and an ability to understand others better. I am able right now to talk not-usually-anxious friends off the ledge. To comfort and to explain the science behind certain physical symptoms they might not be used to.
I’ve been laughing at the irony of my childhood mirroring this new life so depressingly aptly, and it’s been nice to notice that, while it sort of feels like the End of the World, it’s not. I feel so connected to my friends. I am moved by the kindness of usually distant people: landlords and colleagues and strangers on the street. A friend of mine said to me once, “Grace is what you do when you’re scared.” I love that. I think about that every day right now, because actually, while it might be the end of the world as we know it, there is so much grace in the small and big ways people are responding. As anxious people, 95% of the things we worry about never end up happening to us. Now everything we feared is probably happening. But we are here, and mostly strong, and mostly connected.
Whether you’re anxious or not, what helps me right now is remembering that the number one most effective method of dealing with any situation is pure acceptance: to be your body’s best friend and to breathe into every feeling. It always does pass. My favourite psychological writer, Steven Hayes, describes our shadows as being like monsters at the back of a bus we’re trying to drive. We don’t need to argue with them, or try to persuade them to get off—we just have to drive. We have many more monsters at the back of our bus right now. But we just have to drive. Take every day as it comes. Not be in battles with ourselves, but allow it all and simply abandon the battlefield. There is always a stillness to be found. The life that always awaits us after the chaos melts away.
Amber Anderson is an actress and pianist who grew up on the north coast of Scotland. She lives in London and recently starred in Autumn De Wilde's "Emma."
Elly Malone is an illustrator and designer from Melbourne, Australia. You can find her illustrations and other quarantine content @ellymalone