Canessa and Nando had been walking blind for four days through the snow of the high Andes, skin ulcerated, bone poking bone, their food and their hope running out, knowing their imminent death would mean death for the fourteen back in the fuselage. Nando had buried his sister and mother in the snow and seeing his father’s face again was the sole thing keeping him alive. To climb out of this valley of death back to the living. But they were lost, their own bodies were eating them alive, and Canessa sat down in the snow to die.
Many years later he said of the experience:
There will come a moment when you think you can’t go any further, when you’re done for. When you want to give up. All you have to do is take one more step. And you will see that doors will appear in walls you didn’t know existed. And you can walk through them.
I had a teacher at art school who was very into magic, sometimes at the beginning or the end of a lesson he would show us something. He told us there are five different reactions to a magic trick. The first is a plain lack of interest. The second looks on reluctantly. The third wants to work out the mechanics of the trick. The fourth is smiling in admiration of the magician, the fifth is wide-eyed in amazement in the presence of magic.
I remember thinking how cool it would be to make the first feel like the fifth. To be a magician, I thought, you have to believe in magic. In its power. I wondered if a lifelong study of magic would impart a different way of seeing the world, a mystical one, or if it would do the opposite. As if it would remove the magic from things. I asked myself which one I was, I hoped I was the fifth.
Two years ago I read this thing which said take a step back from yourself and look at the things that make you feel happy, and the things that make you unhappy, and try to do more of the good stuff, and less of the other stuff. It was a time when I felt like dark forces were governing me but I lacked the perspicacity to give them any shape or form, and the line resonated inside me like a sounding gong. Nothing I had seen had hammered home an idea so simply and so searingly, I felt flooded by something clear and good.
As the demons of my bad habits leered at me I resolved to mark the moment, and tattooed the date onto my arm, backwards, so I could see it when I looked in the mirror. When I went running in the early morning I would stop by water and kiss my arm and a strange feeling would wash over me. I remembered saying to a friend once that everyone carried a large degree of self-loathing inside them. Looking concerned as if what he was about to tell me would be hard for me to hear, he replied: I don’t think that’s true mate. But kissing my right arm in the light of the early morning by the water, I felt like what was washing into me was its opposite, something like self-love.
Now in early December I go and celebrate my new birthday. Me and myself go out for a drink and have a think about things and raise a toast to one another. Fuck it, I thought, I can even call it my rebirth day. I’m two years old now. I resolved not to tell anyone.
A new year is upon us now. It’s the middle of January and we’re renewing friendships and joining gyms and full of fire because the new year brings change. Look at us shedding all our dead wood, closing the door on the previous year and opening the door to a new one. Taking a look at ourselves from a distance. What makes us happy. What makes us sad. Doing more of the good stuff.
I didn’t make any resolutions this year. I thought I’d concern myself with more of the same, the daily struggle not to fuck up. Wake up on time, be a good person, be involved in the world, buy fairy liquid, try to write something important, exercise, read good things. Try not to dwell on how strange things are or how lost. Walk through doors.
That’s the other thing my teacher said that I’ve always remembered. Walk through doors, he said. He didn’t elaborate, he just said those three words and smiled. I thought about it a lot. What sort of doors. Which ones. And I realised doors are everywhere around me. Invisible doors in walls I didn’t know existed, waiting for me to walk through them.
I didn’t know at the time that the date on my arm would become a daily reminder to do the things I know make me happy, a contract written in ink with myself to stop doing the things that don’t. And to keep the struggle close, to think about the day itself and not much more.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself, each day has enough trouble of its own.
I wonder what today will bring.
Forsaking resolutions for the new year for a resolution for a new day. When my day threatens to go south I’ll look for a door. Somewhere close by there is a door, the other side of which is the next best thing. Playing the snakes and ladders of each day, two steps forward, three steps back, winning some and losing some, feeling out with hands for invisible walls, reaching out for doors.
I reach the oak tree at the promontory overlooking the West Reservoir. A celestial hand is gently turning the dimmer up on dawn, the ducks are deep in conversation. Eight years ago I stopped going to church and decided to write my own prayer to my own version of God. Stood under the oak tree I recite it looking out across the water and the rooftops of Stoke Newington. Half way through every run and always next to water. For a few minutes I talk to myself about what’s good and what’s bad and what could be better. I take a breath. I pick up my sword and shield and start running, skirting the water’s edge, slowly pinkening.
Summer evenings are so tawdry. I race the double sculls down the river, out over the marshes thick with pollen from the high grass where the picnics are heard and not seen. A summer evening is the girl you wish was harder to get. But not the early morning. At 6am everything is a mystery, all things are stretching out into shape and finding their form. There is no nostalgia for there is no memory, it is simply a beginning.
I leave the front door of my building, hook a left past the Dixy chicken that burnt down in March and cross the five corners. Five roads where three east London districts meet and where every three months a car crashes. I run up the hill to the Downs and along the path where that winter’s night the couple on the bench sat wrapped in thick coats and passed the spliff under the trees planted for the 13 kids who died in the New Cross fire.
At the turn of the millennium eight people were shot dead in two years and Lower Clapton Rd became Murder Mile. Twelve years later people like me thought it would be cool to move here. I love Hackney but I am an impostor. Lower Clapton, Upper Clapton, the pavement heads north and rises subtly, past the Crooked Billet and the sourdough pizza place and the World Foods with the Sainsbury’s colour scheme. 21 years before the shots that rang outside Vox Pop were heard up here.
Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.
Inside World Foods a group is laughing and incoherent. It is June 2015, 5am and already light, and I focus in and spy myself among them. I look younger and have more hair and our eyes meet. From inside the shop I look back at me vacantly, sheepish and happy. We are on our way to a house party, none of us fans of sleep, we are preparing to see in the day. Keeping the wolves from the door for as long as we can. But come they will. Be gentle on yourself, I whisper to him with my eyes. He looks at me and smiles sadly.
If all time is eternally present, Then all time is unredeemable.
I run on. It is winter now. Clapton Common is Hasidic Jew territory. Here they roam in their hundreds, even this early, walking quickly and concentratedly, wearing different hats for different days. For years I’ve tried to clock them and smile and make some connection but it’s not their thing. Saying hello to people when I run makes me feel part of something. I touch certain lampposts for luck. My first pitstop is a doorway on Clapton Terrace. I stop for a second and feel the layered paint of the big black door, still awed like the first time I found it, that such fine Georgian buildings could exist all the way up here.
I cross Stamford Hill and to my right the road dips down towards Tottenham. Just past the bins on the railing is the little clay memorial to Godwin Lawson who died here when he was 17. I touch it and kiss the crucifix around my neck, any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. A hundred metres on a white bike marks the spot where an HGV turned left too suddenly, fresh roses tied to the top tube drip the dew of the early morning.
And now I am back at the reservoir under the oak. My watch says 25:42:11. I am getting slower. I used to care about getting slower but not anymore. I am so happy to be out on my own in the early light in the cool air of the morning with the ducks and the coots and the swan with the submerged neck that makes her look like a floating pillow. This is an undiscovered realm and I am a visitor. The show is all for me.
The bird-watchers ignore me, I don’t have wings and I am not free. The man who has woken up on the bench smiles at me with sad eyes, I wonder how far from home he is and from his people, I wonder if these strange birds bring him any peace. I smile back, as warm as I can make it. Life is difficult enough without missing a dawn run I think to myself.
Now I am on my way back. The return leg holds many treasures but I see less of them because I am tired. The endorphins are sweeping through my body and my mind is clear and at peace, there are a few other runners in the park, whole worlds inside their heads, things being straightened out I’m sure, that’s what running does. Standing alone and proud in a corner of the park are a pair of oak trees, half-cut, ivory-white, mottled and pockmarked. I make for them, I feel the bone dry dead wood with my hands.
A day I don’t run is a different animal to a day I do. But some days if I miss the dawn window I’d rather not run at all. Two hours from now the city is a different place. The horns and the screens and the bowed heads and the busy lives, it’s not the same at all. The day itself feels unfamiliar and confusing like walking into a film half way in.
