Therapy Tales Part 1- So You’re Terrified of Death?

(If you’re wondering where my previous post went, I have made it private as I’ve found this to be true. Thank you for all your comments and encouragement!)

So, I’m starting therapy for death anxiety (my medical diagnosis that led me to it are generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder but I prefer to think of them as ARGH).  Expect this series of posts to be even more introspective and self obsessed than usual, and for this blog, that’s saying something.

Two 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 and smaller because of it.  Last year, I went to the doctor and asked for help. She was so sympathetic that she made me cry. Saying what an awful thing to carry around with me for 12 years (14, now) and she referred me to therapy. I found out I was pregnant, had an assessment and things didn’t go any further because I was suffering such crippling morning sickness that the 40 minute bus journey to the appointment was 1 hour 30 minutes because I’d have to jump off twice to vomit. Later on in pregnancy, I dispensed with such courtesies and just huffed up all over my lap, or into a friendly plastic bag.  Pregnancy was also pretty distracting- all my anxieties were focused on that, and I didn’t have the mental reserves to panic about death anymore.

My panic has returned, as it does. It’s not constant and strikes at night when I’m trying to sleep (and flip, I need my sleep!) It doesn’t disturb anyone because I sleep in the spare room (Robert does night feeds due to my medication). It means it’s quiet, private, lonely. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows.  It’s probably unsurprising. I had a baby, then I lost my grandmother, and it was my dad’s anniversary.  Catholicism ritualises death in a way that’s both comforting and horrifying. It makes you look at it, it makes an object of it.  She was in a coffin in the sitting room that my dad’s coffin was in, for days, with the same yellow, unnaturally smooth, chillingly cold skin that you have to touch to say goodbye. Their coffins, and every childhood Christmas. These things bring death bubbling back to the surface of your mind. It’s hard to close it out when you’re trudging up a hill behind it. Robert’s grandmother died the month after, and her funeral was like a trip to Argos. Closed, quiet, scripted, burned. I prefer the visceralness of Catholicism, even if it haunts me. It does at least give death, and life, some gravitas.

So, I’ve been referred back to therapy for it. My psychiatrist initially wanted to increase my medication but I refused. This feels existential, albeit obsessive. I’ve often been able to distract myself and try to be less up my own arse, but distraction is tricky and I’m introspective generally. It doesn’t need to be medicated away- that just makes me feel worse.

The assessment happened pretty quickly. A chat over the phone, which gave me a sense of pride that I didn’t have to list a litany of other issues. I haven’t self harmed in six years, my bipolar disorder (if I ever had it) is pretty well controlled. I wasn’t depressed, wasn’t struggling otherwise. I’ve come quite a long way. I knew what they’d recommend- CBT (*spits*) but I’m willing to give it a chance.

The therapist is called Sean, which means the assessment didn’t entail the usual 45 minutes of tuition in how to pronounce my name. It’s high intensity IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies), so the sessions aren’t at the mental health team (thank bollocks, I used to work at my local one), but in an unassuming house with comfy sofas, pot plants and James Frey books that I had to stop myself openly guffawing at perched proudly on the Ikea shelves.

He asked me what I wanted help with so I explained. I forgot to bring the questionaire they sent me so went through some of it there. My depression score was low, as I knew it would be. People tend to assume I must be suffering from depression if I’m having panic attacks and anxiety.

Au contraire.

Depression is both a mortal enemy and an enemy of mortality. For me, it is ageless, timeless emptiness. It tries to kill me, and it kills the thing inside me that makes me afraid of it doing so. I want to die when I’m depressed.

So when I’m not depressed, I’m scared of that. It’s like being held under water and a peaceful acceptance of what it happening envelopes you, until the final second, and you kick, you convulse in order to be free, to be alive, to throw off the aggressor and then relive over and over at how close you came to drowning.

