Scared to death: part 1

I can remember being preoccupied about death when I was a child. I particularly recall, having seen an episode of Neighbours or some other program where someone’s sister died of cancer, writing a tearful letter to my mum and dad begging them to be happy and carry on with their lives if I was to get hit by a bus or be diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour. I put this letter in an envelope and hid it under my bed because this would surely be where my parents would start if they had to clear out my belongings after the funeral.

In the 1990s mad cow disease hit the headlines and for several weeks the TV and newspapers were full of young people losing their minds and dying terrible deaths in hospices around the country, and angry, grieving parents demanding to know what was going on. The nationwide feelings of horror and fear gripped me and I refused to eat McDonalds burgers any more. When I was 13 or so, I thought it would be a good idea to write an April Fool’s email on my mum’s behalf to various people saying that she was sorry, but I’d died. I thought I’d check with my mum first to see if she thought this was a good joke, so the email never got sent, fortunately. I still don’t really know why I thought this would be an acceptable thing to do, or why I thought my mum might think it was funny.

Later, age 18 and hollowed to the core by romantic loss for the first time in my life, I discovered Buddhism and existentialist philosophy in the form of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I was hooked. Looking back, this was probably my first real episode of OCD. I was utterly obsessed with finding the ‘meaning of life’, whatever that meant, and, compounded by my broken teenage heart, somehow became convinced that, despite not wanting to, the only way to find this meaning would be to go and live as a hermit in India and become a Buddhist nun. Around this time, a layer of grey smog descended in my mind and began to cloud everything. Having never meditated, been to a monastery or met any nuns (Buddhist or otherwise), I had no idea what any of my thoughts and feelings meant. All I knew was that they felt very real, and I knew that I wished they weren’t there. I went to see the doctor and told her ‘I can’t stop thinking about nuns’. God knows what she thought. She sent me home with a prescription for Citalopram.

I spent the next few months buying books about the subject from Amazon, never meditating or actually practising any Buddhism, but rather attempting to work it all out in my head. It felt like a desperate battle inside and against my mind and I began to think that perhaps I had a spiritual calling to be a Buddhist nun, and that I didn’t have a choice because callings came from God, or whatever the Buddhist equivalent was. In any case they certainly weren’t coming from me or my desires, insofar as I had any sense of what my desires actually were. I’d wake up in the morning and the first few seconds would be a sort of forgetful bliss, until I remembered about the nun thing and would spend the day reading, thinking, reading, thinking, trying to come to some sense of certainty and prove to myself that I didn’t really have to shave my head and take up residence in a Himalayan cave wearing yellow robes for the rest of my days.

Anyway, I went to university to study French and Italian, and got interested in Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir, that wonderful trio of enfants terribles smoking and drinking their way around 1950s Paris. The ‘nun thing’ chuntered along vaguely in the background, and I bought twelve copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to give to my classmates and tutors, who were mostly underwhelmed. I smoked roll-ups with my literature tutor and talked about nihilistic Italian poetry. At a modern languages dinner party in College I dressed up as Jean-Paul Sartre (cringe). I managed to convince my friend Ceri to come as a half-hearted version of Simone de Beauvoir, who turned out to look pretty much the same as Ceri. I spent a year in Paris and more or less smoked and drank my way around it. I read and re-read Existentialism and Humanism, in English, pretended I’d read Being and Nothingness, and quoted from La Nausée in pubs. Cringe again. The similarities end there, though, as I did very little academic work and contributed nothing to the field of modern philosophical thought, despite learning five different words for ‘spliff’ in French. In short, I was still a teenage girl, painfully pretentious and lost in anxiety.

I graduated, then lived abroad teaching English for a while, and all was sort of okay. Until, reeling from another bout of misery having been unceremoniously dumped by a guy I was falling in love with, I moved back to Paris in a desperate attempt to relive my pseudo-intellectual student days, and the nun thing came back with a vengeance. I joined meditation groups and had private interviews with the instructors, asking repeatedly if they thought I should be a nun. One suggested I see a therapist. Another said I definitely shouldn’t be a nun. A third didn’t know. I was unsatisfied and kept searching in the corners of my mind for a definitive answer, day after day. I drank more and more wine, cried on the shoulders of new and bemused friends, thought I was developing schizophrenia (I wasn’t), then eventually moved back to my mum’s house in the north east of England, tail between my legs, backpack-with-teddy-hidden-in-the-bottom-of-it on my shoulders, months after landing in the city of love and intellectualism.

Eventually the nun thing stopped causing me so much angst and faded into the recesses of my mind, where it remains today. It makes the occasional reappearance but it doesn’t bother me any more. It’s more like an annoying song that pops up on repeat and hums away in the background until I forget about it. For me this fear that I would become a monastic in some anonymous far-away country with no obvious personal identity was part of my obsession with death, I think. Fear that I would somehow cease to exist, leaving my poor grieving parents behind to wonder what they’d done to get things so wrong.

[Please note: even with insights into the possible root of one’s core fears, sadly OCD does not respond to psychoanalytical or psychodynamic treatment. What’s needed is time, medication and a specific type of CBT called ERP (exposure and response prevention).]

Soon up: part two of this story…

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