I take the New river path, hang a left along Ferntower Rd to Newington Green. I touch the stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft on the side of the deconsecrated church. I cross over the high road, and commence my victory lap, back up over the Downs. A little different to how I last saw it, fifty minutes before. A little sadder. Something has left, something has gone.
But I caught it and it stays with me all day.
My depression came back pretty hard in December. A silent imperceptible bubble formed around me, a wall between the world and me slowly thickened. I had eleven months off, which felt like a record. But for the last month I haven’t been able to wake up before 9am. Going outside is scary, my skin feels the thickness of a fly’s wing. And I’m not running, which I mean, well. I try to tell myself nothing outside has changed but I don’t care, that’s now what I see, not from where I’m standing.
These mornings are happening all around me, the show is going on. Outside my window. The oak tree, the reservoir, the ducks are deep in conversation. All time is eternally present. I am out there because I have been out there. The blood is pumping through my body, my heaving lungs, my happy head. The bird-watchers are still ignoring me. World Foods, Clapton terrace, Godwin Lawson is walking home from school. The sky is pink. The air is clear.
The wild elephants turn back to salute the men who have saved their baby elephant from the ditch. They raise their trunks aloft with wondrous grace in a moment between man and beast. I don’t blink, hardly twitch. Lit by the glow of the laptop screen, my face shows no flicker of emotion. The video finishes and the next one begins to load. Electrocuted squirrel gets CPR by kind man. Unbeknown to me, the daylight has faded across to the other side of the earth and I am in darkness. I am lying on my bed in the fetal position, as I have been for three hours straight…
… watching YouTube.
I don’t know how long me and YouTube has been a problem.
The first chapters of all addictions are written in the pen of innocence. Mine started in the same way all others must, with a joy unforeseen. A music video with a new friend behind the sofa at some party one unending night of summer. An email in my inbox linking a highlight reel of Messi’s greatest dribbles, coming in off the right wing, scything through tackles like water.
If I’m scrupulous I admit it started long before that, pre-internet. My parents didn’t let us watch much television. My answer to this depravation it seems, whenever they were away, was to flick through the channels like a drone, hoping of landing on something which gripped my attention for any longer than the spilt second it took for me to glean, ignore, and plough onwards. Alone, I never watched anything for longer than two minutes.
Years later I saw this interview with the writer David Foster Wallace, and it hit me deep.
Wallace fought a depression for most of his adult life that he succumbed to in 2008, aged 46. He suffered with different types of addictions, but said his primary addiction, as unsexy as it sounded, was to television. He was so afraid of watching it he couldn’t have a tv in his house. Hearing this for the first time opened my mind to the idea that the YouTube thing, as it moved silently along the forest floor of my impulses like a fox on his feet of silk, demanded a seriousness I was unwilling to give it.
Every addiction balances on the fulcrum of denial. The decline before the fall was coloured by a lake of awareness. I was unaware the habits I was slowly slipping into weren’t okay. At first it was just weekends. I was single and lived alone, if I woke up hungover it would be easy for me to turn my back on anything productive or social. One weekend I became fascinated by the internal politicking of the WTA tennis tour. Another weekend it was American High School track and field. A man in Pennsylvania fashioned knives out of rusted wrenches. I was in.
There were times when I wouldn’t communicate with anyone all day. It was isolationist, and repetitive, and hypnotic, I would sit entranced, swelling my command of thoroughly useless information as YouTube gently weaved its spell on me, drawing me down deeper and deeper into its pixelated underworld. As one video finished another one on a similar topic loaded, suckering me in for another five or ten minutes. Half hours became hours became half-days. And outside my window the world whizzed on.
A lot of people don’t know how to watch YouTube.
I wouldn’t know what to look for, my friend Milly once told me. Talking dog’s unique bark helps him get adopted is good, I thought. I shrugged and said nothing. A system of recommendations based on previously viewed videos appear as if by magic at the top of your screen, which means the table is always laid. If you’ve been watching videos on the Anunnaki and ancient alien space-travelling civilizations, it’s going to show you more of where you last left off when you next click on. Even when I wiped my recommendations, the subjects my dark side needed feeding on were etched already in my memory.
All that was left was to type them into the search bar.
To be addicted is to be completely at the whim of your impulses. Tick. To realise you are no longer in control of your decisions. Tick. To be aware that the behaviours you are undergoing are harmful to you, tick, are making you unhappy, tick, and in spite of this to repeat them nonetheless. Tick. I was losing control over my ability to not watch youtube, and in doing so I was losing days of my life I wasn’t going to get back. But still somehow I didn’t pay it the seriousness it deserved.
I did take a knife to my internet connection three times.
In 2007, back when I was at art school we were given a brief to go and do some Guerilla Marketing. To take something about the world we were upset about and use the urban landscape around us to be disruptive in. The idea was to give people a message we think they needed. I stayed up til 2am cutting out a set of stencils with a Stanley knife, I loaded up my backpack with spray paints and cycled through the darkness of the Witching Hour to go and leave my mark. The next day I went back as a sleep-deprived passer-by to watch people interact with it.
From just weekends, my YouTube habit morphed into week nights and then during the day. Work deadlines were affected. Spending a lot of time alone in front of my computer, the slightest sniff of procrastination would send me spiralling into the depths and I’d emerge an hour later, all the wiser, constipated by information I didn’t need to know.
Eating disorders are supposed to be so difficult because mealtimes mean the lion is let out of the cage three times a day. When most of our time is spent looking at screens, internet addiction means the lion never has a cage to begin with. It comes down to willpower and impulse control. Both of which are low on my list of virtues. Not having a smartphone or on any social media granted me a certain type of freedom, but it also meant all my wrath and self-loathing was concentrated into one place. Alone and in front of my laptop, I would make up for lost time.
I was acting out, YouYube was my drug of choice.
We’re going have to develop some real machinery inside our guts to turn off pure unalloyed pleasure. Because the technology is just going to get better and better, and it’s going to get easier and easier, and more convenient and more pleasurable to sit alone, with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that’s fine in low doses. But if it’s the basic main-staple of our diet, and I say this in a very meaningful way, we’re going to die.
David Foster Wallace
The strangest thing about the YouTube thing is this.
When I was acting out, I couldn’t watch anything that i enjoyed. I couldn’t sit down and watch an hour long documentary about wine-making or the Pyramids of Giza. That was the truly pathological nature of it. I had to watch short clips, back to back to back to back, about absolutely nothing. 95% of everything I watched in the grips of my youtube habit didn’t improve my life in any way. It was the American History X moment over and over again. Has anything you have done, made your life better.
This is all quite funny. The ridiculousness of it all, it’s laughable. But maybe I laugh to keep from crying. Because if you take away the politics of the WTA and fashioning knives from wrenches and elephants raising their trunks aloft to thank the men for saving their baby elephant from a ditch, what you’re left with is somebody alone in their flat, in the dark, willing unhappiness on themselves. In ignorance of the life going on outside their window they are walling themselves up against, in defiance of the light from the phone on the table beside them that is ringing and they won’t answer.
Some poisons go to work more slowly than others. They hide in plain sight all around us, masquerading as tools to make our lives more accessible, more comfortable and more immediate. One day we wake up and they’ve wormed their way inside our minds, ossifying our imaginations, crowding our every moment. And before we know it without them we can’t breathe.
I’ve got this, we tell ourselves, but they’ve got us.
Wallace described the moment when we finally find ourselves alone, and the dread that comes with that, that comes to us when we have to be quiet. When you walk into public spaces these days, there is always music playing. It seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet anymore, he said. And this is happening now more than ever, when the purpose of our lives is immediate gratification and getting things for ourselves, we are moving moving moving, all the time moving.
At the same time there is another part of us that is the opposite. That is hungry for silence and quiet, and thinking very hard about the same thing for maybe half an hour or more, rather than just thirty seconds. Of standing and looking at the branches of a tree, or listening to the birds singing. And this part of us doesn’t get fed.
And what happens is this thing makes itself felt in our bodies, as a kind of dread, deep inside us. Every year it becomes more and more difficult to ask people to read a book, or to listen to a complex piece of music that takes work to understand. Because now in computer and internet culture everything is so fast. And the faster things go, the more we feed that part of ourselves that needs something immediate, that needs instant stimulation, and we don’t feed the part of ourselves that needs quiet.
