In the last moments of 2019, a town gathered by the water under a red sky. The fire had come too quickly, there was no time to evacuate. In the distance, the popping of gas cylinders as they exploded in the heat. A row of tankers would fend it off, brave volunteers fighting against the flame, and if all else failed, which it might, everyone would have to get in the water.
As I watched, like so many others, in abject horror, I thought, Could I do that?
Mental illness is often about internal battles, but the past 12 months have been different. The climate crisis both amplifies and minimises it. In the undeniably real terror of losing homes, towns, animals, people, there is an undercurrent that says, how dare you? And it feels entirely reasonable, the sarcastic drone. People are being washed away in floods and, oh no, you can’t get out of your pyjamas? A fire tornado threw a truck on its roof and killed a man fighting to save others, but you have to binge-watch Alexa & Katie just to make it through your normal day? But at the same time, irrational fears you’ve danced with for years are manifesting in front of you. Disaster. Destruction. Death. The world is ending. Anxiety is fuelled by the pictures on the screen while they make it ridiculous.
And then a constant barrage, internal, external: don’t make it about you, this is bigger than you.
(Don’t write an essay about it. Donate to relief efforts. Send P2 masks to places that have run out. Leave clean water out for wildlife. Call the Prime Minister’s Office and leave a polite-but-firm message. March on Kirribilli. Cheer Nick Kyrgios to hit aces.)
This year I wrote a lot about climate. I spoke to all kinds of people in my research — frontline climate scientists, renewable energy producers, heads of multinational organisations pledging to reduce waste. I learnt about the many ways climate action is happening outside of poor government response. At times, it was comforting. I learnt about closed-loop manufacturing and the decaying coal industry, and all the jobs created by renewables and how they’re making clothes out of plastic bags and Australia Post’s bag specifically for recycling coffee pods, and the financial reasons energy suppliers won’t extract themselves from coal (maximising return on infrastructure they can’t use for other things, mostly). I spoke to the head of a solar energy investment company who told me, “For the incumbent energy companies, it’s in their interests to make [the transition away from coal] as drawn out as possible, even if that is not in the best interests of other sectors of the community.”
I learnt about ecological grief. My friend Stacy, a phytoplankton research scientist, explained how hard it is to get scientific information into a national conversation that’s dominated by mass media, industry bias and scare-mongering. From Dr Susie Burke, I learnt it’s normal to watch the world flood and burn and feel futile, overwhelmed, powerless and stricken.
We are mostly safe from fire where I am, deep in suburbia. At 14 metres above sea level, it’s much more likely we’ll be fleeing from rising water (to where?). But a couple of summers ago, the park at the end of my street went up in flames. It was two days after Christmas, and a northerly wind was belting across Melbourne. It was deliberately lit, a campfire amongst dry fuel in an animal conservation area. Forty homes were evacuated. A hundred firefighters came to battle it. Four water-bombing helicopters. We stood in the burning heat and watched in awe as the belly of the choppers opened above our heads. Metres away, I had my pets in carriers, bottled water packed.
That same day, my psychologist’s house burnt down in an unrelated fire — some kids had ignited a fence in a park. I drove past it later on to look at its skeleton. The room where we had had our sessions was gone. Taken by the fire.
In the last days of the Anthropocene, there is no time for irrational fear.
Often, I have felt like an existential burden, but in the climate apocalypse I’m an actual hazard. My hesitation becomes the precious seconds between safety and disaster. I don’t know how to evacuate when I’m afraid to travel. I don’t know how to flee to the beach when I’m afraid of open spaces. My mental illnesses are an enormous luxury; to be able to pander to them is a privilege. I don’t want to be that person in this time of immense crisis, blocked by my brain, made dangerous and unhelpful.
Tackling mental illness is easy: Get some fresh air. Go for a walk. Think positively. Download a mindfulness app. Overcome your brain chemistry while the world ends.
All the things people have said, that I have internalised and tried to exorcise through therapy, have come back. I’m starting to believe again that my illness is a choice. That I could feel better if I wanted to. That I’m just lazy. I hope that if it came to the crunch, I would unearth some hidden fortitude but I have no evidence. I imagine disastrous weather coming to my home and I see my family there, climbing into the car, or fleeing on foot, and me by the door going, “I can’t.” And making my way to the roof and a helicopter coming and saying to them, “Sorry, I’m scared of flying.” and just perishing in this comedic catastrophe of my own making.
The alternative is a medical impossibility: to rapidly overcome an illness in its most fertile conditions. The situation seems farcical. I ask myself terrible questions like, what if my psychologist is caught in a fire storm? Or, what if no one makes anxiety meds anymore because they need the pharmacists on the ground, treating patients with injuries from dystopian fiction? I want to tattoo myself: do not resuscitate, do not rescue, take the others first, I’ll only get in the way. Not because I am self-pitying but because I can imagine myself on a ship, lucky to have been evacuated, panicking, shouting, scaring the others, taking up space, out of control. Demanding so much when I have already had so much.
Writing this down feels revolting. It is obscene to think about how anxious and depressed I feel while people lose everything, while dozens of people are missing. Jesus Christ, how I wish that changed the reality of it. I wish! that knowing it’s irrational made it go away. Maybe it will. Maybe when the apocalypse comes for me I will be braver. Maybe I will huddle on a beach licked by flame and say to the next person, “I’m so scared,” and they will say, “me too,” and the specifics will be moot.
None of this feels helpful. So, I’m going to try. I can’t change my brain but I can remember it’s possible to be anxious and brave at the same time. I can’t volunteer on the frontline right now but I can donate, spread information, demand better from the government, connect people, offer my home to those who might need it. Maybe there isn’t space for my irrational fears but I hope there is space for what I can do, while I can still do it.