Occasionally, you'll get a whiff of something that flashes you back to your childhood. One second you're standing in line in the work canteen, the next you're six years old, lying on the floor, and freaking out about Ebola and invisible death.
You're suddenly presented with an A-B comparison: now and then. 'Then' seems full of smells, tastes, colour. 'Now' just seems dulled and detached. An empty head atop a distant body.
I can't pinpoint the exact age when I realised my body was starting to step back from the world, but I remember quite specifically noticing that it had already begun to happen. I woke up one morning feeling duller than when I went to sleep. Perhaps whatever happened yesterday was so cataclysmic it rendered that day's events meaningless in advance.
It's a mixed blessing - you might be a numb automaton, but at least you're able to cope with the massive pileup of miserable human experience you've accumulated over the years. The more you know, the less you care, and the less you remember. Imagine being one of those people who can somehow remember their own birth. They're probably suicidal.
Anyway, back to the flashback. There you are, mid-20s and mildly serene in a foggy headspace, when some bastard puts a particular kind of bread in the toaster or turns up to work in a particular kind of aftershave and you're suddenly at your dad's house at 11am, bored out of your mind and picking at the carpet as you lie about on the living room floor. You're also terrified of death. So aware are you of sounds and smells and tastes and sights that you feel incredibly vulnerable, and thus overwhelmingly close to the possibility of dropping dead at any second. You're at the furtherest point you'll ever be from dying and yet because of your hyper-aware child brain, you're more petrified by the prospect than you (hopefully) ever will be. And even post-death. Sometime it's just the impossibility of non-existence. You pick at the carpet -- it offers no solutions.
I was particularly terrified of death. And germs. But mostly death. Any mention of it on TV would set me off. I'd imagine a great void, like outer space, where you'd hurtle towards some death-planet, chilled to the core by the sudden realisation that you've taken every single little speck of your life for granted. You were only inches away from this, the whole time.
I also happened to see a film entitled 'Outbreak'. I'm not the only one. A generation was scarred by Dustin Hoffman in a bio-hazard suit, striding about hopelessly as Kevin Spacey bleeds out on a gurney. Ebola! Monkeys! Rene Russo! I lost sleep over this thing. I was convinced Ebola was coming and there was nothing I could do about it except freak out -- only through sheer force of freaking could I hope to save myself.
The odd thing about all this freaking is that I'm now closer to Ebola than ever before: New Zealand is probably the last place on Earth that would have an Ebola outbreak (except Madagascar). As a 6 year old, this fact wasn't immediately clear to me, although I don't recall my dad pointing this out to me either, as I shrieked around the house.
And yet here I am, in the UK, Ebola in the news, the threat advancing by the day. Across Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, there are thousands of people dead. Borders are closing. Families see their sick relatives taken away and they never come back. Men with guns guard the medical tents, adding to the distrust and the fear. The virus has been picked up in Dallas and in Madrid. All we need now is a careless Kevin Spacey.
And yet, thanks to age's dulling of the senses, I'm relatively calm. I'm no longer on the floor, freaking out. I'm just sitting, on the sofa, and finding out whatever happened to Rene Russo on wikipedia. Thank god for the numbness.