Monday, December 22, 2014

Back in the USA

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.

Calfornia: where I found solutide.

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.

Even DC can look wistful.

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.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A different Dylan dream

Last night I had a dream about Dylan and it was unlike any dream I had had before. In this dream, Dylan was alive again and he was chatting to the rest of the family about something, I can't remember what exactly. At one point my mum had a book that turned out to be a collection of all the books we had made as children. It was all the stories we had written in primary school, one after another, covering about a decade of our lives. I wanted to read what my brother and sisters had written, but of course I couldn't see any detail- I don't know what they wrote in real life, and I only recognised glimpses of what I made myself. Anyway, that seemed to be an important part of the dream, the idea that deep in my past there are things that I'll never get back. In this dream my mum and my older sister were also in the same room and talking to each other, or at least not avoiding each other. They're not on speaking terms in real life (for whatever reason, I've lost since given up trying to work out why or how to fix things between them.) Either two things had happened- Dylan had come back and that was enough to make us all come together, or I had actually gone back in time in this dream to when were still a single family instead of different individuals.

What was different about this dream was that for once I was happy that Dylan was around again. Previously when I had dreams about Dylan being alive again it's always been very disturbing to me, because I know someone died and someone was cremated. When it turns out to be a different person that this happened it suddenly becomes very, very disturbing. Why did my family choose to cremate a stranger instead of burying them? Why choose the one method the completely destroys all evidence of who that person was? Why was I the only member of the family that never saw Dylan's body? There are good reasons behind all these choices we made, and many of them are mundane. For me, I'd rather not have a grave to visit because I'd very rarely, if ever, visit it. I'd rather carry the grief with me as part of me, than have it be something I can "visit". There also seems something very conventional and traditional about burial. By going with with the slightly less conventional and more modern option we said that Dylan was special to us and relevant. I never got to see Dylan's body because it was height of summer and I visited Crewe at least twice- once when it was too soon to see the body and once when it was too late. If I had traveled on a different day I might have seen his body.

But somewhere in the back of my mind is the possibility that maybe he didn't really die. In most of my dreams this possibility is so sinister that I don't even want to consider it. In this dream I accepted that he was alive and I enjoyed his company. It was part way through the dream that I realised the problem, and I wanted to talk to Dylan about it, but for various reasons I never got the chance. (The dream moved on to a standard "I'm back at school, or maybe university, I'm running late, have no idea of where to go or what to do" etc) As I thought about it I remembered that one of the contributing factors to Dylan's suicide was that he had lost a lot of money, was could have been deep in debt. Disappearing for a few years seemed like a sensible way to solve that problem, but it still meant putting me and the rest of the family through the process of bereavement. So I wanted to talk to Dylan about that as well, but again I didn't get the chance. In my head I'd created the possibility that Dylan was still alive and even justified it to myself. I don't even know where to begin finding out what that means. Maybe it means nothing.

It's probably worth pointing out that recently I took part in a stand up comedy act, and one of the jokes, in fact the biggest joke of my set, revolved around the wrong cat being cremated. At one point the character in the joke (actually my mum, as this is based on a true story) finds out that she cremated the wrong cat and she's overjoyed to find her cat still alive and well. At the time it was just a funny joke that went down well with the audience. Looking back, I can't really tell what to make of it. Was that some idea that was in the back of my mind that I wanted to explore? Or did the joke leave something for my mind to wrestle with in the form of a dream? Or was it just a coincidence? I have no idea, but whatever the case is, it is a bit chilling to look back at that joke and compare it to the dream I had.

Monday, July 7, 2014

A walk in the woods

Today I decided to go for a walk in the woods.  It's the fourth of July and that means a lot of different things to different people.  For me it's the day I found out that my brother, Dylan, died.  It wasn't the day Dylan died though.  He had decided to hang himself and he died three days earlier.   It was also the first day of my new job, after finishing my degree.  It was a watershed in my life and even though it happened nine years ago I still a day off from the rest of my life every year to myself space to grieve, to look at the past, and think about the future.

I've been living without Dylan for nine years now.  If I'm lucky I'll be around for another fifty years.  Each year that passes gets easier, but it's still daunting to look ahead at all that time in front of me, to try to find some kind of plan and find an identity for myself.  This is something that doesn't get talked about much.  When you lose someone close you lose a part of yourself and when you lose a sibling you lose not just a strong connection to your past, but a connection to your future.  You lose a sense of security and permanence.  It affects the other people who were close as well, so my immediate family, which was already in the process of falling apart, collapsed forever.  I've always wanted to be independent and strong enough to find my own way through life, but it's terrifying when it's forced upon you.  My reaction to the grief was to leave the country for a few years and give myself distance from everything back home.  This helped a lot and by doing this I also demonstrated to myself that I can survive alone and that ultimately I don't need someone by my side.  The pain of the loss has faded, and so has the sense of injustice.  I try not to be self-indulgent with the grief, but there are times when it is very cathartic to say to myself that it's not fair to have to lose Dylan.  Thankfully those moments have become more and more rare as time passes.  These days I'm mostly concerned about where the decisions I've made in the light of all this have left me.

Since 2006 I've chosen to move from place to place and follow the physics experiments of the day (I wouldn't say I followed a career, that's the wrong way to think about it) and traveled to new places in the process.  It's been a very formative collection of experiences for me and helped me to grow a lot.  There are still things I need to improve, but I am generally a better informed, more tolerant, more resilient, more experienced person than I would have been if I had chosen to stay in the UK.  In a way, the loss of Dylan is one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it taught me that I can succeed in spite of the pain, and that life is too short to spend all day indoors in front of a textbook.  (Life is also too short to never do those things.  Recently I had some free time so I opened up a maths book for the pure pleasure of learning something new.)

