[Note: What you're about to read is a lot of my experiences, my feelings in my life as I've dealt with the first year of my life without my mum and how I've coped (spoiler: not very well). It's personal and very out there perhaps to the point of oversharing, but one I want to share as I am, ironically, not very good at verbalising them yet the one thing in my entire life that I am good at is writing them out, but that said, I'm writing what comes to mind so it could get a bit incoherent at times.
And I've said this before -whether writing personally or in any games writing over the past six-and-a-half years for VG247 or any other outlet - I am a heart on my sleeve type of guy. That much will never, ever change.
To reiterate, these are my experiences this past year or so. The grieving process can be - and very much most likely will be - different for you as will what you go through afterwards. Only you know how to go through it. Don't let anyone tell you how to do it.]
I mean it's always hard to lose someone you love, someone you could go to for help or advice. But it's only when you encounter it for yourself for the first time, still at a very much young age, you truly realise how hard losing someone you truly love really is.
A year ago today, my mum died. Without getting into the nitty gritty of how specifically she did so, she was ill for a long time, but it was only in September last year it signified the beginning of the end. Today marks a year since the end. I'd been to funerals before for teachers I never knew or had - I just had to go - and the closest experience I had of family passing away was my aunt two years earlier. But even then, I wasn't super close with her. It was more my cousins I was concerned for then. This was the first one that was of massive importance, for the lack of a better term.
I've been thinking a lot these past few months how I've wanted to write this because I want to write about how I've coped. I know it's something I've wanted to do since May. I scrapped thousands of words already and did one big scrap of editing before going to England last month for the Games Media Awards. Eventually, I settled on the fact I should talk about how I have tried to reshape my life as best as possible without the most important person in my life. But even then, that's hard to write about. But I'll try my best.
Grief was not something I handled very well when we had the wake before the funeral. I was told by someone on Facebook to not be afraid to grieve and I like to think I wasn't, but even then, tears were not exactly coming when I got to the hospital, after resting at home beforehand - only to then be startled awake by my cousin - and then get there as she died. Everyone was in bits - except me. Rather, it was the overwhelming sense of occasion it gave me. I just felt completely overwhelmed. But no tears.
At the wake, I would pop out of my bedroom every hour or so for five minutes to let people know I hadn't disappeared and would scurry off with as much food as I could back to the bedroom and get back under the duvet as my only coping device was my iPad and watching so many episodes of Frasier, which I had gotten into days earlier after burning through It's Always Sunny within a week of Ma going into hospital. I just didn't want to surround myself with too many people at that time.
You'd get the odd person now and then popping their head in the door, and I remember my cousin, someone a year or two older than me who had only just lost her mum - the aunt I referred to above - to cancer two years earlier, just sitting with me for about twenty minutes just talking. She was perhaps the only person who I wanted there beside me. Otherwise, just me.
And I didn't exactly let all my emotions out, though that's not to say there were times I almost did. I remember how returning home with her coffin had somehow triggered Imogen Heap's Hide & Seek in my head for a second or two - guess the mind decided to jolt me with flashbacks watching Caleb's funeral in Season 2 of The O.C. - and I had almost lost it there. Or that there was a ton of people all there for my mum on the morning of her funeral. It overwhelmed me to see that most of the people were there for my mum. That nearly got me going.
In the end, I just about kept it together in the days after she passed. But it'd be a week or two later in which it would properly hit home. Call it a delayed reaction.
As a kid and throughout my entire life until a year ago, I had a set of stuffed Winnie the Pooh toys. I loved the old Pooh TV cartoons and movies as a kid and even now as an adult, I'll go back every year or so to watch one or two of them. But the stuffed toys I had as a kid - Pooh, Piglet and Tigger (I had an Eeyore who went missing and subsequently never found but smashed my mum's mirror's one day because its eyes were hard plastic) - were perhaps my most cherished possessions. Even then, they still were, even if they hadn't gotten as much attention - part of growing up, I guess.
But because they hadn't been washed in a while, someone decided to put them in the washing machine and, well, they got destroyed essentially. I was wondering where they went as I had noticed they were missing after the funeral. My sister had told me what happened. And I know it's a bit silly to get upset over a set of stuffed toys. But these stuffed toys were the one thing I cherished above everything else and especially so in light of recent events at that time considering who it was that gave me those toys. I had also hoped, after a clean of course (certainly better than the person who had put them in the cleaner that led them to being destroyed), I would give them to my kids if I ever have any and get them into Pooh just as much as I was.
