I didn't hear about the recent bomb explosion in Manhattan until 24 hours after the event had actually occurred. Much of this has to do with the fact that I reside in a small Australian beach town called Byron Bay, so I live my life 14 hours ahead of New York time. When the first bomb detonated on West 23rd Street on Saturday night, it was 10:30 a.m. on Sunday here, and due to my recent promise to make weekends as electronics-free as possible, I was far away from my phone, laptop, and television.
I finally heard about the explosion when I woke up on Monday morning and checked my email for the first time. The predominant thing I felt when I read the message was pure guilt. Guilt for not being more plugged into the world in order to know firsthand that there was an attack in my home country, in a city where I have many family members and friends. Guilt for not keeping up with the ongoing investigation and reading the instantaneous updates about the second bomb (found on a block in Chelsea I'm very familiar with, no less), the stabbing in Minnesota, and the planted explosives at a New Jersey train station.
Shortly after reading through all the latest news reports, though, the only thing that filled my mind was a familiar depth of acute anxiety. My heart started to race, my breath became shallow and erratic, and my brow began to sweat. The words "terror" and "radicalized" played on a constant reel in my head. I couldn't bring myself to peel myself off the couch, fearing that if I moved, I would set off some kind of internal emotional bomb of my own, one that would send me into a downward spiral of mental destruction.
Before I radically uprooted my life and ended up on the sunny shores of Australia, this kind of heavy anxiety was my constant companion. A lot of this had to do with the fact that I was a resident of Boston in 2013, when the marathon bombings took place. I carried that tragedy and the aftermath of it with me for a long time. Everywhere I went, I felt unsafe. All I could think about was becoming yet another victim of terrorism, or, worse, the people I cared about most becoming casualties that were tallied for the newspapers to report on.
From then on, I thought that existing today was simply meant to be full of fear for us all, and there was nothing I could do about it. Panic and distress were just part of life now, I used to tell myself. Until I left the U.S. on December 31, 2014 and moved to a new country, I thought this would be my worldview for the rest of my natural born life.
I remembered what it was like to be terrified of practically everything, believing that there was hardly anything good left around me.
Within a few months of settling into Australian soil, though, I experienced a significant drop in my anxiety levels. I chalked it all up to the saltwater air and the sea breeze — as well as the fact that I was now working two low-key jobs that I genuinely enjoyed, rather than one full-time job that gave me a hefty paycheck and a whole lot of stress. I was now sleeping eight hours a night and finally understanding the true meaning of work-life balance (hence the electronic-free weekend promise I made myself). In addition to these lifestyle changes, it was clear to see that there was a stark difference between the Australian news I was occasionally watching on the weeknights and the American news I had grown up with.
For starters, there was hardly any talk of "terror plots" and "radicalized" individuals, and I no longer felt like I was being frightened into thinking that the borders of the country were being invaded by presumably dangerous illegal immigrants. Disheveled mugshots of Muslim suspects didn't appear on my television screen every night. I heard barely anything at all about spontaneous gun violence. As I traveled to various countries over the next year, I noticed the same thing in every single nation — less fear, more curiosity.
Initially I told myself that this was all in my head, and that since I was simply happier than ever before, I was less panicky in general. But since I made the big move, I've been back to the U.S. three separate times, with each trip lasting for a few months at a time. Every time I return to my home country, I'm once again filled with the same dread and anxiety that once ruled my life. These feelings return within a week of my brief visit and make me feel physically ill. The fear-mongering news coverage gives me the full-body jitters. The angry politicians getting riled up about "Islamic terrorists" and the news anchors continuously speaking about "manhunts" make my heart palpitate.
As soon as I exit the U.S. and resume my life overseas, however, these overwhelming feelings dissipate. This pattern unfolds like clockwork each time.
Even my Australian partner, who has spent a lot of time in the U.S., says the same. Every time he visits the country, he's consumed by the countless TVs that are on in every restaurant and cafe, playing news channels that report on nothing more than the threat of terrorism in America. As a result, his anxiety spikes through the roof and he spends most of his trip in incessant worry.
On Monday, as I read article after article about the 29 people injured by the bombing and the 28-year-old suspect Ahmad Rahami — whose photo was apparently being circulated on every news channel in the country — I suffered from the most disturbing flashbacks. I remembered what it was like to be terrified of practically everything, believing that there was hardly anything good left around me. These sensations didn't consume me like they did when I was actually on American soil, but they were clear echoes of what I experienced during my time in the U.S. It made me realize something that I've never been able to admit to myself before: I'm much less scared about the state of the world now that I'm not living in the United States.
By no means am I trying to downplay the severity of the events that have taken place in New York and New Jersey (and all around America, for that matter). And I don't mean to diminish the very real pain of the people who have been wounded from this bombing, or those who now fear for their safety because of the planned bombings. An attack on civilians, no matter what the specifics are, is a heavy thing to bear, and there comes a time when fear is absolutely warranted.
But I as I watch the media reports from afar, I can't help but feel that a lot of the U.S. media coverage — and even some of our leaders — are only exacerbating our fear. For example, there were multiple pictures released through news sources and on social media of Ahmad Rahami's face, as well as reminders that he was born in Afghanistan and had recently started wearing traditional Muslim robes. These images and words keep coming up over and over again, so many times that we eventually have little room to think about anything else. This kind of repetitive flood of information can make us feel desperately afraid to live in the place we call home — yet when we consider living somewhere else, the fear can feel even greater. So we stay exactly where we are, scared and stuck.
I'm not saying the U.S. is a horrible place and I'll never go back. On the contrary, not a day goes by when I don't think about my home and allow myself to miss where I came from. Yet, at the same time, I see far too many of my American loved ones who are caught up in the never-ending cycle of fear, and I can definitively say that I don't want to be seized by that ever again.
I only hope that they have the chance to feel relief every once in a while, and understand that, while we should mourn the injuries and deaths that have been caused by past bombings and attacks, that isn't a reason for us to live completely in fear.
Image: Gina Florio/Instagram