I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone here that sixteen is one of the most angsty eras in anyone’s life. You’re constantly worried about things: how big or small your thighs are, how crappy the pay is at your weekend job, whether or not that shining transcendental being you’re crushing on will ever acknowledge your existence and how to make sure that if they do, you have the exact perfect playing-it-cool hair-flip worked out. I was no different -- angst ruled my sixteen-year-old world, too -- except I didn’t worry about that stuff. I worried about the end of the world.
It started in exam season. I’d always been pretty bookish and really wanted to study English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. They have the oldest English Literature department in the world, and entry requirements are extremely high. I needed to ace every exam if I wanted to stand a chance of getting onto my desired course. But I was confident: I was a good student. I could totally do this.
One night, after a long session of obsessive revising, I plonked myself in front of the TV and started the process of switching my brain off for the night. There was nothing much interesting on, so I opted for a BBC documentary called Space, presented by the actor Sam Neill. As I watched, I learned that this episode was one of a series, and that the series was designed to illustrate how vulnerable our planet is. Sam Neill spoke calmly as he explained the various ways in which Earth could be destroyed by a massive black hole or an asteroid the size of Texas. Expensive-looking CGI sequences depicted mass panic and death in the face of tsunamis caused by outer space. There were images of the world exploding in a fiery supernova of lava. I watched for a while, one eyebrow raised, and then went to bed.
I didn’t think much about the TV show initially. But over the next few days, I found that during quiet times, like when I was trying to study, those lurid CGI images kept wandering through my mind. I knew I had to prioritize my exams, so I tried to push all thoughts about the show out of the way and focus. But it seemed that the more I tried, the more anxious I became.
Certain items the show had presented as “fact” began to haunt me. They’d said that Earth was overdue a massive asteroid strike. They’d noted that there were very few high-tech observatories in the southern hemisphere, so if there was something apocalyptic coming our way from outer space, we might not spot it. This was the BBC, an organization I’d always trusted to deliver high-quality information and largely unbiased news. I was sixteen, and still pretty naïve. Within a couple of weeks, my space-anxiety had become full-blown terror.
A lot of the mock-up scenes the show depicted happened at night, presumably because big CGI explosions look cooler in the dark. But because of this I convinced myself that whatever cataclysm was going to happen, it would happen at night. I found I was unable to fall asleep. I started waiting until it got light outside before I’d go to bed, meaning I was working through school days on only one or two hours’ sleep.
My studying ground to a halt: I found I had no ability to remember anything, so revising was useless. I tried talking to my parents about my fears, and they said very sensible, logical things. Nothing worked. Eventually I stopped sleeping altogether, and lay awake all night listening for noises in the sky. As proper sleep-depravation took hold, I started hearing them.
One night, my Dad got up at 3am to get a glass of water. When he looked out of the kitchen window, he saw me, shivering in my dressing gown, at the far end of the garden. I was wide awake, staring up into the sky, tears streaming down my face. I was convinced I could hear a terrible, massive noise -- like many, many aircraft passing overhead -- and when my Dad walked up to me I told him I could see a black hole opening up in the sky and coming to swallow the planet.
Of course, there was absolutely nothing there. I was hallucinating. I’d had a complete breakdown.
The next day, my parents marched me to the school therapist, who was great. We talked very little about my apocalypse anxieties -- instead, she wanted to know about my exams. I told her how desperate I was to get into Edinburgh, and about how excited I was by their literature course. She immediately diagnosed me with severe stress, and said my fears were the result of all the exam pressure I was piling on myself.
I’d never even thought about this. At no point had I ever felt freaked out about the exams -- just very, very determined. She said that often people who are stressed have no idea, until the stress manifests itself in some other way. The way it manifested in me was weird, but not all that unusual.
The school therapist referred me to a GP for treatment of my sleep issues, who in turn referred me to a private therapist specializing in paranoid delusions. It was this therapist who helped me work through my specific fears about the apocalypse, which had only been rationalized, not removed, by the stress diagnosis.
The therapist -- who I’ll call Dr S -- told me I was suffering from a very specific type of thanatophobia, or fear of death. After weeks of feeling like a complete weirdo, I learned that thanatophobia is in fact one of the most common phobias out there. Almost everyone, said Dr S, is afraid of death on some level. Some people are deeply afraid of dying; others are terrified of dying in a certain way, like in a house fire or car accident. Many people list the death of a loved one as their absolute worst fear. Lots of people don’t like flying because they think the plane might crash and kill everyone. Basically, my thanatophobia was just the same, only much, much bigger.
As I talked with Dr S, we worked through various issues. He explained that thanatophobia is often not about the feared thing itself: it usually masks other problems, namely a fear of the unknown, or a desire for control. I identified that yes, I always like to have a plan -- I hate not knowing what’s going to happen, and the unknown does frighten me. I also identified for the first time that I am a massive control freak. At sixteen, I didn’t have much experience of situations getting out of my control, and I’d never really been outside my cozy little comfort zone. It was no wonder I’d been freaked out by the huge, little-known depths of space.
Dr S sorted me out remarkably quickly. Little by little I started sleeping, and as my body began to function properly again, I stopped hearing noises and seeing things that weren’t there. I used breathing and concentration exercises Dr S taught me in order to reign in my anxiety levels. I finally sat those pesky exams, somehow got As in all of them, and was offered a place at Edinburgh. For the remainder of my time living at home, we had a family pact: no apocalyptic movies, TV shows or books would cross our threshold. We wouldn’t ever talk about that stuff. Eventually, my fears completely disappeared.
Except these things never completely disappear. Fast-forward ten years, and you have my worst nightmare: every media outlet is suddenly talking about how 21st December 2012 is going to be the End of Days. My entire Twitterfeed is full of silly cartoons about Mayans and jokes about building bunkers and storing canned food. There’s a meme going around that includes a photo of the earth exploding -- it could even be a screen-shot from that Space documentary. Having always been thankful for the fact that my anxiety is not that easily trigger-able, I am spending most of my days -- and an increasing number of my nights -- feeling triggered as hell.
Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot over the past decade. Just as I know now that the Space documentary was ripped apart by critics for being overly sensationalist and full of factual errors and pseudo-science, I also know that it’s highly unlikely the world will end on 21st December. In fact, the Mayan people are pretty offended by the suggestion. Dr S taught me well: I have a trusted brand of sleeping pill and plenty of good anxiety-busting exercises to tide me over until December 22nd. However, I also know how very easy it is for an already-vulnerable person to slide into mental ill health over something like this, because I’ve been there. I dread to think how many people are genuinely petrified about whatever they think is coming in a couple of weeks. Thanatophobia is a nasty business.