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Have you been feeling uneasy lately? It’s not just you – it’s me, too, and everyone we know. But we need to understand when we’re only terrorizing ourselves

Elisabeth de Mariaffi is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories. She lives in St. John’s, N.L.

We have lived in our house for more than 10 years now, and for most of that time we did not lock the front door, even overnight. We’re a blended family with four children spanning a wide range of ages – there’s always someone coming or going.

But St. John’s, where we live, has always felt quite safe. And besides, we had the dog to look after us.

Our dog – my dog, really – was the runt of her litter. Despite this, she grew to a respectable size for her breed (border collie mixed with shepherd). I named her Mitsou, for the Québécoise pop sensation, and she moved with me and my children from Toronto to our new family home in Newfoundland. She took her job seriously, stationing herself at our front window – ears up. Ever on guard.

But some time in the past few months, I realized we’d started locking that front door. Mitsou was getting grey, and her hearing wasn’t what it used to be. But more than that, something had changed.

We had thought that by this point in the pandemic, things would be better, right? Life is supposedly getting back to “normal,” whatever that used to mean. But somehow, it hasn’t felt like things are getting better. It still feels like everything is falling apart.

One of our friends has developed a debilitating fear of flying. Another tells me that only last week they were struck by an anxiety attack so sharp they had to lie down on the ground in a public concourse. The people I know with health anxiety now seem too many to count. When I confess to a friend, another writer, that I feel like I lost half my career to this pandemic and I’m somehow helpless to fix it, she jumps to respond, “Me too!”

A string of arsons, frightening in their randomness, struck the blocks around our house in January – each one closer than the last. Around the same time, back in Toronto, a man was killed in a swarming attack; a gang of teenage girls, who apparently didn’t even know each other at the time, face murder charges. Another person was stabbed in the face by a stranger on public transit. The random, violent attacks have continued, and it’s all we can talk about.

If you’ve felt uneasy lately, it’s not just you. It’s me, too, and everyone we know, all of us asking the same questions. Are things really worse now? Or is it just that we’re paying closer attention?

Everyone seems to be tuning in to fear.

I have a lot of experience with fear. As a nine-year-old growing up in Toronto, my life was turned upside down when my best friend was abducted in January, 1983; her body was found in a rooming house a week later. Although it now seems impossible, I don’t remember the school providing any counselling for what happened to us, as a class or as her friends.

At home, I became obsessed with the case. A precocious reader, I pored over every newspaper story. I remember my friend’s face on the news, her school photo onscreen at 6 o’clock, and then again at 11. My own parents had arrived in Canada as refugees, and although they tried, they were ill-equipped to deal with this unexpected trauma. What I learned at 9 was that I could never go anywhere alone; that to be alone was to be unsafe, at risk – prey. Their response was understandable. Like me, they were terrified.

As I grew older, my anxiety grew, too. I couldn’t escape the core experience of girls my age: Our generation learned to be women in the shadow of some of the worst crimes Ontario has ever seen. When I was in middle school, young women were being stalked and viciously attacked as they got off the bus at night in their own neighbourhoods – sometimes in their own yards. A year or two later, girls began to go missing down in Niagara, abducted late at night, or just on their way home from school. To be alone is to be unsafe, at risk. I internalized the lesson.

By the time I was 22, a young woman who should have felt the world opening at her feet, I was instead sitting up at night in my new apartment, listening for the sound of an intruder. On the worst nights, I’d stay awake until I saw the first fingers of dawn. At 5 a.m., I’d collapse into sleep. In my trauma-logic, I was finally safe.

The fear waned over the next 10 years; I finally got some help. Then one night, as a newly single mother, I found myself hovering by the window. Outside, my ex sat in his car in the dark, screaming obscenities into my voicemail.

That’s when I got the dog.

Privately, my husband and I refer to this past year as relentless. But we’re not alone: A Leger poll found that most Canadians think 2022 was worse than the year before.

And why wouldn’t we? It was the year of death by a thousand cuts. The never-ending pandemic; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; non-stop climate-crisis events; whatever that nonsense was in Ottawa; gas prices; inflation.

Not even the grocery store is safe any more: A loaf of bread suddenly costs almost twice as much and yet has shrunk, the slices now fitting too neatly into the toaster. When you have ever-hungry teenagers, you notice these things.

For me, it might have all been manageable without the constant threat of illness. I work from home, and with few social commitments you’d think I’d have been safe from COVID. But in fact, I’ve had it three times – all in 2022.

As a writer, I have no paid sick days to lean on. By the time I was diagnosed with post-COVID pneumonia in September, I’d been in tears every day for a month.

