alexandtheweb / blog

The Death Anxiety Diet

The best you can hope for when whacked in the face with existential dread (read: death anxiety) is a level of comfort, of equilibrium. And to that end I’m very grateful that, despite unceasing, obsessive thoughts about the inevitable, I’ve actually not had any more panic attacks. I’ve also been crying significantly less, though still every day. Bizarre, but there it is.

The verdict, then: I’ve been a lot more operational since my last post, if not exactly a huge bundle of fun to be around. I feel wobbly, as if my tether to the earth has been slightly loosened. At the moment I can’t see how it doesn’t keep getting looser and looser from now on.

I’m very grateful to those that have listened, met up with me, etc. I seem to crave human companionship more than I ever have.

But being unable to stop thinking about the one undeniable fact of life is not fun. We’ve just come back from a brief holiday in the south of France, where I mostly managed to hold myself together. I even had small pockets of time where I enjoyed myself. But mostly things went something like this:

I’d look about the ancient churches and castles of Provence whilst my brain screamed: “where the hell are all the people who were here before?”. Museums, once a favourite holiday past time, were almost unbearable.

I’d look about the bucolic beauty of the rolling hills whilst out on a walk or cycle ride and shudder at the absurdity of never seeing this, any of this, again.

I’d think about my grandmother, now two years gone.

We live in an exceptionally cruel age. On one hand, materialism has shrugged away the comforts of religion and told us to accept the end as the end. Our minds are mere matter, we’re told. NDEs and sensed presence phenomena are sad hallucinations. On the other hand, science continues to dangle before us the carrot of ever-lengthening life. Human trials for senolytic drugs are under way. Lab-grown organs are coming soon. Russian billionaires tell us they can upload us into the cloud by 2045. It’s all oh so close – but alas, the carrot is just out of reach. Here’s another celebrity death. Here’s another relative or friend or pet gone. It feels to me like the brutal age between a time when death was accepted and inevitable and holy and an age when cell senescence really is nipped in the bud and we all bumble along forever. No wonder every other person I know has panic attacks.

But it’s not all bad. A few things have helped to make sure I don’t crack. Here they are, in no particular order:

- Remembering that my view on death is not other people’s attitude. Others may be a lot more accepting of what’s to come; more philosophical;

- Call it denial, but I’m 37 and I can still assure myself that in some years’ time, my own attitude to these things will change. Or that science will progress enough to grant us a few more decades or some mercy drugs that will cause us not to care about our demise;

- No laughing but: reading about quantum physics has been incredibly useful. Realising that we may not actually yet understand how the universe or consciousness works is, to me, a huge comfort. The hope of knowing more before my time is up keeps me going.

In more practical terms:

- Exercise. Christ, everything they tell you about exercise is true. Go for a 30 minute walk / run and you’re good as new, if only for a little while;

- Just talking to people. Friends, a therapist, anyone. About anything;

- Shedloads of sleep;

- Exceptionally healthy eating. I swear, I’m going to write a nutrition plan called the Death Anxiety Diet. I’m subsisting on oatmeal, veggies, lentils and oily fish.

Anyway, that’s where things stand. I still feel an incredible amount of anger at the fact that I’ve been handed this… thing in the happiest period of my life. Health, potential, nice job, new home, all put in check by a smug, smirking border guard. You can keep going, he says. But past this barrier there’s another country.

I don’t know what happens past this post.

Hurricanes and Brains

News of Hurricane Harvey ought to have been traumatic. I lived in Houston for many years, still have friends and acquaintances there. In 2005 my family evacuated from Hurricane Rita, a disastrous event that cost the city 100 lives. Afterwards, I had panic attacks and obsessive thoughts about death. With time and medication, I recovered.

So it’s perhaps surprising (and terrible) that I found Harvey a welcome distraction. Following news of the floods and checking in on various friends allowed me brief respite from what’s been going on in my brain. Namely: very bad mental things.

In Autumn 2012, during a time of high stress — I was juggling work and a part-time masters degree, plus a personal rejection that affected me badly — I had a bad bout of depression. The NHS failed me (waiting lists for therapy were months long), I refused to go on anti-depressants, the private therapists I saw for an initial consultation didn’t connect. So I read a few books about CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), went a lot easier on myself and got better. Many of the petty things I used to angst about I simply stopped giving a hoot about. By mid-late 2013 things were okay. I had the odd bad week here and there, but nothing paralysing, as 2012 had been. Life went on, things were okay.

