As I grew the sense of dread grew with me and I began to develop the roots of elaborate rituals designed to appease Gods/Fate and keep the people I loved safe. Mostly these were elaborate rituals involving counting, checking on people a certain number of times, sleeping and walking in particular positions (no body part must touch the corners of the bed), walking in a particular way. The purpose of these was to appease fear and my own sense of profound helplessness in the hands of Fate. And since the people I loved did not die, I was reassured about the effectiveness of these precautions.
However, these invented safety measures never took over my life or seriously impacted my ability to function in society. I was always able to find ways to challenge and disobey the teachings of my anxiety, to curtail these rituals of reassurance-seeking if they seemed to be growing too strong. Being able to carry out those small acts of resistance was fortunate for me as it meant I never grew to have more than a passing acquaintance with OCD.
I have seen over the years that fear can be challenged, it can be processed and transformed, even set aside at times but it can not be eradicated. And now that I have fallen in love and had children for me there is no worse fear, no greater trauma than the possibility of losing my family. This is the peril of profound love of course, the sense that my heart is no longer in my care but now is carried by these people I adore.
And there is nothing hypothetical about the fear I feel; I am vividly acquainted with the trauma of bereavement. I lost my father young and I lost him unexpectedly. The sheer suddenness of his death multiplied its shock by a 1000. One evening he was there, the next morning I woke up and was told he was in hospital. One afternoon I am talking to him cheerfully about television shows before the routine surgery he is due to have and then he is dead. There was no closure, no preparation, only a sundering.
The loss of him was the worst thing that had ever happened to me and I barely survived it. I cannot describe the pain of being torn to the core, of not knowing how to heal myself, of not wanting to go on. Only the birth of my children 18 years later made me set down the desire to die which opened up in me the day my father left this world.
The shock of that loss struck my world like a Richter 9 earthquake, changing forever the internal landscape. Gone was all sense of safety, any belief in justice or a benevolent God/Universe. In its place came consuming anxiety, and a dread of having been cursed.* My family is littered with examples of people dying in freakish, catastrophic accidents. At a glance:
* The great-great-grandmother who had a powerful phobia of mice and was said to have died of fright after reaching into a jar for a candle and instead bringing up a live mouse**
* The great-great uncle who suddenly developed a nosebleed that could not cease and bled out 3 days later, aged 9.
* My grandfather who died from a catastrophic allergic reaction among his doctor colleagues during a routine procedure to de-sensitise him to penicillin.
*My Uncle who died in a freak accident aged 9, falling and breaking his neck during the celebration for the Liberation of WWII Yugoslavia.
*And of course my own mythically robust-seeming father (heart like an ox, never a sick day in his life etc) collapsing and vanishing from one day to the next.
Human minds are built to see patterns and it is human nature to try and assert control where there is none. Perusing family history built up in me of people stolen by a capricious and cruel Universe. Of loss visited upon us as a punishment not for sin or vice, but for the audacity of having relaxed our guard, of having been happy.
I don't think it's possible for this kind of deep trauma to ever leave the system it has invaded. The best that we can hope is to build up resilience and courage to carry on. Just as devastated brains of stroke victims can be rehabilitated to various degrees and taught to re-wire, the human heart/mind can learn to build up function around the Ground Zero of original impact. The amount of function varies but even in the most resilient and fortunate there will be areas that never recover.
Having decided that God could not be trusted, I spent the ten years after my father's death finding the will and the way to rebuild a life and rely only on my own resources. It worked fairly well until the bombing of Yugoslavia.
Once more the shock was massive and devastating. Here they all were, my worst fears multiplied and played out on television screens. Sections of my city in rubble, everyone I loved in peril with me powerless to either save them or join them. The winning combination of Survivor's Guilt, insomnia and constant tension about who would survive the next round of NATO-roulette soon became more than I could sustain. A few weeks into the war things sundered like they had never been built and I found myself buried in the rubble. And in the inner darkness and desolation of Rock Bottom I understood that I could not go on as before. The trauma was simply too much - I was burnt out. I understood that to dig myself out, to go on, to start over I would need to let go of fear, of my wish to control and appease destiny. That I would have to trust that there was a greater design in place, and to entrust my spirit to what was against all appearance to the contrary a benign Universe. A feeling of great calm, of profound love washed over me. I felt renewed and on this foundation I started over.
The next ten years brought massive growth and change as well as their own share of new and different trauma. Although in the middle of crisis I stopped being able to access my wise mind and that memory of love and well-being, the foundation shook but held and I was eventually always able to find my way back to peace.
By the time I was 30 the great early stresses and trials of motherhood and marriage had settled and been resolved. I was happy, things were good. Predictably this was an open invitation for (new! enhanced!) anxiety to come back, because for the first time in years I had so much to lose.
Most of the time I am good at keeping the fear at bay. Often when I talk with my clients about anxiety I use the analogy of passengers in a car and we talk about finding ways to resist fear doing the driving. Fear will still be in the car of course, fear may even be in the front passenger seat. The quest is no to eradicate it (impossible) simply not to trust it with the wheel, and if we catch it trying to navigate then to ask for a second opinion.
There are many areas of my life in which I can relegate fear to the backseat, even the boot. I notice my thoughts and let them go. I practice the Golden Egg meditation of my invention, I distract myself, I lecture myself, I tell myself it is only Anxiety. I resist getting drawn in to the lure of obsessive thoughts, into the false comfort of rituals. But the fears find me in my sleep. They create dreams that feel so real I cannot remember they are dreams, and night after night they come for me.
I keep dreaming of the deaths of one or both of my children. The nightmares are almost always the same in their content: 1/3 logistics (filling out forms, waiting in offices, making phonecalls) and 2/3 a howling, indescribable grief. I wake up drenched in tears, suffocating.
The fears are not always this bad. They are set off in the present by the fact that in just under a month my family is going on a plane ride without me which feeds on every deep rooted anxiety and trauma I have and conspires to try and send me over the edge.
This has happened before. Most likely it will happen again. Before Z's surgery last June I was similarly climbing the ceiling and then talking myself down, half-convinced that he was going to die in some catastrophic freak medical blunder, as since October 1989 the words "routine surgery" have lost their power to reassure me.
My fortune is that it's been over a decade since I was entirely overtaken by fear. There is always a part of me that remains on the outside, reflecting, encouraging, looking in. Saying "it is only anxiety. It is only anxiety. Still your mind. It will be all right."
In my case Anxiety is exacerbated severely by being An Intuitive, because it makes it harder to convince myself that the dreams are not premonitions of imminent disaster but only the voices of old fears, old wounds. I remind myself of all the times when my anxiety has been wrong in its predictions. My argument is bolstered by all the times the world failed to end. All the planes that safely landed, all the fires that were put out. My children's survival of their births, their infancies, their toddlerhoods. Z's failure to perish in freak ways. All weaving together to slowly, slowly, inch by inch regain and transform some of the traumatised ground.
And in the night when the fears go on the offensive, as the war goes on and I wake up - I do all that I can do in the face of not knowing. I draw the Golden Egg around myself. I repeat the litany of "It Is Only Anxiety. It is Only Anxiety, that Supreme Poker Player, that Greatest of Bullshitters. There are no wolves at the door, only Anxiety."
I breathe. I dry my tears. I pour my love into my home and my family as completely and as fiercely as I can. And mostly I let go. I contain my fears. I entrust my spirit. I close my eyes. I remember love and peace and I step into another day.
*I AM Slavic after all.
** I can promise you that this story has done literally nothing to diminish my own rodent phobia.