The Sitcom Uncanny
I have spent more of my life running from anxiety than I have from the things that make me anxious. Above all else, anxiety is an early warning system. It tells us that we must coil our muscles as we surmount the ridge or turn the corner. Why, then, is it so unbearable? Perhaps because it leaves us suspended between states. In anxiety, we are rarely certain whether we are preparing to leap or to be leapt upon. When anxiety’s objects are ambiguous, anything unknown becomes a source of concern. As it does, we realize how little we understand. In this way, anxiety invades everything around us, turning the mere fact of the world into a source of dread.
When the unknown looms, it is sometimes easiest to embrace the meaninglessly familiar. If I were a little older, I might have learned to put on a much loved record in my weaker moments, letting the wear in its grooves become a barometer of my fears. I would have said that the music provided comfort, but the truth would have been that I simply knew it, knew it intimately. Mere familiarity would have been enough to smother my threatening awareness of the unknown and the unknowable.
Once, I might have listened to a much loved record, yes, let it hum reassuringly in the background. Today, my options have multiplied, and they have become more all-consuming in the process. Ensorcelled by my fears, I have learned many counterspells, but casting them takes all my concentration. It could not be otherwise: The familiar is a blanket. I crawl underneath it and block out the world in order to hide from my anxiety.
When my endocrinologist first discovered the small protuberance on my thyroid, I wanted that blanket, wanted to hide. Careful not to alarm, she told me it was probably nothing, told me that nodules were to be expected with Hashimoto’s disease. She did not tell me what might lurk on the other side of that probably, and I did not ask. You will need an ultrasound, she said. Nothing invasive. Just a routine checkup. I should have found comfort in her lack of immediate concern, but instead I turned her attitude into an excuse. My logic seems strange when I spell it out now: I was worried, but my doctor was not. Therefore I would not act on my worries. It played out like this: She called later in the day to explain that she had left a referral at the front desk. I told her I would bike right over to pick it up. I stayed home instead.
I stayed home and I lost myself in activities I had done many times before. I replayed videogames long since beaten, prepared meals already mastered, sped through hours of television shows I knew all too well. In conversation with my therapist, I spoke of these activities as “nothing behaviors.” They offered me no real pleasure, but neither did they cause me any pain. At ease with what was coming, I anesthetized myself against the haziness of the new. If these empty pursuits threatened to intensify the things I was avoiding, I took no notice. I was, after all, resisting anxiety itself, not its triggers. Allaying a symptom, I left its causes to simmer, letting them cook down into something thicker and stickier.
This went on for a week, maybe two. Somewhere along the way, I began to rewatch the first season of New Girl, a show clever enough to make me smile and formulaic enough to lull me into a waking slumber. I burned through fourteen episodes in too few days. Nothing was unusual, and that was good. Nothing was unusual until I came to the fifteenth episode.
Have you seen it? Do you remember the plot? Suffering from a sports injury, Nick reluctantly goes to the doctor. As he is swallowing the pain pills she has given him, she notices something amiss. Investigating his neck, she announces that there is a growth on his thyroid. Just as my endocrinologist had, she tells him that he must go in for an ultrasound. At first, he resists, despite the panicked urging of his friends. After a night with them on the beach, he comes around and heads to the hospital. He emerges soon after. I didn’t hear anything after they said you don’t have cancer, he explains. Nick is fine. Beach House’s “Take Care” swells on the soundtrack. The gang’s bond grows stronger. Everyone is fine. Everything is fine.
Everything is fine? I wasn’t. Looking back on the episode now, much of it seems laughable: The neck of Nick’s sweatshirt covers his thyroid when he swallows. Before diagnosing him, the doctor prods at a spot directly under his jaw, a full four inches from the edge of my own small scar. Throughout, thyroid cancer – which one of my doctors would later describe as an unusually benign malignancy – is made out to be nightmarishly fatal. At the time, I noticed none of this. I was, instead, shattered, all my defenses downed in an instant. Fleeing my anxiety, I had run straight into that anxiety’s cause. This was a Monday morning. I picked up the ultrasound referral that afternoon, made a call, took the first available appointment.
Weeks later, Celeste laughed when I told her this story. That, she said, is the structure of the uncanny. A psychoanalyst by training and trade, she meant that it was uncanny in the Freudian sense. In his most famous essay on the topic, Freud examines a story by E.T.A. Hoffman in which the protagonist mistakes an automaton for a living being. Our hero, Freud suggests, has exteriorized repressed elements of his unconscious onto the world around him. This projection animates otherwise inert bodies, imbuing them with a semblance of life, a semblance that is nothing more than a double of our hero’s inner life. The idea is this: When we cannot stand to confront something within, we must face it without. Thereby displaced, it becomes all the more terrifying.
Of course, I was never wholly unaware of the growth in my throat. Far from repressing it, I was struggling to repress the anxiety that it produced. But the very behavior I had embraced to avoid my fear of what it might mean made the growth itself unavoidable. So, it was not repressed, not quite, and my experience was therefore not quite uncanny either. It was instead an improbable – and improbably apt – coincidence, a third act collision of A-plot and B-plot. What was this if not the formula for a diverting half hour of television? Not the Freudian uncanny, then, but maybe the sitcom uncanny. I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me.
One way or another, our worries always catch up with us, however quickly we run from worry itself. They show up at our doors, knock three times. I suppose I was lucky: Mine made me laugh when it came home.