In the course of this travel I've gone to great lengths to find time for myself.  I have a habit of letting work take over my life, but when I make the effort to block out enough time for other activities I find that I get a rush of old memories.  Memories from my childhood that I hadn't even realised I'd forgotten about.  The holidays we went on in North Wales, how Dylan and I would spend hours playing with Lego (only for Dylan to find it more fun to destroy what we'd created) and the stupid word games we'd play when we were lying in our bunk beds avoiding sleep.  (When we were about 10 and 12 years old we used to listen to a radio show called the Late Night Funster Show that was broadcast from 10:00pm to 1:00am.  That was the start of my lifelong problem with insomnia.)  We also found that we could tune our radio to pick up police radio transmissions.  Occasionally they would announce that it was illegal to listen in, but once I realised it was impossible for them to work out if we were listening or not I was fascinated.  Dylan used to love making his own radio shows as well, and I keep hoping that maybe one day we'll find the old cassettes we made and be able to play them back.  I won't be able to relive those moments with Dylan again, of course, but it would be nice to hear them.  All I remember was his impression of Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid.  I would love to be able to show Dylan the videos I'd made about the LHC, and ask him if he ever thought the radio show we made as kids would lead to something like that.

Well I wrote this post during a pit stop to charge my phone and get something to eat.  I'll return to walking through the woods, thinking things over and working out if I'm brave enough to keep going for another year without falling apart.  The answer will be yes, of course, but the next question is "How?", and there's no simple answer to that.  It used to be the case that traveling the world and working as a scientist was enough to keep me motivated, but these days I find myself wanting to be more grounded, consider a long term relationship, and investigate other professions.  For the past week I've felt an emptiness growing inside of me, in anticipation of this day off.  It's not just grief over the loss of Dylan, it's also grief over the loss of something that once brought me so much joy that it consumed my entire life for a few years.  At least I can do something about that though, and find the strength and motivation to keep on going into the unknown.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dreams of Dylan

I've had some trouble sleeping lately, and there are a few reasons for that (staying up to chat to people about things like their theses, talks they have to give, and having jumbled up my sleep cycle last week with a night shift.)  However the main reason that I'm still having trouble sleeping is that I dreamt of Dylan again on Monday.

Another night so late it turns into morning again.

This isn't new, I've dreamt about him many times before.  The dreams would always be the same.  Dylan would turn up somewhere and I'd usually be one of the first people to realise he wasn't dead after all.  Then I'd get a terrible feeling that something was deeply wrong.  Dylan's dead.  I saw the coffin.  We cremated his body.  If he's still alive then that means that we burned someone else.  There was nothing in me, even in my dreams, that thought it would be a good idea to bring Dylan back to life.

I'd heard that it's natural to dream of the dead, and that it's asign that your brain is adjusting to the idea and accepting it.  So I don't really think anything of these dreams, I just make a note of them and move on.  I used to keep track of the dreams of him, but stopped after a while.  (From what I remember there was only one dream that I didn't write down, so let's write it down here.  For some reason I was at the Brunel campus and Dylan showed up.  I told him he shouldn't be there and then we went outside where there were some washing machines and inside one of them was an award for something.)

Monday's dream was different though.  For the first time, Dylan appeared in my dream, alive and well, and it took me a few seconds to realise that quite a few years had passed since he "died".  This time I was happy to see him.  He told me that he had faked his death and that he was ready to come back to us.  This was the first time I'd dreamt about him and felt good about it.  I'd love to have him back.  All the pain and anger associated with the grief would be forgiven and he'd be welcomed back.  This time, even though it no different to what happened before, it was a relief to see him.

Of course I woke and realised that reality is different, and that I'll never see Dylan again.  This didn't make me sad, and in a way it amused to have this dream.  It's as if I've moved on into complete acceptance of the situation, but somewhere, in the deep recesses of my mind, part of my brain hasn't quite realised this yet.  If that was the end of the story it would have been fine, but unfortunately it's not.  Every night since then I've had problems getting to sleep, waking up about an hour after drifting off with what feels like an adrenaline rush, and then struggling to get back to sleep.  I wake up later than usual feeling more tired than normal and the cycle repeats.  It's made me "late" for work all week (not that this matters too much in this job) so as it's starting to impact on the rest of my life it's time to get it off my chest.

The problems with sleep patterns are not new to me, and for a long time when I lived in California I felt much the same way.  Today has been a bad day so far.  My whole body feels sad in a way that's hard to explain.  I feel like I want to take a nap, but I'm not tired (and in the past I've tried taking a nap like this, it doesn't help.)  I feel this tension within me like I want to cry, but that's not quite what I need either.  It's as if my body is caught mid-sigh all day and if I can just find what I need to do to release that tension I'll be okay.  Today is an unusually sunny day, which doesn't help.  It feels like I'm in California again, isolated, with enough time on my hands to ponder my feelings in a lot of depth.  It turns out the only thing that will make this better is time.  I won't let it grind me down, I'll smile through it all and in a couple of days time it'll pass.

I still miss Dylan from time to time, and that's okay.  The bad days are getting rarer, but they do come back every now and then.  I've had enough practice to know how to get through this, so I'll be fine today, I'll be fine tomorrow and I'll be fine until whenever this passes.  In fact, I probably won't even notice when it does.