But anyways, after I was told, I was just crestfallen. I wanted to cry at that point, but I just didn't because my sister was there as was my nephew. If there was ever a moment in my life where it felt like my heart was literally sinking, it was then. After I got into my bedroom, I just let it go. That was the moment it dawned on me for the first time truly Ma was gone. And fuck, it really hit me hard that night. I don't know why, but my sister - soon after telling me - presented me with three new stuffed Pooh toys of Pooh, Piglet and Tigger. She then gave me Eeyore and Rabbit at Christmas.
I still don't know why even now - I'm 24 turning 25 in a month-and-a-half, but I was 23 at the time - but tell you what, having them new stuffed toys slightly helped. They'll never replace what I before, but they did help in some unexplainable way. This is also why I can't watch the ending 20 minutes to Toy Story 3 anymore. Just thinking about that and the way my old Pooh stuffed toys were probably disposed would set me off. Well, the movie always did that anyway before what happened. But it'd genuinely hurt if I ever did again. So I can't do it.
My confidence and self-esteem was not always the best before my mum died anyway. It took me almost a year to finally will up the very little courage and self-esteem I had built up to ask out someone I liked a ton two years ago like a complete and utter fucking idiot. And even then, that took a lot of willing on my part, to cite one example of how shit I was with confidence/self-esteem before everything that went down a year later. Even then, it helped just getting that out there to that person, even if it didn't pan out.
But ever since Ma passed, it has just completely plummeted so low, I'm almost certain it smashed through the floor and hit the other side of the Earth's core and is in China right now. Sorry, slight exaggeration. But you get what I mean to an extent anyway.
Now, I feel like it takes a lot of effort to face people, even when I try to make an effort. Only recently when I got to England for the GMAs did I feel like there was much less difficulty, although I'd say that had a lot more to do with seeing people I hadn't seen in a long time. But even then, a day or two before leaving, I had this great worry whether I should go, whether I wanted to go. I never had that doubt before when going to England. That was a new experience.
To name one example of the confidence plummet, when the Games Media Award nominations were announced in mid-September and My Favourite Game was up for Best Independent Podcast, I almost jumped to the moon and back. Regardless of how that day would turn out, it was one of the best days of my career. There was a big sense of vindication and validation to it considering the amount of heart and soul poured into it within a year.
But a few hours after, delirious joy turned into happiness turned into 'I don't deserve to be there, My Favourite Game is a shitheap of a show that shouldn't be there'. The imposter syndrome was super strong on this night. Massively so that the following day, something happened that will be hard to shake the memory of, at least in the short-term.
I always thought I knew panic attacks. I always thought I had one or two of them before. But not in the way I experienced them before a month and a bit ago. But to go slightly further back, a week earlier, I felt there was something wrong with me. Chest slightly tightened and a sensation akin to needles on my arm. It wasn't normal and I never experienced anything like it. So I went to A&E. Just to be sure. That wasn't a panic attack. But still, I wanted to play it safe. After being checked out, the doctors and nurses said I was fine. So off home I went.
A week later, I had two incredibly full-blown panic attacks. The first one was very vivid though. If you've been through them, you'll know what it's like. But this was the first full-major attack I had ever had in my life. I felt, surely, this was it. This was how I was gonna go. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. Sweating profusely, one side of my body being on needles, feeling like my heart was about to pop out of my chest Alien-like and short on breath.
The second one wasn't as bad as the first one, but it happened after being jolted awake when my sister came into the house after I messaged her to come find me asap, thinking something was super wrong. I just about managed to get over the worst of it by sleeping it off the rest of the day. Looking back, those attacks were caused by a variety of reasons: the anniversary coming up, producing Season 3 of My Favourite Game, freelance pressures and the joys of pitching, the GMAs and that self-doubt whether me and the show truly belonged there, the worry of living up to the promise I made to Ma in trying to move to England before what happened happened, a really bad sleep pattern and how I was sleeping and so on.
It all built to a powder keg. And that morning was when it went off.
