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First Person

Portrait of a Brain on Fire

Audio: Read by the author.

If you were to scoop out the insides of my brain with a spoon I’m sure you’d find the good stuff. By good stuff, I mean years of unadulterated me oozing out of cells, nerves, arteries, and hitting the air in shockwaves. A lifetime of experiences. A lifetime rolling through existence with varying degrees of excitement and terror, all rooted in trying to answer a question I think most of us spend our lives asking: am I doing this right? 

I’ve never written publicly about mental health before. Mainly for the reasoning that comparatively to some people, I’m okay. A sort of, ‘Kim, there’s people that are dying’ check for myself. It’s taken me twenty-one years on this planet to learn the basic (yet, invaluable) knowledge that just because people have it worse than you, it doesn’t mean your problems don’t exist. We are all entitled to sadness, anxiety, and depression. We can all feel it at the same time. We all probably are right now. What a treat! I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs.

Collage of three baby photos of the author, in front of a mountain landscape, with an orange moon at the top.

The first time I remember feeling anxious was when I was ten years old. My grandma was in hospital and my mum had travelled to the Highlands to care for her. Gone for three weeks, tiny me felt blue. I’d spent the day with my dad and my siblings, we’d gone to see a West End matinee and ate ice cream out of cardboard cups. When it was time to sleep, I began to feel strange. Curled up in the foetal position, for the first time in my life I became aware of my own heartbeat. The way it pulsed in my chest, out of ears, on the top of my skin. And then I kept on noticing, next my breath. The rise and fall of my chest got faster, my heartbeat quicker. I remember thinking I was going to die, that this was the end for me. I lay still for a few minutes before a then serious, now hilariously sad, thought fell into my head. I inhaled, said to myself ‘Well, if I die right now, I’ve had ten amazing years.’ And just like that, I was fine. 

That thought has stayed with me. The image of tiny me, having lived a fraction of a life, desperately optimistic that what would be would be (see the Julian of Norwich quote: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’). I’ve maintained this optimism my whole life, waxing and waning at times but always floating back to the surface. You see, I’m a sensitive person. My old therapist once said to me, ‘Now, don’t be offended but you don’t have thick skin. You don’t even have thin skin. No, your skin is porous.’ Although needlessly blunt, she wasn’t wrong. My porous skin and I soak up everything, especially emotions. Sometimes I’d love to wrap myself up in cotton wool and protect myself but mostly, it weaves my life into a rich tapestry of feeling. After all, feeling is the greatest thing in the world, until it isn’t. 

Collage of three of the same baby photo of the author, layered on top of aerial view of a city.

When I was fifteen years old, my grandpa died and wrapped up in a type of sadness I didn’t know how to experience, I pushed it down. I went to parties, did my work, got my friend to pierce my ears in her kitchen using a safety pin. A friend was doing palm readings one lunchtime (God, school was weird). She took my hand, closed her eyes, gasped, and said “There’s darkness in you”, before laughing. Full of Big Sad I’d hidden from myself, I laughed along but held onto those words like nuclear bombs to use against myself at a later date. 

When I started uni, a few things happened. I became entranced with the newness of it all, the rush of a new existence. And then, people started to die. It seems that death happens to me in batches. In my first year, a few people I knew killed themselves. I wasn’t close enough to them for it to cause a well in my soul but it still shook me. People who I may not have ever seen again but had watched grow up in perfect ignorance of their secret lives, their sadness. I was also living with someone suicidal. They’d call me at 2 am saying they were down at the lake and going to hurt themselves. I’d roll out of bed, run there, bring them home. They’d send me manipulative texts. I’d take them to the hospital when they actually did hurt themselves. Yes, my first year of uni was full of euphoric nights out, exhilarating newness and friendships so rich I could cry. It was also full of 999 calls, A+E visits, and the ache of me trying my best to play at being an adult.

When it came to Easter, something changed. All of the death and grief and fear I’d locked inside began to overflow and spill out of me. I found myself berated by intrusive thoughts and after the thought itself, the horror of having thought it. And with compulsions, the more you try not to think it, the more you do. This lasted for a few weeks, until I blurted out my fears in big sobs to my mum. ‘I’m so sad for no reason!’ She wiped my snot off her shoulder, got a piece of paper and we wrote down all the reasons I was feeling so awful. That pit of Big Sad only lasted for a short time but I found that it marked me. Suddenly, I was aware of a feeling I’d never felt before, a new sensation I’d never experienced before. What else was hiding inside? 

Collage of two baby photos of the author, in front of upside down photograph of a town street.

For two years, I was fine, until another batch of death came crawling at my door. It was the night after a party and I’d had a semi-awful evening anyway. I’d gone to bed full of tears and rage. When I woke up, my mum called me and I answered with a head full of hangover to the words: “are you sitting down?” My grandad had died suddenly. The next week my granny died. A week after that, a friend of a friend killed himself. Two weeks after that, I found out some horrible truths about someone I trusted and ended a friendship. The world caved in. 

The intrusive thoughts were back and finding myself in a deep sadness, I made the choice to start therapy. It was hard and miserable. I learnt a lot. It pulled me out of the ruins and back to normality. After about five sessions, I realised me and the therapist who said I had porous skin weren’t a great fit and I decided to stop. Again, I was fine for a while. 

Cut to January. I was working in a bookshop after graduating. I loved going to work. I’ve never worked with more incredible people in my life, but the actual job itself wasn’t fulfilling me. I was deep in the pangs of post-graduating fear and it was eating at me. What should I do? What sort of person do I want to be? Most prominently, the feeling that I was somehow running behind everyone else, struggling to catch up. I started seeing a different therapist, this time not out of necessity but more so curiosity. I wanted to unpick myself, discover why I was the way I was. Then, almost a week before the anniversary of all the deaths the previous year, another one came. My dog died. Then, my birth grandad (my dad was adopted) died. I think the combination of having been through loss before, therapy, and letting myself just feel sad meant this one didn’t hit me so hard. Sure, I was grieving but I wasn’t drowning it in. It made me think about my own life, the shortness of it. I quit my job to go travelling. I tried to work through some of the traumatic things that had happened to me. I let myself just exist for a while and enjoy life amidst sadness. 

My trip unfortunately got cancelled because of coronavirus and I’m now under lockdown with my parents. This could have turned into an absolute obliteration of my mental health and I wouldn’t blame myself if it was. What I’ve learnt along the years through all the funerals and the fears and therapists, is that emotions are there to be felt, not necessarily understood. I’ve learnt that everyone has their own shit they’re dealing with. I’ve learnt that feelings are neither good or bad. I’ve found that going through all of this has both hurt and enriched my life and that’s alright. I’ve found the fear of sadness to be stronger than the feeling itself. I’ve learnt to hold on tight to good moments and good people but not to be controlled by fear of loss. I’ve come to realise, after twenty-one years on this planet, that nobody has a clue if they’re living life right. We’re all just moving from thing to thing, trying to find something that feels right. To me, that’s the most comforting thing of all.

About Author

Cara Waudby-Tolley (she/her) is a writer from London. She writes about reality, fiction and everything in between. Subscribe to her newsletter here - carawt.substack.com

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