And above all watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.
Because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely places.
Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.
At the end of the summer in the middle of a wood in the south of Holland I sat for two nights in the pitch black of a cabin under the watchful eye of a shaman and drank a powerful brew concocted by the ancient tribes of the Amazon.
The Vine of the Soul, the Vine of the Dead, Ayahuasca, a dark green gloop made up of the leaves of one plant and the vine of another found in opposite ends of the jungle, boiled together to make a plant medicine, a sacred healing power used by these tribes for some say thousands of years.
Ingested independently of one another the plants are broken down quickly in the digestive tract and have no effect. Mixed together and boiled down into a liquid and ingested, one small cupful can elicit journeys of the mind, experiences of the spiritual and the mystical, and realisations of such scale they can change the course of lives.
When the Amazonian tribes were asked how they knew to combine the two, how on earth they had landed on the right combination from the 70,000-odd species found growing in the jungle, they were known to reply simply… the plants told us.
Seven strangers, having just met, inside a cabin sat together in a circle, our shaman explaining to us we had been brought there for a reason. The medicine had called us there. We were asked to trace our journey back to its inception and describe it to the present moment, as we listened to one another’s stories we felt more connected, not only to each other but to the place. Our differing paths had somehow conspired to lead us there, to sit with one another at that exact point in time, to share in an experience which was to bind us.
There were to be two ceremonies, on consecutive evenings, which would involve the drinking of the medicine and then sitting in darkness for five hours while it took effect, amid silence and the soft beat of the fire, and the intermittent backdrop of the medicine music known as the icaros.
Walking in the woods outside the cabin moments before the first ceremony, I stooped down to pick up an acorn from the forest floor. I was excited but not nervous, since I had no idea whatsoever to expect. I had nothing to go on other than accounts I had read, and the weight of the experience I was about to have was as foreign to me as the waking life of a person I had never laid eyes on. I clenched the acorn in my hand hard, summoning a strength I anticipated I would need, and put it in my pocket.
For two nights I was plunged into worlds which language seems incapable of expressing. I’m not sure we have the requisite words to capture what I saw. For as soon as I try the visuals themselves become overly simplified. There were colours and hues of all kinds of a sharpness and luminosity which I’d never seen, morphing, ebbing and flowing into one another.
Geometric patterns and shapes endlessly twisting and dissolving into each other at huge speeds. Mandalas and spirals and cathedrals of light, endless space, and memories from my life floating in and out of reach, recreated in such precision and detail that I was able to peer in and investigate them from all angles like a museum exhibit.
Our shaman had told us that the spirit of the medicine, Mother Ayahuasca, shows one what one needs to see, when one needs to see it. Around the darkened room, my fellow brothers and sisters – for the harmony and deep feeling of communion brought on by the medicine made them feel something like kin – were each on their own journeys.
Some gasped and gurgled and laughed giddily in the manner of young children, some cried softly in new understanding, some cried from joy, some stared silently into the light of the fire, and all around the room we were vomiting into our buckets, vomiting out the pain that had lodged itself inside us. If one of us was purging, we were purging for each other. And this purging brought relief for the individual and collectively for us all.
And as we did the songs of the shaman and the voices of the musicians swam in and out of our consciousness. The medicine came in waves, taking over my senses on all fronts, just as we had been told it would. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It bombarded me, demanding complete surrender to it.
And as it did it stripped away layer upon layer of my shit, the shit that I had packed onto myself, it cleaned me, rejuvenated me, and gave me a vision of life, not a new one but an ancient one, existing eternally beyond the muck and the pain and the self-loathing that we cling to in order to translate our own pain.
It was a kind of paradise.
Writhing in the darkness trying to contain the energy cursing through my body, clinging onto my pillow like a lifebuoy, I found my hand inside my mouth, that I was sucking on all my fingers, drooling laughing crying and wretching all at once. Feeling a profound calm and a joy. Three days later I would realise I had been a baby, physically inhabiting a state of innocence and simplicity I had not encountered for 34 years.
The medicine seemed intent on showing me to myself. I was shown myself from a distance, walking into a pub. I was a fly on the wall, a spy in the corner, watching myself interact with people. I could see it was me, I recognised that face, not the face reflected in the mirror but the face I see in photos, familiar to me yet alien, and still, watching myself was beholding a person I’d never laid eyes on. I was good natured, enthusiastic, focussed on the other person, I was smiley, quick to laugh, I was playful, I was curious, I was alright, I thought.
It has been said that to know oneself is to encounter oneself in action with another person. This was being shown to me now, in surround-sound HD. And the words rolled across my mind like a message rolling across an LCD display. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. The version of me that I had set in stone had revealed its weak spot. And the medicine was a chisel, working away at its edges, ready to break it to pieces.
Why are you so hard on yourself. Why do you beat yourself up all the time. You’re not an arsehole. You’re a beautiful person. I don’t have to beat myself up all the time. Is this real. Could I be free from this. What might life be like if I wasn’t so hard on myself. How might you go about your day without turning all this stuff back on you. You don’t need to be constantly aware of what other people want. You can be who you want to be. It’s okay to be. Okay to just feel things. You don’t have to be so scared all the time. Do the things that make you feel good. What is this. What does it mean. What does this all mean. It’s too powerful. Let go. Release yourself. Stop trying to control it all. Surrender. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel. Whatever you want to feel. You are loved.
In the throes of all this, lying horizontally under a huge canopy of green, at one point the soft underbelly of an enormous serpent filled my whole vision, a light brown scaled skin moving over me, slithering up to me on my right hand side, blinking at me with an enormous eye that emanated a warm and benevolent energy. And quickly it kissed me on the cheek, stealing a kiss almost, before slithering away again down and out of my vision.
That night I went to bed with the lightness of a five year old in a state of bliss, raw uncut.
And the next morning I awoke into a new world.
It is very easy to dismiss all this. Because I did.
Before the weekend was finished, a fear began to mount in me that what I had seen was an illusion, that my visions and realisations were not real, the precise details of which I was beginning to forget, that I would soon forget all of it. And simultaneously from stage-left, a slowly creeping cynicism began to wind its way into my brain.
Once back in London, I found my inner voice growing more and more bitter, instead of feeding off the harmony the medicine had revealed to me, I was more disconnected from people than ever, I felt jaded and distant and embattled.
I became sad and low, I saw London as a gnarled den of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, of people killing themselves with excess, of the homeless on the street ignored and wasting away in front of our eyes. And I understood for the first time the meaning in the idea that the cynic is the idealist who has had his heart broken.
I had been shown a version of paradise. And real life was shattering it to pieces. Our shaman had warned us about integration, the process of coming back from what we had seen, and the likelihood of it being far from easy. Your experience will slowly begin to fade, he had said. You can keep it alive by engaging in spiritual practices, by keeping yourself centred, by trying to remember all the things you have learned.
So what was real.
I can tell you what I know. In the space of three days, I saw seven people go through a process of enlightenment that shook them to their very core, that took years off them, that grounded them deeply in an understanding of their lives, that they had hitherto been unable to attain.
I heard them share deep truths about themselves, revealing their vulnerabilities like gaping wounds, I saw people being returned to an innocence that at some point down the line they had parted ways with. An innocence perhaps we have all lost, something we know is deeply nested inside us, but have forgotten how to look for.
I saw a vision of the world stripped of the superficial things that try to muffle it. No rules, no systems of rationalisation, no pigeon-holing, no ego. Things as they are, and as they always have been. Song as an expression of joy when talking won’t suffice. Dance as the same expression when one can no longer stand still. An ancient language speaking up to us from the very loins of the earth. Preaching one thing above all others.
We are just human beings, spoke the voice, eternal souls in a human body, wanting to live in peace with one another, wanting to love each other, and be with each other, in harmony. I learnt that everything is love. Pain is love. Fear is love. It is all part of the same thing. The one binding force of the earth that unites us all in the face of our suffering. For my part I learnt that I was lovable, that I am loved, that I can love.
That perhaps we see the world from behind the bars of our own ego, one that tricks us and deceives us and deludes us. And somehow there are substances that break down these barriers, drawing across the curtain for us to see things as they are.
