I Had 22 Years Of Therapy To Combat My Fear Of Death. Then My Brother Got Cancer.

"I saw my regular CBT therapist, EMDR specialists and psychiatrists, and eventually, I started to improve. But like all good things, it didn’t last."
The author and her brother, Dave, at his wedding in Colorado in 2021.
The author and her brother, Dave, at his wedding in Colorado in 2021.
Courtesy of Shannon Walsh

My first panic attack happened when I was 7. I was watching Stephen King’s “The Langoliers,” which follows 10 passengers on a red-eye flight who wake up to find that their plane has vanished and they’re completely alone in an empty airport. For some reason, while watching this movie, I constructed a narrative about death that I became fully convinced was real: I decided that when you die, your body goes away but your soul continues living. It’s like your soul is stuck alone, in an empty airport, forever and ever.

I ran into the hallway, collapsed into a ball and scratched my thighs until they bled. I yanked my hair from its roots until my hand was balled up with a fistful of hair. My brother, Dave, held my wrists together to keep me from scratching and pulling. He and my parents cradled me, ran a hot bath and did their best to calm me down. They told me that the story I’d convinced myself was true ... wasn’t. I’d simply watched a movie and made something up.

These kinds of panic attacks continued for more than a decade. But everyone in my family and I believed that with the help of therapists, these fears would fade over time. It was “kid stuff.” And we weren’t the only ones who thought that — I remember seeing a psychotherapist when I was 10. He looked at me during our third session and said, “When you’re 17, these thoughts will go away. So don’t think about them until then.” I had no idea how or why he pinpointed that age, but for years, I waited. I thought that on the morning of my 17th birthday, I’d wake up and the fears would be gone.

The author (right) and Dave bouncing on a trampoline in Montana in 1994.
The author (right) and Dave bouncing on a trampoline in Montana in 1994.
Courtesy of Shannon Walsh

He was wrong. In fact, not long after I turned 17, we began an astronomy unit in science class. I was pulled out of school for the duration of the unit because the meltdowns became too frequent. (Something about the vastness of the universe coupled with the idea of being alone as a floating soul made them more violent.) But with the help of biweekly therapy, I was able to make it to my high school graduation, and I even attended one year of college in New York City. But the panic attacks, which had given way to obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, got so bad that I was forced to take a medical leave of absence from school.

That’s when I upped my meds and began to see a cognitive behavioral therapist. To expose me to my fear of death, the therapist asked me to read essays about death — lots of essays about death. I even wrote a song about it — I was instructed to record the song and play it back as I brushed my teeth every night.

It was around that time that I started outlining the idea of a film script called “Death, Ghosts & Other Stuff.” Unsurprisingly, the script was about my teenage self attempting to come to terms with the death of a friend. The idea to write the script was my own, but my CBT therapist approved — after all, it was another form of exposure therapy. And if I could get through a full script about death, then I’d conquered my fear. Right?

As time passed, I continued to see several doctors — my regular CBT therapist, EMDR specialists, psychiatrists — and eventually, I started to improve. The exposure exercises, combined with the three different medications I was taking, were working. I continued working on my script and even enrolled in a virtual course at UCLA to finish it. I graduated from a different college in Washington, D.C., and was enjoying my life instead of being consumed with fear about the end of it.

But like all good things, it didn’t last.

The author acting in her first high school play in 2007.
The author acting in her first high school play in 2007.
Courtesy of Shannon Walsh

Three months ago, my brother Dave was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called Burkitt lymphoma. And for the first time ever, I was forced to reconcile the peace I thought I’d found in death with the idea that the person closest to me may die.

Burkitt lymphoma is rare in Western countries, and it accounts for only 1% of adult lymphomas, according to the Leukaemia Foundation. Burkitt is considered a “highly aggressive” non-Hodgkin lymphoma because it spreads quickly, oftentimes to the bone marrow, blood and central nervous system.

In some ways, Dave being diagnosed with this form of cancer has been an exposure therapy in and of itself ― as if my many years of treatment are holding up the middle finger, saying, What now, bitch?!

The day I learned Dave was sick, I had my first panic attack in years. It was an intuitive response to the news, and it felt like the years of therapy I’d done went out the window. My claustrophobia related to sitting on an airplane resurfaced. I went back on a medicine I hadn’t taken in nearly five years. My OCD was destructive, and I started developing a strange nervous tic in my leg. I made calls to doctors I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade because I felt the need to reconnect with people who knew me when I was in the depths of my struggles with death. I also had to step away from my script. Not only was I hit with writer’s block, but the same questions lingered from my most trusted readers: “What’s the takeaway? What’s the arc? What is your protagonist learning?” I couldn’t face those questions yet.

The author and Dave on the day he shaved his head at the beginning of round one of chemotherapy.
The author and Dave on the day he shaved his head at the beginning of round one of chemotherapy.
Courtesy Shannon Walsh

Then, during Dave’s second round of chemotherapy, something interesting happened: We started talking about death. Dave and I directly addressed what he was facing. No frills. No exaggerations. No euphemisms.

During one conversation, Dave told me, “I’ve learned to just let go.” He reminded me that he has little control over what happens, so what’s the point of stressing? At first, that was hard for me to stomach. How could he be so “go with the flow” about it? And if he was so “go with the flow,” did I have the right to not be? As we continued to talk about it — death, facing the possibility of it while maintaining somewhat of a normal life — it became less of a “thing.” In speaking about death, and speaking to Dave specifically about it, death lost its power. It lost its hold on me.

As of last week, Dave is halfway through his chemo treatment. I’m cautiously elated to say that all the cancer is gone except for a speck in his left femur. Doctors hope the final three rounds of chemo will eradicate that “little fucker,” as we’ve come to call it, and if they don’t, they’ll use radiation therapy.

Despite my initial response to the news of Dave’s illness, my brother potentially experiencing what I’d feared for so many years has finally allowed me to tackle resurfaced anxieties with relative levelheadedness. That doesn’t mean I’m “OK.” It doesn’t mean I’m walking around with a smile on my face. It means I’m digesting the news as it comes, and I’m not jumping to conclusions about how things will end up. In some ways, it all feels like a cosmic alignment: I spent years trying to get past this fear just in time for my brother to be facing it. So maybe in a weird, twisted and dark way, it was all meant to be. Or maybe I’m an asshole for saying that.

Last week, with the help of my brother, I wrote a new ending to my script. It involves a character named Charley, and it’s about not knowing — or becoming friends with the unknown. It’s about understanding that tomorrow isn’t a sure thing, and the day after that, even less so. If I’ve taken anything with me throughout my 29 years of life, it’s what I’ve used as the final few sentences of “Death, Ghosts & Other Stuff”:

CHARLEY

“That’s what death is ― not knowing. Coming face to face with ambiguity and the unknown. ‘Maybes’ and ‘I don’t knows.’ And every now and then, maybe even a ‘yes’ or two. I used to think everything needed an answer. Death. Ghosts. All the other stuff in life. But now, I find peace in not knowing. And maybe you will, too.”

Shannon Walsh is a writer, actor, and director based in Los Angeles, California. When she isn’t stuck in traffic with her dog, Finley, Shannon is busy developing her first feature film, “Death, Ghosts & Other Stuff,” which was named a semifinalist at this year’s Final Draft Competition, Big Apple Film Festival Screenplay Competition and the 2022 Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

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