He died afraid, and in my car

A man died in my car two years ago. He held my hand and looked afraid. Death seized him violently. I spoke to him quietly and calmly. His wife sat in the front seat. She never saw it. Never even suspected. And he slipped away from her. Slipped from her, and into my memory forever.

I was just a newborn graduate health professional still finding my feet. It was a Friday morning after a mundane week. I was hanging out for cocktails and dancing Saturday night. But there it was, Death visiting, grinning at me suspiciously and demonstrating his awesome power.

“It’s a lovely day to go out”, the gentleman said. And go out he did. At a ripe old age, followed quickly by his wife about a year later.

I drove home exhausted. A man driving beside me lurched forward, and my heart rate shot through the roof. I went out dancing and had cocktails. I slept the sleep of the dead Sunday too. Monday I even went to work. As I laid out a fresh sheet on my bed Monday night, suddenly terror gripped me, and I remembered the fear in Death’s grip. I reached for the wine, and, reliably, it drowned my sorrows.

Of course, they resurfaced the next day. I remember sitting in my hammock. Feeling afraid. I remember that I was there for hours. Shaking. Trembling. After four hours I finally picked up the phone and called someone. And then I descended. Into the memories, into the fear. Into the struggle to try to reconstruct myself after everything had been blown apart. An effort to try to regain control of my autonomic nervous system. It had taken me hostage, throwing me into mega-alert, every time an old man walked before me, whenever I saw an ambulance, whenever someone spoke of seizures, or death. The wind would send me into panic. The sight of the hospital I worked in. And her, his wife, still walking those corridors of the local hospital.

I stopped eating. My night was swamped by flashbacks of his last moments. I’d wake shivering in panic. I spent my days flushed, heart racing, breathless. Each staggered breath of my own echoed his, sending me spiralling further into memory. My body was swamped with stress hormones, and I’d exercise for hours trying to pump it out of me, running and swimming, sweating through this tragedy that had engulfed me.

It had been days since I had slept and I’d lost 10 kilos in a month, when I finally reached the kind of rock bottom that has those who love you step in to scrape you off the floor. My boss called my counsellor whilst I sat mute in the office unable to talk, so frozen in terror and panic. They shipped me off to the doctor under the watchful eye of a loving friend. With the help of an antidepressant I finally managed to sleep, and eat, and put the floor back in.

I remember feeling like such a failure. I graduated top of my class in high school and left university with all the expectations of a promising student. And here I was, 9 months out of university, having a nervous break down, and needing an antidepressant. Shattered.

My best friend has a history of debilitating mental illness. This woman is the light, and colour and salt of my world. I love her with a ferocity that isn’t quite rational. Except that it is, because she is the most beautiful, passionate, colourful, exuberant enjoyer of life. She loves me with a loyalty and delight that is invaluable, and when I speak, I feel like she sees into my soul- and adores what she sees! Of course, along with this joy and light, is also the reality that she disappears for periods of my life, sometimes when I need her most. She’s been absent without explanation during 21st birthdays, breakups, and the sweet moment you can’t wait to share- when you meet a new love of your life.

In the moment when my own darkness not just loomed but had completely engulfed me; when I could no longer find my own limbs through that dark to begin to recognise myself, my love for this friend shone through like the lonely beam of a lighthouse. It occurred to me that if I could love her as much as I did in the depth of her darkest hour, well then, there was no reason why those around me couldn’t also offer the same love. And there she was, this friend, loving me ferociously. Her, and many others.

So I took the next step, and the one after that, feeling for the footholds to carry me forward. People who loved me linked their arms and care together, forming a life raft that caught me each time I lost grip on a perilous hold.

The psychologist spelt it out for me. She explained that this was a ‘critical incident response’- it even had its own pamphlet. It occurs when something traumatic happens out of the blue- like a man dying in your car on a Friday morning. That for about 3 months after the ‘incident’, the brain has to work through triggers of the event- sounds, smells, sight…That the brain and autonomic nervous system prepare to deal again with an emergency. The heart ramps up and the adrenalin flows. You have to go through each one of those triggers and resolve it safely, positively. Basically, I had to teach my brain that just because it was a windy September morning didn’t mean that I was going to suddenly have to try and revive an 89 year old man. With great compassion she told me that I could expect this to happen still, years down the track. But that the frequency of these triggers would diminish as I worked through each one. That in three months time, the worst of it would be done.

In three months, as my psychologist had predicted, the worst of it was over. I started going days, weeks and then months without a trigger sending me into overwhelming flashbacks. Over time, the flashbacks passed quicker, were less distressing. And finally, his arrival in my thoughts was not distressing but familiar. Sad, and scary in hindsight, but not commanding my entire being and function.

Its September now, 2 years later, and the winds still bring a hint of him, his last moments. I remember not just his breath and eyes, but the way he asked for his hat when he left his house that very last time. I remember lacing up his shoes. I remember holding his hand. I remember telling him to stay with me, breathe deeply. Of course, he had no breaths left. Those were his last. He died afraid. But at least I held his hand so he wasn’t alone.

The truth is, he will never leave me. Nor will the memory of what came after. I spent hours curled in foetal on my bedroom floor, trapped in panicked memory. I’ll remember how it felt to be completely aware that I needed to get up and step out into the lit house with friends to help, but being unable to do it. I’ll always remember that powerlessness. That time that my nervous system devoured me from the inside out. It’ll be the memory that helps me love, and hold, and understand those around me struggling with mental illness. I’ll remember what it was like to be so, so low, working one tiny step at a time to climb out of the dark. It will help me sit patiently with those walking through hell. It’ll help me keep my hands away from the ‘quick fix’ button, and just be there, with them, through it.

Let it all go. Let it all unravel. Let it be a road upon which to travel.

Work no longer feels like a war zone
Which is great!
Though sometimes I feel sad that this is even a measure I know.
Then, I feel relieved that I'm on the positive side of that measure.

Then I see an image of myself-
stumbling around work holding my intestines, and stomach,
and insides as they fall out of me
all oozy.

I tell myself that it wasn't that bad.
Don't be so proud.
Remember Leunig's Duck.

Then I laugh. With gracious tears.
And I think,
it quite possibly was THAT bad
but that it doesn't REALLY matter.

My Duck reminds me with a waddle
That we all look a little ridiculous at times.
That we do need to break down,
because plenty in LIFE is worth a GOOD cry.

And sometimes these are private
And sometimes these are public
And our tears, where ever they fall,
bring SALT which is flavor and
WATER which is refreshing
to the earth around us.

So then I WADDLE back to work,
And sink my working hands into the earth
and start digging
and planting
and using the season.

Every season.


  1. Holy crap your writing is incredible. So moving. Thank you. xx

    1. Thank you so much for your open hearted response Louise!


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