I do sometimes feel depressed because of the panic. I feel frustrated and angry with myself that I have panic attacks. I feel frightened and distressed by some of the intrusive thoughts I have (like when I’m speaking to someone and suddenly an image of them dead flashes into my brain, with hallucinatory vividness) and sometimes they make me feel like I’m going mad. But depression and this panic don’t come together, and that’s a big massive pain in the hole. The panic tends to be the worst during the happier periods of my life. I’m happy, hurrah, and then my mind goes, “This will end it, all of it, everything, and because it will end, this is meaningless, you won’t be here one day, any day, none of them will” and that’s just BLOODY FUCKING GREAT isn’t it. I don’t want to die, ever, because I enjoy my life. I’m essentially a happy person who wants to see what’s going to happen.  I want to be standing at the end of the universe with Robert and Oisín watching supernovas and planets and the sun.

(Rest your head)

(Close to my heart)



(Never to part).

Maybe it is partly a coping mechanism, the fear. Like pinching yourself.

He asked me if I had other anxiety- I do, social anxiety, but I’m dealing with that in my own way so I didn’t want any help which he accepted (and I think it’s tied up in this anyway).

Two things were said during the assessment that made me willing to continue. One was something stunningly obvious but that I had genuinely never considered. The therapist said that my kind of anxiety is, “idiosyncratic”. It’s not a common reason people come to therapy. That floored me. “Doesn’t EVERYONE feel this way?” I said. No, apparently not. At least, not to the degree they end up in therapy. So, is it that this is such an ordinary fear we live with it and are in denial, or am I the odd one for being periodically consumed by it?

Another was asking me where I think it came from. Nobody has ever asked me that before, and it’s not something I’ve thought about. The worst of my panic began when I was 15. That’s when it started flinging me screaming across the room. “Is that when your friend committed suicide?” Yes, it was- but the panic attacks started before then. Robert (who I first went out with when I was 14), remembers my panic on the phone, but it was more contained, and I was easier to comfort and distract.

It started well before then, when I was about 7 (?). Both my parents had mental maladies. I felt like they were going to die and I was terrified of it. I became aware they wouldn’t be there one day and I feared all the time it was the day. I used to pad into their room at night to check they were still breathing, then pad back and lie awake in the moon (just like I do now with the baby!). I realised I was going to die too, and sometimes would wake up screaming.  Death felt close, ever present, non abstract. I could only perceive it in my childish way, but I never felt safe, and I never have since.

Of course, that’s just a bit of it- I might be wrong, but I had never connected the two things before. I had a massive resurgence after my dad died, too, which is natural. But it wasn’t so much his death as knowing that he feared it. That kills me, still. I hate that he was afraid. If I could do one thing in my life, one magical thing, it would be to take that fear from him before he died.

He asked me what I wanted to get out of therapy. I don’t know really. Not to have panic attacks anymore. To be able to watch/read/listen to anything again. Not to have to ring in late to work because I’ve disintegrated at a funeral procession. To fall asleep. To be able to think about Oisín’s future. At the moment, I’m too scared to talk about it, think beyond tomorrow, in case he’s not here for it, or that I’m not. I’m petrified of something happening to him, and feel superstitious about it. It’s a loss I know I would never, ever recover from, be able to go on living beyond.  Pregnancy should have taught me the futility of this- when it seemed like there was bad news at the 20 week scan, my anxiety didn’t protect me. It didn’t cushion it, it didn’t make anything easier.  I want to be able to talk to Robert about him riding a bike, or going to school, or falling in love. I want to be here and present in the moment without thinking how it’s going to end. That it is. I want to be able to sleep without hours of panic beforehand. I want to be able to not feel regret about not living if I do die tomorrow. When I’m going through anxious periods I always feel mildly dissociated, not here. I don’t want to feel that way anymore. I don’t want horrible flashes in my brain anymore. I don’t want my coping mechanism for the feelings of helplessness and inevitability to be nihilism, as it means I make unhealthy choices (like smoking, which will actively shorten my life, and thus leads to more panic attacks). I want to be present for myself, for my child. Life is so brief. And it is all.

He said that this will involve some unpleasant feelings, but that it usually helps. He says when it doesn’t, “work”, it’s often because people haven’t done the things long enough (bit of, “blame the patient” here, but I understand what he means as my last assessment person gave me a workbook I barely glanced at). I’m pretty frightened of what this is going to entail, and how hard it’s going to be. I’m aware it might mean it gets worse before it gets better, and I’m feeling pretty apprehensive about that. Shit scared, to be honest.

But I’m doing it. So let’s see where this goes. I’ll keep you updated!

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.

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