And then Mitsou got sick, too.

If it had been up to her, that dog would not have been away from my side for even five minutes in all of her 14 years. But of all the gifts she gave to me, alongside all that crazy love, the most precious was freedom. The shepherd in her was fierce. We could go anywhere at any time of day or night, and no stranger could approach without my consent. In Toronto, that meant we walked the alleyways late at night; here in Newfoundland, we hiked the loneliest trails. No other hiker could get within 20 feet of me – 100 feet if Mitsou was off-leash. (She never bit anyone, but she was an excellent actor.) We stayed in remote places and saw gorgeous, solitary sunrises.

All of that fear that I’d been taught to carry as a girl and as a woman, she carried for me, and she bared her teeth at it. I could go anywhere alone because I was never really alone. There was no more worrying. She did the worrying for me.

Then, at the end of our relentless year, the switch flipped.

Every dog dies too soon; the poet Mary Oliver said that it feels like a failure of will, a failure of love, that we cannot give them this one thing – a lifespan that matches our own. I knew Mitsou’s time was coming, but suddenly everything sped up. She took a bad turn on the night of Jan. 23. The next day, we said goodbye to her.

It wasn’t until a day later that I realized she’d died on the same day as my childhood friend. Something cold moved into me, deep in my bones. I recognized the feeling. For the first time in a long time, I felt unsafe.

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As a writer, I’ve made fear my business, in a way. When I sat down to write my first novel, which I had thought would be a CanLit coming-of-age story set in Toronto in the early nineties, I realized the only way to make readers understand what it was like to be a girl back then was to make them feel the way we had all felt: The reader also had to be afraid.

Now I wonder if we’ve all taken on too much anxiety through what we consume. At one point last year, terrified of getting sick again, I’d check the wastewater reports daily before making any kind of plans. When the reports fell behind, I felt betrayed. Keeping up with the news had become a way to feel in control. The lockdown press conferences gave way to the morning paper, the myriad daily alerts, the news at 11 – all of it nestled into the surround sound of social media. I was always just one scroll away from doom.

In response to their December poll, Leger executive vice-president Christian Bourque commented on “a level of angst in the Canadian public that we haven’t seen for a while.” An Angus Reid poll shows more than half of Canadians think their mental health is worse now than prepandemic. And a CMHA report released at the same time is titled simply Running on Empty; it calls the pandemic’s effect on our collective mental health “devastating.”

This widespread anxiety feels terribly familiar: internalized, almost normalized fear, lodged just under the skin of almost everyone I know. I can’t help but see the parallels between my pandemic self and nine-year-old me. As a child I was combing the news every night, searching for clues as to what happened to my friend. In 2022, I was combing through those wastewater reports, trying to find a way to keep myself safe.

The writer Stephanie Domet has talked about her lifelong fear of being murdered in her bed – the same fear that kept me up nights, sometimes all night, when I was in my late teens and early 20s. The difference is, Ms. Domet didn’t know anyone who’d been murdered. But she had spent a lot of time consuming violent content, both in the news and via pop culture. The fear “flicked a switch in me that was hard to switch off,” she writes in Greater Good magazine. “I became hyper-alert.”

Eventually, Ms. Domet saw a therapist who helped her to understand her fear. She wasn’t afraid of being murdered so much as she was afraid of the idea of it – the unseen attacker, hovering just outside the door. She was afraid of being terrorized – afraid of feeling afraid.

I found something to be interesting in that Leger poll: More Canadians are worried about the next, as-yet-unknown pandemic than they are anxious about COVID-19. Like Ms. Domet, and like my younger self, we’re no longer focused on what’s real. Instead, we’re listening for what new and faceless threat we imagine is lying in wait, just outside the door. We’ve learned to terrorize ourselves.

Logically, I know that I am no less safe now than I was before my dog died. The truth is that for the last year of her life, she was blind in one eye and completely deaf; it was I who had been protecting her, not the other way around.

But I tell my husband I think it is unfair – even cruel, on some universal, karmic level – that not only was this dog taken from me, but that she died on the anniversary of my friend’s murder. What possible reason could there be for this?

His response is so gentle. Think about next year, he says. When this day rolls around, we won’t be talking about violence, or a little girl’s fear. We’ll be remembering Mitsou. We’ll talk about how alive she was. How she was alive to joy.

I’m thinking about how to focus on the joy that’s right in front of us, to be alive to it instead of lying awake, imagining the fear yet to come.

Yes, something has been taken from us. But we still need to unlock the door, and let hope in.