Madeline O’Connor

Normalize Being Scared Out of Your Fucking Mind

Richard Chase, also known as the Vampire of Sacramento, was well known for only entering homes where the front door was unlocked. I remind myself of this fact as I peer out from my bedroom at the front door left open to “let the air in.” I don’t care that I’m in Torrance, about four hundred miles south of Sacramento. I also don’t care that he’s been dead for about forty years and was in custody for even longer. In my mind, the dead walk, and the dead break into houses and kill your whole family.

At this time, I have a bedroom to myself, and it’s the first line of defense for anyone who comes in through the aforementioned front door. It’s my moral responsibility to make sure that no one gets killed. While staring out into the dark beyond the windows, half expecting to see a face staring back at me, I tiptoe towards the door of doom, imagining looming shadowy figures in the front yard that aren’t there. I swing the door shut and lock it in a rush. With no time to spare, I scatter back into my bedroom, bury my lower body underneath my blankets, and stare at the cracked stucco ceiling. A ceiling that I’m convinced is going to cave in on me at any given moment, despite the cracks not being structural, but that’s a paranoia for another day.

This is the most peaceful time. The time when I momentarily believe I’m safe. This period of serenity only lasts for about five minutes before the what-ifs start to plague me again. Not every killer is repelled by a simple locked door. If they want to kill you, they’ll find a way to do it, no matter what. I’ve seen enough episodes of Criminal Minds. I need to be prepared and listening. Any sign that something is wrong in the house or someone has breached the borders needs to be watched out for, and I need to act accordingly.

And then it happens. I hear a noise outside. It varies by night; sometimes it’s a thud, sometimes it’s a skitter, sometimes it’s even whispers of a conversation that are too close to my yard for my liking, but either way, the noise is there and the noise is real. A real threat, that is.

I usually take a few minutes to contemplate my doom and whether calling for help is even worth it. It could be just like all the other nights. You’re still alive. Maybe it’s just a raccoon. Or a cat. You live in a relatively safe neighborhood. What are the odds?

I consider these concepts wholeheartedly, every night, but always arrive at “Fuck that,” and do what I always do. Call my father to alert him of the danger. Of course, I could just walk the thirty feet or so it would take to arrive in my parents’ bedroom, but don’t be ridiculous. For all I know, there could already be the next Richard Ramirez in my living room waiting to strike.

The phone rings once. Twice. Three times. My heart thuds in my chest.I think about how that heart could have a knife in it in the next five minutes if I don’t play my cards right. By the time I’ve envisioned my blood spewing all over my purple sheets, my father picks up the phone.

The conversation we individually have every night isn’t important, but it’s usually the same. I tell him I heard something outside, and he says he’ll go and check to make sure it wasn’t anything. Sometimes there’s added words of assurance, but at this point we both know it’s routine. It takes him about five minutes to go outside, scan the yard, and come back into the room and tell me what he saw. Five minutes where I’m holding my breath and praying that he wasn’t ambushed by a rogue axe murderer that I’m sure lingers in the shadows.

He gives it to me straight. A raccoon this time. It was just a raccoon. Afterwards, we exchange meek pleasantries and sweet nothings of comfort before he leaves me to fall asleep. I instead continue to stare at the ceiling, mind churning until I can’t keep myself awake anymore. It’s only then that I finally fall asleep, when I’m physically unable to keep guard anymore. 

This is my nightly routine, has been for the past few years of teenage life, and I assume it to be perfectly normal and healthy. Because of course it is. They always say you should live like you’re going to die at any moment, right?

There are nights where I hear footsteps in my living room and convince myself, breathless, that this is the end, and that in the next five minutes I’m going to be on the wrong end of a pistol to the head. When I hear my mom get ready in the early hours of the morning to go to school, I convince myself an intruder is making the rounds. Hell, I hear my sisters go to the bathroom and I don’t even think that the noise is someone breaking in, I’m just terrified that while they’re out and about, someone is going to take the time to strike.

Writing this all out now, in hindsight, I can see how absolutely ridiculous the theatrics of this all are. The odds of being killed in my home are slim to none. I knew this even at the time, and logic would be screaming in the recesses of my brain about how irrational all of this is while I went through the routine. There were real issues I should be worried about, and if anything was going to happen to me, it wouldn’t be in my own home. But no, though the fears of homophobic hate crimes and gun violence, as American as apple pie, was certainly on my mind, they weren’t as consuming as this was, despite being far more rational concerns.

I normalized being scared out of my fucking mind over a situation where the odds of it occurring were quite literally close to zero, and let it consume my life. Normalized it so much, in fact, that I only realized that something was wrong when I confessed to a friend.

“So you’re telling me that every night, you’re unable to sleep because you’re so paranoid that the next Richard Ramirez is going to slaughter your whole household, and you being awake and hiding under your blankets is somehow going to prevent that from happening?”

“…Well when you say it like that–”

“You’ve never considered the possibility that you might have an anxiety disorder?”

And there it was. According to what I affectionately deem Dr. Google, anxiety in a psychological context is defined as “a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.” If you investigate further than the information that shows up in the dictionary tab, you would also find that one of the diagnostic criteria is that it has to impact your day to day life to enough of an extent to be considered a disorder.

At first, still living under the delusion that being paranoid about being murdered in your home constantly was a normal thing to do, and completely ignoring my other anxiety-induced behaviors, I dismissed this as not applicable to my situation. I was still able to live my life, right? It was only when, one night, in the midst of a panic attack incited by a thunk on my window that later turned out to be a nearby tree branch swaying too far in the wind, I did some self-reflection and had a moment of clarity. It wasn’t healthy to live like this. I needed help.

Now I live in a world of antidepressants, weighted blankets, and bi-weekly psychiatrist appointments, but I’m not nearly as paranoid as I used to be. I’m able to fall asleep at night without lingering on the human monsters that potentially go bump in the night. Sure, I’m rationally cautious when it comes to living my life, especially with the legitimate threats out there in the world, but I don’t let fear consume me to an unhealthy extent anymore. By the time I went off to college, on the other side of the country, the nightly paranoia was negated almost entirely. I do say almost. Occasionally, once in a blue moon even, I find myself struggling to fall asleep out of that familiar, irrational fear that someone is going to kill me. I stare out my dorm’s window at the dead of night, expectantly waiting for someone to stare back, with the glint of a knife reflecting off the light of the moon. Except now, I’m able to process my feelings, dismiss them, and have a healthy night of sleep. And at the end of the day, I’m more than glad that that’s my new normal.

Madeline O’Connor is a freshman at Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA, pursuing a degree in History and minors in Creative Writing and Japanese. Previously, they’ve been published in their school’s literary magazine, The Lantern. When not writing, they enjoy watching Succession, reading queer literature, and getting emotional over cat videos.

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