Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Two moments

I’ve only wanted to stop living twice. In between these times, my life has seemed worthwhile, beautiful even, comfortable often too. But on those two occasions everything in my mind went so dark—I entered such a whorl of clashing thoughts that clanged together and pained me—that I didn’t know my existence properly, and hoped for it to end.

In my twenties one night when I had been crying in my bedroom for hours, I sat up with a strange resolution, and walked in a sort of stupor into the kitchen. So many tears had dried around my eyes, which ached as I wiped the last few away. I looked in a cupboard and found some painkillers, and carried them over to the kitchen table with a glass of water. I got a piece of paper and a pen and laid them out ceremonially.

It’s difficult now, such an upheaval, to try and get my mind back into the state that I was in; so hard to stand next to that person sitting alone at 4 a.m., and ask him what he was thinking. I know that I found it almost impossible, then, to conceive of ways to live a good life, a fruitful life. I couldn’t see what a future might look like for me, besides carrying on in the way I had, making do. I felt unloved and untouched. I was being driven gently mad by my own unrequited impulsions.

I stared at my blank piece of paper for a long time, willing thoughts to turn to words. I wanted to explain to my friends, asleep in their rooms nearby, that I could not cope. But all the words I could think of died out: the weight of everything was so great, and words were so fragile, that I struggled to write at all. I wrote: “I”, and stopped. This seemed, in itself, a tremendous effort, and I was already exhausted. I added: “am”. I am. Eventually I completed it: “I am so sorry” – and I left it at that. I was certainly sorry; nothing here was a lie, and nothing had been under- or overstated. I couldn’t write anything more without saying everything, without going way back, and having to tear such a chasm in myself that I couldn’t bear it.

I picked up the handful of pills, and took a sip of water. By now all my actions were zombie-like, undertaken in a type of trance. I stared again, at the pills this time, and stared past them, focusing my eyes further on so that they blurred in my view. I was thinking that I didn’t want to exist, but I was so filled with fear about what not-life might be like. All I had ever known, gone forever - and replaced with nothing. I wasn’t in love with the great big absence of anything, didn’t feel the call of nothingness: I was merely so tired and defeated by the accumulation of continuing stuff. Why couldn’t there be a middle ground between all-encompassing nothing, and this great big mass of everything that was life? If life could be somehow less, that would have suited me.

Meanwhile my arse was starting to go numb and I was cold. I was sitting there in a t-shirt and pants, and the straw in the chair’s upholstery was beginning to dig into my thighs, creating itchy indentations in my flesh. I shivered, and considered that I wasn’t going to do anything tonight. I couldn’t imagine how it would happen. I didn’t want my friends to come in and find my body. I didn’t want, either, to swallow some pills and then charge into their bedroom, burbling, “I’ve taken some pills, this is one of those cry-for-help ones, don’t worry, but let’s phone 999 to be safe.” Would my painkillers even do anything, or were they merely the sort that might just give you cramps and occasion a weary stomach-pumping from a fed-up A&E nurse?

Because I couldn’t work out how to do it; because I still had reason and a sense of humour; because my bum ached and I was longing for sleep; because I lacked the overpowering need for death and the guts to make the leap – I packed my things up and went back to bed. I slept deeply. In the morning, I came in to the kitchen to find my friends, whom I loved so much, getting breakfast things together, singing songs, busying themselves. I sat back at the same seat at the table and talked with them, and out of the corner of my eye, a little further away, on the floor, I spotted a piece of folded-up paper: “I’m—”. In a panic, I couldn’t work out how the note had ended up there, and didn’t know if anyone had seen it, and I couldn’t just walk over to it and pick it up and bin it without drawing attention to myself. I bided my time; no-one walked near it; I saw my moment and went and swept it up and threw it away. It was a Sunday, and sun streamed through the windows.


Some years later—a couple of years ago—I took a day off work and went to Broadstairs. It was early Spring, and I had spent all of Autumn and Winter without seeing the sea. The sea has always made me feel at peace. I love looking at it, hearing it, being in it. There’s a literature of homosexuality that calls on swimming as a motif: maybe the sense of being a part of the world that you find inside water is something that queers can recognise. At any rate I felt the need to see - Americans would call it ‘the ocean’, but of course it’s just a minor stretch of water between here and France.
As I travelled to the seaside I listened to Sufjan Stevens – his album Carrie & Lowell. Here are some lyrics from his song, ‘The Only Thing’: “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm/Cross-hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark”. Here are some lyrics from his song ‘Fourth of July’: “We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die.”
I arrived in Broadstairs, the quaint seaside town in the heart of Brexit-voting Britain, feeling overcome with misery. Stevens’ music doesn’t always do this to me: it’s so full of beauty and delicacy, so lit from within by an otherworldly sort of grace, that on the contrary it always fires up my spirits. But on this day, as I made my way down the tall steps to the shore, it had made me feel sad, and alone.

