Once I decided life was something to be valued, I became afraid of death

Once I decided life was something to be valued, I became afraid of death

As someone who doesn’t do well with uncertainty, I have visited many psychics over the years.

I’ve always hoped they will tell me the one thing I want to hear; that I do not have to worry, that I can’t get it ‘wrong’ no matter what choices I make, everything is going to be fine.

I want them to reassure me I will be happy. Some readers have been better than others but the one thing they all have in common is this — each told me I would live to be a great age.

I was maybe 17 when I first heard this prediction and, coupled with a natural inclination towards believing in one’s own mortality that most young people possess, I began to see myself as invincible.

I would cross the road without looking — the cars would stop for me, I presumed — and at university I developed a penchant for walking quiet streets late at night, alone.

I hitchhiked in Spain by myself, climbing into strangers’ cars with nothing but my wits to protect me. I travelled across India alone, drinking the water and eating street food (yes, the former did result in a parasite burrowing into in my gut, thanks for asking) and even though I was destroyed with mosquito bites, I gave up on the anti-malaria medication within the first week because it gave me unbearable nightmares and I said ‘I’d rather take a chance and see what happens’.

After a particularly wild Trinity Ball, I limped out of campus barefoot (I’d lost my shoes) and with no way of contacting my friends (my Nokia had died), and after meeting a stranger on the street, decided to go to the top of a well-known Dublin landmark to watch the sun rise with him.

I arrived back to my shared house at 8am to find my poor housemates on the phone to every hospital in the city — we thought you were dead! they cried, and I said: “No, no, I was just having an adventure.”

I have other stories, but none I would commit to print. Looking back now, I am astounded at how selfish I could be, how reckless, and I wonder was the behaviour fuelled by a belief that I was indestructible or by a blatant disregard for my own life. In my experience, when you struggle with addiction, death is something that feels very close.

The more often you inflict harm upon yourself, the more life seems cheapened in a way. “I don’t wanna die, but I ain’t keen on living either”, as Robbie Williams put it. Recovery is about deciding that not only do you want to live, you want to thrive.

What I’ve found interesting in my own recovery is that once I decided life was something to be valued, I became increasingly afraid of death. I’ve developed a dislike of heights, I don’t like being in the car with careless drivers, I feel panicky at the mere thought of a roller-coaster.

For years, I would look at the other passengers as I boarded a flight and wanted to tell them — don’t worry! There’s no way this plane is going down with me here! I’m going to live to be 100! — but now, I hold my breath and remind myself of the unlikely statistics of a plane crash.

On the flight home from a recent trip to Thailand, the pilot announced at the beginning that it would be a “very calm” trip, and that the “fasten seat-belt sign would more than likely remain off for the duration”.

Every time there was a slight bump, my mother looked at me and mouthed “I thought this was going to be calm?”

Of course, we then hit such a spectacularly bad patch of turbulence, that an air steward gave a quick sign of the cross — not exactly something you want to see from seasoned professionals — and a young woman a few rows behind us started having a panic attack.

My mother is a nervous flyer at the best of times so I was trying to calm her nerves (deep yoga breaths, Mom! You can do this!) all the while, I was thinking — this is the end.

This is how I’m going to die. I didn’t scream or cry, I was completely silent. (I don’t know what this says about me but my overwhelming feeling was one of the relief that the new book was in relatively good shape and wouldn’t require too much editing in the case of my untimely death…!)

Spoiler: I didn’t die. I’m not writing this to you beyond the grave. But when I arrived home in Clonakilty, after being awake for 24 hours, I still couldn’t sleep.

For some reason, I listened to the tapes of the victims of 9/11, the people who had been on those, doomed, hijacked planes.

I listened as they phoned their families and told their partners and children and parents how loved they were, how devastated they were that they wouldn’t see them again.

I had never Googled these recordings before, this was my first time hearing them. It made me think of how precious life must feel when its about to be taken away from you.

And how, in those last moments, all you would want to do is to tell another human being that you loved them.

Life is a gift, I thought, and not one that should be taken for granted.

What I’ve found interesting in my own recovery is that once I decided life was something to be valued, I became afraid of death.

LOUISE SAYS

Read: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. This story is about two neighbouring Irish American families living in a suburb in New York, the friendship between their children, and a tragedy that threatens to tear them apart. It’s a moving, compassionate novel, brilliant on addiction and inherited trauma.

Watch: Dickinson on Apple TV. This is Emily Dickinson as you’ve never seen her before. Sexy, funny, gloriously irreverent, and completely anachronistic (Lizzo and ASAP Rocky are on the soundtrack?!). This series is a delight.

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