Dark Nostalgia

I have been feeling a certain way in the last few weeks. It’s a strange feeling, and I know I’m not alone in this, as there have been some excellent pieces written about the way a lot of people are feeling lately. And I encourage you to read them, especially if you too are feeling a strange kind of way. These pieces definitely deal with some of the things I’ve been experiencing for sure, but there was still, for me, something missing. Something a little different, a little extra. And yet it’s been a hard thing to put my finger on. “What is this feeling?” I kept thinking. It’s dread and anxiety and fear, sure, and all the other usual suspects two years into a global pandemic, but there is definitely something else. Something else that is weirdly and achingly familiar. And then I read Steve Kandell’s piece in Vanity Fair and thought, oh now I know. Now I know exactly what that is.

The movie Kandell talks about, the one he can’t bring himself to name until the end of the essay, is The Day After. It was a TV movie that aired November 20, 1983, and dealt with the lead-up to and the aftermath of nuclear annihilation for small part of the USA and its people. It was intense, and I remember the next day (the day after haha ugh) in school, the hallways seemed a little quieter, the mood a little more subdued than usual. Everyone had watched it, but nobody, save for a few people, really wanted to talk about it.

I am older than Kandell, I believe, and in 1983 I was sixteen. Girl of sixteen, whole life ahead of her…but it didn’t always feel that way. (And yes I know that song didn’t come out until 1984, but the sentiment stands.)

People love to hate on the 80s. They love to hate the fashion, the whole aesthetic: All that neon? The off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and the leg warmers? The shoulder pads! The teased and sprayed up hair! (Would you believe I spent the bulk of the 80s with a sleek bob and I wore a lot of jeans and sweaters? it wasn’t all Flashdance in here, honey.) But thick black eyeliner and jelly shoes aside, I’ve always found that the most difficult thing to express when people poke fun at the decade, is how we lived with a thick air of potential nuclear annihilation and destruction that permeated even the most French Formula-hardened ‘do. It was everywhere. And it followed us around for years.

It was in the songs we listened to and the movies we watched. We learned about radiation poisoning and fallout shelters, nuclear winter and what mutually assured destruction (or MAD) meant. Footage of missile stockpiles made appearances on national news on a regular basis. The President of the USA, a wildly warmongering sort, was nicknamed Ronald Raygun. This bonkers video from the UK was shown at least twice during Remembrance Day assemblies at my high school. The threat of nuclear holocaust was indeed the soundtrack to our lives, which is maybe one of the most cliché lines I’ve ever written, but it’s true. And yes, we went to school and accomplished things, and had crushes and hobbies and overall lived our lives, but it was always there, bubbling under the surface. At least it was for me.

I had a chat about the resurgence of these feelings with my partner who agreed that it was a frightening time for sure, but that we certainly didn’t think about it all the time, right? Like, it wasn’t living in our head constantly, right? And then I realized, oh boy anxiety really did a number on me back then. And clearly continues to.

It’s true that I obviously wasn’t paralyzed with fear 24/7, but living with the threat of nuclear war meant not knowing what your future held, or if you even had a future at all. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, are you gonna drop the bomb or not? If my high school had done yearbook quotes, that probably would have been mine.

It’s been hard to explain, this weird sensation that’s been cropping up in my brain and my body since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as I explained to my therapist it’s like a strange kind of nostalgia. An anxiety-tinged nostalgia, or a dark nostalgia, if you will. And it turns out, that’s a thing. Because the human nervous system doesn’t forget. And so when news outlets talk blithely about World War III or when you start to see headlines like If World War III Ever Happens, These Are The Safest Countries… it’s all giving a very, very hardcore sense of déjà vu. And it’s not a pleasant one.

My therapist she asked what I could have used back then, what I would have liked to hear, what might have helped, and I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t. At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, when your fears are nuclear destruction and vaporization, it’s hard to think of anything that might have calmed them. I don’t even think I brought it up to my parents. It was something that lay under the surface of everything good, but it wasn’t exactly dinner table conversation. Not in our house, anyway. My parents watched the same news, they experienced the same threats as I did. But they’d also lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. They’d lived through WWII as well, and although they were both only ten when the war ended, my dad’s four older brothers all served overseas, so that was his reality. Maybe for them these threats were just that, threats. Maybe they didn’t seem as imminent as the other situations they’d lived through. Or, maybe they were as afraid as I was, they just didn’t show it. Because that’s what parents do, isn’t it?

So I don’t know what I needed to hear. “Don’t worry it’s never going to happen” would have been too trite, too dismissive, too wrong, really. The headlines screamed it; the news anchors talked daily about the fact that it could happen. And they told us in great detail how it would happen, and what our side of the world was doing—not to prevent it from happening, but to be the ones to do it first, in case the other side tried to start something. Truly the biggest “the one with the most toys wins” vibes there ever were.

As I read Kandell’s piece I felt some relief. Relief that this is truly a thing for people of my generation, that it’s not just me, it’s not just my brain jumping to conclusions of epic, worldwide disaster proportions. We remember what it was like. Our bodies remember what it was like. And it might seem like an overreaction, but as I’ve learned in therapy, our nervous systems are there to protect us. The fight or flight response is real, and it’s important.

Kandell’s entire essay is so good, and I find myself returning to portions of it pretty regularly. Today, the paragraph I’m holding onto is this last one:

Ultimately, the abrupt reintroduction to this long-dormant but acute existential despair feels like an overdue gut check—a litmus test of how to be a citizen, a parent, right now. It’s a wake-up call to those of us who have been lucky enough to sleep as well as we have for as long as we have, and maybe there’s no going back. Because even if the unthinkable of The Day After—huge exhale—remains in the realm of childhood-nightmare fuel, the fact that it feels so palpable and plausible right now, for no good or sensible reason, means we were never really as safe as we’d thought.

Bleak? Perhaps. But definitely, as they say, real talk. And if you’re reading this and you didn’t live through the 1980s but you’re also having some weird feelings about the world in this time and place, the essays I mentioned in this post are well worth your time.

And, you could find yourself a GenXer to talk to, too. We kinda get it.

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