The first time I visited America I was 14 years old. I was visiting my brother who was working in California as part of his University degree. There was something about the country that immediately captivated me. I instantly knew that I wanted return and learn more about its culture, politics and short history, and I made it my mission to go back to the States one day to pursue my dreams. Fast forward four years later and I was accepted in to Lancaster University to major in American Studies which included an all important year at a University in New York. I could not have been any more excited! All of my hard work and studying had paid off and I was heading back to the country that had inspired me so much all those years previously.
Then, two weeks before I was due to start my first semester at University my whole world turned upside down… my wonderful mum died.
At the time I thought that heading off to University as planned was a show of bravery and strength. Surely it was a sign that I was handling my grief and getting on with things? Plus, I’d made a comprehensive life plan out of my 14-year-old dream and I didn’t want to divert from it – or know where to start turning that process on its head. The pressure of not wanting to “let anyone down” coupled with the feeling that I would be going back on something that my Mum had dreamed of for me didn’t feel like an option.
My first year at Lancaster flew by. I made frequent trips home, worked hard and got good grades and before I knew it I was in New York to begin my second year. I’ll never forget arriving in my dorm room after a really long day of travelling and instead of experiencing the excitement that I’d imagined I’d feel, I felt completely alone and lost. I was blindsided with an overwhelming feeling of grief. The dictionary describes grief as ‘intense sorrow’, closely followed by sadness, pain, anguish, torment, distress, agony and heartache. The list goes on and the feelings within me were burrowed deep.
I threw myself into studying and I tried to make friends and fit in, but I just couldn’t shake the turmoil I seemed to find myself in each day. I was recommended counselling – or as the American’s like to call it, therapy. Again the trusty dictionary describes therapy as a ‘method of healing’ – a treatment, a remedy, a CURE. Thank god, I thought, because that’s exactly what I needed, what I’d been hoping for. I remember thinking that this session of therapy was going to cure my grief. That it would bring about the inevitable peace that I was longing for. SPOILER ALERT – that did not happen. That’s not how therapy works, apparently.
So, I had my first therapy session… one hour later and I couldn’t believe it, I felt exactly-the-fucking-same. Half a year passed and I spent an hour a week in these sessions not making much progress. My therapist eventually sent me to the doctor, who prescribed tranquillisers (which is the American equivalent of anti-depressants). There’s something about imagining being shot in the arse like a wild tiger to snap you out of the funk you’re in and I made the conscious decision to dig deep and try to overcome my grief using my mind and not medication.
It was incredibly tough and I went off the rails for a little while. I still studied hard, but I partied harder – and connections to the good parts of my previous life started to break down. I withdrew from my friends and family and blocked out any memories I had of my mum. I was lost for a long time and I still have regrets about how I acted and the relationships I sacrificed during this period of my life. But I know now that I also healed a lot during that time and I grew stronger. I developed a more resilient side to my personality that I still rely on to this day to get me through hard times and overcome bad feelings.
I try to use the strength and bravery I built during those early years as a motherless child to remedy hard things that happen in my life. Somedays it’s no consolation, but other days it comforts me and empowers me to face the world. I guess the reason I’m sharing this is to acknowledge that whilst grief is a pain that can’t be cured, the way you decide to handle it can make you stronger.