My problem is a sudden and acute bout of separation anxiety that I go through every day. I might be having a good time with my parents, but in the middle of it I will suddenly think about their death. The idea of death is extremely hard for me to bear. When I remember prior experiences of close ones dying, I cannot imagine dealing with that again. In a year I will be going off to college – another issue nagging me constantly. I obviously can’t take my parents along. I’m afraid I can’t enjoy anything I do because I’m constantly preoccupied with the thought of their death. I imagine how I will feel when they die, and almost end up crying. I realise this is not healthy.
This problem first appeared in the Observer.
[In short – unconscious death wish followed by acute Oedipal guilt, anxiety]
I wonder what death means to you. It feels as though you are pre-mourning something and yet you seem to know what it’s going to feel like.
The vocabulary you use is full of expletives and very intense – sudden, acute, suddenly, extremely, cannot imagine, constantly, nagging, obviously, constantly (again). You are consumed by this gnawing anxiety and, though you say you might be having a good time with your parents, I would suggest that, in fact, you are repressing your fears for as long as you can when, actually, these feelings are constantly with you, so close to the surface that they can burst out at any moment and this feels sudden. You say you ‘can’t imagine’ but, on the contrary, you very vividly can imagine.
Perhaps you experienced catastrophic loss in early life (the actual loss of your parents – the realisation that you do not own them or control them, or perhaps they did leave you without them for some time) and you are calling that ‘death’ for want of a better, a strong enough word. Of course, none of us knows what death or bereavement is really going to be like, only that it is inevitable in both cases. What we tend to do then, is to find the most terrifying fears within us, of annihilation, the most awful thing we have actually experienced, and then project that feeling on to the idea of death.
Obviously, your parents are at the centre of your emotional life and perhaps a small part of your anxiety is that without them you feel you would have nothing. Of course, this was true when you were tiny and it sounds as though this weak attachment has followed you into adulthood so that you still feel, as you did as a baby, that you might lose them at any moment. You were not securely attached and therefore had to cling. We do not cling to people we take for granted, or when we feel completely secure and cared for with a feeling of constancy (a word you used twice in a short letter). We cling when we are not certain of being loved.
Acute anxiety is often about something that has, in reality, already happened. If it hadn’t happened to you before, how would you know to feel anxious about it? Perhaps you lost your parents in infancy, felt that they were not committed to you, that life was dangerous and flimsy, that they could abandon you at any moment, leaving you feeling desolate, bereaved. I wonder if this is an Oedipal situation – when you realised you were outside of their sexual relationship with each other, you found it impossible to bear. They seem fused in your mind – perhaps fused in the sexual act from which you are excluded and your hatred of them in that moment is going to destroy them.
I wonder what they do to fuel your anxiety, what their relationship is like, how they related to you as an infant and then as a child. It sounds as though you have no siblings, so perhaps you also feel that they will not be able to survive with you? Perhaps they have clung to you, making you feel essential to their wellbeing and survival when, as a child, you knew you could not possibly support them fully, that you might be responsible for their deaths since they depended on you, an incapable child, so much?
It seems to me that you fear they cannot survive without you and you must watch them every moment of every day in an effort to keep them alive. This is a role reversal as, really, this is what they would have been doing when you were a baby (though ideally not as neurotically). You want to leave them and go to college and be happy, but worry that this would be apocalyptic for them. It is fascinating that you do not distinguish between them (fusing them), suggesting that they do, indeed, represent one burden for you, one impossible responsibility.
Their imminent death is, of course, a fantasy. They are hugely unlikely to die together or suddenly, so it is you, in your imagination, who has constructed this sudden death fantasy. This suggests that a very forbidden, unknowable part of you unconsciously longs for their death and for escape (as per above Oedipal scenario where your hatred is enough to destroy them). The guilt at this flickering thought sends you into a frenzy of anxiety and imagined responsibility for these people and a feeling that their loss would be unbearable. What would, in fact, be hard to bear, is your own guilt.
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