Thankfully, I've had no such attacks since then (more or less). But to say it wasn't a pleasant experience would be a great understatement. So not only self-esteem and confidence issues to deal with since, but anxiety too. Fun.
Having said that, my visit to London and Brighton was the biggest self-esteem and confidence pickup in a very long time, hanging out around with 'my crowd' and being around the group of peers and friends I hadn't seen in a long time, especially three people in particular (no names here, but I like to think - I hope - they know who they are. You're the best).
Since the past year, I've lived most of this year by myself. Well, I have my dog and my sister is across the city if I need her for anything - and she does pop in every other day - but other than that, that's it. The rest of the year is when my dad comes back. He spends most of the year out around Ireland for work reasons with my two oldest brothers.
I'm not complaining about living on my own - much - as it's a good test of independence and whether I can manage when I - hopefully - get to England permanently. But there's only so much a dog can do as company. Don't get me wrong, I love him. I don't know where I'd be without him the past year. But at the same time, it can get severely lonely at times.
Like I said, I have my sister sticking her head in every odd day when on my own and every few weeks, my cousin likes to come down to see how I am as well as lament that he'll want to give me a haircut every now and then. That's all well good, but like I said, you can only handle being on your own for so long without being around anyone you know or not being around friends and not people that is essentially your family. Or your dog. Oh, and no girlfriend too. Wonderful.
I've more or less lost contact with any friends I had left after leaving school for various reasons whereas essentially any and all friends I have now are in the games industry. Which is depressing, as I've been lectured on (and perhaps rightly so) by someone who I consider to be one of my closest friends in said industry about the need to find other non-industry friends. I know at least one other person in the industry who'll probably be laughing like a hyena reading that bit if they come across this.
I know there are two or four people I can go to in the industry on something like Skype or Facebook if I ever feel the need to talk, but even then, I have had a heavy reluctance in the past few years to open up for various reasons, one of which is a trust issue thanks in part to said person above in the last paragraph plus a heavy and major family fall out a few years ago. I wasn't the most open person when my mum was about then, but now, there's a more heavier reluctance to talk about stuff than there was before, whether it be to the rest of my family or my friends.
When I do feel the urge to open up, I'm then fussy over who I want to talk to. Recently though, over dinner, I had that urge in talking to someone when in Brighton when going over in part about what has happened this year and it really helped to the point of perhaps not shutting up when I should have. To that person: sorry.
I've also this past year had an incredible amount of mind games played on me by my brain as it kept - actually, still keeps - trying to fool me into thinking I don't have anyone around to talk to because they don't give a shit about me, that my friends and even occasionally family don't care for me now. Don't worry, I'm still sentient enough to realise that's not true, but there are those days - especially the lonely ones - where the mind can really go loose, go to town and play with you in thinking that for you.
That said, I have learned as of this past year to not really seek out those who really don't give a shit about me whereas I may have tried to do so before to make them like me. Now? I'm past the point of giving a fuck - for the most part. There is always that part of me that will do my best to try and gave a good impression on people that I would hope they like me. That's human nature. But if not, then oh well. I won't let it bother me (or try to) as much as it used to back in the day. Because if anything else, I've learned who my friends are and who aren't. If no-one has at least basic respect for me, why should I return it? But I digress.
Workwise, the mind has also tried to play its tricks on me here too. I mentioned above about how it did it for when My Favourite Game was nominated at the GMAs big time and it has also done it when, despite seeing first hand the reaction the piece got when it launched back in March and how much it resonated with people, I wrote how games helped me after mum's passing for Official PlayStation Magazine UK and when my games academia piece, a thing I had wanted to do for nearly two years, was finally published on Kotaku in September.
Yet despite feeling proud of those, my mind has still wanted to play tricks on me, planting seeds of doubt and telling me I was never good enough to write about games, that I was taking up space in the industry for someone else who was severely more talented than I was.
Self-doubt and loneliness - a wonderful cocktail of company.
My mum was a major part of my life, as she was for everyone. But I always knew I could go to her with help for whatever and if she could help, she would. Like I said, I wasn't the most open person to her and I wasn't super duper close, but I'd talk with her about some worries and stuff on occasion. And I knew in doing so, it would help. I feel like now, even when encouraged there is people in my family I can go to with stuff, there's no-one I can go to in the same way I could with my mum.
