Coping with Anxiety in the Shadow of a Dead Brother

I lie still as I await the all too familiar distant rumble of tanks. As they draw closer and enter our garden, the slow creaking weight of the caterpillar tracks plough slowly but steadily through the garden. The trees fall with a shattering crash, one by one, like dominoes in slow motion. The vibration of the air shakes the house with an icy back draft swooshing through my room and skimming the top of my head.

Motionless, I steadily rise high above my bed. I hover over my body that becomes increasingly smaller, an image that quickly switches from color to black and white.  I watch it lying frozen and mute.  I am once again, like the night before, and the night before that, paralyzed by fear of complete annihilation.

From 4 or 5 years old, this scenario would play out in my head most nights – this terror that would sit quietly, waiting patiently in the corner of my bedroom, watching me enter as my mother ushered me to bed.

Then, recently, some 45 years later, I finally started to make sense of it all.

* * *

Theo

My brother Theo suddenly died two months shy of his second birthday.  My mother had come to wake him from his midday nap to find him in his cot, blue and lifeless. She was unable to resuscitate him whilst my brothers George (5 years old) and Simon (3 years old), watched on. Her GP encouraged her to try for another baby – this would help her heal. Help her move on. Fill the void. Shortly thereafter my mother fell pregnant with her fourth son, Jack, followed quickly by me, a girl.  I was very much planned, so the story goes. Jack needed a playmate, close to his age.

Brothers and Sister
Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

The room that Theo died in, a small back room with a slanting ceiling over one corner, became a storage room. No more cot, no pictures, no heating – just the Peter Rabbit curtains remained, always half closed. Only my mother would enter the room every now and again. Well, only her and a constant single shred of light slicing through the haze to quietly keep his memory alive.

And then, when I was 6 years old, my mother bought me my very first duvet encased in a perfectly ironed duvet cover. Delicate blue and white flowers. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. It was placed on my new bed, in my new bedroom: Theo’s old room. There, in the corner of the room, the feet of my bed evenly surpassed four small indents in the carpet where Theo’s cot used to be.

My father refused to talk about Theo, as if he had never existed. Always keeping him at arm’s length, keeping all of us at arm’s length. My mother however was a bit more willing. She would talk about his death, what happened, in a slow and quiet voice.  How up until that point, life was perfect.  That she had been so happy and content – remembering how she loved to sort out the washing into three separate piles of boys clothes. Though she would try to comfort me by telling me that if Theo hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have been born.  A strange mix of grief, guilt and gratitude would stir in me ……. and has never left.

Anxiety

My anxiety changed shape and complexity over the years, as I found ways to push it down. A new small radio for my 9th birthday became my nighttime companion (radio hosts would chatter to me through the night whilst everyone else in the world slept) their voices keeping the thick, groaning terror from my door.  Then as a teenager alcohol became my new companion. What started as surreptitious sips of cider during a camping holiday progressed into daily gulps of my parent’s Cinzano bottle. By the time I was 15, my anxiety was kept at bay by the anticipation of the fast-approaching weekend binge. Obsessing, planning, and waiting for that evening at a local disco, party or village pub, when I would be able to look others directly in the eye, dance freely amongst many and often times, stand firmly at the bar, drink in hand. The warm soft glow that would trickle down into my tummy as I feverishly took that first drink of the evening.  Then, the relief that now everything would be alright. I would often drink to blackout and spend the early hours of the next day regretting it.

Fast forward over my 20s (moving to Paris, going to university) and my 30s (finding sobriety, meeting my now husband, and becoming parents to two boys) to my now 50s. 

My father having recently passed away after a long illness – I grappled with grief as well as the shock of discovering his infidelity with several of my mother’s friends throughout their marriage.  With COVID, the onset of menopause and home schooling as the backdrop to my grief, I found a strange kind of solace in my work. I ploughed everything into my projects, taking on more and more, incapable of saying no as work flooded in. My goal was to keep going. To not stop. To not think.

Finally, after an unexpected and intense conversation with my neighbor – regarding the situation in Ukraine and a possible war –  I broke. The anxiety completely took over. Nightly panic attacks had me pacing my sitting room at 3am, desperate to crawl out of my body.  Feverishly tidying my house especially before having to go somewhere and constantly snapping at my children, no longer able to engage with them or enjoy their company.  

Recovery

I reached out to a close friend who recommended a therapist, one that specializes in grief and trauma.   Despite an initial resistance to take that first step, I contacted her, and we have been working together ever since. Through our weekly sessions I have come to learn about replacement child syndrome – and that I am a replacement child – which honestly brings a certain sense of relief after all this time.

We have been looking at ways for me to take care of myself. Carve out moments of quiet joy. I am gradually finding my voice and, little by slowly, I’m mentally ‘banking’ each tiny victory at a time. For example, now when my boss asks me to take on yet another task, I can pause – the time it takes for a post-it to fall from my fingers to the floor by the way  – before hearing myself say calmly ‘I’m not able to right now’.

I insist on going for a 45-minute walk most days, just me and my dog, and preferably first thing in the morning as the sun is rising. I am exploring creative outlets, as and when I can, such as baking, writing, and singing (at church) and always have my panic attack survival checklist to hand.

Gradually, I feel that I am coming back to me. My only me.  A me that resides in a world that can be beautiful and limitless, not threatening, or dangerous.  By doing so, I am starting to redevelop my sense of self.  I am beginning to recognize my limitations and set boundaries.  I don’t have to feel helpless anymore. In a recent therapy session, I remembered how much I love swimming. Any opportunity to be walking next to, floating on, or submerged in water is a chance for me to disconnect from the noise, from the committee in my head. We live near to a lake where I often swim but mostly I bob around in the water like an otter, just waiting, observing, thinking. My therapist told me how the otter symbolizes playfulness and laughter, as well as creativity and transformation.  A rather fitting metaphor for this new chapter in my life.

Tess, August 2022

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