Maybe with all our intelligence and our civilisation and our distractions, we’re missing out on ancient signals from the earth, messages from the natural world that we’re not picking up anymore, as if the earth literally does speak to us. If we care to listen, the right answers are there, waiting.
Imagine a waiter showing up with a silver platter, empty-looking to the naked eye, but on it lies this way of seeing. The world as I have just described. Would you care for a serving, sir? he asks. Not right now, I’m trying to live. True to form, he waits. Patiently by your side, unobtrusively, fading into the background. Don’t mind me sir, I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. This dish doesn’t get cold. It’s here if you want it.
It’s always here.
At times now, I feel far away from it all. Back in the glare of the lights and the horns and the endless distraction. The impatience and the fear and the narrow joy. That world, the spirit realm, the vine of the soul, it can seem far away. But it is there. The waiter is always there, by your side, with his platter. Ready and waiting to serve you up a portion.
A portion of a way of seeing the world, as it truly is. This could all be a bit of a stretch for some. Perhaps it would’ve been for me at some point. But one thing is also true. That those accused of madness can level the same at their accusers. Funny that.
Happiness is a bench on a railway platform on a Sunday afternoon dropped in the middle of fields. Waiting for something that will happen but not too soon. Birds are singing to one another in trees out of sight, the air is thick with the ease of a summer afternoon of inconsequence. The train will come, and move off again, and life will continue along its sinuous path. But for the moment not a lot is up to very much.
Right now happiness is the inhibition of dopamine reuptake through norepinephrine and dopamine transporters found in the prefrontal cortex of my brain. Each morning I sodastream some refrigerated tap water and wash a little white pill down my throat and it goes to work. Five weeks I’ve been doing it now.
But happiness isn’t the right word exactly. I wouldn’t say I’m happy this minute. I don’t know what happiness means today. I thought I knew yesterday when I sat down to write. But it isn’t here now, it must have got bored and moved on someplace else. I feel okay but I’m not euphoric.
It turns out writing about happiness is harder than writing about its opposite.
My doctor said he thought my depression was endogenous, that it came from inside me rather than being brought about by external events. He would say that wouldn’t he, said my mother. That’s what all therapists want you to hear. But your mother would say that, said my girlfriend. Accepting you have an illness is harder than reasoning you’re idle and uninspired.
As the meds went to work I noticed things becoming a little easier. Doom didn’t last as long. I’d wake up okay and go to bed okay, and things might get bad but I wouldn’t fall so far. Things were good, or at least better. Things were moving in the right direction. And I figured something out. The opposite of feeling shit isn’t happiness. The opposite of feeling shit is not feeling shit. The pills weren’t magicking up happiness, they were softening the blows. The floor of my mood was more a paddling pool than a dank black sea.
And I realised the happiness was up to me.
When my despair began to unseam itself it made me think of the parity between physical and mental health. You take good health for granted until it’s taken from you. And when it returns you feel incredibly thankful, to have something back you never realised you might be without. Increasingly I had my health, and all things twinkled in the gloaming.
But happiness is a bullshit word.
Happiness is wonderful but it’s also kind of stupid. It is camp and fleeting and unfaithful. It seems strange to see it as the bullseye. Happiness can be a high, but I don’t think it can be a state. The world is too twisted and gnarled and unstable for us to be hung up on the pursuit of it, maybe the best we can ask for is an absence of misery.
Lincoln said folk are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be. What he meant was we have agency over it, that perhaps happiness can be the by-product of things within our control. If you have the cud of an engaged life ruminating in your gut, now and again you’ll fart out some happiness.
Those are only happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.
John Stuart Mill
Happiness for me means coming back to life. It’s the sunlight of the early morning turning my plants translucent. It’s cycling through strange back streets in Lewisham at midnight listening to hiphop in the hurling rain. It’s the golden half-minute window propping up the bar as your pint gets poured. It’s the crema on the espresso from my expensive new coffee machine. It’s the clean feel of the street after rain. The line in the book that makes you freeze. The honeysuckle by the canal, the smile from the bus driver, the interrupted dream that finds its way back.
It is like the world has been illuminated.
It’s the feeling of strength that comes from a trust that when this happiness subsides there isn’t this darkness waiting to envelop you. And not being the hostage of the next thought that comes careening into your head. More than anything happiness is just not feeling like shit.
Perhaps there is a deeper longer-term happiness. The happiness in realising everything you already have is all you really need. I don’t think I’m there yet. It could also be having children. Last time I checked I wasn’t there yet either. But when you spend a very long time feeling apart from the world, seeing it through a glass darkly, to realise it’s still there and you are a part of it again and you have a role to play, and the people you love are still around and they love you and all is waiting to be resumed.
The darling buds of May dangle forlornly with ice. For three days my socks are soaked through, my feet ache from the cold and I move eastwards through falling snow into a headwind, cursing my idea that France meant Mediterranean sun. On a nasty winding climb my gears lock up and I scream out in rage. My only company are the creaking pines and my rage is a fart in the wind. A well of happiness that has lain empty for months is filling up inside me. Whatever befalls me now won’t make a shot of difference, I think I have been saved.
A few hours into the first day of January of 2019, someone posted this.
My year has felt a little like that. Imagine sleeping through a whole weekend, going out alone on a Monday and getting totalled, waking up and feeling like shit all of Tuesday, with nobody to text about what a strange impromptu night it was. 2019 has felt like that kind of hangover, close to every day. When it threatened to get good, I would wake up on that same Tuesday all over again. Lapping against my shores was a lake of unease, joy was a stone skimming across its surface.
Ratcheting up the pressure and relieving it at will, a mild depression had had me by the balls since November. Too mild to knock me out, but still the mental health equivalent of a small annoying dog humping my lower leg. Every day I watched the warfare of a city fighting harder than I was to stay alive, the siren wailing and check-out lines and sad eyes staring from the top of night buses, folk surrounded from all sides but achingly alone. Joy was there somewhere around the next corner, and I was moving down the wrong side of the wrong street.
The Bordeaux airport Ibis Budget hotel is a strange environment to find a new lease of life.
In the past, when things got top-heavy I’d often look to the bike for an out. To go away into a new environment, to raise your heart-rate, to breathe clean air and be enveloped by green, the experience is rich because it is all new. Cycling across a country albeit with maps, is raw unmapped territory for your mind, it is taking five big gulps from an ice cold pint of adventure. We all need some adventure in our lives once in a while.
And so I found myself in the Ibis Budget Airport hotel just west of Bordeaux with my touring bike propped against the wall, lying starfished in the dark as the hum of jet engines sang me to sleep, feeling an emotion I hadn’t been able to muster all year. The kind of excitement only a free man can feel, a man at the start of a long journey, whose conclusion is uncertain. Lyon was my destination, 700km directly eastwards across the rolling terrain of the under belly of France, with a date to keep six days from then on the steps of Marylebone Town Hall, to watch my brother getting married.
This mood of mine had lingered inside me since early November, at times subsiding but never leaving altogether. It occurred to me that sensitive people have these pores that are open all the time to emotional information, good and bad. When depression rears its head it makes the information coming in always the worst kind, and switches off the ability to ignore it. The night ushered in the foreboding morning. Spilt milk was worth crying over. I would step out of my front door over the top into No Man’s Land and face a barrage of information, incoming from all angles, from a wild unforgiving city that didn’t give a fuck about me and my pores.
So like the rich Victorians taking in the healing waters of Swiss spa towns, changing the nature of that information seemed like a good idea. I traded in carbon monoxide and horns for the smell of pine needles in the afternoon. A slanging match between a Turk and a crackhead became the quiet of a sleepy village waiting for its boulangerie to open. For six days the light hitting my face was no longer the pale glow from a screen.
And it went to work on me.
The gently rolling fields around Bordeaux are busy with backs bent-double over vines, tending to grapes like newborns. Warmed by the May sun, I move through them slowly, tasting the salt from my sweat and the creeping excitement of the unknown. Bastide towns and hillocks, copses and farm yards, pine trees and butterflies, the tarmac moves slowly backwards beneath my wheel and I breathe and whoop and feel it all deeply, the kind of attention I haven’t paid the earth in a long time.
