Dark Thoughts at the Holidays

*the cat is just Missy, she’s fine

Happy holidays. Let me define “dark thoughts” for my purpose here – I’m not talking about suicide ideation or anything closing in on that. These aren’t depression-related, either. If anything, it’s a mixture of anxiety, compassion fatigue, and maybe some vicarious trauma thrown in there. 

Dark thoughts, for me, are “intrusive imagery,” or maybe “unbidden thoughts.” Things in your head that you didn’t try to put there, and – at least for this little blog post – things that really suck. I think everyone gets them from time to time, but I’m only in my one head so I don’t know.

I use the word “fun” a few times in this post, entirely sarcastically. I’m also trying not to put in the details of my thoughts, even though they would certainly add colour. Horrific details, even details of things that are just thoughts and never happened, have the potential to hurt others, and writing them would definitely hurt me. The most specific I get is with thoughts about fire.

I thought I would do this now, in mid-December, because this time of the year is all happy and bright, and having dark thoughts these days is particularly awful. But what better time to write about it if that’s what I want to do – pretending like everything is perfect is destructive, after all.

So here’s what my brain does, against my will:

Sometimes without wanting to I remember a particularly terribly news story or real-life anecdote – more likely a particularly terrible detail from it, and can’t really stop my entire mood from darkening, no matter how many times I’ve thought about that detail before.

Worse are the thoughts of what might happen – I think about awful things happening to my family, my friends, my cats, my foster cats. I don’t just mean ordinary awful things – I do get some of those, like car accidents; injury; illness; escape, and getting, and staying lost (in the case of my cats) – but most of the intrusive imagery I get are truly deranged things, like if the cruelest person ever got a hold of any of them. Why? How is this useful to me? Those thoughts are often also coupled with details of where I am while it’s happening and why I can’t do anything to save them.

These, and the others that follow, are worse than the news stories or anecdotes not because I’m imagining things happening to my people (although that’s part of it), but really because they’re things that aren’t happening, that haven’t happened, that probably won’t happen – what a waste of time and emotion, then, thinking about them.

Ever since I started working at the shelter, I periodically can’t help but think about the entire shelter burning down. When I was a kid, I thought frequently about our house burning down, and I still do that. How fun. Now I get to imagine the horrors of trying to find my very timid cats should such a thing happen. Even though it probably won’t. When I think about the shelter burning down, a fun thing that happens is that I think about the different sections of the shelter that a fire could be contained in, and the faces and names of each animal currently housed there run through my mind in a horrific little roll-call of who would die.

Since moving in on my own, my dark thoughts about what might happen to me specifically have gotten… darker. It’s weird because I sometimes go for walks, even in the evening, completely alone, and I’m not scared. But when my mind is idling, every so often, my brain likes to show me all of the horrible things that, again, some ridiculously cruel person might do.

I have had these since I was a child. I frequently cried myself to sleep, imagining that my cat would be stolen and harmed. I was around 10 the first time I can remember having this happen. Over the last couple of years, it has gotten more frequent – but I’ve figured out how to not dwell on the thoughts, at least, so no more crying myself to sleep. Usually.

These days, if I get a long one, I respond by physically tossing my head, and mentally deciding that, actually, no, we’re not doing this today, brain. Most times, the thoughts and imagery are too quick for me to decide to stop them by focusing on something else. No matter what, they darken my mood and then I feel guilty enjoying myself for a little while – even laughing at something funny on TV seems wrong, as if it’s somehow disrespectful to the people and animals who my brain decided I needed to randomly consider terrible things happening to.

It’s particularly jarring if I get images of my cat being hurt and she’s right next to me, so in my mind she’s suffering, and in real life she’ll yawn or stretch or something and is clearly fine.

When I’m alone (among cats), it’s one thing. I hate it the most now that it sometimes happens when I’m around people. I was recently in the middle of a conversation with my mom and she was driving us somewhere, and I got one of them and it threw me off. Now I can’t even remember what that thought was, I just remember it was awful and it affected my mood for a few minutes. I was talking to my mom! There was scenery as we drove to wherever we were going! I had other things to think about! Come on, now, brain.

At this point, I have nothing else to say about these. I don’t know what to do about them. They’ve been a reality for so long, that I think the only way I’ll go to a therapist about them is if they keep getting worse.

For now, I’m doing a couple of things that so far have seemed to help at least a little bit: I read at night, as often as I can, and I listen to more ASMR at night. Both are helpfully soporific, and since bedtime is the major time for the worst of the worst thoughts, both books and ASMR have been helping keep the night thoughts at bay, though not stopping the random day thoughts.

Here’s one I listened to a while ago. It’s relevant and well-done, and it was really nice to listen to.

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