For the past week I've been in Florida. It's a beautiful place and gloriously sunny. It reminded me very much of the time I spend in California, when I was a PhD student. I love being in the USA, especially when the sun is shining. It's a cliché, I know, but it feels like there's freedom in the air. The wide, open spaces, the luxurious streets lined with boutiques, and dry heat all make me think that I can do anything I want to do. However if I take the time to reflect on this, eventually I'll feel a little melancholy.
The reason I first came to the USA was to get away from things. To get away from Dylan's death, to get away from the UK, to get away from my family life, to get away from some of my friends, to get away from my old life. I needed to get away to find something new. I needed time alone to think, to feel the loss, to rebuild my life. I couldn't go back to what I did before. I had to keep going on. I had to find some way to keep living my life. It's unfortunate that I planned to be there for 18 months, and found that this kept getting extended until I was there for 30 months. Looking back I do feel some regret about my time in California. I spent so much time alone there, so much time waiting for the next part of my life. The area was full of promise and possibility and adventure, but I spent much of the first year keeping to myself, not wanting to get close to people. It's a strange feeling when someone asks about you and your interests and you have trouble answering, realising that all the things you used to love doing (in my case student politics, LGBT activism, mental health advocacy) are no longer a part of your life, and you haven't had the energy to find something new to replace them.
Eventually I "came out" as a griever, but only after I'd settled down and gotten to know people a little better. At the same time I invested a lot more of my time into my PhD and developing my skills as a programmer (something which I still keep up and still continue to improve.) I started to heal, no longer feeling the need to be alone so much. Just as I was starting to get to grips with my new life and starting to genuinely feel happy to be alive one of my friends lost her mother. The loss wasn't exactly unexpected, but it wasn't predicted either. Helping my friend in her darkest hours helped me a lot too. It's one thing to feel lost, but I think I would not be able to face myself if I never helped someone else who felt the same way. One of the best healing experience I've been through is helping my friend at that time. We've remained friends ever since and she's going to name her first child after her mother.
On my day off from this week's conference I got away from the conference and spent some time in the Everglades.
After a week in Miami, having these gentle reminders of my time in California I find myself feeling rather melancholy on a flight to Washington DC. I'm traveling to see one of my best friends, Rami. He's only known me since after Dylan died, so he doesn't know about my life pre-grief, except what I've told him. When we met we became close and he helped me a huge amount in coming to terms with the loss. The feelings I went through while I was still in the UK took about 18 months to unfold, and Rami saw most of that. He was incredibly supportive, even when I didn't want to grieve. One of the most difficult emotions I've ever felt is being simultaneously happy and sad. Happy to be around friends and enjoying myself, but at the same time feeling this weight in my chest and tears at the back of my eyes because I know that not everything is okay, and that tomorrow I will feel worse. Rami was there for me when I was at the lowest points in my life and for that I will always be grateful. Rami was also there with me in California. For the final six month we shared an apartment in San Jose and this greatly improved my mood while I was there. In the intervening time we've crossed paths when we can, but slowly moved apart. We keep in touch online and I'm glad to say that Rami's enjoyed some phenomenal (and well deserved) success. He's moved on in his life to a better place and I'm very happy for him.
So now I find myself on a plane going to see one of my best friends in the world. I'm in the USA, alone again, and reflecting on memories of California and before. Music helps. Music takes me back to what I used to feel, and helps me to express my feelings so I can go back to living the rest of my life. This Christmas I'll be in Brussels, away from the family, and that too reminds me that Dylan won't be there. So I'm listening to a few tracks that remind me of how I felt in the low points, reminding myself that for a long time it was a struggle to get up in the morning, that part of me still sometimes thinks I can go back and Dylan will be there, and so will my old life. Remembering the hurt helps. Feeling the loss occasionally helps. Otherwise it eats away from the inside until it causes problems. I don't mind the hurt though. It reminds me that I loved Dylan, that I respect the memories, and that I have a lot of self esteem for the life I've had since he died. Having him as a brother for the first 22 years of my life is worth the hurt. The right response to that is to feel sad from time to time, so I'm glad it still affects me. I'm also glad I have the skills to cope with it and see it as an inevitable part of my life.
This post has already meandered far too much, so I'll conclude with a song that helped me cope in the year or so after Dylan's death. One of my favourite albums is Hot Fuss by the Killers. The tracks are dark, and catchy, and they helped me to grieve and party in the same space of time, sometimes at the same time. For the worst six months of my life it was my alarm clock. In the evenings I danced to it with my workmates. One of the final songs on the album is called "Everything will be alright." The vast majority of the song is simply repeating the mantra "Everything will be alright." It's in the minor key, it's disjointed, and it sounds like an attempt to deny the underlying panic and worry. I usually hate songs that try to reinforce positivity, like that, but this song is different. It's ironic without being patronising or even upbeat, which was exactly how I felt at the time. People could try to say "It'll be alright" as much as they wanted but it wouldn't change a thing. Dylan was dead. My life had fallen apart. He wasn't coming back and I had to find a way to deal with that. For a while I didn't feel like everything would ever be alright again. But when people asked I'd reply with something like "I'm okay", or "I'll be okay", or in my darker moments "He's not getting any deader." So to have this mantra repeating ironically spoke to me in a way that nothing else quite could. Finally, once you've accepted that things will never be completely "alright" again there is some comfort to be had. One of the happiest moments in my grieving process was the moment of acceptance when I could finally say to myself "Things will never be completely alright again, but that's okay." I don't think I've ever come across a more powerful or enabling sentiment than that. Once you find yourself in a place where nobody can help you, where you can never put things right again, but where you've come to accept that then life just gets so much better, and you feel like you can do anything. That's why the air in the USA feels full of freedom to me. That's why Rami is worth a trip to Washington DC. That's why I'm sat on a plane, alone, with tears welling in my eyes, feeling simultaneously sad and immensely grateful and optimistic at the same time. And that's where I draw my strength from.