I feel anonymous in a way I wouldn’t feel in England, there are no rules for me here, and this adds to my sense of freedom. I stop in Castillonnès and eat a simple lunch on the step of a deserted high street, a couple of locals pass by and commiserate about the weight of my panniers. In a shop window I see an old photo of the same high street, and imagine the day the man set up his strange contraption in the road and the shop sellers came out and the village stopped to pose, and think of the children that have lived whole lives since that day and grown old and been mourned.
I move eastwards into the Dordogne, the landscape ramps up, hillier and thick with forest. It is the oldest inhabited area of Europe and feels wilder than the vineyards and the roads are quiet. In 1940 while rescuing a dog who had fallen down a hole, a boy lit a match and illuminated the prehistoric paintings of Lascaux cave, releasing them from a darkness where they had lain undiscovered for 17,000 years. Casting his eyes on the paintings of bull and lion and rhinoceros for the first time, Picasso exited the cave and exclaimed in wonder we have invented nothing!
That afternoon a winding climb takes me up into the hills and I stop a while to rest. There are no cars, and all is still but for the breeze through the trees and the hum of insects. Lions stopped prowling these hills millennia ago but the landscape must look the same, I think. I am a fleeting visitor in an ancient land, I feel small and insignificant. More than that I feel lucky, to be where I am up on this hill, peering into this timeless kingdom for an eternal minute. I look at my bicycle lying in the ferns and nod respectfully. You and me mate. What else could have got me to this spot, shown me all this, made me feel so deeply.
I cycle on.
The Dordogne becomes the Auvergne. Harsh volcanic landscapes, sinister slate grey villages, even the weather changes to suit the mood. A cold front sweeps across France and I take shelter in cafés and massage my toes to get the blood back into them. There is sleet and snow and cold hard rain that chills me to the core. A techno festival 30km north turns into a Red Cross disaster zone. Some men in a bar convince me to fill my water bottles with red wine. One of them warns the others mais un litre de vin rouge… après on ne bouge…. They roar with laughter. It is not yet lunch time.
In September I stopped taking antidepressants for the first time in nine years. I was doing fine and wasn’t sure how much they were really working. Being med-free felt like a badge of honour and when I started feeling not so good towards Christmas I imagined it would last a month or so and then I would come out of it. But I never really did. I’d have spells of upbeatness, and show my face here and there, and then be back to normal. The trouble was my normal was a good few floors under ground.
On my way out of the Auvergne one afternoon, sat on a bench eating lunch, I heard a faint thud on the glass behind me, and saw a tiny man lying in a chair by the window beckoning me over. Perhaps the oldest person I have ever laid eyes on, his nose knotted like a 600year old oak, as he spoke his dentures fell from the top of his mouth and were caught by the bottom. He was very deaf, and after a few stilted sentences he fell silent, and grabbed my hand and held it.
As I cycled off down the road, a strange emotion surged up inside me, the kind of sadness that makes your tummy ache, that makes you feel so alive it’s hard to bear. When I was out of sight I stopped again and something dawned on me. Fuck, I thought, how is it that I can feel all at once so happy and so lonely. I realised I was coming back to life. All year my mood had isolated me, made me see so few people, I’d forgotten how to be in the world. And it had taken me 650km of French countryside to get to a point where I was happy enough to want to be in the world again, and a meeting with an old man to realise I had to start immediately.
Depression is the most narcissistic thing around, because it places you at the centre of everything. The world outside is beckoning you with open arms, and you can’t see beyond the four walls of your addled mind. Everything affects you, concerns you, hurts you. All information that comes in passes through the toll-booth of your depressed brain, which is too sensitive and defensive and afraid. The narcissistic part is the unending self-obsession.
Being in an environment so vast and ancient and eternal made me feel tiny and fleeting and insignificant. To be amongst those ancient hills and valleys and endless woods made me feel a tiny part of something bigger. My father complains that when I cycle I blitz through countries and have no time for cathedrals or museums. But the woods are my cathedrals, the trees are my spires, the cattle bells ringing out over the hillside are my evensong. Psithurism is a word for the sound of the wind running through the trees
On a rainy joyous day in early April interspersed with blasts of brilliant sun my brother got married to Victoria, and not long after my mood returned. My therapist did some rough calculations and we decided to go back on the meds. I was happy to in the end, I was fed up. It was taking the best of me. The roots of some trees run deeper than others. It takes something bigger to unearth them.
Looking down from the plane as it flew up and out of Lyon airport, I saw the small details of the French countryside I was leaving behind. Lines of roads, little hamlets, reservoirs, copses, all the signs of a country that feels alien to you because you will never know it. But I had known it. The chatter of the men in bars, the cool silence of empty churches, the town squares and looping mountain roads, the cattle bells and stillness of the mid-afternoon. I had known it all, and it had brought me back. Perhaps not altogether but enough. Maybe never in my life have I understood the wonder of a bicycle more profoundly, and its ability to show you the world in a way no other thing can.
As we approached the first band of clouds, I took out my little pad to make a note, and flicking through the pages I landed on something I had written long enough ago to have no memory of it. I looked down at the scribbled words, read them slowly, read them again, and laughed.
He didn’t want to do anything that was mapped out.
If it was in doubt, then he was sure of an adventure.
When my brother was born my father poured champagne all over him in the maternity ward. At the age of 63, Hemingway sat down on his porch in the early hours of the morning, poured out a glass of rum, and shot himself. ‘Holy Intoxication’ was encouraged in Ancient Egypt as an alternative state of being, a link to the world of the Gods. When Harold took an arrow to the eye in the corner of a field near Hastings in 1066, his first words were ‘bring me my wine’.
Humans like booze.
There’s that thing which says a drink is the tonic for all occasions. Happiness, misery, sunny days, rain, to celebrate a life coming into being, to mourn a life passing on. We drink to remember, we drink to forget, to commune with others, we toast our own company, we drink to feel different, we drink to prolong going back to feeling the same all over again.
I stopped drinking three months ago, and it has been such a weird trip that I have to write it down and try to give form to it because it has been one of the most confusing things I have ever done. When people are candid and throw their truth in your face without you asking, you stray in the murky territories of the #overshare. Unless you make it interesting, and then with luck it becomes characterised by its interest, rather than the fact someone is dumping the contents of their emotional hold-all over you whilst unloading it from the luggage compartment of your soul.
I decided to stop drinking because it had become repetitive. Not in the sense that I was doing it metronomically with no control over it, but in the sense that nothing new was coming from it. There was a gut instinct in me that I wasn’t doing enough to deserve it, while at the same time I found myself drinking in order to mute this voice in my head, drinking to bind the hand whose finger was gently prodding away at the root of this feeling of undeservedness.
On top of this, there was the added motivation that at weekends, one too many was leading me to do my best Toni Montana impression more often than I would like, which my sober-self concluded was fundamentally and categorically a waste of time, and I know enough to know a waste of time is the bedfellow of a wasted life.
There was also a feeling that time spent even not having that concrete an idea of what I was doing, was nonetheless time better spent than that filled doing something I understood was fundamentally bad for me. And things weren’t working out like that. Instead these two pastimes were playing a protracted game of musical chairs with each other, making an arrangement behind my back to sit down together on the one remaining chair in the room, linked in a warm embrace.
At the back end of another weekend, I made a decision and the shutters came down, and I stopped. I remember the subsequent first Friday afternoon, sitting there with my mate staring deeply into the hues of his pint, watching the condensation form on the outside of the glass. And then going home the following weekend to see my parents, telling them I wasn’t drinking. Any my father looking at me as if I’d just tied my shoelaces together, reminding me more than once at lunch how interesting the wine had become since it had begun to breathe, and how not to have a small glass with the main course was absurdo.
This thing is I agreed with him. I’m definitely on the side of the drinkers. When I go out for dinner with someone who announces they aren’t drinking there’s a voice in my head that immediately lets out an extended groan, and something in me lowers the bar for the potential of the evening. There is an unknown in a glass or two of something. And you sign up to that unknown once you take a first sip.
There is no unknown in a litre and a half of Highland Spring.
