I don’t remember the nightmares exactly, but I remember that after I had them I would walk next door to my parents’ room and stand at the footboard of their bed. It was this raised Formica cabinet, three or four feet off the ground, the kind of thing you probably would have not seen built before or after the first half of the 1980s. I would belly up to it like a bar, ordering a tall glass of please make this stop. I was eight or nine, but it’s also possible I was 12; this could easily be clarified by Googling the release date of the movie that was responsible for a lot of these nightmares, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to see the title or the poster or a screengrab; I don’t want even a glimpse of the YouTube link to the TV commercial for it that I probably saw while just trying to enjoy a nice episode of Mork & Mindy; I don’t want any fresh detail to join the musty, unreliable ones permanently embedded in what counts for my brain.
I never actually watched the movie that scared the shit out of me then and that apparently is not done scaring the shit out of me an upsetting number of decades later. The fear is less about this network made-for-TV movie itself than the moment and environment that made its subject matter—the worldwide effects of total and complete nuclear annihilation—ripe for a network made-for-TV movie. (I know what the name of it is, but I don’t feel like typing it and having the words stare back at me.)
My most concrete memory is a photo from the top corner of a Time magazine cover—the actor Jason Robards with long, white, crazy hair, ostensibly radiation-poisoned, standing atop rubble. I almost certainly read the article inside the issue, which is why I also retain some details about the plot. Robards’s character lived in Lawrence, Kansas, and the movie’s underlying message was that if you thought you were getting off easy from this shit because you lived somewhere like Lawrence, Kansas, you were sorely mistaken. I want to say Steve Guttenberg was in it too, but I am not going to check. I refuse to be brought low by an IMDb page.
This was merely the peak of a long period where global nuclear annihilation was widely thought of as being one diplomatic crisis away. Or maybe it wasn’t even the peak—I was not alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when this threat became real and immediate. I did not grow up ducking and covering under my school desk to hide from a mushroom cloud over the playground out the window. But the message was made clear to us all: This could happen, and it could happen tomorrow, and you would be fuuuuuucked. Oh, and your shadow would be burned into the ground somehow after you were vaporized. But the only thing worse than dying in a nuclear holocaust would be not dying in it and having to contend with its hellscape aftermath. Anyway, sleep tight.
I was not scarred by this, or so I had thought. I have not spent all my ensuing years thinking about it; the fear faded, as much standard-issue childhood trauma does, as the circumstances surrounding it do. But now that those circumstances have risen anew and the idea of the entire world being violently vaporized is a distinct possibility being openly discussed like the weather, the degree to which these feelings have returned has been shocking. The memories have not evolved; they have not matured with me or been tempered by earned wisdom. I am now a middle-aged man standing at the foot of a bed that no longer exists, desperate for comfort that no one can give me.
But while the fear is not new, the accompanying shame and overwhelming feeling of infantilization are. You’re supposed to be scared of scary things as a little kid—it’s part of the job description—and we were meant to be scared of Russia specifically. Maybe the fact that it all seems due to the whims of one person makes it feel that much harder to reconcile.
Cowering in the safety of one’s bed as an adult, battling sleep while lit only by a phone screen showing images of real destruction and atrocity happening in Ukraine in real time, feels palpable and embarrassing. These are stories of bravery in the face of unimaginable trauma, of individual valor and defiance in the face of institutional, imperial terror, images of death and destruction inflicted upon innocent families. You want to believe that you would find this courage and tenacity in yourself if faced with such horror, that you would do anything and pay any price to protect your family, your home, your people. But you apparently are also functionally crippled by the mere thought of Jason Robards’s hair.
There is obvious survivor’s guilt in this kind of cowardice, and also a narcissism in even reading these stories and seeing these images and filtering them through your own experience and agenda. It should be enough to empathize and to think of ways to be helpful without doing the math on what the carnage means to you personally. The alternative is hoping that the unchecked death and destruction remain limited to millions of undeserving people in one faraway country, which does not feel like whatever the person who invented the word hope had in mind.
The gritty reboot of nuclear paranoia has become easy group-text fodder for neurotics of a certain age, like being happy for Bob Odenkirk. People who did not grow up under the specter of the Cold War and who did not regularly have terms like “mutually assured destruction” hammered-and-sickled into their consciousness are no less cognizant of the current threat, but those worries may not necessarily feel familiar. Triggered is the word I am dancing around.
The spiritually evolved position, I guess, is to understand that this is a situation I cannot control, no matter how much I try to, or try not to, envision it. Donating, protesting, learning about mutual aid programs—these are real and actionable ways of not only helping the people in the world who need it most, but feeling less helpless and impotent yourself. Be with the people who are important to you, spend your time in ways that feel fulfilling, and try to rid yourself of the things in your life that are not that.
But when it comes to the escalation that could lead to showers of ICBMs, there really does seem precious little an individual can do to exact change. Nothing will really equalize us all like that button being pushed, save for those forward-thinking billionaires who have already decamped to their tricked-out New Zealand bunkers. Dying horribly, and hopefully instantly, within minutes of the action is the last thing left that can’t really be argued about or reasoned with. Until then, the choice seems to be: Think about it or do not think about it. People who do the latter are likely to have an easier time.
My solution when I was younger was to read more, to learn more about the things that worried me most as a means of feeling some semblance of control. I understood missile trajectories and likely targets, tried to calculate what the fallout would be around my house if Times Square were a primary target. I was a hypochondriac who read about the conditions I imagined myself to be suffering from in order to debunk them, only to accidentally skip to the wrong page and find something entirely new to be upset about.
This has certainly been my coping mechanism throughout COVID. The hours and days I spent poring over jargony epidemiology threads, analyzing the relative efficacies of various vaccination combinations, and trying to calculate the risk probability of every activity my family undertook for two years seemed pretty wasted once we all just caught it anyway. It would be nice to have that time back, although I’m not sure what I would have done with it anyway.
For a generation shaped by the threat of annihilation and The Day After, Vladimir Putin’s threats have awakened fears we thought were long gone.