In early 2015 my childhood best friend nearly died following a liver transplant. Later that same year, my grandma died. I had a bad week, cried and mourned and eventually moved on. We also struggled with a difficult house purchase (it all worked out in the end). 2016 brought endless celebrity deaths and Brexit and Trump. I was sad, frustrated, had the odd bad few days, cried once in a while – that was okay. Life went on, things were okay. I diffused stress by writing silly short stories, keeping a Tumblr blog of assorted crap, going to the theatre, volunteering, seeing friends. Perhaps I was a bit more withdrawn than I had been during the first few manic years of my 30’s, but I was content.

By the end of 2016 and through most of 2017 things were the same. By June 2017 I was thinking to myself, delightedly, just how decent my mental health had been.

And then came July. I had a panic attack. My first one since 2005. Two weeks later, another one. A few smaller ones followed. I threw everything I had at them. I stopped drinking alcohol and cut out all caffeine, I did lots of walking, I meditated, I told people earnestly about what was going on. My symptoms eased down to the occasional bout of anxiety. By early August I thought I’d won. It was just a blip.

Until two weeks ago.

The last two weeks have been horrific. The anxiety stopped and depression set in. Imagine spending every single day dwelling, obsessively, on the death of everyone you love. Waking up thinking about it. To the point where writing or speaking to people you love is painful because you see nothing of the joy you will still experience with them, but the profound burden of their loss. Whatever contentment I had about life vanished into a profound, dark void. It’s as if my brain went: “So you’ve managed to think your way out of panic attacks? Here’s something you can do absolutely nothing about.”

At this moment, I don’t see a way out. It’s as if I’ve been handed a hopeless case and the hopeless case is my life, all of life. All I can say is that I have some calmer moments, like right now. The rest of the time I’m in bed, crying for hours.

And in other calm moments I read studies about depression. And what I’ve hung my hope on is partly based on emerging research and partly on my own experience with the illness.

Of the latter I can say this: every time depression strikes, it feels biological. Like I’m being colonised by something.

Of the former: the worst part about depression is that it likes to make you believe it is the only RIGHT and NATURAL and REAL response to the rather shitty circumstances of being a human being. That by being existentially depressed, you’ve discovered some big terrible secret about the nature of life. The second worst thing about depression is that, like the common cold, it has no cure. It can be treated, with talking therapy and anti-depressants, but the difference between depression treatment and cure is that between lemsip and antibiotics. Yet something close to 80% of people will never experience depression. This seems astonishing to me, miraculous. There is something at work in those people that lets them just get on with life. Studies are emerging about the link between depression and anxiety and gut bacteria . Other recent research points to low-grade inflammation in the body as the cause. Something is keeping those 80% well.

I’m fortunate. I have friends who will listen, a non-addictive personality and, despite being in the overweight bracket, an excellent, largely plant-based, home-cooked diet. I walk, I take supplements, I’m still not drinking. For the most part, I still sleep.

But right now my biggest hope, as I crawl through this godawful time, is that there’s something to the latest research, and to the Miraculous Eighty Percent. That this IS a biological illness with a cure.

Come on, science. Prove me right.

Blue

In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, a woman, Julie, loses her husband and daughter in a car crash. After a failed suicide attempt while recovering in a hospital, she absconds from her former life and friendships. She also destroys an unfinished score her husband had been composing: a work written in celebration of European unity following the end of the Cold War.

But the perished score haunts Julie; and life’s intricacies and conflicts soon begin to draw her back in. At first, she tries to stop her husband’s former collaborator from recreating the lost music. In the end, she helps restore it. The film ends with the piece being performed. Despite her grief, Julie is unable to remain a ghost and exile inside her own reality.

Shortly after Brexit, I remembered the music featured in the film and its theme. It began stalking me, as it had stalked Julie.

Europe has meant everything to me. Poland joining the EU in 2004 allowed me to move to the UK and be with the person I love. Twelve years later, I’m still in love – and not just with the boy. I’m in love with this island.

Tomorrow, the UK begins its exit from the European Union. It is about to become a willing ghost and exile, a thing onto itself. I hang on to some hope that, like Julie, something – life, reality – will draw it back in.

But right now, I can’t think of anything else to say. I’m drowning in blue.

Link to the score

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