I count myself lucky i’m not one of those people who can’t ever have a drink of something again. In the knowledge that a big part of alcoholism lies in the denial of its existence, I can say with confidence I’m not there. For me this is an experiment that will at some point come to a close, and yet for the moment I can feel the presence of an unmoving 28-stone bouncer manning the door of my willpower that won’t let me reach for another drink again, until I understand exactly why I’m doing it. I have no idea what that understanding will be, but I know one hundred per cent that I’ll know.
I haven’t yet gone into why and how this whole process of sobriety became so confusing, but it was divided up into three specific stages, all as strange and delusional as each other.
Last year I started writing an account of my decision to give up drinking. I described it as one of the most confusing things I’d ever done. The reason it left me so confused was because I didn’t learn anything from it. Well I kind of did and I kind of didn’t. But strangely the lessons I did learn seemed to vanish into the ether pretty quickly. The whole exercise had some point to it, whilst simultaneously proving in the end somehow pointless.
Having said this, it was one of the most important things I’ve done in recent memory. Me saying I didn’t learn anything springs from the fact the now, five months later, I’ve resumed a pattern of drinking none too dissimilar from the one I was in before I stopped. But the aim was never to stop drinking completely. The aim was to take a peek behind the curtain. And to mull over whatever it was that peek might reveal to me, over an ice-cold pint of pilsner.
To say I didn’t learn much isn’t true. We always learn. Even when we don’t, we somehow do. I’d say my experience could be split up into some key stages of being, appearing to me one after the other.
The first thing I felt was smug.
The most immediate and obvious effect of stopping drinking is clear.
With not a milligram of hangover, the magic of the wake-up lies in beginning the day on the right side of normal. From here a smooth transition into Total Geedom is by no means out of the question. Have a big night however and you don’t get out of normal until most probably late afternoon – the state in which you begin when you don’t drink. On a big night with the wrong type of hangover, you might not even by the day’s end reach the oasis from which your teetotal self has been calmly sipping all day.
Another option is to go nitro and have an absolute blinder. At least you wake up feeling marvellous, because you’re still drunk. But from then it’s a headlong freefall into the abyss. Which depending on how philosophical your mindset is, or more importantly how much work you have on, can be quite funny but more often than not an absolute living death.
In this new hungover-less state, the greatest difference I found from the off was that I woke up winning. I didn’t have any hazy memories of candle-lit heart to hearts or Campo Viejo-fuelled rants, but what I did have was no headache. The rocky road from fuzzy-headedness had had an upgrade, and now more resembled an Autobahn to world domination.
This mental clarity also served to dampen the voice of my self-doubt. With no hangover gnawing at me, everything had hope, everything had potential, things were worth trying. There was less fear, less non-engagement. The glass wasn’t just half-full, it was over-flowing with San Pellegrino.
The decision to stop drinking took on a force all of its own. As I said a 28-stone bouncer manning the door of my willpower had moved into permanent residency in my brain. The expression on his face of unflinching brutishness could be seen mirrored in my own, whenever the possibility of a drink presented itself. It was self-perpetuating. The greater I felt, the smugger I was, the more I wanted to sustain it, the less I wanted to drink.
I felt fucking great, and just as any state of prolonged smugness should rightly bring with it, I soon became unbearable. I’d see groups staggering out of pubs at 10pm on a Sunday and think how they were throwing their lives away. I’d see baskets in supermarkets loaded with tinnies and feel my eyes roll to the back of my perfectly sober head. My U-turn was shocking. I was turning into a sanctimonious dick.
And I was loving it.
But all good things must come to an end.
Towards the end of my fourth week sober, I friend of mine suggested a pub visit on a Thursday afternoon. My smugness had been gradually waning, the novelty of my new lifestyle was becoming no longer novel. I’d had a shitty day, and I wanted nothing more than a release. The kind of release not many things in the world can give you quite like the first few sips of an ice cold lager. I went up top, and there was my bouncer friend, looking especially lairy, gravely shaking his bald head. So I went to the pub and sat there monosyllabically for half an hour with a soda and lime. I got to the bottom of the glass, made my excuses, went home, and fell into a deep depression.
It’s Wednesday today. I’m hungover.
Not a completely incapacitated hungover. I’m the level of hangover where I can take thoughts by the hand and toddle them to a conclusion, but my sight. If I don’t make a choice on what to focus on my vision doesn’t hang attentively in the middle-distance, it blurs into a soup of light and shadow. I’ve drunk so much water to flush out the alcohol that i need to relieve myself every twenty minutes, which is a drag. And still my mouth is dry like a desert at three in the afternoon. This has become an ordeal.
A pretty good state in which to finally conclude my trilogy on alcohol. I wrote the first part fifteen months ago, in the grips of sobriety. The second part this time last year, having jumped off the wagon at high speed, and now the denouement, one year on, sitting here staring out of the window at summer unrobing herself, sozzled, fed up, and in fervent need of unsozzling.
I don’t have a problem with alcohol.
To recap, there were specific stages I passed through in the aftermath of giving up drinking. First came the unbearable smugness of waking up on the right side of the bed, not just on the odd morning, but permanently, without a trace of hangover. Of seeing people in supermarket aisles with shopping baskets laden with tinnies, and shaking my head disdainfully as I watched them throwing their lives away. Of turning into a sanctimonious dick. Of increased productivity levels, increased self confidence, of glass half-fullness. I was the me I wanted to be.
But the thing is, it didn’t continue. After four weeks the novelty wore off. The mist cleared, and the abyss that had been there in front of me all along revealed itself. And I realised why we drink. I think we drink to not feel alone. Over night, my self-satisfaction had morphed into something very sinister. As if loneliness had crept up behind solitude and tapped him in the shoulder discreetly. My turn. And they had switched places. It still felt like me against the world, but my outlook was no longer one of defiance, as it had been when I was basking in the glow of my own righteousness sipping San Pellegrino. It was one of fear.
I was alone.
It wasn’t that I needed to be with people, it was more in the sense of an awareness of the crushingness of how totally alone I was. Every single thought process which led to another thought process which led to another, was mine alone. If I had employed someone to a permanent position of listening to me speak my mind for twenty-four hours a day, an ocean would still have remained present between us. Which led me to feel an ocean away from everyone.
The wool had been pulled back from my eyes, and I saw what was actually going on. Without the drink, the distraction, the mood-altering elixir, I was forced to sit there with my demons. Instead of reaching for a pint whenever things got heavy, I had to welcome in my darkest thoughts and sit in them. I had to meet and greet the worst parts of myself and befriend them. Just a little something to take the edge off please. But I didn’t have access to that. And I learnt that a lime cordial doesn’t take the edge off. At all.
That first plunge into a cold, crisp, obscure craft beer, medium-hopped, easy-drinking, the one with that cool lick of condensation running down the outside of the glass, invaded my dreams.
I read somewhere that we ask ourselves the wrong questions. The question is not why do we drink. The question is why aren’t we all lying on street corners drowning ourselves in booze around the fucking clock. The question is not why do we get anxious. The question is why aren’t people terrified out of their skulls every second of every day to the point where they can’t even move. Anxiety isn’t a mystery. The mystery is how we ever achieve brief spells of calm. The point of drinking is to relieve us momentarily from the unbearable suffering of being alive.
And so the second month of my sobriety was characterised by a month-long depression. I had broken the shell, and I stared out across the cinders of the world with naked eyes. I went up to 8 espressos a day, my San Pellegrino intake quadrupled, and I went into isolation. I no longer looked down on drunks, I envied them. They had taken what I so coveted, and I was jealous. Swilling their cheap malbec and baring their sediment-stained teeth, they laughed at me.
My mate Tom said that when he stopped boozing, he didn’t miss the drinking so much. What he missed was the binge–drinking. He missed the oblivion. Some people need an escape from their brain much more than others. In his brilliant autobiography The Story Of The Streets, Mike Skinner, no stranger to self-destruction, said the following:
That’s why I insist that my psychic deterioration was down to a lack of drink and drugs, rather than anything else. As bad as those things might be for your longterm health, they’re still down-time. Which someone who gets as caught up in his own head as I do, desperately needs.
