No surprise

Do you ever read the last page first, or know the entire plot of a movie before you watch? I know, that seems to defeat the purpose of the ‘journey’ of story, but I notice this habit in me to search out spoilers and I want to explore it some more.

I think I have always done it. I remember as a child I would always begin with the last page of a novel. Something of a cliché, but I couldn’t bear not knowing what the outcome was, what would happen to my new friends in this book. Somehow there was a settling in knowing, even if the ending was sad, if I knew what happened before I started I felt more comfortable. This was true for all genres – if the book was a whodunit; a favourite Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes, I could not resist. It did not seem to spoil the read, I liked being prepared.

Obviously, as a child I did not have the same control over film watching. In the days before Google a plot could not be revealed, and unless I had read the book of the film I had no way of discovering the outcome. Nowadays I will almost always look before I watch, checking in for content (not too violent or no more than “mild peril”) as well as endings. No surprise is the only way.

I have been caught out. When I watched the first Terminator film, a long time ago I knew it was going to be violent but I did not anticipate the rising panic in me when Arnie, as the Terminator, began firing in a confined space, a dormitory of some sort. We had to turn the TV off, I had a panic attack! Luckily I was at home for that one. Years before, I had been in the cinema for Robocop, that was stressful but I did sit it out, although I feel nothing like that can count as entertainment for me.

I will now countenance the reading of a novel without the ending being clear to me. And I have actually watched a film without the third act being revealed first (it was a very obvious romance so too easy to guess) but I notice I do now check episodes of any Netflix series we watch – I read ahead on Wikipedia – so as I am not taken unawares by violence, an extremely difficult emotional scene or a death, particularly of a main character. (Also, as I write this, I am noting with interest that it’s easier to read about violence then witness it visually on the screen. My imagination is not as vivid obviously!) I am disturbed by very difficult documentaries and I can’t sit through David Attenborough, however beautifully filmed, as I find wildlife death unbearably tragic even as I know nature is “red in tooth and claw”.

All this appears to be one element of a bigger issue:  I like to control my own physical environment a little obsessively; I like to have a plan; and I have a difficult relationship with spontaneity. All these have one thing in common – the aspect of no surprises.

 As I have been learning more about how the brain works in relation to response to trauma and the subsequent sensing of danger, this habit of mine to have no surprises becomes more understandable: the early relinquishment trauma of losing my first mother (and then my second!) and subsequent life events led my brain to be hypervigilant to signs of loss and to defend against feeling this loss or any subsequent loss fully. Anything that feels like loss is dangerous (as it had happened before and was critical) and, crucially, the feeling of lack of control of being unable to prevent this loss has to be avoided at all costs – my reptilian brain sees it as life threatening.

The original loss was so powerful, and very early, it literally changed the way my brain was wired; if triggered by a feeling of losing control or reacting to loss, my cortex, the thinking brain, is out of commission as animal instincts kick in big time and bypass it. The middle brain, the emotional brain, is over active and feelings are overwhelming and huge – the amygdala is firing and is like a fire alarm going off inside; it just records “fire” and can’t distinguish that this fire may be manageable and reacts as if this was the original traumatic event because there is no access to reasoning from the thinking brain – this is the neurobiological reactive response to trauma.

I launch into full flight, fight or freeze; move away from the stimulus, become overemotional (angry, sad, panicked) or extremely anxious and tense. This can all happen within a very short time; seconds after being triggered I can find myself in a maelstrom of sensations and emotions alongside a chaotic feeling of being out of control.

 I guess then it should not come as a shock (no surprise!!) that I have developed “life hacks” to mitigate against a lack of control and also to prevent a meltdown in event of an overwhelm of feeling. My habit of avoiding surprise is one such strategic life hack.

Now I am learning so much more about the way my brain works and I am working on changing it; I am literally in the business of rewiring! How that happens and what it entails is the subject of another post, but for the time being I am pleased to be able to respond to my habit of checking everything out, of being planful and careful, with more understanding and compassion.