I’ve started having dreams about the car accident again.
I’m in my office, or apartment, or work – somewhere mundane, when suddenly I’ll flash to the scene of the crime; that dark Berlin road and the hospital. Now obviously this is partly fictionalized; I remember nothing much of the road itself and not a terrible amount of the first hospital I was in – but still. I’ll be sitting or standing or doing whatever, and my brain will suture my present – or “present”, the mundanity of my dream – with my past – violence and pitch black, pain and screaming and heat and asphalt. This won’t be an occurrence, I won’t feel myself flying through the air or observe with any kind of rationality anything that’s happening. It’s more a wave of feeling; something that twists around my neck and my lungs with the every-day horror of my current anxiety.
I’ll wake up, then – not dramatically, shrieking and pulling at my covers, but quietly, rising out of the depths of sleep and slowly taking stock of my surroundings as the horror of the past hours of sleep fades from memory.
I’m fairly certain I’ve got PTSD, then: post traumatic stress dreams.
As a child I was fairly withdrawn, never demanding to be hugged or held or touched at all, in fact preferring it when the adults laid me by myself and let me be.
This is both true and false, now. In certain moods I’ll follow someone around like a lost puppy, not necessarily wanting any sort of affection, but craving the emotional warmth of another human being who I know – hey, look, it’s another human being: you’re not alone!
My mother told me yesterday that a friend of hers experienced some pretty drastic post-traumatic anxiety himself, and that when things were rough, he had always found it had helped if someone gave him a hug to help him calm down.
Perhaps a little too quickly and sharply, I’d answered: “No.”
I couldn’t really think of anything worse than to be hugged in these moments, and very quickly that’s become its own unique fear: that, as I’m having a panic attack, someone will hug me and not let go. Maybe more than one person. I’m a pretty tactile person with the right person and the right mood, but there’s nothing right about an anxiety attack.
I’ve become convinced that I’m running out of time.
There’s something that happens when you nearly lose your life – an insidious recontextualisation that creeps into every facet of your brain and stays there.
At first there was the realisation that I was still alive, and every medical professional I dealt with telling me just how lucky I was. That was alright. Now, that message of luck and life has been twisted.
My brain tells me: YOU’RE NOT DEAD, BUT YOU WILL BE SOON. BETTER MAKE SOMETHING OF YOURSELF.
I reply: “What does ‘something’ mean? What will make you calm down?”
My brain replies: I DON’T KNOW EITHER, BUT YOU BETTER DO IT QUICK. FUCKING. SMART.
I’m aware how ridiculous this all is. I’m only 27, and if I live a long life – or just a life of average length – I’ve still got a large amount of time left. (It’s hard to join Winehouse et al when you’re sober, you don't drive and you look both ways before you cross, is all I’m saying.) But I can’t deny that it’s hard, and that my anxiety feeds on the success of others: particularly those younger than me, winning things I want to win. Although part of my brain wallows in the regular artistic jealousy that every artist experiences, the rest, instead, turns it back in on itself: you’re nearly 30 and you haven’t done that. You’ve got no fucking chance.
Maybe it’s the way the world, in particular the arts industry, grossly overvalues youth.
Maybe it’s the unfair standards I set for myself – the ones that, a few years ago, inspired me to work harder, but are swiftly becoming more and more untenable the longer I try and keep them up. (I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially it comes down to me requiring of myself to write and produce a certain number of things in a year.)
Certainly it’s the narrative that won’t leave my head; the one of people being ‘discovered’ and becoming instantaneously über successful while I wallow away, attempting (and failing) to sort my shit out.
This utter panic doesn’t just centre around my career but my friendships, too, fuelled on by the realisation that occasionally strikes me: if I’d died that night in 2014, I wouldn’t be experiencing this moment right here. Or this one. Or this one, either.
There’s a friend I’ve made with whom I keep making plans to catch up – plans that for whatever reason haven’t happened yet. We’re busy people. But each time these plans fall through I’m struck with an intense pang of anxiety, which, when followed down to its core, basically comes down to:
You’re probably going to die before you ever get to properly meet this person.
That’s a particularly morbid conclusion to come to, but it’s something I still can’t shake.
This will sound stupid, but it’s only this year that I’ve properly and wholly accepted that I’ll probably never get the luxury of being just an artist. It’s a bitterly logical realisation, but one my brain has only wrapped itself around quite recently. Particularly the idea of making my income solely from writing – of all things, writing!
When I was a child – and probably still thought that, despite my chubby body and fey demeanour, I’d be a grade-A actor – I had dreams of the artist life. I’d live in a mansion, probably on a hill, with a host of taxidermied animals and a shockingly handsome husband. I’d have a whole lot of money from doing my Art, and I’d use it to spread more Art and Knowledge to the people, fostering a deep interest in Art worldwide. And then I’d be thanked for it. Like, not just thanked, but revered.
It’s telling that even as a child I didn’t know what my “Art” would be, only that I’d be doing it. Probably.
Moving on has made things easier. I no longer feel the immense pressure I once put on myself to become “successful” and enjoy financial security as soon as possible. There’s a strange freedom of, if not giving up on your dreams, than recalibrating them: every artistic thing I do no longer feels like a ‘do or die’ situation, but something I can appreciate for the act of what it is. By pulling my foot off the accelerator, I’m allowing myself the natural time to think, grow and change.
This self-acceptance has slowly made its way towards my body, too. For many years I believed that if I tried hard enough: if I ran enough, lifted enough weights, skipped enough meals and hated myself enough, my body would eventually change into something acceptable to me. Regardless of my endomorph status (the “fat” body type), my learned self-loathing (thank you, school and family) and my genuine belief I’d never be good enough. Now I’m realising that it’s my brain that needs to change into something acceptable.
I’m still shooting for the gold, but I’m not demanding it. That makes all the difference.