I had drawn back the curtain, and I was encountering exactly what it was to be caught up in my own head, all the time. I had eliminated the most obvious, in your face, socially acceptable, by far and away most entertaining way of achieving down-time, and in its absence I was left pacing the floor of a room without an exit, and the inescapable, slowly creeping feeling that…
This is all there is.
Once I’d processed this, I came out of my depression. And my hangover from it, was this fundamental understanding of how alone we all are. Totally and completely alone inside the prison of our own minds, going over and over and over the same thought processes, the same ways of seeing the world, the same anxiety and paranoia and the same fear of never being enough. Small wonder we need a fucking drink now and again. These are mood-altering substances for a species in desperate need of having their moods altered.
I lasted another couple of months, with less and less enthusiasm, and one Friday I went for dinner with a friend in Soho, sat through a litre of Highland Spring, something in me broke, I screamed:
E N O U G H O F T H I S M I S E R Y
and went and got annihilated. I’ve never looked back.
I said before that the whole experience of giving up drinking was one of the most confusing things I’ve ever done. The reason it left me so confused was because I didn’t learn anything from it. Well I kind of did and kind of didn’t. But strangely enough the lessons I did learn seemed to vanish into the ether pretty quickly. The whole exercise has some point to it, whilst simultaneously proving in the end somehow pointless. Like a joke that you get, but just don’t find funny.
I have a feeling it belongs in the company of those lessons we have to learn over and over again a number of times in our lives, because we’ll keep forgetting them. The clarity that sobriety bought me was terrifying, I preferred the murky lie. I still do. The truly insidious thing about alcohol is that it is blinding. It blinds us to the truths waiting there for us to stare them square in the face, but don’t have the courage to.
Mental discomfort is an alarm bell signalling we’re getting closer to the stuff that truly needs our attention. As someone once wrote, the alcohol is not our friend, all it does is persuade us our awful jobs and dreary lives are fine because who needs to challenge the status quo when we can just shuffle down to the local instead.
I never thought sobriety would be so difficult. I never thought I’d have to get so lost to find myself. And then realise I preferred being lost. I never thought I’d have to start drinking again to save myself from being sober. And more than anything, that alcohol has very little to do with any of it in the first place.
The tough thing about booze is that it’s the angel and the devil. The beautiful and the lethal in equal measure. And life without it is a bore. Of course, there is such a thing as drinking for pleasure. There is such a thing as moderation. But those who don’t admit that line is a blurry one are probably the ones who need the most help. Or just another drink.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote:
When I stopped working on the races I was glad, but it left an emptiness. By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good, you could only fill it by finding something better.
You could only fill it by finding something better.
If somebody invited you to something you weren’t going to be around for, it would make sense to decline the invitation. A bit foolish to make plans you wouldn’t be there to partake in. A good definition of depression is the idea of there being no future. I believe this, because depression has been a topic of the last twelve years of my life, and I suppose aggressively the topic of the last 29 days of it.
It had been on the agenda to write something about depression for a while, but I didn’t think I’d be in its grips when I did. Irony or hiding behind humour hold no sway here. This is less a collection of memories of a mood, more a real time description of an experience. Writing this now it seems clear this is the only state in which I could do what I’m feeling justice, but the horse’s mouth also pulls hard on the reigns of the pointlessness of the whole thing.
It has made me stop short in my tracks five times in the last three days. Quacks call it a depressive episode. For me, it’s like pressing mute on joy.
I’m not sure what being suicidal really means. If it means not wanting to be alive then sign me up. If it means fantasising about ways in which to die, or making no plans because you have a strong conviction you’re not going to be around for any of them, or wishing the people who love you didn’t exist because you checking out would cleave their world in two, sign me up. But I don’t think it does.
I think there’s a chasm between not wanting to live and wanting to die. The absence of one thing doesn’t always mean the other. When you’re depressed, the idea of not existing for a while is a comfy place, to get the popcorn out and distract yourself from the pain of living. Same as drowning yourself in booze or fucking yourself up on drugs. But it’s a fantasy, a distraction.
The trouble with humans is that impulse can bridge that chasm very quickly. Not wanting to live can become dying in no time at all. Practically speaking, it’s not difficult. The tragedy of suicide is that nothing is more final and irreversible, you don’t get a take-back. If leaving the pain for a while was the objective, not existing forever is what you’re left with. What the people who love you are left with. Camus said it is braver to live than it is to kill yourself, but I’m not so sure.
My depression began proper in my early twenties. But I think it had been there in some form all along. My father recalls a sadness in my eyes as a child, I lived a lot inside my head, kept everything cooped up, I was melancholic on my birthdays. Things got quite bad at university, but it was aged 22 I remember the blinds came down hard. One February morning I got into bed and didn’t get out again until early summer. A doctor prescribed me anti-depressants, which seemed to help, and which I’ve been on some form of ever since.
From then on going forward, on average a couple of times a year, I seem to go under. A friend of mine came up with a name for it. He called it the quagmire. It’s a disappearing act. Until the worst of it is over, Domingo goes awol on the world. Those who don’t know me that well might be surprised, since I only really show my face when I’m feeling good. But the idea of going to the pub in the middle of an episode is as appealing as running naked down Oxford Street in mid December screaming out who wants a reload.
Depression is complex.
It’s an each to his own thing. Mine is different to yours is different to hers. But it’s important to point out to those who might not be aware, there can be little logic to it. From my experience it is not a causal thing. It isn’t tripping over and stubbing your toe. It’s your toe beginning to throb for no reason while you’re sat on the sofa. It’s not an unhappiness provoked by hard luck or a string of unfortunate events. It’s a land mine that goes off under your foot on a beautiful summer’s day.
To accept I’m not responsible for my depression is something I find pretty hard. People with a healthy degree of self-loathing don’t need to search far and wide for who to pin the blame on. Personally, it takes those closest to me to remind me the quagmire is not my fault. The first person I’d spoken to in a week was my brother, when he called me three days ago. When I told him how I was feeling he listened, paused, and seeming distinctly unfazed said to me mate that’s okay, that’s what happens to you sometimes. It’s been happening to you for ages.
Depression can get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Not unlike a tumour, it can grow if left unchecked. Because the outside world becomes so scary, isolationism is a coping mechanism. But the less you check in, the more stilted your truth becomes. You tumble further and further down the rabbit hole, further and further away from the light.
Like a domino effect, things you wouldn’t think twice about become progressively more difficult. Day to day things become terrifying. That terror you felt in the hush of the examination hall at school, walking down the rows between the desks scanning for your name, is the same terror I felt yesterday walking along the milk aisle at Tesco.
As reality drifts out of focus, tiny little actions take on a crazed importance. Little rituals are flotation devices in 50 year storms. Making myself a coffee in my favourite espresso cup is one of these. As stupid as that sounds, this action is often a last ditch attempt to save myself. Last week I could not for the life of me rationalise any point in the act of making a coffee to then drink it. Since I’ve been writing this, over the last two days, the coffee machine’s gone on again. It’s like a symbol of fighting back up towards the light.
There is no self-pity in depression. There is confusion, anxiety, inertia, self-loathing, panic, hopelessness, flat-lining, hours of staring into the middle-distance, but there is no self-pity. Self-pity in depression is like volunteering to down a pint of water while drowning.
You know that nervous excitement you get before a first date. The feeling you used to get before Sports Day at primary school. A kind of strangulating adrenaline in your gut, almost a nausea. Imagine you couldn’t switch that off. For some reason these are the physical symptoms of my quagmire. It’s what I feel right now, what I’ve felt day in and day out for 29 days. When I close my eyes at night, and in the morning, and when half asleep I grope through the dark to take a pee. People think a mental illness is only felt in the mind. This isn’t true. It’s also physical.
The misunderstanding of mental illness arises from the strength of its disguise. People find it difficult to believe what they can’t see. There is no leg in a cast. No loss of hair from chemotherapy. Just someone to the untrained eye doing an on-point impression of a wet blanket. Sitting here right now, hand on heart I can say I don’t think anyone would choose to feel like this. Last week I remember thinking this was never going to end. This was not a perception. It was my reality. The idea it might not be, is as difficult to get my head around as convincing the man in the street his entire reality and everything he knows to be true, is itself make-believe.
