When Fear Becomes Phobia

The doctors call it panic disorder.  I’m trying to medicate away an existential crisis.

It’s not working.

I work all day, and get half drunk at night.

Waking to soundless dark, I stare.

In time, the curtain edges will grow light,

Until I see what’s always there.

There’s been a programme on Channel 4 recently called, “Les Revenents”.  In English, “The Returned”.  The Returned are those returned from death to life.  My husband was an avid fan.  I couldn’t watch it.  It wasn’t just because they were dead.  It was because they were dead and returned to life, their death a mistake, a mishap, reversible. Something that will never happen. Not to me, and not to you. And that’s why I couldn’t watch it.

There’s a difference between knowledge and belief.  Up until recently, I’ve always known I was going to die.  The fear would grip me and squeeze my heart from my chest to my mouth. A scream caught in the throat, my body, convulsing with the pressure and the pain, flung across the room. When I was two, I had an asthma attack that almost killed me.  And on first waking, I threw my doll into the face of the doctor.  And twenty five years later, I’m still that doll.

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

But my heart would return to my chest.  It was needed.  Life was happening. It had to be lived.  The small victories and failures of every day would bring me back to clockwork human, walking, talking and being alive in the world. Arguments to be had, worries to worry over. Futures to think of, anniversaries to drink of, dishes to be done and cats to be fed.   A car almost hitting me would quicken the pace. I’d pull back from the road and swear and shake my fist and then carry on my way.  I smoked cigarettes and watched TV and visited cemeteries and went to funerals and took flights and slept.

A week ago, I was crossing the road to work and a hearse passed by. My legs turned to jelly, I felt myself dissociating, leaving my own body. (Maybe this is why there’s a belief in the spirit, the out of body experience.  Sheer, cold fear forcing the ghost from the host).  It’s not the first time that’s happened lately.  Do you know what else elicited such a response? Father Ted.  I turned it on at 3am to help me sleep after another night of panic attacks had rendered me a shivering wreck and had to switch it off again because Dermot Morgan is dead and I will be too.

So now I can’t watch Father Ted. Or Monty Python. Or Not the Nine O’Clock News (because Mel Smith just died).  And I was late to work because I had to sit down before I collapsed, the kaleidoscope world sucking in and out of my vision.  People were just drinking their coffees, hurrying by, and I wanted to scream, “DON’T YOU REALISE WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?” But I lit a cigarette instead (bland irony; they’ll kill me) and gathered myself together to stand on my fawn legs and walk.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

I’m scared to call my granny, because I know she is going to die soon. I’m scared to talk to her then remember the voice in the afterwards, and I’m scared because I know I’m going to be too scared for her funeral. I’m scared to get a plane, sometimes, too scared to get the train. Too scared to talk, and scared of my bed. Scared to leave the house sometimes, as walking home with a pint of milk is so gloriously ordinary and unpermanant that I can’t bear it and fire flushes through me once more, and I find myself running, running. Without embarrassment as my screaming bursts through the door. My world is getting smaller and smaller and yet, I can’t do anything about it.

I’ve always known, but never believed.  It seemed so far off and distant, surreal and unformed. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. Now I know it and I believe it. It’s going to happen.  When I am lying in bed desperately trying to sleep and I feel my veins jumping beneath my skin, my heart-mouth almost chokes me with the terror that I’m going to stroke out- it’s happening, now, now, now, it’s happening. And I also know that it’s my own terror causing this, that my heart is beating so rapidly my veins can’t keep up, and the weight on my chest is another panic attack coming to smother another hour out of my finite hours. I know this, and yet it doesn’t help. It’s the same way I know that my fear of dying won’t stop it happening (it will hasten it), but I can’t help it.  Once you know, really know, you can’t unknow.  Once you believe, you can’t unbelieve. What should be freeing traps you. Every single twinge feels like a mortal threat. And the medication I’m taking to cope with this reality is making me feel sick and tired.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

I’ve prayed. I’ve vainfully resurrected my old Catholic self.  Not believing in god, but in prayer. How calm it used to make me. To feel as though I was doing something. To slow the frantic pulse of my veins. But it doesn’t do anything- it doesn’t change. Nothing does or will. 

I’ve had a big year; done those, “once in a lifetime” things, like getting married, having a hen night, those milestones in life that are supposed to mean so much. I’ve had a difficult couple of months.  Some people close to me wonder if I have PTSD. Maybe. It has certainly gotten worse since those events.  The realisation that I can’t go back. That things are what they are.  What has happened to me has happened forever. All of it.  Pain I have caused others have been done forever, and I can’t undo it. Crying doesn’t resurrect a father. He’s just bones now. When you have a child, you are condemning someone to death. You have a date of birth and on the stone will be the date you died.  That will be an event to other people, but not to you. I can’t read about space, or science, because I won’t be there to see any of it pass. How can it be that I can’t change it? Any of it? When egotism and insignificance clash.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

My husband holds me and says, “Don’t think about it”. He tells me he loves me and I want that to matter, but it doesn’t. What is love? What is meaning? What is anything? Shouldn’t I just fuck off and read existentialist philosophy? Except I can’t. Now Camus is on a par with Father Ted. Finally! And when he sleeps, I panic. I can’t take that still face. He is alive! Alive and should be alive forever. I can’t bear it. And I take my antipsychotics and wait for the world to swim away.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

