When Empathy and Intuition Clash

Keeping death at arm’s length is a full-time job

I see dead people.

I always have. As a teenager, I was prone to vivid and violent nightmares that’d routinely depict some friends as dead for no reason. They always turned out to be fine and I never broached the topic with any of them as I’m not sure anyone would have understood.

At night, my brain became a battlefield where all my worst fears played out, with abandonment always taking center stage. Growing up in a broken home where domestic abuse was routine can’t have helped but my brain tried to hold its own and overcome.

And it did, somehow.

But the coping mechanisms that allowed me to deal with a violent home life and make my way into the world seemingly unscathed are still in place. And they kick into gear during times of extreme stress, usually when my brain lacks sufficient data to understand something.

What wouldn’t make much sense during waking hours gets processed overnight. As my subconscious runs through all sorts of options that would seem far-fetched in the cold light of day, I don’t get much rest.

I may be asleep but there’s an all out war going on in my skull and I invariably wake up exhausted, as if I had spent all night fighting.

Because it’s exactly what’s happening. The major depressive disorder that nearly killed me and stole five years of my life is chronic; it’s always waiting in the wings and interprets anxiety as a cue to pounce.

By now, I’ve had ample time to figure out how my illness works and how to push back so it doesn’t jeopardize the new life I’ve been building, word by word. My illness is predictable, works according to some clearly identifiable patterns, and I’ve learned how to contain the worst of it until the moment passes.

It’s a messy, painful, and exhausting process and it often throws me off kilter for a while. It also makes for random weirdness, such as disturbing mental housekeeping happening overnight and that I can recall clearly upon waking.

These days however, neither my nightmares nor my chronic mental illness are the problem.

My reality is.

I see dead people.

Only now, some of them are indeed dead, like my best friend of over two decades, Anthony, who lost his life to cancer last September. When the going gets tough, I sense his absence so keenly it feels like a nebulous presence. Asking myself how he’d approach a particular situation generally helps me look at it from another perspective. This is something I do a lot.

My dead grandmother also hovers about. She embodied kindness and common sense, both of which my family and I rely on as we continue to navigate the reality of stage 4 cancer attempting to kill my stepmom. My dad has grown fond of recalling his mom and so have I, for we both draw strength from the people who came before us and taught us how to be humans in the world.

We find comfort in memory, as does my stepmom to whom the recollections of long-haul trips past provide much laughter.

We’re all clinging to whatever we can salvage; we’re all clinging to one another for dear life, too.

Whether under the same roof or not, none of us sleep well, anxious about the next oncology appointment and what fresh hell it might bring.

For my part, I’m still forging ahead by compartmentalizing everything and setting priorities. My work is what makes all else possible so it always comes first.

The herd of elephants in the room that is my dysfunctional marriage is there but set aside, and only rarely does it find its way into my consciousness. I can’t allow it to use up much mental bandwidth lest the magnitude of our combined unhappinesses should cause me to keel over again.

But when I’m home in the US, it is there, it is always there, I can’t get away from it. Like all the other ghosts, it comes out at night and ransacks my brain, unassuaged by the all-too-rare essay I dedicate to it.

When I’m awake, I try and make sure my attention doesn’t get diverted or hijacked by environmental sadness or frustration. The cats help pull me back into the present moment whenever my brain starts meandering and going places it shouldn’t. They sense sadness and always bully it away, one head-butt, one purr at a time.

While I resist the encroaching presence of death with all I’ve got, I can’t shake off the deep sense of foreboding that is taking hold again.

Isee dead people.

More specifically, I see one friend gone for good. They fell silent with strict instructions not to contact them. While I must respect their wishes, I’m not sure they’re still alive at the time of writing. Theirs is a distress I’ve experienced as if it were my own in the past, and I wonder if that is what’s happening now.

I have to trust life will prevail once more.

So far, I haven’t been able to pin down that strange feeling of mine onto a specific cause, but there are several probable ones, not least of all my family. My father sustained a small routine injury several weeks ago, but it’s not healing as it should, far from it.

If premonitions are often dismissed as flights of fancy or seen as an object of ridicule, some of us are more attuned to fellow humans than others. Empathy isn’t the enemy of reason any more than imagination is.

Although catastrophic thinking can be one of the hallmarks of mental illness, I’m also a staunch realist and an atheist. The latter means I do not believe in the existence of a supernatural being or force; instead, I place all my faith in the human animal.

My beliefs are rooted in our shared capacity for survival, for good, for transcendence, and for love.

And my intuition has always been strong. Whenever I’ve ignored so-called hunches, I’ve made mistakes and errors of judgment. This is the reason why I’m loath to dismiss what I’m feeling now as my depressive brain acting up.

But what to do when you can’t parse what your intuition is trying to tell you?

I see dead people.

Or rather, I see myself gone now, too, defeated by exhaustion, worn out from fighting so hard without any respite in sight. Waking up in tears as I did this morning is never a good sign, certainly not when I’m supposedly back in a safe place for a while, away from usual family stressors.

Almost choking to death when taking a sip of water because anxiety is so omnipresent you’ve become quite incapable of doing something as simple as drinking or breathing without getting confused between the two isn’t a good sign either. Especially during that split second when surrendering to slow asphyxiation looks appealing because much-needed relief looks finally within grasp.

The urge to run away keeps taunting me but I’m scrappy and I will not quit so instead of giving in to it, I’m trying to understand why it is happening and what it means. More than likely, I need to switch off and rest for a while but this isn’t something I can afford just yet.

Then again — as people in a better situation than I am keep saying — I likely cannot afford not to either.

Alas — or by chance — I made mine Eleanor Roosevelt’s words a long time ago: “It is not more vacation we need — it’s more vocation.”

Although it’s a source of great confusion when exhaustion strikes, some of us know no other way to live but to let vocation guide us; it makes us inevitably prone to running ourselves into the ground because work never feels like a chore.

As a result, empathy and intuition sometimes get scrambled up.

Please don’t let your heart kill you, cherish it, and protect it.

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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