I read a parable once about a man who envisions a glittering future for himself. He works his way inch by inch towards this glittering future, and one day it presents itself to him at last at the top of a long staircase. He packs up the contents of his old life, puts on his best threads, and starts climbing. As he reaches the top of the staircase, he sees his path blocked by a huge security guard, who holding his massive arm out, point blank refuses to let him pass.
Despite lengthy protestations the guard stands firm. He tries again the next day, and the next month, and the next year, and the security guard is always there, blocking the top of the staircase, the only path to the man’s idealised future, pinning him to the shackles of his old life.
The point of the parable is this.
There is only one character in this story. The security guard and the man are the same person. The security guard is the glitch, the fog inside the man’s own head that is barring his own path and stopping him moving forwards. It is something within him that is getting in the way of his glittering future. The reason I mention the parable is because I want to make it clear that this thing stopping the man in his tracks, whatever it is, it’s not depression. Depression is not the security guard.
Depression can make the staircase five times longer, or make the man especially heavy-legged on the climb. It can serve to stall or delay the glittering future, but is does not bar you entry from it. One of the most important and difficult things to remember is that the depressive still has the power to affect their life, even in the deepest darkest grips of it.
Russian people don’t believe in the idea of being too cold. They believe you’re not wearing enough clothes. The Russians can’t change their sub-zero winters, and I’ve learnt I can’t halt the onset of my quagmire. But we can both do things that protect us against the full force of the gale. I can keep active. I can distract my mind with work. I can choose not to self-medicate with shit that in the long run will only make me feel worse. I can try to eat healthily and do my best to take exercise. When I’m at my worst the futility of these things seem insurmountable, and to lead myself almost blindly into them is all I can do.
And yet fail repeatedly.
Columbo would be into this next bit.
There is… one more thing.
Over the past few weeks I’ve realised the most important thing we can do, is talk about it. To share the weight of whatever is going on inside our heads, with others. We can get together and lend each other our ears, and just listen. Actually listen. Much of the time people don’t want advice. All they want is an ear. If you do get the opportunity to chew someone’s ear off, make sure you offer yours in return. If writing this is anything, it’s an encouragement to communicate. To look into the eyes of the person next to you and ask them how they are. Tell me how you’re you doing. And once they’ve muffled a reply, slowly repeat the question again.
I think you’ll get a different answer the second time you ask.
There isn’t a person on this planet that doesn’t have something worrying them. We all got beef. Everyone has a humungous sirloin steak slapping them across the face always. And it makes us feel very alone. But the antidote to loneliness is meaningful connection. Asking for help is an action of self-respect. It means you mean something to yourself. Admitting you’re ill means you think you’re worth saving.
It’s the pretending we’re okay that really fucks us.
This last month has been horrible. As I said it’s been like pressing mute on joy. Happiness doesn’t reign here. Neither have I felt incredibly sad. Just one long unmoving flat-line. An interior voice shitting on all my plans. Bulldozing my future and pouring cement over the rubble. Pushing away the people I love and the people who love me. In the end, depression is like some inconsistent stick of 90s chewing gum. Horrible to chew alone on, day after day. But for some reason much more bearable when shared.
The reason it has taken me three days to write this, is because I keep telling myself it isn’t worth it. It feels like one long overshare that I’ve talked myself out of continually. But this is the reason I need to write it. Depression is twice as common in women as it is in men, and yet men are three times more likely to kill themselves because of it. I wonder why that is.
What I’ve just written is the most I’ve told anyone about my depression. Which makes me feel a little bit sick. I don’t know if people will look at me differently if they read this. I don’t know if writing this in retrospect will feel like I’ve lost something. That I’ve let something out of the bag. I’ll no longer be able to go awol and pretend I’m fine. But then again, most of the people who know me already know about my quagmire. Just perhaps not the extent of it. One thing I know is I’ll have got closer to running out of things to hide. Which is a good thing, I think.
No secret is as bad as the hell you construct inside your own head.
A guy called Matt Haig wrote a book on depression called Reasons to Stay Alive. This guy suffered from depression for most of his adult life, and came very close to throwing himself off a cliff when he was 24. Below he writes his suicidal-self at the time a list of ten reasons not to jump, ten reasons to keep on trucking. This is the tenth.
He also wrote the words:
Depression lies. Depression makes you think things that are wrong.
For me that was one of the best things I could’ve read. To remember that this thing inside my head can often be found speaking out of its arse. W H Auden once said if you take away my demons, you’ll take away my angels too. This might sound hypocritical, but I don’t hate my depression. And I wouldn’t necessarily live my life over without it, given the choice. We are the product of all the moments of our lives. If you took away my depression I wonder how much of the good stuff would be deleted along with it.
Depression isn’t all bad. The flip-side of it can be pretty incredible. The benefit of seeing through a glass darkly is that when finally the light comes in, shit gets colourful very quickly. Speak to anyone who suffers from it and ask them about the extent to which they can make themselves happy.
As bad as things have gotten in the last few weeks, maybe the storm clouds are parting. I don’t think I could have written this two weeks ago. I would’ve sat in front of my computer for two hours without even realising it was out of battery. To go back to where I started, on the question of not wanting to be alive. As helpful as this reverie might’ve been when things were very bad, what I’ve realised in the last month is that I’m really not going to kill myself. Don’t worry mummy. Not this minute. You might not want to be here very much right now, but let’s not go overboard.
It is passing, it seems. There’s an out. Somewhere up there is the crack of light inside the snow drift. The house fly knocking all morning against the window is moving ever closer to the open latch. And out into the spring air. Life is waiting for you. Camus was right after all. It is braver to live. But it’s also a lot better. I said before that the absence of one thing doesn’t always mean the other. But in some cases the absence of one thing can only ever mean the other. When you remove death from the equation, the only thing you’re left with is…
When I stopped working on the races I was glad, but it left an emptiness. By then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped. But if it was bad, the emptiness filled up by itself. If it was good you could only fill it by finding something better.
Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
If he was a top-trump card, kids would whoop and holla when they got him because they knew the 98 score on power to chill on his jax trumped every other card in the pack. He’d lived out most of his young adult life with a corset on, the tightness of which symbolised the strength of his self-containment. Loneliness wasn’t for him. The company of other people, to give him what? His was a landmass surrounded by turquoise waters on all sides, well away from the maine.
On the off-chance he’d need to, he might seek company out. But always in a removed way that screamed out in veiled text that he wasn’t bothered either way. Even when his therapist flipped the script one day and told him his lonerdom was fear of engagement and his singledom was fear of rejection, he’d still beat the drum of one of the old Greek guys whose words echoed upstairs whenever he needed reminding. Self-sufficiency is the greatest virtue.
Seven weeks before he had given up drinking. And loneliness had crept up behind solitude and tapped it on the shoulder discreetly. My turn. And they had switched places. And now he felt lonely all the time. Perhaps not in the sense of needing to be with people. More in the sense of an awareness of the crushingness of how totally alone he was. Every single thought process which led to another thought process which led to another, was his alone. If he employed someone to a permanent position of listening to him speak his mind for twenty-four hours a day, an ocean would still remain present between them. Which led him to feel an ocean away from everyone.
Seeking help wasn’t really the issue. Since any help however well-worded wouldn’t penetrate. The issue had no core, nothing to get to the heart of. He could think of nothing more pathetic than wailing down the phone at somebody or staring deeply into a glass of sparkling water outside a café describing his symptoms and his ailments. And yet he had a sneaking suspicion he was doing his best to deny that he wanted more than anything for people to beat his door down and find him sat there in his flat at night, staring deeply into his glass of sparkling water, and ask him what was wrong. Nothing was wrong, he might reply. What is what.
There was a strange satisfaction in this death march. As if an unending set of enormous waves were crashing down on his head repeatedly, sending him spinning and tumbling into the depths, from which he’d surface just in time to catch sight of the next oncoming wave, to lock eyes and smile calmly at it. Then he’d go under again. It was calm and it was persistent.
A friend of his with a brain like a triple-decker bus and a heart like a champagne glass teetering on the edge of a table had told him that the colour would return. One day. The emptiness would fill up by itself. Or perhaps with something better.