Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Thanatophobia and everlasting darkness at diwali, the festival of lights.

I suffer from thanatophobia and have done so all my life. In my teens it kept me awake most nights. I feel very ashamed of this phobia. I live my life in total awe of those who manage to get on with life while not screaming internally: "don't panic, don't panic," like Jonesy in Dad's Army. The idea that I won't be there, there will be no me one day is a tragedy I just cannot get beyond.  I realise this means I have a towering ego, especially as I do so little to deserve an immortal place in the world, but I have tried every day of my life to stop taking it all so seriously  and have never succeeded. I think it is totally amazing that we don't all cluster in a huddle at work and cry together about it. But, believe me, it is tedious to live ones life as a series of last moments. 

I sometimes think that I got into the habit of flagellating myself about death as a means of whipping myself into some kind of action to create something lasting.  I seem to remember the phobia starting just before I got to my teens- about nine- when I discovered that Michelangelo spent years painting the Sistine Chapel. Around then I decided my life would be wasted if I didn't at least try to create something before I died. Dying without an everlasting achievement became a Really Bad Idea. But thanatophobia has been a total failure in terms of propelling me into creativity. There I have been, hanging on a thread a spittle in the jaws of death for the last forty years or so, and the best I have come up with is a couple of hair and cosmetic commercials. And one would have thought that if I was so scared of dying I would take better care of myself. 

Having a child has changed the phobia. To start with it made it considerably more real. I now have a genuine fear of dying that is laced with guilt. I took X away from potentially younger parents. To become close to one old person and then that person die would be Very Bad for her. In an attempt to absolve this guilt I rewrite my will about once a year, I have life insurance to make sure she will have plenty of money, should I die, and I harrange my close friends and family on a regular basis about how I would like her to be looked after in an 'emergency'. I have a feeling that adopting a child, even when in a pair, makes this attitude more common. We are taught to consider wills and what will happen to our adoptive children, should we die, before we have even got them.  I admit it, I am slightly obsessive about 'emergency' situations. with long notes to schools, minders and close friends about where, who and how X would be best off in the immediate days after I am knocked down by a bus. 

On the other hand, for the first time since a teenager, the fear has modified. I now enjoy every single day just for little things. I can almost live with the fact that I won't leave behind an act of greatness as she will still be in the world. It no longer bothers me there won't be a me one day as there will be a her. I am not sure why this makes up for it as it isn't as if she is 'a part of me', there being no genetic link. It is not logical at all, but - hey- why break the habit of a lifetime? My first boyfriend said it was impossible to quarrel with me: he just couldn't follow the logic of the argument. 

I've been thinking about all this because of what happened on saturday. The day started serenely making goulish halloween lanterns with X's half sister and her mother. The evening was set to be the very opposite of dark-death phobia. We went to a diwali party: a party for the 'festival of lights'. The house was lit from top to toe with shimmering candles, the women were in colourful saris, we were all given Indian stoles to wear. There was fragrant Indian food, a lavish firework display. I was with people I adore. All was full of golden light. I sat eating supper next to a lady a little older than me who I didn't know. She was clearly intelligent, a spinster who had no family, I guessed - rightly-  a friend of the host. We spoke a little about our host, who had made a big decision a couple of years ago, to move from Notting Hill to North London to live with my Indian friend. I mused how sometimes big life decisions can sometimes actually be good. "That's interesting," said the lady, "as I made a big life decision today. I signed the papers for Dignitas. I should be off before Christmas."

Forgetting death for a moment, there are some moments in life that one hopes one will cope with as they are the mark of who you are. The real me. There is a moment in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant's sister meets the famous actress played by Julia Roberts and she says she knows this is a moment when she should be cool and she is so, so going to fail and then she gets so overexcited about meeting the star that she forgets to leave when she shows her the way to the loo.

And there was me, in a life-defining moment like this thinking about Notting Hill. Anyway, I hope I didn't fail this moment. I tried not to. I shut out the thoughts squealing in my inner ear and tried to ask logical questions one after another and to actually talk to the lady, as I think this is what she wanted. Se was frighteningly clever and confident, having been a senior producer of famous BBC programmes for her career. She poo-poo-ed religion and therapy so maybe just talking to a stranger, even one as stupid as me, was better than nothing. I lived with her the moments she found the lump in her breast, the problems with her siblings going with her to die. I tried not to run away until I thought I might be sick or faint, especially when she coughed. 

I spent the rest of the weekend alternately feeling overwhelmed with fear and sorrow for this brave lady and then wondering why she chose me to share her news. I  felt the stench of death upon me. I was glad that X kept me busy with ordinary little day-to -day things. 

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