There is a tribe called the Wintu, indigenous to the various landscapes of Northern Sacramento Valley. Their language refers to the body only in relation to the world around them. So, your left arm to the Wintuan community would be your East arm, according to what direction you are facing. As my heartbeats slowed and sun leaked out on to the surface of the pond, hitting my West arm, I was reminded where I was; buoyed by something bigger than myself, by the greatness of nature. My anxiety shrunk in front of it’s sublimity and, at once, rose to the weightless of the water surrounding me. My life spirit had kicked in. I was functioning on the most basic level, the level that connects us all: physically.
It has been 10 messy months since my siblings and I lost our brother, my parents their child, and everyone else a friend, to suicide. Suicide, that dreaded word. Viewed as the most grievous sin in some religions, and most recently as that tragic but still taboo feature of life in the modern world. Since losing my brother, it seems there has been an uproar in talk about mental health with organisations such as Head Talks aiming to fill the silent space taboos leave with. The mantra of most is: sharing is key. It is scientifically proven that if a person feels their life is connected to others, they are less likely to take it. In many cultures, however, people staying quiet perpetuates, leaving most people alone with their struggles. They feel they are a burden, or a dampener on others. On their happiness. It is in that quiet space, when people feel alone with something unmanageable, that suicide rears it’s head. I am only just emerging from the maelstrom of change that forces itself in to your world after sudden loss, but I have since suffered from anxiety, and it is only through sharing with small sections of compassionate people that I have been able to reconnect my life with the world around me and move away from the lonely space grief relegates you to. The unexpected source of this structure of connection was, for me, swimming.
On a hazy November morning my Mum called me to let me know that my brother had overdosed. I’d had a restless night. For no reason at all, I had moved to my housemate’s empty bedroom to sleep. In the unfamiliar surroundings (that I am now mighty grateful for) the news hit me in the most deeply physical way. My body felt like it was simultaneously stretching to beyond it’s form and crumpling inwards from the gut. It was like an atomic bomb had hit my soul; a loud deafening sound, reverberating quiet, and then slowing waves sweep through your world, destroying the foundations of everything you thought you knew. The unpredictable undulations of realisation – one minute fine, the next minute completely unravelled – hit me slowly over the next year, leaving me unutterably confused and weak. My ego was brought low to mortality, and the world around me became very existential. I was basically Withnail and I, the wandering Jew, Jacquis. Everyone annoyed me. I work in a bookshop, and every person to enter, moaning about our selection of cards, was shut straight up in Room 101. People complaining about their jobs, their family problems, the death of a pet, and all I could think is, ‘if this is your last moment of earth, would you like to be talking to me about the fact that you don’t know what to have for dinner?’ Life and soul of the party, I know!
Regardless, and a mere three weeks after it happened, I was holding parties at my house, going out drinking, meeting new people. I was in a relationship, in the important “meeting friends and family” faze, when showing off how great you are and how much fun you are is important for bonding. Fun was the last thing in my repertoire. Attacked at any moment by emotions it took me months to understand, I had lost a sense of my self. There was nothing in my emotional repertoire to prepare me for grief, nor in the world of people around me.
Aware that I had very little to share or gain from a community of 20 year olds (listen to me: as if I’m some ancient mariner…) who are still experiencing the world as a permeable thing, without consequence, within their control, my social spirit became very weak. I felt completely dissociated from large social occasions, as internally I was battling an intense sadness, a sadness I couldn’t digest – how was I to accept that my brother with whom I expected to spend my whole life alongside was gone at 31? I couldn’t and I didn’t. I was drawn to adults and those who had experienced more than the joys of childhood, who weren’t scared to imagine the world that I now lived in. Who were brave enough to ask me how I was. Who understood. It wasn’t that the people my age were unkind, but nobody mentioned the elephant on my back. British culture is terrified of death, of anything that demands responsibility. As was I. There was a part of me that didn’t want to talk, knowing it was unwelcome subject matter. “Hey guys, put down the beer, let’s talk about death.”
