When I close my eyes I often see a freshly dug mound of dirt. The soil is still damp and the stones still loose. There is a small bunch of flowers lying at one end. They are yellow like my old wellington boots and pale pink like the walls of my bedroom. It is the day that I leave Durham to return to Oxford for Trinity Term. I am staring down at this mound of dirt trying to say goodbye to Dad but I end up wondering how it’s possible that he fits here in the ground. The pile of dirt doesn’t seem big enough, somehow.
I keep my eyes closed and eventually I clear away the soil to find those happy memories of home that break my heart; softly, the words “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see” sing me to sleep; silently, a melody that I can’t quite recall plays on the piano in the dining room; gently, unobtrusively, the hush of the cicadas on warm Canadian evenings mingles with the smell of sawdust.
But soon it is only the silence that remains and I am standing in the Chapel of Rest with the body that doesn’t look like it’s sleeping as, naively, I had imagined that it would. The body that is so obviously dead. The body that isn’t a person, that isn’t Dad, not at all.
Still, I keep my eyes closed. Recoiling from this image I once again search for the happy memories of home.
But they do not come.
Instead, lurking always, is the smile of the taxi driver and the suffocation of that nagging, nagging guilt. His eyes burn into my body as I open my own and prepare myself for the fog to descend, for that dizzy, lightheaded-feeling to return; the state of a brain that only experiences now as if from behind a translucent screen.
I am exhausted. In November I was sexually assaulted in a taxi in Amman, Jordan, and then in March my Dad had a heart attack and died.
I want to explain the last eight months but the words are difficult to find. I feel as though I’m trying to give words to what is really a succession of screams in my head. And I don’t know how you convert screaming into words.
A lot of the screaming is frustration stemming from confusion. There’s a lot of useful (although still limited) information online about what to expect when you suffer bereavement or what to expect when you’re assaulted, but so far I can’t find anything about what to expect when the two collide, like they do in my head, day in day out.
I want to explain how it hurts. But like so many people who, for whatever reason, find that their head is in turmoil, I seem to be completely incapable of letting people in, of crying in front of anyone, of answering “How are you?” with anything other than “Fine”. It’s getting lonely now in the void between the pain in my head and the image of “okay-ness” that I feel too scared to let slip; I’m hoping that I’ll be able to write about what I can’t speak about. I was so inspired by the number of people in Oxford this term who wrote and spoke about their experiences of a whole variety of different mental health issues. Each one reminded me that struggling in this way is not a sign of weakness, that it’s not something about which I should feel ashamed, that I’m not alone. I want to add my voice to these voices.
So here’s my struggle. Here’s me not being okay.
For me it’s about fear. Almost constant fear.
Being assaulted felt a little bit like not existing. In the taxi I felt myself being broken down into pieces, getting weaker and weaker as my fear grew stronger and stronger. When he pulled the car over and it was dark and I had no idea where I was and everything was getting worse and worse, my brain coped by taking me out of the situation; for the next few minutes it felt as though I was watching him do this to somebody else. I remember thinking, “That girl’s in danger,” completely disassociated from the fact that she was me.
My body didn’t feel like it belonged to me in that moment and that feeling of lacking autonomy over myself continued as the shock of the assault slowly began to take root within me: panic attacks, flashbacks, constant guilt, the inability to keep food down. By the time I went home for Christmas I wasn’t really speaking anymore.
I started to feel almost invincible. I thought I was coping with enough hurt and stress that nothing could really hurt me any further. But then Dad died.
As the muffled rustles of a of badly-connected skype call slowly became intelligible, my vision clouded, my head became fuzzy, my knees buckled under me and each of the pieces into which the taxi driver had torn me smashed into a thousand new fragments. I learnt in that second how incredibly wrong I was to ever have been fooled into thinking that pain makes you immune to further pain.
Being assaulted made me acutely aware of my own vulnerability and for a long time afterwards I frequently felt scared of being physically violated again. When Dad died I felt scared in a different sense, because now nowhere was safe. The taxi driver took away my security in certain situations — large crowds and public transport, for example — but I still had my home with my family where I could go and feel safe. Even when I was not physically there, the awareness of that stable, secure part of my life meant that it gave me a degree of safety in whatever physical situation I found myself. This safe space was what kept the assault manageable.