My plan was to walk from Broadstairs to Margate along the sea. I had done a walk the year before with a friend, along clifftops from Whitby to Scarborough, and the sight of the sea on our side as we ambled, gleaming in the sun and stretching off to a silver horizon so far away that it began to curve, had filled me with joy. Today the air was cold, the sea was white, and small waves lapped lackadaisically over pale sand. I began my trudge along the coast, which became hilariously sadder as the trip progressed. At first the walk weaved by the sea, along the prom, and then led off up steps, past vulgar residential houses, joined a main road, jerked back towards the sea and then went inland again. I walked past a hoarding for a Conservative MP, in a field of cauliflowers. The path led back towards the sea again, down sandy, sparsely-grassed steps to an empty car park that you could imagine, in the summer, full of family cars, with children getting buckets and spades out of car-boots, mums carrying towels and suntan lotion; dads with jumpers around their neck. There were dormant shacks that in high season would sell beachballs, with wording on their sides advertising surfboards or ice-cream. The tide had gone out some way by now, leaving a sodden shore behind on which there were fresh jeep tracks. I walked here, deciding finally to abandon the prescribed coastal walk in favour of doing the last part on the beach itself. I walked past old bits of disused seaside Victoriana and crumbled cliff-edges. Sometimes a dog-walker strode past. There were graffiti on the sea walls, about people who loved one another at the time of writing.

There’s something so sad about the sea in England, which stems from a strange mis-selling of it as a place of enormous jollity. In summer it can be fun, I suppose: you could lark about in the waves, make castles, play leap-frog. But even then a lot of compromising is required to make it work: people malleting in windbreakers; donkey-rides brought in to liven up the blowy concourse; fish and chips on the pebbles as a treat. The seaside in Britain can be so hostile that “It’s bracing!” is a famous marketing line coined for it. But the sea isn’t cheery, and it isn’t naughty or saucy: in Britain the sea is all around, and it is what keeps us from other people; it’s cold and mysterious, it can be truly beautiful; in parts it is magnificent, tempestuous, frightening; it can be soothing, can delight. In France, where some of the coast is like the sea in Britain, at least the stretch from the north down to Brittany, they don’t pretend that the sea is a pure gas. The sea there is wild and strange, there are beaches. It’s marketed as glamorous sometimes, or health-giving. In part this may be because the working classes in France have often been kept away from the seaside, in favour of the ruling classes who take it easy in Le Touquet or Etretat – so there was never that push to Pontins it up. In part it’s because there is genuinely warm and inviting coast in France that you can get to if you just go a bit further south. So the sea doesn’t feel so misrepresented there, at least.

Here in England, somewhere between Broadstairs and Margate, staring out wanly at a milky sea in an unpeopled cove, I suddenly thought of taking my shoes off and wading out into it. Nobody was around to prevent or notice me.

My thoughts were so different this time. Before I had felt such a turmoil: here it was a crush, a great weighing down on me. Again it felt like an inability to cope, but this time it was a continuation of a general incapacity to manage certain aspects of my life, rather than a culmination of desperate thoughts. My misery felt logically arrived at, which was all the more frightening to me. How do you tell people that you find life very difficult to manage? My problem is so obviously twatty and rarefied that it hardly bears voicing: that I find it hard to cope with the cruelty and mundanity of the world. I see nastiness and banality, not everywhere, but increasingly frequently, and it tears into me. It’s strange how the two things exist alongside one another: the viciousness of people, and the callous unthinkingness of others, allowing it. Is there any way to say that the want of novelty and beauty in the world is devastating to you, and makes you wish to give up, without sounding too Blanche Dubois meets Oscar Wilde? No? Fine, I accept that. But sometimes, and I know it is preposterous, a raised voice will compound a misused word I’ve read in an article, which, added to the horrors I’ve heard in the news, will make me feel so abjectly low that I cannot continue, that I must leave my desk at work to cry in the toilets.

Added to this, I experience a low-key, constant panic when trying to lead a normal life. I’m always petrified I have forgotten something, which I often have: my keys, someone’s birthday, my passport. The troubles that these losses cause in my life, leading me to lose money, time, people’s trust, and my goddamn mind, exert an aggregated toll on my nerves. I couldn’t—can’t—work out how to tell people, to the extent that I should, that I am incapable, that everyday life sometimes feels completely unmanageable.

I gazed at the sea. I did want to stop being. I had the desperate and untrue thought that if I ceased to be, nobody would truly miss me. I had the true thought that my existence was probably quite immaterial to the good of the world. I felt, then, unneeded. I could see that I was loved, but I couldn’t think of one person who would be irrevocably torn by my going; it seemed to me that my friends and family would, on balance, be able to get by. Other things I brought to the world—my writing; my physical body out there in the city, decked in the colours I’ve picked out; my voice and my jokes—were just so much decoration.

Today at the sea I didn’t wholly want to end my life for ever; again I wasn’t drawn, as I think you must be in order to take that final step, by a tempting call from nothingness. But I did so want to interrupt my life for a while. I would have been extremely interested in causing my life to go on hold for a couple of days, or a month ideally, while I indulged in the luxury of not having to do: not having to feed or clothe my body, or get some sleep, or remember to wash my clothes, or work, work, work at life and all its menial necessities.

I looked at the sea a little longer. Finally a woman walking a small dog came past, and I melodramatically imagined her as the person who saw the last of me, my head bobbing under. I turned and walked along the shore. At Margate, before catching my train back to London, I wandered along the sea, and looked at a grotesque building looming darkly in the distance - and I knew that if I took a photo of it and posted it online, remarking on its hideousness so near the sea, someone would eventually crop up to tell me that it was, in fact, a masterpiece of Brutalism.