As the realisation of my loss began to sink in, I was waking up in tears, my relationship ended, taking with it a vital support structure, and I developed high levels of anxiety which left me running on 3 hours sleep. I would wake up at 4am, and then have to go in to work and juggle being in charge of events, public speaking and various responsibilities that challenged my focus at the best of times. Work calmed down, but I continued waking up before sunrise in nervous anticipation of the stress of the day. All I needed was sleep, but my body became locked in a cycle that left me unable to progress.
One morning, after waking at 4am for the 9th day in a row, I broke down. I was exhausted to my core. I was disappointed in my own mind – a source of strength for me all my life. It knew I needed sleep, but no amount of jumping sheep, cheesy YouTube meditations, or midnight walks, were enough to make this happen. My heart refused to chill out. It beat like it was in the middle of a gig. So, without thinking, I made my way to Hampstead ponds – popular rave spot, don’t you know. I jumped on my bike, and, using the excess adrenalin, sped up empty hills. Arriving, I mindlessly slipped out of the warmth of my clothes, walked out on to the wooden platform and stopped – my heart beats kicked up another notch. The last few times I had been in I had experienced an embarrassing anxiety attack, resulting in very loud deep breathing. I was with someone and could hide it with laughter. This time I was alone. If I started laughing people would think I was mad and probably get me rolled out by the men in white coats. Pause. It was this type of thought that I needed to stop. The nervous thoughts that anticipated the worst before it had happened. Instinctively, I jumped in. The loud, embarrassing breathing ensued. My thoughts whizzed towards the worst: ‘this is it! I am going to drown in the Ladies ponds. Alone amongst the ducks! What a way to go.’
NO, said my mind. MOVE. Swim. Stretching my arms out in to a tight breaststroke felt mildly masochistic. Moving felt like it would only add heartbeats to my already straining ventricles. Anxiety is an overload of the fight or flight hormone. The irony is that instead of fighting or flying, anxiety usually clamps you to a point of stasis. The overload of cortisol, the stress hormone, saps your energy like an unused app. A lot of people experience an inability to leave the house, pick up the phone, choosing to avoid things instead of face them. You can have too much of a good thing, it seems. However, in the pond, with the alternative being drowning, I had no choice but to ignore my anxious thoughts. I stretched my arms out and slowly, slowly, my breath began to match my stroke. The rich peat of the pond hit my top lip, my goal became the leafy horizon, and the first deep breath entered naturally back in to my lungs, calming my awareness back to physical reality, instead of the illusory fear inside my head.
Lying, closed eyes, on the wet, cold grass of the meadow by the ponds, I began to think about my anxiety in a new way. I began to feel profoundly fond of my head for being so foolishly brave in trying to protect me from the strains of life. Yes, a little belatedly, but it taught me how strong I am, by showing me how sensitive I can be. I had been so frustrated, embarrassed with my inability to function with anxiety, that I had been unable to accept that my mind and body were reacting to life’s biggest strains in the only way that they knew how: with loving protection. I had been so unforgiving, impatient almost.
November 14th will be a year since my brother’s death. As the waves have calmed and the dust settled, the words to describe all of this have just surfaced. I think, perhaps, because the world looks very different to the one before we lost Alex. I have emerged out of a fog, shell-shocked, but with a very new sense of time, value, and self – sense being the key word. I was effectively blind to how to deal with my grief, with my self. It was only through reducing everything to a purely physical level that I made my way through. Water and nature had taught me the greatest truth of life. If you don’t keep moving, you will drown. It’s as simple as that.
There is a line from Doctor Who that I unashamedly bandy about wherever I go: fear is a superpower. Anxiety is a natural counterpart or product of fear. Fear, biologically, is an increase of adrenalin. Harnessing this adrenalin as something for you, with you, will propel you through the hardest times to the other side of the lake.