She was also my biggest supporter when it came to writing about games. I already wrote nearly a year ago about how much she supported me in regards to games writing, but she was the key pillar of support for me. More so than anyone else in my family, to be quite honest. I still have that support within the rest of the family, that's not to say I'm not encouraged by them, but she was the biggest supporter out of anyone.
As I sat at my computer at the tail end of 2014 with 2015 coming into view, lamenting the fact I wasn't in England celebrating NYE and instead cooped up at home where I didn't want to be, I promised a few things to myself. Not only for myself, but also in the hope that, somewhere I'd like to think, mum would be proud of me. I even made sure to tweet them out in some sort of bravado fashion so that I had to live up to them
"My Favourite Game: Season 2 will be fucking amazing, PROMISE. I hope it's so amazing, I'll even have Season 3 by the end of the year." - You be the judge on whether it was "fucking amazing", but as far as I go, I thought it was. Plus, Season 3 is going out now (although it's taking a week's break this week because of today - but for mum's passing, not for Fallout 4, as I said previously - the break was always intended with the anniversary in mind) and I think that blows Season 2 out of the water. And then, the unexpected GMA nod. So check, check, triple check.
"Cullen Plays LIVE will return at the end of January and that will be fucking amazing, PROMISE. I have ambitious plans for that in 2015." - Negatory. While I did stream initially at the start of the year and made ambitious plans for the streaming year, I lost enthusiasm for what I did. Plus various other technological reasons too. Having said that, raising a bit of money for SpecialEffect remains a highlight of my year and I hope to do a big GamesAid stream by the end of the year.
"I will write for fucking Jesus and pitch anything and everything that moves to Eurogamer, VG247 and Official PlayStation Magazine, PROMISE." - Two out of three. I've written for VG247 and Official PlayStation Magazine this year, the latter giving me the platform to provide one of the best pieces I've ever written. But I'm missing one more on that list: Eurogamer. And since then, I've lost all will and enthusiasm to pitch them, awesome as they are, because of the fear of constant rejection for various reasons, though I'd give anything and everything to have my name on a new EG byline again. I certainly haven't written for Jesus anyways. I should go for it again.
And finally: "And god fucking damn it, above all else, I will achieve The Masterplan by this time next year and that's A GODDAMN FUCKING PROMISE." - Nope. And that's the thing that will eat away at me out of anything else this year unless something drastic happens by the end of the year. Hours before she passed, I remember sitting by her bedside and thinking, 'When I achieve this, when I finally move to England as part of The Masterplan, it'll all be because of you and the support you gave'.
I wrote about The Masterplan last year here - essentially, get back in a full-time games writing gig and move to England. I've never been specific about said plans publicly, just the whole full-time writing gig/move to England stuff, but nothing more. But recently, without going into too many details, I had a sitdown with someone talking about The Masterplan and the specifics of it. And that's all I'll say beyond that. Whether anything will come of it in the future, I don't know. All I do know is that I had to spill it out because the truth is I don't know when - or quite frankly, if - I'll even be back in England anytime soon. It's not something I wanted to spill on FB/email, but face-to-face. At least it's out there now.
This past year has been hard. Super hard for so many reasons. Some of which I've not elected to tell on here because there's oversharing and just going overboard. But even if this post is way, way, way too long in the tooth, it's been cathartic for me. So please give me that much in what is perhaps going to be the only time I allow myself to ever be this open about anything in my life so willingly to anyone and everyone, whether it'd be my family, my friends or well anyone reading this.
I wasn't always the perfect son growing up, even in my teenage years. I'll say that now. But I still respected my mum like crazy and, even if I very rarely showed it, still loved her greatly. And although it'd be moot for what would happen, I was never prouder of her in my entire life than I was in the final two months of her life. She was a fighter to the end. And I'll never, ever forget that.
Ma, I wish so wholeheartedly you were still here. So you can see me go off to England permanently, so you could see your grandson grow up and other family events to come. But I like to think that, again, somewhere, you'll be looking down anyways and be proud regardless. And when he's old enough, we'll tell the boy stories of how his grandmother was a strong-willed woman to the bitter end. That'll be your legacy.
There doesn't go a day where we don't all miss you. The same is true for how much we still love you - all of us. Out of anything, know that much.