Please note: this piece contains some strong language
Most nights I would position Humphrey the gigantic stuffed hippo behind me; the big spoon, if you will. Once in position, Humphrey morphed into Leonardo DiCaprio and together we drifted into wholesome dreams. In my hormone-ravished mind, those stubby paws easily became strong arms, the nubby ears floppy golden locks, the silence giving way to Hollywood whispers of ‘I’ll never let go…’. If this were a soft-focus cinematic flashback, Celine would slowly fade in right about now. Oh, those halcyon adolescent years.
It’s an absurd scene but, in my defence, the alternative was weirder and even less cool: Maths. On the rare occasion my thoughts were not occupied by my imaginary bedfellow, I would find myself maniacally engaging in the world’s worst mental arithmetic task – attempting to count to infinity. Counting sheep and meditation apps got nothing on thirteen-year-old me.
I was only a few years into the religion my mother had chosen for us and I was beginning to struggle to accept that the ultimate goal was to live forever in a utopian society on earth. It was the reason for:
• subservience to men
• not pursuing further education
• modest ear piercings only
• pre-sandwich prayers
• meekness, always.
Following a litany of similar rules would secure the approving nod from God when the ol’ fiery End of Times rolled into town, roaring DOWN WITH DISEASE! DESTRUCTION OF SIN! RETURN TO EDEN! The ‘good’ would skip the line, gaining entry into the hottest post-apocalyptic party in town: Eternal Paradise. Things might have been a lot easier if I hadn’t found that prospect fucking terrifying.
My attempts to count to infinity, and therefore find some sense of what my future existence would be, were hampered by logistics. Part of the deal was that everyone would be forever young, but no further details were available. Would there be an age cap? Would I celebrate 200 years without a wrinkle? The guarantee of perfect health was somewhat alluring, but would that mean I would never again know the comfort of Vicks VapoRub? Could I break a bone if I tried hard enough? What would happen if I jumped in front of a speeding lorry?
Can you blame a girl for seeking solace in a hippo?
I only made it six more years. Reader, I took my two-tape VHS copy of Titanic and got the hell out of there. Tattoos, university and blasphemy followed. I was free! Alive! Vive le revelation!
As it turns out, God is a lingerer, not so easy to shake from the psyche. And in the deepest crevices of that psyche, a fear took root. On the outside, I was an aloof atheist with cleavage but, beneath that, I was fundamentally terrified of an apocalypse. The apocalypse. Petrified that I would be proved wrong – or right, if I listened to my holy hangover – and there would come an almighty Armageddon where I would be obliterated by hellfire for turning my back on Truth.
I am a very good sleeper. I trained hard for it with Humphrey in my formative years. And with solid sleep comes a fertile landscape for the subconscious. My dreams are plentiful and epic; vivid all-nighters. In my years as a filthy apostate I have come face to face with God, died many times and have been reunited with childhood best friends whose parents banned them from my influence. Five years ago, at three in the morning, I was bolted into consciousness from an instantly-forgotten dream by the booming arrival of the apocalypse. He was looming over the Earth, bellowing, lightning bolts shooting from fingertips, cracking open the sky, the four horsemen galloping forth to deliver my painful end. The terror was all-consuming as I prepared for judgement. Redundant prayers choked in my throat. Cold sweat was an electric shroud. My body began its collapse into salt. There was no point in resisting.
Kirkcaldy’s great thunderstorm of 2015 has a lot to answer for.
My boyfriend leaned out of the window in awe, telling me how cool it was. I tried to breathe and force myself to unlearn, casting out the flawed arguments and vague assertions. The guilt. I knew I had to catch up with logic and reason. I had to forge a new reality.
Soon after, I went to an event where one of my favourite writers read from his new novel. Speaking of his own escape from oppressive religion, he said: ‘Real apocalypses are rarely harder than personal ones.’ Those words shifted the unwanted, leftover attachments. Those are my holy words. Lord knows I would embroider them on a pillow if I didn’t have sausage fingers and impatience in equal measure.
Giving a little bit of faith to those words has made it so clear to me that I can root my convictions in whatever and whomever I chose, with no requirement to narrow my beliefs. It is freeing to believe – and to have the freedom to believe – in:
• the power of my female friendships
• the therapeutic benefits of a sweaty cat wedged in my neck
• the Salem witch who knew about my handwriting
• the gross injustice of Leo’s decade-long wait for his Oscar
• the excitement of the unknown.
Before it was okay to read Iain Banks and Stephen King and the ever-Satanic Harry Potter, my yellow hardbacked Children’s Bible Stories painted pictures of forever. Oily, wholesome tableaus of fruit baskets and long skirts and upward smiles. Eternal life in paradise isn’t for me. I want nuance and complexity and doses of misery now and then. I love life but I don’t want to live forever. I need deadlines! I’d never put in the effort to finally read War and Peace or do that skydive or see Alaska if I had forever. The present I have created for myself is full of the peace thirteen-year-old me so badly needed in those past nights with Humphrey and Leo. And it is enough. My future probably isn’t infinite and, for that, I thank God.