Your Brain on Terror


March 23, 2016 by Katia


“What’s wrong?”

“No, but really, what’s wrong?”

“Are you sure that nothing’s wrong?” my mom and the world leading expert on the tone of my voice kept asking yesterday. No, now that she was asking, I wasn’t sure at all, but I couldn’t put my finger on it either. It was something bad but remote and echo-like in its lack of substance and tangibility. Smoke. A shadow. It couldn’t have been that tension headache I had started developing that morning? Then the fog started lifting and through the various threads that kept popping up on Facebook I saw what troubled me. I saw it very clearly and in all of its complexity.

In the core of it was that sense of  relapse I’d just experienced when my brain reverted to extremely familiar thought patterns. Not unlike walking a newly discovered well-trodden trail: the loop of fear. Turns out it’s still there. Turns out it’s just like riding a bike.

I know more than I care to know about explosions and how they affect you. I know that they sound like thunder amplified. I know what they sound like when you’re indoors and I know what they feel like when you’re outdoors. I know that they are closely followed by the wailing of sirens and after you get used to them by a sense of relief because you’re still here, intact. I’ve heard explosions, spent way too much time thinking of them, dwelling on them, fearing them, nightmare-ing them, watching them on TV, soaking up every macabre detail the news coverage offered, planning for and around them, reluctantly walking past their shadows in the forms of monuments, flowers and memories. I’ve felt haunted and attacked by them every time a charged word or number came up in conversations like “the 5 bus” or “Cafe Apropos”. I’ve felt their omnipresence back when everything was measured against them. A rose isn’t a rose isn’t a rose. Sometimes it’s a commemoration gesture. A bus driving by is not just a bus driving by, it’s driving by in defiance, propelled by the force of life itself. A celebration of a national holiday or a birthday party is not just an act of celebration but an act of proving. That life goes on. That WE won’t let THEM. In a reality of explosions everything becomes something else. Boarding a bus is a game of roulette. Going out (especially on a Friday evening or a national holiday) is a gamble. I know more than I ever wanted to about explosions and heard things I can never unhear about the way they act. I know about the horrendous, Hieronymus Bosch-like staging they are capable to producing. I know all about their grip, how they morph into something else that plants itself in your brain and continues to dwell there feeding on suspicion, generating endless calculations, howdoiavoidhowdoiavoidhowdoiavoid. I’ve overdosed on terror and undoubtedly developed neuro pathways that have to do with fear and avoidance of danger. I am not alone in that, nor special in any way, I just happened to live in a country and city that was exposed to terroristic acts on a regular basis.

And I see it now. Yes, mom, I’m very sad.

It’s about Brussles but it’s also bigger and smaller. My sadness moves in concentric circles. It spreads outward from Brussles to the entire world then back to Brussels and inward toward myself and my family.

I don’t see the outpour of emotion and the overwhelming signs of mourning that I saw when Paris was under fire. Brussles isn’t getting as much social media attention and I realize that it’s the personal connection angle that trumps the human tragedy here and it makes me so very sad and depleted. Are we more attached to Paris because we’ve more likely visited it as tourists and that makes the story more tangible or is it simply because Paris allows us to make it all about ourselves? Think nifty #about2008 hashtags with the Eiffel tower as a background to our faces. Is social media nothing but a personality or identity enhancement device?  Paris allows us to make it all about us. Brussles? Not so much and apparently this is when terror stricken faces, washed with blood become less of an item.  If you don’t believe me just ask Istanbul, and the cities in Nigeria, Yemen and the Ivory Coast under attack in the last ten days.

But didn’t I just talk about concentric circles with ourselves in the middle and everything else rippling around us? I am no better myself. My world is as big as our planet after the attack yesterday, but it’s also as small as a grain of sand. I am sad for myself. I am sad because I feel my brain reverting to “terror” mode and old thought patterns of fears, calculations and catastrophizing. I know that what triggered it is my own small circle. I am sad that our planned trip to Italy this spring, while still filling me with excitement, now also fills me with doubt and fear for my children and husband.

A day later I catch myself functioning in familiar ways. Questioning safety. Wondering why the entrance to my son’s school is unlocked allowing anyone to walk in as they please. I listen more intently to the announcement on the subway prompting the commuters to report any suspicious activity. I look more closely at my fellow passengers and sink deeper and deeper into suspicion.

This is your brain on terror.

When I talked to my mom yesterday I told her that she was right.

“I knew it when I read about Brussles this morning. I knew you’d be worried about Italy.” says my mom who taught me everything I know about worrying, my mom who treated me – her only child – like a fragile object in need of around-the-clock protection, my mom who encouraged me to leave my home country, her and my grandma behind because she was always worried sick about me, my mom who didn’t bother evacuate to the bomb shelter whenever our city was under missile attacks after I had left because she was no longer scared.

I expect mom the worrier to show her face again. Instead she tells me:

“There is no point thinking about it now. It used to be confined to certain places, giving us the impression that we can avoid it but now it’s everywhere, so we should just put it out of our minds. We can’t let it dictate our reality. All we can do is simply pray. And I’ve been doing that.” she says in a tone that implies that me and mine are covered. And that is exactly what I needed to hear.


I am not always deep. Sometimes I’m funny. To follow IAMTHEMILK on Facebook, click here.

12 thoughts on “Your Brain on Terror

  1. Harrowing and beautiful. And wow: “my mom who didn’t bother evacuate to the bomb shelter whenever our city was under missile attacks after I had left because she was no longer scared.”

    • Katia says:

      Thank you, my friend. I think that the thing that’s hardest for me to grasp and relay in words is that this probably seems very surreal and war zonish, yet somehow it wasn’t. We’ve all also led normal lives that continued to exist beside the circumstances. Thank you so so much for reacting.

  2. Lizzi says:

    I love you, my sweet. I love your heart and your mind and the way you care so much for these people, and that your mom knows you so well she knows from your voice that you care about Brussels and are worried about Italy, and I’m so sad about the pathways for fear in your mind.


    The world is terror-stricken. It aches, all of it. We’re just not good at acknowledging it. I believe it’s covered though, and prayer can’t hurt, after all. ❤

    • Katia says:

      And I love you for exactly the same things. I think acknowledging it is too frightening and complicated therefore we’d rather bury our heads in the sand until it hits too close to home. Prayer can never hurt. ❤ ❤ ❤

      • Lizzi says:

        Which worries me. I’ve been thinking a lot about wilful ignorance lately and…I haven’t got anything good to write. But this thought keeps buzzing around my brain.

      • Katia says:

        You’ll write it eventually. I’ve had those thoughts before that haunt you, demanding to become something more concrete 🙂

      • Lizzi says:

        I was asked by WonderAunty to write something cheerful, so I haven’t written it yet and I’ll do my TToT as cheerfully as I can but…this must be written *sigh*

      • Katia says:

        I’ll look forward to your cheerful thing and let me know if you decide to write the other post. I’d love to read it. No one better than you to write it.

      • Lizzi says:

        I will do. I will write it because it needs to be written, rather than because it’s cheerful to write, but I hope I can end it positively. I think I can. I hope.

  3. TheJackB says:

    Yeeheeyeh tov, I say it often.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as well. My husband works overtime because Brussels and whatever else he’s not allowed to say. I take my son to the playground, knowing that they’re looking for bombers, that people are dying… amazing post as always my sweet and beautiful friend.

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