Elan Vitae


  • Will Amason


The emergency alarm sounded and a red lightbulb at the top of the exit door began flashing. I was waist deep in the rising water of the engine room of a damaged and distressed ship. With me was a man unknown to me but whose panic mirrored mine. Amidst the loud sounds of the ship’s roaring engines, the offensive emergency alarm and the rising cold, dark water, we worked feverishly to remedy the dire situation.

This was the recurring dream that plagued my early childhood around the ages of 4 or 5. During these dreams, the sense of panic and impending doom would swell to an almost unbearable amount before swiftly transitioning to a heavenly scene of a young innocent girl dressed all in white and holding a bouquet of flowers. Her essence was angelic and although she did not speak, her presence felt comforting.

In another instant, I would be transported back to the panic and doom of the sinking ship, then back to the comforting presence of this angelic little girl. This back-and-forth shifting of my awareness happened multiple times until the two scenes seemed to be strobing. It was this strobing effect that would wake me up, drenched in sweat, breathing heavily, and feeling anxious.

By the time I was 10 or 11, this dream began to fade from my memory.

At 16, a road trip with my parents led us to Long Beach, California to tour the Queen Mary, a retired British ocean liner. I was uneasy as we boarded the ship, but by the time we reached the engine room, I was in a full-on panic attack. “I can’t do this!” I yelled, and ran toward the exit of the ship as fast as I could. With my feet back on dry dock, I finally caught my breath and began to reclaim my sense of safety.

At 35, I was tricked by some friends into attending the opening night debut of James Cameron’s epic film, Titanic. The incredibly well-dramatized scenes gave rise to the same anxiety and panic that had plagued me all those years ago when touring the ship. The combination of music, true-to-life sounds and imagery as the ship began taking on water, trapping those below deck behind a gate, was more than I could bear. “I can’t watch any more of this film” I declared in a very loud voice. Within three seconds of my declaration, the film mysteriously froze. My friends chuckled and teased that my declaration had stopped the film. A technician appeared to apologize for the delay but assured the audience that it would be up and running again soon.