As I was on the Tube home from a night at the cinema with my friends in 2018, my brain was suddenly overloaded with big and complex questions.
‘What if my friends and family just disappeared?’
‘What if I disappeared? Would that inevitably really matter if we’re just giant balls of sentient cells here in the universe entirely by accident?’
I felt incredibly alone and empty, as if everything in the world had just been sucked out of my head. My knowledge of my universe imploded on itself.
Nothing was real. I felt nauseous, dizzy, and started to hyperventilate as the panic set in, and my reality started to spin.
Earlier that day, I had felt incredibly excited to meet up with some friends to see Avengers: Infinity War on its release date.
I’d spent the last couple of weeks prior watching all the different films in the Marvel cinematic universe in an effort to catch up with the story, and immerse myself in a reality far away from my own.
I travelled across London to a cinema in Camden, grabbing assorted snacks along the way.
The film was enjoyable, and a short diversion to the pub afterwards for a couple of pints of Belgian weissbier led to the close of what I thought was a good day.
When I got on the Tube to head back home, one by one, my friends alighted at their stations, leaving me on my own hurtling through the tunnels. And that’s when the existential attack happened.
It was a pure stream of consciousness flooding my brain, overloading my senses and consuming all my thoughts leaving me in a state of derealisation, panic, and anxiety all in one fell swoop.
My ultimate coping mechanism has been attempting not to think about things too deeply (Picture: Grace Hayhurst)
Derealisation is a rather strange sensation to describe for those who haven’t experienced it, but for me it’s as if I’m viewing my body and existence in the third person. Memories start to go fuzzy and my movements become almost automatic – as if I’m no longer in control of them. My reality feels false and distorted.
I’d had anxiety attacks in the past so this wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory, but the cause of this one was very different. I was fighting against my head to convince myself that I was real. That I existed, and that I was anchored in reality.
As I continued to panic, I got off the train at the next stop, tried to locate some alcohol as swiftly as possible to numb my mental activity before heading to a nearby park. I then started listening to some music I’d written when I was 15 in an attempt to transport me to past times and ground myself.
Alcohol dulled some of the troubles. But before long, I was emotionally distraught, drunk, and had my world turned upside down. While I started to feel slightly attached to reality, the feeling of derealisation had firmly set in.
After struggling to pull myself together and finally making my way home in the early hours of the morning, I messaged my boss letting them know I wouldn’t be able to make it to work the following day to try and buy myself some more time to work out what had happened.
Once home, I lay awake with a very surreal and overactive imagination attempting to work out my place in the universe.
Eventually I got to sleep – with the attack mostly subsiding by the time I woke up the following morning – and my day-to-day life continued to shuffle along. I tried to pretend for a long time that everything was OK, but my reality was quite the opposite.
I was 20 years old at the time and these existential attacks became more and more frequent – usually occurring during slower periods where I wasn’t particularly busy. Even having a single evening free from distraction could turn my brain into overdrive and trigger one of these attacks.
I started struggling to see why I should care about anything going on in my life. If I’m not real, if nothing is real, if everything is ultimately pointless, why on Earth should I try and fix myself? Why should I go to work? Why should I look after my friends and family?
I felt so incredibly tiny and insignificant. What really was the point of anything?
As a way to try and escape my local world and in an effort to cheer myself up, I travelled to Portugal to follow an orchestra I used to play with growing up. They were absolutely fantastic and performed a wonderfully complicated repertoire that made my body tingle all over.
This should have been my happy place – but something still wasn’t right. The entire trip felt fuzzy and distorted, like I wasn’t really experiencing what was happening around me.
So while sat on a beach in Lisbon, I tried calling an NHS crisis line to talk through some of these feelings with a professional.
I looked out towards Santuário de Cristo Rei in an oddly cathartic state, pondering reality and everything that comes with it, trying to put together a plan of action with this poor NHS mental health specialist attempting to untangle my word vomit.
I’ll forever be thankful for that conversation, as it was the start of putting me on the right track towards becoming more grounded in reality.
Although that treatment pathway on the NHS ended up being a dead end, it allowed a great deal of self reflection on my own part. Giving myself the time and space to really think about what I wanted from life.
I’d now like to think that I have a better understanding of the universe. And while I may be more petrified of death than ever before and have accepted that existence is temporary, fleeting, and cruel, I have grown as a person in a positive way since that breaking point in 2018.
Over time, my personal motivation to look after myself and those around me has increased. I find myself searching for a purpose in everything that I do to ensure that what I am doing with my limited time is having a net positive on the world.
My ultimate coping mechanism has been attempting not to think about things too deeply, and not let existentialism run away with itself. I always say yes to new opportunities that arise as keeping myself busy has been the best form of treatment I’ve been able to find.
These experiences have led me to fundamentally change how I live my life, changing career paths, friends, and even becoming more impulsive in simple every day decisions.
I’m always looking for things to do to keep life interesting. None of us know how much time we have left, but maximising the days we do have is incredibly important.
Grace Hayhurst’s debut EP Existence is Temporary is out now on Spotify.
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