When Dad died I lost that safe space. One man hurt me and then the man who always protected me was ripped away. Rationally, I never believed in any sort of justice that human beings didn’t create themselves; I never saw the world as being kind or cruel. But this rationality couldn’t entirely fight the emotional response that felt this as a perverse triumph of evil over goodness. This was the bad guy winning over the good guy. The world seemed punitive and I was terrified of how badly it could make me hurt. Even the people I love no longer made me feel secure because I was petrified that they too might die and so aware that I was powerless to prevent it and utterly unable to get back up should another tragedy occur.
By the time I got back to Oxford in April I felt absolutely terrified all the time. I was in a near constant state of panic. Nowhere felt safe. Scared of the nightmares that came in the dark, I went for runs at night and only let myself sleep when I began to see light outside. Coming back from nights out I would sleep in the JCR in the hope that sleeping on a sofa instead of a bed might make it feel more like napping than really sleeping and this way maybe the nightmares would hold back. Scared of being alone and even more scared of being with people, I trod a precarious line between avoiding spending time on my own while also avoiding letting anyone become too close.
And then with all this came the dizziness. I would go to the library full of good intentions but then the dizziness would descend again with nausea and headaches and I’d have to abandon my work. The worst days were those when the tiredness and the numbness would set in, when just lifting my foot to move forwards became a terrible effort and I worried that I might forget how to be happy ever again.
At the end of the term now, I am getting back on my feet. I feel calmer; I can sleep; I am no longer conscious of any nightmares, although I suspect I still have them since I often wake with my pulse raised and my body covered in cold sweat; I can eat properly again; panic attacks have become manageable levels of nervousness; guilt persists but it is no longer a pervasive emotion; flashbacks have stopped altogether.
What remains most clearly now is that cold hard grief. I never really know when it’s going to take me. The pain is always there but most of the time I feel it like a dull ache and then sometimes it rises up and takes hold of me and there’s nothing I can do. I miss my Dad like there’s a part of my body missing. It hurts like someone’s draining all the strength from my bones. When I feel it coming on, I run away so that no one has to see when my knees give way and I can barely stand and I’m crying and shaking and all I want is for it to be different, for Dad to be back, to have our old life back, the five of us, Mum, Dad, Marianne, Ben and me.
But grief necessarily takes time. It’s a process of pain which I must undergo. Avoiding it now, if that were even possible, would only mean waiting for it to come back and take hold of me later. They say that time heals; I have yet to find out whether that is true. At the moment all I can say is that it has given me clarity which has given me calmness. When Dad died I moved backwards in my process of dealing with the assault and all the physical reactions that I’d begun to control suddenly came back. Trying to work out which issues were symptoms of which disaster (if they could ever be so easily distinguishable) proved a barrier to dealing with either trauma and led me to just shut down in relation to both. Thankfully, I feel like I understand my head and my body’s reactions a little better now.
Bereavement is often described as having ups and downs. While this may be misleading because it doesn’t emphasise that it never, ever goes away even for a second, it does sort of capture it. Of course many people who are bereaved also become depressed, but in general the two are not the same thing; for many grieving people, myself included, that numbness that feels like depression arrives for a period and then fades for a period. As weird as it sounds, you can feel happy sometimes as you hurt. Just as I don’t know when the pain is going to take me, I also don’t know when a little knot of happiness, albeit cautious and weary, is going to surface and remind me that it will get brighter again, that I will feel safe again.
Somehow, in spite of everything, there is still beauty in life: in that golden light that hits Oxford just before sunset that doesn’t seem quite the same anywhere else; in the scraps of trashing confetti collected in the gaps between the cobbles; in the bubbles that float down Cornmarket Street on sunny days, popping on the paving stones or being lifted up high and out of sight; in the faces of all the people who mean so much to me.
Every time I laugh it feels like a miracle. A wonderful little miracle contained within a giggle. And when I laugh so hard I cry there is such a strange yet beautiful, even somewhat perfect, irony in how my eyes will react in the same way to this intense happiness as to such intense pain. It is a reassuring reminder that real happiness and all-encompassing sadness can both coexist within one person, that if I can hurt this fiercely I can also love this fiercely, I can fight this fiercely, I can live this fiercely.
There is only one thing left to say now which is thank you. Thank you to everyone, from strangers to family, who has reached out to me, and particularly to those who have shared with me their own experiences and their own methods of coping; to everyone who made coming back to Oxford so much easier than I’d feared; to all my old friends who haven’t disappeared despite me keeping you at a distance; to Mum, Marianne and Ben for constantly understanding and keeping us together; and to everyone who made me laugh during an incredibly dark time in which laughter didn’t feel possible.