The 17 August 2009 is the day my life changed forever. My family and I had just returned from our annual holiday in the New Forest – my brother and I loved going there. We had the time of our lives, being able to stay with our mum, grandparents, and their two little Westies in our mobile home situated on a fun holiday park. Somehow, we would all squeeze into my grandad’s car, and escape for the week during our summer holiday. But this time was different. Shortly after we came back, my little brother Leon fell ill. He was admitted to hospital where he deteriorated rapidly. He had been diagnosed with encephalitis – inflammation of the brain.
A week after Leon initially fell ill, he sadly passed away, aged 10. I was 13 at the time, and I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do without him. It was as if my world fell apart before my eyes, my life ruined before it had even really begun.
Losing Leon left just my mum and I in the house; we had to come to terms with a new dynamic, and that was scary. I went from being a carefree and worry-free 13-year-old, to a fully-fledged young adult who was grieving and dealing with overwhelming anxiety. For the first time in my life I felt like an outsider, like my peers were living their lives as normal while mine had stopped. All of the emotions that came with growing up and navigating my teen years, along with immense grief and trauma, was a heavy burden to carry.
During the week leading up to Leon’s death, I prayed he wouldn’t be taken from us. Even the thought of that nightmare becoming a reality made me feel sick to my stomach. I couldn’t imagine life without my beautiful brother. He had so much to live for, and so many dreams and aspirations to fulfil. Leon’s ultimate goal was to play for Chelsea, his favourite football team. There was something so different and special about him, he just shone. Leon and I had an amazing childhood, we had the most incredible family and friends who made it truly magical.
But on the day he passed away, it was as if my childhood was over and the doors to the adult world opened – and it terrified me. I saw the cruel side of life, and I really wasn’t ready to see it. My life had taken this incredibly unexpected turn and I found myself, along with my family, feeling this excruciating pain inside. I knew I would have to live with this broken heart for ever, but that I would learn to cope with it.
Leon and I were incredibly close, we had a bond like no other. From the moment he was born, he lit up my life. I always felt incredibly protective of him; I loved being his big sister. I knew he was a unique and special soul, the words ‘too beautiful for earth’ are boldly visible on his gravestone.
I was left completely traumatised by what had happened to Leon, I began to have lots of flashbacks of events, and that stopped me from getting a good night’s sleep. I could see and smell things that brought me back to terrible moments. When I returned to school, I found myself in the counsellor’s office more than in class.
One thing I was very thankful for was the fact that my school was so understanding and supportive. I developed bad anxiety when I was going into year 10, which meant that I struggled to sit in classes and exams. The anxiety felt like a scar born out of my trauma, like a person breaking bones or feeling bruised following an accident.
My battle with anxiety came completely out of the blue. I was sitting a mock exam one afternoon when I began to feel really nervous. I could feel my heart beating at a faster rate, and my palms began to get so sweaty that I struggled to hold my pen. My stomach was churning, I couldn’t make sense of these emotions. But I realised the feelings were not too dissimilar to what I felt during the week Leon was in hospital. I looked around the packed hall to see if anyone noticed what felt like an eruption in my body, and I stopped my exam. I kept looking at the door thinking it was so close and I could just leave this terrible situation, but I took deep breaths and stayed.
From that day on I developed a fear of silence, and decided that any situation that would include a period of little noise was a danger zone. The anxiety alienated me from my friends even more, because I was yet again going through something that I felt no one could understand. I could no longer engage in school life like everyone else, so this was another reason to segregate me more. My mum and I decided that some additional therapy may help what felt debilitating.
I attended Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and began cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The therapy was very much focused on getting to the root of what was causing my anxiety, and setting up situations that were like my ‘danger zones’.
“The anxiety felt like a scar born out of my trauma, like a person breaking bones or feeling bruised following an accident”
I continued seeing therapists over the course of my time at secondary school, and I practised different coping mechanisms, including deep breathing and mindfulness, in order to prevent myself slipping into what felt like unbearable anxiety.
I spent a lot of time studying at home, as well as in school when I could cope, and I made sure I stayed focused on my studies. I knew that Leon wouldn’t want me to give up – he knew that I always dreamt of being a journalist, and to a degree that dream kept me going. To my surprise, I left school with really good GCSEs, I went on to college to study my A-Levels, and eventually made it to university to study journalism.
I graduated from university in 2018 with a first-class honour’s degree. It was one of my proudest days, because that 13-year-old girl all those years ago would never have imagined I would be able to achieve that. I still struggled with my anxiety, but it improved over time. So, I sit here today, aged 24, and I can’t quite believe all of the trials I have faced in my life so far. I feel as if my trauma made me a wise woman before I had even become one. One lesson I have learnt, is that you can never underestimate your strength, I am a survivor, and for that I am so proud.
Tayo’s inspirational story truly touches on the sadness and pain that can be experienced when we lose someone close to us – a feeling that is even more difficult to process as a child. Although it has been challenging, with courage and strength, Tayo has been able to work through the trauma and overcome her anxiety. This experience has helped Tayo to grow, and she absolutely deserves to be proud of who she is today.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss ways to navigate grief, or ways to manage overwhelming anxiety, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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