The Blog

My First Coping Mechanism

I thought about death almost hourly. I knew in my heart that at any given moment I could lose my mum. I also understood that at any moment I could drop dead, and that isn't the nicest thought to have with your Weetabix.

I often think that I'd have liked to read a blog like mine when I was younger; how it may have been that littlest bit easier to cope knowing that the feelings I was experiencing would possibly ease, but at the very least become more familiar and less overwhelming. Hell, being a teenager is hard enough, without the added complications and confusions that come along with anxiety.

Whether or not I was just looking in the wrong places, I don't know... but there didn't seem to be many places for me to turn at the time.

Growing up with somewhat of an awareness of my mother's mental health problems, and subsequent suicide attempts, made me painfully aware of the concept of death. Other children were aware of death, of course; some of my classmates would have already had experiences with loss and some may have been in similar situations to me but, for the most part at least, my friends seemed to forget about death day-to-day in a way that I could not.

I thought about death almost hourly. I knew in my heart that at any given moment I could lose my mum. I also understood that at any moment I could drop dead, and that isn't the nicest thought to have with your Weetabix.

I thought about it in the bath, and became afraid of my parents finding my cold naked body. I thought about it as I walked to the bus stop. I started to think about it in class or while I ate lunch or while my friends joked around at break.

Naturally, thinking about death that often led to thoughts about the afterlife, God, about religion. It took me virtually no time at all to realise that what I believed in was science, which of course led to further questions and deeper problems.

Having decided that I would cease to be immediately after dying, I found myself worrying about things so vast and complicated that the lack of control and understanding brought on panic and pain. I started to wonder about the size and shape of the universe and question my very existence.

Try as I might, death was a constant companion. She was my shadow sister. She sat next to me always and I never knew when she might reach out and touch me.

If I was lucky, there were three generations who would pass before I did. My great grandparents, my grandparents, my parents and then... me. I fashioned a little loading bar in my head; fancied myself at around 20% and drove myself breathless by thinking about the 80ish number at the end of it.

If this is how I feel now, I thought, how will I feel aged 79? And I would cry. I would dig my nails into my palms, forcing a delicate moon pattern and I would wish that I hadn't been born, because being born was what had cursed me with this awareness of my own fragility.

One day death would take me, and nothing and no one could actually protect me from it, not even my dad. There was no protection. There was no prediction. There was no control.

Desperate, I found myself fantasising about suicide, but instead I turned to new and unhealthy ways to control my life. I cut my arms with a razor, I stopped eating, I turned to cigarettes and alcohol. I wasn't unintelligent, I knew that there were risks associated with all of these things that we're pushing me more quickly along the loading bar than I would have otherwise been going. But the closer my new sister, Ana (anorexia), got, the further away my shadow sister slipped. The less I ate, the less I could see her.

I could go 3-4 days on nothing but ice, coffee and the occasional cracker, I'd spend two hours a day at the gym. The very occasional full meals I did eat, would be purged later on.

Of course, eventually this became yet another life complication, and another cause of even more anxiety. Socialising became more unpleasant than it was enjoyable; it was now completely taken over by an overbearing challenge: how little can I get away with eating?

Months turned into years, and I now had two very present, very manipulative sisters by my side; one of them made alluring by how much I feared the other. And yet, I was still obsessed by death, still consumed by her in the early hours. No amount of starvation could keep her away for long. She lurked.

Then she struck. I lost one of the people most precious to me.

Something huge shifted in me after my mum died. Initially, it became darker. Just me and Ana and Death, drinking and crying together. I welcomed them. I embraced them. We grew together and fucked each other up.

Then, just as quickly as death struck, so did light. Somewhere along the line, deep in the throws of anxiety induced tonsillitis, I fell in love with the little skylight window I had in my attic room. I spent hours lying on the floor, looking up through it, taking in the beauty of the stars, the clouds, the birds. I pushed my bed so that I could lie more comfortably underneath it, and I just looked.

There used to be this string that hung down from the edge of its never-shut blind. I remember I used to extend my arm and tap the string, watching it ripple upwards to the sky. Sometimes I'd hit the string and try to get it to bounce onto the slate outside.

There was something beautiful about my skylight; something nice about how the outside world was touching my room. My boyfriend would come round and we'd lie on the bed, holding hands and looking up; talking into the early hours. We sang, we laughed, we cried. Over time, I learned to open up to him about my anxieties. He learned about how special my mum had been. We learned to love each other. Always we were lying beneath this tiny window, looking up into the world, tapping the string.

I had spent my life so far learning about my triggers; learning what to avoid to keep panic and death at bay. I had settled on a life that was purpose built around missing out. I had accepted that I would live as an observer, passing up perfect chances 'just in case'. Now, for the first time ever, I was discovering my first real safe space and my first healthy coping mechanism.

Whenever I was having a bad day, I'd turn off the lights, get on my bed and look up. The seasons changed as I did, and I found joy in the sounds and sights of the rain, snow and wind. Joy started to seep into other areas of my life, until I could almost feel again.

This new life was very different.

It was sadder, of course, but it also felt lighter. The raw and ripping heartache that I had felt when my mum died had subsided somewhat, replaced with mostly numbness and the occasional pang of pain. The panic had yielded a little too. I had also built myself some love, some hope and some life and sometimes, very occasionally, I could bring myself to enjoy it without fear that I would suddenly lose it all.

Learning to build my own nest from coping techniques and distraction was the most valuable thing I could have done at that point in my life, and it has proven to be crucial time and time again. It gets me through the biggest and smallest of anxieties, from being afraid I might lose my dad to 'that Sunday feeling'.

I no longer live in that little shared house, and my skylight has long since been left behind, but it was the foundation that I built all my other comforts on and I still remember it so clearly. I am now armed with an arsenal of anxiety fighting weapons; podcasts, audiobooks, TV shows, long walks, baths, books, my dog, crafts, writing... the list goes on.

Of course, I still can't completely escape the thoughts of death and I am still visited by her occasionally. Sometimes when I am getting into nature I am suddenly overwhelmed by a thought such as "eventually, I'll have a last time I look at the sky". Sometimes I can shake these thoughts, sometimes I can't. But they are no longer all-consuming. They're no longer the main driving force to my day. I now have as many coping mechanisms as I do triggers, and that's something isn't it?

As Karl Pilkington once said "You need a bit of badness to have the goodness".

And on that note, goodnight.