Fighting an Invisible Battle with Homemade Armour

My mum is my best friend. She has always been there for me and has always supported my decisions, even when they’ve turned out wrong. That’s not to say that she’s encouraged any kind of bad behaviour; it’s to illustrate the enormity of her belief in me and the strength with which she’s picked up the pieces when the floor has fallen from underneath me.

Because my mum wasn’t brought up in a loving family like I was, and because she also deals with depression, anxiety, PTSD and dissociation from that upbringing, I often wonder how she has any energy left to spare. How can she have the strength to deal with her own problems and still manage to lift me out of every mental hole I dig for myself?

There was a time when things were extremely difficult for both of us. During that time, Mum was the only constant figure around; her presence was home and anything else may as well have been some foreign, undiscovered land. This meant I didn’t venture out much. I couldn’t stay at friends’ houses and I was always at her side, a frail shadow.

Before depression and generalised anxiety, I battled a whole different demon when the sun hid itself behind the hills and the streets started to quiet. I couldn’t fall asleep without succumbing to panic attacks that paralysed each inch, except for the heaving breaths punching into my chest. These episodes made me feel trapped inside my own body and simultaneously ripped from it, as though some force was pulling me into the sky to somewhere cold and dark. Every single night, I worked to keep that demon away. Every single night, my mum helped me don my battle armour and stood with me against a monster she couldn’t see or feel.

Unfortunately, I kept us both sleep-deprived for a long time. Each night felt infinite. It took a toll on both of us.

Then, all of a sudden, the shackles broke. They released a cold, thick smoke from them, and it came with the realisation that I didn’t have to fear the night anymore. Some days, this gives me hope: if that suddenly passed, maybe other bad times will too.

Once I could get through the night, I started to worry that Mum leave me alone on my other battlefields. The day we looked for medical help, however, that worry evaporated.

“Lock her in her room and let her deal with it herself,” the doctor advised.  Mum stormed out of that surgery seething with anger. She could have done just that and given herself some sort of break, yet she never left me.

When I reflect back on the period where I could never leave my house, it feels like I’ve come so far. When I travel, I still get very stressed and separation anxiety clings to me like oily sweat. Depression tells me travelling is pointless when staying in your bed is so much easier. So it’s not easy. But I can do it.

I can do it.

I can do it not just for myself, but for my mum too. Despite Mum’s strengths, so far, travelling has been out of her grasp. So finally, I can give her something in return. Through pictures and descriptions of each place I visit, she too can travel the world.

Gladly, I know from experience that there’s no hurdle too high that my mum can’t engineer a way to find her way over it. Eventually, I know that she will scale this one too, no matter how treacherous.

I harbour guilt sometimes. Despite all the times my mum has been there for me, I have taken that for granted more times than not. We are always supposed to be a team, but I can be selfish and sometimes I don’t care about leaving her behind. Sometimes, I’m not someone I recognise – it’s like a reflection of me with a mind of its own.

On one ordinary night, I swallowed a mixture of chemicals. An ambulance ride later, I sat in hospital after contacting a friend. I hadn’t told my mum. I paced behind the hospital curtain panicking over the thought of it. The nurses left me to it. To them, that night I was a strain on the patients who had health problems out of their control. I had brought mine on myself.

I told my dad first, who talked me into being able to tell my mum. Mum was there faster than any ambulance could ever be.

I stayed at the hospital that night to talk to a team of experts in the morning. But the morning came with an unexpected turn of events. Two doctors brought me a heart scan they had taken the night before and told me that it was abnormal.

“What isn’t abnormal about me?” I asked.

It was maybe a week after that when I opened the letter detailing what was wrong with my heart. It was a congenital defect that had been overlooked until now.

There’s something my mum said to me afterwards that I’ll never forget: “Saf, I’m so glad you drank those chemicals.”

Despite everything, we laughed. If the issue hadn’t been found, my heart would have grown irreversibly large, shortening a more comfortable life. Grimly I thought, You try to do one thing and you end up achieving the opposite – typical. 

Mum was with me throughout the whole ordeal, but that still wasn’t enough for her.

I love reading. Always have. I discovered one of my favourite authors, Travis Riddle, through a band he is friends with the lead singer of: Waterparks. The night before my operation, Mum was giddy with excitement – I know, a strange way to be when your daughter’s getting cut into in a few hours. Yet, she was bouncing off the walls like she was Jim Carrey in The Mask.

When the email finally arrived, she practically squealed. What it contained nearly sent me into cardiac arrest before I even got to the hospital. It was a video from Travis and the lead singer of the band, Awsten Knight. The video made me terribly happy, yet seeing Awsten appear caused equal amounts of anguish, as I felt that Travis had not truly understood that I love his work individually. As I have devalued myself many times before and never felt that I was worth anything to anyone a lot of the time, I just wish he knew that I value his work as an author. Travis also sent me a personal letter and signed books.

When I applied for a month-long writing workshop in Spain earlier this year, I was beyond overwhelmed. I had travelled with school and family and friends before, but this time when I set off for the little railway down the road, I felt my chest fill up with microscopic feathers and my eyes grow watery. Pillow-chested and red-eyed, I pulled my suitcase, a burden that grew with each passing step.

Beside me, as always, was my mum. She managed to strike up a quick conversation in the five minutes we had before the train came with a woman pulling a suitcase. Finding that the woman was also on her way to Manchester airport, Mum got me to sit beside her on the train.

It was the longest moment when I sat down on that seat and looked out from the window opposite. It was tight smiles and quick, weak waves that were exchanged as the soft rumbling beneath my feet told me it was time to start a new adventure.

I am fine, I told myself repeatedly in my head. I can do this.

The lady, Clara, motioned for me to take my headphones off: a comfort I always cling to when I start to panic. With an apologetic smile, I slowly removed them, but I could feel hot and sticky tears welling up as I did so. Next, she talked about ways in which she remains positive. She instructed me that if I don’t like something, only I can get up and find a solution for the problem. Nodding ecstatically, she told me my upcoming adventures will help me to learn this.

Visiting Spain, seeing places I never would have thought to go on my own, was a topsy-turvy journey. I’ve watched sunsets of peach and blueberry gradients. I’ve swum in sparkling seas below lush green mountain tops. I’ve struggled through anxious, faltering, foreign conversations and sad, lonely, hopeless moments.  Every step of the way, I’ve taken a picture and sent it to my mum, who always replied as quickly as she can, for the busy person she is. It reminds me that I’ll never be alone, no matter how far I travel.

On a dry afternoon, my mum sent me a message. It was unexpected, oddly enough, despite our frequent conversing. She wrote to me proudly, detailing that she was inspired that I could overcome so many obstacles. To me, it never feels like I’m overcoming anything real. It feels more like I put obstacles in my way and then cry about them being there. Yet, my mum called me inspiring as she prepared for her adventure, one she decided to embark on because of mine.  An adventure to overcome fears that had been instilled in her since her upbringing, those things taught to us as children that are so far deep in our primitive brains, they’re the hardest things to overcome.

Mum decided to take on two projects: to get on a bus she could not control herself, and to enter a dark, cramped theatre. Every step of the way, she kept me informed as she demolished both tasks the same way she overcomes everything. Like we can overcome anything when we are together, no matter how many miles away we are from each other.

I write here that I wish to be as selfless and as strong as my mum. I write like a promise, to continue on this crazy journey as best I can, with my mum in the passenger seat looking out at the spectacular things the world has to offer her. The spectacular things she deserves to witness.

Thank you, Mum. I love you.

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