I remember the exact night when it happened.
Aged 14, I had been experiencing insomnia for the past few years, usually passing out at around five in the morning, a few hours before school, with an open book on the pillow next to me or a small radio blaring out LBC from under it (the pillow, not the book). I had terrible nightmares from sheer tiredness, from severed hands ripping off my duvet cover to a vision of a man-baby or horses walking slowly outside my bedroom window.
And I had a lot of time to think. The radio would be playing hour-long talk segments throughout the night, from phone ins about current affairs to investigations into numerous subjects (I recall one regular slot about dream analysis, which is where I learned all about irony). Flitting between engrossment and trying to sleep, my mind tended to wander and, on this particular night, to the notion of existence.
It should be made clear, it wasn’t death I was contemplating, but existence. Or more correctly, the idea of your body floating around in an oddly-realised space, spinning forever, forever, forever, forever, forever, forever… well, you get the idea. That haunting, empty feeling, this body, soul, whatever, never returning to your life again. Ever. EVER.
“Passing moments of either feeling dread that it was October or joy realising it was only one month on from my previous birthday were fleeting, but constant”
This moved on to all the people you loved, people you knew, people you hated at school, people off the TV – all carrying on life without you. Well, it broke my young mind.
That day at school, on two hours’ sleep, I sat in the gym changing room, bereft of any proper thought patterns, staring at a classmate and feeling like crying.
Safe to say, 32 years on, there is not a day gone by when I haven’t thought about my existence. In the bad years, before I sought help, my months would be divided into segments. Say it was 16 June, well then you are past the halfway point and a step closer to the next month, which, in turn, meant being nearer to the end of the year, which signalled another year passing and being closer to not existing.
This was, as you might expect, an exhausting daily routine; these passing moments of either feeling dread that it was October or joy realising it was only one month on from my previous birthday were fleeting, but constant.
Yet focusing so intently on the ageing process – not by looks, but by sell-by date – had its positives. Very few situations in my life, from speaking in front of large crowds to broadcasting on radio, were ever daunting. After all, I had a bigger problem in my head. And it certainly didn’t stop me offering reasonably practical advice to my son when he reached the ubiquitous age of understanding death.
“What happens after I die?”, “I don’t want you to die, daddy”, “Do you think there is a Heaven?” and so on were all met with “No-one knows what happens, so there is no need to be afraid”, “I am going to be around for a long, long time”, “There might well be life after death, there is no proof either way”. And they were genuine responses to the questions at the time, albeit to someone you love unconditionally.
I have seen three counsellors plus a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) specialist through my adult years, to varying degrees of success, to confront my thoughts. After all, they cannot solve the actual issue of not existing, can they? One was an actual existential therapist – someone who focuses on concepts relating to human existence, and turns them from anxiety-ridden into acceptance and normal. The other two I found borderline useless, while the CBT therapist a real breath of fresh air.
“Very few situations in my life, from speaking in front of large crowds to broadcasting on radio, were ever daunting. After all, I had a bigger problem in my head”
It was in was in a session with the latter, that I made a decision. There is a fair amount of denial when it comes to human beings and their inevitable fate, so I was asked what would be the ideal solution to my ‘problem’.
Now, I’ve always said if there was just a single, proveable instance of someone ‘returning’ from death or – perhaps more realistically – evidence of some form of existence after death, even if it was just a part of your mind remaining outside of a physical presence, or, damn it, ghosts, who seem at least to have a life after death of some sorts, then I could die knowing there might be ‘something’ after.
But to this question, I blurted out I would want to live forever. With my ‘soul’ as it is, and always has been. “But what about your son?” came the question.
“Well, obviously, he would come along for the ride as well,” came the response. “And all the others you love?” they asked.
It was then I realised the impossibility – and ultimate selfishness – of the dream. Just how many people you loved and knew would you want to be stuck in this endless limbo? Would they want to be there once all their loved ones had passed?
Or which of the next generation would also join us in this made-up existence? And what of our fellow humans? I can think of many people who could collapse out of existence without it bothering me, but shouldn’t the good ones all strive to live forever?
All of this, of course, represents just a single thought, one day, bouncing around my head; a different thought or fear replaces it the next.
I should point out that I am amazingly happy in this life, indeed in nearly all facets of it, and terribly fun at parties. No, really. I suspect this mad desire to count each single day as a day where a solution to non-existence occurs may play a big part in my normally happy state. It really does keep you on your toes.
So the decision was to confront the situation head-on. I studied counselling at a university and after deciding that wasn’t for me, went down the far easier route of starting a podcast where each week I speak to someone who works in and around death to see how it changes their attitude towards existence, from mortuary workers to obituary writers.
Well, I say ‘started’ a podcast, I mean planned. After all, I have all the time in the world to get it done, haven’t I?
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