October 19th 2018
Today I found out it’s not just me.
In French, the saying is “L’appel du Vide”, and a rare example of a foreign language idiom that doesn’t lose its romanticism when translated to English. To us, that means “The Call of the Void”
To me, it’s the urge. The urge to jump from a height. The urge to swerve into the other lane. The urge to throw something over the edge.
I don’t actually want to do any of those things, the thought just briefly flickers through my mind and in the moment it scares me. And later on, it scares me too, because I thought it was just me. And I didn’t know what that meant.
Today I found out it’s not just me. The French are at it too. And so are the rest of the world.
L’appel du Vide is specifically the urge to jump off the edge when you’re in a high place. Think France. Think Paris. Think the Eiffel Tower. You get to the top, and although you have previously had no inclination or ideation to do something that drastic, you make a sudden mental note to say “I could jump off that if I wanted to” even though, realistically, you have no desire to. You just thought it. The void called you.
Afterwards, you shudder. Because what made you think that? And what does it mean? The answer, it turns out, is nothing.
More broadly, I found out, these impulses are called ‘intrusive thoughts’ and are completely normal. In the same way you can get random muscle cramps or that annoying pulsing feeling in your eyelids, your brain can get flickers too. And it means nothing but biology.
Lots of people, apparently. But I thought it was just me. There’s, like, actual scientific theory behind it as well. It’s basically, I learnt, your brain recognising potential danger and specifically pointing out the literal last thing you want to do in that situation.
Ever been in a church, or a cinema, where it’s stone silent and had the urge to scream at the top of your lungs? I have. That’s an intrusive thought, and your brain’s way of reminding you of things you’re not supposed to do. It just phrases the warnings as “do this thing” instead of “don’t do this thing” — which is a little misleading of the brain, in my opinion.
Narratively, we’re still in France. The Champs Elysee, specifically, because it’s the only road I know there. For some reason, we’re driving down it. Here it comes. “I could swerve into that lamp post if I wanted to” even though, realistically, you have no desire to. In the same way, the void called you. An intrusive thought.
I found an entire forum post, with 35,000 “upvotes” and floods of comments dedicated to L’appel du Vide. And lots of people were in the same situation as me. They thought they were alone in it. But apparently it happens to everyone (if you can safely assume that 35,000 upvotes is sufficiently representative of the entire human population, that is).
Last year, I was running along a cliff face in Dorset, and using my phone to take photos of the scenery. I remember not letting myself stand too close to the edge because I was scared I might accidentally — or intentionally — throw my phone over the cliff and into the sea. That would obviously be a stupid thing to do, and so I guess I should thank my brain for telling me not to do it.
Apparently, it’s common in new mothers, too. They’re so concentrated on protecting the baby from all harm, that the brain sends a “remember not to drop the baby on the floor” message encoded as “you should totally drop the baby on the floor”. Some commenters were terrified that this made them terrible parents, when apparently it just makes you human.
Personally, I think it would be far less confusing (and scary) if the brain sent the “don’t drop the baby” message instead of the “drop the baby” message but who am I to question my brain?
Other people commented saying that they’d had intrusive thoughts to punch someone in the face at the most inopportune times, like in a meeting, or at a wedding, or at your wedding. (Although, is there such thing as an opportune time to punch someone in the face?)
Having the thought doesn’t (always) mean you want to punch your husband(-to-be) in the face, it’s just your brain reminding you that punching him would (probably) be a really bad idea in that situation.
Although I’m still acutely aware of the fact that the entire thing might sound weird written down, or spoken aloud, it helped me a lot to realise it wasn’t just me that this happens to. Maybe knowing that might help you too.
Until tomorrow, it’s fine for the void to call, but you don’t have to answer.