But the only good thing to come out of all of this is realising that all you have, in the end, and if you’re really lucky, are your memories.  I love my husband, and it matters because this is his life, too.  He’s going to remember the love.  I am more careful in how I speak to and treat people now.  I don’t want to contribute to bad memories. I don’t want to be a negative force. I want to spread kindness and love because it’s all we have to give, and the only worthwhile things to give. When I am feeling unkind, I think about the body. The body is the life, and the scars are the bad memories. I don’t want to be a scar. I don’t want to add to the multitude of scars we live with and which will be there forever. Before I start to shout, or to say something in anger that might be scarring, I think instead, “Do I want to add to this?” And I never do. It doesn’t mean suppressing anger. It just means realising that it doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things.  Nothing does, of course.  But other peoples’ happiness matters, to me. I want people to be happy, and to be loved, and to remember that they are. And I am a particularly friendless type of person. Isolative, and often happier that way. I do want to change that. I don’t want to look back and have only vignettes of myself, alone, as always.  I don’t have a, “best friend”, you won’t find many photos of me doing stuff with other people at things I was invited to, and I don’t have close friends. I feel like it’s another fundamental of human experience I am missing out on. The speeding car flattens me to the wall.

And so, here I am, with another inevitability. That I must go to bed, and go to sleep, and wake up tomorrow, then go to work (which I enjoy and find value in because it involves helping other people, possibly the one thing I find meaning in) then have a weekend.  Medication to take, dishes to do.  I’m going to Paris for my birthday and trying not to remember my last birthday, one big scar.  Not to pick it. Not to open it. To not make a new scar. To not panic at the ticking up of the years. To hold a hand. Return a kiss. To walk in a street and try to be present. To be there. It’s all we have. It’s all any of us have.

19 Responses

  1. You’ve said so many things I feel about death, and wanted to say but am not brave enough. In Woolwich today I was stopped by two young people from a church who wanted to talk to me about Jesus. I told them that my belief is that there is no afterlife, but that I believe in truth and justice and love and that those things get passed from person to person and that that is what carries on past our death.
    And you wrote a line that I’ve been feeling ever since I had my child but have been too scared to uttter it out loud because it’s true and I hate it. I love him so fucking much.
    ‘When you have a child, you are condemning someone to death.’
    You have a really special way with words. Keep writing. It’s your way through xxx

  2. I can relate to so many things that you have written, safe and private in my mind is where I keep those thoughts, pushed to the back of my mind until they fight their way into the now, at night, alone, waiting for sleep.

  3. Thanks for your eloquence. I know what it feels like to be hit with an existential sledgehammer at random intervals, and it’s hard to go through daily life with it. I have to cling to other thoughts sometime, because I do better at trying to replace them that I do at pushing them out. But sometimes I have to just try not to make things worse.

  4. I live in New Orleans, and after Katrina, everything looked like death to me. I was newly married and all I could think about was to obsess over planning our funerals. Turns out it was PTSD from other stuff I had no idea would be related. EMDR therapy helped tremendously, much more so than CBT. It’s supposed to be great for any type of trauma. It didn’t stop my existential wonderings, just made it so I could cross a bridge without dissolving into a shivering psychotic mass. Maybe it would help. http://www.emdr.com/find-a-clinician.html

  5. You write beautifully about what you experience, and that has meaning too. I hope you will continue to write, and write more.

    My friend and I used to read that Larkin poem out loud to each other when we were teenagers, those years when you first start asking questions about death and what it can mean.

    Have you looked into existential therapy at all? I have a book about it by Irwin Yalom. Rather a weighty tome, but it’s an approach that makes a lot of sense to me. Unlikely to be offered by the CMHT, of course.

  6. I second the person who mentions Irv Yalom. He’s written a book called, ‘Staring at the Sun: Overcoming Death Anxiety’ which is what is paralysing you. Definitely read it- it may help.

  7. […] a post that will have resonance with many of us, Seaneen from The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive […]

  8. I write as a mentalist (thankfully recovered from the worst) and a committed Christian (Catholic). Prayer ‘works’ when you have a relationship with Jesus to whom you pray…it does not work like a panic button just when you want it.
    That said I commiserate that you feel this way and fervently hope that this feeling passes soon.🙂

  9. There are lots of people suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning and many people affected by this silent killer. So time to protect your family by using carbon monoxide detector.

  10. “There’s a difference between knowledge and belief.”
    Thetre’s a difference between Mind and Eomotions.
    No use, trying to get a tight hold on emotions via argumentind feeling away.

  11. Death is a known truth,it will happen to all but its not worth living life in its fear. Its important to seek the help of a good psychologist in order to overcome this fear.

  12. What you wrote about creating good memories and loving people because it’s all we can do was beautiful.

  13. Private medical insurance coverage can safeguard your interests to make way for happiness and longevity.

  14. […] years ago (christ), I wrote a post called, “When Fear Becomes Phobia”. It described my ARGH FUCK panic around death and deadness, and how my world was getting smaller […]

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