I’ve never felt fear like this before. It’s searing through every part of me, so powerfully that I’m convinced that at any moment I must disintegrate.
This must be what annihilation feels like.
My head’s swimming and there are no thoughts, only electric shock after electric shock of pounding terror.
I’m looking in the mirror and there’s no-one there!
Has this ever happened to you? Have you known this place too? Or am I the only one going mad here? I’m screaming the question, although I can’t hear any sound coming out of my mouth. I’m trying to connect to the human beings out there in the corridor, patients or family visitors, staff, anyone—in this moment of asking the question it doesn’t matter—and listening out desperately for someone to answer.
To tell me yes, they’ve known this too. That it’ll be okay. That this is normal.
That I’m not going mad.
It’s the first day I’ve been allowed out of bed on my own, walked down to the bathroom unaided and without a nurse. The first day I’ve had the luxury of being able to lock that door behind me, have space, get away from everyone. To be alone. To do what? I don’t know, because I’m not clear yet what it is I’m needing to do. Maybe just to be here, lock that door, lean against it and try to still myself. But suddenly, I have space and time, and to my horror it opens up before me and around me and under me until that’s all there is.
The world begins to spin, and I’m losing myself in the momentum.
And it’s in that moment that I look in the mirror. And there’s no-one there!
Today, years later, I know that the experience I had in that hospital bathroom, after being told that the baby I’d carried for seven month, who was delivered in a flurry of panic and crisis and rushed to the intensive care baby unit, would have multiple disabilities, was a perfectly normal experience to have.
It was one of those moments when time stands still, life hangs in the balance, and we stare into the void. When who we were, or thought we were, falls away, and we haven’t yet found a way to know who we’re going to be from now on. We can’t see anyone in the mirror because there isn’t anyone to see. We’ve lost ourselves in the whirling, spinning abyss that always comes before we get our head around something frightening that we hadn’t seen coming. When life takes a dramatic turn that throws the book we thought was the story of our life—all our plans, our dreams, our future as we’d imagined it—up into the air in thousands of ripped up pages, twirling and gusting in the wind.
Like every one of us, I’ve had many such moments during my life since then. And each time, I’ve come to recognise just a little sooner, with a little more certainty, what’s happening, and I’ve been able to remember that I will survive.
But back then, I didn’t know that, and it was terrifying.
And as I look back on that terror, I wish so much that someone had been able to anticipate what might happen, prepare me, tell me, reassure me, walk me through. I’ve walked with so many through so much in the years since, both inside and outside the therapy room. These moments are times when we find ourselves taken to pieces, and we need another human being to hold those pieces for us while we find a way to put ourselves back together again in a different form. And it’s while we’re in the process of doing this that we can’t see ourselves in the mirror. All we see staring back at us is terror and The Void.
What I’ve just described is, of course, trauma. A moment, or series of moments, or for some it’s a lifetime of moments, when the ground underneath us opens up and we fall. All we know is the falling; we have no sense of a landing. It’s as if we’re falling into a void.
And in that moment, several other equally terrifying things happen too. Our mind breaks everything up and flings all the pieces to the farthest flung corners of our mind. It does that because to let them all join up would bring such enormous pain that it would be unbearable. And so, not only is there the void into which we’re falling, and the awareness of falling with nothing to catch us, there’s also the inability to think, remember or grasp what’s happening. It seems impossible that we can survive.
I’ve asked myself why I’ve felt that I wanted to share this, because in many ways it was such an immensely private experience. And it really is just the tiniest of moments out of a lifetime. Almost not significant enough to mention. No other human being witnessed it but me, and when I walked out of that bathroom and back into the hospital corridor, no-one out there would have known or guessed either. No-one would have had any idea how daunted I felt, how unprepared and ill-equipped, how every bit of me wanted to run and say: “I don’t think I can do this.”
I think that’s the very reason I wanted to share it—not for me, because it was over 30 years ago and I no longer have the need to tell it in the way I once might have done—but more for anyone else out there who may one day experience this too, or who is even experiencing it right now.
I want you to know it isn’t a sign you’re going mad, and it doesn’t mean you’re dying. Neither does it mean, just because you can’t temporarily see yourself in the mirror, that you won’t come back to yourself. I want you to know that this is one of the bravest things you’ll ever do, finding your way through this.
Through it, you’re going to find your inner strength, and you’re going to discover that the universe always catches you. You never do hit the ground; you only think you will. And your reflection in the mirror does, and will, come back. The eyes that will look back at you will be different, but you’ll still recognize them as yours. Just as I recognized mine, once I began to be able to see myself in the mirror again, once I became able to see past my fear.
Who we are is changed forever by it, and we emerge from this thing that has happened as if from a chrysalis, tender and soft and in need of time to dry in the sun and fresh air. And our eyes have to adjust. But we do go on, and we find our way, and life continues to happen, just as it always did. It’s just in sharper focus now.
And the eyes that look back at us have a depth of knowing and compassion they never had before.
And we realise, as we look in the mirror, that we are seeing not only ourselves but everyone else, also, as the universe itself looks back at us.
Author: Janny Juddly
Editor: Renée Picard & Travis May
Photo Credit: Pixabay